The Passionate Playgoer


At the Garrick Theatre, London, Eng.

Written and directed by David Mamet

Designed by Christopher Oram

Lighting by Neil Austin

Cast: Alexander Arnold

Teddy Kempner

Ionna Kimbook

Doon Mackichan

John Malkovich

Matthew Pidgeon

Zephryn Taitte

Dreadful and irrelevant.

 The Story. A day in the life of Barney Fein– a hot-shot Hollywood film producer.  He begins by chewing out a writer for writing a terrible script and then refuses to pay him the agreed upon fee of $200,000 because the work is terrible. Then he spends a lot of time trying to coerce an actress, Yung Kim Li, to his hotel room so he can have his sexual way with her. She has submitted a screenplay to him to produce but he will do it only if she has sex with him. He says he can make her a star in exchange for the sex stuff.

Much of the play is Fein trying to deal with all manner of complications: his mother is sick and doesn’t like him; he thinks people don’t like him because he’s fat and he can’t help it because it’s glandular; his film business is a money-laundering enterprise with money from countries and other sources investing in his films to cleanse their dirty money; the actress is charging him with sexual assault; and his mother dies, breaks up the company and leaves him nothing.

I’ve given away all the spoilers because I need to show how ridiculous the play is and besides you are not going to see it.

The Production. We are in Barney Fein’s office. Christopher Oram has created a stylish, modern office of big leather chairs, a desk with little on it, and no sign of any awards even though the script says there is a wall somewhere that has plaques and citations etc. Part of the office is a sunken sitting area you get down to by two steps.

Barney (John Malkovich) sits in one of the big leather chairs. He wears a black fat suit, that is to say, a black suit and white shirt that is obviously a fat suit to add lots of poundage to the slim Malkovich. He is talking to a meek man standing two steps up, clutching his shoulder satchel. The man is The Writer (Matthew Pidgeon, Mamet’s brother-in-law) and is being pilloried with invective about the screenplay he has written for Barney and which Barney calls ‘a piece of shit.’ Malkovich is in his element here. Mamet’s bristling words pour out in an almost stream of consciousness gush, delivered in Malkovich’s colourless whine of a voice with little inflection. It’s as if Barney is always talking explaining a scheme or coming up with another thought that just occurred to him, be it a string of insults, or a wild idea for a film, or another scheme to get a woman up to his room to take advantage of her.

Malkovich’s arms flip out and his hands flutter in the direction of the person being ‘talked to’ as if to get their attention. How could one not be paying attention to such a torrent of invective? In any case this hand fluttering is a trait of Malkovich’s acting. He does it to every character he talks to. He did it almost 30 years ago when I saw him in London in Burn This—arms jut out, hands flutter, flutter, flutter.

The Writer meekly says that Barney owes him $200,000 for the work and Barney counters that he would be paid when the work was acceptable. The Writer says he will sue and Barney says he will have him tied up in court for 15 years.

Barney says he knows shit when he sees it and quality when he sees it.  Why? Because his ability to see quality has afforded him the ability to buy five houses. Barney’s success is equated with money. As an afterthought he has a wall of citations and plaques, and presumably all sorts of other awards for his films that prove he knows quality when he sees it. The Writer slinks off defeated.

The Writer is just one in a group of surrounding characters who seem lifeless hangers on in Barney’s world. David Mamet directs Matthew Pigeon as The Writer (he isn’t important enough to have a name) to stand there stalk still, a terrified target, and to give his lines in a droning whimper  Because other characters (Doctor Wald who gives Barney his various medications for sexual performance, Roberto, some kind of assistant and Charles Arthur Brown who has a script in which Barney is interested) speak in the same dispassionate way, I know that Mamet is directing them precisely in how to give the line readings.

After Barney dispatches The Writer he goes into overdrive with Yung Kim Li (a demur Ioanna Kimbook) in trying to get her into bed, or at least a compromising sexual situation. She has a script and he has indicated to her he wants to produce it. He says he will make her a star. She is a Korean-British actress (writer) and will star in the film. All she has to do is give him sexual favours. After a ‘delicate’ cat and mouse game of getting Yung Kim Li up to his room, and his assistant and other hangers on conveniently leave, she is trapped. We don’t see him sexually assaulting her. We hear about it after he has been released from jail.

When Barney does have Yung Kim Li where he wants her—in his hotel room—Mamet’s direction is rather gripping. She wants to escape. We want her to escape. How will it end?

There is also a comment that one of his investors will give him money to produce the film if Barney can get Yung Kim Li to sleep with him. (Shall I pause now for us to go off to our respective homes to take a shower?)

Keeping Barney on schedule is Sondra (Doon Mackichan) his personal assistant. Ms Mackichan is dressed in black, is accommodating without fanfare and knows everything about Barney’s shady doings and his despicable behaviour without comment or conscience. She is an enabler as are the others. Her dialogue is given in an even, uninflected voice without reaction. Perhaps the only indication that she has any ‘attitude’ about Barney’s behaviour is the frequent looks/stares she gives him with the subtlest of pauses when he makes a despicable comment about something.

In the end when Barney is left with nothing, not even his company (it was his mother’s and she died during the play and left it to others), Sondra announces that she is going home. There isn’t a company anymore and so she is leaving to go home. She doesn’t have any other comment. Her leaving to fend for herself is all that is needed.

I’m always intrigued when a slim actor wears a fat suit to portray a character. How then does that actor act? Do they act like a fat person would or do they act like a slim person in a fat suit? A fat person doesn’t move very often I’ve observed because it’s too tiring. Yet there is Malkovich flitting around the large set, up and down the stairs of the sunken sitting room; getting in and out of the chairs with effort, even sitting on the steps leading down to the sunken seating area, which left me wide—eyed with disbelief because in a thousand years a large character would not be able to get down or up with any kind of ease. But of course this effort of Barney rocking back and forth on the ground to give him momentum to get up, is supposed to be funny. Sigh. I saw it done much better and with more humour at my Stratford Festival with Geraint Wyn Davies as Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor recently, but I digress.

Comment. The programme states: “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.”  So any similarity to the actions, behaviour, accusations, people surrounding disgraced Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein, who enabled his behaviour and the exhaustive media coverage are purely coincidental? And I’m the Queen of Romania.

Ok, I can appreciate that catch all phrase in the programme protects the playwright from slanderous, libelous accusations. Barney is echoing the behaviour and actions of Weinstein almost to a ‘T’. In Bitter Wheat Barney is surrounded by ‘yes’ people who acquiesce to his despicable behaviour. Sondra, his dutiful personal assistant, knows his intentions when he wants to bed any woman and is there to help arrange it. She arranges for the doctor to give him his drugs and sexual performance enhancers. She’s there for the money laundering—Barney says that he gets investors from countries who want their money ‘laundered’ so they invest in his films. She knows everything. Money enables bad behaviour.

Michael Coveney writes in his programme note that “Mamet doesn’t condone or condemn. He writes the problem and exposes flaws in arguments and humanity as only theatre, perhaps, can.’ He also writes that Mamet has a ‘penchant for playing devil’s advocate in the court of public opinion.’ An interview with both Doon Mackichan and Ioanna Kimbook state that Mamet said the play “was not about rape—it’s an examination of power and how power is abused within that industry.” But hasn’t Mamet examined power before in his examination/dissecting of Hollywood in Speed-the-Plow? Hasn’t he always examined the abuse of power in all his plays? It seems to me that Mamet always celebrates the powerful overcoming the weak without condemnation.

So what happened here with Bitter Wheat? The flaws, information, behaviour and the problems regarding this situation with Barney Fein/Harvey Weinstein, his enablers and victims have all been hashed and rehashed, revealed and examined in the various media both print and social. There is nothing new that is said in the play. There is no devil’s advocate comment here in the court of public opinion. There is no other way of thinking about the flawed, hideous character known as Barney Fein. So besides being dreadful in its spin and sloppy writing, the play is irrelevant.

So why write this play? I’m mystified at the point. Mamet has not revealed an argument either way. He has written a character who is without moral compass or conscience about right or wrong, only that if he wants something then all is fair game to get it. He believes people/women don’t like him because he’s fat and it’s glandular not because he’s a glutton. He fluctuates between being in complete control and confident of his actions and whining because he’s not understood. The latter is just another way of avoiding responsibility of his actions. Is the point of the play that finally Barney gets his comeuppance? Really?  Does he? Is the point of the play then that now all will be great for women in any workplace run by men? Really? You’re kidding me, right?

Also in the programme is an essay about the vulgar, belligerent, distasteful men who created Hollywood and perpetuated this behaviour over the years. Harvey Weinstein seems to be the person who is finally caught and accused (for the time being) suggesting matters will change.

In her programme interview Doon Mackichan says that in a career of 30 years she has been subjected to sexual harassment and lost jobs because she questioned nude scenes and other matters that she found distasteful.

And for Bitter Wheat she says: “The lesson we’ve had from Mr. Mamet is to not comment. And in not commenting, the play swells in the depravity of the male protagonist and what these women have put up with—and continue to put up with in the culture that has allowed this behaviour to thrive for so long. It’s almost the end of the movie mogul era, so now maybe we can tell some different stories and hear from more female writers and directors. This play will open up discussions—and that’s what theatre should do.”

In your dreams Ms Mackichan, in your dreams.

Began: June 7, 2019.

Closes: September 21, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes. Approx.

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At Kiln Theatre (Formerly The Tricycle).

Written by Samuel Adamson

Directed by Indhu Rubasingham

Designed by Richard Kent

Lighting by Guy Hoare

Sound by Alexander Caplen

Composed by David Shrubsole

Cast: Richard Cant

Karen Fishwick

Pamela Hardman

Joshua James

Calam Lynch

Sirina Saba

Samuel Adamson re-imagines Ibsen’s 1879 classic of A Doll’s House as it pertains to various modern applications of three different couples.

It begins in 1959. Suzannah (an intriguing Sirine Saba) and Peter (Richard Cant) are playing in a traditional production of A Doll’s House. She is playing Nora and Peter is playing her husband, Torvald. It’s the scene where Nora tells him why she is leaving him, when he didn’t give her the miracle she was looking for—that he would take the blame for her forgery. And so she leaves ‘slamming’ the door-a slam heard around the world, as it’s been described. Who says she slammed the door? Really? Perhaps it was a big door and the closing sounded like a slam. Nora doesn’t strike me as a woman who slams anything. And why slam it. She’s not angry. She’s disappointed. Anyone out there know Norwegian and can look up the play in the original language and describe what it says? Of course the original reviews were written by men, so perhaps that’s where the idea comes from. In any case, I’m anxious to know that the stage direction really says.

After the performance, Suzannah is visited by a couple: Daisy (Karen Fishwick) and Robert (Joshua James). Daisy is all gush.  Robert is barely interested. He finally explodes. He hated the play because he feels that Nora has everything including a dutiful husband. He completely ignores why she did what she did and why she feels she has to leave.

What Robert doesn’t know is that Daisy and Suzannah know each other better than just they let on. They met at a garden party and then formed a relationship. They have been lovers for a long time. And Daisy is pregnant by Robert and not at all happy about it.  In this iteration the idea of marriage, relationships, society’s conventions and other attitudes are explored. Fascinating. Here we have the wounded husband who can’t see passed his own blinkered attitudes.

Skip to 1988. Ivor at 28 years old (Joshua James) and Eric—much younger—(Calam Lynch) are gay lovers having a pint in a straight pub after seeing a Norweigen production of A Doll’s House. They are reveling in their sensual connection and simulate having sex there. Ivor is in his element flinging insults to the straight clientele. Ivor and Eric talk about their lives and how society has closed-minded ideas about gay life. Here Samuel Adamson’s dialogue wizzes through the air. It bristles and pops. It’s blazing with colour and expression. It’s delivered by Ivor (Joshua James) with glee, passion and cynicism.

I don’t believe one word of it. Samuel Adamson is stretching a point when he is trying to equate society’s attitudes towards gays as an iteration of society’s attitudes towards women and marriage from the point of view of A Doll’s House. Gays must go underground to live their lives. A woman in Ibsen’s day and even after could not do that that easily. Nope, I don’t believe a word of it here.

The last iteration is 2019 and the various stories are connected. A young woman, Clare (Karen Fishwick) is about to be married but needs to find out about her father who moved to Australia when her parents’ marriage broke up. Clare is connected to the first story (1959).   Her father had an intense relationship in Australia with Ivor (from the second story). Ivor is now 58 (Richard  Cant). Clare needs to know about her father—the missing part of her life. Ivor says he doesn’t know what she is talking about. Ivor is now in a relationship with a twenty-something smart-mouth named Cas (Calam Lynch). They’ve gotten married but not in the conventional way. Cas has that caustic speech that sprays contempt on everything, especially Clare. Finding the truth of this third part was perhaps the most satisfying. There are  comments from the caustic Cas about how far women have come in society but not necessarily gays. Clare sets that misguided idea right.

The acting to a person is terrific Each actor negotiations the different time periods with confidence and commitment. Indhu Rubasingham has directed this with flare, accomplishment, an eye to the vivid image and a sensitivity in establishing the various relationships and their hidden meanings. Just wonderful work.

Samuel Adamson attempts to tackle huge ideas of society and gender issues, man-woman relationships and how society treats women, men and same sex relationships as seen from the point of new of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.  All worthy ideas. But he hasn’t written a strong enough or clear enough defense. Nor has he proven his point.

 I think Lucas Hnath’s wonderful play, A Doll’s House, Part II does a much better job of exploring society’s attitudes towards women when he has Nora come back after 15 years of success, for a very serious reason. No doubt about it, Ibsen has created one bracing play that has intrigued playwrights (men) for years. Now it’s time for a woman to have a go at the play. Concerns aside, I was really glad to see this one.

Note: The Tricycle Theatre has gone through ‘extensive’ renovations—the seating is now individual and not padded benches and there might be cosmetic touches and a bigger bathroom, but it looks the same. Then when that was finished the name was changed to Kiln Theatre in honour of its new life. Their mission statement is interesting: “Make theatre for everyone. Our doors are open to all. We produce world-class theatre that provokes, entertains, and reflects our exceptionally diverse society in Brent (a section of north London) and beyond. For this first season after re-opening our building we have over 10,000 ticket priced at £12.50 or less and we are offering 2,000 free tickets to people and communities who may have never been to a theatre before.

Kiln Theatre encourages artists of all ages and backgrounds. Our ambitious Creative Learning programme aims to champion the imagination, aspiration and potential of the Brent community young and old.”

All worthy. But they have the same problem as most other theatres that can’t attract a diverse audience. My audience for this was predominantly white except for about three people of colour. And the cast was white too. Attracting a diverse audience continues to challenge theatres.

Produced by Kiln Theatre

Closes: July 6, 2019.

Running Time: two hours, 15 minutes, approx.



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

Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner

Music by Frederick Loewe

Original dances created by Agnes DeMille

Revised book by Brian Hill

Directed by Glynis Leyshon

Music direction by Paul Sportelli

Choreography by Linda Garneau

Set by Pam Johnson

Costumes by Sue LePage

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Projections by Corwin Ferguson

Sound by John Lott

Cast: David Ball

Peter Fernandes

Kristi Frank

Élodie Gillett

Kyle Golemba

Alexis Gordon

Patty Jamieson

Jane Johanson

Krystal Kiran

Madelyn Kriese

George Krissa

Julie Lumsden

Marie Mahabal

Stewart Adam McKensy

Peter Millard

Mike Nadajewski

Matt Nethersole

Drew Plummer

Travis Seetoo

Genny Sermonia

Gabriella Sundar Singh

Jacqueline Thair

Michael Therriault

Jay Turvey

Kelly Wong

Jenny L. Wright

Not Even a GPS could make sense of the geography of director Glynis Leyshon’s confusing, muddy direction.

The Story. It’s set in the Highlands of Scotland and New York City, 1946. Tommy Albright and his good friend Jeff Douglas have come to Scotland to have one last fling before Tommy gets married in New York City. He and Jeff fought in WWII, were shaken by the experience and are in Scotland for relaxation and some hunting. They discover the magical, mysterious village of Brigadoon. It’s not on their map. They discover that it appears for one day every hundred years. Tommy also discovers and is smitten by Fiona MacLaren, a young woman of the town. They fall in love. But she can’t leave Brigadoon to follow him because that would mean the town will never get up from its hundred years slumber and will disappear forever. Tommy reluctantly goes home to his fiancé where he has to consider what is more important: marrying the rich boss’s daughter or follow his heart and stay in Brigadoon to be with Fiona.

The Production. Pam Johnson’s set of the Scotland forest and the village of Brigadoon is surprisingly dull in browns and dark greens. There is no sense of the magic of that place. Corwin Ferguson has a projection of an animated deer appear on the scrim and then quickly flits off. The deer appears twice in succession. Then another projection of the American flag appears and dissolves into a scene of soldiers marching off to war. After that Tommy (George Krissa) and Jeff (Mike Nadajewski) appear stage right carrying rifles because they’ve come to Scotland to hunt and relax from the horrors of war.

Let’s pause here, shall we. Tommy is shaken by war and killing. Yet he comes to Scotland to hunt. He carries a rifle to do it as does Jeff. What is wrong with this picture? We are told that a revised book by Brian Hill was needed to ‘update’ Alan Jay Lerner’s version so that we can see how war has affected Tommy. In case we don’t get that message we need projections of a deer flitting and soldiers marching to help those deficient of an imagination. I’m getting a headache from gritting my teeth. Why doesn’t director Glynis Leyshon trust the audience to get it?

Miraculously Brigadoon appears in the forest. Tommy and Jeff can’t find it on the map. They decide to walk towards it. And then they both walk up the aisle of the theatre away from where the image of the village has appeared on stage.  Ok, I’m trying to suspend my disbelief here.

To make matters even more confusing, townsfolk walk down the aisle to the village. Honest, I am trying to suspend my disbelief.

Tommy and Jeff next appear back on stage walking towards the village where they join the folks in celebrating a wedding, meeting the citizens and in the case of Tommy, falling in love with Fiona MacLaren (Alexis Gordon). He wants to marry her but she can’t follow him to New York because that will be the end of Brigadoon. Tommy returns to New York and his fate. Or does he?

Trouble arises when a young man named Harry Beaton (Travis Seetoo) is thwarted in his love for Jean MacLaren (Madelyn Kriese). She is marrying Charlie Dalrymple (Matt Nethersole) and Harry expresses his anger at being shunted aside. He threatens to leave Brigadoon and thus end its existence. So Harry rushes up the aisle away from the Brigadoon (I must confess I asked myself, “where are you going? The parking lot? The ice-cream shop? Virgil? WHERE???). A few minutes later he appears on stage in the forest. Ok, I give up. I can’t suspend my disbelief, except at how inept this production is directed and staged. Ridiculous.

Travis Seetoo as Harry then dances a mournful, lovely Scottish dance—graceful and elegant. But then he turns, trips over a small ledge and well he does himself a terrible, final injury. Graceful to dance but a ledge defeats him. Oy.

Linda Garneau’s choreography is one of the best aspects of this production. It’s lively, joyful, romantic and sensitive. It realizes the musical’s intentions every time there is dance. “Come to Me, Bend to Me” is particularly effective. Charlie wants to see Jean before the wedding. A definite no no. But she finally relents and they dance a pas de deux that is so sensitive and full of tenderness, especially the last embrace.

do have a quibble that seems to be present across many classic musicals productions. A couple begin singing a tender love song to each other. In Charlie’s case he is initially singing to Jean through a closed door. But then he comes downstage and sings it to the audience and not the door, even when she comes out and stands behind him. I never understand why. Why doesn’t the song get sung to the person for whom it was meant? But what we have is the person upstage being sung to and the person singing the song, downstage, so the person upstage is looking at a back instead of into the eyes of the love. Nuts.Alexis Gordon is wonderful as Fiona MacLaren who falls in love with Tommy, the American. Gordon is winsome, bright, engaging and always makes the people with whom she is acting seem better. Alas this does not apply to George Krissa as Tommy. There is not that spark of attraction between them as there is for other characters. Krissa is strapping and sings well, but seems more comfortable when he is playing scenes with Mike Nadajewski who plays Jeff Douglas. Nadajewski has such variation as an actor. As Jeff he is cynical, sarcastic, witty, perceptive and street smart.

Comment: Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe wrote romantic musicals like no others. The music was lush and the lyrics were poetic, lyrical and touched the heart. What can be more romantic and heart squeezing than a musical about two people who fall in love who are from two different worlds, and for whom one must make the ultimate sacrifice to leave everything behind to be with that one true love. For that fierce love look no further than Brigadoon. How disappointing them that the Shaw Festival’s production of Brigadoon is plodding, dull, gloomy, geographically confusing and too often devoid of the tingle of romance, in spite of some fine performances.The Shaw Festival Presents:

Began: May 5, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 13, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes.


At RADA, London, England

Written by Margo MacDonald

Directed by Peta Lily

Cast: Margo MacDonald

Kelly Burke

What a lovely way to spend Canada Day, in London, seeing Shadows, Margo MacDonald’s intriguing play about Eva Le Gallienne and her lover Josephine Hutchinson.

I first saw Shadows a few years ago in Toronto at a quirky theatre called Videofag (now gone, sadly). Margo MacDonald has written a play about British-American actress, Eva Le Gallienne, who was the grand dame of the American theatre from the 1920s to the 1980s. I saw her on Broadway in 1976 in The Royal Family playing the matriarch in a family of actors. Magic.

Margo MacDonald has focused her play on the years 1926 to 1935. During that time Le Gallienne was at the top of her game. She had started her theatre company and she met a young, attractive, eager actress named Josephine Hutchinson who was auditioning for Le Gallienne’s company. They became lovers. Josephine also got married so Le Gallienne was in a position of sharing Hutchinson until Le Gallienne suggested that Josephine move in with her at her house in Connecticut.

MacDonald doesn’t dwell on dates in her play. She doesn’t note the date of the terrible fire that exploded in Le Gallienne’s house and left her disfigured (but eventually healed) except for the loss of part of one of her fingers. She doesn’t note the dates of the various successes and disappointments. While one naturally wants to know, I don’t think it harms the play.

MacDonald focuses on the relationship between the two women; navigating society at that time and how it viewed lesbians; the spunk and grit of Le Gallienne in triumphing in the theatre and the love that she shared with Josephine Hutchinson, who had a career in films and theatre, but not as great as Le Gallienne’s.

Director Peta Lily has directed a simple production. Two white chairs are positioned with one facing up stage and the other close to it facing downstage. Props: a liquor bottle, a glass, books, etc. are neatly arranged on the floor, along the stage’s edge. The production started with a whooshing sound and crackles. If one wasn’t aware of the story, this might be confusing. I knew that was the fire. Later in the production the same sound repeated and by then we were aware.

The staging seems artificial for much of it, a character comes downstage for dramatic effect while the person spoken to is upstage looking at her back. In a way the dynamic of the two characters suggests that Eva is the power and Hutchinson is the one over whom she has power. There is no doubt there is love, but that dynamic is always there.

As Le Gallienne, Margo MacDonald is supremely confident. Her hair is short, slicked back; she wears a man’s shirt, pants and shiny shoes. This Le Gallienne owns the stage, her world and anyone in her orbit. She is kind but there is a sense of the hunt for the next conquest. When Le Gallienne dallies and seeks out other younger companions, Hutchinson is naturally hurt. Le Gallienne’s reply is that she needs the others. Somehow we don’t question that. MacDonald is compelling in the confession.As Josephine Hutchinson, Kelly Burke initially is all feminine, flighty and demur then gains the confidence to be an equal partner with Le Gallienne in their relationship. While Le Gallienne does have the power, she is enthralled by this enchanting woman who has come into her life. And she wants to keep her there. Kelly Burke reveals the layers of feelings of Hutchinson while MacDonald makes Le Gallienne guarded. She was aware of how the press can have a field day with that relationship.

I was glad to see the play again. Eva Le Gallienne was a towering presence in the theatre. The play rekindles my interest in her and the whole world of theatre she created.

Shadows was part of the RADA Festival of plays. What a treat to see this play, written and performed by a Canadian in the hallowed halls of The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. The place was buzzing with young talent, all eager to act. Lovely.




At the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines, Ont.

Written by Norm Foster

Directed by Patricia Vanstone

Set and costumes by Peter Hartwell

Lighting by Chris Malkowski

Cast: Guy Bannerman

Jamie Williams

A touching play about a father-son relationship, the challenges of creating art, growing old with difficulties and the importance of telling people you love them when they are still able to know what that means.

The Story. Donald Wellner is “The Writer.” He’s working on a new play. His last one was about 33 years before. It was celebrated. It won a Pulitzer Prize and since then he hasn’t replicated that success.  He has recently separated from his wife of many years and moved into his own small apartment.

His son Blake has come to visit. Blake is also listed in the program as “The Writer” but Donald down plays the notion that Blake is a writer because he ‘only’ writes travel piece for newspapers. Over the many years span of the play Donald is stingy with his praise for his son but heaps praise on his absent daughter, Mandy, now a doctor. It seems that the family has learned that Donald has a secret about another woman and it was serious enough for his wife to divorce him and his daughter to cut him out of her life. To make matters more complicated, Donald has the signs of Alzheimer’s Disease.

This being a Norm Foster play, his 60th world premiere, matters are not cut and dried. They are very funny and often touching, but not simple. One of its many charms.

 The Production. Designer Peter Hartwell has created an efficient set of Donald’s apartment. It’s simply appointed. A table and a typewriter are at centre stage. There are a few mementos on the shelves. Over the course of the play Donald Wellner (Guy Bannerman) and Blake (Jamie Williams) generally wear the same clothes from scene to scene—casual shirt and pants for Donald and black jeans and shirt for Blake. There might be a change from the norm in the second act, but nothing drastic. There aren’t any projections indicating the passage of time because the play does it quite nicely.

Guy Bannerman as Donald is irascible and sometimes cutting in his remarks to Blake about his writing and his place in his father’s life and Donald is often irreverent and very funny. Because Jamie Williams plays Blake as a confident man Donald’s cutting remarks do not wound (that much). Williams accepts Donald’s dismissive remarks with good grace and a sense of resignation. Blake knows that Donald prefers his sister, Mandy, and accepts that without rancor.

Donald is losing his memory and often is not aware of it. But there is a scene that Donald is aware and Bannerman shows that in the subtlest, most understated way with a pause and a look of concern. That is resounding. Jamie Williams as Blake keeps reminding Donald that he’s mis-remembered, yet it’s later in the play that Blake realizes that there is something wrong with Donald.

Let me be bold here, but I believe every single person in the audience of The Writer will have a story that puts them in the world of the play. They will know somebody who is experiencing Alzheimer’s Disease, or has it, or is worried about having it. Norm Foster puts us in that world with humour, seriousness, compassion, frustration and  understanding. And just for fun, there is a bombshell of a revelation that will have your eyeballs popping.

Director Patricia Vanstone does an exemplary job of bringing the play to life by guiding her excellent actors to be in the moment. Both Guy Bannerman as Donald and Jamie Williams as Blake invest subtlety and nuance in their performances. Information that will stun the audience just ‘drops’ as an afterthought without pounding it to be noticed. The direction and the performances make us look harder rather than taking the easy way out and making moments obvious.

Foster gives Blake a speech to his father in Act II that is so true, so moving that it leaves one limp with emotion. And yet I don’t think it’s sentimental. Something to think about even for characters who are healthy. This is Norm Foster’s 60th world premiere. An astonishing record. The Foster Festival is one of the bright presents in summer theatre. How lucky we are to have it.

Comment. I’m always fascinated how characters handle memory loss of a loved one in this age of information overload. The Writer takes place in the present. There is a reference to the death of Neil Simon who did die within the last year or two of Alzheimer’s Disease. Then why wouldn’t Blake know there is something wrong with his father? Surely since Blake travels so much and sees his father irregularly, he would notice a change more readily when he visited. Yet Blake doesn’t quickly twig that his father’s memory loss is serious. Hmmmm. I’m not sure this is a quibble with the play. It just amazes me how people don’t get it that memory loss is often something that is concerning, and not just ‘old age’ regardless of all the information out there to inform us.

The Foster Festival presents:

Opened: June 21, 2019.

Closes: July 5, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes.


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

Written by Adam Pottle

Directed by Mira Zuckermann

Set and props by Ken MacKenzie

Lighting by Chris Malkowski

Costumes by Ruth Albertyn

Sound by Adam Harendorf

Drummer, Dimitri Kanaris

Projection designer, Laura Warren

Choreographer and movement, Patricia Allison

Cast: Natashia C. Bacchus

Dawn Jani Birley

Corinna Den Dekker

Daniel Durant

Bob Hiltermann

Yan Liu

Agata Wisny

Ballet Dancers:

Abbey Jackson-Bell

Jaelyn Russell-Lillie

Sita Weereatne

The Black Drum is a huge undertaking for the Deaf Culture Centre because it is a fully signed deaf musical. You read that right.  Adam Pottle’s musical is part fantasy, part myth, part fairy tale with dollops of horror films dropped in.

There are eleven scenes. At the centre of this world is “The Minister” a sinister man, (Bob Hiltermann) tall, muscular, imposing and forbidding. He is dressed in black with thick-soled boots that give him even more height. His hands look like they could crush coconuts. His is a world without colour, joy, laughter, music, freedom or love. With a raise of a hand he can control the various people in his wake. One woman dutifully obeys his commands as if he was pulling her by a string, her body jerks backwards as she moves forward.

In a parallel story, Joan (a performing artist—the expressive Dawn Jani Birley) grieves her dead wife, Karen. The worlds collide when we realize Karen is the person being dragged along by the Minister as if pulled by a string.

The program breaks each scene down but those of us who are not hearing impaired are not able to read the program in the darkened theatre. The ‘dialogue’ is all signed by the cast. The hearing impaired in the audience can read sign language. I can’t. Surtitles would have been helpful to understand the story. Some of it seems rather dense. This is a tale of good vs. evil and one is never sure who will win. Pottle keeps us unsettled. I like that.

The music is provided by the impressive drumming of Dimitri Kanaris on a black kettle drum. There is a rumble of sound that underscores the drumming and other moments.

Mira Zuckermann directs this accomplished cast with economy as well as compelling images. A deaf musical. What a huge accomplishment. It was fascinating being in that world for this production. At the end, we all waved our hands in the air, which is how hearing impaired people applaud.

Deaf Culture Centre in association with Soulpepper Presents:

Opened: June 20, 2019.

Closes: June 29, 2019.

Running Time: 75 minutes


At the Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Devised and directed by Tim Albery

Production designed by Michael Levine

Costumes designed by Michelle Tracey

Projection designs by Cameron Davis

Lighting by Thomas C. Hase

Pianist, Serouj Kradjian

Cast: Russell Braun

Director Tim Albery has created Hell’s Fury, The Hollywood Songbook  illuminating the life and work of Hanns Eisler noted German composer. Eisler worked closely with Bertolt Brecht composing music for his plays. Because Eisler was Jewish he was hounded out of Nazi Germany and went to Hollywood to compose music for films, some of the films were less than stellar. He was then forced to leave the United States because of his political beliefs and he was being interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was betrayed by his sister Ruth Fischer. He fled to East German where he composed, among other things, the National Anthem and was honoured with a stamp, but times were tough there too.

The songs that have been selected are vivid and depict a life fraught with despair and longing. They are full of emotion, observation and humility.

For some reason we are in a recording studio. There is a grand piano, a standing microphone, a recording booth and a clock on the wall. There is a small round container on the piano with pencils I guess (I was sitting at the back) and a stick with a small flag on it. On the flag was a swastika. That caught my attention. I assume we are in Nazi Germany.

Hanns Eisler (Russell Braun in fine, beautiful voice) enters wearing an overcoat over a brown three piece suit and a brown hat. He takes off the hat and drops it on the grand piano and hangs up his overcoat on a hook stage right. Then Serouj Kradjian (the accompanist) enters and takes the hat off the piano and hangs it up on another hook. He sits at the piano, sees the flag with the swastika and bunches it up and tosses it in the garbage. He begins playing and Russell Braun as Eisler begins singing. He lies on the floor as if he is in a bed in a hotel. Locations are indicated with signs (“bar”) or references in the songs. A case of wine appears and both Eisler and Kradjian, the accompanist have a glass and swig from it.

At one point Eisler sits on the end of the piano bench with Kradjian behind him. While Eisler sings or talks Kradjian leans over past Eisler to take the wine glass on the piano and drink deeply. I roll my eyes because this movement pulls focus from Eisler. Kradjian does it a few times. Then I get it. These two ‘characters’ are alter-egos of each other. Both men wear the same glasses and blown suit. I recall that they don’t acknowledge each other when they first enter. There is nothing in the program that notes that they are alter egos of one another. We have to pick that up on our own. Why, is the question? Why are they alter egos of each other? What purpose is served?

While I found Russell Braun’s singing to be superb and his acting is convincing and Serouj Kradjian’s playing to be excellent and attentive, so much of this production is unsatisfying because of Tim Albery’s fussy, obtrusive direction or his unclear storytelling.

Why are we in a recording studio, pristine and perfect though it is in Michael Levine’s design? Eisler spends lots of time going from location to location (those signs indicated the places) but he’s in this recording studio for some reason.

Too often projections upstage the singing. A small photo of Stalin grows larger and larger in a projection that overtakes Russell Braun altogether. Mystifying and annoying.

Where are we in the first scene if there is that flag with the swastika in that little round container?

Too many questions. Loved the singing but the production is a self-indulgent exercise by a fussy, self-serving director.

Played at Luminato and closed June 23.

Presented in partnership with Soundstreams, Luminato and Pinkhouse Productions with Opera North, UK.

Began: June 19, 2019.

Closed: June 23, 2019.

Running Time: 70 minutes,


At the Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront, Toronto, Ont.

Creator, writer, composer and performer, Nicole Brooks

Directed by Lezlie Wade

Musical director, Melanie DeMore

Choreographer, co-director, cultural consultant, Anthony ‘Prime’ Guerra

Set and costumes by Robin Fisher

Lighting by Bonnie Beecher

Sound by Emily C. Porter

Cast: Uche Ama

Nicole Brooks

Krystle Chance

Amanda DeFreitas

Saphire Demitro

Michelle Fisk

Trudy Lee Gayle

Arinea Hermans

Jamila S. Joseph

Shelly Ann McLeod

Aisha Nicholson

Debbie Nichols

Skerritt Tu Nokwe

Melissa Noventa

Dana Jean Phoenix

Michelle Polak

Tringa Rexhepi

Teisha Smith-Guthrie

Irene Torres

At last!!

Obeah Opera has been 10 years in the making and along the way I’ve seen a few incarnations of it. Now it comes to Luminato at the Fleck Dance Theatre in its full, ‘finished’ incarnation.

At the centre of it is Nicole Brooks, the stalwart creator, writer, composer and performer of the piece.  She held on in spite of comments that it was an impossible task; that it was too big a project; too diverse; too unconventional; too women centric; too controversial. But art is made by people who believe in their project and hear but ignore the nay-sayers and soldier on.

Obeah Opera is Nicole Brooks’ homage to the ancestors of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, and in particular those from the Caribbean who were involved. “Obeah” means ‘witchcraft’ in the Caribbean. “Opera” is a play that is entirely sung.

Brooks has written songs that not only tell the stories of these women and their experiences, but also incorporates religions and music of resistance from the Caribbean, Africa and the Diaspora. Also Brooks incorporated elements of from the Caribbean such as Orisha spirituality and Carnival Arts to represent each and every character in the opera. The music is as rich as these characters’ histories.

Tituba (a proud, regal Nicole Brooks) is a Caribbean woman who is a slave to a family in Salem, Massachusetts. She has abilities to heal a sick child and for this she is looked on with suspicion. Matters get out of control when it is thought that Tituba and her fellow-women slaves are witches and are tried and hanged. The story is told through the Black woman’s voice.

All the creative elements—Robin Fisher’s simple set of benches and a huge church cross, her costumes (severe black for the New England pilgrims and colourful for the black slaves), Bonnie Beecher’s stark, moody lighting, Anthony ‘Prime’ Guerra’s  intoxicating choreography and resulting rhythms, and Lezlie Wade’s effective direction—produce a show full of compelling images, stark scenes and pulsing rhythms.

The singing by the cast of women is glorious. They stomp their feet and clap their hands in a compelling beat.  A simple sway of the hips is seductive as is a subtle flip of the Caribbean women’s voluminous skirts.

Michelle Fisk as the Captain and Doctor and Michelle Polak as the Reverend Samuel Paris and Massah Bradshaw are buttoned up, stiff and humourless. From them we learn of the endless cruelty of a white society over the black slaves. Reverend Paris also seems to have a problem with all women as he condemns them as being wanton. I thought that inclusion a bit odd, if not out of place in this narrative.

One has endless admiration for Nicole Brooks and her tenacity in seeing that her vision finally made it to the stage. Her efforts were Hurculean in creating, writing and composing the work. But I do find that perhaps after 10 years she became possessive of the piece and wouldn’t let anyone touch it or suggest judicious cutting. It needs it. Songs repeat ideas and aspects that don’t need to be repeated. Sometimes songs established ideas that are outside the main focus—Reverend Paris’ rant about all women for example. The running time listed on the ticket is 2 hours and 15 minutes. The running time when we get to the theatre is now 2 hours and 45 minutes. Should there be another incarnation of Obeah Opera I suggest that the added 30 minutes of playing time be carefully removed. After a while repetitious songs, though gloriously sung and even compelling images outlast their welcome.

Luminato presents:

Began: June 13, 2019.

Closes: June 22, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.



At the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre

Created and performed by Ronnie Burkett

Music composed by John Alcorn

Dramaturge, Matt McGeachy

Puppets designed and created by Ronnie Burkett

Costumes by Kim Crossley

A new Ronnie Burkett show is cause for anticipation, certainly because he hasn’t played Toronto in a few years. It’s been too long.

Forget Me Not is Burkett’s latest show and it is his most ambitious. It takes place in the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre and at the best of times, when there is proper seating, it’s vast. For Forget Me Not the room is bare except for some benches in a semi circular configuration, with the occasional chair scattered around the benches at one end of the space. That makes the space seem even larger.

We are allowed in the space at 7 pm which should have been show-time. We leave our backpacks etc. at tables close to the entrance then wend our way to the other end of the space for a seat on a bench or a chair. We are told that the audience will be moving around the space during the show. At 7:10 pm the door at the other end of the room opens and a large-cloaked, hooded figure slowly walks to our end, reciting a story in rhyming couplets about a knight and a fair maiden. As the person gets nearer we see that the face is obscured by a black veil. He is our narrator. He is Ronnie Burkett.

With a few passes around the benches and the chairs Ronnie Burkett takes off the cloak and reveals himself in khaki pants, a black shirt and shoes. The puppets he uses appear from a large wood structure. Many are hand puppets, some are marionettes manipulated by wire.

He gives willing audience members a hand puppet with the understanding they will take care of it and give it back at the end, or if they don’t it will prevent the show from ‘being true.’ One daren’t disappoint him by keeping the beautifully made puppets.

The audience raises their hands, some with the puppets when asked. Nearly the whole audience participates by following him around the space like a pied piper with his followings, and engaging in the activities that are suggested by Burkett. But one wonders what is to be gained by involving the audience in this way? Are they part of the dark world?

From the press information: “Welcome to “The New Now”, where written words are forbidden and an underground movement of hand-drawn love letters is a powerful act of defiance.  

Those determined on composing or reading a written declaration of love must first make a treacherous journey to a secret and illegal camp to find She, The Keeper of the Lost Hand, and one of the last people to retain the knowledge of reading and writing in cursive.  

While pilgrims brave the harsh conditions to find their way to She, the tale of Zacko Budaydos and His Dancing Bear unfolds in parallel, illustrating the turmoil of “The Before” when all the travelling performer had to rely on was his wit, love and knowledge of the outlawed language of Polari to survive.   

Unlike anything you’ve ever seen, Forget Me Not is a tender, absurd, romantic, and provocative call-to-arms for poetry and the enduring power of love.”

And for all Burkett’s mastery and artistry of the puppets etc. this story is so confusing that one tends to lose the thread too often. It doesn’t help that the space is unforgiving. The acoustics are lousy if Burkett is facing away from you. You can’t hear what he’s saying. And while Burkett has a dramaturge in Matt McGeachy the piece needs judicious cutting to tame the meandering story and focus the intent. It’s a problem I have found with a lot of his shows, masterful though they are. At times there are conversations between characters that seem like an endless loop of one accusing and the other denying something and moving forward seems impossible.

As with all Ronnie Burkett shows, Forget Me Not is funny, dark in nature, thoughtful, brooding and full of Burkett’s conscience and heart. I just wish it was clearer.

Produced by Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes

Opened: June 5, 2019.

Closes: June 23, 2019.

Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes.


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

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Martha Henry

Designed by Francesca Callow

Lighting by Louise Guinand

Composer and sound design by Keith Thomas

Cast: Shelly Anthony

Rod Beattie

Wayne Best

Tim Campbell

Jacklyn Francis

Danny Ghantous

Jonathan Goad

Jordin Hall

Brad Hodder

Kim Horsman

Andrew Iles

Ron Kennell

Qasim Khan

Kevin Kruchkywich

Alexandria Lainfiesta

Roy Lewis

Irene Poole

Jake Runeckles

Stephen Russell

Oksana Sirju

Scott Wentworth

Ryan Wilkie

A beautifully realized, exquisitely designed production of a play about power, politics and wily maneuvering and the lengths Henry VIII went to have a male heir.

The Story. King Henry VIII married his queen Katherine of Aragon when they were very young. He was seventeen and she was twenty-three. They remained married for twenty-four years and by all accounts were happy. She was an intellectual match for him. But when the years past and she wasn’t able to produce a male heir and his eye fell on Anne Boleyn, Henry began thinking of ways to divorce Katherine and marry Anne. The politically astute Cardinal Wolsey was involved to pave the way for the law to be changed so Henry could re-marry and the religious concerns to be calmed.

The Production. In the small Studio Theatre director Martha Henry and her gifted designers have conjured the sumptuous, excessive world of Henry VIII by judicious and spare use of props and costumes that are bold in colour and, in the case of King Henry, voluminous. Kudos to designer Francesca Callow. Henry VIII, a masterful Jonathan Goad, makes a statement of power when he first appears in his beautiful gold robe. Goad controls the robe and is not overwhelmed by it.  With understatement but definite presence Jonathan Goad’s performance grows into the robe. It’s a performance of size, full of easy charm, careful watchfulness, a nimble brain and intellect and sharp eyes that never miss a subtlety in others of his court.

After that first impressive entrance when King Henry is ‘himself’, in shirt and beigey-gold fitted pants, he is still formidable.

An understated throne is upstage on a small platform—one doesn’t need anything ostentatious since the man who sits in it is all that one needs to establish the sense of power and richness. King Henry doesn’t just sit on the throne, he slumps fully into it. He leans to the left, an arm on the arm rest, his legs spread out in front of him, relaxed, ready and present. Don’t mess with this guy.

Martha Henry has created a court of political intrigue and secrecy. Characters have cloistered conversations with others sharing their mendacious plans; others stand on the ‘balcony’ above the stage and observe private conversations and imagine what is being said; rumour abounds.

At the centre of most of the maneuvering is Cardinal Wolsey, played with careful understatement by Rod Beattie, resplendent in the Cardinal’s impressive red cap, robe and black slippers. Most of the work regarding the character of Wolsey is already done by the time he arrives on stage. Courtiers refer to his scheming, his political maneuvering for power, his questionable character. We have an idea of a man of questionable ethics and hardly pious. So we just assume the same idea of him by the time he appears. It’s intriguing that Beattie plays against the sense of obvious evil and yet the notion of his evil is ingrained. I think of the damage done to the character and behaviour of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest before she steps foot on the stage—but we just image and believe she’s a harridan from hearing all the negative comments about her. Same thing about Wolsey.

Martha Henry has of course directed this with a clear eye on the court intrigue surrounding King Henry and the decisions he must make to get what he wants. But Martha Henry also directs with a wink. In a one scene Wolsey attends a costume ball and makes a grand entrance from the balcony down the stairs. He is wearing red, silk pajamas. The red colour is in keeping with his Cardinal status; but it’s also the colour of the devil. Clever and impish.

In another scene a character subtly, quietly hums a bit of “Greensleeves” that is rumoured to have been written by King Henry VIII to woo Anne Boleyn, but generally discredited. I think Martha Henry is giving another wink to the audience with the humming of the song.

While Henry VIII has a handle on what is going on in his court, his relationship with Queen Katherine (of Aragon) is more fraught. They have been married for twenty-four years. She is his equal partner, intellectually and emotionally. But he needs a male heir and Katherine has not been able to give him one. As Katherine, Irene Poole is fire and passion. She realizes Katherine’s keen intellect and hot blooded emotion. She is fighting not only for her crown but also for her life. She is straight-backed, regal, formidable and an able opponent. When Katherine is dying she lies on a chaise and her hands float above her head and delicately circle each other as one would see in a Spanish dance. Katherine may have lived in England for her marriage but she is pure Spanish and this moving ‘dance’ of her graceful hands realizes her longing for her country. Kudos to Movement Director Valerie Moore for this simple, symbolic gesture.

When Katherine does die she is carried off by two courtiers. The courtiers are on either side of her and each wraps one of Katherine’s arms around his neck to secure her better. As they slowly walk off one of her arms drops down the back of a courtier.  Beautiful image.

King Henry does marry Anne Boleyn and she gives birth, to a girl, Elizabeth. While he wanted a boy, Henry brings on his baby nestled in his arms for his court to see, and he’s beaming. The court quietly circles Henry, each dutifully smiling and reveling in this baby. It’s a scene that is both joyous and subtly political. It’s another exquisite image in a production full of them. The circling of the court around the King and his daughter elegantly leads into the smoothest of bows.

Comment. Actor Roy Lewis (he plays Sandys, Lord Chancellor in Henry VIII) has created a poetic Epilogue for the play in the style of Shakespeare’s language, that sums up the past with a nod to the future. The Epilogue is fastidiously poetic—Lewis knows his way around poetry. He is equally accomplished as a poet and actor. It’s a fitting end to a production that beautifully realizes the grandeur and intrigue of the court and world of Henry VIII.

The Stratford Festival presents:

Opened: May 29, 2019

Closes: Oct. 12, 2019

Running Time: 3 hours approx.