Reviews: THE MONKEY QUEEN and THE BARBER SHOP CHRONICLES (Grand Theatre, London, Ont.)

by Lynn on November 22, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

The Monkey Queen

At the Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. W., Toronto, Ont.

Written by Diana Tso

Directed and choreographed by William Yong

Music by Nick Storring and Brandon Valdivia

Scenic design by William Yong

Lighting by Rebecca Picherack

Projections by Elysha Poirier

Costumes by Robin Fisher

Cast: Nicholas Eddie

Diana Tso

No is a powerful word.

It can lead to all sorts of good things, such as Diana Tso’s The Monkey Queen now at the Theatre Centre.

Tso grew up on “The Monkey King” stories from Wu Cheng’En’s 16 century epic novel, “The Journey to the West” about a Monkey King warrior on a journey from the East to the West, fighting everything from Heaven and all manner of opposition.

One day Tso heard of a new play with the central character being The Monkey King. She wanted to audition for it but couldn’t because they were only auditioning men for the part. In true plucky Diana Tso fashion she began writing her own epic story only this time she placed herself in it as the Monkey Queen, only this time the journey is from the West to the East, where Tso/the Monkey Queen, looks for her roots. The Monkey Queen is part of a trilogy.

As Tso says in her program note: “I re-imagined this myth through the perspective of the female warrior, giving voice to her quest, which is shadowed by the traditional formula of the hero.

The story is dense with encounters with a white clad shaman, mystic creatures, angels, birds and a polar bear etc. all of which test the Monkey Queen. Through energetic wit and smarts she stares down all opposition and prevails.

The production is directed and choreographed by William Yong and it is wonderful. The multi-leveled set, also by William Yong, offers platforms and ramp on which to jump, flip and literally fly over.

Diana Tso plays the Monkey Queen with a steely energy that is compelling. She is diminutive and fierce. She flips through the air and negotiates the levels of the set with ease. She also conveys the urgency of the Monkey Queen’s journey and determination to complete it.

Playing all the other parts from the Shaman Lady to the polar bear is Nicholas Eddie, as diminutive as Tso is, Eddie towers over her. Of course one should not mention the physicality of artists, but I couldn’t help but be aware of the contrast to the diminutive dynamo of Diana Tso and the tall, graceful elegance of Nicholas Eddie. Added to that, it’s obvious Eddie has no bones in his body. In their place are ribbons. I’m sure of it. His gracefulness is jaw dropping. His arms flowing back and forth behind him look like feathers floating on a breeze.

William Yong has such economy in his direction and creates such vivid images, the Shaman woman in a white shawl becoming the polar bear being one image, that you keep shaking your head in disbelief and the artistry of it all.

Bravo to Diana Tso for not taking “no” for an answer and creating her own Monkey Queen.

 The Red Snow Collective presents:

Began: Nov. 16, 2018.

Closes: Dec. 2, 2018.

Running Time:  1 hour


The Barber Shop Chronicles

At the Grand Theatre, London, Ont.

Written by Inua Ellams

Directed by Bijan Sheibani

Designed by Rae Smith

Lighting by Jack Knowles

Movement by Aline David

Sound by Gareth Fry

Music by Michael Henry

Cast: Tuwaine Barrett

Mohammed Mansaray

Maynard Eziashi

Alhaji Fofana

Eliot Edusah

Solomon Israel

Patrice Naiambana

Anthony Ofoegbu

Kenneth Omole

Ekow Quartey

Jo Servi

David Webber

Bless Dennis Garnhum, Artistic Director of the Grand Theatre in London, Ont.

Garnhum saw The Barber Shop Chronicles in London, England at the National Theatre a couple of years ago (where I also first saw it) and immediately began making plans to have the company bring the show to ‘our’ London.

The troupe was doing a tour of the States and he lured them to make a stop in Canada, at the Grand (the only Canadian stop on their tour).

It plays at the Grand Theatre until Nov. 24, 2018. It only plays 12 performances.

Inua Ellams’ glorious, moving, funny play takes place in one day, in six barber shops—one in London, England and the rest in African cities: Johannesburg, Accra, Lagos, Harare and Kampala.

Men come into each shop to kibitz, talk politics, philosophize, seek comfort, acceptance, to rant, complain, rejoice, explain, confess and forgive. Some stories carry over into others. A father in Africa seeks the son he abandoned years before;  the son in London thinks wistfully of his absent father in Africa.

Bijan Sheibani’s pulsing production is suffused with vibrant music. The cast invite members of the audience up on stage for a hair cut before the show starts. The colourful coverings are flipped out with a flourish and then carefully wrapped around the person in the barber’s chair. Electric clippers are passed around the head, above the hair. Scissors clip furiously a few inches away from the hair. Each customer is treated to some chat, a smile, jokes and graciousness by the ‘barbers.’

The signs for the various barber shops are suspended above the stage. When a scene takes place in the various cities, the sign for the shop is illuminated. There is also a revolving outline of the various African countries in which the cities are located. Again, the outline of the African country is illuminated and prominent during those scenes. The cast wheels the chairs and other set pieces on and off the stage for each new location. It’s quick, efficient and usually accompanied by the cast singing traditional songs.

The cast to a person is accomplished, animated, lively, touching and wonderfully engaging. It certainly captures the life of a black man from various African countries, England, and probably around the world. Will other nationalities of men see similarities in their lives as well? Probably, which is part of the charm and poignancy of The Barber Shop Chronicles.

A Fuel, National Theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse production:

Began: Nov. 15, 2018.

Closes: Nov. 24, 2018.

Running Time:  1 hour, 40 minutes.

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