At Factory Theatre, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Marjorie Chan

Directed by Nina Lee Aquino

Set by Camellia Koo

Costumes by Jackie Chau

Lighting by Michelle Ramsay

Sound design and composition by Debashis Sinha

Cast: Belinda Corpuz

Ma-Anne Dionisio

Zoë Doyle

Rosie Simon

Lindsay Wu

Louisa Zhu

An exploration of six Asian women and their relationship to money. It’s a story that’s applicable to a broader world, that we’ve seen before.  

The Story and Production. Playwright Marjorie Chan wanted to write a play about Asian women’s relationship with money. Her model was the 1936 play Sunrise by Cao Yu, which took place in a brothel for the most part and dealt with a kind of feudal system.

Marjorie Chan’s play is Lady Sunrise and is set in contemporary Vancouver and involves six Asian women. They are a cross section of society in a sense with different attitudes to money. Most often the dialogue takes the form of monologues delivered directly to the audience.

Banker Wong (Rosie Simon) is successful and at the top of her game. She is driven by hard work and the success it brings.  Her language is full of references to profits and successful quarters and is hard-nosed about her abilities. As Banker Wong, Rosie Simon is matter-of-fact, focused and steely-eyed in her dealings and assessment of others.

Tawny Ku (Ma-Anne Dionisio) is a wealthy real estate tycoon who inherited the business and her money from her late husband. She is interested in making deals and seems rather trusting in her business partners. She mentions a man named Frankie Pan (sp?) who might be a bit shady. Tawny Ku learned how to take care of her money and increase it from Banker Wong. Apparently the finances that Tawny Ku inherited were in a mess and Banker Wong straightened it all out. Ma-Anne Dionisio as Tawny Ku has that easy grace of a successful woman who is also a bit of a mother-hen.

Penny (Lindsay Wu) is a party-girl-model-beauty-pageant runner up who depends on others for her money. She doesn’t work really and depends on men and Tawny Ku for her money so she can acquire designer stuff. Frankie Pan is one of the men with whom she keeps company. Marjorie Chan has made Penny the focal character of the play. Lindsay Wu nicely plays Penny’s shallow, glib, careless-ness. She lives for the glittery life of celebrity, although she is a minor celeb. 

Dealer Li (Zoé Doyle) is a card dealer in a casino who had to work when her husband developed a gambling habit that lead him to do something drastic. She is now the only support of her children. Her earnings go to buy the necessities of life such as groceries. Zoé Doyle plays Dealer Li with a resigned tenacity. She has pluck, heart and resolve.

Charmaine (Louisa Zhu nicely plays her as a tough, hard woman)  runs a massage parlour and Sherry (Belinda Corpuz) works at the massage parlour and is on the bottom rung of the ladder of success when compared to these other women. Sherry doesn’t seem to be able to get out of the job, or get ahead in earning money. And her fortunes hit rock bottom when she encounters a violent customer. As Sherry, Belinda Corpuz gives an emotional raw, compelling performance.

The women are connected tangentially, some in obvious ways, some in tenuous ways.

Banker Wong helped sort out the finances of Tawny Ku. Tawny Ku treats Penny as a daughter (Tawny Ku is estranged from her own daughter) pays off Penny’s charge cards and urges her to get a job and pay for herself.  Penny used to go into the casino where Dealer Li works with Frankie Pan and Dealer Li comments that she knows that type—who depend on men for their trinkets. Banker Wong is jogging and gets a cramp in her leg and is helped by Charmaine, the massage parlour manager, who happens to be on the street at the time.  Dealer Li sees Sherry, the massage worker, in distress and helps her.

What I found interesting in the play is that these women reached out to help others in distress or in need; Whether it was Banker Wong doing her job getting Tawny Ku’s finances in order or telling her to be more careful in her dealings; or Tawny Ku telling Penny to find a real job; or even Dealer Li saving a life….I liked that compassion and the reaching out of the women.

This is not to say that men aren’t there (they aren’t in person, but their presence is everywhere). While it’s not spoken Banker Wong is being driven to be the best in a man’s world. A man left Tawny Ku his money and his financial mess. Her business associate is a man and he’s duped her. Penny depends on men for dates, trinkets and modeling jobs. Dealer Li is in the predicament she’s in because of her husband’s gambling. Charmaine manages the massage parlour owned by a man and Sherry is nearly killed by one.

Director Nina Lee Aquino has created a stylish production that establishes both the poshness and sordidness of the various worlds of these women. Camellia Koo’s set was composed of a series of stacked horizontal ramps that sloped down from stage right down to stage left. The ramps could be symbolic of the rise each woman climbed up to success or slid down. The fact that the ramps are also rising in a parallel way, suggest a penthouse in a high rise. I also thought that a series of ramps is not the most actor-friendly structure to have to play on. (My calves were screaming in sympathetic ache). Jackie Chau’s costumes also accented the women’s stature: a power pant suit for Banker Wong, sleek clothes for Tawny Li and Penny, and work clothes for the others. Michelle Ramsay’s moody lighting shows both a murky world and one of money.   

Comment. I liked that cross section of women and their different outlook on money. The structures of the richest at the top and the more downtrodden at the bottom is interesting, but we know all that. As with any specific focus of a story, this one has a universal application. Every person in the audience, not just with an Asian background, will identify with some aspect of the story. That seems easy and obvious. I can appreciate that Marjorie Chan wanted to explore Asian women and their relation to money, but I have to ask why? After a while I thought the exploration was more like “what’s the point?” Is that all there is? We have seen this before and better elsewhere with more depth.

Tawny Ku has an abrupt reconciliation with her once estranged daughter that doesn’t ring true. It’s too pat a solution to a thorny situation that is not explored at all.

Penny seems to be the focus of the play and everything revolves around her. She’s very funny, certainly as Lindsay Wu plays her. But she’s a character who is as shallow at the end of the play as she is at the beginning. She describes something horrific that happens to her at a party celebrating a photo shoot and certainly the audience would find sympathy for her, But Penny is so intoxicated with the world of celebrity she would seem to ignore what happen to her just to be in that glittery world. Sometimes an audience’s good will is stretched past the point of reason.

The ending also is clumsy and could use another revision. Banker Wong is jogging and makes an unsettling discovery.  She makes a call, can we assume 911? We aren’t sure from the call because when Banker Wong speaks into the phone, rather than say, “911 I need an ambulance” she just says she needs help. Is Marjorie Chan trying to show us Banker Wong’s vulnerability? It doesn’t work. It’s not Banker Wong who needs help in that scene so it’s a bit of a cheat having her ask for it.  Lady Sunrise needs a re-think and more depth.

Factory Theatre presents:

Began: Feb. 15, 2020.

Closes: March 8, 2020.

www.factorytheatre.ca

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At The Grand Canyon Theatre, 2 Osler St., Toronto, Ont.

Written by Judith Thompson

Directed by Kendra Jones

Lighting by Sebastian Quinn Hoodless

Sound by John Norman

Cast: Pip Dwyer

Jennifer McEwen

Kaitlin Race

A searing indictment of our penal system in Judith Thompson’s challenging, poetic play given a stunning production.

The Story.  With that title you know it’s not going to end well. This is Judith Thompson’s indictment of the Canadian penal system, where the focus is on correction and not rehabilitation, where prisoners can be kept in prison for any infraction no matter how small.

Glory has been in jail since she was 14 years-old.  She threw a crab apple at a person’s leg and was sent to juvenile detention for six months. That was the beginning. But with every infraction, no matter how minor, Glory got more days added to her sentence until she was there for five years. By then she graduated to full-fledged prison. Her infractions accumulated. Glory was often put into solitary confinement; she was tasered, restrained. Needless to say it had a damaging effect on her.

Her mother Rosellen would try and visit her in prison (taking planes to do it) only to be told that they moved her to a different facility.  

Gail is a career guard who tried to be impartial and follow the company line but then tried to show compassion to Glory as well.  We learn that the system frowns on compassion.  

The Production. The production is terrific. It’s beautifully, vividly directed by Kendra Jones.  A large swath of elasticized material is spread on the floor in what looks like a bow-tie shape. There is also a black chair stage left.

Kendra Jones directs with simplicity, focus, sensitivity, muscle and some of the most vivid imagery I’ve seen in a long time. The swath of material at times acts as the bars of Glory’s cell, or the small opening in her cell door through which her food is passed (kudos also to Sebastian Quinn Hoodless’ lighting), restraints to bind her and a rope to entrap her.

The three characters are all dressed in drab green sweaters and pants and dark shoes. Having them dress the same suggests that they are all trapped in that same world, enduring it in their own way.

The acting is superb. As Gail, Pip Dwyer starts out as the swaggering prison guard. Her family were all guards, she naturally carried on the family tradition. But there are cracks in her story. The pressure of the job took its toll on her brother. She tries to remain strong but she too wavers. The higher-ups order Gail and her colleagues not to cut Glory down if she tries to do herself damage unless she stops breathing. You can see Gail’s unease with this order in Pip Dwyer’s layered performance.

Jennifer McEwen plays Rosellen, Glory’s loving, concerned adoptive mother. It’s a performance that illuminates a mother’s love and her frustration at not being able to help her daughter. The performance is full of euphoria when Rosellen counts down the days for Glory’s release and then rage when the worst happens.

Kaitlin Race plays Glory. It’s a mix of impish immaturity, mental damage, fragility and desperation. How is a young woman supposed to have learned restraint from inappropriate behaviour in prison? We get the sense of Glory’s mental difficulties in Race’s nuanced, haunted performance. All three actors are doing wonderful work.

Comment. The play is based on the true story of Ashley Smith, a young women who was arrested and put into jail in Nova Scotia. Judith Thompson writes with intensity and with a poetic grace of a terrible situation in our penal system, a system that entraps not just the prisoners, but also the families and the guards. Judith Thompson is one of our best, accomplished playwrights. She does not shy away from hard subjects. In Watching Glory Die she writes about a brutal, cruel, penal system that breaks a prisoner rather than rehabilitates them. With only three characters she shows how not only is the Glory damaged but so is her mother, and her guard, Gail. The buck is passed for accountability so there isn’t any.  But she sure puts you in that suffocating world of this penal system.

With such a hard subject who would I recommend this for? I’d recommend this for anybody who wants bracing, challenging theatre; anybody who wants to see indie theatre done wonderfully well. Love2 Theatre Company and Impel Theatre are doing just that; and  anybody who wants to be put in a world unlike their own for a close, uncomfortable look into a penal system that needs to be re-examined.

The woman behind me was sobbing loudly by the end of the play. When the play was over I turned around and asked if she was ok. She had recovered slightly. She said that she worked in that world. It was hard. The producers urge us to try and fix a system that needs fixing by taking action. Judith Thompson does not let us off lightly to just go off comfortably into the night. Her play makes us turn around and ask someone in obvious distress, “Are you ok?” I’m grateful for this play and this wonderful production for that at least and so much more.   

Presented by Love2 Theatre Co. & Impel Theatre.

Began: Feb. 19, 2020.

I saw it: Feb. 27, 2020.

Closes: Feb. 29. 2020.

 www.love2theatrecompany.ca 

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It’s 2020 and it’s time theatre producers and Artistic Directors had 2020 vision to go with it.

Bette Davis said:  “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.” She could also have been talking about the theatre. It takes guts and focus to produce daring, challenging theatre. Some Artistic Directors are doing a splendid job of it but there are three shows that need to be seen and aren’t and that should be addressed:

Trident Moon by Anusree Roy.

Anusree Roy is a South Asian-Canadian and writes vividly about that world set in India. Through her plays we have been taken into the world of the “untouchables” in Pyaasa, life in a brothel in India in Brothel #9, life as a street urchin in Sultans of the Street, and separation in Letters to My Grandma and seen how those worlds inform our own. 

But Anusree Roy has also written a bracing, hard-hitting play entitled Trident Moon. It’s about the partition of India and Pakistan. It takes place in 1947 in the back of a truck as it crosses the border. Three Hindu women abduct three Muslim women. The toll in human history, experience and life is in the back of that truck.

I saw a workshop of it a few years ago. It’s gripping and vital. It’s had a production in London, England a few years ago. It’s had a reading at the Stratford Festival last year. It’s been nominated for the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.  And yet producers and Artistic Directors in Toronto are hesitant to produce it because they fear protests. Mind-numbing.

This city is not a stranger to difficult work that has caused protest. There was a reading a few years ago of Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children and people protested outside the theatre objecting to the play. They hadn’t read it or seen it but they were protesting. Mind-numbing. 

Before that the mighty Maja Ardal, then the interim Artistic Director of Nightwood Theatre, did a reading of Behzti (Dishonour) by British-Sikh playwright, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti. That took guts because this was the play that was programmed by the Birmingham Rep Company but was cancelled in previews because the protests about it were so violent. Again the protesters had not seen or read the play. The reading here happened without incident. There is a precedent for doing tough plays here. Trident Moon is one of them. I want to see it here!

Five @ Fifty by Brad Fraser.

It’s about five women friends, all fifty years old, celebrating the birthday of one of them. It’s also an intervention as one of them is an alcoholic and her lesbian partner is an enabler. The play had its premier at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester in 2011. It’s cast is for actresses of a ‘certain age’. I enquired a few years ago of Nightwood doing it and was told that since it was written by a man and Nightwood was a feminist theatre, producing it was not possible. But recently Nightwood produced Every Day She Rose that was written by Andrea Scott and Nick Green. Has the policy changed? Would Nightwood reconsider? It would also fit Buddies In Bad Times mandate. What’s the problem? Are we not doing the plays by middle-aged white men anymore? We’re going on to the next generation of writers? We wouldn’t have the next generation of writers if they weren’t standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before. .

Five @ Fifty is perfect for Buddies or Nightwood or anyone else—Brad Fraser is one of our leading playwrights. There are five meaty parts for actresses of a certain age that would jump at the chance. It’s time, Toronto, to do this play here.

After the Orchard by Jason Sherman. It’s a reworking of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard set in Ontario and focuses on a family cottage that must be sold, but the family is divided. I saw it at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in 2005. It’s got brains, heart and an unexpected sweetness. There used to be a time when plays only got one production. That is certainly changing with many shows now getting subsequent productions. I would like After the Orchard to be one of them.

Doing theatre takes guts. It’s not for sissies. I want to see Anusree Roy’s Trident Moon, Brad Fraser’s Five @ Fifty and Jason Sherman’s After the Orchard in a theatre in my city, sooner rather than later.  We have gutsy producers and artistic directors here. Step up to the plate please.

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Comment: You and I

by Lynn on February 25, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

Was At Young People’s Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Created by Maja Ardal

Directed by Allen MacInnis

Designed by Lokki Ma

Dramaturg, Stephen Colella

Cast: Maja Ardal

Malindi Ayienga

Note: While this was a workshop presentation, both Maja Ardal the creator/performer in the piece and Stephen Colella, the dramaturg said it was ok to write comments. I’m delighted to do so.

You and I is a natural progression to Maja Ardal’s previous show One Thing Leads to Another. In One Thing Leads to Another the focus group was infants 0-12. I saw that show twice and they were the quietest audiences I had ever been in. I guess because one expects noise and didn’t get it. The babies were rapt with attention. The show consisted of various kinds of stimulus, from bouncing balls, ‘hide and seek’, the tactile experience of feeling a piece of silk material brush their head, listening to various noises. The scenes were short but not abrupt. They flowed after just enough time to engage the infant and then move on.

You and I is geared towards young children 12 months to 30 months. In this group the intention is that the child should be able to walk. Maja Ardal does not call them toddlers but rather ‘explorers.’ She says in the program note: “Toddlers describes how many of them walk. I find it to be too objectifying. But they are always exploring as soon as they start to travel on foot. I have mentioned this to many parents who like the name a lot. It invites the explorer to respond in more than one way to the activities of the actors. We encourage responses of observation and interaction.”

When I enter the Studio where the show takes place, the floor is covered in colourful cushions and blankets. Parents and their ‘explorer’s’ are sitting on the cushions or the blankets. Both Maja Ardal and Malindi Ayienga, the attentive performers of the piece, are sprawled out on the blankets, at the eye-level of the children, engaging, playing, talking to them, so that the children can look the performer in the eye, and not have to strain to look up at a standing performer. At all times Ardal and Ayienga are respectful of the children, quiet spoken, enthusiastic but not in that fake up-sounding voice. This is genuine.

When the show is about to begin, Ardal and Ayienga go from the blankets to the ‘stage’ section of the floor and ask the parents to ensure that their children stay on the blankets until they are invited on stage to play etc. One little boy leaves his mother’s arms to stand on the blankets, close to the stage, watching. At a point in the show the children are encouraged to clap their hands. The standing boy makes tentative movements in his arms but doesn’t clap. A little girl who is in her mother’s lap is eager to clap. Both young children are engaged in their own way.

The scenes seem a little longer in You and I than they were in One Thing Leads to Another as if the attention span of an ‘explorer’ is longer than that of an infant. Maja Ardal and Malindi Ayienga throw a colourful ball back and forth. A blue bucket held by a rope ‘drops’ down from the flies and a man’s gentle voice (Allen MacInnis) says ‘bucket’ or calls the two women: “Mello”, “Dee.” The man is unseen. All there is is his voice. The standing boy is confused and a bit unsettled by this. He seeks out the comfort of his mother’s arms. He’s not crying but he’s unsure of what is happening. His mother takes him to the back of the blankest to watch the show from there. After a while he settles, becomes more comfortable, and resumes his standing place close to the stage area. His mother sits a bit back from the playing area.

Since the audience is vital in this exploration and show, Maja Ardal asks this boy’s mother if he was distressed. She says that he wasn’t but he wants to know where everything is and where it’s coming from. He heard the voice but didn’t see where it was coming from. The same with the bucket. It just dropped down slowly on that rope from the flies. You know that the performers are exploring with this show as much as the children. If necessary Ardal might makes adjustments on the feedback from the child and parent. 

Ardal and Ayienga tossed a colourful biggish ball into the bucket or hide the bucket on the top of a box or a wardrobe with two doors. Ardal opened the wardrobe and all sorts of soft, cushy shapes and toys fell out onto the stage. The children were galvanized.

Ardal and Ayienga built a house with an archway from many of the soft shapes. The children were then invited to crawl through the archway into the courtyard of the house, so they could play with the toys. Parents guided their children to the archway. Some crawled through easily. Some needed to be coaxed. All eventually played with the shapes, their parents and the other children. Ardal and Ayienga were on the floor engaging with them. When play time was over a soft bell rang and ‘clean-up’ time was announced and all the stuff was put into containers to prepare for the next show.

Perhaps the greatest lesson to be taught will be to the parents. They are so anxious to expose their child to all sorts of things that they naturally point out to the children what they (the adults) want them to see. You just want to tell them to lighten up and just let the kid discover on their own. The kid will lead the way and one hopes, will teach the parent something. I could see the beginnings of this instruction here, but not with One Thing Leads to Another. Interesting.

It’s always an education watching children discover the world.

You and I played at Young People’s Theatre until Feb. 23, 2020.

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Vivek Shraya
Photo: Dahlia Katz

At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Upstairs.

Written and performed by Vivek Shraya

Directed by Brendan Healy

Choreography by William Long

Set and costumes by Joanna Yu

Lighting by C.J. Astronomo

Composition by Vivek Shraya and James Bunton

Sound by James Bunton

From the program: “Vivek Shraya is an artist whose body of work crosses the boundaries of music, literature, visual art, theatre and film.” She’s written a searing book of raw emotion with  “I’m Afraid of Men”. She’s recorded albums of her music. She’s written books of poetry.  A novel is about to be published. But all she really wanted in this life of accomplishment was to be a popstar. It’s not for lack of trying.

Vivek Shraya arrives on stage ‘before’ the performance begins to explain what she means by failing to be a popstar (her spelling).  It means she’s not God. She’s not Madonna. She has not performed on the international stage to great acclaim.

When she returns to the stage she wears a diaphanous gold coat over a short, black jumpsuit. Kudo’s to Joanna Yu for the costume and set design. The set is a large circle of cables on the floor. Inside the circle is a guitar on a stand and a stool. Occasionally Vivek Shraya brings a stand microphone into the circle.

For her show Vivek Shraya takes her audience on her long journey to be a popstar.

Through luck and coincidence she has always been singing beginning at the local religious centre. In public and high school Shraya identified as a queer boy who endured homophobic taunts.

Shraya was recognized for the singing ability by people in the business which lead to getting to know singers who were impressed with the resulting songs Shraya wrote. This lead to moving from Edmonton to Toronto to live with a woman who wanted to promote Shraya. This didn’t work out, which lead to other opportunities in Paris, France and a recording contract and more albums. We get a good sense of Shraya’s work.

Shraya is trusting, bold, curious and cautious in this pursuit and also recognizes when something is a bad idea.

Shraya says there are 40 reasons why pop stardom did not result, some of which were: being born in Edmonton, being born brown, queer and trans. Shraya identifies as she.

She does not go into when the change in identity happened because she dwells on her journey to pop stardom.  As she goes through the 40 reasons why she is a failure as a popstar, the audience is absolutely silent as the reasons become more and more personal.

Some of the reasons seem self-deprecating, but I don’t think the show is a ploy to win our sympathy. Vivek Shraya is such a charming presence, sings beautifully and certainly has a facility with lyrics, that she draws in her audience. I don’t think it a stretch to say they are rooting for her all the way. If anything Shraya illuminates a work ethic that is strong and steady and left it to us to figure out that stardom often does not rely on hard work and creativity. She took every opportunity that was presented and created others to achieve her dream.  Sometimes it’s just luck that makes the difference.  She’s made her luck and fought hard for what she has achieved. She’s a good story-teller with a sense of humour.

She touches on the personal issues she’s had because she is brown, queer and trans but only as a means of forwarding the story, and informing us of the kind of personal ethics she has. It’s also beautifully directed with sensitivity by Brendan Healy.

We might disagree with her assessment of her failure but it’s her show and she gets to decide what is a success and what isn’t. One thing is for sure—this show is a winner.

Canadian Stage presents:

Opened: Feb. 19, 2020.

Closes: March 1, 2020.

Running Time: 75 minutes, no intermission.

www.canadianstage.com

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

Composed by Englebert Humperdinck

In collaboration with his sister Adelheid

Conducted by Johannes Debus

Directed by Joel Ivany

Set and projections by S. Katy Tucker

Costumes designed by Ming Wong

Lighting by JAX Messenger

Price Family Chorus Master, Sandra Horst

Cast: Russell Braun

Michael Colvin

Emily Fons

Anna-Sophie Neher

Simone Osborne

Krisztina Szabó

A bizarre concept that is not supported by the story.

Note: As with my other ‘opera’ reviews I am reviewing this as theatre. I won’t comment on the singing or orchestra (which sounded dandy to me) because opera-music-singing-is not my forte. Theatre is. The lovely people of the Canadian Opera Company welcome another point of view of their art form. This review is also an extended version of the on air radio review I did for “Classical Underground” with Philip Conlon on Wed. Feb. 12.

The Story. The opera is based on the fairy tale by the Brother’s Grimm, which is pretty dark. To give a short overview: Hansel and Gretel are brother and sister. There is a wicked step-mother and a hapless father. They are very, very hungry. The wicked step-mother sent the children into the woods to find strawberries to bring back to eat. The father realizes it’s dangerous out there what with the witch who lives there. The kids see a magical house made of candy, cookies and gingerbread. This is where the witch lives. She sees Hansel and Gretel and wants to bake them and eat them. (I said it was dark). The witch tries to coerce Gretel into the big stove but she outfoxes the witch and pushes the witch into the oven. This releases other lost children and all is good.

Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid thought this tale was too dark so she softened it by creating the Dew Fairy and the Sandman who watch over the children while they are sleeping in the woods. There is also no wicked step-mother as well, just a harried mother.   

The Production. Director Joel Ivany sets this story in Toronto today. S. Katy Tucker has created a slow projected panoramic view of the city (projected on the back of the set) as it pulls away from the opera house, east and north. The CN Tower is in the background. The expanse of the city sprawls out. I found it very moving. I wondered where we were in the city? Scarborough? In any case the action takes place in an apartment block, utilitarian, concrete, grey, dispiriting-kudos to S. Katy Tucker. A wall that covers the various floors of the block pulls away revealing Hansel and Gretel playing on the floor of their kitchen. Other apartments are revealed on other floors and to the sides of Hansel and Gretel’s place. We see activity in other apartments. Interesting.

Hansel and Gretel should be binding bundles of materials to make brooms but they are playing instead. Their harried mother, Gertrude, yells at them for dawdling. In her anger she breaks the jug that has milk in it. It splashes all over the floor. There is nothing to eat as a result. Nothing. She sends Hansel and Gretel into the woods to find strawberries to bring back.

In the meantime Peter, the father, arrives with a box of food. He has sold all the brooms and had money for food. But he gets anxious when he learns the children have gone to the woods for food. The witch is there. The children can be seen in the corridor outside their apartment looking on the floor for something. I am mystified. Is this the woods? Are they looking for strawberries there? The children then go from apartment to apartment where they are greeted either warmly or shooed away. My eyebrows are knitting. What does this have to do with Hansel and Gretel being in the dangerous woods looking for food?

Finally the children knock on the door of a man in a strange costume who invites them in. In time a whole tent affair covers furniture. There are projections of foliage on the furniture at the back of the space. Is this the woods? The Sandman has watched over them. The children say they have never slept better. I’m beginning to think that it wasn’t strawberries they ate in the woods but magic mushrooms. Either that or they are so hungry they are hallucinating. They realize that the man in the strange costume is really the witch in an even more garish costume. The children note the candies, cookies and gingerbread of the apartment structure. They are frightened by the witch. The witch tries to coerce Gretel into the stove—not the appliance in the kitchen, but a larger structure outside the kitchen. Gretel is smart and tricks the witch and pushes her into the large stove and kills her. At the same time missing, lost children burst out of the oven in the form of projections that look like gingerbread men that float across the walls. Hansel and Gretel’s parents arrive in matching green track suits to hug them and take them home.

Comment. Director Joel Ivany’s concept doesn’t work in the context of the story of the opera. A story about hunger becomes a story about child-kidnapping in an apartment building. Why the children were going from apartment to apartment for some reason (food?) is not clear. The witch in the forest was capturing children and baking them. Does Ivany equate this with a weird person in a building kidnapping children for his own ends? My eyebrows can’t rise any higher in disbelief.  The parents, frantic to find their children, have time to change into matching track suits?  The music is glorious and one doesn’t need to be trained to know it. But as for the concept of the production, it doesn’t work.  

Presented by the Canadian Opera Company

Saw it: Feb. 11, 2020.

Plays: Feb 19, 21.

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, approx.

www.coc.ca

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Review: GROUNDED

by Lynn on February 17, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Streetcar Crowsnest, Carlaw and Dundas

Written by George Brant

Directed  by Kerry Ann Doherty

Set and costumes by Melanie McNeill

Lighting by Michael Brunet

Sound by Thom Marriott

Cast: Carly Street

The Pilot (Carly Street) is a confident to the point of cocky fighter pilot who takes pride in her expertise to down whatever planes that she must in the line of duty. She lives hard and fast and then goes drinking at the bar with her flying colleagues. One night she’s chatted up at the bar by Eric. They connect, go home, have sex and a relationship results. They marry and she becomes pregnant with their daughter Samantha. This means the end of her ‘flying’ career. She’s grounded for her own safety and that of her crew. She’s assigned to ‘fly’ drones and offer surveillance, protection except not by actually flying.

Shifts are twelve hours each, of watching a screen and holding a stick to ‘fly’ the drone. Over time it becomes a ‘white-knuckle’ experience—eyes peering at the screen trying to see something unusual, guts in a knot at the tension. Even though flying is simulated with the drone, the Pilot still wears a flying uniform at work, sitting in her chair looking at her screen. Sometimes she gets so involved with the job she forgets to take off the uniform and change into her regular clothes to go home. The Pilot is close with her young daughter. At times the job takes its toll with her relationship with Eric.

Then matters are ramped up. The Pilot is tasked with tracking and if possible eliminating the second in command of a terrorist group, a man called “The Prophet.” She’s ready. She’s determined. She wants to be the one who ‘takes the guy out.’ But reality starts to play tricks and that’s dangerous.

Playwright George Brant’s play is gripping. The implications of how The Pilot is drawn deeper and deeper into the drone world get more and more serious as the play goes on. The sentences are short and punchy. They create a sense of momentum and urgency. We grip the armrest as well as The Pilot as we too are drawn into her world.

Director Kerry Ann Doherty and her set and costume designer, Melanie McNeill, have created a space with the audience sitting on either side of the playing area. In that space are two perfectly formed parallel formations of pristine sand. It could be symbolic of the edges of a runway—reminiscent of The Pilot’s former life as an actual fighter pilot. Now these two parallel lines of sand can be the edges of the highway that takes her to and from work. On the way home she often gets out of the car and hides things in the sand, indicating that all might not be right with The Pilot.

Carly Street is a powerhouse as The Pilot. This is performance of a person who takes no prisoners, neither in the air or on a screen, tracking some nasty piece of work who needs eliminating. Her speech is clipped to the point of being abrupt. She is watchful but is up for a good time. That’s why Eric attracted her and a relationship flourished. She is not afraid of being a caring, attentive, loving mother with her baby daughter. And just as quickly she can be a determined tracker with the hope of being the one to kill the Prophet. As the play gathers momentum, Carly Street’s speech gushes out like a torrent. Heart pounding, pulse racing. The unseen people around the Pilot are calm it seems; only the Pilot is getting more and more tense. It’s a performance of a woman who is trying to hold on to the image on the screen and her sense of reality. Kerry Ann Doherty’s direction is careful, meticulously detailed and slowly gains momentum until you are left breathless at the end. It’s a terrific production of an intriguing play.

Grounded by George Brant is the first production by a new artist-driven theatre company called theatreSix. I look forward to many more productions from this group. Bravo.

theatreSix Presents:

Opened: Feb. 14, 2020.

Closes: Feb. 29, 2020.

Running Time: 75 minutes.

 www.theatresix.com

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Review: Hamilton

by Lynn on February 16, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Based on the book “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow

Directed by Thomas Kail

Choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler

Scenic design by David Korins

Costumes by Paul Tazewell

Lighting by Howell Binkley

Sound by Nevin Steinberg

Orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire

Cast: Ta’Rea Campbell

Darilyn Castillo

Marcus Choi

Jared Dixon

Desmond Sean Ellington

Warren Egypt Franklin

Neil Haskell

Elijah Malcomb

Joseph Morales

Stephanie Jae Park

Plus a large chorus.

Hamilton is relentlessly inventive and pulsing with the energy of a first rate cast.

Note: This touring production arrives for an extended stay on a torrent of publicity, notoriety, celebrity, awards, huge hype and generally ecstatic reviews.  It’s the show that has people in a frenzy to pay exorbitant amounts of money for a ticket just to say they’ve seen it.

Mirvish Productions is presenting Hamilton here and are aware of the scamming going on for tickets and have warned that only a ticket bought at a Mirvish box office will be recognized.

The Story. Hamilton has a book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. It’s based on the book “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow and is about Alexander Hamilton, an outsider and a founding father of the United States, who lived from 1755 or 1757 to 1804. It charts Hamilton’s meteoric rise in politics, being George Washington’s right hand man during the American Revolution and in his cabinet as Secretary of the Treasury when Washington became the first President of the United States. He created the country’s financial system. He married well and got caught in a tricky situation with another woman for which he paid blackmail and was exposed. He handled that exposure to his advantage. He was politically astute, wily and savvy. But you have to go elsewhere to find out the less than sanitized information about him: that he was a slave trader, abolition was not tops on his list of important things, he was elitist and not the champion of the little guy to name a few. Hamilton has lots of facts about him, but you don’t go to a Broadway musical for historical facts.

The Production. David Korins’ set is a series of wood walk-ways and moveable staircases used to impressive effect. Paul Tazwell’s period costumes are formal for the elite characters: Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington etc. and form-fitting breaches for the hard-working chorus. King George is dressed ‘regally’ in bright red silk complete with gold crown.

It’s interesting that Aaron Burr (a wonderful, nuanced performance by Jared Dixon) opens the show with his introduction to who Alexander Hamilton is:

“How does a bastard, orphan, son

            of a whore and a

            Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten

            Spot in the Caribbean by providence, impover-

            ished, in squalor,

            Grow up to be a hero and a scholar.”

It’s notable that after Jared Dixon’s clever, measured build-up as Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton’s appearance, as played by Joseph Morales, seems almost understated. We are told Hamilton is driven but this performance always seems eclipsed in variation and nuance by Jared Dixon. Burr is politically astute and can read the room. He says to Hamilton, who spouts words, “to talk less and listen more.” This stops Hamilton momentarily to ponder, just slightly, but then without comment, Hamilton just continues doing what he always does, ignoring the sound advice. Burr is the best part in Hamilton and certainly as played by Dixon that is just a touch slower than the others who deliberately gush and rush.   

What makes this musical so different? It is relentlessly inventive. The subject matter is mind-boggling in its unusualness: a show about a guy from the 1700s who generally no one knew much about before Chernow’s book and certainly not before the musical; who is celebrated by being on the American $10. (When it was recently put forward that Harriet Tubman should replace Alexander Hamilton on the American $10, Lin-Manuel Miranda used his huge celebrity to successfully lobby to have Hamilton remain on the $10 bill and Tubman be considered for something else. Exhale slowly.)

While the show uses various musical forms—hip-hop, pop etc. it’s rap that predominates.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, In the Heights, used rap for the most part as well.

Hamilton is Miranda’s second musical.  He followed that with Freestyle Love Supreme which at times improvises rap lyrics. So rap is Miranda’s forte but he can and does work in other musical forms—lots of movie music, etc. His lyrics are dense and very clever.

Hamilton is pulsing with energy in that the cast is always moving. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler fills the show with various kinds of choreography and movement. I get a sense it’s the choreography of America in all its variations. Perhaps tap-dancing is the only form of dance not included.  Thomas Kail’s direction also keeps the energy, relationships and pulse constantly moving and changing.   

The casting is deliberately provocative—actors of colour, or different ethnicities, are cast as real people who were white: Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson etc.  In irony on irony many of those actual people in Hamilton also owned slaves. The show got me thinking and wondering how an actor of colour, diverse ethnicity etc. deals with playing a character who “owned” a person of colour.

Except for Stephen Sondheim and a few others, most Broadway musicals are formulaic, or jukebox musicals with music from other sources tacked into the narrative. Hamilton is purely original and audacious.

How was the actual show? A tsunami of invention says it all. It was like being force-fed 10 pounds of Belgian chocolates….initially delicious but ultimately overwhelmingly rich. I appreciate the artistry of Lin-Manuel Miranda. His lyrics are brilliant and so clever but I mean it when I say it’s relentlessly inventive. It’s as if he is trying to top himself with each song.  And as such Hamilton is exhausting listening so hard to keep the thread of the story. The sound system for this production is terrific but characters often sing so quickly you might loose some facts and words.  Most of the cast do enunciate, but some rush the lyrics.  It’s wise to read the lyrics beforehand to keep all the characters straight. (The lyrics are conveniently online with annotation).

The cast is pulsing with energy. I was grateful for King George—comic relief, lilting music, very funny and the only character on stage who has scenes by himself. Neil Haskell gives a cheeky performance as the arrogant King George.  The other scenes are full of swirling characters and dancers.  However, there comes a time in the second Act, or even in the overlong first Act, when you just want them to shut up, truly, and let you breathe. We get that late in Act II with the song “It’s Quiet Uptown” a song about forgiveness. Delicate, slow and heartbreaking.

Comment. I am glad I saw Hamilton for the second time as it turns out, to have a clear view of the physical accomplishment of the production, and a greater appreciation of the actual accomplishment of the creative force of musical theatre known as Lin-Manuel Miranda. But am also curious about the many detractors who question what was left out.

Ishmael Reed, poet, writer, critic being one. It will be interesting reading about the other side of that story.   

David Mirvish Presents:

Opened: Feb. 12, 2020.

Closes: May 17, 2020.

Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes.

www.mirvish.com

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At the Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Book and lyrics by Tony Kushner

Music by Jeanine Tesori

Directed by Robert McQueen

Musical director, Reza Jacobs

Set by Michael Gianfrancesco

Costumes by Alex Amini

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Sound by Peter McBoyle

Choreography by Tim French

Cast: Moses Aidoo

Damien Atkins

Jully Black

Measha Brueggergosman

Oliver Dennis

Camille Eanga-Selenge

Keisha T. Fraser

Deborah Hay

Alana Hibbert

Linda Kash

Evan LeFeuvre

Steward Adam McKensy

Micah Mensah-Jatoe

Sam Rosenthal

Vanessa Sears

Samantha Walks

A comment rather than a review, again late, with apologies.

Jully Black gives a terrific performance as Caroline in her musical theatre debut.

The Story. It’s 1963, Lake Charles, Louisiana. Caroline Thibodeaux is a black maid working for the Jewish, white, Gellman family. Caroline spends much of her time in the hot basement doing laundry. She is 39 years old and expected to be further ahead at that age than still a maid at $30 a week. She is disappointed by life. Her marriage broke up when her equally disappointed husband hit her in frustration. She forgave him the first time, but not the second. Caroline sings with resentment of turning the other cheek. She comments on her anger as does everyone else it seems.

She has a secret ritual with eight-year-old Noah Gellman. He lights the one cigarette Caroline allows herself. Noah’s mother has recently died. He misses her dearly. He does not like Rose, his new stepmother although Rose is loving and tries to win him over.

Rose is the most perceptive character in the show. She knows how hurt and alone Noah is. She knows her husband Stuart is still grieving for his late wife. She knows that Caroline is angry. Rose knows $30 a week is not enough to pay Caroline but they can’t afford to pay more, so Rose tries to help by telling Caroline she can keep whatever money she finds in Noah’s pants pockets when it comes time to do the wash. Noah always forgets to empty his pockets. This will teach him a lesson. This money also causes the change (yes, the pun is intended) that shifts the narrative.

The Production. Michael Gianfrancesco’s multi-levelled set has Noah’s bedroom on the upper level. It’s also the place where the personification of the moon represented by the magnificent Measha Brueggergosman, shines bright. The ground level is the main house and about three steps down is the hot basement with the washing machine. The basement is Caroline’s domain. Jully Black as Caroline is commanding in this impressive debut to musical theatre. Ms Black of course has made her name as a celebrated singer-songwriter-recording artist. She can now add formidable actress to the list. Her performance as Caroline is fierce and without a shred of sentiment. It takes guts to perform such an unhappy character without wanting to soften her and win us over. Black is measured, contained and dour.

The voice is pure and gets to the heart of every song. She sings of having to turn the other cheek. It makes her bitter. Both Noah and Rose mispronounce Caroline’s name—they say it with a soft ‘i’ and not a long ‘i’ as it was intended and yet she never corrects them. Later Noah does pronounce it properly after a shift in his relationship with her, but Rose remains ignorant of the correct pronunciation because she’s not corrected. It’s interesting trying to put oneself in Caroline’s shoes to ponder why playwright Tony Kushner never had Caroline correct the mispronunciation (afraid for her job? Gives her another reason to be angry?).

When Caroline keeps a $20 bill found in Noah’s pants pocket and won’t give it back, Noah says a racist thing to her in anger. She replies in a calm, cold voice with an equally devastating racist remark. The result in both cases is shattering. As Noah, Evan Lefeuvre is a lovely mix of precocious and shy, confident and awkward.  Damien Atkins is walking sadness as Stuart Gellman, unable to get out of his grief or comfort his equally unhappy son. As Rose Gellman, Deborah Hay illuminates the sadness of the woman. She is out of place and does not know how to find her place to give comfort to her family or to Caroline. There are no villains here, only people who are hurting.

The show is over amplified so the sound often distorts the lyrics. Getting the sound balance right seems the hardest thing in the theatre world and hearing the lyrics clearly, certainly in this almost sung-through show, is crucial. 

Comment. Playwright/lyricist Tony Kushner says that Caroline, or Change is his most autobiographical work. He did grow up in Lake Charles, Louisiana. His parents were musicians (although his mother did not die young).  They had a black maid who worked for his family. He remembers her as angry.

Caroline is unhappy until she realizes that her sadness is hurting her and those around her and she seeks divine help. There is a kind of redemption. The show is challenging because of Caroline’s anger. But the cast and especially Jully Black are so accomplished you stay the course, caring for and trying to understand these wounded people.

Produced by the Musical Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre Company.

Began: Jan. 30, 2020.

Closes: Feb. 16, 2020 (Feb. 16, 3:00 pm performance added).

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx.

www.musicalstagecompany.com

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

Written by Jordan Harrison

Directed by Stewart Arnott

Set and costumes by Gillian Callow

Lighting by Nick Blais

Composer and sound by Bram Gielen

Cast: Beau Dixon

Sarah Dodd

Gordon Hecht

Martha Henry

Apologies for the lateness of this review.

Memory. It’s selective, unreliable, fuzzy, clear and ephemeral. We grasp to hold on to it, lament when we lose it and therefore lose a part of ourselves and  rejoice when we command it.

In Jordan Harrison’s delicate and gripping play Marjorie Prime (Martha Henry) is 85 and losing her memory. She lives with her daughter Tess (Sarah Dodd) and son-in-law Jon (Beau Dixon). Marjorie is a master of deflection. In Martha Henry’s nuanced performance of Marjorie if her memory is hazy on a point, she covers it with a flip of her hands as if shooing the annoyance away. The facial expression is impish as if forgetting is deliberate and planned—a joke. It drives Tess mad. Then there are those troubling moments when Marjorie is in distress at what is happening to her. They are equally as moving.

Tess is loving and concerned about her mother but she has a lot to contend with. She is haunted by a troubled childhood. Her mother gets on her nerves. Jon is more easy-going in his dealing with Marjorie. In a way Tess is the bad cop to Jon’s good cop. All Tess wants is someone who supports her emotionally in her issues with Marjorie. In Sarah Dodd’s wonderful performance as Tess we see a woman always trying hard to hold on to her temper and often losing it. Beau Dixon as Jon is the essence of patience, understanding and reason. While he tries to reason Tess into understanding her mother better that only makes Tess more impatient.

And then there is Walter (Gordon Hecht giving a beautifully measured performance). He is the ‘ideal’ young man—attentive, attractive, considerate and concerned. He just appears from the side of Gillian Gallow’s stylish set of Tess and Jon’s kitchen where he has been sitting quietly. When Walter is not in a scene, he sits in a chair at the side of the stage, watching Marjorie and the action attentively.  Is he Marjorie’s memory of her late husband come to life as a young man? Is he a ghost? Or is his presence something else entirely? In this world of artificial intelligence is Walter an android created to keep Marjorie company and happy in her thoughts? We become more and more aware of these questions as Jordan Harrison’s provocative play progresses. Director Steward Arnott’s sensitive, careful direction also keeps us on our toes. While the behaviour of the characters ‘seems’ normal there are little quirks, slight turns of the head that keep us wondering right to the end—who/what are we looking at? Is it real or is it “Memorex?”

Once again the Coal Mine Theatre has programmed a play that is challenging, embracing and totally engaging.

Coal Mine Theatre presents:

Opened: Jan. 29, 2020.

Closes: Feb. 23. (7:30 pm performance added for Feb. 23).

Running Time: 75 minutes, approx.

www.coalminetheatre.com

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