Wednesday, October 27, 2010

26 Oct'10

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

TORONTO - There are eight buses a week out of this town -- and you should be aboard one of 'em. We're not talking the Red Rocket or even Greyhound, however.

We're talking a bus named Priscilla, also known as the Queen of the Desert, made famous in the hit movie that bore her name, as in PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT. Now, she's back on the road, playing in musical theatre form, at the Princess of Wales Theatre, where -- having conquered Australia and London's West End -- she launched herself Tuesday on the road to Broadway. The production sported enough glitz and feathers to re-upholster a decade worth of Pride Parades, and more six packs than your local beer store.

Adapted by Stephan Elliott (who wrote and directed the movie) and producer Allan Scott, PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT: THE MUSICAL is true to its roots in much the same way as the old Classic Comics were to the novels that inspired them -- which is to say, it hits all the high notes of the tale in a highly visual way. Anyone expecting nuance or subtlety should know to avoid drag shows, in much the same way they no doubt avoided Classic Comics.

Classic Comics, however, never came with soundtracks and it is the music in this particular jukebox musical that fans are almost certain to enjoy -- a medley of '80s hits from Madonna (Like a Virgin), Cindy Lauper (Girls Just Wanna Have Fun), The Weather Girls (It's Raining Men), Gloria Gaynor (I Will Survive) and Alicia Bridges (I Love the Night Life), with a bit of swing, a bit of opera and a bit of country thrown in for good measure. Some of it is lip-synched, performed by Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anastacia McClesky and Ashley Spencer and mimed by drag queens determined to make it their own, but a lot of it is actually sung as opposed to merely channelled.

For those unfamiliar with the turf, PRISCILLA tells the highly episodic story of three drag queens -- Bernadette, an aging transsexual played by Tony Sheldon; Tick, a reformed bisexual played by Will Swenson; and Adam, a young gay Lothario played by Nick Adams -- travelling across the Australian Outback to Alice Springs in the bus of title. At the end of their trip, there is a gig at the local casino, and a reunion between Tick and his young son, conceived, it seems, back in the days when his gate swung both ways.

Bernadette, for her part, is grieving the loss of a lover, while Adam has long had a fantasy involving a frock, a rock (in this case Uluru, formerly known as Ayers Rock) and a -- well, we'll leave the rest to your imagination. Along the way, the trio encounters and fabulously faces down a few demons, both personal and societal, with Priscilla playing inadvertent matchmaker when she breaks down and requires the ministrations of a courtly mechanic named Bob (C. David Johnson) who's about to make like a ping-pong ball and bounce right out of his marriage.

Under the direction of Simon Phillips, with choreography by Ross Coleman, this is the granddaddy of all drag shows, dressed up like its grandmammy, thanks to the costumes of Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who in the main eschew the female impersonation of 'classic drag' in favour of a sort of performance androgyny. Reviewed here in preview, this is, not surprisingly, a show that delights in the outrageous and the flouting of convention -- but it also remains oddly chaste for all that, a nod perhaps to too tender middle class sensibilities that can ultimately make or break a musical like this.

All four of the principals thankfully prove to be very dab hands at fleshing out sketchy characters, supported by a hardworking ensemble featuring performers such as J. Elaine Marcos and Keala Settle, each of whom comes close to stealing the show with small but memorable turns.

Shiny as a zirconia sunburst, and deep as a dime, PRISCILLA turns theatrical convention into theatrical confection at every turn -- a show that gives you a good time but still makes you think you might want to take her home to meet mama anyway. Assuming, of course, that mama has a broad mind and a great sense of humour -- or a very good pacemaker.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

OPERA NEWS: Banner year for COC
26 Oct'10


It was a banner year for the Canadian Opera Company, with acclaimed productions and better than brisk ticket sales. The COC also managed to make a bit of money in the process. At the annual general meeting on Tuesday, board president Paul Spafford announced the company had enjoyed a record-breaking season in 2009-10, finishing with a modest surplus of $21,000.

With 70 performances of seven operas, including the world premiere of Robert Lepage’s THE NIGHTINGALE AND OTHER SHORT FABLES, the COC set a record for season-ticket revenues, up year over year by 6.2% for a total of more than $13 million. That represents more than 50,000 single tickets and 97.6 % of capacity.

But ticket revenues cover only 41% of the company’s annual budget. The remainder comes from government grants (including increased amounts over the previous year from the Ontario Arts Council and Toronto Culture), from space and production rentals and, finally, from donors, whose portion accounts for some 28%. Spafford praised the people “who believe the COC is worth supporting, beyond simply purchasing a ticket or a subscription. And those that do,” he continued, “are, thankfully, very generous in their support.”

By contrast, in 2008-09 the COC was forced, despite a banner year from a production point of view, to dip into reserves to the tune of $1.6 million in order to finish the year with a $25,000 surplus.

The COC also announced Tuesday that it will once again produce broadcasts of its entire season, in conjunction with CBC Radio 2, making them accessible to both national and international audiences. This marks the second year in a row for the arrangement.

Friday, October 22, 2010

22 Oct'10

Rating: 4 out of 5

It's tough to think of anyone in the modern theatre world who has done more to prove the veracity of Shakespeare's observation that "All the world's a stage" than Robert Lepage. In a career spent mining the world and all that's in it for theatrical subjects and effects, Lepage has done much to change not only the way we see theatre, but the way we see the world as well.

Now, in THE ANDERSEN PROJECT, Lepage gives us the opportunity to study, at our leisure, the way he can blend some of the most ancient theatrical effects with some of the most modern to expand the theatrical stage so that it seems indeed to embrace all the world. In Lepage's world, shadow puppetry, no doubt first experienced on the walls of a cave, blends almost seamlessly with the latest innovations from the world of video to create a magic carpet that is capable of carrying us anywhere the master storyteller wants to take us.

Commissioned by the Danish government in 2005 to mark the bicentennial of the birth of that country's most beloved writer, Hans Christian Andersen, it obviously has taken a while for THE ANDERSEN PROJECT to make it to Toronto -- but, happily, it's now ensconced for what is likely to be a too-brief run at the Bluma Appel Theatre, where it opened Thursday night. It's a Canadian Stage presentation of an Ex Machina production.

And while TAP is certain to teach anyone who is not an Andersen scholar a few choice things about the Danish master of fables -- his wretched track record with women, his attraction to men and an addiction to onanism that we'll simply have to take on faith -- this is not a biography of Andersen, who is, in reality, reduced to a supporting role. Instead, it tells the story of a young Quebecois songwriter who, in the wake of a romantic upheaval, finds himself in Paris writing the libretto for a children's opera adapted from one of Andersen's tales and baby-sitting a drug-addicted dog, at least temporarily in estrous.

His Parisian interlude also introduces our homegrown hero to a babbling French bureaucrat who is, apparently, like Andersen, devoted to self-pleasure, as well as to a sullen Algerian graffiti artist who earns his living cleaning up what customers at a Paris peep show leave behind. Their stories, interwoven with a few of Andersen's fables, become the stuffing of TAP, an occasionally rambling single act that spans more than two hours.

All of these characters, with the exception of the dog, are played by a single actor -- renowned Quebecois artist Yves Jacques, stepping into the roles created and originated by Lepage and tossing them off with the skill and grace of a dancer. Jacques also works seamlessly with all the theatrical elements Lepage and his team have incorporated into the tale. Many of them foreshadow later works in the master's canon -- a bit of shadow puppetry that resurfaces in a more refined way in THE NIGHTINGALE AND OTHER SHORT FABLES, a bit of stage alchemy that tries to turn two dimensions into three. Clearly, Lepage was exploring ideas he expanded in his RING CYCLE.

Like all of Lepage's work, it is marked by a standard of theatricality rarely equalled, but it stops short in this instance of being great theatre, marked though it is with plenty of Lepage's irreverent wit. Larded with wanker jokes and references to France's fractious unions, it still feels as if Lepage is struggling to stretch his subject matter. Sometimes, he abandons his audience to long Fren-glish monologues that are all but unintelligible in either official language. At others, he allows his story to wander while he experiments with another usually spectacular effect.

As a result, THE ANDERSEN PROJECT stops short of must-see theatre, but with the Lepage imprimatur, it is nonetheless must-see theatricality.

22 Oct'10

Rating: 4 out of 5

Good plays are often defined by their time . A great play is timeless — and Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN is a truly great play. Just how great, in fact, is more than evident in the Soulpepper production that opened Thursday at the Young Centre, directed by Albert Schultz.

Save for a certain precise beauty in the language (tragically fallen from fashion in the past 60 years), the play and its protagonist are very much of today's world. Willy Loman, the man who sits at the heart of this modern tragedy, could be one of the millions of people who today look back on a lifetime of hard work and playing by the rules, and wonder: "What the hell happened."

And when the long-suffering Linda Loman, Willy's wife, insists: "Attention must be paid," there are echoes of the same rage and frustration that's blossomed in today's disaffected electorate, seemingly prepared to throw the baby out with the bath water, hoping for something better. But while the play itself is still hugely powerful — perhaps even more powerful than at any time since it premiered in 1949 — Soulpepper's often-worthy production is impressive on many fronts, though flawed. Reviewed here in it's final preview, it features some truly magnificent performances in its principal roles.

Joseph Ziegler is cast as Willy , the Salesman of title, and, not surprisingly, he is superb, embracing his character's flaws and making them strengths as he careers backwards and forwards in time like some sort of aged and wounded bull elephant looking for a place to die. His Willy may have a skewed vision of the world, but he has played by the rules as he sees them, only to discover in the final act , that the rules have changed. Thanks to Ziegler's performance we not only understand his sense of betrayal, we feel it as well.

As his sons, Biff and Happy, Ari Cohen and Tim Campbell respectively, match Ziegler at almost every turn, throwing themselves into their performances with a fearlessness shot through with both intelligence and pain. As Biff, Cohen skates constantly on the edge of despair, while Campbell brings a deep bravado and sympathy to his portrayal of the hapless Hap.

As Willy's long-suffering wife, Nancy Palk (Ziegler's real-life wife) gives a valid performance too, although her St. Linda of Loman routine wears more than a little thin by the play's end, robbing her character of backbone and her graveside farewell of much of its power.

But while the Loman family springs to vital life on Lorenzo Savoini's cramped but effective set, Schultz is not nearly as effective with the performances he draws from his supporting cast. From William Webster's strangely foppish turn as the ghostly Uncle Ben, through Brendan Wall's oddly contemporary turn as Howard, Willy's brash and self-involved young boss, Schultz seems content to allow fine performances from his principals to serve as support for his supporting cast, making do with good enough, in a work where good enough simply isn't good enough by half. While his pacing is right on the money, one wishes he'd spent a little more time shaping things and not just moving them along.

Still, few can deny that Miller's timeless script triumphs over the often minor missteps in this production. For all that it may not be a perfect production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN, it is nonetheless a DEATH OF A SALESMAN for our time, and when a show like this comes along, attention must be paid.

To borrow a phrase.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


Set designer Gauci recalls big break
20 Oct'10


You never know where that next step is going to lead you: A few feet ahead, or a whole new life. Just ask Gerard Gauci. A quarter century ago, he was a recent graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design, eking out a living as an illustrator. In that capacity he found himself charged with designing a cover for what he describes as "a now-defunct CBC Radio guide."

The result owed more than a passing debt to the baroque period and, lovely though it was, would no doubt have been forgotten had it not caught the attention of a pair of artists who were fascinated with all things baroque. They ripped the cover off the magazine and stuck it on their fridge, where it was noticed by a friend of theirs and of Gauci's, who proceeded to give Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg a telephone number where Gauci could be reached.

"They called out of the blue and asked if I'd have tea with them," Gauci recalls, by way of explaining his 25-year association with Opera Atelier, the Toronto-based baroque opera company formed and nurtured over the past quarter century by Pynkoski and Zingg. And Gauci, whose cover sketch landed him a job that would eventually morph into his being named OA's resident set designer, has gone along for the ride. In fact, you could say he has been responsible for the look of that ride, as the fledgling company outgrew the AGO's Walker Court and the Macmillan Theatre, before coming to roost in the opulent confines of the Elgin Theatre, where it still makes its performance home.

"I've been able to grow along with them," says Gauci, who admits that while growing up in Etobicoke he "intended to work in theatre, and got waylaid. I've grown with them. That was the wonderful thing about coming in on the ground floor. I've just had to learn as we grow, and I'm still always learning."

Indeed he is. Starting with the Elgin's Oct. 30 opening of OA's ACIS AND GALATEA, audiences are going to see a whole new dimension to Gauci's talents. For the Handel classic, Gauci is not only working his magic on the sets (he has proven himself a dab hand at trompe l'oeil over the years) and props (including a flock of mechanical goats that will gambol across the stage at will), this time out he also has taken responsibility for the costumes. As if he didn't have enough on his plate.

"Every once in a while, I like to take on something that's very difficult -- and this is," he says, adding that costuming adds a whole new layer to things. "You can do a perfectly nice sketch, but it's not about sketching." he says. "The thing that is most different (is that) it all happens in the last few weeks." So, in addition to worrying about the sets and props, he's now embroiled in fittings, tailoring and a thousand other concerns. But if Gauci seems to be taking it all in his stride, it's because of past experience. "At the beginning of every show, I'm always nervous about how it's going to go," he admits with a quiet smile. "But it always works out, if you have a good team. And I have a great team."

Gauci has designed more than a dozen shows for OA, but through it all he has built a successful career as a painter, as well. His work has been exhibited across Canada and featured in several prestigious collections. Maintaining two careers, Gauci says, isn't so much a matter of keeping them separate as using them to complement each other. "The biggest difference is your paintings are always about your very personal experience," he says, "but your design work is very collaborative. Painting is about me." And while he says he enjoys the work that is all about him, "I'm also very happy to open that door and start working collaboratively, It's a very different experience and a very refreshing one. It's great to shift back and forth."

As an artist, Gauci may be singing out of two different songbooks, but he quite happily designed the cover for both, 25 years ago.

Gauci, Pynkoski partnership works:

Ever wonder what it would be like to work with a larger than life personality? Ask Gerard Gauci, the resident designer of Opera Atelier. He's been been working with the ever-ebullient and always-enthusiastic Marshall Pynkoski since the baroque opera company was little more than a dream.

"I don't find working with him hard," Gauci says happily of the man whose enthusiasm for his company flows over the audience at the top of every OA performance. Indeed, Gauci welcomes that kind of enthusiasm "I find it really stimulating," Gauci says. "The hardest thing is going to function and not talking about work. The wonderful thing about (Marshall) is he gives as much as he takes -- probably more."

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

THEATRE NEWS: Soulpepper seasons 2011
20 Oct'10


Seems Soulpepper is turning into a spice to be applied to the Toronto theatre scene in a most liberal fashion. At least that's the impression in the wake of artistic director Albert Schultz's announcement Tuesday of his company's new 17-show 2011 season at the Young Centre.

Of those 17 shows, five will be remounts of earlier Soulpepper productions — Thornton Wilder's OUR TOWN, Neil Simon's ODD COUPLE, Miklos Laszlo's PARFUMERIE (adapted by Adam Pettle and Brenda Robins) William Saroyan's THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE and John Gray and Eric Peterson's BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR.

But Soulpepper artists will also be hard at work focusing their attention and ours on other classics of the theatre canon, including David Mamet's OLEANNA, William Shakespeare's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, Tennessee William's THE GLASS MENAGERIE, Eugene Ionesco's EXIT THE KING, Arthur Miller's THE PRICE , Henrik Ibsen's GHOSTS in a new translation/adaptation by Morris Panych, and for musical theatre fans, THE FANTASTICKS, by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt.

As for Canadian content, well Soulpepper has got that covered too, with new productions of Guillermo Verdecchia's FRONTERAS AMERICANAS and Judith Thompson's WHITE BITING DOG planned, in addition to a pair of one acts: THE ALEPH, based on a short story by Jorge Luis Borges and adapted by Diego Matamoros and Daniel Brooks and Leo Tolstoy's THE KREUTZER SONATA, adapted by Ted Dykstra. A double bill — (Re)Birth: e.e. cummings in Song, and WINDOW ON TORONTO, directed by Laszlo Marton — round out the season.

Soulpepper subscriptions can be renewed after Oct. 18, with new subscription available Nov. 2 and single tickets, Nov. 23. For further information, call 416-866-8666 or visit

Monday, October 18, 2010

18 Oct'10

‘Priscilla’ actor takes a step back


In the often topsy-turvy world of theatre, it makes perfect sense that one of the Canadian musical stage's most successful leading men is preparing to head to the Big Apple, lured there in no small part by the chance that he just might become one of Broadway's leading ladies And if that has you scratching your head, then maybe you haven't been playing attention to the developments at the Princess of Wales Theatre, where a Broadway-bound company is about to open the Canadian premiere of PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT: THE MUSICAL.

It is, of course, based on the hit movie PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT, and if you check the chorus credits when it opens in Toronto on Oct. 26, you might be surprised to find the name Thom Allison there. Yes, that would be the same Thom Allison who has delighted Canadian audiences in a range of roles, from Cinderella's Prince Charming in the Stratford Festival's acclaimed production of INTO THE WOODS, to Carl Magnus in the Shaw Festival's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, to Darren in CanStage's TAKE ME OUT, to Adolpho in THE DROWSY CHAPERONE at the Manitoba Theatre Centre, the Vancouver Playhouse, the Citadel and the National Arts Centre.

Allison doesn't see the fact that he's once more a chorus boy as a step down, but he admits it is a bit of a step backward -- as in stepping into the background. But he also sees it as a step in the right direction -- right toward New York. "Honestly, the deciding factor instantly was: "I'm going to Broadway!' he says. To get there for the March 2011 Broadway opening, taking a part in the chorus was a small price to pay. "And if I have to go into the ensemble at this point in my career, what a show..."

But the full truth of the matter is, while he's stepping back into the ensemble, he's also got an opportunity. Allison has signed on to understudy the role of Bernadette, the transsexual den mother to a pair of drag queens traveling across Australia on a broken-down old bus named Priscilla. It's a role originated in the Australian production by Tony Sheldon, who went on to earn a best-actor nomination for an Olivier Award in the subsequent London production. And although Sheldon is planning to stay aboard the Priscilla bus as it roars through Toronto on its way to its Broadway debut, Allison is not unaware of the possibilities Sheldon's understudy might face in the future, in a show that already has other international productions in the planning stages.

"It's a mix of trepidation right now," Allison says, "because I'm trying to learn (the part). Tony's incredible. He's been so generous about giving tips." But even if Allison never gets the chance to play Bernadette on the New York stage, he's still firmly on board for the move to the Big Apple, and happy to be there.

"A big part of New York for me is the cabaret scene -- and I want to explore that," he insists, adding that, while he still loves acting, he has an increasing fascination with that particular aspect of showbiz. "I love the idea that it's an evening about me, and doing what I want to do. That way I can be passionate about every song. What I love to do is be a singing storyteller. I love to weave a spell over an audience and take them on a ride."

For now, that ride is aboard Priscilla, but who knows where this bus will stop?

Walking the wild side not a drag for veteran actor:

Drag is no big thing for an actor such as Thom Allison -- and a good thing too. "I love transformation -- the whole male/female stereotype," Allison says as he prepares for the opening of PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT: THE MUSICAL, adding: "They're not always such polar opposites as people would think." In fact he welcomes the chance to get dressed up and walk on the wild side again, more than a decade after starring in OUTRAGEOUS.

"OUTRAGEOUS was about a Canadian (famed female impersonator Craig Russell), so there was a certain respect. It wasn't about doing drag, it was about the person," he says. "Now, it's just fun, because it's so chic. It's the jewel that people want to find out about. It's a wonderland. It's Alice Through The Drag Looking Glass."

And thanks to shows such as Priscilla, it's the audience that just gets more curious all the time, he says. "(This show) is a safe way to step out of their comfort zone," he says.

18 Oct'10

Rating: 5 out of 5

If fine theatre, like fine cuisine, comes from blending all the components of a dish in such a way that the final sum is greater than all of its parts, then director Yoshi Oida is the operatic equivalent of a master chef. And the Canadian Opera Company's new production of DEATH IN VENICE is a musical banquet you shouldn't miss.

A co-production with the Aldeburgh Festival, Bregenz Festival, Statni Opera Praha and Opera National de Lyon, DEATH IN VENICE hit the stage of the Four Seasons Centre Saturday — and it held its audience spellbound until the final scene was sung.

Indeed, considering that this is the operatic valedictory of British composer Benjamin Britten, who painted in a musical palette far removed from more traditional and melodic operatic fare, it is fair to say that it also left more than a few people in the audience more than a little stunned at the sheer depth of humanity this music embraces. And while much of the credit for that must indeed go to Britten, who was clearly working at the top of his form despite his failing health, it must be shared with director Oida, a true master of the unobtrusive.

With deceptive ease, he  takes Britten's score, a libretto by Myfanwy Piper based on the novella by Thomas Mann, throws in a stunning yet simple set design created by Tom Schenk , superbly lit by Paule Constable and Jane Dutton and folds in a cast of superb singers, carefully blended with a corps of equally fine dancers and just a pinch of the Japanese theatrical tradition that so fascinated the composer and then lets it all steam for just under three hours.

The result, spiced only with a certain elegance, is a production where everything seems to be in almost perfect harmony, as the story of the fatal unrequited obsession writer Gustav von Aschenbach, a celebrated German author (sung by tenor Alan Oke), develops for a young Polish boy he encounters on an impulsive trip to Venice, in the midst of a cholera epidemic.

Working on Schenk's minimalist set, Oida relies on Constable's lighting genius to create a Venice of the mind — a place awash in light and reflection, where La Serenissima's celebrated colour blossoms as rarely and elusively as melody lines in Britten's score, served up here with great skill by the COC Orchestra conducted by Steuart Bedford.

Strongly supported at every turn by baritone Peter Savidge (who tackles a multitude of roles, all of which add up to a devilish alter-ego for the struggling Aschenbach), Oke traces the proud intellectual's descent into madness with a strong passion and an understated grace. From the moment he encounters young Tadzio (performed with delicious spareness by dancer Adam Sergison), Oke uses a finely drawn vocal performance as foundation for a moving portrait of a man suddenly and inexplicably at the mercy of his senses. He is besotted not only by a single youth, but by youth itself, taunted by the gods from which he has held himself aloof and all but unnoticed by his fellow man.

But while the story pivots around the tensions of two singers and a single dancer, Oida and his team fill the stage with life, bringing the canals and piazzas of Venice to life with stunning artistry, deploying a cast of expert singers and dancers (choreographed by Daniela Kurz and Katharina Bader) to maximum effect and creating an external landscape that, while riveting, never overshadows the internal landscape around which the story is built.

Thus supported, Britten's music is a powerful revelation, the soundtrack of a tortured mind, on which the sights and sounds of the world around it are allowed to intrude but never dominate.

Friday, October 15, 2010

15 Oct'10

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Toronto audiences take notice when a Tremblay play blows in from Quebec to take up residence on one of our local stages -- but usually, a Tremblay play means it's the handiwork of the celebrated Quebecois playwright Michel Tremblay. But now, it seems, there is a new Tremblay on the Quebec theatre scene, offering work that is, in its way, every bit as compelling as that other guy.

Her name is Jennifer Tremblay, and she earned a French-language Governor General's Award in 2008 for a play titled THE LIST -- a play since translated into English by Shelley Tepperman and now enjoying its Toronto première on the stage of the Berkeley Street Theatre. THE LIST opened Thursday, a co-production of Nightwood Theatre and Canadian Stage.

It's a simple enough story, told in monologue, as an unnamed woman goes about the mundane routine of daily life -- a life she tries to keep from spinning off the rails by constructing ever more elaborate lists as bulwarks against the emptiness that threatens to engulf and consume her.

Played by Allegra Fulton, she is a complex piece of work, unhappily married and trapped in a small town she despises, waiting for a husband she no longer really likes to come home from his job in the city and relieve the tedium of a small town life spent chasing after children with whom she can't connect and ticking items off her endless list of things that must be done or should be done or might be done. Not surprisingly, when the only friend she has made in the small town she calls home -- an earth-mother type named Caroline who simply strolls into her life -- asks a favour from her, that favour becomes part of our narrator's daily list, constantly being shifted aside by other seemingly more pressing concerns. Tragedy ensues, and our narrator is left to sort out and to list the ways she has contributed to a tragedy that now seems to dominate her life.

For all that it is built around a bit of a shaky premise -- the favour in question does not, ultimately, involve anything so complex that the ill-fated Caroline couldn't do it for herself, after all -- director Kelly Thornton gives us a compelling production here.

She sets the work in a kitchen, suspended somewhere between reality and the darkest corners of her narrator's mind -- a spotless, sterile, almost sub-Arctic environment created by designer Denyse Karn and lit by Kimberly Purtell. Together they create a breathtakingly claustrophobic world, frosted by madness -- a world that, despite all its cool elegance, telegraphs a sense of oppressive and manic desperation that is hypnotic.

That same desperation fuels Fulton's performance as she stalks around that set, seemingly stranded on the thin edge of hysteria, contemplating an endless sea of unhappiness. But while Fulton, with her sweeping array of talents, seems initially to be perfectly cast, she is an actress who, despite a few projection problems on opening night, seems only capable of inhabiting the big moments, investing everything with so much anguish that we are forced to keep her at an emotional remove, caught up as we are in the performance and not the character. In consequence, we not only fail to understand the full depth of her friendship with Caroline and how it developed, we fail to feel the full anguish of her loss and guilt.

Finally, few are likely to argue that Fulton, under Thornton's direction, does a superb job of finding her way into this character. But at least a few of us are likely to leave wishing she'd hadn't sealed up all the entrances once she got there.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

OPERA NEWS: COC’s Nightingale flying to New York
14 Oct'10


The Canadian Opera Company will take its acclaimed production of THE NIGHTINGALE AND OTHER SHORT FABLES to the prestigious Brooklyn Academy of Music where it will play for four performances, Mar. 1-6, as part of BAM’s 2011 spring season, it was announced Thursday.

Featuring the music of Igor Stravinsky and direction by Canadian visionary Robert Lepage, THE NIGHTINGALE premiered at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre in 2009 and, after playing the prestigious Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in July of this year, is now being performed at the Opera National de Lyon. It has garnered critical and audience acclaim everywhere it has played.

Tickets for the Brooklyn engagement will go on sale Jan. 10 at
14 Oct'10

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

While it may not have yet been definitively measured, it could be argued with some conviction that the face of this old earth has been changed more radically by simple erosion than by cataclysm; that more distance has been travelled in baby steps than in Gulliver's massive strides. And in the same vein, changes in the face of human nature are most often measured in tiny increments rather than in seismic shifts in one's point of view. Complex as such notions might be, they might make for more pleasurable viewing when one approaches THE INVISIBLE GIRL, a new play from Michele Riml that launched the 45th season at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People on Wednesday.

The girl in question is a young princess of upspeak named Ali (played by Amy Lee)- a Bratz-on-steroids type of ingenue who finds herself rendered, like, utterly invisible when she, like, inadvertently runs afoul of the leader of the Ultimates, a girl-gang in which she herself has heretofore played a pivotal role.

And just what was her Ultimate sin, you are asking? Well, it seems Ali has thoughtlessly nominated her classmate Dolores (wittily known amongst the Ultimates as FD which is short for Fat Dolores, 'cause, like, it's rude to call someone fat) for an honour coveted by the leader of the Ultimates. For her crime, Ali has not only been frozen out of the gang, losing access to borrowed gladrags displaying all the right labels and her pivotal contribution to the ultimate face, but to the chance to meet heartthrob Justin Bieber at Canada's Wonderland as well -- Oh -- EEEEEEEEEE!

Set in an oversized closet created by Toronto's most designing woman, Camellia Koo, THE INVISIBLE GIRL takes place in flashback. Over a week of Ali's life, each day introduced by a pair of sexy little panties labeled with the day of the week and every other character other than Ali, played by an outfit of clothing draped on a hanger, as if to say, this is what little girls are made of. And, under the direction of Nina Lee Aquino, assisted by the lighting design of Kimberly Purtell and the video genius of Romeo Candido (who manages to turn the entire stage into a cellphone and set the cause of spelling back about 1,000 years in the process), Lee attacks the role with admirable intensity, creating a portrait of both a self-obsessed girl and her community that is nothing if not completely believable.

Perhaps even too believable, which finally makes it all the more tragic that this script lets her down so dramatically, tracing a character arc for young Ali that never lets her really grow -- to take responsibility for her behaviour either before she was rejected by the Ultimates or after.

Oh, ultimately she does the right thing by FD, but not only does she do it in spite of herself, she still hopes she'll be able to find her way back into the vacuous heart of the Ultimates to boot. It's not her friends she misses in exile, but the power. Having been a bully, she gets a taste of what it feels like to be bullied, but one senses that, in future, Ali will still be a bully -- but a bully who might have a twinge of conscience every now and then.

With plays like this to support the cause of stamping out school-yard bullying, one can confidently predict that while we may not see the end of it by the time our great-grandchildren become great grandparents, we will have moved marginally closer at least.
THEATRE NEWS: Governor General’s awards list down to 70
14 Oct'10


Competition for the 2010 Governor General’s Literary Awards got a lot stiffer Wednesday. The Canada Council narrowed more than 1,700 eligible works down to a short list of 70 writers, translators and illustrators who will compete for the 14 Gov-Gen prizes, each of which carries a purse of $25,000.

In the English language fiction category, the competition is between Regina’s Sandra Birdsell (Waiting For Joe), London, Ont.’s Emma Donoghue (Room), Curve Lake, Ont.’s Drew Hayden Taylor (Motorcycles and Sweet Grass) Regina’s Dianne Warren (Cool Water) and Montreal’s Kathleen Winter (Annabel).

In English language non-fiction, the finalists are Toronto’s Elizabeth Abbott (A History of Marriage), Toronto’s Ian Brown (The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for His Disabled Son), Saskatoon’s Allan Casey (Lakeland: Journeys Into the Soul of Canada), Toronto’s Karen Connelly (Burmese Lessons: A Love Story) and Kitchener’s John English (Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968 —2000).

In English language drama, Robert Chafe of St. John’s, Nfld., and his play AFTERIMAGE will be in competition with four Toronto playwrights and their works: Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman (SCRATCH), Michael Healey (COURAGEOUS), Judith Thompson (SUCH CREATURES) and David Yee (LADY IN THE RED DRESS).

Winners in all categories will be announced Nov. 16, with presentations to be made at Ottawa’s Rideau Hall by Gov. Gen. David Johnston on Nov. 25. For the lists of finalists in the other Governor General’s Literary Award categories — including poetry, children’s literature — go to

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

THEATRE NEWS: Dancap announces productions for 2011 season
12 Oct'10


He revitalized the Toronto Centre for the Arts with a long-running production of JERSEY BOYS and turned the Four Seasons Centre into a theatre destination with a summer season. Now Aubrey Dan has set his cap for a whole new market with a whole new season — a season he hopes will help to revitalize Toronto's fading reputation as a theatre destination. At a luncheon Tuesday for stakeholders in Toronto's theatre and tourism scene, Dan, president of Dancap Productions, Inc., announced plans for his 2011 subscription season.

His new season will kick off with a reprise of the acclaimed Lincoln Centre touring production of SOUTH PACIFIC that played the Four Seasons Centre for a limited run this summer. SOUTH PACIFIC will launch Dancap's new season at the Toronto Centre for the Arts in mid-February and will once again feature Jason Howard and Carmen Cusack.

The season at the Toronto Centre will also include touring productions of 9 TO 5: THE MUSICAL, with music and lyrics by Dolly Parton (slated to open in June), THE ADDAMS FAMILY (opening in November 2011) and the multi-Tony Award-winning MEMPHIS (opening December 2011).

For its second summer season in the Four Seasons Centre, Dancap will launch with a touring production of the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning NEXT TO NORMAL, featuring Tony-winner Alice Ripley reprising her Broadway performance. It will be followed by the latest work from dance master Twyla Tharp, titled COME FLY WITH ME, featuring original recorded masters of Frank Sinatra in an array of classics.

Recalling the glory days of Toronto commercial theatre and lamenting the fact that Toronto has lost its ranking as one of the leading theatre cities in the Western world, Dan said his company "wants to help rebuild a dedicated theatre base" here in the city. But for that to happen, it's going to take more than just one company, he insists. "For all of us to succeed, we need to collaborate and work together for the common good."

Tickets for the new season are now available to Dancap members and will go on sale to the general public on Oct. 23 at Dancap's website.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

10 Oct'10

Rating: 3 out of 5

Consider it an Irish version of LOVE, LOSS AND WHAT I WORE, with just a touch of Gaelic madness thrown in — and not that silly treacle about little people and pots of gold, mind you, but the darker kind that speaks of banshees and madness in terms highly poetical.

It's called THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM. Written by Enda Walsh, it opened in its Canadian premiere on the stage of the Tarragon Extra Space Friday, a production of MacKenzieRo: The Irish Repertory Company of Canada — a strange little piece of work, set in an all-but-derelict fishing village perched on the very edge of Ireland's nowhere.

Not that we get to see much of that village, for this is the story of three weird sisters who, for the most part, never leave their home. At least the eldest two —Breda, played by Rosemary Dunsmore and Clara, played by Sarah Dodd — don't. Instead, they spend their time reliving a watershed evening in their lives, an evening when they were as young as the world around them and they were filled with its promise — a single night when love and adventure and life itself seemed but a kiss away. It ended badly however and decades on, the tale of that evening has become a firmly entrenched part of family lore, played out over and over again, a catechism of love gone wrong used as both an entertainment and a cautionary tale to bind their younger sister Ada (Cathy Murphy) to them with bands of steel and fear.

Ada, for her part, manages to escape on a regular basis, employed as she is in the office of the local fish plant — and she's getting a trifle edgy. The sisters' lives are spiced, but only slightly, by the regular visits from Patsy, the local fish monger (played by Christopher Stanton), who arrives with every tide bearing not only whatever the sea has yielded up but news of the community around them, news which flows from him like an unfiltered artesian well. But even while she is addicted to her sisters' tales of romance and betrayal, Ada struggles against the tide of romantic recollections that wash over her, and under Breda's tutelage, she suddenly finds herself in the midst of a magical moment that will either free her from the familial lore or transform her into a part of it. For those familiar with the Irish canon, it will come as no surprise that this is a talky work, for all that the playwright often transforms that talk into breathtaking, poetic cascades that threaten to sweep you away.

And director Autumn Smith does her level best to stay afloat in that tide, enlisting the aid of designers Lindsay Anne Black (sets), Rosemary Umetsu (costumes), Laird Macdonald (lighting) and Stanton (who doubles as the sound designer). Together, they create a few moments of magic, but in the end, they are undone by the seemingly insurmountable unevenness in casting. While Dunsmore and Dodd both turn in carefully considered performances, the former all anger and angles, the latter all bewildered curves, Murphy is seemingly incapable of creating a character who can drive what action there is, neither threatening enough to explain the control she has over her siblings, nor manic enough to explain their need to keep her happy.

Happily, despite his fresh-scrubbed look, so totally at odds with Patsy as we should meet him, Stanton manages to rise above his physicality to create a few blissful moments — and while we welcome them, they are not, in the end, enough to make a night at THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM either electric or a ball.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

THEATRE NEWS: Mayor Miller salutes the arts
9 Oct'10


With an election looming, outgoing Mayor David Miller presided over his final Mayor's Arts Awards Lunch Friday in celebration of the 2010 Arts Foundation Awards. And as usual, there were familiar names amongst the winners.

Manifesto Community Projects claimed the Arts For Youth Award, filmmaker Jamie Travis scored honours in the Emerging Artist category and Lula Music and Arts Centre's José Ortega took the Roy Thomson Hall Award of Recognition.

BMO Financial Group, meanwhile, was honoured with the Toronto Arts and Business Award, while Mallory Gilbert, long-time general manager of the Tarragon Theatre and current president of the Creative Trust, was awarded the William Kilbourn Award for the Celebration of Toronto's Cultural Life.

Friday, October 8, 2010

8 Oct'10

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

The increasingly brazen intrusions of television cameras notwithstanding, grief remains a very private affair in large swaths of our population, steeped as we are, in a tradition of Calvinism. But the tepid response to BirdLand Theatre’s world premiere of SOULSEEK — a highly personal examination of one woman’s mourning at the death of her partner — has more to do with an aversion to bad theatre than any deep thread of lingering Scottish stoicism that might run through the fabric of our multi-cultural world. SOULSEEK opened Thursday at the Walmer Centre.

Written by playwright Ognen Georgievski — a man whom, one suspects, was either hugely impressed by the private life of his leading lady or more likely suborned to serve as her amanuensis — it is the story of Vita (BirdLand’s artistic producer Zorana Kydd), a woman so overcome with grief at the death of her husband that she attempts suicide. Rather than waking up dead, however, she wakes up in a coma, in hell or purgatory or Hades or maybe even Rob Ford’s Toronto, because, as her guide Morpheus (played at top volume by Andre Sills) explains, there is no art here, wherever here might be.

Instead, there is reality television (which is hardly surprising in hell, after all) and Vita finds herself hosting a show called SoulSeek as she struggles to reconnect with her dead husband, played by David Ferry, who along with Janet Porter, spends a lot of time doing the video equivalent of phoning it in.

When she’s not hosting her show, Vita is searching high and low (although mostly low) for comfort and when all else fails, she asks to have all memories of her husband erased, only to discover that their connection is too strong. Without dwelling on them, many of the details of Vita’s life seem to have been ripped from the headlines of Kydd’s future autobiography and, while Kydd’s commitment and sincerity are to be applauded, sadly, her acting ability is not likely to ever be. Let’s simply say she is hellishly bad, and draw the curtain on further discussion.

In an attempt to mask his leading lady’s (and his new wife’s) shortcomings, director Stefan Dzeparoski does his level best to distract us with an array of the latest in digital technology that only serves, in the end, to highlight everything that is wrong with this project.

There are, of course, a lot of good people involved here — Ferry, Sills and Porter have all done impressive work elsewhere as have designers Camellia Koo, Gareth Crew and Richard Feren — but SOULSEEK never rises above the level of a really bad vanity piece, despite their best efforts. Worse, it doesn’t bring its audience any closer to an understanding of Vita’s grief, although one suspects, most of the audience were unspeakably sad by the end of the show.

Waste will do that.
THEATRE NEWS: Stratford casting announced for 2011
8 Oct'10


Last June, Des MacAnuff, artistic director of the Stratford Festival, revealed the skeleton of his 2011 season, announcing the playbill and some of his principal casting. Now he's put a bit more flesh on it. MacAnuff announced further key Festival casting Thursday and, not surprisingly, there are more than a few familiar names.

Josh Young, for instance, who made an impressive Fest debut this summer in EVITA, returns next season, cast as Judas in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, opposite previously announced castmates Brent Carver, Chilina Kennedy and Paul Nolan. Fest regulars Bruce Dow and Mike Nadajewski will also appear in the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice classic.

Meanwhile, Tom McCamus, Victor Ertmanis, Randy Hughson and Chick Reid have all been signed to appear opposite Nolan, Kennedy and Evan Buliung in the Festival's production of THE GRAPES OF WRATH. McCamus has also been cast, as have Laura Condlin, Nigel Bennett and Andrew Gillies, in THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR, while Juan Chioran, Sara Topham, Martha Farrell, Steve Ross and Kelli Fox have all been cast in THE MISANTHROPE, opposite Ben Carlson and director Brian Bedford. Topham will also join the cast of TWELFTH NIGHT as will Mike Shara, who has been cast as well in THE HOMECOMING, opposite Ian Lake.

Long time company member Peter Donaldson returns to the Festival stage, cast opposite John Vickery, Claire Lautier, Amanda Lisman, Dion Johnstone and Sean Arbuckle in TITUS ANDRONICUS, and opposite Seana McKenna, Martha Henry, Bethany Jillard, Arbuckle, Bennett and Gillies in RICHARD III. Yanna McIntosh returns next season in THE LITTLE YEARS, opposite Reid, Jillard and Irene Poole, while Oliver Becker has been cast opposite Gareth Potter in HOSANNA.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

DANCE NEWS: National Ballet posts surplus
7 Oct'10


If the National Ballet of Canada had a bit more strut in its step as it welcomed the public to its annual general meeting Wednesday, small wonder. After posting an accumulated deficit of $423,000 on its 2008-09 season -- a number later raised to $694,000 after a change in accounting practices led to a restatement of the financials -- Canada's pre-eminent classical ballet company came roaring back in the 2009-10 season, posting a surplus of $402,000 on the season and reducing that accumulated deficit to $292,000.

Board chair Lucille Joseph announced the figures, crediting artistic director Karen Kain with improving not only the company's bottom line but its artistic stature as well, while executive director Kevin Garland thanked everyone -- board members, the entire company, volunteers and donors -- for a season of tireless work.

The NBOC's 2010 season launches at the Four Seasons Centre Nov. 11, with a revival of James Kudelka's acclaimed production of CINDERELLA.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

THEATRE NEWS: New shows for Mirvish
6 Oct'10


The Mirvish organization has announced three new shows for their Toronto theatres, including a substitution for one of the shows originally programed for their current subscription season.

Replacing next summer’s subscription season-ending run of the Menier Chocolate Company’s acclaimed West End revival of SWEET CHARITY will be the Canadian premiere of WISHFUL DRINKING, created and performed by Carrie Fisher, under the direction of Tony Taccone. WISHFUL DRINKING will run at the Princess of Wales, July 12 - Aug. 21, 2011.

Additionally, the Mirvish organization announced Tuesday that the Canon Theatre will play host to THE ONE-MAN HIT PARADE, the latest show from impressionist/comedian André-Philippe Gagnon for five shows only (Dec. 1 - 5), while THE MAN IN BLACK, a tribute to Johnny Cash starring Shawn Barker, will play the Panasonic Theatre Feb. 15 - 27, 2011.

Tickets for the latter two shows are available at 416-872-1212.

Monday, October 4, 2010

4 Oct'10

Rating: 4 out of 5

From its debut almost 140 years ago, Giuseppe Verdi's AIDA has been making a spectacle of itself, unfolding on opera stages around the world in ever-increasing excess, aping the ancient culture of Egypt with unrestrained (and often, uninformed) devotion and embracing, in the process, enough wildlife to inform a circus or a zoo.

Most recently, its need for spectacle has forced it out of most of the world's opera halls and into increasingly bizarre locations like Rome's Baths of Caracalla and creating operatic tempests like the one that blew up here when plans were announced in the 1980s for a Skydome staging, complete with elephants, camels and tigers, oh my.

So, of course, when the Canadian Opera Company announced plans for an all new production of the Egyptian classic to launch its 2010-11 season, it sparked a fair bit of interest -- interest fuelled as much by the fact that it has been almost a quarter century since its has graced the COC stage as by how lavishly it might be done.

That question was answered Saturday as director Tim Albery's new production of AIDA premiered on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre. And it's a production that seems destined to stir up a fair bit of controversy, for while it's obvious that the COC has dropped a bundle on this work, Albery has resolutely refused to become embroiled in the traditional game of spectacular one-upmanship that has become AIDA. Indeed, he has all but abandoned the work's Egyptian setting, save for a few rather sad-looking palm trees. In its place, he sets us down smack bang in the latter-half of the last century, when military dictatorships were all the rage.

In Albery's vaguely Eastern European take on things, the Ethiopian slave girl of title, magnificently sung by soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in her COC debut, serves not in a sun-washed palace in Memphis but in what would best be described as a military bunker. It's ruled over by a nouveau riche junta, headed up by the King of Egypt, sung by bass Alain Coulombe, and his daughter, Amneris (mezzo Jill Groves), who is also Aida's mistress.

But both slave and mistress, of course, are in love with the same man, the soldier Radames (tenor Rosario La Spina), who has just been charged with leading the invasion of Ethiopia, where Aida's father (baritone Scott Hendricks, threatening at any moment to burst into flame) rules. When Radames defeats the Ethiopians, however, he inadvertently sets in motion a series of events that can only end in tragedy of operatic proportions.

By shaking the dust of Egypt from Aida's rather drab skirts, director Albery and his design team (sets by Hildegard Bechtler, costumes by Jon Morrell and lighting by Thomas C. Hase) effectively and emphatically take the focus off the spectacle that AIDA has become and focus attention on the human themes and the intimacy too often lost in the sprawl of over-elaborate staging. This is an accomplishment made infinitely more powerful by the combined talents of this gifted cast, supported by the COC Orchestra, under the increasingly assured baton of Johannes Debus.

It is not, however, always a perfect fit and the court's devotion to the gods and the power of the high priest Ramfis (bass Phillip Ens) become all but irreconcilable with the setting. What's more, judging from the audience reaction when Albery and his team took their opening night bows, it seems that while a goodly portion of the COC audience appreciated the deep chords of humanity they'd uncovered, more than a few would have appreciated a bit more spectacle to go along with it. And they just might have a point.

4 Oct'10

Rating: 4 out of 5

It's a place where Toronto entertainment history has been made for half a century, and while it remains to be seen if people will still be humming the tunes from Cirque Eloize's thrilling production of iD the way many still do the tunes from CAMELOT, Toronto's old O'Keefe Centre and its new Sony Centre came together Friday to launch themselves and this city rather impressively into a collective future. After two years of renovations, restorations and retro-fitting, the doors opened wide Friday night to welcome an audience into the brand new Sony Centre, made over, both for good and ill, from the abandoned bones of the old O'Keefe Centre, which had, 50 years ago to the moment, opened its doors with a Broadway-bound production of CAMELOT.

This time out, the show is iD, the latest from the creative minds and supple bodies that comprise Cirque Eloize -- yet another Montreal-based organization determined to break out of the hide-bound carcass of the circus world into a new age. Which means, of course, that they have much in common with another, possibly better-known Montreal company. But rest assured, while Eloize features many of the same kinds of acts of physical prowess and derring-do currently on offer up the road at the Canon Theatre (where Cirque du Soleil's BANANA SHPEEL is still playing), there is a world of difference between the two shows.

For openers, there's not really a clown in sight as iD hits the stage of the Sony like the sound of rolling thunder, the audio bed created by Jacques Poulin-Denis, built firmly around the urban, hip-hop music of Jean-Phi Gonclaves and Alex McMahon and seemingly designed to showcase an impressive new sound system that is part of the retro-fit. And while director Jeannot Painchaud may not have unearthed much that is new under the circus sun, he's packaged it up in a much grittier package than audiences attuned to the sparkling Cirque cycle might have come to expect. Unless, of course, they were lucky enough to catch Eloize's NOMADE -- AT NIGHT, THE SKY IS ENDLESS when it played Toronto earlier in the decade.

But where NOMADE seemed to be driven by a sensuous, simmering sexuality, iD is driven by a youthful exuberance and strut, firmly tied to a youth culture that no doubt knows little and cares less about the relationship between id and ego, but understands the whole business of searching for identity in physical prowess and it is that, one suspects, that gives this show its name. What's more, Painchaud and his team are constantly at pains to showcase not just their performers' acrobatic skills, but their personalities as well, lending an aura of playful wit, for instance, to the impressive contortionist skills displayed by Leilan Franco and a hit of incendiary testosterone to the aerial strap work of Hugo Ouellet-Coté.

But while this is an impressive cast, where iD shines brightest is in the extraordinary use of Alexis Laurence's and Robert Massicotte's video creations, projected on Massicotte's sets, and seamlessly fused with the lighting design of Nicholas Descoteaux. In their hands, iD unfolds on an ever-changing urban landscape that, at its best, leaves their audience breathless with wonder at the possibilities of modern-day video trompe l'oeil.

It is a show that, frankly, demands a more intimate space than the still-sprawling confines of this hall to be fully appreciated, but even if you are not lucky enough to be seated close enough to savour the full physical exuberance and splendour of this talented cast, iD is a show that will likely leave you breathless.

Friday, October 1, 2010

1 Oct'10

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Watching ALI & ALI: THE DEPORTATION HEARINGS unfold, it is clear that co-creators Camyar Chai, Guillermo Verdecchia and Marcus Youssef have a lot to say on topics ranging from theatre to Canadian anti-terrorist policy. Watching ALI & ALI: THE DEPORTATION HEARINGS go off the rails, however, makes it clear that perhaps this inventive trio might have been well advised not to try to put everything they had to say into one show.

A sequel of sorts to the collective's earlier offering ALI & ALI: THE AXIS OF EVIL, THE DEPORTATION HEARINGS opened Thursday in the Factory Studio, a New World Theatre production presented by Cahoots Theatre Company in association with Factory. It begins with the title characters -- a pair of refugees from a totally fictitious country plagued by many of the same problems, dare we say it, as the Israelis and the Palestinians -- in rehearsal for their latest stage show, a gratingly ingratiating work titled Yo Mama, Osbama, or some sort of similar ethnic malaprop.

Just what the purpose of it all is unclear, save that it gives our two leading men (played by Verdecchia and Youssef) a chance to send up a whole range of ethnic stereotypes with a glee that is happily unrestrained and, less happily, pretty unfocused as well. Then, just as they get rolling, things are suddenly brought to a crashing halt when the long arm of the law intervenes and stops things cold. Actually, that arm is quite shapely too, belonging as it does to the lovely Anita Majumdar, cast as a Taser-toting officer from a new and improved RCMP who is investigating our titular heroes for all their questionable activities. That includes donations made to a totally fictitious organization that raises many of the same kind of red flags as, dare we say it, Hezbollah.

This being the new RCMP, of course, this officer's powers go well beyond mere investigation, and soon, Ali & Ali find themselves in the midst of an immigration hearing, with only Hong Kong, their malaprop-riately named Mongolian assistant, played by an often very funny Paul Sun-Hyung Lee.

Unfocused though it may be, there's material here for a half-hour of really good comedic sketches, which would be good news for a sketch comedy troupe, but not so great for what is supposed to be 80 minutes of political and social satire. Like heart surgeons attempting to perform a valve replacement with a steam shovel, Chai, Verdecchia and Youssef create so much satiric collateral damage that it's difficult to see if their barbs have actually found a mark.

And sadly, they get scant help from their director (Verdecchia again, assisted by Soheil Parsa) who fails to realize that, with a show like this, a major part of the directorial function is merely editing and the rest involves honing both humour and social commentary to a razor's edge, not turning it all into cudgels with which to hit an audience over the head.

Which is not to say that nobody has a good time here, for on opening night, there were times when the cast was so clearly amused, one wondered if they would be able to continue. Unless they are paying their audience to watch, however, it seemed to this observer that the wrong end of the theatre was laughing themselves silly. If they narrowed their focus a bit, more of those laughs just might be coming from their audience.