Tuesday, July 26, 2011
TORONTO - The Canadian Opera Company has announced that singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright will be a featured performer at its annual fundraiser, Operanation 8: A Muse Ball, slated to take place Oct. 21 at the Four Seasons Centre.
Wainwright, whose first opera, Prima Donna, played in Toronto as part of 2010’s Luminato Festival, will headline a roster of entertainers slated to be announced at a later date.
Tickets for the Ball are priced at $150, with tickets for the pre-party VIP dinner (which also includes admission to the Ball) priced at $500, and will be available Sept. 1 at 416-306-2309. All proceeds will benefit the COC Ensemble Studio.
Friday, July 22, 2011
BLUE MAN GROUP
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
TORONTO - For Kermit the Frog — remember him? — it was apparently never easy being green. But with all due respect to our amphibian friends, it seems that being blue isn’t exactly a cakewalk either. That said, on a good-time scale, cobalt would seem to trump chartreuse on many fronts, not the least of which is the fact that in a pinch, a blue man could be called upon to pull a green frog puppet’s strings.
If you doubt it, swing on by the Princess of Wales, where Blue Man Group is currently encamped for a limited run, featuring a trio of the hardest working — and certainly the funniest — indigo-hued wing-nuts you’re likely to ever meet outside of a February in Yellowknife.
They are not, of course, the same three Blue Men who took up a limited residency in the then-newly revamped Panasonic Theatre several years back — but they are apparently cut from the same cloth and certainly part of the same dye lot, thanks to the assured direction of Marcus Miller and Blue Man Group (it’s a quality control thing, one suspects). Much of their shtick from that earlier visit is unchanged, of course — silly, sensational flights of fancy that demonstrate time after time that while these clowns have a firm grasp on the world of science and technology, they only have enough mathematical proficiency to reduce absolutely everything to its lowest common denominator in the blinking of an eye.
But while the three boys in Blue on duty on the night currently under discussion (Kalen Allmandinger, Kirk Massey, Patrick Newton and Bhurin Sead apparently alternate in the roles), are charged with reprising much of the material that made up the company’s original Toronto engagement, they’ve also added just enough new material that anyone who has ever been a 10-year-old boy (or ever loved one) should consider a return engagement. All this — and loud music too!
Throw in the fact that in the six years since whatever spaceship it is these delightful aliens use for their commute touched down on these shores, stage technology has given them a whole new toy box that allows them to make a bigger splash as they explore being little boys. And yes, there is a lot of splashing involved — so much so that patrons seated in the first three rows are given complimentary rain ponchos to protect their summer best from assorted assaults from everything from paint to Cap’n Crunch. They might even come in handy for a new form of Twinkie defense, it seems and a prove suitable protection against what we can only hope is a whole lot of banana puree.
Difficult as it may be to believe, Blue Man Group is not a show that will delight absolutely everybody — but if you (or someone you love) has ever laughed so hard at the Three Stooges that you’ve shot milk out your nose — or taken a certain fiendish delight in the obvious discomfort of others — chances are, this show is going to be right up your alley. It may not be easy being blue or even all that respectable, one suspects — but for a certain segment of the population (and I suspect you already know who you are) — it’s a noble profession nonetheless.
Thursday, July 21, 2011
MUSICAL THEATRE REVIEW: NEXT TO NORMAL
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 4 out of 5
TORONTO - In musical theatre, prevailing wisdom has long held that songs should come at the points where the emotions become too much for mere words. But those emotions have most often involved things like love, hope, joy, and on occasion, hearts broken cleanly in two — in short, all the things that one finds in a so-called normal life. In Next to Normal, however, composer Tom Kitt and lyricist/playwright Brian Yorkey unleash a whole different palette of emotions: anger, madness, despair and hearts that are being torn apart piece by piece, instead of snapping cleanly in two. Now, after trekking through Middle America on the heels of its Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway run, Next to Normal has pulled into Toronto for its final stop, taking up residence under the Dancap banner at the Four Seasons Centre, through July 30.
It is, first and foremost, the story of Diana Goodman, played with towering conviction by Tony Award-winner Alice Ripley, and her struggle with bi-polar disorder — a condition that has plagued her for years. But in a world where no woman is an island, the shifting tides of her mental illness wash over her family in wave after wave of hope and despair. Alice may have the disease, but clearly her loving husband Dan, played by Asa Somers, her spirited son Gabe (Curt Hansen) and her troubled daughter Natalie (Emma Hunton) suffer from it as well — each in ways far different than her but no less painful, one suspects. Even Natalie's stoner boyfriend, played with loopy charm by Preston Sadleir, finds himself sucked into the vortex of Diana's illness.
It's not a new struggle for most of them, as Yorkey's book makes clear, but as the play begins, Diana's tenuous grip on reality — apparently achieved largely through massive chemical intervention — is starting to slip, despite the best efforts of the latest in what has no doubt been a long string of doctors, all played presumably by the gifted Jeremy Kushnier. And as she descends into yet another round of torment, she takes her family and her audience with her thanks to a startling plot twist that clearly underlines much of the pain that lurks at the very heart of this troubled family.
Often over-charged musically and, at its best, minimally orchestrated, Next to Normal relies less on its score than most musicals and more heavily on the quality and commitment its cast brings to each of their performances. And it is here that director Michael Greif scores his major triumph. Led and, on occasion, driven by the power of Ripley's bravura performance, everyone in the six-person cast gives nothing less than their best, leaping into the dysfunction and finding a way to make it function in ways that are often achingly sad and heartbreakingly beautiful. As ordinary people trapped in extraordinary circumstances, Somers and Hunton turn in powerful and deeply affecting performances, while Hansen's layered and strangely seductive turn proves both touching and chilling, leaving it to Sadleir and Kushnier to anchor the show in some sort of reality.
Needless to say, Next to Normal is not going to be every musical theatre lover's cup of tea. Saddled with a story that defies conventional happy endings and driven by a score that, at least for this viewer, didn't exactly linger, it will be for many, a tough slog. But for those who like their theatre served up with the grit and grime of life still clinging to its roots, it's certain to be a winner.
McAnuff's Superstar extends run at StratFest
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
STRATFORD - Eight more performances have been added to the run of the Stratford Festival's acclaimed production of Jesus Christ Superstar, before it decamps for La Jolla in November.
The additional performances will take place between Nov. 1 and 6, at the Avon Theatre, with tickets on sale Monday at 9 a.m. at stratfordshakespearefestival.com or by calling 1-800-567-1600.
FEATURE THEATRE INTERVIEW:
Jeremy Kushnier returns to T.O. in Next To Normal
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
TORONTO - Like many of Canada's talented actors, Jeremy Kushnier discovered that, career-wise, all roads seemed to lead to New York. So after stints in Toronto productions of Tommy and Rent, that's precisely where he headed. And in the decade or so intervening, he's discovered that while all roads may indeed lead to the Big Apple, a lot of them run through Toronto.
First, he was back in Aida, followed by a return engagement in the touring production of Jersey Boys — which proved so successful it morphed into a resident production, with Kushnier staying on in the role of the troubled Tommy De Vito. He left Jersey Boys and Toronto two years ago to return to New York with new wife Jenny Lee Stern in time for the birth of their first child. Two daughters later, he's Toronto-bound once more, heading for the Four Seasons Centre where he's double cast as Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine in the touring production of the Tony Award-winning Next to Normal, opening Wednesday under Dancap's imprimatur.
"I've never worked so much in Toronto as I have since I moved to New York," Kushnier concedes with a laugh, somewhere on the road back to Toronto. It's been a busy two years. Not only is he now proud papa to two daughters ("We're two and done," he confides. "We actually wanted them close together so they would have a friend to turn to"), but Kushnier's been busy professionally as well. He spent last summer, for instance, in Virginia, working on a new production of Chess.
"I played one of the bad boys," he says. "It was a dream come true. I just stopped and thought: 'That's a huge check-off on my bucket list.' " He also found time to return to his hometown Winnipeg to direct Rent for Rainbow Stage and in the process, discovered a new passion in directing.
"That's definitely a direction I want to see myself going in," he admits, adding that in theatre, he's discovered that "My favourite part is the creation process." And then there is Next to Normal — a musical about mental illness that's won a Pulitzer Prize to go along with a brace of Tonys. But Kushnier insists that if it were simply a musical about mental illness, it wouldn't have enjoyed the success it has.
"When our writers started out with this piece," he explains, "It was all about mental illness, and I think when they got (director) Michael Greif on board, they said: "This isn't a piece about mental illness. It's a piece about family,' and that's how it's become widely seen. Whether it is broken or not broken, we all come from some sort of family. We weren't magicked into life. It's not about curing anything. It's about how we get to the end."
Speaking of ends, when the curtain falls on Next to Normal in Toronto, it's also the end of the tour. And while Kushnier has no idea what's next, his first priority will be reuniting with Stern (who's currently playing in Xanadu in Maine) and his daughters. "I'm going straight to Maine and spending a week there with them, then we'll drive to New York," he says.
Work-wise, however, it's anybody's guess. Although he'd love to direct more, he insists he isn't finished with acting. And while he doesn't have much time for his music, he's got a project on the back burner, he says. "I absolutely would love to do TV and film, for sure," he adds. "At this point, I'm considering anything. I've got a lot of mouths to feed right now."
Not that he's complaining. "I have an amazing family and I've had the chance to do amazing things," he reflects. "This business is hard, but no one got into theatre or acting because it was easy." For Kushnier, what's next, it seems, is normal.
Railway Children extended one week;
Zhivago wins seven Helpmann noms in Oz
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
TORONTO - When they announced a Toronto production of The Railway Children, patterned after the British production, back in January, producers indicated a hope it would run beyond its preliminary closing date of Aug. 7. Well, they got their wish.
In a release Wednesday, it was announced the production, which has been running in Toronto's Roundhouse Theatre since May 3, will close Aug. 14, its one-week extension making it — for those interested in arcane theatrical trivia — the longest-running play in a theatre seating more than 300 in Toronto history.
For tickets to the remaining shows, visit mirvish.com.
TORONTO - Hot on the heels of the Stratford Festival's announcement that Des McAnuff's production of Jesus Christ Superstar is to be resurrected on the stage of the La Jolla Playhouse comes word that McAnuff's Australian production of Doctor Zhivago has been nominated for seven Helpmann Awards, the Australian equivalent of New York's Tony Awards and London's Olivier Awards.
In addition to a best direction nod for McAnuff, who also serves as the artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, the work, which premièred in Sydney last winter, was also nominated for best musical, choreography, actor and supporting actor and actress. The winners will be named at ceremonies in the Sydney Opera House on Aug. 1.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
THEATRE REVIEW: WISHFUL DRINKING
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 3 out of 5
TORONTO - Carrie Fisher opens her performances of Wishful Drinking — the cleverly titled one-woman show she brought to the Royal Alexandra last week — by sprinkling glitter on her audience, after she's liberally sprinkled it on herself. Particularly around her eyes. Which would no doubt be a lovely effect were she sharing an intimate candlelight dinner with a few thousand of her most intimate friends.
But, of course, she's not. Instead, she's on stage, cocooned in a faux living room set created by designer David Korins and brightly lit by designer Greg Brunton, all of which conspires, on occasion, to make the daughter of screen legend Debbie Reynolds and one-time crooner Eddie Fisher look like she just might be shooting death-rays from her eyes. And while it is, admittedly, an interesting look for an aging Princess Leia, it is somewhat out of tune with the smurf-balls Fisher fires off during the show as though they were steel-tipped spears.
All of which is to say that anyone tuning into Fisher's two-hour romp down memory lane hoping for dirt is going to have to content themselves with dust-bunnies. Her late father once swallowed both his miniature hearing aids, thinking they were pills. Her famous mother once suggested Fisher carry a child for Reynold's husband of the hour. George Lucas decreed she couldn't wear underwear in Star Wars because "there is no underwear in space."
And that's about as dishy as it gets, even though Fisher launches her show with an anecdote about waking up with a gay Republican dead in her bed — a story which frankly sounds a whole lot more interesting than it plays. In fact, even after she opens the fourth wall to take questions on the experience from the floor, it proves to be a dead-end beginning.
When it comes to dishing on her famous parents and their infamous love affairs and business disasters, however, she's relatively (you should pardon the expression) forthcoming, particularly in a segment she labels Hollywood Inbreeding 101. And then, of course, there is her own storied past — her marriage to Paul Simon, her stint in Star Wars, her much discussed and ongoing battles with bipolar disorder (which even now requires bouts of electro-convulsive therapy), and even her struggle with her weight and alcoholism.
On one level, under the assured direction of Stephen Eich (reinforcing the original Broadway direction of Tony Taccone), she seems to hold nothing back. She's bright. She's witty. She's personable. And in the end, she's a bit of a closed shop, too, far more willing to discuss those that inhabit the world around her it seems than what it is like to inhabit the world inside her. There is something wonderfully brave, even open-hearted, about her willingness to make a joke out of her health issues, but one senses something deeper lurking under her often glib autobiographical reportage.
Wishful Drinking is not, by any stretch, a tell-all. Nor is it even, as Fisher herself once labelled her father's autobiography in a conversation with my colleague Jim Slotek, a Libel Most. It's just a leisurely stroll down memory lane with what might be the ultimate, to borrow Fisher's own word, sur-thrivor — a woman who can apparently shoot death-rays from her eyes.
Monday, July 18, 2011
THE KREUTZER SONATA
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
TORONTO -- If your tastes are purely musical, you’ll no doubt recognize the Kreutzer Sonata as a composition by Beethoven — a work also known as Violin Sonata No. 9, written as its second title implies for the violin and for an accompanying piano. If your tastes run to things more literary, then you’ll recognize the Kreutzer Sonata as an obscure novella authored by the Russian literary lion, Leo Tolstoy.
But if your tastes run more to theatre on a local level, chances are you’ll recognize it as a stage adaptation of Tolstoy’s work, created, directed and performed by Ted Dykstra, initially as one half of a double bill from The Art of Time Ensemble, performed in tandem with James Kudelka’s ballet, 15 Heterosexual Duets, set to the Beethoven composition.
Now, Dykstra is reprising his work, sans balletic accompaniment, presenting his portion of the Art of Time program under the aegis of Soulpepper as part of the summer season at the Young Centre, where the Kreutzer Sonata opened last week.
Unlike the music that inspired it, Dykstra’s take on the tale is a work for one character — a Russian aristocrat named Uri, who spends almost the entire hour of the show slouched in an oversized wing chair that shares the stage with a carpet and a side-table often intensely lit by set and costume designer Lorenzo Savoini.
Uri, it seems, clearly subscribes to the strange religious and sexual theories that led Tolstoy to embrace chastity as the only sure-fire ticket to immortality. Uri, however, has married, and — after his wife Sonja has given birth to a couple of children — he’s withdrawn quite happily from the marriage bed. Sonja, for her part, seems to thrive under his regime of chastity as well, and everything is going swimmingly until Nikolai, a childhood acquaintance of Uri’s, re-enters his life, having returned from Paris for a visit.
Not surprisingly, the puritanical Uri has given up the music he studied in his youth, but Nikolai has continued to pursue it, and is now quite an accomplished pianist. Of course, he and Sonja, who dabbles in violin, are soon playing duets — a pastime that fills the sexually austere Uri with rage and jealousy. And when they team up to perform the Kreutzer Sonata they strike a dangerous chord or two.
As Uri, Dykstra gives a compelling performance, drawing us slowly and carefully into madness and making it, on occasion, appear almost reasonable, despite mood swings as unpredictable and fierce as August weather. Although perhaps not what Tolstoy intended, Dykstra creates a cautionary tale on the abuse of chastity.
But for all the considerable muscle of his performance, his adaptation remains largely a radio play — a stage work that would play as well for a blindfolded audience as a sighted one, one suspects. The Kreutzer Sonata started out as a work for two artists — and perhaps old Beethoven knew best.
THEATRE NEWS: Toronto Fringe has banner year;
Stratford's JCS headed for B'way?
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
TORONTO - It was a banner year for the Toronto Fringe Festival, which finished its summer run Sunday. When the smoke cleared, officials were able to announce a 7% increase in tickets sales over last year's total, with 57,282 tickets sold for the 143 shows featured in the summer theatre extravaganza. That translates into a total box office take of $409,879, all of which was, as usual, returned to participating artists. That brings the total return to participating artists over the history of the Festival, which began in 1989, to $5.5 million.
In many ways, it proved a fitting conclusion to a Festival that began on a high note, with former Toronto mayor David Miller pledging a $10,000 matching donation to the Fringe's new Creation Lab, which will help small theatre artists bring their visions to the stage on a year round basis.
STRATFORD - Depending on who you're talking to, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's acclaimed production of Jesus Christ Superstar may or may not be headed for Broadway next season. But either way, its 40 days in the desert are assured, give or take a day or two.
Stratford officials announced Monday that the production that is the hit of the current season at the Festival will be moving to La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego where it is slated to open Nov. 18 and run through Dec. 31.
Directed by Stratford's artistic director Des McAnuff, who served in a similar capacity in La Jolla for a total of 17 years, the production features Paul Nolan in the title role, with Chilina Kennedy as Mary Magdalene, Josh Young as Judas Iscariot, Tony-winner Brent Carver as Pontius Pilate, Bruce Dow as Herod and Mike Nadajewski as Peter.
And while palm leaves may be a trifle over the top, La Jolla audiences are expected to welcome the production with open arms, according to Christopher Ashley, the artistic director at the Playhouse. "We have been looking for an opportunity to bring Des back home to the Playhouse, and this project was perfect in every way," he said. "I can't wait to share this critically acclaimed production of this classic rock musical with our audiences."
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 4 out of 5
STRATFORD - It is, in so very many ways, a Night to remember. But then, William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night should never be just any night. It should always be a memorable evening. To that end, Stratford Festival artistic director Des McAnuff marshalls some impressive talent in bringing Shakespeare's comic tale to the stage of the Festival Theatre, where it opened Friday.
There is, for instance, Debra Hanson's massive set piece that turns the whole story into a trip through a shattered looking-glass. Not only is it a device that transforms Duke Orsino's Illyria into a land where anything goes, from bustles to Fender guitars to hanging fridges that just drop in for a scene, it also strikes a workable compromise between Hanson's regard for this theatre's unique thrust stage and McAnuff's oft-demonstrated determination to turn it into a conventional proscenium. While patrons seated at the extremes of the theatre will miss much of the theatrical effect of Hanson's set, they will appreciate her design nonetheless in that it forces McAnuff to stage almost everything in view of his full audience.
And much of it shouldn't be missed. It is, of course, the story of fraternal twins, Viola (played by Suzy Jane Hunt, standing in for Andrea Runge) and Sebastian (Trent Pardy), a pair of castaways washed up on Illyria's shores. Making her way to the court of the art-loving Orsino (Mike Shara), Viola disguises herself as the youth Cesario and enters the Duke's service. Soon, (s)he is serving as cupid, carrying protestations of the Duke's undying affection to the Countess Olivia (Sara Topham).
But while Olivia will not break mourning for her recently deceased brother to attend to the Duke's affection, she has no such scruples when it comes to Cesario, much to Viola's horror, Cesario is suddenly being pursued by Olivia. Meanwhile, below stairs, Olivia's drunken kinsmen, Sir Toby Belch (Brian Dennehy), and his carousing companion, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Stephen Ouimette) are locked in a bitter feud with Olivia's hidebound steward, Malvolio (Tom Rooney) and with the conivance of the servant Maria (Cara Ricketts), set about to hand the preening Malvolio his comeuppance.
It's all very silly stuff, of course, but it serves to pass the time until Sebastian puts in an appearance, accompanied by Michael Blake's loyal sea captain, and sets everything to rights by falling in love with Olivia, leaving Viola free to emerge from Cesario's cocoon and claim her Duke.
And through it all wanders Feste, perhaps Shakespeare's most beloved fool, played by Ben Carlson as some sort of wise old man of rock 'n' roll, dispensing wisdom and, as frontman for an ever-shifting band of latter-day minstrels, the simple, soft-rock tunes composed by McAnuff and Michael Roth.
In the main, McAnuff makes the most of his talented cast, most of whom serve both the play and McAnuff's vision to the best of their ability. Topham lends a delightfully ditzy aura to her Olivia, while as Orsino, Shara is appropriately dishy, justifying the passion he commands in Hunt's polished Cesario, a strong, believable match for Pardy's Sebastion. As demonstrated in his previous visit to the Fest, Dennehy still has a way to go before he can be called a great Shakespearian, but happily, he's made a bit of progress, assisted here by open-hearted performances from Ouimette, Ricketts and Juan Chioran.
For his part, Rooney brings an heretofore unexplored malevolence to Malvolio, which while it does little to diminish the comedy (wait until you see his smile), seems to be at odds with the spirit of the play itself.
Still, all that's missing here, finally, is some sense of the unbridled joy that would help the entire company shake off the stately, almost funereal clip McAnuff has imposed on the proceedings and achieve the sense of celebration that should mark any completely worthwhile Twelfth Night revels.
Sunday, July 17, 2011
THEATRE REVIEW: TITUS ANDRONICUS
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 4 out of 5
STRATFORD - It can be a brilliant treatise on the excesses of revenge — or the Elizabethan equivalent of a slasher film. But no matter how it is played, William Shakespeare’s blood-drenched Titus Andronicus is one killer of a show.
As for the Stratford Festival production that opened Thursday on the stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre, it aspires, at least in its early scenes, to be one of the former, before surrendering to its bloodlust and moving into the latter category — with a vengeance, one might say. But regardless of its intellectual aspirations (or its charnel-house achievements), this production, under the aegis of director Darko Tresnjak, moves at a pace that is just shy of relentless.
It begins, of course, with the return to Rome of the victorious general, Titus Andronicus, played here by John Vickery. As much to put paid to a quarrel between the two sons of the late emperor as to celebrate his latest victory, Andronicus is offered the imperial crown, which he declines in favour of the emperor’s eldest son Saturninus (Sean Arbuckle), to whom the general also offers his only daughter, Lavinia (Amanda Lisman).
Lavinia has other ideas, however. And when she forsakes Saturninus in favour of his brother Bassianus (Skye Brandon), the newly crowned emperor chooses the barbarian queen Tamora (Claire Lautier) as his empress — despite the fact that she has been brought to Rome a captive by the victorious Andronicus, who just sacrificed her eldest son in celebration of her defeat. Brought to unexpected power, the new queen, aided by her psychopathic lover Aaron the Moor (Dion Johnstone) and her two surviving, ill-fated and hugely spoiled sons (Brendan Murray and Bruce Godfree), sets out to eke bloody revenge.
Serving as his own set designer and working with Linda Cho (costumes), Itai Erdal (lighting) and Lindsay Jones (sound), Tresnjak creates a world unmistakably Roman, but more than a little make-believe as well, littered with grotesque statuary and lurid bowers.
And in the opening scenes of the play, he opts for a relatively conventional staging, contenting himself with an highly melodramatic overlay that serves to mark the storyline through the carnage in much the same way as floor lights in an airplane’s aisle. But as the body count rises — as Lavinia’s husband is murdered and her brother is executed for the crime, as Lavinia is raped and horribly mutilated, and as Andronicus sacrifices limbs in an attempt to save his family — it is the world of the play rather than Andronicus himself that seems to go mad.
That said, there is some interesting, on occasion even compelling, work here. While Vickery certainly has the voice for the title role, he ultimately lacks the military bearing the part demands — something that an increasingly impressive Paul Fauteux, cast as his last surviving son, Lucius, offers in spades. Johnstone’s Aaron, meanwhile, is superb, offering a glimpse of where the play could go in more seasoned hands.
For his part, Arbuckle tackles the villainous Saturninus with an over-the-top relish that serves to help drive the director’s vision of the play and anchor Lautier’s Tamora, trapped in costumes more appropriate to a queen of the supermodels than of the Goths. As Titus’ stay-at-home brother Marcus, David Ferry gives a centred and enthusiastic turn, while Lisman’s grasp on Lavinia seems to grow with each subsequent outrage.
However, Tresnjak allows his highly graphic production to get too caught up in the how of the outrages the play documents, consigning the more compelling why to a secondary role. In consequence, it all turns into more of a good-natured blood-bath — think Halloween: The Roman Years — than a thoughtful treatise on the excesses of revenge. For a certain audience, it’s a good time, although for many, not necessarily good Shakespeare.
Saturday, July 16, 2011
THEATRE NEWS: Stratford to honour Christopher Plummer
STRATFORD - For more seasons that most remember, Christopher Plummer has given the Stratford Festival some memorable moments — and in return the Festival is preparing to honour him with the first ever Stratford Shakespeare Festival Lifetime Achievement Award.
Announced Thursday by Festival officials, the award will be presented to Plummer by fellow Canadian thespian and Stratford alumnus Gordon Pinsent at a gala banquet, produced by filmmaker Barry Avrich and Festival board member Beth Kronfeld, to be held Sept. 26 at Toronto's Four Seasons Hotel.
Individual tickets for the gala are available at $1,000, while tables will range in price from $15,000 to $50,000. For further information, call 1-800-561-1233, ext 2402.
THEATRE REVIEW: SHAKESPEARE'S WILL
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
STRATFORD - Just in case you missed the opportunity to overlook Shakespeare’s Will the first time around, the Stratford Festival is giving you another chance to miss it, reviving it on the same Studio stage on which it played in 2007. And having caught up with it in its Wednesday afternoon opening, I can heartily recommend you give it a pass one more time.
It’s not that there is anything wrong with Seana McKenna’s performance here. Indeed, under the direction of Miles Potter, she sinks her teeth into the character of Shakespeare’s widow, Anne Hathaway, with the kind of skill and enthusiasm we’ve come to expect from one of Stratford’s leading ladies, tackling playwright Vern Thiessen’s script with full commitment as she stalks over Peter Hartwell’s mercifully redesigned set. But frankly, the script simply doesn’t justify the attack, any more than it did four summers ago.
In creating the play, Thiessen takes the thimbleful of knowledge history gives us about the woman Shakespeare married and spins it into a whole cloth of utter fabrication, all of which is more than allowable in a theatrical world of make-believe, even while it proves to be pedestrian and rather dull. But in that world of make believe, he ultimately fails to make us believe in any meaningful way that he has captured the essence of Shakespeare’s marriage or the heart of the woman to whom the Bard left only his “second-best bed.”
Sure, it’s a play “about Shakespeare” in its way, but finally, reviving this production doesn’t say as much about programming genius as it does about theme-park gimmickry.
THE LITTLE YEARS
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating 4.5 out of 5
STRATFORD - In a world increasingly determined to place a pricetag and a value on everything, any discussion that involves both the arts and science is, quite frankly, most likely to involve budgets as well.
Which is all the more reason to appreciate the genius of playwright John Mighton, who discusses them both to telling effect without once bringing up dollars and cents in a re-imagined and re-written treatment of The Little Years that opened in the Stratford Festival’s Studio Theatre Wednesday.
More than 15 years after it premièred in its original incarnation at Theatre Passe Muraille, The Little Years emerges as a thought-provoking and often deeply moving look at the life of one woman who learns her own value and the value of her ‘art’ only after years of suffering.
We meet Kate as a young woman (played by Bethany Jillard), full of curiosity and odd angles. She is besotted in the main with the science of time — a pre-occupation her mother (Chick Reid), a child of a different era, finds most un-feminine. Besides, Kate’s brother, whom we never meet, is the familial star, the apple not only of his mother’s eye, but his late father’s as well. Kate is reduced to committing all her thoughts to diaries and journals.
Time moves on and Kate (now played by Irene Poole) is still at odds with the world, forced by her gender into a conventional career path and chafing under its restrictions. Grace, her new sister-in-law, played by Yanna McIntosh, tries to help her, but Kate retreats more and more into her own world, leaving behind a reality that affords her no sense of self.
While her brother enjoys international success as a poet, Kate is treated for depression — and Grace struggles to find her way too, reduced to the dual role of mother and wife. She looks to Roger (Evan Buliung), an aspiring artist, for comfort.
In episodic fashion, The Little Years ends almost a lifetime away from its starting point, as Kate joins the celebrations marking the high school graduation of her niece Tanya (also played by Jillard). Having finally found a niche in which she can survive, Kate is, in her own eyes and in the eyes of most of the people around her, a failure and a non-entity. But while she may not have enjoyed the success her brother achieved or even the moderate fame that marked Roger’s career, she has, she discovers, touched one person far more deeply than either the painter or the poet.
Sparely and economically directed by Chris Abraham, who uses Julie Fox’s simple set design and the powerful lighting of Kimberly Purtell to maximum effect, The Little Years is a superb showcase for this ensemble, fleshed out by AJ Bridel, Victor Ertmanis and Gavin Tessler in supporting roles. That said, its real strength can be found in the work of its three principals.
In the face of her double casting, Jillard creates two distinct characters clearly joined by a familial bond, while as Grace, McIntosh turns in a nuanced performance, creating a character that not only matures but deepens before our very eyes, coming close to over-balancing the show. But finally, Poole, as the mature Kate, simply refuses to surrender to it, resolutely keeping her audience at arm’s length, even while she draws us into the tragedy that consumes Kate’s life.
The real triumph here is Mighton’s, however, proving yet again it is possible to combine intellect and feeling in a single script. In a world where every artist seems to be called upon to justify his existence, Mighton proves that even if its creation is accidental, the value of art can be huge.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 5 out of 5
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE - If roller coasters weren’t almost as much fun the second time around as they are the first, there would be a lot of amusement parks turned into parking lots or condos. And the Shaw Festival almost certainly would not have revived its brief but hugely memorable production of Ferenc Molnar’s The President, adroitly adapted to the Shaw stage by Morwyn Brebner and masterfully directed by Blair Williams for another lunchtime run.
But they have — and anyone worried it won’t be nearly as much fun the second time around should put their misgivings aside, climb aboard and strap themselves in at Royal George Theatre where the work re-opened this weekend.
There have, of course, been changes in the production, not the least of which is the more or less seamless recasting of Julie Martell in the pivotal role of Lydia, the amorous sexpot originally created by Chilina Kennedy. But ultimately, one suspects they could recast every single role here, as long as they maintained Lorne Kennedy in the title role of Norrison, the high-powered corporate exec who discovers his world is falling apart and he has only one brief hour to save it.
Played out in real time in Norrison’s penthouse office overlooking the Manhattan skyline (Cameron Porteous’ set still impresses), Kennedy uses that hour to maximum comedic effect, creating a self-absorbed executive in complete control of the situation.
He is ably assisted by an extensive cast that includes the aforementioned Martell as his wayward ward, Jeff Meadows as the affable doofus she marries and Peter Millard as his long-suffering assistant, as well as by talents like Laurie Paton, William Vickers, Andrew Bunker and Michael Ball, all determined to prove there really is no such thing as a small part. And they succeed so admirably that The President shouldn’t be missed the second time around.
ATELIER'S DON GIOVANNI heading to the U.S.
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
TORONTO - Toronto hasn’t even had a chance to see Opera Atelier’s new production of Don Giovanni, but it’s already been booked for a run in Columbus, Ohio, after it finishes its previously announced stint at the Elgin Theatre, Oct. 29-Nov. 5.
The American engagement was announced Tuesday, by OA’s co-artistic director Marshall Pynkoski, who will also direct the work. While the Columbus engagement will feature the Toronto cast as well as the artists of the Atelier Ballet, they will be performing with the Columbus Symphony and local singers in the chorus.
As part of Tuesday’s announcement, it was also revealed that the production has been underwritten by a $200,000 gift from Michael A. Wekerle, the largest gift in the company’s 25-year history.
Monday, July 11, 2011
THE ADMIRABLE CRICHTON
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 4 out of 5
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE - It's not hard to see The Admirable Crichton — which opened last weekend at Shaw's Festival Theatre — as a sort of sibling to Peter Pan. And not just because both were authored by the admirable J.M. Barrie.
Consider: Both are firmly anchored in the jolly olde reality of the Britain of Barrie's day, albeit a reality largely devoid of the grit and grime, poverty and pathos that marked the lives of the lower classes in Victorian England. Then, having established the characters in both plays within the context of the British upper classes, Barrie whisks us away to alternate realities where things are neither as safe nor as predictable as they might be in the world in which we began these theatrical voyages.
But where Peter Pan leads Barrie's audiences into a world of childish adventure, Crichton puts us in a world more adult, although only slightly less fanciful than Neverland. Crichton starts out in the home of the affable Earl of Loam (David Schurmann), a well-known, somewhat impractical humanitarian with very strange (for his day) attitudes about universal equality.
But he is a man who lives by his principles, insisting his three daughters (Lady Agatha played by Cherissa Richards, Lady Catherine played by Moya O'Connell and Lady Mary played by Nicole Underhay) join him at monthly teas with his household staff — functions where everyone pretends to be equal. It's a practice that appalls the family's butler, the Crichton of title (played with saintly patience by Steven Sutcliffe), a man who believes there is a place for everyone and everyone should stay in their place.
But if Crichton thinks the Earl is turning the world upside down with monthly doses of egalitarianism and tea, he ain't, as they say, seen nothing yet. Suddenly, the butler, the Earl, the daughters, a cousin played by Kyle Blair and an errant and affable vicar played by Martin Happer find themselves marooned on a deserted island, where a new social order quickly emerges.
It is fanciful, silly stuff, albeit silly stuff with an edge, for Barrie takes aim at the hidebound British class system of his day and scores a direct, if now dated, hit in the process. That class system is much less powerful today and that has done a fair bit to dampen the power of the play's social commentary — a fact that hasn't seem to have disturbed director Morris Panych and his creative teams (sets by Ken MacDonald, costumes by Charlotte Dean and lighting by Alan Brodie) at all.
In the face of the play's dated social commentary, they simply ramp up the whimsy of the piece, injecting an anthropomorphic chorus of forest creatures who combine Barrie's written stage directions with a songlist of '20s music and the choreography of Valerie Moore in such a way as to make one think A.A. Milne might have served as a script consultant.
The conceit creates a brittle enough surface that the extensive cast can skate over the tale with impressive skill without ruffling too many feathers, but ultimately it fails to disguise the fact that the world it reflects and chastises has ceased to exist.
And while the work fairly shimmers with the high creative gloss Panych brings to all his work, one can't help but suspect a director as concerned with performance as concept might have helped the hugely talented Sutcliffe find and develop the darker notes the second act demands of him. And finally, such a director would never, ever, stage a curtain call that, while delightful as all get out, ultimately walks all over an ending that should leave its audience in a reflective mood.
Sunday, July 10, 2011
THEATRE REVIEW: ON THE ROCKS
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 3 out of 5
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — Even with playwright Michael Healey and director Joe Ziegler on hand to channel the spirits and supply the twist, the Shaw Festival’s production of Bernard Shaw’s political polemic On The Rocks is likely to leave you briefly and periodically shaken, but rarely stirred.
Eight decades on, Shaw’s 1933 screed against the body politic, wherein he throws a grenade into the British system of democracy, is better known today for a preface that flew in the face of the great man’s long-held humanitarian principles in favour of the draconian measures favoured by Stalin and his ilk. But On The Rocks’ failure to thrive is only partially due to its outrageous preface for, in the end, it is simply not a very good play.
And while Healey and Ziegler do their best to revitalize the work in the Shaw Festival porduction that opened Friday on the Court House stage — the former with a new adaptation, the latter with his impressive and oft-demonstrated talent for adroitly guiding casts through even Shaw’s thorniest texts — the sheer weight of Shaw’s outrage and outrageousness, combined with his unruly imagination, eventually undoes them both.
For his part, Healey does some major re-arranging, opening the play — still set in the cabinet room of 10 Downing Street circa 1933 beautifully evoked by designer Christina Poddubiuk — with the action already going full tilt. The prime minister, Sir Arthur Chavender (Peter Krantz) has just delivered a socialist manifesto aimed at solving the nation’s deepening unemployment problem and his various advisors are gathering to deliver often hysterical reaction, much to the consternation of his long-suffering secretary, played with comedic relish by Mary Haney.
While the chief of police (Thom Marriott) and the head of navy (Norman Browning) eventually see the merit (and the chance for personal gain) in their boss’s new ideas, Sir Dexter Rightside (Steven Sutcliffe), the PM’s right-wing partner in a governing coalition, has already achieved something very much akin to apoplexy at the top of the show — and his condition deepens as more people show up, all supporting the prime minister’s new political direction.
The populace at large, however, is so threatened by the change, despite being both the inspiration and the beneficiary of Chavender’s vision, that a riot ensues. Before it gets fully underway, however, Healey and Ziegler take us in flashback to what Shaw intended as the beginning of the play, set two weeks in the past. Only then do we learn, in often lingering detail, how a vacuous but good hearted-man has fallen under the spell of a mystical Welsh political philosopher (Claire Jullien) who leads him into dangerous reflection.
While Healey amuses himself and his audience by playing fast and loose with gender (Sir Jafina Pandranath, for instance, is transformed into Dame Adhira Pandranath and essayed by a too-self-conciously youthful Cherissa Richards) and deftly inserting his own caustic political observations on everything from coalitions and prorogation to the 24-hour news cycle, Ziegler does some inpressive work with an extensive cast that also includes David Schurmann, Anthony Bekenn, Martin Happer, Guy Bannerman (apparently channeling Shaw himself) and a host of others. Under his aegis, here’s delicious work here from Krantz, Sutcliffe, Haney and several of the usual suspects.
Together, they manage to find a fair bit of humour in Shaw’s anti-government screed — as well as some timeless political truths, many of them subtly underlined by Healey’s subversive wit. What they don’t find in the end is much of a play, because sadly, Shaw didn’t write one. Instead, with a heavy-handedness surprising even for him, all he created was a personal manfiesto for several voices, worked into an often impenetrable monologue capable of withstanding all but the most heroic interventions.
Simply stated, if On The Rocks is going to work here or anywhere else, what it needs is a whole lot more Healey and Ziegler and a whole lot less Shaw.
THE GLASS MENAGERIE
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
TORONTO - In all the world, it seems there are few things as durable as memory, fewer still more fragile than dreams. And the wonder is that years ago, a young playwright named Tennessee (or Thomas Lanier, as he was christened) Williams entwined the two with magical effect in a play that would launch his career and change the face of modern theatre. It's called The Glass Menagerie — and after an hiatus of a few years, Toronto audiences have a chance to see it yet again in a flawed, but still compelling, Soulpepper production that opened this week at the Young Centre.
In bringing it to the stage, director Ted Dykstra respects all the major conventions of the work — a memory play in which a melancholy narrator recalls his troubled youth, sharing a squalid St. Louis flat with his domineering mother and an older sister who is even more crippled by her shyness than by whatever defect that's left her with a pronounced limp. But while Dykstra respects the bones of the work, he fleshes it out in ways that are often surprising.
The narrator, Tom Wingfield, for instance, is often seen as Williams himself, for far more reason than the fact that the two share a given name — and as a result, he's often played by sensitive young men. Here, however, he's played by Stuart Hughes, who combines the character's poetic aspirations with the cockiness and swagger of a mature stevedore. As his mother Amanda, Nancy Palk forsakes the smothering Blanche Dubois-lite madness that infuses so many Amandas and gives us, instead, a mother driven to desperation by the weight of enforced poverty and the abiding love she bears her children. And as Laura, the troubled young woman who sits at the very centre of the tale, Dykstra forsakes the vision of Laura as a character as physically frail as the glass ornaments which give the play its title, and instead opts for a more physically vigorous presence in the person of Gemma James-Smith, creating a Laura who's tragically trapped inside her own mind. In fact, the only character who doesn't surprise here is Jeff Lillico, cast as the Gentleman Caller — a young man who inadvertently upsets the delicate menagerie that the Wingfield family has become. Although the pace is often off in his scenes with Laura, Lillico is nonetheless deeply if not surprisingly affecting here, having made such characters his stock in trade.
Often beautifully lit by Lorenzo Savoini, the production takes place on an often problematic set designed by Patrick Clark — a set which the production seems on the verge of overwhelming at times, when it should threaten to overwhelm the characters. But it is still fertile ground where Williams' characters come to life and bask in the warm glow of memory.
Hughes is often touchingly vulnerable as a tough guy trying to hide his heart, while James-Smith transforms Laura into a touchingly vulnerable child-woman frozen in glass. Palk has wonderful moments, particularly in the pivotal "jonquil scene," in which she transforms herself into a beautiful young woman before our eyes. In fact, it all works quite well - until it doesn't. Ultimately, in Dykstra's vision, Hughes is asked to play a character who, in inhabiting a memory of his youth, remains a man in his middle years, when memory, in fact, preserves everyone at his youthful best. And while there is merit in Palk's take on Amanda, the character proves too fragile to stand up to the rigours of a climax that reveals not only her selfishness but her desperation and madness as well. For all its strengths, Dykstra's production gives us a Menagerie where the dreams prove more durable than the memories.
Friday, July 8, 2011
MUSICAL CONCERT REVIEW:
DONNY & MARIE LIVE!
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 4 out of 5
After more than four decades in various limelights, their particular brand of sibling rivalry lite is by now burned indelibly into the public consciousness. So, it is small wonder that excitement was high among their fans as the clock ticked down toward Wednesday night's opening of DONNY & MARIE LIVE!, in an exclusive limited engagement at the Four Season Centre -- the focal point of Dancap's summer season.
It is, it turns out -- and no surprise here -- a vehicle for singing siblings and sometime sensations Donny and Marie Osmond and, in a world where nostalgia remains one of the most powerful narcotics, a lot of people are clamouring to climb aboard and lose themselves in the smoke.
And small wonder, for not only are Donny and Marie a little bit country and a little bit rock 'n' roll, they are also just a little bit naughty and a whole lot of nice as they romp through a selection of their greatest hits, collective and individual. With smiles big enough to re-tile Liberace's grandest grand, they've still got it -- whatever it might be. And while time has not passed them by, it is fair, nonetheless, to say that it is content to sit on them more gently than it does the rest of us mere mortals. In the 30 years since they were staples of Friday night television, they've aged, it seems, one year for every two that have elapsed.
If their faces are still familiar, the songs are doubly so. Paper Roses, Puppy Love and a host of hits from their younger years share pride of place with newer, occasionally edgier works such as Crazy Horses, Soldier of Love and Morning Side of the Mountain.
Slickly staged by Richard Jay Alexander, with musical direction by Jerry Williams, this is an extravaganza worthy of a Vegas stage, which is, not surprisingly, where it originated -- on the stage of the Flamingo Las Vegas, in fact, where it will return at the end of its two-week Toronto run.
With eight musicians and eight dancers, choreographed by Jaymz Tuaileva to showcase two of Dancing With The Stars best-known alums, without ever upstaging them, it's a high-stepping affair perfect for high-rollers-for-a-night.
But D&ML! is more than merely an evening of song and dance -- and in the process, at least for those who haven't drunk too deeply at the Osmond well, it's also somewhat less. For rather than taking us on a simple stroll down memory lane, this show quickly becomes a motorcade down memory's super highway, complete with three video screens that offer a more or less constant retrospective of the Osmonds' decades in the limelight, at least when they aren't offering us close-ups of the way they look tonight.
It's almost as if they feel that much of their fan base wouldn't recognize them in the flesh without video prompting. Add to that some occasionally wrong-headed programming -- such as Andrew Lloyd Webber's operatic Pie Jesu, sung by Marie but so incredibly overproduced that one suspects it would sound the same if Donny sang it -- and it all ends up overwhelming rather than merely entertaining. Particularly for the uninitiated (few of whom admittedly might be drawn to this show), it's not so much a taste of nostalgia as an overdose.
Donny and Marie, of course, are no strangers to Vegas, and their relentless wholesomeness notwithstanding, they might heed the injunction that what happens in Vegas should stay in Vegas -- and then postulate that it might apply as much to its shows as its sins.
NB: In a touch of serendipity, DONNY AND MARIE LIVE! previewed in Toronto 17 years to the day after Marie opened at the Hummingbird Centre in a touring production of The Sound of Music. And the world, indeed, goes 'round.
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
MUSICAL THEATRE CONCERT:
HUGH JACKMAN AT THE POW
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Rating: 4 out of 5
He took Broadway by storm in a little show called The Boy From Oz -- and now, Hugh Jackman is stealing hearts in Toronto as The Boy From Awesome.
On stage at the Princess of Wales Theatre, where he opened Tuesday in Hugh Jackman In Concert, the man known to millions of movie fans as Wolverine certainly proves he's got more up his sleeves than a set of deadly and impressive scythes. In fact, as he has proved so conclusively in his Tony Award-winning turn in The aforementioned Boy from Oz and in several subsequent turns in everything from the Oscars to the Tony Awards, he's one of most talented, charming and (according to People Magazine circa 2008, and who are we to disagree?) dashingly sexy song-and-dance men on the planet.
He is, in fact, so talented and so good looking that he'd be awfully easy to hate if it weren't for the easy charm with which he invests everything he does -- a charm so potent, it seems, that he can transform an ordinary Toronto theatre audience into his devoted best friends in just over 100 minutes. Mind you, he doesn't do it alone. Backed by a tight 18-piece orchestra (under music director Patrick Vaccariello) and two lovely and talented backup singers, not to mention a brace of talent from his Australian homeland, Jackman is nothing if not generous in sharing the spotlight trained on him by lighting designer Ken Billington.
But Jackman also recognizes the fact that in this particular musical theatre banquet, he is the main course. And he dishes it out with open-hearted generosity, whether he's reprising his West End performance as Oklahoma!'s Curly, which is how he begins this show, or camping it up with something wonderfully akin to gay abandon as Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz, featured later in the show. In between, he opens windows into his personal life with open-hearted confidence -- performing The Way You Look Tonight as a heartfelt tribute to his wife, Deborra-Lee Furness, and presiding. proud papa-style, over his son Oscar's stage debut on the business end of a didgeridoo, in a moving tribute to his Australian homeland and its Aboriginal peoples.
And through it all it's Jackman at his best, fleshing out the story of his life and just generally charming his audience as he riffs on photos from his childhood and relives his career from its very beginnings in a school production of The Music Man through to the present day. Of course, he hits with disarming candour not only on his success as an action-adventure hero, but on other high points as well, including a touching little anecdote involving his father and a performance at Carnegie Hall.
And while the proceedings are sometimes contrived -- the man 'plucked' from the audience on opening night looked awfully familiar to anyone who has ever dealt with the Mirvish media relations department, one suspects -- it is never, ever hokey or patronizing. Instead, at every turn, Jackman seems to make it abundantly clear that in this moment -- whether he's riffing on the golden days of the movie musical, or feeling his way through a deeply memorable rendition of Carousel's Soliloquy, or reprising lesser-known Allen songs such as Tenterfield Saddler or Once Before I Go -- there is nowhere else he would rather be. And no one else for whom he would rather be doing it.
In the face of such open-hearted generosity, there's probably not a single person in his audience who doesn't know exactly how he feels. He's not so much a Wolverine in sheep's clothing as a simple, aw-shucks lady killer in tails.
THEATRE NEWS: Bedford pulls out of Stratford
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
Brian Bedford, who was to have directed and starred in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's forthcoming production of The Misanthrope, has been forced to withdraw from the project, citing medical reasons.
Bedford's withdrawal was announced yesterday by the Festival's artistic director, Des McAnuff. "Brian's condition is treatable, and it is expected that he will make a full recovery," McAnuff said, adding that he anticipates Bedford will return to the Festival in future seasons.
Bedford, who has just finished a Tony-nominated run on Broadway in a Stratford-born production of The Importance Of Being Earnest, will be replaced as director by David Grindley and in the role of Oronte, by Peter Hutt.
The Misanthrope begins previews July 31 and opens officially on Aug. 12.
Monday, July 4, 2011
Interview: Arthurs the face behind Fringe Festival; a Fest guide
If Festivals wore faces, the Toronto Fringe Theatre Festival would be well-served by the face sported by Gideon Arthurs -- a bright, friendly, open face that lights up like an electric welcome mat whenever he sits down long enough to chat about whatever happens to be on his mind.
And these days, with his fourth Fringe Festival just about to launch, Arthurs is likely to be chatting about the many faces of the fest for which he serves so passionately as executive director. And as the conversation progresses, it becomes obvious that in many ways, the face the Toronto Fringe has been wearing over the past few years -- bold, innovative and, yes, welcoming -- has indeed been Arthurs'.
It has been under his watch, for instance, that audiences for the annual summer festival have continued to grow -- 79,000 last year, a number out of all proportion to a meager marketing budget that seems to get tighter and tighter every year. But it's also thanks to Arthurs' efforts that the Fringe these days is far more than merely a summer festival -- as successful in its Next Stage (a 10-day winterfest that, as its title implies, concentrates on Fringe shows deemed worthy of a more serious run) as it is in its July version, which kicks off a 12-day run July 6.
"The question was: Is there a life for Fringe shows outside of the Festival -- and the answer was, 'yes', " Arthurs says proudly, pointing with pride to the fact that, of 32 shows presented in the Next Stage Festival over three years, 12 have had subsequent remounts. He's also pretty proud of the newly undertaken Fringe Creation Lab, which, in addition to housing the Fringe offices year round, also offers an affordable, sometimes even subsidized working home for "anyone with a need to express themselves creatively."
Then there's 10x10x10 -- the youth initiative he helped put together a few years back which will once again see 1,000 young people attend Fringe shows absolutely free -- and the much-anticipated first-ever Visual Fringe, slated to run every night of the Fringe in Honest Ed's Alleyway. And the complex deal with the Mirvishes and the Randolph Academy that saw the relocation of the Fringe Club to the parking lot of Honest Ed's.
But while Arthurs may have transformed the face of the Fringe, what's important to him is its heart. And that heart is clearly the artists that make up the Fringe and the audience that comes to see it. "It's an explosion of creativity by the most diverse group of artists I've ever seen gathered in one place," he says, his wonder undiminished by years of hard work. "I think the Fringe talks to so many people who love the form of the kind of theatre we make and they can't find it any place else."
And while Arthurs continues to put the best possible face on the Fringe, he knows that his job, as much as he loves it, can't go on forever. "When I took over, I had a five-year plan and I had that done in two years," he says in a voice devoid of both pride and false modesty, adding while he has no immediate plans to move on, he doesn't see himself staying on long enough to celebrate a 10th anniversary.
But wherever the future takes him, he thinks it will look pretty bright -- not just for him but for the Fringe he loves and theatre in general. "I think we're doing a lot better than we think we're doing," he laughs. "There are so many people who want to be a part of theatre -- so what's the problem?" And that is the face of optimism.
A guide to finding the best of the fest:
When it comes to striking Fringe gold, there really is no treasure map — despite the avalanche of advice (expert and otherwise) that appears every year and everywhere. In the end, trying to predict which of the 145 Fringe shows featured in this year’s edition (kicking off Wednesday) is going to hit big is like trying to predict where lightning is going to strike. Still, most seasoned Fringers will tell you that if all you want to do is have a good time — which believe it or not is possible without knocking yourself out in pursuit of the next Drowsy Chaperone (a task not dissimilar to trying to identify the Sunday’s lottery winner on Friday night) — there are two ways to do it.
The first is to follow the people — for in the end, the magic of theatre flows from the people involved. And that starts with the audience. So while you’re lining up to buy your Fringe tickets, talk to the people around you. Ask them what they’ve seen that has impressed, and then listen to their answers. That is where you’ll learn whether, in a shared search for an impressive cup of theatrical tea, you’re all drinking from the same pot.
Then look at the people involved in the show. For instance, when a playwright such as Linda Griffiths shows up at the Fringe (Brother Andre’s Heart in the Tarragon Extra Space), attention should be paid. Or when a hotter-than-spit actor such as Ins Choi writes a play that wins the Fringe New Play Contest (Kim’s Convenience at the Bathurst Street Theatre), it might be worth a look-see. Here are a few others that you might want to keep an eye on, because of the people involved:
The Love Octagon, at Theatre Passe Muraille, written by Ron Pederson and Chris Craddock, who was, you might recall, a major part of BASH’d.
Mary’s Wedding, at the Factory Theatre, written by Stephen Massicotte, who also wrote The Clockmaker.
War of the Clowns, at the Miles Nadal JCC, directed by Sue Miner and featuring an extensive cast that includes Hume Baugh.
And finally, Awake at the Walmer Baptist Church, a work that in addition to having people talking also has Andrew Craig serving as choral director.
But in all this, you’ve got to learn to trust your instincts as well, for in years of Fringing, most of the shows I remember best struck out of the blue — such as a memorable little number called Dale Beaner and the Turtle Boy we stumbled across last summer, written and performed by Devon Hyland and Connor Thompson, two hugely talented then-unknowns with a gift for spinning fantasy into gold. Which leads us to the second way to have fun at the Fringe — and that’s the easy part.
In the same way you can’t win the lottery without a ticket, you simply can’t strike gold at the Fringe without going to the Fringe. So go already. And once you’re there, take in a show. If you’re lucky, it will be wonderful. If you’re not so lucky, well, it only cost you $10 and you’ll have some good advice to dispense in the line-up for tickets to the next show you want to see.
For complete Fringe listings, visit fringetoronto.com or pick up a free catalogue.