Thursday, August 2, 2018

Paradise Lost at the Stratford Festival

We went yesterday afternoon (Wednesday August 1st, 2018) to see Paradise Lost in the Studio Theatre at the Stratford (Ontario) Festival. The Studio Theatre is at the back of the Avon on Waterloo St. and seats about 260. It has a small thrust stage and the seating is as steeply raked as were the seats in the Patterson Theatre which is now closed and will be rebuilt.

This is not Paradise Lost, the long 17th Century epic poem by John Milton, rather a reworking of elements of that story in modern form by acclaimed Canadian playwright Erin Shields. Another of her plays, If We Were Birds, won the 2011 Governor-General’s Award for English drama.

Lucy Peacock, photo: Clay Stang

The principal actors play individual parts including Eve, Adam, God the Father, God the Son and Satan. The other seven in this cast of twelve each play two parts, one in Heaven and the other in Hell. The story is that of Satan, in the form of a serpent, persuading Eve to break God’s one rule, that she not eat the fruit of a particular tree. Eve convinces Adam to do it as well and then the two of them are expelled from The Garden (paradise) to live in suffering until they die.

This is a story told out of time. God the Father admits knowing what is (or was) going to happen but is unwilling or unable to intervene because he granted humans Free Will. The text is full of references to contemporary issues. Satan is well versed in what is happening in the audience’s present including issues like climate change and the building of pipelines and speaks directly to the audience in several monologues.

Shields manages to work a surprising amount of humour into a story which is both serious and metaphysical. In this matinée performance (also the première), attended by an overwhelmingly geriatric audience, there was some forced laughter each time an actor said something vaguely funny. This, mercifully, stopped after a few minutes. There was lots of laughter later however in response to genuinely funny bits and lines.

The angels put on a play, reminiscent of the Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to remind Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. It is, like Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play, intentionally inept but it seems out of place in Paradise Lost.

Juan Chioran, in the role of God the Father, gave a controlled depiction of Shields’ character. He’s not on stage much and one has the impression Shields wrote the role largely as a contrast to Satan.

Gordon S. Miller was God the Son. Again, he gave a restrained portrayal, even when he is persuading his father to allow him to become human and die horribly in order to redeem humanity.

Eve (Amelia Sargisson) and Adam (Qasim Khan) were delightful with many humourous bits to play as well as touching ones. They played Shield’s scene in which they transform from innocent stereotypes to complex modern people beautifully.

Among the smaller parts, Sarah Todd, as Satan’s sort-of daughter Sin, was a standout with some of the most hilarious lines in the show.

Finally, Lucy Peacock carried the show as Satan. Shields wrote this as the central part in the drama and Peacock ran with it. Her monologues were engaging and her interactions with the various other players always convincing. We’d seen her a couple of weeks ago in Coriolanus and she owned the stage there, too. Here performance is the best reason to attend this play.

For all that, I wasn’t blown away by the play itself, although it’s hard to fault the production. Shields puts a balanced feminist spin on the story as one would expect from a contemporary woman playwright. I’m well aware of these issues and of other contemporary ones that she mentions and the play didn’t deepen my understanding of them. Frankly, I don’t go to the theatre to be educated, however cleverly, rather to be entertained and, by that metre stick, this one is good rather than great.

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