Magic at Theatre Kingston

Clay Travis (right, played by Steve Schadinger) is a promising young actor in Theatre Kingston’s Rough Magic.
Clay Travis (right, played by Steve Schadinger) is a promising young actor in Theatre Kingston’s Rough Magic.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of Tim Fort
Impressive energy fortifies performances in Rough Magic.
Impressive energy fortifies performances in Rough Magic.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of Tim Fort

In 1952, a young Marlon Brando met Sir John Gielgud on the set of the MGM production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Despite the two actors’ conflicting styles and Brando’s rising fame and rebellious reputation, Brando requested that Gielgud help him with his delivery of Shakespearean text and—much to Gielgud’s surprise—took all of Gielgud’s advice to heart, delivering the lines exactly as he had suggested.

The scenario was the inspiration for John Lazarus’ comedy Rough Magic, directed by Craig Walker and being performed by Theatre Kingston at the Wellington St. Theatre until Feb. 18. Fortunately, in Lazarus’ script, the meeting of the two iconic actors is not quite as easygoing.

The play takes place in the living room and kitchen of a tropical beach house occupied by renowned Shakespearean actor Sir Vivian Soames (Hugo Dann)—known to his friends as “Sir Viv”—and his long-time lover Albert (Grahame Renyk). Initially, the play is centred around the droll conversations between Albert and Sir Viv about various mundane topics. The domestic setting and emphasis on witty dialogue give the impression that Rough Magic will simply be a comedy of manners about these two men—which, given the self-consciously theatrical way Sir Viv speaks, and Albert’s deadpan responses, would be quite amusing in itself. However, once Sir Viv brings up his latest project, a film version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the plot thickens.

In addition to starring in the film as Prospero, Sir Viv has a great deal of money invested in it. Unfortunately, things are not going very well with the handsome young American actor playing Caliban, Clay Travis (Steve Schadinger). Travis is a gifted physical performer but untrained in Shakespearean acting. Sir Viv is contemplating firing the young man.

The turning point in the play takes place when Travis—with his girlfriend, Lola (Emma Hunter)—storms into Sir Viv’s home with a baseball bat, furious about the rumours of his potential firing. Sir Viv mollifies Travis by making an agreement with him: Travis may keep his job if he accepts Sir Viv’s coaching in reciting Shakespearean dialogue. After this point in the play, the staging makes excellent use of a two-tiered set, consisting of a living room on the lower level and a kitchen on the upper level. The focus of the play shifts between each level, which rarely contains more than two characters at one time. The set design, by Ryan Howard Clement, keeps the Wellington Theatre’s small stage from becoming too crowded with four actors on stage at all times.

It also allows us to witness how the different characters interact in different combinations, which helps to keep the audience interested.

The audience is given insight into the intimate workings of the characters’ established relationships as well as allowed to watch the development of some important new ones.

Finally, the separation of the set into two isolated rooms allows the characters to reveal things in conversation that they never would were their respective significant others in the room.

It’s possible that the seemingly dull subject matter of the play may keep some viewers away—after all, the domestic lives of gay Shakespearean actors does not, at first, strike most people as exciting viewing. However, these fears are quickly forgotten as one is caught up in the impressive energy of the actors.

Dann, a veteran of the Shaw Festival, carries the play with his impressive voice and over-the-top performance as the aging Sir Viv. Renyk plays Albert as the straight man to Sir Viv’s grandiose actor, and the two have excellent chemistry and comic timing together.

As Clay Travis, Schadinger is able to bring the right combination of anger and naivety—and it certainly helps that he bears some resemblance to the young Brando on whom his character is based.

But perhaps the most endearing performance is that of Emma Hunter as Clay’s mistreated girlfriend. As the only female in the play, Lola could have been written as a generic “girlfriend” character; however, Lazarus’ script makes Lola the heart of the play and Hunter’s performance lives up to the material.

Lola is an insecure aspiring actress whose ditzy demeanor gives those she meets the impression that she may be a bimbo, but who turns out to be the most intelligent and sensible person in the play.

Additionally, Lola’s nervous chattering gained her the loudest and most frequent laughs of the night.

Underneath the witty dialogue, Rough Magic is about people who constantly feel the need to be playing a role. This theme is explored in many levels. Sir Viv and Clay play roles not only on screen, but also in real life: Sir Viv because of his sexuality, Clay because of his need to live up to the expectations placed on one who is deemed the spokesperson of his generation.

Albert and Lola also play roles in their relationships with their respective boyfriends, trying to do what’s expected of them and, in the process, missing out on living their own lives.

As these roles begin to collapse throughout the course of the play, tensions increase, and the characters realize that perhaps things do not end so neatly in real life as they do on the stage and screen.

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