Magic in flight with The Ma­gi­cian’s Nephew

New artis­tic di­rec­tor makes an im­pact as Shaw sea­son opens

The Peterborough Examiner - - Arts & Life - MICHAEL PETER­MAN SPE­CIAL TO THE EX­AM­INER Reach Michael Peter­man, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of English lit­er­a­ture at Trent Univer­sity, at mpeter­man@trentu.ca

This is an im­por­tant year for the Shaw Fes­ti­val and its new artis­tic di­rec­tor, Tim Car­roll. Fac­ing a grow­ing con­cern about the need to ‘put more bums in the seats,’ he has made some in­ter­est­ing changes in the fes­ti­val’s usual of­fer­ings; these, he hopes, will lead to more pay­ing cus­tomers and an im­proved bot­tom line.

Like Globe & Mail the­atre colum­nist Kelly Nestruck, I have been con­cerned about both the slump­ing at­ten­dance fig­ures of re­cent years and the forth­com­ing changes for 2018. There is al­ways un­cer­tainty with the new. Nestruck pro­vides a con­cise de­scrip­tion of the fes­ti­val’s his­tory since 1962: it was first, “a place to see the work of Bernard Shaw and his con­tem­po­raries, then plays writ­ten and/or set in Shaw’s era, then, fairly re­cently, all those plays plus any oth­ers that shared a puck­ish sen­si­bil­ity deemed “Sha­vian.” (May 5, 2018). That old man­date, Nestruck ob­serves, has come to “feel like a colo­nial throw­back” to many the­atre­go­ers to­day. At the same time he sees a new strat­egy at work for 2018.

Tim Car­roll’s plans change that Sha­vian map con­sid­er­ably. Clearly, they re­flect his own the­atri­cal tastes. There are only three Shaw pro­duc­tions and all are rarely seen short pieces. There is a lunchtime one-act play called O’Fla­herty V.C. and a Com­edy Dou­ble Bill that in­cludes How He Lied to Her Hus­band and The Man of Destiny, the lat­ter about Napoleon and his wife. It is as if Car­roll has de­cided to keep Shaw in short sup­ply as one way of im­prov­ing the sea­son. It is a test of a kind. A va­ri­ety of plays are set to at­tract at least mid­dling au­di­ences: they in­clude Henry V, a war-time ver­sion of Shake­speare’s play with Car­roll as co-di­rec­tor; an­other once-pop­u­lar mu­si­cal, Oh, What a Lovely War; a Sherlock Holmes oldie; a Cana­dian play, The Baroness and the Pig; and a sur­pris­ingly con­tem­po­rary racially-charged pro­duc­tion of The Or­chard (Af­ter Chekhov) set in the Okana­gan Val­ley.

But his three big changes for the open­ing months are The Ma­gi­cian’s Nephew, an adap­ta­tion of a C.S. Lewis novel in the Nar­nia se­ries; Stage Kiss, a much more re­cent play about ac­tors and act­ing by Sarah Ruhl; and the solo per­for­mances of story-teller and Bri­tish ac­tor, Stephen Fry.

A good friend of Car­roll’s, Fry is a celebrity fig­ure who ought to draw new crowds of visi­tors ea­ger to see the man who has starred as Jeeves and Os­car Wilde, among other many roles. His Mythos is a three-part one­man show based on his book of the same ti­tle. Di­vided into Gods, Heroes and Men, his per­for­mances run from mid-June through early July. I’ve talked with a num­ber of peo­ple who have bought Fes­ti­val tick­ets this year specif­i­cally to see Stephen Fry in per­son. Most of them, I sus­pect, would not usu­ally visit Ni­a­garaon-the-Lake to at­tend the the­atre.

I was able to see The Ma­gi­cian’s Nephew and Grand Ho­tel in pre­view at the be­gin­ning of May. Re­gret­tably I missed Stage Kiss which opened late last week to mixed re­views. As a lover of mu­si­cals, I en­joyed Grand Ho­tel with its busy fo­cus on 10 guests and staff of the ho­tel. It’s an old ch­est­nut of a mu­si­cal set in Ber­lin in 1928 and based on a fa­mous Hol­ly­wood melo­drama (filmed in 1932) star­ring Greta Garbo (who ut­ters the fa­mous phrase “I want to be alone”). She plays the ag­ing bal­le­rina Grusinkaya who is try­ing to re­tire from the stage de­spite a del­uge of of­fers to per­form.

We saw a sold-out pre­view that drew forth a warm stand­ing ova­tion for Deb­o­rah Hay as the Grusinkaya and the ir­re­press­ible Michael Ther­ri­ault as the dy­ing Jewish book­keeper, Otto Kringelein. As quiet retiring Otto, Ther­ri­ault sings and dances up a sur­pris­ing storm in We’ll Take a Glass To­gether. He is fast be­com­ing the Shaw Fes­ti­val’s lead­ing male star; ever un­der­stated, he is a bril­liant song and dance man.

New dates have al­ready been an­nounced for Grand Ho­tel and big crowds will doubt­less fol­low. The mu­si­cal fol­lows the plot of the film that also starred John Bar­ry­more as the im­pe­cu­nious Baron and Joan Craw­ford as the fetch­ing Frieda Flamm, the stenog­ra­pher who dreams of Hol­ly­wood. Though the mu­si­cal num­bers are not well known, they play very well, es­pe­cially the cyn­i­cal Every­body’s Do­ing It, which was the one song I knew in ad­vance.

While Grand Ho­tel was de­light­ful in its sim­ple nar­ra­tives and busy chore­og­ra­phy, I was most sur­prised by Tim Car­roll’s pro­duc­tion of The Ma­gi­cian’s Nephew. Like Stage Kiss, it has had mixed re­views, but I am glad to re­port that it is a win­ner for very good rea­sons—it speaks strongly to chil­dren and can awaken the buried child in adults; more­over, it does so in sim­ple but cre­atively the­atri­cal ways that en­hance the view­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

C.S. Lewis wrote it in 1955 as the sixth of seven Nar­nia nov­els, though chrono­log­i­cally it pre­cedes the oth­ers. It tells the story of a boy named Dig­ory (Travis See­too) and his friend named Polly (Vanessa Sears) who are search­ing for help for Dig­ory’s ail­ing mother. They find their way to Dig­ory’s un­cle Andrew (Steven Sut­cliffe), a de­light­fully dith­ery ma­gi­cian who of­fers to trans­port them, by means of spe­cial rings, into and out of “the Wood be­tween the Worlds.”

The stage is bare but for empty pack­ing boxes. These are read­ily built into walls and plat­forms, rooftops and at­tics, even a launch­ing pad, by the on-stage ensem­ble who pro­vide sup­port­ive commentary as the two chil­dren move from space to space and into new and evoca­tive worlds. Ver­ti­cal screens be­come forests or skies. Such trans­for­ma­tions are achieved by ef­fec­tive light­ing, masks and timely move­ments. Im­pres­sive fig­ures out of the Nar­nia sto­ries help to move the nar­ra­tive along in ever sprightly ways, es­pe­cially in the sec­ond act; they in­clude As­lan the lion, the witch (Deb­o­rah Hay), a cock­ney cab driver (Michael Ther­ri­ault again), and the wardrobe. The viewer, young or old, is swept up in the quest for help as Dig­ory and Polly move through dif­fer­ent worlds, even fly­ing in one scene on the large wings of Pe­ga­sus. I found my­self in­creas­ingly pulled into the story and fas­ci­nated by the cre­ative uses of the stage.

I also found my­self lost (at times) in some of the shifts that took place, but wish­ing that we had brought along our two grand­daugh­ters, both to wit­ness how they re­sponded to the ac­tion and how their imag­i­na­tions would al­low them to em­brace the story. They would be per­fect guides.

Tim Car­roll has prof­ited from his ear­lier pro­duc­tion of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at the Strat­ford Fes­ti­val. The Ma­gi­cian’s Nephew is a com­pact, fast-mov­ing and tech­no­log­i­cally cre­ative pro­duc­tion. There is much in it to please all ages and tastes. I wish him suc­cess with his changes for 2018.

EMILY COOPER/SPE­CIAL TO THE EX­AM­INER

Travis See­too as Dig­ory, Vanessa Sears as Polly and Matt Nether­sole as Fledge star in The Ma­gi­cian’s Nephew at Shaw Fes­ti­val.

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