George Brown Theatre School finished off its season earlier this month with a pair of shows intended to show off the skills of its graduating class.
It's almost a convention that the plays are a classic and a contemporary piece, chosen to display the range of the young actors.
First up was William Wycherley's sparkling Restoration comedy The Country Wife, in which the randy Harry Horner spreads the rumour that he's become impotent due to the clap. Just as he hopes, the town's husbands are happy to leave their wives in his company, even making jests at his expense. But he's the one who hopes to have the last laugh, especially with Jack Pinchwife, who's recently married the innocent Margery, the title character.
Guest director Michael Shamata gives the production a contemporary Toronto setting, with posters from the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival around the theatre and references to local watering holes instead of the London clubs of the original. That works well enough; the chance to flirt at the theatre in 18th-century London here becomes the chance to seduce at a red-carpet film premiere. The updating doesn't work, though, in the scene where Pinchwife forces Margery to write a letter to Horner; when the husband goes for sealing wax, she has a chance to plot against him. Stationery? Sealing wax? In an age where email and text messaging are available? Sorry, it doesn't work.
Tim Walker's a delight as Pinchwife, with a great command of Wycherley's demanding language, and Marie Jones nicely captures the wide-eyed naiveté of his wife, here a simple woman from cottage country pushed to infidelity by her jealousy-fixated husband. Other standouts in the company are Krista Kehn as one of several women who are happily involved in Horner's scheme, happy to keep their reputations while also having sex, and Wade Bogert-O'Brien as Horner's friend, who ends up with Pinchwife's sister Alithea (Megan Powell) because her foolish fiancé (Craig Pike) continually throws the two of them together. Roger Bainbridge does well enough as Horner, but I wish he'd held the stage more strongly; the central action, after all, is build around his cuckolding character.
Todd Hammond, George Brown's head of acting, helms the companion piece, Sarah Daniels‚ 1988 The Gut Girls. Set in England a century ago, when feminist ideas were being discovered by the working classes, the play focuses on a group of bawdy, hard-drinking, self-sufficient women working in an abattoir, both making a living and generally finding emotional support from their sisters at work. The villain here is Lady Helena, who wants to improve them by means of Bible lessons and undergarments. Eventually she tries turning them into proper maids in service to the upper class, an act that destroys the women's financial and social independence.
Here the memorable work comes from Noa May Dorn as the fiery Maggie, forcibly backed into a marriage she doesn't want; Lise Maher as the unintentionally condescending Lady Helena; and Kehn as the abused wife of a social-climbing property owner (Bainbridge), proof that a woman higher on the Victorian social scale has no more freedom than a working girl.
And again I have to mention Walker, in a small and largely comic role as Lady Helena's helper and inept wooer. Here he strikes just the right note of light comedy, supplying a lovely cameo performance and never stealing focus.
In fact, Walker's stood out in each of the George Brown shows this year - War And Peace, The Winter's Tale and now this double bill. He's off this summer to 4th Line Theatre, but I hope to see him on a Toronto stage in the near future.