The Passionate Playgoer

At Artscape Youngplace, 180 Shaw St. Toronto, Ont.

Written by Dennis Potter
Directed, designed and choreographed by Nicole Wilson
Lighting by Steve Vargo
Cast: Nicola Atkinson
Michael-David Blostein
Vince Deiulis
Jeff Dingle
Hayden Finkelshtain
Ara Glenn-Johanson
Alexander Offord

Good Old Neon Theatre has presented another production that is challenging, provocative and thought-provoking in these emotional times.

Blue Remembered Hills is based on British writer Dennis Potter’s 1979 television drama that takes place in England in 1943. A group of seven-year-old children is playing in a forest. They are played by adults.

Director Nicole Wilson takes this notion and sets it on its ear. To quote from the press information: “Good Old Neon has taken the play out of its historical setting and turned it into an expressionistic fever dream, a speculation on the nature of human interaction in a world torn apart by hunger, civil strife, and the terrifying impulses that give rise to Trumpism.” Nicole Wilson goes further: “Blue Remembered Hills is a broken play. It is a mostly plotless evening spent in the company of seven people as they enact various forms of casual, almost accidental cruelty on each other; they claim to be children but they behave as adults (or is that adults behave as children?)….The brokenness of Blue Remembered Hills is also where the opportunity for magic lies—by incorporating an abstracted, physical language that hums just beneath the surface of the spoken text, we have found a play much richer than a simple reading of the script can yield. These moments—we called them “outbursts” in rehearsal—are not symbols of feeling but expressions of inner states, states which are beyond simple language, which lines of dialogue cannot articulate.”

It makes for an intriguing evening in the theatre with a daring company of actors and their adventurous director.

The audience fills into a brightly lit, white room. The cast is dressed in white. Their faces are whitened in various ways. Sometimes the whole face is whitened; sometimes half the face. In any case it’s haunting.

While they ‘act’ as seven-year-old children with a rudimentary grasp of language with which to express themselves, their behaviour suggests something more innate. These kids are cruel, mean, bullying, cowering, hunted and trapped. They vary on who is the bully and who is the bullied. As one person stands up to a bully another cowers in a corner. Matters build in emotional intensity until its gripping conclusion. These children seem to carry on perhaps a behaviour they learned from adults, or perhaps children are naturally inclined to cruelty.

At times it was like watching a dramatization of Lord of the Flies William Golding’s classic novel of a group of British school boys stranded on an island who then form groups based on class and vulnerability, and treat each other accordingly. It builds to a terrifying conclusion.

With Blue Remembered Hills it’s interesting to see how director Nicole Wilson stages and directs her committed cast of seven to establish the shifting power struggles and the constant maneuvering to get the upper hand. It is both fascinating and terrifying. And references to Muslims certainly put us in the age of Trump.

Good Old Neon Theatre produces theatre that reflects the world we live in—shattering, compelling and provocative.

Good Old Neon Theatre presents:

Opened: Feb. 13, 2017.
Closes: Feb. 24, 2017.
Cast: 7; 5 men, 2 women
Running Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

www.goodoldneon.ca

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At the Factory Theatre Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written and directed by Trey Anthony
Set, costumes and props by Rachel Forbes
Lighting by Steve Lucas
Composed and sound by Gavin Bradley
Cast: Beryl Bain
Allison Edwards-Crewe
Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah
Ordena Stephens-Thompson

Simplistic, superficial writing and a production that is clunky.

The Story. Daphne is the black mother in question. She’s a churchgoing woman who is dying of cancer and she’s refused treatment. She finds comfort and solace in her bible.
Her two daughters, Valerie and Claudette, rally together to be with her. There is also the spectre of Cloe, a daughter who died young and is a ghostly presence to Daphne.

Valerie is a stylish woman, married to a very successful man. She’s devoted to her mother and helps in any way she can. Claudette has returned home from Montreal after being away for three years. Relations between Claudette and Daphne have been strained. Claudette hasn’t kept in touch and no one in her family seems to have reached out to Claudette except to tell her that her mother is sick and she better come home.

Over the course of the play concealed hurts and resentments that have festered without being addressed before, now come tumbling out. Claudette is gay and was in a lesbian relationship and Daphne had a hard time coming to grips with that, citing the bible at how wrong that relationship was.

Valerie has worked hard at her marriage to David her very successful white husband. But there are serious problems. Both sisters have criticisms of the other but one does sense they love each other. The whole family loves each other, concerns notwithstanding.

The Production. Rachel Forbes’s set depicts a cross section of a simple, neat kitchen, with appropriate fridge magnets, collectables etc., and Claudette’s old room. The walls of her room still have the same stuff that was on the walls when she was a teen living at home. There is a stairway that divides the rooms and allows for exits and entrances.

The production begins with the four women; Daphne and her two daughters and the ghost of Cloe following in a line, each carrying a suitcase, swaying to lilting music. It’s buoyant, infectious, and an uplifting way to begin the show. But then that liveliness slowly, methodically deflates as the show continues.

One problem is Trey Anthony’s rather simplistic script. The handling of thorny issues is superficial at best, and might be better suited to television as a sitcom or a soap opera. Conversations that should have taken place years before happen inexplicably without previous reference now. Another problem is that Trey Anthony also directs and it’s pedestrian at best. She moves characters for no reason I guess to make them look less static, or as in the case when Claudette first arrives, she just stands there awkwardly, making it look like the director didn’t know what to do with her.

Ordena Stephens-Thompson as Daphne sashays confidently around the space, putting a spin on the Jamaican lilt. Daphne is the best written of all the parts but there are still moments that make one wince at the lack of depth. Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as Claudette portrays a woman, uncomfortable to be there and with reason. Roberts-Abdullah also infuses Claudette with a lot of emotion and passion. Beryl Bain as Cloe is graceful and a youthful presence. One can see the lost promise of this ghost-like character. Finally I can appreciate that Allison Edwards-Crewe plays Valerie as a perky, chirpy, lively character with lots to hide including a sad back story, it’s just that it’s obvious and grating, which defeats the purpose.

Comment. I find playwright Trey Anthony’s work to be slight and superficial. The subject matter appears to be of substance but at best the plays skim the surface and rarely dig deeply. How do black mothers say “I love you?” They say it in the same way every other mother of any race, creed, colour, sexual persuasion etc. says it. Sometimes it’s simple, complicated, vague, direct, off the wall, but it’s the same the world over, I recon.

Da’ Kink in My Hair, her best most notable work, took place in a beauty parlour with characters coming in, telling their story then leaving. It was made into a TV show, and that seems the best venue for this work—television situation comedies or soap opera fare.

With How Black Mothers Say I Love You, we have the daughters accusing each other of transgressions that seem to come from now where. Claudette accuses her mother of loving Cloe, the dead sister, more.

When the girls were younger, Daphne left Jamaica for Canada to find work and send money home. This situation makes the play slightly more unique as a black experience, although other nationalities have the same situation—mothers leave their children to work in another country to earn money and better the lives of their children back home.

Daphne left the girls to be raised by their grandmother, for six years, before they were brought over to Canada. Claudette has harboured bitterness for what she perceives as her mother’s desertion since then. When she was in Canada, Daphne married again and gave birth to Cloe, another reason for Claudette to feel resentful.

Valerie is devoted and defends her mother no matter what. But Valerie too has difficulties in her marriage you can see a mile away because she tries so hard to be perky and upbeat. I don’t buy it.

Conversations that should have happened years before all seem to be dumped in this short time the characters are in the same place. Are we to believe that Claudette and Daphne never had it out before now about Daphne’s perceived desertion? Really? Hard to believe. The same goes for personal secrets and hidden truths—they are all let out now. I don’t buy it.

Everything about How Black Mothers Say I Love You is clunky, superficial and more appropriate for a TV sitcom or a soap opera.

This was also reviewed on CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm, Friday, February 10, 2017 between 9 am and 10 am.

Girls in Bow Ties Productions presented by Factory Theatre

Opened: Feb. 9, 2017.
Closes: March 5, 2017.
Cast: 4 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

www.factorytheatre.ca

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At the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Tracy Letts
Directed by Ted Dykstra
Set and Costumes by Anna Treusch
Lighting by Kaileigh Krysztofiak
Sound by Verne Good
Cast: Darla Biccum
Michael Blake
Paul Dods
Ryan Hollyman
Diana Leblanc
Robert Persichini
Alex Poch-Goldin
Nabil Rajo
Jon Lachlan Stewart

A gut-busting, heart-bursting production of Tracy Letts’ latest play about letting go, looking forward, opening up one’s heart and letting people in. And there are donuts.

The Story. During the Vietnam War Arthur Przybyszewski was a draft dodger from Chicago who found safe haven in Toronto. When President Jimmy Carter came to office in 1977 he pardoned the draft dodgers so Arthur returned home to run Superior Donuts, the family donut shot.

It’s now December 2009. Business is terrible. Arthur is despondent because his ex-wife has died recently. Arthur has not come into the shop regularly and when he was away someone broke in, trashed the place and wrote “Pussy” on the wall in pink paint. But Arthur advertises for a person to help in the shop. Fanco Wicks applies for the job—he has debts that need to be attended to or there will be trouble. He is an energetic, wily, persuasive 21 year-old African-American man. Arthur is overwhelmed by Franco’s enthusiasm and grand ideas for the shop. A friendship develops and Franco offers Arthur more than just help selling donuts.

Max Tarasov owns a DVD store next to Arthur’s donut shop and wants to buy it but Arthur won’t sell. Superior Donuts has been in Arthur’s family for 60 years and he can’t sell. It is the only thing he has that keeps him connected with his now dead parents. There was animosity between Arthur and his father when he left for Canada. By holding on in a way he is trying to make amends with his father. Max also has something to prove. He is an immigrant from Russia and owning the string of shops on the block will fulfill his idea of the American Dream. But Arthur won’t sell.

This is American playwright Tracy Letts channeling Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard—a family in financial need won’t sell their cherry orchard because it’s been in their family for years, even written up in the encyclopedia, and a once simple peasant, now a rich land owner, now wants to buy it.

The Production. Director Ted Dykstra’s production is a gift to those of us who love our theatre, smart, furiously funny, moving and heart-squeezing. Dykstra is a sensitive, nimble director, at ease with the minute details of comedy and drama. He fills moments with the simplest of stage business for the maximum results.

There is a standing gag that one of the police officers who frequents the donut shop, goes to Star Trek conventions with his wife, in costume. When the officer leaves the shop, another regular at the shop. Lady Boyle, mentally fragile and an alcoholic, waves at the officer while her fingers flutter in the air, trying to assume the Spock salute with her fingers separated and failing. It’s a small detail but it’s hilarious. The production is full of such directorial touches and they realize the heart and soul of these damaged, kind characters.

The cast is stellar. Robert Persichini plays Arthur, mournful, sombre, barely holding on, but with such dignity and compassion he makes your heart swell. His voice is rich, deep and calm. This is a man almost ground down to the ground who doesn’t raise his voice because he hasn’t the energy. His walk is almost a lurch, as if he needs that momentum because otherwise he will stop. It’s the performance of a man that is deep, sorrowful and yet at the end, hopeful. Nabil Rajo plays Franco Wicks with such winning optimism and natural street smarts he is a perfect foil for Arthur. Rajo has a keen sense of the humour and the hidden desperation of Franco. As Max, Alex Poch-Goldin shows us a man who is confident but so anxious and desperate to buy out Arthur and get his dream started, he takes your breath away. There is swagger, confidence, brashness and when you least expect it, desperation that is startling.

Various characters in Superior Donuts reveal their desperation in subtle ways. Luther Flynn is a loan shark with an ulcer. As played by Ryan Hollyman, he uses intimidation that rises to a fever pitch until his face turns red and he has to swill milk and pop pills to calm his agitated gut. Lady Boyle, as played by Diana Leblanc is a delicate bird of a woman, often confused, desperate for a donut (which she never pays for) and a kind word that she always gets from Arthur.

And there is an extended fight scene created by Simon Fon that will have you holding your breath for every second of it, it is so violent, funny and dangerous. I experienced that fight twice in a sense because Simon Fon happened to be seated next to me. With every bunch and kick of his creation he winced and sucked air. Loved that.

Comment. Superior Donuts is about a community of misfits holding on and caring for each other in their own way. It is a bracing, funny, achingly moving play about so many things that are good and decent about people. Even though it was written in 2010 it’s prescience about what is happening in the country of our neighbours to the south, is frightening. But at its heart is decency and hope.

This is a wonderful, wonderful production of a terrific play.

The Coal Mine Theatre presents:

Opened: Feb. 8, 2017.
Closes: Feb. 26, 2017.
Cast: 9; 7 men, 2 women
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

www.CoalMineTheatre.com

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At the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Tracy Letts
Directed by Ted Dykstra
Set and Costumes by Anna Treusch
Lighting by Kaileigh Krysztofiak
Sound by Verne Good
Cast: Darla Biccum
Michael Blake
Paul Dods
Ryan Hollyman
Diana Leblanc
Robert Persichini
Alex Poch-Goldin
Nabil Rajo
Jon Lachlan Stewart

A gut-busting, heart-bursting production of Tracy Letts’ latest play about letting go, looking forward, opening up one’s heart and letting people in. And there are donuts.

During the Viet Nam War Arthur Przybyszewski was a draft dodger from Chicago who found safe haven in Toronto. He returned home to run the family donut shop, Superior Donuts, when President Carter pardoned draft dodgers. It’s now December 2009. Business is terrible but Arthur hires Franco Wicks, an energetic, wily, smart young man to help him run the shop. A friendship develops and Franco offers Arthur more than just help selling donuts.

Max Tarasov owns a DVD store next to Arthur’s donut shop and wants to buy it but Arthur won’t sell. Superior Donuts has been in Arhtur’s family for 60 years and he can’t sell. It is the only thing he has that keeps him connected with his now dead parents. There was animosity between Arthur and his father when he left for Canada. By holding on in a way he is trying to make amends with his father. Max also has something to prove. He is an immigrant from Russia and owning the string of shops on the block will fulfill his idea of the American Dream. But Arthur won’t sell.

This is American playwright Tracy Letts channelling Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard—a family in financial need can’t sell their cherry orchard because it’s been in their family for years, even written up in the encyclopaedia, and a once simple peasant now wants to buy it.

Superior Donuts is a bracing, funny, achingly moving play about so many things that are good and decent about people. Even though it was written in 2010 it’s prescience about what is happening in the country of our neighbours to the south, is frightening.

Director Ted Dykstra’s production is a gift to those of us who love our theatre, smart, furiously funny, moving and heart-squeezing. And there is an extended fight scene created by Simon Fon that will have you holding your breath for a long time. Brilliant.

The cast is stellar. Robert Persichini plays Arthur, mournful, sombre, barely holding on, but with such dignity and compassion he makes your heart swell. Nabil Rajo plays Franco Wicks with such winning optimism and natural street smarts he is a perfect foil for Arthur. As Max, Alex Poch-Goldin shows us a man who is confident but so anxious and desperate to buy out Arthur and get his dream started, he takes your breath away.

This is a wonderful, wonderful production.

Full review soon.

www.CoalMineTheatre.com

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At the Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Graham Abbey
Set and Lighting by Steve Lucas
Costumes by Jenna McCutchen
Music composed and performed by George Meanwell
Cast Brent Carver
Mark Crawford
Charlie Gallant
Patrick Galligan
Michelle Giroux
Roy Lewis
Tom McCamus
George Meanwell
Sarena Parmar
Lucy Peacock
Karen Robinson
Steven Sutcliffe

A bold move in gender –bending that holds up almost until the end where it falls apart. Instead of a payoff that leaves you heartsick, it’s a let down because it doesn’t.

The Story. The Duke of Vienna realizes how things in the city have gotten out of hand and decides to leave the city and put his deputy Angelo in charge. Angelo is a straight-laced stickler for the rules and the Duke feels Angelo will set everything right. However the Duke will always be close by ‘looking in’ dressed in disguise as a priest. Angelo begins purging the city by enforcing the law no matter how archaic. He sentences a man named Claudio to death for getting his girlfriend Juliet pregnant, even though they love each other. His sister Isabella is about to become a nun when she is asked to plead Claudio’s case with Angelo. She is eloquent. Angelo is adamant. He is also smitten with Isabella and says that if she sleeps with him he’d free her brother. As she says to herself, “dearer than our brother is our chastity.” Dilemmas. Trickery. Subterfuge. All is almost righted after the Duke comes back and rebukes Angelo. But then the Duke has a proposition for Isabella that leaves one heartsick.

The Production. As with the production of The Winter’s Tale that plays in rep with Measure for Measure, this Groundling Theatre Company’s production plays on a raised platform on the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre. The audience also sits on the stage, on risers. It makes for an intimate experience. There is a desk stage right and two benches stage left. The benches are reconfigured as the scene requires. Everyone is in modern dress. The men are in suits and ties and the women in dresses.

As with The Winter’s Tale Graham Abbey directs (he is also the founder and artistic director of the Groundling Theatre Company). In Measure for Measure Graham Abbey has envisioned the Duke as The Duchess and is played by the estimable Lucy Peacock. All the pronouns are changed to reflect that the part is now called The Duchess and is played by a woman. Lucy Peacock as the Duchess is formidable. She wears a black pant suit. There is authority and a commanding manner but there is the mystery—how did she allow Vienna to get so out of hand regarding law and order. Her solution is simple, let the cold-eyed Angelo set it right. Put the blame on her second in command.

Initially Tom McCamus as Angelo is slightly stooped, a company man who follows what his boss the Duchess tells him. He seems rather easy-going even. But when Angelo gets the power to act on behalf of the Duchess then I think I detect that McCamus straightens his back a touch and his head is up and there is now a cold bloodedness about him. He is untouchable until he sees Isabella and she pleads her brother’s case. Then he’s smitten and uses the full force of the law to get what he wants. After all, he says to her, who would believe her if she told anyone what Angelo had proposed? The situation chills the blood. We are now seeing such behaviour south of our border—people unfit to hold power are now wielding it.

As Isabella, Michelle Giroux lends dignity, grace and reasoned intelligence to a woman who just wants to take her vows and enter the convent. But she is thwarted when she comes up against the powerful Angelo. You envision a trapped animal in Giroux’s gripping performance and you feel heartsick for her.

Brent Carver is a fascinating Lucio. Who is this guy? Is he a man of the seedier side of Vienna who knows all the secrets of people of power? Is he a man in court somehow? He knows how to play and manipulate people. He urges Isabella to fight harder for her brother’s life with Angelo. Carver makes Lucio slick, oily, sly and seductive. Patrick Galligan is courtly and elegant as Escalus and just as gruff and lowly as Abhorson. Abhorson is a master beheader…dirty work but someone has to do it.

As with The Winter’s Tale the whole cast is exemplary. Graham Abbey has guided them with precision so that relationships are established and consistent. There are moments you want to look away but are compelled to watch.

I can appreciate Abbey’s bold move to gender-bend the role of the Duke into the Duchess. And for almost all of the production this switch works, but not for all of it. The last scene falls flat. In the text ‘proper’, The Duke offers himself to Isabella as a husband, ignoring her desire to be a nun. He wants her and that’s that. He’s not a brute. He is rather polite. But the reality is like a punch to the stomach, for not only Isabella but also the audience. With the gender bent and the Duke is a Duchess, I don’t see any hint in Lucy Peacock’s performance that she wants Isabella. Somehow we believe the Duke when he says he wants to marry her, but not when the Duchess says it. This is not Peacock’s fault. I just think it’s a concept that just doesn’t work.

Comment. The human stakes are high in Measure for Measure. The only couple we know will be happy are Claudio and Juliet. When the Duchess orders Angelo to marry a woman he jilted years before we know down to our toes this is a lousy command. We know the union of Isabella and either the Duchess or the Duke if played by a man, will go sour because there is no love there. That said, I just love the maneuvering, manipulation, politicking and games playing in Measure for Measure. Graham Abbey and company leave us with a lot to ponder.

Groundling Theatre Company presents:

Continues to Feb. 19, 2017.
Cast: 12; 8 men, 4 women
Running Time: 2 hour. 45 minutes, approx.

www.groundlingtheatre.com

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Two productions I reviewed before are being remounted in Toronto. The Last Wife by Kate Hennig played at the Stratford Festival for a sold-out run in the summer of 2015 and The Winter’s Tale produced by the Groundling Company had an equally successful run last year through the Coal Mine Company.

Both productions are being remounted and both are exquisite.

The Last Wife

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

Written by Kate Hennig
Directed by Alan Dilworth
Set and costumes by Yannik Lariveé
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell
Composed and sound by Alexander MacSween
Cast: Maev Beaty
Sara Farb
Jonah Q. Gribble
Gareth Potter
Bahia Watson
Joseph Ziegler

Katherine Parr was Henry VIII’s last wife. He saw her at a party, forced an introduction by one of his courtiers and proceeded to tell her she would be his next wife. That she was already married was not a hindrance. Her husband was sick and Herny had patience, sort of. Kate was also involved with the courtier so things could be rather dicey.

Henry called her Parr since he had previous wives who were called Katherine and it ended badly with him and them. She is referred to as Kate in Kate Hennig’s smart, gripping, bracing play. While Hennig has certainly referenced the history and intrigue going on at the time of Henry VIII, The Last Wife is presented in modern dress because it’s a decidedly modern play. Hennig has created Kate Parr as an astute, keenly intelligent woman aware of court intrigue, but still needing to sharpen her wits. She could argue and reason with Henry in a way that he appreciated.

Kate successfully argued that Henry’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth should at least be considered of equal rank as Henry’s son Edward. Henry would not even bring himself to acknowledge that they were princesses. To do so would in fact acknowledge that they were royal. In the end Kate won.

The play is pulsing with emotion and political intrigue. You get a good sense of the matching of wits between Henry and Kate, but you are never in doubt that Henry was one formidable character who could end a person’s life with one word.

You were never in doubt of that in Alan Dilworth’s fine, gripping production. The Baillie Theatre (at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts) has been reconfigured so that the audience is on both sides of the stage as well as in front of it, thus suggesting a thrust stage—as it was at Stratford.

Exits and entrances are through the audience as before. If anything, the production is richer, tighter and deeper in this remount. Truth to tell, I thought the Stratford production was pretty fine.

There is such grace and conviction in Maev Beaty’s performance as Kate. You are never in doubt of her initial intimidation when she meets Henry and he just assumes possession. But this Kate also knows how to stare down an adversary with her poise and ability to get a grip on her wits. It’s that steely resolve that is one of the things that endears her to Henry. And as Kate’s affection for Henry grows she is able to gently insinuate her ideas and suggestions to him, top among them is that Mary and Elizabeth should be recognized as princesses. This will then lead the way for them to change the face of the monarchy.

As Henry, Joseph Ziegler is both charming and formidable. This is a king who appears to respect procedure but he also knows how to take what he wants. He is a master politician and a master manipulator. He has found a match in Kate and he respects her for that.

Sara Farb as Mary is one tough princess. Ramrod straight-backed, dour, caustic and always watchable. She is to the manor born. Bahia Watson as Bess (Elizabeth) is younger, more impressionable, always eager to please.

The Last Wife is part of a proposed trilogy of plays. The next instalment is The Virgin Trial and focuses on Elizabeth. I can hardly wait.

Plays to Feb. 11, 2017.
Cast: 6; 3 men, 3 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

www.soulpepper.ca

The Winter’s Tale

At the Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto, Ont.
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Graham Abbey
Set and lighting by Steve Lucas
Costumes by Jenna McCutchen
Music composed and performed by George Meanwell
Cast: Brent Carver
Mark Crawford
Charlie Gallant
Patrick Galligan
Michelle Giroux
Roy Lewis
Callum McAllister
Tom McCamus
George Meanwell
Sarena Parmar
Lucy Peacock
Karen Robinson
Steven Sutcliffe

This is Shakespeare’s story of jealousy, retribution, penance and eventual forgiveness. Leontes accuses his pregnant wife Hermione of having an affair with his best friend, Polixenes. It’s not true. People plead her case. Hermione pleads her case in the kindest but firmest of terms. Leontes is unmoved. It all goes badly and Hermione appears to die as does their young son. What follows is a long, rocky journey of penance and forgiveness.

It’s a play of high, fraught emotions, lyrical love and sweet comedic moments. To make this production as intimate as it had been when it played at the small Coal Mine Theatre last year, director Graham Abbey is remounting the production in an equally intimate space—the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre. The actors present the production on a raised platform in the middle of the stage and the audience sits on stage as well, on risers. There is also a section for the “groundlings” who sit in the theatre proper but they don’t get as advantageous a view as those gathered on the risers. If anything, the audience on stage seems even closer than at the Coal Mine Theatre.

Every reaction or expression of emotion in this artful production is intense if not seeming like life and death. Again, director Graham Abbey has directed this with care and an intelligent mind that thought of how each moment plays out. No scene is squandered. Each vital reaction is staged and directed so that the audience sees every moment clearly.

Every emotional explosion is experienced not only by the characters, but also by the audience. When Paulina, a trusted member of the court, rails at Leontes for killing Hermione with his senseless jealousy, she bashes at him furiously. They are both on the floor, she hitting him, and he letting her. His guilt finally kicks in and he sees his error too late. He spends the next sixteen years doing penance.

And while true love wins out, forgiveness is not that easily given. Leontes must earn his forgiveness and not assume it should be naturally awarded. You hold your breath watching that painful bit of business, wondering and not really sure if he will be forgiven.

The cast is stellar. Tom MacCamus is a natural courtly man as Leontes but obviously Leontes has issues. It’s a masterful performance showing how the emotions of Leontes can make him turn inexplicably from one emotion to the other.

Michelle Giroux plays Hermione with tenderness and concern. She knows Leontes will regret his actions. She tries to reason in the kindest but firmest terms. But she lets him have it with a clear-eyed argument as to why she is innocent. Patrick Galligan wears courtly charm and diplomacy as if it was a perfectly fitting glove. You can see why both Leontes and Hermione love him as a friend and ‘brother’. As Paulina, Lucy Peacock seems to run the show. When she can’t convince Leontes that the baby born when Hermione has ‘died’ is his, she makes plans to make Leontes do proper penance. As volatile as she is when attacking Leontes for his terrible decision, she is equally patient so that he can grieve and mourn properly.

George Meanwell provides the beautiful musical accompaniment as well as playing Time. This is a gift of a production.

Groundling Theatre Company Presents:

Plays until February 19, 2017.
Cast: 13; 9 men, 4 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes, approx.

www.groundlingtheatre.com

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Dr. Joseph Green was a gravely-voiced, formidable man of the theatre among many other things. He was the founding Chair of the Theatre Department of York University, where I, as a student, first met him in the first year of that program, in the Faculty of Fine Arts. I was taking the History, Theory and Criticism of Theatre component. Dr. Green was one of my professors. I was older than most of the students—I had to work for a year to raise my marks to get admitted—and while everyone called him “Joe”, I just couldn’t. I guess it was old-fashioned of me in that he was the Chair of the department and being that ‘familiar’ seemed wrong. So I compromised and called him “Doc.” I think he liked that. He called me Lynnie.

He was the best professor I ever had. He was the only professor who regularly said he learned from his students. He said there were no right or wrong answers in theatre, just well reasoned, supported opinion. He was not only my professor, he was also my mentor of sorts: an advisor, a support who encouraged with kindness and suggestion. His door was always open and he was always eager to listen. I wrote reviews for the University newspaper and I recall referencing some sticky moments on department business with him. He handled the questions with courtesy, understanding of both sides of the issues and respect. Formality was not his style. If I offered a Tootsie Pop he would immediately take off the wrapper and put the sucker in his mouth and carry on the discussion.

I loved my time at York–in great part because of Joe Green. I treated my graduation with solemnity and seriousness. I even wore a dress to the ceremony. I never wear them but made an exception for this great day in my life. I was graduating with the students in my college. We were a smallish group and we all knew each other. We had to arrange ourselves into alphabetical order. We could not do it. We were newly minted Honours BA students; we had read a book or two all the way through; we wrote essays that made sense in many cases but we just did not seem to be able to arrange ourselves in alphabetical order with any kind of ease. After several tries we finally managed to do it. That put everything in perspective for me. Reverence was good on such an occasion, but so was irreverence.

When we went up on the stage to get our diplomas, we each handed a slip of paper with our full name on it to (Doc) Joe Green who would read it out as we crossed over to the other side of the stage to be given our diploma by the Dean. I gave Doc my slip of paper. And a Tootsie Pop. As I crossed the stage he read out in that booming, authoritative voice of his, “Lynn Rose Tootsie Pop Slotkin.”

The whole place burst with laughter, none louder than me. I loved him.

I’d see Doc over the years at the theatre. We kept in touch. We both had sight issues and would commiserate over them. He lost the sight in his left eye years before to an instant virus. It left his eye totally white. He would wear glasses with the left pane tinted so you wouldn’t see the eye. He eventually just wore regular glasses showing that dramatic white eye. I lost the sight in my right eye about nine years ago through bad luck and medical incompetence. I was able to hide my unsightly eye with a cosmetic contact lens that looks like an eye. I asked why he didn’t get one. He said his eyeball was too sensitive to wear it. We both remarked how lucky we were to have another good eye.

In late December, I was stunned to read a Facebook posting from a friend that Doc was dying of cancer, that was spreading. He was staying in a hospice close to me, waiting for the inevitable. There had been a lovely interview on Metro Morning with him and how he said he had a great life and was now ready to leave. He vowed to live until his 60th wedding anniversary with his wife Rhoda, which was in a few days, and he did.

I immediately wrote him a note telling him how much he meant to me, what a support he was, how he was so encouraging. And I enclosed a Tootsie Pop. I delivered it to the hospice. What a quiet, calm, warm place. The young woman who took the package was kind and assured me he would get it. Damned if there wasn’t the sweetest e-mail from Doc when I got home, saying how good it was to hear from me and how touched he was to get my note. I envisioned he wrote it while sucking on that lollipop.

Joe Green died Friday, Feb 3, 2017.

Love you, Doc, and thanks.

Lynnie

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At the Opera House, on Queen just east of Broadview, Toronto, Ont.

Book and lyrics by Stew
Music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald
Created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen
Directed by Philip Akin
Musical direction by Bob Foster
Choreographed by Kimberley Rampersad
Set and lighting by Steve Lucas
Costumes by Joanna Yu
Sound by Peter Boyle
Cast: Jahlen Barnes
Divine Brown
Beau Dixon
Peter Fernandes
David Lopez
Sabryn Rock
Vanessa Sears

Passing Strange is a terrific rock musical about finding oneself, that is unlike the typical Broadway musical.

The Story. It’s a co-production between Acting Up Stage Company, a company devoted to doing provocative musicals, and Obsidian Theatre that focuses on stories of the African-Canadian, African American experience.

The title comes from a speech from Othello, spoken by Othello. And according to director Philip Akin in his program note: “…passing—of how we become what we are not. What it means, as a black man, to forever hide yourself in public and more importantly to face what that hiding has done to you.”

Passing Strange is a coming of age story but with real depth of feeling, intellect and philosophy.

A character named YOUTH is trying to come to grips with himself as a young black man in Los Angeles in 1976. He rebels against his single mom who is religious and always feels that going to church will solve all problems.

Youth chooses Buddhism instead but then does go to church where he is transformed. To further his awakening Youth goes to Europe, starting with Amsterdam. He is befriended by free spirited young people. Then he goes to Berlin and is taken in by philosophy spouting existential thinking youth who challenge every thing he thinks and believes. Eventually he has to face who he is and accept it.

The Production. The book and the lyrics are by Stew, the rock composer- musician. He won a Tony award among others for his book of a musical. The music is by Stew and Heidi Rodewald. It’s not just loud and caters to a certain audience; it has a wide range of emotion and appeals to a broad spectrum of music lovers.

And it’s a rock musical and as such takes place at the Opera House on Queen—a rock concert venue, which is perfect for the different kind of show this is. Stews lyrics are poetic and artful and certainly express the conflicted feelings of Youth. It’s presented almost as a rock concert.

Our Narrator is a guitar-playing dynamo named Stew—and is played by the performing dynamo named Beau Dixon. Youth is played by Jahlen Barnes and has such confidence even when playing an insecure youth. He’s a strong singer and impressive musician.
The whole cast is strong and they are beautifully directed by Philip Akin who captures the throb and pulse of the piece.

Comment. Passing Strange presents a new voice in the name or Stew full of sound, fury and lots of significance.

Acting Up Stage Company and Obsidian present:

First performance: Jan. 24, 2017.
Closes: Feb. 5, 2017.
Cast: 7; 4 men, 3 women
Running Time: 100 minutes approx.

www.actingupstage.com
www.passingstrangeTO.com

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Review: JOHN

by Lynn on February 3, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

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

Written by Annie Baker
Directed by Jonathan Goad
Set and costumes by Shannon Lea Doyle
Lighting by Kevin Lamotte
Sound by Michael Laird
Cast: Nancy Beatty
Nora McLellan
Philip Riccio
Loretta Yu

John is a play about relationships, loneliness, trust, truth, friendship, kindness and mystery. It’s been given an exquisite production by director Jonathan Goad and his terrific cast.

The Story. Elias and his girlfriend Jenny arrive at Mertis Katherine Graven’s bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, ready to begin a little vacation in which Elias wants to visit the various Civil War battle sites in the area. Mertis (called ‘Kitty’) is an accommodating but odd woman. We learn quickly that all is not smooth in Elias and Jenny’s relationship. She’s got secrets and he seems a natural depressive and does not fully trust her. The house also holds mysteries and secrets of its own. And there is Genevieve, Kitty’s blind friend, who hears noises in the house that no one else hears. Welcome to the world of Annie Baker.

The Production. In true Baker form we never see John, and are not totally sure who he might be. There are two mysterious possibilities we learn over the course of the play. One of the beauties of the play is trying to parse through the information given to find the truth.

A red curtain surrounds the playing area as the audience files in to the theatre. When the play is about to begin, Mertis draws the curtain back revealing Shannon Lea Doyles’ wonderful set of Kitty’s living room and the breakfast room. Every surface is packed with ‘chatchkes’, miniature doll figurines, dolls of various sizes, pictures of dolls, lamps, an upright piano. A sofa, chairs, stuff. The Breakfast Room has several tables and chairs with a small fridge up at the back and a shelving unit with cups, mugs, cereals etc. There is a small model of the Eiffel Tower on one of the tables, hence the room is called the Paris Room.

Kitty is taking care of her sick husband George whom we never see. We learn quickly that all is not smooth in Elias and Jenny’s relationship. She’s got secrets that she doesn’t tell Elias and he seems a natural depressive and does not fully trust her. The house also holds mysteries and secrets of its own. Kitty bristles subtly when she finds out that Jenny went into one of the rooms that is off limits.

And there is Genevieve, Kitty’s blind friend who hears noises in the house that no one else hears. She also thought she was going mad because she felt she was being bedevilled by her late husband John’s spirit so she checked herself into the hospital to cope. Welcome to the world of Annie Baker.

This is certainly a challenging play we are blessed to have a gifted director in Jonathan Goad and a wonderful cast. We know of Jonathan Goad’s wonderful acting abilities from his work at the Stratford Festival and elsewhere. Amazingly, this is his first effort at directing. It’s thoughtful, polished, intelligent and so knowing about the play and its quirks. There are a lot of pauses and silence in an Annie Baker play as the actors take their time in building moments and reveal their character’s inner selves. Goad gives them and the play the room needed to breathe. Baker is as challenging for the audience as she is for actors playing in her plays.

Because her scenes unfold and evolve slowly her plays can last three hours or even longer, and each moment is vital in building the atmosphere of the scene, or reveal something of a character or moment.

For example, Elias looks around the breakfast (Paris) room to see where things are. He makes himself a bowl of cereal and pours the milk and then eats his cereal by first sucking the milk out of the spoon then chomping on the rest of the crunchy cereal.
Since he’s alone in the room we see this first to establish this quirk.

When Jenny joins him after that, it drives her crazy and she gently tells him after he goads her. We can see how annoying that could be. It takes and needs time to be revealed.

The acting is fabulous. It’s a cast of four and each one shines. Philip Riccio plays the mournful, depressive Elias with an almost fastidiousness in his self-absorption. It’s easy to be annoyed by Elias because of the uncompromising way that Riccio plays him.

Loretta Yu plays Jenny with a different kind of angst. She has secrets that she is keeping from Elias and she has to lie about them in order to save the relationship. One wonders if Elias wants to safe it too, what with all his chipping away at her. Jenny does an interesting job of trying to cover up and hide her secrets, at the same time, letting Elias and us know she is irritated by him.

Nancy Beatty as Kitty, is an optimistic, accommodating host, but clearly lets us know things are not as rosy as we are led to believe in that house. Her smile is tight but her eyes are fearful. But Beatty has moments of breathtaking joy when simple things fill her full of pleasure. And Nora McLellan is masterful in the part of the odd friend, Genevieve. Genevieve is blind and wears sunglasses. McLellan is absolutely still on a sofa, facing us.

Every line is beautifully paced and so wildly funny because of the pacing, and deliberate way McLellan speaks, frames her jokes and sets us up. From her first line we are primed to pay close attention to this compelling woman she is so funny and odd. In a way it’s a ‘sucker part,’ a gift. The beauty is that McLellan never overplays it. She is always understated and focused.

Comment
. At 35 years old, Annie Baker is a force in the theatre. Her plays are substantial with a distinct voice and focus. They have won all manner of awards including the Pulitzer Prize for The Flick—fantastic play about an old fashioned cinema and the film geeks who work there.

Each successive play has the same characteristics of characters that are deeply drawn and quirky dealing with real issues. But each new play is totally fresh and provocative.

Annie Baker’s plays are substantial. They are not for those who want their plays over in 90 minutes. They are not for those who think in tweets. Annie Baker’s world is full of quirky characters with weighty issues that they think about long and deeply. Her plays are full of pauses that might remind some of Harold Pinter, fragmented thoughts and ideas reminiscent of Edward Albee and head-shaking juxtapositions in language as found in the works of Caryl Churchill. But in truth Annie Baker’s plays are totally like no one else but Annie Baker. She has a definitive but subtle voice that is enhanced by the silences that envelope many of her scenes. They are deceptive in that one might be fooled into thinking nothing is happening. In truth everything is happening. The trick is this that when a scene seems to linger in languid action but no speech and one is tempted to turn off, that is when one must be most watchful. Baker is ‘talking’, saying volumes. Her characters and themes are illuminated in those silences.

Elias noisily eating his cereal; Jenny curled up in her blankets trying to get warm; Genevieve behind dark glasses quietly, methodically letting us in on her mysterious way of thinking; these are small moments that are resounding.

Annie Baker’s plays are not for those who want their plays over in 90 minutes. They are not for those who think in tweets. For those serious about their theatre, the payoff is enormous.

The Company Theatre Presents:

Opened: Jan. 31, 2017.
Closes: Feb. 19, 2017.
Cast: 4; 1 man, 3 women
Running Time: 3 hours, 10 minutes.

www.companytheatre.ca

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

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by James Wallis
Designed by Catherine Rainville
Choreography by Jade Douris
Original music by Franziska Beeler
Cast: Shawn Ahmed
Franziska Beeler
Augusto Bitter
Nat Bitton
Daniel Briere
Jade Douris
Jesse Griffiths
Jesse Nerenberg
Julia Nish-Lapidus
Lesley Robertson
Haillie Seline
Jeff Yung

Shakespeare BASH’d does their productions on a shoestring, but their work is smart, thoughtful and vibrant. That makes the results priceless.

In a few short years Shakespeare BASH’d has created a strong presence as a company devoted to doing Shakespeare. They have a company of actors dedicated to doing the plays of the Bard with commitment, inventiveness and tremendous energy.

Their latest production is Twelfth Night that plays this week until February 5 at the Monarch Tavern. The audience sits on both sides of the playing space. Since the production is at the Monarch Tavern, drinks are welcome to be enjoyed during the performance.

The play contains a rollercoaster of emotions. And of course the story is complicated. The Duke Orsino is in love with Olivia but she’s too busy mourning her dead brother to care. Into their lives comes Viola, shipwrecked and landed there by luck. She was travelling with her twin brother and believes he has drowned in the shipwreck. She disguises herself as a young man and begins working for Orisno. She develops feelings for Orsino and he becomes devoted to this ‘young man.’ The play goes from there. There is a subplot of irreverent servants and one arrogant man, Malvolio, serving Olivia.

Director James Wallis has directed a raucous, tight production that does not lose any of the moving, more thoughtful aspects of the play. He uses the whole space of the tavern and not just the space between both sides of the audience. At times it can look like one is watching a tense tennis match with characters on either end of the playing area, but Wallis is always mindful of the play and how to keep our focus where it counts.

The cast has an affinity for Shakespeare with some doing standout work. Daniel Briere is a fearless, bellowing Sir Toby Belch; Hallie Seline is a watchful Olivia who sees her reserve melt when she is smitten with Viola dressed as a young man; Julia Nish-Lapidus plays Maria with a glint and boldness; Lesley Robertson plays Feste with confidence and swagger and provides much of the singing. Special kudos go to Franziska Beeler for the musical compositions and her playing.

The run is already sold out for the week—they have a very loyal following that is growing with each production—but co-artistic director James Wallis says they will always try to accommodate anyone who shows up at the door.

Shakespeare BASH’d presents:

Opened: Jan. 31, 2017.
Closes: Feb. 5, 2017.
Cast: 12; 7 men, 5 women.
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes approx.

www.ShakespeareBASHd.com

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