Lynn

Live and in person under the Festival Theatre Canopy, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont. until Sept. 26.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

Curated and directed by Sara Farb and Steve Ross

Music director, Franklin Brasz

Lighting by Kaileigh Krysztofiak

Sound by Peter McBoyle

Cast: Noah Beemer

Sara Farb

Germaine Konji

Steve Ross

The Band:

Franklin Brasz, conductor, keyboard

Dave Thompson, acoustic guitar, electric guitar

Michael McClennan, acoustic bass, electric bass

David Campion, drum kit

From the info on the show:

“A CABARET OF RESILIENCE

“…a musical journey through a year of enormous change and growth. It explores the isolation, the loneliness, the upheaval and the unexpected silver linings that came out of a time like no other. Join us to reflect on this “great pause” as we move forward and get back to living freely.”

The twenty songs in the cabaret are listed in alphabetical order. They aren’t sung in that order. I think it’s the curators, Sara Farb and Steve Ross being impish and cagy. After all, this past 18 months or so have left us unsettled, confused, angry, fragile-minded and emotional. We never knew from one day to the other what was coming. What better way to encapsulate that ‘confusion’ than by listing the songs to be sung, in alphabetical order, then singing them in the order that made most sense as we carefully picked our way through the ordeal.

The songs at the beginning were wistful, about remembering a better time: “I Remember” from Evening Primrose by Stephen Sondheim, in which a person remembers sky among other things.  Sara Farb sang with quiet emotion “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today” by Randy Newman, in which the lyric talks of ‘human kindness’ that existed so much at the beginning of the pandemic, before the anger set it. Steve Ross sang “If You Can Find Me, I’m Here again from Evening Primrose sung almost with a wink, but not with desperation.

Isolation and loneliness set in. Noah Beemer sang “Answer Me” From The Band’s Visit with such longing and also hope. Germaine Konji recited her searing poem of “The Smearing of Silent Blood” that conjured the murder of George Floyd and the rage the erupted because of it. It was a poem that nailed us to the seat because of Konji’s impassioned performance.

As the emotions shifted during the pandemic so did the emotions of the songs. “Our Time/Like It Was” from Merrily We Roll Along looked hopefully to a better time full of anticipation and optimism. The group blended beautifully on this haunting combination of two songs from that haunting show.

“Light of a Clear Blue Morning” by Dolly Parton just lifts up the listener to all sorts of possibilities as only Ms Parton can. Sara Farb sang it with clarity and a sense of release as a corner seemed to be turned in the pandemic.

“Time/I Feel So Much Spring” by William Finn from A New Brain carries on this sense of renewal and hope.

There was little patter between singers in the concert but there were inserts of statistics, facts and comments about the pandemic and words from experts that put things in context.

Franklin Brasz conducted the band and played the keyboards beautifully. The sound balance was perfect so that we heard the singers clearly as well as the band who did not overpower anyone. The concert showed a lot of thought in the selections of songs and what they meant in terms of what we have gone through in the last 18 months. And we came through singing, or at least tapping our toe to those who sang to us, beautifully.

Produced by the Stratford Festival.

Plays until: Sept. 26, 2021.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

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Live, in person in the parking lot behind Bohemia Café in Barrie, Ont. until Sept. 18, www.tift.ca

Libretto by Bertolt Brecht

Musical composition by Kurt Weil

Directed by Richard Ouzounian

Musical direction by Stephan Ermel

Costumes by Kathleen Black

Sound by Matt Dawson

Cast: Dillan Chiblow

Beau Dixon

Jacob MacInnis

Justan Myers

Justin Stadnyk

Jennifer Stewart.

Because this was a preview I am only commenting not formally reviewing. That said, everything about this endeavor was terrific—bracing, unsettling, honest, true and beautifully presented and directed.

Director Richard Ouzounian writes in his program note: “Mahagonny is a mythical American city where people live for greed, lust and violence. Brecht and Weill created it in 1927. It’s astonishing—and more than a bit frightening—to see how much it resembles the world of 2021.”

The piece—Mahagonny-Songspeil is only 30 minutes long and is a precursor to the more extended show Mahagonny. But this show of 11 songs and comment between songs that is pure Brecht, gives you the sharp flavour of what the show is like and what the extended version is as well.

They sing of violence, greed, graft, the underbelly of society, a time and feeling of brutality and abrasiveness. The cast of six and their music director enter dressed (for the most part) in black leather, studs, fishnet stockings, flowing frocks, if that, and also wear black makeup (eye-shadow, eye-liner, Goth-like). The look in many cases is androgynous or gender fluid. Perfect.

The singing by the whole group is excellent, beautifully harmonized and compelling. The cast puts us on notice. We sit mesmerized. It is performed in the parking lot behind a café known as BOHEMIA CAFÉ (how perfect is that?) there was a half-moon over the Bay in Barrie. How perfect is that?

There is no final bow of the singers. And that is perfect too. They sent us a serious message about our world. We don’t then get up close and touchy-feely with a bow of appreciation that will break the tone and change the atmosphere. We can take it. No bow. Perfect. Thank you.

Produced by Talk is Free Theatre.

Plays until: Sept. 18, 2021.

Running time: 30 minutes.

www.tift.ca

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Live and in person at the High Park Amphitheatre in High Park, Toronto, Ont. Until September 19, 2021.

www.canadianstage.com

Written by Jordan Tannahill

Directed by Erin Brubaker

Production design by Sherri Hay

Sound by Debashis Sinha

Movement by Cara Spooner

Composed by Veda Hille

Cast: Remi Ajao-Russell,

Hiyab Araya,

Jack Bakshi,

Chloe Cha,

Felix Chew,

Nia Downey,

Sidonie Fleck,

Oscar Gorbet,

Saraphina Knights,

Iris MacNada,

Iylah Mohammed,

Amaza Payne,

Sanora Souphommanychanh,

Alykhan Sunderji,

Catherine Thorne,

Sophia Wang,

Skyler Xiang

Earnest, well-intentioned, but full of contradictory messages that quickly wear thin with the hectoring. The message of hope at the end comes from nowhere and is not earned.


From the press information: “JordanTannahill’s newest play takes the form of a theatrical protest song. Led by director Erin Brubacher, a chorus of seventeen young Torontonians aged 12-17 turn the theatre into a site of intergenerational reckoning. Urgent, moving, and confrontationalIs My Microphone On? is both a declaration of war and a declaration of love delivered by a generation facing the perils of climate change.

Fundamentally asking how do we move forward from here?, Is My Microphone On?demands attention for those who will no longer be able to avoid the consequences of the climate crisis, a generation just under the voting age but painfully aware of the legacy left for them. They speak to the adults in the audience, holding them to account, questioning the choices that have not been made, the ones that children will be forced to make, and what kind of future they stand to inherit.

An artistic endeavor developed within the context of the pandemic, Tannahill’s script is adapted from speeches given by global youth climate activist Greta Thunberg, into a choral piece further shaped by Brubacher’s work with the cast, along with key collaborators, production designer Sherri Hay, composer Veda Hille, sound designer Debashis Sinha, and movement director Cara Spooner.

Director Erin Brubacher places her cast of 15 (on the night I saw it) in pools of light along the sides and the front of the amphitheater, facing the audience. For the most part each microphoned participant says a word in sequence to form a sentence or thought. The words are not said by one person, then the next word by the person beside them and so on. One word can be said by a person on this side of the audience and the next one by a person on the other side and the next word by someone at the front of the audience.  This can be disconcerting if you don’t know who is speaking. —I found myself looking around the space to see who the speaker was. Over time, just listening to try and make sense of the words was the best idea. Occasionally a speaker would have a few lines. In some cases the ‘actor’ was forceful. Most of the time the actors were monotoned. Occasionally they were inaudible, even with the microphones. But kudos to Erin Brubacher the attention to the smoothness of the deliveries. There was never a hesitation as to whom should speak next. The words filled the air like so many well played tennis balls that were batted from one end of the space to another.

Many of the cast played instruments that underlined a thought, idea or comment. We were told that every time a certain note was played thousands of species of animals/insects died as a result of climate change etc. The idea of death of trees, plant-life; coral reefs etc. were also marked by sound effects.

The main thrust of the piece was that youths blamed the adults (Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa,) for every ill of climate change and suggesting young people could be anything they put their mind too and it wasn’t true and the youth sought a reckoning. They said “we are only going to say this once” and repeated it several times over the course of the evening. Many thoughts, ideas, complaints, hurts, insults, disappointments etc. were repeated. Adults didn’t listen to them when they made suggestions for improvements. The youth weren’t taken seriously; respected.

Is My Microphone On? was full of generalizations that summarily dismissed adults for their guilt and complicity in the destruction of the planet. The world pollution caused by big business and that of the owner of an SUV were equated were treated with the same contempt.

Then playwright, Jordan Tannahill has the youth then bicker amongst themselves. One would not give her seat on the bus to an older person because she didn’t see why she should. Another wouldn’t be nice to an elderly neighbour because the neighbour was a racist. It was hard keeping all the contempt straight.

Composer Veda Hille provides a song they all sing at the end offering hope. It is not supported by the piece and ends on a fake note. (and too often it was hard to hear the words, they were singing so softly).

There is a magical moment though. One youth asks us to “listen.” With that the lights on each youth goes out and an amber glow of light goes up on the lush foliage and trees surrounding the playing space. The air is full of the ‘cacophony’ of nature at night: crickets, cicadas, insects etc. Then a light breeze sifts through the leaves and the branches of the trees making a rustling sound. Even the siren in the distance captured our attention. Magical. Then the lights faded and went back up on the young cast. And they continued the blame game. Tedious.

Even at one hour playing time, Is My Microphone On? seemed padded with all the repeated ideas and invective. Releasing this diatribe might be freeing, but it makes for lousy theatre. The youth say they’ve had enough (please get behind me in this long line of people feeling the same way) and they are taking over. What the piece doesn’t say is what they would do differently. I think it’s important to know.

Canadian Stage Presents:

Plays until: Sept. 19, 2021.

Running Time: 1 hour.

www.canadianstage.com

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Live and in person at the Harvest Stage, Blyth Festival until Sept. 19, 2021.

www.blythfestival.com

Mark Crawford, Photo: Ann Baggeley

Written and performed by Mark Crawford.

Directed by Miles Potter

Mark Crawford is one of our best playwrights. His plays are full of fully drawn characters with real concerns in real situations. And they are bend over funny. Chase the Ace is his latest (at the Blyth Festival), and it may be his best so far.

The Story. Charlie King has not been having a good time of late. He was a successful morning radio host until he lost his cool on air and railed at his co-host because he was having an affair with his (Charlie’s wife). To make matters worse, Charlie had been to the dentist and his mouth was frozen so in the diatribe it sounded as if he was drunk. Someone recorded said diatribe and it went viral. Charlie lost his job, his wife and his house after that.

Then he got a tip that there was a small radio station in a small town called Port Belette that needed a station manager. He enquired and got the job in a phone interview with the station owner. His job was to boost listenership and interest and keep out of the way of the station owner. Not only did he have to manage the station but he also had to be on air as well. The only other employee of the station was Denise, a no-nonsense-nasally-voiced-woman-who also lent her dulcet tones to radio.

Charlie wanted to make a difference. He wanted to report the truth to the folks. He got his chance with COVID. It struck just as he got his job. He reported numbers of cases. He reported that there were deaths from the virus at the local Seniors Home. The station owner told Charlie not to report that negative news because it would have a bad effect on tourism.

With that comment I heard echoes of Ibsen’s wonderful play An Enemy of the People when a responsible doctor wanted to shut down the spas in his tourist town because the water was contaminated and his brother, the mayor, wanted to ignore that suggestion because it would harm tourism. This is playwright Mark Crawford making a subtle but important point in his smart, funny play, Chase the Ace.

Charlie hears rumors of shady doings in the town but he’s more interested in keeping his job so he lets the rumors slide. He comes up with the idea of a game for which people can buy tickets that not only involves a 50/50 draw but also involves finding the Ace of Spades in a deck of cards to win even more money—hence the name “Chase the Ace.” The ticket proceeds will help the Seniors Home with much needed cash.

But then Charlie and Denise do realize that something is not right. Is the game rigged? Is there graft in the town council? Charlie goes looking for the truth.

The Production. Chase the Ace is a play with many characters, all played by playwright Mark Crawford. He effortlessly goes from the gangly, hapless Charlie to the nasally-voiced Denise, to the smooth and slimy Mayor, to all manner of characters, each with a distinctive voice and body language. When you think Crawford’s acting expertise has reached its peak, he goes further. He single-handedly presents a zoom call with multiple participants, each with their own issues: the microphone is not on. The camera of another is not on, Someone is frozen. Another doesn’t know how to join the meeting. Each time Crawford shifts from character to character with quickness and efficiency. You quickly get winded and exhausted from laughing.

Crawford is beautifully aided by director Miles Potter who has Crawford flitting around the space as many and various characters; rushing from one location in the story to another, getting trapped in a car because the character was still confined by a seat belt. The detail, the nuance and the brains in creating the minutiae of every single situation, both emotional and physical, fills this production to the brim with invention and creativity.

Comment.  It’s a given that Mark Crawford has a gift for writing funny plays. But they are also filled with substance, truths, situations that are meaningful and say something important about our lives. In Stag and Doe Crawford wrote about the trials of planning a wedding and questioned why get married at all. In Bed and Breakfast, two gay men plan to open a bed and breakfast place in a small, conservative town and how everybody copes with it. Boys, Girls and other Mythological Creatures is a lively, unsettling production of Mark Crawford’s lively unsettling play about a boy who just wanted to be himself but was afraid because of the constraints of his family and by what people might think.  The Birds and the Bees is about the fraught world of relationships.  I saw The Gig on line in a staged reading and is about a group of drag queens who get a needed gig only to find out it’s for a political fund-raiser for a group that is NOT supportive of gays, drag queens, or any body at all ‘different’.  In every single play, Mark Crawford writes with comedic flair as well a heart. He writes about and illuminates the truth in his characters’ lives and we all can relate. I will add that this is especially true of Chase the Ace. Chase down tickets at your earliest convenience.  

Blyth Festival presents:

Plays until: Sept. 19, 2021.

Running Time: 73 miniutes.

www.blythfestival.com

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Played at the Thousand Islands Playhouse, Firehall Theatre until August 5- Sept. 4, 2021.

Written by Michele Riml

Directed by Krista Jackson

Set and costumes by Judith Bowden

Lighting by Michelle Ramsay

Sound by John Gzowski

Cast: Sarah Dodd

Shawn Wright

NOTE: Bravo to Brett Christopher, the Managing Artistic Director of Thousand Islands Playhouse, for getting eager audiences back to the theatre, by carefully, safely presenting this play inside the theatre, in which the audience was safely distanced. Ushers took us to our seats and at the end, ushered us out row by row. I did not have one second of anxiety. The show was so popular it was held over for a few more performances past its original closing date of Aug. 29. The classy press representative gave me a review ticket even though it was for the second last performance.

The Story. Alice and Henry have been married for 25 years and the zip has gone out of their marriage. Each is disappointed with their lives and keeps it to themselves. Alice suggests they go away to a hotel for a ‘dirty’ weekend “to see what’s still left of us.” Henry goes along with the plan.

The Production. Judith Bowden’s set is of a modern hotel room that has remote control devices for all sorts of stuff, from the TV to sound to probably the curtains. Getting the right one to work is frustrating for Henry (Shawn Wright). He complains about the thin towels.

Alice (Sarah Dodd) is eager for this to work. She has a well-thumbed copy of Sex for Dummies (I assume, I didn’t quite see the title of the book from the side where I was, but it had been perused quite often, it seemed) with suggestions of how to turn on your partner. From giving a massage to one’s partner, to creating a fantasy and erotica, Alice and Henry are eager to make this work. Well, actually Alice is. Henry, as beautifully played by Shawn Wright, is just frustrated, aggravated and fed up with it all. But he loves Alice and wants to do right. As Alice, Sarah Dodd has that buoyancy of someone desperate to save their marriage. She is as ‘up’ as Henry is ‘down.’

Judith Bowden also created the costumes. At first they seem a bit drab for a couple wanting to put the zip back in their marriage. But as time goes on there are some costume surprises that nothing will make me give away. However, there is a riding crop. It’s had a presence on social media so one can’t ignore it. A riding crop. There are no horses in Sexy Laundry. As Alice, Sarah Dodd displays a proficiency with that riding crop that is both impressive and frightening. Shawn Wright as Henry rises to the occasion when that crop is cracked against furniture.

Because this couple knows each other so well—and Dodd and Wright are like watching two champions batting the dialogue back and forth with skill and nuance—they know each other’s weak spots and short hand. They listen but sometimes don’t hear. And then they do. It’s all so natural in Michele Riml’s very funny, touching play. As with anything it’s conversation, trust, love and listening that gets you through in a relationship. Krista Jackson’s smart, energetic, direction keeps the humour and heart of the show pumping and beating along. The staging is effortless in establishing how well these characters know each other. And Krista Jackson is not afraid to have that edge of aggravation be present in the actors’ performances of these characters who are on edge because of their troubled marriage.

Comment. Sexy Laundry is a sweet play about a serious subject. It is the perfect play to see after a long time in confinement, in uncertainty, in fraught times. It’s produced and performed beautifully, in a theatre that takes care of its patrons. Bravo to all.  

Thousand Islands Playhouse presents:

Closed: Sept. 4, 2021.

Running Time: 80 minutes.

www.1000islandsplayhouse.com

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Live, in person, in concert, at the Stratford Perth Museum, 4275 Huron St. Stratford, Ont, until Sept. 12. www.eclipsetheatre.ca

Music and lyrics by Chilina Kennedy

Book by Eric Holmes

Cast: Brandon Antonio

Dan Chameroy

Robert Markus

Jennifer Rider-Shaw

Yemi Sonuga

Because this is a workshop of this new musical, reviews were not requested, but comments would be fine.

From the show information with a bit of editing on my part:

“CALL IT LOVE is a new musical that follows Olivia as she finds herself in the hospital suffering from memory loss. As she goes through a series of tests, she dissects past relationships, and searches for the loss that caused her to wipe the slate clean. Her journey to self-love and forgiveness is shrouded in pain, but ultimately illuminates the joy and love that were never lost.”

Olivia (Jennifer Rider-Shaw) tries to remember what happened in her life with the help of a kind Nurse (Dan Chameroy). It slowly comes back. Olivia fell in love with Michael (Robert Markus) in college and they married. Olivia was unsettled and the marriage didn’t last. She had a fling with Thomas (Brandon Antonio) whom she met in a bar and the result was a child. Olivia also has a more serious relationship with Jess.

I found Chilina Kennedy’s music and lyrics stronger than Eric Holmes’ book in telling the story and creating characters. The music is varied in styles and genres; the lyrics are thoughtful, insightful and detailed in creating relationships and conveying emotions. I want to hear every single song again. Loved them.

I do think the part of Thomas should be expanded. He has a song but I don’t think the character, as written, has earned it. The Nurse appears throughout and deserves a song, and not just because Dan Chameroy plays him. The Nurse is a presence who is smart, sensitive, inquiring and I think deserves a number. The whole cast is dandy. A classy concert. I hope it’s expanded into a full musical.

Produced by Eclipse Theatre Company and Straighten Your Crown Productions.

Plays until: Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021.

Running Time: 1 hour.

www.eclipsetheatre.ca

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Live and in person at a private backyard at the Bees in the Bush Festival, Talk is Free Theatre, in Barrie, Ont. until Sept. 11, 2021.

www.tift.ca

Roy Lewis, wondrous actor, poet, theatre creator, continues his journey in telling the story of Nat Love, an African-American former slave who was a cowboy at the turn of the last century, a porter on the railroad, who loved words, wrote poetry especially the Japanese form of poetry called haiku and had vivid adventures.

I first saw his creation, I See The Crimson Wave last year in Stratford, Ont. as part of the Here for Now Theatre, New Works Festival and loved it and said so. This year Talk Is Free Theatre in Barrie, Ontario has included Roy Lewis’ play as part of its Bees in the Bush Festival of performances done outdoors in a private backyard.

The play was written and performed by Roy Lewis with creative input by Marti Maraden. Last year I wrote an appreciation of the work, still in workshop form, praising the writing, the imagination in the story-telling, the gift of language, the poetry and the joy in the telling of Roy Lewis.

After seeing the latest iteration of the play, my admiration still stands and then some. Lewis continues his journey of creating the story of Nat Love, refining it, polishing the words and making them shine. His choice of language is stunning. At one point he speaks of a ‘tapenade of flavours.” My mouth waters at that.

And while the story of Nat love is still there, Lewis begins this version with a sobering focus. It was illegal for a Black man to read and write. To do so had dire consequences. They could be jailed or worse, hands or fingers could be cut off. Blacks could not be educated, again with dire consequences. Nat Love was taught to read and write by his father. I think it important that audiences hear that sobering note about how dangerous it was for Blacks to be taught how to read and write. It puts everything else in context.  

 Nat Love became a cowboy moving west. He even wrote his autobiography detailing his exploits: Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick,’ by Himself. Roy Lewis recounts how Nat Love wrote about the rules and regulations governing a cowboy’s life. He wrote about adventures taking a huge herd of cattle to market; meeting notable cowboys of the day; meeting Lily Langtry who was on tour across America; he wrote about being a porter on a train and discovering the beauty of poetry, specifically haiku.

Roy Lewis is an engaging actor, charming us with his bass-baritone voice, commanding, full of nuance, subtlety and depth, then catching us up short when he sings in the most delicate of soprano/tenor voices as Lily Langtry.

When Roy Lewis says that Nat Love wrote everything he is going to read to us, including all the poetry and haiku, all the dazzling descriptions and hilarious encounters, we believe him. Lewis punctuates everything with a smile and perhaps a wink. In this year’s iteration Roy Lewis is relaxed, engaging, and moves easily around the space.  Roy Lewis instills so much joy in the telling, makes the words sound delicious and makes us fall in love with the beguiling Nat Love. I look forward to seeing how the story will evolve.

Presented by Talk Is Free Theatre for the Bees in the Bush Festival.

Plays until: Sept. 11, 2021.

Running Time: 1 hour.

www.tift.ca

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Live and in person under the Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy, Stratford, Ont. Until September 26, 2021. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Written by Marcia Johnson

Directed by Kimberley Rampersad

Set by Tamara Marie Kucheran

Costumes by A.W. Nadine Grant

Lighting by Michel Charbonneau

Composer, Debashis Sinha

Sound by John Gzowski

Cast: Sean Arbuckle

Arlene Duncan

Cameron Grant

Virgilia Griffith

Sara Topham

Roy Lewis

Serving Elizabeth asks provocative questions worth exploring but by setting the play in two time periods that shift back and forth with each scene, the weight of the issues is weakened.

The Story: From the Stratford Festival program notes:

“IN THE SCRIPT OF HISTORY, WHO GETS A SPEAKING ROLE?

In Kenya in 1952, Mercy, a restaurant proprietor, is hired to cater the impending visit of Princess Elizabeth, soon to be Queen. In 2015, another story unfolds in London, England, where a young Kenyan-born Canadian, Tia, is working as an intern on a TV drama series about the British royal family – while also pursuing a writing project of her own. These parallel narratives seem only coincidentally connected – until a surprising twist reveals a deeper relationship between the two. The play explores issues of colonialism, nationalism and the question of who gets to have a voice.”

In both the 1952 sections and the 2015 section the story initially is being told and managed by white voices to the exclusion of black voices. And then two Black women—Mercy in Kenya1952 and Tia in London in 2015 decide to correct the exclusion.

The Production. The audience is on both sides of the playing area under the Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy. At one end of Tamara Marie Kucheran’s set is a grand archway, suggesting the Lodge where Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip will stay and on the other end is Mercy’s restaurant/living quarters (?) with shelving, on which are memorabilia, at least in the section facing me. I can’t attest to what the other side of the canopy was looking at.

Kenya, 1952. A smartly dress man in a stylish hat, tan suit, shirt, tie, vest and highly polished shoes, enters Mercy’s restaurant. There is a sound effect of beads clinking together. One pictures that several(unseen) suspended strings of beads hang in the restaurant’s doorway, acting as a door. Talbot ‘passing’ through the beads is what produces the sound. Interesting but used only for the restaurant scenes.

Talbot (Sean Arbuckle), an emissary of the Royal Family who has come to check out Mercy’s (Arlene Duncan) cooking in order to engage her to cook for the royal visit. He is met by Faith (Virgilia Griffith) Mercy’s daughter. Faith is eager, gracious and welcoming. Talbot is formal and polite. He sits at a table. He orders several Kenyan dishes. He tastes a forkful of each and makes a note.

When Mercy sees Talbot she is incensed.   He’s British and white and she doesn’t want him in her restaurant. She is still raging at the British rule in Kenya and mindful of the women’s resistance in the past. There are also rumblings of a Mau Mau uprising that will take place after the Princess’ visit. All of this weighs on Mercy. Faith acts as a buffer between Talbot, who just wants to do his job, and Mercy who wants to voice her concern.

London, 2015. The table where Talbot sat and the chair are now re-arranged for these scenes. Tia (Virgilia Griffith) is a Kenyan-Canadian who is working on a British TV series on the Royal Family (The Crown) written by a white, British playwright/screenwriter named Maurice Gilder (Sean Arbuckle). Over the course of these scenes Tia becomes concerned that in a section of the series that takes place in Kenya no attention is given to Black characters other than background. They do not have a voice. Tia plans on correcting that.

At one point Tia comments that Gilder has so many scene changes that it’s hard to keep track of where they are in the story. The same could be said of Marcia Johnson’s play and Kimberley Rampersad’s busy direction of it.

Johnson has structured her play so that each scene alternates in taking place in either Kenya in 1952 or London in 2015. My general impression of the staging is of the actors endlessly pushing a table here or there along with the chairs to suggest either location and time period. I think this weakens the importance of both time periods in the play and constantly shifts our attention away from issues. It would have been a much stronger play if Act I took place in Kenya in 1952 for context and Act II took place in London, 2015.

At times we are told information that happened to characters that affected them in the past, rather than seeing them happen in order to make scenes work. Such declarations made my eye-brows knit in concern regarding the play.  

I also found that Rampersad directed her actors generally to be declarative rather than naturalistic. This made for a ponderous, laboured production generally. There are specific moments of lovely acting. Arlene Duncan as Mercy is fearless in her determination to be heard. Virgilia Griffith brings her usual attention to detail to her committed performance. As Princess Elizabeth, Sara Topham gave her a straight-back regality and cool consideration. Special kudos to A.W. Nadine Grant for the beautiful, effective costumes that also added to the personalities.

Comment.  Playwright Marcia Johnson was watching the part of the British TV series, The Crown, that covered Princess Elizabeth’s visit to Kenya and was livid when not one Black voice was represented or heard. That was the impetus for her writing Serving Elizabeth.

Marcia Johnson presents a provocative situation in both time periods when Princess Elizabeth and British playwright, Maurice Gilder don’t consider the Black voice until both Mercy and Tia,  tell them the error of their ways. Of course including the Black voice seems so obvious to us, the audience, but not to these two white characters. It’s not that Princess Elizabeth and Gilder are deliberately excluding the Black voice it’s that it has not occurred to them in their blinkered worlds until they are told.  How many times had we in Canada been called ‘the colonies’ with disdain by a British voice? So when Princess Elizabeth goes to Kenya, a British colony, the attitude is the same. Until two feisty Black women with smarts and clear thinking set them straight in.

 If Serving Elizabeth says anything clearly and simply it’s that direct communication, urgent talking, is the way to set the record straight and get your point across—as happened in two specific scenes, one with Mercy and Princess Elizabeth and one with Tia and Gilder. I just wish the play was stronger and less confusing in leading up to these scenes.    

Serving Elizabeth was developed at the Thousand Islands Playhouse, in Gananoque where it will have a new production beginning in October. I look forward to seeing that production there.

Produced by the Stratford Festival.

Plays until: September 26, 2021.

Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes, no intermission.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

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Live and in person, as part of the Here For Now, New Works Festival, on the back lawn of the Bruce Hotel, Stratford, Ont. Until September 11, 2021.

www.herefornowtheatre.com

Part of the reading series, so no review but a comment.

Written and performed by Jessica B. Hill

Directed by Rodrigo Beilfuss

Actress-writer, Jessica B. Hill has got us thinking again.

Last year for Here for Now Theatre, New Works Festival she created “The Dark Lady” asking and answering who the model of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady might be. The play was provocative, literate, literary and no doubt had us Googling the name of the woman she posited was the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

This year with In Search of Catharsis she has us thinking about weasels, Pandora and quantum physics.

First the meaning of “Catharsis”:

“The term itself comes from the Greek katharsis meaning “purification” or “cleansing.” The purpose of catharsis is to bring about some form of positive change in the individual’s life.”

Jessuca B. Hill approaches the stage in casual footwear that she takes off carefully when she approaches the playing area of a beautiful rug behind a lectern. I love the ritual aspect of taking off one’s shoes when on the sacred space of the stage.

She takes out a smart, white lab coat from her large carry all. She opens a binder and announces her Ted Talk. And she apologizes. A lot. She apologizes for every disappointment we have had, every failure, every bad day, rain, snow, heat, burnt food, etc. Her fault and she’s sorry. She tells us that she was given a box once by Zeus (!) and told not to open it. She was told rather pointedly, “Don’t open it!” She couldn’t help herself. She opened it. All hell broke loose. She of course is Pandora and from then on all of life’s ills are her fault.

She talks about trying to fix the mistakes, all of them. She went into quantum physics to further her in her quest to fix things. She talks about a huge atom crusher that broke down and she was chosen to fix the mistake and she did it.  She mused on the pandemic and how we have all been changed and frustrated by it. She talks of weasels that get into the works and screw things up.

And more than anything Jessica B. Hill gets us thinking about all of this. She got me thinking that it was a ‘man’ god who got Pandora in trouble in the first place when he gave her the box and told her not to open it. Why would you do that? If you don’t want it opened, don’t give it to anyone—keep it in your closet with your god stuff. A test? Jessica B. Hill got me thinking of the other “God” who told another woman, “Don’t eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.” Why would you do that? Such temptation. Jessica B. Hill got me thinking, “Who built that big atom crusher?” Guys. And who had to fix it? A woman.

Jessica B. Hill has a dazzling imagination. She weaves intricate ideas of life, art and history and makes them accessible and applicable to our pandemic-lives. She juxtaposes the word “longing” and “belonging” and made my eyes pop with the creativity of that pairing. Her performance, right down to the determined way of turning over the pages of her binder, is full of exuberance, gusto and enthusiasm. I also praise her director Rodrigo Beilfuss for adding to the pop in this performance.

Terrific.

In Search of Catharsis plays until September 11, 2021.

Running Time: 1 hour.

www.herefornowtheatre.com

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Live and in person at the Studio Theatre, Stratford Festival until Oct. 9.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

Written by Edward Albee

Directed by Diana Leblanc

Designed by Francesca Callow

Lighting by Louise Guinand

Composer and sound by Keith Thomas

Cast: Martha Henry

Andrew Iles

Lucy Peacock

Mamie Zwettler

An exquisite production with a towering performance from Martha Henry.

NOTE: This production is a big deal! It’s the only play in the Stratford Festival that takes place inside the theatre, while the other plays in the season take place under canopies, outdoors. The other plays are cut to 90 minutes without intermissions. You do not edit or cut Edward Albee’s plays—he calls that censorship and he didn’t like it. Three Tall Women is produced intact in two parts. Act I will be performed in the afternoon and Act II will be performed the same day in the evening—so you have an intermission of about 3 hours. And the cast is spectacular: Martha Henry, Lucy Peacock, Mamie Zettler and in a silent part, Andrew Iles.

The Story.  It’s the examination of the life of a cantankerous 92-year-old woman who is known only as “A”.Act I takes place in “A’s” bedroom where she generally stays except for trips to the bathroom. She is taken care of by her paid companion/caregiver known as “B”.They are visited by a young woman from “A’s” lawyer’s office who has come to try and make sense of “A’s” finances.The young woman is known as “C.”

These two women give “A” an audience to rage at; tell her story to of her initially passionate marriage that then went cold; her resentment of her son whom she said she threw out of the house, perhaps because he was gay; we see her bigotry towards Jews, Italians, Blacks and probably many others nationalities; her language is toxic and incendiary. The play is also a portrait of the anger of the aged for getting old and infirm. Act I ends on a startling note.

Act II is just as startling when we now see the three women this time depicting “A” from three points in her life: when she is 26, 52 and the older “A” at 92 but not as infirm. The characters are still known as “A”, “B” and “C.” This time there is a silent character known as “The Boy” who is A’s estranged son—preppy, 23. The characters in Act I are about the same ages as the characters in Act II: 26, 52 and 92 although with different relationships.

In Act I “B” and “C” serve “A” and act as her audience or the people over whom she can be imperious. Her true personality comes out here; arrogant, proud, bigoted, racist, condescending, needy, with occasionally senile moments, and embarrassed, a fierce woman in a crumbling body. But there is humour, usually between “A” and “B”, like a married couple with a short hand, the one being cared for and the caregiver tease and josh each other. It’s as if they have a set of games of one upmanship going on to get them through, and one is quick to pick up on the clues of the game when the other starts it.  But there is also “B’s” compassion for “A” when “A’s” sensitive sphincter and bowel conspire to embarrass her before she can get to the bathroom.

With that background we see in Act II that the women interact more evenly since they are the same person at different times in their lives.  It’s fascinating seeing the youthful, spritely “C” objecting to both “B” and “A” saying she will never turn into them, and they, knowingly nod to each other, that she will.

Comment. Three Tall Women is ‘autobiographical’.  Albee has said that his mother was the inspiration for “A”, but he would also say that “A” is a creation of his imagination. It was first produced in Vienna, Austria in 1991. Albee said he could not write it when his mother was still alive. She died in 1989.

Albee was adopted by Reed and Florence Albee when he was 10 days old. They were very rich and not good parents. Albee went to various boarding schools and by his own admission received a terrific education. In one interview he said he only saw his parents about 6 weeks in the year. He was gay and his mother would not accept that so she either threw him out at 18 or he left at 18. In the play she says he left. Perhaps to admit she threw him out might be considered a weakness on her part. Mother and son were estranged for 20 years. Even though they reconciled, Albee has said that his mother left him ‘chump-change’ in her will.

Albee has not written a hatchet job of his mother in the play. He  has said Three Tall Women is not a revenge play and besides I think he’s too skilled for that easy way out. He has created a difficult, obstreperous thoughtless woman, who was brought up to seek out a rich husband. He has written a proud woman who was smitten by the man she married and they were happy. She was accomplished, smart and wily. She nursed him when he was sick and he got better.He still died before she did. And we see the ravages of time on old age and for all “A’s” toughness, we see she is a prisoner of her crumbling body. One has to have compassion for that difficult woman.

The Production. It’s astonishing. Director Diana Leblanc puts us right in that old world richness. The piece can be static—an old woman who finds it difficult to move without a walker and the other women tend to her. But Leblanc moves characters so subtly to shift focus, that the moving is natural and appropriate. She controls the delicate dance of “A” commanding attention, “B” being watchful and attentive and “C” impatient with it all. Leblanc has directed a beautifully modulate, compelling production.

 Keith Thomas’s composition of harp music establishes a sedate, elegant environment. For Act I designer Francesca Callow has created a beautifully appointed bedroom with ornate chairs around the set. “A’s”(Martha Henry)  comfy chair is up stage centre with other chairs around the space. The back wall looks like painted wall paper with elegant, beautiful trees. There are a few flower pots around the space.  

For Act II The back wall is now blurry with the outline of the trees less defined. And there is a lot of foliage, tall trees, as if the house is growing in on itself as “A” seems to give into the ravages of time.

In Act I “A” wears three strands of pearls over her elegant pale pink silk lounging suit and matching comfortable shows. She is beautifully put together even though she doesn’t go out. There is a brown wig on a wig ‘stand’ on a table to “A’s” right. A black padded walker with a seat is always at the ready. “B” (Lucy Peacock) is dressed conservatively. “C” (Mamie Zettler) is in a light brown pant suite and stylish sneakers. For Act II “A” now wears the brown wig from Act I and while is still the oldest of the three and still uses a walker—this time a pale gold simple frame—she seems livelier, more alert. “B” is still conservatively dressed and “C” is in a frilly party dress.  

The acting is superb. Andrew Iles as “The Boy” is stylish, attractive and preppy. As he sits by his mother’s bed in silent vigil he appears perhaps guilt-ridden, deep in thought.

Mamie Zettler as “C” in Act I is impatient, matter of fact and has no time for the petulant antics of “A”, and in Act II “C” is more flighty, impractical and we get the sense she will eventually grow into both “B” and “C” because a person changes completely every seven years.

As “B”, Lucy Peacock is non-plussed, composed, nerves of steel when dealing with the irascible “A” in Act I, and almost quietly impish and knowing when dealing with “C” and “A.”

Martha Henry plays “A”.  Anybody who wants to be an actor or wants to know what greatness on stage look like should see this towering performance.  In Act I “A” reacts with incredulity to something “C” says. Henry’s eye-brows raise, her head turns slowly to “C” and utters an elongated, “WHAAAAT? in disbelief.” And in that reaction you have incredulousness, condescension, humour and a complete reaction to level the smarmy character of “C”. At times there is a delicate flicker of a hand in the air, full of appropriate flourish and other times the physical business is spare and as effective. Martha Henry as “A” is devoid of sentimentality. She is not afraid to be hard, harsh, mean, cruel and even ugly in showing “A’s” behaviour.

But she also illuminates the sense of despair and being trapped in a body that no matter how dexterous “A” pushes her walker, she is a prisoner of her body.

My audience seemed to be blown away by the play, but it’s Martha Henry who left them breathless.  Three Tall Women is challenging and yet funny. It does not shy away from bigoted language because that’s the how the character of “A” portrays herself and those around her know it. The characters are vivid and the actors rise to the occasion. But towering above them all is Martha Henry. It was a privilege being in the room seeing that performance.    

Three Tall Women plays at the Stratford Festival until Oct. 9, 2021.

Running Time: two hours with a three hour intermission between both parts.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

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