Live and in person at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Playing until the fall.

The Secret Garden

Based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Adapted for the stage by Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli

Directed by Jay Turvey

Music direction by Ryan deSouza

Set by Beyata Hackborn

Costumes by Judith Bowden

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Cast: David Adams

David Alan Anderson

Sharry Flett

Patty Jamieson

Gryphyn Karimloo

Tam Martin

Drew Plummer

Gabriella Sundar Singh

Jackqueline Thair

Two unhappy, spoiled children learn the value of generosity to others, respect and the value and healing power of a garden.

The Story.  Mary is an orphan who has come from India to England to live with her uncle Archibald Craven, in his large house on the desolate moors. Mary is a self-absorbed spoiled brat who orders the servants around as if they were underlings not worthy of respect. They treat her much better than she does them.

Her uncle is in deep mourning after the death of his wife and does not want to have anything to do with his niece or the house he shared with his wife. It brings back too many memories. He is often away. Mary is eventually befriended by Martha, a servant in the house and Dickon her brother who knows everything about nature, plants and flowers.

Mary hears about a secret garden on the grounds and is curious to find it. She also hears strange sounds in the house as if it’s a child crying. She is curious to find the cause of the sounds as well.

Mary bonding with Martha and Dickon begins her road to being a decent human being, who is able to love her uncle and others, learn about the world, and the value of any garden, either secret or not.

Production. Director Jay Turvey gives us a sense of the size of Archibald Craven’s (David Alan Anderson) large house when Mary (an excellent Gabriella Sundar Singh) comes to the house and is lead through various imagined doors finally to her room. But I found Beyata Hackborn’s suggested rather than literal set and certainly of the final garden, to be a disappointment. When Mary, her sickly cousin Colin (Gryphyn Karimloo) and  Dickon (a kindly Drew Plummer) decide to rehabilitate the secret garden, various hoops descended with some flowers around it. One would have expected something more lavish for all the build-up. This garden looked paltry. There is a sense of momentum with the cast seeming to be moving for most of this production.

The inclusion of traditional songs to set the tone and atmosphere is clever. I did think that the background song of Mary Quite Contrary could have stood more volume so we can hear the lyrics that set up the description of Mary at the time.

The Secret Garden is a lovely tale of how love and friendship are so powerful in a young person’s life to change them from being sullen and self-absorbed to being open-hearted and generous of spirit. When Mary and Colin have a purpose—to get Colin some fresh air and then get his help with the garden, then there is no stopping them. Gabriella Sunda Singh as Mary is confident, initially haughty and condescending, but then generous, curious, and eventually changed into a lively, creative young person. As Colin, Mary’s sickly cousin, Gryphyn Karimloo initially is irritable and demanding as the bed-ridden kid. But when he is discovered by Mary, he’s roused out of his lethargy and becomes a lively, healthy child.

The story has charm for kids young and old.

Shaw Festival presents:

Plays until Oct. 13, 2024

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (1 intermission)

The House That Will Not Stand

By Marcus Gardley

Directed by Philip Akin

Set and Costumes by Sean Mulcahy

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Original music and sound by Jacob Lin

Cast: Deborah Castrilli

Rais Clarke-Mendes

Nehassaiu deGannes

Cheryl Mullings

Ryanne Myers

Monica Parks

Sophia Walker

Note: Hmm this is interesting. The programme for the Shaw Festival production of The House That Will Not Stand says “A drama about the free women of colour in New Orleans, 1813.” Then on the cast page it says: “Faubourg Tremé, New Orleans, Louisiana. One Sunday (24 hours) in the summer of 1813.”

But in a copy of the text of the play it says “A drama about the free women of color in New Orleans, 1836.” And on the Characters page it says: Setting, Faubourg Tremé, New Orleans, Louisiana, twenty-four hours one summer in 1836.” There is also a reference in the play that the date it begins is 1836.

So, the playwright Marcus Gardley says the play takes place in 1836, but the Shaw Festival believes it’s 1813. Confusing.

Beartrice Albans (Monica Parks) is mourning the recent death of Lazare, her common-law husband. She has had three daughters by him even though he was formally married to another woman. Beartrice is a free woman of colour. Lazare was white. Beartrice was a placée, a woman, usually a quadroon who is part of the concubine system of plaçage (the system of concubibinge between free women of colour and white men who were in common-law marriages with them). The initial arrangement usually involved money. As part of the mourning process, Beartrice has declared that  her daughters will stay in the house she Beartrice assumes she will inherit, for seven years of mourning. The daughters balk at this because they want the same advantages of placée as their mother. This is their way out from under her over-bearing authority. These are young women with raging hormones. Beartrice has other plans.

The play is about race, racism, class, passion, reputation and shadism, in which a light skinned daughter has more hope of finding a rich white man to take care of her than a dark-skinned daughter.

The House That Will Not Stand was written by Marcus Gardley in 2014. It is a direct echo of The House of Bernarda Alba by Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca who wrote it in 1936, about a stern, commanding mother with five daughters, who is in morning for her philandering husband. She wants to keep the daughters in the house to mourn for several years. They want to go out and be with their boyfriends, or whom they think are their boyfriends. It ends badly.

Marcus Gardley’s writing is dazzling in many parts, full of colourful turns of phrases of the southern women of the time. Emotions are high and often take on a sense of being one note especially with Beartrice. In other parts of the play, Gardley’s efforts to be poetic are obvious and that tended to bog down the play.

While director Philip Akin keeps the pace and emotions driving forward, I could not help get the sense that the hectoring was relentless and without nuance. Monica Parks as Beartrice is driven with determination.  Sophie Walker as Makeda the servant desperate for her freedom, is the comic relief but imbues it with perception, a wonderful sense of the humour and the cadence of Makeda’s language. Terrific performance.

The Shaw Festival Presents:

Plays until Oct. 12, 2024.

Running time 2 hours and 25 minutes. (1 intermission)

The Orphan of Chao

Based on the Classical Chinese drama, The Great Revenge of the Zhao Orphan by Ji Junxiang

Directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster

Set and lighting by Jareth Li

Costumes by Christine Ting-Huan Urquhart

Original music and sound by Heidi Wai Yee Chan

Cast: Eponine Lee

Richard Lee

John Ng

Donna Soares

Jonathan Tan

Lindsay Wu

A stunning and stylish rendering of this ancient Chinese drama of court intrigue, inherited revenge and bracing theatricality. Beautifully directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster.

The Story. In very general terms it’s the story of the fall and rise of the Chao family in the state of Jin, in 6th century BCE. (from the program): “Chao Tun, a minister in the state of Jin is unjustly accused and destroyed by his rival Tu-An Ku who is determined to eliminate the entire Chao Clan. An orphan from the house of Chao survives, however, and grows up to wreak revenge.”

The Production. While the production is only one hour, the story is complex with multiple twists and turns of fate. That said, director Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster ensures the story is clearly told in a pace that gets more and more gripping.

Language here is so interesting. Because I live on this side of the world I use theatrical language that is Eurocentric to describe a completely different kind of theatre with gestures and conventions that come from Chinese opera. To say the story unfolds in a hugely theatrical way, just seems inadequate. The melding of Heidi Wai Yee Chan’s original music  played on what sound like original instruments and sound scape, mixed with the stylized movement and positioning of the body (almost dance) of Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster’s blocking, and the beautiful flow of the costumes of Christine Ting-Huan Urquhart, is to witness how no piece of the production is more important than another. It is all of a piece. Watching this production that pays such attention and respect to the intention and tradition of the theatre and opera from China is a revelation. You get a sense of what it must have been like in the 6th century—the vibrant coloured silks, what seems like a formal design for the various members of the ruling class and those not etc. The story is brought forward in a way to today with a modern black puff jacket, what look like parachute pants and boots, worn by a character of the Chao clan today.

Tu-An Ku is ruthless in his efforts to wipe out the Chao clan. Tu-An Ku is played by Jonathan Tan. He is stoical, watchful and his calmness makes him terrifying in his cold-blooded pursuit of killing anyone in his way. Eponine Lee plays Cheng Bo the member of the Chao clan that will get revenge for the murder of the family.

What a terrific experience it was to see The Orphan of Chao produced with such attention to the detail and history of the piece; to learn of its background; to get just a hint of this rich culture.   

The Shaw Festival presents:

Running until Oct. 5, 2024.

Running time: 60 minutes (no intermission)

One Man, Two Guvnors

Written by Richard Bean

Based on the Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni

With songs by Grant Olding

Directed by Chris Abraham

Set and Costumes by Julie Fox

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Matt Alfano

Fiona Byrne

Peter Fernandes

Patrick Galligan

Martin Happer

Andrew Lawrie

Lawrence Libor

Allan Louis

Allison McCaughey

Andre Morin

Jade Repeta

Tom Rooney

Kiera Sangster

Graeme Somerville

Frantically hilarious.

The Story. Francis Henshall is always hungry. He spends most of his time looking for a meal. To get the money for the food, he seems to have lucked into two jobs. Both ‘guvnors’ (or bosses) are shady folks and Francis doesn’t want to annoy either of them. The guvnors don’t know about the other. They think Francis only works for them. Added to this is the twin sister of a shady character posing as her diseased brother to connect with her true love. It’s complicated.

The Production. One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean is based on the commedia dell’arte play The Servant of Two Masters—a raucous type of Italian comedy beginning in the 16th century in Europe. The action is fast, physical, farcical and hilarious.

With One Man, Two Guvnors a Skiffle Band warms us up, sets the tone and gets us in the mood. The band plays homemade instruments for the most part; a washboard, a pole with strings stuck in a bucket and played like a double bass alongside a guitar etc. The band looks like a motley crew until one looks closely and sees Patrick Galligan, Martin Happer, Graeme Somerville, Lawrence Libor, Jade Repeta and Matt Alfano.

The play is set in Brighton in 1963. There are lots of places selling food. Francis (Peter Fernandes) can take his pick if only he had the money. Even when he gets hired by two guvnors, Francis is asking for food. Peter Fernandes as Francis plays the audience. He asks people if they have anything to eat. One woman offers him her sandwich. “What kind is it?” he asks. “Hummus” she replies. “Hummus!!!” he says in horror. “No wonder you wanna give it away.” Even Frances has his limits.

Director Chris Abraham is a master of comedy in his productions and he ramps it up to warp speed here, ably helped by Peter Fernandes as Frances. In a restaurant scene, both guvnors are there in their own private room, unbeknownst to each other, and so Frances has to flit from each room to the other bringing food, taking it away, bringing more food, plates etc. Peter Fernandes as Frances is brimming with comedic invention, timing and most important, seriousness. Fernandes plays the laughs seriously, as does the whole cast, which makes it all so hilarious.

Frances is sort of helped by Alfie (a comic genius in Matt Alfano) who is an aged, shaky, unsteady waiter, on his first day of work. Unsuspecting audience members are engaged; water is showered on characters; doors are slammed as characters appear from over there through other doors.

Laughter is the constant sound one hears in this buoyant, bracing, gut-sore production.

The Shaw Festival presents:

Plays until Oct. 13, 2024.

Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes. (1 intermission)


Live and in person at the Hamilton Fringe Festival, Hamilton, Ont. Playing until July 27, 2024.

Written and starring David M. Proctor

Directed by Marlon Burnley and David M. Proctor

Costumes by Karen Marie

Scenic and lighting design by Tatiana Magloire

Sound by Moise Laporte

A stirring, heartfelt story of redemption and forgiveness with some hands-on information about being a trucker.

Matt Cooke has had a difficult life. He’s thoughtful, tempered and has devoted his life for working for the betterment of others. In the various jobs he’s had, he reads the manuals of the companies and notes when management skips details that disadvantage the workers. His diligence has gotten rid of sloppy managers while he keeps his job.

He spent three semesters at university studying philosophy and religion. He wanted to be an actor but never seemed to go past the call-back. He got a job as a trucker where he spent most of his life. We learn that ‘the hammer lane’ is the left lane used for passing. That lane is forbidden to truckers. This never stops Matt who used it often, until perhaps he had a near fatal situation where he thought he might have caused the death of a minister. Matt told his mother that God was looking out for that minister. His mother said that God was looking out for Matt.

Matt has always lived outside of the rules, good intentions notwithstanding. Perhaps that’s why when we meet him, he’s seeing his third therapist. He tells his story and deflects parts of it that are too painful to deal with at the time.

We also meet Matt’s father Clarence, both played with detail and nuance by David M. Proctor, who also wrote this play. Clarence has always been hard on Matt, chiding him for taking such dangerous chances in life (going out in a thunderstorm to look at lightening, for example) and generally being a disappointment—never keeping in touch etc.  One wonders if Matt was absent because his father was so critical.

David M. Proctor’s writing  for Matt is vivid, smart and so erudite—this is a man who thinks before he speaks and is mindful of how important it is to represent his colleagues in arbitration. His writing for Clarence creates the beautiful expressions of an elderly Blackman, it’s almost a patois, with interesting turns of phrases. While David M. Proctor is Black and the characters are Black,  the story is universal—a son desperate for his father’s approval and always coming up short.

Grabbing the Hammer Lane—A trucker narrative presents a balanced unfolding of the story. David M. Proctor presents it with dignity, grace and compassion.

The Hamilton Fringe Presents:

Plays until July 25, 26, 27.

Running time: 60 minutes.


Live and in person at the Studio Theatre, Theatre Aquarius, as part of the Hamilton Fringe, running until July 28.

Written and performed by Izad Etemadi

Directed by Matt White

The audience advisory warning in the program should give you an idea of the serious and loopy mind we are dealing with in Izad Etemadi’s wonderful show: “Let Me Explain.”

“The play discusses racism, homophobia, terrorism, religion, and features a fare share of swearing. Viewers may experience therapeutic laughter and should not start the show with a full bladder. Recommended for age 13+ years. “

Izad (pronounced: eee-zad) Etemadi (pronounced: Eht- eh-mahdi with the accent on the last syllable), describes himself as a “queer Iranian-Canadian immigrant born in German (in a refugee camp). Much of his efforts growing up were spent in explaining how to pronounce his name to people; ‘where he REALLY came from;’ dealing with racist boorish teachers who thought he was a terrorist, and trying to fit in in a quiet way. He has given up trying to correct people who get his name wrong; who think it’s too hard to grasp; or perhaps who are fundamentally stupid and too lazy to try. This is regrettable. It’s his name. It’s important to get it right, and certainly when we learn what the name “Izad” means.

Izad Etemadi is an irreverent, funny, graceful comedian and performer in this case (he’s also a gifted actor), who takes his life experiences and finds the humour and truth in each moment. He knows how to read the room and engage immediately with those in the audience and include them in his observations. He is ably directed by Matt White who has a keen eye and a light touch in directing.

He was consumed with fear when he came out to his parents: what would these traditional folks think? Would his being gay be culturally unacceptable? Surprises abound in “Let Me Explain.” It’s a show filled with perceptions of attitudes towards immigrants; the difference between someone who says they are from Iran or from Persia; auditions, and proud parents who want what’s right for their kid.

For those who got his name wrong try and wrap your tongue around the Welsh town named:

Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch which sounds like so many sneezes, coughs and ‘horks’ to dislodge something deep in the throat. Izad Etemadi on the other hand is a name full of music. And the man who owns it is one talented comedic actor who has created in “Let Me Explain,” a gift of a show.

The Hamilton Fringe Festival and Green Light Arts Present:

Playing: July 21, 23, 26, 27, 28.

Running time: 55 minutes (no intermission)


Live and in person at the Huron Country Playhouse, Grand Bend, Ont. Playing until July 28, 2024.

Written by Norm Foster

Directed by David Nairn

Set by Beckie Morris

Costumes by Joanna Lee

Lighting by Jeff JohnstonCollins

Cast: Valerie Boyle

Elva Mai Hoover

Rob McClure

Norm Foster is an equal opportunity writer, with a huge heart. He first wrote a play called: Jonas and Barry in the Home about two vastly different men who meet in a senior’s home and become friends. He says he had such fun writing it he wrote another play, Doris and Ivy in the Home, this time focusing on two women. The plays are not carbon copies of the other.

Doris and Ivy in the Home is about two women, who couldn’t be more different, but manage to find themselves living in Paradise Village, a retirement home in Alberta. Doris Mooney is a boisterous, fun-loving retired prison guard from Alberta.  Ivy Hoffbauer is a disgraced former Olympic skier originally from Austria. These two women are as different as the day is long, but as always happens, life throws us a curve and we befriend people we never expected to get close to, just like Doris and Ivy.

Both women were married at one point. Doris stayed married to her husband but it seemed a loveless marriage until he died. Ivy married often and not successfully. Ivy is being pursued in the home by Arthur but she is not ready to accept his ardent advances, but they are friendly.

As with all his plays, Norm Foster sees the humour and humanity in the ordinary, easy-going situations in life. Doris, as played by Valerie Boyle is lively, irreverent, and sees humour in everything. Often the humour comes from Doris’s robust laugh at most things. As Ivy, Elva Mai Hoover is very proper almost stand-offish,  except when having to correct Doris when she keeps thinking Ivy is from Germany and not Austria. Ivy is still smarting at the humiliation she endured at the Olympics when she had an accident on the run. She has never lived it down. So, yes, she’s a bit stand-offish. Both women form a bond that plays off the other. They find a common ground and appreciation of the other. As Arthur, Rob McClure is always smiling and pleasant. He is smitten by Ivy and gently but steadily pursues her.

The whole production is directed with impish delight by David Nairn. He has meticulously realized the humour in the play. For example, there is an extended scene with Doris and Ivy standing side by side looking off into the distance, observing a man and a woman ‘going at it’ in the bushes. Both are residents of the Seniors Home. Both Valerie Boyle as Doris and Elva Mai Hoover as Ivy watch in amazement, horror, disbelief and hilarity at the two in the distance. Boyle and Hoover react in unison and with little touches that add to the humour of the scene, all under the watchful eye of director David Nairn.

Beckie Morris has designed an imposing set of the patio of the Seniors Home, along with comfortable furniture. I did find it odd that there were no plants out there. Just a quibble. The costumes by Joanne Lee are comfortable and stylish for the three seniors, with the garb for Doris is more sporty and flowing.

Doris and Ivy in the Home is a sweet play about two characters you would never imagine would be friends, and when they do, it’s as natural as anything.

Drayton Entertainment Presents:

Plays until July 28, 2024.

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


Live and in person at the Capitol Theatre, Port Hope, Ont. Playing until July 28, 2024.

Book by Terrance McNally

Music and lyrics by David Yazbeck

Directed and choreographed by Julie Tomaino

Music direction by Paul Moody.

Set by Scott Penner

Costumes by Joyce Padua

Lighting by Jareth Li

Sound by Emily Porter

Cast: Gaelan Beatty

Darren Burkett

Autumn-Joy Dames

August Fox

Donna Garner

Gavin Hope

Julia Juhas

Jacob MacInnis

Jamie McRoberts

Ian Simpson

Tahirih Vejdani

Alex Wierzbicki

Daniel Williston

Band: Paul Moody (Piano)

Tami Sorovaiski (Bass)

Matt Ray (Guitar)

David Schotzko (Percussion)

The Full Monty (the musical) is moving, lively and set in the late 1990s, a time that dwelt on what it was to be a “man” and a good father and the production is true to that notion. The cast is talented but I so wished the small band was not so over amplified that it drowned out the singers. Frustrating trying to make out the lyrics.

Background. This musical is based on the 1997 film that was set in Sheffield, England. For the purposes of the musical, the location was changed to Buffalo, New York

The Story. The musical is about six men who worked at the local steel mill but are now unemployed. It covers the trials and tribulations of being an unemployed man, trying to hold on to one’s self-respect; being a man, being a father and a good husband. Jerry is divorced and has joint custody of his son Nathan with his ex-wife Pam. But Jerry is behind in his child payments and might loose joint custody unless he gets the money quickly. Dave is Jerry’s best friend. He’s also unemployed, overweight and married to Georgie. Harold was in management and hides his unemployment from his hugely materialistic wife, Vickie.

When Jerry and Dave realize their working wives are eager to spend their hard earn money seeing a male strip show with the Chippendales, Jerry gets an idea. He decides to wrangle his friends and other men to do a strip show for money and go the ‘full monty’– fully naked. The money they will make will mean he can pay Pam his arears payments and still see Nathan regularly.

The Production and comment. Scott Penner has designed a simple set with a lazy-boy chair, some sports equipment at the back, two urinals on a wall stage left and pictures of buff men stage right.  David Yazbeck, the composer-lyricist of the musical sets the tone and attitude at the get-go with the song “Scrap.” It is both a lament and a song of anger sung by the unemployed men about their lot in life; how their self-confidence is at an all-time-low and how they feel like ‘scrap’ that has been left behind.

Director/Choreographer, Julie Tomaino has deliberately set the musical at the time the film came out—late 1990s. She was unapologetic in focusing on the idea of masculinity and what is a man of the times. In our present day, very aware, dare one say, ‘woke’ world when the word ‘masculinity’ is always preceded by the word ‘toxic’, it’s fascinating and even touching watching these men go through such mood swings about their definition of a man, and they are failing because they are not making money and supporting their families. They turn down work such as working in a fast-food joint or stocking shelves in a supermarket because it’s ‘women’s work’. They feel inadequate sexually because they can’t financially provide for their family. Julie Tomaino has directed her cast to bring out the masculinity as well as the uncertainty of what that might mean at the time. The results are true. As Jerry, Gaelan Beatty is energetic, ‘macho’, irreverent, insecure and a loving father trying his best. Daniel Williston as Dave has sunk into a food-eating depression who has not had sex with his wife because he feels inadequate. Dave is also overweight and feels his caring wife Georgie (a lovely performance by Jamie McRoberts) could not possibly find him attractive.  

David Yazbeck’s score runs the gamut from songs about self-worth (“Scrap”), a wife’s love of her husband (“Life with Harold), basketball (“Michael Jordan’s Ball”) so the would-be-strippers have some grace when disrobing, and a wonderful love song between two men (“You Walk with Me”). Yazbeck’s music is varied, melodic and evocative. The cast serve the music and ‘sell’ the songs with panache. As Jeanette, Donna Garner is sarcastic, laid-back, ironic and has seen it all. “Jeanette’s Showbiz Number” is just that—a litany of the woman’s experience dealing with difficult situations as she sings, “Things Could Be Better.” The show deals with the stereotypes of the times—men should be macho etc—and Black men are physically ideal. Gavin Hope plays Horse, a nickname that plays on a physical stereotype, and he sings “Big Black Man”—“There ain’t nothin in the world like a big Black Man.” Gavin Hope performs with enthusiasm and energy, but he really doesn’t have to work that hard to sell the song—the lyrics do it for him as do the assumptions and stereotype. Jacob MacInnis plays Malcolm, a man coming to grips with his sexuality, dealing with his suffocating, ill mother, and trying to cope with depression and feelings of inadequacy. But he finds his love with Ethan played well and with humour by Darren Burkett. Jacob MacInnis sings the achingly beautiful song “You Walk with Me” and it’s a poem of stillness, nuance and delicacy. Jacob MacInnis is one gifted actor.

Right from the beginning the covered band is so amplified that it’s drowning out the singers, and these folks singing the song are strong singers. I spend too much time thinking that if the volume on the band was lowered by a third, and lowered just a bit on the cast, one could actually hear the music and the lyrics clearly, and one’s ears wouldn’t hurt. Hmmmmm, all that time and money spent on building an original set, and good costumes (thanks Joyce Padua), and smart lighting (ditto Jareth Li), and what the audience has to listen to—the VOLUME—gets short shrift, if at all. Odd, that.

That aside, The Full Monty is an uplifting musical about men trying to cope in hard times; the women who love them; and the resilience of them all to find a way through. In this case it just happens to be stripping—going ‘the full monty.’

The Capitol Theatre Presents:

Plays until July 28 2024.

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


Live and in person at Here for Now Theatre, Stratford Perth Museum, Stratford Ont. Playing until Aug. 3, 2024

Written by Steve Ross

Directed by Jan Alexandra Smith

Set by Darren Burkett

Costumes by Monique Lund

Cast: Geoffrey Pounsett

Ben Skipper

Jane Spidell

Deeply personal, moving, funny, revelatory and beautifully done.

12 Dinners is described as “autobiographical.” So this play is part of actor-playwright Steve Ross’s story.

Over twelve-monthly dinners we see how Steve (Ben Skipper) interacts with his parents, Jim (Geoffrey Pounsett) and Bettye (Jane Spidell), they with him, and they with one another. Steve visits from the city. The parents live in the country. Jim is quiet and accommodating. He greets Steve at the door with handshake and a “how are you, old man?” No hug here, perhaps there is a reluctance to show emotion. Steve is pleasant, smiling and upbeat. Then Bettye enters and the mood seems to tense. Bettye is dour. She is critical of Steve for a variety of reasons. She flings quips, stinging comments and complaints almost in passing. He takes it with a smile, no sass and no backtalk, because one never knows what will send Bettye off again.

Over the course of the twelve dinners, we get the clear sense of what it must have been like in that marriage, in that family and for Steve. Bettye never met a positive statement she could not twist out of proportion so that she felt slighted. Either Jim was too silent and buried in his newspaper, ignoring her or Steve said something that offended or disappointed her. He was not the success she envisioned. We learn of her depression and reluctance to get proper help. And with every dinner Bettye gets more brittle, sullen and wounded; the facial expressions of hurt are chiseled on her face.  

Theatre is ‘life lived on purpose.’ This is what it was like in that family over the years, shown to us over 12 dinners. It’s no wonder Steve only went to dinner there once a month; more would be debilitating. While watching the production, one wonders how much more the audience can take of this unfortunate woman’s negativity.

And then, just at the perfect point, playwright Steve Ross has his character Steve give ‘the speech.’ It’s ‘the speech’ the audience needs, that will have Steve explode (one imagines for the first time) with the truth about growing up lonely in that house and why; the truth about Bettye’s depression and his. The speech is like rain clearing away a debilitating, oppressive heat. It gives context to the family dynamic and now understanding about Bettye’s plight in life. After that, we look at her differently, this time with compassion and understanding. We look at them all in a different light.

Jan Alexandra Smith has directed a wonderful, detailed and subtly complex production. Darren Burkett has designed a set of a formal dining room table and credenza that holds the various dishes and cutlery for all those dinners. This family ‘dines’ (no other word for it) at the dining room table. In almost choreographed movement, Jan Alexandra Smith has each family member either putting the padding down first, then the formal table cloth and place mats over that, or putting down dishes with napkins, knives and forks. Dishes are taken off as well in a set, choreographed order. Eating and drinking is mimed.

The relationships of the characters are also beautifully established under the guiding vision of Jan Alexandra Smith.  Because Bettye is so highly strung, father and son are watchful of her to ensure they are careful not to offend her. As Jim, Geoffrey Pounsett keeps his head down, his mouth shut and his reactions in control. Jim is quick to praise the food. He does not respond to a barb. Ben Skipper plays Steve and looks like Steve Ross. Skipper even assumes Steve Ross’ speaking cadences. But Ben Skipper is not giving an impersonation of Steve Ross, he is giving a performance of a character named Steve. As Steve, Ben Skipper is charming, eager to please, caring, funny, observant and often resigned. For all of Steve’s good nature, Ben Skipper lets loose with ‘the speech’ that is forceful, angry, urgent and yet loving. As Bettye, Jane Spidell is astonishing. There is not one shred of sentiment in this fierce, compelling performance. Spidell is not afraid to be unliked and ‘ugly’ as Bettye and she does it with tight body language, varying grimaces and perfectly placed zingers.  Bettye carries a lot of baggage and resentment around with her. Both Bettye and Steve have depression. Both handle it in a different way.

 A quibble; at the beginning of the play the music of the Beach Boys continued to play ‘under’ Steve’s first speech for several seconds. I hope this was just a glitch on opening night, but that music has to be cut off when Steve starts to speak. We need to hear every word without underscoring.

Steve Ross has written a play about a troubled family tangled up in the mother’s depression and unhappiness. Perhaps because of the generational stigma of mental illness, Bettye did not know how to help herself or why she should.  Steve has inherited depression too only he knew how to get help and take care of himself. Steve Ross illuminates the generational divide between the way the Mother and the son sought help. And of course, 12 Dinners is about forgiveness and forcefully reaching out in love and compassion.    

Here for Now Theatre presents:

Plays until Aug. 3, 2024.

Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission)


Heads Up for July 15-21

July 17-21



Concept by
Karen Kaeja

Developed by
Karen and Allen Kaeja

​Running Time

Porch View Dances (PVD): ‘Real People Dancing In Real Spaces’, conceived in 2012 by Karen Kaeja, is an annual award-winning community dance event that engages everyday people as creators, storytellers, and performers – many of whom have never danced before. Audience members travel through the neighbourhood to see new dance works created with professional choreographers performed by local residents on the front porches and lawns of their homes. The performance culminates in a Flock Landing at the local park, where audience members of all ages and mobility levels are invited to participate in the dance. 

PVD celebrates the stories of people in a neighbourhood, taking dance out of the theatre and into our daily lives and sending the powerful message that art is for everyone.

​For more information on bringing a site-specific dance to your community, please contact

July 15-27, 2024

12 Dinners

By Steve Ross

An autobiographical play about family, dinners, mental health and love.

At Here for Now Theatre,

Stratford, Ont.


I’m posting this here because I think the issue is important. More to follow.

Email from Guy Sprung:

“I am truly sorry and deeply ashamed as an Equity member that Guy Sprung has had to go through this.”

Diana Leblanc

Winner 2015 Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement


You may be aware that I was forced to take legal action against my own association, Canadian Actor’s Equity Association, after it took away my right to work in theatre based on allegations that in an astonishing and unequivocal Québec Superior Court judgement were found to be “unjustifiable”. 

Equity, by its own actions and inactions, gave me no choice but to initiate the court proceedings. 

At its meeting, on June 25th, National Council received multiple requests urging it to accept its responsibilities and compensate me for my legal expenses. Requests that had been signed by a range of members of our association, including members of the Order of Canada, winners of the Governors General’s Award for Performing Arts, previous National Council Executive members, a winner of the Academy of Canadian Cinema Television’s Earle Grey Award for lifetime achievement and multiple Dora Award winners.  National Council did not even bother to discuss the formal requests.  

So, CAEA National Council has forced me to go back to court to seek damages and compensation. 

I am asking for financial assistance to help me cover past and present legal costs. To this end I have started a Go Fund Me campaign at:

More background on the allegations and court proceedings are detailed on the Go Fund Me site. 

The March 15, 2024 QC Superior Court judgment is now a matter of public record and can be read in its entirety at:

If I had allowed the Equity judgement against me to go unchallenged, it would have had a far-reaching impact on director/playwright/actor relationships in theatres across Canada. If you care about Justice, if you care about respect for the work in a respectful working atmosphere in theatre rehearsals across our country, I urge you to visit the Québec Superior Court site.

Please circulate this email to as many of your own personal associates, friends and colleagues that might take an interest in helping me ensure CAEA respects its responsibilities to its Constitution and to all of its members with “equity.” 

With immense gratitude,  

Guy Sprung

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good (men) to do nothing,” 


Live and in person as part of the Toronto Fringe, at the Native Earth AKI Studio, Daniels Spectrum, Toronto, Ont. Until July 14.

Written and directed by Justin Hay

Cast: Maria Syrgiannis

Dan Wilmott

Naima Sundiata

Ben Chinapen

Hidetaka Ishii

Simon Sarnowski

Three friends—Nathan, Simon and Sarah–decide to move from the noise and pollution of Toronto, to the fresh air and big sky of Saskatchewan, to begin their big adventure—to live and love polygamously and start a family. Their friend Jamie stayed behind and they miss Jamie something fierce. Simon, who has a knack of meeting and collecting new friends and forgetting everything else, meets an older couple, Will and Nancy, at the store and invites them home.

Will and Nancy appear to be straight-laced: couples should be married before children are born; being gay is a life-style choice etc. Although Will and Nancy are familiar with ‘edibles.’ Needless to say Nathan, Simon and Ella do some fancy maneuvering to hide their polygamous arrangement.

Justin Hay’s writing is fresh and the arrangement of the friends is handled with style and humour. I do find it odd that Will and Nancy would be enlightened about the joys of edibles but be in the dark about being gay being a life-style choice and not a biological assignment.

Plays: July 13 at 9:30 pm and July 14 at 5:30 pm


Live and in person at the Al Green Theatre, Part of the Toronto Fringe Festival until July 13, 2024

An adaptation of Toba Tek Singh by Saadat Hasan Manto

Co-directed by Deval Soni and Ethan Persyko

Light and projections by Abbey Kruse

Props and costumes by Puja Karira

Sound by Kabir Agarwal, Abhishek Sharma and Prakhar Sachdev

Cast: Sarabjeet Arora

Harsh Prajapati

Rahul Chawla

Shivam Sapra

Manik Arora

Parth Soni

Chhavi Disawar

Lakshita Khatter

Taranjot Bumrah

Surinder Arora

Divyanshu Mani Hans

Moving, vital, full of emotion and integrity.

I was invited to review Toba Tek Singh produced by Dramatic Jukebox for the Toronto Fringe. I was told it was about the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. I thought that was so brave of any company to try and dramatize that story and definitely wanted to see it.  I went on July 4th, the opening day.

It was set in an insane asylum with many and various characters in it. When they talked either to themselves or others, they spoke in a language I didn’t understand. I prevailed. There were surtitles projected on the curtain at the back of the stage that I think offered commentary (I saw the date 1947), but I couldn’t read anything because either the font was too small and the projections were fuzzy or the font was larger but still fuzzy. Also, the projection was up for about six seconds when it would have been better to project them for 15-20 seconds. This went on for about 48 minutes of the 60 minutes of the show. Then each actor (there are 11 of them) came forward and gave a monologue in English about the immigrant experience, feeling lost and without a home, trying to find a home in which to belong.

I wrote to the person who invited me saying I was sorry I couldn’t review the show because I didn’t understand the language for most of it and could not read the surtitles. I still thought it was a worthy subject.

The woman wrote back to apologize. It was the first time the company had used surtitles. The company listened to the comments including mine and worked hard to fix the surtitles problem. They now used a larger font that was in sharper focus. They also added more surtitles for more context. The woman explained that they performed the show mainly in Hindi and Punjabi because they could not attain the same emotion in English. Fair enough. I bought a ticket to see the show again. The difference in performances was astonishing.

When I saw the show again: A clear projection indicated 15th August, 1947 in a bold, large font followed by: “The British bid farewell to India after their 200-year-rule. India is split into two separate entities, India and Pakistan. All Hindus and Sikhs had to go to India and the Muslims to Pakistan…”

Characters wandered on stage, looking dazed and confused, carrying their worldly possessions in a cardboard box or a suitcase if they were lucky. A woman in a sari entered, afraid of any man who came near her. Another person cleared and cleaned the floor as his portion of space. These were also in a way the people of the asylum.  Even those people were to be separated. Some people were sent hundreds of miles away from their homes to a new home where they did not speak the language.

A man with a large stick seemed to be one of the guards of the asylum. He wore a white robe on which were large words in red paint?/blood? At the bottom of his robe was the word “Help” in red. That was dramatic. Sometimes criminals were put in the asylum along with those who were mentally ill. It was not a safe space.

The  main languages were still Hindi and Punjabi, but there were more surtitles with much more context that illuminated the confusion these people felt at being wrenched from their homes to live in a strange place; if they lived in Lahore they wondered where that now was? “Hindustan or Pakistan?” One man didn’t know where he was so he decided to live in a tree—at the top of a ladder with an ornate rope configuration at the top. One was never in doubt of the emotional cost of this division because the acting was so vivid.

In the end Sarabjeet Arora, who played an man who was considered crazy but often spoke wisdom about the situation, came forward and spoke in English. He spoke of his parents who were very young when they experienced partition. He talked of feeling lost, displace and without a sense of home. Hs speech was heart-felt, eloquent and moving.

Toba Tek Singh is a stunning piece of theatre about a terrible time in history and how it affected so many people with just a line drawn through a country, displacing hundreds of thousands. I so appreciated the company’s efforts to make this story clear for their audiences by improving the fonts, sharpness of focus and the increase in the commentary. I also respected their need to be true to their story and convictions by telling it mainly in Hindi and Punjabi. It was very clear. Bravo. I’m glad I saw it again.

Dramatic Jukebox presents for the Toronto Fringe.

Runs until July 13, 2024

Running time 60 minutes.