At Young People’s Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Walt Disney Film

Original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman

Book by Julian Fellowes

New songs and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe

Directed by Thom Allison

Choreography by Kerry Gage

Music direction by Wayne Gwillim

Set by Brandon Kleiman

Costumes by William Layton

Lighting by Jason Hand

Sound by William Fallon

Cast: Jak Barradell

Jewelle Blackman

Kyle Blair

Shane Carty

Jarret Cody

Jessie Cox

Starr Domingue

Kyle Golemba

Aisha Jarvis

Haley Lewis

Jordan Mah

Jade Repeta

Vanessa Sears

Sarah Lynn Strange

A joyful, sublime production.

The Story. Sure this is a musical partially based on the Walt Disney film but boy is it prickly. Mary Poppins is a most peculiar Nanny. She specializes in dysfunctional families and the Banks family is her latest project. The father, Mr. Banks is an uptight man who works in a bank and who needs a bit of fun in his life but it was bashed out of him by his mean-spirited nanny when he was a boy. His wife, Mrs. Banks only wants to support him but he doesn’t want to worry her so he tells her nothing of his work at the bank. The children are Michael, who wants nothing more than to fly kites with his father, and Jane who probably just wants a hug from him. Enter Mary Poppins.

She instills discipline in the Jane and Michael. They have activities she finds very important. They take walks in the park; meet Bert the chimney sweep; learn to appreciate nature, respect people they think are lesser; learn how to play and have fun and learn to crack their father’s stern exterior.

 The Production. Brandon Kleiman’s set is efficient in that the set pieces slide on and off with ease. A door frame, a fence, a desk, simple stuff to set a scene. Director Thom Allison stages with ease and confidence. The pace is quick, economical and gets the job done. His direction also brings out the prickliness in the script and the neediness of all the characters involved.

Vanessa Sears is a wonder as Mary Poppins. She is prim, proper, straight backed, matter of fact and precise in her discipline of Jane and Michael. She is also liberal with her sense of whimsy. Who else would think of using sugar to help medicine go down? She takes Jane and Michael to the park to play. She shows them a different, more inclusive way to have fun. She instructs them to respect nature and the people in it. No person should be shunned because they are dirty or poor. Those children learn that in a shot from this formidable teacher. Bert the chimney sweep loves her—how could he not. Michael loves her—how could he not—and says so. Sears’ Mary Poppins takes all this with a slight, tight smile, but she doesn’t say “I love you too” to Michael. I just love that telling moment. She has a job to do and it is not to fall in love with everybody with whom she comes in contact. It’s to fix this dysfunctional family and she does it with strict kindness, consideration and a kite. And she sings like a dream.

Kyle Blair plays Bert with a gracious ease. He is laid-back but always present. And he sings and dances beautifully as does the whole cast.

Shane Carty is such a fine actor. He plays Mr. Banks as a confined man who can’t bend. He is constricted by a life of no hugs or affection starting with his parents and going on to a horror of a nanny. He wanted to play but had no chance. Then miraculously he married and had children but didn’t know what to do with them. He had no experience. Thank heaven for Mary Poppins. Carty is impatient, irritated, frustrated, but deep inside him is a glint of kindness and that makes all the difference. When his children teach him to play, he blossoms. It’s lovely seeing that transformation. Helping him along to being a better husband and parent is Jewell Blackman as Mrs. Banks. This is a woman who wants to be an equal partner with her husband while he doesn’t want her to worry. She teaches him that worry can be overcome with pluck and grit.

Comment. Mary Poppins (The Broadway Musical) is a perfect show for the holidays, any day, families, children, adults and those in between. It’s joyous, not sugar sweet, touching, and thought provoking.

Produced by Young People’s Theatre

Opened: Nov. 8, 2018.

Closes: Jan. 6, 2019.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca

 

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At the Factory Theatre, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Created by Michael Rubenfeld and Sarah Garton Stanley with Mary Berchard and Katka Reszke.

Directed by Sarah Garton Stanley

Scenography by Trevor Schwellnus

Sound by Lion Smith

Cast: Mary Berchard

Katka Reszke

Michael Rubenfeld

This is a play about a mother and son who find a new peace between them as they explore their family roots in Poland. Their discoveries there are unexpected and intriguing resulting in a new awareness about the country.

The Story. This is a play about a son and mother who love each other but can’t stand to be in each other’s company for a long time. The characters are played by Michael Rubenfeld and Mary Berchard, who are actually son and mother.  Rubenfeld is a theatre maker, creator, playwright, artistic director. His mother Mary is not of the theatre.

Rubenfeld suggested that to resolve this conflict they travel to Poland together to explore their Jewish roots.  Their whole family came from Poland. His grandmother survived Auschwitz but they certainly lost a lot of family there.  Rubenfeld’s mother Mary agrees as long as they do the whole thing together. She even creates a contract for the both of them to keep it formal and serious.  Rubenfeld agrees, but then something happens. He falls in love with Magda Kowalewska, a Polish Jewish woman he meets at a conference in Montreal. She was the keynote speaker talking about the renaissance of Jewish life in Poland; that many Poles hid Jews and were killed for it; that there is now a vibrant Jewish life in Poland part of which is called ‘the unexpected generation’. Rubenfeld found that Magda dispelled many of his prejudices that he had about Poland and he wanted to go to Poland as soon as he could to keep up the relationship with her. Where does this leave his mother with whom he promised to go to Poland. This is one of the dilemma’s of the piece.

Rubenfeld said he wanted to go to Auschwitz to cry. On a personal note I can totally understand that sentiment because that’s how I felt about the place when I went there in 1977.

 The Production. Michael Rubenfeld and his co-creator and director Sarah Garton Stanley, have created an energetic, playful, yet earnest production—certainly wanting to go to Poland on a trip of discovery makes this an earnest enterprise, considering what happened to Rubenfeld’s family there.

As the audience files in Michael Rubenfeld, Mary Berchard and Katka Reszke are already on stage watching the audience file in, greeting those they know with a wave and a smile. They are also welcoming to those they don’t know. There is a projection of a crowd of people on the whole back wall.

Rubenfeld and his mother tie themselves together with a long flat expanse of material. There is room for them to move around the space with plenty of distance between them, but they are nonetheless tethered to each other—tied by their prickly, loving relationship, their history and their determination to visit that troubling country.

Rubenfeld is the narrator of the piece. He introduces his mother Mary Berchard and the person they hired as a translator, Katka Reszke. Reszke also videotapes much of the action of the show that is then projected on the back wall. Trevor Schwellnus, master of technology, is also the scenographer—there is a movable comfortable seat for Berchard and a chair and table stage left for Reszke.

Rubenfeld banters with his mother Mary Berchard about her history, her marriages and their life in Winnipeg. There is definitely an edge to the conversation. Berchard displays a dry, pointed sense of humour and a sense of sarcasm towards some of what Rubenfeld says to her. While she’s not an actor her honesty is engaging. Reszke is also not an actor but her wit, intelligence and laid-back confidence are compelling. Michael Rubenfeld is an opinionated, intense man bursting with ideas. He is an actor and shows it in excessive enthusiasm, which is deliberate.

With breathless energy, Rubenfeld hauls a large ladder around the stage. He climbs to the top of it and writes in chalk on the wall/chalkboard the name of the town they are looking for where his grandparents lived. It’s a struggled to get the correct spelling until Reszke helps out.

They tell the story of how the trip developed; where the family home was; there are video projections of the town and their trip to Auschwitz. A video of Rubenfeld pushing Berchard’s wheelchair along a path inside the camp, neither of them talking, is so moving.

But there are times here when Rubenfeld is berated by his two playing partners for his narrow mindedness and perhaps rudeness to people who wanted to help. It is Reszke who is not afraid to call out Rubenfeld for his behaviour. For once he doesn’t answer back but takes the criticism, considering it.  I liked that generosity of spirit.

There are moments when the audience is asked for its opinion of moral dilemmas. While Rubenfeld is mindful of his contract with his mother confirming they both will step on Polish soil together and they will travel the country together, there is the matter of Magda who  Rubenfeld met in Montreal and wants to see in Poland. That would mean he would have to break the contract. What to do? He asks the audience. One eye-rolling person (me) says, “Ask your mother.” Well what else would one do—go to the person with whom you have the contract and talk to her.

Rubenfeld wonders if his trauma of knowing much of his family perished in Poland is more weighty than Reszke’s trauma of trying to find her Jewish roots. This is another question for the audience. I wonder can one have ownership of trauma? Can one’s trauma be more profound than another’s? It might look like a flippant question, but it certainly gets an audience to ponder the whole idea of trauma and identity.

Comment.  I have a few concerns. I do find some of Rubenfeld and Berchard’s conversation a bit disingenuous because it appears framed as if this is the first time issues have been brought up and surely this would have been covered in their life before the show.

We are told about Magda, Rubenfeld’s Polish-Jewish girlfriend at the beginning of the journey but then nothing almost to the end. Magda factors heavily in the story. I think she should have a more of a presence in the story along the way.

I appreciate the personal journeys of Michael Rubenfeld, Mary Berchard and Katka Reszke. In their own way they are each engaging, thoughtful, searching for answers to their questions and certainly, in the case of son and mother, anxious to get past their differences. It’s Rubenfeld who makes the first move to reconciliation.

I love that the title of We Keep Coming Back is clever word-play that references the resilience of Jews in the face of adversity and that Rubenfeld, Berchard and Reszke have gone back to Poland often.

On the whole I was very moved by We Keep Coming Back.

Factory Theatre presents a Selfconscious production:

Opened: Nov. 15, 2018.

Closes: Nov. 25, 2018.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

www.factorytheatre.ca

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While the production has closed, it does bear comment.

At Baby Grand in the Grand Theatre, Kingston, Ont.

Written by Nicolas Billion

Directed by Kathryn Mackay

Set and lighting by Steve Lucas

Costumes by Andrea Robertson-Walker

Sound by Jesse MacMillan

Cast: Douglas Harrisen

Jacob James

Zoë Sweet

Greg Wanless

A very strong play with a good cast but alas the direction got in the way of the play and didn’t realize its full squirming potential.

The Story. It’s Christmas Eve. An elderly man has been dropped off by two young men at the local police station. He is wearing a military uniform, a red Santa toque and a butcher’s hook around his neck through which is a business card for Hamilton Barnes a copyright lawyer. On the card is something written in a foreign language.  The elderly man doesn’t speak English. Hamilton Barnes is summoned to the station. He doesn’t know the man. An interpreter is summoned to try and communicate with the man. The truth comes out. It’s terrifying.

 The production. The audience is on both sides of the playing area in the middle. Placed almost across the width of the playing area is Inspector Lamb’s desk. There is a bit of space between the ends of the desk and the end of the playing area.  The elderly man sits in the middle of the space, dozing. There is a door at the other end of the playing area that leads out of the office.

When the audience files in Inspector Lamb (Doug Harmsen) and the elderly man (Greg Wanless) are already there. Lamb keeps checking from his desk to see if the elderly man is stirring from his sleep. He isn’t.

The production starts in slow-motion. The lights dim on the first scene when Hamilton Barnes (Jacob James) enters the office and looks quizzically at the elderly man, then the lights go to full and the action starts properly.

Hamilton Barnes has no clue who this elderly man is. As Inspector Lamb, Doug Harmsen is accommodating, friendly, he shows Barnes pictures of his daughters. Barnes as played by Jacob James is puzzled why this elderly man would have his business card. He is a touch concerned that he’s been bothered by this mystery. Matters ramp up when Elena (Zoë Sweet) arrives to translate. Things are not what they seem. As the elderly man Greg Wanless has a malevolence that is arresting and compelling. He is arrogant, pompous, righteous and evil all at once. Zoë Sweet as Elena reveals all her pent up rage and secrets.

I won’t spill the beans about those secrets even though the show has closed. But some things must be commented upon.

Kathryn MacKay has not done the play justice with her direction. The audience’s focus is split if you have the audience on either side of the playing area. One side will miss something just by the nature of the staging. A proscenium stage setting would be more appropriate for this play than this ‘split-screen’ arrangement.

There are many brutal moments in the production—an Achilles tendon is cut, a man is strangled—yet MacKay shies away from the brutality by staging these moments in muted light and in the case of the tendon cutting, in slow motion.  There is so much activity going on regarding the tendon cutting it was not clear what was happening. And if the action is in slow motion it was hard to see who was doing what. I wondered if the people opposite me could realize what was happening.

A character orders another character to strangle the elderly man. The character says that it takes a long time to properly do it. It’s not quick ‘like in the movies.’ The playwright is giving the actors and the director a clear stage direction. Kathryn MacKay chose to ignore it again in her direction. Why? This cheats the audience and compromises the play!

And instead of staging this clearly, MacKay had the strangling happen (for my section of the audience) on the far end of the desk, on the floor, so we could not see a thing. We saw the feet of the person to be strangled straight out from the desk, the strangler straddling the person. Then in muted light with wonderful rumbling sounds (bravo Jesse MacMillan) the strangler yelled and stiffened his back and with a few quick kicks of the victim’s legs it was over in about 10 seconds. No. Not good. The direction cheats the scene of the true horror of what is happening. We could not see anything that happened to that body from my side of the theatre. The people on the other side were luckier.

 Comment. Butcher is one of Nicolas Billon’s most gripping, well-written plays. It crackles with hard-hitting dialogue and an imagination that makes a person’s eyes pop. It is a play that is compelling and should have the audience gripped with tension for all of it. But not here. The director let us off the hook and what should have been a stunning experience was just frustrating.

The production has closed at the Baby Grant, part of Theatre Kingston’s season. 

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Review: THE MESSAGE

by Lynn on November 15, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

l-r R.H. Thomson, Sarah Orenstein
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

 

At the Tarragon Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

 

Written by Jason Sherman

Directed by Richard Rose

Set by Camellia Koo

Lighting by Rebecca Picherack

Costumes by Charlotte Dean

Video designed by Carla Ritchie

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster

Peter Hutt

Patrick McManus

Sarah Orenstein

R.H. Thomson

Jason Sherman’s play is about Marshal McLuhan and the crippling effects of a stroke on his once nimble brain that renders him incomprehensible and it’s also about his complex theories of communication that to many seem incomprehensible as well. The production realizes both.

 The Story. The story follows Marshall McLuhan during 1980, the last year of his life. It alternates between his struggles with a debilitating stroke in which he loses the ability to speak and be understood and the times he is lucid and dictating his dense theories to his secretary, which often seem incomprehensible too.

The Production.  In a rather bold move director Richard Rose begins the first scene in the dark. A graduate student comes into Marshall McLuhan’s office to find him lying on the floor. She thinks he’s fallen. He grunts out sounds. They make no sense. She repeats sentences to him and he replies with more grunts and the occasional ‘woow.’ I say it’s a bold directorial move because that business in the dark goes on long past the point of polite patience. Was this a test for the audience? Or was it to indicate people didn’t know how to deal with finding a person on the floor or how to deal with the person’s inability to speak? All three?

When the lights come on McLuhan (R.H. Thomson) is lying in a reclining chair, covered with a blanket. As McLuhan, R.H. Thomson looks concerned and frightened at what is happening to him. He seems alert but fearful he can’t make himself understood to others. His loving wife Corrine is played with tender, tactile loving care by Sarah Orenstein. There is an intense consideration in Orenstein’s performance for McLuhan. She urges, cajoles and gently ‘pushes’ McLuhan to focus, speak and remember, hands always stroking his, caressing them. She knows his frustration in communicating.

But when McLuhan is ‘himself’ R.H. Thomson brings out all of McLuhan’s quick wit, punning with finesse and the ability to reveal an agile mind that is always thinking. He dictates to his assistant Margaret (an agreeable Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster) at break-neck speed without hesitation, occasionally checking her with, “Got that?” And she always ‘got that’.

Part of the production seems to illuminate the thinking of a mind in distress or fantasy. There are vaudeville rantings of characters in McLuhan’s life who appear (Peter Hutt smoking and giving rat-tat-tat dialogue as if he’s a sleazy character from a side show) and rail at him. Patrick McManus as Gossage also falls into this ‘sleaze-bag- performance’ as he and Hutt do a kind of vaudeville routine (later McManus plays Father Frank with tremendous sensitivity).  Is this writer Jason Sherman focusing on the faltering mind of McLuhan? Perhaps, but it sure makes for a ragged, confusing play.

McLuhan is supposed to proof-read his more than 400 page manuscript but in his fragile state of mind he just tips the pages on the floor. Lovely image there of a mind that’s jumbled. Later Sherman seems to be making fun of McLuhan’s scholarship and ideas when his editor Cunningham arrives to edit the tome, reading a passage that is so dense with convoluted esoterica it’s incomprehensible. She then proposes to cut 100 pages. McLuhan throws more pages on the floor.

Comment. The play is called The Message but it’s hard to decide what is that message of the play. Of course the title references McLuhan’s famous quote “The medium is the message” but what to make of this message. At times the stammering of McLuhan in his stroked state and his incomprehensible thinking in his ‘clear-headed’ self seem to be as jumbled. Is that the point? What is one to make of a woman selling cigarettes who is topless except for two pasties, explaining McLuhan’s theories to two ogling clods? Why topless?

I was grateful for the fearless performances of the actors who got right into the process both serious and eye-brow crinkling. But the play/medium is a muddled message.

Presented by Tarragon Theatre

Opened: Nov. 14, 2018.

Closes: Dec. 16, 2018.

Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

www.tarragontheatre.com

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Shameless plea time.

It’s the semi-annual fund-raising drive for CIUT.fm the radio station for whom I do theatre reviews, interviews and commentary for CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm

As media coverage of theatre gets less and less CIUT FRIDAY MORNING steps up and tries to cover as much as possible, do interviews with the people who make it and comment on the goings on in the theatre. It’s important to support such endeavors. We are all volunteer and so your donations are vital.

I hope you will become a member by signing up and donating to CIUT.fm and reference CIUT FRIDAY MORNING as the show you wish to support. Thanks.

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This was the longest day of the Curious Voyage that culminated in a much admired, much awarded secret musical that I can tell you about since it closed on the weekend.

Many of us were in London for this three day adventure. Others partook of the one day adventure.

The events started at 1:00 pm. We were given coloured  arm bands to wear to keep us together  in case we might get lost. We were then broken up into smaller groups. The groups were a mix of people on the three day adventure and others for the one day. Some heard about it from their friends so thought the one day would be fine. We were given Oyster cards, like our Presto Card or New York’s Metro Card. There was enough money on each card to get us a one way trip to the venue of the musical.

Our first instructions were to stay by the hotel we were staying at and ‘not move.’ Our guide would be back after she tended to other groups. She left. We stayed. A burly man, dark hair, beard, smiling approached and said, “Follow me.” Fickle as we were to our first guide’s instructions, we followed him. Just to keep the mystery going, he may or not have been a murderer. He had done time in prison. He explained it was a matter of honour to his family. Well of course I understood.  He spoke about a man who helped him in prison. This name kept coming up in Barrie and in London. No, I won’t tell you his name.

We walked briskly around a park/square. The guy left us and said someone else would come and get us to continue. Over the course of the afternoon we were picked up by mysterious people who may or may not be a woman who spoke only French; another who spoke German; why may have seen someone jump from a window or was pushed; a calm woman took us into the basement of a restaurant and we were asked more questions of morality; another person on the street  spoke Italian and sang loudly and asked us to join in; an employee of a hotel  gave us a tour to a room that was disheveled as if it had been ransacked; and there was a person in the bed, covered up except for his one socked-foot that protruded out of the covers.

He woke to find six people in the room. He didn’t know who he was. He got up. He wore only briefs. His body was covered with the name of the person we were looking for written with a black ‘sharpie’. We might have been given pills to do that poor man in—he did ask us to do it. We are moral people and didn’t. He proudly produced his own bottle of pills to do himself in. I asked with a certain degree of irritation: “Then what are you bothering us for if you have your own drugs??” He didn’t answer. This was a recurring theme: Kill me! I can’t stand life” and us weighing if we should/could do it or not.

We were allowed to eat lunch at a local chain and we got to know each other. All were lovely people. Then the man from the hotel presented himself in different clothes and a different name and lead us through laneways to a bus stop to take a regular double decker bus to the site specific venue of the musical. But first we had one more venue to visit by one of London’s secret canals. There was more role playing: who is lying; who is the real person; we had to choose.

Then back out of the venue, along the canal, trying not to get killed by the cyclists who whizzed by (no I don’t think they were part of the narrative.) We went up another deserted street with strange buildings and a ramen restaurant along the way. We stopped at a derelict building, went down the stairs into the gloom of the place; forbidding, dark, murky lighting, no windows. wonderfully claustrophobic.  I made out characters frozen in a pose, in costumes from a different time. We sat on a bench around two sides of the space. There in a corner was a woman in front of an electric keyboard, a man with a cello and a woman with a violin. The lights dimmed to dark. There was a piercing whistle sound and the first urgent chords of the musical, and I did what I always do when I hear the beginning of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, I burst into tears.

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At Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written, composed and performed by Janice Jo Lee

Directed by Matt White

Set and costumes by Julia Kim

Lighting by Paul Cegys

A skewered, jumbled, angry production about racism but it’s confusing about whose racism we are talking about. Janice Jo Lee gives a lively performance.

The Story. Janice Jo Lee plays a multitude of characters in this one person show. Mainly she plays she/her, a woman of Korean descent who lives in Kitchener and doesn’t seem to like it. She has not been lucky in love. Every man with whom she’s had a relationship has been ended badly and each man has been white. This has soured her on white people but she wants to submerge herself into that world but without the baggage of her ethnicity. She conjures a professor who has a system for purging a person of their roadblocks to blend in. There are her friends, also of Korean descent, who have their own issues with white people who try to help, but seem only to add to the invective.

 The Production. Julia Kim has created a set with vibrant props of an easel with flip sheets indicating the professor’s strategy, charts and pyramid formations of action. The professor (a man) wears a pair of glasses with adjustable prongs that either go up or down on the side of the head. He holds a pointer and hits the item on the page explaining at quick speed the various headings of his sequence, each heading is more esoteric than the last. She/her speaks so quickly and often slurs the words as the professor and others it’s hard to understand what is being said.

She/her is upset that white people eat Korean food but don’t take the time to learn how to pronounce it properly. Kimchi is a case in point. She/her explains how white people get the pronunciation wrong. She pronounces it correctly but says they still get it wrong and that one time is the last time she tries to correct their error.

She/her invites a man (white) to come up on stage and engage with her in a scene. A smiling, enthusiastic man eagerly bounds on stage. He stands next to her, smiling. She asks his name. He says, “Davenport.” She says she’ll call him “Mike.” (Huh? I’m thinking?) Davenport then sits down and she/her continues referring to Mike as her new boyfriend to her friends. As with the other men in her life, this relationship fails. She/her reverts to her negative thoughts about whites.

In her program note Janice Jo Lee says that Will You Be My Friend is a satire. I had been wondering a satire of what. Then I twig: it must be a satire of racism but from a person of colour’s point of view. How else to explain her invective aimed at white people not knowing how to pronounce the names of  Korean foods and then completely ignoring a man’s (white)  name when he tells it to you with grace and good will? That must be it because this skewered look at perceived white privilege and racism is coming from a character so clenched with rage at these people she can’t seem to see straight.

Then towards the end of her show she/her? Janice Jo Lee? drops the pretense of doing a satiric show and charges into full on lecture/hector  on racism. She says with firmness: “Matt, lock the doors.” (Thus ordering her director to lock the doors. No sound is heard of any doors locking which must have been a relief to the people who were there for what is billed as a ‘relaxed performance’ when people who need to can come and go as they pleased. We were told at the beginning that as a “relaxed performance” the lights would be up a bit so people could come and go safely. Actually this didn’t happen. The lights were down in the house and only up on stage, making it tricky for the two people who did need to leave and come back mid-show, to do so safely.) This lecture/rant went on for several minutes and then reverted to the ‘comedy’ aspect of the show. At several points in the show Janice Jo Lee played various instruments, ‘sang’ and recited poetry.

Janice Jo Lee plays all the characters, sometimes having a conversation with another character at the same time. Director Matt White has Lee racing around the stage; climbing onto and off various props of differing levels; Lee races up the side stairs and even plays a scene on the upper level of the theatre. Very energetic.

 Comment. Yes indeed, Will You Be My Friend, is loaded with racism, narrow-minded ideas about race and skin colour, but the racism is of the lead character, she/her and not of any white person.  We never actually see the men (white) who have seemingly treated she/her badly and then left her. We are not given a credible reason why they left. Perhaps it’s her behaviour that’s made them leave.  We only have her word for it. That leaves us with a weak argument for the reason, purpose, point of the show. She/her has said that she feels inadequate and ‘other’ in a way in the presence of a white person and they are the cause. That’s like me saying: “I’m overweight and you are slim and fit and I feel inadequate and insecure in your presence and it’s your fault.” Uh, I don’t think so.

So many areas of this show should be re-thought. At 110 minutes it’s 30 minutes too long. Much as Janice Jo Lee is celebrated for her spoken word abilities, all the music, songs etc. should be cut. They don’t add to the thesis.  The whole idea of whose racism is being dealt with here is at issue. In his program note director Matt White approached Janice Jo Lee with an offer to help her with her show. Apparently she was aghast at such a suggestion, saying that he was white and since her protagonist was white how could he think of helping. Mr. White is a gracious man and asked her to trust him to see if their collaboration would work. Since he’s listed as the director, I guess he won her trust. What are the rest of us to make of such an endeavor? After all who does Ms Lee think the majority of her audience is? I think Ms Lee should clarify who/what is being satirized because it’s not clear. What’s with the rant of “Matt lock the doors?” Who is giving the rant and why–the character? The writer/performer? Clarify. Focus. Tighten.

The show is called Will You Be My Friend. My answer is “no.”

Green Light Arts Productions with the support of Theatre Passe Muraille

Began: Oct. 25, 2018.

Closes: Nov. 11, 2018.

Running Time: 110 minutes.

www.passemuraille.ca

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At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Hannah Moscovitch with Maev Beaty and Ann-Marie Kerr

Co-created by Marinda de Beer

Directed by Ann-Marie Kerr

Scenic design by Camellia Koo

Lighting by Leigh Ann Vardy

Projections designed by Cameron Davis

Sound by Debashis Sinha

Costumes by Erika Connor

Cast: Maev Beaty

Hannah Moscovitch

Heat-squeezing, stunning theatre produced by masters about motherhood as you generally don’t hear about but should.

The Story. This is mainly a story of modern motherhood as the creators really experienced it. They heard the ‘regular’ stories of motherhood and didn’t buy it, so they decided to do their own piece presenting the truth of modern motherhood.

It focuses on playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s journey to motherhood with input from actor Maev Beaty, director Ann-Marie Kerr and Marinda de Beer. It covers the elation of seeing the ‘baby’ in an ultrasound image; the gory bits of miscarriages; the prolonged labours of labour; the uncertainty of how good a mother you are and balancing work too; coping with being a workaholic; and the heart-busting joy of watching the kid grow, have a vocabulary and a sense of humour that bends you over laughing.

It’s the hard, harsh stuff that is the secret life of a mother because perhaps the multitudes don’t want to hear the ‘other’ side, but should.

The Production. Director Ann-Marie Kerr has directed a spare, elegant, evocative production. She can create the most beautiful of moments and the most muscular, fearless situations without flinching. It is beautifully designed by Camellia Koo in which there is only a black chair plus two ‘tanks’ with water and a screen at the back for projections. The lighting by Leigh Ann Vardy is both muted and illuminating in a  way that makes the audience lean forward to focus on moments that are compelling.

Maev Beaty, barefoot and wearing comfortable pants and a top, is almost shy as she comes forward to introduce herself saying she is playing Hannah Moscovitch her very close friend. Beaty, Hannah Moscovitch, director Ann-Marie Kerr and producer Marinda de Beer have been working on this show for six years. During that time pregnancies were kept secret until they couldn’t be; miscarriages happened; babies were born.

Beaty puts a white piece of paper in a rectangular tank of water and presses the sheet against a glass side of the tank. This is Hannah Moscovitch’s first ultra sound of her growing foetus. Rather than a murky, fuzzy photo of a form of a baby, Ann-Marie Kerr has a projection of a face of a laughing three year old child appear on the paper—this is the face of the person who would become Elijah, Hannah Moscovitch’s son.  This makes the image so personal and immediate. It gives the audience a stake in the process.

There are harrowing turns of events that happen so quietly that the realization hits like a smack. When Hannah has a prolonged labour the same projection of that little boy’s face is illuminated on the tight fist of Maev Beaty as the labouring Hannah Moscovitch.

Maev Beaty lends elegance, poise and grace to every role she plays. Secret Life of a Mother is something else again. As Hannah, Maev Beaty realizes all the doubt, obsession and uncertainty that woman has about motherhood and work. Beaty also conveys the pain, sweat and despair of wanting to push but not being able to in a labour that is so long she takes the audience with her. Beaty’s own harsh recollections are told so calmly and with such understatement they leave you gasping.

The last part of the play is handled by Hannah Moscovitch herself. She is almost reticent but ultimately conveys the confidence and joy she has had from this experience of motherhood

Comment. Hannah Moscovitch’s plays are deeply thought, intellectually rigorous and funny. Secret Life of a Mother is full of self-doubt, the mess and despair of miscarrying, coping with work and motherhood and finally the ecstatic joy of it, the realization that she’s good at it.

Maev Beaty has created a body of work that is rich, varied and so full of compelling artistry you just naturally go see her work, no matter what the project.

Ann-Marie Kerr had directed some of the most sensitive, dangerous, hard-hitting productions I’ve ever seen and again, I would go no matter what the project.

I would swim through oceans of gore to see the work of these three titans of the theatre. And so should you.

The Theatre Centre Presents:

Began: Oct. 20, 2018.

Closes: Nov. 11, 2018.

Running Time: 90 minutes, approx.

www.theatrecentre.org

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Two by George F. Walker at the Assembly, Toronto, Ont.

Kill The Poor

Directed by Wes Berger

Set by Chris Bretecher

Lighting by Chin Palipane

Costumes by Kathleen Black

Sound by Jeremy Hutton and Will Jarvis

Cast: Al Bernstein

Chandra Galasso

Craig Henderson

Ron Lea

Anne van Leeuwen

Welcome to the scrappy, hard world of George F. Walker and his characters trying to get by.

The Story. Lacey comes home from the hospital limping, bruised and her arm in a sling. She was in a car accident. Her brother died as a result. Who was driving the car? Lacey or her brother? Lacey can’t remember. Who charged into the intersection against the light? The other guy, Mr. David or the siblings? The police are investigating. Annie (the cop) tries to help Lacey remember.  One day Lacey gets a visit from Mr. David with a tantalizing offer. What is going on? Welcome to the world of George F. Walker.

The Production. Chris Bretecher has designed a shabby, spare and functioning small apartment. There are stains on the walls. Harry superintendent (a wonderfully irreverent and sparky Ron Lea) comes to repair the toilet. He berates Lacey (Anne van Leeuwen) and her mechanic/drug dealing husband Jake (Craig Henderson) for leaving the door unlocked. Unsavory people live in the building especially the neighbourhood drug dealer.

Wes Berger directs with a sure hand. He’s a stalwart of George F. Walker plays and know their rhythms, the world and the grunge of it.  The cast is strong lead by a feisty, angry Anne van Leeuwen as Lacey. If there is a quibble it’s that Walker has written her at about level 9, always raging (it’s probably all that pain from the injuries) and so there is no where for her to go in moments of frustration but level 10 and beyond. It can seem like she’s playing the same note although there is nuance in van Leeuwen’s body language. Al Bernstein as Mr. David is quietly threatening. Craig Henderson as Jake her husband is a bit dim, sweet, and limited in his abilities to make a living. Chandra Galasso as Annie the cop is tough and accommodating trying to help Lacey find her way out of the mess.

Comment. Once again George F. Walker champions the marginalized who are just trying to make it through the day under tough circumstances. They skirt the law for a bit of equality in their unequal world.

Presented by Leroy Street Theatre.

Opened: Nov. 2, 2018.

Closes: Nov. 18, 2018.

Running Time: about 75 minutes each with a 20 minute intermission.

www.leroystreettheatre.com

 

Her Inside Life

Directed by Andrea Wasserman

Set by Chris Bretecher

Lighting by Chin Palipane

Costumes by Kathleen Black

Sound by Jeremy Hutton and Will Jarvis

Cast: Catherin Fitch

Tony Munch

Sarah Murphy-Dyson

Lesley Robertson

The mentally challenged is another character that George F. Walker champions against a system that seems stacked against them. Dandy cast again and a production that realizes the twists and turns in this very funny, yet serious play.

The Story. Violet is just out of prison for killing her husband. She feels she was innocent and she just happened to have a knife in her hand when she killed him because he was abusive. Her case worker Cathy tries to control the situation with the flighty and easily excitable Violet. Then there is Maddy, Violet’s daughter who has her own problems, and Leo her angry brother-in-law. Lots of volatile people just trying to make it  through the day in one piece. Just one more facet of the world of George F. Walker.

The Production. We are in the same apartment building as in Kill The Poor.  For this apartment Chris Bretecher has designed a neat, bright, clean apartment, with better looking furniture (really the shabby furniture from before, only now there is a smart covering hiding the shabbiness). The window coverings are better too.

Violet (a wonderfully tightly wound Catherine Fitch) can’t stand loud, prolonged noise, especially the one that is bedeviling her now—a piercing fire alarm. She knows she should leave the apartment but can’t make the decision. Her case worker Cathy (a calm but concerned Sarah Murphy-Dyson) arrives and urges Violet to leave. Agitation in various guises inform George F. Walker’s characters here. Maddy, Violet’s daughter (played by Lesley Robertson with controlled calm, but you can see the cracks) tries to support her mother. But at stake in one instance is whether or not Violet can see her grandchildren (Maddy’s and her husband’s, and the husband is being difficult).  Violet’s anger and her tendency to violence are always simmering. Her next target is her brow-beaten brother-in-law Leo, given a wonderfully crazed performance by Tony Munch. Leo also has his issues—he was bullied by his brother, now dead because Violet killed him.

Andrea Wasserman directs a clear production full of subtleties as well as the full-blown instances of “Walker-behaviour.” The energy and emotion builds gradually and gains momentum and leaves you breathless at the end.

Comment. The mentally challenged is another subject for George F. Walker’s sharp focus. He has compassion for their plight and creates the impossible world they live in as  they try to cope. Walker never judges them except tangentially as we see the political, social and medical systems these mentally challenged people have to negotiate. It’s a coup that these two small companies, Leroy Street Theatre and LowRise Production,  are the beneficiaries of two new George F. Walker world premiers.

An aside: The turn over from one set to another between these two short plays was very tight. Marvin Araneta, the stage manager for Kill the Poor had to quickly strip the furniture, change the curtains, clear the kitchen and re-arrange the table so that Jenna Borsato, the stage manager for Her Inside Life could do her set up. They helped each other. Araneta was working so fast he had to wipe sweat off the back of his neck with a cloth. Borsato opened cans of soup and beef stew and put them in pots ready for their scenes on Her Inside Life. All was done calmly and efficiently. It seemed like a lot of soup and thought that there were only two bowls on a shelf—not enough for all that soup. I commented to Borsato (I was the only one in the small theatre—the rest were out in the lobby) about the two bowls. In true theatre fashion, she smiled and told me to see how it all turned out. I finally realized she didn’t add water so there was enough for two bowls of soup and stew.

During this time the cast from Kill the Poor was leaving. Then Ron Lea and Craig Henderson (from the cast of the show) helped take a large table out of the theatre from Kill the Poor and then brought another large table back into the theatre for Her Inside Life. As the cast for Her Inside Life walked down the steps of the theatre to cross the stage and prepare for their show, Ron Lea, standing at the bottom of the stairs, took the hand of each of the three actresses and kissed it and hugged Tony Munch for luck for their shows and then left. God I love the camaraderie, the open-hearted generosity and the pluck to get the job done of theatre making folks.

Presented by LowRise Productions:

Opened: Nov. 2, 2018.

Closes: Nov. 18, 2018.

Running Time: about 75 minutes each with a 20 minute intermission.

www.theassemblytheatre.com

 

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Review: THEORY

by Lynn on November 5, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

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

Written by Norman Yeung

Directed by Esther Jun

Set and lighting by Joe Pagnan

Costumes by Michelle Bohn

Projections by Cameron Davis

Sound by John Gzowski

Cast: Bilal Baig

Sascha Cole

Audrey Dwyer

Fabrizio Filippo

Asha James

Kyle Orzech

Anthony Perpuse

A bracing play about the dangers of free speech and the fraught world of academia.

The Story. From the press release: “Isabelle, a young tenure-track professor teaching cinema studies, tests the limits of free speech by encouraging her students to contribute to an unmoderated discussion group. When an anonymous student posts offensive comments and videos, Isabelle must decide whether to intervene or to let the social experiment play out. Soon, the posts turn abusive and threatening, leading Isabelle and her unknown tormentor to engage in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse that not only have Isabelle questioning her beliefs, but fearing for her life.”

The Production. Set designer Joe Pagnan has created a beautifully evocative set that represents Isabelle’s class room, her office and her home which she shares with her wife, Lee. That Lee is a woman of colour also adds another layer of intrigue to the play.

The students sit at a configuration of desks one behind the other. But looking closer the desks are really ‘longer’ desks upended so the students are working on a smaller surface. That they are upended desks perhaps suggests a world that is unbalanced.

Isabelle, played with almost a swaggering confidence by Sascha Cole, is a woman of her convictions. She talks fast. She knows what she wants and answers each concern with a short, sharp reply. She throws out the curriculum of films in favour of edgier ones created by women and includes one that the students object to because they think it’s porn. They are vocal in their objections that Isabelle does not moderate the on-line discussion group. Students are being harassed and insulted with racial slurs on –line and Isabelle does nothing.

Isabelle’s wife Lee is played by a thoughtful, tempered Audrey Dwyer until Lee realizes that their home is not safe from the anonymous student who is stalking and tormenting Isabelle.

Director Esther Jun keeps the pace brisk until one is breathless at the unraveling of events. The anonymous student hacks into Isabelle’s account at work and her personal phone number at home. Videos are sent to her phone. Slowly the danger rises as do the stakes. Isabelle is visited by a department official (Fabrizio Fillippo presents him as a reasonable man but ultimately not supportive of her) who is not there to defend her but to defend the alleged student who fears he will be expelled. The school sides with the student.

Comment. I’ve seen Theory in various incarnations over the years. This version is by far the best. Playwright Norman Yeung writes convincingly of the modern school system where teachers bend over backwards to appeal to students; try to make them think and assess; act with patience when they whine about every disappointment but in many cases need the prof to step up to the plate and protect them; students are reminded to leave the professor’s office door open. One student who visits closes it. Isabelle says nothing. My heart races—memories of years of working in a University setting as an administrator come flooding back to me. Yeung has also illuminated a university culture that does not defend the professor against a predator student. I sucked air for a long time and exhald slowly at the end of the play. A retire professor in the audience passed by and said, “Thank heaven’s I’m retired from all this.”

Terrific play and production.

Tarragon Theatre Presents:

Began: Oct. 16, 2018.

Closes: Nov. 25, 2018.

Running Time: 90 minutes, approx.

www.tarragontheatre.com

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