The Passionate Playgoer

At the Elgin Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Book by Craig Lucas
Based on the original novel “Madame Sousatzka” by Bernice Rubens
Music by David Shire
Lyrics by David Maltby, Jr.
Additional Vocal Arrangements and Music by Lebo M
Directed by Adrian Noble
Choreography by Graciela Daniele
Set by Anthony Ward
Costumes by Paul Tazewell
Lighting by Howell Binkley
Sound by Martin Levan
Projection design by Jon Driscoll
Cast: Ryan Allen
Jordan Barrow
Victoria Clark
Rebecca Eichenberger
Sara Jean Ford
John Hillner
Judy Kaye
Virginia Preston
Christianne Tisdale
Nicky Wyman

The production is overproduced; over-written with too many storylines, many of which should be cut and too many extraneous songs that should also be cut. However the singing of Victoria Clark as Sousatzka, Judy Kaye as the Countess and Montego Glover as the mother, is glorious.

The Story. Sousatzka is based on the 1962 novel Madame Sousatzka by Bernice Rubens and not on the 1988 film starring Shirley MacLaine. The novel is set in London. It’s about Madame Sousatzka, an eccentric Polish piano teacher and her gifted student Marcus, the son of a single mother from Eastern Europe.

But in the musical, Sousatzka, this simple story has been fiddled with to such an extent that it’s just chocking with storylines, many of which are not developed or are eye-poppingly incredible. Playwright Craig Lucas has made several changes and additions for the musical Sousatzka (I guess copyright rules prevented the producers from using the clearer title of Madame Sousatzka. Sousatzka doesn’t really tell ticket buyers much about the show).

The setting is still London but it begins in South Africa in 1976 during the uprisings against apartheid. A man named Jabulani Khenketha leads a group of black South Africans seeking justice but are shot at by the police. Several people are killed and Jabulani is sent to prison for treason. His wife Xholiswa Khenketha and their young son, Themba leave South Africa and make a dangerous journey to London (1983) and a better life. Themba is now the gifted student of Madame Sousatzka.

Over the course of the show we see Madame Sousatzka’s back story—family wiped out by the Nazis in Warsaw, Poland (1938) and there are other horrors she experiences as well. There are the back stories of the rest of the people who live in the boarding house with Madame Sousatzka; Themba is torn between his cultural attachment to South Africa and the transplanted South Africans in London and his awakening to another kind of life involving Madame Sousatzka and her odd friends. Themba becomes attached to Sarah, a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed ballerina in his school which does not go down too well with his mother. Themba is also conflicted with who he is as a person and the music he wants to follow. And of course as Themba becomes accomplished Madame Sousatzka worries that he will leave her on his way to success. Lots too digest.

The Production. In the musical world you set the tone, mood and idea of a musical in the first five minutes of the show. In the first five minutes of Sousatzka we are in Soweto, South Africa, 1976 (this is projected on the back wall of the stage) at a rally against apartheid led by Jabulani, Themba’s father. Several traditional South African songs are sung by a throng in full voice including the South African national anthem and an anti-apartheid song. (I wish there was a projected translation of the songs so we could get the full benefit of their meaning.) Police shoot; people are dead and there is a court case with three very angry prosecutors screaming their verdict as Jabulani is put in prison. There is the escape of Themba and his mother to London where most of the musical takes place, except for those scenes that go off to other places.

This musical does not know what it wants to be it’s so confused. It doesn’t know if it wants to be a rousing South Africa story—though that gets the audience ‘up’ and excited–or an otherwise ‘quiet’ ordinary story in London with some lovely ballads. .

I found Anthony Ward’s set oddly designed and often oppressive. Too often there is a backdrop that goes up a bit higher than the actors on stage that establishes where we are—Sousatzka’s flat, Xholiswa’s London flat, etc., but above that is darkness. It’s as if the actors are playing the scene in a cave.

The South Africa scenes have the benefit of an impressive rising sun etc. thanks to the projections by Jon Driscoll, but for the most part there is a sense of gloom because of the odd design by Antony Ward. Strange because he’s a fine designer.

While Craig Lucas’s book is choking with too many story-lines he has captured the deep devotion that Sousatzka has to music. Lucas has also captured her quirkiness in telling Themba how to feel the music and let it play. In Themba we get a sense of the depth of his character.

For all the problems with this show, there are some bright spots. Victoria Clark as Madame Sousatzka is a gift of an actress. She captures the eccentric oddness of Sousatzka, her confidence, her fire and in her quiet moments, her uncertainty. And she sings like a dream. Clark is a true, clear, rich soprano who knows how to interpret the heart and soul of a song. She sings the beautiful song “Music Is In You” to convey that love of music to Themba.

Clark is ably matched by Judy Kaye as the Countess, a woman with a heart of gold and a keeper of many secrets. Kaye also sings beautifully. One of the best moments is their duet on “Let Go” a beautiful song about coming to terms with knowing when to let a person in your life go on to other things. Both are glorious singers and lovely actors.

Jordan Barrow as Themba has passion and charm. You get the sense of his growing confidence and confliction of where he should be in the world. He has poise and ability to handle this tricky part. Montego Glover as his mother Xholiswa also sings beautifully and is a fine actress. She conveys the pride and stubbornness in wanting the best for her son. And she does a rousing rendition of “Song of the Child” that is thrilling, until you realise that the song is oddly placed as if it was dropped in the story like an errant piece of lint. It’s an important song and should be better placed.

But too often one wondered what was up with all those songs? The music is by David Shire. The lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. Additional music is by Lebo M who has written the rousing South Africa portion. (All have done better work elsewhere.) There are 16 songs in the first act and 17 in the second with about 16 songs taking place in South Africa. Many of them should be cut because they are sung by people we don’t know or in situations that can’t support them. It’s as if the creators are determined to beat us into submission with too many story lines and too many songs.

Adrian Noble’s direction is pedestrian at best. He shows us the individual people in Sousatzka’s house involved in their activities: a man manipulates a client (he’s an osteopath), a young woman manipulates a client, (she’s a prostitute). What’s missing is who they actually are for context. Songs are often sung full out to the audience, or speeches addressed to them but not the people the speech is meant for. So old fashioned.

Graciela Daniele’s choreography for the South African scenes is lively and acrobatic. When there are scenes in Xholiswa’s flat that is cause for more rousing singing—there are usually at least 20 people there—Daniele has them gyrating to a seductive beat.

So many people associated with this jumble of a show have done good work elsewhere. You want to ask, “What happened here? Are you too close to see you need a scissors to cut out swaths of this clutter?”

Themba might have a “Brand New Family” but that song comes from no where about people we know nothing about. Cut it.

Themba has enough on his plate to contend with besides also having to deal with a blonde, blue-eyed girlfriend ballet dancer since nothing of that relationship is developed. It’s just plopped in and it’s cheesy. Cut it. Cut the ridiculous number “All I Wanna Do (Is Go Dancin”) because it veers away from the central plot.

When Themba goes to a soiree at the home of the man who will arrange a concert for him, that is not cause for a production number of “Manders Salon” of the snotty, bigoted people invited there. The song is clever for no reason and the message of it has been handled better elsewhere in the show. Cut it.

While Judy Kaye sings “Ring One Bell” beautifully about a Christmas in Warsaw, the song comes from no where and is supported by nothing and veers away from the plot. Sorry, cut it.

And while the incredulous ending might make one think this is a happy ending it’s just another eye-rolling moment in a show full of them.

Comment. Craig Lucas’s book of Sousatzka seems like a checklist of the ills of the 20th century—apartheid, the Holocaust, rape, racism, bigotry and interracial relations to name a few—and it makes the whole enterprise seem disingenuous. It’s as if the creators were taking a basically simple story and puffing it up to look important and substantial. And it’s neither.

Sousatzka marks the return of Garth Drabinsky to theatre producing after an absence of 15 years, some of which was spent in jail because of fraud. His intention is to send this to Broadway in the fall. If Garth Drabinsky thinks this new production is Broadway material he’s 20 years out of date. This production has been kicking around on Drabinsky’s bucket list for years and in that time it doesn’t seem that he’s noticed that Broadway has changed. These over-blown, bloated productions have passed their ‘best-by-date.” Song after song is bellowed out giving a false sense of ‘tingle’ and a distinct sense of being manipulated.

There are 11 roles in Sousatzka with a stuffed cast of 48 (and many of them should be cut.) In true Drabinsky fashion all the creative people on this show are either American or British. All the speaking roles are American. Of the cast of 48 only 16 are Canadian and they are relegated to the chorus. I have seen many of those Canadians in the chorus in lead roles in shows across the country, but you won’t find that in a Garth Drabinsky show. The message is clear: Canadians aren’t good enough for a creative or speaking role in a Drabinsky show.

Sousatzka was work shopped in Toronto (where the dollar is weak) and has its only run here before it hopes to go to Broadway in the fall. I would like to think this is one case that Drabinsky will not tell us (Canadians, Torontonians) how lucky we are that this show started here.


Teatro Proscenium Limited Parnership and Sousatzka Broadway Limited Partnership present a Garth Drabinsky Production:

Opened: March 23, 2017
Closes: April 9, 2017.
Cast: 48; 4; men, 8 women and a lot of chorus.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes.


At the Elgin Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Book by Craig Lucas
Based on the original novel “Madame Sousatzka”
Music by David Shire
Lyrics by David Maltby, Jr.
Additional Vocal Arrangements and Music by Lebo M
Directed by Adrian Noble
Choreography by Graciela Daniele
Set by Anthony Ward
Costumes by Paul Tazewell
Lighting by Howell Binkley
Sound by Martin Levan
Cast: Ryan Allen
Jordan Barrow
Victoria Clark
Rebecca Eichenberger
Sara Jean Ford
John Hillner
Judy Kaye
Virginia Preston
Christianne Tisdale
Nicky Wyman

Sousatzka is about an eccentric piano teacher named Madame Sousatzka and her gifted student, Themba. The production is overproduced; over-written with too many storylines, many of which should be cut; too many extraneous songs that should also be cut. Setting it in London and South Africa with a checklist of the ills of the 20th century—apartheid, the Holocaust, rape, racism, bigotry, and interracial relations to name a few—makes the whole thing seem disingenuous.

Craig Lucas (book) David Shire (music), Richard Maltby Jr. (lyrics) have all done better work elsewhere. The additional music by Lebo M is rousing.

Adrian Noble’s direction is pedestrian. I found the set (Anthony Ward) oddly designed and often oppressive. He too has done better work elsewhere. (what has happened to you people??!!)

If Garth Drabinsky thinks this production is Broadway material he’s 20 years out of date.

The saving graces are Victoria Clark as Madame Sousatzka and Judy Kaye as the Countess. Both are glorious singers and lovely actors. Jordan Barrow as Themba has passion and charm. And Montego Glover as his mother also sings beautifully and is a fine actress. I was so grateful for them.

But to the rest—feh.

Full review to follow. I will review this on CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm on Friday, March 24 from 9 am to 10 am.


Review: CAGE

by Lynn on March 23, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

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

Created and performed by Diego Matamoros, Richard Feren, Lorenzo Savoini
Sound by Richard Feren
Production designed by Lorenzo Savoini
Choreographed by Shannon Litzengerger

Cage is part of the Soulpepper Solo Series, along with Crawlspace, Crash and I’m doing This For You.

From the website: Cage “inspired by apes, Zen Buddhism, and the ideas of avant-garde composer (philosopher) John Cage, this experimental mediation on time, space, memory, and the human animal, is performed by Soulpepper Founding Member Diego Matamoros and co-created with designers Lorenzo Savoini and Richard Feren.”

From the program note by Lorenzo Savoini: “Our goal was to create something that was the result of chance encounters between various disciplines that would be governed by a structure with all three of us active performers (thought to different degrees). Space themes, objects, text, performance, lighting, video projection and sound were all equal participants intersecting and juxtaposing one another as they created an abstract collage of experience.”

The audience sits on four sides of the playing area. The space is lined with electronic equipment, computers, microphones, a table with a kettle and four small glasses on it; another table with a various noise making things plus a bowl of ping-pong balls. Etc. in the middle of the space is an eight-foot glass cubicle. Projections will appear on the four walls behind the audience over the course of the play.

A projection indicates we are in a time at the end of language. First darkness, then lights flicker, then more effects. This goes on for some time, perhaps 4 minutes and 33 seconds (a time frame that is important to the work of John Cage—yippee for Wikipedia)–but Cage is really not referenced until the end). It’s interesting watching, pondering and experiencing the creative imagination of the creators of the show, certainly in this segment. If anything the whole show and the performers are ‘caged’ by time. Held captive by it.

The stage manager, Arwen MacDonell, Richard Feren and Lorenzo Savoini enter. Feren begins by using various objects to make noise. A large projection appears on the walls noting the times that each scene lasts. Feren checks this carefully. He bounces ping-pong balls; he twirls a tube to make a noise; he rattles something for another noise.

When Diego Matamoros appears, barefoot in a cream coloured suit and no shirt, he carefully walks amongst the ping-pong balls on the floor. A projection of a gorilla? An ape? appears on the walls. Matamoros walks around the cube and begins telling a story about being six and the son of a diplomat and his wife. The story changes and varies as he walks around the cube. He enters the cube and Matamoros assumes the physicality and expressions of an ape. He gyrates on the floor like an ape. He swings from a beam. Quite impressive. Only at the end is there a quote projected on the wall referencing John Cage, about being free, mediation I believe, and freeing oneself to experience things to the fullest. The creators also reference Zen Buddhism.

The creators want us to experience the happening of the show. So when the performers all leave the stage, after waiting 4:33 minutes of drinking tea, waiting, meditating, the audience can experience the confusion of wondering if it’s over or not. And to applaud or not. And to leave.

They can also consider Cage to be an intriguing experience seeing how the creators thought and what components to include and where and when. Or they can consider Cage to be pretentious twaddle.

Soulpepper Presents:

Opened: March 21, 2017.
Closes: March 25, 2017.
Running Time: 65 minutes.


At Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written and performed by Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson
Original music by Britta Johnson
Original lyrics by Britta Johnson and Katherine Cullen
Directed by Aaron Willis
Set and costumes by Anahita Dehbonehie
Lighting by Jennifer Lennon

That’s right, a musical comedy about dyslexia, that has wonderful music, clever lyrics and two beguiling performances by Katherine Cullen, who tells her story and Britta Johnson who beautifully supports her at the piano and in many other ways.

The Story. Actress-playwright Katherine Cullen has always had a dream of doing a musical. By her own admission two things might have stood in her way towards realizing this dream: lack of training and ability. These are mere triflings when you consider the sheer force of nature, personality and determination that is Katherine Cullen. Fine tuning this determination is that Cullen has been painfully aware she is dyslexic since grade three when insensitive teachers and ‘friends’ have indicated she was different because of it. What a perfect subject for a musical.

Katherine Cullen takes us through her angst-ridden journey of coping with dyslexia. Hers is unusual because her reading is not that affected. She has difficulty with maths and spatial situations. She has no sense of direction. Finding the bathroom in public school posed a dilemma which she thought about and solved in her own way. There is the fear of making mistakes and being wrong. There is also the Cullen quirky sense of humour and determination that helps her cope when matters go off the rails.

The Performance. The set by Anahita Dehbonehie is simple and effective in establishing a sense of what Katherine Cullen has to contend with regarding dyslexia. There is a white ‘fluffy’ structure suspended above the stage which is obviously a brain. It will be cleverly used later in the show. In front of that, also suspended, is a jumble of red tubing that twists and turns, that is representative of the jumbled messages that get garbled in the brain of a person with dyslexia.

Stage left is a piano with a floral covering in front of it, the domain of Britta Johnson, musician-composer-lyricist extraordinaire and Katherine Cullen’s creative partner for Stupidhead! Britta Johnson composed the music (every song of which I want to hear again—I wish there was a song list) and co-wrote the lyrics. She is dressed in a red dress. When Johnson plays the introduction that should get Katherine Cullen to appear and she doesn’t, Johnson has to bring her out to centre stage, firmly but kindly. Cullen is a picture of impishness: two tight pigtails at the top of her head, a red sweater, black stretch ‘leather’ pants and black boots.

Her performance is beguiling. While Cullen has sober memories of dealing with her disappointments because of dyslexia she tells her story in a funny, irreverent, whimsical way. Britta Johnson not only accompanies Cullen beautifully on the piano, she listens to her as if for the first time and she is usually smiling as a genuine reaction. That reaction of Johnson’s is infectious. The songs detail difficulties for Cullen, disappointments, triumphs and inspirational advice (“Don’t Give Up). The lyrics are wonderfully clever.

Director Aaron Willis directs Cullen with a smart sense of when stillness is effective and when wild dancing is appropriate. Willis puts Cullen through her paces for a person who is directionally challenged. He has her shifting to the left, right, back and then in various directions. What we are aware of is a performer in control and full of the joy of it.

If I have a quibble it’s that it looks like the show ends at least twice. At one point Cullen sings a song with two of her childhood toys who exhort her to “Never Give Up.” That’s is the mantra for Cullen and this show. She is the successful actress-playwright because of that attitude. Yet the show goes on for a bit longer before it ends. I think ending with “Never Give Up” is a stronger finish.

Comment. One might assume that for Katherine Cullen dyslexia is at the top of her list of things that might define her. For those lucky enough to have seen her perform (and hear the words she’s written) Katherine Cullen is gifted, impish, funny, irreverent, confident, successful, composed, joyful and a thousand other things more important that a diagnosis of dyslexia. Stupidhead she is not. The show is wonderful.

Presented by Theatre Passe Muraille

Opened: March 21m 2017.
Closes: April 2, 2017.
Cast: 2 gifted women.
Running Time: 90 minutes.


At the Factory Studio Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written and directed by Rob Kempson
Set and costumes by Anna Treusch
Lighting by Kaileigh Krysztofiak
Sound by Andy Trithardt
Cast: Alison Deon
Daniel Ellis
Rose Napoli

The last in a trilogy of plays dealing with power in education and the various dilemmas that arise when students, parents and teachers engage and clash. Rob Kempson always creates challenging situations in his plays. Lots to ponder in this one.

The Story. Gabriella is a single parent and a math teacher. She is ready to go a bit wild and joins the world of Instagram with the intension of hooking up with a man for some dating fun. She has met someone on the internet and a rendezvous has been arranged. Gabriella is thrilled with the constant tweets and notices from her impending date. Her friend Susan is a substitute teacher and guidance counsellor in the same school where Gabriella teaches. She is single and pregnant. There is no man involved. Susan wants to be a parent and went to a clinic so that could happen naturally. Jackson is a teenager in the school where both women teach. He is not doing well in trigonometry and needs a high mark in order to win a sports scholarship. Gabriella is Jackson’s math teacher. The three characters are joined in their own way like a triangle.

The Production. The set by Anna Treusch is terrific. The audience is on either side of the playing area. Extensive mathematical formulae are painted in white on one (black) wall and over most of the (black) floor of the playing area. There is a long table in the centre of the space and a chair. As Susan, Alison Deon sits in the chair nibbling her sandwich. Susan is obviously pregnant and is hungry all the time. I’ve never seen a grownup nibble as sparingly as Alison Deon does on that sandwich. Just an observation. As Gabriella, Rose Napoli bursts into the room, cell phone in hand, thumbing out her messages and texts, delighting in every reply. Napoli is gleeful and pre-occupied with her Instagram friend but still gives Susan some of her attention.

When Gabriella interacts with Jackson, Napoli is formidable. Sharp, abrasive, almost condescending and combative. Jackson has put Gabriella in a corner and she fights like a tiger to get out of it. As Jackson, Daniel Ellis has that easy grace of a teen in control, who knows how to navigate his techno world at the expense of someone who doesn’t. Jackson has that sense of entitlement that is exasperating and frightening because the education system has changed to the point that the student and the unseen parents have the power. Jackson is also in his own tight corner. He needs to get that scholarship or his parents will really put the screws on him, or so he says to his teachers. In his dealings with Susan Jackson again regains the upper hand. He is not insecure when he faces her, even when she drops her bombshell of information. He is in control. Alison Deon, as Susan on the other hand is hesitant, awkward and certainly at a disadvantage. If I have a quibble, it’s that Rob Kempson has written Susan as too awkward and stammering. Her inarticulation slows down the pace and makes the scene frustrating to listen to. I don’t think that’s the intent. I can appreciate that Susan is certainly in an awkward position when dealing with Jackson but I think with less stammering and inarticulation, the same effect can be achieved and still grip the audience.

Rob Kempson also directs his play. He does it with great style and pacing that accelerates over the fast 75 minutes of the play. He knows how to establish each dynamic of this triangle.

Comment. I wish my high school trigonometry class, eons ago, was as bracing, intriguing and compelling as Rob Kempson’s play Trigonometry. This is the third in his Graduation Plays. In each play he creates a series of problems with a different focus but always set in the world of education. Kempson knows whereof he speaks because not only is he an accomplished playwright, he is also a substitute teacher in the education system.

Kempson has packed Trigonometry full of dilemmas that each character in this triangle creates for the others. Is it too much? Perhaps, but the result certainly leaves one with a lot to ponder in trying to figure out how various situations could be solved or dealt with. He certainly has created a world that is frighteningly credible. With Jackson we see a savvy student who almost defines a sense of entitlement. He is tech smart and knows how to navigate that world. Gabriella is the neophyte navigating the internet and Instagram world without a clear sense of the implications. But in her world as teacher she is formidable. Susan is emotionally needy. All three play the other in shifting the angles on this triangle. Sometimes it’s breathtaking in the execution. It is always engrossing.

Timeshare Presents:

First performance: March 16, 2017.
I saw it: March 18, 2017.
Closes: March 25, 2017.
Cast: 3; 1 man, 2 women
Running Time: 75 minutes.


At the Streetcar Crowsnest Guloien Theatre, Carlaw and Dundas, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Sean Dixon
Directed by Vicki Anderson
Set and costumes by Joanna Yu
Lighting by Siobhan Sleath
Sound by John Gzowski
Cast: Shawn Doyle
Daniela Vlaskalic

A powerful play and production of waiting, longing and explosive emotion.

The Story. Natalie and Joe work for the city in the department that removes damaged trees. They are waiting for the crew and the rig that will help them take down a beautiful tree that Natalie says looks fine and Joe is sure is infested with termites. In the meantime they wait. They banter. They check their e-mails. They confide, confess, reveal their innermost thoughts. Joe is an awkward man with stereotypical ideas of women but seems sensitive to Natalie’s situation. Natalie is grieving the death of her mother with whom she did not have the closest relationship. Her late mother was a nurse. Natalie wears her mother’s stethoscope around her neck like a cherished necklace. Joe has pictures of his nephews and nieces on his phone. He is single and holds his family dear. Natalie seems to fancy Joe in her quiet way. Initially he seems oblivious but that changes.

The Production. It seems that the ubiquitous Joanna Yu has designed the set and costumes for almost all the show that have opened recently—an exaggeration of course, but boy has she been busy: The Millennial Malcontent, Sequence, The Circle, John and Waleed, James and the Giant Peach, Freedom Singer, Passing Strange, The Enchanted Loom, and that’s just some of them.

For The Orange Dot she has created a low stone wall/ledge that stands in front of the solid tree trunk (suggesting a larger, more majestic tree) that has to come down. An artful abstract tree house springs up from the top of the tree trunk.

Natalie arrives first. She looks at the tree destined for destruction and takes out her spray can of orange paint and sprays an orange dot on the tree signifying this is the one meant for chopping down. She takes out a banana from her lunch box and begins to munch away as she waits for Joe, who comes along, talking on his cell phone.

The echo of >Waiting for Godot is obvious in Sean Dixon’s play The Orange Dot. In Waiting for Godot there is a road. A tree. And two tramps who wait for someone named Godot to arrive, but never comes. In The Orange Dot Natalie and Joe—dressed in official workers’ coveralls and florescent coloured vests and markings– wait on the stone wall/ledge for the crew to arrive with the rig in order to cut down the tree. Rather than sprouting a leaf/leaves, the tree ‘sprouts’ a tree house. While a carrot is eaten in Waiting for Godot, Natalie enjoys a banana while waiting for Joe to arrive.

Natalie is enamoured of the majestic tree. Both she and Joe look up to take in the full expanse of the tree although what is on the stage is a smaller version, but with that stage business of looking way up (kudos to director Vicki Anderson) we realize the majesty and height of the tree. Natalie laments and questions that it has to be destroyed. Joe replies with kindness that it is probably infested with termites. Joe relaxes on the ledge of the wall by lying out; his head rests on his hard hat.

Natalie is not as relaxed. She is restless. She paces; seems unsettled—of course she is shaken by the death of her mother. But there is more. Emotions escalate between the two as Natalie is more and more agitated and Joe tries to understand where that is coming from. He calls her Nate which she resents. One senses she wants him to look at her as a woman and not just a overall-wearing colleague. It could be misplaced anger at the loss of her mother. But as the emotion of the scene increases and a torrent of dialogue pours out of Natalie there is a line that takes the breath away: “ I regret my life.” It’s a line that pierces the heart.

Director Vicki Anderson and her fine cast navigate the deep waters of Sean Dixon’s moving, compelling play of life, loss, beauty and regret with careful, fearless attention. As Natalie, Daniela Vlaskalic has the ungainly body-language of a person in stiff overalls, ready to do hard physical labour. But Vlasklic beautifully conveys the many conflicted emotions of Natalie, her uncertainty, her profound sadness and frustration in not knowing how to overcome her regret. Vlaskalic also holds our attention tight when Natalie’s emotions become so focused that they lead her down a frightening path. Shawn Doyle as Joe makes a welcome return to the stage after many years absence as he carved out a career in television and film. Joe is confident, moves with a bit of a swagger, but is not arrogant. He loves to banter with Natalie. They have a comfortable relationship. He is at odds as to how to really treat a woman, and she subtly challenges him about his attitude. It’s interesting to see how confident he is in himself but how she keeps him a bit unsteady, from how he treats her to her not wanting him to call her Nate, as if that denies her femininity. If I have a quibble, it’s that at times Doyle tends to mumble—it works for the character, but not so much for audibility.

Comment. While emotional sparks fly between Natalie and Joe, playwright Sean Dixon does not lead us into clichéd territory, but goes in a different way that is as startling as it is unexpected. Dixon is a thoughtful playwright who is intrigued by deep questions of character, morals, dealing with life’s hooks and curves. In The Orange Dot one ponders beauty, whether it’s a tree or something hiding deep in a character; a life of regret and how to deal with that and waiting. Well worth a visit.

Theatrefront presents:

Opened: March 17, 2017.
Closes: April 1, 2017.
Cast: 2; 1 man, 1 woman
Running Time: 90 minutes


Review: A CITY

by Lynn on March 17, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

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

Written by Greg MacArthur
Directed by Jennifer Tarver
Set and costumes by Andjelija Djuric
Lighting by Rebecca Picherack
Sound by Lyon Smith
Cast: Cole J. Alvis
David Patrick Flemming
Justin Goodhand
Amy Keating

A play about memory, Montreal, friendship and truth, maybe, that is so intensely personal it seems almost as if it’s for a select few. It’s directed and acted with style and confidence.

The Story. The city in question is Montreal. Playwright Greg MacArthur had many of his plays produced in Toronto, where he used to live. But several years ago MacArthur moved to Montreal where he found himself in the middle of a vibrant theatre scene. He stayed for five years contributing plays to that scene. Over time he found his ideal world was crumbling so he decided to write a play about true events, authenticity and some of his cherished friends.

He had extended conversations with the members of the vibrant, edgy theatre group, Side Mart Theatrical Grocery, with the intention of wanting to capture what he found so intriguing about them. A City is in part about four of them: Graham, Andrew, Gemma and Paddy.

While MacArthur strives for authenticity, he uses a fabricated event to frame the play. The group revered a friend of theirs, a visual artist name Shia Labeouf—not his real name but I thought it hilarious the artist is named after a man more famous for his breakdowns and run ins with the law than his acting–anyway, Shia Labeouf comes to a Halloween party hosted by the four friends, dressed and painted all in gold as King Tut. He wanders off from the party and is found dead the next morning, in the park. If one is covered from head to toe in gold paint that’ll kill him.

The four friends then recount their memories of Shia among others, their meeting each other, vague references to their shows, a camping trip, drinking and getting drunk, living in that city, bonding, and even scientific proof of the existence of the soul.

The Production. Andjelija Djuric has designed a set in which the playing area is inside and around a square that is illuminated by four florescent bulbs elevated a bit off the floor. There is an opening in one section as if it’s a door well.

It’s directed with heightened style and a keen sense of detail by Jennifer Tarver. Amy Keating as Gemma is our narrator of sorts—funny, perceptive, focused. She addresses the audience looking us straight in the eye—it’s a small room and the lighting is such that one can see faces clearly– She assures us that everything we will hear is true. Occasionally she is challenged by a character named Graham who whips out a microphone from the inside of his jacket. The microphone is used on several occasions, heightening the theatricality of the production, but I had to wonder why the microphone is used at all. It’s not as if any character is inaudible. Unless it’s just a theatrical conceipt.

Tarver and Susanna Hood, the movement coach, have created extensive choreographed movement—the cast of four go to the corners of the illuminated square crossing in mid-square; crossing back, always in each others lives but not in their way. They ponder and watch each other. And they listen.

What is beautifully realized in the jump-cutting dialogue between the four and Tarver’s close attention to the pace of it, is that these four people are close friends; they anticipate what the other will say; they finish their sentences; they challenge without rancour or edge, except for the prickly Graham played by a playful David Patrick Flemming. They all have their own quirky charm and they all work as a cohesive whole. No one grandstands but all have their moments. Andrew is the dashing jet setter it seems—played with boyish charm by Justin Goodhand. Paddy is quixotic—played by Cole J. Alvis with a fascinating hair cut. More than anything that friendship is the centre of the play—our focus.

Comment. Greg MacArthur writes in such a personal way it almost seems that A City is for the select few who were there and would recognize the references and not necessarily the audience at large. MacArthur adores Montreal but except for a few street name references his adoration does not come out of the writing. We certainly get the wit and brains of those four friends but not a larger sense of who they are in that theatrical community. They reference their shows. Surely we should have a larger sense of these people in terms of their theatrical lives and not just the world of their easy friendship? Is their larger world of theatre the thing that adds to that friendship?

Also, I know the work of Side Mart Theatrical Grocery. They are a terrific theatre company. I’ve seen Graham Cuthbertson (Graham) Andrew Shaver, (Andrew) Gemma James Smith (Gemma) and Paddy Costello (Paddy) in various shows. Dazzling work. But A City seems like it works best if you know all this already and that seems a cheat, if not insider information needed to make this work deeper. Without context of who these people are one might wonder, why am I in the room listening to their quick discourse?

The friendships seem solid but then they part quickly—again, with little reason or something to hold on to. A City is an odd piece. Terrific cast and production though.

Necessary Angel Presents:

Opened: March 16, 2017.
Closes: April 2, 2017.
Cast: 4; 3 men, 1 woman.
Running Time: 65 minutes.


At the Tarragon Theatre, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Erin Shields
Directed by Peter Hinton
Set and costumes by Joanna Yu
Lighting by Jennifer Lennon
Sound by Lyon Smith
Projections by Howard Davis
Cast: Frank Cox-O’Connell
James Daly
Rong Fu
Natasha Mumba
Liz Peterson
Alicia Richardson
Amelia Sargisson
Reza Sholeh

A bold effort by the gifted Erin Shields to write a modern take on the 1697 Restoration Comedy, The Provoked Wife, and centre it around self-absorbed millennials for the most part. Alas it doesn’t work.

The Story. Moxy (Liz Peterson) is angry, frustrated and bored in her one year marriage to Johnny (Reza Sholeh). He is kind, attentive, perhaps obsessively so, and wants to discuss his/her feelings at every turn. She just wants to go wild. She can’t even remember why she married him. In the meantime Johnny has come to the end of his rope trying to understand Moxy and begins to ponder having an affair with a woman named Faith (Rong Fu) who likes Johnny from afar.

This being an observation of the millennial age there is a self-absorbed YouTube star named Charm (Frank Cox-O’Connell). There is Mimi (Amelia Sargisson), Charm’s loving cousin from Quebec; Heartfree (James Daly) a music blogger and close friend of Johnny; Teasel (Natasha Mumba) a lesbian party-girl and friend of Moxy; and Raz (Alicia Richardson) a PHD student. They are all connected at one point or another.

The Production. Joanna Yu has created a simple but effective set. There is a sofa stage right with a table in front of it. Another unit stage left. On the two side walls are framed creations that look like live vibrant flowers. Occasionally Howard Davis’s projections add another dimension to the space and the scene.

Director Peter Hinton’s production is spare and stylish. While the play is about millennials and all their self-absorption and desperation to be hip, cool and with it, Hinton does not fall into the cliché of having them always on their cell phones (though there is one scene in the gloom with their faces illuminated as they hold their cell phones) or constantly tapping on their computers etc. Charm is the exception since he lives for producing product for his YouTube site. Charm is played with exuberant overkill by Frank Cox-O’Connell. He is flamboyant in a pair of tight briefs and little else in which it looks like a week’s worth of laundry is packed into the front of those ‘smalls.’

As Moxy—a wonderfully prophetic name since she has guts and smarts, in other words, moxy—Liz Peterson is world-weary, bored, a bit pushy with her husband and frustrated. More than anything she reminded me of an in-control Hedda Gabler, bored with her wimp husband and desperate to get out. Unlike Hedda Moxy could get out. Natasha Mumba is a fierce Teasel, an in your face party-girl who takes no prisoners. She comes on to whomever she wants with equal vigour. It’s a bold performance.

Interestingly there is a sweet scene of bonding but not with the women, but with Johnny and Heartfree, as Reza Sholeh and James Daly respectively sit side by side on the couch commiserating about their lot in life and how to climb out of their funk. It’s gentle, sweet and wholly credible.

While all concerned are well intentioned, Erin Shields’ script is the problem.

Comment. As I said Erin Shields is a gifted playwright. She has a vibrant imagination and her plays show depth of thought and feelings as well as a keen sense of language. Her intension initially was to write a modern Restoration comedy using The Provoked Wife (1697 written by John Vanbrugh) as the model. In it an abused wife wants escape by running off with friends for some wild times. As Shields says in her program note, the more she wrote the further away from the original model she got.

What we have now are self-absorbed, ‘me-first’ people disappointing others, or people pining for attention and affection from abusive people. I found most of these characters devoid of any reason to care about them. Their dialogue is often laboured and pretentious and I don’t believe any of them would really come up with such phraseology; dwelling on irony and sarcasm. I think Erin Shields tries too hard to make them impressive. If anything I found them depressive. I consider The Millennial Malcontent to be a blip in Erin Shields’ impressive journey as a playwright.

Presented by Tarragon Theatre.

Opened: March 8, 2017.
I saw it: March 14, 2017.
Cast: 8; 3 men, 5 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.


At a pop-up theatre at 270 King St. West at Duncan, Toronto. Ont.

Written by Aaron Posner
Sort of adapted from The Seagull by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Vinetta Strombergs
Set and lighting by Steve Lucas
Costumes by Christine Urquhart
Cast: Rachel Cairns
Richard Greenblatt
Brendan Hobin
Karen Knox
Craig Lauzon
Daniel Maslany
Sarah Orenstein

A wonderfully stylish production thanks to director Vinetta Strombergs and her dandy cast, of this impish, thoughtful and moving adaptation by Aaron Posner of Chekhov’s play.

The Story. You don’t need to know Chekhov’s play closely to appreciate Aaron Posner’s smart, witty, perceptive, impish, moving play. Unrequited love pretty well sums it up with a few words about art, theatre, pretentious theatre, and the next new thing. Conrad is a would-be-playwright who loves Nina, who wants to be an actress. Nine loves Conrad until she sees Trigorin, a successful writer, whereupon she is smitten and so is Trigorin for a little while. Trigorin is the companion of Emma Arkadina, a successful actress. She is possessively passionate for Trigorin and God help anyone who gets in her way, even Trigorin. Mash loves Conrad but he only has eyes for Nina. Dev loves Mash but she barely tolerates him. Mash plays the ukulele. How sad is that! And Dr. Eugene Sorn, Emma’s brother and a doctor, looks on all this with wistfulness, a touch of melancholy, but generally good spirits and a kind heart. Got all that? And it’s a comedy.

The Production. The production takes place in a spacious pop-up theatre that used to be a golf store. There are four acts that take place in various parts of the site. Director Vinetta Strombergs directs the acts with a clear idea of how to best serve the audience. There are several pillars in the site and negotiating the audience to see properly is an added extra with this space.

The audience sits in rolling office chairs which they take from location to location in the play. Photos of interesting vistas are on the walls. It is definitely set in the present day. The set by Steve Lucas is stylish and ultra modern. The first scene is by the lake of Emma’s family estate. The audience sits around a wood platform/stage ready to watch Conrad’s play. Emma and her entourage sit in front of the audience as if they are part of it.

Another scene takes place in the kitchen late at night where characters meet, sometimes furtively, sometimes by accident. There is a large table, a counter and a fridge that gets a lot of action. People are getting drinks, making drinks, boiling a kettle to make what I think is a hot toddy. Strombergs uses the space so well and imaginatively. No prop is there for its own sake. It’s used, incorporated into the action. Smart. Strombergs also directs her cast to ring every shred of torn emotion from the situation. The floor is practically dripping with each character’s ennui as they pine hopelessly for the one they love but doesn’t return it. However we don’t feel rung out in sympathy—that’s not Chekhov or Posner. At times you want to yell, “Get a grip and get on with it.”

Sarah Orenstein, as Emma Arkadina, has seen it all, got through it and now thinks most of it is boring, certainly her pretentious son. They wrangle. Emma lets Conrad have it regarding his insecurity, his condescension of her and for his incomprehensible play. Daniel Maslany as Conrad, gives as good as he gets, but he is outmatched by his mother. He flings insults, well articulated to be sure, but you just see a young man desperate to make his way on his own, but being put down by his mother. When Emma has it out with Trigorin about leaving her, Orenstein is blazing and formidable.

I’m not sure why Craig Lauzon plays Trigorin so that he looks like a biker, with his head fully covered in a bandana, wearing jeans, boots a leather vest and a t-shirt. That seems an odd choice. Rachel Cairns as Masha is beautifully morose, quick witted, and even sweet in her desperate love for Conrad. Karen Knox is not demure as Nina, but a seductive, yet charming woman who is smart and knows how to go after what she wants, until she comes up against Emma Arkadina.

Richard Greenblatt as Dr. Eugene Sorn hides his doubts about the purpose of life well. He comments with kindness. He sees past the emotion of a character to the heart of their being. Brendan Hobin plays Dev as a quiet yet eager young man who will do anything to win Mash’s love. He doesn’t pine as the others do, but he is tenacious in his devotion to Mash.

While Chekhov’s play looks at the emotional goings on and angst of his characters, he does it with humour. These people are funny. But Posner and certainly Strombergs direction, brings out the gut twisting sadness as each character tries to win their hearts’ desire. It’s still funny.

In a couple of instances, Conrad comes to a cross-roads and doesn’t know what to do so he asks the audience for advice. Daniel Maslany as Conrad is very serious in wanting the advice, he’s also very quick-witted when dealing with the give and take with the audience which makes it hilarious. It’s particularly funny if you know the play, because Conrad does exactly what Chekhov says he does, so never mind the audience’s suggestions. Interestingly, in my audience no one suggested Conrad do what Chekhov said he should do. No matter. It is still funny.

Comment. Aaron Posner has written a very funny take on Chekhov’s The Seagull, and put his own spin on it. The result is fresh, lively, perceptive about the human heart, in tune with today’s world, and beautifully moving.

The Bird Collective Presents:

From: Feb. 28, 2017.
Saw it: March 4, 2017.
Closes: March 19, 2017.
Cast: 7; 4 men, 3 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes approx.

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l-r Kim Nelson, Deborah Drakeford (photo: Yuri Dojc)

At the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, Toronto, Ont.

Adapted and directed by Adam Seelig
From the Ontario Provincial Police Transcripts of the interview of Detective Jim Smyth with Colonel Russell Williams and his connection to crimes (rape, murder, breaking and entering) in the Belleville, Ottawa area.
Set and costumes by Jackie Chau
Lighting by Laird Macdonald
Sound by Tyler Emond
Cast: Deborah Drakeford
Kim Nelson
Drums by Lynette Gillis

Devastating, gripping compelling theatre acted and directed beautifully. What theatre is for—to inform, instruct and to hold a mirror up to show us who and what we are, good and bad.

The Story. On February 7, 2010, Detective Jim Smyth of the Ontario Provincial Police interviewed Colonel Russell Williams about his involvement in multiple crimes including two rape-murders, two other rapes, breaking and entering that occurred in the Belleville and Ottawa areas. The interview lasted about four and a half hours. Williams’ confession and details about the crimes lasted several more hours. For the purposes of the theatre, Adam Seelig, the director of the piece has adapted the transcripts into a 90 minute verbatim production. The words, including the stammers, unintelligible words and pauses, are all included.

The Production. Jackie Chau’s set is impressive. In front of the back wall is a drum set for Lynette Gillis who will add drum riffs at strategic points in the production. In front of that is a mound of earth perhaps suggesting a grave. The walls of the set are painted in such a way as to create a sense of perspective. A section of mirrored glass is on either wall. There are two utility chairs on either side of the set. The script is on either chair (and I believe on a stand at the back for Lynette Gillis). A pair of military boots are neatly placed downstage along with a military hat and a folded military jacket. There are two standing microphones on either side of the stage.

When the production begins Lynette Gillis sits behind her drums. Deborah Drakeford and Kim Nelson enter and give us the background. Yes, women will be playing the parts of Jim Smyth and Colonel Russell Williams. When the performance begins it becomes clear that both actresses will also be playing both parts at one time or another in the performance. Their body language is clear when each is playing Smyth or Williams.

Drakeford holds up the spiral-bound script indicating the official seal of the Ontario Provincial Police at the top of the page. This confirms the actual verbatim text we are about to hear. When there are components of the text that the police did not want anyone to read or hear that section is blacked out on the page, redacted. Those redacted parts are indicated in the performance by Lynette Gillis who drums during those sections. If the redacted section is short, a musical cue is played. Initially the drumming for a redacted section is rhythmic. One is almost tempted to tap one’s toe to the rhythm. But as the production progresses and redacted parts become longer, the drumming is aggressive, cacophonous, not as rhythmic but very precise in suggesting anger and aggression. It’s as if the drumming is projecting the audiences’ feelings perhaps. That drumming becomes another character; the stuff not said.

While the actresses hold the scripts for the most part, this is not a strictly read performance. The work has been memorized except in a few cases. The interrogation begins with Deborah Drakeford playing Smyth and Kim Nelson playing Williams. There are pleasantries, an offer of coffee and Smyth commenting that he would treat Williams with respect and expected that the treatment would be returned. Nelson sits in the chair, legs spread like a ‘typical guy.’ Her replies are short, unemotional and almost always given without hesitation. There is confidence here, but not arrogance. There is no attitude. Drakeford quietly walks around Williams’ chair asking the questions, full of curiosity, interest. When the information the OPP has that puts Williams at the site of one of the crimes is slowly revealed, Nelson replies without fear but her eyes reveal a bit of concern.

The sections describing heinous crimes are read simultaneously by both actresses in as cool a manner as can be. The words do the talking and communicating without imposing emotion.

Director Adam Seelig has directed this with sensitivity and restraint. The staging captures the meticulous detail in Smyth’s careful interrogation of Williams—slowly pacing behind him when he was questioning Williams. Williams in turn replying as an accomplished military man, meticulous in his planning as well. It’s a cat and mouse game by two accomplished players. Seelig brings all that out while being mindful of the unsettling details of the story.

In the end, both actresses walk upstage; acknowledge their drumming colleague; turn to the audience, put their hands over their hearts and leave to total silence. I can’t recall such total silence at performance as my audience for this one. Not a cough, not a rustle of a program, not a fidget in the seat. Total silence. And there was no applause when the lights came up. Shattering.

Comment. The production started out entitled: Smyth/Williams and close to the first performance the title was changed to S–/W– with the rest of the names of Smyth Williams whited out. Whatever it’s called, it’s a compelling, chilling, unsettling piece of theatre about heinous crimes to women done by a man.

From the statement in the program: “… we urgently feel that, as citizens and artists, it is our responsibility to bear witness to these atrocities, never allowing them to be forgotten, and identifying them as part of a nation-wide epidemic of sexual assaults targeting women and girls. With S–/W—we are confronting the attitudes and norms that enable such violence. “

The intention is noble and important. By using only the words of the interrogation and confession we get some sense of how a decorated and accomplished man such as Russell Williams could do such horrible crimes. We get an equally good idea of the meticulous planning for the interrogation that Detective Smyth used to catch Williams and made him confess.

But the choice of doing this show has been met with angry protest on Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media. A woman who was a childhood friend of one of the murdered women was interviewed on CBC radio saying she felt the victims were being exploited by this production and that she didn’t think it was art. She had never actually seen the production but was voicing her negative opinion of it nonetheless.

On opening night some protesters were invited into the theatre lobby (it was cold outside and the house management of Theatre Passe Muraille are kind) to hand out a sheet of explanation for their concerns about the play. This was peaceful too.

The sheet of explanation though well intentioned in respecting the memories of the dead women and those others Williams abused, believes that the play is being disrespectful to Williams’ victims. It is not. I’ve actually seen the play. The play is doing what it intends to do: “…confronting the attitudes and norms that enable violence.”

The sheet chastises One Little Goat for not asking for consent of the victims and their families to use the words from the trial for the play. The words used in the play are in the public domain. I read the details of the case in the newspapers and the information was more harrowing, if it’s to be believed, than in the play.

Obviously this is a very sensitive subject—a play wants to illuminate the harrowing details of a recent sensational case of rape, murder and other crimes, in order to bring attention to the crisis women and girls experience every day. You can’t condemn a play unless you’ve actually seen the play or read what’s included in it.

S–/W—is a shattering, unsettling, vital, important piece of theatre done with respect and sensitivity and it should be seen.

One Little Goat presents:

Opened: March 3, 2017.
Closed: March 12, 2017.
Cast: 3 women
Running Time: 90 minutes

Tickets: 416-504-7529

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