In Praise of Quality Theatre Reviews

I really wish we had good theatre reviews here in Northumberland.  I think there is a real art to getting it right, especially for community theatre, and we really need that, not only to encourage the theatre companies and keep them honest, but it helps theatre-goers to better understand what they are experiencing.

Tomorrow is the memorial service for VOS founder Ruth Harcort.  She directed and played in many shows through the years for different theatre groups.

Here is a review of a show she directed – the Northumberland Players’ production of “The Fantasicks” from The Port Hope Evening Guide, October, 1989.

Click to view full size, there are 2 image files.

Fantasticks Review




Fantasticks Review 2

Now THAT is a good review, written Jonathan Lock, two and half decades ago.  He provides an excellent look at at the actors’s work, how they were directed, even how they had improved from past performances.  There’s good critique of technical stuff, all fixable, nothing too biting or nasty.

Certainly nowhere is there this idea that we should celebrate everyone and come on out to support everyone because they worked hard.  That’s a ridiculous sentiment that might wash with youth productions or other participation-based stuff, but theatre patrons pay real money and they deserve to get good value.

The fact of the matter is that theatre is competing with everything other form of entertainment, including TV and Netflix, not to mention a plethora of choirs, bands, dance, and other performing arts events.  We need to have someone writing about what’s really happening on the stage so that people can interpret some of the things that they may have missed, or that they simply couldn’t appreciate.

The fact of the matter is that on any given weekend we have all kinds of local theatre choices, and if we simply had someone who knew what they were writing about, and who was able to elucidate their opinions without obvious bias, then both the audience and the performance companies would be much better off.

The Utter Sincerity of Python

I’ve been thinking quite a bit, in preparation for dealing with the character I am playing in Spamalot, Sir Robin, about how Monty Python actually works.  Why is it so funny, and why is it so damned relevant?  I think we need look no further than The Holy Grail‘s Graham Chapman for that, and also my Uncle Exton.

You see, I didn’t grow up watching Monty Python, I only experienced it through my father’s older brother, my Uncle Exton.  Yes, I understand that his is a most unusual name, making it thus more awesome to bring up in conversation, though this isn’t one.  However, he used to quote Python laughingly time and again.  Songs, skits, voices, funny walks, he did it all, falling over himself laughing, and then apologizing to his wife, my Aunt Melba, for embarrassing everyone.  The funniest thing I can remember was looking through a book with my cousin that held God’s Report Card (Latin: 100%).

My proper introduction to Monty Python came in a roundabout way when I hooked up with an English Girl (now my wife) who adores John Cleese in Faulty Towers.  Now we lovingly quote Manuel whenever someone says something boorish or with too much assumed authority.

I then started watching bits and pieces of sketches here and there on YouTube, rented The Meaning of Life from the video store, and eventually, after being cast as Robin, watched The Holy Grail on Netflix.

“Oh!”  I may have been heard exclaiming to my wife.  “It is funny, just look!”  “No, it isn’t.”

And there you have the single most effective humor device used within Python.  I call it the Semi-Calm Refusal to Comply, where the protagonist is denied his rite of passage through a given scene by a semi-calm antagonist.  Picture the 5-Pound Argument scene, the Black Knight, and others.  They all employ the Semi-calm Refusal to Comply.  Delightful!

But why is it funny? “It isn’t.”  Oh, shut up.

I leave you now with a portion of Cleese’s eulogy for Graham Chapman.

“And I guess that we’re all thinking how sad it is that a man of such talent, of such capability for kindness, for such unusual intelligence, should now so suddenly be spirited away at the age of only forty-eight, before he’d achieved many of the things of which he was capable, and before he’d had enough fun. 

“Well, I feel that I should say, nonsense. Good riddance to the freeloading bastard. I hope he fries. And the reason I feel I should say this is he would never forgive me if I didn’t. If I threw away this glorious opportunity to shock you on his behalf.”

Incidentally, Chapman’s animated, factually incorrect biography was released last year.  I think we can learn something from that, only I’m not sure what.

Always look on the bright side of death….

My thoughts on Hedda Gabler, at the Peterborough Theatre Guild, directed by Bea Quarrie

As the title character, Alex Saul does not simply occupy the stage, she elegantly erupts from it.  She spends every millisecond of her time holding court in her prison room of a house completely in character; from her fidgeting fingers to her mischievous eyes, to her lusty flirtations, to her attentions to her playthings.

Everything is askew in this world, indeed even General Gabler haunts the place at an angle, and that keeps everything on edge on this set, especially Hedda, and this is one of the reasons that she is so eminently watchable on-stage.  She doesn’t stand or sit or any of those ordinary things, she flounces, she perches, she hovers, she arcs.  Indeed, you may try to pry your eyes away from her, and if you manage to you will have been more successful than I was.  I wasn’t sure whether to feel sorry for her, be turned on by her, or wish that would just she would shoot something.

The hysterical mad-woman is a common 19th Century theme, with our poor pregnant darlings either filling their pockets with rocks and leaping into the Thames, or relegated to the attics of various bourgeois households, watching the wallpaper curl and fade.  Ibsen is unique not only in his prescience of what the 20th century will hold for mankind, but also by his exploration of what the experience of being one of these women actually is.  She’s caught between classes, she’s without vocation, she’s clever, and she dreads what will happen should the walls of her upper-middle class prison collapse upon her should a lump appear in her belly.

So, yes, Alex Saul as Hedda is worth the price of admission and more all on her own, but what makes the piece so memorable for me are the tableaus that director Bea Quarrie sets up for us to ponder over.  When David Russell as Eilert Lovborg crosses to stage right, professing his vision of the near future through the metaphor of a woman, with Hedda perched with her luscious back to us on the chaise longue at the left, and the two bumbling fools in the centre giggling on the sofa, it’s hard not spot the allegory.  The other moments I will leave to you to find, since they are well worth watching for.

When it comes to the rest of the ensemble, I think one could listen to Christopher Spear’s Judge             Brack for hours without being bored, his voice is that good, so that we might almost forget to hate him as much as we are beckoned to.  Mark Paton, too, is wonderful as George Tesman (sometimes Georgie, often just Tesman), and he holds us on the verge of laughter for so long that I couldn’t help but cackle at him at times, though nearly everyone else in the audience was too demur to follow suit.  His relationship to his aunt Juliana, played by Jennie Ryan, is delightful, and those few minutes before Hedda appears in the morning really frame the whole piece well.  

Russell as Lovborg is complicated – he is like watching a living metaphor strutting about the set, chanting at Hedda, and serving as the object of her desire, I think he wrangled with the man between the angel and demon adroitly and with class.  Kait Dueck as Thea Elvsted is, I think, our largest source of melodrama here, and her voice calls out louder than anyone else’s on-stage, daring us to tear our eyes away from Hedda for a moment to recognise this woman for her own courage and values, which is admirable, but quite impossible, I dare say.

The moments with Hedda and Berthe, played by Susan Gontier, are really, really cool.  We may not understand Hedda as well as we might like to, but we damned well think we understand Berthe, and I felt something rip inside me each time she was summoned, or entered in darkness to do her assigned duties. 

The lighting, too, was rather moving as the set was washed with morning sunshine, or cloaked in darkness to reveal only flames, at one point.  I found myself wishing for a sunset or the rosy pink of a clean, clear dawn, but I don’t suppose the General would have approved of that.

We are treated at times to the music of R. Murray Schafer, and, along with all the other little bits and pieces, another dimension is added for us to grapple with.  His harping is the thing that breaks the grounds of our collective psyche, I think, which is almost a necessity with this material.  I don’t think I can separate the story from the music in my mind, at this point.

In costumes, I can only say that the silk dress which adorns Hedda is such a marvellous piece of art that I can’t really describe it.  I’m a man that doesn’t understand that sort of thing very well.  However, I do recognise when my sensibilities are being played upon, and kudos to whomever decided to redo that piece of the puzzle, because it drew Hedda into her surroundings and locked her, I believe, incontrovertibly inside them.

The play is only on for two more weekends, so you’d better go and see it for yourself, otherwise you’ll just be left wondering, and you’ll have missed out on a piece of theatre that you can’t expect to have known was coming, and you won’t be able to predict will come again.

Tickets are available at the box office, or over the phone, details at the Peterborough Theatre Guild website.

On researching Charles Dickens for the VOS Production of A Christmas Carol


One of the things that we love to do as readers is imagine how an author has written him or herself into a particular story.  Sometimes things are written from the first person perspective, so we may imaging that the “I” of the story is looking from the same eyes as the author.  This may or may not be true, but it certainly is interesting to imagine the world of a novel unveiling itself as the story is revealed, piece by piece.  I think that’s why we love movies based on books so much; they give us that feeling that this is how things looked from the eyes of the author.  Of course, it’s often not the author who makes the movie, it’s a completely different set of people following the vision of a director, not an author.

And this is how it is with the musical VOS is currently in production with, A Christmas Carol.  Dickens, as you may know, published this as a novella just before Christmas in 1843.  It was a hit, and it’s widely looked upon as the tome of how modern Christmas is celebrated in western society.  At least, that’s how I see it. 

Reading it again, and literally seeing the story unfold around me night after night, I wonder whether our world is so different from 19th century London, England.  It’s certainly something to ponder, especially when we think of Christmas, which is a time, of all times, when stopping and thinking is a good thing to do.

The thing is, Dickens believed in the power of philanthropy, and he exploited this belief to full extent in his Christmas story, and his other serialized works.  He also tends to combine his notions of good will for our fellow men with the idea that we grow ever older, and with the passing of time, our past choices accrue like pennies in the till, and they may weigh us down.

As an actor portraying Dickens in his own story, it’s kind of a bewildering thought, especially with ghosts, time, fog and snowy air swirling around the stage.


Also, I wonder if I like Dickens better with a goatee, or clean-shaven.  Heady stuff, indeed.


more later – joel

Standing outside the door


The VOS Oklahoma run is over.

It was nuts like no other nutty thing before it.

The show was a ton of fun to perform in – I would be Curly again in a second if given the right opportunity.

One of the things I’ve talked about was how cool it was to enter from the back of Vic Hall and come through the box-office doors, walk through the audience and then leap triumphantly onstage to meet my daughter (she was playing Laurey’s silent little sister, a new twist).  I was only really triumphant once, and then in the dress rehearsal I tripped and fell, so I dialed it down to “climb” onstage.

The time spent standing outside that door to the hall was some of the craziest “thought-moments” I’ve ever had.  Of course, on opening night (or was it dress rehearsal, again?) I forgot my hat, so I had to run back up and down a few flights of stairs to retrieve it.  Another time I forgot my gun (a matinee, I forget?) but nobody noticed it for the crazy chaps (not pictured).  Luckily the overture is ridiculously long, so running back to the backstage area, although it is a long way, can easily be done during this time – just don’t try to sing the opening number when you’re already out-of-breath and try to leap triumphantly onto the stage.  You’ll probably trip and fall, like me.

By the way in the picture above, I am singing the word “fine”, not something else.

Before one matinee, a guy I know came up to the box office to buy tickets for the next show.  He didn’t realize that I was all prepped and ready to bust through the door into a beautiful mornin’.  In fact, he didn’t recognize me at all, I don’t think.  The production assistant (I love calling her that – you know who you are) shoved him behind the box office door and it was hilarious watching him try to escape while the opening bars were seeping out of the concert hall. 

Another time, just as the aforementioned production assistant was about to give me the opening note on my iPhone piano app (awesome!) a woman burst out the door in front of me chattering away on her cell phone.  She didn’t even see the guy dressed up like a cowboy in a huge hat, red shirt and black-and-white cowhide chaps (yes, just like these). She proceeded to sit on the stairs all through the overture and blindly blathered into her phone.  It must have been important, cause she never even blinked with the production assistant (same one, she’s busy) escorted her downstairs to the benches to talk in greater comfort.

Best advice I got for standing outside a door waiting to hit a note out of nowhere in complete silence?

“Smile, and you won’t sing it flat.”


more later – joel

Week Two

Joel Varty & Marley Budreau in Oklahoma!
You want to know who’s a lucky dude?
Me. That’s who.

I get to stand there beside fantastic actors like Beth, Jamie, Nick, Steve, Marlena, Sam, Grant, and Marley (pictured beside the silly fellow in the red shirt) and do something that some folks just never get the chance, or the gumption, to do. Being on stage isn’t a thing I can describe, it’s a thing that defines me. Theatre isn’t thing that you do, and then put away, it’s a goal that I strive towards, that we all strive towards, hopefully. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it’s a challenge, and sometimes it kills you inside for all the heartache and crap that comes out. But sometimes it works. And when that happens…

If this production works at all, it’s because of those people who’ve put oodles of time, effort, and tears into making it so. All the things that could go crazy went crazier than I could imagine. Things that were beyond our control went out of control.

And all I do night after night is just stand there and stare beyond the lights (at Bob, but nobody knows that) and wonder at the beauty of it all.

Kinda magical. I’m thankful for the ones who make the magic from the shadows (LC, AF, FF, HS, ES, RM, DC, others…).

Thanks for the opportunity, Anne.

See ya for the next few shows. And then…

more later – jv

Half-way there – Don’t ya wish y’d go on forever?


We completed the first five our our nine-show run for Oklahoma! on Sunday. Tomorrow we run lines, review some dances and fight scenes, then back to the stage on Thursday for the final four shows.

Don’t ya wish y’d go on forever?

In the picture above, there’s me, Beth Hunt (as Aunt Eller), and my daughter Gemma (as Aggie, Laurey’s little sister). It’s pretty delightful being onstage with a family member, but to be honest, being onstage in any VOS show is like something out of a dream (the good kind). Folks are supportive of each other, crew are helpful and cheerful, the techies mingle with the cast and the mutual respect is like this tactile thing that you can feel in the air. It’s just awesome. Heck, even Betty, who does makeup for the fellas, brought in her own liquid eye liner for me! I guess I’m sensitive, or something.

I’ll tell you something, though, this show is not easy, not by a long shot. In more traditional productions, the dream ballet (which is a pretty long sequence) is performed by dancers, not the actors. Well, not this time. All the actors are also the dancers – personally I think it makes for a more seamless production. During rehearsals about a week ago I bit my tongue (literally, not figuratively) and a tore a little chunk out of it near the back (gross, I know). Makes it a little harder to smile that easy country smile, I can tell you. Also, we’ve rehearsed the fight scenes so many times I have perma-bruises where the knaps are. I love every minute of it – and I wouldn’t trade that time on stage for anything.

We’ve got four more kicks at the can this weekend, and I plan on making the most of it.

Hope to see y’all there.


Don’t Forget the Knaps


My friend and VOS photographer Ken Hurford took the above photo from an Oklahoma! rehearsal last week. This is from the smokehouse scene, and while Jud is in costume, I, Curly, am not (except for the gun and the neckerchief), and neither on of us is wearing stage makeup. I think it’s a great low-light photo, from a pretty powerful scene.

Steve Shortt (who plays Jud) has a much different job as an actor in this show than anyone else – his character is dark, brooding, and Steve preps for it pretty seriously. It’s pretty intense to share the stage with a guy who has that much focused energy.  And yet, it’s somehow a positive energy that you can easily play off of an react to. That to me speaks volumes to how Steve’s approach to character is tempered by his own personality and under control.

For my prep before a show (although we’ve only done rehearsals so far, I treat them the same as a show, why not, right?) I like to spend oodles of time thinking about all of the things that I don’t want to have to think about during the show itself. One of these things is lifts – and I have several throughout the show, with a few different actors, one of them over my head, with an inverted flip to get out of it. Look for that one near the beginning of Act 2, for those of you keeping track… but the hardest is during the ballet.  Hopefully it ends up being the lift that looks the easiest.

Another thing I spend time on is first notes – the first note of every song tends to be one that either sets the song up for awesomeness, or puts you in a hole that you have to dig yourself out of. If it’s effortless and on key, the audience will be on your side for the rest of the piece, I figure.

Which leads me to diction. I never EVER think about diction during a scene – it should be automatic, shouldn’t it? Maybe, but having read a ton of theatre reviews in the past 18 months, not being able to hear or understand lines is the number one thing I’ve picked out. Practice it before – get your lips off your teeth, open your mouth, think about where your sound is going, bounce it off a flat surface instead of letting it get absorbed into the wings or a traveller.

And, lastly, I practice knaps.

A “knap” is something you do to make a sound during a stage fight. Sometimes you do your own knaps (when you are throwing a punch or a kick), and at other times you do a knap when you are the one getting punched, kicked, slapped whatever. The thing is, when you are in the moment of stage combat, doing the knap is kinda secondary to making sure you don’t actually punch the other person in the face.  Our stage combat specialist, Daniel Levinson, spent quite a bit of time with us working through the mechanics of our fights and the techniques involved with keeping it safe – this is a lot to keep in your head in the heat of the moment on-stage. Obviously, someone with a ton of stage combat experience has an easier time keeping all the pieces of the choreography top of mind all at once, but this is all pretty new to me. So I like to practice knaps by myself and as part of a warm-up before a show. It’s kinda funny, I think, to see some guy standing backstage slapping himself loudly in the chest (pectorals, come on!) or the rear-end, trying to get a decent sound.

But if you hear the decent smack sound as a fist appears to make contact onstage, you know something went right.

More later – joel

Keeping Count

Since Saturday:

14 hours dancing.
3 hours stretching.
2 hours singing.
9 eggs.
Nearly 10 litres of water (forgot to keep track, so this is a guess).
10,000 mg Vitamin C.
2,000 mg Ibuprofen.
1,000 units Vitamin E.
1 large bottle Listerine.
53 show related emails.

Minutes until my train gets in: 35.

Can’t wait.

Are you coming next week?

Dreams and Things

One of the things about the Oklahoma story is how people dream so much about having the things that they can’t have. It’s something that permeates the plot line and get even a little uncomfortable at times when we learn that Will has been promised Ado Annie’s hand for fifty dollars.

It’s everywhere we look – Laurey wants nice clothes, buckles, a buggy. I wonder if she wants to escape the far where she is stranded and lonesome at night. Jud wants her so bad, but is it like a piece of livestock, or is he really capable of love? Ado Annie is so taken with Peddler with his fancy wares and his exotic words. I think the hotel at Claremore might actually fell like paradise compared to the haystack outside her pa’s barn.

Nobody seems averse to giving all they have away, either. We have Will, giving up all his winnings on presents for his girl, with no thought to the notion that he actually needs to buys this girls’s hand from her father. Isn’t she worth more than a possession? I also wonder how she sees the peddler when he comes back in act 2 with his own bride.

Jud certainly has no qualms over handing over his cash either, not quite as much as Will, but still a veritable fortune. Probably close to two months pay, for those of you keeping track.

And Curly, what will he give up? His livelihood? He already spent everything he had on his plan for the party, and that didn’t go so well. Now what? What does he think when he hears Ike talk about the territory becoming a state, becoming something more than what it is? Where does he place himself in that future?

Until we are ready to give up everything we thought we needed, everything that used to define us, that ties us and binds us to our possessions, we don’t know what that would be like. Only when we’ve gone to that place where we’ve got nothing left but who we are can we know what Curly knows.