The Passionate Playgoer

More from Summerworks:

At the Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. W., Toronto, Ont.

 

Body of Fluorescent

Co-created by Amanda Cordner and David Di Giovanni

Directed by David Di Giovanni

Performed by Amanda Cordner

Guest performer, Leila

Amanda Cordner gives a powerful performance about the black woman’s image of herself. She plays several characters: Shaneese, an angry, bold black woman who takes no prisoners and wants to dance and have fun, and God help anyone who gets in her way; Desiree, a friend who breaks up a fight between Shaneese and another person; a quiet spoken black woman (sorry, I didn’t get her name), and Gary a gay white kid who idolizes Shaneese.

Cordner creates a compelling show about a black woman’s identity. Should she be quiet and demure like our unnamed woman or bold, loud, angry and combative like Shaneese? Gary tries to use black vernacular when talking to Shaneese and at one point uses jive talk and the ‘N’ word  in a phone message to her. She reflexively begins to text a reply until she realizes what he’s done. He’s presuming upon her identity, using a word he  does not own. Serious stuff.

But Leila, who describes herself as a ‘real-live Persian Princess’, offers wild coming relief as only she can.

Cordner, as always is a compelling performer. As Shaneese she is an extroverted, sensual dancer and really angry character; as the demure woman, she is contained, watchful and thoughtful. Gary is a loose-limbed kid who wants and needs to belong somewhere. All those goes to create an arresting show of identity, awareness and an idea of self-worth.

Performances left:

Sat. Aug. 18, 1:15 pm

Sun. Aug. 19, 7:15 pm

www.summerworks.ca

 

the aisha of is

Created and performed by Aisha Sasha John

Lighting by Vishmayaa Jeyamoorthy & Jennifer Lennon

This is listed as a dance/interdisciplinary piece. Dance vocabulary is always a mystery to me so I seek out dance pieces to try and learn what the pieces are trying to say. Even if the message is obscure or there is no message at all, most of the time it’s an interesting exercise.

Aisha Sasha John begins by negotiating across he floor in small steps, her hands tightly flowing over each other. She sits in front of a computer upstage, facing downstage. Her face and what she types appears on a large screen behind her.  What she types is cryptic in meaning. She puts on lipstick. During the show she removes clothing revealing another outfit, dress, pants. She sits on the floor and takes out what looks like make-up. She has a bowl of water in front of her and carefully washes her face and dries it. She dances in other configurations. At one point she stands on the top step of a small two step thing,  she takes out a large scroll, unfurls it and begins reading in a voice so quiet, not projected, I could not make out most of it. I was sitting in the third row. She steps down to the first step and keeps reading, then stands on the floor and reads and then slowly ends up almost prone as she continues to read. At the end of the show she said the poem was available outside by donation.

I have no idea what this show is about.

Performances left:

Thursday, Aug. 16      9:15 pm

Saturday, Aug. 18      12:00 pm

 

Box 4901

Written by Brian Francis

Directed by Rob Kempson

Set and costumes by Brandon Kleiman

Sound by Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski

Lighting by Cosette Pin

Performers: Bilal Baig

Hume Baugh

Keith Cole

Izad Etemadi

Daniel Krolik

Michael Hughes

Tsholo Khalema

Eric Morin

Kyle Shields

Chy Ryan Spain

Jonathan Tan

Chris Tsujiuchi

Geoffrey Whynot

In 1992 novelist Brian Francis, then 21 and a student at the University of Western Ontario, placed an ad in the personal column of the London Free Press, looking for companionship, a relationship, company, etc. He got many replies. He did not reply to 13 of them and now, 26 years later he does.

Brian Francis reads each letter in turn out loud to us and then his reply. The letters to him range from being sweet, snarky, suggestive, open-hearted, funny, irreverent and representative of how gay men then, connected. When Francis replies, he does so from the lens of being 26 years older, mature-minded and wise. He too is very funny but in a thoughtful way.

Rob Kempson has the 13 ‘correspondents’ walk across the back of the theatre and at various times assume a pose or get into a kind of formation that is never distracting and always serves the piece. As Brian Francis reads each letter in turn, the man it is intended to listens and then stands at the back until the last man’s letter is read. We always wonder if one of these 13 men could have been Mr. Right and so does Mr. Francis.

What an intoxicating thing it is to see 13 gay actors breathe life, sex and heart into this intriguing show. Beautifully done.

Performances left:

Tues. Aug. 14    5:00 pm

Sun. Aug. 19      4:45 pm

 

Swim Team

Written by Jaber Ramezani

Directed by Aida Keykhaii

Lighting by Chin Palipane

Cast: Banafsheh Taherian

Parya Tahsini

Sarah Saberi

Tina Bararian

A fascinating idea. Four Iranian women meet in an appartment to learn how to swim—in a place that has no water. Roya is the woman who will teach them to swim. The apartment and the imagined exercise provides a kind of safe haven. Roya was a swim coach and is qualified to teach the three young women.

A pool is marked off by scarves that are tied together—wonderful image. Aida Keykhail’s direction is full of wonderfully vivid images, ideas and a created humanity. Jaber Ramezani has written a thoughtful, unsettling play that should be expanded or at least fleshed out. Little is said about what these women endure and the politics that bind them, until the very end. That seems tacked on. It should be re-thought and developed. The women try and move a mattress into the ‘living’ room but are unsuccessful. It’s hard to make out why they needed to move it and why they abandoned it. At the top of the show they are all talking Farsi? without a translation. That leaves the audience in the dark. Either cut it or put all that dialogue into English. This is too good an idea of a play to leave your audience in the dark. Other than that, terrific.

Performances left:

Sun. Aug. 19   6:00 pm

www.summerworks.ca

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At 4th Line Theatre, Millbrook, Ont.

Written by Judith Thompson

Directed by Kim Blackwell

Original music and musical director, Justin Hiscox

Costumes by Meredith Hubbard

Sets and props by James McCoy

Sound by Esther Vincent

Choreography by Monica Dottor

Fight director, Edward Belanger

Cast: Maja Ardal

Cynthia Ashperger

Cassandra Guthrie

Mark Hiscox

Tom Keat

Andrei Preda

Grace Thompson

Steven Vlahos

 A chilling, moralistic play about bullying, the well-meaning victim and how so many people are affected. Wonderfully directed by Kim Blackwell, but the trick ending doesn’t work and is really not earned.

The Story. Judith Thompson referenced the story of Reteah Parsons for this world premier. Reteah Parsons was the young teen who was tormented, bullied and humiliated by her schoolmates until she took her own life.

Ramona is the mother of Serena. Ramona has been haunted by Serena’s death. She tells us that Serena took her own life because she was bullied. Ramona then goes over Serena’s life in loving detail: from her joyous birth, through her happy childhood, to the time everything changed for her daughter and she became a target for the bullies until it ended tragically.

 The Production.  Kim Blackwell directs Who Killed Snow White? with her usual flair and style. She has a wonderful vision for how to use the whole sweep of the farm (that we can see) which means the barn yard, buildings and the meadows off to the right.

In the first scene, Ramona (Cynthia Ashperger) is writhing on the ground, reacting to her usual nightmare of seeing all the dead kids who took their lives or lost them young. When we look beyond Ramona on the ground, there in the distance in the tall grass of the meadow young women in white dresses pop up, as if from the ether, then disappear into the grass. They then all rise up and rush off in formation and out of Ramona’s nightmare when she wakes up.  She says her own daughter took her life because she was bullied and then she goes over every second of the girl’s life.

Cynthia Ashperger as Ramona is what you would expect of a distraught mother, she is angst ridden, consumed with grief and remorse. As the play goes along Ramona will feel guilty she didn’t do more to protect her daughter from the horrors of the outside world.

When Serena was born Ramona and her husband Jay (a strong Mark Hiscox) were overjoyed and revelled in this beautiful baby girl. Serena was a happy kid. She had friends. Then in grade eight these friends seemed to turn on her and ostracised her.  Judith Thompson’s writing is particularly strong in illuminating the pull of peer pressure to belong and be accepted. Thompson also captures the sense of loneliness and isolation that Serena felt in that situation. As Serena, Grace Thompson has that ability to convey Serena’s confidence and fragility.

Serena made friends with another awkward kid, Riley (Tom Keat, wonderfully lively) who was gay, proud and sweet and together they navigated the margins of being ‘outsiders.’ Then matters escalated with the bullies.

Monica Dottor is a gifted choreographer and her depiction in movement of the violence done to Serena is both balletic and brutal. You want to look away but you are compelled to see because of this gripping ‘choreography.’

As we are told by Ramona at the beginning of the play Serena could not take the cruelty anymore and took matters into her own hands.

Comment.  We believe Ramona when she says at the beginning of the play that Serena is dead by taking her own life. But then Judith Thompson turns her play completely around at the end. Ramona says they wanted to give the audience a happy ending. (Sorry if this is a spoiler but this is a serious problem with the play and needs to be addressed).

I think that’s a cheat. It’s not the ending the play deserves. I appreciate that Judith Thompson has a strong moral compass and conscience. She sides with the underdog, the marginalized and the bullied.  But sometimes she can sound self-righteous and deal with matters in a simplistic way. The villains in the piece are villains from beginning to end with no redeeming qualities. No people in authority seemed to have done anything here to deal with the problems of bullying (except Jay, Serena’s father). Audiences live in a tough world and can deal with harsh things. I believe they could have dealt with the ending this play works towards and deserves.

That said, I think Who Killed Snow White? is a gripping, emotional play with a strong message. It’s dealing with something important and bravo to 4th Line Theatre for tackling  it.

Produced by 4th Line Theatre.

Opened: Aug. 8, 2018.

Closes: Aug. 25, 2018.

Running Time: approx. 2 hours.

www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca

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At the Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. W.,  Toronto, Ont.

Lion Womxn

Created and performed by: nevada-Jane arlow, Clara Carreon, Olivia Costes, Gabi M Fay, Carvela Lee, Megan Legesse, Laya Mendizabal, MORGAN, Whitney-Nicole Peterkin, Rofiat Olusanya, Aaliya Wooter, Flo Yang.

Directed by Julia Hune-Brown and Nikki Shaffeeullah

Lighting by Senjuti Sarker

Costumes by Chris Faris

Choreography by Jasmine Shaffeeullah

Projections designed by Nicole Eun-Ju Bell

Presented by the AMY Project.

I love the AMY Project’s work. It’s brave, true, heartfelt and moving. As stated in the program: “The AMY Project is a free performing arts training program serving young women and non-binary youth. AMY breaks down barriers to participation by providing meals and transportation; accessible, queer and trans inclusion and anti-racist environments; and more. With the mentorship of professional artists, AMY participants learn to tell their stories with honesty, integrity and artistic rigour.”

For this endeavor we hear stories of teens coping with issues of identity, body image, horrific memories of their home countries before they came to Canada, a sense of guilt they couldn’t do more to help family members, coping with harsh home lives and how they deal with it all with grace, resolve and confidence.

The stories are rich in poetry, imagery, vivid description and are beautifully rendered with economy and style. The stories of these young artists will pierce the heart and compel you to listen and hear them.

Their last show is Mon. Aug. 13 at 6:30 pm

Tickets: www.summerworks.ca

 

Adrenaline

Written and performed by Ahmad Meree

Directed by Majdi Bou-Matar

Set by Majdi Bou-Matar

Sound by Colin Labadie

Original music by Colin Labadie.

Done in Arabic with English surtitles.

Jaber is a young Syrian man spending his first New Year’s Eve in Canada. He’s cold.  He thinks back to the previous year’s New Year’s in Syria where he was with his family, mindful of the possibility of bombs dropping or soldiers invading their home at any moment.

In the safety of Canada he sits down to a meal of pizza and coke and talks to his parents and his young brother. They are cleverly depicted: his mother is a stand-up fan with a large scarf around the curve of the fan and wrapped around the neck of the fan. His father is a jacket neatly hanging on a coat tree and his brother is a round gas tank with a red hockey sweater over it.

Jaber talks to his parents and brother in turn with tenderness, humour and a loving wistfulness. The firecrackers that go off to bring in the New Year here have a chilling resonance for Jaber as they also sound like bombs in his native Syria.

We see a family that loves each other and how Jaber tries to maintain that love and connection. Then the reality of the situation sinks in. We cannot hear these stories  enough of survival, determination and the horrors that refugees and immigrants have endured.

This piece of work is stunning in every single way—from the gripping writing to the inventive direction of Majdi Bou-Matar to the arresting acting of Ahmed Meree (who also wrote it). I would travel anywhere to see theatre this good. Fortunately the Theatre Centre is closer.

Performances:

Sunday August 12th 7:30pm – 8:05pm

Saturday August 18th 2:30pm – 3:05pm

Sunday August 19th 2:15pm – 2:50pm

www.summerworks.ca

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

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Kevin Bennett and Tim Carroll

Designed by Camellia Koo

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Cast: Damien Atkins

Kristopher Bowman

Julia Course

Patrick Galligan

Cameron Grant

Claire Jullien

Yanna McIntosh

Natasha Mumba

Ric Reid

Graeme Somerville

A lame attempt to use a production of Henry V as a means of commemorate the Centenary of WWI. No one is served in this misguided production–not the play, not the committed actors and certainly not Canadians.

The Story. The concept of this comes from Tim Carroll, the Shaw Festival’s Artistic Director and co-director of the production with Kevin Bennett. The idea is to have a group of soldiers in 1918 fighting in WWI prepare a memorized reading of Shakespeare’s Henry V for some kind of presentation. The soldiers are apparently Canadian.

Henry V is about the young King Henry V and how he negotiates and deals with the French. He believes that he is the rightful heir to France (because of ancestry etc.) The French disrespect his inexperience and taunt him. He buoys his men in spite of great odds against them and leads them into battle at Agincourt, where they miraculously defeat 10,000 French while losing only 29 English soldiers.

The Production. The audience is on all sides of the small playing area. For the first Act, designer Camellia Koo has created a dugout where the soldiers lean up against their gear, clean their weapons, strum a ukulele singing “Keep the Home Fires Burning”, prepare for battle and recite Shakespeare’s Henry V for some event that will happen in a week according to one of the soldiers. They wear brown uniforms with a subtle brown maple leaf sewn into their collar. The only other indication that they are Canadian is when one of the soldiers calls out “Canada” to differentiate them from other troops.

Graeme Somerville begins by reciting the Chorus’ opening soliloquy: “O for a muse of fire…..” The words are clear, crisply said and without an indication of where the Chorus is when saying the speech (“this O…”) or any variation really in ‘enlivening’ the speech. Gray Powell plays a soldier who in turn says the part of Henry V (I can’t really say he ‘plays’ the part of Henry because he’s not directed to). Again he handles the words very well, making them sound like conversation, but again without the verve and spirit needed to illuminate the speeches, especially “Once more unto the breach, dear friends….” Ok it’s clear that professional actors are cast to play the soldiers but the soldiers are in turn amateurs when it comes to ‘presenting’ Henry V. Hmmmmm “interesting.” It’s obvious they are directed that way. Then what’s the point of doing it at all?

 In Henry V the French indicate their contempt for Henry by sending him a box of tennis balls. The soldiers indicate this when one soldier tosses something from a box to Henry to catch. It’s a grenade. That’s a clever bit of business from Kevin Bennett (I assume he is the lead director since he is mentioned first of the two and he wrote the programme note.) but the scene is badly staged because a whole section of the theatre doesn’t see what the “Henry” is catching. Bennett doesn’t have him subtly turn so that all sides of the theatre can see. Act I ends with the men going off to battle.

Act II takes place in a hospital where all the men are wheeled on in beds after they have suffered various wounds. It is here at the top of Act II that comments from the audience on their memories of war are read by a ‘soldier.’ (The audience is asked to fill in blank cards in the lobby during intermission expressing their thoughts.)

The soldier who was the Chorus in Act I is now blind—a bandage is wrapped around his head and over both eyes. Another has been gassed and has a terrible cough; one is unconscious for most of the act; others are on crutches. The nurses who tend them have learned Henry V perhaps to help in the soldiers’ healing.

There are wonderful tender moments in Act II that indicate the camaraderie of the men. The blind soldier is naturally depressed and doesn’t want to eat. Another soldier limps to his bed and feeds him soup and a ‘grout’ (a cookie). A nurse (Yanna McIntosh) tenderly washes and dries the chest of the soldier who is unconscious. When she is finished she looks at another nurse and subtly shakes her head. I was fortunate to be facing in that direction and saw the moment indicating the situation is hopeless. I don’t think others behind her did. The blind soldier does rouse himself from his depression when a glove is needed for a scene. He says he has one, leans over to his right and opens a drawer in his side table and pulls out his gloves. My question is: how does he know his gloves are there if he’s blind? A director’s glitch? Perhaps it would have been more appropriate for another character (sighted)  to have that moment.

When the soldiers and nurses finish ‘reciting’ the play (interestingly, the nurses are better ‘actors’ than the soldiers with Natasha Mumba playing a lively, forthright Katherine). the soldiers are left to dwell on their wounds and futures. Nothing in completing Henry V can take them out of that depression. The play then becomes almost an afterthought. If the directors wanted to do a play about the horrors of war one wonders why they didn’t do Journey’s End that certainly has more relevance.

Comment. What is one to make of this–Shakespeare at the Shaw Festival? I guess it’s part of the new mandate of Tim Carroll: “the Shaw Festival creates unforgettable theatrical encounters in any way we want” A bit arrogant that, but I digress.

There is no debate the soldiers have about war or why they are there as a result of ‘reading’ and preparing Henry V except when a soldier refuses to say a certain part. He’s told that the part is vital because his character explains why Henry wants to invade France. That is the extent of any discourse on the play or war. So why they are doing this play is a mystery never shared with the audience. And it’s never explained for whom they are doing the play ‘in a week.” Hmmm?

We are never told what battle they are preparing for. There is just the perfunctory note that they are Canadians without any context to the war. What a huge missed opportunity. By placing the soldiers in France in 1918 they missed using the reference of the Battle of the Somme (1916) where Canadians were slaughtered; Passchendaele (1917) where Canadians were slaughtered and the Battle of Vimy Ridge (1917). This is the battle that most mirrors the battle of Agincourt. The Canadians had to take the Ridge. It seemed almost impossible but they did it and that made their reputation. (and lost 10,000 men in the process). And yet both Kevin Bennett and Tim Carroll ignored these references. It’s as if these soldiers being Canadian is irrelevant. I don’t think that’s a good thing.

The concept of using Shakespeare’s Henry V to commemorate the centenary of WWI doesn’t work. It’s misguided, misdirected and not thought through. And doing Shakespeare at the Shaw Festival isn’t clever. Shaw hated Shakespeare. Just sayin’

“With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer. not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my brains against his.” -Bernard Shaw.

Presented by the Shaw Festival.

Opened: Aug. 8. 2018.

Closes: Oct. 28, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours and fifty minutes.

www.shawfest.com

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At the Studio Theatre, Festival Players, Wellington, Ont. (Prince Edward County)

Written by Michael Healey

Directed by Graham Abbey

Set and lighting by Steve Lucas

Costumes by Lindsay Forde

Music by George Meanwell

Cast: Benedict Campbell

John Dolan

Marcel Stewart

A beautifully rendered production of Michael Healey’s poignant play of friendship, deception, guilt and forgiveness. This is the best production of this play that I have seen over the years.

The Story. Morgan and Angus have been friends since childhood. They grew up together, enlisted to fight in WWII, and when Angus sustained a head injury in an air raid in London, England they came home together. Morgan feels responsible for Angus and so they own a farm and work it together with Morgan taking care of him in his more fragile moments. Angus’ immediate memory is gone. He has ‘spells’. He gets flustered easily. But he’s a wiz at math.

One day they are visited by a Miles, a young actor from Toronto. He’s there with a troupe of actors who are going to do a play about farm life. Miles wants to know if he can stay there for a bit and watch how they farm so he can create a segment for the show.  Morgan plays on Miles’ lack of knowledge about framing for humourous effect. At one point he has Miles scrubbing the pebbles on the pathway to the house, as if this is a reasonable chore. When Miles overhears Morgan and Angus talking he learns something unexpected. This starts a whole string of revelations, none of which I’m going to tell you.

 The Production. The play is presented in the new intimate Studio Theatre in Wellington, Ont. as part of the Festival Players Company. Designer Steve Lucas has put the audience on either side of the compact set of the farm kitchen with working sink, stove, counter tops, a round table and chairs. The outline of the farmhouse is suggested. The wall of the theatre is used as part of the set. It’s a black chalk board on which Lucas has drawn in white chalk a vista of the farmland, with a suggestion of an escarpment, a farm building and a silo. The sense of expanse is clear. Really clever drawing that this way.

To set the mood for this delicate, feisty play, master-musician George Meanwell plays music that is lilting, folksy and appropriate. He also has a wry way of telling us to turn off our various noisy devises.

Angus (John Dolan) enters the kitchen to make a sandwich. He takes the bread out of the plastic bag of white bread, lines up the two slices meticulously, squirts ketchup on both slices and places a piece of meat on one slice of bread and folds the other slice on top. He then puts the sandwich on a plate. When Morgan (Benedict Campbell) arrives Angus offers a hearty, “Morgan Hello.” Morgan takes the sandwich and leaves. Angus looks confused at the empty plate but makes another sandwich.

When Miles (Marcel Stewart) arrives outside the kitchen door and knocks Angus is startled.  As Miles, Marcel Stewart is respectful in telling Angus who he is—explaining he’s an actor doing research for a play and wonders if he can stay there a few days helping out. A cloth bag is slung over his shoulder. He wears neat slacks and a t-shirt on which is the unmistakable head and face of 1970s (and onward) black activist Angela Davis. Without forcing an agenda costume designer, Lindsay Forde subtly helps in establishing a part of Miles’ character—Marcel Stewart is a black actor, hence Miles is black. Angus is flustered at this stranger and says that he will have to ask Morgan if he (Miles) can stay. Angus goes back to making his sandwich and forgets about Miles who sits outside and waits patiently for a decision. When we see Miles involved with farm chores in the next scene it’s obvious Morgan agreed to have Miles stay.

In Act II of the play we come into the middle of a scene in which Miles is telling Angus how the ghost of his father says that his uncle killed him and then married his mother. And his girlfriend went mad and killed herself.

The story Miles is telling Angus is of course that of Hamlet—one presumes Miles was once in a production of the play and he wanted to tell Angus about it. To further broaden the character of Miles (at Marcel Stewart’s request), playwright Michael Healey added a story about Austin Stewart a black man born a slave who eventually got his freedom, became a prosperous businessman and moved to Canada to help establish the Wilberforce Colony.(Marcel Stewart starred in The Wilberforce Hotel at the Blyth Festival a few years ago). Stewart’s depiction of both stories is both thoughtful and compelling.

As director Graham Abbey confidently guides the story, it’s clear that Miles has created a schism in the well-ordered lives of Morgan and Angus. Abbey beautifully establishes the relationships of the three men as they play off each other. Miles asks questions Morgan might find intrusive. We wonder why. As Morgan, Benedict Campbell is gruff but contained. He obviously doesn’t want to upset Angus or indicate there is something to hide. And he is wonderfully funny without once telegraphing the ‘joke’. Marcel Steward as Miles is inquisitive without being pushy. He has a sweet innocence; initially he doesn’t read Morgan’s subtext, but then gets it. John Dolan plays Angus with a squinty gaze as if he is reacting to a headache or trying to find clarity in a fuzzy memory. All three men give beautifully truthful, complex performances.

 Comment. The show that is being created by these actors under the watchful eye of Paul Thompson was of course The Farm Show (1972). Miles is actually Miles Potter an actor who turned into a successful director. But in Michael Healey’s hugely successful play, he is mainly interested in the dynamic of the three men. There is so much to dissect in the piece but that would spoil the various surprises in the revealing of the story.

Suffice it to say Morgan is justified in his responsibility to take care of Angus. They have history. They are friends with one realizing how much he owes the other. This is a play of forgiveness, redemption, memory and kindness. And it’s being given an exquisite production.

Produced by the Festival Players

Began: Aug. 2, 2018.

Saw it: Aug. 5, 2018.

Closes: Aug. 18, 2018.

Running Time:  2 hours, five minutes.

www.festivalplayers.ca

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JUDITH: Memories of a Lady Pig Farmer

At the Blyth Festival, Blyth, Ontario

Based on the novel “Judith” by Aritha Van Herk

Adapted for the stage by Heather Davies

Directed by Jennifer Brewin

Set and costumes by Kelly Wolf

Lighting by Kaitlin Hickey

Sound by Rebecca Everett

Cast: Georgina Beaty

Graham Cuthbertson

Marion Day

Nathan Howe

Tony Munch

Daniel Roberts

A well meaning play that, in spite of good acting, is unable to lift the story of Judith and her devotion to her pigs to a level that is interesting instead of being deadly dull.

The Story.   Judith’s parents were farmers when she was a kid and she helped her father with the chores feeding and tending the pigs. When she grew up, living in the city she worked in an officer and was a secretary/assistant to a man with whom she was having an affair.  He was physically abusive so she left the city and bought a pig farm in the country to try to change her life.  For the most part she is alone on her farm with only the pigs as company. Eventually she is invited for dinner by neighbours, Ed and Mina Stamby and their three strapping sons, one of whom is Jim, who is sweet on Judith.

 The Production and Comment.  A group of musicians (members of the cast playing musical instruments) sing various ditties throughout the show that establish a lilting atmosphere—I think the songs are unnecessary no matter how well they are sung.

Kelly Wolf’s set is of the rustic barn where the pigs are kept. We don’t see them, we hear them grunting, slopping around etc. We imagine the pigs. Judith (a stoical, thoughtful Georgina Beaty) talks to a man who sells her the pigs. She points out the ones she wants. When she has them in their pens at her farm she spends much time looking over a wood barrier to the imaginary pigs.

She carefully pours pails full of water or food into their troughs (we have to imagine the water and the food—cause the pails are empty.) Other times she mimes shoveling after the pigs or spreading clean straw for them.  All this seems so repetitive and endless that I got the book by Aritha Van Herk out of the library to see what Heather Davies found so intriguing.

How does it translate from a book to a stage play? I usually just take the stage play on its own, but Judith: Memories of a Lady Pig Farmer as a play just seems dull and flat to me, no matter how much Heather Davies loved the book and wanted to adapt it to the stage.

It’s Judith doing a lot of looking at the pigs in their pens. So Judith is wistful, pensive, fretful, silent, introspective etc.

Aritha Van Herk’s novel, “JUDITH” is at times poetic, almost as if she wanted to be esoteric when describing Judith’s inner most thoughts. She gives Judith deep interior musings. Van Herk goes into her philosophical, psychological almost spiritual life. Everything is densely described and explained. And she does the same for the pigs.

She gives them an interior life as well, as they observe Judith as she feeds them, wondering about her, her motives, how she is different smelling than the men they have encountered, how her attitudes change as she feeds them etc.

I’m thinking, “excuse me, THEY’RE PIGS!!” Well of course you can’t translate inner thoughts into dialogue in a play unless you have a narrator who explains all this stuff—that doesn’t necessarily work—witness “ORLANDO”  by Sarah Ruhl that Soulpepper did recently.

So while Heather Davies has used the novel’s sprightly dialogue of Judith as she meets her neighbours, the overall affect is that without the inner life the play is rather lifeless.

I’m thinking: “Where is the conflict? Is it between Judith and herself?  Is it between the pigs and each other? Or with Judith?” My head is swimming here trying to make sense of it all.

Can the actors redeem the play? The actors do a really lovely job to lift this as does director Jennifer Brewin. Brewin finds the humour in the piece and it enlivens the production. The stoicism and wry humour of Judith’s neighbours is refreshing

Georgina Beaty is pensive as Judith and you can tell she is hiding layers of emotion as she tends her pigs and is standoffish for the most part, with people.  She bonds beautifully with Mina played with such impish joy by Marion Day.  Mina knows of the constant drudgery of farm life but she also finds the humour and honesty in it.

Nathan Howe plays Jim, who is sweet on Judith. Howe plays him as a bit of a lunkhead, a joker, and yet a kind man. The characters are considerate, generous and open-hearted—except for the abusive boss (a very contained Graham Cuthbertson) . But all that silent watching, sighing, and wistfulness without context is a real challenge.

Produced by the Blyth Festival.

Plays until Aug. 11, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, approx.

www.blythfestival.com

 

Oh What A Lovely War

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

Book by Joan Littlewood, Theatre Workshop and Charles Chilton

Research by Gerry Raffles after a treatment by Ted Allan and others.

Directed by Peter Hinton

Musical Direction by Paul Sportelli

Designed by Teresa Przybylski

Lighting by Bonnie Beecher

Projections by Howard J. Davis

Cast: David Ball

Ryan Cunningham

James Daly

Kristi Frank

Jeff Irving

Allan Louis

Marla McLean

Kiera Sangster

Jacqueline Thair

Jenny L. Wright

After a rather confusing start with lots of distracting business Peter Hinton’s vision for Oh What a Lovely War became clear, inclusive and chilling.

Some background.  Described as “Joan Littlewood’s Musical Entertainment,” Oh What A Lovely War is initially about the British involvement in  WWI but for this production, the Canadian input factors heavily as well.

The Shaw Festival is commemorating 100 years since the ending of WWI, so three plays about war have been programmed: O’Flaherty V.C., Henry V which opens this week, and Oh What a Lovely War which opened last Wednesday.

Oh What a Lovely War was written by Joan Littlewood, her company Theatre Workshop (in London) and Charles Chilton and was on the stage in London in 1963. Joan Littlewood was a pioneer in the creation of modern theatre. She was a powerful, inventive director and her reputation as a theatre creator preceded her. She was a fighter for the kind of theatre she wanted and imposed a rigor that it be presented with utmost professionalism. It’s a kind of theatre that incorporates Commedia Dell’Arte street theatre, clown, music hall, docudrama and is very movement based.  Oh What A Lovely War is the best example of this.

Littlewood’s influence reached way beyond England. Canada’s own George Luscombe worked with Littlewood in London in the 1950s. When he returned to Canada he started Toronto Workshop  Productions (1959-86) on the site of the present Buddies in Bad Time Theatre

The Story.  Lively (mainly) British war songs and songs of that day (1914 +) are sung that juxtapose news of what is happening at the front. The contrast makes the reality of the war chilling.  And of course the title is full of irony.

The show references WWI as it pertains to Britain but director Peter Hinton has taken Littlewood’s suggestion in her introduction to the play to inject freshness into other productions.  To that end this company has added Canadian stories into the production.

We learn that black men wanted to enlist but they were not allowed because of racism.

Indigenous men did enlist to fight for their country and were accomplished but at the end of the war they were ignored. One was Francis Pegahmagabow, an Ojibwa soldier and accomplished sniper. He made more than 300 kills and was the most decorated indigenous soldier in military history. But at the end of the war he and his fellow indigenous soldiers did not receive a pension or any land as white veterans did. I’m grateful to Hinton and his cast for their research and inclusion of Canadian stories, no matter how uncomfortable.

The Production. A lot is packed onto the small Royal George Theatre stage. Initially the production seems busy with characters entering from all over the theatre, singing patriotic songs.  Up at the back there is a screen on which news reels are projected, in front of it is a bank of upright pianos that are moved around in various formations, and occasionally cut off the screen—annoying and too much going on to see on what to focus.

Allan Louis is an elegantly dressed master of ceremonies who controls the proceedings. As part of the Canadian input Marla McLean informs us of what was going on in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. at the time and in particular how the Royal George Theatre factored into it.

We are told that the tally of the dead will be noted on a device that has flip cards with on number on each card. As the casualties rise, the numbered cards will be flipped. A great idea but the tally is not revised as often as we hear how many died at various battles. I thought this was a missed opportunity to keep that growing number of dead chillingly in our minds.

The production is full of irony with the lively songs working in contrast to the rising tally of casualties and bad news from the front.

There are poignant moments, for example: the truce on Christmas Day, 1914 when soldiers on the British side of the front line and the German’s on the other side sing Christmas hymns to each other and send each other little presents–touching.

Jeff Irving is hilarious as an officer barking orders in an unintelligible way (thick accent, lots of yelling) only to hear/understand him later in the scene when he purposefully becomes intelligible. Later he plays the arrogant, dispassionate Field Marshall Haig who is oblivious to the slaughter of soldiers, mainly Canadians, sending them back into battle. The result of his arrogance makes you take a deep breath and let it out slowly.

In the end, I think Oh What A Lovely War is one of the most gripping, unsettling anti-war ‘entertainments’ in a long time.  The cast is strong—they can sing beautifully and act exquisitely.

 Comment. Peter Hinton is a gifted artist who is bursting with ideas and visions. Quite often they seem to overpower him and you just want to yell “STOP”. But his determination to do right by the material, his rigorous research, his conviction that Canadian stories be included and his bringing it together for a compelling production, won me over in the end.

Presented by the Shaw Festival.

Opened: Aug. 1, 2018.

Closes: Oct. 13, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

www.shawfest.com

 

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At the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines, Ont.

Part of the Foster Festival.

Written by Norm Foster

Directed by Patricia Vanstone

Designed by Peter Hartwell

Lighting by Chris Malkowski

Cast: Kirsten Alter

Peter Kranz

Amanda Parsons

A typical Norm Foster show full of humour and humanity, irascible characters and forgiveness.

 The Story.  Come Down From Up River  is a world premiere from Norm Foster, a Canadian writer who keeps churning out plays.  It’s part of the Foster Festival in St. Catharines and this is the festival’s third year.  This is the third play that Norm Foster has written that is set in Saint John, New Brunswick.

Shaver Bennett is a solitary, irascible man who lives in the woods of the Miramichi in Northern New Brunswick. He’s a logger. He has to go into Saint John, New Brunswick for medical tests.  He asks his niece Bonnie if he can stay at her place until the tests are over and then he will go home. He hasn’t seen Bonnie for at least 23 years because  he and his sister– Bonnie’s mother–had a terrible fight and that caused a rift in the family. Bonnie has been harbouring hard feelings about her uncle since then.   Lots to dredge up over the past 23 years and lots to explain.

Bonnie is a lawyer married to Liv Arsenault who is a graphic artist.  Bonnie is white and Liv is a woman of colour.  As far as Bonnie can remember Shaver has always been an angry, rigid thinking man and she sees no reason why he would change. She learns soon enough about holding a grudge and being forgiving.

The Production. This is a solid production. Peter Hartwell has designed a stylish single set of Liv and Bonnie’s living room with a door well up centre. There is a bar location extreme stage right when Shaver stops at a pub for a beer before going to Bonnie’s place, but for our purposes this is a single set. It’s well directed by Patricia Vanstone. She doesn’t have a character move unnecessarily. There is always a purpose and reason. Relationships are created with economy for the most meaningful results.  It’s well acted by Kirsten Alter as Liv, a forgiving open-hearted woman, and Amanda Parsons as Bonnie who is a bit of a rigid woman at first. The real surprise is Peter Kranz as Shaver. Peter Kranz spent a lot of time at the Shaw Festival playing buttoned-up characters who usually were very proper. Here he is almost unrecognizable with long hair and a messy beard.

As played by Kranz, Shaver is stoical, very funny and almost laid back.

The play does speak to today. Liv and Bonnie are married but they try to hide that from Shaver thinking he would not approve or understand. Bonnie’s assumptions of Shaver are disproved when he says he’s not shocked that Liv and Bonnie are married or that Liv is a woman of colour.  As Shaver says to both Bonnie and Liv, he might live in the woods by himself, but that doesn’t mean he’s stupid or unaware of the world.  Norm Foster gives Shaver quirky turns of phrases and a wry, dry sense of humour that Peter Kranz handles beautifully. Shaver is a man who wants to correct a wrong with his niece Bonnie. Bonnie needs to listen to his side of the story to find the truth about a secret in her life.

I do think the play goes on a bit too long and there are revelations that just seem to be ticking a box for relevance. Liv has a speech (given to Shaver) towards the end of the play about the racism she’s endured that I think would have been better placed when Shaver and Liv address the question of race when they first meet. Placing the speech at the end of the play just seems to be ‘tacked on”.

But on the whole Come Down from Up River is an enjoyable time in the theatre.

 Comment.  I went to Come Down From Up River because it is part of the Foster Festival in St. Catharines, and even though this is it’s third year, I’d never been. Often the cast is made up of actors who used to work at the Shaw Festival. Norm Foster just keeps churning out the plays that are easy entertainment. He’s very funny and often quite wise about the ways of the world. The plays are formulaic which is not a bad thing if it’s all done with skill, and Foster has skill.  There is usually a dilemma of some sort or other that the characters have to resolve—in this case Bonnie and Shaver have a lot of memories about their past hurts and wounds. Shaver seems to have mellowed over the years but Bonnie only remembers how he used to be and harbours resentment. It reminds me of a card I received once with a quote from Lillian Hellman: “People change and forget to tell each other.” Exactly.

Characters go over the hurts they endured, discover the person who hurt them has changed, and then go about resolving their differences.  Often the play could deal with issues of the day—same sex marriages, mixed marriages; bigotry etc.

Organizers in St. Catharines thought it would be interesting to have a festival of Norm Foster’s plays.  In a few cases the productions have been written especially for the Festival. They are world premiers, Come Down From Up River  being one of them. I think that’s a coup to have a few new plays specifically written for the festival.

And the venue of the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre seems new too—I could still smell the fragrance of the wood. We are greeted by volunteers and theatre staff and are guided every step of the way to the “indoor plumbing” or our seats etc. Every effort is made to make the audience feel welcomed. The last needed detail is to put the name of the theatre and it’s address on the program cover instead of burying it on page 27. Other than that, lovely.

The Foster Festival Presents:

Began: July 18, 2018.

Closes: Aug. 3, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, approx.

www.fosterfestival.com

 

Rosalynde (or As You Like It)

This is part of Driftwood Theatre Group’s Bard’s Bus tour that plays various dates in the Greater Toronto Area and also around the province.

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by D. Jeremy Smith

Designed by Sheree Tams

Music composed and directed by Tom Lillington

Lighting by Michael Brunet

Puppets by Eric Woolfe and D. Jeremy Smith

Cast: Geoffrey Armour

Sochi Fried

Caroline Gillis

Ximena Huizi

Derek Kwan

Megan Miles

Ngabo Nabea

Eric Woolfe

A seat of the pants production played simply on the grass of a park to an appreciative, if rambunctious, audience. It made me imagine what it must have been like in Shakespeare’s day with the actors totally focused on their work playing to a sometimes raucous audience. The result was thrilling.

The Story. Rosalynde (or As You Like It)–why did they make up another title named Rosalynde? D. Jeremy Smith, the director and adapter of the play and great mind and founding Artistic Director behind the Bard’s Bus Tour, felt that since Rosalynde is the heart and soul of the play, she should have her name up front.

He has placed the play in 1918 in Ontario. It was the height of the women’s suffrage movement, prohibition and the First World War Women got the vote, but not all women—South Asians, Japanese, immigrants and Indigenous women would have to wait a very long time for their voices to be counted.  D. Jeremy Smith wanted to focus on women’s accomplishments—so parts of the play are readings from Nellie McClung the great Canadian icon who worked hard to champion women’s causes and various political writings, Susanna Moodie and others.

Shakespeare’s play, As You Like It is followed closely but with a Canadian twist. Instead of their being two brothers vying for the dukedom of a city, in this telling there are two brothers: Senior and Frederick who are co-owners of The Dukes’ Distillery who have split. Frederick banishes his brother Senior who escapes to the Forest of Arden for a simpler life. This being Prohibition, Frederick sells his booze illegally across the lake to the United States.

Rosalynde lives with her cousin Celia and Celia’s father Frederick. Frederick in a fit of peak banishes Rosalynde, as he did her father. This results in both Rosalynde and Celia leaving in disguise for the forest as well. But before that Rosalynde meets and falls in love with Orlando who is well born but badly treated by his brother. (There seems to be a theme here.). Orlando falls in love with Rosalynde as well. This being Shakespeare things get complicated.

The Production and Comment. So a play about romance, intrigue, subterfuge etc.  As is always the case with Bard on the Bus Tour this is playing in various parks around the province and the GTA, but there is a twist. D. Jeremy Smith has said that his city (Toronto) is changing. (He also lives in the Chester/Danforth area which considering the shocking events along the Danforth,  Sunday, July 22 is sobering). Generally Smith and his company used to play parks in the downtown core as a rule, so audiences that were predominantly white.

Not anymore.  He said that if he wanted to bring Shakespeare to a larger audience then he had to bring Shakespeare to every audience.  When I saw the play, Thursday, July 26, I saw it in Parma Court in the Eglinton/Victoria Park area. The next day they would play Oakdale Park in the Jane/Finch area. These are two neighbourhoods that have had their challenges with violence.  But on Thursday July 26 the Bard’s Bus Tour was bringing Rosalynde (or As You Like It) to Parma Court Park.

It had been raining so the ground was wet and that meant that the company could not use lights (when it got dark) or microphone the cast. There were a few barrels as props and the audience sat on the ground on ground coverings provided by the company, inches from the actors and imagined the world of the play and listened.

I and another person were the only white faces in the audience. The rest was a mosaic of Toronto; lots and lots of kids of colour all lively, rambunctious, talking while the play was on and yet listening. Parents and other adults came a bit later. The audience was treated to free cans of coke and potato chips. The kids were in heaven.

The cast was focused, committed to giving the best performance—Sochi Fried is a feisty, lovely Rosalynde—and not at all rattled by the kids’ occasional lack of attention. Geoffrey Armour as a lively, extroverted Touchstone, plopped himself down in the middle of the kids and delivered his lines to them and the cast while eating grapes. He put his hat on a kid beside him, who loved that. Ngabo Nabea is a strapping, courtly Orlando. I loved that as the kids chomped on their chips, they attempted some kind of a whisper as they talked right in front of the action, a sweet sign of respect. When Caroline Gillis as Jaques thoughtfully gave her “Seven Ages of Man” speech, a woman behind me quietly said part of the speech with her. Wonderful.

There are clever puppets in the show and the kids loved them as did the adults. They all stayed to the end for the most part. And when it was over they all applauded and some shouted for them to comb back and do it again. That was wonderful.

I imagine it must have been like this in Shakespeare’s day with the audience being rowdy and the cast having to be totally engaged in telling the story in order to grab the audience’s attention.  I thought the whole experience was thrilling. Bravo to Jeremy Smith for wanting to give all audiences a taste of Shakespeare and to his stalwart cast for bringing it to them.

The Bard’s Bus Tour presents:

Began: July 13, 2018.

Closes: Aug. 12, 2018.

Running Time: two hours.

Various locations around the GTA and Ontario.

www.driftwoodtheatre.com

 

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4th Line Theatre, Millbrook, Ont.

Written by Ian McLachlan and Robert Winslow

Directed by Deb Williams

Musical director, Justin Hiscox

Costumes by Meredith Hubbard

Set and props by James McCoy

Sound by Esther Vincent

Choreographer, Monica Dottor

Cast: Kait Dueck

Mark Kreder

Sarah McNeilly

Courtenay Stevens

Robert Winslow

And many others.

This is an initially charming play (albeit overwritten play), because of its focus on a country doctor who started a small phone company to improve his service to his patients and the switchboard operator who worked for him for 40 years.

 The Story. Doc Logie was frustrated when he lost a patient because he couldn’t get news fast enough that would allow him to rush to his patient and save them. He lost four patients that way. To solve the problem he created a small phone company with four lines, named for each of his dead patients. He hired Alice Cameron when she was just a teen in about 1935 to  be the switchboard operator. She stayed in the job for 40 years, devoted to and perhaps in love with the much older Doc Logie.

The play focuses on the Doc and Alice and stories that revolved around the phone company, with tangential stories about the war and how it took its toll on at least one young man, storms, strikes and the oddball neighbours in the area.

 The Production. As with all the productions that take place at 4th Line Theatre, the audience sits on chairs on risers in the farm yard on Robert Winslow’s family farm. The barn is to our left. Another farm building is in front of us and it is well used for the play’s purposes. The fields and meadows are off to the right, ready to be used for some startling entrance in director Deb Williams’ energetic, lively production. Characters appear in the distance through the tall grass of a field. Doc Logie (Robert Winslow) makes his dramatic entrance driving a Model T-Ford at breakneck speed (or as fast as a car that old can travel) around a building and straight into the barn to park it. Robert Winslow as Doc Logie bursts out of the barn talking a mile a minute about all manner of things. Winslow makes Doc Logie lively, enthusiastic, clear-thinking and optimistic.  He is a man with many ideas—the telephone being a life-line to his patients is one of themSarah McNeilly plays Alice Cameron, the telephone operator, with youthful exuberance and a lot of common sense. She secretly pines for the much older Doc and of course she is devoted to him.  Perhaps her devotion might be that he was there at her and her twin brother Hugh’s birth. The Doc’s affections are also sought by Grace Dyson (a very confident Kait Dueck) and the Doc almost succumbs.

The action of the production is swift and efficient thanks to Deb Williams’ direction. The cast is large and uses many children, several are very young and one is almost a babe in arms.

 Comment. Crow Hill: The Telephone Play was first done at 4th Line Theatre in 1997. It was revived in 2004 (where I first saw it) and again this year. When I first saw it the charm of the location and the sweetness of the story made for an enchanting evening. Now that I have seen it again and looked harder at the play, it seems a bit padded.

The scenes that deal directly with the importance of the telephone to the community in general and Doc Logie in particular are thoughtful and sharply realized. But too often the play veers off into tangential territory and that bogs down the play: Hugh Cameron, Alice’s brother is a terrible alcoholic because of the demons about his time fighting in WWII; There’s a whole scene with a ‘witch’ in the neighbourhood who gives him some medical advice using herbs; there is a short scene when the employees  at a rival phone company go on strike. They want more money. Do we ever hear if they got it? Hurricane Hazel makes an appearance just so that a few patients can fight the blowing wind to get into Doc Logie’s Model T. These scenes that veer off the main theme just make the play longer and not necessarily better. Judicious cutting should have been in order.

Still if you have never been to 4th Line Theatre, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

4th Line Theatre Presents:

 Began: July 3, 2018.

Closes: July 28, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

4thlinetheatre.on.ca

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At the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Music by Richard Rodgers

Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Based on the novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon

Directed by Bartlett Sher

Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli

Based on the Original Choreography by Jerome Robbins

Sets by Michael Yeargan

Costumes by Catherine Zuber

Lighting by Donald Holder

Sound by Scott Lehrer

Cast: Joan Almedilla

Jose Llana

Q Lim

Charlie Oh

Kavin Panmeechao

Brian Rivera

Elena Shaddow

Ryan Stout

Baylen Thomas

And a fine chorus

A lush beautiful looking production that is beautifully sung but could use a visit with the director to put some zip into some performances and tone down others.

The Story. The story is based on the novel, Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, which in turn was based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens. In the 1860s Anna Leonowens, British, a widow with a young son, went to Siam (now Thailand) to be the teacher of the King’s children and wives. He wanted Anna to teach them English and western customs. He was forward thinking but there were aspects of that culture that bothered Anna: the King was allowed multiple wives, women were subservient, people had to bow low to him, brutality was a punishment. Occasionally Anna and the King sparred over various points. They did have a grudging respect for one another. Although she references a letter he sent to her assuring her her own house which he seems to have forgotten. I always wondered why Anna didn’t just present the letter—seems so obvious to have brought it with her. But then I guess the musical would have been much shorter.

The Production. Michael Yeargan’s simple set of moveable maroon pillars creates the size and grandeur of the palace. A huge Buddha in one of the rooms in the palace also adds to the size of the place.  Catherine Zuber’s beautiful costumes capture the exoticism of the people of Siam.

Director Bartlett Sher is a master of surprise with his penchant for coup de theatre. The production gets off to a dazzling start with Anna (Elena Shaddow) and her son Louis’ (Ryan Stout) arriving  by boat (and that’s all I’ll say).  There is majesty in her arrival and also the sense of the crowded world of Siam.

Sher is a careful, detail-minded director. What is going on at the back of a scene with members of the court is as important as what is going on in the centre of the scene with the leads. Much is made of the many wives of the King. They all sit up stage  Some are in favour and some are not. Those not in favour  lower their heads slightly in embarrassment. Those in favour sit up with their heads high. It’s such a small detail but it is so telling both about the court and Sher’s meticulous attention to detail

Elena Shaddow is confident and charming as Anna. She has a lovely voice, but I sense a tentativeness in her singing and at times her acting seems subdued. She does stand up to the King when he is demanding but she could be more ‘engaged’ in the scenes as a whole. Jose Llama is a very confident, proud King. There is no doubt he is in control and command as he struts into and out of scenes, usually with his hands on his hips. He has a strong voice but I find that he looses his temper too much. This weakens the idea that the King is a forward thinking monarch who ponders each question and ‘puzzlement’ with deliberation. (This tour of the celebrated 2015 Lincoln Center production has been on the road for two years. Perhaps a visit from Bartlett Sher is in order to get the production into tighter shape.)

Joan Almedilla is outstanding as Lady Thiang, the King’s favourite wife. She has regal bearing and you can see the political savvy of the woman in knowing how the politics of the palace works and what the King needs to really govern. And her singing of “Something Wonderful” is something wonderful.

Comment. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II have written some of the most successful musicals of all time, that certainly don’t shy away from difficult problems: Carousel (wife-beating and blind love), South Pacific (mixed-marriage, racism) Oklahoma (racism, xenophobia, mental illness), The Sound of Music (invading Nazis,–although the lyric “like a lark who is learning to pray” has always caused me concern.) And The King and I is no different. They have created the world of Siam in 1860 where the culture and ideas of Eastern thinking clash with Western thinking; where polygamy is the norm, as is brutality if a subject commits a wrong.  How does one approach this thinking in 2018? I think the most logical solution is to consider The King and I and any musical from another era for its time and not get bent out of shape imposing our 2018 sensibilities on to it.

The ideas of the King towards his subjects and his wives are often objectionable. Do we dismiss the musical outright because it doesn’t conform to our modern way of thinking? No, we consider it from its historic perspective and how times have changed. And the fact that the music is ravishing and there are at least seven classic songs in the score.

David Mirvish Presents:

Plays until: Aug. 12, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, approx.

www.mirvish.com

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Orlando

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

Written by Virginia Woolf

Adapted by Sarah Ruhl

Directed by Katrina Darychuk

Set and lighting by Lorenzo Savoini

Costumes by Gillian Gallow

Sound and composed by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Sarah Afful

Maev Beaty

John Jarvis

Craig Lauzon

Alex McCooeye

This is a perfect example of how a beautifully written, densely described book does not necessarily translate to the stage, no matter how talented the playwright. A deadly production regardless of the fancy-footwork of the director.

 The Story. It’s about Orlando who lived for about 400 years ago first as a man beginning in the time of Queen Elizabeth I until he was 30 and then as a woman for the rest of her life into the 20th century. What Virginia Woolf is writing about is an entire history of English Literature, history, philosophy, politics, and sexual politics as seen through the eyes and experienced through the mind and body of Orlando.

He was born a boy into privilege in the time of Elizabeth 1, who fancied him.  He fell in love with a Russian princess of sorts named Sasha.  When Orlando was 30 he went to sleep and woke up as a woman and remained so for three centuries. She never changed her name.  She fell in love and married but her husband’s sexuality might have been in question too.

The Production. American playwright Sarah Ruhl has adapted the book into a play. The story is told as narrative in the third person by various characters. Occasionally Orlando  interacts directly with other characters and so the story gets told in various ways, but mostly as narrative and direct conversation to the audience.

The director, Katrina Darychuk has the audience on three sides of a rectangular playing in the middle of the theatre. Lorenzo Savoini, the set and lighting designer has a blotch of something shiny, seemingly liquid on the stage. Perhaps it represents the water of the Thames or ice the few times in its history that the Thames froze. There is a wall with a door suspended a bit above the floor. It looks impressive but I don’t know why it’s suspended. There is one chair outside the playing area that is one of the few props. Members of the chorus who also play characters are positioned at each corner of the rectangular playing area: one in a dark suit with a ruffled shirt, one in a regular suit, one in what looks like a monks robe.  Gillian Gallow’s costumes are stylish even witty. At one point Orlando is helped out of her tight 19th century women’s corsets and form-fitting clothes into the more flowing garb of the 20th century where she can be clothed comfortably and can actually breathe easy.

The various members of the chorus describe Orlando at sixteen and how he was born into privilege. The words of Virginia Woolf are used for the narrative and they are highly literary and dense in their description. We learn that Orlando is a courtier in the court of Elizabeth 1 and those scenes are acted out between Orlando, played by an expressive, courtly Sarah Afful. Elizabeth 1 is played with prissy affectation by John Jarvis in pants, an auburn wig, with a corset of sorts around his middle. You can see how besotted Orlando is when he meets and falls in love with the mysterious Russian princess, Sasha, played with flirty coyness by Maev Beaty, in skin-tight leather pants.

So much of Virginia Woolf’s novel is densely descriptive and yet compelling. But this does not translate into a vibrant play. In fact the play is deadly dull when great swaths of the narrative are presented in tact in the play.  And these actors are dull conveying the narrative as well.  They are good actors in other plays but here they are defeated by the play.

It’s directed by Katrina Darychuk who is a member of the Soulpepper Academy as a director—in other words she’s advancing her training here. She’s not ready for such a difficult play. She has stuffed her production with all manner of techno bells and whistles, flashing lights, balloons suspended above the stage only to be pricked for effect by a character. None of it helps to tell the story or make this leaden play lighter.

Comment.  Virginia Woolf was exploring sexuality in various guises in Orlando among other subjects. She dedicated the book to Vita Sackville-West, her one-time lover, whose life forms the framework for Orlando. Vita Sackville-West was married to a man but had affairs with women. It’s a dense book, full of long descriptions and musings.

Virginia Woolf has written a fascinating, complex novel about gender issues, literature, science and the world and as a novel it’s compelling. Sarah Ruhl has tried to take that compelling novel and make it an equally compelling play and it doesn’t work.

She is a gifted playwright, but sometimes even gifted writers stumble.  Orlando is a big stumble and this production doesn’t help.

 

Presented by Soulpepper Theatre Company

Plays until July 29, 2018.

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes, including one intermission.

www.soulpepper.ca

 

Pygmalion

At the Guild Park and Gardens, Scarborough, Ont.

Written by George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Jeannette Lambermont-Morey

Set and costumes by Rachel Forbes

Music director, Micaela Morey

Lighting by Cosette Pin

Cast: Devon Bryan

Shane Carty

Manon Ens-LaPointe

Tracey Ferencz

Emma Ferreira

Siobhan O’Malley

David John Phillips

Ashlie White

“Eynsford Hill” (Band): Manon Ens-LaPointe

Emma Ferreira

Ashlie White.

Generally a thoughtful, smart production of Shaw’s wonderful play that skewers the British class system and the importance of kindness in shaping a person.

The Story. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw is perhaps Shaw’s most popular play, about a common flower girl in Covent Garden, London, England who is taught by Professor Henry Higgins how to speak properly and behave beautifully and it changes her life.  Professor Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics, wagers that he can teach Eliza to speak properly and then present her at a garden party at Buckingham Palace. It’s the basis of the Lerner and Loewe musical My Fair Lady.

This of course references the Greek story of Pygmalion, a sculptor who creates a statue of a beautifully woman falls in love with it.

The Production. It’s being presented out doors at the beautiful Guild Park and Gardens in front of a kind of Grecian façade, in Scarborough. They had a terrific turnout and there were even some kids in the audience. The setting is beautiful but bring bug spray. Chairs are set up for the audience.

This is full of Shaw’s wit, perception about society, politics and psychology of people and how they relate. He skewers the British class system and how a plumy accent will get you promoted and a working class accent will keep one in the gutter. It’s about how to treat a person for the best results.

Higgins is off-handed, often short-tempered and rude to Eliza and generally everybody except Pickering. Shane Carty plays Higgins with confidence, perhaps a touch of arrogance and a simmering irritation at most things.  Higgins doesn’t care about anybody’s feelings and is a man who does not quite fit in to ordinary society. But there are clues that Higgins does have feelings and certainly for Eliza.  Carty is able to pop off those bon-mots about how he treats everybody the same—badly. He behaves badly when he’s crossed or challenged.  He’s a fascinating character and Shane Carty brings that out.

Pickering does care about everybody in the kindest way.  It’s not the first time in his plays that Shaw has said that the most important aspect of an interaction between characters is kindness.

Colonel Pickering (David John Phillips) is Higgins’ partner in this endeavor and the person who made the wager. Pickering treats Eliza with the utmost respect and courtesy and in a way taught her the manners she develops in the play. David John Phillips as Pickering is courtly, gracious and gentlemanly to all he meets, especially Eliza.

A lovely surprise is newcomer Siobhan O’Malley as Eliza Doolittle.  She is feisty without being screechy, a woman of character with plenty of pluck. As the transformed Eliza, O’Malley is poised, confident and able to spar with Higgins on his level.

I look forward to seeing more work from her.

Henry Higgins’ mother Mrs. Higgins as played by Tracy Ferencz has style, class and consideration, qualities that have not been passed on to her disagreeable son. Ferencz also plays Mrs. Pearce the no-nonsense housekeeper with a sweet conscience.

Director Jeannette Lambermont-Morey has done a lovely, smart job of directing this with clarity and imagination.  It’s a delicate dance establishing the prickly relationship between Higgins and Eliza, and the kind, respectful relationship between Pickering and Eliza but Lambermont-Morey does it beautifully. She uses the space well, solves the tricky ending of the play and gets strong performances from her cast.  So while this is a fine production in this idyllic setting but I have a few concerns.

Janet Heise is the producer for this show and before she told us to turn off our cell-phones she gave us about a 10 minute history of the park and the Grecian pillars. That history lesson should be cut.  Save it for a tour or a note in the program but giving this speech before a play we are to see is deadly to the whole enterprise.

Also, Director Jeannette Lambermont-Morey and her hard working musical director Micaela Morey have a trio of singers who play roles in the play. Collectively they are called “Eynsford Hill”, and sing four songs before the production, beginning with “Scarborough Fair” as a tip of the hat to Scarborough, where the play is taking place. Perhaps the songs are to get us in the mood for the play.

This is a mistake. We don’t need music to get us in the mood. The play does that. These songs only stop things in their tracks along with the history lesson. And “Eynsford Hill” also provides musical sound effects during some scenes. It’s distracting.  All the music should be cut.  We don’t need to be put in the mood with music. The songs only delay the proceedings. Other than that, I was glad I drove to Scarborough to see this production.

Guild Festival Theatre presents:

Began: July 11, 2018.

Closes: August 12, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes  (approx)

https://www.guildfestivaltheatre.ca/

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