Charmed by Onegin

In the opening song in the musical Onegin, the actors sing, “We hope to please, we hope to charm, we hope to break you open.”

There is plenty of all three. I left the Surrey Arts Centre feeling like Onegin was everything I didn’t know I wanted in a play.

It’s Russia in the 19th century. Handsome rogue Evgeni Onegin returns to St. Petersburg to inherit an estate after the passing of his uncle and his parents. He visits his neighbours, the Larins, upon the encouragement of his friend Vladmir Lensky who is dating Olga, the younger Larin daughter. The older daughter Tatyana immediately falls for Onegin, hoping for someone to see her the way she has seen the world through the many books she reads.

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Onegin played by Jonathan Winsby. Photo by Arts Club Theatre.

It’s not often a play comes along that feels so original. But it’s not original in content. There’s unrequited love. There’s a dual ending in death (foreshadowed in the opening number). There are missed chances and irrevocable decisions. Nothing too out of the ordinary, especially for a Russian play inspired by Pushkin’s verse novel and Tchaikovsky’s opera.

What was original is the way the story was told, written by Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille who updated it for the 21st century. There’s a stage of characters dressed in period costumes, writing letters and riding horse and buggy, and then along comes a line in Onegin’s song “Three Horses” introducing us to his history, mystery, and apathy: “Where are my back-up singers?” who go on to croon, “He’s fuckin’ gorgeous.” Despite his good looks, wealth, and charm, you get the sense Onegin’s a lonely, unhappy man who, in his own words, “doesn’t care” and even asks the audience, “Am I someone you want to know?”

It’s that mix of traditional and contemporary that makes the play so striking. Integral to the story is the music. Three musicians are on stage the whole time (Jennifer Moersch on cello, Marguerite Witvoet on piano, and Barry Mirochnick on percussion and guitar). Songs that you hear in the first act are echoed in the second, sometimes sung by different characters, adding layers of meaning. And then multiple characters will sing pieces of former songs over each other within a new song and it’s all woven together so seamlessly, a fugue you don’t want to reach the end of. “Good Evening, Bonne Soirée” stood out as the epitome of this overlapping.

The songs fit the story so well, but they also fit our times. They are honest about love and mortality, malaise and meaning. Tatyana’s “Let Me Die” is a powerful ballad featuring an electric guitar that ends with the request, “Let me live before I die.” Onegin will sing this line later on and it is entirely transformed because of the action that’s happened in between.

Another flip is when Tatyana sings Onegin’s line back to him after the tragic duel: “You don’t care, you don’t care, you don’t care, you don’t care, you don’t care.” This repetition could easily become overdone, but each “you don’t care” is delivered by Lauren Jackson with such sincerity and a slightly different register of disappointment/anger, that it actually works and feels truer to speech.

The last song between Tatyana and Onegin was perfection. The physical distance between the characters on stage paralleled the gap in their stories, how long it had been since they last saw each other and the things left unsaid. I’ve never experienced negative space on stage became so activated with meaning.

Because of all the intertwined layers, Onegin is a play you could easily see again to catch all the references made in the opening that only come to light in the second act.

Compared to the long introduction, the ending is quick, almost abrupt. But after two hours, the love story has been told and in such an unforgettable way.

Onegin is running until March 3 at Surrey Arts Centre.

 

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Mary Poppins

This year, instead of giving each other presents for Christmas, my husband and I decided to do a date night seeing the ArtsClub Theatre‘s production of Mary Poppins at the Stanley Theatre.

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We loved it. Although I was familiar with some of the songs, I had never seen the movie before, only bits and pieces. So now all the songs had context—there were many “ah ha” moments for me.

Given that this was the Broadway Musical and it came with a steep price ($90 each), I had high expectations for it. It did not disappoint. [spoilers ahead]

Mary Poppins had three flying scenes, including one over the crowd which was pretty awesome. Bert, the Chimney Sweep, did an impressive sequence in a harness where he walked sideways, and then upside down (while singing a line), around the stage during “Step in Time.”

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The sets were fabulous—different painted backdrops that lifted up and down for the park, Cherry Tree Lane, the bank, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. The main set was the inside of the Banks’s house on Cherry Tree Lane, with the children’s room upstairs and the entryway and parlour below. Lots of doors, stairs, entrances and exits. To the left side of the stage was a chimney which Bert popped in and out of regularly to sing the “Chim Chim Cher-ee” rooftop refrain. Mary Poppins magically pulled out a hatstand, mirror, plant, and other large items from her carpetbag, reminding me of Hermonie’s magic purse in Harry Potter.

There’s something really fun about watching a big cast do elaborate song and dance sequences. My favourites were the chimney sweeps all tap dancing in “Step in Time” and the fast spelling of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

The acting was fabulous too. Mary Poppins and Bert had great chemistry. I had no idea Mary Poppins was so haughty though. I mean, Practically Perfect? The two kids who played Michael and Jane did an impressive job with their lines. Sometimes their singing lines were harder to hear but overall they projected well. I think the most laugh out loud moment for me was when the butler sang “the medicine go dooooooown” in the kitchen with a dramatic full-bodied gesture that came out of nowhere. And then when Mary Poppins responds to Mr. Banks with “I don’t give explanations” and then tap dances a line from “Step in Time” for emphasis. I heard a little kid squeal with glee at that part too. It was fun seeing people of all ages enjoying the show.

We had such a fun date night and loved celebrating Christmas with this experience instead! Would definitely recommend it. Also, if you’re wanting to catch dinner in the area before the show, we found this list helpful in getting a deal!

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The Foreigner

On Thursday night at the Surrey Arts Centre, I got to see Pacific Theatre‘s production of The Foreigner presented by the Arts Club on Tour. I had been meaning to see this at PT when it first came out in Vancouver but didn’t get around to it, so was very delighted to hear I could have another opportunity—and with all the same original cast!

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It’s been a while since I’ve taken in some live theatre and it was wonderful. I had pretty high expectations as this was the play in which John Voth, who plays Charlie, won a Jessie award for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Lead Role.

The quick synopsis of the play from PT’s website reads:

Charlie is visiting from England, painfully shy and very much in need of rest. His friend has the perfect solution – he leaves him at a rural fishing lodge, telling his hosts that Charlie is from an exotic foreign land and speaks no English. All is well until “the foreigner” overhears more than he should.

It was funny; it was serious; it was silly; it was sinister.

When Charlie gets dropped off at a rural fishing lodge in Georgia by his friend Froggy, he appears uptight and concerned with his ailing yet cheating wife. I learned a great word from this review of the play: “milquetoast.” It means “a person who is tired or submissive.” Yes, this describes Charlie perfectly. He sits at the kitchen table in the first scene, looking like Eeyore, and asks Froggy, “How does one acquire personality? What must it be like to tell a funny story? To arouse laughter? Anger? Respect? To be thought wise?”

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Erla Faye Forsyth as Betty and Ryan Scramstad as Froggy.

Very prescient question. Froggy tells Betty, the garrulous, doting woman who runs the lodge, that Charlie is a non English-speaking foreigner who wants some peace and quiet. She is fascinated by the idea of a foreigner and treats him like her pet. Catherine and her fiancé, the reverend David, are staying at the lodge too, as well as Catherine’s slow but likeable brother Ellard. The play largely develops from each character’s interaction with the foreigner.

The audience gradually sees Charlie acquire personality as he acts out the roles the various guests at the lodge attribute to him: Catherine’s confessor, Ellard’s pupil, Betty’s pet skunk. Catherine is told Charlie doesn’t speak English so she tells him all her secrets, including how she feels about becoming a preacher’s wife. Ellard gets a boost of confidence (and so does everyone else) by teaching Charlie English in a record amount of time. Betty has someone she gets to completely spoil, true to the profile of a typical southern woman.

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On left: Ellard played by Peter Carlone. Right: Charlie played by John Voth

What impressed me so much about the play was the script, written by Larry Shue. It was such an unusual and refreshing plot, where a lot of the words are gibberish (when Charlie has to speak in his “native” tongue at the request of his new friends). I heard some other audience members saying as they walked out of the theatre, “I wonder if the actors say the same words each time, or if the gibberish is different in each performance.” I was wondering the same thing.

Regardless, it was extremely amusing and John Voth was utterly in his element, acting the meek and mild Charlie at the beginning, and then erupting into the life of the party with his unconventional ways of storytelling. The sinister parts come into play with the character of David, (Catherine’s fiancé) who has his own dirty secret and who’s in cahoots with Owen, a slimeball involved with the KKK.

Erla Faye Forsyth (Betty), Peter Carlone (Ellard) John Voth (Charlie) Kaitlin Williams (Catherine)

Erla Faye Forsyth (Betty), Peter Carlone (Ellard) John Voth (Charlie) Kaitlin Williams (Catherine)

But it all works up to a rewarding climax where the bad guys are given their comeuppance and the good guys succeed and grow closer, so much closer that the hint of a relationship between Charlie and Catherine is implied. What surprised me (and somewhat disappointed me) is that Charlie never reveals his secret in the end. He still has everyone fooled that he’s a foreigner, and I went away asking, “Is this a good thing or not?” On one hand, yes—play-acting has allowed him to become someone he couldn’t have been otherwise, perhaps even more himself. But on the other hand, the moral issue remains, “But he’s still lying to all of them!” David turns out to be a big scumbag and liar at the end, but how different is Charlie from this if he also doesn’t tell Catherine the truth?

Maybe other theatre-goers don’t analyze out the aftermath to the same extent I do, but I was curious about the note it ends on. Charlie very much embodies this quote by Oscar Wilde:

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.

For those of you interested in seeing The Foreigner (which I recommend), it’s on at the Surrey Arts Centre until February 28. For those of you who have seen it, what are your thoughts?