Lynn

Vivek Shraya
Photo: Dahlia Katz

At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Upstairs.

Written and performed by Vivek Shraya

Directed by Brendan Healy

Choreography by William Long

Set and costumes by Joanna Yu

Lighting by C.J. Astronomo

Composition by Vivek Shraya and James Bunton

Sound by James Bunton

From the program: “Vivek Shraya is an artist whose body of work crosses the boundaries of music, literature, visual art, theatre and film.” She’s written a searing book of raw emotion with  “I’m Afraid of Men”. She’s recorded albums of her music. She’s written books of poetry.  A novel is about to be published. But all she really wanted in this life of accomplishment was to be a popstar. It’s not for lack of trying.

Vivek Shraya arrives on stage ‘before’ the performance begins to explain what she means by failing to be a popstar (her spelling).  It means she’s not God. She’s not Madonna. She has not performed on the international stage to great acclaim.

When she returns to the stage she wears a diaphanous gold coat over a short, black jumpsuit. Kudo’s to Joanna Yu for the costume and set design. The set is a large circle of cables on the floor. Inside the circle is a guitar on a stand and a stool. Occasionally Vivek Shraya brings a stand microphone into the circle.

For her show Vivek Shraya takes her audience on her long journey to be a popstar.

Through luck and coincidence she has always been singing beginning at the local religious centre. In public and high school Shraya identified as a queer boy who endured homophobic taunts.

Shraya was recognized for the singing ability by people in the business which lead to getting to know singers who were impressed with the resulting songs Shraya wrote. This lead to moving from Edmonton to Toronto to live with a woman who wanted to promote Shraya. This didn’t work out, which lead to other opportunities in Paris, France and a recording contract and more albums. We get a good sense of Shraya’s work.

Shraya is trusting, bold, curious and cautious in this pursuit and also recognizes when something is a bad idea.

Shraya says there are 40 reasons why pop stardom did not result, some of which were: being born in Edmonton, being born brown, queer and trans. Shraya identifies as she.

She does not go into when the change in identity happened because she dwells on her journey to pop stardom.  As she goes through the 40 reasons why she is a failure as a popstar, the audience is absolutely silent as the reasons become more and more personal.

Some of the reasons seem self-deprecating, but I don’t think the show is a ploy to win our sympathy. Vivek Shraya is such a charming presence, sings beautifully and certainly has a facility with lyrics, that she draws in her audience. I don’t think it a stretch to say they are rooting for her all the way. If anything Shraya illuminates a work ethic that is strong and steady and left it to us to figure out that stardom often does not rely on hard work and creativity. She took every opportunity that was presented and created others to achieve her dream.  Sometimes it’s just luck that makes the difference.  She’s made her luck and fought hard for what she has achieved. She’s a good story-teller with a sense of humour.

She touches on the personal issues she’s had because she is brown, queer and trans but only as a means of forwarding the story, and informing us of the kind of personal ethics she has. It’s also beautifully directed with sensitivity by Brendan Healy.

We might disagree with her assessment of her failure but it’s her show and she gets to decide what is a success and what isn’t. One thing is for sure—this show is a winner.

Canadian Stage presents:

Opened: Feb. 19, 2020.

Closes: March 1, 2020.

Running Time: 75 minutes, no intermission.

www.canadianstage.com

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At the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Composed by Englebert Humperdinck

In collaboration with his sister Adelheid

Conducted by Johannes Debus

Directed by Joel Ivany

Set and projections by S. Katy Tucker

Costumes designed by Ming Wong

Lighting by JAX Messenger

Price Family Chorus Master, Sandra Horst

Cast: Russell Braun

Michael Colvin

Emily Fons

Anna-Sophie Neher

Simone Osborne

Krisztina Szabó

A bizarre concept that is not supported by the story.

Note: As with my other ‘opera’ reviews I am reviewing this as theatre. I won’t comment on the singing or orchestra (which sounded dandy to me) because opera-music-singing-is not my forte. Theatre is. The lovely people of the Canadian Opera Company welcome another point of view of their art form. This review is also an extended version of the on air radio review I did for “Classical Underground” with Philip Conlon on Wed. Feb. 12.

The Story. The opera is based on the fairy tale by the Brother’s Grimm, which is pretty dark. To give a short overview: Hansel and Gretel are brother and sister. There is a wicked step-mother and a hapless father. They are very, very hungry. The wicked step-mother sent the children into the woods to find strawberries to bring back to eat. The father realizes it’s dangerous out there what with the witch who lives there. The kids see a magical house made of candy, cookies and gingerbread. This is where the witch lives. She sees Hansel and Gretel and wants to bake them and eat them. (I said it was dark). The witch tries to coerce Gretel into the big stove but she outfoxes the witch and pushes the witch into the oven. This releases other lost children and all is good.

Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid thought this tale was too dark so she softened it by creating the Dew Fairy and the Sandman who watch over the children while they are sleeping in the woods. There is also no wicked step-mother as well, just a harried mother.   

The Production. Director Joel Ivany sets this story in Toronto today. S. Katy Tucker has created a slow projected panoramic view of the city (projected on the back of the set) as it pulls away from the opera house, east and north. The CN Tower is in the background. The expanse of the city sprawls out. I found it very moving. I wondered where we were in the city? Scarborough? In any case the action takes place in an apartment block, utilitarian, concrete, grey, dispiriting-kudos to S. Katy Tucker. A wall that covers the various floors of the block pulls away revealing Hansel and Gretel playing on the floor of their kitchen. Other apartments are revealed on other floors and to the sides of Hansel and Gretel’s place. We see activity in other apartments. Interesting.

Hansel and Gretel should be binding bundles of materials to make brooms but they are playing instead. Their harried mother, Gertrude, yells at them for dawdling. In her anger she breaks the jug that has milk in it. It splashes all over the floor. There is nothing to eat as a result. Nothing. She sends Hansel and Gretel into the woods to find strawberries to bring back.

In the meantime Peter, the father, arrives with a box of food. He has sold all the brooms and had money for food. But he gets anxious when he learns the children have gone to the woods for food. The witch is there. The children can be seen in the corridor outside their apartment looking on the floor for something. I am mystified. Is this the woods? Are they looking for strawberries there? The children then go from apartment to apartment where they are greeted either warmly or shooed away. My eyebrows are knitting. What does this have to do with Hansel and Gretel being in the dangerous woods looking for food?

Finally the children knock on the door of a man in a strange costume who invites them in. In time a whole tent affair covers furniture. There are projections of foliage on the furniture at the back of the space. Is this the woods? The Sandman has watched over them. The children say they have never slept better. I’m beginning to think that it wasn’t strawberries they ate in the woods but magic mushrooms. Either that or they are so hungry they are hallucinating. They realize that the man in the strange costume is really the witch in an even more garish costume. The children note the candies, cookies and gingerbread of the apartment structure. They are frightened by the witch. The witch tries to coerce Gretel into the stove—not the appliance in the kitchen, but a larger structure outside the kitchen. Gretel is smart and tricks the witch and pushes her into the large stove and kills her. At the same time missing, lost children burst out of the oven in the form of projections that look like gingerbread men that float across the walls. Hansel and Gretel’s parents arrive in matching green track suits to hug them and take them home.

Comment. Director Joel Ivany’s concept doesn’t work in the context of the story of the opera. A story about hunger becomes a story about child-kidnapping in an apartment building. Why the children were going from apartment to apartment for some reason (food?) is not clear. The witch in the forest was capturing children and baking them. Does Ivany equate this with a weird person in a building kidnapping children for his own ends? My eyebrows can’t rise any higher in disbelief.  The parents, frantic to find their children, have time to change into matching track suits?  The music is glorious and one doesn’t need to be trained to know it. But as for the concept of the production, it doesn’t work.  

Presented by the Canadian Opera Company

Saw it: Feb. 11, 2020.

Plays: Feb 19, 21.

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, approx.

www.coc.ca

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Review: GROUNDED

by Lynn on February 17, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Streetcar Crowsnest, Carlaw and Dundas

Written by George Brant

Directed  by Kerry Ann Doherty

Set and costumes by Melanie McNeill

Lighting by Michael Brunet

Sound by Thom Marriott

Cast: Carly Street

The Pilot (Carly Street) is a confident to the point of cocky fighter pilot who takes pride in her expertise to down whatever planes that she must in the line of duty. She lives hard and fast and then goes drinking at the bar with her flying colleagues. One night she’s chatted up at the bar by Eric. They connect, go home, have sex and a relationship results. They marry and she becomes pregnant with their daughter Samantha. This means the end of her ‘flying’ career. She’s grounded for her own safety and that of her crew. She’s assigned to ‘fly’ drones and offer surveillance, protection except not by actually flying.

Shifts are twelve hours each, of watching a screen and holding a stick to ‘fly’ the drone. Over time it becomes a ‘white-knuckle’ experience—eyes peering at the screen trying to see something unusual, guts in a knot at the tension. Even though flying is simulated with the drone, the Pilot still wears a flying uniform at work, sitting in her chair looking at her screen. Sometimes she gets so involved with the job she forgets to take off the uniform and change into her regular clothes to go home. The Pilot is close with her young daughter. At times the job takes its toll with her relationship with Eric.

Then matters are ramped up. The Pilot is tasked with tracking and if possible eliminating the second in command of a terrorist group, a man called “The Prophet.” She’s ready. She’s determined. She wants to be the one who ‘takes the guy out.’ But reality starts to play tricks and that’s dangerous.

Playwright George Brant’s play is gripping. The implications of how The Pilot is drawn deeper and deeper into the drone world get more and more serious as the play goes on. The sentences are short and punchy. They create a sense of momentum and urgency. We grip the armrest as well as The Pilot as we too are drawn into her world.

Director Kerry Ann Doherty and her set and costume designer, Melanie McNeill, have created a space with the audience sitting on either side of the playing area. In that space are two perfectly formed parallel formations of pristine sand. It could be symbolic of the edges of a runway—reminiscent of The Pilot’s former life as an actual fighter pilot. Now these two parallel lines of sand can be the edges of the highway that takes her to and from work. On the way home she often gets out of the car and hides things in the sand, indicating that all might not be right with The Pilot.

Carly Street is a powerhouse as The Pilot. This is performance of a person who takes no prisoners, neither in the air or on a screen, tracking some nasty piece of work who needs eliminating. Her speech is clipped to the point of being abrupt. She is watchful but is up for a good time. That’s why Eric attracted her and a relationship flourished. She is not afraid of being a caring, attentive, loving mother with her baby daughter. And just as quickly she can be a determined tracker with the hope of being the one to kill the Prophet. As the play gathers momentum, Carly Street’s speech gushes out like a torrent. Heart pounding, pulse racing. The unseen people around the Pilot are calm it seems; only the Pilot is getting more and more tense. It’s a performance of a woman who is trying to hold on to the image on the screen and her sense of reality. Kerry Ann Doherty’s direction is careful, meticulously detailed and slowly gains momentum until you are left breathless at the end. It’s a terrific production of an intriguing play.

Grounded by George Brant is the first production by a new artist-driven theatre company called theatreSix. I look forward to many more productions from this group. Bravo.

theatreSix Presents:

Opened: Feb. 14, 2020.

Closes: Feb. 29, 2020.

Running Time: 75 minutes.

 www.theatresix.com

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Review: Hamilton

by Lynn on February 16, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Based on the book “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow

Directed by Thomas Kail

Choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler

Scenic design by David Korins

Costumes by Paul Tazewell

Lighting by Howell Binkley

Sound by Nevin Steinberg

Orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire

Cast: Ta’Rea Campbell

Darilyn Castillo

Marcus Choi

Jared Dixon

Desmond Sean Ellington

Warren Egypt Franklin

Neil Haskell

Elijah Malcomb

Joseph Morales

Stephanie Jae Park

Plus a large chorus.

Hamiltonis relentlessly inventive and pulsing with the energy of a first rate cast.

Note: This touring production arrives for an extended stay on a torrent of publicity, notoriety, celebrity, awards, huge hype and generally ecstatic reviews.  It’s the show that has people in a frenzy to pay exorbitant amounts of money for a ticket just to say they’ve seen it.

Mirvish Productions is presenting Hamiltonhere and are aware of the scamming going on for tickets and have warned that only a ticket bought at a Mirvish box office will be recognized.

The Story. Hamilton has a book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. It’s based on the book “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow and is about Alexander Hamilton, an outsider and a founding father of the United States, who lived from 1755 or 1757 to 1804. It charts Hamilton’s meteoric rise in politics, being George Washington’s right hand man during the American Revolution and in his cabinet as Secretary of the Treasury when Washington became the first President of the United States. He created the country’s financial system. He married well and got caught in a tricky situation with another woman for which he paid blackmail and was exposed. He handled that exposure to his advantage. He was politically astute, wily and savvy. But you have to go elsewhere to find out the less than sanitized information about him: that he was a slave trader, abolition was not tops on his list of important things, he was elitist and not the champion of the little guy to name a few. Hamilton has lots of facts about him, but you don’t go to a Broadway musical for historical facts.

The Production. David Korins’ set is a series of wood walk-ways and moveable staircases used to impressive effect. Paul Tazwell’s period costumes are formal for the elite characters: Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington etc. and form-fitting breaches for the hard-working chorus. King George is dressed ‘regally’ in bright red silk complete with gold crown.

It’s interesting that Aaron Burr (a wonderful, nuanced performance by Jared Dixon) opens the show with his introduction to who Alexander Hamilton is:

“How does a bastard, orphan, son

            of a whore and a

            Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten

            Spot in the Caribbean by providence, impover-

            ished, in squalor,

            Grow up to be a hero and a scholar.”

It’s notable that after Jared Dixon’s clever, measured build-up as Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton’s appearance, as played by Joseph Morales, seems almost understated. We are told Hamilton is driven but this performance always seems eclipsed in variation and nuance by Jared Dixon. Burr is politically astute and can read the room. He says to Hamilton, who spouts words, “to talk less and listen more.” This stops Hamilton momentarily to ponder, just slightly, but then without comment, Hamilton just continues doing what he always does, ignoring the sound advice. Burr is the best part in Hamilton and certainly as played by Dixon that is just a touch slower than the others who deliberately gush and rush.   

What makes this musical so different? It is relentlessly inventive. The subject matter is mind-boggling in its unusualness: a show about a guy from the 1700s who generally no one knew much about before Chernow’s book and certainly not before the musical; who is celebrated by being on the American $10. (When it was recently put forward that Harriet Tubman should replace Alexander Hamilton on the American $10, Lin-Manuel Miranda used his huge celebrity to successfully lobby to have Hamilton remain on the $10 bill and Tubman be considered for something else. Exhale slowly.)

While the show uses various musical forms—hip-hop, pop etc. it’s rap that predominates.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, In the Heights, used rap for the most part as well.

Hamiltonis Miranda’s second musical.  He followed that with Freestyle Love Supreme which at times improvises rap lyrics. So rap is Miranda’s forte but he can and does work in other musical forms—lots of movie music, etc. His lyrics are dense and very clever.

Hamiltonis pulsing with energy in that the cast is always moving. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler fills the show with various kinds of choreography and movement. I get a sense it’s the choreography of America in all its variations. Perhaps tap-dancing is the only form of dance not included.  Thomas Kail’s direction also keeps the energy, relationships and pulse constantly moving and changing.   

The casting is deliberately provocative—actors of colour, or different ethnicities, are cast as real people who were white: Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson etc.  In irony on irony many of those actual people in Hamilton also owned slaves. The show got me thinking and wondering how an actor of colour, diverse ethnicity etc. deals with playing a character who “owned” a person of colour.

Except for Stephen Sondheim and a few others, most Broadway musicals are formulaic, or jukebox musicals with music from other sources tacked into the narrative. Hamiltonis purely original and audacious.

How was the actual show? A tsunami of invention says it all. It was like being force-fed 10 pounds of Belgian chocolates….initially delicious but ultimately overwhelmingly rich. I appreciate the artistry of Lin-Manuel Miranda. His lyrics are brilliant and so clever but I mean it when I say it’s relentlessly inventive. It’s as if he is trying to top himself with each song.  And as such Hamiltonis exhausting listening so hard to keep the thread of the story. The sound system for this production is terrific but characters often sing so quickly you might loose some facts and words.  Most of the cast do enunciate, but some rush the lyrics.  It’s wise to read the lyrics beforehand to keep all the characters straight. (The lyrics are conveniently online with annotation).

The cast is pulsing with energy. I was grateful for King George—comic relief, lilting music, very funny and the only character on stage who has scenes by himself. Neil Haskell gives a cheeky performance as the arrogant King George.  The other scenes are full of swirling characters and dancers.  However, there comes a time in the second Act, or even in the overlong first Act, when you just want them to shut up, truly, and let you breathe. We get that late in Act II with the song “It’s Quiet Uptown” a song about forgiveness. Delicate, slow and heartbreaking.

Comment. I am glad I saw Hamilton for the second time as it turns out, to have a clear view of the physical accomplishment of the production, and a greater appreciation of the actual accomplishment of the creative force of musical theatre known as Lin-Manuel Miranda. But am also curious about the many detractors who question what was left out.

Ishmael Reed, poet, writer, critic being one. It will be interesting reading about the other side of that story.   

David Mirvish Presents:

Opened: Feb. 12, 2020.

Closes: May 17, 2020.

Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes.

www.mirvish.com

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At the Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Book and lyrics by Tony Kushner

Music by Jeanine Tesori

Directed by Robert McQueen

Musical director, Reza Jacobs

Set by Michael Gianfrancesco

Costumes by Alex Amini

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Sound by Peter McBoyle

Choreography by Tim French

Cast: Moses Aidoo

Damien Atkins

Jully Black

Measha Brueggergosman

Oliver Dennis

Camille Eanga-Selenge

Keisha T. Fraser

Deborah Hay

Alana Hibbert

Linda Kash

Evan LeFeuvre

Steward Adam McKensy

Micah Mensah-Jatoe

Sam Rosenthal

Vanessa Sears

Samantha Walks

A comment rather than a review, again late, with apologies.

Jully Black gives a terrific performance as Caroline in her musical theatre debut.

The Story. It’s 1963, Lake Charles, Louisiana. Caroline Thibodeaux is a black maid working for the Jewish, white, Gellman family. Caroline spends much of her time in the hot basement doing laundry. She is 39 years old and expected to be further ahead at that age than still a maid at $30 a week. She is disappointed by life. Her marriage broke up when her equally disappointed husband hit her in frustration. She forgave him the first time, but not the second. Caroline sings with resentment of turning the other cheek. She comments on her anger as does everyone else it seems.

She has a secret ritual with eight-year-old Noah Gellman. He lights the one cigarette Caroline allows herself. Noah’s mother has recently died. He misses her dearly. He does not like Rose, his new stepmother although Rose is loving and tries to win him over.

Rose is the most perceptive character in the show. She knows how hurt and alone Noah is. She knows her husband Stuart is still grieving for his late wife. She knows that Caroline is angry. Rose knows $30 a week is not enough to pay Caroline but they can’t afford to pay more, so Rose tries to help by telling Caroline she can keep whatever money she finds in Noah’s pants pockets when it comes time to do the wash. Noah always forgets to empty his pockets. This will teach him a lesson. This money also causes the change (yes, the pun is intended) that shifts the narrative.

The Production. Michael Gianfrancesco’s multi-levelled set has Noah’s bedroom on the upper level. It’s also the place where the personification of the moon represented by the magnificent Measha Brueggergosman, shines bright. The ground level is the main house and about three steps down is the hot basement with the washing machine. The basement is Caroline’s domain. Jully Black as Caroline is commanding in this impressive debut to musical theatre. Ms Black of course has made her name as a celebrated singer-songwriter-recording artist. She can now add formidable actress to the list. Her performance as Caroline is fierce and without a shred of sentiment. It takes guts to perform such an unhappy character without wanting to soften her and win us over. Black is measured, contained and dour.

The voice is pure and gets to the heart of every song. She sings of having to turn the other cheek. It makes her bitter. Both Noah and Rose mispronounce Caroline’s name—they say it with a soft ‘i’ and not a long ‘i’ as it was intended and yet she never corrects them. Later Noah does pronounce it properly after a shift in his relationship with her, but Rose remains ignorant of the correct pronunciation because she’s not corrected. It’s interesting trying to put oneself in Caroline’s shoes to ponder why playwright Tony Kushner never had Caroline correct the mispronunciation (afraid for her job? Gives her another reason to be angry?).

When Caroline keeps a $20 bill found in Noah’s pants pocket and won’t give it back, Noah says a racist thing to her in anger. She replies in a calm, cold voice with an equally devastating racist remark. The result in both cases is shattering. As Noah, Evan Lefeuvre is a lovely mix of precocious and shy, confident and awkward.  Damien Atkins is walking sadness as Stuart Gellman, unable to get out of his grief or comfort his equally unhappy son. As Rose Gellman, Deborah Hay illuminates the sadness of the woman. She is out of place and does not know how to find her place to give comfort to her family or to Caroline. There are no villains here, only people who are hurting.

The show is over amplified so the sound often distorts the lyrics. Getting the sound balance right seems the hardest thing in the theatre world and hearing the lyrics clearly, certainly in this almost sung-through show, is crucial. 

Comment. Playwright/lyricist Tony Kushner says that Caroline, or Change is his most autobiographical work. He did grow up in Lake Charles, Louisiana. His parents were musicians (although his mother did not die young).  They had a black maid who worked for his family. He remembers her as angry.

Caroline is unhappy until she realizes that her sadness is hurting her and those around her and she seeks divine help. There is a kind of redemption. The show is challenging because of Caroline’s anger. But the cast and especially Jully Black are so accomplished you stay the course, caring for and trying to understand these wounded people.

Produced by the Musical Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre Company.

Began: Jan. 30, 2020.

Closes: Feb. 16, 2020 (Feb. 16, 3:00 pm performance added).

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx.

www.musicalstagecompany.com

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At the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Ave., Toronto, Ont.

Written by Jordan Harrison

Directed by Stewart Arnott

Set and costumes by Gillian Callow

Lighting by Nick Blais

Composer and sound by Bram Gielen

Cast: Beau Dixon

Sarah Dodd

Gordon Hecht

Martha Henry

Apologies for the lateness of this review.

Memory. It’s selective, unreliable, fuzzy, clear and ephemeral. We grasp to hold on to it, lament when we lose it and therefore lose a part of ourselves and  rejoice when we command it.

In Jordan Harrison’s delicate and gripping play Marjorie Prime (Martha Henry) is 85 and losing her memory. She lives with her daughter Tess (Sarah Dodd) and son-in-law Jon (Beau Dixon). Marjorie is a master of deflection. In Martha Henry’s nuanced performance of Marjorie if her memory is hazy on a point, she covers it with a flip of her hands as if shooing the annoyance away. The facial expression is impish as if forgetting is deliberate and planned—a joke. It drives Tess mad. Then there are those troubling moments when Marjorie is in distress at what is happening to her. They are equally as moving.

Tess is loving and concerned about her mother but she has a lot to contend with. She is haunted by a troubled childhood. Her mother gets on her nerves. Jon is more easy-going in his dealing with Marjorie. In a way Tess is the bad cop to Jon’s good cop. All Tess wants is someone who supports her emotionally in her issues with Marjorie. In Sarah Dodd’s wonderful performance as Tess we see a woman always trying hard to hold on to her temper and often losing it. Beau Dixon as Jon is the essence of patience, understanding and reason. While he tries to reason Tess into understanding her mother better that only makes Tess more impatient.

And then there is Walter (Gordon Hecht giving a beautifully measured performance). He is the ‘ideal’ young man—attentive, attractive, considerate and concerned. He just appears from the side of Gillian Gallow’s stylish set of Tess and Jon’s kitchen where he has been sitting quietly. When Walter is not in a scene, he sits in a chair at the side of the stage, watching Marjorie and the action attentively.  Is he Marjorie’s memory of her late husband come to life as a young man? Is he a ghost? Or is his presence something else entirely? In this world of artificial intelligence is Walter an android created to keep Marjorie company and happy in her thoughts? We become more and more aware of these questions as Jordan Harrison’s provocative play progresses. Director Steward Arnott’s sensitive, careful direction also keeps us on our toes. While the behaviour of the characters ‘seems’ normal there are little quirks, slight turns of the head that keep us wondering right to the end—who/what are we looking at? Is it real or is it “Memorex?”

Once again the Coal Mine Theatre has programmed a play that is challenging, embracing and totally engaging.

Coal Mine Theatre presents:

Opened: Jan. 29, 2020.

Closes: Feb. 23. (7:30 pm performance added for Feb. 23).

Running Time: 75 minutes, approx.

www.coalminetheatre.com

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Tarragon Extra Space, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Ellie Moon

Directed by Richard Rose

Set, costumes and projections by Michelle Tracey

Lighting by André du Toit

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Dakota Ray Herbert

Brittany Kay

Kim Nelson

R.H. Thomson

Rachel VanDuzer

Ellie Moon has written a play with a promising premise of examining old power and new ideas in an academic setting, but it splinters in focus and does not realise that promise.

The Story. From the press information: “John, a 60-something white professor of Constitutional Law and Indigenous Rights is unhappy with a new faculty hire.  He seeks to draw a student into his conflict with the Dean’s office, which leads to a complaint, which leads to a reprimand, which leads to a breakdown of the man, his daughter, and their understanding of the world. A play about old power and new ideas, academia and decolonization, language and authority.” And it’s also about mental illness.   

John tried to make points with his young students by talking to his class about his daughter Ava’s mental problems. Ava found out from a friend in her father’s class.

John is of the old school of professor. Language should be used properly and almost formally in class. His objection to the new hire, Dr. Winter, is that he feels she is hired because she is Indigenous and he feels that isn’t a good enough reason. He can’t/won’t acknowledge that her being Indigenous makes her finely tuned to the law and its implications. The Associate Dean who is questioning him on the situation calmly says Dr. Winter was hired because she is qualified and the search confirms that.  Her being Indigenous adds another layer to her qualifications.

John also taught the new hire.  He remembers a student who was not stellar and the language used was not formal but colloquial.  John is approached by Niimi, an Indigenous student,  about auditing his course. She is also taking Dr. Winter’s course but feels that John’s course could fill in gaps not covered in Dr. Winter’s course. John agrees to this arrangement but also tries to draw the student into his desire to continue to question the qualifications of the new hire. This leads to a complaint to the Dean’s Office and the Associate Dean now questions the student. If anything is clear in these situations it’s that language is loaded and very often misunderstood no matter how hard one tries to be clear. There is a lot of misinformation swirling around with various people, including the Associate Dean having to back track.  Trying to correct all the facts with the parties concerned is like trying to catch feathers in the wind. The results take its toll on John and Ava.

The Production. We get a pretty clear idea of John’s (R.H. Thomson) confidence, arrogance and privilege in the first scene. As John, R. H. Thomson sits in the office of Terry (Kim Nelson), the Associate Dean.  He’s relaxed. He stretches out from his chair with his legs crossed and resting on his briefcase. She’s called him in to talk about important issues and he’s treating this as an informal chat. R.H. Thomson gives a performance full of nuanced details, a shrug of the shoulders, an off-handed attitude, self-confidence in his winding, formal way of expression. Terry, as played by Kim Nelson, is anything but casual. She sits straight in her chair. She is contained and controlled. She is dealing with serious concerns and she has to get John to acknowledge them. She is formal and direct. In one of those ironies of life Kim Nelson was actually a lawyer before she became an actress, and that sense of decorum, that formality is there in her fine performance.

We also get a sense at how fragile John is in his skin when the complaint is lodged. It’s the beginning of his downfall. Here Thomson is distracted, unhinged and confused. Thomson gives a master class in acting in his performance.

Dakota Ray Hebert as Niimi the Indigenous student who initially quietly challenges John’s ideas. She is curious when she says she would like to audit his class in addition to taking Dr. Winter’s course for a fuller understanding of the material and the issues. But later in the play she takes a seat at the back of the theatre to get ready for the class. In this scene she is almost combative as if she is cross-examining John about his attitudes. Here Dakota Ray Hebert is measured and formidable.  It’s an interesting placement of the character by director Richard Rose. Perhaps that distant placement is trying to suggest a court room with John as the defendant. Rachel VanDuzer as Ava, John’s fragile daughter and Brittany Kay as Tanya Ava’s easy-going friend, round out the cast.

Comment. If Dr. Winter is now eligible to be hired, then it seems reasonable to assume that John taught her years before. He does not consider that she might have changed from that unremarkable student to an engaging professor.

Ellie Moon is a provocative playwright. Her plays deal with challenging issues. Ellie Moon has created an interesting character in John: arrogant, blinkered to the changing world, stodgy in what is important in teaching but unaware. Certainly dealing with John’s constricting attitude towards teaching and a wider view is engaging in today’s fraught, fractious world. But what his daughter Ava does during the course of the play veers the play away from the main theme I think. And the way John has his downfall also veers away from the main point. It would not be credible for him to suddenly have insight into this changing world, but to have him completely diminished is equally unsatisfying.

The premise in the play is promising to open a dialogue. But the play as it is, does not realize that promise.

Tarragon Theatre Presents:

Opened: Feb. 5, 2020.

Closes: March 1, 2020.

Running Time: 90 minutes  approx.

www.tarragontheatre.ca

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At Campbell House Museum, University Ave. and Queen St. Toronto, Ont.

Written by Dave Carley

Directed by Cecily Smith

Lighting by Yehuda Fisher

Cast: Alison Beckwith

Tristan Claxton

Hayden Finkelshtain

John Jarvis

Cecily Smith

In these fractious times Dave Carley’s play Taking Liberties is more important than ever.

Taking Liberties with its focus on civil liberties. freedom of speech, responsible journalism, no matter how unpopular the opinion, makes it as timely today as it was 30 years ago when the play was first performed.

The play spans 40 years starting in 1995 then going backwards in 10 year segments. Each character comments on their stance on an unpopular issue and the consequences of each. The characters are connected in some way or other. In 1995 Professor Anne Harvie (Cecily Smith, giving a forthright, solid performance) holds a prestigious position in her University. She opposes affirmative action as a hiring practice. She does not explain the details surrounding the case, but does indicate that her property has been vandalized because of her unpopular stance. It’s not the first time. She references her father for some rancour in her life. Constant opposition to her thinking has taken its toll and she makes a decision about her future.

In 1985 Ron Bloom (an emotional, energetic Hayden Finkelshtain), a serious man from a Jewish family, believes in free speech to the point that even a person espousing anti-Semitic sentiments is entitled to voice his opinion. A man who teaches math is also an anti-Semite but his views do not enter the classroom. Ron believes the man should keep his job in spite of his anti-Semitic views.  This causes a rift in the family especially with his father Max who in a sense disowns him. Years before Max experienced anti-Semitism until friends of his insisted the local golf club admit him as a member. Up until that time Jews were not allowed to join. Ron’s impassioned speech is given to his unseen wife, Sara.

In 1975 Sara Munro (Alison Beckwith giving a thoughtful, determined performance) is in high school and urges her English teacher to teach the banned book, “The Diviners” by Margaret Laurence. The book had been repeatedly banned for being blasphemous and obscene by religious groups, but Sara was determined that the book had to be taught because of its quality and urged her teacher to teach it. Sara inherited her sense of right and integrity from her father Heck Munro, the editor of the local newspaper. Sara would grow up to marry Ron Bloom, another person of integrity.   

In 1965 Heck Munro (bristlingly played by John Jarvis) is the harried, impatient and thoughtful editor of the local newspaper. He has just learned of a big story. The police raided the men’s washroom of the local bus station and found several men involved in illegal, sexual behaviour. The police gave him all the names. One of them was a friend of his. Does Heck print the names or doesn’t he? Does he leave out his friend’s name or doesn’t he? The thinking of what to do is fascinating.

Finally in 1955 we meet Gerald Harvie, Anne’s father. As Gerald, Tristan Claxton gives a nuanced performance of a man tormented and conflicted.  Gerald is a good family man.  He is an upstanding member of the community, a successful accountant and well liked. But he has a deep secret that he can’t ignore. It preys on him.

All these stories are connected. The ideas and thinking are not taken lightly and they all have consequences.  All the difficult views of the characters in Dave Carley’s bracing, timeless play pose a cautionary tale.  They are beautifully presented in the Grand Ballroom of the Campbell House Museum, thanks to the fine cast and Cecily Smith’s sensitive direction.  

Dave Carley’s bracing, challenging play Taking Liberties is more vital and important than ever before. Alas.

Began: Feb. 8, 2020.

Closes: Feb. 23, 2020.

Running Time: 70 minutes.

www.takingliberties.ca

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l-r: Daren A. Herbert, Xavier Lopez
Photo: Dahlia Katz

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

Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis

Directed by Weyni Mengesha

Set by Ken MacKenzie

Costumes by Shannon Lea Doyle

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Sound by John Gzowski

Fight director, Simon Fon

Cast: Diana Donnelly

Daren A. Herbert

Xavier Lopez

Tony Nappo

Gregory Prest

A heart-thumping production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ gripping play about the hopeless American penal system if one is a person of colour, peace through prayer, and finding grace in a graceless place.

The Story. Lucius Jenkins and Angel Cruz are both in notorious Rikers Island prison in New York City for murder. Lucius admits his crime. Angel says he didn’t mean to kill the man he did. He just meant to “shoot him in the ass.”  Angel was getting revenge for a crime his victim committed. Angel’s overworked lawyer, Mary Jane Hanrahan, tries to show him the intricacies of the American legal system in order to get him off. In the meantime the guard Valdez is determined to keep both Lucius and Angel under his thumb, bullied and browbeaten. D’Amico was the guard before Valdez. He treated Lucius with respect, kindness and consideration. He used to bring him cookies or some of his wife’s home cooking. D’Amico was soon removed. Kindness has no place in that prison.

The Production. Ken MacKenzie’s set is masterful in evoking the dispiriting nature of the stark jail cells in which Lucius (Deren A. Herbert) and Angel (Xavier Lopez) live. The walls are dark grey. There are no windows. Each cell has a steel bench on which to sit or lay. There is a door stage left beyond the cells. Shannon Lea Doyle’s costumes are a prison shirt and pants for Lucius and Angel; full cop uniforms and gear (handcuffs, billy club, notepad) for Valdez (Tony Nappo) and D’Amico (Gregory Prest). Mary Jane Hanrahan (Diana Donnelly) wears a slim skirt and simple white blouse. There is nothing fancy here.

There is noise. There is the noise of the banging cell doors. The echo of people walking. The yells for people to be quiet. At the beginning of the production Angel is on his knees praying, illuminated by Kevin Lamotte’s eerie light. He is saying the Lord’s Prayer but gets stuck on that bit about the name. Is it “Howard be thy name?” Something else? He gets more and more flustered. The voices around him telling him to shut up get louder and louder. He continues searching for the right word and finally gets it—‘hallowed be thy name.” By this time the angry voices from the unseen cells around him are deafening. Xavier Lopez as Angel is a bundle of nerves, trying not to lose control, trying to keep his wits about him. His anxiety is obvious. He’s praying for a reason—for comfort, solace, peace. Mary Jane Harahan, as played by Diana Donnelly, is an exhausted, overworked public defender. While Angel is frustrated by her—he wants a male lawyer– he soon learns to trust her. There is a grudging respect. She tries to help him by maneuvering through the maze of the system. He tries to keep up.

Lucius (Daren A. Herbert) keeps his body toned with strenuous exercise in his cell or in the exercise yard when he is allowed out for an hour. He keeps his mind and spirits up with God. He prays. He knows the bible. He has given himself to God for forgiveness. We learn later what he did. He admits it. No excuses. Later he offers information of the hideous life he’s lived. It’s information we might consider an excuse, but Lucius, as played by the masterful Daren A. Herbert, is comfortable and confident in himself. There is no remorse. There is acceptance. It’s a performance that is full of quiet confidence. There is no swagger. There is a spirituality about Lucius that makes him calm and knowing. Valdez, played by a menacing Tony Nappo, tries to keep Lucius subservient with taunts, insults, threats and bullying tactics. Valdez calls him a loser and says that his eyes are those of a dead man. Actually Lucius’ eyes are lively with life and a slight sneer to the bully Valdez. Nappo does not play the obvious by bellowing or imposing his weight against the defenceless prisoners. It’s an interesting dual of one attitude trying to overpower another. Gregory Prest as D’Amico is quiet spoken, decent and kind. He tells us of a selfless thing he does at the end by going to see Lucius and seems disappointed when Lucius doesn’t recognize him. I wonder if that selfless thing was really a search for validation.

Director, Weyni Mengesha has meticulously created the fraught, frustrating world of the American penal system for Lucius and Angel as they survive in their cells. There is a camaraderie between the two men and also judgement. Angel is outraged at what Lucius did as his crimes and questions his belief in God and God’s belief in Lucius. The men argue about faith, hope, salvation and life. The rhythms and pace of the robust dialogue between Daren A. Herbert as Lucius and Xavier Lopez as Angel is bracing, compelling theatre.

Comment. Stephen Adly Guirgis writes about people struggling to live with dignity and respect in a system that does not value them (The Motherfucker with a Hat, Between Riverside and Crazy and Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train). His dialogue is muscular, has an intoxicating rhythm and is hilarious in spite of its darkness. Guirgis puts us in the world of his characters and makes us embrace them. Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is a case in point. Terrific theatre.

Soulpepper Theater Company presents:

Opened: Jan. 30, 2020.

Saw it: Feb. 5, 2020

Closes: Feb. 23, 2020.

Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

www.soulpepper.ca

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Review: CYMBELINE

by Lynn on February 6, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Junction City Music Hall, 2907 Dundas St. W, Toronto, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Julia Nish-Lapidus

Fight choreographer, Bailey Green

Music from the catalogue of Matt Nish-Lapidus

Cast: Mairi Babb

Daniel  Briere

Déjah Dixon-Green

Bailey Green

Melanie Leon

David Mackett

Jesse Nerenberg

Catherine Rainville

Emilio Vieira

James Wallis

Kiana Woo

A bracing, clear production of this wild play.

The Story. Shakespeare could be impish with his play titles. All’s Well That End’s Well doesn’t really. And his play Cymbeline isn’t about Cymbeline, the King of Britain. It’s actually about Innogen (or Imogen in some editions) Cymbeline’s daughter and her efforts to be with her husband Posthumus Leonatus. Cymbeline has banished him. Posthumus thinks the world of Innogen and says so to all who will listen. One person is Iachimo, an Italian nobleman,  who wagers that Innogen is not true now that her husband is out of the way and he goes further by saying he can prove it by sleeping with her and bringing Posthumus some keepsake to prove it. Posthumus takes the bet.

Iachimo makes a courtesy call to Cymbeline and is invited into the palace. He delivers a loving letter from Posthumus to Innogen and therefore gains her trust. When she is asleep he manages to get into her bedroom (he’s hidden in a trunk…see the production and you’ll see how that’s done) and takes a bracelet off Innogen’s arm and notes various physical attributes. When he reports this to Posthumus and gives him the bracelet Posthumus is incredulous and then instantly enraged at Innogen’s deception. Posthumus sends a letter to Pisanio, his servant, instructing him to kill Innogen for being “a strumpet to my bed”. Pisanio doesn’t believe this is true and shows Innogen the letter. She’s stunned but urges Pisanio to follow through with the deed. He won’t but they plan how to find the truth.

The Production. Cymbeline is a play about a strong woman (Innogen) in a production full of strong women. While the production is pared down with no set and one major prop of a large book with a “C” on it—presumably the text— there is nothing skimpy about the scholarship and detail of thought that goes into the production.

Director Julia Nish-Lapidus’ decision to use the name of Innogen rather than Imogen was not done lightly. She notes that the prevailing thought was that Shakespeare originally intended that the name be Innogen but the two n’s close together looked like an ‘m’ so Imogen was the result. She also notes that in the third Arden edition the spelling is “Innogen” but in my Arden edition it’s Imogen, so she went with what Shakespeare might have intended. Such is the thinking of a detail-minded director with a clear idea and vision. Julia Nish-Lapidus’ production goes like a bat-out-of-hell. Scenes are swift and precise. There is a sense of urgency about it. Posthumus is exiled by Cymbeline and he must leave immediately. Posthumus and Innogen’s parting is rushed and not at all the lingering they want. Iachimo’s duplicitous trick is done quickly and he rushes to prove his point with Posthumus. The subplots also have their own pulsing drive. The Queen, Innogen’s step-mother, is conniving and plotting so that her son Cloten will marry Innogen. And for good measure, there are two missing royal children that are found. There is a lot going on in this wild play. It’s all handled with care and efficiency by Julia Nish-Lapidus.

The performances also have that clarity of thought. There is nothing muddy about any performance. They are lead by Catherine Rainville as a determined, smart Innogen. The performance is of a woman who is tenacious, curious and wily. She is also loving and compassionate. Pisanio is played by Bailey Green thus making a character who is a man, into a strong, loyal woman. Mairi Babb as the Queen, Innogen’s step-mother, is an outwardly accommodating woman, but inwardly she is conniving and duplicitous. A smile disappears quickly when her head is turned from another character—the audience sees it all.

As Posthumus, Jesse Nerenberg is impassioned and loving to Innogen but easily enraged when he thinks she is untrue. If I have a quibble, it’s that the raging tends to be one note—a bit more nuance would be helpful in rounding out the character. All of Iachimo’s conniving is beautifully realized by Daniel Briere’s performance. This is a character who loves to make mischief and we see how Iachimo relishes the evil he can create in this confident performance. Poor, dimwitted Cloten is played with puffed up angst by Emilio Vieira.

Shakespeare BASH’d has created another bracing production of the Bard that is inventive, clear and beautifully done. As usual.  

Comment. Shakespeare is masterful in creating easily duped men into believing the worst of honest, true women. Note Leontes mistrusting his loyal wife Hermione in The Winter’s Tale; or Claudio mistrusting his loving fiancée, Hero and her father Leonato mistrusting her too in Much Ado About Nothing with virtually no proof except someone said so; and now Posthumus is instantly bend out of shape about the honesty of Innogen in Cymbeline.  Shakespeare is just as masterful at creating thoughtful, smart women who don’t fly off the handle in such cases but are measured and calm in their reactions. They have more commonsense than the men they love. Hermione knows that Leontes will be heartsick when he realizes that he is wrong about her. In Much Ado About Nothing the women (Beatrice and Hero), and one good man (Benedick) will teach the truth about the women to their misinformed men. And in Cymbeline Innogen sets out to find out the truth about Posthumus’ accusations. She does not distrust him. She knows that something has happened and she will find out the truth. It’s always interesting to see the difference in behaviour between the wrong-headed men—raging, blinkered and thoughtless—and the women—questioning, tempered in their reactions and focused on finding the truth about men they know well who are behaving strangely.

The run is short and sold-out. But the good people of Shakespeare BASH’d will do everything they can to find space if you show up at the door. The production is worth the wait in line.

Presented by Shakespeare BASH’d

Opened: Feb. 4, 2020.

Closes: Feb. 9, 2020.

Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

www.shakespearebashd.com

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