At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, Ont.

Written, directed and produced by Marilo Nuñez
Set and projections by Peter Riddihough
Costumes by Kelly Wolf
Sound by Michael Rinaldi
Choreography/movement by Olga Barrios
Cast: Alejandro Ampudia
Anita La Selva
Ximena Huizi
Augusto Bitter
Sofia Rodriguez

Note: Recently Canadian Stage in its Spotlight Australia program presented a circus/acrobatic rendering of the Ulysses story of his return home called: The Return (Il Ritorno). This week the Riser Project is presenting El Retorno/I Return which is a completely different show. A comedy of similar titles, indeed, but they are totally different.

A glimpse into the angst of exile from ones home country with emphasis on the problems of Chile that will have much resonance with a Chilean but might leave Canadians mystified.

The Story. From the program: “in 1979, a Chilean family, in political exile in Canada, travelled to Europe with their young children to prepare for The Return Plan, an international effort to topple the Pinochet dictatorship. El Retorno/I Return explores family, exile and revolution, and journeys into the heart of Latin American history.”

The Production. Jaime Fuenzalida, his wife and two daughters first come to Canada after fleeing Chile. Jaime had been arrested in Chile and questioned but miraculously was released and he and his family fled. Every time his wife Veronica asked what he said to be released, Jaime lowers his head in silence. This is brought up twice and the result is silence with Jaime avoiding the issue.

The whole cast is costumed in white-white shirt, pants, shoes, shorts, skirts. Perhaps this is to symbolize the family’s purity? Not sure.

There are two screens on the back wall, one stage left and one right onto which are projections/ animations. Over the course of a segment in this 70 minute show such titles as: Conquest, Imperialism, Independence, are projected and various animated figures (soldiers with weapons etc) are also projected on the two screens illustrating the title.

Director Marilo Nuñez moves her cast efficiently to establish the close relationships of this family and their closeness to Chinito, a friend of the daughters. There is vague reference in the script that something happened to him when he went back to Chile. The cast is totally committed and compelling in that commitment.

When the scene changes location from Chile to Canada to Europe there is a change in the projection. Sometimes it’s Salvadore Allende, or Che Guevara or Vladimir Lenin, or Karl Marx. (Thanks to Peter Riddihough for the informative note). The point is that if one is not familiar with what Allende looks like, or why pictures of Che Guevara and Lenin are shown in certain places, it adds a confusion that this play does not need.

Comment. Marilo Nuñez wanted to illuminate exile as experienced by many immigrants/refugees, including her own family. She also wanted to illuminate 500 years of history as it impacted Latin America, and mainly Chile, over half a century. She also says in her program note that she has been living with this play since she was six years old, when her family moved to Europe. I can appreciate how close Marilo Nuñez is to the story. And I’m sure for the Chileans in the audience when I saw the play it had deep resonance too. Here’s the problem, I’m a native Canadian. I don’t know most of the references in the projections or the references in the script. Who in Europe is creating this grand plan to return to Chile? How is the plan being formed? Why is the secret of Jaime’s release from his interrogation not revealed and explained? Are we to assume Chinito was killed? Why should we assume without information?

I know the intensions of writing this play are honourable. But I am disappointed that it’s not clearer in the actual writing. Nuñez strongly writes of the upheaval to families as they have to leave their country for safe haven elsewhere. I just wished she was as clear about the rest of her references and the history.

Presented by Why Not Theatre and the Theatre Centre

From: May 5, 2017.
Closes: May 13, 2017.
Cast: 5; 2 men, 3 women.
Running Time: 70 minutes.

www.riserproject.org.

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At the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Created by Baz Luhrmann
Book by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce
Adapted by Terry Johnson
Directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie
Musical direction by Ben Atkinson
Set by Soutra Gilmour
Costumes by Catherine Martin
Sound by Gareth Owen
Lighting by Tim Lutkin
Cast: Tamsin Carroll
Richard Dempsey
Julius D’Silva
Charlotte Gooch
Richard Grieve
Sam Lips
Liam Marcellino
Stephen Matthews
Fernando Mira
Eve Polycarpou
Lauren Stroud
Gemma Sutton
Garry Watson

Over amplified and underwhelming.

Full disclosure! I never saw the Baz Luhrmann movie so have no idea what it was like and of course won’t even think of comparing the stage version to anything filmic.

The Story. We are in Australia in 1985. Scott Hastings wants to win the Transpacific Ballroom Dance Contest. He’s practiced since he was six and now he’s an adult who’s won all sorts of prizes and the last one to win is the Transpacific. He studies in the dance studio run by a slippery man, Les Kendall who was his mother Shirley’s dance partner years ago. Scott’s silent, nebbishy father Doug also works there and is treated with contempt by his well-coiffed wife. Apparently there is a dark secret between Shirley, Doug, Les and Barry Fife, he with the snap-on hair, who runs the competitions with a firm hand. Barry is adamant that the integrity of the ballroom dancing be pure and that there should be no variation in the steps. Scott decides to thumb his nose at convention and use his own steps at a competition and is disqualified. The disqualification results in his arrogant partner Liz quits dancing with him. Where will Scott get another partner? Why, over there, with Fran (Just Fran), who for two years has quietly swept the floor and pines to dance with Scott. He teaches her the steps and a dance duo is born. But will they win? Will the secrets that have been hidden all these years be revealed? Will Doug Hastings get up the gumption to open his mouth and speak?

The Production. The first thing to be aware of is that we are blasted with over-amplification of the orchestra and the cast. Sorry, but it’s not a rock concert and I need my ear drums to actually try and make out the lyrics of the existing pop songs that are dotted into the fabric of this musical. With the over-amplification the lyrics are distorted by the garish, tinny sound. It also doesn’t help that often the dialogue is distorted as well.

As the show is really about Scott and his quest for individuality and Fran’s (Just Fran) quest for Scott their scenes together are quiet, tentative and rather sweet. It’s the usual story of a princely man taking an ordinary woman and she transforms into a beauty through the benefit of a kiss and a twirl. Sam Lips is charming as Scott, strapping—well they only gave him a right t-shirt to wear for the most part—and agile. Gemma Sutton as Fran (Just Fran) is feisty with a strong voice and she too has her graceful moments.

Soutra Gilmour’s large set goes up many levels and director Drew McOnie seems compelled to fill it with distracting, pedestrian direction. For some reason there are characters on all levels of the set, often looking down on the action. Who are these people and why the constant surveillance?

At one point in the musical there is a scene playing out on the stage at the same time there is a scene going on waaaaaay up there at the top of the set stage right. In that elevated scene Scott is being taught the finer points of the paso doble, by Fran’s father, Rico an expert in this Spanish dance. Fran’s family is Spanish. Ok, where are we supposed to look? It’s not as if we can see both scenes with peripheral vision, so where do we look, while we sacrifice what we are not looking at?

And while McOnie is touted as an up and coming choreographer, I must confess I find his choreography for Scott, when he breaks out to do his own thing, to be rather clunky and almost awkward. That said, the choreography for Rico during “¡Magnifico!” is thrilling. Fernando Mira as Rico is commanding, dangerous, sensual and puts passion in every Spanish step of that dance. He is ably joined by Eve Polycarpou as Abuela who has stylish attitude for days and ‘pipes’ like a steel rod. Both together makes one sit up and be grateful for their presence.

Comment. Can you pack any more clichéd stories into one musical? The family secret that is hidden away and you wonder if it be revealed; the husband and wife who don’t like each other but once did and will they find their love again; the young dance wiz and his quest for individuality and the plain woman who transforms into a beauty because of him; the silent father who needs to talk to his son and the son is too busy to talk to him; OY. The storylines flip almost as much as pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. And the happy ending with Scott’s parents is a cheat and not earned. (no spoiler alert–you can see it coming from as far away as New Zealand). Baz Luhrman and Craig Pearce wrote the book of the musical (and the film) and Terry Johnson adapted the book. All three have had success in their various endeavors. So why is Strickly Ballroom (the Musical) so tedious? Perhaps the film is better.

Began: April 26, 2017.
Closes: June 25, 2017.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

www.mirvish.com

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At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, Ont.

Created and performed by Natasha Greenblatt and Rimah Jabr.
Sound by Stefan Banjevic
Video designed by Anahita Dehbonehi
Lighting by Jareth Li

A Jewish Canadian and a Muslim Palestinian talk about Israel, history, homeland, losing family and finding a place in the world. Let the discussion begin.

Two Birds One Stone is part of the Riser Project, a new collaborative producing model that gives producing artists the resources and support to produce their plays. It’s a wonderful initiative from Why Not Theatre, at the Theatre Centre. The results have been thought provoking, stimulating and perception changing.

Two Birds One Stone is about two women trying to find their roots. Natasha Greenblatt gives her point of view from a Jewish Canadian perspective and Rimah Jabr gives her point of view from a Muslim Palestinian perspective. One naturally assumes a prickly time in the theatre, and there are those elements. But there is such a collaboration between the women who often express differing opinions that while the differences are there they are expressed in a way that often makes the other reconsider.

Two chairs face the audience. The chairs are on either side of a long table. On the table is a cell phone, two coffee mugs, a pen and a wire structure containing several small oranges. The oranges made me smile. How else does one soften what might be a charged conversation if not by food that both participants like.

After both actresses introduce themselves they have their first disagreement, but there is no animosity. Greenblatt says that most of what we are to see is mostly true and Jabr insists it’s all true. So we begin by being unsettled and wondering who is telling the truth.
Each woman is both running away from something.

Natasha Greenblatt wanted to leave the country because her brother died and she wanted to leave that sadness. (In fact her teenaged brother was a counsellor at camp and drowned in a freak accident.). She applied to a program in Israel called “birthright” which meant she could go on a free trip to Israel for young adults who are Jewish. In the interview for the trip Greenblatt found she didn’t know much about her Jewish heritage. For example, she didn’t know there were any holocaust survivors in her family. She expressed a sense of irritation to her mother that she didn’t know. Her mother asked her to look up her great grandfather’s house in Nablus and she balked at that saying she wouldn’t know where to look, and that it probably wasn’t there anymore etc. But then when she got to Israel she decided to try and find it.

Rimah Jabr has her own story. Her family had been kicked off their land that they had lived on for years. She says to Greenblatt that her great grandfather’s house in Nablus could have once been in her (Jabr’s) family considering the situation in Israel/Palestine.

She questioned her family about its history and was given vague answers by her grandmother. Jabr also challenges her grandmother on that history. All Rimah Jabr wanted was to win a scholarship to study in Europe. She didn’t get it but was invited to create theatre in Belgium. She gladly left.

Those are their individual stories. Matters get prickly when both women interact.
At one point Rimah Jabr takes on the persona of a disillusioned Israeli soldier and decides to find out what is not the company line so begins to investigate other points of view of how Israel treats the Palestinians.

At various points Natasha Greenblatt challenges a statement and Rimah Jabr questions Greenblatt’s thinking and makes her consider another point of view. Greenblatt says that there are two sides to every story. I disagree—as per my late mother. There are three sides to every story: their side, my side and the truth. That works for me.

Occasionally both women speak for the other in expressing a view. It’s an interesting way of blurring the lines between differences. I found it both intriguing but occasionally frustrating because it is confusing as to who is speaking and whose thought is being expressed.

Both women have similar experiences with Israeli bureaucracy but they react quite differently. Greenblatt is frustrated but controlled. Jabr is frustrated and expresses that frustration by being physically destructive. We see her point. We might even sympathize.

At various turns there definitely is a different experience of Israel if one is Jewish and welcome and Palestinian and is not made to feel welcome. Greenblatt seems almost shy and very accommodating while Jabr is more ironic, subtle and reactive. When Jabr offers a different point of view, it is without rancour. It is offered as a way of looking at a problem/question in a different way. Both have a lovely sense of humour with Jabr’s sense of humour having more of an edge.

The suggestion of the piece is that both women met in Israel and formed a bond. This isn’t true. In fact they met when a third party arranged for them to meet in Toronto after-which they wrote the play.

There is a wonderful image at the end. Rimah Jabr takes an orange from the container on the table. She peels it and gives the peel to Natasha Greenblatt who is standing next to her. Then Jabr sections the orange and gives Greenblatt a wedge who eats it. Jabr does the same with her segment. She shares the rest with the audience.

Lovely image—can any disagreement be so prickly that sharing food can’t help find a solution?

Presented by the Riser Project.

Opened
: May 4, 2017.
Closes: May 13, 2017.
Cast: two women.
Running Time: 70 minutes.

www.riserproject.org.

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At the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Creators: Yaron Lifschitz with Quincy Grant and the Circa Ensemble
Directed by Yaron Lifschitz
Stage design by
Lighting by Jason Organ
Costumes by Libby McDonnell
Composition, musical direction and arrangements by Quincy Grant
Acrobats: Nathan Boyle
Marty Evans
Nicole Faubert
Bridie Hooper
Todd Kilby
Nathan Knowles
Celia Martin

Opera singers:
Kate Howden
Benedict Nelson

A moving retelling of Ulysses returning home from the Trojan war told through circus techniques and acrobatics that could very well be taken for ballet. Loss, war and longing are illuminated.

Circa creator Yaron Lifschitz loves the classics of antiquity; circus and opera. He combines all three in The Return (Il Ritorno). From the program:

“A powerful physical poem of absence and separation, The
Return Is structured and inspired by the Monteverdi
baroque opera Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria,
which is in-turn based on Homer’s Greek
epic The Odyssey. Within the legend, the King
Ulisse of Ithaca, thought to be dead, makes the long
journey home after the Trojan War. He finds that a trio
of suitors are pursuing his faithful queen, Penelope,
relentlessly. Once he vanquishes them, he proves he has
survived the war, and is reunited with her. At the core
of this show is the hunger to return home-saturated with
loss and war, powered by longing and haunted by the
past.”

A raised platform is stage left on which the four-piece ensemble play the music and the two singers approach the microphone when they are scheduled to sing.

The ensemble of acrobats are sombre, slow moving and graceful. They ‘bend’ in the air. A strapping man bends a leg and somehow does a flip effortlessly. While the moves incorporate the balancing of bodies on shoulders, by hands in the air, on ropes and on a trapeze etc. the story of Ulysses trying to get home is referenced and clear.

At the end, Penelope seems as if she is frantically being pulled and shaken by some unseen force, I’m thinking a determined suitor. But then as Ulysses tries to calm her, her behaviour takes on another possibility: that Penelope has been driven a bit unbalanced by waiting for Ulysses to return and the aggressive insistence from three suitors that she pick the winner.

The Return (Il Ritorno) is a wonderfully strong ending to eclectic programming of the Spotlight Australia series that has played at both the Bluma Appel Theatre and the Berkeley Street Theatres. See this before it leaves May 7.

A Circa Production presented by Canadian Stage.

Opened: May 3, 2017.
Closes: May 7, 2017.
Cast: 7; 4 men, 3 women

Singers: a man and a woman

Running Time: 75 minutes.

www.canadianstage.com

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What an outpouring of love for our Jon Kaplan. Here’s my tribute.

Jon didn’t like openings so we usually saw each other if we both were seeing a show after it opened. There was always that smile and a hug and kiss. We always wanted to know what the other saw and thought. I never heard him use the pronoun “I” before he used the pronoun “You.” No matter who he was talking to he always asked how people were and what they were working on, and when their next show was. It was always about them and not about him.

Fringe time was always stressful—not for me as I was never here for it, alas. He shared that he would be inundated with press information and phone messages from all those who wanted him to see their show. If they didn’t hear back from him immediately they sent the stuff again or left another voice message. He seemed almost at pains to have to tell them that if he didn’t reply immediately it was because he was busy writing copy; laying out his section and doing all the myriad things necessary to get out the paper. I can imagine that his message was kind when he said to please leave only one message and send the stuff once. That was the closest I ever saw Jon being anything but even-tempered.

When he chose a way to inform the community of his health challenges it was matter of fact and without despair, as if he was trying to save us from those dark feelings. I emailed him on the day I knew he was getting his results of a CAT-scan. He said the news wasn’t good. The cancer had spread. But the good news was that he was now eligible to be included in drug trials. Leave it to Jon to find something good in the spread of cancer.

We always saw each other at Young People’s Theatre at their opening matinee. He always sat in the last row, aisle seat, house left and I always sat in the row in front, aisle seat. The catch-up was always sweet. The last time I saw him was in March at Anita Majumdar’s wonderful, compelling show Boys with Cars. He was tired. He didn’t want to eat but forced himself to keep up his strength. His mouth was dry from the medication, so he carried a water bottle. He lost some of his hair and his head was hot because of the radiation – but he was still Jon.

We were scrupulous about not discussing a show we were reviewing, but Jon leaned forward and said he’d never seen such anger coming from the stage. It was so right an observation and so appropriate for that show. After the show, I offered to drive him home but he said he wanted to say hello to Brian Quirt (the director) and of course Anita Majumdar to tell them how much he enjoyed the show. And because I didn’t know how little time Jon had left, I realized he probably also wanted to say good-bye to them.

I must confess that over the years, my eye-brows crinkled at that notion. It’s a small community. We all have friends in the theatre. But being so close to the artist one reviews seems a conflict of interest to me. However, upon reflection I realized that Jon wanted theatre artists and creators to do their very best on their shows and they, in turn, wanted to do their very best for him. So, where’s the conflict? He was capable of writing a comment that suggested an improvement could be made, but it was said with such kindness and affection, the receiver of the comment was grateful and not wounded.
I thought I should write Jon last week to ask how he was doing but got distracted and then it was too late. He died on Friday, April 28. Another subtle life lesson, courtesy of Jon Kaplan: never, ever, wait to ask how someone is or say that they are important to you or tell them you love them. Love you Jon, Grateful for having known you.

Lynn

In a word, Jon:

Always smiling.
Kind
Loving
Considerate
Passionate about the theatre and its creators.
A mensch, of course!
A hugger and kisser.
Curious
Humble
Generous
Open-hearted
Soft-spoken
A quiet note taker
A listener
Meticulous
Courtly
Caring
Patient
Respectful
Supportive
Encouraging
Compassionate
Optimistic
Tireless
A talent for friendship
Loved
Respected
Cherished
Terribly, terribly missed.

In sum, Jon.

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l-r Layne Coleman, Brendan Murray
Photo: Joanna Akyol

At the Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Mark St. Germain
Directed by David Ferry
Set and Costumes by Sean Mulcahy
Lighting by Glenn Davidson
Sound by Lyon Smith
Cast: Layne Coleman
Brendan Murray

A provocative play about Sigmund Freud and an afternoon spent with CS Lewis discussing, God, faith, religion, science, sex, love and death among others. The production is smart, beautifully directed and of course leaves you with so much to ponder.

The Story. London. It’s September 3, 1939 the day that England will declare war on Germany. Noted psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud waits for young Oxford Don, C.S. Lewis, noted philosopher and creator of the Narnia books among others. Freud is in terrible pain. He has cancer of the mouth and wears an ill-fitting and painful upper plate.

When Lewis arrives he is as chipper and buoyant as Freud is as brooding and critical. Freud has invited Lewis to his home to find out why Lewis went from being an atheist to converting to Catholicism and embracing God. Freud is a staunch atheist and is ready to debate Lewis’ beliefs but also to listen and ponder what he has to say. I can consider that because Freud is in so much pain from the cancer and is planning to take his own life a short while after this time, then perhaps Freud is looking for some kind of solace in what he might learn from Lewis. Just a thought.

The Production. Sean Mulcahy has designed a set of Freud’s study complete with many collectables, busts of famous people, skulls, book, three lamps, an ornate desk, rugs on the floor, a chaise for patients stage left and heavy drapes that cover two windows that look out into the garden. The study is well used and worn. It does have its own order.

Both Freud and Lewis are gracious and respectful of each other. Sean Mulcahy has designed a brown three piece suit for Freud. Layne Coleman as Freud is a bit stooped, and has the walk of an old man—Freud is 83. Coleman plays Freud as a bit irascible and a touch irritated because Lewis is late. The schedules of trains is terrible what with the air raids etc. Or it could be misplaced anger because Freud is in such terrible pain.

On the other hand, Lewis as played by Brendan Murray is dapper in cream coloured pants a shirt, tie and light tanned vest. Lewis is one sharp dresser. There is a fastidiousness of politeness between the two, with Freud being the more challenging intellectually. Murray is compassionate and concerted by Freud’s situation and aghast that he even considers suicide.

There are questions of the existence of God; if so how can God justify the death of children? There is the question of free will with regards to mankind and how people do bad things and that it might not be a spiteful God who allows it.

Director David Ferry keeps the arguments between the men bouncing evenly, naturally and without burden. In its way the audience is ‘asked’, ‘expected’ to keep up. Because writer Mark St. Germain has written such a bracing play about belief, faith, and questions it’s easy to consider each question and ones belief personally.

In the play Freud listens to the radio only to hear the news of the impending war. He turns it off when the music comes on because he just could not fathom its mysteries. In the play, the final scene Freud keeps the radio on after a newscast and he listens to the music but is still mystified at it. He does not engage with it emotionally.

David Ferry put his own twist on it. Freud stands when the music comes on. It’s the glorious hymn “Jerusalem.” The floor of the set separates and Freud is isolated on a square of the set. The music swells and Freud is overcome with the emotion of the music. He raises his arm and looks upward to heaven, perhaps to accept a higher spirit he had until then renounced. It’s a wonderful, emotional moment in a terrific production.

Comment. There is plenty to ponder in Mark St. Germain’s play between two of the greatest minds in the twentieth century and it’s beautifully produced. Well worth a trip to the Greenwin Theatre.

Produced by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company.

Began: April 22, 2017.
Saw it: April 30, 2017.
Closes: May 14, 2017.
Cast: 2 men
Running Time: 90 minutes.

www.hgjewishtheatre.com

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Russell Braun as Louis Riel Photo: Sophie I’anson –

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

Composed by Harry Somers
Libretto by Mavor Moore with the collaboration of Jacques Languirand
Directed by Peter Hinton
Set by Michael Gianfrancesco
Costumes by Gillian Gallow
Lighting by Bonnie Beecher
Choreography by Santee Smith
Conductor, Johannes Debus
Cast: Vanya Abrahams
Cole Alvis
Peter Barrett
Russell Braun
Joanna Burt
Taras Chmil
Michael Colvin
Bruno Cormier
Alain Coulombe
Neil Craighead
Michael Downie
Jean-Phillippe Fortier-Lazure
Clarence Frazer
Thomas Glenn
Andrew Haji
Keith Klassen
Jani Lauzon
Andrew Love
Doug MacNaughton
Justin Many Fingers
Dion Mazerolle
Allyson McHardy
Billy Merasty
Everett Morrison
Simone Osborne
Bruno Roy
Aaron Sheppard
Charles Sy
Jan Vaculik
James Westman

A stunning, thoughtful production of an opera that captures one of Canada’s darker moments regarding Métis leader, Louis Riel as he tries to get respect and legitimacy for his followers.

NOTE: as before, I am not focusing on the music, which is not my forte, but on the theatricality of the production.

The Story. Louis Riel led the Métis Red River Rebellion in 1869 in which he was trying to protect his people’s culture and their lands. He became the leader of the Provisional Government in Fort Garry (now Winnipeg). He worked to create the province of Manitoba. Its name derives from the Cree meaning, “The God That Speaks.” In spite of much opposition (both religious and political) Riel creates the constitution for Manitoba to join Confederation and gives it to Bishop Taché, representing the Catholics in the area, to take to Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald in Ottawa. There we learn the true workings of this government. Assurances are made to Taché for amnesty for his people. At the same time an emissary of the government of Canada is sent west to offer promises to the Métis.

The political manoeuvring of Macdonald and his cronies regarding Riel and his supporters represents one of the darker aspects of Canada’s history. Great effort was made to discredit Riel as delusional and a megalomaniac because he thought that God spoke directly to him. In light of the dishonesty, subterfuge, and mendacity of Macdonald and his government towards Riel, thinking God speaks directly to you doesn’t seem such a bad thing.

The Production. Director Peter Hinton’s vision of the opera has a grand sweep and a sense of majesty. He is also mindful of the various peoples who were involved in the story: Métis, Cree, Michif, French and English. The opera is sung in these languages and the surtitles reflect that. Hinton is also mindful of the indigenous cultures involved. He illuminates this focus in his thoughtful program note part of which follows:

“ It is noteworthy that in 1967 (when Louis Riel premiered) the opera
was seen by many as an allegory for Canada’s two solitudes (French and
English) and Riel’s representation to Métis and First Nations was
ancillary to this. It is our intention that a more inclusive and
expansive history shall be restored and amended for our 2017 production.
It is a delicate balance of renewing the original spirit of the opera,
with contemporary perspectives in order to expose the opera’s colonial
biases and bring forward its inherent strengths and power.”

To begin the production, Cole Alvis, who plays The Activist, appears and introduces himself as Métis. He then informs us on whose indigenous land we are gathered and how sacred it is. The opera proper begins after this.

Hinton has a silent chorus representing Indigenous peoples who watch and bear witness. Sometimes they circle the unfolding scene, sometimes they stand in a line, watching. Their silent presence is so powerful an image and an implication. History might have tried to keep these peoples silent and invisible but Peter Hinton makes them a visible, powerful presence.

Costume designer Gillian Gallow dresses the chorus for the most part in deep red tops and pants. Very effective. Later in the opera, when Louis Riel is being tried, the court (?) the jury (?) are in two tiers of seats almost the width of the stage. All are silent so the witnesses morph into another type of observer. In this case, they are dressed in dark coats and pants.

If there is a word that sums up the production it’s “dignity.” Hinton is scrupulous in creating a sense of dignity regarding the silent chorus, the Indigenous Peoples and others who had been marginalized. They are led by Louis Riel, as played by a stalwart, serious-minded Russell Braun. Gillian Gallow has dressed him in a three piece dark suit with an understated bow-tie. The look is of a leader; a serious man who commands respect. His dignity in ruling, his compassion to a point is clear in Braun’s compelling performance.

However Gallow’s wit and sense of play comes out in her costumes for Sir John A. Macdonald (the boozie Prime Minister), Sir George-Étienne Cartier (representing Quebec) and Donald Smith, representing the Hudson’s Bay Company. They are dressed as buffoons. Sir John A. Macdonald is in a suit patterned in loud red plaid as if it is his family tartan design. Cartier is in blue checks symbolic of the colour of Quebec. And Donald Smith wears a wonderful white suit with a longish white coat but with thin coloured stripes around the bottom of the coat and the same pattern circling the pant legs, suggesting the thick coloured lines of the Hudson’s Bay coat. (Macdonald held the Hudson’s Bay Company responsible for the uprising in the Red River Valley.) Very clever and quite clear in the intent to make these men look foolish.

Michael Gianfrancesco’s set design is spare, stark and clear in conveying a sense of majesty. Interestingly the scenes with Macdonald in Ottawa are established by a large backdrop of the floor plans of what I assume is the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings. Nothing grand here. Like that.

Comment. Louis Riel was commissioned for Canada’s Centennial, 1967. It was last performed by the Canadian Opera Company in 1975. It has been performed this year to mark the country’s 150th anniversary. A lot has happened with regards to our Indigenous Peoples and how they have been treated. As Peter Hinton said in his program note, he wanted to correct the balance. I think he’s done that in spades.

Produced by the Canadian Opera Company

Opened: April 20, 2017.
Saw it: April 29, 2017.
Remaining Performances: May 2, 5, 13, 2017.
Running Time: 3 hours approx.

www.coc.ca

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At the Grand Theatre, London, Ont.

Book, music and lyrics by Jim Betts
Directed by Heather Davies
Musical direction by Marek Norman
Set by Shawn Kerwin
Costumes by Jessica Poirier-Chang
Lighting by Renée Brodie
Projection designer, Rory Leydier
Sound by Jim Neil
Cast: Binaeshee-Quae Couchie-Nabigon
Jay Davis
Gab Desmond
Ma-Anne Dionisio
Michael Dufays
Tim Funnell
J.D. Nicholsen
Seana-Lee Wood

A less than satisfying production of a less than satisfying musical about the life and work of artist Tom Thomson.

The Background and Story. From director Heather Davies’ program note: “Jim Betts’ Colours in the Storm us about the life and mysterious death of Tom Thomson. Through scenes and songs often inspired by the artist’s work, we follow Thomson from his arrival in Algonquin Park in 1912 to his death on Canoe Lake in 1917. And though his death was officially recorded as an accident, his demise has become one of Canada’s greatest mysteries.”

Tom Thomson worked as a commercial artist for various photo-engraving companies. It was at Grip Ltd. in 1917 that he began expanding his artistic development working under the tutelage of J.E.H. MacDonald. Fellow workers were Arthur Lismer, Fred Varley, Franklin Carmichael and Franz Johnson. After Thomson’s death these men and Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson would join together to form the Group of Seven. Tom Thomson was not a member of the group, but his paintings are displayed along with theirs—certainly at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg, Ont.

Tom Thomson didn’t start painting in earnest until he was 35. He went to Algonquin Park in Northern Ontario to paint. There he discovered the raw beauty of the landscape and its lure to get the colours right. He was always in search of the perfect colour of grey and it always seemed to elude him. He would spend part of the year in Algonquin Park, painting and the rest of the year in Toronto, working.

He fell in love with Winnie Trainor who lived with her parents in Algonquin Park. It was believed they might marry. There were lots of rumours. Somehow Thomson rubbed some men up there the wrong way. One man was a rival for Winnie’s affections. In any case while Thomson’s death was ruled an accident, playwright Jim Betts make it clear that he thinks Thomson met with foul play.

The Production. Shawn Kerwin’s set is of a jagged wood platform that revolves and turns at various moments in the production. At one point it represents a canoe in which Tom and Winnie are shooting rapids. Director Heather Davies has created a driving scene that is very evocative of the dangerous waters in which they are paddling.

There is a cloud above the stage on which Rory Leydier, the projection designer, recreates some of Tom Thomson’s paintings–“The Jack Pine,” “The Northern River” etc.– with splashes of coloured light. Mighty impressive.

The full company sings “Algonquin” which beautifully establishes where we are and the place that so captivated Tom Thomson for his whole career.

As characters are introduced in the story, they step onto the platform and navigate over the space. Director Heather Davies always seems to have a character linger in the background, as if watching the proceedings, bearing witness. I wonder then, how is it possible that no one saw how Thomson died?

Too often it seems that characters move on that platform for the sake of movement, express a thought perhaps, then move off. This movement for movement’s sake gives the production an unnecessarily busy feel to it, certainly when so little seems to happen, aside from Tom painting and trying to find the perfect grey.

Both Jay Davis as Tom Thomson and Ma-Anne Dionisio as Winnie Trainor are commanding in their roles, Jay Davis is a strapping, handsome Thomson. He is so focused on what he is painting; compelled to get the light and the image down on his board—Thomson painted on rectangular boards and not on canvas for the most part during the time of the play. This is a convincing performance of a man driven to paint but thinking he’s just missed capturing what he is looking at. Davis also has a strong voice and sings his songs with passion and drive.

Ma-Anne Dionisio is a powerhouse singer/actress having starred in Miss Saigon, Les Misérables (in Toronto and internationally), Stratford etc. As Winnie she is an independent woman who obviously loves Tom but she is not going to bow down to him waiting for him to do the right thing by her. She is both loving but frustrated by his lack of commitment and she sings beautifully and instils all the emotion Winnie has in the words.

In spite of the positive aspects of the production and the musical I have real concerns. The Colours in the Storm was first produced in Muskoka, Ont. in 1990. There are problems with Jim Betts’ piece that should have been addressed but weren’t. Hmmmm? The songs seem almost haphazard in their placement in the show. The song “Colours in the Storm” comes in Act II when there is no storm and not in Act I when there is a storm. Odd. Thomson sings about “The Girl with Thunder in her Hair” referring to Winnie, but since it’s only the second song we know precious little about her to that point, and it takes a long time for Winnie to be really developed. Winnie has a solo (“Over the Dam”) and later a duet (“Wildflowers”), but again, since we know so little of Winnie even then, why does she earn these song?

The song “Opening & Algonquin Breakdown” opens Act II and is sung by Larry Dixon, an Algonquin guide. My concern is that Dixon is really peripheral for much of the story till then so why does he have a song? And the song details what has already been explained—the mosquitoes are terrible at that time of year. As Dixon, Michael Dufays plays that scene with eye-popping contortions, arms frantically batting flies away, and is so vigorous in his body language I thought he might be in peril of giving himself whiplash. Yet, also in the scene is Frances McGillvray (Seana-Lee Wood) from Toronto, dressed to the nines in a flowing long dress, a large hat and gloves, who is totally unbothered by the mosquitoes until the end of the song, when her delicate hand waves some flies away. The song and the contortions are mystifying. And can we please help Mr. Dufays and get him (as Dixon) out of those leather chaps! Dixon is a guide not a rodeo rider. If they are meant to be waders for fishing, it still makes no sense. And they don’t fit and the poor man too often hitches them up. Get rid of them.

Jim Betts certainly captures the drive and obsession of Tom Thomson in his quest to paint what he sees. Thomson often laments his inability to capture the perfect grey. Yet when he looks through some of his old painted boards that he accidentally finds, he realizes in one that he has captured the perfect grey. Here’s my concern with this point—if Thomson wasn’t able to realize he had captured the perfect grey until after the fact, then what’s all the fuss about with the search for the perfect grey, if he can’t recognize it when he does paint it? Odd.

Comment. Tom Thomson’s paintings are exquisite (I first saw them at the McMichael Gallery.) His use of colour is vibrant; what he paints puts you right in that landscape and makes you feel both the heat and the cold. His brush strokes are ridged and catch the light in the gallery like no other artist.

I’m grateful to Jim Betts for shining some light on Tom Thomson and his wonderful painting; for illuminating the drive of an artist to paint; for detailing the many clues that Tom Thomson was probably murdered. It’s just that I wish his Colours in the Storm and the production of it were better.

Produced by the Grand Theatre.

Opened: April 21, 2017.
Saw it: April 25, 2017.
Closes: May 6, 2017.
Cast: 8: 5 men, 3 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 min. approx.

www.grandtheatre.com

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Short Comments on Endings and Meeting as part of Spotlight Australia

These two short works are part of Spotlight Australia. Both are performed at the Berkeley Street Theatre.

Endings

Concept, text and performance by Tamara Saulwick
Sound design, composition and operation by Peter Knight
Song writing and performance by Paddy Mann
Set and lighting by Ben Cobham
Costumes by Harriet Oxley

A meditation on dying from the point of view of the person dying and the loved ones holding vigil as they pass away.

Tamara Saulwick got the idea for her show when her then three year old son asked about death and dying and what happens and will it be cold. The show is technologically complex with many reel to reel recordings of interviews of people who are dying and of their loved ones and friends who visit, hold vigils, etc. Some of the interviews are on vinyl records. Two large recording machines have two reels on them with the tape strung out between the two machines. Occasionally overhanging lights are swung back and forth for effect. The lighting is eerie.

There are recordings of people reflecting on their lives as they prepare to leave living. Recollections are thoughtful, wistful and moving. Relatives talk about the person dying asking the person not to go or leave them just yet.

Tamara Saulwick stands under an overhead lamp that cones out soft light as a tape recorder plays questions from a woman asking Saulwick about her dying father. Saulwick is obviously moved by her recollections. She is quiet and thoughtful in her answers. The interrogator does not know what to do with silence if Saulwick doesn’t answer quickly, but pauses to gather her thoughts. So the interrogator tends to babble more of the question when all you want is for her to SHUT UP AND LISTEN!!!! (sorry for that outburst). The interrogator also does not listen to the answer because her next question has nothing to do with the previous answer. The interrogator jumps from question to unconnected question. I guess this is realistic—people do not know how to deal with a person who has watched a loved one die.

Endings covers the thoughts of the person dying, their satisfaction at the living and the waiting for the dying. It covers the dying person’s need for a loved one to be there. It covers what people need to say to each other before finally leaving. What is conspicuous by its absence is any reference to a loved one telling the person dying to let go and not struggle and that it’s ok to leave because they and the people left behind will be fine. I find that lapse odd. It is such an important part of dying for those left behind. Odd that it’s not there.

I was glad to see it. It’s a loving, respectful, artistic show.

Opened
: April 26, 2017.
Saw it: April 27, 2017.
Closes: April 30, 2017.

www.canadianstage.com

Meeting.

Choreographed, directed and performed by Antony Hamilton
Instrument design, construction, composition and performed by Alisdair Macindoe
Lighting by Bosco Shaw
Costumes by Paula Levis

Antony Hamilton’s program note is a detailed, complex explanation of how he created the choreography using 64 percussive blocks for the rhythm and beat. He and Alisdair Macindoe are dressed in dark shirts, easy fitting pants and deck shoes. The movement is intricate and detailed as if the two are robots. The rectangular blocks are situated on the floor in a circle in a very formal patter. On each block is a small wood rod. Somehow the rods are manipulated by some kind of electronic device so that the rods tap on the floor or something under the rod to beat out rhythms. It’s seductive to hear that beat, and intoxicating, and astonishing in how it’s done. Sometimes the sound patters suggest rain; sometimes just the beat of a drum. The two dancers are masterful in their cohesive dancing inside that circle of rhythmic blocks.

Magical.

Opened: April 26, 2017.
Saw it: April 27, 2017.
Closes: April 30, 2017.

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Brandon McGibbon, Carly Street. (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

At the Tarragon Theatre, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written by David Greig and Gordon McIntyre
Composed by Gordon McIntyre
Directed by Tamara Bernier Evans
Set by Graeme S. Thomson
Costumes by Kathleen Johnston
Lighting by Nick Andison
Musical director, Samuel Scott
Cast: Brandon McGibbon
Carly Street

A sweet and prickly play about finding love (maybe) in the wrong place with the wrong person.

The Story. Helena is stylish, a successful lawyer but a disaster in her personal life. She drinks too much on the weekends and usually passes out from it and is not lucky in love.
She’s in a bar in midsummer in Edinburgh and it’s raining (of course) and she’s waiting for her date. While waiting she orders an expensive bottle of wine. And then she gets the text that the guy isn’t coming.

She sees Bob at another table across the room, reading. Bob is 35, long hair, dishevelled a petty criminal who is waiting to hear about selling a stolen car. He’s reading while he waits. Helena approaches him with the line, “What are you reading?” He says, “Dostoyevsky.” (I’m not making this up…they do weird and wonderful things in Edinburgh. She suggestions they share the expensive bottle of wine.

There’s clever banter about what she says and what she means….Bob tells us she means sex. They get drunk and go back to her place for sex. And the weekend goes from there. They know this is casual and not serious. Both characters are convinced that they are not a good match. But they don’t just walk away.

The Production. While the announcements are made about turning off your cell phone and enough with the candy wrappers, there is a loud banging at a door just up stage. The door is opened and a man and a woman enter breathless, hauling substantial trunks and guitar cases. They say they will get set up quickly and we watch at they shift the trunks and unpack stuff and set up two guitars and get things arranged. I’m not sure what this means—is this a play within a play? Is it the playwright David Grieg indicating that the set up is simple? Is it the director Tamara Bernier Evans deciding this? Don’t know. It’s not a distraction; I just want to know what I’m looking at.

Brandon McGibbon as Bob has slumped body language but a sweetness that suggests Bob is not a dangerous thug as much as he is a misguided man. And he reads Dostoyevsky so he has something going there. Carly Street as Helena is in a smart, black frock, ready for her date. She is striking, confident and also at loose ends in her life. Later she will put on a yellow frock ready to go to her sister’s wedding, but then she gets drunk then sick on herself, and well, it doesn’t go as planned.

The most important thing is that I’m looking at two gifted actors play two wounded characters who are full of wit, humour and oodles of stage business that make us fall in love with them. Both play guitar and sing beautifully, and their chemistry in playing together is lovely.

Often when the characters talk to each other directly one of them will look to the audience and explain what they really mean. It is fast paced with an ever increasing momentum until Bob and Helena realize that sometimes they have to slow down and just walk and talk.

Tamara Bernier Evans keeps the swirl of activity going but also creates moments of wonderful tenderness.

Comment. David Greig has written a crisp, funny, sweet play that takes place in rainy Edinburgh so the humour is of a particular type. Gordon McIntyre has written the songs that don’t so much move the story along as much as they sum up an atmosphere or feeling of the characters. The songs are mournful and charming. Midsummer is a quirky, sweet play with two dynamite performances.

Tarragon Theatre presents:

Opened: April 26, 2017.
Closes: May 28, 2017.
Cast: 1 man, 1 woman.
Running Time: 90 minutes approx.

www.tarragontheatre.com

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