Reviews: COME DOWN FROM UP RIVER (Foster Festival in St. Catharines), and ROSALYNDE (or AS YOU LIKE IT) the Bard’s Bus Tour

by Lynn on July 29, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines, Ont.

Part of the Foster Festival.

Written by Norm Foster

Directed by Patricia Vanstone

Designed by Peter Hartwell

Lighting by Chris Malkowski

Cast: Kirsten Alter

Peter Kranz

Amanda Parsons

A typical Norm Foster show full of humour and humanity, irascible characters and forgiveness.

 The Story.  Come Down From Up River  is a world premiere from Norm Foster, a Canadian writer who keeps churning out plays.  It’s part of the Foster Festival in St. Catharines and this is the festival’s third year.  This is the third play that Norm Foster has written that is set in Saint John, New Brunswick.

Shaver Bennett is a solitary, irascible man who lives in the woods of the Miramichi in Northern New Brunswick. He’s a logger. He has to go into Saint John, New Brunswick for medical tests.  He asks his niece Bonnie if he can stay at her place until the tests are over and then he will go home. He hasn’t seen Bonnie for at least 23 years because  he and his sister– Bonnie’s mother–had a terrible fight and that caused a rift in the family. Bonnie has been harbouring hard feelings about her uncle since then.   Lots to dredge up over the past 23 years and lots to explain.

Bonnie is a lawyer married to Liv Arsenault who is a graphic artist.  Bonnie is white and Liv is a woman of colour.  As far as Bonnie can remember Shaver has always been an angry, rigid thinking man and she sees no reason why he would change. She learns soon enough about holding a grudge and being forgiving.

The Production. This is a solid production. Peter Hartwell has designed a stylish single set of Liv and Bonnie’s living room with a door well up centre. There is a bar location extreme stage right when Shaver stops at a pub for a beer before going to Bonnie’s place, but for our purposes this is a single set. It’s well directed by Patricia Vanstone. She doesn’t have a character move unnecessarily. There is always a purpose and reason. Relationships are created with economy for the most meaningful results.  It’s well acted by Kirsten Alter as Liv, a forgiving open-hearted woman, and Amanda Parsons as Bonnie who is a bit of a rigid woman at first. The real surprise is Peter Kranz as Shaver. Peter Kranz spent a lot of time at the Shaw Festival playing buttoned-up characters who usually were very proper. Here he is almost unrecognizable with long hair and a messy beard.

As played by Kranz, Shaver is stoical, very funny and almost laid back.

The play does speak to today. Liv and Bonnie are married but they try to hide that from Shaver thinking he would not approve or understand. Bonnie’s assumptions of Shaver are disproved when he says he’s not shocked that Liv and Bonnie are married or that Liv is a woman of colour.  As Shaver says to both Bonnie and Liv, he might live in the woods by himself, but that doesn’t mean he’s stupid or unaware of the world.  Norm Foster gives Shaver quirky turns of phrases and a wry, dry sense of humour that Peter Kranz handles beautifully. Shaver is a man who wants to correct a wrong with his niece Bonnie. Bonnie needs to listen to his side of the story to find the truth about a secret in her life.

I do think the play goes on a bit too long and there are revelations that just seem to be ticking a box for relevance. Liv has a speech (given to Shaver) towards the end of the play about the racism she’s endured that I think would have been better placed when Shaver and Liv address the question of race when they first meet. Placing the speech at the end of the play just seems to be ‘tacked on”.

But on the whole Come Down from Up River is an enjoyable time in the theatre.

 Comment.  I went to Come Down From Up River because it is part of the Foster Festival in St. Catharines, and even though this is it’s third year, I’d never been. Often the cast is made up of actors who used to work at the Shaw Festival. Norm Foster just keeps churning out the plays that are easy entertainment. He’s very funny and often quite wise about the ways of the world. The plays are formulaic which is not a bad thing if it’s all done with skill, and Foster has skill.  There is usually a dilemma of some sort or other that the characters have to resolve—in this case Bonnie and Shaver have a lot of memories about their past hurts and wounds. Shaver seems to have mellowed over the years but Bonnie only remembers how he used to be and harbours resentment. It reminds me of a card I received once with a quote from Lillian Hellman: “People change and forget to tell each other.” Exactly.

Characters go over the hurts they endured, discover the person who hurt them has changed, and then go about resolving their differences.  Often the play could deal with issues of the day—same sex marriages, mixed marriages; bigotry etc.

Organizers in St. Catharines thought it would be interesting to have a festival of Norm Foster’s plays.  In a few cases the productions have been written especially for the Festival. They are world premiers, Come Down From Up River  being one of them. I think that’s a coup to have a few new plays specifically written for the festival.

And the venue of the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre seems new too—I could still smell the fragrance of the wood. We are greeted by volunteers and theatre staff and are guided every step of the way to the “indoor plumbing” or our seats etc. Every effort is made to make the audience feel welcomed. The last needed detail is to put the name of the theatre and it’s address on the program cover instead of burying it on page 27. Other than that, lovely.

The Foster Festival Presents:

Began: July 18, 2018.

Closes: Aug. 3, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, approx.


Rosalynde (or As You Like It)

This is part of Driftwood Theatre Group’s Bard’s Bus tour that plays various dates in the Greater Toronto Area and also around the province.

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by D. Jeremy Smith

Designed by Sheree Tams

Music composed and directed by Tom Lillington

Lighting by Michael Brunet

Puppets by Eric Woolfe and D. Jeremy Smith

Cast: Geoffrey Armour

Sochi Fried

Caroline Gillis

Ximena Huizi

Derek Kwan

Megan Miles

Ngabo Nabea

Eric Woolfe

A seat of the pants production played simply on the grass of a park to an appreciative, if rambunctious, audience. It made me imagine what it must have been like in Shakespeare’s day with the actors totally focused on their work playing to a sometimes raucous audience. The result was thrilling.

The Story. Rosalynde (or As You Like It)–why did they make up another title named Rosalynde? D. Jeremy Smith, the director and adapter of the play and great mind and founding Artistic Director behind the Bard’s Bus Tour, felt that since Rosalynde is the heart and soul of the play, she should have her name up front.

He has placed the play in 1918 in Ontario. It was the height of the women’s suffrage movement, prohibition and the First World War Women got the vote, but not all women—South Asians, Japanese, immigrants and Indigenous women would have to wait a very long time for their voices to be counted.  D. Jeremy Smith wanted to focus on women’s accomplishments—so parts of the play are readings from Nellie McClung the great Canadian icon who worked hard to champion women’s causes and various political writings, Susanna Moodie and others.

Shakespeare’s play, As You Like It is followed closely but with a Canadian twist. Instead of their being two brothers vying for the dukedom of a city, in this telling there are two brothers: Senior and Frederick who are co-owners of The Dukes’ Distillery who have split. Frederick banishes his brother Senior who escapes to the Forest of Arden for a simpler life. This being Prohibition, Frederick sells his booze illegally across the lake to the United States.

Rosalynde lives with her cousin Celia and Celia’s father Frederick. Frederick in a fit of peak banishes Rosalynde, as he did her father. This results in both Rosalynde and Celia leaving in disguise for the forest as well. But before that Rosalynde meets and falls in love with Orlando who is well born but badly treated by his brother. (There seems to be a theme here.). Orlando falls in love with Rosalynde as well. This being Shakespeare things get complicated.

The Production and Comment. So a play about romance, intrigue, subterfuge etc.  As is always the case with Bard on the Bus Tour this is playing in various parks around the province and the GTA, but there is a twist. D. Jeremy Smith has said that his city (Toronto) is changing. (He also lives in the Chester/Danforth area which considering the shocking events along the Danforth,  Sunday, July 22 is sobering). Generally Smith and his company used to play parks in the downtown core as a rule, so audiences that were predominantly white.

Not anymore.  He said that if he wanted to bring Shakespeare to a larger audience then he had to bring Shakespeare to every audience.  When I saw the play, Thursday, July 26, I saw it in Parma Court in the Eglinton/Victoria Park area. The next day they would play Oakdale Park in the Jane/Finch area. These are two neighbourhoods that have had their challenges with violence.  But on Thursday July 26 the Bard’s Bus Tour was bringing Rosalynde (or As You Like It) to Parma Court Park.

It had been raining so the ground was wet and that meant that the company could not use lights (when it got dark) or microphone the cast. There were a few barrels as props and the audience sat on the ground on ground coverings provided by the company, inches from the actors and imagined the world of the play and listened.

I and another person were the only white faces in the audience. The rest was a mosaic of Toronto; lots and lots of kids of colour all lively, rambunctious, talking while the play was on and yet listening. Parents and other adults came a bit later. The audience was treated to free cans of coke and potato chips. The kids were in heaven.

The cast was focused, committed to giving the best performance—Sochi Fried is a feisty, lovely Rosalynde—and not at all rattled by the kids’ occasional lack of attention. Geoffrey Armour as a lively, extroverted Touchstone, plopped himself down in the middle of the kids and delivered his lines to them and the cast while eating grapes. He put his hat on a kid beside him, who loved that. Ngabo Nabea is a strapping, courtly Orlando. I loved that as the kids chomped on their chips, they attempted some kind of a whisper as they talked right in front of the action, a sweet sign of respect. When Caroline Gillis as Jaques thoughtfully gave her “Seven Ages of Man” speech, a woman behind me quietly said part of the speech with her. Wonderful.

There are clever puppets in the show and the kids loved them as did the adults. They all stayed to the end for the most part. And when it was over they all applauded and some shouted for them to comb back and do it again. That was wonderful.

I imagine it must have been like this in Shakespeare’s day with the audience being rowdy and the cast having to be totally engaged in telling the story in order to grab the audience’s attention.  I thought the whole experience was thrilling. Bravo to Jeremy Smith for wanting to give all audiences a taste of Shakespeare and to his stalwart cast for bringing it to them.

The Bard’s Bus Tour presents:

Began: July 13, 2018.

Closes: Aug. 12, 2018.

Running Time: two hours.

Various locations around the GTA and Ontario.


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