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

Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin

Book by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge

Directed by Kate Hennig

Music direction by Paul Sportelli

Choreography by Allison Plamondon

Designed by Judith Bowden

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Sound by John Lott

Cast: Kyle Blair

Kristi Frank

Kyle Golemba

Clara Poppy Kushnir

Kimberley Rampersad

Jay Turvey

Jenny L. Wright

Plus a chorus of 14.

An uneven, laboured  production saved from being forgettable because of the sterling performances of Kyle Blair, Kristi Frank and Jenny L. Wright.

The Story. Jim Hardy is part of a song and dance trio with his girlfriend Lila Dixon and best friend Ted Hanover. But Jim is fed up with show business and wants to quit so he’s bought a farm in Connecticut and expects Lila to go with him. He proposes to her on the last night of their latest gig. But Lila has other plans. She wants to do one last gig and will do it with Ted as a duo. Jim reluctantly goes to Connecticut to start his new life and waits for Lila to join him.

At the farm he meets Linda Mason, the previous owner who had to give up the family farm because of her father’s ill health (he later died) and the fact that she was a teacher and could not continue to run the farm as well. There is an attraction between Linda and Jim immediately.

There is no attraction between Jim and farming. He has no skill in growing anything. But by luck, coincidence, whatever, he’s visited by the chorus men and women of his previous act and they decide to put on a show for the up coming holidays with Linda starring (she sings in a choir) and an idea for the failing farm is born. Jim will open the farm as an inn only for the many and various holidays and put on a themed show for each event. Lila does not return but Ted does and that means competition for Jim with Linda. It seems that in love Ted always horned in and stole Jim’s girlfriends.

The Production.  The picture-perfect town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. was all decked out for the holidays with every lamppost, every tree, every bush and picket fence outlined in white lights up and down the main street. Even the horse-drawn carriage with two brave tourists in the back of the carriage was outlined in white lights.

Judith Bowden designed the pastel-coloured set and beautiful costumes for this feel good show. Initially the set seemed rather paltry with a few pieces indicating the front door of Jim’s farmhouse, a narrow structure for planting, and some other bits and pieces for the rest of the place. This sure made the Festival Theatre stage seem huge and bare.

When Jim’s Holiday Inn shows get off the ground and become more expansive, that’s when designer Judith Bowden’s designs become more lavish with staircases going up and pillars over there and flags etc. that fill the space.

Kate Hennig directs a bright and smiling cast that work hard to be charming. Only Kyle Blair as Jim Hardy and Kristi Frank as Linda Mason seem effortless in pulling off their mutually attracted relationship. There is a lovely chemistry between these two. Blair has an easy grace when he sings and Frank is an accomplished singer and lively dancer as well.

I wish the same could be said of Kyle Golemba as Ted Hanover and Kimberley Rampersad as Lila Dixon. I got no sense of any chemistry between these two characters at all, only effort to seem at ease.

While the 1942 film of Holiday Inn, with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, is not mentioned in the program credits, for some reason Judith Bowden references Fred Astaire in the costume for Ted Hanover in the “Let’s Say It With Firecrackers” number. Astaire often appears in films in which he uses a tie as a belt as he did in the film of Holiday Inn in the “Let’s Say It With Firecrackers” number. So there is Kyle Golemba as Ted Hanover with a wide bit of a tie hanging down from the belt of his pants. This is an unfortunate reference because Golemba is no Fred Astaire. At times I thought that Golemba’s feet got ahead of the beat.

Clara Poppy Kushnir plays a sassy Charlie Winslow and Jenny L Wright is smart-talking, dry-joke-cracking as Louise a woman of many abilities around the place. They provide much needed comic relief.

Allison Plamondon provided the choreography (is it really too much to ask that a theatre program actually note the artist’s biography of credits and not the ‘touchy-feely’ stuff now listed about their first time going to the theatre. Do we really have to go searching on the Shaw’s website for this credit information? But I digress.)

Except for Kyle Blair, Kristi Frank and Jenny L. Wright I found this effort of creating  holiday joy to be plodding and laboured. And when put it in the context of the ticket prices, of which the top price is $183, this production of Holiday Inn is not good enough.

Comment. An immigrant wrote this show. He and his family escaped the Russian pogroms against Jews and landed in America in 1893. He was five years old. His name was Israel Beilin but it was mis-spelled on a piece of sheet music and he kept the ‘misspelling’ of Irving Berlin. Irving Berlin. That name has a kind of music to it. No other composer/lyricist captured the greatness, accomplishment, joy, promise or generosity of America like Irving Berlin. Song after song in Holiday Inn alone—“Steppin’ Out with My Baby”, “Blue Skies,” “It’s a Lovely Day Today,” “Let’s Take An Old-Fashioned Walk,” “Easter Parade”—proves that point. Pity this production isn’t better.

Presented by the Shaw Festival:

Opened: Nov. 23, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 22, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

www.shawfest.com

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At the Coal Mine Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

 

Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis

Directed by Kelli Fox

Set by Anna Treusch

Costumes by Michelle Bohn

Lighting by Steve Lucas

Sound by Deanna H. Choi

Cast: Claire Armstrong

Zarrin Darnell-Martin

Sergio Di Zio

Allegra Fulton

Jai Jai Jones

Nabil Rajo

Alexander Thomas

Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play Between Riverside and Crazy pops with Guirgis’ dazzling dialogue, quirky, full-bodied characters and moral dilemmas with which to grapple. And director Kelli Fox and her wonderful cast, realize all of it.

 The Story. Between Riverside and Crazy was written by Stephen Adly Guirgis, the celebrated and award-winning American playwright.  It’s about Walter Washington, a black, former cop who was shot by a white cop, six times, eight years before and ever since Walter has been seeking justice and financial compensation. He feels the shooting was racially motivated.  His wife died a few years before.

Walter is surrounded by troubled people he has taken in to live in his rent controlled Riverside Drive apartment. There is Junior his son who has been in and out of jail on various offences. There is Junior’s friend, Oswaldo who is out of jail and trying to stay sober. And there is Junior’s girlfriend Lulu who may or may not be an accountant student or a hooker.  Walter’s former partner, Detective O’Connor and her fiancée Lt. Caro urge him to take a settlement. He refuses. He wants his fair deal. While Junior, Oswaldo and Lulu seem to drift in life, and Detective O’Connor and Lt. Caro have their issues too, Walter is the focus and he has his wits about him. He wants the best for everybody and especially himself and has patience to get it. But there are twists and revelations along the way.

 The Production. Anna Treusch has designed Walter’s well-kept apartment. A kitchen is up at one end big enough to have a table and chairs for eating. This leads to the living room with lots of mementos and cushions in neat, comfortable chairs and next to that is the bedroom with a bed that is made with neat pillows and more cushions. One gets the sense that Walter is carrying on from how his late wife kept the place.

When the play begins Walter (Alexander Thomas) sits in his kitchen in a wheelchair. It’s not his chair. It’s his late wife’s and he just likes it around because it reminds him of his wife. Oswaldo (Nabil Rajo) pops raw almonds and tries to tell Walter to eat healthier foods. They are joined by Lulu (Zarrin Darnel-Martin) dressed in tight fitting panties and a bra. She flounces, prances and saunters around the kitchen as if she owns it. She kisses Walter and calls him “Pop” but is not related to him. Later they are joined by Junior (Jai Jai Jones) Walter’s son. He is laid back, secretive, cool.

Walter invites his former partner Det. O’Connor (Claire Armstrong) and her fiancée Lt. Caro (Sergio Di Zio) over for an evening. O’Connor wants him to make a good impression. As Det. O’Connor, Claire Armstrong has that huge smile of wanting to please, showing off her fellah to her old partner and wanting everything to work out. Sergio Di Zio plays Lt. Caro as a man trying to make a good impression so he laughs too hard at Walter’s jokes or something O’Connor says. He drinks too much and O’Connor frets, occasionally indicating that he should tone it down. Both Claire Armstrong and Sergio Di Zio beautifully play their scene as people hiding something that will be revealed soon. And it does come out eventually.

As Walter, Alexander Thomas handles all this with a world-weary awareness and street-smarts. You get Walter’s love and regret for his son; his frustration with a system that has discarded him; his lamenting his lost wife and his big heart. He reads the situation and keeps the information to himself until he needs to make a point. And then he meets his match in a character known simply as Church Lady (Allegra Fulton) and believe me there is nothing simple about this woman.

Alexander Thomas handles Stephen Adly Guirgis’ muscular, musical dialogue with the finesse of a poet. He has the gaze of a poker player and never tips his hand. It’s a fierce performance that never overwhelms the play.

Kelli Fox directs this with a sharp eye and a keen sense of humour. She stages everybody beautifully as well as directs them with care and attention to detail. The humour is direct and subtle at times and always realized in Kelli Fox’s direction of it.

The whole cast is wonderful but special mention should be Allegra Fulton as Church Lady, buttoned up and demur in the beginning. This is a performance of meticulous detail, nuance, subtlety and so much comic invention she is mesmerizing. Church Lady feels that Walter could benefit from being given communion. Church Lady gives that a whole new meaning in a scene that is so sexual and raunchy I think several people crossed their legs as they watched it.  It’s a masterful performance and a terrific production.

Comment. Stephen Adly Guirgis writes about people who are unremarkable in the scheme of things but who just want to get through the day (Note his plays: The Motherfucker With a Hat, Our Lady of 121st Street as other examples). Oswaldo keeps trying to keep sober. Junior wants to get ahead just once and leading them all, steady and methodical, is Walter. He knows “bs” when he hears it and calls it out. He can see through Oswaldo and Junior and even Lulu but he has a big heart and keeps carrying them by letting them live in his apartment. He keeps holding out for what he feels is his rightful outcome in his court case, even when we find out the shady bits of the story. Walter is a man who in his own way—the Stephen Adly Guirgis way—has a certain tenacity, a determination that sees him through. In his own way Walter brings out the good in the people around him. Society might look askance, but it’s fascinating to see these characters get a bit more backbone in their dealings with ‘the system.’

Opened: Nov. 27, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 22, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, approx.

www.coalminetheatre.com

 

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At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Andrea Scott and Nick Green

Directed by Andrea Donaldson and Sedina Fiati

Set by Michelle Tracey

Costumes by Ming Wong

Lighting by Rebecca Picherack

Sound by Cosette Pin

Cast: Monice Peter

Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski

A terrific production of a blazingly intelligent play that challenges our perceptions of race, communication, friendship, respect and how we deal with uncomfortable situations and each other.   

 The Story. Every Day She Rose by Andrea Scott and Nick Green is about two friends, one white and one black, and their different perceptions on the Pride Parade regarding the police presence in the parade and Black Lives Matter who did not want the police there.

Cathy-Ann and Mark are close friends and share Mark’s condo. Cathy-Ann is straight and black. Mark is gay and white. They are preparing to go to the Pride Parade and are getting all costumed up in the pride colours. At a point in the parade they see that a contingent of police are marching in the parade and they are being stopped by a group from Black Lives Matter who protest their presence in the parade.

Cathy-Ann is sympathetic to Black Lives Matter and its political concerns. Mark is happy the police have a presence in the parade because he thinks of the massacre in Orlando, Florida and believes the men were killed in Orlando because they were gay. Cathy-Ann counters by saying gently they were Latino and that’s why they were killed. Obviously these two friends have different perspectives on some thorny issues.

The Production.  The production is terrific. Michelle Tracey has designed a stylish condo. There is a couch, a fridge that is often used and counter space. Cosette Pin has a subtle soundscape of street noise, sirens, cars honking. Mark (Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski is stereotypically  flamboyant in his body language and voice. He wears tight, white shorts, a top and a pride coloured boa.  He is excessively excited about going to the parade and seeing Justin Trudeau who will be marching in the parade.  Cathy-Ann (Monice Peter) is comfortably dressed and wears a large pride coloured pashmina (of sorts). Kudos to designer, Ming Wong. Cathy-Ann is more serious and thoughtful than Mark. They are comfortable with each other. They sit close on the couch, her head on his shoulder. They banter like friends who are used to flipping smart talk back and forth.

Mark describes seeing Justin Trudeau and screaming his name several times. Cathy-Ann looks at him with crinkled eyebrows. Mark continues describing how they negotiated various sections of the parade until they came to that section with the police marching and how they were stopped by a contingent of Black Lives Matter who don’t want them in the parade at all. That’s when Cathy-Ann expresses that she supports Black Lives Matter in this regard. Mark on the other hand is happy they are there for protection and cites the Orlando massacre.

Mark and Cathy-Ann are close friends but it’s obvious from their different perceptions of the police and Black Lives Matter there are cracks in that relationship. Earlier in the apartment he calls her “girlfriend” with a lilt in his voice as if he was black. She tells him not to call her that (“in that way” is implied). He does again as a joke.  I thought that was really telling. He’s not listening to her request, or if he is he is not respecting her enough to stop calling her “girlfriend” and in the way he is saying it.

As they continue their conversation about race Cathy-Ann says that when she sees a group of racially different people she just sees “people”. But she wants Mark to see her as a black woman first because that’s how she perceives herself.

With every shift in perception of the characters we are given so much to parse, weigh, consider and reflect upon not only from the characters’ point of view but from ours. And then the playwrights weigh in as well.

As the characters in the play wrangle, the “actors” Monice Peter and Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski step out of the set and ‘the play’ and then take on the personas of the playwrights Andrea Scott and Nick Green, respectively, who then discuss the scene and how it’s working or not. This shift is noted with a quick change in the lighting by Rebecca Picherack.  Their personalities are very different from the characters of Cathy-Ann and Mark but their skin colour is not. Andrea Scott is black and Nick Green is white.

This play is not only an examination of different perspectives involving race etc. it’s also an observation in play-writing when one playwright is black and one is white. At one point the character of Andrea says that she was eager to collaborate with Nick but not if it meant she was just tagging along and he was really the lead writer. The character of Nick says that he didn’t want that either.

In their easy conversation Nick is very eager to accommodate Andrea’s ideas, very often seeing her point of view. Initially I find that refreshing but then wonder is that because he has the confidence of being white. Monice Peter illuminates Andrea’s watchfulness as if she is preparing for Nick to ‘take over.’ In fact there is a scene in which that does happen, it’s so delicately created by co-directors Andrea Donaldson and Sedina Fiati. Monice Peter as Andrea is diplomatic in handling that attempt to take over, but she also stands her ground. Nothing is so overstated as to unbalance the play, but it’s interesting to see how all concerned make us notice, look and see what is carefully presented.

Andrea and Nick worry that the character of Mark is unlikable and work to make him more likable. I didn’t find him unlikable as much as I found him silly, frivolous and superficial next to the more serious Cathy-Ann. The ‘playwrights’ discuss how these two different characters could be friends; how they met; the back stories. They check the script on their laptops. It’s all heightened theatricality.

At one point Nick asks Andrea something along the lines of how she copes with disappointment in the work etc. She says something like, “every day you rise”—you get up and try again. Beautiful. And how telling that the title now focuses on her with Every Day She Rose.

It’s also interesting to note that at times the clear lines between the characters ‘in the play’ and the ‘characters’ of the playwrights of the play get intentionally blurry in their attitudes and politics. Conflict resolution between the character varies greatly.

To be scrupulously fair Every Day She Rose is co-directed by Andrea Donaldson who is white and Sedina Fiati who is black. They each bring their own sensibilities to the play but also collaborate in realizing the subtle and nuanced moments in the play and the characters.

Comment. I love the play and the production. I loved the perception of race relations both writers have. I love the boldness of the creation and the fact that the focus is on such  thorny issues. I loved that both writers seemed to have written for both characters rather than Nick writing only for Mark (white) and Andrea writing only for Cathy-Ann (black) Loved that melding. I loved that the play gets us thinking about our perceptions of race, skin colour, Black Lives Matter, the police, communication, friendship and respect.

Every Day She Rose is a bracing, highly charged, funny, intelligent play and it’s important.

Produced by Nightwood Theatre.

Opened: Nov. 26, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 8, 2019.

Running Time: 70 minutes, no intermission.

www.nightwoodtheatre.net

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At Hart House Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Kaitlyn Riordan

Inspired by and adapted from the works of William Shakespeare

Directed by Eva Barrie.

Set by Rachel Forbes

Costumes by Julia Kim

Lighting by Chris Malkowski

Sound by Andy Trithardt

Cast: Whitney K. Ampadu

Felix Beauchamp

Ophilia Davis

John Echano

Patrick Fowler

Margaret Hild

Dixon John

Marley Kajan

Nelvin Law

Melanie Leon

JD Leslie

Alexandra Milne

Rahul Mishra

Jennifer Séguin

athena kaitlin trinh

Samantha Vu

Hardi Zala

Yusuf Zine

Kaitlyn Riordan and Eva Barrie have done interesting work with the theatre company Shakespeare in the Ruff as Co-Artistic Directors, focusing on Shakespeare’s plays with a feminist view. To that end Riordan adapted Julius Caesar a few years ago and presented the play (still with the same outcome for poor Caesar) but from the women’s point of view. They presented their production in Withrow Park two summers ago. Eva Barrie is revisiting the play with a new cast, presenting it in Hart House Theatre.

The focus is still on the women. Riordan in her adaptation and Barrie in her direction believe that the women in Shakespeare’s plays, while often silent are smarter than the men in charge. Caesar’s wife Calpurnia begged him not to go to the Senate house and for a while he agreed not to go. But then he changed his mind and went. That didn’t work out too well for him as we know. Brutus’ wife Portia knew something was wrong and urged him to share it with her. Smart woman. Portia begged Brutus not to let Antony speak after Caesar’s murder. He didn’t listen to her.

In Riordan’s adaptation she has culled lines from many of Shakespeare’s plays for her version: Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III, some sonnets, even from the poem Fortune and Men’s Eyes. In this version Brutus’ mother Servilia (a strong Alexandra Milne) is in charge, dictating how he should progress in his career even going to far as to interfere in his marriage with Portia. The women know how to decipher the political climate; how to read an emotional charged situation and how to defuse it. It’s a bold and fascinating idea.

Again, director Eva Barrie uses the space of Hart House Theatre. Characters enter down aisles, or are the rabble speaking from the audience. The stage is well used as well. This is a very young cast of varying abilities with the text. One admires the commitment.

athena kaitlin trihn is very confident as Portia. She conveys the roiling emotions Portia is contending with as well as her sharp intellect and perceptions. Equally impressive is Whitney K. Ampadu as Calpurnia. Felix Beauchamp as Brutus has a command of the language is conveys Brutus’ dignity and class.

It was good to see the production again with such a young cast so committed to the work.

Hart House Theatre Presents:

From: Nov. 15, 2019.

Closes: Nov. 30, 2019.

Running Time: 1 hour and 55 minutes, no intermission.

www.harthousetheatre.ca

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 At Factory Theatre, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Robert Chafe

Directed by Jillian Keiley

Original music composed and arranged by The Once

Musical direction by Kellie Walsh

Set and costumes by Shawn Kerwin

Lighting by Leigh Ann Vardy

Sound by Brian Kenny

Cast: Darryl Hopkins

Steve O’Connell

Berni Stapleton

Musicians: Brianna Gosse

Steve Maloney

Kevin Woolridge

The wonderful life of Dr. Jon Lien gets the Artistic Fraud vivid treatment revealing his heart, brains and fearlessness as well as the people around him who loved and revered him. 

The Story.  Dr. Jon Lien was raised in South Dakota on farms.  He loved wildlife and got a degree in animal behaviour and landed a job teaching at Memorial University in Newfoundland, studying small birds in 1978. By accident he got interested in whales.  One day a fisherman called him to help free a whale caught in his nets.  That was the beginning of Dr. Lien’s career as the Whale Man.  Over his career he freed 500 whales.

It was vital to free them as carefully as possible to save the whale and to save as much of the fisherman’s nets as possible—a ruined net could ruin the fisherman’s livelihood.

The Production. Shawn Kerwin has designed a circular set with a section in the middle that dips into another level. The band of three sit in chairs along the perimeter of the circle. There are other chairs for the other three cast members, also situated along the perimeter. The cast and band are on stage for the whole play either watching a scene or involved in it. The first sounds we hear are odd chirpy, high pitched sounds. Whales communicating. I smile.

Steve O’Connell as Dr. Jon Lien sits in a wheelchair in the centre of the circle, at the beginning of the play and really the end of his life. He can’t speak; is not very aware of what is happening around him; can’t move really. Even in this state he seems inquisitive. O’Connell, a robust man instills a joy of life and curiosity in this performance.

Jon Lien’s devoted wife Judy, played with quiet attention by Berni Stapleton, is always there; always ready with a “my darling” as her term of endearment for him. The last character is Wayne (Darryl Hopkins), Jon Lien’s long time friend and assistant in his various calls to save whales. As Wayne, Darryl Hopkins is matter of fact, direct, daring because Jon Lien made him so and caring.

Between Breaths is directed by Jillian Keiley with her usual vivid sense of imagery and  economic movement. Robert Chafe’s play progresses backwards from Jon’s dying days to when he is healthy and fit.  This is neatly suggested when Jon gets out of his wheelchair, walks around the circle of the set followed by Judy who gives him a walker, then a cane, and then he is mobile and vibrant.

Jon freeing the whales from nets etc. is masterfully depicted.  Jon and Wayne went out in an inflatable dinghy to get close to the trapped whale, parking the dinghy almost on the whale’s back. Jon would flip his head over the side and under the water to see how the whale was trapped and then cut away at the ropes with a knife. To suggest this Steve O’Connell as Jon lies across the seat of a wood chair and with a sound effect of splashing water, O’Connell puts his head down past the seat. Then he flips his arms under the chair fingering and flipping at the ropes tied around the legs of the chair until he has undone the ropes and ‘frees’ the whale.

The Once play music that is stirring and evocative. But I found it a bit of over-kill that both the band and the actors are all microphoned. It’s a small theatre; why the need of the amplification at all? And at times I think that the music and the talking are drowning each other out. Very distracting.

Robert Chafe’s text is poetic, brave, imaginative and certainly captures the intense curiosity of Jon Lien. There is a reference to an accident that might have aided his physical and mental decline and I thought it might have been with a whale, but in fact it was from a car accident….a case of the text leading in one direction but really going in another. Or perhaps the fault is mine in the assumption.

But the play and the production beautifully depicted the huge life Jon Lien and his important presence in Newfoundland.  Here was a man so curious, so fearless in his determination to save whales and help fishermen and it’s all there in this compelling production.

Factory Theatre presents an Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland production:

Began: Nov. 20, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 8, 2019.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

www.factorytheatre.ca

 

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Review: BUFFOON

by Lynn on November 21, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Tarragon Extra Space, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Anosh Irani

Directed by Richard Rose

Costume by Kathleen Johnston

Lighting by Jason Hand

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Anand Rajaram

The Story. Felix is in prison. He gives his story about who he is; how he was born into the circus; how his parents were trapeze artists and what finally lead him to this place. Gripping.

 The Production. Master performer Anand Rajaram makes you work harder. If you see a show entitled Buffoon you look up the many and various definitions of the word. It could be a person whose behaviour and antics are silly and make us laugh. It could be a clown in a circus. It could be a person so emotionally needy they have to show off to get attention. It could be a person laughing on the outside and emotionally tortured on the inside.  When you see Rajaram play Felix in Buffoon you realize all these definitions are apt and don’t even come close to explain what is going on in this deeply layered, unsettling character.

The stage is bare except for a metal chair centre stage. (Strangely there is no set design credit.)  There is a florescent light high up on the back wall. There is a doorway stage right.

Felix (Anand Rajaram) enters through the door. His face is covered in white as per clown make-up. He says its chalk. Costume designer Kathleen Johnston has dressed him in a drab prison jump suit. Felix is awkward, perhaps shy, perhaps fearful. Anand Rajaram as Felix gets our attention immediately. He has the facial make-up of a clown but this is no laughing matter (regardless of the initial titters from a few in the audience. They get the message soon enough).

He was born in the circus. His parents were trapeze artists.  His mother was The Flying Olga, an imperious, glamourous, cigarette-smoking mystery. His father Frank was her partner, catching her as they did their routine high above the audience. Felix was an inconvenience to his mother. She never loved him as a mother should or would. His father was not much better but Felix loved him. ‘Smile the ticket taker brought him up in a sense, gave him books to read. “Moby Dick” was the first one.

Felix observed his parents’ arguments on the act, his mother’s infidelity with another trapeze artist, his father’s devastating capitulation and how Felix found love and his own disappointment.

Rajaram plays each character and they are all clearly, economically defined in Rajaram’s masterful performance. As Olga, Rajaram sits sideways in the chair, his hand delicately holding a cigarette that is sucked on as if it’s a breath of life. As his father Frank, Rajaram stands tall arms and fists clenched to bulging muscle. Felix and his love Aja are equally beautifully defined: she with a flick of her (imaginary) hair, he with wide-eyed wonder that she loves him. They go back and forth in conversation that is always clear. Rajaram goes from character to character with a turn of his body, a different position in the chair, a flick of the hand. Masterful.

The story fluctuates from Felix’s past to his present in prison. When we are back in prison, Jason Hand’s lighting changes and the florescent light illuminates. When we are in the past, the florescent light is off and the lights illuminating his past come on. The storytelling is both funny and heartbreaking.

Richard Rose directs this with the same clarity and economy as Rajaram performs it. Anosh Irani has written such a quietly dense, complex story of yearning, love-denied and love given, a story of a soul looking for acceptance. The character of Felix slowly, carefully reveals himself through his funny observations. Richard Rose in his direction and Anand Rajaram in his nuanced performance never rush a scene. Felix and his story evolve delicately and we are gripped every step of the way.

Deep in the play Anosh Irani takes a sharp turn in the story that catches us up short, but he’s so gifted a storyteller we hold on. And we find out who Felix is really telling the story to. Stunning. It’s a beautifully written story of an isolated soul and his need to belong and be loved and what happens when both are denied, and that even then, when he least expects it, there is hope.

Comment. Anosh Irani is a wonderful playwright as seen in his plays Bombay Black  and Men in White. Add Buffoon to this list. And you won’t find a finer, funnier more soulful buffoon than Anand Rajaram. He gives a master class in performance.

Tarragon Theatre Presents:

Opened: Nov. 20, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 15, 2019.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

www.tarragontheatre.com

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At Theatre Passe Muraille, Backspace

Written by Stef Smith

Directed by Will King

Set by Stephen King

Costumes by Julia Kim

Sound by Will King

Lighting by Chin Palapine

Cast: Alex Clay

Madryn McCabe

Sappho Hansen Smythe

An interesting idea in a clumsy play given an unfortunate over-stuffed production.

The Story. Polly and Owen are a loving couple. He works in a hospital and she is a corporate lawyer in a stressful job. He brings her a black box that arrived at the hospital in the hopes it would relax her. It does and we soon learn it does much more.

The Production. Playwright Stef Smith is writing about how technology takes over our lives and is addictive in an insidious way. In the case of the black box it gave Polly a feeling of peace and calm that she craved more and more which caused Owen to be very concerned about her health and welfare.

It’s a fascinating idea but Stef Smith’s writing is often clumsy and repetitive—a character repeats a line again and again and again but it soon loses its power. I got to the point in the production thinking that she didn’t know how to write sharper and clearer and so just repeated a line.

The production does not help in clarifying the point. I can’t remember the last time I saw such a small stage so ill-used as the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace stage is in Stephen King’s stuffed set. The set is on two levels. On the upper level is Polly’s desk and chair. To the left of that is a clunky room divider. On the lower level is a couch, a table in front of it, a huge chair to the left of that with a lower table-thing to the side of it. Up from that is a counter beside the room divider. Too much. All this clutter of furnishings left little room for either character to negotiate the space with any kind of ease. The only things that should have been on that set are Polly’s desk and chair and the couch where Polly and Own sat for a few scenes. Every thing else should have been removed because it’s unnecessary. You don’t have an over-stuff chair just because you might put a character on it, ONCE.

The pace of director Will King’s production seemed too slow, what with all the maneuvering of the characters around the obstacle course of the set. He also designed the sound and I found even that too loud. The voice of the black box was blaring. We are lead to believe it was calming. It’s the Backspace. It’s small. Lower all the sound to half blaring.

Madryn McCabe as Polly and Alex Clay as Owen have charm but at times I found them so tentative in their delivery I wondered if they had enough rehearsal.

Comment. Seven Siblings Theatre Company is a small independent theatre company that has been doing challenging plays for several years. I admire their guts and their ambition. Girl in the Machine is not their finest hour.

Produced by Seven Siblings Theatre:

Began: Nov. 14, 2019.

Closes: Nov. 24, 2019.

Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission.

sevensiblingstheatreco@gmail.com

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Review: THE WAGER

by Lynn on November 20, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Theatre Passe Muraille, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Michael Gordon Spence.

Directed by Jacquie P.A. Thomas

Set by Michael Gordon Spence

Lighting and projections by Laird MacDonald

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Costumes by Sarah Delignies

Cast: Olivia Croft

Teiya Kasahara

François MacDonald

Michael Gordon Spence

Theatre Gargantua has been creating compelling, provocative multi-disciplinary, physical theatre since 1992. They begin with a subject to explore which is always socially relevant, apply a concept to present it and then distill and focus on it through rehearsals and questioning for two years before they present it.

This year the company presents The Wager which explores the thorny world of misinformation. Never before have we had so much information at our fingertips through social media etc. and therefore access to more misinformation as well. Misinformation is readily available on the internet etc. A trick is how to sift through all this stuff for the truth. What interests Theatre Gargantua with The Wager are the people who don’t believe the facts no matter how many facts with which they are presented.

From the programme: “Why people believe strange things, from the relatively benign flat-earthers to the outright dangerous climate-change deniers, anti-vaxxers and fact altering politicians, is the conundrum that initiated our current artistic endeavour. The true story of Alfred Russel Wallace and his ill-advised wager with flat-earthers served as an irresistible allegory for our exploration. “

With the cast playing musical instruments, using the simplest of props—ladders are the prop of favour for this show—projections, and a bracing physicality, the cast presents their thesis.

In 1870 Alfred Russel Wallace, the renowned biogeographer and the co-creator of the theory of evolution with Charles Darwin, accepted a £500 wager from John Hampden. Mr. Hampden, wealthy and a flat-earth believer, wagered that money to any scientist to prove the earth was round. Wallace thought it would be easy. With a ladder and a telescope and calculations he presented his findings. All Hampden needed to do was climb the ladder and look through the telescope. He refused. He said that he knew what he believed and nobody was going to change his mind. That stunned Wallace. (By the way: In Jacquie P.A. Thomas and Michael Gordon Spence’s Artistic Director’s note they spell Russell (as in Alfred Russell Wallace with two l’s. Various sources on the internet spell it with one l. I checked various places—of course they could all be copying the spelling from one source to another, but I don’t think so. “Russel” it is).

Hampden’s second was asked to look through the telescope. That person did take a look but could not ‘see’ what Wallace had pointed out proving his theory that the earth was round. More shock and confusion. In the end Wallace won the wager but Hampden spent the rest of his life bedeviling Wallace, almost ruining him. Wallace was none too good with finances (according to the internet—yes, I checked there).

Theatre Gargantua explores the debunked theory that vaccinations cause autism. The doctor who came up with this bogus theory was discredited but parents still refused to have their children vaccinated sometimes with disastrous results.

To many intelligent people climate change is a gigantic hoax, a conspiracy theory.  The growing number of people who chose to ignore the facts, or are not curious about the truth or another side of the story and are close-minded is alarming. According to the company at Theatre Gargantua these beliefs “not only defy logic but could be threatening our existence on the planet. The stakes could not be higher.” Agreed.

But here’s my concern with The Wager? Why do these nay-sayers deserve a production, or investigation or more than a nano-second of query? As soon as Hampden said nothing would change his mind about the earth being flat that was the end of the argument. If people want to ignore the science about vaccinations being useful in eradicating disease or the devastating existence of climate change, that is the end of the argument. To continue to try and change this blinkered way of thinking is the real stupidity. I don’t get the sense that Theatre Gargantua is looking deeper than the concern that nay-sayers defy logic and they are getting larger in number. T’was ever thus. So?

An unattributed quote from Facebook: “In life it is important to know when to stop arguing with people and simply let them be wrong.”

Michael Gordon Spence’s text is thoughtful, well-written and intriguing. I do query the inclusion of a speech by a character who says she is unimportant but that she is calling out a man who is accomplished, notable and a leader in society as someone who obviously did her some kind of (sexual) injury, one assumes.  She must speak up about it. I don’t think this item is appropriate in a show about scientific facts and nay-sayers. Conspicuous by its absence is any comment on the scientific proof of homosexuality vs the erroneous thought that it’s a lifestyle choice. I thought that absence interesting too. I am glad I saw this production, as I always am with this company. It got me thinking past their thesis. I just wish I knew why they created a show about people who don’t deserve one.

Change does not happen because of nay-sayers. Change happens when informed people or even one person says, “no, this is wrong and here’s the proof. You don’t want to believe it without thinking? Get out of my face. I/we have a world to save.” Who knows, if one let’s ones imagination run wild one can imagine that climate change awareness will get a universal boost from—I don’t know—a 16 year old kid from say, Sweden who (let me go out on a limb here) has Asperger’s Syndrome. Now that would be something.

Theatre Gargantual presents:

Opened: Nov. 15, 2019.

Closes: Nov. 30, 2019.

Running Time: 80 minutes, approx.

www.artsboxoffice.ca

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

Written by Stéphane Brulotte

Translated by John Van Burek

Directed by Majdi Bou-Matar

Set and costumes by Teresa Przybylski

Lighting by Jennifer Lennon

Soundscape by Daniel Morphy

Cast: Saïd Benyoucef

Adam Paolozza

Background. On December 12, 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi a 26 year old Tunisian street vendor was so frustrated by the corrupt government bureaucracy that he set himself on fire. He had three degree burns over 90% of his body and died. It is said that event was the beginning of the Arab spring, protests across the Arab world against corruption.

The Story. Besbouss- Autopsy of a Revolt references Bouazizi’s suicide as Dr. Karim Djebara (Saïd Benyoucef) a forensic pathologist is given the job of doing the autopsy and proving the government did not beat up Bouazizi before hand and is therefore innocent of wrongdoing. Immediately we are alerted that all is not right.

Bouazizi (Adam Paolozza) was selling his wares without a permit. He objected to various departments trying to fix the situation. It was frustrating. He could not get straight answers. He tried to follow the procedure but was thwarted at every turn. In frustration he doused himself with gasoline, lit a lighter and immolated himself.

We are told in Stéphane Brulotte’s playwright’s program note that Bouazizi’s mother called him “Besbouss” meaning: “The one we want to kiss.” The dialogue in the play says “Besbouss” “means covered in kisses.” The term of endearment is clear. As is the irony—would a young man so warranting in kisses be so dramatic as to set fire to himself unless the cause was so important?

The Production.  The production is directed by the hugely gifted Majdi Bou-Matar. While Bou-Matar came to Canada (he lives in Kitchener) from his native Lebanon his heart and mind are certainly focused on the revolution that is happening across Lebanon now. It certainly informs this production.  Bou-Matar brings a vivid sense of imagery to his productions and there is that as well as a muscularity and sensitivity in every aspect of Besbouss-Autopsy of a Revolt.

Designer Teresa Przybylski has envisioned a cold, claustrophobic world in her set design. The walls appear to be made of dull metal and they tilt in to give a sense of closing in on the people in it. A window is high up the wall but one doesn’t sense there is light in there. There is a door up right. A gurney is in the middle of the room and a body-bag is on it. It’s obvious there is a body inside the bag but after careful watching I could not see the rise and fall of a person breathing inside the bag.

Dr. Karim Djebara comes into the room with his medical bag and stands a long time looking at the body bag on the gurney. He sets about taking out his white lab coat from his medical bag. He talks to himself and the body. He carefully unzips the body bag revealing the grey almost naked body of Bouazizi. There are bits of bandages on him and a cloth jockstrap of sorts containing his genitals. He is bald and absolutely still.

Dr. Djebara knew Bouazizi years before when they were both younger. He is not happy to be there and has contempt for Bouazizi for what he has done. He is also angry because he has to tow the company line. He has to prove that Bouazizi was not slapped or hit or physically mistreated in any way for the purposes of the autopsy. We learn that Djebara is the go-to man for the government to cover up any wrong-doing. He goes along with it to protect his family, himself and his career. But this job is different. While I look carefully at Adam Paolozza lying in still repose, not breathing, the body then comes to life, twitching, contorting and talking. It’s to his skill as a movement based performer that Paolozza appears not to be breathing on that slab when of course he has to be.

Djebara and the spirit of Bouazizi engage. Bouazizi as played by Paolozza is lithe, agile, graceful, almost balletic and athletic. Paolozza never raises his voice. He doesn’t have to. Djebara engages realizes that his conscience is being tested and raised. It’s an interesting confrontation.

There is a whole aggressive procedure as various types of gels and liquids are spread over Bouazizi’s body to remove the burnt skin so that Djebara can see if there is bruising on. The stuff gets on the walls, Djebara’s pristine white lab coat and various surfaces. I wonder why the play requires this exercise. Since Djebara is the only one in the room doing the autopsy and he’s lied before about the government’s involvement with violence and torture, what difference does it make if he doesn’t do all this smearing etc.? A fault in the play?

Saïd Benyoucef is a celebrated actor in Montreal, performing regularly in French and Arabic. This is his first performance in English. I must confess I found it difficult understanding him when he talked; his accent is so pronounced that I miss a lot of what he says in spite of listening hard. It’s obvious both actors are committed to the project, I just wish I could have understood Saïd Benyoucef better.

I’m grateful that Majdi Bou-Matar is back in Toronto directing—we see too little of his work here. I first saw his breathtaking production of The Last 15 Seconds at the Backspace of Theatre Passe Muraille. Then at Summerworks a year ago he directed Adrenaline by Ahmed Maree.  Both are harrowing stories of immigrants and people dealing with horrific events in their home countries. Bou-Matar will be returning to Toronto with two shows: Suitcase and Adrenaline in the new year. Don’t miss them.

Comment. Majdi Bou-Matar creates theatre in Kitchener. For about 10 years he curated the IMPACT Festival of international productions in Kitchener. I saw several stunning productions of this past festival from Tunisia, Ecuador, Iran, Six Nations from Toronto (a devastating piece called The Mush Hole about residential schools) and Montreal. The breadth and quality of the productions programmed are astonishing. Majdi Bou-Matar’s determination, artistry and vision are impressive and much needed. Why isn’t Majdi Bou-Matar in Toronto at Harbourfront, resurrecting the moribund World Stage Festival? He would be perfect. Just sayin’.

Pleiades Theatre in association with Crow’s Theatre presents:

Began: Nov. 7, 2019.

Closes: Nov.20, 2019.

Running Time: 80 minutes.

www.pleiadestheatre.org

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At Young People’s Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

 

Book by Brian Hill

Music and lyrics by Neil Bartram

Directed by Sheila McCarthy

Music director, David Terriault

Choreography by Julie Tomaino

Set and costumes by Joanna Yu

Lighting by Louise Guinand

Sound by Adam Harendorf

Cast: Malindi Ayienga

Noah Beemer

Joel Cumber

Susan Henley

Arinea Hermans

Sierra Holder

Connor Lucas

Jacob Macinnis

Kelsey Verzotti

Shawn Wright

The charming story of a marionette who wanted to be a boy gets  the musical theatre treatment. Lovely production but who was the compose/lyricist thinking about when he wrote these complex, esoteric lyrics?

 The Story.  Of course the show, The Adventures of Pinocchio is based on the book of the same name written by Italian writer, Carlo Collodi in 1881. It’s been adapted here by Brian Hill with music and lyrics by Neil Bartram.

It is about a wooden marionette named Pinocchio who wanted to really be a little boy. Pinocchio was created by Geppetto a master wood caver. He recently lost his wife Alice to illness. They always wanted a son so Geppetto carved the wooden puppet out of a special tree as a substitute son. Geppetto wanted Pinocchio to stay home with him and go to school. Geppetto sold his coat to get the money for an ABC book that Pinocchio could take to school.  Pinocchio wanted to explore the world. So he sold the book to buy a ticket to a puppet show.

Naturally when Pinocchio left home he was so trusting and innocent he got into trouble. He was watched over by a magical Blue Fairy who tried to keep him on the straight and narrow. And then there was the business about his lying. Every time he told a lie his nose grew.  He had to learn to stop lying and be a better “human” being and think of others before he could be human.

The Production and Comment. I liked it a lot. Johanna Yu designed the set and costumes and they are wonderfully inventive. Geppetto chisels at a round hunk of wood and bits and pieces fall away revealing the arms and legs of the marionette inside. Very clever.

When Pinocchio appears in ‘human form’ (Connor Lucas) he has chisel and joint marks-tattoos on his arms and legs. When he becomes human, discovering the qualities of honesty, integrity and selflessness, characters remove the tattooed sleeves from his arms and legs.

There is a whale in pieces which when strung together create an impressive creature that nearly eats Pinocchio and Geppetto. Again, terrifically clever.

The Blue Fairy is played by Malindi Ayienga with a matter of fact directness and not one trace of sentimentality.  She guides Pinocchio with a firm hand and voice and if you want to believe the Blue Fairy is the ghost of Geppetto’s wife looking out for their ‘son’ then go for it. In those moments Ayienga plays her with confidence and kindness. Rather than some mechanical device that elongates Pinocchio’s nose when he lies, the Blue Fairy affixes noses of different lengths on his existing nose, depending on the size of the lie.

Pinocchio is played by Connor Lucas with an innocence that is charming. And the transformation when he becomes a boy is moving.  Shawn Wright as Geppetto is loving and sweet as well as full of conviction. In fact the whole cast is terrific. The show is directed with imagination and care by Sheila McCarthy who knows a thing or two about using ones imagination and in finding humour and humanity in a beloved story.

I did have some quibbles.  While I liked the production a lot it is tricky when we are told Geppetto can’t afford more wood for his models so he uses whatever wood he has in the house to make his stuff. He even used the beams in the roof and we are lead to believe there is no more wood. How then to explain a wood door to represent Geppetto’s house and a wood counter top in the house?  Perhaps a blip of a mistake?

Also this show is supposed to be for kids 5-years-old and up and I think Neil Bartram’s lyrics are too sophisticated. There’s one lyric using the word “prosaic.” Now what five-year-old kid will know that? More often than not I get the sense that Neil Bartram is showing off his rhyming skills at the expense of his audience. I must confess I don’t know how old Bartram thinks his target kid audience is.  Also the songs in some cases go on too long. Kids let you know they are unhappy or not interested because they fidget.  At times in my school matinee performance the place seems a mass of fidgeting kids, including me.  I’d recommend this for older kids, but not 5-years-old.

Young People’s Theatre presents:

Opened: Nov. 14, 2019.

Closes: Jan. 5, 2019.

Running Time: 75 minutes.

www.youngpeoplestheatre.org

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