The Nonna Monologues, Columbus Centre, 901 Lawrence Ave. W., Toronto, Ont.

Concept and direction by Daniele Bartolini

Written by Daniele Bartolini with Danya Buonastella and Maddalena Vallecchi Williams.

Production designed by Franco Berti

Costume designed by Franco Berti, Danya Buonastella and Maddalena Vallecchi Williams.

Peformed by Danya Buonastella and Maddalena Vallecchi Williams.

While Daniele Bartolini invests huge effort and imagination into his creations for his theatre company, DopoLavoro Teatrale (DLT), The Nonna Monologues is something special. With this show it’s personal for Bartolini because it’s about a revered generation of women in his life—grandmothers, or “Nonnas’ in Italian. (Is there anyone in the free world who doesn’t know that Nonna means grandmother in Italian? I doubt it.)

The audience sits in chairs facing two white screens. When the room goes to dark we hear the voice of Daniele Bartolini himself describe both his Nonnas who grew up in Italy. Apparently they? One? Of them made bolognaise sauce but without the most important ingredient—the meat. And so begins the mystique of the Nonna—the recipes that are either passed down from generation to generation or kept secret.  (If I have a quibble here it’s that while Bartolini enunciates, he does speak rather quickly. Perhaps slow it down please?)

The lights go up on the two screens and behind each is a pair of legs. One pair belongs to Danya Buonastella, the other to Maddelena Vallecchi Williams. Both women appear from behind each screen and talk about their Nonnas. They both loved to watch television and there are prolonged scenes as if each woman plays her own glamorous Nonna as if interviewed on a television show. Buonastella’s Nonna loved Monica Viti and played out a scene as if she was Viti. Vallecchi Williams played out a scene of her Nonna’s favourite actress, Sophia Loren, doing a scene from Marriage Italian Style. The scene is impassioned, dramatic and done in Italian which I don’t speak. A slight précis is offered at the end, but it would have been dandy to have a concise translation as the scene went on. I think this whole section should be re-thought. I can appreciate both Nonnas loved television, it’s just that these scenes went on too long without a connection to us, the audience.

Both Buonastella and Vallecchi Williams tell stories of their Nonna’s bravery or selflessness. There are stories of who makes the best lasagne. These moments when the stories are personal work the best. They are human, tender and loving. The last moments are exquisite. Both actresses are wonderful, lively, agile, expressive and beguiling. And whether you call her Nonna, or Bubbie, or Nanna, or Granny or whatever, The Nonna Monologues makes us all think of our grandmothers in our own collective way. Ultimately that is the show’s beauty and gift.

DopoLavoro Teatrale presents:

Began: Dec. 6, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 22, 2019.

Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes


At Theatre Passe Muraille, Mainspace. Toronto, Ont.

Written by Samah Sabawi

Directed by Rahaf Fasheh

Set by Kayla Chaterji

Costumes by Mira Salti

Lighting by Lidia Foote

Sound by Matt Lalonde

Cast: Liana Bdewi

Basel Daoud

Nawal Hamdan

Anas Hasan

Saja Kilani

Kody Poisson

Naseem Reesha

Maher Sinno

May Tartoussy

Khira Wieting

Singers: Natalie Fasheh

Shireen Abu Khader

Well intentioned but ultimately frustrating.

The Story. We are in a Gaza refugee camp in 2008. Jomana is a Palestinian woman living in the camp. Rami is an American-born Palestinian who practices medicine in Texas. He has come to Gaza on one of the Free Gaza boats to see for himself what is going on there and connect with his roots. In the short time he’s there he falls in love with Jomana and wants to marry her and take her back to the States. She refuses because she fears she will never see her family again. He also fears that if he goes home he won’t see Jomana again. He must return home to his practice. They call each other. They Skype. He finds a way to return. It’s a love story in fraught times.

The Production. Kayla Chaterji has designed a simple, beautiful set of a sturdy fig tree with foliage suspended from what seems like wire octagons, perhaps symbolic of the wire enclosures that keep the Palestinians captive in the refugee camp. There are multi-coloured cushions at the base of the tree where Jomana (Saja Kilani) and her friend Lama (Liana Bdewi) often sit, daydream, listen to music or write poetry. Jomana keeps a journal of what is going on there and also writes her poetry in the journal.

Rahaf Fasheh’s direction is straightforward in establishing relationships. Jomana and Lama are close and share their dreams with girlish delight. When Jomana and Rami (Anas Hasan) are together they face each other and hold hands. Quite often speeches are delivered directly to the audience making it seem like a declaration rather than dialogue, for example Jomana laments the poverty and despair of the people of the camp. Rahaf Fasheh’s direction establishes a clear sense of danger when the camp is bombed—kudos to sound designer Matt Lalonde.

But there is a ‘split-scene’ between Jomana and her father (Basel Daoud) talking about her love for Rami stage right and Rami talking to his mother (May Tartoussy) about the dangers of going back to Gaza, stage left that is clumsy, both in the writing and direction. It does not work. The scene is supposed to alternate between both pairs of speakers but while the cast is committed to the work they are not accomplished enough as actors to pull off the tricky timing of the scene with ease. Often one can’t hear what is being said the speech is so muted.

Shireen Abu Khader is a beautiful, emotional singer who sings several songs in Arabic. These songs are obviously important to the play I just wish there was a list of their names and a translation of what the songs mean, if one is not Arab speaking. Alas the program does not provide either.

The last song is particularly moving because many in the audience quietly sing along with Shireen Abu Khader. Yara Shoufani, the Production Manager was kind enough to explain what the song is in an e-mail: “The song at the end is called “Mawtini” and it means “my homeland”. It has been considered a nationalistic anthem to Palestinians as it originated there in the 1930s. Since then it has become a revolutionary anthem in the Middle East, with Iraq adopting it as their official anthem in 2004.”

She was also helpful in solving a pronunciation question. Throughout the production the Palestinian characters pronounced the place as “Rezah” at least it seemed to me. Then in a last scene Rami is at the border and American guards refer to the place as “Gaza.” Were they one and the same? Again Yara Shoufani is helpful: “I do know that Ghezah is the Arabic pronunciation of the word. The gh sound is an Arabic sound that does not exist in English and so it could perhaps sound like an R.” Again, a programme note explaining this would have been really helpful.

Playwright Sama Sabawi has provided precious little historical context in her play or in informative programme notes. It’s as if it’s expected that the audience would automatically know this information. Then it dawns on me. That’s the point and also the problem of Tales of a City by the Sea. It’s meant for an audience of Palestinian or at least people of Middle Eastern descent who would know about the historical, language and philosophical context. Those others in the audience who don’t know are out of luck or at least can try and rely on Google for information. This is an unfortunate decision.

She says in her programme note: “Through creating a glimpse into the beauty and hardship of those existing under Israeli military occupation in Gaza, I hope to re-spark this essential conversation with raise awareness to the ongoing trauma that Palestinians continue to endure.” One has to ask, ‘re-spark this essential conversation’ with whom? With the people who already know one side of the story?  That seems like talking to the converted. Or does it mean to spark a conversation with people in the audience who are excluded because of lack of context or language, who need and want to know the various sides of the story? If that is the case, then Sama Sahawi has to open up her play, provide context and more historical reference. Her play touches on the strong presence of Hamas as a governing body. That too must be expanded and given more prominence.

As it is Tales of a City by the Sea is a well intentioned play but terribly frustrating.

Comment. I can appreciate the good intentions of all those involved in mounting this endeavor. It was heartening to see so many of Middle Eastern descent at the performance I was at. But the experience for a person not versed in Arabic or the context of the thorny issues in Gaza is frustrating. I think the absence of these important components diminishes the play.

Presented by the Canadian Friends of Sabeel:

Opened: Dec. 6, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 15, 2019.

Running Time: 80 minutes.

Box Office: 416-504-7529.


At Theatre Aquarius, Hamilton, Ont.

Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan

Music by Marc Shaiman

Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman

Directed by Mary Francis Moore

Musical director, Reza Jacobs

Set by Patrick Clark

Costumes and provided by Maine State Music Theatre

Lighting by Gail Ksionzyk

Sound by Anna-Maria Grant

Choreography by Robin Calvert

Cast: Brittany Banks

Patrick Brown

Saphire Demitro

Keisha T. Fraser

Aaron Hastelow

Jeremy Carver-James

Hailey Lewis

Monique Lund

Larry Mannell

Andrew McAllister

Jade Repeta

And others..


The Story.  Hairspray is based on the 1988 film of the same name by John Waters. That was then adapted into Hairspray the award winning 2002 Broadway musical, with the book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman.

It’s 1962, Baltimore, Maryland. Tracy Turnblad is a teen who just wants to be a dancer on The Corny Collins Show, a local tv show.  When she goes to audition in open auditions she is made fun of by the show’s snooty producer Velma Van Tussle because Tracy is overweight. But Tracy dances with joy and Corny Collins feels she is the kind of participant the show needs.

One day in the year is set aside for Negro teens to participate in the show.  In true open-hearted spirit Tracy also feels that every day should be Negro Day and says so.  She believes that the show should be integrated.  Tracy is encouraged by her loving parents, Edna, a stay-at-home Mom who takes in laundry to help with the finances and Wilbur her wonderful father who owns a joke store. Their decency helps Tracy  deal with the thorny issues of body shaming, segregation and racism.

The Production. This is a local Canadian production of Hairspray playing at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton. It is joyful, glorious and beautifully done in every way thanks to the direction of Mary Francis Moore who directs with imagination, sensitivity and humour and all the people surrounding her.

Patrick Clark’s set is beautifully, efficiently designed and bursting with colour. It’s almost akin to Technicolor that makes it all seem otherworldly. But the serious aspects of the show-racism, body-shaming, corruption and bribery—are there in stark relief. Set pieces move on and off with efficiency.

The show starts off with a bang with the up-beat, “Good Morning Baltimore” with Tracy (Saphire Demitro) in bed. The scene is presented as if we are looking down from the ceiling as Tracy wakes up. In fact she’s standing up with the bed behind her as if she’s ‘in’ it, with the covers pulled tight around her as she sings. Then she flips the covers aside, ready to greet the day. Saphire Demitro instils a joy and optimism in Tracy that makes her indomitable. Her voice is strong and her dancing is effortless. She presents a character who is easy to love she is so open-hearted.

Patrick Brown plays Tracy’s loving, wise mother Edna—yes a man plays the mother in every production of Hairspray. This is not a camp performance. This is a performance of a large woman (Patrick Brown obviously wears a ‘fat suit’) who has a certain grace but is embarrassed about her size. Edna is a woman who has put her dreams of being a designer aside, to stay at home mending and ironing other people’s clothes. She is wise to the hurts of body shaming and tries to protect her daughter from the same treatment. She and her husband Wilbur (a charming, loving performance by Larry Mannell) have given Tracy the confidence to face the world because of their love.

Monique Lund plays Velma Von Tussle, the condescending producer of the TV show who wants to keep Tracy and people of colour off the show. Velma is the person you love to hate because Monique Lund plays her so well.

Robin Calvert has choreographed an ensemble that is believable in 1962 but does not look dated. The dancers are vibrant and energetic.

The production is classy, smart, joyful. Loved it. See it.

Comment. Hairspray has all the hallmarks of a typical big, blaring Broadway musical: it has a pulsing score by Marc Shaiman; clever lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, and rousing dance numbers. But writers Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan have written a book full of consequence (and is true to the spirit of the film by John Waters). They have taken the odious subjects of body shaming and racism among others and dealt with them head on.  Director Mary Francis Moore and her splendid company have brought it boldly to the stage. See it.

Theatre Aquarius Presents:

From: Nov. 27, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 24, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx.



Review: CATS

by Lynn on December 8, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Based on “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T.S. Eliot

Directed by Trevor Nunn

Choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler

Based on the choreography of Gillian Lynne

Scenic and costume design by John Napier

Lighting by Natasha Katz

Sound by Mick Potter

Cast: Caitlin Bond

Kaitlyn Davidson

Maurice Dawkins

Giovanni Digabriele

PJ Digaetano

Cameron Edris

Keri René Fuller

Justin W. Geiss

Timothy Gulan

Emma Hearn

Dan Hoy

Rose Iannaccone

Laura Katherine Kaufman

McGee Maddox

Brandon Michael Nase

Brayden Newby

Emily Jeanne Phillips

Alexa Racioppi

And others…..

CATS is the musical based on T.S. Eliot’s small book of light poems called “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” written in 1939 for his godchildren. It’s about the various kinds of cats and their psychologies.

Andrew Lloyd Webber then blew them out of proportion in his 1981 West End megahit, with choreography by Gillian Lynne. This is a touring version of CATS with new choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler. This didn’t go down too well with Gillian Lynne so to placate her the New London Theatre was renamed the Gillian Lynne Theatre. Classy since that was the theatre where CATS first played. A short time after that Ms Lynne died. Well she was 92.

It’s about a group of cats that come together for one night to pick the cat who will be reborn in a different life. Having nine lives is not enough. This let’s them leave their bad life behind to start again.

Each cat seems to have his/her own song but the one that stands out is “Memory” sung by Grizabella the “Glamour Cat” who has seen better days. She is played here by Keri René Fuller. Her face seems battered with bruises and there is a lovely touch in which the lipstick slides down the lip as if Grizabella can’t put on her make-up with confidence any longer. And Fuller sings “Memory” beautifully, full of heartache, longing and desperation. I was ready to yell, Hallelujah she did it so well.  The audience seemed to wake up after she sang it.

I’ve seen CATS over the years, starting with the original London production in 1981 and it doesn’t really change. The various cats are energetic, mischievous and agile. Why then did I choose to see this touring production?

Because there is new choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler and I haven’t seen the show in a few years and was intrigued. So I fell for that ploy. Andrew Lloyd Webber and the masterful Cameron Mackintosh know how to spin a story and spin and spin it and sell and resell something that has been changed a bit as if it’s new. Well it’s not. John Napier’s junkyard set seems rather clean and lacquered.

CATS continues to be a triumph of make-up, clever costumes by John Napier and meticulous attention to feline body language. The cats still come into the audience and get up close and personal with the patrons. None of the children in my audience seemed to be terrified by some furry face being thrust close to theirs. The dancing is energetic. As Rum Tum Tugger, a hipster cat very full of himself, McGee Maddox plays him to the hilt, twirling his tail with saucy delight.

The slower songs go at a glacial pace. “Gus the Theatre Cat” is interminable as is anything to do with “Old Deuteronomy” (a stiff-pawed Brandon Michael Nase)

But CATS is just repackaged and recycled. I never have to see it again, and that goes for the movie too.

David Mirvish Presents:

Began: Nov. 27, 2019.

Closes: Jan. 5, 2020

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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At the Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto, Ont.

Created by STARS, Chris Abraham and Zack Russell

Written by Zack Russell with STARS and Chris Abraham

Set and lighting by Ken MacKenzie

Sound by Jesse Ash

Video Designed by Amelia Scott

Puppet Co-Designer, Zack Fraser

Cast: Torquil Campbell

Evan Cranley

Chris McCarron

Pat McGee

Amy Millan

Chris Seligman

STARS: Together is a STARS concert with some history, angst, frustration, forgiveness and whining about the band’s 20 years together and dancing at the end.

STARS is the rock indie band from Montreal headed by Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan as the two most prominent members of the band, at least to me who has listened to them only on the radio. It’s usually Campbell and Millan who are referenced most often. The band has been together for 20 years and recorded eight albums. This is quite an accomplishment so Torquil Campbell believed that there was a play there to explore the people of the band and how and why they have been together for so long. He found a willing collaborator in Chris Abraham, the Artistic Director of Crow’s Theatre.

In 2017 Campbell and Abraham collaborated on Campbell’s play, True Crime in which Campbell revealed his obsession with real-life murderer and imposter Christian Gerhartsreiter. As a performer in that show Torquil Campbell was intense, introspective, poetic, exuberant and scary-obsessed.

Now we have STARS: Together. STARS is composed of Torquil Campbell, Evan Cranley, Chris McCarron, Pat McGee, Amy Millan and Chris Seligman. Rather than go in a chronological format telling us when they met, formed the band and began writing and recording songs together, we get bits and pieces of the history, the relationships of the various band members—they seem to have had various pairings in the band over the years and now Amy Millan is married to Evan Cranley—and how they all differ personality wise. Most of the men are quiet, unassuming and keep a low profile. Torquil Campbell, who formed the band with his school friend Chris Seligman, is the ‘wild-man’ of the group and is intense, introspective, poetic, exuberant and scary-obsessed. Amy Millan is the optimist and the peace-maker. When ever Torquil Campbell seems to go off on a philosophical, psychological, self-absorbed rant, which is often, there is Amy Millan calming the waters.

After Campbell lets loose berating the band for not caring about something and that only he cares for the band and takes everything on himself to defend them, the men of the band want nothing to do with him. Campbell calls each in turn on their cell phones. Each in turn sees that it is Campbell calling and ignore the call. Campbell then calls Amy Millan who sees it’s Campbell and cheerfully says to the group, “Oh it’s Torq” and answers the phone as if nothing is wrong and he did not behave badly. There is a lot of forgiveness going on in that group. I guess it’s one of their talents as well as making music.

In another scene the band has to get to New York on their own dime to play a free gig for Spotify. The whole idea irks Campbell. They play the gig but Campbell sounds off to the assembled heads of the company about corporate greed and moral corruption etc. and also empties the cupboards of the snacks on hand into a giant green garbage bag. He later is contrite to his band mates. This comes early in the show so we get a sense of with what they all have to contend.

The ‘play’ takes place in an apartment they all rented in Montreal where they hung out, recorded their music, wrote and chilled. It’s packed with all sorts of stuff from musical instruments, dishes, cups, saucers, a microwave, stove, fridge, couch, and recording equipment. Thanks to Ken MacKenzie’s design it looks like a place well lived in.  And there are two wonderful ‘robot-puppets’ with a balloon for a head in each case (bravo to Zach Fraser who is listed as the Puppet Co-designer, but no other person is listed. If someone in the band said he helped design the puppets, shouldn’t that be noted in the programme?). At times a face is projected onto the balloon as the robot-puppet comes to ‘life.’ Masterful.

Chris Abraham directs this with a sense of whimsy and irreverence. We hear each member of the group trudging up what must be a lot of stairs to get to the apartment. The door opens and each steps in using a high-stepping leg movement. It’s funny maybe once. It’s repeated often. Millan hangs her coat on a hook on the wall and then the coat falls off the hook, repeatedly. Others hang their coats on the hook and the coats stayed. Torquil Campbell is the last to arrive and he appears along a runway going through the audience.

The band sings many of their songs—alas there is no song list. The singing from Millan and Campbell is joyful, energetic, exuberant and full throated. The lyrics are poetic, deeply thought and literary.

There is no indication of who wrote the song or why I guess because STARS: Together is not interested in the nuts and bolts nature of the history of such bands. And besides the fans of the band would know all that. Who then is this show for? The place seemed to be packed with a different Crow’s Theatre audience. A STARS audience? Probably. At the end of the show Torquil Campbell let loose with a song, jumping in the air with the exuberant joy of performing and then said it was time to dance and those in the know got up and swayed to the music.

STARS: Together is an odd show. It’s really a concert with some biographical bits to it. The programme says “Crow’s Theater presents STARS in concert” in the smallest print imaginable without having to use a magnifying glass. For those who don’t know the band’s biographical details there is always ‘Google.’ And for those who don’t know the band’s music, there is always Spotify. (Sorry Mr. Campbell).

Crow’s Theatre presents:

Opened: Nov. 29, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 15, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes approx.


At the Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin

Book by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge

Directed by Kate Hennig

Music direction by Paul Sportelli

Choreography by Allison Plamondon

Designed by Judith Bowden

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Sound by John Lott

Cast: Kyle Blair

Kristi Frank

Kyle Golemba

Clara Poppy Kushnir

Kimberley Rampersad

Jay Turvey

Jenny L. Wright

Plus a chorus of 14.

An uneven, laboured  production saved from being forgettable because of the sterling performances of Kyle Blair, Kristi Frank and Jenny L. Wright.

The Story. Jim Hardy is part of a song and dance trio with his girlfriend Lila Dixon and best friend Ted Hanover. But Jim is fed up with show business and wants to quit so he’s bought a farm in Connecticut and expects Lila to go with him. He proposes to her on the last night of their latest gig. But Lila has other plans. She wants to do one last gig and will do it with Ted as a duo. Jim reluctantly goes to Connecticut to start his new life and waits for Lila to join him.

At the farm he meets Linda Mason, the previous owner who had to give up the family farm because of her father’s ill health (he later died) and the fact that she was a teacher and could not continue to run the farm as well. There is an attraction between Linda and Jim immediately.

There is no attraction between Jim and farming. He has no skill in growing anything. But by luck, coincidence, whatever, he’s visited by the chorus men and women of his previous act and they decide to put on a show for the up coming holidays with Linda starring (she sings in a choir) and an idea for the failing farm is born. Jim will open the farm as an inn only for the many and various holidays and put on a themed show for each event. Lila does not return but Ted does and that means competition for Jim with Linda. It seems that in love Ted always horned in and stole Jim’s girlfriends.

The Production.  The picture-perfect town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. was all decked out for the holidays with every lamppost, every tree, every bush and picket fence outlined in white lights up and down the main street. Even the horse-drawn carriage with two brave tourists in the back of the carriage was outlined in white lights.

Judith Bowden designed the pastel-coloured set and beautiful costumes for this feel good show. Initially the set seemed rather paltry with a few pieces indicating the front door of Jim’s farmhouse, a narrow structure for planting, and some other bits and pieces for the rest of the place. This sure made the Festival Theatre stage seem huge and bare.

When Jim’s Holiday Inn shows get off the ground and become more expansive, that’s when designer Judith Bowden’s designs become more lavish with staircases going up and pillars over there and flags etc. that fill the space.

Kate Hennig directs a bright and smiling cast that work hard to be charming. Only Kyle Blair as Jim Hardy and Kristi Frank as Linda Mason seem effortless in pulling off their mutually attracted relationship. There is a lovely chemistry between these two. Blair has an easy grace when he sings and Frank is an accomplished singer and lively dancer as well.

I wish the same could be said of Kyle Golemba as Ted Hanover and Kimberley Rampersad as Lila Dixon. I got no sense of any chemistry between these two characters at all, only effort to seem at ease.

While the 1942 film of Holiday Inn, with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, is not mentioned in the program credits, for some reason Judith Bowden references Fred Astaire in the costume for Ted Hanover in the “Let’s Say It With Firecrackers” number. Astaire often appears in films in which he uses a tie as a belt as he did in the film of Holiday Inn in the “Let’s Say It With Firecrackers” number. So there is Kyle Golemba as Ted Hanover with a wide bit of a tie hanging down from the belt of his pants. This is an unfortunate reference because Golemba is no Fred Astaire. At times I thought that Golemba’s feet got ahead of the beat.

Clara Poppy Kushnir plays a sassy Charlie Winslow and Jenny L Wright is smart-talking, dry-joke-cracking as Louise a woman of many abilities around the place. They provide much needed comic relief.

Allison Plamondon provided the choreography (is it really too much to ask that a theatre program actually note the artist’s biography of credits and not the ‘touchy-feely’ stuff now listed about their first time going to the theatre. Do we really have to go searching on the Shaw’s website for this credit information? But I digress.)

Except for Kyle Blair, Kristi Frank and Jenny L. Wright I found this effort of creating  holiday joy to be plodding and laboured. And when put it in the context of the ticket prices, of which the top price is $183, this production of Holiday Inn is not good enough.

Comment. An immigrant wrote this show. He and his family escaped the Russian pogroms against Jews and landed in America in 1893. He was five years old. His name was Israel Beilin but it was mis-spelled on a piece of sheet music and he kept the ‘misspelling’ of Irving Berlin. Irving Berlin. That name has a kind of music to it. No other composer/lyricist captured the greatness, accomplishment, joy, promise or generosity of America like Irving Berlin. Song after song in Holiday Inn alone—“Steppin’ Out with My Baby”, “Blue Skies,” “It’s a Lovely Day Today,” “Let’s Take An Old-Fashioned Walk,” “Easter Parade”—proves that point. Pity this production isn’t better.

Presented by the Shaw Festival:

Opened: Nov. 23, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 22, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.


At the Coal Mine Theatre, Toronto, Ont.


Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis

Directed by Kelli Fox

Set by Anna Treusch

Costumes by Michelle Bohn

Lighting by Steve Lucas

Sound by Deanna H. Choi

Cast: Claire Armstrong

Zarrin Darnell-Martin

Sergio Di Zio

Allegra Fulton

Jai Jai Jones

Nabil Rajo

Alexander Thomas

Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play Between Riverside and Crazy pops with Guirgis’ dazzling dialogue, quirky, full-bodied characters and moral dilemmas with which to grapple. And director Kelli Fox and her wonderful cast, realize all of it.

 The Story. Between Riverside and Crazy was written by Stephen Adly Guirgis, the celebrated and award-winning American playwright.  It’s about Walter Washington, a black, former cop who was shot by a white cop, six times, eight years before and ever since Walter has been seeking justice and financial compensation. He feels the shooting was racially motivated.  His wife died a few years before.

Walter is surrounded by troubled people he has taken in to live in his rent controlled Riverside Drive apartment. There is Junior his son who has been in and out of jail on various offences. There is Junior’s friend, Oswaldo who is out of jail and trying to stay sober. And there is Junior’s girlfriend Lulu who may or may not be an accountant student or a hooker.  Walter’s former partner, Detective O’Connor and her fiancée Lt. Caro urge him to take a settlement. He refuses. He wants his fair deal. While Junior, Oswaldo and Lulu seem to drift in life, and Detective O’Connor and Lt. Caro have their issues too, Walter is the focus and he has his wits about him. He wants the best for everybody and especially himself and has patience to get it. But there are twists and revelations along the way.

 The Production. Anna Treusch has designed Walter’s well-kept apartment. A kitchen is up at one end big enough to have a table and chairs for eating. This leads to the living room with lots of mementos and cushions in neat, comfortable chairs and next to that is the bedroom with a bed that is made with neat pillows and more cushions. One gets the sense that Walter is carrying on from how his late wife kept the place.

When the play begins Walter (Alexander Thomas) sits in his kitchen in a wheelchair. It’s not his chair. It’s his late wife’s and he just likes it around because it reminds him of his wife. Oswaldo (Nabil Rajo) pops raw almonds and tries to tell Walter to eat healthier foods. They are joined by Lulu (Zarrin Darnel-Martin) dressed in tight fitting panties and a bra. She flounces, prances and saunters around the kitchen as if she owns it. She kisses Walter and calls him “Pop” but is not related to him. Later they are joined by Junior (Jai Jai Jones) Walter’s son. He is laid back, secretive, cool.

Walter invites his former partner Det. O’Connor (Claire Armstrong) and her fiancée Lt. Caro (Sergio Di Zio) over for an evening. O’Connor wants him to make a good impression. As Det. O’Connor, Claire Armstrong has that huge smile of wanting to please, showing off her fellah to her old partner and wanting everything to work out. Sergio Di Zio plays Lt. Caro as a man trying to make a good impression so he laughs too hard at Walter’s jokes or something O’Connor says. He drinks too much and O’Connor frets, occasionally indicating that he should tone it down. Both Claire Armstrong and Sergio Di Zio beautifully play their scene as people hiding something that will be revealed soon. And it does come out eventually.

As Walter, Alexander Thomas handles all this with a world-weary awareness and street-smarts. You get Walter’s love and regret for his son; his frustration with a system that has discarded him; his lamenting his lost wife and his big heart. He reads the situation and keeps the information to himself until he needs to make a point. And then he meets his match in a character known simply as Church Lady (Allegra Fulton) and believe me there is nothing simple about this woman.

Alexander Thomas handles Stephen Adly Guirgis’ muscular, musical dialogue with the finesse of a poet. He has the gaze of a poker player and never tips his hand. It’s a fierce performance that never overwhelms the play.

Kelli Fox directs this with a sharp eye and a keen sense of humour. She stages everybody beautifully as well as directs them with care and attention to detail. The humour is direct and subtle at times and always realized in Kelli Fox’s direction of it.

The whole cast is wonderful but special mention should be Allegra Fulton as Church Lady, buttoned up and demur in the beginning. This is a performance of meticulous detail, nuance, subtlety and so much comic invention she is mesmerizing. Church Lady feels that Walter could benefit from being given communion. Church Lady gives that a whole new meaning in a scene that is so sexual and raunchy I think several people crossed their legs as they watched it.  It’s a masterful performance and a terrific production.

Comment. Stephen Adly Guirgis writes about people who are unremarkable in the scheme of things but who just want to get through the day (Note his plays: The Motherfucker With a Hat, Our Lady of 121st Street as other examples). Oswaldo keeps trying to keep sober. Junior wants to get ahead just once and leading them all, steady and methodical, is Walter. He knows “bs” when he hears it and calls it out. He can see through Oswaldo and Junior and even Lulu but he has a big heart and keeps carrying them by letting them live in his apartment. He keeps holding out for what he feels is his rightful outcome in his court case, even when we find out the shady bits of the story. Walter is a man who in his own way—the Stephen Adly Guirgis way—has a certain tenacity, a determination that sees him through. In his own way Walter brings out the good in the people around him. Society might look askance, but it’s fascinating to see these characters get a bit more backbone in their dealings with ‘the system.’

Opened: Nov. 27, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 22, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, approx.



At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Andrea Scott and Nick Green

Directed by Andrea Donaldson and Sedina Fiati

Set by Michelle Tracey

Costumes by Ming Wong

Lighting by Rebecca Picherack

Sound by Cosette Pin

Cast: Monice Peter

Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski

A terrific production of a blazingly intelligent play that challenges our perceptions of race, communication, friendship, respect and how we deal with uncomfortable situations and each other.   

 The Story. Every Day She Rose by Andrea Scott and Nick Green is about two friends, one white and one black, and their different perceptions on the Pride Parade regarding the police presence in the parade and Black Lives Matter who did not want the police there.

Cathy-Ann and Mark are close friends and share Mark’s condo. Cathy-Ann is straight and black. Mark is gay and white. They are preparing to go to the Pride Parade and are getting all costumed up in the pride colours. At a point in the parade they see that a contingent of police are marching in the parade and they are being stopped by a group from Black Lives Matter who protest their presence in the parade.

Cathy-Ann is sympathetic to Black Lives Matter and its political concerns. Mark is happy the police have a presence in the parade because he thinks of the massacre in Orlando, Florida and believes the men were killed in Orlando because they were gay. Cathy-Ann counters by saying gently they were Latino and that’s why they were killed. Obviously these two friends have different perspectives on some thorny issues.

The Production.  The production is terrific. Michelle Tracey has designed a stylish condo. There is a couch, a fridge that is often used and counter space. Cosette Pin has a subtle soundscape of street noise, sirens, cars honking. Mark (Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski is stereotypically  flamboyant in his body language and voice. He wears tight, white shorts, a top and a pride coloured boa.  He is excessively excited about going to the parade and seeing Justin Trudeau who will be marching in the parade.  Cathy-Ann (Monice Peter) is comfortably dressed and wears a large pride coloured pashmina (of sorts). Kudos to designer, Ming Wong. Cathy-Ann is more serious and thoughtful than Mark. They are comfortable with each other. They sit close on the couch, her head on his shoulder. They banter like friends who are used to flipping smart talk back and forth.

Mark describes seeing Justin Trudeau and screaming his name several times. Cathy-Ann looks at him with crinkled eyebrows. Mark continues describing how they negotiated various sections of the parade until they came to that section with the police marching and how they were stopped by a contingent of Black Lives Matter who don’t want them in the parade at all. That’s when Cathy-Ann expresses that she supports Black Lives Matter in this regard. Mark on the other hand is happy they are there for protection and cites the Orlando massacre.

Mark and Cathy-Ann are close friends but it’s obvious from their different perceptions of the police and Black Lives Matter there are cracks in that relationship. Earlier in the apartment he calls her “girlfriend” with a lilt in his voice as if he was black. She tells him not to call her that (“in that way” is implied). He does again as a joke.  I thought that was really telling. He’s not listening to her request, or if he is he is not respecting her enough to stop calling her “girlfriend” and in the way he is saying it.

As they continue their conversation about race Cathy-Ann says that when she sees a group of racially different people she just sees “people”. But she wants Mark to see her as a black woman first because that’s how she perceives herself.

With every shift in perception of the characters we are given so much to parse, weigh, consider and reflect upon not only from the characters’ point of view but from ours. And then the playwrights weigh in as well.

As the characters in the play wrangle, the “actors” Monice Peter and Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski step out of the set and ‘the play’ and then take on the personas of the playwrights Andrea Scott and Nick Green, respectively, who then discuss the scene and how it’s working or not. This shift is noted with a quick change in the lighting by Rebecca Picherack.  Their personalities are very different from the characters of Cathy-Ann and Mark but their skin colour is not. Andrea Scott is black and Nick Green is white.

This play is not only an examination of different perspectives involving race etc. it’s also an observation in play-writing when one playwright is black and one is white. At one point the character of Andrea says that she was eager to collaborate with Nick but not if it meant she was just tagging along and he was really the lead writer. The character of Nick says that he didn’t want that either.

In their easy conversation Nick is very eager to accommodate Andrea’s ideas, very often seeing her point of view. Initially I find that refreshing but then wonder is that because he has the confidence of being white. Monice Peter illuminates Andrea’s watchfulness as if she is preparing for Nick to ‘take over.’ In fact there is a scene in which that does happen, it’s so delicately created by co-directors Andrea Donaldson and Sedina Fiati. Monice Peter as Andrea is diplomatic in handling that attempt to take over, but she also stands her ground. Nothing is so overstated as to unbalance the play, but it’s interesting to see how all concerned make us notice, look and see what is carefully presented.

Andrea and Nick worry that the character of Mark is unlikable and work to make him more likable. I didn’t find him unlikable as much as I found him silly, frivolous and superficial next to the more serious Cathy-Ann. The ‘playwrights’ discuss how these two different characters could be friends; how they met; the back stories. They check the script on their laptops. It’s all heightened theatricality.

At one point Nick asks Andrea something along the lines of how she copes with disappointment in the work etc. She says something like, “every day you rise”—you get up and try again. Beautiful. And how telling that the title now focuses on her with Every Day She Rose.

It’s also interesting to note that at times the clear lines between the characters ‘in the play’ and the ‘characters’ of the playwrights of the play get intentionally blurry in their attitudes and politics. Conflict resolution between the character varies greatly.

To be scrupulously fair Every Day She Rose is co-directed by Andrea Donaldson who is white and Sedina Fiati who is black. They each bring their own sensibilities to the play but also collaborate in realizing the subtle and nuanced moments in the play and the characters.

Comment. I love the play and the production. I loved the perception of race relations both writers have. I love the boldness of the creation and the fact that the focus is on such  thorny issues. I loved that both writers seemed to have written for both characters rather than Nick writing only for Mark (white) and Andrea writing only for Cathy-Ann (black) Loved that melding. I loved that the play gets us thinking about our perceptions of race, skin colour, Black Lives Matter, the police, communication, friendship and respect.

Every Day She Rose is a bracing, highly charged, funny, intelligent play and it’s important.

Produced by Nightwood Theatre.

Opened: Nov. 26, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 8, 2019.

Running Time: 70 minutes, no intermission.


At Hart House Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Kaitlyn Riordan

Inspired by and adapted from the works of William Shakespeare

Directed by Eva Barrie.

Set by Rachel Forbes

Costumes by Julia Kim

Lighting by Chris Malkowski

Sound by Andy Trithardt

Cast: Whitney K. Ampadu

Felix Beauchamp

Ophilia Davis

John Echano

Patrick Fowler

Margaret Hild

Dixon John

Marley Kajan

Nelvin Law

Melanie Leon

JD Leslie

Alexandra Milne

Rahul Mishra

Jennifer Séguin

athena kaitlin trinh

Samantha Vu

Hardi Zala

Yusuf Zine

Kaitlyn Riordan and Eva Barrie have done interesting work with the theatre company Shakespeare in the Ruff as Co-Artistic Directors, focusing on Shakespeare’s plays with a feminist view. To that end Riordan adapted Julius Caesar a few years ago and presented the play (still with the same outcome for poor Caesar) but from the women’s point of view. They presented their production in Withrow Park two summers ago. Eva Barrie is revisiting the play with a new cast, presenting it in Hart House Theatre.

The focus is still on the women. Riordan in her adaptation and Barrie in her direction believe that the women in Shakespeare’s plays, while often silent are smarter than the men in charge. Caesar’s wife Calpurnia begged him not to go to the Senate house and for a while he agreed not to go. But then he changed his mind and went. That didn’t work out too well for him as we know. Brutus’ wife Portia knew something was wrong and urged him to share it with her. Smart woman. Portia begged Brutus not to let Antony speak after Caesar’s murder. He didn’t listen to her.

In Riordan’s adaptation she has culled lines from many of Shakespeare’s plays for her version: Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III, some sonnets, even from the poem Fortune and Men’s Eyes. In this version Brutus’ mother Servilia (a strong Alexandra Milne) is in charge, dictating how he should progress in his career even going to far as to interfere in his marriage with Portia. The women know how to decipher the political climate; how to read an emotional charged situation and how to defuse it. It’s a bold and fascinating idea.

Again, director Eva Barrie uses the space of Hart House Theatre. Characters enter down aisles, or are the rabble speaking from the audience. The stage is well used as well. This is a very young cast of varying abilities with the text. One admires the commitment.

athena kaitlin trihn is very confident as Portia. She conveys the roiling emotions Portia is contending with as well as her sharp intellect and perceptions. Equally impressive is Whitney K. Ampadu as Calpurnia. Felix Beauchamp as Brutus has a command of the language is conveys Brutus’ dignity and class.

It was good to see the production again with such a young cast so committed to the work.

Hart House Theatre Presents:

From: Nov. 15, 2019.

Closes: Nov. 30, 2019.

Running Time: 1 hour and 55 minutes, no intermission.


 At Factory Theatre, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Robert Chafe

Directed by Jillian Keiley

Original music composed and arranged by The Once

Musical direction by Kellie Walsh

Set and costumes by Shawn Kerwin

Lighting by Leigh Ann Vardy

Sound by Brian Kenny

Cast: Darryl Hopkins

Steve O’Connell

Berni Stapleton

Musicians: Brianna Gosse

Steve Maloney

Kevin Woolridge

The wonderful life of Dr. Jon Lien gets the Artistic Fraud vivid treatment revealing his heart, brains and fearlessness as well as the people around him who loved and revered him. 

The Story.  Dr. Jon Lien was raised in South Dakota on farms.  He loved wildlife and got a degree in animal behaviour and landed a job teaching at Memorial University in Newfoundland, studying small birds in 1978. By accident he got interested in whales.  One day a fisherman called him to help free a whale caught in his nets.  That was the beginning of Dr. Lien’s career as the Whale Man.  Over his career he freed 500 whales.

It was vital to free them as carefully as possible to save the whale and to save as much of the fisherman’s nets as possible—a ruined net could ruin the fisherman’s livelihood.

The Production. Shawn Kerwin has designed a circular set with a section in the middle that dips into another level. The band of three sit in chairs along the perimeter of the circle. There are other chairs for the other three cast members, also situated along the perimeter. The cast and band are on stage for the whole play either watching a scene or involved in it. The first sounds we hear are odd chirpy, high pitched sounds. Whales communicating. I smile.

Steve O’Connell as Dr. Jon Lien sits in a wheelchair in the centre of the circle, at the beginning of the play and really the end of his life. He can’t speak; is not very aware of what is happening around him; can’t move really. Even in this state he seems inquisitive. O’Connell, a robust man instills a joy of life and curiosity in this performance.

Jon Lien’s devoted wife Judy, played with quiet attention by Berni Stapleton, is always there; always ready with a “my darling” as her term of endearment for him. The last character is Wayne (Darryl Hopkins), Jon Lien’s long time friend and assistant in his various calls to save whales. As Wayne, Darryl Hopkins is matter of fact, direct, daring because Jon Lien made him so and caring.

Between Breaths is directed by Jillian Keiley with her usual vivid sense of imagery and  economic movement. Robert Chafe’s play progresses backwards from Jon’s dying days to when he is healthy and fit.  This is neatly suggested when Jon gets out of his wheelchair, walks around the circle of the set followed by Judy who gives him a walker, then a cane, and then he is mobile and vibrant.

Jon freeing the whales from nets etc. is masterfully depicted.  Jon and Wayne went out in an inflatable dinghy to get close to the trapped whale, parking the dinghy almost on the whale’s back. Jon would flip his head over the side and under the water to see how the whale was trapped and then cut away at the ropes with a knife. To suggest this Steve O’Connell as Jon lies across the seat of a wood chair and with a sound effect of splashing water, O’Connell puts his head down past the seat. Then he flips his arms under the chair fingering and flipping at the ropes tied around the legs of the chair until he has undone the ropes and ‘frees’ the whale.

The Once play music that is stirring and evocative. But I found it a bit of over-kill that both the band and the actors are all microphoned. It’s a small theatre; why the need of the amplification at all? And at times I think that the music and the talking are drowning each other out. Very distracting.

Robert Chafe’s text is poetic, brave, imaginative and certainly captures the intense curiosity of Jon Lien. There is a reference to an accident that might have aided his physical and mental decline and I thought it might have been with a whale, but in fact it was from a car accident….a case of the text leading in one direction but really going in another. Or perhaps the fault is mine in the assumption.

But the play and the production beautifully depicted the huge life Jon Lien and his important presence in Newfoundland.  Here was a man so curious, so fearless in his determination to save whales and help fishermen and it’s all there in this compelling production.

Factory Theatre presents an Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland production:

Began: Nov. 20, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 8, 2019.

Running Time: 90 minutes.