SummerWorks Reviews: Miss Caledonia, Iphigenia at Aulis, Or,

There are a number of things I liked about Miss Caledonia. Set in the 1950’s, it’s a play about a young woman who badly wants to get off the family farm and dreams about show business. Melody Johnson, also the playwright, is joined onstage only by fiddler Alison Porter, who provides musical accompaniement while Johnson brings not only her young, naïve lead character Peggy to life, but also her father, mother, pageant judges, other contestants, Bing Crosby, and various other characters too.

Johnson’s skill at acting out all these characters by changing only her voice is certainly the highlight of the show. She’s a talented performer, and the two songs she does – the Crosby tune “Accentuate the Positive” and her talent show rendition of the Hank Snow song “I’ve Been Everywhere,” complete with baton twirling routine – both brought well-deserved rounds of spontaneous applause.

But the story’s pretty trite, and the relationship between young Peggy and her overbearing, all work and no play father that provides the dramatic tension is pretty standard. Occasionally it’s a bit jarring when Johnson skips forward in time in the story, and the voices she uses for some characters sometimes aren’t that distinct.

The live fiddler providing background and sound effects does add something, and the show’s worth seeing just for Johnson’s performance. But the story never really hits above the level of “cute,” and most of the references to 50’s pop culture went right over my head.

As I said in my SummerWorks preview, I wanted Iphigenia at Aulis to be good.

I have a degree in ancient history, you see. I have a book of ancient Greek plays on my bookshelf. I’ve read the Illiad and the Aeneid and Metamorphoses. For fun.

But this…

I hate to admit it, but maybe it really is that the source material  just doesn’t translate well to the modern day. It was written around 406 BC, after all. I mean, the Agamemnon and Menelaus characters (played by Stephen Bogaert and Eric Goulem, respectively) are meant to be very stoic and troubled men, with the fate of many men and women in their hands, but on stage they just come across as wooden, indecisive, and callous. Iphigenia (Eryn Murman) just seems odd, pleading for her life one minute, then gleefully going to her death for the good of Greece the next. Achilles (Stephen Gartner) and Clytemnestra (Sarah Orenstein) come across fairly well, but it’s not the best part for either one; Achilles is mostly a bystander in this play, while Clytemnestra’s job is mostly to weep for her daughter. The “Old Man” (David Fox) doesn’t have a heck of a lot to do after the first two scenes, though Fox does a good job with him. And the occasional intrusion of the chorus (Neema Bickersteth, Bronwyn Caudle, and Sarena Parmar), who stand at different spots around the theatre with little lights above their heads, is just confusing; does the rest of the cast see the chorus or what? Are they residents of Aulis or just some kind of wandering, singing nymphs or something who randomly spout expository information?

It doesn’t help that Iphigenia at Aulis really isn’t Euripides’ best work. But unfortunately, this production is just dull, and really doesn’t have a lot going for it besides the performances of Gartner, Orenstein and Fox.

In Or, meanwhile, a show where the comma is part of the title, befuddling grammar police everywhere, the story is about Aphra Behn, a notable 17th century woman who was, among other things, a playwright and a spy.

The strange part about Or, is the late 1960’s, summer-of-love sexual freedom and women’s lib themes that underly it. On stage, Behn is amorous with several people, both men and women, and it all leads to a lengthy “hiding lovers behind various closed doors” sequence like some kind of Neil Simon-esque late 70’s/early 80’s bedroom farce. It feels weird to come up with an obscure figure like Aphra Behn, then take some pretty big historical liberties by, for instance, making King Charles her secret supporter and lover.

Still, Behn is a pretty interesting figure, one I knew nothing about going into this show, and a cursory look at her history shows that there’s probably more truth than fiction in this play. Plus, Sophie Goulet is great as Behn, and her co-stars Damien Atkins and Melissa Jane Shaw do well in multiple roles, with some better than others. Atkins has the show’s best scene-stealer when he storms in as a female arts patron commissioning one of Behn’s works, who talks for five minutes straight without letting Behn get a word in edgewise, then leaves with a flourish. Shaw also managed to hold things together despite a wardrobe malfunction that required clothespinning as soon as she got off-stage, a pretty admirable feat in my book. If you can get past the free love vibe from the characters in 17th century costume, Or, ends up being a pretty good show.

Posted on by Brian in Everything, Summerworks, Theatre