Soulpepper’s Adaptation, ‘Of Human Bondage’ by William Somerset Maugham at the Signature Theater, a Review

Gregory Prest, Michelle Monteith, Soulpepper Theatre Company, William Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage

Gregory Prest, Michelle Monteith in a Soulpepper Theatre Company adaptation of William Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’ (Cylla Von Tiedemann)

Love is a scourge if it becomes an obsession that devours one’s soul and fouls one’s career, friendships and very life. And what if the pursuit of the love object is never requited in sincerity and kindness? William Somerset Maugham’s masterpiece Of Human Bondage reveals the withering devastation wreaked by obsessive, twisted love’s sadism and masochism.

Though the work has been transferred to the medium of film three times, it has never made it to the stage. It took a renowned playwright from Canada, Vern Thiessen, and a visionary Artistic Director Albert Schultz (director) to meld hearts, minds and artistic genius during a lively discussion to create the work. And it took Canadian Soulpepper Theatre Company to have the will to commission Thiessen to write Of Human Bondage the play, so that the adaptation of this immemorial story of human desire and repudiation would be able to soar on stage.

Theirs is a remarkable effort. The production from beginning to end is breathtaking. How the playwright and director unfold Philip Carey’s (Gregory Prest is just stunning), journey of infatuation for Mildred Rogers (Michelle Monteith’s wickedness is infuriating) through emotional enslavement and out, is mesmerizing, voyeuristic, horrific. The characters’ devolution into the abyss which touches upon class strife, gender exploitation, the crippling derangement of inferiority, self-deception, soul entrapment, sadism and masochism is a tour de force that encapsulates the seminal themes of the novel. That Soulpepper Theatre Company has so vitally put such a production before its audiences to magnify the best and worst of human nature and human relationships in all of their exceptionalism, and to refract it through a visceral lens by the brilliant Maugham in what is an exaltation of his work, will remain unparalleled for a long while.

William Somerset Maugham, Soulpepper Theatre Company, Of Human Bondage, Oliver Dennis, Gregory Prest, Vern Thiessen

(L to R) Oliver Dennis, Gregory Prest in Soulpepper Theatre Company’s adaptation of William Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’ written by Vern Thiessen (Cylla Von Tiedemann)

The play presented by this acclaimed civic theater company has won numerous Dora awards (equivalent to our Tonys) deservedly so. How Thiessen, Schultz, the transcendent cast, Lorenzo Savoini (Set and Lighting Designer), Erika Connor (Costume Designer), Mike Ross (Composer and Sound Designer) and others crystallized the novel’s essence and distilled its characters and story into the magnificence that is currently playing at The Pershing Square Signature Center, is most probably a fascinating story in itself.

How did all unite to shape this epic production which is akin to Greek Drama? For each there must have been their own singular talent, passion, focus and the understanding that they were/are still contributing to something of great moment. With the expertly conceived of and executed unity, harmony and coherence in the acting and the theatrical spectacle, from the sound effects, music, lighting, seamless staging, props and costuming, not only are we transported back into the historic period of Victorian England, we are elevated into the consciousness and realms of feeling and emotion of the characters, especially that of Carey and the pitiably proud Mildred Rogers.

William Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage, Sarah Wilson, Gregory Prest, Soulpepper Theatre Company, Vern Thiessen

Sarah Wilson, Gregory Prest in Soulpepper’s adaptation of William Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’ written by Vern Thiessen (Cylla Von Tiedemann)

Shame, embarrassment and self-consciousness about his club food have deformed Philip Carey’s personality and emotional nature, though he is a promising medical student who is wise and humane and has artistic talent which he has thrown over for medicine. Thiessen cleverly reveals the underbelly of Carey’s weaknesses that nearly destroy him: competitiveness, envy, slavishness, self-blindness to his own need to control others with manipulative acts. Thiessen also reveals his strengths: his artistic, soulful impulses, his life-long ties to artistic friends, his kindness, his perception, his insight.

Carey becomes entranced with his colleague’s object of infatuation, Monteith’s lower class, uneducated and exploitive gold digger waitress Mildred, who has no intentions of making a career plan or refining her inner emotional traits to encourage a more genteel way of living. We watch fascinated at how her sharpened claws prod and dig into Carey’s flesh; she entangles him and torments his soul. Their fates are sealed, regardless of the variety of sub-scenes which layer upon layer reveal Carey’s strengthened self-awareness which he gains with the help of his artistic friends as they show him the evolving corruption of Mildred’s soul and attitude. She presumptuously assumes she has the greater power over him because of his weak desires. This is a bitter mistake which destroys her.

Though it appears to be the reverse, for a good part of the play, like Mildred, we are duped to believe that she controls and drains the lifeblood from Carey while he becomes more destitute and obsessed with her. He follows her whims which she blows up into storms or breezes and he is blown about by her, as her kite to drop when another more “princely” man comes near, even his own colleague.  Though he meets other learned, more attractive women through his friends, who are interested in him, Carey goes back to Mildred when she is rejected by other suitors who dupe and dump her. Like an addict, he must get his Mildred fix, while she enjoys tormenting and acting superior to Carey’s club foot Quasimodo (his inferior perception of himself).

As each scene and interaction seamlessly slips into the next one, we are driven by the emotions of the characters whose fuses fire-up then blow out based upon their relationships with the protagonist Carey and the antagonist Mildred. Carey’s once pompous colleagues fall prey to their own addictions and failures, and Carey, is thrown out of his rooms and his medical school because he wastes his money on Mildred each time she returns to him. However, his artistic genius is still alive; can his corrupted soul be redeemed by a finer love?

Ironically,  it is Carey who actually is the subtle master of the two characters. His passive, puppy dog, slavishness is the iron chain that binds Mildred into the sadistic domination to which he submits, a domination which self-destructively, she cannot do without. He is and always was the “better” person. Regardless of how much he allows her to feel her mastery over him, he controls that dominance and has her on a long lead. It is why she resents him, though she never has the self-awareness to realize why she hates him (she indeed hates her own weakness to oppress as the culture oppresses her). If she had gained self-awareness, she would have picked herself up from the gutter and attempted to change her life and annihilating ways.

William Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage, Soulpepper Theatre Company, Jeff Lillico, Gregory Prest, Vern Thiessen, Soulpepper Theatre Company

(L to R): Jeff Lillico, Gregory Prest in Soulpepper’s adaptation of William Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’ by Vern Thiessen (Cylla Von Tiedemann)

As the play’s ending lifts us toward the light, the playwright reinforces the theme manifest through a symbolic object, a gift, Carey receives from his friend. He lost this possession when he was destitute, but it is restored to him. Thiessen has poignantly woven this symbol/object/theme throughout the play. It is whimsical and profound, beautiful and sad, it represents a conjunction of Carey’s life and it wraps around Carey’s new circumstances as it once wrapped around the skeleton Carey used for studying the human anatomy (another profound theme). This is Thiessen’s meta theme and it is heartbreaking and simply gorgeous.

The actors, especially Prest, Rogers, Oliver Dennis, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis, Racquel Duffy, Sarah Wilson are smashing, but the ensemble who also play instruments, sing, perform sound effects (i.e. doves, horses sauntering, street noises) and generally tell the story and give it shape are all exquisite and fit together like the threads of a priceless tapestry. What hath the director Albert Schultz wrought? In a word? Majesty.

I can’t sing this production’s praises enough except to say see it, see it, see it while it is in town if you are in New York City. If you are not, look for their work in Toronto. They are a marvelous company. This production is gobsmackingly singular.

Of Human Bondage runs until 26 July at the Pershing Square Signature Center. It has one intermission. Tickets may be purchased at the Box Office on 42nd Street, by calling 888-898-1188 or online by clicking HERE.

 

 

 

About caroleditosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is an Entertainment Journalist, unpublished novelist, poet and playwright. Writing is my life. When I don't write I am desolate. Carole Di Tosti has over 1000 articles, reviews, and other writings online. Carole Di Tosti writes for Blogcritics, Theater Pizzazz and other New York theater websites; Carole Di Tost free-lanced for VERVE and wrote for Technorati for 2 years until the site changed its focus. Carole Di Tosti attends the premiere film festivals in NYC and on LI: Tribeca FF, NYFF, DOC NY, Hamptons IFF, NYJewish FF. She also covers SXSW film.

Posted on July 11, 2017, in Global Theater News, NYC Theater Reviews. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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