Monday, November 29, 2010

29 Nov'10

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes bigger is simply bigger.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

27 Nov'10

Rating: 4 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 25, 2010

25 Nov'10

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 19, 2010

17 Nov'10

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 Nov'10

Rating: 5 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

17 Nov'10

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 12, 2010

12 Nov'10

Rating: 5 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 Nov'10

Rating: 4 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 Nov'10

Rating: 4 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 5, 2010

4 Nov'10

Rating: 2 out of 5

About half an hour into Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company's rather lifeless production of LENIN'S EMBALMERS, it just might cross your mind that, if embalming were indeed a spectator sport, then surely, by now, it would have been incorporated into the Olympics. But even the IOC has its limits, it seems, and thankfully, they drew the line at curling.

Which leaves it to playwright Vern Thiessen to try to make the whole process of preserving the mortal remains of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, revered icon of Russia's communist revolution, into compelling theatre, if not a riveting spectator sport. And while Thiessen doesn't exactly come up aces, his script, one suspects, has a lot more going for it than the production of it that opened onstage at Al Green Theatre of the Miles Nadal JCC earlier this week, in a co-production with Winnipeg Jewish Theatre.

For while Thiessen has mixed comedy and drama to cook up a Molotov cocktail of tension, laughter and suspense, director Geoffrey Brumlik does his level best at every turn to defuse the playwright's efforts, watering things down with so much miscasting and misdirection that he turns it all into a theatrical bomb, which is not the same thing at all.

It begins with the death of Lenin, played by Harry Nelken as a sort of wannabe stand-up comic who, just before his death, has told his audience that he wants no big fuss made of his passing, no reverence shown his mortal remains. Those wishes, of course, mean nothing to Joseph Stalin, played here by David Fox, who is determined, despite Lenin's wishes, to preserve those remains for posterity and to further his own ambitions.

To that end, he recruits (read: shanghais) two Russian scientists to do what has to be done, even though it has never been done before, namely to preserve human remains in such a way that they never ever show signs of putrefaction or decay. Aside from that fact that they are both Jewish, these two scientists have very little in common. Vladimir Vorobyov (played by Hardee T. Lineham) is already a bit of a success -- albeit in a big fish in a small pond sort of way -- but his provincial status ensures that no one examines him closely enough to spot the colour of his Czarist roots. Meanwhile, Boris Zbarsky (played by Martin Julien) finds his career languishing, due perhaps to his support of Stalin's principal rival Trotsky (played by Arne MacPherson) and welcomes the opportunity to redeem himself But in a world that clings to anti-Semitism, despite Lenin's rejection of it, it is obvious these two are doomed despite their successes.

Thiessen's starting points can be traced to a book of the same name, written by Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson, and to Ben Lewis' Hammer & Tickle: A History of Communism Told through Communist Jokes. And despite the obvious gulf between the two, he manages to fuse them with stitches of the blackest humour. But black humour is clearly not director Brumlik's oeuvre, and rather than playing things with a degree of subtlety the work demands he turns things into an episode of the Three Stooges -- or two Stooges and a Corpse, if you will.

While Julien and Lineham suffer under his limited vision, it is the supporting cast -- James Durham, Steven Ratzlaff and Janine Theriault join MacPherson and Nelken -- that really takes a beating in this production, leaving an obviously miscast Fox to rise above that miscasting to turn in the kind of work this production demands if it is ever going to succeed.

In the end, LENIN'S EMBALMERS may save the body, but they can't, under this director, hide the stink.