Friday, February 25, 2011

25 FEB/11

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

TORONTO - Considering it's one of the most produced plays in Shakespeare's canon, it's a safe bet most theatre fans have seen a production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. But if one ups the ante and puts money on people who have seen memorable productions of this prototypical romantic comedy, the odds get a lot slimmer. This is truly the Rodney Dangerfield of Shakespeare's work, too often garnering scant respect from fledgling actors and directors alike.

Yet, as anyone who's seen one of those memorable productions can attest, all it takes from a directorial point of view is a certain sense of balance and tension between the human element and the magical -- a balancing act, admittedly, a little like balancing on a tight rope over the Grand Canyon. So, full credit to fledgling director Rick Roberts who tackles THE DREAM head-on in a new production for Soulpepper and comes out, if not covered in glory, at least with his dignity intact and an interesting first effort to grace his resumé. His Dream opened Wednesday at the Young Centre.

It is most definitely a concept DREAM, and Roberts has conspired with designers Ken MacKenzie (set and costumes) and Lorenzo Savoini (lights) to create a court of Athens and an enchanted forest, both of which are worthy of the tale. Throw in some magical work by Mike Ross, who has created a soundscape best described as 'found' music, and movement by coach Jane Johanson, who does almost as well with her choreography, and things look pretty bright. Together, under Roberts' hand, they create a dark and foreboding forest world, almost completely at odds with the sunny Athens of Duke Theseus and his soon-to be consort, Hippolyta -- Ins Choi and Trish Lindstrom respectively, doing double duty as Oberon and TItania, King and Queen of the forest fairies too.

For the first half of the show, Roberts and his creative team do such a bang-up job it is almost possible to ignore the fact that, somehow, in the press of things, the human element -- built around the enduring text that drives this story -- is being lost in the shuffle. In familiar fashion, Abena Malika's Hermia, Ross's adoring Lysander, Brendan Wall's spurned Demetrius and Karen Rae's besotted Helena -- the star-crossed lovers of Shakespeare's tale -- find themselves in a forest peopled by a clutch of animated and often malevolent snuggies, all in thrall to the whims of Gregory Prest's sneering and sardonic Puck.

But despite the magical world opened up in Roberts' first act, this cast fails to fill it with magic in the second. Oberon flies into childish rages ill fitting his status, Puck channels the Three Stooges and bad accents, and the young lovers fail to convince us they're even remotely in lust, with all chemistry limited seemingly to Mason jars. As for the text (always an important consideration), in this sea of youthful enthusiasm, only Lindstrom seems at home with it.

Except, that is, for the mechanicals -- that hapless group of Athenian tradesmen, charged with creating a theatrical piece to grace their Duke's wedding celebrations. Led by the indefatigable Oliver Dennis and Michael Simpson, Michael Hanrahan, John Jarvis and William Webster come close to stealing the show. Well, despite the fact that, as the hapless Bottom, Dennis finds himself trapped at a pivotal plot point, in some sort of zoological hell, more squirrel than ass. Happily, that problem diminishes his death of a thousand cuts as Pyramus by not one single iota, in a rollicking ending that finally manages to make much of what went before it seem a little less like a DREAM destined to be quickly forgotten.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

THEATRE NEWS: Another Africa
heads up Canadian Stage fall season
23 FEB/11


In his second season at the helm of Canadian Stage, artistic and general director Matthew Jocelyn will continue to push the boundaries of theatre for a Toronto audience. In a 2011-12 season announced Wednesday in the lobby of the Bluma Appel Theatre, the company’s mainstage‚ Jocelyn continued to interweave conventional theatre with the work of artists from a wide range of performing arts disciplines including film and dance.

While Jocelyn will launch his season conventionally, with two of the three plays that comprised Volcano Theatre’s acclaimed Africa Trilogy at last spring’s Luminato Festival — Binyavanga Wainaina’s SHINE YOUR EYE and Roland Schimmelpfennig’s PEGGY PICKIT SEES THE FACE OF GOD, repackaged under the title of ANOTHER AFRICA — he wastes little time before he sets off redefining the theatrical map.

While theatre audiences may be familiar with the tale of ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE, Jocelyn has programmed a new version, choreographed and directed by Quebec’s Marie Chouinard and featuring the Compagnie Marie Chouinard, to follow ANOTHER AFRICA on to the Bluma stage for a limited run.

Next up, director Kim Collier will bring John Logan’s Tony-Award-winning RED to the Bluma stage in a co-production with Vancouver Playhouse and the Citadel Theatre.

To launch the company into 2012, Jocelyn has enlisted filmmaker Atom Egoyan who will return to the stage to direct Martin Crimp’s CRUEL AND TENDER, featuring a cast that includes Egoyan’s wife, Arsinée Khanjian, Daniel Kash, Nigel Shawn Williams, Thomas Hauff, Jeff Lillico, Abena Malika, Cara Ricketts, Brenda Robins, André Sills and Sarah Wilson.

It will be followed by THE YOU SHOW, a production of Kidd Pivot Frankfurt RM, featuring the choreography of Crystal Pite, whose work was featured in both Canadian Stage’s acclaimed presentation of STUDIES IN MOTION last year and the National Ballet of Canada’s EMERGENCE. A yet-to-be-commissioned new translation of Marivaux’s THE GAME OF LOVE AND CHANCE (last produced in Toronto by Pleiades Theatre in 2000) will close the Bluma season, in a co-production with the Centaur Theatre, directed by Jocelyn himself.

Meanwhile, things will continue to percolate at Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Theatre, where the company has established a producing partnership with some of Toronto’s most exciting and innovative small theatre companies. This year, the Art Of Time Ensemble launches things with I SEND YOU THIS CADMIUM RED, a work featuring text by John Berger and John Christie, music by Gavin Bryars and choreography by James Kudelka, all under the direction of Daniel Brooks.

In the first year of their association with Canadian Stage, Company Theatre will tackle Germany’s Lukas Barfuss’s THE TEST, in a translation by Birgit Schreyer Duarte, directed by Jason Byrne and starring Eric Peterson, Liisa Repo-Martell and Philip Riccio.
For their stint at the Berkeley, Queen Of Puddings Musical Theatre tackles some of playwright Samuel Beckett’s shorter plays, blending them with the music “of contemporary classical music from outstanding Irish composers.” With musical direction by Dairine Ni Mheadhra and John Hess and direction by Jennifer Tarver, it will be presented under the title of BECKETT: FECK IT!.

Finally, in their last Berkeley collaboration with Canadian Stage, Studio 180 Theatre tackles Bruce Norris’ CLYBOURNE PARK, under the direction of Joel Greenberg. As previously announced, this summer’s Dream In High Park production will feature William Shakespeare’s THE WINTER'S TALE, directed by Estelle Shook.

For further info, visit or phone 416-368-3110.

Kate Hennig returns to Great White North from the Great White Way
23 FEB/11


Good theatre is never predictable, but then neither is a good life in the theatre. For proof, look to Kate Hennig. “I had no expectation of being on Broadway — not since I was 22 years old,” the 48-year-old actress recalls, matter-of-factly, despite a career etched on some of Canada’s finest stages.

Despite her lack of expectations, here she is, sitting in the lobby of Toronto’s beautiful Canon Theatre, preparing to reprise her Broadway performance as Mrs. Wilkinson, the spunky ballet teacher in BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL. The Tony Award-winning show opens March 1. With a good-natured laugh, she recalls how it all started, which is to say reluctantly, for when it came to casting, Hennig always saw herself more in the smaller character roles, rather than in the leading-lady, name-up-in-lights turns that lead to the big time. “But my agent said: This part is coming up, and I think you should go out for it,” she recalls, adding that the audition seemed to go very well indeed.

Apparently, she wasn’t the only one who thought so. She immediately got a call to go down to New York. “I spent two days (there) doing what I call extreme sports,” she says with a laugh, recalling that they put her through several different kinds of paces. Turns out she was in the running for the role of Mrs. Wilkinson, which ultimately went to Haydn Gwynne, who had played the role in the West End. It was when Gwynne stepped down that Hennig got the part, and she’s just fine with that. “They didn’t know who the hell I was,” she says philosophically.

A lifetime in theatre has taught her to handle such things. “If it’s not you, it’s someone else, and it has nothing to do with whether you’re good or bad.” Hennig would perform the role on Broadway for just over a year — and had a whale of a time in the process, despite the fact that the role of a seasoned dance teacher was more than a bit of a stretch.

“Nooo, I’m not a dancer, but I play one on TV,” she cracks. “But I’ve worked hard. It’s physically the hardest work I have ever done.” And the payoff was New York, but not in the way she expected. “I had this naive illusion that doing eight shows a week would be a snap. Doing eight shows a week of this, you can’t do another thing.” But even just working in New York had its rewards. “You walk through Times Square to go to work. You see your name on a marquee. It was insane!” And after a year, she was ready for a break. “I wanted a hiatus. My actor’s brain is not used to doing a show for a year.”

Fate had other things in store for her. Offered the opportunity to open the show in Toronto in front of a hometown audience, Hennig re-upped without a moment’s hesitation, although she insisted on a two-month break. She’s now raring to go, once again. “I think Toronto is going to love this play,” she says of the story of a young man and a dancer’s dream, growing up in an economically depressed area of Britain. “It’s such a Canadian show in a way. We will see in this play the devastation of Newfoundland’s cod fishery, and the problems in the Oshawa auto industry. And I’m really proud of the show. I think it’s a great piece of theatre.”

Great enough that she’s prepared to give it another year of her life? She shrugs. “You know what it will really depend on is my body,” she says, seriously. “I’m 48 now and I have injuries that make it difficult to do this show. I don’t want this to be the last show I ever do.” As for the next, well, that’s too far in the future to say, she insists. But now that she has had her name in lights on Broadway, she’s prepared to admit there is a chance that those lights burned her name into someone’s memory with enough force that she’ll be invited back. “I’d be there in a heartbeat,” she says, “Because you get to work with some of the best directors in the world and, please God, some of the best actors.”

But she’d be just as happy working in Canada and returning to the Shaw and Stratford Festivals, both of which have been her performing home. “The reason I see myself back in those places is because I love great theatre and great plays,” she says. For now, she’s content working and playing with Billy Elliot. “I will enjoy this for the time that it brings, but what the next chapter is, I have no concept right now,” she says.

After all, a good life — like good theatre — is never predictable.

Monday, February 21, 2011

21 FEB/11

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Sandra Shamas' life isn't so much an open book as an open stage. Over a career that spans almost a quarter century, she has used the detritus of her everyday life - the minor triumphs, the major disasters and a whole range of stuff in between - as grist for a mill that is still grinding out hit shows, although 'grind' is hardly a word to describe the final product.

For proof, one need look no further than the Winter Garden Theatre, where Shamas' latest effort, titled WIT'S END III: LOVE LIFE, drew an excited opening night audience Saturday, eager to launch an already extended Toronto run. As usual, it features Shamas in the role of the theatrical equivalent of a one-woman band, cast as producer, writer, director and performer as she continues to play out a story of her life - a story that began with a little Fringe show titled MY BOYFRIEND'S BACK AND THERE'S GOING TO BE LAUNDRY.

And while all of the five shows that have led to this one have been delightful, some of them, or at least the experiences some of them document, have been pretty harrowing. Love, marriage and divorce, liberally mixed with the experience of growing up immigrant and with a seething mass of regular insecurities - for Shamas, it's proved an alchemical formula for transforming her life into box-office gold. This time out is certainly no different.

The  subject as usual is change and transformation. And for the faint of heart, let's be perfectly clear. This time, that's 'change,' as in menopause - a subject which Shamas tackles from a highly personal perspective and with her usual take-no-prisoners approach, documenting her passage into "hag"-dom (her word, I assure you), aboard a suddenly out-of-control body with absolutely no climate control.  From mood swings to hair-raising adventures from the world of the suddenly hirsute, nothing is off limits. But in Shamas' world, it is also a transformation as liberating and filled with discovery as her 'change' from a lady of leisure to a farmer, a change mentored from afar by a literarily laconic but gifted Saskatchewan boy named Peter, also up for considerable discussion.

As usual, both transitions are informed by Shamas' often unique views on life, and speaking as an initiate, her insights, inspired by anything from the cheese table at a 'city party' to ads extolling erectile dysfunction remedies on afternoon TV, can only be appropriately worshipped with laughs that come straight from the belly, although knowing chuckles are in play too. But be warned, Don't plan to attend WIT'S END III if all you are looking for is more of the same old Shamas, for this is, after all, a Shamas transformed and in many ways, 'uplifted' (at $80 a puppy, no less) by her adventures.

While the cutting edge of her wit remains undiminished, its razor sharpness is more often than not soothed by the emollient of deepened affection and a sense of peace, both within herself and for the world around her. It also seems a little less structured, although that may be a simple reflection that on opening night, she was serving herself up rare in a show that was still cooking. A portion of her monologue, inadvertently omitted in the opening act, was simply inserted at the top of Act II, and for audience and performer alike, the 90 minutes-plus serving of Shamas tartar was in no way diminished.

And for the uninitiated that means Shamas rare - so don't miss this. It could be another several years before she's back.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

20 FEB/11

Rating: 4 out of 5

As any auto mechanic will tell you, preventative maintenance can save you a bundle, ensuring as it does that it's not going to cost you a bundle for major repairs down the road. And after kicking the tires on the opening night performance of SOUTH PACIFIC at the Toronto Centre for the Arts on Friday, one couldn't help but think that it might be time for Tony Award-winning director Bartlett Sher to drop by for a 10,000 km. tune-up on his road show. You know - tighten up a few belts, check the timing and otherwise ensure that everything is running shipshape.

To refresh your memory, this is the self-same production that created a tsunami of praise last summer in a too-brief stint at the Four Season Centre as part of Dancap's summer season there. And even though there's been a whack of casting changes, it's still a pretty impressive show with a high wow factor, thanks not only to that enduring score and book by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, but also to the designs of Michael Yeargan (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Donald Holder (lights), all streamed into Sher's fresh and vital vision of the show.

Despite the cast changes, there are still some impressive performances too, not the least of which would be Carmen Cusack's reprise of her delightful turn as Ensign Nellie Forbush, the young American nurse who finds herself stationed on an island in the middle of the South Pacific at the height of the Second World War. She also finds herself in love with local planter Emile de Becque (played until March 6 by David Pittsinger, who then surrenders the role to local boy Jason Howard, who played the part last summer, for the remainder of the run) -- but his past keeps getting in the way. While Pittsinger brings his own spin to the part, he also brings a powerful voice, so those who miss seeing Howard in the role needn't worry that they are being shortchanged.

There's good work too from Jodi Kimura, reprising her turn as the Tonganese huckster known as Bloody Mary, and if Timothy Gulan tries just a bit too hard in his role as Luther Billis, it's easy to overlook, especially once Aaron Ramey finds his key and settles into the role of Lt. Cable, the marine who suffers from many of the down-home prejudices that plague Ms. Forbush and threaten her happiness.

But while the production still runs like a clock, one might notice that it is idling slow -- not so much road weary as stuck in a state of languor that seems to keep it from reaching maximum power. It's as though Cusack et al have lost all memory of opening night tension and are allowing themselves just a few too many moments to savour the quality of their performances. Right now, though this show still seems to purr right along, it's easy to detect a few missing beats, if one listens closely. If Sher deals with it soon, there's still a lot of mileage in this production -- but if he ignores it, it could cost him a bundle down the road.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

19 FEB/11

Rating: 4 out of 5

TORONTO - It is fitting -- occasionally frustrating, but fitting nonetheless -- that THE MIDDLE PLACE defies theatrical convention and takes to the stage without a recognizable beginning or a definitive ending. It is, after all, an unconventional piece of stagecraft -- a slice of life carved rare from the too-often forgotten underbelly of suburban Toronto, serving as stand-in for any big city in North America, one suspects.

Specifically, it is a show about kids -- young people in that middle place between childhood and the adult world, between dependence and independence, between hope and despair. They are kids, storm-tossed on a sea of unaccustomed hormones and trying to come to grips with their own individuality in the face of parents, teachers and caregivers who don't seem to understand or, in some cases, don't seem to even care. The kind of kids, in other words, who make a hopefully transitional home at Rexdale's Youth Without Shelter; the kind of kids one is likely to find in any vivisection of a modern community; and finally, the kind of kids who sat down with playwright Andrew Kushnir over the course of several months and talked to him about their lives, their hopes, their dreams, their frustrations and their disappointments.

Now, after an intense period of workshops and dramaturgy, Kushnir has excerpted those interviews, blended them with interviews with YWS staff, and after suitable changes to protect individual privacy, shaped it all into an hour-long stage show that officially premiered at the Berkeley Street Theatre Thursday. A production of Project: Humanity, THE MIDDLE PLACE is presented in a collaboration between the Canadian Stage Company and Theatre Passe Muraille, where the work was staged in workshop last year.

A work for five actors -- Akosua Amo-Adem, Antonio Cayonne, Jessica Greenberg, Kevin Walker and Kushnir himself -- it is, in the final analysis, less theatre than eavesdropping masquerading as theatre. With Kushnir in the role of largely unseen inquisitor, the other four cast members open windows into the lives of 16 homeless youth living at the YWS facility, and four of the caseworkers employed there.

Designer Jung-Hye Kim sets most of the work in an oval of intense light (heightened by the unobtrusive hand of Kimberly Purtell), surrounded by an imaginary force field through which the four staff members can pass at will to offer what is essentially the compassionate outsider's take on things. Inside that circle, however, is the world inhabited by the kids -- alternately troubled and troubling, confused and confusing, hopeful and hopeless, frustrated and frustrating. With director Alan Dilworth firmly in control and choreographer Monica Dottor cuing the character changes, it becomes a stew-pot of life on simmer, rather than at a rolling boil. Each character is given as much or as little time as is necessary to give an audience a glimpse into the world each inhabits or hopes to inhabit, those worlds often playing in jarring counterpoint to the world as they see it.

In the shifting panorama of characters the work presents, Amo-Adem, Cayonne, Greenberg and Walker are all accorded plenty of opportunity to strut their stuff, within the perimeters of Dilworth's tight direction. And while each of them scores at least a few telling moments, Amo-Addem and Walker offer thrilling demonstrations for not just the depth of their talents but their range as well, donning and doffing characters with the ease of chameleons.

Without a regular beginning or a regular ending, this is a work that neither asks tough questions nor answers them. Instead, it dwells in THE MIDDLE PLACE, between the asking and the answer.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

17 FEB/11

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

There's counterfeit Cash that's being passed around certain stretches of Yonge Street. Not cash, in the sense of, "Spare change, mister?" that marks so many of the financial transactions on the world's longest street. But rather Cash, as in "My name is Johnny Cash."

In fact those are amongst the first words you'll hear at THE MAN IN BLACK (which opened Wednesday at the Panasonic), and it might throw you for a minute or two, him being dead and all. But chances are you aren't going to have to check your program to remind yourself that the full title of this show is THE MAN IN BLACK: A TRIBUTE TO JOHNNY CASH, for beyond a shock of preternaturally black and Brylcreemed hair, Shawn Barker, for all his commitment and bravado, has few physical credentials to back up his claim. Frankly, he'd be as believable, on the physical front, if he claimed to be one of the lesser Baldwin brothers, or even k.d. lang.

But there's no way Alberta's angel with a lariat could mine those bass notes the way Barker can -- and they were, after all, Cash's stock in trade. And Barker makes the most of that ability as he -- backed by a tight four-piece band and two back-up singers -- makes his way through the Cash canon, serving up two dozen and more tunes from the master's long and varied career, leaving the impression that there's a bit of Cash in the Presley family tree.

But as he serves up a playlist that includes I Got Stripes; Cry, Cry, Cry; Boy Named Sue; Ghost Riders in the Sky and even the musical valedictory that is Hurt, it dawns that it wasn't Cash's vocal ability to go deep that we loved so much as his ability to strike emotional black gold when he did. All of which would be secondary, one supposes, if writer-director Kurt Brown had used the concert format as a way to impart meaningful biographical details about a man whose music transcended genre, but beyond the fact that he was married more than once and recorded in Memphis, Nashville and Los Angeles, those details are pretty slim. And frankly, if Cash really did have a predilection for the phrase "itty-bitty", did you really want to know?

But if it's a love of Cash's music that has brought you hither, in fairness, Barker -- over the course of the 31 songs on the playlist -- manages to periodically impress, landing somewhere square in the middle of that no-man's-land between impression and impersonation. At its worst, this show stops respectfully short of a send-up -- although the "gee, gol-leee, gosh, ma'am" drawl comes pretty close. And at its best, it is almost possible to believe that, if you closed your eyes, you might think you were hearing Cash himself -- but then, watching your radio could accomplish the same thing.

In the end, it dwells in theatrical purgatory -- a nostalgia show designed to appeal to Cash fans yet almost certain to disappoint anyone with a passion for the music and a good CD. But the good news is the watch you bought down the street is no longer a Rolex knock-off -- it's a tribute watch.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

15 FEB/11

Thankfully Sandra Shamas is at her Wit's End


Sandra Shamas wants you to know she’s a changed woman. In fact, that’s the subject of her latest one-woman show, WIT'S END III; LOVE LIFE, slated to open at the Elgin Theatre on Wednesday.

For the uninitiated, it will be Shamas’ sixth highly personal one-woman show — a cycle that started almost a quarter century ago with an Edmonton Fringe show titled MY BOYFRIEND'S BACK AND THERE'S GOING TO BE LAUNDRY. That one show has since morphed into the story of her entire adult life, spanning marriage, divorce and the ongoing tale of her attempts to shake the smog of the city from her skirts in favour of a more bucolic rural life.

WIT'S END is not merely the title of the last three shows in her sextet. It is also the name of the farm she purchased just before her marriage melted down and disappeared to the place where she still makes her home. Not surprisingly, in the years — eight of ’em, to be precise — since Shamas checked in with WIT'S END II; HEART'S DESIRE, there have been some changes. Shamas has become a farmer, raising a few chickens and committing an entire hectare of her farm to the cultivation of organic garlic — a crop that started small and continued to thrive when the heirloom tomatoes that were to have been her cash crop withered on the vine, victims of a late-season blight.

“When you’re in congress with the land, you obey it,” she offers philosophically. “It doesn’t obey you.”

But the biggest change of all in Shamas’ life since her audience last met with her has been The Change — better known as menopause — an event known to rock the lives of women of a certain age. And for those wondering where Shamas has been and why there’s been such a long stretch between shows, she answers with typical candour.

“I was morphing,” she says. “I was going through the change. That’s what this is all about and I wanted to report from a place of authority, rather than ‘What the f---?’

“It starts small,” she says simply. “You don’t feel right in your skin. (But) it’s tectonic,” Shamas confides. “It shifts your plates. It’s not a destination you would choose — if you knew.” But happily, she’s made it through to the other side — and partly because when she was at her wit’s end, she was also at Wit’s End. Or, as she puts it: “I had space — 123 acres to run around and occasionally strip naked and lie in the snow — just to cool off.”

The trip through the land of menopause proved to be less than pleasant in more than just the climate control department, of course, but in its wake, Shamas finds herself some place where she very much wants to be, both physically and emotionally — and it looks good on her. Her mass of Mediterranean curls is now touched with just a hint of silver and laugh-lines soften the angles of her classically chiseled face.

“My health is rocket science amazing,” she says. “I’m blessed. This,” she continues tapping her head, “is an idiot. It collates information and makes phone calls. “But this,” she continues, her hands sweeping down her still very lithe body, “is the magnificence. There isn’t a crack or a crevice I’m not in love with.”

As for her love life — hey, considering the title of the show, we had to ask — she’s on hiatus, she says, taking some time to examine the choices she’s made. “At 50, I have the emotional constitution to do that without rancour,” she says, adding she’s spotted a trend in her failed romances. “It turns out that the one thing they all have in common is me,” she says. “At present I am single, but I don’t think I will be for long, That’s my intuition.”

Meanwhile, my intuition suggests there just may be another show in the offing.

15 FEB/11

Rating: 4 out of 5

While it would be hard to prove it, one can’t help but think that the people who framed the KISS principle — Keep It Simple, Stupid, for the uninitiated — were inspired by a little musical titled THE FANTASTICKS. In fact, the musical, penned more than 50 years ago by playwright-lyricist Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt, makes such a virtue of simplicity that it’s been playing in New York for all but a few years since it opened.

And now it’s gracing the Toronto stage, courtesy of the folks at Soulpepper, who launched a production at the Young Centre Monday. Not surprisingly, they’ve chosen to keep it pretty simple too, with director Joe Ziegler fielding a two-piece orchestra (musical director Paul Sportelli at the piano, backed by harpist Erica Goodman) to share Christina Poddubiuk’s simple set with a cast of eight players, simply lit by Louise Guinand.

Together, they spin out a highly entertaining if oddly familiar musical tale of young lovers, nurtured then ripped asunder by feuding fathers — an homage of sorts to not only Shakespeare’s ROMEO AND JULIET, but to his MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM as well, all blended with elements of OUR TOWN, THE WIZARD OF OZ and a host of other theatrical inspirations.

Ziegler in fact reinforces some of those ‘inspirations’ in his casting, playing off them with Jeff Lillico (the romantic lead in Soulpepper’s oft-revived production of OUR TOWN) cast as the FANTASTICKS' youthful Matt and Albert Schultz adding swagger and musical momentum to his performance as OT’s Stage Manager to give us an oddly avuncular El Gallo. Meanwhile, Krystin Pellerin is cast as the innocent Luisa, the object of Matt’s affection, while Michael Hanrahan and William Webster bring the feuding fathers to sparkling life. Oliver Dennis, Michael Simpson and Derek Boyes round out the cast as the doddering (and very funny) Henry, the hapless Mortimer and the Mute respectively.

And under Ziegler’s careful and considered direction, it’s certainly charming work. As the naive young lovers, Lillico and Pellerin walk the fine line between innocence and idiocy to lovely effect, while Schultz deploys just the faintest touch of irony to justify his casting as the swashbuckling master manipulator, El Gallo. Hanrahan and Webster meanwhile enjoy a nice, if unpredictable chemistry, while Boyes and Simpson prove wonderful accomplices to Dennis’ accomplished scene-stealing. In fact, Ziegler has crafted such a fine production that one can’t help but wish he had a cast who could sing as well as they can act. While Schultz has the vocal chops for the iconic Try to Remember — and certainly shows he knows how to use them on occasion — Lillico and Pellerin come off too often sounding more than slightly reedy, even with a modicum of electronic enhancement to lend them power.

In the final analysis, while its story is ultimately about as deep as a dime, a little more vocal power and projection is all it would take to make this production simply fantastic.

Monday, February 14, 2011

13 FEB/11

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

In a world where childhood is increasingly considered a time of inviolate innocence, children’s stories from an era when children were considered adults-in-training don’t always make for the best of theatre While the stories of Dickens and his ilk — even our own Lucy Maude Montgomery— offer plenty in the way of life lessons, they are often couched in an unvarnished world of cruelty, heartbreak, sorrow and mean-spiritedness — all things from which we try to shield modern children.

Of course, a little bit of anthropomorphism, à la THE LION KING, can help. And if that doesn’t work, or if the story doesn’t lend itself to lions and meerkats and the like, a heavy dollop of sentimentality — think OLIVER or ANNE OF GREEN GABLES — is almost certain to do the trick; the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.

That seems to be the theory behind the new staging of THE SECRET GARDEN that opened at the Royal Alexandra Theatre on Sunday, a presentation by David Mirvish of the John Stalker for Festival City Theatres Trust, Festival Theatre Edinburgh Production. Based on the 1911 novel of the same name by Frances Hodgson Burnett, it’s the story of young Mary Lennox (played by Ellie Coldicutt), left alone and orphaned in India at the top of the story, when her parents and everyone else in her life succumbs to cholera.

The young orphan is shipped home to Britain to make her home on the Yorkshire Moors with her only surviving relative — the widowed and still grieving Archibald Craven (Caspar Phillipson), her uncle by marriage. In the face of Archibald’s still overwhelming grief — and a certain handicap that is vastly underplayed here — Archibald’s estate is managed by his malevolent brother Neville (Graham Bickley), a doctor who has no time for the new ward. Left largely to her own resources in a grand but decaying home, the prickly Mary is taken in hand by the housemaid Martha (Lauren Hood) and her brother Dicken (Jos Slovick), who introduce her to the joys of gardening. It is an introduction that leads her inevitably, almost magically, to a neglected garden once cultivated by her late Aunt Lily (Sophie Bould), a place still particularly haunted by Lily’s memory.

Working with the 1991 musical adaptation by playwright/lyricist Marsha Norman and composer Lucy Simon, director Anna Linstrum and choreographer Gavin Mitford give us a production that is nothing if not committed. In the novel, Burnett created a world steeped in the tradition of the Raj, gilded with the mystery of the Indian sub-continent and haunted by the memories of the too-soon departed — and that’s the world of this production.

But in their efforts to keep the story, Simons’ often overwrought score, and Francis O’Connor’s hyper-kinetic set all running like clockwork, it seems they’ve simply wound things too tight. And that would include the emotions of this piece, all of which seem to be worn prominently on the characters’ sleeves, despite the fact that Burnett set the story in a world of stiff upper-lips. The cast are tremendously committed, but too many characters lose themselves in the sentiment of the story, instead of simply getting on with it and leaving it up to us to figure it out.

Figuring it out is what good theatre — and childhood — is all about.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

12 FEB/11

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Talk about staying power. Almost 2,500 years after its heyday, classical Greek theatre is still with us, its forms — from deus ex machina to Greek chorus — still informing contemporary theatre on the world's stages.

And while playwright Michel Tremblay probably wasn't aspiring to be some sort of latter-day Sophocles when he penned his SAINT CARMEN OF THE MAIN as a rallying cry for fellow Quebec separatists in 1976, he nonetheless applied the Grecian formula with a heavy hand. A tale ripped from the underbelly of old Montreal — a world of hookers, misfits and petty criminals huddled around the fictitious Rodeo Club, near the corner of rue Saint Laurent, otherwise known as the Main, and rue Sainte-Catherine — Saint Carmen is essentially a story of a people in the process of finding its voice. And while, as written, it offers a powerful argument in favour of Tremblay's separatist cause, it also finds resonance with any group struggling to define itself and find its voice, which accounts in no small part for the revival that opened at the Bluma Appel Theatre Thursday in a co-production between Canadian Stage and the National Arts Centre.

Working with a new translation by long-time Tremblay interpreter Linda Gaboriau, director Peter Hinton and designer Eo Sharp make the most of the Grecian connection too, heightening the ancient classical reference points even while they strive to make it a work very much of the modern world. As the sun comes up on their Main, a chorus of hookers and transvestites all arrayed in blood red, led by Sandra (Robert Persichini) and Rose Beef (Karen Robinson) await the return of the Carmen of title.

A native of the area who rose to prominence singing country and western tunes, Carmen is coming home after a sojourn in Nashville, where she has learned a country trick or two. Played by Laara Sadiq, Carmen arrives looking like Lady Gaga making a wrong turn on Rodeo Drive, but that's more than good enough for the adoring Harelip, a downtrodden lesbian, played by Diane D'Aquila, who serves as her dresser. But not everyone shares Harelip's joy in this homecoming. Maurice (Jean Leclerc), the amoral owner of Rodeo, is unimpressed with Carmen's new voice and wants her to do the same thing she's always done, only better, while Gloria (Jackie Richardson), the Spanish singer who ruled Rodeo's stage before Carmen, wants it back . In this, she has the aid of Toothpick (Joey Tremblay) a thug who is apparently only packing a grudge.

That the denizens of the Main are thrilled to find Carmen singing songs about them rather than cowboys only serves to make the homecoming queen more dangerous. Tragedy of classical proportion ensues. In the process, however, Hinton (a director who never lets a good play get in the way of a concept) goes Grecian with such a heavy hand that the very human elements of the story are all but swamped by his vision. While Gaboriau captures elements of Quebecois joual in her new translation, Hinton and Sharp strip the story of time and place, in a setting more of the temple than the street — a world where there is definitely no sex in secular.

For all of their costuming excesses, the chorus emerges as oddly asexual — a religious order with very bad habits — while Sadiq's Carmen all but disappears under wig and make-up that render her all but invisible from the neck up. In this production, it's not in the translation from French to English that Carmen loses her way finally, but in the translation from English to Greek.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

10 FEB/11

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Mostly, theatre happens in the watching. So, to discuss DIVISADERO: A PERFORMANCE — a new work from Necessary Angel that opened Tuesday on Theatre Passe Muraille's mainstage — it might be wise to jettison conventional notions of theatre, radio plays and books-on-tape and look to the world of music instead.

For in the final analysis, this theatrical adaptation of novelist Michael Ondaatje's award-winning novel by the author (in concert with director Daniel Brooks and the company) defies most conventional theatrical definitions. And even while it flirts with being theatre for the ear, dismissing it as a mere radio play would be a dis-service both the play and audience.

Finally, DIVISADERO is to conventional theatre what a cantata is to an opera — the former shaped more for the ear, the latter for both ear and eye, both demanding, for maximum enjoyment, to be seen rather than merely heard. Relying primarily on the spoken word and on music to tell its story, like most radio plays, DIVISADERO nonetheless very carefully — occasionally almost self-conciously — plays to an inner ear informed by memory and emotion and all of the things of which great theatre is made, rather than any random vibrations of the tympanic membrane.

It tells the story of three siblings — Anna, played briefly as a girl by Aviva Philipp-Muller, and her adopted siblings, Claire, played by Liane Balaban and Coop, played by Justin John Rutledge — but it plays out largely in the memory of a mature Anna, played by Maggie Huculak. The cast is rounded out by Tom McCamus, in a variety of gambler's roles and Amy Rutherford as a wayward, tormented child in a woman's body. But even when characters other than Anna step to the fore to assume control of the narrative, there is precious little interaction between them in a story driven more by what they feeling and think than by what they say and do.

The tale itself centres around a single explosive event that proves to be a dividing line, or in Spanish, a divisadero, between the protaganist's almost careless childhoods and something much bigger and darker — a single stone hurled into the pool of their collective memory, creating ripples that still threaten to swamp each of them and pull them under. But memories, unless fleshed out to become memory plays, rarely make for compelling theatre — but to strip this tale, told by a masterful writer, of its language would be to peel away the pigment of an old master's painting merely to get to the sketch beneath.

So instead, Brooks creates a new kind of memory play, using a potent blend of almost inaudible speech and intrusive amplification to heighten intimacy, setting the story in his audience's memory instead of playing it out in the playwright's. Limited in terms of action, the cast's challenge comes in holding our attention with nothing but a combination of vocal skill and the power of the playwright's words.

In this, Huculak scores an understated triumph, creating a perfect 'writer's voice' — considered, dispassionate, articulate and just the tiniest bit affected — that flows out of her like golden honey. McCamus impresses too, in his ability to hold his audience spellbound, but for the rest, Brook's casting criteria is unclear.

Clearly, Rutledge is cast for musical abilities and, for a non-actor, turns in a strong performance, But while Rutherford has been cast, at least in part, for her physical attributes, Balaban's determination to fully inhabit Claire is undone by her failure to exhibit a disability important enough to be mentioned twice in the telling.

Of course, these things wouldn't be important in a radio play, but...

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

THEATRE NEWS: Kim Cattrall a Mirvish highlight
8 JAN/11


David Mirvish has surrounded himself with old friends and new, in the 2011-12 subscription season he announced Tuesday at the Princess of Wales Theatre.

The season opens with the Toronto production of THE RAILWAY CHILDREN, announced last month. Slated to open in a purpose-built tent at the foot of the CN Tower in early May, it is adapted from the works of Edith Nesbit and features a Canadian cast headed by Natasha Greenblatt that also includes Emma Campbell, John Gilbert, Richard Sheridan Willis and Kate Besworth.

Next, in September, Mirvish throws open the Royal Alexandra to welcome expatriate Canuck Kim Cattrall back to Toronto, in an acclaimed West End revival of Noel Coward’s PRIVATE LIVES, directed by Richard Eyre. Cattrall was present at Tuesday’s announcement. For her part, she said she is particularly thrilled to bring her Broadway-bound production to a stage that holds some very special memories for her. “In the ’70’s,” she said of the days when she called Toronto home, “I remember seeing NO MAN'S LAND, with John Gielgud — Sir John Gielgud — and Ralph Richardson here.”

While Catrall holds court at the Alex, another bundle from Britain will take to the stage of the Princess of Wales Theatre, taking the long way ’round to London’s West End and giving Torontonians an early glimpse of Craig Revel Horwood’s acclaimed staging of CHESS, THE MUSICAL, with music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and lyrics by Tim Rice. Producer Michael Harrison insists that Horwood has done the famously unstageable musical about chess, politics and life more than proud, perhaps even living up to expectations created by the late Michael Bennett, who was hard at work on the project when he succumbed to AIDS. “I think Craig is the closest you will ever get to Michael Bennett,” Harrison said. “(He’s) attacked CHESS with the choreographic aspect in mind, and he’s cracked it. He’s taken it to a fantasy world. There’s nothing real in it. Tim (Rice) says he’s made it more like an opera.”

CHESS will head back to London in time to surrender the POW stage to the hit Broadway musical MARY POPPINS, in its Canadian première in a run that will extend through Christmas. Mirvish kicks off 2012 with a Toronto première of BLUE DRAGON, at the Alex — yet another work from Canadian theatrical wiz Robert Lepage. Written in collaboration with Marie Michaud and directed by Lepage, it is a sequel to their DRAGON trilogy.

Meanwhile, at the POW, an all-Canadian cast will be prepping for the Canadian première of an open-ended run of WAR HORSE, a visually arresting piece of theatre from Britain’s National Theatre, adapted from the Michael Morpurgo novel by Nick Stafford. It features the artistry of South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, under the direction of Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. To close the season, Mirvish welcomes the Broadway company of HAIR to the stage of the Royal Alex, where the musical once played for a then record-breaking 53 weeks and launched the Mirvish theatrical enterprise. “HAIR was our first great success,” Mirvish said of that 1969 production. “To be able to bring a successful production back — it’s exciting.”

Subscription packages for all seven shows are on sale starting at $125.

But wait. When it comes to David Mirvish and theatre, there’s always more — and a subscription is really only the beginning. Mirvish subscribers will also have access, at a special price, to other Mirvish productions gracing Toronto stages over the next year. This year’s bonus shows include the Panasonic runs of GHOST STORIES — a West End phenom by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, slated to open in April of this year — as well as a reprise of the made-in-Toronto hit 2 PIANOS, 4 HANDS, featuring creators Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt in what is being billed as a farewell performance. It opens in late October. In addition to the previously announced run of GOOD MOURNING MRS. BROWN at the Princess of Wales in March, Mirvish will also host Kathryn Greenwood, Robin Duke, Jayne Eastwood and Teresa Pavlinek in WOMEN FULLY CLOTHED: OLDER & HOTTER for a limited June run at the Alex.

Mirvish subscribers are eligible, too, for discounts on a wide range of previously announced shows at the Sony Centre.

Monday, February 7, 2011

DANCE NEWS: NBOC's diamond season to shine
7 FEB/11


To celebrate the National Ballet of Canada’s diamond anniversary season, artistic director Karen Kain is polishing off some of the company’s heirloom jewels, resetting others and adding a few new brilliants, just for good measure.

The NBOC 2011-12 season announced by Kain Monday will kick off with the world première of a spanking new production of ROMEO AND JULIET, choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, designed by Richard Hudson and set to the enduring score of Sergei Prokofiev. It will replace the beloved John Cranko version which has enchanted audiences for 46 years. The new edition will play for 14 performances in November.

Following the annual Christmas presentation of THE NUTCRACKER in December, the ballet’s winter season launches in late February, 2012, and will include three full-length ballets — Sir Frederick Ashton’s LA FILLE MAL GARDÉE and John Neumeier’s THE SEAGULL, bracketing a run of Rudolf Nureyev’s THE SLEEPING BEAUTY, a work that figures prominently in both the company’s history and Kain's own.

Much of Kain’s international reputation as a prima ballerina is woven around Nureyev’s classic work and it was Kain who, as artistic director, oversaw the work’s refurbishment and restoration for the move to the Four Seasons Centre in 2006, ensuring that it can still be enjoyed in its original splendour.

The 2012 summer season kicks off in early June, with the North American première of Kevin O’Day’s HAMLET, a work which premièred at the Stuttgart Ballet in 2008. Set to music by John King, it will feature set and costume design by Tatyana van Walsum. The summer season concludes with an evening of mixed programming, comprised of Wayne McGregor’s CHROMA, which premièred with the company to great acclaim in 2010, teamed with Maurice Béjart’s enduring SONG OF A WAYFARER and Kenneth MacMillan’s celebrated ÉLITE SYNCOPATIONS.

Kain also announced that the company will undertake a tour of Western Canada this fall, performing William Forsyth’s 'the second detail', Jerome Robbins’ OTHER DANCES and Crystal Pite’s EMERGENCE for audiences in Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Victoria and Winnipeg. A jaunt to Ottawa featuring the same program is planned for spring 2012.

Kain also spoke of the late prima ballerina Lois Smith, who passed away in late January, and her importance to the company and the world of dance. Calling Smith “a beautiful, unique talent,” Kain announced that the first performance of the upcoming run of DON QUIXOTE, opening at the Four Seasons Centre March 9, will be dedicated to Smith’s memory.

7 FEB/11

Rating: 4 out of 5

Wags of the time no doubt dismissed it as just another bull in a China shop story — but almost 40 years later, we look back at Richard Nixon's historic visit to China and are forced to conclude: Some bull. Some China shop.

And even while it began what has been a long slow thaw in relations between an isolated Communist China and the west, that visit also struck a few sympathetic chords in the world of opera, where spectacle plays as important a role as it does in politics. It started small, with the Houston Opera's 1987 première of a new work by composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, titled NIXON IN CHINA. It documented, in highly theatrical form, the details of that ground breaking meeting between east and west, and the emotions that ran through it.

And something about it — nostalgia for what, in its time, was almost blanket news coverage, a growing taste for the rhythmic, repetitious work of iconic composers like Stravinsky and Glass or even an abiding love of the grand gesture — caught the collective imagination of a continent.

New productions have been popping up ever since. The latest of which is, almost coincidental with an opening at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, a  production that opened in Toronto under the aegis of the Canadian Opera Company at the Four Season's Centre Saturday, a co-production of several American opera companies. Directed by James Robinson, it's a pretty slick affair, featuring an often impressive set design by Allen Moyer, incorporating actual film footage shot during the visit, blended with an often impressive live cast, all of them treading (not always gracefully) a very fine line between character and caricature.

With baritone Robert Orth cast as Nixon and soprano Maria Kanyova as his wife Pat, the American contingent is rounded out by bass-baritone Thomas Hammons as a buffoonish Henry Kissinger. Meanwhile, on the Sino side, tenor Adrian Thompson is an aging Mao Tse-tung,  soprano Marisol Montalvo is his fiery wife Chiang Ch'ing and baritone Chen-Ye Yuan essays a dignified, even noble Chou En-Lai.

In an almost dreamlike way, it tells the story of mortals caught up in events they only suspect are far larger than themselves, and, overall, it makes for a biting, often funny meta-theatrical commentary on the flawed personalities involved. Which is not to say it doesn't have its touching moments. As Pat Nixon comes face to face with a world beyond her ken and conquers it by force of will, we feel the tectonic plates of two nations slowly shift.

But while this staging does a fine job of capturing nostalgic elements, thanks to a good dozen or more TV screens, echoing the way the visit was watched by most of this hemisphere, there are major missteps. While much is made of the fact that footage shot during the actual visit is being used, don't expect to see a lot of it, for sadly, these screens never come together to present a single picture large enough to be seen at the back of the hall. It's grand spectacle with much of the spectacle underplayed.

And while Pablo Heras-Casado impresses in his company debut at the helm of the COC Orchestra, he fails to modulate his hardworking musicians as they labour through what proves to be a powerfully filmic score, to allow the singing to be heard. Even though it is sung in English, surtitles tell too much of this tale.

But, for all its flaws, in its blending of the very modern — conventional melody is an elusive commodity here — with some grand traditions — an extended ballet sequence takes on an opera buffo tone in its staging — it proves opera is far more than museum art.

Friday, February 4, 2011

4 FEB/11

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

If you’ve ever suspected that playwright David Mamet stacked the deck a bit when he created the power structure in OLEANNA, his controversial 1992 drama, you’re not alone. In his often bloody-minded dissection of the relationship between a self-satisfied university professor and a troubled young female student, Mamet doesn’t seem too concerned with fairness in a world where people eschew talking to each other in favour of talking at each other.

That said, one wonders just how Mamet himself might react to the production of OLEANNA that opened at the Young Centre Thursday under the Soulpepper umbrella. It is a production in which the director tips the scales so heavily that he all but destroys any illusion, however fleeting, that Mamet might have tried to create a level playing field on which to stage what is clearly an evisceration of gender politics.

For the uninitiated, OLEANNA encompasses three encounters between John, a smug and self-satisfied university professor, and a student named Carol, a wallflower who turns out to be a meat-eating venus flytrap in the course of the two-hour play. All three encounters take place in John’s office, beginning with a post-class session in which a tongue-tied and seemingly terrified Carol (played by Sarah Wilson) tries mightily to convey her academic ineptness to John (Diego Matamoros), who seems clearly more concerned with the house he and his wife are buying to celebrate his newly-achieved tenure, than with the problems of this mousey little student who can’t grasp anything he says. Still, something about Carol’s dilemma strikes a chord. He tries, in his self-absorbed fashion, to help her find her way.

In their next encounter, John is dealing with the shock of finding himself charged with professional and sexual malfeasance in his dealings with Carol, who has come to his office at his request to discuss the complaint she has made to the school powers — a complaint that threatens John’s hard-won and suddenly precious chance at tenure.

In the third, John’s smug world has been reduced to rubble, but a victorious and suddenly empowered Carol overplays her hand to such a degree that the play ends in disaster for both of them.

Director Laszlo Marton approaches the work with a heavy hand, reducing all of John’s sins to minor misdemeanors, while playing up all of Carol’s faults until they become cardinal sins, tipping the scales of sympathy so far in John’s favour in the process that even Carol’s most valid complaints seem ridiculous. Tragically, an out-of-her-depth Wilson furthers Marton’s vision, making Carol appear little more than a mouthpiece for dark and malevolent forces, instead of a full participant in the tale.

Not content with placing a heavy thumb on the emotional scales of Mamet’s work, Marton further muddies the waters with a set, designed by Teresa Przybylski, that is as visually skewed as the vision behind this staging. Worse, when Marton tries to incorporate it into the action of the play in the third act, it takes so long to establish that it is more than merely a malfunction of a flimsy set - it removes you from the play.

In truth, OLEANNA has long been seen as a bit of a rigged fight from the get-go, but in this staging Marton et al reduce it to the level of professional wrestling, replete with hot-button stereotypes of good men and evil women. In the end, Marton seems to have abandoned the conventional role of the director as an interpreter of the work and cast himself as judge of the characters. And while his decision may make for easier answers for the theatre-going public, it certainly doesn’t make for more interesting theatre.

OPERA NEWS: Opera Atelier heading for Glimmerglass
4 FEB/11


Opera Atelier is heading south — but only for awhile. In announcing the company's 2011-12 season, Toronto's baroque opera company revealed that, for the second production of their new season, they will team up with the folks at the Glimmerglass Opera Festival to co-produce a reprise of their production of Jean-Baptiste Lully's ARMIDE.

First mounted by OA to mark their 20th anniversary season in 2005, the remount will once again feature tenor Colin Ainsworth as Renaud, with soprano Peggy Kriha Dye stepping into the title role and bass Joao Fernandes tackling the role of Hidroat, all under the direction of artistic director Marshall Pynkoski. After an April 2012 run at the Elgin, ARMIDE will play at the Glimmerglass Festival in New York state through July and August of 2012.

To launch its 2011-12 season, OA will kick off with a revival of their acclaimed production of Mozart's DON GIOVANNI, featuring baritone Phillip Addis in the title role, slated to run at the Elgin from Oct. 29.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

3 FEB/11

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Considering the number of times we’ve had to endure heartfelt renditions of the whole hockey-as-a-metaphor-for-Canadian-life scenario — as served up by Don Cherry and his ilk — it’s surprisingly refreshing, even liberating, to find the metaphor kicking back. At least, in a theatre-as-metaphor-for-life kind of way.

The name of the play is THE BIG LEAGUE and, six years after it premièred in Manitoba, it finally got around to making its Toronto debut Thursday in a Lorraine Kimsa Theatre For Young People production on the mainstage of the Front Street space. Written by James Durham and given an ebullient production by director Mary Ellen MacLean, THE BIG LEAGUE tells the story of one boy’s experience with what many consider to be Canada’s national sport — but it’s an experience with which a lot of young boys and an increasing number of young girls will no doubt identify for all that.

Like a lot of Canadian kids, young Tommy, played by Simon Rainville, was introduced to skating at age three, and to hockey about 30 seconds later, by his adoring father (Mark McGrinder), who clearly loves the sport just about as much as he loves his quickly hockey-mad son And for years, father and son have shared a growing passion for the sport — but by the time the play opens, and Tommy is about to try out for the local AAA Peewee team, something about their shared passion has gone horribly awry. Tommy, for his part, still loves the game and enjoys playing it with his friend Deke (Matt Bois), but he is becoming increasingly un-nerved by his father’s off-ice interference.

And with the competition high for a berth with the team, both father and son are feeling the increased pressure — and the tension soon spills over not just into Tommy’s friendship with Deke, but also into the friendship the two boys have formed with Bobby, a girl whose goal is to stop goals (played by Tamila Zaslavsky). When dear old Dad starts pressuring Tommy to play hockey in a way his son knows is wrong, the burgeoning hockey star considers giving up the sport and a reckoning ensues.

Played out entirely on inline skates, THE BIG LEAGUE is structured not unlike a hockey game, with three periods, ending with sudden death overtime — actually, in what proves to be MacLean’s only really bad call in an otherwise strong production, it might be more appropriately called lingering death overtime, but we digress.

The setting, fittingly enough, is a pretty fair emulation of a hockey rink, created by designer Jung-Hye Kim and MacLean and her team use it like the pros they are. And in addition to some pretty impressive blade work by the whole team, Bois and McGrinder even buddy up to do a good-hearted send-up of Coach’s Corner, starring Ron McKleen and Don Berry respectively, that even includes a guest appearance by Blue Berry, for good measure.

Nestled somewhere in the crease between homage and send-up, THE BIG LEAGUE succeeds nonetheless, in being squirmingly good in its evocation of a loving parent who nonetheless allows his own passion and ambition to colour the way he sees his child — which makes it a whole lot easier to swallow an ending that is simply too pat for prime-time.

In the end, it’s hard to say which places the greatest strain on credulity — the ease with which McGrinder’s pushy Pater is redeemed and reconstructed, or the notion that a whole lot of hockey dads are going to take their kids to see a play about hockey in the middle of winter. Two minutes for high expectations.

THEATRE NEWS: The importance of being too successful

2 FEB/11

With the extension of his Broadway production of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, Brian Bedford has fallen victim to his own success and been forced to withdraw as director of this summer’s production of THE MISANTHROPE at the Stratford Festival. Although Bedford will star in the production, as previously announced, the work will now be directed by David Grindley, who last directed on the Festival stage in 2009, when he helmed A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM.

While they’re still playing the rest of their 2011-12 season close to their vests with an announcement expected later this month, the folks at Canadian Stage have announced that William Shakespeare’s THE WINTER'S TALE will be the play featured in their annual Dream In High Park next summer. Slated to begin performances June 28, this summer’s offering will be directed by Estelle Shook.

Unlike sushi and a few other Japanese exports, kabuki doesn’t play a large role on Toronto menus — or, more appropriately perhaps, on Toronto playbills. For those with a taste for the highly-stylized 400-year-old classical Japanese brand of theatre, things will be looking up this weekend, at least in the world of celluloid.

On Saturday, the Scotiabank Theatre (259 Richmond St. W.) will play host to the Canadian première of HERON MAIDEN at 1 p.m., and RAKUDA: PARTY WITH A DEAD MAN at 2:30 p.m. On Sunday, things kick off with TRIPLE LION DANCE at 1 p.m., with a reprise of HERON MAIDEN at 3 p.m. It’s called Cinema Kabuki, a presentation of the Japan Foundation and all movies are in HD, with six channel sound and English subtitles. Tickets ($23 and $17) are available at Call 416-966-1600 ext. 229 for further info.

For the second year, the Harold Green Jewish Theatre is offering aspiring playwrights the chance to have their latest efforts workshopped by professional actors and directors. The competition is titled In The Beginning and seeks to find Jewish voices that offer fresh perspectives on Jewish history, heritage and experience. For details, visit