The Passionate Playgoer

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

Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Peter Hinton
Designed by Gillian Gallow
Lighting by Bonnie Beecher
Original music and sound by Ryan deSouza
Cast: Lisa Berry
Ryan Cunningham
Starr Domingue
Diana Donnelly
Patrick McManus
Kiera Sangster
Vanessa Sears
André Sills
Samantha Walkes

Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins looks at racism and turns it on its head in this terrific production.

The Story. The Octoroon, on which this version is based, was written by Irish playwright, Dion Boucicault and opened in New York in 1869 at the Winter Garden Theatre. It took place on a plantation that was in jeopardy and the slaves were to be sold. That play dealt with issues of racism.

Fast forward to 2014 when African-American writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins took Boucicault’s play, kept the story but then turned the themes of racism on its ear. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ calls his play An Octoroon. It opened to great acclaim Off-Broadway.

An octoroon is a person who is 1/8 black. At the time of the play—1869 it was illegal for an octoroon to marry a white person. In the play, Zoe is a house slave. She is also the illegitimate daughter of the recently deceased white owner of the plantation and one of his slaves. George is the nephew of the deceased owner. He has come home to try and sort out the details of the estate and falls in love with Zoe. She knows she can’t marry him because of that rule.

The Production. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins turns the whole issue of racism on its ear in a cheeky way. He’s wonderfully cheeky here. He presents this as a play within a play with eye-popping surprises along the way.

At the top of the production we are introduced to a character named BJJ, an African-American playwright—note the initials of our African-American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. BJJ is played with impish smiling style and grace by André Sills. He is initially dressed only in black bikini briefs. He has a lot to smile about.

BJJ laments that he doesn’t have enough actors of colour to play the characters of colour in his play, so he solves this by having white actors apply blackface in one instance, and red face in another to play a Native American.

He also says that many white actors would balk at playing a white villain who has to say what they say, so a black actor in white face says the damning dialogue. Black actors whiten their faces to play white characters and the actresses, both black and white, don’t add any make-up at all. An Octoroon is an equal opportunity offender…everybody is skewered.

The production is terrific. It’s directed with gleaming intellect and sensitivity by Peter Hinton. He brings out the wit, irony and sobering truth of the piece. His attention to detail is exquisite. There’s a lot to keep track of and Hinton doesn’t let anything drop. And he gets wonderful performances from his stellar cast.

André Sills plays BJJ, the African-American playwright; George, the white nephew of the late plantation owner, and M’Closky, a villain who is white. Sometimes Sills plays both George and M’Closky at the same time—the two characters even have a fight on stage at the same time. Masterful.

Patrick McManus plays Dion Boucicault with verve and exuberance, Wahnotee (in red face makeup to suggest the character is a Native American), and Lafouche an irritated riverboat captain. McManus plays all of them with compelling conviction. Lisa Berry as Dido and Kiera Sangster as Minnie, two slaves, have sass and attitude for days. Diana Donnelly plays Dora, a rich white woman who has designs on George. Much of her dialogue would be offensive today, with her belittling of the slaves and her racist attitude. Donnelly lets loose with the invective without holding back. It’s a chilling performance.

Gillian Gallow has designed the production with simplicity, but her backdrop deserves special mention-it looks like a piece of art in wood cuts. Just stunning.

Comment. I love how Branden Jacobs-Jenkins up ends our presumptions, assumptions, and assertions about racism. Considering the headlines of the last while it’s a subject, alas, that won’t go away.

As in 1869, An Octoroon is presented as a melodrama; emotions are high; lots of declarative dialogue. It almost seems a send-up but it’s not because the issues are so serious. The offensive terminology of the day is used and it makes for wonderfully bracing, sometimes appropriately uncomfortable viewing, but well worth it.

In one scene BJJ addresses the audience saying that a character who committed a murder is caught doing the deed in a photograph. BJJ says this is such a cliché and not to be taken seriously but then shows us something that he says will make us feel something.

It’s another photograph—I won’t tell you of what, but we look at it in silence and suck air. If something can startle an audience it’s not a cliché. I love that mixing of style in performance and the truth of the issues. Loved the production. See it.

Produced by the Shaw Festival.

Began: July 16, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 14, 2017.
Cast: 9; 3 men, 6 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

www.shawfest.com

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At 4th Line Theatre, Millbrook, Ont.
Written and directed by Robert Winslow
Original music by Justin Hiscox
Costumes by Meredith Hubbard
Cast: Edward Belanger
Kiana Bromley
Cyndi Carleton
Maude Rose Craig
Justin Hiscox
Mark Hiscox
Emma Khaimovich
Gary Reker
Shelley Simester
Robert Winslow
Part history lesson, part confessional in which neither is properly served.

Background
: 4th Line Theatre Company is celebrating its 26th season of producing original Canadian pays that generally focus on the stories and history of the area, towns and townships around the Winslow family farm. 4th Line Theatre is situated on the Winslow family farm in Millbrook, Ont. in Cavan Township.

Past plays have dwelt on stories about the Jewish cottage industry in Pontypool, just up the road, at the beginning of the last century; the animosity of newly arrived Irish of both Catholic and Protestant beliefs; the bank robbers of Havelock; the first phone lines for example.

Bombers: Reaping the Whirlwind, was the first play of this season and was about memories of flying bombers in WWII. The History of Drinking in Cavan, is, well, er, about the history of drinking in Cavan.

The Story. Robert Winslow is our narrator of this history of drinking in Cavan Township. He notes it will not be chronological. So he flits from the 1800s telling of the various bars and taverns in the area to modern times, to the war years and so on. He mentions people who were notable for their drinking in the town of Millbrook and various other locations. He mentions bars and taverns that people who live in the area would know about, etc. It would probably mean nothing to people who live outside that area.

Robert Winslow also has his own personal story that obviously pains him. His mother was an alcoholic and he laments that he was not of help to her as she struggled in her last years. It consumes much of the play once he decides to deal with the story.
Winslow laments that years before he and his father had an argument and Robert Winslow railed at him. Later that day Robert Winslow’s father had a sudden heart attack and died. Winslow notes that years later his mother drank heavily. She needed him and he was not there. He just couldn’t deal with her distress.

The Production. Robert Winslow directs a free-wheeling production that uses the surrounding meadows of the farm, the barn and the various upper reaches of buildings. Children with a mask that covers the face gallop like horses. Another child wearing a costume covered in feathers plays a chicken. The cast is exuberant, especially if playing drunks. There is an embarrassing scene when people in the audience are brought on stage to sit appearing to be involved in the action. It doesn’t work and they just look embarrassed.

Shelley Simester plays several parts but is most affecting as “Mom”, Robert Winslow’s mother. Winslow dropped out of university and drifted until he discovered theatre. Winslow also plays the town drunk, with a flip of his hat and a stagger. Truthfully, there is nothing funny about a town drunk, when he’s just there for humour. Who was the guy? Why did he drink? The play doesn’t answer this. There are scenes with temperance ladies that are played for laughs. Temperance folks were serious if the drinking in the area was so intense. I wish the play dwelt with them better. Robert Winslow is a lively narrator. I just wish the story was better.

Comment. While the history of drinking in the area might be interesting to those who live there, it isn’t to those who don’t. We don’t have a connection and therefore an interest after we hear one fact too many.

And while Winslow’s angst and penance for his treatment of his mother in her years of need are moving, there is so much information that is missing that its just leaves one confused. Can we assume his father was an alcoholic since we are told by one character he had a bottle of rum in his pocket? When did his mother begin to drink? Was it after her husband died? Was it when her husband was drinking himself and she drank too to keep him company? The news of his mother’s drinking seems to just be dropped into the narrative since others didn’t know about it nor do they mention it. Winslow says he went to Al-Anon meetings, meetings for family members who were alcoholic. But later he says he went to an AA meeting too. Does that mean that Robert Winslow is an alcoholic too? He says he’s not when queried in the play. Which is it?

I don’t doubt this is a sensitive subject for Winslow. There is one scene in which he looks so overcome that the stage manager comes out to stop the action. This is so disingenuous it’s painful and embarrassing to watch because it’s fake. Cut that immediately. If this is a story Robert Winslow needed to tell, then perhaps a play is not the right place to tell it.
Produced by 4th Line Theatre

Began: Aug. 7, 2017
Closes: Aug. 26 2017
Cast: 10; 5 men, 5 women
Running Time: 2 hours

www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca

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Spawn

At the Factory Theatre

Written by Cheyenne Scott
Directed by Gein Wong
Cast: Samantha Brown
Dillan Meighan-Chiblow
Herbie Barnes
Cathy Elliot

Cheyenne Scott has written a thoughtful play about returning to ones indigenous roots, beliefs and traditions by using salmon during spawning season as a metaphor. Against all odds salmon swim against currents to get home to spawn.

Theresa is an indigenous woman who is at odds with her disconnected family. When she becomes pregnant she wants to correct that. She and her supportive boyfriend Mikey deal with the difficulties that come their way with an impressive maturity.
Samantha Brown as Theresa and Dillan Meighan-Chiblow give impressive performances.

It’s a complex story that could use a simpler production than Gein Wong’s busy one. There are videos as a backdrop that zoom in and out for some reason while characters are talking. Distracting. Actors could all use firm direction to speak up and not drop their words. The words are the reason we’re in the room; say them clearly please.

These Violent Delights

At the Factory Theatre

Written and directed by Cole Lewis
Cast: Jessica Del Fiero
Jordan Zanni
Alexa Fraser
Johnny Wu
Nicola Rough
Montserrat Videla
Dominique Hat
Evan Medd
Emilyn Sims
Matt Winter
Shira Leuchter

Cole Lewis has written an overly ambitious script that questions why we build monuments, using the story of Romeo and Juliet as the model. When Romeo and Juliet die, the warring Capulets and Montegues declare peace between them and a monument is built to commemorate the love of the two young people. There is some confusing dialogue blaming the Nurse for all the trouble.

Cole Lewis has also directed this production and that too is over extended. A chorus enters wearing tall hats/face coverings that fit over the face that also have a face painted on each one. The language attempts to be poetic but winds up being confusing. To make matters worse someone thought it would be clever to have each speaker’s dialogue pre-empted by a reverbering echo so that when the speaker finally gave her lines it came out garbled because of the echo. A show that is already dense with effort to be esoteric just became incomprehensible. A brave effort is one thing; a lot more simplicity and clarity of what you really want to say would have been better.

www.summerworks.ca

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Written and performed by Shaista Latif

At the Pia Bouman School of Ballet and Creative Movement.

I first saw Shaista Latif’s wonderful work in her play Graceful Rebellions in SummerWorks 2014. In it she talked about things she knew: being a Canadian of Afghan decent; being expected to follow traditional Afghan customs; gender issues; feelings of displacement and isolation. Her voice was new, true open-hearted and she had the most compelling sense of performance. This was a new voice I wanted to hear again so I looked out for her work.

She performed a segment of The Archivist at the Rhubarb Festival in 2015 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. It was an archive of photos, videos and confessional expanding on the themes of gender issues, family dynamics, living with her family but having to leave because of problems. Again the writing and performance were compelling. She talks softly but the heft of the ideas and the implications for growing as a person are weighty. One certainly got the idea that Shaista Latif had to contend with a lot of issues to live a psychologically, emotionally healthy life.

In 2016 The Archivist was expanded to an hour in length and presented as part of the Riser Project at the Theatre Centre. The themes introduced in 2015 were further expanded and developed. Again, some of the details of her life were harrowing but she handled them with sensitivity and a certain grace in living with difficult circumstances. While some of the details might have soured someone to life, one didn’t get that sense from Latif’s writing or performance. Again, the voice is calm, the face smiling with humour. It’s noted that each performance will be different.

For SummerWorks 2017 The Archivist is now expanded to 75 minutes. There is a large “Persian” rug on the floor and a large screen up against the back wall. For about three minutes at the top of the show a video is projected on the screen of two hands, wrists and forearms fluttering and twisting gracefully around each other. The nails are polished and there are many bracelets around both wrists. It looks like a hand dance from another country. India? The Middle East? Don’t know. The accompanying music is rhythmically repetitive percussion that wears thin quickly.

Eventually Shaista Latif enters wearing a summery dress. She smiles her beaming smile at us and says softly, “Hello Fuckers.” My eyes widen and I’m thinking, “Excuse me?? She greets us again with “Hello Fuckers”. I exhale slowly and think “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

She talks of her family. Her father was loving and her mother seemed distant. Her mother gave her four year old daughter firm advice when she went off to school not to let anyone touch her. There was no other explanation and that led to a terrible misunderstanding which resulted in Latif getting into trouble.

Her brother was revered because he was a boy. Latif learned early about the issues facing girls and how she had to fight for equal attention. Pictures of the family are projected on the screen. There is an on-going video of her parents wedding. Latif notes that the carpet is like the magic carpet in Aladdin. She asks for a volunteer from the audience to come up and help her with a section of the show. An eager young man obliges. They sit on the carpet facing us. A song from the Disney film of Aladdin is played, the man begins singing in a full voice that is woefully off-key while scenes of war and bombing are projected on the screen behind them. It could be scenes from the war in Afghanistan. I feel embarrassed for that young man that he was used in such a way. He doesn’t seem to know what is projected behind him. He is thanked when the song is finished and he returns to his seat. I tightened my seat belt.

There are references to how she was bullied at school; how teachers were not supportive or helpful. There is a video clip projected on the large screen of a TV interview Latif did with an obviously inept interviewer in Halifax. Latif was talking about a production of Graceful Rebellions that was playing there. The interviewer—a blonde picked for her looks not her reporting skills no doubt—was obviously out of her depth. She couldn’t get her head around the subject matter of gender issues or the Afghan experience. She stammered her questions and seemed incredulous with the answers. Latif for her part was calm, cool and gracious in her answers but with just the slightest hint of gentle pointed irony that the interviewer missed, but we got. That would have been enough to sell its point, but Latif is not satisfied for this clip to speak for itself. She sits on the carpet facing us. For every faux pas of the interviewer, Latif indicates her contempt in body language and facial expressions. Irony is now replaced by heavy sarcasm.

I wanted to pronounce Shaista Latif’s name properly should I ever meet her. I asked a friend who worked with her how to pronounce the name. He spent time telling me the proper pronunciation of the first name especially, the nuance, and the proper placement of the accent. Imagine my stunned surprise when Latif says in her show that everybody pronounces her name wrong, giving the example of the incorrect way, which was the way I was taught. She then pronounces it correctly and completely differently. She said it was easier to let people say it wrong than correct them. Excuse me?! Easier for whom? Latif, who doesn’t seem to care? Or for us, who are eager to get it right? It is her name. We owe it to everybody to get the name right.

Latif ends the show with another video clip of a stylish woman in a designer gown, singing “Thanks for the Memories.” The woman is Nancy Reagan singing at a tony gathering. Latif introduces her as ‘the evil Nancy Reagan’ and begins to sing along with Reagan. The whole segment then becomes another send-up. One wonders why this is included, so when Latif ends the song and the evening with “Thanks” one is confused as to what she is saying thanks for if it comes at the end of this added section of sarcasm.

This is the description of The Archivist from the SummerWorks catalogue of shows: “Shaista Latif is a lot of different people. She’s created them all to serve you. War, Sex, Money and Art. As a response, Shaista makes an archive of music, text, video and stories to see if she can create one identity that will serve all.”

Ahhh this is one problem with the show. The intention is misguided. We are different things to different people whether we try to be the same for all or not. So trying to “create one identity that will serve all” is in an impossible task. Also, rather than being an archive of music, text, stories, videos and memories that shaped a developing, blossoming artist, this is now a list of slights, insults, hurtful moments that are dwelt upon and they are presented with sarcasm, bitterness, quiet anger and condescension. That I have to say this of an artist I respect breaks my heart.

www.summerworks.ca

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Perfection

Created, performed and written by Mark Correia
With help from Erik Berg

Magician-comedian Mark Correia lives to present a perfect show. He asks us to write something on a piece of paper that would make his show perfect, even before we see it. I put down Gateau St. Honoré but I think that was wishful thinking.

He proceeds to set up various tricks, joking during the set up. He then rushes towards a table laden with various paraphernalia that is important to him, and completely knocks over the table.

Mark Correia is a charming presence as he bumbles through his set ups, (borrowing a cell phone for a trick and then breaking it by mistake) and jokes, and draws out the suspense of the trick. The tricks are audacious, complex, impossible (?) and eye-popping. Never mind wondering how a trick is done. It’s done by magic, silly! And Correia does it all with style.

The Chemical Valley Project

This plays in a double-bill with Perfection which seems a weird paring, but never mind.

Created by Julia Howman and Kevin Matthew Wong
Written and performed by Kevin Matthew Wong

From the program: “Aamjiwnaang, an indigenous community of 800 residents, is smothered by the Canadian petrochemical industry. Two sisters, Vanessa and Lindsay Gray, have dedicated themselves to fighting environmental racism and protecting their community’s land and water. In The Chemical Valley Project, theatre-makers Kevin Matthew Wong and Julia Howman document and explore Canada’s ongoing relationship with energy infrastructure, its colonial pas and present, and indigenous solidarity and reconciliation.”

Kevin Matthew Wong is a committed and personable guide through this thorny subject. He uses video projections on a large screen at the back of the theatre to illustrate his points. There is clever use of gauzy fabric on which are projected dialogue, images, and information. It’s smoothly delivered, and while what is happening to this community is infuriating, it’s not theatrically dramatic or a play. It’s a TED talk, a lecture. One can’t help but admire Mr. Wong’s commitment to the issue.

Nashville Stories

Written by David Bernstein and Jake Vanderham
Directed by David Bernstein

At the top of the show one of the performers says there is no program because “you would throw them out anyway.” Isn’t that why God invented re-cycling? He then read, at break-neck speed, on his cell-phone, who was in the cast. Me, I like a program. It tells you who plays what. It gives you all that neat stuff such as why they decided to do this show; it lists all the personnel, the band etc. The SummerWorks program book has some of this information but not who plays what character, so I’ll just ignore that cause it’s not important, otherwise it would have been properly provided, right?

This is about sad Garth Brooks and his friends Dolly Parton and Shania Twain and how they try to cheer him up after his marriage breaks up. It’s based on Brooks’ infamous 1999 album, ‘The Life of Chris Gaines’. The writers “conjure a surreal hoedown featuring a live bluegrass band.”

I guess ‘surreal’ is another word for ‘drivel.’ The writing is witless, deadly-unfunny, rambling, confused and only clever it seems to those performing it. They all are having such a good time at our expense. The acting is one-noted on purpose I suppose—surreal? The band plays well but I can’t remember the last time I saw a group of musicians who looked like they were bored out of their minds and would rather be anywhere but there.

I kept hearing a jangling noise behind the seats (the ‘back-stage is behind the seats in the theatre, where we could see the ‘performers’ waiting to go on.’) I thought it might be a man fondling his change in his pockets and was too deaf-stupid to hear the noise. I kept looking back to see who that might be and didn’t see anyone at first. The distracting noise continued. Eventually when I looked back there was a ‘performer’ in a short jean skirt, with rows and rows of silver bracelets on each wrist. Every time she moved her arms the bracelets clanged. They were clanging so much I thought she must be doing jumping jacks back there or semaphore with flags to occupy her time until she made an entrance. And eventually she did….to play the worst rock star in the world. How can you be in the middle of noise of your own making and not hear any of it? A puzzlement.

Nashville Stories is dreadful.

Serenity Wild

Written by Katie Sly
Directed by Audrey Dwyer

NOTE: Another production without a program and the SummerWorks Program doesn’t even list the actors because I guess the company producing this didn’t provide the names. (Sigh!).

Amy was abused by her step-father when she was younger. She now has intimacy issues with her boyfriend Liam. She is also emotionally ‘closed’. Liam seems as needy as Amy in that he’s desperate to help her and be there for her, but something as simple as hugging her eludes him.

Katie Sly has written an intriguing play about the effects of child-hood sexual abuse that has deeper implications in adulthood. While the play deals with important issues the characters talk at each other not to each other. Characters don’t listen to the argument and rather respond to the criticism that they are not listening. This makes for tedious viewing. Much of it seems like the same argument repeated.

Liam is described as loving to Amy. His behaviour and words suggest otherwise. He’s needy himself and creepy in that need. Both Amy and Liam are interesting characters that could do with re-examination and re-writing.

Explosions for the 21st Century

Written, designed and performed by Christopher Ross-Ewart
Directed by Graham Isador

What an explosive surprise of a show!

Christopher Ross-Ewart is a sound designer with an intellectually curious mind about sound in our culture and an impish sense of humour in presenting that curiosity. He takes us into his world of common sounds for shows—explosions are common as is birdsong, and the occasional fart. But then he delves deeper, explaining how our world has become noisier and more dangerous with regards to sound. Some sounds that he had to create for a show imitated sounds that were heard for real with deadly results. His explanation for making a sound more pronounced is masterful.

Christopher Ross-Ewart is a thoughtful writer with a curious imagination, a charming way of presenting his thoughts, and most important, he gets us to listen in a deeper more attentive way.

www.summerworks.ca

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Two shows presented by young performers dealing with weighty issues and both are well worth a look.

Almeida (The Glorious)

Created and performed by the participants of the Amy Project:

Nicole Acaso
Adri Almeida
Zeynab Egbeyemi
Xenamay Gezahegn
Destiny Laldeo
Karis Jones-Pard
Jamie Milay
Caroline Manjaly
Rafiat Olusanya
Morgan Paradise
Kaitlyn Rodgers
Fatima Adam
Bessie Cheng

Directed by Julia Hune-Brown and Nikki Shaffeeullah

The AMY Project is a free performing arts training program serving youth, women and non-binary youth. It is a wonderful initiative that creates productions that are challenging, informative, and bracing. Almeida (The Glorious) is a case in point.

The group of young performers bring their own stories of ancestry, culture, body image and life challenges to create the show. The stories are full of difficult experiences, slights, episodes of bullying, feelings of isolation and uncertainty. It is sobering to hear but the cast is so committed and confident in their telling there is not a trace of self-pity or insecurity. Instead, there is humour, generosity and buoyant assuredness. What is so evident is that this group is cherished, both by their families and the organizers of the AMY Project, and the result is a group that feels safe enough to voice their innermost concerns and secrets. Bravo to young people—they are our best teachers.

O Nosso Fado

This was presented by students of Loretto College School in partnership with the Sears Ontario Drama Festival.

Written by Kathy Martinez
Directed by Sara Pedrosa

NOTE: I so wish there was a program to give proper credit to the performers and the wonderful Fado singer.

This is a look at the experience of first generation Canadians towards their working class parents, in this case, mothers, who do cleaning work in an office building. Lucy is 12 and is taken to work with her mother Maria because she can’t stay home alone. Lucy feels resentment and embarrassment towards her mother and the others because they can’t speak English well, they hold on to their memories of ‘back home’, and are taken advantage of by the management. The women need rubber gloves to protect their hands that have been damaged by the chemicals they have to use to clean. Management gives them the run-around and takes advantage of their lack of English. The women are afraid to protest and complain to the union because they fear they will loose their jobs. Finally, the women rally and twelve year old Lucy leads the charge.

The story packs a punch and makes us look and pay attention to those we take for granted.

www.summerworks.ca

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Let’s Try this Standing

Written and performed by Gillian Clark
Directed by Anthony Black

Wow! Wow! Ditto!

In 2010, Gillian Clark was walking along the street, minding her own business, when she was hit by an SUV. The top half of her body went through a store window. The bottom half was pinned to the brick wall. When the paramedics came she asked “Am I going to live.” That says everything about Ms Clark. “Am I going to live.” Not “Am I going to die.”

She sits in a metal chair facing her audience, bare feet on the floor. Still. She smiles. She is charming, personable, bright, affable and very funny. Truly. Funny. She goes through the details of the accident and the horrific damage done to her body, and especially her right leg.

She talks about “Hands” the name she gave to the scar massage therapist. He works on her scars to soften them up so that her leg can work. She is even-tempered, nothing self-pitying about her. She talks about the psychological effects of the accident. She talks of her mother and boyfriend. She goes deep into the physical, mental and spiritual effects of how she coped and copes. There is a moment when she rails and tells us things we don’t want to know and should. Then she recovers. The last scene of her wonderful, moving, compelling show is astonishing. This is a show about a woman who is living to the fullest. Everybody needs to see this.

Highly recommended.

Divine

Written by Natalie Frijia
Directed by Claire Burns
Cast: Aviva Armour-Ostroff
Christina Bryson
Sarah Campbell
Amanda Cordner
Haley Garnett
Kathleen O’Reilly
Rehaset
Khadijah Salawu
Annie Yao

Playwright Natalie Friji was given a challenge to write a genre-based piece. She further challenged herself to write a high-stakes adventure, set as a kind of western with a strong female lead. The result is a play in which all the characters are strong women. It’s about Penn, a diviner, a person with one of those ‘magic’ sticks that finds water. Matters are desperate. There is a drought so bad that people will kill for water. Penn is desperate to find water. Bandits threaten her and her friends. There is a mysterious Preacher who knows a secret about Penn. Matters get worse. How will it end?

Natalie Frijia has written a wildly imaginative story that perhaps goes off too wildly in all directions, but at its core touches on issues that affect us all. It’s directed by Claire Burns with eye-popping creativity. The piece is impressive from the acting to the design to the costumes. You will leave thirsty.

Recommended

The Only Good Indian

Co-Created by Jivesh Parasram, Tom Arthur Davis and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard.
Performed at my performance by Jivesh Parasram

One of the three co-creators presents the show each night. They work from a central script/lecture but then each performer will make the story his/her own. The show is a play on the word and perception of “Indian” among other things. And of course the title comes from a despicable idea.

Jivesh Parasram says people look at him and assume he is from India. That is incorrect. He is of Indian-Trinidadian descent. He gives a compelling lecture on the history of Trinidad and how his family and others were treated there. This is a show about ‘otherness’ as well, about not belonging. It’s about sugar, diabetes, drudge work, depression, coping, theatre and imagination.

Parasram is an imposing, unsettling presence. That’s a good thing in the theatre.

Recommended

www.sumerworks.ca

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At various venues in the downtown area, Toronto, Ont.

This is the 27th year for SummerWorks, a curated 10 day festival of one act plays, music, dance, live art and other kinds of performance. . Because I’m never here for the Fringe, SummerWorks is my festival of choice to glut on to see new shows and talent and stuff from people more experienced. The volunteers are cheerful, welcoming, efficient, and helpful to a person. Ordinarily it’s a smooth-running festival. I say ‘ordinarily’ because the opening day (yesterday), which I spent at Factory Theatre, had too many glitches.

I know it’s the first day, but come on folks, you’ve been doing this for 27 years! I saw three shows, but slated four. I had to cancel one because they were holding the show because of technical difficulties. I can appreciate that. But I had to cancel seeing it yesterday because my schedule was so tightly arranged that even a variance of one minute would have screwed things up. Cancelling that one show eased the schedule

That said, of the three shows I did see, all of them started late, in spite of the printed material saying the shows start on time. In other years shows have started right on the nose on time. Not on opening day yesterday. Not acceptable. Sorry. (I can only speak for Factory Theatre. I go to the other theatres later in the festival.)

In every case we were let into the theatre five minutes before the show was to start. Not enough time. In every case we started late, in one case as late as seven minutes. We have to be allowed into the house at least 10 minutes before curtain. That makes for a smooth transition to curtain time so we begin on time.

We can print our tickets before hand and come to the theatre ticket in hand, ready to drop them in a box as we go into the theatre. Nope, not this year it seems. This year, even with the ticket in hand we have to go, ticket in hand, to a nice person with a clipboard who has a list of all the people who pre-booked, so our name can be ticked off a long list. Unnecessary and time consuming. Why can’t we just drop our precious tickets in a big box and be done with it? If a person forgot the ticket then the list comes in handy. I have great faith that these glitches will be solved.

Now to the shows of the first day:

Someone Between

Written and Performed by Chantria Tram
Directed by Paula Wing
Original Staging by Milena Buziak
Movement by Andrea Nann

Chantria Tram is a Khmer-Krom. Her’s is the story of living in two worlds, her parents’ world and her own. The story has references to Viet Nam, Cambodia and India. Her parents risked their lives to escape their country. The journey was harrowing as Chantia Tram so expertly tells it. Her mother wants Chantria to keep up the cultural traditions as she (her mother) was taught. This might also mean returning ‘home’ to marry her cousin and perhaps bring him to Canada. Chantria of course has her own thoughts. This makes her someone between two cultures.

Chantria Tram writes with poetic insight and thoughtfulness about her experiences and her parents. She has huge respect for what they went through and how they survived to give their children a better chance. She can appreciate how her mother wants her to carry on the traditions.

The play begins with the opening of the flower festival and the various ceremonies that entails. Tram’s movements are graceful and evoke another culture. Her describing the various ceremonies dispel a mystery we might have had. There is grace, gentleness, cultural respect and appreciation in the piece.

Paula Wing directs this with equal respect and attention. It’s a lovely piece and a wonderful way to begin SummerWorks.

Highly Recommended.

What Linda Said

Written by Priscila Uppal
Directed by Gein Wong
Cast: Tracey Hoyt
Kimwun Perehinec

Priscila Uppal is a York University professor of poetry. She is also a published poet. She was a friend of celebrated Canadian playwright Linda Griffiths. Uppal was diagnosed with an aggressive kind of cancer at the same time that Linda Griffiths was dying of breast cancer. To cope with the effects of chemo, Uppal imagined a free-wheeling conversation with the spirit of the deceased Linda Griffiths and herself in an empty space. The play is the result of that imagined conversation. Alas, the play is dire. As for the production, Tracey Hoyt as Linda and Kimwun Perehinec as Priscila are stalwart.

While there are many passages of poetic invention, there is precious little that makes this a compelling, viable play. The same problems hampered her previous attempt at playwriting, 6 Essential Questions.

Much of What Linda Said seems a stream of consciousness with riffs on sea creatures and great turtles in the ocean, trying to create a painting, and dwelling on the illness. For most of it Uppal is the star of her own invention. She complains about: the medical system; her treatment and the pain from it; her husband with his own issues of depression and drinking; her mother (real problems there, as witnessed with 6 Essential Questions). And while Linda Griffiths is allowed to voice some of her own concerns late in the play, Linda Griffiths doesn’t say much and for all intents and purposes seems an irrelevance. Linda Griffiths, an irrelevance—Mindboggling.

Pricilla Uppal comes off as whiney, self-absorbed, self-indulgent and even narcissistic. The program note says: “In What Linda Said, the two meet in an imagined space where the living and the dead passionately, poetically and comically explore how cancer has affected each of their lives, friendships, art and futures.”

I wouldn’t mind seeing that play. This infuriating play isn’t it.

Not recommended.

Reality Theatre

Written by Julia Lederer
Directed by Rebecca Applebaum
Cast: Akosua Amo-Adem
Krista Morin
Andy Trithardt

Julia Lederer’s plays are full of off-the-wall observations and imagination and Reality Theatre is the latest example.

A man has signed a contract with the devil to remain young forever. A portrait he has of himself keeps aging. (Hmmm that sounds familiar). The devil works in the Starbucks; head office Seattle and trying to change the contract is challenging. A woman who plays the spoon in a production of Beauty and the Beast has philosophised her position in that show into a different realm of reality. Three people are caught in the fast-paced world of ever changing technology, which in turn changes them, because rather than figure out a problem, Google does it for them.

Intriguing.

Recommended.

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In the beautifully renovated Blyth Memorial Community Hall

Mr. New Year’s Eve: A Night with Guy Lombardo

Written by David Scott
Directed by Gil Garratt
Musical Director, George Meanwell
Set and Projections by Beth Kates
Costumes by Gemma James Smith
Sound by Verne Good
Cast: Klaus Anselm
Rebecca Auerbach
Jason Chesworth
Nathan Howe
George Meanwell
J.D. Nicholsen
Birgitte Solem
James Thomson

A sweet play about a Canadian icon.

Guy Lombardo, from London, Ontario, was a Canadian icon. He loved music. Studied it. Practiced and eventually created a band of which he was the band leader. His brothers: Carmen, Lebert and Victor were also members of the band. Carmen was also a songwriter. Eventually the band grew and became the Royal Canadians. Lombardo and his orchestra played many dates in the States, most notably The Waldorf Astoria in New York City. They were most noted for their New Year’s Eve shows.

David Scott hits all the highlights and low points plus those in between in Guy Lombardo’s life. The play begins with us being told that Guy’s demanding father hit him over the head with his violin when he played a wrong note. Such bullying tactics are played out over Guy’s career. He was a dutiful son but it was never enough for his father who was also something of an amateur musician.

For all the information, the play seems a bit thin. We are told in Act I that Carmen wanted to write songs. But then that whole idea is dropped until Act II when we are told that in fact he did write a song with another songwriter. I thought more of a moment should have been made of the song he wrote and his abilities as a songwriter. It just seemed to go by unremarked.

Many of the cast also play instruments in Guy Lomardo’s orchestra in the play and they are terrific. Sophie Tucker (Rebecca Auerbach—great style and strong voice) makes an appearance with the orchestra but with practically nothing else to note her presence.

Ron Kennell plays Guy with an even disposition and a quiet duty as a son who never can do right by his stern father (Is that really George Meanwell with short hair playing the father?? Wonderful). Kennell has such charm as Guy, quiet, appealing and gets the girl in the end.

Gil Garratt directs with conviction and confidence. The scenes change with ease and the actors glide from character to orchestra musician without a hitch.

Presented by the Blyth Festival

Began: June 28, 2017.
Closes: Aug. 19, 2017.
Running Time: 2 hours.

www.blythfestival.com

The Berlin Blues

Written by Drew Hayden Taylor
Directed by Brad Fraser
Choreographed by Megan Alfano
Set and costumes by Kelly Wolf
Lighting by Louise Guinand
Sound by Verne Good
Cast: Nyla Carpentier
Jonathan Fisher
Catherine Fitch
Nicole Joy-Fraser
Tony Munch
James Dallas Smith

A comedy that plays on stereotypes and is almost smarmy in its efforts to be funny.

Otter Lake is a small community with indigenous citizens. It’s visited by an aggressive group of Germans who want to create a Disney-like theme park called Ojibway World.
First Nations playwright Drew Hayden Taylor got the idea for the play when he toured Germany and realized that they had an obsession with North American First Nation Culture.

Everybody in the town it seems is employed by the conglomerate building the theme park, even Trailer, a First Nation with a glib joke about everything; who lives in his trailer and doesn’t do much other than that. And drop one-liners.

As the project gets bigger and bigger and generally out of hand when it comes to stereotyping everything it seems, from First Nation to Germans to even single women, more and more of the town’s folk begin backing away from it. Drastic changes happen to restore order.

Brad Fraser, a gifted playwright in his own right, directs this with his own sense of sophisticated humour. Drew Hayden Taylor’s humour, mainly through Trailer, just seems like cheesy stand-up and not really from a character. That said, it’s delivered with dead-pan aplomb by Jonathan Fisher as Trailer. Catherine Fitch plays a stern, brittle Birgit, a stereotypical German woman in charge of the project. Tony Munch as Reinhart has moments of warmth and self-deprecating humour.

As matters escalated from improbably incident to improbable incident, I just found the whole thing tedious, in spite of the herculean efforts of the cast and director.

Presented by the Blyth Festival

Began: July 5, 2017.
Closes: Aug. 19, 2017.
Running Time: 2 hours.

www.blythfestival.com

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Review: OTHELLO

by Lynn on August 2, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Memorial Park, Toronto, Ont. among others in Ontario.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by D. Jeremy Smith
Production designer, Nancy Anne Perrin
Sound by Tim Lindsay
Lighting by Michael Brunet
Musical composer and direction by Tom Lillington
Cast: Shelly Antony
Christopher Darroch
Jordin Hall
Helen King
Ayesha Mansur Gonsalves
Fiona Sauder

Quick and easy Shakespeare in various parks in Ontario thanks to The Bard’s Bus Tour in their 23rd year.

The honourable Othello is turned into a jealous mad fellah by Iago, who is his supposed friend. Lots of innocent people are compromised, especially Othello and his innocent wife, Desdemona. It’s Shakespeare. It doesn’t end well for a lot of people.

I am grateful for the scrappy Driftwood Theatre Group and in particular Artisitc Director, D. Jeremy Smith, who brings the Bard on the Bus tour to various communities in Ontario, including Toronto. Artistic Director D. Jeremy Smith always presents an adapted version of the play with a particular slant to it. They are gritty, smart productions.

In this case Smith focuses on Cyprus and the Canadian Peace Keeping contingent there in 1974. Since part of Shakespeare’s play takes place in Cyprus Smith just expands on it. The costumes are those of the Peace Keepers. Othello is a leader of the group. The berets are the familiar powder blue, the uniforms are of the Canadian Forces and others (British, Irish).

The company is a mix of actors who are familiar with speaking Shakespeare’s words, those who are accomplished actors in other forms of theatre and those who are just starting out in their careers. I’m not so much interested in how well the words are spoken—I leave that to others, elsewhere. I am interested in the commitment, energy and focus of the company. For example Jordin Hall is a young actor playing Othello. One can admire his attempt. I’m particularly heartened to read that he has been accepted into the Birmingham Conservatory in Stratford, the teaching wing of the Stratford Festival. I always see the Birmingham Conservatory’s shows and look forward to more from Mr. Hall. Fiona Sauder brings confidence and maturity to Desdemona; I love that she’s not the blushing bride, but one with spunk. Christopher Darroch as Iago is the most accomplished with Shakespeare’s language. And he makes the most compelling villain.

D. Jeremy Smith has directed this 1 hour and 45 minute production to go like the wind. Scenes are directed efficiently. I think it inspired to have stage management change props and set pieces in the appropriate costumes (a soldier, a young woman in a dress) so as not to pull focus. Smith thinks of everything.

I saw this at Memorial Park (the production will travel to several more places before it ends, Aug. 13) and it attracted a large, attentive audience ready with food coolers, comfortable chairs and blankets. There were a few babes in arms who voiced their approval as well. I thought that was swell. Well worth a look.

There is also has a separate component of the evening called The Cyprus Project There are four or five stand-alone video screens for those interested to listen to four Cyprus stories that talk about what happened in Cyprus in 1974 from various points of view. It was fascinating.

Presented by The Driftwood Theatre Group

Tour ends Aug. 13, 2017. Check the website for the various play dates and places:

www.driftwoodtheatre.com

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