Review: The Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion by Stephen Massicotte

World Premiere— a co-production with Tarragon Theatre (Toronto)
at the Great Canadian Theatre Company, Ottawa

Directed by Richard Rose
Set and Costume Design by Charlotte Dean
Lighting Design by Graeme S. Thomson
Sound Design by Todd Charlton

Cast

Captain Robert Graves — Jonathan Crombie
Colonel T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) — Tom Rooney
Jack Dawkins — Paul Rainville
Lord George Nathaniiel Curzon — Victor Ermatis
Nancy Nicholson — Michelle Giroulx

Stage Manager: Kathryn Westoll
Apprentice Stage Manager: Tara Tomlinson
Dramaturg, GCTC: Lise Ann Johnson
Fight Director, Tarragon Theatre: John Stead
Production Manager, GCTC: Rachel Fancy
Technical Director, GCTC: Jon Alexander
Production Manager, Tarragon Theatre: Michael Freeman
Technical Director, Tarragon Theatre: Chris Carlton
Assistant Set and Costume designer: Kimberly Catton
Head of Wardrobe and Props, GCTC: Louise Hayden
Head of Properties, Tarragon Theatre: Gillian Rode & Niki Kemeny
Propeties Assistant, Tarragon Theatre: Carolyn Choo
Head Electrician, GCTC: Jon Alexander
Head of Audio, GCTC: Jon Carter
Head Carpenter, Tarragon Theatre: Ian Chappell
Assistant Carpenter, Tarragon Theatre: Bill Stahl
Head of Wardrobe, Taragon Theatre: Chloë Anderson
Assistant Head of Wardrobe, Tarragon Theatre: Rebekka Hutton
Wardrobe Assistant, Tarragon Theatre: Trish Nicholson
Wigs and Hair, Tarragon Theatre: Sharon Ryman
Head Scenic Artist, Tarragon Theatre: Lindsay Anne Black
PTSD Consultant:Susan Stephenson
Script Coordinator: MK Piatkowski
Voice and Dialect Coach: Diane Pitblado
Movement Coach: Kelly McEvenue
Photographers: Cylla von Tiedemann, Paul Toogood

Running Crew, GCTC: Linda Dufresne
Setup Crew GCTC: Sarah Feeley, Fred martin, Dave Muir, Owen Woolnough, Linda Dufresne, Neal Simpson, Rob Lucas, Ken Holtz, Phillippe Arcand
Carpentry Crew, Tarragon: Thomas Baranski, Gareth Crew, Christine Groom, Kevin Hutson, Marcus Rak, Kevin Steeper
Props Crew: Jennifer Sager, Carolyn Choo
Painting Crew, GCTC: Lynn Cox, Geoff Sangster
Painting Crew, Tarragon: Camie Crew, Jennifer Sager

Setting: Oxford England, 1920
Running Time 80 minutes
Performance reviewed: October 27, 2006

Impressive set, sound, performances, direction, historical pedigree, significant issue, drama — this slightly long one act play has it all; had Massicotte made it longer, and really taken the bit between his teeth, he could have had the play of the year here, and at that, he came damn close.

October is a superb time of year to stage a post-war play; the mood of the season suits the mood of the play: we are heading into Remembrance Day, the year is dying, and the weather outside is dreadful. Here, the war just over is the big one, WWI, the war to end all wars, as it was called. A bitter and disillusioned generation is still reeling from the crushing muddy disaster that was war in Europe. We have two significant heroes of that war, Lawrence of Arabia and poet Robert Graves who were friends, each interacting with his own distinct angst, at Oxford. Lawrence has returned from heroism and ignomy to obscurity, and Graves from horror to normacy; neither situation is tolerable. To top it off, these two men who have endured more than mere mortals should, are treated by the university as recalcitrant schoolboys. I have always been really intrigued by this theme; Tennyson touches on it in “Ulysses”. In its many manifestations in this play, it appears in many instances, of which these are two: Graves, beset by a war flashback that leaves him cowering under a table, is interrupted by his wife’s voice asking him to tend to the children; Lawrence, the victim of disfiguring torture, focus of Brit foreign policy, is reduced to being on the carpet for boyish pranks on campus.

The set for the play is ingenious, as sets in this restricted open stage must be. The vine-embraced Oxford exterior is transformed via various openings to represent several interior locations. Somehow all this seems too ingenious, as the production staff has decided that the film- and television-enraptured audience needs to see each location. Such was the agreeable reaction of the audience to the set changes, I wondered if they had indeed become a separate entertainment, which distracted from the impact of the script.

Sound was significant in the telling of this story, almost becoming a character, another voice: in the entr’acts during the changes, we hear marching feet, artillery concussions — the horrific cacophony of war, drawing us into the obsessive nightmares of these two men.

If I have one argument with this script besides its brevity, it is with the sudden conversion of Jack Dawkins, consumately played by Ottawa perennial Paul Rainville, from the stereotypical gentleman’s man to a distraught father ready to kill. Surely the script could have planted Jack’s son and his feelings for him. The way this character is written, Jack’s trembling pistol-wielding hand enters the latter moments of the play almost like a lamentably melodramatic plot device. It was only Rainville’s characterization that kept that from happening. I think Jack needs a lot of rewriting to flesh out the character — again, an argument for a longer play.

On the plus side — and there are a lot of pluses in this production — the familiar territory of Lawrence of Arabia is well served here by both the writing and Rooney’s performance. I say this is familar territory because Lawrence has been given such a complicated life previously by Peter O’Toole in the film, and by Lawrence himself in his book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Here we see the civilian Lawrence back on his home turf where he is very much either taken for granted or distastefully viewed as an inconvenience. This is the Olympian or the professional athlete after the career is over, or as I have said in an earlier piece, “About Four Percent”, the psychopath after he is no longer needed to protect his country; this is also John Rambo in another universe. Rooney expresses just the right combination of frustration and regret, and there is a seductive gentleness to his manner that makes the character very sympathetic. After all, if Lawrence’s proposed solutions to the middle east had been acted upon, we would probably not have Al Kaida, Hammas, and the Taliban now. We would certainly not have Iraq.

Poet Robert Graves, who lived until 1985, when he was ninety, is feelingly portrayed by Jonathan Crombie, who shows us Graves’ torment as he is revisited by his horrific war experiences. The interaction between Graves and his wife is sensitive and real. Crombie is called upon to show us a wider range of emotions than the melancholic Lawrence, as Graves runs the gauntlet between joy in his family and terror in his interior life. Graves, whose wide scope encompasses I Claudius numerous novels and poetry and other biographical and historical works, went on to become a major writer of the twentieth century. This is an interesting look at his genesis.

Graves’ wife, Nancy Nicholson, is beautifully presented by Michelle Giroulx, whose voice I really like. She has a very pleasing timbre that I found most striking and interesting to listen to. While her part was not a stretch for her, she took it up and carried off the family banter with Graves and placed pressure on him enough to make his tensions significant.

Victor Ertmanis’ Lord Curzon was imposing and strong, even petulant, but I had some difficulty understanding his actual function, as he seemed to be too many things in the plot. I think this is another function of the brevity of the play. Presumably a longer play would have allowed for clarity in this matter as well. The sight of Curzon trembling under threat of being shot seemed antithetical to the tenor of the play, and added to the flirtation with the melodramatic .

I certainly enjoyed this play, and consider it to be a success; however, I think there is considerably more that can be done with the concept.

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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?

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