Live and in person at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Distillery District, Toronto, Ont. Co-produced by Native Earth Performing Arts and Soulpepper Theatre Company.  Playing until July 24, 2022.

www.soulpepper.ca

NOTE: I received the following e-mail ( Sunday, July 3) from Native Earth Performing Arts and Soulpepper who are producing Kamloopa, written and directed by Kim Senklip Harvey, which I saw July 2: 

 

 

“THANK YOU FOR COMING TO SEE KAMLOOPA!

Dear Lynn,

Thank you for coming out to the theatre to see Kamloopa by Kim Senklip Harvey, co-produced with Native Earth Performing Arts! We sincerely hope you enjoyed the show – and if so, would appreciate your help in spreading the word in getting people back out to live theatre! Join the conversation on social media using #spKamloopa or simply tell your friends what you thought of the show!

We are especially grateful to you for coming to support live theatre and we hope to see you again soon!

— Everyone at Native Earth & Soulpepper”

Hmmmmmm. Troubling and confusing. Those few of us who still write reviews were in fact asked not to write reviews of Kamloopa by writer/director Kim Senklip Harvey, via the press offices of both Native Earth Performing Arts and Soulpepper Theatre company. Press tickets would not be given, as is the norm, in exchange for a review.

As per this e-mail from both Native Earth Performing Arts and Soulpepper press offices:

“Regarding reviewing the show, we are not inviting critics to review Kamloopa. In this way, we are not giving typical media accreditation for review at the opening but would still love to invite you to come and engage with the work as an audience member on any other performance date. There is no requirement, expectation, or traditional ask for a review with this invitation.

We will be focusing instead on uplifting and highlighting the audience’s experiences and responses – particularly that of the Indigenous audience to the show.”

Hmmmmm. “…focusing on uplifting and highlighting the audience’s experience and responses….” But isn’t that what a review is, at its simplest? And isn’t a theatre critic really an ‘embedded member of an audience’ already? Seems like a lot of mis-information of what a review actually is, who it’s for and who writes it.

And as we gladly embrace a world of inclusion, unity and diversity, I must confess that …”focusing instead on uplifting and highlighting the audience’s experiences and responses—particularly that of the Indigenous audience to the show” seems counter to “inclusion, unity and diversity. It seems like preferring one audience at the expense of the other. Now that can’t be right. Why aren’t both audiences embraced equally? Who speaks for ‘the other audience’?

I think of the elegant program note (for Kamloopa) of Native Earth’s Artistic Director, Keith Barker who wrote: “Indigenous stories are vital to the cultural narrative of this country, and Native Earth remains dedicated to sharing the Indigenous experience through live performance. Like the Two Row Wampum Treaty, we believe the only way to move forward in a good way, is side by side, together. These relationships allow us to better understand each other in meaningful ways….”

I felt that the fairest, most equitable way of expressing my opinion, ‘spreading the word’ if you will, was to buy a ticket (not to opening night) and write my review of what I experienced at Kamloopa. Here’s the review:

Written and directed by Kim Senklip Harvey

Set by Daniela Masellis

Costumes by Samantha McCue

Sound and composition by Alaska B

Lighting, video and projection design by potatoCakes_digital

Choreography and movement director, Aria Evans

Cast: Yolanda Bonnell

Samantha Brown

Kaitlyn Yott

A raucous, free-wheeling, wild story of sisterly love, of buying into the clichés held by others and being tweaked by a Trickster to embracing ones’ identity.

The Story. Kilawna and Mikaya are sisters living together in an apartment. They experience the usual sibling frustrations. Kilawna is the older sister, more serious, seems to be the neater of the two and always picks up after Mikaya. She works in an office. Mikaya is irreverent, is a student but often misses class, much to the consternation of Kilawna. Both sisters lament insensitive comments they receive as Indigenous women: Kilawna from her white supervisor and Mikaya from her ‘liberal’ course instructor of Indigenous studies. (While Kamloopa was published in 2018 and won the Governor General’s Award in 2020, I wonder when playwright Kim Senklip Harvey has set the play since the comments from Kilawna’s supervisor would not be tolerated within the last three years, and a white liberal would not be accepted as an instructor for an Indigenous course within the same time period.).

The sisters decide to have an evening out where they meet the mysterious ‘Indian Friend # 1 (also known as ‘the Trickster) who appears in their apartment the next day. The Indian Friend #1 tells the sisters that she is going to instruct them in how to be a proud Indigenous Woman. This involves a road trip (with Kilawna driving) to Kamloopa, the name of the largest powwow in Western Canada just outside Kamloops, B.C.—a celebration of dance, song and Indigenous ceremonies of joy.

The Production. The play opens with Mikaya (Kaitlyn Yott) sleeping on the couch. The kitchen is at the back (set by Daniela Masellis). Stuff is strewn on the floor. Kilawna (Samantha Brown) enters with a laundry basket, sees her sister sleeping on the couch, sighs, and begins to pick up stuff on the floor to tidy. This seems to be a regular routine. Mikaya wakes suddenly from what doesn’t seem to be a restful sleep. Over the course of the play she will also have breathing issues that are more symbolically present than indicate health issues. The breathing issues can be seen as Mikaya being at odds with her Indigeneity until she fully embraces it, and she breathes easier.

As Kilawna, Samantha Brown is serious, resigned at having to pick up after her sister and perhaps burdened by what is happening at work. Kaitlyn Yott plays Mikaya with a lively prickliness as the younger sister. There is a real sense of impatience between the interplay of the sisters as Kilawna tries to rouse her sister to go to class and be more responsible and Mikaya balking at her sister’s nagging.

The sisters seem united in their concern of what white people think of them as Indigenous women. They feel the pressure of what others think of them and all Indigenous people, no matter what the stereotype. Mikaya is the one to suggest a night out. The next morning they discover Indian Friend #1 (The Trickster), a fearless, irreverent Yolanda Bonnell, who takes charge and tells the sisters she is going to teach them how to be true Indians. (Of course, the Trickster is exactly that—a spirit that fools people into believing one thing that might not be true). Most of the robust, raw humour is supplied by an animated Yolanda Bonnell. But this Trickster is a true Indian Friend #1 and also speaks truths to the sisters. She tells them they are going on a road trip (actually about one day’s travel with a camping stop at night) to “Kamloopa, to learn about their Indigenous culture.  Indian Friend # 1 tells the sisters late in Act II they have to stop tearing each other apart and that seems to be the catalyst that sets them on the road to healing, finding their Indigenous roots and embracing the symbolic animals and ancestors on the way. 

Kudos to potatoCakes_digital for the video and projection design. Images of a coyote (Senklip) a grizzly bear and a raven are projected on screens at the back of the set as the three women drive through the beautiful land on the road to Kamloops. Indian Friend # 1 refers to Kilawna as “Grizzly Bear and that image becomes part of Kilawna’s identity as she goes deeper into her cultural discovery.” Mikaya is the coyote with similar melding of images. Yolanda Bonnell as Indian Friend #1 holds out her arms and gracefully turns her body embracing the image of the raven who oversees everything.

Kim Senklip Harvey’s play is rich in Indigenous ancestral images, reference to sacred animals, lines occasionally given in ǹsǝⅼxciǹ are not translated in the play but are translated in the text of the play, which I bought and read before-hand. (The text also has essays about protocols and intention which I didn’t read. The play should make the playwright’s intentions clear to all viewers and their various life experiences.)

The play is dense with irreverent jokes, songs, frequent moments of animosity to settlers and the sisters’ perceived assumption that the settlers are constantly trying to keep them down all the time. Fortunately, Indian Friend # 1 acts as the voice that one hopes takes both sisters away from that constant blaming of others for their insecurity and forward to accept their Indigeneity with pride. Still at 2 hours and 20 minutes with an intermission, Kamloopa could do with cutting to tighten the story.

Comment. The coyote (senklip) is sacred to Indigenous culture (as are all animals) and Kim Senklip Harvey got the idea for the play when she was driving on her traditional Syilx territories and accidentally hit a coyote. The play evolved from there as a celebration of Indigenous women. Kim Senklip Harvey also writes in her programme note: “Crashing into my animal (the coyote) was a calling from the other worlds to help keep Indigenous women alive and that’s what Kamloopa: An Indigenous Matriarch Story is. It is my humble offer to ignite the power that lives within Indigenous women and peoples. This play…is my love letter to Indigenous women who deserve spaces and stories that honour the multidimensional nature of our very existence…”

Mention must also be made of those on whose sturdy shoulders Kim Senklip Harvey and emerging playwrights are standing—the Indigenous playwrights and artists who have been giving space and voice to Indigenous women and people for at least 40 years (through Native Earth, Soulpepper and other companies): Tomson Highway, Marie Clements, Drew Hayden Taylor, Monique Mojica, Jani Lauzon, Yvette Nolan, Cheri Maracle, Columpa C. Bobb, Daniel David Moses, Tracey Nepinak and Tara Beagan, to name only a few.

The clear focus of this production of Kamloopa is that it is intended for Indigenous women without explanation to other audiences. The group of Indigenous women at my performance were given a shout-out and considered “Honoured Guests” by the cast.  But as with all theatre that is very specific, universal aspects are evident as we reflect our own cultures and life experiences by watching the play. I note there are other cultures that seem to perceive themselves as constant victims of oppression by others as Kilawna and Mikaya lament their lot in life to the oppression of settlers, until Indian Friend # 1 tells them to embrace their Indigeneity.  

Considering that the play is meant for an Indigenous audience I wonder why the play is performed in the rigid confines of a theatre, looking only forward in ‘rigid’ seats, instead of in an inclusive, embracing, fluid circle where, according to my readings and teachings by elders, Indigenous storytelling is told.  

Co-produced by Native Earth Performing Arts and Soulpepper Theatre Company:

Playing until: July 24, 2022.

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

www.soulpepper.ca

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Majdi Bou-Matar

MT SPACE in Kitchener, Ontario sent this heartbreaking message on Facebook regarding the unexpected passing of Majdi Bou-Matar, a visionary theatre creator, maker, director, leader and theatre ‘wunderkind’.

“It saddens us deeply to share that our beloved friend, colleague, and founder of MT Space, Majdi Bou-Matar, passed away unexpectedly on Tuesday (June 18, 2022) evening. We are devastated by this news and will be taking time and space to move through this grieving process together at MT Space.

Majdi touched a lot of lives and was truly a trailblazer in our industry—nationally and internationally…We will do everything we can to continue his legacy as he gave us a glimpse into what an inclusive future could look like.

There is much more to say about Majdi, his enormous contribution to our communities, and what we have all lost. We will issue a formal tribute when the shock of his passing allows.”

I was introduced to Majdi Bou-Matar’s wonderful work in April 2011, when Andy McKim, then the Artistic Director of Theatre Passe Muraille, programmed a production of The Last 15 Seconds from MT Space in Kitchener, in the Backspace of TPM. Andy has a keen sense of seeing talent in people. He recognized in so many people a strong, compelling voice to tell a different story, that needed to be told. Because of Andy those of us hungry to hear all sorts of different theatre stories were introduced to Anusree Roy with her stories of life in India and Majdi Bou-Matar with stories from his beloved Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East, just to name two of many.

Seeing The Last 15 Seconds was like an explosion of creativity.  At the centre of that creativity was Madji Bou-Matar. Here is part of my Slotkinletter review of that production from April 8, 2011


“THE LAST 15 SECONDS

by LYNN on APRIL 8, 2011

Trevor Copp, Pam Patel, Anne-Marie Donovan

At Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace. Co-created by Majdi Bou-Matar, Trevor Copp, Anne-Marie Donovan, Nada Homsi, Gary Kirkham, Pam Patel and Alan K. Sapp. Directed by Majdi Bou-Matar. Set by Sheree Tams and William Chesney. Costumes by Sheree Tams. Lighting by Jennifer Jimenez. Music by Nick Storring. Starring: Trevor Copp, Anne-Marie Donovan, Nada Homsi, Pam Patel and Alan K. Sapp.

Produced by The MT Space (Kitchener-Waterloo) in association with Theatre Passe Muraille.

On November 9, 2005 Rawad Jassem Mohammed Abed walked into a wedding celebration in a hotel in Amman, Jordan and detonated the explosives around his waist. Among the people he killed besides himself, were the celebrated Syrian film director Mustapha Akkad and his daughter Rima, the bride at this celebration.

The Last 15 Seconds details who these people were; their histories; their hopes, dreams and frustrations. It also creates an imagined conversation after the fact, between Mustapha Akkad and Rawad Abed.

Mustapha always wanted to be a film director when growing up in Syria. His father wanted him to be a doctor. But he supported his son’s wish and gave him $200 when Mustapha left for America to study film and begin his career. To fund his passion for making films celebrating his people and their history, Mustapha produced the Halloween series of horror-slasher movies.

Rawad Abed grew up in a family of women in Iraq. On the day he was born Rawad’s father was killed in one of the four wars the boy would experience by the time he was 15. His childhood friends died in various killings, his family’s neighbours perished too. Hate for occupying forces and frustration at the situation festered in Rawad, until he decided to do what he could to lash out; he and his bride would be suicide bombers and die together in that Jordanian hotel. Only his wife couldn’t bring herself to do it at the last minute.

The Last 15 Seconds is a harrowing, gut-wrenching story to be sure, but it is told with such artful elegance and vivid imagination by MT Space Theatre, that it is both compelling and incredibly moving. Using movement, dance, video projections, vocals, acting, and text, it shows us so many aspects of these stories and none of them is a black and white condemnation.

In one conversation between Mustapha and Rawad, Mustapha directs Rawad as if in a film, to explain his position as a martyr. Time and time again, Mustapha urges Rawad to be truthful, passionate and clear.

In another scene, Rawad explains his actions because he wanted to be a hero like Salahadeen, one of the most celebrated figures in Muslim history. Mustapha challenges him by saying that his suicide bombing proved nothing and helped nobody. And that Mustapha’s next film, had he lived, would be a celebration of Salahadeen’s life.

Trevor Copp as Rawad and Alan K. Sapp as Mustafa are very fine. The cast of five as a whole is terrific.

The images created by director Majdi Bou-Matar and his company are breathtaking. Rawad, first starring at Mustapha sitting at a table, and then ripping at his clothes to detonate the explosives, segues into a projection on the back wall of the wedding banquet with many tables of celebrants, that then dissolves into chaos, noise and falling bodies.

Piles of clothes that are dropped on the floor represent either bodies of the dead or their clothes. Women frantically pick through the piles looking for their loved ones often results in the terrible discovery. Very moving.

Mustapha’s mother, stroking his face and chest, as she says good-by to him as he goes to American, wishing him to make a difference by thinking with his head and heart, is delicate and so effective. Image after image takes a terrible thing, creates art, and makes us look and understand.

The women play members of both Rawad’s and Mustapha’s family’s with a simple change of costume. In the end both family’s are shattered by the suicide bombing and we grieve for all of them without hesitation.

This is theatre at its heart-squeezing, compelling best and guiding the vivid creation is Majdi Bou-Matar. Theatre Passe Muraille under Andy McKim, in its quiet, tenacious way is producing this important kind of theatre as a matter of course.”

I looked out for Majdi’s work after that. Here are some of the reviews of the productions I was lucky to see:

Adrenaline

(SummerWorks, Aug. 2018 at the Theatre Centre).

Written and performed by Ahmad Meree—(another brilliant discovery, all because of Majdi Bou-Matar)

Directed by Majdi Bou-Matar

Set by Majdi Bou-Matar

Sound by Colin Labadie

Original music by Colin Labadie.

Done in Arabic with English surtitles.

Jaber is a young Syrian man spending his first New Year’s Eve in Canada. He’s cold.  He thinks back to the previous year’s New Year’s in Syria where he was with his family, mindful of the possibility of bombs dropping or soldiers invading their home at any moment.

In the safety of Canada he sits down to a meal of pizza and coke and talks to his parents and his young brother. They are cleverly depicted: his mother is a stand-up fan with a large scarf around the curve of the fan and wrapped around the neck of the fan. His father is a jacket neatly hanging on a coat tree and his brother is a round gas tank with a red hockey sweater over it.

Jaber talks to his parents and brother in turn with tenderness, humour and a loving wistfulness. The firecrackers that go off to bring in the New Year here have a chilling resonance for Jaber as they also sound like bombs in his native Syria.

We see a family that loves each other and how Jaber tries to maintain that love and connection. Then the reality of the situation sinks in. We cannot hear these stories  enough of survival, determination and the horrors that refugees and immigrants have endured.

This piece of work is stunning in every single way—from the gripping writing to the inventive direction of Majdi Bou-Matar to the arresting acting of Ahmed Meree (who also wrote it). I would travel anywhere to see theatre this good. Fortunately the Theatre Centre is closer.”

“Besbouss

(Nov. 19, 2019, at Streetcar Crowsnest.)

“The production is directed by the hugely gifted Majdi Bou-Matar. While Bou-Matar came to Canada (he lives in Kitchener) from his native Lebanon his heart and mind are certainly focused on the revolution that is happening across Lebanon now. It certainly informs this production.  Bou-Matar brings a vivid sense of imagery to his productions and there is that as well as a muscularity and sensitivity in every aspect of Besbouss-Autopsy of a Revolt.

I’m grateful that Majdi Bou-Matar is back in Toronto directing—we see too little of his work here. I first saw his breathtaking production of The Last 15 Seconds at the Backspace of Theatre Passe Muraille. Then at Summerworks a year ago he directed Adrenaline by Ahmed Maree.  Both are harrowing stories of immigrants and people dealing with horrific events in their home countries. Bou-Matar will be returning to Toronto with two shows: Suitcase and Adrenaline in the new yearDon’t miss them.

Comment. Majdi Bou-Matar creates theatre in Kitchener. For about 10 years he curated the IMPACT Festival of international productions in Kitchener. I saw several stunning productions of this past festival from Tunisia, Ecuador, Iran, Six Nations from Toronto (a devastating piece called The Mush Hole about residential schools) and Montreal. The breadth and quality of the productions programmed are astonishing. Majdi Bou-Matar’s determination, artistry and vision are impressive and much needed. Why isn’t Majdi Bou-Matar in Toronto at Harbourfront, resurrecting the moribund World Stage Festival?”

For my annual TOOTSIE AWARDS for excellence, I awarded Madji Bou-Matar:

”A Man of Many Talents Award (Dec. 2019—Tootsie Award)

Majdi Bou-Matar

Majdi Bou-Matar is a director-artistic director, curator, creator of art, originally from Lebanon but now relocated to Kitchener, Ont. where he ran MT Space. His productions are arresting in their vision with a deep sense of story-telling. I first saw his production of The Last 15 Seconds in the Backspace of Theatre Passe Muraille (thank you Andy McKim). Jaw-dropping. I looked out for his work ever since. For the past 10 years he was the Founder and Artistic Director of the IMPACT Festival that brought a diverse roster of plays and productions from the Middle East, across Canada and South America to Kitchener. I finally was able to see many of those productions. Again, jaw-dropping in their impact. He is slowly doing more work in Toronto.”

The loss to the theatre of this gifted man is incalculable. Majdi Bou-Matar told stories we needed to hear and experience. He took us into another world to understand the harrowing world of the immigrant, the refugee, people who were displaced and aching at leaving their homeland. He did it in a graceful, gripping, muscular way that was also embracing. His vivid images will never leave my memory.

Is loss is devastating.

Lynn Slotkin

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Live and in person at the Harvest Stage, Blyth, Ont. until July 16, 2022.

www.blythfestival.com

Written by Michael Healey

Directed by Gil Garratt

Set and Lighting by Steve Lucas

Sound by Lyon Smith

Costumes by Jennifer Triemstra-Johnston

Musicians: Graham Hargrove

Anne Lederman

Cast: Jonathan Goad

Randy Hughson

Cameron Laurie

A play about friendship and kindness.

The Story. The more productions I see of Michael Healey’s beautiful classic play, The Drawer Boy, the more the definition of what the play is really about changes. Sure it’s about a strong friendship and about guilt at hiding a secret, and kindness, and opening one’s house to a stranger who wants to learn about farming, and really about all of this. But for this production of the Blyth Festival, it’s kindness that wins out.

Morgan and Angus have been friends since childhood. They grew up together. Angus was a talented artist and beautiful drawer, hence the name “The Drawer Boy”. Morgan was destined to be a farmer. They both signed up to fight in WWII and stuck close together to keep out of harm’s way.  But one night in London, England when they were on leave, Angus was hurt in a freak accident, needed a steel plate put in his head as a result and lost his memory. Both men came back to Canada to farm together on a farm—Morgan took care of Angus and Angus did whatever chores he could. It was a very compatible situation.

But then Miles shows up. Miles was an actor from Toronto who had come to the country with a company of actors to learn about farming from the local farmers and would then put on a play about what they had learned. Miles just knocked on the door one day asking to follow Morgan and Angus around to learn about farming. Morgan and Angus got to know Miles, and Miles was eager to learn what they had to tell him, even if Morgan took full advantage of Miles being gullible.

The Production. The Harvest Stage continues to be beautiful, with a comfortable covering above our heads, giving some relief from the sun. The sun is setting over there, behind those trees and the pinks and oranges of the sky makes one want to just get up and go over there and see how glorious the sky is. But first we have this glorious play and Gil Garratt’s glorious production.

Steve Lucas has created a neat, efficient kitchen of a counterspace up stage with a fridge and stove incorporated. A table and chairs are down from that. Angus (Randy Hughson) appears from the door stage left. He wears a baseball cap, work clothes and sturdy boots. He looks a bit confused as if he’s not sure where he is. He goes to the bread box and pulls out a full loaf of sliced bread and gets some mustard and some sliced meat from the fridge and makes a sandwich, that he puts on a plate on the table. Morgan (Jonathan Goad) comes in from outside. Angus says, “Morgan, hello.” With barely a nod Morgan goes to the table, takes a bite out of the sandwich and leaves with the sandwich. Angus pauses slightly without emotion, then goes and makes another sandwich again, putting the sandwich on the plate to eat.

Miles (Cameron Laurie) appears by another outside door and knocks. Angus goes to the door to see who that is. Miles goes into a rush of introduction that says that he’s an actor with a visiting company of actors and is there to learn about how farmers to their work so that they can do a play about the experience. Angus listens without emotion. “Miles, hello.” Angus says that he has to ask Morgan about this to give permission. Then he closes the door on Miles, goes back to his sandwich, as Miles waits and waits and waits.

In this introductory scene we get the sense of Angus and his mental issues, as Randy Hughson as Angus, delicately, gently creates a portrait of a man who is perhaps simple-minded, methodical, efficient, neat but obviously has issues with connection and subtleties. And the way Hughson plays him, he is endearing as well. Jonathan Goad as Morgan takes charge and takes sandwiches without wondering if it’s for him or Angus. He’s initially gruff but that’s a veneer. As Miles, Cameron Laurie portrays a man out of his depth and awkward about it. He’s polite, accommodating, anxious to please, respectful and eager to make this work. He’s an actor who wants his contribution, other than the impression of a cow, to be used in the final show.

Miles is allowed to stay with Morgan and Angus and we see Morgan’s impish sense of humour—asking Miles to wash the stones in the pathway only to throw them in the culvert. Talking about rotating crops that afternoon—and Miles thinking this is reasonable. Miles has a trick or two himself.

There is a mystery about what happened to Angus and Miles inadvertently finds out about it by overhearing Morgan tell Angus ‘the story.’ And Miles uses that story in the finished play, One could question if the results were disastrous or fitting, but that’s part of the many layers of discovery in Michael Healey’s gentle play of friendship.

With Jonathan Goad as Morgan we see a man who is consumed with guilt at something that happened to Angus and his efforts to keep Angus safe, happy and cared for. Goad warns Miles in a quiet, pointed voice not to push too hard for the truth. We also see in Randy Hughson as Angus, a man who ‘remembers’ something in his murky memory and the emotion of the man gradually reveals itself. There is so much depth in these performances and in the production as directed by Gil Garratt. Garratt directs with such nuance and care. What I got from this production was not just a play of a profound friendship, but one of heart-squeezing kindness.

I do have a quibble. Musicians, Graham Hargrove on various percussive instruments and Anne Lederman on violin provide music as the audience fills in. Terrific. But they also provide musical and sound effects during the production and I found that intrusive and unnecessary. It ads a fussiness to the production that’s not necessary.

A quibble…..at its heart this is such a wonderful play and this production does it proud.  

Comment. Fifty years ago this June, a group of actors, led by director Paul Thompson, came to Clinton, Ontario, to create a new kind of theatre. They wanted to create a play about farming in that area. The farmers were inviting, trusting and accommodating to these actors and the resulting show was The Farm Show.

In 1995, actor Michael Healey was a member of the Blyth Festival Company and heard about the creation of The Farm Show and decided to write his own play about that creation and the idea of The Drawer Boy was born. The play was developed at the Blyth Festival in 1995, 1996 and 1997. It has become a Canadian classic and has played all over the country and internationally.  

Presented by the Blyth Festival:

Runs until July 16, 2022.

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

www.blythfestival.com

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Live and in person at the Shaw Festival until Oct. 8, 2022.

www.shawfest.com

Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Directed by László Bérczes

Movement director, Alexis Milligan

Set by Balázs Cziegler

Costumes designed by Sim Suzer

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Music direction, original music and sound design by Claudio Vena

Cast: Andrew Broderick

Sharry Flett

Patrick Galligan

Deborah Hay

Julie Lumsden

Michael Man

Alana Randall

Kiera Sangster

Travis Seetoo

Donna Soares

Terrific Play. Hard-working cast, odd production, set that needs to chop down a tree, beautiful though it is.

The Story. That secretive playwright, Anonymous, wrote Everyman, a medieval morality play, in the 15th century. It was a play about Death and living one’s life well and wisely. Then in 2018 the wonderful American playwright, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins adapted the play to a modern sensibility and called it Everybody. 

Here is the description of the play as per the back flap of the text of Everybody: “This modern riff on the fifteenth century morality play Everyman follows “Everybody” as they journey through life’s greatest mystery—the meaning of life.”

Actually, it’s a little murkier than that. “Everybody” has to prepare for a voyage of no return—to death—and in the process of course, it’s hoped learns the meaning of life and how to live it well.

But before “Everybody” takes that one-way death trip, “Everybody” has to prepare a presentation for God about what they have learned. And the play is funny too!

The Production. (NOTE: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has added a bit of spice to the proceedings.  The part of “Everybody” is chosen from a group of six actors by lottery. Six actors are ‘slotted’ to play “Everybody” which means all six have to memorize 14 different parts that indicates what part they will play for that performance: Love, Evil, Understanding etc. So one person is picked at “Everybody” and the other five take on other parts, such as Love, Evil, Understanding, etc. )

Set designer, Balázs Cziegler, has covered the whole surface of the playing area with artificial grass that also goes up the stairs to each section of the theatre. The audience sits on all four sides of the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre. In the central playing area there are a few mounds of grass on a flat mat of grass. There are several boulders around the space on which characters will sit and in the middle of the playing area is the most beautiful, willowy tree that looks like the outline of a curvy woman, with branches that go up and out with dark reddish leaves on the ends. I smile. This is an equal opportunity obstructing tree. At every second of this sometimes funny, generally maddening production, is that bloody tree, guaranteed to obstruct the view of every single person in that theatre. This tree is not symbolic of the Tree of Knowledge—much too late in history for that. Nope this tree was vital for hanging a necklace on one of its branches which one character would remove, ONCE, in the whole production. For the rest of the production, the tree just got in the way of entrances, exits and speeches by characters. Exhale.   

As the audience files in they are prepared that the show is about to begin when an Usher (Deborah Hay) enters the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, wearing a bone fide Shaw Festival usher’s uniform. and gets our attention quickly.  She stands very close to one of the entrances, unobtrusive.  “Clap once if you hear me.” We clap once. As more people are aware things are happening, she says, perhaps a bit louder, “Clap twice if you hear me.” We clap twice, louder. And then when we are silent, she says, “Clap three times if you hear me.” And we do and she has our undivided attention.  Deborah Hay as the Usher has that wonderful sense of awkwardness that a person, such as an Usher, would display if they had to do public speaking. The Usher talks about some philosophical stuff and reacts to the self-deprecation. Hay is wonderful here. She waits while we turn off our cell phones. She explains what ‘silence’ and ‘Do Not Disturb’ mean and how they don’t mean what we hope they should mean with a cell phone.

The cast quietly enters the space with the audience and takes seats among us. They are casually dressed and fit in quite nicely, except for that gentleman over there in pants, a jacket and a Shaw Festival t-shirt. He’s quietly snoring. He is Patrick Galligan. And when it’s time for the lottery to take place to pick who will play “Everybody” and the other characters, Galligan is ‘awoken’ so he can enter the playing space to pick a random ball from a rotating case that indicates his/the characters.

Director László Bérczes has left this a bit messy. Actors pick a ball and open it to reveal a wide swath of material which holds the clue to the character they will play. The problem is that when the actor unfurls the material one can’t decipher what it says to know what character they are playing. Frustrating. For my performance Donna Soares is chosen as “Everybody.” Soares illuminates the angst, gut-squeeze one would get when you know you have to make a journey to which you will not return. It’s a thoughtful, committed performance.

Other characters quietly reveal themselves. Across the aisle from me is a stylish woman in a short, white wig, a yellow outfit and yellow sandals, one of which she has taken off. This is “Death” played by a buoyant Sharry Flett, who gathers her stuff and the one sandal and goes down to the playing area. Over the course of the play, Sharry Flett will appear in a track-suit with a kind of skull emblem, using walking sticks and the most cheerful disposition as she leads her ‘followers’ around the stage.  

While “Everybody” has to prepare a presentation for God about how she lived her life,  many of the other characters are surprised that God even exists. This is a gentle joke on the part of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins rendered meaningless by director László Bérczes’ direction of Deborah Hay who plays God. This time Hay is dressed in a weird silver jumpsuit costume (Sim Suzer is the designer) goggles and holding a microphone through which Hay is directed to bellow, producing a wobbly sound that distorts everything she says. Are we to believe that people would doubt the existence of God if this bellowing, ostentatious rendition was out there? I don’t think so. I don’t criticize the gifted actress playing God—I question the lack of thought of the director.

László Bérczes has several scenes played in totally darkness with only the faces of cast members illuminated by the screens of cell phones. Disconcerting. This takes the audience out of the action and the argument and alienates them.

Comment.  Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has rethought Everybody to speak to our modern world. He asks us to ponder our world, how we live our lives, to live better, recycle, eat healthy, cherish life and live it well. The cast are committed to realizing the play. But for the most part László Bérczes’ direction and that damned tree thwarts them at almost every turn.

Produced by the Shaw Festival

Plays until: Oct. 8, 2022.

Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes, (no intermission).

www.shawfest.com

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Some final words on the Talk is Free Theatre (TIFT) Production of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

My original review of this production is here:

We have a lot of wonderful theatre in Toronto at the moment, vibrant, creative, bracing. But the TIFT production of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (on until July 3) has everybody buzzing who has seen it. It’s sold out with good reason. This small production is the theatre event of the moment. Bravo to Talk is Free CEO Arkady Spivak for working his magic to bring this production to Toronto.

I intended to see the opening, June 10, but was stuck on the tarmac at Pearson Airport by customs who were overwhelmed by travelers, when I returned from England, so I saw the June 11 performance.

I love this musical and that production I saw on June 11 was brilliant.  I knew I would want to see it again, looking for loopholes, so I bought a ticket a month ago (I knew tickets would be scarce) and saw the Friday, June 24 production. Loopholes? There were none, just a stunning production directed by Mitchell Cushman who thought out every single second that realized Stephen Sondheim’s gripping, heartbreaking musical.

It’s playing in a Church on Gerrard Street East and every section that is used illuminates moments, scenes, ideas and Sondheim’s beautiful score. You look in the eyes of every single character, including a mysterious addition, who are as close as the person sitting next to you. Their stares are urgent and gripping. As Sweeney Todd, Michael Torontow is haunted again, possessed with a blazing hot need for revenge. Glynis Ranney as Mrs. Lovett is both adorable, charming and scary. As the Beggar Woman, Gabi Epstein is unhinged, watchful, knowing but so overwhelmed with despair that it’s hidden. Cyrus Lane as Judge Turpin is frightening because he is seductively charming and yet evil. Every performance seemed richer to me, deeper and so committed when I saw it Friday.

The musicians work like crazy shifting locations from floor to floor. But the unsung heroes are the front of house staff: Matthew McQuarrie-Cottle, Claire Allen and Joshua Kilimnik. Not only do they check us in, give us water, see that we wear masks and maneuver the space safely and efficiently, they also tend to those people who need extra help with accessibility. They personally help each person, who has alerted them, to the next site in the production, chairs are saved for these folks in various scenes and every effort is made to ensure that people who need a bit of extra time are at the next scene in time. They are cheerful, efficient, helpful, respectful and one of the many reasons that Talk Is Free Theatre is one of the best theatre companies in this province.

What a gift Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is and what a glorious company Talk Is Free Theatre is.  

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At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Distillery Distillery District, Toronto, Ont. Playing until June 26, 2022.

www.soulpepper.ca

Written by Kevin Loring

Directed by Jani Lauzon

Set by Ken MacKenzie

Costumes by Samantha McCue

Lighting by Arun Srinivasan

Sound by James Dallas Smith

Video and projection design by Samay Arcentales Cajas

Cast: Oliver Dennis

Sheldon Elter

Craig Lauzon

Valerie Planche

Tara Sky

James Dallas Smith

Very moving play. Beautifully done.

The Story. Kevin Loring’s play is an Indigenous story that takes place in Lytton, B.C. Years ago—not recently when the whole town practically burned down last year because of raging forest fires in British Columbia. Floyd and Mooch are best friends. They spend most of their time in George’s bar where Mooch is usually “mooching” drinks from his friend Floyd. Hence the name “Mooch.” To make matters worse, Mooch is unemployed, troubled and usually steals his girlfriend June’s money to buy beer. She’s saving the money either to buy groceries or pay bills. Floyd has a job, but he is troubled too…hence the drinking.

The root of the drinking is that both men went to a Residential School when they were kids and while it’s not detailed what they endured, we can imagine from what we’ve heard and read in the media. Also, Floyd and his late wife Annie had a daughter Christine but because of a tragedy that happened to Annie, Christine was taken away from Floyd because he couldn’t take care of her properly and Christine was adopted by another family. Now Christine has written to her father that she wants to come and see him to learn about her Indigenous culture, heritage etc. She lives in the city, and comes to the wilds of B.C. to meet her father and Floyd is anxious about it. He thinks he’s inadequate and is embarrassed and haunted by the fact that he couldn’t take care of her properly.

The Production.  Musician, James Dallas Smith is a constant presence in this production, wearing a cream-coloured suit with cowboy hat, playing guitar that adds sound and music to the production.

The production is directed by Jani Lauzon and it’s terrific and sensitive. Ken MacKenzie has designed a “mobile” of written letters suspended about the stage. They are symbolic of the letters that Christine wrote to her father Floyd and they are a constant presence in her and his life. Two large walls act as surfaces on which Samay Arcentales Cajas’ projections flow. The walls will depict animated birds and fish, usually the mighty and symbolic sturgeon, flying and swimming by as if referencing symbols of Indigenous culture and aspects that are so important to it. There are also backdrops of the gorgeous wilderness of BC with rivers that Floyd and Mooch fish. Director Jani Lauzon has captured and illuminated the symbolism of Indigenous life and conveyed that so elegantly and clearly in her thoughtful production.

The camaraderie between Mooch (Craig Lauzon) and Floyd (Sheldon Elter) is easy, joshing, teasing, joyful and sometimes prickly. As Mooch, Craig Lauzon wears a toque under which is long hair. His clothes are well worn and he just melts into any chair in the bar as if he lives there, which he does in a way. His laugh is easy because he’s so full of beer. But he is haunted and that’s clear as the production progresses. He is haunted by the memory of the Residential School. He is haunted by what happened to Annie. And for all his being haunted and his drinking to forget, he continues to live and gets on with his life. He apologizes to his girlfriend June. He’s full of remorse but there is charm too. It’s a multi-layered performance.

Sheldon Elter as Floyd is as complex and he carries that with more gravitas than Mooch. Floyd is a more mature, considerate friend and man to Mooch. Floyd has a job and wants to do well by his daughter Christine, a sweet and confident Tara Sky. As June, Valerie Planche presents an angry, disappointed presence. She loves Mooch, but he consistently steals from her, despite his protestations. And she forgives him, but that angry is always there. Finally, Oliver Dennis gives a lovely, kindly performance as George who sees the personal damage Mooch and Floyd have suffered and live with. And for all these characters are haunted by their pasts, there is that resilient hope that things will be better.

Very moving play. Beautifully done.

Comment. I think writer Kevin Loring has written a heart-breaking, play of such vivid language we are taken into another world. It’s a story that recurs in many plays but one never gets used to such an accumulation of tragedy.  And while the past has weighed down these men, left them haunted, there still is that drive to continue, to keep living, to keep hoping that enlivens the resilience.

Co-produced by Soulpepper with Native Earth Performing Arts:

Plays until: June 26, 2022.

Running time: 90 minutes. No intermission

www.soulpepper.ca

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Harbourfront Centre’s Torque Season Closes with Norway’s winter guests and the Visceral Examination of the Human Condition in
– 
Story, story, die.–

Interdisciplinary performance company returns to Harbourfront Centre stage as part of Nordic Bridges, exploring the relationship between lies and love

Toronto, Ont.  Harbourfront Centre presents the Toronto premiere of winter guests’ evocative work, Story, story, die., as part of the contemporary dance series Torque and the year-long Nordic Bridges initiative. Choreographed by winter guests Artistic Director Alan Lucien Øyen, the full-length work will be on stage June 28 and 29, 2022 at 7:30pm at Fleck Dance Theatre. Through cinematic staging and poignant spoken word, Story, story, die. is a heartrending look at the interdependency between lies and love and the surprising things we do in our everyday lives to present a more likeable narrative of ourselves to the world.  

“We are delighted to close our 2021/22 Torque with the anticipated return of winter guests to the Toronto stage, following their performance of Simulacrum in 2019,” says Nathalie Bonjour, Director, Performing Arts at Harbourfront Centre. “Renowned for his breathtaking performance aesthetic, Øyen’s Story, story, die. is a theatrical experience that both challenges our notions of love and happiness and unites us in our collective search for meaningful connection in an increasingly disconnected world.” 

Admired for its “sexiness and startlingly original highlights” (Fjord Review), Story, story, die. made its world premiere in Oslo, Norway, at Dansens Hus – the country’s prestigious national dance stage – in May 2019. The work is an in-depth exploration of humanity’s relentless search for approval from our peers, exacerbated by the all-consuming role of social media. A commentary on a fast and fading “conditional” love, dependent on success and happiness, the work’s choreography and script was developed in collaboration with its performers. Story, story, die. incorporates their lived experiences as an authentic expression of our current human condition. 

Considered one of Norway’s most pioneering artists, writer, director and choreographer, Øyen, has created more than 40 projects and commissions since 2004. In 2006, Øyen founded winter guests to develop a range of interdisciplinary works, including plays, contemporary dance works and hybrid performances, mixing dance with text and movement with actors. Inspired by interactions with strangers, personal anecdotes and pop culture references, each work is produced in collaboration with its performers.  

Presenting their avant-garde theatre and dance in independent venues and opera houses, winter guests have toured over 20 countries. Performances and residencies include The Watermill Centre, New York Theatre Workshop, Théâtre National de Chaillot, Banff Centre for the Arts, Shizuoka Performing Arts Center, and the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Harbourfront Centre, among others. 

For tickets and further information, visit: harbourfrontcentre.com

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Live and in person at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. until Oct. 9.

www.shawfest.com

Written by Oscar Wilde

Directed by Tim Carroll

Set by Gillian Gallow

Costumes by Christina Poddubiuk

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Original music and sound by James Smith

Cast: Neil Barclay

Julia Course,

Peter Fernandes

Martin Happer

Kate Hennig

Patty Jamieson

André Morin

Ric Reid

Gabriella Sundar Singh

Graeme Somerville

Jacqueline Thair

Beautiful set. Stylish production with a revolutionary interpretation of Lady Bracknell by Kate Hennig.

The Story. In The Importance of Being Earnest (A trivial comedy for serious people) look for dazzling wit, vaulting language, impeccable manners, shameless social climbing, the importance of a name, silliness, but absolutely no logic.  The dialogue will be given with such seriousness that you will almost think that the wild (sorry) story makes sense.

Ernest Worthing has come to tea at his good friend Algernon Moncreiff. Algernon is expecting his Aunt, Lady Bracknell and her daughter Gwendolyn Fairfax. Ernest is in love with Gwendolyn Fairfax and hopes to propose. But first Algernon wants to return Ernest’s cigarette case that was left there the last time, but there is a problem. The cigarette case is engraved to “Uncle Jack” from  Little Cecily’. Uncle Jack? But it’s Ernest’s cigarette case The explanation is that Mr. Worthing goes by the name Ernest in town and Jack in the country. (Don’t ask). Cecily lives in the country and “Jack”/Ernest is her guardian.

Algernon offers that he has created a character called Bunbury who lives in the country but is not in good health. Bunbury is used as an excuse to go to the country whenever he wants without explanation. (Don’t ask).

When Gwendolyn accepts Ernest’s proposal, he learns that she always wanted to marry a man named Ernest. He asks, “But what if my name was Jack?” Nope Gwendolyn does not like the name Jack. It’s Ernest she must marry. Also, Ernest must be ‘interrogated’ by Lady Bracknell to see if he is suitable to marry Gwendolyn. Ernest/Jack lives at on a tony square, although not the fashionable side. He smokes and that’s good because one must occupy one’s time. The thing that cancels the deal is that Ernest does not have any parents. They were lost. Lady Bracknell says: ‘ ‘To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. ‘

It gets worse. When he was a baby, Earnest was left in a hand-bag at Victoria Station by mistake (explanation later in the play—don’t ask) and adopted by a rich gentleman and raised by him. Lady Bracknell is aghast: “A hand-bag!?!!!!”

Algernon goes into full Bunbury mode and goes to the country to meet Cecily and when he sees her he proposes. And the play goes from there.

The Production. Tim Carroll has directed a stylish production of The Importance of Being Earnest (although the fussy, silly business at the beginning of each act to augment James Smith’s lively piano music seems out of place with a play full of such wit).

Gillian Gallow’s sets for the three acts of the play are just sublime. Each act is set within several moveable frames. In Act I of Algernon’s flat in Half-Moon Street, the frames move backwards or upwards as the set moves forwards in a moving dance. Act II is the garden of the Manor House of Ernest/Jack in the country, in which rows of hedges are clipped to 90° precision, and not a leaf is out of place. Finally Act III is in the drawing room of the Manor House with shelves upon shelves of colourless books etc. indicating the hugeness of the house. Elegance, wealth and taste are the watchwords for these three locations, and Gillian Gallow has illuminated it all beautifully in her sets.

Similarly, Christina Poddubiuk’s costume designs are stylish and richly created. Everyone is tastefully dressed but Algernon (Peter Fernandes) has a touch of the flamboyant about him. This is a man with no money who flaunts style as if he has lots of money. As Lady Bracknell (Kate Hennig) says of her nephew, Algernon, “Algernon is an extremely, I may almost say an ostentatiously, eligible young man. He has nothing, but he looks everything. What more can one desire?”

As Algernon, Peter Fernandes has a confidence in that ostentation. He naturally flips back the floppy sleeve of his dressing robe to pour tea. He makes the clothes work for him. And Fernandes knows the importance of seriousness in humour. As Ernest/Jack, Martin Happer plays him as a man to the manor born although he wasn’t born to it, but found. Still Happer has a wonderful physical ease with that upper class demeanor; pouring tea properly is a natural occurrence; dealing with a formidable presence as Lady Bracknell is a mix of concern and confidence. Ernest/Jack has the class to know how to ‘play’ Lady Bracknell without being obnoxious about it.

Much is said about the concern that Gwendolyn (Julia Course) will grow up to be like her mother, Lady Bracknell. One needn’t wait that long. Julia Course gives a performance that does echo Lady Bracknell: clipped, assured, arrogant, seemingly without humour, which makes her hilarious and kind of endearing. Rounding out the ‘lovers’ is Cecily (Gabriella Sundar Singh), Ernest/Jack’s ward. Gabriella Sundar Singh has a glistening curiosity, a wonderful confidence to use it and speak her mind, and a sense of impish wickedness when she thinks someone like Gwendolyn is trying to make a fool of her. But this is Wilde and Cecily and Gwendolyn are instantly close friends. Still Singh is watchful and quite compelling.

Finally, there is Kate Hennig as Lady Bracknell. We know so much about Lady Bracknell before she even steps foot in Algernon’s flat. She is formidable. She has a reputation that precedes her. She likes cucumber sandwiches, that Algernon does not hesitate to consume. And the number of formidable woman and men who have played Lady Bracknell, each bringing their own twist to it, can prove daunting when approaching the part. There is the first and fearless Dame Edith Evans who said “A Hand-Bag” with horror and elongated those three words to more syllables than any hand-bag deserved. Judi Dench just mouthed and whispered the words. William Hutt as Lady Bracknell, imperious, twisted ‘her’ head in slow, incremental turns until ‘her’ head looked down at ‘her’ own hand-bag resting on the divan—I think all that head turning took more than a minute. Maggie Smith as Lady Bracknell made a five-act opera out of every move and twerked her head so often and hard, one worried she might give herself whiplash. And Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell just looked aghast at the notion that anyone would be ‘found’ in a piece of luggage.  Yes, Lady Bracknell comes with a lot of baggage before she even steps foot on the stage.

For me, what Kate Hennig does in her performance of Lady Bracknell is simply revolutionary. She plays her as a real, breathing, prickly woman who has social climbed up to that level of society by marrying above what would be called her station, and she’s going to play that to the hilt. She knows all the rules, regulations and minutiae of society because she was desperate to ‘get into it.’ She feels she is above everybody, until everybody just keeps chipping away at her and brings her down a peg. Hennig tosses off the bon mots with delicious aplomb and seriousness. She too knows that comedy must be delivered with absolute seriousness or the joke is lost. Lady Bracknell has no sense of humour so does not realize it when people are razzing her. Which makes it all the funnier. When Ernest/Jack is able to reveal his true identity and that he in fact was a member of society with breeding, Lady Bracknell gives her consent for Ernest/Jack to marry Gwendolyn. Never mind that they are first cousins. Breeding is all, in-breeding is irrelevant.

Comment. The Importance of Being Earnest is Oscar Wilde’s satire on the upper classes and their silliness regarding names, marriage, breeding, parentage, proper addresses, society, class distinctions, work, money and the minute ceremony of having tea. The production at the Shaw Festival, is a delight.  

The Shaw Festival presents:

Runs until: Oct. 9, 2022.

Running Time:  2 hours, 40 minutes

www.shawfest.com

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

www.mivish.com

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

A new play written by Jack Thorne

Directed by John Tiffany

Movement director, Steven Hoggett

Set designed by Christine Jones

Composer and arranger, Imogen Heap

Lighting designed by Neil Austin

Sound by Gareth Fry

Illusions and magic by Jamie Harrison

Music supervisor and arranged by Martin Lowe

Video designers: Finn Ross & Ash J. Woodward

Cast: Sarah Afful

Kaleb Alexander

Thomas Mitchell Barnet

Mark Crawford

Raquel Duffy

Sara Farb

Bryce Fletch

Brad Hodder

Luke Kimball

Hailey Lewis

Trish Lindstrom

Lucas Meeuse

Kyle Orzech

Gregory Prest

Fiona Reid

Katie Ryerson

Yemi Sonuga

Steven Sutcliffe

Brendan Wall

Trevor White

David D’Lancy Wilson

Shawn Wright

Explosively magical. Dazzling, dark, complex and gripping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runs indefinitely.

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

www.mirvish.com

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Live and in person at the Theatre Centre, Toronto, 1115 Queen St. W., until June 26, 2022.

www.theatrecentre.org

Written by Steven Elliott Jackson

Directed by Tanisha Taitt

Set by Tanisha Taitt

Lighting and projection design, by Shawn Henry

Sound design by Christopher-Elizabeth

Costumes and props by Claudia Tam

Cast: Tristan Claxton

Jamar Adams-Thompson

Jack Copland

Background. Three Ordinary Men is based on a true story. It took place in 1964 in Mississippi. Three civil rights workers: Michael Schwerner, Jewish from New York, Andrew Goodman, Jewish from New York and James Chaney, African-American from Mississippi were there to encourage African-Americans to register to vote. Until that time African-Americans had been thwarted in their right to vote. The three civil rights workers were there to help as much as possible. It was not an easy assignment.

Director Tanisha Taitt effectively sets the audience in those turbulent times as they file into the theatre. A projection of a church appears on a sheet upstage. Flickering in one of the windows are flames. The flames spread to the other window and soon envelopes the church. By the time the audience is fully in the space and the show is about to begin, the church has been burned to the ground. Nothing but ash is left.

Michael Schwerner (Tristan Claxton) is driving James Chaney (Jamar Adams-Thompson) and Andrew Goodman (Jack Copland) to the burned-out church to see the damage and to prepare to re-build the place and meet with the small congregation. They are in Schwerner’s old station wagon.  The actors sit on simple white cubes to simulate driving etc.

Schwerner and Chaney are old friends and colleagues. Schwerner has spent time in Mississippi getting to know the people. He is serious about his work and very focused. Chaney knows Mississippi and the people there because he lives there. Because he is African-American he knows the trials and tribulations of Black people in that area that his two white friends can never understand. He still respects and appreciates his two colleagues, but there is that innate sense as a Black man that the others could never appreciate. Writer Steven Elliott Jackson gives Chaney lines that illuminate that difference. For example, Chaney lets it be known that his mother’s house was shot at as a kind of warning. The others are horrified. Chaney tries to make light of it saying his mother collects the bullets in a little container.

Both Schwerner and Chaney muse about Goodman. He’s young, clean-cut, always smiling, eager to please and wants to help. I think they find his innocence endearing.

At times Steven Elliott Jackson’s dialogue seems simplistic but one must remember it’s 1964. Goodman talks about wanting to get to know Black people. He’s met Jackie Robinson. He wants to help. Even so, we hear the same dialogue today and that too seems patronizing. In any case Chaney has left his comfort zone to come south to help.

In a sweet scene, that shows his naivety, he writes a postcard to his parents to tell them everything is fine and that the people of Mississippi are friendly etc. neglecting to say that some of those good Mississippians just burned down a church in which African-Americans worshiped.

For much of the play, Steven Elliott Jackson slowly reveals the personalities of the characters with easy banter. Chaney who has so much to lose as a Black man is always trying to reassure Schwerner that something that happened is ‘not your fault.’ He is the one trying to calm the others who might be a little ‘anxious’ at things that are happening. Schwerner talks of his wife Rita back home, with great love and respect. Rita was feistier than he was he notes. Andrew Goodman pines for his girlfriend Ruth. All of them are family oriented and dedicated to this cause.   

 But then things ramp up. The three are arrested for speeding but they know it’s a phony charge. Director Tanisha Taitt has an American flag projected on the sheet at the back and the three men walk on bent over slightly, their arms together in front of them, as if in chains. It looked as if she was trying to simulate that they were slaves in chains. I can appreciate the thought, but I found that a touch heavy-handed. Taitt also uses many projections of mug shots of people that are confusing and unexplained, and other actual projections of news items. Taitt is a thoughtful director but at times less projections are best in telling the story.

The three are eventually released and are allowed to leave. Each man sits on a cube as Schwerner drives carefully away. The scene is directed with an economy of movement with ever increasing ramped up emotion.  Schwerner sees several headlights in the read-view mirror following their car. (this is not a spoiler—this is history.) The headlights of the cars are projected on the sheet at the back.  Chaney tries to keep everybody calm and Goodman doesn’t seem to get what is happening or how dangerous this is.

Tristan Claxton as Michael Schwerner is the most serious of the three. He is often intense to the point of almost exploding. There are early scenes that could do with being more tempered so that the last harrowing scene is not really that anticipated or weakened because he exploded so easy earlier. More nuance would be effective. Jack Copland as Andrew Goodman imbues his character with sweetness that verges on naivety. He’s a decent man who just wanted to do good. As James Chaney, Jamar Adams-Thompson is the most complex character of the three, and Adams-Thompson plays him with contained grace, as a man who could not show his inner rage of frustration in that town because he was African-American.

Three Ordinary Men is about a terrible time in America that led to change. More change is needed. The play reminds us of that. Well worth a visit to the Theatre Centre.  

Cahoots Theatre presents:

Runs until: June 26, 2022

Running time: 70 minutes.

www.theatrecentre.org

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