Search: Rant, How our World and our Theatre is going to hell

Live and in person at the Coal Mine Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Playing until June 9, 2024.

By Henrik Ibsen

Adapted by Liisa Repo-Martell

Directed by Moya O’Connell

Composer, Emily Haines

Set and costumes by Joshua Quinlan

Lighting by Kaitlin Hickey

Sound by Michael Wanless

Cast: Nancy Beatty

Diana Bentley

Andrew Chown

Shawn Doyle

Leah Doz

Qasim Khan

Fiona Reid

A powerhouse cast in a contemporary adaptation which seems strangely unfinished. The production has intriguing moments but generally is obvious and lacking in subtlety.

The Story. At the best of times, Hedda Gabler is a popular play. This summer it’s doubly so: Stratford is doing its own production. It’s a powerhouse part for an actress because the part seems relentlessly driven.

Hedda Gabler was considered a catch for any man in that Norwegian town. She came from an upper-class family—her father was the highly regarded General Gabler. Many of the men Hedda seemed to keep company with were less than ideal. She was attracted to men who were dangerous and exciting. But she was also a product of her society and its attitudes towards women. Women must be respectable and scandal-free. Hedda knew that and respected it. More than anything, she feared scandal.

So Hedda Gabler married the first respectable man who showed interest, Jorgen Tesman. The problem was he was dull. He was a studious, boring historian who was in line for a promotion at the local university.  Jorgen adored Hedda and tried to give her everything she wanted.  This promotion would be very helpful for Jorgen to make money to cater to Hedda.

Hedda and Jorgen have just returned from their six-month honeymoon where Jorgen was also doing research. Hedda got the sense of what marriage to him would be on that honeymoon and she wasn’t happy. When she got home, to a house she told Jorgen she always wanted, we learn that Jorgen’s aunt is dying; that his promotion might not be assured and that an old rival, Eilert Lovborg and a former suitor to Hedda, is back on the scene. There is also Judge Brack, a rather shady but suave character who has arranged for Jorgen to buy the house. He too is interested in Hedda. To make matters even more complicated, Hedda is probably pregnant. There is a lot going on.

The Production and comment. Joshua Quinlan has designed a beautiful, spare set that establishes the size and elegance of the house that Hedda said she coveted (in fact she was toying with Jorgen). There is a piano up at the back wall, a table and two comfortable chairs are in the middle; they are on an elegant patterned rug, and up at the back behind a gauzy curtain is a large backyard.

As the audience files into the theatre, director Moya O’Connell has Berta the maid (Nancy Beatty) fuss with the many flowers that have been delivered to the house to celebrate the return of the ‘happy’ couple. Berta has put the flowers in vases, at least four, but doesn’t know where to put the vases. She hesitates to put them on the piano. So she arranges them all on the table in the main room. This bit of business nicely establishes Berta’s concern that she will not measure up to the standards of the imperious Hedda Gabler. Berta has always worked for the undemanding Tesman family of Jorgen and his two elderly aunts. Now she will work for Jorgen and his demanding bride.

When the production ‘begins’, the lights go up on ‘something’ in front of the piano. In fact it’s the bare back of a woman whose dress is undone. She sits on the piano bench with her head on the keys. She lifts her head and begins to play a mournful but beautiful piece of music (kudos to composer Emily Haines). It’s the middle of the night. This woman can’t sleep. We can assume it’s Hedda Gabler (Diana Bentley) and she is not happy. Again, director Moya O’Connell beautifully establishes Hedda’s ennui at her situation.

That ennui is palpable when Diana Bentley appears as Hedda in the morning.  She is beautiful and impatient. Hedda if almost quivering with impatience and frustration at having to contend with her dim husband Jorgen (Qasim Khan), his aunt Julia (Fiona Reid) who has come to visit, Thea Elvsted (Leah Doz) whom Hedda terrorized when they went to school together, and Judge Brack (Shawn Doyle). Brack offers Hedda some relief from these tiresome people. He is a kindred spirit, with whom she can joke about the others. She visibly relaxes in his presence. They share knowing looks and jokes.  

While Hedda hated scandal, she loved hearing about them and sordid events and so Judge Brack, with his colourful but sort of respectable background, was a perfect friend, as long as he didn’t get too friendly. But Judge Brack wanted to get close to Hedda and her husband, forming something like a triangle. Then Eilert Lovborg  (Andrew Chown) came back into her life. He had been trying to live a respectable life, acting as a tutor to two children. In the process he had an affair with the step-mother of the children. That was Thea Elvsted. She left her husband and his children to follow Eilert to this town.

Hedda is stifling. She’s married to a bore. She is pregnant and that is trapping her in another way. Judge Brack is posing an untenable connection. Hedda’s world is closing in on her. She is frantic to cope until she sees only one way out. I don’t think this is a spoiler alert, since the play has been performed since its debut in 1891 in Germany.

The cast is very strong, led by Diana Bentley giving a terrific, imperious performance as Hedda Gabler. Qasim Khan as Jorgen Tesman is a satisfied man. He has married the most unattainable woman in the town; he is in line for a promotion which will ease the worry of the debt he has incurred trying to please Hedda. And his beloved aunt Julia has given him his old slippers. He is buoyant with joy. Simple things please him. He is dim to every one of Hedda’s little slights. His glasses intrigued me. Jorgen wears wire-tipped glasses that he often takes off to wipe his eyes for effect, or to take them off to stare at a person to make a point, again for effect. Indeed, he took those glasses off to hold them so often, I wondered why he wore them at all. Hmmm.

As Judge Brack, Shawn Doyle is dapper, smooth, charming and dangerous. He and Hedda have a past. She is attracted to dangerous, unsuitable men. Brack served a purpose to amuse her until she found respectability with Jorgen. But Brack knows he has a hold on Hedda and he intends to tighten his grip.

Leah Doz is a highly charged Thea Elvsted. And joining her is the equally impressive Andrew Chown as Eilert Lovborg. These two characters are hanging on by a thread. They are trying to reform and cope. Wonderful work from Leah Doz and Andrew Chown.

Hedda Gabler is directed by Moya O’Connell, who herself is a very fine actress. She played Hedda Gabler in 2012 in a stunning production at the Shaw Festival. She is now adding directing to her many talents. Moya O’Connell has a good feel for staging and a clear idea of the world of the play. And one cuts some slack when O’Connell is beginning work as a new director in the theatre. But I couldn’t ignore the sense that the production seems tentative, unsteady. The pace sometimes is laggy. And dare I say it, it lacks subtlety. Moya O’Connell goes for the obvious in her direction.  Ordinarily there is a sexual innuendo between Hedda and Judge Brack. Here the sexuality is overt. When Brack first visits Hedda Shawn Doyle as Brack sits with his legs wide apart, one foot raised on something, widening the position, when talking to her. This removes a subtle inuendo that is hinted at. Here there is no mystery. Sex is what Brack is conveying. It’s more like, wham, bang, thank you ma’am that is too abrupt.

And the ending in Moya O’Connell’s production is absolutely bizarre. At the end, Hedda does something drastic to end her sense of being trapped. The ending is abrupt with little dialogue.  But then Hedda seems to resurrect herself to perform a frantic, crazed dance upstage with her back to us, her arms flailing and her hair flying. What does that mean, that Hedda will be eternally damned to hell and will not find peace in her drastic end? Bizarre. Moya O’Connell is smart, it’s just that I could not make head no tail of that ending.

This text of Hedda Gabler is adapted by Liisa Repo-Martell. She’s a wonderful actress in her own right who has gone into writing and adapting as an expansion of her art. Liisa Repo-Martell did the wonderful adaptation of Uncle Vanya that originally played at Crow’s Theatre, a year or so ago, and recently was presented in a co-production by Mirvish productions and Crow’s earlier this year.  Liisa Repo-Martell has a wonderful facility with language as is evident in Uncle Vanya. And she shows the same sensitivity in Hedda Gabler. There is a certain freshness to the adaptation in giving a sense of the claustrophobic society for women. But I couldn’t help but feel that the adaptation is unfinished. Of course, there are many adaptations of the play out in the universe, but there are aspects of the play that are similar in each adaptation. With this version they seemed to be cut completely. The ending in particular is abrupt without Hedda offering teasing lines along the way—that she is resolved and will fling knowing lines to those who will remain. I thought that this abrupt ending so strange, if not jarring.

So while there are things to admire in this production of Hedda Gabler, on the whole, I found it a disappointment, sadly.

Coal Mine Theatre presents:

Playing until June 9, 2024.

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


Recently I wrote what I called a ‘Rant’ on how our world and our theatre is going to hell in a handbasket.

Maja Ardal—an accomplished, gifted theatre maker—disagreed that it was a rant and suggested it was a thoughtful essay, or a thoughtful reflection (offered by Robert Girvan, another measured reader). Fair enough. I will call these “thoughtful essays or reflections” in future.

Here is the latest, continuing on with the theme of how the pandemic has made it difficult for people to come back to being civil and kind to each other.

Herbie Barnes, the wonderful Artistic Director of Young People’s Theatre in Toronto, outlined his concerns in his programme note to his lovely production of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, when he gave reasons for programming this play for the holidays:

“As we programmed our 2023.24 season—over a year ago—we had to try to foresee what might be of most importance for young people. Immediately post-pandemic (last season) we focused on bringing back joy.

When we selected It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play as our holiday offering, we had already noticed something else—the struggle that so many faced in re-learning how to share space with one another. Altercations on our transit systems, in our classrooms and on our streets started to appear in headlines.

Our time of isolation made us forget that we are a community and that we need each other to exist. It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is a shining example of that simple fact. George Bailey spends his whole life giving to his neighbours. And in this play, his community is finally able to return that generosity.”

Herbie Barnes, Artistic Director, Young People’s Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

And here is something completely different.

In New York City for Broadway and Off Broadway shows the theatre programmes are printed in a publication called Playbill. For about a year I’ve noted that there is a letter from the President of Playbill to the theatre patrons. Here it is in its entirety:

“Dear Friends,

Welcome back to the theatre! As you all know, theatre is a shared human experience. It is made and managed by dedicated, caring people. All the professionals working in this theatre are there to help you. They are trained and knowledgeable, and want you to have the best experience at the show.

We know some of you have been away from our theatres for some time, and we welcome you back with open arms. As audience members, you are essential to this theatrical experience—the show could not go on without you. You are an important part of the show by helping maintain the sanctity of this space.

                        SO TO HELP YOU (AND THE PEOPLE AROUND YOU)


  • Always cooperate with the ushers and front-of-house staff. They are there to help you, keep an orderly environment, and ensure the show begins on schedule.
  • Turn off your cell phone. All the way off…
  • Unwrap all candies now and refrain from loud eating during the performance.
  • Treat all theatre staff you see with respect and kindness. They want you to have a great time, and they deserve respect and a positive work environment.
  • Be engaged with the show! But also respectful of the people around you and do not make any overly disruptive comments.
  • Do not sing along with the actors. It distracts your fellow theatregoers and is not thoughtful.
  • Do not engage with the actors or musicians working in the show. Only engage if they encourage you to, and please do not distract them at any time during the performance.
  • Stop drinking alcohol immediately if you’re feeling tipsy. Drink some water.
  • Be patient with the restroom lines. We know they’re long and space is tight. But do not become pushy or rude. Everyone will get their turn.
  • Relax, sit back and enjoy the show! Once again, we could not be here without you.”


Philip S. Birsh

President and Chairman

Playbill Inc

These two statements represent two different points of view.  For reflection.

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I had a great time recently giving a talk to the Arts and Letters Club Members about how the world and our theatre is going to Hell in a handbasket.

I blame it on the pandemic.

For two years or so everything was shut down. We were isolated from our friends and family. We yearned to be out and socialize but couldn’t. Initially because we were fragile we reached out to our neighbours or they reached out to us, to offer to shop or do errands for those less fortunate. That lasted a short while.

We were wary of people on the streets; to wear a mask or not to wear a mask became almost a political statement. In a short time, we went from being kind and considerate to being prickly and territorial. If someone accidentally knocked into us on the street the reaction was anger not consideration.  Belligerence and lost temper seemed the norm.

Those smart theatre makers with ingenuity made up for the lack of in person performances with filmed/zoomed/or streamed productions. I saw wonderful stuff around the world, across Canada and especially in Toronto and reviewed it. I actually loved being at home. I was out every night so often when the theatre was live, that I just loved being home for a change.  

The pandemic is over, sort of, and theatres are now open and my theatre going has resumed with a vengeance.  The same can’t be said about theatre attendance. Except in a few cases, it’s down.  Getting the audience back has been difficult. People are timid about coming back to the theatre, even if we are wearing masks. They either don’t want to be in crowds or they find they can live without paying high prices for tickets.

The Media is Decimated

What used to be a robust media that reviewed theatre as a matter of course, is now decimated. We have four daily newspapers that all used to review theatre. Now only the Globe and Mail has a full-time theatre critic—J. Kelly Nestruck—in all of Canada.

The Toronto Star uses freelancers to cover theatre productions and not regularly at that. That means there is no consistent critical theatre voice there.

We used to have the reliable NOW Magazine that covered everything. It’s gone and Glenn Sumi, NOW’s intrepid theatre/film critic seems to be doing triple duty reviewing for his own blog, “So Sumi” and freelancing at the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail.

My York University four-year honours BA in Fine Arts Degree specializing in History, Theory and Criticism of Theatre is no longer offered. Why would it be?  There are no theatre critics jobs.

Critics or Cheerleaders

Apparently, theatre reviews are still considered important because so many bloggers are writing them. I certainly think theatre criticism is important. I’ve given short workshops on the basics of reviewing. Theatre is thousands of years old. You can’t teach even the basics of theatre criticism in a short workshop  but you try.

And there is a sweeping variation between those  who are “true critics” who have been trained in reviewing with rigor (Glenn Sumi, Drew Rowsome, Istvan Dugalin, Paula Citron, Christopher Hoile, me).

And “cheerleaders” who gush about everything without variation, nuance or background in the artform of theatre criticism/theatre. They want to be up close and personal with the people they review. There goes the idea  of arm’s length distance between reviewer and those we review. The idea of objectivity. I think “distance” is the best practice, otherwise the review could be written by the artist’s mother.

Censorship & Lecturing.

Theatre reviews seem to be a hot topic. In the last few years some theatre makers tried to decide who could review their shows and who couldn’t, sometimes on the basis of skin colour. I believe that’s called racism if not censorship.  Not a good idea.

Others wanted to give lectures on their culture to explain their process/ideas/story/ceremony etc. Well-intentioned but highly inappropriate and it betrays a lack of knowledge of what a review actually is or who it’s for etc.

I’ll write more later on this thorny subject of theatre reviews and criticism.

Education or Daycare

Troubling changes are also happening at theatre schools and elsewhere in the theatre.

At theatre schools students are voicing their opposition over curriculum, questioning why they have to study the plays of “dead white men” such as Shakespeare or the classics. I heard from one instructor that at a rehearsal for a production the student didn’t like the line and wanted to change it. The director tried to explain that the character said the line and it was appropriate for the character. The student was determined.  The playwright was Morris Panych and I doubt he would stand for a change.  We are now changing lines in plays so as not to hurt the feelings of students etc. So, we have situations where students want to change words because they are offended, never mind that it’s appropriate for the character.

This isn’t theatre education. This is enabling daycare for theatre wannabees.

One wonders, where will these theatre students get the life lessons to understand and to delve into the hard lives of troubled characters if their feelings are so fragile they are rendered inert?

How will they find the moral fiber to discover the difficult character if they can’t/won’t stand up to scrutiny? Will they even get jobs or will this handholding continue?  I don’t think so.

Shaw Festival-Cult of Sensitivity

And then we hear about the debacle at The Shaw Festival last year about the concert version of Assassins  by Stephen Sondheim. This had been in the works for a few years and then COVID delayed the production. Then there was a director change. And finally the show continued with rehearsals. But an actor refused to sing the ‘N’ word because he found it offensive. It’s supposed to be offensive. It’s sung in a song by a racist. The actor is not racist. The character is.

That seems to be the next big hurdle in the theatre, trying to convince actors that their character does not necessarily hold attitudes and ideas similar to them as people.  As I heard once last year in an announcement before a show, at the Shaw Festival funnily enough: “We, the actors have faith that the audience can tell the difference between the character and the person saying the words.” Loved that.

But, to Assassins, The ‘N’ word was changed  during rehearsals to accommodate the actor. No one passed this by the Stephen Sondheim people for formal permission. Eventually the Sondheim organization found out about the word change. They insisted the ‘N’ word be used as the lyric or they had to cancel the show. The artistic director of the Shaw Festival put it on the acting company to solve the problem. They were to vote confidentially on whether to cancel or not. And it had to be unanimous. The vote wasn’t unanimous. The show was cancelled. Then actors felt hurt and troubled because they were responsible for the cancellation.

Does anyone know the meaning of the word “consequences” anymore? How about, “we’ll have to find another actor for the part”. What happened to life lessons?

We seem to be developing a generation of people who want to be seen, to have space, to voice their opinions—all good—without seeming to know background, history, the consequences of their actions or on whose shoulders they stand.

Still to come: What theatre criticism and reviews are really about, who writes them and for whom; correcting misunderstandings regarding reviews etc.; the new misinterpretation of racism.



Live and in person at the Capitol Theatre, Port Hope, Ont. Runs until Sept. 3, 2023.

Book and lyrics by Howard Ashman

Music by Alan Menken

Directed by Rob Kempson

Music director, Jeff Newberry

Choreographer, Genny Sermonia

Sound by Deanna H. Choi

Set by Brandon Kleiman

Costumes by Joshua Quinlan

Lighting by Michelle Ramsay

Cast: Joel Cumber

Michael De Rose

Amir Haidar

Sierra Holder

Taylor Lovelace

Tyler Murree

Chris Tsujiuchi

Tahirih Vejdani

Michelle Yu

Terrific in every way.

The Story. This is about a controlling plant and its insatiable appetite for an unusual kind of food. This is not necessarily a show for people with a green thumb, because chances are the plant would have bitten off the green thumb and then some. It’s also about a lovely woman named Audrey, who works in the shop, and Seymour who also works in the shop and secretly loves Audrey. The shop is struggling until the notoriety of the odd plant comes to the attention of the media and prosperity abounds, except there is trouble. That plant is really controlling.

The Production. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken are celebrated in the musical theatre universe. The book and lyrics are by Howard Ashman. The music is by Alan Menken. And while it’s a musical, it’s based on the film by Roger Corman.

Brandon Kleiman has created a beautifully grungy set for skid row, which is where Mr. Mushnik has his flower shop. There are garbage cans and litter outside the shop. A chorus of three: Ronnette (Sierra Holder), Chiffon (Taylor Lovelace) and Crystal (Michelle Yu) comment/sing on the goings on and act as the conscience of the piece. They are wonderful.

The outside of the shop is colourful and even inviting. Two walls come together in a kind of triangle shape, enclosing the flower shop. Then the walls separate revealing the door in which customers enter. It’s colourful inside with a few plants and flowers initially to illuminate the hard times that Mr. Mushnik and his shop are going through. The shop seems to be a haven for misfits. Mr. Mushnik is doing terrible business and feels he might have to close.

His shop assistant, Audrey, is a lovely woman but her dentist boyfriend Orin, likes to inflict pain, usually on Audrey. She often comes to work with a black eye, a broken arm etc. and it’s bully Orin who has done it. All Audrey’s friends tell her that Orin is no good and she should leave him, but Audrey finds excuses for him.

Also in the shop is Seymour, a mild-mannered, shy, awkward man, secretly in love with Audrey. Seymour loves plants and experimenting with them, creating new versions of plants. He has created an unusual plant he has named Audrey II after Audrey, of course. Sometimes Audrey II thrives and sometimes it wilts, in spite of being watered. One day Seymour is puttering with roses and accidentally pricks his finger, draws blood and Audrey II perks up.  

Seymour is perceptive.

He squeezes a few drops of his blood over Audrey II which really perks it up.  Seymour is horrified about how to feed the plant. Audrey II grows. And another oddity of the plant is that it can talk—“FEED ME!” is the usual comment.

The media become interested and suddenly the flower show is thriving, certainly since this novelty plant keeps growing. Audrey, the real one, suddenly notices Seymour.

Considering Audrey II’s penchant for blood and guts, can one assume that Audrey II might take an abusive bully off the streets once and for all? I’ll never tell, but the prospects are horrifying and hilarious.

After a rocky start the production is fine. There are various sizes of the Audrey II puppets and they are mighty impressive. It looks like it has a mouth with teeth, and it talks in a deep, demanding voice (bravo to Chris Tsujiuchi for the expressive, commanding voice).  The cast is microphoned as is the unseen band and you can hear every single word.

Audrey, the lovely woman, is played by Tahirih Vejdani. In her compelling, composed performance Tahirih Vejdani illuminates Audrey’s trusting, subservient behaviour with Orin. She is more confident with Seymour, once she realizes he likes her.  And Vejdani can sing beautifully—it’s a clear, strong voice that adds another dimension to Audrey.

Amir Haidar plays Seymour. Amir Haidar makes Seymour so eager to please. He pines for Audrey and finally shows his true, loving colours.  He too sings beautifully and has the energy and verve of a person who comes into his own when love enters into it.

Michael de Rose plays Orin with total joy and glee, whether he is abusing Audrey or not.  In its way characters are just trying to get through the day and find happiness.

It was directed with invention, a fast pace and great humour by Rob Kempson.

About that rocky start to the production. Usually the audience is let into the theatre a half-hour before the production is supposed to start. For this opening night, we were still waiting in the lobby for that whole half-hour. One heard rumblings of ‘technical difficulties.’ Frustrating. One could while away the time drinking (bad if one is reviewing, or really even before a show when one must be alert) or eating popcorn. They sell popcorn at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope. I was hoovering down the popcorn, patience waning with every hoovered kernel.  It’s so frustrating waiting in a packed lobby and not be told anything.

Once we were given the ok to go into the theatre, we were seated quickly and then Rob Kempson, who is also the artistic director, did his regular greeting from the stage, with the land acknowledgement. Fortunately he is also one of these thoughtful arts leaders who believes he must be transparent with the audience. So he told us about the ‘difficulties.’

At 7:40 pm for an 8:00 pm show, Rob was at dinner at one of the restaurants in Port Hope. Erin Pierce, the charming, efficient managing director, had to find him because there was trouble.  Apparently, a recent storm knocked out the electrics for the keyboard—I understand a keyboard is vital in a musical. The show could not start without it.

So being a calm man, Rob Kempson looked around the restaurant/table and asked those assembled if anyone had a keyboard lying around. One of the people at the table did. It was in her trunk so she just drove to the theatre, set it up and the show went on. Port Hope is a lovely town that is home to a lot of musicians, actors, and artists…you can usually get help of every kind there.

Comment.  Little Shop of Horrors is a problematic musical—a woman is regularly beaten up by her abusive boyfriend. A destructive plant wants to take over the world. Should theatres really consider doing such a thorny show where there might have been a time when such terrible behaviour was accepted? Rob Kempson and his team pondered the same question(s) and the answer is obvious. Of course you do these thorny shows with ethical questions. You don’t ‘cancel’ them because they deal with uncomfortable subjects. You learn from that world and know the difference between acceptable behaviour and not. Rough justice was doled out here. Such behaviour of Orin and Audrey II is not tolerated and other characters in the show agreed. Bad behaviour should be addressed and stopped or realized.

Rob Kempson in his program note said that some behaviour in the show between characters might have been looked at with an unfavourable eye, but one learns from that by facing it. If one hides it, then one is doomed to repeat history because we didn’t learn from it.

Little Shop of Horrors is funny, dark, has beautiful and moving songs and a problematic story. It’s got just the right mix of stuff to keep an audience laughing at the edge of their seat. It’s at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope. They do wonderful theatre there.

Capitol Theatre Presents:

Runs until Sept. 3, 2023.

Running time: 2 hours (1 intermission)


Live and in person at the Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont. Playing until Oct. 29, 2023.

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Kimberley Rampersad

Set by Judith Bowden

Costumes by Michelle Bohn

Lighting by Chris Malkowski

Composer, Sean Mayes

Sound by Miquelon Rodriguez

Supervising Fight Director, Geoff Scovell

Cast: Michael Blake

Richard Comeau

Déjah Dixon-Green

Austin Eckert

Jakob Ehman

Paul Gross

Andrew Iles

David W. Keeley

John Kirkpatrick

Josue Laboucane

Devin MacKinnon

Patrick McManus

Antony Santiago

André Sills

Tara Sky

Shannon Taylor

Gordon Patrick White

Rylan Wilkie

A generally eye-brow knitting production with seemingly deliberate laughs inserted that up-ends the play. Paul Gross is a vibrant, energetic, confident King Lear definitely playing against the character’s age.

The Story. King Lear has divided his kingdom among his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. He has done this before the play begins. We learn this at the very top of the production when two courtiers, Kent and Gloucester, talk about the division that has taken place. King Lear then announces this decision in open court, professing old age, and wanting to divest himself of the care and worry of ruling.

But before he parcels out the land, he has his daughters play a game. Each daughter has to tell him how much she loves him first, as if it depends on what parcel he will give her. Cordelia is the last to be asked. She is introduced as “our Joy” and Lear says tell me how much you love me and you’ll get a portion 1/3 better than your sisters’. Right away we see the meanness of the game. I don’t get the sense this is the first time he’s played the game on Goneril and Regan. This might be the first time with Cordelia because she tells him she hasn’t got anything to say to the question of how much do I love you.

King Lear says, famously, “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.” She tells him she loves him like a dutiful daughter. King Lear is still not happy. Cordelia has two suitors and Lear asks them to decide who will take her off his hands. That sets into motion all manner of discord in the court, between the other two daughters, etc. King Lear planned to divide the land among the daughters and to visit each daughter once a month with 100 knights. And in a sense, still rule, but be taken care of by each daughter while he does it. That too is in jeopardy.

I call King Lear mean because he’s deliberately playing each daughter against the others for his own ego, even though he’s already divided the land.

The first line of the play proves this. Kent says to Gloucester “I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.” Meaning, on the basis of the division, Kent thought that the king liked Albany (Goneril’s husband) more than Cornwall, (Regan’s husband). Gloucester then says that it looked like it initially but then he saw that the land was divided absolutely fairly. Thus, proving that the game was rigged to begin with pertaining to the daughters…the land was already divided evenly, so what’s with this game?

I will also add that King Lear is an abusive father to play these cruel games with his daughters. It should be no mystery where you get scheming daughters like Goneril and Regan, with a father like King Lear. And he hates to be challenged. When King Lear is challenged as Kent does when Lear banishes Cordelia, Lear rages against him. When Lear is later challenged by his daughters about why he needs so many knights with him, he says, “reason not the need.” Meaning “I NEED THEM” and don’t ask why. When Goneril and Regan challenge him, King Lear can’t cope. He believes he is going mad. Worse than getting old is going mad or insane. The play progresses from there until King Lear has to hit rock bottom until he realizes that Cordelia was in fact loving, loyal and true.

The Production. Director Kimberley Rampersad seems to have envisioned a post-apocalyptic world with Judith Bowden’s set composed of overpowering walls that crunch and grind when they move, with accompanying crackling florescent bulbs along some walls.

Michelle Bohn’s costumes suggest some kind of otherworldly design of startling, formfitting, costumes in vibrant colours for Goneril (Shannon Taylor) and Regan (Déjah Dixon-Green), more flowing dresses in pastels for Cordelia (Tara Sky), black garb for the courtiers and the most stylish tailored shirts for King Lear (Paul Gross).

I found the production interesting, odd, and even very funny. I never anticipated so much humour before and it was by accident. I’m pretty sure it’s not a good idea.

Kimberley Rampersad who has directed fascinating smaller productions at the Shaw Festival such as O’Flaherty, V.C. and Chitra. But larger work such as Man and Superman at the Shaw Festival and Serving Elizabeth at Stratford last year were problematic in concept and in direction. Her ideas for King Lear were eye-brow knitting.

King Lear says frequently that he’s crawling towards death and that he’s old with lots of repetition of the word “old”. But Paul Gross, at 64 is not old, not playing old, and not attempting apparently to play old. He’s playing a fit, robust, energetic and impish man in full command of all his faculties both physical and mental. He does not stop moving, with purpose, energy and resolve. He handles the language beautifully and plays games with the language at the get go.

When he says he’s crawling towards death, he over accentuates the word deaaaaaaaaath, so that he’s making a joke of it. He’s not being ironic. He’s being sarcastic. I can only assume this is a decision between director and actor. My question is why? How is the play served here?

I also found this to be the funniest production of King Lear I have ever seen. Again, this seems deliberate. When the Duke of Cornwall (Rylan Wilkie) violently takes out the eyeballs of Gloucester (Anthony Santiago), there’s lots of gushing of fluid and plopping of an eye-ball on the floor. Great ‘ewwwwww’ factor from the audience. Immediately after this a courtier is seen crawling, wiping the floor with a rag to get up the glop, and then crawling off to the side exit.  The audience laughed out loud. Really? After several previews the cause of that laugh wouldn’t have been apparent? Then I can only conclude that laugh is deliberate. It takes the audience out of the horrific moment. The audience does not need comic relief. They need to be kept in the horror as it builds and builds.

Director Kimberley Rampersad also embellishes romantic subtext between Goneril and her servant Oswald (Devin MacKinnon). The subtext is there in the text. Rampersad feels the need to ramp it up.

Goneril is giving an important speech as a soliloquy about Lear and her sister Regan and behind her is her servant Oswald (Devin MacKinnon) putting a necklace around her neck. He’s not her dresser. This looks like a present a lover gives. We are to believe Goneril will wear the necklace for the whole production without her husband, the Duke of Albany (Austin Eckert) actually seeing it. Why? To show how dim her husband is?  He’s not.

We don’t see any development of this relationship for much of the production. Then much later when Goneril wants to toy with Oswald’s affections using Edmund (Michael Blake), Goneril takes off the necklace, with great show, and holds it out to Edmund, who’s favour she wants. She takes a moment, then looks back at Oswald, smiling at him suggesting she’s dumping his favours for a new lover. This too got a laugh.

Isn’t the play hard enough to decipher without creating extra attention-grabbing subtext when subtlety generally works just as effectively? Shakespeare does a nice job depicting Goneril and Regan as mean, damaged women. These extra bits of business suggests that Rampersad doesn’t think that’s enough.

On the heath, in the storm scene when Lear is truly going mad and he meets “Poor Tom”, actually Edger (André Sills) in disguise as a mad man, there are also lots of other shrouded beings scurrying around. I’m thinking, who are they? Did they get misdirected from Macbeth to King Lear by mistake. Again, eye-brow-knitting.

Directing on the Festival thrust stage is a challenge even for any accomplished director, let alone a director new to the space, as Kimberley Rampersad is. You have to stage and direct for the whole space so that all areas of the audience can see and hear what is going on. So, while those in the center of the audience could see perfectly,  I wonder if those on the extreme left and right aisles could see the verbal exchange at the beginning of the production, when Gloucester and Kent (David W. Keeley) have their first speech, because both are talking upstage-centre, half-hidden by a pillar. Often many actors are facing upstage to deliver their lines. Audibility is a problem in many cases.

That said, I was grateful for Paul Gross’s confident handling of the language, in spite of his not playing Lear old. I was grateful also for Shannon Taylor as a strong, driven Goneril; David W. Keeley as a bold Kent; Andre Sills as a trusting, but then commanding Edgar; Michael Blake as a wily Edmund and Rylan Wilkie as a venomous Cornwall. They all handled the poetry and language with confidence.

I thought it a wonderful stroke for Kimberley Rampersad to cast Gordon Patrick White as the Fool. Gordon Patrick White is Indigenous and his casting in this part added a layer of complexity—that the Fool is also a mournful trickster. I thought that was inspired casting.

The fight, by Geoff Scovell the Supervising Fight Director, with axe and sword between Edmund and Edgar at the end of the production, was chilling and death defying. So, the production is not without a lot of positive points.

It’s just that the overall effect is uneven in concept and while it tries to re-image the play in a ‘new’ way, I don’t think the actual production serves the play.  

Comment. There is a discernible divide between actors who are comfortable with Shakespeare’s language (perhaps because they have studied it formally, either in theatre school or a conservatory) and those who struggle to make the language and poetry sound like comfortable conversation. The Stratford Festival offers all of its actors the opportunity to delve into Shakespeare’s language by hearing it, playing and perfecting it.

Purists will insist that the language, meter and proper pronunciation must conform to the strict rules of iambic pentameter. Which brings us to the word “revenue” (income). Following the form of iambic pentameter, the word is pronounced with the accent on the middle syllable so that the word follows the rhythm and meter of the poetry. But if the word is in a line of prose, then the word is pronounced with the accent on the last syllable.

But language and pronunciation are always changing in this changing world.  In King Lear the decision was made to pronounce the word “revenue,” regardless of its use in poetry or prose, with the accent on the last syllable. Does it change the meaning of the word? No. Do most people (not purists) notice? Probably not. Does it make understanding the language clearer? Probably.  Language is always in flux. Purists, please deal with it.

The Stratford Festival Presents:

Plays until Oct. 29.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes. (1 intermission)



by Lynn on November 28, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at Crow’s Theatre’s Streetcar Crowsnest. Toronto, Ont. until Dec. 18.

Written by Lolita Chakrabarti

Directed by Cherissa Richards

Set and props by Julie Fox

Costumes by Ming Wong

Lighting by Arun Srinivasan

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne.

Cast: Kyle Blair

Ellen Denny

 Starr Domingue

 Nathan Howe

 Jeff Lillico

 Allan Louis

 Patrick McManus

 Amelia Sargisson

 A thoughtful, nuanced production with a compelling performance by Allan Louis as Ira Aldridge, the first Black actor to play Othello—two hundred years ago—and the difficulties he endured to get there.

The Story. It’s 1833 in London, England. Edmund Kean, the great tragedian was playing Othello at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden (now known as the Royal Opera House) when he collapsed on stage, in mid-performance. A replacement had to be found quickly, and while Kean’s son Charles was thought to be a natural replacement (Charles was playing Iago to his father’s Othello), the theatre manager, Pierre Laporte had other ideas. He hired African-American actor Ira Aldridge to take over the part while Kean recovered (note: Kean died a few weeks later). Aldridge had earned a reputation as a fine actor in the provinces and in Europe and so Laporte felt Aldridge would be a perfect fit to play the Moor.

The acting styles between Ira Aldridge’s naturalistic style and the more artificial, broad acting of the British actors, clashed. Aldridge was subjected to the overt racism of Charles Kean and some of the older actors. The objection of a Black actor playing Othello was so prevalent that Aldridge was fired after two performances.  

The Production. The production opens in a dressing room in a theater in Lodz, Poland, 1867. A young reporter, Halina Wozniak (Amelia Sargisson) has inveigled herself into the theatre to interview Ira Aldridge (Allan Louis) who is there to play King Lear. He has been ill and is irritable about being disturbed by this insistent reporter. She wants to talk to him about his short run in London more than 30 years before. And he doesn’t want to remember that time.

The play then goes back to 1833 and the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. The cast of Othello is in turmoil because of the sudden illness of Edmund Kean who was playing Othello. The theatre manager, Pierre Laporte (Kyle Blair) has called them all to introduce them to Ira Aldridge who will be taking over the part of Othello while Kean is ill. The cast is further shocked because Ira Aldridge is a Black man. He is a celebrated African-American actor in his own right, having worked in the provinces and Europe, but this is Britain and attitudes are blinkered, narrow-minded, and rigid.

Playwright Lolita Chakrabarti has created characters illuminating a cross-section of cultural-class-racially biased attitudes in that room. Charles Kean (Jeff Lillico) Edmund Kean’s son is played by Jeff Lillico with the arrogance and condescension of a man who believes that playing Othello is his right. There is no other opinion but his blinkered one. Bernard Warde (Patrick McManus) is a senior member of the company with a puffed-up sense of himself and his long history as an actor. Patrick McManus plays Bernard Warde with that off-handed arrogance of a man who believes that the British are superior to everybody in everything.

On the other side of this limited thinking are the more open-minded Henry Forrester (Nathan Howe) and Ellen Tree (Ellen Denny). Henry is a young actor who has actually seen Ira Aldridge act before and is eager to work with him. He is open to new ideas in the theatre and different ways of acting. As Henry, Nathan Howe illuminates Henry’s enthusiasm at new ideas and situations. Ellen Tree is the young actress who will play Desdemona to Ira Aldridge’s Othello. She is also engaged to Charles Kean. Ellen Denny plays Ellen Tree with a careful attitude in this strange situation for her. She is engaged to the son of the celebrated actor/manager of the company, but she also wants to be open and accommodating to Ira Aldridge. Ellen Denny as Ellen Tree is confident, gracious and no pushover. Betty Lovell (Amelia Sargisson) is a young actress in the company who does not want to make waves on either side.

Into this swirl of varying attitudes and ideas comes Ira Aldridge played with vigor, an accommodating attitude and firm confidence by Allan Louis. Ira Aldridge knows the world into which he will be involved, but he knows his worth and value. He greets every person in the room with consideration and a sense that he’s glad to meet them all, even the ones of whom he should be wary. When he is rehearsing with Ellen Tree, he has the confidence to make suggestions to the playing—his way of acting is more naturalistic than the ‘tea-cup’, mannered acting of the British. Ellen sees that and tries his suggestions. She too has the confidence and generosity to suggest ways of pronouncing words (which are different than Ira’s) but she also provides a reason for it. Aldridge sees the good in the suggestion and follows suit. Lolita Chakrabarti has created the give and take of respectful actors to each other’s way of playing. Fascinating.

Pierre Laporte is the manager of the theatre and is played with elegance and style by Kyle Blair. As ‘established’ as Laporte might be in that mix, he and Ira are more than long-time friends. They have a lot in common. Both would be considered ‘outsiders’ by the class-conscious British. Ira Aldridge is an African-American and Pierre Lalporte is French.  Later in the play, developments would arise that would test that friendship and the character of each man.

Finally, also in that room is Connie (Starr Domingue), the tea lady. She is a woman of colour from Trinidad (noted as Jamaica in the text, but changed to Trinidad to reflect Starr Domingue’s background). Connie is almost always present in rehearsals and often meetings to cater to the wishes of the cast in pouring cups of tea. as well as getting and delivering items from elsewhere. In Connie, playwright Lolita Chakrabarti establishes a clearer look at the world into which Connie and Ira exist.

To the British, Connie is there to serve, generally in silence. In some cases one almost expects a snap of the fingers to ask for a cup of tea. One rarely hears ‘thank you’ from the group. When a cup of tea is offered there might be a slight smile or a nod of the head in reaction, but almost never an expression of ‘thank you.’  Starr Domingue plays Connie with an attentive accommodation. She is also watchful, always listening and aware of what this group is saying. She reacts with an elegant subtleness and nuance to what is being said about the world and Ira Aldridge. She would be keenly aware that there are riots of protests in the streets as slavery is being abolished in ‘the colonies’. Her attention to what is happening in the room would be heightened when Ira Aldridge enters the room. It’s here that we see this courtly man offer his hat to Connie who comes to take it to put it in safekeeping and he says in a clear voice, “Thank You.” This is the first time any manners are offered to Connie.

Lolita Chakrabarti has beautifully established the breathtaking subtleties in those relationships, those racial attitudes and the social mores of the times. Later Connie feels confident in talking to Ira Aldridge and she castigates him for Othello’s behaviour to Desdemona. She does not separate the actor from his part. She feels they are the same.  She could be talking about how Aldridge contends with the rudeness of some of his colleagues.

Director Cherissa Richards also beautifully creates this charged world without blurring any of the lines. In Cherissa Richards’ sensitive direction we get the sense of the enthusiasm of the acting between Ellen Tree and Ira Aldridge. We are told that Ira might have been too rough with Ellen in that there are references to bruises on her arms. This is tricky. In a scene after the Othello opening night there are references to those bruises, but when Ellen Tree appears for a scene, her arms are bare to the elbows and there is nary a bruise in evidence. So, is it true? Were there bruises? Was there make-up that was not dark enough? Was that just a rumor to discredit Ira Aldridge? A mystery.

Julie Fox has created a set that shows the elegance of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden as well as the universal dinginess of all backstages. Arun Srinivasan’s muted lighting also reflects that world.  Ming Wong’s costumes establish the elegance of the times in the fine materials etc. Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound captures the riots, storms and screams when a grip is too tight.      

Comment. Lolita Chakrabarti has taken a little known part of American-British theatre history and fashioned a bracing play that sheds light on the shameful trials that Ira Aldridge endured to create his career and reputation. He was celebrated in Europe and the provinces of England 200 years ago. He is the first Black actor to play Othello. And it ‘only’ took another 100 years for the next Black actor, Paul Robeson, to play Othello again. Time changes too slowly.

Terrific production.

NOTE: A continuing note on the thorny issue of printed programmes. Some theatres provide them and some do not. Crow’s Theatre offers a sheet of vibrant red paper (“Red Velvet” we get it) that is 8 ½” x 6” approx. on which is the cast and crew are written in a font so small you need glasses to read it. The paper is inserted into a very glossy season brochure. Keep the brochure or post it on the website.

I want a printed programme.

I use the printed programme to see who is playing who and to make notes. The programme is a record of what I saw and who was in it. The QR Code is of no use to capture the information to my cell phone if I’m not allowed to turn on the cell phone to consult during the show.

I want a printed programme.

Yes, I appreciate theatres are being ecologically responsible; ‘going green’ I believe is the phrase. Commendable. Save money on the glossy season brochure.

I want a printed programme.

I was told I can ‘click here’ and download the program on my computer. Fine I ‘clicked’ there and downloaded it and when I went to print it off, the size indicated on the screen was 33%. When I printed it off, the results were so large on the page I missed vital information on the cast and bios. Many efforts to adjust and fix this were hopeless.  

I don’t have the time or energy to also have to get a certificate in computer science to figure out fiddling and fussing with sizes, instructions, etc. to print off what I need.

I need and want a printed programme.

Just look at it as a small necessity of putting on theatre. Give one to every other person. Ask them to share. Ask them to recycle. Let the computer literate go wild with the QR Codes and download.

Those of us who are literate in other ways want a printed programme.

Work it out.

Thank you.

Crow’s Theatre presents:

Plays until: Dec. 18, 2022.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with 1 intermission).


Live and in person at the CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto, Ont. indefinitely.

Based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany.

A new play written by Jack Thorne

Directed by John Tiffany

Movement director, Steven Hoggett

Set designed by Christine Jones

Composer and arranger, Imogen Heap

Lighting designed by Neil Austin

Sound by Gareth Fry

Illusions and magic by Jamie Harrison

Music supervisor and arranged by Martin Lowe

Video designers: Finn Ross & Ash J. Woodward

Cast: Sarah Afful

Kaleb Alexander

Thomas Mitchell Barnet

Mark Crawford

Raquel Duffy

Sara Farb

Bryce Fletch

Brad Hodder

Luke Kimball

Hailey Lewis

Trish Lindstrom

Lucas Meeuse

Kyle Orzech

Gregory Prest

Fiona Reid

Katie Ryerson

Yemi Sonuga

Steven Sutcliffe

Brendan Wall

Trevor White

David D’Lancy Wilson

Shawn Wright

Explosively magical. Dazzling, dark, complex and gripping.

Background: J.K. Rowling wrote seven books to tell the story of Harry Potter, an orphan, who found his magic when he enrolled in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft to become a wizard. Harry meets Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, who become true friends.  There have been several films that have also told the story based on the books. J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany created an original story for a theatrical production that played both London’s West End and on Broadway presented in two separate parts totaling about 7 hours? This new version has been condensed into one part that is 3 hours, 30 minutes long with one intermission. The programme offers a ‘spoiler alert’: that if you want to avoid story spoilers, then don’t read the character list.

The Story. It’s 19 years after the last Harry Potter book/story. While this is an original story, the previous seven books are referenced including incidents, characters and events. The adult Harry and his wife Ginny are at platform 9 ¾ at Kings Cross Railway Station, seeing their son, Albus Potter, off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft. Albus is a solitary, lonely boy with few friends, and feels he can’t attain the ideal that is his father. Harry has a hard time bonding with Albus and vice versa.

Albus befriends Scorpius Malfoy on the train, who is also going to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft.  Scorpius is also lonely and aches for a friend, but that’s because his father is the much-maligned Draco Malfoy. Albus and Scorpius bond as friends trying to fit in and having a tough time. There is also Rose Granger-Weasley, the daughter of Hermione and Ron, and she too is on the train to Hogwarts.

The story is complex, involves a time turner that turns back time; creates all manner of incidents that Albus and Scorpius feel they must correct; is full of the pull of good over evil and vice versa.

Those who have read the books and seen the movies will know what is going on and who it involves. Those who have not read the books or seen the movies have a synopsis in the program to bring them up to speed, but might find that some incidents might be confusing. Do not be deterred. It’s an adventure. Some references at my performance had some of the audience gasping in recognition of the information. I recall the same reaction when I saw the two-part version of the show in New York. The 10-year-old girl beside me gasped at a reference to a character. I could not resist. I asked this young stranger who the character was. The kid happily told me who the character was, going so far as to describe how that character took her tea and that she liked three lumps of sugar in the beverage. You want a kid like that beside you. I have also found that the Potter-mavens are happy and willing to fill you in about what you might miss.

The Production. While the story is complex and complicated, the production, directed by the brilliant John Tiffany, reaches out to every single viewer and draws them in to the story and holds them with the blazing theatricality and the jaw-dropping magic—often simple, sometimes complicated. (Bring Kleenex. Your jaw will drop so often that drool accumulates).

We are primed from the get-go by Steven Hoggett’s movement and Jamie Harrison’s illusions and magic. All through the production characters carrying suitcases scurry hither and yon, their arms stretched out, holding the suitcase as if the character is being led by some pull of the suitcase; as if some unseen wind is pulling and driving them about and the character has no will to stop it. At the train station Albus (Luke Kimball), Scorpius (Thomas Mitchell Barnet) and Rose (Hailey Lewis) are in their traveling clothes and twirl in place, again as if a wind is swirling them, and magically, their clothes turn into the robes, capes and other swirly bits of Hogwarts, before out eyes. Magic.

Characters disappear up a small opening in a wall. Other times then appear as if sliding down a chute in another wall. Two moveable staircases simply bring characters up and down in scenes. Other times apparitions appear in floating material that hover ominously over the audience.

Even the simplicity of scene changes is given a sense of magic. For example, a bed is wheeled on by a character wearing the flowing robes of Hogwarts and placed centre-stage. A bedspread is flipped out to cover the flat bed and with a flourish of flipping the robe over the bed, it appears that there are two characters in it ready to do the scene. Every scene change is finished by that flipping of the robe over the placement of a prop etc. to suggest that it’s quick, efficient magic (and in a way it is—in a world where everything is breaking down, in the theatre things work, efficiently and on time.)

There are so many simple theatrical effects incorporating theatrical techniques that are over 100 years old (chairs floating in blackness because stagehands dressed totally in black are holding the chairs aloft) mixed with complex theatrical magic tricks that the viewer is dazzled by the inventiveness.

Acting styles vary. Luke Kimball as Albus, Thomas Mitchell Barnet as Scorpius and Trevor White as Harry Potter almost shout their lines, as if expressing a consistent urgency. Often lines fly by so quickly, as said by Kimball and Barnet, that information gets lost.   

As Draco Malfoy, Brad Hodder illuminates a man on the edges of society who is living with questionable reputation. He is ram-rod straight, imposing and must stand aloof to protect himself. Sara Farb as Delphi Diggory is charming with a mysterious dark side. Fiona Reid plays both Professor McGonagall with confidence and command as the head of the school and Delores Umbridge as a feisty presence as well. Bringing a sense of calm to Harry and Albus is Trish Lindstrom as Ginny Weasley. She is the voice of reason and thoughtfulness when her son Albus and her husband Harry are frantic and bellowing. Steven Sutcliffe plays:  the heartbroken Amos Diggory, grieving for his dead son; Albus Dumbledore, perhaps the most gifted headmaster of Hogwarts and Severus Snape troubled, contained and watchful. Sutcliffe plays each character with intelligence, nuance and compelling economy.

The whole cast to a person keeps the pace of this fast-moving production almost a swirl of robe flipping activity.

Comment. Theatricality and magic aside, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is really about things that matter to us all, whether we are creative wizards or ordinary people trying to get by. It’s about a father and son trying to form a bond but being awkward about it; it’s about friendship between Albus and Scorpius, both lonely, unhappy and finding each other and knowing that this friendship can withstand any opposition; it’s about trust, loyalty, determination, fidelity and love. Always about love.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child will dazzle the kid with magic without question and will remind the adult that magic exists, they just might have forgotten that. 

David Mirvish, Sonia Friedman Productions, Colin Callender, Harry Potter Theatrical Productions present:

Runs indefinitely.

Running Time: 3 hours, 30 minutes, (with 1 intermission).


Live and in person at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York City. Open ended run.

Book by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan

Music by Jason Howland

Lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare

Conceived by Larry Kirwan

Additional music by Larry Kirwan

Direction by Moisés Kaufman

Music supervision, music direction and orchestrations by Jason Howland

Choreography by Bill T. Jones

Scenic design by Allen Moyer

Costumes by Toni-Leslie James

Lighting by Donald Holder

Sound by Jon Weston

Projection design by Wendall K. Harrington, shawn Edward Boyle

Cast: Matt Bogart

Kevin Dennis

John Dossett

Sidney DuPont

Jacob Fishel

Aisha Jackson

Joaquina Kalukango

Chilina Kennedy

Gabrielle McClinton

A.J. Shively

Nathaniel Stampley

Dreadful. Every aspect of this enterprise is relentless in its desperate efforts to please and impress.

The Story. New York City, lower Manhattan, in the slum area known as The Five Points. The year is about 1863. Blacks and Irish live in harmony in this slum. The focal point of the musical is the seedy Paradise Square Bar owned and operated by Nelly O’Brien. She is a Black woman married to Willie O’Brien, an Irishman. Willie’s sister is Annie Lewis, married to Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis, a Black man. Annie also works in the bar with her sister-in-law Nelly. To the outside world the Paradise Square Bar is the home of prostitutes, degenerates and other miscreants. To the people who frequent the place it’s a safe haven from the outside world.

Into this story comes Owen Duignan, Annie’s nephew. He’s newly arrived from Ireland seeking a better life and hopes Annie can help him find work etc. Also newly arrived is a runaway slave named Washington Henry who has come there to wait for his girlfriend (also a runaway slave) Angelina Baker. Washington Henry refuses to leave and hide because he promised Angelina he would wait for her so they could both go north to safety.

During the comings and goings characters such as Willie O’Brien goes off to fight in the Civil War and ‘Lucky’ Mike Quinlan comes back without an arm that he lost in the fighting. Over time there is conscription. The white male population has to fight while the Black males are not allowed to enlist. ‘Lucky’ can’t get a job because he’s maimed and blames the Blacks who have jobs.  Animosity results.

Owen Duignan will be conscripted unless he can bribe a person responsible for picking names of those to be conscripted. Owen hopes to get the money by winning a dance contest and giving the money as a bribe to the guy picking the names. Then Washington Henry enters the contest too—he needs the money so he and Angelina Baker can escape. Emotions are high.  

The Production. A map of the Five Points area of Lower Manhattan forms the backdrop of Allen Moyer’s set. Nelly O’Brien (Joaquina Kalukango) enters and provides a quick lesson in the Five Points. A projection of what it is today is a metaphor for the musical. A video of the modern area of the Five Points is projected. Cars and motorcycles whiz by like a blur. People scurry along. It’s hard to tell the racial makeup of the people in the video. Nelly points to a sign in the video and says that that is now called Worth Ave. You can’t read the sign because it’s blurry and obscured. As I said, whatever that video was supposed to represent is incomprehensible because of lack of clarity and focus. As is this musical.

The book of Paradise Square by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan, is a mishmash of stories, tangential off-shoots and so many disjointed loose threads that one can hardly tell what it’s about. We are led to believe that trouble started only when ‘Lucky’ Mike Quinlan came home maimed, couldn’t find a job and blamed the Blacks. A shady politician named Frederic Tiggens was always angling to cause trouble for the Paradise Square Bar and bided his time until he could cause trouble.

The show is choked with song after song by Jason Howland (music) and Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare (lyrics) with additional music by Larry Kirwan. Often songs follow each other without leaving breathing room to think about what the subject was before another song followed, introducing another theme or subject. Every song is delivered as if it’s a do or die anthem, blared at the top of the voice, urgent, desperate, frantic.  Perhaps the most shameless is “Let It Burn”, sung with impassioned power and real tears by Nelly (Joaquina Kalukango). At the end of it there is a moment when she holds the high note (as written and directed) guaranteed to stir the audience to rise in the middle of it for a standing ovation. Wretched, manipulative excess. Kalukango is a fine actor and singer. She has style and a formidable regality that she gives her characterization. But the desperation in a lot of the singing to move the audience is the worst kind of Broadway schlock and seems so dishonest and diminishes the characterization.

As Nelly’s sister-in-law Annie Lewis, Chilina Kennedy enters in a rage for some reason and never lets up. A.J. Shively gives an emotional performance as Owen Duignan. He is also a fine step-dancer and has many opportunities to prove it. Matching him in intense emotion is Sidney DuPont as Washington Henry. I hope someone takes Mr. DuPont in hand and tells him the importance of enunciating what he is saying because I could not readily make out anything he said, he seems to have such an aversion to consonants. His lines came out in an indistinct slur—impassioned to be sure, but incomprehensible.  I know the book is problematic, but not to ensure that the audience can actually understand what you are saying is unforgivable.  

Bill T. Jones’ reputation as a gifted choreographer has preceded him. I also get the sense that he thinks his choreography is the star of the show, there is so much of it, upstaging so many scenes. Often the choreography of one scene begins in the previous scene, usually upstage, when a character is speaking downstage. Talk about pulling focus. Choreography is there to aid and enhance the proceedings, not to upstage and ambush the entire show. Director Moisés Kaufman seems overwhelmed by the whole size of the show. At the end of the day Paradise Square is a noisy, desperate harangue of the audience to love it, appreciate it, take it seriously as important and meaningful. Like being bludgeoned with its own importance.

Comment. Hell would be having to sit through Paradise Square again.

Produced by Garth Drabinsky and 38 other producers.

Open ended run

Running Time: 2 ½ hours approx. 1 intermission


Live and in person at the Assembly Theatre, 1479 Queen St. W., Toronto, Ont. until April 24, 2022

Written by Michael Ross Albert

Directed by Janelle Cooper

Set by Pascal Labillois

Lighting by Chin Palipane

Cast: Luis Fernandes

Cass Van Wyck

We all have experienced vacations from Hell. In Two Minutes to Midnight playwright Michael Ross Albert has added a possible touch of Armageddon to the mix.

Jack and Tracy, a bickering but loving couple, are on vacation at an all-inclusive resort and it’s not working out too well. It’s been raining almost since they got there. Jack is trying to establish himself as an ‘internet influencer’ by reviewing the place and hoping for followers and endorsements. That’s not happening either. He’s indebted to Tracy in more ways than just living together in her condo.

Jack is an optimist and hopes to take things further with Tracy. But then there is a frantic alert on everyone’s cell phone that says that a nuclear device is heading towards the resort and pandemonium results. The staff and guests seem to have departed in every available vehicle and only Jack and Tracy are left to deal with the impending catastrophe and each other as best as they can. Information is spotty. Is this for real? A test? A joke?

When people think they are going to die they do strange and interesting things, such as take stock, or not, or profess their love, or not. And so Jack and Tracy must face their demons and each other before the end and they try and make things count; like honesty, and the truth, and expressing their feelings. Tracy just wants Jack to grow up and face the reality that perhaps he’s not as big an influencer as he would like and that he might live in a dream world. Jack would like Tracy to know that he loves her and will pay her back for everything he owes her.

Playwright Michael Ross Albert has proven he has a way with fast-paced, whip smart dialogue and story that goes like the wind in his previous play Tough Jews. In Two Minutes to Midnight he has created a script and story that again goes like the wind, because that wind might be bringing a nuclear device. It might look like Jack and Tracy are an uneven couple—he’s all enthusiasm and faith that his ‘influencing will pay off’. And Tracy just wishes he would grow up and face reality. As Jack, Luis Fernandes is buoyant, boisterous, excitable and listens so hard that his performance is full of surprising nuance and detail. Fernandes shows us a man who is always thinking of an angle to make work. Jack just never seems defeated as played by Fernandes. Cass Van Wyck as Tracy is his equal match. She is mature, rational, excitable, but with reason, and pragmatic. Both of them together are fearless and play off of each other’s energy. And their sense of timing in realizing Michael Ross Albert’s humour, is flawless.

They are ably directed by Janelle Cooper who keeps the pace moving, the energy high but not so that the audience gets overwhelmed. The audience is put in the tropical world immediately upon entering when we are offered a lei to wear if we want it. The drinks offered at the bar are served with paper umbrellas floating in them.

 We get a nice sense of the tropical setting in Pascal Labillois’ set. There are flagstones painted on the floor and into the audience to suggest a smart patio. There is a lovely ocean backdrop. There is a round table and chairs with wine glasses on it and potted palm leaves around the set. Jack’s wild shirt, indicates he is on a  “TROPICAL VACATION” in blue neon. Tracy’s bathing suit shows she’s ready to rumble or relax.

Relationships at the best of times are hard. Michael Ross Albert just raised the stakes by adding what might or might not be a nuclear end. How Jack and Tracy negotiate it all is a joy to watch. The relief and bubbling joy that Luis Fernandes and Cass Van Wyck showed at the bow was well earned, not just because it was the end of the show they did beautifully, but because these two co-artistic directors of the tiny but mighty The Assembly Theatre have worked tirelessly to keep the place afloat, while it was closed for two years by the pandemic. COVID postponed the original opening and shortened the run, but they prevailed. They have the guts of bandits. They deserve our support. The show is a treat.  

Produced by The Assembly Theatre in association with One Four One Collective and the Spadina Avenue Gang.

Runs until: April 24, 2022.

Running time: about 70 minutes.

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Streaming from The Mint Theatre website.

Written by Lillian Hellman

Directed by J. R. Sullivan

Sets by Harry Feiner

Costumes by Andrea Varga

Lights by Christian Deangelis

Sound and original music by Jane Shaw.

Cast: Mary Bacon

Janie Brookshire

Larry Bull

Chris Henry Coffey

Kim Martin-Cotton

Dan Daily

Ted Deasy

Roderick Hill

Betsy Hogg

Geoffrey Allen Murphy

Evan Zes

An early Lillian Hellman play that packs a punch and illuminates the towering playwright she will become.

A Note: I could review the pomp, class and drama of the Inauguration last Wednesday. Or the farce and pretence of the previous president  lurching off to Florida,  hand in hand with his black-clad lady-wife earlier that morning, waving to those in attendance, his ill-fitting jacket unbuttoned revealing his symbolic overlong-red tie.

Or their arrival in Florida, this time with the lady-wife resplendent in a wild patterned orange floor length dress  descending the plane’s steps NOT holding  hands with the previous president, whose jacket was buttoned up for the first time in 4 years.

But I’m not reviewing any of that.

Instead, I’m reviewing Days to Come, an early play of Lillian Hellman that is streaming on the Mint Theatre website.

It’s about labour-relations, a strike, small town folksiness and manipulative doings by conniving shysters.

The Story. Days to Come is set in a small town in Ohio. Everyone knows everyone. They went to school together when they were younger, but there is trouble now.

The Rodman family owns a factory that produces brushes.  Many people in the town are employed there. But they are on strike because they want higher wages. Andrew Rodman, a quiet, decent man cannot raise the wages because business is not good. His sister Cora is a spoiled adult woman with no empathy for anyone. She wants her share of ‘profits’ and does not see why she has to pay for expenses.

Andrew is married to Julie who seems unhappy. She is probably having an affair with Henry Ellicott, a shifty lawyer. The strikers hire a labour expert in strikes named Whalen. Andrew, on the advice of Ellicott, hires Sam Wilkie who has access to outside workers to do the job of those on strike. Another name for the outside workers is thugs. Strike-breakers.

Wilkie gets his men to try and provoke the strikers to retaliate with violence and Whalen advising them not to do it. It’s a fascinating look at money, labour, strikes, and manipulation.

The Production. Days To Come was produced by The Mint Theatre in New York City. The company specializes  in resurrecting lost it finds to be worthy for another run.  This production ran in 2018 and was filmed for archive purposes.  It’s a terrific record of an arresting play and illuminates the high quality of a Mint production.

Harry Feiner’s set for the spacious Rodman family home was well appointed, comfortable and was tended by two servants. The family was used to living in luxury. Andrea Varga’s costumes were stylish, elegant and beautifully tailored for Andrew (Larry Bull) and Henry Ellicott (Ted Deasly). Cora’s (Mary Bacon) and Julie’s (Janie Brookshire) dresses were smart, flowing and beautiful. Because Wilkie (Dan Daily) had a lucrative business strike-breaking, he dressed with style and flash as well—three-piece well fitted suit, tie, etc. Even his goons dressed well. Andrea Varga dressed the others in cared-for work clothes: Whalen (Roderick Hill) wore a decent brown suit.

The cast was exemplary. As Andrew Rodman, Larry Bull beautifully portrayed a thoughtful, worried man who did not know how he was going to keep the factory and be true to his workers. He seems to have been the brow-beaten one of the family who everyone thought was a disappointment no matter how hard he tried.  As Cora Rodman the whiny sister, Mary Bacon assumed that piercing voice, full of that ‘woe is me’ attitude that comes from doing no work, having no responsibility or a sense of consequences. As Whalen the strike advisor, Roderick Hill shows us a man who has seen the poverty in the world, the unfairness and does his best to give the underdog a break. Lovely work from all of them.

J.R. Sullivan’s direction was efficient, thoughtful  and served the play beautifully. We see a world of wealth vs. a world of scraping for every nickel.

Comment.  Days to Come seems to be Lillian Hellman’s second play and yes, it’s little known. It was produced in New York City in 1936 at the height of the depression and it ran for only seven performances. But we can absolutely see evidence here of the towering playwright that Hellman would become, focusing on serious, important subjects.

In her first play, The Children’s Hour, it deals with rumour and inuendo regarding two women teachers at a school. The implications and consequences were devastating.  In Days to Come she deals with monetary matters, labour issues, small town politics and society. This was followed in 1939 by The Little Foxes about a ruthless woman who wanted a glamourous life away from her boring, sick husband and she was ready to do anything to get it. That dealt with class distinction, money and power.

The Little Foxes in a way developed the themes in Days to Come—themes of money, the huge divide between the rich and poor, the contrast of the decent and duplicitous and the lure of flash and success.

Hellman’s social awareness is evident in Days to Come when she provides credible arguments from the workers’ point of view and also the owners’.  It almost looked like a play without villains but of course the villains were obvious, because they were pulling the strings and doing the maneuvering around the hapless, honourable people wanting to do right.

The language in Days to Come certainly is vibrant and shows a writer with power and a flare for words. There is a line when a character talks about her sister who owns a boarding house and welcomes people:

“Boarding business is open to anyone who don’t steal.”

Wilkie says to two of his goons: “Try to act like you’ve been in a house with a bathroom before.”

Or this wonderful line from Whalen talking about how he understands about “The meanness and cowardice that comes with poverty.” Woow.

Lillian Hellman has insight and perception about the world she lives in (America in the Depression) and it comes through here. But I did have moments when my eyebrows crinkled. Too many mysteries arose in the second half of the play that had not been supported earlier. We find out that Andrew Rodman has gone into terrible debt and why late in Act III (those were the days of the large cast and a three act play). Everybody in that household knew secrets about everybody else and held resentments. I found that structure interesting. It was almost as if that third act was its own play. But it’s Lillian Hellman and you observe her technique rather than criticize or fault her lack of balance in the work. I was so grateful to see this wonderful production from a playwright early in her career

More productions from The Mint theatre will be coming up. Lots to look forward to.

Days To Come streams on the Mint Theatre website until February 21: