Thursday, April 28, 2011
THEATRE REVIEW: FORESTS
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI AGENCY
Rating: 4 out of 5
TORONTO - If playwright Wadji Mouawad’s talent had been in the the visual arts, as opposed to the performing, you can bet he wouldn’t have painted many miniatures.
In an impressive 15-year career, Mouawad has carved a major niche for himself in international theatre with a series of sprawling plays that most often seem too big for the stages that try to hold them. His plays spill off and run over with a mixture of passion, poetry and pulsating life that pushes not just the theatrical but the political and the personal envelopes as well. Not surprisingly, those plays prove every bit as breathtaking on celluloid, as witnessed by the Academy Award nomination filmmaker Denis Villeneuve earned for his film adaptation of Mouawad’s Incendies.
Mouawad still has a lot to say — and a lot of it is said in FORESTS, which had its English language world première Wednesday on the Tarragon mainstage. It is a new play that stretches not only the stage of the venerable theatre to the very edge of its capacity, but also the talents of a universally gifted cast, and the imagination of its audience. Translated by Linda Gaboriau and directed by Tarragon’s Richard Rose, FORESTS is anchored in the Quebec of the recent past, for all that it ultimately seems to spend precious little time there.
It begins as an intimate family story. A married couple celebrates news of their impending parenthood with family and friends — a joyous occasion too soon shattered by the devastating news that the mother-to-be (Jan Alexandra Smith) suffers from a mysterious malady that will force her to choose between her own life and the life of her child. It’s a heart-wrenching decision for both her and her husband (Alon Nashman), rendered more so by a very public tragedy, but the decision to carry the unborn child to term results in a medical mystery that must be solved by a grown daughter (a hugely confident and gifted Vivian Endicott-Douglas), who is haunted by the fact that the life she lives came at the expense of the life her mother lost.
Aided by a scientist with a few ghosts of his own (RH Thomson), she finds herself unearthing familial roots that stretch back generations, and across oceans, into a world where shifting political alliances create victims who become victimizers, and romantic visionaries who turn utopian dreams into nightmares.
Even for Mouawad, this is a complex tale, with most of the cast juggling multiple roles in multiple eras. Dmitry Chepovetsky, Matthew Edison, David Fox, Sophie Goulet, Brandon McGibbon, Liisa Repo-Martell and Terry Tweed complete an ensemble of impressive depth and commitment. From a directorial point of view, Rose keeps a firm hand on the tiller, navigating the often turbulent waters of Mouawad’s intricate storyline without ever sinking under the weight of the playwright’s overlaying of character and time, to make a complex human mosaic. In fact the only slip-up in Rose’s confident and considered production — aided by designers Karyn McCallum (sets and costumes) and Kimberley Purtell (lights) — is a simple one. But it proves hugely problematic, for in not demanding vocal clarity from all his actors, he leaves his audience too often scrambling to fill in missing pieces of an already dense and complex narrative.
And finally, for all the brilliance on offer, both in the writing and the playing, it seems Mouawad’s reach as a playwright might have exceeded his grasp, for after three hours of complex plot twists and character turns, it proves almost too epic to digest on an emotional level. Endicott-Douglas’s centred performance, bolstered by the always deft work of Thomson, helps. But this almost mythological tale could ultimately use a bit more humanity.
Saturday, April 23, 2011
THE COSMONAUT'S LAST MESSAGE TO THE WOMAN HE ONCE LOVED IN THE FORMER SOVIET UNION
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 2 out of 5
TORONTO - While great theatre is timeless, a good play — even an adequate one — can usually find a niche worth inhabiting for a short time. One suspects the niche for David Greig’s at-best-adequate THE COSMONAUT'S LAST MESSAGE TO THE WOMAN HE ONCED LOVED IN THE FORMER SOVIET UNION came with a best-before-date near the end of the last century, around the time it was written.
It was a time of political flux, for not only was a new millennium upon us and a new world order, but a whole raft for new technology as well — all of it threatened by a bug called Y2K. That tumult is reflected, albeit in less-than-compelling fashion, in Greig’s tale of disconnected lives. After a few stagings in Great Britain, THE COSMONAUT'S LAST MESSAGE… has made its way to Canada, via Canadian Stage, where artistic and general director Matthew Jocelyn gave the work a Canadian première Thursday in the Bluma Appel Theatre.
As the title implies, Greig’s stageplay centres around Oleg, a Russian cosmonaut trying to send a final message to a woman with whom he had once shared a powerful physical and emotional connection. Oleg (played by Tony Nappo) is clearly inspired by Sergei Krikalev, a cosmonaut aboard the Mir Space Station when the Soviet Union fell who found himself stranded for 300 days while his countrymen sorted out how to bring him back to earth. Oleg’s fate is worse, however, for he has been in orbit for 12 years, and although he has company — fellow cosmonaut Casimir (Tom Barnett) — Casimir loathes Oleg and wants to kill him.
And while the two of them orbit, trying to establish and maintain a connection (however tenuous) with their lives on earth, Greig introduces a veritable host of other characters, all struggling to connect in their way as well. There’s a Scottish civil servant (David Jansen) and his speech therapist wife (Fiona Byrne), a Norwegian diplomat (Raoul Bhaneja) and a Russian prostitute that may or may not be Casimir’s daughter (Sarah Wilson).
They share an earthbound orbit with a further cast of characters with whom they have occasional contact but no connection — a pregnant Scottish cop (Wilson), a French scientist (Jansen), a battle-scarred dominatrix (Byrne), several bartenders (all played by Bhaneja) and a patient with severe speech impediment (Barnett).
Written in a highly cinematic and pointlessly profane form, it is a work that demands both scope and intimacy, and while the Bluma stage certainly offers director Jennifer Tarver and designer Julie Fox (set and costumes) the breadth required, it comes up dangerously short on the kind of intimacy that might induce an audience to care a fig about any of them, or the loneliness that plagues them.
And under Tarver’s direction, much of that scope is wasted in an electronic-age story that moves at a glacial pace, which affords plenty of time to savour the production’s flaws. While one might overlook the fact that the revolve on the Bluma stage has rarely been used to such cheesy effect, or that dialect designer and coach Eric Armstrong’s contributions are at best haphazard, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Tarver has squandered most of the talent at her disposal.
One can’t quibble with the showcase she gives designers Robert Thomson (lighting) and Jeremy Mimnagh (projections), but talented players such as Byrne, Nappo, Bhaneja and Jansen seem to be mired at the bottom of their range. Wilson seems to think she’s been cast opposite James Bond. One suspects the Cosmonaut’s Last Message was probably along the lines of “Is this over yet?”
Friday, April 22, 2011
MUSICAL THEATRE REVIEW:
THE LION KING
JOHN COULBOURN, QMI Agency
Rating: 4 out of 5
TORONTO - More than a decade after it premièred, THE LION KING remains the unassailable benchmark by which much of the artistry of contemporary theatre is to be measured. Pound for pound, there is more pure theatrical magic in the first 10 minutes of this show than most shows manage to pull out of the hat with hours at their disposal. And even somewhat pared down for the road as it is, THE LION KING production that’s moved into the Princess of Wales Theatre (where it opened Wednesday) proves that this show is an enduring showcase for the genius of director/designer Julie Taymor and her theatrical collaborators.
Bolstered by the music of Elton John and Tim Rice (with memorable assists, it should be pointed out, from a creative roster that includes Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin and Hans Zimmer), Taymor has created a staging that is a multi-layered wonder, combining as it does theatre techniques that are as old as time with the very latest in technology to take her audience on the theatrical trip of a lifetime.
In the process, she seems to suggest there is nothing in this world (or out of it) that is beyond the reach of a true theatrical visionary — a suggestion now touched with piquant irony in the wake of Taymor’s colourful (dis)association with the problem-plagued money machine that is Spider Man — Turn Off the Dark. But judging from Broadway reports preceding its oft-delayed opening night, the problem with Spidey might have been that Taymor was trying to tell too much of a story.
Whereas in this show, she is working with a story that runs, if anything, a trifle thin — a theatrical mash-up blending a lot of Bambi with a bit of the Bard and a dash of burlesque — all with the sole purpose, it seems, of imprinting impressionable young minds with the notion that you’re either a lion, or you’re lunch.
It is, in short, the story of lion cub Simba — played as a youth by Jerome Stephens, Jr. and as a young adult by Adam Jacobs — who becomes collateral damage when his conniving Uncle Scar (J. Anthony Crane) hatches a nefarious scheme to murder Mufasa (Dionne Randolph) the reigning king of the beasts (and Simba’s father) and usurp his throne on pride rock. Cast out and driven into the wilderness, young Simba is befriended by a wisecracking meerkat (Nick Cordileone) and a flatulent wart hog (Ben Lipitz), who grub him through to adulthood so he can return to the Pridelands and reclaim his birthright.
To illuminate her admittedly shopworn story, Taymor uses a potent blend of theatrical magic that transforms the theatre into a savannah that fairly pulsates with life, underscoring the work of designers like Richard Hudson (sets) and Donald Holder (lights) with impressive choreography from Garth Fagan and a cast that is nothing short of top drawer. Led by the very impressive Brenda Mhlongo as the simian wise woman Rafiki, there’s memorable work from Tony Freeman as the bird-brained Zazu and from Lipitz and Randolph as well.
But finally, THE LION KING’s most moving and memorable moments are when Taymor throws the entirety of her whole hugely talented ensemble at the stage and works her magic with them, creating theatrical moments that are certain to put a lump in your throat, a tear in your eye and something just shy of awe in your heart. Despite its storyline shortcoming, this is the show that proves that when it comes to turning on a theatrical light in the heart of an audience, Taymor is capable of accomplishing something far more enduring than merely turning off the dark.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
THEATRE NEWS: Passe Muraille embraces the future
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
It's that time of year again and Theatre Passe Muraille is just the latest Toronto theatre company to ask us to embrace the future with its 2011-12 season. Artistic director Andy Kim announced an ambitious season for the company earlier this week.
It begins with an autumnal revisiting of Lisa Marie DiLiberto's site-specific THE TALE OF A TOWN — QUEEN WEST , under the direction of Varrick Grimes in a TPM/FIXT POINT co-production, then moves indoors with Erin Fleck's THOSE WHO CAN'T DO…. directed by Shari Hollett in a TPM production.
Next, TPM teams up with Acting Up Stage Company once again, hoping to follow up their hit presentation of Legoland, with RIDE THE CYCLONE, written by Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond, who co-directs with Britt Small. It will be followed by yet another co-production, this time with Praxis Theatre, as director Michael Wheeler tackles Tara Beagan's JESUS CHRYSLER, with Margaret Evans essaying the role of Eugenia "Jim" Watts.
After TPM's annual development festival, Buzz, the iconic Mary Walsh brings her latest show, titled DANCING WITH RAGE, under the direction of Karen Carpenter, to the TPM stage to close the season.
For tickets and further information, call 416-504-7529 or visit www.passemuraille.on.ca.
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
TORONTO - Happily, they don’t take February as their inspiration, with its dolorous intimations of time without end. And while the production of CALENDAR GIRLS that opened Tuesday at the Royal Alexandra Theatre also sidesteps bitchy comparisons to August and the endless and uneventful dog days of summer, it’s not exactly the social whirl that is December either.
Truth to tell, in the final analysis, with a whole year to choose from, this David Mirvish/Manitoba Theatre Centre production most closely resembles the typical April, filled with sunny promise one moment, transformed into a bit of a sodden slog the next. CALENDAR GIRLS is based on the movie of the same title adapted to the stage by Tim Firth, who also co-authored the movie with Juliette Towhidi.
Inspired by a true story, it’s the tale of a group of women in Yorkshire — all in or approaching their middle years and all rather reluctant members of the local Women’s Institute — who come up with a rather unorthodox scheme to fund a new couch for the waiting room of the local hospital. No bake sales or fowl dinners for these ladies — no siree!
Instead what they put together a calendar comprised of photos of themselves engaged in Women’s Institute-y activities — and to do it, unencumbered in any way by wardrobe. “Nude, but not naked,” as they keep telling themselves. The scheme is the brainchild of the irrepressible Chris (played fittingly by the irrepressible Fiona Reid) who is searching for a way to memorialize the late husband of her best friend and Institute-mate, Annie (Fiona Highet). Annie’s loving husband John (Dan Lett) shows up just long enough to give a few lessons in horticulture and nobility, before dying an obligatory but galvanizing death.
Which, of course, leads to his widow and her best friend doffing their duds for charity, joined by their like-minded sisters of the Institute, all of whom relish the opportunity to shake things up. Kathryn Akin plays Cora, the church organist who marches to her own tune, while Terri Cherniack essays the role of the timid Ruth, ultimately shedding more than just her clothes. Jane Spence’s Celia meanwhile, is still young enough that this form of titillation could be considered as merely par for her course, while as Jessie, Barbara Gordon’s take on the retired school teacher proves anything but retiring.
Of course, there has to be a villain in a story like this, and Brigitte Robinson figuratively dons an iron corset to tackle the role of the hyper-efficient Marie, heading up a supporting cast that includes Kyra Harper, Sweeney MacArthur, Kimberly Rampersad and Gordon Tanner.
Written in a straightforward, episodic style with a punchline in every scene, CALENDAR GIRLS gets an adequate, if rather unimaginative, staging from director Marti Maraden — who seems to be more concerned with local accents and with moving her characters around Robert Jones’ church-hall-on-the-moors set than with establishing any real sense of community amongst her players. Particularly in the supporting roles, there is a sense that lives begin when characters hit the stage and end when they leave it.
What’s more, once the fun of shooting the calendar is over — a process that dominates Act I and owes a major debt to Gypsy Rose Lee, it might be added — and the playwright settles into imparting life lessons, it becomes harder and harder to keep things airborn, despite the fun. All of which conspires, ultimately, to make us hugely grateful for actors like Reid, Highet, Gordon and their castmates — a very talented bunch who demonstrate, with huge enthusiasm and good will, that when they decide to take the cake, age is merely the icing on it.
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Local artist John Stefaniuk takes pride in his position
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
TORONTO - File this one under very important life lessons.
During the Toronto run of THE LION KING a decade or so ago, John Stefaniuk, a Toronto-born, Vancouver-trained theatre artist, applied for a position backstage with the Canadian production of Disney’s acclaimed mega-musical. He didn’t get it. Instead, it seems, he got something much better.
Not long after being turned down, he was offered a position with the London production of TLK, where he served as resident director, before seeing the world in Lion King style. And when TLK returns to the stage of the Princess of Wales Theatre tonight, we may not see Stefaniuk as the king of beasts, but no one can contest the fact that he’s become a major power behind his throne. That’s because in his role of associate director for the American national tour of the show, the 43-year-old Stefaniuk has become one of the key figures in determining casting for the show worldwide. Sounds complicated, but Stefaniuk quickly boils things down to sound-bite size.
“It’s about trying to find the very best in whoever you have when you audition them,” he says down the line from Las Vegas as he prepares to head home to Toronto. And when doing a job like that, it helps, he says, that he’s still in love with a show that has taken him all over the world, from Spain to South Africa.
“It’s changed over the years, being able to see it with different companies. At first, I was very panicked because I didn’t want to make the wrong call,” he says of keeping casts full, fresh and on their toes. But for inspiration, he simply looked to visionary director Julie Taymor, who created the show, and the way she deals with people.
“I realized that if she were standing in the room with me right now, she’d try to get the best out of that person,” he says. “Now, I’m very quickly able to see what (potential cast members) have and what they are lacking and whether we can get what we need out of them,” he continues. “This job is all-encompassing. You’re challenged to be able to teach the acting, then you have the puppetry and the African element. You take all that and then you have this incredible spectacle.”
And for that “incredible spectacle,” Stefaniuk credits Taymor, whose genius remains untarnished, he says, despite her the ongoing involvement in the problem-plagued Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. “The thing about Julie Taymor is that she is at the very forefront of creation, always” he says without hesitation. “She is the one who is out on the edge and pushing what live theatre is. I think she’s an artist. And an artist doesn’t turn around and try to please people because she thinks this is what the audience wants to see. You’ll see passion and you’ll see somebody who’s very open to taking risks.”
And speaking of risks, does Stefaniuk hunger for a return to the stage sometime in his future?
“Oh my God! Never,” he says. “I am so much better at telling people what to do than at being able to do it myself.” In addition to that ability, he admits, he’s picked up a lot of knowledge he’d like to use on a show of his own someday. “I do think of that a lot,” he admits. “What’s great about this job is it’s made me brave — (it’s given me) the courage to attempt that.”
Even though he now makes his home in New York with his husband, who currently serves as associate director for Mary Poppins, Stefaniuk’s roots are still very much in Toronto. And not just because of the two brothers he has who call Toronto home. “Toronto is in my heart,” he insists. “No matter where I go, I always say it with pride because there’s a lot of talented people in Toronto.”
Monday, April 18, 2011
Studio 180 to bring new Pulitzer play here
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Bruce Norris’ CLYBOURNE PARK, a satiric riff on A Raisin in the Sun, on Monday was named winner of the prestigious 2011 Pulitzer Prize for drama, chosen from a slate of plays that premièred in 2010.
CLYBOURNE PARK, which began off Broadway in New York as part of Playwrights Horizons, has already had several productions including one in London’s West End, where it earned the Olivier Award for best new play.
Plans for a Toronto production have already been announced by Studio 180 Theatre, which will produce it as part of its 2011-12 season, in a co-production with Canadian Stage.
THEATRE NEWS: Theatre opens door to new Buddies
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Clearly, they are making new friends down at Buddies in Bad Times, even while they stay in touch with a few of their old friends. And in a 2011-12 season announced Monday, artistic director Brendan Healey seems to have figured out a way to showcase the theatre’s connection with both.
The new season begins with Healey’s own take on Jean Genet’s THE MAIDS, translated by Martin Crimp and starring Diane D’Aquila, Ron Kennell and Maria Ricossa.
Once the smoke has cleared from that production, Buddies welcomes a host of new friends, starting with Studio 180 Theatre’s production of Larry Kramer’s seminal work, THE NORMAL HEART, directed by Joel Greenberg, and starring Alex Poch-Goldin, Sarah Orenstein, Mark McGrinder and Mark Crawford.
Modern Times Stage Company’s production of HALLEJ, is next up, written by Soheil Parsa (who also directs) and Peter Farbridge (who joins an extensive cast that also features Stewart Arnott and Steven Bush).
A new year starts Nightwood Theatre’s production of Margaret Atwood’s THE PENELOPIAD, directed by Kelly Thornton, which will be followed, after a break to accommodate the annual Rhubarb Festival, by Native Earth’s production of free as injuns, a retelling of DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, written by Tara Beagan, directed by Ruth Madoc-Jones and featuring James Cade.
Buddies then teams up with Candles are for Burning to present the English Canadian première of Olivier Choinière’s BLISS, translated by Caryl Churchill and directed by Steven McCarthy. Buddies founder Sky Gilbert and his Cabaret Company’s production of DANCING QUEEN, written and directed by Gilbert, follows with LOST LOUNGE, by Split Britches, rounding out the ambitious season.
Passes (eight tickets for $130, four tickets for $85) are currently on sale at Buddies.
Sunday, April 17, 2011
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 3 out of 5
At a time when most Canadians seem to be convinced that we are getting screwed by political parties of every stripe, Sky Gilbert comes along with the notion that what politics, specifically left-wing politics, needs these days is — wait for it — more sex. But then Gilbert — the broodingly flamboyant founder of Buddies In Bad Times Theatre — has always been a bit of a contrarian. Gilbert’s assertions are all wrapped up in his latest play, THE SITUATIONISTS, currently playing on Buddies' mainstage, where it opened last week, a presentation of Gilbert’s Cabaret Company.
Now, for those not steeped in arcane political and social theory, a bit of a history lesson seems to be in order. Under the aegis of French filmmaker and theorist Guy Debord, the Situationist movement was popular in the early 1950s, advocating social change through spectacles specifically engineered to underscore the lies on which our lives within a capitalist society are built. And while the Situationist ethos may not be terribly familiar in today’s world, the involvement of the Situationists in a general strike that crippled France in 1968 is a matter of public record.
Gilbert’s play, however, is set in the present day and takes place in an anonymous apartment rented by Lise (Haley McGee), to be used specifically for the plottings of an intimate Situationist cabal, comprised of Lise and her uptight professor, Jacques, played by Gavin Crawford. Jacques, for his part, sees himself as the guru of the Situationist movement, while Lise apparently sees him as God, which pleases Jacques. Andy Moro, who also designed the far-too-moody-by-half lighting for the show, has created a simple runway set that proves effective, although on the night we attended, the china cabinet seemed determined to undermine Gilbert’s vision.
What starts out as a quiet meeting between Lise and Jacques falls apart however, when Lise reveals her determination to increase their cell with the addition of Evon (Gil Garratt), a brash and sexually predatory political activist whose views are certainly elastic enough to embrace those held by his newfound co-conspirators. But when the political becomes personal — and here Gilbert seems to subscribe to the popular notion that the political should always be personal — this threesome can’t seem to get it together.
Jacques, for his part, insists that any sort of sexual connection is certain to undermine whatever they try to do politically, a notion with which Lise has heretofore had no choice but to agree. But Evon thinks sex should be part and parcel of everything they do and sets about exploiting the sexual tension that exists in every angle of this triangle.
Sadly, this all sounds a lot more interesting than it plays, for as anyone who followed last week’s leaders’ debates can tell you, political discussion rarely makes for compelling theatre. The fact that Crawford performs the whole show in an all but impenetrable and therefore indecipherable French accent is more than slightly problematic too as is the fact that McGee moves as if she’s suddenly found herself encumbered with someone else’s hips just as she was leaving the dressing room. Garratt, for his part, seems to have largely escaped Gilbert’s stilted and hugely mannered directorial vision, charged as he is with the bizarre role of playing the bull in the china cabinet.
It is a bleak, mannered affair, albeit a bleak mannered affair with a purpose, although that purpose cannot ethically be revealed here. Suffice to say that the evening ends on a note that is nothing if not thought-provoking, underscoring some of the hypocrisy of civilization as we know it. But while the destination proves thought-provoking, one can’t help but wish that Gilbert had mapped out a more interesting voyage to take us there.
Friday, April 15, 2011
THEATRE REVIEW: NIGHT
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 4 out of 5
That Ken Gass has got some nerve. Here we are, still trying to shake the chill of winter from our bones, and the venerable but vital artistic director of the Factory Theatre expects us to flock to see a show set in the middle of winter in Pond Inlet, Nunavut — the precise place, one suspects, that polite people reference when they tell us to stick something where the sun don’t shine.
But happily, Gass has not only got some nerve, he’s got some show too, and as a result, even the most winter-weary Torontonian is likely to find something to warm the heart and fire the brain in the show that opened on the Factory mainstage Thursday. It’s called NIGHT, and it is, of course, the centrepiece of Factory’s annual Performance Spring Festival, which continues through April 24.
A production of Human Cargo, NIGHT is written and directed by HC’s artistic director Christopher Morris, and, as stated, it is set in Nunavut in the dead of winter — a time so cold that even the sun leaves town.
It’s a world simply but effectively recreated here by designers Gilliam Gallow (sets and costumes) and Michelle Ramsay (lighting) and while it may be darker than Stephen Harper’s vision of a coalition government, young Piuyuq Auqsaq (played by Tiffany Ayalik) isn’t going to let a little thing like endless night destroy the celebration of her Sweet 16 birthday. In fact, she and her closest friend Gloria (played by Reneltta Arluk), have planned a bit of a night on the town that afternoon in honour of the occasion.
And frankly, they could use a celebration to lighten their lives — and not simply because the sun has gone south for the duration. Piuyuq lost her mother just over a year ago in a tragic and pointless accident and is still mourning while she tries to help her father (Jonathan Fisher) cope with his grief and guilt as well.
Gloria, for her part, has some horrific problems on the home front, too, but not so many that she doesn’t worry about the deterioration in the quality of her friend’s family life. It is that concern, in fact, that prompted Gloria to send an e-mail that has brought anthropologist Daniella Swan (Linnea Swan) to Pond Inlet in the hopes of staging a posthumous family reunion that will end a curse that has been plaguing Piuyuq’s family since her paternal grandfather, for whom she was named, was shipped south in a medical evacuation.
Cultural imperialism, racism, alcoholism, sexual abuse, governmental apathy, suicide — NIGHT certainly has a dark side. And while Morris and his team don’t shrink from it, they also leaven the proceedings with a generous measure of that unique and delightfully subversive humour that marks so much First Nations’ theatre. Satellite radio couldn’t go too far wrong, one suspects, by beaming Pond Inlet’s radio station into homes below the treeline.
And under Morris’ direction, this cast has clearly found its comfort zone, despite performing in English and Inuktitut (with English surtitles). In multiple roles, Fisher certainly proves his versatility and Swan is no slouch either. But the real stars of this show are the two young women. Arluk’s tragic Gloria is a haunting heartbreaking presence, while Ayalik’s Piuyuq fairly crackles with youthful energy and brashness throughout, lighting up Night’s final cri de coeur with enough passion, anger and courage that sees a new day dawning.
While clearly intended for a young audience, there’s enough heart and soul here to make this a NIGHT to remember for audiences of any age. That Ken Gass has got some vision.
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
THEATRE REVIEW: GHOST STORIES
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 2 out of 5
We all recognize that without the willing suspension of disbelief, there can be no theatre. That said, most productions are still willing to earn that suspension, instead of merely asking an audience to surrender disbelief at the door or simply leave it at home altogether. Which is precisely what GHOST STORIES does.
To clarify: For those of you who have somehow been able to avoid the hype — droll little first-person accounts of nights spent in coffins and the like — GHOST STORIES is a little bundle from Britain that has taken up residence at the Panasonic Theatre under the Mirvish imprimatur (in partnership with Lyric Hammersmith and Phil McIntyre Entertainments), having first spent at least 15 minutes in the Maxwell Smart School of Espionage, learning to disguise its English roots, if not its British rave reviews.
And while we’re on the subject of those raves, let’s just say that after attending (enduring?) Tuesday night’s opening performance, we would have thought that memories of a blitz, Margaret Thatcher and the spectre of Camilla as queen would have rendered Brits a little less skittish than this. For, Toronto traffic being what it is, chances are unless you travel in a padded coffin, the trip to the Panasonic is going to offer more thrills and chills than you’ll experience in this entire 80-minute production.
Written by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman (who both team up with Sean Holmes to share a directing credit), GHOST STORIES would seem to be inspired by those spooky stories kids have always spun out to scare themselves silly. But here, they’ve put the cart before the horse and, as a result, ‘silly’ seems to be the voyage here and not the destination.
It starts when you enter the dimly lit theatre, echoing with enough phony creaks and drips and groans that you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve suddenly been swallowed whole by a particularly bilious whale. But no such luck, for you’re soon being lectured by Professor Philip Goodman (Jason Blicker), a self-styled specialist in paranormal sightings, a man who has, it seems, devoted his entire life to debunking things that go bump in the night.
Still, the only fear involved here for far too long is an increasingly creepy feeling that we’re going to be expected to listen to his ramblings for the entire evening — but just as the fight or flight impulse is threatening to kick in, the good professor gets specific, launching into a tableau (semi) vivant that involves a night watchman (played by Jack Langedijk), a spirit, and a room full of dummies. Happily, those dummies are played by out-of-work department store mannequins to avoid giving offence to the audience.
As spooky goes, however, it barely registers on a Richter scale of fright — and as the good professor progresses through the tale of a hapless teenage driver (David Reale) whose car breaks down on a deserted stretch of highway and an oddly distasteful tale of a self-obsessed stock broker (Darrin Baker) and a haunted nursery, it doesn’t get much better.
Or much worse, depending on your point of view. And when things finally start to get creepy, it’s the wrong kind of creepy, more concerned with anti-Semitism, birth defects and bullying disguised as an old-fashioned shaggy-dog story than with anything that might even scare the bejesus out of a flea.
Which means finally that, at least for those who forgot to surrender disbelief at the door, the big mystery is not how they did this, but rather just how this show managed to do so well in London. Was it better over ’ome? Or are we Canadians just so inured to visions of a Harper majority or an Ignatieff-led coalition that nothing frightens us anymore?
GHOST STORIES? Oh, BOOOOOOOO!
Harold Green Jewish Theatre puts down roots
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
After four years wandering Toronto’s theatrical wilderness, Harold Green Jewish Theatre is coming home to the St. Lawrence Centre.
At an event Tuesday announcing the company’s forthcoming 2011-12 season, co-artistic directors David Eisner and Avery Saltzman revealed that their heretofore peripatetic company will put down roots in the Jane Mallet Theatre for their forthcoming season. That season will be launched with a two-show engagement of Mamaloshen (Mother Tongue), an evening of Yiddish music featuring Mandy Patinkin, followed by a run of Yisrael Campbell’s one-man show, titled Circumcise Me.
Next up will be the world première of Hannah Moscovitch’s The Children’s Republic, in a co-production with the Tarragon Theatre, directed by Alisa Palmer and starring Peter Hutt in the role of Dr. Janusz Korczak.
On the heels of his success with Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears, Theodore Bikel returns to HGJTC in Jeff Baron’s Visiting Mr. Green, under the direction of Christopher Newton, before the company closes its season with a new production of Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers, directed by Jim Warren and starring Happy Days’ Marion Ross, Linda Kash and Eisner in his acting debut with the company.
Single tickets will be available Aug. 1 but information and subscriptions, priced from $199 to $396, are available now at 416-366-7723 or at hgjewishtheatre.com.
THEATRE NEWS: CanStage signs McNulty
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Canadian Stage's Matthew Jocelyn is tweaking his previously announced 2011-12 season. On Tuesday, Jocelyn, the company's artistic and general director, announced that Vancouver-based Kevin McNulty has been signed to play Mark Rothco in the CanStage/Vancouver Playhouse/ Citadel Theatre co-production of RED, slated to open at the St. Lawrence Centre in November.
Jocelyn also announced that Andrew Creegan, formerly of the Barenaked Ladies, has been signed to compose original music for the production. In addition, Jocelyn also revealed that the Toronto run of Crystal Pite's THE YOU SHOW has been bumped from the CanStage line-up, to be replaced by Pite's DARK MATTERS, in the same late February/early March time slot.
Monday, April 11, 2011
Well, at least no one will be able to claim they didn’t have time to pack. Karen Kain, artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, announced Monday that her company will be England-bound — in two years’ time.
The NBOC will perform at London’s Sadler’s Wells from April 16-21, 2013. The itinerary will include a mixed program featuring Crystal Pite’s Emergence and James Kudelka’s The Four Seasons (April 16-17) as well as the company’s new production of Alexei Ratmansky’s Romeo And Juliet (April 19-21).
Ratmansky’s new R&J is slated to make its world première in Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre this coming Nov. 16. The NBOC last visited London in 1987.
Sunday, April 10, 2011
THE LAST 15 SECONDS
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 5 out of 5
Rarely does a piece of theatre come along that accomplishes so much.
First off, of course, THE LAST 15 SECONDS represents an hour and more of compelling theatre, exploring as it does the odd parallels in two lives that meet only as they are ending in an act of desperate and futile defiance. But that is, as they say, merely the tip of the iceberg, for along the way, this production from Kitchener-Waterloo’s MT Space, currently playing on the mainstage of Theatre Passe Muraille, also does a pretty good job of putting paid to the notion that Toronto sits at the very centre of Ontario’s theatrical universe — the spot from which all theatrical light flows.
This is a production of which any city could be justifiably proud and, not entirely coincidentally one suspects, a production that even the most rabid critics of taxpayer contributions to the arts would have difficulty marginalizing.
The subject here could be considered controversial in some circles — a fictionalized recounting of a 2005 suicide bombing that took place in Amman, Jordan, in which Syrian-American filmmaker Mustapha Akkad and his daughter were killed at her wedding when an embittered Iranian youth, one Rawad Jassem Mohammad Abed, detonated the explosives he was wearing. Horrific as it was, the carnage could have been far worse had the explosives Abed had fastened to his young wife, who accompanied him, also been detonated.
Directed by Majdi Bou-Matar and co-created by Trevor Copp, Anne-Marie Donovan, Nada Homsi, Gary Kirkham, Pam Patel and Alan K. Sapp, THE LAST 15 SECONDS traces the lives of both men from their youth, even though it begins at their end. As played by Sapp, Akkad’s tale begins when he leaves his native Syria and heads for the U.S.A, where he develops an obsession with filmmaking, using the money he makes from his successful Halloween horror franchise to make films about Islam and Middle Eastern history in an attempt to bridge the gap between the Western and Islamic worlds.
For Abed, (played by Copp) life isn’t nearly so simple. Raised by his mother and his doting grandmother, he first runs afoul of dictator Saddam Hussein, and subsequently the forces that topple him, growing increasingly desperate as his world and his options seem to grow ever smaller.
Meanwhile the three women in the cast each do double duty, Donavan playing both Akkad’s wife and Abed’s moth; Homsi, Akkad’s mother and Abed’s grandmother and the hauntingly beautiful Patel, Akkad’s daughter and Abed’s young wife. Through flashbacks and imagined encounters between the two men, they find the common ground in their lives, both of whom, in an odd way, use violence to achieve their dreams and end up as part of a shared and tragic nightmare instead. There is something oddly touching and infinitely chilling in the fictionalized scene where Akkad directs Abed in his suicide tape that underscores the pain and the passion that has driven both men to their ill-fated meeting.
Sheree Tams and William Chesney have created both set and costumes that serve the story with breathtaking simplicity and efficiency, while Rob Ring’s videos, Jennifer Jimenez’s lighting and Nick Storring’s music — a haunting mix of western opera and middle eastern ululation — make major contributions as well.
But in the end, it is the almost ferocious commitment and the skill these five performers bring to the a project that involves every aspect of theatre and movement, masterfully shaped and channelled by Bou-Mater’s confident and assured direction, that impresses.
That they deplore the violence that ends the lives of their protagonists is beyond doubt, but that they have been unstinting in exploring the vulnerability and pain that shaped it is equally clear. In a world where we are quick to demonize, they have taken the time to humanize instead and thereby have moved us closer to understanding, if only by a single step. And by such small steps, one suspects, great bridges can be built.
Friday, April 8, 2011
THEATRE REVIEW: I THINK I CAN
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
If you missed it in its first incarnation, back in 2007, the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre For Young People is currently offering a second chance to catch up with the captivating cacophony that is I THINK I CAN, a delightful and thought-provoking theatrical collaboration between playwright Florence Gibson and dancer choreographer Shawn Byfield.
Now, right off the top, you may be scratching your head at the notion that it takes a playwright to write a play in which the main language is the language of dance — specifically tap dance, for the record — rather than the spoken word. But, as anyone who has followed Gibson’s career since her impressive debut offering BELLE can tell you, she is often at her best when she’s creating new language simply by bending old into such strange shapes that we hear it in a whole new way. As for I THINK I CAN, it is set in and around a school, which is hardly surprising, one supposes, when one considers that it is aimed squarely at the heads and hearts of audiences aged eight and up.
But this is a school with a difference. For while the students seem to communicate well between themselves and even with their teacher (Melody Johnson, channelling Olive McOyl in the play’s only speaking part), they communicate largely through the medium of tap. Other than that, they’re a pretty normal group of kids — a jock or two, a couple of keeners and a few girly-girls, one of them goth. And then there is affable young Tip (played by Tosh Sutherland), a lovely, loveable and apparently loving kid who walks with an obvious limp — a fact that bothers his classmates not one whit, as they tap their way through life.
But to the surly Biow (David Cox), Tip represents easy prey, and though Tip’s bullying at the hands of the stronger boy clearly rankles them all, Tip and the rest of the gang handle it all with the easy dismissive grace children so often exhibit. But one day, Biow goes too far and Tip fights back, only to be called on the carpet by the teacher who, informed as she is by her own late arrival on the scene and Biow’s acting skill, judges Tip to be the aggressor. Chastised, Tip vows to give his tormentor wide birth, but when Biow turns his attention to young Frufie, a classmate with whom Tip enjoys a special bond, Tip seems to have no choice.
While all this unfolds, excitement is building for the school-wide science fair — a contest which offers up the ne plus ultra in electronic gadgetry as prize — and while Biow seems to have it all sewn up, fate intervenes, offering his classmates (Kyle Brown, Matthew G. Brown, Jamie McRoberts, Tammy Nera and Jennifer Stewart complete the cast) a chance to shine. But kids will be kids — and they appear to blow their chances, redeeming themselves only by learning to work together.
Crisply, even energetically, directed by Conrad Alexandrowicz on an economical but highly serviceable set created by Julia Tribe and enlivened by the video projections of Jacob Niedzwiecki, I THINK I CAN tackles a lot of issues that figure prominently amongst the younger set — everything from bullying and cheating to peer pressure and even the first blossoming of nascent romance. But it does it all with such charm that one suspects its target audience will swallow it all without hesitation, without ever having to be told that this is art and art is good for them.
And that’s not only the best kind of theatre for young audiences, but it should be the only kind.
THEATRE REVIEW: OUR CLASS
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 4 out of 5
The first scenes of Studio 180’s production of OUR CLASS, which opened Thursday on the Berkeley Street Theatre mainstage, are as pivotal as they are tough to stage, involving as they do adult actors portraying children. Not just any children, mind you, but a class of school children in a Polish town called Jedwabne, in the days before the Germans and the Russians turned the country into so much rope in an international tug-of-war.
In a reflection of the town they call home, the 10 children that comprise OUR CLASS are a mixed bag — male and female, bright and not so bright, ambitious and lazy and, finally, Jewish and Polish Catholic. As they learn their lessons and play at their innocent childish games, there is an awareness of the differences between them, but it is overshadowed by the commonality of the schoolyard life they share. Of course, that is all about to change as Jedwabne is invaded first by Stalin’s communists, and then by Hitler’s fascists. The things the classmates have in common are increasingly overshadowed by their differences, with tragic and horrific results.
Like a lot of towns throughout Europe during the Second World War, Jedwabne would be stripped of its Jewish population when Germany occupied it. But unlike most other towns, the gentile portion of the population didn’t wait for the Nazis to destroy their Jewish neighbours. Instead, they tackled their extermination with appalling efficiency.
It’s a grueling story, unflinchingly told, redeemed only slightly by the occasional touches of charity and humanity. Though classmates murdered classmates, others — a pitiful few — were hidden away by their friends, thus escaping the fate that claimed not only their school friends but their mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles as well.
As horrific as it is, the brutal murder of Jedwabne’s Jews is only half the story that playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek and translator Ryan Craig attempt to tell in this, the work’s North American première, produced in association with Canadian Stage. Having dealt unflinchingly with the massacre of the Jewish population in their first act, they move on to examine how the perpetrators coped with life after their massacre. They also examine how the few Jewish survivors — one hidden by a classmate until he could flee the country, another converted to Catholicism and married to one of her classmates — dealt with survival in a world stripped of everything and everyone they had ever believed in, or loved.
Under the direction of Studio 180’s Joel Greenberg, a dedicated 10-member cast — David Beazely, Jonathan Goad, Jessica Greenberg, Ryan Hollyman, Mark McGrinder, Kimwun Perehinec, Alex Poch-Goldin, Dylan Roberts, Michael Rubenfeld and Amy Rutherford — tackles the story with unflinching courage, but uneven skill. In the process, they create a time capsule that is disturbingly true to life. There is also a lovely simplicity to John Thompson’s set and costumes, underscored by Kimberly Purtell’s lighting and Michael Laird’s sound designs, that conspires to serve the story well.
But theatre — great theatre of the kind this aspires to be — should offer more than a riveting reflection of life and death. In that arena, this falls a little short. Had Greenberg and his cast successfully imprinted the innocence of those opening scenes on the collective consciousness of their audience — and effectively evoked that innocence in the final choral scene, thereby closing the dramatic circle of the work — OUR CLASS would have been more than a worthy history lesson. It would have been a cautionary tale for all time. That, one suspects, is what the playwright intended.
Thursday, April 7, 2011
First season announced for Theatre 20
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Theatre 20, Toronto’s newest musical theatre company, has finally announced its first season — a three-show concert series slated for the stage of the Panasonic Theatre.
It begins May 8, with a one-off of THE STORY BEGINS: CELEBRATING SONGS FROM STORY DRIVEN MUSICALS, to be followed on June 20 with a single performance of DRIVEN TO SCORE: CELEBRATING CANADIAN MUSICAL COMPOSERS. A single performance of MUSICALS THAT FLY, AMELIA IN CONCERT completes the season when it takes to the Panasonic stage Oct. 3.
Tickets for the entire series, priced from $177 to $207, go on sale April 7, while single tickets, priced from $59 to $69, go on sale April 11 through Ticketking (416-872-1212) or in person at the Panasonic box office.
Friday, April 1, 2011
THEATRE NEWS: Da Kink re-styled for re-launch
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Seems there's going to be a new twist or two in DA KINK IN MY HAIR this summer. Playwright Trey Anthony has announced she'll bring her award-winning play DA KINK IN MY HAIR back to life on the stage of Harbourfront's Enwave Theatre, from Aug.11 to 21.
But there'll be a few new twists, not the least of which will be a new score, from an as-yet-un-named Broadway composer. While casting is yet to be announced, Anthony promises a live-streamed open casting call for two of the play's characters, culminating in a public vote on the top five hopefuls, as well as a new monologue written from the point of view of a Caucasian woman.
Early bird seats, priced at $35, will be on offer from April 7 to 15. For further info, visit www.treyanthonystudios.com