The Passionate Playgoer

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

From the original by William Shakespeare

ASL & visual translation by Dawn Jani Birley

Set and costumes designed by Lorenzo Savoini

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Lighting by André du Toit

Cast: Dawn Jani Birley

Miriam Fernandes

Barbara Gordon

Jeff Ho

Christine Horne

Hannah Miller

Rick Roberts

Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah

Karen Robinson

A bilingual (English and ASL) integrated production of a classic that engages us to ‘hear’ the play in a new way.

The Story. Even sheep-herders in remote area of the world know this story, right? Prince Hamlet comes home from school for his father’s funeral to find his mother has married his father’s brother, Claudius.  Hamlet’s father’s ghost tells Hamlet that Claudius murdered him. Hamlet plots and plans to get even and on the way lots of bodies pile up. It ends badly for just about everybody.

The Production and Comment. Director Ravi Jain wants to challenge our pre-conceptions and expectations with this Shakespeare classic. And so Prince Hamlet is played by Christine Horne. Jain has placed Horatio, Hamlet’s close friend, as the central character of the adaptation and cast Dawn Jani Birley in the part. Ms Birley is hearing impaired and plays the character and communicates Horatio’s lines by signing her part and others in American Sign Language, usually at centre-stage. Horatio observes everything. So when Prince Hamlet is speaking to another character, Birley is upstage a bit, signing what the characters are saying as they speak it. Often when Birley has a scene with Christine Horne as Prince Hamlet, Horne is signing to Birley as well as speaking her lines.

There are several other gender swappings besides Christine Horne playing Hamlet and Dawn Jani Birley playing Horatio. Miriam Fernandes plays Rosencrantz, the Player King and the Gravedigger—usually played by men. Barbara Gordon plays Polonius, Cordelia and Laertes’ Father, usually played by a man.  Jeff Ho plays Ophelia, of course usually played by a woman.  Hannah Miller plays Guildenstern and Osric, usually played by men, and The Player Queen. Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah plays Laertes.  And Rick Roberts plays Claudius and Karen Robinson plays Gertrude, so these last two castings are not gender-swapped.

One might ask, “What is the point of all this gender swapping and communicating by sign language? How does this inform the play?”

For the English and ASL aspect, Ravi Jain says: “Our production is bilingual, both English and ASL are fully integrated, which is rare, and provides unique access to Shakespeare’s text for both Deaf and hearing audiences….By changing the perspective of the storytellers, we break expectations, discover new aspects of the story and contemporize it—without changing the language.”

So using Ravi Jain’s thinking it’s to hear/consider the story in a new light.

There were many hearing impaired people in the audience for the performance I saw and it was fascinating watching them watching the show and how animated and excited they were at intermission as they signed to their friends.

Does it work as a production? First of all, the production looks exquisite, thanks to Lorenzo Savoini’s design and André du Toit’s shimmering lighting. Three mirrors are upstage on the back wall and reflect various scenes that are performed in front of it. A tasteful chandelier. A rich wood square is the playing area. There are mounds of black earth around the space. When not in a scene, an actor sits in chairs flush against the walls of the space.

 Christine Horne as Prince Hamlet certainly has an intensity and melancholy about her that I think is effective. She’s waif thin, wears black and looks like a character worn down by grief, not eating or sleeping.  And I think she handles the text well.

Dawn Jani Birley as Horatio is very present and full of conviction as she signs at an energetic pace. She’s in riding breeches it seems with high boots and sturdy clothes.

One willingly suspends ones disbelief to embrace the idea of a woman playing Horatio who communicates through sign language at that.

Rick Roberts is a wily, politically savvy Claudius. Karen Robinson plays a lusty Gertrude. Together they are so tactile and sexually charged you get the sense that they were having an affair way before the play starts which is always intriguing.

But the performance that really caught my attention when it was first done last year and now is Jeff Ho as Ophelia.  Jeff Ho is a slim man and gives Ophelia that demur but frightened deer in headlights look. And Ho beautifully captures the sense of loss that Ophelia is experiencing—her brother, her protector, has left her to go to Paris; her father Polonius has little use for her except as a person on whom to spy, and Hamlet tells her to shut herself away in  nunnery. You get every sense of Ophelia’s anguish because of the way Jeff Ho plays her.

Is it a great production of Prince Hamlet? No, but that’s not its intention. It’s to hear the story in a different light because of the languages in which it’s been spoken and the person speaking. In that light Ravi Jain and company have made their point.

 A Why Not Theatre Production presented by Canadian Stage

Began: Feb. 6, 2019.

Closes: Feb. 24, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

www.canadianstage.com

 

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REVIEW: DOCUMENTS

by Lynn on February 10, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

 

At the Theatre, Centre, Toronto, Ont.

Conceived and performed by Autumn Knight

Performed Friday, Feb. 8, 2019, 7:30 pm only.

From the program and other blurbs:

Documents centres dialogue, gesture and the voice of both the artist and the audience to uncover and critique structures of power. Troubling the division of labour between the performer and the audience divisions, Documents involves a public read-ing of the documentation that serves to authenticate or legitimize citizenship. Central to this work is a filing cabinet that both holds the props required for the performance, while also serving as a portrait or trace of the artist. The interactive reading of the doc-uments in the files addresses the embodied specificities of race, class, gender, sexuality to contrast whether these categories accurately reflect the bodies that are meant to represent—while underlining how different audiences and relationships to power may influence this reading.”

This is fine if Autumn Knight is in fact reading the ‘document.’ Her reading and presence gives the piece context and power. But if Autumn Knight is not there as she wasn’t on Friday, Feb. 8, the only date of her advertised show, then the result totally lacks context and thus becomes something else–pretentious drivel.

The show was to start at 7:30 pm. I was waiting to go in by 7:15 pm. The door to the venue, the Franco Boni Theatre was closed. Folks from the Theatre Centre went into and out of the Theatre several times. What were they checking?  At 7:30 pm a woman obviously involved with the show quietly said that she would be back in a few minutes to gather the people who might have been waiting downstairs. The doors were opened at 7:35 pm. At 7:45 pm the woman introduced herself as Shannon Cochrane, the Artistic Director of FADO Performance Art Centre and the curator of Documents. There was a filing cabinet and two desks, one up stage and one downstage with the cabinet in the middle. The lights remained on. She asked/picked? a volunteer to read ‘the document.’ The person selected mumbled and stumbled over reading and was mainly unintelligible and totally inexpressive.

Someone with the Theatre Centre asked if we were all over 19 years old. A drawer of the filing cabinet was opened and plastic cups were passed out to the audience. Then white wine from the bottle was poured into the cups for those who wanted that, or red wine in plastic baggies, or water, or beer, or even bourbon. Then the ‘volunteer’ still reading from the document, read off questions to the game “Never Have I Ever.” If the statement was false for those in the audience they drank. Buried in the questions were some dealing with race and class. For this predominately white audience  without the woman of colour who created and should have performed the piece, there is no context. Photos of celebrated women of colour were passed around. We had to wait until every person passed those photos. No context. (They mean something to Autumn Knight, the show’s creator). At points in the ‘script/document’ the volunteer had to go to the filing cabinet to get something, flipping through files, looking. We waited until the volunteer had to ask Shannon Cochrane for help. And we waited. Then another ‘volunteer’ was chosen who didn’t mumble, but needed help trying to figure out what was expected when that volunteer went to find something in the filing cabinet. Again, Shannon Cochrane was there to help. And we waited.

Then the script/document instructed the volunteer to make a call on a cell phone. A woman, answered. “Hello?” said the person called. “Hello” said the volunteer. “Hello” said the person called. “Hello” said the volunteer, until the person called asked questions of the caller. A person in the audience called out to the person on the phone: “Who are you.” The answer? “Autumn Knight (the person who should have been doing the show!). The audience member asked, “Where are you?” Autumn Knight side-stepped the question. She instructed the volunteer to take a bow and the volunteer and the audience were to leave “and don’t fuck it up any more,” or words to the effect. Too late Autumn!

Autumn Knight apparently had a special presentation of the show on Thursday, Feb. 7 for an invited audience for which she was present. Apparently it was a terrific evening. She allegedly told them she would not be there for the ‘real’ performance Friday, Feb. 8.

No one told us. There was no sign, note, announcement that the creator and performer of the show wouldn’t be there for this performance. What kind of mean farce is this?

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At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, Ont.

Created and performed by Haley McGee

Directed by Mitchell Cushman

Mathematics collaborator, Melanie Phillips

Scenic design by Anna Reid

Lighting by Lucy Adams

Sound by Kieran Lucas

Haley McGee takes her audience on a wild, breathless, often poignant and hilarious ride through her various relationships and the stuff she was given along the way she wants to sell. What was it worth? Priceless.

The Story. Haley McGee, theatre artist extraordinaire, had just moved to London, England, had credit card debt and needed to get rid of it. She considered selling herself but was unsure of what to charge and how often etc. She had received stuff from eight former boyfriends and thought a yard sale might help with the debt. Again, how much do you charge for items given to you in a relationship? McGee asked mathematician Melanie Phillips to help. Phillips methodically came up with a formula that was determined by such things as: the market value of the item; how much was invested in the relationship emotionally; who broke up with whom first; was the sex good; were there lots of laughs over the relationship; was there bliss, etc. While Phillips provided the formula, McGee seemed to have suggested a myriad of questions to come up with value.

The Production and comment. The eight items for sale are: a t-shirt, a typewriter, a bike, a mixed tape, a necklace, a backpack, a coffee pot and a vintage, beat-up guitar, which she never learned to play. They are all on display in the performance space. Haley McGee greets us and asks us to wander around the items and then fill in what we think they are worth for sale on a slip of paper and drop the paper in the slot at the back of each item.

When the show starts McGee strips to her undies and socks, perhaps signifying how exposed she is at having to reveal the background of each relationship.  At one point she puts on the t-shirt given to her by a man she truly cared about. McGee writes out bits of the formula on brown paper on a wall the width of the space. Every aspect of each relationship is examined from questions of: was the kissing good, was their laughter, bliss, heart-ache, the prospect of violence, etc. Each answer is then translated into a quantitative part of the formula. Extensive props, graphs, statistics, quotients etc. are used to explain how emotional investment can translate into a tangible number. Envelopes are sent down a line to McGee who reads the contents explaining an aspect of the show. She has charts hauled out from doors leading off stage. A book of stats is pulled down from a rope in the flies, referred to, then snapped back up and out of place. McGee flits from one corner to another revealing many and various props. Initially we don’t know the story of each item. Then we learn their emotional investment. Does that change our ideas of our pricing? Interesting thought.

The energy ramps up and she wraps bubble wrap around her head and body followed by masking tape used to keep it all in place and more and more stuff wrapped, snapped and attached to the stuff already enveloping her. She gets more and more breathless with the quickness of the telling as more and more ideas are thought of for the formula, and it’s all overwhelming  until she says that her director, Mitchell Cushman told her to stop. And I secretly say “bless you, Mitchell.”

The Ex-boyfriend Yard Sale is exhausting for all the right reasons. Aren’t relationships exhausting? The euphoria, the light-headedness, the sleeplessness, lack of appetite, the questions of ‘do you love me?’ or ‘why don’t you love me anymore’, or any number of questions that keep one thinking, worrying, pondering etc. It’s all blissfully exhausting, and Haley McGee puts us right in the middle of it. And in her own inimitable, deeply personal, impish way, McGee makes us see that a numerical value can’t be put on something that came from something so inexplicably emotional. That’s one of the many joys of this show. The biggest joy is seeing Haley McGee again, performing here in such fine form.

Curated and presented by the red light district and in collaboration with Outside the March, and presented in partnership by SummerWorks and the Theatre Centre.

Opened: Feb. 5, 2019.

Closes: Feb. 10, 2019.

Running Time: 90 minutes, approx.

www.theatrecentre.org

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Review: OTHELLO

by Lynn on February 7, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Monarch Tavern, 12 Clinton St., Toronto, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare, of course.

Directed by James Wallis

Cast: Jeff Dingle

Jennifer Dzialoszynski

Dylan Evans

James Graham

Melanie Leon

Wilex Ly

David Mackett

Julia Nish-Lapidus

Catherine Rainville

Natasha Ramondino

E.B. Smith

A clear, energetic production that grabs the audience and never lets up until the heart-breaking conclusion.

The Story. Everybody knows the story, right? Othello, the Moor, celebrated for his leadership and diplomatic abilities, marries Desdemona, who is white. Racist attitudes arise. Iago, Othello’s ensign, is passed over for a promotion and that sets in motion Iago’s plan to get even and cause as much mischief as possible. Jealousy is a terrible thing, as Othello learns.

The Production. It’s to the credit of Shakespeare BASH’d, a spunky, feisty company if ever there was one, that the whole run was sold out before they opened. But as always, the producers have held back some tickets to be sold at the door, so come early and be patient.

The production takes place in the Monarch Tavern on Clinton St. The audience sits on either side of the playing area, drinks in hand, ready to engage. Up at one end is a raised stage with two panels of curtains that are held back revealing an area that could be a person’s house, or Othello (E.B. Smith) and Desdemona’s (Catherine Rainville) bedroom, or whatever director James Wallis wants it to be.

Much of the action happens in the long space between the two facing sections of the audience. Iago (James Graham) plays his nasty tricks on various characters, trying to convince Roderigo (Jeff Dingle) that Desdemona can be convinced that Roderigo is worthy of her—never-mind that she’s married to Othello. Iago nonchalantly plants the seeds of jealous doubt in Othello’s ear. in that space, and just casually walks away. Characters are either crossing up or down the space and someone has to waylay them. Occasionally actors would exit by the doors of the tavern and then appear instantly up stage making another entrance. This meant they had to go outside and race to the other door for their scene. All this action, carefully directed by James Wallis gives the production a sense of urgency that matters are spinning too quickly to stop.

When Othello enters he’s full of dignity, confidence but not swaggeringly so, because of the performance of E.B. Smith. Othello, as played by E.B. Smith is imposing, deep voiced but mainly soft-spoken. Othello doesn’t need to raise his voice to command attention. He does it with stillness, a direct stare, and a confidence that is not easy to shake. That makes his downfall into blinding jealousy all the more poignant.

Desdemona is no wimp. Othello calls her “his fair warrior”.  They are a perfect match. As Desdemona, Catherine Rainville is buoyant, proud of her marriage to this imposing man, supportive, caring and loving. When Othello shows his jealous streak she knows this is not like him. She is concerned but patient it will work out. Rainville is playful and confident when she tries to negotiate that Othello take back Cassio (Dylan Evans) into his books. Desdemona doesn’t know that evil forces in the person of Iago are at play.  As Iago, James Graham has that cold smile and manipulative way about him. He is raging with his own kind of jealousy and contempt for being passed over. What I miss from Graham’s performance is charm. It’s not just manipulation that is at play here, there has to be charm to draw people in to being duped. How else to explain why Emilia married him in the first place, if not for a charm to win her over.

James Wallis also has impish touches in his direction. Julia Nish-Lapidus plays not only the Duchess (changed from the Duke in the text) as well as a clown who is never without a large drink. Just before Act II is to begin, Nish-Lapidus as the Clown enters with a large inflatable chair that she has to inflate. She sits on that stage and blows and blows into the ‘spout’, looks exhausted but continues. When she is finished she puts on sunglasses and lays back on the chair until the Act begins. Humour is everywhere in Shakespeare, even when it ends badly for many characters. You just need a director like James Wallis with a sense of whimsy and adventure to realize those moments.

Comment. Shakespeare BASH’d is a company that produces consistently high quality work. There is nothing fancy about it. The costumes are rudimentary. The sets are almost non-existent. But the company’s commitment to being true to the spirit of the Bard’s plays is second to nobody. They are worth a trip to the Monarch Tavern to see what I’m talking about.

Shakespeare BASH’d presents:

Opened: Feb. 5, 2019.

Closes: Feb. 10, 2019.

Running Time: 3 hours approximate.

admin@shakespearebashd.com

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l-r Kate Ross, Fraser Elsdon
Photo: Dahlia Katz

 

At the Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Ave, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Stephen Massicotte

Directed by Kent Staines

Set by David Boechler

Lighting by Jason Hand

Sound and composition by Creighton Doane

Costumes by Trysha Bakker

Cast: Fraser Elsdon

Kate Ross

A gentle, beautiful love story against a backdrop of war, all done with elegant simplicity.

The Story. It’s the day before Mary’s wedding. She’s dreaming about all sorts of things.  Mary came to Canada from England with her parents. They settled in a farming community and she met Charlie, an awkward, sweet farm boy during a thunder storm. He was in the barn, afraid of the thunder and lightening and she ran in there seeking shelter because she’d been walking. She calmed him. He rode her home on his horse when the storm subsided. The spark of friendship to love ignited in that barn. They made sure they ‘accidentally’ met each other on their travels around the area. They went to a dance and fell in love more and more. The First World War was declared and Charlie felt it was his responsibility to go and fight. He wrote to Mary often when he was away. And now it was the day before her wedding.

The Production. David Boechler’s set is simple: there is a slightly inclined platform leading up to a ledge on which to sit. Suspended above is a rectangular slatted screen. Trysha Bakker has designed a simple white dress for Mary (Kate Ross) and farm clothes (boots, farm pants held up by suspenders and a work shirt) for Charlie (Fraser Elsdon).

A tall, slim young man in farm work clothes tells us it’s the day before Mary’s wedding. He is Charlie. Mary comes forward and tells us who she is: from England to Canada with her parents and she loves it. Her mother, a snob we soon learn, doesn’t like living in rustic Canada.  We also know that Mary’s Mother doesn’t approve of Mary’s attachment to Charlie. Of course why would she, he is a ‘dirty farm boy’ as Mary tells us. It doesn’t matter, Charlie and Mary love each other.  And one gets the sense that because of his innate charm Charlie eventually wears down the starchy attitude of Mary’s Mother.

Kate Ross as Mary and Fraser Elsdon as Mary both act with a quiet grace and tenderness. Their thrilling feelings for each other are also obvious. Kate Ross illuminates Mary’s heart and strength in this fine performance. Mary and Charlie give each other strength and that is so clear in these performances.

Over time Charlie gains confidence and becomes less and less awkward. With Elsdon’s thoughtful performance you know that Charlie did not come to the decision to enlist, lightly. And you never get the sense, either in Stephen Massicotte’s play or the performance, that Charlie treats this as an adventure. He’s properly scared and should be.

I don’t think it matters that Kate Ross and Fraser Elsdon are a couple in real life as much as it matters that their wonderful performances make the audience want them to be a couple in real life too.

Director Kent Staines has directed this with a sensitive, spare hand. The love story of Mary and Charlie is almost chaste but you are never in doubt of their love for each other without using heavy body language, petting, and constant kissing. When they do kiss, it’s almost a relief to them and us.

Just as playwright Stephen Massicotte has not shied away from the brutality of war, neither has Staines. There is the terrifying sound of bombs dropping, which makes Charlie think of thunder that paralyzes him in fear. Massicotte deals with the love story in the most poetic of language. And he conveys the horrors of war as well in the most poetic of language but in a different way. It’s subtle but effective. We never feel he is romanticizing war. He’s just dealing with it in a less stereotypical way.

Comment. Stephen Massicotte’s very popular, award-winning play is almost twenty years old. This is its first performance in Toronto, which seems astonishing, but true. I’ve seen it a few times, elsewhere. It never fails to squeeze the heart. This production did too.

Produced by Solo Productions.

Opened: Feb. 1, 2019.

Closes: Feb. 16, 2019.

Running Time:  85 minutes.

http://www.crowstheatre.com

 

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In my review of the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Elektra I take exception to Derek McLane’s design of the “singer-unfriendly” raked set and other odd bits about it. Rather than the criticism be specific to him (and his director James Robinson) I made the following general comment:

“Then of course it dawns on me, as in theatre, often the ‘talent’ is the last thing a designer thinks about. And sometimes even the director joins that kind of thinking about the talent less than about the director’s vision.”

Phillip Silver, an excellent designer and faithful reader of my blog, took exception to the generality in an eloquent email and requested I clarify my criticism to be specific to this design and not as a general criticism of designers as a whole.

He’s right. I hope this clarifies the matter.

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Each of these plays: The Tashme Project: The Living Archives, Salt and Canadian Rajah, deal with individual stories of resilience, endurance, shame and tenacity. Taken together they have a common theme of racism in one form or another. Each is a story that needs to be told and heeded.

The Tashme Project: The Living Archives

At Factory Theatre, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Created and performed by Julie Tamiko Manning and Matt Miwa

Directed by Mike Payette

Video design by George Allister

Sound by Patrick Andrew Boivin

Lighting by David Perreault Ninacs

Set and costumes by James Lavoie

With care and respect the show’s creators, Julie Tamiko Manning and Matt Miwa, retell stories of elder Japanese-Canadians’ internment in Canada during WWII.

The Stories and the Production. Julie Tamiko Manning  and Matt Miwa, the creators and performers of this thoughtful, moving production, wanted to know the hidden, untold stories of internment of their Japanese-Canadian families in Canada. Their experiences in Canada, during WWII of being rounded up; taken out of their homes and put in the Canadian internment camp known as Tashme (an amalgamation of the first part of the last names of the three men who created the place) was not something they readily shared. These people were Canadian citizens and were treated as something else, ‘other’ because they were of Japanese descent. But Manning and Miwa were desperate to know their families’ past—“our legacy” as they write in the program—and so they interviewed family elders, friends of friends and then strangers to find out the stories and pass them along.

The structure of the show is methodical. First the two decided what they needed to do and then they sought out various sources. Unfortunately many of those who experienced the internment camp of Tashme were long dead. Manning and Miwa had to rely on Nisei (second generation Japanese-Canadians and now senior citizens) for the stories of their now dead parents or to share their own experiences.

Initially the interviewees were reluctant to share their experiences they kept buried deep inside for all those years, but then the stories poured out. Julie Tamiko Manning and Matt Miwa then compiled the stories and both present them, each easily shifting from character to character, sometimes playing old men and women, rambunctious children, officials, etc. Julie Tamiko Manning is the more agile and accomplished of the two in conveying the character and the story. Matt Miwa is physically energetic but often talks so fast and swallows his words you can’t understand what he is saying. Their commitment is obvious. The director, Mike Payette, keeps the pace brisk but never so rushed that you can’t appreciate each story and experience.

The stories cover a whole host of experiences. As young children some of the interviewees talk of having a good time playing. Their parents tell a different story—of humiliation, despair, depression and not giving up. One elder said he never talked about it because nobody asked. That was funny in light of the next generation thinking that it was too painful to be asked and reminded of what they went through. The show does have its humour. But on the whole The Tashme Project: The Living Archives is an important show about a telling the stories of those who were interned and giving them respect and informing the rest of us of this black period in our country’s history.

Factory Theatre presents The Tashme Project: The Living Archives produced by Tashme productions:

Opened: Jan. 31, 2019.

Saw it: Feb. 2, 2019.

Closes: Feb. 10, 2019.

Running Time: 90 minutes approx.

www.factorytheatre.ca

salt.

This played at the Theatre Centre on Queen Street as part of the Progress Festival, and closed Feb. 2, 2019 when I saw it.

But it transfers to the Toronto Centre for the Arts and plays from Feb. 7-10, 2019. http://www.tocentre.com/events/salt

The Story and performance. Selina Thompson is an astonishing theatre artist, writer, and provocateur. Last year as part of the Progress Festival she brought her ‘show’ Race Cards to the Theatre Centre. It was an installation of 1000 cards on each of which Thompson wrote a question about race.

This year as part of the Progress Festival she brings salt.

From the press information about salt.:

 “A journey to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

In February 2016, two artists got on a cargo ship, and retraced one of the routes of the Transatlantic Slave Triangle – from the UK to Ghana to Jamaica, and back.

Their memories, their questions and their grief took them along the bottom of the Atlantic and through the figurative realm of an imaginary past.

It was a long journey backwards, in order to go forwards.

This show is what they brought back.

saltis about grief, ancestry, home, forgetting and colonialism.

It’s about where colonial history exists in the everyday, the politics of grief and what happens inside Selina’s head every time someone asks ‘where are you from?’ and won’t take Birmingham or her mum’s uterus for an answer. It’s about being part of a diaspora.”

salt. is also about racism, overt, subtle, in your face, angry, hopeless and not giving in to it. Selina Thompson is a woman of colour. When people ask where she is from she accurately says, “Birmingham.” But then when they ask, “No where are you really from…” suggesting that because of her skin colour she had to have come from somewhere else, she persists, or treats the insensitive question with an answer equal to it.

Because Thompson’s birth parents and adoptive parents are from Jamaica, Montserrat, and England she decided to retrace one of the slave ship routes along with another woman of colour (unnamed) a film-maker to create a film/project. They boarded an Italian cargo ship in February 2016 to begin the journey. The Italian captain forbade them to film during the voyage. They could not go up on the deck. They could not wander the ship at will. They had to stay in their windowless cabin. There was no internet. There was no fresh air. They ate with the crew and heard the captain and officers talking in Italian. The repeated use of the ‘N’ word struck her. In subtle ways the captain tried to intimidate her. When they were at the end of the voyage they were not allowed to leave the ship immediately and were forced to stay for many more hours.  She longed to spit in the cruel captain’s face, but didn’t.

The bitter irony is that Thompson was on a ship retracing a slave ship route while she is in a sense held prisoner on the ship and treated with contempt because of her race. When they do reach land she rejoices in the air, sun, good-will of the people and her relatives in Jamaica.

Selina Thompson is an elegant, poetic, vivid writer and compelling performer. Dawn Walton is her equally gifted director. To make her points about the on-going nature of despair, contempt etc. Thompson hauls out a large, heavy rock of salt. At points in the narrative she puts on safety goggles (and instructs the first few rows of people to do the same) and whacks the rock of salt with an almost equally heavy sledgehammer. Bits break off. She notes the constricting chain of contempt from the captain to his officers, to the Filipino crew, to unions to colonialism to imperialism and on and on. She whacks at the salt chunks with every reference, sweat beading on her face. Energy expended with every strike. Salt, the stuff of life, tears and sweat.

salt. is a powerful, moving journey created by a gifted storyteller who knows how to bring her audience into the experience with respect and care. I loved that at my performance Thompson noted there was a young one in the audience (a mother brought her three young children, one of whom was almost a babe in arms) and so the performance would be deemed ‘relaxed’ so as not to add pressure to be quiet. If the ‘young one’ cried out, we would be calm about it. The ‘young one’ was perfect.  At the end Selina Thompson says quietly she will be in the lobby to give us a gift we are to keep safe, a piece of salt. It is a symbol of sweat, tears, despair and hope.

See this!  It’s at the Toronto Centre for the Arts from Feb. 7-10, 2019.

Selina Thompson Ltd., the Theatre Centre and Why Not Theatre present:

 Opened: Jan. 31, 2019.

Closed: Feb. 2, 2019.Running Time: 65 minutes.

 

Canadian Rajah

At Campbell House Museum, Queen St. and University, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Dave Carley

Directed by Sarah Phillips

Costumes by Jennifer Triemstra-Johnston

Cast: Jon de Leon

Barbara Worthy.

Commenting on this one might be a bit improper. Chick Reid was originally cast but was struck with pneumonia and had to withdraw. Barbara Worthy stepped in on Wed. Jan. 30 to take her place. I saw this on Sunday, Feb. 3 and Ms Worthy was ‘on book’ (she held the script in her hand) but had that character in her finger tips.

By rights I shouldn’t ‘review’ it or comment, but I will in vague terms because the play is fascinating and the production is accomplished.

The Story and Performance.  This took place in the grand ballroom in Campbell House Museum, a terrific venue if you have never been and so suitable for the play. Dave Carley has written a fascinating play based on a true story.

It’s a two character play involving Ranee Ghita (born Marguerita) the British widow of the (British-born) second Rajah of Sarawak and Esca Brooke the illegitimate son of the Rajah. Sarawak is an important state in modern Malaysia.

Esca Brooke has come from Canada to London, Eng. to ‘gently’ request her to recognize him as the rightful son of her husband. He has papers that prove it.

Both characters give their stories to us separately.  Ranee is played by Barbara Worthy and Esca Brooke is played by Jon de Leon. She is regal, imperious and beautifully turned out in traditional Sarawak garb. She knows that Esca Brooke is waiting to see her. She indicates her contempt for him and keeps him waiting on purpose. He knows it and is ready to leave in disgust but stays. He is beautifully attired in a smart suite and vest. He is a prosperous businessman, but certainly feels the sting of racism by being kept waiting on purpose. When Esca Brooke is finally ushered in to see Ranee she is all tight smiles (Worthy does this beautifully) and treats him with veiled contempt and disregard as she would anyone she feels is inferior.

De Leon has the confident bearing of a smart, hard-working self-made man. But it’s a fragile stance when faced with the determined arrogance and racism of a pompous member of the British aristocracy as Ranee is. Both have embarrassing information to reveal to the other; both try to one-up each other. It’s a match of wills. She thinks she has the upper hand, but we all know what happened to the mighty British Empire.

It’s a fascinating story of Esca Brooke, a man of mixed blood foisted off to strangers to get rid of him as an embarrassment and taken to Canada where his adopted parents emigrated. He’s successful; a loving husband and father, but he craves legitimacy and he will have it from this rude, condescending racist snob.

Bravo to Dave Carley for discovering this gem of a story and writing this fascinating play, and bravo to the two actors who faced several challengers to bring it to life.

Produced by the Canadian Rajah Collective presents:

Plays to Feb. 17. 2019.

https://canadianrajah.brownpapertickets.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Review: ELEKTRA

by Lynn on February 4, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

Christine Goerke
photo by: Michael Cooper

 

At the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Music by Richard Strauss

Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal after Sophocles

Conducted by Johannes Dubus

Director James Robinson

Set by Derek McLane

Costumes by Anita Stewart

Lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin

Cast: Susan Bullock

Tracy Cantin

Michael Druiett

Lauren Eberwein

Simona Genga

Christine Goerke

Thomas Goerz

Jill Grove

Alexandra Loutsion

Lauren Margison

Owen McCausland

Simone McIntosh

Wilhelm Schwinghammer

Michael Schade

Lauren Segal

Erin Wall

Beautifully sung and very dramatically acted.  But the raked set is so singer-unfriendly my calves were screaming in pain in sympathy with the singers who had to negotiate that incline, and there were some really odd director’s choices.

Note: As music/opera is not my forte, I won’t be commenting on the singing except to say it was stunning, and will focus on the production as theatre.

 The Story. The story is ‘after Sophocles’ (and not Euripides who also found Elektra’s story intriguing). Elektra is in deep mourning for the death of her father Agamemnon the King of Thebes. She is also in a rage at her mother, Klytämnestra (the widow of Agamemnon and the Queen), because Klytämnestra with the help of her lover Aegisth, murdered Agamemnon when he returned from the Trojan War. All Elektra wants is revenge. She hopes her brother Orest will come home from exile (where she sent him for his protection) and revenge their father’s death. The servants are sick of Elektra’s mourning. Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis just wants a quiet married life and hopes Elektra can calm herself and just accept matters the way they are. Elektra is having none of it.

 The Production. The curtain rises on Derek McLane’s set and initially the expanse and sense of size is impressive. But then I see the rake (incline) of the upstage part of the set that inclines from stage left to stage right and that stuns me. It looks like a rake of a 45 degree angle.  Are the singers really expected to schlep up and down that rake for the whole of the opera? (ok it’s a short opera, but still). My calves are screaming in sympathetic pain at what the singers are about to experience by walking up and down such an angle and sing. Then of course it dawns on me, as in theatre, often the ‘talent’ is the last thing a designer thinks about. And sometimes even the director joins that kind of thinking about the talent less than about the director’s vision.

There is a bank of stairs that spans the width of the stage leading down from the rake. Stage left are exits into the servants’ quarters. Upstage is what looks like a shed of some sort. Against the stage right wall is a large framed portrait (of Agamemnon), a white toy rocking horse, some other stuff stage left which includes a box with some of Chrysothemis’ toys. This is a kind of ‘dump room’ for discarded stuff. Or perhaps it’s the former ‘kids’ room of Elektra and her sister, hence the rocking horse and the toys.

When Elektra (Christine Goerke) makes her entrance she is ‘crazed’ with grief for her father. Her movements are erratic, like a person who can’t stand still. Ms Goerke’s first sung notes just grab you—it’s such a rich, dramatic voice (that’s the extent of that kind of comment). Besides being such a gifted singer Ms Goerke is a wonderful dramatic actress. It’s a performance of rage, desperation, irritation when her sister begs her to accept what has happened and elation when her brother has returned. It’s a lovely touch that she carries, caresses and even wears her father’s coat to hold on to his memory. But I smile when director James Robinson has Ms Goerke sing on her knees and then on her back. I think that is chutzpah on the part of James Robinson and that Ms Goerke can do it with ease is part of her gift.

At one point in the opera James Robinson directs Ms Goerke to get on the rocking horse and ‘ride’ it arm up in a charge. Interesting. Elektra might be reverting to her childhood, and perhaps happier days, but that charge motion might suggest she is in fact leading a charge against her murderous mother, for revenge.

Susan Bullock as Klytämnestra makes her dramatic entrance from the door of the shed, which occurs to me is really the palace. The entrance is with Mimi Jordan Sherin’s bright light behind them. But it looks like they are climbing up from some basement. Sorry, but it looks silly. Ms Bullock is an arresting presence dressed in black holding a cane for support. The character of Klytämnestra has not been having a good time of it. She suffers from nightmares and sleepless nights—killing your husband will do it to you.

I find it interesting that costume designer Anita Stewart has dressed Elektra in a grey-blue long dress and Klytämnestra all in black. Is Klytämnestra trying to suggest she’s in mourning? But wouldn’t it be more fitting if Elektra wear black too? Hmm.

When Orest (Wilhelm Schwinghammer) does arrive, ‘secretly’ and makes himself known to Elektra they plot to murder Klytämnestra and her lover Aegisth in retaliation for their murder of Agamemnon. Orest will sneak into the palace to do the deed. James Robinson directs Wilhelm Schwinghammer as Orest to tip the structure of the ‘shed-palace’ up and back a bit so it’s on a tilt and Orest can tip-toe down the stairs into the palace to kill his mother and her lover. I know that in theatre one must suspend ones disbelief to enter into the production, but this bit of business just knitted my eye-brows.

 Comment. I found it interesting that while this is a German opera, it is based on a Greek play and wondered why librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal didn’t go further into fleshing out the story. The whole idea of the endless cycle of revenge of the gods and then some is left unexplored. Klytämnestra killed Agamemnon when he came home from the war in revenge of him sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia to appease the gods and get calm waters to sail to the war. I thought not including that point in the story left a serious hole in the narrative.

While the design and a lot of the direction left me mystified, the singing and acting of the piece is glorious, which is why you go to the opera anyway.

The Canadian Opera Company presents:

Opened: Jan. 26, 2019.

Closes: Feb. 22, 2019.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

www.coc.ca

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At the Grand Theatre, London, Ont.

 

Written by Margaret Atwood

Directed by Megan Follows

Choreography by Philippa Domville

Set by Charlotte Dean

Costumes by Dana Osborne

Lighting by Bonnie Beecher

Projections by Jamie Nesbitt

Composer/sound by Deanna H. Choi

Cast: Praneet Akilla

Claire Armstrong

Tess Berger

Nadine Bhabha

Ingrid Blekys

Déjah Dixon-Green

Deborah Drakeford

Seana McKenna

Ellora Patnaik

Monice Peter

Siobhan Richardson

A vivid, image filled production thanks to director Megan Follows, beautifully acted lead by Seana McKenna.

The Story.  We all know the story of Odysseus: heroic soldier, goes off to fight in the Trojan War to get Helen back, war rages for 10 years, then takes another 10 years to get back to his wife, the patient Penelope. Yes, 20 years in total, it’s all those distractions, see? The Cyclops, the sirens, the alluring goddesses and minor deities until he finally gets home.

Bless Margaret Atwood for giving Penelope a voice to tell her story. Penelope’s story is deeper, richer in psychological intrigue, more layered in consequence and certainly depicts Penelope as a wily, diplomatic woman. Atwood gives Odysseus short shrift in detailing his travails; the most serious drawback to him is that, in my house at least, he’s stupid. He’s also vain, irresponsible and not too astute.

All the while Penelope, his patient, loyal, loving wife tries to cope with the attitudes of Odysseus’ parents who think Penelope is useless, as does Odysseus’ nurse. Her son Telemachus is a spoiled, entitled brat. And there are the suitors who come knocking, thinking Odysseus is dead—well you would too, right? They are eating her out of house and home and they want her to make a decision about which one of these louts she will marry. She stalls them with the help of her 12 maids, but it ends badly for almost everybody, except of course Odysseus who comes out of this smelling sweet. Sweat?

The Production.  Director Megan Follows played Penelope in the Nightwood production of The Penelopiad in Toronto a few years ago, so she knows the play and Penelope inside and out. As a director Follows has a dazzling sense of image. She and her design team worked to create the sense of floating, misty Hades (the underworld) where Penelope and her maids are since they are now all dead. Charlotte Dean’s set of billowy material gives the sense of other-worldliness. Bonnie Beecher has lit it with that deep underworld gloom. Dana Osborne’s costumes for Penelope (Seana McKenna) are arresting. Initially she is swathed in a gown with a long train that billows out behind her; is long enough to wrap her up and then is unfurled again and becomes a tablecloth at a banquet while still part of Penelope’s costume. Osborne’s costumes for the maids are simple grey. The same actresses play the suitors as well and with a quick costume change of a jacket or tunic over the maids’ clothes they are clearly another character.

Megan Follows has an arresting sense of the visual. At the beginning of the play a twitching body (one of the maids) is slowly lowered down from the flies to the stage. That certainly gets our attention and it foreshadows what will happen to them. No spoiler alert here, we are told enough times they will die.

Follows has created body language for the suitors that is aggressive and muscular. One suitor (Claire Armstrong) likes frightening Telemachus (Tess Benger) by starring him down and then thrusting his body towards him, chin up. Quite effective. There is interesting use of climbing silks ( Siobhan Richardson) in which two silk panels are dropped from the flies and Richardson climbs up and does poses to augment a scene. I’m not quite sure of its usefulness.

And while Follows’ sense of images is arresting, sometimes it’s a bit of overkill. When Penelope is going into labour with Telemachus she lies on her back on a table, her head down towards the audience, her legs spread, bent at the knees facing upstage. Projected on the back wall is an ultrasound image of a foetus pulsing, suggesting it is about to be born. At the same time a character puts her arm between Penelope’s legs and pulls out a long swath of red silk and wraps it up like a swaddled baby and gives it to Penelope. The red silk is so evocative of the blood and gore of birth made elegant by the image and our imagination, why then do we also need an ultrasound image? Overkill, but I do appreciate Follows’ gifts as a director.

And I love Follows’ trust in the audience to suspend our disbelief. There are frequent references to there being 12 maids, yet look closely and you only see 10 actors playing them. In the last scene that twitching, hanged body is lowered down from the flies along with several ropes with nooses ready for the rest of the maids. But look closely again and there are 12 nooses suspended, which is one too many, if one of the maids is already hanging. Follow’s makes us pay attention to such details.

The cast is strong—Praneet Akilla is a boyish, confident Odysseus and the only man in the cast of women (at times he also plays a maid). Leading them all is Seana McKenna as Penelope. Her voice is as clear and musical as fine crystal. She has a sense of nuance and subtlety that captures Penelope’s depth of character and intelligence. A sidelong glance and the smallest gesture speak volumes. When Penelope gives birth to Telemachus she holds him briefly but he is then taken away by Odysseus’ old nurse to be cared for. Penelope watches sadly, gently touching her breast thus illuminating the shattering loss of not being able to nurse her baby. That little gesture is stunning. It’s a performance full of such small, telling moments.

Comment.  I love that Margaret Atwood tells the story from Penelope’s brave, loyal point of view—along with her servants—but it still is a man’s world here. She’s not given credit for keeping the suitors at bay. Odysseus is going to kill the maids (we know this cause it’s foreshadowed at the beginning) and tells Telemachus not to tell his mother because according to Odysseus Penelope can’t keep a secret. Where does he get this from—he hasn’t been home for 20 years! Is this just dumb male intuition when it comes to women. What a fool?  He’s a man and he’s entitled in that society.  Women, wives are meant to serve and wait silently.  Atwood gives us the gulp factor—that no matter how much Penelope valued her maids misinformation resulted in their deaths and she is suffering as a result of it. She’s in Hades. The maids don’t talk to her anymore because they feel she betrayed them. She can’t tell them that she was given a drink by Odysseus’ nurse to put her to sleep. She didn’t get a chance to tell Odysseus the maids were true. Telemachus is as entitled as his father and doesn’t know the truth about the maids because they wouldn’t betray Penelope.

And at the end of the story Penelope is still loyal to Odysseus even though she knows his ways and he’d be off when a new adventure presented itself. But he does keep coming back to her.  Atwood conjures a world where a woman’s life is not her own, where she has to live within the dictates of the men in her life. Atwood does it with humour, seriousness and a sense of the world of ancient Greece and our own modern world.

However, of the people on the crew, there is only one man, the rest are women. Brava.    

The Grand Theatre presents:

Began: Jan. 22, 2019.

Closes: Feb. 9, 2019.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes.

www.grandtheatre.com

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Review: HOOK UP

by Lynn on January 31, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

Emily Lukasik
Photo: Dahlia Katz

 

At Theatre Passe Muraille, Toronto, Ont.

Music by Chris Thornborrow

Libretto by Julie Tepperman

Direction and dramaturgy by Richard Greenblatt

Set and costumes by Kelly Wolf

LX and video design by Monty Martin

Sound by Chris Thornborrow

Music director and pianist, Jennifer Tung

Percussionist, Greg Harrison

Second pianist, Andrea Grant

Cast: Alicia Ault

Nathan Carroll

Alexis Gordon

Jeff Lillico

Emily Lukasik

A modern opera about teenage sex, consent and its sobering consequences. The story and production packs a punch. Important theatre.

The Story. From the press information: “Three friends hit university—no parents, new friends, new rules and new normal. But freedom is complicated. Hook Up raises questions of consent, shame and power in the lives of young adults navigating uncharted waters on their own.”

Mindy (Emily Lukasik), her boyfriend Tyler (Nathan Carroll) and her friend Cindy (Alicia Ault) are all going to the same university and will live in residence. I reckon they are all 18 year-old or so. Mindy’s parents (Jeff Lillico and Alexis Gordon) help her move into her single dorm room and leave with instructions to be careful, implied is being careful about ‘sex’. Her father warns her gently about Tyler. Too late. Mindy and Tyler have already had sex and have it as often as they can. Cindy hoped to room with Mindy but Mindy requested a single room so she could have more private time with Tyler.

The friendship of the three changes in university. Cindy feels left out of Mindy’s life because she spends so much time with Tyler. Cindy makes up for it by going to parties and ‘hooking up’ with various partners. Tyler joins a study group and Mindy thinks he might be seeing someone else. Mindy goes to a party with Cindy and things go off the rails.

The Production.  Kelly Wolf’s set of Mindy’s room is on a movable base and can be rotated for effect. Cindy and Tyler have scenes above the stage that suggest their separate rooms.  There are several panels above the stage on which are projected e-mails and text messages from the three friends as well as photos and other images.

As with any opera, I won’t comment on Chris Thornborrow’s music except to say that in the scene that changes everything for these three friends, rather than being graphic, what is happening is suggested. Thornborrow’s music is pulsing and gradually driving as the scene builds.  Richard Greenblatt’s sensitive, clear-eyed direction uses splashes of red projections to add to the heightened emotions. The audience’s imagination kicks in and is more effective that a blow-by-blow graphic depiction of what might be happening.

Julie Tepperman’s libretto captures the short-hand of these young adults (teens) on social media so well I had to look some of them up (rotf, tbh) to find out WTF (sorry) they were saying. She has captured the angst of their age, their social pressures and the euphoria of being on their own for the first time and free to do what they like without parents looking over their shoulder, disapprovingly. But she has not drawn them as totally irresponsible. While Mindy and Tyler make out regularly they have limits and those limits are respected. Tyler wants to make sure Mindy is agreeable to some suggestions and if she isn’t, he stops. Mindy wants to experiment but will stop if it gets too weird. Cindy seems free and easy but also has a sense of responsibility towards herself and Mindy. Cindy carries condoms. She senses that Mindy might be going into new territory and wants to make sure she is safe. She stops short of insisting she not do what she is about to do. These are friends trying to do right by each other.

There is a scene at the beginning when the friends are welcomed to the school’s orientation. They are read the rules from both a man (leading the male students) and a woman leading the women: don’t drink in the room, lock your door for protection etc. But the male student says some things as a joke that should set off alarms, suggesting a male culture there is something one should be wary of.

The cast to a person is terrific. Besides being wonderful singers, they are all very strong actors. Mindy, as played by Emily Lukasik is a mix of young euphoria at her new found freedom and soul-crushing despair when she deals with her shattering night at the party. Cindy, as played by Alicia Ault is buoyant, carefree, yet hurt when it seems that Mindy is ignoring her and certainly concerned for her at the party. Nathan Carroll plays Tyler with boyish enthusiasm and certainly naïve confusion as he tries to figure out what his girlfriend wants and what she means when she talks to him. Jeff Lillico plays Mindy’s loving, caring father who tries not to be too smothering. While Alexis Gordon plays Mindy’s mother with just a touch of anxiousness, Gordon absolutely shines when playing Heather. There is an ache to the performance and a resolve that shows the strength of the character, and Heather’s strength is certainly needed. While Richard Greenblatt directs with imagination and care, he deals with the scenes in which Mindy is dealing with the aftermath of the party with such sensitivity and tenderness it’s breathtaking.

Comment. Hook Up deals with issues that young adults, late teens etc. are dealing with daily. To the people involved these are huge issues. Opera, even a ‘small’ opera like this, gives the issues size. We seem to have read about these situations for so long—kid goes to a party, gets drunk, is taken advantage of etc. Does this show make it a cliché? No. Not to the women involved, or their friends who feel guilty for not doing more, or their boyfriends who weren’t there to help.

 Hook Up looks at issues that teens are dealing with and treats them with respect, compassion and generosity of spirit. It’s an important work.

Tapestry Theatre in partnership with Theatre Passe Muraille presents:

Opened: Jan. 30, 2019.

Closes: Feb. 9, 2019.

Running Time: 90 minutes

www.tapestryopera.com

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