The Passionate Playgoer

From the Fringe.

I saw these two shows on the final day of the Fringe but think they are worthy of comment.

The Preposterous Predicament of Polly Peel (Act I)

At the Tarragon Theatre, (Toronto, Ont)

Book by Julie Tepperman

Music and lyrics by Kevin Wong

Directed by Aaron Willis

Cast: Troy Adams

Alan Cui

Donna Garner

Richard Lee

Hannah Levinson

Faly Mevamanana

Ben Page

Jessica Sherman

Polly Peel, aged eleven is besotted by biology. Her dotting dad, Paul, is too. Polly’s dancer sister, Paula is angry because she feels left out. And Polly’s mother Pauline is harried because she’s got a stressful job and Paul keeps on forgetting to make lunches and pick his kids up at school.  Everybody in that household is always in a hurry and chores and responsibilities are forgotten. Then something devastating happens and the whole family is caught up short and chaos and heartache results.

This is only the first Act of the musical and it’s packed with incident and songs. At times Kevin Wongs’ music and lyrics are so dense and so plentiful that one feels overwhelmed with the cleverness. Julie Tepperman’s book is sharply funny, well observed and beautifully illuminates a family in distress.

The cast is uniformly fine but the standout is Hannah Levinson as Polly. Ms Levinson continues to astonish in whatever she’s in.

Bike Face

At the Annex Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Natalie Frijia

Directed by Mandy Roveda

Performed by Clare Blackwood

Our heroine wants adventure. She loves adventure so much she decides to do a PhD on the subject, but first she must experience adventure in order to study it. So she decides to ride her bicycle across Canada. Prejudices and social restrictions from the Victorian era are often referenced as our modern day heroine goes on her trip. We here about such possible results of riding a bicycle as sterilization, maidenhood, heart attacks, insanity, death and bike face—that face one gets from the exertion of peddling.

Our heroine meets mosquitoes on the trail, wild life, Wild West Proprietors, an angry, love-sick bookstore owner, kindness, hospitality, jokers  and she meets her brave, true self.

Natalie Frijia has written a wonderful piece about being a woman in the modern day and how little we’ve come when it comes to doing something so wild as to cycle across the country. But our heroine so beautifully played by Clare Blackwood, has such spirit, such an open heart and a keen sense of observation perception about human nature that she has us cheering for her from the beginning to end.

I hope Bike Face has another life.

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At the Festival Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Antoni Cimolino

Designed by Bretta Gerecke

Lighting by Michael Walton

Composed by Berthold Carrière

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Graham Abbey

Rod Beattie

Wayne Best

Michael Blake

David Collins

Alexis Gordon

Sébastien Heins

Martha Henry

Tom McCamus

André Morin

Lucy Peacock

Chick Reid

André Sills

E.B. Smith

Stephen Ouimette

Johnathan Sousa

Emilio Vieira

Mamie Zwettler

And others.

An impressive production that is technically dazzling with a towering performance by Martha Henry as Prospero.

The Story. NOTE: The Tempest is Shakespeare’s last play that he wrote himself. It shows a playwright at the top of his powers who deals with wisdom and forgiveness. Shakespeare wrote the part of Prospero for a man but was so intuitive, so sensitive to his characters, that there are also aspects of Prospero that would not be out of place in a woman. Therefore Martha Henry is playing Prospero as a woman. But first the story as Shakespeare wrote it:

Prospero was the Duke of Milan but was usurped by his brother. The brother put the Duke and his three-year-old daughter Miranda in a leaky boat to sail off in the hopes it would sink and all on board would drown. But luck was on Prospero’s side. The boat didn’t sink and he and Miranda landed safely on a deserted island except for two unlikely creatures, Ariel and Caliban. Ariel is a helpful, almost courtly spirit who does Prospero’s bidding.

Caliban is a bitter creature “..not honoured with/A human shape.” Caliban’s mother was a cruel witch named Sycorax who had died years before. When Prospero and Miranda came to the island Prospero found Ariel imprisoned in a tree by Sycorax.

Caliban was about twelve-years-old when Prospero and Miranda arrived. Caliban showed them the wonders of the island, how to find food etc. And Prospero took him in, had him staying in their ‘cell’, taught him civilized ways.  During the twelve years leading to the beginning of the play Caliban grew and his hormones raged and at one point he attempted to rape the very young Miranda (“thou didst seek to violate/The honour of my child.”) For that Prospero keeps him in a cave away from them and gives him the grunt work and treats him roughly and with disdain.

Prospero and Miranda stay on the island for 12 years until Prospero gets even with his enemies. He conjures a storm that brings all the people who wronged him to his island, but without harming them, so he could exact his revenge.

The Production. NOTE: The Tempest was supposed to open the Festival season on May 28 but a bomb threat received by the police 45 minutes before curtain cleared the theatre and cancelled the performance. The production’s ‘opening’ was rescheduled for June 10th. Every member of that cast brought his and her best game. The audience was up for the experience and that made the production and being there for it into an important event of defiance. Nothing happened this time except that I saw one of the best productions of this play or any play that I have seen in a long time.

 While the play/story refers to Prospero as a man, for the purposes of this production I will refer to Prospero as a woman.

 As the audience files in, Martha Henry as Prospero quietly enters on the balcony section of the stage and sits reading her book of magic spells. When all is ready she closes her book, raises her staff and conjures the storm that will bring her brother, other plotters and courtiers who were loyal to her, to her island.

 Martha Henry is a towering actor and shows the many layers to Prospero—both as a loving parent and an angry person who has been betrayed by her brother and her court.

She will get even.

Antoni Cimolino has directed this production with great style, intelligence, a sense of the panoramic vision and the drama of the piece. Cimolino has an impish yet sharp sense of humour that comes out in his staging of some comedic business. I am particularly struck with the humour in the scene in which Caliban tries to hide under a sheet from Stephano and Trinculo and they hide under it as well with unpleasant results. Cimolino finds comedic moments where I’d never seen them before and it all works a treat.

There is also a sense of the sweep of that vision in designer Bretta Gerecke’s design, in particular the dazzling costumes of Juno (Lucy Peacock), the spirits and monsters. Michael Walton’s lighting and Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design conjures a dark and forbidding world. But there is also light and a sense of hope and uplifting when Miranda (Mamie Zwettler) sees the dashing Ferdinand (Sébastien Heins) for the first time and both are smitten.

And at the centre of it all is Martha Henry as Prospero. It’s as if every actor raised their game to try and meet her on equal footing. She is one of this country’s most celebrated stage actresses and every person in that theatre and on that stage knew it. You could feel it in the air. The silence in that place was amazing. It’s a performance of quiet power. Martha Henry touches and kisses Miranda’s (Mamie Zwetler) hair and cheek very often. This is a tactile, loving mother.

But she brooks no sass from anyone and to get this Prospero’s stare is to see a character whither instantly.  Prospero wrath and contempt is focused on Caliban (Michael Blake). Ariel (André Morin) is used as a spirit who could manipulate people or lead them a merry chase—Prospero has a more considerate attitude towards Ariel, respecting his intellect, perhaps because Ariel stands up to Prospero but with quiet firmness. Ariel wanted something from Prospero—freedom. Prospero promises him freedom after some tasks are completed.

Ariel is played with dignity and graciousness by Andrć Morin. It’s a performance that suggests a spiritual other world, something not human but of course Ariel is eminently human, watchful, observant and absorbs

The casting of the part of Caliban is tricky. He is played wonderfully by Michael Blake.

Mr. Blake is an actor of colour—quite often the actor playing Caliban is black. There is uncomfortable subtext in that casting—it references slavery in the United States, being treated with disdain because of skin colour and suggests a sense of being lesser. Blake plays Caliban with wounded resentment of course but he has benefited from Prospero’s teaching about the world. Blake is not a stereotypical ‘villain’ but a character whose attitude and anger we can appreciate. This is a Caliban with his own grace, an ability to judge the lousy characters of Trinculo and Stephano and show another side of humanity to that of Ariel.  This is some of the best work I’ve seen Michael Blake do.

Mamie Zwettler is a sweet, innocent Miranda. She is ably matched by Sébastien Heins as Ferdinand, her love-struck prince. Heins is courtly and loving to his Miranda—a prince in every way.

Comment. We live at a time when gender-bending casting is a trend. Is this a gimmick here? No. Martha Henry has been asked that and she has said that there are lines of Prospero’s that could be said with the same clarity and feeling as a woman. For example Prospero talks about “crying salt tears” as he and Miranda set off in that unsafe boat  and Henry feels that a man or woman could say it with as much compassion as the other. Prospero is a parent, a notion that can be embraced by both men and women. Women can be as angry and vindictive and revenge-seeking as a man. And a women can be as strong, intelligent and as bold a leader as a man can.

This is a production of power, integrity, grit, compassion, impressive, imaginative direction and some of the best acting anywhere. It was electrifying to be there and see Martha Henry give this towering performance and know that everybody else upped their game as a matter of course. Thrilling.

(Interesting note: Miranda was the first role Martha Henry played on the Festival stage at Stratford to William Hutt’s Prospero. In a neat tip of the hat to Hutt and a passing on of Hutt’s tradition Martha Henry waved at the audience, as Hutt did, to signify that was the end of the bows and we could all go home.)

 Presented by the Stratford Festival

Opened: June 10, 2018.

Closes: Oct. 26, 2018.

Running Time: 3 hours.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

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At St. Vladimir’s (620 Spadina Ave), Toronto, Ont.

Written and directed by Wes Berger

Original songs by Aaron Berger

Wes Berger has written a sensitive look at first dates from every configuration: same sex dating, dating in later life, remembering in old age the perfect date that lead to a long happy life with that other person, and dates full of regrets, awkward meddling and forgiveness.

Each of the eight scenes representing a date is broken up with a musical interlude provided by Aaron Berger who is the composer as well as a participant as the singer and a ‘date’. Initially I thought this might be an intrusion but as the dates accumulated, the music provided a clever way of accommodating the scene changes.

The cast is a group of some of our most accomplished actors: David Fox, Allegra Fulton, Ron Lea and others who are new to me and certainly accomplished in their own way: Marisa McIntyre, Breanna Dillon, Simon Bennett and Ronak Singh.

Wes Berger’s writing is smart, tender, funny and perceptive. His directing is as always, clear, nuanced and always serves the play and what it’s saying.

The last performance is today (Sat. July 14 at 3:30 pm. It’s been selling out. Get a ticket.

www.fringetoronto.com

 

 

 

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Note: I’m never here for the Fringe because I’m always on ‘vacation’ in England. Except this year. I came back Wednesday, July 11 and am able to catch some shows.

One Left Hour (The Life and Work of Daniil Kharms)

At the Randolph Theatre, Bathurst St. one block south of Bloor, Toronto, Ont.

Created by Good Old Neon

The committed company of Good Old Neon set their performance beliefs for the audience in their program note:

“We are committed to an arts practice that privileges experimentation over consistency, presentation over representation, experience over storytelling. We decline to accept a model of theatre-making that reckons art in the same terms as consumer product: “good,” “bad,”  “boring,” “fun,” “popular,” “premium,” “quality,” Art can be some of these things, for some people, some of the time, but it is not of these things.

We understand this approach is not for everybody. We hope that it will be for you. But if not—that’s okay too.”

In One Left Hour they explore and question the work (poetry, compositions etc)  and ideas of Russian artist Daniil Kharms. By Kharms’ own admission he says his poetry will confound he audience. That does not seem to have compelled him to make it ‘easier’ to comprehend. (They offer a neat chronology of Kharms’ life and work.)

Good Old Neon challenges themselves by doing what seemingly is the impossible–to present Kharms’ poems without explaining them, but doing them in a way that shows the company’s rehearsal, exploration process.

One poem in particular illuminates Kharms’ iconoclastic ideas and self-deprecation: “Four Illustrations Of How A New Idea Dumfounds A Person Who Is Not Prepared For It” has several people: a writer, an artist, a composer…declare who they are and a response. For example: “WRITER: “I am a writer. READER: I think you are s__t!” Kharms provides the ideas of identity of both the artist and the person receiving the art. The replies are both pointed and sad at the same time.

Good Old Neon question everything; they challenge themselves and each other; they pass those ideas of challenge and question to the audience. I wouldn’t be surprised if they even scare themselves with this task. It’s that the best kind of theatre?  The result is bracing, sometimes confounding, but always provocative and engaging.

The company is presenting challenging fare and as always with Good Old Neon, it is well worth your time. Rather than being intimidating you will be welcomed into the theatre from the stage in an embracing way. The program also has a caring message as it says: “Go Vegan. Be Kind. Help a Stranger. Care.” I have trouble with the Go Vegan bit, but that’s just me.

They have performances: July 13 at 11:00 pm, July 14 at 5:15 pm.

www.goodoldneon.ca

 

Her

At the Helen Gardiner Phelan Theatre, St. George St, Toronto, Ont.

Written and performed by Deborah Shaw

Directed by David Agro

Music composed and recorded by Beverly Lewis

HER is a one woman show written and performed by Deborah Shaw and directed by David Agro.

Toronto, 1954. Ilsa is the HER of the story.  She is having her friend Helga to tea and she’s brought her great nephew Gunter who is visiting from Boston where he is in university studying history. There is easy banter between Ilsa and her old friend Helga. Gunter is another matter.

For years Ilsa had a secret about her past and she didn’t tell anyone. She lived in Germany during the war and was a successful baker.  But she has a secret she has been hiding and yet Gunter gets her to talk about it so easily. Slowly her secret is revealed. For me to tell you more would reveal spoilers. Suffice it to say Ilsa has not been as forthcoming with her past as she seems to be with Gunter.

While it is a one person play that does not mean that Deborah Shaw plays the other parts as well. She gets around this nicely and we are still able to tell who is saying what.  Ilsa addresses the other two imaginary characters and greets them as if they are in the room. We lean about their dialogue when Ilsa replies to their questions by either repeating the question before she answers it or she refers to it in her reply.

Deborah Shaw has written an intriguing play with a deeply hidden story.  Her dialogue is crisp, beguiling and draws you in. Shaw slowly reveals the deep secret of Ilsa’s family She assumes a slight German accent and an efficient manner.

Director David Agro has her setting the stage for the initial tea, with silver tea service and a three tier cake stand full of Ilsa’s baked goods.  He has Ilsa naturally navigating the stage which is her world.  There are no gratuitous movements for movement’s sake. Beverly Lewis has composed a score with indications a phone or doorbell is ringing.

There is a sense of efficiency about the whole enterprise, but I do have concerns. Without giving anything away, I found it odd that Ilsa would so easily tell Gunter, who she knows slightly, the deep secrets of her life, but not Helga her long time friend and Gunter’s great aunt.  There is an effort in David Agro’s program note to suggest that Gunter had one idea about Ilsa’s background but changes his stance when Ilsa tells her story. I don’t think that theory is supported by the dialogue. Gunter seems suspicious of Ilsa and it grows during the show.  Shaw has written about rumour and innuendo in the life of Ilsa and it continues as we get deeper into the play. Shaw has illuminated quite nicely the insidiousness of rumour and the damage it can do to a person.

Her is a strong piece of writing, indicating a firm hand on how to tell a story. The play needs another pass to solve some logistical problems and to flesh out Ilsa’s story.

Her plays at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse Friday, July 13 at 7:30 pm and July 15 at noon.

www.fringetoronto.com

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At the Jackie Maxwell Studio, Shaw Festival, Niagara- On-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by Sarena Parmar

Directed by Ravi Jain

Designed by Camellia Koo

Lighting by André du Toit

Original music and sound by Debashis Sinha

Cast: David Adams

Shawn Ahmed

Neil Barclay

Rong Fu

Krystal Kiran

Jani Lauzon

Andrew Lawrie

Jeff Meadows

Sarena Parmar

Sanjay Talwar

Kelly Wong

A faithful rendering of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard with a decidedly Canadian-Sikh-Punjabi slant with a few well-placed comments on Indigenous people and their land too. A beautiful production directed by Ravi Jain.

The Story. Set in the Okanagan Valley, May 1975. The Basran family’s cherry orchard must be sold in order to pay off the family’s debts. Loveleen (Lolly or Lovely) Basran, the matriarch of the family, has been in India for five years living with a man who seems to need her money and she feels beholding. She has been missed on the farm because she knows how to keep the books in order and fix the farm machinery.

She finally comes home where her daughter Barminder has been tending the farm. Her other daughter, Annie has been trying to find her way. Waiting for them are various hangers-on: Lolly’s simple minded brother, Gurjit and Michael Lopakin, a rich man who no one takes seriously. He grew up on that farm as a servant and has become quite successful in business.

Michael offers that the family can solve their money problems if they chop down the orchard and build cabins so weekend campers can rent them. They won’t hear of it because the cherry orchard has been in the family for years and it’s celebrated. Charlie ( a woman) is a worker on the farm who’s Indigenous, so  every time the family talks about owning the land, Charlie is able to add irony about who owned the land first before it was taken away from the ‘original owners,’ the Indigenous peoples.

The Production. Camellia Koo has created a homey environment with rugs, worn furniture, knick knacks and other indications that a family has lived there a long time.

Director Ravi Jain knows how to use the theatre-in-the-round space of the Jackie Maxwell Studio.  Jain ensures that the audience sees each scene clearly without any view being blocked for the important bits. He has established that this is a family who love each other, although they are frustrated by each other occasionally.

Barminder (Krystal Kiran), Annie (Sarena Parmar) and Gurjit (Sanjay Talwar) are certainly frustrated with Lolly’s (Pamela Sinha) reckless spending and lack of awareness of how dire the circumstances are for the family.

Pamela Sinha has a lovely grace and sophistication as Lolly. She is irresponsible with money but is so ingratiating as a character and genuinely so open-hearted to a fault that you sympathize with her. You ache for Barminder because she is waiting anxiously for Michael (Jeff Meadows) to propose though you never get the sense they love each other. Krystal Kiran is affecting in her scene with Jeff Meadows who plays Michael as an awkward, gauche man who just wants out of there rather than propose. Ravi Jain draws all the anxiety out of that scene until the last moment. Beautifully done.  Every member of that family seems on high emotional alert. Sarena Parmar plays Annie with a gentle resignation.

Sanjay Talwar plays Gurjit as a common-sensical thoughtful man. That seems at odds with the fact that he’s described as a boy/man Peter Pan who never really has grown up, but found he plays a decent man in the end.

Comment. Sarena Parmar has used Anton Chekhov’s classic play, The Cherry Orchard to frame a story about her grandparents in 1975 in the Okanagan Valley. She has tweaked some of her story that is a bit different from Chekhov’s and I think the changes are affecting and add a new dimension to that caring family. This is her first professional play. Quite impressive.

Produced by the Shaw Festival

Opened: June 20, 2018

Closes: September 1, 2018

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

www.shawfest.com

 

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At the Claire Tow Theatre, Lincoln Center Theater, New York City.

Written by Antoinette Nwandu

Directed by Danya Taymor

Set by Wilson chin

Costumes by Sarafina Bush

Lighting by Marcus Doshi

Sound Justin Ellington

Cast: Gabriel Ebert

Jon Michael Hill

Namir Smallwood

A play that  examines the lives of two young black men who dream of a better life but are afraid of being killed because they are black. An astonishing, gut-wrenching play, beautifully acted and directed.

The Story. Two young black men named Moses and Kitch, pass the time on the street, in an unnamed American city, jiving, dreaming and planning about leaving the block and to “pass over” to a better life. They meet a courtly, fashionably dressed man (white) carrying a picnic basket full of food for his mother. He has lost his way and shares some of the food with the two men. They ask his name. He says: “Master.” They recoil. (in the program it says “Mister” but I heard “Master”.) He said that is his last name. They are still wary and he leaves in a huff. A police officer approaches them and again they are terrified of his job and what he might do to them. When he leaves the two men slowly begin jiving again. Then the white, well-dressed man returns.

The Production. Director Danya Taymor has directed this with stunning details. Irony is everywhere in her gripping, vital production. The most lilting show tunes play: “Singing in the Rain”, “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” “It’s a Most Unusual Day.” There are three notes for “Time: Now. Right now. But also 1855. But also the 13th century BCE”. There are three notes for “Place: A ghetto street. A lamppost. Night. But also a plantation. But also Egypt, a city built by slaves.”

Wilson Chin has designed a stark set. There is a very tall lamppost. There is a large tire rim stage left and a large tire off the rim at the bottom of the lamppost. There are a two wire crates on the sidewalk.

As the audience files in Moses sleeps on the ground with his legs on the tire. Kitch calmly looks off in the distance. He wanders around the set. He sits on one crate. At times he seems agitated. Is he looking out for someone? I thought I had read about ‘smack’ in one of the descriptions of the play. Is he waiting for drugs? Why do I assume that? The playwright is making us face our assumptions and presumptions and prejudices.

Kitch (Namir Smallwood) wears his baseball cap backwards. He wears jeans, a vest. Street garb. He is thin, wiry and easy going. When Moses (Jon Michael Hill) wakes up he is also in layers of street garb and his pants are hung low. He too wears his baseball cap backwards. Moses is muscular, excitable and more likely to make a suggestion of what they should do.

Immediately upon waking both Moses and Kitch play word games, top ten games of what they would wish for if they could have anything. (Air Jordans, the love of a certain woman). They each take off their jackets and throw them gracefully in the air to each other and put the clothing on. They do that game again later in the play. They long to pass over to a better life. They yearn to leave that block for a better existence. They glow with the idea of a better life.

When Mister/Master arrives, (a courtly Gabriel Ebert but with a hint of danger) he wears a cream coloured suit, tie, preppy shirt, pocket puff and two-toned shoes. He is dapper but also could be a plantation owner. That analogy fits right in.

Occasionally the lights change in a snap so that Moses and Kitch look like they are in headlights. Their arms immediately go up in the air and they are trembling in terror. They believe they are in the headlights of the police. When a police officer, (noted as “Ossifer” in the program) approaches the men he is menacing. He wears sunglasses at night, has the billy club in his hands. He is also played by Gabriel Ebert only this time he is menacing, terrifying and so dangerous. He threatens Moses to repeat the litany: that black men are: “lazy, stupid and violent.” I am heartsick at this. In fact they are unarmed, not threatening, passive and waiting to get off that block.

At one point Moses suggests after all that waiting and threatening of their lives by the “Ossifer” that they find another way to get off that block, to pass “over”. He looks up at the very high lamppost. We get his meaning.

Comment. This is one muscular, vital, uncompromising, in-your-face play. Playwright Antoinette Nwandu has written dialogue that sings, is poetic and has rhythm that only a black man can say. The ‘N’ word zings through the air as Moses and Kitch jive, tease, joke and challenge each other. When “Master/Mister” tries and hesitates to say the word Moses chides him and says that word is not his. He cannot even think of saying the word.

It is tempting to say that no one should say the word because of its pejorative connotation but that’s a presumption (a white person’s presumption) and it’s wrong. Moses and Kitch use the word as an affectionate greeting. And as they and Ms Nwandu say, it’s a word that is not ours so just ‘shut up.’ (this last part is me)  A truth that flies at me and hits me in the face with a smack.

Ms Nwandu has written a play about how black men are threatened and even killed for the simple reason they are black. And of course she has used Waiting for Godot as a framework. Just as Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for Mr. Godot in Samuel Beckett’s play so Moses and Kitch are waiting also, to get off that block and a better life. How telling that we accept two white tramps waiting on a road by a tree for Mr. Godot (we don’t know the reason but we accept it) and two black men on a sidewalk waiting for a better life is not accepted as ok, are looked at with suspicion. Only here the stakes are higher than in Beckett’s masterpiece.

Yup I like being upset when I must face my presumptions and assumptions. Terrific, upsetting, unsettling, smart, angry play.

Presented by Lincoln Center Theater

Opened: June 18 2018

Closes: July 15, 2018

Running Time: 85 minutes.

www.lct.org

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

Written by Bernard Shaw

Directed by Kimberley Rampersad

Designed by Sue LePage

Lighting by Mikael Kangas

Musical direction by Patrick Bowan

Cast: Patrick McManus

Tara Rosling

Ben Sanders

Gabriella Sundar Singh

Bernard Shaw focuses his laser gaze on the folly of war, patriotism, the power of ignorance and education and how to balance it all in this bracing, witty production.

The Story. We are in an Irish country house in a park in the summer of 1915. O’Flaherty has returned from the war where he was awarded the Victoria Cross (hence the V.C. of the title) for bravery in battle. Now his attention is on recruiting young men for the war effort. The only problem is that O’Flaherty is Irish and his mother thinks he was fighting ‘against’ the English, not for them. O’Flaherty’s commanding officer is General Sir Pearce Madigan. He is also the ‘squire’ from whom O’Flaherty poached geese etc. then sold them back to him before he went into the army. We then meet O’Flaherty’s vibrant, excitable mother and matters get interesting.

The Production. Director Kimberley Rampersad has a firm handle on this play and its world. Recruiting posters urging “Boys! Come along you’re wanted” hang down from the flies at the back of the stage in Sue LePage’s pastoral set.  Pots of “greenery” dot the set in front of a manor house.

To set the mood the four actors (almost in costume) sing army and folk songs that put us in Ireland in 1915. Patrick McManus on guitar sings in a mournful voice, Ben Sanders on banjo sings in a beautiful tenor voice, Tara Rosling bangs and Irish drum  and belts out a number and Gabriella Sundar Singh plays the piano and sings in a beautiful soprano voice.

When the play begins proper, O’Flaherty (Ben Sanders) stands, in his  smart army uniform, his Victoria Cross is worn neatly on his left chest. He looks into the distance.  When General Sir Pearce Madigan (Patrick McManus in full uniform and mustache) approaches O’Flaherty  stands to attention until he is put at ease by his commander. The difference in rank and station is obvious and how both approach it. But this being Shaw there is that time when both soldier and officer, one an  uneducated servant and established lord of the manor, find a common bond—the war—and treat each other with equal respect.

As O’Flaherty, Ben Sanders has an almost wistful sadness when he realizes how happy he was being uneducated when he was at home and how his world has changed when he joined the world and the war  and learned fast by living in it. He has become philosophical (Hello Shaw), he wonders where his true place is in the world. He muses that perhaps war is his true world.

As General Sir Pearce Madigan, Patrick McManus has that confidence and dimness of a person of high station who is clueless about any other world but his own. He is sometimes amused by O’Flaherty but most of the time he’s aghast. McManus conveys this with a formal confusion. And his efforts to light his pipe offer some sly, subtle humor. Kimberley Rampersad adds lovely touches of humour that never overpower a moment.

All hell breaks out when Mrs. O’Flaherty (Tara Rosling) appears and while she’s happy to see her son, she’s mighty annoyed when she learns he’s fighting for the ‘wrong’ side (ie. for the English). Mrs. O’Flaherty has charm and a wily sense of how to ‘play’ the squire/commander. There is nothing simple about this complex woman, and Rosling brings out all her layers with aplomb. Gabriella Sundar Singh plays Teresa, O’Flaherty’s ‘intended.’ She knows her world, she’s comfortable in it, but she also knows that O’Flaherty has changed and she’s none too happy about it. Singh is feisty, flirty, and protective of what she thinks is hers. All the performances are fine.

Comment. In true Shaw fashion he has created a serious comedy. As a keen observer of life, the class-conscienceless of the British, the folly of war and the benefits, that ignorance is bliss in some quarters and education can cause unhappiness. Lots to chew over in this neat, well-done lunch hour treat.

Produced by the Shaw Festival.

Opened: June 20, 2018.

Closes: Oct. 6, 2018.

Running Time:  45 minutes

www.shawfest.com

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At the Jackie Maxwell Studio, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by Michael MacKenzie

Directed by Selma Dimitijevic

Designed by Camellia Koo

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Original music and sound by John Gzowski

Cast: Julia Course

Yanna McIntosh

Playwright Michael McKenzie tries to echo the social and philosophical issues in Shaw’s Pygmalion with poor results because the play is not very good and the production doesn’t help.

 The Story. Paris, France, sometime around 1880-90. The Baroness is in need of a maid. She seems to hire and fire them frequently and she can’t keep good help for the job. She finds her next maid in an unlikely place, a pig pen. The new maid was ‘discarded’ by her family when she was young and the child was brought up by the pigs. The Baroness is a student of the enlightenment and names the maid Emily after a Rousseau character. The Baroness feels that it is her responsibility to do what she can for the lower classes to improve their lives. So she takes in Emily to train her to greet guests and lay the table. It seems another servant named Jeannette does most of the work, teaching Emily the names of the cutlery, how to hold a tray with the guests’ visiting cards etc.

While the Baroness has a certain coolness towards Emily she does form a kind of bond with her. The Baroness receives a letter and two photographs from a ‘well-wisher’ regarding the Baron. He is a womanizer. She shares this information with Emily who does not understand the subtleties of what she is being told.

I don’t get a real sense that the Baroness has any feelings for Emily (Julia Course) except as a lower class person over whom she has power. Her commiserating with Emily about the Baron is more from a sense of loneliness of the Baroness than a close bond with Emily.

The Baroness (Yanna McIntosh) is usually short tempered with the simple Emily. Emily is eager to learn the facts. It’s the essences of situations she can’t grasp. And the Baroness keeps mentioning another servant named Jeannette who seems to be doing most of the teaching of how to do the job. We find out from the Baroness that Jeannette might be the one with the emotional connection to Emily and not the Baroness so let us see a play with Jeannette and Emily. That might be more in line with the echoes of the Pygmalion story.

At one point in the play Emily is in physical danger screaming out and the Baroness does nothing. What is one to make of that?

The Production. The set by Camellia Koo has low benches line the playing area with books and bedsheets neatly placed in the spaces below the benches. That means the audience is on all sides of the playing space. The director Selma Dimitrijevic is not adept in directing in the round. Too often a scene is played so that we are either looking at the actor’s back and therefore miss a lot of action in front of him or her or miss a bit of business that is visible only to part of the audience who are laughing at what they are seeing. It’s really frustrating being left out.

In the scene when the  Baroness receives the letter and two photographs telling her about her husband’s behavior,  instead of subtly turning to face all sides of the audience so they can see what she has been reading , Dimitrijevic has Yanna McIntosh as the Baroness stand still facing only one side of the audience at the  expense of the text.

McIntosh looks very regal in her white wig and stunning starched, stiff white dress—the angles of the dress make the ‘look’ so formidable one gets the sense the dress could use its own room.  McIntosh has a hauteur that is appropriate but with no wiggle room in the text to indicate she is anything but a manipulative, angry woman who uses the servants with whom to take out her ire.

The text makes better use of stage directions that tell us what is happening than the production does. There are sound effects of a door opening and closing and footfalls. From that we are to infer the Baron has returned home and is up to no good.  There are popping sounds without explanation. Are they representative of photographs? Why?

As Emily (the pig) Julia Course has an innocent, curious way with the character. She is in a new world and she wants to learn its complicated goings on. She has a genuine grace and sweetness, but soon learns of the cruel side of this world when she’s up against the violence of the visits of the baron and with the arrogance of the Baroness.

There is a clever bit of directorial business at the end, when Emily does learn how to defend herself,

All in all I found Dimitrijevic’s pace of the piece to be glacial and that goes for the temperature in that theatre–freezing with the air-conditioning blowing down relentlessly.

 Comment. Tim Carroll, the Shaw Festival Artistic Director, writes in the forward to the text of the play, that his intension when he took the job of Artistic Director, was to explore new writing (The Orchard (After Chekhov) falls into this category. Wonderful play and production.  More on that to follow. (to be fair Jackie Maxwell, the previous Shaw Artistic Director was already exploring new writing during her tenure). And Tim Carroll also says he will search out plays (presumably Canadian) that have only had one production and give it another production at the Shaw Festival. The Baroness and the Pig falls into this category.

The production history of The Baroness and the Pig has been meager. It was written in 1993 and had a workshop production at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.  In 1998 it had a French language production in Montreal and an English production in Montreal in 2008. It was made into a film in 2003 and was not well received. Since then there has been  nothing until the Shaw produced it. There’s a reason for it not receiving more attention—it’s not a good play, and no amount of effort to suggest that this will be a “Canadian Classic” will change that. The depth of both the Pygmalion story and Shaw’s play Pygmalion, the subtlety, the philosophical exploration of an artist falling in love with his creation or a playwright exploring class distinctions is barely touched on in The Baroness and the Pig. Referring to Emily as the pig when referencing Pygmalion is barely clever. Alas the play is more a pig’s ear than a silk purse.

Presented by the Shaw Festival

Opened: June 20, 2018.

Closes: Oct. 6, 2018.

Running Time:  1 hour and 50 minutes.

www.shawfest.com

 

 

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At the Avon Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Book, music and lyrics by Richard O’Brien

Directed and choreographed by Donna Feore

Music director, Laura Burton

Set by Michael Gianfrancesco

Costumes by Dana Osborne

Lighting by Michael Walton

Projections by Jamie Nesbitt

Sound by Peter Boyle

Cast: Eric Abel

Gabriel Antonacci

Dan Chameroy

Colton Curtis

Bonnie Jordan

Bethany Kovarik

George Krissa

Robert Markus

Erica Peck

Trevor Patt

Sayer Roberts

Steve Ross

Jennifer Ryder-Shaw

Jason Sermonia

Kimberly-Ann Truong

The Rocky Horror Show is breathlessly lively with rousing choreography, staged almost like a rock concert, with flashing lights at every turn. The performances are cheeky and impish, led by the cheekiest, most impish Dan Chameroy.

The Story. This is Richard O’Brien’s 1973 cult musical that is an homage to science fiction and B horror movies, and is about sex, transvestitisms and letting go of your inhibitions.

A young, conservative couple, Brad and Janet, are driving home from a wedding when their car breaks down in a dark and forbidding wood. But there is a spooky castle over there and surely the people living there will let them use the phone to call for help. They are welcomed into the castle by a creepy butler called Riff Raff and his tarty looking sister Magenta. They are then ushered into a room to meet Dr. Frank N Furter, a fish-net legged, leather bustier wearing man in thigh high heeled boots.  He lives for pleasure to the extent that he has created Rocky Horror, a buff, muscular, tanned man to be his plaything. Frank N Furter is an equal opportunity lover who loves people of both genders and leaves them when someone new comes along.

The Performance. Michael Gianfrancesco’s set looks almost like a cartoon with a cut out car in which Brad and Janet drive; the background is painted as if it is in a cartoon and the spooky painting of the castle is both foreboding and appropriately tacky.

This being The Rocky Horror Show there is an understanding that there will be heckling.

We were told to be lively and participate but we could not bring toast to throw or rice or any other food stuffs. The audience did heckle on cue—Janet was called a slut when she was introduced, and Brad was called an “asshole.” A large part of the opening night audience dressed in costume: black makeup and lipstick, fishnet stockings, heels, leather etc. I went dressed as a ‘theatre critic’ with absolutely no dress sense whatsoever.

Some of the heckles are hilarious giving the lines before the cast says them and the cast was up for it without a blink. Perhaps there are plants in the audience?

The singing is uniformly strong—it is a loud show but you can hear every single word. Erica Peck as Magenta and Robert Markus as Riff Raff are fearless belters.

Dan Chameroy plays Dr. Frank N Furter with swagger, style and knows how to play to the audience and is totally compelling. The build up to the good Doctor’s entrance is impressive. A door opens and a platform appears in bright white light and smoke. The platform moves downstage and on it in silhouette is Dr. Frank N Furter in a cape. He flips it aside and there he is, strapping, muscular, wearing a leather bustier and fishnet stockings and heels. He sings that he is “a sweet transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania.”

Chameroy has a wonderfully strong voice and such a leering way with a phrase. The air is thick with sexual innuendo because of Chameroy’s wicked way of playing his character.

Steve Ross plays the Narrator, a person who comes in for most of the insults and heckles from the audience and he is masterful. He is stodgy, almost formal, officious and knows how to play all the comedy seriously for the best laughs.

This is some of the best work that director/choreographer Donna Feore has done. It is wild, raucous, hedonistic and vibrant. The choreography is appropriately frenzied and leaves you breathless.  Michael Walton has lit this with dazzle as if it were a rock concert, which in part, it is. Dana Osborne’s costumes are witty and daring. The production is sublime.

Comment.  The Rocky Horror Show was written in 1973 and they were talking about gender fluidity even then. So this is a huge surprise—not that it’s so much fun and entertaining, but that it’s sobering how ahead of it’s time this show is. It’s talking about being the ‘other,’ about sexuality, gender issues and it’s doing it with irreverence—in this castle in the isolated woods—because in the big world these people would not be accepted, and worse, they would be eliminated in some places. This isn’t a spoiler—the show is 45 years old and is a cult favourite.  I think that is an important point in 2018. Gender fluidity and sexual duality is everywhere in The Rocky Horror Show.

Presented by the Stratford Festival.

Opened: June 2, 2018.

Closes: Oct. 31, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

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

Written and “performed” by Stephen Fry

Based on the book by Stephen Fry

Directed by Tim Carroll

Designed by Douglas Paraschuk

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Projections by Nick Bottomley

Original music by Paul Sportelli

 Stephen Fry discourses on Greek Myths in this bloated, self-indulgent vanity production that is really a very expensive audio book.

 The Story. Celebrity raconteur, writer, Stephen Fry has divided his presentation of his book Mythos into three sections: Gods, Heroes, Men, with each section having its own performance. I’m going to review all of them together even though I saw them separately.

Gods. Fry goes into great detail explaining how the heavens and the earth came into being with the spirit/deity overseeing it all, how they mated and had children, some hideous with many arms and hands, and how eventually the twelve gods were born. He talks about their names both in Greek as well as the Roman version, although the Romans didn’t look on the Gods with as much reverence or respect as the ancient Greeks. He talks about the mighty Zeus and his prodigious need to impregnate any woman he sees, and was rather inventive and successful at it. He details the other Gods and their idiosyncrasies, what their domains were (Poseidon for example was the God of the oceans etc.), how they interacted with each other and mortals, their personalities,

 Heroes. There is Heracles who if you say the name fast comes out Hercules and his many labours that he has to perform. There is a projection of 10 doors on the stage each noted with a Roman Numeral (Fry made a nice joke about it being a “Roman” numeral). Stephen Fry asks a person from the audience to pick a numbered door and then Mr. Fry discourses in great detail about the task behind that door. He says he only has time to talk about one of the tasks but he does manage to sneak in a lot more doors and what tasks hides behind it.

Thesius was the greatest Athenian hero, and I can assure you that the story on him is more than one sentence.

 Men. Odysseus, Paris, Agamemnon, the Trojan War, and Odysseus’ long, long, ditto trip home.

 The Production. The panels for The Magician’s Nephew (Douglas Paraschuk) are used to project the sky, the stars and various pieces of art that depict the Gods and Heroes etc. In a cloud of smoke and some incidental music (Paul Sportelli) Stephen Fry rises up from the trap to appear smiling and jovial in a comfortable arm chair. He is casually dressed in a jacket, shirt and pants. One notes there is not a glass of water or a jug of water or anything for liquid refreshment. This man goes full tilt without outside liquid aids. Mighty impressive.

From time to time Fry rises from the comfy chair (carefully doing up the buttons of his jacket, to look at the art projected on the panels that refers to a god or hero or man in the story. Almost by surprise is a musical cue and six new panels appear in a different colour: lemon, lime, orange, grape, strawberry etc. This is the beginning to a little game called “Mythical Pursuit” based on “Trivial Pursuit” that used colour coding in its questions. This was an idea of Tim Carroll, the director.  At the top of each panel is something written in Greek. The audience is asked to call out a colour. Mr. Fry then discourses on what the Greek means and the minutiae of how it pertains to the myths. When he finishes he undoes the buttons of his jacket and sits down. I loved that courtliness of buttoning his jacket when he rose to face the audience and unbuttoned the jacket when he sat.

Also we were instructed that if we had a question about the show or the gods or any myths we were to e-mail an address during intermission with our question and the Oracle of delFRY (ugh) would answer it. Just before intermission his chair lowered into the trap. Sure enough after intermission Mr. Fry rose up again and read the question he selected from the e-mails and answered the question, minute in detail and done with a smile.

Stephen Fry is articulate, erudite, mellifluous and just so buoyant in the storytelling (myths means ‘stories’.) He paints a detailed, full picture of who these Gods, Heroes and Men were, their relatives, their friends, the name of the castles and islands where they lived and the names of the pets.

He is so deeply intrigued by these Myths that watching him, mesmerizing at first, telling them is like watching a spider delicately weaving its intricate, artful web. The skill is unmistakable. We lean in closer listening, trying to keep all the names straight—he tells us not to worry about that, that’s his job. Then we realize that we are stuck in the web, it’s a glop. We can’t move or know how this Hero is related to whoever and where are we in the story, and after a while it’s just pretentious information overload.

From what I can tell Tim Carroll’s directorial offerings consisted of when the projections should appear on the panels and when the incidental music should play to begin “Mythical Pursuit”. The rest is left to Mr. Fry.

Comment.  Mythos A Trilogy: Gods. Heroes. Men is really ONE two-hour show  that is bloated into three separate performances of two and a half hours each. What is this but a simple live performance of an audio book and why is it at the Shaw Festival?

Apparently Stephen Fry told Tim Carroll that he wanted to present the Greek Myths for a modern audience. How then to consider the section of “Men” without a trace of irony or comment about men in 2018. There is the meandering, winding story of Odysseus and his ten year absence from his wife, the patient Penelope, as he fought in the Trojan War. But then it took him another ten years to get home, what with that bad luck with the escaping winds, the Cyclops, the sirens and the attractive women beckoning.  I might have expected Penelope to say to him when he finally decided to put a move on it to return and came home: “What happened, dear, did your compass break?”

And of course from a woman’s point of view, how typical of the macho man Odysseus to be given a bag of bad winds tied up tight  and told not to open it and then he does not impart that news to his men, leaving them to think all manner of things, none of it good. The result of course is their curiosity got the better of them and they opened the bag, the winds escaped and that blew Odysseus and his men off course for years. But Mr. Fry offers no comment or subtext. And of course no women are worth mentioning as their own entity and the Myths have plenty of them with spunk, pluck and brains.

Fry does wrap all the stories up at the end, extolling the virtues of men and how far they have come from the gods, but it seems like so much admiration at the stories without a modern context. This unedited, slavish admiration of these stories is shared by his director.

A dapper man on the opening of Mythos: Men was heard to say that he loved the show. That Stephen Fry “was the classics professor he never had.” Very well and good but this isn’t a classics class, it’s supposed to be a place for theatre and really, this isn’t theatre.

It’s obvious Stephen Fry loves words. He has said that he would say in 100 words what could just as easily be said in 10. That’s the problem. One doesn’t get the sense that any cutting or any kind of editing has been done on Mythos A Trilogy: Gods. Heroes. Men and it needs it, drastically.

The first to be cut is the “Mythical Pursuit,” too clever for words and we don’t need it. Ditto the bit about “Ask the Oracle of “DelFRY” (Ugh). Next trade in that self-indulgence for a lot more focus, self-restraint and less preening. Get a very big blue pencil or an axe and cut!!!!

Presented by the Shaw Festival

Opened: June 7 8, 9, 2018

Closes; July 15, 2018.

Running Time: Each part lasts 2 hours, 30 minutes with one intermission.

www.shawfest.com

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