Rating: NNNNNST. NICHOLAS, by Conor McPherson, directed by Dean Gabourie, with Adam Bramble. Presented by Artword Theatre and ACME Theatre.

Rating: NNNNN

ST. NICHOLAS, by Conor McPherson, directed by Dean Gabourie, with Adam Bramble. Presented by Artword Theatre and ACME Theatre Co. at Artword (75 Portland). Runs to October 8, Tuesday-Saturday at 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $18-$20, stu/srs $15, Sunday pwyc. 408-2783. Rating: NNN

Performed in its full version after an earlier trimmed SummerWorks production, Conor McPherson’s richly suggestive one-hander St. Nicholas feels like a short story exercise — part horror fable, part urban satire. Anne Rice meets Martin Amis.

Against a bare-bones set — chair, carpet, piano, candle and book — a theatre critic (Adam Bramble) fills us in on his emotionally estranged domestic life, his obsession with a female actor and his meeting with a household of vampires, whom he later pleases by procuring young victims.

Director Dean Gabourie pulls out some dramatic stops in the work’s second half, almost making up for some early flagging bits when the piece tells more than it shows and the repetition of expletives quickly loses its power.

If the author wants to compare theatre criticism to bloodsucking, a valid enough point, it’s not fleshed out in the script. And the breaking down of the fourth wall is suggested yet remains inconsistent.

As in McPherson’s The Weir, though, there’s lots of atmosphere, and Bramble’s gentle raconteur eases us through various stories within stories with hypnotic grace.

Family fissure

THE DARLING FAMILY, by Linda Griffiths, with Michael Valliant-Saunders and Sasha Wentges. Presented by Kinetic Theatre and Mea Culpa Productions at the Canadia dell’Arte Studio Theatre (186 Munro). Runs to October 1, Thursday-Sunday at 8 pm. $10. 465-7393. Rating: NNN

Subtitled A Duet For Three, The Darling Family engages the mind while it plays with the emotions. Its key strength? Linda Griffiths’ script — about a couple forced to deal with the woman’s pregnancy — which neither preaches nor takes sides.

Named only He (Michael Valliant-Saunders) and She (Sasha Wentges), the pair begin a dialogue on whether to continue to term. In cross-cut episodes, they also share with the audience their inner thoughts and feelings, which don’t always surface in conversation. The nervous, younger He doesn’t want to settle down yet the spiritual She feels connected to the new life inside her and sometimes doesn’t feel joined to her partner.

Wentges, the richer, more focused performer, fills us in on the passion and the changes in She’s body and moods. Though Valliant-Saunders has the intentionally less expressive — and in fact harder — role, there’s a sense that the actor isn’t linked to the emotional blocks He faces. While Wentges is natural, Valliant-Saunders seems forced in this tale of increasing anxiety, anger and guilt.

The production begins with an expressive opening sequence in which videographer Jedrzej Jonasz’s film is projected on a screen as well as on the actors’ white costumes. Too bad the scenes that follow have a jerking, stop-and-start feel. Perhaps ongoing direction — no director is credited — would have smoothed out some of the bumps. JK

Boutet takes Bride

THE BARTERED BRIDE, by Bedrich Smetana, directed by Paula Suozzi, conducted by Kenneth Montgomery, with Eva Urbanova, Miroslav Dvorsky, Benoit Boutet and Dean Peterson. Presented by the Canadian Opera Company at the Hummingbird Centre (1 Front East). September 28, October 4 and 7 at 8 pm, October 1 at 2 pm. $35-$135, some discounts. 872-2262. Rating: NNN

It takes the energy of a gangly, insecure, emotional adolescent to bring Smetana’s opera The Bartered Bride to life. Kenneth Montgomery conducts the effervescent overture with some energy, but I’d have been happier listening to a concert version than watching director Paula Suozzi’s static, stodgy staging of the first 30 minutes.

Thankfully, the appearance partway through the first act of the brash bridegroom Vasek (Benoit Boutet) sparks the Canadian Opera Company production. He’s vocally matched by Miroslav Dvorsky as Jenik, his rival for the hand of Marenka (Eva Urbanova, whose large voice and presence are better suited to hard-edged roles than to this romantic one) and the comic marriage broker Kecal (Dean Peterson).

The arrival of a circus in the second half does improve the drama, and there are some actually funny bits. But it’s Boutet who steals the show, if not the bride. JK

Phillips’s flawed Bard

OTELLO, by Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boito, directed by Robin Phillips, conducted by Richard Bradshaw, with Vladimir Bogachov, Zvetelina Vassileva, Alain Fondary, Michael Colvin and Anita Krause. Presented by the Canadian Opera Company at the Hummingbird Centre (1 Front East). Runs September 30 and October 6 at 8 pm, October 3 at 7 pm. $35-$135, some discounts. 872-2262. Rating: NNN

With its voice-wrecking title role, rich orchestral score and Machiavelli-meets-mixed-marriage plot, Verdi’s Otello remains one of the most difficult operas to pull off. Add the absence of crowd-pleasing, self-contained arias — we’re talking late Verdi here — and you’ve got, well, a challenge.

Robin Phillips’s new production for the Canadian Opera Company presents a strong, if flawed, argument for the piece: dramatically sound, vocally secure, but slightly scattered and unfocused.

Beginning with a badly staged crowd scene — the first of several, I’m afraid — the piece soon heats up in its more intimate moments as the story of the Moorish general and his innocent white wife gradually delivers dramatic sparks that catch fire in the second half.

One of the production’s problems is Phillips’s set, a two-tiered, staircased number that’s versatile but hard on the eyes. It doesn’t help that John Ferguson’s costumes — most of them symbolically black and white, get it? — fuse into a neutral oatmeal mess during ensemble scenes. The masks are a nice touch, though, hinting at the opera’s theme of deception.

Vladimir Bogachov’s Otello is a believable creature, his voice gaining power and heft as his suspicions mount, while his nemesis, Alain Fondary’s Iago, makes up for his lack of subtlety with a booming, hall-filling baritone. It’s hard to imagine a more vocally expressive Desdemona than Zvetelina Vassileva’s, especially in her Willow Song, while Michael Colvin and Anita Krause add dramatic and vocal weight to key smaller roles.

With conductor Richard Bradshaw drawing out the colours in the expressive score, it’s too bad Phillips’s pictures don’t always match the drama in the pit. GS

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