Picks & Pans

Spending a month in the country seems an idyllic way of passing these hot, lazy days of summer. Unless of course it’s the play A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY, in which the days seem more fraught than relaxed. Our theatre critic Lynn Slotkin is here to tell us of the goings on in the play.

Hello Lynn. Give us a little background about the play.

It was written by Russian novelist-playwright Ivan Turgenev who lived from 1818 to 1883. He was not quite a contemporary of Chekhov, who lived from 1860 to 1904, but certainly they both saw the quirky humour of every day life in Russia.

We join the play after the characters have spent most of the month in this pastoral setting. Natalya is a wife and mother in her 30s, beautiful, graceful and in amorous turmoil. He has a young son and also a ward who is a budding young woman. Natalya’s husband is sweet but preoccupied. There is Rakitin a family friend in his own amorous turmoil of sorts. Then there is Belyaev, the young son’s tutor, who has his own amorous angst, a family doctor and various other family members and hangers on round out the group of characters, all with their own agitated emotions. So the atmosphere is fraught.

With all this love in the air, why is the atmosphere fraught?

Because almost none of the love one person has for another is requited. Rakitin loves Natalya, who is only amused by him. Natalya in turn is besotted with the much younger tutor, Belyaev, and feels guilty and giddy at the same time. Natalya’s ward is in love with Belyaev but he doesn’t feel the same way about her. In fact when Natalya confesses her love to Belyaev, he admits his feelings for her and feels he must leave because of the awkward situation, which adds more turmoil to the household. And when Natalya’s pre-occupied husband realizes his wife’s feelings for the tutor, well matters keep spiraling out of control. This being a Russian play, it’s all complicated and hilarious, and in the hands of the Soulpepper folks, it’s very contemporary and Canadian.

How so?

The adaptation is by Susan Coyne and Laszlo Marton. Coyne is a wonderful actress-writer of SLINGS AND ARROWS fame among others. I figure the tight writing and zinger lines and images are her contribution. And Laszlo Marton brings a European sensibility. He also directs the production.

The adaptation sets the play in the modern day, with one foot in Russia and the other in Muskoka. Belyaev travels in the house by skateboard. A tire is used as a make-shift swing. And the clincher, that this is Canadian, eh, is that the old fashioned fridge is filled with nothing but beer.

And how was the production?

I think Laszlo Marton’s direction certainly captures the sense of lazy days of summer. There is a sense of leisure. But in a character’s stillness is the craziness of inner agitation as people are either attracted to or pushed away by the person who didn’t return the affection. Marton also has a lovely sense of image. Natalya leaning against the fridge, with the light pouring out of the open door, is an elegant picture of a woman who is lost to love and doesn’t know what to do. Sometimes he does get carried away with his fussiness to create yet another image. At the end hundreds of pieces of paper blow out from the wings, followed by a beach ball. Too much, not necessary. The performances are dandy though.

Tell us about them.

It’s a strong Soulpepper cast. As Natalya, Fiona Byrne is radiant, poised and overwhelmed by her emotions. As Belyaev, Jeff Lillico is boyish, charming and loose-limbed. As the doctor, Joseph Ziegler is priceless when he proposes to a meek, shy woman played by Nancy Palk, who is also priceless. The proposal is matter of fact, devoid of affection. He says they are well suited so they should marry. He could be talking about tiling a bathroom. But Ziegler says more by adjusting his glasses, And Palk creates more wonders with an open-mouthed stare, than many actors do with pages of dialogue.

I like the production. Worth a visit.

A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until August 7.

The summer theatre season began officially last week with the opening of five productions at the Shaw Festival. Is there a common thread to them? Were there any surprises? Disappointments? Cause for celebration? Our theatre critic, Lynn Slotkin has seen the shows and is here to tell us about them.

Hello Lynn. Since this is a roundup of the first set of openings, is there a thread that ties them together?

Yes.

In her program note, Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell says that comedy is the binding thread for her season, and that’s certainly obvious with these five shows: AN IDEAL HUSBAND, THE CHERRY ORCHARD, ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, HARVEY AND THE WOMEN. I would go further because there are various types of comedy at play here.

AN IDEAL HUSBAND is a play of wit and intrigue both political and psychological. THE CHERRY ORCHARD, is a typical example of a Chekhov comedy with serious undertones. HARVEY and the rarely done musical ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, are pure whimsy, with a strong centre. And THE WOMEN, is a biting satire about the ‘weaker’ sex showing how tough and formidable they can be. These plays are comedies of substance — they are certainly not inconsequential or frivolous.

Briefly, what are these plays about?

AN IDEAL HUSBAND (Oscar Wilde) is about an honourable politician who is being blackmailed by a scheming but charming woman.

THE CHERRY ORCHARD, (Chekhov) is about a family in debt and denial who refuse to sell their beloved Cherry Orchard, which would get them out of debt. They are finally forced to sell and they are shocked when they find out who the buyer is.

ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, a musical by Kurt Weil, Ogden Nash and S.J. Perelman, is about a meek barber who brings a statue of Venus to life by putting a ring on her finger. Bits of The Stepford Wives, Desperate Housewives, and the rocky road to love.

HARVEY by Mary Chase, is about a man Elwood P. Dowd, who’s best friend is HARVEY, an imaginary six foot tall rabbit. Elwood drinks, but he is the most well-mannered considerate character in the play. So a comedy to be sure, but with a sobering message.

And finally THE WOMEN by Clare Booth Luce. A happily married woman finds out from her very good “friends” that her husband of 12 years is having an affair. She is urged to divorce him by these very good friends who don’t hesitate to back-bite, front-bite, and in the end, get their comeuppance.

Were there any surprises, disappointments and cause for celebration?

A bit of all three. I was surprised that no play by Shaw was in the first set of openings. This isn’t a criticism. I thought that a daring move by Jackie Maxwell. Something to keep us a bit off balance, and not complacent. We have to wait until July for the next set of openings for Shaw to make his appearance. And while I think the Shaw Festival Company is one of the strongest anywhere, I am always surprised when an actor I respect pulls out the stops and goes one step further. Or an actor I thought was ok gives a performance that is stellar. And that happened often with these openings.

Give us some brief details.

With AN IDEAL HUSBAND, Jackie Maxwell’s staging seemed like both grand opera and melodrama. Judith Bowden’s set was huge and dark for some scenes. I thought that odd considering the play. But I have such respect for their work they did get me to try and figure it out instead of rejecting it outright. That said, I do think the play is served. With Steven Sutcliffe giving an appropriately flamboyant performance of a character who seems silly but is anything but.

With HARVEY, I was hugely impressed with Peter Krantz as Elwood. He made Elwood courtly, gentle but smart. At times I thought I saw that rabbit.

In THE CHERRY ORCHARD, Benedict Campbell gives a fearless heartbreaking performance as the man who buys the cherry orchard.

ONE TOUCH OF VENUS is a surprise because it’s rarely done. It is an off the wall musical that does not conform to any of the rules of musical theatre, and it works. Some of the singing was questionable but performances by Mark Uhre and Deborah Hay are clever and funny and save.

And with THE WOMEN, it’s always a romp seeing so many woman characters behaving so badly, in such a stylish production.

So, some concerns about some productions but on the whole I thought it was a strong opening week at The Shaw Festival.

AN IDEAL HUSBAND, THE CHERRY ORCHARD, ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, HARVEY and THE WOMEN continue at the Shaw Festival until October.

If We Were Birds

by Lynn on May 26, 2011

in Archive,Picks & Pans

Summer festivals, such as the Fringe or Summerworks, have been a fertile breeding ground for very accomplished plays and productions that have gone on to have an expanded life. The Drowsy Chaperone comes to mind. The latest play to come out of Summerworks with an expanded life is IF WE WERE BIRDS. It takes a Greek myth and gives it a contemporary application. Our theatre critic Lynn Slotkin was at the opening last night and is here to tell us how this new version did.

Hi Lynn. You saw this play when it was first done at Summerworks. What was so appealing about it?

When it played at Summerworks in 2008 I picked it as one of my top five shows of the festival.

Playwright Erin Shields has taken a tale from OVID (Roman Poet) full of passion, emotion, lust, and drive, and given it an equally vivid contemporary application. It’s a gripping story. And its scope and Shields’ writing gifts made the story fly. The writing is both poetic and muscular, the images are vivid, breathtaking and heart-squeezing. The production takes you gently by the throat and doesn’t let go or let you look away. All of that is repeated in this expanded version of the play.

What’s the story?

It’s based on the story of Procne and her younger sister Philomela.

They are daughters of a king who gives Procne as a prize bride to the war hero King Tereus of Thrace. Tereus wants to take his bride home with him. This means that Procne must leave her beloved sister Philomela. Time passes. Procne is happy with this macho, fighting man. But she pines for Philomela and begs Tereus to bring her for a visit.

He relents—he’d rather go to war– “he breathes war” is one stunning line that describes him. And when he sees Philomela, he is smitten. Actually he’s in lust but he contains himself until after the voyage. After that he can’t help himself. He rapes her. He makes sure she won’t talk and keeps her prisoner deep in the woods. The truth eventually gets out with terrible results.

It’s from Greek mythology—no happy ending, but there is a magical ending.

How is the play made contemporary?

There is a chorus of five women who comment on the action and occasionally participate in it, and are watchful. They are witnesses to history.

One woman talks about being a victim of ethnic cleansing. Another talks about being raped by soldiers. And we realize it’s the story of the conflicts of the 20th century. Erin Sheilds references Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Nanking, Berlin, and Bangladesh. But it could be any conflict and not just confined to those five.

Sheilds’ language is immediate and contemporary but also mixes classical references. Philomela says that she was dropped like something half-eaten. That is such a vivid image and the play is full of them. The play is pulsing with life and emotions regardless of the harshness of the behaviour. Characters crawl towards life… stunning image again.

Does the production live up to your memories of the Summerworks version?

Yes and then some. It’s directed again by Alan Dilworth, surely one of our most accomplished directors. He has such a clear, precise vision of how to realize the elegance, poetry and brutality of the play that is compelling. He has faith in the writing and lets that and his fine actors realize each second without fuss or embellishment.

Gripping scenes are not cluttered with musical underscoring—I’m so grateful for that. The acting as I said is very fine. As Procne, Philippa Domville evolves from an innocent young girl to a graceful sexual woman who knows how to tame her man. As Tereus, Geoff Pounsett is all swagger, confidence and force. And Tara Rosling as Philomela is shattering. She is a sweet girl turned into a wounded woman and then a revenging one.

It’s a performance full of heart, brains, emotions and guts. When I saw the play in a shorter version at Summerworks I called it astonishing. It still is.

It’s a theatrical gift and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

IF WE WERE BIRDS plays at the Tarragon Theatre until May 23. The theatre is wheelchair accessible.

Toronto is full of theatre companies that make up in spirit what they lack in size. They may produce only one show a year, but even then their presence is felt. Such a company is Theatresmash. They chose plays that deal with the human condition in an oddball, idiosyncratic way. Their latest effort is A BOY CALLED NEWFOUNDLAND and our own oddball, theatre critic, Lynn Slotkin is here to tell us about it.

Hi Lynn. What an intriguing title. Does the play have anything to do with Newfoundland?

Practically nothing. I love what the program says: “This is not a play about Newfoundland. This play doesn’t even take place in Newfoundland. This is a play about this kid.” And the kid in question is in fact named Newfoundland because that’s where his parents spent their honeymoon.

So tell us the story of this seemingly oddly titled play.

Playwright Graeme Gillis has written a play that has “quirky” written all over it. It takes place in “a Nintendo-blue house at the top of a Maritime hill.”

It’s about the Willow family. Husband and wife Marianne and Bill Willow run a newspaper called The Romantic Times covering all kinds of romantic stories. They are on their second honeymoon in Newfoundland but only Marianne comes home. Bill has gone off somewhere and Marianne is not telling her three children where or why.

The kids are concerned. They are Brigid the eldest daughter, Arley, the middle and 15 year old Newfoundland, the youngest, whom everybody calls Flounder. Newfoundland wants to get the family back together. The daughters go on a wild, boozy car ride in search of their father. They realize all is not what their mother told them.

What’s really going on with their father? Will Arley find happiness with her divinity student boyfriend? Will Newfoundland find happiness with his French Canadian girlfriend who he met in summer camp? Will Marianne be able to fill the holes in the front page of THE ROMANTIC TIMES?

Probing questions from this quirky play.

Is this quirky play given a quirky production?

It sure calls for one doesn’t it? A BOY CALLED NEWFOUNDLAND is not just quirky, it’s a sweet, delicate play that requires a production that is as delicate. But that’s not what director Ashlie Corcoran has created. I have great respect for young directors such as Ms Corcoran. She’s bursting with ideas, and has a keen sense of the theatrical. But it’s important to knowing how to apply those ideas and when to hold back.

And I wish she had held back a bit.

How so?

The multi-leveled set by Robin Fisher is too gaudy and overpowering. At first I thought with all the bold colours they are trying to suggest the maritime waters. But that seems odd because the waters are never referenced.

At another point a sheet is pulled from out of one level and fashioned into a clever bed. Too clever. We don’t need it. We can use our imaginations.

When Arley and Brigid take their wild car ride, they flip up a section of one level of the set revealing a sunken area. The sisters climb in suggesting the car. They mime closing the door, starting the car and careening through traffic all with appropriate movement and recorded sound effects. Too fussy. We don’t need it. Since they are miming driving we can figure it out without the clever sound.

The best direction is invisible. It should serve the play, not distract from it.

How’s the acting?

The acting is a treat, lead by Martha Burns as Marianne. She is both grounded and yet has an appropriate quirky stare. She’s trying to hang on and continue on without her husband without too much alarm for the kids.

As Newfoundland, Patrick Kwok-Choon is wiry, pulsing with energy and sweet. As Brigid, Natasha Greenblatt has that in your face directness that is refreshing here.

A BOY CALLED NEWFOUNDLAND will appeal to theatre goers who support edgy, small companies like Theatresmash, and who appreciate performances that are as loopy as this sweet play.

A BOY CALLED NEWFOUNDLAND plays at the Tarragon Extra Space until April 11.

Note: This review contains both a pick and a pan.

Two plays opened recently which are wildly different but also have something in common—teenagers. The first play: ONCE AND FOR ALL WE”RE GONNA TELL YOU WHO WE ARE SO SHUT UP AND LISTEN is part of the Worldstage festival at Harbourfront, and the second play, HUSH is at the Tarragon Extra Space. Our theatre critic Lynn Slotkin saw both and is here to tell us how they are, and if they made her think longingly of her own teenaged years.

Hi Lynn. First let’s talk about how these two productions are different.

ONCE AND FOR ALL WE’RE GONNA TELL YOU WHO WE ARE SO SHUT UP AND LISTEN is performed by a group of teenagers from Belgium. They tell the story in a non-linear way, so it’s not traditional storytelling. Generally it looks like organized chaos and anarchy with the teens acting with carefree abandon. More performance ‘art’ than a traditionally acted performance. The teens here are not really actors. Lots of yelling, roughhouse activity, characters spit water at each other. It touches on puberty, sexuality, taking drugs and alcohol and challenging parents.

With HUSH, playwright Rosa Laborde has written a traditional play about a 12 year old girl named Lily going through puberty, on the cusp of being a teen. She has terrible nightmares, which in turn worries her single father. There is a mystery surrounding these bad dreams which is dramatically revealed. The actors in HUSH are all professional.

If ONCE AND FOR ALL… is performed in a non-linear way, how do they convey the story?

This is where program notes are always helpful. It says that they will pull down barriers between the way they are on stage and off. They will get on our nerves and for once you’ll know why. The director Alexander Devriendt says that the performance goes against the idea that adolescents lose their rebellious spirit once they’re on stage. Devriendt carefully creates scenes and performances that look like they are out of control.

The performance begins when the cast of 13 quietly sit in chairs looking at us. The quiet gives way to two boys aggressively snapping deflated balloons at each other. A girl wacks another with her shoulder bag. A boy says quietly to us, “I’m scared.” The same boy dances wildly on a chair after he takes his shirt off. (I guess he wasn’t that scared, eh?) A girl says she won’t adhere to her curfew and when she comes home late she’ll be drunk and she can’t help it.

Clear dialogue is spare. Pandemonium rules. Stuff is strewn all over the stage. Then a buzzer buzzes and the teens change and quickly, efficiently clean up the stage, set the chairs aright and leave the stage. The scenes are then repeated with the same cleanup after each buzzer.

One assumes that HUSH tells its story in a simpler way.

It does to a point. We know that Lily, the 12 year old is having nightmares. We see a voodoo priest upstage preparing to stab a pile of her possessions, including her teddy bear, which wakes her screaming.

Her father Harlem is concerned by this so he sleeps in her room to calm her. Then he has his own nightmares. The play veers from the straightforward when we see a mysterious woman involved with Harlem with her own mysterious story.

Who is she? What happened to Lily’s mother? Is her father losing his mind? Interesting questions, that are slowly revealed in this stylish, provocative production.

Two different types of theatre. Did these plays work?

I thought the performances in ONCE AND FOR ALL to be lively, energetic and confident.As a piece of theatre ONCE AND FOR ALL… is a pretentious, dishonest load of claptrap. It’s the director’s fantasy of manipulation. First of all, who is this for? Who are they telling to shut up and listen? Certainly not the audience who was silent and attentive. So who? Their parents?

All that rehearsed anarchy proves nothing. And the shows intentions are negated after the bows when these teens come on stage and begin to quietly, responsibly clean up the junk strewn stage, as we leave.

ONCE AND FOR ALL I’M GONNA TELL YOU TO MISS THIS.

HUSH on the other hand works a treat.

It’s a fascinating play. And Richard Rose has created a stylish production full of vivid images and taut emotions. And the acting is fine from the four actors, especially Vivien Endicott-Douglas as the 12 year old Lily. This kid is a find. The play and production are well worth your time.

ONCE AND FOR ALL WE’RE GONNA TELL YOU WHO WE ARE SO SHUT UP AND LISTEN plays at the Enwave Theatre at Harbourfront until February 20.

HUSH plays at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space until March 21. Both theatres are wheelchair accessible.

YICHUD (Seclusion)

by Lynn on February 26, 2011

in Archive,Picks & Pans

A hot button topic to avoid in plays is religion with all its volatile pitfalls. But tell that to playwright Julie Tepperman and director Aaron Willis. They have created YICHUD (“seclusion”) a play which opened last night at Theatre Passe Muraille, that investigates the self-contained mysterious world of Orthodox Judaism through a typical Orthodox Jewish wedding. Our Theatre Critic Lynn Slotkin was one of the guests at the wedding last night and is here to tell us if this marriage will last or not.

Hello Lynn. First of all, explain that intriguing title, YICHUD (Seclusion).

Yichud (Seclusion) refers to the separation between men and women in daily Orthodox Jewish life. The Yichud room is the place where the bride and groom go to be alone for the first time immediately following the wedding.

What goes on in there is a mystery. Do they talk? Eat? Consummate the marriage? It’s a mystery.

What’s the play actually about?

It’s the wedding day of Rachel and Chaim. Rachel’s a very observant Orthodox Jew but also fiercely independent with a mind of her own. Chaim is nervous, shy and prone to bouts of asthma when he gets stressed.

On this day he is wheezing, big time. This is an arranged marriage. They have had about four dates, all chaperoned. They have never been alone together. Their wedding day will be the first time.

Added to this Rachel has to contend with her unhappy mother, her wise-cracking father who picks that day to wonder what she sees in Chaim.

And Chaim has to cope with his nerves and his two brothers—both religious scholars with one more so than the other and their cruel sense of humour.

While Rachel and Chaim are beginning their life together there is respect, consideration, kindness, and the beginnings of love. Those around them are not so lucky. Rachel’s mother wants a divorce from her father, and he is trying everything to win her back. Chaim’s brothers are unhappy in their marriages.And one of them, a star scholar, is having a crisis of conscience.

Issues of philosophy, belief, faith and doing right and not necessarily what the Torah says are discussed.

Does a person have to be Jewish to appreciate YICHUD? Will non-Jews feel left out?

No.

It’s to the great credit of playwright Julie Tepperman and her tremendous heart and intelligence, that she creates a world and characters we can all identify with.Her research is prodigious.

And by showing how deliberately isolated these people are, quoting scripture in Hebrew discoursing on the fine points of the Torah she is making a universal statement.

They are in their own world. When they get into the wider world they have difficulty. We all can identify with that. Tepperman has a wonderful sense of dialogue, a terrific sense of humour, and tremendous compassion for her characters and that religious tradition.

Coupled with that is a vibrant, lively moving production.

Tell us about that.

Julie Tepperman and her husband Aaron Willis are triple threat theatre artists. She not only wrote this, she also plays Rachel with spunk, wit and easy confidence.

Aaron Willis not only directs with style, using the whole theatre which is
set to look like a synagogue, he also plays Chaim with sweet insecurity, sensitivity, and an open heart.

I understand the production had it’s own bumpy ride to opening night?

Yes.

Theatre Passe Muraille and the Harold Green Jewish Theatre were supposed to co-produce YICHUD (seclusion). But three months before opening night, the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company withdrew when one of their major donors objected to the play.

This could have meant financial disaster and the cancellation of the production but for the resolve and tenacit of Andy McKim, Artistic Director of Theatre Passe Muraille, willing donors who stepped up to the plate, and a generous theatre community who also donated.

That was impressive.

Theatre reflects who we are as a society, the good and the not so good. If you don’t know that or can’t cope with that reality, you shouldn’t be involved in the theatre.

For the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company to pull the funding at the last minute, smacks of censorship.

YICHUD (Seclusion) is a huge, impressive accomplishment for Julie Tepperman, Aaron Willis their gifted cast and the forward thinking Theatre Passe Muraille.

When theatre is done well, the result is glorious. YICHUD (Seclusion) is done very, very well. I recommend it, very, very highly.

YICHUD (Seclusion) plays at Theatre Passe Muraille until February 27.

The theatre in the city does not seem to wind down for the holidays, with two openings this week. With so much theatre and too little time, our theatre critic Lynn Slotkin is here to review those two show: ROSHNI a play set in India today and STUDIES IN MOTION which takes place in the 1880s in the States.

Hello Lynn. Usually you tie shows together when you review two of them. What’s the connection between ROSHNI and STUDIES IN MOTION?

I guess, to be perverse, the fact that they are so different makes them interesting to me to talk about. Both deal with stories about people and their dreams. But both deal with the telling in startling, different ways with different results.

Ok. Let’s take them in turn. What’s Roshni about?

ROSHNI is written by the gifted Anusree Roy. It’s about two beggar children in Calcutta, who are devoted friends.

Chumki is a blind boot polisher, who also sings for donations from unsuspecting passers-by. She is saving her money to give to a mysterious man, who knows somebody, who can do an operation that will restore her sight.

Her partner in begging is King Kumar, who is a tea-seller. King Kumar is an equally wily kid who is saving his money to give to his uncle who says he can get him a job in a Bollywood film. King Kumar has visions of being a Bollywood star.

Each kid knows that the other is being cheated, and says but the friendship is firm until something drastic happens.

ROSHNI in Hindi means “light”.

And STUDIES IN MOTION, what’s the story there.

It’s the intersection of science and culture. The story is written by Kevin Kerr, and takes place in the 1880s. Usually in the States. It’s about photographer Eadweard Muybridge who was fascinated about the intricacies of movement. He took about 100,000 photos of animals and humans in various forms of movement—walking, running, jumping. In the case of the humans they were usually photographed nude. As he said he wanted to make the invisible visible.

He was investigating the components of a movement. How does it work? There are also aspects of his personal life, but at the centre of STUDIES IN MOTION is Muybridge’s obsession with his investigation.

I would think that the productions are vastly different.

They are and not just because ROSHNI has a cast of two and STUDIES IN MOTION has a cast of 12. ROSHNI is an intimate, love story of friendship. There is immediacy and charm in the performances of Anusree Roy as Chumki and Byron Abalos as King Kumar.

We see both their innocent hope, their intense efforts to survive and their sweet care for each other. The production is beautifully realized in the direction of Thomas Morgan Jones. If there is a quibble, it is that at times I thought the story was padded. Chumki singing three songs to get money is two too many. That said, I think the characters are beautifully, fully drawn and the story is told simply with economy.

And STUDIES IN MOTION?

The production is dazzling. Director Kim Collier has such an eye for the visually arresting image. She uses sound, projections, lighting and movement to achieve those images. For example there is a projection of a formidable building in the background that Muybridge will be working in, and then with one step there is another projection and we are in a large, impressive room inside that building. And of course a group of naked men and women running, walking or dancing across a stage will certainly get one to sit up.

While the production is visually dazzling, I found it emotionally sterile. That the look was all and that the characters were underdeveloped. I can appreciate that this is a deliberate choice, I just think that it diminishes the production to techno wizardry, albeit done at a high artistic level.

Also, Muybridge keeps saying that his investigation into movement will be invaluable to doctors, artists and many other professionals. I just wished that the play told me how or why the study would be important.

Ok you have concerns with both, would you recommend them?

Yes, in a shot. I would go anywhere to see the work of Anusree Roy and Kim Collier. Both ROSHNI and STUDIES IN MOTION have a lot to offer in different ways to our burgeoning theatre scene.

ROSHNI plays at Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace until December 11. STUDIES IN MOTION plays at the Bluma Appel Theatre until December 18.

When our theatre critic Lynn Slotkin, reviews two plays she usually finds something that is common to both of them. I can’t imagine what is common about LENIN’S EMBALMERS and THE GREAT WAR, but Lynn is here to tell us.

Hello Lynn. What’s common about embalmers and THE GREAT WAR?

Both plays deal with historical subjects. LENIN’S EMBALMERS by Vern Thiessen deals with the two scientists who must come up with a way of permanently embalming the body of Russian leader, Vladimir Lenin, so that he can be on display. The play also deals with the political upheaval in Russia when Joseph Stalin takes the power. Stalin wants the embalming.

THE GREAT WAR by Michael Hollingsworth is about Canada’s involvement in World War One, the back room politicking and the human stories of the men who went to fight in Europe.

Both productions use a large dose of humour to tell their stories. And both use a heightened kind of theatricality as well.

Were the plays successful in dealing with their weighty subjects? Let’s start with LENIN’S EMBALMERS.

On the opening night Vern Thiessen was there and was so grateful that the Harold Green Jewish theatre was producing the play because as he said, it was tricky—the play was. I would disagree. I just think it’s a really bad play and there’s no trick to that.

LENIN’S EMBALMERS plays at the Al Green Theatre until November 21. THE GREAT WAR continues at the Cameron House through November at least.

That of course is “I WILL SURVIVE” one of the songs of the musical PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT, which opened last night in Toronto on its way to Broadway. Our theatre critic Lynn Slotkin is here to tell us how she survived the opening and whether she recommends that we see it.

Hi Lynn. Priscilla has taken a long journey to get to this point hasn’t it?

Yes, it’s based on the wonderful 1994 cult film The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. It was then turned it into a stage musical with the shorter title, Priscilla Queen of the Desert. It opened in Australia in 2006. Then another production opened in London England where I saw it last year. And now it’s opened here in Toronto with an almost new cast, and a revised book, on its way to Broadway.

Briefly, what’s the story and who’s Priscilla?

Simply, three buddies take a road trip in a bus across Australia. Only the buddies are three drag queens two are gay and one is a transsexual. The neon-coloured bus is named Priscilla. One of the drag queens, named Tick gets a call from his wife to come to her club half-way across Australia, to do a show, and also to see their 6 year old son he’s never seen. Tick realized after he was married that he was gay, so he left, to lead his own life. He takes the offer and coerces two friends to do the act with him, not telling them the reason.

They are Felicia (Adam) an over-active drag queen who always dreamed of climbing to the top of Ayres Rock in full drag and belting out Madonna songs. And Bernadette an elegant transsexual of a certain age who goes along for the ride, because he latest boy-toy lover has died.

Along the way they get into trouble with a bunch of homophobic bullies; the bus breaks down and a macho mechanic named Bob saves the day; and secrets are shared. They also manage to meet people who dance up a storm at every turn.

It’s easy to suggest a road trip in film, how do they realize it in the production?

The director, Simon Phillips and his design team are very clever. We see a cross-section of the bus with Bernadette driving, as sign posts travel across the stage suggest movement. There is also a varied assortment of road kill that goes by. Irreverent and over-the-top are two ways to describe this show.

How so?

It’s a very technical show. Set pieces rise, lower, spin and three singers often float down from the flies. There are explosions of confetti that burst out over the audience; something is done with a ping-pong ball, which I won’t even begin to describe; there is an homage to the various animals, flora, fauna and insects of Australia and cupcakes. All done in the eye popping costumes of Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner. They glitter, shimmer, billow, and leave you breathless at their invention.

With such attention grabbing costumes, do they overpower the cast?

Definitely not. This cast is wonderful, and in many cases stronger than the one I saw in London. As Bernadette, Tony Sheldon is a marvel. He’s been with the show since Australia. He gives an artful lesson in grace, dignity and femininity. He’s not effeminate—he’s feminine—Huge difference. This is a stunning performance.

Canada’s own C. David Johnson plays Bob with a quiet manliness and gentle humour. (An aside, there was a technical glitch last night. They had to lower the curtain to fix it. As Mr. Johnson was leaving the stage he Said, “THEY PAID A LOT OF MONEY, FOR THE BUS….” Brought the house down).

As Felicia (Adam), Nick Adams is a ball of campy energy. And as Tick, Will Swenson is sweet, but at times hesitant and a bit mumbly which I am sure will be corrected as the show goes on.

When you hear about a musical about drag queens we might assume it’s a show for a niche audience. Is that a fair assessment?

No I think that diminishes the appeal of the show. For all the double entendres and the innuendo it’s really a story about friendship and finding the love of your life whether it’s a son or a life partner. We can all identify with that. PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT is a blast of joy. We all can do with joy in our lives and At the moment, PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT is the easiest way to get lots of it.

PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT plays at the Princess of Wales Theatre.

The List

by Lynn on November 6, 2010

in Archive,Picks & Pans

We all keep lists of some kind or other. But list keeping takes on a whole new meaning with shattering results in a new play that opened last night, called appropriately enough, THE LIST. Our theatre critic, Lynn Slotkin, is here to itemize what she thought of it.

Hi Lynn. Before we get into the story, the play comes with some pedigree doesn’t it?

It certainly does. It won the French language Governor General’s Award in 2008, for its playwright Jennifer Tremblay. I would also hope that her gifted translator, Shelley Tepperman, was awarded for her work too. The result is a shattering, haunting play.

What is the story?

A woman sits in her immaculate, white kitchen peeling apples on one of those peeling machines. She’s preparing the apples for apple sauce. She is obviously pre-occupied with something that is affecting her emotionally. She tells us that she keeps tight, detailed lists which she sticks to, even more so since her neighbour Caroline died.

The woman feels responsible. Caroline asked the woman for a favour. The woman put it on her list, kept on revising the list with the request and then eventually neglected to put the request on the list. The result is that Caroline died because of that neglect. We learn this in the first five minutes, so I’m not giving anything away.

Jennifer Tremblay’s writing is spare, pristine and vivid.

And it’s a one-woman show. Is it a multi-character play with one actress playing all the parts.

We all know shows like that. This isn’t one of them. There is the narrator (the woman) and very occasionally Caroline. The incomparable Allegra Fulton takes us into the worlds of both women. We learn the details from the woman, (and isn’t it so telling she is not named, but Caroline is).

THE LIST is as much about character as it is about story-telling.

So we learn that the woman has moved with her husband and three children, to a small Quebec village from the big city, because she wants more time with her husband. But it doesn’t work out that way. He is always tired because he has to travel to the city to work. The woman comes to hate the village, knows no one and doesn’t want to.

Caroline is the one who befriends her. Caroline has four children. As compulsively neat as the woman is, that’s how messy Caroline is. So initially the woman isn’t really interested in her friendship. But things change when Caroline makes her request for the favour.

How is Allegra Fulton incomparable?

She is a fine actress and proves it resoundingly here. This is a performance full of nuance, subtlety, control and quiet passion. She rivets us by talking softly, slowly at first. We see a haunted woman without any sentiment which makes the performance and the play more powerful. This death has left her shattered and desperate to get her life back to normal.

But that’s far off… her fridge is full of apples and containers of home made apple sauce. She continues to clean, tidy and polish as usual, but we know it’s to hide her guilt and despair at what she’s done. There is also fine work by director Kelly Thornton who has Fulton tread a fine line between normal and not.

For example the woman picks up her husband’s shoe and holds it close suggesting how much she wants to have more of him in her life. It’s beautiful direction that serves the play and the performance and makes every moment shimmer with consequence.

You obviously liked the production. Why should we see THE LIST?

Because like all fine theatre, it takes you into the world of the play and the lives of the characters, observing close at and what the characters are going through. Then at the end it lets you go back to your own world, but you are changed. If someone asks for a favour, you won’t hesitate. Someone is in trouble, you won’t walk away. Good theatre does that. THE LIST is special in every way.

Don’t miss it.

THE LIST plays at the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs until November 6.