Broadcast Text reviews: CAROUSEL and THE DIVINE: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt

by Lynn on September 19, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following reviews were broadcast on Friday, September, 18, 2015. CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm: Carousel at the Stratford Festival until October 16, 2015 and The Divine at the Shaw Festival until October 11, 2015.

The guest host was Philip Conlon.

Good Friday morning. It’s theatre fix time with Lynn Slotkin our theatre critic and passionate playgoer.
What’s up this week?

I have two very different shows. First at the Stratford Festival, Carousel, the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, a difficult story told in beautiful song.

Then at the Shaw Festival The Divine: a Play for Sarah Bernhardt. This is a contemporary work written by Michel Marc Bouchard—translated by Linda Gabouriau. It’s based on a true incident that happened in Quebec City in 1905.

Let’s start with Carousel by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. What’s the difficult story?

Richard Rodgers wrote the wonderful music and Oscar Hammerstein wrote the book and lyrics. It opened on Broadway in 1945.

It’s about Billy Bigelow, a charmer who works as a barker in a traveling Carousel. Women flutter around him but he falls in love with and marries Julie Jordan, a young woman of the town. Things don’t run smoothly. Billy looses his job and can’t find another. He gets frustrated and angry and takes it out on Julie. She is now pregnant.

He hits her, once—one is too many. Billy dies, violently but in the true world of the magical musical, he’s given another chance, and he screws that up too. It’s not Billy who has learned anything, it’s those around him.

A concern is that Carousel is about a wife-beater and should be kept on the shelf.

I totally disagree. The musical is a popular kind of theatre that is appropriate in dealing with difficult subjects.

Carousel paved the way so that later John Kander and Fredd Ebb could write Cabaret, their musical that dealt with keeping a blind eye to what is happening around you, while the Nazis took over Germany.

This paved the way for Stephen Sondheim to write a musical about Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, who got revenge on a heartless world by slashing the throats of his customers, after he shaved them.

Which paved the way for Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tessori to write the musical Fun Home, based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel about her being gay and finding out her father was gay.

Carousel deals with a difficult subject—a loser of a man who might have had good intentions but squandered his opportunities to do good. The resolution to the story is not sugar coating a difficult situation. It’s not Billy Bigelow who is changed. It’s the people he left behind who loved and forgave him.

Do you think that Carousel glorifies Billy’s bad behaviour?

Definitely not. Billy is a charming thug and every person who sees the show knows it, or at least should know it. In a human situation he’s give another chance to redeem himself, and he screws that up too—Rodgers and Hammerstein are not letting him off easy. We know that. The people he left behind did not curl up and die when he did. They drew on their own strengths, struggled and survived. I think that’s the message of the piece.

How is it as a production?

Disappointing. I found it rather dull and even cheesy at times.

Director Susan H. Schulman has created a lacklustre production, in which all her creativity went into creating the carousel before our eyes at the very beginning of the show.

Then it disappeared until the very end of the show, when Schulman recreated it during the bows and that seemed to take too long.

In between we have uneven acting and singing. Cardboard and cartoon are two ways of describing some of the performances. And what is this penchant for not singing a song directly to the person for whom it was meant? Time and time again a character would begin singing a song to the intended character, and then veer downstage to sing to the audience, leaving the other character deserted. So old school.

As Billy, Jonathan Winsby is strapping looking, with a strong but at times unreliable voice and he’s a lacklustre actor.

The saving grace is Alexis Gordon as Julie Jordan. She is a graceful, nuanced actress and a wonderful, expressive singer. She creates a fully realized character who would fall in love with this guy and forgive him when he blundered and would get on with her life when he left. A lovely performance.

And what about The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt. What’s it about?

Beats me? Truly. I think playwright, Michel Marc Bouchard is being cheeky with the title. It’s called The Divine which is one of the monikers of Sarah Bernhardt, but it’s not about her. It’s subtitled, A Play for Sarah Bernhardt but again it’s not about her—she’s almost a minor character in it. “The Divine” is also another name for the deity but it’s not really about that either.

It’s set in Quebec City in 1905 and is based on a real incident involving Sarah Bernhardt. She was to do performances of her dramatic work. The Church got wind of it and demanded that she cancel her performances. She was denounced by the head of the Catholic Church in Quebec City as being less than an ideal icon to revere and respect. After all, she was an ACTRESS!

Two priests are sent to deliver the proclamation to Miss Bernhardt. Michaud is a rich young man entering the priesthood but loves the work of Bernhardt. He’s writing her a play even though he knows nothing about the craft. That really never stopped any one, right?

Talbot is the other priest. He shifts from Church posting to Church posting and always manages to get himself tossed out. His very poor family sacrifices everything to send Talbot through the priesthood with disastrous result. We learn that the serious, almost sullen Talbot is suppressing a secret.

When the two meet Bernhardt Michaud is smitten with her and she takes a shine to the few pages of dialogue he has written. It’s actually dialogue he heard elsewhere and used. Whether Bernhardt really likes the play or not, we never really know.

And finally at the end of the play we learn of another thread/theme that runs through the play, that plagues the Church today.

In sum it’s a play that is not about Sarah Bernhardt but she’s a character in it (and she’s on the cover of the program); it’s not about the Deity; but I think it’s about the sordid secret that has come to plague the Church for years. In other words, it’s a confused work.

Michel Marc Bouchard is an accomplished writer though.

He is and he’s written wonderful plays—Christina, the Girl King last year at Stratford is a case in point.

In spite of some fine dialogue (and the wonderful translation of Linda Gaboriau) The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt misses. It’s unfocused in its intent and sometimes a speech is thrown in that seems more like the playwright talking than a character.

For example, for most of the play, Bernhardt seems to speak in aphorisms, witticisms and pithy remarks. As Bernhardt, Fiona Reid handles all that grandness with style. But then Bernhardt gets even with her religious critics when she lets loose with a speech about the meddlesomeness of the Church and how dare they use scare tactics to control their parishioners.

It’s a stirring speech about art and the theatre, but I don’t think for a second that the character of Bernhardt that Michel Marc Bouchard has created would come up with that long or intellectual a speech, given what has come before it.

Is the production a saving grace?

Jackie Maxwell has directed a strong production with really good acting. As Michaud. Ben Saunders has that sheen of a pampered, rich man, as Michaud is, yet can look mournful when grappling with a question of conscience.

As Talbot, Wade Bogert-O’Brien is a man who is suppressed in his world and makes you limp in your seat when you realize why he seems so haunted.

Ric Reid gives a chilling performance as a mean boss who puts on a jolly face.

But much as I like the production, I think the play is so scattered in its focus that it’s hard to make head nor tail of it.

Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at twitter @slotkinletter.
Carousel continues at the Stratford Festival until October 16

The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt plays at the Shaw Festival until October 11, 2015-09-18

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