At the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by Alan Bennett
Directed by Kevin Bennett
Set by Ken MacDonald
Costumes by Christopher David Gauthier
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell
Music direction and sound design by Joseph Tritt
Cast: Lisa Berry
Ryan Cunningham
Rebecca Gibian
Cameron Grant
Martin Pahher
Marci T. House
Andrew Lawrie
Tom McCamus
Patrick McManus
Jim Mezon
Chick Reid
André Sills

A production crammed on a small stage with a muddle of movement, costumes and activity that doesn’t illuminate the play to its best, and more concerning looks like a copy of the set and some of the activity of a production of Richard III in London a few years ago, coincidentally directed by Tim Carroll, the new Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival.

The Story. The affable, curious King George III of England is going through a rough time. (And it’s not just the American Revolution he must contend with—yes he is that King. And the one in the musical Hamilton who has the most melodic songs). He suffers from excruciating stomach pains that get worse with every treatment his doctors give him. His mind is affected. It is thought he might be going mad. More doctors are brought in to bleed him, blister him and all manner of torturous treatments. Nothing helps. He gets worse.

In the meantime, government must be run. His courtiers try their best to move things along. His son, the greedy, power-hungry Prince Regent angles and manoeuvres his way into becoming his father’s replacement (without telling his father, of course). The knives are out to gain power. The doctors all have differing ideas of what is wrong with George III. And still George III suffers.

The Production. I am startled by the set. It’s not because it’s brilliant and evocative, but because I have seen it before, in a different production, in the West End in 2012 for the production of Richard III directed by Tim Carroll and designed by Jenny Tiramani. That set had an ornate, two tiered seating structure on both sides of the stage with audience members sitting in the structures. Upstage was an ornate doorway with side entranceways. One might say it is evocative of the Sam Wanamaker theatre that is part of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

The set at the Shaw Festival for The Madness of George III has an ornate, two tiered seating structure on both sides of the stage with audience members sitting in the structures. Upstage is an opening for entrances etc. with side entranceways.

The set for The Madness of George III is designed by Ken MacDonald. I know Mr. MacDonald’s work. His sets have wit, whimsy, establish the place of the play and its time with imagination and creativity and are not necessarily constricted by convention. This specific set for The Madness of George III is not like MacDonald’s regular work. And because it is so close to Jenny Tiramani’s design in London, I am concluding that MacDonald was told by his director Kevin Bennett exactly what to create. Yes, I realize when I jump to conclusions I might fall on my ass-umptions but I’m taking the chance. It gets more troubling. The clues are just too coincidental.

While the audience files into the Royal George Theatre, Tom McCamus, who plays George III, wanders out on the set partially in costume and chats up the audience members sitting in the on stage seating structures. He looks out to wave to the audience too.

In Tim Carroll’s 2012 production of Richard III in the West End, Mark Rylance, as Richard III, wandered out on stage in partial costume as the audience filed in and affably chatted up the audience members sitting in the on stage seating structures. As I recall, he also waved to the arriving audience too.

The production of The Madness of George III ends in a rousing dance by the whole cast just before they all bow.

Tim Carroll’s 2012 production of Richard III ended with a rousing dance by the whole cast just before they all bow (as they do for all productions that originate at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre).

One can’t ignore the infinitesimal degrees of separation between Tim Carroll and Kevin Bennett. Carroll directed Richard III at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and then when it transferred to the Apollo Theatre in the West End.

Kevin Bennett was a member of the 2014 Michael Langham Workshop for Classical Direction at the Stratford Festival. He was also the assistant director for Tim Carroll on his 2014 Stratford production of King John.

Now Tim Carroll is in his first year of his tenure as Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival. Kevin Bennett has been hired to direct The Madness of George III and the production is just too close in set design and other directorial ‘touches’ to Carroll’s production of Richard III to be ignored as coincidence. Very troubling.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a modicum of originality and invention from a director at the Shaw Festival.

And then there is Kevin Bennett’s direction of the actual production of The Madness of George III. The costumes by Christopher David Gauthier are sumptuous, full of swirling ability what with all those long-trained capes, full-hooped gowns and the rich material for the men’s attire. The problem is that they all have to navigate the small stage of the Royal George Theatre (made even smaller with those on-stage seating structures) and it all looks like so much jammed traffic. Bennett has created so much constant motion of the characters entering, exiting and swirling, that actually taking the time to establish relationships is given short shrift.

Rather than cram another actor on the crowded stage to play another character, Bennett has Marci T. House play both Thurlow and Dr. Pepys at the same time. (A character’s gender is often ignored in casting here). In one scene House plays Thurlow and then changes hats and wears glasses for Dr. Pepys in the same scene. A character on stage behind House holds the hat and glasses, ready to give to her to wear. It is so fascinating? Distracting? watching Marci T. House change in a flash from one character to the next in the same scene, that what the characters are actually saying is lost in the blur of the activity. I don’t think that’s a good thing when one is in there to hear the words.

I am grateful for this hard-working cast, beginning with Tom McCamus as George III. McCamus is charming, curious and on the ball as the smart King, and just as quickly turns into the raving, confused, disoriented man who has lost his way. McCamus negotiates these startling changes with finesse. This is a wonderful portrait of a monarch who is both present and also succumbs to the depths of despair and madness.

As Pitt, André Sills is distinguished, courtly, patient and concerned for his monarch and for the government. His quiet anxiety to get George to sign documents is compelling. As courtly as Sills is playing Pitt, he is as flighty and effete playing Dr. Warren.

Lisa Berry as Lady Pembroke has such poise and grace. Lisa Berry has mastered stillness and that makes her riveting.

Comment. Playwright Alan Bennett has written a wonderful, bracing play about a fascinating character in history and his troubling physical and mental ailments. Present day doctors have analysed George III symptoms and have come up with all manner of diagnoses from bi-polar disorder to Acute Intermittent Porphyria. Bennett has also illuminated the many and various horrible treatments George III had to endure because of competitive and often disreputable doctors who attended him.

While all that was going on there was government to run, and here too Alan Bennett with his razor wit and sharp observations shows the political manoeuvring, the jostling for power and the mendacity of the government at the time and the honourable courtiers trying to protect the king and still make the government work.

Unfortunately, because of director Kevin Bennett’s unnecessarily busy production with little attention to establishing the finer points of creating relationships and be true to the depth of the play, his production is a confused muddle.

Presented by the Shaw Festival

Opened: May 26, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 15, 2017.
Cast: 12; 8 men, 4 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

www.shawfest.com

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I saw these two productions through NTLIVE. WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? will have its encore performance in theatres July 8 and PETER PAN will have its performances June 10 and 11 in cinemas.

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

Written by Edward Albee
Directed by James MacDonald
Cast: Conleth Hill
Imogen Poots
Imelda Staunton
Luke Treadaway

This is Edward Albee’s masterpiece of a bickering couple, George and Martha, who actually love each other but get their jollies by arguing, usually in front of other people. In this case the other people are Nick and Honey.

It’s 2:00 am. George (Conleth Hill) and Martha (Imelda Staunton) have just returned from a boozy party at Martha’s father’s house. He is the president of the university and has welcoming parties for new faculty. George is a professor in the history department at the university. Martha is his loud-mouthed, braying, needy wife. Because Martha’s father told her to be nice to Nick (Luke Treadaway) and Honey (Imogen Poots), and because Martha is desperate for her father’s approval, Martha invites Nick and Honey over for a night cap. Nick is in the biology department, young and attractive and Honey is his mousey, passive/aggressive wife. Over the course of the evening Martha and Nick reveal secrets that should not have been revealed and the gloves come off as Martha and George spar with Nick and Honey looking on in drunken horror. Honey gets even in her own passive way.

This is a very intimate production that is masterfully directed by James MacDonald. It lends itself particularly well in being filmed because the camera work is able to capture a reaction, a look, a side-long glance, that might have escaped notice in a theatre. To see Imelda Staunton’s hard, glaring look at George makes one cower in the seat. To witness Conleth Hill’s reaction as George—startled at first then hardened to match and beat her—is also a thing that makes you suck air slowly.

Everybody raves about Imelda Staunton as Martha, and well they should. She is fierce, combative, angry, insulting, seductive, predatory and so desperately needy. She hunts down the latest stud on the faculty (that would be Nick) and toys with him because she knows they think she has power as the president’s daughter. She is in her element as she taunts, challenges and insults George, and in her most angry, she confides to Nick that George is the only man she loves.

But while Imelda Staunton is an atomic bomb of emotional energy, George is a stealth bomber—silent and lethal. He is no wimp. He is articulate, intelligent, savvy, cunning, watchful and at all times can control what is going on. He let’s Martha sound off, but at the end of the day, she comes back to him. It’s getting to the end of the day that keeps them sparring. George and Martha play games and it seems that George makes them up. They have imagined a son. It’s a secret until Martha lets it slip to Honey. George is furious. They spar over the son making up all manner of invective of how the other was a terrible parent. (echoes of Albee’s home-life with his adoptive parents who seemed to hate each other. His mother was contemptuous of Albee because he was gay. This also echoes the/real/imagined baby in The Play About the Baby and Honey’s hysterical pregnancy that got Nick to marry her and then she wasn’t pregnant anymore.). When George admits to Nick and Honey that they could never have children, for the first time I took it to mean that they daren’t have them—they would be so terrible as competitive parents.

George knows how desperate Martha is for her father’s attention/affection, of which she has neither. I liken her to Hedda Gabler without the gun. When George tells her how late it is and how can she have invited guests, Martha says, three times, “Daddy said to be nice to them.” She takes her father’s request literally. We get the message about her neediness.

In his hard-nosed, yet quiet way, George knows Martha’s neediness, George has compassion. He has to put an end to pretending and get Martha on track.

As good as Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill are as Martha and George, they are wonderfully supported by Luke Treadaway as Nick and Imogen Poots as Honey.

Treadaway has that blond haired, blue-eyed sheen. He is not overly muscular but he has body language that transmits how confident he is in himself and his world. He has by far the hardest part because it’s so full of stilted, awkward dialogue “Why, yes, yes, it does.” Etc. OY. Treadaway says it all with an easy grace that conveys Nick’s formality. As Honey, Imogen Poots is dreamy-eyed (because of all that brandy) and quietly stubborn and demanding. She has Nick where she wants him and he needs her because of her money.

This production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?? masterful. It is brilliantly, bracingly acted and directed. See it on the Encore presentation, July 8. 2017.

www.ntlive.org

PETER PAN

Written by J. M. Barrie
Devised by the companies
Directed by Sally Cookson
Cast: Saikat Ahamed
Marc Antolin
Lois Chimimba
Anna Francolini
Felix Hayes
Paul Hinton
John Pfumojena
Ekow Quartey
Madeleine Worrall

To see this at the National Theatre was magical. To be able to see this in the cinema as part of National Theatre Live was terrific too because it brought back the memories.

We do know the story, right? Peter Pan, a boy who never wants to grow up, has lost his shadow when he was overhearing Mrs. Darling tell her children, Wendy, John and Michael stories. Mrs. Darling closed the window on Peter and trapped his shadow. He comes back for it when Mr. and Mrs. Darling are out at a party, and the dog Nana, who is the nanny is tied up outside. Peter charms the children and teaches them to fly and they go off on a big adventure to Neverland where they meet the Lost Boys.

There are some interesting changes in this version: Nana is played by a sassy-speaking Ekow Quartey who wears a frilly hat, apron and bloomers. Quartey also doubles as Tootles, a sweet, meek Lost Boy; Peter was responsible for the loss of Hook’s hand. He cut it off and fed it to the crocodile (nasty kid is this Peter); Hook is a woman with lots and lots of sarcastic attitude and metal teeth. She is played by the wonderful and scary Anna Francolini who also plays the most loving, kind-hearted Mrs. Darling. Tinker Bell is played by an impish Saikat Ahamed with white wings and a kind of shorts outfit and speaks in a cross between baby gibberish and Italian. Felix Hayes plays a bewildered, frustrated Mr. Darling who is ruled by his family. Mr. Hayes also plays Smee the pirate and Twin Two of the Lost Boys. Twin Two is always beside Twin One. Peter Pan is a loose-limbed, petulant, charming Paul Hinton. And Madeleine Worrall plays Wendy as very sensible and kind-hearted but is up for a flying adventure.

It is directed by the gifted director Sally Cookson who uses movement and simple imagery to create the most magical world. This world is composed of playground stuff; ladders, junk, ropes, piping and blinking lights. The crocodile is made of separate sections of corrugated metal with a long snout and two lights for eyes. The separate sections are held by characters who move in a balletic sequence creating the slow, steady lethal movement of the crocodile.

The flying of the characters is equally magical in that the audience does the work of imagining. The intention was to show how it all worked, from the crocodile to the flying and yet the result is that jaw dropping world of the ‘unbelievable.’

Each character who is lifted off the ground is attached to hooks on the side of their costumes. The hooks in turn are attached to wires and ropes that are also attached to another person who scurries up and down a stationary one piece ladder on either side of the stage. If the person is on the top of the ladder and drops down, the character he/she is attached to will in turn fly up. When the person on the ladder scampers up the rungs, the character attached to that person then lowers down. So it’s the combination of these two bodies acting as counter balances that give the sense of flying. Because it’s all visible to the audience they are in on the trick. Wonderful.

In a way you need the wide shot of a camera to capture all of the wild activity. Close-ups again are helpful in negotiating the various reactions of the characters. Occasionally the activity gets the better of the camera work and some things might get lost. The best advice is to look everywhere in the wide shot to get an idea of how it’s all done.

A final bit of magic and faith. Wendy and her brothers come home from Neverland to her worried parents, bringing many of the lost boys with them. Wendy asks if the Lost Boys can stay. The Lost Boys stand in a line and are introduced quickly: Curly, Nibs, the twins, Tootles etc. Except that can’t be right. In Neverland the twins, Twin One and Twin Two are always beside each other. But Twin Two is played by Felix Hayes who is over there as Mr. Darling with Mrs. Darling. We just take it on faith that when “The Twins’ are introduced that both of them are there and not just Twin One (Laura Cubitt). Love that.

Peter Pan is a joyous, magical, prickly show for fearless children and their accommodating parents.

It plays at selected cinemas doing NTLive productions on June 10 and then June 11 for the Encore.

www.ntlive.org.

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At the Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Tim Carroll
Designed by Judith Bowden
Lighting by Kevin Lamotte
Music direction and original music by Claudio Vena
Cast: Karl Ang
Wade Bogert-O’Brien
Benedict Campbell
Andrew Lawrie
Allan Louis
Emily Lukasik
Tom McCamus
Jeff Meadows
Jim Mezon
Gray Powell
P J Prudat
Ben Sanders
Graeme Somerville
Steven Sutcliffe
Jonathan Tan
Sara Topham

A striking set that is more puzzling in the context of the play than it is effective in telling the story, staging that seems awkward in actually establishing relationships, with some wonderful performances.

The Story. In 1429 AD, in France a 17 year old peasant girl named Joan hears the voice of God, plus those of Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine instructing her to put the Dauphin on the throne of France making him king, and also to lead the battered French army against the English and run them off French soil.

She presents herself to Captain Robert de Beaudricourt saying she needs a horse and soldiers’ clothes for the journey to the Dauphin. She has already convinced some hard-nosed soldiers that she is the real deal and is capable of doing what she says. She wins over the captain, and the Dauphin and then the French army. But her biggest battle is with the Catholic Church which prefers to do its own interpreting of the word of God and not through a stubborn, passionate, smart teenager. This is the stumbling block. While Joan has pure honesty and vision on her side, the church and members of the state have cunning, greed, wiliness and political maneuvering in their side to get what they want and what they want is Joan to be our of sight and mind and the best way of doing that is to find her guilty of heresy and burn her at the stake.

The Production. Designer Judith Bowden’s geometric set pieces are initially arresting, and certainly in Kevin Lamotte’s eerie, haunting lighting. The stage of the Festival Theatre is rather large but the action of the play happens on a smaller square platform set in the middle of the stage but with the square turned so that a point of the square points downstage. A large illuminated cube takes up a quarter of the stage and in one scene in Act I and one in Act II the cube slowly rises up revealing a group of smarmy people who are there to challenge Joan. When the people are revealed the cube is raised and remains suspended for the rest of the play. In Act II an illuminated column lowers down from the flies and later in the scene it raises revealing a character. For most of the scene it remains suspended and illuminated in space, unused and mystifying in its suspended intent, and no this is not ‘visual poetry.’ This is more like spatial clutter. Judith Bowden is a wonderful designer, but her set here is more confusing that useful in establishing the play.

Saint Joan is directed by Tim Carroll, the new Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival. Tim Carroll has written an extensive program note citing the radical set of the first production of the play in 1923. He mentions that Edward Gordon Craig’s “simple geometric set designs created a revolution around the turn of the twentieth century.” He also cites …”Josef Svoboda, the Czech lighting designer, (who) would seize on the possibilities of pure objects in space to create a new visual poetry.” The work of these two theatre pioneers informs Tim Carroll’s production.

The problem is that over most of the century following these radical moves, the theatre has created its own design geniuses who have moved the form forward. So while these images of illuminated geometric shapes suspended in air were revolutionary in 1923, they are simply odd in 2017.

The cube is there it seems only for the effect in Act I and II when the cube rises to reveal a group of people who will serve the scene. Aside from that the cube floats in air, not symbolic or poetic of anything. In another scene in Act II a cube with a scene of sorts on its sides sits in the corner of the square playing area. Is it supposed to symbolize something, a place? Hard to tell since the images are not clear.

In the scene changes a shiny ‘wall’ descends and when lit, looks opaque and not clearly reflective. If anything it distorts the image reflected in it. Is that the intent? Mystifying.
It all seems an effort to dazzle with little point.

I have seen much of Tim Carroll’s direction, at our Stratford and over the years that he worked at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, England, when Mark Rylance was the artistic director.

When Carroll directs Shakespeare there is a formality to it. When he came to Stratford, he put great store in Original Practices, in other words, doing Shakespeare as it would have been done in Shakespeare’s day—candles for lighting; leaving the lights on in the theatre and on stage; a stylized way of staging the production. But as he also said with a bit of a wink when he was at Stratford no one knows how they really produced shows in Shakespeare’s day, so he could also just make it up.

With this production of Saint Joan at least Carroll seems to be using the same staging techniques, and my eye-brows knit.

For example, the person at the centre of a scene is placed in the centre of the playing area. The others also in the scene are placed around the edges of the playing area, about several feet away. They converse in this awkward positioning. Sometimes a character will step forward to be close to the person in the centre, talk, then move back. Eye-brow-knitting to be sure. Is this placement so as not to obstruct our vision of the speaker? To establish that the person in the middle is the focal point? Do we really need such artificial blocking? Does no one think the audience couldn’t figure out who is the centre of the scene by staging it so that it actually looks like live characters are engaging? The result is that relationships are not organically established. This makes Saint Joan look like a museum piece, which it is not.

Often Tim Carroll places a character downstage facing the audience but talking to a character behind them, then the person turns upstage to face the person talked to. It all looks so awkward.

Sara Topham plays Joan. Topham shows us a Joan who is serious, focused and intelligent. There is an effort to suggest this is a teenager when Topham first appears to the Captain and sits in a chair with one foot on the seat and her other foot tucked underneath her. However I don’t get the sense of this head-strong, fiercely committed teenager. The point with Joan is that she is a kid who has convinced several savvy men to follow her into battle. I don’t want the actress to be 17, but I do need to see that driven, compelling attitude of a teen who changed the course of a country. It is missing with Sara Topham.

Gray Powell as Dunois is a war-weary, smart soldier who is charmed and convinced by Joan, but he knows the way of war, and foreshadows what will happen. Steven Sutcliffe is impassioned, sombre and thoughtful as Captain La Hire, one of Joan’s stalwart followers. Wade Bogert-O’Brien as Dauphin (later Charles VII) is boyish, beautifully weak-willed, and almost child-like. To accentuate that child-like quality, the Dauphin often has to jump up and sit in a tall chair (a high chair?) suggesting his throne. It’s good for a laugh or two, but only just.

And what’s with all that squatting that Joan, Dunois, Captain La Hire do? They would be speaking then out of nowhere Joan or the others squat almost to the ground. Yoga poses in 15th century France?! My eye-brows are crocheting.

Comment. This being George Bernard Shaw, there is lots of philosophizing about the rules of the state, the church, religion, politics and the details of war. And this play certainly is applicable to today, just in the sense of one person convinced they have the solution of making France great again. Shaw’s arguments about politics and his prescience in how the world, the church, government and politics work are startling in how immediate the play is to our time.

I found there is a lot of effort to make this production seem provocative, certainly with the illuminate, floating set pieces. In spite of that effort, I think this production of Saint Joan is plodding. The result is a disappointment.

The Shaw Festival presents:

Opened: May 25, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 15, 2017.
Cast: 16; 13 men, 3 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

www.shawfest.com

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At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Upstairs, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Molière
Directed by Joël Beddows
Set and Props by Melanie McNeil
Costumes by Nina Okens
Lighting by Michael Brunet
Sounds by Vanessa Lachance
Cast: Marcelo Arroyo
Lina Blais
Sophie Goulet
Christian Laurin
Pierre Simpson
Nicolas Van Burek

This is Molière’s play about that charming but despicable rake, Dom Juan (Pierre Simpson), a man who lived totally for pleasure without a hint of responsibility or conscience. He saw nothing wrong with compromising the women who fell in love with him, often balancing two women at a time, and then just dumping them because he saw someone else who interested him.

His faithful servant Sganarelle (Marcelo Arroyo) is loyal, true and disgusted with him. Sganarelle has a love/hate relationship with Dom Juan but can’t leave. Besides, there are the wages that are still owed him. So like a loyal puppy, Sganarelle serves his master unconditionally, although at times he does voice his concerns to Dom Juan about his behaviour.

It’s wonderful that Théâtre Français de Toronto offers performances in French with English surtitles for folks like me whose French is not good. The problem in this case is that I could not read 90% of the surtitles because they are unreadable and hence can’t comment properly on this story, or how the acting is geared to it. It would be like reviewing an actor reading the telephone book in a foreign language with all manner of emotion and passion, signifying nothing much if one doesn’t know the language. I don’t think that’s a good thing.

The surtitles (created and operated by Melanie Hall) are projected on a wide strip above and toward the back of the stage. Unfortunately Michael Brunet’s lighting either blinded me from reading the surtitles or they were so faintly illuminated you couldn’t read them. Did no one check this from every point in the theatre? Apparently not. And I had a great seat in the second row just off centre, house left.

When the audience filed into the space I noted a lit light bulb up left, behind the strip on which the surtitles were projected. That bulb blinded me. I hoped that when the production started the light from the bulb would fade out. Nope. So when the surtitles flashed up I couldn’t read them. I tried sunglasses. (Really!) That diminished the glare as well as being able to read the surtitles.

Eventually the light from the bulb went out but other lights just under the strip went on. One amber light was in the centre so that blinded the surtitles. Another was blue, again, it blinded me from reading. If the lights illuminating the stage were bright they washed out the surtitles making them so feint you couldn’t read them. The best was when the lights were dim and the surtitles were bright enough to read. I recon that was about 5% of the time. A few people left and while I can’t assume it was because of unreadable surtitles, I think it’s a safe bet.

I struggled to read the surtitles. I hate taking a press ticket and not write a review. I thought perhaps I can cheat with a Google search about the details of the story but was not confident that what I was watching was what Google said was going on.

I finally had to give up trying to make head or tail of the story and how Joël Beddows’ production served the play. Pity.

In future if surtitles anywhere are involved and not just Théâtre Français de Toronto, this is what I want: I want to be able to actually read them! I don’t think this is unreasonable. I want them bright and not dimly lighted. I would like the lighting designer, the surtitle operator and the director to watch the show from every angle in that theatre to see if the audience can read the surtitles. Perhaps re-thinking where they are in the theatre might be helpful. Opera Atelier does just fine with this because their surtitle strip is not at the back of the stage but closer to the audience (I know the Elgin theatre is deeper than the Berkeley Street Theatre, Upstairs. Work it out.)

Théâtre Français de Toronto, presents:

Began: May 10, 2017.
I saw it: May 24, 2017.
Closes: May 28, 2017.
Cast: 6; 4 men, 2 women
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minues.

www.theatrefrancais.com

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At the Factory Theatre Studio, Toronto, Ont.

Written and performed by Deb Filler
Directed by John Shooter

Deb Filler is hilarious. The New Zealand born comedienne has traveled the world making people laugh, especially in her adopted home of Toronto. She performed her one-woman show, I Lost It In Kiev in Toronto in 2014; done comedy TV; participated in the comedy documentary, The Last Laugh and was terrific in serious roles in Talking Heads a few years ago and in Death of a Salesman in Toronto in Yiddish, last year. She is presenting her new one-woman show I Did It My Way In Yiddish (in English) at the Factory Theatre Studio until May 28.

Music had always been important to Deb Filler’s family. Her grandmother loved opera and asked a young Deb to conduct her using a banana as the baton. Her father, a baker, always thought established stars such as Judy Garland would have gone so much further had they sung in Yiddish.

Filler is so devoted to music that she accompanies herself and frequently the audience on a guitar as she strums and sings some of her favourite songs from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra and the beloved Judy Garland. She takes her father’s advice to heart and sings some of her favourite songs in Yiddish. Very funny.

She tells very funny stories involving Leonard Bernstein, Leonard Cohen and a Jewish rock and roller named Lenny. These three Lenny stories are the heart of I Did It My Way In Yiddish (in English). Filler is charming, personable, knows how to work an audience and the three Lenny stories are gems of humour. The show is directed with a minimum of fussy staging by John Shooter.

I do have concerns though. The shape of the show is problematic. Filler greets the audience from the stage and almost immediately takes her guitar and launches into various pop songs that she loves. There are several of them that made me wonder when the show would start. Surely this show is not a concert? With respect, Filler is not a strong singer and is ok on the guitar. I wonder when the humour will start. The songs should be shifted to another part of the show, perhaps after a comedic beginning.

In the patter Deb Filler seems tentative, as if she didn’t have enough rehearsal. I think that odd since she says she has been touring the show around the world. And finally this show has the most unnecessary, busy, distracting lighting design I have ever seen in a small show. During a musical sequence all the lights facing the stage flick on and off which prove to be extremely distracting, with little sense of illuminating Filler at all. At first I thought it might be the lighting computer run amok. But then the same effect is used later in another musical moment and I realize it is deliberate. Often the lights go from simple illumination to burning brightly on Filler, again, for no reason. If this is the suggestion of the usually reliable director John Shooter, may I suggest that simple is best—cut every single lighting effect and stick to just illuminating Filler so we can see her properly. And while I realize singing in some standards in Yiddish is the point of the show, sometimes the joke misses the mark when too many songs are sung in Yiddish to show how funny it can be.

Humour is Deb Filler’s forte. I Did It May Way In Yiddish (in English) needs another shaping and thinking so that humour is front and centre and not distracted by too many songs that don’t help the point.

Opened: May 23, 2017.
Closes: May 28, 2017.
Running Time: 80 minutes

www.factorytheatre.ca

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At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs, Toronto, Ont.

Book, music and lyrics by Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone
Based on the poem by Pushkin and the opera by Tchaikovsky
Directed by Emiel Gladstone
Music director, Chris Tsujiuchi
Choreographer, Linda Garneau
Set by Denyse Karn
Costumes by Alex Amini
Lighting by John Webber
Sound by Michael Laird
Cast: Rebecca Auerbach
Shane Carty
Josh Epstein
Peter Fernandes
Hailey Gillis
Daren A. Herbert
Elena Juatco

So much promise. Such a disappointment.

The Story. Russia, 1819. Vladimir Lensky is in love with Olga Larin and she with him. He tells his good friend Evgeni Onegin that Olga has a sister, Tatyana, and that they would make a good pair. Evgeni spends most of his time being aloof and bored. He’s rich and has inherited property and visits said property but that bores him. He meets Tatyana. He appears charming. She falls in love. She tells him in a letter she loves him. He tells her in person he does not return the affection. He does flirt with Olga who likes the attention. This in turn angers Lensky. Lensky and Onegin have heated words. There is a dual. Someone dies and it’s not Onegin. And it goes from there. It’s a story that is full of passion, drama, intrigue and high emotions.

The Production. Denyse Karn’s set is terrific. We are looking at a place of decay. Books, beer bottles and other stuff are on the ledges of the set. Great tree branches burst out of broken windows of what might have been the manor house of a large estate. The walls are dingy. The band of three is upstage.

The cast come out on stage and down the aisles of the theatre greeting us, hugging those they know, clinking classes. Daren A. Herbert, who plays Evgeni Onegin takes a flask out of his inside coat pocket and clinks it with a man drinking from a glass in the audience. There is a sense of celebration, good times and laughs.

Once on stage Josh Epstein, as Vladimir Lensky, is a compact, athletic man who shimmies and jives to his own rhythm. He acts as a lively master of ceremonies getting us in the mood. Every time someone says Lvov (I believe) is the signal for someone to take a swig of vodka. There is a lot of that at the beginning of the show.

He introduces the characters and the band, (percussion/guitar, cello, piano) none of whom we have met yet really. Such introductions are usually at the end after they have actually played something. Perhaps this is different.

The first song is “A Love Song” which says the show is about love, love love. Hmmm. Ok. I know the story and a guy gets killed and people are unhappy. Hmmmm but this song says the show is about love, love, love. Next the company sings “Oh, Dear Father” and does some rousing dancing while they pray to the father above to save them all from this boredom. Huh?

Evgeni Onegin makes a dramatic entrance in shadow up there in the window frame stage left. He descends gracefully. He’s jaunty, wears a scarf rakishly knotted at the neck. Then the company sings “Three Horses” as Onegin sits in a chair with some stuff around him as he and the company simulate him being taken to his uncle’s estate in a carriage drawn by horses (Lots of swaying to and fro, lots of bumping up and down as the carriage ‘travels’ along the road). Daren A. Herbert certainly suggests that he doesn’t want to keep checking the estate that he inherited and that he really is bored. The song establishes it but it says precious little about the details of his life.

I keep waiting for a song to lead naturally to another so that some story could be established, but in fact each song is complete unto itself. Perhaps this is a new form of musical, I’m thinking? But then quickly realize it’s an old fashioned kind of musical that is merely bad. And confused.

Veda Hille is the co-writer with Amiel Gladstone on\f the book, music and lyrics. She is also the Music Supervisor. I have to wonder why she doesn’t know that the amplified three piece band drowns out the cast and so too much of the lyrics are lost.

Amiel Gladstone also directs and here too we have a mash-up of styles and forms of performance/direction. At the duel between Onegin and Lensky one of them slumps down to the ground, dead. But for added ‘symbolism’ Gladstone has a circle of white light shine on the floor and a glop of red liquid is dropped in the circle, suggesting blood. Why? Doesn’t Gladstone trust us to get it? With a show so over the top in slap-stick, almost vaudeville high jinx we also need symbolism? Oh, PUULeeeze!

The audience is involved in mail delivery between characters. Tatyana sends a letter to Onegin and hands it to a person at the end of the front row and instructs that person to pass the letter to the next person and so on until the letter reaches the other end of the row, at which point the letter is given to Onegin who reads it. (sigh).

Act II begins with the cast entering the theatre from the down the aisles to the stage carrying trays of glowing opaque ‘candle’ holders and setting the candles around the stage. Very pretty but then the lights comes up to illuminate the room. The candles are a nice touch but wasted.

The cast are superb from top to bottom, headed by the always compelling Daren A. Herbert as Onegin. He has a strong voice, knows how to sing a song, no matter how ineffectual, and is a compelling presence. Of course women are charmed by him. Josh Epstein as Lensky is full of impish personality. He is an attentive suitor to Olga and conveys Lensky’s apprehension with the duel. After Lensky is killed (no spoilers here) Epstein spends the rest of the show upstage with the band. I can’t help but think he gets the better of the deal.

Comment
. Unfortunately none of the above aspects of passion, drama, intrigue or high emotions are at play in this mish-mash of a confused production. The creators (Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone can’t decide if their Onegin is a comedy that sends up the original story by chatting up the audience and playing to them etc.; a bizarre musical in which each song is complete in itself with little connection to the whole; a lively song and dance show with little connection to the story.

I expect the first song of any musical to actually set up the musical and establish the tone, attitude and ‘idea’ of the piece, but Onegin doesn’t. The second song “Oh, Dear Father”) rousingly suggests that they are all bored and need relief from that situation, but I couldn’t believe them since they dance and frolic for the whole number and the show in a sense, so how could they all even think we would believe they are bored. I keep waiting for a song to tell me what this musical is about, and by about 20 minutes into the show I realize that wait will end in disappointment.

This is the first show of the formerly named Acting Up Company now the newly named The Musical Stage Company to reflect their expanded mandate regarding new musicals. Onegin is the first show of this newly named company. It’s an eye-brow-knitting disappointment. Fortunately there is nowhere to go after this mish-mash but up.

The Musical Stage Company in collaboration with Canada’s National Arts Centre and in association with Producing Patrons Linda and Chris Montague presents:

Opened: May 17, 2017.
Closes: June 4, 2017.
Cast: 7; 4 men, 3 women
Running Time: 90 minutes, approx.

www.musicalstagecompany.com

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At the Sandbox, 301 Adelaide St. W., Toronto, Ont.

Written by Linda McLean
Directed by Paul Lampert
Set by Michael Gianfrancesco
Costumes by Ming Wong
Lighting by Bonnie Beecher
Sound by Christopher Stanton
Projections by Cameron Davis
Cast: Niki Landau
Richard Lee
Jeff Lillico
David Schurmann
Edmund Stapleton
Ausar Stewart

A chilling play that creeps up on you as the clues rack up, in a stylish, artful production.

The Story
. A childhood even haunts the two adults involved. In five short scenes May has various encounters-with her husband, with another man, with her father, her brother and finally a social worker in which each build slowly to indicate May’s background which is by way of explanation of the kind of person she is and how she got to where she is now.

The Production. Director Paul Lambert has fashioned this production as part art instillation, part immersive theatre production. The ‘theatre’ space at Artspace has been sectioned into five areas with a character who will be interacting with May already inhabiting each area. We are invited to wander around the space and look at each section as if we are in an art instillation.

As we walk into the space, we walk by an old man in pajamas, sitting in a chair, hooked up to tubes etc. This is a hospital room. He’s asleep and has a frowned look. He does not look like a happy camper. In another area (an enclosed room) a young man paces slowly back and forth, he is casually dressed. In another a young man sits hunched over on a park bench. He is roughly dressed. On another, also an enclosed space but not as confined as the young man, a gentleman sits at a stylish table, reading his newspaper. Behind him is a projection of a white shelf of books. He is very stylishly dressed—Yuppie like. The last room I look at is a bedroom with a man in a suit, sitting on the edge of the bed, looking at his cell phone and tapping out a text.

The walls around the whole space are surfaces on which to project scenes or instructions. We are invited to look around the space and turn off our cell phones. There are benches along the edges of the separate ‘rooms’ on which some members of the audience can sit. There are more people than there are spaces so some stand.

When the production begins a snippet of a home movie is projected on the walls with two young children playing being called by an adult. It doesn’t register who these children are or who the adult is. The snippet is short.

May is our central character. We follow her from area to area, watching as she interacts with each man in each space. Of course we act differently with different people and playwright Linda McLean shows that beautifully.

The man reading the paper is May’s husband, Dan (Ausar Stewart). She enters the area, all a twitter. She has seen a wounded bird on their balcony of their high rise apartment. She frets about what to do about it. Call a vet? Take it in and nurse it? Dan looks up from his paper, almost bored with her concern. He tries to allay her concerns that the bird will die because trying to help fails. With every comment from Dan, May, as played by Niki Landau gets a bit more agitated. As agitated as she gets, Dan, as played by the stylish Ausar Stewart, is more and more matter of fact. He hates birds and thinks their balcony is a haven for pigeons to poop. He hates that. More twittering from May. He suggests that perhaps they should move to a house. He is trying to calm her in his way. In this relationship, May appears childish and he appears like the adult trying to talk sense.

A projection on the walls indicate the passage of time. (three months later, 12 months later for example).

Next May is in the hospital room with the man in the chair. He is her father Duncan (At no time are any of these characters referred to by name. Interesting). May is accommodating with her father. He is irascible, irritable and definitely unhappy. He doesn’t want to be at this old age place. But we get the sense from his attitude and treatment of May that that is how he treated her for her whole life. She in turn tries to appease him. In this instance she is not as childish or twittery as she is with her husband. In this sense she is a grown daughter trying to deal with an irritable father and nothing she does is right. We sense this has always been the case.

More time passes as projected on the walls. May is in the hotel room with Roy. They met on the internet and they are there for sex. She is not having an affair with him. It’s more ‘cold-blooded’ than that. She and he want rough sex. At first Roy, as played by the soft-spoken Richard Lee, is tender, gentle and kind. But they get into a situation that starts off mutually but ends dangerously. Richard Lee morphs into a character that makes us wary of what kind of person he is and what secrets May is hiding.

May’s meets Denis, her brother, in a park. The projection (Cameron Davis) of a lush park with trees and grass suggests a quiet, idyllic place. Denis is agitated and angry. May has just told him she is pregnant and he is furious. There are hints that something happened when they were younger that affected their lives and they made a promise to each other that May has broken.

Finally May meets Abel in the last room. She has had the baby who is now two years old. Abel has come to see the baby. May seems anxious in a way that is different with the other men, but the main thrust of her behavior is a woman who is under the man’s influence. As she goes from her husband to her father to Roy in the hotel room to her brother to Abel, she projects a different kind of submissiveness and yet mixes it with an effort for maturity. She is not overtly meek. There is a kind of confidence, but it’s tempered.

Comment
. May is the common factor in each encounter. Each encounter connects to the others in establishing May’s character and her story. And with each connection matters get creepier and creepier as to what she is hiding.

Linda McLean has written a crisp, bracing play of mystery that sneaks up on you and spooks you when we piece together what happened years before and how it has affected May and the people around her. Terrific.

Note: It would have been nice if there was a proper program with all the information needed to talk about this wonderful production, rather than going to a user-unfriendly website for the company.

Produced by Theatre Panik

Opened: May 12, 2017.
Saw it: May 14, 2017.
Closes: May 27, 2017.
Cast: 6; 5 men, 1 woman
Running Time: 2 hours.

www.theatrepanik.ca

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

Written by Ntozake Shange
Directed by Djanet Sears
Set and costumes by Astrid Janson
Lighting by Michelle Ramsay
Choreography by Jasmyn Fyffe and Vivine Scarlett
Composed, arranged, and sound by Suba Sankaran
Cast: Tamara Brown
Karen Glave
Ordena Stephens-Thompson
d’bi.young anitafrica
Akosua Amo-Adem
SATE
Evangelia Kambites

A joyful, moving, compelling production of Ntozake Shange’s chorepoem that covers all facets of a black woman’s experiences in her journey through life.

Story and Performance. Ntozake Shange’s 1974 chorepoem illuminates the arc of a black woman’s journey through life, using poetry, prose, music, dance, singing, chanting, finger snapping and other means of making sounds that move the story.

Designer Astrid Janson dresses each woman of this seven women ensemble in a different colour, which when grouped together forms a rainbow (red, yellow, purple, green, blue, orange, indigo) —with an exception, brown is substituted for indigo. The dresses are both form fitting but loose enough to sway, making it easy for each woman to sashay to her own rhythm. And dance. (I must say that Janson’s curved ramp on which the women ascend and descend, often in heels, makes my eyebrows knit. That’s one daring set piece and having them negotiate it in heels is ramping up the challenge.)

To begin their journey these seven women dance, move, shimmy and sashay with a sense of total confidence, command, self-respect, pride and self-worth. At the beginning there is joy, humour, smarts, wisdom and worry-free anticipation of what’s ahead. Until, one day, that confidence changes. A young woman revels in her friendships with several boys, all cousins, all who like her. She goes to a school dance with them. She is joyful until one of the cousins charmingly separates her from the rest and takes her to a car where her world changes.

The other women tell of their euphoria when they meet the man of their dreams, or a man who shows them a good time, initially with respect and expressions of devotion. When it doesn’t work out the women rally around each other for support. The failed love affair is met with disappointment but not defeat. They move forward.

Other relationships with men are forged. The men promise undying love and devotion. The women revel in that too and trust and have faith that this is true. Gradually as each relationship fails, the women’s confidence, security, self-worth begins to chip away. They learn that their men have cheated with other women, some of whom they know. The accompanying singing, chanting and finger snapping that director Djanet Sears has fashioned as signs of solidarity, get softer, more delicate. The women’s support for each other is not in question, but it is now muted. However their embrace for each other is as strong as ever.

The women have learned from painful experience. And then occasionally, the men come back, head bowed, apologetic, swearing their loyalty from now on. And then euphoria happens again, and against their better judgement, trust. The women have faith that this time their man is true and changed.

The last segment of this incredible journey is the most harrowing, (told by the Lady In Red) and while each actress in this vibrant, fine ensemble shines in her own way, d/bi.young anitafrica as the Lady in Red, starts slowly and then goes full throttle with the most gut-wrenching story. In a way she encapsulates all of their journeys.

The journey concludes with the women finding solace in each other. They are now arm in arm and not solitary in a void.

Comment. Djanet Sears and her creative team and notably Suba Sankaran for her evocative music that the ensemble chant, sing and snap to, plus this sterling cast, have created a production full of heart, heart-break, joy and pride. Ntozake Shange has written a beautiful, searing poem about black women’s experience and the result is a production that leaves you breathless and in its way, euphoric.

Presented by Soulpepper Theatre Company

Opened: May 11, 2017.
Saw it: May 15, 2017.
Closes: June 3, 2017.
Cast: 7 women
Running Time: 90 minutes.

www.soulpepper.com

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At the Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto, Ont.

By Emil Sher
Based on the book by Ian Brown
Directed by Chris Abraham
Choreographers, Monica Dottor, Chris Abraham
Set and Costumes by Shannon Lea Doyle
Lighting by André du Toit, Kimberly Purtell
Video designer, Remington North
Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne
Cast: Kelly McNamee
Liisa Repo-Martell
David Storch

A heart-wrenching story of a loving family living with and caring for a severely disabled child, given a beautiful production. It’s more a confessional than a play and you sit and listen, but think, “there but for the grace of God….”

The Story and the Production. The play is based on Ian Brown’s 2009 award-winning book “The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for His Disabled Son.” Brown is married to Johanna Schneller, the Globe and Mail’s film critic. Their son Walker was born with a genetic disorder that left him severally disabled; unable to talk, eat properly, walk, and generally function as a growing boy. Development is severely delayed.

The book was lovingly, respectfully adapted into play form by Emil Sher In 2014. The play chronicles the long, torturous journey of Ian Brown and his wife Johanna Schneller in caring for Walker while he was at home. Every decision is gut-wrenching. They re-think every decision from every angle because they just aren’t sure if they are doing the right thing. There are only 300 people in the world who have the same disorder as Walker so it’s not as if you can go to a local support group for solace.

When the audience enters the theatre the stage is dark and mostly bare except for a stylish table and chairs up right. At the back is an opaque wall with a door well in it and almost behind the wall is lush greenery. A cone of light shines downstage centre.

As Ian Brown, David Storch steps into the cone of light, takes a deep breath and begins to tells us in an initially measured, sometimes agitated way, about a typical night when he is awoken from his sleep by Walker who is hitting himself and obviously in distress. Brown has to calm Walker and disengage him from his feeding tube and other paraphernalia; lift him out of his crib—he is not an infant but the crib is safer for him; change his soiled diaper while trying to stop Walker’s arms from flailing; carry him downstairs—at this point in the story Walker weight 45 pounds—and then feed him a baby bottle and get him settled so he will sleep. Sometimes the process takes three hours. One exhales slowly. And this is just the opening scene.

Liisa Ripo-Martell plays Johanna Schneller with the same measured manner. You get the sense both actors are approximating the effort it takes not only take care of this boy, but also to keep an emotional even keel and not loose their composure, their grip with the constant need to give care. It is a very hard slog.

Initially there is a playfulness as Schneller and Brown explain how they met (she was his student and she was attracted). They marry and she becomes pregnant. She is tested for genetic disorders and none are found. Schneller says that if she knew her baby had this disorder when she was pregnant she would have aborted him.

When Walker is born it is obvious there is something wrong but their regular doctor is not there and they have to make decisions without sound advice. When their doctor does appear it seems that what to do is interpreted differently by both parents. One hears that nature should take its course and Walker should be allowed to die. The other hears that everything should be done to keep him alive. Dilemmas to keep you up at night.

While both parents are respectful and appreciative of the other’s support, the constant pressure of taking care of such a helpless child takes its toll on the marriage. They fight, snipe, loose their temper, emotions etc.

Also part of this family is their daughter Hailey (Kelly McNamee). As disabled as Walker is that is as healthy and vibrant Hailey is. To accentuate the difference, Hailey is a student of ballet and for most of the performance she affects ballet poses and performs en pointe. We learn later of the bond between Walker and Hailey and that Hailey’s dancing gives Walker such pleasure.

Chris Abraham’s direction is striking and beautiful. The lighting by André du Toit and Kimberly Purtell is particularly evocative. A roving circular frame of light slides across the stage, silently, often following either Schneller or Brown and often enveloping them. I liken that roving light to be symbolic of Walker, always present, always consuming his parents’ attention. Occasionally there is a photo of the actual Walker with his parents projected above the stage. The last one of the evening is the most poignant.

Brown and Schneller often move about the stage, interacting, telling the story, but the last section is performed sitting in two chairs downstage facing the audience. It is the most wrenching, emotionally gripping section of the play. At the end of it both David Storch and Liisa Repo-Martell are awash with tears.

Comment. There is so much to ponder in The Boy in the Moon. When David Storch, as Ian Brown takes that deep breath and dives into telling in great detail, an average night trying to get Walker to sleep after he starts hitting himself, I asked myself, “Who is he talking to?” Really, who is he talking to? Friends? Strangers? An audience? A confessor? I do liken this heart-shredding, loving show to being less a play and more a confessional. As if Brown and Schneller needed to do penance for something, perhaps for deciding to keep Walker alive. They constantly worry about how much pain he is in; how he handles it and how they can help him with it. Half-way through the telling they must make another gut-wrenching decision and they make it. And there is guilt. But there is also joy. Are they grasping at anything when they interpret what they see as a smile on Walker’s face, and they feel that means he is happy? I don’t know. And neither do we actually since Brown and Schneller say there is so little they know about the disorder and how it affects a person.

Both Ian Brown and Johanna Schneller are selfless, devoted parents. They agonize over the pain Walker must be going through. I wonder, therefore, why they did not decide initially to let nature take its course. They never lament the decision to let him live as a cause of their marital problems, their constant need for sleep, being held captive to his need for care. They are almost herculean in their devotion to him. They think about what questions they would ask him if he could reply. They want to know that he’s happy. They want to know if he’s in pain. They want to know so much.

In that last section, when David Storch as Ian Brown and Liisa Repo-Martell as Johanna Schneller are sitting forward talking about Walker and they are awash in tears, that is when theatre and real life become blurred. It’s not the characters who are so moved. It’s the actors. Storch’s face is awash in tears and his nose is running considerably. The same with Ripo-Martell. This isn’t acting, folks. These are two actors with young healthy children of their own, playing parents of a severely disabled child, and they are loosing it for real, it seems to me. And that takes me right out of the moment. It seems almost churlish to comment on such a moving moment, but that’s what I’m doing. Of course bearing witness to their confessional is very emotional. But one listens, ponders and tries to understand because as I said in the beginning, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Presented by Crow’s Theatre

Opened: May 12, 2017.
Saw it: May 13, 2017.
Closes: May 27, 2017.
Cast: 3; 1 man, 2 women
Running Time: 90 minutes approx.

www.crowstheatre.com

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At Theatre Direct, 601 Christie St., Toronto, Ont.,

Written by Mark Crawford
Directed by Jessica Carmichael
Set, costumes and props by Brian Dudkiewizc
Sound by Sam Ferguson
Puppet builder and show image design by Clelia Scala
Cast: Cynthia Hicks
Matt Pillipiak
Drew O’Hara

A lively, unsettling production of Mark Crawford’s lively unsettling play about a boy who just wanted to be himself but was afraid because of the constraints of his family and by what people might think.

NOTE: This is the Carousel Players’ production that was traveling to schools around south-western Ontario. Seven schools that are part of the Catholic District School Board, cancelled their performance due to ‘scheduling problems.’ It was believed that the theme of the play was the reason. In any case, the valiant Lynda Hill, Artistic Director of Toronto based Theatre Direct that provides theatre to young audiences, invited the Carousel Players to do their last show in Toronto at Theatre Direct. A sold out theatre of children, their parents, teachers and theatre people packed the place. And rightfully so.

The Story. Simon has an assignment to give a presentation to his public school class. He is paired with Abby, the new kid in the class. She has no friends as yet and neither does Simon. Both are lonely and eager for a friend.

Simon invites Abby over to his house where he suggests that they present a play using all the points of instruction from the teacher. The story has to have conflict, a protagonist etc. They rehearse in Simon’s basement. Simon is ready with a story. It’s about Prince Simon who has everything he ever wanted but he’s unhappy. What he really wants is to be a princess who wears purple dresses and plays with Barbie Dolls. Abby is a bit confused here but she goes along with it because she wants Simon as a friend.

They are disturbed by Simon’s thirteen-year-old brother, Zack, who hears the noise in the basement and goes to check. Zack is irritable especially when he sees Simon wearing a cape. He reminds Simon of what their dad has said about his behaviour: that he can’t act ‘that way’, and has to stop pretending. Simon explains they are doing a play for school.

Zack interrupts a few more times when the two young school friends are enthusiastic with their play-acting and certainly when he sees Zack in a purple dress with a Barbie Doll in hand. Simon bought the doll himself.

Zack is challenged to play with them—he becomes a dragon among other characters. There are more references to the father’s dictates of how Simon should act via Zack.

There is some understanding between the brothers regarding being your real self with confidence. There are references to what girls can and can’t do and the same with boys, with Abby sticking up for the rights of the individual to play and act the way they wanted to.

The Production. Brian Dudkiewicz has designed a compact basement set with stairs going up stage left with all manner of props to use to imaginative effect. As Simon, Matt Pillipiak never walks if he can run, jump, twist, attempt to fly and pretend. He is excitable, almost gasping with excitement. He so wants to tell his new friend his secret (that he wants to be a girl) but he hesitates because he’s not sure how she will take this news. Pillipiak establishes Simon’s intense confliction at being a boy, but really wanting to be a girl who can wear a dress and play with a Barbie Doll. Simon blurts it out and Abby (Cynthia Hicks) accepts it as something friends do.

As Zack, Drew O’Hara has a permanent scowl when it comes to his brother. Zack is after all the stand-in for their father and their father has strict rules on how boys should act. They certainly should not be wearing dresses or purple or playing with dolls. The mother seems to be silent during all this. Abbey feels girls can do what they want and so should boys.

There is a game Abby and Simon play when one or the other wants to be their true self. When it’s dark they can be their true self. In the light they have to be the self that convention says they must be. Director Jessica Carmichael has certainly ramped up the energy in this prickly play. The cast is enthusiastic, buoyant, excitable and convey how emotionally wounded their characters are in so many ways.

Comment. Bravo to Mark Crawford for writing such an important play addressing gender issues among others so sensitively. The play examines how children are supposed to act—boys are to be boys and play with boy things, and girls are to do girl things and play with dolls. Anything that varies from the norm invites ridicule and scorn. Crawford illustrates how this blinkered way of thinking is carried on. Zack is deemed old enough to take care of Simon when his parents are at work. Zack carries on his father’s rigid code of behaviour when it comes to Simon. It appears that rigidity applies to Abby as well. She can’t shoot a bow and arrow because that’s a boy thing. She proves Zack wrong.

When Zack is invited to play with Simon and Abby he shows a reticence, as if he doesn’t know how or how to use his imagination. He does soon learn. And Zack does soon learn that his presumptions are incorrect. The fear of loneliness and having no friends is prevalent in both Simon and Abby’s lives and so they cling to each other since they share the same loneliness. The fear of ridicule is repeated often. It is such a rigid home that Simon and Zack live in.

I was glad to be at the performance with teacher friends. Their take on the play was fascinating. One teacher was not keen on the fact that in their game Simon was allowed to be himself in the dark but not in the light. Surely the test of acceptance would be that Simon could take on his feminine persona and become Princess Simone in the safety of his basement, when the lights were on, and revert back to being Simon when the lights were off? Another comment from a teacher is that the acting was too loud, too much shouting. I know the actors were playing excitable kids, but this teacher thought it was too loud. He noted several young kids in the front holding their ears and scurrying to their parents who sat further back. Interesting comments all round. I hope the production can come back for another stint of going to schools. Boys, Girls, and other Mythological Creatures has a lot of important things to say to adults on behalf of children.

Carousel Players presents:

One Performance: May 13, 2017.
Cast: 3; 2 boys, one girl.
Running Time: 1 hour, 5 minutes.

www.carouselplayers.com

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