At a secret location in Toronto, Ont.

Created and directed by Daniele Bartolini

Facilitated by a rotating roster of gifted actors.

A virtual reality scene produced and developed by toaster lab

Initially an interesting engagement in the world of the unknown that was ultimately  challenging and exhilarating and will have you looking at strangers in a different way.

The is revised version of The Stranger that played previously in Toronto, where I didn’t see it so I don’t have anything to compare it with. Suffice to say creator/director Daniele Bartolini continues to challenge and unsettle the participants in their perceptions of their world, strangers, trust, safety, generosity of spirit and humanity. Be it the three day Curious Voyage (where I was first introduced to this inventive man’s brilliant, artistic brain) or  If On A Christmas Night or Leonardo where he created more stories, each different, I have come to expect the totally unexpected from Bartolini’s shows.

With The Stranger 2.0: Above & Below each experience is particular to the participant but we are requested not to give details until after it closes Sept. 29, 2019. Fair enough. I’ll be careful not to give anything away.

You are told where to appear a day before your event. There are ground rules so that you are prepared and know what to expect to a certain extent. You might be outdoors for some of it. If so you are accompanied by a participating ‘actor’. You are not alone in these instances. You might be asked to wait at a bus stop for the next participating actor to come along with new instructions. Some of the experience is indoors and involves  various activities in various rooms.

What I love about Daniele Bartolini’s creations is the trust we willingly give over to the experience. We trust that we will be safe, taken care of but challenged in our perceptions. I loved waiting by a bus stop and looking around to figure out who might be the next ‘stranger’ I would be encountering. Is it that young woman in the bus shelter? Is it that woman over by the wall listening to her MP3? The bus came, I moved way from the bus stop to see who got on the bus. The one who didn’t was my next stranger.

Along with the trust is my willingness to do things in public or even alone in a room that ordinarily I wouldn’t do. I leave shyness and reticence in the parking lot. I am not asked to do anything humiliating or embarrassing. I’m expected to leave inhibitions elsewhere. At every turn I am asked certain things and I can refuse if I want. I was asked by one of my ‘strangers’ if she could touch me (a shoulder, an arm etc.) and I said yes. If there is something I could not or would not do then an accommodation was made. There was a scene involving virtual reality. That was wild, certainly since I’d never experienced that before.

I think most of all since I participated in The Stranger 2.0: Above & Below and any Bartolini experience for that matter, I appreciate that I do look at the world around me and the people more and in a different way: how they walk, interact, are perceived and wonder if they might be my next stranger. Terrific experience. I await Daniele Bartolini’s next creation.

Presented by DopoLavoro Teatrale (DLT)

Closes: Sept. 29, 2019.

Running Time: 90 minutes, approx.

www.dltexperience.com

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Odile Gakire Katese
Photo by: Dahlia Katz

 

At the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre (formerly the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs), Toronto, Ont.

Co-created, written and performed by Odile Gakire Katese

Co-created and directed by Ross Manson

Projection design by Sean Frey and Kristine White

Production design by Kaitlin Hickey and Patrick Lavender

Composed by Mutangana Moise

Music performed by Ingoma Nshya the Women Drummers of Rwanda

Kaitlin Hickey and Patrick Lavender have designed a simple but beautiful set for the production. There is a white curtain at the back onto which projections will be illuminated. A goose necked lamp bows over a beautifully weaved chair besides which is a table. Both are on a large rug with a simple design. Stage right is a modern table on which Odile Gakire Katese will put the large binder which is her Book of Life. As we file into the theatre Odile Gakire Katese enters in a striking ensemble of a purple head-covering and a shift. She wears substantial yellow flip-flops, but that does not do justice to the elegance of the footwear. She writes something on a pad of paper and then tears off a sheet, crunches it up and throws that on the floor. She continues writing and again later discards what she has written by scrunching that up and throwing it on the floor. With such elegance in the set why is there no wastepaper basket? Deliberate? Hmmm I wonder why. Everything we will learn during this production suggests that Katese is fastidious in her care of what she does. Throwing the paper on the floor is therefore deliberate, but why?

The Book of Life is written and performed by Rwandan playwright, director, advocate and cultural entrepreneur Odile Gakire Katese and directed by Ross Manson. The play had its genesis from the Rwanda Genocide of 1994 against the Tutsis but the play is really about life. Odile Gakire Katese doesn’t spend much time on the atrocities, except in quickly describing late in the show that her grandmother was killed by machete during the uprising.

Odile Gakire Katese doesn’t know much about the many relatives missing, lost or dead in her family because her grandmother would not speak of it or inform her. She asks the audience to draw our idea of a grandfather so she can keep the drawing as her own. And we do. She picks the one she wants to keep. It’s given to projection manipulator, Kristine White who is behind the white curtain that hangs down at the back. Photos and drawings are projected onto the sheet from behind it.

In Odile Gakire Katese’s efforts to heal the wounds of the genocide she has interviewed survivors, children of survivors, those guilty of  atrocities and their children, and asked them to write a letter to one of the people that died or was killed, with the instruction: what would you write to that person? She also has music performed by Ingoma Nshya The Women Drummers of Rwanda, a group of women drummers she organized as one means of healing.

Katese reads the letters simply, quietly and also tacks up an accompanying photo on the white curtain at the back of the stage.

All the letters and photos are kept in a large black binder—the book of life—that Katese flips through, selecting the letters she wants to read as she goes. Each letter has an accompanying photo or drawing to be displayed on the curtain.

She illuminates these stories by bringing up fables of animals on one side of the world that is dark who want to ask the other side of the world with sunlight if they can have some for themselves.  It’s an interesting quest.

The letters she reads are extraordinary. One is from a daughter about her father who was guilty of war crimes.  He didn’t see why he was in jail for the rest of his life.  How does a daughter work with that? How she does it is part of the humanity of the piece.

But is it theatre? I found the premise to find the life in that horror admirable and interesting. Odile Gakire Katese is a soft-spoken, gracious story-teller, but her delivery is so low-key that it’s not always compelling theatrically.

It’s fluidly staged by Ross Manson.  There is a lot going on. There are projections of various animals.  Some of the grandfather drawings are projected along with cryptic lines that inform the narrative.  At times that proved a good distraction from the even delivery.

The Book of Life is not a history lesson. We don’t get background except that it references 1994 when the Rwanda Genocide started.  The intention of finding the life and humanity of people who either went through or caused the atrocities is worthy. I wish it was more compelling theatrically.

Canadian Stage presents a Volcano Production in association with the Women Cultural Centre, Rwanda and Why Not Theatre.

Opened: Sept. 19, 2019.

Closes: Sept. 26, 2019.

Running Time: 80 minutes.

www.canadianstage.com

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At the Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Music and lyrics by David Yazbek

Book by Itamar Moses

Based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin

Directed by David Cromer

Choreographed by Patrick McCollum

Set by Scott Pask

Costumes by Sarah Laux

Lighting by Tyler Micoleau

Sound by Kai Harada

Cast: Jennifer Apple

Mike Cefalo

Adam Gabay

Sasson Gabay

Marc Ginsburg

Kendal Hartse

Joe Joseph

Sara Kapner

Chilina Kennedy

Pomme Koch

Ahmad Maksoud

Ronnie Malley

James Rana

David Studwell

A beautiful production, in spite of some concerns, of a heart-squeezing musical.

The Story.  It’s 1996. A group of musicians fly from Egypt to Israel to play a gig in the burgeoning city of Petah Tikva to open an Arab Cultural Centre. No one meets them at the airport so they take a bus, but alas they arrive in Bet Hatikva in error (there but for some dodgy pronunciation go they….). Bet Hatikva is not burgeoning. It’s a sad little desert town with a café, some apartments, a roller skating rink and one pay phone. The musicians lead by Tewfiq are awkward but are eventually welcomed by the reticent Israelis lead by Dina who owns the café. It’s only an over night stay before they can get the bus to the right city. Everyone’s life changes in that short time.

The Production.  Director David Cromer is fastidious in establishing the almost comatose attitude of the bored Israelis and the awkward, uncertain Egyptians. Cromer knows how to bring out the humour and heartache of situations in body language, reactions of characters, a simple movement of the set among other things.

Scott Pask’s sandy-brown simple set of the café and the surrounding buildings beautifully conveys how rudimentary the town of Bet Hatikva is. There is nothing to do there but wait, as “Waiting”, the first of David Yazbek’s exquisite songs suggests. Generally the townsfolk are waiting for something to happen. A revolve in the stage brings in the only payphone and the Telephone Guy (Mike Cefalo) who stands in front of it daily, waiting for his girlfriend to call. Dina (Chilina Kennedy) always asks if she called and he replies with faith “Soon”. They might wait for love, friendship, the ability to talk to a woman without gagging in nerves, but still it’s waiting.

The arrival of the Alexandrian Ceremonial Police Orchestra, starched and at attention, resplendent in their powder blue uniforms, does cause a stir for the Israelis of Bet Hatikva who are in worn t-shirts, jeans and the like. (Kudos to Sarah Laux for her costumes).

There is a natural wariness between these Egyptians and Israelis—and there is a language problem in some cases. But there is a basic humanity between them. The Egyptians are far from home and in the wrong place and the Israelis can and do help them. There is no hotel so the townspeople billet the orchestra. They then speak the same language of music, family, love and home.

Dina takes in Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay), the taciturn orchestra leader and Haled (Pomme Koch) a quiet charmer who thinks every woman has beautiful eyes.  Dina tells Tewfiq that she and her mother lived for those times they could watch Omar Sharif in a film or listen to the legendary Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum.

As Dina, Chilina Kennedy oozes sensuality and longing. Her singing of “Omar Sharif” illuminates how Dina is transported to another world because of his films and Oum Kalthoum’s singing.  It’s a wonderful performance, laid-back, almost insouciant in attitude. But Dina is full of passion, pent-up yearning, regret and an ache because of missed chances. And of course Kennedy sings like a dream.

Sasson Gabay played Tewfiq in the film and recreates that role for the musical. While Sasson Gabay as Tewfiq is upright and stiff-backed I had difficulty understanding anything he said because he doesn’t enunciate. Often I couldn’t tell if he was speaking English or Arabic. He tends to mumble, not a good thing. Occasionally the orchestra drowns out a scene on stage, I think particularly of the scene in the roller skating arena. Balance of sound is always a challenge, but it can be met.

Joe Joseph as Haled is a man who can rise to the occasion. He feels awkward in this foreign land but uses charm to break down barriers. His singing of “Haled’s Song About Love” is tender, understated and heart-squeezing.

Comment. The Band’s Visit is based on the screenplay of the same name. It began Off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theatre Company in 2016. It transferred to Broadway in 2017 and won the Tony Award for Best Musical. This is the national tour of the musical. It’s a beautiful creation of music and words that illuminate the many similarities of these two peoples—Israelis and Arabs. At its heart The Band’s Visit is a quiet embrace of what makes us human.

David Mirvish Presents:

Opened: Sept. 18, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 20, 2019.

Running Time: 100 minutes (no intermission)

www.mirvish.com

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Review: NO FOREIGNERS

by Lynn on September 18, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

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

Created by Natalie Tin Yin Gan, Milton Lim, Remy Siu and David Yee

Text by David Yee

Directed by Milton Lim

Miniature design by Natalie Tin Yin Gan with April Leung and Derek Chan

Projections and sound design by Milton Lim and Remy Siu

Performed and co-created by April Leung and Derek Chan

A beautiful production full of technical wizardry but the text and point are so deeply embedded in Chinese culture that it appears mystifying for those who are “foreigners” to that culture.

The Story. A young man goes into a store in a mall to buy a Hermes bag for his girlfriend. The woman working the store is 144 years old and sips tea (no kidding) and tells him to leave saying, “No foreigner. No Foreigner.” He doesn’t know what she means as he is Chinese and so is she. He then goes on several quests to be more Chinese.

The Production and comment. The production created and directed by Milton Lim and his terrific team from Hong Kong Exile, is stunning, eye-poppingly inventive and compelling in its imagery. Various miniature models are projected onto a large screen in the Theatre Centre’s Incubator space. Other images are projected—planes fly across the screen when the scene takes place in a travel agency; butterflies appear in another; a panorama of various locations Hong Kong? Vancouver? Appear.  April Leung and Derek Chan provide the various voices for all the characters that are projected. They sit in the darkened theatre wearing head-microphones. In one segment Derek Chan bursts into song in Chinese and is illuminated in this instance. There are no subtitles in English to explain what the song or any of the sporadic use of Chinese means.

I must confess the lack of a translation is not the problem. David Yee’s impenetrable text is the problem. I will quote all the press information provided for some context and explanation:

NO FOREIGNERS is a multimedia performance that meditates on North American Chinese shopping malls as spaces of cultural creation and clash. Multiple storylines begin in a mall and quickly diverge—catapulting the audience across cities, between Cantonese and English, in and out of the afterlife, through the past, present, and future.

“We’re creating new mythologies with the work, and I think that’s what people leave the show with” says writer and fu-GEN Artistic Director David Yee. “Thanks to the digital apparatus, we’re able to combine myth and realism together in ways that are often elusive in live performance. A large part of any culture is the expression of it through lore, myths, folktales… and this is sort of a hyper-modernized version of those expressions.

Weaving together text, miniatures, digital backdrops and live cameras, NO FOREIGNERS examines our changing relationships to these social spaces and the histories, characters, experiences, and ephemera that keep inviting us back.

“Extending from our experiences as Chinese diaspora, having grown up within and around these malls, we’re trying to re-imagine what these spaces have been for us, how they’ve supported older generations, and how they are changing” says director, designer, and Hong Kong Exile Co-Artistic Director, Milton Lim. “Beyond the bubble waffles, the cheap electronics, the incense, the action figures, the travel agencies, the sponge cakes, the karaoke places—there’s much more than the sum of the parts.”

I can’t remember ever seeing a show about another culture that so distanced me or alienated me without a shred of relevance to mine. Perhaps that was the intent of No Foreigners. If it was then something sure got lost in translation.

The Theatre Centre presents a Hong Kong Exile and fu-GEN Theatre production.

Opened: Sept. 17, 2019.

Closes: Sept. 19, 2019.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

www.fu-gen.org

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At the Festival Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Antoni Cimolino

Designed by Julie Fox

Lighting by Jason Hand

Composed by Bertold Carrière

Lyricist, Marion Adler

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Graham Abbey

Michael Blake

Ben Carlson

David Collins

Sarah Dodd

Farhang Ghajar

Randy Hughson

Micah Kalap

John Kirkpatrick

Shruti Kothari

Daniel Krmpotic

Josue Laboucane

Jamie Mac

Nolan McKee

Gordon S. Miller

Lucy Peacock

Mike Shara

Johnathan Sousa

Michael Spencer-Davis

Sophia Walker

Brigit Wilson

From the ridiculousness of Henry IV Parts I and II at  Shakespeare’s Globe in London, England to the sublime of The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ont.

The Story. Sir John Falstaff fancies himself a lady’s man, a charmer among men and someone that everybody wants to know and accommodate. And he always needs money. So he decides to woo two housewives of Windsor at the same time in order to curry their favour etc. He sends Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page the same letter laying on the charm. It was the time before texting, (sexting??) right, so the two wives actually talk to one another about various things and compare their letters and plot to teach Sir John a lesson.

There are other subplots: Mr. and Mrs. Page want to marry their daughter, Anne, to a rich, French doctor, Dr. Caius and she wants to marry for love (imagine that!). And Mr. Ford is quivering with jealousy regarding his wife and thinks she is untrue at every turn. He needs to learn a lesson too. Lots of teaching is going on in that small town.

The Production. Director Antoni Cimolino has set the play in 1950 in a small town that is obviously Stratford, Ont. We know we are in deep “twee” country by the two flower ‘pots’ in the yard—they are in the shape of swans. (A tip of the hat to Stratford, Ont. and their many swans on the Avon River.) I smile at that detail.

Twee is a wonderful English slang. It means perhaps over the top precious, like doilies on furniture. In Julie Fox’s design she has put doilies on doilies in a sense. It’s fall in this small town. There are multi-coloured leaves on the ground in the small yard of Mr. and Mrs. Page’s sweet cottage.

Two men arrive to rake the leaves and cart them away (did they have composting in 1950?). Mr. Page (Michael Blake) is a neighbourly man, gracious, a genial host and good-humoured, except when insisting who his daughter marries. Mr. and Mrs. Page’s house seems to be where the neighbours gather for a good time. Mrs. Page (Brigit Wilson) is a bit more forceful than her husband.

Falstaff (Geraint Wyn-Davis) is a bit of a rogue who believes that women fancy him. In this case he thinks that Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford (Sophia Walker) both fancy him and so, since he always seems to need money, he decides that he will woo both woman by mail at the same time and get some money in the bargain. This is a small town. Both women actually talk to each other and so they know Falstaff’s scheme and plot to get even with him.

It involves tricking him into coming to Mrs. Ford’s house for a tryst and then tricking Falstaff into thinking her jealous husband has come home and he is to hide in a laundry hamper (it was really big) whereupon several burly men hauled the laundry hamper out of the house with great difficulty and then dumped the contents in the river. (I believe their operations at Shouldice Hernia Hospital are next week.)

Geraint Wyn-Davis plays Falstaff with verve, energy (is that the energy of a thinner man in a fat suit or is he playing him as if  he believes that a man that large would be that energetic and quick moving?), and brimming good humour. Wyn-Davis has a wonderful way with the language—it bubbles, froths and gushes out of him as if he is having the time of his life.

 

He is equally matched by Brigit Wilson as Mrs. Page. She is sharp-witted, almost impish and knows how to solve difficult problems. She handles problems with quiet grace. For Mrs. Ford the stakes are higher because the tryst happens at her house. Sophia Walker at Mrs. Ford has a nimble mind and has to do some fast thinking when things go sideways. It’s a lovely performance full of humour but not meanness.

Graham Abbey as Mr. Ford was just on the cusp of ‘too much’ but held back. Abbey plays Mr. Ford as a man who quivers with jealousy and anger. His body-language is quick and jerky as his anger bubbles and rises to the top.

I must confess I could not understand one word of Dr. Caius as played by an over-excited Gordon S. Miller. Miller of course deliberately mangles the French doctor’s pronunciation. His body-language is over the top. We know he is the one Mr. and Mrs. Page want Anne to marry. She wants to marry the man she loves. But Miller takes it so far over the top as to make the character incomprehensible instead of funny. If this is what director Antoni Cimolino wants, I think it back-fired.

Otherwise Cimolino packs his production with sight-gags, visual jokes and even a theatre lesson after Chekhov. We know that if we see a gun in Act I then it has to go off in Act II or III (witness Uncle Vanya). In The Merry Wives of Windsor the same thing applies to chamber pots and cow “patties.” Mr. Ford comes to Falstaff for advice. Falstaff hands him a ‘used’ chamber pot with glee and joy. Mr. Ford takes it tentatively looking away, trying not to smell it. He puts it on the floor. He gently pushes it to the side with his foot. You know in your soul someone will step in it. And it’s Mr. Ford, and he does it with verve and horror. The build-up and execution is delicious. And then there is a bit of extra.

Same thing with the cow ‘patties.’ They are there in a ‘field’ and you know someone will step in them. And they do and that too is accompanied with a bit of an extra effect. It’s slapstick. It’s cheesy. It’s very funny.

One clever scene stands out in so many—kudos to movement director, Valerie Moore. Falstaff is on his back on the bed in Mrs. Ford’s house, ready for his sexual adventure with Mrs. Ford. But then he’s startled, thinking he’s been discovered there by Mr. Ford and has to leave quickly. And he can’t because he’s so big that he can’t easily get up. His arms and legs just naturally flip up because his rear just elevates his limbs. He tries and fails to get up. Mrs. Ford pushes his legs down and then up to give him momentum, until ‘lift-off.’ Hilarious.

Comment. We live in interesting times and so body shaming is looked down upon except it seems with Falstaff. He’s a very portly fellow and his weight has provided a lot of humour. In the play it seems quite reasonable to knit ones eyebrows and question how such a portly man could think himself desirable by two comely women. Part of Falstaff’s folly is that he is so confident about himself. We laugh at his perceptions of himself. How could he think he was desirable? Why not? In its quiet way and considering the times we live it, The Merry Wives of Windsor does ask us to re-think our perceptions and conceptions, after we’ve finished laughing.

Produced by the Stratford Festival.

Opened: June 1, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 26, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

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At the Arts Theatre, London, England

Written, composed and lyrics by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss

Directed by Lucy Moss and Jamie Armitage

Choreographer, Carrie-Anne Ingrouille

Set by Emma Bailey

Costumes by Gabriella Slade

Sound by Paul Gatehouse

Lighting by Tim Deiling

Cast: Aimie Atkinson

Alexia McIntosh

Millie O’Connell

Natalie Paris

Maiya Quansah-Breed

Jameia Richard-Noel

 

Musicians: Katy Richardson

Alice Angliss

Amy Shaw

Terri De Marco

A whip-smart, creative, wily, joyous pop-rock-concert  musical about the six wives of Henry VIII (yes you read that right).

As the programme says: “A little bit of her-story:”

One: Catherine of Aragon

“My name is Catherine of Aragon

Was married 24 years. I’m a paragon

Of royalty, my loyalty is to the Vatican

So if you try to dump me you won’t try that again…”

Two: Anne Boleyn

“I’m that Boleyn girl, and I’m up next

See, I broke England from the Church, yeah I’m that sexy

Why did I lose my head?

Well my sleeves may be green, but my lipstick’s red…”

 

Three: Jane Seymour

“Jane Seymour, the only one he truly loved

When my son was newly born

I died, but I’m not what I seem

Or am I? Stick around, and you’ll suddenly see more…”

Four: Anna of Cleves

“Ich bin Anna of Cleves, Ja

When he saw my portrait, he was like “Ja!”

But I didn’t look as good as I did in my pic

Funny how we all discuss that, but never Henry’s little pr…”

 

Five: Katherine Howard

“Prick up our ears, I’m the Katherine who lost her head

For my promiscuity outside of wed-

Lock up your husbands, lock up your sons

K-Howard is here, and the fun’s begun….”

Six: Catherine Parr

“Five down, I’m the final wife

I saw him to the end of his life

I’m the survivor—Catherine Parr

And I bet you wanna know how I got this far.”

The pace is relentless. The dancing is disco driven. The costumes for the women are some form of formfitting bustier or skinny pants or short skirts. Catherine of Aragon has spiky things in her hair. There are 10 songs in this 75-minute show and each queen has her moment to shine and make us laugh and tell her truth. Katherine Howard for example notes that she is the queen that is always forgotten because nothing much happened. But the music and songs by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss are dandy. They establish who these women were in their own individual way.

The premise is to pick the queen who suffered the most: is it Catherine of Aragon because she was married to the guy for 24 years but he threw her over for Anne Boleyn.  Do you win points if you die in childbirth; or you don’t look as good as your painting; or you have your head chopped off; or are humiliated in divorce.

In the end that point is dropped. They are women taken on their own terms and not in the context of who they all married. And, no Henry doesn’t make an entrance. I have a feeling it would not go too well for him.

With only 75 minutes it’s hard for each woman  to actually make an impression and be distinctive after the fact. But during the show each establishes their individuality. Each singer/actress/dancer is terrific. They are all on stage for the whole show. The energy is breathless and even the band is made up of talented women.

The audience seemed to be in their 20s. I think I was the oldest person there. No matter. I loved this show—a friend said I would hate it. A challenge I could not refuse.

The creators wanted to show the individuality of these women without the context of who they were married to. They wanted to show the parallels between these six women and women of today, 500 years later. They wanted to illuminate women’s stories and how hard it is to tell them, then and now. And they wanted to have fun. And they all succeeded.

The show will play Chicago, Broadway, Australia.  No you don’t need to be a history buff. This show will take care of that. And I bet you will then go  out and learn more about these six women. Me? I bought the CD.

Kenny Wax, Global Musicals and George Stiles present:

Began: Dec. 17, 2017.

Playing to: Jan 2020 and probably longer.

Running Time: 75 minutes.

www.sixthemusical.com

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Review: BETRAYAL

by Lynn on September 5, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

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

Written by Harold Pinter

Directed by Andrea Donaldson

Set and costumes by Ken MacKenzie

Lighting by Rebecca Picherack

Sound and composed by Richard Feren

Cast: Virgilia Griffith

Ryan Hollyman

Jordan Pettle

Paolo Santalucia

A carefully thought out, detailed production in which the silences speak as loudly as the words about an affair.

The Story. Jerry and Emma are having an affair. Both are married. Jerry is married to Judith. Emma is married to Robert. Jerry and Robert are best friends and colleagues; Jerry is a literary agent and Robert is a publisher. And it all unfolds backwards. We follow the course of the affair, the revelations, the recriminations, the feelings of betrayal at the end and the euphoria as it begins. Complete with pauses. You gotta love that Harold Pinter.

The Production. The stage directions in the play note that it begins in 1977 (the end of the affair) and ends in 1968 (the beginning of the affair). Director Andrea Donaldson does not indicate the dates of the scenes in projections as the story unfolds. Rather after the first scene there is the sound effect of a clock ticking loudly, the passage of time. I thought that was nicely efficient to suggest the idea, that and Emma’s (Virgilia Griffith) changing hair styles and the change of clothes for all three. Another wonderful touch is that Jerry (Ryan Hollyman) seems to wear a different pair of glasses for each new scene.

Richard Feren has composed a score that sounds rather grand for this seductive play. I’m not sure what to make of that. Ken MacKenzie’s set that spans the width of the stage nicely establishes the various locations of the scenes without too much fuss of moving furniture. The men’s clothing changes slightly. Emma’s transformation over the years is more pronounced—varying hair styles and clothes. I thought it interesting that in one scene with Jerry he is wearing a three piece suit with a long sleeved shirt. Emma is wearing a sleeveless summer dress. I thought that odd until I remember that even in a heat wave in London men wear three piece suits and long sleeved shirts. And they don’t sweat.

Ryan Hollyman nicely conveys Jerry’s anxiety and uptightness, especially when he realizes that Emma told Robert (Jordan Pettle) of the affair. Jerry is a man of high emotions, panicky when the affair is revealed and joyous at the beginning when he and Emma meet for their afternoon trysts. Virgilia Griffith as Emma on the other hand is cool, watchful and unflappable. She says to Jerry that she had to tell Robert of the affair. It’s been going on for years but she feels she had to tell him. Jerry never pushes her to explain why and she never offers. I love that delicate dance. As the play unfolds we realize that Robert has betrayed Emma with other women; she has betrayed Robert and Jerry has betrayed his wife with Emma. For Robert it seems to be a game. Jordan Pettle plays Robert as a masterful games player. Robert doesn’t care really what is happening between Emma and Jerry because he’s been cheating on his wife for years. However he’s wily. He notices everything. He puts things together and then waits until he can catch his ‘victim’ in a lie. Jerry is relaxed, charming and dangerous.

It’s not just the betraying that Pinter is exploring, it’s the psychology of the players. Jerry gives in to his emotions and can’t help himself. Hollyman is almost giddy when he expresses his love for Emma when the affair begins. She on the other hand slowly gives over to the feeling and the danger of having an affair as if it would be an interesting exercise, an amusement.

Pinter never explains why they are cheating. Perhaps he leaves that to us. He seems more interested in the give and take of the game of it. The game of squash is mentioned often. Robert invites Jerry to play squash with him. It’s a metaphor for getting the best of your opponent either in the game or in a relationship and that is certainly conveyed in Jordan Pettle’s performance of a man who looks for his opponent’s weaknesses to strike and beat him.

Comment. Betrayal opened at the National Theatre in 1978 and has been performed steadily since then. There is a production of it on Broadway now. I find it interesting that Stephen Sondheim’s musical of Merrily We Roll Along (1983) is about the friendship of three people over time and it too unfolds backwards, yet that show is famous for being a flop, seemingly the few times that it’s played (although I think the London production of a few years ago might prove me wrong). I thought Sondheim’s music was swell.

Betrayal seems deceptively simple perhaps because Pinter’s dialogue is so spare. But it’s what is not being said, the subtle looks in reaction that are beautifully realized in the acting and Andrea Donaldson’s careful direction that illuminate this dandy play.

 Soulpepper presents:

Opened: Sept. 4, 2019.

Closes: Sept. 22, 2019.

Running Time: 80 minutes, no intermission

www.soulpepper.ca

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At the Studio Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by Wajdi Mouawad

English translation by Linda Gaboriau

Directed by Antoni Cimolino

Designed by Francesca Callow

Lighting by Michael Walton

Projection design by Jamie Nesbitt

Composed by Levon Ichkhanian

Sound by Adam Harendorf

Cast: Shelly Antony

Miranda Calderon

Jakob Ehman

Deb Filler

Danny Ghantous

Ron Kennell

Hannah Miller

Alon Nashman

Harry Nelken

Sarah Orenstein

Baraka Rahmani

Oksana Sirju

Aladeen Tawfeek

A complex story about the prickly relationship of Jews, Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs, of identity and the power of love.

The Story. Eitan is an Israeli-German genetic researcher who met and fell in love with Wahida, a Moroccan woman working on her PhD at a New York University. Eitan’s parents—David and Norah–live in Berlin and when they came to New York to spend Passover with him, they find out he is seeing an Arab woman and David is furious.  Wahida is not Jewish.  Worse, she’s Arab. By loving her Eitan is diminishing the purity of Judaism and certainly if they marry according to David.

Eitan and Wahida go to Israel to meet his grandmother whom he has never met to find out some information about his father David. At the airport, at security, Eitan and Wahida are separated and he is caught in a terrorist attack and seriously hurt. This brings the parents and grandparents together for the first time in several decades. There is a mystery about that long separation that eventually comes out.

Framing the huge play is Wahida’s thesis. It’s about a Moroccan diplomat—therefore Muslim–who is kidnapped and given as a gift to Pope Leo X and is converted to Christianity by the Pope. Wahida’s thesis is a defense of the hypothesis that his conversion was a dissimulation (a concealment). Norah talks about finding out that in fact her family are not Christian, they are Jews but had to hide it. It won’t be the first concealment that will be revealed in the play.  Identity, religion, loving the enemy and being true to ones beliefs factor heavily in Birds of a Kind.

The Production.  Wajdi Mouawad has written a complex play in Birds of a Kind. It’s been given a brilliant English translation by Linda Gaboriau. The dialogue pops with energy, emotion and passion.

Antoni Cimolino has realized all of the depth and complexity of the play in his elegant, exquisite direction.  From its stunning design by Francesca Callow, to the effective lighting by Michael Walton, the production just shimmers.

There is a sense of the exotic about it. There is an intricate lighting pattern on the floor surrounding a raised domed object that looks like it can be a religious symbol.  Then the domed object slowly sinks into the set and the lighting pattern seems to slowly go down into the hole with the object.

Can’t that be a metaphor for thinking that with mixed marriages or thinking you are one religion when you are another that the purity of the religion is being buried, sinking down into the ground? That startling image got me thinking.

The scene transitions are swift, smooth and economical. A table moved down here with movable cubes for chairs is a Seder in New York. A hospital bed moved on with Eitan (Jakob Ehman) on it is a hospital in Israel. Movable cubes form seats, tables and represent the many locations in the play.

Some scenes are in various languages: Hebrew, Arabic, German and English. Surtitles are projected above the stage so that we know what characters are saying to each other.

The cast is terrific from top to bottom. They are lead by Jakob Ehman as Eitan, fierce, compelling and always watchable. Eitan has to deal with many situations, not the least of which is his uptight father David (Alon Nashman). As Eitan, Jakob Ehman tries to control his temper to protect Wahida. The arguments are clear, focused and unsettling.

We get a sense of the anger of David (Alon Nashman) when Eitan brings Wahida (Baraka Rahmani) to the Seder. As David, Alon Nashman rails in pointed language in German to Eitan about Wahida who is in the room with them. Nashman plays David as a man with a temper that he tries to control in this situation, but it’s obvious, he hates this situation. David’s comments about Arabs are full of contempt, disgust and animosity. David’s angry, negative, blinkered thoughts about Arabs, dare I say it, Muslims are startling. He does not believe that Jews and Arabs can live in peace and harmony, but there is his son who loves an Arab woman and all David can see is negativity. It’s David’s blinkered attitude that makes one despair.

It’s interesting that it’s the Jew (David) who has animosity with the Arabs and not the other way around. As Wahida, Baraka Rahmani is as still as Eitan is active. Rahmani has a quiet demeanour; who doesn’t want to make waves; who at first looked askance at Eitan as he pursued her but then gave it and fell in love with him. It’s a lovely performance

Eitan’s mother Norah, beautifully played by Sarah Orenstein, introduces the theme of concealment. Norah thought she had been born and raised Christian but found out that in fact her family was Jewish and had to hide it for protection during the war. What a revelation. How does a person process that information? Playwright Wajdi Mouawad presents prickly questions for us to consider. As Norah, Orenstein plays a calm woman who lives with a volatile, stubborn husband. She plays the peacemaker, a go-between who tries to calm the situation. It’s a performance of grace and understanding.

Eitan has come to Israel to speak to his grandmother Leah (Deb Filler) about his father David. Eitan has never met his grandmother and there is a mystery as to why she has not spoken to her son in more than 30 years. Deb Filler as Leah keeps many secrets. Leah has that careless attitude, a shrug speaks volumes. She’s a woman who wants to be left alone and not be reminded of what has happened and what she felt she had to do all those years ago. But the truth is revealed, reluctantly.

Comment. Wajdi Mouawad always writes complex difficult plays about identity, cultures and beliefs. And he always writes too much and too long. That said Birds of a Kind is poetic, troubling, and compelling. You are just drawn into this play and you will certainly be thinking about the identity of the characters and your own.

The Stratford Festival Presents:

Opened: Aug. 14, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 13, 2019.

Running Time: 3 hours, 10 minutes.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

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Review: ART

by Lynn on September 2, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts

Written by Yasmina Reza

Translated by Christopher Hampton

Directed by Philip Akin

Set by Gillian Gallow

Costumes by Dana Osborne

Lighting by Bonnie Beecher

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Oliver Dennis

Huse Madhavji

Diego Matamoros

A discourse of sorts on art and on friendship. For all its esoteric musings, the play is slight.

The Story.  This takes place in France. Marc muses on Serge, one of his oldest friends, who just bought a painting that is a white canvas with fine white diagonal lines in it. Serge paid 200,000 francs for it. During the course of the play Marc calls the painting ‘shit.’ Serge is offended. They are after all, friends. But that comment of “shit” has caused a rift. Marc then wants to talk to their mutual friend Yvan. Yvan is tolerant and fair-minded and a bit of a wimp. He has his own problems. He’s getting married to a strong woman and is going to work for her uncle in his stationery business. Yvan lets it be known that he is a failure in business. Marc philosophizes on his friendship with Serge and their friendship with Yvan. And they talk about modern art and what it means and the value of a painting as opposed to its worth with regards to who painted it.

 The Production. Gillian Gallow has designed the set. She is a fine designer as has been seen in the past. But this set mystified me. Besides there being a neutral coloured couch stage right and two black leather chairs stage left, up centre is a huge floor to ceiling, wide white panel. That is not the painting that Serge bought. This white panel seems to be a wall in Serge’s appartment (as well as in other locations). Now what is that if not something to upstage the actual painting that is much smaller when put in front of it? It’s true the stage directions says that the wall should be something on which to project the paintings in other locations, but it’s white! And it’s unadorned for much of the play. A miscalculation in design here I think.   Is that what director Philip Akin wanted? Mystifying, since the stage directions are pretty helpful: “A single set. As stripped-down and neutral as possible….”

Oliver Dennis as Marc presents the arguments on friendship and art in a reasoned, intellectual way. His body language is easy, confident and perhaps even superior. Being superior is Marc’s reason for being in this friendship with Serge. He objects to the painting not only because it’s “shit”, but also because Serge didn’t ask Marc’s advice before he bought it. Marc needs Serge to depend on him and if he goes ahead and buys a painting, “shit” notwithstanding without asking Marc’s advice, then his world comes crashing down.

As Serge, Diego Matamoros has the glee of a kid who just got the best present in the world. He feels euphoric to have acquired the painting. He takes a few days to examine it privately before he allows anyone else (Marc) to see it. He takes pride in showing it to Marc and is upset when Marc laughs at it and denigrates its importance and beauty.

Both Oliver Dennis and Diego Matamoros are champs when bantering with purpose back and forth; lobbing the arguments; keeping the fury in check until it explodes. The furrowed brow and the pained look speaks volumes with these two go at it.

As Yvan the friend who has no opinions except the norm, Huse Madhavji seems tentative, not as confident as the other two actors (I said “actors” not “character”). One must be confident to see both sides of the argument and I just think Madhavji is overpowered by the other two gifted actors.

While I think the play is slight, trying to whip up an argument on friendship and modern art, Yasmina Reza has a keen sense of the theatrical. Something happens to the painting and no matter where I have seen this play-New York, London, Toronto etc.—the audience gasps as if a true piece of art has been compromised. No matter how much the painting is criticized as “shit”, the audience believes it’s art. I love that manipulation of the audience.

Comment. Art appears to be an examination of friendship and modern art, the later is a volatile subject since it’s so subjective.  These friendships are so odd when put under the microscope. Marc needs to be needed and depended upon by Serge. He is hurt that Serge didn’t ask his advice about buying the painting. Serge is more independent that Marc allows himself to think. In the end Marc comes up with an eye-brow-raising story about the painting to keep his friendship with Serge. And of course friendships are odd things when you look at how both Marc and Serge embrace Yvan who is not their intellectual equal. I guess they need him so they both can feel good about themselves. As I said, slight.

Soulpepper Presents:

Began: Aug. 9, 2019.

Closes: Sept. 7, 2019. (held over until Sept. 7).

Running Time: 90 minutes.

www.soulpepper.ca

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At the Blyth Festival, Blyth, Ont.

Written by Dan Needles

Directed by Severn Thompson

Set and costumes by Kelly Wolf

Lighting by Noah Feaver

Sound by Heidi Chan

Cast: Kurtis Leon Baker

Layne Coleman

Julie Tamiko Manning

Lucy Meanwell

Tony Munch

A very funny, sweet play about father-son relations and how nothing seems to change, it just gets passed on. Layne Coleman is masterful.

Dan Needles writes gentle plays about rural life that has universal appeal. He created the hugely successful Wingfield Farm series of plays about Walt Wingfield who traded the moneyed world of Bay Street for the financially uncertain world of farming.

Needles has been tinkering with his play The Team on the Hill for 20 years and the wait has not caused the play to pass its ‘best by” date because what he’s writing about will never get stale or old. He’s writing about the rivalry of farming fathers and sons. That rivalry can be applied to any father and son duo who work in the same business or industry.

Larry Ransiers (Kurtis Leon Baker) has come home to the family farm from the big city for the summer. He wants to work the family farm with his father one last time to see if they can make the relationship work and to see if farming is for him. Larry was offered a high paying job in the city but farming is in his blood. He has certain ideas about farming but his father Ray (Tony Munch) tends to shoot them down, as happened the last time. Larry was hurt by that experience but wants to try again.

Ray in turn had the same situation happen with his father, Austin (Layne Coleman). Ray had ideas about farming that were at odds with his father. They seemed to work it out. Ray has taken over the farm because Austin is elderly and not in the best healthy mentally or physically. Austin spends his days sitting on the porch commenting, philosophizing and perhaps ribbing his son. Austin is happy to see Larry and his girlfriend Leanne (Lucy Meanwell). Larry’s mother Marion (Julie Tamiko Manning) is also glad Larry and Marion are there too.

Needles creates proud, prickly characters who are hard working, honourable and worry. The fathers have their ideas of how farming should be and the sons have another idea. Having a meeting of the minds is the challenge. Needles has them find their way with hilarious dialogue, observations and compassion.

The cast is dandy but Layne Coleman as Austin is a standout. He’s quirky in his speech patterns, his turns of phrase seem so particular to Austin and you can see the hints of how Austin gave Ray a hard time as they both farmed the land together. Now Ray is giving his own son a hard time.

Severn Thompson directs with a sensitive hand. The pace is languid but not sluggish and the result is a play that can be embraced by both people who work the land and city slickers and all the people in between.

The Blyth Festival Presents:

Began: July 31, 2019.

Closes: Sept. 5, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours approx.

www.blythfestival.com

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