Master Playwright Festival

Who's a Coward?

Darlings, it is the end of January, and therefore time to celebrate a playwright! Royal MTC's Master Playwright Festival honours British playwright Noël Coward this year, which means we're in for some fun. Contrary to many of the previous playwrights, Coward's work is characteristically comedic -- he writes silly people existing in a frivolous time, focusing primarily on the English upper classes in the earlier parts of the 20th century. Gin, champagne, music, parties, fabulous clothes -- what could be better! Yet it is all under-pinned with a sense that there are more serious matters hiding beneath the decadence. Less hearty than American contemporary F. Scott Fitzgerald's scathing account, Coward's characters inhabit a world of fun and games, where the seriousness of their predicament and the impact of their choices is left for another day's discussion.

As usual, several local companies are stepping up with productions: Royal MTC present Private Lives, directed by Krista Jackson who has become a staple in the MTC Master Playwright camp for the past few years. Echo Theatre go site-specific, with Coward's ghost-addled Blithe Spirit presented at Ralph Connor House, which is bound to be a fantastic time. There are also some indie shows, including Noël Collaborates, a new work based on Coward's correspondence with long-time friend Esme Wynn, and book-ending the first play either wrote called Ida Collaborates.

My own contribution to the festival is of a slightly different tone. For me, Coward is about marvellous parties and adventure, so my creative partner and I have put together a one-night event called Tonight At Eight, which is essentially a Coward party you can come and enjoy, rather than watch from the opposite side of the proscenium! There are adventures to be had, all in good fun. Our show is at the RAW gallery on McDermot, February 7 only.

For more info on Tonight At Eight, visit our Facebook Event.

And check out the festival's website for a complete listing.

The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov - Theatre By The River & Little Echo Theatre

The Cherry Orchard is an ambitious play for any company, with its enormous cast, 4 acts, and famous Chekhovian brooding. Local indie companies Theatre By The River and Little Echo team up for the festival to bring us this promenade piece, directed by Suzie Martin. Situated in a beautifully dingy arts warehouse, each space is artfully designed by Daina Leitold, who also plays Charlotta in the production. The feeling of space being lived in, constantly changing and yet staying the same was a unique feature of the production. And the lengthy play certainly benefits from the promenade nature of the production; where some stagings of Chekhov's full length plays can see audience members flagging, forcing us to get up and move provided a nice sorbet of sorts. 

The performances from the large cast were uneven, and at times felt un-matched in terms of style. That said, some did shine; Tobias Hughes as Petya was every bit the strong-willed and shining idealist, and Kevin Klassen as Lopahkin was a seedy wheeler dealer, almost like a travelling salesman. Melanie White was flippant and scatterbrained as a fabulous Ranyevskaya, whom we see each misfortune coming to, and yet share in her pain at a world changing too quickly around her. Finally, Justin Otto deserves mention for his hilariously snarky and scheming Yasha and Kevin Andersen's Firs was heartbreaking and lovely.  

Although the promenade was beneficial in keeping audience members engaged intellectutally, it did take us out of the world of the play each time once the stage manager began to usher us to the next space. In a play so heavily populated with servants, I would have loved to see this become a moment of audience participation each time, allowing Yasha or Firs (for example) to have the enjoyment of moving the audience along. 

The Seagull by Anton Chekhov - Manitoba Theatre Centre Warehouse

I could not have been more pleased to catch the opening night performance of The Seagull as my kick-off to this year's Master Playwright festival. Under the clever direction of Krista Jackson, the cast spark and bubble through the story, finding the beautiful notes of humour mixing among the boredom and melancholy that permeates these characters' lives. What I found most notable was the relevance Jackson was easily able to draw out of the text compared to contemporary life; these characters are rendered helpless by their ideal selves, constantly performing the version of themselves they want to be, despite the harsh reality that their lives are not what they make them out to be. Glimmers of recognition rippled through the audience as we recognized this very trait among contemporary society obsessed with material goods, outward appearance, and social media, while never truly connecting. 

The cast are well matched; Sharon Bajer is a comic-tragic gem as she plays the melodramatic actress Irina, while Bethany Jillard's Nina is frighteningly naieve. Tom Keenan's Kostya is strong, although I felt some moments could have used refinement and a more simple touch. 

I would be remiss not to discuss the design, which craftily created differing spaces that were simultaneously lush and minimalist; the outdoor garden scene was particularly notable for its clever use of lighting. And the sound design, with a rock-polka feel definitely contributed positively to reminding us that these characters, although aristocratic, are not the "ideal" humans of tragedy, but the flawed and simple beings who populate the comedy of every day life.