Monday, January 31, 2011

30 JAN/11

Rating: 4 out of 5

First the good news: Christopher Plummer is, 14 years later, even better in the title role of BARRYMORE, the role that, after a stint at the Stratford Festival, earned him a Tony Award in the show's New York run. We know this because Plummer stepped back into BARRYMORE Sunday for a limited run at the Elgin Theatre — a run that will culminate in a film for limited release this fall.

At the age of 81, Plummer remains at the top of his form, essaying the role of a man more than 20 years his junior with apparent ease and clearly enjoying the hell out of it.

And such a man. John (or Jack, as he was known) was a member of the Barrymore dynasty, with siblings Lionel and Ethel, both of whom are duly mocked as BARRYMORE unfolds. The youngest, he was also one of the foremost interpreters of Shakespeare in his time, conquering London in HAMLET and following it up with a host of classics. But when the curtain goes up on BARRYMORE, Jack's glory days are sad prologue and he's scrambling to get backers for a revival of RICHARD III that will help keep his three ex-wives at bay and the wolf from the door. He has enough money, he tells us drunkenly, to last for the rest of his life — as long as he dies right now.

But though he has assembled a theatre full of potential backers and even secured the services of his long-time prompter (played by an offstage John Plumpis), he can't focus. Instead, he wallows in an ocean of booze and memories, recalling his glory days on the stage, the horrors of growing up Barrymore, even his longtime friendship with playwright Ned Sheldon. Wallowing, however, has rarely been so raffishly charming — for like Barrymore, that kind of charm is Plummer's stock in trade, on stage or off. After a lifetime on a stage, Plummer seems quite capable of performing a soliloquy, seducing a brace of matrons, and hailing a cab - all with the arch of a single eyebrow.

The bonus here, of course, is that interspersed with his memories, Barrymore pulls out bits and pieces of Shakespeare from his alcohol-soaked brain and casually invests them with great artistry — and here too Plummer shines. A touchingly mad Hamlet, consigning a cat to a nunnery or marveling at the piece of work that is man — Plummer's Barrymore is transformed and a youthful Prince of Denmark peeks from behind his eyes.

This is a performance — rich and multi-dimensional — that is not to be missed. But if Plummer's performance in the first ten minutes reminds us of the Tony he won for this turn — and could no doubt win again — it has also reminded us that playwright William Luce was not similarly honoured. Nor, frankly, did he deserve to be. Rather than take us into Barrymore's world or even offer us any sort of meaningful glimpse of it as his life draws to an end, Luce gives us a script so riddled with "Take my Wife — please" style jokes and limericks that one suspects Barrymore is simply dying with vaudeville, rather than from his abuse of alcohol.

Even the design work of Santo Loquasto and Natasha Katz cannot disguise the fact that only an actor of Plummer's calibre, working under the still vital direction of Gene Saks, could hope to disguise that this is little more than a collection of often-witty one-liners, strung together in the fervent hope that they will somehow make a play. That they do is, in the end, a testament to the depth of Plummer's acting genius. And his enduring charm.

30 JAN/11

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

If David Copperfield isn’t looking over his shoulder, maybe he should be.

Director Diane Paulus has apparently set her sights on a disappearing act that would make Copperfield’s famous now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t routine with the Statue of Liberty seem downright picayune. For while Copperfield was content with merely erasing an American icon from the New York skyline, Paulus is apparently determined to alter the landscape of the world of opera in her determination to make every last bit of magic disappear from the landscape of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s THE MAGIC FLUTE.

And, truth to tell, she comes impressively close to achieving just that in the Canadian Opera Company production that premièred on the stage of the Four Seasons Saturday. And, to make her achievement even more impressive, she does it with precious little interference with either the fanciful libretto created by Emanuel Schikaneder or with the genius of Mozart’s enduring score.

In the case of the former, she and her design team (sets and costumes by Myung Hee Cho and lighting by Scott Zielinski) simply attempt, at least for the first act, to transform the opera into a play-within-a-play — a sort of fanciful homage to a late 18th century birthday party for the opera’s heroine Pamina. But while Paulus et al cite Shakespeare’s work as their inspiration, what they actually manage to achieve on stage smacks more of Chekhov’s THE SEAGULL in the hands of amateurs than any sort of professional take on A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. It’s a dull, stilted affair, only too rarely enlivened by flashes of design inspiration, each too quickly dulled by a directoral vision best described as stolid.

But ultimately, the work is saved, not just by Mozart’s enduring genius but by the quality of the artists assembled by the COC to bring the work to life. It turns out that even under Paulus’ plodding tutelage, artists the likes of tenor Michael Schade (cast as the hero Tamino) and soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian (cast as his lovely and loving Pamina) can shine, particularly when they are backed by the superb COC Orchestra under the flawless direction of Johannes Debus.

Still, one can’t help but wonder just how much more entertaining — even magical — the opera might have been if artists like coloratura Aline Kutan, baritone Rodion Pogossov and soprano Lisa DiMaria had received a bit of real direction for their performances as the Queen of the Night, Papageno and Papagena respectively, instead of simply being moved around like chess pieces and told to look busy.

Meanwhile, from a design perspective, Cho seems, at best, uncommitted. While her opening scenes seem at first to be very much of the period, at least as interpreted by Disney, that illusion is shattered by the arrival of the Queen of the Night and her court, collectively wearing enough black vinyl to reupholster an entire suburb’s rec room. And while Cho occasionally comes up with dazzling bits to distract her audience — a LION KING-inspired menagerie in the first act, a bespangled trial by fire and water in the second that suggests Toronto’s sequin industry is back on an even keel in the wake of PRISCILLA’s departure — Paulus fails to capitalize on even those, smothering them with the same turgid staging that overlays the rest of the production.

In the end, of course, it is no more possible to remove the magic from THE MAGIC FLUTE than it is to take the wonder out of ALICE IN WONDERLAND or the beauty out of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. But thanks to Paulus’ determination to turn sleight of hand into slight of hand, the magic is most definitely in the ear of the beholder, not the eye.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

29 JAN/11

Rating: 4 out of 5

TORONTO - It depends on which way you're headed.

A story called ETERNAL HYDRA could be almost as old as time itself, rooted in the mythology of the ancient Greeks. Or it could date back only as far as 2002, when the Stratford Festival christened its new Studio Theatre with two new one-act plays, one of which was titled ETERNAL HYDRA, by Canadian playwright Anton Piatgorsky.

Or it could be a mixture of both, as in an expanded version of Piatgorsky's play, which more effectively combines the legend of the first with the story of the second and earned four Dora Awards in a Crow's Theatre production at Buddies In Bad Times in 2009. Now, Piatgorsky's highly imaginative and literary script has been revived again by Crow's (in association with Factory Theatre) in a production that opened Thursday on the Factory mainstage. Directed again by Crow's Chris Abraham, the production reunites three of the principals from 2009 -- David Ferry, Liisa Repo-Martell and Sam Malkin -- with newcomer Cara Ricketts, casting them all in multiple roles as they tackle Piatgorsky's Gordian knot of a script.

That is, in fact, an apt comparison, considering not just the almost impenetrable complexity of the plot, but the fact that one of the principal characters (played by Ferry) is named Gordias Carbuncle. He's a deceased but certainly not desisted literary giant of supposedly Joycean calibre, largely unknown today because his magnum opus -- a tale in 100 chapters titled Eternal Hydra -- was lost at his death. But happily, it has been found by a clearly smitten Vivian Ezra, an academic (Repo-Martell) who after being closeted with Carbuncle's ghost, polishing the work, is now offering it for publication. The publishing house she has chosen is the one that, under its founder, published all of Carbuncle's earlier work, but they aren't as interested as she expects. Seems the founder, like Carbuncle, has passed on, and his son (père et fils both played by Malkin) is more interested in publishing popular literature than art.

That preference draws Pauline Newberry (Ricketts), a writer of historical fiction, into the fray. Newberry had fictionalized Carbuncle in her latest book. But it turns out her heroine -- a contemporary of Carbuncle's, also played by Newberry -- was even more involved in Carbuncle's life and work than anyone first assumed. It raised all sorts of questions about cultural appropriation, ownership of voice, and of ideas including the relationship between commerce and art, art and craft, and finally, even the making of a fine shoe.

Director Abrahams makes maximum use of John Thompson's strikingly beautiful set and lighting design to create high theatre, all the while keeping a firm hand on a story that plays fast and loose with time and character. And while he draws otherwise commendable performances from Repo-Martell and Ferry, one wishes that in a story already rich in literary and mythic references, he had eliminated their clearly unintentional evocation of Demosthenes and his mouthful of pebbles. Always annoying, sloppy diction borders on infuriating in a work as erudite and intellectually rigourous as this.

Malkin, for his part, seems oddly miscast in either of the sophisticated publishing roles he's asked to play, although he finally cobbles together a credible performance as a Creole shoemaker. The real revelation here is Ricketts, who steps to the fore in a second act that still feels more like a mere appendage to the first than a continuation -- and manages to sear herself into the consciousness with a performance of breathtaking clarity and simplicity. With Ricketts' performance, HYDRA finally steps out of the arty pretensions in which it has been cast and becomes riveting theatre.

THEATRE NEWS: That's Shaw biz
29 JAN/11

Even though ticket sales picked up by the end of its 2010 season, it didn't provide enough of a boost to keep the Shaw Festival from posting a $1.3 million deficit on total revenues of $27.4 million for its 49th season — a deficit more than offset by the $1.8 million surplus posted in the previous season. The numbers were presented Friday at the Festival's annual meeting in Niagara-On-The-Lake.

Although the Festival's total revenue for the season just past fell $1.5 million over the previous season, the numbers weren't all bad, considering the 2009 numbers included a $3.2 million bequest.

In fact, according to numbers released by Hazel Claxon, treasurer of the Board of Governors, total attendance at the summer festival was up 3.6% over the previous season, while revenue from tickets sales rose by 2 %. And as the company prepares to head into its 50th season, which officially kicks off May 25 with a production of Bernard Shaw's HEARTBREAK HOUSE, artistic director Jackie Maxwell promised a season that would "celebrate the innovative and essential theatre company that we embody."

Thursday, January 27, 2011

THEATRE NEWS: Railway Children bound for Toronto
26 JAN/11


All aboard!

Having won the hearts of British critics and audiences alike, the stage adaptation of Edith Nesbit’s THE RAILWAY CHILDREN is preparing to depart London’s Waterloo Station, headed for Toronto, and is due to arrive this spring. Specifically, it is slated to pull into the spanking new Roundhouse Theatre May 8, taking up residence in a purpose-built 20,000 sq. ft. modular tent theatre that, once erected in Roundhouse Park, will seat 1,000.

Presented here by the Touring Consortium (RC) International and Marquis Entertainment, the Mike Kenny adaptation premièred under the direction of Damien Cruden at the National Railway Museum in York in 2009, transferring to the former Eurostar terminal at London’s Waterloo Station in 2010. Staged on platforms that move on railway tracks shared with an actual working period steam train, the production features a cast of 14, bolstered by four rotating teams of ten children each. Casting for the Toronto production is virtually complete, but will be announced at a later date.

Set in the Edwardian era and informed in part by the Dreyfus affair, THE RAILWAY CHILDREN is the story of three children whose father has been unjustly imprisoned, forcing them to leave their comfortable London home and relocate to rural Yorkshire, where their proximity to the railroad tracks leads them into a world of adventure.

British producers Matthew Gale and Jenny King laughingly acknowledge the possibility that more of their audience may be drawn to the show by an intimate knowledge of Thomas the Tank Engine than by any curiosity about the Dreyfus affair, which saw a young French artillery officer wrongly convicted of espionage in a case that smacked of anti-Semitism. But they are confident that this is a show that will have no trouble finding an audience on this side of the Atlantic.

“Trains are very evocative and they have touched everybody’s history”, Gale insists, while King hastens to add: “It’s excellent theatre with no seat more than 20 feet from the stage and it has a huge family appeal.” As for staging the work in a tent, it turns out that their U.K. team, which includes designer Joanna Scotcher, lighting designer Richard G. Jones, composer Chris Madin and sound designer Craig Year, has plenty of experience working under canvas. While they may have been working within the confines of a railway terminal in London, “Effectively, in Waterloo, we had to build a black-out tent within it,” Gale points out.

And while tickets for the Toronto production, which Marquis Entertainment’s Robert Richardson promises will “change the way we look at theatre in Toronto and give us a new perspective on what theatre really means,” will only initially be available through Aug. 7, producers are hoping for a holdover of indeterminate length.

Their new completely insulated tent theatre, they point out, is not only air-conditioned but can be heated as well, and they seem convinced that the locally designed and built structure is capable of withstanding pretty much anything Canadian elements might throw at it. “You (Canadians) are the most experienced in the world at providing all-weather tents,” Gale points out.

The first block of single tickets for THE RAILWAY CHILDREN is slated to go on sale April 4 through TicketKing at 416-872-1212. For further info, please visit

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

OBITUARY: Canadian dance legend Lois Smith
25 JAN/11


Lois Smith, one of Canada's classical ballet pioneers, died Saturday in Sechelt, British Columbia. She was 81.

Born in 1929 in Vancouver, where she trained at the BC School of Ballet, Smith and her husband, David Adams, were invited to join the fledgling National Ballet of Canada by founder Celia Franca back in 1951.

Smith danced with the NBOC as a principal until 1969 when she stepped down to assume a role as a teacher and choreographer. She established the Lois Smith School of Dance in Toronto, which was then incorporated into the Performing Arts Program of George Brown College, where Smith served as chairwoman of the dance program from 1979 to 1988.

Smith also choreographed several productions for CBC television, staged ballets for the Alberta Ballet, the Florida Ballet and the South West Ballet Company. She was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 1988.

"Lois Smith was a continuous source of inspiration," the National Ballet's artistic director Karen Kain said Monday, recalling Smith's enduring partnership with Adams and calling it "a captivating partnership that veteran fans still recall with delight and affection. She possessed a beautiful unique talent and will be greatly missed," Kain said.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

22 JAN'11

Rating: 5 out of 5

TORONTO - Talk about the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

If memory serves, director Philip Akin stumbled across the work of playwright Lynn Nottage one day while scrolling the Internet. Little did he know, it was a discovery that would make both Akin, an actor/director just beginning to earn his spurs as artistic director of Obsidian Theatre, and Nottage, an American playwright well launched on her rise to greatness, exciting fixtures on the Toronto theatre scene.

Akin, for his part, programmed Nottage's INTIMATE APPAREL as part of the Obsidian season, crafting a production so good it was included in a subsequent season at Canadian Stage. Between the two stagings, however, Nottage became one hot commodity, winning the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2009 for a work titled RUINED -- a work which had its Toronto première Thursday at the Berkeley Street Theatre, a production of Obsidian, in association with Nightwood Theatre.

And while Nottage makes a major leap in time -- from New York in the early 20th century in APPAREL, to the heart of the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo in the early 21st -- in RUINED, Akin doesn't miss a beat. Thanks to his work, this is a play and a production that commands the stage and demands the attention of anyone who loves quality theatre.

RUINED is set in a roadside establishment run by Mama Nadi, a hard-headed business woman played by Yanna McIntosh. While a never-ending war between rebels and government troops of questionable pedigree wages outside her door, Mama welcomes all comers, offering everything from cigarettes to the post-coital opportunity to smoke them in a sprawling complex that is part general store, part shebeen, part brothel, all business.

It is in her capacity as madame that she takes in two young women brought to her by her supplier, Christian (Sterling Jarvis) -- Salima (Sophia Walker), a young wife and mother rejected by her family after being forcibly kidnapped and held as a sex slave for months, and Christian's niece Sophie (Sabryn Rock), so brutally raped by soldiers that she will never heal.

Almost heartlessly, Mama throws the newcomers in with Josephine (Marci T. House) where they are tasked with keeping Mama's varied clientele happy -- a task rendered all the more difficult by the fact that Mama welcomes all comers, regardless of the army for which they fight, taking payment in money, diamonds or even coltan, a rare metal used in cell phones. With Andre Sills and Anthony Palmer cast as the commanders of the opposing sides, Mama's joint is a veritable powderkeg. But, although it initially seems that its proprietor is a heartless entrepreneur, it turns out she's just a big-hearted pragmatist, her goal to help her girls survive the horrors they have endured in hope that healing will eventually follow.

Led by McIntosh, this is a fine ensemble, bolstered by Richard Alan Campbell, Daniso Ndhlovu, Muoi Nene, Thomas Olajide and Marc Senior, together more than equal, under Akin's direction, to the task of bringing discipline and definition to Nottage's big-hearted and sprawling script as it threatens to spill off a stage designed by Gillian Gallow and lit by Rebecca Picherak.

Still, there are standouts. While McIntosh adds another brilliant performance to the roster of memorable, enduring women she has played, Jarvis is likely to steal your heart, while Walker is almost certain to break it, with the help of Rock and House.
In the midst of death and despair, Nottage, Akin and this cast have found a rich vein of humanity and hope, even love, amongst the RUINED. Don't miss it.

Friday, January 21, 2011

THEATRE NEWS: Theatre 20 ready to sing up a storm
21 JAN/11


Well, finally!

Apparently bored with trying to maintain Toronto's worst kept theatrical secret, organizers of Toronto's newest theatre company confirmed Thursday that their company does in fact exist. It's called Theatre 20 and, to quote its own announcement, it aims to be "a Toronto-based, artist-led theatre company formed to present story-driven musicals by developing new Canadian works and by re-imagining existing repertoire."

Its name, we were told at a major event Thursday at the Panasonic Theatre, comes from the 20 musical theatre artists — including Louise Pitre, Brent Carver, David Keeley, Steven Sutcliffe, Colm Wilkinson and Adam Brazier, who has been elected artistic director — who came together almost two years ago to form the company. Only 18 names appear in a brochure titled Theatre 20 Founding Artist Bios, however.

The company is currently involved, with producers Copa De Oro, in an English language no-strings-attached workshop of SISTERS, a new musical based on Michel Tremblay's LES BELLES-SOEURS. Written by René Richard Cyr and composed by Daniel Bélanger, with translation by Linda Gaboriau, SISTERS has already enjoyed a major success en français in the province of Quebec, where it is slated to tour for the next two years.

Led by Pitre, the cast of the workshop was on hand for Thursday's announcement, to perform a number from SISTERS, which is apparently slated for a single public performance in Toronto on Jan. 26, with attendance by invitation only. Beyond that workshop, the company also plans a series of "intimate concerts' for the Panasonic Theatre, although details on these will not be made available until a later date. As for a full production, Brazier says his company should be ready to make an announcement along those lines by 2012.

And with that, Brazier and the other founding members of a company he insists will be a Canadian voice as well as "the voice of the great unsung musicals" closed their first major event in song. Specifically with Sunday, from Stephen Sondheim's SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

OPERA NEWS: Rigoletto, Tosca highlight 2011/12 COC season
19 JAN/11


The Canadian Opera Company may have trotted out a new corporate look in time for its 2011-12 season announcement Wednesday, but for the rest, it’s business as usual. Which, of course, is very good news for anyone who’s been following the Toronto opera scene.

“The COC has always been defined by its big achievements,” the COC’s general director Alexander Neef told the crowd gathered at the Four Seasons Centre for the announcement of a season that will include four COC premières and three new productions. “And the coming season will see us explore repertoire we haven’t touched before.”

The new season kicks off with a production of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s IPHIGENIA IN TAURIS, featuring mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in her COC debut, under the direction of Robert Carson. A co-production of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and the San Francisco Opera House, the work will be conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado. It will be paired in the fall season with an all-new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s RIGOLETTO, directed by Christopher Alden, designed by Michael Levine and conducted by Johannes Debus.

To launch the winter season, the COC will revisit its 2008 production of Giacomo Puccini’s TOSCA to showcase soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, who will alternate in the title role with Julie Makerov. A co-production with the Norwegian National Opera And Ballet, it will be directed by Paul Curran and conducted by Paolo Carignani in his company debut. It will be paired with the Canadian première of Kaija Saariaho’s LOVE FROM AFAR, directed by Daniel Finzi Pasca, and will feature an all-Canadian cast that includes baritone Russell Braun and mezzo Krisztina Szabo, with Debus once again conducting. A co-production with the English National Opera, where the work has already premièred, it is, according to Neef, the first time the COC has tackled the work of a female composer.

Debus will also be conducting when the Spring season launches with the Vlaamse Opera’s production of Jacques Offenbach’s THE TALES OF HOFFMAN, directed by Lee Blakeley. The action then moves to Florence, the setting for a double bill that includes Puccini’s GIANNI SCHICCHI and Alexander Zemlinsky’s A FLORENTINE TRAGEDY — a work based on an unfinished play by Oscar Wilde — both under the direction of singer-turned-director Catherine Malfitano, with Sir Andrew Davies conducting.

The final offering of the season will be the COC première of SEMELE, by George Frideric Handel, a co-production of Theatre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels and KT Wong Foundation that marks the first production of Handel’s work in the Four Seasons Centre. Directed by famed Chinese sculptor and performance artist Zhang Huan, who sets the work in an actual Ming Dynastry ancestral temple salvaged by Huan, it will be conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini and will also be performed, for one performance only on May 23, by members of the COC’s Ensemble Studio.

Subscriptions, priced from $175 to $2,240, are currently on sale at the Four Seasons Centre Box Office, while single tickets, priced from $45 to $318, are scheduled to go on sale Aug. 15. For further information, visit x

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

THEATRE NEWS: Luminato set to glow in June; Brueggergosman set for Opera Atelier; Cash for Stratford Fest
18 JAN/11


Judging from the 2011 program for theatre and dance announced Monday, Luminato will showcase a lot of Toronto artists when it takes over the city, June 10 through 19.

Highlights of the forthcoming fest include two commissioned works from Necessary Angel — a new translation of Racine's interpretation of Euripides' ANDROMACHE, directed by Graham McLaren, plus an English language première of TOUT COMME ELLE (Just Like Her) conceived and directed by Brigitte Haentjens that features 50 Canadian actresses the calibre of Fiona Reid, Barbara Gordon and Allegra Fulton.

Theatre Smith Gilmour is on board the Luminato express as well, serving up the fruits of a collaboration with the Shanghai Dramatic Art's Centre — the first-ever theatrical co-production between Canada and China. Titled LU XUN BLOSSOMS, it is based on five short stories by Lu Xun, who is considered by many to be the father of contemporary Chinese literature.

Soulpepper Theatre Company, meanwhile, will produce a summer repertory as part of Luminato, featuring shows from their established repertoire like OUR TOWN, THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE, BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR, THE ALEPH AND REBIRTH: e.e. cummings in song, in addition to a COMMUNITY CABARET hosted by artists of the Soulpepper Academy.

Also on the theatrical front, Luminato will feature the previously announced production of ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS, produced by Britain's Dash Arts and featuring performers drawn from across the Arabic-speaking world. Adapted and dramatized by Tim Supple from stories adapted by Hanan al-Shaykh, the work will be performed in English, Arabic and French, with Surtitles.

On the dance front, the National Ballet of Canada's previously announced North American première of British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND, presented in a co-production with the Royal Ballet (UK), promises to add some excitement to the Luminato program.

But so too does Sampradaya Dance Creation's international collaboration. Titled TAJ, it uses specially commissioned music and visual design to tell the timeless love story that inspired the building of the Taj Mahal. Featuring a script by Canadian playwright John Murrell, this world première will also feature Bollywood star Kabir Bedi and Canadian actress Lisa Ray.

And finally, choreographer Abram Kahn and composer musician Nitin Sawhney will join forces for the North American première of a music and movement piece titled CONFLUENCE, produced in collaboration with Sadler's Wells.

Tickets to all Luminato events are slated to go on sale in April. For further info, visit


Acclaimed Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman joins tenor Kresimir Spicer and soprano Michael Maniaci in Opera Atelier's new production of Mozart's LA CLEMENZA DI TITO at the Elgin Theatre, April 22 through May 1.

Tickets at and further info at


Things are heating up at the Stratford Festival — or they will be soon.

Thanks to a grant of nearly $350,000 from the federal government's Canada Cultural Spaces Fund, the Festival announced Wednesday that it is purchasing an installing a new heating system in the Festival Theatre and installing a solar energy wall at the Avon Theatre.

Monday, January 17, 2011

17 JAN/11

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Viewed through certain prisms, it is a major accomplishment — a four part theatrical collaboration by one of Toronto's most exciting young theatre companies, spanning four plays, involving a pride of Canada's most promising young playwrights, directors and actors, all clearly committed to bringing a bit of excitement to what they see as the great, grey vistas of Canadian history.

Their work, presented under the collective title of THE MILL, started  last season with Parts I through III — NOW WE ARE BRODY, written by Matthew MacFadzean and directed by Daryl Cloran, THE HURON BRIDE, written by Hannah Moscovitch and directed by Christian Barry and THE WOODS, written by Tara Beagan and directed by Sarah Garton Stanley.

THE MILL, PART IV: ASH, written by Damien Atkins and directed by Vikki Anderson, opened Friday at the Young Centre, where it will play in rep with the first three parts through Jan. 29, a production of Theatrefront, in association with the Young Centre.

But while one applauds the commitment and energy lavished on this project, not to mention the four Dora Awards Parts I through III collected, one is forced nonetheless to admit that its doesn't add up to much, taken either singly or collectively. As with the previous three instalments, ASH takes place on the site of a fictitious mill, located somewhere in Southern Ontario — a mill cursed by the very first contact between Europeans and First Nations people who called it home.

That curse, framed in the best traditions of Hollywood shlock, has already spelled death and/or dismemberment, often in the giant saw-wheels that figure prominently in Gillian Gallow's clearly adaptable set. And indeed, those blades are still there as ASH begins, in a world clearly in an apocalypse that has seen the mill of title become home to a group of orphans, all of whom, under the tutelage of  the man who styles himself Father (played by Richard Greenblatt) have adopted names of forest animals who are now apparently extinct.

But with Father walk-about, Beaver (Maev Beaty), Rabbit (Frank Cox-O'Connell), Bear (Eric Goulem) and Fox (Ryan Hollyman) are marking time, overseen by the ever-responsible Bird (played by Michelle Monteith), who serves as surrogate mother to the menagerie, even while giving clear evidence that it is about to grow. But the malicious spirit of Lyca (Natasha Greenblatt), the ghost of a murdered child,  continues to haunt. Thanks to his sensitive nature (or maybe his fuzzy socks), gentle Rabbit proves sensitive to her presence, begging his fellow frost creatures to flee, even though it means abandoning their only source of drinking water.

Together, playwright, director and cast create some suspense, thanks to a series of short, choppy cinematic scenes, but they fail entirely in convincing us their ensemble is comprised of the pre- and post-pubescents the script demands. And when the time comes to resolve the ongoing curse of THE MILL, they don't seem to even try, leaving one with the impression that if someone had simply apologized earlier, we could have all gone home, saving the world from an unnamed apocalypse in the process.

So, even while one applauds Theatrefront's achievements as millers of grade B theatre, one wonders what might have happened if everyone involved had taken a bit of time to study the grist of the Beothuks, to immerse themselves in the wisdom of Joseph Brant and Crowchild, to examine the simple courage of Piapot, Gabriel Dumont and Elijah Harper or to even read a book like Revenge Of The Land instead of simply grinding out a theatrical homage to bad movIe-making.

THE MILL is good enough, I guess, but with talented artists of this calibre, being good enough simply isn't good enough by half.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

15 JAN/11

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Christmas may have come and gone, but some of those warm and fuzzy feelings linger. Like the sentiment expressed in the Hugh Martin/Ralph Blane Christmas classic —  the one that goes: "Faithful friends who are dear to us, gather near to us once more." Certainly, after a quarter century on Canadian stages, Walt Wingfield and the coterie of characters with whom he shares his life in the fictional Persephone Township have earned a legion of faithful friends.

And those of them that call Toronto home are certain to be drawing near at the Panasonic Theatre, where WINGFIELD LOST AND FOUND opened a  limited run on Thursday, bringing the total of city boy Walt's adventures as a gentleman farmer  to seven, preceded as it is by LETTER FROM WINGFIELD FARM, WINGFIELD'S PROGRESS, WINGFIELD'S FOLLY, WINGFIELD UNBOUND, WINGFIELD ON ICE and WINGFIELD'S INFERNO.

And in a world of ever-shifting trends and tastes, playwright Dan Needles continues to take his cue, not from the world of movies, where it seems the ante must rise in direct proportion to the number of the sequel, but from the world of television where shows like Coronation Street and As the World Turns can run for years, on the basis of serving up the same old same old. Which is good news, when the same old same old is as delightful as the ongoing adventures of Walt and his friends.

Chapter Seven opens just a few years after the ending of INFERNO, theatrical time being something pretty far removed from elapsed time, it seems. And life on Wingfield Farm continues, with Walt and his wife Maggie still struggling to make ends meet on the hobby farm they call home, with Walt commuting to the city where he still works in the stock market and Maggie splitting her time between nurturing their daughter, Hope, now a toddler, and working in a shop in nearby Larkspur.

But all is not well on Wingfield Farm, as an ongoing drought is not only killing their crops and drying up their pasture, but emptying their well, to boot. And when it finally runs dry, Walt sets out to have a new one drilled, his naiveté completely undiminished by his years of dealing with his friends and neighbours, ranging from  Maggie's stuttering brother Freddie through a crusty old curmudgeon called The Squire to a taciturn trumpet-playing dairy farmer named Don.

After pouring several thousand dollars down a dry hole, Walt tries to recruit Don's estranged father, once a renowned witcher of water, to douse his property for the best place to drill. But Don's father, a character in his own right, claims to have lost his witching touch, leaving Walt and his neighbours in the rather unique position of being up the creek without water. Of course, this being Wingfield territory, there are subplots and sub-characters and sub-disasters aplenty, all brought masterfully to life with great skill and greater affection by actor Rod Beattie, working once again under the assured direction of his brother, Douglas Beattie. So skilled are the Beattie brothers that you're likely to almost overlook an ending that feels uncharacteristically contrived.

Of course, set designer John Thompson and lighting designer Louise Guinand, do their utmost to bring Wingfield Farm to glowing life once again and happily, the simplicity of their utmost proves to be precisely what this story demands.

It is, of course, old fashioned fare, in almost every since of the word, even while it tackles thorny and contemporary issues like climate change and carbon footprint,  while sending up everything from text messaging to pest control along the way. And while it may reflect a way of life that is becoming increasingly alien to urban Canadians, it remains one of the many delightful cults that a world of multi-cult theatre allows us to embrace.

And that is reason enough, if you need it, to treasure LOST AND FOUND.

Friday, January 14, 2011

14 JAN/11

Rating: 3 out of 5

Metaphors often serve as the mules of the theatre world.

Properly harnessed, they can carry a lot of freight, after all — but just let a playwright get on the wrong side of one of ’em, and chances are he or she will be picking himself up from the wrong side of a bunch of bad reviews. Happily, although she’s saddled her latest play with a metaphor that seems pretty lame, playwright Sonja Mills suffers only a glancing blow from the inevitable kickback.

Titled THE BIRD, it’s a semi-smart little party piece that aims a little lower than OMNIUM GATHERUM, but still falls short of its metaphorical goal. It opened at Buddies in Bad Times’ mainspace Wednesday, in a presentation by Union Eight Theatre.
The play is set in an upscale downtown penthouse shared by Kate, a successful marketing executive played by Astrid Van Wieren, and Mia, an insecure artistic sort played by Lesley Dowey. While Kate toils in the business world, Mia has adopted taxidermy as her medium of choice — which explains the stuffed and moth-eaten bird of prey that dominates their home, even though it clearly gives Kate the willies.

What’s giving Mia the willies these days, however, is the mysterious Petty (played by Anna Chatterton), the young woman that Kate has recently hired as her assistant and whom the jealous Mia sees as a potential romantic rival. In order to check out the possible competition, Mia has invited Petty and her underachieving-but-amiable husband, Gord, played by Jim Shlag, for drinks. But Petty and Gord, it seems, have taken Mia at her word when she urged them to bring their family as well, and they arrive with Petty’s suicidal brother, a banking executive named Boo (Bruce Hunter) and his avaricious wife (Veronika Hurnik) in tow. Mills rounds out her guest list by introducing a seventh character, Mia’s very pregnant sister, played by Caitlin Morris-Cornfield, into the fray with little apparent effect, apparently trusting her audience to fill in the details about why she’s there and what role the baby she is carrying is supposed to play in Kate and Mia’s future.

As the evening unfolds — or, more accurately, unravels — and as booze and drugs combine with explosive effect, the assembled gathering has it out on a range of subjects, ranging from same-sex marriage through the effect of high-rise condo towers on the avian population, with almost obligatory stops to dissect the worlds of finance and marketing and read their bloody entrails along the way.

Known most widely for her acclaimed drama, THE DANISH PLAY, Mills has clearly sharpened her pen to take aim at the often dicey and difficult world of farce, made even more dicey for being rendered largely in stark shades of black — and happily she scores more than a few laughs. But such plays are notoriously difficult to bring to life.

And working on a set that designer Patrick Du Wors clearly hopes will pass for upscale luxury, director Ruth Madoc-Jones tries to weed out the awkwardness of bringing a script to life while still preserving the awkwardness of bringing together a group of strangers. She achieves only a mixed success at best. While she establishes the latter with satisfying effect, she never fully overcomes the former, and as a result this party is driven more by political strife than personal acrimony, for all that it is the personal that is supposed to drive it.

All of which means that in the end, Mills’ metaphor — something to the effect that we are all merely disoriented birds making our way through tall towers — never really takes wing and soars. To mix a metaphor.

OBITUARY: Al Kozlik, Shaw Fest regular

14 JAN/11

Al Kozlik, an actor who appeared in more than 40 productions over 28 seasons at the Shaw Festival, has died.
His death, Jan. 11 in the Greater Niagara Hospital following a stroke, was announced Thursday by Festival officials. In addition to his time at the Festival, Kozlik also performed in theatres across Canada and spent eight seasons at the Stratford Festival and performed in a wide range of movies and television. He is survived by his spouse of 41 years, Scott Sutherland.

A funeral and visitation are planned for Fri., Jan 21, between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. at Morgan's Funeral Home in Niagara-on-the-Lake.


In other news at the Shaw Festival, Polish director Tadeusz Bradecki has been signed to replace the late Gina Wilkinson, who died in late December of cancer, as helmsman of this summer's production of CANDIDA, which will be dedicated to Wilkinson's memory.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

12 JAN/11

Rating 1.5 out of 5

TORONTO - There's something very small about OH MY IRMA, the new one-woman show that's taken up residence in the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace this week. But we're not talking small in the conventional sense.

The Backspace, for instance, is small, as is the diminutive Haley McGee, the playwright/performer behind the 65-minute work. Come to think of it, by normal theatrical standards (which is to say, beyond the Fringe circuit) a 65-minute play could be considered a small -- or, at the very least, a short -- piece of theatre. But that's not the kind of small we're talking -- and frankly, to understand the kind of small we mean, you might have to know more about the play.

On the surface of things, OH MY IRMA is about laundry, and yes, we're talking dirty laundry, and lots of it. That's because the Irma of title, a laundress of sorts, is what is known in mental-health circles as a cutter -- a person who takes pleasure in or comfort from self-inflicted wounds. As a result, the wardrobe sported by her mentally fragile daughter, who self-identifies as Mission Bird and specializes in 'reading' laundry, is stained with her mother's blood. Some of it has dripped into the laundry over the years and thereby stained her clothing and some of it has ended up there after Mission Bird watched her mother bleed to death from self-inflicted wounds. But that is all in the past when OH MY IRMA starts.

Having been freed by her mother's death from the demands of a hugely complicated existence, Mission Bird has set out to solve the mysteries of her mother's life -- specifically, to track down the owner of the bloodstained man's dress shirt which served as an iconic but unexplained touchstone in the late laundress's life. Conveniently, a business card she finds in the pocket of that shirt bears an address and the initials P.P. and that leads Mission Bird to a luxury apartment in the downtown of a large unnamed city. There she comes face to face, not only with a man who bears the initials she's looking for, but also with his overweight dog -- a dog that for whatever reason has been named Irma too.

While the big picture here is pretty predictable, there is a degree of mystery in the small scenes. Indeed, what McGee seems to be doing here is creating a shaggy dog story to keep her audience guessing as to how she is going to lead us to an all but inevitable conclusion that never really comes. Happily, she has the full support of director Alisa Palmer, who does her utmost at every turn to underline McGee's quirky charms as a performer, as OH MY IRMA unfolds on a simple stage, beautifully lit by David Degrow, featuring costuming by Camellia Koo.

And thanks to Palmer et al, it is a polished production, but, with all due respect to a talented director, that only serves to underline how small a show this really is. In exploring Irma's life and the lives of those who loved her, McGee leads us into dark and disturbed emotional waters. And while she does it fearlessly, she does it seemingly not out of any deep sense of compassion nor even a desire to inform, but rather, merely to demonstrate her own admittedly considerable abilities as a performer. While few would argue that damaged characters like these have no place on our stages, fewer still, one suspects, would support the idea of bringing them there as mere amusements.

By OH MY IRMA's end, it is obvious that if the title character had cut no deeper than the playwright, she would still be alive. Finally, this show is small because it makes its audience feel diminished for having watched it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Rating: 4.5 out of 5

When Thomas Wolfe titled his posthumously published opus You Can't Go Home Again, he was referring more to a world in constant thrall to change and time than to any sort of arcane travel restrictions on returning to the family homestead. All of which means that even if Birdland and Talk is Free Theatres, co-producers of last year's acclaimed production of ASSASSINS, had been able to reassemble every single element of their Dora-winning show for its current remount, time and temperament would have ensured that it was a different show.

Even without all the bullets and bloodshed in Arizona. Still, there's no denying that current events lend an eerie new depth to this version of the highly theatrical collaboration between iconic lyricist/composer Stephen Sondheim and playwright John Weidman, concerned as it is with the tendency of disaffected Americans to take potshots at their high-profile politicians. ASSASSINS re-opened at the Theatre Centre Saturday.

But, in the end, this is a production changed by more than current events, for in bringing their Barrie-born production south to the Toronto stage once more, director Adam Brazier and musical director Reza Jacobs have had to contend with other variables as well. Unable to secure the services of several members of their original 14-member cast, they have managed nonetheless to maintain much of the musical theatre muscle that made this production such a hit in its original incarnation, balancing the excellence of those members that did return with carefully considered new talent.

That means audiences can still thrill to the work of superb actors like Martin Julien, in the role of The Proprietor (serving much the same function as the emcee in Cabaret), overseeing a shopworn funhouse inhabited by the likes of John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau and Lee Harvey Oswald (a chilling Paul McQuillan, an affecting Steve Ross and a tragic Geoffrey Tyler respectively, all reprising memorable performances honed a year ago and more).

But at the same time, this production affords a chance to see fresh talents like Lisa Horner and Janet Porter (respectively cast as Sara Jane Moore and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme), Alex Fiddes (Leon Czolgosz) and Whitney Ross-Barris (Emma Goldman) carve themselves memorable niches within the ensemble as well. And in the end, current events notwithstanding, it is changes such as these that most affect that structure of the piece and, happily, rather than simply try to disguise those changes, Brazier and Jacobs embrace them.

In the process, they've tweaked their production in various ways large and small in collaboration with their skilled lighting designer Gareth Crew, while maintaining a very obvious commitment to what still proves in its new incarnation to be a stunning piece of must-see musical theatre.

And yet ... Even while current events conspire to add a powerful punch to the proceedings, one detects a slight imbalance, all but imperceptible, in the story as it now plays out. For whatever reason, Brazier has allowed a still excellent Graham Abbey, who plays the deranged Samuel Byck -- a drunken whack-job who planned to kill Nixon by flying a plane into the White House long before 9/11 proved such things weren't as fanciful as we'd like to believe -- into a starring role instead of maintaining the powerful sense of ensemble they'd established. This is a big, bold performance that would be a whole lot bigger if it were just the tiniest bit smaller -- a little less bold and a little more edgy.

In the end, however, ASSASSINS is a remarkable achievement, one that is likely to leave you hoping, for even just a moment, that Wolfe was right and we'll never have to go back to this home again. Even while current events suggest we already have.

Monday, January 10, 2011

OBITUARY: Peter Donaldson, Stratford veteran


Peter Donaldson, a much-loved and respected veteran of Canadian stage and television, has died after a sustained battle with lung cancer. He was 57.

Born in Midland, Ont., Donaldson was bitten by the acting bug on a high school visit to the Stratford Festival. That would ultimately prove fitting, for in a career that saw him tackle both leading and supporting roles in a wide range of work, Donaldson would ultimately spend 24 seasons at the Shakespearean Festival, turning in memorable performances in works like TIMON OF ATHENS, A LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?.

And he still had more he wanted to give. In casting for the forthcoming Stratford season, in fact, Donaldson had been signed to appear in productions of Richard III and Titus Andronicus.

Donaldson’s acting career also included a fair bit of television, where he played Ian Bowles — opposite Sheila McCarthy, his wife of nearly 25 years — in EMILY OF NEW MOON in the late ’90s, in addition to appearing in numerous other Canadian television series. But the stage always played the prime role in his life. “I like to do it,” he said, back in 2005. “I like performing. I like it when the lights go out. I like finding out what’s going to happen.”

And thanks to his talent, so did a legion of theatre fans, not just at Stratford, but at the Tarragon and Factory Theatres, Canadian Stage and Soulpepper — just a few of the stages Donaldson graced in a memorable career that now seems too short.

“Peter’s work and career reminded me of William Hutt,” Stratford’s director general Antoni Cimolino said in a prepared statement following Donaldson’s death in Toronto Saturday. “Like Bill, in his mid-life, Peter was now coming into the best, deepest and richest part of his talent. We will not know exactly what we have lost from his sad early passing. We are only left to wonder and mourn.”

Donaldson is survived by wife McCarthy and by two daughters, Mackenzie and Drew. A funeral and memorial service are being planned, with details to be announced.

THEATRE REVIEWS: Fringe theatre for frigid times


TORONTO - It isn’t as drastic as the polar bear plunges that are so popular, but there are, nonetheless, more than a few hardy souls in the theatre community who refuse to let a little thing like winter stand in the way of a chance to kick off a New Year with a plunge into the Fringe.

In a smaller version of the summer Fringe Festival, the Next Stage Theatre Festival limits activities to two stages at the Factory Theatre, where, over the course of 12 days, they present a slate of eight shows, chosen by jury, featuring shows and/or artists that impressed during summer runs of the Fringe. There is, by the by, a heated beer tent in which participants and audiences alike can while away the time between shows. Herewith, impressions of the eight shows that constitute the Next Stage Festival, 2011 edition, running at the Factory Theatre through next Sunday.

On The Factory Mainstage: THE GRACE PROJECT: SICK — Playwright/director Judith Thompson assembles an impressive group of young people to collectively look at the challenges life offers them — ranging from cancer and diabetes through depression, sexuality and race. But it’s not the challenges that rivet, but rather the candour with which they are discussed and the strength with which they are met. Not theatre in the finest sense of the word perhaps but certainly highly theatrical. In the end, the only quibble might be with a title that’s too negative.

FAIRY TALE ENDING: THE BIG BAD FAMILY MUSICAL — Kieran MacMillan and Jeremy Hutton show what happens when artists with Sondheim’s enthusiasm but not his talent rework one of his ideas. With Hutton directing they blend elements from an entire range of kids’ fairy tales — everything from Goldilocks and the Billy Goats Gruff to Three Blind Mice and Jack and Jill — into a sustained and enthusiastic lament for lost innocence. It’s fun, funny and ultimately forgettable and sadly, unlike INTO THE WOODS, it runs out of steam before it runs out of ideas.

AT THE SANS HOTEL — Australian Nicola Gunn is no stranger to Fringe audiences, who have developed a taste for her off-kilter theatrical sensibilities in works like AN ELEPHANT CLUB and MY FRIEND SCHADENFREUDE — but she certainly isn’t any less strange either in this four-character exploration of theatrical schizophrenia that is, in the end, so mega-meta-theatrical that it threatens to spin out of control. If you want something completely out of the ordinary, this is the ticket.

DUEL OF AGES — Ever wish that the people who make theatre would quit worrying about plot and just get on with the violence? Then, this show is tailor-made for you — 90 minutes of swash and buckle stretched over the most minimal of plot lines. But despite some fine work from a sprawling cast of stunt players, one can’t help but think that if Stratford were as sloppy at staging fights as these guys are with the more conventional aspects of theatre like lighting and voice-over, it would be a real blood bath.

On the Factory Studio Stage: THE APOLOGY — Playwright Darrah Teitel and director Audrey Dwyer give us a look at the strange and complex lives of poets Byron and Shelley and their strange menage with Frankenstein creator Mary Shelley and her step-sister Claire Clairmont. Fittingly, the timeline is one of intentional anarchy and the atmosphere one of heightened sexuality, but thanks to a hugely talented quartet of actors — Sascha Cole, Kaitlyn Riordan, David Beazely and Brendan McMurtry-Howlett — it’s compelling, sophisticated and sexy viewing.

TOM’S A-COLD — Playwright David Egan teams up with director Daryl Cloran and actors Shane Carty and Matthew MacFadzean to revisit the uniquely Canadian tragedy of the Franklin Expedition and bring it to life (and death) with both humour and horror in an intimate little show featuring two men and a boat. MacFadzean is in fine form as an upper-class twit, while Carty matches him at every turn as the common man, and though both seem a little well-fed, it all comes together as a distinctly new kind of dinner theatre.

EATING WITH LOLA — Playwright/performer Catherine Hernandez has put together a simple and touching story about a young woman’s struggle with her ailing Philippine grandmother, or Lola, but director Ann Powell carries the simplicity too far in this studiedly naive puppet presentation. That it still manages to move us is more a credit to Hernandez’s skill as a storyteller than it is to the naive “Let’s-play-dolls” staging.

SWAN SONG OF MARIA (A TRAGIC FAIRY TALE) — Playwright Carol Cece Anderson dips her pen so often in purple ink that her story of one man’s tragic love for two dancers — a Cuban ballerina (danced by Stephanie Hutchison) and a Black Canadian tap-dancer (Lili Francks) — is all but swept away on it. Under the direction of Mark Cassidy, John Blackwood does his best to keep things simple at the heart of the story, but in the end, despite some fine collaborations, it is little more than sentimental mawkishness.

For further information, visit

Thursday, January 6, 2011

6 JAN/11

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Based on the limited exposure Toronto audiences have had to his work — Actors Repertory Company’s lacklustre production of THE CITY and Soulpepper’s electrifying production of THE MAIDS — it seems obvious that British playwright Martin Crimp is more successful at translating and adapting the work of others than he is at building his own plays from the ground up. And that impression is almost certain to be strengthened by the Tarragon Theatre’s new production of THE MISANTHROPE, originally written by the legendary French playwright and satirist Molière, but translated and adapted here by Crimp. THE MISANTHROPE opened Tuesday night on the Tarragon mainstage, under the direction of artistic director Richard Rose.

And while the translation impresses, both in its almost casual use of rhyming couplets and its cleverness, it is in the area of adaptation that Crimp truly seems to shine — at least initially. Where other translators might have been tempted to leave Le Misanthrope in the milieu in which Molière originally set it — the corrupt and venal court of the French King — Crimp packs it all up, bag and baggage, and plunks it down not only in another city (London) but in a wildly different century as well (within a decade or so of the present day).

Of course, some alterations are necessary for the story to take wing in a different place and time. In Crimp’s brave new world order, Alceste, the misanthrope of title, has been transformed into a curmudgeonly British playwright played by Stuart Hughes, while the object of his obsessive affection — the lovely Jennifer, played here by Andrea Runge — is an American movie starlet, famous largely for being famous and very, very beautiful — a task which Runge accomplishes with ease.

Further, with the salons of Paris out of reach, the action is set in the London hotel room Jennifer currently calls home — a nightmare in fuchsia and white by Charlotte Dean that, in its attempt to evoke Versailles in an ultra-modern way, ends up looking more like the ballroom in a Barbie-themed hotel than an upscale luxury suite.

Design notwithstanding, it is headquarters, not merely for the tempestuous affair between the churlish Alceste and the glib and outspoken Jennifer, but for a coterie of hangers-on as well. That would include Alceste’s long-suffering best friend (Patrick Galligan), a journalist working on a Jennifer exposé (Michelle Giroux, demonstrating a real gift for comedy), a foppish theatre critic who can’t handle reviews (David Storch), as well as Jennifer’s former teacher (an edgy Maria Ricossa), and a pair of effete British stage stereotypes, broadly played by Brandon McGibbon and Julian Richings.

All in all, Crimp cleaves pretty close to Molière’s tale — at least in the broad strokes — exploring the casual hypocrisy at play in the everyday lives of the rich and famous and those who might think they are. Along the way, however, he indulges himself in the playwright’s equivalent of Trudeau’s famous pirouette, irrepressibly demonstrating his cleverness in so many ways that eventually the whole thing teeters on the edge of navel gazing. It takes nerve for an adaptor to reference the original once, but in doing it repeatedly, Crimp seems to be merely showing off.

Reviewed here in final preview, this production is saved, but only barely, by Rose’s strong direction and by a cast that tosses off Crimp’s sometimes laboured rhymes with such deceptive ease that it might take you a while to notice them. In the end, it is a production that clearly and a little too cavalierly demonstrates how much fun the playwright and cast are having, without much concern about whether or not the audience is along for the ride.

THEATRE TRIBUTE: Life of Gina Wilkinson to be celebrated this month
5 JAN/11


A memorial service for the late Gina Wilkinson is planned for Monday, Jan. 24, to be held at the Jane Mallett Theatre at 3 p.m.

A respected actor and playwright on the Canadian stage for more than 30 years, the British Columbia-born Wilkinson had only recently begun earning rave reviews as a director, scoring high praise for such diverse work as the Shaw Festival’s full-blown production of BORN YESTERDAY — a project in which she was tapped to replace an ailing Neil Munro — and the Tarragon Theatre’s more intimate production of WIDE AWAKE HEARTS last year.

Her success with BORN YESTERDAY as well as last summer’s HALF AN HOUR led to her being signed to helm a much anticipated production of CANDIDA in this summer’s festival. But sadly, it was not to be. Diagnosed with cervical cancer while directing a production of THE SEAFARER at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in November, she succumbed to the disease at age 50 on Dec. 30 in a Toronto hospital.

“Gina Wilkinson was very funny, very sexy and very, very smart — not a combo that many can pull off, but she did so with unparalleled brio,” Shaw Festival artistic director Jackie Maxwell said in a prepared statement. “We will treasure our memories of Gina, while nursing a brilliantly bright light that has gone out in Canadian Theatre.”

Wilkinson is survived by her husband, actor Tom Rooney, to whom she was married in December after a decade of partnership, and by her mother and two brothers. Details of a memorial award to support emerging female directors will be announced at a later date.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

5 JAN/11

Rating: 3 out of 5

When it comes to the current Studio 180/Acting Up Stage Company production that opened on the stage of the Berkeley Street Theatre Monday, this is one PARADE likely to pass a lot of people by. For while it may indeed be a homecoming PARADE of sorts - the work had some of its earliest workshops here in Toronto, after all - it fails in this goodhearted pass-by to stir the kind of passions required to make it memorable in any sort of emotional sense.

Of course, part of that must be attributed to the work itself, for while a few more intimate productions of the work haves succeeded, even the great Hal Prince couldn't bring enough life to the theatrical collaboration of playwright Alfred Uhry and composer Jason Robert Brown that it could sustain prolonged Broadway run. And small wonder, when you consider all they've tried to cram into a two-and-a-half-hour musical that covers off on everything from murder and anti-Semitism to the resentment that smoulders still in the wake of the American civil war.

PARADE is set in Atlanta circa 1913, and tells the story of Leo Frank, a transplanted Brooklyn Jew seemingly wrongly convicted and then hanged by vigilantes for the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, an employee in the pencil factory Frank managed. To bring it to life on the Toronto stage, director Joel Greenberg and his musical director Paul Sportelli have assembled an impressive cast, headed by Michael Therriault as Frank and Tracy Michailidis as his long-suffering wife, Lucille - a cast that includes veterans like Jay Turvey, George Masswohl, Neil Barclay and Gabrielle Jones as well as relative newcomers like Daren A. Herbert, Jeff Irving and Jordy Rolfe.

But while few could argue with Greenberg's staging of the work - he makes full use of Michael Gianfrancesco's sprawling but effective set, and keep things moving at a good clip - his work here lacks directorial depth. Concerned as it is with events and human foibles, Uhry's Tony-winning book is short on character development. And while some directors would see this as an opportunity, Greenberg clearly subscribes to the notion that if it isn't on the page, it's not going to be on the stage. The result here is a stage full of Georgia stereotypes.

In the face of the challenges represented in the role of Leo Frank - a character suspicious enough on some level to justify the vilification heaped oh him, while at the same time human enough to garner audience sympathy - the usually talented and inventive Therriault resorts to a series of sustained tics. Meanwhile, Michailidis' Lucille ignores the growth in her character and resides in a world of wide-eyed hurt throughout. As the unfortunate Mary, Jessica Greenberg doesn't so much strike all the right childish notes as beat them into submission, while Turvey, despite some fine moments as a compassionate politician, utterly misses the mark as cynical journalist Britt Craig.

Save for a few memorable scenes - Irving's turn in The Picture Show, and a breakout turn from Herbert in a number titled Blues: Feel the Rain Fall - Greenberg takes us through a murder with no horror, a funeral with no grief, a trial with no tension and a lynching with no outrage. While he's assembled all the elements for a memorable PARADE, in marshalling this production, he contents himself with maintaining a nice even flow to the proceedings, when what he needs to do is get out in front of it all and decide just where it's going. And then take it - and us - there.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

THEATRE NEWS: Setting the stage for 2011
1 JAN/11


Even in a largely paperless universe, there is still nothing more daunting than a blank sheet of paper, or in deference to those who don't enjoy seeing a metaphor stretched too taut, than a blank screen. Conversely, there is little in life more exciting than a pristine calendar for a new year, beheld on the last day of the old, offering as it does 365 days crammed to bursting with an excess of possibility.

There are, of course, already dates I know will have to be written in indelible ink in my calendar for 2011 - the long anticipated opening of BILLY ELLIOT at the Canon Theatre in early February, the launch of the Shaw Festival's golden anniversary season, May 25-28, followed by the opening of another season of the Stratford Festival, May 30 thru June 3. There are also Luminato dates, Fringe Festival shows, and seasonal openings for the National Ballet of Canada, the Canadian Opera Company and all of Toronto's glorious array of not-for-profit theatres, interspersed with Mirvish and Dancap operations, just to keep things interesting.

But today, they are chimera, and when I look at my pristine new calendar, I don't see merely openings, I see possibilities. Here are a few of the many things I'd like to see unfold during this brave new year:

We've watched the development of Dancap, Aubrey Dan's nascent theatrical empire, with a lot of interest - watched as he's had the keys to several downtown theatres taken from his hands. This year, by whatever means, we'd like to see him operating in a year-round venue a little more central that the Toronto Centre for the Arts, and showing us what he can do.

While we're at it, we'd like someone to remind the crowned heads of the Mirvish empire that they did some of their most memorable work when they had some competition breathing down their necks. Oops, maybe we just did that.

Theatrefront is slated to open the fourth installment of THE MILL on Jan. 14, and I can hardly wait. Regardless of whether playwright Damien Atkins can redeem this overwrought series of schlock in its fourth and blessedly final installment, it will at least be over. And having put us throughout THE MILL, director Daryl Cloran and his wonderful company can get back to making good theatre, rejoining the ranks of Studio 180, The Company Theatre, Acting Up and a few others, as independents to watch, both literally and figuratively.

Mathew Jocelyn is a man with a vision - and he's only just begun to articulate that vision in the first season he has programmed at Canadian Stage. It's going to take time, however, for him to achieve his vision - and for Toronto audiences to decide whether his is a vision we can embrace. And while 2011 wont supply him all the time he heeds, it will hopefully bring both him and us closer to his goal.

I admit I have occasionally thought Tony Nardi might benefit from a chill pill. But I hope in the year ahead, those who make theatre here in English Canada, and those who love it, will quit dismissing Nardi - the author/actor behind a series of letters highly critical of the Canadian theatre establishment - as a crackpot, and see him for what he is. If you look behind the bluster and bristle, there's a hugely talented man who cares about theatre so deeply, and so passionately, that he's prepared to take on all comers, as he fights to make it better. Frankly, we need about two dozen more just like him. Each with a cachet of chill pills, please.