When Michaela Washburn dons the costume of Cree chief Big Bear for VideoCabaret 's The Saskatchewan Rebellion , she feels that she's putting on her heritage.
Part Cree herself, Washburn explains that she's "giving voice to my own history. Big Bear is sacred to me, not just as a character but as someone who existed and worked so hard for peace between natives and whites in the 1870s and 80s.
"He was a misunderstood figure, a leader who wanted to wait and see how other treaties played out before he signed one himself. He talked about not wanting to feel a rope around his neck, which the white government interpreted as his fear of hanging, but in fact he saw himself as a wild plains horse that didn't want to be captured and tamed."
Then Washburn adds, changing her tone, that in the VideoCab production Big Bear is only 3 feet tall.
"Yes," laughs the actor, whose previous work includes Dreary And Izzy and The Unnatural And Accidental Women, "that makes him totally wonderful and delightful to play in a different way."
Playwright/director Michael Hollingsworth 's been goosing Canadian history for nearly two decades now, offering a fast-paced, revisionist look at the quirky, often clownish figures who have defined our nation.
In The Saskatchewan Rebellion, he focuses on the events leading up to the hammering of the CPR's last spike and the death of Metis hero Louis Riel.
Like the other actors, Washburn plays various larger-than-life characters, among them a Catholic priest and railway developer Alexander Galt.
"It's an homage to commedia dell'arte," notes Washburn, who works with native comedy troupe Tonto's Nephews. "But while the people I play are funny and over the top, I still have to ground them in emotional truth."
See Opening, page 70.
Let's raise a glass of vodka to The Russian Plays , a Hatch presentation of a double bill by Absit Omen and Company Theatre Crisis . At the sold-out evening we attended last week, the appreciative audience caught not only a revised version of Hannah Moscovitch 's SummerWorks hit The Russian Play but also a new piece, USSR , a short monologue that carries some of the earlier play's themes into the present day.
The Russian Play, about a woman who grows from innocent flower girl to hardened prison inmate because of her amatory mistakes, increases in power each time we see it. Under Natasha Mytnowych 's direction, Michelle Monteith is both diabolically funny and heartbreaking as the central figure, with Aaron Willis and Shawn Campbell strong as her two partners. Kimberly Purtell 's lighting and Tom Howell 's onstage violin-playing are also masterful in this work that attempts, in its own metaphoric way, to define the meaning of love.
The companion piece, USSR, is also about a woman, partly innocent, partly experienced, who gets into trouble because of her passions. Maev Beaty makes an ingratiating Elena, the Russian bride who finds herself lonely living in Canada with her Canuck husband. Moscovitch's script is a quick character study of the nervous, lighter-flicking Elena; we learn more about her from asides than from direct narration.
Might this strong figure, at times comical and at others dead serious, be the start of another play? The abrupt ending of USSR suggests there's more to come.
We don't see enough of the Greek classics, a point driven home by Anna Pappas 's adaptation of Sophocles ' Antigone for skazmos theatre .
At a sold-out workshop reading last week, Pappas both directed and starred as the daughter of Oedipus, forced by family honour and a sense of right to go against her uncle Creon's edict not to bury one of her two dead brothers.
Pappas's version of the text mixes English and Greek, the latter giving a wonderfully sensual quality to the piece. The Greek is translated after it's spoken or put in an easily understood context, so the audience loses none of the show's meaning.
The script is grounded even more firmly in a Greek context by the music, both instrumental and vocal, supplied by Jayne Brown and Sophia Gregoriadis from the group Maza Meze .
Pappas makes an impassioned Antigone in this moral debate about personal versus political values, and her script nicely plays up the tragedy's poetry.
How about a fully staged production soon?
For the past couple of months, New York's Metropolitan Opera has been broadcasting some of their Saturday afternoon operas in high-def video live to theatres across the world. Demand has been so high that more and more theatres are clamouring to show them, drawing huge crowds eager to pay a mere $20 for a performance that would cost more than 10 times that (plus transportation and Manhattan accommodation) to see in person.
Everyone wins, right?
Opera lovers get to feel like they're going to a real Met performance -- complete with the excitement that they're seeing something unedited and raw (the soprano's voice could crack on a high note!).
Opera newbies can try out the art form for slightly more than the cost of a first-run film, in the comfort of a stadium-seating theatre where they can munch on popcorn and snacks. (The guy next to me even took off his shoes.)
And opera companies like that the broadcasts are educating audiences, who will, they hope, develop a taste for the art form and eventually try out the real thing.
Well, not so fast.
After watching the Met's broadcast of Eugene Onegin last Saturday, February 24, I've got mixed feelings, and not just because my neighbourhood Scotiabank Theatre was sold out of tickets more than a week before the event. (They eventually ended up showing on two screens, both fully packed.)
Uptown, the SilverCity's Yonge and Eglinton theatre was about 75 per cent full -- not bad for its first time showing the broadcasts. When I phoned the theatre to book tickets, the pre-recorded voice pronounced the title "Eugene One Gin," which prompted a friend to say, "What's the sequel? Eugene Two Gin?" But hey, who's being snobbish?
There was a good mix of people in the crowd, including some very well-behaved kids. One woman behind me mentioned that she had seen conductor Valery Gergiev earlier that week at Roy Thomson Hall. I was instantly jealous. The National Ballet of Canada's publicity director, Sally Szuster , was there, as was CTV's Margaret Sirotich .
Best of all, the audience was quiet -- something you seldom experience at your neighbourhood multiplex. No cellphones, no idle chit-chat. Only the occasional candy wrapper, cough and (as the opera progressed) quiet weep into a Kleenex.
But the quality of the video and audio was underwhelming. I expect high definition to be just that, not the gauzy image we get onscreen. (It looked as if everything was performed behind a scrim.) Similarly, the sound was not as crisp or massive as I had hoped.
The production itself comes across differently on an enormous screen than it would in the theatre, or even on your TV. The cameras can move in close to register an arched eyebrow or repressed pain. Good singers who are also fine actors, like Renée Fleming (the production's Tatiana), triumph in this medium. Unfortunately, when your head's projected to the size of a bungalow, if you're not the same age as the character you're playing, the audience just won't buy it, no matter how gorgeous your voice.
This was painfully evident with Fleming (beautiful and graceful in her 50s) and especially Elena Zaremba as Tatiana's sister Olga. It's hard not to chuckle seeing them playing two carefree youthful girls in the first act.
Dmitri Hvorostovky 's Onegin fares better. The Siberian baritone knows every note of this score, and even though he's younger than Fleming, he comes across as much older -- his natural stiffness works well with the brooding title character. (When he breaks down in the final scene, it's actually heartbreaking.)
Robert Carsen 's production, featuring Michael Levine 's minimal sets, doesn't come across well onscreen, where we're seldom given the full stage picture that someone in the audience would enjoy.
At the podium, Gergiev, wildly tossing back his hair, makes you hear the score anew. A bonus was an intermission feature that took you into the rehearsal hall to see the maestro in action.
Upcoming broadcasts include an encore performance of Tan Dun 's The First Emperor on March 10 as well as Rossini 's The Barber Of Seville on March 24 and Puccini 's Il Trittico on April 28. Go to www.cineplex.ca.