The Passionate Playgoer

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

Written by Beverley Cooper

Directed by Jackie Maxwell

Set by Camellia Koo

Costumes by Sue LePage

Lighting by Bonnie Beecher

Sound by John Gzowski

Cast: Akosua Amo-Adem

John Cleland

Christel Desir

Deborah Drakeford

Caroline Gillis

John Jarvis

Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster

Dan Mousseau

Nancy Palk

Berkley Silverman

A thoughtful, sensitive production of a bracing play about one of the worst incidents in our history—an innocent boy, Steven Truscott, was given the death penalty because of a miscarriage of justice.

The Story. In 1959, in Clinton, Ontario (near Stratford and Blyth) Steven Truscott, aged 14, gave his school friend Lynne Truscott, also aged 12, a ride on his bicycle to take her to meet some friends. He left her off at the bridge. He cycled away but turned to see her get into a car. Two days later she was found in the woods, dead, naked and raped. Steven was charged with murder. Eye witnesses saw him with Lynne on his bike driving to the bridge. They assumed he did it. People embellished their stories. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to death. There was an appeal and his sentence was changed to life in prison. He spent a long time in prison as an adult even though he was a young teen. A reporter, Isabel LeBourdais, thought there was something wrong with the whole trial and began asking questions. Then the truth was revealed.

The Production. Beverley Cooper has written a docudrama of the case that is full of heart-breaking situations, breathtaking moments of ‘what might have been’, and a clear illumination of the obvious miscarriage of justice in the case. Her technique is part narrative directly to the audience and part play in which characters interact and reveal themselves and the facts as a ‘straight play’ would do.

Camellia Koo’s set is bare and stark with a few props filling in the bits and pieces. Bonnie Beecher’s lighting is evocative and moody setting the atmosphere.

Jackie Maxwell has directed this with such a delicate hand. No one is really a villain. Rumor gets the better of everyone and they must go from there. They believe that what they saw was what had to have happened until they are proven wrong. And because of so many eye-witnesses to Steven and Lynne riding by, they naturally thought he had to have killed her. The police never took Steven seriously when he said he saw Lynne get into a car. They misinterpreted him no matter what he said, and it was easy to see a miscarriage of justice. There is a stunning scene in which a school chum of Steven’s, who thought he was innocent, meets him years later at a party. Jackie Maxwell has the adult Steven stand in light stage right which makes him appear in total shadow, the friend is stage left looking at him. They say nothing. It is so moving and so powerful.

Dan Mousseau plays Steven with such a sweet boyishness. He rides his bike across that stage with the confidence and fearlessness of a 14 year old who is loved, safe and free. His relationship with his mother (Caroline Gillis) is affectionate and caring. And she returns it. And she is naturally upset when he is accused. This is a woman trying to hold on and be calm for him. Nancy Palk as Isabel LeBourdais is methodical, measured and firm in her conviction that this young boy was innocent. The acting throughout is very fine, but Mr. Mousseau is a find. He’s one to watch for in the future.

Comment. Beverley Cooper has written a gripping play that reveals one of our darker moments. How people gave in to innuendo, conjecture and rumor and nearly sent an innocent boy to his death.

Presented by Soulpepper Theatre Company

First performance: May 14, 2018.

Closes: June 23, 2018/

Running Time: Two hours.

www.soulpepper.ca

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At the Theatre Centre, part of Luminato, Toronto, Ont.

Written and Directed by Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone (600 Highwaymen)

Original music by Brandon Wolcott and Emil Abramyan

Production design by Eric Southern

Sound by Brandon Wolcott

Performed by Abigail Bowde

Nile Harris

Jax Jackson

Bryan Saner

Michael Silverstone

Marianne has had a dinner party. She is in her kitchen leaning on her counter recalling it all. People arrived early and helped. A person arrived late and was applauded for arriving at all it seemed. Someone brought a baby. People gathered in the kitchen to talk. When Marianne went into her back yard she perceived a stranger standing there. Other neighbours came out of their houses to watch and witness and I guess offer protection.

The audience sits in chairs that line the playing space on all four sides. The floor was red. At one point people on one side of the square began to raise and lower their arms in a wave formation. The audience on the other sides joined in until everyone was doing the wave and variations of it, in unison.

A woman (Abigail Browde) in my row began to talk about Marianne and her dinner party. The telling was quiet, measured, thoughtful. She approached a woman on one of the sides of the space and asked her to suggest she was leaning on the kitchen counter. A man (Michael Silverstone?) sitting on another side talked about someone coming late and the people at the party applauded. This was the audience’s cue to applaud and we did.  The first woman talked about the baby at the party and gently took my hand as I walked into the playing space being the baby. I was told to hold my arms up with the hands crossing. I did. After a time I was gently told to sit down.

I hate audience participation. Hate it. I don’t go into an actors’ sacred, safe space (the playing area) and I expect  the same courtesy—keep out of my safe space.

But The Fever created by 600 Highwaymen is different. The whole audience, either singly or together, illustrates the story that the small company of actors is telling. At one point a man asks for help as he falls and people try to come to his aid. He asks someone to help turn him over and they do. Another time a man is lifted up by the audience and passed along hand by hand. One of the company asks for someone to come and join in and someone from the audience does.

At the end of this production we are told what we did—we participated in telling the story; we helped someone who needed it; we helped in other ways; we acted communally and together. It was a terrific experience, not threatening, antagonistic, but gentle, respectful, welcoming.

The production is plays until June 16. The company 600 Highwaymen is from New York. Please see this show and make them feel welcome.

Plays until June 16, 2018.

Running time: 75 minutes.

www.luminato.com

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

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Keira Loughran

Designed by Joanna Yu

Lighting by Kaileigh Krysztofiak

Composer and sound, Alexander MacSween

Cast: Beryl Bain

Rod Beattie

Juan Chioran

Sarah Dodd

Sébastien Heins

Jessica B. Hill

Qasim Khan

Josue Laboucane

Alexandria Lainfiesta

Amelia Sargisson

And others….

There is nothing funny in this comedy-challenged, error riddled, ill-conceived production.

The Story.  I’ll first reference Shakespeare’s story in detail for context and then note Kiera Loughran’s version.

 Egeon was a merchant born in Syracuse. He was doing business in Epidamnum when his pregnant wife, Emilia, followed him there and soon gave birth to twin boys. In the same hour, in the same inn where they were staying, a poor woman gave birth to twin boys as well (was it something in the water, do you think?). Since she was very poor Egeon bought the woman’s twin boys to be raised as servants to his twin boys.

Emilia wanted the family to go home. They got on a boat with the two sets of twins, and there was a storm. Emilia took one twin of her sons and one twin of the servant babies and tied herself to a mast and Egeon did the same to another mast and of course as luck would have it the ship broke up and the husband and wife with the babies became separated. Egeon and one son were picked up by a passing boat and he lost sight of his wife and the baby boys.

After 18 years Egeon’s son wanted to find his mother and his brother, and the twin servant went with him on the voyage. So the two boys set off. When they did not return after a really long time Egeon went to find them and had been looking for five years. The search brought him to Ephesus (Nice ruins today, terrific library with a secret passageway to a nearby brothel. But I digress).

Because there had been animosity between Ephesus and Syracuse there was a decree from the Duke that if any Syracusian was found in Ephesus he would be put to death (rather harsh) but would be spared if he could pay 1000 marks (rather harsh too). So the Duke of Ephesus decreed that Egeon should die but first he wanted to hear his story. The Duke was touched on the hearing and granted Egeon a one day extension to get the money.

What no one knew was that the both sets of twins were there already. Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant Dromio had lived in Ephesus for his whole life. Antipholus was married to Adriana, but he seemed to dally with women not his wife, and even had a necklace made for one of them. Of course Antipholus of Ephesus was accompanied by his servant Dromio of Ephesus.

 

Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant Dromio of Syracuse are newly arrived in Ephesus, have sufficient means to last them on their adventures.  Ephesus is a small town and people know each other. So here we have one half of two pairs of twins roaming around the place at the same time. The two Antipholusess are mistaken for each other and so are the Dromios. This means that Adriana mistakes Antipholus of Syracuse for her own husband (Antipholus of Ephesus). And that goes for Dromio too.

Until eventually it’s sorted. (This is not a spoiler—the play is 400 years old for heaven sake.)

Kiera Loughran’s version: She has interpreted The Comedy of Errors as a play about gender fluidity. In her version Egeon’s twin children are a boy and a girl and it is the girl Egeon is searching for. For some reason the girl assumes the name of her lost brother—Antipholus—and when she came to Ephesus she put on the disguise of a man, why, I know not—I can’t find a reason for this decision in my copy of the play—but I digress.

The Production. This busy production starts with a loud blast of rock music and the many and various citizens of Ephesus go busting from one side of the stage to the other, sometimes bumping into each other. Two smartly dressed ‘men’ with the same maroon suit and hair style bump into each other and look quizzically at one another. Two other ‘twins’ with a Harpo Marx hair do and pantaloons also look strangely at one another. There is a pair of identical looking police officers dressed from top to toe in the same powder blue uniform with the same hair do. Kiera Loughran is certainly hammering home her point of twinness. I also note that several actors are dressed as women: one wears a fat woman’s garb with drooping breasts. Another wears heels and a suggestive outfit.

When the play proper begins the Duke (Juan Chioran) stands above the assembled and passes judgment on Egeon for being a Syracusian in Ephesus. Chioran is courtly, dignified, speaks with gravitas and is touched at Egeon’s tale of woe. But for some reason the Duke/Chioran is dressed as a statuesque woman with a tilted wide brimmed blue had, a blue form fitted top and a long skirt slit up to the thigh, revealing a lot of thigh and a knee-high heeled boot. Now what is that all about? Is the Duke a cross-dresser? Is this Loughran imposing more of her ‘concept’ on the play? Who knows?

When Ariana is upset that her husband Antipholus of Ephesus is not home we hear her behind a closed door express her ire in Spanish (it seems to me). Spanish in Ephesus (which is now in Turkey). What’s that all about—more xenophobia? Hmmm.

This is a comedy challenged, error-filled, ill-conceived production. I tried very hard to try and understand Kiera Loughran’s thinking. Perhaps she’s looking at how we all have both genders in us at birth and then develop one way or the other and in these cases the development didn’t happen.  So she was looking at that duality by having Antipholus of Syracuse, the woman, dressed as a man but acting courtly, with dignity and maturity, as perhaps a man might act.  But Antipholus of Ephesus, the male twin, acted as a stereotypical woman or just an effeminate man—flighty, hands flapping, almost hysterical and posing.

So how can these two characters actually be mistaken for one another since their behaviour is so different. Really, Antipholus of Ephesus’ wife would not be able to tell the difference between a courtly man and an effeminate one? What’s wrong with this picture?

Jessica B. Hill as Antipholus of Syracuse is poised, gracious and dignified, a princely man if that is the intension.  But what Qasim Khan is directed to do as Antipholus of Ephesus is embarrassing….be effeminate, silly, flighty and hysterical in the delivery. Is this somebody’s idea of what a woman acts like in 2018? Or a gay man? Really?

Loughran is a clumsy stager, upstaging her cast with silly business at the expense of actors actually speaking the lines of Shakespeare. I think of the scene in which Dr. Pinch (Rod Beattie) a school master and others are trying to subdue and bind Antipholus of Ephesus because they think he is possessed. Pinch tries to ‘exorcise’ the demon by putting his hand up in front of Antipholus’ face and exhorting the devil to leave the body. Antipholus puts his hand up to Pinch which puts him in a trance. Another character claps his hands and Pinch is shaken out of the trance. Another character stamps his foot and again Pinch is back in the trance and shaking. Another snap of the fingers and he’s out of the trance and another clap and he’s in it the trance and shaking and weaving around the stage. Ridiculous and at the expense of the actors giving lines.

 Comment. In her program note Keira Loughran references Prince, Antonin Artaud, Swinburne, David Bowie and Jan (formerly James) Morris on their comments on sexuality, finding ourselves, the notion of twins, and living our lives as we wanted to. Loughran says in her program note in part: “The world of Ephesus in this production is an homage to the history, insights and accomplishments of transgender and gender-fluid communities.  Their stories have inspired me to explore what it might take to establish, in the face of persecution, a community that is fiercely committed to inclusion, self-determination and non-conformity. This opened up other ways for us to consider the idea of ‘double,’ to interpret violence, to discover comedy, to understand family.”

This is all very well and good but the play doesn’t support this thesis. Loughran’s concept for The Comedy of Errors doesn’t work and the whole enterprise is deadly.

However there is another production which does prove her thesis without twisting and distorting the material and that’s The Rocky Horror Show.  More on that soon.

The Stratford Festival Presents.

Opened: June 1, 2018.

Closes: Oct. 20, 2018.

Running Time: 90 minutes

www.stratfordfestival.ca

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At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Nassim Soleimanpour

Directed by Omar Elerian

Designed by Rhys Jarman

Sound by Rajiv Pattani

Read by Steffi DiDomenicantonio

With the participation of Nassim Soleimanpour

This is difficult to review because every comment could require a spoiler alert. As with his previous play, White Rabbit Red Rabbit,  the script of Nassim is given in an envelope  to an actor/actress at the time of the show who has not seen the script before, nor had any rehearsal of it.

For my performance, Steffi DiDomenicantonio is the reader. There is a new actor every night. To keep it vague, this is a play about language, home, belonging and seeming a stranger in one’s own country.

Nassim Soleimanpour is an Iranian playwright who cannot have his plays performed in his home town in Iran. So he decided to send it out to the world in many envelopes in the hopes that actors and actresses would read it at performances just like this one.

It is playful, witty, irreverent and very moving. Nassim Soleimanpour is an actual participant in the evening. He does not say a word but he conveys his message clearly and with great heart.

Steffi DiDomenicantonio is lively, sweet, funny and perhaps at times does not see that moments are moving for Nassim.

It is a play of building bridges and transcending language to find a common way of communicating.

The thing that is resounding no matter where this play has been done—starting with the Bush in London, Eng.—is the trusting willingness of audiences to engage with the challenge, be willing, trusting participants and to build a bridge to embrace this playwright who at times thought he was a stranger in his own country. Very moving.

Nassim plays until June 16 with a new reader every night.

www.luminato.com

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Part of Luminato.

At the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written, Directed and Choreographed by Michael Keegan-Dolan

Set design by Sabine Dargent

Costumes by Hyemi Shin

Lighting Design by Adam Silverman

Music by Slow Moving Clouds

Company: Mikel Murfi

Rachel Poirier

Alex Leonhartsberger

Elizabeth Cameron Dalman

Anna Kaszuba

Carys Staton

Molly Walker

Saku Koistinen

Zen Jefferson

Erik Nevin

Aki

Mary Barnecutt

Danny Diamond

The always dazzlingly creative Michael Keenan-Dolan brings his latest creation to Toronto for Luminato, a dark re-imagining of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, but nothing like it really. It’s pure Michael Keenan-Dolan. And there are a lot of goose down feathers.

Note: Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Swan Lake about a princess who is turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer’s curse.

The Story. A Holy Man (Irish) has fallen in love with one of his young parishioners—a 17 year-old named Finola. He forces himself on her and tells her and her three sisters who witnessed it that he will put a curse on them if they tell anyone, turning them into filthy animals if they do. This sets in motion all manner of dark, angry deeds.

The Production.  The stage is bare except for a man tethered by a long rope around his neck that is then attached to a large bolder on the floor. He is dressed only in white underpants. He paces the length of the rope around the bolder. He makes guttural bleating sounds like a sheep (a ram?).

Behind him is a stage wide raised platform on which are three musicians who will play fiddle, cello and nyckelharpa. They provide the music and sound effects. Sitting in front of this platform, on either side of it is a brooding man and an older woman in a wheelchair. A huge ladder is on the platform. There are ladders elsewhere and there are large swan’s wings on the floor.

As the man paces three man dressed in black, wearing black gaucho hats come on to the stage from the audience. They look forbidding as they dance around him. They get him down on the floor, splash him with water, dry him off and dress him in a black shirt, jacket and pants. He then sits in a chair (he is the Holy Man) and tells us the story of brooding Jimmy O’Reilly, his mother, Finola (the young woman the Holy Man falls in love with). I assume our narrator is the Holy Man and perhaps his transformation from that almost naked bleater into a clothed narrator, is Keenan-Dolan’s way of telling us what happened in flashback.

Young women in white dresses become swans with large feathered wings as the movement and dance progresses. The narrator says part of the story takes place by Swan Lake a body of water close to the town. Great swaths of a clear plastic sheet is used by the ‘swans’ to suggest the water. They wrap themselves in it, submerge ‘under’ it, and thrash around in it. When matters become darker and the curse has been put on the young women, a black swath of a plastic sheet is used to suggest the forbidding nature of the curse and the effect of darkness and depression on the story.

In the end the company throw fistful of goose down feathers in delicate patterns in the air and on the floor. It looks like a blanket of snow. Magic. There is a kind of fitting retribution. It’s a brooding, dark tale told with clarity, insight and muscularity.

Comment. Teać Darhsa is Michael Keenan-Dolan’s new company. I was able to see some of his brilliant work with his previous company: Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre (The Bull comes to mind—stunning). His work is razor-sharp inventive, witty, dark, brooding and often very funny. He creates images that will stay with you for a long time. His mastery of storytelling through movement and dance is astonishing. Don’t waste another minute. Get a ticket and see it. We don’t see this kind of creative work from elsewhere often enough. When it comes around, grab it!

 Co-produced by Michael Keenan-Dolan, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, Colours International Dance Festival,  Theaterhaus Stuttgart: Dublin Theatre Festival; Theatre de la Ville, Luxemburg

Opened: June 6, 2018.

Closes: June 10, 2018.

Running Time: 75 minutes.

www.luminato.com

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At the Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario

Book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson

Story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey

Directed and choreographed by Donna Feore

Music director, Franklin Brasz

Set by Michael Gianfrancesco

Costumes by Dana Osborne

Lighting by Michael Walton

Cast: Gabriel Antonacci

Sean Arbuckle

Daren A. Herbert

George Krissa

Monique Lund

Robert Marcus

Marcus Nance

Denise Oucharek

Trevor Pratt

Sayer Roberts

Steve Ross

Jason Sermonia

Mark Uhre

Danielle Wade

Blythe Wilson

and many others.

This is the best production to have after your original production of The Tempest was cancelled because of a bomb threat.

 Note:  Twenty minutes to curtain of The Tempest on Monday, May 28, 2018, we were told to leave the building and that the performance was cancelled. The police received a bomb threat. They cleared the theatre and we were told to go home. While we were not told the reason we assumed it was something serious.

At the opening of the opening production of the Stratford Festival  O Canada is played and that spiffy audience sings the song.

This time, with The Music Man being the opening production by default, that spiffy audience sang with such passion and defiance it was breathtaking and so moving, as if to say, “No bomb threat will stop this festival from happening.” Then they all applauded and cheered and the show began.

The Story. The Music Man opened on Broadway in 1957. It’s about Harold Hill, a flim-flam travelling salesman who dupes people in little towns into starting a band for their children in which he will sell them the instruments, instructions and uniforms. He will also teach them to play in a new way. And then when he has their money, he skips town. That is until he comes to River City, Iowa and meets Marian Paroo, the librarian. He flirts with her. She ignores him. He’s annoying. This poses a challenge and he pursues her. In the time of #MeToo we don’t look too kindly on a man who pursues a woman who is decidedly not interested.

Harold Hill is pursuing Marian for the sport of it because he plans on leaving town even though it appears he is wooing Marian. I think of other classics like Carousel which had its Broadway debut in 1945. It’s about a carousel barker who marries a woman and is belligerent to her because he’s lost his job and has to take his aggression out on someone and she’s it.  He hits her once. Once is too many. There is a line in the show from the daughter of the woman who was hit, “Mother does it hurt when someone hits you?”

She says something to the effect: “Not when you love the person.”  Uh, I don’t think so beautiful music notwithstanding. So yes, in the time of #MeToo this behaviour is problematic even though Marian seems to have an improving effect on Harold and she is softening in her feelings for him.

The Production. Why do I say this is the best production to follow a bomb threat that? Because Donna Feore’s production is lively, raucous, energetically danced—Donna Feore also does the choreography—leaving the audience breathless.

The music is timeless and classic.  This audience was up for something to cheer and they got it here. In fact their applause for “76 Trombones” went on and on—the cast held their places and milked it–and the audience also gave that number a standing ovation. That is rare to give a standing ovation for a musical number in the MIDDLE of the show.  As for the rest of the productions, the dancers and singers give their all.

Donna Feore is both the director and choreographer and I find she is better at creating the dances than in directing and established relationships. Her dances are always fast, energetic and leaves both dancers and audience breathless.

Her direction and staging are another matter. I find her efforts in establishing relationships to be clunky. How can you suggest love and passion between characters if both characters are often a stage apart? There is a clue to the problem in a bit of a send up scene by Meredith Willson. Eulalie MacKechnie Shinn, the Mayor’s wife, is desperate to perform in any way.

She forms a group of dancers/singers and tells them to “always play to the audience,” so there they are doing intricate work that gets them caught up in each other, but they are always facing the audience. Meredith Willson is making a point.

Donna Feore seems to take this seriously (both here and in other musicals she’s directed) —so singer after singer can be singing the most passionate song to someone but then will break way and sing it to the audience. This means the person the song is meant for is looking at the back of the head of the person singing to the audience, rather than the person for whom it’s meant. This is silly and detrimental in establishing solid relationships.

Also, while Daren A. Herbert as Harold Hill has energy and drive, I don’t find him charming or ingratiating enough to really fool anyone. He is too calculated and cool and it shows. He doesn’t really seem engaged in the con.  I also don’t see any chemistry between his Harold Hill and Danielle Wade as Marian, although she has spunk and charm.

Interestingly, Mark Uhre as Marcellus Washburn, a con-man friend of Har5old’s, has charm and warmth for days, especially when he sings “Shipoopi.” It got me thinking, “what if Mark Uhre played Harold Hill??? Now that would be interesting.

As Mayor Shinn, always hard done by, always trying to keep order and his wife in check, Steve Ross is beautifully flustered, always trying to hold on to his dignity and decorum and failing in the most hilarious way.

So, while the show is lively, energetically danced with the requisite gymnastic moves,  there is a lot more to The Music Man than just out front singing and dancing, and I found that depth missing in this production.

Produced by the Stratford Festival.

Opened: May 29, 2018.

Closes: Nov. 3, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes approx.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

 

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

The following two one Act plays are collectively titled Of Marriage and Men and are about how women can command and manoeuvre a situation when men think they have the upper hand.

How He Lied to Her Husband

Written by Bernard Shaw

Directed by Philip Akin

Set and lighting by Steve Lucas

Costumes by Tamara Marie Kucheran

Cast: David Adams

Shawn Ahmed

Krystal Kiran

While I think Philip Akin directs with flair, it seems as if he has envisioned this as part British comedy with a  Bollywood influence. The result is mystifying and uneven acting doesn’t help.

The Story. How He Lied to Her Husband takes place in London in Her flat in Cromwell Road. .

The characters are identified in the program thus: Her Husband, He (Her Lover), She (Herself).   He is having an affair with She, a married woman whose husband showers her with diamonds. He has come to her flat, dressed in white tie and black tails, looking formal and ready for the theatre. She breezes in dressed flamboyantly in a neon blue gown with sparkles swirling all over it.  She wears a full diamond necklace that sticks to her throat and bosom and a diamond in the middle of her forehead, gifts from her husband.  She’s coy and a flirt and scolds He because the love poems He wrote to Her have been stolen and she thinks their affair will be found out.  He is smitten and is determined to whisk her away after He tells her husband of the affair.  And then the husband shows up, and sparks fly.

The Production.  It’s odd.  He (Shawn Ahmed) is dressed sort of formally as an Englishman would to go to the theatre. The husband (David Adams) is dressed in a business suit that seems appropriate. But She (Krystal Kiran)  looks like she would be better suited for a Bollywood movie. What am I to think here? Both Krystal Kiran as She and Shawn Ahmed as He are of South Asian decent. But only Kiran is dressed with such flamboyance.  The music that is played after the conclusion of the piece  is upbeat with an Indian flair like a Bollywood film. Am I to assume the character of She is of South Asian descent because the actress is? Why? He is dressed in traditional English finery and not in traditional Indian garb. Why? Hence the comment that the intention of the piece is mystifying and odd.

Krystal Kiran as She skims the surface of the character in her acting. There is no sense of depth or calculation, just silliness. Shaw’s character might be flighty and coy, but silly? I don’t think so. Shawn Ahmed as He is a bit better but the acting still feels stodgy and full of effort to be effortless.  As the husband, David Adams has a blustering confidence that is fitting.  But on the whole I found this to be a head-scratcher. Philip Akin is a thoughtful director on the whole, but his intention here left me puzzled.

Comment. How He Lied to Her Husband does have the Shaw way with a phrase and an argument. Shaw talks about marriage, love, infidelity and the way men and women differ in their regard of love and marriage.  The arguments are funny, sound and have that perverse way that Shaw looks at things.

The Man of Destiny

Written by Bernard Shaw

Directed by Philip Akin

Set and lighting by Steve Lucas

Costumes by Tamara Marie Kucheran

Cast: Fiona Byrne

Martin Happer

Andrew Lawrie

Kelly Wong

Pure Shaw. Sublime production.

The Story. It’s 1796.  Napoleon Bonaparte is at an Inn in Northern Italy waiting for some papers to be delivered to him.  The soldier bringing them arrives and says he was waylaid by another soldier who stole the papers.  It seems the Strange Lady upstairs in the Inn can help with the location of the papers.

The Man of Destiny is about politics, battles, marriage, psychological games playing, one-upmanship and the peculiarities of the British.

The Production and Comment. Philip Akin displays an impish bit of business when the set for How He Lied to Her Husband is changed for The Man of Destiny. Ordinarily the changeover happens during Intermission. Not so here. Akin wants us to see the cleverness of it all, and good thing too.

When we return from Intermission we still hear the Bollywood music playing from How He Lied to Her Husband.  A character in peasant dress comes forward down the aisle of the theatre, looks up towards the stage manager’s booth and says in an Italian accent, with a snap of his fingers, “VIVALDI”. This is Giuseppe who is an inn-keeper in The Man of Destiny. His snapping fingers sets the music to play and the cast from both plays to change the set to a bucolic inn in Northern Italy with lovely scenery in the background. Giuseppe runs the inn.

Here we get the ins and outs of incriminating information. The Strange Lady wants one letter of the bundle to be delivered to Napoleon.  She explains as vaguely as possible that a husband and wife’s honour is at stake. We can surmise whose. In some beautiful badinage between Napoleon and the Strange Lady they discourse on women, relationships and manipulation.  And then in pure Shaw fashion he lets rip with his thoughts on the English as expressed by a Frenchman—or to be accurate, a Corsican—Napoleon.

 I call it ‘sublime’ because evrything here works a treat. Steve Lucas has designed a beautiful Italian Inn with some stunning lighting effects subtly going on for the whole show, daylight shifting into moonlight is quite beautiful.  The acting  is the work of seasoned professionals.  The Italian accented Giuseppe played with impish seriousness by Martin Happer takes everything in his calm, stoical stride, but I do wonder why he has an accent when the others don’t.  Fiona Byrne plays the Strange Lady with steely confidence and never flinches when her character is in trouble, which is often. Her bantering with Kelly Wong’s Napoleon is the work of two masters volleying an argument with shots, lobs and zingers that all hit the mark.

Kelly Wong as Napoleon shows the confidence and brains of a leader who has to be two steps ahead of any one behind  him.  He is never suckered by the Strange Lady. But he knows she’s toying with him and he’s game for the game.  Beautiful work.

Produced by the Shaw Festival

Opened: May 23, 2018.

Closes:  Sept. 2, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

 www.shawfest.com

 

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At the Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, Toronto, Ont.

 

Written by Neil Simon

Directed by Sheila McCarthy

Set by Sean Mulcahy

Lighting by Siobhán Sleath

Costumes by Alex Amini

Sound by Emily Porter

Cast: Umed Amin

Meghan Caine

David Eisner

Kelsey Falconer

Lawrence Libor

Sarah Orenstein

Nicole Underhay

A beautifully rendered production of Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical play.

Note: I was given permission to review the second last preview.

The Story. Brighton Beach Memoirs is the first of Neil Simon’s “Double B” semi-autobiographical plays that chart his rise to the iconic playwright he became. They are:  Brighton Beach Memoirs, about being a teenager in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York and wanting to either be a baseball player or a writer; Biloxi Blues about his time in the army; and Broadway Bound when he did become a playwright on his way to wild success. These plays are of course funny but there is a deeper seriousness to them because they are based in truth.

In Brighton Beach Memoirs it’s 1937. Eugene Morris Jerome, aged 15, lives with his mother Kate, father Jack and older brother Stan, plus his widowed aunt Blanch and her two daughters, the sickly Laurie and the alluring 16 –year-old Nora. So sexual frustration abounds with Eugene.  Money is tight then.  Every dollar counts.  Kate and her sister Blanche love each other but there are simmering jealousies. When that many people live that closely together things boil over.

While Neil Simon is known for the zinger lines and sharp comedy and Brighton Beach Memoirs is very funny, at it’s heart it’s a serious comedy because there was more at stake.  For example, Jack worries that his relatives in Europe who are Jewish would be caught up in Hitler’s anti-Semitism.  He then worries that should they appeal to him for help where would they put them all? He worries about money and needs Stan’s paycheque to make ends meet. One day Stan loses his paycheque in an unfortunate way.

How do you cope with that?

Nora needs her uncle to decide about her future. What he gives her instead is advice on what to do—which to me is more important. So what Neil Simon is dealing with are issues of family, living in fraught times and trying to get by. We can all recognize these people.  And while Neil Simon puts his funny spin on things we know what is happening to the Jerome family was happening to a lot of others as well.

The Production.  The production is terrific.  It’s smart, funny and poignant.

It’s directed by Sheila McCarthy, an actress who knows her way around humour, wit, heartbreaking moments and being true to the text. She brings all that expertise here in her direction. It’s not fussy or show-offy.  Comedy is serious and McCarthy keeps her actors serious as they speak the comedy. They don’t telegraph the jokes.

Humour comes naturally to the character of Eugene and Lawrence Libor plays him with a fine, flat Brooklyn accent and wide-eyed confusion at what is going on around him. He is that perfect, hormone-driven 15-year-old who is trying to understand the world and himself in it.  You certainly see the family dynamic with Kate being the energetic, concerned but frazzled matriarch, played with grace and confidence by Sarah Orenstein.

As her sister Blanche, Nicole Underhay illuminates the ‘overstaying guest’.  Blanche is welcome in that house, but Underhay shows the reticence and sensitivity Blanche has in living with her sister, jobless, and trying her best to help out.  David Eisner plays Jack, the hard-working, fretful patriarch of the family.   He does have the weight of the world on his shoulders and it takes its toll.

At every turn in this solid, generous production, this is a family who love each other, who do the best they can and who have a moral centre that is solid.

Sean Mulcahy’s split level set shows the upstairs with Eugene sharing a bedroom with Stan and Nora and Laurie share another room. Downstairs is a small living room, dinning room and off. We get a sense of the size of the place where this large family lived and coped.

 Comment. Brighton Beach Memoirs has the usual Neil Simon humour but there is something much deeper here because Simon is delving into his own family where the hurts and disappointments are real even when mixed with the natural humour of his characters.

This production at the Harold Green Jewish Theatre, is poignant, heart-squeezing and so worth a visit to the Greenwin Theatre to see it.

Produced by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre.

Opened: May 28, 2018.

Closes: June 10, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx.

www.hgjewishtheatre.com

 

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

Book by Luther Davis

Music and lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest

Based on Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum

Additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston

Directed by Eda Holmes

Music direction by Paul Sportelli

Choreography by Parker Esse

Designed by Judith Bowden

Lighting by Kevin Fraser

Sound by John Lott

Cast: Kyle Blair

James Daly

Deborah Hay

Patty Jamieson

Matt Nethersole

Kiera Sangster

Vanessa Sears

Travis Seetoo

Jeremiah Sparks

Steven Sutcliffe

Michael Therriault

Jay Turvey

Jenny L. Wright

A mediocre musical given a disappointing production in spite of a strong cast and lively choreography.

The Story

It’s based on the 1929 book written by Vicki Baum. It became an award winning film in 1932. Then after many stops and starts it became the 1989 Broadway musical, Grand Hotel winning 5 Tony Awards.

It takes place in a luxurious hotel called the Grand Hotel, in Berlin in 1928—before the crash, after the horrors of the WWI.

It’s narrated by the cynical, bitter Colonel-Doctor who is haunted by his experiences in WWI that left him with a severe limp and a heroin addiction. If I hadn’t read the program I wouldn’t have known that this whole swirl of a show is a result of a heroin induced nightmare.

We meet the various guests: Baron von Gaigern is a dashing aristocrat who needs a lot of money fast, a thug  keeps leaning on him to pay his debts; Elizaveta Grushinksaya is an elegant ballerina past her best by date and she knows it;  her assistant Raffaela is inordinately devoted to her;  Flaemmchen is a secretary who  dreams of a Hollywood career; Otto Kringelein is a very sick old man who wants one last fling; Hermann Preysing is a businessman about to lose his company if he doesn’t get a merger with a company in Boston; and there are many and various other stories that go on in the background, such as the angry and downtrodden who do the drudge work in the hotel, while the rich and elegant people try and score an opportunity.

And of course, this being a musical, they all sing about it. If it all sounds familiar it’s because there have been other shows on this theme before and after it. There is the musical of Dance a Little Closer, 1983 based on Idiot’s Delight that took place before WWII in Europe in a hotel while the guests waited frantically to get out. Recently there was Morris Panych and Brenda Robins’ comedy, Picture This about people in a grand hotel desperate for advancement, a break, money, etc.

The Production. On the whole I found it underwhelming. The lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest are clever but their music is unremarkable and sounds repetitive as if they are going to insist we remember the tunes. Almost every  character gets a solo song whether it’s earned or not.

Eda Holmes directed it and Judith Bowden designed it. Both are wonderful, smart talents, as is so clear from work they have done before, but they are not displaying their best work here.

If a lyric says that ‘people come and go through a revolving door’, then it seems a clear indication that guests would make a grand entrance through a revolving door in this Grand Hotel. Perhaps it’s a perverse decision but there is no revolving door or even a sense of a door in Judith Bowden’s gleaming, high, mirrored columned set. The mirrored columns revolve and change light. Very impressive.  Characters make entrances and exits through the audience, down both aisles. This is rather anti-climactic and not dramatic. There’s a large lobby with receptionists who float around the set with phones up to their ears, taking calls. There is a bit of a grand staircase, upstage left, that is initially in the lobby, but it’s oddly used.

I can appreciate that guests would go up to their rooms via the grand staircase. But sometimes when the scene is in a guest’s room the person exits up that staircase. I wonder, is there  a winding staircase in the room? In truth there is only one scene specifically in a guest’s room—Elizaveta Grushinskaya’s (Deborah Hay) room, when she is entertaining the Baron (James Daly). In both cases, when the Baron first leaves her and later when she leaves the room, they both go up the winding staircase. Other times movable staircases are moved on and off for a scene in another part of the hotel–Again, I could not figure out the geography of where a scene is located or why.

And it’s loud. Everybody is microphoned—the orchestra, the cast–and they  drown each other out. Often I could not make out the lyrics. I don’t think that’s a good thing. Parker Esse’s choreography is lively and inventive certainly in “We’ll Take a Glass Together” Klingelein’s break-out show stopper.

The strong cast is terrific. Baron von Gaigern is played with dashing charm by James Daly. He has a strong voice and is the very picture of an aristocrat who looks everything and has nothing.

Deborah Hay is luminous as Elizaveta Grushinkskaya and also has that haunted, world-weary look about her of a woman who knows her career is over and it’s painful. Yet as Grushinskaya limbers up, going on pointe, we certainly get the sense of how great that dancer must have been. Equally as haunted is Patty Jamieson as Raffaela, Grushinskaya’s over protective assistant. She hides her secret love for Grushinskaya as she sings the plaintive “How Can I Tell Her?”

Michael Therriault plays Otto Kringelein—stooped, ill, confused, sweet, trusting and a bundle of energy when he gets a new lease on life. He practically stops the show with “We’ll Take a Glass Together” as Kringelein is grabbing at life, dancing and flying through the air as he clings to a revolving mini-bar.

Putting matters in focus and narrating what is going on is the cynical Colonel-Doctor, played with moody brooding by Steven Sutlcliffe

Comment. In the time of #MeToo we are certainly mindful of behaviour that would have been acceptable in 1928 but is just creepy and unacceptable now. Flaemmchen (a plucky, solid Vanessa Sears) agrees to be a ‘secretary’ for Hermann Preysing, (an oily Jay Turvey) a shady businessman, who wants her to go with him to America on business. Repeatedly he says that he wants her to ‘be nice to him.’ We know what that subtext means. Creepy.

So as I said, it’s a strong cast, but an odd production of an musical that won a lot of awards almost 30 years ago but now seems just dreary.

Produced by the Shaw Festival.

Opened: May 23, 2018.

Closed: October 14, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes.

www.shawfest.com

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At Harbourfront, various venues, Toronto, Ont.

Harbourfront Centre presented a new festival of theatre and dance pieces called Junior, Big Thoughts for Growing Minds  for young audiences, four- years-old and up from May 19-25. Performances over the long weekend catered to families, those during the week were for school groups. The Festival was beautifully curated  and programmed Mary Francis Moore.

She engaged companies from Ontario, Quebec, Australia, the United Kingdom, Kahnawake Mohawk Nation, Norway and Alberta to tell their stories. Of the nine productions, I was able to see six.

Briefly, here is what I saw:

Suite Curieuses

Cas Public, Quebec

At the Paul Fleck Theatre

For audiences 7-14.

Played May 19-21, 2018

Choreographed by Hélène Blackburn

Music by Martin Tétreault

Animation by Majolaine Leray

Dancers: Cai Glover

Robert Guy

Daphnée Laurendeau

Danny Morissette

The piece asks: “Who is more dangerous, Little Red Riding Hood or the Wolf? In an animated section, diminutive Little Red Riding Hood walks along and the huge, large-jawed wolf presents itself.

The dancers—all male except for one woman who takes on the mantle of Little Red Riding Hood—joke, dance, flip, incorporate gymnastics, and prove the question is not an easy one to answer. The dancers are engaging and the piece is a burst of energy with some danger.

New Owner

The Last Great Hunt, Australia

At Harbourfront Centre Theatre

For audiences 7 and up.

Played May 19-21.

Artists: Gita Bezard,

Adriane Daff

Jeffrey Jay Fowler

Arielle Gray

Chris Isaacs

Tim Watts.

Charming and so inventive. A puppy is adopted by an elderly woman who is recently widowed. The frisky puppy and the slow-moving woman eventually bond. But through a chance of fate they become separated and the frisky puppy must fend for himself in a big, mean world. He finds a friend in another homeless dog and together they learn the true meaning of friendship, trust and love.

The dogs are stunning puppets that are worked by puppeteers dressed all in black to appear ‘invisible.’ Projections and animation appear on a screen and surround the puppeteers so that their action on stage melds into the world of the animated projections. There is no dialogue. One figures out the story because of the fine puppet work, gestures and body language.

Medicine Wheel

Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo and Marian Atehawi Snow, Kahnawake Mohawk Nation

At the Brigantine Room

For audiences 4-14

Played May 19-21

Performers: Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo (Medicine Wheel and Red)

Marian Atehawi Snow (Black and White)

Cody Coyote (Yellow).

Through traditional dance and ceremony the world of the Medicine Wheel is revealed. The important colours of the Wheel are Red, Black, White and Yellow and each performer either danced or sang to reveal the meaning in each colour. Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo especially was impressive with her hoop dances, either twirling or intertwining multiple hoops with grace, concentration and artistic creativity.

We Are All Treaty People

Co-produced by Quest Theatre & Making Treaty 7 Cultural Society, Alberta

At the Brigantine Room

For audiences 5-12

Played May 22-25

Cast: Elizabeth Ferguson

Geneviève Paré

Garret Smith

Two young girls in the same class want to be friends. One is a First Nations and the other is white. The Trickster arrives and declares in no uncertain terms why they cannot possibly be friends. There is too much bad history caused by the whites against those of Indigenous people. The Trickster mentions the white person’s killing of the buffalo hundreds of years ago; the white people also brought disease to indigenous people; the residential schools etc. The two young girls join together to challenge the Trickster and his negative comments about their possible friendship.

The history lesson of course makes one heartsick. What we do to each other. Beautifully presented. A devastating lesson of a terrible past but hope for the future.

Child of the Divide

Produced by Bhuchar Boulevard, United Kingdom

At the Studio Theatre

For audiences 8-14.

Played: May 19-25

Written by Sudha Buchar

Directed by Jim Pope

Designed by Sue Mayes

Cast: Halema Hussain

Devesh Kishore

Adam Karim

Nyla Levy

Diljohn Singh

Stunning. This is a play about the implications of the partition of Pakistan and India in 1947. When India got its independence form British rule, it partitioned Pakistan for the Muslims and welcomed Hindus to India. Families were uprooted. One family was leaving Pakistan because they were Hindus, to go to India. A husband, wife and their six-year-old son Pali prepared quickly to leave. In the confusion of racing through the bustling streets to get into a truck that was going to India, Pali became separated from his family. He was found sleeping in the streets by a kind man who took him home to his wife. They looked for Pali’s father, or waited for someone to come for him, but that didn’t happen. They raised him as their own for seven years. Gradually Pali was brought up as a Muslin with a different name. Then his father does find him after all that time and takes him home. But what is Pali now? Is he Hindu or Muslim? Or Both.

Child of the Divide is a  challenging, thoughtful piece that looks at identity, religion, friendship and how we are defined and it does it with tremendous sensitivity and thought. There are no easy answers here, but posing the question: “Who am I?” is the most important part of it.

 

The Jury

By Hege Haagenrud, Norway

At the Harbourfront Centre Theatre

For audiences 6-14.

Played May 19-22.

Dancers: Caisa Stremmen Røstad

Catharina Vehre Gresslien

Two women dressed in tights and a top do interpretive dance/ballet to classical music,  in front of a screen on which is a video of a river. The video captures the movement of the river as the dancers move across the stage and in front of the screen. This goes on for several minutes until we hear a child’s voice ask, “What’s going on?” Another says, “I don’t understand.” “This is boring.”  There might be a comment that it was stupid or that it was not for children.

The dancers stop dancing, looking confused. The river scene disappears and the faces of various children appear on the screen. I reckon there are about seven kids most under 10 years-of-age. They are not happy with what they are looking at. They want changes. They want the dancers to put on colourful costumes. They want a story with love, death, blood, a dinosaur. The dancers change into colourful dresses and try to enact what the children want. They children don’t seem happy with the result. The children appear on screen again giving more suggestions. The dancers try again. The kids come up with a top ten list of what they want: There are more suggestions incorporating: love, violence, blood, death, the universe. The dancers frantically incorporate all of the suggestions and collapse on the floor at the end suggesting “the universe’ has exhausted them. Then the dancers get up and take a bow. The show is over.

Mystifying.  Let’s go to the program note for clues: “….the children stop the show (with their suggestions). They decide that since they are children, and this is a performance for children, they should not only have their voices heard, but should also direct the performance itself. Who knows better than a child what a performance for children should be like? We don’t know if they are going to succeed as the group faces many challenges: will they manage to agree on what a good performance should contain and create the ultimate performance for children?”

Huh?

Who says this is a performance for children? Interpretive dance in front of a screen on which is projected a moving river, is not a performance for children, so saying it is, ain’t so.

I’m at a distinct advantage? Disadvantage? in that I have seen lots of theatre for children created by adults who know how to appeal to a kid and hold their attention. One such gifted person is Mary Francis Moore, (who programmed Junior) who, with Maja Ardal created One Thing Leads to Another, a show for babies between 10 weeks old and 24 months and those infants were riveted. So this program comment is wrong. Moving along, the children don’t seem to know what they want so how can the note say that children are the best judges for what is best for them. Answer? They can’t.

Their frames of reference here are pop culture and television: blood, violence, love, colour etc. This doesn’t come from an audience that seems to go to the theatre. The last scene in which the dancers ‘die’ is inconclusive because the creators of The Jury never go back to the children to find out how successful this version of their vision was. As I said, mystifying.

So what is The Jury really about? I think I finally get it—it’s a send up of clueless adults trying to make theatre for children. Picture my eyebrows crinkling. In a festival full of theatre created by sensitive adults for children, who cares about a send-up of a show for ‘children’ that doesn’t work?

I find it very telling that the picture for this show has two young children looking serious, but choreographer Hege Haagenrud doesn’t give the children a bow (on video) at the end of the show—just the two dancers, nor are the children listen in the cast of characters.

This is the only dud I saw of this festival.

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