The Passionate Playgoer

At the Citadel, 304 Parliament St. Toronto, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Richard Sheridan Willis

Set and Costumes by Shannon Lea Doyle

Lighting by Noah Feaver

Sound by Rob Bertola

Original Composition by Peter Nunn

Magic designed by Zach Counsil

Cast: Paul Amos

Zach Counsil

Christina Fox

Natasha Greenblatt

Michael Man

Jesse Nerenberg

Rena Polley

Elizabeth Saunders

A worthy, inventive production by the committed folks at the Chekhov Collective.

 The Story. It’s midsummer in Athens. Hermia and Lysander want to get married but Egeus, Hermia’s parent, wants her to marry Demetrius or face the consequences. I think Egeus said “Death”. A bit harsh, that.  So Hermia and Lysander escape to the woods, Demetrius follows and a woman, Helena who loves Demetrius follows him too. There are magical fairies in the woods who get involved and everything gets screwed up, until it’s sorted. A typical midsummer night’s goings on in a woods near Athens.

 The Production. How bold, a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that’s not done in the summer nor in the great outdoors. Director Richard Sheridan Willis has envisioned a spare, pared down but clear production of Shakespeare’s nightmarish “dream.” It’s produced now, in our winter, indoors in the flowing curtain-encased space of the Citadel. Characters stand at the back behind the gauzy curtains and flip them back to entre and exit. Very dramatic.

This is a production oozing sex. Hermia (Natasha Greenblatt) and Lysander (Jesse Nerenberg) are in love. Lysander in the woods is a bit more sexually charged but Hermia puts him off. Helena (Christina Fox) is in love with Demetrius (Michael Man) and pursues him who tries to get her to back off. Then there are the fairies with their wants and desires. Oberon (a strutting, dashing Paul Amos) is the king of the fairies and wants a changeling boy of his queen Titania (an elegant, regal Rena Polley) and she won’t give him up. Oberon has a fairy minion named Puck, played by Elizabeth Saunders as a middle aged imp with insouciance. This Puck certainly has the hots for Oberon and he knows it.

Director Richard Sheridan Willis plays on that sensuality so that both Oberon and Puck ramp up the heat. Oberon’s affections are still with his regal Titania and Rena Polley plays that up nicely as well, but with more control than Puck is able to muster.

There is also a group of “mechanicals” used for a different kind of comic relief with four of the young lovers double cast here. Bottom (Zach Counsil) is the only one singly cast—Mr. Counsil has enough on his plate providing the magic and fight choreography. The humour is less successful. There is a tendency to push the humour, especially Mr. Counsil, a bit less exuberance at everything might be in order.

Set and costume designer Shannon Lea Doyle has created a wonderful sense of the wood by having a huge swath of multi-coloured material arranged along the floor of the playing space. Beautiful.

Comment. I love the tenacity of the Chekhov Collective. It’s a group of theatre makers who wanted to study and perform Chekhov and obviously they are branching out with Shakespeare. They are committed to doing theatre seriously and with commitment. Sometimes they take on roles they might not generally be cast for. That’s part of the adventure.

The beauty of the production; its spareness and clarity thanks to director Richard Sheridan Willis and his cast, make it worthy and worth your time.

 The Chekhov Collective presents:

 Opened: Feb. 22, 2018.

Closes: March 11, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes.

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l-r: Herbie Barnes, Tracey Hoyt.
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

At the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Drew Hayden Taylor

Directed by Patti Shaughnessy

Set by Robin Fisher

Costumes by Sage Paul

Lighting by Nick Andison

Sound by Beau Dixon

Cast: Herbie Barnes

Tracey Hoyt

A mildly amusing play that only gives lip-service to serious Indigenous issues without examining them in any way. Tedious.

 The Story. Arthur Copper (Herbie Barnes) is an indigenous man who has lived near this lake his whole life and knows every curve and rock of it. He says he might paddle his way around it blindfolded just following the smells. He has great respect for nature and the lake, its ebb and flow, the cycles of growth and decay and renewal. He has decided to plant wild rice in the lake as per his traditions of years of yore and his people will have food.

Maureen Poole (Tracey Hoyt) and her husband bought their cottage on this lake decades ago. They love the serenity, quiet and beauty of the place. They planned to retire there. Their children learned to swim there etc. She has been wrangling with Arthur Copper because he is spoiling their lake with his choking plants. They spar. The authorities are called. Matters escalate.

The Production. Robin Fisher has designed a lovely set that establishes the quiet, sweep and beauty of the lake. A blue backdrop suggests the water. Stage left is Maureen’s deck, her bar-b-q, her deck chair, a table with an ever-present bottle of Chardonnay and a big glass in which to put it. Stage right is a canoe and other stuff for nature. Beau Dixon’s lovely sound design conjures birds, loons, nature, loud boats, noise and country life. Very evocative. You can almost smell the scents of which Arthur mentions.

Each character is in his/her own space, Arthur is in the canoe and Maureen is sitting in her deck chair on her deck. Most of the time each addresses the audience, confiding in them. Occasionally they address each other and are somewhat civil to each other with Arthur being more accommodating to Maureen than the other way around.

Patti Shaughnessy has directed this so that the proceedings are low-key, no yelling. As Arthur, Herbie Barnes is a charmer. He has an impish sense of humour, knows how to make nature work for him, is in his element when on the water and seems to have the upper hand when dealing with Maureen.

As played by Tracey Hoyt, Maureen is officious, pretentious, self-deluded yet sad in her own way. Ms Hoyt has a tight smile and a curt way of talking—as if everything she says is not for debate. She is stymied by Arthur and angry at it. When Arthur and Maureen did have a conversation regarding his wild rice planting, all she could say was that he had ruined the lake, that people could not swim, fish or boat on the lake because of the thick plant-life. Arthur countered with the history of his people in the area.

Both characters have experienced loss and each felt sad for the other. But playwright Drew Hayden Taylor does not make it so cloyingly sentimental that these two characters develop a close relationship. Nope thank heavens. They maintain their prickly distance.

 Comment. As with any play by Drew Hayden Taylor the laughs are fast, furious and labored (the title gives a hint to that). He tries so hard to instill seriousness in Cottagers and Indians having Arthur drop references to hot-button topics: residential schools, unfair treatment of Indigenous peoples in the courts, terrible living conditions, the destruction of their lands for fishing and hunting, but never dealing with them in any way other than superficially. It makes the play seem so slight. And for all the importance of the wild rice to Arthur, as food for his people and to sell, you would think it would be a given that when Arthur and Maureen did talk to each other about their differences, that the topic of why Arthur was planting wild rice might have come up between the two of them. But it doesn’t with any kind of seriousness. That too weakens the play.

Arthur reminds Maureen that she only comes to the cottage four months a year. He says that while she wants the lake to remain as it was decades before when she bought it, that is not realistic. So he planted wild rice for food and for the lake to flourish as he thought it should.

It’s obvious that Drew Hayden Taylor has written two funny characters but with Arthur we laugh with him and with Maureen we laugh at her. That makes the play lopsided along with its other weaknesses.

Not a happy night in the theatre.

Produced by Tarragon Theatre.

Opened: Feb. 21, 2018.

Closes: March 25, 2018.

Running Time: 80 minutes.


Review: FIERCE

by Lynn on February 21, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Red Sandcastle Theatre, 922 Queen St. E, Toronto, Ont.

Written by George F. Walker

Directed by Wes Berger

Starring: Marisa Crockett

Emmelia Gordon

Wes Berger’s production and the acting are  indeed fierce but the credibility of  George F. Walker’s premise left me scratching my head in disbelief.

The Story. Jayne is an angry, unrepentant druggie who is at the centre of an accident. The judge in the case has sent Jayne to see Maggie, a psychiatrist, for assessment to see how to proceed. When they meet there are fireworks. Jayne is perceptive, knows how to zero into a person’s weaknesses and to work them to her advantage. She knows secrets about Maggie (she’s looked her up and done her research). Maggie fights back finding out secrets about Jayne that reveal the cause of her anger. Both women are fierce in their combative wrangling with each other.

 The Production. Director Wes Berger knows the work of George F. Walker inside out, both as an actor and a director. He has a keen sense of the intensity of Walker’s situations and his characters in those situations. It’s all there in his direction of Fierce.

 Berger makes the most of the small space at the Red Sandcastle Theatre. Maggie’s office is neat, inviting with plants on the shelves, certificates on the walls, and a comfortable couch and chair for the ‘patient’ and psychiatrist.

Jayne (Emmelia Gordon) is in prison-garb-dark sweatpants and sweat shirt. Her hair is disheveled and unwashed. She stands, starring down Maggie (Marisa Crockett). Jayne won’t sit as suggested so from the get go she takes control of the goings on. She is watchful and susses out a situation and people. The judge used too much makeup and so Jayne thinks she’s hiding something and is insecure. She has looked up all manner of information about Maggie’s past and holds that up to her, again, challenging her power. Jayne toys with Maggie about what really happened on the night of the accident, why she takes drugs, and what happened in her life. Maggie struggles to break down Jayne’s defences, to get to the truth.

Both actresses are fine. Emmelia Gordon as Jayne is angry, feisty, belligerent, wounded and hurting. Marisa Crockett as Maggie is uptight, self-contained but easily broken. When both actresses wrangle and argue it is ‘fierce’ of course, as expected.

Director Wes Berger guides the two actresses to their explosive revelations—occasionally as does happen the dialogue is so fast one wonders if the two characters are listening to each other in order to answer. Always a tricky proposition.

 Comment. Playwright, George F. Walker is a champion of the marginalized, not just the underdog. His characters are on the edges of society, but they function well in their own way with their demons. Jayne and Maggie are two such typical Walker characters. Jayne is haunted by a death in her family and is mysterious about revealing who or what that was to Maggie. She obviously has a heart as we see in her dealings with her students when she was a teacher.  Maggie has her own demons she has to live with and has tried to overcome them by moving on and becoming a psychiatrist.

In a way, Jayne hanging on to her rage through drugs and not wanting to let go of her demons is the fiercer of the two. While Maggie should be the one in control of the situation—seeing a patient in her office for counselling—because of her training, it’s really Jayne who is calling the shots and controlling the proceedings. It’s Jayne who makes a suggestion about their relationship that Maggie seems to go along with.

That’s my problem. I don’t believe the situation in that psychiatrist’s office, or that Maggie is so inept in dealing with such a manipulative, wily character as Jayne. I don’t believe that she would go along with Jayne’s incredible suggestion at the end of the play.

If Jayne can break down her psychiatrist so easily, how is it possible the judge recommended that Jayne see Maggie of all people? If Jayne can find out such details about Maggie’s background as if it’s a secret, how can we believe no one else wouldn’t know? Are we also to believe that no one else would have known about Jayne’s troubled family life before she saw Maggie, her psychiatrist? Sorry, I just don’t believe this and I can’t suspend my disbelief enough to accommodate this unbelievable stuff.

If there is disbelief in the truth, credibility of the characters, then the whole structure of the play collapses. Truly, what am I supposed to glean from Walker’s play and his fierce characters? It’s a mystery and that makes for a disappointing experience in the theatre.

Criminal Girlfriends presents:

Opened: Feb. 17, 2018.

Closes: March 10, 2018.

Running Time: 70 minutes.



by Lynn on February 21, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer


At the Five Points Theatre, (formerly the Mady Centre), Barrie, Ont.

Written by Peter Shaffer

Directed by Esther Jun

Set and lights by Joe Pagnan

Costumes by Michelle Bohn

Sound by Joshua Doerksen

Cast: David Coomber

Izad Etemadi

Alana Hibbert

Amy Keating

Ash Knight

Alex Poch-Goldin

Amelia Sargisson

Jonathan Tan.

A stunning production directed by Esther Jun who so serves the play in spades with sensitive, intelligent direction, with fine acting, a breathtaking design resulting in brilliant theatre. Its beating heart is beautiful.

 The Story. Vienna, November 1823 and in recall1781-1791. Antonio Salieri is dying. In his day he was the top composer, music maven in Vienna in the court of Joseph II, the Emperor of Austria. He was celebrated, promoted, honoured and respected. On this last night of his life, he mumbles for forgiveness of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who died 32 years before. Salieri in his dying crazed mind confesses that he killed Mozart. His reputation is such that everybody is talking and gossiping about this confession. The play then reverts to the decade of 1781-1791.

At that time Salieri was a robust, successful man who asked God to make him a composer and to be famous at it. In return he, Salieri, would serve mankind and devote himself to serving God. Salieri thrived and prospered in the court of the Emperor as the court composer. And then he met this odious, child-man named Mozart and his life changed. Salieri realized that for all his piety to serve God with his music etc. next to Mozart, he was a mediocrity. Mozart, this hideously rude, immature man, effortlessly produced music that was touched by God and Salieri was livid at this betrayal.  He vowed to take revenge with no less an opponent than God. He would get even by destroying Mozart all the while seemingly to champion him.

 The Production. Joe Pagnan is the wunderkind who designed this exquisite set that is simple yet suggests the whole complex sweep and richness of the court of the Emperor. Two suspended structures with fine wood spokes that look like sweeping staircases spread out stage left and right, culminating in two swirled structures on either end. Upstage centre is a large framed structure offering places to enter and exit or a frame behind which appear silhouette ‘characters’ who add to the production. Because the production is in period costumes (bravo Michelle Bohn), the silhouettes of characters are quite striking and classy.

If actors fill all the parts you could have a cast of about 20. Director Esther Jun accomplished the same task with eight actors. Silhouettes are used to suggest characters; double casting and quick changes do the trick in other ways. Jun handles it all with fluid efficiency. But it is her keen vision and imagination that dazzles and conjures the richness of the court of Joseph II with the simplest of props: a smart table or chairs stage left or a piano stage right are really all that’s needed to suggest the lushness of the court, or the high society in which Salieri moved.

The casting is inspired and every single gesture or movement is of the time of the play—no mean feat, that. Esther Jun’s attention to detail in this production is stunning. David Coomber is a giddy, hyper-active Amadeus Mozart. One almost thinks he has Attention Deficit Disorder or might be on the autistic spectrum, it’s such a big, bold performance. But Coomber can break your heart in a thrice when he is crushed by disappointment after disappointment. His enthusiasm for his projects; his championing of the common people in his operas; his impishness when he’s being risqué and his staunch defence of his work, create a wonderful performance of a genius.

Alex Poch-Goldin as Salieri is determined to destroy Mozart. We hear Mozart’s music keenly by the way Salieri describes its perfection when he first hears it (“The Adagio of the Serenade for Thirteen Wind Instruments”). Salieri first describes it breathlessly as if that exquisite music causes pain, shatters the listener. Because of the delicate, gripping way Poch-Goldin describes that music, I hear it again for the first time and get weepy. That never happened to me before with this play. Shattering.

As the Venticelli (gossips) Alana Hibbert and Jonathan Tan have that smugness of the malicious gossip. They play off each other riffing on the rumours that are swirling around, mainly thanks to their efforts. Tan also plays Emperor Joseph II, the well-intentioned but dimly insensitive patron of Mozart’s art. He always has a self-serving smile, he so pleased with himself.

Amy Keating plays a snide, sneering Count Strack (Groom of the Imperial Chamber—chin in the air, grimacing as if “he” smelled something bad, chest puffed out, bent arm in the air for effect—a beauty of a creation of a pompous ass. Izad Etemadi plays Count Orsini-Rosenberg, the Director of the Imperial Opera. His main complaint about Mozart’s work is that there are too many notes. (Ya gotta love that guy.) Izad Etemadi plays Count Orsini-Rosenberg with that self-important sneer as well, but with flair. He has a subtle curl of hair in the middle of his forehead with the rest of his hair fluffed to within an inch of its life. And when the Count gives a look of disdain Etemadi does it by shooting beams from the whites of his eyes and nailing you with a stare from the darkness of those orbs. Quite astonishing. Ash Knight plays Baron Van Swieten, Mozart’s true champion who appreciates his work. Knight plays him with compassion and sensitivity. Amelia Sargisson plays Constanza, Mozart’s wife, the love of his life, his playmate in silly games, his protector, his sparring partner in frustration and his heartbroken partner at the end. It’s a lovely, varied, charming performance of a complex character.

 Comment. Before this production, I thought Amadeus was just one more tedious play by Peter Shaffer in which he writes about the gifted outcast either with envy or with disappointment. In Equus the psychiatrist envies the passion of the young man he has to treat, who blinded several horses, because the psychiatrist has no passion for anything. In Amadeus Salieri devotes himself to God for making him a famous composer only to find that God gave the hideous Mozart all the talent for no reason and he’s going to get even. Before this production I always thought: “Oh get a grip and grow up!” But Esther Jun’s production (of which they are using Shaffer’s revised text) makes me go deeper and see the angst of both men who just want to make music. She makes me see the depth of the minds of the characters and their devotion to the arts and music. And again, I got weepy.

 This production is a gift. See it.

Produced by Talk is Free Theatre

Opened: Feb. 16, 2018.

Closes: Feb. 24, 2018.

Running Time:  2 hours, 40 minutes.




by Lynn on February 20, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

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

Written by Jez Butterworth

Directed by Mitchell Cushman

Set by Nick Blais

Costumes by Lindsay Dagger Junkin

Composer and sound design by Richard Feren

Lighting by André du Toit

Cast: Jason Cadieux

Nicholas Campbell

Brenna Coates

Kim Coates

Shakura Dickson

Diana Donnelly

Peter Fernandes

Christo Graham

Daniel Kash

David Kohlsmith

Katelyn McCulloch

Philip Riccio

Kieran Sequoia

Michael Spencer-Davis

A grab-you-by-the-throat production of a monster of a play with Kim Coates holding you captive with his terrific performance.

 The Story. This is not about Jerusalem, Israel. The title references “Jerusalem” the hymn with words by William Blake. The words conjure “England’s pleasant pastures seen.” And “Till we have built Jerusalem on England’s green and pleasant land.”

But for Jez Butterworth’s play the lyrics that are sung at the beginning: “….And was Jerusalem builded here,/Among those dark Satanic Mills…” There is nothing idyllic about this England.

Jerusalem is about Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a pied piper of lost souls, usually a group of teenagers (which he calls ‘rats’), who lives in a derelict trailer with a faded Cross of St. George along the side, in one of England’s idyllic woods in Wiltshire.

Johnny is a waster, a drug dealer, a trouble-maker who has been barred from every pub in the area for belligerent behaviour. The local authorities give him notice that they will evict him from the woods because he hasn’t paid taxes in years, is trespassing and the people who live in the spiffy estates around the woods, want him gone.

But Johnny is also a charmer full of stories, the last safe place for underage teens to go for protection and some drugs, and aware of all things in his world.

 The Production. Director Mitchell Cushman believes in creating atmosphere from the get go. The audience enters around the side of the theatre where designer Nick Blais has foliage, junk and stuff.

The throb of rock music blares out of the theatre. When you enter the space it’s pitch dark. In the illuminated playing area a rave is going on with various characters rocking crazily to the music. Climbing up the stairs to find a seat in the dark is a challenge. But once settled you get the whole sweep of Nick Blais’ evocative, ethereal, spooky set.

Thick trees surround the area. The abundant foliage looks like twinkly lights rather than greenery suggesting an idyllic midsummer night’s dream. But in the centre of this beauty is a beat-up, dirty trailer with a faded Cross of St. George on the side. Junk, beer cans, garbage and other kinds of detritus litter the space. There is a trunk/icebox of sorts stage right. There is a vinyl couch with torn cushions in front of the trailer. There is a junky chair stage left near a tree.

The throbbing rave continues with young people dancing in a daze-craze, drinking. A young woman wearing fairy wings slowly wanders in, crosses up and around the trailer and appears at the top of the trailer. She begins to sing the beginning of “Jerusalem” but only leaves without finishing the second verse, stopping at “…Among those dark Satanic (Mills). We get the sense of what playwright Jez Butterworth is going for…this is not the bucolic England of the hymn on which he wants to focus.

The authorities come to serve Rooster (Kim Coates) with his eviction papers. He doesn’t answer their knock or warnings. Rather the fierce sound of a dog barking is heard behind the door of the trailer. The authorities know Rooster doesn’t have a dog. They know he’s barking. They staple the eviction notice to his trailer door and leave.

And then, the moment we’ve been waiting for, Rooster bursts out of his trailer full of bluster, bombast and swagger. As Rooster Kim Coates is in total command. He is mesmerizing.  His hair is longish, droopy mustache, a sneer, eyes gleaming. Rooster wears a sweat-stained, filthy t-shirt. His shoulders are pulled back which pushes his chest forward, making Rooster look barrel-chested and strutting. He has a limp. He prowls his domain. He reaches under the trailer. We hear a chicken clucking. He pulls an egg out and flicks off the chicken feathers. He cracks the egg in a glass, pours some milk, vodka and some ‘powder’ in the mix and downs it. Breakfast.

When his friend Ginger (Philip Riccio) comes to call, Rooster goes into high gear. Stories and hyperbole pour out of him. It’s all blather. I’m intrigued that he talks so much and really says little that means anything.   What makes Rooster so compelling and dangerous is that Kim Coates’ voice is so quiet when he talks. He almost never yells to make a point. He doesn’t have to. The look of him and his command of his space makes one think he’s dangerous. That quiet voice just nails it.

Then there are those moments in Jez Butterworth’s play that reveal so much about Rooster it’s stunning. Rooster is watchful and says early in the play that he knows everything that goes on in that area. It’s late in Act III that we get the full sense of what that means. He notices nature, the animals, has seen a first kiss, a woman burning her love letters, life. And he knows when one of his ‘rats’ has had trouble at home and comes to him for protection.  Coates reveals it all with a quiet build in intensity. Thrilling.

For all of Rooster’s bombast, Ginger offers a challenging voice. Philip Riccio’s Ginger  matches Rooster’s bluster line by line. They spar. They wrangle. They listen, thrust and parry. It’s wonderful to watch and listen to.

Every character has his/her own physical and personality bits. It all comes under the careful gaze of director Mitchell Cushman. It’s not just atmosphere that is important to him but the minute business that defines each character, no matter how small a part. This is a production brimming with the lives of these misfits who have found comfort and acceptance in the company of Rooster, the biggest misfit. Cushman and his team have created the world of Rooster and his followers as well as the world that is ostracising them.

Comment. In Butterworth’s play, the hymn “Jerusalem” is ironic. There is nothing pastoral or gentle about this world. It’s mess and decay surrounded by beauty and money. The established people living in the estate homes just off from Rooster’s woods want him out because he represents an eyesore, violence and someone who does not belong. Even Rooster’s followers look askance at him when the going gets rough. They don’t miss a chance to reference his being a Romany. They use the pejorative word “gypo” as in ‘gypsy’ to insult him. He’s an Englishman who is not accepted by the English. Of course he wants nothing to do with ‘civilization,’ and lives in the woods.

Butterworth generally writes huge plays with social implications. (The Ferryman will be the next play that theatre companies will want to tackle.) His writing is bold, muscular, funny and dazzling. In Jerusalem he’s created one of the most captivating, compelling characters in Rooster, and he’s given us a lot to chew on with his vision of Rooster’s place in England and that magical wood. Mitchell Cushman’s production is a towering accomplishment.

 An Outside the March and Company Theatre Production in association with Starvox Entertainment.

 Opened: Feb. 15, 2018.

Closes: March 10, 2018.

Running Time: 3 hours.



Natalia Gracious
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

At Young People’s Theatre, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Paul Ledoux

Adapted from the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Directed by Allen MacInnis

Set by Teresa Przybylski

Costumes by Anna Treusch

Lighting by Lesley Wilkinson

Sound by Debashis Sinha

Cast: Simon Bracken

Vivien Endicott-Douglas

Natalie Gracious

Dan Lett

Sarah Mennell

Jake Runeckles

Benjamin Sutherland

A pedestrian production of this play about two spoiled, miserable children learning the value of generosity and of gardens. Strangely it was the garden that was the biggest disappointment since designer Teresa Przybylski is a dandy creator and could have fashioned something more dazzling than this sad effort.

The Story. Mary is an orphan who has come from India to England to live with her uncle Lord Craven, in his large house on the desolate moors. Mary is a self-absorbed spoiled brat who orders the servants around as if they were underlings not worthy of respect. They treat her much better than she does them.

Her uncle is in deep mourning after the death of his wife and does not want to have anything to do with his niece or the house he shared with his wife. It brings back too many memories. He is often away. Mary is eventually befriended by Martha, a servant in the house and Dickon her brother who knows everything about nature, plants and flowers.

Mary hears about a secret garden on the grounds and is curious to find it. She also hears strange sounds in the house as if it’s a child crying. She is curious to find the cause of the sounds as well.

Mary bonding with Martha and Dickon begins her road to being a decent human being, who is able to love her uncle and others, learn about the world, and the value of any garden, either secret or not.

The Production.  There is a bricked wall up at the back with subtle projections of flowers on it at times. A chirping bird flits across the top of the wall. Two dead-looking black trees, one stage left, one stage right, give the sense of how death suffocates the air on this estate. Ben (Dan Lett) is the gardener who putters around bringing in baskets of flowers to arrange around the space. For the most part, the space is bare of anything except set pieces that suggest the inside of the house: a chair, a bed, a table with a food tray.

When Mary (Natalia Gracious) arrives, she is rude, officious, demanding and a general horror. Martha (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) accepts Mary’s rudeness with grace and good nature. It is that grace and good nature that will eventually win Mary over from the dark side of rudeness to being a decent human being.

There is so much build-up about the secret garden (that Lord Craven’s wife enjoyed until her death, when he locked it up) that our curiosity is intense to see what beautiful tangle designer Teresa Przybylski has created, when Mary finds the garden.

Unfortunately and surprisingly she doesn’t do much, which is so odd. Przybylski is such a fine designer, but all we get here are a few baskets that Ben brings on full of life-like big-bloomed flowers. No tangle of overgrowth, no jumble of branches etc. We know that Ben has been pruning a tree, but the rest should give some sense of neglect. Instead we get nothing. Disappointing.

The acting is respectable for the most part as is Allen MacInnis’ direction. Some people tend to declaim to their young audience as if a kid can’t hear unless they are being bellowed at. As Mary, Natalia Gracious is dandy as the smarmy kid who does mature into a kind, considerate person. Vivien Endicott-Douglas as Martha is sweet and understanding of Mary. Endicott-Douglas adds class to any production.

 Comment. Writer Paul Ledoux appreciates Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book because it depicts kids who are less than perfect who learn the error of their ways. Fine. It’s just that this production hasn’t realized much of its potential and the result is a real disappointment.

 Presented by Young People’s Theatre

 Began: Feb. 5, 2018.

Closes: March 17, 2018.

Running Time: 80 minutes.

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Cast of Come From Away
Photo: Matthew Murphy



At the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein

Directed by Christopher Ashley

Musical staging by Kelly Devine

Music supervision by Ian Eisendrath

Musical director, Bob Foster

Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt

Costumes by Toni-Leslie James

Lighting by Howell Binkley

Sound by Gareth Owen

Cast: Saccha Dennis

Steffi Didomenicantonio

Barbara Fulton

Lisa Horner

James Kall

George Masswohl

Ali Momen

Jack Noseworthy

Cory O’Brien

Kristen Peace

Eliza-Jane Scott

Kevin Vidal

The Canadian production of Come From Away has landed at the Royal Alexandra theatre for an open-ended stay, and it is glorious!

 The Story. Is there anyone in this country (for starters) who doesn’t know the story of Come From Away and on what it’s based? Ok, for the three people who might have been stuck on an ice-flow for five years in the Northwest Territories, Come From Away is a musical based on what happened on 9/11 and a few days after to people stranded in Gander, Newfoundland and the people there who took care of them.

When the terrorist attacks happened on 9/11 no U.S. bound plane was allowed to land in the United States. Two hundred planes were diverted to Canada. Of that 200, 38 were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland. Gander was once a thriving huge airport used by transatlantic flights to refuel. The creation of jumbo jets meant they did not need to refuel. The result was that Gander could now get six flights a week that used the airport. On 9/11 38 planes, carrying 7,000 passengers descended on the small community of Gander. Those passengers had to be housed, fed, tended to, cared for and comforted because initially they didn’t know what happened or why they were diverted. When they found out they were terrified.

Over the several days those people were in Gander and the surrounding towns, the townsfolk went into action carrying for these frightened people who had come from away against their will. Friendships were formed. Trust and consideration were established. Lives were changed. And then the folks were allowed to board their planes again and continue their journey leaving as many stories behind as there were people who experienced them.

Writing and life partners Irene Sankoff and David Hein were asked to write about that Gander experience by Michael Rubinoff, Head of the Musical Theatre Performance Program of Sheridan College. Sankoff and Hein conducted thousands of interviews with people in Gander and those who were stranded there. The result is the book, music and lyrics for Come From Away.

The Production.  It starts with the pulsing, driving beat of “Welcome to the Rock”, a song that establishes everything you need to know about the place and people of Newfoundland—it’s a remote island off the north-east tip of North America. If you ‘come from away’ (translation: don’t live on the island and come from elsewhere), “you’ll understand about half of what we say.” The weather is the wildest you’ve ever heard of. The people are self-deprecating, funny and kind. They will offer you safe harbour, a candle in the window, an open door and a cup of tea and ask for nothing in return.

Sankoff and Hein wrote that song to go like a bat out of hell. It has a throb like a heart beat or the pounding of waves on rocks, or the thrum of a plane’s engine. It establishes the breathlessness, the pace, speed and urgency of the piece and that pace doesn’t let up until that last driving note of the last song.

Christopher Ashley directs this production as he did the New York production, with attention to every single detail, every joke, every moving moment. He is joined by Kelly Devine who handles the musical staging beautifully. There is a fluid movement and sense of ‘sweep’ to it all. It’s an energetic, physical production that realizes the individuality of every character. An illuminated “Tim Horton’s” sign gets a huge laugh from every Canadian in the theatre, leaving those “from away” mystified. (It’s a Canadian thing, folks, and our own.)

Because the cast of 12 play various roles and they are almost never off stage, costume changes are carefully done almost in front of our eyes like magic. Almost every member of the cast is Canadian. Without exception they realize the quirks, tics and individuality of the folks they play. They all sing beautifully and with conviction. Eliza-Jane Scott as Captain Beverley Bass sings the heart and soul out of “Me and the Sky.” The notes soar effortlessly and with joy at being the first woman pilot for American Airlines, until the last devastating moments of the song.

George Masswohl as Claude among others, is imposing yet impish as the mayor. Lisa Horner plays Beulah, a Gander native gracious host with selfless kindness. As Diane, one of the passengers who finds true love, Barbara Fulton leaves her respectable demeanour somewhere and plays Diane with a funny abandon. Kristen Peace realizes Bonnie’s feistiness when it comes to taking care of her four legged friends on the planes and to hell with authority who says no. Saccha Dennis breaks your heart as Hannah who is anxious to hear from her fireman son. Steffi Didomenicantonio plays Janice with all the anxiety of a woman who just started on the job as a reporter. She is breathless flitting from one story to the next and certainly when Tom Brokaw (TOM BROKAW!!!) calls for details. James Kall as Nick is a very proper and endearing charmer from England who befriends Diane. Ali Momen as Kevin is less than happy to be in this remote place and certainly when his partner Kevin (Kevin also, it was cute for a time) is getting into the spirit of the situation. Momen also plays Ali, an Egyptian man on the plane and beautifully realizes all of Ali’s discomfort and isolation in that situation. Jack Noseworthy as the ‘other’ Kevin is relaxed and good-natured in this situation. Cory O’Brien as Oz is the kind-hearted, considerate cop who helps at all times. And Kevin Vidal as Bob makes a lovely transition from a man who is suspicious of everyone and wonders how he can protect his wallet, to a man who is affected positively by all the kindness he finds in this strange place.

It is tempting, I’m sure, to note how this production stacks up with the original production that played here on its way to Broadway last year. I’m not going to do that. Why would I? It doesn’t matter how anything compares to anything else if this is the production our audiences will be seeing.  Suffice to say this production is full of life, joy, chest-thumping pride, sterling talent, powerful voices and a cast that can realize the heart-shredding emotion of the piece and the foot-stomping thrill of it too. And they do it in their own individual way.

 Comment. Irene Sankoff and David Hein have said that Come from Away is not a 9/11 story; it’s a 9/12 story—it’s what happens after the planes land in Gander. It’s also not a Canadian story. It’s a Newfoundland story. Those folks are just different. With kindness, consideration and selflessness, they opened their homes and their hearts to strangers who needed help and comfort. That generosity of spirit was returned by the ‘strangers’ who quickly became friends. It’s the story of how lives can change when people are treated with love and consideration. It’s a wonderful story told in this glorious musical and yes, in these troubled times, this show is needed. See it and take Kleenex.

 David Mirvish presents:

Opened: Feb. 18, 2018.

Closes: open-ended

Running Time: 100 minutes, no intermission.

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David Schurmann
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann


At the CAA Theatre, (Formerly the Panasonic Theatre), Toronto, Ont.

Written by Mike Bartlett

Directed by Joel Greenberg

Set by John Thompson

Costumes by Denyse Karn

Lighting by Kevin Fraser

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Guy Bannerman

Wade Bogert-O’Brien

Rosemary Dunsmore

Patrick Galligan

Jessica Greenberg

Sam Kalilieh

Jeff Meadows

Gray Powell

Amy Rutherford

David Schurmann

Marcel Stewart

Shannon Taylor

A careful, respectful production with a strong cast. Mike Bartlett has unnecessarily revised/updated his play. Still a fascinating work.

 The Story. Playwright Mike Bartlett notes that King Charles III  is “a future history play.”

The Queen is dead and her son Charles has become King Charles III, but he is not prepared to be just a figurehead. He’s thoughtful and no pushover it seems. And that’s when the trouble starts.

Like every monarch before him Charles meets with his Prime Minister every week for a half hour to be informed of the business of parliament.  The monarch is really a ceremonial figure head who puts his/her signature on documents and laws passed by the government.

But Charles takes this further. He is expected to sign a bill passed by parliament that would restrict the power of the press. Charles won’t do it. His conscience won’t let him.

This leads to a constitutional crisis and serious matters have to be taken in hand.

The Production.  John Thompson set is spare– a wide bank of stairs is centre stage—that gives a sense of size and majesty to the look of the space. That one bank of stairs represents various locations: Buckingham Palace, No. 10 Downing Street, a bar.  Characters enter from the wings and climb up the stairs to speak to either the king or other characters. Kevin Fraser’s moody shafts of light also suggest size to the space.

The whole court enters from the wings, each member holds a glass in which is a lit candle. They proceed across the stage, around the bank of stairs and then stand facing the audience. Sombre. This is Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. Charles, played by David Schurmann, with seriousness and a sense of the enormity of the job carries on the idea of duty and purpose established by the late Queen. This King follows his conscience and Schurmann plays this with a sense of weight on his shoulders, but a weight he will carry because he believes he is right.

Director Joel Greenberg is careful with his direction, efficiently staging the piece with simplicity. But I think initially the pace seems sluggish that then quickens as the effects of Charles’ decision begin to gain momentum.  I also think there could have been a bit more attention to detail. I found it odd that Charles’ double-breasted suit does not seem to fit properly, which seems odd since designer Denyse Karn is so accomplished.  When the Prime Minister comes calling, Charles pours tea but doesn’t use a tea strainer suggesting tea bags are used (a no-no) and not loose tea. Small points, but the whole idea of that Royal Family and its procedures is composed of small, but resounding small points.

The acting gives a good sense of who these characters are. Jeff Meadows plays a laid back William but is able to rise to the occasion with determination.

Wade Bogert-O’Brien plays Harry with a combination boyishness and desire to be ‘ordinary’ that works well for this man at odds with his job in that family. And Shannon Taylor is forceful and wily as Catherine.

Neither the writing nor the performances go for caricature.  Mike Barlett has written this play in verse form (not rhyming couplets) and gives the sense that it is Shakespearean in tone. That seems fitting given the size of the political implications.

There is a section in Act II that clearly establishes the balance of crown and state and puts into context the enormity of what Charles has done by taking action and refusing to sign the document:

The monarch can only expect: the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn. That’s it. It says nothing about having an opinion.  There are ways to get around this—research indicates the Queen could not influence or express an opinion, but people were never in doubt as to what she thought. So it’s a clever play about British government and that family that clearly illustrates the minutiae of the workings and the shadiness of politics. .

Comment.  Playwright Mike Bartlett has revised the play since it was first done in London in 2014. There is now reference to William and Katherine’s children. Fine. Harry is still depicted in the play as a good-time party-boy irresponsible, flighty. But there is reference to a short-lived relationship with a Hollywood actress named Megan…that didn’t work out. So Harry goes back to his old ways.


That update doesn’t work and is unnecessary if one is really to believe this is ‘a future history play.’ Inputting a reference to a real relationship and twisting it to suggest Harry is irresponsible is a mistake when the reality of Harry is so different from the character in the play and the result weakens the play. Without that update the whole idea of irony speaks louder than this updated miss-step.

Produced by David Mirvish and Studio 180.

Opened: Feb. 15, 2018.

Closes: March 4, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes.


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by Lynn on February 15, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer



At the Factory Theatre, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written and directed by Kat Sandler

Set by Nick Blais

Costumes by Lindsay Dagger Junkin

Lighting by Oz Weaver

Sound by Verne Good

Cast: Sébastien Heins

Jeff Lillico

Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah

Karen Robinson

Richard Zeppieri

A well intentioned mess of a play and production that doesn’t know if it wants to be a glib TV situation comedy referencing a serious crime, or a serious drama that then gets bogged down in laughs when notoriety and the movies come calling.

 The Story. Lila (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah) is a black ex-cop who shot a young black man twice in the line of duty. The incident, trial and fall out made her leave the force and move in with her mother Karen (Karen Robinson). Tim (Jeff Lillico) is a white playwright who wrote a play about the shooting to ‘start a conversation.’ He never consulted Lila but has now shown up at her mother’s to warn her that Jackie, (Sébastien Heins)  a hot celebrity cast to star in the resultant movie is coming to talk to her about it.

 The Production.  Nick Blais has designed a neat, cheerful, well appointed house where Karen and Lila live. There are plants, family pictures, throw-blankets on the couch and comfy furniture. People live there.

Director Kat Sandler uses serious orchestral music at the top of the production to put us in the mood that this is a television show and not really a play.

Karen Robinson as Karen is a motherly, thoughtful woman who uses her psychologist smarts to deal with and understand her unhappy daughter, Lila. Lila is still reliving the events when she shot a young black man who she pulled over when he was driving his car. The fall out from the incident is that Lila has no friends or a job or a place in her former world. Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah is quite moving as Lila, stuck in her misery, directionless, angry and unable to find help.  Director Kat Sandler has established the prickly but loving relationship between these two women. The shooting incident is at the centre of their lives.

When Tim (Jeff Lillico) arrives bringing a present Karen is not pleased. His presence is a painful reminder of what happened. That both women don’t seem to know Tim wrote a play about the incident is surprising; that he never consulted them at all on its creation is also surprising. Lillico plays Tim as a twitchy, awkward man who is uncomfortable when challenged, because that’s the way director Kat Sandler has directed him to act.  The conversation between Tim, Karen and Lila is less about viable characters talking and listening to what is being said, than it is talking heads shooting out barbs, zingers, one-liners and glib jokes like reflexive ping-pong. It has the audience raucously laughing and I wonder where the central point of the play went with all that jollity.  And for all of Act I I wonder why Tim is there at all. It seems he is there to warn mother and daughter that Jackie, a notable Disney celebrity  is coming to talk to Lila about the movie.

In Act II Jackie shows up with his body-guard Tony (Richard Zeppieri). The banter is still light initially but this time a seriousness seeps into the conversation. Jackie is played by Sébastien Heins with the lightest, most charming touch. He knows the power of a smile and a food basket. Heins plays up Jackie’s frivolous persona but suggests a deeper thinker. The problem is that when Jackie acts out parts of Tim’s play Jackie hasn’t got a glimmer of a clue of how to play the character. Again, director Kat Sandler has Heins overplay the part. Is this to show how Hollywood always distorts serious stories in order to make a buck with popular but lousy casting? Really? Didn’t we already know that?

What is obvious in this transition from Tim’s play to his Hollywood break is that Tim has sold out his opus. Instead of a black woman being at its centre it’s now a biracial man. The title is changed because the Hollywood producers wanted it. Other aspects of the story have been changed—it seems that this is an action movie now and not an examination of racial tension in the world of the police and the black community. Jeff Lillico now plays Tim with more gravitas and confidence at inside information he has at the expense of others.

There are also so many plot twists and revelations from so many characters in Act II that the shape of the play now seems as twisted as a New York pretzel. While Richard Zeppieri is very funny and laid-back as Tony, that character’s inclusion is filler for only one reason (which I can’t divulge). My eyebrows are knitting.

 Comment. Playwright-director Kat Sandler says in her program note that she was intrigued by the 2013 newspaper stores about how the police shot a teenage boy. And she began “thinking about the effect those written pieces might have on those who knew him, and on different communities in Toronto….I wanted to write about the police system, about the ramifications of a split-second and about how the cops, the victims and their families were being represented. But I didn’t know how.” Yup that’s clear.

In her program note, Sandler continues pondering all manner of serious questions about mixing truth with fiction; of responsibility in telling a story outside her realm of experience; and should she do it. I so wish all this thoughtfulness went into her play and production. Sandler gives in to her natural predilection for the glib zinger rather than a thoughtful, deeper examination of the issues she says she wants to explore.

Act I is loaded with the quick quips, zingers, laughs that don’t come from situation but just from a barrage of cleverness. No one is listening in this badinage! This does such damage to the character of Tim, for example, who wants to be taken seriously that by the time the more serious Act II arrives the damage to Tim’s character is almost too much to overcome. Lost in all this is the actual shooting incident and trial and its effects on everybody. Lost is any sense of having a conversation about race, police targeting, or responsibility. Lost is the play Sandler says she wanted to write.

And can we please, please put a moratorium on a playwright feeling that only she/he can direct their own work? PLEASE! If the playwright and director are the same person who will tell the playwright to cut 50% of the jokes that serve no purpose but to bog down the story? Who will tell the director to pay attention to building relationships and make it seem as if there are real characters on stage who actually listen to each other rather than talking heads reacting reflexively without thought.

Produced by Factory Theatre

 Opened: Feb. 1, 2018.

Closes: Feb 24, 2018 (held over)

Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.



Review: HANG

by Lynn on February 13, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

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

Written by debbie tucker green

Directed by Philip Akin and Kimberley Rampersad

Set and lighting by Steve Lucas

Sound by Christopher Stanton

Costumes by Ming Wong

Cast: Sarah Afful

Vladimir Alexis

Zoé Doyle

debbie tucker green’s gripping play is about the horrible effect of a crime on a family and how a woman at the centre of it strives to cope with all its implications. Sarah Afful rises to the challenge of the woman in a production that could be more focused and better cast.

The Story. Three characters known only as 1, 2 and 3 meet in a generic meeting room. 1 (Zoé Doyle) is a bureaucrat leading the meeting, 2 (Vladimir Alexis) is her subordinate assisting in the meeting and 3 (Sarah Afful) is the woman who is the reason for the meeting. A crime has been committed and 3 must grapple with the affects on her and her family and take the next step.

1 and 2 are almost cloying in their efforts to make 3 comfortable, offering water, coffee, tea or anything else she wants, while also asking if her husband will be coming and they don’t mind waiting for him. They misread every sign from 3 that they are being insensitive in their obsessing in getting her what she wants. She sets them straight with searing directness.

The Production. The stage of the Berkeley Theatre, Upstairs is very wide and unfortunately designer Steve Lucas felt the need to design a set as wide as the stage. A table and four red chairs are centre and down from the door to the room. A water cooler is way over there stage right with more red chairs next to it.  One gets the sense from debbie turner green’s play that claustrophobia is in order. That’s impossible with characters walking to the water cooler way over there in order to get a glass of water and come back to the table and chairs. This makes directors Philip Akin and Kimberley Rampersad’s staging seem unwieldy and unfocused instead of tight and compact.

Zoé Doyle as 1, holds her clipboard as a shield and is officious but determined to appear accommodating. She is obviously the boss of 2 but does not want to laud it over him. He is anxious to bring her what she wants but she doesn’t want to seem demanding. debbie turner green knows how to create those mine-fields of office politics with subtlety and keen focus.

Vladimir Alexis as 2 is unfortunate casting. I could not understand 90% of what this young man was saying because of his droning nasally voice and his inability to enunciate his words clearly. If he pronounced any consonants crisply it was almost by accident. His murky diction is an unwarranted distraction.

Sarah Afful as 3 is the saving grace of this production. 3 is a walking wound. While 1 and 2 are twittering around 3, fussing to get her coffee etc. attempting to make her feel comfortable,  Afful silently surveys the room, not moving. Her stillness is riveting. She sizes up 1 and 2 with a keen-eyed stare. We can almost surmise what she thinks of them before she expresses herself. She has been summoned to make a terrible, hard decision. Afful’s measured, emotional performance as 3 walks a fine line in balancing her fraught emotions and resolve to make the decision without interference. She explains the effect a crime has had on herself, her children and her husband. It’s that perfect melding of spare, glinting writing and an actress is full control.

Comment. With Hang debbie turner green has created a compact, emotionally packed play about violence, revenge, and justice with no easy answers or relief for 3. green grips you gently by the back of the neck and pulls you into the story and doesn’t let you go until the blackout, and Sarah Afful’s performance will stay with you long after that. It’s a gritty play with lots to think about and discuss.

Obsidian Theatre Presents.

Opened: Feb. 9, 2018.

Closes: Feb. 25, 2018-02-12

Running Time: 1 hour and 15 minutes.