Short Reviews: Peace River Country and Deceitful Above All Things

Peace River Country

At the Tarragon Theatre, Extra Space, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Maria Milisavijevic
Directed by Richard Rose
Set and costumes and video design by Curtis Wehrfritz
Sound by John Gzowski
Lighting by Jason Hand
Cast: Layne Coleman
Janet Laine Green
Sarah Sherman
Benjamin Sutherland

From the press release: “Inspired by the real-life story of Reverend Wiebo Ludwig and his decades-long battle with the Alberta oil and gas industry, Peace River Country follows the lives of a close-knit traditional family as their land, health, and way of life become increasingly threatened by mega-corporations and big government. How does a traditional Christian family living off the land in rural Alberta gain a national reputation as violent eco-terrorists? This fictional account of real-life events is a timely look at the ties of love and loyalty that bind a community.

The political and environmental impact of Canada’s energy industry, especially in Alberta, has been a central tenet of our national discourse for many years. Peace River Country offers an intimate glimpse into the experience of one close-knit religious community during the booming growth of Alberta’s oil industry, and the extremes one man went to keep his family’s way of life in tact.”

Sounds fascinating and I’d love to see that, but Maria Milisavijevic’s play is so lacking in necessary information it’s difficult to make sense of it all. The result is confusing if not frustrating. Thank heaven for Google from which I find: Reverend Ludwig created a farming community with his family and others in rural Alberta. Gas and oil companies created sour wells close to the community. Ludwig alleged that the wells leaked into the land and water contaminating both. He began protesting to the government from the early 1990s until his death in 2012 to no avail.

From the play we get the sense that it’s only the family of four who is involved. There is no community involvement which would have been helpful in establishing true tension. As it is the family squabbles about what to do. I think that’s limiting.

Milisavijevic’s creation of the family’s religious devotion and their adherence to the Bible as a guide adds an interesting touch.

In the play Ludwig is only known as Dad and Dad feels that his grandchild is stillborn because of the contaminated water. We don’t get a clear sense that an autopsy was requested to make sure. Dad’s herd of cattle dies, again, it’s assumed the contaminated grass and water are at fault, yet no vet is called to test the dead animals as to the reason. Later the family raises sheep for wool. If the land and water is contaminated, how is that possible? The family says it can’t drink the water yet again no tests are done to see if their concerns are valid.

Dad turns to violence to be heard by the outside world. Yet while the authorities and the Globe and Mail come to cover the violence, there is no hint that they investigates further to see if Ludwig had a case. Can this be right?

Curtis Wehrfritz’s spare set establishes the vegetation of the farm. The interior scenes are around a kitchen table. Simple and effective.

Layne Coleman is a stalwart Dad. He is proud, committed to his family and desperate to be heard. In contrast Janet Laine Green as Mom is grace and tenderness itself. She is dutiful and supportive of her husband and children. The production shifts back and forth in time sometimes focusing on Dad and Mom’s two young children Jemima (Sarah Sherman) and Joe (Benjamin Sutherland), or later when they are grown. Sometimes Sutherland plays the husband of the adult Jemima. With the subtlest of body language Sherman and Sutherland clearly establish who and what they are (young, mature, married, etc.) Director Richard Rose keeps a firm hand on the shifting times and establishing the urgency of the situation.

Milisavijevic’s previous play Abyss was much more successful in presenting its case and mystery and the result was gripping. Peace River Country however, is a disappointment.

Tarragon Theatre presents.

First performance: Feb. 7, 2017.
Saw it: Feb. 19, 2017.
Closes: March 19, 2017.
Cast: 4; 2 men, 2 women.
Running Time: 80 minutes.

www.tarratontheatre.com

Deceitful Above All Things

At the Factory Studio Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Genevieve Adam
Directed by Tanya Rintoul
Set by Nancy Anne Perrin
Costumes by Adriana Bogaard
Sound by Deanna Choi
Cast: Genevieve Adam
Imogen Grace
Madeleine Donohue
John Fitzgerald Jay
Joelle Peters
Brian Bisson
Garret C. Smith

This is a stylish remount of Genevieve Adam’s intriguing play that was first produced at Summerworks in 2015. I liked it then and like it now.

Adam writes of the young women who were sent by France to Quebec between 1663 and 1673 to help populate the land—i.e, marry and have children. Two such women were Anne Bilodeau and Marguerite Perron who met on the ship coming over from France. Anne was in love with a local Jesuit priest and unbeknownst to him became pregnant with his baby. Anne had to marry quickly and did, to a local farmer. Marguerite worked as Anne’s housekeeper. Marguerite meets Toussaint Langlois, a courier de bois. She should have been wary of him but Marguerite is fearless. She seduces Langlois as much as he seduces her.

Genevieve Adam writes of a wild, dangerous time in our history. The women had to be wily to survive. The men had to be brave. Adam nicely portrays the various social stigmas and attitudes towards indigenous people, single women, the church, the French and anything that was ‘other’. Her dialogue captures the times and yet is contemporary in attitudes that prevail today.

Tanya Rintoul directs with a sure hand. The sensuality between Marguerite and Langlois is both raw and compelling. Nancy Anne Perrin’s set is simple—two moveable benches. The floor is stained to suggest a splash of blood or the vibrant colours of the country.

Genevieve Adam plays Anna Bilodeau with an arrogance and confident flippancy. Imogen Grace is just as confident as Marguerite Perron, but in a quieter way. The whole cast is impressive.

Favour The Brave Collective and Storefront Arts Initiative present:

Opened: Feb. 16, 2017.
Saw it: Feb. 21, 2017.
Closes: Feb. 26, 2017.
Cast: 7; 3 men, 4 women
Running Time: 80 minutes.

www.thestorefronttheatre.com

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At Theatre Passe Muraille, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Created and performed by John Millard and Waleed Abdulhamid
Directed by Marjorie Chan
Set and costumes by Joanna Yu
Projection and lighting by Kaitlin Hickey
Sound by Kai Masoaka

While this is a lovely story of friendship and I want to hear all the music again I found the execution of the show to be frustrating.

The Story. John Millard is a Canadian musician, composer and stalwart of the theatre. Waleed Abdulhamid is a Sudanese musician who came to Toronto in 1990. Both men met when they were Artistic Residents at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. While they came from different cultures they bonded over music, a common language for both of them. They taught each other songs they learned in childhood and that blossomed into their friendship, and this partnership in creating this show.

The Production. The stage is full of instrument stands with various kinds of stringed instruments: banjo, an instrument that looks like a mandolin of sorts for Millard and, a box percussion instrument, a long-necked stringed instrument among others for Abdulhamid. There are various microphones as well to amplify the instruments and head mics to amplify the singers. With all that amplification the music is distorted at times and trying to make out the lyric or melody is a challenge. I wonder how wonderful the music would be with no amplification. The theatre is small. It’s not Massey Hall. And we are there to listen as well as hear.

A piece of material that looks like a sail is stretched across the back of the stage. To director Marjorie Chan that sail suggests travel from far away. That image certainly works in context to Abdulhamid’s story.

The names of the various songs are projected onto the sail in English and Arabic. Millard sings his songs in English so are self-explanatory. Abdulhamid sings his in Arabic with no explanation of what they mean. I think that’s a missed opportunity. At one point Abdulhamid sings a mournful song (I don’t recall a title being projected) that is accompanied by projections. First there is an animation of part of an oblong structure in water. Then various animated small bodies float from the various corners of the sail and are placed on the oblong structure, creating a haunting image of people being packed onto a boat and taken from Africa to where ever to be slaves. That there is no comment, pre-amble or explanation is another missed opportunity.

Both Millard and Abdulhamid banter about the difference in their culture’s music. Millard understands the structure of North American music but at times had difficulties with Abdulhamid’s music because the structure is so different—it doesn’t have what we call a ‘down-beat’. Millard notes how hard it was to learn one of the songs because he couldn’t get ‘into the structure.’ The conversation between the two musicians at times seems so insider that one is tempted to say, “hello, we’re in the room with you. Can you include us?” At other times Millard seems a bit unsteady in his telling of his various stories and experiences.

Abdulhamid tells a touching story of how he tried to learn English and how someone did him a kindness and showed him a better way. It’s a lovely story of welcome.

Comment. A few suggestions:

1) Can we please have a list of the songs and who wrote them in the program.

2) Can there please be some explanation or translation of what the Arabic songs mean before the singing of the songs.

3) Please lower the amplification so we can hear the music without distortion or get rid of it completely and trust us to listen.

4) Both musicians use instruments that don’t look like regular instruments. Can we have an explanation of what they are? What is that stringed instrument that Millard uses that is not a guitar but looks like is can be a kind of mandolin? What are all the instruments called that Abdulhamid uses? The show is about the differences in their music. That also goes for their instruments.

5) I would like as much time and effort that went into producing confident, accomplished singing of the songs, to go into the narrative and story-telling. As it was when I saw it there was a lot of awkward stammering and ‘re-editing’ in telling the story.

The music is terrific. The story of Millard and Abdulhamid’s friendship is sweet. But the execution of the show is clunky, frustrating and in need of re-writing and rehearsing,

Presented by Theatre Passe Muraille in association with Cahoots Theatre Company.

First performance: Feb. 16, 2017.
Saw it: Feb. 18, 2017.
Closes: March 5, 2017.
Cast: 2 men
Running Time: 90 minutes.

www.theatrepassemuraille.ca

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

Written by Guillaume Corbeil
Translated by Steven McCarthy
Directed by Claude Poissant
Set by Max-Otto Fauteux
Lighting by Martin Labrecque
Music by Nicolas Basque
Wardrobe by Philippe Masse
Cast: Laurence Dauphinais
Steffi Didomenicantonio
Tara Nicodemo
Nico Racicot
Alex Weiner

This is an astonishing, challenging piece of theatre.

The Story. It’s about the affect that social media has on five friends. From the press release: “Five Faces for Evelyn Frost examines how social media transforms human relationships while challenging the notions of authenticity and truth.” In this day and age of “fake news” this play is timely to say the least.

Again from the press release: “Meticulously crafting their lives around their social networks, five friends vie to increase their online status and worth, always pushing each other towards the extreme, carelessly flirting with indecency and the irreparable.”

Over time it seems as if they are each trying to one up each other even when they look as if they are socially responsible with causes etc. That makes sense because everything is put on their Facebook pages, Instagram and any other social media platform that will increase their profile.

The Production. The stage is neatly covered with all manner of clothing. Five 30-something characters, stylishly dressed, enter and individually welcome us and say they are glad we are there.

Each then rhymes off music, books, films and art that they like. Each telling gets quicker and quicker, with their lists getting more and more eclectic. They then veer off into nature, and more esoteric things that they enjoy. I’m wondering if this is an on-line profile for dating purposes. We see the cast use a cell phone only in one scene and that’s in the background. Terrific idea NOT to do what one might expect of people self-absorbed in social media.

Interestingly I don’t question if they are telling the truth about all the books they have read, or films they have seen because there are aspects in the telling that seem accurate and true. Or perhaps it’s generational. I don’t know anyone in my circle who makes stuff up about what he/she has read or films seen. Perhaps these 30-something folks take a synopsis of a book or film as their proof that they read the book or saw the film, not sure.

They constantly take selfies of themselves at various parties with various friends, in various pairings and in various poses. There are two references to a striking woman named Evelyn Frost. She is their icon for the moment; their ideal; who they aspire to be until the next icon comes along they want to emulate.

For a lot of 5 Faces For Evelyn Frost it looks like the group is adding to a disconnected list of things they like and share and compete with. But as they ramp up their activity, the show takes a decided dark turn.

And it’s never boring because you are drawn into what things they like and how they express it. One person says he likes Mel Tormé and Jacques Brel. It’s so odd a pairing that it makes sense. The characters are not named but each actor makes his/her character an individual.

There is the smarmy know-it-all who even pronounces the name of the Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez as Marquez would, complete with accent and the ‘c’ pronounced as ‘th’ for example. There is the party-girl; the laid-back young man who fancies one of the group and so on.

It’s directed with precision by Claude Poissant. Poissant has the cast react in various subtle ways that make you really look and listen hard. When one character mentions something another reacts with a hint of a frown or sad recollection. The full bodied character emerges from the ‘static’ of spouting lists of things they like.

It’s startling to see that these people who live their lives so publically on social media have an inner, unseen life that is affected by what is being said. Poissant has the cast react to moments as if in a jerky reverie; or later with a dance-like, salsa movement.

Comment. I think Quebecois writer Guillaume Corbeil is hugely talented (translated by Steven McCarthy—himself a talented actor and musician). Corbeil’s breadth of knowledge of literature, theatre both here and in Europe, music, the arts, culture, nature etc. is prodigious.

I love how I’m not sure if these characters have any sense of judgement about the quality of the books, art, theatre, music etc. they like. I love how I question their moral character when they spend time protesting and demonstrating—are they sincere? The playwright makes me wonder and ask. It’s refreshing to hear new voices from Quebec and I’m including the ‘voice’ of Claude Poisson as well as playwright Guillaume Corbeil.

This is a compelling piece of theatre for those who like a challenge, to be engaged and shaken.

Performances are in English until March 5, and in French with English surtitles March 21 to 25

If you don’t speak French do not go to the performance with the surtitles—you need to hear this in English because the information whizzes by and you need to hear it in a language you understand.

5 Faces for Evelyn Frost is a terrific thought provoking play and production.

Presented by Canadian Stage and Théâtre Français de Toronto

Opened: Feb. 16, 2017 (in English to March 5). In French with English Surtitles March 21-25, 2017.
Closes: March 25, 2017.
Cast: 5, 2 men, 3 women
Running Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

www.canadianstage.com

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

Written by Guillaume Corbeil
Translated by Steven McCarthy
Directed by Claude Poissant
Set by Max-Otto Fauteux
Lighting by Martin Labrecque
Music by Nicolas Basque
Wardrobe by Philippe Masse
Cast: Laurence Dauphinais
Steffo Didomenicantonio
Tara Nicodemo
Nico Racicot
Alex Weiner.

This is an astonishing, challenging piece of theatre.

It’s about the affect that social media has on five friends.

From the press release: “Five Faces for Evelyn Frost examines how social media transforms human relationships while challenging the notions of authenticity and truth.”
In this day and age of “fake news” this play is timely to say the least.

Again from the press release: “Meticulously crafting their lives around their social networks, five friends vie to increase their online status and worth, always pushing each other towards the extreme, carelessly flirting with indecency and the irreparable.”

Over time it seems as if they are each trying to one up each other even when they look as if they are socially responsible with causes etc, and that makes sense because everything is put on their Facebook pages, Instagram and any other social media platform that will increase their profile.

I think writer Guillaume Corbeil is hugely talented (translated by Steven McCarthy—himself a musician and actor.) Corbeil’s breadth of knowledge of literature, theatre both here and in Europe, music, the arts, culture, nature etc. is prodigious.

I love how I’m not sure if these characters have any sense of judgement about the quality of the books, art, theatre, music etc. they like. I love how I question their moral character when they spend time protesting and demonstrating—are they sincere?

The playwright makes me wonder and ask. It’s refreshing to hear a new voice from Quebec and here it’s from the playwright and the director. This is a compelling piece of theatre for those who like a challenge, to be engaged and shaken.

Produced by Canadian Stage and Théâtre Français de Toronto
www.canadianstage.com

Full review shortly.

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At the Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Based on the film.
Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan
Book by Alexander Dinelaris
Directed by Thea Sharrock
Choreography by Karen Bruce
Set and costumes by Tim Hatley
Lighting by Mark Henderson
Visual Design by Duncan McLean
Sound by Richard Brooker
Music director, Tom Gearing.
Cast: Alex Andreas
Neil Ditt
Glen Fox
Charles Hagerty
Mark Holden
Rachel John
Beverley Knight
Jaden Oshenye
Stuart Reid
Matthew Stathers

A pop musical based on the movie of the same name, with all the bells and whistles you expect from a raucous pop concert, in which acting generally is secondary. Director Thea Sharrock has a fine sense of the theatrical and how to jolt the audience out of its seats in the scary bits.

The Story. Rachel Marron is a huge pop star. Together with her singer/songwriter sister, Nicki, they are nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song in a Movie. But Rachel has an admirer who is stalking her. He leaves creepy notes in her dressing room and no one knows how he gets backstage to do it since security is tight. And he stole a red sequined dress as well. Enter Frank Farmer, the bodyguard. Frank is the stiff, sullen, silent type and he wants no part of this pampered, bossy pop star. Until he learns that she has a 10 year old son named Fletcher. Then he takes the job. He knows The Stalker poses a serious threat to Rachel.

Rachel’s sister Nicki sings in a little club in an effort to get out from under Rachel’s shadow. It has not been easy. At every turn Rachel takes the spotlight, fame, and even Frank. Nicki is sweet on Frank but Rachel is needy and soon Frank softens. But The Stalker is getting bolder and even violent. Can Frank stop him?

The Production. Director Thea Sharrock has done a lot of impressive stage work in London. The Bodyguard is her first musical and it too is impressive. She has a solid sense of the use of dazzle and downbeat. The production opens with flashes of Mark Henderson’s light that bombards the audience, and a blast of a drumbeat that jolts you out of your seat, as if to say, “Hang on. You’re going for a fierce ride.”

Because so much of the production is in fact Rachel singing in her concerts or recording, a chunk of it is presented as a full-on concert with all manner of lights revolving, rotating, etc. and disco balls glittering above. The songs of the film are repeated in the stage musical: “How Will I Know”, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”, “I Will Always Love You.” etc. As Rachel, Beverley Knight—a celebrated London soul singer in her own right—has a powerful voice and pops those high notes with ease. Alas she is not so accomplished as an actress.

Where Sharrock really shines is establishing the present menace of The Stalker (no-name for this guy, just the title—The Stalker.) A flash of stark white light and a thud of drums reveals a man wearing workout gear (it seems) an open shirt revealing a ripped body, his face is menacing and he holds a long, dangerous looking knife. We just know he doesn’t want to be best friends with Rachel. His appearance is always sudden and gripping.

Sharock is masterful in creating the trick of catching The Stalker. At one point The Stalker takes out his gun and points it at the audience. A red laser beam of light shines across the audience as they squirm when the beam is in their sights. In the Academy Award scene when Rachel is singing her song we are primed to expect the worst, when The Stalker will do his deed. What is supposed to happen is that we see a laser beam of light inching up Rachel’s gown. The Stalker! We look for him. Frank Farmer jumps on stage ready and watching to get him. Except that on opening night there was no red laser beam inching up Rachel’s gown. Either it was cut, which is incredible to believe, or there was a malfunction which is more like it, but still incredible. Frank still jumped out, but really there is no reason if he and we don’t see the laser beam. Please fix that for the next performance.

Stuart Reid as Frank Farmer, is properly stoical and stony faced. He doesn’t give anything away. Sharrock keeps that moment from the film when Frank sweeps up Rachel in his strong arms to save her from frenzied fans—a bit cheesy but part of the whole glitzy package.

The best of the lot is Rachel John as Nicki Marron, Rachel’s supposedly over-shadowed sister. Ms. John is a strong, expressive singer and a very good actress. This makes the whole relationship between the sisters a bit skewed. In the story it’s Rachel who out shines her sister Nicki. In the production it’s Rachel Johns who outshines Beverley Knight.

Comment. While I saw The Bodyguard in London two years ago I won’t, don’t compare them because it’s just silly to do so. One takes each production on its own. I have concerns with Beverley Knight’s acting, which is not strong. Her singing is fine. On the whole The Bodyguard is a fast ride, a dazzling light-show, a pulsing pop concert and a show that occasionally scares you out of your seat. Alexander Dinelaris’s book is superficial and a bit cartoonish. It’s all of a piece to provide a not too challenging, fun night in the theatre.

David Mirvish presents the Michael Harrison and David Ian (and a lot of other people) production:

Opened: Feb. 15, 2017.
Closes: April 9, 2017.
Cast: 10; 8 men, 2 women (and 15 dancers and singers).
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

www.mirvish.com

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At the Panasonic Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Kevin Elyot
Directed by Joel Greenberg
Set and costumes by John Thompson
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell
Sound by Garth Helm
Cast: Tim Funnell
Alex Furber
Martin Happer
Jeff Miller
Gray Powell
Jonathan Wilson

My Night With Reg is a delicate yet chilling play about the early days of the AIDS epidemic but is timeless because of its handling of male relationships. The production is stylish, beautifully acted and moving.

The Story. London, mid-1980s. Guy is having a flat-warming party (apartment-warming party to North Americans) to celebrate his new digs. He’s invited several old and new men friends. He met the older friends in school and has kept in touch intermittently. John is one old friend and Guy has secretly loved him all those years but didn’t dare tell him.

Guy is single, shy, accommodating to his friends and is the one person they all confide in. John is dashing, charming, rich and very popular. But not as popular as Reg seems to be. All the men in the play are gay and they all have Reg in common.

Over the course of the play there are at least two funerals. Lurking in the background is the spectre of AIDS, which is never mentioned. Because we come with the benefit of hindsight to My Night With Reg we know that the men who died, died of AIDS. Guy often expresses how well he takes care to protect himself. We know from what.

The Production. Everything about John Thompson’s set for Guy’s flat is tasteful, in muted colours. The sofa has two cushions arranged just so. The artwork is conservative and not raunchy. The bar is well stocked because Guy is having a party for friends he hasn’t seen in years. The terrace is being painted by a young fellah named Eric who wanders into and out of the action.

This is a play that can’t be rushed in its production. It is funny, perceptive, subtle and moving. It needs time to reveal the characters, their idiosyncrasies, their relationships to each other and their abundance of secrets.

Joel Greenberg’s direction is full of care and thought. No character is a stereotypical gay man. They are all true to themselves. There is confident affection as friends kiss hello and goodbye. Body language is expansive and joyous in many cases. The acting is superb. Jonathan Wilson creates Guy as a man of shy awkwardness, he is tentative in expressing how he feels, but pulls back when he senses he might embarrass himself. Wilson is a mass of ticks, smiles, shrugs and all consuming sweetness. Guy is the one character we root for from the get go because he’s such a mensch. One realizes how much Jonathan Wilson been missed on a Toronto stage because of this gracious performance.

Gray Powell as John is that dashing, confident man who could appeal to men and women. He has that devil may care attitude. He’s got money. He doesn’t worry about anything except hiding little details of his life from his friends and he handles that with an off-handed aplomb. And yet, you sense a deep sense of regret that he’s attracted to whom he’s attracted. They are all friends there and John really doesn’t want to hurt anybody. It’s just that he can’t help it. It’s a lovely performance of a man who is conflicted.

Jeff Miller plays Daniel with a hint of flamboyance that is more about a man who is confident to be himself, in the company of his friends, rather than a man showing off. Daniel is joyous in his relationship but full of angst that perhaps his lover is cheating, or that a friend of his is cheating with his lover. Daniel experiences a roller-coaster of emotions, and Jeff Miller is such a good actor, he makes the audience feel every plunge and swoop. The whole cast is superb.

Comment. While playwright Kevin Elyot was a prolific playwright and screenwriter, his 1994 breakout award-winning hit play was My Night With Reg. He writes about gay relationships and promiscuity in the age of AIDS. He is never judgemental. His writing is very funny, moving and almost poetic. At one of the funerals the lover of the recently departed says, “The smallest thing will make me miss him.” A feather of a line that pierces the heart.

My Night With Reg starts out to be a play about six friends in the early time of AIDS in London in the mid-1980s. But it develops into a play about relationships and the secrets, lies and hurts that develop when characters hide things from each other. That aspect of the play, the love these men have or had for each, other makes My Night With Reg timeless.

David Mirvish presents a Studio 180 production.

Opened: Feb. 14, 2017.
Closes: Feb. 26, 2017.
Cast: 6 men.
Running Time: 100 minutes, no intermission.

www.mirvish.com

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At the Panasonic Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Kevin Elyot
Directed by Joel Greenberg
Set and costumes by John Thompson
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell
Sound by Garth Helm
Cast: Tim Funnell
Alex Furber
Martin Happer
Jeff Miller
Gray Powell
Jonathan Wilson

My Night With Reg is a delicate yet chilling play about the early days of the AIDS epidemic but is timeless because of its handling of male relationships. The production is stylish, beautifully acted, and moving.

London, mid-1980s. The play is about a group of gay friends who are invited to celebrate the new flat of Guy. He is shy, single, accommodating and the one person these friends confide in. Guy has secretly loved John since their school days. John never noticed. He was too busy being dashing and popular. But not as popular as Reg seems to be. All the men in the play have Reg in common. Lurking in the background is the spectre of AIDS, which is never mentioned, but we come to it with the benefit of hindsight.

The play is funny, perceptive, subtle and so moving. It is directed with care by Joel Greenberg. The acting is superb.

Full review shortly.

David Mirvish presents a Studio 180 production.

Opened: Feb. 14, 2017.
Closes: Feb. 26, 2017.
Cast: 6 men.
Running Time: 100 minutes, no intermission.

www.mirvish.com

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At Artscape Youngplace, 180 Shaw St. Toronto, Ont.

Written by Dennis Potter
Directed, designed and choreographed by Nicole Wilson
Lighting by Steve Vargo
Cast: Nicola Atkinson
Michael-David Blostein
Vince Deiulis
Jeff Dingle
Hayden Finkelshtain
Ara Glenn-Johanson
Alexander Offord

Good Old Neon Theatre has presented another production that is challenging, provocative and thought-provoking in these emotional times.

Blue Remembered Hills is based on British writer Dennis Potter’s 1979 television drama that takes place in England in 1943. A group of seven-year-old children is playing in a forest. They are played by adults.

Director Nicole Wilson takes this notion and sets it on its ear. To quote from the press information: “Good Old Neon has taken the play out of its historical setting and turned it into an expressionistic fever dream, a speculation on the nature of human interaction in a world torn apart by hunger, civil strife, and the terrifying impulses that give rise to Trumpism.” Nicole Wilson goes further: “Blue Remembered Hills is a broken play. It is a mostly plotless evening spent in the company of seven people as they enact various forms of casual, almost accidental cruelty on each other; they claim to be children but they behave as adults (or is that adults behave as children?)….The brokenness of Blue Remembered Hills is also where the opportunity for magic lies—by incorporating an abstracted, physical language that hums just beneath the surface of the spoken text, we have found a play much richer than a simple reading of the script can yield. These moments—we called them “outbursts” in rehearsal—are not symbols of feeling but expressions of inner states, states which are beyond simple language, which lines of dialogue cannot articulate.”

It makes for an intriguing evening in the theatre with a daring company of actors and their adventurous director.

The audience fills into a brightly lit, white room. The cast is dressed in white. Their faces are whitened in various ways. Sometimes the whole face is whitened; sometimes half the face. In any case it’s haunting.

While they ‘act’ as seven-year-old children with a rudimentary grasp of language with which to express themselves, their behaviour suggests something more innate. These kids are cruel, mean, bullying, cowering, hunted and trapped. They vary on who is the bully and who is the bullied. As one person stands up to a bully another cowers in a corner. Matters build in emotional intensity until its gripping conclusion. These children seem to carry on perhaps a behaviour they learned from adults, or perhaps children are naturally inclined to cruelty.

At times it was like watching a dramatization of Lord of the Flies William Golding’s classic novel of a group of British school boys stranded on an island who then form groups based on class and vulnerability, and treat each other accordingly. It builds to a terrifying conclusion.

With Blue Remembered Hills it’s interesting to see how director Nicole Wilson stages and directs her committed cast of seven to establish the shifting power struggles and the constant maneuvering to get the upper hand. It is both fascinating and terrifying. And references to Muslims certainly put us in the age of Trump.

Good Old Neon Theatre produces theatre that reflects the world we live in—shattering, compelling and provocative.

Good Old Neon Theatre presents:

Opened: Feb. 13, 2017.
Closes: Feb. 24, 2017.
Cast: 7; 5 men, 2 women
Running Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

www.goodoldneon.ca

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At the Factory Theatre Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written and directed by Trey Anthony
Set, costumes and props by Rachel Forbes
Lighting by Steve Lucas
Composed and sound by Gavin Bradley
Cast: Beryl Bain
Allison Edwards-Crewe
Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah
Ordena Stephens-Thompson

Simplistic, superficial writing and a production that is clunky.

The Story. Daphne is the black mother in question. She’s a churchgoing woman who is dying of cancer and she’s refused treatment. She finds comfort and solace in her bible.
Her two daughters, Valerie and Claudette, rally together to be with her. There is also the spectre of Cloe, a daughter who died young and is a ghostly presence to Daphne.

Valerie is a stylish woman, married to a very successful man. She’s devoted to her mother and helps in any way she can. Claudette has returned home from Montreal after being away for three years. Relations between Claudette and Daphne have been strained. Claudette hasn’t kept in touch and no one in her family seems to have reached out to Claudette except to tell her that her mother is sick and she better come home.

Over the course of the play concealed hurts and resentments that have festered without being addressed before, now come tumbling out. Claudette is gay and was in a lesbian relationship and Daphne had a hard time coming to grips with that, citing the bible at how wrong that relationship was.

Valerie has worked hard at her marriage to David her very successful white husband. But there are serious problems. Both sisters have criticisms of the other but one does sense they love each other. The whole family loves each other, concerns notwithstanding.

The Production. Rachel Forbes’s set depicts a cross section of a simple, neat kitchen, with appropriate fridge magnets, collectables etc., and Claudette’s old room. The walls of her room still have the same stuff that was on the walls when she was a teen living at home. There is a stairway that divides the rooms and allows for exits and entrances.

The production begins with the four women; Daphne and her two daughters and the ghost of Cloe following in a line, each carrying a suitcase, swaying to lilting music. It’s buoyant, infectious, and an uplifting way to begin the show. But then that liveliness slowly, methodically deflates as the show continues.

One problem is Trey Anthony’s rather simplistic script. The handling of thorny issues is superficial at best, and might be better suited to television as a sitcom or a soap opera. Conversations that should have taken place years before happen inexplicably without previous reference now. Another problem is that Trey Anthony also directs and it’s pedestrian at best. She moves characters for no reason I guess to make them look less static, or as in the case when Claudette first arrives, she just stands there awkwardly, making it look like the director didn’t know what to do with her.

Ordena Stephens-Thompson as Daphne sashays confidently around the space, putting a spin on the Jamaican lilt. Daphne is the best written of all the parts but there are still moments that make one wince at the lack of depth. Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as Claudette portrays a woman, uncomfortable to be there and with reason. Roberts-Abdullah also infuses Claudette with a lot of emotion and passion. Beryl Bain as Cloe is graceful and a youthful presence. One can see the lost promise of this ghost-like character. Finally I can appreciate that Allison Edwards-Crewe plays Valerie as a perky, chirpy, lively character with lots to hide including a sad back story, it’s just that it’s obvious and grating, which defeats the purpose.

Comment. I find playwright Trey Anthony’s work to be slight and superficial. The subject matter appears to be of substance but at best the plays skim the surface and rarely dig deeply. How do black mothers say “I love you?” They say it in the same way every other mother of any race, creed, colour, sexual persuasion etc. says it. Sometimes it’s simple, complicated, vague, direct, off the wall, but it’s the same the world over, I recon.

Da’ Kink in My Hair, her best most notable work, took place in a beauty parlour with characters coming in, telling their story then leaving. It was made into a TV show, and that seems the best venue for this work—television situation comedies or soap opera fare.

With How Black Mothers Say I Love You, we have the daughters accusing each other of transgressions that seem to come from now where. Claudette accuses her mother of loving Cloe, the dead sister, more.

When the girls were younger, Daphne left Jamaica for Canada to find work and send money home. This situation makes the play slightly more unique as a black experience, although other nationalities have the same situation—mothers leave their children to work in another country to earn money and better the lives of their children back home.

Daphne left the girls to be raised by their grandmother, for six years, before they were brought over to Canada. Claudette has harboured bitterness for what she perceives as her mother’s desertion since then. When she was in Canada, Daphne married again and gave birth to Cloe, another reason for Claudette to feel resentful.

Valerie is devoted and defends her mother no matter what. But Valerie too has difficulties in her marriage you can see a mile away because she tries so hard to be perky and upbeat. I don’t buy it.

Conversations that should have happened years before all seem to be dumped in this short time the characters are in the same place. Are we to believe that Claudette and Daphne never had it out before now about Daphne’s perceived desertion? Really? Hard to believe. The same goes for personal secrets and hidden truths—they are all let out now. I don’t buy it.

Everything about How Black Mothers Say I Love You is clunky, superficial and more appropriate for a TV sitcom or a soap opera.

This was also reviewed on CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm, Friday, February 10, 2017 between 9 am and 10 am.

Girls in Bow Ties Productions presented by Factory Theatre

Opened: Feb. 9, 2017.
Closes: March 5, 2017.
Cast: 4 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

www.factorytheatre.ca

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At the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Tracy Letts
Directed by Ted Dykstra
Set and Costumes by Anna Treusch
Lighting by Kaileigh Krysztofiak
Sound by Verne Good
Cast: Darla Biccum
Michael Blake
Paul Dods
Ryan Hollyman
Diana Leblanc
Robert Persichini
Alex Poch-Goldin
Nabil Rajo
Jon Lachlan Stewart

A gut-busting, heart-bursting production of Tracy Letts’ latest play about letting go, looking forward, opening up one’s heart and letting people in. And there are donuts.

The Story. During the Vietnam War Arthur Przybyszewski was a draft dodger from Chicago who found safe haven in Toronto. When President Jimmy Carter came to office in 1977 he pardoned the draft dodgers so Arthur returned home to run Superior Donuts, the family donut shot.

It’s now December 2009. Business is terrible. Arthur is despondent because his ex-wife has died recently. Arthur has not come into the shop regularly and when he was away someone broke in, trashed the place and wrote “Pussy” on the wall in pink paint. But Arthur advertises for a person to help in the shop. Fanco Wicks applies for the job—he has debts that need to be attended to or there will be trouble. He is an energetic, wily, persuasive 21 year-old African-American man. Arthur is overwhelmed by Franco’s enthusiasm and grand ideas for the shop. A friendship develops and Franco offers Arthur more than just help selling donuts.

Max Tarasov owns a DVD store next to Arthur’s donut shop and wants to buy it but Arthur won’t sell. Superior Donuts has been in Arthur’s family for 60 years and he can’t sell. It is the only thing he has that keeps him connected with his now dead parents. There was animosity between Arthur and his father when he left for Canada. By holding on in a way he is trying to make amends with his father. Max also has something to prove. He is an immigrant from Russia and owning the string of shops on the block will fulfill his idea of the American Dream. But Arthur won’t sell.

This is American playwright Tracy Letts channeling Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard—a family in financial need won’t sell their cherry orchard because it’s been in their family for years, even written up in the encyclopedia, and a once simple peasant, now a rich land owner, now wants to buy it.

The Production. Director Ted Dykstra’s production is a gift to those of us who love our theatre, smart, furiously funny, moving and heart-squeezing. Dykstra is a sensitive, nimble director, at ease with the minute details of comedy and drama. He fills moments with the simplest of stage business for the maximum results.

There is a standing gag that one of the police officers who frequents the donut shop, goes to Star Trek conventions with his wife, in costume. When the officer leaves the shop, another regular at the shop. Lady Boyle, mentally fragile and an alcoholic, waves at the officer while her fingers flutter in the air, trying to assume the Spock salute with her fingers separated and failing. It’s a small detail but it’s hilarious. The production is full of such directorial touches and they realize the heart and soul of these damaged, kind characters.

The cast is stellar. Robert Persichini plays Arthur, mournful, sombre, barely holding on, but with such dignity and compassion he makes your heart swell. His voice is rich, deep and calm. This is a man almost ground down to the ground who doesn’t raise his voice because he hasn’t the energy. His walk is almost a lurch, as if he needs that momentum because otherwise he will stop. It’s the performance of a man that is deep, sorrowful and yet at the end, hopeful. Nabil Rajo plays Franco Wicks with such winning optimism and natural street smarts he is a perfect foil for Arthur. Rajo has a keen sense of the humour and the hidden desperation of Franco. As Max, Alex Poch-Goldin shows us a man who is confident but so anxious and desperate to buy out Arthur and get his dream started, he takes your breath away. There is swagger, confidence, brashness and when you least expect it, desperation that is startling.

Various characters in Superior Donuts reveal their desperation in subtle ways. Luther Flynn is a loan shark with an ulcer. As played by Ryan Hollyman, he uses intimidation that rises to a fever pitch until his face turns red and he has to swill milk and pop pills to calm his agitated gut. Lady Boyle, as played by Diana Leblanc is a delicate bird of a woman, often confused, desperate for a donut (which she never pays for) and a kind word that she always gets from Arthur.

And there is an extended fight scene created by Simon Fon that will have you holding your breath for every second of it, it is so violent, funny and dangerous. I experienced that fight twice in a sense because Simon Fon happened to be seated next to me. With every bunch and kick of his creation he winced and sucked air. Loved that.

Comment. Superior Donuts is about a community of misfits holding on and caring for each other in their own way. It is a bracing, funny, achingly moving play about so many things that are good and decent about people. Even though it was written in 2010 it’s prescience about what is happening in the country of our neighbours to the south, is frightening. But at its heart is decency and hope.

This is a wonderful, wonderful production of a terrific play.

The Coal Mine Theatre presents:

Opened: Feb. 8, 2017.
Closes: Feb. 26, 2017.
Cast: 9; 7 men, 2 women
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

www.CoalMineTheatre.com

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