Live and in person at the Theater Centre, Franco Boni Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Until Oct. 2, 2022

www.theatrecentre.org

Written by Michael Ross Albert

Directed by Eda Holmes

Concept, choreographic direction by Peggy Baker

Choreographic collaborators: Elizabeth Chitty

Margaret Dragu

Lily Eng

Louise Garfield

Johanna Householder

Jennifer Mascall

Set and costumes by Gillian Gallow

Lighting and video by Jeff Pybus

Sound and composition by Debashis Sinha

Cast: Sarah Fregeau

David Norsworthy

Erika Prevost

Jarrett Siddall

Shauna Thompson

Anne van Leeuwen

A bitter-sweet production because Beautiful Renegades is dance titan Peggy Baker’s last project before she steps aside and lets the younger generation have a chance to produce art.

The Story. After a long and illustrious career Peggy Baker is retiring, closing down the Peggy Baker Dance Projects and making room for a new generation of dance makers.  She’s doing it by paying homage to the dance pioneers of the 1970s, in a sense the dancers who informed her work when she began.

I love how the press information describes Beautiful Renegades: “A new play celebrating the end of an era, honouring the artists of the present moment by looking to the past…Beautiful Renegades is an ode to the young dance artists who helped pave the way for change in 1970s Toronto, through innovation and acts of artistic rebellion.”

The play was written by Michael Ross Albert, a gifted playwright who has done a lot of research about the dance world of the 1970s for this project. I’m mighty impressed with the play because Michael Ross Albert wasn’t born at the time of the play, but has put the audience right in the time of the 1970s.  (I speak from personal experience of that time).

Again, from the press info: “This play was inspired by an artist-run dance centre called 15 Dance Lab that operated in Toronto between 1974-1980. When it first opened just two dance companies dominated the Toronto scene: the National Ballet and Toronto Dance Theatre. At 15 Dance Lab, the dancers rejected popular expectations for dance and aligned themselves with leftist politics and the avant-garde in visual and media arts. It was THE social scene for Toronto’s burgeoning independent dance milieu.”

So, this sets up the situation. Of the two predominant dance companies, one was a ballet company and the other was a modern dance company. But what if a young dancer didn’t want to conform to the dictates of either of these two companies? Enter 15 Dance Lab. The play introduces us to six dancers who want to create their own work on their own terms and over the course of the play, they do create their own work. We also get a sense of the difficulties, jealousies and other challenges.

The Production. The production is terrific. Every part of it is meticulously thought out, researched, respected and realized. The audience sits on either side of the playing area in Gillian Gallow’s set. The stage is bare except for illumination (kudos to Jeff Pybus) on the floor that tells us the year (beginning in 1974 and ending in 1980). On one end of the stage there is shelving for electronic equipment, a stool, etc. On either side of the playing area are several wood chairs that will be used during the production, for the ‘attending audience’, for props etc.

I’ve already spoken about how playwright Michael Ross Albert put us right in that time. The director is Eda Holmes began as a dancer and danced with various American and European companies before segueing into theatre directing. So, she knows her way around dancers. Her direction is fluid, almost balletic and also has a modern feel to it.

Peggy Baker choreographed Beautiful Renegades by referencing segments of dance pieces created by six notable dancer/choreographers from 15 Dance Lab during the 1970s. She contacted them all directly to meticulously recreate the segments of the original choreography. She watched videos of the time to get it right. Then she taught the choreography for the six performers in the show.  Here’s the astonishing thing: of the six performers three are professional dancers and three are professional actors.

How did that work out? Could I tell the difference? That’s one of the many beauties of Beautiful Renegades. I couldn’t tell. The actors are credible dancers— all six performers engage in an energetic dance piece at the end and it looked seamless and cohesive. And the dancers are good actors; compelling, lively and in the moment. Only when you look at each biography in the program do we realize that some are dancers and some are actors and all are wonderful and committed in this piece.

I loved that whole sense of the group’s independence; their need to do their own kind of dance and not be locked into a specific form. They were inventing their own.

In the first scene they are getting ready to do a performance created by Mia (Erika Prevost) who I believe also wrote a rather esoteric poem to accompany the piece. Mia enters and positions herself on the stool to watch the performance.  Only two people turn up to watch the show as an audience: one named Hart (Jarrett Siddall)  was going out with a dancer in the company and the other was Beth (Anne van Leeuwen), a notable dancer who had been in New York for a few years and came back, and eventually joined the company at this new space. In spite of the poor attendance, this didn’t stop them, the company went ahead with the performance. Mia sat quietly watching, mouthing the poem as the dancers recited it while dancing.

It’s interesting to note that all the problems that plagued these eager, young dancers—funding, finding a space to perform, attracting an audience, being able to support themselves and still dance—are the same problems today. Some things don’t change.

I was intrigued by a segment in which the dancers created their own magazine to write about their work etc. But then Mia wrote blistering and personal essays about Beth’s work which she found hurtful. Mia thought Beth could deal with the criticism since it was meant to strengthen the work.  What Mia wrote wasn’t a review—I personally don’t think it’s a given that reviews are negative. What Mia wrote was an essay in which the writer thought she was writing for her community and perhaps didn’t appreciate there are feelings of people that have to be considered. This caused a rift in the relationship with Mia and the rest of the community.

What I loved about Beautiful Renegades is that it captured the resilience of the dancers, their determination to go their separate way from the norm and make their own distinctive art. That doesn’t change either—and that’s the beauty of art. It’s made by people who don’t fit in or want to and want to go in another direction. It’s made by people who think that art can be made in all sorts of ways by people who say, “no, I think there is another way to do this.” I think most of all it’s that tenacity to follow one’s own dream and beliefs to make art that I loved about Beautiful Renegades.

Comment.  Beautiful Renegades is a terrific piece; an homage to the pioneers of modern dance in Toronto and most of all to the spirit and artistry of Peggy Baker.

The Theatre Centre presents:

Playing until: Oct. 2, 2022.

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (no intermission)

www.theatrecentre.org

{ 2 comments }

Review: THE MISER

by Lynn on September 27, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ont. Playing until Oct. 29, 2022

www.stratfordfestival.

Written by Molière

Adapted by Ranjit Bolt in a new version

Directed by Antoni Cimolino

Designed by Julie Fox

Lighting by Lorenzo Savoini

Composed by Steven Page

Sound design by John Gzowski

Choreographed by Adrienne Gould

Cast: Hilary Adams

David Collins

Jakob Ehman

Colm Feore

Ron Kennell

Qasim Khan

John Kirkpatrick

Alexandra Lainfiesta

Beck Lloyd

Jamie Mac

Lucy Peacock

Steve Ross

Michael Spencer-Davis

Emilio Vieira

Hannah Wigglesorth

Molière’s sharp satire about greed, miserliness, jealousy, hypocrisy and one-upmanship. Why then is it played so broadly, as if a farce or pantomime, and is not funny enough except in a few instances?

The Play. Molière wrote The Miser (L’avare in French) in 1668. In Ranjit Bolt’s new adapted version the names of the characters have been anglicized from the French. The whole idea of greed and avarice have not been dulled after more than 400 years.

Harper, (the miser), a wealthy widower doesn’t trust banks so he keeps his money buried in his garden. The greed for money governs everything he does. His grown children, Eleanor and Charlie, are aware that he will want them to marry someone rich or of his choosing but they have other ideas.

Eleanor is in love with Victor, Harper’s butler and he with her. Victor is a courtly man who is unsure who his parents are. But he is almost certain that he, Victor, comes from money. For all of Eleanor’s smarts, confidence and perception, she is all a quiver even thinking of trying to convince her father that she should marry Victor. Charlie is a flamboyant young man taken to extravagant clothing that he can ill-afford and he is in love with and wants to marry, Marianne. The problem is that she lives with and takes care of her ill, poor mother. So Marianne would not be a good match for Charlie or so he assumes his father would say. Both siblings know that if they do marry against their father’s wishes, the fortune they will inherit from their late uncle, will be forfeited because Harper is the administer of the trust for both siblings. To make matters worse, Harper wants to get married again to a much younger woman and he engages Fay, a matchmaker, to find him a wife. Fay also picks Marianne as the intended for Harper, much to the horror of Charlie. Harper wants Eleanor to marry an old, rich friend of his much to her horror. Lots of horrified people here.

The Production.  Designer Julie Fox has created Harper’s great, big, stuff-laden house of doors with broken panes of glass; electronics (tv, radio etc.) that don’t work and are obsolete, threadbare furniture and rugs, but he will not throw them out, fix them, or buy new stuff because he’s too cheap. There is a leak in the ceiling. Harper has put a large tub under the dripping leak. We hear the steady drip.

When the production begins all sorts of people come scurrying from all corners of the stage creating a lot of activity that is dizzying. A person moves the big tub from under the leak and uses the water in the tub to water the large plant over there, stage right. I note that the person doing that is Harper (Colm Feore). How odd, I think, that he doesn’t get a star entrance. But wait. When the stage clears of all the people etc. there is a bit of business with Claudia (Hilary Adams) one of the servants who enters vacuuming. Above her on the balcony is a character who calls the house, Claudia goes to the old phone and answers and the character above her hangs up. She is confused. It happens a few more times. It’s mildly funny. Then when Claudia sees the character above her and realizes what has happened, there is more business and both characters leave to clear the stage, so that Colm Feore as Harper can get his star entrance and people who need to show they know he’s the star, applaud. Odd. Why have Feore enter in a swirl with other characters and not make that a moment? Giving him his moment later, albeit solo, seems an afterthought. Hmmmm?

Feore does look the part of Harper. The hair is long because Harper is too cheap to get it cut. His clothes are threadbare, frayed and have holes in them. Feore plays Harper with great animation, dexterity, athleticism and an almost joyfulness. While I can appreciate that there is no one way to play any part, it strikes me that this Harper is too good natured when considering the lengths he goes to covet his wealth and grab more.

Director Antoni Cimolino is no stranger to comedy or Molière. I’ve seen productions of Cimolino’s that have rung humour from the words, the physicality of the production, the actor’s invention and then built on it. So it is a ‘surprise’, a puzzlement, that his production of The Miser seems so flat. One is heartened to see that Rebecca Northan is his assistant director. She is a master of improvisation and the creation of physical humour. She knows how to set up a joke, as does Cimolino. I can see glimpses of both Cimolino’s and Northan’s input in some physical humour (a scene in which a character is going to give another character mouth-to-mouth resuscitation comes to mind, for example).  But for too much of the production actors tend to bellow and overact, as if they are in a farce and not a satire. Using Molière’s bristling language requires finesse, nuance, subtlety. Too much of this production is lacking it. The humour is forfeited as a result.

I can appreciate that Charlie (Qasim Khan) dresses flamboyantly but I can’t understand why Khan is presenting Charlie as if he is the Dan Levy character in Schitt’s Creek.  As Eleanor, Alexandra Lainfiesta is lively and compelling and never overplays her part.

There are two masters of understatement in this production and they are indeed hilarious. Lucy Peacock as Fay the Matchmaker is a poem of subtlety. Julie Fox dresses her to impress and draw attention. Fay is in a stylish top, black leather pants and black over the knee-suede boots. The ‘look’ says ‘success’ and confidence. At times Peacock reacts with a look and a raised eyebrow. She makes the audience see the physical, quiet humour and that’s very funny.

Late in the production a Detective (Steve Ross) enters—there has been a report of a robbery—and the Detective is there to investigate. He enters slowly. He surveys the people there with suspicion and the most delicious underplaying. He gets a round of applause (perhaps because people recognize his from his stunning performance in Chicago) or they are just showing ‘the love’ for a consummate comedian. In any case Steve Ross plays the Detective with a look of bemusement, confusion, understatement, and a slow look that is hilarious. Peacock and Ross are playing the words when a lot of the others in the production are playing the physicality, perhaps thinking the result of humour would be the same. It’s not.  

 Comment. A play that is so often very funny, comes off as flat because of overplaying, bellowing the lines and thus stepping on the humour. This is an uneven production of The Miser, unfortunately.

The Stratford Festival presents:

Plays until: Oct. 29, 2022.

Running Time: 2 hours (1 intermission)

www.stratfordfestival.ca

{ 0 comments }

Review: SALT BABY

by Lynn on September 24, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at Theatre Aquarius, Hamilton, Ont. until Oct. 1, 2022.

www.theatreaquarius.org

Written by Falen Johnson

Directed by Cole Alvis

Set and costumes by Sean Mulcahy

Lighting by Bonnie Beecher

Composed by Christopher-Elizabeth

Sound by Sergey Kublanovsky

Cast: Aris Athanasopoulos

Nicole Joy-Fraser

Chanin Lee

Jeremy Proulx

From the program: “Salt Babyis a Six Nations woman, whose light skin sets her apart from her relatives, both on the rez and in the city. This play brings heart to the experience of being mixed blood and feeling “invisibly ethnic” while lampooning expectation of what it means to look Indigenous.”

Salt Baby (Chanin Lee) is dating Philip (Aris Athanasopoulos), a white man. He is curious about Salt Baby’s Indigeneity. She knows about three quarters of her background but not the last quarter. She has moved from the reserve to the city. Her Dad still lives on the reserve and she visits him frequently.

On one date at a bar Philip asks her questions to find out more about her and her culture. As Philip, Aris Athanasopoulos is respectful and gently inquisitive. He leans forward at the table giving her his whole attention, is present and totally focused on what Salt Baby is saying to him. As Salt Baby, Chanin Lee is accommodating with her answers and perhaps touched that he is curious. If I do have a concern, it’s that audibility is a bit spotty. Perhaps some subtle microphoning might be in order.

The relationship continues, deepens and Philip and Salt Baby move in with each other. In her search for more information about her background Salt Baby is encouraged to do a DNA test. She knows about her Mother’s side but not her Dad’s. He quietly declines to have the test. No reason is given, he just doesn’t want to do it.  Jeremy Proulx gives a loving and gentle performance as Salt Baby’s kind Dad. When he refuses it’s with quiet consideration and not irritation.  The Dad is not happy that Salt Baby is dating a white man, perhaps disappointed is the better word. He does not vent at all about this.                                                                                                              

There is also the wonderful Nicole Joy-Fraser who plays many parts including a kind of trickster elder who guides Salt Baby along. Joy-Fraser lends both humour and gravitas to the play.

Chanin Lee guides us calmly on Salt Baby’s journey of discovery. Not knowing who she really is and how she is made up gnaws at Salt Baby in a way that is always present. She feels that if she knows her various components it will give her a clearer idea of who she is. Her father says, gently that she does know who she is and a test won’t change that. I loved that philosophy.

Who are we? Where do we come from? What is our story? These are questions that apply to all of us. Indeed, when Artistic Director Mary Francis Moore greeted the audience from the stage she noted that director Cole Alvis said that she wanted the audience to think of how their own stories resonated with that of Salt Baby. Wonderful! Theatre presents stories from other cultures totally different from ours but we find resonance and applications to our own lives in those stories. That is the beauty of theatre; it illuminates our similarities and how close we are not our differences.

Cole Alvis directed the play with a gentle but confident hand. The set by Sean Mulcahy is vivid and compelling. Several large framed photos are suspended up stage. Many frames are empty. Linking all the frames together is a heavy chain. Brilliant. The empty frames are the holes in Salt Baby’s life, the missing people and bits. The notion of family is strongly linked by the chain, but those empty frames present a painful absence that Salt Baby wants to fill.  

Theatre Aquarius Presents:

Plays until: Oct. 1, 2022.

Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

www.theatreaquarius.org

{ 0 comments }

Review: BAD PARENT

by Lynn on September 22, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, co-produced by Soulpepper, Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre and Prairie Theatre Exchange. Playing until Oct. 9.

www.soulpepper.ca

Written by Ins Choi

Directed by Meg Roe

Set and props by Sophie Tang

Sound and music by Deanna H Choi

Costumes by Brenda McLean

Lighting by Gerald King

Cast: Josette Jorge

Raugi Yu

A play that will prick the attention of a lot of people because of the subject matter—parenting, raising children, coping with a crying baby and not having a clue about what to do about it.

The Story. Bad Parent is a comedy about the trials and tribulations of first-time parents. In this case, Nora and her husband Charles are the parents of an 18-month-old boy named Mountain. That was Charles’ choice for a name not really Nora’s.  They can’t agree on anything about raising the baby. Nora is still nursing him and Charles thinks the baby is past that at 18 months. The baby still sleeps in their bed because he cries when they put him in his crib and they can’t stand it.  Charles buys a bed for Mountain at Ikea and doesn’t tell Nora about his decision. He just brings the box home and begins to assemble it. They can barely agree on how they met. Nora worked in film production before taking a leave to have the baby. Charles wrote jingles and Nora got him a job with her production company as a music supervisor. Nora longs to go back to work and does by hiring a nanny without telling Charles.

The Production. Set and props designer Sophie Tang, has created a child’s toy room with a wall unit compartmentalized into squares in which each square is packed either with lots of toys or containers for toys. There is a hamper with clothes on the floor and lots and lots of toys strewn around the floor.

As the audience fills into the theatre, Raugi Yu as Charles enters with a large IKEA box and proceeds to unpack all the stuff needed for the baby’s bed. I’m mighty impressed that he can put the thing together without frustration or incident—there is a moment when Charles does bang his finger, but for most of it, his dexterity with those ‘notorious’ ‘simple’ pictorial instructions is impressive.

In the meantime, Josette Jorge enters on stage and engages with the audience. I’m not sure what she is saying but she seems very personable in her interactions and I’m not sure if she is in character as Nora. Perhaps this is director Meg Roe illuminating that this is theatre and Josette Jorge is ‘breaking’ the fourth wall?

Ok, let’s address the ‘elephant in the room’:   Does it help people to empathize with the characters in the play if one has children?

I’m subscribing to the notion that it takes a village to raise a child. Of course, those of us who don’t have children have a different take on the play. Those of us who have extensive babysitting experience with young cousins and family members can use that to provide a sense that we have some idea of how difficult raising young kids is. (Note: all the kids for whom I babysat are all grown or getting there, well-adjusted and not harmed by my baby-sitting abilities and are still talking to me, or at least most of them are).  We have all sorts of advice on how to raise children since they aren’t ours. It seems a clear-eyed view when you can say “thank you and good night” and go home, leaving the baby/kid with the parents.

Playwright Ins Choi, offers some interesting insights into the difficulty of raising the child, by the structure of the play. Nora and Charles address the audience directly, talking into microphones as if trying to get us on their side. In a way it’s the modern way of doing things. Every idea, thought, accusation etc. has to be public as if constantly on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We learn Nora and Charles’ innermost thoughts, concerns, accusations of the other, the bickering.  They are almost always side by side vying for our attention and favour.

To make matters even more interesting, both actors: Josette Jorge as Nora and Raugi Yu as Charles also play the nanny, also called Norah but spelled with an ‘h’ and Dale, a male colleague of Nora at the film company. In those cases, the other characters deal directly.  So, Dale talks directly to Nora without the microphones. And Norah the nanny talks directly to Charles, who has gotten over his irritation at not being consulted when his wife hired the nanny.  Both Nora and Charles seem to relax and are less anxious when dealing with Dale and Norah respectively, who support and encourage them. In the case of Norah the nanny, Charles is even more grateful for her presence because she puts Mountain in his crib to sleep and he stays there without crying. And Norah can cook wonderful dishes from her native Philippines. She is supporting her two sons who are back home and her dream is to save enough money to bring them to this country. 

Charles comes up with the great idea that Norah should open a food truck since her food is so delicious. Charles will do the jingle and marketing for the truck and his wife Nora can do the business plan. Of course, Charles hasn’t told Nora of this yet.  Perhaps a bit of a glitch in the play is that if Norah is working in the food truck, then she can’t be the nanny anymore. There is no reference about this, except that Nora the wife is aghast at the idea of the food truck because she thinks her inheritance from her mother will be used to fund the truck.  

It’s hard to tell who is the bad parent. I think that’s part of the irony of the play—it’s not called Bad Parents. Both Nora and Charles blame each other and would say the other is the bad parent.

It seems like a lot to unpack here.  Director Meg Roe does an earnest job of directing her committed cast of Josette Jorge as both Nora and Norah and Raugi Yu as both Charles and Dale. When Josette Jorge and Raugi Yu are playing husband and wife the tone is relentlessly argumentative and combative, and even ramps up as their frustration with the other escalates, and that’s tiresome.

At one point Nora says that she has been berated by opinionated people who criticize her for still nursing Mountain, and then she takes a baby bottle from a shelf and leaves as if to feed him. Is this a change in her attitude? Should that not be acknowledged in the play?  

When Josette Jorge and Raugi Yu are playing the Nora the nanny and Dale the colleague the scenes are more varied and even funnier. Josette Jorge as Norah the nanny is particularly nuanced and personable.

Truth to tell, I found Bad Parent frustrating. It’s not that either Nora or Charles is a bad parent. It’s that both of them are a lousy couple because they don’t talk or listen to each other. It’s obvious for 75 of the 90 minutes of the play. They seem to be spiraling out of control in how to deal with each other, never mind the child, and I reckon, it’s obvious to the audience that they need to talk and listen to each other and not us and deal with everything.

They finally do that in the last bit of the play. They look at each other and actually talk. So often there is a good parent who is firm and consistent and the bad parent who crumbles and gives in all the time. That can be funny, but it’s also frustrating because the consequences of these confused messages to the child results in one spoiled, confused kid. It’s like the audience is watching an accident happen that they know how to prevent it quickly.

I can appreciate that people having children are not trained to be parents. They learn on the job.But in Bad Parentneither Nora nor Charles seems to have any kind of consensus about anything and their constant disagreement is not funny, it’s frustrating at best and concerning since even the simplest of conversations didn’t take place before this momentous decision to have a child, regarding how that kid will be raised. It’s not that Nora and Charles are not on the same page. It’s more like there isn’t even a page on which to be on together.

Comment. Many of us might not have children, but we sure live in a world full of lots of parents’ screwups.

At the introductions of the crew etc. at the end of the opening performance, Ins Choi was introduced and came to the stage to read a poem he wrote to help guide him through the writing process. The poem was about soldiering through, keeping on keeping on, staring at the blank page but not being defeated. It was a wonderful poem. I hope all the poems he wrote get published. Ins Choi is a gifted writer/playwright/poet. I think Bad Parent needs a re-think and a re-write to make its bumps less obvious.

A co-production with Soulpepper Theatre Company Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre and Prairie Theatre Exchange, presents:

Plays until: Oct. 9, 2022.

Running Time: 90 minutes, (no intermission).

www.soulpepper.ca

{ 0 comments }

Review: QUEEN GONERIL

by Lynn on September 21, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at The Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Soulpepper Theatre Company, Toronto, Ont. . King Lear playing in rep at Soulpepper until Oct. 1, and Queen Goneril playing until Oct. 2, 2022.

www.soulpepper.ca

NOTE: Soulpepper Theatre is presenting King Lear by William Shakespeare and Queen Goneril by Erin Shields in repertory. Erin Shields wrote Queen Goneril as a feminist companion piece to King Lear. The casts are the same for both as are the creatives (except for the directors). 

We are told that each play stands on its own and you can see them in any order. But I think to put things in context it’s better to see King Learfirst to get the story and then to see Queen Gonerilto see how cleverly playwright Erin Shields references King Lear in her own play.

I will review each separately.

Queen Goneril

Live and in person at The Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Soulpepper Theatre Company, Toronto, Ont. . Queen Goneril plays until Oct. 2, 2022.

www.soulpepper.ca

Written by Erin Shields

Directed by Weyni Mengesha

Set by Ken MacKenzie

Costumes by Judith Bowden

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Damien Atkins

Helen Belay

Oliver Dennis

Sheldon Elter

Virgilia Griffith

Varum Guru

Breton Lalama

Annie Luján

Tom McCamus

Nancy Palk

Jordan Pettle

Shaquille Pottinger

Philip Riccio

Vanessa Sears

Klana Woo

Jonathan Young

Queen Goneril is a smart, deeply thought feminist view of how Goneril, King Lear’s eldest daughter, keeps her own identity, advocates for herself and finds a place in that world, while navigating the world of powerful men who run things.

The Story. Queen Goneril by Erin Shields is a feminist look at women wanting to be considered as their own entities who can function, rule and administer as well as any man. It’s about women making due in a man’s world, but chomping at the bit to prove themselves. And it focuses specifically on Goneril as she is groomed, she feels, to succeed her father, King Lear, in leading the country as queen.

Queen Goneril takes place seven years before King Lear and focuses on King Lear’s eldest daughter, Goneril, while also referencing Regan, the middle daughter, and Cordelia, the youngest to a lesser degree.  

King Lear gives Goneril every indication she will succeed him when he ‘retires’. He is grooming her for that very situation. He tells her announcement will be made soon. Goneril is smart, watchful and knows her father’s weak points. She has proven herself politically astute but of course she must contend with her father’s games playing.  He jokingly asks her to tell him how much she loves him, so there are many echoes of the play King Lear subtly slotted in Queen Goneril. The other daughters have their own issues but they are not jealous of Goneril.

Goneril patiently waits for the announcement of her succession. Then something happens and things go off the rails.

The Production. The production begins with a video conversation between Virgilia Griffith, who plays Goneril, and Tom McCamus, who plays King Lear. They are in their street clothes and not costumes. They discuss their characters and the play. Then very subtly and cleverly Tom McCamus begins to take over the conversation about Lear etc. Virgilia Griffith tries to interject and make her own points but it’s clear they are now playing the characters King Lear and Goneril. The video is interesting but unnecessary. Why do we need to see this video as a set up when the play Queen Goneril does such an exemplary job on its own?

Another problem is the assumption that everybody in that theatre would know who Virgilia Griffith and Tom McCamus are without having them introduce themselves at the beginning of the video. That assumption is a miss-step because there were people in the theatre who didn’t know who they were. Friends I sent to see both plays said that they thought Virgilia Griffith was in the video just to interview Tom McCamus and thought she interrupted him too often. They didn’t realize they were role-playing. A reasonable assumption if one hadn’t seen the plays or been to indie theatre where Virgilia is a fixture.  

Queen Goneril has the same cast and Ken MacKenzie’s unwieldy set but is directed by Weyni Mengesha. The set is not moved around as much as in King Lear so the changes in location are efficient and economical. Mengesha keeps the pace moving quickly and is more interested in telling the story than in showing off with a cumbersome concept. Mengesha’s direction is subtle, unobtrusive and yet detailed to reveal the play’s secrets. She establishes relationships beautifully and we see how characters play off each other.

One of the many things I love about Queen Goneril is that playwright Erin Shields has taken references and lines in King Lear and had other characters say them in Queen Goneril. The lines take on a fresh reference in Queen Goneril.  There are echoes of the television show, Succession in which a ruthless head of a company plays his children against each other to see who will succeed him. So seeing Queen Goneril after King Lear indicates the savviness of Erin Shields as a playwright. Shields is not using Queen Goneril to explain Shakespeare’s King Lear. Shields is making her own feminist statement about women, and in particular Goneril who are trying to thrive in a man’s world on their own terms.

Virgilia Griffith illuminates Goneril’s intelligence, poise and perception in her terrific performance. Goneril knows her father’s abilities as a king very clearly. She says he never thinks things through when he makes a decision.  For example, several hundred bodies of soldiers had been brought back to the kingdom from a recent war. The plan of course is to give the soldiers a proper burial, but as it was winter when they were returned, digging proper graves was not possible. So King Lear ordered the bodies to be piled up outside the palace gates until the spring. When spring came and the thaw, King Lear did nothing to arrange to bury the bodies. Then the summer and the stink and the ooze from the bodies was terrible. King Lear was urged to do something. He didn’t. So Goneril ordered the bodies to be burned and dealt with the problem that way, thus stopping the stench, possibility of disease, and giving the bodies and their families some kind of ceremonial closure. King Lear was livid. He said that Goneril did not realize the cost of what she did. No but she realized the consequences, which is not what King Lear could figure out.

 (Interesting observations from Goneril about Lear in Queen Goneril. In King Lear we only see Lear make one royal decision, to divide his kingdom, and it’s a disastrous decision).

Again, Tom McCamus as King Lear is bold, powerful, prickly and a bit of a loose cannon. He rages at Goneril in open court. When he looks like he will announce Goneril as his successor, he makes another announcement that has nothing to do with her. She realizes what he has done to her, again. Virgilia Griffith’s look of despair and disappointment as Goneril is heart-squeezing and totally realistic.  You can see her potential for being a wise and astute monarch who would rule fairly and with intelligence in Virgilia Griffith’s performance. She must overcome all sorts of prejudices about women but she is intelligent and you know she can out think most of her opponents.

The acting in Queen Goneril is uniformly fine. Jonathan Young as Edmund is thoughtful, courtly, open-hearted. Nancy Palk as Old Woman is perceptive, wise, seen it all and speaks volumes through her subtlety. Breton Lalama as Olena/Oswald is absolutely compelling.

Thomas Ryder Payne’s score and soundscape is impressive, but I found the storm thunder overpowered some of what Goneril had to say—and it was important to hear her words.

Comment. However it’s still a man’s world and that’s one of the many things that Erin Shields establishes in Queen Goneril. Queen Gonerilis of the time of Shakespeare and of our modern times. Queen Goneril is a terrific play and production.

Soulpepper Theatre Company presents:

Plays until: Oct. 2, 2022.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. (1 intermission)

www.soulpepper.ca

{ 3 comments }

Review: KING LEAR

by Lynn on September 21, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at The Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Soulpepper Theatre Company, Toronto, Ont. . King Lear playing in rep at Soulpepper until Oct. 1, and Queen Goneril playing until Oct. 2, 2022.

www.soulpepper.ca

NOTE: Soulpepper Theatre is presenting King Lear by William Shakespeare and Queen Goneril by Erin Shields in repertory. Erin Shields wrote Queen Goneril as a feminist companion piece to King Lear. The casts are the same for both as are the creatives (except for the directors). 

We are told that each play stands on its own and you can see them in any order. But I think to put things in context it’s better to see King Learfirst to get the story and then to see Queen Gonerilto see how cleverly playwright Erin Shields references King Lear in her own play.

I will review each separately.

King Lear

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Kim Collier

Set by Ken MacKenzie

Costumes by Judith Bowden

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Damien Atkins

Helen Belay

Oliver Dennis

Sheldon Elter

Virgilia Griffith

Varum Guru

Breton Lalama

Annie Luján

Tom McCamus

Nancy Palk

Jordan Pettle

Shaquille Pottinger

Philip Riccio

Vanessa Sears

Klana Woo

Jonathan Young

Director Kim Collier’s has created a bloated, self-indulgent production in which she seems to think the audience hasn’t read a book, has no imagination and is a stranger to nuance. Strong acting though.

The Story. King Lear by William Shakespeare, is about a king who divides his land among his three daughters and all hell breaks loose as a result. King Lear is getting on in years and he decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters: Goneril (the eldest), Regan the middle one and Cordelia, the youngest and his favourite. His plan is to visit each daughter for a month, taking with him 100 knights, and he will keep all the titles and rank of king. In other words, he’s making his kingdom smaller to rule and his daughters will take care of him each month but he still rules the land.

But first he plays a little game with them in public, in the court. He asks each daughter in turn how much she loves him and in exchange he will give each a prized parcel of the kingdom. In the case of Cordelia, whom he describes as “our joy” he asks her to express her love so she can get a parcel of land better than her sisters. This seems a cruel game to me since he’s already divided up the land evenly (we are told so in the first speech of the play).

But matters get messy. Cordelia won’t play the game. She says that she loves Lear as a daughter should. Lear wants to hear more from her and she won’t give it so he takes her parcel of land away and gives it to the two other sisters. Needless to say that King Lear is in a rage– Lear hates to be contradicted. A courtier, Kent, pleads the case of Cordelia and Lear banishes him.

Cordelia is being courted by two men, France and Burgundy, and Lear tells them that Cordelia gets no dowry and they must decide who will marry her. Burgundy refuses her. France accepts her on her own. The other two daughters balk when King Lear and his men visit and they are rowdy.

And it goes downhill from there. Lean almost goes mad before he learns the truth. There is another foolish father in Gloucester and his two sons: Edgar, his legitimate son and Edmund, his bastard, vengeful son.

The Production.  Let’s talk about the positive first—the acting is dandy. As King Lear, Tom McCamus plays him as a man’s man, who loves to be the center of attention. He lobs a joke for those in attendance. He plays games with his daughters to bolster his ego and to have them ‘dance’ to his bidding in exchange for a parcel of the kingdom. Tom McCamus also illuminates Lear’s irrational behaviour when he is crossed or challenged. His temper is explosive, his movements big and almost uncontrollable. Patience is not his strong point. Goneril and Regan feel that his old age might be the cause of this irrational behaviour.  Interestingly his courtiers are not just yes people so it’s interesting to see how others try and reason with him.

Virgilia Griffith as Goneril, Vanessa Sears as Regan and Helen Belay as Cordelia all reveal their character’s hidden emotions. Goneril and Regan know how to play the “Tell me how much you love me game.” They flatter, are coy, but eventually their true feelings are revealed. Lear shows little affection to Goneril so Virgilia Griffith reveals a hardened woman as a result. When Cornwall (Regan’s husband) wants to punish Gloucester, it’s Goneril who suggests that they pluck out his eyes. Regan wants to hang him. These are two damaged women. Helen Belay as Cordelia, is more controlled and even-tempered. She is not using the fact that Lear loves her the most, but she is confident in herself to deal with Lear as an adult.

Jonathan Young plays up Edmund’s anger that he is treated by Gloucester as the bastard son. Of course we only have Edmund’s word for that. Gloucester (Oliver Dennis) is another father who thinks nothing of teasing and joking about his son in public, especially that he’s a bastard and that there was good sport in his conception. Jonathan Young hides his vindictiveness behind a smooth veneer of confidence and poise. Oliver Dennis as Gloucester is both a courtly man and one who is a bit silly with his vulgar jokes. But he is truly moving as Gloucester when he is blinded by Cornwall (Philip Riccio) and finds solace with the mysterious Poor Tom, who is really his son Edgar (a touching Damien Atkins). Nancy Palk is mournful and wise as The Fool.  

But more than anything, this was a case of the director Kim Collier’s concept that swallowed the production.  She didn’t trust Shakespeare’s play to tell the story or the audience to be able to figure it out without everything spelled out in phonetics.

Ken MacKenzie is usually an inventive, creative designer but you would hardly know it with the set he designed here.  The set is composed of two massive arched structures that are laboriously moved around the stage by the cast. When the structures are pushed together they practically take over the whole stage leaving a small space on which the cast has to act. The cast seemed to be pushing and pulling those cumbersome set pieces to establish a new location for every scene—as if the audience wasn’t capable of ‘imagining’ a new location without those unwieldy arches ‘setting’ the scene. And they had been moved so often it was hard to recognize where we were anyway.

You just cover your eyes in disbelief at some of Kim Collier’s directorial decisions. It’s not enough that in the very first scene Gloucester and Kent indicate that King Lear has already divided the land absolutely evenly, Collier adds a scene before that to show us King Lear dividing the land after much thought. There is Lear, alone, sitting on his throne, pondering, stroking his chin. He picks up a map of the land and holds it up so we can see it clearly. He puts it on the table and looks at it and strokes his chin. He wanders and ponders. He takes a ‘sharpie’ and makes two strokes in the map—voilá the kingdom is divided.  (The speech between Gloucester and Kent gives a subtle hint King Lear has divided the land amongst his sons-in-law–Cornwall and Albany—played by Philip Riccio and Jordan Pettle respectively, rather than the daughters).

In Kim Collier’s vision of King Lear there is a ceremony after Lear divides the kingdom between Goneril and Regan, in which each daughter sits at a table, a binder with a document is placed in front of them by Edmund who then opens a rectangular box and takes out a pen for each daughter to sign. Mindboggling. In my edition of the play at least, Edmund is a stranger to the court. He’s been away for nine years. Kent recognizes him and Gloucester introduces him and the joke about him being a bastard. How then does Edmund have an administrative job in King Lear’s court making sure documentation is signed? One would think that logic has to come into the direction at some juncture, but not when the concept is more important than the play, I guess.  

In Kim Collier’s vision characters come and see other characters at their dwelling and the visiting characters drag luggage on wheels behind them, as if we can’t imagine they would come without a change of undies?

When Cornwall realizes that Gloucester might be a traitor to his cause he wants to do him harm. Regan suggests they hang Gloucester. Goneril suggests they “pluck out his eyes.” Cornwall thinks this is a good idea so he goes to his ‘weapons drawer’ and pulls out a gun.

I look at the gun, then at Gloucester’s eyes, then the gun and think, “REALY?? You’re going to shoot out his eyes?” (I’m actually rolling mine at this point.) Then Cornwall thinks better of it and puts the gun back in the drawer and takes out a knife that looks like it’s 10 inches long. “Really? Are you also going to do a lobotomy on the man as well,” I wonder?

(And to add another concerning note: After Gloucester is blinded, the blood is dripping down his face and Oliver Dennis as Gloucester gives the most touching speech, the two young actors behind him spend that speech wiping their hands of the blood–they held down Gloucester in the de-eyeballing scene– thus upstaging Oliver Dennis and distracting us from listening. Please stop that wiping. Please. STOP, at least until the speech is finished).

Decisions like these make the production cumbersome, silly, thoughtless and put a terrible burden on the cast, who work hard to do the play.  

At 3 hours and 45 minutes the production should be cut of all the set moving and other extraneous nonsense and just do the play.

Comment. I love the play. It’s so dense and complex about relationships. To me, Lear is an abusive father. You don’t get damaged daughters like that on their own. Ditto with Gloucester and Edmund. There is so much to explore. Kim Collier’s reputation as a director is one in which a dazzling concept is more important than actually digging into the text. This bloated production carries on that reputation. Ugh.

Soulpepper Theatre Company presents:

Plays until: Oct. 1, 2022.

Running Time: 3 hours, 45 minutes (!!) (2 intermissions).

www.soulpepper.ca

{ 0 comments }

Live and in person, Crow’s Theatre presents Festival Players at the Studio Theatre, Streetcar/Crowsnest, until Sept. 25, 2022.

www.crowstheatre.com

Created by: Frank Cox-O’Connell

Beau Dixon

Hailey Gillis

Marni Jackson

Raha Javanfar

Andrew Penner

Directed by Frank Cox-O’Connell

Set by Steve Lucas

Costumes by Lindsay Forde

Sound by Steáfán Hannigan

Performed by Frank Cox-O’Connell

Beau Dixon

Hailey Gillis

Raha Javanfar

Andrew Penner

Al Purdy, the celebrated Canadian poet is certainly having his share of accolades and praise this year. There was the play (among men) by David Yee (Factory Theatre), that illuminates his friendship with Milton Acorn and their poetry, while they built the A-Frame house Purdy would live in near Belleville, Ont., later becoming a writer’s retreat, and now this exuberant show, The Shape of Home, Songs in Search of Al Purdy.

When busy, creative artists are forced to stop performing because of a pandemic, it is a startling experience. It leaves them discombobulated, as it did Frank Cox-O’Connell, Beau Dixon, Hailey Gillis, Marni Jackson, Raha Javanfar and Andrew Penner. What to do? They communicated with each other and decided to put music to the poems of Al Purdy. Deciding which poems to include was a daunting task since Purdy wrote about 39 books of poems among others. He just never stopped writing and chronicling what he was seeing and experiencing.  The same can be said of the six creators of this show The Shape of Home, Songs in Search of Al Purdy, they just never stop creating.

Over the course of the show’s 90 minutes there were snippets of Al Purdy’s biography: his two marriages, his sons, (one ‘lost’ one quiet), his friendship with other poets (Milton Acorn, Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood), and his poems that celebrate herons, nature, being alive and trying to find what home is. The narrative also expressed the difficulty the group had of setting some poems to music, but when they did it was lively, raucous, sometimes mournful and joyful.

Instruments are hung on the wall for efficiency (guitars, a banjo etc.). A long table is the central point. The five performers often sit around the table, lean on it or even dance on it. They are all microphoned. The cast of five: Frank Cox-O’Connell, Beau Dixon, Hailey Gillis, Raha Javanfar and Andrew Penner are all multi-talented in that they all play several instruments and they sing. Frank Cox-O’Connell plays the drums and also directs. Hailey Gillis plays several kinds of guitars and smiles through all of it. Raha Javanfar plays a mean violin while stomping her foot as she stands on the table and she also plays guitar and some kind of horn instrument that looks like a trumpet, but probably is something more exotic. Andrew Penner plays guitar and drums among others. Beau Dixon—is there anything more joyful than watching the music pour out of Beau Dixon as he leans over playing the guitar and singing? He plays piano, guitar, tuba, banjo, harmonica and probably several more. Even the beer glasses they were drinking from are used as musical instruments.

But we are also there for the poems of Al Purdy and here things get a bit sticky. The cast is having such a great time jamming for each other, sometimes even facing in on a circle playing for each other, it seems as if the audience is an afterthought.  Such a talented cast.  I just wished they would realize that WE were in the room too and that perhaps they could tone down the raucousness and leave the tuba, the horn, the drums, the sax and many of the other instruments at the door so we could actually hear the words they are singing, clearly. Too often the words are drowned out because of all that musical creativity. How can we ‘find’ Al Purdy if we can’t hear all his words clearly?

Crows Theatre presents Festival Players

Plays until: Sept. 25, 2022.

Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

www.crowstheatre.com

{ 0 comments }

Heads up for Sept. 17-18, 2022.

Talk is Free Theatre, Barrie, Ont.

In their never-ending efforts to raise the artistic bar, Talk Is Free Theatre’s CEO, Arkady Spivak and Artistic Director, Michael Torontow, have created a free festival called GIANTS IN THE SKY! That took place last weekend and concludes this weekend.

All the acts perform their shows on roof tops. The audience watches either from the same space or from a location a little below.

For example: Last weekend I saw:

CONFESSIONS of MOTHERHOOD, conceived, written and performed by Jennifer Stewart about her efforts to have a child as her biological clock ticked and ticked. Stewart interspersed her storytelling with songs from the musical theatre canon and the juxtaposition was brilliant. For example I can never listen to Sondheim’s “Being Alive” in the same way after hearing Jennifer Stewart sing it in this context.

The writing is smart, funny and poignant. She sings like a dream.

Her last show is Sept. 17 at 1:15 pm at the Barrie Public Library, Downtown Branch.

BROADWAY BROADS, written and performed by Gabi Epstein, she belted the songs of Broadway divas, including Barbra Streisand of course and she was DIVA-ine…..

She sang from a rooftop of a building across from where the audience sat on a restaurant patio. Wonderful.

CORNER OF THE SKY, conceived by Justin Stadnyk. He sang from a fire escape at the side of a building. The songs were familiar and obscure from the Musical Theatre Repertoire, and they told a story of searching for meaning in life through song. Such a find singer.

This weekend (Sept. 17-18) has a new roster of artists performing from rooftops. It’s free. It’s brilliant. Don’t miss it.

www.tift.ca

{ 0 comments }

Revised review: 1939

by Lynn on September 16, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Studio Theater, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont. Plays until Oct. 29,

www.stratfordfest.ca

Written by Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan

Directed by Jani Lauzon

Set by Joanna Yu

Costumes by Asa Benally

Lighting by Louise Guinand

Composer and sound designer, Wayne Kelso

Cast: Richard Comeau

Sarah Dodd

Jacklyn Francis

Wahsonti:io Kirby

Kathleen MacLean

Mike Shara

Tara Sky

John Wamsley

A gently pointed play in which Indigenous voices give Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well an Indigenous interpretation. Terrific production.

The Story. It’s 1939 in an Anglican residential school in northern Ontario. A royal visit from George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth is anticipated and the students are being primed to present a production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. Their fussy teacher Miss Sian Ap Dafyyd will direct them. Father Callum Williams will play the King of France.

As the students prepare and struggle with the British accent (of course they have to do the British accent according to Miss Ap Dafyyd), they realize that the story is really an Indigenous story and is about them and their own trials and tribulations. Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well is an orphan and has inherited her late father’s knowledge of medicine and is carrying on his traditions and knowledge. The student playing Helena is certain she is Mohawk. The student playing Parolles is certain that this character (Spanish in Shakespeare) is actually Métis. The student playing Bertram is also Indigenous. The students are committed to their interpretation even though there is opposition to the idea from Miss Ap Dafyyd.

Then the press gets wind of the production and that it will be presented as ‘authentically Canadian,’ and matters go from there.

The Production. We have all been horrified at the discovery of the unmarked graves at various residential schools across the country and the heart wrenching stories of what traumatized survivors endured at the hands of the teachers and clergy at those schools.

In 1939 co-writers Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan have taken a subtler way of dealing with what these Indigenous students and their parents etc. endured without sacrificing the power of the story.  The message is clear and resounding without being hard-hitting.     

Joanna Yu has created an intriguing, compelling set. We are in a class room with chairs on their sides on the floor. A large blackboard with “1939” written on it in chalk, stands on the stage floor and leans up against the balcony of the theatre. That is one large blackboard. Along the sides of the space, on either side of the staircases going up to the balcony level, are other blackboards.

During 1939, students write in chalk on those side blackboard areas, sometimes pleading letters (“Mamma, did you get my letter?”), sometimes just a word like “home”. As soon as the message is written and the student leaves the space, either Miss Ap Dafyyd (Sarah Dodd) or Father Callum Williams (Mike Shara) comes along and rubs out the message with a brush. It’s not done with anger or frustration. It’s just a calmly matter of fact cleaning of a blackboard. The messages are of longing, yearning and homesickness. Some of the students have been there for several years and have not been home.

At the beginning of the play a student is asked who he is and he automatically gives his number and just as quickly corrects himself and gives his name. Giving his number so automatically is a subtle ‘gut-punch’ to those who hear it. Every effort was made to remove their Indigenous language, customs and traditions and make them blend in as “Canadian.”

Every effort was made to break up siblings, but somehow Joseph Summers (Richard Comeau) and his sister Beth (Tara Sky) were there in that school and they just never told anyone they were siblings and it never came out. It was also forbidden that the boys and girls should mingle except in the class room.

We learn that if an Indigenous woman marries a white man she loses her ‘Indian’ status and is removed from the reserve. We learn from one student (named Jean Delorme in the play)  his Indigenous mother married a white man who later deserted her when she was removed from the reserve.  She prevailed on her own and was determined that her children would have an education.

These revelations are revealed carefully over the course of 1939, as the students rehearse and learn about All’s Well That Ends Well. Here is a play that takes place in Europe but these students find resonance to their own lives in Northern Ontario.

Miss Ap Dafyyd feels strongly about Shakespeare and how to do the play correctly. She insists that the students use a British accent.  She is Welsh. She is asked if when she did Shakespeare with a British accent, I believe I heard Sarah Dodd as Miss Ap Dafyyd say with a bit of irritation, “Of course not.” The irony hangs in the air. Dodd plays Miss Ap Dafyyd with conviction, an attention to detail and more a harried concern about Shakespeare than what the students are secretly feeling. Ap Dafyyd is not a mean, cruel woman. She just seems out of place in that school and frustrated as the students are as well. 

Co-writers Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan carefully reveal the developing confidence, resilience and quiet resistance of the students through Shakespeare. Evelyne Rice (Wahsonti:io Kirby) is cast as Helena and is certain she is Mohawk. Helena knows about medicines, as Evelyne does because of her Indigeneity so the connection is appropriate. As Evelyn Rice, Wahsonti:io Kirby brings out all Evelyn’s curiosity, generosity and joy in playing a character so close to herself. Evelyne is easy going, smart and tenacious in all the right ways. She quietly let’s the local newspaper know that the production of All’s Well That Ends Well will be done as ‘authentically Canadian.’ Wonderful. The students find their authentic voice through their parts.

Joseph Summer (Richard Comeau) is cast as Bertram. Richard Comeau plays Joseph with gentle grace, but he longs to return home to the reserve and proudly retain his culture. Joseph’s sister  Beth Summers (Tara Sky) is the student you want in your class—certainly as played by Tara Sky–devoted to the subject. Beth loves Shakespeare. She knows the play. She is championed by Miss Ap Dafyyd. Perhaps because of her Beth wants to be a teacher.

Jean Delorme (John Wamsley) plays Parolles and is certain he’s Métis. Parolles gives Jean validation. Jean’s mother is Indigenous and his father is white. His mother lost her ‘Indian’ because she married a white man and was then deserted by her husband.   Father Callum Williams (Mike Shara) is an awkward, ungainly, nervous man in which his nervousness is manifest in flatulence. Not a good thing when your job necessitates you do a lot of public speaking, and playing the King of France in All’s Well That Ends Well doesn’t help matters.

1939 only touches on the war looming in Europe. The bigger issue for co-writers Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan is looking at the Indigenous students in this residential school and finding a positive way of illuminating their hope, resolve, tenacity and embrace of a Shakespeare play to speak for them and help them find their true voice. Jani Lauzon has directed the play with a quiet vision and a keen way of establishing relationships. The play has a lot to say that is important to hear. The message is quietly resounding and clear.

Comment. A few years ago, the Shaw Festival programmed a production of Shakespeare’s Henry V (you read that right) interpreted as if it was being performed by a group of soldiers, hunkered down in the trenches during WWI. During the intermission the audience was invited to fill in cards with their memories of war etc. and some would be read during the beginning of the next Act. At the end of the run there was an instillation of sorts in a field near the theatre. The army boots the cast wore as soldiers during Henry V were positioned around the field and in every boot was a card that had been completed during the run of the show, noting a person’s memory of war, etc. One card stayed with me. The handwriting was perfect and elegant, the message was devastating. The writer said that her father enlisted to fight for Canada during WWII, I believe she said her father thought it was his patriotic duty. When he came back safely from fighting for Canada her father learned that because he enlisted, he was stripped of his ‘Indian’ status. Devastating. The writer was Jani Lauzon.

The Stratford Festival presents:

Runs until: Oct. 29, 2022.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. (1 intermission)

www.stratfordfestival.ca

{ 0 comments }

Review: 1939

by Lynn on September 15, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Studio Theater, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont. Plays until Oct. 29,

www.stratfordfest.ca

Written by Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan

Directed by Jani Lauzon

Set by Joanna Yu

Costumes by Asa Benally

Lighting by Louise Guinand

Composer and sound designer, Wayne Kelso

Cast: Richard Comeau

Sarah Dodd

Jacklyn Francis

Wahsonti:io Kirby

Kathleen MacLean

Mike Shara

Tara Sky

John Wamsley

A gently pointed play in which Indigenous voices give Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well an Indigenous interpretation. Terrific production.

The Story. It’s 1939 in an Anglican residential school in northern Ontario. A royal visit from George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth is anticipated and the students are being primed to present a production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. Their fussy teacher Miss Sian Ap Dafyyd will direct them. Father Callum Williams will play the King of France.

As the students prepare and struggle with the British accent (of course they have to do the British accent according to Miss Ap Dafyyd), they realize that the story is really an Indigenous story and is about them and their own trials and tribulations. Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well is an orphan and has inherited her late father’s knowledge of medicine and is carrying on his traditions and knowledge. The student playing Helena is certain she is Mohawk. The student playing Parolles is certain that this character (Spanish in Shakespeare) is actually Métis. The student playing Bertram is also Indigenous. The students are committed to their interpretation even though there is opposition to the idea from Miss Ap Dafyyd.

Then the press gets wind of the production and that it will be presented as ‘authentically Canadian,’ and matters go from there.

The Production. We have all been horrified at the discovery of the unmarked graves at various residential schools across the country and the heart wrenching stories of what traumatized survivors endured at the hands of the teachers and clergy at those schools.

In 1939 co-writers Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan have taken a subtler way of dealing with what these Indigenous students and their parents etc. endured without sacrificing the power of the story.  The message is clear and resounding without being hard-hitting.     

Joanna Yu has created an intriguing, compelling set. We are in a class room with chairs on their sides on the floor. A large blackboard with “1939” written on it in chalk, stands on the stage floor and leans up against the balcony of the theatre. That is one large blackboard. Along the sides of the space, on either side of the staircases going up to the balcony level, are other blackboards.

During 1939, students write in chalk on those side blackboard areas, sometimes pleading letters (“Mamma, did you get my letter?”), sometimes just a word like “home”. As soon as the message is written and the student leaves the space, either Miss Ap Dafyyd (Sarah Dodd) or Father Callum Williams (Mike Shara) comes along and rubs out the message with a brush. It’s not done with anger or frustration. It’s just a calmly matter of fact cleaning of a blackboard. The messages are of longing, yearning and homesickness. Some of the students have been there for several years and have not been home.

At the beginning of the play a student is asked who he is and he automatically gives his number and just as quickly corrects himself and gives his name. Giving his number so automatically is a subtle ‘gut-punch’ to those who hear it. Every effort was made to remove their Indigenous language, customs and traditions and make them blend in as “Canadian.”

Every effort was made to break up siblings, but somehow Joseph Summers (Richard Comeau) and his sister Beth (Tara Sky) were there in that school and they just never told anyone they were siblings and it never came out. It was also forbidden that the boys and girls should mingle except in the class room.

We learn that if an Indigenous woman marries a white man she loses her ‘Indian’ status and is removed from the reserve. We learn from one student his Indigenous mother married a white man who later deserted her when she was removed from the reserve.  She prevailed on her own and was determined that her children would have an education.

These revelations are revealed carefully over the course of 1939, as the students rehearse and learn about All’s Well That Ends Well. Here is a play that takes place in Europe but these students find resonance to their own lives in Northern Ontario.

Miss Ap Dafyyd feels strongly about Shakespeare and how to do the play correctly. She insists that the students use a British accent.  She is Welsh. She is asked if when she did Shakespeare with a British accent, I believe I heard Sarah Dodd as Miss Ap Dafyyd say with a bit of irritation, “Of course not.” The irony hangs in the air. Dodd plays Miss Ap Dafyyd with conviction, an attention to detail and more a harried concern about Shakespeare than what the students are secretly feeling. Ap Dafyyd is not a mean, cruel woman. She just seems out of place in that school and frustrated as the students are as well.  

Co-writers Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan carefully reveal the developing confidence, resilience and quiet resistance of the students through Shakespeare. Evelyn Rice (Wahsonti:io Kirby) is cast as Helena and is certain she is Mohawk. Helena knows about medicines, as Evelyn does because of her Indigeneity so the connection is appropriate. As Evelyn Rice, Wahsonti:io Kirby brings out all Evelyn’s curiosity, generosity and joy in playing a character so close to herself. Evelyn is easy going, smart and tenacious in all the right ways. She quietly let’s the local newspaper know that the production of All’s Well That Ends Well will be done as ‘authentically Canadian.’ Wonderful. The students find their authentic voice through their parts.

Joseph Summers (Richard Comeau) plays Parolles and is certain he’s Métis. Parolles gives Joseph validation. Richard Comeau plays Joseph with gentle grace. Beth Summers (Tara Sky) is the student you want in your class—certainly as played by Tara Sky–devoted to the subject. Beth loves Shakespeare. She knows the play. She is championed by Miss Ap Dafyyd. Perhaps because of her Beth wants to be a teacher. Father Callum Williams (Mike Shara) is an awkward, ungainly, nervous man in which his nervousness is manifest in flatulence. Not a good thing when your job necessitates you do a lot of public speaking, and playing the King of France in All’s Well That Ends Well doesn’t help matters.

1939 only touches on the war looming in Europe. The bigger issue for co-writers Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan is looking at the Indigenous students in this residential school and finding a positive way of illuminating their hope, resolve, tenacity and embrace of a Shakespeare play to speak for them and help them find their true voice. Jani Lauzon has directed the play with a quiet vision and a keen way of establishing relationships. The play has a lot to say that is important to hear. The message is quietly resounding and clear.

Comment. A few years ago, the Shaw Festival programmed a production of Shakespeare’s Henry V (you read that right) interpreted as if it was being performed by a group of soldiers, hunkered down in the trenches during WWI. During the intermission the audience was invited to fill in cards with their memories of war etc. and some would be read during the beginning of the next Act. At the end of the run there was an instillation of sorts in a field near the theatre. The army boots the cast wore as soldiers during Henry V were positioned around the field and in every boot was a card that had been completed during the run of the show, noting a person’s memory of war, etc. One card stayed with me. The handwriting was perfect and elegant, the message was devastating. The writer said that her father enlisted to fight for Canada during WWII, I believe she said her father thought it was his patriotic duty. When he came back safely from fighting for Canada her father learned that because he enlisted, he was stripped of his ‘Indian’ status. Devastating. The writer was Jani Lauzon.

The Stratford Festival presents:

Runs until: Oct. 29, 2022.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. (1 intermission)

www.stratfordfestival.ca

{ 0 comments }