At the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre

Created and performed by Ronnie Burkett

Music composed by John Alcorn

Dramaturge, Matt McGeachy

Puppets designed and created by Ronnie Burkett

Costumes by Kim Crossley

A new Ronnie Burkett show is cause for anticipation, certainly because he hasn’t played Toronto in a few years. It’s been too long.

Forget Me Not is Burkett’s latest show and it is his most ambitious. It takes place in the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre and at the best of times, when there is proper seating, it’s vast. For Forget Me Not the room is bare except for some benches in a semi circular configuration, with the occasional chair scattered around the benches at one end of the space. That makes the space seem even larger.

We are allowed in the space at 7 pm which should have been show-time. We leave our backpacks etc. at tables close to the entrance then wend our way to the other end of the space for a seat on a bench or a chair. We are told that the audience will be moving around the space during the show. At 7:10 pm the door at the other end of the room opens and a large-cloaked, hooded figure slowly walks to our end, reciting a story in rhyming couplets about a knight and a fair maiden. As the person gets nearer we see that the face is obscured by a black veil. He is our narrator. He is Ronnie Burkett.

With a few passes around the benches and the chairs Ronnie Burkett takes off the cloak and reveals himself in khaki pants, a black shirt and shoes. The puppets he uses appear from a large wood structure. Many are hand puppets, some are marionettes manipulated by wire.

He gives willing audience members a hand puppet with the understanding they will take care of it and give it back at the end, or if they don’t it will prevent the show from ‘being true.’ One daren’t disappoint him by keeping the beautifully made puppets.

The audience raises their hands, some with the puppets when asked. Nearly the whole audience participates by following him around the space like a pied piper with his followings, and engaging in the activities that are suggested by Burkett. But one wonders what is to be gained by involving the audience in this way? Are they part of the dark world?

From the press information: “Welcome to “The New Now”, where written words are forbidden and an underground movement of hand-drawn love letters is a powerful act of defiance.  

Those determined on composing or reading a written declaration of love must first make a treacherous journey to a secret and illegal camp to find She, The Keeper of the Lost Hand, and one of the last people to retain the knowledge of reading and writing in cursive.  

While pilgrims brave the harsh conditions to find their way to She, the tale of Zacko Budaydos and His Dancing Bear unfolds in parallel, illustrating the turmoil of “The Before” when all the travelling performer had to rely on was his wit, love and knowledge of the outlawed language of Polari to survive.   

Unlike anything you’ve ever seen, Forget Me Not is a tender, absurd, romantic, and provocative call-to-arms for poetry and the enduring power of love.”

And for all Burkett’s mastery and artistry of the puppets etc. this story is so confusing that one tends to lose the thread too often. It doesn’t help that the space is unforgiving. The acoustics are lousy if Burkett is facing away from you. You can’t hear what he’s saying. And while Burkett has a dramaturge in Matt McGeachy the piece needs judicious cutting to tame the meandering story and focus the intent. It’s a problem I have found with a lot of his shows, masterful though they are. At times there are conversations between characters that seem like an endless loop of one accusing and the other denying something and moving forward seems impossible.

As with all Ronnie Burkett shows, Forget Me Not is funny, dark in nature, thoughtful, brooding and full of Burkett’s conscience and heart. I just wish it was clearer.

Produced by Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes

Opened: June 5, 2019.

Closes: June 23, 2019.

Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes.

www.luminato.com

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

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Martha Henry

Designed by Francesca Callow

Lighting by Louise Guinand

Composer and sound design by Keith Thomas

Cast: Shelly Anthony

Rod Beattie

Wayne Best

Tim Campbell

Jacklyn Francis

Danny Ghantous

Jonathan Goad

Jordin Hall

Brad Hodder

Kim Horsman

Andrew Iles

Ron Kennell

Qasim Khan

Kevin Kruchkywich

Alexandria Lainfiesta

Roy Lewis

Irene Poole

Jake Runeckles

Stephen Russell

Oksana Sirju

Scott Wentworth

Ryan Wilkie

A beautifully realized, exquisitely designed production of a play about power, politics and wily maneuvering and the lengths Henry VIII went to have a male heir.

The Story. King Henry VIII married his queen Katherine of Aragon when they were very young. He was seventeen and she was twenty-three. They remained married for twenty-four years and by all accounts were happy. She was an intellectual match for him. But when the years past and she wasn’t able to produce a male heir and his eye fell on Anne Boleyn, Henry began thinking of ways to divorce Katherine and marry Anne. The politically astute Cardinal Wolsey was involved to pave the way for the law to be changed so Henry could re-marry and the religious concerns to be calmed.

The Production. In the small Studio Theatre director Martha Henry and her gifted designers have conjured the sumptuous, excessive world of Henry VIII by judicious and spare use of props and costumes that are bold in colour and, in the case of King Henry, voluminous. Kudos to designer Francesca Callow. Henry VIII, a masterful Jonathan Goad, makes a statement of power when he first appears in his beautiful gold robe. Goad controls the robe and is not overwhelmed by it.  With understatement but definite presence Jonathan Goad’s performance grows into the robe. It’s a performance of size, full of easy charm, careful watchfulness, a nimble brain and intellect and sharp eyes that never miss a subtlety in others of his court.

After that first impressive entrance when King Henry is ‘himself’, in shirt and beigey-gold fitted pants, he is still formidable.

An understated throne is upstage on a small platform—one doesn’t need anything ostentatious since the man who sits in it is all that one needs to establish the sense of power and richness. King Henry doesn’t just sit on the throne, he slumps fully into it. He leans to the left, an arm on the arm rest, his legs spread out in front of him, relaxed, ready and present. Don’t mess with this guy.

Martha Henry has created a court of political intrigue and secrecy. Characters have cloistered conversations with others sharing their mendacious plans; others stand on the ‘balcony’ above the stage and observe private conversations and imagine what is being said; rumour abounds.

At the centre of most of the maneuvering is Cardinal Wolsey, played with careful understatement by Rod Beattie, resplendent in the Cardinal’s impressive red cap, robe and black slippers. Most of the work regarding the character of Wolsey is already done by the time he arrives on stage. Courtiers refer to his scheming, his political maneuvering for power, his questionable character. We have an idea of a man of questionable ethics and hardly pious. So we just assume the same idea of him by the time he appears. It’s intriguing that Beattie plays against the sense of obvious evil and yet the notion of his evil is ingrained. I think of the damage done to the character and behaviour of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest before she steps foot on the stage—but we just image and believe she’s a harridan from hearing all the negative comments about her. Same thing about Wolsey.

Martha Henry has of course directed this with a clear eye on the court intrigue surrounding King Henry and the decisions he must make to get what he wants. But Martha Henry also directs with a wink. In a one scene Wolsey attends a costume ball and makes a grand entrance from the balcony down the stairs. He is wearing red, silk pajamas. The red colour is in keeping with his Cardinal status; but it’s also the colour of the devil. Clever and impish.

In another scene a character subtly, quietly hums a bit of “Greensleeves” that is rumoured to have been written by King Henry VIII to woo Anne Boleyn, but generally discredited. I think Martha Henry is giving another wink to the audience with the humming of the song.

While Henry VIII has a handle on what is going on in his court, his relationship with Queen Katherine (of Aragon) is more fraught. They have been married for twenty-four years. She is his equal partner, intellectually and emotionally. But he needs a male heir and Katherine has not been able to give him one. As Katherine, Irene Poole is fire and passion. She realizes Katherine’s keen intellect and hot blooded emotion. She is fighting not only for her crown but also for her life. She is straight-backed, regal, formidable and an able opponent. When Katherine is dying she lies on a chaise and her hands float above her head and delicately circle each other as one would see in a Spanish dance. Katherine may have lived in England for her marriage but she is pure Spanish and this moving ‘dance’ of her graceful hands realizes her longing for her country. Kudos to Movement Director Valerie Moore for this simple, symbolic gesture.

When Katherine does die she is carried off by two courtiers. The courtiers are on either side of her and each wraps one of Katherine’s arms around his neck to secure her better. As they slowly walk off one of her arms drops down the back of a courtier.  Beautiful image.

King Henry does marry Anne Boleyn and she gives birth, to a girl, Elizabeth. While he wanted a boy, Henry brings on his baby nestled in his arms for his court to see, and he’s beaming. The court quietly circles Henry, each dutifully smiling and reveling in this baby. It’s a scene that is both joyous and subtly political. It’s another exquisite image in a production full of them. The circling of the court around the King and his daughter elegantly leads into the smoothest of bows.

Comment. Actor Roy Lewis (he plays Sandys, Lord Chancellor in Henry VIII) has created a poetic Epilogue for the play in the style of Shakespeare’s language, that sums up the past with a nod to the future. The Epilogue is fastidiously poetic—Lewis knows his way around poetry. He is equally accomplished as a poet and actor. It’s a fitting end to a production that beautifully realizes the grandeur and intrigue of the court and world of Henry VIII.

The Stratford Festival presents:

Opened: May 29, 2019

Closes: Oct. 12, 2019

Running Time: 3 hours approx.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

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At the Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. W., Toronto, Ont.

Written and Directed by Susanna Fournier

Scenography, Kaitlin Hickey

Sound by Christopher Ross-Ewart

Video Design Steph Raposo

Choreographer, Amanda Acorn

Cast: Krystina Bojanowski

Yolanda Bonnell

Jennifer Dahl

Aria Evans

Virgilia Griffith

Ximena Huizi

Chala Hunter

Claudia Moore

Bea Pizano

Four Sisters is the third part and final part of The Empire by Susanna Fournier. The Empire covers 500 years of an imagined empire in which Fournier has explored war, power, brutality and the subjugation of women, economic systems that are unfair and crushing.

The Story. Four Sisters takes place over several years in an area of an unnamed city called “The Skirts” and is populated by women who are mainly sex trade workers. At the beginning of the play Sarah is 350 years old and a former madame  If a character says she is 350 years old, who are we to question her? It’s theatre. We take this on faith.  Sarah  is taking care of four young girls who are sisters: Beah, Abby, Cassie and Dee. Their mother has died.  Sarah does the best she can to raise them and keep them safe, but they are sick with some mysterious illness. They are assured by the doctor that this illness is not the plague.  The doctor has a new vaccine and wants to try it on the girls as an experiment for this mysterious disease. (The doctor is a woman—there are no men in Four Sister). Sarah says she can’t pay. The doctor assures her it’s free since it’s an experiment. In spite of all this Cassie dies and the others survive. Later we learn that two of the sisters may have been given a placebo. Over time the sisters leave for various reasons, despair being one. “The Skirts” is being isolated by the politicians of the city so that the women will suffer. The roads leading to there are deteriorating and so getting to and from the place is difficult.

The Production. Before we enter the space there is a ritual cleansing, with a person pouring water on our hands and another handing us a hand towel to wipe them dry.

Kaitlin Hickey’s set is bare except for a large white mat on the floor. The costumes are variations of sweatpants and sweat shirts, with hoodies thrown in for good measure. The women enter and walk in formation around and across the white mat, sometimes dancing or swaying in Amanda Acorn’s choreography. This choreography occurs throughout the whole production. The point and meaning is not clear.

Sarah is played by the same actress throughout—a wonderful, feisty, Bea Pizano without make-up. We take on faith that she starts out at 350 and then gets older without makeup or body language.

As the director, Susanna Fournier does a wonderful thing. When a scene changes and the character ages 10 years or 40 years etc. then another actress just takes over and plays the part. So of the cast of nine characters, seven change characters as the characters get older. Cassie is still dead and is played by a ghost-like Claudia Moore. Virgilia Griffith is a forceful, commanding Dee, sometimes drugged out, always with attitude.

When characters are not in a scene they arrange themselves upstage along the edge of the white mat folding large piles of what seem like hand towels—are they the same kind of hand towel we used when water was poured on our hands for the cleans? For what purpose are they folding? Are they folding the towels we just used? Why?

Comment. According to her program note, Susanna Fournier is attempting to  illuminate a world where women are held down by economics, politics, attitudes and low wages and live in poverty. Four Sisters is inventive in intent and bold in the execution. But much of it was mystifying: symbolism over substance.

I wondered what is the plague that is referred to?  Does it refer to the plague of the middle ages? Does it refer to AIDS? What is the sickness these women have and the vaccine that was supposed to help them? I’m trying to find context here.

Sarah says she can’t pay for the medicine but the Doctor said she didn’t want payment. Later the doctor wanted to give the family money for their being involved in the experiment—she made money from it—but Sarah refused it. So the doctor gave them money—how is this looked on as women living in poverty that keeps them there? I found there were more questions than answers and that was frustrating. Of the three plays, I found this the weakest.

But there is also a note of irony here. While there is much comment of how women are kept down by an economic system, Susanna Fournier wrote three plays depicting a dystopian world, and her stalwart group of women, raised the money to produce this trilogy, publicized it, marketed it, found the venues and producing partner and got it on. They were unstoppable. Does that not contradict the point of the trilogy?

Paradigm Productions presents.

Four Sisters plays at the Theatre Centre until June 16 as part of Luminato.

www.luminato.com

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At 291 Lakeshore Blvd. E, just before Parliament, Toronto, Ont.

Created and performed by:

Byron Abalos

Colin Doyle

Darrel Gamotin

Richard Lee

Sarah Miller

Jeff Yung

The creators of this joyous, moving show played basketball on Monday nights beginning about a decade ago. Because of the camaraderie, stories and respect they enjoyed both on and off the court, they thought there might be a play here. They were right. With the support of the Residency Program at the Theatre Centre, Monday Nights  had its world premiere in 2014 at the Theatre Centre. It was remounted in 2015, and played at the Kick and Push Festival in Kingston, Ont.

And now it’s at Luminato.

We are given the rules by referee Colin Doyle who just bursts into the room where the audience gathers. Doyle is serious, funny, impish and matter-of-fact. Once we are allowed into the space we are invited to look in the five gym bags situated around the floor and pick the player we wish to follow according to the contents of his gym bag. My guy (Darrel Gamotin) had a book and the New Yorker in his bag. His gym shoes were neatly tied (?) (I learned they were slip on) and pristine white. Darrel Gamotin represents the black team. We sit as a group and cheer him on.

Doyle explains the various shots the players will make: lay-ups, straight shots, etc. The players guard and play each other. In between plays they tell us about themselves. Gamotin is the father of a newborn baby girl. He is devoted to his family. He seems a serious, thoughtful young man who plays hard on the court.

And then the audience is invited to participate. There is no pressure. It’s good natured and supportive. If a member or a team member makes a basket everybody applauds.

While this show coincidentally happens around the excitement of the ‘other’ basketball team, Monday Nights displays all the positive attributes of team playing, and that includes the invited audience, the camaraderie, the tenacity of being in the game and not wavering, the personal stories that are shared as well as the secrets that are respected. There is a lot of personal information that is shared and some seems rather painful. I wonder if this is true. I recall Daughter by Adam Lazarus—a powerful, unsettling play that played the Theatre Centre. I thought the story was about the actor and not a character named “Adam Lazarus,” until I was told: “Lynn, the first line is a lie.” That made things clearer. But still, one wonders about the same thing with Monday Nights, which I guess is another one of its many mysteries and good points.

I found the whole structure and makeup of the evening to be both joyous and moving. We cheered for both our team and the others. You leave feeling buoyant.

6th Man Collective and the Theatre Centre present:

Opened: June 7, 2019.

Closes: June 16, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours.

www.luminato.com

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At the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Part of Luminato

Written by Daniel Brooks

Director, creator, dramaturg, Kim Collier

Set by Julie Fox

Lighting by Michael Walton

Costumes by Nancy Bryant

Sound by Brian Linds

Projection designer, Brian Johnson

Composer, Peter Allen

Cast: Henry Bolan

Nita Bowerman

Carlen Escarraga

Jillian Fargey

Dean Paul Gibson

William Ford Hopkins

Eponine Lee

Jim Mezon

John Ng

Gabrielle Rose

Stephanie Wong

Jenny Young

Jonathan Young

A dazzling technologically complex production by director/creator Kim Collier that overpowers and smothers this slight play by Daniel Brooks.

The Story. Harold is a real estate tycoon, having made his fortune building ugly buildings while mired in the murky world or payoffs and blackmail. He is devoted to his wife Mary who seems unaware of his dealings but finally has revelation. They have three children. David is their eldest son and runs the business. He is a boorish thug who indulges in excess of every kind. Jane is a young widow who seems lost. Joey, the youngest is a fragile minded man who does something so serious to avenge his father it threatens the family’s safety. His father reacts with a decision that is biblical in size.  A mysterious nemesis of Harold’s named Hans wafts into and out of the story, constantly bombarding Harold with how mendacious he and his dealings are. Harold tries to ignore him but is nonetheless rattled.

It’s about a dysfunctional, excessively rich family. Only the matriarch, Mary has enlightenment at the end of her life as she tries to right some wrongs.

The Production. Peter Allen’s delicate classical sounding piano music plays often giving the piece a lovely undercurrent. A huge, beautifully lush tree is projected on the stage curtain. The branches sway slightly. It’s a wonderful pastoral image that quickly dissolves into the garish world of tall buildings and little beauty.

When the production begins the dense looking stage curtain becomes see-through in Michael Walton’s lighting. A curtain is drawn across up stage and Mary (Gabrielle Rose) appears. Her name is projected on the curtain. The name of each member of the family: Mary, David, Joey, Jane etc. is projected on the curtain, with Harold (Jim Mezon) being the last. Each scene reveals their behaviour and attitudes. Sprinkled around any narrative are scenes and scenes and scenes of curtains going up, a frame lowering that sets off a scene in David’s (Dean Paul Gibson) sumptuous living room (and unfortunately cuts off a character—his young petulant daughter–sitting upstage on a couch and obscures her when she talks), then it rises, with projections of buildings each taller and uglier than the next. There are scenes with Joey (Jonathan Young) in a (real) car going to do mischief at a man’s house in defense of his father; a scene with Harold and Mary in another (real) car as they pass by his many buildings projected behind them. There are close up videographed scenes of characters on stage so we see them in ‘person’ on stage and in large video shots on the curtain.

Mary’s health deteriorates during the play and her last scenes in bed are then reflected large on the back wall. As Mary, Gabrielle Rose is radiant, regal, gracious and resolute in her desire to leave the world better than she found it. Her devoted husband Harold is played by Jim Mezon and it’s a performance full of power, self-absorption, arrogance, rage and a sense of loss at the end when he doesn’t get his way. In a sense it’s full of despair but right to the end Harold thinks all matters are about him. At the end he has a  confusing confession to make that we knew about him from the beginning

Dean Paul Gibson as David is fearless in his odiousness. It’s an overpowering, unapologetic performance. Anyone wanting to make a movie about Harvey Weinstein, Dean Paul Gibson is your man to play him. And he is just as quiet and understated when he plays other characters such as Harold’s confidant.

Jonathan Young plays Joey, the youngest son,  as a skittish man, perhaps on the autism spectrum, lively, innocent, awkward and loving in his own way.

And as Jane, the middle child, Jenny Young seems weighted down with ennui. She is the one with a closer connection to her mother and Mary trusts her with it. It’s a performance full of quiet confidence.

Good as the performances are, it’s Kim Collier’s relentless use of technology that keeps getting in the way of any clarity in the play. When Mary is sick at the end, Collier then simplifies matters because the scenes are in one room—no need to raise or lower frames, curtains, or project anything but her face on the back wall.

Comment. It is as if Kim Collier’s endlessly inventive, complex technological wizardry is at odds with Daniel Brooks’ play, a concern I’ve had with her previous work. Brooks wrote a program note explaining he wanted to write a “modern transposition of Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story but got bored after three days. Instead he “let himself go free” and continued to write using Ozu’s structure and details. The problem is that he never says that it’s a film he’s trying to transpose (it would be helpful) and he never explains what the basis of the film is (that too would be helpful, since his play seems so gossamer in detail).

Kim Collier’s extensive program note tries valiantly to explain the production but ultimately fails because the production fails. From her note: “Daniel’s characters in The Full Light of Day teeter on the edge of what feels like our current social, economic, political tipping point. It is a play written in this time, for this time. A modern tragedy where actions, over time and through generations, culminate in a mythic act of violence.”

Hardly.

The Full Light of Day is not a tragedy, modern or otherwise. No one, not even Harold has revelation that matters. He accepts he’s mendacious—we knew that from the beginning. He didn’t make a decision that he seems to regret. That would be the tragedy of Harold. Daniel Brooks’ characters don’t teeter on the edge of anything because they don’t have a sense of anything other than their own self-indulgent selves, except for Mary, who is enlightened at the end. But even that seems a bit muddy—where does that come from? Perhaps the answer is in all that time occupied with the distracting technology.

The Full Light of Day is a 90 minute play that could be about something significant that is bloated into two hours and forty minutes of self-indulgence.

The Electric Company Theatre, in association with the Banff Centre for the Arts and BMO, co-presented with Canadian Stage and Luminato:

Opened: June 7, 2019.

Closes: June 13, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

www.luminato.com

 

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At the Monarch Tavern, 12 Clinton St., Toronto, Ont.

Written by John Patrick Shanley

Directed by David Lafontaine

Cast: Jennifer McEwen

Justin Otto

The play is about two lost souls who meet in a bar, who spar and fight and bond. It’s a solid production.

The Story. Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is an early play of Shanley’s, written in 1984.

Roberta and Danny are two lost souls who meet in a bar. She is there alone, drinking and eating pretzels.  She lives with her parents and her teenage son. She feels their contempt. Danny is a raging man who picks fights with anyone who looks at him funny. He is drinking a pitcher of beer and wants some of Roberta’s pretzels.  This isn’t just a simple pick-up. Danny thinks he’s damaged goods and not fit for anyone let alone Roberta. She gives as good as she gets, but finds a way to calm him down and think about himself in a different way.

They’re looking for connection to another person. They are both so damaged that it’s too easy to say they are looking for love. But wild as this might seem, given the abrasive nature of both characters, looking for love in whatever form, is not so far off.

The Production. It’s very dark in the Monarch Tavern as you pick your way to your seat, I think unnecessarily dark. I can appreciate creating an atmosphere, but shouldn’t you be able to at least see your hand in front of your face?

Rows of chairs are arranged facing what looks like the stage.  I can make out a kind of set over there—a cot for a bed, a red light on the other side of a window. Just down from the bed and to the right is a high chair at a high round table. Perhaps even further to the right is another high chair facing another high table. I can’t tell if there are people sitting at these tables, because as I said, it was so dark!!

When the lights did go up Danny (Justin Otto) takes a full pitcher of beer from the bar to one of the high tables and sits, brooding, over his drink. His hair is tussled; he wears jeans and a t-shirt. His knuckles are bandaged and bloody from his recent fights.

At the other high table, with her back to him sits Roberta (Jennifer McEwen) noisily eating the pretzels or perhaps they are chips. They are crisp. She looks over her shoulder at him quickly and turns back. She’s in jeans and a halter top.

He asks for a pretzel. They banter, each with attitude, one not giving in to the other. Jennifer McEwen plays Roberta with attitude and an in-your-face-demeanor. Justin Otto plays Danny with such a chip on his shoulder you wonder how he gets his t-shirt on. You feel at any moment he could explode and do her damage. By the same token, you believe that she could slug him and knock him out. Eventually she joins his table and then she takes him home to her room. They have a wild scene in her room in which he asks her to marry him. It’s so far fetched.  So impossible to imagine. But it’s John Patrick Shanley getting his characters to think in a different way. Danny would never allow himself to get this close to another person and yet here he is. At one point she rails at him and is quite physical with her anger and he takes it. This is a man who beat people up for looking at him funny and now he is taking this behaviour from this woman as damaged as he is. They bond over their need to get rid of their anger.

Do I believe this could happen? I do because Shanley is such a gifted playwright.  His language is crunchy, it crackles with humour and hurt.  He writes about the wounded soul. And I believe it because the acting is so engaging.

It’s directed by David Lafontaine, who does good work in the indie theatre scene. He guides his actors along so that you are always unsettled in wondering what will happen next.  Will this work out? Will they kill each other? Will they fall in love? Either is possible and that’s one of the beauties of this play and this production.

Love2 Theatre Company is a new company and Danny and the Deep Blue Sea is their first show. I look forward to more.

Comment.  John Patrick Shanley is one tough playwright.  To give you an idea about Shanley, he wrote Doubt, a play about sexual child abuse and whether or not a priest in one of the Catholic schools was guilty of abusing a young boy. The woman principal in the school thinks so and goes after the priest.  To show how tough Shanley is he says he was expelled from kindergarten.  Now that’s tough. Or he could be stringing us along. I’d like to think it’s true.

Love2 Theatre Presents:

Opened: May 30, 2019.

Closes: June 8, 2019.

Running Time: 75 minutes.

www.love2theatrecompany.brownpapertickets.com

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

Written by Tracy Letts

Directed by Jackie Maxwell

Set by Camellia Koo

Costumes by Gillian Gallow

Lighting by Davida Tkach

Composer and sound design by Deanna H. Choi

Cast: Maev Beaty

Samantha Brown

Ari Cohen

Oliver Dennis

Leah Doz

Raquel Duffy

Kevin Hanchard

Diego Matamoros

Jeff Meadows

Michelle Monteith

Nancy Palk

Laurie Paton

Gregory Prest

Tracy Letts’ explosive play about an American dysfunctional family, given a gripping, compelling production directed by Jackie Maxwell and acted by this city’s finest actors.  A gift.

The Story. It’s about an American dysfunctional family in Osage County, Oklahoma, in August.

Beverly Weston is the patriarch of the family. He is a minor poet, a university professor, and a full time alcoholic. He disappears early in the play.  Before he disappears he hires a live-in cook named Johnna, a member of the Cheyenne people, to take care of his wife Violet. Beverly’s disappearance brings his three daughters home to support their mother. Violet is a mean-mouthed, angry, drug addicted woman suffering from cancer of the mouth. And she smokes.  Irony is everything in a Tracy Letts play.

You see the dynamic of the daughters: Ivy Weston is meek and stayed in the area to be near her family. Karen Weston has terrible luck with men and moved to Florida. She has returned with her latest fiancé, Steve. Barbara Fordham is the strongest daughter emotionally and also moved away when she got married and her husband got a job. Violet has little good to say about her children but it’s Barbara who can stand up to her.

The Production.  Director Jackie Maxwell’s stunning, meticulous production rises up to the challenge of the play brilliantly. Maxwell is a sensitive director who is not afraid of going for the jugular and the play is full of such moments.

You get a sense of the size and sweep of the Weston house in Camellia Koo’s two story set. A winding staircase goes up and across a landing to Johnna’s room then a back staircase leads down to the back of the dining room (up at the back) and Beverly’s cramped office stage right. Down centre is the living room with a couch and comfy furniture.

The play opens with Beverly (Diego Matamoros) ‘interviewing’ Johnna (Samantha Brown) for the job of live-in cook. The speech is mainly about himself and his difficult family. Diego Matamoros quietly downs drink after drink, not getting drunk, but certainly conveying Beverly has a dependence on the booze. His speech is thoughtful, tempered, nuanced and telling. Of all of the family, Beverly might be the one who actually cares about Violet. They have been married a long time. He does engage Johnna to take care of her. Through the long speech Samantha Brown as Johnna is absolutely still, listening to everything Beverly says. This still focus makes her riveting. At one point Beverly asks Johnna if she still wants the job. She says that she needs the work. I found that telling. She didn’t say she needs the money. She said she needs the work.

At a crucial point in the play the set turns on a revolve and the dining room goes from upstage to down centre so we get the full brunt of Violet’s invective at a dinner for the family.

Nancy Palk plays Violet and this is some of the finest work I’ve seen her do. Her first entrance is as a hunched, crazed-looking woman who is strung out on drugs for her mouth cancer. She is abrasive to anyone who comes near her.  When she feels better later on, she is tall, confident and formidable.

Ivy Weston (Michelle Monteith), the youngest daughter, has not moved away from the area. This means Violet can hurl insults at her whenever she appears—she’s plain, not pretty, could use some lipstick, and on and on.  Michelle Monteith, as Ivy takes it with a stooped resignation.

Raquel Duffy plays Karen Weston, the middle daughter. She has returned home with her latest fiancé and has that glowing blush of a woman in love with her dashing man, but it’s mixed with trepidation at having to deal with her mother and the family dynamic. Ari Cohen does wonderful work as Steve the sleazy fiancé.

As Barbara Fordham, the oldest daughter, Maev Beaty fills this character with all manner of detail.  Her marriage is crumbling but she returns with her wayward husband Bill (a solid performance from Kevin Hanchard) and moody, flirty teenage daughter Jean (Leah Doz). And Barbara has to contend with a mother who is hurtful and full of invective.

Beaty gives a performance full of rage, misplaced anger and controlled emotion until it just erupts like a volcano. This is a performance that is an equal and worthy match with Nancy Palk.

It’s a wonderful ensemble that realizes the richness of this play and these characters. I can’t recommend it enough.

 Comment. August: Osage County is a tough play. It’s brutal and that’s part of its beauty. I liken August: Osage County to the Long Day’s Journey into Night of the 21st Century. Or King Lear with a woman as the ruler.  The play shows the result of anger, meanness and public humiliation on a family and how they react and fight back.

You see the fallout with every relationship of all concerned.  Tracy Letts is a powerhouse playwright. He’s written Bug, Killer Joe and Superior Donuts. His language is bitingly funny and perceptive when revealing a disappointed heart. He knows how to build a character with dazzling language and nuanced writing.  He knows society and how people think and deal with each other.

The play builds and builds revealing more and more secrets.  It’s like watching championship boxing or wrestling. It’s brutal, bloody and ruthless but you can’t look away. It’s a play that is compelling and draws the audience in. But while the characters are stuck in that play, the audience can go home at the end.

I always find the inclusion of Johnna, a woman of the Cheyenne people interesting. Johnna is the only one left with Violet at the end of the play. Is it a stretch to say that the Indigenous people of America are taking back their positions as caretakers of the land because Johnna is cradling Violet at the end? Perhaps. Letts includes her for a reason, leaving us lots to chew on.

Presented by Soulpepper Theatre Company

Opened: May 24, 2019.

Closes: June 30, 2019.

Running Time: 3 hours, 15 minutes.

www.soulpepper.ca

 

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

Written by Patrick Hamilton

Directed by Jani Lauzon

Designed by Joanna Yu

Lighting by Louise Guinand

Original music and sound by John Gzowski

Cast: Élodie Gillett

Kyle Golemba

Alexis Gordon

Patty Jamieson

Peter Millard

Travis Seetoo

Michael Therriault

Kelly Wong

Director Jani Lauzon does a Herculean job of giving this second-rate play a stylish production.

The Story. Wyndham Brandon, with the help of his close friend Charles Granillo, has murdered Ronald Kentley, a fellow undergraduate at Oxford University, by strangling him with rope. Brandon says: “I have done murder…I have committed murder. I have committed passionless—motivelesss-faultless-and clueless murder. Bloodless and noiseless murder…I have killed for the sake of danger and for the sake of killing. And I am alive.”  He fairly bubbles with the joy of it. Charles Granillo, the meeker of the two, easily spooked and nervous, went along with the plan. It’s suggested the two are gay which would have been daring in 1929 as homosexuality was a crime, punishable with prison in 1929 right up until 1965.

They put the body in a chest that is in the drawing room of the house in Mayfair that Brandon and Granillo share. For Brandon’s added ‘fun’ they plan a dinner party and invite Ronald’s father Sir Johnstone Kentley, Ronald’s aunt Mrs. Debenham, Kenneth Raglan, a fellow student at Oxford University, Leila Arden, a buoyant young woman and Rupert Cadell, a brooding poet.

The dinner party will be held in the drawing room and the food will be served on top of the chest. Brandon thinks this is a perfect turn of events. When the party is over Brandon and Granillo will put the body in their car and drive to Oxford where they will dispose of it.

The Production.  Director Jani Lauzon nicely sets up the premise in a quick scene. In the gloom of Louise Guinand’s atmospheric lighting,  Brandon (Kelly Wong) and Granillo (Travis Seetoo) struggle to carry the body of Ronald Kentley. The lights go out and we hear the effort of the two men in the dark and then the snap of the chest closing with the body inside. One gets the sense that Brandon has control over Granillo and likes it that way. There is a suggestion in the play that Brandon and Granillo are lovers but Lauzon approaches this subtly and not overtly. At one point Brandon, who is standing behind Granillo who is in a chair, puts his hands on Granillo’s shoulders. It’s a sign of affection and perhaps ‘ownership.’ It’s a small gesture but it speaks volumes about the relationship.

Joanna Yu has designed a stylish set that is well appointed with fine furniture. The chest is prominently upstage centre. At times Guinand’s lighting illuminates through the back wall to scenes ‘off stage’ adding a conspiratorial note. While the two men wait for their guests, Brandon finds a Coliseum music hall ticket of Ronald Kentley on the floor and blames Granillo, played by Travis Seetoo, as skittish and overanxious . The ticket apparently fell out of Ronald’s pocket in the move to the chest—a potentially disastrous blunder. Granillo puts the ticket in his vest pocket but it’s larger than the pocket and the fact that it’s orange makes its presence obvious (in the play text the ticket is blue). That ticket seemed like neon flashing in that pocket.

Jani Lauzon creates an interesting dynamic between Brandon and his servant, Sabot (a man in the text, but played here with a nice sense of exasperation by Élodie Gillette, a woman). Whenever the doorbell rings, Brandon rushes to answer it rather than letting Sabot do it. Gillette shows frustration with a stern facial expression. As Brandon, Kelly Wong has that smooth charm that drips sarcasm and a sense of entitlement. Brandon says something cutting to Sabot as she walks off and that causes her to stop (her back is to the audience), stiffen in exasperation and leave. That little bit of business says so much about the class system of the British and the sense of position of the French (Sabot is French).

Class factors prominently in Patrick Hamilton’s play. Both Kenneth Raglan (Kyle Golemba) and Rupert Cadell (Michael Therriault) arrive at the dinner party formally dressed thinking that was proper. But Brandon and Granillo are not in formal attire, merely well-made suits, causing their two guests to feel uncomfortable because they are overdressed and weren’t told about the attire. Perhaps this is another way that Brandon controls the situation for his own amusement.

Kenneth Raglan is a superficial but good humoured young man, but Kyle Golemba does not seem comfortable with the character’s ‘posh’ language and over accentuates words such as “raaaather” and “I, say” and makes it all sound artificial instead of natural for the character.

The dinner party is complete when Leila Arden (Alexis Gordon), Sir Johnstone Kentley (Peter Millard) and Mrs. Debenham (Patty Jamieson) arrive. Leila Arden is a bit of a silly young woman (a match for Kenneth Raglan) and is well played with buoyant enthusiasm by Alexis Gordon. Peter Millard illuminates the decency and courtliness of Sir Johnstone Kentley, Ronald’s father. And Mrs. Debenham is a total mystery because she rarely says anything at all. Patty Jamieson handles Mrs. Debenham’s lack of opinion on anything with an intriguing sense of awkwardness and embarrassment. If Patrick Hamilton is trying to make a statement about the different classes of women here between the silly, talkative Leila Arden and the monosyllabic Mrs. Debenham who just wants to be left alone, then it’s not clear. Mrs. Debenham is a part that has one scratching ones head as to why she is there at all.

Rupert Cadell, the brooding, cynical poet, is the best written character and is beautifully played with nuance and subtlety by Michael Therriault. Cadell was wounded in WWI and walks with a limp and a cane. He is elegant, articulate and watchful. The world and his experiences have soured him but he is a man of moral sturdiness and that comes out clearly when he realizes what has happened to Ronald Kentley. He demolishes any argument Brandon might have about the situation and informs both Brandon and Granillo he has every intention to turn them in to the police. The play seems to collapse in the last quick ten minutes as Cadell solves the crime we knew about from the beginning.

It’s a valiant effort by Jani Lauzon and some of her cast to lift this second-rate play. It’s hardly a psychological thriller and certainly not an exploration of a nihilistic attitude. It’s merely a bored rich boy wanting to have a bit of fun by killing a decent young man without any thought of the consequences to his family etc.

Comment. I was being perverse when I reviewed Getting Married first last week, even though it was not the opening production of The Shaw Festival season. Since it is called The Shaw Festival (for the moment) I think it only right that I review a play by the Festival’s namesake.

Rope by Patrick Hamilton (written in 1929) opened the Shaw Festival season in the small Royal George Theatre, without organized fanfare, pomp, ceremony or a sense of occasion. Billed in the brochure as the “Opening Celebration” the knowledgeable Shaw audience came dressed in their tuxes and finery. The Artistic Director and Executive Director chose to dress ‘down’ for the occasion as if for a casual Friday at the office—no suit, tie, etc. I guess they didn’t get the memo. They did dress up two days later for the opening of the dreary Festival Theatre production of Brigadoon that was followed by a big ticket dinner with donors and sponsors.

Much is made of Rope being made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock. That does not give the play cache at all. Hitchcock did not use Patrick Hamilton’s play as the script. He had Arthur Laurents write a completely new script (he of West Side Story and Gypsy fame). He also changed the setting from London to New York.

It follows a celebrated case in which two Chicago teenagers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb from privileged backgrounds, went on a crime spree and ended it with killing an innocent 14 year-old-boy for no other reason than the fun of it.

References in Rope to Friedrich Nietzsche, “a philosopher-moralist” and his ideas of nihilism don’t make the play intellectual or Brandon and Granillo Nietzschean nihilists, nor is the play a first rate psychological thriller. Brandon talked a good streak about but when faced with the intellectual morality of Rupert Cadell Brandon and Granillo were found out and proved guilty in the last 10 minutes of the play, without one whimper of an argument from either man.

For a first rate psychological thriller go to Patrick Hamilton’s 1939 play Gas Light in which a husband sews seeds of doubt in his wife’s mind, making her think she is going mad. Chilling. As for Rope, nope.

The Shaw Festival Presents:

Opened: May 24, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 13, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

www.shawfest.com

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At the Grand Canyon, 2 Osler St. (off Dupont), Toronto, Ont.

Written and directed by Joanne Sarazen

Set by Mike Vitorovich

Lighting by Sebastian Quinn Hoodless

Costumes by Julia Kim

Shadow Puppet designed by Kathleen Atkinson-Hindle

Original music by Neil Rankin

Cast: Breanna Dillon

Adam Driscoll

Chantele Francis

Christopher Hayes

Jonah Hundert

Brittany Kay

Susannah Mackay

Amy Matysio

Laura Vincent

Mike Vitorovich

The Doll Play: A Miniature Revolution is a bold play about abuse but with an intriguing twist.

 The Doll Play: A Miniature Revolution is the bold inaugural play of Grand Canyon, a new theatre space in the Junction (2 Osler St), home of Blood Pact Theatre (No Clowns Allowed, After Wrestling, Killing Your Parents in Viking, Alberta). In the space of three short years, Blood Pact has nicely settled into the city producing provocative, unsettling plays about subjects that keep them (and us) up at night. The Doll Play: A Miniature Revolution certainly fits that theme.

The play takes place in the office of a child psychologist who has used dolls to give comfort to her emotionally, psychologically and physically damaged patients. The play is about those dolls, which themselves have been abused by the damaged children.

Some of the old timer dolls: The Lion, Oldie, Pig and Bear are kept in a shoe box. Oldie spends much of her time sewing up her fellow dolls. There are the new PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride, softer plastic) dolls: Ken, Barbie and Skipper. They are kept away from the battered older dolls. Then there are the two mysterious dolls in the doctor’s drawer: Anne and Andy. They are support dolls that bear the brunt of much distress from their young patients. Anne and Andy escape from the drawer and find their way to the shoe box and the other dolls.  Perhaps more damaged than the dolls is the doctor herself, who hides her own despair and guilt of her neglect of her own daughter while she was busy working.

Mike Vitorovich has designed a set that is inspired. It’s composed of enormous chairs and a large box to suggest the huge world that these diminutive dolls live in. Sitting at desk that towers over the set sits the doctor (a fraught, fragile Chantele Francis), file in hand, lamenting her sad patients and her own damaged daughter.

The self-appointed leader is Lion played with gusto and confidence by Jonah Hundert. His voice booms, his dialogue is clipped and pristine. He is the leader because he is the lion and there is no argument about it. As Pig, Susannah Mackay is quixotic and dangerous, manipulative and conniving. The whole cast of 10 is impressive and accomplished.

Joanne Sarazen has written an intriguing play dealing with an unsettling subject—trauma of mostly damaged children and how they convey that damage by ripping, tearing and destroying their dolls. The way Sarazen tells her story slowly grips the audience into it. That said, I think another pass around the play might be in order. For the most of the play we only have the toys as our means of knowing how damaged the young children are without actually itemizing each child. The exception is the Doctor’s daughter Cecily and I think her inclusion and what happened to her might be a bit of overkill. I think that should be reconsidered.

Writing and producing a play such as The Doll Play: A Miniature Revolution that has 10 characters is daunting for any company let alone two small ones such as Witchboy Theatre and Blood Pact Theatre. Opening your new space with this challenging play takes guts. Blood Pact Theatre is loaded with it. More please.

Presented by: Witchboy Theatre and Blood Pact Theatre:

Began: May 21, 2019.

Closes: June 8, 2019.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

https://dollplay.brownpapertickets.com

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

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Nigel Shawn Williams

Designed by Denyse Karn

Lighting by Kalleigh Krysztofiak

Composer and sound designer, Verne Good

Projection designer, Denyse Karn

Cast: Michael Blake

Juan Chioran

David Collins

Laura Condlln

Farhang Ghajar

Michelle Giroux

Emma Grabisnky

Randy Hughson

John Kirkpatrick

Shruti Kothari

Daniel Krmpotic

Josue Laboucane

Jamie Mac

Hilary McCormack

Gordon S. Miller

Amelia Sargisson

E.B.Smith

Johnathan Sousa

Michael Spencer-Davis

Brigit Wilson

A gripping, brisk production, well acted.

The Story. Othello (of course by William Shakespeare) opened this year’s Stratford Festival with pomp and ceremony, men in kilts playing bagpipes, the audience in tuxes and sequined dresses for the most part (lots of jeans and sandals too) and they all sang “O Canada” in the large Festival Theatre and it was thrilling. There was an insert in the program that said there was an opening night reception in the lobby and everybody was welcome. Classy.

Othello, a moor, is the famous General who has great diplomatic abilities in calming uprisings as well as being a valiant warrior in battle.  He has married Desdemona who is white which brings out the racism of the people of Venice. Remember how those citizens treated Shylock? Not nice.

Othello’s sergeant, Iago, has been passed over for promotion in favour of Michael Cassio, a Florentine. Florence and its citizens come in for a lot of xenophobic bashing in Shakespeare for some reason.

Iago is so furious at being passed over for Michael Cassio and so jealous of him, that he, Iago, plans on getting even with Othello by making mischief. He will subtly plant seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind as to Desdemona’s purity and loyalty. Iago will suggest that Desdemona might be having an affair with Michael Cassio and will plant a loving keepsake Othello gave to Desdemona, in Michael Cassio’s room as proof. Iago gets Emilia to steal the keepsake—a treasured handkerchief to get the plan in motion. Emilia is so desperate to regain Iago’s affections that she steals for him. One assumes there must have been affection initially between Iago and Emilia that has now turned sour.   Matters escalate and of course it doesn’t end well for anybody.

The Production.  It’s terrific.  Nigel Shawn Williams has directed with such a clear vision and sense of detail. The basic structure of Denyse Karn’s set are bleak grey walls with three doors in the walls. Details of architecture, moulding, etc. are provided by Denyse Karn’s computer generated projections that dissolved down the walls to add ornate mouldings here, decorative details there—all projected in white along the basic structure. The projections establish the various locations in the play with ease and efficiency.

Nigel Shawn Williams has envisioned his production in modern dress and almost everybody—men and women–is in the army.  Emilia, Iago’s wife, is the maid to Desdemona, in Shakespeare’s play but here she is Desdemona’s personal body guard it seems.  That works for me.

Being modern dress, guns are used but not swords so Othello’s line to the Duchess’s men who come calling to check out Brabantio’s accusation: “Put up your bright swords or the dew will rust them”, is cut.

In this production the Duke of Venice is now the Duchess and is played with regal bearing by Michelle Giroux.

At the top of the production, stage right, a priest is marrying Othello (Michael Blake) and Desdemona (Amelia Sargisson). He is in a well fitted silver jacket and Desdemona is in her own finery.  Stage centre and left is a group of black-clad soldiers going through their paces with gusto and verve. It almost looks like a pagan dance with throbbing percussion.  The soldiers are itching for a fight. This goes on at the same time at the same time.

As Othello, Michael Blake initially has the bearing and composure of a celebrated general, He has the patience and languid body movements of a man in total control and aware of his revered abilities. He is thoughtful in his speech, deliberate and nuanced in his delivery and unflappable.  But as he becomes unhinged with jealousy his movements become less fluid, jerkier.  His usual calmness is now gently agitated and his speech is halting.

Amelia Sargisson is a graceful Desdemona, obviously in love with Othello and has the confidence of a woman who is loved. She is no shrinking violet. She is as Othello describes her, “My warrior.” Their chemistry is believable. Initially there is a tactile sensuality, almost a giddiness in their loving each other. But when Othello is on the verge of smothering her he carries her like a rag doll. Anita Nitolly’s choreography of Othello smothering Desdemona is gripping and will make any caring person squirm.

As Iago, Gordon S. Miller is ostensibly charming to everybody but Emilia (Laura Condlln). He drops the seeds of doubt seemingly as an afterthought when in Othello’s company. Othello helplessly allows the seeds of jealously to grow.

 

Finally Laura Condlln plays Emilia, Iago’s wife, with passion and the despair of an emotionally battered wife.  She endures his public humiliations because she loves him as a battered partner loves—in the hopes that he will return the love. But every slight, every barb Iago aims at Emilia is met with Condlln’s face creased in embarrassment and humiliation until she retaliates.

Othello is a play about jealousy, racism, passion and manipulation that is powerfully done.

Comment.  To get a sense of the speed in which matters unraveled, it all seemed to happen from beginning to end in 33 hours. Could this happen in 33 hours? Sure, it’s Shakespeare.  The argument is sound. Othello is in a racist city, surrounded by racist people who insult him behind his back because of his skin colour.  Desdemona’s father Brabantio is a racist and assumes Desdemona dislikes Othello because of his skin colour because Brabantio does. Brabantio says to Othello that his daughter deceived him (her father) and she will deceive Othello too.

Iago is always called “honest Iago’ so everyone is primed to believe him as such except Emilia who knows the truth.  Iago is so subtle, so cool, and convincing that no one challenges him. This play just drips irony.

The Stratford Festival Presents:

Opened: May 27, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 27, 2019.

Running Time: 3 hours approx.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

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