Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cast of characters

RMTC season features a famous outlaw, a revered sleuth and a blues singer named Bessie

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Look for heaps of swash and endless buckling next November when the curtain goes up on The Heart of Robin Hood, the centrepiece of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's 2014-15 season announced Friday night.

The high-flying spectacle from London's Royal Shakespeare Company will be built and staged at RMTC before it goes on to Toronto and New York City for an expected Broadway run in 2015. British playwright David Farr's revisionist take on the oft-told tale has Robin stealing from the rich but not giving anything to the poor until Maid Marian straightens him out.

Its theatricality has generated much attention, as Robin and his Merry Men literally swing from the rafters and make high-speed entrances down a steep wall at the rear of the stage. An American roots band called Poor Old Shine performs the musical interludes; the members are in costume as denizens of Sherwood Forest.

"Audiences in Winnipeg will have never seen anything like it on the MTC stage before," said RMTC artistic director Steven Schipper, unveiling his 26th playbill. "It's Cirque du soleil meets Monty Python meets Cyrano du Bergerac."

RMTC's lineup of plays also includes several attractive titles, including the 2013 Tony Award-winner for best play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, as well as Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily and the ever-entertaining Cabaret.

Both The Heart of Robin Hood and Vanya and Sonia are co-productions with Toronto's leading commercial theatre, Mirvish Productions. The former is also co-produced by Barry and Fran Weissler, the backers of current Broadway hit Pippin.

"The fact we got in on Robin Hood and we are building it is quite a feather in our cap, but also an affirmation of our reputation," Schipper says during an interview. "It's just not the Mirvishes, but Barry and Fran Weissler who are saying, 'We know about you.' These partnerships allow us to afford this kind of spectacular season. We get all of the rewards but none of the risks."

Vanya and Sonia is the result of American Christopher Durang throwing a number of Anton Chekhov scenes and characters into a blender to tell the contemporary story of two middle-aged siblings who learn their movie star sister intends to sell the family home to fund her extravagant lifestyle.

"I think our audience will be primed by ChekhovFest to laugh even louder at Christopher Durang's comedy," said Schipper. "Fiona Reid will play Sonia, so she can do her Maggie Smith imitation."

RMTC's 55th season opens with Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily, which brings the famous sleuth together with real-life characters such as English playwright Oscar Wilde and American actress Lily Langtry.

"It's an entertaining mash-up of fact and fiction," Schipper said. "Oscar Wilde is working on his play The Importance of Being Forthright. Of course, it is Sherlock who gives him the better word for the title of his play. It's fun and ought to bring a lot of feet across our carpet."

The linchpin of his season is a revival of Cabaret, the timeless classic that will soon be returning to Broadway in a production featuring movie stars Michelle Williams and Alan Cumming. It is set in a seedy Berlin nightclub at a time when Hitler's power in Germany is taking hold. The run is a nod to next season's opening of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

"It's a phenomenal musical," Schipper said. "The question it asks is, 'What would you do?' The point it makes is that all it takes for evil to occur is for good people to do nothing."

The playbill wraps with The Woman in Black and Clever Little Lies. The former opened in London in 1987 and is still running, a record only surpassed in the West End by The Mousetrap. A 2012 movie version starred Daniel Radcliffe.

"It's an all-out ghost story that will haunt you in nightmares and daymares," he said. "It got me, totally."

Clever Little Lies is the latest from American Joe Dipietro, the playwright of Over the River and Through the Woods, which was part of the 2002-03 MTC season. Expect a poignant look at love and family.

Over at the Warehouse, the new lineup does not offer much name recognition, other than the expected centrepiece production for CowardFest. That will be Private Lives, No´l Coward's story of a divorced couple who rekindle their former passion after meeting by chance on their second honeymoons. Krista Jackson, who helmed The Seagull for ChekhovFest in January, will direct.

The Warehouse season kicks off with Armstrong's War by Colleen Murphy, who penned The December Man, staged at Prairie Theatre Exchange in 2011. It brings together a plucky 12-year-old girl in a wheelchair with a Canadian soldier wounded in Afghanistan. She wants to earn another Pathfinder badge by reading to him, but that's not what he wants. They end up exchanging their stories, which prove to have healing powers.

The venue will feel more like a nightclub when it hosts The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith, a musical import from New York's Penguin Rep Theatre. Smith, known as the Empress of the Blues, will be played by Detroit-born Miche Braden, who was Mammy in RMTC's Gone With the Wind last season. She is backed by a three-piece band when she belts out such Smith's hits as Downhearted Blues, T'aint Nobody's Business If I Do and Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out.

Late Company, a drama by Jordan Tannahill that premièred at Toronto's Summerworks last year, brings down the curtain at the Warehouse next March. After the gay teenage son of a Conservative politician commits suicide, his parents have dinner with the family of the boy who bullied their son. Schipper will direct; he will also helm Clever Little Liars on the mainstage.

"We're having a great year and we think this is the most exciting season we've planned in a while," Schipper said.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2014 G1

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