By Joe Szekeres
Last summer, I remember writing how Theatre on the Ridge’s production of ‘Peter Pan’ made me re-think my personal bias of theatre that I thought was only deemed for children. I wasn’t stuck on J. M. Barrie’s classic story, but last summer’s play at Town Hall 1873 made me realize that I needed to re-visit classic favourite stories of children and adults that have been adapted for a live stage production.
Canadian director, writer and artistic director Michael Shamata has adapted Kenneth Grahame’s perennial ‘The Wind in the Willows’ currently on stage at Port Perry’s Town Hall 1873. His adaptation with direction by Barry McCluskey and members of the ‘Wind’ Company is great fun to watch. There are several clever unique elements at work here.
For one, each of the actors plays an animal, but they are dressed as people from the early twentieth century in Victorian England. We meet Rat (Ian Cameron Williams), Badger (Jack Copland) and Mole (Demi-Lee Bainbridge) who tolerate the sometimes-reckless behaviour and antics of their friend Toad (Daniel McCormack). Toad gets himself in trouble with the evil Weasel (Frances Loiselle) who wants to take over Toad Hall. Throughout all this mayhem and mischief, we meet other characters: Otter (Michael Williamson), Skunk (Billy Keefer), Tommy (Barry McCluskey) and others.
A child like Imagination and suspension of disbelief are of extreme importance to watch this production. It is a closed curtain on our entrance but there is a tree trunk stage left. As the curtain opens, aqua blue fabric runs along the stage angled to create the effect of water. I loved the Flintstone looking boat and car (courtesy of Andy Williamson) that were used to transport characters either across the river or down the lane where Toad drives recklessly. Colin Hughes’ lighting nicely illuminates all areas of the playing space. Effective work by Judith Sanders and Sheila Nicholson in costume coordination and design of each unique character. Debbie Beggs’ hair and make up effects smartly delineate each of the characters for us.
A Sears Drama adjudicator once told me years ago that it is difficult for a director of a play also to appear in the production as a cast member. Why? The director must be able to be that third eye component to watch all elements of the production. I would say yes that’s probably true; however, for this ‘Wind’, incorporating a company effort has kept things interesting to watch, to hear and to listen.
Barry McCluskey probably wanted to ensure the show’s pacing clips along and doesn’t drag. I found at this opening night performance it didn’t occur whatsoever. As soon as one actor exited the stage, another appeared immediately or there was an appropriate light and sound cue to move things along. Michael Williamson’s original musical composition evoked for me the kind of lyrics and odes that we could have possibly heard at the turn of the twentieth century.
For a period British play to feel authentic, and which must speak both to child and adult, the actor must have a solid hold not only on character development but also on voice, diction, enunciation, all peppered with a British/European accent. To my ears, I felt as if the cast had sustained believably that British lilt to the ear. To borrow a well-known adage, Demi-Lee Bainbridge is as ‘cute as a button’ as the myopic Mole. There is a gentleman like quality about Ian Cameron Williams’ portrayal of Rat. Whenever I hear the word ‘rat’, I sometimes think of a sleazy like character, but Mr. Williams plays him more than that.
Daniel McCormack is delightful as the self-indulgent, at times boastful Toad. Mr. McCormack’s wide eyes when Toad is in trouble convey so much without saying anything. His escape in front of the closed curtain from Frances Loiselle’s sinisterly melodramatic Weasel reminded me of some great escapes from feature films. A charming Jack Copland as Scottish Badger (in a kilt nonetheless) drew my attention immediately each time he entered the stage. Loved hearing Mr. Copland’s natural sounding accent as it clearly made him distinct from the others. His make up effects from my seat in the house are remarkably define his facial features each time he speaks.
Final Comments: Delightful entertainment for the summer and one to bring children and introduce them to the world of live theatre.
Theatre on the Ridge’s production of ‘The Wind in the Willows’ continues July 16, 18, 20 at 2 pm and July 13 and 19 at 7:30 pm at Town Hall 1873, 302 Queen Street, Port Perry. For online tickets and other information, visit their website. You may also purchase tickets at the door before each performance.