Comment: Blood Links

At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Upstairs, Toronto, Ont.
Part of Spotlight Australia

Creator and performer: William Yang
Music composed by James Brown

Surprisingly moving.

Two large screens are up stage. Down from he screens is a small ‘table’ with a half a glass of water and a ceramic cup with Chinese tea, I assume. A square of light is illuminated on the floor to the right of the table.

William Yang walks into the light. He wears a dark suit with the suit jacket with a collar like a Chinese jacket. It’s buttoned almost to the neck, with a red shirt underneath the jacket. His hands are folded in front of his chest. He speaks in a deliberate pace in a clear voice. Over the course of the hour he takes one long sip of tea.

William Yang tells us the story of his family in photographs. William Yang is a celebrated photographer in Australia. His maternal grandparents married in an arranged marriage. His grandfather sailed from China to Australia to prospect. His wife joined him after that. They had children. Photographs of Yang’s grandparents and their children are projected on both screens. Without turning around and with no script in front of him, Yang names the people who appear in every shot. Children soon marry and have children. They are named. The family expands. Some move to California where more relatives appear, have children and marry. All are pictured and named.

Mr. Yang reveals that he is gay and shows pictures of his partner. At one point his sister asks if he has AIDS. He says no. That is the first time any member of his family has commented on his sexuality. Yang also reveals that somehow he lost track of his Chinese heritage and went in search of it. More pictures of more places he has visited.

Imagine it; a slide show of photographs of a man you don’t know, of his ever-growing family, along with commentary and have trouble remembering who everyone is and their relations. Are your eyes glazing over in boredom? They shouldn’t. I found the evening surprisingly moving as William Yang searched for his Chinese roots and celebrated his family. His delivery is so tempered he is compelling.

An interesting addition to Spotlight Australia which started with Jack Charles, an aboriginal Australian, then segued to William Yang who was born in Australia to Chinese parents, but who then went in search of his Chinese roots. I’m looking forward to more in this series.

Presented by Canadian Stage.

Opened: April 19, 2017.
Closed: April 23, 2017.
Running Time: 60 minutes.

The Draupadi Project

At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, Ont.
Part of The Riser Project.

Written and performed by Sharada K. Eswar
Directed by Karin Randoja
Projection Designer, Melissa Joakim

A story I want to learn more about.

The Riser Project is a new collaborative producing model, created by Why Not Theatre and the Theatre Centre, gives new work a space and support to experiment and grow. The Draupadi Project is one of four productions in this year’s Riser Project.

Writer-performer, Sharada K Eswar writes what she knows. As she says in her program note: “Like many Indian children, I grew up on the vast, varied, and fascinating tales of the Mahabharata….the epic weaves myth, history, religion, science, philosophy, superstition, and statecraft into its innumerable stories-within-stories to create a rich and teeming world filled with psychological complexity.” The Mahabharata is about the rivalry of two branches of a dynasty vying for the throne of Hastinapur. Draupadi is a woman who is hugely important to the story.

From the press information: “Karin Randoja directs Sharada K Eswar’s The Draupadi Project, a half-history, half-mythology, wholly-magical reimagining of the ancient Indian epic, The Mahabharata, as told from a feminist perspective.

Prisoner 1089 is a woman who is imprisoned and the ‘image’ of Draupadi visits her in prison to wrangle with her and give her support and courage in her struggle. An image of a face with reverse shadow and light and exaggerated eyes is projected on a screen behind prisoner 1089. We hear a disjointed voice. It’s the voice of Draupadi.

Since I was sitting in the third row back from the front, and Sharada Eswar begins the performance crouching on the floor, it was difficult to see her and to follow her story. That’s always a challenge, seeing a character clearly who begins crouched on the floor, if the distance between audience and actor is short. It would have been a different matter if I could see her on the floor and heard and focused on what she was saying.

The Mahabharata and its stories are not part of my culture, although I did see the Peter Brook Production of it years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But Sharada K Eswar’s conversation between Prisoner 1089 and Draupadi intrigued me to want to know more, certainly of Prisoner 1089’s story.

Presented by Tamasha Arts Presents:

Opened: April 19, 2017.
Saw it: April 22, 2017.
Closes: April 26, 2017.
Running Time: 40 minutes.

www.riserproject.org

Munschtime!

At Young People’s Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Based on the stories of Robert Munsch
Adapted by Stephen Colella and Allen MacInnis
Directed by Herbie Barnes
Set by Robin Fisher
Costumes by Sage Paul
Lighting by Michel Charbonneau
Composed and sound by Cathy Nosaty.
Cast: Cheri Maracle
Dov Mickelson
Lisa Nasson

The right amount of sweetness with a bit of tartness.

The kid won’t go to bed. Her grandparents who are babysitting go into heavy negotiations. Yes we will read you a story if you go to bed right away. Yes we will bring you a glass of water if you go to bed. Yes we will tell you another story if you promise to go to bed. And on and on. The kid is wily. The grandparents are patient—they’ve done this before with their own kid.

The stories are a cross-section of Robert Munsch’s beloved stories: “Love You Forever: (needing to know that that special love between parent and kid and grandparent and kid will never go way; “A Promise is a Promise” in which the serious business of making a promise must be kept and how to negotiate it if you are a kid or an adult; “To Much Stuff” about the importance of sharing; and “Murmel, Murmel,” the precious importance of children.

Munsch writes about children with whimsy while teaching them life lessons. The cast of three do lively work as they flit and charge about the stage playing multiple roles. Director Herbie Barnes knows the value of colour and pace in creating children’s theatre. It’s a thing of beauty to see the audience of children and their parents be attentive to the story-telling and be so excited when they see and hear a story unfold with which they are familiar because they’ve read the book. Love this stuff forever.

Young People’s Theatre presents:

Opened: April 20, 2017.
Closed: May 14, 2017.
Cast: 3; 1 man, 2 women
Running Time: 1 hour, 5 minutes.

www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca

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At the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Created, Choreographed, Lighting, Sets, Costumes and Videos by Marie Chouinard
Filmed segments written and directed by Marie Chouinard.
Cast: Charles Cardin-Bourbeau
Sébastien Cossette-Masse
Catherine Dagenais-Savard
Valeria Galluccio
Motrya Kozbur
Morgane Le Tiec
Scott McCabe
Sacha Ouellette-Deguire
Carol Prieur
Clémentine Schindler

An arresting, unsettling ultimately dazzling creation by Marie Chouinard that illuminates the triptych by Hieronymus Bosch.

And in a change of pace, I’m reviewing a dance piece called Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights that has been scripted, directed, choreographed, and had its set, costumes, video and lighting created by Marie Chouinard, danced by her troupe of 10.

The Story. For the story creator/choreographer Marie Chouinard was commissioned by ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands to create a piece that commemorated the 500th anniversary of the death of Hieronymus Bosch, their most famous citizen.

Hieronymus Bosch was a painter from the Netherlands who lived from 1415 to 1516.

He painted the famous triptych that makes up The Garden of Earthly Delights. The painting depicts the Garden of Delights, Hell and Paradise. There is such detail in the three panels that depict humanity in various pairings and configurations.

The Performance. For her piece Marie Chouinard focused on the triptych of Bosch. So the piece is divided into three: Act I is The Garden of Delights; Act II is Hell; Act III is Paradise.

Two large doors upstage open slowly to reveal the triptych in full detail. Then it looks as if the whole painting is moving forward but is not, it is just expanding in our view.

Creator/choreographer/director Marie Chouinard examined and explored each panel in detail—there are pairings of characters in the painting, groups, singles, and all manner of combinations.

First The Garden of Delights is observed. A woman enters, the movements are jerky and tentative as if life has just been given to her and she’s feeling her way. She is topless as are all the women but they wear flesh coloured tights. The bodies look uniformly pale white as if they are painted that way. The men are topless, but wear dance belts. Somehow I don’t think that’s fair. Surely they should be bottomless? Again, the movements are jerky but innocent.

The men and women explore each other but not sexually and not erotically. There is a freedom—for example the long hair on the men and women is not tied back tightly—but is allowed to flow flowing.

Act II—Hell is depicted with harsh music. The movement is angry, violent, sexual, innocence has been lost. It’s frenzied and unsettling.

Act III–Paradise is almost religious in its focus. This seems the most sophisticated of the three, as if the characters have gone through innocence to violence and found peace in experience and God.

Comment. As dance is not my forte, I can’t/won’t comment on the specifics of Marie Chouinard’s choreography or dance creations, but her images are vivid and beautifully focused. And with video we can see what part of the triptych we are focused on in the choreography. It’s a bracing piece of theatre.

I think it’s important to expose oneself to other kinds of art and Chouinard’s work is some of the best.

Canadian Stage Presents:

Opened: April 19, 2017.
Saw it: April 20, 2017.
Closes: April 23, 2017.
Running Time: 75 minutes.

www.canadianstage.com

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At Theatre Passe Muraille, Backspace, Toronto, Ont,

Written and performed by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard
ASL components by Tamyka Bullen
Directtion/Dramaturgy by Andy McKim and Jivesh Parasaram
Lighting and set by Rebecca Vandevelde
Projection by Cameron Davis
Composition and sound by David Mesiha

An unflinching work that examines the need for freedom of artistic expression not only in oppressively governed countries but also in our own. Donna-Michelle St. Bernard creates a vivid picture of the difficulties artists of colour have in creating their art whether it’s in Tunisia or Toronto.

Background/story. Writer/performer Donna-Michelle St. Bernard has presented herself one humongous project of all projects. She is writing 54 plays inspired by each of the countries of Africa. In the process St. Bernard will reference her own life experience as an artist, a woman and a woman of colour here in Canada since she doesn’t have the life experience of Africa.

For Sound of the Beast Donna-Michelle St. Bernard was influenced by Tunisian rapper, Weld El 15. Weld El 15 is a political activist through his art and as such has seen his efforts stifled by the government and imprisoned for three years but released before his full term. Jail did not crimp his style and he continued to speak out.

St. Bernard‘s show is peppered with rap songs that reference injustice, stories that reveal her keen perception as she sizes things up as a woman in a man’s world of performing, being aware that men of colour are treated by police much differently than a white man is or in some cases a woman of colour.

The Production. Donna-Michelle St. Bernard saunters on stage, confident, open, and welcoming of the audience. She wears rolled up sweat pants, under which are black tights, a tank-top. A black sweater of sorts is spread out on the floor. St. Bernard lies down on the floor over the sweater; and puts her arms into it and feels that all is ok. I get the sense this is a ritualistic preparing to portray Weld El 15 as well as herself.

She introduces her friend Tamyka Bullen by turning to the back wall of the stage of the Backspace, at which point a video of Ms Bullen appears. I wish there was some context about who Ms Bullen is besides the program listing and why Ms St. Bernard wanted to include her. When Ms Bullen ‘recites’ her poems through American Sign Language (ASL) the English translation is projected on the back wall. She describes her difficulties being deaf and a woman of colour. But it is not clearly/brightly illuminated for me to read it easily. I am grateful for the insert in the program that lists the poems but wish the illumination on the wall was brighter, or that perhaps the projection could also be on the audience left side wall for easier reading.

St. Bernard references Weld El 15 first with a throbbing rousing rap number, pulsing with anger, conviction and the sense of danger. I figure this is his rap song. She evokes the dangerous world in which Weld El 15 lives; an oppressive, intolerant government that does not tolerate any criticism or opposition. This establishes the context for her own life experience here in Canada.

She puts us in her world of producing/performing by describing an incident between one of her crew and a producer in which she senses she is being passed over for respect. She quietly parses out what she perceives has happened. And we feel her awareness.

She describes a night, really very early morning, when she was finishing a long preparation for an upcoming show; had put up posters advertising the show and at 5 am was in search of a donut as reward for her labours. She was stopped and questioned by police who were cruising the area wondering why she was out at that hour. Rather than answer the questions she asked her own: Why did they need to know why she was out at that hour? Etc. They suggested that she was a prostitute. I sucked air. The person behind me gasped.

St. Bernard at once puts us in that world and gives us just a taste of that situation and what it is like to be black, a woman, and innocently on the street at 5 am. At once she unbalances us into thinking “just answer the questions and don’t give them ‘attitude’,” to thinking, “I’m being targeted, profiled and there is no cause,” to feeling anxious, angry and heartsick all at once for her.

She broadens her gaze and talks of black men being profiled by the police and who don’t seem to have recourse to fairness. She cites other examples as well that suggest something as innocuous as sitting under a tree could get the police to order one to ‘move along.’

St. Bernard does not rage and bellow in the telling. Rather she is soft-spoken, almost impish, playful, but certainly focused. That makes the telling all the more gut-wrenching.

The collaboration between St. Bernard and her two co-directors, Andy McKim and Jivesh Parasram seems like a cohesive whole; their collaboration seems to be equal among all of them. St. Bernard is lively, agile, fluid, moves like a dancer and is embracing.

Comment. Donna-Michelle St. Bernard tells a gripping, compelling story that is happening all over the world. Her stories and their telling are not clichéd into sameness. Each one is perceptively drawn, calmly told, clearly illuminated and will make you suck air for all the right reasons. She is a compelling presence who tells a vital story.

Presented by Theatre Passe Muraille

Opened: April 18, 2017.
Closes: May 7, 2017.
Running Time: 100 minutes.

www.passemuraille.ca

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At the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written, designed, directed and performed by Robert Lepage
Composer and sound designer, Jean-Sébastien Côte
Lighting by Laurent Routhier
Image designer, Felix Fradet-Faguy

Brilliant.

You don’t review a Robert Lepage show really. You just kneel down and kiss his shoes in adoration of his brilliance. Ok, ok, I’m laying it on a bit thick. But really… what can one say? He’s brilliant. He has such an exquisite imagination. He has control over every facet of his shows. 887 is no different.

I first saw Lepage perform 887 two years ago as part of Panamania. He brought his show back, this time to the Bluma Appel Theatre for a very short run that just closed.

887 refers to the address on Murray Ave. in Quebec City where Lepage lived as a kid with his parents and brother. 887 is about memory and the history of Quebec during Lepage’s childhood.

He says that he is having trouble with his memory. He is particularly concerned because he has to recite by heart, the stunning poem“Speak White” by Michèle Lalonde at an event. He has tried and tried but he just can’t memorize it.

But first he reveals the “large” miniature model of the apartment building he and his family lived in at 887 Murray. The building had eight apartments. He can move that model around; slide panels that reveal other parts of it; shift it around again, and reveal his own apartment today.

But back to 887 Murray. Lepage explained who lived in each apartment, indicating the idiosyncrasies of each family; who fought with whom; who was drunk; who paced; who had terrible children etc. When he pointed to an apartment, that section of the building was illuminated and a video of the occupants in miniature displayed. Masterful.

When he talked of his own family, he pointed to that apartment. He spoke with affection and compassion about his disappointed father, who drove a cab. He spoke with respect of his mother. He didn’t say much about his brother.

One is mindful of his concerns with his memory and smiles as he can recall in minute detail about his childhood and that apartment building. Ok, it’s possible—to remember details of long ago but not yesterday. That seemed to have been what was going on here.

He phoned an acquaintance he knew asking for help. He was also interested in having this acquaintance dig into the CBC (the acquaintance worked at the CBC) archives and fine the obituary the CBC has written in the event that Lepage should die. The message Lepage left on his friend’s answering machine provided a huge joke for the evening. At each turn Lepage went over the time allotted for the message and had to redial and try again. The irony and the self deprecation were obvious. Here was one of the most technologically savvy theatre artists in the world seemingly being defeated by an answering machine. Quite funny.

Lepage’s delivery of the story is calm, understated, nuanced, and leisurely paced. His memories of his father are particularly moving. But when Lepage does recite “Speak White” he is electrifying. The words come out in an angry torrent, each word snapped out for full effect. He got us to consider memory and what we remember and what we forget; consider the rage of Quebecers during the time that Lepage was growing up; and to consider what makes a genius the likes of Robert Lepage. That last bit is impossible to fathom; you just kneel down and kiss his shoes in adoration.

Presented by Canadian Stage, and Ex Machina production.

From April 7, 20017.
Closed: April 16.
Running time: 2 hours.

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At the Streetcar Crowsnest Guloein Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Created by Torquil Campbell and Chris Abraham in collaboration with Julian Brown.
Design consultant, Remington North.
Performed by Torquil Campbell and Julian Brown

An arresting, passionate performance by Torquil Campbell and his obsession with a notorious impersonator/murderer.

The Story. Torquil Campbell has theatre in his bones. He is the son of famed Stratford actor, Douglas Campbell and Moira Wylie, herself an actress. His sister Beatrice is a stage manager and he’s married to Moya O’Connell, a hugely accomplished actress and a long-time member of the Shaw Festival.

Torquil Campbell himself started as an actor before he became the front man (singer-songwriter) for the indie pop band Stars. When he was younger Campbell was fixated with true crime reality TV. Somehow he discovered the bizarre life of German conman Christian Gerhartsreiter who spent his whole life impersonating many and various people, culminating in creating the persona of Clark Rockefeller and passing himself off as a member of that rich family. It ended in a long jail sentence.

Campbell became obsessed with Gerhartsreiter because: they looked uncannily alike, they wore the same glasses, liked the same things, of his brashness in the creations; and because at one point Campbell wondered if he could become that kind of person—reckless, fearless, dark in his thinking, murderous? As Campbell says: “There’s a surreal artistry to the way Gerhartsreiter manipulated the truth and created all the worlds for himself. I think he just might be an artist, and that really frightens me.” Thinking the murderous, calculating, manipulative Gerhartsreiter is an artist because he created these worlds for himself, also scares me that Campbell could even consider it. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Performance. The Guloein Theatre in the Streetcar Crowsnest has a section down front with round tables and chairs as if in a nightclub. The rest of the seating is as in a theatre. On stage, downstage centre, there is a standing microphone; upright is a piano; up left is a seat for Julian Brown who plays the guitar accompaniment for the whole show. I believe there is a music stand in front of him.

Torquil Campbell saunters on stage without fanfare, greets Julian Brown then goes downstage centre to the microphone. He wears black horn-rimmed glasses, a black shirt, jeans, canvas deck shoes and no socks. He approaches members of the audience at the tables with a handshake and an exaggerated joyful greeting. Once back in front of the microphone he assumes an affected body language with a shift of his hips and a hand up to his chin or side of the head. The voice is also affected and he speaks almost in a gush of stream of consciousness. The attitude is confident and almost off-handed. He goes from one side of the stage to the other, talking, engaging people.

Then he goes back to the microphone and his body language changes. He is now unaffected as is the voice. We are now listening to Torquil Campbell as himself. Before it was Clark Rockefeller, ‘obviously’ a member of the storied and rich Rockefeller family of the United States. We learn that Clark Rockefeller is one of the many persona and aliases that Gerhartsreiter assumed over the course of his life.

Campbell explains that he comes from a theatre family, one might say celebrated theatre family and gives the background, telling wonderful stories about his father. Campbell began as an actor himself but then veered off into music. True Crime is the first time he’s been on a stage as an actor in 15 years.

He explains that on one of his trips to New York for his music, Campbell also sought out many of the places where Gerhartsreiter lived. This is at the top of the show. I find it interesting that Campbell begins his telling of Gerhartsreiter’s story in the middle of it. He does not indicate in the narrative where his obsession with Gerhartsreiter began. For that we refer to the press release. The story-telling is not linear but scattered. Perhaps this adds to the intrigue?

Campbell shifts easily from telling his own story and detailing his obsession with Christian Gerhartsreiter and his many aliases. When he is playing himself Campbell is confident in the telling, but twitchy, awkward in his stance and frequently scratches his head. He strongly reminds me of Woody Allen.

Director Chris Abraham guides Campbell to reveal his obsession gradually. When Campbell is in the full grip of Gerhartsreiter–visiting him in prison a few times—(at the urging of Chris Abraham) Campbell is intense, perhaps even frighteningly so, words gush out of him. In trying to explain it to us, he seems like a man going down a rabbit hole as he looses his grip on reality. He seems aware of this loss as well because he includes concerned conversations with his wife, Moya O’Connell. While Campbell believes that he is like Gerhartsreiter—he looks like him, wears the same glasses, likes the same things, believes he could cross that line and harm—O’Connell offers the voice of reason, gently but firmly trying to get him back on track.

Chris Abraham certainly throws a lot of tech stuff at us during the performance. A bank of lights goes from dim to blinding at moments in the telling. Why, is a mystery. Julian Brown plays a composed underscore for the whole of the show. Why, is a mystery. Why is the consistent ‘guitar noodling’ necessary? I always wonder what that music adds. Mostly I find such musical inclusion an annoying distraction. Campbell also sings a few of his songs and plays the piano (once).

Comment. I can appreciate the irony of a man who comes from a theatre family becoming obsessed with a conman who assumes various identities and personae. Torquil Campbell seems to try and equate the two. They aren’t equitable. While an actor assumes the persona of a character the audience is in on the conceit. They know the guy up there is assuming a role. In the case of Gerhartsreiter most of the people he conned didn’t know he was not who he said he was and when they found out, at least in two cases, he killed them.

As Campbell falls deeper and deeper under Gerhartsreiter’s spell he tries to justify his obsession with wild reasoning. When he suggests that he made up the whole story, and then denies it, and then confirms it, and then….., I am reminded of my late father’s comment to such improbably nonsense: “Pile it in the corner.”

Torquil Campbell has written a fascinating, meandering story about a man who captured his imagination and held him hostage. His performance of that story is engrossing, compelling, and troubling. I am grateful for his inclusion of the voice of reason in this tale—his common sense wife, Moya O’Connell—to try and bring him back to reality. If in fact Campbell’s losing his grip on reality is merely ‘a performance’, then he ‘got’ me. If it is true, I hope he found his way back.

A Castleton Massive Production.

Opened: April 6, 2017.
Saw it: April 13, 2017.
Closes: April 15, 2017.
Running Time: 90 minutes.

www.crowstheatre.com

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Review: ORPHANS

by Lynn on April 14, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Ave., Toronto, Ont.

Written by Dennis Kelly
Directed by Leora Morris
Set and costumes by Brian Dudkiewicz
Lighting by Andrew Griffin
Sound by Kate Marvin
Cast: Diana Bentley
Cody Black
Tim Dowler-Coltman
David Patrick Flemming

A compelling drama about what really happened when a man finds another man wounded and bleeding in the street. A play about monsters in our midst and trying to find out who really is the monster and who the victim. Another stunning production from the Coal Mine Theatre.

The Story. Liam is covered in blood when he goes to his sister Helen and brother-in-law Danny’s house. He tells them he found a guy in the road, wounded and bleeding and he, Liam, tried to comfort him by holding him—hence all the blood. After careful and relentless questioning we find out that Liam was not telling the whole truth. He thinks the world ‘outside’ is full of monsters and he sees himself as an avenging angel.

The Production. Director Leora Morris has directed a tight, taut production in which the dynamic between the three main characters of Liam, Helen and Danny shift and refocus. Just as we believe that Helen is the strongest of the three and perhaps Liam is the weakest, a bit of information is revealed and that idea is turned on its head. At first Helen seems to hold the power over the two men; then Liam manipulates the situation and changes that focus, and finally even Danny shows his quiet power at a pivotal moment with Helen.

The dialogue is a series of unfinished sentences that are delivered at break-neck speed as if all involved are playing a furious game of ping-pong. And yet for all that fragmentation—reminiscent of David Mamet perhaps—the story is clear in the hands of these accomplished actors.

Leora Morris keeps the audience off-balance, but not the production about where the truth lies. Leora Morris establishes the various relationships: sister vs. brother, brother vs. sister, wife vs. husband and vice versa and brother-in-law vs. brother-in-law. While playwright Dennis Kelly slowly reveals where the frightening truth is Leora Morris keeps upping the ante in this tense family/social drama. Even her scene changes, done in blinking light and shadow, establish bits of business that illuminate relationships. Masterful work.

If anything is obvious it’s that Liam is one dangerous dude. Never mind being covered in blood when the production begins, we soon realize he has a quick, dangerous temper; he is prone to violence especially if a person looks different than he does, people of colour or different backgrounds; and he has a troubled past. As played by Tim Dowler-Coltman, Liam is twitchy, anxious, soft but quick speaking, compelling in his earnestness until cracks appear in his stor. Liam is a master manipulator. Tim Dowler-Coltman is one young actor to watch.

The dynamic between Liam and his sister Helen, played by the always excellent Diana Bentley, is fascinating. Usually Liam comes to Helen for comfort and protection. He is contrite and perhaps even meek if something serious happens to him. But after all those years of protecting Liam against the world Helen knows how he can manipulate her. At one point Bentley as Helen stares down Liam and says with controlled anger, “Don’t manipulate me.” She’s got his number. But then Liam lobs some incriminating information at her and he then gets the upper hand. It’s that quick ping-pong game between them that is most compelling.

Finally Danny, played by a courtly, quiet David Patrick Flemming, seems caught between the two siblings, Liam and Helen. They are the orphans of the title; their parents were killed in a fire; perhaps there is a mystery there too regarding how that happened. Danny does his best to quell ideas that he’s a coward. His wife thinks so. Liam tries to support him until he needs him on his side and then Liam resorts to his usual questionable tactics. In this triangle between Liam, Helen and Danny, Danny is just trying to stay afloat. Often he can never do right by Helen. His frustration is palpable.

The small set is efficiently designed by Brian Dudkiewicz with a sofa on one side of the space and a table and chairs on the other.

A tiny quibble/observation. When Liam arrives, bloody, Helen and Danny are eating dinner. They stop eating when Liam tells them what happened. Later Liam sits where Helen sat hoovering down the food on her plate, every scrap of it, meaning she didn’t eat supper. But it’s Danny who later makes himself a sandwich, saying he didn’t eat supper. Why not? It would suggest that Liam ate it, but Liam’s placement at the table is where Helen sat, not Danny. Hmmm.

Comment. British playwright, Dennis Kelly wrote Orphans in 2009, years before he co-wrote Matilda. On first look these two plays couldn’t be more different. But on closer reflection they are frighteningly similar. Kelly writes about monsters and bullies and people trying to get by in both plays. Liam sees monsters in anyone who looks different than he does and he goes after them with violence. Matilda’s monsters are her mean, bullying parents and she gets even, as any precocious 10 year old kid would, with stinging words.

In Orphans, Liam feels the world outside his comfort zone is full of monsters. In his wilder moments Liam is unafraid to attack anyone he feels is a monster, i.e., anyone who looks different; is an immigrant or refugee. In our unsettled world of travel bans and racist eruptions, Orphans is very prescient.

Produced by the Coal Mine Theatre.

Opened: April 12, 2017.
Closes: April 30, 2017.
Cast: 4, 3 men (1 of which is a boy) and 1 woman.
Running Time: 95 minutes.

www.CoalMineTheatre.com

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At the Factory Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Anusree Roy
Directed by Brendan Healy
Lighting by André du Toit
Composer and sound designer, Richard Feren
Cast: Shelly Antony
Shruti Kothari
Farah Merani
Sugith Varughese

Anusree Roy looks at the subject of mental illness in which one family member wants to ignore it and another reluctantly must face it. Roy deals with thorny issues regarding mental illness in her play which is funny, full of concern and compassion, but there are too many unanswered questions and the play should be given another pass to solve the problems. There are wonderful performances by the cast in an intriguing production of director Brendan Healy.

The Story. Dilpreet is a widower. He has been raising his two daughters for years: Jasmeet, is a teenager who is socially active in high school. Simran is her older sister who has been studying to write her LSAT tests in the hopes of being accepted to Osgood Law School. What is mainly occupying their thoughts and time is that in a few weeks Dilpreet will open his clothing store in the East Indian section of Gerrard Street East in Toronto. He expects his daughters to help but he goes easy on Simran. She is under stress. She has suffered from debilitating headaches in the past and bright light seem to cause them, so as a matter of course, the lights are dimmed for her.

It’s obvious that Simran is not just suffering from stress. Jasmeet tends not to think it’s anything more serious than extreme studying and the tension of wanting desperately to get into law school. Her father Dilpreet knows better. His late wife suffered from metal illness. Simran needs help but refuses it. Matters come to a head and everyone must face the reality of what is happening to Simran.

The Production. It’s not clear from the program who has designed the set. Samantha Brown is listed as the Associate Set Designer, which would suggest there should be a set designer. In any case great swaths of beautiful silks hang down from the flies. There are mannequins wearing South Asian garb that should entice customers. A large counter is up stage. That counter is Dilpreet’s domain. Sugith Varughese plays Dilpreet with pride, confidence and concern for his daughter Simran. He also frets about the opening and wants everything to be perfect, of course.

Playwright, Anusree Roy has written Dilpreet’s speech as quirky, not quite proper English. Dilpreet has wonderful turns of phrases just ‘off-kilter’ from what the phrase should really be. (One can be forgiven if one thinks of Mr. Kim in Ins Choi’s Kim’s Convenience, also a father with a quirky sense of English). Sugith Varughese delivers that dialogue with such seriousness that every joke lands without actually making fun of the character.

The dynamic of that family is soon quite clear. While Dilpreet loves both daughters he thinks Jasmeet is stupid, only thinks about her looks and has an empty brain, . She loves fashion, social media, socializing and planning for the prom. All Dilpreet’s hopes and dreams are for Simran getting into law school and becoming the best “human lawyer in the country.” For him she has the brains of the two sisters. She actually wants to work on humanitarian causes but in Dilpreet’s expression it comes out ‘human lawyer.’ He accommodates Simran and her issues and hesitates to get her proper medical help in this latest instance, until he has no choice. In terms of the title, Jasmeet would be ‘Little Pretty’ and Simran would be ‘The Exceptional.’

While he praises Simran, he never hesitates to run down Jasmeet. Perhaps it’s the confidence of youth, or that Jasmeet knows she is smart and has common sense, because the way Shruti Kothari plays Jasmeet is with confidence and authority. Jasmeet has a good head on her shoulders and good business sense. Kothari plays Jasmeet as aware, full of chutzpah and a way of taking over with authority and getting things done. Shruti Kothari gives a lovely performance as Jasmeet.

Farah Merani plays the difficult part of Simran, difficult because her issues must be revealed slowly and not in a flash. If it’s too obvious for the audience that something is wrong with her and her father and sister can’t see it, it makes them look like they are in denial. Jasmeet thinks she is just suffering from stress. Dilpreet does know Simran has issues but tries to treat her with kid gloves. We can believe initially that Simran is stressed, because of the way Farah Merani plays her; anxious, distracted and pre-occupied. But as the play unfolds there are the headaches and other manifestations that all is not right here.

As Iyar, Jasmeet’s boyfriend, Shelly Antony is all smiles and charm. He has an easy exuberance and honest sense of respect for Dilpreet.

Director Brandan Healy brings his keen eye to the details of each character and creates a family dynamic that is true. He also guides each actor to realize the full potential of their characters. When Simran is having moments of diminished mental capacity André du Toit’s lighting changes. We are aware of her slow spiral downward by these more frequent light changes.

Comment. Anusree Roy’s plays deal with stories focusing on South Asian characters. Little Pretty and the Exceptional is the first of her plays set exclusively in Toronto. But by making her plays focus on South Asian characters Roy of course is making a universal statement. In terms of Little Pretty and the Exceptional we can all identify with the family dynamic: a father trying his best to raise two daughters on his own and plan a business; knowing a family secret and hiding it; being wounded by the past and hoping for a brighter future; feeling love for family. Her sense of character and language are very strong.

I do have some concerns. Jasmeet was six when her mother left the family and knew what happened to her. But Jasmeet’s opinions of her mother are intensely less than kind. Dilpreet knows the truth about his wife and yet the conversation to set Jameet straight about what rely happened doesn’t seem to have taken place. I think that lapse weakens the play.

While I can appreciate that Dilpreet is pre-occupied with the opening of his new store and he is trying to be as supportive towards Simran as he can, he takes an awfully long time to recognize she needs help, considering he has witnessed this behaviour before.

Anusree Roy is a wonderful, thoughtful writer who has opened up new worlds and stories for Canadian audiences. I think Little Pretty and the Exceptional can be an exceptional play with another re-write and re-examining some situations.

Factory Theatre Presents:

Opened: April 6, 2017.
Closes: April 30, 2017.
Characters: 4; 2 men, 2 women
Running Time: 2 hours approx.

www.factorytheatre.ca

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Tough Jews

At Kensington Hall, 56K Kensington Ave.. Toronto, Ont.

Written by Michael Ross Albert
Directed by Benjamin Blais
Set by Adam Belanger
Costumes by Lindsay Dagger Junkin
Sound by Miquelon Rodriguez
Lighting by Melissa Joakim
Fight director, Simon Fon
Cast: Blue Bigwood-Mallin
Luis Fernandes
Stevie Joffe
Anne van Leeuwen
G. Kyle Shileds
Theresa Tova
Maaor Ziv

Another grab-you-by-the-throat production by Storefront Arts Initiative about a Jewish gang of toughs in Kensington Market during Prohibition that leaves you gasping by the end and then pats you on the head as you leave, giving you a wink as you go.

The Story. Three brothers—Ben, Joe and Teddy–and their hot-head cousin—Ziggie– are in the bootleg liquor business and other forms of shady doings, in Kensington Market in Toronto during Prohibition. They are also involved with other toughs in Detroit etc. and look forward to doing more business with them until Ziggie takes offence to something another cousin says and shoots him. A few times. All of them are Jewish, tough and snappy dressers. The matriarch of this group of men is Ida, a calm, formidable woman.

The play concerns getting rid of the body of the deceased shot-up cousin and the after effects of it; family turmoil etc.

The Production. We are beautifully situated in the basement of a graffiti covered building in Kensington Market. If Global Cheese up the street wasn’t closed for the evening I would have bought way too much cheese to take home—such is the lure of Kensington. We go down an alley to the back of the building and then down the stairs to the playing space. There is a bar to fortify us and when the play begins, will be Ben’s ‘blind pig’, in other words, a speakeasy.

Besides the bar, Adam Belanger’s set also includes a set of shelves behind the bar which holds liquor and other secrets. A table and chairs are down to one side of the playing area. The audience is on two sides of the space. Off at the back are stairs that lead to the rest of the family’s living quarters. The stairs leading up and out to the back of the building are used as exits and entrances for various characters and the audience. Lindsay Dagger Junkin’s costumes are suits and ties for the men—very stylish, and equally stylish dresses and in one case, slacks for the women. Ida is always in a black, loose dress.

The lights go up on the ‘blind pig’ with the brothers, some women in their lives, Ziggie and others in the bar when suddenly there are gunshots and pandemonium. My jaw clenches, as does my sphincter, and if I had arm rests on my chair I would have gripped those too. Ziggie has shot one of the Bernstein cousins, putting a crimp in future business transactions with that tough Jewish family. Emotions are heightened. Joe is agitated to take the body out and get rid of it. Ben is calmer but just as concerned to get the body out. Teddy frets. Ziggie can’t see what the fuss is about. This sets the power dynamic of how that family works.

Ben, as played by Blue Bigwood-Mallin, is a charming man who runs the ‘blind pig’ and doesn’t let anyone push him around. Joe, a tight-jawed Luis Fernandes, is a quick thinker with moments of agitation and organizes the family’s business dealings with his brothers. Teddy, a bespectacled G. Kyle Shields, is the youngest son, quiet, sometimes pious—he is eager to go to the synagogue for the high holidays to honour his late father. He really isn’t included in the ‘family business’ and feels left out. Everybody makes fun of him and pushes him around until he pushes back. Their cousin Ziggie (Steve Joffe) has red hair. No disrespect or to cast aspersions but that red hair says everything. Ziggie is like a time bomb with faulty wiring, waiting to explode. He seems slight and shorter than his cousins but makes up for it with attitude, a smile and a gun. (Rule to live by: You can do more with a smile and a gun, than you can with just a gun). Rose (Maaor Ziv) is the sister in this family of toughs. She’s tough too but in a different way. She is married to a man who beats her up. Joe is married to Marge (Anne van Leeuwen) a genteel woman who bosses him in her own way.

And there is Ida, the matriarch, played by Theresa Tova with regal imperiousness. As fast moving as her sons are, that’s as slow moving Ida is. She doesn’t need to rush to command. She can just stand, stare and in the most seductive low voice, give orders or comment with sprinklings of Yiddish. Tova is so arresting that she almost seems as if she is sending up Ida, but we know she isn’t—the voice is so dramatically low, the Eastern European accent so nuanced. While the sons rush and roar around demanding respect and attention, Ida stands still and commands respect. It is one riveting performance.

Director Benjamin Blais directs Tough Jews with such a sure hand that the sense of danger or that anything could go wrong in an instant, is palpable. A simple scene of Ziggie making the moves on a woman goes from being flirty, aggressive and then dangerous in a steady escalation. You suck air slowly with that. Simon Fon, the fight director on the show, continues to show his mastery of creating fights that are so real and frightening you subconsciously look for the exit sign should you have to beat a hasty retreat. The world of thuggery is beautifully created by Benjamin Blais and his creative team, where making a deal is as important as dressing well.

The creation of that world begins with Michael Ross Albert’s muscular script. His language is hardnosed with sprinklings of Yiddish which makes it hilarious. And the idea of a family of Jewish toughs in the bootleg business in Kensington Market makes perfect sense. (For the longest while in Toronto history, Kensington Market was where Jews lived and worked.)

Comment. Storefront Arts Initiative has gone from being displaced from their home on Bloor St. to live another day in the basement of this perfect building in Kensington Market, to produce a play that takes place in the basement of a building in Kensington Market about a family of bootleggers. It’s all done with the same verve, energy, daring, boldness and fearlessness as one expects from Storefront Arts Initiative. It’s a terrific production. Mazol Tov on the result.

Spadina Avenue Gang and Storefront Arts Initiative Present:

Opened: March 31, 2017.
Closes: April 16, 2017.
Cast: 7; 4 men, 3 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 min. approx.

www.thestorefronttheatre.com

Jack Charles v The Crown

At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs, Toronto, Ont.

Co-written by Jack Charles and John Romeril
Directed by Rachael Maza
Set and Costumes by Emily Barrie
Lighting by Danny Pettingill
Musical direction, Nigel Maclean
Performed by Jack Charles
Musicians: Malcolm Beveridge
Phil Collings
Nigel Maclean.

Jack Charles v The Crown is part of Spotlight Australia, a festival of theatre, dance and performance pieces from Australia, under the auspices of Canadian Stage. What better way to start a festival than with the compelling story of Jack Charles, an aboriginal Australian. To be specific, Jack Charles is a Boon Wurrung Man and it’s a life full of ‘incident.’ He was taken from his family at age three and brought up in a home for boys where he was abused. What followed was a life of drugs, alcohol and jail. He did a documentary film of his life called Bastardy. Director Rachael Maza saw it and thought Jack Charles’ natural home was on stage telling his story, so the film was rewritten and performed on stage in Melbourne. Jack Charles brings the show to Toronto to begin the festival.

He certainly has led an eventful life. There is a scene from Bastardy showing Jack Charles shooting up and asserting his behaviour after the hit does not change his behaviour. The action then focuses on Jack Charles on stage. Trim with a full grey beard and long thick white hair, he tells his story in a mellifluous voice and an almost formal way of expression. He had been in and out of jail and rehab before he began living a clean life, helping others to do the same.

He plays guitar and sings songs with the band. He changes clothes a few times. He takes two cell phone calls, one of which is from a man who needs help with a legal matter. Jack Charles is a man who is always available, even in the middle of a show, to help a fellow human being. There is a sense of good cheer with the show, of a man who went through hell and came out the other side clean and sober and wants to pass it on. He tells us that since he is clean and sober he argued in front of the crown to get his record removed.

At times the show seems padded. The inclusion of the three piece band is a bit unnecessary. The set and costumes by Emily Barrie are over stuffed as it goes upstage into a corner, providing an alcove to make tea; change jackets and put on a vest; comb his beard and hair, tc. If anything I wanted to hear what was the impetus that moved Charles to get clean and sober? This is such an important bit of information and it’s not there in the play. However Jack Charles is charming, impish and a natural storyteller without judgement that I recommend seeing as an example of theatre done in Australia.

Canadian Stage Presents.

Opened: March 29, 2017.
Closes: April 8, 2017.
Running Time: 75 minutes.

www.canadianstage.com

Binti’s Journey

At Theatre Direct in the Wychwood Barnes, Toronto, Ont.

From the novel, The Heaven Shop by Deborah Ellis
Adapted by Marcia Johnson
Directed by Lynda Hill
Set and costumes by Melanie McNeill
Lighting by Joseph Patrick
Cast: Aiza Ntibarikure
Dayna Ntibarikure
Jaa Smith-Johnson
Karen Roberts.

Theatre Direct is a wonderful theatre company dedicated to presenting stories for young audiences. Binti’s Journey premiered by Theatre Direct in 2008 and has been remounted in 2009, 2010, and now again in 2017.It’s an important story. I was invited to a preview—he cast had been touring it before coming to Toronto. It’s a very strong production.

It’s about the AIDS epidemic in Malawi as it affects Binti, an inquisitive 13 year old girl and her family. Her mother died when she was six. Binti lives with her father, brother and sister. Binti is the youngest in that family The mother probably died of AIDS but no one says that in the family. There is a stigma about it, even though it is rampant. Binti’s journey is not just physical—being taken in by relatives–but also spiritual and emotional—coming to grips with AIDS and accepting the truth about it. As the show says, “It’s an anthem to hope, courage and the resilience of youth”.

The cast of four works as an accomplished unit with Aiza Ntibarikure creating a feisty, inquisitive Binti. Lynda Hill directs her cast with sensitivity and detail to the smallest reaction. She has filled it as well with South African music which the cast sings with conviction. Binti’s Journey illustrates how AIDS does not discriminate on who can get it. And it also offers a picture of resilience and determination to live with it and not be defeated.

Theatre Direct presents:

From: April 4, 2017.
To: April 23, 2017.
Cast: 4; 1 man, 3 women.
Running Time: 60 minutes.

www.theatredirect.ca

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At the Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. W., Toronto, Ont.

Written and directed by Salvatore Antonio
Set and lighting by Simon Rossiter
Costumes by Innes Ciccone
Sound by Lyon Smith
Cast: Prince Amponsah
William Ellis
Danny Ghantous
Taborah ‘Tabby’ Johnson
Dayle McLeod
David Reale
Alice Snaden
Tyler Stentiford
Jennifer Wigmore

A remount of Salvatore Antonio’s sensitive, thoughtful play about intimacy, vulnerability, and sensuality with dollops of nudity. The nudity is not necessary for creating intimacy and vulnerability. The cast is new with one added scene. The results are terrific and very moving.

The Story. A hotel room. Various people come through there, separately, in groups or on their own. Some come for comfort and help. Some come for casual sexual experimentation. One is lonely and hires a young man for pleasure, something that seems new to her.

The Production. A bed takes up most of the room in Simon Rossiter’s set. There are two end tables and the usual stuff of hotel rooms. Up and to the right is the unseen door to the room, and near that is the (unseen) bathroom. A naked man stands with his back to the room. He has long wet hair. During the course of the play he will turn very slowly to face the room. His face looks grey. He will also circle the room, again, very slowly, while scenes unfold. He makes one journey around the room over the course of the 90 minute play; that’s how slowly he is walking. He almost never looks at the action. In only one case does he engage with another character. This is the room “Ghost” (William Ellis) who has ‘seen’ everything happen in that room; been a witness to it.

Lucia is the maid who cleans the room, changes the sheets and in her own way is also a witness after the fact. She sits on the bed with a dirty sheet in her lap, examining the various stains on the sheet: tears, sweat, semen etc. She voices what we assume has happened in that room to cause such stains. As Lucia, Taborah “Tabby” Johnson is a kindly, even a motherly presence. She is also efficient and meticulous when tidying the room.

A mysterious woman (Alice Snaden) wanders into the room to check it out it seems. She is urged to leave by Lucia who feels it’s inappropriate for the woman to be there as it’s not her room.

When the room is ready for the next guest Lucia leaves. After a beat Michael enters with a duffel bag and a suit bag. He is there for the funeral of a friend. He unzips the duffel bag; takes things out of it; unzips the suit bag and takes the suit out. He takes off his clothes down to his black briefs. Michael puts on the shirt and the pants but can’t button the shirt or the pants. He has no hands.

This is where art imitates life or vice versa. Michael is played by Prince Ampansah. Mr. Ampansah was in a devastating fire in 2012. Most of his body sustained severe burns. Both hands had to be amputated. His right arm was amputated almost to the elbow; the left arm was amputated above the wrist. You get the full sight of his injuries when he is in his briefs. What that man went through to live. Interestingly his feet seem unscathed.

Michael can’t do up his buttons and calls reception on his cell phone for help. As Michael, Prince Ampansah is calm and matter of fact when giving the reason for the call. Lucia arrives and sees the problem immediately. She carefully, tenderly does up the buttons, tucks in the shirt, zips up the pants and ties the tie. During all this Lucia shows Michael respectful sensitivity. This is not pity. The conversation is easy. Michael is a bit awkward, perhaps embarrassed, but is confident enough to understand his position and not to feel sorry for himself or to make Lucia feel embarrassed. Ampansah gives Michael a sense of courtliness, grace and while a bit frustrated, just gets on with getting on regardless of his physical challenges.

This scene beautifully establishes the sense of vulnerability and sensitivity that is present in all the scenes. It’s not the nudity that creates these feelings, it’s the situations and how the characters handle them that does it.

Ben, Adam and Sam (a woman) meet in the room for a three-way. They know each other from university and think it’s time they explored each other sexually. Ben and Adam arrive first and flirt with each other. When Sam arrives she sets the ground rules: they will engage equally. It will not be a situation where both men will just engage with her. She insists they engage with each other, a thought that makes them uncomfortable. They take off their clothes. Sam gets the two men in the mood by describing the two ways she gives a man a ‘blow-job.’ As Sam, Dayle McLeod is coy, deliberate in her sensual, slow delivery. She knows how to draw out a description for maximum effect. This is a woman who is sexually charged and knows it and she knows how to toy with these two men. Ben (Danny Ghantous) and Adam (David Reale) seem like innocent puppies when dealing with Sam, but they too rise (oops) to the occasion of the three enjoying themselves.

Finally Sonja is a woman of a certain age; smartly dressed but packed into a tight garment (my late mother’s word for something that gives the body a firm look) to achieve that look. She takes off her clothes to get a sense of relief. She examines her body in the mirror with both a hint of confidence and perhaps disappointment. She has hired a young man to come to her room for sexual pleasure. He’s early. His name is Cal. (She can’t believe that). She’s not prepared and she’s annoyed. She’s also nervous. Cal is boyish and confident in his abilities with this older woman. But then the tables turn. Sonja finds her confidence and loses her nervousness. The pleasure she has exploring Cal’s body, and his finding pleasure in this new situation is obvious too.

As Sonja, Jennifer Wigmore is stylish, but so beautifully vulnerable when this young man arrives. Her confidence builds gradually and it is totally credible. As Cal, Tyler Stentiford is buff, disarming and exudes a compelling sexuality. And while this is a business transaction there is pleasure in it.

Salvatore Antonio not only wrote this intriguing, arresting play, he also directs it with a dandy sense of how to establish the intimate relationships without making them look contrived. The sex is the least of it. The vulnerability and intense intimacy is everything.

Comment. Salvatore Antonio wanted to explore intimacy and vulnerability in this neutral space—a hotel room. Sex is always in the room in one way or another, as is nudity in one way or another. This remount of the production that first played in 2016 at Video Fag has been completely recast and one scene has been added, the one with Michael who has no arms. It would be a no-brainer to conclude that Antonio wrote this scene for Prince Ampansah. To begin the play with this achingly intimate arresting scene is masterful. We see a man terribly damaged, needing help with his buttons and not embarrassed to ask for it. Michael’s partner in this journey to intimacy is Lucia, the maid for that room. With kindness, tenderness, unselfconscious conversation Lucia helps Michael into his suit. This is one kind of intimacy and it is breathtaking. It is a fitting beginning to explore other kinds of intimacy through the play.

Beautiful work by all. Fascinating play.

Veritas Theatre presents

From: March 23, 2017.
To: April 9, 2017.
Saw it: April 1, 2017.
Cast: 9; 5 men, 4 women
Running Time: 90 minutes.

Box Office: 416-538-0988

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Review: KISS

by Lynn on April 3, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Upstairs.

Written by Guillermo Calderón
Directed by Ashlie Corcoran
Set by Jung-Hye Kim
Costumes by Jackie Chau
Lighting by Rebecca Picherack
Sound by Christopher Stanton
Video designer, Alex Williams
Cast: Dalal Badr
Liza Balkan
Greg Gale
Carlos González-Vío
Naomi Wright
Bahareh Yarahgi

A play that appears to be about something innocuous turns into a play appearing to be about something of tremendous importance, that has the Canadian cast trying to understand the subtleties and symbolic references of another country, with more twists and turns, which results in a maddening exercise that could be best titled: “The playwright jerks the audience and cast under the guise of social and political commentary.”

The Story. Damascus, 2014. Two couples—Bana and Youssif and Ahmed and Hadeel– meet at Hadeel’s appartment to watch a soap opera. Youssif arrives early to tell Hadeel that he is in love with her. She is aghast. What will Bana say? Carlos arrives and confides to Youssif that he will propose to Hadeel. Bana arrives to confess that she kissed someone. And the story goes from there

The Production. The only indication that we are in a war-torn country at the top of the play is the projection, “Damascus 2014.” As the soap opera unfolds the presentation is a simple melodrama. The two couples get together but the relationships begin unravelling as Youssif and Hadeel try to hide what is going on between them from their respective partners. The delivery is earnest and sincere if a bit overwrought and matters become more and more complicated.

In way too short a time for the evening to be over the four actors take their bows. The woman who plays Bana introduces herself as Dalal, (the actress’s real name) and that she is also the director of that play. (Hmmm). She tells us that she found (all four of the actors in this section are Canadian) the play on the internet and it was written by Ameera Al Diri, a Syrian playwright and the cast tried to find her on the internet and thank her for the play and ask her some questions. By a circuitous route they did find Ameera Al Diri and interviewed her with the help of her translator, on Skype. The interview was projected on the back wall of the theatre.

The respectful cast asks her questions in turn. They mention the political situation in Syria and ask about the play. The actors are shocked when they learn that aspects in the play they thought innocuous—the kiss, the cough that a character has—are really symbolic of deeper things. More information is revealed.

The cast perform the play again in light of this new information. This time they are frantically energized; there is an edge to the dialogue they speak; it’s almost aggressive. The anger ramps up. They are playing the subtext now and we are all in on it. There is another revelation this time for the audience. And finally as the audience is leaving when the play is well and truly over, there is one final surprise.

The cast is committed and compelling in their intense efforts to be true to what they believe is a deeply political story and not the superficial melodrama on which they had been working. Director, Ashlie Corcoran keeps a firm hand guiding her cast as they negotiate the melodrama of the relationships of the two couples, then ramps up the pace and the intensity when the cast‘ revise’ their performance style to accommodate the information they have learned from Ameera Al Diri and her interpreter. The actors are all exemplary, whether they think they are performing in a melodrama or an intense political play.

Comment. I will quote from the press information to provide as much context as possible. From the press release: “What sets out as a Syrian melodrama quickly takes an unexpected turn—is anything really what it appears to be? Intersecting the personal, political and theatrical, KISS breaks open cultural barriers, challenging us to confront the limits of our own understanding….War and political upheaval have deeply informed the award-winning work of New York-based Chilean playwright/director/screenwriter Guillermo Calderón.”

Director Ashlie Corcoran says: “I am driven by questions of authenticity, interpretation and accessibility when bringing international work to Canada”

From Matthew Jocelyn, the Canadian Stage Artistic and General Director says: “KISS is an essential play, a necessary play. It is a rare opportunity to delve into experiences of sameness and difference and examine the ever-transient world we live in today….We are delighted to be collaborating with Theatre Smash ..and with partner-company ARC, to share this deeply thoughtful and highly unexpected portrait of creation in troubled times.”

In the scene with Ameera Al Diri it’s obvious she is in disguise with her blonde wig and sun glasses. Her interpreter is not disguised. That Al Diri needs a translator at all is puzzling since she does speak English. In fact the way Liza Balkan as the interpreter interprets almost makes her dialogue seem as if it’s a made up language. If it’s Arabic it is not clear. This in term makes one question the eye-brow knitting symbolic references to what the word KISS means as well as the cough from which one of the characters suffers, in the context of Syrian life.

At this point in the proceedings, I think this is a send up. I get the sense that the Skype scene is sending up the committed, concerned actors, and by extension, jerking the audience. When the actors re-enact what they thought was a melodrama they now treat it as if it’s an urgent political play and perform it at breakneck speed with intense body language and shouted dialogue. When they don’t feel that really works, they do it again only faster and louder. At this point my good eye is rolling. If the playwright’s intension (In know it looks like there are two playwright’s, there aren’t but I can’t explain it because that gives away a ‘surprise’) is to examine war and upheaval; to break open “cultural barriers, challenging us to confront the limits of our own understanding” then this isn’t the play to do it. With every twist and turn in the plot the intension becomes less and less clear until finally it just seems like a wank. Is KISS really a deeply thought play of substance and I’ve missed the point? Guillermo Caderón has not written the play so that there is any character to care about, and one can’t care just because we are in Syria. The playwright has to write the substance in his play, credibly, not just assume I can put in all the stuff he hasn’t. A wank.

A Theatre Smash and ARC Co-production in partnership with Canadian Stage.

Opened: March 30, 2017.
Closes: April 16, 2017.
Cast: 6;2 men, 4 women
Running Time: 80 minutes

www.canadianstage.com

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