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A CurtainUp Review

The Swanne: Princess Charlotte (The Acts of Venus)
By Rob Ormsby

With a sweeping story line, spectacular acting and scenography, and masterful direction by its playwright, Peter Hinton, The Swanne: Princess Charlotte (The Acts of Venus) captivating theatre. The play, the second in a trilogy, turns out to be the work of a young fictionalised Queen Victoria (Julie Teppermann). She learns that Princess Charlotte, daughter of George IV, had an illegitimate black child, and the teenage monarch imagines a history for the boy, William (Seun Olangunju), and another for the white baby Jeremy, who was purchased to cover up the affair.

As the parenthetical subtitle suggests, the drama revolves around love, and we get plenty of star-crossed matches. At court, Julia Donovan and Dion Johnstone render a compelling image of the deep but impossible love between Charlotte and her black valet Mr. Stowe. Charlotte, furthermore, is in a loveless marriage to Prince Leopold of Coburg (Sean Arbuckle), who is in love with his companion Baron Stockmar (Steve Cumyn), a passion which takes shape in various beautiful duets the two sing in German.

Less royal, but no less touching portraits of love are offered by the romances Jeremy's mother Jaquenetta (Jane Spidell) has with both the actor-cum-political reformer, Fred Dobing (John Dolan), and St. John Voranguish, "whoremaster to the Royal House" (Scott Wentworth). This is to say nothing of the surprising tenderness that Cumyn and Arbuckle achieve by doubling as the transvestite prostitute -- Queer Rue and his "sweetie", Alured Popple.

The action is presided over by Margot Dionne's wild Venus (her blond curls standing on end like electrified sea-foam), who is dismayed at the misery her son Cupid has wrought on earth. This emblematic figure, however, must compete with another, the Scarecrow (played with fierce conviction by Diane D'Aquila), an actress who was burned and blinded by the footlights while playing that famously doomed lover, Phèdre.

This summary leaves out the numerous sub-plots. These play like a cross between Oliver Twist and War and Peace, teeming as they do with political and sexual intrigue, melodramatic plot contortions, and dozens of underworld characters that include the fugitive adolescent William, whores, soldiers, the corrupt moral crusader Reverend Shuddas (Walter Borden), a terrorist cell, the horrific orphan trader Dud Grudge (Rami Posner), the House of Lords, and an entire theatre company.

The design and staging is as superb as the writing and acting. Todd Charlton provides a fine soundscape that runs the gamut from tolling bells to piano music, to crowd scenes to booming guns. Robert Thomson's veritable blitzkrieg of a lighting design along with stupendous work from the costume, makeup, and wig departments (to whom half a page of credits is devoted), accomplishes a vast array of mood and tone in the Studio Theatre's close quarters. Thomson's lighting also allows the director to carry off an inspired and audacious mise-en-scène. Hinton, for instance, boldly runs one scene into the next with scarcely enough time between blackout and the next lighting cue for the actors to strike very full sets of props (kudos to the heroic stage management led by Michael Hart).

This brazenly theatrical drama, which has taken years to develop, is easily one of the best things to have come out of Stratford in some time. Only a place like the Festival could afford-both financially and artistically-to take a risk on such a complicated work that requires so many actors (twenty-two) and crew members in so small a space, and it is heartening to see the dedication the management has given it.

For links to other Stratford Festival reviews see our Stratford Festival Page

The Swanne: Princess Charlotte (The Acts of Venus)
Written and Directed By Peter Hinton

Cast: Julie Teppermann, Julia Donovan, Dion Johnstone, Sean Arbuckle, Steve Cumyn, Scott Wentworth, Jane Spidell, Ian White, Walter Borden, Margot Dionne, Maria Vacratsis, Sara Topham, Karen Robinson, Jeffrey Wetsch, Randi Helmers, Seun Olagunju, Ron Kennell, John Dolan, Rami Posner, Sarah Dodd, Diane D'Aquila, William Needles
Set Design: Eo Sharp
Costume Design: Carolyn M. Smith
Lighting Design: Robert Thomson
Sound Design: Todd Charlton
Running Time: 3 hours with 1 intermission
StudioTheatre, George St., Stratford Ontario Telephone: 1-800-567-1600
Tues-Sun @8pm; $28.15-$57.50 (CDN)
Previewing August 29, 2003, Opening September 3, 2003, Closing September 28, 2003
Reviewed by Rob Ormsby, based on 9/07/2003 performance

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