Review: THE CODE

by Lynn on December 10, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Young People’s Theatre, in the Studio, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Rachel Aberle

Directed by Patrick McDonald

Costume and Sound by Elizabeth Wellwood

Set by Ruth Bruhn

Cast: Elizabeth Barrett

Nathan Kay

Mason Temple

Writer Rachel Aberle puts us right in the world and mind of today’s teens in this gripping play about how simple ideas can be misinterpreted and then spread by a lack of thought and the speed of the internet. The production is terrific.

The Story. “The Code” refers to the dress code for young women for an upcoming dance at a high school. It seems that a young woman was sexually assaulted by a young man because she was dressed provocatively according to the school administration. So for the dance the school has decreed how a young woman should dress.

Moira, about 17 takes exception to this. She feels the school administration should focus on the young man’s behaviour and not how a young woman dresses. Moira proves her point by saying the young woman was dressed in a floor length dress that was not revealing. She holds a rally to gain support. The school reacts by cancelling the dance. The student body turn on Moira because of this cancellation.

Her two friends, Simon and Connor, support her in her indignation at the turn of events. Simon is secretly in love with Moira. For Moira, Simon is her best friend and that’s it, even though they go on a ‘date.’ Connor urges Simon to tell Moira how he feels. Simon, awkward at the best of times, musters the gumption and tells Moira. In the kindest of ways, Moira says she doesn’t feel that way about him and she’s sorry he misinterpreted her friendship. Simon is hurt and embarrassed at his admission to her and does something terrible by social media—he posts a doctored video of Moira speaking to the student body at the rally. It goes viral. Moira can’t stop it or offer the truth. She is bombarded by bullying remarks. She feels her life is over. When she leans the truth from Simon she reacts in a blunt, honest way. She is given solace by Connor, but makes sure their friendship is understood to be ‘friendship’ and nothing more.

This info does not reveal the whole play, but focuses on how important these details are.

The Production. Ruth Bruhn’s set is very simple: a back wall suggesting the school with a structure or two to sit or stand on. The costumes for the three characters are typical of high school students: hoodies, jeans, t-shirts.

There is an easy rapport between the actors: Elizabeth Barrett as a forthright Moira, Nathan Kay as the awkward Simon in puppy-love with Moira and Mason Temple as Connor, thoughtful, intelligent and knows how to weigh the arguments. It’s directed by Patrick McDonald with his usual clear vision and efficient staging to guide the actors to do justice to their parts and the story. The revelations and results are swift and you get the breathless sensation at how fast a rumour travels with a click of ‘send’, changes, twists on itself and ruins reputations until trying to stop and correct the inaccuracies are futile.

Rachel Aberle has written a compact, taut play that creates that fragile world of today’s teenager. It seems to be a world where pausing to think before hitting ‘send’ is getting rarer and rarer. I was shaken by how swift Simon reacted to Moira’s revelation—that she did not like him in the way he liked her—resulted in his recklessly sending a damning e-mail into the internet. Simon’s seeming lack of conscience at someone he cared about came so fast and believably so, that it was and is unsettling. Aberle has created a balance in the three characters. Moira and Connor are responsible and pause to think, and while Simon may be decent deep down, he does a reckless thing and almost ruins a person’s life. These are totally believable events and Aberle captures them beautifully. The language is captivating, articulate and appropriate.

Comment. I love being unsettled and unbalanced by this play. I love seeing these plays in a student audience the ages of the characters in the play. I love how these young people  react instantly to something they agree with or are upended by in the play and the air is a hiss of their whispering to each other. They can’t contain themselves. Wonderful. And their comments are interesting too.

What a play! Typical of the good works from Green Thumb Theatre, and bravo to Young People’s Theatre for continuing to being them here with their bracing plays and productions.

Green Thumb Theatre Presents:

Began: Nov. 27, 2018.

Closes: Dec. 14, 2018.

Running Time: 55 minutes.


At the Commons, 587a College St., Toronto, Ont.

Written by Erin Courtney

Directed by Jay Turvey

Set and costumes by Christine Urquhart

Composed by Paul Sportelli

Sound by James Smith

Lights by Mikael Kangas

Cast: Julia Course

Cameron Grant

Jeff Irving

Catherine McGregor

A quirky, odd and compelling production.

Alice (Catherine McGregor) is a magnet for the insecure, the overexcited, the narcoleptic and those deemed to be troublemakers. Alice motivates her followers to find their truth and run with it. She holds seminars for those followers who want to find their way. She encourages even the most questionable people, seeing only the positive in everybody. Her office manager is John (Jeff Irving), trim in a stylish suit and tie, who always thinks of making money and growing the company, even though Alice is not that interested. John is the narcoleptic. Louise (Julia Course), oddly dressed in miss-matched clothes, applies for a temp job at Alice’s office after she had a melt-down as an art history teacher. Louise comes under Alice’s wing and soon takes over for her leading the seminars. Arthur (Cameron Grant) is a young man who used to be in Louise’s art class, quit and is now an intern in Alice’s office.

When Alice’s beliefs are shattered because of an incident, she is unhinged in life and unseated in the office by the ambitious John and the newly confident Louise. Arthur realizes that all that Alice stood for and seemingly was supported by her staff of two, is now in jeopardy. John goes after making money and Louise flips the meaning of Alice’s positive message into something more ominous.  It’s left to Arthur to continue Alice’s message in his own way.

American writer Erin Courtney has written a quirky, odd play that riffs on the burgeoning self-help business. At its core is an interesting, reasonable message: to follow your truth and find the positive in the world. It’s interesting to see how greed and fear also appear to drive people in the play and that too is compelling to watch.

The cast and creatives of Theatre Animal Company, that is producing this compelling production, are members of the Shaw festival both past and present. Their work is dandy. Jay Turvey as director and Christine Urquhart as designer have created an economical production that flows seamlessly from scene to scene.

There is a wonderfully telling bit of business in which Alice instructs both John and Louise to move their desks together so that they are facing each other, interacting, connecting in the work place. When Alice is out of the picture John takes over and separates the desks so that he is in his own separate space and Louise is in hers; they don’t interact or seem to connect. John goes on to grow the company as he sees fit and Louise, now transformed into a stylishly dressed, frighteningly confident speaker with an unsettling message.

Catherine McGregor as Alice, is calm, focused and draws everybody in. Her gaze and conviction that everybody can be their best, is almost hypnotic. The body language is poised, open and trusting. When she loses her way she is almost fetal in her position in a chair, meek and completely unhinged. Julia Course as Louise is careless in dress and attitude as a teacher out of her element and a temp in Alice’s office. She transformed into a confident, take-no-prisoners person when she ‘spiffs-up,’ dresses for success and finds she rocks as a speaker. Jeff Irving, always a tight smile as John, is driven (except when he nods off in the middle of a sentence), efficient, and a corporate animal. This is a smooth operator. Cameron Grant plays Arthur as a sweet, often lost, but eventually found, confident man who believes in Alice’s mantra. He is the one character who is able to carry on from where Alice left off.

Paul Sportelli, the gifted music director of the Shaw Festival provides the music. Besides composing for the production he also programmed Vivaldi’s “Summer” from his  “Four Seasons” as the signature music for the production. Brilliant and impish. The music is frenzied, full of heat, distraction and stuff to race the heart. Perfect for Alice the Magnet.

Last year Theatre Animal Company presented the equally compelling play Grimly Handsome. This year they invite you to join them for Alice the Magnet. Feel the pull. Give in. See it.

Theatre Animal Company presents:

Closes: Dec. 9, 2018.

Running Time: 90 minutes.



{ 1 comment }

At the Elgin Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Matt Murray

Inspired by L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Directed and choreographed by Tracey Flye

Set and costumes by Cory Sincennes

Sound by Peter McBoyle

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Projections designed by Cameron Davis

Cast: Eric Craig

Michael De Rose

Camille Eanga-Selenge

Eddie Glen

Sara-Jeanne Hosie

Matt Nethersole

Daniel Williston

Irreverent, topical, charming and one of the best productions of the yearly pantomime to come out of Ross Petty Productions.

 The Story.  This is the annual Ross Petty pantomime with a twist.  He has not been in these productions for a few years but his presence is in every word.

The story takes place in Toronto and Oz. Dorothy is a lovely environmentally conscious, politically aware young woman who lives in Toronto and feels things are getting out of hand.  Miss Gulch is a rich landlord who wants to gouge her tenants by raising the rent 20%. She wants them out so she can build a big polluting factory. She does not believe in climate change and wants to destroy the environment and make lots of money. Dorothy tries to stand up to her.

Then there is that tornado that blows her and some of her friends to a strange and colourful land where they meet odd people, including Sulphura, a terrible witch, who looks a lot like Miss Gulch.

The Production. This is the 23rd year that Ross Petty has been producing these family musicals based on fractured fairy tales, or beloved books given a twist.

This is a typical twisted (or ‘twistered’ family musical to a point. We still have a story of good vs. evil. There is a villain—or villainess in the case of Miss Gulch. There are the decent people—Dorothy and her friends, and even Sulphura’s side kick, Randy is secretly fed up with her bad behaviour and is really a good guy. There are topical jokes, some rather risqué humour for the adults and lots of interplay with the audience and the kids in the crowd. And like a well oiled machine the audience knows instinctively when to boo. Of course it helps that the chords of foreboding that play just before Sulphura’s entrance give a good indication when to puff up to boo.

 I say this is typical to a point. How is this production of The Wizard of Oz: A Toto-ly Twistered Family Musical different?

It’s one of the best productions of these pantos I’ve seen in a long time.  Matt Murray has written one of the best scripts for this show. The jokes are sharp, funny and clever. The story is topical and local. It’s about the environment, climate change, affordable housing, fairness in politics and wanting to serve the people. It takes place on Ossington during its annual summer street fair.  It has a lovely dog playing Toto.  And the talent is terrific.

Dorothy is played by Camille Eanga-Selenge who is feisty and a powerhouse singer.

Eddie Glen plays Randy with his usual impish flair and he also plays the mysterious wizard. Glen is a mainstay of these productions.  He’s always wonderful.  Miss Gulch and Sulphura are played by Sara-Jeanne Hosie. She earns every boo. She owns the stage; she stares down and challenges the audience. She takes no prisoners and she’s wonderful.

There is a creature named Sugarbum who is a hapless fairy who mixes things up and gets things wrong. She is played by Michael de Rose in his debut here, and he’s hilarious, quick, seemingly offhanded and a total joy. Many of the main cast are debuting here and they are so solid in their roles.

It’s directed and choreographed by Tracey Flye. She has created a world of neon colour, wit, dazzle and eye-popping images.  The choreography is dazzling. The production is slick. It never drags except for the insertion of those annoying but funny ads from their sponsors.  But that’s a quibble.  This is a strong, tight, very funny show.  Loved it!

Comment. See It!

Produced by Ross Petty Productions.

Opened: Dec. 6, 2018.

Closes: Jan. 5, 2018.

Running Time:  2 hours, 30 minutes.



At the Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Book by Julian Fellowes

Based on the Paramount Movie written by Mike White

Lyrics by Glenn Slater

New music by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Directed by Laurence Connor

Choreographed by JoAnn M. Hunter

Set and costumes by Anna Louizos

Lighting by Natasha Katz

Sound by Nick Potter

Cast: Merritt David Janes

Madison Micucci

Layne Roate

Lexie Dorsett Sharp

Wild, rocking; a shiftless musician becomes responsible when he teaches uptight privileged kids who loosen up and find their inner rock star.

The Story. Dewey is a loser. He’s thrown out of his rock band for various reasons. He’s crashing on the couch of his friend Ned and Ned’s wife Patty. Patty is miffed that Dewey doesn’t pay rent, sleeps all day and doesn’t help out. Patty leans on mild Ned to tell Dewey to leave.

One day Dewey answers the phone at Ned’s house and learns that there is a substitute teaching job opening for Ned and Dewey pretends to be Ned to take the much needed job. Dewey shows up at this private school looking like his usual dishevelled self. And he’s an hour late for the class. He is to teach regular subjects but Dewey wants to teach them rock and roll. These kids don’t know ‘from rock and roll’ and Dewey takes it upon himself to teach them.

It turns out that Dewey unleashes the inner rock star of each of these repressed, prim and proper kids. He whips them into a frenzied kind of shape to form a band and the rest is a lot of loud riffing.

 The Production. Imagine it, a musical produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber, with new music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and it’s fun, raucous and enjoyable. No lush orchestrations, even though the Lord Lloyd Webber did the orchestrations.

Julian Fellowes has left any hint of his writing of Downton Abbey outside and packed his book with irreverence and dialogue that zips along.  Fellowes captures the irreverence of Dewey and the upper-class snootiness of the kids before they see the light of rock and roll.

Laurence Connor directs making sure the pace is at break-neck speed and that Merritt David Janes as Dewey is always moving and breathless. Janes is a dynamo of the guitar. He sings with heart and rasp and with such energy I could not understand a lot of what he is singing. The others in the cast are clear. It’s rock music. Am I really supposed to understand the lyrics? Well, it would be helpful.

Lexie Dorsett Sharp as Rosalie, the up-tight principal of the private school, is compelling in her cool composure. You know that sparks will fly between Dewey and Rosalie. Ned is a wonderful wimp as played by Layne Roate and Patty is assertive and commanding because Madison Micucci plays her with such sass.

The young kids, all who seem to be eleven with the musical chops of people in their thirties, play their instruments live with heart and fierceness.

Comment. This is a musical that when you least expect it leaves you tapping your toe, bopping to the music, smiling unabashedly and thinking that owning the CD of School of Rock would be a good thing.

Presented by Mirvish Productions.

Opened: Nov. 28, 2018.

Closes: Jan. 6, 2019.

Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.


At the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Book by David Greig

Based on the book by Roald Dahl

Music by Marc Shaiman

Lyrics by Scott Wittman

Songs from the motion picture by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley

Directed by Jack O’Brien

Choreography by Joshua Bergasse

Set and costumes by Mark Thompson

Lighting by Japhy Weidman

Sound by Andrew Keister

Puppetry and illusion design by Basil Twist

Cast: Jessica Cohen

Madeleine Doherty

Kathy Fitzgerald

Nathaniel Hackmann

Claire Neumann

Daniel Quadrino

Amanda Rose

David Samuel

Clyde Voce

Noah Weisberg

Brynn Williams

Matt Wood

Rueby Wood

James Young

Terrific for kids and adults of all ages who like dazzle, pizzazz, loudness, charm, cute kids and seniors, lots of eye-popping distraction and chocolate. There is also a lovely moral  hidden in all that stuff and the mean kids get their just desserts and it doesn’t come with whipping cream.

 The Story.  Charlie is a sweet kid from a poor but loving family. He loves chocolate and he wants to win a contest to visit the Willy Wonka chocolate factory. But first he has to buy a special chocolate bar and he doesn’t have the money. By a miracle he gets one and enters the competition with the other four kids who have a special bar of chocolate. It’s a competition really between the privileged, spoiled, arrogant kids and the decent, kind, generous Charlie. Who will win???

 The Production.  The show of course is based on the Roald Dahl children’s book of the same name. Charlie loves chocolate. He also has the most wonderful imagination and thinks of all manner of ideas related to candy. He writes to the mysterious Willy Wonka who owns the chocolate factory and includes his suggestions. And of course he hopes he wins the contest.

In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Charlie has the love and support of his family, especially his Grandpa Joe. But they too are suppressed by an unfair system that favours bad behaviour, money and status. But they carry on.

As seems to be the norm when adapting kids books to Broadway the production is overblown with blaring sound, dazzling, neon-coloured sets and costumes (thank you Mark Thompson), and eye-popping lighting effects (thank you Japhy Weidman).  And while some of the songs (by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley) are from the motion picture, the majority of them were written expressly for the musical by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

This is not to suggest that the show is cheesy. No Sir. A lot of talented people had input in this enterprise. Jack O’Brien is a smart, intelligent director who has done justice to such musicals as Hairspray and the Full Monty.  And he has been equally successful in directing such challenging plays as The Coast of Utopia, Henry IV, Macbeth and The Nance to name a few. He directs Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with flair, imagination and a sense of whimsy. Basil Twist did his magic in creating the puppets, especially for the diminutive Oompa Loompas. It’s a joke that keeps on giving. Their creation is brilliant.

As Charlie, Rueby Wood has confidence and sweetness for days. He plays Charlie’s innocence, his moral centre without being prickly about it and his boyishness. Plus he sings beautifully. Willy Wonka is played by Noah Weisberg with both a sense of reserve and an impish streak that gives the spoiled brats their comeuppance, but has a keen sense of who is decent, as Charlie is.

The rest of the cast is strong and engaging.

Comment. There is nothing sweet and sentimental about Dahl’s kids’ books. They are dark in tone, attitude and generally show the challenging world that kids live in.

Certainly in Matilda we saw a plucky little girl named Matilda who had terrible parents, a brute of a head mistress in her school and all manner of challenges in just getting through the day. She also had a kind librarian who encouraged and supported her in her love of books.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has its own sense of darkness when Charlie has to go up against kids who have had more privilege then he has; who have more money and are spoiled rotten. Charlie can see the inequity in it all but he has character, and the others don’t. In the end that’s what makes the difference.

Mirvish Productions presents:

Opened: Nov. 21, 2018.

Closes: Jan. 6, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.



by Lynn on December 3, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Theatre Passe Muraille, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Christopher Morris

Directed by Daniel Brooks

Set and costumes by Gillian Gallow

Lighting by Bonnie Beecher

Composer and sound design by Alexander MacSween

Cast: Gord Rand

A beautiful, gripping production of a compelling story about a man who just wanted to do good.

The Story. Jacob is an orthodox Jew who is single, lives with his mother and is a volunteer paramedic with Z.A.K.A, a group that goes around Israel and internationally collecting the body parts, skin and blood of Jews involved in terrorist attacks. He has no other life/job but this one and he takes it very seriously. (Note traditionally Jews must be buried intact, hence the need to collect the body parts from a terrorist attack etc. for a proper burial.)

One day he comes upon an Israeli soldier lying dead in the road and near him is a young Arab woman who has been shot in the back. She is still alive and Jacob goes to her to try and save her life. He is reprimanded by the others in his group and by his superior for helping the Arab who they assume killed the soldier. Jacob can’t assume anything because he wasn’t there. All he saw was a woman in need of help and since he took an oath to “do no harm” he helped her. He has been taking criticism and enduring the bad treatment of his co-workers, his mother and his righteous brother. All of this leaves him conflicted about what he should have done and knowing he did right.

 The Production. Daniel Brooks directs this production with his usual flair creating vivid images, stark lighting (thank you Bonnie Beecher) and directs a performance of Gord Rand as Jacob that is full of generosity, heart, air-gulping life, confusion, determination and compassion. There is such a firm but gentle hand in the direction; the orchestration of when to run, walk, speed up and shade the dialogue.

Because Jacob must be ready at a moment’s notice to rush to an incident, accident, terrorist attack, Jacob is always rushing. To create this sense of constant movement Gord Rand as Jacob does the whole play on a narrow, long strip of the stage that juts out into the space in front of the audience. It is in fact a treadmill. Beams of light from Bonnie Beecher’s stark design pour down on him. Sometimes he runs but it’s not enough to stop him being sucked into the black of upstage. Very effective image, a voice coming from the dark void upstage.

Often he is running as the treadmill speeds up. He talks urgently of what he has discovered. He talks with speed, purpose and determination of giving the Arab woman CPR and mouth to mouth resuscitation to keep her alive.

There are also moments when the treadmill slows and Jacob walks and ponders the things he has encountered and remembers. Moments in his life. He notes that his mother always has dinner ready for him but never knows if he will be home to eat it. She wants him to get married. She hasn’t twigged to the fact that that won’t happen.

There are moments when there is a loud bang sound; Jacob is on the ground and thinks he’s wet. He gets up confused about what has happened. He continues walking. His righteous brother has a job and is prosperous and has contempt for Jacob because Jacob does not have a job; he doesn’t pay taxes; he lives with their mother. In a blistering speech Jacob’s brother feels Jacob he is useless and should go back to London to live and get a job. His brother has disgust for his brother for saving the Arab girl and has contempt for all Arabs. Jacob asks his brother how he can live there under such circumstances and Jacob said his brother yelled: “BECAUSE IT’S MINE!” It’s a particularly chilling moment in a production full of them.

Gord Rand gives a towering performance as Jacob. Jacob is thoughtful, fastidious in a way, desperate to pass on good will to his fellow Jews and towards others, There is such detail, from trying to keep his yarmulke on his head, to his adjusting his glasses up on his nose with his finger,  Of course there is stamina, energy and a sense of exhaustion as Rand runs and walks for the whole hour of this important show. It’s not exhausting for the audience, interestingly enough. It’s the message that writer Christopher Morris wants us to hear and what we realize happens at the end that leaves us emotionally drained.

Jacob sees the negative attitudes around him. He knows in his heart he did right for saving the Arab girl. He is a mensch. And while we know he is kind he laments that that is a rare emotion with his fellow Jews? Volunteers? He does find kindness in the most unexpected place and while the situation there in Israel seems so hopeless that moment of kindness leads one to be optimistic.

Comment. I read somewhere that the basis of Judaism is that it is ‘life-affirming, man-revering.” That is embodied in every single thing that Jacob does in his life. He wants to save lives, no matter whose life it is: Arab, Jew, Palestinian. A life is a life. “Do no harm.”

Christopher Morris has written a compact, taut play that depicts in Jacob’s clear, pristine dialogue the history of the Jews coming to this rocky land with no oil or resources because it was promised to them. Through Jacob we glean the animosity of Jew against Jew and the thorny relationship with the Arabs.

Morris has created in Jacob a generous, open-hearted, gentle man who is searching to do good, to be scrupulous in that search. He is mindful of the explosive nature of his surroundings and tries to hold on to his humanity and find it in others. It’s a measured look at a situation that can be so lopsided. It’s an emotional exhausting,  eye-opening, gripping piece of theatre and I did what I usually do when I see something as moving as this about a troubling subject: I sobbed all the way to the car.

A Human Cargo Theatre Production with the support of Theatre Passe Muraille.

Opened: Nov. 10, 2018.

Closes: Dec. 9 2018.

Running Time: 65 minutes, no intermission.


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

Written by Duncan MacMillan with Johnny Donahoe

Directed by Brendan Healy

Set and costumes by Victoria Wallace

Lighting by Steve Lucas

Sound by Richard Feren

Cast: Kristen Thomson

Joyous, dense, moving and so beautifully done.

 The Story. I saw Johnny Donahoe do this play at the Edinburgh Festival a few years ago. He’s a British comedian who is noted as a co-writer on the play.  For our purposes Kristen Thomson is doing the play so all the pronouns are for a woman.

A seven year old kid makes a list of brilliant things in the world, everything worth living for to cheer up her mother who has attempted suicide. Number 1 is ice cream, going on to the colour yellow, water fights. Etc.  The kid imagines about 300 or so brilliant things and then leaves it for about 10 years.

At 17 the young woman falls in love with a young man she sees in their school library. He is another student who also loves books. She introduces herself  and they become friends, exchanging books etc. One of the books he is loaned has the forgotten list tucked in the book. When he gives the book back she finds the list and that he has added his own brilliant things. Over time the reason for the list shifts to the young woman as she grows up, marries, etc. and has her own issues. The list becomes something she needs in her life, the additions are more introspective, thoughtful, mature.

The Production. The audience and its participation are vital to this production. Without the audience you don’t have a show.  There are situated on all four sides of the playing area.

Kristen Thomson, who plays the girl and later the woman, greets us in our seats as people sit down. She gives out cards with a number and a word or two after it. She tells us that when she calls out a number we are to read what’s on our card. These cards represent the list.

When the play proper is to begin, the lights get brighter in the playing area (they are still on in the audience) and Thomson walks around the space and the talking stops. The power of that one actress to command her audience is awesome.

She talks about her first brush with death—the death of her dog, Sherlock Bones. A member of the audience is chosen to play the vet who will tend to the pet. With consideration Thomson guides the woman chosen on what to say and how to play it.  So the death of her dog is this young kid’s first experience of sadness cased by a death.

Thomson as the little girl tells the story of how she found out about her mother’s first attempt at suicide and how she started the list to cheer her up.  Thomson calls out “Number 1” And I dutifully read out “Ice cream” on my #1 card. She says: “Number 2” and gets a response and on and on until Number 7 and the response—“People falling down”– and Thomson laughs at the silliness and sweetness of the brilliant thing. In between these two numbers we also hear about the colour yellow and water fights as beautiful things.  Needless to say, the list when she was seven is sweet, simple and infantile.

The list from when she was 17 on is more mature, introspective, and gets away from material things.  Sometimes an audience member must play the boyfriend, or her father, or a school counselor. There is such a generosity both from Kristen Thomson and the audience that getting involved is not an awkward thing. And it certainly makes a difference that there is a gifted, nuanced actress playing the lead. Donahoe was funny and accommodating but Kristen Thomson has more depth as an actress and is so sensitive she knows where and how to dig.  There is such detail in everything she says, and kindness when dealing with the audience. We listen hard because she makes us willingly sit forward and hang on every single word.

It’s beautifully directed by Brendan Healy who knows how to get Kristen Thomson to use the space, engage with the audience, give shading and breath and how to make a moment that resonates just by pausing and letting the idea have space to expand.

And of course it gets us to think of what we would put on our list of every brilliant thing that makes our lives better, calmer or more brilliant.

Comment. A friend reminded me of Jordan Tannahill’s play Declarations that he wrote on a plane as he jetted back home to be with his mother when she learned she had cancer. The ‘declarations’ were various aspects of what made up a life and humanity.

In Every Brilliant Thing as the woman grew older the items on the list changed to reflect a mature life. The reason also changed from having to cheer up an unhappy mother, to helping a troubled woman find her own grounding.

Every Brilliant Thing is a wonderful piece of theatre for what it says about life and how a theatre audience of strangers becomes a cohesive community celebrating those things that make up a life.

Add to the list: # gazillion and one: going to a wonderful play and production called Every Brilliant Thing and after the show finding your car has been towed (no one steals a 1998 Toyota Corolla with a bit of rust) and your friend looks up the number for the police so you can call them to find out where the car is, drives you to the pound to get it and waits until you can drive it away (after paying the fine and getting the ticket).

Canadian Stage presents:

Opened: Nov. 29, 2018.

Closed: Dec. 16, 2018.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

{ 1 comment }

Review: SCORCH

by Lynn on November 30, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Stacey Gregg

Directed by Brenley Charkow.

Production designed by Alison Yanota

Sound by Leif Ingebrigtsen

Choreography by Ainsley Hillyard

Cast: Julie ‘NIUBOI’ Ferguson

 Gently incendiary.

 The Story. KES says: “First I was a boy.  Then I was eleven. Then I grew boobs.”

That last is a shock and disconcerting to Kes. When Kes is older, about 17, Kes finds Jules on the internet. They hit it off on line. Jules thinks Kes is a man or at least a teenaged boy.  Kes does not tell her otherwise.  Jules wants to Skype and of course Kes hesitates. But they Skype and that goes well. Then Jules wants to meet and that goes well.

And finally they ‘consummate” the relationship with Kes being discrete and in using a strap-on sex toy, soft, supple, and natural looking.

Then one day Kes comes home and finds her parents with a paper between them. The paper is from the police charging Kes with deception in not revealing Kes’ gender and for sexual assault when Kes used the sexual device for what was consensual sex.

There is a court date and through it all we see Kes’ confusion and awkwardness to what is happening.  Never do we hear how Kes identifies, hence my hesitation to use, she/her, he/him or they/them.

The real case defines Justine McNally as non-binary. I’ll use the pronouns “they/them” from now on.

When Kes got the paper that charged her they were so shocked and confused. They didn’t think they did anything wrong and was stunned to see they were charge with sexual assault and deception. Their parents were aghast, condemning Kes as a freak.

The Production: The production is terrific. And Stacey Gregg’s play is too.   It’s by a company named Bustle and Beast that’s not from around here.

The set by Alison Yanota is stark and beautiful. A sheet of foil coloured material hangs down at the back. Three Plexiglas figures sit in chairs in various poses: one with legs crossed, two others with legs sprawled. They have a light where the heart should be.

They are haunting.  They look unfriendly and why not—everybody in the play is unfriendly to Kes. Her friends, if they ever had any have disappeared.  Their parents think Kes is a freak. Kes has lost Jules.

Julie “NIUBOI” Ferguson plays Kes as both naively innocent and sweet.  Ferguson identifies as they/them.  Ferguson is slim, youthful, wears a hoodie, pants, trainers and a toque that covers their head except for the ears.  Ferguson so easily conveys Kes’ exuberance, curiosity and eagerness to start her life.

At first Kes/Ferguson sits in the audience (in a reserved seat on the aisle) in front of me. They are quiet and still until the music starts and then they quietly move to the music. At a certain point they rise and walk onto the stage to start the show.

At times Julie ‘NIUBOI’ Ferguson comes into the audience and looks you hard straight in the eye. You don’t want to look away but give back that concentration in equal measure, to engage with the performance.

Brenley Charkow directs this with sensitivity.  Because of Charkow’s detailed direction I believe the world Kes is in—brutal, cold, lacking in understanding and sensitivity.

It’s a delicate but fierce performance.  And heartbreaking.

Comment. Scorch by Stacey Gregg is based on a true case from Britain in 2013, about Justine McNally, a non-binary teen who was charged with sexual assault for not disclosing their gender to their partner. They were just seventeen and they did jail time. Julie ‘NIUBOI’s’ performance is so compelling, without rage or rancor but full of confusion at how this can happen, that we are drawn right into the story and that life.

This is a small company from Western Canada and they have brought us a powerful play with an equally powerful production and they are worth our time and attention.

Presented by Bustle and Beast in Association with Blarney Productions.

Scorch plays at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace until Dec. 2.



At the Five Points Theatre, Barrie, Ont.

Text by John Cameron Mitchell

Music and lyrics by Stephen Trask

Directed by Joe Pagnan

Musical direction by Giustin MacLean

Associate set and props designer, Abigail Palmer

Costumes by Marianne Jette

Lighting and projections by Jeff Pybus

Sound by Adam Harendorf

Cast: David Ball

Gabi Epstein

Musicians: Iain Leslie

Erik Larson

Duncan Stan

Pieter Huyer

Irreverent, funny, touching,  beautifully performed and produced.

The Story. Hedwig was born Hansel in East Berlin. He always felt trapped: trapped in that section of the divided city, trapped in a man’s body when he considered himself something else and dressed that way; trapped in a society who did not accept this situation.

Hansel had encounters with men. Tommy was one of them, a young man who wanted to be a rock star. Hansel helped Tommy write many hit songs (without credit as it turned out).  Then Hansel met and fell in love with a GI who wanted to marry him/her and take him/her back to the States. A little operation was necessary before they could to that. The operation was botched leaving “one angry inch” of what was once Hansel. The result is Hedwig, a transgender woman sheathed in glitter and sarcasm.

Hedwig tells her story with all the gory, angry bits kept in. She is her own kind of rock star and is aided by her long suffering “husband” Yitzhak.

The Production. Arkady Spivak, the endlessly creative Artistic Producer of Talk is Free Theatre, has a keen eye for talent and how to challenge that talent. So we have actors being stretched in various productions you might not have considered they would play. The same thing with directors.

Joe Pagnan is known mainly as a gifted, inventive stage designer. Witness his wonderful work in creating the world of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street in the Curious Voyage, or Amadeus, Candide, Sunday in the Park with George all at Talk is Free, or Theory at Tarragon in Toronto. Pagnan has an innate sense of what these worlds are like and with economy he creates them, making sure the audience imagines the rest.

Spivak saw in Pagnan a budding director and naturally ‘cast’ him to direct Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Wonderful decision.

Aided by his creative team: sets by Associate Abigail Palmer, costumes by Marianne Jette and lights and projections by Jeff Pybus, Joe Pagnan has created the world of Hedwig. There are several old fashioned television sets that blink screens full of static, or newsreels of the day, or old television shows that in a way comment on Hedwig’s story.

The air is hazy with ‘fog’; the lights pour down in bright cones. There is a cheesiness to it all that exemplifies Hedwig’s (David Ball) world. Hedwig makes her appearance in a burst of rock music and a blast of ‘smoke’ and light. She wears a long, full blond wig with braid-like stuff on the crown. It’s a wig that suggests a Gretel more than a Hansel. The costume is glittery and suggestive of a very brief skirt. She wears high-heeled boots, glitter on her eye-lids, glistening lipstick and she is dripping in attitude and arrogance.

David Ball, as Hedwig is sassy, flirty, seems to be adlibbing all over the place but I’m sure it’s all scripted or not, and knows how to play an audience like a kid at an arcade. Ball has such sashaying grace in those dangerous high-heels that I’m taking notes and am envious. And he sings in a strong, urgent, rock and roll voice. Intoxicating.

Yitzhak (Gabi Epstein) is a waif-like, diminutive, androgynous creature with quiet rage and patience who is Hedwig’s stage hand, butt of her jokes and ‘husband.’ In ‘his’ quiet way Yitzhak makes known his contempt for Hedwig with some well placed expletives and side-long glances at the audience that speak volumes. And since ‘he’ is played by Gabi Epstein the singing is divine.

It also has a wonderful balance in sound between the amplified band (wonderful group) and the amplified sings with one not drowning out the other. How rare is that??

Director Joe Pagnan has invested all sorts of smart details in the staging and the direction. It’s a raunchy, deliberately vulgar production with moments of touching sadness. It’s about loneliness with attitude to cover it up.

 Comment. Hedwig and the Angry Inch isn’t just a raunchy romp; it’s a show about being ‘other’, not fitting in and trying hard to do so. It’s about politics, displacement, gender issues, androgyny and rock and roll. The run is short. See it. Barrie is closer than you think.

Talk is Free Theatre presents:

Opened: Nov. 23, 2018.

Closes: Dec. 1, 2018.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

{ 1 comment }

At the Greewin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Mark Leiren-Young

Directed by Avery Saltzman

Set by Brandon Kleiman

Lighting by Siobhán Sleath

Costumres by Alex Amini

Sound by Emily Porter

Cast: Hannah Miller

Ralph Small

A funny, prickly play that will get you thinking about faith and belief; the production does the play proud.

The Story. Joey needs to have a bar mitzvah fast. Never mind that he’s a successful divorce lawyer, is over 60 years old, has a family and his grandson is about to have his bar mitzvah, Joey needs to have his bar mitzvah before his grandson.

He comes to Michael the rabbi of the synagogue for instruction. She tries to pass him over to another rabbi. You read that right, the rabbi is a “she” named Michael. Do you have a problem with that? Good, let’s continue.

Joey did study for his bar mitzvah when he was a kid but things didn’t work out. He now needs this to happen because he has let on that he in fact had his bar mitzvah and he doesn’t want to lie to his grandson. Along the way there are discussions about faith, belief, hope and what it means to be Jewish. Most important are the questions of why bad things happen to good people and how one can keep ones faith under such difficult circumstances

The Production. Set designer, Brandon Kleiman has designed a simple but impressive set of the rabbi’s office. There is a wood desk with two chairs set on a raised platform with two coat trees on either side of the office. Behind the desk is a floor to ceiling wall of books. Doesn’t that say everything about the rabbi, the world of scholarship, the history of Judaism? A wall of books. Loved that.

Playwright Mark Leiren-Young starts his play (and director Avery Saltzman’s lovely production) with a joke of mistaken identity. An older man (in his 60s) who looks prosperous and important enters the office. A younger woman in jogging gear runs around the raised platform and then runs into the office as well. We think the man is the rabbi and the woman has come to ask him something.

In fact the woman is the rabbi (Hannah Miller) and the man is Joey (Ralph Small) who has come to ask for a quickie course to get him ready to have his bar mitzvah before his grandson.

Avery Saltzman had directed Bar Mitzvah Boy with intelligence and terrific economy. There are several costume changes that also suggest scene changes. The rabbi and Joey are constantly putting on and taking off jackets, sweaters, coats or other clothing when they come into the office,  indicating a new scene is taking place. Often the rabbi does a complete change of clothing and so does that off stage.

Mark Leiren-Young has written dialogue that is fast, very funny, full of one-liners and quick repartee from two characters who make a living being quick witted.  Humour is the thing that makes life easier and bearable in the case of the rabbi and Joey.

There is a lovely chemistry between Ralph Small as Joey and Hannah Miller as the rabbi. They riff off each other. They listen intently and the reactions are natural, easy and true. Ralph Small brings out Joey’s irascible edge, his impatience and his need for things to happen fast. Joey hasn’t been to the synagogue in decades. Gradually Joey sees the need to go to synagogue because of his instruction for the rabbi. For her part Hannah Miller realizes the rabbi’s feisty nature, her quiet, quick ability to stare down and disarm a pushy, demanding man like Joey. Joey builds his faith and conviction as the rabbi is loosing her faith and conviction about God and the world. Together they have a meeting of the minds and are able to lead the other forward.

Comment.  Bar Mitzvah Boy is a sweet play with a lot of prickly bits. It addresses issues about faith and religion we all have had and it does it with humour, smart dialogue and two lovely performances. You should see it.

The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company present:

Opened: Nov. 22, 2018.

Closes: Dec. 2, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours approx.