Broadcast text reviews of: WORMWOOD and PETER PAN IN WONDERLAND

by Lynn on December 4, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following two reviews were broadcast on Friday, Dec. 4, 2015. CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm. Wormwood at the Tarragon Theatre until December 20, 2015 and Peter Pan in Wonderland at the Elgin Theatre until January 3, 2016.

Good Friday morning. It’s theatre fix time with Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. What treats do you have in store for us today?

Two shows. One sobering and one hilarious. First Wormwood by Andrew Kushnir at the Tarragon Theatre, Mainspace.

It’s a very ambitious play, billed as a love-story, a Canadian-Ukrainian-Russian fantasia about Ukraine, its history with its invaders and focuses on the general election of 2004 when Canadian observers went to Ukraine to see that the election was conducted properly.

And then we have Peter Pan in Wonderland at the Elgin Theatre—Ross Petty’s annual Family Musical Panto-monium with a bit of a sad twist.

Ok, let’s start with Wormwood. Besides being ambitious it also sounds dense.

It certainly is. The program is loaded with information such as a glossary of terms used during the play; background of the Orange Revolution; an essay on the corrupt general election of 2004; a chronology of the Orange Revolution; notes on the Ukraine Crisis of 2013-14

There is a whole essay from Andrew Kushnir on his upbringing as a Canadian-Ukrainian and how he came to embrace that country as his home away from home, among other thoughts on the place. Your head is swimming with facts and the play hadn’t even started yet.

What is the play about?

It’s 2004. Ukraine will have its election and impartial observers were coming to see that the election was conducted fairly. Ivan and his brother Markiyan, two Canadian-Ukrainians, volunteer to oversee the voting.

When they arrive they are met by The Professor who takes them to his house for billeting. Markiyan balks at this. They were to be put in a hotel. The smooth-talking Professor explains why they have to be separated.

So Ivan stays in the Professor’s house being tended by the one-eyed Housekeeper and her daughter, or are they really The Professor’s wife and daughter—they could be both. In short order Ivan is beaten up and robbed of his passport; gets sick and sleeps for most of his stay; revives long enough to see from his bedroom window, a gorgeous woman named Artemisia in the walled garden below and falls in love with her; he meets her and finds that she’s mute but still woos her; and Ivan learns about the complicated history of Ukraine where neighbours can be political and ideological enemies; the Russian influence is very heavy; there are references to Chernobyl.

Kushnir calls this a love-story and it can be taken on many levels. It’s his love story for a country he has grown up learning about from his Ukrainian family. It’s the love story of Ivan and Artemisia. We also learn that the housekeeper’s daughter loves Ivan and The Professor had hoped that Ivan would fall in love with the daughter and take her to Canada.

Do you think the play is successful in presenting its story and telling you about this complex history of Ukraine?


I think playwright Andrew Kushnir’s intentions are honourable in trying to tell this history and story. Every word is obviously precious to him. And quite often the writing is so sensitively poetic. But I think the whole enterprise got away from him. So much of the story didn’t make sense, even if you do try to accommodate the fairy-tale, mythic aspect of it.

Ivan seems to be held captive in that house, so why steal his passport? He’s not bright enough even to find his way out of this room and misses many election preparations yet doesn’t seem to be concerned, really.

The Housekeeper has to be shown how to get down from his window to the garden—she ties two sheets together that will hook on to a hook and the other end is thrown out the window—down which he slides.

When he meets Artemisia, she is mute. Ivan carries on both sides of the conversation. He asks her a question. She might raise an eyebrow or her hand and he fashions a whole conversation out of it as if he can understand her. Mystifying. I don’t think Kushnir has written Ivan deeply enough to come up with a credible character, and truth to tell Luke Humphrey’s playing of Ivan just seems flat, without depth or detail. And I found the production stopped before it started.

What does that mean?

It means this; the narrator called The Kobzar tells the story. He begins by saying that one should start these things with a cute joke. He tries to remember the cute and confesses that he can’t remember it; so he stands there telling us we will wait until it comes. And we wait. And we wait. And finally he forgets the waiting and begins the story.

In a play that is 2 ½ hours long, that is just a self-indulgent waste of time. I think that perhaps the play will end with him finally remembering the cute joke. But he doesn’t. Annoying.

Was the production as annoying as you found the play?

No. Director Richard Rose has created a production with strong acting, for the most part, that tries to make sense of this dense work.

To capture the mystery of Ukraine, many characters speak in Russian and Ukrainian without any translation or surtitles. Ivan does a bit of translation of the Ukrainian but the audience is in the dark because there are no surtitles. This is deliberate and so we go with the flow.

Ben Campbell plays The Professor with swagger and bravado. Scott Wentworth plays The Kobzar with a folksy charm; and he plays The Doctor, Artemisia’s father, with a quiet dignity and fierce protection. Nancy Palk is the one-eyed Housekeeper who is impish and meddling. She’s hilarious. There is a lot of singing of Ukrainian folk songs and it’s glorious.

I think there is a play here, it just needs to be cut down drastically so that it makes sense.

And now for Peter Pan In Wonderland.

This is the annual Ross Petty Family Musical Panto-monium. Fairy tales are fractured, re-worked, infused with lots of local references and some irreverent social commentary and Ross Petty always plays the villain.

In this one Wendy and Peter Pan re-unite but find that Captain Hook might be near. He sent Wendy a chest of goodies that is a trap. Wendy and Peter find themselves sliding into wonderland where they meet Alice, some thugs, the Queen of Hearts, Smee and Tinkerbum, because Tinkerbell was busy.

Captain Hook wants to possess the Queen of Heart’s Tickle Trunk of Wonder which when opened will deplete the world of imagination. Then he can over come everyone and rule the world, which is his life’s ambition. Our life’s ambition is to boo Captain Hook with every single entrance.

These happen every year. Is there a formula?

I think there is a general format. It’s based on fairy tales with a Canadian flavour. There are lots of topical songs sung with gusto and verve. Dancing, prancing, starring the latest up and coming young talent.

The script is by Chris Earle. The choreography by Marc Kimelman is lively and energetic. Michael Gianfrancesco and his projection designers (Ben Chaisson and Beth Kates) have created the most glittery, dazzling set in years. Tracey Flye has directed this with energy and a constant swirl of activity.

The cast is made of such stalwarts as Eddie Glenn as an impish Smee; Jessica Holmes with a wonderful speech impediment and attitude plays a sassy Queen of Hearts; Anthony MacPherson is a buoyant Peter Pan. As Tinkerbum, Dan Chameroy is his high-camp self.

Of course Ross Petty plays Captain Hook with a sneer and a smile. The audience boos him; he leers at us. It’s a perfect melding of actor and audience doing their best work in synch.

You say there is a sad twist. What is it?

Russ Petty is retiring from performing in his Pantomimes in future. He’s hanging up his false-beards; his falsies—he often plays women in drag—his tight pants and high boots, his lipstick and just devote himself to producing the shows.

He always makes a curtain speech at the end and this one was quite emotional. He says he’ll miss doing these shows. We certainly will miss him. I sure will. I got my make-up tips from him.

Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at twitter@slotkinletter.

Wormwood plays at the Tarragon Theatre until December 20.

Peter Pan in Wonderland plays at the Elgin Theatre until January 3.

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