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Jane Enkin

Jane Enkin's Review of The National Theatre of the World presented by Winnipeg Jewish Theatre and Sondheimfest

by Jane Enkin, January 31, 2012

Sondheimfest continues through February 3, 2013
Winnipeg Jewish Theatre presents Angels In America: Perestroika May 1-12, 2013

The National Theatre of the World returned to Winnipeg with another run of Impromptu Splendor. The company specializes in improvised plays in the style of well-known playwrights. Their target this time was Stephen Sondheim, honoured in this year's Master Playwright Festival.

Sondheim's style turned out to offer just the right amount of challenge for the troupe. They created, on their feet, an hour-long musical with an appropriately angst-filled plot, angular, edgy music, and plenty of laughs.

Members Ron Pederson, Naomi Snieckus and Matt Baram were joined by guest performer Ashley Botting and flexible, responsive pianist Waylen Miki. They built a complicated plot, based on suggestions from the audience, including the characters Life, Death, and Death's Boss (the tough Naomi Snieckus.) Not a plot that would survive rewrites, most likely, but entertaining and surprisingly coherent.

It's surprising, too, that a brilliant, moving, innovative creator like Sondheim is so easy to lampoon, but the actors spent lots of time researching, listening to the Sondheim repertoire, and improvising in workshops.

And they are, truly, actors. They earned their laughs by entering deeply into characters, instantly created, who were funny because they took themselves and each other very, very seriously. These were complex characters with conflicting motivations and drives and strong emotional lives. Their internal conflicts provided good material for convincing Sondheim monologue songs.

In addition to acting well, like all good improvisors they excel at interaction. Matt Baram, as a bartender, sang some shopworn advice to “just breathe”. Ron Pederson, as a panicked expectant father, responded by hyperventilating lyrics at break-neck speed.

My children, both students of improv, were impressed that the company dropped so few threads in the crazy plot. The advice to “just breathe”was echoed in song 40 minutes later, when the expectant father finally felt some freedom (celebrating that his high-risk, high-maintenance pregnant wife had walked out.)

The cast even managed some wordplay worthy of Sondheim. Before the play began, they asked the audience how Winnipegers cope with the cold. They get away, they were told, anywhere but here.

Anywhere But Here was chosen as the title of the play, and it usually referred to the need to get out of Winnipeg. But when Death urged Ashley Botting's self-destructive pregnant character to get out of town, she wistfully sang “ I don't know myself anywhere but here.” And at the end of the show, when she accepted Life, he told her, “When I am near, you won't want to be anywhere but here.”

Let's hope the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre brings the National Theatre of the World here again, next year.

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