Each week, Drama Club looks at Toronto’s theatre scene and tells you which shows are worth checking out.
Nancy Palk and Diego Matamoros trade barbs at the Young Centre.
We’re back! Drama Club‘s been taking it easy over the summer, but now that September has rolled around, it’s back to school (ew, as if!) and back to the theatre. Not that theatre picks up and leaves town for the summer the way it used to. Sure, most of the playhouses go on hiatus, but between Fringe, SummerWorks, Luminato, and independent productions, there’s always something you can go see. Which brings us to Soulpepper, a local oddity in its decision to program a February–December season, rather than a September–May one. The poor ushers at the Young Centre barely had any cottage time at all this year, what with the summertime productions of Loot, Awake and Sing!, Of the Fields, Lately, and Billy Bishop Goes to War.
This week, Soulpepper opened its first shows of the fall, two very different plays about married couples who like to play games: Ferenc Molnar’s The Guardsman and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? After the fold, find out what we thought about them!
Kristen Thomson and Albert Schultz as another couple who enjoy playing games.
The Guardsman, which opened at the Yonge Centre last Tuesday, is the lighter of the two pieces by quite a bit. A farce by Hungarian playwright Molnar (whose work has served the company well before with successful productions of The Play’s the Thing and Olympia), the play is a classical example of a comedy that relies on people falling for a highly unrealistic disguise. In this version, Nandor, a self-important aging stage actor (played by Albert Scultz), questions the fidelity of his younger wife, Ilona (the amazing Kristen Thomson), who is also an actor and is known for having many admirers. To test her loyalty, he disguises himself as a young solider (the titular “Guardsman”) and woos Ilona. It’s a tried-and-true, if utterly ridiculous, scenario, notably appearing in The Drowsy Chaperone and Kate Bush’s song “Babooshka.” Fortunately for everyone involved, Molnar’s script, while certainly not psychologically ambitious, does have a certain level of self-awareness and pokes fun at its own silliness. It doesn’t hurt that the whole thing is directed by Hungarian master László Marton or beautifully designed by Camellia Koo, who is certainly well on her way to being one of the most exciting and accomplished designers in the city. Kristen Thomson is absolutely captivating as Ilona; she’s an actor who somehow always manages to get you to root for her, even when her character shouldn’t really be that likable. It’s not a very cerebral night of theatre, but it’s very well done.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which opened last Thursday. Edward Albee’s most famous play (and probably one of the greatest dramatic works of the 20th century) tells the story of George and Martha, a long-married university couple who decide to entertain another younger couple late one night after a party. It’s another tale of a volatile, passionate couple, who seem incapable of relating to each other outside of lies and games, but the tone is decidedly darker than The Guardsman. Sadly, this particular production isn’t nearly as good as the lighter work. Soulpepper vets Diego Matamoros and Nancy Palk play George and Martha, an idea that doesn’t work quite as well on stage as it does on paper. Matamoros is his usual deadpan self, which is well enough suited to wry George, but Palk plays Martha way over the top. Perhaps director Diana Leblanc told her to squawk out every other line, but Martha begins to seem less like a real person and more like a drag queen. Palk’s comedic timing is always fantastic, but she seems so focused on playing the goofy laughs in this show that, as the subject matter gets darker in the second and third acts, her character stops making sense. How does she manage to seduce younger man Nick with her wacky pajamas, kangaroo foot-stomps, and ceaseless caterwauling? And speaking of those pajamas, Astrid Janson’s design, usually so polished and flawless, doesn’t quite work in this production. From the awkwardly raked stage, to the weird phony bookshelves, to Honey’s bizarre dress, nothing seems to come together quite right. There’s so much talent involved in this show that it’s hard to know exactly where things went wrong, but consider it a mis-step. These two shows make it clear that a great production of a mediocre farce is a much more enjoyable evening than a mediocre production of a great play.
The Guardsman runs until October 24 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs until October 29.