At Hart House Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by John Cameron Mitchell
Music and lyrics by Stephen Trask
Directed by Rebecca Ballarin
Music director, Giustin MacLean
Set and lighting by Shannon Lea Doyle
Costumes by Kathleen Black
Projections by Melissa Joakim
Sound by Jeremy Hutton
Cast: James King
Erik Larson
Iain Leslie
Giustin Maclean
Robert Purcell

The 2017-18 Hart House Theatre season got off to a rip-roaring start with a rousing production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch written by John Cameron Mitchell with music and lyrics by Stephen Trask.

By his own admission Hedwig started off life as a ‘girly-boy’ named Hansel in East Germany. He had an bland life until he fell in love with Luther, an America soldier who wanted to take him back to America. But first Luther suggested that Hansel had to leave a little bit of himself behind. Hansel did leave that ‘little bit’ and also his name. Hansel became Hedwig. The relationship with Luther soured and Hedwig took up with a young, lost man named Tommy. They fell in love. They made rock music together. Tommy became a rock star. Again, Hedwig was left behind.

Hedwig formed ‘her’ own band: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which seems fitting. She now wears funky blond wigs, sequins on ‘her’ costumes and her eye-makeup, a skimpy skirt, a sequined vest, a boa, and very high heeled boots that mean business. “She” also has a companion/band mate named Yitzhak who often helps and supports Hedwig on stage, but just as often is insulting when Hedwig is rude.

As Hedwig, James King is seductive, dangerous, irreverent with the audience and flippant. Hedwig speaks in the softest German accent and expresses ‘herself’ in the most delicious self-deprecating way. Director Rebecca Ballarin has Hedwig prowl and strut around the stage, interact of course with the audience, and even goes deep into the audience, chatting, flirting and playing with them. That soft voice becomes formidable when Hedwig sings rocking, angry anthems of rage, disappointment and failed love.

All the while Yitzhak does ‘his’ own prowling on stage, usually with a sneer. “He’s attentive to Hedwig but resents it. And just as James King is mesmerizing as Hedwig, so Lauren Mayer is a quiet powerhouse as Yitzhak. Diminutive, swaggers, angry, but a voice like a steel rod. Glorious.

The band, “The Angry Inch” are an assortment of bewigged gentlemen with wonderfully garish costumes, and every one of them plays loud and rocking. Terrific band.

John Cameron Mitchell has written a rock musical that is an anthem for the misfit, the freak, ‘the other’. Just as Hedwig came from a divided city (East and West Berlin) so Hedwig is conflicted as to who ‘she’ really is. She lives boldly, with attitude and with passion.

Rebecca Ballarin has done a terrific job realizing the wildness, the anger and the irreverence of the piece.

Hart House Theatre Presents:

Opened: Sept. 15, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 7, 2017.
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

www.harthousetheatre.ca

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Review: LELA & Co.

by Lynn on September 25, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Cordelia Lynn
Directed by Melissa-Jane Shaw
Scenographer, Claire Hill
Lighting by Jazz Kamal
Sound by Verne Good
Cast: Graham Cuthbertson
Jenna Harris

A hard-hitting play about sexual enslavement that becomes annoying with its repetition and lopsided sense of self-righteousness.

The Story. An unnamed woman tells us she will tell the truth about her story. She begins in childhood when her short-tempered father berates her for eating her own birthday cake herself. When he isn’t making fun of her, he laughs at her irreverence to have eaten the whole thing. She has biting comments about her sister only named with a letter “L”. Her brother-in-law is “J”. “J” is a confident businessman, smart dresser, wears sunglasses for effect and knows how sexually charged he is when he’s in the company of his teenaged sister-in-law. He introduces her to a friend and fellow businessman from over the border. The friend and the teen marry. Unbeknownst to her it was a business deal with the brother-in-law. He got money for her.

The teen is taken away from her village and family to a place across the border. The husband is brutal. War is imminent. The husband’s business is in trouble so he creates a more lucrative business: selling his wife for sex to all comers.

The Production
. Director Melissa-Jane Shaw has created a harrowing production. The audience since around Claire Hill’s square set. It represents the platform on which the woman addresses us. With a sheet on it it becomes her bed. She is obsessive about keeping it clean and neat after every ‘encounter’ with a customer, but after time with so many men, it’s impossible. Melissa-Jane Shaw’s staging is forceful. As the woman Jenna Harris simulates being thrown on the ‘bed’, being pinned, raped, flipped over, and left panting and stunned with the indignity of it all. And they she goes through the process again and again. The staging is in your-face-brutal. Shaw stages this with urgency, power and a grip that often makes one want to look away, but we don’t.

Melissa-Jane Shaw is careful to incorporate all sides of the theatre. In only two cases am I not able to see a bit of business—in one vital one, with the young girl on his lap, the brother-in-law gives her something to suck. With both his and her backs to me I am not sure what it is. I assume it’s a lollipop. Not being able to see that properly is frustrating. For the most part though, the audience sees from all sides what is intended to see.

Playing many male parts, Graham Cuthbertson is nuanced and varied. He’s the girl’s loud, boisterous father; her cool, sophisticated sexual brother-in-law; the cold-eyed, mean, brutal, soft-spoken husband and a sweet-natured, awkward Canadian peace-keeping soldier who is one of her customers.

Comment. This is one angry, brutal play. It’s obvious that it takes place in some war-torn country, what with the references to being taken across the border completely away from her family. The accent of the father and the almost formal way the husband speaks one assumes this takes place elsewhere and not here. That does not diminish the brutality of the piece.

When she finds her way home the young woman is shunned because of what happened to her. There is no compassion in this play. The men are all of a type: either physical bullies rapists, or kindly but ineffectual when it comes to helping her. The young teen is innocent, unable to protect herself, and yet resilient in a cruel world.

I also thought of echoes of Boko Haram, the terrorist group that kidnapped 200 girls and teenagers and raped them, releasing some who went home and were rejected by their families as ‘unclean’, never mind how they were brutalized.

Playwright Cordelia Lynn has the woman repeat herself too often, thus weakening the play. The woman tells us again and again that she will try to tell the truth. I wonder what is the difficulty in doing it? It’s not as if she has to lie about it. She has a willing, understanding audience so what is so hard about telling the truth? The repetition grates and soon becomes annoying, if not disingenuous. And at times the play sounds self-righteous. Of course what is happening in the world to defenceless women is despicable. Of course we are outraged that in some quarters it is perfectly normal for a husband to treat his wife as property, or any man to take physical advantage of a woman. The play gives a graphic picture of a situation we could figure out.

So while producing it is well-intentioned the play is preaching to the converted when it plays at an accommodating theatre, full of compassionate, committed people. The play should be done for an audience that needs it: in prisons to sex offenders for example, men who think women are property to be punished and brutalized with they are not accommodating.

It seems almost churlish to be critical of a play and production that wants so badly to make an important statement. It’s just that we read about these hideous events in graphic detail in our newspapers. The tone of the play; the lopsidedness of it (men are bad, women are victims) and it’s reverential sensibility diminish it’s effectiveness.

Discord and Din Theatre in association with Seventh Stage Productions present:

Opened: Sept. 22, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 8, 2017.
Running Time: 100 minutes.

http://theatrecentre.org

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At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Steven Elliott Jackson
Directed by Tanisha Tait
Set conceived by Tanisha Tait
Cast: Conor Ling
Kwaku Okyere

A cracking terrific play that delves into sexual politics at a time when it was dangerous to even talk about them. The production lives up to the play in every way.

The Story. The Seat Next to the King had a huge success at the recent Toronto Fringe Festival (I’m never here for it) but luckily the production is being remounted.

Two strangers meet in a men’s washroom in Washington D. C. in 1964. Bayard Rustin is black, works for Martin Luther King and is gay. Walter Jenkins is white, works for President Lyndon Johnson in the White House, is married and gay, but denies it. Walter is drawn to public men’s toilets in order to satisfy his desire for sex with men. It’s dangerous for both men considering the climate towards gays at that time.

The Production. Tanisha Tait directs this as she did for the Fringe and her work has a lovely mix of sensitivity and muscularity. She also conceived the idea for the simple set in conversation with playwright Steven Elliott Jackson. Two set pieces represent sinks. When they are tipped to the floor and pushed together, with a red covering over them, it becomes a bed in a seedy motel. A chair is up left.

The relationships are established beautifully in Tait’s direction and by the two actors. (Tait has even directed the changing of the set by both men so that it looks like an elegant ballet).

At the top of the production Walter is at a urinal. His back is to us. Bayard comes into the washroom and stands next to Walter. Bayard looks over and down at Walter, checking him out. Then Walter does the same and quickly finishes and washes his hands. He says to himself in frustration that there are no paper towels. It’s then that Bayard engages in conversation and commands the thrust of it. Bayard is in control of the conversation and while Walter says he wants no part of it and wants to leave, he doesn’t. One gets the true sense of each man’s neediness when they are both together in a motel room. Again, it’s Bayard who controls the situation, but it’s not as solid as before. He is anxious that Walter stays. Walter wants to go.

Kwaku Okyere plays Bayard, a flamboyant, confident black man. He knows the tenor of the times and lives within its confines. We know from the conversation he has checked out that men’s washroom and knows that Walter has been checking out the washroom too, so he knows Walter is ripe for engagement. As played by Okyere, Bayard is wily, seductive and compelling.

Conor Ling plays Walter and is uptight, righteous, straight-laced, constricted, restricted and in denial. Walter is just a tight knot of conflicts. Both men have done jail time for their homosexual activity in such facilities.

(A Google search indicates just how differently both men were actually treated. When Bayard was first caught in a men’s washroom he was tried, found guilty and jailed for 60 days. When Walter was first caught (both were caught other times) Walter was fined. Only with another arrest was he jailed).

I think Steven Elliott Jackson has written a thoughtful, unsettling play about gay politics and how some embrace their sexuality and others can’t because of society’s perceptions, fear at how it will affect their job, family and other relationships.

Comment. Steven Elliott Jackson has a keen ear for the language of the times in America.

While Bayard Rustin and Walter Jenkins are real people (both now deceased), there is nothing to suggest they actually met and formed a relationship. It’s to Steven Elliott Jackson’s imagination that the idea took shape. I was reminded also of Tony Kushner’s epic play, Angels in America in which one of the characters, white, married, a Mormon and a closet gay man, secretly looks for sex in parks. Art imitates life. \

Steven Elliott Jackson doesn’t give a neat, happy ending to The Seat Next to the King. He gives an ending that is true and gut wrenching. If you didn’t see this in the Fringe, I urge you to see it now at the Theatre Centre.

A Minmar Gaslight Production in association with the Theatre Centre

Closes: Oct. 1, 2017.
Running Time: 70 minutes.

www.theatrecentre.org

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At Tarragon Theatre Workspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Will Eno
Directed by Stewart Arnott
Starring: Christopher Stanton

NOTE: I reviewed this in Dec. 2015 when it played at another venue with the same gifted actor and director. I’m revising the review here to reflect the new location and the depth of the performance.

An ache of a play about missing home, loneliness and solitude with a heart-squeezing performance by Christopher Stanton.

The Story
. A man has come by airplane from another place? country? we’re not really sure. He gives us few but subtle clues. He is here alone and he is missing home. The interrogation at customs (“Business or Pleasure?”) is matter-of-fact and not welcoming. Our Narrator is so lonely it could crush him if he stood still. He speaks to us in a kind of intelligent stream of consciousness, flitting from one subject to another and they are tenuously connected.

He speaks of language and how words are strange if you think about it. We take words for granted. “Horse”—strange word. He talks of a woman he was close to but who isn’t with him. And when he isn’t shifting from one subject to another, I guess in an effort to forget how lonely he is, he comes back to that very subject—home, loneliness, solitude.

The Production. When we file into the Workspace of the Tarragon Theatre there are chairs around several rugs on the floor. There are also chairs up on risers facing the playing area. There are several lamps around the space; some standing, some on tables. Our Narrator is there in the shadows, pacing. He is dressed in a dark jacket, a black vest and shirt, neat dark pants and brown leather boots (it seems).

Our Narrator turns some of the lamps on and off during the performance for appropriate effect. I love this activity that director Stewart Arnott has Christopher Stanton, the Narrator, engage in. Again it keeps him so busy talking and turning lights on and off, that the poor man will be distracted, albeit momentarily, from his crushing loneliness. It also suggests an impishness in our Narrator, that perhaps he is feeling welcomed in our presence to he can ‘play’ and have fun. The collaboration between actor and director is tight and so effective.

I said when I first reviewed this in December, 2015, “I can’t think of a better actor to play this quirky, awkward, sweetly-sad Narrator than Christopher Stanton. “Otherworldly” but definitely of our world seems to be his stock and trade. He has a quick smile and an equally quick look of concern, loss and anguish.” I feel that again and more. He paces back and forth in the space and sometimes around it. In the subtlest of reactions he edits himself, trying to express clearly how he is feeling and where that comes from. It’s not a stammering, jerking performance, but one of a character trying to convey the impossible. He incorporates those people in the riser section as he seems to look every person in the room right in the eyes.

The Narrator tries so hard to fit in but by his own account he doesn’t even though we would consider him one of us. It is this thinking of being apart that makes Stanton’s performance so heartfelt and engaging. Wonderful work again.

Comment
. When Title and Deed first played two years ago it opened at a time when there was a flurry of openings, many double and triple booked. The show got little attention, which was a shame. But through determination and tenacity Christopher Stanton, Stewart Arnott and their team made another production happen. Lucky us to see it again, or for the first time.

Will Eno plays with words, he has a malleable facility with them. His characters make the words sound delicious. They tumble out of their mouths; they flow, they flip and curve over each other. And those words make us aware of them for their own sake. This is so evident in The Realistic Joneses, Middletown and Title and Deed.

Title and Deed—what a wonderful title for a play about exile and loneliness. To have a title and deed to someplace means you have roots, a place to have/build a home. Our narrator has no such possession here. Eno’s words have an elegant sturdiness, compelling us to listen hard and think deeper to what our narrator is saying. We don’t know how or why he is here. But certainly in light of recent events it makes us think of refugees escaping a horrible place; immigrants choosing someplace better; people expelled from their homes. We listen hard to understand and be compassionate. It still can’t ease our Narrator’s sense of loneliness and that is sobering for both of us. Compelling theatre does that.

This piece and certainly Christopher Stanton’s performance had particular impact yesterday. I saw it after attending the joyous, heartfelt, moving memorial for Jon Kaplan. The sense of loss, whether for home or the absent of a cherished someone, the yearning ache of it all bubbled up and I wept all the way home.

Nightfall Theatrics Presents:

Closes: Oct. 8, 2017.
Cast: 1 gifted actor.
Running Time: 65 minutes.

www.tarragontheatre.com

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Review: MISS

by Lynn on September 20, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Assembly Theatre 1479 Queen St. W., Toronto, Ont.

Written by Michael Ross Albert
Directed by David Lafontaine
Set by Adam Belanger
Costumes by Lindsay Dagger Junkin
Lighting by Steve Vargo
Fight director, Jeff Hanson
Cast: Wayne Burns
Trevor Hayes
Nola Martin

A new theatre company is always cause for celebration. Unit 102 Actors Company and the Spadina Avenue Gang have joined forces to share a performance space on Queen Street West called the Assembly Theatre. Their first collaboration is Michael Ross Albert’s new play, Miss.

Michael Ross Albert is coming off a huge hit with his terrific play Tough Jews, that played earlier in Kensington Market. Tough Jews was about a family of Jewish gangsters who committed various crimes in the Kensington Market area of Toronto during the time of Prohibition.

Referencing recent headlines Miss is equally as explosive. Laura is a teacher who has just returned to her classroom after being absent because of recent traumatic events involving two of her teenage male students. Laura has come to plead the case of Tyler, one of the two students in the fight. She is engaged to Gil but has not wished to see him for various reasons. Gil comes to her classroom to fight for their relationship. It’s clear all is not right there. They are joined by Tyler and the tension ramps up dangerously. Michael Ross Albert has certainly created a story with compelling possibilities. The details of what has happened and why are revealed nicely. I just wish the play and production were better.

While his characters are three dimensional with their various issues, their flaws make ones eyebrows knit and set off alarm bells. Perhaps the characters are too close to each other to have seen them. Laura was eager to get pregnant and perhaps looked forward to that with Gil. They obviously loved each other since they were engaged to be married quite soon. But when we meet Gill his neediness for Laura to love him and his desperation to please her suggests a predator rather than a lover. She tells him to leave her alone and leave the class room. He does, but comes back saying he promised himself he would never leave her in distress. So again, we are looking at a character professing love, but only on his terms. Creepy.

Laura and Gil are fixated on him being ‘much’ older than she is. When we lean he is 10 years older I went, “Huh? Only 10 years difference?” This seems hardly a point of concern. Perhaps this is another flaw Michael Ross Albert wants to inject into the narrative. I think it weakens his characters.

Tyler is the most interesting character of the three. He’s a 15 year old boy in a private school who comes from privilege. He is confident, operates from a point of entitlement, is bold and arrogant in the face of authority and doesn’t seem to be afraid of anyone. But he’s damaged by lack of love. His mother is absent and his father (who seems to be the ‘main’ parent) travels—he’s a highly regarded biogenesist. As his teacher Laura seems to be the one who talks to him as an adult, who gives him consideration, who cares about him. We lean soon enough how that attention has manifested itself.

It’s interesting to see where the title comes from. Tyler refers to her as “Miss” when he’s in the classroom with her and Gil. But later when they are alone he still uses that term, even though we know their relationship isn’t formal, so the reference seems false.

Director David Lafontaine and his creative team (Adam Belanger’s detailed classroom set with a clock running in real time; Lindsay Dagger Junkin’s costumes—preppy for Tyler, stylish for Laura, and grunge for Gil) have created the world of this classroom.

But while this is the world of the play, it doesn’t ring true in a fundamental aspect. At every turn when Gil comes into the class he closes the door and Laura says nothing. When Tyler comes in, not realizing Gil is there, he closes the door, and Laura says nothing. In the real world of education, with stories of entrapment, that door can’t be closed. I can appreciate Lafontaine wants to heighten tension by closing the door, it just doesn’t ring true. Later there is a medical emergency and Laura chastises Gil for not calling an ambulance. But neither does she and the situation demands it! That she doesn’t weakens the play.

Trevor Hayes as Gil creates a deceptively insecure, needy character. He has disarming charm. He cares for Laura and perhaps we can see her attraction, another person to care for. Hayes slowly reveals a deeper, darker side to Gil that keeps one wary.

Wayne Burns as Tyler is boyish with attitude. He’s articulate, savvy, needy and one fluctuates between caring about him and dismissing him as another spoiled kid.

Nola Martin gives Laura a sense of propriety and formality as a teacher in that school. We sense her distress when she’s in that room and learn why. But Martin can do with half of her idiosyncrasies in her performance—the nervous throat clearing, the twitchy smiles, etc. and still be effective.

The fight scene created by Jeff Hanson is terrific. Perhaps another pass at Miss by Michael Ross Albert is in order to tighten it and make it truly frightening without the eye-brow knitting concerns.

NOTE: I’m always glad of another theatre company that wants to do theatre. I suggest for your next show you add the name of the theatre and the address to the front of your program.

Presented by 102 Actors Company and the Spadina Avenue Gang

Began: Sept. 14, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 1, 2017.
Running Time: 75 minutes.

www.Unit102actors.com

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Review: PICTURE THIS

by Lynn on September 18, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts

Written by Morris Panych and Brenda Robins
Based on the play The Battle of Waterloo by Melchior Lengyel
Directed by Morris Panych
Set by Ken MacDonald
Costumes by Dana Osborne
Lighting by Bonnie Beecher
Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne
Video designer, Daniel Malavasi
Cast: Carlos Albornoz
Frank Cox O’Connell
Craig Henry
Michelle Monteith
Nancy Palk
Robert Persichini
Jordan Pettle
Gregory Prest
Brenda Robins
Brigitte Robinson
Paolo Santalucia
Cliff Saunders
David Storch
Jeff Yung
Joseph Zita

An affectionate look at the crazed people who were besotted with making films in Hungary in 1922, no matter how high the odds against success.

The Story
. It’s 1922 in Budapest. Mr. Red, a hotshot Hollywood producer has come there for business. It seems that every out of work actor, director, writer, composer and a producer down on his luck wants to meet Mr. Red to pitch him a story, idea or desire to work for him. Romberg needs Mr. Red’s money to make his dream film of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. By a fluke Romberg finds the money elsewhere, or does he? Mayhem ensues.

The Production. Set designer Ken MacDonald establishes the elegant world of the first half of the play by creating the most exquisite arte deco lobby of a spiffy hotel in Budapest. One might flippantly say it’s really the set of Parfumerie only in turquoise, (MacDonald said as much on Facebook so I feel I can steal his quote. He designed the elegant set of that play—a perfume shop and Panych directed it as well.)

The hotel lobby has curlicues, table stands in the shape of pineapples, along with pineapple-shaped decanters and all manner of other stuff to keep your eyes popping with the attention to detail. And as usual it is full of Ken MacDonald’s wit as a designer. If one sits close it looks as if giant mirrors on either side of the stage reflect each other. Then when characters enter through what looks like a mirror one sees the optical trick and appreciates the illusion. Illusion fills that busy lobby. Most of the characters rushing from place to place are not who they pretend to be. Characters look beautifully natty in Dana Osborne’s fine costumes of double breasted suits for the men and stylish frocks for the women.

The concierge is really Vegh an established director who wants to give her resume to Mr. Red the celebrated American film producer who is staying at the hotel. Milli is an actress who is posing as a waitress in the hotel in order to meet Mr. Red and offer him her services, as an actress of course. Romberg is an anxious film producer who needs backing for his next film on Napoleon’s Battle at Waterloo, and he feels Mr. Red is the man to provide the funding.

Romberg does get funding from a hapless Mr. Brown, a furrier from Buffalo who is mistaken for a producer and he keeps up the charade. Everybody who wants something of Mr. Red now gravitates to Mr. Brown. The second Act is in fact the drab theatre set for the Napoleon movie (I don’t think I can really call it a ‘film.”).

The frantic antics of this silly, funny and often poignant play are established immediately by having the cast of characters enter and exit at a whizzing pace. The bell on the reception desk rings incessantly as bell hops are summoned to haul luggage, or new guests ring for service, as the concierge is trying to find Mr. Red (a wonderfully exuberant Cliff Saunders) to give him her resume. Sometimes a bell hop pulls at a suitcase while the guest who owns the suitcase pulls in the other direction. Often people go flying across the lobby. What we are looking at is a feast of acrobatic staging, quick entrances and exits, each with its own brand of humour and keeping track of it all only adds to the laughs.

Mr. Brown has lost his glasses and so navigates the lobby by banging into chairs, tables, and other people. As played by David Storch, Mr. Brown is a timid soul who can’t be trusted with a cheque book, according to his wife. Storch has a look of mild anxiety and confusion most of the time, except when he’s acting like a producer.

The love of making films is evident in the lovely performance of Jordan Pettle as the awkward, anxious Romberg. He’s so nervous he’s tongue-tied in front of Mr. Red, but in his film world he takes charge. One of the many challenges Romberg has is dealing with Boleslav the temperamental actor playing Napoleon in Romberg’s film. Robert Persichini plays Boleslav with all consuming frustration. It’s hard to tell what irritates him more: the limited variety of snacks on the food tables or being snubbed by Milli, a coy, flirty wispy-voiced Michelle Monteith. The production is a jewellery tray of performances that are gems, full of humour but more important, heart and love of making films at all cost. Morris Panych offers a surprise at the end of the production when we see the results of the filming (kudos to Daniel Malavasi for the video design).

Comment. Writers Morris Panych and Brenda Robins have packed Picture This with silly antics, witty dialogue, a group of characters, each more eccentric than the next and they have made it into a love story involving all these characters who just want to make movies. A charmer.

Produced by Soulpepper

Opened: Sept. 15, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 7, 2017.
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

www.soulpepper.ca

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

Written by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Daniel Brooks
Set by Lorenzo Savoini
Lighting by Kevin Lamotte
Costumes by Michelle Tracey
Sound by Richard Feren
Cast: Oliver Dennis
Diego Matamoros
Alex McCooeye
Richie Lawrence
Rick Roberts

A terrific production of a wonderful play about life, tenacity, trying, failing, trying again and failing better. Don’t wait to see it.

The Story. Two tramps, Estragon and Vladimir, wait on an empty road for a man named Godot who never shows up. They talk of life, philosophy and their fading memories while they wait. A strange bully named Pozzo enters with another man named Lucky who is attached to a rope that Pozzo pulls. Actually Lucky arrives first, like a packhorse with a rope around his neck and Pozzo, who carries the other end of the rope in one hand, and a whip in the other. Lucky is laden down with Pozzo’s suitcases and is badly treated by him. Initially Estragon and Vladimir are frightened by this pair but they get over it when Pozzo and Lucky leave.

Then a little boy appears to tell them that Godot isn’t coming but will probably be there the next day. So they wait with pent up emotion, frustration, and anger perhaps at life.

The Production. Director Daniel Brooks and his creative designers have created that stark world of the play. Lorenzo Savoini envisions a worn grey wood floor with some boards ‘coming up’ from being even. There is a concrete block on the floor and a rectangular shape of wood? Plastic? next to the concrete block. The block is Estragon’s preferred choice on which to sit. There is one lone, bare tree, upstage right. Michelle Tracey’s costumes are deliberately worn, drab and loose fitting.

Oliver Dennis is irascible as Estragon. He sits on that concrete block with one booted leg bent at the knee and angled so that the boot is in the air almost touching the other knee. The exertion on Oliver Dennis’s face is obvious. This is a struggle. It should be. This is almost life and death to get that damned boot off. So I found the positioning of the foot in the air and not grounded on the opposite knee for support an odd choice. It looks almost like a yoga pose, making the intention less focused. If the foot is grounded on the knee the only exercise here is the struggle to get the boot off. Oliver Dennis is a smart actor and gifted in finding the humour in the deepest, darkest places. When he does carefully get the boot off his reaction is one of pain, as if the bare foot (no socks here) is rubbed raw. The foot looks dirty, which is reasonable. But I think there should be more indication that the foot hurts and should be red and perhaps bloody from sores. A quibble I know, but gifted theatre makers like these folks make me look harder and think deeper.

Estragon is the one who is overcome with the frustration at the wait, the futility of it, the uncertainty of how to move forward. Dennis loses his temper in a moment of utter frustration. He’s almost mean with the hapless Lucky.

Diego Matamoros as Vladimir is more philosophical and easy-going. He is the man of commitment. He said he would wait for Godot and no matter what, he will. Matamoros brings out the quiet humanity of Vladimir. The scene in which Vladimir interrogates the Boy who says Mr. Godot will not appear, is done with a lovely formality and respect for the kid. Richie Lawrence as the Boy has a keen sense of the pauses and timing of the short answers. And he knows how to project.

As Pozzo, Rick Roberts has an edge of meanness, but a disarming charm. He is contemptuous of Lucky, cruel to him, but easy going almost with Estragon and Vladimir.

Finally, Alex McCooeye plays Lucky with such a sense of being ground-down it’s a wonder he doesn’t collapse. He is treated as an over-worked pack-horse. He stands almost wavering as he stands, trying to remain upright. His speech of seemingly unrelated gibberish is a damaged mind at work. McCooeye gives that speech as if the person saying it knows what he’s saying and we come to take that on faith too. It begins quietly but builds in urgency and frustration for the speaker.

Director Daniel Brooks serves the play beautifully. He is respectful of what Beckett wrote and sticks to it. No fancy directorial touches. In the end Estragon and Vladimir stand apart, still. Wanting to leave. But staying. Waiting.

The play and production are very funny and deeply moving. Sort of like life.

Comment. Waiting for Godot has confounded audiences for decades and I don’t think it’s justified. It’s a terrific play full of insight dazzling wit and love. In the first scene, Estragon tries to take his boot off. He struggles. It’s impossible. He tries again and fails.

Then he says, “Nothing to be done,” which should be the end of the play, but of course Estragon keeps trying to get his boot off and finally does.

Waiting for Godot is about life and getting through the day and trying to get your boot off, finding it difficult, but you keep trying. Godot doesn’t show up but Estragon and Vladimir continue to hope he will appear the next day so they continue to wait.

I think of the wonderful Tennessee Williams line in The Glass Menagerie concerning the Gentleman Caller, “he is that long delayed but always expected something that we live for. “

Beckett I think is more philosophical in his thinking in this regard—waiting for hope, Godot to come and save them (from what we don’t know) and waiting with your best friend who won’t leave you while you wait.

It’s a gem of a play and the production is too.

Produced by Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Plays until Oct. 7, 2017.

Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

www.soulpepper.ca

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At the Studio Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by Sharon Pollock
Directed by Keira Loughran
Set by Joanna Yu
Costumes by Jackie Chau
Lighting by Ital Erdal
Composed by Kiran Ahluwalia
Sound design by Suba Sankaran
Cast: Kian Ahluwalia
Jasmine Chen
Omar Alex Khan
Tyrone Savage
Quelemia Sparrow
Diana Tso

A serious subject that needs a better play and definitely better production.

The Story. The Komagata Maru Incident by Sharon Pollock about a terrible point in Canada’s past that seemed to set a racist immigration precedent. It was first produced in Vancouver in 1976. The play takes place in Vancouver in 1914 in a brothel. A Japanese freighter named the Komagata Maru carrying 340 Sikhs, 24 Muslims, and 12 Hindus, all British citizens, arrived in Vancouver harbour but were not allowed to get off the ship.

Two laws were cited: 1) they had to have made the journey in a direct route with no stops, which they didn’t do. 2) they had to pay a head tax, which they couldn’t afford.

The Sikh community in Vancouver offered to pay it but the government refused it. The ship and almost all aboard it were stranded in the harbor for 2 months with diminishing food and water while people wrangled about what to do. The Immigration Officer negotiating the details between the people on the freighter and the mainland was William Hopkinson who fluctuated between being racist towards immigrants and having compassion for them because they were running out of food and water. Hopkinson has his own secrets.

The underlying reasons were racist. They didn’t want any more South Asians to come to Canada. Eventually the freighter was sent back but this incident certainly established a precedent. I think of the SS. St. Louis with 900 or so Jews from Nazi Germany being refused entry to various ports including Canada, whose policy of how many to admit was “one is too many”, and other incidents of other nationalities over the last century.

This is not a docudrama. Playwright Sharon Pollock says that it’s her impression of the events but she is not being held to just the facts. All the people on the freighter are represented by a woman of South Asian decent. Pollock was more comfortable writing a woman to represent those on the ship rather than a Sikh man. Fair enough.

The Production. Pollock has presented it as a kind of circus act with a Master of Ceremonies who narrates aspects of what is happening, which is mystifying, and the production doesn’t help either.

It’s directed by Keira Loughran and I just don’t think she’s a very good director. She gets mired in trying to be clever and she fails. I thought her work last year directing The Aeneid was poor, again with too much distracting stuff.

This year her production of The Komagata Maru Incident is so busy with distracting staging stuff it is aggravating to watch. There is a large central set piece that represents the Komagata Maru. Standing at the top of the ship structure is The Woman representing all the Sikhs. She is played by the incomparable Kiran Ahluwalia who has written all the Punjabi lyrics for the songs she sings. She is a clear, compelling actress when conveying the urgency of the situation. I wished that there was a translation so I could know what she’s saying. She plays a woman with a small child (unseen) and comments on the goings on. The Woman is perhaps the only one with perception, integrity, and savvy enough to know they are being used as pawns and duped.

So to illustrate my comment about Kiera Loughran’s direction: we have The Woman at the top of the large ship, then down below on stage level are other characters with their own dialogue between them, then there are projections on the bow of the ship representing birds etc. that might expand on the dialogue and the whole thing conspires to scatter our attention. Who do we pay attention to? What is the point of the scene? That I have to ask these questions is maddening and frustrating.

There is a character called T.S who is our Master of Ceremonies who puts on a British soldier’s uniform to comment on the goings on and the law. T.S. is played by a woman named Quelemia Sparrow without a trace of irony, sarcasm or edge. She is so busy playacting at narrating a terrible story and doing cheesy choreography that the character seems just smarmy rather than edgy. Again, the director doesn’t have a grip on how to guide the actress in making the character more substantial than superficial.

I think of the MC in Cabaret whose job was to narrate and yet convey the horrors of what was going on outside that Cabaret in Germany at the time and he did it with sarcasm and irony. But then again the rendering of the MC in Cabaret was brilliant and in The Komagata Maru Incident is just embarrassing.

Playing William Hopkinson is Omar Alex Khan who spends too much time expelling large sighs to convey frustration and not much variation in a rather wooden performance.

A bright note in this dreary production is Tyrone Savage as Georg, a mysterious German businessman. Savage gave Georg class and sophistication.

Comment. Sharon Pollock is a leading Canadian playwright who has created interesting plays in the past. The Komagata Maru Incident is not one of them. It is plodding, ponderous in the story telling in that much of it tells and doesn’t show and is often confusing.

The Komagata Maru Incident is a play that is rarely done. There is a reason for that. It’s not a good play. It’s an important issue, but not a good play. And the static production doesn’t help. Save your money and Google the Komagata Maru Incident and learn about it that way.

Plays at the Stratford Festival until Sept. 24, 2017.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

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Ipperwash

Written by Falen Johnson and Jessica Carmichael
Directed by Jessica Carmichael
Set by Clayton Windatt
Projections by Beth Kates
Lighting by Michelle Ramsay
Costumes by Jeff Chief
Sound and composer, Deanna H. Choi
Cast: Nyla Carpentier
Jonathan Fisher
Nicole Joy-Fraser
James Dallas Smith

A sobering look at the contentious issues surrounding Ipperwash.

The Blyth Festival is a spunky festival that runs in the small south-western Ontario town of Blyth. It’s in its 43 season and it produces original Canadian plays. And audiences flock to see them

Ipperwash is about the contentious issues surrounding Ipperwash Provincial Park and the Stony Point Ojibway band that had their reserve there. This is not about the occupation of 1995 and the killing of Dudley George. The play takes place before then.

During WWII the Government of Canada wanted land in Ipperwash Provincial Park that was the reserve of the people of Kettle and Stony Point. The Government needed the land for an army base and they promised to give it back after the war. They didn’t until much later after much wrangling. Now the land was compromised; manoeuvres were done through burial grounds and it would take years to rehabilitate the land.

Bea is an Indigenous woman who had done two tours as a soldier in Afghanistan and wanted to come and help rehabilitate the land. She is told the story of the area by two men of the reserve: Tim, an older man who also had served in the Afghan war and Tim’s grandson also fills Bea in to the history of the place. The grandson is bitter (I also wish he had a name). Tim is a calmer, more resigned man but he too hides his bitterness.

As the audience files in one hears waves lapping on a beach. A man wearing sun glasses (James Dallas Smith) sits in a high chair in the sand, like that of a lifeguard’s guarding the area. It’s the private land of the reserve and this man is guarding it. He is Tim’s (Jonathan Fisher) grandson. Bea (Nyla Carpentier) wanders on to the area and the guard is angry she’s there. When she tells him who she is, he gets his grandfather.

There is also a kind of spirit of a woman (Nicole Joy-Fraser) who wanders into and out of scenes, chanting/singing that could be native songs. There are projections on the back wall by Beth Kates that add to the mysticism of the play and the tradition of the peoples of that land.

The idea of appropriation of the stories of a people has been in the news recently. This is not the case with Ipperwash.

Falen Johnson and Jessica Carmichael wrote it, and Jessical Carmichael also directed it. Both women are from native peoples. They also found it imperative that they visit Ipperwash; talk to the people there to hear their stories, and stay there while they did their research. Respect is everywhere in their efforts to get the story right I do have a problem though. With Ipperwash we only hear the Indigenous point of view. The feds took their land, polluted it, disrespected their burial grounds, and took their time to return it. That’s pretty disgraceful. But contrary to some ignorant people, there are not many sides to a story. There are only three: Their side, my side and the truth, as my late mother would say. We don’t hear from the Government/military side.

A Google search reveals the native peoples were offered $15 per acre for the land and they refused it. We should hear that and why the offer was refused. So many questions to ask the other side.

So while the story is harrowing and infuriating, I think it’s diminished by only having one side of the story told. Still, Ipperwash is one sobering story and it makes one curious to dig deeper into that history.

The Pigeon King

Written by The Company
Directed by Severn Thompson
Sets and lighting by Steve Lucas
Costumes by Gemma James Smith
Sound by Verne Good
Cast: Rebecca Auerbach
Jason Chesworth
Gil Garratt
George Meanwell
J.D. Nicholson
Birgitte Solem

The Pigeon King is a fascinating story about a pyramid scam of breathtaking dimensions, involving the selling of pigeons. And it took place in Canada, eh?

Arlen Galbraith was a man of many ideas. And he had an eye for the vulnerable mark. He knew when people were down on their luck and he had a plan. His company, Pigeon King International, sold pairs of pigeons to farmers at a considerable sum and then offered to buy back the off-spring for a much less fee for a contract for10 years, and would sell those birds either to countries that raised racing pigeons or he would sell the pigeons to other markets as meat. Neither happened.

Arlen was making millions but he also was paying out millions to his customers, farmers usually. Arlen was a folksy soul that many people trusted. He never missed a payment to his customers, but after a while he was scrambling to get more and more customers to pay for more and more payouts. It finally all collapsed after seven years (between 2001 and 2008). It was considered one of the hugest ponzi schemes in Canadian business history. Even the New York Times covered the story.

Why did people trust him? Because they had to. They were down on their luck and he offered them a way out. Hope. People trust. Because he never missed a payment and a cheque never bounced, people trusted him. And Arlan knew how to play them.

The story was created by the seven members of the cast. They all play musical instruments and they all contributed songs. Some added to the intention of the scenes, some just repeat what we already know.

I always thing it’s tricky to create shows by committee. It needs a guiding hand to shape the show and be ruthless if a moment or song doesn’t work. Certainly director Severn Thompson does a nice job of moving the scenes along and keeping the tone light until the inevitable fall from grace. And Gil Garratt is charming as Arlan Galbraith—tight-voiced, a bit stodgy, awkward and with an ‘ah shucks’ attitude. You can see why people trusted him.

But again, I had concerns. It did need a head writer to oversee everything with a sharp blue pencil and a pair of scissors. Since everybody in the cast is a musician with a song to sing, they naturally want all their songs to be in the show. I thought the duet at the end was unnecessary. The important part is the trial with Arlan and the results of the trial. To add a song that reiterates the obvious is overkill.

There should have been some way to end the show with a punch, before that duet which took away a forceful ending. I did appreciate leaning about this scam artist though. And there is a trusting but concerned attitude. People began trusting, but then when they realized Arlen was a crook they went after him.

Note: The program doesn’t list any characters, only actors. I hope they change that in future. The program doesn’t list any characters, only actors. I hope they change that in future.

Ipperwash plays until September 16.

The Pigeon King plays until September 23.

www.blythfestival.com

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Review: 1979

by Lynn on September 10, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Court House Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. and various other venues.

Written by Michael Healey
Directed by Eric Coates
Set, lighting, and projections by Steve Lucas
Costumes by Jennifer Goodman
Original music and sound by Keith Thomas
Cast: Marion Day
Sanjay Talwar
Kelly Wong

A bracing, perceptive play given a lively production.

The Story. It’s 1979 and Joe Clark has just been elected Prime Minister of Canada with a minority government. He desperately wants his budget to pass. It’s doubtful. He is guided by members of his caucus: an excitable John Crosby, his Finance Minister and Flora McDonald, a kind of mother-figure and respected MP, and Maureen McTeer Clark’s spunky, bold wife, and challenged by others: a smooth talking, condescending Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and a very young Stephen Harper who also shows his true colours.

The Production. It’s terrific. Bracing even. It’s beautifully directed by Eric Coates. It’s a multi-charactered play. We see politicians: Joe Clark, Trudeau, Flora McDonald, John Crosby, Stephen Harper, and Clark’s wife Maureen McTeer and they are all played by three actors.

Joe Clark is played by Sanjay Talwar who dresses in a neat, brown corduroy suit. Much is made of the suit depicting Clark as a bit of a hick or not quite smooth enough for the office of PM. Talwar creates a respectful, diplomatic portrait of Joe Clark. He listens thoughtfully and does not go in for the kill in an argument. It’s some of the best work I’ve seen Talwar do.

Kelly Wong plays a very dapper, arrogant confident Pierre Elliott Trudeau; a wildly excitable John Crosby; and a rather matronly Flora McDonald (in a prim suit and curly wig.)

Marion Day plays multiple roles as well, and she does it all beautifully. Again, it’s some of the best work I’ve seen her do. She plays Flora McDonald in that prim suit and curly wig and is almost motherly to Joe Clark; she plays Maureen McTeer who is whip smart and rather lusty with regards to her husband, and he goes for it too. And Marion Day plays a kind of uptight, frightening Stephen Harper. He stands stiffly in a suit, he shoulders seem up around his ears. The wig is perfect and stiff too. Harper’s arguments make one shudder and Marion Day brings all that out in her performance.

The costume changes are quick. Marion Day makes her entrance playing Flora McDonald. When McDonald has to make an appearance at the end of the show, Marion Day is not able to do the quick change so Kelly Wong does it. It works. We are more than willing to suspend our disbelief.

The name of each character who enters is projected on a black board at the back of the set along with an explanation of who they are. This is both funny and problematic. If there is other information it follows after that, perhaps with a pause for timing and effect. Some of the information is hilarious, perhaps introducing something we don’t know. Again that timing is beautifully placed.

But too often I think that Michael Healey is getting ahead of himself, being funny in the projections for funny’s sake. Then I think, is this a lecture or a play? I also think it would help if the projections stayed up a touch longer so we can actually read them properly. Too often we have to speed read to get it all.

Comment. Michael Healey has written political plays before such as: Plan B about a separate Quebec; Proud about how Stephen Harper governed, and Generous, again about governing. With those plays I just thought Healey was lobbing funny, perceptive observations in the air, being clever. With Proud at least, I didn’t even think it was a play, just characters being smarmy.

But 1979 is something else again. Healey has shown how decent Joe Clark was at the time, how dedicated he was to process and to doing right by the country. The play does a dandy job in showing the backstabbing, backroom maneuvering of politics, certainly in light of Joe Clark’s decency. He’s smart but he also is aware how he is being out-maneuvered by Pierre Elliott Trudeau but he won’t compromise his morals to do what he thinks is right for the country.

We see the selfishness and self-serving agenda of Harper and Trudeau and next to Clark the difference is dramatic. Rather than thinking Clark is a pushover and a bit of a fool, he comes off as a much deeper thinker, more nuanced. No wonder he’s known as a great statesman of the country. And of course, this being Michael Healey, the play is riotously, cleverly funny.

The play plays at various venues some performances at the Royal George and the Court House Theatre before finishing its run at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, instead of playing its whole run in one venue, which is usual. Why is the question.

Perhaps it’s Artistic Director Tim Carroll’s effort to appear innovative, which it isn’t. He’s done this sort of stuff when he ran a guerrilla theatre in England. There are shows that play at secret places that you find out about close to the playing time. It’s a tired trick that just makes me roll my eyes. Never mind, when one finds it, 1979 is a treat.

A co-production with the Shaw Festival and the Great Canadian Theatre Company, Ottawa.

Began: May 12, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 14, 2017.
Running Time: Approx. 85 minutes.

www.shawfest.com

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