l-r: Oliver Dennis, Nancy Palk
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann


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

Written by Edward Albee

Directed by Diana Leblanc

Set by Astrid Janson

Costumes by Patrick Clark

Lighting by André du Toit

Sound by John Gzowski

Cast: Derek Boyes

Laura Condlln

Oliver Dennis

Kyra Harper

Nancy Palk

Brenda Robins

A beautifully balanced production of a family in a precarious position of Albee’s quietly bristling play. Well worth a visit to see masters navigate the difficult journey through Albee’s play.

 But first: After a few fraught weeks of revelations of the allegations of sexual harassment, bullying and inappropriate touching against Albert Schultz, former Artistic Director of Soulpepper Theatre Company, A Delicate Balance opened at Soulpepper. I held my breath and entered the Young Centre with a sense of heightened anticipation, wondering what the mood would be like. The mood seemed buoyant or was that over-played? The theatre was packed. At curtain time, Alan Dilworth, acting Artistic Director wearing a shirt, vest and jeans, stepped on stage and the place erupted in a long, loud ovation for him. He seemed touched. He told us his name (how rare is that!) welcomed us and thanked us for coming out to the theatre to see a play. Then he left and I exhaled and this wonderful production began.

The Story. On the surface it appears that Tobias (Oliver Dennis) and Agnes (Nancy Palk) have a happy marriage. He listens to her musings, makes the drinks while she natters on about the possibility of losing her mind and he says she’s the sanest person he knows. They seem to amuse each other in a quietly tasteful way.

But then Agnes’ easy banter becomes brittle and critical when Agnes talks about her prickly sister Claire (Brenda Robins) who lives with them. Claire drinks, a lot, and it becomes clear that Tobias acts as a referee between Agnes and Claire. Tobias and Agnes have daughter Julia (Laura Condlln) whose fourth marriage has failed. Julia’s husband never agrees with her, she can’t cope with that rigidity and is coming home to mommy and daddy for comfort.

Tobias and Agnes are accommodating hosts to their best friends Harry (Derek Boyes)  and Edna (Kyra Harper), but when their friends move in because of some unknown terror Harry and Edna experience, then emotions run high, although the volume of the voices does not rise much.

 The Production.  The audience sits on either side of the playing area that runs the length of the theatre.  Astrid Janson’s well-appointed living room set establishes that Tobias and Agnes have money and the taste that goes with it. The first thing you see is a huge long (Persian) rug of vibrant reds that runs the length of the living room. Arranged on the rug are a sofa, chairs, and a liquor cabinet. There are entrance points at either end of the playing area.

But something is wrong. One corner of the rug curls up and rests on the wall in the far stage left (from my side of the audience) corner of the theatre. This is deliberate as if something is bubbling up underneath the very foundation of the house. And it’s true  Janson’s design suggest this in the subtlest of ways with that upturned corner—as if all the unspoken truths, accusation and hurts have bubbled up to be confronted by the family who looked the other way and didn’t face their demons.

Patrick Clark’s costumes also speak volumes about the people involved. Tobias is smartly dressed in pants, shirt and jacket—he is the man of his manor. Agnes is the essence of decorum and good manners and always wears a dress. Claire is a no-nonsense-tell-em-like-it-is kind of woman and wears a top and slacks as does Julia. Edna and Harry are of Tobias and Agnes’ generation and dressing the part is important, so when they first arrive Edna is in a skirt and jacket and Harry is in trousers, a shirt, tie and jacket. (I loved that he wore the tie, it says so much about the character’s sense of appropriateness.)

Director Diana Leblanc establishes a sense of decorum with Agnes and Tobias. The talk is quiet and respectful. Harshness is to be avoided at all cost.  Agnes does not address prickly issues and Claire always does, which would account, in part, to Agnes’ antagonism towards Claire, that and her drinking. Graciousness is the watchword of Agnes. Nancy Palk as Agnes is both gracious and seemingly pleasantly welcoming to her unexpected and uninvited guests Edna and Harry. She tries subtly to find out why they have come. Claire blurts it out.

Still Leblanc keeps the delicate balance of the play on even footing, never allowing it to tip either into biting argument in tone or total obliviousness—these characters are watchful, ready for a weakness to reveal itself and then they can pounce.

As Claire, Brenda Robins has that comical directness down pat. She strides into a room and practically takes it over. When Claire plots how to get even with Agnes, Robins assumes a sly sneer, the humour is cutting. Making people feel uncomfortable by taking them out of their pretence is how Claire operates and Robins does it beautifully. Palk counters with her own barb but in a subtler way.

As Tobias, Oliver Dennis is courtly in his efforts to mediate between the sisters, his daughter and Harry and Edna. While Agnes we learn is really the head of the family, Dennis does not make Tobias an overt wimp. He stands his ground as a man who knows his wife has all the strength. Still Dennis imbues Tobias with a wistfulness of a man who ties hard and knows he has to because his wife is watching.

Laura Condlln is an unsettled, fraught Julie because her marriage has failed again and instead of coming home to comfort, she comes home to find Harry and Edna are in her room and they aren’t leaving. And finally Kyra Harper as Edna and Derek Boyes as Harry, both put up that façade to hide their fear. They have the confidence their friends will take them in and the arrogance to tell those friends how to handle their daughter, decorate the room, even serving drinks.

A Delicate Balance suggests a subdued world that is ready to boil over because of all the manners that hide the ugly bits. Diana Leblanc delicately guides the production to gradually, eventually reach the boiling point. Masterful.

Comment. Of course we can all find echoes of what is happening around Soulpepper to references in the play. Everybody has secrets in this play that others know about. There might have been sexual impropriety in Tobias’, Harry’s and Claire’s past that is touched on, but not fully revealed. Emotions simmer before there is wrenching disclosure. But A Delicate Balance is rich on its own merits without reference to Soulpepper’s woes.

Edward Albee knew first hand of the upper class world and family of Tobias and Agnes. His own family was upper class and wealthy. His parents bickered and snipped at each other. His mother did not have much respect for her talented playwright son and never hid it. Albee knows of the many ways to hurt and sting with a word, a phrase or a fraught situation because he learned it from his family. That’s the world he has created in this complex play and it’s beautifully realized in the production.

 Soulpepper Theatre Company present:

Opened: Jan. 18, 2018.

Closes: Feb. 3, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.



by Lynn on January 20, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer


l-r: Meghan Swaby, Carolyn Fe
Photo: Dahlia Katz







At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written and directed by Audrey Dwyer

Set by Anne Treusch

Costumes by Jackie Chau

Lighting by Bonnie Beecher

Composer and sound design by Johnny Salib

Cast: Don Allison

Matthew Brown

Carolyn Fe

Natasha Greenblatt

Andrew Moodie

Meghan Swaby

A play with good intentions to examine racism, privilege, entitlement and appropriation, to name a few, that falls short because playwright Audrey Dwyer’s focus is too scattered and too skewered in some cases.

The Story. Julie Gordon (Meghan Swaby) is a young twenty-something screenwriter on a tight deadline to write a screenplay “seeking to redress To Kill a Mockingbird through the perspective of Calpurnia – the Finch family maid.” (The words in quotes are from the press release. Right away I see a problem of definition—the novel describes Calpurnia as the “cook”—a huge modern societal, economic and hierarchical difference from the word “maid.” But I digress.)

Julie comes from a wealthy Jamaican-Canadian family. She lives in the family Forest Hill home with her father Lawrence (Andrew Moodie), a retired judge. He came to Canada with his family when he was three-years-old and never went back.  Julie’s mother died when she and her brother Mark were young.  Mark (Matthew Brown) is an up and coming lawyer who has just been profiled in a major article in the newspaper. Lawrence will be hosting a dinner party later that day in which the Senior Partner of a major law firm will be the guest of honour, with the intension that Mark joins that law firm. Never mind that Mark is happy at the firm where he is now, his father says he “can do better at a better law firm.” Mark lives with his white girlfriend Christine (Natasha Greenblatt), who is also a good friend of Julie. Taking care of the Gordon family is Precy (Carolyn Fe) the housekeeper who has been with the family since the children were very small. Precy is from the Philippines.

Much is revealed about the family dynamic as they prepare for the dinner party and for some reason Julie sabotages it in a pretty despicable way.

The Production.  The audience sits on either side of the long playing are. Anna Treusch has created a set that perfectly puts us in the rich world of the Gordon family. On one end is a raised kitchen area with a large, gleaming fridge, smart cabinetry, a central cooking island providing a counter and chairs for a quick bite. In the middle section is a long dining-room table, beautifully appointed with table ornaments. There is the ‘detritus’ of a dinner from the night before, when Lawrence celebrated Mark’s article in the newspaper: plates with left over food, wine/champagne glasses, two empty bottles of Veuve Clicquot. There is also a closed computer at one end of the table.

At the other end of the set is a living room with comfortable chairs, a few end tables and pictures on the wall, one of which is a photo of Lawrence’s late wife. An alcove on the other side of the wall indicates the entrance to the home.

Julie enters quickly from some part of the house, sits at the dining table, puts down a stack of reference books on the table and opens the computer. She is dressed in sweatpants and a hoodie. She writes (taps) with energy and intensity. Distraction is all around her. Precy wants to engage her in conversation but Julie tells her she has a deadline and has to write. Precy disregards her and continues talking.

Lawrence, dressed sportingly in athletic pants, t-shirt and a jacket, is obviously a take-charge kind of guy. He queries Julie about her progress; if she’s filed her various versions of her screenplay in folders or not; and moves her away from the computer so he can show her how to do it, even though she’s said she knows how.

Mark is dressed in casual chic, pants, t-shirt and blazer. He reads what Julie has written and is appalled. Julie feels To Kill a Mockingbird is a racist book and that Calpurnia is a caricature. Mark disagrees. The book and film are his favourites and he contradicts several instances in Julie’s screenplay that are not in the original book. For example: Julie has Atticus Finch hit Calpurnia and treats her badly which is not true in the original.

Julie questions whether Harper Lee, a white woman, had the right to write about black characters such as Calpurnia.  Mark also argues this point too. Interestingly, later in the play Christine asks Julie why she feels she can write about white people since she’s black, seemingly missing her own point from before about Harper Lee appropriating the black voice of Calpurnia. Julie says that she’s studied white people and has observed them and that gives her the right to write about them. Hmmmmm.

We get a sense of Julie’s blinkered agenda being imposed on a classic book in her screenplay. Julie is imposing a modern perspective on a classic that takes place in the 1930s without being able to put anything in context except her rigid perspective. She can’t evaluate the book on its own terms, in its own time period and instead is determined to apply a modern racist agenda on a classic that does sustain it. Mark vociferously expresses his dismay that his sister is distorting To Kill A Mockingbird in her screenplay for her own narrow focus.  Julie replies with equal ire.

Christine also reminds Julie that they usually go to St. Barts to celebrate their late mothers, but again, Julie says she can’t because of the writing deadline. Christine persists in the request.

Talk about a fraught atmosphere. What is clear is that no one in that family has any respect for Julie’s need to meet her deadline. There are constant interruptions regardless of Julie’s insistence that she has to finish her screenplay.

The logical question is: why doesn’t Julie just go to her office/room and write? But then the need for Audrey Dwyer as playwright and director to establish this fraught atmosphere wouldn’t work. So for the sake of creating an emotional situation, the character of Julie looks silly and not a serious writer. Hmmmmm.

Julie interviews Precy about her life and work; if she likes her work; if she goes home to the Philippines often. Precy looks incredulous at the questions and so do we. Precy has been with that family since before their mother died. She has cooked, cleaned,  changed diapers and taken care of them for their whole lives. The fascinating thing is that Julie doesn’t seem to know any of this from her questions. Also when Precy asks Julie if she wants anything to eat, Julie just plops herself down at the counter, waiting to be served, when she’s perfectly capable of getting food herself. Is this Dwyer showing us Julie’s sense of privilege?

Julie disrupts the dinner party in a most despicable way and yet when she is asked why she did it, she has no answer, just a tightly clenched jaw. Why is that? Is she that jealous of her brother and doesn’t want him to succeed? He already has, on his own. I wonder what Dwyer’s intention is with this decision.

Dwyer directs Meghan Swaby as Julie seemingly to be a one-noted, bellowing, ill-tempered harpy.  How do you take Julie seriously as a result? Is that the point?  Why?

Matthew Brown as Mark is grounded, emotional and thoughtful. I’m grateful to Dwyer for providing such an eloquent opponent to Julie’s invective.

Andrew Moodie as Lawrence, is a conglomeration of physical tics (hand clapping to emphasize a decision, laboured sighs before answering a question). Carolyn Fe plays Precy as a matter-of-fact, feisty woman with character and backbone, unafraid to voice her displeasure at what’s happening around her. Natasha Greenblatt plays Christine as a person in a tricky situation, wanting to fit into that family and being solicitous and defensive to what’s going on around her. Don Allison is suave and cool as James, the high-powered lawyer that Lawrence wants his son to impress.

Each of the six characters could have a whole play devoted to them individually.

Comment. Playwright Audrey Dwyer has set up the Gordon family along the same lines as the Finch family in To Kill a Mockingbird. The fathers in both are widowers who worked in law. Both have two children, a boy and a girl. Both families are cared for by a person of colour. The difference is that the Finch family are described as poor and white and the Gordon family are wealthy and Jamaican-Canadian.

There are times when Precy stands her ground and puts Julie in her place for her bad behaviour—just as Calpurnia did to Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird. I love the echoes there in Audrey Dwyer’s writing.

I found it interesting that for all his professed care and love for his family, Lawrence doesn’t have any respect? belief? in his children’s abilities to get ahead on their own. He arranged for the newspaper article to be written about Mark. He arranges the dinner party so Mark can ‘present’ himself to James, the high-powered senior partner of an illustrious law firm, in the hopes Mark will be invited to join them. Lawrence arranges for an agent to accept Julie as a client in spite of her seemingly not having published anything. Indeed Lawrence tells James that Julie is a professional writer because she has an agent. Her brother Mark says that Julie has never actually had a job. Mind-boggling even for children of privilege, or perhaps I’m naïve.

Over the course of the play a uniform point is that every character, be they black or white, reveals racist tendencies, in other words to quote Avenue Q.  “everyone’s a little bit racist.” So perhaps that’s what Dwyer is trying to say—we are all a little bit racist.  I don’t need a jumble of a play to tell us what we already know, whether intentional or by insensitive error.

Over the course of the six years of writing Calpurnia Audrey Dwyer wanted to examine such topics as: Mammy culture, the loyalty people have to To Kill A Mockingbird, “how American Blackness trumps Canadian Blackness when we consider what it means to be Black”, and to “examine Canada, Canadians and how we deal with issues of race, class and gender.” I look forward to any one of these five possible plays that Dwyer might write in the future.

But for Calpurnia it’s a jumble of hot-button topics that needs more focus and distillation. Alas I found it disappointing.

Produced by Nightwood Theatre and Sulong Theatre.

Opened: Jan. 17, 2018

Closes: Feb. 4, 2018.

Running Time: 90 minutes.



Review: LEAR

by Lynn on January 18, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

Seana McKenna
Photo: Michael Cooper


At the Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Toronto. Ont.


Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Graham Abbey

Set and costumes by Peter Hartwell

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Composer George Meanwell

Cast: Karl Ang

Diana Donnelly

Kevin Hanchard

Deborah Hay

Alex McCooeye

Seana McKenna

Jim Mezon

Colin Mochrie

Mercedes Morris

Alex Poch-Goldin

Antoine Yared

A beautifully acted, thoughtfully directed clear rendering of this complex play about an imperious queen-parent who divides her land amongst her daughters with terrible results.

 The Story. For the purposes of this production Lear is a woman, played as a queen by Seana McKenna. Lear decides to step back from ruling and divides her kingdom between her three daughters: Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. But before they get their parcel of land they have to tell her how much they love her. Goneril and Regan knock themselves out with hyperbole. Cordelia tells her she loves her as a daughter should, no more or less. This enrages Lear and she banishes Cordelia. This sets in motion and whole lot of nastiness for a whole lot of people, not the least of whom is Lear.

 The Production. Peter Hartwell’s spare, light wood set suggests elegance and a rustic nature all at once. There are platforms, which when moved, represent different locations. The costumes are mainly black tops and skinny jean-pants. A cream coloured frock might make an appearance, but the clothes are mostly black.

Seana McKenna as Lear, is regal, imperious and utterly commanding. She snaps her fingers for a courtier to do her bidding and gets results of course. She lays out three black leather binders on a table, each binder with a portion of her land for each of her daughters. But first she asks each daughter tell her how much she lovers her to score a portion better than her sister. She smiles when she asks this. It’s a mean trick and I usually get the sense it’s not the first time she’s played this game.  We know Lear has already divided up the land evenly.

But when Lear is crossed, as she is when Cordelia doesn’t play the game, McKenna let’s loose—rage, fury, irrational and quick decisions follow. Slowly Lear loses her grip, her position and almost her mind, until enlightenment results. McKenna’s rendering of “Howl, howl, howl, howl, howl” will slash your heart. Hearing that first elongated, gut twisting, “Howl”, is the anguish of a mother who has lost her world. Devastating.

Deborah Hay as Goneril is the most emotionally damaged Goneril I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a few. In that first scene in the court she quivers with fear that she won’t be able to gush enough for her prickly mother’s pleasure. Hay’s voice trembles and is hesitant. She finds the pluck to give her a good answer.

Later, when Goneril is at home and her mother is there for a regular visit, Goneril is still unsettled but is also growing in confidence and even anger to fight back, and fight back she does. It’s a masterful performance full of such thoughtful detail it makes me consider that perhaps this is the first time Lear is playing this “Tell-me-how-much-you-love-me-and-I’ll-give-you-a-present-better-than-your-sister” game.

Diana Donnelly as Regan on the other hand, is cold steely resolve. This Regan is  calculating and won’t let Lear brow-beat her as she brow-beat Goneril. Donnelly gives a gripping performance of a woman who would marry a mean bully like Cornwall who would gouge out the eyes of the defenceless Gloucester. And Regan enjoyed the blood. It’s interesting to see how this Regan gets bolder and bolder in her conniving and more ruthless.

The naïve Cordelia, as played by Mercedes Morris, does not play the flattery game as her sisters do and she endures her mother’s wrath because of it. This is a more subdued performance from Morris. This is a Cordelia full of compassion.

This is a splendid cast of actors who have a gift for Shakespeare, how to speak his words with depth and sensitivity to his poetry. In director Graham Abbey you have a man who is only interested in the text and how to tell the story as clearly as possible. His pared down productions, so beautifully rendered, are the result.

Comment.  Once again, Graham Abbey has assembled a group of actors and designers who grapple with Shakespeare’s complex plays, examine, parse, dig deep, ponder, evaluate and present a production that is clear in its intent, gripping in emotion, and illuminate the human condition. Wonderful work.

Grounding Theatre Company presents:

 Opened: Jan. 12, 2018.

Closes: Jan. 28, 2018.

Running Time: 3 hours.




At the Assembly Theatre, 1479 Queen St. W., Toronto, Ont.

Written by Sam Shepard

Directed by Scott Walker

Set by Adam Belanger

Costumes by Janelle Joy Hince

Lighting by Steve Vargo

Cast: Michael Eisner

Matthew Gouveia

David Lafontaine

Jennifer McEwen

Mark Paci

Anthony Ulc

A late play of the prolific Sam Shepard with all the anger and angst of families, but not with the same punch of his better known earlier plays.

 The Story. Earl (Mark Paci) and Ray (David Lafontaine) are estranged brothers, who meet in rural New Mexico because their father, Henry Moss, has died and arrangements have to be made. Earl, the older brother, is an angry, bellowing bully. Ray is quiet, watchful and wily. Ray knows how to ‘play’ his brother with past transgressions. They fight about the past. They argue about what to do with their father’s body. There is a mystery about how their father died and what Earl knows about it.

 The Production. Adam Belanger’s set of a run-down one-room adobe shack is masterful—shabby yet solid. Mark Paci is an imposing presence as Earl: scowling, loud and dangerous. Henry Moss was a physically violent father who beat up his wife and kids and Earl has grown up to be a bully as well. Paci is a fine actor and mines the character to come up with a character who is not just a loud-mouth bully.  Ray, as played by David Lafontaine, is more sophisticated and cerebral. He’s dangerous too, but in a quieter, more sinister way.

Director Scott Walker uses the small Assembly Theatre space well. The staging is organic and never seems extraneous. The relationship of the brothers and Earl with his father are particularly effective. There is a sense of foreboding, of impending violence if any of these men have anything to do with it.

Comment. The Late Henry Moss has all of the usual hallmarks of a Sam Shepard play: it takes place in the mid-west U.S. of sorts; Henry Moss lived away from people;  Shepard’s characters are angry, suspicious, often violent. It’s a play about families in crisis, brother vs. brother, son vs. father.

And for all its heightened emotion, The Late Henry Moss is one deadly dull evening in the theatre because the play seems so padded. There is a character who is a taxi driver who seems to have information about an encounter with Henry that the brothers need and want. The scene with the driver is so long, full of starts and stops before any information is revealed, you wonder why the character is there at all.

Another character is a neighbour named Esteban who makes several entrances bringing soup for Henry before we actually get any reason why he is in the play as well. In several conversations between the brothers, Earl bellows out “What” after Ray says something, I’m wondering, didn’t you hear him (they stand about two feet away from one another) and you’re deaf, or you’re just stupid and didn’t understand what he said. In either case I always find that exchange dreary dull; a playwright who is filling time and not providing information. That’s how I felt about this effort by Sam Shepard. Not one of his best.

 Produced by Unit 102 Actors Co.

Began: Jan 4, 2018.

Closes: Jan. 20, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes approx.


At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Dave Deveau

Directed by Cameron Mackenzie

Set and costumes by Marina Szijarto

Lighting by Jergus Oprsal

Sound by Shawn Sorensen

Cast: Conor Wylie

A thoughtful, moving exploration of a horrific murder from the point of view of how it  affected many of the people surrounding the story.

 The Story.  In My Funny Valentine playwright, Dave Deveau references the 2008 murder in California of 15 year old Larry King by 14 year-old  Brandon McInerney when King asked McInerney if he would be his Valentine. The next day, February 12,  at school, Brandon McInerney went up to Larry King and shot him twice.  Larry King died Feb. 14. Larry King was on life-support for those two days so the hospital could donate his organs to people who needed them.

My Funny Valentine is not about what went on in the minds of both boys. It’s about how the story affected so many people around the story; some who knew one or both boys, some who didn’t but were somehow involved. In fact Deveau does not actually deal with the actual story, but does have reference points to it.

The Production. In Marina Szijarto’s set there is a chair and other stuff one finds in a kid’s room at the top of the stage. Circling out from this stuff, on the floor are papers, books and memorabilia from a childhood.

Conor Wylie enters, carefully stepping over the papers on the floor.  He wears sweat pants, a loose t-shirt over which is a white shirt. And he’s bare-foot as if he’s walking on a sacred space when he comes on stage. I always think there is something ceremonial when an actor comes on stage barefoot.

Wylie plays someone called “The Collector” as if he is the collector of many different personalities, identities, voices. Wylie plays every one of these characters with nuance, varying body language and physicality. He also has charm and a sense of danger.

The production starts with the rookie reporter who sees the story on the television news about how one boy shot another at school. He rushes off with this scoop to cover the story for his local newspaper. That scoop is the beginning of the reporter’s  career in journalism.

Helen is a teacher of the dead boy and is terribly upset and moved by the news. We know she’s a woman because Conor Wylie wears an over the shoulder purse which he keeps adjusting, as a woman would do. Helen is heartsick about the boy, defensive with her chiding husband and generally miserable about the whole thing.

We meet the protective father of a teen aged boy. It’s obvious the father is a rabid homophobe. Wylie sits in the chair, his legs apart, leaning forward, challenging and combative in his invective. That blinkered attitude is carried over to his teenaged son it seems.

We get a glimpse into the life of the dead boy—he was openly gay at 15, wore heels and make-up and pressed the buttons of his classmates.  Deveau shows so many aspects of the story, and so many different attitudes that you see how complex the story is.

The most poignant scene involves a young girl in the hospital, blanket up to her chin, excited about her future and ‘the operation.’ She needs an organ transplant and a liver from the recently deceased Larry King will save her life.

Cameron Mackenzie has directed My Funny Valentine beautifully. Each character, whether a man or a woman, is simply suggested and fully formed.


 I loved this play and production. Dave Deveau has looked at a terrible story from all sides. He’s created a play that is complex, layered, compassionate, and not a cut and dried look at a terrible crime.

Presented by Zee Zee Theatre.

 Opened: Jan. 11, 2018.

Closes: Jan. 21, 2018.

Running Time: 90 minutes.


Review: HAMLET

by Lynn on January 14, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer


Noah Reid
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann


At the Tarragon Theatre, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Richard Rose

Sound design and music director, Thomas Ryder Payne

Lighting by Jason Hand

Costumes by Kathleen Johnston

Cast: Tiffany Ayalik

Rachel Cairns

Tantoo Cardinal

Beau Dixon

Greg Gale

Jesse LaVercombe

Brandon McGibbon

Jack Nicholsen

Noah Reid

Cliff Saunders

Nigel Shawn Williams

Hamlet presented as a rock concert with the text being the ‘lyrics’. The question is why? What is to be revealed with this concept when almost all subtlety, nuance and detail are ignored. 

 The Story. You know the story unless you’ve been in a cave in Antarctica for 500 years.

 The Production. The production is wild. Director Richard Rose has conceived this as an old fashioned rock concert with the text of Hamlet  being the lyrics. Every character holds an old-fashioned wireless microphone that they speak into when they talk to one another.  Sometimes they lean forward as rock singers do when singing to other singers.

Often they speak in various styles of music—rap, hip hop (Imagine it, Shakespeare’s words presented like a rap song).

Often speeches are sung—all the music was composed and arranged by the ensemble. Many actors in the production also play musical instruments during the production: piano, guitar, drums, ukulele and accordion. Most of the band is composed of the actors in the production. But occasionally the band is so loud that you can’t make out what the actor is singing—I try to hear if it was by any chance Shakespeare’s words, but could not tell.

Brandon McGibbon is impressive playing various guitars. And he is an interesting as a long-haired, lanky, musician as Laertes. Beau Dixon is fabulous on the drums, whacking out complex percussive patterns, providing atmospheric sound and rhythm and effective in his small roles of Bernardo and the Player Queen.

There always seems to be an underscore of music or sound (Thomas Ryder Payne) that is very atmospheric, but I wonder why Shakespeare needs added sound effects to heighten emotion or tension that should be created by the words and proper acting.

This production is very spare: four or five metal chairs, a piano over there and an expensive drum-kit at the centre of way up stage. Indeed there is no credit for a stage designer.

Often the very loud band is a blessing because it drowns out the many actors on that stage who don’t have much of an idea of how to speak Shakespeare’s language, or understand his poetry, or just get the nuances. In many instances lines are cut making the play seem spare as well, even at three hours.

For example, much of the speeches of Polonius (Cliff Saunders) are cut (especially in his advice to Laertes) thus making him seem like a superficial buffoon instead of a wily politician.

There are so many layers to this play and too many of them are not explored. For example: Hamlet’s mother Gertrude married Claudius, her brother-in-law, just two months after her husband Hamlet Sr. died.  This has so many implications and possibilities for character development and none more than in the Mousetrap scene.

This is a scene that Hamlet has the visiting players play out: the murder of a king by a man who marries the dead man’s wife. This therefore echoes the murder Hamlet Sr. by his brother Claudius, and Hamlet has it played out in front of Claudius and Gertrude.

Yet there is Tantoo Cardinal as Gertrude, listening and watching the scene without a hint that she realizes how similar that story is to what happened in her life. Not a hint. Claudius certainly gets it.  Was Cardinal directed to act uninvolved? Why? What a waste of an opportunity to make Gertrude into a complex woman, instead of this uninvolved person. Makes no sense.

Richard Rose’s staging of the final scene further robs the production of nuance. Gertrude is way over here and drinks from the poisoned cup. Claudius is way over there and tells her not to drink from it (because he knows it’s poisoned). Hamlet and Laertes are sword fighting in the middle. Where does the audience look? I’m looking at Gertrude to see if she twigs that Claudius has poisoned the drink meant for her son. Nope, she just staggers and says: “No, no, the cup, the cup….” and collapses. The scene is so scattered we can’t get the full sense of whether she pins Claudius with a stare or not before she collapses. Frustrating.

The one solid saving grace is Noah Reid as Hamlet. He is a thoughtful, emotional Hamlet. He’s brooding, heartsick, and a bit of a hot-head.  And he plays the ukulele and accordion with aplomb. He more than any other actor in the production captures the essence of his character.

I don’t doubt the commitment of the ensemble of this pared down production. All that rock music creates a production that ‘flattens’ the play into this deadly dull lump.

Comment. What’s the point of all this? Well, beats me.  Director Richard Rose is a smart man. He loves Shakespeare. I can appreciate that a director gets an idea for a concept and then runs with it. And honestly I tried to parse out the various directorial choices to see what Mr. Rose wanted us to see. Why does Hamlet say the “To be, or not to be” speech without any kind of amplification and the rest is said with a microphone? Why is Ophelia’s first speech said without a hand held microphone but she wears a body microphone to amplify her voice and then uses the hand held mic thereafter? Why is there a cross-out stroke through the title in the program and on the posters? How does using the rock concert setting illuminate the play? Questions, questions, and I’m no closer to any answers in this frustrating, unsatisfying production.

Produced by Tarragon Theatre

Opened: Jan. 10, 2018.

Closes: Feb. 11, 2018.

Running Time: 3 hours.




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At the Factory Theatre, Toronto, Ont.


Presented by Sex-T-Rex

Created by Sex-T-Rex                                                                                 Directed by Alex Toller                                                                             Cast: Jon Blair

Conor Bradbury

Julian Frid

Kaitlin Morrow

Seann Murray

The beginning of the wild, raucous, joyful swashbuckling story is right out of The Princess Bride. A grandfather baby-sits his grand child and shows him a video game that was big in his, the grandfather’s, day. As they look at the screen, both are transported back in time when three friends fought battles for people’s honour and for doing right against dastardly people. The story involves two nations that have been in constant war against each other. There are fire-breathing dragons, fires that kill best friends, a damsel in distress, and two swordsman who pine for their long-dead third friend.

The physicality of the show is athletic, bold, muscular and inventive. The sword fights are fast, furious and hilarious. Dragons are created out of swaths of material. Fire is created by reconfiguring the material into bursts of flame. The gifted actors are serious and breathless in their various quests to right wrongs, get the bad guys and one driven woman, slay dragons and do all manner of swordplay. It’s buoyant, funny, dazzlingly creative and a joy from top to bottom. A friend at the same performance said she had not seen “anything this silly in a long time. God bless them.” Amen.


Presented by Rabbit in a Hat Productions

Written by Alix Sobler

Directed by Paul Van Dyck

Costumes by Christine Urquhart

Set by Chandos Ross

Lighting by Steve Vargo

Composer and sound by Richard Feren

Fight and intimacy choreographer, Jade Elliot

Cast: Parmida Vand

Erica Anderson

Glenda Braganza

Alanis Peart

Allan Michael Brunet

Jason Deline

When Jonno begins his radio show with: “Why hello there. Happy Wednesday” then goes into a long esoteric essay; the reference to Jian Ghomeshi is unmistakable. We see Jonno, smooth-talking, charming, coming on to various women, turning on them, choking and hitting them. There is even a character named Mr. Donkey Long Ears, referencing the floppy-eared toy that witnesses it all.  Even though Jonno is a white American, we know who Playwright Alix Sobler is talking about.

The play aspires to be about the abuse of power by men over women; the power to be physically, sexually and emotionally abusive to women. Arrogance, hubris and having a seemingly untouchable place in his company drives Jonno to prey on defenceless women.

What is there to say about such a huge story (as the Jian Ghomeshi case was)  today? What new insight does the playwright want to reveal? Alas, one concludes Sobler doesn’t have anything new or provocative to say. The three women Jonno ‘hits on’, resort to philosophising about his background, his behaviour, his need to control. They engage in pop psychology but without much credibility. The characters are not properly fleshed out for us to ‘trust’ their assumptions. At no time does anyone actually ask Jonno why he hits and chokes the women, and liking ‘rough sex’ doesn’t cover it. The only one Jonno does trust is Mr. Donkey Long Ears and even he does not really take Jonno to task, except to remind him of “what happened in Denver,” which we assume must have been pretty serious. The acting is unremarkable so again, the argument is not strongly made. All in all, a disappointment.

 The Surprise

Presented by Christel Bartelse/Dutch Girl Productions

Written and performed by Christel Bartelse

Directed by Andy Massingham                                                                Sound by Sam Earle                                                                                    Choreography by Shawn Byfield

Ginger is very excited. She’s planning a surprise birthday party for a special person and the audience are corralled into being the guests who will shout “Surprise!”,  blow horns and even give her gifts. Ginger has supplied the party hats, the horns, name tags on which to write our names and even a bag of chips. It’s all festive and a bit frantic as Ginger checks to see if the guest has arrived, rehearses us in our expressions of greetings when the guest arrives and checking other details.

And while one does expect a good laugh from a clown show, The Surprise is unsettling. Three audience members have been selected to present the guest of honour with presents.

Unfortunately these gifts are less than appreciated by her because each one reminds her that she is getting older and she doesn’t want to. As a result this also makes the giver of the gift rather embarrassed it would seem to me. Clowning with a touch of cruelty makes this one of my least favourite forms of performance.


Moonlight After Midnight

Presented by Concrete Drops Theatre

Written by Martin Dockery

Dramaturg, Vanessa Quesnelle

Cast: Martin Dockery

Vanessa Quesnelle

A man sits in a chair downstage. A woman enters the room upstage and sees him. He turns to her and tells her not to act as if she knows him. They begin role-playing going over and over in minute detail how a role changes, or shifts, how the relationship morphs into something else. She asks him questions because she has pre-knowledge of him we don’t know yet. He is evasive and coy. Getting a straight answer out of him is a challenge for her and after a while a chore to listen to for me.

They obviously know each other so why the games? Perhaps it’s how they passed the time when they weren’t in that hotel room. Who are they?  (They are not identified in the program with names) After a while of the endless role-playing I didn’t care. It’s one thing for two characters to engage in an activity they find interesting, it’s quite another to also engage the audience into sticking with them as they split hairs about points in a debate. At one point in this endless hour’s show I wrote one word on my program: “drivel.” We find out who they are in the last few minutes of the show but man, is it a long slog.

Vanessa Quesnelle plays the woman with an understated, quiet engagement. Martin Dockery as the man is another matter. From constantly ploughing his fingers through his hair, pulling at his nose and stroking his chin, I was aware it’s been a long time since I saw an actor as annoying as he is.


The “F” Word

 Presented by SaMel Tanz

Choreographed by SaMel Tanz in collaboration with the dancers

Cast: Ella Avila

Melissa Hart

Lilly Giroux

Kimberly Khawa

Holly Pocket

Irena Ponizova

Samantha Schleese

The “F” in the title stands for “feminism.” The show looks at how women are perceived in the work-place and society; how body-image comes into play; how they dress and what is appropriate.

The company is composed of women. Some dress in dresses and some in pants to suggest men and women. All are beautiful dancers. The various segments clearly investigate aspects of feminism. All are smart, accomplished and illuminating. One in particular is stunning. A man and a woman are on stage.  A waiter arrives with a tray on which are two glasses of water. One glass is full and the other is half full. He gives the full glass of water to the man and the half-full glass to the woman. Is there any better way of illuminating the inequality of the sexes in perception in society, in the work place, in relationships etc. than that.

A terrific dance piece that says everything about the subject with clarity and punch. Loved it.




It’s here! The debut of the #SlotkinandFisher #TheaTO podcast! Host/producer Tom McGee broke up our  Toronto Fringe #NSTF coverage into 2 episodes: Part 1 today, part 2 tomorrow!

Steve Fisher and I discuss, debate, and even go head to head about theatre we see in Toronto in a bi-weekly podcast. We started with reviews of: The Harold Experience, Birthday Balloon, Good Morning, Viet Mom, Moonlight After Midnight and Leila Live!

Check out our first podcast here: