The business of writing a great or even a good play may well be the most demanding of all the art forms. A play that will both sustain attention yet suspend disbelief requires far more than the ability to create a visually coherent stage spectacle. It must possess enough intellectual heft to raise or at least touch the audience’s consciousness, while at the same time exhibiting the kind of literary sorcery that endows an evening at the theatre with touches of magic. “The stage,” Walter Kerr, The New York Times drama critic, once noted, trying to put his finger on this phenomenon, “has ample room for caprice, but is cagey about incoherence. The difficulty, sometimes, is to tell the difference between them.”
The three plays that recently opened Festival Lennoxville’s eighth season neatly illustrate Kerr’s dilemma. There is no shortage of incoherence in the final acts of the two main offerings (Ben Tarver’s The Murder of Auguste Dupin and Richard Ouzounian’s Westmount); the third attraction (Betty Lambert’s Clouds of Glory) fortunately only has one act. Yet each play has enough good lines, enough momentum and, above all, enough inspired acting to
please any summer audience. The festival can rightly call itself a hit.
Under Artistic Director Richard Ouzounian, the festival has at last wrenched itself out of the summer stock syndrome. Despite last year’s 50-percent cutback in subsidies from the Quebec government (which places Lennoxville’s impressively mounted productions in the same grant category as the Ayer’s Cliff strawberry fête) the enterprise is thriving, with 25,000 visitors expected by the time the season runs out on Aug. 26.
Despite his uncertain vehicles, Ouzounian has gathered a repertory company of 10 little-known but luminously talented actors to play the 23 parts. The most talented among them is Owen Foran, whose performances are seamless. As Professor Anton Korda, the despotic head of a university philosophy department in Clouds of Glory, he sets the pace and pathos for the entire production, flattening his vowel sounds as though he had a gavel in his throat and intended to use it. As Graham, the downtrodden husband in Westmount, slowly dying of routine, he gently complains that his “two best bridge partners have moved to Toronto”—and makes it sound like a sentence of death.
Equally versatile is Doris Chillcott, the Vancouver actress who switches effortlessly from being a university
cleaning lady to a Westmount grande dame or a mute Haitian princess in Auguste Dupin. David Schurmann possesses a magnetism all his own which makes the shafts of stage lighting seem somehow brighter around him. Goldie Semple steals every scene.
There is no dearth of platitudes in Lambert’s portrait of campus life at “an obscured university on the West Coast of Canada.” The play is all talk and hectoring, dated rhetoric and obvious stage directions, with at least two characters continually breaking out of their roles to declaim on what’s about to happen. Clouds of Glory, a co-production with the New Play Centre of Vancouver, contains so many stabs at irony that the stage ends up looking like a dartboard.
It’s saved—but barely—by some good one-liners. (“For my father, his pistol was the real thing; a penis was only a phallic symbol.”) And it’s a measure of both the play and the audience that the evening’s longest laugh came from this exchange:
“They’re talking about taking Quebec out of the country.”
“Yeah? Where will they put it?”
The problem with Ben Tarver’s Murder of Auguste Dupin, an Agatha Christie imitation set in mid-19th-century Philadelphia, is more serious. In this period piece about the non-murder of a Hercule Poirot character charmingly portrayed by Paul-Emile Frappier, no one even tries to establish any sense of reality. The cast is so busy spoofing itself that none of them takes a moment to step back and measure the emotion he or she should be feeling—to discover its proportion and acknowledge the absurdity of the situation in which they find themselves. Instead, Ouzounian and his players bypass the essence of comedy, which ideally should begin in pain or pathos and magically transmute itself into laughter. They opt for straight overemphasis and lose out in the process.
Westmount, originally staged as British Properties and then satirizing Vancouver’s nouveaux riches, starts with high promise. Richard Wilcox’s set is perfect, right down to the squeaking pantry door. Doris Chillcott captures faultlessly the cadence of the Westmount upper-class honk, pronouncing garbage with a French lilt and behaving within such a tight typecast that one of her more enlightened sisters remarks, “In order to raise your consciousness, it would take a hydraulic lift.”
The occasion is a family reunion to commemorate (or is it celebrate?) the 17th anniversary of the death of the Marlowe dynasty’s founding father. The family spends an enjoyable halfhour in a gently acidic testing of each other’s thresholds of disgrace. The party and the play disintegrate when Bert (Paul-Emile Frappier) arrives carrying $500,000 he has stolen from a Las Vegas casino. A certified refugee from a gang of Mafia mobsters who machinegun the stage at mercifully freqhent intervals, Bert turns out to be a halfJewish bastard conceived by the late Marlowe patriarch. By this time, all vestiges of a plot have been jettisoned. The play has turned into a Charley's Aunt romp with such lines as“She thinks a séparatiste is a product made by Wonder Bra.” It’s all about as subtle as Skylab.
The problem with the 1979 edition of Festival Lennoxville is that Richard Ouzounian’s talented troupe spends most of its time on stage as 10 characters in search of an author.
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