At the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ont.

Written by Jean Giraudoux
New Translation by David Edney
Directed by Donna Feore
Designed by Teresa Przybylski
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell
Sound by Peter McBoyle
Choreographed by Stephen Cota
Cast: Marion Adler
Rodrigo Beilfuss
Wayne Best
Tim Campbell
Ben Carlson
David Collins
Mikaela Davies
Ijeoma Emesowum
Jacklyn Francis
Isaac Giles
Jessica B. Hill
Kim Horsman
Zara Jestadt
Josh Johnston
Qasim Khan
Robert King
Josue Laboucane
Cyrus Lane
Yanna McIntosh
Seana McKenna
Elizabeth Morris
Mike Nadajewski
Gareth Potter
Michael Spencer-Davis
Scott Wentworth
Rylan Wilkie
Antoine Yared.

This is a satire played as a loud cartoon. Attention to detail is sacrificed.

The Story. A group of nefarious businessmen, thugs and just plain greedy folks want to dig up Paris to get at the oil they think is there. An idealistic eccentric woman, the Madwoman of Chaillot, decides to round up her fellow misfits to stop them.

The Production. Designer Teresa Przybylski has placed colourful café chairs and tables around the Tom Patterson stage. Circles of swirling colours are on the floor which seem to create a sense of movement—why do I think of Can-Can dancers in full kick? I do find it odd that every costume seems pristine with nary a soiled mark or a patch of worn material.

The President arrives. He is imperious (at least as played by the estimable Ben Carlson), arrogant, demanding and rude. He is joined by the Baron, a loud-talking David Collins. They have plans to capture the oil under Paris, which will destroy the city. The moustachioed Prospector (Wayne Best) sits at another table, scowling. He wears a long, black leather coat with long flaps. When he rises from his chair, he flips his coat flaps with great affectation. All that is missing is for Wayne Best, as the Prospector, to twirl his moustache and sneer. When he talks, it’s with a bellow as well. All the villains shout. Director Donna Feore has directed them to act like cartoon characters—bellow when speaking and move with exaggerated movements.

The decent characters: Aurélie, The Madwoman of Chaillot (Seana McKenna), Irma, The Kitchen Girl (Mikaela Davies), The Ragman (Scott Wentworth who is terrific), The Sewer-worker (Cyrus Lane) to name a few, are reasonable, thoughtful, nuanced and varied as credible people are.

The Madwoman of Chaillot of course is the focus and Seana McKenna plays her masterfully. She has that air of being pre-occupied and perhaps a bit scatterbrained. We learn she is nothing of the sort. While she believes the world is a good and just place, when she realizes the depth of depravity and mendacity of the people who want to destroy Paris for their greedy purposes, she plots to stop them with clear-eyed coolness.

Some of Feore’s staging/direction is troubling. When the Madwoman of Chaillot prepares to welcome the first band of slimy businessmen, great effort is made to let them know that the perfectly-hearing Madwoman is very deaf so they must shout. Fine. But they make a joke about her amongst themselves and roar with laughter, with their backs to the Madwoman but within earshot of her. Here’s the problem. She’s right in front of them and she laughs too. Why? She’s not supposed to be able to hear them make the joke. Is she laughing so as not to be embarrassed at not getting a joke? Again, why? In this context she should have been confused by their laughing if she is truly playing along at being deaf. It’s a moment that does not ring true and needed better directorial attention.

Comment
. Jean Giraudoux wrote The Madwoman of Chaillot in 1943 but it was first performed in 1945. It’s a satire of power, how it corrupts, greed and how idealism has to be put aside to combat the evil in that world. And while one hopes that the idealists do win against greed, all that shouting and posturing in the production overpowers the more thoughtful, calm talking decent folks. A disappointment.

Produced by the Stratford Festival.

Plays until Sept. 24, 2017.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. Approx.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

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Tartuffe

At the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ont.

Written by Molière
Adapted by Ranjit Bolt
Directed by Chris Abraham
Designed by Julie Fox
Lighting by Michael Walton
Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne
Cast: Graham Abbey
Rod Beattie
Maev Beaty
Michael Blake
Rosemary Dunsmore
Gordon S. Miller
Mercedes Morris
Monice Peter
Tom Rooney
Anusree Roy
E.B. Smith
Johnathan Sousa
Emilio Vieira

Tartuffe is about a religious charlatan who has bamboozled a gullible man with almost disastrous results, given a riotous production by Chris Abraham and his gifted cast of comedic pros.

The Story. It’s a scathing satire by Molière about corrupting power and hypocrisy. Orgon is a rich man. He becomes bamboozled by Tartuffe, who appears to be a poor pious religious man. Orgon invites Tartuffe to stay at his house and slowly Tartuffe begins to control Orgon. Orgon gives Tartuffe money and even promises his daughter in marriage to him. Tartuffe begins to put the moves on Orgon’s wife Elmire. Elmire and most of the household know Tartuffe is a fraud but Orgon will not be convinced until drastic measures are taken.

The Production. In the time of Molière Tartuffe was a pointed satire that skewered the church, charlatans, power and gullible people who believed in it all. It’s so obvious that it’s applicable to modern times, certainly in director Chris Abraham’s vibrant production.

It’s set in modern dress. Designer Julie Fox’s ultra-modern two-level set is furnished with the most stylish furnishings and the most gleaming of appliances. There is an espresso machine, a bullet blender and probably Veuve Clicquot in the fridge.

The clothes are chic. Orgon’s mother, Mme Pernelle, looks like she’s on Coco Chanel’s preferred customers list. The others are hip-stylish.

The translation is by Ranjit Bolt, a rock star of a translator. The text is very funny. Chris Abraham and his assistant director, Sarah Kitz reviewed other translations and changed lines here and there. They also sprinkled only the best and most damning Trumpisms into the text (with Bolt’s permission), mainly in Act II so we get a clear idea of how Chris Abraham views this most modern of classic satires. The overall affect is hilarious.

We are introduced to how some people revere Tartuffe and others of the household don’t when Mme Pernelle is leaving the house in a huff. No one listens to her or gives her respect. She thinks Tartuffe is great but she can’t stand to be there another minute. The household is living it up while Orgon is away. The music is loud; they are all dancing and drinking, even Dorine the maid.

The acting is fine if a bit shouty initially. Mme Pernelle is played by Rosemary Dunsmore who is very stylish and sophisticated but I thought she was pushing her voice initially.

I was impressed with Anusree Roy as smarmy Dorine. She stands up to everyone including Tartuffe. Roy is a diminutive, fearless powerhouse. She has a sense of the humour and the pushiness of that maid. Graham Abbey plays the hapless Orgon who tries to hold on to his family and sway them to Tartuffe. He is a stylish man in his own right but always seems to be tripped up with his own efforts to be with it. Whether he’s whizzing up a healthy drink or over-stretching his leg muscles, he just looks like the easy mark for a wily guy like Tartuffe. Orgon’s wife, Elmire is played with strong conviction, smarts and elegance by Maev Beaty. She knows that Tartuffe is a fraud but he’s smart. She’s smarter and sets a trap for him that almost goes awry when Orgon keeps missing his cues to save her.

The incomparable Tom Rooney plays Tartuffe. We hear so much about Tartuffe from so many sides before he appears that all the work is done by the time he comes on stage. And his entrance is without fanfare. He just appears, quietly. Tartuffe does not have to shout to get our attention.

He is impressive when we see him: tall, slim, dressed in a black robe with a huge crucifix round his neck, long dark hair, almost straight faced.

When matters get heated as he is trying to make the moves on Elmire, Tom Rooney whips out a box of mints and flips the lid of the box. Rooney’s sense of humour, his attention to such physical detail, results in the most hilarious performance.

And this production is a laugh riot with bite, that clearly skewers our modern world. I thought that perhaps the Trump references went on too long, but that’s a quibble.

Produced by the Stratford Festival

Began: Aug. 1, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 13, 2017.
Cast: 13; 8 men, 5 women
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

The Breathing Hole

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

Written by Colleen Murphy
Directed by Reneltta Arluk
Set by Daniela Masellis
Costumes by Joanne Yu
Lighting by Ital Erdal
Composer and sound by Carmen Braden
Cast: Jani Lauzon
Miali Buscemi
Johnny Issaluk
Gordon Patrick White
Yolanda Bonnell
Hunter Smalley
Angelina FosterdelMundo
Ujarneq Fleischer
Jamie Mac
Bruce Hunter
Deidre Gillard-Rowlings
Nick Nahwegahbow
Evan Kearns
Thomas Mitchell Barnet
Randy Hughson
Jim Codrington
Zlatomir Moldovanski
Victor Ertmanis
Jimmy Blais
Juan Chioran
Sarah Dodd
Katelyn McCulloch
Ciara Kittmer

This is Colleen Murphy’s earnest, often powerful play about an epic journey from the time of Sire JohnFranklin’s expedition to the North Pole, into the future and how the environment and our native peoples have been treated. Given a respectful production but the best acting and most human characters are the polar bear puppets, which are astounding. And some of the writing is muddy instead of clarifying.

Story. The Breathing Hole by Coleen Murphy was commissioned by the Stratford Festival to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary.

It starts in the north with the Inuit and their reverence to nature, in particular polar bears. An old woman, played by Jani Lauzon, considers the bears mystical in their existence. Her family is not that reverential. Food is scarce. Everyone is hungry, including the animals. Two or three polar bears have a strong presence from scene to scene, both as mythic representatives and as the noble beast of the north. They prosper as the humans do and they suffer when there is starvation.

The play begins at the time of the Franklin expedition to the North and there is trouble, no food, harsh weather and the British are not prepared. The Inuit try to help but there is a lack of common language. Franklin seems respectful to the Inuit while his crew is stereotypically condescending.

Then the play fast forwards to modern times and the environment is in trouble, climate change is in full swing. There are oil spills in the arctic waters that of course affect the vegetation and the animals.

Some people try to preserve the environment and it’s not necessarily the Inuit. There are clashes of cultures. Matson Day is a well-meaning conservationist of sorts who has long planned luxury cruises for people can take through the Northwest Passage to see for themselves what is happening. The first voyage takes place on New Year’s Eve for a group of bored, rich folks with no interest in the environment or the animals. They just want a good time

The Production. At the top of the production, two Inuit children project shadows on a wall using hand-held forms. One could be a polar bear roaring up; another is a man against nature. The future (the children) create shadows of things that are important in their lives. The children project these shadows at the beginning of both Acts.

Huumittuq is an elder woman (Jani Lauzon) with markings on her face, as do the others in her tribe. She is mystical and reverential to the polar bears in the area. Because she is an elder in the case she is not treated with much respect. She is at the edges of interest by her family and the people in her community. Director Reneltta Arluk has her lag behind.

The dialogue for the native people is stiff, stilted and has its own formality. The actors playing these Inuit tend to be stiff in their delivery as well.

Sir John Franklin (Randy Hughson) is gruff and formal with his men but considerate and kindly towards the Inuit. His crew on the other hand treat the Inuit with clichéd distain, as if to suggest that because the Inuit don’t understand English, they are lesser. The way that Colleen Murphy has written them, the Inuit have more smarts and brains than the English.

Reneltta Arluk is an Inuit and that informs her direction. She creates that world of myth, tradition, understanding of the land and its animals. The shadow show that opens each Act is a window into that world.

The most astonishing aspect of the production is the life-sized polar bear puppets. They are exquisite and delicate. The breathing hole is a hole in the ice through which the Inuit can fish and the polar bear can stick its head down and grab a fish in it’s jaws. When the bears do this several times in the production, it’s magical every time.

They seem to be made of white strips of material that are connected so when the puppets move the strips undulate giving the sense of the fur moving. A person is inside the structure manipulating the legs as it moves. The person wears tights that have a design that blend in with the colours of the bear puppets.

At times the movement and nuance of the head of the puppet is so subtle they convey emotion and communicated better than the actors. When the Inuit are hungry and starving, so are the bears, who are thin, their fu is limp and a sickly grey. Later when the waters of the Northwest Passage are polluted with oil we see a paw of a polar bear symbolically flip over the side of a boat, looking for relief from the oil; it is covered in black smears of oil. Again, the polar bear is symbolic of the damage done to the environment. Those on board the boat couldn’t care less about the bear or the environment.

There is no specific credit for the puppets so I assume they are created by Joanna Yu.

Comment. While there’s much to celebrate while we mark our country’s 150th anniversary, Colleen Murphy’s play is to be celebrated too for its not shying away from focusing on much for which we should be ashamed: our disrespectful treatment of Indigenous people, our thoughtless, reckless behaviour towards the environment and animals; our lack of knowledge of our history.

Some aspects of the story seem clichéd: that there are too few people who care about the environment vs. the rich louts who don’t care at all. While the press information says that this is a story over five hundred years old as told through the eyes of the polar bear, I’m not sure the play actually realizes that claim. Concerns aside, I respect that the play and production are very earnest in their intention.

Great pains were taken to cast indigenous actors for many of the roles. Great care was taken to consult with Inuit designers and crafts people regarding props, costumes, makeup, dramaturgy and the language.

So in these tricky times of appropriation of stories, I hope respect will be paid to Colleen Murphy a white playwright, for taking on the task of creating this important story.

Produced by the Stratford Festival.

Began: July 30, 2017.
Closes: Sept. 22, 2017.
Cast: 23: 16 men, 7 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

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This is a head’s up to see YERMA by Lorca in a National Theatre Live screening at a Cineplex screen near you September 21 and 23.

It’s an updating of Yerma, Lorca’s classic tale about a young married woman desperate to get pregnant and the lengths she and her husband go to make this happen. She is surrounded by young women having children so her yearning is intense.

Yerma is played by Billie Piper, who apparently is big in Doctor Who. I don’t watch it but have seen Billie Piper on stage and she is the bomb. Just brilliant.

The show is playing in a sold-out run at the Young Vic in London. It’s being shown at a Cineplex hear you under the auspices of National Theatre Live, Sept. 21 and 23.

The reviews have been stellar. You don’t want to miss this.

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At Withrow Park, Toronto. Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare
Adapted by Andrew Joseph Richardson
Directed by Megan Watson
Set and lighting by Nick Blais
Costumes by Erin Gerofsky
Props by Edith Nataprawira
Choreographer, Patricia Allison
Composer and Choir Director, Maddie Bautista
Cast: Eva Barrie
Joella Crichton
Nikki Duval
Danny Ghantous
Jonelle Gunderson
Michelle Polak
Andrew Joseph Richardson
Tim Welham

A stylish looking production with some interesting character bending but in spite some good performances it gets bogged down in concept and some out of control performances.

The Story. Hermia wants to marry Lysandra but Hermia’s father Egeus wants her to marry Demetrius and he wants to marry her. Helena is in love with Demetrius but he wants no part of her. They all escape to the forest where all manner of magical shenanigans take place. Everything works out when the wood fairies get involved and there are magical juices from flowers used to change people’s minds and hearts.

The Production. The production is outdoors in Withrow Park, between the two willow trees. Nick Blais has fashioned a round shiny brown sphere that is tied between the two trees as a focal point of the action. A choir sings in the background to add a musical note. Later they will stand in the darkened park holding glowing orbs, which also add atmosphere.

Erin Gerofsky’s costumes have an ethereal look to them that could be timeless. The costumes for Titania/Hippolyta are Greek-style short robes. He costumes for the other characters are on that Greek/ethereal theme.

I can appreciate that director Megan Watson wants to level the playing field so that women play what might usually be men’s parts. So what would have been Lysander in the original text, is now Lysandra and is played by Joella Crichton. Bottom, one of the (male) mechanicals who are tradespeople preparing a play for the wedding of Hippolyta and Theseus, is played by Nikki Duval, a woman.

Watson uses the space of the park very well. Actors make entrances and exits from great distances, or they stand in the far reaches of the park as the sun goes down, holding glowing orbs. Great effect.

Watson has a good eye for the look of the production. She is lucky to have Michelle Polak as Titania/Hippolyta and Danny Ghantous who plays Demetrius. Both have an easy grasp of the poetry and music of the language. Polak is commanding as both Titania and Hippolyta but in different ways. Her body language is assured. Ghantous as well knows how to illuminate the poetry of the language but also to make it muscular for this lively character, Demetrius.

But too many other actors, seem defeated by Shakespeare’s language and make up for it by flailing around and yelling their lines. It’s painful to watch and listen too. Surely this is where the director should give some guidance, but that doesn’t seem to have happened.

Also, I can appreciate being respectful and sensitive to people, but this has gone too far in the scenes with the Mechanicals. Two characters are supposed to kiss through a ‘chink in the wall.’ Simple. The word ‘chink’ means a slit or slight opening in the wall.’ Except that in this version the word ‘chink’ is pronounced ‘kink’. In an insensitive connotation ‘chink’ is a pejorative term for a certain nationality. But that is not the meaning here. To pronounce it ‘kink’ changes the meaning of the line into something that makes no sense. This is political correctness run amok. The word is chink and that’s how it should be pronounced. The audience should be trusted to know the word is not an insult.

Comment. Normally I cut people a lot of slack who are inexperienced with Shakespeare. I have a hard time doing that here with so many screaming, seemingly out of control performances. Coupled with the incorrect pronunciation of a crucial word for political correctness it was not one of my happier times seeing a Shakespeare in the Ruff production.

Produced by Shakespeare in the Ruff

Began: Aug. 15, 2017.
Closes: Sept. 3, 2017.
Cast: 8: 3 men, 5 women.
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

www.ShakespeareInTheRuff.com

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Review: Dracula

by Lynn on August 23, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

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

Written by Bram Stoker
Adapted for the stage by Liz Lochhead
Directed by Eda Holmes
Designed by Michael Gianfrancesco
Lighting by Alan Brodie
Projections by Cameron Davis
Original music and sound by John Gzowski
Cast: Wade Bogert-O’Brien
Martin Happer
Rebecca Gibian
Cameron Grant
Marci T. House
Allan Louis
Marla McLean,
Natasha Mumba
Moya O’Connell
Chick Reid
Cherissa Richards
Ben Saunders
Graeme Somerville
Steven Sutcliffe

A shimmering production with a compelling performance from Allan Louis as Dracula overcomes the over-written plodding adaptation by Liz Lochhead.

The Story. It’s based on the Bram Stoker novel of 1897. And is about a seductive vampire named Dracula who needs human blood to live. He gets it by sucking the neck of his victims who in turn are turned into vampires. He must be stopped and only one person can do it. Will he suckseed? (sorry).

It’s a fascinating story and has been adapted into other plays and films and Broadway productions.

The Production. I think Director Eda Holmes’ production is dandy. She is hampered by Liz Lochhead’s overwritten adaptation. It’s full of poetic illusions (Lochhead is a poet besides a playwright) and philosophical ramblings, when what is needed is a clear, focused script. Eda Holmes makes up for it with a production that shimmers and creates anticipation that just gets more and more heightened.

Michael Gianfrancesco’s spare design, Alan Brodie’s dark and brooding lighting and John Gzowski’s compelling, often spooky sound and music keep us gripping the arm rests.

Cameron Davis’ rippling, undulating projections create a sense of unease, that something is bubbling up, ready to over boil.

We hear about Dracula from so many references long before he appears that all the work is done before he arrives. We can hardly wait to see him. And finally he’s there seemingly to appear in a cloud of smoke. It’s not a magic trick. It’s more an illusion. It plays on his quiet way of moving, appearing and disappearing.

Everybody has their idea of what Dracula should act like and look like. To some he looks like Bella Lugosi in the old movies, with an overdone accent and black hair etc. To some he looks and sounds like the purry voiced, seductive Frank Langella who played it on Broadway years ago.

We bring our preconceptions and assumptions to any production of Dracula and I think that’s a mistake. If the performance of the actor playing Dracula is not what we expect, then we tend to criticize it, discount it. A performance should be taken on its own.

So how is Allan Louis as Dracula? He’s terrific. I am struck by how courtly his Dracula is. He’s over-polite to both men and woman, almost self-deprecating, and people find that seductive. He’s from ‘away’ in Europe somewhere and to a British person, (and Canadians, I would guess) his formal way of speaking would intrigue people about him. His clothes are well tailored, but his long fitted coat adds to his exoticism.

Mr. Louis is graceful, commanding, imposing and attractive in a way that makes people give over to him because they can’t resist his charms, or eventually his incisors.

The rest of the strong cast is wonderful to a person. Marla McLean as Mina Westerman is a forthright woman about to be married to a bit of a prig named Jonathan Harker –well played by Ben Sanders–but then she comes under the spell of Dracula and the change is marked. Graeme Somerville plays Renfield, a mentally challenged man, locked up for his own protection and others. He eats flies and other insects. He intuits that Dracula is coming. Somerville is crazed, agile as he flips inside his cage and eerily compelling.

I have to mention Steven Sutcliffe as Van Helsing, the doctor who knows how to kill Dracula. Sutcliffe is impassioned and full of conviction and urgency in the seriousness of it all. I found him as arresting as Allan Louis as Dracula.

Comment. Dracula is a romp that is played seriously and not for laughs. But leave all your assumptions of what he looks and acts like, outside.

Produced by The Shaw Festival

Began: July 8, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 14, 2017.
Cast: 14; 7 men, 7, women.
Running Time: 3 hours.

www.shawfest.com

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

Written by Oscar Wilde
Adapted for the stage by Kate Hennig
Directed by Christine Brubaker
Designed by Jennifer Goodman
Lighting by Siobhán Sleath
Original music and sound designed by John Gzowski
Cast: Marion Day
Emily Lukasik
PJ Prudat
Sanjay Talwar
Jonathan Tan
Kelly Wong

A puzzling production because while it involves a chorus of children the stories are too literary and sophisticated in their meaning to be for kids. By the same token the performance style is so over done it can’t really be for adults either. A mish-mash.

The Stories. Playwright Kate Hennig took four Stories for Young and Old by Oscar Wilde and adapted them for the stage. They are:

The Happy Prince, about a statue that started out being grand but was stripped of its gold etc. and is now considered shabby by insensitive, greedy adults. A group of charity kids know the statue’s true value.

The Nightingale and the Rose in which a nightingale sacrifices herself for a student who is lovesick for a woman who ignores him. A story of selflessness, devotion and generosity.

The Selfish Giant is about a giant who built a wall around his garden to keep the kids out. One little boy is heartbroken because of this so the giant lifts him up to see the garden. The boy embraces the giant who sees the error of his ways and knocks down the wall. This generosity is rewarded by the kids who come to play there. The true identity of the little boy takes on a religious aura.

And there is a story that is used to link and thread through the others—The Remarkable Rocket about a conceited firecracker who is a blowhard telling everybody how great he is, but when it comes time to deliver and perform, he fizzles. It’s a theme of how egoism can thwart growth or development. Sounds familiar.

The Production. Jennifer Goodman’s set is simple and colourful. The props of birds and insects are clever and inventive. The colourful costumes for various characters are also eye-popping. Sanjay Talwar plays the Remarkable Rocket and wears an all encasing red outfit with a pointed head covering. Jonathan Tan plays a frog, among others, and wears a green frog costume with colourful flipper/frog’s legs. Mr. Tan is very agile and cheerful as the frog. The performances of the company are in the most rudimentary style of pedestrian kids theatre—dialogue is said very earnestly by the actors but in a sing-songy, declarative way. This over accentuates information and everything is presented as if it’s all full of wonder.

It doesn’t work. I don’t blame Kate Hennig who adapted the stories. She does it with imagination and care. And I can’t really fault Christine Brubaker’s direction because the original directive from the Artistic Director was to produce a show for children and adults using puppets etc. Again, I don’t think this was thought through properly. If the intention was to introduce kids to theatre or produce a show for them, then this isn’t it. And the child-like way of presenting the stories isn’t for adults either.

Presumably if parents/grandparents were involving kids in the workshop then the kids probably already go to the theatre. And again, the source material is really not kids’ fare. I think the total absence of kids in the audience would be proof enough.

Comment. Is this a show for both adults and children?

I’m sure the intention of Tim Carroll the Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival is that the show should be for both adults and children. In her program note, Kate Hennig, who adapted the four stories says: that her commission from Mr. Carroll was “a play for puppets and six actors with interaction for children, drawn from four stories by Oscar Wilde and maintaining Wilde’s wit for adults.” The director is Christine Brubaker whose work I’ve seen before and it’s dandy.

In Brubaker’s program note she says that they have included a children’s chorus and they conceived the show with children at its heart. But by her own admission the stories are complex with philosophical musings, psychological ramifications regarding decisions and discourse on the Christian Faith. There is even a literary essay in the program by Dr. Elizabeth Goodenough (a professor of English) that goes deep in analyzing the stories. Not exactly kids fare.

So the long-short answer is that I haven’t a clue who this show is for, and it’s too easy to say both adults and children, when it’s obvious it’s not. I don’t think the programming of this production was thought through carefully enough.

The chorus is composed of young kids who registered for a workshop that took place 45 minutes before the show. They made props and participate by ringing a bell, reacting to a word as the stories are told or other kinds of reactions and involvement.

On the day I saw Wilde Tales there were 20 kids participating and they all sat on the floor around the acting space. If you sat further back than the third row you had difficulty seeing them at all. If the kids are meant to participate, surely we should be able to see them. There were no kids in the audience. The rest of the audience were adults, some of whom were related to the kids. So you see my concern—while the stories do have an element that on a basic level would appeal to kids, they really are sophisticated and would appeal to adults. Yet they are performed in that clichéd manner that talks down to kids and would turn off adults. So who is this show for? Nobody?

Presented by the Shaw Festival

Began: June 8, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 7, 2017.
Cast: 6; 3 men, 3 women
Running Time: 55 minutes.

www.shawfest.com

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At the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by Will Eno
Directed by Meg Roe
Designed by Camellia Koo
Lighting by Kevin Lamotte
Original music and dound by Alessandro Juliani
Cast: Karl Ang
Kristopher Bowman
Fiona Byrne
Benedict Campbell
Claire Julien
Jeff Meadows
Peter Millard
Natasha Mumba
Moya O’Connell
Gray Powell
Tara Rosling
Sara Topham

A wonderful play and production about people who are unsettled in their lives and often take drastic measures to correct it. But each of them is human to the core.

The Story
. There are certainly echoes of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in Will Eno’s Middletown. The title is definitely a play on words.

Wilder’s Our Town is about a small town where everybody knows everybody, works hard, is kind and understanding and has patience for people who are less fortunate.

In Middletown Eno has great fun setting the scene by someone who greets us in an almost wild stream of consciousness. There are plays on words, linguistic gymnastics, and all manner of word play. Karl Ang performed it at my performance and he did it with supreme confidence and wit.

Then the play starts proper.

In Middletown we soon meet the townsfolk: There is an unhappy, almost aggressive, fully equipped cop who takes his job very seriously; a lurking man who seems almost homeless and drinks; a anxious woman named Mary who is moving in to town on her own for now—her husband always is travelling for business; a handyman named John who is a bit of a loser, awkwardly charming, but still sad, a lovely librarian etc.

The people in town know each other and have compassion in some quarters but there is an underbelly of discontent, unhappiness, lack of fulfilment. But like any town and good literature, there is a birth and death almost simultaneously.

The Production. It takes place in the newly named Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre. The audience sits on all sides of the bare space. As we are seated, the cast come out in street clothes and greet us, chat us up, make contact. That seems to be a thing at the Shaw Festival this year. We are greeted outside the theatre by greeters, inside by other greeters, inside the theatre proper by people who take our tickets, and in many shows before it begins someone from the organization (actor, crew, other creatives, administration) goes on stage to welcome us again and tell us about themselves, and for a few shows the cast welcome us. OK! I get it! You’re happy we’re there. What’s next—a group hug!? Enough already!

Eventually, in a communal moment, the cast draw the outline of the town of Middletown on the black floor in white marker. There’s a river and all sorts of buildings. Camellia Koo’s stage is bare except for the painted buildings etc. on the floor, and the occasional set piece that is rolled on and off (a desk, a sink cabinet, two window frames etc.)

Director Meg Roe has staged and directed this beautifully. Set pieces are rolled on and off. At various times two window frames are rolled on and placed opposite each other. Mary (Moya O’Connell) sits behind one window, looking out at nothing in particular. Behind the other is John (Gray Powell), looking out at nothing in particular (He’s looking in Mary’s direction, but is not looking at her). Both are still, silent, look sad, pensive, and uncertain about their future. In a flash director Meg Roe illuminates the essence of loneliness.

As Mary is getting her house ready for her (never seen) husband, John comes over to fix her sink. A structure that is a combo sink and under it is rolled on. John disappears under it to work on the drains. Mary stands chatting.

This means that a large part of the audience can’t see John so director Meg Roe has John make a quarter turn of the sink and work underneath it and speak, then turn it another quarter and work underneath it and speak, so that the audience on all sides of the theatre can see him when he talks. Brilliant

Spoiler Alert!!! There is a scene near the end of the play in which Mary is in a hospital bed holding a baby. There is enough conversation and activity with that baby to warrant the same moving of the bed (as the sink-cabinet) so that we all can see Mary and that baby, but the bed was not moved. I was only able to see the back of Mary’s head for the whole, long scene and I wanted to see the whole picture.

The acting is exemplary under Meg Roe’s sensitive, attentive direction. The playing between Gray Powell as John and Moya O’Connell as Mary is particularly fine. You just know that over time these two lonely people would become friends and might have been closer and good for each other. As played by Gray Powell, John is charming, self-deprecating and so twitchy and awkward. It’s almost as if he doesn’t know what to do around people, yet the people with whom he interacts have time and patience for him. You feel he tries to fit in, but you know he doesn’t seem to fit. You ache for John because of the beautiful way that Gray Powell plays him.

As Mary, Moya O’Connell has a sense of stillness and sadness that is compelling. We know Mary is hiding a lot. She looks at John with anticipation. O’Connell’s eyes dance when she looks at John, perhaps hoping for a deepening relationship. And when both Mary and John look out their respective windows, at nothing in particular, the look of sadness and loneliness is palpable.

Fiona Byrne is hard edged as the harried doctor in the play but reveals an unsentimental softness when a homeless man needs a painkiller, and she helps him out.

Benedict Campbell is the formidable Cop who doesn’t give that homeless guy a break. This cop is quiet swagger and intimidation except when dealing with people in the town he likes. The person who gets most of the Cop’s ire is the Mechanic, played with a brooding edge by Jeff Meadows.

Comment
. Will Eno writes of the troubled heart. His use of language is both spare and yet dazzles in places. In Middletown we see people going through their day, just trying to get by and perhaps do better. It’s a quiet place with a bit of an undercurrent of possibilities; the cycle of life happens subtly, almost unnoticed but obviously noticed in this stunning production.

Presented by the Shaw Festival

Began: July 13, 2017.
Closes: Sept. 10, 2017.
Cast: 12: 6 men, 6 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

www.shawfest.com

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

Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Peter Hinton
Designed by Gillian Gallow
Lighting by Bonnie Beecher
Original music and sound by Ryan deSouza
Cast: Lisa Berry
Ryan Cunningham
Starr Domingue
Diana Donnelly
Patrick McManus
Kiera Sangster
Vanessa Sears
André Sills
Samantha Walkes

Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins looks at racism and turns it on its head in this terrific production.

The Story. The Octoroon, on which this version is based, was written by Irish playwright, Dion Boucicault and opened in New York in 1869 at the Winter Garden Theatre. It took place on a plantation that was in jeopardy and the slaves were to be sold. That play dealt with issues of racism.

Fast forward to 2014 when African-American writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins took Boucicault’s play, kept the story but then turned the themes of racism on its ear. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ calls his play An Octoroon. It opened to great acclaim Off-Broadway.

An octoroon is a person who is 1/8 black. At the time of the play—1869 it was illegal for an octoroon to marry a white person. In the play, Zoe is a house slave. She is also the illegitimate daughter of the recently deceased white owner of the plantation and one of his slaves. George is the nephew of the deceased owner. He has come home to try and sort out the details of the estate and falls in love with Zoe. She knows she can’t marry him because of that rule.

The Production. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins turns the whole issue of racism on its ear in a cheeky way. He’s wonderfully cheeky here. He presents this as a play within a play with eye-popping surprises along the way.

At the top of the production we are introduced to a character named BJJ, an African-American playwright—note the initials of our African-American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. BJJ is played with impish smiling style and grace by André Sills. He is initially dressed only in black bikini briefs. He has a lot to smile about.

BJJ laments that he doesn’t have enough actors of colour to play the characters of colour in his play, so he solves this by having white actors apply blackface in one instance, and red face in another to play a Native American.

He also says that many white actors would balk at playing a white villain who has to say what they say, so a black actor in white face says the damning dialogue. Black actors whiten their faces to play white characters and the actresses, both black and white, don’t add any make-up at all. An Octoroon is an equal opportunity offender…everybody is skewered.

The production is terrific. It’s directed with gleaming intellect and sensitivity by Peter Hinton. He brings out the wit, irony and sobering truth of the piece. His attention to detail is exquisite. There’s a lot to keep track of and Hinton doesn’t let anything drop. And he gets wonderful performances from his stellar cast.

André Sills plays BJJ, the African-American playwright; George, the white nephew of the late plantation owner, and M’Closky, a villain who is white. Sometimes Sills plays both George and M’Closky at the same time—the two characters even have a fight on stage at the same time. Masterful.

Patrick McManus plays Dion Boucicault with verve and exuberance, Wahnotee (in red face makeup to suggest the character is a Native American), and Lafouche an irritated riverboat captain. McManus plays all of them with compelling conviction. Lisa Berry as Dido and Kiera Sangster as Minnie, two slaves, have sass and attitude for days. Diana Donnelly plays Dora, a rich white woman who has designs on George. Much of her dialogue would be offensive today, with her belittling of the slaves and her racist attitude. Donnelly lets loose with the invective without holding back. It’s a chilling performance.

Gillian Gallow has designed the production with simplicity, but her backdrop deserves special mention-it looks like a piece of art in wood cuts. Just stunning.

Comment. I love how Branden Jacobs-Jenkins up ends our presumptions, assumptions, and assertions about racism. Considering the headlines of the last while it’s a subject, alas, that won’t go away.

As in 1869, An Octoroon is presented as a melodrama; emotions are high; lots of declarative dialogue. It almost seems a send-up but it’s not because the issues are so serious. The offensive terminology of the day is used and it makes for wonderfully bracing, sometimes appropriately uncomfortable viewing, but well worth it.

In one scene BJJ addresses the audience saying that a character who committed a murder is caught doing the deed in a photograph. BJJ says this is such a cliché and not to be taken seriously but then shows us something that he says will make us feel something.

It’s another photograph—I won’t tell you of what, but we look at it in silence and suck air. If something can startle an audience it’s not a cliché. I love that mixing of style in performance and the truth of the issues. Loved the production. See it.

Produced by the Shaw Festival.

Began: July 16, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 14, 2017.
Cast: 9; 3 men, 6 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

www.shawfest.com

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At 4th Line Theatre, Millbrook, Ont.
Written and directed by Robert Winslow
Original music by Justin Hiscox
Costumes by Meredith Hubbard
Cast: Edward Belanger
Kiana Bromley
Cyndi Carleton
Maude Rose Craig
Justin Hiscox
Mark Hiscox
Emma Khaimovich
Gary Reker
Shelley Simester
Robert Winslow
Part history lesson, part confessional in which neither is properly served.

Background
: 4th Line Theatre Company is celebrating its 26th season of producing original Canadian pays that generally focus on the stories and history of the area, towns and townships around the Winslow family farm. 4th Line Theatre is situated on the Winslow family farm in Millbrook, Ont. in Cavan Township.

Past plays have dwelt on stories about the Jewish cottage industry in Pontypool, just up the road, at the beginning of the last century; the animosity of newly arrived Irish of both Catholic and Protestant beliefs; the bank robbers of Havelock; the first phone lines for example.

Bombers: Reaping the Whirlwind, was the first play of this season and was about memories of flying bombers in WWII. The History of Drinking in Cavan, is, well, er, about the history of drinking in Cavan.

The Story. Robert Winslow is our narrator of this history of drinking in Cavan Township. He notes it will not be chronological. So he flits from the 1800s telling of the various bars and taverns in the area to modern times, to the war years and so on. He mentions people who were notable for their drinking in the town of Millbrook and various other locations. He mentions bars and taverns that people who live in the area would know about, etc. It would probably mean nothing to people who live outside that area.

Robert Winslow also has his own personal story that obviously pains him. His mother was an alcoholic and he laments that he was not of help to her as she struggled in her last years. It consumes much of the play once he decides to deal with the story.
Winslow laments that years before he and his father had an argument and Robert Winslow railed at him. Later that day Robert Winslow’s father had a sudden heart attack and died. Winslow notes that years later his mother drank heavily. She needed him and he was not there. He just couldn’t deal with her distress.

The Production. Robert Winslow directs a free-wheeling production that uses the surrounding meadows of the farm, the barn and the various upper reaches of buildings. Children with a mask that covers the face gallop like horses. Another child wearing a costume covered in feathers plays a chicken. The cast is exuberant, especially if playing drunks. There is an embarrassing scene when people in the audience are brought on stage to sit appearing to be involved in the action. It doesn’t work and they just look embarrassed.

Shelley Simester plays several parts but is most affecting as “Mom”, Robert Winslow’s mother. Winslow dropped out of university and drifted until he discovered theatre. Winslow also plays the town drunk, with a flip of his hat and a stagger. Truthfully, there is nothing funny about a town drunk, when he’s just there for humour. Who was the guy? Why did he drink? The play doesn’t answer this. There are scenes with temperance ladies that are played for laughs. Temperance folks were serious if the drinking in the area was so intense. I wish the play dwelt with them better. Robert Winslow is a lively narrator. I just wish the story was better.

Comment. While the history of drinking in the area might be interesting to those who live there, it isn’t to those who don’t. We don’t have a connection and therefore an interest after we hear one fact too many.

And while Winslow’s angst and penance for his treatment of his mother in her years of need are moving, there is so much information that is missing that its just leaves one confused. Can we assume his father was an alcoholic since we are told by one character he had a bottle of rum in his pocket? When did his mother begin to drink? Was it after her husband died? Was it when her husband was drinking himself and she drank too to keep him company? The news of his mother’s drinking seems to just be dropped into the narrative since others didn’t know about it nor do they mention it. Winslow says he went to Al-Anon meetings, meetings for family members who were alcoholic. But later he says he went to an AA meeting too. Does that mean that Robert Winslow is an alcoholic too? He says he’s not when queried in the play. Which is it?

I don’t doubt this is a sensitive subject for Winslow. There is one scene in which he looks so overcome that the stage manager comes out to stop the action. This is so disingenuous it’s painful and embarrassing to watch because it’s fake. Cut that immediately. If this is a story Robert Winslow needed to tell, then perhaps a play is not the right place to tell it.
Produced by 4th Line Theatre

Began: Aug. 7, 2017
Closes: Aug. 26 2017
Cast: 10; 5 men, 5 women
Running Time: 2 hours

www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca

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Spawn

At the Factory Theatre

Written by Cheyenne Scott
Directed by Gein Wong
Cast: Samantha Brown
Dillan Meighan-Chiblow
Herbie Barnes
Cathy Elliot

Cheyenne Scott has written a thoughtful play about returning to ones indigenous roots, beliefs and traditions by using salmon during spawning season as a metaphor. Against all odds salmon swim against currents to get home to spawn.

Theresa is an indigenous woman who is at odds with her disconnected family. When she becomes pregnant she wants to correct that. She and her supportive boyfriend Mikey deal with the difficulties that come their way with an impressive maturity.
Samantha Brown as Theresa and Dillan Meighan-Chiblow give impressive performances.

It’s a complex story that could use a simpler production than Gein Wong’s busy one. There are videos as a backdrop that zoom in and out for some reason while characters are talking. Distracting. Actors could all use firm direction to speak up and not drop their words. The words are the reason we’re in the room; say them clearly please.

These Violent Delights

At the Factory Theatre

Written and directed by Cole Lewis
Cast: Jessica Del Fiero
Jordan Zanni
Alexa Fraser
Johnny Wu
Nicola Rough
Montserrat Videla
Dominique Hat
Evan Medd
Emilyn Sims
Matt Winter
Shira Leuchter

Cole Lewis has written an overly ambitious script that questions why we build monuments, using the story of Romeo and Juliet as the model. When Romeo and Juliet die, the warring Capulets and Montegues declare peace between them and a monument is built to commemorate the love of the two young people. There is some confusing dialogue blaming the Nurse for all the trouble.

Cole Lewis has also directed this production and that too is over extended. A chorus enters wearing tall hats/face coverings that fit over the face that also have a face painted on each one. The language attempts to be poetic but winds up being confusing. To make matters worse someone thought it would be clever to have each speaker’s dialogue pre-empted by a reverbering echo so that when the speaker finally gave her lines it came out garbled because of the echo. A show that is already dense with effort to be esoteric just became incomprehensible. A brave effort is one thing; a lot more simplicity and clarity of what you really want to say would have been better.

www.summerworks.ca

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