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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Heads up and what I’m seeing for the week of Aug. 30-Sept. 5, 2021.

Monday Aug 30 – Sept. 3, 2021

Cahoots, Hot House Lift-Off-Showcase

A showcase of new work by interesting playwrights for Cahoots.

info@cahoots.ca

Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021.

I’m seeing:

THREE TALL WOMEN,

At the Stratford Festival. By Edward Albee. Directed by Diana Leblanc. Starring: Martha Henry, Lucy Peacock and Mamie Zwettler, Andrew Iles.

A play about remembering and all that entails. Complex, funny, Albee. A cast to make you swoon.

It plays until Oct. 9.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. 11 am

Here for Now Theatre, New Works Festival.

I’m seeing:

In Search of Catharsis

Written and performed by Jessica B. Hill and directed by Rodrigo Beilfuss

(Reading Series)

Why are we here?
This ‘making sense of living’ thing is hard, no matter who you are.
Join a member of the Ancient Greek pantheon as she candidly wrestles with the grand improvisation of existence. Something we’ve all been going through….especially this year. Wouldn’t it be nice if life came with a manual?
In Search of Catharsis is a one-person storytelling about our never-ending battle with uncertainty.
It has something to do with science, madness, theatre…and a weasel.
Reality really is what you make of it.

www.herefornowtheatre.com

Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

I’m seeing:

At the Stratford Festival.

SERVING ELIZABETH

VENUE: TOM PATTERSON THEATRE CANOPY

AUGUST 28 – SEPTEMBER 26

Written by Marcia Johnson.

Directed by Kimberley Rampersad.

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.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. 2:00 pm

The Thousand Islands Playhouse,

Gananoque. Ont.

Sexy Laundry

Written by Michael Rimi

Directed by Krista Jackson

Starring: Sarah Dodd and Shawn Wright

“Armed with a copy of “Sex for Dummies,” Alice and Henry check themselves into a trendy spa hotel with a mission: to jump-start their 25-year marriage. Can they embrace all the wild suggestions Alice keeps pulling from her handy-dandy marriage-saving manual? Is Henry prepared to see his fifty-plus wife, and mother of his children, dressed in black leather?”

(I also believe there is a riding crop involved. There are no horses in this show.)

 www.1000islandsplayhouse.com

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Live, in-person on the Harvest Stage, part of the Blyth Festival, Blyth, Ont. Until Sept. 5, 2021.

www.blythfestival.com

Written by Kenneth T. Williams

Directed by Keith Barker

Sound and original music by Heidi Chan

Costumes by Jeff Chief

Cast: April Leung plays the role of Yvette until Aug. 28.

P.J. Prudat plays the role of Yvette from Aug. 31 to Sept. 5.

Background. Inspired by a true story about a Chinese-Cree girl growing up in Saskatchewan in the 1950s and 60s, Kenneth T. Williams’ remarkable play premiered in 2011 in Dawson City to instant acclaim. This tour-de-force tells the story of Charlie Wong who emigrates from China to rural Saskatchewan, and opens a restaurant. But provincial law at the time prevents Charlie from hiring white women to work for him. Katherine, a young Cree woman from a nearby reserve, takes a job at the café. In time, the two fall in love, marry, and have a daughter—Yvette. The play begins in 1957, as nine-year-old Yvette Wong helps out in her parents’ café in Alistair, Saskatchewan. She’s incredibly bright but has been placed in the slow learners’ class because of her skin colour. Her mother Katherine, who was forced to attend a residential school, is conflicted about her identity and has charged Yvette with a secret— to never tell anyone she’s part Cree.

Seen through the hopeful and undaunted eyes of young Yvette, this play touches us all at time when we need it. Williams was originally inspired by the true story of Canada’s first Indigenous Senator, and our first senator of Chinese descent, the trailblazing Lillian Eva Quon Dyck.

The play is really about Yvette and her dream of being a doctor and having to fight prejudice both at home and at school in following her dreams. The play starts with a flashback of the adult Yvette remembering her journey.

Because the play takes place in 1957 language was different. For example, Indigenous people are referred to as “Indians,” a word that sounds jarring to us in 2021 but was ‘appropriate’ in the 1950s, until the reference was changed.

In 1957 Yvette Wong is a bubbly, inquisitive, curious nine-year-old who reads books on ancient Egypt for fun. Her mother is ill and plans are made for her Father, Mother and Yvette to drive to her Mother’s family on the Reservation for medical advice from her mother’s father—who knows about such things. Yvette’s Father is Chinese and her Mother is Cree. Her Mother feels that Yvette will be better served if she doesn’t tell anyone of her Indigenous heritage.

The reality for Yvette in 1957 is rather harsh. Yvette is in the “slow-learner class” which was assumed because she looks different that the ‘white’ kids. A new principal to the school realizes that Yvette is bright and asks her parents for permission to move Yvette into grade 6 instead of keeping her in grade 5. The grade 6 teacher is guilty of the blinkered way of looking at and treating students fairly, and assumes that Yvette should be in the ‘slow’ class until the principal insists.

Yvette blossoms in school. She wants to be a doctor. Yvette’s Mother has faith in her daughter, and supports her in her desire to be a doctor. Unfortunately, her Mother dies soon after and Yvette must navigate her journey herself.

Kenneth T. Williams has written a challenging play about resilience. He shows the small-minded thinking with which Yvette had to contend. Her Father thought that studying medicine was a waste of time for a girl. She should marry and her husband should take care of her and her family. In school Yvette had the support of a teacher to apply for a scholarship, but that idea changed when the teacher found out about Yvette’s Indigenous heritage.

It’s bracing to see that Yvette never lost her sense of curiosity, her integrity or her resolve in meeting every challenge and studying for what she wanted. That Café Daughter is inspired by a true story adds weight to the message. The racism that Indigenous people endured in 1957 was pretty brutal as was the racism if one was of another ethnicity. Yvette was the target of many racial slurs and she handled it all with dignity.

The set is simple on the beautiful Harvest Stage. A few doors, one of which has a simple menu on it, establishes the café run by Yvette’s father. As Yvette, April Leung is energetic, accommodating, always cheerful in her own way, never showing resentment or despair. Keith Barker has directed with economy and a good use of the space. Since April Leung plays all the parts in this one-person show, distinguishing characters in speeches is key. She (and director Keith Barker) have devised various movements and body language to establish characters. For Yvette, April Leung sits up straight with her knees together. As her supporting teacher, she sits forward a bit and her legs are spread, suggesting this is a man speaking. The shifting from one character to another is smooth and seamless.

Two actresses play the part of Yvette. April Leung played the part until Saturday, Aug. 28.

P.J. Prudat will play Yvette from Tuesday, Aug. 31 to Sept. 5.

P.J. Pruat is a fine actress in her own right. I would have loved to have seen her play Yvette for her run of the show, but alas, time does not permit. Don’t miss the chance to see this moving play of resilience with a fine actress in the part.

The Blyth Festival presents:

Plays until: Sept. 5, 2021.

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

www.blythfestical.com

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Live and in person at 4th Line Theatre, in the barn yard, Millbrook, Ont. until Aug. 28, 2021.

www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca

Created and performed by Megan Murphy and Kate Suhr

Directed by Kim Blackwell

Set by Ian Burns

Sound by Bill Porter and Alan Stanley

Musician, Saskia Tomkins

What do you do if you are a musician and story-teller who are used to performing your show for eager audiences but the pandemic has shut down everything for months and months? If you are story-teller Megan Murphy and her good friend musician Kate Suhr you lament; you grieve, you despair and then you create stories that lift the spirits and write songs that encapsulate what you have been feeling for those isolating months and months. Then you hope to present your creation to perhaps five families who would invite you to their verandahs to hear the songs and stories.  

At least, that was the plan.

Megan Murphy and Kate Suhr reckon they have presented their show, The Verandah Society on 120 verandahs at last count. That show has culminated with an extended run at 4th Line Theatre on the Winslow Farm where they are in residence until Aug. 28. The show is a charmer and it’s presented beautifully.

Ian Burns has designed two spacious verandahs in the barn yard of the farm—one for Megan Murphy and one for Kate Suhr. Each verandah is full of hanging flower pots, comfortable furniture (table and chairs) and the expectation of visitors.

Megan Murphy stole the title for the show, The Verandah Society, from her uncle who was a radio host on a station out of Peterborough. He wrote wonderful stories and called the show The Verandah Society, so Megan Murphy and Kate Suhr decided to (uh) ‘borrow’ the title for their own show, which, considering where they performed the show, was a perfect title.

Murphy’s stories detailed her career in morning radio out of Peterborough. She talked of working the very early morning shift, trying to engage listeners and trying to be interested. She wrote a story about befriending an elderly woman who came to her door with a bible, determined to win Murphy over to the ways of the Lord. Murphy details this event with care, nuance and wonderful humour. She writes about faith and how eager she was to make a friend when she lived in the suburbs with the man she thought she would marry. And she wrote of food, with great gusto and relish. She secreted an Oreo cookie in her pocket. She writes of her love of her nieces and the adventures they experienced. One day they found a sidewalk ‘library’ in which were not only books, but a baggy of old recipe cards. Murphy took them. She read them to us in the process. Wonderful.  Her stories are lovely and human and kind. 

Megan Murphy wore wide-legged tan slacks and a flowy top reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn in the 1940s. But it was Murphy’s saddle shoes that mesmerized me. My late mother always wore saddle shoes when I was a kid growing up. She wore them until they fell apart, brittle and cracked. Then she would get another pair. Have you ever tried finding saddle shoes anywhere today? Impossible. You have to go to the deep recesses of the internet and then pay a fortune. I looked at Megan Murphy’s saddle shoes with longing and sweet memories.

Kate Suhr favoured flowery long dresses which she wore for each of her four songs. Suhr writes of the soul-crushing emotions of the pandemic; how she and we coped or not. She sang of living slower and with more care. She has a lovely, sweet voice, a calming stage demeanor and a wonderful rapport with Megan Murphy.

They are joined by musician Saskia Tomkins on violin and cello. Murphy calls her a “magical creature.” Absolutely right. Her playing and music are infectious. Trying NOT to tap your toe when she plays, is futile.

Director Kim Blackwell does her usual magic by staging each performer in a seamless manner. Nothing is jarring and the space is used as naturally as if we were on a verandah for a cup of lemonade. Each line is delivered with nuance and heart.

A quibble about the piece—we are all so grateful to be back as are the two performers, that they might go on a teeny bit past the need to express how glad they are to be back. A bit of a snip here and there would strengthen the piece. But as I said, a quibble.

The loyal 4th Line Theatre audience gathered, masked and packed the place. We were all handed a seat cushion and a program. Before the show we were offered an icepack of a baggy in which was a sponge (I think) sopping with water and then frozen. A lovely idea. And when we left we were offered a recipe from a basket, like the recipes that Murphy found in the street-library. 4th Line Theatre is back with a wonderful show and the same care they show to audiences as always.

4th Line Theatre presents:

Plays until Aug. 28.

Running time: 100 minutes.

www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca

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Live, in person, under the Festival Theatre Canopy at the Stratford Festival until September 5:

www.stratfordfestival.ca

Curated, directed, musical directed by Beau Dixon

Lighting by Kaileigh Krysztofiak

Sound by Peter McBoyle

Music arrangements, Beau Dixon

The Singers:

Robert Ball

Alana Bridgewater

Beau Dixon

Camille Eanga-Selenge

Gavin Hope (Standby)

The Band:

Beau Dixon, Conductor, keyboard

Rohan Station, Acoustic guitar, electric guitar

Roger Williams, Acoustic bass, electric bass

Paul Antonio, Drum kit

Joe Bowden, Percussion

A rousing, throbbing cabaret of songs and words about freedom.

The subtitle of the Freedom Cabaret is: “Spirit and Legacy of Black Music.” The description of what the cabaret is about is clear and resounding: “From the moment Black people landed on North American soil, their music took room and became the basis of much of the popular music we hear today. There is an endless list of exceptional Black musicians who have been lost to history, while their white counterparts gained fame. From church hymnals to the blues, from jazz to rock ‘n’ roll, R & B and rap, we owe much of our musical history to Black culture, and it’s time to give credit where credit is due.”

And in his own program note, Beau Dixon writes: “Black music, at its heart, is about freedom—not just the idea of social and economic freedom driven by racial injustice, but a freedom of the mind and soul. It’s possible that the Black voice is singing for all people who are seeding freedom from within.”

In Beau Dixon’s meticulously curated cabaret of 23 songs and a reading, the spirit and legacy of Black music is clear and bold. The cabaret is divided into categories: Negro Spirituals, Silent Voices, Message Lost in the Voices, Encore, and Reading (Emancipation Poem by Haui (Howard J. Davis). Within these categories are songs such as “Freedom for My People”, “Trouble So Hard”, “When the Levee Breaks”, “Hound Dog”, “Crossroad Blues”, “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free.” “Pata Pata” “Change is Gonna Come”. 

Dixon puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of Bob Marley and his songs in the expression of freedom and emancipation. He includes four Bob Marley songs: “One Love”, “Zimbabwe”, “Slave Driver,” and “Redemption Song,” “One Love” might seem a gentle one but it has a solid message. The others by Marley are more pointed in their intention.

The Blues are given their due with a fascinating comment—that even though they depict a darkness in their lyrics, they also convey a humour and wink as well.  Beau Dixon said that a lot of the blues were written by or for female artists. I wish he had expanded on that fascinating fact with more examples.  

The cast of four bring their own gifts to each song and interpretation: Robert Ball has a beautiful tenor voice and a courtly manner and imbues his singing and interpretation with poignancy; Alana Bridgewater digs deep through her rich voice and puts the heart and soul into such songs as “Hound Dog” and “Home is Where the Heart Is” among others. Camille Eanga-Selenge has a pure soprano voice and sings “Pata Pata” by Miriam Makeba and Jerry Ragovoy with all the intoxicating rhythm contained in that celebrated song. Beau Dixon seems to be able to do anything. Music pours out of him he is so gifted. He curated the Cabaret choosing the songs carefully and who would sing them; he is the music director; he plays the keyboards and multiple harmonicas as further accompaniment; he is the music arranger; a performer and the conductor of the cabaret. He would make a kicking motion for further percussive emphasis. And when one thought he must be getting tired, he flopped on the ground and did three full pushups. I was exhausted.

At one point towards the end of the concert, Dixon yelled out that he had something to say. The band played quieter to let him speak. What followed was a list of various people of colour who were leaders in creating inventions, accomplishments, social change and the young girl who won the championship spelling Bee. I have a quibble here, about the sound. I can appreciate that it’s thought the audience should hear both the singers and the band. I just wonder why the band has to be as loud in amplification as the singers. The band is supposed to support the singers not drown them out. I found that happened occasionally during Freedom. Some of the lyrics of some songs were drowned out by the band.  I would like to have heard that list of people and what they invented-accomplished without the attendant amplification. Also, Camille Eanga-Selenge had a speech that seemed very important but I could not make out what she was saying because she was drowned out. The message of all these songs and speeches is important. We have to hear the lyrics. Nothing will be diminished if the amplification of the band is decreased. In fact the message will be heard ‘loud’ and clear, which is the point.

In any case, Beau Dixon’s curation of Freedom is a huge accomplishment, an education, and an eye-opener regarding music by Black artists. And it’s seductive—the message is pointed but the music gets you swaying to the beat and tapping your toe. It’s music that came from pain but expresses joy.

Produced by The Stratford Festival.

Plays until: Sept. 5, 2021.

Running Time:  1 hour 30 minutes.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

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Live, in person, in Springwater Provincial Park, Barrie, Ont. This short run closed but will be remounted Oct. 28-30, 2021 at the Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto.

www.tift.ca

A wise, wonderful friend of mine who knows everything about the theatre has gently, kindly told me of a point in my comment on Into the Woods that needs correcting. I was mortified when he told me what it is and totally agree. While I noted in the credits at the top that James Lapine wrote the book of the show, in the body of the comments it’s always Stephen Sondheim that I credit for any cleverness in the story, book etc. I will correct it now. James Lapine came up with the idea of Into the Woods, wrote the book of the show and should of course be credited throughout the comments.

Book by James Lapine

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Directed by Michael Torontow

Music director, Wayne Gwillim

Choreography by David Andrew Reid

Set and lighting by Joe Pagnan

Costumes by Laura Delchiaro

Sound by Matt Dawson

Cast: Noah Beemer

Tess Benger

Aidan deSalaiz

Griffin Hewitt

Derek Kwan

Richard Lam

Jamie McRoberts

Tracy Michailidis

Glynis Ranney

Kelsey Verzotti

Young company: Brennan Bielefeld

Brooklyn Chenard

Griffin Dauphinee

Jack Dimou

Owen Hinton

Matthew MacQuarrie-Cottle

Charlee Rochon

Band:

Music director/pianist, Wayne Gwillim

Piccolo, flute, clarinet, Dennis Kwok

Violin, Emily Hiemstra

Cello, Alyssa Wright

Percussion, Jamie Drake.

This is how I described the 2019 ‘slightly staged’ concert of Into the Woods directed by Michael Torontow for Talk is Free Theatre:

“This production of Into the Woods is billed as a concert that is ‘slightly staged.’ That doesn’t come close to describing the miraculous production director Michael Torontow has created with his gifted creative team and his cast of accomplished pros and up and coming student young performers.”

Michael Torontow has upped the ante on that production with a recent very short run of the show with lots of new cast members, this time playing outdoors in a clearing in Springwater Provincial Park, surrounded by woods, in Barrie, Ont. Stunning.

And to make matters perfect the park is actually managed by the Beausoleil First Nations. Every single thing about this production is magical and exquisite.

James Lapine came up with the idea of taking several fairy tales: Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Bean Stalk, Rapunzel, mixed them up and added a baker and his wife who longed for a child, a witch with anger issues and a penchant for throwing curses on people and all manner of other complications. In all cases the characters were searching for happiness. They all had individual wishes, but they really wanted to be happy. Lapine gives the characters a happy ending by the end of Act I. Then they have to face the realities of life in Act II and sometimes happiness is not an option. Acceptance is.

A Baker and his Wife long for a child but they find out that the Witch next door put a curse on them because the Baker’s father took some magic beans from the Witch’s garden years before. The Witch will “reverse the curse”  if they gather some items, one of which is a cloak as red as blood that belongs to Little Red. There are dashing princes who are more charming than sincere; Cinderella who is not all that keen on going off with a prince; the prickly relationship with the Witch and her daughter; and the interweaving of familiar fairy tales with original stories.

No one can musicalize this rocky road to happiness better than Stephen Sondheim in his music and lyrics and he is blazing here. The collaboration with James Lapine is a match made in musical theatre heaven. Lapine has that ability to tell a quirky story with all the bumps and detours needed for his characters to realize that happiness might have always been there. His dialogue is pristine and brisk and simply creates the proper image and moment. Cinderella is disappointed in her wayward Prince and wonders what kind of King he would make if his flagrant behaviour is any indication. He replies: “I was raised to be charming not sincere.” Sondheim takes complex language and rhymes and adds to the depth of the characters. I must confess that at times Sondheim seems to have gone on too long with his cleverness–The witch’s itemizing of her greens comes to mind in Act I and the character’s recounting in “Your Fault” who’s fault it was that they were being threatened by a giant in Act II, are but two of many instances.

This cast of musical comedy pros—both returning and new artists in the cast–handle Sondheim’s intricate, dazzling lyrics and music. Aidan deSalaiz has grown in his performance of the Baker. He still plays him as anxious, but there is a maturity, a sensitivity that has blossomed; Jamie McRoberts plays the Baker’s Wife with a quiet wisdom and commitment and sings beautifully; Tracy Michailidis is terrific as the Witch. This is a nuanced, multi-layered, fearless performance; Griffin Hewitt is elegantly courtly, if a bit wayward, as Cinderella’s Prince, one of the self-absorbed wicked step-sisters and  others; Richard Lam is Rapunzel’s Prince, another smarmy step-sister and  Jack’s sickly cow, Milky White, among others; Glynis Ranney is the casually arrogant  step-mother to Cinderella and with a change of hat, Jack’s harried mother; Noah Beemer is a naïve but loving Jack and an arrogant Steward; Tess Benger is a charmer Cinderella who is her own person and sings beautifully; Kelsey Verzotti  plays Little Red with sass and feistiness and Rapunzel with anxiety from being locked up alone; and Derek Kwan plays the Narrator with a lovely courtliness and a Mysterious Man with disarming gruffness. Every single one of them sings beautifully.

But the star for me continues to be director Michael Torontow. When he first directed this in 2019 indoors in Barrie it was his first professional directing gig. Arkady Spivak, Talk is Free Artistic Producer has cast Michael Torontow in many of TIFT shows as a singing actor or an actor who sings. Spivak has an eye for talent and knows when to move people to the next challenge. In Michael Torontow’s case it was directing. Spivak does not drop his talent in the deep end and hopes they will swim. He knows they can swim, He gives them challenges that scare them and they overcome them. In the case of Torontow he rose to the challenge and set the bar high for others.

But directing outdoors in a wood just seemed to raise the ante. Torontow rose to the occasion effortlessly. His transitions between scenes and his entrances and exits of his actors are seamless. He stages his large cast with economy and efficiency. Scenes are clear and not muddy.

Joe Pagnan’s set is simple with the band up and almost out of sight. Little tree stumps dot the upstage area where the cast will sit with their backs to the audience when they aren’t in a scene. That is masterful. The cast is ‘invisible’ when they are not in a scene so we are not distracted by watching them. Wayne Gwillim conducts the terrific band excellently. It was a very short run of only four performances. So glad I saw this. Looking forward when it plays the Winter  Garden Theatre in Toronto in October 28-30, 2021.

Talk is Free Theatre presented this:

www.tift.ca

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