At the Streetcar Crowsnest Guloien Theatre, Carlaw and Dundas, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Sean Dixon
Directed by Vicki Anderson
Set and costumes by Joanna Yu
Lighting by Siobhan Sleath
Sound by John Gzowski
Cast: Shawn Doyle
Daniela Vlaskalic

A powerful play and production of waiting, longing and explosive emotion.

The Story. Natalie and Joe work for the city in the department that removes damaged trees. They are waiting for the crew and the rig that will help them take down a beautiful tree that Natalie says looks fine and Joe is sure is infested with termites. In the meantime they wait. They banter. They check their e-mails. They confide, confess, reveal their innermost thoughts. Joe is an awkward man with stereotypical ideas of women but seems sensitive to Natalie’s situation. Natalie is grieving the death of her mother with whom she did not have the closest relationship. Her late mother was a nurse. Natalie wears her mother’s stethoscope around her neck like a cherished necklace. Joe has pictures of his nephews and nieces on his phone. He is single and holds his family dear. Natalie seems to fancy Joe in her quiet way. Initially he seems oblivious but that changes.

The Production. It seems that the ubiquitous Joanna Yu has designed the set and costumes for almost all the show that have opened recently—an exaggeration of course, but boy has she been busy: The Millennial Malcontent, Sequence, The Circle, John and Waleed, James and the Giant Peach, Freedom Singer, Passing Strange, The Enchanted Loom, and that’s just some of them.

For The Orange Dot she has created a low stone wall/ledge that stands in front of the solid tree trunk (suggesting a larger, more majestic tree) that has to come down. An artful abstract tree house springs up from the top of the tree trunk.

Natalie arrives first. She looks at the tree destined for destruction and takes out her spray can of orange paint and sprays an orange dot on the tree signifying this is the one meant for chopping down. She takes out a banana from her lunch box and begins to munch away as she waits for Joe, who comes along, talking on his cell phone.

The echo of >Waiting for Godot is obvious in Sean Dixon’s play The Orange Dot. In Waiting for Godot there is a road. A tree. And two tramps who wait for someone named Godot to arrive, but never comes. In The Orange Dot Natalie and Joe—dressed in official workers’ coveralls and florescent coloured vests and markings– wait on the stone wall/ledge for the crew to arrive with the rig in order to cut down the tree. Rather than sprouting a leaf/leaves, the tree ‘sprouts’ a tree house. While a carrot is eaten in Waiting for Godot, Natalie enjoys a banana while waiting for Joe to arrive.

Natalie is enamoured of the majestic tree. Both she and Joe look up to take in the full expanse of the tree although what is on the stage is a smaller version, but with that stage business of looking way up (kudos to director Vicki Anderson) we realize the majesty and height of the tree. Natalie laments and questions that it has to be destroyed. Joe replies with kindness that it is probably infested with termites. Joe relaxes on the ledge of the wall by lying out; his head rests on his hard hat.

Natalie is not as relaxed. She is restless. She paces; seems unsettled—of course she is shaken by the death of her mother. But there is more. Emotions escalate between the two as Natalie is more and more agitated and Joe tries to understand where that is coming from. He calls her Nate which she resents. One senses she wants him to look at her as a woman and not just a overall-wearing colleague. It could be misplaced anger at the loss of her mother. But as the emotion of the scene increases and a torrent of dialogue pours out of Natalie there is a line that takes the breath away: “ I regret my life.” It’s a line that pierces the heart.

Director Vicki Anderson and her fine cast navigate the deep waters of Sean Dixon’s moving, compelling play of life, loss, beauty and regret with careful, fearless attention. As Natalie, Daniela Vlaskalic has the ungainly body-language of a person in stiff overalls, ready to do hard physical labour. But Vlasklic beautifully conveys the many conflicted emotions of Natalie, her uncertainty, her profound sadness and frustration in not knowing how to overcome her regret. Vlaskalic also holds our attention tight when Natalie’s emotions become so focused that they lead her down a frightening path. Shawn Doyle as Joe makes a welcome return to the stage after many years absence as he carved out a career in television and film. Joe is confident, moves with a bit of a swagger, but is not arrogant. He loves to banter with Natalie. They have a comfortable relationship. He is at odds as to how to really treat a woman, and she subtly challenges him about his attitude. It’s interesting to see how confident he is in himself but how she keeps him a bit unsteady, from how he treats her to her not wanting him to call her Nate, as if that denies her femininity. If I have a quibble, it’s that at times Doyle tends to mumble—it works for the character, but not so much for audibility.

Comment. While emotional sparks fly between Natalie and Joe, playwright Sean Dixon does not lead us into clichéd territory, but goes in a different way that is as startling as it is unexpected. Dixon is a thoughtful playwright who is intrigued by deep questions of character, morals, dealing with life’s hooks and curves. In The Orange Dot one ponders beauty, whether it’s a tree or something hiding deep in a character; a life of regret and how to deal with that and waiting. Well worth a visit.

Theatrefront presents:

Opened: March 17, 2017.
Closes: April 1, 2017.
Cast: 2; 1 man, 1 woman
Running Time: 90 minutes

www.theatrefront.com

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Review: A CITY

by Lynn on March 17, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

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

Written by Greg MacArthur
Directed by Jennifer Tarver
Set and costumes by Andjelija Djuric
Lighting by Rebecca Picherack
Sound by Lyon Smith
Cast: Cole J. Alvis
David Patrick Flemming
Justin Goodhand
Amy Keating

A play about memory, Montreal, friendship and truth, maybe, that is so intensely personal it seems almost as if it’s for a select few. It’s directed and acted with style and confidence.

The Story. The city in question is Montreal. Playwright Greg MacArthur had many of his plays produced in Toronto, where he used to live. But several years ago MacArthur moved to Montreal where he found himself in the middle of a vibrant theatre scene. He stayed for five years contributing plays to that scene. Over time he found his ideal world was crumbling so he decided to write a play about true events, authenticity and some of his cherished friends.

He had extended conversations with the members of the vibrant, edgy theatre group, Side Mart Theatrical Grocery, with the intention of wanting to capture what he found so intriguing about them. A City is in part about four of them: Graham, Andrew, Gemma and Paddy.

While MacArthur strives for authenticity, he uses a fabricated event to frame the play. The group revered a friend of theirs, a visual artist name Shia Labeouf—not his real name but I thought it hilarious the artist is named after a man more famous for his breakdowns and run ins with the law than his acting–anyway, Shia Labeouf comes to a Halloween party hosted by the four friends, dressed and painted all in gold as King Tut. He wanders off from the party and is found dead the next morning, in the park. If one is covered from head to toe in gold paint that’ll kill him.

The four friends then recount their memories of Shia among others, their meeting each other, vague references to their shows, a camping trip, drinking and getting drunk, living in that city, bonding, and even scientific proof of the existence of the soul.

The Production. Andjelija Djuric has designed a set in which the playing area is inside and around a square that is illuminated by four florescent bulbs elevated a bit off the floor. There is an opening in one section as if it’s a door well.

It’s directed with heightened style and a keen sense of detail by Jennifer Tarver. Amy Keating as Gemma is our narrator of sorts—funny, perceptive, focused. She addresses the audience looking us straight in the eye—it’s a small room and the lighting is such that one can see faces clearly– She assures us that everything we will hear is true. Occasionally she is challenged by a character named Graham who whips out a microphone from the inside of his jacket. The microphone is used on several occasions, heightening the theatricality of the production, but I had to wonder why the microphone is used at all. It’s not as if any character is inaudible. Unless it’s just a theatrical conceipt.

Tarver and Susanna Hood, the movement coach, have created extensive choreographed movement—the cast of four go to the corners of the illuminated square crossing in mid-square; crossing back, always in each others lives but not in their way. They ponder and watch each other. And they listen.

What is beautifully realized in the jump-cutting dialogue between the four and Tarver’s close attention to the pace of it, is that these four people are close friends; they anticipate what the other will say; they finish their sentences; they challenge without rancour or edge, except for the prickly Graham played by a playful David Patrick Flemming. They all have their own quirky charm and they all work as a cohesive whole. No one grandstands but all have their moments. Andrew is the dashing jet setter it seems—played with boyish charm by Justin Goodhand. Paddy is quixotic—played by Cole J. Alvis with a fascinating hair cut. More than anything that friendship is the centre of the play—our focus.

Comment. Greg MacArthur writes in such a personal way it almost seems that A City is for the select few who were there and would recognize the references and not necessarily the audience at large. MacArthur adores Montreal but except for a few street name references his adoration does not come out of the writing. We certainly get the wit and brains of those four friends but not a larger sense of who they are in that theatrical community. They reference their shows. Surely we should have a larger sense of these people in terms of their theatrical lives and not just the world of their easy friendship? Is their larger world of theatre the thing that adds to that friendship?

Also, I know the work of Side Mart Theatrical Grocery. They are a terrific theatre company. I’ve seen Graham Cuthbertson (Graham) Andrew Shaver, (Andrew) Gemma James Smith (Gemma) and Paddy Costello (Paddy) in various shows. Dazzling work. But A City seems like it works best if you know all this already and that seems a cheat, if not insider information needed to make this work deeper. Without context of who these people are one might wonder, why am I in the room listening to their quick discourse?

The friendships seem solid but then they part quickly—again, with little reason or something to hold on to. A City is an odd piece. Terrific cast and production though.

Necessary Angel Presents:

Opened: March 16, 2017.
Closes: April 2, 2017.
Cast: 4; 3 men, 1 woman.
Running Time: 65 minutes.

www.necessaryangel.com

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At the Tarragon Theatre, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Erin Shields
Directed by Peter Hinton
Set and costumes by Joanna Yu
Lighting by Jennifer Lennon
Sound by Lyon Smith
Projections by Howard Davis
Cast: Frank Cox-O’Connell
James Daly
Rong Fu
Natasha Mumba
Liz Peterson
Alicia Richardson
Amelia Sargisson
Reza Sholeh

A bold effort by the gifted Erin Shields to write a modern take on the 1697 Restoration Comedy, The Provoked Wife, and centre it around self-absorbed millennials for the most part. Alas it doesn’t work.

The Story. Moxy (Liz Peterson) is angry, frustrated and bored in her one year marriage to Johnny (Reza Sholeh). He is kind, attentive, perhaps obsessively so, and wants to discuss his/her feelings at every turn. She just wants to go wild. She can’t even remember why she married him. In the meantime Johnny has come to the end of his rope trying to understand Moxy and begins to ponder having an affair with a woman named Faith (Rong Fu) who likes Johnny from afar.

This being an observation of the millennial age there is a self-absorbed YouTube star named Charm (Frank Cox-O’Connell). There is Mimi (Amelia Sargisson), Charm’s loving cousin from Quebec; Heartfree (James Daly) a music blogger and close friend of Johnny; Teasel (Natasha Mumba) a lesbian party-girl and friend of Moxy; and Raz (Alicia Richardson) a PHD student. They are all connected at one point or another.

The Production. Joanna Yu has created a simple but effective set. There is a sofa stage right with a table in front of it. Another unit stage left. On the two side walls are framed creations that look like live vibrant flowers. Occasionally Howard Davis’s projections add another dimension to the space and the scene.

Director Peter Hinton’s production is spare and stylish. While the play is about millennials and all their self-absorption and desperation to be hip, cool and with it, Hinton does not fall into the cliché of having them always on their cell phones (though there is one scene in the gloom with their faces illuminated as they hold their cell phones) or constantly tapping on their computers etc. Charm is the exception since he lives for producing product for his YouTube site. Charm is played with exuberant overkill by Frank Cox-O’Connell. He is flamboyant in a pair of tight briefs and little else in which it looks like a week’s worth of laundry is packed into the front of those ‘smalls.’

As Moxy—a wonderfully prophetic name since she has guts and smarts, in other words, moxy—Liz Peterson is world-weary, bored, a bit pushy with her husband and frustrated. More than anything she reminded me of an in-control Hedda Gabler, bored with her wimp husband and desperate to get out. Unlike Hedda Moxy could get out. Natasha Mumba is a fierce Teasel, an in your face party-girl who takes no prisoners. She comes on to whomever she wants with equal vigour. It’s a bold performance.

Interestingly there is a sweet scene of bonding but not with the women, but with Johnny and Heartfree, as Reza Sholeh and James Daly respectively sit side by side on the couch commiserating about their lot in life and how to climb out of their funk. It’s gentle, sweet and wholly credible.

While all concerned are well intentioned, Erin Shields’ script is the problem.

Comment. As I said Erin Shields is a gifted playwright. She has a vibrant imagination and her plays show depth of thought and feelings as well as a keen sense of language. Her intension initially was to write a modern Restoration comedy using The Provoked Wife (1697 written by John Vanbrugh) as the model. In it an abused wife wants escape by running off with friends for some wild times. As Shields says in her program note, the more she wrote the further away from the original model she got.

What we have now are self-absorbed, ‘me-first’ people disappointing others, or people pining for attention and affection from abusive people. I found most of these characters devoid of any reason to care about them. Their dialogue is often laboured and pretentious and I don’t believe any of them would really come up with such phraseology; dwelling on irony and sarcasm. I think Erin Shields tries too hard to make them impressive. If anything I found them depressive. I consider The Millennial Malcontent to be a blip in Erin Shields’ impressive journey as a playwright.

Presented by Tarragon Theatre.

Opened: March 8, 2017.
I saw it: March 14, 2017.
Cast: 8; 3 men, 5 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

www.tarragontheater.com

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At a pop-up theatre at 270 King St. West at Duncan, Toronto. Ont.

Written by Aaron Posner
Sort of adapted from The Seagull by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Vinetta Strombergs
Set and lighting by Steve Lucas
Costumes by Christine Urquhart
Cast: Rachel Cairns
Richard Greenblatt
Brendan Hobin
Karen Knox
Craig Lauzon
Daniel Maslany
Sarah Orenstein

A wonderfully stylish production thanks to director Vinetta Strombergs and her dandy cast, of this impish, thoughtful and moving adaptation by Aaron Posner of Chekhov’s play.

The Story. You don’t need to know Chekhov’s play closely to appreciate Aaron Posner’s smart, witty, perceptive, impish, moving play. Unrequited love pretty well sums it up with a few words about art, theatre, pretentious theatre, and the next new thing. Conrad is a would-be-playwright who loves Nina, who wants to be an actress. Nine loves Conrad until she sees Trigorin, a successful writer, whereupon she is smitten and so is Trigorin for a little while. Trigorin is the companion of Emma Arkadina, a successful actress. She is possessively passionate for Trigorin and God help anyone who gets in her way, even Trigorin. Mash loves Conrad but he only has eyes for Nina. Dev loves Mash but she barely tolerates him. Mash plays the ukulele. How sad is that! And Dr. Eugene Sorn, Emma’s brother and a doctor, looks on all this with wistfulness, a touch of melancholy, but generally good spirits and a kind heart. Got all that? And it’s a comedy.

The Production. The production takes place in a spacious pop-up theatre that used to be a golf store. There are four acts that take place in various parts of the site. Director Vinetta Strombergs directs the acts with a clear idea of how to best serve the audience. There are several pillars in the site and negotiating the audience to see properly is an added extra with this space.

The audience sits in rolling office chairs which they take from location to location in the play. Photos of interesting vistas are on the walls. It is definitely set in the present day. The set by Steve Lucas is stylish and ultra modern. The first scene is by the lake of Emma’s family estate. The audience sits around a wood platform/stage ready to watch Conrad’s play. Emma and her entourage sit in front of the audience as if they are part of it.

Another scene takes place in the kitchen late at night where characters meet, sometimes furtively, sometimes by accident. There is a large table, a counter and a fridge that gets a lot of action. People are getting drinks, making drinks, boiling a kettle to make what I think is a hot toddy. Strombergs uses the space so well and imaginatively. No prop is there for its own sake. It’s used, incorporated into the action. Smart. Strombergs also directs her cast to ring every shred of torn emotion from the situation. The floor is practically dripping with each character’s ennui as they pine hopelessly for the one they love but doesn’t return it. However we don’t feel rung out in sympathy—that’s not Chekhov or Posner. At times you want to yell, “Get a grip and get on with it.”

Sarah Orenstein, as Emma Arkadina, has seen it all, got through it and now thinks most of it is boring, certainly her pretentious son. They wrangle. Emma lets Conrad have it regarding his insecurity, his condescension of her and for his incomprehensible play. Daniel Maslany as Conrad, gives as good as he gets, but he is outmatched by his mother. He flings insults, well articulated to be sure, but you just see a young man desperate to make his way on his own, but being put down by his mother. When Emma has it out with Trigorin about leaving her, Orenstein is blazing and formidable.

I’m not sure why Craig Lauzon plays Trigorin so that he looks like a biker, with his head fully covered in a bandana, wearing jeans, boots a leather vest and a t-shirt. That seems an odd choice. Rachel Cairns as Masha is beautifully morose, quick witted, and even sweet in her desperate love for Conrad. Karen Knox is not demure as Nina, but a seductive, yet charming woman who is smart and knows how to go after what she wants, until she comes up against Emma Arkadina.

Richard Greenblatt as Dr. Eugene Sorn hides his doubts about the purpose of life well. He comments with kindness. He sees past the emotion of a character to the heart of their being. Brendan Hobin plays Dev as a quiet yet eager young man who will do anything to win Mash’s love. He doesn’t pine as the others do, but he is tenacious in his devotion to Mash.

While Chekhov’s play looks at the emotional goings on and angst of his characters, he does it with humour. These people are funny. But Posner and certainly Strombergs direction, brings out the gut twisting sadness as each character tries to win their hearts’ desire. It’s still funny.

In a couple of instances, Conrad comes to a cross-roads and doesn’t know what to do so he asks the audience for advice. Daniel Maslany as Conrad is very serious in wanting the advice, he’s also very quick-witted when dealing with the give and take with the audience which makes it hilarious. It’s particularly funny if you know the play, because Conrad does exactly what Chekhov says he does, so never mind the audience’s suggestions. Interestingly, in my audience no one suggested Conrad do what Chekhov said he should do. No matter. It is still funny.

Comment. Aaron Posner has written a very funny take on Chekhov’s The Seagull, and put his own spin on it. The result is fresh, lively, perceptive about the human heart, in tune with today’s world, and beautifully moving.

The Bird Collective Presents:

From: Feb. 28, 2017.
Saw it: March 4, 2017.
Closes: March 19, 2017.
Cast: 7; 4 men, 3 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes approx.

www.mirvish.com

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l-r Kim Nelson, Deborah Drakeford (photo: Yuri Dojc)

At the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, Toronto, Ont.

Adapted and directed by Adam Seelig
From the Ontario Provincial Police Transcripts of the interview of Detective Jim Smyth with Colonel Russell Williams and his connection to crimes (rape, murder, breaking and entering) in the Belleville, Ottawa area.
Set and costumes by Jackie Chau
Lighting by Laird Macdonald
Sound by Tyler Emond
Cast: Deborah Drakeford
Kim Nelson
Drums by Lynette Gillis

Devastating, gripping compelling theatre acted and directed beautifully. What theatre is for—to inform, instruct and to hold a mirror up to show us who and what we are, good and bad.

The Story. On February 7, 2010, Detective Jim Smyth of the Ontario Provincial Police interviewed Colonel Russell Williams about his involvement in multiple crimes including two rape-murders, two other rapes, breaking and entering that occurred in the Belleville and Ottawa areas. The interview lasted about four and a half hours. Williams’ confession and details about the crimes lasted several more hours. For the purposes of the theatre, Adam Seelig, the director of the piece has adapted the transcripts into a 90 minute verbatim production. The words, including the stammers, unintelligible words and pauses, are all included.

The Production. Jackie Chau’s set is impressive. In front of the back wall is a drum set for Lynette Gillis who will add drum riffs at strategic points in the production. In front of that is a mound of earth perhaps suggesting a grave. The walls of the set are painted in such a way as to create a sense of perspective. A section of mirrored glass is on either wall. There are two utility chairs on either side of the set. The script is on either chair (and I believe on a stand at the back for Lynette Gillis). A pair of military boots are neatly placed downstage along with a military hat and a folded military jacket. There are two standing microphones on either side of the stage.

When the production begins Lynette Gillis sits behind her drums. Deborah Drakeford and Kim Nelson enter and give us the background. Yes, women will be playing the parts of Jim Smyth and Colonel Russell Williams. When the performance begins it becomes clear that both actresses will also be playing both parts at one time or another in the performance. Their body language is clear when each is playing Smyth or Williams.

Drakeford holds up the spiral-bound script indicating the official seal of the Ontario Provincial Police at the top of the page. This confirms the actual verbatim text we are about to hear. When there are components of the text that the police did not want anyone to read or hear that section is blacked out on the page, redacted. Those redacted parts are indicated in the performance by Lynette Gillis who drums during those sections. If the redacted section is short, a musical cue is played. Initially the drumming for a redacted section is rhythmic. One is almost tempted to tap one’s toe to the rhythm. But as the production progresses and redacted parts become longer, the drumming is aggressive, cacophonous, not as rhythmic but very precise in suggesting anger and aggression. It’s as if the drumming is projecting the audiences’ feelings perhaps. That drumming becomes another character; the stuff not said.

While the actresses hold the scripts for the most part, this is not a strictly read performance. The work has been memorized except in a few cases. The interrogation begins with Deborah Drakeford playing Smyth and Kim Nelson playing Williams. There are pleasantries, an offer of coffee and Smyth commenting that he would treat Williams with respect and expected that the treatment would be returned. Nelson sits in the chair, legs spread like a ‘typical guy.’ Her replies are short, unemotional and almost always given without hesitation. There is confidence here, but not arrogance. There is no attitude. Drakeford quietly walks around Williams’ chair asking the questions, full of curiosity, interest. When the information the OPP has that puts Williams at the site of one of the crimes is slowly revealed, Nelson replies without fear but her eyes reveal a bit of concern.

The sections describing heinous crimes are read simultaneously by both actresses in as cool a manner as can be. The words do the talking and communicating without imposing emotion.

Director Adam Seelig has directed this with sensitivity and restraint. The staging captures the meticulous detail in Smyth’s careful interrogation of Williams—slowly pacing behind him when he was questioning Williams. Williams in turn replying as an accomplished military man, meticulous in his planning as well. It’s a cat and mouse game by two accomplished players. Seelig brings all that out while being mindful of the unsettling details of the story.

In the end, both actresses walk upstage; acknowledge their drumming colleague; turn to the audience, put their hands over their hearts and leave to total silence. I can’t recall such total silence at performance as my audience for this one. Not a cough, not a rustle of a program, not a fidget in the seat. Total silence. And there was no applause when the lights came up. Shattering.

Comment. The production started out entitled: Smyth/Williams and close to the first performance the title was changed to S–/W– with the rest of the names of Smyth Williams whited out. Whatever it’s called, it’s a compelling, chilling, unsettling piece of theatre about heinous crimes to women done by a man.

From the statement in the program: “… we urgently feel that, as citizens and artists, it is our responsibility to bear witness to these atrocities, never allowing them to be forgotten, and identifying them as part of a nation-wide epidemic of sexual assaults targeting women and girls. With S–/W—we are confronting the attitudes and norms that enable such violence. “

The intention is noble and important. By using only the words of the interrogation and confession we get some sense of how a decorated and accomplished man such as Russell Williams could do such horrible crimes. We get an equally good idea of the meticulous planning for the interrogation that Detective Smyth used to catch Williams and made him confess.

But the choice of doing this show has been met with angry protest on Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media. A woman who was a childhood friend of one of the murdered women was interviewed on CBC radio saying she felt the victims were being exploited by this production and that she didn’t think it was art. She had never actually seen the production but was voicing her negative opinion of it nonetheless.

On opening night some protesters were invited into the theatre lobby (it was cold outside and the house management of Theatre Passe Muraille are kind) to hand out a sheet of explanation for their concerns about the play. This was peaceful too.

The sheet of explanation though well intentioned in respecting the memories of the dead women and those others Williams abused, believes that the play is being disrespectful to Williams’ victims. It is not. I’ve actually seen the play. The play is doing what it intends to do: “…confronting the attitudes and norms that enable violence.”

The sheet chastises One Little Goat for not asking for consent of the victims and their families to use the words from the trial for the play. The words used in the play are in the public domain. I read the details of the case in the newspapers and the information was more harrowing, if it’s to be believed, than in the play.

Obviously this is a very sensitive subject—a play wants to illuminate the harrowing details of a recent sensational case of rape, murder and other crimes, in order to bring attention to the crisis women and girls experience every day. You can’t condemn a play unless you’ve actually seen the play or read what’s included in it.

S–/W—is a shattering, unsettling, vital, important piece of theatre done with respect and sensitivity and it should be seen.

One Little Goat presents:

Opened: March 3, 2017.
Closed: March 12, 2017.
Cast: 3 women
Running Time: 90 minutes

Tickets: 416-504-7529

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(l-r) Julie Tepperman, Jonas Widdifield

At Dirty Talk, 167 Augusta Ave. Toronto, Ont.

Written by Philip Ridley
Directed by John Shooter
Set by Victoria Ius
Lighting by Davida Tkach
Sound by Tim Lindsay
Costumes by Molly Marmaduke
Cast: Marium Carvell
Julie Tepperman
Jonas Widdifield.

Radiant Vermin is Philip Ridley’s first comedy but it is full of his macabre focus on the foibles that make us human but not necessarily good humans.

The Story. Jill and Ollie, young parents of a baby boy, tell us the mysterious way they came to have a dream home and how they renovated it. They were chosen by a mysterious woman named Miss Dee to be given the house with the responsibility to renovate and pay all the bills. It needs extensive renovations. Ollie is sceptical but Jill is eager to have the house and renovate. Jill knows just how to decorate each room—she wants the kitchen for example to look like the model kitchen in Selfridges—the London department store. Jill and Ollie learn it’s easier than they thought.

In their first night in the house Jill and Ollie are disturbed by noises in the kitchen. Ollie goes to investigate; finds a homeless man in his kitchen; gets into a tussle and kills him. Both he and Jill are mortified at what happened but then realize that the kitchen has transformed into their perfect kitchen—the one they saw it in Selfridges. They begin to put clues together and realize that killing homeless people gets a room renovated like magic, and so it begins. Jill and Ollie develop an insatiable need for more. As a line in the play says, “enough is never enough.”

The point of it all is that Jill and Ollie will be responsible for improving their house which will attract buyers for the other houses on their small street. Property values will go up. Everybody wins. But with their insatiable thirst for more, Jill and Ollie are always on the lookout for more homeless people even if they have to lure them to their home. But there is that niggling problem of murder, and how a person’s character is affected when the rules aren’t followed and how a person can talk themselves out of guilt if there is something else more intoxicating, such as acquiring stuff.

The Production. How does one present such a quirky, dark play? If you are John Shooter, the director, you find a funky place to do the play. In this case it’s Dirty Talk a kind of art gallery space in a basement on Augusta Ave. in Kensington Market.

We are greeted with a tray of glasses of fruit punch complete with festive umbrellas and small boxes of Smarties. In Victoria Ius’s set design a neon sign saying DREAM HOMES flashes over the entrance to the performance space. Inside the walls are covered with yellow “caution” tape suggesting whatever we are to be cautious about is dangerous somehow. Brown paper is behind that. There is a heavy plastic opaque curtain across the room.

When the performance is about to begin the curtain is drawn aside and a long white room dazzles into sight at the end of which is the façade of white, neat-looking house.

The cast is directed to assume a sense of heightened artifice to present this. The dialogue of the three actors comes out almost without inflection, like a torrent of words and instructions to each other but with few details of a personality other than bubbly. Ollie is played by Jonas Widdifield with a head of wild hair, a sense of urgency that keeps getting ramped up, and a sense that his world is unravelling quickly. Julie Tepperman plays Jill with wide-eyed innocence but will not give in to stopping buying everything she wants. Jill wants more of everything she has now. She’s never satisfied. As matters go off the rails both Widdifield and Tepperman sound frantic and the urgency gets more and more frenzied.

Marium Carver is a commanding Miss Dee who can manipulate anyone into thinking what she wants them to thing. When she tells them news they don’t want to hear Carver gives it with a smile and offhanded way of looking at things. It’s not quite a putt down but it does have its own force.

Comment. Philip Ridley is a British playwright with a dark sense of humour, an eye for the macabre, who focuses on the outsider or the marginalized. In Pitchfork Disney he wrote of a brother and sister traumatised by life, self-imprisoned in their hole of an apartment and afraid of the world. In Karagula he created a dystopian world. In Radiant Vermin Ridley writes about homelessness, greed, consumerism. I think he’s certainly making a statement of how people consider the homeless—vermin. The play reveals why they are radiant. Ridley is an unsettling playwright. I love his quirky perception and focus.

The play certainly isn’t for everyone. But I would recommend it to anyone who likes their theatre with bite and a challenge. To give you an idea….. Last year John Shooter produced a play called Pitchfork Disney and there was a character in it wearing full leather with a leather covering over his head and face, with holes for his eyes, nose and mouth. He would not be out of place at an S and M party.

Fast forward to the opening night of Radiant Vermin. I was waiting in the ‘lobby’ of the place when a tall man came in with his head completely covered in a black mask with only holes for his eyes, nose and mouth. His jeans had neat rips in them. He went into the theatre and came out a little while later and left. I thought this guy was in the play. I didn’t flinch. He was the landlord.

Radiant Vermin is for people who won’t flinch when they see a guy with his head and face covered by a black mask.

Precisely Peter Productions Presents:

Opening: March 2, 2017.
Closes: March 19, 2017.
Cast: 3; 1 man, 2 woman.
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

www.brownpapertickets.com

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At the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Artistic Director and Co-director, Jeannot Painchaud
Co-director and Choreographer, Dave St.-Pierre
Set design, Illustrator and Video Projections Co-designer by Robert Massicotte
Composed by Stéfan Boucher
Costumes by Liz Vandal
Lighting by Nicolas Descôteaux
Video projections and co-designer, Rénald Laurin
Cast: Colin André –Hériaud
Selene Ballesteros—Minguer
Pauline Baud-Guillard
Aaron DeWitt
Jonathan Julien
Fédéric Lemieux-Cormier
Alexie Maheu
Jérémie Robert
Jérémy Vitupier
Antonin Wicky
Nora Zoller

Cirque Éloize creates Cirkopolis as a circus show with a beguiling twist. It’s full of wit, humour, grace and invention. It’s a bit repetitive which makes it seem too long, but that’s a quibble.

This is not the big, glitzy, garish world of Cirque de Soleil with a tacked on story. Cirque Éloize has the requisite tumbling, juggling, the impossible contortions, rope climbing, trapeze stuff etc. but with a difference.

We are in the soul-crushing world of a big city that frowns on individuality; in which the work is mindless and so repetitive you could lose your mind. Projections of huge turning gears overpowers people. Men (and some women) in the same coloured overcoat, wearing the same coloured hat bring in piles of paper for another man to stamp and put into another pile. The pace quickens. The piles of paper increase.

The colour scheme is dull until a man takes off the overcoat of another person revealing a lithe woman in a flowing red dress and loose blonde hair. A large hoop is rolled out from the wings. The woman twirls it; spreads out inside it while making it revolve in various patterns over the stage. The movement at times is languid and flowing and other times fast and not quite furious. At all times the visual is one of gracefulness, elegance and artfulness. At the end of the routine the woman delicately propels the hoop to circle the stage. The woman lies on the floor, positioning herself in such as way that she is in the middle of the hoop as its circling path gets smaller and smaller and finally drops around her. The large projection of the city and its gears move forward and out of view. Stunning image.

Soon after this is a variation on the theme of working with a similarly large hoop only this one is a double hoop joined by spokes. It’s a substantial piece of equipment and worked by a beefy (male) group of gymnast in grey undershirts and pants. They flip through, revolve inside, jump from spoke to spoke all the while moving with the rolling double hoop. The work is dextrous, energetic, and seemingly requiring lots of muscle.

While Cirque Éloize has the components of a regular circus, they do them with a twist in Cirkopolis. The grinding office motif enters into the scene with juggling. A team of office workers juggle bowling pins to their colleagues while sliding on chairs, standing on a table, racing from one area to the other. Bowling pins wiz through the air and are caught and thrown with the greatest of ease.Their individuality comes out in the colour of the costumes and their circus acumen.

Ballet is incorporated along with eye-popping feats of balancing when five men toss, catch and flip a graceful woman in a maroon dress. They throw her in the air and catch her by the legs that spread into very low splits. The first time that happens the audience gasps. The second and third time it happens the audience cross their legs in “projected sympathy.” The woman is held aloft by the men who are on their backs on the floor, arms up, in a circle. She walks gracefully from one hand to the other until she has made a circle. What is most astonishing in this feat, besides her ease and poise and their strength, is their sensitivity and tenderness as one hand passes her off to the next hand or how they catch and pass her to the next man for another trick. At the end the men quickly leave the stage for her to come forward and take her single bow. Classy. (sorry not to name the artists, the program is not helpful in being specific as to who does what.)

Interspersed with these feats of athletic prowess are scenes that go back to the drudgery of mindless, repetitive work in an overpowering city but it’s all done with impish humour. There is a lot of winking at the audience with this heart-thumping show.

If I have a quibble it’s that too often various feats are similar. A man balancing and flipping on a contraption as he’s suspended in the air echoes three women doing trapeze work later in the show. Two performers climbing a pole, doing all manner of gymnastic wizardry, sliding down it and stopping just before crashing into the floor, echoes a woman who climbs up a rope and for all intents and purposes does the same thing only solo with lots of rope flipping. It becomes just a touch tedious as the evening progresses and makes the 90 minutes of the show lag.

Perhaps it was opening night glitches but it seemed that in two cases when the stars of a feat came forward for their bows they did it in gloom and not a proper spotlight.

That said, Cirkopolis is a bold show of gymnastic, circus excellence, full of artistry, humour and human dazzle.

Canadian Stage and the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts Present:

Opened: March 1, 2017.
Closes: March 18, 2017.
Cast: 11 talented men and women.
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

www.canadianstage.com

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At the Streetcar Crowsnest Scotiabank Community Studio, 345 Carlaw Ave., Toronto. Ont.

Written at directed by Anton Piatigorsky
Set and costumes by Shannon Lea Doyle
Composer and sound designed by Richard Feren
Lighting by Kaileigh Krysztofiak
Cast: Kyle Gatehouse
Julia Krauss

Breath In Between is a play about relationships that are truly tested. The production is interesting.

The Story. I defer to the press release when I’m not sure what a play is about: Breath In Between is “A surreal love story about Roger, the murder of two willing victims who respond to his ad on a website, and Amy, a young woman that Roger meets soon afterwards in a bar.

Breath In Between is a highly theatrical, mysterious meditation on radical intimacy, on the bliss of connection and the agony of isolation, on the ways in which people possess each other and struggle to bridge the gaps between them.”

The Production. The set by Shannon Lea Doyle is simple and very spare. A table and some stools are shifted to suggest various scenes. Roger and Amy meet in a bar and strike up a conversation. He’s poetic and low key. She’s subtly more aggressive. They develop an intimate relationship over time.

They role play—assuming the persona of the two strangers who saw Roger’s ad to kill anyone who wanted to die. When Roger and Amy become the two strangers they wear clear masks over their faces, held in place by an elastic band that fits over the back of the head. It’s an interesting dynamic between Roger and Amy who are intimate lovers and the victims who are killed. I guess being murdered by a man who offers to do the service is another kind of radical intimacy.

Anton Piatigorsky is also directing his production and this is his debut as a director.

He moves his actors with confidence and they are both strong: Kyle Gatehouse plays Roger—he’s sensitive, careful of what he says and does and compelling. As Amy Julia Krauss has an embracing charm, is subtly assertive and shimmers with curiosity about this man and his secrets. The production is beautifully performed and realized.

Richard Feren is the composer and sound designer and I find that too often scenes are underscored with sound that seems unnecessary and intrusive.

Comment. The playwright Anton Piatigorsky also offers his thoughts on his play in his program note: “Fostering intimacy with other people—and within ourselves—is one of the most radical things we can do…It is almost impossible to capture an intimate moment in words—and often it is best expressed in metaphor. Today, on stage, we offer a variety of carefully considered theatrical metaphors, a story of radical intimacy.”

I do see a metaphoric presentation in say, Samuel Beckett—two tramps waiting on a road for a man named Godot. But I’m not sure what the metaphor is in Breath In Between, the playwright’s musings notwithstanding?

And while Piatigorsky says “it is almost impossible to capture an intimate moment in words—and often it is best expressed in metaphor” I would disagree with his thesis. Words through the ages have captured intimate moments. I also offer that surely that’s what acting is about—acting captures intimate moments perhaps better than words do—a touch, a look a sigh capture all that.

In this case, I think metaphor distances us from connection or connecting with Roger and Amy. So I’m confused by what Piatigorsky wants to accomplish and what he wants his audience to glean from his production.

That said, I think he’s an elegant, esoteric often poetic playwright who delves deeply into emotions and how people think. He always gives me something to chew over long after I’ve seen the play. It’s just that I think that deep emotion does not work with metaphoric treatment. It’s certainly thought provoking. But as I said, Piatigorsky leaves you with lots to think about.

Crows Theatre presents:

Opened: Feb. 23, 2017.
Closes: March 11, 2017.
Cast: 2; 1 man, 1 woman
Running Time: 80 minutes, no intermission.

www.crowstheatre.com

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Short Reviews: Peace River Country and Deceitful Above All Things

Peace River Country

At the Tarragon Theatre, Extra Space, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Maria Milisavijevic
Directed by Richard Rose
Set and costumes and video design by Curtis Wehrfritz
Sound by John Gzowski
Lighting by Jason Hand
Cast: Layne Coleman
Janet Laine Green
Sarah Sherman
Benjamin Sutherland

From the press release: “Inspired by the real-life story of Reverend Wiebo Ludwig and his decades-long battle with the Alberta oil and gas industry, Peace River Country follows the lives of a close-knit traditional family as their land, health, and way of life become increasingly threatened by mega-corporations and big government. How does a traditional Christian family living off the land in rural Alberta gain a national reputation as violent eco-terrorists? This fictional account of real-life events is a timely look at the ties of love and loyalty that bind a community.

The political and environmental impact of Canada’s energy industry, especially in Alberta, has been a central tenet of our national discourse for many years. Peace River Country offers an intimate glimpse into the experience of one close-knit religious community during the booming growth of Alberta’s oil industry, and the extremes one man went to keep his family’s way of life in tact.”

Sounds fascinating and I’d love to see that, but Maria Milisavijevic’s play is so lacking in necessary information it’s difficult to make sense of it all. The result is confusing if not frustrating. Thank heaven for Google from which I find: Reverend Ludwig created a farming community with his family and others in rural Alberta. Gas and oil companies created sour wells close to the community. Ludwig alleged that the wells leaked into the land and water contaminating both. He began protesting to the government from the early 1990s until his death in 2012 to no avail.

From the play we get the sense that it’s only the family of four who is involved. There is no community involvement which would have been helpful in establishing true tension. As it is the family squabbles about what to do. I think that’s limiting.

Milisavijevic’s creation of the family’s religious devotion and their adherence to the Bible as a guide adds an interesting touch.

In the play Ludwig is only known as Dad and Dad feels that his grandchild is stillborn because of the contaminated water. We don’t get a clear sense that an autopsy was requested to make sure. Dad’s herd of cattle dies, again, it’s assumed the contaminated grass and water are at fault, yet no vet is called to test the dead animals as to the reason. Later the family raises sheep for wool. If the land and water is contaminated, how is that possible? The family says it can’t drink the water yet again no tests are done to see if their concerns are valid.

Dad turns to violence to be heard by the outside world. Yet while the authorities and the Globe and Mail come to cover the violence, there is no hint that they investigates further to see if Ludwig had a case. Can this be right?

Curtis Wehrfritz’s spare set establishes the vegetation of the farm. The interior scenes are around a kitchen table. Simple and effective.

Layne Coleman is a stalwart Dad. He is proud, committed to his family and desperate to be heard. In contrast Janet Laine Green as Mom is grace and tenderness itself. She is dutiful and supportive of her husband and children. The production shifts back and forth in time sometimes focusing on Dad and Mom’s two young children Jemima (Sarah Sherman) and Joe (Benjamin Sutherland), or later when they are grown. Sometimes Sutherland plays the husband of the adult Jemima. With the subtlest of body language Sherman and Sutherland clearly establish who and what they are (young, mature, married, etc.) Director Richard Rose keeps a firm hand on the shifting times and establishing the urgency of the situation.

Milisavijevic’s previous play Abyss was much more successful in presenting its case and mystery and the result was gripping. Peace River Country however, is a disappointment.

Tarragon Theatre presents.

First performance: Feb. 7, 2017.
Saw it: Feb. 19, 2017.
Closes: March 19, 2017.
Cast: 4; 2 men, 2 women.
Running Time: 80 minutes.

www.tarratontheatre.com

Deceitful Above All Things

At the Factory Studio Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Genevieve Adam
Directed by Tanya Rintoul
Set by Nancy Anne Perrin
Costumes by Adriana Bogaard
Sound by Deanna Choi
Cast: Genevieve Adam
Imogen Grace
Madeleine Donohue
John Fitzgerald Jay
Joelle Peters
Brian Bisson
Garret C. Smith

This is a stylish remount of Genevieve Adam’s intriguing play that was first produced at Summerworks in 2015. I liked it then and like it now.

Adam writes of the young women who were sent by France to Quebec between 1663 and 1673 to help populate the land—i.e, marry and have children. Two such women were Anne Bilodeau and Marguerite Perron who met on the ship coming over from France. Anne was in love with a local Jesuit priest and unbeknownst to him became pregnant with his baby. Anne had to marry quickly and did, to a local farmer. Marguerite worked as Anne’s housekeeper. Marguerite meets Toussaint Langlois, a courier de bois. She should have been wary of him but Marguerite is fearless. She seduces Langlois as much as he seduces her.

Genevieve Adam writes of a wild, dangerous time in our history. The women had to be wily to survive. The men had to be brave. Adam nicely portrays the various social stigmas and attitudes towards indigenous people, single women, the church, the French and anything that was ‘other’. Her dialogue captures the times and yet is contemporary in attitudes that prevail today.

Tanya Rintoul directs with a sure hand. The sensuality between Marguerite and Langlois is both raw and compelling. Nancy Anne Perrin’s set is simple—two moveable benches. The floor is stained to suggest a splash of blood or the vibrant colours of the country.

Genevieve Adam plays Anna Bilodeau with an arrogance and confident flippancy. Imogen Grace is just as confident as Marguerite Perron, but in a quieter way. The whole cast is impressive.

Favour The Brave Collective and Storefront Arts Initiative present:

Opened: Feb. 16, 2017.
Saw it: Feb. 21, 2017.
Closes: Feb. 26, 2017.
Cast: 7; 3 men, 4 women
Running Time: 80 minutes.

www.thestorefronttheatre.com

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At Theatre Passe Muraille, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Created and performed by John Millard and Waleed Abdulhamid
Directed by Marjorie Chan
Set and costumes by Joanna Yu
Projection and lighting by Kaitlin Hickey
Sound by Kai Masoaka

While this is a lovely story of friendship and I want to hear all the music again I found the execution of the show to be frustrating.

The Story. John Millard is a Canadian musician, composer and stalwart of the theatre. Waleed Abdulhamid is a Sudanese musician who came to Toronto in 1990. Both men met when they were Artistic Residents at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. While they came from different cultures they bonded over music, a common language for both of them. They taught each other songs they learned in childhood and that blossomed into their friendship, and this partnership in creating this show.

The Production. The stage is full of instrument stands with various kinds of stringed instruments: banjo, an instrument that looks like a mandolin of sorts for Millard and, a box percussion instrument, a long-necked stringed instrument among others for Abdulhamid. There are various microphones as well to amplify the instruments and head mics to amplify the singers. With all that amplification the music is distorted at times and trying to make out the lyric or melody is a challenge. I wonder how wonderful the music would be with no amplification. The theatre is small. It’s not Massey Hall. And we are there to listen as well as hear.

A piece of material that looks like a sail is stretched across the back of the stage. To director Marjorie Chan that sail suggests travel from far away. That image certainly works in context to Abdulhamid’s story.

The names of the various songs are projected onto the sail in English and Arabic. Millard sings his songs in English so are self-explanatory. Abdulhamid sings his in Arabic with no explanation of what they mean. I think that’s a missed opportunity. At one point Abdulhamid sings a mournful song (I don’t recall a title being projected) that is accompanied by projections. First there is an animation of part of an oblong structure in water. Then various animated small bodies float from the various corners of the sail and are placed on the oblong structure, creating a haunting image of people being packed onto a boat and taken from Africa to where ever to be slaves. That there is no comment, pre-amble or explanation is another missed opportunity.

Both Millard and Abdulhamid banter about the difference in their culture’s music. Millard understands the structure of North American music but at times had difficulties with Abdulhamid’s music because the structure is so different—it doesn’t have what we call a ‘down-beat’. Millard notes how hard it was to learn one of the songs because he couldn’t get ‘into the structure.’ The conversation between the two musicians at times seems so insider that one is tempted to say, “hello, we’re in the room with you. Can you include us?” At other times Millard seems a bit unsteady in his telling of his various stories and experiences.

Abdulhamid tells a touching story of how he tried to learn English and how someone did him a kindness and showed him a better way. It’s a lovely story of welcome.

Comment. A few suggestions:

1) Can we please have a list of the songs and who wrote them in the program.

2) Can there please be some explanation or translation of what the Arabic songs mean before the singing of the songs.

3) Please lower the amplification so we can hear the music without distortion or get rid of it completely and trust us to listen.

4) Both musicians use instruments that don’t look like regular instruments. Can we have an explanation of what they are? What is that stringed instrument that Millard uses that is not a guitar but looks like it can be a kind of mandolin? What are all the instruments called that Abdulhamid uses? The show is about the differences in their music. That also goes for their instruments.

5) I would like as much time and effort that went into producing confident, accomplished singing of the songs, to go into the narrative and story-telling. As it was when I saw it there was a lot of awkward stammering and ‘re-editing’ in telling the story.

The music is terrific. The story of Millard and Abdulhamid’s friendship is sweet. But the execution of the show is clunky, frustrating and in need of re-writing and rehearsing,

Presented by Theatre Passe Muraille in association with Cahoots Theatre Company.

First performance: Feb. 16, 2017.
Saw it: Feb. 18, 2017.
Closes: March 5, 2017.
Cast: 2 men
Running Time: 90 minutes.

www.theatrepassemuraille.ca

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