Friday, July 30, 2010

Log No 204: Odyssey theatre does it again, proving its peerless quality in our cultural life

In its twenty-fourth year in Strathcona Park in Ottawa, Laurie Steven’s Odyssey theatre has produced another rollicking, funny show, although of a somewhat different kind than usual, in a play called They All Do It, Janet Irwin’s loose adaptation of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutti.

This remarkable troupe has made a specialty of modifying the traditions of Italian commedia dell’arte by incorporating other traditions, such as Chinese, Italian or German opera, French and British farce and many others.

Invariably Ms. Steven has discovered some sparkling new actors who have made her productions veritably sing, and this has happened again this year with the remarkable comic performances of at least three newcomers to Odyssey productions. Ben Clost, in the leading role of Antonio, proprietor of an Ottawa restaurant, and the man whose machinations motivate the plot, shows himself to have a wonderful sense of comic timing to such a point that the play is always vibrantly alive when he is on the stage. He adopts a comic Italian accent, and gets additional comic resonance from the mask he wears, made by Karen Rudd, one of only two used in this production. The other is worn by Kelly Rigole, playing the role of Despina, a woman who aids Antonio in the plot they have foisted on the four young principals, in another superb performance.

The director who has put this production on stage so expertly is Paul Griffin, a teacher at Canterbury High School, where he has directed 26 plays with student actors, as well as being active in various outside theatre troupes.

It would be churlish to question why two masks are used, since masks are traditional on Odyssey productions, although in this play particularly there seems no need of them, especially on the two characters who wear them. One would think the masks might be used to help enhance the credibility of the farcical plot at moments when the two young women principals are forced to pretend that they cannot recognize their fiancés when they pop up pretending to be visiting film-makers, while their fiancés are away at war.

If these young men had worn the masks in their assumed roles, it would have added more credibility to the plot: but, what the hell, this could probably be dismissed as an unreasonable quibble. It’s not that the two masked actors, Clost and Kelly Rigole, don’t get comic mileage out of the masks. They do, and I suppose I will be told that I shouldn’t make such rational judgments about such a farcical plot. Okay, I surrender the point.

The third brilliant young newcomer among the cast is Emma Hunter, a young woman who has been playing around Ontario theatres for some time --- with a concentration on Shakespeare. Her exaggerated comic delivery and subtle body language enhanced the script in many places: it is safe to say she has a brilliant future in Canadian theatre.

Not that those named above are alone in the quality of their work. The whole cast is excellent, including he two young men, played by Andy Cockburn and Matt O’Connor, as is the second young woman, played by Charlotte Gowdy.

That Janet Irwin spent 30 years in Canadian theatre, has worked for at least 12 companies,, including several in Ottawa, and has performed as director, dramaturge, playwright and librettist should mean that she is well-known to anyone like myself who tries to keep some sort of touch with popular culture. I have to confess however that I have never heard of her before, which forces me back on to a theme of mine about the somewhat restricted place of theatre in Canadian popular culture. When I arrived back in Canada after spending the 1960s attending and writing about British theatre, one of the first things that struck me was that, whereas in Britain the work of almost any successful playwright becomes part of the political, social and cultural discourse of the country, here in Canada, theatre seemed to exist in some sort of vacuum. There are many playwrights, successful, whose work is played regularly, and yet outside of the relatively narrow focus of the theatrical world, they remain relatively unknown to the Canadian public.

Of course, if I had paid more attention, I would have known about Janet Irwin. That such a playwright in Britain would be better known is a function of the density of population, the density of print and media coverage of popular culture, as much perhaps as of the quality of the British theatre, which is among the finest in the world.

I have to repeat what I say every year: in Odyssey, Ottawa has a theatre troupe of the highest quality that has become an irreplaceable element in our cultural life.

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