At the Five Points Theatre, Barrie, Ont.

Text by John Cameron Mitchell

Music and lyrics by Stephen Trask

Directed by Joe Pagnan

Musical direction by Giustin MacLean

Associate set and props designer, Abigail Palmer

Costumes by Marianne Jette

Lighting and projections by Jeff Pybus

Sound by Adam Harendorf

Cast: David Ball

Gabi Epstein

Musicians: Iain Leslie

Erik Larson

Duncan Stan

Pieter Huyer

Irreverent, funny, touching,  beautifully performed and produced.

The Story. Hedwig was born Hansel in East Berlin. He always felt trapped: trapped in that section of the divided city, trapped in a man’s body when he considered himself something else and dressed that way; trapped in a society who did not accept this situation.

Hansel had encounters with men. Tommy was one of them, a young man who wanted to be a rock star. Hansel helped Tommy write many hit songs (without credit as it turned out).  Then Hansel met and fell in love with a GI who wanted to marry him/her and take him/her back to the States. A little operation was necessary before they could to that. The operation was botched leaving “one angry inch” of what was once Hansel. The result is Hedwig, a transgender woman sheathed in glitter and sarcasm.

Hedwig tells her story with all the gory, angry bits kept in. She is her own kind of rock star and is aided by her long suffering “husband” Yitzhak.

The Production. Arkady Spivak, the endlessly creative Artistic Producer of Talk is Free Theatre, has a keen eye for talent and how to challenge that talent. So we have actors being stretched in various productions you might not have considered they would play. The same thing with directors.

Joe Pagnan is known mainly as a gifted, inventive stage designer. Witness his wonderful work in creating the world of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street in the Curious Voyage, or Amadeus, Candide, Sunday in the Park with George all at Talk is Free, or Theory at Tarragon in Toronto. Pagnan has an innate sense of what these worlds are like and with economy he creates them, making sure the audience imagines the rest.

Spivak saw in Pagnan a budding director and naturally ‘cast’ him to direct Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Wonderful decision.

Aided by his creative team: sets by Associate Abigail Palmer, costumes by Marianne Jette and lights and projections by Jeff Pybus, Joe Pagnan has created the world of Hedwig. There are several old fashioned television sets that blink screens full of static, or newsreels of the day, or old television shows that in a way comment on Hedwig’s story.

The air is hazy with ‘fog’; the lights pour down in bright cones. There is a cheesiness to it all that exemplifies Hedwig’s (David Ball) world. Hedwig makes her appearance in a burst of rock music and a blast of ‘smoke’ and light. She wears a long, full blond wig with braid-like stuff on the crown. It’s a wig that suggests a Gretel more than a Hansel. The costume is glittery and suggestive of a very brief skirt. She wears high-heeled boots, glitter on her eye-lids, glistening lipstick and she is dripping in attitude and arrogance.

David Ball, as Hedwig is sassy, flirty, seems to be adlibbing all over the place but I’m sure it’s all scripted or not, and knows how to play an audience like a kid at an arcade. Ball has such sashaying grace in those dangerous high-heels that I’m taking notes and am envious. And he sings in a strong, urgent, rock and roll voice. Intoxicating.

Yitzhak (Gabi Epstein) is a waif-like, diminutive, androgynous creature with quiet rage and patience who is Hedwig’s stage hand, butt of her jokes and ‘husband.’ In ‘his’ quiet way Yitzhak makes known his contempt for Hedwig with some well placed expletives and side-long glances at the audience that speak volumes. And since ‘he’ is played by Gabi Epstein the singing is divine.

It also has a wonderful balance in sound between the amplified band (wonderful group) and the amplified sings with one not drowning out the other. How rare is that??

Director Joe Pagnan has invested all sorts of smart details in the staging and the direction. It’s a raunchy, deliberately vulgar production with moments of touching sadness. It’s about loneliness with attitude to cover it up.

 Comment. Hedwig and the Angry Inch isn’t just a raunchy romp; it’s a show about being ‘other’, not fitting in and trying hard to do so. It’s about politics, displacement, gender issues, androgyny and rock and roll. The run is short. See it. Barrie is closer than you think.

Talk is Free Theatre presents:

Opened: Nov. 23, 2018.

Closes: Dec. 1, 2018.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

www.tift.ca

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At the Greewin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Mark Leiren-Young

Directed by Avery Saltzman

Set by Brandon Kleiman

Lighting by Siobhán Sleath

Costumres by Alex Amini

Sound by Emily Porter

Cast: Hannah Miller

Ralph Small

A funny, prickly play that will get you thinking about faith and belief; the production does the play proud.

The Story. Joey needs to have a bar mitzvah fast. Never mind that he’s a successful divorce lawyer, is over 60 years old, has a family and his grandson is about to have his bar mitzvah, Joey needs to have his bar mitzvah before his grandson.

He comes to Michael the rabbi of the synagogue for instruction. She tries to pass him over to another rabbi. You read that right, the rabbi is a “she” named Michael. Do you have a problem with that? Good, let’s continue.

Joey did study for his bar mitzvah when he was a kid but things didn’t work out. He now needs this to happen because he has let on that he in fact had his bar mitzvah and he doesn’t want to lie to his grandson. Along the way there are discussions about faith, belief, hope and what it means to be Jewish. Most important are the questions of why bad things happen to good people and how one can keep ones faith under such difficult circumstances

The Production. Set designer, Brandon Kleiman has designed a simple but impressive set of the rabbi’s office. There is a wood desk with two chairs set on a raised platform with two coat trees on either side of the office. Behind the desk is a floor to ceiling wall of books. Doesn’t that say everything about the rabbi, the world of scholarship, the history of Judaism? A wall of books. Loved that.

Playwright Mark Leiren-Young starts his play (and director Avery Saltzman’s lovely production) with a joke of mistaken identity. An older man (in his 60s) who looks prosperous and important enters the office. A younger woman in jogging gear runs around the raised platform and then runs into the office as well. We think the man is the rabbi and the woman has come to ask him something.

In fact the woman is the rabbi (Hannah Miller) and the man is Joey (Ralph Small) who has come to ask for a quickie course to get him ready to have his bar mitzvah before his grandson.

Avery Saltzman had directed Bar Mitzvah Boy with intelligence and terrific economy. There are several costume changes that also suggest scene changes. The rabbi and Joey are constantly putting on and taking off jackets, sweaters, coats or other clothing when they come into the office,  indicating a new scene is taking place. Often the rabbi does a complete change of clothing and so does that off stage.

Mark Leiren-Young has written dialogue that is fast, very funny, full of one-liners and quick repartee from two characters who make a living being quick witted.  Humour is the thing that makes life easier and bearable in the case of the rabbi and Joey.

There is a lovely chemistry between Ralph Small as Joey and Hannah Miller as the rabbi. They riff off each other. They listen intently and the reactions are natural, easy and true. Ralph Small brings out Joey’s irascible edge, his impatience and his need for things to happen fast. Joey hasn’t been to the synagogue in decades. Gradually Joey sees the need to go to synagogue because of his instruction for the rabbi. For her part Hannah Miller realizes the rabbi’s feisty nature, her quiet, quick ability to stare down and disarm a pushy, demanding man like Joey. Joey builds his faith and conviction as the rabbi is loosing her faith and conviction about God and the world. Together they have a meeting of the minds and are able to lead the other forward.

Comment.  Bar Mitzvah Boy is a sweet play with a lot of prickly bits. It addresses issues about faith and religion we all have had and it does it with humour, smart dialogue and two lovely performances. You should see it.

The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company present:

Opened: Nov. 22, 2018.

Closes: Dec. 2, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours approx.

www.hgjewishtheatre.com

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

Written by Ellie Moon

Directed by Sarah Kitz

Lighting by Imogen Wilson

Composition and sound by Ali Berkok

Cast: Michael Ayres

Ellie Ellwand

Charlie Gould

Theatre as therapy.

 The Story. Kate and her boyfriend Kyle are having a quiet evening at home. She’s writing in a note book and he’s building a model of something medieval. Kate muses on a recent Facebook post about an ‘hilarious’ mean obituary some adult children did of a family member they didn’t like, who died. Kate muses on doing the same thing with her estranged mother, dying of cancer.

Kate has haunting memories of how her mother abused and insulted her when she was a kid. Kate has contempt for her mother’s notoriety as a person who works with people who have been abused.  Kate’s mother and grandmother were sexually assaulted as children, yet she says her mother then assaulted and abused her as a child. Her mother’s hypocrisy galls her.  Kate has cut herself off from her family including her younger sister, Ruby. We hear from Kate that Ruby has no memory of Kate’s abuses. We hear from Kate that her sister wasn’t abused by their mother. We learn Kate was raised by her father.

Kyle is supportive and encouraging. He is the sweetest, most agreeable person who occasionally gently offers a different point of view. Kate shoots that down.

Kate says that she’s given into hyperbole. She might have miss-remembered but seems adamant that her mother damaged her profoundly when she (Kate) was a little girl. Kate can hardly wait to get even and so plans to write her mother’s obituary full of rage and disgust.

Then late one night Ruby shows up. Ruby tells Kate their mother loves her (Kate) and wants to see her. More importantly Ruby offers the other side of the story that this play desperately needs.

 The Production.  There is no credit for a set designer so I assume that Suzie Balogh, the Production Manager created the homey set of Kate (Charlie Gould) and Kyle’s (Michael Ayres) Leslieville apartment of a couch, some paintings on the wall, a table in front of the couch, some wood chairs and two very nice rugs on the floor.

Kyle is carefully building a model of a medieval ‘castle’ using hard plastic pieces that rattle in the box. Kate looks up from writing in her journal? Notebook? Do I detect annoyance? Kate is gleeful at the mean-spirited Facebook post and tells Kyle she would love to do the same thing. Kyle, ever clear-thinking doesn’t tell Kate not to do it but to think about what the outcome might be. Kate promises she won’t post it to Facebook. But playwright Ellie Moon has her repeat it so many times and dwells on writing it so often that one naturally assumes that Kate will write it and post it without thinking of the consequences.

This naturally leads into Kate musing on her mother and what her mother allegedly did to her when Kate was a young child. Kate is consumed with remembering, harboring mean thoughts, wishing her mother ill. Kate has cut herself off from her family (her mother and younger sister Ruby). I love how director Sarah Kitz has Charlie Gould as Kate pace the room, thinking and verbalizing her thinking like a torrent of haunted thoughts. (I smile when it looks like Kate, Kyle and later Ruby deliberately walk around the largest rug and not on it). There is a lot of tactile activity between Kyle and Kate. They touch, hug, cuddle and indicate a loving relationship. Sarah Kitz also has them circle each other as they walk around the space. Michael Ayres as Kyle is gentle, supportive, accommodating and really an enabler for Kate’s behaviour.

Kate thinks her family is hateful and that Kyle’s family is almost perfect. He gets along with his sister. His parents are loving and love Kate. But then Kate let’s drop that Kyle’s sister says that apparently their father (Kyle’s and hers) made a pass at one of the sister’s friends. On the basis of this information Kate pegs Kyle’s father as ‘a creep’ although he never ‘hit on’ her.  Kyle gives little resistance to this conclusion about his father.

Kate’s pronouncements are swift, blunt and unmovable. As Charlie Gould as Kate flits around the room or even sits still next to Kyle, her eyes dart about, parsing out her thoughts, pondering them as she talks, she never looks at Kyle except at the end of a thought, almost compelling him to agree with her. Charlie Gould is playing an absolutely odious character in Kate, and she is doing it with steely confidence and never flinches to soften her. Wonderful work.  Is Kate odious because of a real trauma, or because she’s just using what might be a made up memory and ‘playing’ everybody around her?

Then Ruby arrives at 11 pm. Ellie Ellwand as Ruby is direct, mature (even though she is five years younger than her sister Kate), clear-thinking and seemingly together. We learn quickly that Kate has blocked Ruby’s phone number so Ruby felt she had to come to deliver the news that their mother loved Kate and wanted to see Kate before she died.

Ruby challenges Kate about her memories. Ruby says she never saw any abuse even though she was much younger when it was supposed to have happened. Ruby herself was never abused. And so questions about what really happened to Kate when she was a child appear to us. Is Kate telling the truth?

Ruby is the one who asks the question we all have been thinking while we listen to Kate’s endless ranting about how she has been damaged—“is she getting help?” Is she seeing a professional to help her? Kate skims over the question. She tells her sister she’s in a few support groups—on line. Are we really supposed to take this character seriously?

(spoiler alert, sorry) Matters escalate and Kate takes out her frustrations on Ruby. If this isn’t a cue to leave a volatile situation then I don’t know what is. Yet Ruby stays. Why?

The play ends with a scene that’s all warm and fuzzy and is so not earned when one considers the whole of this unbalanced play.

It’s so tempting to step outside of the play and consider the headlines of horror that we read about concerning childhood abuse and accept them to explain Kate rather than expecting the playwright to do a better job in writing the character.

Comment. Oh dear. Where to begin.

Some helpful hints when evaluating a play or character etc. We know about a character from what they say, do and what people say about them.

Also….

“There are three sides to every story: your side, my side and the truth.”

(From Helen Slotkin, my lovely, late Mother).

And…

“You must always consider the source of a statement—if the source is honourable you are trust them; if they are a liar you are wary.”

(ditto, From Helen Slotkin, my lovely late Mother.)

Therefore, what to make of Kate. Was she abused as a child? Is she traumatized by it? Is she making it up? She says that she gives in to hyperbole and perhaps fantasy. Is she telling the truth? I question that? She examines the minutiae of her arguments from all sides as if she were looking at them under a microscope.  Yet when it comes to ‘trashing’ Kyle’s father because of something she heard from his sister’s friend, she does it without questioning him for his side of the story, as if it wasn’t important. Do we trust a reference like Kate? I don’t think so. Kate takes a superior tone with Ruby when Kate corrects her grammar. Really? Kate, who peppers her speech with the annoying and useless word “like” (like, I might post that obit to, like, Facebook, and, like, see what happens,…ugh.) that person is going to correct another person’s grammar? Huh?

All the buzz words are used, “abuse”, “Harvey Weinstein”, “#metoo”, “childhood trauma”. At times I think Ellie Moon is loading her play with the latest horrors of the day without writing a play that supports them in the context of Kate’s memories. And as I said at the top, this seems like theatre as therapy.

I’m grateful for Ruby even if she appears in the last ten minutes of the play. We need her because she offers us the other side of the story, a clear perception of what did or didn’t happen.  She is smart, loving and patient and sees the need to break through to Kate. It’s just that her presence comes too late in the play to make sense. Why is Ruby there? As a device? If so it should be thought out again. We have been told that Kate gets updates about her mother from Woody, her step-father. He can’t leave his wife’s side, but surely he would have told Kate that her mother loved her and wanted to see her.

I don’t mind spending time in a theatre with characters who are odious—we do it all the time—and certainly I don’t mind it when that odious character is so well acted here (the whole cast is fine). My concern with What I Call Her is that the issue is taking the place of sound playwriting. Ellie Moon needs to revisit, edited ruthlessly and re-examine What I Call Her to clearly decide what she wants to actually say and the characters she wants to create to say it.

An In Association Production in partnership with Crow’s Theatre

Opened: Nov. 21, 2018.

Closes: Dec. 8, 2018

Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

www.crowstheatre.com

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In London, England, at an undisclosed site.

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Book by Hugh Wheeler

From an adaptation by Christopher Bond

Directed by Mitchell Cushman

Musical director, Tara Litvack

Movement director, Cameron Carver

Set and props designer, Joe Pagnan

Costumes by Alice Cousins

Lighting by Lucy Adams

Cast: Jahlen Barnes

Tess Benger

AJ Bridel

Izad Etemadi

Derek Kwan

Craig Lauzon

Mike Nadajewski

Glynis Ranney

Travis Seetoo

Michael Torontow

A thrilling conclusion to a very curious voyage.

The Story. Benjamin Barker was a loving husband to his wife Lucy and a loving father to their daughter Johanna. A slimy Judge Turpin also had eyes for Lucy, so he accused Benjamin of some trumped up charge and had him transported for life to Australia. Then the judge made the moves on Lucy by inviting her to a party. She thought he might be apologizing to her but he had other dastardly plans. Lucy would be the main entertainment, unbeknownst to her. The experience drove her mad. Judge Turpin then out of guilt brought up Joanna as his ward.

Years pass and Benjamin escapes and tries to ‘sail’ to England. He is found almost dead by a passing ship where he is tended by Anthony, a sailor on the ship, who then sees that Benjamin returns to England. Benjamin changes his name to Sweeney Todd and seeks out his old shop on Fleet Street. A woman named Mrs. Lovett runs the pie shop below the barber shop. She tells Sweeney that the place is haunted because of all the goings on up there, not very nice. She tells him the story of what happened and that Lucy was dead. Sweeney’s distraught reaction makes her realize that Benjamin Barker and Sweeney Todd are the same fellah. She even kept his old razors. Sweeney was going back in the barber business in order to get his revenge on the judge by slitting his throat, after giving him a ‘close’ shave. But first he needed to practice. The bodies pile up. What to do with them? Mrs. Lovett, ever resourceful, figures all that meat should not go to waste. If you get my meaning.

 The Production. (From the end of the post of day three of the Curious Voyage): “Then back out of the venue, along the canal, trying not to get killed by the cyclists who whizzed by (no I don’t think they were part of the narrative.) We went up another deserted street with strange buildings and a ramen restaurant along the way. We stopped at a derelict building, went down the stairs into the gloom of the place; forbidding, dark, murky lighting, no windows. wonderfully claustrophobic.  I made out characters frozen in a pose, in costumes from a different time. We sat on a bench around two sides of the space. There in a corner was a woman in front of an electric keyboard, a man with a cello and a woman with a violin. The lights dimmed to dark. There was a piercing whistle sound and the first urgent chords of the musical, and I did what I always do when I hear the beginning of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, I burst into tears.”

The characters who are posed came to life as the first chords of Stephen Sondheim’s beautiful score were played. “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” sets the tone and atmosphere for the show. “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. His skin was pale and his eye was odd. He shaved the faces of gentlemen, who never thereafter were heard of again.”

That about says it for a set up that makes you sit up and flinch. The music builds, gets more intense, more urgent until the Lucy Adams’s stark lighting goes up on the last character to move—Sweeney Todd, played by a gripping, hollow-eyed Michael Torontow. At this point Sweeney is blazing with the idea of revenge. At this point he feels that London is a place that is ‘full of people who are full of shit.” Cruel, mean, sordid—that’s London to Sweeney. There is an old beggar woman (a crazed, sexually explicit Tess Benger with moments of lucidity) who keeps bedevilling him and he keeps pushing her aside. As lurid as she is she seems to think she knows him. He has no use for such bother; he has a task to be done.

The tight-smiling, always calculating Mrs. Lovett, played by Glynis Ranney with verve and a look that keeps people wary, stakes her claim on Sweeney and won’t let him go. She strokes his anger but keeps him in check. It’s a masterful performance and Ranney sings like a dream too.  There is a spark between them. She is desperate to charm him. He is desperate to get Judge Turpin. But there are times when Lovett gives Sweeney a reason for living (what to do with all that meat)

Sweeney’s nemesis is Judge Turpin who is played with oily formidable confidence by Mike Nadajewski. This is a character that is twisted with desire for his ward, Joanna, (a wonderful twittery AJ Bridel)  but also guilt ridden because of it. I don’t get the sense he is guilt ridden by his past transgressions. Nadajewski sings with power and fearlessness.

The entire cast is strong and every single one of them does this production proud.

The multi-leveled set and the props were designed by the always inventive Joe Pagnan. This being an immersive production, director Mitchell Cushman ensures the audience followed the action up stairs to the second level where Sweeney’s barber shop is—the chair is simple; where Mrs. Lovett’s kitchen is (a working faucet, simple chairs), where she makes her meat pies; where the charlatan Pirelli (a glistening-eyed Izad Etemadi) tries to dupe Sweeney; then downstairs to follow Tobias (an innocent, possessive Jahlen Barnes) as he sings and waits in the smoke house. Upstairs the Beadle (a beautifully voiced Derek Kwan), the Judge’s henchman, comes to see what the stink is from the bakehouse. Matters ramp up quickly from there. Anthony (a sweet and trusting Travis Seeto) has fallen in love with Judge Turpin’s ward (and Sweeney’s daughter) and wants to run off with her. But first he has to dupe Fogg (played with delicious evil by Craig Lauzon) who runs the madhouse where Johanna is held prisoner.

Mitchell Cushman has directed a brisk, atmospheric production. Scenes are done in silhouette. The rape of Lucy by the Judge is both hideously vicious and gracefully balletic (he is on his knees and then lowered down by the other revellers over a prone Lucy, then raised up and lowered down.)

Sweeney kills the old beggar woman who came upon him when he was preparing for the Judge. (this is not a spoiler alert—the musical has been around the decades and everybody knows the story). But then he looks at her closely and realizes what he’s done. How many times have I seen that scene? How many ways can you say “Oh no!” (shouted in heartache, whispered in despair and disbelief, mouthed silently, and every single time I burst into tears. The final horror of a musical full of people living in horrible times.

All through the Curious Voyage we had to find a person who may or may not be in the show (he was, it was Anthony) and in a way Anthony offers a through line after the musical—how does he survive after? Does he now also believe that “London is a city full of people who are full of shit?” Possible. I’m not sure that conceit works, but it was interesting for the three day Curious Voyage narrative.

Comment. It’s interesting to see how the three days of the Curious Voyage, the encounters, the challenges to our moral thinking, questions about good and evil, whether we could kill anyone or not, all culminated in this musical that asks all those questions. One wonders if any of the people on our voyage was/is a Sweeney Todd, how can we tell, should we look harder at people we pass in the street?

The whole experience was terrific. I loved looking back and tracking the clues we gathered in Barrie, Ontario and London, England and then applying them to Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

There are plans afoot to do the Curious Voyage again in the future,  but this time in Barrie, Ontario and Toronto. It will culminate in a musical, but as Arkady Spivak, the whip smart Artistic Producer of Talk is Free Theatre never repeats himself, don’t assume he will be doing Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street again. I can hardly wait for his new scheme.

Presented by Talk is Free Theatre

Closed, gone but not forgotten, ever.

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An expanded review of the CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm review of Friday, Nov. 23.

At Hart House Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Margaret Atwood

Directed by Michelle Langille

Set by Holly Meyer-Dymny

Costumes by Cat Haywood

Lighting by Steph Raposo

Sound by Andy Trithardt

Music director, Jonathan Corkal

Cast: Rose-Ingrid Benjamin

Amanda Cordner

Shannon Dickens

Brianna Diodati

Julia Hussey

Nyiri Karakas

Jeanne-Arlette Marie Parson

Shanoa Philips

Ellie Posades

Neta J Rose

Hannah-Rae Sabyan

Kyra Weichert

Arielle Zamora

 A terrific production, beautifully directed.

The Story. Bless Margaret Atwood for giving Penelope a voice to tell her story.

Her husband Odysseus leaves to fight the Trojan War—for 10 years. Then as he sets out for home, he has more trouble: bad winds, a Cyclops, sirens, seductive women that keep him with them for another 10 years. 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.

She has to cope with these attitudes, her son Telemachus’ bad temper, bad manners and lousy character, and she has to fend off many suitors who want her to pick her new husband. She stalls them by saying she has to make her father-in-law’s shroud. She makes it by day and with the help of 12 of her maids tears out the work at night. The maids are loyal against all odds.

The Production.  The production is fabulous. Truly. The cast is composed of budding young actors with Penelope played by the wondrous Amanda Cordner, who is a professional Actor’s Equity actor.  Cordner as Penelope is regal, biting, fiery, commanding, guilt-ridden and wily.

The story is told in flashbacks. Penelope addresses the audience from the underworld where she is with her 12 maids. For all their loyalty the maids were killed when Odysseus came home because he was told they were disloyal (not true).

The mean rumors of Telemachus and one of the servants convinced Odysseus to dispatch the maids by hanging them, while Penelope slept. She knows of their loyalty and what they endured to protect her and had she known what Odysseus planned she could have stopped it. But the maids are dead and now in the underworld they won’t look at her and again, she is alone.  Moments are relived to see how Penelope coped and to explain her story to us.

The surprise for me is the director, Michelle Langille. I’ve seen her work as an actor, but here she does a terrific job of staging 12 maids and the others in the cast.  She has a sense of economy in her direction and the ability to create vivid images.

The 12 maids carefully make the huge nooses that will be used to hang them. The maids suggest being hanged by holding the noose beside their heads then they tilt the head to the side. But then there is a sound effect of rope holding something heavy as it ‘swings’ in the air and the rope groans with the weight of what it is carrying.

Chilling.

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 nor is Odysseus’ long absence questioned. 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.

And at the end of the story, she’s still loyal to Odysseus even though she knows his ways and he’d be off when a new adventure presented itself.  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.

Produced by Hart House Theatre

Opened: Nov. 9, 2018.

Closes: Nov. 24, 2018.

Running Time: 90 minutes

www.harthousetheatre.ca

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The Monkey Queen

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

Written by Diana Tso

Directed and choreographed by William Yong

Music by Nick Storring and Brandon Valdivia

Scenic design by William Yong

Lighting by Rebecca Picherack

Projections by Elysha Poirier

Costumes by Robin Fisher

Cast: Nicholas Eddie

Diana Tso

No is a powerful word.

It can lead to all sorts of good things, such as Diana Tso’s The Monkey Queen now at the Theatre Centre.

Tso grew up on “The Monkey King” stories from Wu Cheng’En’s 16 century epic novel, “The Journey to the West” about a Monkey King warrior on a journey from the East to the West, fighting everything from Heaven and all manner of opposition.

One day Tso heard of a new play with the central character being The Monkey King. She wanted to audition for it but couldn’t because they were only auditioning men for the part. In true plucky Diana Tso fashion she began writing her own epic story only this time she placed herself in it as the Monkey Queen, only this time the journey is from the West to the East, where Tso/the Monkey Queen, looks for her roots. The Monkey Queen is part of a trilogy.

As Tso says in her program note: “I re-imagined this myth through the perspective of the female warrior, giving voice to her quest, which is shadowed by the traditional formula of the hero.

The story is dense with encounters with a white clad shaman, mystic creatures, angels, birds and a polar bear etc. all of which test the Monkey Queen. Through energetic wit and smarts she stares down all opposition and prevails.

The production is directed and choreographed by William Yong and it is wonderful. The multi-leveled set, also by William Yong, offers platforms and ramp on which to jump, flip and literally fly over.

Diana Tso plays the Monkey Queen with a steely energy that is compelling. She is diminutive and fierce. She flips through the air and negotiates the levels of the set with ease. She also conveys the urgency of the Monkey Queen’s journey and determination to complete it.

Playing all the other parts from the Shaman Lady to the polar bear is Nicholas Eddie, as diminutive as Tso is, Eddie towers over her. Of course one should not mention the physicality of artists, but I couldn’t help but be aware of the contrast to the diminutive dynamo of Diana Tso and the tall, graceful elegance of Nicholas Eddie. Added to that, it’s obvious Eddie has no bones in his body. In their place are ribbons. I’m sure of it. His gracefulness is jaw dropping. His arms flowing back and forth behind him look like feathers floating on a breeze.

William Yong has such economy in his direction and creates such vivid images, the Shaman woman in a white shawl becoming the polar bear being one image, that you keep shaking your head in disbelief and the artistry of it all.

Bravo to Diana Tso for not taking “no” for an answer and creating her own Monkey Queen.

 The Red Snow Collective presents:

Began: Nov. 16, 2018.

Closes: Dec. 2, 2018.

Running Time:  1 hour

www.boxoffice@theatrecentre.org

 

The Barber Shop Chronicles

At the Grand Theatre, London, Ont.

Written by Inua Ellams

Directed by Bijan Sheibani

Designed by Rae Smith

Lighting by Jack Knowles

Movement by Aline David

Sound by Gareth Fry

Music by Michael Henry

Cast: Tuwaine Barrett

Mohammed Mansaray

Maynard Eziashi

Alhaji Fofana

Eliot Edusah

Solomon Israel

Patrice Naiambana

Anthony Ofoegbu

Kenneth Omole

Ekow Quartey

Jo Servi

David Webber

Bless Dennis Garnhum, Artistic Director of the Grand Theatre in London, Ont.

Garnhum saw The Barber Shop Chronicles in London, England at the National Theatre a couple of years ago (where I also first saw it) and immediately began making plans to have the company bring the show to ‘our’ London.

The troupe was doing a tour of the States and he lured them to make a stop in Canada, at the Grand (the only Canadian stop on their tour).

It plays at the Grand Theatre until Nov. 24, 2018. It only plays 12 performances.

Inua Ellams’ glorious, moving, funny play takes place in one day, in six barber shops—one in London, England and the rest in African cities: Johannesburg, Accra, Lagos, Harare and Kampala.

Men come into each shop to kibitz, talk politics, philosophize, seek comfort, acceptance, to rant, complain, rejoice, explain, confess and forgive. Some stories carry over into others. A father in Africa seeks the son he abandoned years before;  the son in London thinks wistfully of his absent father in Africa.

Bijan Sheibani’s pulsing production is suffused with vibrant music. The cast invite members of the audience up on stage for a hair cut before the show starts. The colourful coverings are flipped out with a flourish and then carefully wrapped around the person in the barber’s chair. Electric clippers are passed around the head, above the hair. Scissors clip furiously a few inches away from the hair. Each customer is treated to some chat, a smile, jokes and graciousness by the ‘barbers.’

The signs for the various barber shops are suspended above the stage. When a scene takes place in the various cities, the sign for the shop is illuminated. There is also a revolving outline of the various African countries in which the cities are located. Again, the outline of the African country is illuminated and prominent during those scenes. The cast wheels the chairs and other set pieces on and off the stage for each new location. It’s quick, efficient and usually accompanied by the cast singing traditional songs.

The cast to a person is accomplished, animated, lively, touching and wonderfully engaging. It certainly captures the life of a black man from various African countries, England, and probably around the world. Will other nationalities of men see similarities in their lives as well? Probably, which is part of the charm and poignancy of The Barber Shop Chronicles.

A Fuel, National Theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse production:

Began: Nov. 15, 2018.

Closes: Nov. 24, 2018.

Running Time:  1 hour, 40 minutes.

www.grandtheatre.com

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At the Centre for Culture, Arts, Media and Education, 918 Bathurst St., Toronto, Ont.

Co-created by Why Not Theatre & Complicité Creative Learning

With: Fatima and her mother Ruby

Libby and her mother Rina

Marie-Claire and her mother Anne

Kira and her mother Rachee

From the program of sorts: “A participatory project bringing together mothers and daughter who were born outside of Canada—newcomer women, as well as those who may have immigrated years ago. Like Mother, Like Daughter weaves together their stories into an unscripted conversation, performed by the mothers and daughters themselves. At the end of each performance the audience is invited to join the mothers and daughters for a light meal created by Newcomer Kitchen to continue the conversation. “

A call for volunteer mothers and daughters went out to communities and the result is several pairs of mothers and daughters  have performed this show over the run that started November 15. They alternate per show.

The audience sits in chairs around the space. In the centre is an oblong table with glasses for water and a pitcher of water. There are sessions for each mother/daughter pair. They have a stack of questions to ask each other. There is one session only with the mothers and one with the daughters.

Such questions asked are: “What was the best decision you every made?” “What makes you happy?” “Are you defined by your religion?” “Do you like bananas?”

Uniformly the mothers worry about their daughters and their daughters enjoy their freedom and I don’t get a sense they are stifled. They are encouraged to do what they want to. Mothers feel they made sacrifices for their families but I don’t get a sense of bitterness. I got a sense of the different cultures and how they affected women one way and men in another. One daughter felt that her brother was favoured. Another daughter felt her mother gave up her own dreams for being a wife and mother. Questions that affect all families no matter what the nationality.

What comes through is an easy banter between mothers and their daughters. The daughters love their mothers and vice versa. There is respect, understanding, consideration, the occasional rolled eye at an answer, perhaps a bit of impatience from a daughter to a mother, but regardless of background, ethnicity and background, there is respect and love for each other.

Rose Plotek directed this with sensitivity. All the mothers and daughters are not professional actors and it doesn’t matter one bit. They speak from the heart. At the end there is a communal, vegetarian meal in which the audience sits at a table usually with one or more of the mothers and daughters. Like Mother, Like Daughter and eating with other members of the audience and the mothers and daughters was an unexpected delightful experience.

Presented & Produced by Koffler Centre of the Arts.

Opened: Nov. 15, 2018.

Closes: Nov. 24, 2018.

Running Time: 90 minutes including meal.

www.kofflerarts.org

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Review: MIDDLETOWN

by Lynn on November 20, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Streetcar Crow’s Nest, Carlaw and Dundas, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Will Eno

Directed by Meg Roe

Set and costumes by Camellia Koo

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Sound and music by Alessandro Juliani

Cast: Karl Ang

Kristopher Bowman

Fiona Byrne

Benedict Campbell

Claire Jullien

Corrine Koslo

Jeff Meadows

Peter Millard

Natasha Mumba

Moya O’Connell

Gray Powell

A remount of the exquisite 2017 Shaw Festival production of this play that glistens with humanity,  this time playing  at Crow’s Theatre in Toronto with almost the whole original cast.

The Story. We are in Middletown, middle-America. The town’s people are going about their daily business. Robert the cop is diligent in his efforts to ferret out any one who looks suspicious. That usually means the town drunk who gets Robert’s physical abuse which is usually excessive.

Mary and her husband have just moved to Middletown. Because he’s always away on business Mary has to move in herself. She meets John the local handyman at the library. The librarian is very helpful and cheerful to everybody. Tourists come to town and are curious about everything. An astronaut lives there. Life goes on and in one case it doesn’t. It’s sort of a day in the life of the town. (Sound familiar?)

The Production. The playing space of the Guloien Theatre at the Crow’s Nest is smaller than the Jackie Maxwell Studio where the production played originally at the Shaw Festival, so adjustments had to be made to the staging. The audience is still seated around the playing area.

The cast enters while the audience is filing in and they—the cast– are generally busy on all fours, white tubes of paint at the ready, as they fill in the town of Middletown on the floor. They work in unison filing in storefronts, boxes for houses, signs of locations and outlines of streets.

Often the cast would greet audience members they knew or welcomed those they didn’t as per the Shaw production.

When the play proper begins, a towns-person, the affable Claire Jullien, greets the audience citing every conceivable person, profession, job, race, creed etc. and anyone she left out. Robert the moody cop (a commanding Benedict Campbell) acts as the narrator of sorts, a kind of linking guide, but not obtrusively so.

The central couple are Mary (Moya O’Connell), the lady on her own while her travelling husband works and John (Gray Powell), the handyman, curious about so many things for the moment and mournful and uncertain about life and his place in the world. Moya O’Connell, as Mary, shimmers with anxious optimism, trying to convince herself that moving to a new town and having a baby (I guess her husband was home once) will work and perhaps solve her problems. Her smile is bright with effort. She’s trying hard to fit in, be optimistic and appear happy. It’s a performance that breaks your heart for all the right reasons. O’Connell also listens so keenly she makes us listen harder too. It’s a pity O’Connell won’t be at the Shaw Festival again for this year.

As John, Gray Powell is a mass of twitches, scratching, insecurity, non-sequiturs and disarming charm. He is a reliable handyman and can fix things that need it. It’s just that John is alone and lonely. He hangs on to Mary, hoping there might be a relationship there. He flits from idea to idea, new curiosity to new curiosity. It’s just that he can’t latch on to any thing or anyone to anchor him. There is such subtlety in Powell’s playing of John that it too is a heartbreaking performance.

Jeff Meadows plays the town drunk who is a bit of a mystery. Is he suffering from PTSD from being in the military? We aren’t really sure. He does have demons. He spends most of his time either trying to avoid Robert the cop and bedevilling the townspeople by lurking outside their windows, making odd sounds. Meadows has a lanky, subdued way about him, and an overwhelming sadness.

Corrine Koslo, as the librarian, is new to the production. She replaces Tara Rosling. Koslo is welcoming, cheerful to one and all at that library and helpful. She knows everybody, is non-judgmental, accommodating and very funny. Koslo is such a gifted actress. Pity she hasn’t been in the company for a few years, but am glad of her presence here.

The production is directed with breathtaking sensitivity and intelligence by Meg Roe. She has a vision of the play and how to bring it beautifully to an audience. In one scene John has to fix a clogged drain for Mary. A cabinet and sink formation is wheeled on. John gets down under the sink to attend to the pipe. This means that people on other sides of the playing area can’t see what he’s doing. So Meg Roe has Gray Powell as John turn the cabinet a quarter then go under the sink so that all sides of the theatre get a look. Brilliant.

Comment. The 20th century had Thornton Wilder’s Our Town to speak for it. It’s a play about a ‘day’ in the life of a small town in New Hampshire. All the people knew and cared about each other, even the town drunk. They went about their daily business with conviction, industriousness and purpose. People fell in love, married, had children, died and wished they could come back to earth for just one more day to see the people they loved.

Will Eno’s Middletown is a play for the 21st century. It has some people who care about others—the lovely librarian, a doctor who gives the town drunk some pills that will help his ‘head-ache;—but on the whole the tone is darker, more introspective, brooding. It’s applicable to the times we live in, with concerns we all experience.

The production is exquisite. Bravo to Chris Abraham, Crow’s Theatre’s Artistic Director, for working to bring this gift of a production to Toronto.

A Crow’s Theatre Production in partnership with the Shaw Festival.

Opened: Nov. 16, 2018.

Closes: Dec. 1, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

www.crowstheatre.com

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At Young People’s Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney Film

Original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman

Book by Julian Fellowes

New songs and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe

Directed by Thom Allison

Choreography by Kerry Gage

Music direction by Wayne Gwillim

Set by Brandon Kleiman

Costumes by William Layton

Lighting by Jason Hand

Sound by William Fallon

Cast: Jak Barradell

Jewelle Blackman

Kyle Blair

Shane Carty

Jarret Cody

Jessie Cox

Starr Domingue

Kyle Golemba

Aisha Jarvis

Haley Lewis

Jordan Mah

Jade Repeta

Vanessa Sears

Sarah Lynn Strange

A joyful, sublime production.

The Story. Sure this is a musical partially based on the Walt Disney film but boy is it prickly. Mary Poppins is a most peculiar Nanny. She specializes in dysfunctional families and the Banks family is her latest project. The father, Mr. Banks is an uptight man who works in a bank and who needs a bit of fun in his life but it was bashed out of him by his mean-spirited nanny when he was a boy. His wife, Mrs. Banks only wants to support him but he doesn’t want to worry her so he tells her nothing of his work at the bank. The children are Michael, who wants nothing more than to fly kites with his father, and Jane who probably just wants a hug from him. Enter Mary Poppins.

She instills discipline in the Jane and Michael. They have activities she finds very important. They take walks in the park; meet Bert the chimney sweep; learn to appreciate nature, respect people they think are lesser; learn how to play and have fun and learn to crack their father’s stern exterior.

 The Production. Brandon Kleiman’s set is efficient in that the set pieces slide on and off with ease. A door frame, a fence, a desk, simple stuff to set a scene. Director Thom Allison stages with ease and confidence. The pace is quick, economical and gets the job done. His direction also brings out the prickliness in the script and the neediness of all the characters involved.

Vanessa Sears is a wonder as Mary Poppins. She is prim, proper, straight backed, matter of fact and precise in her discipline of Jane and Michael. She is also liberal with her sense of whimsy. Who else would think of using sugar to help medicine go down? She takes Jane and Michael to the park to play. She shows them a different, more inclusive way to have fun. She instructs them to respect nature and the people in it. No person should be shunned because they are dirty or poor. Those children learn that in a shot from this formidable teacher. Bert the chimney sweep loves her—how could he not. Michael loves her—how could he not—and says so. Sears’ Mary Poppins takes all this with a slight, tight smile, but she doesn’t say “I love you too” to Michael. I just love that telling moment. She has a job to do and it is not to fall in love with everybody with whom she comes in contact. It’s to fix this dysfunctional family and she does it with strict kindness, consideration and a kite. And she sings like a dream.

Kyle Blair plays Bert with a gracious ease. He is laid-back but always present. And he sings and dances beautifully as does the whole cast.

Shane Carty is such a fine actor. He plays Mr. Banks as a confined man who can’t bend. He is constricted by a life of no hugs or affection starting with his parents and going on to a horror of a nanny. He wanted to play but had no chance. Then miraculously he married and had children but didn’t know what to do with them. He had no experience. Thank heaven for Mary Poppins. Carty is impatient, irritated, frustrated, but deep inside him is a glint of kindness and that makes all the difference. When his children teach him to play, he blossoms. It’s lovely seeing that transformation. Helping him along to being a better husband and parent is Jewell Blackman as Mrs. Banks. This is a woman who wants to be an equal partner with her husband while he doesn’t want her to worry. She teaches him that worry can be overcome with pluck and grit.

Comment. Mary Poppins (The Broadway Musical) is a perfect show for the holidays, any day, families, children, adults and those in between. It’s joyous, not sugar sweet, touching, and thought provoking.

Produced by Young People’s Theatre

Opened: Nov. 8, 2018.

Closes: Jan. 6, 2019.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca

 

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At the Factory Theatre, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Created by Michael Rubenfeld and Sarah Garton Stanley with Mary Berchard and Katka Reszke.

Directed by Sarah Garton Stanley

Scenography by Trevor Schwellnus

Sound by Lion Smith

Cast: Mary Berchard

Katka Reszke

Michael Rubenfeld

This is a play about a mother and son who find a new peace between them as they explore their family roots in Poland. Their discoveries there are unexpected and intriguing resulting in a new awareness about the country.

The Story. This is a play about a son and mother who love each other but can’t stand to be in each other’s company for a long time. The characters are played by Michael Rubenfeld and Mary Berchard, who are actually son and mother.  Rubenfeld is a theatre maker, creator, playwright, artistic director. His mother Mary is not of the theatre.

Rubenfeld suggested that to resolve this conflict they travel to Poland together to explore their Jewish roots.  Their whole family came from Poland. His grandmother survived Auschwitz but they certainly lost a lot of family there.  Rubenfeld’s mother Mary agrees as long as they do the whole thing together. She even creates a contract for the both of them to keep it formal and serious.  Rubenfeld agrees, but then something happens. He falls in love with Magda Kowalewska, a Polish Jewish woman he meets at a conference in Montreal. She was the keynote speaker talking about the renaissance of Jewish life in Poland; that many Poles hid Jews and were killed for it; that there is now a vibrant Jewish life in Poland part of which is called ‘the unexpected generation’. Rubenfeld found that Magda dispelled many of his prejudices that he had about Poland and he wanted to go to Poland as soon as he could to keep up the relationship with her. Where does this leave his mother with whom he promised to go to Poland. This is one of the dilemma’s of the piece.

Rubenfeld said he wanted to go to Auschwitz to cry. On a personal note I can totally understand that sentiment because that’s how I felt about the place when I went there in 1977.

 The Production. Michael Rubenfeld and his co-creator and director Sarah Garton Stanley, have created an energetic, playful, yet earnest production—certainly wanting to go to Poland on a trip of discovery makes this an earnest enterprise, considering what happened to Rubenfeld’s family there.

As the audience files in Michael Rubenfeld, Mary Berchard and Katka Reszke are already on stage watching the audience file in, greeting those they know with a wave and a smile. They are also welcoming to those they don’t know. There is a projection of a crowd of people on the whole back wall.

Rubenfeld and his mother tie themselves together with a long flat expanse of material. There is room for them to move around the space with plenty of distance between them, but they are nonetheless tethered to each other—tied by their prickly, loving relationship, their history and their determination to visit that troubling country.

Rubenfeld is the narrator of the piece. He introduces his mother Mary Berchard and the person they hired as a translator, Katka Reszke. Reszke also videotapes much of the action of the show that is then projected on the back wall. Trevor Schwellnus, master of technology, is also the scenographer—there is a movable comfortable seat for Berchard and a chair and table stage left for Reszke.

Rubenfeld banters with his mother Mary Berchard about her history, her marriages and their life in Winnipeg. There is definitely an edge to the conversation. Berchard displays a dry, pointed sense of humour and a sense of sarcasm towards some of what Rubenfeld says to her. While she’s not an actor her honesty is engaging. Reszke is also not an actor but her wit, intelligence and laid-back confidence are compelling. Michael Rubenfeld is an opinionated, intense man bursting with ideas. He is an actor and shows it in excessive enthusiasm, which is deliberate.

With breathless energy, Rubenfeld hauls a large ladder around the stage. He climbs to the top of it and writes in chalk on the wall/chalkboard the name of the town they are looking for where his grandparents lived. It’s a struggled to get the correct spelling until Reszke helps out.

They tell the story of how the trip developed; where the family home was; there are video projections of the town and their trip to Auschwitz. A video of Rubenfeld pushing Berchard’s wheelchair along a path inside the camp, neither of them talking, is so moving.

But there are times here when Rubenfeld is berated by his two playing partners for his narrow mindedness and perhaps rudeness to people who wanted to help. It is Reszke who is not afraid to call out Rubenfeld for his behaviour. For once he doesn’t answer back but takes the criticism, considering it.  I liked that generosity of spirit.

There are moments when the audience is asked for its opinion of moral dilemmas. While Rubenfeld is mindful of his contract with his mother confirming they both will step on Polish soil together and they will travel the country together, there is the matter of Magda who  Rubenfeld met in Montreal and wants to see in Poland. That would mean he would have to break the contract. What to do? He asks the audience. One eye-rolling person (me) says, “Ask your mother.” Well what else would one do—go to the person with whom you have the contract and talk to her.

Rubenfeld wonders if his trauma of knowing much of his family perished in Poland is more weighty than Reszke’s trauma of trying to find her Jewish roots. This is another question for the audience. I wonder can one have ownership of trauma? Can one’s trauma be more profound than another’s? It might look like a flippant question, but it certainly gets an audience to ponder the whole idea of trauma and identity.

Comment.  I have a few concerns. I do find some of Rubenfeld and Berchard’s conversation a bit disingenuous because it appears framed as if this is the first time issues have been brought up and surely this would have been covered in their life before the show.

We are told about Magda, Rubenfeld’s Polish-Jewish girlfriend at the beginning of the journey but then nothing almost to the end. Magda factors heavily in the story. I think she should have a more of a presence in the story along the way.

I appreciate the personal journeys of Michael Rubenfeld, Mary Berchard and Katka Reszke. In their own way they are each engaging, thoughtful, searching for answers to their questions and certainly, in the case of son and mother, anxious to get past their differences. It’s Rubenfeld who makes the first move to reconciliation.

I love that the title of We Keep Coming Back is clever word-play that references the resilience of Jews in the face of adversity and that Rubenfeld, Berchard and Reszke have gone back to Poland often.

On the whole I was very moved by We Keep Coming Back.

Factory Theatre presents a Selfconscious production:

Opened: Nov. 15, 2018.

Closes: Nov. 25, 2018.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

www.factorytheatre.ca

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