Review: RED VELVET

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.

www.crowstheatre.com

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).

www.crowstheatre.com

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Review: SNOW WHITE

by Lynn on November 25, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at Young People’s Theater, Toronto, Ont. until Jan. 7, 2023.

Recommended for those ages 6-106.

www.youngpeoplestheatre.org

Photo by Dahlia Katz: l-r: Amanda Cordner, Ken Hall

Originally written by The Brothers Grimm

Adapted by Greg Banks

Directed by Aurora Browne

Music composed by Victor Zupanc

Music director, Raha Javanfar

Set by Brandon Kleiman

Costumes by Laura Gardner

Lighting by Siobhán Sleath

Sound by Emily Porter

Cast: Herbie Barnes

Amanda Cordner

Ken Hall

JD Leslie

These are interesting and difficult times to do theatre. Theatres are recovering from being closed for 18 months by the pandemic. Many companies are eager to jump back in with big productions to make back the money it lost.

Not Young People’s Theatre (YPT). Artistic director, Herbie Barnes and his stalwart troop at Young People’s Theatre are both cautious and bold. They are presenting the much-loved Snow White, originally by the Brothers Grimm, but adapted here by Greg Banks, and with a twist. Rather than present the story with a large cast of actors playing Snow White, her evil step-mother-queen, the seven dwarfs, the hunter, the prince, and who knows how many others in crowds etc. YPT is presenting the classic in which two actors play all the parts including the politically astute, but firmly truthful mirror who tells the self-absorbed evil step-mother-queen who is the fairest in the land (and generally it ain’t you, sister. But I digress).

YPT is presenting Snow White as the true story of what really happened. Snow White’s evil step-mother-queen is so jealous of the beautiful child that she orders a huntsman to take the kid into the woods (lovely set of trees by Brandon Kleiman), kill her and bring the evil step-mother-queen the child’s heart and liver, just to make sure the deed is done. The huntsman can’t bring himself to do the terrible deed. With some clever maneuvers the huntsman brings the evil-queen what she thinks are the organs of the dead child. But he let the kid go to escape into the woods where she finds the home of the seven dwarfs. She knocks to see if they are home, but they aren’t, so she falls asleep in one of their beds. She is found when the dwarfs come home. Both are shocked to see the other, but soon Snow White and her new friends settle in to a life of mutual respect and happiness. Until the evil-step-mother-queen realizes that Snow White is still alive.

Jealousy is a terrible thing when one is totally self-absorbed. Especially when the honesty of the mirror kicks in and tells the evil-queen who IS the fairest of the land. In classic tales and life honesty, respect, tenacity, diligence, faith and love win out. Narcissism, not so much.

Greg Banks has adapted the Brothers Grimm story into a compact, bracing and very funny story. In her directorial debut Aurora Browne has used her comedic-improv background to wonderful use and created a production rich in humour, both silly and breathlessly physical. The audience is incorporated into the action by the gifted cast of two, listening carefully if they shout out and reacting effortlessly. The cast of two urges the audience to engage and they do, both young and older.

Most important about this adaptation and the production is that assumptions and perceptions of how characters should look and act are turned on their ear or upside-down. One assumes that because of her name, Snow White is, er, well “white”. But as the gleeful Amanda Cordner (Snow White) says, “Not anymore!!”

There is also an assumption of what the dwarfs should look like. Not anymore if Ken Hall has anything to do with it. He plays dwarf four, they don’t use the ‘usual’ names perhaps because the original names were too pejorative and one must be sensitive to such things. So the dwarfs are listed by number. Ken Hall plays all of them and indicates who and what number they are with just a twist of his hat and a change of voice and body language.

Both Amanda Cordner and Ken Hall play all the parts at a breathless, hilarious pace. The two actors segue smoothly from character to character with a shift and change of a cape, a hat, a jacket etc. (bravo to Laura Gardner for her colourful costumes). They bring out all the humour in the text and in the direction. More important than anything is that both gifted actors bring out the humanity, kindness, compassion, respect, love and open-hearted-generosity of Snow White and her seven friends. That’s the best take away from this modern adaptation.

Amanda Cordner and Ken Hall alternate performances with JD Leslie and Herbie Barnes who play all the parts in their performances. I will try and check them out too. A joyous time in the theatre.

Young People’s Theatre presents:

Plays until: January 7, 2023.

Running Time: 80 minutes.

www.youngpeoplestheatre.org

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Ben Caplan as The Wanderer

Live and in person at The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, Meridian Arts Centre, 5040 Yonge Street, Toronto, Ont. until Nov. 24, 2022.

www.hgjewishtheatre.com

Created by Hannah Moscovitch, Ben Caplan and Christian Barry

Written by Hannah Moscovitch

Directed by Christian Barry

Songs by Ben Caplan and Christian Barry (except where otherwise noted)

Set and lighting by Louise Adamson and Christian Barry

Costumes by Carly Beamish

Sound by Jordan Palmer, Graham Scott, Christian Barry and Ben Caplan

Music director, Graham Scott

Cast: Ben Caplan

Shaina Silver-Baird

Eric Da Costa

Graham Scott

Andrew Wiseman

Out of the brutal world of pogroms and forced exile to Canada comes the story of how Hannah Moscovitch’s great-grandparents met, married and endured their new life in a new country. Presented with appropriate impish irreverence provided by Ben Caplan and the musicians/actors.

 The Story. Old Stock: a refugee love story is by Hannah Moscovitch who writes about her great-grandparents Chaim and Chaya, their struggles to come to Canada and how they fell in love, sort of.

The story begins in 1908. Chaim and Chaya met on the boat coming over from Europe. He was smitten immediately. She was cool and stand-offish.

Chaim’s family were all killed in a pogrom in Rumania.  He found their bodies. The images were ingrained in his memory. Hannah Moscovitch does not hold back when describing the brutality  Chaya came to Canada together with her whole family. Her first husband died in Russia while trying to leave there. She adored him. He thrilled her.

Chaim and Chaya then coincidentally met again in Montreal where they were both living. He expressed his affection for her. She was non-committal but since her father liked him she married him.  It was a prickly marriage. He was shy and awkward and didn’t know how to please her. He had to live in the shadow of Chaya’s first husband. How could he thrill her like her first husband?  She was impatient with his awkward attempts at intimacy. She was sarcastic and direct, but she showed Chaim how to love her. I think she grew to love him.

Their first-born son, Sam, was named after Chaim’s youngest brother who was murdered in the pogrom. Sam was followed by three other children. Over time, there were grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The most recent to be born was Elijah, the great-great grandson of Chaim and Chaya and the son of playwright Hannah Moscovitch and her husband Christian Barry. I find that symmetry touching.

The Production. This is a wild-ride of a production. The set and lighting of Louisa Adamson and Christian Barry is clever and atmospheric. A corrugated metal wall with “Tehva” on it opens up to reveal the klezmer band complete with clarinet, violin, keyboards and drums. Eric Da Costa stage right sits in a chair and plays the clarinet/flute/other woodwind instruments and plays Chaim. Sitting across from him stage left is Shaina Silver-Baird playing the violin and also plays Chaya. Up from them are Graham Scott on keyboard and accordion and Andrew Wiseman on drums. The lighting also by Louisa Adamson and Christian Barry is moody, hazy and atmospheric.

Playing the narrator, The Wanderer (symbolic of the Wandering Jew?), the guitar and banjo is Ben Caplan, a wild-man of expression in movement, singing, dancing and mesmerizing energy.

He has unruly long hair, a full wild beard and is impish and original.  He is like the trickster who twists up well-meaning people with trouble to see how they cope with it; the unwanted guest with the big personality-you can’t take your eyes off him. His personality is huge. His character is also annoying, intrusive and comments on the comings and goings. You endure him. He has important things to say that are often hard to deal with. He has a wicked sense of humour and cynicism that gets him and his fellow wanderers through. And he sings in a gravelly, smooth, mellow, crystalline, raucous voice. Stunning to listen to him. His impishness draws the audience in to deal with the hard truths of the time, the cruelty and meanness of the treatment that the refugees endured.

Chaim is played by Eric Da Costa. There is an awkward sweetness about Chaim because of the shy, unobtrusive way that Eric Da Costa plays him. There is nothing shy or unobtrusive about the way he makes music when he is playing his various woodwind instruments.

Chaya is played beautifully by Shaina Silver-Baird. As Chaya she has a briskness to how she talks to Chaim. She takes a breath to punctuate her comments. She says little and there is an attitude to her.  She is so economical with her body language that says so much it’s wonderful to see. She knows what she wants of Chaim and she wants him to take charge. The scene in which she is guiding him to become intimate is achingly delicate, urgent and full of yearning. Shaina Silver-Baird plays the violin with expression, joy and verve.

Ben Caplan and Christian Barry wrote most of the songs. The songs create the atmosphere of what Chaim and Chaya are going through; bad luck, a mean world, and truths. The lyrics are raw, dense, witty, lyrical and perceptive. At one point when the refugees arrive in Canada at Halifax, the refugees experience a full body search in security.  The lyrics go something like this: “You have to endure a little humiliation before you can join our nation.” Woow. Another song references an immigration policy that will take place: “None is too many of that kind.” But because the music is the bouncy, buoyant Klezmer style, the music ‘plays’ against the harshness of the lyrics and the audience is drawn in to hear the message.

The production is directed by Christian Barry. As beautifully subtle as those scenes are they are also wildly energetic when Ben Caplan engages with the audience. His irreverence, energy and charm are disarming. He’s like an explosion of clear sound and a mournful voice. But there is a scene in which he uses a megaphone bellowing racist slurs, to simulate what was going on in Europe and the world then. I could not make out what he was saying because the existing amplification of his microphone drowned him out.

Also a warning on some language. Caplan uses the ‘F’ word often especially as a verb. It’s colourful and appropriate. There is a scene in the show when he is trying to describe the ‘act’ of what it means and urges the audience to say the word. Audiences are shy. They don’t talk back. So there is Caplan using many and various forms of how to express this particular form of the ‘F’ word, wanting the audience to shout out ‘THE’ word and not getting it. Put in context for what Chaim and Chaya and other Jewish refugees had to endure, yelling out “FUCKING” isn’t such a big deal.

Comment. Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story is personal, poignant, moving, sensitively written and beautifully poetic in its economy. I loved the tenacity, resilience and humour of Hannah Moscovitch’s great-grandparents and all her ancestors.

Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company presents, 2b Theatre Company in Co-production with the National Arts Centre Production:

Plays until: Nov. 24, 2022.

Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

www.hgjewishtheatre.com

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Live and in person at the Tarragon Theatre, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont. until December 4, 2022.

www.tarragontheatre.com

Written by Hannah Moscovitch

Directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu

Set and costumes by Teresa Przybylski

Lighting by Louise Guinand

Sound by John Gzowski

Movement and choreography by Lina Jiménez

Cast: Rachel Cairns

Chantelle Han

Jesse LaVercombe

Diego Matamoros

A bristling examination of the murky world of big business when money seduces everybody and ethics and integrity are kicked to the curb, written by Hanna Moscovitch whose laser vison doesn’t miss a thing.

The Story. Bill is the CEO of a large car company. Lee is his COO. Justine is Bill’s adopted daughter and the company’s CFO, is also there.  Shannon, a public relations person with the company. Lee is her boss and he’s attracted to her, although Bill has warned Lee about not giving into his urges with Shannon. They are in a poor South American city to sign a deal and buy a manufacturing company named Systemus. There is trouble at home. Bill keeps checking his cell-phone for information. It seems a Brand Manager has been sexually harassing or compromising his female assistants and the issue must be contained even though the press seems to know about it.

At the same time Bill learns that although Lee just arrived the evening before, he had sex with a young woman who was sent to his room and who probably was underage. When this information is revealed, Lee doesn’t see any problem as it is a third world problem and the young woman was just a whore. What Lee wants more than anything is that the deal to buy Systemus, goes through. He has been working on this for a long time, and he wants it done.

Justine appears to have a moral compass. She does extensive charity work in Africa. She is aware of the toxic company culture and is intent on stopping it. She is aware of Lee’s lack of ethics. She also notes that Lee is Bill’s 5th cousin. She wants her father Bill to fire Lee. Bill won’t do it for reasons that are eventually revealed. Justine is appeased in a way that is all too familiar in such cases. Everybody knows everybody’s secrets and uses them for their own advantage later.

For Hannah Moscovitch to name the company they want to buy, Systemus, is Moscovitch winking at how close it is to the word “systemic’ which is how pervasive the rot is in Bill’s company and the company he wants to buy.  

The Production. Initially, the audience is looking at a dark stage with a large black covering over the stage and anything underneath the covering. When the lights go dark (accompanied by a growing noisy sound) it goes up on the rest of Teresa Przybylski’s startling, stark set. The walls are white and one wall seems to be leaning in slightly, pressing in unevenly. There is a bright red couch with an irregular shape to suggest it’s ultra-modern; there is a stocked drinks caddy to one side of the couch; and a dark, forbidding painting taking up the whole wall at the back. Sliding doors automatically open and close when a person enters or leaves this room. It’s the communal gathering room for that floor, in this spiffy hotel.

Louise Guinand’s lighting is blindingly bright—you could easily do open-heart surgery in that room’s light. It is so glaring one could not hide anything in that room under that light, even a person’s secrets. Which is the point.

Teresa Przybylski’s costume design is interesting and odd.  Bill (Diego Matamoros) wears casual but seemingly expensive clothes: a jacket, shirt, pants and casual shoes. This “look” does establish him as the head of a successful company. Lee (Jesse LaVercombe) wears a non-descript casual shirt and chinos. I thought that odd. Lee plays the power game at all times. He would look the part of a leading honcho of a company but really doesn’t here. He could be anybody with a drink in his hand. Justine (Chantelle Han) is dressed in a smart, form-fitting dress and heels. She looks the part of a CFO who needs to prove her point and make what she says matter, even though she is the boss’s daughter.  Shannon (Rachel Cairns) wears a buttoned-up jacket and skirt that is downright frumpy. She wears what seems like a silk shirt underneath, but that buttoned up ‘suit’ plays more on insecurity than establishing a sense of cool confidence in that high-powered job. There is a ‘look’ to a public relations person of a successful corporation, and this look isn’t it.  As I said, “odd.”

Director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu stages the first scene with Bill standing facing the audience, feet separated, firm stance. He spends most of his time peering into his cell-phone checking e-mails and texts or replying to them, while Lee faces him, drink in hand (it’s 6 am and that drink is not tea), tries to get his attention. As Bill, Diego Matamoros is quietly distracted by the cell phone and gives Lee off-handed attention. Bill is also cool.

Lee, played with barely concealed impatience by Jesse LaVercombe, waits, as does the audience to learn what is going on.  Lee coughs to get Bill’s attention. Bill keeps him waiting.  Bill called the meeting for 6:00 am and Lee has had a bad night. He arrived at this South American city the night before.  While Bill is his boss, Lee conveys an edgy pushiness I found interesting. Lee has a great sense of himself as a player, confident, one who ‘never blinks’ when faced with a challenge, like waiting for his boss to tell him why he called the meeting at 6:00 am and is ignoring him. It’s a powerful performance by Jesse LaVercombe. He plays Lee as a person who takes no prisoners and has no conscience about it, even when it’s his boss.  

As Bill, Diego Matamoros also has a certain power. He has the power to keep his COO waiting and slowly let him know that he can’t let his sexual urges get the better of him, and sleep with Shannon. Lee has been warned about this. Bill also knows that Lee slept with a young woman when he arrived. As Bill, Diego Matamoros is almost fatherly about this warning, rather than ruthless.  It’s fascinating watching these two characters played by these two actors, do the dance of power and one-upmanship.

The dynamic changes when Justine arrives. As played by Chantelle Han, she is forceful, confident and knows she must look the power part, so she is ‘power-dressed’ in her dress and shoes. There is nothing casual about her at this 6:00 am meeting.

Lee knows where he stands in the hierarchy of this company and so he confidently wrangles with Justine, publicly insulting to her in front of Bill and he seems to let him. It’s interesting to see how that balance of power delicately shifts from character to character. Justine is not above telling secrets in public to make her points and gain an edge, but it’s Lee who seems to be winning points.

Rounding out the cast is Rachel Cairns as Shannon.  Initially Rachel Cairns plays Shannon as meek and insecure, whose shoulders are hunched in the company of these players. She is aware of the Brand Manager and his penchant for sexual harassment but doesn’t seem committed to supporting those women who have been harassed. She seems more interested in having them remain silent. Perhaps her involvement with Lee might be a reason and her playing the corporate game. The staging of Lee and Shannon’s drunken sex-scenes seemed more awkward than passionate.

Hannah Moscovitch’s characters in Post-Democracy speak in blunt language. Lee’s dialogue is a string of monosyllabic words that jolt out. These are people who don’t converse in paragraphs because their communication is generally from a cell-phone screen. The dialogue is reminiscent of David Mamet, but with Mamet his characters are inarticulate. With Moscovitch her characters are in a hurry for the deal and power and don’t have time for chit-chat. The timing is everything with this ‘rat-a-tat’ dialogue and too often I felt the timing was off and the pace lagged.  

Comment. Hannah Moscovitch has written a devastating play in which she puts her laser perception and focus on the toxic culture in big business; where money is more important than morality; conscience, integrity and ethics are laughed at in favour of making a deal at all cost. Moscovitch so immerses you in this world you will be thinking about it long after you see it, and you should see it.

Tarragon Theatre presents:

Plays until: Dec. 4, 2022.

Running Time: 1 hour, (no intermission)

www.tarragontheatre.com

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Live and in person at the Great Canadian Theatre Company, Ottawa, Ont. until Nov. 20, 2022.

www.gctc.ca

Written by Darrah Teitel

Directed by Sarah Kitz

Set by Brian Smith

Sound by Olivier Fairfield

Lighting by Seth Gerry

Costumes by Vanessa Imeson

Cast: Aviva Armour-Ostroff

Ori Black

Brittany Kay

Drew Moore

Billie Nell

A play dense with philosophy, political theory, revolution, debate, discussion and unsettling history.

The Story. It’s 1942 in Warsaw, Poland. The occupying Germany army established the Warsaw Ghetto where approximately 500,000 Jews were crammed into a few blocks; 1.3 square miles. Usually there were seven people to a room. There were curfews, rations and starvation. Jews had to wear an identifying arm band. The Judenrat (Jewish Council composed of Jews) governed the Ghetto.  

A group of teenagers gather to discuss their revolutionary plans to disrupt if not destroy the Ghetto. They are: Izzy, the leader of the group; Joshua, a stickler for taking minutes so there would be a record for posterity of what they discussed; Eden, Izzy’s lover; Christian, a Pole though not Jewish, he was devoted to the cause, and also Eden’s lover as well. They would be joined later by Felicia Czeniaków, a rich Jew of Warsaw and the wife of Adam Czeniaków. He was the head of the Judenrat until he committed suicide when he realized his efforts to protect his Jewish people were failing under the Nazi regime. Felicia knew that her husband was to meet these young revolutionaries and she wanted to keep his appointment and continue his work.

Trust was a tricky thing. The young revolutionaries looked askance at Christian because he wasn’t Jewish, and they looked askance at Felicia because she was a rich Jew and really had no connection to their cause and they didn’t trust her husband either. A Jewish Council governing their fellow Jews in the constricted Ghetto with the occupying German Army overseeing everything. Trust was rare.

The Production. Brian Smith designed a set that looks like a stage waiting to be set for a play. There are ladders hanging on a wall up stage. The back wall is fitted like a black chalk board. There are two small square tables downstage with chairs. Upstage is a raised section that has three steps leading up to it. A lit ghost light stands downstage center. So everything about this suggests that a play is to be rehearsed. The play is Forever Young: A Ghetto Story.

When the production begins actors quickly enter the space, set up the tables with papers and props. Someone moves the ghost light ‘off-stage’ (and it will be returned when the production is finished). The set is the only clue that this is a rehearsal.

What is a mystery is who the ‘actors’ are who are performing this rehearsal? Perhaps they are modern “actors’ doing this rehearsal of a play in the 1940s? One actor (Brittany Kay plays Eden) has black hair with green ends….rather modern. One actor (Billie Nell plays Joshua) wears pants with rips in the knees and seem to be connected with chains. Again, modern but still a mystery of why it’s presented as a rehearsal. And for whom are they preparing the production? Us? In Ottawa? There is no one actually leading the rehearsal to give us a clue. Is this idea of setting the play in a rehearsal that of playwright Darrah Teitel? Or the director of the production, Sarah Kitz? A mystery, as I said.

When the ‘production’ does begin, the cast are earnest and committed to the work. During the various committee meetings notes are made on the black board chalk sections listing points of order and argument. One must also assume that actual written minutes etc. are being written on paper because the papers are then stuffed into milk jugs for safekeeping, ready to be buried around the Ghetto so that they can be later found and used as an historical record.

It’s an interesting technique to engage the audience since so much of the play seems to be debate, esoteric political philosophizing and a litany of various movements and organizations, usually spoken by Joshua (Billie Nell) the most earnest of the group and seemingly the most rigid in his thinking. Or perhaps Joshua is just firm in his convictions.

It is amazing to realize that these revolutionaries in the Ghetto were teenagers who were determined to defend their homes and each other. It’s documented that they were successful in causing difficulty for the occupying German troops. Bravo to playwright Darrah Teitel for illuminating that. However, I found that her play got bogged down in rhetoric, the endless debates of points of order and the minutiae of the minutes. Izzy (Ori Black) wanting to move things along. Joshua (Billie Nell) standing firm for a point of order. Eden (Brittany Kay) wanting sex with her boyfriend, Christian, an eager Drew Moore, offered a bit of comic relief.

The production seemed to change and ‘open up’ when Felicia, a vibrant, prickly Aviva Armour-Ostroff, arrived to help out. This was a no-nonsense woman. She had integrity and knew how to argue her points. She knew that the young revolutionaries were suspicious of her because her late husband let the Yudenrat and she was commanding in getting them on her side. These scenes created a sense of drama and tension in the production, where only pedantic musings were before.

Director Sarah Kitz negotiates the cast around the set with efficiency and briskness. We do get the sense of life and death as they hide and plan on disruption. Kitz also creates moments of humour when Eden and Christian, or Eden and Izzy come on to each other for some much needed intimacy. And I loved the subtle inclusion of various versions of the song: “Forever Young.” The bitter-sweet reference though is that those young people in the Ghetto died in their teens and therefore would be forever that age.

Playwright Darrah Teitel adds a coda to the end of the play in which the cast add information about the play. The play is based on a small book (60 pages) entitled: The Ghetto Fights by Marek Edelman who was the last surviving member of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Darrah Teitel wanted the audience to know that the play and the dialogue are the result of her imagination. And while there might be those in the audience who might be knowledgeable about that time in history and take exception to what is in the play and how she dealt with it, they can ‘back off.’ Ok. But, really? That has to be explained to an audience in 2022, that it’s a play, a creation of imagination and of course the dialogue is made up.

Comment. For my concerns about this dense play, I’m glad I ventured to Ottawa to see it. It’s a fascinating, difficult point in history and I’m grateful to Darrah Teitel for pricking my curiosity to seek out Marek Edelman’s book and see where she started in her journey to write the play.  

Great Canadian Theatre Company presents:

Plays until: Nov. 20, 2022

Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission.

www.gctc.ca

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Review: CHOIR BOY

by Lynn on November 16, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, Ont. A Canadian Stage & Arts Club Theatre Company (Vancouver) Production. Plays until Nov. 19, 2022.

www.canadianstage.com

Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney

Directed by Mike Payette

Composer/Arranger & Co-Musical Director, Floydd Ricketts

Co-Musical Director, Dawn Pemberton

Set and Costume Designer, Rachel Forbes

Lighting Designer, Sophie Tand

Sound Designer, Kate DeLorme

Cast: Scott Bellis

Andrew Broderick

Daren A. Herbert

Clarence ‘C.J’ Jura

Kwaku Okyere

David Andrew Reid

Savion Roach

A stylish, beautifully sung and acted production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s provocative play about identity both to the world and secreted.

The Story. Pharus Jonathan Young is in his teens and “an effeminate young man of colour” as described by playwright Tarrell Alvin McCraney in the playtext. Pharus begins the play as a junior at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, a private school for Black students. He is the lead of the school’s famous a cappella choir. He knows what an honour it is to sing the school song at the graduation ceremonies. He is the best singer in the choir and is picked to sing the song and he takes this responsibility very seriously. But something happens while he is performing and Pharus stops for a few seconds, much to the irritation of Headmaster Marrow. Marrow said to him that at all cost he was not to stop singing, but Pharus did. Now Marrow is being criticized and pressured by his board of directors to expel Pharus, who is there on a scholarship and needs that funding to remain in school.

Pharus tries to live up to the philosophy of the school, which means no lying, no snitching. When he’s called into Headmaster Marrow’s office Pharus just says he got distracted by something someone said. Pharus does not tell by whom. Marrow seems to figure it out but by then it’s the end of the year and nothing can be done then.

Marrow figures that the culprit is Bobby, his nephew—this makes matters sticky. Bobby is arrogant, pompous and a bully. He believes his preferred position—his uncle is the Headmaster and his father is a powerful presence on the board and in the school—gives him an edge and allows him to say things that are despicable. It was Bobby who flung homosexual slurs at Pharus during his singing. Pharus wouldn’t snitch on him.   

The following year, Pharus is the choir leader and Bobby is a member until he is so disruptive that Pharus rightfully removes Bobby from the choir. The internal politics of the school, the various personalities on the choir and Headmaster Marrow all swirl together. This is Headmaster Marrow’s second year of tenure and he’s on fragile ground. He must fundraise, keep a grip on his student body and placate a prickly board.

Also in the choir are: Junior Davis a great friend of Bobby’s, Anthony Justin (AJ) James, an athlete on various teams at the school and Pharus’ roommate, and David Heard, pious, quiet and wants to go into the ministry.

Different personalities and all of them hold secrets they might not want anyone to know. There is another character, Mr. Pendleton who is white and at one time a professor there now retired who has been asked by Marrow to teach a course to the choir about how to think. It’s believed that if he can shift around how these young men think, they would be prepared for early acceptance into college, college life and study. And of course, the wider world.

The Production. The production directed by Mike Payette is stylish, crisp and graceful. The set by Rachel Forbes is on two levels. Two winding staircases, stage left and stage right go up to a library level. Centre stage is a stained-glass structure that can be an office, a chapel, etc. Beds are easily pushed on and off suggesting Pharus’ (Andrew Broderick) and AJ’s (Savion Roach) room.

Rachel Forbes also designed the costumes. The students wear light blue suits, white shirts and a blue and yellow striped ties. Pharus is always beautifully turned out—shirt tucked in, jacket mostly buttoned up. He is always aware that he is a representative of that school and lives up to that responsibility.

Both Floydd Ricketts and Dawn Pemberton are co-musical directors and the results are exquisite for the singing of this a cappella choir. Harmonies are blended, no voice is louder than another, no voice stands out unless it’s a solo. Every singer shines with Andrew Broderick leading the way. He sings beautifully and conveys all of Pharus’ pride and confidence in what he does. Pharus knows that there are those in the school who want to ‘straighten him out’ because he’s effeminate but he remains true to himself and who he is.

What he has is a quick, nimble mind, a fantastic facility with vocabulary and a wit that is razor sharp. Andrew Broderick never misses a beat. He listens keenly and replies with a clear truth.

Lesser brains like Bobby (Kwaku Okyere) are constantly frustrated by the likes of Pharus because Pharus got where he is by hard work and brains. Bobby will get a head because of nepotism and money, but it will be Pharus who will make a difference in everything. Kwaku Okyere as Bobby has a swagger that takes over the room. He is hot-headed and impatient. Bobby does not pause to think, he just reacts. It’s a fine performance of Kwaku Okyere and he sings beautifully too.

Headmaster Marrow is played with every increasing frustration by Daren A. Herbert. This is a fine actor but I think he could incorporate more variation in his frustration—it often seems like an unnuanced rant of a performance and there is more to Headmaster Marrow than that.

Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has certainly shown us the unequal world of these Black young men but from a Black perspective. There are bullies like Bobby with family ties that promote him, but he’s a moral bankrupt, just like in a white context. What is also interesting is how homosexuality is handled from a Black perspective. There is almost a revulsion of it from the various student’s comments. One can have ones reputation sullied just by whom you associate with.

There is a possible homosexual incident at the school and it’s Mr. Pendleton who has to point out to Headmaster Marrow that it has to be expected from an all-boys school that is nearly 50 years old. Marrow was stunned to hear that. It never occurred to him that any of the boys, besides Pharus, would be gay. Is this possible for a Headmaster not to even have an inkling?

I love the bracing language of Choir Boyand how Pharus negotiates this difficult world. He’s gay, Black and smart. Every moment for him is proving himself worthy to people who think he is less because of the way he talks, moves and because of his stunning intellect.

I loved the humanity of Choir Boy—characters looked out for each other.

Pharus had champions such as the Headmaster and other members of the choir. AJ as beautifully played by Savion Roach is kind, compassionate, understanding. And he knows what a good friend Pharus has been to him, without bragging about it.   Pharus has a loving mother—obviously a single parent who is proud of him.

I do have a concern about one scene. Initially Mr. Pendleton (a lovely performance of understanding and perception by Scott Bellis) arrives for his first class and he’s late.

Tarell Alvin McCraney has him make some off-handed racist remark: “See it’s not just black people who are late.” And then Mr. Pendleton explains that comment was a joke. I don’t believe that that character as written would say that kind of racist remark because later he rails at Bobby for always using the ‘N’ word to casually refer to others. Mr. Pendleton is so passionately against the word saying that he “lost enough friends behind that word” that even having him joke before with a racist remark doesn’t ring true. We learn that Pendleton had marched and protested with Martin Luther King against racism. So, because of that I believe that the joke is a cheap shot that sounds false with everything else written about and said by Mr. Pendleton.

Still the play leaves everybody with a lot to think about, while they are reveling in the glorious music.

Comment. Choir Boy by Tarell Alvin McCraney, premiered at the Royal Court in London, England in 2012. He wrote the screenplay of Moonlight (2016) and won an Academy Award. He’s a wonderful, sensitive, smart writer. Love his work.

A Canadian Stage & Arts Club Theatre Company (Vancouver) Co-Production.

Runs until: Nov. 19, 2022.

Running Time: 100 minutes, one intermission.

www.canadianstage.com

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Comment: MIXTAPE

by Lynn on November 14, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Performed for a short run at the Grand Theatre, London, Ont. Closed: Nov. 13, 2022.

A Crow’s Theatre Production.

Written and performed by Zorana Sadiq

Directed by Chris Abraham

Set and props by Julie Fox

Lighting by Arun Srinivasan

Sound designer and live sound operator, Thomas Ryder Payne

I wasn’t able to see Mixtape when it played in Toronto last year, so I drove to London, Ont. last week where it played a short run at the Grand Theatre in the Auburn Developments Stage.

Julie Fox has designed a wide ‘chair’ with a wide seat and substantial, wide back that is placed centre-stage. Arun Srinivasan aims a cone of light from the flies onto the chair that pools under it as well—terrific effect.

Zorana Sadiq enters quickly, sits in the chair and looks at the audience quietly for several seconds. She is also listening to the sound and the silence in the room. Listening and hearing are equally important to her.

She talks about what musical instruments members of the audience played/or were assigned when they were in school. Comments came effortlessly from the audience. (I thought back to my school days and must have been away when instruments were assigned. I was placed in the choir). Zorana Sadiq talks of students picking a piece of paper on which was printed an instrument, out of a bin. When it was her turn there were two pieces of paper left. One had ‘trumpet’ written on it. The other had “flute”. Zorana Sadiq chose the paper with “flute” on it and not trumpet (‘God forbid’ as she said when faced with the prospect of picking that). That set Sadiq on her journey to discovering music in all its complex glory until she decided that becoming a classical singer was where her heart was.

Mixtape is full of an eclectic selection of music from the arresting arrangements of a Kate Bush song (“Lionheart”), to the lyrics of “Purple Rain” by Prince, to the intricacies of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations played by Glenn Gould and much more.

Classical music factored heavily, especially opera. Zarana Sadiq delved into the world of doing scales, the drudge of it, the necessity of it. She commented on one kind of scale, suggesting that she didn’t see the point of it. But then she made a breakthrough. She sang the scale and it was clear and matter of fact. She sang it again and the notes became rounder, fuller. Then the breakthrough, when she saw how the scale would lead into the heart of the notes, the depth of them. The result was full-throated, buoyant, deeply felt and rich. The look of realization on her face that she cracked a mystery of music was thrilling. One of the many beauties of Mixtape are the endless discoveries that Zorana Sadiq makes and conveys to her audience. They might not be versed in classical music, but they realize the richness and beauty because Sadiq conveys it so clearly and fully. And she is a wonderful singer which is obvious in her many selections.

Not only has Zorana Sadiq written a beautiful script that describes her exploration that plumbs the depths of musical clues but she also physically conveys those discoveries. Her hands float through the air expressing the roundness of a note. Her hands press together and glide through space as a note might soar through air. She is so attuned to listening that she reacts naturally to her audience and doesn’t miss a beat.

Director Chris Abraham is an unobtrusive but very present presence in the realization of this complex, at times esoteric piece. The result is a clarity of what has engaged Zorana Sadiq for so long about music and that is passed on to her embracing audience. Sadiq moves easily around the set from a sitting position, to bringing out a boom box from a secret hiding place upstage, to often sitting and often standing. Chris Abraham’s staging makes it all seem natural and not studied.

Sadiq talks briefly of her family. She says she is ‘pure Pakistani.’ Her father was an accountant. Her mother was a writer. She has one sister. Her parents fought all the time until they divorced.  It is her mother that was/is a constant presence and it’s not pretty. (Sadiq’s sister moved to Vancouver to escape their mother).  

Her mother was confident, proud, elegant at all times and suffocating in her determination that Zorana Sadiq should be as accomplished in opera as her mother’s ideal. Sadiq describes her mother’s determination about Zorana’s future as ‘delusional.’ But the damage done to her daughter–public humiliation, condescension and almost stalking her, in pursuit of this ideal–is disturbing. In a brilliant bit of direction, Chris Abraham has a ‘follow-spot’ of light slide along the floor as if it was Sadiq’s always present mother, following her. Chilling.

When Sadiq is able to gain confidence in her abilities, there would be her mother at her voice lessons or concerts providing a debilitating presence. Frightening. While Zorana Sadiq describes her mother as ‘delusional’ regarding her daughter’s career, Sadiq does not offer any reasons for her mother’s despicable behaviour towards her. It would be fascinating to know how a parent can be that cruel—jealousy? Envy?

It is to Zorana Sadiq’s credit that she has gotten out from under her mother’s venomous presence, created a life for herself and discovered music and her talent for it that is conveyed so beautifully in Mixtape.  

The Grand Theatre presents a Crow’s Theatre Production:

Ran: Nov. 8-13, 2022.

Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

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Hi All

Further to my shameless plea for donations to the fundraising for CIUT.FM for the week of Nov. 14-20, and in particular CRITICS CIRCLE just click

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Hi Folks,

It’s that fund-raising time again for CIUT fm. From November 14-20, 2022.

This is my shameless plea to donate to keep the only independent radio station going and to give you radio that covers the arts, unlike any other outlet. The mainstream media has drastically cut down its arts coverage, not CIUT FM.

There are four mainstream daily newspapers that covered theatre regularly. Now there is only one.

On my show, CRITICS CIRCLE  on Saturday mornings 9 am to 10 am (formerly CIUT FRIDAY MORNING,) 89.5 fm we do theatre and film reviews every week, plus interviews. I review theatre around the city and the province. I have supported and championed the marginalized voices through their plays for decades.  For me, theatre is vital in reflecting the world we live in. 

CIUT 89.5 fm gives voice to those who need to be heard.  Our shows are all volunteer. Please go to https://ciut.fm and donate—noting CRITICS CIRCLE– so we can continue to provide needed arts coverage.

Added Bonus: The wonderful Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company at the Meridian Centre in North York is offering TWO tickets to the opening night, Nov. 17, to OLD STOCK: A Refugee Love Story, to the first person who donates $250, noting CRITICS CIRCLE in our fundraising. The show is wonderful. Please donate. Thanks.

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Live and in person at Hart House Theatre, from the Howland Company and Hart House Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Until Nov. 12.

www.harthousetheatre.ca

Adapted and directed by Paolo Santalucia

After Anton Chekhov

Set and costumes by Nancy Anne Perrin

Lighting by Christian Horoszcak

Sound by Andy Trithardt

Cast: Ruth Goodwin

Steven Hao

Kya Harper

Christine Horne

Cameron Laurie

Dan Mousseau

Robert Persichini

Hallie Seline

Maher Sinno

Shauna Thompson

Caroline Toal

Ben Yoganathan

Ethan Zuchkan

A fully committed, well-intentioned attempt at adapting Chekhov’s Three Sisters that unfortunately misses.

The Story. With a classic as well known as Chekhov’s Three Sisters one should talk about the original story in order to reference the updated adaptation. So—we are in a small garrison town. Three sisters—Irina (the youngest), Masha (the middle one) and Olga (the oldest) are celebrating Irina’s ‘name day’. They came there from Moscow 11 years before, when their military father was stationed there with his brigade. Since then the sisters yearn to return to Moscow and even more so since their father passed away one year before. The sisters remember Moscow as vibrant, exciting and there was plenty to occupy them. This little town is not vibrant, exciting and there is little to do except to entertain the soldiers waiting for action. Even the weather is better in Moscow.

Irina is the one who pines the most for Moscow. She is loved by Tuzenbach, a sweet but uninspiring man. Solyony also loves Irina in a rather morose way and considers Tuzenbach to be his rival.

Masha is married to Kulygin and she is unhappy. Kulygin is devoted to Masha but he bores her. But then Masha meets Alexander Vershinin, an officer in the military and there is an attraction and they fall in love. Vershinin is unhappily married as well to a mentally fragile wife.  Olga is a hard-working school teacher who hopes she is up for a promotion to run the school. Andrei is the sisters’ awkward brother. He loves Natasha, an equally awkward woman, whom he eventually marries. Andrei begins to gamble and jeopardizes the sisters’ house. There are others in that household but that gives the background.

Paolo Santalucia, the adapter and director of this production updated the play. While he says in his program note that his version of Three Sisters is not a metaphor for the pandemic of the last two and a half years, that closed theatres, the pandemic certainly informed his adaptation. He yearn to go back to the theatre just as the three sisters yearned to go back Moscow. That is a fair comparison—a pandemic prevented Santalucia from going into a theatre and the sisters were bound by family obligations to follow their father to this small town. But societal realities for the three sisters’ yearning and Santalucia’s yearning couldn’t be more different. One might ask, what is preventing the sisters from returning to Moscow now that their father is dead? While the pandemic closed theatres, theatre work continued in other forms. Santalucia is a resourceful artist—finding another way of doing theatre is a viable option for him. In his update Santalucia had the sisters pining to return to ‘the city’ without naming it. That clouds the issue of their longing. Where did they want to return to? We are never told. Chekhov was specific. Santalucia removes the specificity and lessens the idea of yearning to return.

In his version Santalucia changed the gender of Alexander Vershinin from a man to a woman who is now known as Alex Vershinin, a woman and officer stationed in the town with a husband and young daughter. Alex Vershinin still falls in love with Masha and she with Vershinin. For the most part Paolo Santalucia follows the story of Chekhov’s play. Whether it still works as a play ‘after Chekhov’ is another matter.

The Production. Set and costume designer Nancy Anne Perrin has created a set of the sisters’ house that is on two levels. The upper area is the dinning room where a large dining room table is located. Two characters casually dressed are playing a card game I believe. It’s difficult to tell because the table is so high up and at the back of the set, we can’t see properly. A bit of a miss-step there. There are references to flowers in the text but one is hard-pressed to find them on this set.

On the lower level, characters sit in chairs or lay on a couch. Masha (Caroline Toal) lays on the couch trying to read while all sorts of talking goes on. She fidgets and shifts around with agitated movements, indicating her displeasure at the noise.  Irina, a buoyant Shauna Thompson, is celebrating her birthday and is happy about that, but thinks back to Moscow and how she misses it. As Olga, Hallie Seline is the hardworking teacher who frets about getting promoted to head mistress of her school.

Nancy Anne Perrin also designed the costumes and they are appropriate to the times for the most part. However, the costumes for Natasha (Ruth Goodwin) are eye-brow-knitting. Natasha is Andrei’s bumbling, inappropriate girlfriend and later wife. She is initially garish, gauche and out of place. Her costume for her first entrance is none of these things. The colours are just bright. If they aren’t garish then Natasha’s transformation from this awkward woman to one who is imperious and more stylish just falls flat and that’s what happens here. Ruth Goodwin as Natasha is certainly formidable when she marries Andrei and takes the place of the head of that household, but the costumes have to do their part too to help create this monster of a woman.  

The Hart House Theatre is an unforgiving barn of a place when it comes to acoustics. Being heard is a challenge if one is inexperienced in working in such a sound-sucking room. So, after trying to make out what some actors are saying, it is a pleasure when Robert Persichini as Ivan (Chebutykin) a doctor arrives. Persichini’s voice carries effortlessly to the rafters and back. Ivan is one morose man, who has lost his zeal for tending to the sick (not the first time one hears of such a character in Chekhov). Persichini loves the sisters because he secretly loved their mother. He observes those there and sees the folly of their ways, but is sad about it all.

When Alex Vershinin (Christine Horne) arrives to pay her respects to Irina on her birthday, she meets Masha. The attraction should be instantaneous and I didn’t get that sense between Christine Horne as Alex and Caroline Toal as Masha. I found the gender switching of Alex from a man to a woman to be arbitrary, even though our world is becoming more aware of gender fluidity. And I didn’t get the sense of helpless, passionate love between the two of them. Alex saying she loved Masha is in the text but the words are not established by performances that set up this relationship.

Similarly, the rivalry between Tuzenbach (a courtly Cameron Laurie) and Val (Solyony) played with understatement by Maher Sinno. I thought Val could have been more substantially written to give the character more presence.

Theo (Kulygin) is Masha’s devoted, awkward husband. Colin Doyle usually plays him but he was out sick on the opening. Dan Mousseau is the alternate for this role and he is arresting. This is a performance of size, detail, wonderful awkwardness but sweetness and you couldn’t stop watching him because Mousseau is that good in the part.

As Anfisa, the aged maid/nanny etc. who has been with the family since the sisters were children, Kyra Harper is fragile-minded because the character is 80+. She is fretful because she is forgetful and feels she will lose her job. It’s a performance of real sadness and Kyra Harper gives a lovely performance of a woman terrified of this new matriarch (Natasha) and fears the sisters will not be able to save her.  

Comment. I can appreciate the intention of rethinking and modernizing Chekhov’s Three Sisters and I was glad of many of the performances. But the reality is that this production of Three Sisters missed making its points.

The Howland Company and Hart House Theatre present:

Closes Nov. 12.

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

www.harthousetheatre.ca

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