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Old Goriot suffers a few kinks

Old Goriot, January 17-26, 2008

The Province

by Stuart Derdeyn

You’re miserable, deluded, geriatric and living in a rundown boarding house dancing on the edge of destitution. No one around you is trustworthy or even likable. The food totally sucks.

This is France?

Welcome to a Paris slum; circa 1835, where author Honoré de Balzac sets Le Père Goriot, a.k.a. Old Goriot. This tragic character study of a father, a perfectly cast Richard Newman, so devoted to his ungrateful daughters that he sacrifices wealth and station to promote their lives is oft mentioned alongside Shakespeare’s King Lear. Toss in three or four other concurrent and related stories to stack the action, and the comparison is fair.

In Western Gold Theatre/Theatre UBC’s adaptation of the French language masterpiece, exposing love’s labours lost falls to a large cast of eight professional actors and 11 acting program students and a pro crew.

Director/adapter James Fagan Tait and musical director/composer Joelysa Pankanea craft an engaging tale using set and lighting designer Robert Gardiner’s inventiveness to great effect. One giant table at the Maison Vauguer, a few staircases and subtle costume changes move us through a host of players and scenes flawlessly and impressively.

The socially conscious barbs of the 1700s lose none of their edge in the present. There’s nothing historic about a generation of materialistic, social climbing bourgeoisie cutting one another’s throats to attain greater station. That they spout lines about car- ing about the old, the poor and the criminal elements they leave to rot away in squalor is no surprise either.

When the arch criminal Vautrin, played brilliantly by David Mackay, proposes a murderous pact to high-society wannabe Eugène de Rastignac, student thespian Spencer Atkinson, you can .almost imagine the two shaking over a shoddy leaky condo project today.

Act 1, which launches slowly; builds up all of these themes deliciously, leading to its cliffhanger finish. You can tell that Balzac wrote serialized works at times in his career. The multiple plots build episodically. Act 2 brings it all home. It is far less engaging or effective than the play’s strong start.

Part of this lies with strictly technical issues. The shape of the theatre and blocking of the actors in scenes often means you can’t hear them. This is clearly a case of direction and easily fixed The same can’t be said of the primary tune of the second act, a plodding and undynamic ode to the “house of love” that isn’t up to the strong musicality of the other songs.

Finally, I’m not sure if the grand finale was meant to be funny in a Monty Python-esque over-the-top way or just played out for far, far too long.

Minor quibbles, honestly. Old Goriot is a fine am/pro co-production with a rare multi-generational ensemble onstage. In its reflection of the real world, you get a variety of shapes, sizes, wrinkles and twists to tell the story. It’s one mostly well-told, too.

Sun Jan 20, 2008