Tag Archives: mary ellen perley

Carousel: a musical to think about

Foote in the Door Productions has taken another big step with their latest production, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 classic Carousel.  Their first mainstage show was She Loves Me, a light workplace romance with a spunky determined shopgirl heroine.  Their second mainstage show was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying last fall, a lighthearted 1960s look at corporate-workplace problems such as sexual harassment, nepotism, and the Peter principle, with the spunky determined officegirl’s happy ending being the suburban-homemaking wife to her upwardly-mobile sweetheart Ponty.

But Carousel covers tougher material, and includes some bits that are harder for modern audiences to deal with.  This post contains spoilers.  It’s mostly set in 1917, in a small town in Maine where the men mostly fish for a living and the women have jobs too, like working in a textile mill, or working at the inn owned by Nettie (Carolyn Ware).  Protagonist Julie Jordan (Ruth Wong-Miller) and her friend Carrie Pipperidge (Natasha Mason) are millworkers, constrained to live in the millgirls’ dorm and follow chaperonage and curfew rules to keep their jobs.

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Ruth Wong-Miller, as Julie Jordan, in Foote in the Door’s production of Carousel. (Nanc Price Photography)

Contrasting with this orderly and rigid culture is the carnival life, with manager Mrs Mullin (Rebecca Bissonette), carousel barker Billy Bigelow (Russ Farmer) and assorted non-speaking midway performers.  Billy and Julie meet each other, and then linger chatting on a bench despite both of them losing their jobs for the dalliance.  The speed and inevitability of these consequences seemed unconvincing to me as a modern audience member accustomed to more workplace rights.   Julie is fired because she defies the mill owner’s offer to drive her back to the dorm before curfew and Billy is fired by the carnival manager who is jealous of whatever unspecified relationship she has with him.  Both of these firings seemed to happen before either character knew the other one well enough to judge beyond some degree of attraction – and both of them have attitudes of “nobody tells me what to do!” that cause them trouble.   And that sets in motion one of those tragic unstoppable trajectories – they’re stuck together because of losing their livelihoods and accommodations, he is unsuccessful getting work, she gets pregnant, he gets drawn into a criminal plan in order to provide for his family, etc.  Farmer’s Billy is not a classic hero at all – he’s shortsighted (gambling away the criminal takings before they even do the crime), cocky with women, and stubborn (unwilling to take work on a fishing boat), still defiant after death as a soul in the afterlife.  He’s ill-equipped for adult life, his schemes don’t work, and he kills himself rather than go to jail.  His own outcome follows directly from his bad qualities and the culture he’s in, and his afterlife redemption only comes after his second attempt to give his daughter Louise (Megan Beaupre) a better chance than he had.

The part that was most uncomfortable for me was that Billy hits Julie, and she excuses or accepts it.  The hitting took place off stage.  We learn when Julie confides in her friend, and then the other women overhear and make sure everyone knows.  Everyone who responds to Julie lets her know it’s not appropriate and she didn’t deserve it, and Carrie challenges her when she makes excuses for Billy.  So after Billy dies and we see Julie carrying on, working with her cousin Nettie to run the former inn as a boarding house and raising her daughter, I’m thinking this is the best possible solution in fiction, anyway, because I don’t want to see her getting abused on an ongoing basis and I don’t believe he could reform.  But then when the heavenly powers (Pauline Farmer and Shauna Rebus) give Billy a day on earth to take care of “unfinished business” his first attempt to reach his daughter and inspire her ends in him losing his temper and slapping her hand.  The audience, like Louise, is horrified.  Perhaps she has not been raised with violence and the cycle has been broken.  However, when Louise tells her mother about the slap that “felt like a kiss”, Julie, reminiscing, says “It is possible, dear, for someone to hit you, hit you hard and have it not hurt at all.”  Does Louise take this as her mother’s encouragement to accept relationship violence?  Is Julie at risk of accepting abuse in a future relationship?  Is the pattern doomed to continue?  I desperately want to believe all the answers are no. but after the performance ended I had to go walking in the rain by myself instead of standing around in opening-night crowds in the lobby, so I could think.  I thought about how hard it is to change abusive patterns of behaviour, and I thought about what a good job director Mary-Ellen Perley and her cast and team had done, to make me that disturbed.

More subtle commentaries on the prevailing attitudes and the patriarchal culture come from Julie’s friend Carrie.  It’s clear that she’s marrying for love as well as marrying up, when she introduces her fiance Mr. Enoch Snow (Rory Turner).  He’s full of plans for expanding his fleet of fishing boats and expanding his household to include a wife and many children.  She’s thrilled with her handsome beau, but he’s quick to judge her as unvirtuous when he surprises her with scoundrel Jigger Craigin (Morgan Smith), without hearing her side or considering her character of naive kind enthusiasm.  And in the 1945 scenes at the end, she tells Julie “If I had more sense I wouldn’t have had nine children.”  Natasha Mason’s Carrie is a gentle reminder that the “proper” path for women in that town was also lacking in autonomy and flawed by modern ideals.

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Natasha Mason, as Carrie, in Foote in the Door’s production of Carousel (Nanc Price Photography)

Foote in the Door is partnering with WIN House, the local domestic abuse shelter.  Brochures with information on the issue and the organization are available at the show, and donations are solicited from the audience afterwards.

My favourite songs in this production were Nettie singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, and Billy’s “The Highest Judge of All” which had a particularly interesting orchestral accompaniment.

Foote in the Door has also taken a practical step with this production, across the street from the auditorium of Faculté St-Jean to the bigger stage of L’UniThéâtre at La Cité.  This facility gives them better lighting options, and the space for a fifteen piece orchestra as well as a large active ensemble.  Carousel runs this weekend and next week, closing Saturday June 24th.  Advance tickets are available through Tix on the Square, same-day and weekend tickets at the door until they sell out.

 

 

W;t at the Walterdale

The drama W;t  (pronounced like Wit), opened tonight at the Walterdale Theatre.  I have been fond of that play since I worked on a scene from it in a Citadel acting class a couple of years ago.  The current production, directed by Anne-Marie Szucs, is wonderful.  As long as you are not in a life situation where watching someone on a stage dying from cancer would be too difficult, I will recommend this production to you.

Mary-Ellen Perley is wonderful as Dr. Vivian Bearing, the 50-year-old academic and Donne scholar who has cancer, “late-stage metastatic ovarian cancer”.   She is detached and wry, angry, lonely, thoughtful, blunt, and eventually in anguish, and it felt real to me.

The script (by Margaret Edson, and with a Pulitzer prize) and the direction and design of this production show what it’s like to be whisked around from test to test, technician to technician to research fellow, in a hospital.  The ensemble players (Kingsley Leung, Sarah Van Tassel, Macalan Boniec-Jedras, Katelyn Trieu), dressed in matching scrubs and clean sneakers, whisk various pieces of apparatus around the stage, deliver Dr. Bearing to each test by wheelchair, and speak a few rote sentences each time, all the while moving at high speed and never making eye contact with Dr. Bearing or with each other.   Glimpses of humanity in the medical setting are provided by her oncologist (dale Wilson) and by the nurse Susie (Bethany Hughes).   Her one visitor in the hospital is her old graduate supervisor Dr. Ashcroft (Syrell Wilson), also seen in a flashback scene showing Vivian as a driven undergraduate and Dr. Ashcroft as both academically demanding and encouraging the student Vivian to seek out balanced life.

Two particularly telling scenes late in the story and late in the progression of Vivian’s illness are conversations she has in her hospital room with Susie and with the research fellow Jason (Mark Drelich).  To Jason, she acknowledges that like him, she’s always been more interested in research than in people.   It is clear to the audience that Vivian now wants more human connection than people like Jason are giving, but she does not criticize him directly or expect him to change, or nor does she express any regrets for her own choices.   Susie is on night shift when Vivian wants someone to talk to.  Susie brings the conversation around to the prognosis and the hard decisions about end-of-life choices.   And in one of the most unguarded moments, Vivian asks, child-like, whether Susie will still take care of her until the end.

And the end is … the end.  Messy and unfair and ugly – until it isn’t.

 

Playing at the Walterdale until Saturday the 12th, 8 pm Tues-Sat and 2 pm Sunday, advance tickets at Tix on the Square and same-day tickets at the theatre unless they sell out.  Which they might.

 

Six Degrees of Separation

My posting hiatus of December and January started with being too busy, and I kept meaning to tell you why.   (Not the parts about work, Christmas-present knitting, needing a tire repair in a snowstorm, or straining my knee – those don’t make such interesting reading.)

In the fall I was  working on the play Six Degrees of Separation.  I enjoyed watching the production develop through the rehearsal process and it was a delight to share it with thoughtful audiences and hear/see them chuckle and sigh and applaud.

Six Degrees of Separation is a drama, written by John Guare and inspired by anecdotes of an incident he heard about from friends in New York City society in the early 1990s, in which several people were taken in by a young man claiming to be a movie star’s son and a university classmate of their children.  Back then it was a little harder or a little less natural to fact-check a new acquaintance, compared to today when it doesn’t feel like an unusual effort or a sign of mistrust to quickly check Facebook and other databases and follow up with questions.  In this case, one might use Facebook to find the visitor connected to the student family members and see which of one’s Facebook friends might know the movie star mentioned, as well as looking up the movie star on imdb.com and Wikipedia.  You might do this even when you don’t mistrust the new acquaintance, just to further the conversation and enhance your memory.  So if this story happened today it wouldn’t happen in quite the same way.  “Try the public library.” “Try Who’s Who“, the socialites suggest as a way of verifying what they’d been told.  “Who do we know who knows Sidney Poitier?” they wonder.  Confirming with their children away at school is delayed by difficulty getting through on the phone.  And the smooth-talking young man has slipped away long before they find a book in a bookstore confirming that Sidney Poitier, the movie star, has no sons.

So the details of the story set it firmly in a slightly dated period, but the attitudes remain familiar.  Ouisa and Flan Kitteridge (Nicolle Lemay and Nelson Niwa) are the wealthy Manhattan art-dealer couple recounting the story to the theatre audience.  Mary Ellen Perley and Darrell Portz, dale Wilson, and Bob Klakowitz are other members of their social circle taken in by the charming young man (Jordy Kieto).  Macalan Boniec-Jedras, Samara Von Rad, Frank Keller, and Julian Stamer are their children, hostile to their parents while assuming the privileges of their birth.

After the first round of deceptions is uncovered, with some sense of betrayal especially to Ouisa but no material losses, things get darker.  Paul, the charming mysterious manipulator at the heart of the story, goes on to draw in some more vulnerable young people, played by Rudy Weibe, Kate Jestadt Hamblin, and Kyle Tennant, and to leave each of them devastated.   The ending is cryptic and unsettling.  Paul is the central character in the story, but in the playwright’s convention of having various characters step out of scene to provide narrative to the audience, we never ever hear from Paul directly.  We never do get to find out what he’s thinking or why he does anything he does, and I don’t believe anything he says.   It’s a fascinating script and a complex story.  I kept finding more in it throughout the rehearsal process, and the cast did it justice.  Apart from the main characters mentioned above, the story was filled out with Mark McGarrigle (a detective), Sonja Gould (a building concierge and a police officer), and Selina Collins and Greg Kroestch (ubiquitous servants).