Heads up and what I’m seeing for the week of Aug. 30-Sept. 5, 2021.

Monday Aug 30 – Sept. 3, 2021

Cahoots, Hot House Lift-Off-Showcase

A showcase of new work by interesting playwrights for Cahoots.

info@cahoots.ca

Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021.

I’m seeing:

THREE TALL WOMEN,

At the Stratford Festival. By Edward Albee. Directed by Diana Leblanc. Starring: Martha Henry, Lucy Peacock and Mamie Zwettler, Andrew Iles.

A play about remembering and all that entails. Complex, funny, Albee. A cast to make you swoon.

It plays until Oct. 9.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. 11 am

Here for Now Theatre, New Works Festival.

I’m seeing:

In Search of Catharsis

Written and performed by Jessica B. Hill and directed by Rodrigo Beilfuss

(Reading Series)

Why are we here?
This ‘making sense of living’ thing is hard, no matter who you are.
Join a member of the Ancient Greek pantheon as she candidly wrestles with the grand improvisation of existence. Something we’ve all been going through….especially this year. Wouldn’t it be nice if life came with a manual?
In Search of Catharsis is a one-person storytelling about our never-ending battle with uncertainty.
It has something to do with science, madness, theatre…and a weasel.
Reality really is what you make of it.

www.herefornowtheatre.com

Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

I’m seeing:

At the Stratford Festival.

SERVING ELIZABETH

VENUE: TOM PATTERSON THEATRE CANOPY

AUGUST 28 – SEPTEMBER 26

Written by Marcia Johnson.

Directed by Kimberley Rampersad.

IN THE SCRIPT OF HISTORY, WHO GETS A SPEAKING ROLE?

In Kenya in 1952, Mercy, a restaurant proprietor, is hired to cater the impending visit of Princess Elizabeth, soon to be Queen. In 2015, another story unfolds in London, England, where a young Kenyan-born Canadian, Tia, is working as an intern on a TV drama series about the British royal family – while also pursuing a writing project of her own. These parallel narratives seem only coincidentally connected – until a surprising twist reveals a deeper relationship between the two.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. 2:00 pm

The Thousand Islands Playhouse,

Gananoque. Ont.

Sexy Laundry

Written by Michael Rimi

Directed by Krista Jackson

Starring: Sarah Dodd and Shawn Wright

“Armed with a copy of “Sex for Dummies,” Alice and Henry check themselves into a trendy spa hotel with a mission: to jump-start their 25-year marriage. Can they embrace all the wild suggestions Alice keeps pulling from her handy-dandy marriage-saving manual? Is Henry prepared to see his fifty-plus wife, and mother of his children, dressed in black leather?”

(I also believe there is a riding crop involved. There are no horses in this show.)

 www.1000islandsplayhouse.com

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Live, in-person on the Harvest Stage, part of the Blyth Festival, Blyth, Ont. Until Sept. 5, 2021.

www.blythfestival.com

Written by Kenneth T. Williams

Directed by Keith Barker

Sound and original music by Heidi Chan

Costumes by Jeff Chief

Cast: April Leung plays the role of Yvette until Aug. 28.

P.J. Prudat plays the role of Yvette from Aug. 31 to Sept. 5.

Background. Inspired by a true story about a Chinese-Cree girl growing up in Saskatchewan in the 1950s and 60s, Kenneth T. Williams’ remarkable play premiered in 2011 in Dawson City to instant acclaim. This tour-de-force tells the story of Charlie Wong who emigrates from China to rural Saskatchewan, and opens a restaurant. But provincial law at the time prevents Charlie from hiring white women to work for him. Katherine, a young Cree woman from a nearby reserve, takes a job at the café. In time, the two fall in love, marry, and have a daughter—Yvette. The play begins in 1957, as nine-year-old Yvette Wong helps out in her parents’ café in Alistair, Saskatchewan. She’s incredibly bright but has been placed in the slow learners’ class because of her skin colour. Her mother Katherine, who was forced to attend a residential school, is conflicted about her identity and has charged Yvette with a secret— to never tell anyone she’s part Cree.

Seen through the hopeful and undaunted eyes of young Yvette, this play touches us all at time when we need it. Williams was originally inspired by the true story of Canada’s first Indigenous Senator, and our first senator of Chinese descent, the trailblazing Lillian Eva Quon Dyck.

The play is really about Yvette and her dream of being a doctor and having to fight prejudice both at home and at school in following her dreams. The play starts with a flashback of the adult Yvette remembering her journey.

Because the play takes place in 1957 language was different. For example, Indigenous people are referred to as “Indians,” a word that sounds jarring to us in 2021 but was ‘appropriate’ in the 1950s, until the reference was changed.

In 1957 Yvette Wong is a bubbly, inquisitive, curious nine-year-old who reads books on ancient Egypt for fun. Her mother is ill and plans are made for her Father, Mother and Yvette to drive to her Mother’s family on the Reservation for medical advice from her mother’s father—who knows about such things. Yvette’s Father is Chinese and her Mother is Cree. Her Mother feels that Yvette will be better served if she doesn’t tell anyone of her Indigenous heritage.

The reality for Yvette in 1957 is rather harsh. Yvette is in the “slow-learner class” which was assumed because she looks different that the ‘white’ kids. A new principal to the school realizes that Yvette is bright and asks her parents for permission to move Yvette into grade 6 instead of keeping her in grade 5. The grade 6 teacher is guilty of the blinkered way of looking at and treating students fairly, and assumes that Yvette should be in the ‘slow’ class until the principal insists.

Yvette blossoms in school. She wants to be a doctor. Yvette’s Mother has faith in her daughter, and supports her in her desire to be a doctor. Unfortunately, her Mother dies soon after and Yvette must navigate her journey herself.

Kenneth T. Williams has written a challenging play about resilience. He shows the small-minded thinking with which Yvette had to contend. Her Father thought that studying medicine was a waste of time for a girl. She should marry and her husband should take care of her and her family. In school Yvette had the support of a teacher to apply for a scholarship, but that idea changed when the teacher found out about Yvette’s Indigenous heritage.

It’s bracing to see that Yvette never lost her sense of curiosity, her integrity or her resolve in meeting every challenge and studying for what she wanted. That Café Daughter is inspired by a true story adds weight to the message. The racism that Indigenous people endured in 1957 was pretty brutal as was the racism if one was of another ethnicity. Yvette was the target of many racial slurs and she handled it all with dignity.

The set is simple on the beautiful Harvest Stage. A few doors, one of which has a simple menu on it, establishes the café run by Yvette’s father. As Yvette, April Leung is energetic, accommodating, always cheerful in her own way, never showing resentment or despair. Keith Barker has directed with economy and a good use of the space. Since April Leung plays all the parts in this one-person show, distinguishing characters in speeches is key. She (and director Keith Barker) have devised various movements and body language to establish characters. For Yvette, April Leung sits up straight with her knees together. As her supporting teacher, she sits forward a bit and her legs are spread, suggesting this is a man speaking. The shifting from one character to another is smooth and seamless.

Two actresses play the part of Yvette. April Leung played the part until Saturday, Aug. 28.

P.J. Prudat will play Yvette from Tuesday, Aug. 31 to Sept. 5.

P.J. Pruat is a fine actress in her own right. I would have loved to have seen her play Yvette for her run of the show, but alas, time does not permit. Don’t miss the chance to see this moving play of resilience with a fine actress in the part.

The Blyth Festival presents:

Plays until: Sept. 5, 2021.

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

www.blythfestical.com

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Live and in person at 4th Line Theatre, in the barn yard, Millbrook, Ont. until Aug. 28, 2021.

www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca

Created and performed by Megan Murphy and Kate Suhr

Directed by Kim Blackwell

Set by Ian Burns

Sound by Bill Porter and Alan Stanley

Musician, Saskia Tomkins

What do you do if you are a musician and story-teller who are used to performing your show for eager audiences but the pandemic has shut down everything for months and months? If you are story-teller Megan Murphy and her good friend musician Kate Suhr you lament; you grieve, you despair and then you create stories that lift the spirits and write songs that encapsulate what you have been feeling for those isolating months and months. Then you hope to present your creation to perhaps five families who would invite you to their verandahs to hear the songs and stories.  

At least, that was the plan.

Megan Murphy and Kate Suhr reckon they have presented their show, The Verandah Society on 120 verandahs at last count. That show has culminated with an extended run at 4th Line Theatre on the Winslow Farm where they are in residence until Aug. 28. The show is a charmer and it’s presented beautifully.

Ian Burns has designed two spacious verandahs in the barn yard of the farm—one for Megan Murphy and one for Kate Suhr. Each verandah is full of hanging flower pots, comfortable furniture (table and chairs) and the expectation of visitors.

Megan Murphy stole the title for the show, The Verandah Society, from her uncle who was a radio host on a station out of Peterborough. He wrote wonderful stories and called the show The Verandah Society, so Megan Murphy and Kate Suhr decided to (uh) ‘borrow’ the title for their own show, which, considering where they performed the show, was a perfect title.

Murphy’s stories detailed her career in morning radio out of Peterborough. She talked of working the very early morning shift, trying to engage listeners and trying to be interested. She wrote a story about befriending an elderly woman who came to her door with a bible, determined to win Murphy over to the ways of the Lord. Murphy details this event with care, nuance and wonderful humour. She writes about faith and how eager she was to make a friend when she lived in the suburbs with the man she thought she would marry. And she wrote of food, with great gusto and relish. She secreted an Oreo cookie in her pocket. She writes of her love of her nieces and the adventures they experienced. One day they found a sidewalk ‘library’ in which were not only books, but a baggy of old recipe cards. Murphy took them. She read them to us in the process. Wonderful.  Her stories are lovely and human and kind. 

Megan Murphy wore wide-legged tan slacks and a flowy top reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn in the 1940s. But it was Murphy’s saddle shoes that mesmerized me. My late mother always wore saddle shoes when I was a kid growing up. She wore them until they fell apart, brittle and cracked. Then she would get another pair. Have you ever tried finding saddle shoes anywhere today? Impossible. You have to go to the deep recesses of the internet and then pay a fortune. I looked at Megan Murphy’s saddle shoes with longing and sweet memories.

Kate Suhr favoured flowery long dresses which she wore for each of her four songs. Suhr writes of the soul-crushing emotions of the pandemic; how she and we coped or not. She sang of living slower and with more care. She has a lovely, sweet voice, a calming stage demeanor and a wonderful rapport with Megan Murphy.

They are joined by musician Saskia Tomkins on violin and cello. Murphy calls her a “magical creature.” Absolutely right. Her playing and music are infectious. Trying NOT to tap your toe when she plays, is futile.

Director Kim Blackwell does her usual magic by staging each performer in a seamless manner. Nothing is jarring and the space is used as naturally as if we were on a verandah for a cup of lemonade. Each line is delivered with nuance and heart.

A quibble about the piece—we are all so grateful to be back as are the two performers, that they might go on a teeny bit past the need to express how glad they are to be back. A bit of a snip here and there would strengthen the piece. But as I said, a quibble.

The loyal 4th Line Theatre audience gathered, masked and packed the place. We were all handed a seat cushion and a program. Before the show we were offered an icepack of a baggy in which was a sponge (I think) sopping with water and then frozen. A lovely idea. And when we left we were offered a recipe from a basket, like the recipes that Murphy found in the street-library. 4th Line Theatre is back with a wonderful show and the same care they show to audiences as always.

4th Line Theatre presents:

Plays until Aug. 28.

Running time: 100 minutes.

www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca

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Live, in person, under the Festival Theatre Canopy at the Stratford Festival until September 5:

www.stratfordfestival.ca

Curated, directed, musical directed by Beau Dixon

Lighting by Kaileigh Krysztofiak

Sound by Peter McBoyle

Music arrangements, Beau Dixon

The Singers:

Robert Ball

Alana Bridgewater

Beau Dixon

Camille Eanga-Selenge

Gavin Hope (Standby)

The Band:

Beau Dixon, Conductor, keyboard

Rohan Station, Acoustic guitar, electric guitar

Roger Williams, Acoustic bass, electric bass

Paul Antonio, Drum kit

Joe Bowden, Percussion

A rousing, throbbing cabaret of songs and words about freedom.

The subtitle of the Freedom Cabaret is: “Spirit and Legacy of Black Music.” The description of what the cabaret is about is clear and resounding: “From the moment Black people landed on North American soil, their music took room and became the basis of much of the popular music we hear today. There is an endless list of exceptional Black musicians who have been lost to history, while their white counterparts gained fame. From church hymnals to the blues, from jazz to rock ‘n’ roll, R & B and rap, we owe much of our musical history to Black culture, and it’s time to give credit where credit is due.”

And in his own program note, Beau Dixon writes: “Black music, at its heart, is about freedom—not just the idea of social and economic freedom driven by racial injustice, but a freedom of the mind and soul. It’s possible that the Black voice is singing for all people who are seeding freedom from within.”

In Beau Dixon’s meticulously curated cabaret of 23 songs and a reading, the spirit and legacy of Black music is clear and bold. The cabaret is divided into categories: Negro Spirituals, Silent Voices, Message Lost in the Voices, Encore, and Reading (Emancipation Poem by Haui (Howard J. Davis). Within these categories are songs such as “Freedom for My People”, “Trouble So Hard”, “When the Levee Breaks”, “Hound Dog”, “Crossroad Blues”, “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free.” “Pata Pata” “Change is Gonna Come”. 

Dixon puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of Bob Marley and his songs in the expression of freedom and emancipation. He includes four Bob Marley songs: “One Love”, “Zimbabwe”, “Slave Driver,” and “Redemption Song,” “One Love” might seem a gentle one but it has a solid message. The others by Marley are more pointed in their intention.

The Blues are given their due with a fascinating comment—that even though they depict a darkness in their lyrics, they also convey a humour and wink as well.  Beau Dixon said that a lot of the blues were written by or for female artists. I wish he had expanded on that fascinating fact with more examples.  

The cast of four bring their own gifts to each song and interpretation: Robert Ball has a beautiful tenor voice and a courtly manner and imbues his singing and interpretation with poignancy; Alana Bridgewater digs deep through her rich voice and puts the heart and soul into such songs as “Hound Dog” and “Home is Where the Heart Is” among others. Camille Eanga-Selenge has a pure soprano voice and sings “Pata Pata” by Miriam Makeba and Jerry Ragovoy with all the intoxicating rhythm contained in that celebrated song. Beau Dixon seems to be able to do anything. Music pours out of him he is so gifted. He curated the Cabaret choosing the songs carefully and who would sing them; he is the music director; he plays the keyboards and multiple harmonicas as further accompaniment; he is the music arranger; a performer and the conductor of the cabaret. He would make a kicking motion for further percussive emphasis. And when one thought he must be getting tired, he flopped on the ground and did three full pushups. I was exhausted.

At one point towards the end of the concert, Dixon yelled out that he had something to say. The band played quieter to let him speak. What followed was a list of various people of colour who were leaders in creating inventions, accomplishments, social change and the young girl who won the championship spelling Bee. I have a quibble here, about the sound. I can appreciate that it’s thought the audience should hear both the singers and the band. I just wonder why the band has to be as loud in amplification as the singers. The band is supposed to support the singers not drown them out. I found that happened occasionally during Freedom. Some of the lyrics of some songs were drowned out by the band.  I would like to have heard that list of people and what they invented-accomplished without the attendant amplification. Also, Camille Eanga-Selenge had a speech that seemed very important but I could not make out what she was saying because she was drowned out. The message of all these songs and speeches is important. We have to hear the lyrics. Nothing will be diminished if the amplification of the band is decreased. In fact the message will be heard ‘loud’ and clear, which is the point.

In any case, Beau Dixon’s curation of Freedom is a huge accomplishment, an education, and an eye-opener regarding music by Black artists. And it’s seductive—the message is pointed but the music gets you swaying to the beat and tapping your toe. It’s music that came from pain but expresses joy.

Produced by The Stratford Festival.

Plays until: Sept. 5, 2021.

Running Time:  1 hour 30 minutes.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

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Live, in person, in Springwater Provincial Park, Barrie, Ont. This short run closed but will be remounted Oct. 28-30, 2021 at the Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto.

www.tift.ca

A wise, wonderful friend of mine who knows everything about the theatre has gently, kindly told me of a point in my comment on Into the Woods that needs correcting. I was mortified when he told me what it is and totally agree. While I noted in the credits at the top that James Lapine wrote the book of the show, in the body of the comments it’s always Stephen Sondheim that I credit for any cleverness in the story, book etc. I will correct it now. James Lapine came up with the idea of Into the Woods, wrote the book of the show and should of course be credited throughout the comments.

Book by James Lapine

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Directed by Michael Torontow

Music director, Wayne Gwillim

Choreography by David Andrew Reid

Set and lighting by Joe Pagnan

Costumes by Laura Delchiaro

Sound by Matt Dawson

Cast: Noah Beemer

Tess Benger

Aidan deSalaiz

Griffin Hewitt

Derek Kwan

Richard Lam

Jamie McRoberts

Tracy Michailidis

Glynis Ranney

Kelsey Verzotti

Young company: Brennan Bielefeld

Brooklyn Chenard

Griffin Dauphinee

Jack Dimou

Owen Hinton

Matthew MacQuarrie-Cottle

Charlee Rochon

Band:

Music director/pianist, Wayne Gwillim

Piccolo, flute, clarinet, Dennis Kwok

Violin, Emily Hiemstra

Cello, Alyssa Wright

Percussion, Jamie Drake.

This is how I described the 2019 ‘slightly staged’ concert of Into the Woods directed by Michael Torontow for Talk is Free Theatre:

“This production of Into the Woods is billed as a concert that is ‘slightly staged.’ That doesn’t come close to describing the miraculous production director Michael Torontow has created with his gifted creative team and his cast of accomplished pros and up and coming student young performers.”

Michael Torontow has upped the ante on that production with a recent very short run of the show with lots of new cast members, this time playing outdoors in a clearing in Springwater Provincial Park, surrounded by woods, in Barrie, Ont. Stunning.

And to make matters perfect the park is actually managed by the Beausoleil First Nations. Every single thing about this production is magical and exquisite.

James Lapine came up with the idea of taking several fairy tales: Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Bean Stalk, Rapunzel, mixed them up and added a baker and his wife who longed for a child, a witch with anger issues and a penchant for throwing curses on people and all manner of other complications. In all cases the characters were searching for happiness. They all had individual wishes, but they really wanted to be happy. Lapine gives the characters a happy ending by the end of Act I. Then they have to face the realities of life in Act II and sometimes happiness is not an option. Acceptance is.

A Baker and his Wife long for a child but they find out that the Witch next door put a curse on them because the Baker’s father took some magic beans from the Witch’s garden years before. The Witch will “reverse the curse”  if they gather some items, one of which is a cloak as red as blood that belongs to Little Red. There are dashing princes who are more charming than sincere; Cinderella who is not all that keen on going off with a prince; the prickly relationship with the Witch and her daughter; and the interweaving of familiar fairy tales with original stories.

No one can musicalize this rocky road to happiness better than Stephen Sondheim in his music and lyrics and he is blazing here. The collaboration with James Lapine is a match made in musical theatre heaven. Lapine has that ability to tell a quirky story with all the bumps and detours needed for his characters to realize that happiness might have always been there. His dialogue is pristine and brisk and simply creates the proper image and moment. Cinderella is disappointed in her wayward Prince and wonders what kind of King he would make if his flagrant behaviour is any indication. He replies: “I was raised to be charming not sincere.” Sondheim takes complex language and rhymes and adds to the depth of the characters. I must confess that at times Sondheim seems to have gone on too long with his cleverness–The witch’s itemizing of her greens comes to mind in Act I and the character’s recounting in “Your Fault” who’s fault it was that they were being threatened by a giant in Act II, are but two of many instances.

This cast of musical comedy pros—both returning and new artists in the cast–handle Sondheim’s intricate, dazzling lyrics and music. Aidan deSalaiz has grown in his performance of the Baker. He still plays him as anxious, but there is a maturity, a sensitivity that has blossomed; Jamie McRoberts plays the Baker’s Wife with a quiet wisdom and commitment and sings beautifully; Tracy Michailidis is terrific as the Witch. This is a nuanced, multi-layered, fearless performance; Griffin Hewitt is elegantly courtly, if a bit wayward, as Cinderella’s Prince, one of the self-absorbed wicked step-sisters and  others; Richard Lam is Rapunzel’s Prince, another smarmy step-sister and  Jack’s sickly cow, Milky White, among others; Glynis Ranney is the casually arrogant  step-mother to Cinderella and with a change of hat, Jack’s harried mother; Noah Beemer is a naïve but loving Jack and an arrogant Steward; Tess Benger is a charmer Cinderella who is her own person and sings beautifully; Kelsey Verzotti  plays Little Red with sass and feistiness and Rapunzel with anxiety from being locked up alone; and Derek Kwan plays the Narrator with a lovely courtliness and a Mysterious Man with disarming gruffness. Every single one of them sings beautifully.

But the star for me continues to be director Michael Torontow. When he first directed this in 2019 indoors in Barrie it was his first professional directing gig. Arkady Spivak, Talk is Free Artistic Producer has cast Michael Torontow in many of TIFT shows as a singing actor or an actor who sings. Spivak has an eye for talent and knows when to move people to the next challenge. In Michael Torontow’s case it was directing. Spivak does not drop his talent in the deep end and hopes they will swim. He knows they can swim, He gives them challenges that scare them and they overcome them. In the case of Torontow he rose to the challenge and set the bar high for others.

But directing outdoors in a wood just seemed to raise the ante. Torontow rose to the occasion effortlessly. His transitions between scenes and his entrances and exits of his actors are seamless. He stages his large cast with economy and efficiency. Scenes are clear and not muddy.

Joe Pagnan’s set is simple with the band up and almost out of sight. Little tree stumps dot the upstage area where the cast will sit with their backs to the audience when they aren’t in a scene. That is masterful. The cast is ‘invisible’ when they are not in a scene so we are not distracted by watching them. Wayne Gwillim conducts the terrific band excellently. It was a very short run of only four performances. So glad I saw this. Looking forward when it plays the Winter  Garden Theatre in Toronto in October 28-30, 2021.

Talk is Free Theatre presented this:

www.tift.ca

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Live and in person at the Festival Theatre Canopy at the Stratford Festival, until September 26, 2021.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

Written by William Shakespeare

Adapted by Ravi Jain, Christine Horne and Alex Bulmer

Designed by Julie Fox

Lighting by André du Toit

Composer and sound designer, Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Alex Bulmer

Eponine Lee

Dante Jammott

Beck Lloyd

Lisa Nisson

Sepehr Reybod

Rick Roberts

Tom Rooney

This is a re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet with the Friar being the central character as he remembers the events that lead to Romeo and Juliet taking their own lives. Director Ravi Jain always gets me to ponder and question the choices being made, the concept and other aspects of his productions, and the question I asked most often here was “Why”?

NOTE: Director, Ravi Jain questions who has the right to tell the story and why can’t a classic be told from a different point of view. History would suggest that anybody has the right to tell the story and of course a classic can be told from a different point of view.

In his 2019 production of Prince Hamlet we saw the play from the point of view of Horatio. He was played by deaf actor Dawn Jani Birley who signed/acted the performance with great enthusiasm.  Her deafness influenced the production and Horatio’s relationships with the other characters. A story that might be familiar, now took on ‘the unfamiliar’ for a different point of view.

With R + J the central character is Friar Lawrence played by blind actor Alex Bulmer. Her blindness also affects how the production progresses. The production is described as being for those who are sight-impaired, have low vision and sighted audiences. It was fascinating seeing the decisions that were made to adapt the concept of blindness to the play.

The Story. We know the story. Romeo and Juliet see each other at a party and instantly fall in love. Except that their respective families have been feuding for years (the reason for the feud is lost in the mist of time). Juliet’s family wants to marry her off to Paris,  a young man who has money and position. She loves Romeo. The Friar agrees to marry them. There is a fight in the street between Tybolt from the Capulet side and Mercutio from the Montague’s side. Mercutio is killed. Romeo avenges his death by killing Tybalt and as a result is banished to another city. Friar Lawrence sends a letter to Romeo with vital information for him but because there is a plague there that quarantines people, the letter wasn’t delivered. Juliet is to marry Paris but the Friar gives her a potion that will make her seem as if she is dead. It’s all complicated and it ends badly for every single young person in this play. The adults, who are mainly responsible, get to live another day and continue to be idiots, you don’t get the sense they have much sense. The Friar relives his many memories of the events that lead to R + J’s demise.

The Production. In keeping with the idea that this is for sight-impaired and low-vision audiences, we are told the cast is entering the acting space and forming a straight line across the stage. In turn each actor steps forward, introduces themselves, describes themselves and introduces the character they will play. Rick Roberts who plays Capulet describes himself: grey hair, tall, and his character Capulet: very assured and looks casual but worked for hours to get the look. (Capulet is a symphony in beige shirt, pants, tanned loafers, no socks—the sign of a very confident man. I’m always impressed with a person who wears expensive shoes and no socks). When he is finished with his introduction, Rick Roberts steps back into line.

This follows for the whole cast except for Alex Bulmer as the Friar. When it’s Alex Bulmer’s turn to be introduced, the cast (except for Bulmer) steps back one step thus presenting Bulmer on her own. I loved the care here in accommodating Bulmer’s blindness. Rather than expect Bulmer to step forward as the others, without an anchoring marker to help guide her, they took care and just moved back one step so she could introduce herself and the Friar. (I assume, rightly or wrongly, this was Ravi Jain’s director’s decision. In any case, I loved the care). The cast is a mix of ethnicities, genders and ages.    

The production is set in modern times and the place is the Friar’s apartment (cell). Julie Fox has created a set full of flowers, plants and herbs (for the Friar’s experiments in potions), an old-fashioned refrigerator is upstage, a single bed is stage left, a table and chair are centre.  The costumes for the characters, except the humble Friar, are contemporary, hip, bold.

Because the play is cut considerably recordings of speeches take the place of actual performances. We hear a recorded speech at the beginning of the taunting of one family member against a member of the rival family: “Do you bite your thumb at me, Sir?” The quality of the recording is rather murky, and one would need to know the play to realize that is the set up for the beginning of the play and the establishment of the feud.

The Friar (Alex Bulmer) is on stage for the whole of the production, as witness and person remembering the events. I appreciate how Bulmer negotiated her way around the stage using parts of the set as markers. She rose from her chair, felt her way along the arm to the back of the chair and then a reach out to the ledge at the back of the stage and got her to feel her way along the back. She drank from a cup on the table, stirring whatever it was she was drinking, living/being naturally in that blind world. Occasionally she took the arm of another character and was led to her bed etc.

The interesting thing about having the Friar as the focus, remembering various events for which he now feels responsible,  is that the Friar wasn’t actually at many of the events he is ‘remembering.’ Ravi Jain solves this conundrum by having Benvolio telling the Friar of an incident. So in fact the Friar is recalling the conversations he has been told.  

The other characters were introduced in quick succession: the commanding, imperious Capulet (Rick Roberts), his stylish, cool wife, Lady Capulet (Beck Lloyd), the Nurse (Tom Rooney) a loving but silly woman, the bubbly, sweet Juliet (Eponine Lee), the always love-sick Romeo (Dante Jemmott), his two impetuous friends: Mercutio (Sepehr Reybod) and Benvolio (Lisa Nasson), and their sworn enemy, the always combative and compelling Tybalt (Beck Lloyd).

Because of COVID the story is kept to 1 hour and 30 minutes and is cut to its bare bones—R + J now seems like initials cut into a tree to sum up a relationship. Social distancing is evident in the staging. Except when the Friar takes a character’s arm there is no touching, certainly no kissing or hugging. Therefore, any sense of a passionate love between Romeo and Juliet is chaste.

However, there is the ‘ick’ factor that can’t be ignored. In Shakespeare’s day and the play, Juliet was two weeks shy of her 14th birthday. Her parents wanted her to marry Paris who had money and position. Lady Capulet emphasized she was not only married but a mother by the time she was Juliet’s age. All well and good. But this play is set in the modern day. Eponine Lee who plays Juliet is actually 14-years-old. Dante Jemmott as Romeo is not a teenager, he’s in his early 20s. Such a relationship between a young teen and a man in his early twenties is, well, rather, “icky” “creepy” if you want to be literary. We are also informed by our raging world. On my way to see this production I was listening to the horrifying news in Afghanistan. An Afghan woman reported that the Taliban would strip women of any rights they had. No education, work, presence. They would be covered and locked away. And she said we could expect to hear of forced marriages of girls as young as 12-years-old. Ick.

How does casting a 14-year-old to play a part as complex as Juliet inform the play? I have enjoyed seeing Ms Lee’s talents grow over the years but an actual 14-year-old playing Juliet? And the same with a 21-year-old university grad playing Romeo? Hmmm my eyebrows are knitting.

I’m sight-impaired. I was intrigued to know how this production would be helpful to me in presenting the play in a different way. I found it was not. Too often characters were placed to block my seeing them properly. Tybalt was introduced leaning against a wall, challenging members of the Montague family. The problem is that I couldn’t see him because another character was placed downstage, blocking my view of Tybalt.

Similarly, when Capulet enters the stage to insist Juliet marry Paris, he is upstage and downstage right in front of him is Lady Capulet. She stands in front of a bench. Does Ravi Jain have her sit during that scene so that I and others in that ‘view’ can see Capulet? No. Lady Capulet blocks him for his whole scene. Was this deliberate? Why?

Capulet really only has two scenes in this production. We get a sense of the bully he is when he begins to yell at Juliet that she will marry Paris. But then Ravi Jain has a thunder storm rumbling in the distance that gets louder as Capulet does, and then the sound of rain pelting down gets even louder and anything Capulet is saying is drowned out by the ear-splitting rain and thunder. Why would you negate a character’s speech with a sound effect? Why would you do that to an actor?

In Shakespeare’s play Romeo first sees Juliet at a party that he is crashing, at her house and it’s love at first sight. Not in Ravi Jain’s concept. Juliet hurries on from the stage left wing and goes centre stage with a microphone to sing a song at the party. Romeo comes in from the same wing a bit after her and hears her singing first and is smitten before he sees her. I guess this continues on the theme of love is blind, except the true meaning of “love is blind” is that love is blind to any fault or imperfections. Changing the focus of the scene from love at first sight to love at first hearing just doesn’t ring true.

Comment. I appreciate that Ravi Jain always has provocative ideas in his productions. He makes me look hard and think accordingly about why he made the choices he did. But I found his production of R + J disappointing and unconvincing. It’s a concept in search of a play.

The Stratford Festival in collaboration with Why Not Theatre presents:

Runs until: September 26, 2021.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

 www.stratfordfestival.ca

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Live, in person under the canopy in the back lawn of the Bruce Hotel, Stratford, Ont. as part of the Here for Now Theatre, New Works Festival.

So, how’s it been?

Created by writer-director Liza Balkan and composer/musical director, Paul Shilton

Additional songs by Katherine Wheatley and Bruce Horak

Cast: Barb Fulton,

Evanglia Kambites

Marcus Nance

Trevor Patt

Liza Balkan, writer-director-Stratford resident began a project in the summer of 2020, interviewing people who live and work in Stratford to see how they were doing in the pandemic. She interviewed business owners, employees, artists, nurses, retirees, kids, farmers, actors, and parents. Then she and composer-musical director Paul Shilton put those words from the conversations into songs. Liza Balkan also directed this bringing out the nuance and subtleties of each song.

So, how’s it been? is the result, a song cycle of how people coped during the pandemic; the highs, lows, in-betweens; the stuff that was funny, sad, odd, curious, interesting and eye-opening. While we hear the words from the actual interviews and then the songs they formed, it was the performers who made the immediate connection with their recollections.

Barb Fulton looked on this as a little break—at the beginning of the pandemic. She described having a tightness in her chest, wondering if she even wanted to perform anymore. As the pandemic lasted longer and longer that idea changed. Could she even do it anymore. She is such an engaging singer/performer, one hopes she wants to continue performing. Certainly the show afforded her an opportunity to find out for sure.

Trevor Patt had plans to buy a house and a dog and……But then the pandemic happened. Jobs were lost, money was tight. Puppies need to eat. He sang and played his guitar with a quiet self-deprecation and quiet humour.  

Marcus Nance and Evangelia Kambites are two terrific singer/actors. They imbue their songs with heart, nuance and humour. They also bring a different perspective most of us do not experience: they are two Black actors in a white town and in their recollections they talk about subtle and not so subtle racism. Marcus Nance owns a house in Stratford and loves to garden, and when the flies are particularly bad he wears a ‘hoodie’ to protect himself while he works in his garden. He talked of people who have seen him on stage and praised him and see him in his garden and assume he is working a second job and not tending his garden of his house.

Evangelia Kambites talks of walking her dog at night when a man in a pickup truck drove by and rolled down his window and called out, “That’s a cute dog.” ‘Ordinarily’ this would seem like someone being a jerk and we would slough it off. But Kambites is a Black woman walking her dog at night in a white town and the call out the window is not innocuous; it’s dangerous and puts her on alert. These are two stories that put the majority of us in their world just for a sobering short period of time. Something of which to be mindful.

The group sings of the geese, the damned geese. They used a stronger word, more appropriate, but I won’t use it here. And what these geese leave all over the place to slip and slide in and mess up the area. They all sing of frustrations, fears, claustrophobia, not being able to visit a loved one in a long-care facility.

They expressed the joys they found in the time they had. Marcus Nance loved the time at home in Stratford with his husband. He talked of the joy of that personal time, eating a delicious breakfast of croissants, scrambled eggs, bacon and the very best coffee, and described it with such intoxicating reverie, I almost forgot myself, wanting to put up my hand and ask for his address, to invite myself next time.

Barb Fulton sang a wonderfully poignant song of a woman whose husband has dementia and she was desperate to keep him at home and not have to put him in a ‘home’ because then she wouldn’t see him often.

So, how’s it been? is a beautifully crafted show of dealing with the pandemic in all its good and bad ways. And it’s created by artists who will not be stopped in creating. Lovely work.

Here For Now Theatre, New Works Festival presents:

Plays until: September 5, 2021.

Running Time: 1 hour, no intermission.

www.herefornowtheatre.com

The Wonder of it All

Written by Mark Weatherley

Directed by Seana McKenna

Cast: Monique Lund

Mark Weatherley

Charmaine and Kingsley met at a party. She was classy, sophisticated and confident. He wore a silly hat and played the ukulele. He was nerdy, old-fashioned and ‘slightly out of tune.’ She wasn’t interested until one time she was in distress and sat on a stoop in the rain and he sat right with her, stroking her hair, silently telling her with that gesture, it would be ok.

They got married of course. That kind of consideration is not to be ignored. Twenty-five years later there is trouble in the marriage. They snipe, argue, get exasperated and frustrated. I’m reminded of a card I got once with a quote from Lillian Hellman: “People change and forget to tell each other.” And of course how do you even begin to talk about it. Temptation is introduced. How will this resolve itself?

Mark Weatherley has written a funny, sweet play about communication, the rocky road to love and marriage, commitment and the importance of sitting beside someone you love, in the rain, getting soaked but stroking her hair to tell her it will be ok.

Weatherley also plays Kingsley in it with Monique Lund who plays Charmaine. Lund also happens to be Mark Weatherley’s wife. The two have a chemistry that is obvious. Their banter seems to have been honed to a sheen over years of bantering. They flip lines off each other as two people who are familiar with each other can and know the other’s timing.

As Charmaine, Lund is sophisticated, a bit exasperated by Kingsley, and frustrated by the stall in their marriage. As Kingsley, Weatherley brings a sweet goofiness to the part, as Kingsley was all those years ago. That goofiness is Kingsley’s protection. He knows there is trouble in the marriage. He so wants it to work but is at a loss about getting that feeling back. Love always finds a way.

Director Seana McKenna works with the chemistry of her two actors and uses her acting smarts to realize the nuance and shading of this relationship. She has created a delicate production in which we cheer for and urge these two characters to work hard to talk to each other and go back to what it was that attracted them in the first place.

Weatherley has such an irreverent way with a line. He talks about regret at a missed opportunity,  and quotes that famous line from Casablanca  (which I will not quote here—see the show and you’ll know), and we know it will be ok. They will always have the ukulele.

Here for Now Theatre New Works Festival:

Plays until: September 5, 2021.

Running Time: 1 hour, no intermission.

www.herefornowtheatre.com

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Live and in person in a private backyard in Innisfil, Ont. Part of the Bees in the Bush Festival, from Talk is Free Theatre and Outside the March. To August 28, 2021.

www.tift.ca

Written and performed by Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson

Directed by Aaron Willis

Production designed by Anahita Dehbonehie

Stupidhead is a musical about dyslexia. More to the point, it’s a musical about how writer/performer Katherine Cullen copes with having dyslexia. Her dyslexia is not the ‘ordinary’ kind in which letters are mixed up when writing. Hers concerns spatial issues and math. She has no sense of direction.

She tells the story when she was a kid, of visiting her friend Danny, who lived next door, and not being able to find her way home. Katherine’s mother asked Danny’s mother to take Katherine home when the kids finished playing, but Danny’s mother thought Katherine’s mother was joking, so she didn’t take her home. And Katherine took hours to find her way home because she turned the wrong way up the street.

The story is poignant and is told with such warmth and humour your heart melts. By her own admission Katherine Cullen has no musical training and no musical ability. But she loves the form. So she went to her friend Britta Johnson ,who is musically trained and has musical ability gushing out of her fingers and her voice, and asked her to help create a musical about her dyslexia for an event.  Britta said yes. When is the event she asked?  The event was in two days. The songs were written. They are wonderful. That was the beginning of Stupidhead.

I’ve seen the show about three times over the last few years. Once in a theatre in Toronto a few years ago and loved it; once a few months ago as an audio presentation and it was revelatory—the rapport between Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson in that audio version was vibrant, lively and loving; and then again a few days ago in Innisfil, in a backyard.

The show has grown. There is now a rather vibrant pink and silver backdrop by Anahita Dehbonehie that adds to the show. There is a crinkled bit on the backdrop which represents a brain. Katherine is fearless in her singing and puts her whole heart into each song. She moves around the set with agility and ease. Britta sits at the keyboard, usually smiling as she listens intently to Katherine, as if for the first time.

Aaron Willis directs with care. He brings the best out of both women as they engage with each other and the music. Stupidhead is about never giving in to doubts, difficulties, or disappointment. It’s about coping with a disability and making it work. And you can sing about it too and the result is joyful.  

An OUTSIDE THE MARCH production.

Plays until: August 28, 2021.

Running Time: one hour, no intermission

www.tift.ca

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The Harvest Stage, Blyth Festival Photo: Gil Garratt

Live on the Harvest Stage, Blyth Festival, Blyth, Ont. Until Aug. 22.

www.blythfestival.com

Written and performed by Sheryl Scott

Directed by Desirée Baker

Millie Johnson is a multi-tasker. As a farmer’s wife in rural New Brunswick in the early 1950s and the mother of five girls, she has to be. And she’s a wonderful story-teller. She tells stories about her observations of her neighbours and the farm animals; how a cow moos when it is suffering milking pains, and the various gradations of that mooing until we all know a cow is in distress and should be milked immediately!! Millie tells stories (and making herself laugh in the recollection) when she’s folding one of the full baskets of laundry she does regularly. Millie tells stories when she bakes her six (!) daily loaves of bread that are beautifully fragrant, fluffy-on-the-inside-crusty-on-the-outside. Millie tells stories while flitting back and for the in her kitchen, taking breaks only to put her feet up or dance. Millie loves to dance.

Millie is married to Adler Johnson whom she described this way: “For a man of few words, you know how to speak them perfectly.” Adler has a grade five education but his wisdom, smarts and perception go to create a decent, loving man and a perfect partner for Millie. Besides when they met for the first time at a dance he wore Aqua Velva cologne and Millie was instantly his. Millie says that there are three smells that are perfect in the world: the smell of her freshly baked bread, the smell of a new-born baby and Aqua Velva.

While Millie says that Adler is a man of few words, he also seems to convey a world of communication with a wink and a smile. One day he said to Millie that perhaps they could try and have a boy after five girls. Millie wasn’t sure. She was over 40-years-old. But Adler gave her a wink and a smile and nine months later, their son Scott was born. But he didn’t look ‘right’ as someone said. Scott was born with “the Downs,” Down Syndrome. The doctor said it would be a short life of hardship for the boy and suggested they put the boy in an institution. Millie’s caustic mother suggested the same thing. But Millie and her family had other ideas.

The Downs by Sheryl Scott is a charmer of a piece. It’s full of kindness that is obvious from watching Millie get through her day, laughing, dancing, folding and story-telling. It is loaded with home truths we all recognize no matter where we live or our marital situation. Sheryl Scott has created in Millie and her family the bedrock of decency, in which family is the most important thing, and every member of that family, no matter if they look ‘right’ or not, gets unconditional love. Scott has created quirky language that will have us all trying to remember a turn of phrase—that line about Adler—“For a man of few words you know to speak them perfectly” is a case in point. Millie is a quiet philosopher when she says that we don’t find our worth in other people’s opinions—a philosophy we would be wise to remember.

Sheryl Scott has endless energy as Millie. She is on the move for almost the whole play, taking only a few breaks to put her feet up and catch her breath before she is off on another tear around the kitchen. Desirée Baker has directed the production with a clear eye for detail. Five dresses, in varying sizes. hang on the laundry line indicating the ages of the five girls in that family. A racoon hat sits on a ledge—it was referenced in one of Millie’s stories; there is a crocheted blanket draped over a chair and there is a kitchen table with a few props. Everything that needs to be said about that neat kitchen is in that simple design. Everything that needs to be said about Millie as a gracious, loving woman is in Sheryl Scotts lovely performance.

Ms Baker directs with subtlety. At the end of the show Millie bends low to take Scott’s hands (this is suggested) to dance. He is obviously a small child then. And as Millie continues to dance she stands up straight as if dancing with a tall man. Is this a spoiler or just pointing out a sensitive director telling us gently that the doom and gloom of the doctor, about Scott’s life expectancy was totally wrong.  

A few words on the Harvest Stage. In the middle of a pandemic, when Gil Garratt, the artistic director of the Blyth Festival had to put the season on hold last year and close the indoor theatre in Memorial Hall, Garratt and the good people of the festival did something wild—they created another stage. They found a soccer field that had been abandoned for 30 years and decided to build a permanent outdoor stage there. June 6 there was nothing. Last weekend there was a wonderful wood structure with a wood stage and space for an eager audience that could be socially distanced and safe. The space is called The Harvest Stage and Gil Garratt stood on it, and in an emotional speech welcomed us back.

The audience sits in comfortable chairs on a concrete curve around the stage. Fresh sod was laid between the audience and the stage and we were kindly told not to walk on the sod because it was fragile. There is a covering in the structure over the audience. Five large storage containers are ‘back-stage’ which are for offices, an air-conditioned dressing-room, and other uses. Nathanya Barnett  the able, efficient, kind house-manager assures patrons at a certain place in seating that the sun will not be in their eyes as the sun is setting. They didn’t ask her because she was mindful that the sun might be in their eyes. Efficiency and consideration like this are golden. When the show finished it was dark. As we turned to leave the space, I see that the whole path up and around the theatre is illuminated with small, bright lights, allowing the audience to leave safely. Gil Garratt, his troupe, the Harvest Stage, the Blyth Festival and the work they do there, are magical.

The Blyth Festival Presents:

Plays until: August, 22, 2120.

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

www.blythfestival.com

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Live and in person at the Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

Written by Rébecca Déraspe

English Translation by Leanna Brodie

Music by Chloé Lacasse and Benoit Landry

Book, lyrics and score developed by Théâtre le Clou

Directed by Esther Jun

Musical director, Njo Kong Kie

Choreographer, Alyssa Martin

Co-designers, Michelle Bohn, Samantha McCue

Lighting by Arun Srinivasan

Sound by Maddie Bautista

Cast: Shakura Dickson

Landon Doak

Allan Louis

Shannon Taylor

Musicians:

Njo Kong Kie

Ben Bolt-Martin

Graham Hargrove

I Am William is a joyful, fierce, empowering play given a rapturous production by director Esther Jun and her wonderful cast.

The Story. Playwright Rébecca Déraspe presents a fascinating proposition. What if William Shakespeare didn’t write the plays attributed to him. What if he had a sister named Margaret who wrote them but let William take credit in order to get her words into the world?

Rébecca Déraspe creates a stifling world for women in Shakespeare’s day. They are not allowed to be educated or taught to read and write on pain of death. (a bit harsh, that). They are to tend to the house, mend, wash, tidy and not make trouble for their menfolk. As one of the characters says: “Women and girls are meant to watch the world go by, not to wonder and look at it and think.” The world revolved around William since he was the boy in the family. Never mind that William was not terribly bright and that he longed to be an actor. He was always cheerful and good humoured. Margaret was meant to help her mother, Mary, do chores.

But Margaret could read and write because her brother taught her. And she loved to write, which she did at night after a day of working in the house. One day she left her sheets of writing in her brother’s room so he could see what she created. He loved what she wrote and, in his enthusiasm, took the writing to his school master who thought William wrote the words. William didn’t tell him differently. One thing led to another and before you knew it, William was engaged to present ‘his’ writing on the London stage and act in it. Brother and sister kept up the ruse. Margaret kept writing.

The Production. Co-designers Michelle Bohn and Samantha McCue have created a wood structure on the simple stage that represents Margaret’s room and other locations, A simple table is used for many family meals and events. Four bales of hay are multi-purposed: they are used as seats, storage (each bale has a lid), stepping ‘stones.’  The costumes are of Shakespeare’s time—ruffs and breeches for the men, long, full dresses for the women. I loved that the three-person band were also in costume—breeches, big shirts and ruffs around the neck. A lovely touch since they too are on stage.

The men in the play, William (Landon Doak) and his father John and the Earl of Leicester (Allan Louis)  all have that confidence that men with no constraints have. The women—Margaret (Shakura Dickson), her mother Mary and Queen Elizabeth 1 (Shannon Taylor) are demure, quiet, watchful, careful and knowing. It’s a fascinating divide in behavior, but it’s clear the women are the driving force. Director Esther Jun creates a nifty bit theatrical business to prove the point. Mary Shakespeare, the hardworking matriarch of the family, makes a point in a discussion with a microphone and then drops it. with attitude, into a basket—a Shakespearean ‘mic-drop’ if ever there was one. In one simple moment Shannon Taylor as Mary conveys Mary’s smarts, her contained exasperation of what she has to put up with, and her efficiency in getting her point across. Beauty. Later when Shannon Taylor plays Elizabeth 1 she is imperious and knowing.  

Allan Louis as John Shakespeare is a leader in the community and has that puffed-up arrogance of a man who thinks he’s in control in his world and his family. Because of the way Allan Louis plays him, John’s confidence is impressive—full-chested, declarative voice, commanding. But John was about to fall on hard times and one had to feel for a man who is brought low. Through it all his family rallied.

As William. Landon Doak is pure joy. He is exuberant when William makes a discovery of a word, even though his father improves upon it. His energy and enthusiasm are like watching a playful, panting puppy. And while Rébecca Déraspe has made Margaret the writer, she has made William into a modern man—he is eager to help his mother clear the table and even do the washing up—a notion that horrifies her and probably charms every woman in the audience. Shakura Dickson is compelling as Margaret. The need for Margaret to write is clear in every second of this performance. When Margaret says that “She wrote not for fame, but to exist” it’s a line that is said so understatedly that it hits the heart and leaves you winded. There is such longing to be seen in that line and in this performance.  

The music and lyrics by Chloé Lacasse and Benoit Landry adds a contemporary note to the lively proceedings. The music is engaging and the lyrics are properly intricate for a play about words. And the cast handles it all with style.

Comment. Rébecca Déraspe has written a wonderful play in I Am William and it is beautifully translated by Leanna Brodie. The language dazzles. At times it seems we are witnessing linguistic gymnastics on the level of Simone Biles—words and syllables rhyme in triplicate. Women and girls are championed and credited with creativity and tenacity at a time when both were dangerous. Déraspe also illuminates how vibrant art is to communicate even to a person like William who can’t create. He is able to recognize when writing is good when he reads his sister’s work. By the same token, the wise and wily Queen Elizabeth knows who the real writer is.

Again, Esther Jun has created a joyful, exuberant production without loosing any of the more poignant moments. The production gleams with creativity, humour and a loud, beating heart.

Produced by the Stratford Festival.

Playing until: Sept. 12, 2021.

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes, no intermission.

www.stratfordfestival.ca  

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