At the Factory Studio Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written and performed by Tetsuro Shigematsu
Directed by Richard Wolfe
Set by Pam Johnson
Lighting by Gerald King
Costumes by Barbara Clayden
Sound by Steve Charles

A moving story of a son’s love for his family and especially his father.

In a way Empire of the Son is Tetsuro Shigematsu’s journey to get to know his secretive, private father and by extension, to know himself. His father saw unspeakable, indescribable things when he lived in Japan and the atomic bomb was dropped. The experience so affected his father he never wanted to talk about it to anyone. His son thought there was something hiding there but couldn’t pry it out of this father.

Shigematsu and his father shared much in their lives. His father was a host of a radio show for the BBC. Shigematsu had his own radio show for the CBC. Shigematsu’s parents came to Canada and successfully made a life and raised a family. Shigematsu also raised a family.

He is very dramatic looking with his impressive handlebar moustache. His manner is thoughtful, loving, perceptive and observant when describing his feelings and trepidation about growing up. His delivery is understated, even courtly. Good use is made of video cameras that project a close-up of Shigematsu’s fingers as they cross back and forth on a shiny (slippery?) surface.

And while the story of course is very personal and the telling is understated, I couldn’t help but think that the whole evening is dull with little variation or inflection in his voice. It’s as if Shigematsu is ticking items off an imaginary list as if to get rid of one thought after another. Director Richard Wolf keeps the pace moving, but because of lighting cues and the story-telling, I thought the show would conclude at least twice only to continue with another anecdote. This is an interesting, personal story to Shigematsu. I just wished it translated better to us.

A Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre Production presented by Factory Theatre.

Opened: Jan. 18, 2017.
Closes: Jan. 29, 2017.
Cast: 1 actor.
Running Time: 75 minutes.

www.factorytheatre.ca

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At the Streetcar Crowsnest, Carlaw and Dundas St. E, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Kristen Thomson
Directed by Chris Abraham
Set by Julie Fox
Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell
Video designed by Zack Russell
Costumes by Ming Wong
Cast: Jason Cadieux
Virgilia Griffith
Trish Lindström
Moya O’Connell
Tom Rooney
Kristen Thompson

The Wedding Party by Kristen Thomson is a fitting way to open the Streetcar Crowsnest, Crow’s Theatre’s new permanent performance space at Carlaw and Dundas St. E. The building is bright, airy and full of light with sturdy, comfortable seats. It’s important the seats be sturdy with The Wedding Party because the occupants of the seats will be shifting and perhaps bouncing, what with all the laughing they will be doing.

The Wedding Party is about a wedding from hell. Kristen Thomson has focused her keen, observant eye on every cliché about weddings that go wrong and turned it on its ear. The snobbish father of the groom looks down on the hard-drinking mother of the bride. The groom’s father’s second wife is a fragile soul who wants everything to work out. The groom’s father is a twin who is estranged from his brother, who is invited to the wedding, and we see why the brothers don’t talk. The grandmother of the bride defines the word ‘inappropriate.’ Every guest seems to be a problem. And the bride and groom are nowhere to be seen. Are you getting all this down—there will be a test.

Thomson deals with these many and various situations with razor sharp humour and perception that is at once loopy, smart, and sophisticated. And when you least expect it she inserts moments of breathtaking emotion.

The cast of six play multiple parts often switching genders, this includes Thomson who plays the mother of the bride and the beloved dog of the parents of the groom, among other parts.

It is directed with style, detail and a keen sense of humour by Chris Abraham, Crow’s Theatre’s Artistic Director. It is a tremendous opening and bodes well for things to come.

Full review on the blog (slotkinletter.com) shortly. Broadcast review of The Wedding Party will be on CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017 from 9 am to 10 am.

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Toronto, Ont.

Written by Linda Griffiths
Directed by Jani Lauzon
Music and sound design by Deanna Choi
Lighting and set by Trevor Schwellnus
Projection design by Melissa Joakim
Costumes by Amanda Wong
Cast: Beatriz Pizano

A well-intentioned but ultimately disappointing production because of overly busy direction and design.

The Story. Alien Creature a visitation from Gwendolyn MacEwen is not a direct invocation of the life and death of Canadian poet Gwendolyn MacEwen, rather it’s an almost mystical look at a woman driven to write poetry, while living a messy, troubled life. The late playwright Linda Griffiths conjures a life full of poetry—MacEwen’s poems are woven throughout the play—brooding darkness (MacEwen was an alcoholic), failed relationships (she won’t even name her first husband (Milton Acorn) other than to say he was smelly) and the many and various demons that bedevilled her.

The Production
. Alien Creature a visitation from Gwendolyn MacEwen is a densely written play packed with illusions to MacEwen’s darker side; many moments of self-deprecating humour and magic. This complex play cries out for simplicity in the production so as to realize the inner points. Sadly, one does not get simplicity in Jani Lauzon’s overly-busy direction. Instead we get billows of smoke that mark the character of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s entrance and final exit; we get ghostly lighting effects on the sides of the dark set, the point of which are mystifying; we get shimmering lighting effects on areas of Gwendolyn’s body that obscure other business; we get wonderful magic tricks that are often not well lit to get the full benefit.

Trevor Schwellnus is generally a wonderful Scenographer, a wizard in some cases. But something has happened here and the results are disappointing. While the play references that Gwendolyn often lived in basement apartments, Schwellnus’ dark set of jutting panels looks more cave-like than basement. His lighting is also problematic in that too often you can’t actually see what is meant to be illuminated,

Amanda Wong dresses Gwendolyn in billowy harem pants, solid shoes, a low-cut, frilly blouse over which is a one-button vest of sorts. Rather than making Gwendolyn look like an exotic ‘alien creature’ Wong makes her look simply dowdy and earthbound.

Through all this is the valiant Beatriz Pizano as Gwendolyn MacEwen. Her makeup and hair do make Gwendolyn look exotic, indeed Pizano does look like the exotic MacEwen. At times Pizano is fiery, brooding, darkly humorous and a woman consumed with the poetry that pours out of her.

Comment
. I so wish this production was better.

Presented by Theatre Passe Muraille

Opened: January, 17, 2017.
Closes: February 5, 2017.
Cast: 1 woman
Running Time: 80 minutes

www.passemuraille.ca

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At Park Place Theatre at the Mady, Barrie, Ont.

Written by Thomas Shadwell
Directed and adapted by Jeannette Lambermont-Morey
Set, costumes and props by Cathy Elliott
Lighting by Jareth Li
Composed by Dimitar Pentchev
Fight Director, Simon Fon
Cast: Benjamin Blais
Edward Charette
Mikaela Davies
Jakob Ehman
Ruby Joy
Tiffany Martin
Theresa Tova
Tim Walker

A bracing production of a play written in the 17th century that is as timely as today.

The Story. This is a retelling of the Don Juan story, or a 17th century character, as seen from the women’s point of view. Don John lives totally for pleasure and killing anyone who gets in his way. He seduces any woman he wants by sweet-talking her, having his way with her and then leaving her for his next conquest.

Even when a woman is to be married, if he wants her he has her, and sometimes kills the intended husband. He is not above hurting a woman who is not agreeable. He is charming and dangerous, a lethal combination.

He travels with two other men, Don Antonio and Don Lopez, equally as lustful and dangerous.

The Production
. Director Jeannette Lambermont-Morey has envisioned a production that is simply designed but throbbing with sexual desire, danger, and life. Cathy Elliott’s set is a large table, used by the men to jump onto, swords drawn. A glittery moveable structure is maneuvered around the stage to easily suggest a change of scene. The men dress in modern black jeans, boots and revealing shirts if at all. Don John and his fellows live to carouse. His servant Jacomo just lives to continue living. He is constantly fearful that Don John will run him through with his sword, just for fun when he (Don John) is annoyed.

Jakob Ehman plays Don John with a compelling stare at his opponents; a come-hither look to the women he wants to seduce, and a ready rapier that can slice and parry in a flash. He is dangerous in his quietness. He does not have to raise his voice when a raised eye-brow is just as lethal in terrifying his opponents. Ehman’s boyishness works for Don John in seduction because what woman would resist that bad-boy attitude

Ehman is ably supported by Benjamin Blais as Don Antonio, loud, lusty and properly unsubtle. Edward Charette as Don Lopez is more laid back than Blais, but just as much trouble in a fight. And as the fearful Jacomo, Tim Walker is a wonderful jelly-fish of a man. He knows his ‘master’ is scum but can’t do anything about it because he’s too afraid to try.

Theirs is a world without rules, conscience or responsibility. No moral compass is at work with these men. They see a woman and take what they want. No law hold them accountable. If you want to think Jian Ghomeshi or Donald Trump you got it in one.

While this is a terrific production for the clean concept, direction and acting, Simon Fon deserves special mention as the fight director.

He has created sword fights for both the men and the women they seduce and they are breathtaking. This is a world of formality in the sword-play but ruthlessness in the execution. The sabers flash and slice the air; the fighters are fearless (even the women when they defend themselves). It’s no use being afraid (Fon of course has done everything to ensure the safety of his cast); the fights are meant for you to react as if a hand is slowly gripping your throat. You are both breathless and exhilarated.

Comment. Bravo to Jakob Ehman who had the idea to do The Libertine—alas so rarely done—to Arkady Spivak who programmed it for Talk Is Free Theatre, and to Jeannette Lambermont-Morey for bringing such a timely adaptation and sterling production to life

Talk is Free Theatre presents:

Opened: Jan. 6, 2017
Closes: Jan. 14, 2017.
Cast: 8; 4 men, 4 women
Running Time: 90 minutes.

www.tift.ca

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At the Factory Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

I finished my short stint of seeing shows at The Next Stage Theatre Festival with the following shows: The Death of Mrs. Gandhi and the Beginning of New Physics (a political fantasy), Silk Bath, WESTERN, a play with music and My Big Fat German Puppet Show.

In their own way each have something to say, some are substantial in their reach others are not as challenging but are still worthy.

The Death of Mrs. Gandhi and the Beginning of New Physics (a political fantasy)

Written and directed by Kawa Ada
Lighting by Andre du Toit
Sound design/composition by Deanna Choi
Costumes by Laura Delchiaro/Kawa Ada
Cast: Elley-Ray Hennessy
Nina Lee Aquino
Trenna Keating
Tennille Read
Ellora Patnaik

Writer/director Kawa Ada does not tackle small ideas in his plays. In The Wanderers (his previous play) he writes about displacement, wandering from country to country to find sanctuary. He certainly uses his and is family’s experience of coming from war-torn Afghanistan circuitously to Canada in that play.

With The Death of Mrs. Gandhi and the Beginning of New Physics (a political fantasy) he writes an homage to his resilient mother by conjuring the grit, tenacity, fortitude and smarts of several world leaders who are women. They are Imelda Marcos, Margaret Thatcher, Kim Campbell, Benazir Bhutto and Malala Yousafzai. Woow. The premise is that most of these women are there for the funeral of Mrs. Indira Gandhi.

While Ada captures the obvious jokes about Imelda Marcos and her spending and shoes, there is a savvy mind showing how to get what she wanted. Kim Campbell is portrayed initially as silly, but that was before she became Canada’s prime minister. Margaret Thatcher and Benazir Bhutto are formidable political minds, with Margaret Thatcher showing her razor-sharp political brains and giving a lesson in leadership to the other women. Malala represents the future and can offer another point of view to these powerful women.

While each actress brings her character to life, Elley-Ray Hennessy as Mrs. Thatcher is eye-popping. Hennessy is a consummate comedienne, but here she is astonishing as Mrs. Thatcher and it’s not a send-up either. It’s a serious, gripping, formidable performance of a woman who did not entertain fools with kindness. From the facial expressions, to the lower voice to the body language, this is Margaret Thatcher who makes you sit up in your seat.

As Kawa Ada rightly notes in his programme comment, this kind of festival is for taking baby steps in the production of a play on its way to a mature journey. There is further work to be done; cutting, pruning, re-examining, but for a beginning it’s impressive. I can hardly wait for next stage of The Death of Mrs. Gandhi and the Beginning of New Physics (a political fantasy).

Silk Bath

By Aaron Jan and Bessie Cheng, with contributions from Gloria Mok
Directed by Aaron Jan
Lighting by Logan Raju Cracknell
Set and costumes by Aram Heydarian
Cast: Bessie Chang
Dorcas Chiu
En Lai Mah
Amanda Zhou

Another ambitious play about a serious subject. Aaron Jan and Bessie Cheng look at a futuristic world with a Chinese focus that looks at the world of conforming. Various people stuck in a drudge world compete to leave the strict world and get out. They lie, cheat and connive to one up their fellow ‘inmates’ to gain the all-important freedom.

It’s a compelling world that director Aaron Jan has created. All the ‘prisoners’ are in whiteface so as to further accentuate the sameness of the characters, the lack of individuality, even though there is plenty in their lives that would make them individuals.

He directs with a good sense of theatricality. There is nothing tentative about this production.

Interesting work all round.

My Big Fat German Puppet Show

Written, directed and performed by Frank Meschkuleit
Musical composers and collaborators, Cathy Nosaty and Mark Korven
Designed by Frank Meschkuleit

I have wanted to see Frank Meschkuleit’s puppet/performance work for years. Bless the Next Stage Theatre Festival for offering the opportunity.

He plays Franz Poopenschpiel, a portentous creature with a magical top hat and the most impressive ‘large’ suit you have ever seen. His waistcoat billows out in front of him, his vest is buttoned up, his belt suggests a shirt underneath is struggling to stay together. Miraculously a stage and puppets appear from beneath the costume.

Meschkuleit performs skits illuminating his sterling imagination and puppetry. One skit deals with zombies; another is an homage to the great Tom Waits. In each Meschkuleit teases and taunts the audience. He is witty in a dark sort of way, graceful, inventive and dexterous. I can hardly wait to see his next show.

WESTERN, a play with music

Text by Matthew Gorman
Music by Gordon Bolan
Directed by Geoffrey Poundsett
Movement and puppetry by Brad Cook
Designed by Lindsay Walker
Cast: Mairi Babb
Sam Kalileh
Brendan Murray
Caroline Toal
Jocelyn Adema on fiddle
Gordon Bolan on everything else.

The story is writer Matthew Gorman’s idea of the west as told in stories around a campfire. A young boy shoots another boy and runs away. His older sister who is taking care of him (their parents are dead) goes looking for him. The dead boy’s mother wants the boy too. A kind of shadowy character plays a sheriff looking for the boy as well. And there is another mysterious character with lots of sound advice.

Gorman writes in a heightened poetic language. Gordon Bolan offers original music and lyrics which don’t offer much in the way of story or character development. Geoffrey Pounsett’s direction is clever but too busy. For example, the young boy who killed the other boy is suggested by a pair of shoes that are ‘worked’ by an actor kneeling on the ground, hands on the shoes, moving them as if stepping. Another actor holds a child’s hat in the air above the shoes, the height of what this young boy might be. At one point the boy is tied in a chair. The shoes fidget and the hat tips a bit as if the boy is moving. Later a swath of material will be maneuvered and held as it is the boy sleeping on the ground. This is all too busy and distracting. Wouldn’t a hand-held puppet do the same thing with less fuss?

I can appreciate the effort and imagination, but this is a simple, slight (?) story and all this extra ‘stuff’ clutters the issue.

The whole cast is earnest.

The Next Stage Theatre Festival presents:

Opened: Jan. 4, 2017.
Closes: Jan. 15, 2017.

www.fringetoronto.com

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At Factory Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

This is the 10th anniversary of the Next Stage Theatre Festival in Toronto. It’s a winter extension of the larger Fringe Festival. The Next Stage Theatre Festival runs from Jan. 4-Jan. 15, 2017 and has a roster of 10 one act plays and dance pieces playing in three spaces of Factory Theatre. There is a heated tent where audiences wait between performances. Beer, snacks and hot chocolate are sold. On the opening night there was birthday cake.

Here are some of the highlights of what I’ve seen.

Clique Claque

By Mark Brownell
Directed by Sue Miner
Costumes by Nina Okens
Cast: Robert Clarke
Thalia Kane
Ron Kennell
Michelle Langille
Victor Pokinko

An intriguing comedy about the paid ‘claques’ in performing arts events, a group that opposes them and a gaze into the future of what might be.

Mark Brownell has written a comedy about that annoying group of paid ‘screamers’ called a claque. These folks go to live performances of music, opera and theare to see usually dreary shows, with worse performances to cheer on one of the artists who has arranged for such adoration. The show has the flavour of an English Music Hall comedy—sometimes silly, sometimes witty—even though the show is set in Paris. One can’t call it a French farce, (no slamming doors and not fast paced enough). Although director Sue Miner keeps things humming along nicely.

Clothilde and her accommodating husband Yannick organize and pay for the claque. But trouble is brewing in the person of Dubosc who has formed his own group, the Clique. These people don’t cheer; they hiss, boo and hurl invective at the lousy stuff coming from the stage. Dubosc wants the arts to return to the days of producing quality and if it’s not evident then he and his band of hissy-fitters will let all and sundry know, loudly.

It’s interesting seeing Clothilde’s brains working out how to get the best of Dubosc and how this Claque-Clique business can develop over the years. Brownell has some wicked lines about actors and directors in particular and theatre and music in general.

As Clothilde, Michelle Langille is stylish, sophisticated and haughty presenting one formidable woman. As Dubosc, Ron Kennell is smoothly seductive when picking up various companions for the night. And he gives a sound argument for booing lousy theatre.

The following two shows are short (30 minutes) and a bit out of the ordinary.

Date Me

Created and performed by Ted Hallett and Lisa Merchant
Directed by Melody Johnson
Musical director, Jason O’Brien
Technical Designer, Carmine Lucarelli

The premise is a first date and the whole enterprise is improvised by Ted Hallett and Lisa Merchant. The audience is asked to complete and submit a short form indicating information about their dates. Ted Hallett then picka a form at random to give them the location of the date. The duo bought a list of 10,000 profiles on a dating site. Hallett and Merchant then speed-scroll through the list on a computer and then randomly stop on a name. The audience and the performers see the pictures of the person and their profile. From that the couple improvise the first date scenario.

This proves a bit creepy. The woman’s photo looks someone immature and wears a bulky Disney Land sweater. Her profile seems immature too. His photo looks more in keeping with a guy who wants to impress but his profile is light on information.

While Hallett and Merchant toss ideas to each other as they play out the date, Lisa Merchant is the more inventive, buoyant with ideas. Both are charming, but it is that creepy beginning that doesn’t quite ring true.

Two Truths and a Lie

Created by Graham Isador, Rhiannon Archer, Helder Brum
Directed by Tom Arthur Davis

Simple premise: Each performer tells a story. A person from the audience has to chose who is lying. If the person guesses right everybody goes home happy. If the person guesses wrong the cast does not say who the liar is. It makes for interesting conversations after.

For my evening Graham Isador told of a relationship that went sour. (He has a tendency to drop his words and speak them too softly. Not helpful). Rhiannon Archer has a wonky wrist. She told the story of what happened to it when she was a kid. Helder Brum has a more delicate situation that involves haemorrhoids, pooping and other personal body emissions.

The stories are well told (yes, but speak up Mr. Isador!), funny and convincing. I think if you listen carefully you can decipher the liar. Good fun.

Blood Ties

Book, music and lyrics by Anika Johnson and Barbara Johnston.
Directed by Ann Merriam
Musical director, Jeffrey Newberry
Set and costumes by John Leberg
Lighting by Andrew Clemens
Cast: Anika Johnson
Barbara Johnston
Carter Hayden
Jeremy Lapalme
Kent Sheridan

Wow! Slick, stylish, smartly done, beautifully composed with clever lyrics.

Anika Johnson and Barbara Johston are a powerhouse duo. They took a real event and spun it into a story of a wedding that went terribly wrong. Sheila is getting married and her best friend Franny and others are there to help celebrate. Sheila and Franny have a prickly friendship. Things happened in the past and they are hard to forget. Then there’s the matter of the blood and (eewww) brains all over the bathroom of Sheila’s aunt and uncle. The friends pitch in to help clean up the mess. There is a suicide note. But is it a suicide?

Blood Ties explores the nature of friendship, forgiveness, unrequited love, expressing love to someone who might not have noticed, and what desperate people do in desperate situations. And they all sing about it in songs and lyrics that you want to hear again they are so melodic and cleverly expressive.

Director Ann Merriam has a clear eye in bringing this complex story to the audience. Relationships are efficiently established and developed. John Leberg’s set and evocative costumes evolve in a witty, smart way, changing from clean whites to vibrant reds.

The cast to a person is strong but Anika Johnson as Sheila the bride with lots of secrets and Barbara Johnston as Franny her conflicted friend, are the bomb. They are powerhouse creators and terrific performers who sings and act beautifully.

SEE THIS!

Comment. The Next Stage Theatre Festival programs appear to conform to a particular format. The playwright, director, costume designer etc. are all named beside the appropriate title on the title page. But underneath this the cast is just listed by their names in alphabetical order but not with their character’s name. For that information one must look further inside the program at the various biographical blurbs to see the character’s name beside the actor’s name. Not helpful. What’s the problem with being consistent and naming the actor and the character he/she plays beside the name on the title page, as all the other creatives are listed?

Next Stage Theatre Festival Presents:

Opened: Jan. 4, 2017.
Closes: Jan. 15, 2017.

www.fringetoronto.com

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2016 Tootsie Awards

by Lynn on December 26, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

As many of you know, I have been giving out Tootsie Pops for many years to people in the theatre as a way of saying ‘thank you for making the theatre so special for me.’ Instead of doing top 10 lists of the best theatre and performances of the year, I do The Tootsie Awards that are personal, eclectic, whimsical and totally subjective.

Here are this year’s winners:

PEOPLE

The Guts of a Bandit Award

Jon Kaplan

For facing his medical challenges head on with resolve, grace and his always present smile.

The Living Their Dream Award

Michael Rubinoff, Irene Sankoff and David Hein

Michael Rubinoff for coming up with the idea for the musical Come From Away, the story of how the good people of Gander, Newfoundland opened their homes and hearts to the 7,000 passengers on 38 planes, who ‘came from away’ on 9/11, when American airspace was closed.

Irene Sankoff and David Hein for writing, composing and lyricising Come From Away, which has blown away anyone who has seen it.

The John Harvey/Leonard/McHardy Mensch Award
(Named after John Harvey and Leonard McHardy who gave us TheatreBooks for 40 years and showed us what class, graciousness and being a mensch was all about)

To the good people of Gander, Newfoundland (of course)

Who took in all those stranded people who ‘came from away’ on 9/11 and for several days after, fed, cared for and comforted them, showing everyone what decency and kindness are all about. It’s all so beautifully realized in Come From Away.

The Brutal and Bumbling Award

Matthew Edison

For playing Joe, the polite, ice-eyed killer in Killer Joe (for Coal Mine Theatre) and then playing you know… I mean… (adjusting eye-glasses) I mean…he really is, isn’t he? you know what I mean, Gary Lejeune in Noises Off (for Soulpepper) that eye-glass adjusting, sweet bumbler who never met a sentence he could finish articulately.

The Chameleon Award

Jakob Ehman

He disappears into his roles to such an extent you can’t recognize him from one role to another. From the smarmy, spoilt rich kid in Caught at Theatre Passe Muraille to the twitchy and dangerous tough in The Circle at Tarragon Theatre, and the suave singing, dancing erudite man in Darling of the Day at Talk is Free Theatre in Barrie, Jakob Ehman slips so far into his characters, he dissolves.

The One(s) to Watch Award

Nikki Duval

For playing an overly-excitable, simple-minded soul in Pitchfork Disney in a site-specific production for Precisely Peter Productions and then playing a tough-as-nails Goth-girl with a stare that could freeze you to the floor in The Circle at the Tarragon.

Olivia Hutt

For her riveting, gut-twisting performance of a teen with severe anxiety and depression problems, in which she also played every other character in the multi-character production of Still/Falling rendering each of them distinct in body language, voice and expression.

Hannah Levinson

A feisty eleven-year-old who played the whiney Lee Bouvier in Grey Gardens for Acting Up Stage Company and then plays a forthright, confident, formidable Matilda in Matilda for Mirvish Productions. Levinson is one of three Matilda’s and is a powerhouse in my estimation.

The So Long and Thanks for All the Gems Award

Jackie Maxwell

The out-going (and outgoing) Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival for 16 years who packed her seasons with challenging, enlightening productions and championed women in every facet of her programming.

SPECIAL MENTION (because he works out of Barrie, Ont.)

The Fearless Imp Award

Arkady Spivak

As the Artistic Producer of Talk Is Free Theatre in Barrie, Ont. Arkady Spivak has programmed little known musicals such as Darling of the Day with great success, placed the musical The Music Man on the streets of Barrie where the audience either walked or bussed to the various locations, cast actors (Jakob Ehman for example) in roles you would not expect with terrific results, and offers a theatre for development for The Wedding Party by Kristen Thomson, before it opens the new Streetcar Crowsnest Theatre in Toronto in January. And he does it with an impish manner and easy wit.

PRODUCTIONS

The Bursting with Joy and Please Pass the Kleenex Award

Come from Away

Nothing else needs to be said.

Babies are the Quietest Audiences Award

One Thing Leads to Another

The revelatory show for babies created by Maja Ardal, Audrey Dwyer, Mary Francis Moore and Julia Tribe at Young People’s Theatre. If you just let babies be babies to discover this magical world of theatre, their world will open up to them. And to the adults who bring them.

The Gigantically Important Award

The Wee Festival

A festival of plays for babies and toddlers, organized and curated by Lynda Hill, the formidable Artistic Director of Theatre Direct. To see the inventive work done by companies from around the world who catered to this young audience, and to see the looks of wonder on those young faces, was magical.

Let the Fingers Do the Walking, Talking and Expressing Award

Kiss and Cry

Created by Michèle Anne de Mey and Jaco Van Dormael that played at the Bluma Appel Theatre for Canadian Stage. An entire world of first love, romance and exploding life all performed by gifted performers using only their dramatic, expressive, graceful fingers. (Noted this year because I missed it last year.)

A Spit in the Face to Make You Gasp and Heartsick Award

“Master Harold”…And the Boys

A glorious production of Athol Fugard’s devastating play about the history of South Africa encapsulated in the entwined stories of three characters. Produced by Obsidian Theatre Company and the Shaw Festival directed beautifully by Philip Akin and wonderfully acted by James Daly, Allan Louis and André Sills.

Your Brother HAS to be Alive Award

All My Sons

Arthur Miller’s gripping play about love, valour and responsibility and how one family was ripped apart because of questions of morality, was given a shattering production directed with exquisite care by Martha Henry and acted by a stunning cast at Stratford.

More Combinations than a Rubik’s Cube Award

TomorrowLove

A play about love and couples with seemingly endless possibilities of pairing, written with eye-popping inventiveness by Rosamund Small and directed with an eye to detail by Mitchell Cushman.

Trust Us, You’re Going to Follow Us To The Dark Side Award

Pitchfork Disney

By Philip Ridley, directed by John Shooter who created a wonderfully claustrophobic and grungy production about an emotionally damaged brother and sister afraid to go outside. This was presented in a grungy hole of a room in Kensington Market.

The Unending

Three one act plays directed by Aaron Willis for the site-specific company, Convergence Theatre Company, in which the audience was lead up a laneway in the dark to the site of two of the plays, one in a dark garage, the other a backyard—a laneway, I reckon the audience would have avoided at all costs.

Pomona

By Alistair McDowall. Christopher Stanton directed a sphincter-gripping production of McDowall’s unsettling play and set it in a dark space with a large garage-like door that shut you in with a bang.

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At the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written for the stage by Philip Grecian
Based on the Frank Capra film
Directed by Albert Schultz
Set and costumes by Lorenzo Savoini
Lighting by Bonnie Beecher
Sound and foley design by John Gzowski
Cast: Derek Boyes
Sascha Cole
Oliver Dennis
Christef Desir
Raquel Duffy
Michelle Fisk
Thea Lapham
Richie Lawrence
Diego Matamoros
Michelle Monteith
Ellen Moon
Daniel Mousseau
Gregory Prest
James Smith
Marcel Stewart
William Webster

An ambitious endeavor to present It’s a Wonderful Life as a 1940s radio play that is very moving in parts but gets bogged down in all the distracting sound effects and stage business.

The Story. George Bailey lives in a small American town and he has dreams of travelling around the world; then going to college; then working at something he loves.
Of course, life being what it is it doesn’t work out that way.

George saves money for college but then his father has a heart attack and George gives up his dream to take over the running of the family business– The Bailey Brothers Building and Loan Company. George gives his college money to his brother so he can go to college.

George marries his childhood sweet heart, Mary. They plan a honeymoon. But then there is a financial crisis and his customers need money, so there goes the money for his honeymoon.

George tries to do right by the people in the town who come to him for financial help, but is often thwarted by his chief competition who represents the bank. There is a one last test of George’s faith and he gets fed up with the struggle and wants to do something drastic.

Enter, Clarence the Angel in Training who does not have his wings and must do something profound to earn them. George is the focus for Clarence to earn his wings.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a play about struggle, faith, confidence and knowing the value of your life. It’s a dandy story for this time of year.

The Production. Lorenzo Savoini has designed a radio studio with several microphones about the space, snow on the windows and all manner of paraphernalia for creating the sound effects of this Christmas Eve broadcast. Actors in smart 1940s costumes mill about the set, preparing for the broadcast and rehearsing the sound effects of a car crash.

I’ve seen such efforts over the years—plays presented as vintage radio broadcasts but watched by an audience in a theatre. Usually they have what’s known as a Foley artist who does all the sound effects off to one side of the stage while the acting is centre stage. In these instances the actors hold their scripts and read them directly into the microphone in front of them. The Foley artist usually is settled off to one side surrounded by all the gongs, cymbals and other paraphernalia that will be needed to produce the appropriate sound effects. In this case it’s the whole cast who create all the sounds.

Stage right is a wood box structure on a table. A soundman opens and shuts the door of the wood box whenever a character enters or exits a room. The soundman also walks nosily in place on a board on the floor—resulting in a walking sound, also when a character enters or exits a scene. Some cast members make bird sounds thus re-creating the sounds at night or in the daylight.

There is a car crash in the telling of the story so one actor makes a screeching sound into one of the many microphones, then another actor throws boxes and tins across the floor to create that sound of a car crunching.

It’s fascinating seeing all the activity of the busy stage business, and how the sound effect is created. The big question regarding all this activity and noise-making is: “Is it distracting?”

I heard director Albert Schultz recently on radio saying how great it is for the audience to fill in the blanks and imagine that world of the story from the acting and the sound effects and the intricate ways that sound is being made.

I can appreciate that. But yes, I find it distracting if action is going on centre stage and a sound effect is done somewhere stage right and almost out of sight. You want to watch the actual reading/acting, but all these strange noises which should enhance the scene, instead distract us from it as our focus is pulled away. I also find that director Albert Schultz shifts from the theatrical of a real theatre to the dramatic of a radio show.
Sometimes it seems confusing.

At one point George Bailey is given a (imaginary) suitcase for his trip. He mimes looking inside to see how roomy it is. I hear a strange snapping sound upstage and to the right almost behind the large wood box that is used for the door slamming.

It’s not immediately clear what that snapping sound is because there is no context—George is not given an actual suit case to lay on the floor and snap the mechanisms open, with the attendant snapping sound provided.

Wouldn’t that have been more efficient in clarifying to the scene—to have a real suitcase that can be laid on the floor with the sound of the actual snaps clicked open to provide its own sound? I do? Often there is so much loud activity on stage and to many microphoned sound effects it is hard to hear the dialogue the actors are speaking into their microphones.

Another note of confusion is at the end. After all is happily concluded—this is not a spoiler alert, the film is shown every year and everybody loves it so I’m not telling your anything you don’t know—anyway, after all is happily concluded, a delicate funnel of snow falls from the ceiling. Now what is that? Is it falling in the radio station? Is it falling in George and Mary’s real lives?

It’s a Wonderful Life is a very poignant story as we know from the film. Realizing that poignancy in the ‘radio play’ is tricky. For all my concerns, the most effective scene is when George gets his life back and the will to live and he rushes to celebrate this with his family.

Gregory Prest plays George with a sweet wide-eyed determination. But when he’s running, gasping for breath, desperate to be with Mary and his children, calling her name, there are no sound effects or other distractions, only George’s desperation to reach his family. I found that terribly moving and probably more moving than other scenes because it was the most theatrical in which the audience could think and imagine on its own what is going through George’s mind.

I also think Raquel Duffy as Mary Bailey is touching in her moments of concern for George.

Comment. It almost seems churlish to criticize the effort to take such a beloved story based on a beloved film, and try and shake things up by presenting it as a radio play.

Soulpepper Theatre Company continues to try and find new ways to tell old stories. I appreciate that. I love how they even wrote in the broadcast commercials one might hear over the radio—plugs for other Soulpepper shows in this instance.

But presenting It’s a Wonderful Life as a radio play in a theatre sends confusing mixed messages.

Soulpepper Theatre Company presents:

Opened: Dec. 16, 2016
Closes: Dec. 31, 2016
Cast: 16, 10 men, 6 women.
Running Time: 2 hours.

www.soulpepper.ca

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Other Stuff

AA Gill

I have been reading the reviews, travel pieces and interviews of AA Gill for years. They are brilliant. AA Gill was the restaurant and TV critic of the (London) Sunday Times. The restaurant reviews were in a column called “Table Talk.” The TV reviews were noted simply under Television. He also wrote interviews and travel pieces for The Sunday Times. When he went travelling the notation at the bottom of a restaurant review by another writer was: “AA Gill is away.” He wrote for The Tattler before that.

His restaurant reviews in particular could be mean, abrasive, eye-poppingly libelous, but he wrote with a breath-taking brilliance. Each word seemed to be cut from diamonds. The prose flowed: the wit of his thinking, his turn of phrase, his expressions; his prodigious knowledge not only of food, but seemingly of everything else in the world; his ire at lousy food, or surly service. His joy when it all worked left one light-headed with appreciation. No one could make me laugh out loud, bent over, paralyzed, gasping for breath, like AA Gill writing a restaurant review. And then he could write a travel/human interest piece on refugees that would leave you limp with emotion.

His frequent guest for his food forays was someone he referred to as “The Blonde”: Nicola Formby, his partner of 23 years and the mother of two of his four children.

My friend Bryan would clip his reviews and articles and send them to me every two weeks.

AA Gill never actually wrote one word of his reviews or articles because he was so severely dyslexic. He dictated his words to a scribe. That makes his writing even more astonishing.

When he was 30 he was an alcoholic and was told by his doctor that he would be dead in a few months if he didn’t stop drinking. He did stop immediately and went to AA for help. That’s when he noted his initials (for Adrian Anthony) with no punctuation as AA in recognition of their support.

Three weeks ago in a restaurant review he wrote this, which gives a sense of his abilities to express a thought: “I have an embarrassment of cancer, the Full English. There is barely a morsel of offal not included. I have a trucker’s gut-buster, gimpy, malevolent, meaty malignancy.”

He died this past Saturday, Dec. 10. He was 62.

I called Bryan to express the shock that AA Gill died so quickly; each of us talking with voices quivering with emotion. Bryan said, “I shan’t send you anymore restaurant reviews because there’s no point.” And he’s right. Others have their own style. No one can copy Gill.

This is a loss that leaves me limp with emotion.

Here are some samples of his writing:

“The amuse-gueule came, as I knew it would: a crab cake the size of a shirt button that collapsed into vapours at the sight of a fork. A man can feel right foolish chasing a crab’s toenail round a plate. It tasted fine, in a homeopathic sort of way.”

“Main course would have got a Third World airline grounded. My lamb would only have been of gastronomic to a man who had never eaten a sheep before. The mushrooms wouldn’t have tasted wild if you’d soaked them in Ecstasy and given them guns.”

“The pudding wouldn’t have attracted a wasp with diabetes”

“By chance, Frenchie (the restaurant being reviewed) has one of the best foie gras dishes I’ve had in years: duck liver with smoked eel and beetroot. A mouth-coating French kiss of epicurean loveliness: the round, whispered meatiness of the duck with a fishy smokiness and just a touch of rooty sweetness

Incidentally, the bread here (a restaurant named Norn, in Edinburgh)—milled from an Orkney grain, with the nutty, yeasty smell of a nun’s warm front pocket—was divine…Altogether, Norn is a seriously unflashy, soft spoken, careful but generous restaurant in the finest tradition of Scottish cooking. It has a lot to be proud of, but wouldn’t dream of boasting about it.”

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Black Boys

At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Created by Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Tawiah Ben-Eben M’Carthy, Thomas Olajide with Virgilia Griffith and Jonathan Seinen.
Directed by Jonathan Seinen
Choreography by Virgilia Griffith
Set and costumes by Rachel Forbes
Sound and Video design by Stephen Surlin
Lighting by Jareth Li
Cast: Stephen Jackman-Torkoff
Tawiah Ben-Eben M’Carthy
Thomas Olajide

Three black men ruminate, argue, rage and joke about being black men, their identity and sexuality. Often I thought it was a show for just the three of them rather than having a wider, mixed audience.

We are greeted as we enter the theatre by a charming, funny, welcoming Stephen Jackman-Torkoff. He wears an interesting ensemble of a long, brown skirt, a matching unbuttoned shirt, underneath is his bare chest. He’s eating an apple. He adjusts a large bristle board with writing on it as part of the set. He dances to music while greeting the audience.

When the show starts he is joined on stage by Tawiah Ben-Eben M’Carthy and Thomas Olajide. Of the three, Jackman-Torkoff is the most joyful and optimistic. He is also the most flamboyant, changing into various frocks and for one scene (for some reason), wearing nothing at all—which is pretty flamboyant. M’Carthy wears a colourfully patterned pair of trousers. He is going out dancing. He is proud of his Ghanaian heritage and is the most philosophical, dare I say, thoughtful of the three. Thomas Olajide is the angriest of the three, often raging at the other two. I get the sense that often this is an argument/discussion between the three of them and not necessarily with a broader world that causes their angst. They talk about race, the black man’s body, physicality, perceptions and masculinity among others. I wonder who their target audience is.

Olajide references the hymn “Amazing Grace” for some of his ire. A projection regarding the background of the hymn is flashed on the back wall (the projection certainly could be brighter and sharper to read). It says the hymn was written in 1779 by a white clergyman named John Newton. Again I could have missed this because of the poor projection but I thought it did not go far enough in its history, leaving out crucial information that really informs the hymn. Before John Newton was a minister in the Anglican Church he was a slave ship captain. He took slaves from Africa to various ports where they were sold. On one trip his ship was caught in a fierce storm and he thought he was going to die. He prayed to be saved and promised to give his life to God. He was saved. His life changed, but he did not give up his job as the slave ship captain so soon. He eventually gave up the slave trade when he married. He became ordained and wrote many hymns including “Amazing Grace.”

It seems to me that Olajide is angry that the lyrics of the hymn suggest the supposed focus of the hymn is a black audience. His raging is not clear. Considering the history of the man who wrote it, the lyrics of the hymn suggest to me that the person who was ‘blind but now can see’ and who was a ‘poor wretch’ was in fact John Newton.

The production of the show is accomplished with inventive direction by Jonathan Seinen and vivid choreography by Virgilia Griffith, that is beautifully realized by the three actors.

The three actors are certainly committed in discussing black sexuality, body image, masculinity etc. Their extensive program note laments the lack of opportunities for black actors and more broadly actors of colour; that they are woefully under-represented on stages. So these three actors made their own luck/work by creating this show and having the opportunity to present it at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Tawiah Ben-Eben M’Carthy and Thomas Olajide are bold and defiant in their presentation and certainly provocative in the title of their show.

Now if we can only do something about the predominantly white audience who came out to cheer it.

Saga Collectif and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre present:

Opened: Nov. 24, 2016.
Closes: Dec. 11, 2016.
Cast: 3 men.
Running Time: 2 hours approx.

www.buddiesinbadtime.com

Who Killed Spalding Gray?

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

Written and performed by Daniel MacIvor
Directed by Daniel Brooks
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

A sort of homage to the late monologist Spaling Gray performed by our own gifted monologist Daniel MacIvor in a surprising less than satisfying evening.

SPOILER ALERT!!! Spaulding Gray actually killed himself on January 11, 2004 by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry.

The set up is as if Spalding Gray was giving the monologue. Centre stage there is a metal chair at a wood desk. On the desk are a glass of water, a microphone and a pile of foolscap on which notes are made. Or perhaps it’s the actual monologue printed out.

There is another chair to the side of the stage. Daniel MacIvor comes out and exchanges pleasantries with the audience and as Spalding Gray did, picks someone out of the audience to come on stage, sit in the other chair and tell who he/she is (for my performance it was a gentleman) and to tell if he knows who Spalding Gray was.

MacIvor makes a note on the bottom of the foolscap at the end of that segment then continues the show. The other chair remains empty. At one point he slowly drinks the glass of water on the desk. Besides quenching his thirst this also sets up a bit of business at the end of the show I won’t spoil by revealing the purpose.

He then begins his own monologue which is so full of meandering storylines—a former lover, a psychic, a spirit that must be excised– it’s hard to follow. That’s unusual for a MacIvor monologue. He imbues his show with his disarming charm and impishness. It’s directed with precision by Daniel Brooks with his usual sharp eye, but the point of it is a puzzlement.

Is it about death and loosing someone dear? MacIvor asks his guest from the audience to speak about someone he lost recently. MacIvor also mentions that he lost someone dear to him recently. It’s no secret that person is Iris Turcott, the dramaturge on this show and to whom it is dedicated. Turcott seems to have worked with every major and emerging writer across the country before she died in September. It’s no secret that MacIvor held that woman dear. I would like to think that the other chair on stage that is empty for most of the show is reserved for the absent Iris Turcott. That is a poignant gesture.

MacIvor suggests he might be jealous of Spalding Gray. He has no need. MacIvor’s work stands sturdily on its own. It’s a mystery why he is referencing Spalding Gray at all. Perhaps that’s the problem of the piece; it’s neither all MacIvor or Gray. It’s a mishmash and as a result it’s a disappointment.

Canadian Stage Company Presents:

First Performance: Nov. 30, 2016.
Closes: Dec. 11, 2016.
Cast: 1 man.
Running Time: 80 minutes.

www.canadianstage.com

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