Arts

Theatre Notes

A Baker’s dozen

Usually when Citadel artistic director Bob Baker makes his official
announcement of the upcoming season’s plays, he likes to indulge in a
little showmanship for the TV cameras. One year, he brought Audrey II, the
man-eating plant from Little Shop of Horrors, onstage next to him to sing
“If Ever I Would Leave You” from the upcoming production of
Camelot. Once, John Ullyatt and Pamela Gordon drove onto the stage in a hot
rod to sing a preview number from Grease. Last year, he took the entire press
corps backstage to make his announcement, offering them a rare glimpse of the
Citadel’s innermost recesses.

This year, however, Baker offered no gimmicks, no special effects, no
ballad-crooning houseplants or hip-thrusting Ullyatts and instead he let his
2004-2005 lineup speak for itself. Perhaps that’s simply a reflection
of his confidence in the upcoming season, which I think is the strongest
group of plays Baker has programmed in his six years at the Citadel helm.
He’s lined up 13 productions for next year—three kids’
plays, six mainstage shows, another series of three “edgier”
productions in the smaller Rice Theatre space and Baker’s sui generis
production of A Christmas Carol, with playwright Tom Wood doing his fifth run
as Ebenezer Scrooge. Three of the 13 plays are world premieres of new scripts
by Edmonton writers, a very gratifying total by any standard.

Of those three premieres, the one with the highest pedigree is probably
Shakespeare’s Will (February 1-20), Vern Thiessen’s
follow-up to his Governor-General Award-winning Einstein’s Gift, which
premiered at the Citadel two seasons ago. (Thiessen denies he’s working
on some kind of trilogy about famous geniuses handing over their possessions,
but one wonders if Picasso’s Tax Return can be very far away.) Will is
a one-woman show in which Jan Alexandra Smith plays Anne Hathaway, the
neglected wife to whom Shakespeare famously bequeathed nothing more than his
“best bed” after he died. Rounding out the Rice series are
Charles Ludlam’s lunatic horror romp The Mystery of Irma Vep
(April 12-May 1), starring John Ullyatt and Wade Lynch, and Edward
Albee’s Tony-winning The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? (November
9-28), a black comedy about bestiality which all those sensitive theatregoers
who walked out of Betty’s Summer Vacation a few seasons ago might want
to avoid as well.

The line between the “edgy” Rice shows and the
“softer” mainstage shows is blurrier than usual this year, thanks
to shows like Charlotte Jones’s irreverent gloss on Hamlet, Humble
Boy
(May 7-29) and Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses
(February 12-March 6), an adaptation of Ovid’s classic tales of
transformation staged in and around an enormous swimming pool. I saw the
original Broadway production of Metamorphoses when I was in New York last
summer and was greatly impressed with it—it’s more spectacle than
substance, but it contains some absolutely beautiful moments and it’s
exciting to see the Citadel being so enterprising about bringing this show to
Edmonton so soon after its original run.

Two other imaginative transpositions of classic plays pop up on the
Citadel mainstage next season with Leonard Bernstein and Stephen
Sondheim’s musical take on Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story
(January 22-February 20) and Tom Wood’s Vanya (March 19-April
10), which relocates Chekhov’s bittersweet comedy onto the Alberta
prairie. It’s a season of meaty roles for Wood; in addition to playing
Vanya and Scrooge, he also turns up as Big Daddy in the season-opening
production of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
(September 25-October 17), with Jan Alexandra Smith as Maggie and John
Ullyatt as Brick. The mainstage season is completed by the most
conventionally crowd-pleasing show on the schedule, Shirley
Valentine
(October 30-November 21), in which Nicola Cavendish recreates
her award-winning performance as a British woman on a revitalizing trip to
Greece.

The Citadel’s third world premiere, along with Shakespeare’s
Will and Vanya, is Mark Haroun’s children’s play A Giraffe in
Paris
(March 8-20), based on the true story of a young Egyptian prince
who visits the court of the French king and brings the titular animal in tow
as a gift. The other shows in the KidsPlay series are I Met a Bully on
the Hill
(October 6-17) and Muncha Buncha Munsch (April 16-May
1), the latest collection of Robert Munsch stories to be dramatized by Kim
McCaw, who’s got to be running out of stories to adapt by now. Ovid,
Shakespeare, Chekhov, Munsch—as theatrical muses go, that’s not
too shabby a list.

Cuisine but not heard

The Last Supper of Antonin Carême • Catalyst Theatre •
To Apr 18 • reVUE
Antonin Carême’s fame derives from
his reign as the most decadent chef in all of France. He was at once
frivolous and yet deadly serious, creating obsessively detailed historical
tableaux out of almond paste and spun sugar and building towering, elaborate
desserts that were designed to be eaten in front of even more towering, even
more elaborate centrepieces. And yet he was also a famous stickler for
precise measurements and carefully worded recipes who spent much of his
leisure time (when he wasn’t whipping up meals for the most illustrious
Europeans of the 19th century) designing kitchen implements that make the
creation of his edible artwork into even more of a science.

Curiously, it’s this most colourful period of his life—as the
toast of European cuisine, the so-called “king of chefs and chef of
kings”—that the Old Trout Puppet Workshop nearly completely omits
from The Last Supper of Antonin Carême. Instead, most of the play takes
place within an austere Parisian bakery run by an old, slow-moving cook who
adopts the 10-year-old Carême when he is abandoned by his
poverty-stricken father. The play is nearly wordless (what little dialogue
there is consists mostly of recipes and grunted revolutionary slogans);
mostly, we watch in silence as Carême grows to manhood and eventually
rejects his mentor’s philosophy of simple food simply prepared in order
to make his fortune at court. It’s an impressionistic play, not a
plot-driven one, and it features some magical images—particularly the
miniature stage that’s inset within the larger one and which shows the
street outside the bakery. (The Trouts use these twin stages to create some
clever split-screen effects; we frequently see tiny puppets go through a door
on the small stage at the same time that larger versions of the same
characters enter the big stage.)

But unfortunately, these lovely sights aren’t enough to make The
Last Supper an emotionally nourishing play. Having interviewed one of the
show’s creators, I know that the Trouts were interested in using
Carême’s life to explore the notion of the artist’s pursuit
of the “sublime”; the title and subtitle of the show (A Culinary
Theology) and the angel imagery that runs through the play suggest that they
see a religious dimension to this story as well. But it’s all presented
so elliptically that I was left feeling more perplexed than moved. Audiences
who neglect to read the biography of Carême included in their programs
will probably be even more baffled.

As always, the detailed craftsmanship the Trouts have poured into the sets
and the puppets is impeccable, and the show may be worth seeing just to
savour it on a visual level. But meals are meant to be tasted, and for me The
Last Supper of Antonin Carême feels like it’s missing a key
ingredient. V

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