Search: century song

At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, Ont.

Part of Progress International Festival of Performance Ideas

Created by Neema Bickersteth, Kate Alton, Ross Manson
Directed by Ross Manson
Choreographed by Kate Alton
Set by Camellia Koo
Costumes by Charlotte Dean
Piano Gregory Oh
Percussion, Computer Composition by Debashis Sinha
Projection Design by fettFilm, Germany (Momme Hinrichs & Torge Møller)
Cast/soprano: Neema Bickersteth

I was only able to see this on its last performance before it went on tour. Century Song was a beautiful, vivid, dazzling journey through a century of black experience told through song, dance, movement, projections, music and stunning visual imagery. This was not a history lesson, although aspects of black history was referenced. Rather it is a wordless, but not soundless journey through time and space.

Singer/dancer/creator Neema Bickersteth sits quietly in the front row dressed in a long loose-fitting brown coat. When the performance starts she rises and through song and dance sheds the coat, then the various layers that bind her until she wears a beautiful flowing, vibrant long dress that allows her to move freely. It’s the first time the character smiles with the bliss of free movement.

The projections are brilliant. On the flat back wall a projection creates the illusion of a three dimensional room. Then the room flows forward revealing another room in perspective and then another and another. In each room a person watches tv. As the rooms flow forward leaving us to watch several rooms in perspective, the televisions go from being ancient, to more modern in tern.

The star is Neema Birkersteth. She sings and dances like a dream. The voice is a strong, beautiful soprano. The movement is fluid. She is the pride, dignity, grit and elegance of each age over the century.

It was directed with an artist’s eye by Ross Manson. This was a beautiful, artful production.

Curated and Produced by Volcano Theatre



Created, performed and written by Mark Correia
With help from Erik Berg

Magician-comedian Mark Correia lives to present a perfect show. He asks us to write something on a piece of paper that would make his show perfect, even before we see it. I put down Gateau St. Honoré but I think that was wishful thinking.

He proceeds to set up various tricks, joking during the set up. He then rushes towards a table laden with various paraphernalia that is important to him, and completely knocks over the table.

Mark Correia is a charming presence as he bumbles through his set ups, (borrowing a cell phone for a trick and then breaking it by mistake) and jokes, and draws out the suspense of the trick. The tricks are audacious, complex, impossible (?) and eye-popping. Never mind wondering how a trick is done. It’s done by magic, silly! And Correia does it all with style.

The Chemical Valley Project

This plays in a double-bill with Perfection which seems a weird paring, but never mind.

Created by Julia Howman and Kevin Matthew Wong
Written and performed by Kevin Matthew Wong

From the program: “Aamjiwnaang, an indigenous community of 800 residents, is smothered by the Canadian petrochemical industry. Two sisters, Vanessa and Lindsay Gray, have dedicated themselves to fighting environmental racism and protecting their community’s land and water. In The Chemical Valley Project, theatre-makers Kevin Matthew Wong and Julia Howman document and explore Canada’s ongoing relationship with energy infrastructure, its colonial pas and present, and indigenous solidarity and reconciliation.”

Kevin Matthew Wong is a committed and personable guide through this thorny subject. He uses video projections on a large screen at the back of the theatre to illustrate his points. There is clever use of gauzy fabric on which are projected dialogue, images, and information. It’s smoothly delivered, and while what is happening to this community is infuriating, it’s not theatrically dramatic or a play. It’s a TED talk, a lecture. One can’t help but admire Mr. Wong’s commitment to the issue.

Nashville Stories

Written by David Bernstein and Jake Vanderham
Directed by David Bernstein

At the top of the show one of the performers says there is no program because “you would throw them out anyway.” Isn’t that why God invented re-cycling? He then read, at break-neck speed, on his cell-phone, who was in the cast. Me, I like a program. It tells you who plays what. It gives you all that neat stuff such as why they decided to do this show; it lists all the personnel, the band etc. The SummerWorks program book has some of this information but not who plays what character, so I’ll just ignore that cause it’s not important, otherwise it would have been properly provided, right?

This is about sad Garth Brooks and his friends Dolly Parton and Shania Twain and how they try to cheer him up after his marriage breaks up. It’s based on Brooks’ infamous 1999 album, ‘The Life of Chris Gaines’. The writers “conjure a surreal hoedown featuring a live bluegrass band.”

I guess ‘surreal’ is another word for ‘drivel.’ The writing is witless, deadly-unfunny, rambling, confused and only clever it seems to those performing it. They all are having such a good time at our expense. The acting is one-noted on purpose I suppose—surreal? The band plays well but I can’t remember the last time I saw a group of musicians who looked like they were bored out of their minds and would rather be anywhere but there.

I kept hearing a jangling noise behind the seats (the ‘back-stage is behind the seats in the theatre, where we could see the ‘performers’ waiting to go on.’) I thought it might be a man fondling his change in his pockets and was too deaf-stupid to hear the noise. I kept looking back to see who that might be and didn’t see anyone at first. The distracting noise continued. Eventually when I looked back there was a ‘performer’ in a short jean skirt, with rows and rows of silver bracelets on each wrist. Every time she moved her arms the bracelets clanged. They were clanging so much I thought she must be doing jumping jacks back there or semaphore with flags to occupy her time until she made an entrance. And eventually she did….to play the worst rock star in the world. How can you be in the middle of noise of your own making and not hear any of it? A puzzlement.

Nashville Stories is dreadful.

Serenity Wild

Written by Katie Sly
Directed by Audrey Dwyer

NOTE: Another production without a program and the SummerWorks Program doesn’t even list the actors because I guess the company producing this didn’t provide the names. (Sigh!).

Amy was abused by her step-father when she was younger. She now has intimacy issues with her boyfriend Liam. She is also emotionally ‘closed’. Liam seems as needy as Amy in that he’s desperate to help her and be there for her, but something as simple as hugging her eludes him.

Katie Sly has written an intriguing play about the effects of child-hood sexual abuse that has deeper implications in adulthood. While the play deals with important issues the characters talk at each other not to each other. Characters don’t listen to the argument and rather respond to the criticism that they are not listening. This makes for tedious viewing. Much of it seems like the same argument repeated.

Liam is described as loving to Amy. His behaviour and words suggest otherwise. He’s needy himself and creepy in that need. Both Amy and Liam are interesting characters that could do with re-examination and re-writing.

Explosions for the 21st Century

Written, designed and performed by Christopher Ross-Ewart
Directed by Graham Isador

What an explosive surprise of a show!

Christopher Ross-Ewart is a sound designer with an intellectually curious mind about sound in our culture and an impish sense of humour in presenting that curiosity. He takes us into his world of common sounds for shows—explosions are common as is birdsong, and the occasional fart. But then he delves deeper, explaining how our world has become noisier and more dangerous with regards to sound. Some sounds that he had to create for a show imitated sounds that were heard for real with deadly results. His explanation for making a sound more pronounced is masterful.

Christopher Ross-Ewart is a thoughtful writer with a curious imagination, a charming way of presenting his thoughts, and most important, he gets us to listen in a deeper more attentive way.


At the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Book by Seven Levenson

Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

Directed by Michael Greif

Scenic design by David Korins

Projections by Peter Nigrini

Costumes by Emily Rebholz

Lighting by Japhy Weideman

Sound by Nevin Steinberg

Cast: Evan Biuliung

Allessandro Costantini

Shakura Dickson

Dean Patrick Dolan

Robert Markus

Claire Rankin

Jessica Sherman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mirvish Productions presents:

Opened: March 28, 2019.

Closes: Sept. 29, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes.

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

Written by John Ross Bowie

Directed by Richard Ouzounian

Set and lighting by Nick Blais

Costumes by Ming Wong

Sound by James Smith

Projections by Alex Williams

Cast: Justin Goodhand

Cyrus Lane

Ron Pederson

Paolo Santalucia

James Smith

Vanessa Smythe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starvox Entertainment/Corey Ross presents:

Opened: April 10, 2019.

Closes: April 29, 2019.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

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The Monkey Queen

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

Written by Diana Tso

Directed and choreographed by William Yong

Music by Nick Storring and Brandon Valdivia

Scenic design by William Yong

Lighting by Rebecca Picherack

Projections by Elysha Poirier

Costumes by Robin Fisher

Cast: Nicholas Eddie

Diana Tso

No is a powerful word.

It can lead to all sorts of good things, such as Diana Tso’s The Monkey Queen now at the Theatre Centre.

Tso grew up on “The Monkey King” stories from Wu Cheng’En’s 16 century epic novel, “The Journey to the West” about a Monkey King warrior on a journey from the East to the West, fighting everything from Heaven and all manner of opposition.

One day Tso heard of a new play with the central character being The Monkey King. She wanted to audition for it but couldn’t because they were only auditioning men for the part. In true plucky Diana Tso fashion she began writing her own epic story only this time she placed herself in it as the Monkey Queen, only this time the journey is from the West to the East, where Tso/the Monkey Queen, looks for her roots. The Monkey Queen is part of a trilogy.

As Tso says in her program note: “I re-imagined this myth through the perspective of the female warrior, giving voice to her quest, which is shadowed by the traditional formula of the hero.

The story is dense with encounters with a white clad shaman, mystic creatures, angels, birds and a polar bear etc. all of which test the Monkey Queen. Through energetic wit and smarts she stares down all opposition and prevails.

The production is directed and choreographed by William Yong and it is wonderful. The multi-leveled set, also by William Yong, offers platforms and ramp on which to jump, flip and literally fly over.

Diana Tso plays the Monkey Queen with a steely energy that is compelling. She is diminutive and fierce. She flips through the air and negotiates the levels of the set with ease. She also conveys the urgency of the Monkey Queen’s journey and determination to complete it.

Playing all the other parts from the Shaman Lady to the polar bear is Nicholas Eddie, as diminutive as Tso is, Eddie towers over her. Of course one should not mention the physicality of artists, but I couldn’t help but be aware of the contrast to the diminutive dynamo of Diana Tso and the tall, graceful elegance of Nicholas Eddie. Added to that, it’s obvious Eddie has no bones in his body. In their place are ribbons. I’m sure of it. His gracefulness is jaw dropping. His arms flowing back and forth behind him look like feathers floating on a breeze.

William Yong has such economy in his direction and creates such vivid images, the Shaman woman in a white shawl becoming the polar bear being one image, that you keep shaking your head in disbelief and the artistry of it all.

Bravo to Diana Tso for not taking “no” for an answer and creating her own Monkey Queen.

 The Red Snow Collective presents:

Began: Nov. 16, 2018.

Closes: Dec. 2, 2018.

Running Time:  1 hour


The Barber Shop Chronicles

At the Grand Theatre, London, Ont.

Written by Inua Ellams

Directed by Bijan Sheibani

Designed by Rae Smith

Lighting by Jack Knowles

Movement by Aline David

Sound by Gareth Fry

Music by Michael Henry

Cast: Tuwaine Barrett

Mohammed Mansaray

Maynard Eziashi

Alhaji Fofana

Eliot Edusah

Solomon Israel

Patrice Naiambana

Anthony Ofoegbu

Kenneth Omole

Ekow Quartey

Jo Servi

David Webber

Bless Dennis Garnhum, Artistic Director of the Grand Theatre in London, Ont.

Garnhum saw The Barber Shop Chronicles in London, England at the National Theatre a couple of years ago (where I also first saw it) and immediately began making plans to have the company bring the show to ‘our’ London.

The troupe was doing a tour of the States and he lured them to make a stop in Canada, at the Grand (the only Canadian stop on their tour).

It plays at the Grand Theatre until Nov. 24, 2018. It only plays 12 performances.

Inua Ellams’ glorious, moving, funny play takes place in one day, in six barber shops—one in London, England and the rest in African cities: Johannesburg, Accra, Lagos, Harare and Kampala.

Men come into each shop to kibitz, talk politics, philosophize, seek comfort, acceptance, to rant, complain, rejoice, explain, confess and forgive. Some stories carry over into others. A father in Africa seeks the son he abandoned years before;  the son in London thinks wistfully of his absent father in Africa.

Bijan Sheibani’s pulsing production is suffused with vibrant music. The cast invite members of the audience up on stage for a hair cut before the show starts. The colourful coverings are flipped out with a flourish and then carefully wrapped around the person in the barber’s chair. Electric clippers are passed around the head, above the hair. Scissors clip furiously a few inches away from the hair. Each customer is treated to some chat, a smile, jokes and graciousness by the ‘barbers.’

The signs for the various barber shops are suspended above the stage. When a scene takes place in the various cities, the sign for the shop is illuminated. There is also a revolving outline of the various African countries in which the cities are located. Again, the outline of the African country is illuminated and prominent during those scenes. The cast wheels the chairs and other set pieces on and off the stage for each new location. It’s quick, efficient and usually accompanied by the cast singing traditional songs.

The cast to a person is accomplished, animated, lively, touching and wonderfully engaging. It certainly captures the life of a black man from various African countries, England, and probably around the world. Will other nationalities of men see similarities in their lives as well? Probably, which is part of the charm and poignancy of The Barber Shop Chronicles.

A Fuel, National Theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse production:

Began: Nov. 15, 2018.

Closes: Nov. 24, 2018.

Running Time:  1 hour, 40 minutes.


At the AKI Studio, 585 Dundas St. E., Toronto, Ont.

Marion Newman,
Photo by Dahlia Katz


Written by Jani Lauzon

Directed by Marjorie Chan

Musical director, Jerod Impichchaachaaha Tate

Set by Christine Urquhart

Costumes by Snezana Pesic

Lighting by Kaitlin Hickey

Sound by Marc Meriläinen

Cast: Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster

Howard Davis

Richard Greenblatt

Marion Newman

Aaron Wells

A fascinating play about Tsianina Redfeather, a Creek/Cherokee who was an opera singer in the early 1900s. The production is a busy swirl of movement but the deep implications of the story rise above the distractions.

The Story. This is a fascinating play that Jani Lauzon has written. A character named William Morin is a music student who is going off to University on an Indigenous scholarship.  While he is a classically trained pianist his aim is to discover the music of his Indigenous roots.

As he researches and investigates he learns about Tsianina Redfeather, a Creek/Cherokee opera singer who lived and sung in the early part of the 20th century.  The spirit of Tsianina Redfeather seems to oversee William Morin as he struggles to fit in, to find his voice as an Indigenous artist and to discover true Indigenous music that has been appropriated by white musicians and return it to its pure form.

And then Redfeather appears to him and they have an on-going dialogue.  William Morin learns that Tsianina Redfeather also wanted to bring native songs to a white audience and to do it she travelled with Charles Wakefield Cadman, a white American musician who lectured on the American Indian in his travels.  He arranged the music and in a way appropriated it but not in a mean way. Perhaps he was just blinkered. But Tsianina Redfeather went along with it to bring that music and the stories of her people to a larger audience.  Cadman wrote an opera semi-based on Redfeather’s life and it was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 1918 but Tsianina Redfeather did not insist on singing the title role there. She did sing it on tour and in Los Angeles.

The Production. Designer Christine Urquhart’s set is spare. A curtain of opaque strips hands upstage. A grand piano is stage right. When William Morin is at the piano we see a ghostly woman in Indigenous garb (beaded head-band, traditional dress and moccasins) illuminated behind the curtain, watching him. (I do get a little concerned when William plops his backpack on the top of the piano—a no-no for a piano—but he doesn’t do that again

But when William (Aaron Wells) ‘meets’ Tsianina Redfeather (Marion Newman) and digs deeper into her life and the life of other Indigenous artists, the play deals with deeper issues of appropriation, the total dismissing of the Indigenous voice in their music, stories and history.  It’s interesting to see how both William Morin and Tsianina Redfeather deal with the difficulties they meet in their efforts to be heard and to tell their stories.

It’s different: Redfeather is patient, thoughtful and has wisdom in solving the problems; William is impatient, frustrated but firm and eventually he finds his way through.

Marjorie Chan directs and quite often the staging is busy.  New information flees at us as the stage is a swirl of characters circling each other, flitting from one corner of the space to another and clarity becomes an issue. There is a traditional Indigenous reason for characters to circle each other, but it’s just too busy with five characters circling, moving and interacting,

Marion Newman plays Tsianina Redfeather with quiet wisdom that is compelling. And she sings the music beautifully, conveying their message with clarity.  She wears a traditional Indigenous costume with her headband and moccasins made by Jani Lauzon.

There is care in every detail.

Aaron Wells plays William Morin with a growing frustration of wanting to take advantage of the opportunity he has been given until he realizes he will have to find another way to discover his people’s music. Then he becomes driven but focused. And he too sings in a strong tenor voice.

Richard Greenblatt provides expert piano accompaniment as well as playing Charles Wakefield Cadman, a fussy, fastidious man who thought he was doing good by lecturing on the American Indian. Cadman wrote the opera Shanewis (The Robin Woman) which is partially based on Tsianina Redfeather’s life.

There certainly is a lot to consider with this challenging piece.

Comment. Initially I get the sense I Call myself Princess is more a collection of facts, information and history rather than a cohesive play. At times there are speeches by William Morin that seem simplistic whining about the plight of the Indigenous people.

He has a fight with his partner who is a light-skinned black man on who has suffered more.  I’m not sure that kind of dialogue is useful in trying to get a point across. It seems clichéd. But as the play goes on, playwright Jani Lauzon brings up all sorts of thorny issues of appropriation and deals with them in a thoughtful, measured way.

That issue of appropriation and not allowing an Indigenous voice to speak for itself has certainly filled our media of late.  I think of Robert Lepage not casting any Indigenous actors to be in his production of KANATA which is about the history of the Indigenous people in Canada. This is an attitude that is so blinkered it’s stunning.

That kind of cavalier attitude certainly informs Jani Lauzon’s play but it’s not handled as a rant by the character of Tsianina Redfeather. Lauzon has written her as such a wise woman. She has grace and a watchfulness that allows her to pick her battles.

Redfeather speaks up when she disagrees with Cadman regarding the ending of Shenewis and he goes along with her argument and adjusts the ending. Bravo to Jani Lauzon for introducing us to Tsianina Redfeather, her voice, her story and her accomplishments.

Produced by Paper Canoe Projects and Cahoots Theatre Productions in association with Native Earth Performing Arts.

Opened: Sept. 13, 2018.

Closes: Sept. 30, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours.



At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

Written by Virginia Woolf

Adapted by Sarah Ruhl

Directed by Katrina Darychuk

Set and lighting by Lorenzo Savoini

Costumes by Gillian Gallow

Sound and composed by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Sarah Afful

Maev Beaty

John Jarvis

Craig Lauzon

Alex McCooeye

This is a perfect example of how a beautifully written, densely described book does not necessarily translate to the stage, no matter how talented the playwright. A deadly production regardless of the fancy-footwork of the director.

 The Story. It’s about Orlando who lived for about 400 years ago first as a man beginning in the time of Queen Elizabeth I until he was 30 and then as a woman for the rest of her life into the 20th century. What Virginia Woolf is writing about is an entire history of English Literature, history, philosophy, politics, and sexual politics as seen through the eyes and experienced through the mind and body of Orlando.

He was born a boy into privilege in the time of Elizabeth 1, who fancied him.  He fell in love with a Russian princess of sorts named Sasha.  When Orlando was 30 he went to sleep and woke up as a woman and remained so for three centuries. She never changed her name.  She fell in love and married but her husband’s sexuality might have been in question too.

The Production. American playwright Sarah Ruhl has adapted the book into a play. The story is told as narrative in the third person by various characters. Occasionally Orlando  interacts directly with other characters and so the story gets told in various ways, but mostly as narrative and direct conversation to the audience.

The director, Katrina Darychuk has the audience on three sides of a rectangular playing in the middle of the theatre. Lorenzo Savoini, the set and lighting designer has a blotch of something shiny, seemingly liquid on the stage. Perhaps it represents the water of the Thames or ice the few times in its history that the Thames froze. There is a wall with a door suspended a bit above the floor. It looks impressive but I don’t know why it’s suspended. There is one chair outside the playing area that is one of the few props. Members of the chorus who also play characters are positioned at each corner of the rectangular playing area: one in a dark suit with a ruffled shirt, one in a regular suit, one in what looks like a monks robe.  Gillian Gallow’s costumes are stylish even witty. At one point Orlando is helped out of her tight 19th century women’s corsets and form-fitting clothes into the more flowing garb of the 20th century where she can be clothed comfortably and can actually breathe easy.

The various members of the chorus describe Orlando at sixteen and how he was born into privilege. The words of Virginia Woolf are used for the narrative and they are highly literary and dense in their description. We learn that Orlando is a courtier in the court of Elizabeth 1 and those scenes are acted out between Orlando, played by an expressive, courtly Sarah Afful. Elizabeth 1 is played with prissy affectation by John Jarvis in pants, an auburn wig, with a corset of sorts around his middle. You can see how besotted Orlando is when he meets and falls in love with the mysterious Russian princess, Sasha, played with flirty coyness by Maev Beaty, in skin-tight leather pants.

So much of Virginia Woolf’s novel is densely descriptive and yet compelling. But this does not translate into a vibrant play. In fact the play is deadly dull when great swaths of the narrative are presented in tact in the play.  And these actors are dull conveying the narrative as well.  They are good actors in other plays but here they are defeated by the play.

It’s directed by Katrina Darychuk who is a member of the Soulpepper Academy as a director—in other words she’s advancing her training here. She’s not ready for such a difficult play. She has stuffed her production with all manner of techno bells and whistles, flashing lights, balloons suspended above the stage only to be pricked for effect by a character. None of it helps to tell the story or make this leaden play lighter.

Comment.  Virginia Woolf was exploring sexuality in various guises in Orlando among other subjects. She dedicated the book to Vita Sackville-West, her one-time lover, whose life forms the framework for Orlando. Vita Sackville-West was married to a man but had affairs with women. It’s a dense book, full of long descriptions and musings.

Virginia Woolf has written a fascinating, complex novel about gender issues, literature, science and the world and as a novel it’s compelling. Sarah Ruhl has tried to take that compelling novel and make it an equally compelling play and it doesn’t work.

She is a gifted playwright, but sometimes even gifted writers stumble.  Orlando is a big stumble and this production doesn’t help.


Presented by Soulpepper Theatre Company

Plays until July 29, 2018.

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes, including one intermission.



At the Guild Park and Gardens, Scarborough, Ont.

Written by George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Jeannette Lambermont-Morey

Set and costumes by Rachel Forbes

Music director, Micaela Morey

Lighting by Cosette Pin

Cast: Devon Bryan

Shane Carty

Manon Ens-LaPointe

Tracey Ferencz

Emma Ferreira

Siobhan O’Malley

David John Phillips

Ashlie White

“Eynsford Hill” (Band): Manon Ens-LaPointe

Emma Ferreira

Ashlie White.

Generally a thoughtful, smart production of Shaw’s wonderful play that skewers the British class system and the importance of kindness in shaping a person.

The Story. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw is perhaps Shaw’s most popular play, about a common flower girl in Covent Garden, London, England who is taught by Professor Henry Higgins how to speak properly and behave beautifully and it changes her life.  Professor Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics, wagers that he can teach Eliza to speak properly and then present her at a garden party at Buckingham Palace. It’s the basis of the Lerner and Loewe musical My Fair Lady.

This of course references the Greek story of Pygmalion, a sculptor who creates a statue of a beautifully woman falls in love with it.

The Production. It’s being presented out doors at the beautiful Guild Park and Gardens in front of a kind of Grecian façade, in Scarborough. They had a terrific turnout and there were even some kids in the audience. The setting is beautiful but bring bug spray. Chairs are set up for the audience.

This is full of Shaw’s wit, perception about society, politics and psychology of people and how they relate. He skewers the British class system and how a plumy accent will get you promoted and a working class accent will keep one in the gutter. It’s about how to treat a person for the best results.

Higgins is off-handed, often short-tempered and rude to Eliza and generally everybody except Pickering. Shane Carty plays Higgins with confidence, perhaps a touch of arrogance and a simmering irritation at most things.  Higgins doesn’t care about anybody’s feelings and is a man who does not quite fit in to ordinary society. But there are clues that Higgins does have feelings and certainly for Eliza.  Carty is able to pop off those bon-mots about how he treats everybody the same—badly. He behaves badly when he’s crossed or challenged.  He’s a fascinating character and Shane Carty brings that out.

Pickering does care about everybody in the kindest way.  It’s not the first time in his plays that Shaw has said that the most important aspect of an interaction between characters is kindness.

Colonel Pickering (David John Phillips) is Higgins’ partner in this endeavor and the person who made the wager. Pickering treats Eliza with the utmost respect and courtesy and in a way taught her the manners she develops in the play. David John Phillips as Pickering is courtly, gracious and gentlemanly to all he meets, especially Eliza.

A lovely surprise is newcomer Siobhan O’Malley as Eliza Doolittle.  She is feisty without being screechy, a woman of character with plenty of pluck. As the transformed Eliza, O’Malley is poised, confident and able to spar with Higgins on his level.

I look forward to seeing more work from her.

Henry Higgins’ mother Mrs. Higgins as played by Tracy Ferencz has style, class and consideration, qualities that have not been passed on to her disagreeable son. Ferencz also plays Mrs. Pearce the no-nonsense housekeeper with a sweet conscience.

Director Jeannette Lambermont-Morey has done a lovely, smart job of directing this with clarity and imagination.  It’s a delicate dance establishing the prickly relationship between Higgins and Eliza, and the kind, respectful relationship between Pickering and Eliza but Lambermont-Morey does it beautifully. She uses the space well, solves the tricky ending of the play and gets strong performances from her cast.  So while this is a fine production in this idyllic setting but I have a few concerns.

Janet Heise is the producer for this show and before she told us to turn off our cell-phones she gave us about a 10 minute history of the park and the Grecian pillars. That history lesson should be cut.  Save it for a tour or a note in the program but giving this speech before a play we are to see is deadly to the whole enterprise.

Also, Director Jeannette Lambermont-Morey and her hard working musical director Micaela Morey have a trio of singers who play roles in the play. Collectively they are called “Eynsford Hill”, and sing four songs before the production, beginning with “Scarborough Fair” as a tip of the hat to Scarborough, where the play is taking place. Perhaps the songs are to get us in the mood for the play.

This is a mistake. We don’t need music to get us in the mood. The play does that. These songs only stop things in their tracks along with the history lesson. And “Eynsford Hill” also provides musical sound effects during some scenes. It’s distracting.  All the music should be cut.  We don’t need to be put in the mood with music. The songs only delay the proceedings. Other than that, I was glad I drove to Scarborough to see this production.

Guild Festival Theatre presents:

Began: July 11, 2018.

Closes: August 12, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes  (approx)


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

Written by August Wilson

Directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu

Set and lighting by Ken MacKenzie

Costumes by Alexandra Lord

Music director and sound designer, Mike Ross

Cast: Derek Boyes

Alana Bridgewater

Beau Dixon

Neville Edwards

Lovell Adams-Gray

Virgilia Griffith

Diego Matamoros

Lindsay Owen Pierre

Alex Poch-Goldin

Marcel Stewart

August Wilson’s savvy, gripping play about the African-American musician’s experience in Chicago in 1927 and it’s about the beginning of the Blues. The production is bracing.

The Story. Background.  Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was written in 1982 by Africa-American playwright, August Wilson. He had a daunting idea—to write plays that would document the African-American experience through every decade of the 20th century.

And he did it too.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place in Chicago in 1927. It’s set in a recording studio and involves Ma Rainey—called the mother of the blues—her four piece band (all African-American), Irvin, her white manager and Mr. Sturdyvant, the white owner of the record company.

August Wilson usually wrote about African-Americans and how they dealt with each other, within families, relationships with other African Americans etc.  In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom that is the focus but lurking in the background, always present, is how African-American’s are treated by white men in positions of power. In this case the two white men are Irvin Ma’s agent and Sturdyvant, the record company owner.

They all wait for Ma Rainey to arrive for the recording. Sturdyvant thinks she’s being difficult on purpose. Irvin sweats that Ma isn’t there and promises to take care of everything. When Ma Rainey arrives it’s with a police officer. She was in an accident with a cab. The officer can’t believe a black woman could own a car. After many stops and starts the session gets under way but there are issues all during the session.

The Production. Ken  MacKenzie has designed a three level set. The top level is the recording control booth. On the main level there is a stand up microphone  and a piano up at the back. This is where Ma Rainey will sing and record her songs. Down one level is where the four piece band of African-American musicians will rehearse while they wait for Ma Rainey to show up.

Sturdyvant (Diego Matamoros) and Irvin (Alex Poch-Goldin) arrive first. As Sturdyvant, Diego Matamoros is impatient waiting for Ma Rainey. He has endured what he considers her demanding antics and he’s fed up. As Irvin, Alex Poch-Goldin is nervous, twitchy and almost sweating with anxiety about where she is. He is her manager but Ma Rainey is the one in control. And she’s not there and he doesn’t know what to do but he promises Sturdyvant he will “take care of it.”

The band arrives from house right on the side of the audience, then they go on stage, across the first floor of the complex then downstairs to put their stuff in lockers and prepare to rehearse. They are Toledo (Beau Dixon), Slow Drag (Neville Edwards), Levee (Lovell Adams-Gray) and Cutler (Lindsay Owen Pierre). They are all in suits and ties. Good shoes.

They banter, tease and trade good natured barbs initially. It’s noted that Levee has spent his whole pay on a flash pair of shows. Their lives and relationships slowly reveal themselves. Over the performance the allegiances will shift and change.

Levee is brash, confident and angry. He plays the trumpet and dreams of getting his own band and depends on Sturdyvant to record his songs. This is the flashiest part in the production and Lovell Adams-Gray plays Levee for all he’s worth. The smile beams, the body language is fluid and muscular. It is an impressive performance even if he starts at about level 10. There isn’t really anywhere to go after that. A bit more variation would be in order and the performance would still be impressive. I do laugh though when Adams-Gray first tries to play the trumpet—all he produces really is wind and a few hiccup sounds. He looks at the trumpet as if this miss-step is its fault. Subsequent efforts are more successful.

Toledo, the piano player, is the intellectual of the band, always reading, always putting things in perspective. He has Levee pegged as a blowhard and tries to take him down a peg or two. Beau Dixon is strapping as Toledo. He is also quietly intellectual and he is the best musician of the group. He commands the piano, playing as if the notes come naturally from his skin.

Cutler, the banjo-guitar-trombone player is the leader of the band and tries to keep the peace between the volatile Levee and the rest of the group. Lindsay Owen Pierre is all calmness and even temper as Cutler.  Slow Drag (Neville Edwards) on double bass is easy going and doesn’t really interfere. They all have opinions of each other. The dialogue zings through the air. The cast have the slang and the pacing of it down pat.

They all know how to act with their white boss and play the game. Cutler gets up off his chair whenever Sturdyvant comes in to the room; subservient as is Levee. It’s uncomfortable to watch.  That’s how they survive but a subservient smile does not mean they are.

When Ma Rainey (Alana Bridgewater) arrives, also house right along the side of the audience, she is furious and marching in with a purpose as the police (Derek Boyes), her nephew Sylvester (Marcel Stewart) and her lover Dussie Mae (a flirty Virgilia Griffith who played up to both men and women) follow her trying to keep up.

Ma Rainey is nobody’s fool. Alana Bridgewater plays her without a drop of obsequiousness. This woman is beholden to no one. She does not bow and scrape. She stares down her adversaries and nails them. She knows her worth and makes everybody know it too.

Director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu does achieve that sense of cohesiveness in the band, keeping the banter sharp and quick. These are guys who get by by their wits. She has some lovely touches. Sylvester, Ma’s nephew, has a stammer but she wants him to say something on her record. While he waits his turn, Marcel Stewart who plays Sylvester, squeezes his hat, turns it nervously in his hands and keeps his head down with his eyes up in a shy, insecure stance. But when he leaves he makes a point of shaking the hand of Sturdyvant (I believe). It is such a sweet, gracious moment for this shy character. The body language of he band with each other is easy and laid back; with Sturdyvant it’s formal, stiff and awkward. Tindyebwa Otu makes us watchful for a subtle reaction here and there and makes us look harder at what is happening between people. The ending leaves you winded

Comment.  And with all these relationships August Wilson paints a vivid picture of life for a black person in America in 1920s.  It’s not a simplistic idea of how the black man is kept down by the white man. It’s more complex. Wilson delves into the black person’s sense of self, his place in the word, the sense of his/her worth. His dialogue is intoxicating. He has recreated the rhythm and beat of black slang and the means of expression and it’s like listening to the tap dancing of masters.  Although I often think that August Wilson overwrote what he wanted to say in many of his plays including Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.  But the play and this splendid production pack such wallop of emotion you can forgive it.

Presented by Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Opened: May 10, 2018.

Closes: June 2, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 35 minutes/



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

Written by C.S. Lewis

Adapted for the stage by Michael O’Brien

Directed by Tim Carroll

Set by Douglas Paraschuk

Costumes by Jennifer Goodman

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Projections by Cameron Davis

Music direction, original music and sound designed by Claudio Vena

Cast: Kyle Blair

Starr Domingue

Deborah Hay

Patty Jamieson

Vanessa Sears

Travis Seetoo

Steven Sutcliffe

Michael Therriault

 A faithful rendering of C.S. Lewis’ book about the beginning of the Narnia world in a production geared towards children that uses technology, puppets and masks effectively.

The Story. The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis charts the beginning of the Narnia series of children’s books, about magic, other worlds, and how much damage a wicked queen can cause when she’s slighted and pissed off.

It’s about two children Digory and Polly. Digory has come from the country with his sick mother to live in London with his aunt Letty and Uncle Andrew. His father is off fighting in the war (WWI).  Polly lives next door and befriends Digory.  Uncle Andrew is shiftless, mean, a bully and a bit of a magician. He dreams of going to other worlds and has created magical rings to do it. To see if they work, Digory and Polly use the magical rings to go to other worlds where they meet: Queen Jadis, a real piece of mean work, Aslan, a noble lion who wants to create a world called Narnia where people are good etc. and all manner of other odd creatures.

The Production. I saw the production with about 375 students.  The students from various public schools had come from a theatre workshop (as part of their theatre-going experience) where they made crowns that they wore during the show. I saw Kyle Blair in costume: shorts, nice shirt, knee high socks and shoes, chat up some children in the audience. He took notes while he chatted then when the show began he rushed up the aisle for the next scene.

A configuration of cardboard boxes is piled up centre stage. Several screens hang down from the flies along the back and side walls of the stage, spilling around the proscenium arch and in front of the side walls of the theatre auditorium. I figure that director Tim Carroll will be using projections as he did a few years ago at the Stratford Festival for his production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

When the production begins a group of people on stage introduce themselves as the mystery detectives (I believe) who ferret out mysteries and solve them.

A family is moving. The boy and the girl of the family occupy their time recalling a dream they had. This will segue into the story of The Magician’s Nephew where the boy and the girl will become Digory and Polly.

There is a lot of business of moving boxes around the set to create a wall, a tunnel, a window etc. Cameron Davis’ projections create the impressive perspective of the tunnel the children crawl through. There are wonderful creations of space, the various worlds the children visit and other visions that take us into the story.  There is enough technological dazzle with lots of projections setting the locations to engage the kids but not so much that the play is overpowered.

Tim Carroll’s staging is simplistic—many scenes are delivered directly to the audience rather than to other characters.  But the projections, the puppets and masks are first rate as is the cast. In particular the creation of a bird that will carry the children and a horse is pretty impressive, as is a chair that Uncle Andrew (a soft-talking-oily-acting-spooky-smiling Steven Sutcliffe) sits in that looks like a cardboard box from one direction and an ornate chair from another.

As Digory and Polly, Travis Seetoo and Vanessa Sears respectively are charm itself—he’s sweet and boyish and she is matter of fact and sensible.  As Jadis the Queen, sometimes called a witch, Deborah Hay is formidable, deliciously evil and frightening when put into an adult perspective of every bully who every terrorized anyone. She wants nothing less than to rule the world and would have too if it weren’t for Aslan and the beginning of the land of Narnia.

Aslan is played with nobility by Kyle Blair (in a wonderful lion’s mask) who wears an army uniform with sergeant’s stripes as a nod to WWI. Tim Carroll is acknowledging the centenary of the end of WWI with some of his programming this season. It’s beautifully ironic that a soldier plays a figure who wants to create a land of peace and good.

Michael Therriault is charmingly Cockney as the Cabbie. But when the cabby is asked to sing a song to lighten the mood, Therriault launches into “The Lambeth Walk” a cheesy bit of an insider joke—he starred in Me and My Girl last year leading the rousing “Lambeth Walk” that stopped the show. Why “cheesy”? Because Me and My Girl with “The Lambeth Walk” was produced in 1937 and The Magician’s Nephew takes place at the turn of the twentieth century. Director Tim Carroll’s penchant for cheesy jokes is tiresome and bogs down the pace.

 Comment. he production of The Magician’s Nephew is obviously for children of all ages and heights. C.S. Lewis’ classic book was adapted for the stage by Michael O’Brien and he’s pretty faithful to the book, even using dialogue from the book.

But he frames it with a group of people who say they are mystery detectives and are seeking out people’s dreams –I found this murky so am not clear who they really are.  While the two kids at the beginning of the production are recalling a dream they had, the group of detectives oversee the story. They seem to know what is happening next in the telling and I found that odd.  My quibble is that the framing devise doesn’t make sense here. The Magician’s Nephew is not the result of someone’s dream. It’s the result of the blunder of Uncle Andrew to make magic with these rings without thinking of the consequences.

On one level the whole notion of magic and other worlds appeals to kids and their imaginations.  But for adults it goes deeper. C.S. Lewis was one of the great thinkers of the 20th century.  He taught English at Cambridge and Oxford and also wrote on Christianity and philosophy. So one can look at The Magician’s Nephew as a work about the forces of good (the children) and Evil (Queen Jadis). One can look at Aslan, the lion as a Christ figure who wanted to create a world of good and kindness. The story is rich in themes of this sort that would appeal to an adult audience.  But this production certainly aims for a young audience. If my audience of young kids is any indication, they will love it.

Presented by the Shaw Festival.

Media Premiere: May 9, 2018.

Opening Celebration. May 26, 2018.

Closes: Oct. 13, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.




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

Written by Sharon Pollock
Directed by Keira Loughran
Set by Joanna Yu
Costumes by Jackie Chau
Lighting by Ital Erdal
Composed by Kiran Ahluwalia
Sound design by Suba Sankaran
Cast: Kian Ahluwalia
Jasmine Chen
Omar Alex Khan
Tyrone Savage
Quelemia Sparrow
Diana Tso

A serious subject that needs a better play and definitely better production.

The Story. The Komagata Maru Incident by Sharon Pollock about a terrible point in Canada’s past that seemed to set a racist immigration precedent. It was first produced in Vancouver in 1976. The play takes place in Vancouver in 1914 in a brothel. A Japanese freighter named the Komagata Maru carrying 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims, and 12 Hindus, all British citizens, arrived in Vancouver harbour but were not allowed to get off the ship.

Two laws were cited: 1) they had to have made the journey in a direct route with no stops, which they didn’t do. 2) they had to pay a head tax, which they couldn’t afford.

The Sikh community in Vancouver offered to pay it but the government refused it. The ship and almost all aboard it were stranded in the harbor for 2 months with diminishing food and water while people wrangled about what to do. The Immigration Officer negotiating the details between the people on the freighter and the mainland was William Hopkinson who fluctuated between being racist towards immigrants and having compassion for them because they were running out of food and water. Hopkinson has his own secrets.

The underlying reasons were racist. They didn’t want any more South Asians to come to Canada. Eventually the freighter was sent back but this incident certainly established a precedent. I think of the SS. St. Louis with 900 or so Jews from Nazi Germany being refused entry to various ports including Canada, whose policy of how many to admit was “one is too many”, and other incidents of other nationalities over the last century.

This is not a docudrama. Playwright Sharon Pollock says that it’s her impression of the events but she is not being held to just the facts. All the people on the freighter are represented by a woman of South Asian decent. Pollock was more comfortable writing a woman to represent those on the ship rather than a Sikh man. Fair enough.

The Production. Pollock has presented it as a kind of circus act with a Master of Ceremonies who narrates aspects of what is happening, which is mystifying, and the production doesn’t help either.

It’s directed by Keira Loughran and I just don’t think she’s a very good director. She gets mired in trying to be clever and she fails. I thought her work last year directing The Aeneid was poor, again with too much distracting stuff.

This year her production of The Komagata Maru Incident is so busy with distracting staging stuff it is aggravating to watch. There is a large central set piece that represents the Komagata Maru. Standing at the top of the ship structure is The Woman representing all the Sikhs. She is played by the incomparable Kiran Ahluwalia who has written all the Punjabi lyrics for the songs she sings. She is a clear, compelling actress when conveying the urgency of the situation. I wished that there was a translation so I could know what she’s saying. She plays a woman with a small child (unseen) and comments on the goings on. The Woman is perhaps the only one with perception, integrity, and savvy enough to know they are being used as pawns and duped.

So to illustrate my comment about Kiera Loughran’s direction: we have The Woman at the top of the large ship, then down below on stage level are other characters with their own dialogue between them, then there are projections on the bow of the ship representing birds etc. that might expand on the dialogue and the whole thing conspires to scatter our attention. Who do we pay attention to? What is the point of the scene? That I have to ask these questions is maddening and frustrating.

There is a character called T.S who is our Master of Ceremonies who puts on a British soldier’s uniform to comment on the goings on and the law. T.S. is played by a woman named Quelemia Sparrow without a trace of irony, sarcasm or edge. She is so busy playacting at narrating a terrible story and doing cheesy choreography that the character seems just smarmy rather than edgy. Again, the director doesn’t have a grip on how to guide the actress in making the character more substantial than superficial.

I think of the MC in Cabaret whose job was to narrate and yet convey the horrors of what was going on outside that Cabaret in Germany at the time and he did it with sarcasm and irony. But then again the rendering of the MC in Cabaret was brilliant and in The Komagata Maru Incident is just embarrassing.

Playing William Hopkinson is Omar Alex Khan who spends too much time expelling large sighs to convey frustration and not much variation in a rather wooden performance.

A bright note in this dreary production is Tyrone Savage as Georg, a mysterious German businessman. Savage gave Georg class and sophistication.

Comment. Sharon Pollock is a leading Canadian playwright who has created interesting plays in the past. The Komagata Maru Incident is not one of them. It is plodding, ponderous in the story telling in that much of it tells and doesn’t show and is often confusing.

The Komagata Maru Incident is a play that is rarely done. There is a reason for that. It’s not a good play. It’s an important issue, but not a good play. And the static production doesn’t help. Save your money and Google the Komagata Maru Incident and learn about it that way.

Plays at the Stratford Festival until Sept. 24, 2017.