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Before the Courts


Twelfth Night

Review by Michael Oliver

It is unfortunate that many people in the theatre believe they can improve the plays of Shakespeare through additions of their own devising. Such additions are supposed to be creative, but, in truth, they usually are nothing more than clever, and too often they are merely cute. This certainly was true about the local volunteer production of Twelfth Night that ran for two weeks in July and August at the tennis courts in Victoria Park. And yet there were strong moments in this generally weak production, moments worth remembering.

Intended to be humourous, director Laurie Murphy's innovations added nothing but distractions to the play. The first one was a character called Shakespeare, played by Chris Beck, who sat up in a tennis umpire's chair and offered commentary on the action in the form of smart quotations culled from Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Richard III, and so on. Seldom was the audience amused by this, and rightly so. The other innovation was the constant stream of musical quotations from the hit parade and from the movies played as commentary on the action by a jazz ensemble in the background. So intrusive was this music that at one point, in the desperation of her love, Olivia, played by Sharon Eyster, forsook the script and started wailing Hopelessly Devoted To You. The audience did not know what to make of this, and rightly so. Behind such innovations seemed to be the sad belief that Shakespeare's plays must be related to pop culture to be understood today.

Another problem with direction was the way the players spoke and acted. Shakespeare's language is poetic conversation. For the most part, what the players under Murphy's guidance spoke was neither poetry nor conversation, but a kind of ranting. Lennie MacPherson as Orsino is a case in point. He started off the play by shouting, "If music be the food of love, play on!"—and then he kept on shouting, even later to Caesario/Viola in his fondness, even though his character is melancholic, not maniacal. The players overacted too, with much exaggerated posturing and gesturing, as if the characters were all no more than egocentric pranksters like Sir Toby Belch (played here by Clive Keen, adequately—though it would have been impossible to fail at foolery in this production). Neither of the heroines fared well. Gill Mahen as Viola spoke too low and fast, submerging all the poetry inherent in her lines, while Sharon Eyster as Olivia spoke too excitedly and overplayed love's mad desire.

Nonetheless, some instances of unpretentious acting—as so often is the case—invigorated this production. Graham Putnam as Antonio spoke recognizable blank verse and still conveyed a sense of strong emotion. Nancy McLure as Maria spoke with lively eloquence and moved with easy grace. Josh Weale portrayed the foolish knight Sir Andrew Aguecheek with flourishes of comic wit. And Rex McCarville as Malvolio—despite a generally hyperactive manner—managed to deliver both the humour and the pathos that this role requires.

Special mention must be made of Joey Weale who played Sebastian the way that Shakespeare's characters should always be portrayed—with speech and gestures that are natural and subtle, heightened by an unobtrusive artfulness. As Touchstone in UPEI's spring production of As You Like It, Weale expressed both cynicism and sincerity, and here he played the simple virtue of his character without a trace of phoniness. Weale needs the opportunity to play Bottom, even Hamlet or Iago. Maybe in the future this will hapen.

Art and Pleasure

Aladdin & Pandora, Andy Hendrson Review by Michael Oliver

The ninth annual Great Garden of the Gulf Juried Exhibition opened at Confederation Centre Gallery on March 23rd. The exhibition is made up of twenty works by seventeen Island artists, chosen from almost one hundred and fifty works submitted by more than seventy artists. Nature, animals, and children are the common themes. The works are mostly paintings, with one video and one clay sculpture.

Two curators from off-Island, John Murchie and Robert MacKaskell, were the jurors of this exhibition. By their own admission, what they chose is not a survey or a showcase of recent Island art. Instead, according to Jon Tupper, Director of the Confederation Centre Gallery, the purpose of this exhibition is to give pleasure to the visitors who come to view it.

Art, like love, is at first sight, and, unlike pleasure, art remains in our minds long after we have left the gallery. On March 9th, the day that Murchie and MacKaskell viewed the total range of works submitted, I too viewed them all and left Confederation Centre with my own impressions. Two weeks later, when the exhibition opened, I could still remember certain paintings very clearly, and I wondered, out of curiosity, if they would show up in the gallery.

The two that I remembered most were there. Michelle Ridgway's Moment's Peace depicts the green world of a garden, thick with dark red poppies and assorted other flowers, where a bluish dragonfly seems almost to be hiding, drawing our interest and empathy. Elaine Harrison's We Are Looking At You displays three cats beside a jug with long top-heavy flowers, all depicted with bold brush strokes and bright colours blue and green and orange. The cats appear to be a little psycho. I was pleased to see these paintings in the exhibition, and I highly recommend them to you.

But two other paintings I remembered are not in the exhibition. Hugh Crosby's Victoria Park Residents, depicting flying crows in such profusion you can almost hear them cawing, and Joan Creamer's Images In Spring, depicting sunlight on a thawing stream with dazzling golden glows and shimmers, are worth looking up, wherever they may be.

The other painting I found interesting in the exhibition is Andrew Henderson's Aladdin & Pandora. This depicts a wooden kitchen chair set in a garden with a metal box and large glass bottle resting on it in the sunlight filtered through green leaves-an image of the ordinary mysteries of life.

You will recall, this exhibition is intended to reflect not only Island talent, but according to the implications of the advertising-Island taste. Apparently the works were chosen to appeal to visitors more than to honour genuine artistic excellence. But artists too have taste-indeed, the best of them make taste-so it is difficult to say where talent ends and tastes begin. Distinctive visions always are more rare than easy images, and yet it seems that the curators might have underestimated Island taste for excellence in art in their attempt to please us.

Power of Good Acting

As You Like It

Review by Michael Oliver

The UPEI Theatre Society presented Shakespeare's As You Like It at the Carrefour Theatre in Charlottetown from March 20th until the 22nd, winning audiences with a strange but ultimately strong production of this masterpiece of comedy.

Directed by Ron Irving, this production-happily-did not attempt a faddish "intellectual" interpretation of the play. Too often nowadays this great romantic classic is performed because, in Rosalind, it has the longest female role in Shakespeare, and because it seems to offer people with revisionist agendas opportunities for intervention. Rosalind's cross-dressing, for example, is a standard plot device of comedy, but there are many who would have us see it as a slyly gendered subtext. Irving made a wise decision when he chose to follow Shakespeare, not the Bard's "progressive" readers.

But he made a sad mistake in trying to force As You Like It to become a 1960s pastoral, complete with hippy costuming and evocations of the struggle of the "flower children" with the "pigs." Especially unwise was substituting Shakespeare's songs with freaky pop tunes from the 60s, sung with neither joy nor anger, nor the slightest bit of relevance. The only feature of the mis-en-scene that added anything to the production was Doug Mills's set design, with hanging screens depicting oaks and shrubs of the greenwood world of Arden, not of California.

Critics often claim that As You Like It works or does not work according to the actress playing Rosalind, and yet the role of Rosalind's ironic cousin Celia, who travels with her to the forest, is important too. In this production Sharon Eyster played the part of Rosalind; Melissa Vloet played the part of Celia. They looked like two blonde sisters, and both performed quite well, but really there was quite a difference.

While Eyster spoke her lines with conversational enunciation, Vloet spoke her lines with heightened resonance. While Eyster seemed all voice, intense and yet inactive, Vloet gestured freely, flashed expressions with her face, and moved about the stage with easy self-possession. So it must be said: the casting should have been reversed, for Vloet would have made a more ecstatic, more romantic Rosalind.

The greatest strength of this production was the acting of the less important roles. Matt Stewart as Orlando had the not-too-easy task of playing straight man to the jokes and jibes of Rosalind, but he preserved a sense of dignity that made him seem a worthy suitor for her love. Steve Forbes presented Jaques's melancholy well, although he threw away the great speech "All the world's a stage" by trying much too hard to sound world-weary. And, with witty mining Adam Gauthier as Silvius portrayed both love and love's frustration.

But the tour de force of this production was the comic interplay of Joey Weale as clownish Touchstone and Jennifer Jackson as rustic Audrey. With her bulky figure and her red hair tied in pigtails, Jackson stole the show, galumphing wildly, posing with preposterous abandonment, and madly making eyes at her supposed courtly lover. This was just the zany touch that Irving's As You Like It needed to make it a strong production after all.

Will You Hide Me?

J. J. Steinfeld talks about writing and his new book

by Michael Oliver

Sitting at Tim Hortons, as the flow of customers passed in and out around us, J.J. Steinfeld talked with me about his new collection of short stories Will You Hide Me? scheduled to be published May 22nd. This is Steinfeld's ninth collection of short stories, and the third one to be published by Gaspereau Press in Nova Scotia, justly famous for the quality of its designs. Besides his stories, Steinfeld is the author of one novel and of many stage plays.

Personally reticent, yet eager, once we started talking, to discuss his writing, Steinfeld placed his fictional imagination in the world of Kafka and of Becket-of The Metamorphosis and Waiting For Godot. Moreover, although Steinfeld did not mention him as being influential, Woody Allen comes to mind.

"A dialogue with God-but not religious" is the way that Steinfeld talks about his writing. Certainly his stories have what once was known as gravity: a serious consideration of the most important aspects of existence. Writing in the modernist tradition, Steinfeld shows us people who are striving to discover meaning in their lives. There is no doubt that many of his characters are "hunger artists," to use Kafka's famous phrase describing people who are longing for the nourishment their spirits cannot find. As Kafka puts it elsewhere, Heaven does exist, but we cannot get there. A lot of Steinfeld's characters, as he explains, "see damage in the world," and yet they keep on hoping, like the tramps in Waiting For Godot that meaning will appear, if only they are faithful.

Choice is central to the existential attitude, and Steinfeld's characters are often forced to choose what they should do in situations that are morally ambiguous. The title story "Will You Hide Me?" is about a middle-aged professor who remembers, as she drives along the highway, that her father, who once hid out in the forest from the Nazis (just as Steinfeld's father did), has told her that this question is the most important question anyone can ask. She sees a young man hitching rides and picks him up on impulse. He confesses he is running from the law, and in the end he asks her, "Will you hide me?"

Steinfeld came to PEI in 1980 and has lived here ever since, establishing a living as a writer. One thing that emerged from our talk is that he certainly appears, like many writers, to be dedicated to his work, despite whatever difficulties this may cause. "The horror of not writing," he declares, "is worse than the horror of writing." The fact that he calls writing a horror seems to indicate it represents his own attempt to make his life have meaning-in the end, to make, in his own words, "a body of work" that will survive his natural existence.

When we left Tim Hortons, spring had come to Charlottetown. The afternoon was sunny, yet I had the strong impression Steinfeld wanted to get home and keep on writing.

Another hit for ACT

The Gondoliers

by Michael Oliver

For three successive nights, beginning February 20th, ACT (A Community Theatre) presented The Gondoliers at Confederation Centre. Well attended and appreciated, this was certainly the most ambitious Gilbert and Sullivan production mounted yet by this established local company of amateur performers. Terry Pratt directed the ensemble on the stage; Carl Mathis was the musical conductor. As a team, and each in his own way, they managed to achieve a generally smooth production that enabled members of the audience to concentrate upon the topsy-turvy story and the witty songs. At first the chorus seemed a little awkward and self-conscious, and this threatened to disrupt the pacing of the comedy before it even started. In its opening The Gondoliers requires great vivacity in both the singing and the dancing, but this certainly was missing in the ACT production, even in the game of blind man's bluff whereby the gondoliers Giuseppe and his best friend Marco catch and claim Tessa and Gianetta, the girls that they will marry. With the shifting of the scene, however, and the entrance of the Duke of Plaza-Toro and his entourage, the pace picked up and reached the proper comic tempo. All initial clumsiness soon vanished in the absurd dialogue in which Casilda, daughter of the Duke, and young Luiz, the Duke's manservant, vow undying love "but ten brief minutes since," for just that long ago she learned she had been married as a child and has been brought to Venice to reclaim her long-lost husband, heir to the throne of Barataria. After that, the only disappointment was the strange way Lisa Carmody as Tessa was apparently directed to employ her talented and lively voice to render "When A Merry Maiden Marries" much more like a dirge than like a nuptial hymn. Because this is the only song in the entire operetta that is truly lyrical, it seemed unfortunate to hear it sung so oddly. Stephanie McCormick as Gianetta and Emily Hanlin as Casilda also brought fine voices to their roles. But it was Caroline Hewson as the Dutchess who delivered "On The Day That I Was Wedded" with both personality and reticence who stole the show among the female singers. Similarly, Andrew Mann as Giuseppe, Claude Gavard as Marco, and Mark Ramsey as Luiz all sang quite well (though all were almost silenced in the presence of the women), but it was Ben Kinder as the Duke who sang with character as well as feeling and succeeded in conveying the capricious comic spirit of the operetta. In the end, though, it was Rene Hurtubise as the overbearing Grand Inquisitor of Barataria (and instigator of the plot) who took command of the performance. Speaking, even singing, with an elocution reminiscent of Olivier in his rare comic roles, Hurtubise played the part for maximum effect, but never once exaggerated the exaggerations of his character. The audience responded with its full attention to this tour de force. The set design by Woody White and Terry Pratt was basic, though its Tuscan columns and its bridges did approximate the world of Venice in the eighteenth century, while Brenda Porter's costuming was properly elaborate and colourful-the mis en scène relying more on people than on setting, as it must in amateur theatricals. ACT's production of The Gondoliers bestowed a touch of merriment on Charlottetown the same time winter started, slightly, to give way to spring, and this seemed fitting, in a topsy-turvy way.

Women in your Life

New exhibition, Ties That Bind, by Brian Burke on display at ArtZone

Review by Michael Oliver

Ties That Bind 2002, oil painting by Brian BurkeOn probably the coldest evening all winter, Brian Burke's new exhibition Ties That Bind began its run at ArtZone Gallery in Charlottetown. The weather seemed appropriate for viewing paintings so austere and bleak and disconcerting.

Famous for his figurative canvasses displaying human desolation with expressionistic candour, Island artist Brian Burke will easily extend his reputation with the new oil paintings in this exhibition. All eleven medium-sized works show figures who confront the viewer through the blackened sockets of their eyes, the smudgy textures of their faces, and the lack of feeling on their lips.

Although they are completely static, all Burke's figures seem somehow to threaten us, relentlessly, with their uncanny consciousness, a mode of knowing absolutely alien to us. Much like the stumbling corpses in the movie Night of the Living Dead, these figures seem to need us in some way, and yet they seem oblivious to what we think.

To realize that almost all these figures are of women is surprising. In the past Burke's figures were quite often male, and now and then he has been criticized for seeming to equate humanity with masculinity. What this new exhibition illustrates is that, regardless of their sex, Burke's figures are the same. It is the emptiness of human life that he is painting, not the politics of male and female.

A couple of the paintings in the show display this sense of absence with ironic wit. In Shared Experience two women sit together at one margin of the canvas staring all the way across the painting at a wide expanse of nothing. In I'll Always Remember This As Something I'll Never Forget a woman stands alone beside the margin, claps her hand across her mouth, and stares, again, at nothing. These are stories, though, and nowhere near as eerie as the looks upon the figures' faces. Burke's true strength is portraiture; in fact, he represents a weird postmodern parody of Robert Harris.

Ties That Bind, the title painting of the show, depicts four women, stout and middle-aged and bland, all linked together-arms crossed holding hands, an arm across a shoulder-no doubt sisters, or a mother and three daughters. What they have in common is a sour blank expression-here the paint itself is smeared like putty-and the coal-black eyeless stare with which they greet the viewer. Who knows what is on their minds? But they look strange enough to make us turn away.

Perhaps the strangest painting in this show is Wake Me When It's Over. This depicts a woman lying on her back. A sheet is covering her body, and her hands are folded on her chest. Her glasses look like ice; her lips are slack and black. When we observe the outline of a room behind her (rare among these paintings), suddenly we realize this woman is not sleeping but is laid out at the morgue. The title, then, is meant to be macabre. All the paintings in the show were based on common photographs "translated" into art-this one shows how freely.

Poetry Afternoon


John Smith reads at the Confederation Centre Public Library

Review by Michael Oliver

Island Poet Laureate John Smith presented the second segment of his celebration of the canon of great English poems with a reading at Confederation Centre Public Library on Sunday, February 16th, of selections ranging from the seventh to the sixteenth century. The opening presentation was at the Arts Guild.

This series runs till early April. "Sunday Afternoons With Poetry" is sponsored by the P.E.I. Writer's Guild, the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs, and the Confederation Centre Public Library. Professor Smith's intention in this series is to "give a voice" again to the entire history of classic English poems that have sometimes been forgotten in the rush of modern life towards the future.

Voice indeed. John Smith assumes the role of bard with confidence and clearly loves to utter poetry in public. Smith began this reading by observing that to sit before a table piled with books and look out on an audience reminded him of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus at his desk about to conjure devils when his tragedy begins. Smith ended his performance by delivering the famous speech on egocentric pride assigned to Marlowe's Tamburlaine. Such subtle symmetry seems fitting for a poet laureate possessed of such a grand, Marlovian, declamatory style of reading.

Smith presented Caedmon's "Hymn," portions of "The Seafarer," and bits of Beowulf in flawless Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, then moved on to excerpts from Piers Plowman and The Canterbury Tales, presented, carefully, in reconstructed Middle English. Then the poet switched to northern border ballads, first "Sir Patrick Spens," then "Mary Hamilton," performing them in Scottish dialect. The afternoon concluded with some sermonizing stanzas out of Spenser's Faerie Queene and, as a coda, Tamburlaine's pronouncement on ambition.

All in all, this represents a challenge to the most accomplished reader's voice, but Smith was more than ready for the task. In fact, he reveled in performing these selections, endlessly adjusting cadences to fit the mood and emphasizing phrases with a vocal tremolo that Dylan Thomas would have envied. It really did not matter that the audience could hardly understand the older language of much of this performance-what they listened to was voice.

Amid his oratorical delivery Smith sometimes tossed out footnotes and asides to comment on the passages he read, but for the most part he appeared more than content to simply let the poems have their say. But did the poems really have their say? Or were they acted by a consummate performer? Some might question Smith's assumption that poetic language must be dramatized to be authentic.

Nonetheless, the audience was pleased with Smith's performance, and the "Sunday Afternoons With Poetry" events will probably continue to be well attended. It is certainly a good idea to review the canon of great English poems. There is danger, more than ever, of neglect and cultural decay. We should take pride that people on the Island care about this excellent tradition and are doing something to preserve it.

Native Council Craft Centre

A wide variety of native crafts produced at the new centre in Charlottetown

by Michael Oliver

Manager Dan Knockwood and Artist-in-Residence Levi Cannon at the Native Council Craft Centre Gallery in Charlottetown

"This," says carver Levi Cannon, "is my life," referring to his role as artist-in residence at the Native Council Craft Center Gallery on Grafton Street in Charlottetown. The same enthusiasm can be heard in Project Manager Dan Knockwood's voice as he points out that this creative venture, operating only since December, is by far the largest Native crafting centre in the Maritimes.

The gallery contains a wide variety of Native artifacts, particularly those of Mi'kmaq origin, including baskets from Maria in the Gaspe region of Quebec, dream catchers, soapstone carvings, leather moccasins and vests, masks, and medicine wheels. Of special interest are shields displaying paintings of the Mi'kmaq petroglyphs discovered by Ruth Whitehead in the Yarmouth area.

The paintings on these shields were done by Levi Cannon, but the shields themselves were made by crafting people working on the premises for the duration of their contracts. Cannon, too, works at the Center, mostly carving talking sticks and dancing sticks and other artifacts. According to Dan Knockwood, there are plans for renting booths to freelance crafting people for a modest fee, so other Native workers can have space to work and to display their products.

Levi Cannon claims his mission is "to reproduce ancient ceremonial artifacts." He has been carving nine years now, as well as doing research on the art of carving story poles. In fact, he has been singled out by Sheila Copps, the federal Minister of Heritage, who has commended both his research and his carvings. Furthermore, it is quite likely Cannon will be nominated soon for Native Artist of the Year.

For Cannon, who grew up in Summerside but spent a lot of time out west, the Native Council Craft Center Gallery affords him opportunity to carve and paint in comfortable circumstances. After spending many years tattooing, after working on his carvings out in barns all winter, Cannon has a chance to give his art his full attention, and he is determined to produce as much as possible. Cannon's exhibition All Our Relatives has toured the major galleries throughout the Maritimes, but he has sold most of the carvings in that show, so he is busy doing more. He also is developing his talent as a painter.

In addition to the crafts and craft supplies it sells, the Center has a lunch bar specializing in what Kockwood calls "the best Indian tacos anywhere." The lunch bar also offers space to sit and talk, and all the people at the Center are hospitable and ready to discuss the work that they are doing.

Knockwood has already made arrangements for one Japanese bus tour to stop at the Native Council Craft Center Gallery this summer and is eagerly awaiting tourist season. In the meantime, funding for the Center Gallery has come from both the P.E.I. Native Council-the "mother group" as Knockwood calls it-and Human Resources and Development Canada. If pride is any indication, it seems likely that the Native Council Craft Center Gallery will both survive its first year and go on to prosper in the future.

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