At the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Book by Seven Levenson

Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

Directed by Michael Greif

Scenic design by David Korins

Projections by Peter Nigrini

Costumes by Emily Rebholz

Lighting by Japhy Weideman

Sound by Nevin Steinberg

Dear Evan Hansen is an envelope-pushing musical for the 21st century about teenage depression, coping and the people it affects. The production is terrific.

 The Story. Evan Hansen is a 17 year old teen who is suffering from depression and anxiety. His single mother Heidi does the best she can in trying to emotionally support him, encouraging him with choices and championing him when he does well.  His therapist recommends he write himself a letter, hence “Dear Evan Hansen”, telling himself that it’s a good day and why. He reluctantly writes the letter but instead it details how depressed he is except for his warm feelings for a girl named Zoe.

Connor Murphy, another misfit, finds the letter in the copy machine at school and sounds Evan out about the reference to Zoe. Zoe is Connor’s sister and he doesn’t take too kindly to Evan writing about her. Connor takes the letter and disappears. He is found three days later with the letter. Connor has killed himself and his parents believe that Evan’s letter was really Connor’s suicide note to Evan. The parents didn’t know Connor had a friend. Evan is so consumed with doubt he can’t bring himself to tell them the truth. The lie spirals out of control. We learn all this in the first 10 minutes so there are no spoiler alerts.

 The Production. Director Michael Greif has envisioned this musical in the world of computer games and endlessly changing technology. His production captures the incredible speed in which information is shot into the world, even before it can be corrected should it be incorrect, and that is often.

As we file into the theatre, we are met with David Korins’ set of  banks of computer screen projections on stage blinking, blipping, pinging, with all manner of sound effects accompanying each change of a screen. The information is bombarded out to us at a dazzling speed.

When the show begins the projections of the computer screens disappear and a rather spare set appears.  The set pieces are minimal. Stage right, Evan Hansen (a remarkable Robert Marcus) sits on his bed his computer is open in front of him. He wears a cast on his right arm. While Evan would like nothing better than to stay in his room all day, his mother Heidi (Jessica Sherman) urges him to write the letter that his therapist suggested. As Evan, Robert Marcus is lethargic when talking to his mother, keeping dialogue to a minimum, (“ok”), barely rousing himself to any occasion and obviously suffering from whatever is keeping him in that room.

It’s Heidi Hansen (Evan’s mother) who has the first song, “Anybody Have a Map” that expresses the attitude and urgency for everybody in that show. It’s not only Evan Hansen who is lost, it’s his mother who is at a loss to communicate with him; it’s Connor Murphy who finds solace from his loneliness in drugs and attitude; it’s Connor’s parents who take to criticizing him when he is morose and later who are consumed with guilt about it when he kills himself.

Evan then expresses his desperation in “Waving Through a Window”. It’s impassioned, heartfelt and so telling. The music of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul has a throbbing, driving pulse to it. The music is snappy, almost like pop, but that’s the audience they are mainly writing about, so the music should be familiar to the target audience and their parents. The lyrics pointedly express what loneliness its characters are experiencing—Evan is outside looking inside, tapping on the glass to be noticed. It’s an image with which we can all identify. We can also identify with the desperation of the parents trying to communicate with their uncommunicative, troubled children.

Steven Levenson’s book captures that sense of depression, loss and isolation. He also captures the speed with which decisions are made without thinking and the lack of conscience when a mistake is ignored. A school friend of Evan’s sends out information about Connor in order to create a memorial for him without asking or checking with Evan. The information is incorrect and the person who sent it is not troubled by that. Another friend of Evan’s creates made up e-mails as if they were sent by Evan to Connor and back from Connor to Evan, promoting the lie that they were friends, again without a care about the fact it was not true.

We live in troubling times, when misinformation and fake news is shot into the air without thought of the consequences. Dear Evan Hansen captures that world to a ‘t’.

Director Michael Greif creates the momentum in which Evan’s world is unraveling. The staging is quick. As Evan, Robert Marcus has that deer-in-headlights-look, fearful, unable to decide what to do or where to run. And he sings with a strong, pure voice that captures the ache of the music. He is such a compelling actor and he hits right to the heart. Also hitting the heart is Jessica Sherman as Heidi, Evan’s mother. Her pain is of a different type. Her lost kid has shut her out and she keeps ‘tap, tap, tapping’ to break through his isolation and help him. In her own way she too is outside looking in. As Connor, Sean Patrick Dolan has the swagger and careless attitude of a person who has run out of options. Dolan captures Connor’s arrogance and also his need to belong. Evan Buliung as Larry Murphy, Connor’s father is quick with a snide remark because that’s the only way of dealing with his frustration in not being able to reach his son. It’s a valid attitude, different from Heidi Hansen, but still believable as a parent who feels inadequate. Alessandro Costantini plays Jared, the young man who makes up the e-mails. Costantini is so charming, so impish that it’s very easy to be beguiled by him, and that’s frightening. The character has no moral centre, does not care about that, and yet we are amused by him. Lovely performance of a scary character.

Comment.  The musical is the most popular form of theatre, not only for light entertainment, but also for dealing with heavy subjects perhaps more successfully than a straight play. For example: Carousel (a woman loves a man who hits her in frustration), Cabaret (the coming of the Nazis to Germany and how people in the Cabaret ignore it), anything by Stephen Sondheim, Fun Home (coming out to ones parents and finding out ones father is gay and he’s still in the closet with disastrous results. And now Dear Evan Hansen about teenage depression and how it affects everybody.

Along with Fun Home and the upcoming Next to Normal that deals with adult depression etc. Dear Evan Hansen pushes the envelope of the musical form to deal with tough, daring subjects.

Dear Evan Hansen is one of a growing list of the new face of musicals—tough, unapologetic, perceptive and true. Loved it.

Mirvish Productions presents:

Opened: March 28, 2019.

Closes: Sept. 29, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes.

www.mirvish.com

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An Appreciation of Jennifer Phipps.

Jennifer Phipps (“Jenny” to all who loved her) was a beguiling, quirky, compelling treasure of the theatre. She imbued her characters with a joy of and for life; at times they seemed elegant and poised at other times they seemed distracted, a bit unbalanced, but always present.

Her more than 60 years of credits, both in England, where she was born, to Canada where she lived, are easily Googled. She liked saying that when she was a young actress in England Joan Collins was a contemporary and often Jenny got the parts for which they both auditioned.

One of the most important, notable things about Jennifer Phipps is that she was absolutely beloved and loved by those who knew her and worked with her in theatre, television or film. Established actors or those just starting out all have endless stories of how she encouraged, supported or championed them. In tributes that have poured in since her death at 87 on April 17, she was a mentor to so many, not just actors but stage managers, dressers, those backstage, or anywhere in the theatre. And she was irreverent and impish generally going against convention.

It speaks volumes that on April 14, there was an early birthday party/ tribute gathering in the visitor’s lounge of the hospital where she would spend her last days. The room was filled with the likes of Christopher Newton, who headed the Shaw Festival for 22 years, Martha Henry, Canadian theatre icon, who worked with Jenny, Beatrice Campbell a Shaw stage manager, Patty Jamieson and Jenny Wright, both of the Shaw company (all three women helped organize a chain of people who took care of Jenny seeing she moved into new digs, making sure she had food, company, and was comfortable). The room was packed with those who revered, respected and loved Jenny. By this time she had slipped into a coma but it says everything that those artists came to tell her how much she meant to them in her final days.

I probably first saw Jenny act at the then St. Lawrence Centre. It was years later at the Stratford Festival that I stood at the stage door and offered her a Tootsie Pop with my thanks for her work. Her face broke into that glowing smile as she took it and said: “I’ve waited fourteen years for one of these.” I was mortified that I was too shy and awkward to give her one years before because I didn’t know her. She never had to wait for another “Tootsie” ever again. She got one every time I saw her act and even when she didn’t.

We would have tea at her quirky, memento-filled farmhouse in Niagara-on-the-Lake. We talked about theatre of course and what she thought of plays and actors, directors, playwrights etc. She was always kind, thoughtful, compassionate, but occasionally wickedly funny with a well-placed comment. She smiled almost always and laughed often.

Years ago I told her I was going to London and we talked of The Actors’ Church (really St. Paul’s, Covent Garden, but it’s affectionately known as The Actors’ Church because of the plaques inside commemorating the greats of the British Theatre). Jenny said that there was a plaque to her granny, Nancy Price. I told her I would look her up. I did. There was Nancy Price’s plaque, to the left as you went in the door, past the one to Vivien Leigh. She was the founder of the People’s National Theatre (not to be confused with the National Theatre founded by Laurence Olivier). Ms Price was an actress and a mover and a shaker in theatre. When The People’s National Theatre folded she formed a touring company to bring Shakespeare to working class children. Her granddaughter, Jennifer Phipps, carried on that pioneering spirit.

I took a picture of the plaque and sent it to Jenny. She was chuffed. I pay my respects to Nancy Price on behalf of her granddaughter every time I’m in London. This next time in July will be particularly poignant.

It will be my everlasting regret I did not keep in closer touch with Jenny over the last few years. I’m glad others did, but for me it’s a terrible lapse.  Even though she’s gone Jenny continues to be a wonderful teacher. Don’t wait to tell someone you love them and their work. Don’t let time go by without seeing friends and family and holding them close.

Jenny leaves a son, a daughter, grandchildren, a great grandchild and a whole heartbroken community who were lucky and privileged to know her.

Thanks Jenny. Love you. Miss you.

Xoxox Lynn

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At the Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront, Toronto, Ont.

Written by John Ross Bowie

Directed by Richard Ouzounian

Set and lighting by Nick Blais

Costumes by Ming Wong

Sound by James Smith

Projections by Alex Williams

Cast: Justin Goodhand

Cyrus Lane

Ron Pederson

Paolo Santalucia

James Smith

Vanessa Smythe

A cheeky play about the Ramones and their nightmare dealing with recording genius Phil Spector. Cheeky because it’s a play about a musical group without any singing. The acting is great and Richard Ouzounian’s direction illuminates that raw, dark wild world. 

The Story. On May 1, 1979 the American punk rock group, The Ramones, went into a recording studio to record what would be End of the Century with Phil Spector. He was the legendary recording producer who hadn’t had a hit in seven years. They were a group that needed to go to the next level and their recording company thought working with Phil Spector would be the key. Little did they know.

Spector was the wild, unpredictable, gun-toting eccentric who bullied, cajoled and threatened artists to produce. He honed into their weaknesses and drilled at them until he got what he wanted even if it took hours and hours of takes. The Ramones were no different. There was Joey, an obsessive/compulsive; Johnny, a control freak and almost always angry; Dee Dee, going deeper and deeper into drugs to get him through; Marky who never met a drink he didn’t like to excess.

 The Production. It’s 1979. Nick Blais has created a dark set with an extensive drum kit at the back. This is cheeky because this isn’t a musical and except for a few short drum riffs, no music is played by the group. (There is a concert (of Ramone songs?? Don’t know) by a band who come on after the play, but it’s cheeky to have the kit there and not play it.)

There are set pieces that easily slide on and off to suggest the spooky and vast home of Phil Spector. Characters constantly mentioned that they got lost in the place, it was so large.

The four long-haired men of the Ramones are decked out in Ming Wong’s grunge costumes: torn jeans, black leather jackets, t-shirts in various stages of “worn”. Johnny (Cyrus Lane) counts and re-counts their share of the take from a recent concert. It always comes up short. The promoter shafted them on their share. Cyrus Lane instills an impatience, a need to pace up and down as he stews over some transgression done to him or the group. Lane has that straight-ahead gaze and clear headedness that would be needed to keep the band afloat since the others were incapable. Lane shows us a driven, humourless man who always has his eyes on the prize. When Phil Spector asks the band to play another chord, Johnny balks.

Joey (Justin Goodhand) is a tall, lanky man who has obsessive-compulsive disorder. His girlfriend Linda (a confident Vanessa Smythe) is understanding to a point. Goodhand portrays a fragile minded man, good natured but of course obsessive with wild behaviour (he doesn’t take off his shoes for months, until he experiences a shock—Linda leaves him for Johnny).  This being 1979 women who are ‘friends’ of band members are treated off-handedly. The man is the boss. She does what he says. She is a sexual plaything.  From the perspective of 2019 this is unacceptable. But we must consider the time and accept it as behaviour that was acceptable then.

Dee Dee is played beautifully by Paolo Santalucia. As the play goes on Dee Dee gets deeper and deeper into drugs. He is strung out most of the time. Santalucia’s eyes droop more and more, his word are said slowly and are slurred. The shift is subtle and yet resounding. Marky as played by James Smith is played as a fun loving drinker of anything that will create a buzz. The various demons of Dee Dee, Joey and Marky, make Johnny the natural leader of the group. Then there is Phil Spector himself, played with control and danger by Ron Pederson. He arrives in total control in a suit over which is an over coat slung over his shoulders. Spector knew how to manipulate an artist because in the room he was the only artist that counted.

Spector had a reputation for creating great sounds from bands, but how he got there—by bullying, cajoling, threatening and turning violent got results—was off concern. In the play he pulls a gun out of his pants waist band. He didn’t shoot it then or later—please hold the Chekhov references, this isn’t Chekhov and we are dealing with a true incident in 1979—but his unpredictability is established.

Spector needed the Ramones to give him a hit after seven lean years and they needed him to give them a hit at last. As the program says, “Phil Spector made the Ramones a legend and destroyed the band.”

John Ross Bowie is an actor (“The Big Bang Theory”) who has written Four Chords and a Gun about the Ramones. It gives us a glimpse into their murky world of mad geniuses (Phil Spector), sex drugs and rock and roll. Director Richard Ouzounian does a valiant job of creating that world and guiding his talented cast to get under the skin of their characters.

Comment. The program states that ‘it’s a fictional account inspired by a true-life event. In other words, John Ross Bowie is writing about the making of one recording, “End of the Century” and how the Ramones coped with it all. It’s not a docudrama about the history of the band; they don’t play their noted hits or even sing any of their less notable hits; we get a smattering if biography of each band member as they prepare, in their own way, to record with Phil Spector. Criticizing Four Chords and a Gun for what it isn’t is like going into McDonald’s and winging that it doesn’t have any Swiss Chalet chicken.

If you accept the play for what it is and not criticize it for what it isn’t, you’ll be fine.

Starvox Entertainment/Corey Ross presents:

Opened: April 10, 2019.

Closes: April 29, 2019.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

https://www.4chordsplay.com

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Diego Matamoros
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

 

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

Written by Michael Frayn

Directed by Katrina Darychuk

Set, projections and lighting by Lorenzo Savoini

Costumes by Gillian Gallow

Composed and sound design by Richard Feren

Cast: Kawa Ada

Kyra Harper

Diego Matamoros

A complex play, but the direction, set and lighting that create a murky production; the acting is terrific.

The Story. It involves Niels Bohr a Danish physicist, his wife Margrethe and Werner Heisenberg, a German physicist and Bohr’s former student and now colleague.

Bohr’s work involved the structure of atoms and he worked for the US on the wartime atomic Energy project (read “atomic bomb”). Heisenberg created Quantum mechanics.

At the height of WWII, in 1941, Werner Heisenberg went to Copenhagen to visit his mentor Niels Bohr.  The reason why is what the play is about, among other things.

The Production.  Lorenzo Savoini’s set is arresting in its spareness—three chairs arranged around the stage, a large hole in the middle of the stage and a sepia coloured mirror suspended at the back of the stage that distorts the reflection of everything in front of it.

 This is a memory play even though the three participants are long dead. Bohr (Diego Matamoros) and Margrethe (Kyra Harper) try to remember Heisenberg’s (Kawa Ada) visit because what happened ended the friendship. Bohr was a Dane who suffered during the war. Naturally Bohr was angry at the Germans for invading Denmark. As Bohr, Diego Matamoros is laid-back, courtly and tempered. He is proud of his former protégée but also mindful of his position in the scientific community in Germany.

Heisenberg was a proud German but was ashamed of how other people were treated by Germany and he certainly worried about Bohr and Margrethe held ‘captive’ in their native land by the invading enemy.  Michael Frayn has created in Heisenberg a savvy, keenly intelligent man who took a huge risk going to Denmark to sound out Bohr. Kawa Ada, as Heisenberg, brings all that intelligence, passion and keen intelligence to the role. He is charming, subtle,  a master diplomat in ferreting out information in the most innocuous way and passionate about the work when trying to get a point across and his friendship with Bohr. Plus there is his compassion and integrity when addressing the larger issues of what a bomb could do.

In the middle of them is Margrethe Bohr. She is beautifully played by Kyra Harper as a kind of referee or mediator. Harper is watchful and a great listener which in turn focuses the audience in the arguments. Frayn’s creation of three smart minds is dazzling.

In the play what Heisenberg initially asks Bohr is if it is immoral for a scientist to work on a project that could result in the killing of thousands of innocent people. Is Heisenberg subtly conveying he knows about work on the atomic bomb? Is he suggesting he might be working on it for Germany and is it wrong? Heisenberg had to walk a fine line with his government that wanted a bomb because Heisenberg didn’t want to help create it. Could he assume that Bohr might work on such a project? There is a lot of subtle maneuvering of the question and the participants go over the question three times.

The play is full of references to conferences and meetings and the dates of all of them, with both Bohr and Heisenberg lobbing the facts and figures at a dizzying speed. One can get bogged down by it all, but that is how these characters talked, and if you accept that, then the burden of  “keeping up” is eased.

Physics, quantum mechanics, the workings of atoms and theories–is the play dramatic? You bet.  Because all three characters are so invested in their work and how it could play out in Nazi Germany, yes, there is drama and tension, and at times it’s gripping thanks to an excellent cast in spite of a production that is confusing and murky.

The director Katrina Darychuk is young and needs a lot more experience directing before she should be assigned to such an intricate, complex play. The characters wander around the set and rarely deal directly with each other at close quarters. Are they supposed to be like atoms or particles bouncing in space?  There are a few instances when the characters do touch each other but there is no weight to the scene when that happens to suggest this is of significance.  That makes no sense.

Lorenzo Savoini, who designed the set, the projections and lighting, must share the blame for this disappointing production. I have no idea why that hole is there until there is a projection of the atomic bomb going off, seemingly erupting from the hole almost at the end of the production. That’s a long way to go to justify the hole. Is the reflection in the mirror distorted because memory is distorted? Is the colour of it sepia because that’s the colour of memory?  And what about those criss-crossing shafts of light at the back in the darkness? Are those intersecting particles and atoms? So much symbolism when clarity is needed.

Comment. There is a lot of information between Heisenberg and Bohr, reminding each other of when they met complete with dates and every conference they went to and paper they wrote complete with dates, and the theories and the jokes they shared. And your head is swimming with the dates and trying to remember it all and finally you realize that this intricate way of talking was how they communicated.  Numbers, dates, theories was how they functioned. We don’t need to remember it. We need to be mindful that this is how they remembered it.  And yes there is drama as the details of their lives are revealed.

So a gifted playwright writes a complex, intriguing play; the acting is terrific, but ultimately the play is given a confusing, unhelpful production.

Soulpepper Theatre Company presents:

Began: April 6, 2019.

Closes: May 4, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

www.soulpepper.ca

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Review: BIGRE

by Lynn on April 18, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

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

Co-written, created and performed at my performance by Pierre Guillois, Agathe L’Huillier and Olivier Martin-Salvan.

Set by Laura Leonard

Costumes by Axel Aust

Lighting by Marie-Helene Pinon and David Carreira

Sound by Roland Auffret and Loic le Cadre

An endlessly inventive wordless, slap-stick  show about the serious subjects of loneliness, making do with small spaces and friendship.

A portly man, a tall, slim man and a tall, willowy blonde woman live side by side by side in Paris in three small attic apartments. They are strangers. The portly man is fastidious, going so far as to hand-vacuum the soles of his shoes after coming in from work. His pristine white appartment is the latest in efficiency. He claps his hands for the lights to come on and off and for the toilet to miraculously appear from a wall. He also sings, “Carousel” by Jacques Brel but in a language that could be gibberish or Japanese,

The tall slim (skinny?) man lives next to the portly man in a cluttered apartment full of stuff. If he puts stuff in his cupboard and closes the door too hard, the stuff shoots out into the portly man’s apartment. This makes for huge opportunities of creating goofy humour. He sleeps in a hammock at night strung above the stuff below. The willowy woman lives on the other side of the slim man, in a neat place decorated in a stereotypically feminine way with frills and pink. Kudos to set designer, Laura Leonard.

Each occupant has caught a glimpse of his/her neighbour and is curious. They all eventually meet. Relationships are formed with one of the men at least being jealous when the other man gets the woman’s favour. Sometimes they all spend time together with the woman giving one of the men a shoulder massage as she reads the instructions from a manual. The relationships shift and change from platonic to romantic, to irritation of the familiar to estrangement and back again, all wordlessly, all totally clear, and very funny.

Certainly much of the humour comes from how the three performers look. A portly man doing complex physical moves is funny because it’s unexpected. The tall skinny man isn’t just slim, he’s almost concave in his posture and his ‘sad sack’ look is endearing but funny. And the willowy blonde is fidgety, anxious and that’s funny too.

The clown action ramps up as the relationships solidify. The woman crawl’s up onto the roof to sunbath, takes off her top and a fierce wind whips it away as it flits and flies just out of her reach. Then a helicopter flies over head…and on and on.

The group takes it’s well earned bow at what we think is the end, but then comes back to do another fifteen minutes of silliness. I couldn’t figure that out at all and think that addition (I can’t call it an encore can I?) should be cut. Confusion and overkill is not a good way to end a basically funny show.

There is no definition of “bigre” I was told by Joël Beddows, the Artistic Director of theatre français de Toronto and one of the producers of the show. It’s just a toss-off word as the Irish might say “Happy-days” meaning nothing.

A Compagnie Le Fils du Grand Réseau Production presented by Canadian Stage in collaboration with theatre français de Toronto.

Began: April 11, 2019.

Closes: April 28, 2019.

Running Time: 85 minutes.

www.canadianstage.com

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At the Columbus Centre, 901 Laurence Ave, West, Toronto, Ont.

Written, performed and directed by Daniele BartoliniAssisted by Raylene Turner, Franco Berti, Michelle Andrei and Kaitlin Saito.

Another absorbing, site-specific, immersive,  communal show about art, food and conversations with strangers from Daniele Bartolini.

 Many theatre companies do site-specific, immersive work that is intricate, intriguing and adventurous. And then there is Daniele Bartolini and his DopoLavoro Teatrale (DLT) company who takes site-specific, immersive theatre to a whole new level.

For Talk is Free’s Curious Voyage adventure, Bartolini created site-specific narratives in two cities an ocean apart. It started in Barrie, Ontario. The audience had one on one interactions with various characters in various locations in the city. The audience was then flown to London, England to continue the voyage, where interactions took place on the street, in a hotel, in a basement restaurant, on a canal boat and in ones hotel room. It was all in preparation to see a site-specific production of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street in a derelict building. Wild.

This past Christmas, Bartolini created a more intimate production of If on a Christmas Night….in which part of the Columbus Centre was transformed into various rooms that the small audience visited for different interactions with characters, ending in a communal drink.

His latest creation, Leonardo’s Last Supper I think is Bartolini’s most personal, intimate work. There is only Daniele Bartolini as the story-teller and 12 of us in the ‘roving’ audience at the Columbus Centre, where he is artist-in-residence.

We are taken to a large room with a table on which are various dishes of antipasti. We are all given a glass of aperitif, invited to eat and we introduce ourselves. Food and drink always loosen people from their shyness and reticence at new experiences.

We are then taken to a secret location at the Centre behind the door marked: “Domestic Arts.” Another large table is there covered by a white tablecloth. We sit around three sides of the table. At the other end is a large screen. Wine is served. Raylene Turner is introduced and stands in one corner of the room behind an easel, sketching those around the table. Franco Berti is introduced. He will be preparing our supper. Both are part of the DopoLavoro Teatrale.

Bartolini begins by talking about his being born and brought up in Florence, Italy. He punctuates his story with family photos projected on the screen. There is a picture of his house, his glamorous grandmother, his bold, daring aunt, his art-loving grandfather, a nun who was a mean teacher, and art, from the ceiling of his school, the galleries in Florence and the museums—art everywhere. Bartolini believes that art communicates with all people. He notes that I look sceptical. I offer that I doubt that Doug Ford could appreciate art. Joël Beddows, the always gracious, courtly Artistic Director of théâtre français de Toronto quietly disagrees and feels that even Doug Ford would appreciate art in his own way and explains why. My mind is changed.

And at the centre of Bartolini’s world are two towering artists—Michelangelo and his Sistine Chapel and The David to name but two of his works and Leonardo Da Vinci and The Mona Lisa and the Last Supper to name two of his works. Projected pictures of each accompanied the narrative.  Daniele’s story-telling is enthusiastic, vibrant and intense. He shows a close up of The Last Supper. One of the participants next to Jesus in the painting looks like a woman. Is that Mary Magdalene? Another participant down from her holds what looks like a knife. Is that Judas? And a knife? Who knew? Bartolini did and gets us all to ponder these questions and more. He introduces all sorts of little known facts about the artists and their work.

When he is finished conversations between the audience members naturally, easily begin. One man talks about the difference in colours from today to Leonardo’s time and how that difference informs any restoration. Other audience members have a spirited conversation in Italian. Opinions are shared. I tell Bartolini the first time I saw The David in Florence and cried and cry every single time I see it, it’s so magnificent a piece of art.

Franco Berti serves us the delicious dinner he has prepared: bread, soup, greens, salad, lasagne, fruit, cake and coffee. As with a Bartolini production a group gathering is arranged at the end for a photo. We all part having been filled up with art, food, good will, laughs and wonderful conversation, all because of Daniele Bartolini’s glorious imagination and brimming sense of communal theatre.

I can hardly wait for his next site-specific extravaganza.

Produced by Villa Charities Inc. and DopoLavoro Teatrale

 Opened: April 11, 2019.

Closes: April 28, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours approx.

www.villacharities.com

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NOTE: While the play has closed it does deserve comment.

 

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

Written by Sarah Burgess

Directed by Angela Besharah

Set and costumes by Jung-Hye Kim

Lighting by André du Toit

Original music by Ian LeFeuvre and Jasper Gahunia

Cast: Christef Desir

Peter Keleghan

Rebecca Liddiard

Greg White

A brittle, predictable play about the cut-throat world of high-finance and private equity funds. Terrific cast.

 The Story. Rick is the head of a private equity fund who needs to make a killing in a deal. He’s smarting because the press recently reported on a lavish engagement party he threw, complete with one elephant that cost a ton of money, just as he was responsible for firing a lot of people. A deal is brought to him by an associate named Seth. A respectable businessman named Jeff wants to sell his business but needs assurance his workers will not be fired and the ethics of the company will be followed. Rick’s other associate, Jenny—a cold, calculating young woman who takes no prisoners—crunches the numbers and wants Rick to be ruthless. Seth, the good-guy has compassion. Who wins?

 The Production. Jung-Hye Kim’s set of Rick’s office is dark brown, spiffy in a cold sort of way and totally without any softening mementos. Rick (Peter Keleghan) enters wearing a smart suit and crisp shirt. He has the look and demeanor of a man of power, money and position and the charm that doesn’t put people off. He’s been rattled by the recent attention of the press to his excessive spending.

Jenny (Rebecca Liddiard) enters wearing a pencil slim black skirt, crisp white shirt and heels. Jenny as wonderfully played by Rebecca Liddiard, is without a shred of sentiment, compassion or even consideration of others. Her focus is on making money no matter how. She destroys opposition with cutting remarks, honing in on the jugular, and finding their weakness and going in for the kill. She crunches numbers with efficiency. No one has a chance against her, certainly not Seth, (Christef Desir) who is also an associate in Rick’s firm. He does have compassion and a gift for dealing with people. Seth brings Jeff (Greg White) to Rick hoping a deal to buy Jeff’s company can work out. As played by Greg White, Jeff is laid back, humble, quietly determined that the workers be protected and not fired, downsized, discarded, etc.

Angela Besharah directs in a very stylized way. Entrances and exists are regimented. Characters march up to the exit and make a sharp right turn into the wings, as if on army manoeuvres; ditto when they enter. It’s almost as if Besharah is directing them as if they are robots. Often a character would be downstage looking at the audience but having a conversation with someone up stage, looking at the back of the person downstage. Awkward, albeit deliberate. The positioning does convey a coldness and lack of connection these characters have with each other, but it all seems so stilted.

Sarah Burgess has certainly written a bracing play full of the lingo of high-finance (Dry Powder is the remaining capital in a private equity fund) and the total lack of integrity and moral responsibility to be ethical. Rick and Jenny certainly don’t. Seth does and while Jeff appears to be a man of integrity, he too turns without warning and becomes just as money-grubbing as Rick and Jenny. That last bit is a weakness in the play—it comes seemingly from no-where.

At times though Burgess’ play is too clever by half and it looks more like Burgess is trying to show off with her linguistic dexterity rather than writing a play that is not so predictable.

Comment. This is the first production of Evermore Theatre Co. and the company of actors did a splendid job of taking an in-your-face-play and running with it. Some suggestions: It would be helpful to put the name of the theatre where this play is playing ion the program cover. I can’t find the name anywhere.. The dates of the run would be nice on the program. Also, a contact number or e-mail would be helpful too to order tickets should someone want to do that. This program is a perfect way of promoting the show. If there is no info on where it’s playing, how to get tickets and the dates of the run, the company makes it difficult for an audience to want to see the play or tell friends.

Produced by Evermore Theatre Co.

Closed.

 

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Short bits on shows about to close or have.

Under the Stairs

At Young People’s Theatre, Toronto, Ont

Written by Kevin Dyer

Directed by Micheline Chevrier

Music by Reza Jacobs

Set by Teresa Przybylski

Costumes by Anna Treusch

Lighting by Michelle Ramsay

Sound by Adam Harendorf

A thoughtful, lively production of a serious subject—isolation of children and the effect of grief on a family.

Tim (Kyle Orzech) is a young kid who hides in the closet  just under the stairs  when his parents fight, and they fight often. There is a secret in that anger. A rag-tag group of kids seem to be Tim’s secret saviors who look out for him. When he goes in the closet a hand comes out of one of the coats and holds his hand in comfort.

The set by Teresa Przybylski is simple, efficient (the stairs revolve to reveal many hiding places) and colourful. Reza Jacobs, musician extraordinaire, has composed the music which encapsulates the feelings of both the children and Tim’s warring parents.

Micheline Chevrier creates a sense of momentum with her smart cast. There is a feeling of rushing around to either escape the depression that exists in that house or to express the anger that exists because of some secret. As Tim, Kyle Orzech is that sad kid you just ache for. His parents are always fighting and they seem to have forgotten him. There is something they aren’t telling him and he’s isolated because if it, finding solace in that closet.

Neema Bickersteth as a saddened Mum and Martin Julien as an angry, bitter Dad beautifully convey the conflicted feelings of a couple who are angry about something, hurt because of it, and anxious to solve the problem. And they both are mortified that their problems have affected their son.

Fiona Sauder as Violet leads a band of rag-tag mystery kids who are confident and know the secret and try and comfort Tim. Sauder is fearless as are the rest of the ‘kids’.

Playwright, Kevin Dyer has written a meaningful, important play about kids who are forgotten because their parents are at war with each other. It’s a terrible statistic that if a couple looses a child or something happens to a child because of their carelessness, it affects the marriage with each partner blaming the other for what happened, and it usually ends in divorce. That doesn’t happen here. Dyer gives his story the hard edge it needs and the second change this family deserves. Terrific.

Young People’s Theatre Presents:

 Opened: April 4, 2019.

Closes: April 16, 2019.

Running Time: 75 minutes.

www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca

 

Wedding at Aulis  

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

Written by Sina Gilani

A version of Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides

Directed by Alan Dilworth

Set by Michelle Tracey

Lighting by Itai Erdal

Sound by Debashis Sinha

Choreography by Monica Dottor

Cast: Ghazal Azarbad

Derek Boyes

Alana Bridgewater

Leah Cherniak

Sascha Cole

Frank Cox-O’Connell

Raquel Duffy

Sebastian Heins

Stuart Hughes

Brenna MacCrimmon

Nancy Palk

Nicole Power

Alice Snaden

Sarah Wilson

Jennifer Villaverde

Liver theatre. And dull at that.

 NOTE: I might know one person who willingly eats liver because he/she likes it. The rest of us eat it (if at all) because it’s “good for us”. “Liver Theatre” is that stuff that we would usually avoid but know it’s good for us and so go. Which brings me to Wedding at Aulis.

The Story. The story is really fascinating and full of possible emotion. Agamemnon, a Greek warrior has pledged to his brother Menelaus to get his wife Helen back.  Helen has run off with Paris, a much better catch and gone to Troy. The whole of the Greek army pledges this. But the winds to sail are bad. However to appease the snotty god who demands it and get the calm winds to sail, Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia. After some soul searching he agrees. The pretext to get Clytemnestra, Iphigenia’s mother, to bring her to Agamemnon, is that she (Iphigenia) has been promised as a wife to Achilles. So Clytemnestra thinks her daughter is to be married.

 The Production. The audience sits in two rows of the most uncomfortable seats imaginable. The seats are encased in metal bleachers around the round playing space. The soldiers where the kilt like garb of soldiers; or robes.

Director Alan Dilworth has the whole cast, all 15 of them, walk into and fill up the round space, facing each other. Then they half turn and look at us with pensive, accusatory, withering looks. Are we responsible for what happened? Should we hang our heads in shame, not knowing what those looks are for? Can we please put a moratorium on such pretension in future? I wish.

The three fates are unremarkable and confusing because there is a variation of styles (contemporary, earnest, hip etc. ) that make no sense. The chorus enter, singing, as if a dirge, The effect of both these groups is that it’s so dull. They are lifeless. There is no urgency to any of this and it all seems so precious.

For some reason Nancy Palk plays an Old Man. Why? What is to be gained by this gender-bent casting? And why does she have an accent (Yiddish??) when no one else does? Alice Snaden begins as an innocent Iphigenia. She is fearful when she is to be sacrificed but then euphoric. This happens so quickly. Where is the justification? She arrives for her sacrifice in a shimmering red silky long dress. As she lays on a table ready for her father to kill her, she seems to writhe as music plays. It’s almost sexual as her body tenses and she strokes herself. What is that about? With all this supposed attention to presenting a Greek drama I wonder why Alan Dilworth has the sacrifice—albeit suggested—done on stage, when Greek drama had all the gory stuff done off stage.

I was grateful for Stuart Hughes, a commanding, reasoned Agamemnon. I also appreciated Raquel Duffy who plays a fierce Clytemnestra, who will do anything to defend her daughter. This is a performance full of fire, rage, clear-eyed motherly anger. It’s a jolt of life in this otherwise lifeless, dull production.

Comment. I think playwright, Sina Gilani has done an interesting, fascinating job in creating the world of ancient Greece. The language is not contemporary but has a sense of another time. The speeches from Agamemnon to his brother Menelaus are terrific, in which Agamemnon childes his brother for being a lousy husband. Why else would Helen want to get away from him. Gilani brings out the blinkered masculinity of the men of Greece, that a pledge to enter war is iron-clad, that a man’s honour is more important than being intelligent and smart. There were so many possibilities to realize this story with a better production. Instead we have this dull lump of liver theatre instead. You go because you think it’s good for you. Better theatre is good for you and tastier.

Soulpepper Theatre presents:

Began: April 8, 2019.

Closed: April 14, 2019.

www.soulpepper.ca

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At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto, Ont..

 

Written by Johnnie Walker

Directed by Tom Arthur Davis

Set and costumes by Anahita Dehbonehie

Lighting by Rebecca Vandevelde

Sound by Jivesh Parasram

Cast: Daniel Carter

Willard Gillard

Kwaku Okyere

Craig Pike

Heath V Salazar

Johnnie Walker

Anders Yates

A fascinating story presented as a mystery to be solved, in a production that is incomprehensible, self-indulgent and leaves any thought of solving the mystery almost as an afterthought. Unforgivable considering the talent involved.

A Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and Pandemic Theatre co-production.

The Story. Johnnie Walker, theatre artist extraordinaire, read a newspaper item a few years ago about Luke O’Donovan who went to a party; was gay-bashed; defended himself by stabbing one of his attackers and was tried, convicted and imprisoned while the attackers were set free.

Walker was intrigued by that story. Why were the attackers set free? He wrote to O’Donovan who replied. He visited him and gleaned more information as well as realizing how complex the story was. And in true Walker-theatre-artist-extraordinaire form, decided to do a play about it.

The Production. Johnnie Walker appears in front of an impressive stage curtain and greets the audience with great charm. He talks of the ice-bucket challenge for ALS, where people doused themselves with a bucket of ice-water as part of a fund-raiser for ALS research. He then says that that initiative earned several millions of dollars. Instead of doing that initiative he was going to put his money into the case to free O’Donovan from prison. Walker tells us the story of what happened to O’Donovan at the party as well as he can given the shifting, changing story.

Then he parts the curtain to reveal the backstage dressing room in Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in which the walls are plastered with posters of past shows and perhaps other memorabilia. Kudos to designer Anahita Dehbonehie for her always detailed set. Also revealed is the group of performers who will help Walker explore the many questions he has on the case.

Walker pouring ice-water over his head to repeat the challenge and then changing his clothes and talking more,  certainly is a very long, winding and unnecessary way to begin a show.

Walker presents the case to his colleagues and then begins a process of exploring questions, role-playing, dancing, joshing, getting off topic, suggesting many and various ways of looking for the truth, and generally doing what should have been done in the rehearsal hall to discover and shape the play so that it was audience-ready. Whatever one wants to call this, it’s not a play; a question wasn’t answered or a problem solved or the truth found and it’s not audience-ready. At one point Walker tantalizingly tells us that O’Donovan told him everything that happened. One of the many problems with this production, is that Walker never actually tells us. Why else are we in the room?

Of the seven performers, only Johnnie Walker and Craig Pike create anything close to a character who has depth or interest in the search for the truth. The other performers are doing variations on themes of stereotypical gay behavior and give no sense that they care about what Walker is trying to discover.

Tom Arthur Davis is generally a thoughtful, intelligent director. I’ve liked his work elsewhere. I have no idea what he is going for in this meandering, unfocused, self-absorbed work.

Comment. Really, two hours and thirty minutes long? REALLY? Lots of self-indulgence here instead of rigor to present the truest, clearest work. The fact that I have great respect for Johnnie Walker’s work and that of Craig Pike saves this from getting the “Red Face of Fury.”  

Began: March 30, 2019

Closes: April 14, 2019

Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes

www.buddiesinbadtimestheatre.com

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At Factory Theatre, Mainspace.

Written by Lorena Gale

Directed by Mike Payette

Set and costumes by Eo Sharp

Lighting by David Perreault Ninacs

Choreographer, Ghislaine Doté

Original composition by Sixtrum Percussion Ensemble

Cast: Jenny Brizard

Chip Chuipka

Karl Graboshas

Olivier Lamarche

Omari Newton

PJ Prudat

France Rolland

A fascinating play given a maddening production that buries the play under over-direction and a sound scape score that distracts from everything.

 The Story. It’s based on the true story of Marie Joseph Angélique, a woman of colour from a small island off Portugal. The play takes place in the 18th century in New France, now Quebec.  Angélique is sold to François, a rich iron factory owner to help his wife Thérèse around the house. Thérèse says she doesn’t need help but François insists. We soon see why. He quietly forces himself on Angélique unbeknownst to his wife and of course Angélique must comply.

Angélique is paired with another slave named César from another household, in the hopes she will get pregnant so there will be more workers eventually. It also shows that these people of power treated their slaves like cattle.

Angélique has a relationship with Claude, a white labourer who promises her he will take her away from there.  The play certainly gives a clear, dark picture of how Canada  treated people of colour all those years ago. Slavery didn’t just take place south of the border.

Angélique and Claude eventually escaped with Claude thinking he knew the way to a new city but they get lost.  In the meantime all sorts of rumours arose as to where Angélique was. During her escape Montreal was destroyed by fire and Angélique was blamed. It wasn’t true.

The play shows the brutality of the times and how worthless the people in power considered people of colour.

 The Production.  The action takes place on a raised platform in Eo Sharp’s set. Characters enter and exit in areas to the side of the platform. Action also takes place on several ladders arranged around the space. . The Sixtrum Percussion Ensemble that created and plays the music is situated on a stage width section above the stage.

Much of the production drove me crazy.  It’s maddeningly over-directed by Mike Payette with actors seemingly constantly on the move on the set, scurrying up and down those ladders used for effect. At times the company walks on slowly as if in a funeral procession and then off stage. What is that about? The production is cluttered with this movement and focus is needed. The complex history and story are drowned out by the lack of focusing a scene while characters are talking, or there is too much movement for no reason, again, pulling focus.

The worst aspect is the almost constant playing of the sound scape created and played live by the Sixtrum Percussion Ensemble.  It’s all well played but why is almost every scene underscored, if not drowned out by this chiming, banging of drums and whacking of cymbals?  Why does a scene that takes place in the iron works factory need sound effects of tinkling bits of metal while characters are trying to converse? Why does the preparation of food need a sound effect underscoring that? The result is that too often the actors are drowned out and I don’t know what they are talking about.

There is a nice effect when Angélique is being beaten and it’s underscored with the whacking together of two blocks of wood. Very effective. But that is a rare moment of an appropriate sound cue. On the whole the production is maddening with this excessive sound.

However Jenny Brizard as Angélique is terrific. She has gumption, confidence and yet your heart sinks for her when François (Karl Graboshas) lurks in the darkness and softly calls her name, beckoning her to come to him. Brizard’s reaction to this creepy man indicates this is not the first time she has to fend off the man of the house. Such sexual abuse is like a cliché by now in this sad history. It’s Brizard detailed and nuanced performance that realizes the full horror of what Angélique had to endure.

Comment. The late Lorena Gale was a respected playwright. Angélique received many accolades. So it seems churlish to say that the script could stand some tightening and cutting. Do we really need to hear so many witnesses at the trial condemning Angélique for setting the fire? We get the point after three false witnesses. This is a quibble. The real problem for me is the over-direction and the intrusive sound scape.  I’d love to actually see and hear Angélique again, but with a different director who doesn’t get in the way of it and no musical accompaniment that overpowers it.

Factory Theatre, Obsidian Theatre present a Black Theatre Workshop and Tableau D’Hôte Theatre co-production.

Began: April 3, 2019.

Closes: April 21, 2019.

Running Time: 90 minutes approx.

www.factorytheatre.ca

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