Review: The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard

The National Arts centre presents
An NAC English Theatre/Soulpepper Theatre Company (Toronto) coproduction

Directed by Diana Leblanc
Theatre May 11 to 27, 2006
Performance viewed: May 20, 2006 7:30 pm
Matthew Edison …Billy
Megan Follows …Annie
C. David Johnson …Max
Jeff Lillico …Brodie
Kristina Nicoll …Charlotte
Krystin Pellerin …Debbie
Albert Shultz …Henry

Set and Costume Design by Douglas Paraschuk
Lighting Design by Leigh Ann Vardy
Sound Design by Peter McBoyle

Production Stage manager… Nancy Dryden
Assistant Stage Manager… Janet Gregor
Assistant Director… Natalie Joy Quesnel
Dialect Coach… Diane Pitblado

This is the final play selected by Marti Maraden as Artisitic Director at the NAC

Tom Stoppard is no Norm Foster and no Ray Cooney — thank God! This comic look at love and marriage is more reminiscent of Shaw (again, thank God!). While listening to the literate articulate debates between characters, I was reminded of the lively Shaw – Chesterton debate about the nature of paradox.

How strange to see Megan Follows playing a role in which she is at one point the older woman! How time has passed since Anne of Green Gables. And Albert Schultz delivers a nuanced and snappy performance, as usual. More about these star turns later.

The script delivers several twists in the form of play-within a play and situations that reflect each other, thus compounding the intrigued involvement of the audience in the complexities of Stoppard’s themes. The theme of infidelity, discovery, doubt counterbalances the theme of passion, supportive love and its joys.

Two of Stoppard’s strengths are his wit and his ability to write convincing love scenes. Of course it helps that with Follows and Shultz you have actors who can make those scenes convincing. Not being familiar with this script, I have to rely on my memory of the performance; but it appeared to me that Stoppard was more than a little bit formulaic about his method of producing a laugh line: character A proposes a situation, character B says “What?” and character A gives the punch-line. Evenutally, the audience was validating Pavlov’s famous experiment, where the sentence after “What?” elicited uproarious laughter, even if you couldn’t hear the punch line. And that brings up one of my niggly piggly complaints: I couldn’t hear parts of the dialogue, and noted that much of the laughter was coming from the front rows. That is not good in a hall with the accoustics the NAC Theatre has. Particularly, when the scenes became intimate, actors’ voices would drop to the indeciperable. Granted, by choice I sit in row J in a theatre that goes to M, but that should disqualify me from understanding the performance, particularly when the script is as witty as Stoppard’s evidently is in the parts I could hear.

The set was very mod, with non-descript tonal paintings and bookshelves that rotated between scenes to indicate place changes. One significant peeve I have with stage management is the use of tape to indicate set spikings. In the NAC theatre, the sight lines are such that the floor is as much a backdrop as the walls and furniture, and that makes it all the more important that the beautifully textured wooden floor not be glotted up with patches of spike tape every whichway. Surely modern technology can give us a way of using tape that is invisible during scenes but visible during blackouts or greyouts for set changes? The floor reminded me of the disgusting sight of blobs of old chewing gum grunging up sidewalks all over our downtown streets in every North American city I have visited. This practice is just as thoughtless, and must drive set designers and anybody else actually, crazy. I found the effect really destroyed suspension of disbelief. Let’s do something about it.

Another practice I noticed in this production, which I see in film and stage plays just about everywhere, is the self-conscious practice of actors, usually female, of not-so-discretely pulling a sheet or robe up to cover a breast or thigh while supposedly in the langorous presence of a lover with whom they have just made and will continue to make passionate love. Almost nothing makes me more aware of having my disbelief fiddled with than that. Except this silly practice of having actors use “555” as the prefix to every movie phone number — shazbat, I say, SHAZBAT!! Are we supposed not to notice?? Back to Follows modestly adjusting her robe over her legs in the presence of the man she wants to seduce: either choreograph the scene properly and design the costume or drapery so that the actor can commit to the situation or don’t do the play!

Lighting was, for the most part, innocuous, which is what it should be as long as it is artful. But I was driven nuts by the really amateur gaffe of not lighting the offstage rooms. The door stage left, which was ajar the whole play, as far as I can remember, opened into a dark corridor or room. Not a dim, corridor or room, but a dark, black, non-existent room. All kinds of exits took place there, with characters walking into the darkess starkly defined by light shining in from the stage — are we not supposed to notice? Also: why were the border lights in the set used in every version of the set? surely one way to differentiate beween the very similar settings would be to turn these lights off for one or more of the settings. I really was having trouble distinguishing between settings; that little bit would have helped more than shuffling the sofa from one blotchy spike to the next.

Sound. I liked sound. The play has fun with the music, and the whole musical plot was seamless and professional, and really helped bolster the play against weakness caused other technical failures.

Dialects: kind of spotty. Would this be a result of too little budget for rehearsals?

Costumes: Loved Annie’s bum-hugging outfits; they removed any tendency I would have to recall Anne of GG. The rest certainly worked, with the exception noted below.
A fiasco? certainly not. I think most members of the audince would agree that they were entertained and engaged by the script and by the performances. One thing that came through clearly was that this production really delivers on complexity and sensitivity in love relationships. I really liked the expressions of love. So often comedies shy away from showing real affection; rather, they focus on the problems and the farce that can arrive from those, giving us Cooney and Foster, really superficial unispiring practitioners, whose domination of the summer small-town ciruits is testimony to how little artistic leadership and risk-taking and education is happening in those communities.

Back to this play. The cast of this play has depth. Matthew Edison was charming and convincing as Annie’s youngish secret suitor. Unfortunately, because I could not hear all the dialogue, I am unable to determine whether and with whom and with which Henry thought Annie was having it on with, and why or if he decided whatever he decided about it. (If you think I am going deaf, please ask anyone sitting north of row F about hearing the dialogue; I asked a few.) Megan Follows gave a nuanced, convincing authoritive reading of Annie; I thought Jeff Lillico as ex-con Brodie looked a little lost in that company, although he certainly looked the part. Krystin Pellerin in a brief appearance, certainly carried off one of the more memorable clever speeches in Stoppard’s script, when she explains how for a teenager, every subject in school except biology was about sex. Albert Shultz was dynamic, sympathetic, convincing, and certainly a superb match for Follows; their dynamic was every bit as fiesty and romantic as you could want. He was especially wonderful in the tender passages (except when his voice dropped out of range for hearing him), and gave the play much of its warmth.

I would like to give a nod to Assistant Director Natalie Joy Quesnel, a Cornwall native, whose parents are very active in the Cornwall theatre scene. Natalie is certainly carving out a career for herself, following in the footsteps of such Cornwall natives as Duncan McIntosh, Veronica Maguire, John Robinson, Brahm Goldhamer, Charles Wilkins, Joel Drouin, Ryan Gosling . . . .

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About riverwriter

Poet, playwright, duplicate bridge player, website designer, cottager, husband, father, grandfather, former athlete, carpenter, computer helper for my friends, theatre designer, backstage polymath, retired teacher of highschool English, drama, art, a baritone singer in a barbershop quartet, who knows what else? wordcurrents is on Facebook: Doug also has a Facebook page, "Incognitio", related to his novels.
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