The venue has moved from Queen Street West to the Distillery District. The bride has chosen pink chiffon instead of lime green for her dress. Early winter has replaced late spring for the ceremony. The groom is still writing NSF cheques. The maid of honour is pregnant. The bridesmaid is more intoxicated with her than ever. The best man sports a slick new designer look. The wedding planner has taken to wearing shiny ruby red shoes. The florist turns up in custom embroidered overalls. The event manager is still waving her unpaid bill. Everyone is on their phone as usual. No one uses a Blackberry anymore. Again the priest never misses a beat.
A second trip to the altar. Another round of chaos.
Six years after first tying the tangled knot, a timeless Susanna and Figaro once again celebrate their big day in a brisk, refreshed production of Against the Grain Theatre’s Figaro’s Wedding, outrageous and vibrant and as sharply observed as the day it premiered. Creator/director Joel Ivany’s trademark no walls staging drops us intimately ringside for a very contemporary, very downtown T.O. retelling of Mozart’s anarchic comedy, The Marriage of Figaro.
Changes to art design and execution are by and large subtle and incremental weighed against original production values. A recently acquired upmarket sheen, much of it attributable to the the production’s elegant Enoch Turner Schoolhouse setting, however, is unquestionably detectable, a deliciously tasteless scene featuring Figaro as naughty Christmas elf notwithstanding. The thickening of dramatic atmosphere as it effects the three central female protagonists, Susanna, Rosina and Cherubino, depicted here as lesbian boarder, is, on the other hand, entirely original to this rendering of Ivany’s reimagined scenario.
The character of Alberto, a predatory Count Almaviva clone, as menacingly sung and acted by baritone Phillip Addis, is a universe removed from Alexander Dobson’s unctuous 2013 pretender. Gone are all the slyness and innuendo and in their place a genuinely sinister depiction of incipient violence and palpable threat. This is a dangerous man, a stalker yet to be publicly outed, skilled in the craft of sexual harassment, a power broker with the ability to coerce victims with ready cash. The medieval notion of droit de seigneur was egregious enough to Beaumarchais and Da Ponte, Figaro’s late 18th century originating author and librettist. The reality of intimidation and exploitation is utterly unacceptable in 2019. Satire can be a cutting weapon and Ivany, like his theatrical predecessors, wields it with a deft hand.
If all is not uproarious hilarity in this notably pointed Figaro’s Wedding, by no means is it all sobriety either. The sheer energy of this production, the mad tumble of events, the breathless drive to the nuptial finish line is as wild and unrestrained as it is life affirming. The cast, it seems, is almost always on the run, scrambling for exits, ducking through doors, entangling themselves among us. One-liners zip by. Jokes crack wide open. Physicality and farce fling the action back and forth from one extreme of shameless behaviour to another. Somewhat feckless grad student Cherubino gulps down a healthy glass of liquid courage before lunging at Rosina, the two locking lips for what feels like all eternity. Susanna launches herself at Figaro, embracing him in a passionate, gravity-defying leg wrap. The Act IV reception is pure bacchanal, wedding party abandoning any faint traces of already meagre pre-existing restraint on the dance floor, audience members joining in. The joy is infectious, the laughter irresistible.
Emotions soar. Then suddenly, often with little warning, reality intervenes. Figaro frets. Susanna worries. Their future together is far less than financially secure. Wedded bliss is not guaranteed. Nerves fray. Spats are inevitable. Rosina looks on helplessly as her marriage to Alberto teeters towards irreconcilable disaster. Angry words fly from all quarters. Tears flow. Make up hugs are huge. Not all live happily ever after surely. Alberto pleas for forgiveness. “Forgive me, Rosina. I’m sorry I wounded, ” Addis sings to Mozart’s exquisite Contessa, perdono! More declaration of surrender than abject apology. Still, as at any good wedding, tissues are best kept handy. And in ready supply.
Singing with great exuberance and abandon, baritone Bruno Roy contributes a model Figaro, warm-hearted, decent, a bit of a bumbler. And thoroughly disarming. Soprano Alexandra Smither is Susanna, her sunny cloudless top and plain spun middle voice striking straight to the centre of our affections in a performance of immense clarity and intuition, high-spirited wit and charm. Launching the evening with Ivany’s sprightly Act I salute to jittery pre-wedding nerves, “I thought we decided to have him sit beside us” (to Se a caso Madama la notte ti chiama), the pair consistently delights, breezily whisking us into their world and holding us there helplessly enchanted.
Cast in the role of Rosina, soprano Miriam Khalil (Susanna in Against the Grain’s first Figaro’s Wedding) gifts the company’s latest production with a deeply moving portrayal of a woman lost in a wilderness of confusion and pain. Wrapping her rich shining instrument in satiny legato, Khalil essentially stops the show with a stunningly soulful rendition of Ivany’s “Where are the promises” (Dove sono), a heartbreaking anthem to vanished love.
Soprano Lauren Eberwein is Cherubino. A bright polished performance, nimble and stylish, sung with glowing expression and splendidly fluid articulation. Voi che sapete (“Thank you for showing what love truly is” in Figaro’s Wedding guise) is given the sweet, gently seductive rendition it amply deserves by a fine rising young singer actor.
Tenor Jacques Arsenault is Basilio, the wedding planner. “I DO impress!” the character’s business card brags. The hyperbole is fully justified on stage — although perhaps not the bad pun so boldly printed on his eagerly distributed hand-out. Mezzo-soprano Maria Soulis is Marcellina the tenacious event manager. And, as chance would have it, Figaro’s vaguely louche long lost mother. Inexhaustible baritone Gregory Finney does hilarious double duty as both Antonio, the florist, and priest Father Bartolo.
A uniformly excellent piano quintet led from the keyboard by music director Rachel Kerr more than ably partners the cast, playing with superb refinement and sparkle, meticulously tracing every swirl and arabesque of Mozart’s gorgeous filigreed score.
There comes a time sooner or later in everyone’s life when the past, wholly or even in minute part, somehow becomes precious. Against the Grain Theatre’s enduring salute to love transcends time. An experience to be cherished, rowdy and rousing, human and humane. Figaro’s Wedding is ageless.
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Above: Alexandra Smither as Susanna, Bruno Roy as Figaro. Photo: Taylor Long