Having made a huge splash last summer as Canada’ newest, classically oriented repertory company, Soulpepper is determined to do the same this year. Under the expert tutelage of director Laszlo Marton, the troupe has started out strong mounting an impeccably tasteful and delicately performed version of the “The Play’s the Thing,” a 1926 Hungarian satire by Ferenc Molnar.
In fact, it’s so crisp and clean that what emerged on opening night was a technically masterful production still struggling for a personality.
It made for fascinating viewing. Perhaps seeing the educational component onstage shouldn’t come as a surprise: Soulpepper is intent on providing Toronto with well-trained actors who can tackle the classics (contemporary and otherwise), and the dual mandate of teaching and performing seems to have slipped into this carefully crafted season opener, giving the viewer a feeling of being let in on a final rehearsal.
Nonetheless, experiencing the intelligent reading of the deceptive text was enjoyable and rewarding; the seemingly slim romance about love gone wrong and righted actually probes into the relationship between reality and fantasy in quite a revolutionary fashion for its time. Twists and turns provide lots of good laughs as well as making difficult demands on the actors.
And the P.G. Wodehouse adaptation adds a fluidity to the humor and the language that is ably adopted by the cast.
Central to the story is Diego Matamoros as Turai, the playwright who through a creative use of his art solves the lovers’ dilemma.
Matamoros is a fine, under-used performer who is also the head of training for Soulpepper. Here he demonstrates the ability to draw audiences into his world with charismatic ease.
There’s a jewel of a performance in Michael Hanrahan’s Dwornitschek, the butler who loves being asked questions about himself, sees making breakfast for his boss’ guests as a labor of love and feels it necessary to remark on the health of those he serves. Hanrahan is brilliantly understated and yet delivers his lines with confidence and finesse, intuitively drawing laughs in all the right places.
All seven actors have their moment of glory in Marton’s egalitarian production, but the really interesting question goes beyond how individuals fare in this show; it’s in how Soulpepper, with roots in Robin Phillips’ Young Co. at Stratford in the ’70s, stacks up against the nearby competition of the Shaw and Stratford festivals.
Last season the successful rendering of Schiller’s “Don Carlos” and Moliere’s “The Misanthrope” made it clear that here is a company to be reckoned with.
This first production of the summer season, with three to come (including a new adaptation of Chekhov’s “Platonov”), bears out those first impressions. Where there is good technique, vision, talent and the right kind of intuition, the rest will follow.