Friday, May 11, 2012

Review: (Calgary) Sweeney Todd

(photo via Twitter by Benjamin Laird)

Ordeal Poison
You shed your complexes and beg to die…Musically!
by Ryan Hurl
Trial by Ordeal Poison- where a person is forced to shed their complexes or beg to die. Happy stuff. Some cultures, such as the Efik Uburutu people of Nigeria, administer the poisonous calabar bean, known as “Esere” in an attempt to detect guilt. A defendant who vomits up the bean is innocent. A defendant who becomes ill or dies is considered guilty. The epic tale of “Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, is certainly a trial by ordeal, the bean that awakens our own sensibilities. For the audience that attends the tale of Sweeney, the ordeal poison courses through the jugular and emerges like a geyser.  
This is mostly because Steven Sondheim is a genius. A sensitive intuitive word wizard who spins fairy tale adventures that are the real-estate of the soul. What Sondheim knows, is evident in Sweeney; judgment and redemption are often his favored playground.
It can not be resisted. All will resolve. 

The impetus to condemn others for acts we are in fact capable of ourselves is Sondheim's  sculpting clay. The fact that most are unconscious of their dark side, which often gets projected outward, creates his potent satire. Redemption songs are always the most dangerous. For the characters of Fleet Street, the stakes are high, as the quest to obtain past moments becomes futile. Someone else is always slashing away the bliss, - shaved - only to grow back, like the root of a hair that never really left.  Oh the frustration of being a pack animal!
And those who metaphorically stand in our way? The acts of dismissal we suffer become the lion's roar in our hearts, making a simple barber into a predator, and giving a failed business a revival - founded on apathetic selective vision - that special ingredient: the fact that even love is selfish. 
What Sondheim creates in his characters are morose archetypal renderings of the hierarchy of society. Sondheim consistently demonstrates that we change the power dynamics of our lives, and feed political contention with human emotional outbursts that blindly seek, while attempting to maintain static action where a perfect moment is frozen, typically leading to catastrophic tragedy. The characters work like this: “Darkness is not in me, so I am justified” And so these characters' attitudes and ambitions burn whole cities to the ground.  
Sweeney condemns and rages against himself, having never met the lowly within.  In truth, a conflict between an absolute good and an absolute evil cannot be reduced. Our rage against evil things that occur in this world, must not overstep itself, if we require a justification for our rage, a fundamental and metaphysical division between good and evil, we have an insane schizophrenic universe. And a brilliant macabre piece of theatre. 
All opposition has a resolution in a unity. Sondheim illustrates, as slashed necks and meat pies become filled with the liquid grace of the ones we love. It cannot be resisted. All will resolve.  
It requires actors who can enter the heightened neurosis, yet remain equanimous and centered, allowing the storm to wash over them... Microphones help. 

Vertigo's production of the Barber of Fleet Street is a risky undertaking. This show is practically biblical.  The word puzzles of Sondheim, could use proper sound support in this production, as the labyrinth of poetry often skips off into the wings, and actors' voices seem dangerously pushed to the outer limits. 
The sheer volume of the intrinsic detail of this show demands intense nurturing for the brave souls that chose to embody these epic characters. Invoking Sondheim's melodies in this instance involves flirting with a force that can burn, or look like effortless fire walking. It requires actors who can enter the heightened neurosis, yet remain equanimous and centered, allowing the storm to wash over them... Microphones help. 
The Company have moments where the glory transpires, but bulky staging and the choice to adopt Brechtian positioning of actors in the wings sometimes kills the deadly rhythm of an unforgiving shadow dance. This show requires the same fast pace that lives in the lyrics to exist in the transitions, and can be encumbered by temptation to fill the stage with too many toys and literal flag posts. Don’t compete with the monster! It knows where we live! The actors have enough competition when an orchestra is floating somewhere in the sky, making it a challenge to belt verbal incantations that at times become a little flat. The show must act like it doesn’t know that it’s crazy! That is the charm! That is the trick! It will make the audience sick! Or it should... 
Vertigo's production has its moments of staying in command of the juggernaut, and when this happens, it is poetry in motion! It is epic, humorous, and true. But Sweeney does have the ability to become an actor’s nightmare. Hopefully Vertigo will find their stride, and utilize the opportunity to mock the dark side, providing its audience a trial by Ordeal poison, rather than poisoning a company with fatigue, vocal fry and general chaos.  One thing is true about Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It’s dangerous. And cannibalistic. It will eat its own. 
But this is one of the main reasons the show is so alluring and engaging to experience.  So cut to the chase and make haste. Sweeney Kills nightly!

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