Sunday, December 26, 2010

26 Dec'10


When talk turns to art and artists, it is often too easy to get hung up on the high points — and ignore the people who slug it out in the trenches year after year, all but ignored by the cultural mavens who think that art has to have an almost medicinal taste before it is worthwhile. Which is why, perhaps, Ross Petty's contribution to Toronto's cultural life has gone unheralded for as long as it has.

Almost a quarter century ago, Petty took the age-old British stage tradition of the Christmas panto and started shaping it to appeal to a modern-day Toronto audience. All these years later, his annual Christmas rewrites of age-old children's stories — PETER PAN, CINDERELLA, ALADDIN, and SNOW WHITE, to name but a few — have become staples in Toronto's Christmas season.

Petty has brought everyone from figure skaters and pro wrestlers to TV personalities and ballet stars to his panto stage. Best of all, he has taught a few generations of Toronto kids that theatres are a place to go if you're looking for a good time, which is a good thing for them to know. And it is why, this year, as Petty is being booed yet again on the stage of the Elgin theatre as the villain all of Toronto loves to hate at Christmas, we are naming him the performing artist of the year — just in time for him to start work on his silver-anniversary season.
26 Dec'10


While the cinematic world struggles to come to grips with the new technology that can put a 3D turkey in every pot — well, in every movie theatre and television set, at least — the theatre world has had other fish to fry. After all, theatrically speaking, 3D was old hat back in the days when Aristophanes was a smart-mouthed brat.

But while theatre patrons didn't need special glasses to catch the latest in theatre technology on Toronto stages this past year, don't think for a minute that theatre is an art form that is standing still. In fact, while movies and television were striving to incorporate 3D into their big picture without swamping their storylines, theatrical impresarios have been doing their best to incorporate movie and video technology into their work without overwhelming the delicate theatrical craft.

As a lot of those 3D movies have proved in the past year, technology only works when it is harnessed to serve the greater good — and if all you can remember at the end of the movie, or when the curtain falls on the play, is the technological marvels you have seen, that's not entertainment. It's a demonstration.

That said, when it comes to blending theatre and technology, there have been some impressive leaps into the 21st century made this year.As usual, any list of such theatrical pioneers must include Robert Lepage, who has been riding theatre's cutting edge for so long he could give the folks at Henkel a few lessons. But these days, even if he is caught up in a brand new RING CYCLE for New York City's Metropolitan Opera (or perhaps because of it), Lepage is going to have to do better than THE ANDERSEN PROJECT and EONNAGATA if he wants to stay on top. With creative minds like those of Vancouver's Electric Company Theatre breathing down his neck with works such as STUDIES IN MOTION: THE HAUNTINGS OF EADWEARD MUYBRIDGE, which was arguably the most impressive use of modern theatre technology Toronto saw this year, Lepage's supremacy is no longer assured.

Of course, it didn't stop with just those two companies. Luminato dabbled in the whole issue of theatre and technology with the Rimini Protocol's BEST BEFORE, and the Stratford Festival continued its adventures in envelope-pushing in works such as THE TEMPEST. Even commercial theatre seemed determined to ride into this brave new world, arriving in Toronto in style on a bus named PRISCILLA.

Which is not to suggest, even for a moment, that anybody who wasn't up to their elbows in new technology was simply contenting themselves with the same old same-old. Ronnie Burkett, for instance, continues to find new strings to pull and pulled them beautifully with BILLY TWINKLE: REQUIEM FOR A GOLDEN BOY. With COURAGEOUS, Michael Healey cemented his reputation as one of the finest, not to mention wittiest, voices in Canadian theatre today. The Mirvishes raised the bar (and no doubt a few eyebrows) with CLOUD 9, and Dancap found lovely new depth in SOUTH PACIFIC, thanks to Broadway's Bartlett Sher, who proved conclusively that this classic still has a lot of life.

But while they all impressed us on various levels, herewith the 10 main reasons we'll remember 2010 as a banner year for the performing arts here in Southern Ontario — as usual, in no particular order.


The Canadian Opera Company's DEATH IN VENICE

Modern Times' AURASH

Lorraine Kimsa Theatre For Young People's A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD

The Shaw Festival's SERIOUS MONEY

The National Ballet of Canada's ONEGIN

Luminato/Volcano Theatre's THE AFRICA TRILOGY

The Stratford Festival's PETER PAN

Pleiades Theatre's LA SAGOUINE

BirdLand Theatre/Talk Is Free Theatre's ASSASSINS

Canadian Stage/Necessary Angel's THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

Monday, December 20, 2010

20 Dec'10

Rating: 3 out of 5

Some names carry a lot of baggage. If you’re planning on calling a rail terminus Grand Central Station, for instance, you're going to build a little more up-town than a whistle stop. And if you set out to build a new production of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, smart money would suggest you stock up on a whole lot of funny. Which is sort of what director Des McAnuff did when he tackled the classic Burt Shevelove/Larry Gelbart/Stephen Sondheim comedy for the Stratford Festival, reprising a production he’d originally done for La Jolla Playhouse.

And now that he’s taken one more kick at the can, remounting the Stratford production at the Canon Theatre where it opened under the Mirvish imprimatur Saturday, it seems he’s added even more funny to the pot. All of which might lead one to wonder why, after three tries, McAnuff’s production still seems so drearily laboured — as eager to please, admittedly, as a new puppy, but frankly, in the end, just about as clumsy.

One could blame it on the change in venue, and certainly there is merit to that, for even though McAnuff et al have polished the show and added a degree of sophistication to its production values, it still falls short of filling the sprawling confines of the Canon with laughter. But then, it wasn’t exactly a laugh riot when it played Stratford’s more intimate Avon Theatre in the summer of ’09.

Of course, there will be those who blame the work itself, suggesting it has become dated — as if a work inspired by the comedies of ancient Greece, which have endured for millennia, could suddenly grow tired in the 50 or so years since it made its Broadway debut. Still others might blame the casting, forgetting in the process that talents like Bruce Dow and Sean Cullen (who alternate in the principal role of the slave Pseudolus) have had audiences rolling in the aisles in other plays, as have veterans like Cliff Saunders, Dan Chameroy and Brian Tree.

But after watching Dow in his Stratford opening a couple of summers ago, then catching up with Cullen as he launched the Toronto run Saturday, the problem seems to be pretty clear — and it is definitely one of vision. While McAnuff clearly understands the need for ‘Funny’ in A FUNNY THING…, it seems he sees it as something he must bring to the production, not something he must find in it — and while there is still plenty of ‘funny’ in the script by Shevelove and Gelbart, he tramples all over it in order to hang his own laughs in its stead. What he fails to grasp, finally, is that most of the comedy in the vaudeville-laced FORUM is to be found in the unexpected — and in watching the characters react to the unexpected, as the hapless Pseudolus plots to gain the hand of the virginal courtesan Philia (a note-perfect Chilina Kennedy) for his master, Hero (Mike Nadajewski), and thereby win his freedom.

In a play all about reacting, McAnuff focusses on acting, throwing in all sorts of extraneous funny business, instead of mining reaction from his truly comic characters, including not just Cullen, but his fellow slave Hysterium (played by Steven Sutcliffe). A well-rehearsed comedy is a good thing, but if it appears well-rehearsed, not so much.

So, in the end, if you want to hear a few of the more memorable Sondheim tunes, catch up with a bit of Wayne Cilento’s snappy choreography or admire the creativity of John Arnone’s sets, this might be just the ticket. But if you’re looking for ‘Funny,’ you’ll catch a lot more watching people on their way to the mall on slippery sidewalks than you will on this trip to the FORUM.

20 Dec'10

Rating: 4 out of 5

If we were to be perfectly honest — and perfect honesty is a seasoning best used sparingly at this time of year, I caution — we’d have to admit that in some cases, it’s the wrapping and not the content that makes a Christmas present truly memorable. And while that applies mostly to things like warm, cozy socks and flannel jammies, it can also apply to the bigger ticket items that come together to make up the festive season as well.

Take, for instance, the touring production of DR. SEUSS' HOW THE CRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS! THE MUSICAL — a Yuletide offering that’s taken up seasonal residence at the Sony Centre, where it opened Friday under the banner of Aubrey Dan’s Dancap Productions.

That would, of course, be the same beloved kids’ Christmas classic, penned and illustrated by the inimitable Theodor Seuss Geisel way back in 1957 — sadly better known today, one suspects, in either its subsequent animated or feature movie formats than through the delightful book that started it all. All of which means the wondrously addictive simplicity of the book — a blend of Geisel’s own unique illustrations combined with a straightforward story told in compelling rhyme — is all but lost under the weight of a staging that manages, in the full spirit of the season, to be both big-hearted and heavy-handed in its eagerness to please.

It is, as the title implies, the story of how the Grinch (a mean-spirited miscreant of a distinctly greenish hue played, con brio, by Stefan Karl) grows so weary of the Christmas excesses of the residents of Whoville that he attempts to steal every single holiday accoutrement the town has amassed, from presents and trees to stockings and puddings and the beasts of the feast. The story is told in flashback from the perspective of the Grinch’s long-suffering but loyal dog, a mutt named Max, played in his senior years by an avuncular and loveable Bob Lauder and in his frisky puppy phase by an enthusiastic and charming Seth Bazacas.

But in the end, the Grinch is no match for all the little Whos who call Whoville home, for even though every single Who in Whoville wakes up Christmas morning to find that his or her tiny town has been stripped of all vestiges of Christmas, the young Cindy-Lou Who (played by either Carly Tamer or Brooke Lynn Boyd, depending on the performance) makes her way to the very heart and soul of Christmas and thereby saves the day.

Clocking in at 75 minutes, without an intermission, this is a tale obviously stretched, under the direction of Matt August, to the full limits of its endurance. Polished to a high sheen and a little smug in its innocence, it all but buries its simple message — that Christmas is about what is in the heart, not what is under the tree or even the tree itself — under the weight of its staging.

Somewhere, under the the weight of Mel Marvin’s tunes, the designs of John Lee Beatty (sets) and Robert Morgan (costumes) and the choreography of John DeLuca and Bob Richard, playwright Timothy Mason has all but buried a sweet and simple story, as heart-warming as thick socks or flannel jammies. But chances are, when the smoke clears, a young mind is more likely to remember the lovely wrapping and not the warmth of the story.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christopher Plummer busier than ever
19 Dec'10


Today no one can say what his fellow revellers -- those who partied with him back in when his wastrelling ways had earned him the "Liquid Plummer" soubriquet -- would say about the pot of tea Christopher Plummer is consuming with such apparent gusto. There was a day when there were other ways to take the chill off a cold winter's afternoon -- and he admits he weathered a lot of cold days.

Now, many of the boon companions of his youth have passed on, while Plummer is not only still living, but vibrantly alive -- just days shy of his 81st birthday Dec. 13, when we spoke. And he's carrying a workload that would exhaust a man 20 years his junior.

His summer run in THE TEMPEST at the Stratford Festival behind him, he's already begun shooting on David Fincher's Hollywood take on Steig Larsson's THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, in which he plays Henrik Vanger. Currently on hiatus from that, Plummer is in Toronto rehearsing for the revival of BARRYMORE, the one-man show that earned him a Tony Award 14 years ago. He'll take a brief Christmas break, do a bit more shooting on GIRL then he'll be back for final rehearsals of BARRYMORE, which opens Jan. 30 at Toronto's Elgin Theatre (where it will be filmed for later theatrical release).

And no, there is no picture hidden away that is aging in his place, à la Dorian Gray, nor has he been any more successful than the ill-fated Juan Ponce De Leon in his search for the Fountain of Youth. "I blame my wife," he says simply. "She's a really good chef and that keeps me in shape." He used to rely on tennis as well, he admits, but now, "I'm trying to save knees for the work." As for that work, BARRYMORE marks the third of his acclaimed stage performances committed to film, joining CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA and THE TEMPEST.

He's not doing them for any high-falutin' reasons like posterity, he establishes off the top. "I wasn't thinking in terms of a legacy," he says of BARRYMORE. "I thought it might be interesting to look at it right now." But not interesting enough to sign a long-term contract. "I told the powers that be I wouldn't do it for very long," he adds with a laugh. "I didn't want to die doing BARRYMORE."

Still revisiting it has proved a good time already. "BARRYMORE is such fun," he enthuses. "I love the sort of creature he is." And after "14 frigging years," Plummer's understanding of the character has deepened. "I'm finding things I didn't know were there -- things I missed. It's more emotional than when we played it before," he promises. "It's got an equal amount of pathos as humour now. I just hope it works for the audience."

And while he's in the business of prognosticating, he's also predicting that, under Fincher's direction, THE GIRL franchise is going to be even hotter than the books that spawned it, and yes, he's read all three -- in 10 days. "Once you're in, you're in," he insists. "You can't stop. I was held riveted by those books -- the second one being my favourite, which I'm not in," he adds wryly.

Once GIRL is complete, probably by the summer, he's hoping BEGINNERS, a movie in which he plays a gay man, will be released, but regardless, "It's back to films for a while," he says firmly. "I've sort of done theatre back to back for a while." And he's not looking to reprise any more of his great roles. "I want to go on doing new things," he insists. "I think it's time to do a really outrageous modern comedy."

His eyes fill with mischief. "I'm determined to play a woman before I die -- maybe THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT," he says. "I'm determined," he continues, alluding to the fact that both he and his LAST STATION co-star Helen Mirren have played THE TEMPEST's Prospero this year. "I'm determined to get back at all these people playing my parts in a dress."

Mostly, it seems, he's determined to keep on working -- it is, after all, what keeps him young. "I'm not overly impressed with the big roles," he says. "I've done them so much. But a new marvelous role is sort of a rebirth. And my ambition is still there," he continues. "I'm always ambitious to be a hell of a lot better. If you don't have that drive it forces you to have, there's no hope. "You can be senile -- but you've got to be ambitious."

And so far, Christopher Plummer doesn't appear to be running out of new worlds to conquer.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Chameroy for Christmas
14 Dec'10


We’ve had the obligatory dusting of snow, boxes of clementines are stacked in every store, tree vendors are doing a brisk business, and Dan Chameroy is about to start cutting up on stage. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, Toronto.

This year, Chameroy, who spends his summers quite happily these days on the stages of the Stratford Festival, isn’t doing the over-the-top Dame drag in Ross Petty’s Christmas panto as he has for the past two seasons — at least, not in any live sort of way. (He makes a brief but memorable video appearance as a “favour to my friend Ross,” he explains.) But on the live front, he’s shortened his skirts to tunic level to reprise his performance as the vainglorious and gloriously vain Captain Miles Gloriosus in the Mirvish presentation of the Stratford Festival’s A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, opening Saturday at the Canon Theatre.

It’s not that he sees ‘Christmas as a comedic romp, although “I’m making a habit of it,” he admits, looking back on what has become his annual comic Christmas turn on the Toronto stage, “And I’m happy people keep asking me to do it.” What Toronto audiences may not know, however — or may not remember, considering he got his start in Toronto performing quite seriously in Les Miz — is that Chameroy’s career is not all funny games. Indeed, in more than a decade on and off at the Stratford Festival, with an occasional side trip to the Shaw, he’s racked up a list of credits that includes dramatic stints in A WINTER'S TALE, AS YOU LIKE IT, THE MAGIC FIRE and TIMON OF ATHENS, among others.

Throw in Chameroy’s facility for musical theatre, amply demonstrated in everything from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST to OKLAHOMA! and you’ve got some sense of the breadth and depth of his talent. But Chameroy isn’t merely showing off. “The goal has been to have longevity in the business,” the Edmonton-born and raised actor explains. “I’m not a crazy guy 24/7, but I do enjoy that stuff, and the dramatic stuff sort of grounds me. I like to keep the audience guessing and I like the challenge of switching things up.”

And he’s got no intention of switching off. For Chameroy, variety is not merely the spice of life, it’s also a pretty good work-out, regardless of the demands made on him — musical, comedic or dramatic. “I think it’s all the same muscle,” he reflects. “Technically, there’s a difference between singing a song and standing giving a monologue, but that is the only difference. I think the goal is to be able to bring as much depth to a play as you do a musical.”

As for focusing on any one style — deciding what he wants to be when he grows up, if you will — he’s not interested. “I wouldn’t be able to ‘grow up,’” the 40-year-old actor insists. “I wouldn’t want to make a choice. They all have such great things to offer me as an actor. It would be a bummer not to be able to do them all.” It might make things a little more normal at home in Oakville, one suspects, where Chameroy lives with his wife of 14 years, actress Christine Donato, and their beloved daughter Olivia, now four. “(She) is the greatest gift in the world,” Chameroy says of Olivia. “She keeps me grounded.”

But he admits to a bit of confusion since she started seeing her father on stage. “My daughter is trying to figure out if I’m a woman or a Roman soldier,” he says, recalling a phone conversation after she’d seen him on stage in the panto. “She was asking if I was putting my lipstick on. But she understands that I’m an actor,” he concludes.

Which means she probably understands, as well, that life with dear old Dad is never going to be dull.

Monday, December 13, 2010

13 Dec'10

Rating: 5 out of 5

Let’s be perfectly clear: When we wish for an “old-fashioned Christmas,” no one advocates a return to a ‘holiday’ that involved packing water in from the well after you’d visited the outdoor privy, or chopping firewood, likely with the same axe with which you had just guillotined a turkey that still has to be eviscerated.

But in the face of all the modcons that add ease to the lustre of our Christmases, we long for the kind of Christmas that has always been the domain of the child — a Christmas filled not only with dreams but rich smells and sweet tastes, populated by fairies and jolly avuncular old men laden with magical gifts. That kind of Christmas fills our hearts with joy and yes, sets visions of sugar plums dancing in young heads.

And happily, that is precisely the kind of Christmas the National Ballet of Canada captures to perfection in its staging of THE NUTCRACKER — choreographer James Kudelka’s magical rethinking of E.T.A. Hoffman’s timeless fairytale and the festival ballet made of it by Marius Petipa and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. THE NUTCRACKER opened its seasonal run at the Four Seasons Saturday to the delight of children of all ages.

Currently in its 16th edition, Kudelka’s production, of course, captures the old fashioned Christmas we yearn for, thanks in part to the design genius of Santo Loquasto, whose sumptuous sets and costumes evoke Czarist Russia and seem bathed as much in the glow of memory as in the golden light of Jennifer Tipton’s design.

But, once the corps de ballet takes over, their numbers delightfully swollen by students drawn from the National Ballet School, all of Loquasto’s and Tipton’s work becomes mere icing on a truly gorgeous cake. The timeless music of Tchaikovsky’s score fills the hall, served up by the NBOC Orchestra, bolstered on occasion by the youthful carolling of VIVA! Youth Singers of Toronto, all under the baton of David Briskin, and it becomes Kudelka’s show all the way. His storytelling capabilities and dance artistry combine to weave a tale that sweeps young Marie (Anastasia Komienkova) and her brother Misha (Joel Exposito) off to the magical kingdom of the frozen land of the Snow Queen and the stage is filled not just with movement, but with magic.

That’s thanks to superb performers like Rebekah Rimsay (stepping flawlessly into the role of Baba, long the domain of the recently-retired Victoria Bertram), Piotr Stanczyk (an ever more impressive Uncle Nikolai), Xiao Nan Yu (a dazzling Snow Queen) and Stephanie Hutchison and Etienne Lavigne (aloof but loving parents to Marie and Misha). Joined by an array of dancing horses, roller-skating bears, warring rodents, giant Christmas trees and, oh yes, a magical Nutcracker Prince (a technically flawless Zdenek Konvalina) who just happens to bear a striking resemblance to the stableboy Peter, it’s a breathtaking first act, filled with fun.

But it is in the second act, of course, that Kudelka truly soars, setting his and our imaginations free in the process. As Misha and Marie continue their voyage and end up in the land of a magical Sugar Plum Fairy — a flawless Bridgett Zehr seemingly dancing on the very notes of the score, trailing spun sugar in her wake — one is torn between watching the magic play out on the stage and watching it play out on the childish faces around them.

In a land where chocolates dance and flowers swirl, where darling lambs frolic and beautiful bees buzz, all things seem possible, especially that old fashioned Christmas of which we all dream. And, of course, we mean that in the very finest possible sense of the words.

Friday, December 10, 2010

THEATRE NEWS ITEM: Canadian Stage's new Project
10 Dec'10


Canadian Stage has a new play-mate in its Berkeley Street Project, an ongoing initiative that provides a showcase for some of Toronto's most promising independent theatre companies.

Matthew Jocelyn, artistic and general director of Canadian Stage, announced Thursday that The Company Theatre — the company behind such exciting productions as FESTEN and A WHISTLE IN THE DARK — will be a part of the 2011-12 Project and will produce a yet-to-be announced work on the stage of the Berkeley Street Theatre as part of CanStage's subscription season.

Studio 180 continues as part of the Project through 2011-12, while Nightwood Theatre has just concluded its three year participation in the program.

10 Dec'10

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

In adapting Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST to the screen, American director Julie Taymor embraces a very British notion of moderation in all things. And she gives us a Tempest that is entrancing, although sometimes only moderately so. In a world often dominated by special effects, however, Taymor relies less on the magic of modern technology to attract attention than one might expect, relying instead on the power of casting.

Right off the top, she earns top marks by recasting Prospero, the dethroned Duke of Milan as Prospera, the dethroned Duchess, beautifully played here by Helen Mirren, heretofore better known to royal watchers in the celluloid kingdom as THE QUEEN. For lovers of Shakespeare, it is a relatively painless operation, as these things go. In fact, the character's strange and challenging mix of love and hate, rage and forgiveness seems, in a world too full of strutting machismo, to sit more comfortably on the more reasonable female psyche than it ever did on the male.

Having recruited royalty for her leading role, Taymor then surrounds her with nobility drawn from both the film and the theatre world: Chris Cooper as her usurping brother, David Strathairn as King Alonso, Alan Cumming as his plotting brother and Tom Conti as the faithful Gonzalo. She also enlists Russell Brand as the foolish Trinculo, Alfred Molina as the drunken Stephano, the noble Djimon Hounsou as the earth-bound Caliban, a touchingly androgynous Ben Whishaw as the airy Ariel and, finally, Felicity Jones as her daughter Miranda and Reeve Carney as the love-struck Prince Ferdinand.

Taymor then simply trusts them all enough to simply let them do what they have been engaged to do, moving herself into the background, the better to maintain the sense of balance that anchors the production and proves to be one of its major strengths. Where other directors, best left nameless, have allowed the comedic antics of Trinculo and Stephano to overshadow the drama of the tale, Taymor keeps a firm hand, insisting the comedy these two generate support the story she is telling, without overshadowing it.

In the same way, while she embraces modern CGI technology to underscore the magic at the heart of the tale she is telling, she never allows the technology she uses to overshadow the humanity and the intelligence that sits at the very heart of this story -- except for some unfortunate and heavy-handed work in the storm scene that launches the tale. She even manages, in a thoughtful adaptation/abridgement, to balance the demands of Shakespeare's often glorious text with what would appear to be an increasingly limited attention span in modern moviegoers.

In the end, what Taymor, Mirren et al have given us is not exactly a TEMPEST for the ages. But in the balance struck between talent, traditional casting, technology and the tale at hand, it manages to stand firmly on its own two feet as a TEMPEST for today.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

THEATRE NEWS ITEMS: Einstein goes to the beach; York U and Canadian Stage team up
8 Dec'10


In the wake of a qualified success with Rufus Wainwright's PRIMA DONNA, Luminato is once again preparing to feature the North American première of a new operatic production as part of it's annual spring celebration of the arts. But they will wait until 2012 to do it.

Luminato officials announced Tuesday that the 2012 edition of the Toronto-based festival of arts and creativity will feature the North American première of a new production of EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH: AN OPERA IN FOUR ACTS. Written by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, it premiered almost 40 years ago and was last performed nearly 20 years ago.

Produced by Pomegranate Arts, the new production has been commissioned by Luminato and various other international arts organizations, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where this new production of EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH will once again have its New York première, as earlier productions did in 1984 and 1992.


York University and Canadian Stage have teamed up in an initiative that offers a Master of Fine Arts Degree rooted in specialized, advanced training of a very much hands-on variety in large-scale theatre directing.

At a news conference Tuesday, officials from both organizations teamed up to finalize arrangements for the two-year York University MFA in Theatre — Stage Direction, in collaboration with Canadian Stage. The program will be open to two candidates per year, and will culminate with each candidate directing a work on either CanStage's Berkeley Street Stage or its annual Dream In High Park. Applications for the first class, slated to begin next Sept., will be accepted in Feb., 2011, with the successful candidates named in April.

Award-winning director Kim Collier, whose STUDIES IN MOTION is currently playing at the Bluma Appel, has been engaged as an Associate Artist with Canadian Stage to work with the students. The Vancouver-based Collier will assume her new duties in Sept., 2011.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

7 Dec'10

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Most historians credit Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria, with popularizing the Christmas tree and making it part of mainstream British and North American culture. But that's not the only thing the Victorian era would give us in the way of evergreen Christmas traditions.

And in much the same way as Albert might have difficulty reconciling his vision of the beloved tannenbaum with some of the garish creations in tinsel and vinyl we have today, one suspects Charles Dickens might not recognize his beloved and enduring A CHRISTMAS CAROL in some of the more bizarre and even ridiculous adaptations made for stage and screen. But I'm betting that, given the chance, Dickens would embrace Soulpepper's adaptation of his novel as a true child of his vision. Premiered in 2001, Soulpepper's A CHRISTMAS CAROL returned to the Young Centre Monday for a seasonal run.

Adapted and directed by Michael Shamata and presented in the round, this is a production that has so very much going for it, not the least of which is Dickens' tale of Yuletide redemption. But while Dickens' tale supplies the bones of Shamata's productions -- and fine bones they prove to be -- it is in the way that Shamata and his cast put flesh on those bones that makes this a must-see for anyone looking to either kick-start a Christmas season, or to drink deeply of its true spirit. And it is in the heart that Joe Ziegler brings to the central role of Ebenezer Scrooge, the misanthropic miser at the centre of the tale. Under Shamata's direction, Ziegler gives us a Scrooge in whom we can believe at every step of his transformation, appalling in his greed, touching in his epiphany and joyous in his redemption.

Shamata then surrounds Ziegler's Scrooge with a veritable treasure chest of fine actors, most of them cast in multiple roles. Oliver Dennis gives us a Bob Cratchit in three wonderful dimensions, supported by his real-life wife, Deborah Drakeford, cast as the long-suffering and loving Mrs. Cratchit. Matthew Edison moves back and forth between the roles of the young Scrooge and Scrooge's spurned nephew Fred with grace and ease.

Kevin Bundy and Maggie Huculak disarm then charm, as the fun-loving Fezziwigs, while as Scrooge's housekeeper, Mrs. Dilber, Huculak packs an entire relationship into a single malevolent look.

Working with only minimal props (exquisitely created and/or chosen by John Ferguson) Shamata, lighting designer Alan Brodie and costumers Mary-Jo Carter Dodd and Julie Fox bring the world of Victorian London to glorious life, never moreso than at the delightful Fezziwig fète that ends the first act in delirious swirls of colour and joy, painted by choreographer Tim French.

It is such a strong production, in fact, that it is almost possible to overlook what proves to be the only weak link in a delightful Christmas chain. Cast as the ghost of Jacob Marley, as well as the three Yule ghosts who will visit Scrooge in the night of his redemption, John Jarvis does his level best, but is simply miscast, lacking as he is the kind of presence in any of the roles that would allow him to terrify either Scrooge or the audience. It's not that Jarvis lacks talent, but rather the gravitas the role demands. Like a tenor charged with carrying a bass-line, he simply doesn't have the depth.

Still, this is one Christmas Carol that will linger in your mind and in your heart, long after the season's gone. Don't let it -- or Christmas -- pass you by.

Monday, December 6, 2010

OBITUARY: David French dead at 71
6 Dec'10


His stories made us laugh and they made us cry, even while they helped us realize that Canadian stories were worth telling.
And while his passing will be mourned by the Canadian theatre community, David French's life will be celebrated, in a very real sense, every time one of his plays is produced. Rarely has an autobiography been so beautifully etched for the stage.

French's death at 71, reportedly after a battle with brain cancer, was announced this weekend. Born in Newfoundland in 1939, French grew up in Toronto, and while he enjoyed some success as an actor and a writer for television in his early career, he found his real calling it seems in 1971 when he submitted a script to a nascent theatre company being formed by Toronto theatre pioneer Bill Glassco.

The theatre, of course, was Tarragon and the play was LEAVING HOME, which would go on to be produced at virtually every regional theatre across Canada, its story of the troubled Mercer clan -- a clan like so many others of the era, making the transition from the rural life to the urban -- clearly resonating from coast to coast LEAVING HOME would soon be joined by two other plays to comprise what became known as the Mercer Trilogy, with OF THE FIELDS, LATELY documenting the familial fortunes post-Leaving Home and SALT WATER MOON, romanticizing its very beginnings.

They were all, French freely admitted, more or less autobiographical and they would cement his reputation as one of Canada's leading theatrical voices. He would go on to write other plays about the Mercer family, none of which enjoyed the success of the original three, as well as several other plays, including a murder thriller titled SILVER DAGGER.

But aside from the Mercer Trilogy, his greatest success would come in his single foray into comedy -- a fictionalized backstage slice of life titled JITTERS, that has gone on to become one of the best known and most successful Canadian stage comedies of all time.

In his later years, French moved away from playwrighting and into education, serving as writer-in-residence for a time at both the University of Windsor and the University of Western Ontario and teaching a summer course in playwrighting at the University of Prince Edward Island -- the province in which he made a long-time summer home.

Though it had been several years since a new French play had been produced, his work found a new audience and new popularity in a series of revivals by Soulpepper Theatre Company where the entire Mercer Trilogy, as well as JITTERS, have been revived over the last few years, to both critical and audience acclaim.

But even though French did a lot of work as an actor, a screenwriter and an educator. his heart was always in his playwrighting "I really consider my real work the work I've done for the theatre," he told me back in 1994. "I've actually made a living. I can't believe I've done that. Not only a living but a damn good one. I never really expected that."

French is survived by partner Glenda MacFarlane, son Gareth and daughter Mary -- and by a body of work that is recognized as a Canadian cultural treasure. He probably never expected that either.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

4 Dec '10

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

It might seem that putting together a Christmas panto is no more complicated than whipping up a batch of Grandma's eggnog. You pull out a recipe and, after a bit of messing around in the kitchen, you've got the whole family rolling around on the floor. And truth to tell, Ross Petty has got pretty good over the years at whipping up an intoxicating family brew for the holidays, and making it loo terribly easy. But it's not as easy as it looks.

For proof, one need look no further than this year's edition: Ross Petty Productions opened BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: THE SAVAGELY SILLY FAMILY MUSICAL on Thursday at the Elgin Theatre. And it's a bona fide hit, thanks in no small part to an experienced team that includes director Ted Dykstra (on board for his fifth show), choreographer Tracey Flye (panto No. 9, for those counting) and even Petty himself, who has cast himself as the panto's perennial villain, as well as it very seasoned producer.

The cast, too, has some familiar names. While this is Melissa O'Neil's first foray into this strange and delightful theatrical form, her Bella - the Beauty of title - shares the stage with many performers steeped in panto tradition, including Jake Epstein, returning from CINDERELLA to the dual roles of Prince Zack and the Beast. Throw in panto vets Eddie Glen, Jake Simons and Meghan Hoople and you've got a team.

As for the book, this may represent a first effort for co-writers Nicholas Hune-Brown and Lorna Wright, but rest assured, they find their rhythm quickly. They have come up with a script in which the obligatory similarities to any other stage musical are purely intentional, disguised though they may be by pop-culture references, local jokes and a range of pop tunes that promise something for just about every generation.

Hune-Brown and Wright spin out the story of nerdy Prince Zack (Epstein) transformed into a beastly rock star as part of a dastardly plan cooked up by Baron Barnum von Cowell (Petty in full faux frightful flight) to usurp the kingdom. The hapless Zack agrees to it in large part simply to win the affections of the beautiful Bella (O'Neil), who lives in a little cottage on the edge of the woods with her inventive Aunt Plinky (Scott Thompson, doing his best to prove that there is indeed nothing like his dame).

The Baron's plot not only threatens the careers of his other pop creations - the adorable Buskin Beaver (Hoople in an inspired, toothy sendup of Justin Bieber) and Lisa Lennox's Lady Baa Baa - but threatens to turn Zack's sad-sack advisers (Glen and Simons) into his full-time rhythm section as well.

In short, it's everything we've come to expect in a panto - and just the teeniest bit less, for in their eagerness to please, Petty's script writers overlook one of the lessons Petty has taught his audience so well: rough edges on homemade Christmas gifts like this simply add to their charm. So, while Hune-Brown and Wright strike all the obligatory high and low notes with comedy - the commercials are not to be missed, the new mayor gets roasted just like the old one and Thompson crowns it all with a bit of delightful lèse-majesty - it's all a little too polished.

Worse, in a season when childhood stretches all the way into senior-citizenship and beyond (and if you don't believe me, take a good look at this audience), a tad too many of the cultural references are aimed squarely at the under-30 demographic, and some of the musical numbers go on a bit too long. But while this delightful seasonal brew might not be the nog Grannie whipped up, it's still a great glass of christmas cheer that gets you where you want to be at this time of year, surrounded by those you love, all having a good laugh.
5 Dec'10


The Government of Ontario, through its new $27-million Arts Investment Fund, will make some $3.9 million available to the Stratford Festival over the next three years, it was announced Friday.

The announcement was made in Stratford by MPP John Wilkinson, speaking on behalf of provincial Tourism and Culture Minister Michael Chan. Antoni Cimolino, the Festival's General Director, expressed his gratitude for the cash windfall, adding that the funds will allow the Festival "to enhance our audience development and private-sector support."

Friday, December 3, 2010

3 Dec'10



It takes a special kind of person to give up Christmas for others.

And fortunately for us, performers — actors, singers, dancers, musicians— have always been a special kind of people. As for how special, well - judge for yourself. With four holiday-themed shows hitting Toronto stages in the next few weeks, we've asked just a few of those special people what it's like to be on the boards when everyone around them is celebrating one of the happiest holidays of the year.

ROSS PETTY, appearing in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: THE SAVAGELY SILLY FAMILY MUSICAL running at the Elgin Theatre, opening Dec. 2

For 24 years, Ross Petty has been working harder than most of Santa's elves to ensure kids of all ages have a memorable Christmas — and, by way of a thank you, he's resoundingly booed every time he sets foot on stage. He wouldn't have it any other way.

As producer of Ross Petty Productions' annual panto — think all the beloved traditional British Yuletide theatrical nonsense, with a touch of hilarious Hogtown tradition thrown in — Petty has his pick of roles. Invariably, he casts himself as villain — evil sheriff, wicked step-mother or just all-round bad guy — and in the process, he's become the man that Toronto's younger set simply loves to hate.

He also does a lot of the leg work, from deciding which fairytale to deconstruct for the annual offering, to casting, to finding production sponsors and keeping them happy. Inevitably, he says: "The big crunch comes. And that's when I say 'You really have to quit going out on that stage.'"

And with wife Karen Kain, erstwhile prima ballerina, now artistic director of the National Ballet, up to her lovely neck in THE NUTCRACKER, home offers precious little respite. "There is no normalcy for us at Christmas" he concedes with a laugh. "When we do get together with our family Christmas day, it's like two zombies sitting in a corner."

And while he insists that, at some point, he's going to limit his role to merely that of a producer, and leave the acting to others — "I have to," he says, "I'm not Chris Plummer." — he knows that giving it up will not be easy. "I'm like a race horse, right? I need to get out there at this time every year."


JOE ZIEGLER, appearing in A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Young Centre, opening Dec. 6

Joe Ziegler's lost count of the times he's played Scrooge in Soulpepper's enduring adaptation of Dickens' Christmas tale, but "I think it's like the fifth," he says. And he's raring to go again.

"To play a great part in a great play is a great gift," he says. "You can make improvements. I wasn't in my 50s the first time I did Scrooge and now I'm well into my 50s. I've lived a lot of life since the first time I did it."

In those earlier productions, it was not uncommon to find one of Ziegler's three sons on stage with him, but even though they've grown too old and too robust to play Tiny Tim, it still feels like a family occasion. "I've known these people most of my life," he says of a cast that includes not only director Michael Shamata, but actors like Oliver Dennis and Deborah Drake. "When we go back to this play, it's like family."

For Ziegler, performing in the round brings him even closer to the part and to his audience. "You feel like you're right there amongst them. You're aware of what they feel all through the play. There's not a lot of scenery. It's pure story and that's what is captivating to a lot of people. They just want this great story to be told to them."

And while it takes time away from familial celebration with wife Nancy Palk, he's not complaining. "We've got Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day," he says happily. "I don't need much more of a break than that. I love doing this story."


HEATHER OGDEN, appearing in THE NUTCRACKER at the Four Seasons Centre, opening Dec. 11

Heather Ogden, now principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, has grown up with THE NUTCRACKER. "I've done so many roles coming through the company," she recalls, adding that those roles often paralleled her own growth. "One year, I was the small snow flake, then I was the medium, then large," she says. "Then I was the Snow Queen."

Regardless of what role she's dancing however, of one thing she is sure.
"It's a busy time of year," she says. "There's a lot going on. You're physically exhausted for the Christmas season, trying to run between shows and do Christmas shopping." But she wouldn't have it any other way.

"I'm somebody who really likes tradition," she says, adding that she knows the ballet is a tradition in a lot of families. "It's attached to Christmas, which is a nice time of year." (made even nicer, no doubt, in Ogden's case by her birthday that falls on Dec. 24.) "I love how much the kids love it. During NUTCRACKER, some of the best shows are matinees. You get to be that little girl's dream."

And speaking of dreams, this year, she'll be dancing five performances as the Sugar Plum Fairy, every one opposite her newly minted husband, principal dancer Guillaume Côté's Nutcracker. The two were married this past summer and although they've danced these roles together in previous years, Ogden is delighted they are paired for all five performances this time around. "I mean, I'm lucky to have a lot of partners, but for this role especially — we have a few ballets that we really like to be together for, and this is one of them. My tradition is doing it with Guillaume," she says quietly.


ANDREW BOETCHER, appearing in DR. SEUSS' HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS: THE MUSICAL at the Sony Centre, opening Dec. 17

As the touring production of the Dr. Seuss classic makes its way to Toronto, 22-year-old Andrew Boetcher finds himself on occasion forsaking the role of old Max and stepping into the limelight as understudy to Stefan Karl, cast as the Grinch.

In fact, that's precisely what happened to the young Columbia, MD native the day before we tracked him down in Arizona, where the show was playing. "It was pretty fantastic," he reports, " Being in full costume and full make-up, you can pretty well say anything and they will pretty well buy it as you being Grinchy."

When it comes to Christmas on the road, however, Boetcher is unbothered by the whole notion that the Grinch will steal his Christmas, which traditionally has been spent back home. "It will be my first Christmas away from home and my parents," he says, "But I'm definitely excited to spend it with my Whoville family."

And he doesn't used the term 'family' lightly. "We pretty much became family during the three weeks of rehearsal (in New York)," he says, adding that being on the road only strengthens that bond. "I gotta say, if I was able to spend next Christmas doing this show, then I would be perfectly happy," he says. "You get to experience a bit of Christmas magic every day.

Monday, November 29, 2010

29 Nov'10

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

When it comes to story ideas, playwright Anusree Roy seems to have tapped into a veritable motherlode  — one that runs both deep and wide and will surely never be exhausted.

For while other playwrights might choose to explore grand lives lived on the world stage, Roy has chosen to train her focus on the lives that a North American audience would never encounter, rooted as the are not only in the Indian sub-continent but on the millions who inhabit its lower classes and call India home. In short, people like the pair of urchins at the heart of ROSHNI, Roy's latest play, currently on Theatre Passe Muraille's mainstage, where it was developed in partnership with Theatre Jones Roy.

Roy herself is cast as one of those urchins — a blind shoeshine girl named Chumki who relies heavily on the rough and tumble kindness of a chai boy named King Kumar, played here by Byron Abalos.

Largely abandoned by their families — in the wake of her mother's death, Chumki's father thinks only of drink, while King Kumar's closest living relative is an uncle living from hand to mouth in another city — the two eke out an existence in a crowded rail station in Calcutta in any way they can. Living their lives from hand to mouth, each has a dream of a better life, and while Chumki works tirelessly to save the money to buy an operation to restore her sight, King Kumar begs, borrows and steals in order to save the money to join his uncle and become a Bollywood star. Each is certain that his or her dream will come true, even while each knows that the other's dream is nothing more than fantasy.

It's a dilemma worthy of a tale by O. Henry, albeit an O. Henry of a more cynical age, and the two member cast makes the most of it, inhabiting the sprawling confines of Lindsay Anne Black's corrugated set, under the direction of Thomas Morgan Jones and making it ring with life.

As she has amply proved in her earlier works like PYAASA and LETTERS TO MY GRANDMA, Roy is a charming performer and she brings to the character of the hapless Chumki a blend of toughness and vulnerability that is certain to steal lots of hearts. And she is matched at almost every turn by Abalos, who gives us a King Kumar whose strutting confidence almost succeeds in masking his vulnerability and finally the desperation that drives him to betrayal.

But, in the end, it is a small jewel of a story — which is the kind of story that Roy seems to tell best — and despite the best efforts of lighting designer David DeGrow and the sound design of Thomas Rider Payne, this talented twosome and their creative team simply has neither the chops nor the story to fill the sprawling confines of this stage.

Sometimes bigger is simply bigger.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

27 Nov'10

Rating: 4 out of 5

TORONTO - Observing cutting edge theatre here in Toronto and across Canada these days, two things become abundantly obvious. The first is that theatre artists the world over have not only seen but embraced the future -- a technical top hat filled with all sorts of virtual rabbits, a brave new world filled with unimaginable wonder.

The second is that, even while they've seen and embraced it, they are still scrambling to figure out just what in hell to do with it, even as they throw themselves into the process of mining the seemingly unfathomable depth and breadth of new technology. And when it comes to theatrical spelunking in the caves of technology, few companies have enjoyed more success than Vancouver's Electric Company Theatre, a young company seemingly devoted to pushing the ever-expanding borders of theatre into new technological territory.

To see just how successful they have been, all you have to do is check out STUDIES IN MOTION: THE HAUNTINGS OF EADWEARD MUYBRIDGE, which opened at the Bluma Appel Theatre Thursday in a presentation of Canadian Stage.

Written by Kevin Kerr and directed by the award-winning Kim Collier, this is theatre on the very cutting edge of technology, blending as it does Robert Gardiner's video creation with the soundscape of Patrick Pennefather and the choreography of Crystal Pite (who just happens to be featured in the National Ballet of Canada's current offering of mixed programming) into a visual cocktail that is nothing if not intoxicating. The story it tells is a compelling one -- a recounting of the life and times of the eccentric genius who, it might be argued, launched this technological revolution in the world of entertainment and art, establishing the base on which not only the animation industry but the entire motion picture industry would be built.

Born in England in 1839, he emigrated to America as a young man and eventually launched himself on a career in photography, evolving into groundbreaking experiments in stop-motion photography that would eventually lead to the invention of the zoogyroscope, an early way of exhibiting motion pictures. All of that is a bit of a sidebar in STUDIES IN MOTION however, as the playwright concentrates not only on the sordid side of Muybridge's private life -- he shot and killed a theatre critic who may or may not have fathered a child in a dalliance with the inventor's young wife -- and his obsession with the nude human form in motion. (Let's just say that in this particular production, Mother Nature deserves at least as much credit for costuming as the talented Mara Gottler.)

And from a production point of view, it is all utterly breathtaking, although after over two hours of it all, it is clear Collier's gift is for creating new ways to make theatre rather than using them judiciously. Mind you, she gets scant help from Kerr's script, which seems much more concerned with establishing his cleverness (a fine pear indeed!) than with creating a sense of time or character. In the face of all this, therefore, it is refreshing to see just how much character Andrew Wheeler (cast as Muybridge) and castmates like Allan Morgan, Dawn Petten, Kyle Rideout and Jonathon Young manage to find in this scattershot collection of scenes created to showcase Collier's directoral acumen, Gardiner's technical wizardry, Pite's choreographic chops and Kerr's wit.

At some point, one hopes, this highly creative group will learn to train its focus and the prodigious talent represented therein, on simply telling a story in the best possible way, which is the basis of all fine theatre, after all. And, on that day, the earth might well move.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

25 Nov'10

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

If you want answers to the really difficult questions in life -- How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? say, or even something really tough like, What is it about Justin Bieber and his fans? -- ask the National Ballet of Canada's Karen Kain.

We're not guaranteeing she'll come up with the answers, but in the wake of having solved the dilemma of how to succinctly encapsulate a history of modern classical ballet in tidy fashion, she's no doubt looking for new challenge. She accomplished this feat in her company's latest evening of mixed programming which opened Wednesday at the Four Seasons Centre, an evening in which she balances her audience on the very cutting edge of modern dance, then rockets them back more than 70 years to when the movement was in its infancy, creating a thrilling picture of the medium's evolution.

Kain opens the evening with CHROMA, an explosive and exciting new (or newish -- it premiered in London in 2006) collaboration from British choreographer Wayne McGregor, originally created for the Royal Ballet and produced in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

For the uninitiated, CHROMA most often describes intensity of colour, but it can also be used, as it is here, to describe a freedom from white -- a phrase which McGregor and his collaborators seem to interpret liberally as a sort of "freedom in white." Set in an icy white box designed by architect John Pawson, it is set to compelling and often highly dramatic music, composed fittingly enough by the White Stripes, some of it especially for this work for 10 dancers.

Led by Aleksandar Antonijevic and Greta Hodgkinson, a troupe that also includes Tanya Howard, Zdenek Konvalina, Noah Long, Tina Pereira, Brendan Saye, Robert Stephen, Dylan Tedaldi and Bridgett Zehr tackle McGregor's elaborately deconstructed and counter-intuitive choreography with a heady mix of passion and skill, obviously reveling in its complex demands.

This is a ballet that moves far beyond the elegance and romanticism traditionally associated with ballet, embracing instead a new dance vocabulary that celebrates androgyny of a very different sort while it rejects established geometry for a sort of explosive random pattern that is never anything short of compelling. Left breathless by McGregor's vision of a brave new dance world though they might have been -- and rest assured, they were -- the audience was nonetheless delighted to settle back into something more traditional once the curtain fell on CHROMA.

Particularly when that something happened to be George Balanchine's SERENADE, a masterpiece of the very geometry McGregor's work rejects, created back in 1934 and now considered to be amongst the celebrated choreographer's most enduring works.

And frankly, as danced by this company, it's easy to understand its enduring power, featuring as it does the talents of Xiao Nan Yu, Heather Ogden, Stephanie Hutchison, Brett van Sickle and McGee Maddox in various memorable and breathtaking pairings. It also serves as showcase for the precision, skill and grace of Kain's corps de ballet, which happily proved itself to be largely up to the challenges of this hugely beautiful and demanding work.

Having thus elegantly traversed the history of modern classical ballet in just two numbers, Kain wraps up the evening with a second look at Crystal Pite's acclaimed EMERGENCE -- a bee-inspired work that drew straight As from both audience and critics in its debut last season. And while it feels somewhat added-on here, it clearly remains a crowd-pleaser.

Friday, November 19, 2010

17 Nov'10

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

To refresh your memory: Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world, Henry VIII launched one of the largest branches of the Christian faith and, say what you will about him, Bill Clinton presided over what just might prove to be the economic golden years of America. Yet, too many of us know more about Hephaestion, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Kathryn Howard, Katherine Parr and Monica Lewinsky (to drop those eight names into a single sentence for what well may be the first time in history), than we do about all those other achievements.

So, it should come as no surprise that, in attempting to tell us more about the life of Norman Bethune -- hero of the Chinese revolution and more recently, a Canadian icon as well -- playwright/director Ken Gass looks to the love life of the now-legendary humanitarian. What is surprising, however, is just how dull he makes that love life seem, despite its colourful hue. The play in question is called BETHUNE IMAGINED and it opened Thursday on the mainstage of the Factory Theatre, where Gass serves as artistic director.

The Bethune imagined here is a Bethune in transition. Having been wounded during the First World War, he has returned to Canada, completed his medical studies, made a visit to Russia, and when we meet him (as played by Ron White), he is juggling a medical career with a career as a social activist. Not to mention, he's also dealing with a drinking problem and the demands of not one, but three good women, all the while keeping an eye on events in Spain, where a civil war is raging.

Those women are, in order of appearance (in the play, if not his life): Marion Dale Scott (played here by Irene Poole), Margaret Day (played by Sascha Cole), and Frances Penney (played by Fiona Byrne).

The artistically driven Scott, despite her open marriage to Canadian poet and philanderer Frank Scott, refuses to consummate what started out as a ship-board romance with Bethune, although she is content to play a constant role in his existence, as he does in hers. Day, meanwhile, is an idealistic ingenue who arrives at Bethune's door one night determined to lose her virginity, a chore to which he is prepared to devote himself with an alacrity that far exceeds the task at hand. Penney, for her part, is not merely the ex-Mrs. Bethune, but the ex-ex-ex, having married and then divorced him twice in what can only be described as an excess of ambivalence, despite the obvious affection they still feel for each other.

Into this potent mix of booze and hormones, throw a good measure of social conscience and political angst and you should have an evening of riveting theatre. But it isn't. While everyone in the cast does his or her level best -- and, believe me, that's an impressive level -- BETHUNE IMAGINED just never gets inside the imagination.

Although White is an impressive, even charismatic performer, he fails to offer up any compelling reason for the obsession these women share. Why they put up with him and his soul-searching about the Spanish Civil War and whether or not he should be suffering there instead of living the good life in Montreal remains largely a mystery.

And really, that's little more than fair, for frankly, under Gass's direction and despite some hard work from all three actresses, their characters seem more anchored to Bethune's Montreal apartment (designed by Marian Wihak) by Gass's script, than by any perceivable bonds of affection or even lust. That Bethune will go on to greater things is, fortunately, a matter of history, and a good thing, for in focusing on the tawdry details of his life, Gass leaves what made him great to the imagination.

19 Nov'10

Rating: 5 out of 5

No matter how you slice it, selling your children is just plain wrong.

That said, one suspects there might just be a case to be made for offering to rent the little darlings out for an afternoon or two, but only if it is being done to aid child-deprived adults yearning to catch A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD -- you know, the type of self-conscious grown-up folk who might otherwise be embarrassed to show up at the box office at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People to buy a ticket without a child in tow.

Yes, as it does every so often, the kiddy palace on Front Street is proving that the very best kind of theatre for young people is, in reality, the very best theatre for everyone. Based on the books of the same name by Arnold Lobel and adapted to the musical stage by composer Robert Reale Book and lyricist Willie Reale, A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD opened at LKYPT on Thursday -- a tiny perfect little homage to old-time musical reviews, vaudeville and a lot of other good things of which we simply can't get enough.

It's a gentle little story, which, as its title implies, spans a full year in the forest -- a year in which the long-time friendship between a no-nonsense Frog (played by Allen MacInnis) and a fuss-budget Toad (played by Louise Pitre) might be gently tested, but will almost certainly endure. Other than that, not a lot happens in the course of the hour-long show. The birds come and the birds go. A letter is mailed and delivered. Swims are taken. Sledding occurs. Leaves fall. But even though nothing earth-shaking happens, you can still count on a delightful time, for any number of reasons.

First off, of course, is the adaptation, which never stoops to talking down to its audience, even while it keeps things simple. As for the songs themselves, they are, all of them, a major step up from the kind of elementary rhyme and cast-iron tune that mark the genre.

Then there's MacInnis' staging, which, thanks to strong assists from designers Robin Fisher (sets and costumes), Lesley Wilkinson (lighting) and Michael Laird (sound), comes close to being letter perfect, enriched at every turn by simple choreography from associate director Jen Shuber and the musical direction of Diane Leah. Thanks to them, this particular jewel has a lovely setting that shows off its simple sparkle at every turn.

But the thing that finally makes this production soar is the casting, perfectly achieved right down to the smallest role. On that front, as Turtle, Mole, and Snail respectively, as well as the flock of birds whose arrival signals both the start and the end of the year in question, Cara Hunter, Jennifer Villaverde and Kevin Dennis are all letter perfect in supporting roles, each afforded his or her moment in the spotlight, of which they make the most.

As for MacInnis and Pitre -- well, one suspects that even their most devoted fans will be amazed at how much fun there is to be had watching these two cavort as the title characters. As Toad, Pitre mixes Channing and Chaplin in a combination as potent as the marriage of gin and vermouth -- which MacInnis then balances with just the right twist of all but invisible long-suffering patience. Served up dusty-dry and droll, the result is a cocktail for all ages that is as joyful to behold as it is difficult to describe. Together, they take this simple little story, and by dint of sheer talent, transform it into a vintage year indeed.

It may only last an hour, but rest assured this is one year you -- and your child, if you have one, or even if you rent one -- will likely remember forever.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

17 Nov'10

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

She still fancies herself, it seems, and frankly, we wouldn't want it any other way.

Not when the 'she' in question is Elsa, the wee lass who, with her mother and father, left her native Iceland in their wake and made Scotland -- specifically the streets and tenements of Edinburgh -- their home in a show titled YOU FANCY YOURSELF. A child of playwright/performer Maja Ardal's imagination (and to some degree, her memory, for many of the broader details of Elsa's life mesh with Ardal's own), Elsa sprang to life on the stage of Theatre Passe Muraille's Backspace almost two years ago. And the brash and bossy young Elsa (delightfully played by Ardal) was soon the toast of the town -- or towns, for Ardal built on Toronto success with an international tour that culminated at the Edinburgh Fringe, where audiences embraced Elsa like the native daughter she is.

And now, Elsa and Ardal are back in the TPM Backspace -- both a little older, perhaps a little wiser, but certainly no less delightful for all that -- in a show titled THE CURE FOR EVERYTHING, which opened Tuesday.

Ardal for her part seems largely untouched by the intervening two years -- but Elsa has left childhood far behind and is firmly in the throes of puberty when the show begins. It is 1962, and young Elsa, it seems, has discovered the Beatles in a big way and is about to dazzle her schoolmates with a new pair of Beatles' tights on which she's blown an entire pay packet -- proceeds from Saturdays spent doling out minced lamb in miniscule portions in the local butcher shop. Whether it's the tights or not is unclear, but this all happens on the very same day that Shena, the coolest girl in the school, befriends Elsa, thereby granting her entry into a clique that will bring the insecure young girl into a more intimate orbit with the high school lad who has caught her eye. But before she can get around to living happily ever after, fate trips her up.

First off, the music teacher assigns instruments for the school band, and while Elsa yearns to play the flute, her musical acumen ensures she is lumbered with the French horn instead. And if that's not enough, when Elsa arrives home from school, she finds her normally oh-so-attentive parents glued to the radio and the world around her smack bang in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis. If the world is going to end, our young heroine decides, she's going out in a blaze of glory -- the musical strains of the Beatles and the clipped tones of John F. Kennedy comprising the soundtrack of a too short adult life of training bras and panti-girdles and utterly devoid of sex and liquor.

Without a whole lot of fanfare, Ardal sheds Elsa's innocence and leaves it behind, and working in a darker, deeper emotional palette, gives us a more mature Elsa -- no less flawed or lovable and ferociously hungry for the adventure life and her imagination promise. As they did with YFY, Ardal and director Mary Francis Moore tackle a broad range of characters, working on an even emptier stage than in their first production and limiting themselves this time to a single costume, both courtesy of designer Julia Tribe. Yet the show emerges as not only a rich emotional tapestry but a visual feast as well, thanks to Ardal's consummate skill as storyteller and actress. One has to be very, very good to be this simple.

It may not actually be the cure for everything, but chances are, spending 71 minutes with Ardal and Elsa is going to do a lot for whatever ails you.
THEATRE NEWS: 2010 GG Awards announced
17 Nov'10


Robert Chafe, a playwright from St. John's, Nfld., has beat out a brace of Toronto playwrights -- including Michael Healey and Judith Thompson -- for the coveted Governor General's Literary Award for English-language drama with his stage adaptation of Michael Crummy's short story, AFTERIMAGE.

Winners of the 2010 GG's were announced yesterday in Montreal. They include: Regina's Dianne Warren, for English-language fiction for Cool Water; Saskatoon's David Paquet for English-language non-fiction for Lakeland: Journeys Into the Soul of Canada; Cobourg, Ont.'s Richard Green for English-language poetry for Boxing the Compass; Montreal's David Paquet for French-language drama, for PORC-EPIC; Longueuil, Que.'s Kim Thuy for French-language fiction, for Ru; Saint-Raphael, Que.'s Michel Lavoie for French-language non-fiction for C'est ma seigneurie que je reclame: la lutte des Hurons de Lorette pour le seigneurie de Sillery, 1650-1900; Montreal's Danielle Fournier for French-language poetry for effleures de lumière.

Awards for translation went to Montreal's Linda Gaboriau for FORESTS, her English-language translation of Wajdi Mouawad's Forets and to Montreal's Sophie Voillot, for LE CAFARD, her French-language translation of Rawi Hage's novel Cockroach.

In children's lit, where prizes are awarded for both text and illustration, the text prizes went to Richmond, B.C.'s Wendy Phillips, the writer of Fishtailing, and Montreal's Elise Turcotte, writer of Rose: derrière le rideau de la folie, while the illustrators' prizes went to Los Angeles's Jon Klassen for Cats' Night Out and Montreal's Daniel Sylvestre for Rose: derrière le rideau de la folie, marking only the second time in the awards' history that both text and illustration prizes have been won by the same work.

All winners will receive a cash purse in the amount of $25,000 when they are honoured at ceremonies at Rideau Hall on Nov. 15, hosted by the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada.

Friday, November 12, 2010

12 Nov'10

Rating: 5 out of 5

TORONTO - It wasn’t even two weeks ago that kids of all ages were carving up pumpkins in a frenzied attempt to transform them into something spooky and sinister, in honour of Hallowe'en.

So, if turnabout is fair play, then considering what James Kudelka has done to pumpkins in his version of the timeless story of CINDERELLA, this marks a good time indeed for the National Ballet of Canada to re-awaken his re-imagining of the classic fairy tale. Mind you, it’s hard to imagine a time when audiences wouldn’t want to see this delightful work.

Still, as it did when the work debuted six years ago — and as it has, one suspects, in every subsequent performance — the pumpkin carriage in which Kudelka’s heroine (superbly danced once again by Sonia Rodriguez, on whom the role was created) arrives at the ball drew gasps of delight from an audience gathered at the Four Seasons for the launch of the National Ballet of Canada’s latest season.

And here too, it seems Kudelka created a perfect vehicle, for this is a work that shows the entire company to its best advantage, filled with the magic of glorious music (in this case, a score from Russian master Serge Prokofiev served up with polish by the NBOC Orchestra, under the baton of David Briskin), breathtaking sets and costumes (take a bow, David Boechler, and share it with lighting designer Christopher Dennis) and the kind of dazzling, demanding footwork that marks all of Kudelka’s dance creations.

It’s a charming evening, but despite the delight that marks every scene, there are also darker tones running throughout this somewhat modern re-telling of the classic tale. It is, of course, still the story of a young girl who finds love and hope in the arms of her Prince Charming (Guillaume Côté, delivering in spades on his early promise as a mature and superbly romantic leading man), despite the abuse heaped on her by her stepmother (Joanna Ivey), her stepsister (Tanya Howard) and her other stepsister (Rebekah Rimsay).

But while Kudelka has incorporated many of the familiar elements of the oft-told tale, he’s also given it a more contemporary twist that does nothing to diminish the magic, even while it plays up the darker, brooding elements he has found buried there as well. Cinderella’s mother, for instance, isn’t simply abusive — she dances the whole ballet it seems in an alcoholic stupor. Her pursuit of her next drink is often simultaneously hilarious and more than just a little sad, underlining as it does that in this modern age, abuse can be passive as well as aggressive.

Kudelka adds lighter moments as well, but even there, his standards remain high. So while as stepsisters No. 1 and No. 2, Howard and the delightfully irrepressible Rimsay turn in performances that suggest they just might be the first females to crack the all-male ranks of Ballet Trocodera - even they don’t get a free ride. As comically talented as these two ladies are, they have to be constantly on their guard to ensure that Etienne Lavigne and Piotr Stanczyk, cast as their long-suffering escorts, don’t upstage them and run away with the show.

And happily, even with the retirement of Victoria Bertram, the NBOC still has a wealth of character artists to bring depth to its magnificently polished corps de ballet. Lorna Geddes, Tomas Schramek and Hazaros Surmeyan all show up in delightful turns that help make the ballet even more memorable. But most of all, it’s simply a good time — so much so that patrons who make a habit of dashing for the door the minute the curtain falls might want to hang around for the curtain call.

There’s almost enough humour packed into it for another three-act comedy.

12 Nov'10

Rating: 4 out of 5

TORONTO - In works like A QUIET PLACE and ALIAS GODOT, playwright Brendan Gall has already demonstrated that when it comes to writing sparkling, witty dialogue, he has a true gift. And in his latest work -- an often delightful and thought-provoking romantic comedy with dramatic overtones titled WIDE AWAKE HEARTS -- he proves he's still fascinated with what he can do with that gift.

WIDE AWAKE HEARTS opened Wednesday in the Tarragon Theatre's Extra Space, under the increasingly assured direction of Gina Wilkinson, who manages not only to incorporate numerous cinematic elements into her staging -- courtesy of Lorenzo Savoini's deceptively simple set designs and Bonnie Beecher's lighting -- but to make them highly theatrical in the process as well.

WAH is the story of four characters. Character A, played by Gordon Rand, is a hot-shot independent film writer and maker who is, it appears, firmly established in career territory well beyond its best-before date. He is married to Character B, played by Lesley Faulkner, an aspiring actress whose principal work comes from starring in the movies her husband writes and grinds out.

Character C, played by Raoul Bhaneja, is an actor and bad-boy friend of A's youth, brought back into this circle to play both himself and the love interest, opposite B, in the new movie A is making. Meanwhile Character D, played by Maev Beaty, is the movie editor A has hired for the new project, apparently blissfully unaware that C has been involved in a longtime relationship with her.

But all is not as complicated, on one level, as it might seem; nor on a completely different level as simple as it seems, either. For A, troubled as he is by inner insecurities and external brashness, harbours a strong suspicion that there is a lingering attraction between his wife and his old friend, and he seems determined to test his theory by writing steamy love scenes for them, even while he's having difficulty determining where reality ends and his movie takes over. And, frankly, the other characters -- and, by the play's end, his audience -- share that confusion.

Cleverly constructed, the play moves like a rocket under Wilkinson's unobtrusive hand, with scenes flowing gracefully into each other, moving the story along with an impressive fluidity that looks so simple one wonders why everyone can't create plays like this. From a performance perspective, Rand and Bhaneja are well proven commodities, and not surprisingly, they conspire to add both depth and polish to Gall's quicksilver dialogue, challenging the less experienced Faulkner to meet their standards -- all to impressive effect.

Meanwhile, Beaty -- an actress who seems to grow more comfortable in both her characters' skins and her own with every performance -- comes close to stealing the show, despite the prodigious skills of her co-stars, as she taps into heretofore untapped wells of sensuality and sophistication to maximum effect. This is a performance that has 'leading lady' writ large on its every turn.

Ultimately, it's an impressive cast, turning in impressive performances in a play that would be impressive if the playwright had only trusted his gift enough to content himself with telling the story, instead of showing off his skill. In his hands, A, B, C And D seem to have enough bon mots for an entire alphabet. Gall has written what amounts to another good play here, and in the process, he's proven he is now the only thing standing between himself and greatness. And if he ever learns to get out of his own way ...

12 Nov'10

Rating: 4 out of 5

TORONTO - To Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's celebrated five stages of grief -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance -- essayist/novelist/screenwriter Joan Didion has added a sixth. And that would be playwrighting.

In working her way through the aftermath of the death of her husband of more than 40 years, John Gregory Dunne -- coincidental with the life-threatening illness of their only child, daughter Quintana -- Didion authored a book titled THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING. Then, when Quintana died -- shortly after the publication of the book -- Didion addressed the new tragedy in her life, not by adding new chapters to the book, but rather by adapting it into a stage play that incorporated her beloved daughter's death into her deeply moving narrative of loss. The result is a compelling one woman show that premiered to all-but universal acclaim on Broadway, in a production starring the legendary Vanessa Redgrave.

And now, not surprisingly, it has made its way to Canada and more specifically the Toronto stage, where it opened at the Tarragon Theatre Tuesday, a Tarragon presentation of Victoria's Belfry Theatre production. Starring Seana McKenna as Didion, under the direction of Michael Shamata, this is a production that most certainly showcases Didion the writer in the best possible light, underlining as it does, at every turn, the beautifully etched and almost sculptural underpinnings of her dramatic construction.

Without a single word wasted, and eschewing sentimentality at every turn, she builds her tragic story, layer by layer, overlaying detail upon detail until it becomes a vital skin that not only encompasses the whole, but contains it as well. In the same way as she has dissected politics and people throughout her celebrated career, Didion unflinchingly examines what happened when the two people who most shaped, defined and anchored her life, suddenly, and seemingly without warning, simply up and left it. Though she acknowledges Donne's ongoing struggle with heart disease and her daughter's ongoing struggle with an infection that grew out of a bout of pneumonia, she underscores from the get-go that none of us are ever prepared for death and what it does to the living it leaves behind. She makes it a journey through hell to small but precious wisdom.

Working on a set of smoke and mirrors -- or at least smoked glass and mirrors -- by John Ferguson, superbly lit as part hospital, part madhouse by Michael Walton, McKenna turns in a finely crafted performance that, under Shamata's watchful eye, also eschews sentimentality at every turn. So determined are they to honour the spirit of Didion's powerful work, in fact, that they not only avoid sentimentality, but for the most part stomp out sentiment itself. And that overzealousness comes with a high price tag.

Despite the care and craft she brings to her performance, McKenna's Didion is less a reflection of an eclectic West Coast/military childhood and a peripatetic life as a writer; instead it seems to have sprung fully formed from the loins of a long line of hide-bound New England Puritans. Coupled as it is with a classical actor's precise speech patterns, here anchored firmly somewhere in the mid-Atlantic and untouched by Didion's self-described "Okie" cadences, her iciness gives us not a woman who has endured the fires of great grief and emerged cleansed, but rather a woman who has frozen herself so entirely that those fires can't touch her and in consequence, we are not touched by her grief.

Where Didion's story suggests a character that has faced down that grief and made it a part of her daily life, McKenna gives us a character that seems largely unscathed by it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

THEATRE NEWS: Special cast to mark Shaw Fest's 50th
10 Nov'10


For its 50th anniversary season, the Shaw Festival is planning something memorable next summer. Just how memorable, in fact, seems evident in major casting announced Wednesday in Toronto by artistic director Jackie Maxwell, as she vowed to not only slate the Fest's golden past, but launch it into what she sees as a golden future as well.

"We have a lot to say that we want to share with an ever-growing and diversifying public," Maxwell told guests assembled at the St. Lawrence Market Kitchen for the announcement. The company for next year's season on the Festival, Royal George and Court House stages includes a lot of familiar names, both from recent seasons at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Festival and from seasons past.

Leading off the list is the casting of Benedict Campbell and Deborah Hay as Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle respectively in the Shaw Festival's first-ever production of Lerner and Loewe's MY FAIR LADY, adapted from Bernard Shaw's PYGMALION, and directed by Molly Smith.

Meanwhile, Michael Ball will headline opposite Hay and Robin Evan in a new production of Shaw's HEARTBREAK HOUSE, directed by erstwhile artistic director Christopher Newton, while Steven Sutcliffe and David Schurmann will be featured in director Morris Panych's production of J.M. Barrie's THE ADMIRABLE CRICHTON. Sutcliffe will also be featured in playwright Michael Healey's re-working of Shaw's ON THE ROCKS, opposite Peter Krantz, under the direction of Joe Ziegler, while Ric Reid, Mary Haney, Thom Marriott and Corrine Koslo will be featured under Maxwell's direction in the Canadian premiere of Lennox Robinson's DRAMA AT INISH -- A COMEDY.

Julie Martell, meanwhile, will essay the title role, opposite Mark Uhre, in the world premiere of MARIA SEVERA, a new musical written by Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli, also directed by Maxwell. Gina Wilkinson will direct Claire Jullien, Nigel Shawn Williams and Wade Bogart-O'Brien in a new production of Shaw's CANDIDA, while Moya O'Connell, Gray Powell, Koslo and Jim Mezon will be featured in Tennessee Williams' CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, directed by Eda Holmes.

For lunchtime fare, Lorne Kennedy will reprise his acclaimed performance in the title role of Ferenc Molnar's THE PRESIDENT, under the direction of Blair Williams (who will also appear in HEARTBREAK HOUSE); in the Studio space, Philip Akin will direct Kevin Hanchard and Nigel Shawn Williams in Suzan-Lori Parks' TOPDOG/UNDERDOG; and Peter Hinton will direct an ensemble that includes Donna Belleville, Tara Rosling, Graeme Somerville, Peter Millard and Wendy Thatcher in Andrew Bovell's WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING.

Also included in next year's ensemble: Guy Bannerman, Neil Barclay, Anthony Bekenn, Kyle Blair, Norman Browning, Andrew Bunker, Krista Colosimo, Diana Donnelly, Saccha Dennis, Sharry Flett, Patrick Galligan, Jonathan Gould, Patricia Hamilton, Martin Happer, Patty Jamieson, Gabrielle Jones, Catherine McGregor, Patrick McManus, Marla McLean, Laurie Paton, Melanie Phillipson, Ken James Stewart, Jay Turvey, Nicole Underhay, William Vickers and Jenny L. Wright.

Maxwell also announced plans for a two-day theatrical forum, titled The Speed of Ideas, July 23 and 24, featuring critic Michael Billington and playwrights Parks and Tony Kushner (ANGELS IN AMERICA), as well a commemorative book titled Shaw Festival -- The First 50 Years, written by Leonard Conolly.

Tickets for the 2011 Shaw Festival go on sale to the general public Jan. 10 at