Stephenville Theatre Festival The Longest running professional theatre festival in Newfoundland and Labrador

Stephenville Theatre Festival

Reviews

Shakespeare for the Comedy Channel

A review

By John Hanratty

    It doesn’t start like most plays you’ve seen. And it certainly doesn’t unfold like any play ever written by William Shakespeare.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) is part of the 40th anniversary season of the Stephenville Theatre Festival. This play is funnier than any of the Bard’s comedies. It does deal with Shakespeare’s plays but the writers and actors – and the audience – have a lot of fun with those classics of the theatre.

To parody or make fun of Shakespeare’s plays, you need actors who are adept at delivering the famous speeches and dialogue in a serious fashion – in order to be able to turn around and do them effectively tongue-in-cheek. And STF offers three such performers: Brittany Clough, David DiFrancesco and Andrew Soutter. They connected with the opening night audience quickly and easily, so both cast and audience were able to enjoy the ensuing ride together.

Early on, Andrew started talking to the audience about how boring the background music was, and succeeded in getting it changed. He invited one playgoer up to help him decorate the stage. The fun had begun in earnest.

The pace was fast, and the change of costumes likewise. A lot of the humour was slapstick. The famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet was hilarious. Every once in a while, the actors would move through the audience and engage with them. You never knew what was going to happen next. They took serious plays and treated them like a joke or a comedy sketch. They brought in modern references and events along with local and Canadian references.

It was complete irreverence towards the world’s greatest playwright. They cleverly combined or merged a number of his plays. Living up to the advance billing, they managed to please both Shakespeare lovers and haters.

The cast was acrobatic, musical, energetic, dynamic, wacky and above all, talented.

It seems strange, but the second half of the production concentrated pretty much entirely on Hamlet. One of the highlights was the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy. Brittany rescued this from the gutter so to speak and touched the audience when they weren’t expecting it.

The cast got the whole audience involved in acting out the complex psychology of Ophelia, and of course they made it fun. David and Andrew engaged in a duel with swords, and people were soon dying in large numbers.

Coordinating and keeping some sanity in all of this was director Peyton LeBarr. She utilized the Stage II space at the Stephenville Arts and Culture Centre to maximum effect. The costumes and props matched the zany nature of the production.

If you want a change of pace from the usual iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets, this is the show for you. Shakespeare was never so much fun.

 

Sing us a song, you’re the piano man

A Review

By John Hanratty

    The ever-popular dinner theatre of the Stephenville Theatre Festival (STF) has another hit on its hands.

Piano Man – the Music and Life of Billy Joel is packing them in at Days Inn in Stephenville, and is also playing at three other venues on the west coast this summer. The show could just as well be called The Hitman, since Joel has written so many Top 40 hits and most of them seem to be included in the current STF production.

Instead of having one actor portray Joel, this show has four stellar performers sing a combination of solos, backups, duets and other variations of Joel’s endless body of work. Ann Paula Bautista and Sarah Kennedy are joined by Andrew Perry and Bryden Rutherford. Their singing is strong yet also demonstrates a subtle command or mastery of their material. They more than do justice to Billy Joel’s jewels.

The singers/actors are backed up by a powerful band led by conductor and keyboard player Shane O’Regan. He is joined by Nelson White, Ben Dunphy and Brad Au Coin. The set has a couple of small cafe tables in front of the band who have risen from the pit so we can see as well as listen to their staggeringly impressive talents.

What an evening for singable, hummable, relaxing music. Over an amazing career, Joel has created his own style and sound by borrowing from rock and roll, jazz, blues and other genres. The result is a range of hits that have kept people singing for decade after decade.

He’s written so many wonderful songs that you can even forget some of them until a production like this pulls them together into one collection. “Oh right, I forgot all about this one!” was a common reaction. Still Rock and Roll to Me, Just the Way You Are, She’s Always a Woman, Uptown Girl, Only the Good Die Young, Allentown, and We Didn’t Start the Fire are just a few of those included.

The other great thing about this show is how much it tells you about Billy Joel and how he came to be the institution he is today. Between the songs, the performers provide nuggets of information about Joel’s life and career, explaining what inspired a lot of the songs, touching on the troubles as well as the triumphs of his life.

You might think this show was a big Broadway hit picked up by STF, but you’d be wrong. The lyrics and music are Joel’s of course, but the script for this show is an original one by director Heather Braaten who is also the artistic director of STF. The flow between the dialogue and the songs is superb.

Choreographer Amelia Hironaka works with the limited space available and provides just enough movement or ‘dance’ for the performers to make the effect visually appealing, never static or boring.

Other sites for Piano Man are Pirates Haven in Robinson’s, Hotel Port aux Basques and St. Christopher’s Hotel (also in Port aux Basques).

 

Not Quite the Story You Know So Well

A Review

By John Hanratty

    When you hear that something is ‘entertaining for the whole family’, you probably think ‘oh, it’s for kids only’. But you would definitely be wrong in the case of Red Riding Hood being presented at the 40th anniversary of the Stephenville Theatre Festival, as pointed out by the inimitable festival chair, Don Dunphy.

This is not the traditional story; at least, it is not told in the traditional way. The story has been re-written and reorganized and presented in a way in that’s engaging even to adults who have heard the original tale countless times.

Two sisters are going to bed at their grandmother’s house. The younger one is Stephanie in pigtails (Devin Cecchetto) and Bridgett is the older, more dominant one (Leah McKenney). They aren’t quite ready to go to sleep though. They gradually take us on a journey of imagination, childhood, dressing up and acting, scaring and teasing each other.

The simple-looking set designed by Laird Macdonald isn’t so simple after all. The wardrobe isn’t always a wardrobe. The attractive old wallpaper ends up revealing more than concealing. Costume designer Samantha Rotchford also keeps things straightforward and accessible but achieves a strong impact. So much can be done with even a simple old kerchief.

What a marvellous instrument or avenue this play provides for two highly professional actors to demonstrate their range, their versatility, their chemistry or collaboration. Yet Cecchetto and McKenney still provide pure pleasure for people to enjoy and be thrilled by. The fun the actors have in their roles is contagious and quickly passed on to the audience, young and older.  And they can even switch roles without batting an eye.

Director Heather Braaten wisely chose the right performers for these roles. They both look great as young sisters. They are vivacious and sing well alone and in harmony. They truly light up the stage.

I also like what Head of Properties Stephanie Venerus does with an old bed, attractive afghan, and innocent-looking cane among other items.

There is a delicious sense of anticipation built up as the story unfolds in its unusual way. Director Braaten deserves huge credit for pulling all of this together to achieve the effect she was striving for.

Red Riding Hood is offered regularly in matinees throughout the festival. Playgoers of all ages can be assured of a delightful time in the cozy confines of Stage II at the Stephenville Arts and Culture Centre.

 

They Did Rock Us

A Review

By John Hanratty

It’s a show that lives up to its name – and then some.

We Will Rock You gave a rousing start to the 40th anniversary season of the Stephenville Theatre Festival (STF) on July 13. The show has plenty of hit songs from Queen, one of the most successful rock bands whose star shone brightly in the 1970s, 80s and beyond.

I had assumed that We Will Rock You was basically a tribute show to Queen’s music with a few lines of dialogue as fillers in between. But I was wrong. The songs are tied together with a better than average storyline. The play is set far into the future with a still-relevant theme. Humans have become ‘processed’ like robots and all music and free expression is banned. Computers and the internet rule on ‘iPlanet’. Naturally, though, some non-conformists rebel and stir others with the forbidden pleasures of… old-time rock music.

It sounds as if it could be kind of heavy, but the play is written with a light, deft hand and lots of humour. The young, energetic cast of 15 carry it off with a passion and innocence that connects strongly with the audience. And if you’re expecting just heavy rock, you will be surprised by the number of balladic, tender moments that are woven into the music.

For the STF production, director Heather Braaten assembled a wealth of talent and skilfully blended it into a big show that works extremely well. It was a mammoth task, with many of the cast handling multiple roles, backed by a team of 17 backstage personnel and a polished band of six musicians who are on top of their game, even when they get to deliver a line of dialogue.

It is impossible to do justice in a brief review to a cast of 15. Carrying the heaviest loads were Bryden Rutherford, Sierra Holder, Ann Paula Bautista, Sarah Kennedy, Andrew Perry and David DiFrancesco. Their solos grabbed the audience and didn’t let go. Powerful voices, fine acting, a great comic sense and seemingly effortless dancing. It is a rare and wonderful thing to see so many performers each with such a command of diverse talents. Any slips or glitches were so minor they weren’t noticed or were quickly overwhelmed by the absorbing atmosphere and flow of the show.

The lead actors were ably backed up by the Ga Ga Kids and others who made significant contributions to the overall effect of so many parts of the production. Music director Shane O’Regan and the band provided everything that was needed, and that was plenty indeed.

I was especially impressed by choreographer Amanda Nuttall and her sophisticated design and management of the performers’ dancing. The costumes were also appropriate and well chosen, and the sets fairly simple but effective and clever.

If you find yourself drifting along in a fog of social media malaise and manipulated by corporate algorithms, then do yourself a favour and see We Will Rock You. You will hear a couple of dozen hits by Queen and you will be moved by the spirit of the times.

Special words will soon come drifting into your mind… we are family, some enchanted evening, come together, stop in the name of love, a smooth criminal knockin’ on heaven’s door….

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