The Passionate Playgoer

Crawlspace

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

Created and performed by Karen Hines
Set by Michelle Tracey
Lighting by Sandi Somers
Sound by Anton de Groot
Musical composition by Greg Morrison
Onstage performance associate

Crawlspace, conceived and performed by Karen Hines, is based on a true story that is a cautionary tale involving real estate and racoons.

Crawlspace
was conceived and performed by Karen Hines, a terrific theatre artist who relocated to Calgary from Toronto, so any time she’s here performing is cause for celebration.

The program says it’s based on a true story, which should put the fear of God in anyone. It’s about a woman who was an actress who put her whole life savings into buying the smallest house in Toronto in 2007. It was so small that she could not assemble her bed in the bedroom because there was no room to do it. She did not want a fixer-upper because she did not have the money to fix it up should it need it. She describes it as a coach house. We love those.

The real estate agent told her that an inspection was done and all was ok. Proper permits etc. had been done.

And she didn’t want a basement. The agent said that there was just a crawlspace under the house. The problem was she couldn’t find the entrance to it. This was one of the mysteries of the house. That crawlspace seemed to be the place where all manner of animals, racoons (!!!) went to die and flies went after them. She discovered drafts where there shouldn’t be any then found the reason why.

Slowly but surely Hines draws a picture of a woman going down the rabbit hole of owning property that she does not anticipate.

Hines does not just stand and deliver her monologue. She’s too clever for that. We enter the theatre with the floor plans of the house drawn on the floor. There is a blackboard with the floor plan as well. An “on stage associate” redirected me to another seat and gave me a sheet of paper about the rules of engagement of the Real Estate Board. It listed rules about fairness, civility, ethical treatment of the customer and to adhere to the rules of the Board etc. The associate is played with great seriousness by Sasha Cole. She carries one of those machines used by exterminators to get rid of critters we don’t want anywhere, let alone our crawlspace. She also said to read the sheet of paper carefully because there might be a test. Fear of God so I read it very carefully. We see that these rules are wonderfully ironic by the end of the show.

When Hines enters her character is very prim and proper, in a black dress, black tights and shoes, square glasses, . She is almost inexpressive but never boring. Her voice is tempered and soft. The delivery almost seems just a touch coy at time. During the course of the play Hines backs up her descriptions with illustrations done in chalk on the blackboard that will show us where the crawl space is and from where various smells emanate.

Crawlspace is beautifully written in an almost formal style. Occasionally Hines mixes the formal dialogue with a scatological reference that is delivered as seriously as the regular dialogue. The result is hilarious. What is humour if not the juxtaposition of the incongruous—so formal language is placed next to a scatological reference. Results? Hilarious.

And as she describes going down the rabbit hole with this story and it gets more and more Kafkaesque and she gets more and more into debt with this house, you are put in that world of worry, depression and debt; it’s a world that is claustrophobic and airless and leaves you gasping. The saving grace is that we can go home to places one hopes that don’t have smelly dead animals in the crawlspace causing flies to invade the house.

Crawlspace is also a wonderful piece of theatre created and delivered by a master of understatement to great effect.

Soulpepper Presents:

Opened: March 29, 2017
Closes: April 15, 2017.
Running Time: 85 minutes

www.soulpepper.ca

Butcher

At the Panasonic Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Nicolas Billon
Directed by Weyni Mengesha
Set by Yannik Larevee
Lighting by Kimberley Purtell
Costumes by Joanne Yu
Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne
Fight director, Simon Fon.
Cast: Miranda Calderon
John Koensgen
Andrew Musselman
Tony Nappo
Kasey Nugent

A chilling remount of the 2015 award-winning production now with two replacement actors (one is a silent child). It’s a play about war crimes, revenge and justice.

The Story. It’s Christmas Eve. An old man was brought into a police station by two young people. He is wearing a Santa hat, a military uniform of some sort, black boots and he’s unconscious, but occasionally rambles in a foreign language. There was an old butcher’s hook hanging around his neck and the business card of a lawyer was also found on him with the words, “arrest me” written on the back. Hamilton is the lawyer. He’s British and doesn’t know the old man at all. Detective Lamb has called a translator to come in and try to decipher the accent.

The play is concerned with who that old man is and what his secrets are and certainly why someone has to arrests him.

The Production. This is such a gripping production. Nicolas Billon’s tight script starts off almost leisurely and then the pace becomes relentless as more information is revealed and the tension is ramped up. Coupled with that is Weyni Mengesha’s chilling production that so beautifully establishes the relationships here. There is violence and it’s made all the more heightened because the audience doesn’t actually see it. They just imagine what it is they aren’t seeing. When a person is lying on the floor, perpendicular to the stage and another person is sitting on him in which the back is to the audience, all one sees is a flexing back and hears various screams and heightened music and sees twitching legs. The imagination does the rest and it’s gripping. Kudos to Simon Fon, the exemplary fight director, responsible for the fights and slow motion prop work. When a scene is done in slow motion in almost darkness with flickering lights for illumination, the audience doesn’t quite see what they are looking at and again the imagination takes over.

As Detective Lamb, Tony Nappo is that stereotypical laid back guy, easy-going, family proud, anxious to show picture of his family to Hamilton the lawyer whose card was found on the old man. Nappo is methodical, accommodating (he warns Hamilton about the coffee before he gives it to him) and seemingly in the crossfire of what’s going on. The old man is played with a stern look and steely back-bone by John Koensgen. A complete language was made up for this character and it’s to Koensgen’s credit that we get a clear sense of the dangerous anger of the old man, identified as Josef Džibrilova. The translator, Elena, played by a compelling Miranda Calderon, knows the language as well and is as formidable as Džibrilova.. Andrew Musselman is a courtly Englishman who is mystified about why he is at the police station and why this old man has his business card. He doesn’t know the man and appears lost when the man is speaking to him in that language. Information is slowly revealed as Detective Lamb paces his stationhouse trying to put all the clues together. When the secrets begin to be revealed the pace ramps up considerably.

Comment. Butcher is a really challenging, beautifully written play. The subject matter of revenge and justice grab you and that tight grip is relentless. The play poses questions about war crimes and when revenge and justice and getting even are justified.

Kudos to Mirvish Productions for putting this in their more challenging Off Mirvish offerings. That said, I got the sense from some people around me on a recent Wednesday matinee they were completely surprised by the subject matter and how challenging it was. One wonders if they do any research or check the information Mirvish Productions provides that explains the plays or productions.

Over heard behind me…a man talked to his date and hoped that the cast would not be amplified with body microphones. He said: “They’re actors and should be able to project their voices so that people can hear.” Sure enough, when the play starts there is that unmistakable sound of the amplified voice coming from the stage. All goes smoothly until Miranda Calderon as Elena arrives. We can hear her fine but we can also hear a frequent cracking and static from her body microphone. It gets so frequent and the sound cuts out so often that finally the amplification is stopped and Calderon just uses her natural projected voice to fill the room. The audience does what it should always do, and did beautifully here—it listened hard. I assume the lack of rustling noises meant the audience was absorbed in the play. Why can’t one just let the audience do its job and listen hard. Do they really need that augmented sound? End of rant. Butcher is one meaty play.

David Mirvish present The Why Not Theatre production.

First Performance: March 25, 2017.
I saw it: March 29, 2017.
Closes: April 9, 2017.
Cast: 5; 3 men, 2 women (one a young girl)
Running Time: 90 minutes.

www.mirvish.com

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At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Thornton Wilder
Directed by Allyson McMackon
Costumes by Brandon Kleiman
Sound by Paul Humphrey (Act Three)
Lighting by Michelle Ramsay
Cast: Hume Baugh
Augusto Bitter
Matthew Finlan
Sarah Machin Gale
Jenna-Lee Hyde
François MacDonald
Viv Moore
Lucy Rupert
Priscilla Taylor
Geoffrey Whynot

Thornton Wilder’s beautiful play given the special, poignant Theatre Rusticle treatment.

The Story. This is the story of a day or so in the life of the good people of the small town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. It’s about falling in love, expectations, hopes, dreams, disappointments, marriage, death and living. It takes place in the present and between 1901-1913. It is also a story about making theatre. A Stage Manager tells us about the town and the inhabitants and what happened to them and will happen to them. Very theatrical.

It’s mainly about two families, The Webb family and the Gibbs family. We watch as George Gibbs and Emily Webb fall in love, marry and then suffer devastating loss. This is not giving anything away. Our Town is a classic and the story is out there.

The Production. Theatre Rusticle is a wonderful physical based company that presents vivid stories through compelling movement. A note from the program sums up perfectly what they do: (Our Town) “is a play about making theatre and we offer you as many details of that as we can, from music we warm-up to, to a process with physical ease that asks the performer to embody action, to an empty space that will soon be full of many things and many people.”

There is one prop and that is a rack of clothing in the middle of the empty space. As we enter the theatre the cast of 10 is doing its warm-up. Some actors see people in the audience they know and embrace them. There is no adherence to the “fourth wall” with this piece. Some flit around the space. One woman does a ballet warm-up. She has great extension and a flexible arch. Matthew Finlan who will play many parts, including George Gibbs, is particularly watchable. He does push-ups with ease. He is extremely flexible and obviously a devotee of yoga. He does an impressive downward dog that flows into upward dog. I was mighty impressed. Audiences love this-watching the actors prepare. It lets them in on the secret of how the magic is made.

In this production every actor speaks a few lines of the Stage Manager instead of one person playing the part.

In director Allyson McMackon’s bracing, vivid, poignant production various parts are gender fluid without any disruption to the meaning of the play. If anything the playing of various parts with the opposite gender as ‘indicated’ in the text reflects our modern attitude to casting.

Simplicity is the watchword for McMackon’s production. The actions of the milkman delivering milk or the paperboy throwing his papers on porches are all mimed without sound effects. We don’t need them. We know what’s happening.

When George and Emily are talking to each other one evening from their respective bedrooms (they live next door), as they look at the full moon, McMackon has both Matthew Finlan as George and Priscilla Taylor as Emily, stand in the middle of two large spotlights. Voilà, George and Emily bathed in soft moonlight.

When Emily pleads to go back to earth and relive one more day, Priscilla Taylor as Emily does it with such desperation it is startling. This is the most affecting, moving playing of the scene I’ve ever seen. This production of Our Town is full of such surprises and it’s thrilling to still be surprised by a familiar play.

Comment. Our Town is so full of the things that make us human: love, friendship, marriage, respect, grief, regret, compassion, joy and love again. Theatre Rusticle works its typical magic to pare away, simplify and dig deep to realize the complex themes of the work in an absorbing, embracing production. The run is woefully short. It’s a wonderful production. See it.

Theatre Rusticle Presents

Opened: March 26, 2017.
Closes: April 2, 2017.
Cast: 10
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Box-Office: 416-975-8555

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At the Grand Theatre, Spriet Stage, London, Ont.

Based on the novel by Wayne Johnston
Adapted for the stage by Robert Chafe
Directed by Jillian Keiley
Music composed by Patrick Boyle
Set by Shawn Kerwin
Lighting by Leigh Vardy
Sound by Don Elllis
Costimes by Marie Sharpe
Cast: Blake Carey
Colin Furlong
Carmen Grant
Darryl Hopkins
Willow Kean
Daniel Marier
Steve O’Connell
Jody Richardson
Paul Rowe
Kira Shuit
Charlie Tomlinson
Alison Woolridge

This is the kind of production at which the director Jillian Keiley and writer Robert Chafe excel. Every facet of the production works beautifully as a cohesive whole to tell the fascinating story of Joey Smallwood’s rise to power as the voice and driving force of Newfoundland’s joining confederation.

The Story. Joey Smallwood would not be one’s idea of a man destined for success as a leader of the people of Newfoundland. He was diminutive; people in power towered over him. He was easily convinced that people in power would reward his loyalty by allowing him to run for office in the government of Newfoundland until he learned that one of these people was running for the office Smallwood thought was his. He was often disappointed but never defeated in spirit. He persevered. He walked the length and breadth of the island getting to know the people and their concerns. He became known until finally he was instrumental in having Newfoundland officially join the Dominion of Canada in 1949.

There is a fictional character named Sheilagh Fielding a writer and wit who acts as Smallwood’s nemesis. They have a long and prickly past both adversarial and much closer. Fielding often adds context and commentary to Smallwood’s progress.

The play is divided into three Acts and spans the time between 1927 to 1949 when Newfoundland joined Confederation.

The Production. There is a beautiful symmetry to this production in which all the components of story, performance, movement, lighting, music, set and imagery all coalesce to form this magical whole.

Director Jillian Keiley has created a specific vocabulary involving movement, music, moving sets and lights to illuminate the scenes in her productions (Oil and Water, Tempting Providence, Afterimage, Fear of Flight and Metamorphoses etc.). The result is a choreographed swirl of activity which does not pull focus from the point of the scene. In The Colony of Unrequited Dreams it seems to constantly be snowing—voilá a sense of the harsh weather on that island, no matter where Smallwood is.

Patrick Boyle’s jazzy score provides a sense of urgency to the scenes without being obtrusive, no mean feat that. His music aids in giving scenes a drive and pulse. To give the sense that Smallwood and Sheilagh Fielding are often at odds there is a scene when they are sitting at their respective wood desks facing each other, Their desks and chairs are on wheels and they circle around the room with their desks facing and touching each other, as one if one is pushing the other desk along as it circles the stage. In these instances Keiley creates such a clear, vivid image.

Colin Furlong plays Joey Smallwood and while he is not tall of stature, has the grit that Smallwood would have needed to withstand all the disappointments he did. Furlong presents a wonderfully flawed man. At times Smallwood is faced with difficult dilemma and decisions that would show what kind of stuff he was made of. Often Smallwood is portrayed as a weak, morally challenged man, albeit with passion for his island and the people. Then there are those wonderful moments when Furlong portrays Smallwood’s tenacity, his anger and his ability to stare down his adversaries.

Sheilagh Fielding for the purposes of Robert Chafe’s play is one adversary that Smallwood has difficulty winning against. Certainly as played wonderfully by Carmen Grant one could see why Smallwood had such a hard time against her. Carmen Grant’s Sheilagh is considerably taller than Smallwood. She is willowy. She stands with a slight slant because Fielding had a limp and often walked with a cane. Carmen Grant presents a rather imposing picture. And the wit of her! Lordy, lordy. Sheilagh Fielding lobs her bon mots with the ease of flicking a feather in the air. The barbs are precisely place, beautifully economical and deadly. Carmen Grant delivers them with a lilting, honey coated voice and just the hint of a sarcastic, pleased-with-herself-smile. Carmen Grant is so sublime in this role one laments she hasn’t done more work in these parts more often.

Robert Chafe’s writing is clean, spare, poetic and vivid in describing the story of this most unlikely of leaders. Chafe captures the smarmy condescension of all the people who came from away to govern the island and put down Smallwood but the writing also shows the spunk and tenacity of Smallwood. Chafe’s writing is so good one naturally wants to read the source material written by Wayne Johnston.

Comment. I was so glad to see this production at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont. A trip to London is a small price to pay to see a production this good.

An Artistic Fraud Production.

From: March 15, 2017.
To: April 8, 2017.
Saw it: March 18, 2017.
Cast: 12; 8 men, 4 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

www.grandtheatre.com

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At the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Book by Terry Johnson
Based on the motion picture: Mrs. Henderson Presents
Original screenplay by Martin Sherman
Lyrics by Don Black
Music by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain
Directed by Terry Johnson
Musical director, Francis Goodhand
Set by Tim Shortall
Sound by Gareth Owen
Lighting by Ben Ormerod
Costumes by Paul Wills.
Choreography by Andrew Wright
Cast: Tracie Bennett
Simon Green
Evelyn Hoskins
Matthew Malthouse
Peter Polycarpou
Adam Rhys-Charles
Matt Slack

A charming show full of lilting songs that evoke the era of the war years in London and in particular the years of the mildly notorious Windmill Theatre.

The Story. It’s 1937, London, England. Laura Henderson has inherited oodles of money from her late husband. On a whim she buys the Windmill cinema in Great Windmill Street, in the middle of the bustling West End and turns it into a bone fide theatre. The bill of fare is non-stop variety acts; cheesy stand-up comedians, dance numbers, magic acts and lovely ladies performing.

Mrs Henderson has no theatre expertise so she hires impresario Vivian Van Damm to run the theatre. She is not so much a novice because she insists that her name be listed as the person doing the presenting. (When times were lean for him, Mr. Van Damm had been known to sell socks on the street. He’s my kind of fellah, combining my two favourite things: theatre and socks.) Business is tough and they need a gimmick to draw in the customers. Mrs Henderson comes up with an idea, naked women on stage. The government office that oversees such things says that naked women cannot be seen cavorting on the stage. So Mrs Henderson says that they will be as still as in an artful tableau. People flock to the theatre to see such a thing. It’s war time. The Windmill Theatre prides itself on never closing, but there are challenges.

The Production. Terry Johnson directs his script for Mrs Henderson Presents. Arthur, a comedian with an overblown style (a buoyant Matt Slack) puts us in the world of the music-hall entertainment that is typical of the Windmill Theatre of that time. Arthur plays the audience and bombards us with cheesy one-liners. He is disarming. This sets us up for meeting Mrs Henderson and Mr. Van Damm.

The backstage world is full of stagehands carrying planks of two by fours on their shoulders as they cross the stage, turn, swinging the two by fours just missing other stagehands. This is a classic routine. In the US these skits would be typical of Vaudeville. In England it’s typical of music hall. This kind of entertainment was typical in England during hard times, such as war time. People flocked to the Windmill Theatre for comic relief and artful appreciation of the naked lady tableaux.

Terry Johnson has directed this so that the music hall humour and singing/dancing numbers evoke the 1930s in London. The songs by Don Black (lyrics) and George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain (music) are lilting and melodic. The songs are cheerful and engaging.

As Mrs Henderson, Tracie Bennett is a diminutive dynamo. She’s usually looking up to speak to anyone because they tower over her. She doesn’t cower. She commands. Her voice is husky and her manner is matter of fact and confident. Bennett illuminates Mrs Henderson as a charming, no-nonsense woman used to getting her way but giving the impression she is open to compromise. As Vivian Van Damm, Peter Polycarpou is distinguished and he too has the confidence of a man who knows what he’s doing. But when dealing with Mrs Henderson, he’s met his match. He’s frustrated often but always charmed by her and respectful of her guts and pluck. As Maureen, the leading naked lady of the troupe, Evelyn Hoskins has an innocent, almost uptight sweetness that soon gives way to resolve when she has to reveal all. She also proves an adept opponent of Hitler—no mean feat.

Comment. One has to appreciate >Mrs Henderson Presents (the absence of a period after “Mrs” is deliberate) as it harkens back to the music hall days of the 1930s and 40s. This doesn’t make it dated. It makes it suggestive of that time without making a comment about the future. It shows the British grit and resolve in hard times, and how they try to normalize life during times of strife and danger, such as London during the Blitz. The story of the Windmill Theatre and its success at the time in a way is representative of that British grit.

David Mirvish Presents:

From: March 15, 2017.
To: April 23, 2017
Saw it: March 24, 2017.
Cast: 23; 11, men, 12 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

www.mirvish.com

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At Young People’s Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written, Choreographed and Performed by Anita Majumdar
Directed by Brian Quirt
Set and costumes by Jackie Chau
Lighting by Rebecca Picherack
Sound and projections by Christopher Stanton

Anita Majumdar has written vividly about the sexual pressures on teens in this bold, unsettling play. She creates a victim of bullying who does not cave and she creates a bully with whom we have compassion. Stunning.

The Story. Nazneen (Naz for short) is a high school student of South Asian-Canadian descent who is going through a rough time. She is bullied by a blonde, blue-eyed student named Candice. Nazneen’s boyfriend is Lucky and they are devoted until Candice’s boyfriend Buddy, puts Nazneen in a compromising position and makes Candice jealous. Lucky hears about it but dumps Nazneen without giving her a chance to tell her side of the story. (God help us from people who hear only one side of a two sided story and make their judgements on that one side). This leaves Nazneen desolate. Through all her travails, Nazneen has her classical Indian dancing. She is a member of a troupe and is noted for her abilities in this kind of dance. After graduation she is asked to dance at Buddy and Candice’s wedding and now Nazneen feels she can get even.

There is also the story of Candice as she revels in her popularity. She creates videos for teen women about how to put on makeup and other aspects of beauty she feels she knows about.

The Production. actress/dancer/playwright, Anita Majumdar has written an unsettling and important play because she so captures the worlds of the bullied and the bully. Brian Quirt’s sensitive direction drives Majumdar to illuminate Nazneen’s toughness in the face of adversity and Candice’s neediness when things don’t go as expected.

Majumdar is trained in Kathak and other forms of dance. There is drive and muscularity when Majumdar dances as Nazneen. She is both free to let her creativity flow, and also compelled by her anger to let out her fury at the situation she is in. Dance gives Nazneen empowerment. The solid stamp of a foot and the placement of the fingers are precise, deliberate and evocative. Majumdar plays Nazneen with a steely resolve to get even mixed with a longing for her boyfriend to come back. It’s a powerful mix of emotions.

As powerful as the portrayal of Nazneen is, the portrayal of Candice is just as gripping. A video image of a close-up of Majumdar’s eyes is projected on the back of the stage. She drops blue contact lenses onto her dark eyes. Next comes a blonde wig. Then she applies a white base foundation. As she turns into Candace the voice becomes higher and with an upspeak. At this point Candace’s laptop is open and recording her various makeup tips as she applies blusher, eye-liner and other applications that transform her into a young, pampered, entitled teen that couldn’t be any further away from Nazneen’s reality.

But Candace has a desperation about her. She knows Buddy is her boyfriend, but she also knows he’s not faithful and she’s anxious about that. She needs to one-up Nazneen and she feels she can do it with Buddy. There is a sharpness, a bite to Candace’s delivery only it’s with regards to her situation, being attached to Buddy, no matter how tenuous. She is not as focused at getting even with Nazneen, but she does have a nasty streak that comes of disappointment.

Both performances are stunning. Anita Majumdar shows the toughness and vulnerability of both young women. She also does that rare thing in the theatre, she presents a victim of bullying who will not give in to the bully; and she shows a bully in such a way that the audience has compassion for her. This is a strong, fair-minded playwright.

Comment. Boys with Cars is a play that focuses on the issues facing teens today: sexual pressure; male power over young women who just want to please them; accepting that the young men they want and like will call them ‘bitches’ and treat them like possessions; dealing with bullies; being bullied; being a bully.

In the talk-back with her teenaged audience (at the matinee I saw), Majumdar said that she wrote the play as a kind of penance for her guilt. When she went to high school in Port Moody, British Columbia (where she has set the play), she was one of three ‘brown’ students. She did feel the sting of racism and bullying. But she also witnessed bullying done to other students and she did nothing to prevent that and she could have. Writing and performing Boys with Cars is Anita Majumdar’s way of doing penance for that lapse. Terrific play and performance. And important.

Presented by Young People’s Theatre.

Opened: March 23, 2017.
Closes: April 1, 2017.
Running Time: 75 minutes.

www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca

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At the Elgin Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feh

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

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

www.sousatzkamusical.com

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At the Elgin Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But to the rest—feh.

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

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Review: CAGE

by Lynn on March 23, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soulpepper Presents:

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

www.soulpepper.com

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At Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Presented by Theatre Passe Muraille

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

www.passemuraille.ca

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At the Factory Studio Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timeshare Presents:

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

www.trigonometrytheplay.com

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