The Passionate Playgoer

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

Written by Erin Shields

A theatrical Adaptation of John Milton’s Paradise Lost

Directed by Jackie Maxwell

Designed by Judith Bowden

Composer, Thomas Ryder Payne

Sound by Deanna Haewon Choi

Fight director, John Stead

Movement by Valerie Moore

Heavenly (sorry) in every way.

 The Story.  Paradise Lost, is adapted by Erin Shields from John Milton’s epic 1667 poem about the expulsion of Satan/Lucifer and the followers from Heaven to a much hotter place because they challenged the will of God. They wanted to follow free will. And there are questions of the righteousness of God vs. the presumption of evil of Satan.

 The Production. Judith Bowden has designed an intriguingly simple set on two levels. God (Juan Chioran) in a tasteful grey suit looks down on his domain from the upper level. Below there is a wall of what looks like white, frilly clothes.

In Erin Shields’ bracing, whip-smart, dazzlingly written adaptation Lucifer is now a sensual, beguiling, seductive woman, played by the exquisite Lucy Peacock in black leather pants, knee-high black leather boots and a formfitting top that could be snake skin. She is shattering as she calmly, clearly describes the pain of being hurled out of Heaven to Hell and the fire that burned and melted skin and wings on the way down.

But then there is the smile: relaxed, embracing, dangerous and seductive as she tells us how we should be thanking her: “I liberated you from the banality of bliss/I released you from the beigeness of contentment.”

Wow.

But then Satan decides to get even with God for the sudden eviction from Paradise. She targets Adam, played as a sweet, wide-eyed, protective Qasim Khan and Eve, played by Amelia Sargisson, with pluck, curiosity and gentle impishness.  We see the innocence of Adam and Eve who appear to be naked in their sheer body-stockings and unaware of it, who refer to each other in the third person.

God has told them not to eat the fruit (apple) from the Tree of Knowledge.  Satan thinks that is unreasonable and charms Eve into eating the apple using logic and that smile that can make you do anything she is so convincing.  And of course all hell breaks out when Eve eats the apple and convinces Adam to do it too.

They lose their innocence and become aware and ashamed of their nakedness and that is the beginning of their lives lived in guilt, worry, concern and all the neat stuff of real life. And they begin to refer to each other as “you” and “I”, accusatory pronouns to be sure.

Jackie Maxwell proves once again that she is one of our brightest, smartest directors. Her production is simple yet complex. There is a piece of business in which the snake appears out of that wall of clothing, beguiling, mesmerizing. Lucifer grabs the snake and her arm is pulled into to material right to the shoulder. It’s a struggle getting the arm out but when she does her arm is now the snake. Magic before our eyes.

Again, Lucy Peacock is a relaxed, charmingly dangerous Satan. She is more interesting in her wicked ways than the righteous God, played by the courtly Juan Chioran. The intellectual arguments about good and evil between these two equals is part of the many fascinations of this production.

Sin is played by Sarah Dodd with something like a Bronx accent and tight pants. This woman takes no prisoners.

Comment.  Erin Shields has written a bracing, brilliant, impish, witty, poetic, intellectual, very funny adaptation for our times.  Her sense of language and description will have your eyes popping.  There is intellectual rigor here. And making Satan a woman somehow raises the danger stakes.

I loved every single second of this production.  It’s theatre for adults loaded with whimsy, wit and brains.

Presented by the Stratford Festival.

Opened: Aug. 17, 2018.

Closes: Oct. 21, 2018.

Running Time: 3 hours approx.

 www.stratfordfestival.ca

 

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

Written by Rosamund Small

Based on the Edith Wharton novel Bunner Sisters

Directed by Peter Pasyk

Set by Michelle Tracey

Costumes by Erika Connor

Lighting by Kimberley Purtell

Sound and music by Richard Feren

Choreography by Monica Dottor

Cast: Kevin Bundy

Laura Condlln

Raquel Duffy

Ellora Patnaik

Nicole Power

Karen Robinson

Beautifully written, stylishly directed and wonderfully acted.

 The Story. New York City at the turn of the 20th century.  Ann and Evelina Bunner are two devoted sisters. Ann is the eldest of the two. They are seamstresses who struggle to run a shop in New York City. They make artificial flowers and other small items. They also sell buttons and ribbons. Evelina is the more gifted seamstress of the two. Ann keeps the books and makes sure all the items in the shop are in pristine order.

Ann buys a clock in a quirky shop from Ramy, for Evelina’s birthday. There is instant rapport between Ann and Ramy. Ramy is a German clock maker who had worked at Tiffany’s before going into this little shop. Ann is so charmed by him that she finds an excuse to see him again by deliberately damaging the clock and asking him round to her shop to fix it. When he meets Evelina there is instant rapport between them too. Ann is aware of that. The introduction of Ramy into the sisters’ well ordered lives changes everything.

It’s obvious to Ann that Evelina hopes Ramy proposes to her. Ann steps aside for her sister to be happy. As usual, life does not work out as we want it to.

The Production.  Director Peter Pasyk has directed a stylish, spare but richly textured production. The relationship of Ann (Laura Condlln) and Evelina (Nicole Power) is close, loving but not overtly affectionate. These two characters are of their time—the early 1900s—decorum is everything.  As Evelina, Nicole Power is youthful, enthusiastic and free-wheeling but not in a disruptive way.

Michelle Tracey has designed a set of a framed outline of a house-building in which is the simple store-living quarters of the sisters. A moveable counter with all their ribbons and buttons is downstage right.  A narrow bed is stage left. It speaks volumes about the poverty of the sisters that they both sleep in that bed.

Actors make entrances and exits to the shop by walking ‘through a wall’ (there is no need of a door frame) with the sound of a bell accompaniment. Nothing fancy. The audience just imagines the doors etc. Richard Feren’s sound is evocative and spare and the music selections are beautiful.

As Ann, Laura Condlln is always gracious, accommodating, contained and smiling. As the older sister she comports herself with a quiet dignity. But as the tensions and emotions rise, when Ann is frantic to learn what has happened to her sister after she marries and moves away, Condlln is simply astonishing. Condlln plays Ann with tightly-controlled emotion. You see her desperation to find her sister, but Ann can’t lose control, interestingly that desperation is passed on to the audience. That’s a good thing.

Condlln also uses the power of a smile that says so much here—it conveys charm, confidence and covers intense embarrassment, certainly in the last gut-wrenching scene.

Kevin Bundy as Ramy has the rumpled charm of a man who just wins over women who want to take care of such a courtly fellow. Karen Robinson as Mrs. Mellins has that perfect timing to nail a simple laugh-line, and she does it every single time. It’s a lovely performance

Comment.  Edith Wharton usually wrote of the upper class in her many books about society in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. Her novella, “Bunner Sisters”, (note there is no “The” in the title) is different. It’s about the almost desperate poverty of the Bunner sisters who run their shop. They make do eking out their living until matters do get desperate.

Wharton had a rich, descriptive style. In her adaptation Rosamund Small is spare in her dialogue but it’s the silences, what is not being said, that also carries the weight of description. Peter Pasyk’s careful direction is a perfect companion to illuminate the piece.

I heard someone call this play a melodrama. I don’t think it’s as simplistic or pjorative as that. If anything Sisters is a psychological thriller about the confines of society in the early 20th century, about the familial ties that bind families. So while we mainly see the intensity of Ann’s feelings for her sister and her desperation to find her, we also get the sense that both sisters are clasped together by a tight, invisible bond.

I liked this production and play a lot, and will get me to read more Wharton.

Soulpepper Theatre Company presents:

Opened: Aug. 29, 2018.

Closes: Sept. 16, 2018.

Running Time: 90 minutes

www.soulpepper.ca

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The Edinburgh Fringe and International Theatre Festival.

Edinburgh in August is packed with festivals: the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Edinburgh International Theatre Festival, the Edinburgh Book Festival, the Edinburgh Music/Jazz Festival. People who go to the Fringe Festival look like ‘glazed-eyed zombies. There are about hundreds theatre events alone that one can choose from during the run of the festival. Each show is about an hour or so.  People have their lists of plays etc. I heard one woman on the phone brag to a friend that she beat her record of shows seen in a day. She saw seven. She was tempted to go for an eighth but thought better of it. Who is one trying to impress?  After all that theatre, can you actually remember what you saw and how it was without looking at the list? I wonder.

In any case, after seeing some Fringe shows in Toronto and SummerWorks, I thought I should see some Edinburgh Fringe shows during its last week just to ween myself from a complete crash.

I sat next to theatre royalty on the flight over: Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory.  She was going to Edinburgh to meet Evalyn Parry to pitch their show, Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools, to a group of presenters including Michael Rubenfeld who is the artistic director of CanadaHub at the festival.  Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools is the wonderful show that Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, in association with Theatre Passe Muraille did last year, and which won the Toronto Theatre Critics Award for Best Canadian play,

She lives in Iqaluit with her husband and three children. She showed me a video she did of a recent whale kill ceremony. It was the first time in 100 years that that ceremony took place. The ritual of catching, killing and butchering the whale is fascinating. A man was cutting up the meat as a fine butcher would. It’s almost art. It IS art. The whale had been left for 24 hours to cool, but even then the blood was so hot it steamed when it was exposed to the air. The water around the whale was red with the blood. The blood vessels are large holes. Stunning. Nothing is left to waste. You can even drink the blood—it’s pure iron.  The skin is stripped and cooked and eaten with soya sauce. A delicacy! Who knew?

She would land at 6:30 am, have a rehearsal at 10 am and then do the pitch to the presenters. She would stay until Wednesday and then fly home. Talk about whirlwind.

The Fringe catalogue is 450 pages big. The theatre section on its own is 103 pages big with about 11 theatre events on each page. Do the math. This festival is huge. I ticked 57 events that interested me but of course could not see them all—really…..never mind those who go from morning to night. You can’t walk down any street in the Fringe area without people thrusting flyers into your hand begging you to see their magic show, their mystery show, their show done entirely by a sock puppet, a show called  Politics for Bitches, drama shows, comedy shows, etc.  I missed a lot I wanted to see. I saw some that were wonderful, some that were good and a few that were so awful they were life shortening, in other words, par for the course with theatre-going.

On the day I landed (Monday, Aug. 20)  I hit the road running.

Your Bard (an informal audience with Will Shakespeare in the pub.)

Written and performed by Nicholas Collett

Directed by Gavin Robertson

Additional material by Will Shakespeare

Smart, informative, funny. Nicholas Collett is a charming Will Shakespeare, with the small goatee, green velvet doublet and hose and funny shoes, is informative about who wrote the plays—he did of course! He told his life story, his marriage, his kids, the death of Hamnet his son, the plays, the performances and the theatres. He involved the audience but not in an intrusive way. A nice way to begin the Fringe.

Hysterical

Created by the young company, LUND

From the press info:

“Feminism is a tricky word. Misunderstood, misused and missing out men. Or is it? How is gender understood by the general public and what does it mean in the age of Trump, #metoo and BiC Pens For Her? We have had awkwardly frank conversations with everyone from a suffragette grandmother to pornstar Ben Dover. Fusing the frank language of interview testimony with beautiful movement inspired by Gecko, Frantic Assembly and DV8, ‘Hysterical’ promises to be a fresh, varied and often outrageous take on what gender means today. It might get weird but it definitely won’t be boring.”

Loved this. It was recommended by a friend whose son was in it. We support the work of our friends’ children.

The company is composed of young actors in their late teens and early 20s. The work is smart (not weird at all), intelligent, perceptive and beautifully presented. I thought the direction of this group of 11 (? Sorry don’t know as there was no program) was exceptional. It was movement based and so precise in its presentation that you knew how much work was put into it.

They dealt with the question of feminism: what is it? Who is a feminist? Who is not even though they say they are. They explored ‘consent.’ A couple is affectionate and want to take it further. The man is not aggressive but obviously wants to go to bed with the woman. The woman is not so eager. She says ‘no’. They are still affectionate but she wonders why they can’t be close, cuddle but not have sex. I wonder that too, as they are in bed. Such tricky questions. Again, the movement is not aggressive or dangerous but is tender, gentle but the possibility of escalating is always there.

I loved how seriously they dealt with the issues; how compelling the performance and production were. I am not familiar with the movement group GECKO, but you can’t do better than Frantic Assembly and DV8 as groups to emulate.

Such a wonderful surprise on my first day.

(even) HOTTER

Again, this was recommended by the daughter of the woman who told me about Hysterical. The daughter is studying/training to be a director. I have a lot of respect for these talented young people.

Created and performed by Mary Higgins and Ell Potter.

This dynamic duo is called Hotter. According to the flyer they have a crusade against embarrassment. They collected interviews with women and trans people aged 11 to 97 about body image, blushing, sweating, pinkness and pleasure. “The moments when our bodies give us away. About being embarrassed and embarrassing. About your body and being able to love it and laugh at it. “

As we file into this sold-out performance the two women are on stage, posed. They are decked out in sunglasses, garish coloured clothes with puffy bits to it, tops, pants/dresses, boas, wild hats dressed over the top and confident in that pose. Wonderful.

When the show started the two performers were vibrant, energetic, lively and enthusiastic. One was also concerned with her body image. She was not happy with it. Her breasts were too big, her nipples were not right. The other tried to give her solace. As the show progressed we heard the recorded interviews of women of all ages taking about embarrassing moments. The woman who was 97 (the grandmother of one of the women???) had the spark and confidence of a woman who was comfortable about herself. She lived a long time and coped with lots of ups and downs and was now serene in her life and skin. Younger interviewees were making their rocky journey to confident but you could hear how hard the journey was sometimes.

Interspersed with this was terrific music and dance. The two women gradually peeled that clothing and covering and bits and bobs away until they were in a halter top and harem pants, dancing with joy. Then the top came off revealing a fitted top and the pants gave way to slinky shorts. They ended with both in a bikini top and bottom on the bum of each was printed “even Hotter” dancing as if they were the two most confident people in the world. Fitting.

I loved the confidence and verge of the two women, their message and their appeal for almost the whole show. But then something happened. The two women hopped from the stage into the audience and invited/brought people on stage to dance with them. Eventually many more people (a really young crowd) joined them on stage leaving a few of us (about 15 people or so including me) in the audience. The stage was now packed with people bopping to the music. Mary Higgins and Ell Potter got on the armrests of two of the seats in the front row, faced the stage and thanked all of them for coming, bringing the show to an end where they bowed deeply. They never turned to include those few of us who chose not to dance on stage, instead favouring us with their butts ‘in our faces.’ Now that’s embarrassing–rather ironic, isn’t it. What an unfortunate ending.

More reviews to come from Edinburgh.

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At FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, 250 St. Paul St. St. Catharines, Ont.

Written by Norm Foster

Directed by Patricia Vanstone

Set and Costumes by Peter Hartwell

Lighting by Chris Malkowski

Cast: Wes Berger

Cosette Derome

Peter Keleghan

Leah Pinsent

Nora McLellan

William Vickers

A funny, smart play about relationships and how they are tested during renovations.

The Story. This is another original play by Norm Foster for this festival dedicated to his plays. The festival is billed as “Humour with Heart.” That it is.

Renovations for Six is about three couples in varying social strata, all are being tested with renovations to their dwellings. Grant and Shayna Perkins have moved to this new city so Grant can take up a new job as manager of a furniture store. Shayna wants to open her own yoga studio (as she did in her previous city) but seems to have to put that on hold while Grant gets his footing.

Maurice Dudet and his wife Veronica Dunn-Dudet are well off—he used to be an engineer until he decided to leave that to write a novel. Veronica is a psychiatrist who doesn’t miss a chance to give Maurice a shot about how their income has come down.

Billie and Wing Falterman are ex-dancers on a kind of vaudeville circuit. Billie would love to go back to it but her husband Wing is not sure. He works at the same store as Grant. Wing is a senior salesman, Grant is his boss, and secretly Wing feels he should have been given the promotion to manager.

It seems that the women belong to the same book club and so to meet new people Grant and Shayna throw a party and invite the other two couples.

Truths are told. Feelings are hurt and a secret is revealed.

The Production. Peter Hartwell has designed a smart set that stands for the three separate spaces under renovations. There are few prop changes. The audience does all the imagining of where we are. Patricia Vanstone has directed with assurance, wit and economy. We always know where we are and with whom. And while Norm Foster’s play is full of his notable humour and wit, this is not a facile play. There are serious issues: fidelity, trying to follow your bliss no matter how silly it might seem to others; rekindling a love that seems to be stale; and just retribution.

The cast is crackerjack. Wes Berger plays Grant Perkins, the man who has just been promoted and moves to the new city for the job, bringing his accommodating wife Shayna (Cosette Derome) with him. Berger is strapping, attractive and has that look of success that some bosses like. Berger has that easy-going, but mindful attitude about his job. He looks like he’s fair minded but he is full of surprises. Cosette Derome as Shayna is his loving wife. They have a lot of quick sex which might suggest that all is ok. Hmmmmm.

Peter Keleghan plays Maurice Dudet, once an engineer who now is trying his hand at writing. It’s slow. He keeps plodding away. His wife Veronica (Leah Pinsent)  is not quite so accommodating. She is a psychiatrist who likes the two incomes they used to enjoy. While he is relaxed and not so full of worries, he is of course aware of his wife’s cutting remarks. He rolls with the punches. Leah Pinsent as Veronica as cutting, bored, impatient and arch with her comments. We know there is trouble here.

Nora McLellan plays Billie Falterman and William Vickers plays Wing Falterman. They play an ex-song and dance duo. Wing also works in Grant’s furniture store and secretly feels he should have gotten the promotion. He shows that he has more smarts and compassion for his fellow workers than Grant does. Nora McLellan as Billie makes almost everything seem hilarious because she is so eager to get back into the business and has that sass that works so well. Both McLellan and Vickers have comic timing that is astonishing. Vickers plays the more excitable of the two. McLellan can pop off a line with a straight face and do some small business with her fingers that just finishes the joke. Pure joy.

Renovations for Six is the third in the series of shows that comprised this year’s Foster Festival. I regret missing the first show this year. With plays and productions this good I’ll be making a trip to this festival next year for sure.

Comment. It’s quite wonderful to see the whole community getting behind this endeavor. And why not. It’s terrific theatre; the casts and creative folks involved are top notch and the festival is dedicated to one of our most successful playwrights. We all win.

Produced by the Foster Festival

Began: Aug. 8, 2018.

Closes: Aug. 25, 2018.

Running Time:  2 hours approx.

www.fosterfestical.com

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The Extinction of Hong Kongers

Toronto Media Arts Centre, 32 Lisgar St., Toronto, Ont.

Created by Carmen Lee, Chun Shing Roland Au, Santayana Li

Written by Chun Shing Roland Au, Santayana Li

Directed by Chun Shing Roland Au, Santayana Li

Performed by Chun Shing Roland Au, Santayana Li

Music composed and performed by Ross Unger

Lighting by Kabeer Garba

Set and costumes by Carmen Lee, Chun Shing Roland Au, Santayana Li

Stunning Theatre.

Chung Shing Roland Au and Santayana Li found life in Hong Kong so onerous under the present political regime, that they sought a better life and moved to Canada a few years ago. So what do you do when you pine for your homeland? You write a wonderful play telling its history, secrets and mysteries.

Chung Shing Roland Au and Santayana Li start with incense. Because incense factored heavily in Chinese life there, the fragrance was everywhere. The Chinese name for incense was then given to the name of the city—hence Hong Kong.

The two performers go through Hong Kong’s history from the time the British came calling and took it over, over their many years of ownership to when the British handed over Hong Kong to China 20 years ago. The storytelling is clear, spare and provocative. They sprinkle humour with the seriousness of what is happening resulting in a chilling story.

Under the China’s domination rules were stringent: how to live, behave, the language you could speak, freedoms they lost.

The set is composed of many cardboard boxes that are fitted and formed to look like the huge city of Hong Kong. There are sky scrapers made of boxes; boxes open up into models of homes in miniature. Puppets are used to convey a protest. The set and pieces are made of recycled materials that the creators equate with what will happen to Hong Kong in the future. It is a serious show done with lightness but purpose.

I was blown away by the invention and vision of the story and the set. Stunning work. A quibble, some business that dealt with China, Tienanmen Square I believe is done on the floor and those of us at the back and in the second row could not see it. Perhaps a rethink of where that bit of business is done so everybody can see.

Other than that, the show just blew my mind.

Performances remaining:

Thurs. Aug 16,   6:00 pm

Friday, Aug. 17, 7:00 pm

www.summerworks.ca

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More from SummerWorks.

b side

It takes place in a laneway. Toronto, Ont.

Created and performed by Molly Johnson, Meredith Thompson and Robbie Grunwald

Original composition and sound by Robbie Grunwald

This is part of SummerWorks Lab, in which the work is still in development but requires an audience for further exploration.

We gathered at Artscape on Shaw Street and followed yellow arrows on the sidewalk. We passed one of those mini-libraries on a stand on the street and took a sheet of paper with instructions on our journey.

We then gathered in a laneway at one end and waited for our guides, the two gentle performers, Molly Johnson and Meredith Thompson. We were instructed to look, observe and discover as we made our journey up the laneway. They wear a costume of bright orange with hot pink touches. Eye-popping.

Along the journey, Molly Johnson and Meredith Thompson performed interpretive dance in front of garages, in the middle of the laneway and used other backdrops for their work. At times it looked as if they were worshiping a sun or sky spirit. They carved out space by stretching both arms and legs.

We were given a lemon from a bucket at three points in the journey. We were asked to leave the lemon in a place in full sight or hidden or mysterious. Our choice. I noticed that greenery was everywhere: growing along the overhead telephone wires, weeds in the cracks in the asphalt, in backyards. Garage doors were painted different colours, usually vibrant, sometimes conservatively innocuous. One garage door had various symbols on it: a sun, a moon, stars etc. Many had graffiti. At the end of the laneway was something astonishing—a large urban garden. It had lush plants and a large vegetable garden in huge pots: tomatoes, eggplant, I wanted to wander in that garden but a fence prevented me. Beautiful.

At the end of the journey Molly Johnson and Meredith Thompson give us a surprise (I won’t tell you—you will find out when you see this show, and you must see it). It’s then that the land acknowledgement is made about the original caretakers of this land. Placing this at the end of our journey and not at the beginning, as is the norm, has a poignancy about it since were have been asked to look and see where we are going, to be mindful of things we might not see and to look harder, to listen as well as hear the sounds of the laneway.

I loved this show—I loved the brains and heart of it and the imagination with which it was created.

Remaining performances:

Thur. Aug. 16 5:00 pm

Thur. Aug. 16 7:00 pm

Sun.    Aug 19             4:00 pm

Sun.    Aug. 19            6:00 pm

www.summerworks.ca

The following shows are  

….And You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next

 At the Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. W. Toronto, Ont.

Written and performed by Graham Isador

Directed by Jiv Parasram

Writer-performer Graham Isador wanted to share his favourite stories that he has written for various publications: Reader, Buzzfeed, etc. Presently he writes for Vice. He tells us how writing for these on-line, etc. publications came about. He says this is not ‘stand-up’ comedy, although there is an attempt to be funny. He says it’s really story-telling with a beginning, middle and end. Jokes and stand-up have that form too.

A spiffy maroon jacket hangs on a microphone stand. He enters and put it on with a nod to how stunning the jacket is (it is really smart-looking). He stand in front of the (unnecessary) microphone, and like stand-up, give us his act, in a confident voice although the delivery is quick and without variation. His facial expression is unchanging, unsmiling and dull. There has to be some reason why we are listening to these stories, either they are compelling or the performer is. Unfortunately the stories initially don’t grab until perhaps the end, and Mr. Isador  with his feigned sombre look is phony and a turn-off.

Interestingly his director, Jiv Parasram, used the same unsmiling stance for his show, Take d Milk, Nah? Earlier this year at Theatre Passe Muraille with much better results. Mr. Parasram is a gifted story-teller that draws the audience in.

I kept asking myself with Mr. Isador, why am I listening to these unfunny, unremarkable (for the most part) stories in outlets that come and go with the speed of the internet. I couldn’t find the answer.

Ironically his writing at Vice is interesting.

Remaining performances:

 

Fri.  Aug. 17    10:00 pm

Sat.  Aug. 18   9:00 pm

 

a girl lives alone

At the Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. W., Toronto, Ont.

Written by Jessica Moss

Directed by Jessica Moss and the company

Cast: Aldrin Bundoc

Tiffany Deobald

Anita La Selva

Samantha Madely

Jessica Moss

Andrew Musselman

Alexander Thomas

Asha Vijayasingham

Jessica Moss has written an atmospheric murder mystery. A woman is murdered in her apartment and the rest of the tenants are spooked. They don’t know who the murderer is. They speculate, they assume, they are afraid to leave their apartments and yet seek companionship to ease their loneliness.

While it starts with lots of atmosphere, screaming and creepy sound effects, this is not a who-done-it. Jessica Moss does not seem to be interested in writing that. Rather this is a show of atmosphere and how our minds play tricks on us if we let it. The show is more about the Foley artist in the stage left corner making all the sound effects—we see him do it all and of course it’s fascinating. The problem is that the play is empty. One must be suspicious of program notes that tell us what the play is about without actually writing the play that supports it. Sure, Moss plays a needy woman who lives across the hall from another needy woman, but the play is weak on substance and point. It is interesting though to watch the actors mime opening and closing doors, walking down the stairs etc.  with all the attendant sound effects.

Jessica Moss has written other plays that are interesting, a girl lives alone (what is it with these titles in lower case letters??) alas is not one of them. But it has afforded Moss an opportunity to write for a big cast. I hope the exercised for her was educational.

Remaining Performances:

 

Sat. Aug. 18    10:00 pm

Sun. Aug. 19. 8:30 pm.

 

www.summerworks.ca

 

The Private Life of the Master Race

At the Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. W., Toronto, Ont.

Written by Bertolt Brecht

Translated and adapted by ted witzel and Susanna Fournier

Directed and created by Esther Yun

Scenographer, Akiva Romer Segal

Lighting by Shannon Lea Doyle

Cast: Tess Benger

Keith Brown

Jasmine Chen

Jason Collett

Brittany Cope

Jennifer Dzialoszynski

Stella Kulagowski

Craig Pike

Neil Quinn

Rouvan Silogix

Edmund Stapleton

This is presented as a cabaret with round tables and chairs around the playing area. There are song and dance acts; a magic act in which a person from the audience is asked to participate, a strip tease act in which a member of the audience is asked to prick strategically placed balloons on the stripper’s body. A master of ceremonies introduces each act with extravagant excitement and a bit of cynicism. Interspersed there is fear of what is going on outside: roundups, people disappearing or sounded out for being different. It’s a chilling time. While the show is by Bertolt Brecht and has Master Race in the title, we don’t only think of Nazi Germany as the focus of the ‘entertainment.’ We also think of what is going on with our neighbours to the south.

Esther Jun has her cast in modern dress and not period costumes. She is a smart, bold director. This gives a sense of the universality of the piece. The adaptation by ted witzel and Suzanna Fournier is sharp and conjures a time in German in the 1930s and any other place with an oppressive political attitude in 2018. The cast is uniformly strong. Terrific piece of theatre.

Remaining Performance:

Thurs. Aug. 16,   10:30 pm

www.summersorks. ca

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More from Summerworks:

At the Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. W., Toronto, Ont.

 

Body of Fluorescent

Co-created by Amanda Cordner and David Di Giovanni

Directed by David Di Giovanni

Performed by Amanda Cordner

Guest performer, Leila

Amanda Cordner gives a powerful performance about the black woman’s image of herself. She plays several characters: Shaneese, an angry, bold black woman who takes no prisoners and wants to dance and have fun, and God help anyone who gets in her way; Desiree, a friend who breaks up a fight between Shaneese and another person; a quiet spoken black woman (sorry, I didn’t get her name), and Gary a gay white kid who idolizes Shaneese.

Cordner creates a compelling show about a black woman’s identity. Should she be quiet and demure like our unnamed woman or bold, loud, angry and combative like Shaneese? Gary tries to use black vernacular when talking to Shaneese and at one point uses jive talk and the ‘N’ word  in a phone message to her. She reflexively begins to text a reply until she realizes what he’s done. He’s presuming upon her identity, using a word he  does not own. Serious stuff.

But Leila, who describes herself as a ‘real-live Persian Princess’, offers wild coming relief as only she can.

Cordner, as always is a compelling performer. As Shaneese she is an extroverted, sensual dancer and really angry character; as the demure woman, she is contained, watchful and thoughtful. Gary is a loose-limbed kid who wants and needs to belong somewhere. All those goes to create an arresting show of identity, awareness and an idea of self-worth.

Performances left:

Sat. Aug. 18, 1:15 pm

Sun. Aug. 19, 7:15 pm

www.summerworks.ca

 

the aisha of is

Created and performed by Aisha Sasha John

Lighting by Vishmayaa Jeyamoorthy & Jennifer Lennon

This is listed as a dance/interdisciplinary piece. Dance vocabulary is always a mystery to me so I seek out dance pieces to try and learn what the pieces are trying to say. Even if the message is obscure or there is no message at all, most of the time it’s an interesting exercise.

Aisha Sasha John begins by negotiating across he floor in small steps, her hands tightly flowing over each other. She sits in front of a computer upstage, facing downstage. Her face and what she types appears on a large screen behind her.  What she types is cryptic in meaning. She puts on lipstick. During the show she removes clothing revealing another outfit, dress, pants. She sits on the floor and takes out what looks like make-up. She has a bowl of water in front of her and carefully washes her face and dries it. She dances in other configurations. At one point she stands on the top step of a small two step thing,  she takes out a large scroll, unfurls it and begins reading in a voice so quiet, not projected, I could not make out most of it. I was sitting in the third row. She steps down to the first step and keeps reading, then stands on the floor and reads and then slowly ends up almost prone as she continues to read. At the end of the show she said the poem was available outside by donation.

I have no idea what this show is about.

Performances left:

Thursday, Aug. 16      9:15 pm

Saturday, Aug. 18      12:00 pm

 

Box 4901

Written by Brian Francis

Directed by Rob Kempson

Set and costumes by Brandon Kleiman

Sound by Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski

Lighting by Cosette Pin

Performers: Bilal Baig

Hume Baugh

Keith Cole

Izad Etemadi

Daniel Krolik

Michael Hughes

Tsholo Khalema

Eric Morin

Kyle Shields

Chy Ryan Spain

Jonathan Tan

Chris Tsujiuchi

Geoffrey Whynot

In 1992 novelist Brian Francis, then 21 and a student at the University of Western Ontario, placed an ad in the personal column of the London Free Press, looking for companionship, a relationship, company, etc. He got many replies. He did not reply to 13 of them and now, 26 years later he does.

Brian Francis reads each letter in turn out loud to us and then his reply. The letters to him range from being sweet, snarky, suggestive, open-hearted, funny, irreverent and representative of how gay men then, connected. When Francis replies, he does so from the lens of being 26 years older, mature-minded and wise. He too is very funny but in a thoughtful way.

Rob Kempson has the 13 ‘correspondents’ walk across the back of the theatre and at various times assume a pose or get into a kind of formation that is never distracting and always serves the piece. As Brian Francis reads each letter in turn, the man it is intended to listens and then stands at the back until the last man’s letter is read. We always wonder if one of these 13 men could have been Mr. Right and so does Mr. Francis.

What an intoxicating thing it is to see 13 gay actors breathe life, sex and heart into this intriguing show. Beautifully done.

Performances left:

Tues. Aug. 14    5:00 pm

Sun. Aug. 19      4:45 pm

 

Swim Team

Written by Jaber Ramezani

Directed by Aida Keykhaii

Lighting by Chin Palipane

Cast: Banafsheh Taherian

Parya Tahsini

Sarah Saberi

Tina Bararian

A fascinating idea. Four Iranian women meet in an appartment to learn how to swim—in a place that has no water. Roya is the woman who will teach them to swim. The apartment and the imagined exercise provides a kind of safe haven. Roya was a swim coach and is qualified to teach the three young women.

A pool is marked off by scarves that are tied together—wonderful image. Aida Keykhail’s direction is full of wonderfully vivid images, ideas and a created humanity. Jaber Ramezani has written a thoughtful, unsettling play that should be expanded or at least fleshed out. Little is said about what these women endure and the politics that bind them, until the very end. That seems tacked on. It should be re-thought and developed. The women try and move a mattress into the ‘living’ room but are unsuccessful. It’s hard to make out why they needed to move it and why they abandoned it. At the top of the show they are all talking Farsi? without a translation. That leaves the audience in the dark. Either cut it or put all that dialogue into English. This is too good an idea of a play to leave your audience in the dark. Other than that, terrific.

Performances left:

Sun. Aug. 19   6:00 pm

www.summerworks.ca

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At 4th Line Theatre, Millbrook, Ont.

Written by Judith Thompson

Directed by Kim Blackwell

Original music and musical director, Justin Hiscox

Costumes by Meredith Hubbard

Sets and props by James McCoy

Sound by Esther Vincent

Choreography by Monica Dottor

Fight director, Edward Belanger

Cast: Maja Ardal

Cynthia Ashperger

Cassandra Guthrie

Mark Hiscox

Tom Keat

Andrei Preda

Grace Thompson

Steven Vlahos

 A chilling, moralistic play about bullying, the well-meaning victim and how so many people are affected. Wonderfully directed by Kim Blackwell, but the trick ending doesn’t work and is really not earned.

The Story. Judith Thompson referenced the story of Reteah Parsons for this world premier. Reteah Parsons was the young teen who was tormented, bullied and humiliated by her schoolmates until she took her own life.

Ramona is the mother of Serena. Ramona has been haunted by Serena’s death. She tells us that Serena took her own life because she was bullied. Ramona then goes over Serena’s life in loving detail: from her joyous birth, through her happy childhood, to the time everything changed for her daughter and she became a target for the bullies until it ended tragically.

 The Production.  Kim Blackwell directs Who Killed Snow White? with her usual flair and style. She has a wonderful vision for how to use the whole sweep of the farm (that we can see) which means the barn yard, buildings and the meadows off to the right.

In the first scene, Ramona (Cynthia Ashperger) is writhing on the ground, reacting to her usual nightmare of seeing all the dead kids who took their lives or lost them young. When we look beyond Ramona on the ground, there in the distance in the tall grass of the meadow young women in white dresses pop up, as if from the ether, then disappear into the grass. They then all rise up and rush off in formation and out of Ramona’s nightmare when she wakes up.  She says her own daughter took her life because she was bullied and then she goes over every second of the girl’s life.

Cynthia Ashperger as Ramona is what you would expect of a distraught mother, she is angst ridden, consumed with grief and remorse. As the play goes along Ramona will feel guilty she didn’t do more to protect her daughter from the horrors of the outside world.

When Serena was born Ramona and her husband Jay (a strong Mark Hiscox) were overjoyed and revelled in this beautiful baby girl. Serena was a happy kid. She had friends. Then in grade eight these friends seemed to turn on her and ostracised her.  Judith Thompson’s writing is particularly strong in illuminating the pull of peer pressure to belong and be accepted. Thompson also captures the sense of loneliness and isolation that Serena felt in that situation. As Serena, Grace Thompson has that ability to convey Serena’s confidence and fragility.

Serena made friends with another awkward kid, Riley (Tom Keat, wonderfully lively) who was gay, proud and sweet and together they navigated the margins of being ‘outsiders.’ Then matters escalated with the bullies.

Monica Dottor is a gifted choreographer and her depiction in movement of the violence done to Serena is both balletic and brutal. You want to look away but you are compelled to see because of this gripping ‘choreography.’

As we are told by Ramona at the beginning of the play Serena could not take the cruelty anymore and took matters into her own hands.

Comment.  We believe Ramona when she says at the beginning of the play that Serena is dead by taking her own life. But then Judith Thompson turns her play completely around at the end. Ramona says they wanted to give the audience a happy ending. (Sorry if this is a spoiler but this is a serious problem with the play and needs to be addressed).

I think that’s a cheat. It’s not the ending the play deserves. I appreciate that Judith Thompson has a strong moral compass and conscience. She sides with the underdog, the marginalized and the bullied.  But sometimes she can sound self-righteous and deal with matters in a simplistic way. The villains in the piece are villains from beginning to end with no redeeming qualities. No people in authority seemed to have done anything here to deal with the problems of bullying (except Jay, Serena’s father). Audiences live in a tough world and can deal with harsh things. I believe they could have dealt with the ending this play works towards and deserves.

That said, I think Who Killed Snow White? is a gripping, emotional play with a strong message. It’s dealing with something important and bravo to 4th Line Theatre for tackling  it.

Produced by 4th Line Theatre.

Opened: Aug. 8, 2018.

Closes: Aug. 25, 2018.

Running Time: approx. 2 hours.

www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca

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At the Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. W.,  Toronto, Ont.

Lion Womxn

Created and performed by: nevada-Jane arlow, Clara Carreon, Olivia Costes, Gabi M Fay, Carvela Lee, Megan Legesse, Laya Mendizabal, MORGAN, Whitney-Nicole Peterkin, Rofiat Olusanya, Aaliya Wooter, Flo Yang.

Directed by Julia Hune-Brown and Nikki Shaffeeullah

Lighting by Senjuti Sarker

Costumes by Chris Faris

Choreography by Jasmine Shaffeeullah

Projections designed by Nicole Eun-Ju Bell

Presented by the AMY Project.

I love the AMY Project’s work. It’s brave, true, heartfelt and moving. As stated in the program: “The AMY Project is a free performing arts training program serving young women and non-binary youth. AMY breaks down barriers to participation by providing meals and transportation; accessible, queer and trans inclusion and anti-racist environments; and more. With the mentorship of professional artists, AMY participants learn to tell their stories with honesty, integrity and artistic rigour.”

For this endeavor we hear stories of teens coping with issues of identity, body image, horrific memories of their home countries before they came to Canada, a sense of guilt they couldn’t do more to help family members, coping with harsh home lives and how they deal with it all with grace, resolve and confidence.

The stories are rich in poetry, imagery, vivid description and are beautifully rendered with economy and style. The stories of these young artists will pierce the heart and compel you to listen and hear them.

Their last show is Mon. Aug. 13 at 6:30 pm

Tickets: www.summerworks.ca

 

Adrenaline

Written and performed by Ahmad Meree

Directed by Majdi Bou-Matar

Set by Majdi Bou-Matar

Sound by Colin Labadie

Original music by Colin Labadie.

Done in Arabic with English surtitles.

Jaber is a young Syrian man spending his first New Year’s Eve in Canada. He’s cold.  He thinks back to the previous year’s New Year’s in Syria where he was with his family, mindful of the possibility of bombs dropping or soldiers invading their home at any moment.

In the safety of Canada he sits down to a meal of pizza and coke and talks to his parents and his young brother. They are cleverly depicted: his mother is a stand-up fan with a large scarf around the curve of the fan and wrapped around the neck of the fan. His father is a jacket neatly hanging on a coat tree and his brother is a round gas tank with a red hockey sweater over it.

Jaber talks to his parents and brother in turn with tenderness, humour and a loving wistfulness. The firecrackers that go off to bring in the New Year here have a chilling resonance for Jaber as they also sound like bombs in his native Syria.

We see a family that loves each other and how Jaber tries to maintain that love and connection. Then the reality of the situation sinks in. We cannot hear these stories  enough of survival, determination and the horrors that refugees and immigrants have endured.

This piece of work is stunning in every single way—from the gripping writing to the inventive direction of Majdi Bou-Matar to the arresting acting of Ahmed Meree (who also wrote it). I would travel anywhere to see theatre this good. Fortunately the Theatre Centre is closer.

Performances:

Sunday August 12th 7:30pm – 8:05pm

Saturday August 18th 2:30pm – 3:05pm

Sunday August 19th 2:15pm – 2:50pm

www.summerworks.ca

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

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Kevin Bennett and Tim Carroll

Designed by Camellia Koo

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Cast: Damien Atkins

Kristopher Bowman

Julia Course

Patrick Galligan

Cameron Grant

Claire Jullien

Yanna McIntosh

Natasha Mumba

Ric Reid

Graeme Somerville

A lame attempt to use a production of Henry V as a means of commemorate the Centenary of WWI. No one is served in this misguided production–not the play, not the committed actors and certainly not Canadians.

The Story. The concept of this comes from Tim Carroll, the Shaw Festival’s Artistic Director and co-director of the production with Kevin Bennett. The idea is to have a group of soldiers in 1918 fighting in WWI prepare a memorized reading of Shakespeare’s Henry V for some kind of presentation. The soldiers are apparently Canadian.

Henry V is about the young King Henry V and how he negotiates and deals with the French. He believes that he is the rightful heir to France (because of ancestry etc.) The French disrespect his inexperience and taunt him. He buoys his men in spite of great odds against them and leads them into battle at Agincourt, where they miraculously defeat 10,000 French while losing only 29 English soldiers.

The Production. The audience is on all sides of the small playing area. For the first Act, designer Camellia Koo has created a dugout where the soldiers lean up against their gear, clean their weapons, strum a ukulele singing “Keep the Home Fires Burning”, prepare for battle and recite Shakespeare’s Henry V for some event that will happen in a week according to one of the soldiers. They wear brown uniforms with a subtle brown maple leaf sewn into their collar. The only other indication that they are Canadian is when one of the soldiers calls out “Canada” to differentiate them from other troops.

Graeme Somerville begins by reciting the Chorus’ opening soliloquy: “O for a muse of fire…..” The words are clear, crisply said and without an indication of where the Chorus is when saying the speech (“this O…”) or any variation really in ‘enlivening’ the speech. Gray Powell plays a soldier who in turn says the part of Henry V (I can’t really say he ‘plays’ the part of Henry because he’s not directed to). Again he handles the words very well, making them sound like conversation, but again without the verve and spirit needed to illuminate the speeches, especially “Once more unto the breach, dear friends….” Ok it’s clear that professional actors are cast to play the soldiers but the soldiers are in turn amateurs when it comes to ‘presenting’ Henry V. Hmmmmm “interesting.” It’s obvious they are directed that way. Then what’s the point of doing it at all?

 In Henry V the French indicate their contempt for Henry by sending him a box of tennis balls. The soldiers indicate this when one soldier tosses something from a box to Henry to catch. It’s a grenade. That’s a clever bit of business from Kevin Bennett (I assume he is the lead director since he is mentioned first of the two and he wrote the programme note.) but the scene is badly staged because a whole section of the theatre doesn’t see what the “Henry” is catching. Bennett doesn’t have him subtly turn so that all sides of the theatre can see. Act I ends with the men going off to battle.

Act II takes place in a hospital where all the men are wheeled on in beds after they have suffered various wounds. It is here at the top of Act II that comments from the audience on their memories of war are read by a ‘soldier.’ (The audience is asked to fill in blank cards in the lobby during intermission expressing their thoughts.)

The soldier who was the Chorus in Act I is now blind—a bandage is wrapped around his head and over both eyes. Another has been gassed and has a terrible cough; one is unconscious for most of the act; others are on crutches. The nurses who tend them have learned Henry V perhaps to help in the soldiers’ healing.

There are wonderful tender moments in Act II that indicate the camaraderie of the men. The blind soldier is naturally depressed and doesn’t want to eat. Another soldier limps to his bed and feeds him soup and a ‘grout’ (a cookie). A nurse (Yanna McIntosh) tenderly washes and dries the chest of the soldier who is unconscious. When she is finished she looks at another nurse and subtly shakes her head. I was fortunate to be facing in that direction and saw the moment indicating the situation is hopeless. I don’t think others behind her did. The blind soldier does rouse himself from his depression when a glove is needed for a scene. He says he has one, leans over to his right and opens a drawer in his side table and pulls out his gloves. My question is: how does he know his gloves are there if he’s blind? A director’s glitch? Perhaps it would have been more appropriate for another character (sighted)  to have that moment.

When the soldiers and nurses finish ‘reciting’ the play (interestingly, the nurses are better ‘actors’ than the soldiers with Natasha Mumba playing a lively, forthright Katherine). the soldiers are left to dwell on their wounds and futures. Nothing in completing Henry V can take them out of that depression. The play then becomes almost an afterthought. If the directors wanted to do a play about the horrors of war one wonders why they didn’t do Journey’s End that certainly has more relevance.

Comment. What is one to make of this–Shakespeare at the Shaw Festival? I guess it’s part of the new mandate of Tim Carroll: “the Shaw Festival creates unforgettable theatrical encounters in any way we want” A bit arrogant that, but I digress.

There is no debate the soldiers have about war or why they are there as a result of ‘reading’ and preparing Henry V except when a soldier refuses to say a certain part. He’s told that the part is vital because his character explains why Henry wants to invade France. That is the extent of any discourse on the play or war. So why they are doing this play is a mystery never shared with the audience. And it’s never explained for whom they are doing the play ‘in a week.” Hmmm?

We are never told what battle they are preparing for. There is just the perfunctory note that they are Canadians without any context to the war. What a huge missed opportunity. By placing the soldiers in France in 1918 they missed using the reference of the Battle of the Somme (1916) where Canadians were slaughtered; Passchendaele (1917) where Canadians were slaughtered and the Battle of Vimy Ridge (1917). This is the battle that most mirrors the battle of Agincourt. The Canadians had to take the Ridge. It seemed almost impossible but they did it and that made their reputation. (and lost 10,000 men in the process). And yet both Kevin Bennett and Tim Carroll ignored these references. It’s as if these soldiers being Canadian is irrelevant. I don’t think that’s a good thing.

The concept of using Shakespeare’s Henry V to commemorate the centenary of WWI doesn’t work. It’s misguided, misdirected and not thought through. And doing Shakespeare at the Shaw Festival isn’t clever. Shaw hated Shakespeare. Just sayin’

“With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer. not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my brains against his.” -Bernard Shaw.

Presented by the Shaw Festival.

Opened: Aug. 8. 2018.

Closes: Oct. 28, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours and fifty minutes.

www.shawfest.com

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