Tarragon Extra Space, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Ellie Moon

Directed by Richard Rose

Set, costumes and projections by Michelle Tracey

Lighting by André du Toit

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Dakota Ray Herbert

Brittany Kay

Kim Nelson

R.H. Thomson

Rachel VanDuzer

Ellie Moon has written a play with a promising premise of examining old power and new ideas in an academic setting, but it splinters in focus and does not realise that promise.

The Story. From the press information: “John, a 60-something white professor of Constitutional Law and Indigenous Rights is unhappy with a new faculty hire.  He seeks to draw a student into his conflict with the Dean’s office, which leads to a complaint, which leads to a reprimand, which leads to a breakdown of the man, his daughter, and their understanding of the world. A play about old power and new ideas, academia and decolonization, language and authority.” And it’s also about mental illness.   

John tried to make points with his young students by talking to his class about his daughter Ava’s mental problems. Ava found out from a friend in her father’s class.

John is of the old school of professor. Language should be used properly and almost formally in class. His objection to the new hire, Dr. Winter, is that he feels she is hired because she is Indigenous and he feels that isn’t a good enough reason. He can’t/won’t acknowledge that her being Indigenous makes her finely tuned to the law and its implications. The Associate Dean who is questioning him on the situation calmly says Dr. Winter was hired because she is qualified and the search confirms that.  Her being Indigenous adds another layer to her qualifications.

John also taught the new hire.  He remembers a student who was not stellar and the language used was not formal but colloquial.  John is approached by Niimi, an Indigenous student,  about auditing his course. She is also taking Dr. Winter’s course but feels that John’s course could fill in gaps not covered in Dr. Winter’s course. John agrees to this arrangement but also tries to draw the student into his desire to continue to question the qualifications of the new hire. This leads to a complaint to the Dean’s Office and the Associate Dean now questions the student. If anything is clear in these situations it’s that language is loaded and very often misunderstood no matter how hard one tries to be clear. There is a lot of misinformation swirling around with various people, including the Associate Dean having to back track.  Trying to correct all the facts with the parties concerned is like trying to catch feathers in the wind. The results take its toll on John and Ava.

The Production. We get a pretty clear idea of John’s (R.H. Thomson) confidence, arrogance and privilege in the first scene. As John, R. H. Thomson sits in the office of Terry (Kim Nelson), the Associate Dean.  He’s relaxed. He stretches out from his chair with his legs crossed and resting on his briefcase. She’s called him in to talk about important issues and he’s treating this as an informal chat. R.H. Thomson gives a performance full of nuanced details, a shrug of the shoulders, an off-handed attitude, self-confidence in his winding, formal way of expression. Terry, as played by Kim Nelson, is anything but casual. She sits straight in her chair. She is contained and controlled. She is dealing with serious concerns and she has to get John to acknowledge them. She is formal and direct. In one of those ironies of life Kim Nelson was actually a lawyer before she became an actress, and that sense of decorum, that formality is there in her fine performance.

We also get a sense at how fragile John is in his skin when the complaint is lodged. It’s the beginning of his downfall. Here Thomson is distracted, unhinged and confused. Thomson gives a master class in acting in his performance.

Dakota Ray Hebert as Niimi the Indigenous student who initially quietly challenges John’s ideas. She is curious when she says she would like to audit his class in addition to taking Dr. Winter’s course for a fuller understanding of the material and the issues. But later in the play she takes a seat at the back of the theatre to get ready for the class. In this scene she is almost combative as if she is cross-examining John about his attitudes. Here Dakota Ray Hebert is measured and formidable.  It’s an interesting placement of the character by director Richard Rose. Perhaps that distant placement is trying to suggest a court room with John as the defendant. Rachel VanDuzer as Ava, John’s fragile daughter and Brittany Kay as Tanya Ava’s easy-going friend, round out the cast.

Comment. If Dr. Winter is now eligible to be hired, then it seems reasonable to assume that John taught her years before. He does not consider that she might have changed from that unremarkable student to an engaging professor.

Ellie Moon is a provocative playwright. Her plays deal with challenging issues. Ellie Moon has created an interesting character in John: arrogant, blinkered to the changing world, stodgy in what is important in teaching but unaware. Certainly dealing with John’s constricting attitude towards teaching and a wider view is engaging in today’s fraught, fractious world. But what his daughter Ava does during the course of the play veers the play away from the main theme I think. And the way John has his downfall also veers away from the main point. It would not be credible for him to suddenly have insight into this changing world, but to have him completely diminished is equally unsatisfying.

The premise in the play is promising to open a dialogue. But the play as it is, does not realize that promise.

Tarragon Theatre Presents:

Opened: Feb. 5, 2020.

Closes: March 1, 2020.

Running Time: 90 minutes  approx.

www.tarragontheatre.ca

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At Campbell House Museum, University Ave. and Queen St. Toronto, Ont.

Written by Dave Carley

Directed by Cecily Smith

Lighting by Yehuda Fisher

Cast: Alison Beckwith

Tristan Claxton

Hayden Finkelshtain

John Jarvis

Cecily Smith

In these fractious times Dave Carley’s play Taking Liberties is more important than ever.

Taking Liberties with its focus on civil liberties. freedom of speech, responsible journalism, no matter how unpopular the opinion, makes it as timely today as it was 30 years ago when the play was first performed.

The play spans 40 years starting in 1995 then going backwards in 10 year segments. Each character comments on their stance on an unpopular issue and the consequences of each. The characters are connected in some way or other. In 1995 Professor Anne Harvie (Cecily Smith, giving a forthright, solid performance) holds a prestigious position in her University. She opposes affirmative action as a hiring practice. She does not explain the details surrounding the case, but does indicate that her property has been vandalized because of her unpopular stance. It’s not the first time. She references her father for some rancour in her life. Constant opposition to her thinking has taken its toll and she makes a decision about her future.

In 1985 Ron Bloom (an emotional, energetic Hayden Finkelshtain), a serious man from a Jewish family, believes in free speech to the point that even a person espousing anti-Semitic sentiments is entitled to voice his opinion. A man who teaches math is also an anti-Semite but his views do not enter the classroom. Ron believes the man should keep his job in spite of his anti-Semitic views.  This causes a rift in the family especially with his father Max who in a sense disowns him. Years before Max experienced anti-Semitism until friends of his insisted the local golf club admit him as a member. Up until that time Jews were not allowed to join. Ron’s impassioned speech is given to his unseen wife, Sara.

In 1975 Sara Munro (Alison Beckwith giving a thoughtful, determined performance) is in high school and urges her English teacher to teach the banned book, “The Diviners” by Margaret Laurence. The book had been repeatedly banned for being blasphemous and obscene by religious groups, but Sara was determined that the book had to be taught because of its quality and urged her teacher to teach it. Sara inherited her sense of right and integrity from her father Heck Munro, the editor of the local newspaper. Sara would grow up to marry Ron Bloom, another person of integrity.   

In 1965 Heck Munro (bristlingly played by John Jarvis) is the harried, impatient and thoughtful editor of the local newspaper. He has just learned of a big story. The police raided the men’s washroom of the local bus station and found several men involved in illegal, sexual behaviour. The police gave him all the names. One of them was a friend of his. Does Heck print the names or doesn’t he? Does he leave out his friend’s name or doesn’t he? The thinking of what to do is fascinating.

Finally in 1955 we meet Gerald Harvie, Anne’s father. As Gerald, Tristan Claxton gives a nuanced performance of a man tormented and conflicted.  Gerald is a good family man.  He is an upstanding member of the community, a successful accountant and well liked. But he has a deep secret that he can’t ignore. It preys on him.

All these stories are connected. The ideas and thinking are not taken lightly and they all have consequences.  All the difficult views of the characters in Dave Carley’s bracing, timeless play pose a cautionary tale.  They are beautifully presented in the Grand Ballroom of the Campbell House Museum, thanks to the fine cast and Cecily Smith’s sensitive direction.  

Dave Carley’s bracing, challenging play Taking Liberties is more vital and important than ever before. Alas.

Began: Feb. 8, 2020.

Closes: Feb. 23, 2020.

Running Time: 70 minutes.

www.takingliberties.ca

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l-r: Daren A. Herbert, Xavier Lopez
Photo: Dahlia Katz

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

Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis

Directed by Weyni Mengesha

Set by Ken MacKenzie

Costumes by Shannon Lea Doyle

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Sound by John Gzowski

Fight director, Simon Fon

Cast: Diana Donnelly

Daren A. Herbert

Xavier Lopez

Tony Nappo

Gregory Prest

A heart-thumping production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ gripping play about the hopeless American penal system if one is a person of colour, peace through prayer, and finding grace in a graceless place.

The Story. Lucius Jenkins and Angel Cruz are both in notorious Rikers Island prison in New York City for murder. Lucius admits his crime. Angel says he didn’t mean to kill the man he did. He just meant to “shoot him in the ass.”  Angel was getting revenge for a crime his victim committed. Angel’s overworked lawyer, Mary Jane Hanrahan, tries to show him the intricacies of the American legal system in order to get him off. In the meantime the guard Valdez is determined to keep both Lucius and Angel under his thumb, bullied and browbeaten. D’Amico was the guard before Valdez. He treated Lucius with respect, kindness and consideration. He used to bring him cookies or some of his wife’s home cooking. D’Amico was soon removed. Kindness has no place in that prison.

The Production. Ken MacKenzie’s set is masterful in evoking the dispiriting nature of the stark jail cells in which Lucius (Deren A. Herbert) and Angel (Xavier Lopez) live. The walls are dark grey. There are no windows. Each cell has a steel bench on which to sit or lay. There is a door stage left beyond the cells. Shannon Lea Doyle’s costumes are a prison shirt and pants for Lucius and Angel; full cop uniforms and gear (handcuffs, billy club, notepad) for Valdez (Tony Nappo) and D’Amico (Gregory Prest). Mary Jane Hanrahan (Diana Donnelly) wears a slim skirt and simple white blouse. There is nothing fancy here.

There is noise. There is the noise of the banging cell doors. The echo of people walking. The yells for people to be quiet. At the beginning of the production Angel is on his knees praying, illuminated by Kevin Lamotte’s eerie light. He is saying the Lord’s Prayer but gets stuck on that bit about the name. Is it “Howard be thy name?” Something else? He gets more and more flustered. The voices around him telling him to shut up get louder and louder. He continues searching for the right word and finally gets it—‘hallowed be thy name.” By this time the angry voices from the unseen cells around him are deafening. Xavier Lopez as Angel is a bundle of nerves, trying not to lose control, trying to keep his wits about him. His anxiety is obvious. He’s praying for a reason—for comfort, solace, peace. Mary Jane Harahan, as played by Diana Donnelly, is an exhausted, overworked public defender. While Angel is frustrated by her—he wants a male lawyer– he soon learns to trust her. There is a grudging respect. She tries to help him by maneuvering through the maze of the system. He tries to keep up.

Lucius (Daren A. Herbert) keeps his body toned with strenuous exercise in his cell or in the exercise yard when he is allowed out for an hour. He keeps his mind and spirits up with God. He prays. He knows the bible. He has given himself to God for forgiveness. We learn later what he did. He admits it. No excuses. Later he offers information of the hideous life he’s lived. It’s information we might consider an excuse, but Lucius, as played by the masterful Daren A. Herbert, is comfortable and confident in himself. There is no remorse. There is acceptance. It’s a performance that is full of quiet confidence. There is no swagger. There is a spirituality about Lucius that makes him calm and knowing. Valdez, played by a menacing Tony Nappo, tries to keep Lucius subservient with taunts, insults, threats and bullying tactics. Valdez calls him a loser and says that his eyes are those of a dead man. Actually Lucius’ eyes are lively with life and a slight sneer to the bully Valdez. Nappo does not play the obvious by bellowing or imposing his weight against the defenceless prisoners. It’s an interesting dual of one attitude trying to overpower another. Gregory Prest as D’Amico is quiet spoken, decent and kind. He tells us of a selfless thing he does at the end by going to see Lucius and seems disappointed when Lucius doesn’t recognize him. I wonder if that selfless thing was really a search for validation.

Director, Weyni Mengesha has meticulously created the fraught, frustrating world of the American penal system for Lucius and Angel as they survive in their cells. There is a camaraderie between the two men and also judgement. Angel is outraged at what Lucius did as his crimes and questions his belief in God and God’s belief in Lucius. The men argue about faith, hope, salvation and life. The rhythms and pace of the robust dialogue between Daren A. Herbert as Lucius and Xavier Lopez as Angel is bracing, compelling theatre.

Comment. Stephen Adly Guirgis writes about people struggling to live with dignity and respect in a system that does not value them (The Motherfucker with a Hat, Between Riverside and Crazy and Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train). His dialogue is muscular, has an intoxicating rhythm and is hilarious in spite of its darkness. Guirgis puts us in the world of his characters and makes us embrace them. Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is a case in point. Terrific theatre.

Soulpepper Theater Company presents:

Opened: Jan. 30, 2020.

Saw it: Feb. 5, 2020

Closes: Feb. 23, 2020.

Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

www.soulpepper.ca

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Review: CYMBELINE

by Lynn on February 6, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Junction City Music Hall, 2907 Dundas St. W, Toronto, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Julia Nish-Lapidus

Fight choreographer, Bailey Green

Music from the catalogue of Matt Nish-Lapidus

Cast: Mairi Babb

Daniel  Briere

Déjah Dixon-Green

Bailey Green

Melanie Leon

David Mackett

Jesse Nerenberg

Catherine Rainville

Emilio Vieira

James Wallis

Kiana Woo

A bracing, clear production of this wild play.

The Story. Shakespeare could be impish with his play titles. All’s Well That End’s Well doesn’t really. And his play Cymbeline isn’t about Cymbeline, the King of Britain. It’s actually about Innogen (or Imogen in some editions) Cymbeline’s daughter and her efforts to be with her husband Posthumus Leonatus. Cymbeline has banished him. Posthumus thinks the world of Innogen and says so to all who will listen. One person is Iachimo, an Italian nobleman,  who wagers that Innogen is not true now that her husband is out of the way and he goes further by saying he can prove it by sleeping with her and bringing Posthumus some keepsake to prove it. Posthumus takes the bet.

Iachimo makes a courtesy call to Cymbeline and is invited into the palace. He delivers a loving letter from Posthumus to Innogen and therefore gains her trust. When she is asleep he manages to get into her bedroom (he’s hidden in a trunk…see the production and you’ll see how that’s done) and takes a bracelet off Innogen’s arm and notes various physical attributes. When he reports this to Posthumus and gives him the bracelet Posthumus is incredulous and then instantly enraged at Innogen’s deception. Posthumus sends a letter to Pisanio, his servant, instructing him to kill Innogen for being “a strumpet to my bed”. Pisanio doesn’t believe this is true and shows Innogen the letter. She’s stunned but urges Pisanio to follow through with the deed. He won’t but they plan how to find the truth.

The Production. Cymbeline is a play about a strong woman (Innogen) in a production full of strong women. While the production is pared down with no set and one major prop of a large book with a “C” on it—presumably the text— there is nothing skimpy about the scholarship and detail of thought that goes into the production.

Director Julia Nish-Lapidus’ decision to use the name of Innogen rather than Imogen was not done lightly. She notes that the prevailing thought was that Shakespeare originally intended that the name be Innogen but the two n’s close together looked like an ‘m’ so Imogen was the result. She also notes that in the third Arden edition the spelling is “Innogen” but in my Arden edition it’s Imogen, so she went with what Shakespeare might have intended. Such is the thinking of a detail-minded director with a clear idea and vision. Julia Nish-Lapidus’ production goes like a bat-out-of-hell. Scenes are swift and precise. There is a sense of urgency about it. Posthumus is exiled by Cymbeline and he must leave immediately. Posthumus and Innogen’s parting is rushed and not at all the lingering they want. Iachimo’s duplicitous trick is done quickly and he rushes to prove his point with Posthumus. The subplots also have their own pulsing drive. The Queen, Innogen’s step-mother, is conniving and plotting so that her son Cloten will marry Innogen. And for good measure, there are two missing royal children that are found. There is a lot going on in this wild play. It’s all handled with care and efficiency by Julia Nish-Lapidus.

The performances also have that clarity of thought. There is nothing muddy about any performance. They are lead by Catherine Rainville as a determined, smart Innogen. The performance is of a woman who is tenacious, curious and wily. She is also loving and compassionate. Pisanio is played by Bailey Green thus making a character who is a man, into a strong, loyal woman. Mairi Babb as the Queen, Innogen’s step-mother, is an outwardly accommodating woman, but inwardly she is conniving and duplicitous. A smile disappears quickly when her head is turned from another character—the audience sees it all.

As Posthumus, Jesse Nerenberg is impassioned and loving to Innogen but easily enraged when he thinks she is untrue. If I have a quibble, it’s that the raging tends to be one note—a bit more nuance would be helpful in rounding out the character. All of Iachimo’s conniving is beautifully realized by Daniel Briere’s performance. This is a character who loves to make mischief and we see how Iachimo relishes the evil he can create in this confident performance. Poor, dimwitted Cloten is played with puffed up angst by Emilio Vieira.

Shakespeare BASH’d has created another bracing production of the Bard that is inventive, clear and beautifully done. As usual.  

Comment. Shakespeare is masterful in creating easily duped men into believing the worst of honest, true women. Note Leontes mistrusting his loyal wife Hermione in The Winter’s Tale; or Claudio mistrusting his loving fiancée, Hero and her father Leonato mistrusting her too in Much Ado About Nothing with virtually no proof except someone said so; and now Posthumus is instantly bend out of shape about the honesty of Innogen in Cymbeline.  Shakespeare is just as masterful at creating thoughtful, smart women who don’t fly off the handle in such cases but are measured and calm in their reactions. They have more commonsense than the men they love. Hermione knows that Leontes will be heartsick when he realizes that he is wrong about her. In Much Ado About Nothing the women (Beatrice and Hero), and one good man (Benedick) will teach the truth about the women to their misinformed men. And in Cymbeline Innogen sets out to find out the truth about Posthumus’ accusations. She does not distrust him. She knows that something has happened and she will find out the truth. It’s always interesting to see the difference in behaviour between the wrong-headed men—raging, blinkered and thoughtless—and the women—questioning, tempered in their reactions and focused on finding the truth about men they know well who are behaving strangely.

The run is short and sold-out. But the good people of Shakespeare BASH’d will do everything they can to find space if you show up at the door. The production is worth the wait in line.

Presented by Shakespeare BASH’d

Opened: Feb. 4, 2020.

Closes: Feb. 9, 2020.

Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

www.shakespearebashd.com

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At the Five Points Theatre, Barrie, Ont.

Herringbone

Written by Tom Cone

Additional lyrics by James Smith and Dylan Trowbridge

Additional music by James Smith

Directed by Dylan Trowbridge

Set by Joe Pagnan

Costumes by Laura Delchiaro

Lighting by Jeff Pybus

Cast: Mike Nadajewski

James Smith

Yalta Game

Written by Brian Friel

Based on a short story by Anton Chekhov

Directed by Dylan Trowbridge

Set by Joe Pagnan

Costumes by Laura Delchiaro

Lighting by Jeff Pybus

Cast: Mike Nadajewski

Madelyn Kriese

James Smith

Herringbone is a play written by Canadian Tom Cone, who set it in Alabama. It’s about  George Herringbone named after the material of his first suit. He is an adult vaudevillian, but his bitter life from when he was 10-years-old has marked him.  His shiftless parents tried to pass him off as a 35-year-old midget (the word used in the play) for the circus. He had no time to be a kid. His parents did not provide the emotional support for him and so he grew up to be a cynical, if not bitter, adult.

Yalta Game is based on Chekhov’s story, “The Lady With a Dog,” adapted by Brian Friel, the celebrated Irish playwright.  It takes place in Yalta at the end of the 19th century. Dmitry Gurov is a banker who has come to Yalta, leaving his wife at home, to stroll along the beach front, have coffee in cafes, chat up the wait staff, observe the passing parade and imagine all manner of back stories for all of them. That is the Yalta game. He’s a dreamer.

One day he sees a young woman with a dog—a Pomeranian—and is charmed by her, the woman, not the dog. Her name is Anna Sergeyevna (the woman is named Anna, not the dog.)  He introduces himself. He charms her with his stories of all the people passing by. They begin keeping company. They form a relationship. They fall in love. But there are their spouses to think about—well really hers, we don’t hear anything about his wife. What to do?

These two plays could not seem more different. They take place in different countries with different sensibilities and the characters don’t seem to have anything in common. But leave it to the blazing theatrical brain that is Arkady Spivak, the Artistic Producer of Talk is Free Theatre, to find a connection and an irresistible reason to see them both.

In George Herringbone and Dmitry Gurov we have two people trying to escape a life they do not want. George’s life was marked since he was 10-years-old.  He got no love and support from his parents. He was used as a commodity. Dmitry Gurov does not want to be encumbered with a wife or a job in a bank. He wants to live a life of leisure and imagining, and he probably wants to spend it with Anna.

The irresistible reason to see both these plays is Mike Nadajewski. He has a body that has elastic bands where there should be bones. His movements are fluid, graceful and almost seem like dancing.

In Herringbone he plays not only George Herringbone as both a kid and an adult, but also his ear-scratching, demure mother, his gruff sounding father, his impish, late uncle and all manner of other characters, each fresh and distinct. Nadajewski flits from character to character with a bundle of physical ticks and nuance, and when you think Nadajewski has depleted his arsenal of invention, he flops on the ground in a thwak to take on another aspect of George you don’t expect. Nadajewski is so full of humour, humanity and artistry that you cover your eyes and shake your head in disbelief. And he sings beautifully.

In Yalta Game Nadajewski’s performance as Dmitri is of a suave, charming man. He loves words. They pour out of him in spurts of descriptions and imaginative suggestions. He makes the words sound intoxicating and delicious. Dmitry almost makes himself drunk on his own invention.

As Anna, Madelyn Kriese is charm itself. Anna is poised, intrigued by George, young but not naïve and is as taken by Dmitri as he is by her.

James Smith does not just provide the musical piano accompaniment, he wrote the music and lyrics for Herringbone, provides a foil for George, and appears as the street musician playing the accordion for heaven sake, in Yalta Game.

Both are directed with care and sensitivity by Dylan Trowbridge. Both he and Mike Nadajewski mine the gold in each play and produce an evening of wonderful theatre.

Talk is Free Theatre presents:

Opened: Jan. 24, 2020.

Closes: Feb. 1, 2020.

Running time: two hours, including an intermission.

www.tift.ca

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At the Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto, Ont,

Written by Ödön von Horváth

Adapted by Paolo Santalucia, Holger Syme and the Howland Company.

Based on an original translation by Holger Syme

Directed by Paolo Santalucia

Set  and costumes by Ken MacKenzie

Lighting by Jareth Li

Sound by Jeremy Hutton

Choreography by Reanne Spitzer

Original compositions

Cast: Michael Ayres

Michael Chiem

Alexander Crowther

James Graham

Veronica Hortiguela

Shruti Kothari

Cameron Laurie

Kimwun Perehinec

Hallie Seline

Caroline Toal

The Story. Casimir and Caroline by Ödön von Horváth, premiered in Berlin in 1932 with the political upheaval of that time affecting everything around it—the people, the financial situation, class etc. It’s about greed and the world turned upside down.

It now takes place today in Toronto and the same ideas apply—it’s about greed, mendacity, playing one against the other etc. in a corporate world. And the political situation is there in the background because we naturally put it there. In other words, it’s about the world turned upside down.  

The play takes place in summer. Casimir is an insecure man in love with Caroline. He is the chauffeur for a hot-shot in the corporate office named Rankin.  Rankin just laid-off Casimir.  Casimir imagines his girlfriend, Caroline will dump him. We soon find out she has more compassion and class than that.  But he sure challenges her with his jealousy, insecurity and depression.

Rankin the hot-shot is hosting a party on an outdoor deck of the corporate office. Rankin has a young man named Trevor give out popsicles from a cooler as part of the festivities. Trevor is the receptionist in the office.

Trevor observes a lot of bad behaviour. For example, Rankin seems to spend time sleeping with various women in his office and ranking them on a spread-sheet according to their ‘hot-ness.’ The word gets out and that has consequences for Rankin.

There is also character named Ellie who is fascinating. I don’t get the sense that she is on the bottom rung of the corporate ladder. Rather I think she is quietly climbing up the ladder. She is watchful at the party, sarcastic in her comments at the people there because she knows how they operate.  Nothing phases or surprises her.

The Production. Ken MacKenzie has created a simple but evocative set suggesting the party that Rankin is hosting is in full swing. Balloons are festooned above the stage. Some have fallen onto the stage. Plastic cups litter the floor. A tall round ‘table’ is stage right. It’s the kind on which people set their glasses or plates. They don’t sit at it, they lean on it if they want. MacKenzie’s costumes are stylish.   

Both the adaptation and the production are dandy.  It was adapted by Paolo Santalucia, Holger Syme and the gritty, smart Howland Company from an original translation by Holger Syme.  Often with all these collaborators the result might be a bit choppy, but not here. The language is vibrant, evocative and bracing.

Paolo Santalucia directs this with a clear eye and vision The cast trots on like so many prancing horses. The pace goes at a gallop (sorry). Characters are naturally breathless and it works because these are frenzied times. They are all trying to keep up and no one more so than Rankin. Rankin is played with fearless abandon by James Graham. Rankin is arrogant, confident, swaggering, condescending and full of contempt for those around him.

If I had a quibble I would say Graham might be a bit over the top. If Rankin is that wild at a party wouldn’t that have been noticed sooner in his job by his bosses? The thing that brought him down was his spread sheet ranking the hotness of the women in the office with whom he slept. That seems a lesser ‘crime’ than his behaviour to all at that party. Perhaps bad behaviour is acceptable but being caught in an indiscretion is not. Still Graham got me to ponder, think and wonder about it all. It is a mesmerizing performance. 

Casimir is played by Alexander Crowther as someone who is sweet but a worrier and that worry weighs heavily on his girlfriend Caroline.  Caroline, as played by Hallie Seline, is calm, tempered, compassionate and exasperated by Casimir’s constant insecurities. Seline is such a gracious actor and that suffuses her performance.

Rankin is swiftly brought down because of his indiscrete spread-sheet and replaced by Shira (Kimwun Perehinec). This is a performance of a woman dripping with confidence and a killer instinct. She’s a shark who swims in dangerous waters. Perehinec lobs a barb of a line at Rankin that pins him to the wall. She is focused and fierce. Also fascinating is Shruti Kothari as Ellie, the watchful woman who knows how to play the game. Ellie doesn’t miss a beat or an observation that will not serve her purpose in future. She’s sly. She could be the head of the place and replace Shira in a heartbeat.   

Comment. It’s interesting to see how the Howland Company has taken a play that originally depicted a frenzied time in Germany in the last century and adapted it to apply to Toronto today.  

The times are different but the similarities of the things that occupied people almost 100 years ago are the same things that concern us today—money, greed, jobs, love, success and getting even. Bravo to this feisty company that keeps raising the bar on quality with plays that speak to our times.   

Presented by the Howland Company

Opened: Jan. 16, 2020.

Closes: Feb. 9, 2020.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes approx.

www.crowstheatre.org

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At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, Ont.,

Playwright and performer, Karie Richards

Director (original version), Jeff Culbert

Design by Glenn Davidson

Music composed and performed by John Sheard

Sound effects by Peter Thillaye, Steve Munro

These are not spooky ghost stories as much as they are verbatim recollections of people’s experiences with ghosts.  Writer/performer Karie Richards sets the tone, pace and atmosphere from the get-go, and in a bit of efficiency, gets the whole notion of the frightening ghostly visitation out of the way quickly.

It was a dark and stormy night in the first story. A young woman had just come home late and went up to her small bedroom and got ready for bed. She heard footsteps behind her, thinking it was her father who was coming to check if there were leaks in the roof. It wasn’t her father. It was an apparition who appeared at the foot of her bed.

Karie Richards tells the story quietly, with the pauses, little laughs, repetitions and particular vocal quirks of the woman who told Richards the story. Richards builds the tension slowly but relentlessly so that the gasp from the audience is well earned.   

None of the apparitions who appeared to the assortment of women and one man during this short, but captivating show seemed to be malevolent. There was no hurling of furniture around the room. There was a light that went on mysteriously for the first time in two years, but that’s about it.

These are stories filled with grace, kindness, comfort and love. Glenn Davidson has designed a warm, inviting set that is in keeping with the delicacy of the stories. There is an illuminated window above the stage. A stylish, comfortable chair is bathed in warm light centre stage. Up to the left is an armoire with hazy mirrored doors. Karie Richards goes to the armoire to make small changes in her wardrobe and jewellery as she changes from character to character. One wears a hat, another a scarf, another a sweater and so on. The transitions are smooth and natural. Each transition is accompanied by piano interludes composed and played by John Sheard.   

I was struck with how each story was so individual, but they all shared a common humanity. In one a little girl tugged at a stranger’s sleeve saying, “Tell her I’m happy” meaning tell the lady next to the stranger she was happy. The lady on the other side of the stranger had lost a young daughter to cancer. We are led to believe that little girl was the spirit of the lady’s daughter.  The spirit of a woman’s grandfather comes to her to tell her he’s proud of her. The ghost of the wife of a proprietor of a guest house ‘visits’ various guests in their rooms to see that they are alright and comfortable. A stage hand brings the music of the 40s for his late night shifts because he feels the ghost who ‘haunts’ the theatre would appreciate that kind of music.

The most touching story is of a woman who loved and misses her late mother so much but laments that her mother’s spirit does not visit her and she wonders why.

Each of these stories has an otherworldliness to them but also aspects of this world as well. Karie Richards is a gently commanding performer, bringing each of her storytellers to life with all their variations. In simple vocal shifts and body language she creates separate and distinct characterizations.

In her programme note Karie Richards thanks the people by their first names who agreed to tell their stories so that she could repeat them verbatim. Interestingly she does not introduce them by name during the show. I also found it an interesting choice not to explain during the show or in the programme how the show came to be and how she met the people who agreed to share their stories. This does not diminish the work in any way. I just found those choices interesting.

This is a beguiling touching show done beautifully.

The Theatre Centre presents:

Opened: Jan. 21, 2020.

Closes: Jan. 26, 2020

Running Time: 75 minutes.

www.theatrecentre.org

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l-r Kwaku Okyere, Richard Alan Campbell
Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare

Adapted in parts by the company.

Directed by Allyson McMackon

Costumes by Brandon Kleiman

Lighting by Michelle Ramsay

Fights by Simon Fon

Cast: Richard Alan Campbell

Burgundy Code

Amanda Cordner

Michael Derworiz

Nick Eddie

Matthew Finlan

Sarah Machin Gale

Richard Lee

Alexa MacDougall

Alexandra Montagnese

Kwaku Okyere

Matthew Rossoff

Annie Tuma

A breath-taking, heart-stopping production that realizes the depth, darkness, love, sexuality and joy of the play. Bravo to director/visionary Allyson McMackon for this beautiful parting gift.

The Story. I am going to copy the press information because they did such a good job: “Spanning a single evening or a single sleep, Shakespeare’s play is set in Athens on the eve of a big wedding. Threatened with death if she does not marry who her father chooses, Hermia flees with her lover Lysander through a forest to get to an aunt’s house where they may love freely. Pursued by Hermia’s approved-of suitor Demetrius and the lovelorn Helena, a comedy of desires ensues as they enter a supernatural world with a warring fairy queen and king, a Hobgoblin named Puck and a group of actors rehearsing a play for the festive wedding.”

The Production.  Every single creative decision from the casting to the design to the performances to the direction is so accomplished they make my head swim.  The stage is bare. The playing space is a huge circle. The cast enters running, circles the area and scatters around the space. When characters are not in a scene the actors wait watching either stage left or right by the walls. The ensemble cast themselves in their parts. They also adapted Act I and Act V of the play to reflect certain ideas.

The production starts with various members of the cast taking turns trying to tell the story only to have another cast member say, “No, that’s not what happened.” Then that person tries to tell the story only to be interrupted by someone else, saying “that’s not how it happened” And that person tries to tell the story. And then the characters take their places and the play continues.

Brilliant.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play about confusion and mistaken identity—Puck puts the magic potion in the eye of the wrong Athenian for example. What better way to deepen that idea than with a bit of adaptation in which the characters can’t agree on how the story really happened or what it’s really about?

OK I know I was less than accommodating  when director Chris Abraham had writer Zack Russell add whole scenes to the Groundling Theatre and Crow’s Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar to establish his thesis about the play. In that case I thought the play did that on its own. In the case of Theatre Rusticle’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream the company has its own particular style of re-imagining established plays and stories while still being true to the spirit of the play and these adapted scenes fulfil the company’s mandate.

Director Allyson McMackon has created a production that is popping with energy. Of all the productions that I’ve seen of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I have never seen a forest (where it takes place) so teeming with buoyant, fearless life, sex, danger, darkness,  animals, insects, people, frenzied confusion, jealousy and love.

Hermia (Annie Tuma) and Lysander (Matthew Finlan) race through the forest on their way to his aunt’s house, to escape her father’s wrath and the demand that she marry Demetrius (Alexandra Montagnes). They get discombobulated in the forest. It’s night. Michelle Ramsay’s lighting is moody and striking.  Helena (Nick Eddie) is in love with Demetrius. Demetrius wants Hermia.  Hermia is in love with Lysander but her father wants her to marry Demetrius and if she says no then he wants her dead. (A bit harsh, that) Helena knows that Hermia and Lysander are escaping through the forest and tells Demetrius to make points with him, then they too go charging through the forest to catch them. The movement/action here is not just flitting from here to there. No, this is Allyson McMackon action. The actors run, flip, slide, and jump over and into each other. The images are striking. The text says that Helena is tall. Allyson McMackon, as director, and Nick Eddie as Helena go for the gusto by accentuating that. Nick Eddie is over six feet tall and the other actors are shorter. The image of the gangly, ‘cloud-touching’ Helena next to the other characters (and certainly Hermia) who are ‘diminutive’ in comparison is a wonderful sight, which is the point.  

In the meantime Oberon (Kwaku Okyere), King of the Fairies, wants his Fairie Queen Titania (Richard Lee) to give him “a little changeling boy” of whom she is protective. She won’t. He then uses trickery to steal the changeling boy from her. As Oberon, Kwaku Okyere moves stealthily close to the ground. He is almost cat-like or even lizard-like. The movements are fluid, muscular, graceful and balletic. He wears black tights and a form-fitting top that accentuates the muscularity of the character. Okyere, quiet voiced, conveys Oberon’s seductiveness, dangerousness and command.

As Titania, Richard Lee is also dressed in black—black flowing light cape and tights (kudos to costume designer, Brandon Kleiman). In this case the cape suggests wings so I get the sense that Titania is either a delicate flying insect or perhaps even a bird. But there is nothing delicate about Lee’s playing of Titania. While Oberon is close to the ground in his movements, Titania is upright, giving the sense she is in the air. Titania matches Oberon’s strength with her own determined resolve. They are a perfect match.   

Puck is often played as an impish, playful spirit. Here Richard Alan Campbell plays him as a bit muddled, confused and not exactly swift of movement. That could better explain his confusion in putting the magical flower liquid in the eye of the wrong Athenian. What a refreshing rethinking of this character.

McMackon keeps the pace at break-neck speed. Simon Fon works his magic by creating such high-stakes fights. All this passionate, frantic movement and activity leaves everybody breathless, including the audience. Make sure you know where the defibrillator is in the theatre.

Comment. This is the last production of Theatre Rusticle after which founder-artistic director, Allyson McMackon closes it down. She founded the company in 1998 and produced some of the most provocative productions over that time and she’s tired. I can appreciate that but it’s heartbreaking that this kind of consistent challenging, bracing theatre from this company will stop.   The artistic world is changing and she is going on to other challenges. She will still teach, direct etc.  And boy did she go out with a bang. The run is sold out but returns are possible. Do anything within reason to get a ticket.

In an effort to go green the programme etc. is on line. There is no hard copy of the  programme of the show. This is unfortunate. I so wanted a memento of this last Theatre Rusticle show to put in my drawer with all my other treasures. Thanks for everything, Allyson, especially all those times you made me gasp at some clever direction, or an image or an illuminated thought. Wonderful theatre does that.

Theatre Rusticle presents:

Began: Jan. 14, 2020.

Closes: Jan. 26, 2020.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, approx.

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Review: SWEAT

by Lynn on January 19, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Lynn Nottage

Directed by David Storch

Set by Ken Mackenzie

Costumes by Anna Treusch

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Music and sound by Samuel Scott

Projections by Cameron Davis

Fight director, Casey Hudecki

Cast: Christopher Allen

Jhonattan Ardila

Peter N. Bailey

Timothy Dowler-Coltman

Kelli Fox

Allegra Fulton

Ron Lea

Ordena Stephens-Thompson

Maurice Dean Wint

A frightening and timely play that illuminates the harsh reality of factory work that pits friend against friend and colleague against colleague. Beautifully directed and acted.

The Story.  Sweat is written by American writer Lynn Nottage. It takes place in New Jersey. It’s about three friends: Tracey, Cynthia and Jessie and others who work in a factory  and who frequent Stan`s bar after their shifts. An admin job opportunity opens up and Cynthia decides to go for it and move up the ladder. Then Tracey also applies. Tracey has two more years experience. Cynthia gets the job and Tracey is furious. Because Cynthia is African-American Sweat is not only a play about the financial upheaval in America it’s also about the divide between races; how the desperation for the job can pit one person against the other; how much one sacrifices for a job and what will she fight for.

The Production. The first scene takes place in 2008 in a probation office. Evan (Maurice Dean Wint, calm, cool and commanding) the probation officer is reading the riot act to Jason (Timothy Dowler-Coltman) who has just gotten out of jail. Jason is almost quivering with rage, clenched fists and contorted face. He also has swastika tattoos on his face that makes him look more forbidding. Timothy Dowler-Coltman as Jason is relentless in his fury, perhaps almost too relentless, but put in context, just out of jail, jobless, angry, this makes sense.

Evan also talks separately to Chris (Christopher Allen), who is also out of jail. He and Jason were involved in a crime that put them both there. As Chris, Christopher Allen, is calmer, anxious and has given himself over to religion. He is consumed with the jail experience but strives to do better. Jason just seems overwhelmed by it and rage is all that is left.

Most of the play takes place in Stan’s bar in 2000. The dates are projected above the bar.  Ken Mackenzie has designed a long, well-stocked bar with stools at the bar and round tables around the space. When the scenes change from 2008 back to 2000 where the story begins, various video segments of what has happened that year in America are flashed on the panels at the back of the set.

Tracey, as played by Kelli Fox, is loud, boisterous, a drinker of ‘doubles’ and sensitive to any slight. She is Jason’s mother. Cynthia, as played by Ordena Stephens-Thompson, is calmer than the extroverted Tracey. Cynthia is Chris’ mother.

While Tracey has two years more experience in the factory on the line than Cynthia, it’s Cynthia who gets the promotion. One can see why when they learn the plant is shipping their jobs to Mexico because of cheaper labour. Cynthia is calmer, more diplomatic and goes to the wall for her friends. Tracey, as Kelli Fox plays her, is more hot-headed, volatile and that gets in the way of leadership. It’s a performance in which I can see how that hot-headeness can be passed on to her raging son. Similarly, as Cynthia is trying to hold on so is her son Chris.

When matters break down between Tracey and Cynthia it’s hinted that Cynthia got the job because she is black. Ordena Stephens-Thompson (as Cynthia) laments that idea and says to Tracey something like, “Don’s make it be about this” as she quickly strokes her arm, meaning don’t let it be about skin colour. It is a gesture that is both beautiful and heartbreaking. Cynthia wonders if in fact she got the manager’s job to be a scapegoat. It’s a fascinating question among others.

Allegra Fulton plays Jessie, the third friend in this group. Jessie is always so drunk she is almost passed out.  In one scene Allegra Fulton raised her head from the table and sat straight, the head bobbing slightly, a slight smile on her face, totally unfocused eyes, fuzzy-minded drunk. Stunning.

Oscar (a confident Jhonattan Ardila) is Stan’s helper in the bar. Oscar is from Colombia and is looked at with contempt by some of the customers. He works hard, cleaning tables, sweeping the floor etc. I thought director David Storch could have him working more, taking the initiative, drying, polishing, shining, unobtrusive. In one scene he just sat behind the bar—this was an opportunity to set up more of Oscar’s work ethic for what happens later in the production. This is a quibble. David Storch establishes the angst and uncertainty of these factory workers regarding their jobs. They are losing it emotionally when a strike looms. There is fighting among the friends and others. There is a fight—one of the best I’ve ever seen in this instance so bravo Casey Hudecki, the fight director—and that lands Chris and Jason in jail.

This is a production of a play that encapsulates the economic upheaval in the States and here as well.  David Storch carefully establishes the ramped up emotion of the piece.

Comment. Lynn Nottage writes eloquently about friendships torn apart by economic hardships, racism, angry frustration and despair. It’s about people slogging for a living while up against a brutal economic system that doesn’t value people as much as making money at their expense. But she also writes of people who work hard, slowly get ahead and look out for those less fortunate. A play about a hopeless situation that ends in hope.

Produced by Canadian Stage and Studio 180 Theatre

Opened: Jan. 16, 2020.

Closes: Feb. 2, 2020.

Running Time: 150 minutes.

www.canadianstage.com

 

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At the Streetcar Crow’s Nest, Carlaw and Dundas, Toronto, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare

Additional writing by Zack Russell

Directed by Chris Abraham

Set and Lighting by Lorenzo Savoini

Costumes by Ming Wong

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Graham Abbey

Sarah Afful

Walter Borden

Ryan Cunningham

Michelle Giroux

Dion Johnstone

Jani Lauzon

Diego Matamoros

Jim Mezon

Moya O’Connell

André Sills

The production is explosive and bracing and of course Shakespeare’s play is of our times. Why then was there the need to add dialogue and a final scene?

The Story. Julius Caesar is about a successful general who leads his army to beat the enemy, Pompey, and comes home to great pomp and celebration. His generals however think Caesar is too ambitious hard-headed and unmanageable and want to get rid of him in a really ‘final’ way and bring reason back to Rome. One of the most honourable men of the upper echelon of the government is Brutus who has to be convinced to join the plot to kill Caesar. A soothsayer tells Caesar to beware the Ides of March (the 15th of March) because he knows what will happen that day.

The murder will happen in the Senate house, but first the plotters have to get Caesar there. Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife urges him not to go. (“Julie, don’t go!!” Sorry I couldn’t resist a little Wayne and Shuster…) He agrees but then the plotters come to fetch him to the Senate house and he doesn’t want to appear weak so he goes. It doesn’t end well.

This is a play about power and a fickle populous. The play is as timely as tomorrow’s headlines except it was written 400 years ago.

The Production. In the beginning of the play that Shakespeare wrote we find out how fickle the people of Rome were.  We learn from tribunes who are chastising the common folks, that these folks idolized Pompey at one time and waited to see his chariot pass with him in it.  But now that Caesar has defeated him in battle they switched allegiances and are dressed in their finest clothes to greet Caesar when he returns from battle.

It’s a telling scene but it’s cut in this production and replaced by additional dialogue by Zack Russell who has three radio commentators at microphones who tell us about the battle and the history of Pompey to put things in perspectives.

But there is a brilliant touch in Chris Abraham’s production. As we walk into the space in a far corner there is a balloon stick-man structure that has arms and a central section in which air is shot into it so this figure with arms flips and flops as the air is shot up it.

I thought that image of this structure weaving in the wind was a perfect metaphor for the fickleness of the people who play this way and that depending on how well they are manipulated to follow one person and then the other. The problem with the image and the metaphor is that one had to know the play and certainly the first scene in order to apply the image. I sure appreciated it.

Writer Zack Russell has included a scene with Coriolanus who talks about power and following his own path without interference (Coriolanus forgets that his mother had a pretty strong hold on him). In cheeky irony André Sills (wonderful actor) gives that speech here in Julius Caesar— André Sills played Coriolanus at Stratford two summers ago.

The production also has an added end scene in which the characters come back to life and discourse on how much they hated Julius Caesar and how he failed them and how it’s hard to educate the people. Caesar is played by a formidable Jim Mezon—bullet-headed, laser stare and knows how to block a person from leaving his presence. In the last scene, Mezon reacts with total stillness which makes him riveting and devastating when he utters the last two words—and no I won’t tell you what they are.

Dion Johnstone plays a conflicted Brutus, honourable, thoughtful, a thinker. In his scenes with the “lean and hungry” Cassius (a compelling Moya O’Connell) there is such urgency in the give and take of their speeches because the stakes are so high. Graham Abbey plays Mark Antony who speaks quietly, crisply and with keen intelligence.

At one point Mark Antony talks about information about himself from another play and he makes a comment about his people skills as a result that gets a laugh.  I think that’s going a long distance for a small joke. The women get short-changed in Julius Caesar. Calpurnia loves Caesar and always watches out for him. Sarah Afful invests Calpurnia with a firm spirit and determination. She almost saves Caesar from going to the Senate but ultimately fails. Portia, Brutus’ wife, beautifully played by Michelle Giroux seems almost frail and distraught over Brutus’ distraction and coldness to her. We get the sense from these wives of their isolation from their husbands.

At the end of the play, in the added scene, we are told who each of the resurrected  characters is complete with their dates of birth and death, as they rise from the dead.

I get a bit antsy when extra dialogue is introduced to the play. What point does it serve and why isn’t Shakespeare considered enough? Do these added scenes enhance the play, make it more accessible? Nope, not really.  I don’t think they are needed if one listens to the play Shakespeare wrote—ambition, reason, force, manipulation etc. it’s all there. With the added dialogue it seems to be Shakespeare that is underlined and italicized to accentuate the bits on which one wants to focus. Have faith. Of course we get it without the fussy help.

As for the rest of Chris Abraham’s production, it went like the wind in its ratcheted up pace. It’s a modern dress production. Everyone is dressed in stylish black—black pants, tops, coats etc. (bravo to Ming Wong for her design).

It’s a noisy production. In this production Caesar is shot and not stabbed. There is that foreboding storm complete with crashing thunder. There is the sound of bombs and gunfire in the distance as Brutus and company fight another battle. And there is a lot of shouting to be heard over all the noise.  A lot. That’s a shame. Here’s the thing, if there is a lot of shouting, from a lot of people, then they’ve lost the argument and the audience. We know that Mark Antony was a great orator. That doesn’t just mean he knew what to say. It also means he knew how to say it. In this production Graham Abbey as Mark Antony began the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speak by talking loudly into a microphone and continuing for a bit and then when he had the crowd didn’t use the mic but still raised his voice. A bit later he used the mic again. Antony would know how to get that mob’s attention quickly and then talk to them quietly—even a mob. I always think of the great William Hutt, brilliant actor, who knew that you don’t make the audience hear you as much as you make them listen to you. So when he found that the audience was getting restless, he just talked softer. Many other actors around him would bellow their lines to be heard and he just talked softer and all the programme rustling, candy-wrapper crinkling and whispering stopped. Brilliant. Enough with the shouting, please.

Comment. Director Chris Abraham says in his programme note that sure the play is about power, but he sees it more as an exploration of the limits of human will and reason.

“Reason, and our belief that we can use it as an all-powerful tool to govern our own actions, and the actions of others, is the premise under investigation at the heart of Julius Caesar.

So we hear about the manipulation of the people when Mark Antony tries to crown Caesar king and Caesar refuses the crown three times.  It’s all a performance to make Caesar seem less than ambitious. Love the politics of the play and the games playing. It’s about tyrants and so timely.

I had “royalty” at the opening. On the aisle over there was John Ralston Saul. Beside him was his lady-wife, Adrienne Clarkson. Beside her was Margaret Atwood who was tweeting during intermission. It was that kind of night.

Groundling Theatre Company and Crow’s Theatre present:

From: Jan. 7, 2020.

Closes: Feb. 2, 2020

Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes approx.

https://tickets.crowstheatre.com/TheatreManager

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