Chet Greason, email@example.com
Carousel has become one of this season's most controversial plays at the Stratford Festival. Some reviewers have raved about it, while others loathed it.
What has turned so many people off is a perceived dated perspective on domestic violence. However, I would argue that director Susan H. Schulman has addressed the problematic play by producing it problematically; tackling its misogyny via the performances from her actors.
Domestic violence is often not as simple as many of us wish it was. Abused women sometimes return to their abusers again and again hoping for change, declaring they still love their men despite what they do. Men who hit might say they regret their actions (or rather, regret being found out) and vow to change, but rarely do so.
This very scenario happens in Carousel. In fact, this is the central story of Carousel. By muddying the waters; by denying Rodgers and Hammerstein their typical everything-is-hunky-dory ambience, Schulman crafts a production that, while likely not anyone's favourite show this season, is nonetheless worth discussing.
The pomp and circumstance is all still there. For audiences who could care less about issues like rape culture and gender equality, there are plenty of splashy sets, virtuoso performances, dancing bears, and men on stilts to keep them enthralled. Most of the roles are big, brash, and over-the-top; exactly what you expect in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. There are showy mannerisms and mugging facial expressions, not to mention those distracting forehead mics. Poor Sean Alexander Haulk, as Enoch Snow, looked like a tiara-clad Elven Princess straight out of Tolkien.
But while the cast is loud and flashy, lead Alexis Gordon, who plays abused wife Julie Jordan, stood out by doing the opposite. Gordon's performance, awash in a sea of overacting, is understated and injected with realism.
Her voice, when speaking, sounds natural and infused with sweetness, which not only makes her stand out amongst her cast members, but makes her the most compelling performance in the show.
As the song about her character declares, "You're a queer one, Julie Jordan." Indeed, the song is apropos, not just because of Gordon's subtlety, but also because most of us look askew at a woman who loves the man that beats her. Behind Julie's sweetness is a conflicting mask of emotions that makes her rendition of "What's the Use of Wond'rin'" a tortured case of convincing oneself to stick it out, and her utterance of the notorious line "It's possible… for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all" seems another weak attempt at self-assurance or misguided rationalization.
Just the slightest quiver in the voice, her eyes downcast, and suddenly the meaning changes. It's a complex and laudable performance.
But what of her abuser? Jonathan Winsby, who plays husband and carnival barker Billy Bigelow, is one of those aforementioned big Broadway performances. His voice is alarmingly baritone; in fact, viewers of a certain age will have difficulty, given not just his voice but his height, temper, and pride, separating Bigelow from the villainous Gaston from Disney's Beauty and the Beast.
And that's where Schulman injects more problems that twist the play. She casts the detestable antagonist Gaston as the protagonist. Suddenly, his Soliloquy, what might've been a cute song in 1945, now sounds like an anthem for the patriarchy. He's full of pity for himself, his reputation, and his lot in life, but for hitting Julie he offers nothing but excuses. Even in the end he appears largely unrepentant and incurably angry, lashing out physically at his daughter.
Schulman tweaks things by making it rather ambiguous as to what Bigelow's final fate is. His lines remain, but there's no glorious ascent into heaven that shows that his sins have been forgiven and he stands to be rewarded. Still, modern audiences want to see clear comeuppance when it comes to cases of domestic abuse. Those angry with the show might've been happier had the penance from the original Hungarian play Carousel is based upon been included, wherein the Bigelow character is sentenced to 16 years in a fiery purgatory before he's given a chance to redeem himself.
The other role worth noting is additionally problematic, but for different reasons. Jigger Craigin, the show's scummy villain, is normally played by Evan Buliung, whom reviewers have given mixed reviews.
However, the performance I attended had understudy Shane Carty (who plays Uncle Max in this season's Sound of Music) in the role. So while I can't speak of Buliung's performance, I can say that Carty was the second-best role of the night after Gordon, largely due to his dead-on comedic timing. His whaling song, Blow High, Blow Low, followed by a lively boot-stomping rollick by the chorus, was easily the production's best musical number.
And that, in itself, is problematic. Carty's sauntering scoundrel got the biggest laughs of the night in a scene where he effectively molests a woman. An inescapable exchange inserted by the playwrights? Or a big spotlight shone on the guffawing audience declaring them part of the problem?
Perhaps we can give credit that a musical was made, in 1945, with domestic violence at its core, and that it declared that violence a detestable thing. However, young people still struggle with Julie's acquiesce. For them, it will likely seem dated.
Discussion often rages about the future of theatre; about whether it can survive in today's digital age. I offer that it's not theatre itself that's at risk, but only certain plays that proved popular in the past that now run counter to modern ideals. Though our grandparents or parents may have loved Carousel, it's unlikely to find many fans amongst today's young people.
The Stratford Festival often stages these problem plays, and when it does, it tends to present it in a way that either glares a light on the prejudices of our forefathers or in a new and different light that causes us to reevaluate the piece. They do this every time they stage a play like The Merchant of Venice or, this year, The Taming of the Shrew; and it's done it here with Carousel, albeit very subtly.
However, those who find fault with the production likely feel that, in combating violence against women, subtlety is not the way to go.