Lynn

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

Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Tim Carroll
Designed by Judith Bowden
Lighting by Kevin Lamotte
Music direction and original music by Claudio Vena
Cast: Karl Ang
Wade Bogert-O’Brien
Benedict Campbell
Andrew Lawrie
Allan Louis
Emily Lukasik
Tom McCamus
Jeff Meadows
Jim Mezon
Gray Powell
P J Prudat
Ben Sanders
Graeme Somerville
Steven Sutcliffe
Jonathan Tan
Sara Topham

A striking set that is more puzzling in the context of the play than it is effective in telling the story, staging that seems awkward in actually establishing relationships, with some wonderful performances.

The Story. In 1429 AD, in France a 17 year old peasant girl named Joan hears the voice of God, plus those of Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine instructing her to put the Dauphin on the throne of France making him king, and also to lead the battered French army against the English and run them off French soil.

She presents herself to Captain Robert de Beaudricourt saying she needs a horse and soldiers’ clothes for the journey to the Dauphin. She has already convinced some hard-nosed soldiers that she is the real deal and is capable of doing what she says. She wins over the captain, and the Dauphin and then the French army. But her biggest battle is with the Catholic Church which prefers to do its own interpreting of the word of God and not through a stubborn, passionate, smart teenager. This is the stumbling block. While Joan has pure honesty and vision on her side, the church and members of the state have cunning, greed, wiliness and political maneuvering in their side to get what they want and what they want is Joan to be our of sight and mind and the best way of doing that is to find her guilty of heresy and burn her at the stake.

The Production. Designer Judith Bowden’s geometric set pieces are initially arresting, and certainly in Kevin Lamotte’s eerie, haunting lighting. The stage of the Festival Theatre is rather large but the action of the play happens on a smaller square platform set in the middle of the stage but with the square turned so that a point of the square points downstage. A large illuminated cube takes up a quarter of the stage and in one scene in Act I and one in Act II the cube slowly rises up revealing a group of smarmy people who are there to challenge Joan. When the people are revealed the cube is raised and remains suspended for the rest of the play. In Act II an illuminated column lowers down from the flies and later in the scene it raises revealing a character. For most of the scene it remains suspended and illuminated in space, unused and mystifying in its suspended intent, and no this is not ‘visual poetry.’ This is more like spatial clutter. Judith Bowden is a wonderful designer, but her set here is more confusing that useful in establishing the play.

Saint Joan is directed by Tim Carroll, the new Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival. Tim Carroll has written an extensive program note citing the radical set of the first production of the play in 1923. He mentions that Edward Gordon Craig’s “simple geometric set designs created a revolution around the turn of the twentieth century.” He also cites …”Josef Svoboda, the Czech lighting designer, (who) would seize on the possibilities of pure objects in space to create a new visual poetry.” The work of these two theatre pioneers informs Tim Carroll’s production.

The problem is that over most of the century following these radical moves, the theatre has created its own design geniuses who have moved the form forward. So while these images of illuminated geometric shapes suspended in air were revolutionary in 1923, they are simply odd in 2017.

The cube is there it seems only for the effect in Act I and II when the cube rises to reveal a group of people who will serve the scene. Aside from that the cube floats in air, not symbolic or poetic of anything. In another scene in Act II a cube with a scene of sorts on its sides sits in the corner of the square playing area. Is it supposed to symbolize something, a place? Hard to tell since the images are not clear.

In the scene changes a shiny ‘wall’ descends and when lit, looks opaque and not clearly reflective. If anything it distorts the image reflected in it. Is that the intent? Mystifying.
It all seems an effort to dazzle with little point.

I have seen much of Tim Carroll’s direction, at our Stratford and over the years that he worked at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, England, when Mark Rylance was the artistic director.

When Carroll directs Shakespeare there is a formality to it. When he came to Stratford, he put great store in Original Practices, in other words, doing Shakespeare as it would have been done in Shakespeare’s day—candles for lighting; leaving the lights on in the theatre and on stage; a stylized way of staging the production. But as he also said with a bit of a wink when he was at Stratford no one knows how they really produced shows in Shakespeare’s day, so he could also just make it up.

With this production of Saint Joan at least Carroll seems to be using the same staging techniques, and my eye-brows knit.

For example, the person at the centre of a scene is placed in the centre of the playing area. The others also in the scene are placed around the edges of the playing area, about several feet away. They converse in this awkward positioning. Sometimes a character will step forward to be close to the person in the centre, talk, then move back. Eye-brow-knitting to be sure. Is this placement so as not to obstruct our vision of the speaker? To establish that the person in the middle is the focal point? Do we really need such artificial blocking? Does no one think the audience couldn’t figure out who is the centre of the scene by staging it so that it actually looks like live characters are engaging? The result is that relationships are not organically established. This makes Saint Joan look like a museum piece, which it is not.

Often Tim Carroll places a character downstage facing the audience but talking to a character behind them, then the person turns upstage to face the person talked to. It all looks so awkward.

Sara Topham plays Joan. Topham shows us a Joan who is serious, focused and intelligent. There is an effort to suggest this is a teenager when Topham first appears to the Captain and sits in a chair with one foot on the seat and her other foot tucked underneath her. However I don’t get the sense of this head-strong, fiercely committed teenager. The point with Joan is that she is a kid who has convinced several savvy men to follow her into battle. I don’t want the actress to be 17, but I do need to see that driven, compelling attitude of a teen who changed the course of a country. It is missing with Sara Topham.

Gray Powell as Dunois is a war-weary, smart soldier who is charmed and convinced by Joan, but he knows the way of war, and foreshadows what will happen. Steven Sutcliffe is impassioned, sombre and thoughtful as Captain La Hire, one of Joan’s stalwart followers. Wade Bogert-O’Brien as Dauphin (later Charles VII) is boyish, beautifully weak-willed, and almost child-like. To accentuate that child-like quality, the Dauphin often has to jump up and sit in a tall chair (a high chair?) suggesting his throne. It’s good for a laugh or two, but only just.

And what’s with all that squatting that Joan, Dunois, Captain La Hire do? They would be speaking then out of nowhere Joan or the others squat almost to the ground. Yoga poses in 15th century France?! My eye-brows are crocheting.

Comment. This being George Bernard Shaw, there is lots of philosophizing about the rules of the state, the church, religion, politics and the details of war. And this play certainly is applicable to today, just in the sense of one person convinced they have the solution of making France great again. Shaw’s arguments about politics and his prescience in how the world, the church, government and politics work are startling in how immediate the play is to our time.

I found there is a lot of effort to make this production seem provocative, certainly with the illuminate, floating set pieces. In spite of that effort, I think this production of Saint Joan is plodding. The result is a disappointment.

The Shaw Festival presents:

Opened: May 25, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 15, 2017.
Cast: 16; 13 men, 3 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

www.shawfest.com

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At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Upstairs, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Molière
Directed by Joël Beddows
Set and Props by Melanie McNeil
Costumes by Nina Okens
Lighting by Michael Brunet
Sounds by Vanessa Lachance
Cast: Marcelo Arroyo
Lina Blais
Sophie Goulet
Christian Laurin
Pierre Simpson
Nicolas Van Burek

This is Molière’s play about that charming but despicable rake, Dom Juan (Pierre Simpson), a man who lived totally for pleasure without a hint of responsibility or conscience. He saw nothing wrong with compromising the women who fell in love with him, often balancing two women at a time, and then just dumping them because he saw someone else who interested him.

His faithful servant Sganarelle (Marcelo Arroyo) is loyal, true and disgusted with him. Sganarelle has a love/hate relationship with Dom Juan but can’t leave. Besides, there are the wages that are still owed him. So like a loyal puppy, Sganarelle serves his master unconditionally, although at times he does voice his concerns to Dom Juan about his behaviour.

It’s wonderful that Théâtre Français de Toronto offers performances in French with English surtitles for folks like me whose French is not good. The problem in this case is that I could not read 90% of the surtitles because they are unreadable and hence can’t comment properly on this story, or how the acting is geared to it. It would be like reviewing an actor reading the telephone book in a foreign language with all manner of emotion and passion, signifying nothing much if one doesn’t know the language. I don’t think that’s a good thing.

The surtitles (created and operated by Melanie Hall) are projected on a wide strip above and toward the back of the stage. Unfortunately Michael Brunet’s lighting either blinded me from reading the surtitles or they were so faintly illuminated you couldn’t read them. Did no one check this from every point in the theatre? Apparently not. And I had a great seat in the second row just off centre, house left.

When the audience filed into the space I noted a lit light bulb up left, behind the strip on which the surtitles were projected. That bulb blinded me. I hoped that when the production started the light from the bulb would fade out. Nope. So when the surtitles flashed up I couldn’t read them. I tried sunglasses. (Really!) That diminished the glare as well as being able to read the surtitles.

Eventually the light from the bulb went out but other lights just under the strip went on. One amber light was in the centre so that blinded the surtitles. Another was blue, again, it blinded me from reading. If the lights illuminating the stage were bright they washed out the surtitles making them so feint you couldn’t read them. The best was when the lights were dim and the surtitles were bright enough to read. I recon that was about 5% of the time. A few people left and while I can’t assume it was because of unreadable surtitles, I think it’s a safe bet.

I struggled to read the surtitles. I hate taking a press ticket and not write a review. I thought perhaps I can cheat with a Google search about the details of the story but was not confident that what I was watching was what Google said was going on.

I finally had to give up trying to make head or tail of the story and how Joël Beddows’ production served the play. Pity.

In future if surtitles anywhere are involved and not just Théâtre Français de Toronto, this is what I want: I want to be able to actually read them! I don’t think this is unreasonable. I want them bright and not dimly lighted. I would like the lighting designer, the surtitle operator and the director to watch the show from every angle in that theatre to see if the audience can read the surtitles. Perhaps re-thinking where they are in the theatre might be helpful. Opera Atelier does just fine with this because their surtitle strip is not at the back of the stage but closer to the audience (I know the Elgin theatre is deeper than the Berkeley Street Theatre, Upstairs. Work it out.)

Théâtre Français de Toronto, presents:

Began: May 10, 2017.
I saw it: May 24, 2017.
Closes: May 28, 2017.
Cast: 6; 4 men, 2 women
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minues.

www.theatrefrancais.com

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At the Factory Theatre Studio, Toronto, Ont.

Written and performed by Deb Filler
Directed by John Shooter

Deb Filler is hilarious. The New Zealand born comedienne has traveled the world making people laugh, especially in her adopted home of Toronto. She performed her one-woman show, I Lost It In Kiev in Toronto in 2014; done comedy TV; participated in the comedy documentary, The Last Laugh and was terrific in serious roles in Talking Heads a few years ago and in Death of a Salesman in Toronto in Yiddish, last year. She is presenting her new one-woman show I Did It My Way In Yiddish (in English) at the Factory Theatre Studio until May 28.

Music had always been important to Deb Filler’s family. Her grandmother loved opera and asked a young Deb to conduct her using a banana as the baton. Her father, a baker, always thought established stars such as Judy Garland would have gone so much further had they sung in Yiddish.

Filler is so devoted to music that she accompanies herself and frequently the audience on a guitar as she strums and sings some of her favourite songs from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra and the beloved Judy Garland. She takes her father’s advice to heart and sings some of her favourite songs in Yiddish. Very funny.

She tells very funny stories involving Leonard Bernstein, Leonard Cohen and a Jewish rock and roller named Lenny. These three Lenny stories are the heart of I Did It My Way In Yiddish (in English). Filler is charming, personable, knows how to work an audience and the three Lenny stories are gems of humour. The show is directed with a minimum of fussy staging by John Shooter.

I do have concerns though. The shape of the show is problematic. Filler greets the audience from the stage and almost immediately takes her guitar and launches into various pop songs that she loves. There are several of them that made me wonder when the show would start. Surely this show is not a concert? With respect, Filler is not a strong singer and is ok on the guitar. I wonder when the humour will start. The songs should be shifted to another part of the show, perhaps after a comedic beginning.

In the patter Deb Filler seems tentative, as if she didn’t have enough rehearsal. I think that odd since she says she has been touring the show around the world. And finally this show has the most unnecessary, busy, distracting lighting design I have ever seen in a small show. During a musical sequence all the lights facing the stage flick on and off which prove to be extremely distracting, with little sense of illuminating Filler at all. At first I thought it might be the lighting computer run amok. But then the same effect is used later in another musical moment and I realize it is deliberate. Often the lights go from simple illumination to burning brightly on Filler, again, for no reason. If this is the suggestion of the usually reliable director John Shooter, may I suggest that simple is best—cut every single lighting effect and stick to just illuminating Filler so we can see her properly. And while I realize singing in some standards in Yiddish is the point of the show, sometimes the joke misses the mark when too many songs are sung in Yiddish to show how funny it can be.

Humour is Deb Filler’s forte. I Did It May Way In Yiddish (in English) needs another shaping and thinking so that humour is front and centre and not distracted by too many songs that don’t help the point.

Opened: May 23, 2017.
Closes: May 28, 2017.
Running Time: 80 minutes

www.factorytheatre.ca

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At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs, Toronto, Ont.

Book, music and lyrics by Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone
Based on the poem by Pushkin and the opera by Tchaikovsky
Directed by Emiel Gladstone
Music director, Chris Tsujiuchi
Choreographer, Linda Garneau
Set by Denyse Karn
Costumes by Alex Amini
Lighting by John Webber
Sound by Michael Laird
Cast: Rebecca Auerbach
Shane Carty
Josh Epstein
Peter Fernandes
Hailey Gillis
Daren A. Herbert
Elena Juatco

So much promise. Such a disappointment.

The Story. Russia, 1819. Vladimir Lensky is in love with Olga Larin and she with him. He tells his good friend Evgeni Onegin that Olga has a sister, Tatyana, and that they would make a good pair. Evgeni spends most of his time being aloof and bored. He’s rich and has inherited property and visits said property but that bores him. He meets Tatyana. He appears charming. She falls in love. She tells him in a letter she loves him. He tells her in person he does not return the affection. He does flirt with Olga who likes the attention. This in turn angers Lensky. Lensky and Onegin have heated words. There is a dual. Someone dies and it’s not Onegin. And it goes from there. It’s a story that is full of passion, drama, intrigue and high emotions.

The Production. Denyse Karn’s set is terrific. We are looking at a place of decay. Books, beer bottles and other stuff are on the ledges of the set. Great tree branches burst out of broken windows of what might have been the manor house of a large estate. The walls are dingy. The band of three is upstage.

The cast come out on stage and down the aisles of the theatre greeting us, hugging those they know, clinking classes. Daren A. Herbert, who plays Evgeni Onegin takes a flask out of his inside coat pocket and clinks it with a man drinking from a glass in the audience. There is a sense of celebration, good times and laughs.

Once on stage Josh Epstein, as Vladimir Lensky, is a compact, athletic man who shimmies and jives to his own rhythm. He acts as a lively master of ceremonies getting us in the mood. Every time someone says Lvov (I believe) is the signal for someone to take a swig of vodka. There is a lot of that at the beginning of the show.

He introduces the characters and the band, (percussion/guitar, cello, piano) none of whom we have met yet really. Such introductions are usually at the end after they have actually played something. Perhaps this is different.

The first song is “A Love Song” which says the show is about love, love love. Hmmm. Ok. I know the story and a guy gets killed and people are unhappy. Hmmmm but this song says the show is about love, love, love. Next the company sings “Oh, Dear Father” and does some rousing dancing while they pray to the father above to save them all from this boredom. Huh?

Evgeni Onegin makes a dramatic entrance in shadow up there in the window frame stage left. He descends gracefully. He’s jaunty, wears a scarf rakishly knotted at the neck. Then the company sings “Three Horses” as Onegin sits in a chair with some stuff around him as he and the company simulate him being taken to his uncle’s estate in a carriage drawn by horses (Lots of swaying to and fro, lots of bumping up and down as the carriage ‘travels’ along the road). Daren A. Herbert certainly suggests that he doesn’t want to keep checking the estate that he inherited and that he really is bored. The song establishes it but it says precious little about the details of his life.

I keep waiting for a song to lead naturally to another so that some story could be established, but in fact each song is complete unto itself. Perhaps this is a new form of musical, I’m thinking? But then quickly realize it’s an old fashioned kind of musical that is merely bad. And confused.

Veda Hille is the co-writer with Amiel Gladstone on\f the book, music and lyrics. She is also the Music Supervisor. I have to wonder why she doesn’t know that the amplified three piece band drowns out the cast and so too much of the lyrics are lost.

Amiel Gladstone also directs and here too we have a mash-up of styles and forms of performance/direction. At the duel between Onegin and Lensky one of them slumps down to the ground, dead. But for added ‘symbolism’ Gladstone has a circle of white light shine on the floor and a glop of red liquid is dropped in the circle, suggesting blood. Why? Doesn’t Gladstone trust us to get it? With a show so over the top in slap-stick, almost vaudeville high jinx we also need symbolism? Oh, PUULeeeze!

The audience is involved in mail delivery between characters. Tatyana sends a letter to Onegin and hands it to a person at the end of the front row and instructs that person to pass the letter to the next person and so on until the letter reaches the other end of the row, at which point the letter is given to Onegin who reads it. (sigh).

Act II begins with the cast entering the theatre from the down the aisles to the stage carrying trays of glowing opaque ‘candle’ holders and setting the candles around the stage. Very pretty but then the lights comes up to illuminate the room. The candles are a nice touch but wasted.

The cast are superb from top to bottom, headed by the always compelling Daren A. Herbert as Onegin. He has a strong voice, knows how to sing a song, no matter how ineffectual, and is a compelling presence. Of course women are charmed by him. Josh Epstein as Lensky is full of impish personality. He is an attentive suitor to Olga and conveys Lensky’s apprehension with the duel. After Lensky is killed (no spoilers here) Epstein spends the rest of the show upstage with the band. I can’t help but think he gets the better of the deal.

Comment
. Unfortunately none of the above aspects of passion, drama, intrigue or high emotions are at play in this mish-mash of a confused production. The creators (Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone can’t decide if their Onegin is a comedy that sends up the original story by chatting up the audience and playing to them etc.; a bizarre musical in which each song is complete in itself with little connection to the whole; a lively song and dance show with little connection to the story.

I expect the first song of any musical to actually set up the musical and establish the tone, attitude and ‘idea’ of the piece, but Onegin doesn’t. The second song “Oh, Dear Father”) rousingly suggests that they are all bored and need relief from that situation, but I couldn’t believe them since they dance and frolic for the whole number and the show in a sense, so how could they all even think we would believe they are bored. I keep waiting for a song to tell me what this musical is about, and by about 20 minutes into the show I realize that wait will end in disappointment.

This is the first show of the formerly named Acting Up Company now the newly named The Musical Stage Company to reflect their expanded mandate regarding new musicals. Onegin is the first show of this newly named company. It’s an eye-brow-knitting disappointment. Fortunately there is nowhere to go after this mish-mash but up.

The Musical Stage Company in collaboration with Canada’s National Arts Centre and in association with Producing Patrons Linda and Chris Montague presents:

Opened: May 17, 2017.
Closes: June 4, 2017.
Cast: 7; 4 men, 3 women
Running Time: 90 minutes, approx.

www.musicalstagecompany.com

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At the Sandbox, 301 Adelaide St. W., Toronto, Ont.

Written by Linda McLean
Directed by Paul Lampert
Set by Michael Gianfrancesco
Costumes by Ming Wong
Lighting by Bonnie Beecher
Sound by Christopher Stanton
Projections by Cameron Davis
Cast: Niki Landau
Richard Lee
Jeff Lillico
David Schurmann
Edmund Stapleton
Ausar Stewart

A chilling play that creeps up on you as the clues rack up, in a stylish, artful production.

The Story
. A childhood even haunts the two adults involved. In five short scenes May has various encounters-with her husband, with another man, with her father, her brother and finally a social worker in which each build slowly to indicate May’s background which is by way of explanation of the kind of person she is and how she got to where she is now.

The Production. Director Paul Lambert has fashioned this production as part art instillation, part immersive theatre production. The ‘theatre’ space at Artspace has been sectioned into five areas with a character who will be interacting with May already inhabiting each area. We are invited to wander around the space and look at each section as if we are in an art instillation.

As we walk into the space, we walk by an old man in pajamas, sitting in a chair, hooked up to tubes etc. This is a hospital room. He’s asleep and has a frowned look. He does not look like a happy camper. In another area (an enclosed room) a young man paces slowly back and forth, he is casually dressed. In another a young man sits hunched over on a park bench. He is roughly dressed. On another, also an enclosed space but not as confined as the young man, a gentleman sits at a stylish table, reading his newspaper. Behind him is a projection of a white shelf of books. He is very stylishly dressed—Yuppie like. The last room I look at is a bedroom with a man in a suit, sitting on the edge of the bed, looking at his cell phone and tapping out a text.

The walls around the whole space are surfaces on which to project scenes or instructions. We are invited to look around the space and turn off our cell phones. There are benches along the edges of the separate ‘rooms’ on which some members of the audience can sit. There are more people than there are spaces so some stand.

When the production begins a snippet of a home movie is projected on the walls with two young children playing being called by an adult. It doesn’t register who these children are or who the adult is. The snippet is short.

May is our central character. We follow her from area to area, watching as she interacts with each man in each space. Of course we act differently with different people and playwright Linda McLean shows that beautifully.

The man reading the paper is May’s husband, Dan (Ausar Stewart). She enters the area, all a twitter. She has seen a wounded bird on their balcony of their high rise apartment. She frets about what to do about it. Call a vet? Take it in and nurse it? Dan looks up from his paper, almost bored with her concern. He tries to allay her concerns that the bird will die because trying to help fails. With every comment from Dan, May, as played by Niki Landau gets a bit more agitated. As agitated as she gets, Dan, as played by the stylish Ausar Stewart, is more and more matter of fact. He hates birds and thinks their balcony is a haven for pigeons to poop. He hates that. More twittering from May. He suggests that perhaps they should move to a house. He is trying to calm her in his way. In this relationship, May appears childish and he appears like the adult trying to talk sense.

A projection on the walls indicate the passage of time. (three months later, 12 months later for example).

Next May is in the hospital room with the man in the chair. He is her father Duncan (At no time are any of these characters referred to by name. Interesting). May is accommodating with her father. He is irascible, irritable and definitely unhappy. He doesn’t want to be at this old age place. But we get the sense from his attitude and treatment of May that that is how he treated her for her whole life. She in turn tries to appease him. In this instance she is not as childish or twittery as she is with her husband. In this sense she is a grown daughter trying to deal with an irritable father and nothing she does is right. We sense this has always been the case.

More time passes as projected on the walls. May is in the hotel room with Roy. They met on the internet and they are there for sex. She is not having an affair with him. It’s more ‘cold-blooded’ than that. She and he want rough sex. At first Roy, as played by the soft-spoken Richard Lee, is tender, gentle and kind. But they get into a situation that starts off mutually but ends dangerously. Richard Lee morphs into a character that makes us wary of what kind of person he is and what secrets May is hiding.

May’s meets Denis, her brother, in a park. The projection (Cameron Davis) of a lush park with trees and grass suggests a quiet, idyllic place. Denis is agitated and angry. May has just told him she is pregnant and he is furious. There are hints that something happened when they were younger that affected their lives and they made a promise to each other that May has broken.

Finally May meets Abel in the last room. She has had the baby who is now two years old. Abel has come to see the baby. May seems anxious in a way that is different with the other men, but the main thrust of her behavior is a woman who is under the man’s influence. As she goes from her husband to her father to Roy in the hotel room to her brother to Abel, she projects a different kind of submissiveness and yet mixes it with an effort for maturity. She is not overtly meek. There is a kind of confidence, but it’s tempered.

Comment
. May is the common factor in each encounter. Each encounter connects to the others in establishing May’s character and her story. And with each connection matters get creepier and creepier as to what she is hiding.

Linda McLean has written a crisp, bracing play of mystery that sneaks up on you and spooks you when we piece together what happened years before and how it has affected May and the people around her. Terrific.

Note: It would have been nice if there was a proper program with all the information needed to talk about this wonderful production, rather than going to a user-unfriendly website for the company.

Produced by Theatre Panik

Opened: May 12, 2017.
Saw it: May 14, 2017.
Closes: May 27, 2017.
Cast: 6; 5 men, 1 woman
Running Time: 2 hours.

www.theatrepanik.ca

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

Written by Ntozake Shange
Directed by Djanet Sears
Set and costumes by Astrid Janson
Lighting by Michelle Ramsay
Choreography by Jasmyn Fyffe and Vivine Scarlett
Composed, arranged, and sound by Suba Sankaran
Cast: Tamara Brown
Karen Glave
Ordena Stephens-Thompson
d’bi.young anitafrica
Akosua Amo-Adem
SATE
Evangelia Kambites

A joyful, moving, compelling production of Ntozake Shange’s chorepoem that covers all facets of a black woman’s experiences in her journey through life.

Story and Performance. Ntozake Shange’s 1974 chorepoem illuminates the arc of a black woman’s journey through life, using poetry, prose, music, dance, singing, chanting, finger snapping and other means of making sounds that move the story.

Designer Astrid Janson dresses each woman of this seven women ensemble in a different colour, which when grouped together forms a rainbow (red, yellow, purple, green, blue, orange, indigo) —with an exception, brown is substituted for indigo. The dresses are both form fitting but loose enough to sway, making it easy for each woman to sashay to her own rhythm. And dance. (I must say that Janson’s curved ramp on which the women ascend and descend, often in heels, makes my eyebrows knit. That’s one daring set piece and having them negotiate it in heels is ramping up the challenge.)

To begin their journey these seven women dance, move, shimmy and sashay with a sense of total confidence, command, self-respect, pride and self-worth. At the beginning there is joy, humour, smarts, wisdom and worry-free anticipation of what’s ahead. Until, one day, that confidence changes. A young woman revels in her friendships with several boys, all cousins, all who like her. She goes to a school dance with them. She is joyful until one of the cousins charmingly separates her from the rest and takes her to a car where her world changes.

The other women tell of their euphoria when they meet the man of their dreams, or a man who shows them a good time, initially with respect and expressions of devotion. When it doesn’t work out the women rally around each other for support. The failed love affair is met with disappointment but not defeat. They move forward.

Other relationships with men are forged. The men promise undying love and devotion. The women revel in that too and trust and have faith that this is true. Gradually as each relationship fails, the women’s confidence, security, self-worth begins to chip away. They learn that their men have cheated with other women, some of whom they know. The accompanying singing, chanting and finger snapping that director Djanet Sears has fashioned as signs of solidarity, get softer, more delicate. The women’s support for each other is not in question, but it is now muted. However their embrace for each other is as strong as ever.

The women have learned from painful experience. And then occasionally, the men come back, head bowed, apologetic, swearing their loyalty from now on. And then euphoria happens again, and against their better judgement, trust. The women have faith that this time their man is true and changed.

The last segment of this incredible journey is the most harrowing, (told by the Lady In Red) and while each actress in this vibrant, fine ensemble shines in her own way, d/bi.young anitafrica as the Lady in Red, starts slowly and then goes full throttle with the most gut-wrenching story. In a way she encapsulates all of their journeys.

The journey concludes with the women finding solace in each other. They are now arm in arm and not solitary in a void.

Comment. Djanet Sears and her creative team and notably Suba Sankaran for her evocative music that the ensemble chant, sing and snap to, plus this sterling cast, have created a production full of heart, heart-break, joy and pride. Ntozake Shange has written a beautiful, searing poem about black women’s experience and the result is a production that leaves you breathless and in its way, euphoric.

Presented by Soulpepper Theatre Company

Opened: May 11, 2017.
Saw it: May 15, 2017.
Closes: June 3, 2017.
Cast: 7 women
Running Time: 90 minutes.

www.soulpepper.com

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At the Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto, Ont.

By Emil Sher
Based on the book by Ian Brown
Directed by Chris Abraham
Choreographers, Monica Dottor, Chris Abraham
Set and Costumes by Shannon Lea Doyle
Lighting by André du Toit, Kimberly Purtell
Video designer, Remington North
Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne
Cast: Kelly McNamee
Liisa Repo-Martell
David Storch

A heart-wrenching story of a loving family living with and caring for a severely disabled child, given a beautiful production. It’s more a confessional than a play and you sit and listen, but think, “there but for the grace of God….”

The Story and the Production. The play is based on Ian Brown’s 2009 award-winning book “The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for His Disabled Son.” Brown is married to Johanna Schneller, the Globe and Mail’s film critic. Their son Walker was born with a genetic disorder that left him severally disabled; unable to talk, eat properly, walk, and generally function as a growing boy. Development is severely delayed.

The book was lovingly, respectfully adapted into play form by Emil Sher In 2014. The play chronicles the long, torturous journey of Ian Brown and his wife Johanna Schneller in caring for Walker while he was at home. Every decision is gut-wrenching. They re-think every decision from every angle because they just aren’t sure if they are doing the right thing. There are only 300 people in the world who have the same disorder as Walker so it’s not as if you can go to a local support group for solace.

When the audience enters the theatre the stage is dark and mostly bare except for a stylish table and chairs up right. At the back is an opaque wall with a door well in it and almost behind the wall is lush greenery. A cone of light shines downstage centre.

As Ian Brown, David Storch steps into the cone of light, takes a deep breath and begins to tells us in an initially measured, sometimes agitated way, about a typical night when he is awoken from his sleep by Walker who is hitting himself and obviously in distress. Brown has to calm Walker and disengage him from his feeding tube and other paraphernalia; lift him out of his crib—he is not an infant but the crib is safer for him; change his soiled diaper while trying to stop Walker’s arms from flailing; carry him downstairs—at this point in the story Walker weight 45 pounds—and then feed him a baby bottle and get him settled so he will sleep. Sometimes the process takes three hours. One exhales slowly. And this is just the opening scene.

Liisa Ripo-Martell plays Johanna Schneller with the same measured manner. You get the sense both actors are approximating the effort it takes not only take care of this boy, but also to keep an emotional even keel and not loose their composure, their grip with the constant need to give care. It is a very hard slog.

Initially there is a playfulness as Schneller and Brown explain how they met (she was his student and she was attracted). They marry and she becomes pregnant. She is tested for genetic disorders and none are found. Schneller says that if she knew her baby had this disorder when she was pregnant she would have aborted him.

When Walker is born it is obvious there is something wrong but their regular doctor is not there and they have to make decisions without sound advice. When their doctor does appear it seems that what to do is interpreted differently by both parents. One hears that nature should take its course and Walker should be allowed to die. The other hears that everything should be done to keep him alive. Dilemmas to keep you up at night.

While both parents are respectful and appreciative of the other’s support, the constant pressure of taking care of such a helpless child takes its toll on the marriage. They fight, snipe, loose their temper, emotions etc.

Also part of this family is their daughter Hailey (Kelly McNamee). As disabled as Walker is that is as healthy and vibrant Hailey is. To accentuate the difference, Hailey is a student of ballet and for most of the performance she affects ballet poses and performs en pointe. We learn later of the bond between Walker and Hailey and that Hailey’s dancing gives Walker such pleasure.

Chris Abraham’s direction is striking and beautiful. The lighting by André du Toit and Kimberly Purtell is particularly evocative. A roving circular frame of light slides across the stage, silently, often following either Schneller or Brown and often enveloping them. I liken that roving light to be symbolic of Walker, always present, always consuming his parents’ attention. Occasionally there is a photo of the actual Walker with his parents projected above the stage. The last one of the evening is the most poignant.

Brown and Schneller often move about the stage, interacting, telling the story, but the last section is performed sitting in two chairs downstage facing the audience. It is the most wrenching, emotionally gripping section of the play. At the end of it both David Storch and Liisa Repo-Martell are awash with tears.

Comment. There is so much to ponder in The Boy in the Moon. When David Storch, as Ian Brown takes that deep breath and dives into telling in great detail, an average night trying to get Walker to sleep after he starts hitting himself, I asked myself, “Who is he talking to?” Really, who is he talking to? Friends? Strangers? An audience? A confessor? I do liken this heart-shredding, loving show to being less a play and more a confessional. As if Brown and Schneller needed to do penance for something, perhaps for deciding to keep Walker alive. They constantly worry about how much pain he is in; how he handles it and how they can help him with it. Half-way through the telling they must make another gut-wrenching decision and they make it. And there is guilt. But there is also joy. Are they grasping at anything when they interpret what they see as a smile on Walker’s face, and they feel that means he is happy? I don’t know. And neither do we actually since Brown and Schneller say there is so little they know about the disorder and how it affects a person.

Both Ian Brown and Johanna Schneller are selfless, devoted parents. They agonize over the pain Walker must be going through. I wonder, therefore, why they did not decide initially to let nature take its course. They never lament the decision to let him live as a cause of their marital problems, their constant need for sleep, being held captive to his need for care. They are almost herculean in their devotion to him. They think about what questions they would ask him if he could reply. They want to know that he’s happy. They want to know if he’s in pain. They want to know so much.

In that last section, when David Storch as Ian Brown and Liisa Repo-Martell as Johanna Schneller are sitting forward talking about Walker and they are awash in tears, that is when theatre and real life become blurred. It’s not the characters who are so moved. It’s the actors. Storch’s face is awash in tears and his nose is running considerably. The same with Ripo-Martell. This isn’t acting, folks. These are two actors with young healthy children of their own, playing parents of a severely disabled child, and they are loosing it for real, it seems to me. And that takes me right out of the moment. It seems almost churlish to comment on such a moving moment, but that’s what I’m doing. Of course bearing witness to their confessional is very emotional. But one listens, ponders and tries to understand because as I said in the beginning, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Presented by Crow’s Theatre

Opened: May 12, 2017.
Saw it: May 13, 2017.
Closes: May 27, 2017.
Cast: 3; 1 man, 2 women
Running Time: 90 minutes approx.

www.crowstheatre.com

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At Theatre Direct, 601 Christie St., Toronto, Ont.,

Written by Mark Crawford
Directed by Jessica Carmichael
Set, costumes and props by Brian Dudkiewizc
Sound by Sam Ferguson
Puppet builder and show image design by Clelia Scala
Cast: Cynthia Hicks
Matt Pillipiak
Drew O’Hara

A lively, unsettling production of Mark Crawford’s lively unsettling play about a boy who just wanted to be himself but was afraid because of the constraints of his family and by what people might think.

NOTE: This is the Carousel Players’ production that was traveling to schools around south-western Ontario. Seven schools that are part of the Catholic District School Board, cancelled their performance due to ‘scheduling problems.’ It was believed that the theme of the play was the reason. In any case, the valiant Lynda Hill, Artistic Director of Toronto based Theatre Direct that provides theatre to young audiences, invited the Carousel Players to do their last show in Toronto at Theatre Direct. A sold out theatre of children, their parents, teachers and theatre people packed the place. And rightfully so.

The Story. Simon has an assignment to give a presentation to his public school class. He is paired with Abby, the new kid in the class. She has no friends as yet and neither does Simon. Both are lonely and eager for a friend.

Simon invites Abby over to his house where he suggests that they present a play using all the points of instruction from the teacher. The story has to have conflict, a protagonist etc. They rehearse in Simon’s basement. Simon is ready with a story. It’s about Prince Simon who has everything he ever wanted but he’s unhappy. What he really wants is to be a princess who wears purple dresses and plays with Barbie Dolls. Abby is a bit confused here but she goes along with it because she wants Simon as a friend.

They are disturbed by Simon’s thirteen-year-old brother, Zack, who hears the noise in the basement and goes to check. Zack is irritable especially when he sees Simon wearing a cape. He reminds Simon of what their dad has said about his behaviour: that he can’t act ‘that way’, and has to stop pretending. Simon explains they are doing a play for school.

Zack interrupts a few more times when the two young school friends are enthusiastic with their play-acting and certainly when he sees Zack in a purple dress with a Barbie Doll in hand. Simon bought the doll himself.

Zack is challenged to play with them—he becomes a dragon among other characters. There are more references to the father’s dictates of how Simon should act via Zack.

There is some understanding between the brothers regarding being your real self with confidence. There are references to what girls can and can’t do and the same with boys, with Abby sticking up for the rights of the individual to play and act the way they wanted to.

The Production. Brian Dudkiewicz has designed a compact basement set with stairs going up stage left with all manner of props to use to imaginative effect. As Simon, Matt Pillipiak never walks if he can run, jump, twist, attempt to fly and pretend. He is excitable, almost gasping with excitement. He so wants to tell his new friend his secret (that he wants to be a girl) but he hesitates because he’s not sure how she will take this news. Pillipiak establishes Simon’s intense confliction at being a boy, but really wanting to be a girl who can wear a dress and play with a Barbie Doll. Simon blurts it out and Abby (Cynthia Hicks) accepts it as something friends do.

As Zack, Drew O’Hara has a permanent scowl when it comes to his brother. Zack is after all the stand-in for their father and their father has strict rules on how boys should act. They certainly should not be wearing dresses or purple or playing with dolls. The mother seems to be silent during all this. Abbey feels girls can do what they want and so should boys.

There is a game Abby and Simon play when one or the other wants to be their true self. When it’s dark they can be their true self. In the light they have to be the self that convention says they must be. Director Jessica Carmichael has certainly ramped up the energy in this prickly play. The cast is enthusiastic, buoyant, excitable and convey how emotionally wounded their characters are in so many ways.

Comment. Bravo to Mark Crawford for writing such an important play addressing gender issues among others so sensitively. The play examines how children are supposed to act—boys are to be boys and play with boy things, and girls are to do girl things and play with dolls. Anything that varies from the norm invites ridicule and scorn. Crawford illustrates how this blinkered way of thinking is carried on. Zack is deemed old enough to take care of Simon when his parents are at work. Zack carries on his father’s rigid code of behaviour when it comes to Simon. It appears that rigidity applies to Abby as well. She can’t shoot a bow and arrow because that’s a boy thing. She proves Zack wrong.

When Zack is invited to play with Simon and Abby he shows a reticence, as if he doesn’t know how or how to use his imagination. He does soon learn. And Zack does soon learn that his presumptions are incorrect. The fear of loneliness and having no friends is prevalent in both Simon and Abby’s lives and so they cling to each other since they share the same loneliness. The fear of ridicule is repeated often. It is such a rigid home that Simon and Zack live in.

I was glad to be at the performance with teacher friends. Their take on the play was fascinating. One teacher was not keen on the fact that in their game Simon was allowed to be himself in the dark but not in the light. Surely the test of acceptance would be that Simon could take on his feminine persona and become Princess Simone in the safety of his basement, when the lights were on, and revert back to being Simon when the lights were off? Another comment from a teacher is that the acting was too loud, too much shouting. I know the actors were playing excitable kids, but this teacher thought it was too loud. He noted several young kids in the front holding their ears and scurrying to their parents who sat further back. Interesting comments all round. I hope the production can come back for another stint of going to schools. Boys, Girls, and other Mythological Creatures has a lot of important things to say to adults on behalf of children.

Carousel Players presents:

One Performance: May 13, 2017.
Cast: 3; 2 boys, one girl.
Running Time: 1 hour, 5 minutes.

www.carouselplayers.com

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At the Barbican Theatre, London, Engl. Via NTLive

Based on the 1943 Luchino Viscanti film
Adapted by Simon Stephens
Directed by Ivo van Hove
Designed by Jan Versweyveld
Cast: Aysha Kala
Jude Law
Halina Reijn
Cys Scholten van Aschat
Chukwadi Iwuji

A filmed stage production (courtesy of NTLIVE) of director Ivo van Hove’s latest epic, with lots of stage space, stark lighting, wild emotions, and practically no heart or real passion.

The Story. Gino is a drifter who happens into a roadside café/garage. He sees Hanna, a young, vibrant woman, doing her toenails and is immediately obsessed with her. Her much older husband (the owner of the place) is suspicious of Gino until he proves to be a master mechanic. Gino fixes both the water heater and the truck that the husband has been working on. After that Gino is welcomed into Hanna and her husband’s life. (sorry, no programs were available for the proper names or their spellings. Info has been gleaned from reviews of the play).

Gino and Hanna can’t keep their hands off each other. He certainly is obsessed by her and even tries to escape her allure. It doesn’t work. Gino does something drastic in an effort to have Hanna for his own but the overwhelming guilt consumes both of them.

The Production. The production starts with a filmed segment in which a man and a woman are in a vehicle and there is a crash and the woman is killed (she sits beside him with a blank stare and blood on her face). The man screams in anguish as he clutches her to him.

When the play proper begins we see the typical panorama of an Ivo van Hove production. The stage is huge. Eerie light pours into the space from a door-well upstage. There is a counter stage right on which Hanna is doing her toes. A hunk of meat is on the counter beside her. To the left is a rusty mass suspended above the stage representing a truck and its engine. Underneath it is Hanna’s husband, on his back, trying to fix the engine.

Gino appears in the door-well in the streaming light. Close-up of the ruggedly handsome, Jude Law. He sees Hanna doing her toenails on the counter and immediately goes to her and is instantly obsessed. She takes a look at him and she’s captured too. Hanna’s husband is wary and almost belligerent until Gino says he can fix the engine after Gino tells him what the problem is. The husband leaves and then Hanna and Gino can’t wait to grope and fondle each other.

In a filmed interview with van Hove before the production begins, he says that Gino and Hanna are like two animals around each other and as such there is no kissing. And while at times there is a lot of tenderness for the most part there is that muscular, energetic clutching etc. and the quickest most efficient removal of clothing. In the case of Jude Law it’s his t-shirt revealing his buffed pecs. Well, it is Jude Law and I guess there is a law (sorry) that says his t-shirt must be removed.

As Gino, Jude Law exudes that animal magnetism that attracts women and probably men too. Law broods as Gino, wanting Hanna but stifled by the desolation of the café/garage. He wants/needs to get out. She says she can’t leave. Law pines more in his loneliness. He prowls the stage looking for somewhere of comfort.

As Hanna, Halina Reijn has her own desperation—to get away from her older husband and leave with this hunk of a man named Gino, but she hesitates. Her angst is not as varied as Gino’s because he is conflicted in ways she is not.

When Gino and Hanna plot to kill her husband the three of them go for a ride in the truck. To create this they sit on the floor with the engine guts above them. At a certain point the engine lowers towards the trio with attendant machine noise. Gino strangles the husband as black oil gushes down from the engine. Could it also be symbolic of bodily fluids? Why not.

Gino and Hanna then wash the oil off each other at a large tub with water gushing from the tap. (another bit of symbolism?) Their washing each other is almost chaste it’s so tender. He is shirtless (of course) but in his boxers. She is topless but wears her underpants as she gets in the tub.

In the last scene of the play, and another bit of animal clinging, it’s the only time Gino and Hanna kiss, passionately, again, while oil gushes from above.

Comment. The production is part of the National Theatre Live series of filmed plays. And while the production takes place at the Barbican and not the National Theatre the intent is the same—to bring notable theatre productions in London to an international audience by filming them and then transmitting them almost the same night.

In the case of Obsession at least film seems an ideal way of presenting this stage production because film can capture where to look and what reaction to see. The Barbican stage seems like a football field on which are a few players. There is often such an expanse of stage between characters who are obsessed with each other, that film seems the best way of showing a nostril quivering with lust, or gasping breathing, or an obsessive stare.

Director Ivo van Hove likes this large almost bare space, with startling lighting in which characters wander the stage out of boredom, frenzy, exasperation, whatever. That was obvious in his recent production of Hedda Gabler in which I was in the Lyttelton Theatre at the performance that was filmed for NTLive. The stage was huge and stark. Hedda prowled with determination around and around, as did Judge Brack. That production too lacked heart, sadness, compassion and anything that would make us embrace Hedda. If you can’t find anything to compassionate about her, what’s the point of being in the room?

Obsession is based on the 1943 Luchino Viscanti film of the same name, which in turn is based on the novel, “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” And if one wants to go even further back, the idea of two lovers plotting to kill the husband of the woman and then being haunted by what they did, you can’t get a better reference than Thérèse Raquin a novel (1867) and then a play (1873) by Émile Zola.

While we know that Gino and Hanna are obsessed by each other this production doesn’t do justice to that story. Van Hove’s insistence on the huge stage distances them and us from the passion. The lighting is stark and the sound is effective, but those are trappings. It becomes once again, a director who gets in the way of telling the story effectively.

A Barbican/Toneelgroep Amsterdam production.

First Showing: May 11, 2017.
Encore showing: June 24, 2017.

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Wildfire

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

Created and directed by Judith Thompson
Set by Brett Haynes
Costumes by Denis Huneault-Joffre
Lighting by Kaileigh Krysztofiak
Sound by Andy Trithardt
Song composer, Victoria Carr
Choreography by Allen Kaeja and Karen Kaeja
Cast: Sarah Carney
Nicholas Herd
Michael Liu
Dylan Harman Livaja
Suzanne Love
Krystal Hope Nausbaum
Andreas Prinz

An unsettling look into the dark treatment of people at a mental institute that considered them to be idiots, that asks gritty questions, performed by a compelling group of actors.

Comment. With Wildfire, Judith Thompson’s latest creation, she continues to challenge our perceptions, conceptions and assumptions. In this instance her focus continues to put a human face on ones definition of ‘disability’ in general, and Down Syndrome in particular through her RARE Theatre Company. In the past, the company has presented plays performed by people with varying degrees of abilities, including Down Syndrome, a genetic disorder. With Wildfire all the actors live with Down Syndrome.

The backdrop of the story is the Huronia Regional Centre in Orillia for developmentally delayed patients. The Centre was built in 1876. The treatment of its patients was despicable.

The Production. Two cots, each with a thin mattress and a thin blanket are up at the back of the set with various props on each. Suspended above the stage are seven white ‘smocks.’ When the cast reach up to pull down the smocks and put them on, they then become patients at the Huronia Regional Centre.

The cast of seven stand in several lines, face the audience directly and enumerate how they have been treated, including being called an imbecile and an idiot. They tell the audience how society, family and others have treated them. The writing is spare, concise and almost “point form” as the dialogue passes smoothly from actor to actor, “randomly” in their formation, as each speaks a word or thought and is picked up by another actor.

They pose thorny questions one of which is, what if a person with Down Syndrome and one who is ‘normal’ fall in love? What would be the implications? What if these two people were the same sex? The cast enact a play within the play. A scene from Romeo and Juliet is enacted with two men—Andreas Prinz and Dylan Harman Livaja—as the two star-crossed lovers. It is poignant, tender and illuminating.

Krystal Hope Nausbaum, who has acted in other RARE productions, did what any actress worth her salt would do when she was preparing to play a patient at Huronia, she went there to do research. Nausbaum is a diminutive dynamo with a quiet command. She describes the place in chilling detail, especially the cemetery. There are many graves with the number of the patient but no name on the grave marker. Some have no information at all.

The cast corrects this omission when they each hold a cardboard sign with the name and date of birth and death of seven people who were ‘imprisoned’ there. The signs are left in view for us to ponder. You swallow hard at that.

Comment. As with other RARE productions, the camaraderie of the group is heart-warming and impressive. At one point in a group setting, Dylan Harman Livaja put his arm around Andreas Prinz and Livaja’s fingers subtly tapped on Prinz’s shoulder, perhaps in a quiet signal? Support? Livaja also spoke to Prinz quietly, perhaps giving instruction of what to do? Comment? I am assuming. But the support of these two actors is impressive, and it applies to the whole group.

There is much to learn from these actors: to listen, hear, observe, ponder, watch, be unsettled and be moved. Most important I think is patience. Sometimes an actor pauses to find his/her line (they are not forgetting, they are processing). We see the ‘struggle’ to get the line. We wait patiently, confident the actor/actress will find it. The message is not diluted by the pauses. And the patience is rewarded.

Wildfire is important and their message is delivered by a group of seven actors who speak with authority and hard-earned experience. See it.

Presented by RARE Theatre Company

Began: May 2, 2017.
Saw it: May 6, 2017.
Closes: May 20, 2017.
Running Time: 75 minutes.

www.soulpepper.ca

Liars at a Funeral.

At St. Vladimir Theatre, 620 Spadina Ave., Toronto, Ont.
Written by Sophia Fabiilli
Directed by Ali Joy Richardson
Set and wardrobe by Lindsay Woods
Sound by Nicholas Potter
Lighting by Steph Raposo.
Cast: Rhea Akler
John Healy
Ruby Joy
Daniel Pagett
Terry Tweed

An ambitious, often funny play about family secrets and squabbles.

The Story
. We are in a funeral home for Mavis’ funeral. The family is gathering which will be tricky because no one seems to be talking to each other. Mavis’ daughter Evelyn is divorced and her ex-husband Frank will be there. Evelyn has a secret that only her friend Frank seems to know (he’s there too to give Evelyn moral support). Evelyn’s twin daughters DeeDee and Mia haven’t spoken to each other in years. Mia hasn’t seen the family for years. She has a surprise to tell them. All the characters have secrets. There is one whopping lie but the rest of the stuff are secrets.

The Production. Playwright Sophia Fabiilli has set herself a daunting task: to create a play in which four of the five actors play two parts and in one case, the two parts are identical twins. Director Ali Joy Richardson is certainly up to the challenge, as is the energetic cast.

We are in a funeral home. Mavis’ gleaming casket is raised on a table in front of us waiting for the guests to arrive. Evelyn (Rhea Akler) is the first to show up with her friend Frank (John Healy). She has an urgent request of him. He’s surprised and so are we. (no I won’t tell you what the surprise is.)

In swift succession an actress with her hair down, looking scruffy exits over here and a few seconds later re-enters over there with her hair up, looking spiffy and pregnant. Kudos to Ruby Joy who plays the identical twins DeeDee and Mia. A timid, awkward, glasses-adjusting, quiet man who works in the funeral home, exist stiffly and re appears over here as a loud fellah with no glasses, an easy but grating manner. Kudos to Daniel Pagett for the distinguishing details of his characters, Quint of the funeral home and Cam of the loud-mouth.

John Healy plays both a drunk, philandering ex-husband named Bruce and a solid friend named Frank. Rhea Akler plays Leorah as a hair flipping, over-sexed funeral home director, and a skittish Evelyn. Well sure she’s skittish—she has her secret she must keep; her mother has died; and her twin daughters who have no spoken in years are expected and she’s a wreck.

In this mad-cap comedy even Mavis appears. Terry Tweed plays her with spunk, confidence and a real cough that is worrying but seems to fit with the nature of the character.

Comment. While Liars at a Funeral does have its humorous moments, I can’t help but think that Sophia Fabiilli tries a bit too hard to be funny and complex with her dizzying play. Still it’s a brave, almost fearless effort, so kudos for that too.

Truth ‘n Lies Theatre presents.

Began: May 5, 2017.
Saw it: May 7, 2017.
Closes: May 14, 2017.
Cast: 5; 2 men, 3 women.
Running Time: approx. 2 hours.

www.truthnliestheatre.com

It’s All Tru

Written and directed by Sky Gilbert
Set by Denise Lisson
Lighting by Oz Weaver
Costumes by Elizabeth Traicus
Cast: David Coomber
Caleb Olivieri
Tim Post

A disappointment in part because the story is so clichéd; the revelations are too obvious as is the direction and in one case the dialogue is almost incomprehensible because the actor mumbles and doesn’t project.

NOTE: It’s All Tru is not to be confused with Jason Sherman’s 1999 play, It’s All True, about Orson Welles’ efforts to produce the Marc Blitzstein musical, The Cradle Will Rock.

The Story. Travis is a young actor who is engaged to Kurt, his former drama teacher. They are planning their wedding in a month and a half. But, well, uh, it seems that Travis got lonely when Kurt went on a trip, and well, uh, he partook of the pleasures of a street boy. It seems that Travis and Kurt have a sort of open relationship in which one or the other might have sex with someone else but they aren’t supposed to tell the partner really but should make sure they are taking the various meds necessary in the time of AIDS. In any case Travis tells Kurt the truth and says he had sex and the street boy did wear a condom but then when Travis looked behind him, the guy was not wearing a condom. Then the street boy, named Gideon shows up one night when Travis isn’t there but Kurt is and Gideon just wanted to drop off a keep sake of their time together. Kurt is mighty upset. Travis and Kurt thrash it out. Kurt has his own secrets. This triangle of relationships is being tugged and it’s coming apart.

The Production. Denise Lisson’s pristine, elegant set of Kurt’s beautifully appointed home is created with the simplest of props. A chaise downstage left is framed in floor light. There is a side table with a few perfectly placed knickknacks A counter stage right is empty except for a silver trivet and silver bowl of chilli. Up stage is a long, grey table with two chairs, and plates at either end and a vase with about 6 lilies in the centre of the table. Each set piece is subtly illuminated by Oz Weaver.

Kurt (Tim Post) is fastidious in his home. Everything is perfectly in its own space. He is exuberant in his greeting of Travis (David Coomber) because Kurt has been away on business. Travis is just as exuberant and a bit flirty. Travis also has a confession and once David Coomber as Travis attends to the awkward dialogue on the page, and his awkward performance as directed by Sky Gilbert, Travis manages to finally blurt out that he had a one night stand with a street boy. And yes the guy wore a condom at the beginning, but then, well, uh, hehehehe, it seems when Travis turned around, the guy was not wearing a condom. He doesn’t know what happened or how that came about.

Kurt was not worried because he was sure that Travis was taking the various medications for possible HIV they had both agreed to take. Right? Heheheh, uh, well, again Travis is awkward when he says that no he had not been taking it but promised to go to the hospital and fill the prescription immediately.

When Gideon (Caleb Olivieri) the street boy arrives at Kurt’s house late that night looking for Travis, Kurt is none too pleased. Gideon inveigles his way into the house. He wears scruffy, torn jeans, a jacket and t-shirt and carries a small backpack with various stuffed toys in it and a precious rock for Travis and a piece of glass from an old theatre. Much of what Caleb Olivieri says is unintelligible either because he mumbles or he doesn’t project.

Kurt is firm in telling Travis about the visit and that Travis must never have that man in the house nor must Gideon be encouraged. And while Travis tries his best to do it, Gideon comes around the next day and makes himself at home, putting his take out coffee cup on the pristine table when he leaves. So we know how important this cup is director Sky Gilbert has it illuminated. There is no way that Kurt could miss seeing it when he comes home. By the same token, there is no way that Travis would have missed it either—he spends so much time cleaning the immaculate counter in the kitchen and then the table while Gideon is there. (sigh).

There is discussion about why Gideon took off the condom. He says that Travis told him too. Travis denies it, but seems unsure. Kurt decides to handle it in his abrupt way. Travis seems confused and Gideon is frantic about what might happen to him.

Comment. What seems painfully obvious in this painfully obvious play is that nothing is true. There is no truth in the relationship between Travis and Kurt; there is no effort for taking responsibility in sex and after. Travis lies about filling the prescription for the needed drugs to be safe. He lies when he invites Gideon in. Gideon might be lying about why he took off the condom. Kurt lies in his own way as well.

When we find out in about three minutes of their appearance that two characters are lying, then trusting those characters becomes a waste of time. We find out a bit later not to trust Kurt. While it is possible to have compassion for a loathsome character, I think it’s stretching one’s patience when we are expected to have compassion for three loathsome characters in a three character play.

I also think it really dangerous for a playwright to direct his own play. Who will tell the playwright to cut or re-write? Who will tell a director that no, you do not need to have such elaborate set changes? Not a happy night in the theatre.

The Cabaret Company presents:

From: May 3, 2017.
Saw it: May 10, 2017.
Closes: May 14, 2017.
Cast: 3 men.
Running Time: 80 minutes.

www.buddiesinbadtimes.com

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