At the Five Points Theatre, Barrie, Ont.


Written by Tom Cone

Additional lyrics by James Smith and Dylan Trowbridge

Additional music by James Smith

Directed by Dylan Trowbridge

Set by Joe Pagnan

Costumes by Laura Delchiaro

Lighting by Jeff Pybus

Cast: Mike Nadajewski

James Smith

Yalta Game

Written by Brian Friel

Based on a short story by Anton Chekhov

Directed by Dylan Trowbridge

Set by Joe Pagnan

Costumes by Laura Delchiaro

Lighting by Jeff Pybus

Cast: Mike Nadajewski

Madelyn Kriese

James Smith

Herringbone is a play written by Canadian Tom Cone, who set it in Alabama. It’s about  George Herringbone named after the material of his first suit. He is an adult vaudevillian, but his bitter life from when he was 10-years-old has marked him.  His shiftless parents tried to pass him off as a 35-year-old midget (the word used in the play) for the circus. He had no time to be a kid. His parents did not provide the emotional support for him and so he grew up to be a cynical, if not bitter, adult.

Yalta Game is based on Chekhov’s story, “The Lady With a Dog,” adapted by Brian Friel, the celebrated Irish playwright.  It takes place in Yalta at the end of the 19th century. Dmitry Gurov is a banker who has come to Yalta, leaving his wife at home, to stroll along the beach front, have coffee in cafes, chat up the wait staff, observe the passing parade and imagine all manner of back stories for all of them. That is the Yalta game. He’s a dreamer.

One day he sees a young woman with a dog—a Pomeranian—and is charmed by her, the woman, not the dog. Her name is Anna Sergeyevna (the woman is named Anna, not the dog.)  He introduces himself. He charms her with his stories of all the people passing by. They begin keeping company. They form a relationship. They fall in love. But there are their spouses to think about—well really hers, we don’t hear anything about his wife. What to do?

These two plays could not seem more different. They take place in different countries with different sensibilities and the characters don’t seem to have anything in common. But leave it to the blazing theatrical brain that is Arkady Spivak, the Artistic Producer of Talk is Free Theatre, to find a connection and an irresistible reason to see them both.

In George Herringbone and Dmitry Gurov we have two people trying to escape a life they do not want. George’s life was marked since he was 10-years-old.  He got no love and support from his parents. He was used as a commodity. Dmitry Gurov does not want to be encumbered with a wife or a job in a bank. He wants to live a life of leisure and imagining, and he probably wants to spend it with Anna.

The irresistible reason to see both these plays is Mike Nadajewski. He has a body that has elastic bands where there should be bones. His movements are fluid, graceful and almost seem like dancing.

In Herringbone he plays not only George Herringbone as both a kid and an adult, but also his ear-scratching, demure mother, his gruff sounding father, his impish, late uncle and all manner of other characters, each fresh and distinct. Nadajewski flits from character to character with a bundle of physical ticks and nuance, and when you think Nadajewski has depleted his arsenal of invention, he flops on the ground in a thwak to take on another aspect of George you don’t expect. Nadajewski is so full of humour, humanity and artistry that you cover your eyes and shake your head in disbelief. And he sings beautifully.

In Yalta Game Nadajewski’s performance as Dmitri is of a suave, charming man. He loves words. They pour out of him in spurts of descriptions and imaginative suggestions. He makes the words sound intoxicating and delicious. Dmitry almost makes himself drunk on his own invention.

As Anna, Madelyn Kriese is charm itself. Anna is poised, intrigued by George, young but not naïve and is as taken by Dmitri as he is by her.

James Smith does not just provide the musical piano accompaniment, he wrote the music and lyrics for Herringbone, provides a foil for George, and appears as the street musician playing the accordion for heaven sake, in Yalta Game.

Both are directed with care and sensitivity by Dylan Trowbridge. Both he and Mike Nadajewski mine the gold in each play and produce an evening of wonderful theatre.

Talk is Free Theatre presents:

Opened: Jan. 24, 2020.

Closes: Feb. 1, 2020.

Running time: two hours, including an intermission.


At the Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto, Ont,

Written by Ödön von Horváth

Adapted by Paolo Santalucia, Holger Syme and the Howland Company.

Based on an original translation by Holger Syme

Directed by Paolo Santalucia

Set  and costumes by Ken MacKenzie

Lighting by Jareth Li

Sound by Jeremy Hutton

Choreography by Reanne Spitzer

Original compositions

Cast: Michael Ayres

Michael Chiem

Alexander Crowther

James Graham

Veronica Hortiguela

Shruti Kothari

Cameron Laurie

Kimwun Perehinec

Hallie Seline

Caroline Toal

The Story. Casimir and Caroline by Ödön von Horváth, premiered in Berlin in 1932 with the political upheaval of that time affecting everything around it—the people, the financial situation, class etc. It’s about greed and the world turned upside down.

It now takes place today in Toronto and the same ideas apply—it’s about greed, mendacity, playing one against the other etc. in a corporate world. And the political situation is there in the background because we naturally put it there. In other words, it’s about the world turned upside down.  

The play takes place in summer. Casimir is an insecure man in love with Caroline. He is the chauffeur for a hot-shot in the corporate office named Rankin.  Rankin just laid-off Casimir.  Casimir imagines his girlfriend, Caroline will dump him. We soon find out she has more compassion and class than that.  But he sure challenges her with his jealousy, insecurity and depression.

Rankin the hot-shot is hosting a party on an outdoor deck of the corporate office. Rankin has a young man named Trevor give out popsicles from a cooler as part of the festivities. Trevor is the receptionist in the office.

Trevor observes a lot of bad behaviour. For example, Rankin seems to spend time sleeping with various women in his office and ranking them on a spread-sheet according to their ‘hot-ness.’ The word gets out and that has consequences for Rankin.

There is also character named Ellie who is fascinating. I don’t get the sense that she is on the bottom rung of the corporate ladder. Rather I think she is quietly climbing up the ladder. She is watchful at the party, sarcastic in her comments at the people there because she knows how they operate.  Nothing phases or surprises her.

The Production. Ken MacKenzie has created a simple but evocative set suggesting the party that Rankin is hosting is in full swing. Balloons are festooned above the stage. Some have fallen onto the stage. Plastic cups litter the floor. A tall round ‘table’ is stage right. It’s the kind on which people set their glasses or plates. They don’t sit at it, they lean on it if they want. MacKenzie’s costumes are stylish.   

Both the adaptation and the production are dandy.  It was adapted by Paolo Santalucia, Holger Syme and the gritty, smart Howland Company from an original translation by Holger Syme.  Often with all these collaborators the result might be a bit choppy, but not here. The language is vibrant, evocative and bracing.

Paolo Santalucia directs this with a clear eye and vision The cast trots on like so many prancing horses. The pace goes at a gallop (sorry). Characters are naturally breathless and it works because these are frenzied times. They are all trying to keep up and no one more so than Rankin. Rankin is played with fearless abandon by James Graham. Rankin is arrogant, confident, swaggering, condescending and full of contempt for those around him.

If I had a quibble I would say Graham might be a bit over the top. If Rankin is that wild at a party wouldn’t that have been noticed sooner in his job by his bosses? The thing that brought him down was his spread sheet ranking the hotness of the women in the office with whom he slept. That seems a lesser ‘crime’ than his behaviour to all at that party. Perhaps bad behaviour is acceptable but being caught in an indiscretion is not. Still Graham got me to ponder, think and wonder about it all. It is a mesmerizing performance. 

Casimir is played by Alexander Crowther as someone who is sweet but a worrier and that worry weighs heavily on his girlfriend Caroline.  Caroline, as played by Hallie Seline, is calm, tempered, compassionate and exasperated by Casimir’s constant insecurities. Seline is such a gracious actor and that suffuses her performance.

Rankin is swiftly brought down because of his indiscrete spread-sheet and replaced by Shira (Kimwun Perehinec). This is a performance of a woman dripping with confidence and a killer instinct. She’s a shark who swims in dangerous waters. Perehinec lobs a barb of a line at Rankin that pins him to the wall. She is focused and fierce. Also fascinating is Shruti Kothari as Ellie, the watchful woman who knows how to play the game. Ellie doesn’t miss a beat or an observation that will not serve her purpose in future. She’s sly. She could be the head of the place and replace Shira in a heartbeat.   

Comment. It’s interesting to see how the Howland Company has taken a play that originally depicted a frenzied time in Germany in the last century and adapted it to apply to Toronto today.  

The times are different but the similarities of the things that occupied people almost 100 years ago are the same things that concern us today—money, greed, jobs, love, success and getting even. Bravo to this feisty company that keeps raising the bar on quality with plays that speak to our times.   

Presented by the Howland Company

Opened: Jan. 16, 2020.

Closes: Feb. 9, 2020.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes approx.


At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, Ont.,

Playwright and performer, Karie Richards

Director (original version), Jeff Culbert

Design by Glenn Davidson

Music composed and performed by John Sheard

Sound effects by Peter Thillaye, Steve Munro

These are not spooky ghost stories as much as they are verbatim recollections of people’s experiences with ghosts.  Writer/performer Karie Richards sets the tone, pace and atmosphere from the get-go, and in a bit of efficiency, gets the whole notion of the frightening ghostly visitation out of the way quickly.

It was a dark and stormy night in the first story. A young woman had just come home late and went up to her small bedroom and got ready for bed. She heard footsteps behind her, thinking it was her father who was coming to check if there were leaks in the roof. It wasn’t her father. It was an apparition who appeared at the foot of her bed.

Karie Richards tells the story quietly, with the pauses, little laughs, repetitions and particular vocal quirks of the woman who told Richards the story. Richards builds the tension slowly but relentlessly so that the gasp from the audience is well earned.   

None of the apparitions who appeared to the assortment of women and one man during this short, but captivating show seemed to be malevolent. There was no hurling of furniture around the room. There was a light that went on mysteriously for the first time in two years, but that’s about it.

These are stories filled with grace, kindness, comfort and love. Glenn Davidson has designed a warm, inviting set that is in keeping with the delicacy of the stories. There is an illuminated window above the stage. A stylish, comfortable chair is bathed in warm light centre stage. Up to the left is an armoire with hazy mirrored doors. Karie Richards goes to the armoire to make small changes in her wardrobe and jewellery as she changes from character to character. One wears a hat, another a scarf, another a sweater and so on. The transitions are smooth and natural. Each transition is accompanied by piano interludes composed and played by John Sheard.   

I was struck with how each story was so individual, but they all shared a common humanity. In one a little girl tugged at a stranger’s sleeve saying, “Tell her I’m happy” meaning tell the lady next to the stranger she was happy. The lady on the other side of the stranger had lost a young daughter to cancer. We are led to believe that little girl was the spirit of the lady’s daughter.  The spirit of a woman’s grandfather comes to her to tell her he’s proud of her. The ghost of the wife of a proprietor of a guest house ‘visits’ various guests in their rooms to see that they are alright and comfortable. A stage hand brings the music of the 40s for his late night shifts because he feels the ghost who ‘haunts’ the theatre would appreciate that kind of music.

The most touching story is of a woman who loved and misses her late mother so much but laments that her mother’s spirit does not visit her and she wonders why.

Each of these stories has an otherworldliness to them but also aspects of this world as well. Karie Richards is a gently commanding performer, bringing each of her storytellers to life with all their variations. In simple vocal shifts and body language she creates separate and distinct characterizations.

In her programme note Karie Richards thanks the people by their first names who agreed to tell their stories so that she could repeat them verbatim. Interestingly she does not introduce them by name during the show. I also found it an interesting choice not to explain during the show or in the programme how the show came to be and how she met the people who agreed to share their stories. This does not diminish the work in any way. I just found those choices interesting.

This is a beguiling touching show done beautifully.

The Theatre Centre presents:

Opened: Jan. 21, 2020.

Closes: Jan. 26, 2020

Running Time: 75 minutes.


l-r Kwaku Okyere, Richard Alan Campbell
Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare

Adapted in parts by the company.

Directed by Allyson McMackon

Costumes by Brandon Kleiman

Lighting by Michelle Ramsay

Fights by Simon Fon

Cast: Richard Alan Campbell

Burgundy Code

Amanda Cordner

Michael Derworiz

Nick Eddie

Matthew Finlan

Sarah Machin Gale

Richard Lee

Alexa MacDougall

Alexandra Montagnese

Kwaku Okyere

Matthew Rossoff

Annie Tuma

A breath-taking, heart-stopping production that realizes the depth, darkness, love, sexuality and joy of the play. Bravo to director/visionary Allyson McMackon for this beautiful parting gift.

The Story. I am going to copy the press information because they did such a good job: “Spanning a single evening or a single sleep, Shakespeare’s play is set in Athens on the eve of a big wedding. Threatened with death if she does not marry who her father chooses, Hermia flees with her lover Lysander through a forest to get to an aunt’s house where they may love freely. Pursued by Hermia’s approved-of suitor Demetrius and the lovelorn Helena, a comedy of desires ensues as they enter a supernatural world with a warring fairy queen and king, a Hobgoblin named Puck and a group of actors rehearsing a play for the festive wedding.”

The Production.  Every single creative decision from the casting to the design to the performances to the direction is so accomplished they make my head swim.  The stage is bare. The playing space is a huge circle. The cast enters running, circles the area and scatters around the space. When characters are not in a scene the actors wait watching either stage left or right by the walls. The ensemble cast themselves in their parts. They also adapted Act I and Act V of the play to reflect certain ideas.

The production starts with various members of the cast taking turns trying to tell the story only to have another cast member say, “No, that’s not what happened.” Then that person tries to tell the story only to be interrupted by someone else, saying “that’s not how it happened” And that person tries to tell the story. And then the characters take their places and the play continues.


A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play about confusion and mistaken identity—Puck puts the magic potion in the eye of the wrong Athenian for example. What better way to deepen that idea than with a bit of adaptation in which the characters can’t agree on how the story really happened or what it’s really about?

OK I know I was less than accommodating  when director Chris Abraham had writer Zack Russell add whole scenes to the Groundling Theatre and Crow’s Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar to establish his thesis about the play. In that case I thought the play did that on its own. In the case of Theatre Rusticle’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream the company has its own particular style of re-imagining established plays and stories while still being true to the spirit of the play and these adapted scenes fulfil the company’s mandate.

Director Allyson McMackon has created a production that is popping with energy. Of all the productions that I’ve seen of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I have never seen a forest (where it takes place) so teeming with buoyant, fearless life, sex, danger, darkness,  animals, insects, people, frenzied confusion, jealousy and love.

Hermia (Annie Tuma) and Lysander (Matthew Finlan) race through the forest on their way to his aunt’s house, to escape her father’s wrath and the demand that she marry Demetrius (Alexandra Montagnes). They get discombobulated in the forest. It’s night. Michelle Ramsay’s lighting is moody and striking.  Helena (Nick Eddie) is in love with Demetrius. Demetrius wants Hermia.  Hermia is in love with Lysander but her father wants her to marry Demetrius and if she says no then he wants her dead. (A bit harsh, that) Helena knows that Hermia and Lysander are escaping through the forest and tells Demetrius to make points with him, then they too go charging through the forest to catch them. The movement/action here is not just flitting from here to there. No, this is Allyson McMackon action. The actors run, flip, slide, and jump over and into each other. The images are striking. The text says that Helena is tall. Allyson McMackon, as director, and Nick Eddie as Helena go for the gusto by accentuating that. Nick Eddie is over six feet tall and the other actors are shorter. The image of the gangly, ‘cloud-touching’ Helena next to the other characters (and certainly Hermia) who are ‘diminutive’ in comparison is a wonderful sight, which is the point.  

In the meantime Oberon (Kwaku Okyere), King of the Fairies, wants his Fairie Queen Titania (Richard Lee) to give him “a little changeling boy” of whom she is protective. She won’t. He then uses trickery to steal the changeling boy from her. As Oberon, Kwaku Okyere moves stealthily close to the ground. He is almost cat-like or even lizard-like. The movements are fluid, muscular, graceful and balletic. He wears black tights and a form-fitting top that accentuates the muscularity of the character. Okyere, quiet voiced, conveys Oberon’s seductiveness, dangerousness and command.

As Titania, Richard Lee is also dressed in black—black flowing light cape and tights (kudos to costume designer, Brandon Kleiman). In this case the cape suggests wings so I get the sense that Titania is either a delicate flying insect or perhaps even a bird. But there is nothing delicate about Lee’s playing of Titania. While Oberon is close to the ground in his movements, Titania is upright, giving the sense she is in the air. Titania matches Oberon’s strength with her own determined resolve. They are a perfect match.   

Puck is often played as an impish, playful spirit. Here Richard Alan Campbell plays him as a bit muddled, confused and not exactly swift of movement. That could better explain his confusion in putting the magical flower liquid in the eye of the wrong Athenian. What a refreshing rethinking of this character.

McMackon keeps the pace at break-neck speed. Simon Fon works his magic by creating such high-stakes fights. All this passionate, frantic movement and activity leaves everybody breathless, including the audience. Make sure you know where the defibrillator is in the theatre.

Comment. This is the last production of Theatre Rusticle after which founder-artistic director, Allyson McMackon closes it down. She founded the company in 1998 and produced some of the most provocative productions over that time and she’s tired. I can appreciate that but it’s heartbreaking that this kind of consistent challenging, bracing theatre from this company will stop.   The artistic world is changing and she is going on to other challenges. She will still teach, direct etc.  And boy did she go out with a bang. The run is sold out but returns are possible. Do anything within reason to get a ticket.

In an effort to go green the programme etc. is on line. There is no hard copy of the  programme of the show. This is unfortunate. I so wanted a memento of this last Theatre Rusticle show to put in my drawer with all my other treasures. Thanks for everything, Allyson, especially all those times you made me gasp at some clever direction, or an image or an illuminated thought. Wonderful theatre does that.

Theatre Rusticle presents:

Began: Jan. 14, 2020.

Closes: Jan. 26, 2020.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, approx.


Review: SWEAT

by Lynn on January 19, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Lynn Nottage

Directed by David Storch

Set by Ken Mackenzie

Costumes by Anna Treusch

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Music and sound by Samuel Scott

Projections by Cameron Davis

Fight director, Casey Hudecki

Cast: Christopher Allen

Jhonattan Ardila

Peter N. Bailey

Timothy Dowler-Coltman

Kelli Fox

Allegra Fulton

Ron Lea

Ordena Stephens-Thompson

Maurice Dean Wint

A frightening and timely play that illuminates the harsh reality of factory work that pits friend against friend and colleague against colleague. Beautifully directed and acted.

The Story.  Sweat is written by American writer Lynn Nottage. It takes place in New Jersey. It’s about three friends: Tracey, Cynthia and Jessie and others who work in a factory  and who frequent Stan`s bar after their shifts. An admin job opportunity opens up and Cynthia decides to go for it and move up the ladder. Then Tracey also applies. Tracey has two more years experience. Cynthia gets the job and Tracey is furious. Because Cynthia is African-American Sweat is not only a play about the financial upheaval in America it’s also about the divide between races; how the desperation for the job can pit one person against the other; how much one sacrifices for a job and what will she fight for.

The Production. The first scene takes place in 2008 in a probation office. Evan (Maurice Dean Wint, calm, cool and commanding) the probation officer is reading the riot act to Jason (Timothy Dowler-Coltman) who has just gotten out of jail. Jason is almost quivering with rage, clenched fists and contorted face. He also has swastika tattoos on his face that makes him look more forbidding. Timothy Dowler-Coltman as Jason is relentless in his fury, perhaps almost too relentless, but put in context, just out of jail, jobless, angry, this makes sense.

Evan also talks separately to Chris (Christopher Allen), who is also out of jail. He and Jason were involved in a crime that put them both there. As Chris, Christopher Allen, is calmer, anxious and has given himself over to religion. He is consumed with the jail experience but strives to do better. Jason just seems overwhelmed by it and rage is all that is left.

Most of the play takes place in Stan’s bar in 2000. The dates are projected above the bar.  Ken Mackenzie has designed a long, well-stocked bar with stools at the bar and round tables around the space. When the scenes change from 2008 back to 2000 where the story begins, various video segments of what has happened that year in America are flashed on the panels at the back of the set.

Tracey, as played by Kelli Fox, is loud, boisterous, a drinker of ‘doubles’ and sensitive to any slight. She is Jason’s mother. Cynthia, as played by Ordena Stephens-Thompson, is calmer than the extroverted Tracey. Cynthia is Chris’ mother.

While Tracey has two years more experience in the factory on the line than Cynthia, it’s Cynthia who gets the promotion. One can see why when they learn the plant is shipping their jobs to Mexico because of cheaper labour. Cynthia is calmer, more diplomatic and goes to the wall for her friends. Tracey, as Kelli Fox plays her, is more hot-headed, volatile and that gets in the way of leadership. It’s a performance in which I can see how that hot-headeness can be passed on to her raging son. Similarly, as Cynthia is trying to hold on so is her son Chris.

When matters break down between Tracey and Cynthia it’s hinted that Cynthia got the job because she is black. Ordena Stephens-Thompson (as Cynthia) laments that idea and says to Tracey something like, “Don’s make it be about this” as she quickly strokes her arm, meaning don’t let it be about skin colour. It is a gesture that is both beautiful and heartbreaking. Cynthia wonders if in fact she got the manager’s job to be a scapegoat. It’s a fascinating question among others.

Allegra Fulton plays Jessie, the third friend in this group. Jessie is always so drunk she is almost passed out.  In one scene Allegra Fulton raised her head from the table and sat straight, the head bobbing slightly, a slight smile on her face, totally unfocused eyes, fuzzy-minded drunk. Stunning.

Oscar (a confident Jhonattan Ardila) is Stan’s helper in the bar. Oscar is from Colombia and is looked at with contempt by some of the customers. He works hard, cleaning tables, sweeping the floor etc. I thought director David Storch could have him working more, taking the initiative, drying, polishing, shining, unobtrusive. In one scene he just sat behind the bar—this was an opportunity to set up more of Oscar’s work ethic for what happens later in the production. This is a quibble. David Storch establishes the angst and uncertainty of these factory workers regarding their jobs. They are losing it emotionally when a strike looms. There is fighting among the friends and others. There is a fight—one of the best I’ve ever seen in this instance so bravo Casey Hudecki, the fight director—and that lands Chris and Jason in jail.

This is a production of a play that encapsulates the economic upheaval in the States and here as well.  David Storch carefully establishes the ramped up emotion of the piece.

Comment. Lynn Nottage writes eloquently about friendships torn apart by economic hardships, racism, angry frustration and despair. It’s about people slogging for a living while up against a brutal economic system that doesn’t value people as much as making money at their expense. But she also writes of people who work hard, slowly get ahead and look out for those less fortunate. A play about a hopeless situation that ends in hope.

Produced by Canadian Stage and Studio 180 Theatre

Opened: Jan. 16, 2020.

Closes: Feb. 2, 2020.

Running Time: 150 minutes.



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

Written by William Shakespeare

Additional writing by Zack Russell

Directed by Chris Abraham

Set and Lighting by Lorenzo Savoini

Costumes by Ming Wong

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Graham Abbey

Sarah Afful

Walter Borden

Ryan Cunningham

Michelle Giroux

Dion Johnstone

Jani Lauzon

Diego Matamoros

Jim Mezon

Moya O’Connell

André Sills

The production is explosive and bracing and of course Shakespeare’s play is of our times. Why then was there the need to add dialogue and a final scene?

The Story. Julius Caesar is about a successful general who leads his army to beat the enemy, Pompey, and comes home to great pomp and celebration. His generals however think Caesar is too ambitious hard-headed and unmanageable and want to get rid of him in a really ‘final’ way and bring reason back to Rome. One of the most honourable men of the upper echelon of the government is Brutus who has to be convinced to join the plot to kill Caesar. A soothsayer tells Caesar to beware the Ides of March (the 15th of March) because he knows what will happen that day.

The murder will happen in the Senate house, but first the plotters have to get Caesar there. Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife urges him not to go. (“Julie, don’t go!!” Sorry I couldn’t resist a little Wayne and Shuster…) He agrees but then the plotters come to fetch him to the Senate house and he doesn’t want to appear weak so he goes. It doesn’t end well.

This is a play about power and a fickle populous. The play is as timely as tomorrow’s headlines except it was written 400 years ago.

The Production. In the beginning of the play that Shakespeare wrote we find out how fickle the people of Rome were.  We learn from tribunes who are chastising the common folks, that these folks idolized Pompey at one time and waited to see his chariot pass with him in it.  But now that Caesar has defeated him in battle they switched allegiances and are dressed in their finest clothes to greet Caesar when he returns from battle.

It’s a telling scene but it’s cut in this production and replaced by additional dialogue by Zack Russell who has three radio commentators at microphones who tell us about the battle and the history of Pompey to put things in perspectives.

But there is a brilliant touch in Chris Abraham’s production. As we walk into the space in a far corner there is a balloon stick-man structure that has arms and a central section in which air is shot into it so this figure with arms flips and flops as the air is shot up it.

I thought that image of this structure weaving in the wind was a perfect metaphor for the fickleness of the people who play this way and that depending on how well they are manipulated to follow one person and then the other. The problem with the image and the metaphor is that one had to know the play and certainly the first scene in order to apply the image. I sure appreciated it.

Writer Zack Russell has included a scene with Coriolanus who talks about power and following his own path without interference (Coriolanus forgets that his mother had a pretty strong hold on him). In cheeky irony André Sills (wonderful actor) gives that speech here in Julius Caesar— André Sills played Coriolanus at Stratford two summers ago.

The production also has an added end scene in which the characters come back to life and discourse on how much they hated Julius Caesar and how he failed them and how it’s hard to educate the people. Caesar is played by a formidable Jim Mezon—bullet-headed, laser stare and knows how to block a person from leaving his presence. In the last scene, Mezon reacts with total stillness which makes him riveting and devastating when he utters the last two words—and no I won’t tell you what they are.

Dion Johnstone plays a conflicted Brutus, honourable, thoughtful, a thinker. In his scenes with the “lean and hungry” Cassius (a compelling Moya O’Connell) there is such urgency in the give and take of their speeches because the stakes are so high. Graham Abbey plays Mark Antony who speaks quietly, crisply and with keen intelligence.

At one point Mark Antony talks about information about himself from another play and he makes a comment about his people skills as a result that gets a laugh.  I think that’s going a long distance for a small joke. The women get short-changed in Julius Caesar. Calpurnia loves Caesar and always watches out for him. Sarah Afful invests Calpurnia with a firm spirit and determination. She almost saves Caesar from going to the Senate but ultimately fails. Portia, Brutus’ wife, beautifully played by Michelle Giroux seems almost frail and distraught over Brutus’ distraction and coldness to her. We get the sense from these wives of their isolation from their husbands.

At the end of the play, in the added scene, we are told who each of the resurrected  characters is complete with their dates of birth and death, as they rise from the dead.

I get a bit antsy when extra dialogue is introduced to the play. What point does it serve and why isn’t Shakespeare considered enough? Do these added scenes enhance the play, make it more accessible? Nope, not really.  I don’t think they are needed if one listens to the play Shakespeare wrote—ambition, reason, force, manipulation etc. it’s all there. With the added dialogue it seems to be Shakespeare that is underlined and italicized to accentuate the bits on which one wants to focus. Have faith. Of course we get it without the fussy help.

As for the rest of Chris Abraham’s production, it went like the wind in its ratcheted up pace. It’s a modern dress production. Everyone is dressed in stylish black—black pants, tops, coats etc. (bravo to Ming Wong for her design).

It’s a noisy production. In this production Caesar is shot and not stabbed. There is that foreboding storm complete with crashing thunder. There is the sound of bombs and gunfire in the distance as Brutus and company fight another battle. And there is a lot of shouting to be heard over all the noise.  A lot. That’s a shame. Here’s the thing, if there is a lot of shouting, from a lot of people, then they’ve lost the argument and the audience. We know that Mark Antony was a great orator. That doesn’t just mean he knew what to say. It also means he knew how to say it. In this production Graham Abbey as Mark Antony began the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speak by talking loudly into a microphone and continuing for a bit and then when he had the crowd didn’t use the mic but still raised his voice. A bit later he used the mic again. Antony would know how to get that mob’s attention quickly and then talk to them quietly—even a mob. I always think of the great William Hutt, brilliant actor, who knew that you don’t make the audience hear you as much as you make them listen to you. So when he found that the audience was getting restless, he just talked softer. Many other actors around him would bellow their lines to be heard and he just talked softer and all the programme rustling, candy-wrapper crinkling and whispering stopped. Brilliant. Enough with the shouting, please.

Comment. Director Chris Abraham says in his programme note that sure the play is about power, but he sees it more as an exploration of the limits of human will and reason.

“Reason, and our belief that we can use it as an all-powerful tool to govern our own actions, and the actions of others, is the premise under investigation at the heart of Julius Caesar.

So we hear about the manipulation of the people when Mark Antony tries to crown Caesar king and Caesar refuses the crown three times.  It’s all a performance to make Caesar seem less than ambitious. Love the politics of the play and the games playing. It’s about tyrants and so timely.

I had “royalty” at the opening. On the aisle over there was John Ralston Saul. Beside him was his lady-wife, Adrienne Clarkson. Beside her was Margaret Atwood who was tweeting during intermission. It was that kind of night.

Groundling Theatre Company and Crow’s Theatre present:

From: Jan. 7, 2020.

Closes: Feb. 2, 2020

Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes approx.

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More from the Next Stage Festival, Factory Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Winter of 88

Written and directed by Mohammad Yaghoubi

Lighting by David DeGrow

Music by Behrang Baghaee

Cast: Aida Keykhaii

Amir Zavosh

Armon Ghaeinizadeh

Jonathan Shaboo

Parmida Vand

Sarah Marchand

Playwright/director Mohammad Yaghoubi captures a day in the winter of 1988 during the Iran-Iraq war and how it affected the people experiencing it. In the play a mother and her daughter-in-law wait for one of their family to return home. Gun fire and explosions can be heard outside getting closer and closer. Terror pervades.

We hear a voice-over between scenes of the playwright talking to a woman in Farsi with an English translation projected on the back wall, about how he approached various scenes. These blackout moments were then followed by the scene he was talking about. Interesting.

Consumption Patterns

Written by Kevin Shea

Directed by Jill Harper

Movement director and choreographer, Patricia Allison

Cast: Jennifer Dzialoszynski

Sochi Fried

Ben Sanders

Jonathan Tan

Playwright Kevin Shea writes about conspicuous consumption, among other things, in his interesting play. One character buys sex, another buys things, another makes pottery but is lonely in her marriage. A character at the end of the play and his wife have divested themselves of possessions in an effort to find solace in a small community in the Maritimes. He wants to have children but his wife doesn’t want to bring a child into this world. He says that he hopes he can bring her around to his thinking about children. That quiet statement (thank you Jonathan Tan for an elegant performance) gave me chills.

The acting is wonderful with Sochi Fried as the lonely potter giving a heart-squeezing performance. The production works a treat under Jill Harper’s unobtrusive direction, but Patricia Allison’s movement and choreography too often seem unnecessarily distracting.

Literally Titanium

Creator and performer, Ophira Calof

Director, Sanja Vodovnik

From the website for Next Stage: “In the age of body positivity, where does chronic illness fit? Disabled artist Ophira Calof plays her body as a character finally getting its moment in the spotlight, using music, comedy and storytelling to explore the relationship between her body and mind as they navigate a world that wasn’t built for them.”

Ophira Calof conveys the sense of being confined in her body and her motorized wheelchair as she negotiations the stage with fearlessness and joy.

Every Silver Lining

Written by Laura Piccinin and Allison Wither

Director, Jennifer Stewart

Music director, Aaron Eyre

Cast: Joel Cumber

Starr Domingue

Alex Furber

Daniel Karp

Luke Marty

Erika Nielsen

Alison J Palmer

Alex Panneton

Laura Piccinin

Jada Rifkin

Ben Skipper

Allison Wither

Musicians: Aaron Eyre (Keyboard)

Erica Nielsen (Cello)

Alex Panneton (Percussion)

This is a very ambitious musical about cancer. Andrew is 17 years old and he has cancer. His sister, Clara, loves him but feels conflicted when she has to accompany him to chemo because it cuts into her only pleasure, competitive swimming. Andrew’s parents of course are consumed with worry about his health. His friends are angry at him when they learn he had cancer and hid it from them. The musical ends with the various characters reflecting on how lucky they are for knowing Andrew.

The cast is stellar, composed of some of the city’s leading musical theatre artists. Jennifer Stewart directs this with efficiency and economy.

While the musical is ambitious, perhaps it needs a rethink of how many stories should be covered in this piece. The inclusion of the friends’ anger seems to come too late in the musical, as does Clara’s belief that her parents didn’t love her.  Over amplification of the 10 cast members and the three members in the band drowned out some of the lyrics.

Morro and Jasp: Save the Date

Creators and performers, Heather Marie Annis and Amy Lee

Directed by Byron Laviolette and Kat Sandler

Sound and lighting by Mark Andrada

Set by Roxanne Ignatius

Costumes by Heather Marie Annis with Roxanne Ignatius

Jasp (Amy Lee) is getting married and she’s fretting about every detail of the wedding. Her sister Morro (Heather Marie Annis) is anxious to help her with creating the perfect wedding. But will these two sisters be close after the wedding now that a husband is on the scene?

Morro and Jasp: Save the Date is pure joy. The writing by Heather Marie Annis and Amy Lee is laugh-out-loud funny, the observations are sharply focused and the physical humour, from a veil that never ends, to the frantic cake-tasting, will make you sore from laughing.  And for all its humour the piece is tender, sweet, touching and quite moving thanks to the wonderful performances of Annis and Lee.

Next Stage continues to Sunday, Jan. 19.


From the Next Stage Festival, Toronto, Ont.

Pearle Harbour’s Agit-Pop

Presented by Pearle Harbour

Written by Justin Miller

Directed by Rebecca Ballarin

Musical director, Steven Conway

Lighting by Logan Raju Cracknell

Video designer, Adam Miller

Pearle Harbour is described as “sweet-as-pie and tough as nails.” She is a formidable “drag tragicomedienne” with a sharp sense of humour and a laser-gaze on the way of the world. She needs a sharp sense of humour to deal with the ills of the world we cope with.

In her latest show, Pearle Harbour’s Agit-Pop the frightening state of the world is examined through song, humour and perception. Pearle Harbour usually has a dark perspective on what is going on but now matters are extreme. She reckons it’s two minutes to midnight before it all blows up.

She prepares us with songs of cheer but with an edge. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” has an ironic meaning when Pearle sings it wistfully but with a smile. She has her audience in her sights and can hear a delicate ping of a cell phone no matter where it is in the audience. And when she spies the light of a phone in the balcony she notes that to the owner with her dulcet but pointed tones. She finds the humour in the dark. She has us up on our feet and the reluctant participant in the second row is brought up on stage with her, to perform some body exercises.  It’s good for a laugh before doomsday. She is ably accompanied by Steven Conway on guitar. She also had Kritty Uranowski join her as her special guest. Buoyant, breezy, full voiced.

Justin Miller is the writer and ‘alter-ego’ for Pearle Harbour. Pearle is trim and elegant in a simple stripe-patterned dress, cinched at the waist, gold gloves, and tasteful shoes, exaggerated makeup and eyebrows that look like they are in a constant state of surprise. The body language is elegant and tasteful. The voice is a gravelly purr and the smile is teeth and attitude. Pearle is respectful of the audience but beware if you misbehave or don’t participate. This isn’t aggression; it’s urging her audience to rise to the occasion.

Pearle can be self-deprecating, commenting on how in previous shows the transitions between scenes could have been better. Perhaps the same can be said here. They seemed a bit lax. A little adjustment can’t make them tighter and the pace smoother. Quibbles. Pearle Harbour is one of our best chroniclers of our dark times. We need humorous voices and visions like hers to get us through past midnight in one piece.

The Next Stage Festival continues to Jan. 19.


Kitne Saare Laloo Yahan Pey Hain

Created and performed by Bilal Baig

Directed by Tawiah M’Carthy

Movement coach, Virgilia Griffith

Lighting by André du Toit

Sound by Steph Raposo

Set by Sebastian Marziali

From the press info: “Escaping to the West, a young trans woman runs away from Bangladesh with only one suitcase and a secret. As she fears for her life in her new surroundings, can she trust you to keep her safe? Bilal Baig offers a truthful drama that authentically and unapologetically puts queer and trans bodies at the centre of the storytelling.”

Actually, the young trans woman doesn’t even have a suitcase. She has an orange plastic bag that contains her clothes, a bottle of water and other necessities. We see a young person who looks like a slim man in pants and a jersey running in the moody light of André du Toit. The person looks around, breathless, as if chased by some unseen predator. The person turns around and yells in a language I don’t understand (and with no translation) at someone we don’t see. The yelling is angry, and desperate (I was so curious to know what was being said. What a strange decision not to inform the audience, but I figured there might be a reason. I just wished I knew what that reason was).

When the person feels safe, the person (sorry, I’m not sure of what pronoun to use) goes behind one of three structures on the stage and changes into clothes more comfortable. The person who emerges from behind the structure wears bangled-bracelets, a filled-out form fitting top, a slim, short skirt and heels. The black hair is long and luxurious. (Now that this woman has emerged, I’ll use the pronoun ‘she’). She talks in a delicate voice with a lilting accent. She says she is from Bangladesh and is ‘lost.’ She has landed in Vancouver and is waiting to be picked up at the airport.

Her story emerges and later her deeply held secret. At one point she dances and sings in a language I don’t understand and I hear “Kitne Saare Laloo Yahan Pey Hain”, the lyrics of the song. There is no note of explanation in the programme. (The admin staff of the festival don’t know what it means but someone says it’s in Urdu).

Bilal Baig’s piece has grown and expanded so much since I saw it in a much shorter form, last year as part of Welcome to My Underworld where Baig also performed it. Baig has created such a fascinating, sensitive, complex character in this young trans woman. The woman at once wants to be invisible and yet seen. I love that contradiction. Baig is a poetic, gifted writer. One line alone took my breath away: “My delicate hands hold all my nights and days.” Baig is also a vivid, graceful compelling performer. This is a terrific piece and should be seen. I just wish I knew what the title meant.

The Next Stage Festival continues until Jan. 19.



Part of the Next Stage Festival

At the Factory Theatre, Toronto, Ont.


Presented by Tita Collective

Written and performed by:

Ann Paula Bautista

Belinda Corpuz

Isabel Kanaan

Alia Rasul

Maricris Rivera

Directed by Tricia Hagoriles

Musical director, Ayaka Kinugawa

Lighting designer, Justine Cargo

Choreographer, Chantelle Mostacho

Animation by Solis Animation

Tita Collective is a group of Filipina artists who want to focus on all things Filipino with humour and song. In their show Tita Jokes they use the pop group, the Spice Girls as their inspiration, complete with nicknames (prefaced by the word “Tita” , head microphones and sparkly costumes.

At the top they ask who speaks Tagalog, a language of the Philippines. One person puts up a hand. The cast seem almost disappointed. I’m wondering, therefore, for whom is this show meant? Is it for a Philippine audience or a general audience? They have to decide.

The group skewers the Filipina stereotype by noting with an edge that people look on them as small and cute, as caregivers and nannies. But them they present various skits that tend to be simplistic and stereotypical as well—the cloying, self-absorbed mother who whines and complains when her grown children even suggest doing things without her: raise their children, buy a new house. There is another skit of the possessive mother who does not want to allow her daughter to go out at night imagining all manner of danger that might befall her. The skits seem so unimaginative.

There is a rap song about a young woman who is a lesbian and has difficulty telling her family. It’s clever, smart and has an edge. I wish all the work was like that.

The show and its committed cast are well intentioned. I applaud that. But I wish they would rethink the format. The microphoning is muddy and often I could not make out what they were singing or saying. If I don’t know who these six women are then naming them Tita something or other without context means nothing and since the cast is not listed by their character’s names it gets confusing. And shouldn’t someone at least explain that “Tita” means “aunt.” It’s important to know. I had to ask. Just sayin.’

The Next Stage Festival continues to Jan. 19.


At the Harbourfront Centre, Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written and directed by Beatriz Pizano

With texts written and performed by:

Laura Arabian,

Brefny Caribou

Janis Mayers

Rosalba Martinni

Michelle Polak

Sofia Rodriguez

Rhoma Spencer

Liliana Suarez

Scenic, projection design by Trevor Schwellnus

Lighting design by Rebecca Vandevelde

Sound and original composition by Brandon Miguel Valdivia

Costumes by Vanessa Magic

The Solitudes  uses the women of the book: “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez as its inspiration and how these women survived in a man’s world.

The Solitudes is written and directed by Beatriz Pizano with texts written and performed by the company from their own life-stories.   In The Solitudes we hear the stories of Indigenous women or their families who were born here or came from elsewhere: Lebanon, Italy, Mexico, Columbia, Trinidad and Tobago and Montreal by way of Auschwitz.

We hear of their struggles they endured to get here and fit in. There are stories of rage, resilience, fortitude, gratitude, overcoming adversity and despair and ultimately there is empowerment. Each woman had her own family issues that she had to face. For Rhoma Spencer from Trinidad and Tobago there was the pressure to marry and have children. Rosalba Martinni came from Italy and talks of her rage that consumes her.  She overcame being raped in order to survive and endure. Michelle Polak talks about how grateful she is that her grandfather, the only living member of his family, survived Auschwitz to marry, move to Montreal and begin his family. There are stories of people who came here without knowing the language and enduring, but wanting to fit in and not succeeding because of the accent and being thought to be different.

And there are conversations about different cultures, one of which is startling. At one point in the show, Rosalba Martinni and Rhoma Spencer got into a heated discussion over female genital mutilation. Rosalba Martinni thinks it us barbaric and Rhoma Spencer firmly says that it is part of a people’s culture and nobody from the West had the right to pass judgement.  Both women stood their ground, Martinni with a bubbling anger and Spencer with a determined, hard-edged conviction. Something one thinks is so simple and obvious is looked at in a different light in the context of being from a different culture. Rightly or wrongly, it’s something to consider.

The challenging production is terrific. Beatriz Pizano not only wrote the show from the writings of her cast, she also directs it. There is vivid imagery thanks to impressive projections (Trevor Schwellnus) and an evocative soundscape (Brandon Miguel Valdivia). Trevor Schwellnus also designed the simple set of eight stumps of wood situated semi-circle around a fire pit. The cast sit on the stumps at various times in the play as a gathering.

Each of the women in this cast of eight brings her own stories, impressions and resilience. And while they each have such different life experiences, they are joined in solidarity because they are women with backbone, tenacity and resolve.

The Solitudes is both eye-opening and sobering.

Aluna Theatre presents in association with Nightwood Theatre:

Opened: Jan. 9, 2020.

Closes: Jan. 18, 2020.

Running Time: 95 minutes.