At the Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Several horribly late mini-reviews.

Billy Elliot (the musical)

Book and lyrics by Lee Hall

Music by Elton John

Directed and choreographed by Donna Feore

Musical director, Franklin Brasz

Orchestrations by Martin Koch

Set by Michael Gianfrancesco

Costumes by Dana Osborne

Lighting by Michael Walton

Projection design by Jamie Nesbitt

Sound by Peter McBoyle

Cast: Marion Adler

Scott Beaudin

Dan Chameroy

Colton Curtis

Nolen Dubuc

Emerson Gamble

Steve Ross

Vanessa Sears

Blythe Wilson

and others…

Donna Feore, director/choreographer is the queen of the Stratford musicals. She creates polished productions that realize the story, go like the wind and leave the audience breathless. Billy Elliot (the musical) and Little Shop of Horrors get the Feore treatment this year.

Billy Elliot (the musical—well what else would it be?)  takes place in the north of England during the miners’ strike during Margaret Thatcher’s years as Prime Minister. Money is tight for the Elliot family—Billy, his brother Tony, his father Jackie and his grandmother. Billy’s father finds the money to send him to boxing lessons every Saturday. But one day Billy blunders into Mrs. Wilkinson’s ballet class and finds he likes it. She takes him under her wing because he has talent unbeknownst to his father. The strike escalates. The money for Billy’s weekly lessons all but disappears. What to do? The dilemmas abound.

The star of this production is Nolen Dubuc as Billy. His dancing and acting abilities are astonishing. Under Donna Feore’s direction his acting is natural and his dancing is effortless and inspiring for one so young—he’s eleven. Dan Chameroy plays Billy’s father with assurance, heartache and love for his son. The story pulls at ones heartstrings and one can say that sentimentality suffuses this show. It’s hard to deny. Billy’s mother has died but he is visited by her spirit (a beautifully understated performance by Vanessa Sears). He is shown real respect and encouragement by Mrs. Wilkinson played with feistiness and attitude by Blythe Wilson. There are lovely scenes between Billy and his friend Michael who also marches to a different drummer. Michael is played by Emerson Gamble who is both sweet and endearing.

If I have a quibble it’s that scenes involving the police who come to break up picketers in the strike seem like cartoon keystone cops instead of being intimidating. The overall effect however is that we are watching a musical of a kid who does not fit into that rough community, yet that community rallies to see that he has a chance to further his dancing. Bring Kleenex.

Plays until Nov. 24, 2019. (held over to this date)


Little Shop of Horrors

Book and lyrics by Howard Ashman

Music by Alan Menken

Based on the film by Roger Corman, screenplay by Charles Griffith

Directed by choreographed by Donna Feore

Musical director, Laura Burton

Orchestrations by Robert Merkin

Set by Michael Gianfrancesco

Costumes by Dana Osborne

Lighting by Michael Walton

Sound by Peter McBoyle

Projection design by Jamie Nesbitt

Cast: Matthew G. Brown

Dan Chameroy

Gabi Epstein

André Morin

Steve Ross

and others.

Seymour Krelborn (André Morin) is a meek, shy man who works in a flower shop. He loves Audrey (Gabi Epstein) who also works in the shop, but she has a boyfriend Orin (Dan Chameroy), a dentist who loves to inflict pain, especially on Audrey. Everybody tells her to dump him but she says she loves him.

Seymour buys a strange plant from someone and learns that the thing this odd plant loves to eat is human blood. He names the plant Audrey II after Audrey. Seymour tries to accommodate his plant’s need of blood, first giving it his own, and then branching out. The plant thrives and grows in the flower shop owned by Mr. Mushnik (A wonderful, kindly Steve Ross). The shop gets noticed because of the size of Audrey II. Business is booking but so is the need to fee Audrey II. The plant wants nothing short of world domination, as a plant might do. What’s to be done? There’s a lot of singing about it.

André Morin imbues Seymour with such a puppy demeanour. He is devoted to Audrey and wants nothing more than to protect her from the overly-excited, self-absorbed Orin. Seymour is kind, determined and devoted. As Audrey, Gabi Epstein is needy, insecure and deluded about Orin’s love for her. Dan Chameroy is so over-the-top as Orin, swivel hips, sucking of the dental gas he uses and loves giving pain one thinks he’s a touch too much.

The production is stylish and Audrey II is a creation to make your eyes pop thanks to Donna Feore’s concept of the production. As Audrey II’s voice Matthew G. Brown packs a lot of attitude.

But in this day and age of sensitive issues being re-examined such as abuse and bullying, I wonder if it’s not wisest to put Little Shop of Horrors away. Orin physically beats Audrey. She takes it because she thinks he loves her and she loves him. Her friends know that isn’t so and they tell her repeatedly. It’s the classic case of a person knowing she should leave him but not being able to. I know Orin get’s his comeuppance but accepting that as right just plays into the easy solution of the piece. Best to put it away.

Plays until Nov. 2, 2019.


Private Lives

Written by Noël Coward

Directed by Carey Perloff

Choreographer, Sara-Jeanne Hosie

Set by Ken MacDonald

Costumes by Christina Poddubiuk

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Music director, Laura Burton

Cast: Sarah Dodd

Lucy Peacock

Mike Shara

Sophia Walker

Geraint Wyn Davies

Elyot Chase (Geraint Wyn Davies) and Amanda Prynne (Lucy Peacock)  can’t live with or without one another. They tried. Really. They were married but bickered and sparred and fought and finally divorced. They both remarried younger partners. Elyot has married Sibyl (Sophia Walker) and Amanda has married Victor (Mike Shara). Both are on their honeymoon and both are at the same hotel for it, in suites next door to each other. They realize this after each couple comes out on the terrace to enjoy a cocktail and the view. And each has a fight with their spouse. When Elyot and Amanda see each other on the next door terrace they rekindle their love for each other and run away to Paris to her flat to hide and enjoy each other. They are older, sort of wiser and still they can’t live with or without each other.

Set designer Ken MacDonald puts us right in that world of money, yachts and sea. Don’t expect a straightforward set for this provocative designer. He creates the world of the play by suggesting so much about it. Large curved white structures suggest that resort they are in. The curved walls also suggest the huge yachts in the bay that are referenced. Also at the back are curved slits in the white walls with flints of blue suggesting the waves of the Mediterranean. The railings that front the suites and the ones that separate them are curved like waves. That motif is also carried over into Amanda’s stylish yet bohemian flat in Paris. Gorgeous.

In Carey Perloff’s production the age difference between the new spouses is pronounced to illuminate how suitable Elyot and Amanda are for each other and how unsuitable Elyot is for Sibyl and Amanda is for Victor.

Elyot and Amanda are irreverent, impishly funny, brash in their attitudes and demeanours. Elyot wears a peach coloured blazer and white slacks when he first enters the terrace to see the vista. Kudos to costume designer Christina Poddubiuk. It says he is confident in his skin, garish but stylish and not afraid to flaunt it. Amanda for her part enters in a flowing boldly designed frock. She too is confident in her skin and stylish as well. She’s not garish in her clothes choices but still bold. There is delicious chemistry between Lucy Peacock as Amanda and Geraint Wyn Davies as Elyot. They understand the shorthand between them and their characters.

 Sibyl is in a form fitted suit that looks properly dowdy. She has a slight petulant whine and she doesn’t seem to have a sense of humour. Victor is in a three piece brown suit and tie. He is buttoned up. He talks to Amanda as if she is an impetuous child, complete with hands on his hips with “Now Mandy,” as if reprimanding a kid. He too has no sense of humour. He is all proper. Yes, perhaps Sibyl and Victor are better suited for each other but they are lousy partners for Elyot and Amanda.

Finally there is the part of Louise, Amanda’s made in Paris. Louise is a ‘sucker part.’ It can’t fail. First of all the character has a cold so the actress playing her—the force of nature that is Sarah Dodd—has a field day sniffling, being adenoidal and sneezing. Then the character has attitude. And finally she speaks only French. When she comes into the flat in after there has been a terrible fight she lets rip with French invective etc. Sucker part. Sarah Dodd is wonderful playing her.

Carey Perloff brings off this production with aplomb.

Plays until Oct. 26, 2019.


The Execution of Lady Jane Grey



Mother’s Daughter

Written by Kate Hennig

Directed by Alan Dilworth

Designed by Lorenzo Savoini

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Sound by Debashis Sinha

Cast: Beryl Bain

Jessica B. Hill

Irene Poole

Andrea Rankin

Shannon Taylor

Maria Vacratsis

Gordon Patrick White

This is the third play in Kate Hennig’s Queenmaker trilogy. The first was The Last Wife, about Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife. She was formidable in seeking recognition for her two step-daughters, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Mary and for being a political force in Henry’s court.

Then The Virgin Trial is about the teenage Princess Elizabeth and her various involvements. We see a political animal in the making here; how she was involved in political intrigue and was instrumental in creating it.

And now Mother’s Daughter. It’s about Mary Tudor who was not considered in the line of succession by her half-brother Edward VI because she was Catholic and he felt she might reverse all his Protestant reforms. On his death bed Edward VI chose as his heir Lady Jane Grey. Mary amassed her supporters and deposed Jane and put her in the  Tower. Jane was Queen for only nine days. While history knows Mary as “Bloody Mary” that came after the time line of Kate Hennig’s play.

In power Mary is thoughtful, weighs her decisions carefully and listens to her court of (women) advisers. But Mary is haunted by the ghost of her mother, Katherine of Aragon or Catalina for the play’s purposes.  Her mother’s ghost tries to drive Mary into doing her (her mother’s) bidding about what to do about court intrigue especially Lady Jane Grey. If she has her executed various results will happen. If she doesn’t other results will happen.

The startling painting of “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey” by Paul Delaroche that hangs in the National Gallery in London, England tells us what decision Mary made. The painting depicts a blind-folded Jane kneeling in front of the chopping block, the burley Archbishop of Canterbury bends over her with his arms tenderly around her for comfort, her ladies in waiting crying over there by the wall, while over here, waiting patiently, is a man in maroon tights and doublet, with the long handle of an ax resting in his palm. It’s my favourite painting in the gallery.

Kate Hennig explores the idea of politics, women in power, hard decisions and weighing the various scenarios and options in order to reach a conclusion. She has taken an historical event and given it her own interpretation and also made it contemporary. Her language is bracing, gritty, articulate and speaks to power from a woman’s perspective today. This is not a woman playing the man’s game. This is a woman playing her own game in a dangerous world.

Shannon Taylor is a formidable Mary. She’s tempered, nuanced, watchful and patient. Trying to balance what she thinks and the interference from the ghost of her mother Catalina (a wonderful, fearless Irene Poole) is to see a commanding presence in power. Alan Dilworth directs with a sensitive eye and care to detail as he has done with the other two installments.

Closed: Oct. 13, but will have another life when it plays Toronto later in the season.

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At the Streetcar Crowsnest Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Music, lyrics and text by Dave Malloy

Directed by Marie Farsi

Musical direction by Andrew Penner

Set, lighting and costumes by Patrick Lavender

Cast: Beau Dixon

Hailey Gillis

Kira Guloien

Andrew Penner

A stunningly atmospheric, beautifully designed and meticulously directed and performed production of Dave Malloy’s complex, playful, macabre song cycle.

Dave Malloy’s song cycle about ghosts, the macabre, two devoted sisters who were betrayed in love, a broken camera, a subway driver, a photographer, a pusher and a victim, among others, was first performed in New York in 2014. Malloy references Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”, the music of Thelonious Monk, ghost stories, hip-hop, jazz, honky-tonk, mythology and astronomy. The many benefits of whisky are celebrated by the characters who reveal the many secrets of this beguiling, challenging, intoxicating glorious show.

The four characters enter Patrick Lavender’s beautifully designed, evocatively lit space. They each pour a glass of whisky, clink glasses, down the drink and then go to their respective places in the space.

Instruments hang on the wall for easy access. A drum kit is over here. A piano with a bright covering is over there. There is a small bar and other appropriate pieces. Three of the characters are dressed casually (Hailey Gillis, Kira Guloien and Andrew Penner). One tall gentleman (Beau Dixon) is in a stylish coat underneath is a suit and tie. He plays the piano and assumes the spectre of the late jazz great Thelonious Monk. Andrew Penner plays the guitar while his foot hits a peddle that bangs the drum. And he also plays the harmonica and the kazoo as well, although not at the same time. And he sings. Hailey Gillis and Kira Guloien play sisters Rose and Pearl respectively among others. And they sing beautifully and play various instruments.

Dave Malloy’s two record album of Ghost Quartet is put on a turntable and each song is announced by one of the characters, for example:  “Side one, track one, “I Don’t Know.” The show and the songs are announced that way to lend it a certain theatricality. There are several strands of stories and they are not linear in their telling. We might hear of a story on one side of one record and pick it up later on another side of another record in another track. “Usher” is sung in three scattered parts and refers to “The House of Usher.”

Rose was in love with an astronomer who lived in a tree house. He stole some of her writing and passed it off as his own. Then he dumped her for her sister Pearl. Both loved him to distraction. There was friction between the sisters.

We are given a taste of each story then it’s left for another. If you keep this in mind and go with the flow and not ‘demand’ it all neatly follow then you will be fine. The artistry of Malloy’s writing and his music—not melodic in the regular sense of the word—is the dense storytelling, the many literary references and the challenge of finding each surprise.

While it’s billed as a ‘ghost quartet’ because the characters might be ghosts, the feeling, the atmosphere, is anything but mournful. Hailey Gillis jumps with joy during a few of the songs. Her face is radiant. The joy is infectious. Kira Guloien is sophisticated and more subdued, but no less compelling. She is a strong soprano. Beau Dixon plays the piano beautifully, speaks with quiet authority and is an imposing presence. Andrew Penner sings in a strong, mournful voice and plays many instruments, almost at the same time.  The clarity of the sound is eye-popping and so welcome. You hear every note, every lyric and every word.

The production is directed with dazzling creativity by Marie Farsi. She is not showing off her talent as much as she is illuminating the show, those songs, those characters and everything surrounding it. Patrick Lavender’s lighting is both murky, smoky, ghost-like and stark.

It’s a show you can and will want to see again just to catch what you might have missed. Ghost Quartet is a huge accomplishment for both Crow’s Theatre and Eclipse Theatre Company.

Crow’s Theatre and Eclipse Theatre Company present:

Began: Oct. 5, 2019.

Held over to: Nov. 10, 2019.

Running Time: 80 minutes approx.


Review: PAL JOEY

by Lynn on October 15, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Five Points Theatre, Barrie, Ont.

Book by John O’Hara

Lyrics by Lorenz Hart

Music by Richard Rodgers

Directed by Esther Jun

Musical direction by Dan Rutzen

Choreography by Alyssa Martin

Set and lighting by Joe Pagnan

Costumes by Michelle Bohn

Cast: Tess Benger

Aidan deSalaiz

Izad Etemadi

Sierra Holder

Derek Kwan

Billy Lake

Michaela Mar

Alison J. Palmer

Kristen Pottle

Giovanni Spina

Justin Stadnyk

Carly Street


William Dietrich

Naomi Hughes

Ryan Johnston

A deliberately rough around the edges production done really well,  about a charming n’er do well who was smooth but rough around the edges.

The Story.  We are in Chicago in the late 1930s. Joey Evans is everybody’s pal but nobody’s friend. He’s an operator chatting up women he thinks can bankroll him or at least pay for his coffee. He has a line for everyone and almost no one falls for it. Some do but they get wise. He sings in a two-bit club run by a harried manager named Mike. One day Mrs. Vera Simpson, a society dame, comes into the club with her posse of men. Her husband is otherwise engaged making money. Vera is initially offended by Joey then intrigued and then attracted. She sets him up in his own club. But Joey is antsy. The relationship goes south and I don’t mean Missouri.

The Production. Joe Pagnan has designed a nicely pared down set that suggests grunge and later slickness. When Joey Evans (Justin Stadnyk) talks his way into a job at the second rate club that Mike (Izad Etemadi)  manages, the surroundings are simple: a round table and chairs that will be used first for Mike who barks at the chorus girls to step it up and get it together and then later as a table for a celebrated guest—Mrs. Simpson (Carly Street) etc. Later when Joey has his own spiffy club, the idea of class is suggested by a neon sign of his name.

Michelle Bohn’s costumes put us right in that world of the late 1930s. Mike  first works without a jacket. He wears a white shirt, suspenders holding up black pants and light beige socks and black shoes. I loved that note of the beige socks with dark pants and black shoes. It says everything out Mike’s lack of sartorial splendor.

Joey on the other hand is all about flash and appearance. He wears a fedora and a suit with confidence and style. Whatever he lacks in reality he makes up for with a line of baloney. When he talks his way into hosting the show at Mike’s club Joey wears a double breasted tuxedo.

Justin Stadnyk as Joey is slim, boyish, charming, always smiling and never flustered. He carries off that charm with style because we know that Joey is all hot air and pretense. Watching him spin a line, first to Linda, played as sweet and trusting by Michaela Mar then to Mrs. Simpson (Carly Street). Mrs. Simpson enters draped in fur and appropriate 1930s sophisticated clothes, with an entourage of two men. She’s slumming when she comes into the club.  Here Joey meets his match because Carly Street as Mrs. Simpson can talk him down and has his number. Toying with this charmer is a game for this bored society dame. Still she is charmed by his brashness and knowingly gets involved with him, gets him new, stylish clothes, sets him up in an apartment and even ‘gives’ him his own club, “Chez Joey.”

Again, Stadnyk as Joey continues in this step up with trusting confidence, not twigging that it could end with one wrong word. Mrs. Simpson has style, smarts and awareness. This is so evident in Street’s singing of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” It’s poignant, thoughtful and knowing—she’s done this before and can’t help it.   For his part, Stadnyk sings beautifully (“I Could Write a Book”) and moves with grace.

Alison J. Palmer plays Melba, a reporter who has seen it all and says so when she sings “Zip” a kind of homage to Gypsy Rose Lee. She’s irreverent, seductive and hilarious with every bump, grind and flip of her hair. The chorus lead by the impressive Tess Benger is a dandy collection of chorus girls (look carefully folks) of deliberately varying degrees of accomplishment.

Director Esther Jun brings her sharp eye and smart brain to this musical about a cad. She does not try and make Joey seem a better person than he is. He’s a charmer with a line that most people figure out. He uses people and disappoints them. He will never be better than he is but he always keeps trying. I guess that’s his charm. Jun fills the production with smart observations and with her design team they put us in that world.

Comment. Pal Joey was first done on Broadway in 1940. It was the last show on which Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart collaborated before Hart drank himself to death and Rodgers began collaborating with Oscar Hammerstein II. The lyrics are smart, the music is beautiful and the book is wonderfully prickly. The result is another dandy production for Talk is Free Theatre.

Talk is Free Theatre presents:

Opened: Oct. 11, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 19, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours approx. with one intermission.


At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Jo Simalaya Alcampo

Music composed and performed by MaryCarl Guiao

Directed by Jasmine Chen

Set, costumes and pros by Jung-Hye Kim

Lighting by Jareth Li

Sound by MaryCarl Guiao

Cast: Karen Ancheta

Aldrin Bundoc

Belinda Corpus

Hilot Means Healer by Jo Simalaya Alcampo explores the social and political consequences of war and occupation in the Philippines and its impact across generations.

The press information says: “drawn from traditional Philippine folklore, legends, and Indigenous spirituality, this play tells a story of unexpected bonds formed during cataclysmic change.” It takes as a reference point the battle of Manila in 1945 between the Japanese who occupied it for three years and the Americans and the people of the Philippines trying to get their city and country back.”

Manang Flor is an elder wise woman and healer steeped in the folklore and legends of her people of the Philippines.  She lives deep in the forest and often during the play conjures the spirit who lives in the sacred Balete tree for guidance. Manang Flor has taken in a young woman named Alma who’s parents were killed in the fighting. She is pregnant.

 Alfredo is a soldier for the rebels who has been wounded and seeks shelter from Manang Flor. She takes him in but Alma is none too happy about it. She doesn’t trust him.  She thinks he’s hiding something. It’s war time, no one knows who to trust.

Manang Flor tends her garden and knows the healing, medicinal abilities of her plants and flowers. She passes that on to Alfredo. The spirit who lives in the sacred Balete  tree in the forest has a head covering like a crocodile and will try and oppose the occupying army.  It’s the case of good vs. evil, spirituality vs. those who don’t have it.

The production is very impressive. Jung-Hye Kim has designed a terrific set of mainly fabric. The ground looks like uneven foliage and branches that is dominated by a huge tree to one side, with huge roots that spill down from a section above the stage down the to the stage area. The tree and the roots are made of brown material and the design is mighty impressive in conveying the size and importance of the tree. Spirits appear within the roots of the tree and around its trunk.

Jareth Li’s lighting is evocative and certainly captures the idea of superstition and moodiness.

The cast of four: Karen Ancheta as Ligaya, Aldrin Bundoc as Alfredo, Belinda Corpuz as Alma and Carolyn Fe as Manang Flor all acquit themselves well. There is also a very impressive score composed and performed by MaryCarl Guiao which is an extensive percussion design of gongs, drums, a xylophone type instrument and others. It provides both music and sound effects that evoke nature, rising spirits, unrest, and danger. Jasmine Chen directs and is mighty impressive.

Jo Simalaya Alcampo’s play is very ambitious, perhaps that ambition gets the better of them when it comes to being clear about the story and intent. Very often the names of characters and the spirits just whizzed by my ears and escaped me, certainly if it is in a Philippine dialect.   I think the play might be really for Filipinos, about their culture, their history and their stories.

Playwright Jo Simalaya Alcampo says in their program note that although they did not live through the battle of Manila, the story of it was passed down to them by their mother and seemingly also the trauma of it. They are talking about intergenerational trauma and because of that had to tell that story. Is this theatre as therapy? Perhaps. It’s also very artful and theatrical.

This is a complex undertaking talking about a complicated history and while a lot of it seemed confusing to me because of the language and names of the spirits etc. I bet a Filipino audience would find resonance.

Cahoots in association with b current presents:

Opened: Oct. 9, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 27, 2019.

Running time: 2 hours. Including intermission.



by Lynn on October 11, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

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

Written by Annie Baker

Directed by Mitchell Cushman

Set and lighting by Nick Blais

Projection design by Nick Bottomley

Costumes and lobby design by Anahita Dehbonehie

Sound by Richard Feren

Cast: Colin Doyle

Amy Keating

Durae McFarlane

Brendan McMurtry-Howlett

A production that is meticulously detailed and designed and exquisitely directed. And the play is a gem. This is for everybody who loves and is serious about theatre. If you don’t see this, I don’t want to know you.

The Story. The Flick is about three misfits who work in a small cinema named “The Flick” that still uses a projector and has not yet gone to the dark side by going digital.

At about 35 years old, Sam is the senior man at the Flick. He works the box office, refreshment stand and cleans up after every film.  He loves movies.  Avery is a 20-year- old young man who is black—that’s referenced and important to the story. Avery is a film buff, quiet, unemotional and hides things that have bothered him. They are slowly revealed as the play goes on.

Then there is Rose who is the projectionist. She’s perhaps late 20s,  flirty, irreverent, perhaps lacking in a filter when she blurts things out with out thinking with a careless attitude.  They each find some kind of place for themselves there and with each other.  Sam is attracted to Rose and she ignores him, but flirts with Avery. Their stories are slowly revealed.

Annie Baker takes these unlikely souls and weaves a story about misfits finding a place in an unlikely place—a cinema.

 The Production. We are put in the world of The Flick at the get-go with Anahita Dehbonehie’s design of the lobby. It’s designed like an old-fashioned cinema. There is a red carpet, roped off areas guiding you to enter the theatre and a bar that has drinks named for films. And popcorn!! It’s $3.00 for a bag. A deal!

When we enter the theatre proper our seats face Nick Blais’ set of several banked rows of the seats of this 70 seat cinema. The seats are darkish red and were supplied by a bone fide cinema that didn’t need them. There are two aisles to the cinema section.

Up at the back are double doors to enter the cinema. When characters enter or exit through those doors we see posters on the wall on the other side of the doors of a film that is showing. As the play progresses I see a poster for The Black Swan and later for The Avengers. Love that detail from Nick Blais. He makes the audience notice.  It’s also the door where Sam and Avery will enter to sweep the popcorn between shows. Above that is the projection booth where Rose can be seen threading the projector or bopping to music, or doing her job up there.

Even the program is in the form of the calendar of events from the Hot Doc Cinema.

The pace is unhurried. When the lights go down for the production to begin pin lights project out of the projection booth suggesting a film is about to begin. There is the sound of the roar from the MGM lion. Later there is the ponderous boom of music from Twentieth Century Fox. Is that the music of Star Wars? We hear snippets of dialogue from movies (Casablanca, The Wild Bunch) and the game is to try and see if you can figure them out. No worries if you don’t but fun to try.

Sam and Avery enter the cinema with their brooms and dirt catchers in hand.  Initially Sam tells Avery about the various machines that will need cleaning and how to clean them properly. And then they begin sweeping the popcorn that litters the floor. This first scene goes on for several minutes to get the audience in gear to see as well as look at what is happening. The men banter a bit. Sam is always surprised at what people leave behind: detritus from outside food, pudding? (Is that brown blob pudding or something else ickier? If it’s something icky Avery will hurl at the sight.) For several minutes in these many sweeping scenes both he and Sam sweep the popcorn in the bank of seats, under the seats, in the aisles and at the front of the bank of seats. These scenes are separated by a short blackout only to be repeated with more popcorn miraculously appearing in the aisles etc. after the previous film.

These quiet, languid scenes separate those who know what they are looking at and appreciate it and those who are impatient, want the play to move on and miss the point. The point of course is that Sam and Avery love their jobs at The Flick and films and do everything to keep the place pristine for the next audience. It’s part of their work ethic.  And so they make sure that every single kernel of popcorn is swept up. And so does the audience. They are invested in it. They watch ready to pounce if either man misses one kernel. These scenes will contrast later when there is a change in personnel and the new person doesn’t care about the place or cleanliness and is careless in the sweeping. This carelessness is passed on as well. It’s a telling moment in a production full of them.

Sam and Avery play a game while they are sweeping, a kind of six-degrees-of-separation. Sam names two actors and Avery has to figure out a connection in films that will eventually bring them together in the same film. At every turn Sam is astounded at Avery’s knowledge of the obscure fact and film.

The acting is as meticulous, thoughtful and so full of detail and humanity as the production. Colin Doyle plays Sam and is conscientious, drifting in his life and sweet. He wants to be seen and for people to know that he has a life and that people love him and he can love back. He pines for Rose. She ignores him. He pines more.  Amy Keating is a hard-nosed, irreverent and fearless as Rose. She has a dance sequence that illuminates Rose’s uninhibited nature. She bumps, grinds and flips her hair. She’s wild. And later reveals a vulnerable side.

Durae McFarlane plays Avery. This is his Toronto debut. He’s just graduated from the University of Windsor. Remember his name.  He is subdued but present, quiet because he is trying to fit in, watchful and has a moral centre. Does Avery have Asperger’s? One wonders. He has issues he’s dealing with—his parents are divorced and he’s taking a bit of time away from school. He finds comfort at the cinema. I want Mr. McFarlane put under glass and left alone until his next play and I hope that’s soon.  This is a stunning debut.

Director Mitchell Cushman is not afraid to let a scene evolve at its own slow pace. The scenes breathe and live in his meticulous care and observation. The characters live in the dialogue and in the silences and pauses.The running time is more than three hours and every single second is earned.

Comment. Playwright Annie Baker is one of the hot playwrights of the moment. Her plays (John, The Aliens for example) are full of atmosphere and the requirement of patience. The Flick in particular seems deceptively simple but it’s not. It’s full of simmering emotion, complex attitudes towards work, ethics, fitting in, growing and living. Each character changes by the end of her play. Her dialogue is brimming with what is not said and that is a gift to pull that off.

This is a terrific production.

Outside the March and Crow’s Theatre present:

Opened: Oct. 10, 2019.

Closes: Nov. 2, 2019.–Held over.

Running Time: 3 hours 20 minutes, approx.


At the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written and directed by Conor McPherson

Music and lyrics by Bob Dylan

Designed by Rae Smith

Lighting by Mark Henderson

Sound by Simon Baker

Cast: Daniel Bailey

Colin Bates

Katie Brayben

Anna-Jane Casey

Nicholle Cherrie

David Ganly

Simon Gordon

Steffan Harri

David Haydn

Rachel John

Sidney Kean

Finbar Lynch

Donald Sage Mackay

Gloria Obianyo

Ferdy Roberts

Wendy Somerville

Gemma Sutton

Shaq Taylor

Alan Vicary

Conor McPherson’s homage to the resilience of people in the Depression in 1934 using Bob Dylan’s music to make the story resonate.

The Story. It’s 1934. The story is set in Duluth, Minnesota, Bob Dylan’s home town but seven years before he was born (1941). Nick and Elizabeth Laine own a boarding house and times are very tough. The bank will foreclose on the boarding house in a few weeks if Nick can’t find the money to pay. He has his hands full trying to take care of his wife Elizabeth who has dementia. She is unpredictable, sometimes violent, stubborn and willful. She’s also watchful and knowing. Their son Gene is a failed writer and unemployed. They have an ‘adopted’ daughter Marianne they have raised. She was left in a suitcase years before by some passersby who stayed at the boarding house. Marianne is pregnant by a man who works on the boats and left. Nick is having an affair with a woman who is staying at the boarding house. There is a steady flow of people in and out of the place: Dr. Walker tends to Elizabeth; Reverend Marlowe sells bibles and a line of baloney to unsuspecting folks; Joe Scott is a quiet man with a past; Mr. Perry comes bearing flowers for Marianne and a proposition initiated by Nick; and Mr. and Mrs. Burke and their adult developmentally challenged son Elias think of better times.  They are all trying to get through the day, trying to make a buck, trying to survive.

The Production and comment.  This is not a show of Bob Dylan’s greatest hits. Nor is it a jukebox musical in which Dylan’s songs are slotted into the narrative to comment on or progress the story. Rather, writer-director Conor McPherson presents Girl From the North Country as a radio play within a play. Dr. Walker (a laid-back, thoughtful Ferdy Roberts) speaks into a microphone and gives us the background of the story and who the characters are. As the play progresses he will comment on what has happened and will happen.

The show is a play with music rather than a musical. McPherson has meticulously selected the songs from Dylan’s whole catalogue that will add to the atmosphere or mood of a scene or a moment. Characters interact with each other during the play but generally come forward and either sing in front of an upright microphone or just face the audience and sing the songs. Often during a song the chorus is upstage silhouetted in muted shades of blue-grayish light. The “look” of the scenes and sound of the singing is exquisite. Kudos to set designer Rae Smith and lighting designer Mark Henderson.

For example, Gloria Obianyo plays Marianne as a somber, quiet woman who knows she’s there just to work and help out. Her life is slipping by. The whole mood and sense of her situation is realized in her moving, heart-squeezing singing of “Has Anyone Seen My Love.” It’s a song of longing that sums up a life that never really got started.

Gene Laine (a touching Colin Bates) is stunned when Katherine Draper, (sensitively played by Gemma Sutton) a woman he loves, is moving away to marry someone else. You get a true sense of the ache of the situation for both of them when they face each other, bathed in soft white light and sing “I Want You.” The longing and desperation of wanting someone ‘so bad’ oozes out of the song because of the quietly desperate way Bates and Sutton sing it.

Elizabeth Laine, as played by Katie Brayben is skittish and lost in her own world in which she almost never looks anyone in the eye. Elizabeth is a scary character because you never know if she will attack someone or give a perceptive remark. She knows what’s going on in that household. But when she sings you are never in doubt of the meaning of the song or point of the moment. She sings “Like a Rolling Stone” with fearlessness. And when you least expect it she can break your heart. At the end of the show, when it looks like despair will win, Elizabeth sits on a bench facing the audience. Nick her husband (a compassionate Donald Sage Mackay) sits behind her in a chair, looking forlorn, his arms on the table in front of him. Then Katie Brayben as Elizabeth begins singing a haunting version of “Forever Young” full of love, kindness and forgiveness. As she sings it her left arm reaches back and she cups Nick’s hand in hers and holds it for the whole song. It is both heartbreaking and hopeful.

Conor McPherson’s direction is almost cinematic. Projections are illuminated on the back wall as if they are large slides, revealing a vista of Duluth or the countryside or a telephone pole that looks like a cross, (there are a lot of religious references in the play). Scenes overlap with one ending as one begins. Relationships are established in an unobtrusive way.

McPherson’s characterizations are spare but clear. We certainly get a keen sense of what it was like for a black man in America in the 1930s or anytime for that matter.

But at its heart, Girl From the North Country is a play about decent people for the most part (except for Reverend Marlowe–a wonderfully shady Finbar Lynch) who are just trying to get by. Nick always has a cup of coffee for any visitor to his door. There is always a plate of food that can be served to a stranger. He is saved from making a terrible decision by Elizabeth. They are devoted to each other. Strangers offer those in need a job and a place to stay.

Girl From the North Country is beautifully performed and produced. Don’t go expecting a concert of Bob Dylan’s best hits. But go ready to be moved, challenged, and to listen to words of two masters, Conor McPherson and Bob Dylan.

Presented by Mirvish Productions.

Opened: Oct. 6, 2019.

Closes: Nov. 24, 2019.

Running Time:  2 hours, 30 minutes, one intermission.


At Factory Studio Theater, Toronto, Ont.


Written and performed by Carmen Aguirre

Directed by Brian Quirt

Lighting by Michelle Ramsay

DJ Pedro Chamale.

Writer/performer Carmen Aguirre calls Broken Tailbone “structured improv” that “celebrates the human body, the human spirit and the Latinx community in Canada…; and celebrates a woman of colour of a certain age …. who takes pleasure in her body, her sensuality and her politics of resistance.”

It’s Carmen Aguirre’s 80 minute Latinx dance lesson involving the audience while she explains how she broke her tailbone. She explains that it all started in 1974 when she was seven years old. She and her immigrant parents had escaped the dictatorship in Chile and come to Vancouver. Her parents started the first Latinx dance hall in Vancouver as a place where people could come, dance and be with their community. And it was a way of fundraising for the revolution back home.

Carmen Aguirre joined the resistance in Chile when she was a teen. She went to theatre school and was lonely because she was one of the few young women of colour in her class.  She found solace in Latin music and danced in her room. She graduated, traveled, performed celebrated her sexuality with many willing men. Some young, some not, some she just met.

For the 80 minutes of the show DJ Don Pedro Chamale and Carmen Aguirre banter and trade stories and quips. She never stops moving. The Studio space is bare except for the stage and some chairs along the sides of the walls for those not inclined or able to dance. Aguirre patiently and enthusiastically teaches her audience the various steps and explains the importance of each song used to help tell her complex story. The majority of the audience is up for the exercise no matter how rhythm-challenged they are. Director Brian Quirt has some good hip action.

If you sit in the chairs along the sides you won’t be able to see Carmen Aguirre on the stage or for those moments she comes down from the stage onto the dance floor because of all the people dancing in the room. You might also not be able to hear her properly either because the microphone/sound system is lousy and muffles a lot of what she is saying.

Carmen Aguirre is a prolific playwright who usually writes autobiographically about the plight of the immigrant, politics and resistance. Her play The Refugee Hotel is one bracing example. Broken Tailbone is a long story for a quick punch line set against a backdrop of a Latinx dance lesson that somehow makes it all seem so tenuous.

A Nightswimming production presented by Factory Theatre:

Opened: Oct. 3, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 13, 2019.

Running Time: 80 minutes.


l-r: Katie Miller, William Mackenzie
photo: Scott Gorman


At Hart House Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Book, music and lyrics by Richard O’Brien

Directed by Jennifer Walls

Music director, Giustin MacLean

Choreography by Stephan Dickson

Set by Brandon Kleiman

Costumes by Kathleen Black

Lighting by André du Toit

Sound by Jeremy Hutton

With one exception this is a wild rendering of this cultish of all cult musicals, thanks to director Jennifer Walls.

The Story. Newly engaged, straight-laced couple Brad and Janet are in a car on a dark and stormy night when their car breaks down. They wonder that perhaps the people in that castle over there deep in the forbidding woods have a phone they can use to call for help. CAA? It’s the castle of Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter, a scientist and transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania. Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter has just created the perfect plaything for himself. He’s named him Rocky and his creation is rippling with muscles. The other inhabitants of the castle are a group of misfits. Riff Raff is a sort of butler. His sister Magenta is a woman of many talents. Unsuspecting Brad and Janet are lured into the castle and are transformed by the experience.

The Production.  Brandon Kleiman’s set is beautifully cheesy, garish, glittery and cheeky. There are various levels to the stage. A shimmering silver curtain is up at the back. Kathleen Black’s costumes of leather, feathers and glitter make one give a double take.

Director Jennifer Walls has some of her characters playing usherettes strut into the audience to chat up the folks. They wear revealing garb, knee-high boots, lots of make-up and wonderful attitude. And they are rather sweet in their conversations.

Walls has directed a production that is terrific with one exception. The production is over-the-top inventive, creative and totally irreverent. Sex toys are used as the controls of the machine that created Rocky as well as for other means of manipulation, and that’s just one example. The production sparkles and goes like the wind with each scene more and more hilarious than the next. Kudos also to Stephan Dickson for his breathless choreography.

Katie Miller is a mousy, serious Janet. William Mackenzie is straight-laced as Brad. Heidi Michelle Thomas is irreverent and a raucous joy as The Narrator. She never met a heckle she couldn’t beat for smarminess. Ian Backstrom is creepy and endearing as Riff Raff with a great voice. Chiano Panth is a diminutive perfect ripple of muscle and good natured as Rocky.

But my one concern is Chris Tsujiuchi as Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter. I found him underwhelming in a part that should be pulsing with attitude, allure, sensuality and strut. Tsujiuchi just seems bored and awkward. And he tends to mumble his lines.

For me, the real star of this production is director Jennifer Walls. Terrific.

Comment.  The Rocky Horror Show (1973) is Richard O’Brien’s homage to science fiction and horror B movies with a tip of the hat to sexual fluidity and transvestitism. It’s a celebration of the ‘other’, those who don’t fit in to the norm. But it’s also chilling in that last regard because (no spoiler alert) Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter is disposed of because even his behaviour as ‘the other’ was not conforming to the norm of even these misfits. Rather than be allowed to go home to outer space, his outer-space colleagues zapped him into oblivion. In its own way The Rocky Horror Show has a serious message that is so timeless. I love that about this show.

I think its great appeal over the years is that it’s irreverent and a celebration of the freak and the ‘other.’ It’s for and about people who don’t fit in. Since it began audiences have gotten into the free-wheeling atmosphere of it. It allows audiences to be ‘other’ without shame. People dress up garishly—they did the night I saw it.  And no matter when I’ve seen this show over the decades the young audiences know all the lyrics and sing along. They know the drill when it comes to talking back and heckling when needed. The mention of the name “Brad” gets the response of “Asshole”. The mention of the name “Janet” gets “Slut” in reply. I love that too. Most of my audience wasn’t even born when this show was first done yet there they are getting into the groove of it.

A Note of Concern.  Apparently things are in the works to centralize the various services of Hart House. This includes the box office of Hart House Theatre both of which are in the basement of Hart House.  Apparently there is a decision to move the box office duties to the Hub, upstairs on the main floor of Hart House, away from the theatre itself. I can only say: DON’T DO IT!

Every theatre I’ve ever been to anywhere has a box office attached to the theatre directly and not anywhere else. As I witnessed, to move the box office duties is confusing to customers who appear at the box office wanting to pick up or have their tickets printed and to be told by the young man there that “you have to go upstairs to get them.” When the young man tries to explain, the customer rightfully persists and the young man prints the tickets there.

Why should anybody have to go anywhere but the box office for tickets? To move it is confusing for the customer—you know them—the reason you are in business! To move it from the theatre is inefficient and it makes the whole outfit of Hart House look like a bunch of amateurs. The box office is not a service that needs to be centralized. It needs to be left inside the theatre as it has been for the last 100 years. Hands off! Leave it where it is. Thank you.

Produced by Hart House Theatre.

Began. Sept. 27, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 12, 2019.

Running Time: approx. 20 hours.

{ 1 comment }

Review: Yaga

by Lynn on October 4, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Tarragon Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written and directed by Kat Sandler

Set and costumes by Joanna Yu

Lighting by Jennifer Lennon

Sound by Christopher Ross-Ewart

Cast: Claire Armstrong

Will Greenblatt

Seana McKenna

Playwright/director Kat Sandler gives the Baba Yaga myths her wild twists and treatment with terrific results.

The Story. Yaga is based on the Slavic folk tales of Baba Yaga, a supernatural woman who may or may not be evil, or helpful etc.

The Production. Kat Sandler is a gifted playwright whose stories are often off the wall funny, irreverent and wild. The dialogue comes fast and furious.  The jokes are sharp and that sure is evident with Yaga. Sandler loves the Baba Yaga story and gives it her own spin.

Joanna Yu’s set is composed of worn wood pillars, rough hewn, darkish and could be of another time. It could be a shack in the woods or a rustic cottage.

A professor named Katherine who specializes in bones and their history is interviewed by a young man named Henry. Henry might be in his 20s and flirts with her –she’s in her 60s. She flirts back. He tries to keep up but he’s no match for her. Do they sleep together? Who can tell, certainly not Henry because he soon goes missing after that encounter.

Then we have a woman cop named Carson who is on the case but has to deal with a detective named Rapp who horns in on the investigation of the missing man. Does he do it because Carson is a woman and he thinks he’s better at his job than she is of hers? Hard to tell.  Then there is an old Slavic woman named Elaina who has her own mystery. Who is she? Is she related to any of the other women?

Kat Sandler also directs her own script. I generally don’t think that’s a good idea? I think it gets tricky when the writer should be told to edit by the director and they are the same person. Similarly, someone might also have to tell the director to rein in the creativity. But with Kat Sandler that doesn’t happen here. Sandler is so used to writing tight, smart lines that tell the story swiftly and efficiently that there is no flab.  And with Yaga she knows how to direct her stellar cast.  It’s not just the dialogue that sings. There are the side-long glances that are killer too.

Let’s start with Seana McKenna who plays Katherine, the professor among others including the older Elaina. McKenna is of course a stalwart of the Stratford festival but she also challenges herself in the off season.  Last year she played the lead in Lear as in King Lear.

 In Yaga McKenna is formidable as Katherine.  Irony and sarcasm cascade of her like a waterfall. Her characters know how and like to make men uncomfortable. She dangles Henry who tries to come on to her.  She is direct and brutally funny with others.  She knows how to float a laugh line so that it just sails into the air and hits its mark. And she knows how to do a double take beautifully. She is mesmerizing.

Claire Armstrong plays detective Carson among others.  Carson is a bit skittish when she feels Rapp the detective is horning in on her territory regarding the missing Henry. Armstrong also plays others that are distinct, smart and know how to do humour, seriously.

And finally there is Will Greenblatt who plays both Henry and Rapp. Again, they are distinct.  Henry is a bit of a puppy when he flirts with Katherine the professor.  She’s a cougar. He’s a puppy. There is no contest. As Rapp he is more confident and brash.

Comment. Yaga is a saga that spans generations, social conventions, and mores.  It’s about ageism, shifting social ideas, fairy tale villains, our idea of witches, the ambiguousness of good and evil and is it always black and white. The beauty of Yaga is that Kat Sandler has taken a folk tale and made it her own. There are layers and layers to this story. And mystery. Who are all these people really? What happened to Henry?

This is Kat Sandler at her best.

Tarragon Theatre presents:

Began: Sept. 17, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 20, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, approx.


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

Written by Tennessee Williams

Directed by Weyni Mengesha

Set by Lorenzo Savoini

Sound by Debashis Sinha

Costumes by Rachel Forbes

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Cast: Akosua Amo-Adem

Leah Doz

Mac Fyfe

Sebastian Marziali

Gregory Prest

Amy Rutherford


Lindsay Owen Pierre

Oliver Dennis

A gripping production with some moments that are revelatory.

The Story. Fragile-minded, genteel Blanche DuBois comes to New Orleans to stay with her sister Stella and brother-in-law Stanley. Her nerves are frazzled. She’s been let go of her job as a teacher and she needs comfort.  She yearns for the glory days of her past when the family owned a stately home, now gone. What she finds in New Orleans is noise, confusion, the cacophony and oppression of close quarters and Stanley who doesn’t hide his contempt of her.

The Production. Director, Weyni Mengesha has envisioned a place that is alive with the noise of people living in close quarters and sometimes are short tempered about it. People bellow instead of talk. Fights break out at a simple poker game because people are impatient to win. It’s a place sticky with heat and pulsing with music. A band appears occasionally in a section of Lorenzo Savoini’s simple set. Stella (Leah Doz) and Stanley (Mac Fyfe) live in a tiny one bedroom apartment. A curtain separates the bedroom from the kitchen. Blanche (Amy Rutherford) will sleep on a cot in the kitchen. The bathroom is off the bedroom.  Outside Stella and Stanley’s apartment is an open space with a staircase that leads up to the second level and another apartment where Eunice and her husband Steve live.

Playwright Tennessee Williams immediately sets up the world into which Blanche enters, which is so far and away from what she is used to. Stanley bellows Stella’s name. She tells him not to holler at her. Then he yells “Catch” and hurls a package at her saying, “Meat,” which she catches and laughs. It’s primal.

Blanche enters alone pulling her suitcase after her. She is dressed in a flowing dress and wide brimmed hat (kudos to Rachel Forbes for the costumes). The dingy, squalid surroundings appal her. She is used to a more refined, genteel world, at least in her imagination and memory. Her expectations will be challenged and diminished as the play goes on. She is there for several months, living as if Stella and Stanley are there to serve her. Blanche sneaks his liquor. She takes long baths to calm her nerves which always need calming, disrupting their routine as well. It’s to the credit of this production that we wonder how the three managed to stand each other for that long.

Sex is central to this production. As Blanche, Amy Rutherford has an almost chaste sexuality. We know she’s had a ‘past.’ never stops flirting and toying ‘innocently’ with men, especially young ones. Her voice is a southern purr. Her manner is genteel. Some men such as the innocent Mitch (a wonderful, understated performance by Gregory Prest) and the awkward Young Collector (a lovely performance by Kaleb Horn) are either captivated or unsettled by Blanche.

Stanley is another matter. As Stanley, Mac Fyfe plays him as he slowly boils at being toyed with and ‘played’ by Blanche. He is not captivated. He’s fed up and he’s going to teach her a lesson. Stanley is a sexual animal too but is more instinctive and predatory. Emotions have run high in that household and goes off the rails at Stanley’s poker game. He hits Stella. She runs out up the stairs to Eunice’s. Stanley stands at the bottom of the stairs and bellows Stella’s name in that most famous of scenes from the play. Over the years that bellow of “STELLA” has lost its meaning, certainly after the film of the play in which Marlon Brando played Stanley. It’s almost a joke. Until now.

Mac Fyfe bellows the name and it’s full of Stanley’s despair that he might lose her, regret that he’s gone too far and emotional pain from his guts. It sounds like an animal caught in a trap in the woods. In her turn Stella, played beautifully by Leah Doz, comes out of Eunice’s apartment and rather than rushing down the stairs into Stanley’s arms full of forgiveness, she walks down slowly, seriously making him wait, and she leads with her hips. She’s won. She’s in control. She better than her sister, knows ‘how to play’ Stanley. That scene alone is devastating and thrilling.

Stanley and Stella can’t live without each other. But when Blanche tells her what Stanley did to her Stella can’t/won’t believe it. She tells Eunice she could not live with him if that is the case. But when Blanche is lead off by a Doctor and his nurse because her fragile mind has snapped it’s Stella who reacts with soul-crushing despair. Stanley holds her back, trying to comfort her. And in that wonderful directing and playing of the scene we know that Stella knows the truth of what happened.

Devastating and thrilling production.

Comment. See it. See it. Ditto.

Produced by Soulpepper

Opened: Sept. 27, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 27, 2019.

Running Time: 3 hours, 15 minutes.