Review: 'Picture This' and 'Waiting for Godot at Soulpepper Theatre

Review: 'Picture This' and 'Waiting for Godot at Soulpepper Theatre

Joseph Szekeres

Two back to back warm late summer evenings in Toronto’s Distillery District and Soulpepper Theatre equal an exhilarating theatrical perspective, especially if a friend accompanies you who also has an interest in the arts community. There’s a Facebook post going around supposedly from Kurt Vonnegut about the value of the arts.  I have no clue as to its authenticity, but one line from this post is worth mention - “The arts are a very human way of making life more bearable.”

Soulpepper continues to enrich its audiences’ lives through the performing arts especially with their two opening plays this 2017-2018 season: PICTURE THIS by Morris Panych and Brenda Robins AND WAITING FOR GODOT by Samuel Beckett.  I decided to complete one commentary on both productions as there is a similar underlying theme. What happens if we wait for something to happen, and what happens when or if it comes around?

According to the Programme Notes, PICTURE THIS is the story of a local producer Romberg (Jordan Pettle) who has a proposal for big time Hollywood director Red (Cliff Saunders) now staying at a ritzy Budapest hotel.  The terms of the proposal are to make the next epic silent picture about Napoleon, Josephine and the Battle of Waterloo with a cast of thousands in a span of two weeks. No one in this story is prepared to let this golden opportunity get away, and there is a plethora of individuals drunk on hope and who wait for the eventual film to be made while attempting to get noticed by any means possible to be in this picture. Samuel Beckett’s classic WAITING FOR GODOT, according to the Programme Notes, might appear simple as Estragon and Vladimir simply await the arrival of Godot, but this play of layers upon layers upon layers of meaning has tapped into some part of the unconscious of our culture.

When we enter the world of PICTURE THIS, we are transported immediately to Ken MacDonald’s exquisitely rich set design of art nouveau décor of 1920s Hungary. Thomas Ryder Payne’s soundscape of Roaring Twenties music lovingly beckons us to an era of intrigue, style and glamour. With Morris Panych at the helm as director, I felt the wait was worth it even though there are a few hiccups in Act One of Panych’s and actor Brenda Robins’ script.

 It is wonderful to watch the physicality of the comedy with top notch Soulpepper performers and to hear the hysterical nuances in the dialogue, but too much happens too quickly in the first act.  Focus is established on a moment, and yet quick comic bits pull our attention away because we don’t want to miss what’s happened.  Add to this a character in the second act whom I didn’t even remember seeing in the first half through all the ‘busyness’ and we begin to feel something is missing. This second act character does make sense, but a connection and link are sorely needed to avoid confusion.

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A recent Entertainment headline stated that PICTURE THIS is spoiled by Act 2, and I must disagree as the second half provides more suitable moments where we can focus our attention.  The same article refers to sticking around through the final credits. Make sure you do because the story is wrapped up nicely.

I did not read Beckett’s GODOT, and now I wish I had taken the opportunity. This is a play that is worth re-examining again and again.  I still have questions and ideas about this classic work and I know that I will want to see future productions.

Director Daniel Brooks cleverly makes us wait and wait and wait for Godot along with Vladimir and Estragon (exceptionally impressive performances by Diego Matamoros and Oliver Dennis).  Much like the tranquility of the azure blue colour of the hotel lobby in PICTURE THIS, make sure you admire the richness of the red curtains in the theatre prior to the opening.  This richness keeps us focused as we wait and wait and wait to enter Beckett’s world as it is one already seeped into the soul of actors, playwrights and theatre goers. Lorenzo Savoini’s stark set design combined with Richard Feren’s omnipresent, gentle howling wind makes us wonder if we can endure this waiting for Godot. But we do wait, and wait, and wait amidst what critic John Lahr called ‘militant incomprehension’ about the play.

While we appreciate and admire the comedic and farcical interwoven elements of PICTURE THIS and the unexpected humour in WAITING FOR GODOT, it is the witnessing of the paradox of the human condition in the latter production which hauntingly remains with us long after the curtain closes. Rick Roberts (whose portrayal of Pozzo is eerily memorable) tell us in the Programme Notes that “[Beckett’s] world is strange and seemingly so distant from our own, yet it is extraordinarily personal.” We laugh in PICTURE THIS because as Brenda Robins writes in her Artist Note, “a group of people have made an implicit pact to share an experience – hopefully, some laughs…and possibly, a few burned calories.” and with this thought in mind, we are not disappointed at all as there are pratfalls and superb comic timing. In WAITING FOR GODOT, Mr. Roberts tell us “the play will make us laugh from some unfamiliar place.  It is a comedy with a tragic core.”  Like Vladimir and Estragon, we wait and yearn for those moments for enlightenment and discussion long after we leave the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

Performance dates of PICTURE THIS are September 23, 26-30 inclusive, October 2-5 inclusive at 7:30 pm with matinees September 23, 27, October 4 and 7 at 1:30 pm.  Performance dates of WAITING FOR GODOT are September 22, 23, 25-30 inclusive, October 3-6 inclusive and October 10 at 8 pm with matinees September 23, 27, 30, October 4 and 7 at 2 pm. All performances play at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto’s historic Distillery District, 50 Tank House Lane. Tickets may be purchased at the Theatre Box Office or visit www.soulpepper.ca

The cast of PICTURE THIS: Carlos Albornoz, Frank Cox O’Connell, Craig Henry, Michelle Monteith, Nancy Palk, Robert Persichini, Jordan Pettle, Gregory Prest, Brenda Robins, Brigitte Robinson, Paolo Santalucia, Cliff Saunders, David Storch, Jeff Yung, Joseph Zita.

The cast of WAITING FOR GODOT: Oliver Dennis, Diego Matamoros, Alex McCooeye, Richie Lawrence, Rick Roberts.

Photos courtesy of Cylla von Tiedemann.

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