A Fiddler on the Roof. Sounds… addictive, no?

Not the classic opener, but you might agree had you been at the showing of Fiddler we saw this week. I promised no singing or dancing, and kept my word. But we had ladies behind us singing, people off to the right trying to start a clap-along, and several people trying to grapevine their way to the parking lot after the show.

It was good to confirm that I still knew the play almost by heart (we put it on in high school). And though my appreciation of musicals has certainly waned the last few years, I do still love this one.

For the set design they leaned heavily on the influence of Marc Chagall, as he also inspired the original staging, and was both a Jew and a geographic contemporary, more or less, of the characters in the story (he was Belarussian by birth).

Chagall did plenty of work that showcased shtetl life and such, though I admit the style didn’t really work for me. The primary colours and simplified storybook styles jarred with the brown, homespun world depicted. I get that it reflected the elements of fantasy and imagination in the story, but I kept looking at the “mobile” on the ceiling and being distracted by the child who looked like the kid from Where the Wild Things Are.

The initial scenes worried me a bit, as they really played up the schtick and yuks, which, while likely true to original stagings, isn’t really my thing. Ask Sherry — I’m not a fan of stylized. 🙂 After the first couple of scenes, however, things largely smoothed out and the comedy was allowed to be a bit more natural.

Scott Wentworth played Tevye, which amused me a bit since we just saw him as Shylock a couple of weeks ago. Apparently the Jews are just one guy. 🙂 He was a bit different from other Tevye portrayals I’ve seen — and let’s face it, it’s easy to just follow the leader where that character is concerned. He was a bit… smaller? Which worked for Wentworth. Also more conversational and less theatrical, if that makes sense. The audience certainly liked him, and there was definite play in the performance.

Golde I didn’t like so much. Granted, she’s a bit of a straight man and always bossy and grumbly. But her singing particularly was annoying. Clearly she’s not usually a musical actress, and while they worked with Wentworth’s vocal limitations well, not so for Golde, and she ended up weird and shrill a number of times. She and Tevye had their moments of camaraderie and comedy, but it wasn’t consistent.

The daughters were interestingly cast from a physical perspective. Their performances were fine, but they managed to use size and physical presence to underscore their personalities and roles. And while I found Tzeitel’s full-face grin distracting at times, it did make her lovely. Motel… well, I know the character is a nebbish, but it still grates.

I found Yente stuck out a bit, too. She was a tad young for my taste. Seemed odd to have an ancient, doddering rabbi, and a middle-aged Yente. In my mind they’re kind of opposites that fit together somehow. She was also the only one who had a really noticeable Jewish accent. Which is typical, and part of the comedy, but still.

I wonder, too, how many actors who’ve played the Fiddler have been women. The Fiddler at that performance was, and our high school one was, too. I always enjoy seeing how they costume the Fiddler. A hint of jester, but a certain elegance somehow, too. And goodness knows I love me some fiddler/violin music.

The set was simple and very wooden, which is to be expected. They made use of tiny prop houses to represent the village, which I liked. They cast a warm and close knit glow and feeling. Though I was compelled to text a picture to Andrew with the Zoolander reference of, “Is this a shtetl for ants!!!” 🙂

Overall, while not every aspect of the play’s presentation worked for me, I appreciated that they tried some different things, and enjoyed myself a great deal.

And I managed to make it all the way home without a single folk dance step.

Block Three Brewing and Sugar Bush Brown

Recently I posted an introduction to Block Three Brewing in St. Jacobs and their inaugural King St. Saison beer. Today we’ll take a look at their second offering, the Sugar Bush Brown ale, the name hinting at the addition of local maple syrup to give it a bit of a twist.

I love brown ales. Plenty of body and flavour, and very social, but not overly fussy. (Yes, some brewers consider them boring and unchallenging. So be it.) I was pretty happy that the first of Block Three’s offerings I got to sample was a brown ale, though we had to cut ourselves off from Derek’s generous pours, given we hadn’t had lunch yet…

The saison is a traditionally Belgian style of beer, whereas brown ales are traditionally English. Also, whereas saison was never really a majorly commercial beer, brewers have been making brown ales in the UK for centuries. They’ve specifically been called “brown ales” by brewers there since the 1600s.

These days brown ales span a considerable range of geographies, malt profiles, and degrees of hoppiness, but originally they were mild ales, lightly hopped, and brewed entirely with brown malt. In the northern UK, the brown ales tend to be stronger and drier, whereas in the south they are milder and sweeter. As with so many styles, in North America brewers have made this style their own, so American brown ales can vary widely in flavours and colours.

These days brown ales tend to fall under one of three profiles: sweet, nutty, or hoppy. The former two are the more likely profiles found in the UK, and the latter is newer and largely the purview of American brewers, particularly homebrewers, among whom strong hopping has been very trendy in recent years. Additionally, North American hops varieties tend to impart strong flavours and aromas.

The “mildness” refers to the lower amount of alcohol in the beers, and even today in the UK it’s not uncommon for “real ales” to be under 4% ABV. Sugar Bush Brown is a bit more of an American style ale, and clocks in at 4.8% ABV.

Brown ales are fairly dark in colour, ranging from rich chestnut to a dark chocolate brown. So it shouldn’t surprise you that chocolate malt is often used in the brewing. Crystal malt is also common. You might expect the darkness to be accompanied by bitterness, but this isn’t the case. The Sugar Bush Brown is smooth and milder in flavour than the colour might lead you to expect, lacking either heavy hopping or heavily roasted flavours. This style of beer is meant to be drunk easily, often several at a time with one’s mates.

Brown ales and mild ales are often fairly similar, and like mild ales brown ales can be fairly sweet, though not in the way that many fruity summer seasonals are sweet. However, if you sample the Sugar Bush Brown expecting to get a strong hit of maple syrup, you might be surprised.

Yeasts typically consume most of the sugars they’re provided, so adjuncts like maple syrup are more likely to end up imparting other flavours rather than sweetness. Look for those homey characteristics to linger on the tongue rather than explode up front. (Brewers can add more maple syrup at bottling time to intensify the maple flavours.)

Brown ales will often have some of the richer notes of stouts or porters that are imparted with the more darkly roasted malts. However, these flavours are not present nearly as intensely. Most commonly, the roast of the malt will impart some or all of three delicious Cs: caramel, cocoa, and coffee. Nutty characteristics appear when toasted malts are used in brewing. The Sugar Bush Brown’s dominant characteristics are toasty and nutty, especially in aroma, with those cocoa and coffee flavours.

To what meal would a Sugar Bush Brown ale be a tasty accompaniment? As with many beers, barbeque is a good choice, as are roasted meats. Cheeses would pair well, too, particularly aged ones or those with strong characteristics like blues. Smoked meats and cheeses would also pair well, as would roasted root veggies. Really, brown ales are the perfect accompaniment to fall foods.

Block Three will be back open this Friday, October 11th, with beers available, and don’t miss their Blocktoberfest launch party next Friday on October 18th.

Stratford Festival – The Merchant of Venice

This past Tuesday Sherry and I headed to Stratford to take in a little culture. Typically my first jaunt isn’t this late in the season, but we’ve been kinda busy.

I last saw The Merchant of Venice in 2007 with some friends, and really wasn’t a big fan of that production, so I went in to this performance with fingers mentally crossed.

It’s always interesting to see how and when Shakespeare is staged, and with Merchant you can go really literal, really obscure, or somewhere in between. For this staging it was set in 1930s Italy, which I think worked. It gave the play a strong foundation and mood, and had a certain elegance, but was modern enough to impart the uncomfortable “how did this happen?” feeling, given that the 30s are still living memory for some.

It can also be very easy to stay the play in a way that beats the audience over the head with its politics, since its ethnic, racial, and class themes are so prominent. This makes how the actor playing Shylock approaches the role so pivotal. I’ve seen him played as… whiny, frankly, more than once, and it’s never quite worked for me. Going gentle into that good night and so forth.

The main set piece was a large, two-storey metal piece, with a doorway/gates on the main level, and more shutter-like window openings up top. It was quite attractive and served them well, standing in for everything from a local cafe to Portia’s house to Shylock’s, to the court. The costumes were tailored and fairly richly constructed, since appearing well off was important, whether you actually were or not.

Tom McCamus as Antonio and Scott Wentworth as Skylock were both excellent. They have the presence to pull off these roles, though I would argue that Antonio could have been played even a bit more “grandly”. I felt that there could have been a bit more substance or nuance to Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship. Good friends are good friends, but putting his credit on the line for his friend who’s a known spendthrift, and then seem to be perfectly okay with dying for it? Yeah… I need more convincing. (Like, honestly, if they’d been lovers, it would have made perfect sense, though it would have screwed up the Portia story line just a titch…)

I greatly appreciated that Wentworth played Shylock with a significant amount of “fuck you”. After all, what he endures is long-standing and awful, and pretty much everyone else thinks it’s a-okay. And then when he is thiiiiis close to sweet revenge, they STILL continue to do everything in their power to deny him his just desserts. Ironically, they want him to act “Christian”, when neither he nor they are, frankly.

And then, of course, Shylock is given a choice that’s no choice. And punished on top of that, for daring to not just take their abuse and contempt. This is the stuff that workplace shootings are made of. I thought the moment at the end when Jessica is given her father’s (no longer needed) yarmulke was quite poignant as well.

While his role is a bit over the top and reasonably small, I enjoyed Gratiano as well. It was boisterous without being boorish. I was not a fan of Launcelot Gobbo’s. The whining was a bit excessive, and there was more than a hint of “creeper”.

I also wasn’t a huge fan of Portia’s. I found it interesting that they made her so long in the tooth (particularly for Shakespeare’s era), though I found that at odds with feminist ideas that a woman that age would still consider herself “bound” by her father’s posthumous wishes and will. (Though one has to suspend disbelief that such a decree would ever stand up in court these days…) Her mockery of her suitors also seemed rather juvenile, given her age and station.

Her delivery was what I had the most problem with, as she regularly fell into the “Shakespearean delivery trap”, which has a certain cadence and flow and emphasis that sounds nothing like conversational language. It stuck out and got worse as the play went on.

Overall, though, I found myself engaged the whole way through, which was a little under three hours. The march of fascism as the play progressed worked well to impart an aura of menace without overpowering the rest of the action. I couldn’t really tell from the bit with the radio if it was supposed to be Mussolini or Hitler broadcasting, or one then the other, but it was obvious what the broadcast was in general, and that was enough.

In the end I found myself flashing back to conversations I had 20 years ago when we staged Fiddler on the Roof in high school (which we’re going back to Stratford to see in a couple weeks). I recall the discussions we had about our fictional characters and the coming of the Nazis and WWII and hoping that they got out (emigrated, etc.) I found myself wondering the same about Shylock’s fate, which is evidence as good as any that Cimolino and Co. achieved what they set out to do.

Block Three Brewing and King St. Saison

Recently Block Three Brewing opened up in St. Jacobs next to/behind Benjamin’s. We’ve welcomed them heartily into the community, running them dry a few times already. Good problem to have, in a way, and a good statement on the quality of their beer. Couldn’t happen to nicer guys. (Though so far I’ve only laid eyes on two of the four. I’ll find you, Polkaroo brewers!) Derek informs me they’ve added new tanks and are brewing with all of them now, so lots more beer to come!

Block Three has gotten some great coverage already, so no need to re-hash the basics. Learn more about them and where to get their brews on their site or here and here, or some other spots listed on their site. Or just head down there and say hi.

The gents started out with King St. Saison, soon adding Sugar Bush Brown, a brown ale brewed with some local maple syrup. As much as they can they use local ingredients in all their beers. Soon to come will be their “Blocktoberfest” (beer names are the only puns I embrace), their take on a traditional Oktoberfest style Märzen, though Block Three’s offering will be an ale rather than a pale lager. Also coming soon is an English Style Pale Ale, which really needs a pithy name.

I’ve had the good fortune to sample the first two beers, and quite enjoyed both. So what are these beers about? I’ll cover the King St. Saison in this post (and a bit about brewing and its constituent elements, though not in great detail), and the Sugar Bush Brown in the next post.

The King St. Saison is a Belgian pale ale, which a fair bit different in appearance and flavour from the upcoming English Style one. Once you’ve tasted Belgian style beers, you’ll notice some distinct and consistent characteristics, which many wheat beers also share.

There is a certain fruitiness to the taste, though not in the same way as a lambic or fruit beer. Many saisons also have a spiciness to them, though King St. is reasonably mild that way. Saison is also a more crisp-tasting and milder beer than you get with Belgian dubbels or tripels (Belgian style strong pale ales). “Strong” in beer usually refers to alcohol content.

Back in the day, this was a style of beer commonly brewed by farmers and the like, rather than commercially. A great way to refresh your hot and tired farm workers that was safer than chugging water in those times. It could be brewed in the summer or fall and stored over the winter to be available the following spring and summer.

Block Three keeps their ABV (alcohol by volume) fairly low, which tends to be how the English do things in brewing. It’s about beers with good flavour and body, but not too heavy or too hot (high alcohol), enabling you to enjoy a few pints and still remember where you live to get home. 🙂 There has been a trend the last few years among American style ales toward much higher ABV, from 6-8% and more. The higher the alcohol, however, the harder it is to balance the flavours so you can actually taste something other than “booze”.

Saison has fairly good carbonation, which gives it a crispness, though you’re not talking something on par with a Coke or champagne, and the finish is very smooth, not biting on the tongue. The lightness and crispness of these beers is also why they’ve been popular in the summer. The yeasts traditionally used to ferment them tend to work better at warmer temperatures, too.

Saison beers used to be fairly strongly hopped because of hops’ ability to act as a preservative before the advent of refrigeration. The seed cones of the hops plant are used in brewing, and also impart flavour, aroma, and bitterness. Saison doesn’t require that degree of hopping anymore, so this beer is quite mildly hopped. That means it’s not really bitter, or doesn’t taste like grapefruit, which many strongly hopped beers, like Imperial Pale Ale, or IPA, do. Will have to see if the Block Three guys will share their hops varieties…

In fact, with saison, you want the flavours from the yeast to be more prominent, so you need a hops variety more noticeable for aroma than flavour. Noble hops are commonly used in saison, which are types that tend to be more common in European beers. Did you know that hop plants are perennial vines that can grow to 50 feet?

King St. Saison is a fairly light, golden colour, which tells us that it was brewed with a pale malt. The darker the malt, the darker the colour (and flavour) of the beer, and malts get darker by being toasted. The darkest malts result in nearly black beers like stouts or porters. Malts are the germinated grains, typically barley, used in brewing. Pilsner malts are commonly used for saisons (though I am not sure which malt Block Three uses). “Adjuncts” like candi sugar or honey are sometimes added to complement the malt as well. The sugars are what the yeast eats in fermentation, whether they come from the grain or are added.

To what meal would King St. Saison be a tasty accompaniment? Barbeque, certainly, particularly seasoned meats like sausages. Richly seasoned or spicy dishes like curries would be delicious as well.

To try the beers for yourself, aside from the various pubs and restaurants, you can sample from the taps at the brewery, buy litre bottles, or refillable growlers (64 oz. or 1.9L). Or if you’re having a party, splash out and get a keg.

Next up: what’s in a Brown Ale? And what happens when you add maple syrup?