Activities at the Junior Festival, Harbourfront, Toronto, Ont.

Harbourfront is hosting the Junior Festival for the second year in a row, over this long weekend, that caters to children 4 to 10 and older. It’s billed as ‘big thoughts for growing minds.” It’s a mix of ticketed shows in its various theatres and a lot of free events all over the Harbourfront site.

Woogie Boogie

Bush Theatre, (Republic of Korea)

Director, performer, Youngkyun Yeom

Performer: Heeae Lee, Seungeun Lee

Musician, Eunjae Sohn

“Woogie and his friend Boogie embark on a magical sea expedition when their trouble-making pet turtle drifts into the open water.”

The two performers: Heeae Lee and Seungeun Lee are young women and so I’m going to imagine that Woogie and Boogie are young women.  Woogie and Boogie are not identified clearly by who plays whom so I can’t attribute the actress to the character.  They establish the show by each drawing a large circle with a black magic marker on a portable whiteboard. Each woman takes her whiteboard into the audience and says “This is my face” and asks the child to draw her eyes, or nose or cheeks, mouth etc.

When they return to the stage and show the finished drawings to the audience the laugh level goes up. The two then draw on a large whiteboard on stage showing fish, a balloon with a face and all manner of sea animals. With the magic of technology the balloon with the face moves around the whiteboard; the features change from a smile to a frown. There is a bit of comic business with lights on the board. Each woman stands on either side of the board and draws a light switch with an on and off button. As one woman ‘pushes’ the “on” button on one side, the light goes on and goes dark on the other side of the board. When the other woman on her side presses her “on” button her light goes on and the light goes off on the other side. The split-second shift in light and dark is mighty impressive.

One woman draws a circle close to the edge of the board and then ‘pretends’ to blow into it as if it were a balloon. It expands with each puff. She ties it then it floats around the board. The imagination from this young company from Korea is very impressive. Musicians play keyboard and percussion. Another man takes care of technical bits. There are puppets, very clever drawings on the board that are eye popping.

The young boy beside me did not look too happy to be there. His father was beside him and talked to him sparingly. Before the show one of the performers gave high-fives to various kids in the theatre. He wasn’t one of them.  As the two women came into the audience with their whiteboard he slumped in his seat. One woman came over to him and asked him to draw her cheeks on her whiteboard. He didn’t hesitate. He drew a circle on either side of her round face on the whiteboard. He sat up after that. She ‘got’ him.’ He sat forward when the show started, concentrating on what was going on on stage. He laughed a lot. And he clapped at the end.  Wonderful.

May 20 is a relaxed performance.

For kids 4 +

Free Stuff.

Ants

Polyglot Theatre, Australia

Life-sized ‘ants’ roam the Harbourfront spaces encouraging young kids to leave ‘bread-crumbs’ all over the area. Several performers wear huge black headgear that look like the exaggerated head of an ant, with antennae, two large feelers, black tights with puffy knees, thighs and ankles. The feet are a regular person’s feet wearing black shoes. And the ants click when they walk; their hands are covered with black stretchy material and they hide castanets or something similar in their hands and click as they walk, letting people know they are coming. They are never intrusive. They lay down large pillow things (bread crumbs) and create a pattern. The kids then follow suit or not.  The ants are industrious, always working, walking, clicking and creating.

Fay and Fluffy’s Storytime

From Ontario

Drag performers Fay Slift and Miss Fluffy Soufflé read stories in the outdoor Stage in the Round. They make corny jokes and read stories with gentle morals about being kind and courageous—if they see someone being mean to another person they are to say “stop!” The costumes and wigs are outrageous, big and colourful. One wears a dotted muumuu,  an orange wig and has a full beard. The other has a white wig, a polka dotted top and a wild skirt. Their shoes are big and look comfortable.

Potato Soup

Laika from Belgium

On-line registration is recommended even though it’s free.

A woman enters the space breathlessly hoping she’s not too late. She has been asked to prepare soup for the classroom, so she gets comfortable. She puts on an apron and comfortable shoes. She has bowls, a contraption on which to chop and collect stuff for the soup, and even a portable sink that with the press of a foot dispenses water.

She brings out a huge pot and puts it on an element on which to cook the soup. She has a huge tub full of veggies. (she and her assistant had been chopping and dicing all morning). She tells us the secrets of an onion. I’m not telling. You see the show for yourself.

She pulls a parsley plant out of her purse and picks off some leaves for the soup. As she delicately does this she talks about her country of Slovenia and how it was plagued with war. And how her family was starving except for potatoes. Woow, what a segue. She talks about bombs dropping and accentuates this with aggressive chopping. A mandolin slices furiously through more veggies as she talks of machine guns. The juxtaposition is jarring but mighty impressive and appropriate. And the soup is delicious. She gave us the recipe.

Fashion Machine.

 Theatre Skam, British Columbia

“Imagine a live fashion show where the designers are children and audience members are the muses.” The young fashion designers pick willing participants in which their clothes will be reconfigured, decorated etc. culminating in a fashion show at the end.

The Jerry Cans

From Nunavut

This says it all: “Drawing inspiration from their hometown of Iqaluit, Nunavut, The Jerry Cans blend traditional Inuit throat singing with Inuktitut language roots-rock, adding a bit of Celtic punk to the mix to shake things up. Celebrate the May long weekend with a true-North concert that feels like a party.”  YES! They rock. They are loud and they are joyous. They did a cover of “Ahead by a Century” by the Tragically Hip, in Inuktitut.  How cool is that!

The Lemon Bucket Orkestra

 Ontario.

Toronto’s original guerrilla-folk music ensemble. The self-described Balkan-Kretzmer-Gypsy-Party-Punk Super Band had the people up and dancing at the Stage in the Round even when they were doing their sound check.

For full details: www.harbourfrontcentre.com

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The Sandbox

At Théâtre français de Toronto, 21 College St., 6th Floor, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Denys Lefebvre

Directed by Denys Lefebvre

Designed by Patrice Daigneault

Music by Guido Del Fabbro

Lighting by Thomas Godefroid

Marionnettes and costumes by Diane Loiselle

Cast: Denys Lefebvre

Diane Loiselle

A charming play in which two comedic characters both in toques, raincoats and boots explore the many ways of working with sand. They encircle their playing space with sand they get from a small paper bag. Sand pours from their coat sleeves. They play in a magical sand box with sand ‘water’ falls. They drag small carts around the space. It’s a show full of colour, imagination, creativity and whimsy. This was their first show in English.

The final show is in French on May 19 at 2 pm.

 

Mwana and the Turtle’s Secret

At the Assembly Hall, 1 Colonel Samuel Smith Park Dr. Etobicoke, Ont.

Adapted for the stage by Patricia Bergeron and Patience bonheur Fayulu Mupolonga

Story tellers and puppeteers, Patience Bonheur Fayulu Mupolonga and Patricia Bergeron

Visual Illustrations by Steve Beshwaty

Shadow Play by Marie-Ève Lefebvre, Patricia Bergeron, Salim Hammad and Patience Bonheur Fayulu Mupolonga

Set by Fanny Bisaillon Cendron

Lighting by Mathieu Marcil

Music by Dumisizwe Vuyo BhembeCredits

Mwana is a little girl who lives in a village deep in the forest. Her best friend is a turtle. When a monster keeps steeling the village’s food supply and the adults can’t solve the problem, Mwana offers a suggestion on how to solve the problem. She is initially ignored as being too young to solve such a problem. Eventually she wins the day.  The moral is that sometimes the very young are very wise and should be taken seriously.

The story is told using puppets, shadow play, storytelling and directly engaging the audience.

This is for children 3 +

The moral is lovely—pay attention to children for they are wise. The good people who created and perform this piece should take their own advice and note their audience because at 45 minutes in length, this piece is 15 minutes too long. The children will tell you. At my performance at various times they fidgeted, talked, squirmed and were bored. The piece could stand to be cut and edited judiciously.

The final show is May 19 at 11 am in English.

 

TWEET TWEET!

At the Redwood Theatre, 1300 Gerrard St. E, Toronto, Ont.

Created and choreographed by Lindsay Goodtimes, Holly Treddenick and Monica Dottor

Birdwatcher, Weston Horvath.

Performed by Lindsay Goodtimes and Holly Treddenick

Directed by Monica Dottor

Set by Kelsey Carriere

Sound by Monica Dottor

Lighting by Ian Goodtimes

Costumes by Tanis Sydney McArthur

TWEET TWEET! Is a gem of a show that is performed without words but plenty of bird sounds. Two small birds awake in their nests high in a magical tree (created with ropes), discover each other and the world in which they live. The gifted Monica Dottor directs and co-choreographed the piece. The birds wake up to the Flower Duet from Lakmé with liberal sprinklings of music from The Magic Flute, Ode to Joy, and others selections. Glorious.

For children 0-6.

It plays until May 20.

www.weefestival.ca

 

 

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

Created and performed by Jani Lauzon

Directed by Franco Boni

Environmental design by Melissa Joakim

Movement consultant, Julia Aplin

A deeply moving, eloquent exploration of what is sacred from the sky, the stars a pebble to a rock.

 The Story and production. Prophecy Fog by Jani Lauzon explores the question: “Can a site still be sacred if it has been desecrated?” Lauzon comes to the question with lots of experience and background. She is Métis and has had her mother, grandmother and elders to teach her to appreciate the world in which she lives: the air, rocks, water, sky, stars and earth.  She has been collecting rocks of all sorts her whole life. She says that each one has a story.

Melissa Joakim’s environmental design of the set is amazing in establishing Lauzon’s connection to rocks.  The audience sits in a circle in chairs or on pillows.  Inside the circle are bowls and bowls of rocks of various shapes and sizes from boulders to pebbles.

Lauzon stands in the centre, swaying and dancing on a round piece of red/orange material with spokes of material jutting out from it; it’s the sun I assume.  As the play goes on Lauzon upends the bowls of rocks, spreads them around the space, and even holds various ones up and tells us where she found it and what it means.  From her mother she learned that if you rub a rock in your hands and feel its warmth you will hear its stories.

Lauzon chose to investigate her question by going to the Mojave Desert in California, specifically to Giant Rock which had been revered and deemed sacred by the Indigenous peoples of the area. I believe Lauzon picked Giant Rock because it has been defaced with graffiti in spray paint and other materials and many of the writings are despicable.

In the theatre there is a bank of TV screens on one of the back walls for those of us lucky enough to face them so we can see video footage of the slogans that Lauzon took when she went to the site with her daughter.  (It’s unfortunate there isn’t another bank of TVs on the other wall behind us so that everybody can see what startling footage was taken of the trip.) “WHITE POWER” is prayed across one side of Giant Rock; a swastika is right under it.  There are not just one or two slogans; the face of the rock seems splattered with this stuff. So when Lauzon was filmed delicately, respectfully passing her hand over the rock, even including those areas with graffiti on it, she illuminated the sacredness of the rock in spite of the desecration of it by some cretins.  She answered her question.

The moments in that film are all the more poignant because Lauzon in person plays a tubed instrument that when blown sounds like a flute: mournful, somber and so moving.

Lauzon is a compelling storyteller with a dancer’s grace. The piece is directed with care by Franco Boni. There are moments of stillness, joy, sadness and a real sense of wonder at her vast collection of rocks.

Comment. Lauzon sets up the lead up to seeing the graffiti so that we have a vested interest in any rock let alone a sacred one. We won’t look at rocks in the same way after this show.  And she will have her audience wondering about the question too.

The Theatre Centre, Paper Canoe Projects and nightswimming present:

Opened: May 16, 2019.

Closes: May 26, 2019.

Running Time: 80 minutes.

www.theatrecentre.org

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At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney

Directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu

Set by Ken MacKenzie

Costumes by Rachel Forbes

Lighting by Raha Javanfar

Composer/musician, Kobèna Aquaa-Harrison

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Mazin Elsadig

Darren A. Herbert

Marcel Stewart

An elegant, fierce poem to brotherly love, temptation, devotion and wanting to belong.

 The Story.  The play was written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the screenplay for Moonlight and won the Academy Award for it.

We are in the Louisiana Bayou. It’s the story of three black men. Ogun Size owns a garage and works very hard at the job. He is a quiet, decent man who does not want trouble or to cause it. His brother Oshoosi Size has just gotten out of prison and wants to let loose and have fun. He wants to meet women and party. His brother puts him to work and be respectful and not get into trouble. Then Elegba shows up. He was Oshoosi’s cell mate. He’s pure charm and perhaps devious plans. He wants Oshoosi to join him for some fun. He has a beat up old car and Ogun works on it so it becomes a supped up car.

A note about the characters’ names: From the program: “The character names come from the gods, or orishas of the West African Yoruba tradition. In the cosmology, Ogun is the patron deity who works in metal, known for his strength in battle. Oshoosi is the hunter: quick-witted avenger of those seeking justice, and Elegba is the trickster, whose temptations are meant to teach human beings.”

So Ogun in the play works on cars—hence the metal—and his strength here is not just physical but mental strength.  He works hard to keep his brother on the straight and narrow.  He has to have moral and spiritual strength not to be brought down because people might think that because his brother did not succeed that Ogun must also be responsible.  Oshoosi is a hunter of sorts, he is on the lookout for fun or mischief. He is quick witted.  He remembers slights. But he has a strong opponent in his brother Ogun.

And then there is Elegba who is a charming, smiling trickster here, tricking Oshoosi to come with him for fun.  We have an inkling trouble is ahead.

The Production.  The production is terrific. Ken MacKenzie’s set is striking. An old car is half-buried in sand. Its head lights are blinking. The windshield is missing. Characters will slide into and out of that windshield as well as slide out from under the car.

The playing area is a square filled with sand around the car. The audience sits on three sides of the square.  The musician/composer Kobèna Aquaa-Harrison provides the music which he plays on percussion instruments and sings off to one side.

As befitting a play with so much attention to the West African gods, the three actors arrive on stage dressed in undershirts and stretch pants, to mid thigh. It’s as if they are ready to fight each other. And considering the Yaruba tradition the characters have white spots painted on their legs and feet and there are black and white stripes around their fingers. Elegba has a tattoo around his right upper arm. There are no markings on their faces.

When they enter they do a ceremonial dance that is both energetic and fierce. Then they delicately touch the ground together as if in prayer and the play begins.  This is a wonderful ensemble beautifully directed by Mumbi Tyndyebwa Otu. She knows how to establish the relationships among characters without being intrusive. And she knows how to use stillness to great advantage. Characters listen without unnecessary movement. There is a such a clear focus of one character listening to another, that it compels the audience to listen too. Ogun (Daren A Herbert) sitting and listening to Oshoosi (Mazin Elsadig) spill his guts abut his concerns is stunning. The same focus on listening  is there when Ogun talks about Oshossi growing up—Mazin Elsadig is riveted to listening to his brother.

While the three actors create a tight ensemble they are also standouts individually. The acting is compelling. There is such a sense of concentration between the three actors.

As Ogun, Darren A. Herbert is quietly arresting.  He has that bearing of a decent man who knows the world he’s in and keeps his head down. Ogun was aware of what people said about him and his brother as they were growing up. Ogun raised Oshoosi. Ogun knew about malicious gossip about his family and he knew that people did not look kindly on Oshoosi and probably thought Ogun was responsible. It was a burden he endured with dignity and grace.

As Oshoosi, Masin Elsadig has that energy of a person who has just been let loose from prison.  He’s combative with his brother but not a bad person, just easily lead. He remembers slights from his growing up. They stay with him. Ogun does not let that happen to him. How both brothers deal with their demons is fascinating.

And then there is Elegba, played with smiling charm and a sense of danger by Marcel Stewart. There is subtext with Elegba. We know his plans with Oshoosi will not be good. Elegba has that easy way with manipulation. Oshoosi will not know what hit him.

Comment. The Brothers Size is one gripping play. Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has such a facility with language that he makes it both poetic and musical.  Ogun describes how his mother was pregnant with Oshoosi: “There she was, belly full a you.”

It’s musical, particular and so eloquent.  McCraney writes of black men trying to find their way in the world, not just a white world but their own world as well. There are so many rocky places for these three characters in defining what makes a man. They want to fit in but also want to be true to themselves.  And he wrote the play when he was still a student in playwright at Yale. He now heads the playwriting department.

Astonishing. As is this production.

Soulpepper presents:

Opened: May 10, 2019.

Closes: June 1, 2019.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

www.soulpepper.ca

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At the Assembly Hall, 1 Colonel Samuel Smith Park Dr., Etobicoke, Ont.

Created by Ondinnok Theatre (Montreal) and Vox Theatre (Ottawa)

Author and interpreter, Dave Jenniss

Translated into English by Mishka Lavigne

Directed by Pier Rodier

Singer and musician, Élise Boucher-DeGonzague

Scenographer, Julie-Christina Picher

Lighting by Chantal Labonté

Puppet and stage props by Manon Doran and Pier Rodier

Soundtrack designer, Michel DeMars

Creative costume of Pokjinskwes, Danielle Boucher

Mokatek and the Missing Star is a magical piece of theatre weaving Indigenous story-telling, legend, the power of nature and belief in oneself. It’s told through puppetry, music, dance and various objects that captivate the imagination.

From the press information: “For little Mokatek, counting the stars to fall asleep every night is a real pleasure. He likes to tell his days to the one that shines the most in the sky, the North Star. At bedtime, the night of the summer solstice, the star of the North is gone, it has disappeared. This is the beginning of an initiatory journey to find the brilliant star.”

After taking off their shoes, the audience enters a large gossamer tent. The young ones sit on rugs and the older folks sit on benches. There are birch tree stumps around the space. There is a fire pit in the middle of the space with a ‘tee-pee’ of twigs positioned above the ‘fire.’ Nine large balls of cotton batten are suspended in the air, representing the planets. A section of stars is illuminated. The audience is welcomed in song and drumming by Élise Boucher-DeGonzague. I love the ceremony of that.

Dave Jenniss tells the story in English and the First Nations languages of the Abenakis and the Anishinabek in easy to follow references. He hits two stones together a few times.  He takes two twigs and says their names in one of the languages. He piles them one on top of the other. He adds a hunk of birch, gives the First Nations name and adds that to the pile of twigs. Then he hits the two stones a few times over the twigs, creating a spark, resulting in a small ‘fire’. Magic.

Mokatek is a puppet sensitively manipulated and voiced by Jenniss. Mokatek considers the North Star his only friend and is desperate to find him. He is aided by a crow (another puppet) that takes Mokatek on a flying journey over the forest. He is told to watch out for the bear’s foot prints and when Mokatek hears the bear coming he hides. Two large paws appear from out among the birch ‘trees’. Does one need more to suggest a bear? No, I didn’t think so. Jenniss wears the paws. He also wears a beanie hat with bear ears that pop out. The bear sniffs around, eats berries, and leaves. Mokatek comes out from his hiding place, braver now and he eats the berries as well. He meets an ancient fish who represents the great sturgeon and ancestors; there is a moose as well on Mokatek’s  journey.

Eventually Mokatek does re-discover his friend the North Star and in doing that he has completed his journey of discovery; of the wind, water, air, birds, animals and himself.

The writing of the piece is beautifully poetic. Dave Jenniss is nimble and elegant in his movement, his manipulation of the puppet of Mokatek and in ‘playing’ of the animals. It’s beautifully directed by Pier Rodier with economy and a touch of impishness. Just initially showing the huge paws of the bear through the trees is inspired.  The puppets of the fish and the moose are made of birch bits in which the bark is peeling. The result is that we are looking at something from antiquity, which is the point. I love that the fish (great sturgeon) has a bit of green foliage in its mouth.

Mokatek and the Missing Star is a wonderfully imaginative telling of a story of discovery, friendship, determination and maturing. It’s told with sensitivity and great imagination.

The two remaining shows May 16 are in French at 10:00 am and 11:30 am.

www.weefestival.ca

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At the Redwood Theatre, 1300 Gerrard St. E.

Created by Michelle Silagy and Lynda Hill

Direction and dramaturgy by Lynda Hill

Choreography by Michelle Silagy

Original music by Cathy Nosaty

Set by Jung Hye Kim

Costumes by Jennifer Dallas

Lighting Design by Jennifer Lennon

Cast: Allison Basha

Lucas Penner

Jake Ramos

Jessica Runge

The wonderful Wee Festival has opened for another run. Dates: May 11-20, 2019 at various locations. The Wee Festival offers plays, concerts, events and other activities for children 0 to 6 years old over 10 days.

The Wee Festival was created in 2014 by Lynda Hill under the auspices of Theatre Direct for which she was the Artistic Director for 18 years. She has been a tireless champion of bringing the arts to children.

The Wee Festival opened with Flying Hearts, a meditation on air, light, earth and water.

Children and their parents are invited to touch everything on the ‘sensory table’, which is full of odd feeling water, a bottle with feathers in it, strange feeling sand, things that make noise and music, things that tickle and all things that delight.

When it was time to go into the theatre the young audience was invited to sit on the ‘grass,’ really a lush green carpet. There were white structures that looked like sails. In the middle of the room was a round white piece of gossamer like material.

At the back of the room were a keyboard and a table with glasses of various shapes and sizes. They are used as instruments that make sound during the show. One can hear the sounds of birds singing and water babbling along a stream of sorts.

The cast of four: Allison Basha, Lucas Penner, Jessica Runge and Jake Ramos enter the space singing a song of welcome. Allison Bascha greets the children and their parents with a smile and joy. Lucas Penner plays the guitar, the keyboard, the glasses and anything else that can produce a sound or music. Jessica Runge and Jake Ramos are dancers and create the sense of air, light, earth and water in dance.

Bringing out a child’s sense of wonder is uppermost when Lynda Hill creates or collaborates on a show. So there are bubbles blown over their heads that they can reach up and touch; the children are asked if they would like to feel a mist on their skin. If they say yes, then a squirt bottle with the most delicate of mists is spritzed above their heads to float down on their skin.  Respect and involving art are offered to every child in Flying Hearts.

It’s a show that engages even the youngest audiences and older audiences too. The public performances played over two days over last weekend. The school performances will conclude May 15.

The Wee Festival is one of my favourite festivals. Check out the schedule of events at www.weefestival.ca and take your kids.

 

 

 

 

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At the Factory Theatre, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Erin Shields

Directed by Andrea Donaldson

Set by Gillian Gallow

Costumes by Ming Wong

Lighting by Jason Hand

Sound and composition by Richard Feren

Cast: Ashley Botting

Jesse LaVercombe

Mayko Nguyen

Sofía Rodríguez

Erin Shields not only turns the table on stereotypical behaviour between the sexes, but also she tips the table over in this bracing play given a striking production.

The Story. Three women on a night out go over the latest episode of a TV show with their favourite character, a hard-nosed woman cop who takes no prisoners in the job. Waiting at home is her accommodating boyfriend who is cooking them an anniversary dinner. The cop forgets it is their anniversary and goes to a bar for a drink to relax after a hard day of law enforcement. The cop in turn watches a TV show at the bar that takes place a hundred years before or even more that depicted women to be subservient and compliant. Nothing seems to have changed over the years. When the cop finally gets home and her boyfriend quietly, perhaps a touch hurt, wishes her a happy anniversary the cop realizes that she forgot the anniversary. Athletic sex ensues. Another story of gender attitudes and stereotypes follows which really ‘tips over the table’ of stereotypical gender issues.

The Production. We get a flavour of the evening by the rock music that plays as we ease into our seats. “Raw” would be putting it mildly. Lyrics such as “fuck-screw the world” One woman sang with and edge:  “Screw me and I’ll screw you too.” One man seductively wanted to “stick my tongue all over you.” “Sex is power. I do it all for fun” sang another woman. I think my favourite is sung by another woman, “Imagine your tongue in between my thighs.” That should get us in the mood. If you flinch you’re a wuss.

Three bar stools are positioned in front of a raised stage with three walls enclosing a room with a window and a door. At the beginning of the production three well dressed women in black and heels sit on the stools facing us. They riff on the TV show with their favourite female cop. Each woman delivers her lines in a quick breathless, confident way. Director Andrea Donaldson keeps the pace of the delivery at rat-a-tat speed, like a machine gun firing one-liners. The women occasionally look at each other but most often they look forward.  The characters’ names are listed in the program but never refer to each other by name. The actresses who play them: Ashley Botting, Mayko Nguyen and Sofía Rodríguez, are assured, confident and have an almost condescending attitude to anyone around the lady cop. They comment on her physicality, confidence, attitude and bearing etc. They talk about her as a man might talk about a woman in what we would consider a pejorative way, but they do it as women and don’t assume a man’s stereotypical ogling attitude, with crotch grabbing and scratching etc.

They comment on the TV show that the TV cop is in turn watching, again, commenting on the characters. At various points in the dialogue, the women seem to get aroused at what they are watching. Donaldson does a devilish bit of staging for Sofía Rodríguez who gets off her stool and seems to writhe, doing mini push-ups on the stool, with one leg slowly thrusting out behind her. That’s quite a definitive expression of controlled arousal, lemme tell ya.

While the three women are sharing their observations, in the raised room behind them Beautiful Man (that’s how he’s listed in the program) (played  with quiet understatement by Jesse LaVercombe) is doing extreme push-ups and then leg lifts. He is dressed and fit. He wears a full apron. When he speaks, saying “Happy Anniversary” to the unseen lady cop the voice is soft, non-accusatory and rather wistful. In other words what the three women are watching, is the television show with the cop, but what we are seeing is the cop’s boyfriend, the Beautiful Man, at home waiting for her to return.   As the women continue to speak Beautiful Man slowly takes off his clothes. At the end of that segment he’s naked. Blackout. The women take a bow, holding their high heels. They are animated and make moments of flipping their shoes so we get how important those shoes are. They are put on the stools.  LaVercombe comes out in the raised room and takes his bow. Yes he’s fully clothed.

Then something strange happens. Rather than ending the show there, it continues with Beautiful Man telling the audience, quietly, almost demurely about ‘her’ life. Beautiful Man is not transgender. Rather Erin Shields continues to disrupt furniture, this time upending that turned table completely. Beautiful Man is speaking as a woman and reveals every insecurity, every doubt, every attempt not to offend that a woman has ever expressed. ‘She’ talks of dressing carefully for a party, perfect clothes, shoes, make-up, lipstick. When ‘she’ is challenged by a man at the party about her abilities as a trained sommelier ‘she’ is demure and polite rather than being blunt, direct and hard hitting (as the cop in the TV show might be). She feels diminished by the clod but does not retaliate in kind. After all, what would people think of her if she did retaliate?

When ‘she’ is walking home alone ‘she’ sees a group of men on a street-corner and begins to imagine all manner of trouble that might happen to her because she’s a woman alone on a street. Her mind does tricks to make her feel inadequate. Erin Shield’s upends the table again by revealing what the men are really thinking of seeing this woman alone on the street and it’s nothing close to what the woman is thinking.

Comment. I saw the first part of Beautiful Man at SummerWorks in 2015. The impact of that first section is funny, very perceptive and eye-opening. If anything the point is stronger in 2019, certainly after #MeToo.  Erin Shields adds more pop to her exploration of gender attitudes with the man having a monologue as a woman, complete with insecurities about her looks, or abilities and how others perceive her.

Shields takes every stereotype about the sexes and makes us examine them afresh because of who is expressing them.

Beautiful Man is a terrific play. I love its big squirm factor.  

Factory Theatre Presents:

Began: May 4, 2019.

Closes: May 26, 2019.

Running time: 90 minutes.

www.factorytheatre.ca

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Aga Khan Museum, 77 Wynford Dr., Toronto, Ont.

Co-written and performed by Kirk Dunn

Co-written by Claire Ross Dunn

Directed by Jennifer Tarver

Saying The Knitting Pilgrim by Kirk Dunn is a play about knitting is as much an understatement as saying Gateau St. Honoré is a simple dessert.

Kirk Dunn was first an actor who began knitting he says to pass the time while touring in a van with other actors. A recent newspaper article said he began knitting to impress a girlfriend. Whatever. He learned how to knit and became good at it.

When Kaffe Fassett, master knitter extraordinaire came to Toronto Kirk Dunn’s wife Claire suggested Dunn meet him and perhaps offer to apprentice with him. This came to pass. Dunn’s work became more colourful and intricate. Again, Dunn’s wife Claire suggested he take his knitted work to the Textile Museum of Canada.  This brought him to the attention of Nataley Nagy the Past Executive Director of the Textile Museum of Canada. She said his knitted work was a work of art, almost like an expressionist painting. She suggested he knit something that says something about the world. That was the birth of his triptych of tapestries—three panels that illuminated aspects of Judaism, Christianity and Islam—the commonality and differences of the faiths. The panels are about 11’ x 7’ and it took him 15 years to knit. They are astonishing.

Through Dunn’s one person play he shows the audience how to knit, from making the stitches both pearl and knit, casting off and knitting. His manner is mild, thoughtful and inquisitive. He is self-deprecating, personable and full of charm. He comes from a long line of Presbyterian ministers. His great grandfather was a minister. His grandfather was one. And his father is one. Kirk Dunn became an actor. Go figure. But religion is part of his life as is faith and compassion. He researched all three religions to be able to create an accurate work of art. He read widely. He tried to answer religious intolerance when he came face to face with it. And all the time he knitted his tapestries.

Jennifer Tarver has directed this with sensitivity, never getting in the way of Dunn and his storytelling, always enhancing it with a movement across the stage here, the projection of an image there. There are baskets of balls of wool and knitting needles and the audience is invited to know.  This is a ‘play’ you want everyone to see for his persistence and his devotion to such a worthy project.

Unfortunately it plays only for three performances over two days, May 11 and 12. The last performance is May 12 at 6:00 pm.

www.ergoartstheatre.com/knittingpilgrim

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At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

Written by: Bilal Baig, Maddie Bautista, Samson Brown, Simone Dalton, Nikoletta Erdelyi, Carolyn Hetherington, Radha S. Menon, Ellen Ringler, Grace Thompson.

Directed and dramaturged by Judith Thompson

Choreographed by Monica Dottor

Set by Brett Haynes

Lighting by Sharmylai Taffe-Fletcher

Composer and sound by Olivia Shortt

Performed by: Bilal Baig

Maddie Bautista

Samson Brown

Nikoletta Erdelyi

Carolyn Hetherington

Radha S. Menon

Grace Thompson

The plays and performances are so deeply thought, nuanced and emotional it’s like being hit in the stomach and the heart, leaving you breathless.

 Judith Thompson, playwright-dramaturg-mentor-theatre magician, continues her determined journey to present the stories of people we rarely see or hear on a stage. She created the Rare Company to produce them. RARE was a show with actors/writers with Down Syndrome. She did a production with people in wheelchairs.

Welcome to My Underworld continues that journey with the short plays of nine playwrights presented by seven of them. Welcome to My Underworld is the title of one of the plays and the umbrella title for the whole evening. Each playwright was asked to write a short piece. Thompson linked them together, creating the world of the outcast, misfit, those looking for acceptance, but the plays are also distinct. The plays are not formally titled for this evening, nor are the playwrights formally introduced.

The evening begins with a young girl (Grace Thompson) who doesn’t feel she is real. She hasn’t got a sense of herself as a person. Is she on the spectrum? We aren’t sure. She is vibrant, curious and searching. She creates an imaginary friend named Mara and from there navigates her (under)world which then connects to the other plays.

There is the self-proclaimed ‘party-girl’ (Bilal Baig) who says she’s from Bangladesh who doesn’t want her parents to know she dresses like that, or is like that. There is the older woman (Carolyn Hetherington—a wonderful actress in her own right and now, at 88, a compelling playwright) who has had surgery and the medications for pain are making her hallucinate which could lead to disaster. A transgender person (Samson Brown) is in desperate need of a washroom and is challenged when they use the women’s washroom in a public place and all that entails. A confident young Roma woman (Nicoletta Erdelyi) in a wheelchair recounts how her father was jailed for shoplifting and died in prison from cancer and didn’t receive proper treatment. She illuminates how the world treats disability and those it thinks don’t belong. An anxious woman (Radha S. Menon) is being taken to a senior’s home by a kind man because she has dementia.

While all the plays illuminate a world with which one might not be familiar, they do bring us into their worlds to understand what is happening there. The standout for me is Maddie Bautista’s very funny but ultimately harrowing story of a young girl coming of age. She writes of the no-nonsense Filipina teacher who teaches girls about their developing bodies in speeches sprinkled with quirky expressions. And as one of the girls is aware of her budding body so is a family male friend who asks her to sit on his lap. The tone of the piece gently, subtly changes into something that makes you heartsick because of what happens next. Bautista’s story-telling is gently gripping. I can’t remember the last time I heard silence in a theatre that complete. No rustling. No coughing. No breathing until the end. Shattering.

Judith Thompson has guided these gifted playwrights to write about their ‘underworld.’ She has woven their stories into a narrative that is at all times compelling. She has directed the performers with economy, whimsy and sensitivity. Monica Dottor’s choreography/movement adds that extra level of finesse.

Often pieces are underscored by Olivia Shortt’s elegant playing of a saxophone, providing music and sound effects. I must confess at times I think that inclusion is distracting. Other times it is just right. For the Bautista piece there is only the sound of her voice—no music is needed.

Brett Haynes has created a simple set of a backdrop of a tree with roots painted on the floor. There is a swing up right as if hanging from a tree branch, stars in the branches, a picnic table right and a very comfy chair stage left. Olivia Shortt’s instruments and her little stool are stage left. Sharmylae Taffe-Fletcher’s lighting is evocative and mood changing.

The evening concludes with each performer expressing their hopes for the future. I won’t spoil it with many examples but Olivia Shutt’s wish to read Harry Potter in her father’s native language (he’s an Anishinaabe from Nipissing First Nations) says it all with a squeeze of the heart.

Welcome to My Underworld is a bracing, sobering, often funny, always poignant look at the world of these gifted playwrights. I can’t recommend it highly enough. As that lovely little kid said at the end of a Hayden/Handel concert in Boston recently: “WOW!”

Rare Theatre Company Presents:

Began: May 8, 2019.

Closes: May 25, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours.

www.soulpepper.ca

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At the CAA Theatre (formerly Panasonic Theatre), Toronto, Ont.

Music by Tom Kitt

Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey

Directed by Philip Akin

Musical staging by Tracey Flye

Musical direction by Lily Ling

Set and lighting by Steve Lucas

Sound by Michael Laird

Costumes by Alex Amini

Cast: Troy Adams

Brandon Antonio

Nathan Carroll

Ma-Anne Dionisio

Louise Pitre

Stephanie Sy

A gripping, moving show about adult depression: perceptive, creative and it’s a musical. Sung beautifully.

The Story:  Next to Normal with music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, is about Diana who is a wife and mother. She is also under a psychiatrist’s care for depression, bi-polar disorder and intense grief. She is morning the death of her child who died many years before.  Her husband Dan is loving and patient. Her daughter Natalie has a harder time coping with her mother’s illness. Natalie feels abandoned because everything takes a back seat to Diana’s long, ongoing dealing with her illness.

Natalie is a music student and key moments in her life are not celebrated because her mother is not well enough to go and hear her daughter play in concerts.  That takes its toll. There is another mysterious presence that seems to hover over all of them and they deal with it in their own way.

Diana has her husband Dan to support and be of comfort to her. Natalie meets a young man named Henry at school who loves and encourages her too. So these people are not alone. It’s a world with people who love and care for those in trouble.

The Production. Steve Lucas’ set is enclosed by two large walls that come together in a closed V shape almost jutting out into the audience. The walls then open up revealing a two leveled set with a spiral staircase joining the two levels. Furniture is spare.

As with all musicals it seems these days, everybody is microphoned including the off-stage band and it does sound almost too loud with lyrics being drowned out. There must be a better way of balancing the sound.

 There is a sense of urgency in this production, urgency to be calm; urgency to find a solution to medical problems; urgency to be normal or if that’s too hard, next to normal. It’s directed by Philip Akin who keeps the pace going as characters are always in a rush it seems to deal with crises.

Tom Kitt’s music fits the characters better than if the songs are stand alone melodic hits. There is a throbbing thrust to them, almost anthem like. And Brian Yorkey’s lyrics illuminate that murky world of depression and anxiety so that we all can get a sense of how these characters are feeling about the world in which they are living.

This cast is fine led by the wonderful Ma-Anne Dionisio as Diana. She is both fragile and fierce as she navigates the world of mental illness and the many and various pills and treatments she endures.  There is both power and tenderness in her singing.

Troy Adams is equally as strong as Dan, her loving husband. He has been there for Diana for the whole duration of the depression; he has his challenges to cope as well. It’s all clear in the performance. Stephanie Sy as Natalie is weighted down by her own sense of being abandoned by her family as she tries to navigate her own rocky path. Natalie almost has a chip on her shoulder until she meets Henry, played beautifully by Nathan Carroll. Carroll reacts so subtly and yet so resoundingly to Natalie’s efforts to rebuff him. But he keeps on trying to break through her shell. Henry is not a bully. He is a sensitive man who sees a kindred spirit in Natalie.

Louise Pitre plays Dr. Madden who is compassionate and caring. When Dr. Madden has to make a hard decision in Diana’s treatment you can appreciate the complexity of it by Louise Pitre’s reticence and gentleness in recommending it. And Pitre’s ability to listen in stillness makes Dr. Madden all the more compelling.

Finally Brandon Antonio plays Gabe, the mystery presence in that family’s life. He is buoyant at times, persistent and even dangerous. It’s another way of showing what that family is going through.

Comment.   Next to Normal is a Broadway Musical (2009) that won a Tony award for the score and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama among others. It deals with serious subjects—mental illness, bi-polar disorder, intense grief– and you watch characters deal with their demons. There are no real villains here. You just root for all of them.

I love the boldness of dealing with these subjects in musical form. You can deal better in a musical form with subjects that might not be served as well in a play form. Take a look at Dear Evan Hanson which is playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre—it deals with teenage suicide and anxiety—also an award winning Broadway musical.  Theatre reflects the world we live in.

I would recommend Next to Normal for anyone who loves musicals with an edge and grit,that treat serious subjects in a serious way.

David Mirvish presents The Musical Stage Co. production:

Began: April 26, 2019.

Closes: May 19, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes.

www.mirvish.com

 

 

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