Soulpepper Reviews

by Lynn on September 3, 2011

in The Passionate Playgoer

Friday, September 1, 2011. Three from Soulpepper: THE GLASS MENAGERIE, EXIT THE KING, WHITE BITING DOG. Originally broadcast on CIUT. 89.5 FM

A somewhat expanded version of the radio reviews of three Soulpepper Theatre Company shows I did this morning on CIUT. 89.5FM:

The ever popular Tennessee Williams classic, THE GLASS MENAGERIE; EXIT THE KING, a rarely performed play by Ionesco and WHITE BITING DOG by Canada’s own Judith Thompson.

This is certainly a cross section of plays and it’s the kind of selection that established Soulpepper’s reputation for doing little known and familiar classics.

Over the years they have also given many of their productions a Canadian slant, either by being adapted by Canadian writers or by being written by them—as WHITE BITING DOG is.

SOULPEPPER is the little company that grew.

It was started by 12 actors who met as part of the Young Company at the Stratford Festival under Robin Phillips in the 80s.

They established their own careers but still wanted to do more classics but had little opportunity.

So they made their own luck and formed a company, rented a theatre and put on two plays one summer 13 years ago; one a familiar classic and one rarely done.

They had two hits and Soulpepper Theatre Company was on its way.

That summer season grew and now they are in their own theatre, run year round and this season has a roster of 17 productions.

It’s a huge accomplishment to go from a small summer season of two to a year round season of 17. But I have some concerns.

Of the 17, 5 are repeats, some have been repeated often. OUR TOWN has played about 4-5 times in the last 13 years.

BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR has been brought back for the last few years.

Good company that Soulpepper is, this repetition of popular hits seems like coasting.
That concerns me.

If you program shows because people want certain plays or types of plays, then you’re doomed. The audience is in control and not the creative folks of the company.

Artistic Director Albert Schultz has created a performance schedule similar to those in Europe whereby the popular shows are brought back year after year. His mentor Laszlo Martin, who heads a theatre in Hungary, runs his theatre like that–bringing hits back year after year.

I don’t live in Hungry. I don’t want to see productions such as BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR again and again. If people missed a show four times they don’t want to see it.

Schultz has also established a rather fluid situation where shows can be held over if they do well during the run. The problem here is that you never really know when a show will close.

I went recently to see one of these repeats and the place was not full. That should tell you something.

So yes, 17 shows is an achievement, but many of them are plays that have been done to death elsewhere.

I think my beloved Soulpepper Theatre Company is getting flabby and complacent. That’s troubling.

Ok enough of the rants.


We’re in St. Louis in the cramped apartment of the Wingfield family: Mother Amanda and
her two grown children: Tom works in a shoe factory and hates it.

Daughter Laura is emotionally fragile, crippled with shyness, limps and lives in her own world of glass figurines that she polishes.

Tom dreams of leaving the family for adventure. He writes poetry.

The father is absent. He worked for the phone company and fell in love with long distances.

It’s a memory play with Tom as the narrator. He is recalling the last few days he was with his family, and what made him leave. And he’s been haunted by his decisions ever since.

It’s a wonderful play of poetry, heartache, love hope and dreams.

And of course Tennessee Williams knew his way around a wounded heart and could write about it with such poetic vividness.

As to the production:

Directed by Ted Dykstra.

Designed by Patrick Clark.

Love the play, the ache and poetry of it.

It has a strong cast of actors, many of whom are Soulpepper stalwarts.

Nancy Palk is Amanda. She is a terrific, sensitive actress who brings out the true love that Amanda has for her children.

She’s not really a harpy. She’s a woman who remembers her glory days, but sees the reality of the present.

She has to find a safe place for Laura, either in the work force, rr when that fails, in marriage.

There is some wonderful work by Ms Palk as Amanda. But I was puzzled sometimes by her physical choices to be ground down and old-age-acting in one scene and then almost skipping across the stage in others.

As Tom, Stuart Hughes brings out the poetry of Williams’ words, and the haunting ache of the memory of the play…

Perhaps Hughes bit too old for Tom, but he does have a faraway, whistful, haunted look fo sorrow.

As the Gentleman Caller Jeff Lillico does a lovely job. Sensitive, sweet, carrying and with his own issues.

But Gemma James-Smith as Laura is the prize.

This young actress quivers with Laura’s fragility, her insecurity, her inability to move, almost stuck to her place when she realizes the gentleman caller was a person she loved in high school.

An astonishing performance.

The production as a whole?

Uneven. Odd choices by Dykstra and Clark.

Amanda wants to redo the whole apartment for the gentleman caller’s arrival.


But the next day the old sofa was reopholstered and cushions were recovered. Makes no sense.

Still love the play, though.


Fascinating play by Ionesco, master absurdist playwright.

This version is translated by Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush. Yes that Geoffrey Rush who did this play on Broadway to great praise.

King Berenger is about 400 years old. His dominion has diminished from several millions to about 1000 elderly people.

His first wife (there are two) tells him he’s going to die at the end of the play, in about 90 minutes so he better prepare.

The play is about his denial, avoidance, railing, and the wives and the courtiers trying to get him to accept his fate.

A comedy.

About the production.

Directed by Albert Schultz

Interesting play again, with a terrific off-kilter set of a dilapidated palace, but still an uneven production.

Oliver Dennis is an intriguing King Berenger, feeble, petulant, always funny and quirky.

I like Brenda Robins a lot as the first Queen, Marguarite—in control, forceful, regal but I felt that that Albert Schultz kept the pace languid.

We have to feel that we are rushing towards the inevitable.

And he has a penchant for making physical jokes that don’t come naturally from the
script. There’s an attempt at funny business involving a wind chime that falls flat. That slows the pace.

I’m glad to see this rarely done play but this production was less than stellar.


It was first produced at Tarragon Theatre in 1984.

A troubled man named Cape wants to kill himself. He tries to jump off the Bloor Viaduct when you still could do it, without having to go to Leaside if you wanted to do yourself in.

He sees a small white dog who talks to him, and tells him everything will be ok if he goes home and keeps his dying father alive.

A talking dog.

You pay attention.

Cape goes home to tend to his father.

He meets a simple woman who is mysterious and talks in a wild, inventive way.

His estranged mother arrives looking for shelter. Her home burned down. She arrives with her young lover named Pascal.

She wears a skimpy black negligee. Matters spiral out of control until an unexpected end.

The production of WHITE BITING DOG.

I confess a bias.

I don’t like the play probably because I just don’t get it, not now, not when I first saw it at Tarragon.

Is it a metaphor for a dysfunctional family?Is it a metaphor for displaced people, the oddball?

The character’s names might give a clue Pony, Cape, Lomia, Gidden….odd names for odd people.

Is that the point?

Then Judith Thompson goes a really long way to make it.

Certainly the language is distinctive, and your eyes are always popping with a turn of phrase.

But ultimately I think it’s all an effort to be quirky and it shows.

That said, it’s an intriguing solid production.

It’s directed by Nancy Palk in her first directoral effort. She has acted in a lot of Judith Thompson plays and knows the terrain and that shows too.

This is an assured, imaginative production, in which every one is doing fine work.

Mike Ross as the mournful, desperate Cape.

Michaela Washburn as the simple, off-kilter Pony.

Gregory Prest—always an interesting actor—as the loopy Pascal.

Joseph Ziegler—a standout—as Glidden, near death one moment and buoyant and gracious the next.

And finally Fiona Reid as the negligee wearing Lomia—anxious to be alluring, she has that tight smile and eager attitude to seem younger than she is, though she does look great.

So the production is dandy but the play is a problem.

And with the others it’s the other way around.

Still they all have their worthy aspects. All have reasons to check them out.

Check the Soulpepper website at

for playing times and dates of THE GLASS MENAGERIE, EXIT THE KING, and WHITE BITING DOG.

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