Off-Broadway Review: “Of Human Bondage”

Off-Broadway Review: “Of Human Bondage”

David Roberts

  • OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic

Soulpepper Theatre Company brings its Toronto production of “Of Human Bondage” to the Soulpepper on 42nd Festival. Vern Thiessen adapted W. Somerset Maugham’s novel for the stage – the first stage adaptation of the iconic novel. Soulpepper is to be commended for taking on this formidable challenge. The results are both blazoned with success and tempered by the temptation of pretense and over-production.

First, the areas of success. Vern Thiessen has created a splendid retelling of Maugham’s novel. Even the audience member who never read the novel or viewed the film adaptations can easily comprehend the tragic story of Philip Carey – and Everyman – caught in the dragnets of self-doubt, unbridled passion, and debilitating fear. Philip’s struggle with balancing medical school with his friends from his “art days” and with the women who find him or whom he finds attractive is clear. Maugham’s words matter and Mr. Thiessen has made sure they continue to matter in this retelling of the novel for the stage.

What falls short is the staging itself. Director Albert Schultz has assembled a talented cast and creative team; however, some of his choices seem to detract from the action of the play and its dramatic arc, focusing more on “conventions” than concrete storytelling. Also falling short are some of the performances. The cast delivers unevenly and does not fully form the important connections between characters needed for the delivery of believable and authentic performances. There is no chemistry between the play’s main characters Philip (Gregory Prest) and his romantic nemesis Mildred Rogers (Michelle Monteith). What should be a sizzling cat-and-mouse game between the two is nothing more than a simpering series of bickering banters.

In Albert Schultz’s “Artist Note,” he describes the two aesthetic challenges Soulpepper’s designers created for themselves when bringing “this massive work to life.” The sixteen-foot, blood-red square at the center of the stage is Philip Carey’s “cage” – the actor can never leave it. In addition, any sounds must be made by the other actors on stage. Neither of these mandates seem necessary and, indeed, might place constraints on the production that are counterproductive. Philip Carey’s “bondage” is spiritual and psychological – there is no need for a staging convention to confirm that. Most of the sounds created by the onstage actors are unnecessary and add nothing to the performances. Some, like the multi-bowed bass (doubling for a cadaver) at the opening of the play, seem pretentious.

Mr. Prest’s confinement to the “red square” and the director’s choice to over-emphasize his physical challenge detracts from the actor’s ability to engage himself in his important role as protagonist. A subtler convention to indicate Philip’s clubfoot would have sufficed. Also, there is no need to make the actor remain lying on the stage during the entire twenty-minute interval to emphasize his entrapment.

Holding empty picture frames or sitting in them to “create” Philip’s works of art creates interest the first time the convention is introduced – as does the clinking of teacups to simulate a “full” teahouse. However, after the third or fourth occurrence of the conventions, the audience begins to yearn for silence in order to focus on the craft of the actors on stage despite all the busy-work swirling around them. W. Somerset Maugham’s words – words matter – and Vern Thiessen’s solid adaptation are both able to stand on their own and provide all the essential tools necessary for actors to grab onto and bring the script to vibrant life.

In short, choices made by the creative team inadvertently collude to lessen the potential power of this staging of “Of Human Bondage.” What is needed moving forward is a reevaluation of the staging and judicious re-casting of roles that burden the strength of the ensemble.

 

OF HUMAN BONDAGE

The cast of “Of Human Bondage” includes Oliver Dennis, Raquel Duffy, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis, Richard Lam, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Jeff Lillico, Michelle Monteith, Gregory Prest, Paolo Santalucia, Brendan Wall, and Sarah Wilson.

The creative team includes Lorenzo Savoini (set and lighting design), Erika Connor (costume design), and Mike Ross (sound design and composer). Robert Harding serves as production stage manager. Production photos by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Performances of the Soulpepper Theatre Comapany’s “Of Human Bondage” run through Wednesday July 26 at the Pershing Square Signature Center’s Irene Diamond Stage (480 West 42nd Street) as part of the Soulpepper on 42nd Festival. For the schedule of performances and to purchase tickets, please visit https://www.soulpepper.ca/performances/of-human-bondage/3278. Running time is 2 hours and 45 minutes including one 20-minute intermission.

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