Elizabeth Rex (CBC/Rhombus/ Morningstar, 2002) w/ Diane D'Aquila, Brent Carver, Peter Hutt and Scott Wentworth. Rating: NNNN
Based on Timothy Findley's Stratford Festival hit, Elizabeth Rex is set on the night that Queen Elizabeth I has ordered the execution of the traitorous Earl of Essex. But he's also been her lover, and in order to find distraction she commands that Shakespeare's acting company perform for her.
Elizabeth (Diane D'Aquila) engages in emotional talk with gay, disease-ridden actor Ned Lowenscroft (Brent Carver), who plays the leading female roles, the macho male lead Jack Edmund (Scott Wentworth) and Shakespeare himself (Peter Hutt), who must oblige his royal patron.
Adaptors Barbara Willis Sweete (who also directs) and Kate Miles haven't always been judicious in their pruning of the original, and the richness of the stage production isn't always evident. Still, their version touches tellingly on the gender issues of the piece, the importance of creativity in human life and the difficulties of love.
Best of all, the film preserves some of Stratford's finest performances: D'Aquila's imperious, anguished queen; Carver's moving, driven Ned; Wentworth's blustery, sensual Jack and Hutt's world-weary playwright. They've got fine support from a cast that includes Joyce Campion, Paul Dunn and Florence MacGregor.
EXTRAS Director's commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, omitted scenes, outtakes.
All dressed up
The Overcoat (CBC/Principia/Morningstar, 2001) w/ Peter Anderson. Rating: NNNN
This award-winning and still touring stage piece based on Gogol's tale of a lowly, put-upon draughtsman obsessed with the shining garment of the title, takes splendidly to the screen. Its strength, in part, is that the artists involved have reimagined it and didn't simply film a stage performance.
The wordless play is buoyed by the Dmitri Shostakovich score, full of wonky waltzes, bittersweet melodies and energetic tunes, played by the CBC Radio Orchestra under Mario Bernardi. That score gets visual life from co-creators Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling and a large cast who know how to create true-to-life cameos in even the smallest of moments.
But it wouldn't work if Peter Anderson, as the central figure, didn't catch us up with the man's sadness, dreams and a journey from public elation to isolated depression. Ken MacDonald's set, alternately small-scale and epic, offers an expressionist vision of a world filled with fantasy, expectation and nightmare.
EXTRAS Commentary with director Panych, choreographer Gorling, designer MacDonald and others; CBC Radio interviews with Panych and conductor Bernardi; trailers.
Bard in a box
The Tempest (Stratford/CBC/Morningstar, 1982) w/ Len Cariou, Sharry Flett, Jim Mezon, Nicholas Pennell. Rating: NN
The Twelfth Night (Stratford/CBC/Morningstar, 1986) w/ Seana McKenna, Colm Feore, Nicholas Pennell, Maria Ricossa. Rating: NNN
Two Stratford productions from the 80s, middle-of-the-road stagings, are worth watching because of some strong performances.
The Tempest, directed at the festival by John Hirsch, is the more stolid, earthbound show. Len Cariou makes a stiff Prospero, rarely sympathetic, but Sharry Flett and Jim Mezon as Miranda and Ferdinand, the juvenile lovers, catch the innocent, emotional truths of their roles. These days the two are reliable members of the Shaw ensemble, Mezon having added directing to his work. Miles Potter, the Caliban here - done up by designer Desmond Healey as a Darwinian throwback - now helms productions at Stratford.
The Tempest's treats include seeing current artistic director Richard Monette as one of the villains, the not-too-swift Sebastian, and the late Nicholas Pennell, who could handle the Bard's language with supreme skill, as the comic Stephano.
Pennell's also one of the strengths of the more entertaining Twelfth Night, playing the prideful and comic Malvolio; he's actually poignant when he gets his come-uppance at the hands of those he's sneered at. Also worth watching in this studio production - David Giles directed the original stage version - are a young Seana McKenna as the bright-eyed Viola, disguised as a man in the court of Orsino (Colm Feore, early in his career, makes the lovesick duke a figure of danger at times), and Maria Ricossa as a heartfelt Olivia, who falls in love with Viola.
But it's a shame that there are no extras. Lots of people are still around who could have been interviewed for inside looks at both productions.
Don Giovanni Unmasked (CBC/Rhombus/Morningstar, 2000) w/ Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Dominique Labelle, Krisztina Szabó, Michael Colvin. Rating: NNN
Director Barbara Willis Sweete reinvents Mozart's masterful Don Giovanni, dividing its story into two related strands. In a 30s screening room, people in evening dress watch Leporello, Giovanni's servant, show his version of the archetypal seducer by means of a black-and-white film; the actors in 17th-century Spanish costume in the film are the audience members themselves.
The music's well sung, with Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovski the clear star, playing both Giovanni and his servant; the characters' switch of costumes in the opera makes sense here. Several rising Canadian opera stars, notably Michael Colvin and Krisztina Szabó, complete the cast. They're accompanied by the Canadian Opera Company under Richard Bradshaw.
Sweete suggests that Don Giovanni and Leporello are the same personality operating in different social spheres, and possibly that the seducer is reliving his life and death in the hell of an endless film loop. She's created a nice suggestion of backstories, too, for those watching Leporello's film, with an ironic, blurred sense of where the film and the live worlds parallel each other or collide.
Still, the cut-and-paste she's done with the story and music, reorganizing scenes and underplaying some characters, may bother those who know the opera.
The extras are mostly silly and useless. Comments from director and cast would have helped.
EXTRAS Outtakes, flubs and SFX tests.