Picks & Pans


by Lynn on October 26, 2010

in Archive,Picks & Pans

Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace until Oct. 16, 2010.

Toronto is lucky to have resident theatre companies that tell provocative stories using puppets. One of them is the award winning Puppetmongers. They have joined with the equally theatrical company ‘the night kitchen’ to produce their most challenging work—HARD TIMES, by Charles Dickens. Do puppets add a different dimension to the story telling? Does this harrowing tale have more resonance when performed by puppets? Our theatre critic, Lynn Slotkin is here to tell us.

Hi Lynn. We always start with the story. For those who have not read HARD TIMES by Charles Dickens, briefly, what’s the story?

HARD TIMES was written by Dickens in 1854. Dickens chronicles the hard times of the coming of the Industrial Age, when making money was everything, and people were considered numbers or objects and not human. When, if a man was fired from one job, no one in the town would hire him after that and the man would have to go to another town for work.

The story is also about Louisa Gradgrind whose tyrannical school teacher-father thought that only facts were important, and not emotions or imagination. He thought nothing of marrying her off to a loudmouth industrialist named Josiah Bounderby, and she complied. She eventually realized how damaging her father’s ideas were.

This being Dickens he paints a bleak picture but full of vibrant characters.

How does the story telling meld with the puppets?

First comes the idea. Chris Earle, who adapted and directed HARD TIMES, got the idea from the Mike Harris years in which all non-essential funding was cut—the arts? Forget it. Earle thought that attitude was Dickensian. Which got him thinking about HARD TIMES by Dickens.

And since people were treated like objects, who better to tell the story than puppets. So Puppetmongers, composed of brother and sister David and Ann Powell, built the puppets, the various masks that are used to tell the story, and the impressive set. David and Ann Powell also manipulate the puppets. Another actor was engaged to work with them, the gifted Anand Rajaram. So the characters from the book are there but they are played by various puppets or the actors wearing masks.

It sounds like a huge project.

It is, certainly for Puppetmongers. I think it’s the largest project they have ever been involved in. They usually write and perform their own stories, fairy tales with a gentle bite. So HARD TIMES is a real leap forward, involving a lot of puppets, masks and a huge, complicated story.

And does it work, doing such a hard-hitting story with puppets?

The short answer is no, but it’s not without merit. The puppets and masks are very evocative of the characters they depict. The use of shadow and light creates many arresting images. Some of the storytelling is chilling, as one would expect from a Dickens novel.

I detect a “but”.

You’re right. But. Chris Earle’s adaptation is too unwieldy. There was some struggling with remembering lines last night at the opening. HARD TIMES was a favourite novel of Earle’s late mother—he dedicates he performance to her. So I get a sense of the reverential about his adaptation, as if every word had to be there.

It doesn’t.

It could do with judicious, ruthless cutting. Also, while the puppets did evoke the various characters it is hard to keep track of what puppet is who because they are inanimate objects and not bone fide actors with facial and physical variation. Actors clearly delineate characters. Puppets in this case don’t.

Anand Rajaram is a fine actor and is wonderful in many parts, especially a recently fired, dejected man. But when he plays the bombastic Josiah Bounderby, his bellowing makes him unintelligible. It would have been helpful for a list of characters and their relationships as well. So, bravo to them for attempting such a huge project. But I think a lot more thought is needed to do the story justice.

HARD TIMES plays at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, until Oct. 16.

Isolation, fantasy, and skewered memory are explored in a lot of plays, but there is something unique when the play is written by an Irish writer as provocative and bold as Enda Walsh. His play THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM is given it’s Canadian premiere by the equally provocative and bold company MacKenzieRo. Our theatre critic, Lynn Slotkin is here to tell us how provocative and bold.

Hello Lynn. What makes Enda Walsh’s plays so provocative?

His plays deal with people who are not only marginalized but on the edge of going over the edge. There is always a sense of a simmer that could erupt at any moment. His characters don’t start off seeming dangerous, but they tend to end up that way. That’s what makes his characters and plays so gripping. That and their dazzling facility with language.

The Toronto theatre company that is Enda Walsh’s biggest champion, is the equally scrappy and bold MacKenzieRo. Because of the company’s relationship with Walsh, and that their mandate explores the shared heritage between Canada and Ireland, MacKenzieRo is the first company outside of Ireland to be given the rights to THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM.

Ok, that’s the background, what’s the story of THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM?

It’s the story of three sisters who live in a remote Irish fishing village. They don’t seem to have left their house for years because of something in their past. They keep reliving their dark memory of their younger days when they each were dazzled by a singer at the New Electric Ballroom. They each believed that there would be a torid romance with the guy and he would be their one true love. Until they each see him making out with someone else. They each had the same experience; each was crushed; and after that they have each stayed in the house harranging each other and reliving the memory.

There is also a hapless fisherman who keeps trying to visit them with his own inability to function other than on a bare level. He has dreams of ending up with the youngest sister. It all seems so dark and it is as well as very funny because of the way it’s done.

How is it done?

It begins with an explosion of words coming from the oldest sister, Breda, her back to us as she rants her story at breakneck speed while the youngest sister, Ada stands by prompting her. Over the course of the story, each sister will tell the same story with slight variations in detail but not as frantic as the first telling. The sisters will put on their makeup for their big date, one will wear her special dress, and it will all end in tears and shock.

When the awkward fisherman arrives, he too talks in a torrent of words, wildly colourful and hilarious. He is trying to win the sisters over to admit him, and he usually fails, until they do let him in. The dynamic does change when it looks like one of the sisters will be able to leave with the fisherman, until reality sets in, and life for all of them returns to how it’s always been.

The production is gripping.

With a story that seems so dark, is the production depressing?

No and that’s interesting. The plays of Enda Walsh are so challenging both for the actors and the audience. These characters chose their own Company. They function in that house. They tend to things and don’t live in squalor. They chose to relive that story again and again.

This cast is first rate with: Sarah Dodd, Rosemary Dunsmore and Cathy Murphy as the sisters and Chrisopher Stanton as the fisherman. They drive that dialogue at breakneck speed and we have to keep up. And we do.

Director Autumn Smith never wavers in making her accomplished cast charge on to the end. There are moments when the drive subsides creating moments that are achingly moving. It’s like a rollercoaster ride of emotions. And the whole thing is done so well it’s energizing and not depressing.

Who would you recommend this to?

To all those people who have been going to all the other challenging productions that have been playing in town. The play and production is food for thought with lots to chew on.

THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM plays at the Tarragon Extra Space until Oct. 24

Now that the Toronto international Film Festival is finished, the theatre season can begin in earnest. A few shows have opened, but the most anticipated is at Canadian Stage. One expects changes when a theatre appoints a new artistic director. But with Matthew Jocelyn, the new Artistic and General Director at Canadian Stage, the changes have been resounding. His first production is provocatively titled; “FERNANDO KRAPP WROTE ME THIS LETTER: An Attempt at the Truth.” Our theatre critic Lynn Slotkin is here to tell us how that went and to give us a little preview of the season to come.

Hello Lynn. You’ve seen a few of the opening productions: what stands out so far.

I found THE CLOCKMAKER by Steven Massicotte, at Tarragon Theatre, to be interesting in a Kafkaesque way. A timid clockmaker is asked to repair a clock for a frightened woman and enters into a world of violence clairvoyance and intrigue. A metaphoric play with a strong cast.

I look forward to BILLY TWINKLE, Requiem for a Golden Boy, the new Ronnie Burkett show opening at Factory Theatre tomorrow. Burkett is a brilliant artist. I’m also looking forward to THE LIST, at Factory, and THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM at Tarragon Extra Space.

But of course the real news is the first season of Matthew Jocelyn the new Artistic and General Director at Canadian Stage. Change surrounds the place right down to the name of the company.

What other changes have been put in place?

No more funky CanStage, or The Canadian Stage Company, It’s now simply Canadian Stage and will focus on Canadian plays and international as well as trans-disciplinary works. But to his first production, “FERNANDO KRAPP WROTE ME THIS LETTER: Attempts At the Truth”, by German playwright, Tankred Dorst. Jocelyn has translated it and directs it. It’s a bold, brave choice, and Jocelyn has made his declaration of his intentions loud and clear.

All along the windows of the theatre are posters that say, THEATRE IS KRAPP, krapp spelled KRAPP. Before we go into the building a woman gives out yellow buttons that say THEATRE IS KRAPP. Jocelyn is beating some wags to it in case they want to be clever at the play’s expense with their pearly prose. Even the announcement to turn of cell phones is off the wall. We hear a loud buzzing like a saw. The announcement says to turn off all chain saws and cell phones. Then the loud buzzing resumes.

I think of the line from the Wizard of Oz “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

What’s the play about?

Fernando Krapp is a rich man who buys things—including people. He sees a beautiful woman named Julia and sends her letter saying he wants to marry her. Krapp has bribed Julia’s father to get him on side. Eventually Krapp does marry her, and she does love him. What she needs from him is his declaration of love and he says he can’t do it, that she should know without his saying it.

Fernando is cold, confident and distant. He says he will never be jealous of her. Julia takes a lover and that ends badly, which makes her mentally fragile. There is a startling ending but it’s not sentimental. I find the play typical of many German plays— alienating, metaphysical, sometimes absurdist. And Jocelyn directs it that way as well.

How so?

It’s very theatrical. Astrid Janson’s set is composed of panels that slide and reshape across the stage. Lots of dazzling images. A rifle is fired in the air and a bear skinrug falls to the ground. In another scene roses fall from the air and land on a grassy wall. Some images are puzzling—Julia’s father appears in a door way flipping a yoyo up and down. No attempt is made to suggest intimacy.

Characters are staged at great distances. I think of grand opera and that’s how Joceyln has mainly staged it. Actors declare rather than emote. You won’t find Hamlet’s advice works here: ‘fit the action to the word, the word to the action.” It’s a deliberate decision, so faulting the actors doesn’t come into it.

Does it work?

It certainly is a challenging production. It’s the kind of work we usually see from international theatre festivals. The play is not conventional and I think the unconventional, theatrical production serves that idea. It’s for audiences who do like to be challenged and are open to having their perceptions of theatre turned on their ear.

Toronto sees a lot of theatre festivals that do that as a matter of course. Now we have a resident company that does that too. I am certainly intrigued by what else Matthew Jocelyn will present. We aren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.

FERNANDO KRAPP WROTE ME THIS LETTER: Attempts at the Truth plays at the Bluma Appel Theatre until October 16.


by Lynn on October 3, 2010

in Archive,Picks & Pans

In five short years the Company Theatre has produced edgy, gritty theatre that challenges the audience and actors alike. With their new production, Through the Leaves, they continue their exploration of provocative themes—this time the thorny subjects of love, loneliness and not being a victim. Our theatre critic, Lynn Slotkin is here to explain.

Hello Lynn. It sounds like a really gripping play. What’s the story?

It’s written by Franz Xaver Kroetz, a contemporary German playwright who deals in these dark subjects. THROUGH THE LEAVES is about the rocky relationship of Martha and Otto. Both are mid-50s or so. She is an independent woman, a successful butcher, which is odd for any time. And lonely. He is a worker somewhere, in a factory perhaps. He does not strike me as a professional man even though he carries a briefcase, but it’s usually to hold his lunch and porn magazines. And in his own way, he’s lonely too.

She dotes on him, feeding him snacks of German caviar and crackers. Being demure, accommodating. He in turn is a clod. He’s quietly gruff. He doesn’t bellow and he isn’t physically violent. It’s more emotionally forceful. He’s critical, right down to the kind of caviar she uses. He would have preferred Russian, although he doesn’t seem to know what caviar actually is. And he likes rough sex.

Is this a classic case of the woman being the victim?

Surprisingly not. And certainly not the way Martha is played here by Maria Vacratsis. Ms Vacratsis has said in an interview that Martha isn’t a victim, and I believe that from the way she plays Martha. Ms Vacratsis plays her with confidence that is not pushy. She’s not petulant either. She quietly stands up to Otto, but she’s not obsequious. He in turn is obvious in his efforts to bring her down. Alas we all know people like that. He taunts her with the porn magazine and she comes back at him, again, quietly. She holds her own.

Because she has a successful business she offers him a job in the butcher shop. Which he takes, grudgingly. Otto is all bluster which he uses to hide his insecurity. Kroetz is examining a rocky relationship that is subtle in a way, in the various dynamics. And I think to some extent, we all can all recognize it.

The production also has Nicholas Campbell who we are familiar with from Da Vinci’s Inquest.

Yes and he proves resoundingly that there is a large life after or along with television. He’s not afraid to show this guy as a fleshy, rumpled lout. Similarly Maria Vacratsis is brave in showing Martha in her fleshiness too.

And for the play’s seriousness, it’s also very funny. Both Campbell and Vacratsis are master actors both serious and comedic. As fragile and damaged as these characters are, there is a wonderful chemistry between Vacratsis and Campbell that make this challenging play work so well.

We are always squirming in a good way at how the characters react to each other. Because the geography of the set was strange, I found some of director Philip Riccio’s blocking and direction a bit clunky. However, taken as a whole, he and his wonderful cast have created a production that ripples with hidden emotion.

Another challenging, compelling production from the spunky Company Theatre.

THROUGH THE LEAVES plays at the Tarragon Extra Space until Oct. 3.

The summer might be winding down but the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is still going strong, with four recent openings. These plays cover the gamut of interests—from Shakespeare, musicals, comedy and a chilling drama from pre-Revolutionary France. Our theater critic, Lynn Slotkin, has seen them all and is here to tell us what to see and perhaps miss of the four.

Hello Lynn. There certainly is a lot to chose from with these four. Give us a brief idea of what each is about.

THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA by Shakespeare is about two friends, Valentine and Proteus, and their search for love.

FOR THE PLEASURE OF SEEING HER AGAIN, by Michel Tremblay, our leading French Canadian playwright, is his sweet, funny remembrance of his irascible, loving, larger than life, Mother.

KING OF THIEVES is a musical with book and lyrics by George F. Walker—our leading English Canadian playwright—music by John Roby. It’s about low-life thieves and high flying shady bankers and everybody sings about it.

And finally DANGEROUS LIAISONS by Christopher Hampton. Set in pre-Revolutionary France about a group of bored aristocrats who amused themselves with their sexual adventures, sometimes praying on the innocent and virtuous.

So it’s a really interesting cross-section of choice, using three of the four Stratford theatres.

They all seem so different. Are there any similarities that connect them?

I think the cross section is interesting enough to connect them. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival certainly is trying to move forward—putting Shakespeare front and centre. The festival is branching into commissions with a vengeance—commissioning the musical KING OF THEIVES.

There are other plays in development. And I like the attitude of paying respect to Canadian playwrights, certainly with George F. Walker, And Tremblay’s play, FOR THE PLEASURE OF SEEING HER AGAIN.

But I have found in the last few years that the quality of productions is a huge stumbling block. In two cases of the four shows I’m talking about today, the quality is less than adequate. And in the other two the quality is stellar. I’m glad of the choice. I just wish the productions were better.

You generally like to get the bad news out of the way, so start there.

I think both TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA, and KING OF THEIVES are a mess. With TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA director Dean Gabourie has set the play as a back stage comedy of a theatre company. But in order to make his concept clear he inserts a little scene from Othello and a song and dance number at the beginning, and never again during the play. If you have to do that then the concept doesn’t work. The pace and lack of humour are deadly. I am grateful for the acting of Dion Johnstone and Gareth Potter as Valentine and Proteus and a few others. But a lot of the rest of the acting falls under the category of HAM.

With KING OF THIEVES George F. Walker gives a modern spin on THE BEGGAR’S OPERA without its bite or single minded clarity. The story is a mess of confusion. The music is forgettable. It takes place in a cabaret with a narrator, why? The actual King of Thieves, seems a secondary lead to the narrator. Why? I liked the performances of Sean Cullen as the narrator and Evan Builiung as Mac, but this whole show is a missed opportunity.

And now for the good news?

FOR THE PLEASURE OF SEEING HER AGAIN, is a pleasure from top to bottom. Michel Tremblay’s memory of his late mother was as a roaring, colourfully verbose power-house of a woman. And as he says at the beginning he would give anything for the pleasure of seeing her again. The play is his memories of her from the time he’s 10 to adulthood. The writing is sharp, so funny, and moving. As the mother, Lucy Peacock is vibrant, energetic, tender and nuanced. As Tremblay, Tom Rooney is believable whether he’s a curious 10 year old, or a loving adult son. It’s never gratuitous. And it’s beautifully directed by Chris Abraham.

DANGEROUS LIAISONS by Christopher Hampton is about rich aristocrats behaving badly and we can’t take our eyes off them. The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, once lovers, think nothing of manipulating and destroying reputations and people. She wagers he can’t seduce a known virtuous married woman. He takes the wager with terrible results.

The production is fabulous, thanks to director Ethan McSweeney. Very smart choices. A wonderful set by Santo Loquasto. The best I’ve seen from him. And a stellar cast led by Seana McKenna as the dangerous and seductive Marquise, and Tom McCamus as the charming, seductive Vicomte.

Two wonderful productions. See both of them as soon as possible.

TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA plays at the Studio Theatre until Sept. 19.

FOR THE PLEASURE OF SEEING HER AGAIN, plays at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 26.

KING OF THIEVES plays at the Studio Theatre until September 18.

And DANGEROUS LIAISONS plays at the Festival Theatre until Oct. 30

The Shaw Festival of course presents the plays of Shaw, his contemporaries and those dealing with the time of Shaw. Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell isn’t satisfied with this challenge, she has taken it upon herself to champion a visible “minority”: Women. She has programmed plays by women, directed by them often about them. The last two openings at the Shaw Festival—AGE OF AROUSAL and SERIOUS MONEY –cover all the bases. Our theatre critic Lynn Slotkin is here to explain.

Hello Lynn. So tell us how these two plays cover all the bases?

AGE OF AROUSAL is written by Linda Griffiths, a fixture of the Canadian theatre scene. Directed by Jackie Maxwell.

It takes place in 1885 and is about Mary Barfoot, an ex-suffragette, and Rhoda Nunn, Mary’s partner in business and life. They run a secretarial school for women so they can be independent of men for their livelihood, and self-sufficient.

Rhoda describes herself as “odd” which can mean many things— odd person out, not conforming to the norm of what is expected. Odd in her sexual preference. Certainly the subject matter of AGE Of AROUSAL is startling. We rarely see plays set in the Victorian era dealing with lesbians. Sex plays heavily in the play. Mary loves Rhoda, and a dashing man lusts after Rhoda as well, among others we learn. And as the characters deal with their gush of thoughts, they voice them in what Griffiths calls ‘thought speak.’

SERIOUS MONEY is written by British writer, Caryl Churchill and directed by Eda Holmes and is a bit off the beaten track.

How so?

It’s part of programming that is outside the Shaw mandate but the plays are by writers who like Shaw, provoke. And if Caryl Churchill is anything she is provocative.

SERIOUS MONEY is set in London and is about the greed of stock brokers, shady investment bankers and corporate raiders. Sounds like today? It was written in 1987 and Churchill was writing about the excess of the 80s (times don’t change, just the amount of money.) And it’s done in rhyming couplets. The language is raw, hard-hitting and shocking. Often characters talk at the same time. Be brave, keep up or duck. There is nothing tame about either play.

Are the productions as wild as the plays seem to be?

They are but in different ways. This is the third production of AGE OF AROUSAL that I’ve seen and it’s the best of the lot. Jackie Maxwell and her designer Sue LePage have created an elegant production. It’s a world of grit and light, suggesting enlightenment, which is what Mary and Rhoda had worked for. The staging is like a dance, sometimes wary, sometimes swirling, in which the innocent as well as the experienced are sucked up into the swirl.

The cast is uniformly strong. As Mary, Donna Belleville has a gravitas, a confidence and yet an uncertainty when it comes to Rhoda. As Rhoda, Jenny Young continues to go from strength to strength— there is a steely maturity to Rhoda thanks to this fine performance. And I have to mention Sharry Flett as one of the lost women who comes to Mary and Rhoda for help. Her character is full of desperation, and grace. The performance is totally compelling.

And SERIOUS MONEY, should be completely different.

And it is. Director Eda Holmes has created the beautifully dressed, but frenzied, volatile world of the London stock exchange, or any one for that matter. This world is ruthless. Characters look relaxed with their hands in their well tailored pants pockets, but they are mentally shooting bullets at their opponents. These are people who smile without a shred of warmth. Characters charge around yelling their buy and sell orders. It’s the best ensemble work I’ve seen anywhere. The whole group chants a song at the end of Act I that escalates to a fevered pich, ending in a shouted word that pins you to the seat.

And no, I can’t say the word on radio.

Graeme Somerville plays a head Honcho of a company, using a soft voice, a sharp stare and control. As a South American moneyed woman with shady connections, Nicola Correia-Damude is full of confidence, sensuality and is dangerous.

It’s a terrific cast and performance. But you have been warned about how hard hitting it is. AGE OF AROUSAL is forceful in a different, gentler way, and both are worthy of people who want to be challenged and provoked.

AGE OF AROUSAL plays at the Shaw Festival until Oct. 10.

SERIOUS MONEY plays until September 12.

South Pacific

by Lynn on September 5, 2010

in Archive,Picks & Pans

Touring productions of Broadway musicals are nothing new to Toronto audiences. But the production of SOUTH PACIFIC, that opened last night at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, is something special for many reasons. Our theatre critic Lynn Slotkin is here to explain.

Hello Lynn. Before we get to those special details, briefly, what is SOUTH PACIFIC about?

World War II. It’s the beautiful 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, based on the novel—Tales of the South Pacific, by James A. Michener. About a group of military men and women on an island in the South Pacific, anxiously waiting for their orders to get into the war.

There are various love stories, but the main one is between Ensign Nellie Forbush from Little Rock Arkansas, and suave Frenchman, Emile de Becque. Nellie learns a startling secret about Emile that has her questioning their relationship. It is a musical about love, racism, prejudice and finally wisdom.

What is so special about this production?

Most important is that it’s a touring production of the hugely successful Broadway revival, still playing at Lincoln Center Theater. Bartlet Sher directed the Broadway revival and does the same for this touring production. He won a Tony Award for it and you can tell why in this exquisite production. Many of the same Broadway creative team are involved with this touring production. That’s so rare with touring productions of Broadway shows.

The Toronto venue is also noteworthy. SOUTH PACIFIC is playing at the Four Seasons Centre For the Performing Arts—i n other words, our Opera/Ballet house. When I heard that, I was concerned. Musicals are always overly microphoned. I wondered how would this musical do in an opera house known for its fabulous acoustics which doesn’t need micing. But after seeing the production last night I needn’t have worried.

I won’t ask you to compare the New York and touring production, but how did this production do?

On the whole, wonderfully well. Barlett Sher is such a gifted director. He has captured Nellie and Emile’s initial awkwardness with each other as they realize their true feelings. They circle each other, they often try to keep their distance, which might suggest a slow pace but it’s not. The musical says a lot about narrow minded attitudes, such as mixed marriages. Something Nellie learns to fight against. But Sher takes this further and illuminates the racism some of the soldiers experience with each other.

There are three black soldiers in the background in the chorus. They are always separate from the rest of the white soldiers. It’s subtle but resoundingly obvious. If they do interact with white soldiers they are occasionally met with mimed condescension. Stunning. Bartlett Sher makes us look harder. But before everything there is the music, which this stellar cast handles with ease.

Tell us about that stellar cast.

They get to sing such wonderful songs as: A Cockeyed Optimist, Some Enchanted Evening, There is Nothing Like a Dame, Younger than Springtime, Bali Ha’i. And these are just some of the hits in Act I.

As Nellie Forbush, Carmen Cusack is innocent, kookie, sweet and graceful. She has a belting voice that can also capture the subtleties and softness of the music.

As Emile, Jason Howard is strapping, suave, engaging, and sings like a dream. It’s a beautiful performance—an aside– Mr. Howard is married. He wears a wedding ring. He’s playing a character who is not married. Mr. Howard, please take off your wedding ring for the performance, your wife will still love you.

I told you Bartlett Sher makes us look harder. This cast from top to bottom is top notch, And so is this production of SOUTH PACIFIC. I urge you to see how terrific a touring Broadway production can be. This is it.

SOUTH PACIFIC plays at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts until September 5.

Stratford Openings

by Lynn on August 26, 2010

in Archive,Picks & Pans


The Stratford Shakespeare Festival opened its last five productions of this 2009 season this past weekend. They included A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM by Shakespeare, of course, PHEDRE, by Racine, based on the Greek tragedy, and three Canadian plays: THE TRESPASSERS, RICE BOY and ZASTROZZI. Our theatre critic, Lynn Slotkin, is here to tell us if Stratford’s offerings opened with a bang or a whimper.

Hello Lynn, I know I usually ask you at the end of the review if they represent a bang or a whimper, but we can’t wait. What is it?

Neither. It’s more like a thud, along with groaning and gritting teeth. I always hope for the best when I go to the theatre. There was a lot to look forward too with these Stratford plays.

Shakespeare and Racine represent he classics. And three Canadian plays are showcased, with two written by our leading playwrights. The acting company for the most part is strong.

On paper, the directors appear to be accomplished. But the proof is in the finished productions and that’s where many of the problems lie.

Let’s start with Shakespeare. A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM is usually so magical, what could go wrong?

In director David Grindley’s production, practically everything. I’ve seen his work elsewhere. Very impressive.

But not here.

The play is magical, about prickly love that gets smoothed out. But Grindley has depicted this as a nightmare not a dream. ( I think Shakespeare knew the difference).

The magical forest where most of the play takes place is inhabited by fairies in Shakespeare’s play, which Grindley has interpreted as leather clad, boot-stomping, pelvis thrusting Goths, in sun-glasses. The acting is uneven. But Tom Rooney is inventive as Puck dressed like a punk rocker. And Geraint Wynn Davies is sweet As Buttom. The lighting is murky making it hard to see anything.

Oh dear. And Phèdre?

It’s a fraught story of Phèdre, in love with her stepson. It involves heightened emotions and wrathful Greek gods. But the production is lumbered by a dull, stodgy adaptation by Timberlake Wertenbaker.

And the direction of Carey Perloff is static and that removes all the energy. There’s good acting by Seana McKenna as Phèdre, Jonathan Goad as Hippolytus the stepson, and Roberta Maxwell as Oenone, but they are in this lumbering production.

Aren’t you heartened by Stratford doing three Canadian Plays?

I would have been if they were better plays. THE TRESPASSERS is a new play by Morris Panych—always cause for anticipation. It’s about life, sexual awakening and peaches. A grandfather teaches his teenaged grandson about life and stealing peaches from the neighbouring orchard, much to the boy’s mother’s dismay.

Panych writes dazzling dialogue. Full of wit. But as happens so often in a Panych play, aside from the wit and esoteric musings, the centre is hollow. He directs as well. The cast is great: Joseph Ziegler is the grandfather, Noah Reid is the grandson. Kelli Fox is the long suffering mother. A fine cast in a witty-sounding but ultimately hollow play.

And the other two plays: RICE BOY and ZASTROZZI?

TRICE BOY by Sunil Kuruvilla takes place in both Canada and India and is about three generations of men and their losses in life.

It is a shapeless, meandering mess of a play that has not benefited from the playwright’s reworking of his earlier version, or the workshops, dramaturgy and readings it’s had.

ZASTROZZI is a very early George F. Walker play,1977, one of our leading playwrights. It takes place in Europe, a few hundred years ago and is about a man who is a killing machine, getting rid of artists he thinks are mediocre—would that it was so easy. It shows a little of the angry humour and dark vision that make his recent plays crackle with life.

He is our most successful playwright but you would never know it from this weak, early work. Why on earth program it if it doesn’t show him in a good light, in spite of creative direction by Jennifer Tarver and a terrific performance by Rick Roberts as Zastrozzi?

You are not in a recommending mood?

Zastrozzi gives a prophetic line: ‘artists must be answerable to somebody’. The same can be said of the people who run the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. I don’t get the sense of artistic rigour or respect.

Just a desperation to try something new and appeal to a younger audience. What about the loyal audience that expects quality and isn’t getting it?

These five plays, coupled with a generally disappointing season, except for a few sterling productions, left me furious and fearful for the festival. Is there anyone watching the store?

This isn’t good enough.

Do better.


by Lynn on August 15, 2010

in Archive,Picks & Pans

Toronto is alive with the sound of theatre. Since it’s August that means the annual SUMMERWORKS Theatre festival is upon us. Our inexhaustible theatre critic Lynn Slotkin is here to tell us of the highlights.

Hello Lynn. For those who might not be familiar with Summerworks, what is it?

It’s a 10 day festival now in its 20th year, that started as an indie theatre festival, but has expanded to include various musical offerings, interesting walking tours, and art exhibits. For our purposes, I’m focusing on the theatre.

Over the 10 days about 45 one act plays are presented at various venues. Since Thursday I’ve seen 18. Many of the companies are local, Some are from across the country. Some are written and or performed by experienced artists, some by novices. All the shows have a common thread — the selection of the plays is by a jury, unlike the FRINGE where the selection is by lottery.

I love the fearlessness and rough and ready aspect of the whole of Summerworks.

With so much to chose from, how do you decide what to see?

I would pick a production of an original work first over one of an existing play. Often it’s an artist that will grab my attention, be it an actor, a playwright or director. Sometimes it’s the description of the play in the Summerworks brochure that’s intriguing.

Once you’ve made your choice, what are you looking for in the production?

I’m looking for a compelling voice of the playwright, is the story interesting? Is there an intriguing thought in a play? I’m looking to be shaken, stirred, unsettled, moved, or driven to laughing. If it’s a performer, or director, whose work I know of course I’m hoping that what drew me to that person’s work in the first place, will draw me again.

Ok. You’ve seen 18 shows. What were the highlights?

I have five; in alphabetical order.

HAUNTED HILLBILLY is presented by Side Mart Theatrical Grocery from Montreal. It’s a musical adaptation of the novel Haunted Hillbilly about a singer who dreams of fame. He comes under the drugging influence of a mysterious wheelchair-bound clothes designer. It is wildly inventive from the lyrics to the direction to the performances. Irreverent, hilarious and wonderfully theatrical.

I WAS BARBIE, written and performed by Nina Arsenault. Ms Arsenault is fascinating. She was born a man and after 60 operations and many silicone Injections, is not a woman. She used a store mannequin as her idea of perfection. I WAS BARBIE recalls Arsenault being hired to be the living representation of BARBIE, the doll, on BARBIE’s 50th birthday, during Fashion Week in 2009. The show is full of caustic wit, perception, barbed observations and cupcakes. I love being unsettled by Ms Arsenault— a woman who idealizes a plastic creation but wants to be taken seriously as a living person.

That’s two, how about the other three?

KAYAK by Jordan Hall is a thoughtful play about a clinging mother trying to hold on to her son, and the son and his protesting girlfriend who try to break away. Rosemary Dunsmore as the mother, gives a gripping, heartbreaking performance, proving why she is one of this country’s best actresses.

REDHEADED STEPCHILD is written and performed by Johnny Walker (yes that’s his real name.) About Nicholas, a 12 year old ‘sweet disaster’ who has to cope with having red hair and all the attendant teasing, meanness and bullying that entails, plus dealing with an uninterested stepmother, and being a loner. The writing is sharply observed, the performance is wonderful as is the inventive direction. A terrific, moving, very, very funny production.

RIDE THE CYCLONE, presented by Atomic Vaudeville, the off-the-wall company from Victoria, BC. It’s a wacky, hilarious, almost surreal tale of a group of kids in a choir who rode a ride called the Cyclone at the fair, there was an accident and they died. They all come back to sing about their odd, weird lives. A buoyant production, energetically performed.

And I have some honourable mentions.

What are they?

THE KREUTZER SONATA is Leo Tolstoy’s short story, adapted and performed by Ted Dykstra, against a backdrop of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. About a jealous man obsessing on his wife and his belief that she is cheating on him. Dykstra is a revelation in this intense performance.

ME HAPPY by Amy Lee Lavoie and Matthew Mackenzie—about a convict in Newfoundland who mail orders cliff climbing shoes from a lonely woman in Ireland. Full of poetic, fantastical, imagery with two tantalizing performances by Chala Hunter and Alex McCooeye.

(Lack of time prevented me from mentioning): OR, by Liz Duffy Adams about Aphra Behn the 17th Century playwright, Nell Gwyn and King Charles II who had affairs with both of them. Raucous wit done at warp speed. Terrific performances. So all in all I had a grand time at Summerworks, as I always do.

SUMMERWORKS continues at various venues until August 15.

The Tempest

by Lynn on June 26, 2010

in Archive,Picks & Pans

Stratford Shakespeare Festival

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival has been hyping its production of Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST with great fanfare starring Christopher Plummer. Our theatre critic Lynn Slotkin was at the opening and now fresh from her vacation, she’s here to tell us if all the hype was worth it.

Hello Lynn. For those a bit rusty on their Shakespeare what’s THE TEMPEST about?

Prospero was The duke of Milan at one time. But 12 years before, his evil brother deposed him, took over the dukedom and banished Prospero and his then three year old daughter Miranda to a small land.

Prospero has two helpers: Ariel, who is a dainty spirit, and Caliban, who lives under the earth and does the grunt work. Prospero has always been interested in magic and over the 12 years in exile perfects his magical powers. He conjures the tempest that opens the play, that coincidentally brings all those who did him wrong to his island to face him and get their comeuppance.

It sounds like a play about revenge.

Prospero is furious alright. When he tells Miranda the story of how they got to the island, Prospero has 12 years of festering anger that erupts in his telling of the story. But rather than being a play about revenge, it’s really a play about forgiveness, retribution, love and acceptance. This is a play from a mature Shakespeare who wrote it in his later, mellower life.

Prospero goes through a long journey, from anger to forgiveness in this deep, complex play. It is a play of consequence but also has wit, farcical moments and lots of magic. And certainly the director, Des McAnuff is adept at creating moments that startle and dazzle. There are a lot of vivid images in this production.

Such as?

I have never seen the Stratford Festival stage used as technically as in this production. The set revolves. There are many trap doors of various sizes that reveal and hide characters and action. Parts of the set rise, tilt and dip.

At the beginning of the production a creature of sorts in a ghost-grey form fitting body suit slowly dives down from the flies, arms gracefully waving back and forth, and legs kicking, as if in water, swims down to a large book illuminated at the bottom. The creature picks up the book, walks off and then the play proper begins with the raging tempest.

Sounds impressive.

It was. The problem is that the dazzling image has nothing to do with the play. That character is introduced soon after that. It’s Ariel, Prospero’s dainty spirit. The whole image of her swimming down is ludicrous. Her name is ARIEL, not Flipper. And she is diving down to something that shouldn’t be there in the first place, namely Prospero’s magic book. What’s it doing there? Did he lose it? I don’t think so.

Unfortunately this production is full of dazzle for its own sake with no connection to the play. It makes the production shallow, and disjointed. I thought the pace of the production was glacial. The set moved quicker and more often than the production.

Surely a production starring Christopher Plummer has acting fireworks.

Yes, absolutely. Plummer is a powerhouse actor. Here is an actor who is a colourful, vibrant, even lively Prospero. We see the anger and seething rage. But there is also humour, even impishness, which I think is an interesting choice. After his quick moment of rage, it gives way to a twinkling humour. This Prospero seems to enjoy manipulating all the people on the island, doing his bidding. So rather than Prospero having a long journey through the play, it’s more like a little jaunt… Prospero-lite.

Doesn’t a powerhouse performance make up for your disappointment with the rest of the production?

No, nor should it. Attention to detail that realizes the play, creating a coherent, cohesive production that serves the play, and going deeper than superficial, are not strong points in Des McAnuff’s direction , I’m finding again and again. The result is yet another McAnuff production that is shallow and inconsistent that relies on techno-dazzle to make up for the lack consistency and depth. But at the end, there was Plummer alone on a bare stage, speaking the glorious words of Shakespeare, gloriously and with brains. And that was magic, without the techno dazzle that diluted this production. I just wish the rest of the production rose to that level.

Thanks Lynn. THE TEMPEST continues at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.