APPRAISE of the Theatre: “nativity” by Peter Anderson at the National Arts Centre
– by Ken Godmere
[Ken Godmere is a freelance theatre professional based in Ottawa and offers his theatre reviews as an unbiased professional appraisal.]
Saturday evening. The NAC Theatre. There is a problem with a couple of audience members’ tickets and two ushers arrive to straighten it out. The ushers inform the couple that, without tickets, there is no room in the theatre and they escort the man and his pregnant wife out of the auditorium to a small unheated prop room somewhere in the back of the theatre building. Sound somewhat familiar? So begins Peter Anderson’s script and his playfully poetic telling of the most famous of the Mystery Plays of the middle ages – the Nativity.
The production itself, too, had playful and passionate moments. The set, with its ladders and levels, parade of pieces and collage of colours, was fit for the fun. The lighting and sound were both hit and miss; hot and cold. A beautifully lit accent of frost crystals on the long horizontal cyc stood out, but then was followed by some darker, poorly lit downstage acting areas. But then some stunning starlight and heavenly angel specials brought us in again. The sounds of the vocally vibrant angel trio were solid, dynamic, and deeply accented by their instrumental and rhythmic accompaniment. But their well-balanced microphones made even more apparent some of the less powerful voices in the cast. Words and melodies were often lost in the middle of songs and scenes. This “on-and-off” effect only hit the costumes once. In the midst of the collection of fabrics and fabrications – from the earthy shepherds’ frocks to the marvellous minstrel mock-ups of coyotes, sheep, donkey and horse – suddenly there was King Herod’s incongruously modern suit jacket and striped silk tie. I like to believe the universe that a production sets forth, but when it skips a step, I scratch my head. When it breaks its own rules, I am thrown.
This feeling of being thrown was inconsistently present throughout the direction and performance of the play. Director Leah Cherniak’s style and mood didn’t seem to know what exactly it was supposed to be. And the audience didn’t seem to know just how to take it. Was it panto? Was it pageant? Was it Python? Hey, I had fun and laughed out loud at some well timed and cleverly staged bits. And I appreciated the crisp choreography and cleverly-staged and clearly “camp” musical number with the full-length mirrors. I just found the demure, dramatic scenes confusing when bookended by broad and bawdy chases and obvious Pantomime audience interaction. I heard a few audience members attempt to answer back when challenged by a character, but felt their discomfort when the style suddenly changed back to a conventional theatrical setting. The fun of the coyotes seemed to relax the house and the cast to all join in the fun by the end scene and the musical finale. If the company was going to “let go” in an intentional rough-hewn style, they could have done it with more consistent strength and conviction as a professional national theatre company.
Individual performances from the NAC English Theatre Acting Company were also affected by this “jelly-beans in the salad” production. Laara Sadiq’s portrayal of Mary was clear and true (obviously a well-rounded, grounded professional); then suddenly, after a wild pursuit through the audience, Mary became a broad, comical mother scorned. She played both extremes extremely well, but they seemed like two completely different characters in two differently styled shows. Someone who really found solid footing in the sand was Ron Kennel. With truly character-based comedy, kick-ass timing and voluminous fun, Mr. Kennel’s kowtowing “Councillor” and “Ass” with attitude proved highlights to the production. Rejean Cournoyer brought Hugh Laurie-type power and polish to the role of the rancid King Herod. And speaking of comedy-types, Diane D’Aquila has the fire and guts of a Mary Walsh on stage. It was also a pleasure to see Alex McCooeye stand up and stand out as Slabberjaw, the coyote. Really, the company played very, very well together — if not always on the same planes. The biggest surprise of the evening was in the unannounced, last-minute replacement of the actor playing Mak and the Roman Soldier by Mr. Peter Hinton, himself. It would be noteworthy simply by the risk of the NAC English Theatre’s Artistic Director jumping into the role; and even more so by the mix of confidence and humility to walk the walk; but the real treat was in his performance – fun, fluid, physical, and as a true member of the ensemble.
The NAC’s production of “Nativity” by Peter Anderson was a Christmas cake with a half a cup of raisins, a few juicy cherries and some drier, un-blended batter.
MY ASSESSMENT: | Brilliant | Clear | Murky | Flawed | — and, when rotated, bright; dull; bright; dull; bright…
“Nativity” by Peter Anderson plays in the NAC Theatre through December 23, 2010.
Evening performances Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, December 12 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.
(no performances on Mondays)
Tickets are available for purchase:
In person at the NAC Box Office
At all Ticketmaster outlets
By telephone from Ticketmaster, (613) 755-1111
Online through the Ticketmaster link on the NAC’s website (www.nac-cna.ca)
A service charge applies on all purchases made through Ticketmaster.
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