By: Feb. 10, 2015
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Just in time for Valentine's Day, Artistic Director Ken Gass' new Canadian Rep Theatre (CRT) has given us a theatrical bouquet of eloquence, elegance and excellence in a story of the marriage of true minds with impediments.

First produced in Calgary in 2010, playwright Florence Gibson MacDonald's "How Do I Love Thee?" is the compelling story of the mercurial romance between Victorian poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, played respectively by Stratford veteran Irene Poole and Matthew Edison. It's now playing at the Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre until February 22nd, with a special Gala Benefit Night for the new company on Valentine's Day, Feb. 14th.

It's wonderful to hear such smart, beautiful, poetic and evocative language expressing emotions from the most euphoric to the darkest depression in a contemporary play, especially a Canadian one. It's a rare treat, especially delivered by such a talented cast.

MacDonald's challenge, in part, was to write creditable dialogue that could conceivably have been written by two of the greatest English poets of the Victorian Era. She has admirably done so.

Elizabeth Barrett is commonly considered to be a housebound, reclusive invalid who grew up in a strict, religious home and .began writing poems when she was six years old. Her father was a tyrant who disapproved of her relationship with poet Robert Browning. When they married, he disinherited his daughter and her brothers rejected her. Robert and Elizabeth moved to Italy where she died, in Florence, in 1861. They had only one son.

Little was known about Barrett's life-long drug addiction that began when she was 15, taking laudanum to relieve the intense pain she felt in her head and spine. It's believed this led to her frailty and her life-long addiction to additional drugs such as morphine and opium.

MacDonald explores her addiction in this play and its effect on her marriage to Browning. As the drama begins, Barrett swings joyfully under a tree, passionately reciting verse. Her reverie is quickly interrupted when her maid Wilson (Nora McLellan) walks up to her and smothers her face with a rag we assume is soaked with a drug.

So immediately MacDonald establishes the extremes we will begin to learn not only of Barrett's condition, but her life and relationships with others that y frame her portrait of life with Robert Browning, focusing on the omnipresent impediment to their love her drug addiction is.

We see the couple in their first ecstatic carnal embrace with Barrett's lustful, orgiastic cries virtually indistinguishable from her gleeful shouts as a new poem occurs to her.

"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways," from the "Sonnets from the Portuguese" is likely the most recognizable line Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote. MacDonald's drama counts those ways and they are, obviously, not all pleasurable. Some are tragic and sad ... even hopeless. As the playwright's Barrett Browning realizes towards the end of the play, "I always hoped I died in your arms before I died in your eyes." Robert Browning concludes, "We find ourselves alone."

We are reminded by the incredible period of literature the Victorian era was with the script's references to contemporaries such as Alfred Tennyson, William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley. His great hubristic poem "Ozymandias" is mentioned as is Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his masterpiece "The Rime of Ancient Mariner."

"How Do I Love Thee" benefits from the long-time working relationship (15 years) between MacDonald and director Ken Gass. Together and with a gifted cast they create a marvelous theatricality, with the actors energetically charging their lines with emotion, drama and passion. Irene Poole brings Elizabeth Barrett Browning alive as a talent, bursting with words and creativity ("I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears, of all my life!), who struggles with a manic-depressive personality brought on by her drug addiction. She is the centre of the play, holding it together with a magnificent performance enhanced by her frequent "dueling partner" Matthew husband as Robert Browning. He is Petruchio to her Kate, but she is a force of nature that cannot be tamed. The Cupid arrows that strike them have barbs.

Nora McLellan brings a quiet, moving power to her performance as Barret Browning's nurse and "enabler," a doting mother-figure and friend, who quietly administers the drugs to calm and control Elizabeth, enabling her to write again.

John Kenyon, a minor poet and close friend of Browning's, is stylishly played by David Schurmann. Like McLellan, his performance is a subtle, delicate one, a miniature of repressed feelings as he, too, is attracted to Browning.

Shawn Kerwin's stage design is a triptych - three sections each defined by a tree made of twisted paper. The sections merge together or separate to define the play setting as dictated by the story. At the back of each section, is a makeup table with chair, mirror and lights. When actors/characters are not in a scene, they retreat upstage to have a seat until they're needed again. I can't find a meaning other than this is meant to keep us reminded of the theatricality we are viewing. This is a play, an imaginary portrait of the lives of Elizabeth and Robert, not the real thing.

Wayne Kelso's evocative music... especially piano solos ... is lovely and reminiscent of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson's Golden Globe winning and Oscar nominated soundtrack for "The Theory of Everything."

The poems of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning live on to this day and are taught in our schools. "How Do I Love Thee" is bound to adorn a Valentine's Day card in your local shop.

And Robert Browning's verse "Grow old along with me" from his poem "Rabbi Ben Ezra" (Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be,) even inspired John Lennon to write one of his last songs, a beautiful ballad "Grow Old Along With Me." It was released posthumously on the CD "Milk and Honey."

For tickets, visit Canadian Rep Theatre's website at or call the Berkeley Theatre/Canadian Stage Box Office at 416-368-3110.

"How Do I Love Thee?" is the first production of Canadian Rep Theatre's 2015 season, its second season after its launch in 2014. The next plays will be Colleen Murphy's "Armstrong's War" at The Citadel performance space (Parliament & Dundas - Previews May 16th-20th, Opens May 21st, runs to June 7th,) and a major revival of George F. Walker's classic "Nothing Sacred" this October/November at a venue to be announced. The play won the Governor General's, Dora and Chalmers Awards and was produced at the Shaw Festival in 2004.


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