Lynn

I’m interviewing the wonderful Kate Hennig on Sat. June 10, at 9:00am on CRITICS CIRCLE, CIUT fm 89.5 about starring in GYPSY at the Shaw Festival. I’ll be asking her what it’s like to play Mama Rose, the mother of Gypsy Rose Lee. Please tune in.

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Live and in person at the Greenwin Theatre, Meridian Arts Centre, North York, Ont. Produced by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre.  Plays until June 11, 2023

www.hgjewishtheatre.com

Written by Ken Ludwig

Directed by David Eisner

Set by Brian Dudkiewicz

Lighting by Steve Lucas

Costumes by Alex Amini

Sound by Lyon Smith

Cast: Aris Athanasopoulos

Amy Keating

A courtship through letters written during the war between Jack Ludwig and Louise Rabiner, who would become the parents of playwright Ken Ludwig.

The Story. During WW II U.S. Army Captain Jacob S. Ludwig began writing letters to Louise Rabiner. He was stationed in Oregon.  She was an aspiring actress in New York City. Their fathers were friends and felt their two adult children would like each other and should ‘meet.’  They met and fell in love through letters and telegrams.  

He was known as ‘Jack’ and was serving in the army as a medical doctor. She was known as Louise and did a lot of auditioning as a dancer and then an actress. Jack sent the first letter—very formal, introducing himself and signing off as “U.S. Army Captain Jacob S. Ludwig” but would later write and say he is known as “Jack”.  Louise was more easygoing, more carefree in her letters. They wrote each other for three years before they actually met in person.

The Production. Director David Eisner has envisioned two separate spaces, nicely designed by Brian Dudkiewicz—one space stage right for Jack (Aris Athanasopoulos) with a simple metal desk, army issue, and one space for Louise (Amy Keating) stage left, with a writing desk a chair and several selections of dresses and a divider behind which she can change. Alex Amini’s dresses for Louise are stylish and bright-coloured.

They had been writing for several months when Louise suggested it was time they referred to each other by their first names. The letters told about themselves—Louise had to drag facts out of Jack. She was more forthcoming.

Initially each sat at their desks writing and speaking what they wrote. Eventually they either sat or stood in their sections, perhaps close to each other, verbalizing what they wrote. At times he didn’t write and that was because he had been called to see to tend to the wounded in the Pacific. Louise was worried something happened to him. But when he returned he was eager to allay her fears and explained he couldn’t write to her because the mission was a secret. They tried to meet in person a few times when Jack finally got leave but they were always thwarted. As the audience floats along with each eagerly anticipated letter, they felt the disappointment I’m sure as much as Jack and Louise when the war interfered with their meeting. The letters get more heartfelt. Emotions come easy as it’s obvious they are falling in love through their letters.

Both Aris Athanasopoulos as Jack and Amy Keating as Louise are two charming actors who bring a whole host of emotions to their performances under the sensitive and nuanced direction of David Eisner. Aris Athanasopoulos is courtly, boyish in a kind of formal way that eventually drops the formality. Amy Keating is the more fun-loving of the two, her emotions are closer to the surface.

Comment. If I do have a quibble, it’s with the piece itself. At 1 hour and 45 minutes divided over two acts it seems a bit thin in Act I and loaded with emotion and huge implications in Act II. I think Ken Ludwig would have had a stronger piece if he condensed the work to one Act and tightened the various revelations.

Ken Ludwig is considered one of the American Theatre’s finest comedic playwrights having written: Lend Me a Tenor, Moon Over Broadway and Crazy For You to name a few. Still Dear Jack, Dear Louise harkens back to a time when people actually took the time to write to loved ones, expressing their affections, inner most thoughts and dreams, with nary a ‘Facebook’ post or heart-emoji Tweet in sight. My quibble aside, it’s a sweet play, done very well.

The Harold Green Jewish Theatre presents:

Plays until June 11, 2023.

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (1 intermission)

www.hgjewishtheatre.com

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Live and in person at the Studio Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont. Plays until June 17, 2023.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

Written by Nick Green

Directed by Andrew Kushnir

Designed by Joshua Quinlan

Lighting by Louise Guinand

Composer and sound by Debashis Sinha

Cast: Sean Arbuckle

Laura Condlln

Linda Kash

Davinder Malhi

Krystin Pellerin

Sophia Walker

A cathartic, deeply moving play about living and dying with AIDS, with burst out loud laughs when you least expect it, with a stunning performance by Sean Arbuckle. The production is beautifully directed by Andrew Kushnir.

The Story. Casey House is a specialty hospice in Toronto caring for people with Human Immunodeficiency Viruses (HIV). The play takes place in 1991 before the cocktail of drugs was discovered that could control HIV and prologue the life of those infected with HIV. At that point there was nothing to be done but make the patient feel comfortable until they inevitably died.

One such patient is Thomas. He has been at Casey House for five months and he is nearing the end. But the patients have been told of an upcoming event that changes their lives—a royal visit from Princess Diana. Thomas is buoyed by the prospect of the visit. He is ready to meet her.  

The Production. There is a box of Kleenex on the counter outside the theatre auditorium. It will be needed. We are told at the end of the production there is a comfort room with someone to talk to should a person need it.

Joshua Quinlan has designed a comfortable looking room with two beds. This is not a typical ‘hospital room.’ There are vibrant coloured bed coverings on each bed. There is a window up center that can be opened or closed behind one of the beds. This is Thomas’s bed. To the left of that room is an alcove with a desk. It’s a nurse’s station of sorts.

The other bed is by the stage right wall, perpendicular to it. There are two chairs in the room.

At the top of the production, Thomas (Sean Arbuckle) is laying in bed. There is a lesion on the side of his bald head. A woman in a pink suit stands downstage, her back to us, looking up stage at Sean. The tilt of the head conveys that it’s Princess Diana (Krystin Pellerin).  She is formally introduced by a nurse, Vera (Sophia Walker).

As Thomas, Sean Arbuckle sits up in his bed, delighted to see this icon he has revered since she came on the scene to marry into the royal family. He puts out his hand to shake and realizes this might be too forward. He says with a hint of hope, “I heard you touch people.” The point is of course that people hesitated to touch a person with HIV. Diana goes towards him without hesitation and shakes his hand firmly and holds it. It’s a moment of stunning kindness and humanity.

Thomas breathlessly tells her about her wedding day, in great detail. It’s a speech filled with the joy of the event and the recall of the details of the dress, the crowds, her poise. It’s a speech that goes on and on, to the point that I wonder if she will get a word in edgewise. But of course, patience is needed for playwright Nick Green to layout the play; to recollect memories; to wonder if this is real or imagined. For the recollection Krystin Pellerin as Diana, calmly listens to Thomas’ memory. She kneels deeply close by the bed. She sits on it, first with her back to the audience, then moves to the other side and sits beside him, facing the audience. She says little but when she does, it’s with a gentle English accent, total concentration of what he is saying and tremendous care.

The play moves back and forth during that time when the news that Diana is set to visit Casey House in a week and will visit the rooms of each patient. Playwright Nick Green presents this news in a wonderful way. Vera tells her patients that Diana will visit in seven days (not a week). The number of days gives the patients something to hold on to; to tick off on a calendar as the days go by; to note they lived one more day until they could meet her. The impending visit had a great effect on the patients of Casey House. They rallied; took care to shave and be clean; to move; to hope. Stunning.

Sharing Thomas’ room is Andre (Davinder Malhi) an angry, unsettled young man who has just arrived and is fearful his mother will find out.  Vera is a matter-of-fact nurse and is beautifully played by Sophia Walker. She is all business but is compassionate. She has been at this job for a long time and knows how fragile emotionally the patients are. Contrasting her is Marjorie (Linda Kash) a cheerful volunteer who blurs the lines between being helpful and breaking rules to be compassionate. Rounding out the cast is Laura Condlln at Pauline, Thomas’ estranged sister. She said hateful things to him as a gay man. For much of the play she won’t touch him. She asks the questions one might ask today: why is her brother still in Casey House five months after moving in? Why can’t he come and live with her and have her take care of him? (a horrible thought). What Pauline doesn’t understand is that at the time there was no cocktail of drugs to prolong an HIV patient’s life. If one went into Casey House they generally were not coming out. Laura Condlln does not shy away from the uglier parts of Pauline’s character. She is blinkered, cruel, often homophobic and clueless about what her brother is going through. Laura Condlln gives a blistering performance as Pauline.

In a moving scene the personas of the compassionate Princess Diana and Pauline who finds her own compassion, meld and comfort Thomas, holding his hand.  

Director Andrew Kushnir has used the space of this small stage beautifully. He has ensured that every person in that audience sees every moment without obstruction. There are chairs located in the room, but they are rarely used, because the visitors sit on the bed or stand close to it, indicating that the visitors care deeply for these patients.

Comment. Thirty-three years after this event playwright Nick Green has written a play that celebrates the patients who just wanted a little dignity as they came to the end of their lives; the nurses who tended them as best they could and the volunteers who brought their own reasons for being there to help. It’s cathartic for people who lost loved ones. I heard sobbing from those in their senior years and those much younger. Be prepared. Bring Kleenex.  

The Stratford Festival presents:

Opened: June 1, 2023

Runs until June 17, 2023

Running time: 2:45 (1 intermission)

www.stratfordfestival.ca

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

www.stratfordfestival.ca

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Kimberley Rampersad

Set by Judith Bowden

Costumes by Michelle Bohn

Lighting by Chris Malkowski

Composer, Sean Mayes

Sound by Miquelon Rodriguez

Supervising Fight Director, Geoff Scovell

Cast: Michael Blake

Richard Comeau

Déjah Dixon-Green

Austin Eckert

Jakob Ehman

Paul Gross

Andrew Iles

David W. Keeley

John Kirkpatrick

Josue Laboucane

Devin MacKinnon

Patrick McManus

Antony Santiago

André Sills

Tara Sky

Shannon Taylor

Gordon Patrick White

Rylan Wilkie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stratford Festival Presents:

Plays until Oct. 29.

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

www.stratfordfestival.ca

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Live and in person at the Red Sandcastle Theatre 922 Queen St. E., Toronto, Ont. Plays until June 4, 2023.

www.redsandcastletheatre.com

Book, additional lyrics by Evan Tsitsias

Music by Rosalind Mills

Lyrics by Alexis Diamond

Additional music/lyrics by Julia Appleton

Directed by Evan Tsitsias

Music supervisor/music director, Kieren MacMillan

Choreographer, Jen Cohen

Set/costumes by Irene Ly

Lighting by Rachel Shaen

Cast: Mairi Babb

Cory O’Brien

Elora Joy Sarmiento

Astrid Van Wieren

As an old tv show once began, “There are 8 million stories in the naked city.” Seemingly putting them all in a musical is not a good idea.

Writer/director Evan Tsitsias has said in his programme note to INGE(NEW) that he hates rules that restrict us. He tries to break them whenever he can. He hates the slots that we are put in, that define us, or others define us etc. All good. His intention, it would seem is that the musical  INGE(NEW) is trying to break that form of deciding who should play what and that a new model might be in order. This is a good germ of an idea for a play/musical. INGE(NEW) misses in achieving it, good intentions and programme note notwithstanding.

Bridget (Mairi Babb) is about to turn 40-years-old. She is auditioning for a musical, as the ingenue. It’s a part (the ingenue) she has played often. She’s good at it. Of course, she should continue auditioning for such parts. But she can’t find anyone to talk to about issues. When she’s about to begin singing she stops and asks a question. “Is anybody out there?” Silence. She tries again to begin singing the audition song and can’t. And again, and can’t. The attempts to sing and the questions, lead one to believe that perhaps she can’t sing. She’s lost the ability. Something.

Joy (Elora Joy Sarmiento) enters, also ready to audition. Bridget thinks she’s there to be a reader or a scene partner. In fact, Joy is also reading for the ingenue part. There are smarmy, cutting comments from both to the other. Joy’s youth emphasizes that perhaps Bridget is not the ingenue type any more.

Gertrude arrives. She’s older, flamboyant, effervescent and larger than life. She’s auditioning for the part of the mother, a part she has perfected. Bridget reminds Gertrude that in the past she played Gertrude’s daughter. Does Gertrude believe Bridget is now auditioning for the ‘mother’ part? Can Gertrude believe that Bridget is auditioning for the ingenue? It’s all a game of not showing your hand or vulnerabilities.

Then Max arrives to audition for the macho man part. Matters get tricky. Bridget and Max used to be married. Max is now living with Joy. She thinks he’s much younger than what he really is—in his early 40s.

We then go into the real lives of the characters. Bridget is getting older and has to face it, but she’s not ready to accept she should audition for the mother roles. Joy may be pregnant (the character she’s auditioning for is pregnant). Gertrude, for all her good humour, is soul searching her place as well. Then the lines between the characters and their real lives start to blur, blend and cross.

All the while Bridget tries to find the director or someone to talk question. There are only sound effects of crackling electricity as if perhaps they are all held captive there in some place of restricted limbo. Then the sound of a voice in the void is heard. It’s the writer. The actors complain about the parts. The writer says he will change some of it, but there is still the issue of age and types of parts (ingenue, mother etc.).

Bridget sings about wanting to break out of the rut, of not being slotted in one part or another, that there has to be a new model.

This is all very well and good, but INGE(NEW) doesn’t offer the new model or the solution. Bridget instantly has a change of heart and now realizes she can’t play ingenues anymore and will embrace the older parts because they have the best lines and are funny. This is a revelation that needs more development.  It comes from nowhere that is not supported.

Evan Tsitsias’ book has many interesting ideas tries to explore; ageism, formulaic departments of parts; personal vs. professional life; children or not; marriage or not; rut in a career. But the 90 minute piece feels lumbered with all these issues when a more streamlined show would better serve a few of the more important issues. Editing is in order. A list of songs would be helpful for context. The first song is deliberately simplistic while the others try to be more sophisticated and knowing. And with so many people writing lyrics cohesion is problematic.

The cast lead by Mairi Babb is terrific. Ms Babb came into the production eight days after another cast member had to leave for personal reasons. Ms Babb does Herculean work. She is a fine actor who illuminates all the insecurities of an actor getting older than ingenue parts, and conveys the worry of what that means. And she sings beautifully

Elora Joy Sarmiento as Joy is sweet, winning, and can hold her own in the hard world of theatre. She too sings beautifully and conveys the optimism and pluck of Joy. Cory O’Brien as Max is the quintessential dashing male lead. They never seem to have an aging problem while women are too often slotted into ‘types.’

Astrid Van Wieren as Gertrude is bold and brassy and pulls off the larger than life mother of all mothers, with panache.

As I’ve said, there are good ideas here to explore. Another try, edit is in order.

Theatre Myth Collective presents:

Plays until June 4, 2023

Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

www.redsandcastletheatre.com

Stuff that might be helpful:

Please put the name of the theatre where you are playing on the cover of your programme or what passes for one. The Red Sandcastle Theatre is no where on your printed programme except as a ‘thank you’ at the back.

Please have a phone number or some contact info for tickets on the programme.

Please put the dates of your run in your program, ideally on the cover page.

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Live and in person at the Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Playing until Oct. 7, 2023.

www.shawfest.com

Book by Arthur Laurents

Music by Jule Stein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Suggested by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee

Directed by Jay Turvey

Music direction by Paul Sportelli

Choreographed by Genny Sermonia

Set and costumes by Cory Sincennes

Lighting by Kevin Fraser

Sound by John Lott

Cast: Ariana Abudaqa

Andi Biancaniello

Jason Cadieux

Krystle Chance

Wren Evans

Kristi Frank

Élodie Gillett

Kyle Golemba

Damian Gradson

Kate Hennig

Allan Louis

Julie Lumsden

Kevin McLauchlan

Mike Nadajewski

Hannah Otta

Drew Plummer

Shakeil Rollock

Jaqueline Thair

And a large chorus

A fine production with a stellar performance of Kate Hennig as Mama Rose.

The Story. The book is by Arthur Laurents. The music is by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim who was 29 when he wrote them.

The musical is suggested by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee who was a burlesque star, stripper, also a writer. But while it’s called Gypsy the story is really about Rose. She was the quintessential stage mother. She pushed and pushed her two daughters, June and Louise, to perform and be in showbusiness.

Baby June was the star of the act, singing, dancing, gymnastics. Louise, her older sister by one year, always played supporting roles in the act. June was preferred and Louise was overlooked, until June had enough of playing children and eloped with one of the chorus boys in the act. Rose just transferred her attention to Louise in the hopes she could carry on her mother’s dreams of a career in show business.

They were accidentally booked into a burlesque house with strippers, which horrified Rose. The burlesque theatre needed a stripper quickly because the one they had was just arrested for soliciting. Louise was pushed into that role and was accidentally introduced as Gypsy Rose Lee.  She was awkward and frightened but she did it.  That led to other jobs until her career and confidence grew and so did her notoriety. This led to a contretemps with her mother.

The Production. Cory Sincennes’ sets of various backstages are appropriately dingy, capturing the gloom, dust and disrepair of the backstage of an American vaudeville theatre. The language of the backstage hands is vulgar, loud and impatient.

Jocko (Allan Louis) is involved with a talent contest that he will rig so that a young girl covered in balloons will win, to get the ‘favour’ of the girl’s mother. Also entered in this talent show is Baby June (Ariana Abudaqa) and her sister, Louise (Hannah Otta). When it’s their turn to sing, their mother, Rose, (Kate Hennig) calls out from the theatre as she walks down the aisle to the stage, to “sing out” and other instructions. When she gets on stage she instructs the lighting man to ‘hit Baby June with a pink light’, as Jocko instructed him to do to the balloon girl, thus giving her an advantage. Rose instructs the orchestra on the tempo for the music. It’s all very efficient and with a smile. She takes an objecting Jocko to the side and lets him know she’s wise to his scheme to get balloon girl to win and she won’t stand for it.

Rose is such a huge part—full of star power and human frailty. She’s a woman whom her daughter Louise says “Could have been a star.” And the wise Rose says, “If I coulda been, I woulda been, and that’s showbusiness.”  The intriguing thing about Rose is that she probably did not have (singing) talent, and yet is consistently played by power-house women with singing talent who could act: Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daily, Imelda Staunton, Patti LuPone, Bette Midler for example.

Rose keeps having new ideas about ‘the act’ for her children, but it’s the same act with a different name. The dialogue for the act is cheesy. Rose is deluded and determined to promote her children as young girls, even though they are young women. She won’t be told, even by her children. She is living a dream vicariously of show-biz success for her children. If they get attention then so does she and she craves it. She felt abandoned, first by her mother, then her husbands and finally by June, when she ran off with one of the chorus boys in the act. Now she puts all her hopes on Louise, who she knew was there, but did not shower with attention—she did remember her birthday.

When Louise begins to come into her own on her own as Gypsy Rose Lee, she distances herself from her mother. In time she tried to leave her mother behind—there was a sign at the stage door that Rose was not to be allowed back stage. They have a row which results in the great show stopper “Rose’s Turn” in which Rose gets her star turn even if it’s in her imagination. Rose’s brilliance in that song is seen by her daughter, in the wings. She sees her mother’s ambition and gives that famous line “You could have been a star, Mama.” And Rose replies, “If I coulda been, I woulda been. And that’s show business.” The truth is revealed, at last, that drives her. The hope of regaining her lost chance at stardom is transferred to her children. What pressure for everybody.  

Playing all the facets of Rose is a tricky proposition. We’ve seen singers who act, play Rose (Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, etc.) We’ve seen actors who sing play Rose (Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, Imelda Staunton).  Kate Hennig is an actor who can sing, all gloriously. She plays Rose with such determination, such nuance and drive, it’s a thing of beauty. When Rose marches down that aisle of the theatre in the first scene, she is committed to her children but not over powering initially. She does not start at level 10 of power. She builds up to it.  Her mind is always working to improve a situation, or change one. She thinks some curtains will make a nice coat—next thing she’s wearing a coat made of the curtains. She always gets ideas when something strikes her.

She meets a kind candy salesman backstage, chats him up, finds out his name is Herbie (Jason Cadieux) and that he was an agent and charms him into being their agent. Hennig plays Rose with a smile, charm, a salesperson’s wiliness and sheer, unstoppable optimism. When June left it was a low point for Rose—another person leaves her—but she then makes that negative into a positive by now focusing on Louise. She sings “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” The lyric is telling and we clearly get the reason when she sings: “Everything’s coming up roses for me (bold and italics are mine) and for you.” It’s Rose who is living vicariously through her children and she will not be shunted aside.  She always has a plan.

Hennig can also sing. It’s a strong, powerful voice. She realizes the nuance and shading in the lyrics and shows us their and her beating heart. In “Rose’s Turn”, is she imagining this star turn on that deserted stage, her name in lights and bold letters? The arms are out, waiting for applause. We give it. She looks thrilled and confused as if so say, “Am I imagining this applause? This adulation? Please don’t stop.”

In the backstage world of grunge, yelling, dust, and guarding one’s space, the appearance of Herbie, the accommodating candy salesman, is a breath of fresh air. Jason Cadieux plays Herbie with grace, courtliness and sweetness. Herbie is a mensch, a decent man who just wants to love Rose and her daughters and live a normal life. Rose does not want that life enough.

As Louise (Gypsy), Julie Lumsden is beautifully introverted, almost folding into herself, when she is second banana to June, but comes into her own as Gypsy. She gains poise, subtlety and the confidence to be coy and alluring. In a profession (stripping) that needed a gimmick to be noticed and rise above the others, Gypsy Rose Lee’s gimmick was that at all times, she was a lady. She left her audiences wanting more and didn’t give it to them.

Jay Turvey has directed this with confidence and keen eye to capture the squalor and lack of glamour of vaudeville and later burlesque. He realizes the many and various relationships of people who just want to be noticed and how devastating that is when they aren’t. A fine production of this deeply felt musical.

Comment. Rose did something right. She pushed her two children to be notable in the theatre in their own way and they succeeded. Louise became Gypsy Rose Lee who was not just a stripper (or ecdysiast as she put it), but one with brains and alure, and a frequent guest on talk shows of the day. She wrote successful books and had her own television show. Her sister June was June Havoc who became an actress, director and writer. June Havoc played the Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1982, as Mrs. Lovett opposite Ross Petty in Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street. Talented women who had a determined stage mother pushing them. The stuff of musicals.

The Shaw Festival presents:

Plays until Oct. 7, 2023.

Running time: 3 hours, approx. (1 intermission)

www.shawfest.com

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Live and in person at the Tarragon Extra Space, Toronto, Ont. Co-produced by Les Chemins Errants & Théâtre Motus (Quebec). Plays Sat. May 27 at 11:00 am and Sunday, May 28 at 11:00 am

www.weefestival.ca

Co-creation and direction by Édith Beauséjour, Emmanuelle Calvé & Karine Gaulin

Set and costumes by Josée Bergeron-Proulx (assisted by Ève-Lyne Dallaire

Sound by Édith Beauséjour

Lighting and technique by Patrice Daigneault

Performers: Édith Beauséjour

Karine Gaulin

Music, Visual arts, Theatre2.5 – 6 years

Set in an island world of sea breeze, rolling waves, and rollicking sea shanties, two characters meet and play together through music, song, and joyful painting! This is a beautiful production that will embrace young children with music, rich design, and gentle, mischievous play through art.

The floor of the stage is full of mounds and ‘fluffs’ of various blue and green tissue paper. A character throws a line in from a fishing rod and a hand appears from the ‘waves’ of paper and holds up what looks like a bottle (or plastic to this adult). The character takes it. Then the hand holds up another bottle and the person takes it.

The person actually ‘catches’ the creature holding the bottles, and is dragged on shore.  

Both characters unscrew the bottles and pour paint from them into a sea shell and begin to paint, with their hands, feet, a brush and a roller. The ‘painting’ is framed with a frame from the sea. The two characters fling paint on a sheet – every kid’s dream.

Through songs (in French) this lilting show talks about water, the ocean, salvaging and of course painting.

To this adult, it seemed to be commenting on pollution—those bottles and ‘stuff’ that just plopped up. But perhaps I’m reading too much into it. The young children seemed captivated. Even the six-week-old baby in the mother’s arms in the front row seemed captivated.  Now that is impressive.

Co-produced by Les Chemins Errants & Théâtre Motus (Quebec)

Runs until: Sunday, May 28, at 11:00 am

Running time: 45 minutes.

www.weefestival.ca

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Heads Up

by Lynn on May 26, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

I’m interviewing the brilliant Rick Miller tomorrow, (Saturday, May 27) at 9:00 am on CRITICS CIRCLE, CIUT FM, 89.5, about BOOM X his latest show at CROW’S and all things theatre. Please listen.

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Live and in person at the CAA Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Produced by the Toronto Stage Company in association with Mad Resilience Films, Playing With Fire Productions and Angelica Alejandro.  Plays until May 28, 2023.

www.mirvish.com

Written by Yasmina Reza

Translated by Christopher Hampton

Directed by Mark Datuin

Production designed by Jon Chaters

Costumes by Nola Chaters

Lighting by Mikael Kangas

Cast: Angelica Alejandro

Jarrod W. Clegg

Luke Marty

Amy Slattery

Dreadful.

The Story. Two couples meet to discuss what to do about an altercation between their two 11-year-old sons.  Alan and Annette’s son Benjamin hit Veronica and Michael’s son Henry in the mouth with a branch causing Henry’s two front teeth to be bashed out—swelling, damage, orthodontistry. Benjamin apparently did it because Henry wouldn’t let him join his gang.

The couples meet at Veronica and Michael’s house as accommodating, respectful adults who want a fair outcome. Coffee and clafouti are served. Alan calls his son a thug and a savage and appreciates the laws of the jungle….and the God of Carnage who seems to work with no mercy. Alan, a lawyer, is also pre-occupied with a client and constantly interrupts the conversation to answer his vibrating cell phone. His wife Annette starts off as calm but as the play goes on she becomes more hardnosed and infuriated with her husband’s phone calls.

Michael is mild-mannered initially. He wants the whole matter solved so he can go back to his life.  His wife Veronica is the protective mother who is fierce with anyone she perceives as doing her family harm.  She wants an apology from her son’s attacker. She wants her husband to stand-up for their kid. So gradually we see the subtle shifts in the relationships and how easily something that is polite and balanced can turn ugly and totally off kilter.

Where do bully children come from? From bullying, passive-aggressive, whiny parents, like these.

The Production.  Playwright Yazmina Reza has written a play of subtlety, wit and perception at the folly of people/parents who are well-off and overprotective. Reza has laser vision to dissect this kind of behaviour. The play reveals itself pretty quickly as each character reacts to the situation.

One can talk about the furnishings (fine); the lighting (bright) the costumes (dandy) but it all goes for naught if the cast is not up to the task, and for the most part, they aren’t. They are obviously microphoned to be heard but even that is not helpful to Amy Slattery who plays Veronica and Angelica Alejandro who plays Annette. Alejandro in particular is inaudible because she talks so quietly or garbles her words. (Did no one sit in the audience to actually ‘hear’ this show during rehearsal?)  For the most part the acting is laboured, without nuance or any kind of subtlety and the humour for this funny comedy, is almost non-existent. Only Luke Marty as Alan has a sense of the character and the play. It is soon obvious why—he is a classically trained actor. One can’t find anything even close to professional stage work in the bios of the others.

The direction by Mark Datuin is pedestrian at best.

Comment. Writing this negative review gives me no pleasure. When the producer invited me to the opening I had to ask if this was an Equity production—that’s what I review, not non-equity work. The producer assured me that every member of the cast was either an Equity Member or an ACTRA Member/Apprentice. That does not mean that they are trained actors. But one lives in hope every time one goes to the theatre, that this will be a good production. We go with optimism. This production is dispiriting. My initial thought was not to review it, but as a wise friend said, “they have to be told.” And it’s true.

Theatre actors slug their guts out getting training, taking classes, honing their craft—and theatre acting is a craft—auditioning for projects, delving deep into the heart and soul of the work, coping with disappointment. They invest their lives in the art of theatre. They don’t dabble in it.

Everything about this production of God of Carnage struck me as a vanity production for dabblers. Not good enough.

The Toronto Stage Company in association with Mad Resilience Films, Playing With Fire Productions and Angelica Alejandro present:

Plays until May 28, 2023.

Running time: 90 minutes.

www.mirvish.com

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Live and in person two festivals for children:  

JUNIOR INTERNATIONAL CHILDREN’S FESTIVAL for children 5 to 12 years old.

May 20-22, 2023.

At Harbourfront Centre

PINOCCHIO

Teater Patrasket

From Denmark.

60 minutes (no intermission)

Based on the Carlo Collodi story.

Directed by Alex Byrne

Composer, Bastian Popp

Cast: Dirck Backer

Signe Kærup Dahl

Maria Myrgård

Bastian Popp

Teater Patrasket from Denmark gives this classic story a contemporary interpretation, about a puppet named Pinocchio who wanted to be a boy, but first he must learn to be human. You know the story, right? A poor woodcarver name Geppetto is lonely, so he creates a puppet for company,  out of bits and pieces of things. Miraculously during the night, the puppet comes alive, but is a bit miffed that one of his feet is in fact a wheel. “Why did you make me different?” he asks of the incredulous Geppetto? So one of life’s lessons for the audience—to this puppet, being different was not advantageous.

Geppetto so loves the puppet as if he was real that he sells his only coat for the money needed to buy Pinocchio a school book. But Pinocchio wants to sell the school book for a ticket to the circus. The audience was told there would be dilemmas. It was told that the first dilemma is what Pinocchio should do: go to school or to the circus?  It sounded like the wise, young audience thought ‘school’ was the best choice. Life lessons for both the audience and Pinocchio. Then the audience was asked: “What do you think Pinocchio did?” Hands down, the wise kids (they obviously read the book), said, “went to the circus.” There were other dilemma with more and more offers of what should he do and what did he do.

The craft of Teater Patrasket is stunning. The whimsy of the costumes, the collaborative acting of the story, the puppetry and not just Pinocchio, there were many others, the thorny issue of teaching a person to act with conscience is all there in this wonderful piece of theatre.

ZOOM

Patch Theatre

Australia

45 minutes running time.

Created by Geoff Cobham

Dave Brown

Roz Hervey

Temeka Lawlor

Angus Leighton

Composer, Jason Sweeney

Designer, Michelle ‘Maddog’ Delaney

Technical designers, Jason Sweeney

Designer, Chris Petridis

Alexander Hatchard

Animation, Luku

Cast: Temeka Lawlor

Angus Leighton

Before we go into the theatre, we are asked to give up ‘a bit of darkness’ and throw it in a black bag held by a welcoming man wearing a black hat with an iridescent band of blue around the circumference of it. When we go into the theatre, we are given a disk with several lights in it glowing white.

A kid is told good night by an unseen parent. That means ‘lights out.’ But she has a box with all sorts of stuff that produces light. Light pours in from the sides, from the top, from small flashlights and what look like glowing beams. Figures of light create patters and forms in the dark. Light shoots out to the audience. Patterns get more and more complex. Then we are asked to shake the lighted disk we were given. The lights change on everyone’s disk. The young audience whoops. Then it changes again, and again. Jason Sweeney’s throbbing music invites people to rise and dance if they want. Or not.

The show is a delight of light. It’s imaginative, wild, witty and creative.

WEE FESTIVAL for children 0-6 years old.

Various times and days, until June 11 2023.

Venues city wide.

The 2023 WeeFestival will launch a month-long citywide celebration of unforgettable artistic encounters for early childhood from May 16- June 11. The four- week dynamic and diverse program of performances and events for children newborn to six years olds features music, dance, puppetry performances in English, French, or with no words at all.

www.weefestival.ca

STRING

At the Redwood Theatre, 1300 Gerrard St. E.


Le Mouton carré (France)

 

Puppetry, Live Music2.5 years +Wordless

The Redwood Theatre – Sat 21 and Sunday 22 May | 11h – 30 minutes

While this has closed (it only played two days) there are more events that will be perfect for young members of the family.

“Pods” populate the stage. They look like mushrooms without the stems. Or bowls turned upside down. A man plays the ‘finger-harp” and whistles or sings or creates percussion on the pods. A woman who could use a laugh is approached by him playing and singing. Sand flows down. Later there is water from a pipe that flows down from the flies. A tiny puppet appears, as if born from under a pod. The puppet begins his journey of discovery. Objects on string float down.

The imagery, puppetry, light and creativity of this show captured the imagination of this young audience.

At the talkback a forthright kid asked what it was about. A younger voice said, “life.” Sounds about right to me. Looking forward to more productions next weekend.  

Both The Junior International Children’s Festival and The Wee Festival always happen around this time of year—Junior over the Victoria Day Weekend and Wee for a longer time in May. The age group for each festival overlaps with the other. It seems a no-brainer that they would be a perfect collaboration—pooling resources, sharing venues, spaces, timetabling etc. But they don’t. For some bizarre reason these two festivals, happening at the same time, catering to our most valuable and precious audience, young people, who represent THE FUTURE, do not collaborate. They have collaborated in the past for a terrific result. Please try again. It’s important.   

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