Only on PEI in Harbourfront’s Lights, Camera, Island!

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A Review by Cindy Lapeña

What happens when big time movie stars from Toronto come to small town PEI to shoot a film? To find out, you really have to see Island author Karen Slater’s Lights, Camera, Island! The Harbourfront Players’ latest offering is a charming comedy that had just the right mix of Island humour and sentimentality. It’s a full-blooded Island production that can only be pulled off by an Island cast and crew. It’s great community theatre that no one will appreciate more than Islanders, as evidenced by the laughter and enjoyment elicited from a highly appreciative opening night audience. Harbourfront Theatre’s relatively new Executive Director Kieran Keller welcomed the audience back to what promises to be a wonderfully entertaining season and it was good to come back and be welcomed by Slater’s ribald slice of Island life.

What makes the script more delectable is how Slater adopted the classic plot of cross-dressing and mistaken identities, not unlike Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will. That, coupled with your friendly countryside folk and the small town gossip mill, became the grist for Lights, Camera, Island! While anyone will enjoy the classic humour, only islanders will immediately pick up on certain jokes such as the gasps and the real reason for the big surprise kitchen party. That said, more of the jokes would have had greater impact if there were much quicker pick-up between lines. Or is that an Island thing as well? One sign of experienced stage actors is how well they are able to ad lib when they forget lines or cues and there is no dead air between lines. Nonetheless, recovery was successful, the audience clearly overlooked those few moments, and a good night was still had by all.

Director Marlane O’Brien must have had as much fun as I hear the cast and crew did while rehearsing this play, which they started working on in workshops, until it finally shaped up into this rollicking piece. What gave the performance that great community theatre flavour is probably the fact that the cast was not comprised of professional actors, just a big group of friends having great fun together. It’s completely plausible some added humour came from the mixed identities that extended to a general confusion in almost interchangeable names of two brothers and brother-like cousin—who sometimes reminded me of the Three Stooges—that added to the merry mix-up that became all the more confusing until it was all sorted out in the end. It’s the kind of play I would have loved to be part of!

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Dance Umbrella’s Thirst for Life: Beauty and the Vampire

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I was expecting a dance concert, after all, it was a Dance Umbrella production. The simple but informative programme told me right at the start that it would be a play, and a musical one to boot! What luck! I just love musicals. Then I read the synopsis and said to myself, “Oh no. Not vampires again.” Believe me, I do not watch the vampire series or movies. My vampires began with Bram Stoker and ended with Anne Rice, the glut of vampire literature, television shows, and series notwithstanding. Did they have to bring it to the stage too? But we try to keep an open mind, eh?

So at seven-thirtyish, choreographer Morgan Wagner walked out onto the stage to formally announce the beginning of the play, in which she played the dual roles of the rather sedate Auntie Belle and totally dizzy Lizzy.

I must admit that despite my trepidation over the current vampire genre extending to the stage, I was drawn in by the music. Louisiana is a great place for music and, in keeping with the blue bayou tradition, the play delivered where music was concerned. Even the singing of the Ensemble was pretty good, I’ll admit. The voices blended well, there was vocal energy and character in the chorus numbers, and the lyrics were appropriate.

And then it hit me. It was a teen vampire play. Of course. And most of the players were pretty much teens, or looked it. Well, I recognized a couple of familiar faces in the cast and I do know for a fact that they are teens. So the audience was quite naturally made up of family, parents and friends of the performers. Fair enough. They were a really appreciative audience though, and they did laugh in all the right places. But that’s because the book was well written. It was witty with some really quick dialogue and snappy exchanges that the cast executed really well. After all, timing is of the essence in comedy. And indeed, there was comedy.

But really, it was a love story. In vampire land. Vampire boy falls in love with normal girl who falls in love with normal boy who’s cursed to become a vampire when he does fall in love. Rival boys fight and fledgling vampire is near death and the only thing that can save him is a true love’s kiss. Sigh. Trite. But the dialogue had its moments, especially with the Ripper-Drucilla-Lizzy tandem and Mayor and the Town Council quartet.

The choreography suited the play. Nothing out of the box, no big surprises. Just good old fashioned standard musical theatre choreography. The execution was another thing, though, as the ensemble repeatedly showed that they were amateurs at it. Granted there were stand-outs who sang and danced with all their heart and all their energy, when one, two or three people in the chorus don’t know their choreography and miss a beat, you see it. When arms and legs aren’t all at the same level, you see it. When bodies are lax and lack tension, you see it. It’s not the coordination that stands out. It’s the uncoordinated ones that stand out. As dancers, the ensemble have a thing or two to learn about sustaining energy levels, watching the other dancers to match levels and movements, and dance as a single entity rather than several individual stars. After all, they weren’t doing solo numbers. That said, I must say, the fight sequences were nicely done and pretty well executed.

Kudos to the leads. While they weren’t Broadway material, they have the potential. Special mention goes to Veruca, played by Melissa MacKenzie. She has a beautiful voice and internalized her character well, but lost control of her voice in the very crucial duet (Your Light Within) with Eryck in Act 2. She’ll also need to practice looking at a boy with love in her eyes. Dalton MacKenzie as Eryck wasn’t too bad and he got better towards the middle and even better in Act 2. You could see his confidence building up as the play went on, and with the proper training, he’ll be a regular on musical theatre stages.

Jacob Hemphill’s Bobby John was quite a strong character from the beginning and it was something he maintained throughout the play. While his projection was weak in the lower registers, he really shone when he was belting out, and the development of his character was evident in his portrayal. His “Child of the Night” and “Kill the Fanger” were memorable.

Ripper/Rupert played by Tristan Lewis was a perfect foil to Bobby John. Along with his sidekicks Drucilla (Emma Zinck) and Lizzy (Morgan Wagner), he commanded the stage when he entered in character. In the ensemble, however, he clearly did not know his choreography by heart.

Alex Durant was vivacious and outstanding in the ensemble, but totally bland as Felicia. The Mayor, played by Lindsay Gillis, had some really great musical and dance numbers, and the character was consistent throughout, except that I got the feeling that she sometimes didn’t know what to do with her hands. The movements often came out quite artificial, though her firm movements were certainly better than Jolie’s overall limpness. Gesturing with your hands half-closed just isn’t gesturing, and the kill scene seemed more like an accident than a deliberate attack. She might as well have been holding a hairbrush. She was highly conscious of the audience, frequently sneaking peeks at them that it ruined the illusion.

The Mayor’s three stooges were just that, and they played their role well. No lack of energy there, except that Lucy occasionally dropped out of character and she and Bartles were clearly not dancers.

One of the aspects of theatre that make a performance really good is the blocking. Being conscious of positioning on stage, audience sight lines and the blocking of other characters is second nature to seasoned performers. There were just way too many scenes with duck rows in them, I wished I had a paintball gun in my hands.

The lighting was well done, again no bells and whistles except for the “Kill the Fanger” number, which totally stood out. The microphone levels were just right, except when the characters raised their voices or sang in high registers. Then the feedback was annoying to say the least, but at least not totally disturbing or uncontrolled. What really broke the momentum and the mood, however, was the awkward gap when the music went dead between the end of Act 2 and the Epilogue. That really threw everyone off.

Still and all, if I weren’t reviewing this performance and because I do love a musical, in the end I’d say I did have a good time!

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A Portable Shakespeare: Vagabond Productions’ The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

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The doors to Room 303 of the Murphy Community Centre opened promptly at 7:00 p.m. with tickets priced at $4.00 for adults and $2.00 for children, which is an amazing bargain for a Shakespearian production, granted it would be good. That rock music played in the interim did not sit very well with me, although a former technical theatre/production design class of mine did stage a Goth production of Hamlet, complete with electric guitars and yes, rock music. At least this group didn’t have the speakers for outdoor rock concerts in a small room. There were barely 100 seats arranged around an empty 10’ x 10’ square space in the center of the room, the seats no more than 3 deep, and the corners wide open.

Ah, theatre in the round. I personally like the intimacy of small theatre spaces as they naturally draw the audience into the play and, I suppose, there’s nothing like the intimacy of arena theatre to involve the audience in a play by Shakespeare. It was an eclectic audience for sure, a good number looking like parents and university professors and the rest being university students and, certainly, family members and friends.

Without so much as a by-your-leave or a dimming of the lights, Lucentio made a smashing entrance, followed by the glib Tranio. It was a brilliant use of doors as entrances and exits, with characters roaming about the room, around the audience and in the central space. They certainly took command of the available space, although the audience was hard pressed to follow some of the movement, especially if it was happening behind them. Still, it was an engaging way to keep the audience awake and involved, considering the language of Shakespeare can sound completely stilted to the untrained ear. Anent to that, the scene changes were seamless as characters entered from one door while others exited through another and it was their voices that drew the audience to turn to see them, much as one actually would turn toward new voices in a three-dimensional real world. The fourth wall was certainly there, and then again it was not. The overall effect was that the audience was more like ghosts within a world of another dimension, silently watching events as they unfolded, sitting in the midst of everything, yet not really being part of it all. In a way, it was surreal and I liked it.

The effect of using the normal lighting of the space with no sets save some empty seats in the audience that were used by the characters in character was effective in making the audience part of every scene. It was most unlike any other Shakespearean production I have witnessed, where minimalism was used to maximise the impact of Shakespeare’s spoken verse, edited as it was. Yet, it was that same minimalism that cut out lines and scenes from the original play that would have caused the play to drag on, although I think the value of a new gown for Kate was lost because we never saw her dragging her wedding dress through the mud and having to wear it day in and day out.

I have to mention that this performance was physical theatre—nay, physical comedy—in a way that Shakespeare must have somehow meant it to be. Bawdy, rowdy, loud and earthy, sans the fancy ways of upper society that transformed Shakespeare’s plays into two-dimensional worlds of unutterable language and twisted speech viewed by powdered wigs in fancy dress from balconies untouched by the riffraff in the orchestra. The amount of unpretentious hitting, dragging, bumping, running, struggling, wrestling and touching between characters was completely unprecedented. But there was no way they could not do it, the audience being in their midst, after all.

To add to the minimalist staging, the actors wore contemporary clothing with token costuming and accessories to accentuate the character or the occasion. Not that it was a problem. The delivery of lines and consistent internalization of character completely overshadowed that fact that the dress did not the language match. And yet, because the action and the actors are so close to the audience, the way they relate to each other as characters has to be convincing, and Hortensio in disguise looked not in others’ eyes, whereas all the other characters maintained eye contact with each other or with the audience.

Besides the fact that one actor could properly pronounce the Italian “Signor” but another could not say “Signora,” Mantua should sound more like Padua than Manchew-a, and Hortensio’s widow should speak a bit louder so that even the audience behind her can hear what she is saying, the deliveries were clear, precise and rhythmic. Someone might have forgotten a line a spent a couple of extra seconds getting it out, but no harm done. What did harm the illusion was someone’s cellphone going off somewhere in the last act.

So yes, I will admit that, once again, I was entertained, and thoroughly. I am the bard’s number one fan, and this rendering hasn’t changed my mind at all about his genius, but it’s genius as well to pull it off without boring the audience. It’s a wonderful play to bring on the road as it’s perfectly portable, extremely affordable and will charm even non-believers. I hope every performance is at least as captivating as this one!

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