Monday, May 31, 2010

31 May'10

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — It's as big and broad as the shoulders on one of Joan Crawford's business suits — and frankly, just about as dated. And small wonder.

In a world where television has offered us an all but non-stop diet of shows such as Dynasty, Desperate Housewives, The Real Housewives of New Jersey and, of course, Sex and The City, Clare Booth Luce's 1936 stage catfight, THE WOMEN, seems to have lost a whole lot of its celebrated hiss and vinegar.

That hasn't stopped Jackie Maxwell, artistic director of the Shaw Festival, from programming it as part of her summer's season. As a result, THE WOMEN took to the stage of the Festival Theatre on Saturday night to close out an opening week that, while it can boast no major hits, has managed to avoid any strikeouts as well.

And happily, this production of THE WOMEN continues that streak, with director Alisa Palmer marshaling a cast of 20 largely accomplished actresses to tell the story of love, betrayal and revenge in mid-20th century Manhattan. They are led by Jenny Young, cast as the contented upscale housewife, Mary Haines, and by Moya O'Connell, cast as the conniving Crystal Allen, the ambitious young sales clerk who poaches Mary's husband and almost destroys her marriage.

It's a familiar tale, of course. But what made Luce's stage play such a sensation more than eight decades ago was that she never allowed her audience to meet the husband her two protagonists were battling over — nor any other man, for that matter. Instead, she set her story in places where women of this social strata gather, or gathered, back in the day: at afternoon card parties, fitting rooms, kitchens, beauty parlours, powder rooms, bedrooms, even the dude ranches of Nevada where these women went to put a quick end to marriages that had passed their best-before dates.

Even in the rarified social circles in which THE WOMEN is set — or perhaps, particularly in those circles — a fascinating cast of supporting players is featured. These are places where we meet women such as Kelli Fox's Nancy Blake, an acid-tongued spinster who pours her passions into writing; Wendy Thatcher's Countess de Lage, a much married woman of a certain age and certain wealth; and Deborah Hay's Sylvia Fowler, a woman who, while she seemingly avoids kitchens like the plague, simply cannot resist stirring all the pots nonetheless.

There's even a familial element to it all, with Sharry Flett stepping in to play the role of Mary's mother, and a young Celeste Brillon essays the role of her precocious daughter, while Jenny L. Wright's Edith Potter takes the role of the traditional madonna and sets it on its ear.

Designer William Schmuck makes the most of these rarified settings and creates glittering set pieces that glide on and off the stage like a fleet of opulent town cars, earning points for his take on the famous bath-tub scene, and several others. And while Palmer quite wisely recognizes that there will be a certain pleasure for her audience in watching Schmuck move from excess to excess, she too often allows his style to overcome Luce's substance, pacing the action to serve Schmuck's vision and not the demands of the story, too often allowing his costumes to wear her actresses instead of the other way around.

In a production that clocks in at close to the three-hour mark, she also allows a certain langour to infect her staging, leaving one longing on several occasions for the brevity of George Cukor's celebrated movie of the tale. Still, when it comes to a staid alternative to Sex And The City 2, it's right up there. Whether or not that's a good thing is, of course, up to you.
31 May'10

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — There is indeed more than one way to skin a cat — and apparently, more than one way to serve up a rabbit, invisible, or otherwise.

Director Joseph Ziegler proves that, more or less conclusively in the production of HARVEY he’s directed for the Shaw Festival this season. Harvey opened Saturday on the stage of the Shaw’s Royal George Theatre — and while it varies significantly from the 1950 film of the same name, it proves to be a certified crowd-pleaser nonetheless.

Written by Mary Chase, HARVEY could be described simply as the story of a man and his rabbit. Or, if one wants to delve more deeply into Chase’s tale, as the story of a man and his invisible rabbit — a pooka rabbit, to be specific, of Celtic legend, standing well over six feet tall in height and answering to the name of Harvey.

Over the course of several years, it seems, Harvey and his human friend, Elwood P. Dowd (played by Peter Krantz) have become quite familiar to most, if not all, of the citizens of the mid-western city in which the story is set. But while most of his friends and neighbours are apparently prepared to take a live-and-let-live view of the bonds between Elwood and his unconventional and unseen friend, it has become a cause of major concern to Elwood’s sister, Veta Louise (Mary Haney), and to her daughter, Myrtle May (Zarrin Darnell-Martin), who seems destined to wither on the marital vine, thanks to her uncle’s eccentric friendship. In desperation, Veta and her daughter decide the only way to deal with the embarrassing situation is to commit Elwood to the local mental home, where Elwood can be separated from his invisible furry friend. Of course, nothing goes as planned.

While Krantz, under Ziegler’s direction, cleaves pretty closely to a template established by Jimmy Stewart in the movie, Ziegler seems to encourage some of his other cast members to explore new directions.

Where Veta, for instance, has most often been played as a motherly, matronly sort, Haney gives her a touch of twisted and conniving Calvinism that, when coupled with an ability to steal scenes like a master criminal, proves to be utterly delightful. Darnell-Martin, however, never quite seems to find the centre of Myrtle May, an underwritten role that has most often been fleshed out by casting it in such a way as to suggest that spinsterhood is a clear and present danger, not merely a distant threat.

Ziegler has hits and misses with his supporting cast as well. Not surprisingly, veterans Norman Browning, Peter Millard, Guy Bannerman and Donna Belleville all turn in fine performances, the latter not only essaying the lovely and vague Mrs. Chumley, but stepping in to play the rather ditsy Mrs. Chauvenet for an injured and recovering Jennifer Phipps. But though Browning comes close to rivaling Haney as a scene stealer in his role as the venerable Dr. Chumley, head of Chumley’s Rest, his staff at the home can’t quite seem to figure things out.

As Dr. Sanderson and nurse Kelly respectively, Gray Powell and Diana Donnelly have not yet mastered the steps in the couple’s intricate relationship, while as orderly Wilson, a game Tim Ziegler seems completely at sea. But like Elwood himself, this production seems to generate enough good will that most people are prepared to overlook its eccentricities, particularly with a powerful assist from set designer Sue Lepage who transforms simple set changes into moments of wonder and delight.

And so Chase’s enduring endorsement of compassion and civility rings through loud and clear, a certain comfort to invisible pooka rabbits and their best friends everywhere.
31 May'10

Rating: 4 out of 5

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — Over the ages, she’s been portrayed in countless different ways — large, small, zaftig or slight, raven-haired or fair — but the thing that always entrances about Venus, the legendary goddess of love, child of the Mediterranean’s foam — is a youthful and almost other-worldly ability to make every man fall in love with her and every woman envy her. So one assumes that, here at the Shaw Festival, a fair bit of time and energy went into casting the title role of ONE TOUCH OF VENUS — a delightful little musical confection that tells the story of an ancient statue of the youthful goddess, come inexplicably to life in mid-20th century Manhattan.

Premiered back in 1943 to considerable success, VENUS featured music by the legendary Kurt Weill and lyrics by the celebrated wordsmith and poet Ogden Nash, who also collaborated on the book with screenwriter S. J. Perelman. And most telling, perhaps, it starred the legendary Mary Martin in the early days of her career.

Here at the Shaw, where Venus opened Friday on the Royal George stage, they’ve cast young Robin Evan Willis in the pivotal role, a comely young lady who certainly meets most of the physical expectations an audience might bring to the tale. But while Willis is unquestionably a looker, she is no Mary Martin — nor for that matter, it seems, no Venus either, at least not in the world of this play, where the Roman goddess is transformed not only into flesh but into a stranger in a very strange land as well. It is here, in fact, that Willis, under the direction of Eda Holmes, falls down, creating a Venus that looks out of this world but plays like she’s too much of it. The script calls for Venus to come down to Manhattan from Olympus, after all, not from the Bronx or even upstate New York, which is about as far as the lovely Willis seems to travel.

Happily, on other fronts, Holmes — and her production — fare far better, for although things got off to a rocky start at Friday’s opening, thanks to mechanical glitches in Camellia Koo’s otherwise sophisticated set, it is obvious Holmes and choreographer Michael Lichtefeld have fused this cast into an impressive ensemble.

As Rodney Hatch, the unassuming barber who inadvertently brings Venus to life, the loose-limbed Kyle Blair is a natural, charming fit, while Julie Martell tackles the role of his déclassé fiancee with jarring enthusiasm. Meanwhile Mark Uhre and Deborah Hay stop just shy of stealing the entire show in a pair of delightful performances as modern art maven Whitelaw Savory and his long-suffering girl Friday, Molly Grant, respectively. In supporting roles, Shaw regulars like Jay Turvey, Neil Barclay and Gabrielle Jones do fine work too, backed by a disciplined and enthusiastic chorus.

Working with a largely unknown score, musical director Ryan de Souza turns Weill’s score into a hit parade, winning fans with everything from the delightful Way Out West In Jersey (showcasing Blair, Jones, Martell, Turvey and Barclay), Very, Very, Very (Hay at her very, very, very best) and the delightfully macabre Dr. Crippen (led by the unstoppable Uhre) through to smokey love ballads like I’m a Stranger Here Myself and Speak Low. Some work, however, is still needed to balance orchestrations with the vocals.

Throw in the strong but unobtrusive vision of choreographer Lichtefeld, some fine costuming from Michael Gianfrancesco and the lighting genius of Bonnie Beecher however, and it all comes together as more than a bit of a romp.

And the good news is, if you’re longing for a glimpse of an out-of-this-world Venus, you’ll find, as often as not, she’ll be hanging around in the night sky — just in time for intermission.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

29 May'10

Russian classic gets Irish twist

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — The good news, for those not completely enamoured of all things Irish, is that this is not a case of cutting down an historic stand of soft-fruit trees to plant a bumper crop of Irish cobblers.

But by focusing the attentions of an Irish director — the estimable Jason Byrne — on a translation/adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s THE CHERRY ORCHARD, wrought by an Irish playwright — the equally esteemed Tom Murphy — the Shaw Festival has come up with a pretty tasty bit of theatrical fusion. THE CHERRY ORCHARD — or at least Murphy’s version of it — opened in its Canadian premiere under Byrne’s direction Thursday on the Shaw Festival’s Court House stage. Happily, fans of the Russian classic will have no trouble recognizing the tale, even if an occasional shamrock might pop up, at least figuratively, in the middle of an emotional landscape still profoundly and powerfully Russian.

Chekhov’s play — the last of his stellar career — is by now familiar turf, a tale of a country estate and the family that owns it, both having fallen on hard times in the declining days of the czars. The estate in question, with its exotic orchard of cherry trees, is property of Madame Ranyevskaya, played here with charming elegance and detachment by Laurie Paton. On the heels of a disastrous and international affair with a married man, she has returned to her family’s country estate to try to rescue it, with help from her ineffectual brother (Jim Mezon), from the creditors that are circling like vultures.

Even though the solution to her problem is at hand, thanks to a scheme cooked up by new man — a member of the emerging middle class, played by Benedict Campbell — Madame and her coterie are so rooted in the past and present that they simply can’t wrap their heads around a tragic future hurtling toward them.

Peopled by an extensive cast of characters, THE CHERRY ORCHARD offers an impressive showcase for the Shaw company. As a director, Byrne makes the most of it, drawing finely etched performances not just from the sultry-voiced Paton, but from a host of supporting players as well. Robin Evan Williams and Severn Thompson, for instance, do some fine work as Madame’s daughters, natural (Willis) and adopted (Thompson). After too long an absence, Gord Rand makes an impressive return to the Shaw stage too, cast as the perpetual student Trofimov, while Gabrielle Jones delights as Charlotta, a governess who has transformed herself into the role of court jester with the death of Madame’s son.

Even the servants are impressive on the Ranyevskaya estate. Al Kozlik is both touching and amusing as Firs, the ancient family retainer, while Julie Martell and Mark Uhre make their marks, respectively, as a giddy young housemaid and an ambitious, heartless valet.

In staging the work, Byrne uses every inch of the playing space this intimate theatre offers, moving his cast with studied aimlessness through a simple, effective set designed by Peter Hartwell and lit by Kevin Lamotte, carefully sculpting the studied langour in which it seems Chekhov thrives best.

Which is not to say this ORCHARD blossoms fully under his care. While Campbell tackles his role as the perpetual outsider with his usual alacrity, he also allows too much of his performance from last year’s production of THE ENTERTAINER to bleed through. He almost dances his way through the role, coming precariously close to levitating like a Russian leprechaun. And while Mezon is impressive, in the end he is simply too powerful a presence to be believable as Madame’s ineffectual brother.

But this is an Orchard to treasure. It’s a Russian classic, freshened up with just a hint o’ an Irish spring in its step.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

27 May'10

‘Husband’ achieves Wilde’s vision

Rating: 4 out of 5

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — It is difficult to say what Oscar Wilde, one of the leading proponents of the aesthetic movement at its peak, would think of the look of his AN IDEAL HUSBAND, which launched the 2010 Shaw Festival season Wednesday night on the mainstage. It’s even tougher to say what he would have thought of the production itself.

For although one might quibble with director Jackie Maxwell’s often plain-as-pudding staging, and designer Judith Bowden’s almost dank designs, there is no denying that at a certain point they come together to create a production that serves the purposes of the play, if not necessarily the vision of the playwright.

Wilde, of course, intended the play to serve as both a showcase and a commentary on life at the epicentre of Victorian society, setting it in the social and political whirlwind surrounding Lord Robert Chiltern — a rising young politican played by Patrick Galligan — and his politically savvy and adoring wife, Lady Gertrude, played by Catherine McGregor.

They are an ideal couple, socially irreproachable, morally unimpeachable and politically unstoppable. That is, until the conniving Mrs. Cheveley (Moya O’Connell) comes along, armed with a letter proving Lord Robert has not always been the paragon of virtue he purports to be. And unless Lord Robert is prepared to endorse a major public swindle, she will expose him as the flawed man he is to the world and, worse, to his loving and morally upright wife. It falls to the notoriously profligate Viscount Goring (Steven Sutcliffe) to save the day, which he does with dispatch, strewing Wildean bon mottes in his wake like so many rose petals.

Like the rest of Wilde’s canon, this is a delightful and amusing piece of work. Its cleverness, polish and wit disguise beautifully observed, deeply affectionate and astute observations on the follies and foibles of the human condition. But whereas Wilde clearly meant for the world of Lord and Lady Chiltern to sparkle and dance like the finest French champagne, designer Bowden decants it instead as though it were some suspect vintage of a Spanish red — all dark notes, wrapped round with wrought iron and black bunting. Bowden’s often strange and unwearable costuming choices, meanwhile, echo the era without ever really evoking it.

Thankfully, the cast — rounded out by strong work from Lorne Kennedy, Wendy Thatcher and Marla McLean in supporting roles — seems determined to rise above the design. In the main, they succeed. Galligan and McGregor might not create the portrait of connubial bliss the story demands, but they do a fine job of filling their world with noble outrage and morality.

And although Sutcliffe’s Viscount Goring has a few too many Joan Crawford moments courtesy of, one suspects, some of Bowden’s more egregious costuming excesses, he does a bang-up job of providing the beating heart and human conscience that brings this production to life.

O’Connell, too, suffers from Bowden’s couture. Ultimately she seems so concerned with wearing it that she (and director Maxwell) forget that in a Wilde, wild world painted in delightful shades of moral grey, even its villains (or, perhaps, especially its villains) should not be painted only in shades of black and white.

Any production of this work on these stages invites comparison to Duncan McIntosh’s 1995 production and its celebrated revival in 1996 — a production that seemed to fuse seamlessly with Wilde’s vision on several fronts. This production definitely suffers a little by such comparison. As a director, Maxwell seems determined to present AN IDEAL HUSBAND as a political drama with comedic overtones and not, as was intended, as a social comedy with dramatic overtones.

In the world of Wilde, THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST was, after all, merely a title, not a stage direction.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

20 May'10

‘9 Parts’ a powerful production

Rating: 4 out of 5

When all else fails, we often take comfort in the maxim, “This too shall pass” — a maxim that conjures visions of lights burning, however timorously, at the end of the longest, darkest tunnels of despair. But what if that light is merely the glow from an even worse conflagration than the one currently being endured — if the horror about to begin might make you think fondly of the horror you have just endured?

That’s the world of 9 PARTS OF DESIRE, a new play from Iraqi-American playwright Heather Raffo that opened Wednesday at the Theatre Centre, produced by Seventh Stage Theatre.

As its title implies, it is a play of nine parts — nine very individual women, connected only in shared desire for a better life, who endured the horrors of a brutal regime, only to see it replaced by a conqueror, unwilling or unable to set the world to rights. Under the direction of Kelly Straughan, 9 PARTS begins on a highly theatrical note, as eight of the nine actors enter a simple, all-encompassing set designed by Robin Fisher and Lindsay R. Forde to evoke the excesses of war.

Meanwhile, the ninth — Maryem Hassan Tollar — carries us to Iraq on the wings of her own music and sets us down on the banks of the historic Tigris River, a river that once offered succor to the very beginnings of civilization. In the past decades, however, it has born silent witness to mankind at his most uncivilized.

Along its length, these nine women stop in their daily activities to tell us of their despair — and, more rarely, of their hope. Most offer brief, harrowing glimpses into their lives. A mother (played by Lili Francks) who was the sole survivor of an horrific conflagration in a bomb shelter; a woman (played by Tollar) who sets the shoes of the dead afloat on the river in hopes of releasing their souls; a doctor (played by Aviva Armour-Ostroff) who worries about the future of a country whose soul seems to have been genetically altered.

There are other deeply affecting stories as well, and thanks to the committed work of actors like Anusree Roy (playing a woman surviving on hope), Brittany Kay (as a young girl only beginning to plumb despair) and Toni Ellwand (as a woman prepared to sell her very soul), they are each realized with touching honesty and compassion. Others have larger stories to tell, however, and these stories take time and repeat visits to spin themselves out. Layal (played by Christine Aubin Khalifah) is an artist who works in both the medium of watercolours and the medium of survival, while Huda (Deborah Grover) is an aging activist who, through distance and experience, seems to have lost her vision of a better world. And finally, there is the woman identified only as the American, played by Melissa-Jane Shaw, — a woman who, one suspects, is speaking from the playwright’s heart as she suffers through the agony of her country from the safety of her New York home.

In an otherwise strong production, director Straughan’s strange decision to place this character at the very back of the theatre is just shy of tragic, transforming what one suspects might be a fine performance of a fine part into little more than a bit part in a radio play for much of the audience. But even if this production doesn’t quite equal the sum of all its parts, it still adds up to something powerful. It’s a less-than-silent testament to lives lived with eyes fixed hopefully on that light at the end of the tunnel, in the hope — if not the belief — that this too shall pass.
19 May'10

‘La Sagouine’ a treasure

Rating: 5 out of 5

In 40 years, she has carved a niche in the Canadian psyche and on the Canadian stage, not so much by advancing the dreams of a forgotten people, as by giving life to their memories.

She is LA SAGOUINE, the 72-year-old Acadian washerwoman who lends, if not her name, at least her profession to a series of 16 monologues initially written by Antoine Maillet for radio back in the early ’70s, then transformed into a stage vehicle for the unique talents of the seemingly ageless and indefatigable Viola Léger.

Léger first brought the work to Toronto back in 1973, then earned a Dora for her performance when she returned to the Toronto stage in 1979. Now, in 2010, she’s back and proving, at age 80, that she has lost none of her ability to sweep an audience up in the palm of her hand and carry us to the New Brunswick shoreline, to the little town of Bouctouche, the small Acadian town where La Sagouine and her husband Gapi eke out a subsistence.

LA SAGOUINE had its English language opening Wednesday in the Berkeley Street Theatre, where it will run through May 29, to be followed by a run en français, from May 31 through June 5, in a joint production by Pleiades Theatre and Montreal’s Segal Centre, who will host the show next season.

For the stage, LA SAGOUINE’s original 16 monologues have been culled to only five, although, as the years have passed, Léger has retired some and added others. Indeed, for the Toronto run of the show, she’s performing one of those monologues for the first time for an English audience. Titled The War, it looks at the Second World War and the Great Depression from a most unusual angle.

But she begins on more familiar turf, settling in for a chat as she sips tea in one of the homes in which she labours. It’s an ideal way to introduce herself, and after she sketches in a few details of her long life, she indulges in a litany of health complaints — complaints she admits she should take to a doctor, for all that she really is more comfortable not knowing what’s wrong. We learn about her marriage, her children — the few who survived, the many she lost — and about the hard-scrabble life she’s lived, growing up Acadian in a part of the country little changed since her people made their way back to it after the expulsion of 1755.

As she moves through her tales, she not only gives us a chance to get acquainted but opens a window into the life of her people as well, painting a portrait of small-town life that manages at the same time to be both universal and site-specific. Anyone whose roots stretch back to a small town will find familiar echoes in Maillet’s monologues, for all that they harbour a distinct Acadian flavour as unique as the chewy, briny flavour of quahogs or the utter bliss of rapûre.

While the first act is a delight, the second, set in the home La Sagouine shares with her husband, is utterly riveting and deeply affecting, as Léger launches into the aforementioned monologue on war, following it up with a reflection not only on spring, but on how deeply a people’s roots can stretch into even the most inhospitable soil, like that around her home.

Beautifully and unobtrusively directed by John Van Burek, on a simple set created by Yannik Larivée and lit by Robert Thomson, LA SAGOUINE may have started out to give voice to the memory of a people — and it does that beautifully. But somewhere along the way, it has also become the living treasure of a nation — one that shouldn’t be missed.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

19 May'10

'Aurash' arrow scores bull's-eye

Rating: 5 out of 5

TORONTO - If there is a single thing that marks most really great theatre, it's the simplicity with which it is made.

Case in point: Modern Times Stage Company's ever-green production of AURASH -- a seemingly simple little piece of theatre based on a story almost as old as time itself. As a play, AURASH first came to life on the stage of the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace back in 1998 and after conquering the world, one tiny stage at a time, it's come home to Toronto to roost, if only for a very brief time.

After a Saturday opening, AURASH is spinning out its tale for Canadian audiences once again in the Young Centre's intimate Tankhouse Theatre until May 29, even as other casts prepare to open productions in Sarajevo and Bogota later this spring and summer. And if one is looking for the reason for this international success and appeal, one need look no further than the theatrical simplicity that marks its every scene.

Based on an Iranian folk tale, AURASH tells the story of a simple young herdsman, caught up in events beyond both his ambition and his ken. It has been translated from a work by Iranian poet Bahram Beyza'ie and adapted for the stage by Soheil Parsa, Modern Times' artistic director, and Brian Quirt.

A work for four actors, each of whom brings a powerfully understated sense of passion and commitment to the piece, this script leads them through harrowing battles and into the courts of kings as they tell their story under Parsa's elegant direction. It all begins with a battle -- and the Iranians (read Persians) are losing badly.

In the face of their imminent defeat, the Iranian Commander (Christopher Morris) strikes a deal with the opposing King (Martin Julien) wherein the border of their two countries will be set by distance travelled by a single arrow, fired from the highest mountain by the Iranians' leading archer, Kashvad (Ron Kennell). But Kashvad wants no part in such a scheme, certain it will mire him in infamy, and when Aurash (Michelle Latimer) is sent as messenger to the King to beg for more time, the King capriciously decides that the humble Aurash will fire the arrow that determines his country's future.

The entire story is narrated and brought to life by the cast in a theatrical style that fuses speech, movement, and acting into a single powerful force. Arrayed in costumes of functional elegance designed by Setareh Delzendeh, they take to an all but bare stage designed by Parsa and Delzendeh and transform it into a riveting landscape, filling it with brief tableaux that suggest that if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a theatrical vision is worth millions.

Happily, the passion and commitment this superb cast brings to the project is echoed at every turn by the creative team. Richard Feren's visceral soundscape proves to be a major theatrical force on the stage, particularly when it is supported by Andrea Lundy's flawless lighting.

For all its simplicity, however, AURASH manages to pack a lot of freight, saying volumes about the cupidity of kings and generals and not only the desperate hunger for peace that burns in the common man, but the terrible price he often has to pay to find it. Having trusted his four talented performers and his design team to carry the show this far, it is hardly surprising, then, that Parsa trusts his audience to find these things on its own.

Under his direction, AURASH never stoops to preach, but fittingly is content to merely shepherd its audience while we find our way.
19 May'10


Eric Peterson seems determined to take his latest incarnation as Billy Bishop to new heights.

Officials at Soulpepper announced Tuesday that their acclaimed production of BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR, directed by Ted Dykstra and starring Peterson and collaborator John Gray in roles they made famous more than 30 years ago in the iconic Canadian stageplay, is about to hit the road.

It is slated to run Jan. 18 through 22, 2011, in Calgary, as part of the 25th annual High Performance Rodeo, a presentation of Theatre Calgary and One Yellow Rabbit, and in Montreal, at the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts, Feb. 13 through March 6.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

STAGE NOTES: PRISCILLA taking its act on the road
18 May'10


It was back in 2008 that David Mirvish announced plans for an all-Canadian production of PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT: THE MUSICAL. Now, a year and a half later, he's announced that not only does he finally have his PRISCILLA act together, he's going to be taking it on the road, after a limited Toronto engagement.

At a publicity event at Toronto's Palais Royale Monday, Mirvish announced that PRISCILLA is now slated to open in its North American premiere at the Princess of Wales Theatre Oct. 26, after two weeks of previews. The production will then transfer to an as yet un-named theatre on Broadway in the spring of 2011.

And while Mirvish has had to back off on his plans for an all-Canadian cast, there is a pretty strong Canadian component in a cast lead by Australian Tony Sheldon (who has already earned international acclaim for his portrayal of Bernadette, the older transexual at the heart of the story) and American Will Swenson (who will play the role of Tick/Mitzi).

Starring opposite them as Bob, the aging, good hearted mechanic who becomes emotionally involved with Bernadette, will be STREET LEGAL's C. David Johnson as well as Thom Allison, understudying Sheldon and performing in the ensemble, and Susan Dunstan and David Lopez, both cast in swing roles.

For the 56-year-old Johnson, it is a part seemingly tailor-made, even though he had to audition for both the Canadian company, back before the show was Broadway-bound, and then for the New York production to get it. A divorced father of two grown children, the Montreal-born, British Columbia-trained Johnson was drawn to a character "who was sort of unhappy with his life and sort of runs away and joins the circus," and now finds himself Broadway bound.

The role appealed to him from the get-go, he says and the fact that it only calls for minimal singing he considers a bonus. His only real experience with musical theatre was garnered during his stint as Baron von Trapp in the Stratford Festival production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, a role in which he claims he made Christopher Plummer (who played the part in the movie) sound good.

Both Johnson and Sheldon were on hand for Monday's event as was director Simon Phillips and other members of the London cast. Swenson, who is currently appearing in HAIR in London's West End, appeared only via video. Tickets for PRISCILLA are currently available at

On other fronts in the Mirvish empire, it was announced Monday that Jake Ehrenreich's A JEW GROWS IN BROOKLYN will return to the Panasonic Theatre for a limited engagement, June 3 through 13, with all seats at the Thursday matinee and Sunday evening performances priced at $25. Visit for tickets and info.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

STAGE NOTES: Buddies new season; Marquee Tourism funds; Dora Awards
16 May'10


After years of being on the outside looking in, maybe it's time for the outsiders to spend some time looking outward. Brendan Healey, Buddies In Bad Times newly-minted artistic director,has announced the company's first season under his artistic stewardship — a stewardship that will apparently be informed by the ongoing outsider status of the queer artist, according to Healey, who promises to "embrace the outsider status in order to challenge established notions of morality, human relations, history and politics."

That promise will start to unfold in a season that kicks off in early September, with Healey directing the Canadian English language premiere of Sarah Kane's controversial and ground-breaking play, BLASTED. It will be followed by a remount of THE SILICONE DIARIES, Healey's acclaimed directoral collaboration with creator/performer Nina Arsenault , before Buddies welcomes the Union Eight Theatre's production of Sonja Mills' THE BIRD, directed by Ruth Madoc-Jones.

Following Buddies annual Rhubarb Festival, Native Earth takes centre-stage for a production of Marie Clements' TOMBS OF THE VANISHING INDIAN, featuring Michelle St. John, under the direction of Yvette Nolan. Madoc-Jones then pays a return visit, helming OutSpoke Productions' presentation of SPIN, created and performed by Evalyn Parry.

Buddies then surrenders its stage to founder Sky Gilbert's Cabaret Company, for a production of THE SITUATIONISTS, written and directed by Gilbert. Finally, following a remount of Buddies' multi-Dora Award winning AGOKWE, written and performed by Waawaate Fobister and directed by Edward Roy, the season closes with another visit from Montreal's, for the world premier of a new show, titled TIGHTROPE.

AGOKWE and THE SILICONE DIARIES are slated, under Buddies' aegis, to tour to Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal. Tickets and passes are currently on sale at the Buddies' boxoffice. Call 416-976-8555 for further info.


Both the Shaw and Stratford Festivals are feeling the love from the Federal Government's Marquee Tourism Events Program, with the Shaw Festival announcing Friday that that they have received $2.6 million in continued funding from MTEP, which will allow them to expand existing marketing initiatives and explore new ones. That follows hard on the heels of last week's announcement that the Stratford Festival has received $3-million from the same fund to be used for much the same purpose.


The Toronto Alliance For The Performing Arts will be handing out the hardware on Monday, June 28, as the annual presentation of the Dora Mavor Moore Awards (better known as the Doras) takes place. This year's ceremonies, honouring the best on the local performing arts' scene, will take place at the Bluma Appel Theatre and will be hosted once again by Jian Ghomeshi.

A pre-show VIP reception is planned for the Rosewater Supper Club, and the awards ceremony will be followed by an Under-The-Stars after-party outside the St. Lawrence Centre on Front St. Nominations for the awards are slated to be announced June 2. For further information, visit

Friday, May 14, 2010

14 May'10

'Featuring Loretta' has many flaws

Rating: 2 out of 5

TORONTO - It was, after all, one of the funniest entries in George F. Walker’s acclaimed six-part SUBURBAN MOTEL series, so it would seem logical that the first thing one would look for in remounting FEATURING LORETTA would be a crackerjack Loretta to feature.

Instead, in bringing the fifth play in the SM series back to life, director Ken Gass goes all counter-intuitive on us, weighing his production down with a major casting faux-pas, right off the top.

FEATURING LORETTA opened last Thursday on the Factory Theatre mainstage, closing out a memorable 40th-anniversary season for the nation’s leading purveyors of quality Canadian stagecraft.

And certainly there’s no denying that in casting Lesley Faulkner in the title role — a beautiful young widow who has an instant and very physical effect on most every male who sees her — Gass has landed a Loretta that not only looks the part but wears the costumes‚ what there is of ’em, to maximum effect.

Unfortunately, when it comes to moving from looking the part to playing it, Faulkner simply can’t get deep enough into the character of the young widow determined to take control of her own life in such a way that we can root for her. On the surface, she’s fine, but when it comes to the character’s requisite toughness and vulnerability and anger and sorrow, Faulkner and Gass are fishing in what appears to be terribly shallow water.

Mind you, they get scant help from Marian Wihak’s sprawling, utterly unbelievable set — a creation that looks more like an under-furnished suite than a cramped room in a seedy downtown motel. The set completely ignores how much of the humour of this piece grows from the friction created by having too many people in a too-small space.

Sadly, Faulkner is not Gass’s only casting misstep either, for in recruiting Kevin Hanchard to play the role of Michael, the aspiring young talent agent for topless bars (or as another character succinctly describes him, “a pimp”), Gass may earn points for colour-blind casting, but loses them all and more when he wakes up in a fetid slough of racial cliches which, of course, he then tries to side-step, all to the detriment of the production.

Fortunately, in landing Brandon McGibbon in the role of the hapless Dave, a needy and impulsive nerd who has come a-wooing the shapely Loretta and her charms, Gass comes up aces. But even McGibbon’s strong performance, coupled with a fun turn from Monica Dottor as the harried daughter of the motel’s Russian owner, is not enough to save the day, particularly when Gass seems so determined to keep tripping himself up.

In terms of pacing, Gass transforms what is supposed to be a carnival ride into a leisurely cross-town trip on an aging trolley. And when things really start to crawl, rather than put a directorial foot to the floor, he inexplicably throws in a bit of ‘cutting-edge’ video embroidery and even a dash of meta-theatricality, which only serve to slow things down even more.

FEATURING LORETTA’s program suggests the show will run 75 minutes, but there was very little change from an hour-and-a-half on my watch by the time the last video rolled. And in a piece of comic theatre where even a split second counts, 15 minutes cannot only be a lifetime, it can also be the death of you.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

13 May'10

‘Idomeneo’ a treat for ears, eyes

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

It is, in its way, an opera as much of the ages as for the ages, featuring a story from the Grecian era, gods from the Roman era, an operatic style from the Baroque era, a staging from the modern era and music that is nothing short of timeless. It’s called IDOMENEO and if it’s not exactly burning up the stage at the Four Seasons Centre right now, it’s certainly emitting a lovely, warm glow that’s more than enough to heat up a cool spring evening.

A co-production of the Canadian Opera Company and Opera national du Rhin, IDOMENEO, RE DI CRETA (to give its full title) opened here last weekend — and it’s an impressive piece of work.

Story-wise, it goes all the way back to the period following the Trojan Wars, wars in which Idomeneo, King of Crete, played a prominent role. His battles now won, Idomeneo, sung here by tenor Paul Groves, is homeward bound when his ship is overtaken by a terrible storm and to save himself, the king promises Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, that he will sacrifice the first man he sees, once he is safely on shore.

And of course, the first person Idomeneo sees after washing up on the rocky shore of his homeland is his son and only heir, Idamante, sung here by mezzo Krisztina Szabo, reprising a role she played here in 2001. In an attempt to get out from under his promise, Idomeneo, coached by his advisor Arbace (tenor Michael Colvin), tries to marry Idamante off to the visiting Princess Elettra (soprano Tamara Wilson), daughter of the ill-fated Agamemnon. The attempted subterfuge not only ticks Neptune off big time, it also breaks the heart of the lovely Ilia (soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian) — a daughter of the vanquished Priam brought to Crete as spoils of war, only to fall madly in love with Idamante and who finally redeems him.

Premiered in 1781, IDOMENEO is a prime example of the often formulaic and static opera seria school (which even then was falling from favour), and it has endured largely thanks to the genius and reputation of its young composer — a rather prolific and profligate fellow named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who would, of course, go on to even greater things in his too-brief career.

And while his score provides a tremendous workout for the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra — reined on silken thread by conductor Harry Bicket — and for this hugely talented cast, backed by the glory of the COC Chorus, its stand-and-deliver libretto (written by Giovanni Battista Varesco) represents major challenges for director Francois de Carpentries and his design team as they set out to woo a modern audience.

Happily, set designer Siegfried Mayer comes up aces with a simple adaptable set, dominated by an oversized nautilus that echos the eye of an omnipotent God — a canvas transformed at the whim of Carpentries’ own lighting design into everything from temple to palace to sea-coast. And while it’s difficult to label costume designer Karine Van Hercke’s vision, it works, after a fashion — the principals all in versions of ethnic or historic dress, the chorus looking for all the world like a well-dressed choir, touring the islands in sensible shoes.

Together, de Carpentries and his team milk enough action from the stasis of the tale to keep the audience as engaged in the story being spun out by this gifted cast as we are in the music they’re making. IDOMENEO, as usual, emerges primarily as a gift to the soul to be taken aurally, but this production proves the eyes can have a pretty good time too.

A special performance of this production on May 19 will showcase members and alumni of the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio program in major roles.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

12 May'10

'Rock of Ages' an intoxicating brew

Rating: 4 out of 5

TORONTO – If this is your grandmother’s ROCK OF AGES, then, at the very least, you’ve got one very colourful grandmother.

Because, title notwithstanding, the new Mirvish musical that opened with great hoopla at the Royal Alexandra Tuesday has nothing to do with old time religion, favouring instead the good old-fashioned trinity of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.

Specifically, that would be the rock ’n’ roll of the late ’80s, when names like Styx, White Snake and Twisted Sister held centre stage and the sexes were locked in close combat to see who could have the tightest clothes and the biggest hair. Just how tight and how big is quickly missing as ROCK OF AGES kicks off its story in the heart of Los Angeles’ seediest strip, circa 1980-something, in a little ’boite' called The Bourbon Room, ruled over by Dennis, an aging hippy (played by David W. Keeley).

As a kick-ass house band rockets us into the appropriate era on a wave of decibels, Chris D’Arienzo’s funhouse book introduces us to the local fauna — mostly wannabe rockers like Aaron Walpole’s Lonny, a Belushi-like character who becomes the evening’s narrator, and the dreamer Drew, as played by WE WILL ROCK YOU’s Yvan Pedneault, a kid who’s cleaning up at the Bourbon Room (in the broom and plunger sort of way) while he waits for the opportunity to clean up in the world of rock. Enter lovely Sherrie (THE SOUND OF MUSIC’s Elicia MacKenzie, kicking a few habits), a refugee from small-town America, seeking fame and fortune in Tinseltown.

While various subplots unfold — an urban-renewal plot that will see The Bourbon Room on the rocks and ongoing pyrotechnics in a feuding rock band called Arsenal — Drew and Sherrie fall in love, discover that true love never runs smooth and spend the rest of the show trying to get together.

In the process, D’Arienzo’s book not only offers Pedneault and MacKenzie a chance to demonstrate their impressive vocal chops in the world o’ rock, it also gives choreographer Kelly Devine an opportunity to work a bit of theatrical alchemy as she spins Sunset Strip sleaze into sexy silver plate.

It also offers a wealth of opportunity for a supporting cast who, for the most part, lose little time in seizing it. Keeley brings a touching, avuncular bewilderment to his performance, and while the charm of his character wears pretty thin, Walpole never falters. There’s great work too, from Peter Deiwick as the man who happily puts the ‘arse’ in Arsenal, from Angela Teek as a call-me-mother madam and from Victor A. Young and Cody Scott Lancaster as a pair of Germans out to conquer America, one urban renewal at a time.

Although it seems to take a few minutes to find its audience, under the direction of Kristin Hanggi, ROCK OF AGES is an intoxicating brew, for all that it is mostly foam, thanks to a book that never for a moment even flirts with anything serious. What gives it its kick, of course, is the music — more than 30 tunes including Hit Me With Your Best Shot, We Built This City, Don’t Stop Believin’ and I Want to Know What Love Is that prove musical nostalgia remains the most potent form of time travel.

Rambunctiously sexist, ROCK OF AGES should not be compared to MAMMA MIA! although it often is — and not just because D’Arienzo’s book makes the MM book look like literature by comparison. For all its lightness, MAMMA MIA! really did try to be good musical theatre, whereas ROCK OF AGES is at its best when it mocks the genre, violating the fourth wall and sending it up with abandon.

MAMMA MIA! tried to seduce. ROCK OF AGES is content to simply overwhelm with its exuberance.
12 May'10

‘Frankenstein’ dead in first act

Rating: 3 out of 5

Like a child parading in adult shoes, Edmonton’s Catalyst Theatre just can’t seem to find a venue here that fits its product.

To refresh your memory: Catalyst’s production of NEVERMORE: THE IMAGINARY LIFE AND MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF EDGAR ALLEN POE made its Toronto premiere during last year’s Luminato Festival and, for all its considerable charm, was all but eaten up by the expanse of the Winter Garden Theatre.

Now, Catalyst has made its way to Toronto again, this time trailing their made-in-Edmonton production of FRANKENSTEIN — an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus — conceived by writer/director/composer Jonathan Christenson and designer Bretta Gerecke. And this time out, they’ve bypassed the theatrical complex on Yonge Street and pitched their tent on the stage of the Bluma Appel Theatre in a presentation by Canadian Stage.

The Bluma is a lovely theatre (OK, so maybe the seat rows are a tad close together for anyone with more than about a 25-inch leg), but once again, it’s just too large a space for the elaborately over-embroidered, bordering-on-precious style of theatre Catalyst favours. Rather than cocoon the story and its delicate beauty, this space serves only to keep its audience at such a remove that one simply can’t get by the artifice to fully appreciate the art for far too much of the show.

Written largely in rhyming couplets, FRANKENSTEIN, under Christenson’s direction, is performed in an archly melodramatic style that puts one in mind of shows like THE VILE GOVERNESS and THE GLITTERING HEART which Stewart Lemoine and his Teatro La Quindicina used to bring from Edmonton to inflict on unsuspecting Toronto audiences from the Factory stage years ago.

There are also plenty of songs — a wide variety of them, none of which seem destined to threaten Sondheim’s supremacy on the musical stage, nor Webber’s for that matter. And finally there’s Gerecke’s celebrated explosion-in-a-paper-mill design that sees everything from props to costumes to sets made out of paper, with a good measure of plastic thrown in places where paper simply won’t do, of course.

As for the story, fans of Shelley’s tale will recognize large chunks of it, albeit in a form necessarily simplified to reflect the affected naivete in Christenson’s rhyming patterns.

Andrew Kushnir is cast as the precocious young Victor Frankenstein of title, a mad scientist in training, while George Szilagyi essays the creature he creates and then abandons. Nick Green, Tim Machin, Sarah Machin Gale, Nancy McAlear and Tracy Penner round out the cast, tackling various roles and acting throughout as the narrating chorus that keeps things moving forward.

And frankly, particularly in an overlong first act, they don’t do much of a job of it, the action dragging along at such a pace that you’re certain to have time to appreciate the genius of Gerecke’s designs, and the effectiveness of Laura Krewski’s choreography, Wade Staples’ sound design and perhaps even the new paint job in the theatre. Let’s just say that no one, save Frankenstein himself, is likely to shout: “It’s alive!” in this theatre.

Things do pick up in the second act as the story moves from exposition to character work and the playwright abandons rhymes for reason, allowing the actors to move the story forward on the basis of their acting skills. But frankly, it is not enough to overcome the ennui of that first act — or to get those who did an intermission flit back into the theatre.
In the final analysis, FRANKENSTEIN may have a lot of charm, but not nearly enough by half to fill a theatre of this size.

Monday, May 10, 2010

FEATURE INTERVIEW: 'Rock Of Ages' star embraces rock 'n' roll
10 May'10


TORONTO - If you’ve been following David Keeley’s career for the past few years — and a lot of us have — then you’ve no doubt concluded that he is either a very happy man or a very frustrated one.

A regular on Canada’s classical stages and our musical ones as well, Keeley is one of those actors who not only always seems to be working, but for the most part, working very well. And while people who love quality theatre treasure him on home stages, he periodically does something so good — like his Broadway turn in MAMMA MIA! or his celluloid villainy in the remake of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE — that one just assumes he’s about to outgrow the local scene. Next thing you know, he pops up in something like Factory Theatre’s production of Brad Fraser’s TRUE LOVE LIES or the forthcoming Toronto production of ROCK OF AGES, opening May 11 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.

Add it all up and logic suggests he’s either become incredibly frustrated at fame’s fickle and elusive nature — or he’s learned to live in the moment, leave fame to fate and follow his muse.

It’s Monday, and Keeley arrives for a lunchtime interview relaxed and affable, back from a weekend in Stratford where he and his wife make their home, having raised two children there. He admits he’s a little surprised to find himself in ROCK OF AGES — a flat-out rock ’n’ roll extravaganza about as far removed from the spiritual baggage of its title as it is possible to be. “I didn’t think it was something for me,” he admits of a show described as “Mamma Mia! for dudes” and comprised of rock anthems of the ’70s. “I thought it was a metal show — and I’m not a metal singer.”

In fact, he was surprised when it was suggested he audition. “I started looking at the songs they wanted me to sing and I thought, ‘Oh, Styx! I can do that.’ ”

That won’t be news to anyone who remembers Keeley’s musical collaboration with longtime friend Paul Gross — a collaboration that yielded two successful albums and a bouquet of singles a decade ago That experience taught Keeley a lot about the world of rock and gave him some early lessons on fame and fans in a pop culture world — lessons still serving him well today Of course, they toured, and though they were drawing houses, “they weren’t there for the music,” Keeley says. “They were there for Due South (Gross’s breakout television success). It was enough to make them both back off a bit in the fame game — if Gross, who remains a good friend, had wanted to be famous, he would have stayed in L.A., Keeley points out.

As for Keeley, he came home to Canada and went back to work — and that’s what he’s been doing ever since. And as for chasing fame, “I’m not interested in that,” he insists. “I’ve had glimmers of that, and it’s not why I’m in the business.”

And his brushes with it have taught him a few more lessons “If I try to make something of it, it backfires, so I leave it alone,” he says. “If it happens, it happens, but I really don’t want to have that baggage. I really don’t want to be Brad Pitt. Rather than pursue fame, “I pursue people who are passionate about what they do,” he says, adding that, all in all, he’s content with where that has taken him.

“I’d like to do more Shakespeare,” he admits. “But I love the diversity. I love jumping back and forth. I’d like to do more classical work — but that’s really dependent on who’s directing. I’m not really interested in concept theatre. The story is already there.”

Classical, contemporary drama, rock musical or simply the rock band he’s part of in Stratford — it’s all part of doing what he loves, and it’s all collaborative. “At first I think: ‘What can I bring to it,’” he says. “But then, when you’re in the room, it’s about everybody stepping up and bringing their game. I love that company feeling of coming together to create something.

“It’s a team sport,” he says with a gold medal smile, “And it’s the closest thing to being an athlete.”

Friday, May 7, 2010

7 May'10

Elton John ballet spectacular fun

Rating: 4 out of 5

CALGARY - In the strictest of balletic terms, it could be said that choreographer Jean Grand-Maitre has shot down SWAN LAKE -- but wait till you get a load with what he's done with all those feathers and rhinestones.

After months of speculation, planning and hype, Grand-Maitre and his Alberta Ballet Company officially unveiled their latest work Thursday on the stage of the Jubilee Auditorium for what looked to be a capacity crowd. And what they delivered was a two-hour story ballet LOVE LIES BLEEDING, set to tunes composed and made famous by one Reginald Kenneth Dwight, more popularly known as Elton John, and his long-time collaborator Bernie Taupin.

But LOVE LIES BLEEDING isn't merely set to John's music, it is also an allegorical retelling of his life, painted in the broad brush strokes of popular culture, referencing everything from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE to the work of Warhol. It tells the story of a young fan (Yukichi Hattori) who wanders onto the stage only to get swept up in the life of his super-star hero, until he is all but consumed by the sex, drugs and debauchery of the rock n' roll world.

It is, of course, a story that in the telling gives Grand-Maitre and his collaborators plenty of opportunity to dip into the Elton John songbook and explore not only enduring classics like Bennie and The Jets, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Rocketman, but also lesser known works The Bridge, I Need You To Turn To and a host of others, all rendered in John's familiar recorded voice and all used to maximum effect. And it also offers plenty of opportunity to showcase the talent in Grand-Maitre's hard-working company, sometimes quite literally.

Considering the reported $1.2-million budget for the work, Martine Bertrand's costumes don't seem to cover a lot of turf, designed as they are to showcase the dancer as much as the dance. But if some of the costumes are skimpy, the rest of the ballet is as lavish as one might expect a ballet on John's life to be. It's a visual tapestry that spins together the work of lighting designer Pierre Lavoie, scenic designer Guillaume Lord and video designer Adam Larsen in an evening that is simply spectacular -- an homage to excess that embraces everything from LA CAGE to this company's Calgary cowboy roots, with heavy dollops of drag and more than a soupcon of homoeroticism thrown in for good measure, this being Elton John's story, after all.

From a choreographic perspective, Grand-Maitre's sources are equally eclectic. While the company's classical roots are on occasion evident, Grand-Maitre also incorporates influences as diverse as break dancing and ballroom, mixed in with just a hint of pole dancing, a touch of religious iconography and a dollop of SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE for good measure.

And while it is an evening that often seems mired in the Elton John notion that nothing succeeds like excess, Grand-Maitre also throws in the occasional tableau of touching simplicity to underline the essential humanity and heartbreak at the heart of his tale.

This is not great ballet, nor did Grand-Maitre intend it to be. What it is, is a celebration of a major talent presented in a dance language that fans of that talent can embrace and understand. Elton John's story couldn't be told to music by Tchaikovsky nor choreographed by Balanchine. And in the final analysis, it will give a lot of Elton John fans a taste of ballet and a lot of ballet fans a taste of Elton John -- and frankly, we can all use the break.

Because in the end, LOVE LIES BLEEDING is more than merely spectacular, it is spectacular fun.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

6 May'10

‘Parade’ slightly off-key

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Legends of Amazon warriors notwithstanding, the whole notion of women going off to war is one that belongs to our modern age.

Which is not to say that women have not been fighting wars for centuries. They’ve just been staying home while doing so — a fact beautifully rendered and underscored in playwright John Murrell’s seminal Canadian drama, WAITING FOR THE PARADE — a play that has never been long out of circulation nor off the stage since it was penned back in 1977.

On the heels of a couple of Tarragon productions, a Shaw Festival production and no doubt one or two others we’ve probably missed, Toronto audiences are once again presented with yet another opportunity to see the play, courtesy of a Soulpepper production that opened Wednesday at the Young Centre.

For the uninitiated, the play is set in Calgary during World War II and tells the story of how five women fight the war that is raging inside them, struggling to keep home-fires burning while the fires of rage, loneliness and abandonment threaten to consume their very souls.

Loosely joined through volunteer war efforts, most of them are shepherded by the overbearing Janet (played by Deborah Drakeford), a woman whose unbending officiousness and zeal mask a deep sense of inadequacy that is not completely her own.

While Janet’s husband is employed on the homefront, Catherine (Michelle Monteith) has been left alone with a small child when her husband volunteered and was promptly shipped off to Europe, where he has been at the heart of the fighting ever since — leaving his wife to wait and to worry.

It’s the kind of worry the widowed Margaret (played by Nancy Palk) understands, for her eldest son has enlisted too. Meanwhile, her younger son has run afoul of the law by becoming involved with the communist anti-war effort, only adding to Margaret’s worry — and her sense of abandonment.

Eve (played by Krystin Pellerin), for her part, naively watches the young men she teaches in high school eagerly slip away to become cannon-fodder while she cares for a domineering husband who’s too old — but certainly not too unimaginative — to fight. All the while, she juggles her patriotism with a growing realization that war is not only hell but hellishly wasteful.

Meanwhile, the tragic Marta (Fiona Byrne) prowls the periphery of the group, excluded from its camaraderie by her German birth and her aged father’s loyalties.

These are five strong actresses telling a deeply moving story, but there is nonetheless something slightly off-key in the production directed by Joe Ziegler. And it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Second World War melodies scattered throughout its length; it’s more to do with the rhythms of the characters and the wars they are fighting.

Under Ziegler’s direction, Palk fails to mine Margaret’s unbending Calvinism for the terror and loneliness it has bred, while Drakeford’s Janet is played as such an utter martinet, we can never fully sympathize with her plight, once the tide of her war turns. Pellerin, for her part, relies too heavily on comedy to show us Eve’s timidity and thereby diminishing her character’s voyage into strength, if not into wisdom.

So, even though Monteith finds a nice blend of pluck and despair in Catherine’s suffering and Byrne hits all the right notes in Marta’s symphony of Germanic pragmatism, these are merely dramatic battles won and not the war itself.

In the end, it’s the kind of production that gives one an appreciation of the play while only hinting at the kind of emotional depths revealed in other, and sadly, better productions.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

5 May'10

Brilliance shines through ‘Faith Healer’

3.5 out of 5

If painter Georges Seurat had painted with words instead of oils, chances are he might have painted something like FAITH HEALER — a work in which countless individual points of view, painted in highly personal colours, come together to create a breathtaking portrait of a moment in time.

Which is not to say playwright Brian Friel’s brilliantly sketched triptych is a walk in the park — on the Island of la Grande Jatte, or anywhere else, for that matter. Instead, it’s a trek through three dark souls, as they recall the events leading up to a particular evening that ends in a tragedy that seems all too inevitable.

First of all, there is Frank (played here by Stuart Hughes), an itinerant faith healer by trade and a drunk by inclination. He has spent most of his adult life traveling with his entourage through the backwater of the British Isles, trading on a rare gift that, in its intermittent nature, has become as much a curse as a blessing.

Then there is Grace, Frank’s long-time companion and possibly his wife, played by Brenda Robins. A child of privilege, she has tossed it all over for a man her family considers a mountebank and even though she’s grown road weary, she seems incapable of extricating herself from their itinerant existence and its attendant horrors.

And finally, there is Teddy (played by Diego Matamoros), an opportunistic little cockney who, years ago, saw Franks’ gift as a portal to greatness and riches and so hitched his wagon — or in this case, his van — to Frank’s star and has come along for the ride.

In a series of four monologues — Frank, Grace, Teddy, then Frank again — they revisit one particular night “in a pub, a lounge bar, really, outside a village called Ballybeg, not far from Donegal Town,” and the long dark road that led them there. But while all three agree on the location, that’s about the only area in which they achieve factual accord.

Frank tells us Grace is his mistress, while Grace and Teddy insist she is his wife.

Frank insists Teddy chose the song that begins each of their services, while Teddy claims it was Grace’s choice.

Grace remembers the weather in a visit to Scotland as being perfectly horrible, while Teddy recalls it being as simply perfect.

Frank claims he left his two partners for a time to visit his ailing mother, while Teddy and Grace insist his absence was occasioned by the death of his father.

Thanks to Friel’s skill as a writer, however, such inconsistencies serve not to muddy the waters of their relationship, but to clarify it — and the deeper the actors dive into the characters, the clearer the picture becomes. Unfortunately, under the direction of Gina Wilkinson, all three performers are content to skate on the surface of their characters, as unmarked by the grit and grime of their sad and sordid lives as Teddy and Grace are by the oceans of booze they consume with so much alacrity and so little effect during their respective monologues.

Under Wilkinson’s direction, Hughes almost dances his part, but never leads us to Frank’s pain and insecurity; Robins touches us, but never shows us the full depth of Grace’s tragedy; and Matamoros, though he turns in an entertaining performance, fails to show us full measure of the evil of Teddy’s self-serving opportunism.

Still, enough of Friel’s genius shines through to provide ample proof of the play’s enduring worth. For the rest, well sadly, you’ll just have to take it on faith.

Soulpepper at the Young Centre
Directed by Gina Wilkinson

Monday, May 3, 2010

3 May'10

‘Maria Stuarda’ musically superb

Rating: 4 out of 5

Despite the received wisdom of a lot of high school teachers, history is not a martini to be served straight up and dry as dust. Give us history that is stretched and torn and sweat-stained from the battle to claim it as the ultimate truth, a history more redolent of victory and heartache than historic fact — and suddenly it all comes alive.

That’s the kind of history lesson the Canadian Opera Company is trying to serve up with a new production of Gaetano Donizetti’s MARIA STUARDA, a production on loan from the Dallas Opera Company. MARIA STUARDA opened at the Four Seasons Centre Saturday.

For the uninitiated, Donizetti’s opera features a libretto by Giuseppe Bardari which is in turn based on Friedrich von Schiller’s MARIA STUART — a play about a woman better remembered as Mary, Queen of Scots. But how she is remembered depends on which history books you’ve read — and clearly, Schiller’s references were a lot more anti-Tudor and pro-Catholic than most available in a world informed as much by the Anglican faith as William Shakespeare’s often forgiving view of the Tudor dynasty.

Set to Donizetti’s sweeping score, the entire opera in three acts pivots around a confrontation between the Maria of title — magnificently sung by soprano Serena Farnocchia — and her regal cousin, Elisabetta, known to the world as Elizabeth I of England, sung by soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska.

It’s a confrontation that history tells us could have never happened as the two women never met — but it’s not the first time history has been enriched by the operatic equivalent of poetic license. And though they battle about politics and religion, in this opera, the object at the very centre of this catfight most royal is none other than Roberto, Earl Of Leicester — the putative lover of England’s virgin Queen, and sometime-supporter of the exiled Scottish queen - sung here by tenor Eric Cutler.

These are three magnificent voices, joined by bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi, baritone Weston Hurt and soprano Ileana Montalbetti in supporting roles and from the get-go — underscored as they are by the COC Orchestra, under the assured baton of Antony Walker — they promise a spectacular staging. It’s all set on a regal evocation of an Elizabethan theatre, surrounding a raised platform on and around which all the action takes place, observed by members of the glorious COC Chorus, all in period dress.

But while Benoit Dugardyn’s concept of court life as theatre is strong, it loses a lot in execution, thanks to some jerry-built drawbridges which leave one with the disquieting feeling that certain cast members may well be at risk of either toppling onto the stage or being driven into it.

As used by director Stephen Lawless, that set proves even more problematic as characters sprawl all over its stairs in a fashion that is nothing even close to regal, particularly when they are impeded by massive skirts and bizarre pumpkin breeches. And while he does a fair job of keeping things moving on the stage, he ignores some pretty basic stage rules, allowing Cutler to get away with the kind of egregious upstaging — squirming and playing with his sword — that might have cost the real Leicester his head in a Tudor court.

It’s easy to forgive opera for being historically suspect, but only its superb music makes it possible to forgive it, albeit somewhat grudgingly, for being sloppy theatre.
3 May'10

Brooklyn tale likely fares best in…Brooklyn

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

If one is looking for a few good reasons why a little show titled A JEW GROWS IN BROOKLYN took root and thrived in the Broadway milieu, all one need do is look at a demographic map.

Even a quick examination will tell you that there are few better places, other than Brooklyn itself perhaps, to do a show about growing up Jewish in Brooklyn than in that little burgh right across the river from Brooklyn — a place that just happens to be the centre of the universe when it comes to theatre in the English-speaking world. If a show like this can't find an audience in New York, the reasoning no doubt went, then just open up the bridge and let the audience walk over.

The commute to Toronto, however, won't be quite so easy, and in the wake of Sunday's opening of Jake Ehrenreich's celebrated memory show at the Panasonic Theatre, it remains to be seen whether A JEW GROWS IN BROOKLYN can take root and thrive in the Toronto market.

Certainly, it's a good-hearted affair, as Ehrenreich takes to the stage to recall his Brooklyn childhood — but a good heart can only carry one so far. The youngest child and the only son of Polish Jews who fled Poland and survived World War II in a camp in Siberia, was born in America after his parents had arrived. The only survivors in their respective families, his parents built a life for themselves and for their family in Brooklyn, but their background and their experiences in Europe set them apart from everyone else, at least in the mind of a son who was desperate to fit in.

Nonetheless, young Yankele as he was known, had a pretty relentlessly ordinary childhood, based on his own memories and the family photos he shares — and anyone who ever played pick-up hockey or posed for first communion pictures or was embarrassed by the way their parents dressed can share the spirit, if not the full ethnic flavour, of his recollections. Of course, not everybody has a mother who is periodically overcome by the loss of her entire family or a father who doesn't understand baseball — but these things are touched upon only briefly, almost in passing, in a 90 minute piece that is largely self-referential.

As a playwright Ehrenreich (who also directs, with John Huberth) also obviously subscribes to the notion that a picture is worth a thousand words, particularly when the picture in question gives you a chance to make fun of the way people are dressed. Mind you, Ehrenreich doesn't limit himself to memories of his Brooklyn childhood; he also devotes an inordinate amount of time to his childhood experience in the Catskills, where he apparently memorized every bad bit of schtick that ever hit the Borscht Belt, all of which is lovingly recreated here with a verisimilitude that is nothing shy of excruciating (which can only occasionally be confused with excruciatingly funny).

For the rest, it's a pastiche of largely inconsequential memories and personal insights, interspersed with songs, both pop and Yiddish, sung in a sort of a crushed-velvet-fog style, with Ehrenreich backed by a four piece ensemble.

Oh, and there is one bit of memorable theatre — a brief film clip of Ehrenreich's father, recorded for the Shoah Project — and it makes you long to know both the man and his story better. For the rest, if you aren't Jewish and if you didn't grow up in Brooklyn or the Catskills, one suspects it's got only limited appeal.
THEATRE REVIEW: Fragments de mensonges inutiles (Fragments of Useless Lies)
3 May '10

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

As a production, it is surprisingly chaste, particularly when one considers that it is, at least in part, a contemporary story about teenage love, lust and sexuality — subjects rarely portrayed with full measures of chastity since back when Shakespeare was a pup.

Which is all more than passing strange, leading one to wonder if, in staging Michel Tremblay's latest play — a play that focuses in part on how parents deal with the revelation that their child might be gay — director Diana Leblanc has had trouble coming to terms with the sexuality of her teenaged characters as well.

The play is called Fragments de mensonges inutiles (or Fragments of Useless Lies) and it opened in its Toronto premiere at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs on Friday, a production of Theatre francais de Toronto. Performed in French (with English Surtitles at selected performances), it is the story of a love affair between two 16-year-old boys, the reckless Jean-Marc (played by Michel Seguin) and the more conservative Manu (played by Jean-Simon Traversy).

Their affair has already begun when the play begins, and while Jean-Marc wants to embrace the love they feel, Manu is frightened to let his emotions run free, afraid of the deep hurt he considers inevitable. Their emotional turmoil is, of course, exacerbated by the fact that neither of them has come out to his parents, and neither particularly wants to, certain as they are that their parents will never be able to fully comprehend what they are experiencing.

To complicate the issue, and to demonstrate both how much things have changed in the past 50 years and how little, Tremblay places Jean-Marc squarely in the Quebec (and therefore highly Catholic) world of 1957 and Manu in the far more secular world of 2007.

Jean-Marc is reluctant to tell his  parents — his mother played by Marie-Helene Fontaine and his father by Christian Laurin, who also doubles as his priest — for fear that they will not understand, while Manu is certain his parents — his mother played by Gisele Rousseau and his father by Olivier L'Ecuyer who also doubles as his shrink  — will not only force themselves to understand but will try to interfere as well.

It is an often talky script that underlines the struggles that gays and their families still encounter, despite changing attitudes, underlining the fact that despite a half-century of change, at least a few fundamental facts remain — few parents hope for a gay child, few straight teens ever have to "come out" to their parents.

It's a touching story, but under Leblanc's direction, working on a stark, multi-level set designed by Glen Charles Landry and lit by Glenn Davidson, it's a story that seems to take place from the neck up, with Seguin and Traversy evoking not so much two teenagers in love as two buddies with occasional lip privileges.

Tremblay's work, of course, is always deeper than it appears — and Fragments represents a particularly strong metaphor for the current arrangement between Canada's two solitudes. But in this oddly asexual staging, almost utterly devoid of passion, it seems Leblanc was directing the metaphor rather than the play.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

30 Apr'10

'Mamma Mia!' lacks lustre

Rating: 3 out of 5

TORONTO – Chances are, there aren’t going to be many people exiting the Princess of Wales Theatre, where a touring production of MAMMA MIA! took up an extended run Wednesday, asking, “Was that real or was it Memorex?”

This is, after all, Toronto — the city where, almost exactly a decade ago, the ABBA-inspired musical began its North American adventure. And anyone who remembers it from its storied run just down King Street at the Royal Alex is going to know mere minutes into this version that this is little more than a carbon copy — and not a terribly good one at that.

In fairness, there are certain changes one should expect, particularly when one compares a road show to a resident production. But, frankly, this show’s problems run deeper than enforced simplifications in the staging and other attendant compromises that come with taking a show on the road. As a result, even in a city where MAMMA MIA! had never played, one suspects the casting problems in this show would be obvious, signaling a casting pool so very close to being tapped out that producers are settling for performers who can merely fly when the show’s formidable reputation was built largely on the backs of performers who could soar.

All of which means that, while it would be unfair to expect a junior version of Louise Pitre to take to the stage in the role of single mother/entrepreneur Donna Sheridan, we should expect something a little more, well, dynamic than the utterly adequate performance turned in by Michelle Dawson. This is, after all, a role on which not only the entire story pivots, but the entire soundtrack as well — for unless Donna can take the dross of ABBA’s playlist and magically spin it into emotional gold, the whole story just goes flat.

And while Dawson is certainly no Pitre, she also gets precious little help from her supporting cast or from those charged with maintaining director Phyllida Lloyd’s vision of Catherine Johnson’s simple, silly tale of loves lost and found on a magical Greek island. In a production in which every single laugh line is delivered with all the subtlety of a howitzer, the charm that made this such a winning piece of theatre appears to be the first victim. From the casting of Kittra Wynn Coomer and Rachel Tyler as Donna’s childhood friends, to the casting of Vincent Corazza, Matthew Ashford and John Sanders as Donna’s one-time suitors, it’s as though everyone has been so busy mugging for laughs that no one has bothered to explore even the limited humanity of this piece.

And when seasoned performers are content painting in such broad comedic strokes, it is no surprise that Liana Hunt and David Raimo — cast as the young couple whose nuptials have occasioned the whole reunion — don’t fare much better. While Hunt — as Donna’s daughter Sophie — is otherwise up to her task, she doesn’t have the vocal chops for the role, while, as Sky, Raimo leaves one with the distinct impression that every pose, every attitude has been perfected in his bathroom mirror.

Which leaves us with the music — an entire hit list from ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus that represents the soundtrack of their lives to a large swath of the theatre-going public. And happily, the power of over-proof nostalgia remains largely undiminished.

So while it appears that, with this production, they have lobotomized MAMMA MIA! (which admittedly does not represent major surgery), they haven’t completely stilled its heart. MAMMA MIA! was never great theatre, but it used to be a lot more fun.