The following is a companion piece to Episode 5 of Ottawa Theatre Confidential, which is a podcast I host with local bon vivants Andrew Snowdon and Tania Levy.
This is something I hope to do more regularly, as our podcast content develops, and when there are particular ideas I feel I want to expand on. These companion posts will all be named 'Show Notes'. Feel free to add your own opinions in the comments section.
Without further ado...my random thoughts on a few shows I have seen recently...
The main thing I would say about Shadow Cutter is that while new work is interesting and exciting, especially when it is homegrown, I don’t think this piece was ready to be a mainstage show as part of the GCTC season.
In general what I found problematic about "Shadow Cutter" was the narrative structure. We are introduced to Andy Massingham as the magician Dai Vernon at some kind of conference or lecture, so we as the audience are cast as the aspiring magicians/attendees of the lecture. Pierre Brault’s entrance is as a magician pulled out of the audience. He is set up as someone who knows a lot about Dai Vernon and as such begins to take on different characters from Vernon’s life. The narrative then moves back and forth through time and a picture of Vernon’s life develops. But even though we come back to the conference a couple of times during, at the play’s end we are not brought back to the conference. To me, that is like leaving a hanging thread. When you cast the audience but you don’t go back and release them, they are left unsure of who and where they are at the end of the story.
I think there was a lack of focus on what in this story was important. The title, “Shadow Cutter” refers to Dai Vernon’s vocation as a silhouette cutter, and while that makes for some fun and interesting stage bits, it is not Vernon’s passion and does not play a central role in the story. The program makes it clear that this is not meant to be a biography of Vernon’s life, and yet so much time is spent showing us the biographical elements of his life. We are told over and over that learning this card trick, the centre deal, is what drives Vernon, and yet that quest and it’s ultimate completion is not what is most interesting. What stands out from the various strands of Vernon’s life we are given, are the relationships between Vernon and central figures in his life.
While Andy Massingham plays only Dai Vernon at various stages of his life, Pierre Brault plays 19 different characters including Harry Houdini, and Vernon’s wife, and these are the exchanges that are the most compelling. Brault and Massingham are both incredibly good at what they do, and I loved seeing them play off one another, but I admit that for the first time during a Pierre Brault show, I found myself wishing there was a woman. I was really interested in his relationship with his wife and his son, and that as well as his relationship to Houdini, however brief that was, provided the most interesting/the only conflict in the play.
This might be because Vernon’s relationship to magic is never actually clear. We know he is talented, and particularly obsessed with card tricks, but he has no interest in performing which means his sexiness as a magician, especially compared to Houdini, is diminished. He seems to have a cerebral relationship to magic, that compels him to follow and observe and learn, but he also seems to use it as a way of keeping people at a distance - hence why his relationships seem to be the central issue of the play.
I did think that the ‘close up magic’ used in the show worked, which would not have been easy to accomplish and I really liked the design on this show - the stark lighting design was amazing - however some of the staging seemed to serve the design more than the story.
Saint Carmen of the Main
The simple way to state my opinion of this show is to say that without any strong attachment to either the play’s original concerns: an oppressed Quebec, or the concerns of Hinton’s re-telling, which people have said are more generally urban struggles and standing up for those in society who are marginalized - I find there is no way into this play.
The opening scene is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen - the curtain rising to reveal a series of red platform heels and nylon-clad calves... (It is interesting that both St. Carmen and Shadow Cutter used the palette of bright red, black and white - this must be what is ‘hot’ in terms of theatrical design at the moment.)
While I can appreciate the form and the different ‘readings’ of this play, from an intellectual perspective, my experience of sitting through this play was one of utter boredom. Again, while intellectually I can appreciate the Greek tragedy, I do not enjoy a slow Greek chorus style show. What I experienced was a slow-moving play, made up of monologue after long-suffering monologue. And the shiny costumes and funny wigs could only sustain me for so long.
What I did like: the amazing Diane D’Aquila as Harelip. I watched her every time she was on stage and followed her every word. And Jackie Robertson - what a force of nature - the final scene where she sings is one that will stick in my brain for a very long time.
In usual Third Wall Theatre style, this show has an interesting cast with Emily Pearlman, Richard Gelinas and Simon Bradshaw joining the much touted duo of John Koensgen and the age-defying Kristina Watt as Antigone. This production was a modern adaptation of a classic, starting with the text which was adaptated by Henry Biessel. There was contemporary dress in the costumes provided by Sarah Waghorn and the characters had modern cadence and speech patterns, as led by director James Richardson.
The chorus was adapted by having actors trade off these large ceremonial looking robes and dollar store Halloween masks; this was something that was only marginally effective, as one was given the impression it was done as much to save the logistics of having a 5-person cast as it was a vision for how to present the chorus. The staging, which was in the round, was also only marginally effective as it seemed to make the scene transitions slow and awkward and the members of the chorus kept simply circling the playing area. There were an awful lot of entrances and exits for theatre in the round, and again I think this was evidence of a director struggling with how to present this play with only five actors.
One thing I loved about this production was the scenic painting on the floor done by Stephanie Dahmer. It was so detailed and gorgeous I wanted to reach out and run my hands along the tiles. I’m not sure what was happening with the Greek columns that made up the rest of the set. There was a top and a bottom of one column (with the middle part missing, seemingly so we could see through to the action) and then just the bottom of another column. Because these were the only set pieces, characters used them as a place to sit, except the bases were too small to support even the small-framed actors in this show.
The lighting design, by Rebecca Miller, was beautiful - rarely do I not love everything Rebecca Miller does. Because they chose to put spotlights on chorus members when speaking, the lighting cues were never as sharp as they should have been, and the actors weren’t always hitting their mark, but still the effect of the lighting made up for what the show lacked in set.
There were some good moments in this show, and I felt that each actor had at least one. Watt had some fierce moments as Antigone, Gelinas as the gaurd provided the only humour in the show, and I think the best scene of the play was the one of confrontation between King Creon played by John Koensgen and his son, played by Simon Bradshaw.
I briefly mentioned on the podcast that I saw this show in Montreal in March. What I failed to mention is that this show also has a link to Greek tragedy, the running theme of our episode. There is probably much more to say about why creators/producers are drawn to Greek tragedy right now, and what relevance it has for us, socially and politically. But for now I just want to point out that "Instructions" playwright Michael Mackenzie created a cautionary tale inspired by Greek classics that wrestles with issues of modern morality by telling a story that is in some ways very old.