Lynn

From Judy to Bette: The Stars of Old Hollywood

Written and performed by Rebecca Perry

Accompanied by David Kingsmill

Directed by Michael Rubinstein

Costumes and props by Claire Hill and Patricia Whalen.

Just because we are self-isolating does not mean that reviews need to stop. Recently, the wondrous Rebecca Perry did a streamed version of her terrific theatre show: From Judy to Bette: The Stars of Old Hollywood. The word “Fireside” was added for this version. It was recorded at her parents’ house (I think her Mom did the techno stuff, her father provided the fireplace with ecologically responsible log).

I first saw the 30 minute version of this show at the Next Stage Festival in 2016. The show has been expanded to a 100 minute version, has played across the country and the Edinburgh Festival. The show deals with four Hollywood stars: Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Betty Hutton and Lucille Ball. These women would not be pigeonholed by the men who headed the studios. These women broke the mould and the rules.

The starting off point was MGM of the 1930s with its own kind of glamour. Rebecca Perry dressed in a beautiful off the shoulder black gown for Bette Davis and added accessories for the other women. For example she added a red flower and red gloves for Judy Garland (with a tip of he hat to The Wizard of Oz), a hat for Betty Hutton and an apron for Lucy. Perry began each segment with a picture of each star and segued from segment to segment seamlessly.

Perry focused on what made each woman distinctive rather than dwelling on the biographical aspects. And she noted that 90 years later those four women are still household names. Bette Davis wanted to be memorable not likeable and she was not shy about saying “no” when she didn’t like something.

Judy Garland was brilliant and tragic. (Perry informs us that Garland was the second choice for The Wizard of Oz. The studio wanted Shirley Temple! Garland won them over). Garland was ahead of her time in that she was championed by gay men. When an interviewer noted that disparagingly Garland cut him dead and walked out.

Betty Hutton went from character parts to leads. She proved wrong anyone who thought that being a goofy woman would not lead to stardom. Hutton replaced Judy Garland in Annie Get Your Gun. And she intimidated Ethel Merman in Panama Hattie to the extent that Merman had Betty Hutton’s song cut from the show. Betty Hutton got ‘even’ by becoming a star of Broadway and film.

Lucille Ball was not afraid to be “ugly” or at least less than glamorous. It took her 20 years of dancing in the chorus before she became a star. She became a superstar in television. She was the innovator or many “firsts.” “I Love Lucy” was the first television show to use a live audience (she hated the sound of ‘canned laughter.’) She was the first star to be pregnant on TV; to be in a mixed-marriage; to own a television studio. Lucille Ball was a force in television and in comedy.

Rebecca Perry often sang songs associated with each of the four women but she didn’t imitate their singing styles. Rather she emulated them. She has a strong voice and a lovely sense of how to sell a song. She is ably accompanied by David Kingsmill. Her writing is economical, funny and captures the essence of the four stars at the centre of her show. Perry is a confident, graceful, joyful performer who took us to the heart of what made each of these icons so distinctive and remarkable.

Above is a link to her on-line show. It’s still live. Give a look and enjoy. And if you have a chance to see Rebecca Perry in a show in the future when we all go back into the theatre, grab it!

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED REBECCA PERRY IS TAKING US

BACK TO A SIMPLER ERA DURING THIS UNPRECEDENTED TIME

 Judy Garland, Lucille Ball, Bette Davis, and Betty Hutton – their stories, their comedy and their songs timelessly warm the hearts and bring hope to millions! Solo show guru Rebecca Perry is taking us back to a simpler time, with an hour-long intimate, live-streamed, fireside version of her critically acclaimed solo show, FROM JUDY TO BETTE: THE STARS OF OLD HOLLYWOOD, condensed from the two-act production which tours North America and the UK.

 With repeat visits and sold out runs in England, Scotland, Ireland, across Canada, and in the US, and with three Broadway World awards to her name for her critically acclaimed one-woman shows CONFESSIONS OF A REDHEADED COFFEESHOP GIRL and its sequel ADVENTURES OF A REDHEADED COFFEESHOP GIRL, Perry now offers something completely different, live-streaming the glitz, the glamour and some of the most loved songs of all time like “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” to homes everywhere. Cozy up with music, skits and stories full of that Old Hollywood charm.

 FROM JUDY TO BETTE: THE STARS OF OLD HOLLYWOOD looks at the lives and times of Garland, Ball, Davis and Hutton: four names that have stood the test of time and planted themselves in the hearts of millions the world over. Trailblazers refusing to be “just another ingénue” during Hollywood’s Golden Age, they broke the mold, taking the studio system to task, fighting for the roles that made them famous, and opening doors that had previously been firmly shut for women in the film industry. Weaving together scandalous headlines, bestselling timeless songs and classic comedy gold, we journey through the ground-breaking careers of these screen legends of yesteryear. 


Join us on YouTube Live, Thursday, March 26th
at 6:30pm EST / 3:30pm PT / 10:30pm GMT

www.rebeccaperry.ca/youtube

 ★★★★★ “An unadulterated 5-star show…A bonafide star giving a powerhouse performance” – MusicalTalk

 ★★★★ “An absolutely perfect homage to days gone by, repeatedly hitting just the right tone to evoke

the Golden Era of Hollywood. Glorious entertainment.”- The Mumble

 ★★★★ “Perry has the chutzpah of a 1940s starlet.”- Culture Fix
 Best Independent Production (Nominee) – Broadway World

Select performances include: Sudbury Theatre Centre, ON (x 12); Smile Theatre tour (x 34); Edinburgh Festival Fringe, UK (x 24); Rose Theatre, ON (x 4); 2 UK tours (16 theatres); 3 Maritimes tours (5 theatres)

WRITTEN and PERFORMED by: REBECCA PERRY

DIRECTED by: MICHAEL RUBINSTEIN

ACCOMPANIMENT: DAVID KINGSMILL

ARRANGEMENTS: DAVID KINGSMILL and QUINTON NAUGHTON

MEDIA CONTACT: REBECCA PERRY – rebeccaperryproductionsinc@gmail.com – 905-867-5878

– 30 –
Cheers,Rebecca 🙂

www.rebeccaperry.ca

For more information, please visit: http://www.rebeccaperry.ca
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A Belly Full  closed early because of the COVID 19 Virus. I’m reviewing it anyway because it was charming. I hope it has another complete life.

Was at Theatre Aquarius, Hamilton, Ont.

Written by Mary Colin Chisholm and Marcia Kash

Directed by Marcia Kash

Choreography by Robin Calvert

Set and costumes by Debra Hanson

Composed and sound design by Creighton Doane

Lighting by Siobhán Sleath

Cast: Raymond Ablack

Valerie Boyle

Sierra Holder

Melanie Janzen

Sarah Mennell

Robin Schisler

Nora Sheehan

Sarah Lynn Strange

Blair Williams

A group of women decide to join a belly dancing class taught in a local church. Two women thought it was a Pilates class only to be told that the palates class was taught at another church. They were coerced into staying by the jolly wife of the minister. The teacher was the beguiling, exotically-named, Shalimar, played by the swivel-hipped, Melanie Janzen.

To be specific about who is who: Marnie (Sarah Mennell) is a super-baker and is trying to make a go of baking for a living. She is happiest when baking but is stressed because of the business and trying to find quality time with her partner, Ravi (Raymond Ablack), who is a bike-courier and their young child. Willow (Sarah Lynn Strange) is a hairdresser, cancer survivor and a three-times divorcee. She grabs at life and is an inspiration for the other women. Jane (Robin Schisler) is a patient, loving wife to Brian (Blair Williams) who seems obsessive-compulsive as well as agoraphobic. She is his ‘caretaker.’ Marnie and Jane are best friends. Rose (Valerie Boyle) is the person who has organized this class and is married to the often mentioned, but never seen minister, Nigel. Aleesha (Sierra Holder) is a young teen who seems to attract young men who treat her badly and she curries their favour and attention. She’s trying to work things out. She’s been made to take the class but comes to like it and the women in the class. Tess (Nora Sheehan) is an ER nurse in the class and is the mother of four boys.

The acting on the whole is just dandy. As Marnie, Sarah Mennell tries to keep a smile and a handle on her frazzled nerves. She relies heavily on Ravi, played with sweetness and patience by Raymond Ablack. Sierra Holder plays Aleesha like a moody teen with attitude problems that slowly dissolve as she gets more confident in the class. And when she dances we see that is no unsure teenager–that is a woman with power. As Brian, Blair Williams gives a performance unlike most of the ones he plays (he usually plays suave, assured characters.) Brian is hunched, scared of anything unexpected and timid. A lovely performance. As I said, all the actors give dandy performances.

Mary Colin Chisholm and Marcia Kash explore many and various human situations in this sweet, funny play: rocky relationships, the drive for success at the expense of a relationship (hence the ‘rocky’ adjective), compassion; obsessive-compulsive behaviour, body image, romance, sensuality, confidence and love. Each woman has her issues with her body, or confidence or shyness, or her partner. They all bond and then plan a fund-raiser for the church by doing a show in which they all belly dance.

I thought it was pretty obvious this was really The Full Monty for women. (In The Full Monty, a group of unemployed men plan on putting on a show for money in which they do a strip. Those guys had all sorts of issues) A Belly Full follows the same story structure. There is a sense of despair in many of these women’s lives. One partner works flat out trying to get her pie business off the ground while her partner feels left out and weakens and momentarily strays. Another woman deals with her husband who is a shut-in and obsessive-compulsive. Another seems dependent on men for her validation. Another is recovering from cancer and her confidence is not what it should be. They all find solace in the camaraderie of the belly dancing group and how it makes them feel.

 Marcia Kash directs the play with flair. The humour arises naturally from the various situations and the dialogue. There is a wonderful sensual dance (kudos to choreographer, Robin Calvert) when a repentant husband tries to win back his wife. And Calvert’s choreography for the group of women takes this disparate group and moulds them into a joyous line of belly dancers. Sweet.  

Produced by Theatre Aquarius.

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At the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Songs by Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara and others.

Book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff

Directed by Des McAnuff

Choreography by Sergio Trujillo

Musical Supervision and arrangements by Ron Melrose

Scenic Design by Robert Brill

Costumes by Paul Tazewell

Lighting by Howell Binkley

Sound by Gareth Owen

Projection Design by Sean Nieuwenhuis

Cast: Jennifer Byrne

Steven Grant Douglas

Jay Garcia

John Gardiner

Tamrin Goldberg

Alex Hairston

Olivia Elease Hardy

Carmen Anika Hill

Brooke Lacy

Trish Lindström

Maria Lucas

Jo’Nathan Michael

DeQuina Moore

Erick Pinnick

Kyli Rae

Crystal Sha’nae

De’Ja-Simone

Sir Brock Warren

Candace J. Washington

Brittany Nicole Williams

Dan’yelle Williamson

Jennifer Wolfe

A cookie-cutter, formulaic musical with lots of dazzle and little substance.

The Story. Summer, The Donna Summer Musical is  the story of pop icon Donna Summer (1948-2012) from three points in her life: Diva Donna, when she was an established star;  Disco Donna as she was making a name for herself as the Disco Queen; and Duckling Donna when she was a kid growing up in Boston, singing in church.  It covers her life with the barest of details—born in Boston; didn’t graduate high school because she auditioned for a tour of Hair that played in Germany; met Giorgio Moroder and began writing songs with him and recording them. Her fame grew as did her musical output. She hit the height of her fame in the late 1970s. She died of cancer in 2012.

The Production.  Summer-The Donna Summer Musical  is a typical Des McAnuff musical. The sound system blares the music. Robert Brill’s set is simple and glitzy. There are constantly moving psychedelic coloured screens that float down, sideways and up. The large cast are almost always on the move. A ticker-tape band moves across the top of the stage telling us where we are: Boston, Munich, LA, etc. There are no dates that set the time period for each event.  Howell Binkley’s complex lighting is there for flash and dazzle. Paul Tazewell’s glittery costumes shimmer and sparkle for the three “Donnas” and are colourful for the other characters.

Sergio Trujillo’s choreography has a breathless energy for the whole company and a 1970s feel with a specificity for each of the Donnas when they sing either together or separately. It’s to Trujillo’s credit that the body movement and hand placements seem so right for these ‘Donnas” in that time period.

The singing of Dan’yelle Williamson as Diva Donna, Alex Hairston as Disco Donna and Olivia Elease Hardy as Duckling Donna is strong. They all have voices that hit and hold the high notes for manipulative effect. The most natural performer of the three is Alex Hairston as Disco Donna. The music suffuses every movement. There is a natural ease when she sings “Love to Love You Baby” or “Hot Stuff” for example. Her voice soars. Olivia Elease Hardy is Duckling Donna, emerging from her girlhood. When she sings in church we witness what this Donna will later become. Hardy is sweet, innocent and compelling. Dan’Yelle Williamson as Diva Donna is a less natural performer than the other two. You see the gears working to impress and she certainly does with “Friends Unknown” complete with ear-piercing high notes held to guarantee applause. And she milks it for all it’s worth.

Coleman Domingo, Robert Cary and Des McAnuff are credited with writing the book. It is the barest accumulation of facts and information that are tenuously strung together. There are hints of information about Donna’s early life. When she went to Germany she met Giorgio Moroder—a giant in music—but given short shrift as her writing partner. She meets Helmuth Sommer (a spelling mistake will change her last name to “Summer” and she kept it) in one scene and several scenes later they are married with little interaction in the middle. There is a reference to her dependence on pills but that’s barely developed. Her troubling homophobia is glossed over. You don’t go to a Des McAnuff musical for anything resembling a biography. And in this case you certainly don’t go for the acting, which is plodding.  What’s left are the songs. And Summer, The Donna Summer Musical packs in 23 mostly hits (“I Feel Love”, “No More Tears” (“Enough is Enough”), “Bad Girls”, etc.

There are several male characters in the show but only four are played by men. The rest are played by women in very short wigs, tight pants and jackets all gyrating and pelvis thrusting to try and suggest some kind of raunchy-maleness. It’s all very odd since they are obviously, physically women playing those male characters.

Comment. Summer, The Donna Summer Musical is frenzied with energy, dazzle and glitz. But it is devoid of any substance and after 1 hour and 45 blaring minutes without an intermission, you just want it to be over.

Mirvish Productions Presents:

Opened: March 11, 2020.

Closes: March 22, 2020.

Running Time:  1 hour, 45 minutes, no intermission.

www.mirvish.com.

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At St. Jacobs Country Playhouse, St. Jacobs, Ont.

Written by Aaron Sorkin

Directed by Marti Maraden

Set by Sean Mulcahy

Costumes by Jennifer Wonnacott

Lighting by Kevin Fraser

Cast: George Alevizos

Peter N. Bailey

Benedict Campbell

Tim Campbell

Amos Crawley

Shannon Currie

Thomas Duplessie

Omar Forrest

Alex Furber

JJ Gerber

Timothy Gledhill

Daniel Greenberg

Randy Hughson

Nathanael Judah

Jim Mezon

Oscar Moreno

Tyrone Savage

A play that ramps up the drama and intrigue with every scene in a gripping  production that leaves you limp in your seat at the end, emotionally drained and thrilled.

The Story.  It’s the summer of 1986. The play is set in various locations in Washington, D.C. and on the United States Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A marine has been killed in a ‘code red’ event—an unauthorized hazing. Two marines, Pfc. Louden Downey and Lance Cpl. Harold W. Dawson, have confessed to doing the crime and a lawyer is hired to defend them. But the lawyer, Lt. J.G. Daniel A. Koffee realizes there is much more to the case than the obvious.

The Production. Director Marti Maraden has taken a complicated story with a huge cast and made it fly. Sean Mulcahy’s set is in turns: the courtroom, various offices, the barracks and the naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

This is the macho world of the U.S. Marines taken to a toxic level. It’s a world where haircuts are razor sharp, boots are so highly polished you can see nose hair in the reflection and the uniform, even combat camouflage, is pristine and wrinkle free. It’s a world where everything is done for the honour of the Marine Corps and anyone who is less than up to the grade knows about it with an undertaking known as ‘code red’. Pfc. William T. Santiago (Oscar Moreno) learned about this to his peril.

Who issued the ‘code red?’ Were Pfc. Louden Downey (Thomas Duplessie) and Lance Cpl. Harold W. Dawson (Nathanael Judah) following orders when they fulfilled the ‘code red’? Who passed on the order? That’s what lawyer Lt. J.G Daniel A Kaffee (Tyrone Savage) has to find out.

Marti Maraden has cast a who’s who of top Canadian actors for this bracing production. As Lt. J.G. Daniel A. Kaffee, Tyrone Savage has that brash swagger of a flashy litigation lawyer but with little experience in criminal law. Then he gets it—Kaffee was hired exactly because he had little experience for this kind of law. Tyrone Savage then invests Kaffee with a drive to get the two men off against all odds. Acting as a backup of sorts is Lt. Cmdr. Joanne Galloway played with fierce resolve by Shannon Currie. Galloway had hoped to handle the case herself but was displaced by Kaffee. Galloway endures the misogyny she finds along the way and learns to respect Kaffee and he returns that respect. Shannon Currie plays Joanne Galloway with a stony-faced commitment to the law with integrity and a slow breath in and then exhale when she comes up against the condescension of the Marine Corps.

As Pfc. Louden Downey, Thomas Duplessie is a fearful young man always looking over his shoulder or at Lance Cpl. Harold W. Dawson for validation. As Dawson, Nathanael Judah is a tight-jawed, unquestioning man devoted to the rule of the Marines, without variation, until he realizes his folly in such blind devotion. Jim Mezon plays Capt. Matthew A. Markinson with the stern bearing of a man who knows the Marines and its code but also has a moral conscience. Benedict Campbell plays Lt. Col. Nathan Jessep who believes that any means must be taken to adhere to the code of the Marines and to save lives, even if it means taking lives. Campbell plays Jessep with such contemptuous arrogance it’s both frightening and heartbreaking.  This is a masterful performance as are they all, even the smallest of parts.

This is a production full of nuance, efficiency, detail and attention to the smallest clue about these men and their mysterious world of duty.

Comment. Aaron Sorkin has written a tightly woven story that makes you grip the arm-rest. His sentences are short and punchy. His jokes are sharp and jab where they are most effective. His knows how to spin a yarn and slowly haul in the audience dropping clues along the way to try and find the truth. He knows how a mind works whether it’s a decent person or one with an attitude problem. He writes about finding the truth and hiding it in place sight.

A Few Good Men is full of a lot of fine actors (I include Shannon Currie in this category).Once again Drayton Entertainment offers a stunning production as it did last year with 12 Angry Men (also directed by Marti Maraden). Don’t miss this.

Drayton Entertainment presents:

Opened: March 6, 2020.

Closes: March 22, 2020.

Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes.

www.draytonentertainment.com

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At the Streetcar Crowsnest, Dundas and Carlaw, Toronto, Ont.

Written by David Grieg

Directed by Alan Dilworth

Original music by John Browne

Music director, Jacqueline The

Set and costumes designed by Ken MacKenzie

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Sound by Deanna H. Choi

Cast: Raven Dauda

Kevin Walker

A horrific event is intellectualized rather than the drama being realized, rendering the production dull.

The Story and Production. The Eventsis by David Grieg and is based on the 2011 massacre by Anders Breivik, a right-wing sympathizer, in Norway of 77 people at a youth summer camp.

In the play there is an ongoing conversation between Claire (Raven Dauda) who is a priest and the leader of a choir and a character listed only as The Boy (Kevin Walker) but is really an adult.  At times The Boy plays Claire’s lesbian lover, her psychiatrist, and The Boy who came into the room where Claire and her choir were rehearsing and started shooting.  Only Claire survived. So we see a character living with the trauma of surviving and all she wants is to find out why he did it. She sounds out her lover, her psychiatrist and The Boy himself to find out why he might have done it.

When the first production of The Events was performed in Scotland, Ramin Gray the director of that production wanted the public to have a larger stake in it so local choirs were invited to participate. Writer David Grieg concurred and wrote the participation of a choir into the text. So for every performance here in Toronto there is the participation of a different local choir.

First they sing a song of their choosing then they follow the various songs in the text.

I had the City Choir at my performance. There is nothing fancy here. They arrive in their street clothes: jeans, pants, sweatshirts etc. and sit on stage in chairs on a slightly raised platform facing the audience.  Jacqueline Teh is the music director and provides the piano accompaniment.

David Greig is a prolific, fascinating playwright. He can challenge an audience with what is really happening in a work and keep them gripped as he does in Touching the Void, a play about a mountain climbing adventure gone horribly wrong.  But he can also be challenging  because he can intellectualize a situation more than he realizes the drama of a situation and that’s what we have in The Effects. There are many and various speeches that go on and on before we realize who Claire is talking to.And one point we think it might be the killer but it turns out to be her lover. So challenging.

Alan Dilworth has directed a very pared down production. Designer Ken MacKenzie has created a bare stage except for the slightly raised platform on which are chairs for the choir, facing the audience. The piano is stage right. That’s it.

Claire played by Raven Dauda and the Boy played by Kevin Walker wear well worn clothes. She wears a minster’s collar. The two mainly face each other on the stage and talk. They move and cover the space, but what happens between those two characters is  intellectual discourse. Raven Dauda plays Claire as a wounded woman searching for answers of course. Kevin Walker as The Boy is also calm and single minded as the killer and the other characters.  The calmness he uses when talking about racist attitudes is chilling.

But the piece as a whole is challenging because of the lack of drama or tension.  It’s a horrific event and not only Claire but we need answers of why he did it.  The lack of drama makes it a hard go. At one point a member of the choir offers a few words but at my performance it was difficult to hear what this person was saying by the third row. I can’t imagine if they heard at the back. Not a good move. Perhaps they might microphone the speaker if they aren’t used to projecting?

Comment. The Events does deal with what is going on in our world today:  xenophobia, the fear of ‘the other’, the plight of immigrants. Claire questions The Boy about why he doesn’t like foreigners. He says he has nothing against them.  He just doesn’t want them in his country. Sound familiar? So one of the arguments of The Events is a tug of war between the insanity of that massacre and trying to find logic in it. Claire also found humanity in that terrible situation when she tried to protect one of her choir members. All good but if the intellectual argument is illuminated at the expense of the drama of the situation then it results in a dull production.

One can’t help but compare the production of Us/Them that is also playing in Toronto at the CAA Theatre, that deals with the massacre of 334 people (mostly children) in 2004 in Beslan, Russia. We are given the facts and figures and details but from the children’s point of view. Stunning.

Necessary Angel Presents:

Began: March 1, 2020.

Closes: March 15, 2020.

Running Time: 75 minutes.

www.necessaryangel.com

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Review: OIL

by Lynn on March 6, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

Geary Lane, 360 Geary Ave. Toronto, Ont.,

Written by Ella Hickson

Directed by Aviva Armour-Ostroff and Christopher Stanton

Set and costumes designed by Jackie Chau

Lighting designed by Nick Blais

Music and sound design by Maddie Bautista

Video design by Melissa Joakim

Cast: Samantha Brown

Deborah Drakeford

Lily Gao

Ryan Hollyman

Cyrus Lane

Shadi Shahkhalili

Courtenay Stevens

Nabil Traboulsi

Bahareh Yaraghi

Oil is Ella Hickson’s bracing, gritty play about our dependence on oil and what we will do to have it. The production is gripping right up to and including its shattering land acknowledgement.

The Story. Oil follows our dependence on oil over a 200 year period, starting in Cornwall, England in 1889, to Tehran, Iran in 1908, to Hampstead, London, England in 1970, to Kurdistan in 2025 finishing in Cornwall, England in 2051. We see the first tentative steps to grasping oil’s power to heat and light in 1889.

As the play moves on to different time periods and locations we see how pervasive oil’s hold has on our lives. Oil is in everything from condoms to ice cream. Countries fight to have it in order to control others who don’t have it but want and need it.

It’s also the story of a mother and daughter’s journey to love and understanding.

The Production. Jackie Chau’s set is brilliant. Whether intentional or by design, there is a rusty, black ‘oil’ drum in a corner of the tight entrance of the Geary Lane space, to get us in the world of oil. Inside the ‘theatre’ black ‘drips’ of oil are suspended above the simple stage. The sink with taps, the freezer and the fridge in one scene are all fashioned out of barrels that could be mini oil barrels.

The production starts in 1889 in Cornwall, England on the Singer family farm. They work hard. It’s winter and they are always cold because the wood burning stove does not have the capacity to heat the place. Joss Singer (Cyrus Lane) is the oldest of three brothers. He is loving to his pregnant wife May (Bahareh Yaraghi). No one else knows yet that she’s pregnant. She is bedevilled by Sam Singer (Courtenay Stevens) whose own wife miscarried. Running the family with a clenched fist and an almost unforgiving manner is Ma Singer, played with a relentless toughness by Deborah Drakeford. Ma obviously resents May, and it’s beautifully established by Drakeford’s compelling performance. That is until she learns that May is pregnant and then she softens and becomes protective.  

They are visited by a stranger, William Whitcomb. He has a small bottle of a magical fluid. It’s called oil and it can light a lamp and the resultant flame can spread heat like this family has not seen. He wants to buy the farm to store the barrels of oil he will sell. As with anything new the family is wary. May is curious and interested. We get a sense of May’s longing to leave that farm and that claustrophobic life.

Over the other scenes of Act I: Tehran in 1908, Hampstead, London, England in 1970 and the two scenes in the future in Act II: Near Kirkuk, Kurdistan in 2025 and Cornwall, England in 2051 we get a sense of the mother/daughter relationship of May (all played by the excellent Bahareh Yaraghi) as the mother over the years and her daughter Amy (a wonderful Samantha Brown).

May is a humble but watchful servant in 1908 who is also concerned for the safety of her young daughter; a confident, focused executive dealing with her rebellious teenaged daughter in 1970; a single-minded politician in 2025 who has come to bring her grown daughter home to safety from Kurdistan; and an old woman existing with her equally dependent daughter in 2051, again in Cornwall, which is now unrecognizable from that lush farm land in the first scene. As May, Bahareh Yaraghi segues with grace and detailed clarity through each iteration of the character. 

The cast is stellar with Bahareh Yaraghi as May and Samantha Brown as Amy being the two actors who play their parts consistently through the ages. Samantha Brown also illuminates every age of Amy from a young innocent little girl (1908 Tehran), to a smarmy, independent teen (1970, Hampstead), to a young woman committed to social justice (2025 Kurdistant), to an old, irritable woman, hovering with her mother in the cold of Cornwall in 2051.  

Co-directors Aviva Armour-Ostroff and Christopher Stanton have directed this with finesse, style and smooth efficiency. The scene changes are done with flare as tables and chairs from one time period are removed with a flourish and replaced with furnishings from another time period. Clothes are often changed on stage in silhouette with a jacket being removed and handed off and another garment put on smoothly, ready for the next scene.

Melissa Joakim’s unobtrusive but effective video designs add to the feel of each new time period. For example Joakim’s bleak background video creation of Cornwall in 2051 and Maddie Bautista’s sound effects of an ever present cold wind, gives us another vision but one that echoes the cold harshness of the first scene. The history of the world repeating itself.  

Cornwall, if not the earth, is a wasteland that has depleted its oil by the end of the play, ready for a new player with a new scheme for a cheap, efficient ‘fuel’. Where it comes from and who is bringing it is frightening and not farfetched.  

But co-directors Aviva Armour-Ostroff and Christopher Stanton are not finished with focusing on the power and greed of oil and getting it out of the ground and on to markets. The land acknowledgement that usually begins a production ends this one, with a connection to the protests of the building of the oil pipeline in British Columbia and the protests of the Wet’suwet’en Territory. Chilling. 

Comment. Ella Hickson’s 2016 play is bold, challenging and huge in scope in exploring the all consuming need and greed we have for oil; how the British went into Iran for its oil in 1908 and proceeded to take what it wanted including being overbearing to the people. She also explores gender politics with the treatment of women over the ages. In the scene in Kurdistan in 2025 Amy does not want to leave there. She wants to help the people and learned the language. She doesn’t want to leave her friend Ana. But Ana wants Amy to go with her mother. She doesn’t want Amy’s do-good attitude. She points out Amy’s hypocrisy—Amy assumes Ana can’t speak English because she never asked her. It’s a rather stunning moment in a play full of them. Oil is a terrific, timely play produced by ARC one of our best indie theatre companies. See it.    

ARC presents:

From: March 3, 2020.

Closes: March 21, 2020.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx. 1 intermission.

www.arcstage.com

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At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Brian Francis

Co-Created and directed by Rob Kempson

Set by Brandon Kleiman

Lighting by Cosette Pin

Sound and composition by Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski

Performers: Colin Asuncion

Hume Baugh

Samson Bonkeabantu Brown

Keith Cole

Daniel Jelani Ellis

Jeff Ho

Michael Hughes

Indrit Kasapi

Daniel Krolik

Eric Morin

G. Kyle Shields

Chy Ryan Spain

Geoffrey Whynot

In 1992 novelist Brian Francis, then 21 and a student at the University of Western Ontario, placed an ad in the personal column of the London Free Press looking for companionship, a relationship, company, etc. He got many replies. He did not reply to 13 of them and now, 26 years later he does.

Brian Francis reads each letter out loud to us and then his reply. The letters to him range from being sweet, snarky, suggestive, open-hearted, funny, irreverent and representative of how gay men then, connected. When Francis replies, he does so from the lens of being 26 years older, mature-minded, funny, thoughtful and wise. He has found his comfort and confidence as a gay man in his world. He has that advantage over his often immature correspondents.

Brian Francis is now a successful novelist. Box 4901 is his first foray into theatre, both writing for it and performing in it. He also replies to his correspondents from the point of view of being a husband—he seems happily married to his husband. Sometimes the replies are long, funny and measured. Sometimes they are short and curt. We get a clear sense from the initial letter what the reply might be. Occasionally there is a surprise or two when we least expect it. That’s one of the many beauties of this poignant, moving show.

When I first saw the show at SummerWorks in 2018, the production then as now was  directed with care by Rob Kempson. Brandon Kleiman designed a rudimentary set for the 2018 production. With the present production, there is a spiffy white square frame on the floor inside which are three white benches.

Rob Kempson has the 13 ‘correspondents’ walk across the back of the frame and at various times assume a pose or get into a kind of formation that is never distracting and always serves the piece. Occasionally the men are arranged across the back of the frame or sit in the benches in posed formation. As Brian Francis reads each letter in turn, the man for whom it is intended approaches Francis, who is at a lectern outside the frame, listens and when the answer is finished, the correspondent then stands at the back, outside the frame. The area outside the frame at the back fills up as the men hear their reply, until the last man’s letter is read. We always wonder if one of these 13 men could have been Mr. Right and so does Mr. Francis.

There have been some cast changes since the play was first done in 2018. Each actor brings a different side to the letters.  What an intoxicating thing it is to see 13 gay actors breathe life, sex and heart into this intriguing show. Beautifully done again.

Produced by timeshare performance with support from Buddies in Bad Times Theatre:

From: Feb. 27, 2020.

Closes: March 8, 2020.

Running Time: 75 minutes, no intermission.

www.buddiesinbadtimes.com

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At the CAA Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written and directed by Carly Wijs

Created with Thomas Vantuycom

Designed by Stef Stessel

Lighting by Thomas Clause

Sound by Peter Brughmans

Cast: Gytha Permentier

Roman Van Houtven

A horrific incident seen through the clear eyes of two children. Brilliant.

Background Note: From the programme: “ In September 2004 a group of terrorists stormed a school in Beslan, Russia taking 1,200 people hostage, mainly children and their parents or grandparents. The ensuing siege lasted three days, ending in a chaotic rescue attempt by Russian security forces which left 330 hostages dead.” The terrorists were protesting the influence of Russia in Chechnya.

Story and Production. Us/Them reviews that three day hostage taking from the point of view of the children, in this case two unnamed children, a girl (Gytha Permentier) and a boy (Roman Van Houtven). The children are in fact played by two young adult actors: Gytha Permentier and Roman Van Houtven. She wears a skirt and top. He wears a turtleneck sweater and shorts.

They don’t talk in a fake young voice. They talk in the matter-of-fact voice of kids who I figure are about 10-years-old or so. They are serious, sometimes goofy, free, uninhibited and eager to show off their learning.

There is a blue board up at the back and a ‘bouquet’ of black balloons secured together stage left. The children run on eagerly and begin to describe their school. They each have a piece of chalk and draw the outlines of the buildings of the ‘campus’. They indicate other aspects of the layout so we get a sense of the size and the placement. We also get a sense that these two are friends and gently tease each other.

When I first saw this stunning show with the same cast in 2016 in Edinburgh as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the theatre where the production took place was deeply raked with no raised stage, so the audience could easily see the chalk outlines of where the buildings etc. were. The CAA Theatre in Toronto is slightly raked and the stage is raised so the audience does not get a good look at the layout in chalk, unless of course a person is watching from the balcony. I thought that the outlining done (at the CAA Theatre) by the children might have been videoed and projected on the board at the back as they were chalking in the spaces, but nope.

When the terrorists invaded the school they rounded up the students, their parents and/or grandparents and staff and crowded them all in the gymnasium. The two kids then made a kind of game as they pulled long swaths of string from loops in the walls and strung then across the stage in an elaborate criss-crossed pattern. They described how parents outside the school heard about the attack and how many rushed to the school. It was done as a breathless, dispassionate telling.

The two kids described what happens when a person gets severally dehydrated—it was very hot in the gym and the hostages didn’t have food or water for three days. They did a running description of the goings on, referencing how many hostages there were at the time. The number diminished without commentary or reason. We knew what was happening.

At one point the boy began exploding the balloons, a metaphor for when gunfire broke out between the terrorists and the Russians storming the building.

Carly Wijs has written as well as directed this show with tremendous imagination and insight into how children think. Everything is a game. They are matter of fact in their telling of a story or incident. They are not dispassionate. It’s just that they face such emotional situations in a way that is different than adults. And certainly looking at a horrific event with the innocent, knowing eyes of a child gives the audience a different perspective. Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven are charming, impish, beguiling, clear and believable as children. The audience can’t help being drawn into the story because we have such a stake in it thanks to these two ‘children.’

The games playing is particularly inventive and energetic  especially when string is pulled from every where to form an intricate cat’s cradle across the stage. Carly Wijs tells a very difficult story but chooses two charmers to do it and we are held, mesmerized.

Mirvish Productions, BONKS and Richard Jordan Productions with Theatre Royal Plymouth and Big in Belgium in association with Summerhall present:

Began: Feb. 27, 2020.

Closes: March 15, 2020.

Running Time: 60 minutes.

www.mirvish.com

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At Hart House Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

By Joan Littlewood, Theatre Workshop and Charles Chilton.

Directed by Autumn Smith

Music Director, Justin Hiscox

Projections Designer, Ian Garrett

Costumes by Yasaman Nouri

Lighting Designer, Ella Wieckowski

Sound by Mary Keenen

Cast: Rebecca Bauer

Simon Bennett

Ethan Curnett

 Raechel Fisher

Kristiaan Hansen

David Jackson

Mackenzie Kelly

Mark McKelvie

Katie Ready-Walters

Jillian Robinson

Patrick Teed

Khira Wieting

Director Autumn Smith and her hard working, energetic cast give a herculean effort to make this satire applicable to today by presenting it as a video game. But despite good intentions and huge commitment it doesn’t work.

Theatre pioneer, Joan Littlewood, her Theatre Workshop Company and Charles Chilton created Oh, What a Lovely War! in 1963 for her Stratford East Theatre in London, Eng. as a biting satire of World War I and all wars really.  They packed the show with the lilting, upbeat music hall ‘war’ songs of the day: “It’s A Long Way to Tipperary”, “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit-bag”, “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” “Don’t Want to Be a Soldier,” etc. interspersed with projections of the statistics of the dead and wounded. The good natures of the young soldiers were in stark relief to the bungling arrogance of the officers in charge of sending these soldiers to their deaths at Ypres, the Somme, Vimy etc. without a shred of remorse or concern. They just kept making the same blunder again and again as the numbers of dead and wounded rose.

Director Autumn Smith is a wonderful, creative theatre artist. But she had a daunting task: to take a show that was 57-years-old, about an event that was more than 100-years- old and make it accessible to a modern audience who might be predominantly millennials.

She tackled the problem with determination, tenacity and lots of imagination by presenting the show as a video game, complete with computer generated images. The narrator for the game—a rather imposing CGI face with eyes that squinted in disbelief or exasperation—that was projected on panel on the side of the stage. The narrator’s voice was commanding and British. We were given a lot of background by those representing  the many countries that ‘played’: Britain, Germany, Russia, Hungry, Austria etc. We got a sense of the hard work in boot camp as the young cast went through its paces climbing over boxes, doing exercise, slithering along the ground. I can’t remember the last time I saw a cast go through such a gruelling regime. Very impressive. The singing was crisp and beautiful—kudos to Music Director, Justin Hiscox.  The most moving scene in the play is the last scene in Act I. It’s Christmas Eve at the front. The Allies are on one side of no man’s land and the Germans are on the other. The Allies hear the singing of a Christmas hymn coming from the other side. Kind words are exchanged to the other side and back. For a minute the two sides meet in the middle, exchange schnapps and handshakes and then go back to their respective trenches and continue killing each other. Beautifully done scene. The futility of war. There are many videos of newsreels of the time with film of battles projected on the back wall.

But while there were admirable aspects to this production there were also many that made it a disappointment. The game analogy doesn’t quite make it if the ‘sides’ are not clearly differentiated. When the players were introduced there was no effort to explain who was fighting whom and that should have been clear. The Germans were on one side and the Allies were on the other according to history books. Littlewood’s play isn’t concerned with this, but if ‘the game’ is the metaphor, then the audience should know who is fighting whom.

When the various countries are introduced with their statistics and other details at the beginning of the game, the people representing the countries could do with better enunciation and clarity of what is being said. Too often it is woefully compromised either by putting too much spin on an accent or screeching into the head microphones. The result is often unintelligible.

The CGI face of the narrator and his information often goes on for too long and the pace lags. There are projections of the horrific numbers of dead and wounded suffered by each country but too often there are characters standing in front of the projections so we can’t actually see clearly what we should be seeing. So the characters then quickly recite the numbers of the countries and again it’s a blur and cluttered. I recall that Germany was in that cluster of numbers. Again, if it’s a game with a winner and a loser, we should see clearly who that is.

The irony of course is that there are no winners in war. Autumn Smith makes that clear in her programme note as does Joan Littlewood in Oh, What A Lovely War! As I said, I appreciate the imagination of Autumn Smith to come up with this concept and stick to it with resolve. I was mighty impressed with the energy of the cast. It’s just that the concept didn’t work and too often what was being said was not clear enough.

Hart House Theatre Presents:

Opened: Feb. 28, 2020.

Closes: March 7, 2020.

Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, approx.

www.harthousetheatre.ca

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