Live and in person at the Annex Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Produced by Shifting Ground Collective. Playing until March 2, 2024.

https://app.loopsystems.org/shiftingground/merrily

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Book by George Furth

Directed by Joshua Kilimnik

Music director, Ethan Rotenberg

Choreographer, Shannon Murtagh

Set/prop design by Sarah Yuen

Costumes by Pasha Bardell

Lighting by Jadyn Buchanan

Cast: Dallis Brinkman

Randy Chang

Oliver Daniel

Sydney Gauvin

Max Goodman

Mona Hillis

Ian Kowalski

Duncan Lang

Jameson Mosher

Collette Richardson

Jada Rivkin

Jessica Rosales

Azaria Shams

Evan Sokolowski

A show about friendship, following your dreams and the roadblocks that present themselves that throw friends off course, given an energetic production by a committed cast.

The Story. Franklin Shepard, Charley Kringas and Mary Flynn have been friends for 20 years. Franklin was a composer; Charley was a playwright and Mary was a writer. They met when they were young idealistic and eager to change the world with their art. Franklin and Charley collaborated on writing meaningful musicals until Franklin was lured away to by money to produce shallow movies which earned him more money. All the while Charley waited for Franklin to return to working together and their plans to write together. Mary could do nothing but watch as her friendship with Franklin dissolved.

The Production. NOTE: This Stephen Sondheim/George Furth 1981 musical, Merrily We Roll Along, is in turn based on the 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. In both cases, the form of the story is the same: it’s told backwards.

Shifting Ground Collective is a scrappy company of young actors devoted to the musical form. Their previous show was Ordinary Days and it was eye-popping impressive in its integrity, commitment and determination. It was a small show presented with economy but was not shoddy as a result. “Impressive” is an understatement.

By contrast, Merrily We Roll Along with its cast of 14 is a mammoth undertaking. The company under the watchful eye of director Joshua Kilimnik is full of commitment, focus, determination and joyful embrace of the material.

Choreographer Shannon Murtagh sets the tone with the rousing opening number “Merrily We Roll Along” with dancers swirling on and off. Trying to get a sense of what is going on is a touch fuzzy, but it gets into focus quickly.

In the first scene an agitated man in a suit enters, slams something on the table that looks like a gold statue on its side and proceeds to snort some cocaine. Hmmm. We learn the man is Franklin Shepard (Duncan Lang). A suggestion: if Franklin has just won an Academy Award then he has to slam it on the table right side up and not on its side so that the audience can see and assume it’s an Academy Award. Best not to confuse the audience from the get-go.  

From there the show unfolds backwards from 1976 with Franklin hosting a party because of his success as a film producer. Mary Flynn (Colette Richardson) his writer friend from years before is there and she’s drunk. Charley Kringas (Jameson Mosher) is not there because Charley expressed his frustration with the always absent Franklin on a televised interview and Franklin has not forgiven him.

The story unfolds backwards in about three-year increments as we see how success and money were the alure for Franklin but not for his good friends Mary and Charley. Mary was secretly in love with Franklin and Charley kept hanging on that Franklin would come back to the partnership and write meaningful musicals with him as they planned and dreamed. In the intervening years Franklin had two broken marriages and was unfaithful to his friends and didn’t show up when he said he would. Charley continued to write and win awards. Mary continued to write but success was not plentiful and she began to drink.

We see the promise, youthful dreams and convictions of the young Franklin, Charley and Mary. They cared intensely for one another and were constantly offering words of support and concern. Youthful enthusiasm is a fierce commodity both in the characters and the energetic cast.

Joshua Kilimnik negotiates the cast with efficiency and economy. He has details in his direction that convey so much information. When Charley is quickly introduced to Mary and her friend Evelyn in the last scene—and the actual beginning of the story—Charley takes a quick look back at Evelyn. We know she will be the woman he marries. It’s a small bit of business but it says so much.

Because Shifting Ground Collective (there is a lyric in one of the songs in the show about “shifting ground” so that’s where the company got its name), is a company on a tight budget, the creatives have to be clever to indicate what year it is besides in the songs. A waiter in the first scene carries a tray of drinks with a small sign that says, “1976”. Other signs with dates are larger.

The large orchestra lead by Ethan Rotenberg spreads out along the upper balcony and while they play loudly, they do not drown out the singers. The singers hold their own.

Duncan Lang as Franklin Shepard, Colette Richardson as Mary Flynn and Jameson Mosher as Charley Kringas all have powerful singing voices and can act. I look forward to seeing each of them in whatever comes next.

Merrily We Roll Along is a huge endeavor for this youthful cast and what they lack in nuance and subtlety, they make up for in enthusiasm, focused commitment and pride in what they do. Well worth a visit.

Comment. In the show Stephen Sondheim sends himself up by flinging a few barbs about his detractors. Franklin and Charley have to contend with producers who say that to be successful you have to have songs that people can hum and according to the producer he can’t hum Franklin’s music. People have said the same of Sondheim. But then there is the exquisite song “Not a Day Goes By” that sung in one context is a song of regret and in another is a love song. And in either case it’s eminently hummable—as are most of Sondheim’s works, you just have to apply effort.  

Shifting Ground Collective presents:

Runs until March 2, 2024

Running time: 2 hour 45 minutes, (1 intermission)

https://app.loopsystems.org/shiftingground/merrily

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Live and in person at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Presented by Art of Time Ensemble, playing until February 25.

www.artoftimeensemble.com

Artistic director, piano, programmer, Andrew Burashko

Lighting designer, Bonnie Beecher

Cast: Martha Burns

John Millard

Patricia O’Callaghan

Musicians: Andrew Burashko, piano

Andrew Dowling, bass

Kelsey Grant, trombone

Wallace Halladay, saxophone, clarinet

Nathan Hiltz, guitar, banjo

Drew Jurecka, violin

Larry Larson, trumpet

Kris Maddigan, percussion

Lydia Munchinsky, cello

Kevin Turcotte, trumpet

Perry White, saxophone, clarinet

Andrew Burashko formed The Art of Time Ensemble 25 years ago in an effort to introduce audiences to different forms of music that intersected and complimented each other. He programmed concerts that melded classical music with popular music, jazz, folk etc. and wove in spoken word, dance and literature as well. When one hears him explain what we are to hear and why he programmed it, one realizes that Andrew Burashko is also an historian, philosopher, sociologist, teacher and educator. His explanations are deeply thought, serious, whimsical, esoteric and illuminate our world, even if the music is hundreds of years old.

Besides being a programmer of music and picking the musicians and other artists involved he has become an archaeologist of sorts, finding a lost gem of a composer and bringing his/her music to the attention of the serious and curious music lover.

Burashko has decided that this will be the last year of The Art of Time Ensemble. His present offering: Dance to the Abyss; Music from the Weimar Republic (Feb. 23, 24, 25) exemplifies the best of Burashko’s exacting standards in music, the eclectic mix of music and spoken word, and references to the Dada movement, all explained in a thoughtful commentary.

The run of the performances of these concerts is always short (three days) and I wish I had been able to see more of his offerings, but a packed theatre going schedule prevented that. I am so lucky to have seen Dance to the Abyss; Music from the Weimar Republic. Burashko has said in his introduction that he wanted to do a show on the music of the Weimar Republic for 25 years. The Weimar Republic lasted from 1918 to 1933 with the rise of Nazism. The music was bold, daring, whimsical and cynical.

The programme began with “Hot Sonate for Alto Sax & Piano” by Erwin Schulhoff, one of the lost composers resurrected by Andrew Burashko. Burashko played the piano with Wallace Halladay on the Sax. Halladay created raw, erotic sounds from is saxophone I hadn’t heard before. Burashko is a gifted ‘accompanist’/equal partner in the four-movement piece. Later in the programme Burashko would also play “Five Jazz Etudes For Piano” also by Erwin Schulhoff, which was based on five different dance forms (Charleston, Tango etc. including “Kitten on the Keys). Schulhoff’s career was cut short because of the rise of Nazism. He was arrested because he was Jewish and later died in a concentration camp.

“Cabaret Songs” by Mischa Spoliansky, and especially “I Am A Vamp” were sung with classy distinction by Patricia O’Callaghan. According to Burashko’s introduction, Mischa Spoliansky was a prolific composer and allegedly discovered a talent in an orchestra playing second violin—her name was Marlene Dietrich and Spoliansky wrote “I Am a Vamp” for her.

Burashko introduced “Sonata Erotica for Solo Female Voice” by Erwin Schulhoff, as one “that does not need introduction”. Martha Burns performed the piece that started slowly, talking softly to an unseen partner, gradually getting more and more impassioned in her language. It’s best to listen to the piece with one’s legs tightly crossed. The final image is jaw dropping and eye-brow-raising. Martha Burns performed it with insouciance, breathlessness, and irreverence.

The inclusion of the Cab Calloway jazz-scat song, “Minnie the Moocher” is Burashko at his incisive, perceptive, ironic, best. Burashko and Jim McGrath arranged the song and treated it with “Nazi Germany’s Dance Band Rules and Regulations.” There were nine rules that regulated the instruments that could be used (no saxophones), the tempo, that music could only be played in a major key (no scat) and rules that were racist in intent. The orchestra first played the song as Calloway intended. It was buoyant, lively, jazzy and full of freedom. But then Burashko read some of the Nazi Rules followed by how “Minnie the Moocher” would sound following such rigid rules. When the ninth rule was read, the once buoyant, colourful song now sounded, lifeless, dirge-like and with out colour. The orchestra then played the last variation of the song as it was intended to be played—Brilliant.

The concert concluded with “Excerpts from “The Threepenny Opera” by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, sung by John Millard and Patricia O’Callaghan: “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” sung with coolness by John Millard; “Pirate Jenny” sung with haunting hardness by Patricia O’Callaghan; “Tango Ballad”, “Barbara Song” and “How to Survive” a wonderfully cynical, angry song sung with intensity by both O’Callaghan and Millard.

The result was a bracing, biting, smart, sometimes whimsical, and always engaging concert of powerful music, wonderfully played or sung, and beautifully curated and programmed by Andrew Burashko. What a gift he has been to the world of music and the arts by creating these concerts through the Art of Time Ensemble.

The Art of Time Ensemble Presents:

Plays Feb. 25, 2024.

I saw it Feb. 24, 2024.

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (1 intermission)

www.artoftimeensemble.com

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Review: ALADDIN

by Lynn on February 23, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Plays until March 17, 2024.

www.mirvish.com

Music by Alan Menken

Lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin

Book by Chad Beguelin

Based on the Disney film

Directed and choregraphed by Casey Nicholaw

Scenic design by Bob Crowley

Costume designs by Gregg Barnes

Lighting design by Natasha Katz

Sound Ken Travis

Orchestrations by Danny Troob

Projection designer, Daniel Brodie

Special effects designer, Jeremy Chernick

Cast: Senzel Ahmady

Brandon Burks

Kyle Caress

Aaron Choi

Nathanael Hirst

Marcus M. Martin

Anand Nagraj

Adi Roy

J. Andrew Speas

Sorab Wadia

Plus an ensemble of 23

A familiar story from a beloved Disney film loved by kids and families that is a dandy introduction to eye-popping theatre.

The Story. Aladdin is a scrappy street-smart, poor young man who travels with a group of friends in equal dire financial straits, so they might steal a thing or two. Princess Jasmine is an independent woman, obviously rich, who wants to make up her own mind about whom to marry. Her father the Sultan says there are rules that must be obeyed—she has to marry a prince. She also wants to see what the outside world is like so she goes in disguise to the market place where she accidentally meets Aladdin and both are smitten.

There is a duplicitous courtier named Jafar who wants to trick the status quo and become the Sultan himself. And there is a Genie who is released from his small, tight lamp when Aladdin rubs it, giving Aladdin three wishes, which gets the story going.

The Production. Aladdin is a bright, buoyant, engaging musical for kids who love the animated film and their devoted parents who want to make the kids happy by taking them to see it,  sometimes in costume (the kids I mean).

The creative minds behind this are stellar: from the hummable music of Alan Menken to the lyrics of Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin, to the eye-popping bright coloured set of Bob Crowley; equally dazzling costumes by Gregg Barnes and the illumination by Natasha Katz.

Performances are broad, big and bold. Adi Roy is a charming, sweet Aladdin. He accentuates his body language with an obvious bump or push to underline a point in bold. Senzel Ahmady is confident, in control and poised as Princess Jasmine. She sings beautifully. Marcus M. Martin as the Genie gives an over-the-top performance as one would expect of a larger-than-life character who just escaped from a tight, confining lamp. Once free, the performance is giddy with joy, bursting with freed energy and anxious to enjoy the space of a large stage and everybody else get out of the way. It’s exhausting watching him—and I mean that in a good way.

Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw keeps the quick pace going without respite it seems. His choreography is more reminiscent of Fiddler on the Roof than “Arabian Nights,” but such detail is not really important when reproducing an animated film for the stage. He makes up in theatricality: confetti canons and explosions of streamers what it lacks in nuance and detail.

As for the sound (Ken Travis), it’s like a game, isn’t it? The sound folks of these touring (American??) shows think the music should be so amplified that your ears hurt. Why? The problem of course is that often one can’t even make out the melody, let alone the lyrics of the songs. And in the case of Aladdin that blaring sound is present from the downbeat.

It’s not all touring musicals that are guilty of this excess—bless you Six where one can hear every word and discern the music; ditto Hadestown. But so many touring shows are guilty of this. Do these sound people feel they are presenting a concert and the sound should be blaring? Why? It’s a musical, in an enclosed theatre. Don’t they understand the distortion? Is it fun for them to ignore complaints about the loudness? It’s not the presenting theatre’s fault; they are only presenting the show as prescribed. Still, the game—one complains about the sound and the folks responsible ignore it.

Moving on…

Comment. I thought it sweet that many young girls came dressed up as a princess. One wonders where were the boys dressed up as Aladdin or the Genie or even Jafar the evil courtier. In any case, Aladdin is a good way to introduce young kids to the theatre and nurture the future generation of theatre-goers.   

Presented by Mirvish Productions.

Plays until March 17, 2024.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (1 intermission)

www.mirvish.com

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I’m giving a three part lecture series on THE GROUP THEATRE: They Revolutionized Art and Changed the World, for the Miles Nadal JCC in partnership with the Harold Green Jewish Theatre. Details below:

The Group Theatre: They Revolutionized Art and Changed the World
Guest speaker: theatre critic Lynn Slotkin

In 1931 New York, a curmudgeon, a loner, and a strong-willed woman bandied together to create a radically new form of American theatre and acting style that was political, protesting, and progressive. Who were the members of The Group Theatre? What did they create and why? Why did it only last 10 years? Ponder these questions and more! Presented by the Miles Nadal JCC in partnership with the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company. This three-part virtual series will be recorded.
Mondays: April 1, 8 & 15
1:00-2:30pm
Virtual – held on Zoom
Series: $36; drop-in: $16

Register here. For registration assistance, please call the Miles Nadal JCC: 416-924-6211 x0 or email help@mnjcc.org

This is the registration link https://app.amilia.com/store/en/miles-nadal-jcc/shop/activities/4983849?date=2024-04-01&view=month&scrollToCalendar=false

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Live and in person at the Grand Theatre, London, Ont. A co-production with the Grand Theatre and the Harold Green Jewish Theatre. Playing until March 2, 2024.

www.grandtheatre.com

Written by Jordi Mand

Directed by Philip Akin

Set and costumes by Sean Mulcahy

Lighting by Siohbán Sleath

Sound by Lyon Smith

Cast: Mairi Babb

Ron Lea

Brendan McMurtry-Howlett

Shaina Silver-Baird

Ralph Small

A smart, funny, moving play about living even when one person chooses not to go on.

The Story. Rachel is a harried lawyer from Toronto, visiting her father and his partner Shelley in London, Ont. She’s brought Shelley the six dozen bagels she asked for to take to Temple the next day. They are the wrong kind of bagel. Who brings six dozen poppyseed bagels, I ask you? And then there is the little matter of Rachel’s father Sam deciding that since his cancer has come back and he’s in constant pain, he will avail himself of MAID (medical assistance in dying) in seven days. Rachel is not having a good day, and the bagels are the least of it.

The Production. Sean Mulcahy has designed a stylish, neat set of Sam and Shelley’s living room/kitchen. The room is light-filled with comfortable furniture. The kitchen is pristine with everything put away. A tea-towel hangs over the oven door handle. There are doors up center and to the house right and house left side.

Rachel (Shaina Silver-Baird) arrives, calls out, flops the bags of bagels on the counter in the kitchen and calls out again. Shelley (Mairi Babb) comes out of one of the closed doors up center. She asks Rachel to be quiet because Rachel’s father Sam (Ron Lea) is sleeping. Then the two have an extended conversation about bagels, specifically sesame vs poppyseed. Rachel has bought six dozen poppyseed bagels when Shelley is sure she asked for sesame. They didn’t have sesame, there was only poppyseed. Shelley questions Rachel on when she bought them and chided her for buying them so late when they only had poppyseed that no one at Temple would touch. Shelley has to make a good impression because she’s responsible for the bagels. You can’t buy good bagels in London, Ont. Rachel can’t see the importance of it all. She’s exasperated. Then she has to explain that she didn’t bring ‘the boyfriend’ because they broke up. More interrogation.

Sam (Ron Lea) appears from the same room that Shelley appeared from. He walks slowly with a cane, and is obviously in pain. He’s happy to see Rachel but has something to tell her. His cancer has come back and it’s spread. He can’t face more chemo treatments. He’s decided to avail himself of MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying) in seven days. Rachel is horrified and goes into overdrive to change his mind and call all sorts of experts to offer an alternative. As Rachel, Shaina Silver-Baird is direct, take charge, impatient when challenged because she feels that she is doing right and yet unsettled by this turn of events.

And so playwright Jordi Mand begins her buoyant, moving play with the setup of humour about bagels and making an impression and then drops the bombshell of Sam using MAID because he’s tired and hurts and wants to decide when he will leave this earth, on his terms.

This all happens in about the first 10 minutes so this is not a spoiler alert. If there is a spoiler alert for In Seven Days it’s that the cover of the programme got it wrong when it says the show is “a comedy about death.” It’s not. It’s a comedy about living and that’s a whole other thing and it will move you to your toenails.

Over the course of the 90-minute play people will gather to offer comfort. Rachel’s ‘former’ boyfriend, Darren, (Brendan McMurtry-Howlett) will arrive from Toronto, hoping to offer her support, even though they broke up. Sam’s boyhood friend Eli, (Ralph Small) now a rabbi, drops by both as a friend and to put things into a Jewish perspective. What Sam is planning to do is murder. It’s a sin. Sam knows it. The discussions between these two old friends, performed by Ron Lea as Sam and Ralph Small as Eli is to watch two acting pros play these two Jewish characters, who know the body language, the nuance and the profound eloquence of a perfectly placed shrug.

Ron Lea plays Sam as a man who is content with his life and his decision to end it. He’s loving to those around him, certainly Rachel and Shelley. He even comes to appreciate Darren, and that’s because Brendan McMurtry-Howlett as Darren won’t let him off the hook. There is a wonderful scene involving ice cream in which both men learn about the other and form a respect and appreciation. Brendan McMurtry-Howlett gives a charming, boyish and accomplished performance as Darren.

Mairi Babb plays Shelley as a woman who has done all the heavy lifting before we arrive. We assume that Shelley has had the gut-wrenching conversation with Sam when she first got the news of his recurring cancer and his decision to end the pain. Shelley is a woman who loves her partner and will support his decision, no matter how she feels about it.  She goes about her duties with determination and an effort to focus on doing well for the Temple when she brings the bagels, albeit the wrong kind! Mairi Babb plays Shelley as a woman who has to put up a good front, both for herself and for Sam. One can see the reasonings behind it. Mairi Babb gives a delicate, subtle performance of a caring woman.

Director Philip Akin digs deep into this play that is so suffused in Judaism and being Jewish. The relationships are beautifully illuminated, not just between father and daughter and loving partners, but also between two old guys who have known each other since they were little kids when they traded baseball cards while sitting on the curb. There is a physical expression of that close relationship late in the play between Sam and Eli that is perfect—it leaves you limp in your seat with the quiet emotion of it all. In Seven Days is a play about ceremony, ritual, tradition and making a hard decision that is right. Jordi Mand and her gifted cast and director, will have you thinking about it long after you leave the theatre.

NOTE: During the play Shaina Silver-Baird as Rachel sings the Hebrew song “Erev Shel Shoshanim”, often sung at certain Jewish ceremonies. I love that song and in my collection of world music, consider the renditions of it sung by Miriam Makeba and Nana Mouskouri to be two of the best. I’ll now add Shaina Silver-Baird to that special list. Beautiful.

Comment. In Seven Days Jordi Mand has written a play about living, grabbing life, showing up when a friend or loved one needs you there, no matter how dire the circumstances. It’s about changing your mind, but not in the way expected and changing your perspective but not in an easy way. It’s about doing what’s right for our loved ones. Terrific play. Cause for celebration.

A co-production with the Grand Theatre and the Harold Green Jewish Theatre

Plays until March 2 (in London, Ont.)

Opens in Toronto May 9 at the Harold Green Jewish Theatre

Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

www.grandtheatre.com

NOTE: Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.

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Live and in person at the Marilyn & Charles Baillie Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Created by Quote Unquote Collective commissioned by BroadStage, Santa Monica, in association with Nightwood Theatre, Why Not Theatre and the National Arts Centre’s National Creation Fund, presented by Canadian Stage.  Playing until February 25, 2024.

www.canadianstage.com

Book by Amy Nostbakken and Nora Sadava

Music and lyrics by Amy Nostbakken

Story by Akosua Amo-Adem

Vicky Araico

Seiko Nakazawa

Amy Nostbakken

Norah Sadava

Stephanie Sourial

Jokes by Mónica Garrido Huerta

Director, Amy Nostbakken

Choreographer, Orian Michaeli

Music director, Alex Samaras

Set by Lorenzo Savoini and Michelle Tracey

Costumes by Christine Ting-Huan Urquhart

Lighting by Andre du Toit

Addition sound design and sound consultant, Matt Smith

Projection designer, potatoCakes_digital

Cast: Joema Frith

Mónica Garrido Huerta

Germaine Konji

Norah Sadava

Alex Samaras

Fiona Sauder

Takako Segawa

Anika Venkatesh

Although earnest and well-intentioned, Universal Child Care is a relentless bombardment of data and lamenting stories passing themselves off as a concert and/or a theatrical event and it’s neither.

Amy Nosbakken and Norah Sadava who comprise Quote Unquote Collective, are certainly gifted theatre creators as exemplified by their award-winning play Mouthpiece about coping with death, finding one’s voice and dealing with who you are. It played internationally and was celebrated everywhere it played.

What then to make of Universal Child Care? Amy Nosbakken and Norah Sadava have created a show that shines a light on how four of the richest countries in the world–Japan, the United Kingdom (UK), the United States and Canada–deal with health care. In all cases it’s dire.

In Japan Takako Segawa plays a dancer who is married and therefore is not eligible for child care. She ponders divorce but needs to dance to feed her art but it doesn’t pay enough for child care. A vicious circle.

In the UK a lesbian couple (musicians/singers) have a child and want another one but can’t afford to live in London if that happens. They would have to move and that does not guarantee child care. A vicious circle.

In the US a loving couple have a baby and the husband works two jobs and it’s not enough money to pay for child care. A vicious circle.

In Canada a woman is on maternity leave, her husband works, and she finds out that the person taking over her maternity leave will be doing her job permanently. She has lost her job. There is either not enough money for child care or there is no space in a day care facility for another child and the wait time for a space is years. A vicious circle.

The despairing stories of the various couples are depressing. For 90 minutes we are bombarded with statistics and data projected onto the screened walls of the two levelled structure of the set, each painting a darker story than the last. In one case we are told 16% of the people on maternity leave will lose their jobs; 4% will file an appeal. Are we to assume that 16% of the people on maternity leave that lose their jobs work for unethical bosses with little regard for the law? Is that wishful thinking? Little information is offered.

Lorenzo Savoini and Michelle Tracey have designed this two leveled structure that is divided into four sections, each section representing a couple’s dwelling. There are no stairs joining the two levels. One wonders how the hard-working actors manage to go from the stage to the upper level of the set. The actors scurry up and down that structure by ladders affixed to the outside walls of the structure. It seems a perverse way of providing an actor with a 90 minute-workout as well as a performance, but I digress.

A stream of information of the cost of child care and other expenses in the US is projected so fast on the set one can’t register it properly. Fiona Sauder playing one of the UK couple sings a dense rap song so deliberately quickly, itemizing the many and various problems of child care, one had trouble processing the torrent of information. Is that the point?

The US character played by Joema Frith recites a poem to parenthood that is poignant, moving, beautifully spoken with passion and it was electrifying—at last—something one could consider, ponder properly and appreciate. But then the character receives a letter (about a job???) that again is projected in a scroll on the uneven walls of the set that the result is unreadable. Is that the point, that we are not supposed to know what the letter said—at least from my seat? Frustrating.  

Amy Nostbakken has directed this show that involves songs (which she wrote), choreography (Orian Michaeli), a cast that sings background sounds when others characters are talking, and generally a sense that it’s all a deliberate swirl of activity to create the breathless sense of losing one’s grip. Really?

The always compelling Germaine Konji begins the show by re-enacting giving birth in the most compelling scene of pain, screaming and doubled-over agony only to have relief when she ‘delivers’ a glowing orb of light that is gently passed from character to character, scene to scene (clever).

Mónica Garrido Huerta plays an undocumented immigrant who does stand-up and acts as the emcee of the evening, delivering jokes that are not funny and generally don’t land because they are overplayed.

One can be caught up in the manipulative emotion of these characters and their situations, but that does not translate into a viable theatrical endeavor. Aside from being a polemic about the failed social services in four rich countries, what is the point of this sprawling, unfocused bombardment of facts and data? It’s not a concert of compelling songs or a play with dramatic tension. Frustrating.

Comment. The irony has not escaped me that Universal Child Care is playing at a 144 seat subsidized theatre in which the top ticket price is $99 and the cheapest seat is $29 in the last row of the balcony, and is being seen by an audience in which child care is not an issue. It’s heartening to know that the companies that are co-producing the production (Nightwood Theatre, Why Not Theatre, the National Arts Centre’s National Creation Fund and Canadian Stage) are providing child care for the cast while they rehearsed and perform the show. Now if they can also offer the same child care to the audience who needs it, they might attract the next generation of theatre goers.

Created by Quote Unquote Collective commissioned by BroadStage, Santa Monica, in association with Nightwood Theatre, Why Not Theatre and the National Arts Centre’s National Creation Fund, presented by Canadian Stage.  

Plays until Feb. 25, 2024

Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

www.canadianstage.com

NOTE: Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.

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Review: EARWORM

by Lynn on February 18, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto. A Nowadays Theatre Production in association with Crow’s Theatre.  Playing until March 3, 2024.

www.crowstheatre.com

Written and directed by Mohammad Yaghoubi

 Set by Amin Shirazi

Lighting by David DeGrow

Sound by Sina Shoaie

Photographer and videographer, Ali Mostolizadeh

Cast: Parya Heravi

Aida Keykhaii

Amir Maghami

Amir Zavosh

Mohammad Yaghoubi illuminates life in Iran and Canada from the point of view of Homa who embraces her freedom in Canada to express herself.

The Story. Homa is a stylish woman who emigrated from Iran to Canada. We get the sense from what she says that she found Iran oppressive to women and free speech. She revels in her life in Canada. She produces a podcast in which she muses on politics, ethics, freedom of speech etc.

Her adult son, Pendar lives with her but there is a complication. Pendar has a girlfriend, Fatemeh, who has a pet dog.

Fatemeh’s father is visiting from Iran and is strict about his culture and religion and feels the dog is unclean.  So the dog is living with Homa and Pendar, temporarily. Homa is not happy about this since she walks the dog, but she wants to do right for her son.

Fatemeh invites Homa and Pendar for a meal to meet her father. Homa and Pendar spend some time discussing what she should wear. Homa knows that Fatemeh’s father will want her to wear the hijab and she objects to Pendar, but eventually reaches a compromise after much discussion. When Homa is at Fatemeh’s place, her father doesn’t look at Homa because she is a woman. But Homa looks at him and thinks there is something familiar about him. And so a mystery is established about the father. The play explores that and lots of other ideas.  

The Production.  Writer-director Mohammad Yaghoubi is from Iran and came to Canada in 2015. I’ve been lucky to see his earlier plays: Winter of 88 and Heart of a Dog. Those plays reflected life in Iran. With Earworm he has opened up his focus to include life in Canada and Iran and thus broaden his audience reach. Earworm has some performances in Farsi with English surtitles, and most other performances are in English with the occasional Farsi translation. The audience is never disadvantaged by not knowing what is being said or read. Mohammad Yaghoubi takes care of his audiences. Scenes are titled and the name is projected in English and Farsi on the screened back wall of Amin Shirazi’s stylish set.

In fact, Mohammad Yagoubi wanted to open up his play to include a broader audience and not just Iranians, so all audiences are welcome to experience a voice who writes about a world we might not be familiar with.

The first Act has a lot of banter between Homa, beautifully played by Aida Keykhaii (Fertility Slippers, Heart of a Dog, Winter of 88 and Swim Team, this last as a director) and Pendar (Amir Maghami) who is always fiddling with his cell phone. He is devoted to his girlfriend Fatemeh (Parya Heravi)—they are always texting.

We also find out that Homa is invited with Pendar to Fatemeh’s apartment for dinner to meet her father. This will be tricky. Homa is a modern woman who dresses like she pleases. She knows that Fatemeh’s father is traditional in his ways and how he expects women to dress, i.e. to wear the hijab. She decides on a compromise but getting there is rather funny.

Homa is a take charge woman. She is proud of her uncompromising podcasts and the people who write her, usually from Iran, are grateful for her honesty.

At times Homa directly addresses the audience for comment. Homa believes that in Canada she can express her opinion and not lose her job. She asks the audience what they think. We have seen a lot of upheaval in our world of late, so the spread of opinions is interesting.

Act II is takes place in Fatemeh’s apartment where we meet her father, Mohammad, played by Amir Zavosh, who is quiet speaking and hardly looks at Homa because she is a woman. Homa stares at him with a puzzled look on her face. Aida Keykhaii as Homa is watchful, perhaps a bit agitated. He seems familiar but she can’t place him until she does.

Earworm has echoes in it of Death and the Maiden, Ariel Dorfman’s Chilean drama about a man who brings home a good Samaritan one night who helped him when his car breaks down. The man’s wife hears them come in and recognizes the Samaritan’s voice, which conjures all sorts of memories for her, all terrible.

Playwright Mohammad Yaghoubi shines a light on Iran, its rigidity in how differently women are treated from men. The culture is rich and that’s illuminated too. In Earworm we also see the very dark side of what Homa left behind when she came to Canada and that is revealed slowly but relentlessly.

And in a truly theatrical turn, Mohammad Yaghoubi provides two endings to the play, and when you see the play, you see why. I thought that was fascinating. He makes one look at theatre in a different light and perspective rather than what we think a play should be and how it should be structured.

I love being unbalanced by a gifted playwright and director—and in this instance I didn’t mind that Mohammad Yaghoubi is both the writer and director here because he pulls it off beautifully.

A Nowadays Theate Production in association with Crow’s Theatre presents:

Plays until March 3, 2024.

Running time: 2 hours (1 intermission)

www.crowstheatre.com

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Live and in person at the Tarragon Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Plays until March 3.

www.tarragontheatre.com

Written and performed by Diane Flacks

Directed by Alisa Palmer

Movement coach, Rebecca Harper

Set and costumes by Jung-Hye Kim

Lighting by Leigh Ann Vardy

Sound by Deanna H. Choi

Diane Flacks makes her exuberant entrance into the Tarragon Theatre from the audience carrying a small tray of glasses with tequila shots. She offers patrons a glass as she scurries down the side aisle of the theatre onto the stage, where she downs a glass herself. (The person next to me felt that it was unfair that all patrons were not offered the liquid refreshment, but I digress).

With graceful, sensual moves Flacks dances with abandon to rock/raucous music, flipping her long hair and swiveling her hips. She seems to be having a grand time. Wearing the roomy pant-suit and loose blouse designed by Jung-Hye Kim allow Diane Flacks to dance freely with exuberant big movements. She stands on stage in what seems a sort of sand-diamond playground with a chair and other props. She moves around the set with a natural ease, under the careful, sensitive direction of Alisa Palmer.

After Diane Flacks downs the tequila shot she says with breezy off-handedness that she had been drinking pretty heavily for a year, so much so that she went to her doctor to see about it. But she’s not ready to focus just yet why we are all gathered here.

With breathy enthusiasm Flacks talks about being Jewish and with it the attendant Jewish guilt. In a phone call to her “Bubbie” (grandmother) Flacks is chided about not calling for three days and as a holocaust survivor she deserves better from her granddaughter. Frankly, the “Jewish guilt” label is wearing thin.

Flacks riffs on Freud on guilt, women, being a lesbian until finally after what seems like an endless playful, upbeat stream of consciousness, she deals with the real reason for her guilt (and being Jewish has nothing to do with it). Diane Flacks is the reason for the end of her 20 year same-sex marriage because she fell in love with a much younger woman who was gorgeous and sleek—’a racehorse’ as Flacks describes her–who pursued Flacks and she could not resist. This resulted in the split of her family, upset for her two beloved boys and guilt at how it affected her former wife. Of course ‘blame’ is generally shared, although not equally. Flacks speaks of the annoyances of a long-term relationship: socks not picked up, other things that grate (“It’s not all my fault!”).

The tone of Guilt (A Love Story) changes here after the confession from what seems like forced frivolity and an effort to be irreverently funny, to being more thoughtful, introspective, but still seeing the humour even in a bad situation.

The most poignant, effective moments of the show are when Diane Flacks is still and calmly reflective, either sitting or standing. Her remembrance of the harrowing first year of her son’s life, when he was in hospital is particularly moving. At this she remembers other parents standing vigil over their sick child and she feels (rightfully) guilty that her child got better and theirs did not. There is a forgotten birthday, remembered with horror, humour and regret that is ‘fixed’ when everybody pitches in and tries their best.

Diane Flack is a perceptive, quirky observer of life, who knows how to put things into perspective with a humourous lens. Guilt (A Love Story) is a rollercoaster of pushed humour at the beginning of the show before settling into the more sobering, deeply moving and naturally funny aspects of her personal observations of guilt.     

Tarragon Theatre presents:

Plays until March 3, 2024.

Running time: 70 minutes (no intermission)

www.tarragontheatre.com

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Review: TRUTH

by Lynn on February 15, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at Young People’s Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Plays until Feb. 23, 2024.

www.youngpeoplestheatre.org

Written by Kanika Ambrose

Based on the novel “The Gospel Truth” by Caroline Pignat

Directed by Sabryn Rock

Set and costumes by Shannon Lea Doyle

Lighting by Shawn Henry

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Wade Bogert-O’Brien

Jasmine Case

Chiamaka Glory

Dante Jemmott

Dominique LeBlanc

Jeff Miller

Micah Woods

NOTE: Recommended fir /ages 10+ /grades 5+

A moving piece of theatre about hope and tenacity in the face of despair and confinement.

The Story. It’s 1858 on a tobacco plantation in Virginia. Phoebe is 16, Black, is a slave who works on the plantation owned by Master Duncan.  Phoebe has not spoken since Master Duncan sold her mother who was then taken to another state three years ago. Phoebe adored her mother and the shock of losing her rendered her mute. Phoebe loves another slave named Shad. Shad’s brother, Will attempts to run away frequently but is caught and whipped. Then Dr. Bergman appears wanting to go birdwatching and Phoebe becomes his guide and her world changes.

The Production. Director Sabryn Rock has directed a sensitive, thought-provoking production of Kanika Ambrose’s emotion-charged play. We see and hear of the horrors of that life from Phoebe’s point of view. As Phoebe, Jasmine Case is silent but observant. She is curious and knowing. It was dangerous for a slave to learn how to read and write but Phoebe learned. There are tender scenes with Chiamaka Glory in the dual parts of Bea and Ruth. Phoebe would sit in the hollow of a tree, cocooned by Chiamaka Glory, book in hand, writing in her journal.

Phoebe is spirited in the scenes with Shad (a sweet performance by Dante Jemmott). There is such respect and love between them.

Master Duncan, played by a strict, commanding Jeff Miller has a complicated relationship with Phoebe, that becomes clear. Master Duncan is a brute relishing whipping Will (Micah Woods). Master Duncan’s arrogant humour is carried on by his brat-daughter, Tessa, giving a no-holds-barred performance by Dominique LeBlanc. What those slaves endured from these mean-spirited ‘owners’ is soul-crushing.

But miraculously, Kanika Ambrose’s play Truth is more about resilience, tenacity and the belief in hope, especially when Dr. Bergman (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) arrives from “The North.” It’s not just bird-watching that he’s interested in. It’s more important and Phoebe realizes how important instantly.

The production of Truth is vital in telling and retelling a story that needs to be told, often, and not just in Black History Month.

Comment. I love coming to Young People’s Theatre during student matinees to see how students engage with the subject matter. The audience I was in seemed engaged with the gripping story. But if anything gets the “ewwww” factor from kids of a certain age it’s public displays of affection. In a scene when Phoebe and Shad kissed, those kids were convulsed with “eeeeewwwwwwwwww”. I thought that was kind of sweet and funny. Most important, they ‘got’ the play.

Young People’s Theatre Presents:

Plays until Feb. 23, 2024.

Running time: 70 minutes (no intermission)

www.youngpeoplestheatre.org

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Live and in person at the Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. W. Toronto, Ont. Produced by Aluna Theatre, playing until Feb. 25, 2024.

www.theatrecentre.org

Written by Jorgelina Cerritos

Directed by Soheil Parsa

Scenographer, Trevor Schwellnus

Costumes by Niloufar Ziaee

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Beatriz Pizano

Carlos Gonzalez-Vio

A beautifully rendered play of waiting, longing, identity, purpose and hope.

When the lights go down, we hear the sound of the full force of crashing waves on a shore and the sense of the wind as well.  Kudos to sound designer, Thomas Ryder Payne.

A man (Carlos Gonzalez-Vio) and a woman (Beatriz Pizano) are on a dock by the sea. The sound of the waves underscores the scenes.  She wears a black dress over a blouse, and simple shoes. She is sitting at a small desk with two neat stacks of paper. She is marking the papers of one pile with a pencil and putting the marked papers on the other pile.

The man is standing on another part of the dock looking wistfully out to sea. He is unshaven and wears a worn sleeveless shirt and black mid-calf cargo pants. There is a ring of salt around the bottom of each pant leg. He is barefoot.  She is a clerk in some unknown department and he is a fisherman (hence the ring of salt.)

He needs a certificate to prove who he is so he can get on with his life. He does not know his name or his date of birth or where he comes from or his parentage. He does not suffer from amnesia. He just does not know. She is exasperated at such an absurd thing. She is meticulous about her job, ensuring all the information needed for the completion of forms is provided. She has no patience for this man. She keeps looking off to her right, into the distance to call “next” for the next non-existent person in line to be served. There never is anyone there.

Welcome to the absurdist world of Salvadoran playwright, Jorgelina Cerrito’s 2010 award-winning play, On The Other Side of the Sea.

Over the course of the 90-minute production the man, known only as “Fisherman of the Sea,” tries to engage the woman, we learn is named “Dorothea.” She is bitter about her situation. She lives in the city but is relegated to this beach ‘office’ because of her age. The administration wants only younger people in the city and has moved her out here to do drudge-work. She was in love with a man once who went to sea and has not returned. He holds the key to her unborn children. And she hates the sea and never goes swimming in it, so this placement is particularly onerous.

She is determined to get the information she needs for the forms for this fisherman. Initially she dismisses the man because he does not know his name or details of his life, a situation she finds unbelievable.

He is frustrated too but in a milder way. He can see beauty in his boat, the sea, the air, the sky, the sunrise and things that matter in his life. He once found love with a wonderful woman and wanted to marry but did not have the papers that offered his first name, last name, address and age.  He wanted to own a dog with whom he bonded in the pound, but did not have the needed papers of identity/birth certificate.

As rigid as Dorothea is in her determination to properly fill the forms only with factual information, that is as patient Fisherman of the Sea is to wait for her to soften and help him. There are echoes here of Samuel Beckett’s 1953 absurdist play, Waiting for Godot as two characters banter, philosophize, support each other and wait for another character (Godot) who never arrives. So Dorothea waits for customers and Fisherman of the Sea waits for his birth certificate.

Over the course of this beautifully directed, gently paced production by Soheil Parsa, Beatriz Pizano as Dorothea, and Carlos Gonzalez-Vio as Fisherman of the Sea, establish their characters. As Dorothea, Beatriz Pizano sits straight-backed in her wood chair. When she sits in the chair, she snaps her dress firmly under her. It’s a terrific bit of theatricality that so illuminates Dorothea’s character.  Her pencil strokes are sharp, methodical and don’t vary. There is only one way to do this job and she does it with determination.

As Fisherman of the Sea, Carlos Gonzalez-Vio is curious, more relaxed, friendly, inquisitive. He is mindful of the distance between them. That’s why the subtle closing of the distance between them and the relaxed body language of both actors for their characters is so beautiful to witness. The trio of sensitive director and his two gifted actors realizes the beauty of this delicate play. The business that suggests hope, is breathtaking.    

Aluna Theatre presents:

Plays until February 25, 2024.

Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

www.theatrecentre.org

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