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Drawing Conclusions

Doubt

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your sedentary second-guesser has about as much sporting blood as the average garden gnome, but there’s something undeniably compelling about two great talents in any field squaring off against each other; and ACT’s new production of Doubt offers that in spades, with a couple of ace actors waging one of the stage’s best verbal tennis matches. 

Winner of a Pulitzer, a Tony and other awards aplenty, veteran playwright/screenwriter John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (2004) enjoyed a long, successful Broadway run and was adapted into a major motion picture by writer/director Shanley himself a few years later. 

Doubt is set in 1964’s Bronx, NY at St. Nicholas Catholic Church, where preternaturally strict principal Sister Aloysius (Barbara Rhodenizer) rules with an icy iron fist. Based on her experience, intuition and virtually zero hard evidence, she becomes convinced that popular, progressive priest Father Flynn (Adam Gauthier) has developed an inappropriate relationship with 12-year-old altar boy Donald Muller. Aloysius vows to expose Flynn, pressuring idealistic young nun Sister James (Renae Perry) and Donald’s wary mother (Tamara Gough) to join her crusade. 

Perry captures the increasingly troubled Sister James’ haunted fragility throughout the play, and also ably conveys the character’s joy and whimsy in her lighter moments. Gough is largely effective in her one scene as Mrs. Muller, giving a grounded, muted performance that suits her character’s weary cynicism. 

Main attractions Rhodenizer and Gauthier are individually impressive – Gauthier’s disarmingly warm and appealing Flynn with hints of something darker beneath the charm, Rhodenizer’s coldly rigid Aloysius leavened with plentiful dry wit and rare glimmers of human vulnerability – but these performers are dynamite together. Pitting two of PEI’s best actors against each other in two such complex, multifaceted roles makes for a thrilling, fascinating and immensely entertaining clash of the titans. 

Shanley’s lean, admirably economical script is brilliant, its characters repeatedly confounding and surprising us over the course of the story’s many twists and turns, and the truth of the conflict remains deliberately, tantalizingly elusive throughout. The script provides enough clues for viewers to draw their own conclusions but the show never quite confirms anything, always leaving room for doubt among audience and characters alike. 

ACT staged its production in historic St. Paul’s Anglican Church, designed by noted architect William Critchlow Harris and built in 1896. The venue’s beautiful Gothic Revival inspired church architecture and the choral music supplied by musical director Carl Mathis and the ladies of Coro Dolce help set the scene and the mood, and co-directors Brenda Porter and Paul Whelan make good use of the unconventional space in terms of keeping their performers both visible and flexibly mobile. 

Acoustics are an issue, especially for audience members further from the main stage/altar area. Gough in particular is hard to hear by times, though improving over the course of her performance; and the church’s diabolically uncomfortable pews were seemingly never meant for sitting through anything longer than a single sermon, so it’s a good thing this compact, engrossing show flies by as quickly as it does. 

Tennis, Anyone?

Doubt

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your sedentary second-guesser has about as much sporting blood as the average garden gnome, but there’s something undeniably compelling about two great talents in any field squaring off against each other; and ACT’s new production of Doubt offers that in spades, with a couple of ace actors waging one of the stage’s best verbal tennis matches. 

Winner of a Pulitzer, a Tony and other awards aplenty, veteran playwright/screenwriter John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (2004) enjoyed a long, successful Broadway run and was adapted into a major motion picture by writer/director Shanley himself a few years later. 

Doubt is set in 1964’s Bronx, NY at St. Nicholas Catholic Church, where preternaturally strict principal Sister Aloysius (Barbara Rhodenizer) rules with an icy iron fist. Based on her experience, intuition and virtually zero hard evidence, she becomes convinced that popular, progressive priest Father Flynn (Adam Gauthier) has developed an inappropriate relationship with 12-year-old altar boy Donald Muller. Aloysius vows to expose Flynn, pressuring idealistic young nun Sister James (Renae Perry) and Donald’s wary mother (Tamara Gough) to join her crusade. 

Perry captures the increasingly troubled Sister James’ haunted fragility throughout the play, and also ably conveys the character’s joy and whimsy in her lighter moments. Gough is largely effective in her one scene as Mrs. Muller, giving a grounded, muted performance that suits her character’s weary cynicism. 

Main attractions Rhodenizer and Gauthier are individually impressive – Gauthier’s disarmingly warm and appealing Flynn with hints of something darker beneath the charm, Rhodenizer’s coldly rigid Aloysius leavened with plentiful dry wit and rare glimmers of human vulnerability – but these performers are dynamite together. Pitting two of PEI’s best actors against each other in two such complex, multifaceted roles makes for a thrilling, fascinating and immensely entertaining clash of the titans. 

Shanley’s lean, admirably economical script is brilliant, its characters repeatedly confounding and surprising us over the course of the story’s many twists and turns, and the truth of the conflict remains deliberately, tantalizingly elusive throughout. The script provides enough clues for viewers to draw their own conclusions but the show never quite confirms anything, always leaving room for doubt among audience and characters alike. 

ACT staged its production in historic St. Paul’s Anglican Church, designed by noted architect William Critchlow Harris and built in 1896. The venue’s beautiful Gothic Revival inspired church architecture and the choral music supplied by musical director Carl Mathis and the ladies of Coro Dolce help set the scene and the mood, and co-directors Brenda Porter and Paul Whelan make good use of the unconventional space in terms of keeping their performers both visible and flexibly mobile. 

Acoustics are an issue, especially for audience members further from the main stage/altar area. Gough in particular is hard to hear by times, though improving over the course of her performance; and the church’s diabolically uncomfortable pews were seemingly never meant for sitting through anything longer than a single sermon, so it’s a good thing this compact, engrossing show flies by as quickly as it does. 

Quick Bright Things

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Review by Sean McQuaid

First and foremost, ACT’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is funny. In fact, it’s the second-funniest Shakespeare this reviewer has seen in recent memory, surpassed only by Joss Whedon’s delightful film version of Much Ado About Nothing – which made ye olde reviewer laugh harder and longer than he has in ages at anything, Shakespearean or otherwise.

Staged in Stratford’s Robert Cotton Park (the site of ACT’s successful September 2012 production MacBeth), supernatural comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream (penned circa the 1590s) is one of William Shakespeare’s strangest, most imaginative and best-loved plays.

Athenian ruler Theseus (Adam Gauthier) is marrying Amazon queen Hippolyta (Lana Mill), and the celebrations include an amateur theatrical production starring local weaver Nick Bottom (Richard Haines). Distractions include a fractious romantic rectangle formed by young lovers Lysander (Justin Shaw) & Hermia (Ashley Clark), Hermia’s unwanted suitor Demetrius (Benton Hartley) and his hapless admirer Helena (Olivia Barnes), plus feuding fairy monarchs Oberon (Bill McFadden) and Titania (Catherine MacDonald), all subject to mischievous meddling by Oberon’s impish henchman Puck (Keir Malone). Misunderstandings, magic, mayhem and matrimony ensue.

Gauthier (also co-producer) makes a suavely charming yet authoritative Theseus, though Mills is less convincingly regal as Hippolyta. Clark, MacDonald & Hartley are solid in their respective roles, the latter seeming more at ease with the Bard’s language than he did in MacBeth. Haines is hilarious as Bottom and a note-perfect McFadden crafts a coolly commanding Oberon laced with ample dry humour.

Barnes’ broad, sometimes cartoonishly anguished Helena is seldom naturalistic but often crowd-pleasingly funny. Watching her feels a bit like watching a breakout character from an old sitcom where the studio audience seems primed for merriment every time she’s on stage. It’s a very physically and emotionally big performance, seldom subtle, but an uncommonly entertaining Helena regardless.

A more nuanced Shaw shows impressive range as Lysander, equally effective here in comedic, dramatic and romantic moments; and a surprisingly agile Malone brings plentiful physical and emotional verve to the plum role of Puck, frolicking amidst the park’s foliage with engagingly manic glee.

Director David Bulger (who doubles as royal party planner Philostrate) and stage manager Sharon MacDonald keep their fine cast in fluid motion, leaping and tumbling and sprinting through the brush with confident quickness. It’s an energetic production, and the park setting adds colour and ambience. The mostly-modern costumes and set dressing are effective, especially portraying Bottom’s troupe of “rude mechanicals” as 21st Century rednecks (it’s like Duck Dynasty does Shakespeare), while more fanciful gear for the fairy folk lends their appearances a suitably timeless fantasy flavour.

Bulger doesn’t exploit the park’s various locales as fully as 2012’s MacBeth, giving this production a bit less visual variety, and the show’s fourth-wall-breaking audience facilitators (Philostrate and friends) aren’t quite as entertaining as their MacBeth counterparts, though producer Sara McCarthy is great fun in her bit part as the world’s surliest fairy.

The play’s lighting also gets a bit too dark for clarity circa scenes 6-7 after sunset, but the show’s biggest drawback is a whole other uncontrollable force of nature: perhaps the most numerous and aggressive mosquito onslaught in the history of theatre. These “tiny demons” (Philostrate’s apt description) help ACT achieve the seemingly impossible: making A Midsummer Night’s Dream bloodier than MacBeth.

Quality Drama

Rondelay

Review by Sean McQuaid

Your puritanical prattler was shocked, shocked to find the picture postcard purity of North Rustico wantonly sullied by the summer sex romp known as Rondelay. Even more disturbingly, he rather liked it.

The scene of the orgiastic crime? The newly minted Watermark Theatre, which changed its name from the Montgomery Theatre around the same time this show’s previews opened. Coincidence? One wonders.

Granted, the venue’s handsomely glossy program chalks this rechristening up to the theatre’s expanding mandate, its mark of quality drama and a nod to its watery hometown; but regardless, a season of risqué sexual drama seems an apt time to shed the wholesome mantle of children’s author Lucy Maud Montgomery, who is doubtless averting her spectral eyes.

In all seriousness, a name change makes sense at this stage in the former Montgomery Theatre’s development. The venue has long been gradually inching away from its initial scripts-available-in-Lucy-Maud’s-lifetime mandate to a somewhat broader “classics reignited” mission statement, and retiring the Montgomery moniker reflects this welcome evolution.

More importantly, a Montgomery Theatre by any other name still stages some pretty sweet theatre, and Rondelay is no exception.

Reigen (the play’s original German title referring to a circular dance) was penned by Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler circa 1897 and banned by censors upon its public debut in 1903. The play proved enduringly popular in countries such as France (as La Ronde) and has been internationally adapted or imitated repeatedly for stage, television and film.

Rondelay is the latest English adaptation, penned by Watermark’s artistic director Duncan McIntosh and set in 1900-era Charlottetown instead of the original script’s Vienna. The names of people and places change, but the basic story remains the same underneath its fresh coat of local colour: sex, sex and more sex.

Eight men and women from assorted social strata fall into and out of sexual entanglements in a series of ten vignettes that play like a thematic anthology but are interlinked by recurring characters. Each character appears in two of the vignettes with two different partners.

Two actors play all eight characters: Rebecca Parent appears as prostitute Leocadia Campbell, servant Angie Patterson, adulterous wife Emma Symons and actress Ramona Payne, while Jonathan Widdifield portrays soldier Dominick Shaw, young gentleman Edward Jenkins, unfaithful husband James Symons & Justice David Davies.

It’s a quadruple success for both performers, who have good chemistry together and enough range to craft four completely distinctive characters apiece in one evening. Parent in particular excels at nailing the script’s comedy, from the dryly seductive wit of Angie’s workplace romance to the larger-than-life bombast of Ramona.

Director McIntosh and company paint these vignettes with feeling, by times sad, poignant, touching, tawdry, unsettling, and often surprisingly funny. They’re aided by Scott Penner’s fine sets and costumes, Michael Doherty’s evocative musical score and most especially T. Erin Gruber’s lighting design. Her projections – alternately naturalistic, impressionistic, surreal, cartoonish, symbolic, subtle or overpowering – help set the scenes, facilitate transitions, establish mood and express character, crafting a dreamlike atmosphere that permeates and enhances the show.

Occasionally long or awkward scene changes were among this polished production’s few inelegant notes, but your reviewer saw an early June preview show, so any rough edges may be rounded off by the time the play opens fully in July.

Humour and Heart

Anne & Gilbert, the Musical

Review by Sean McQuaid

Your shopworn showman was surprised to hear that Anne & Gilbert, the Musical was moving to Charlottetown, literally right across the street from ceaseless summer institution Anne of Green Gables—The Musical™.

It’s the ultimate (red)head-to-(red)head theatrical showdown. One can almost picture the two shows’ casts facing off in the street, menacingly finger-snapping à la West Side Story until they descend upon each other in a blur of smashed slates and broken brain pans, the corner of Queen and Richmond crimson with gore and raspberry cordial.

Back in boring old reality, however, it’s all peaceful coexistence so far. The elder show’s backers even bought ad space in the upstart production’s program. All very tediously civilized, though it doesn’t diminish the sheer chutzpah of new show A&G competing against Big Red on her home turf, and doing it with style.

Composed by Bob Johnston and Nancy White with book and additional lyrics by Jeff Hochauser, Anne & Gilbert, the Musical is based on stories and characters from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic Anne of Green Gables novels, particularly Anne of Avonlea and Anne of the Island. Those two books chronicle Anne’s young adulthood, as opposed to the childhood featured in Anne of Green Gables – The Musical.

Anne & Gilbert debuted at the Victoria Playhouse in 2005, enjoyed a years-long run at Summerside’s Harbourfront Theatre, and has played on over thirty stages throughout Canada and the USA along the way. Its latest venue, The Guild, represents a double gamble: not only playing next door to the original Anne show, but doing so in a dauntingly compact performance space.

Returning director Martha Irving, her excellent company and the Guild staff rose to the challenge. It’s a breathlessly tight squeeze, with the actors often mere inches away from the front row; but it really works, laws of physics be damned. The show is largely undiminished by its smaller space, every seat in the house has a fine view, and this little-venue-that-could has never looked better.

Sometimes, working around the venue’s spatial limitations is actually an improvement. For instance, there’s no room for Gilbert to “swim” off the stage here as he did in Summerside, but a skillfully-deployed projection of rising water and some synchronized pantomime from Cook help make Gilbert’s aquatic misadventure funnier than ever.

A&G remains a witty, romantic story with a diverse, catchy musical score that offers a somewhat more adult version of Anne, executed here by a top-notch cast. Ellen Denny makes a fine maturing Anne, mixing shades of pensive vulnerability with the character’s customary whimsy, while a charmingly swaggering Patrick Cook might be the best incarnation yet of this musical’s teen heartthrob take on Gilbert.

Longtime A&G fixture Brittany Banks remains perfect as Anne’s best friend Diana Barry while doubling deftly as the show’s choreographer, and fellow A&G veteran Brieonna Loche crafts my favourite portrayal of Anne’s rival Josie Pye anywhere, winningly playful and exuberant without sacrificing the character’s trademark snark.

Margot Sampson is similarly effective as meddling neighbour Rachel Lynde, her physically animated, larger-than-life comedy balanced nicely by an understated Carroll Godsman as Anne’s dour adoptive mother Marilla; and invaluable Island theatrical institution Paul Whelan is an excellent all-purpose authority figure, filling the play’s various older male supporting roles with warmth, bluster, gravitas and verve.

A&G has never been a flawless show, and act two drags a bit as a string of heartwarming letter-readings repetitively and somewhat heavy-handedly stoke the plot, but that’s a minor narrative misgiving in a show with this much humour and heart.

Bonus Junior Review

So what did your ramshackle reviewer's five-year-old Anne fan think? The only show we could squeeze in on opening day was the evening one, so it was a late night for Elsa—leading, alas, to plenty of that odd squirming and re-positioning she does to keep herself awake when she's exhausted. She did stay awake for the whole thing, though, and mostly enjoyed a more adult Anne even if portions of it went over her head. "There’s some pretty weird things happening," she said at intermission, though she declared the dancing "pretty nice." She said her favourite song was "Carried Away by Love," but the song she was singing most often the next day was "That Little Fiddle Player," nicely executed by Morgan Wagner as Anne's college gal pal Philippa and featuring fiddler Moody MacPherson (Aaron Crane), who made a big impression on our little girl. Apart from Moody, the other character she singled out as a favourite was Anne's star pupil Paul Irving (Elijah Smith), though the scene in which Anne reluctantly subjects Paul to corporal punishment was nearly as traumatic for Elsa as it was for Anne. "The most scary part was where he got smacked," she explained. "It sort of, like, gave me a shock." Horrifying violence aside, though, the show still left a positive impression on her: "It was a little strange for me, but pretty good."

Epic, Rich and Moving

Evangeline

Review by Sean McQuaid

Your Anglophone analyst feels conflicted about this review. First-person full disclosure: writing an article about the making of Evangeline in May led to my writing some paid promotional material for the Charlottetown Festival about the musical and its source material, so I have a professional link to this show.

The editor asked me to review it anyway, suggesting I could tackle the subject more knowledgably than most. I’m like one of those “embedded journalists” shadowing the soldiers during the Iraq war, connected but trying to remain objective. Then again, after so much time spent researching all things Evangeline, I may have developed some sort of Acadian-flavoured Stockholm syndrome by now.

Featuring book, music and lyrics by co-director Ted Dykstra (Two Pianos, Four Hands), Evangeline is a musical adaptation of the 1847 epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, dramatizing the British Empire’s 18th-Century expulsion of the Acadians from today’s Maritime provinces. Dykstra started his script in 2003, long backed by Mirvish Productions during years of development that never quite came to fruition until the Charlottetown Festival opted to produce the show this season.

Despite assorted plot and character alterations, Dykstra preserves Longfellow’s core story: young Acadian newlyweds Evangeline Bellefontaine (Chilina Kennedy) and Gabriel Lajeunesse (Adam Brazier) are separated during the expulsion and spend decades trying to find each other.

Kennedy is perfect in the title role, as warm and gentle as the poem’s impossibly virtuous heroine but with enough playfulness, energy and grit to make the musical’s Evangeline funny and formidable, not just blandly admirable. Brazier is similarly strong as Gabriel, especially with the humorous aspects of his part. Dykstra gives the couple welcome flashes of wit amidst all the stoic devotion, and both leads excel at switching gears from drama to comedy.

Supporting cast highlights include the portrayers of Evangeline’s father Benedict (a heartbreaking Sandy Winsby), fiddler René Leblanc (the always amusing Albert Arsenault), conflicted British officer Colonel Winslow (oft-unsung Dan for Mayor comedic MVP Laurie Murdoch doing fine dramatic work here), not-so-conflicted British officer Captain Hampson (vaguely Karloffian heavy Réjean Cournoyer) and Shawnee wanderer Cornflower (a drily comic Nicole Joy-Fraser whose brief turn leaves us wanting more).

Co-directors Dykstra and Anne Allan (also choreographer) bring Dykstra’s script to life using oft-impressionistic, ever-shifting sets; wraparound screen projections of paintings, drawings, animation, maps, historical documents and more; and often large crowds of energetic, eclectic performers, all of which combine to build an epic feel appropriate to this often moving story. The cast and orchestra also do ample justice to Dykstra’s lively, culturally diverse and emotionally rich score.  

As collectively impressive as the show’s music is, conveying the story’s emotions while capturing the flavours of assorted cultures and geographies, few of its well-executed songs emerge as individually memorable tunes – though “If it Takes All I Am” seems to have earned a lingering slot on my often-random mental jukebox.

Dykstra’s story is somewhat long and repetitious (unsurprising given the source material) and rather overstuffed in spots. Plot additions include a detour into the American Revolution, which is where the show’s occasional resemblance to Les Miserables becomes most pronounced and least flattering by comparison.

Designated bad guy Hampson is a cartoonish villain who would seem better suited to hassling Disney princesses if not for his sexually predatory streak. Cournoyer plays the heck out of it, even finds the fun in it on occasion, but this character is too one-dimensionally sinister to seem like a person yet not quite colourful enough to be satisfyingly larger-than-life.

None of these assorted quibbles, however, diminish the significance of what Dykstra and company have achieved here: it’s great to see the Charlottetown Festival main stage hosting a major new Canadian musical for the first time in so many years, especially one as ambitious and often entertaining as this.

Rustico Sunset

The Shore Field

Review by Sean McQuaid

The Watermark Theatre rounds out its 2013 summer season with the world premiere of a very new play (The Shore Field, written and directed by Watermark artistic director Duncan McIntosh), based on the story and characters of a very old play (The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov’s 1904 classic about social change in Russia).

McIntosh shifts the tale from 1904 Russia to 1973 PEI just outside North Rustico, where celebrated actress Alfie Rainey (Gracie Finley) has returned to her family home just as it faces foreclosure. The Rainey family’s former farmhand Larry Pineau (Jody Racicot), now a prosperous businessman, advises them to sell their lovely shore field to cottage builders and use the proceeds to save the rest of the farm, but the hapless Rainey clan and their hangers-on all seem unwilling or unable to do much of anything about their situation.

The chief casting curiosity here is Watermark board member Finley, a long-retired Island actress who made her mark at age 16 as one of the most popular holders of the title role in Anne of Green Gables – the Musical (1968-1974 & 1984-1985).

Casting a beloved older PEI actress, long absent from the stage, as a beloved older PEI actress long absent from her home (and from reality for that matter) gives the part an added layer of resonance akin to faded movie star Gloria Swanson’s iconic role as faded movie star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

Like Swanson, Finley is ready for her close-up. Fragile and haunted but still regal, like some latter-day female King Lear, she brings enough likeability to the part to make the fatally flawed Alfie sympathetic as well as pathetic.

Other standouts include a warmly charming Rebecca Parent as Alfie’s daughter Anna; an entertainingly cantankerous and poignantly sad Laurie Campbell (superb star of Watermark’s excellent Alice in Wonderland) as the Raineys’ longtime housekeeper and Larry’s long-suffering love interest Donna Gallant; and Racicot, who just about steals the whole darn show as Larry, the play’s most fascinating and entertaining character.

Smart and stupid, confident and insecure, wise and foolish, Larry is a constant bundle of contradictions and Racicot brings them all to life with a magnetically watchable nervous energy and folksy authenticity.

This Island-ized take on Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard captures much the same uneasy mix of comedy and tragedy as the original, and the script does a fine job of streamlining the story’s plot and characters; McIntosh’s knack for stripping classics down to their essentials in his adaptations serves him well here.

The script and the production also do a good job of conveying the flavor of the 70s in general and that era’s PEI in particular, though certain aspects of the period might not be entirely clear to younger viewers as presented here.

It may be an unfair observation, but Shore Field feels a bit flat by comparison to Watermark’s other 2013 shows (Alice and Rondelay) – more talky, more static, less technically inventive and colourful – though that’s not inappropriate for the play’s down-to-earth locale and subject matter.

That’s Show Buzz

by Sean McQuaid

Reviews

Fond as I am of poking fun at my advancing years, I don’t quite date back to the very beginning of The Buzz. Like Captain America in the old Avengers comics, I’m an odd historical footnote—the longtime fixture who was around nearly from the start, but not quite.

When Peter Richards and Derek Martin first joined forces to produce a newspaper that chronicled the PEI arts scene and promoted their new alternative movie venue City Cinema, I was still a fulltime UPEI student, little dreaming I would soon ascend from the status of lowly undergrad to lowly journalist.

While Derek concentrated on the cinema, Peter focused on The Buzz and set about enhancing and expanding the newspaper. As part of those efforts he hired me in 1994 as the paper’s editor to help refine the content, recruiting and managing assorted contributors while doing a lot of writing myself as well.

Grizzled drifter that I am, I’ve held many jobs in many places over the years, but that early editorial stint remains a formative favourite. The job introduced me to a wide array of PEI’s creative talents, and the Buzz office itself was a colourful place to work, decorated with local art and host to a shifting assortment of memorable characters.

Albums playing in the office’s communal CD/cassette player sparked my enduring fondness for local musicians like Scott Parsons and Roy Johnstone. My own oft-eclectic contributions to that communal player were embraced or at least tolerated, apart from the time an exasperated Derek popped a particular tape out of the machine in mid-song and handed it back to me, explaining, “Billy Joel only exists to make Elton John look good.”

A unique fringe benefit of those bygone days was Peter’s other side business, Off the Wall Video, with the Buzz office tucked away behind its front counter. It was an independent video rental store, a dying breed even then, specializing in alternative fare like indie movies, foreign flicks, art films and classic cinema.

Hooked on classics, I made some extra cash clerking for Off the Wall in my off hours, and binged on free old-time movie rentals: Hitchcock, Universal monsters, Ed Wood, Fred & Ginger, Godzilla & Mothra, Bogart, Frank Capra, Val Lewton—I devoured it all, even buying some of the shop’s VHS rental tapes for my pre-DVD collection when the long-declining business finally closed.

The Buzz endured, though, as did my connection with same. I stepped down as editor after about two years but remained a contributor, staying in touch during the later years when I lived off-Island and returning to The Buzz’s pages when I finally moved back to PEI.

The bulk of my Buzz writing has been theatrical, a specialty dating back to my days as editor. Already active in local theatre myself by the time I joined The Buzz, I interviewed and profiled assorted stage folk and wrote about theatre in other ways, notably dozens of reviews.

To Peter’s credit, he was always seeking ways to make The Buzz better, to add as much value and substance as possible. It would have been easier for him, especially in a small place like PEI, to steer clear of candidly reviewing local shows. As of the early 90s, there wasn’t much of a theatre reviewing tradition on PEI. When articles on theatre appeared in local papers at all, especially for community theatre or low-budget stuff, they seldom ventured too far beyond praise and plot summaries.

We took a different approach. Boiled down to its basics, I felt every review should include the following points about each show: what was good, what was bad, and what was unique or interesting, if anything. I still follow that three-part formula today. Sounds simple and sensible, but it was controversial at first. In the early days, you never knew when a review subject might offer you a handshake or a hug or literally take a swing at you. There were complaints, and sometimes threats of boycotts or loss of advertising.

Finding additional reviewers was difficult at first. Our only regular reviewer apart from myself went by the old theatrical alias George Spelvin to avoid reprisals, and he/she didn’t last regardless. I handled most of the reviewing myself for a long time. I remember a community theatre show where a friend of mine in the cast later told me I’d been spotted in the audience and some of her fellow performers were terrified. She had assured them I was a nice man with good intentions, but to no avail. “It was like Darth Vader had entered the building,” she laughed.

On a more positive note, I recall talking to the leader of a new young amateur theatre group about his troupe’s reaction to one of my reviews. It was a fairly mixed, relatively critical review and some of his fellow performers were displeased, but he told them, “No, this is good—it shows he’s taking us seriously.” I appreciated that reaction, because it captured the lesser-known half of the twin aims I’ve always had for these reviews: serving not only readers/audiences, but also serving the review subjects by letting them know someone was paying attention to their work and trying to give it careful, thoughtful consideration with honest commentary. If my response to their work isn’t full and frank, then I’m not serving either the subjects or the readers very well.

The PEI reviewing climate has warmed considerably over the years. Quite a few folks review shows in The Buzz and elsewhere these days (especially in the summer), usually sans pen names, and frank critiques aren’t nearly so alien a phenomenon hereabouts as they once were. That’s all to the good, and if I helped along that evolution to any extent over the years, I’m glad of it.

My favourite great play I ever reviewed? The oft-superb Montgomery Theatre’s ghostly morality thriller An Inspector Calls (2011), which I enjoyed so much that I did something I virtually never do: participate enthusiastically in a standing ovation. PEI audiences award standing O’s so frequently as to render them near-meaningless, so I tend to remain stubbornly in my seat lest I help cheapen that gesture any further, but Montgomery’s Inspector was so good even this professional curmudgeon couldn’t help but join in the ambulatory accolades.

My favourite not-so-great play I ever reviewed? Left-Hand Theatre’s Dracula: the Undead (2000). The smart, ambitious Left-Hand gang did a lot of fine work, but this particular production aimed for horror and hit unintentional comedy instead. Some good ideas, moments and performances in the mix couldn’t quite make the show as a whole any less ridiculous, but I enjoyed watching it (it’s probably the B-movie fan in me), and it inspired perhaps my favourite review title: “Stake and Cheese.”

My favourite review? That would be “Red-Haired Girls,” covering the Charlottetown Festival’s Anne of Green Gables (2012). Not so much for the show itself (though it was a good show), but for the fun of enlisting my daughter Elsa as co-reviewer. She makes reviewing—and life in general—much more fun.

Sean McQuaid is…

Sean McQuaidSean McQuaid is a freelance writer/ editor whose clients range from PEI publications like The Buzz to international companies like Marvel Comics. He has been active in the Island theatre community as a playwright, director, producer, performer, stage manager, administrator, competition judge and critic. Selected credits include Horatio, Digging for Fire, Diary of Anne Frank, Julius Caesar, A Slight Ache, The Lover, Players, Enemies, The Point, Cookin’ with Gus and The Old Stock with companies such as Theatre PEI, Off Stage Theatre, Cliffhangers, Kensington Theatre Company, Homegrown Productions, Invisible Ink, Loli Productions, Action Figure Manor, On Cue Players and The Old Stock Players. Active since the 1990s as a PEI theatre critic, his most recent hands-on theatre work is as an associate producer, stage manager and writer associated with touring productions of The Old Stock and related projects. Born in Prince Edward Island where he works with the provincial legislature’s Hansard office, he has also lived and worked in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. Raised in Poplar Point, Sean currently lives in Charlottetown with his lovely wife Carol, delightful daughter Elsa, oddball cats Book & Buffy and numerous books, DVDs and comics.

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pei symphony

Some Upcoming Events

What They Had

November 26–December 2
City Cinema PG, coarse language
Dir: Elizabeth Chomko, US, 101 min. Hilary S [ ... ]

Eptek Lunchtime Films

Thursdays
Eptek Centre  The Friends of Eptek Centre’s Lunchtime Films are screened each Thurs [ ... ]

Kelley’s Christmas

Kelley Mooney and friends in holiday season concert series November 21, 25 & December 13
Select  [ ... ]

Recent News & Articles

A gift of Island poetry: Chris Bailey

Curated by Deirdre Kessler Things My Buddy Said Oh, brother, growing up I’d get into trouble
like [ ... ]

A passion for cinema

Laurent Gariépy is screening the classics at City Cinema by Dave Stewart Anyone checking out City [ ... ]

Acadian showman

Profile: Christian Gallant by Jane Ledwell Forty-six musicians and step dancers took the stage at  [ ... ]