Review: ‘Glenn’

The major and most controversial production at this year's Avignon theater festival (40 mainline shows, some 550 fringe events) was Shakespeare's "Henry V, " in a recent and excellent translation by Jean-Michel Deprats.


Drama; Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theater; 496 Seats; C$ 64 ($ 44) Top


A Stratford Festival presentation of a play in two acts by David Young. Directed by Richard Rose.


Set, lighting, Graeme S. Thomson; costumes, Charlotte Dean; sound, Todd Charlton; choreography, Susan McKenzie; music consultant, Don Horsburgh. Opened and reviewed June 22, 1999. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.


The Prodigy ..... Paul Dunn The Performer ..... Duncan Ollerenshaw The Perfectionist ..... Rod Beattie The Puritan ..... Richard McMillan In its debut this season at the Stratford Festival, the 1992 Canadian play "Glenn" wins no awards for easy viewing, but it does score high in ambition, vision and intellectual muscle. David Young's play is not a linear biography: It does not detail its subject in a clear voice laced by the author's observations and insights. This is partially due to the density of the play's unique structure, and partially due to the eccentric, mysterious nature of the play's subject, celebrated pianist Glenn Gould. Director Richard Rose does not make the material any easier. His staging on the long Tom Patterson thrust provides an overriding sense of gloom, a muted prism helped by Graeme S. Thomson's dimpled lighting design that suggests the great pianist's loathing of sunlight, and a heaviness lifted by the most exquisite music. Often, as if to focus the audience inward on each note, that music comes to us through the darkness of a blacked-out stage. Young's story is backgrounded by Bach's "Goldberg Variations," which served as bookends for Gould's career. As more than one critic has suggested, listening to both is a journey through maturation into the discovery of blissful perfection. Written as a quartet, "Glenn" uses four actors to play Gould at various stages of his career. "The Puritan," looking back over his life, sets off a chain of memories involving "The Perfectionist," who searches for absolute clarity through the marriage of technology and art; "The Performer," who loathes audience expectations; and "The Prodigy." There is theatrical magic in the marriage of these four, as they weave their way through each segment, often playing multiple characters. But they also spend much of the time in solo abstract musings, often tortured and twisted by the many fears that crippled Gould as a person even as he infused his music with astounding humanity. A rich vein of material derived from Gould's own eccentricities, helps --- and is exploited --- in Rose's production. The artist's hypochondria results in a hilarious sequence with two of the Goulds popping pills together and listing their side effects. But, even this hypochondria --- his refusal to shake hands lest he pick up bacteria, and his wearing a coat, hat and scarf in hot weather to ward off a chill --- lends only occasional character color. There is no getting around the insurmountable barrier of a text that is philosophically --- rather than character --- driven, leaving audiences trying to build a coherent picture out of a fragmented landscape. The performers achieve various levels of success, with Richard McMillan's "Puritan" and Paul Dunn's "Prodigy" the most satisfying. But it's not always enough to steer a direct course through the headiness of Young's writing. A line in the play identifies Canadians as "... a nation of evaluators rather than doers." That accusation of passivity over action serves also to describe a script that ultimately lives more in the brain than on the stage, despite the inherent drama of its subject.
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