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Theatre review: The Red Priest in Gananoque

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The Firehall Theatre at the 1000 Islands Playhouse has opened its fourth season with The Red Priest. It runs through June 30. Resident theatre critic Connie Meng was at the opening and has this review.

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Connie Meng
Theatre Critic

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The award-winning drama THE RED PRIEST (Eight Ways to Say Goodbye) by Mieko Ouchi is set in Paris in 1740 and takes place in a formal French garden.  The story involves a French Countess trapped in a loveless marriage and the composer Vivaldi, known as the Red Priest because of his flaming red hair.  At this point in his life he is facing poverty and the end of his career. 

He has been hired to tutor her on the violin as part of a cruel bet between her much older husband and the King.  Through this imagined encounter the playwright explores ideas of artistic integrity, domestic duty and the restrictions of the rigid court society of which they're both a part.

The characters of Vivaldi and The Woman are introduced in a series of short monologues.  As their relationship deepens, they begin to break through the artificiality to true communication.  The Woman explains that her garden is ". . . the skeleton that holds me up some days.  I depend on its predictable regularity."  This inspires Vivaldi to think, "If I can make her love the violin the way she has made me see a garden, is not that a kind of salvation?"

Director Kathryn Mackay has staged the play in the round, and Robin Fisher's set consists of a square platform painted to resemble a formal garden.  There are circular steps down to the center where a small fountain bubbles.  I'm mystified as to how, in the final scene, leaves drift down one at a time from the branches overhead - theatre magic.  Miss Fisher's costumes are sumptuously elegant and colorful, and Tim Fort has done a nice job with the lighting, especially in the final scene.

Sandy Thorburn has done a fine job with the music selections.  They're pre-recorded with Mr. Thorburn on harpsichord and Lisa Draper on violin, and never interfere with the dialogue.  As a matter of fact one of my companions, a Vivaldi fan, remarked that the dialogue interfered with the music.

Unfortunately Jody Stevens gives a weak and overly careful performance as The Woman and much of the time she is difficult to hear.  She seems hamstrung by the formality of the period and never gets beyond the mannered surface to the humanity beneath.  As a result Shane Carty in a more solid performance as Vivaldi has little to play against in their scenes together.  He's much stronger in his monologues.

Director Mackay has used choreographer Karen Chorney to assist in staging the piece.  The dance-like formality of the movement, although I understand the reasoning behind it, drains much of the humanity from the play.  Obviously Miss Mackay cares a great deal about THE RED PRIEST, but in her caring she's come up with a production that in the main seems to walk on eggs.  With the exception of some of Mr. Carty's moments, we never get to the guts of the characters or the play.

On a scale of one to five the Firehall production at the 1000 Islands Playhouse of THE RED PRIEST gets three and a half dalmations.  For North Country Public Radio I'm Connie Meng.

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