Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Passe Muraille takes theatre to the streets

31 JAN 2012

TORONTO - While “found art” is a concept that has long been popular amongst certain arbiters of taste and style, Toronto is about to get a taste of found theatre too, it seems, in a new season announced by Theatre Passe Muraille’s artistic director Andy McKim.

McKim’s Beyond the Walls season launches in mid-September with a community street festival, to be held at the corner of Ryerson and Wolseley — and as it moves through a series of works for stage, radio and the Internet, it will continue to be informed by its community.

Among McKim’s plans are works, some of them of an interactive nature, that will examine the world of Toronto taxis, life on the 501 streetcar, and life on Queen St. West itself, among a host of other topics. In addition, TPM will focus on honing new work and in taking that work to the city at large, employing guerilla theatre artists to stage works around town.

For further information, visit passemuraille.on.ca.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

ShawFest suffers loss at box office

27 JAN 2012

There was a lot of glitter in the Shaw Festival’s 50th anniversary season last summer, but in the end, the 2011 season proved golden, everywhere but at the box office.

Despite an acclaimed production of My Fair Lady, which set an attendance record for the summer Festival, and shows like Topdog/Underdog and When The Rain Stops Falling, both of which were critically well received as well as box office hits, the Festival finished the year with a deficit of $1.5 million on revenues of $28.3 million. While that represents an increase in revenues of almost $700,000 over last year and reflects a 4% rise in ticket revenue and a 12% increase in fundraising, their success still stopped short of their financial goals.

In announcing the loss at the Festival’s 2011 annual meeting Friday in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Executive Director Colleen Blake cited overly aggressive sales and fundraising targets in the season’s budget as the problem and indicated that, with the full support of the Festival’s board, management has already made strategic operating decisions to address the deficit, including an internal restructuring and the introduction of plans to expand fundraising.

While this marks the second consecutive year the Festival has posted a deficit, the Shaw Festival Endowment Foundation manages investments valued at almost $19 million and artistic director Jackie Maxwell vowed to continue her efforts to keep the Festival “relevant, connected and an active leader in Canadian and international theatre today.”

Friday, January 27, 2012


QMI Agency
27 JAN 2012
R: 3/5

Pictured: Thomas Hauff, Arsinée Khanjian

While we all know that war — even a just war — is pure hell, we are less certain on whether those who make war are the sinners who have been consigned there or the devils who run the place.

In his modern day revisiting of SophoclesTrachiniae, British playwright Martin Crimp echoes the Greek master's suggestion that those who make war are, in fact, a strange sort of amalgam of both, whether the war in question is conducted on an international level between political enemies or one waged on a more intimate, domestic front, between a husband and wife. His 2004 play, titled CRUEL AND TENDER, opened at the Bluma Appel Thursday as a production of Canadian Stage.

Where Sophocles concentrated his focus on the heroic Hercules, and his wars with the nation of Euboea and with his wife Deianeira, Crimp opts for a more modern view, setting his war somewhere in Africa, where The General (played by Daniel Kash) has gone to root out terrorism by becoming a terrorist in his own right. Meanwhile, his wife Amelia (played by Arsinée Khanjian), with no kindling from her husband, has grown weary of keeping the home fires burning, and sends their son, James (Jeff Lillico) off to the front to do a bit of paternal recognizance. James has no sooner departed, however, than she receives a strange shipment from The General.

Mixed in with the more conventional swag that comprises the spoils of modern war is the lovely young Laela (Abena Malika) — a simple refugee who, with her brother, was rescued from the carnage by her husband, Amelia is assured. But the loving wife becomes suspicious and with her suspicions confirmed, she resorts to dark arts to secure her husband's affections — with tragic results for all.

Directed by Atom Egoyan, the work is ostensibly set in a safe house in which Amelia is held, presumably to protect her from the her husband's bad press while he wages his ongoing war on terror — a locale set designer Debra Hanson, (in collaboration with assistant Michael Gianfrancesco) imbues with all the intimacy of an operating theatre, its cavernous expanses lit by the too-often flickering lighting of Michael Walton.

And while Nigel Shawn Williams, Thomas Hauff, Cara Ricketts, Brenda Robins, André Sills and Sarah Wilson all make strong contributions in supporting roles, they simply can't cut through what proves to be CRUEL AND TENDER's major flaw. For, while it initially proves easy to embrace Egoyan's hugely operatic take on Crimp's polemic, it finally only serves to underline that his leading lady can't carry this particular tune.

Seemingly fascinated with a newly-discovered gift of wrist and finger articulation, Khanjian follows her over-active digits around the stage, more concerned with diction than with such minor considerations as the emotional arc of her character. Where Crimp's script asks that we witness Amelia's descent from complacent security to paralyzing insecurity, Khanjian refuses to share the ride, oblivious, it seems, to the fact that it is what her audience is feeling and not what she feels that will drive the show.

Kash, for his part, is riveting when he finally appears, although he seems to be in mighty fine shape for the shape he is supposedly in, turning in a hugely athletic performance as a dying man. As the couple's son, Lillico too is superbly assured. But, finally, Crimp's play and Egoyan's production, which runs through Feb. 18, proves to be a lot more cruel than tender, leaving the troubling impression that war isn't so much hell as Bedlam. 

THEATRE NEWS: Kim's Convenience
re-opens in May

27 JAN 2012

For the convenience of anyone who couldn't get tickets to the current run of Soulpepper's much-heralded production of Kim's Convenience, the show will be paying a return visit to the Young Centre May 17 to June 9.

The extension of Soulpepper's season-opener written by Ins Choi and directed by Weyni Mengesha, was announced Thursday by artistic director Albert Schultz. Tickets for the additional performances are currently on sale at 416-866-8666.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


QMI Agency
25 JAN 2012
R: 4.5/5

Geoffrey, Penny Plain

TORONTO - For all of mankind’s accomplishments, it is pure hubris to assume that the end of the world and the end of mankind will occur simultaneously. And if you’re still in enough of a snit over David Suzuki’s Santa musings that you refuse to take his word for it, you might want to lend an ear to Ronnie Burkett.

Or more specifically, to Ronnie Burkett’s marionettes, for as anyone who has been following the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes for the past quarter century will tell you, Burkett’s creations may often be off-the-wall, but when it comes to telling universal truths, they are rarely off the mark. And the way they tell it in PENNY PLAIN, a remarkable new show that opened a Toronto run on the Factory Theatre mainstage Tuesday, the end of mankind and the attendant end of civilization might be just the tonic the world needs — sort of a toxin cleanse for planets, if you will.

Penny Plain of title is a dear old blind lady who, despite her disability, runs a boarding house in an unnamed Canadian city — a city that like the rest of the world is threatened by the apocalyptic happenings reported, news-reel fashion, at the outset of the show. In their wake, we meet Penny, sharing biscuits with her faithful companion Geoffrey, a dog whose duties have, over the years, expanded considerably from your average guide dog. But in the face of a looming apocalypse, Geoffrey hungers for a chance to spread his wings in the broader world and explore his human side.

His departure launches a search for a new dog for Ms. Plain, and after a few unsuccessful-but-very-funny auditions, that position is filled by a young girl, orphaned when the rest of her family beats the clock in a round of murder/suicides. But where everyone around them fears the end of the world, Penny and her new companion embrace its rebirth, despite the madness that surrounds them.

And that’s a lot of madness: a serial killer, driven to distraction by overheard cell-phone conversations, a pair of American survivalists who can’t seem to make up their mind between rapture here ’n’ now and rapture in the hereafter, a profane old woman with an unhealthy obsession with bodily functions, a depressed but still world-famous puppeteer and a tragic woman who doesn’t want to face death with a biological clock ticking like a time bomb.

For those familiar with Burkett’s work, it will come as no surprise to learn that the show is beautifully designed and executed, with Burkett receiving flawless assists from Kevin Humphrey’s exquisite lighting and John Alcorn’s deeply affecting music and sound design. What may surprise however is the limited role Burkett himself plays in the show, refusing in the main to mix and mingle with his creations and instead concerning himself with their animation.

They might also be surprised at the hidden depth here, for while “dark and apocalyptic” is certainly familiar turf for this artist, he uses his puppets this time out to go deeper into the human psyche than is his wont, underscoring the fact that when it becomes a dog-eat-dog world, anthropomorphism might prove to be a two-way street. Mind you, this is still Ronnie Burkett, full of irreverent humour and more inclined to go over the top than Nicholas Cage in a prison break movie, whenever he gets the chance, finally demonstrating his full contempt for editors in this show. But its also a new Ronnie Burkett, stepping out of the limelight on occasion and offering a pensive, pretty PENNY for your thoughts. 


25 JAN 2012
R: 5/5

Pictured: Arlene Duncan, Michael Levinson

TORONTO - It could, one supposes, be the theatrical debate of the decade, if not the century -- Is CAROLINE, OR CHANGE the perfect musical for people who really hate musicals? Or is it, in fact, the hottest ticket going for people who absolutely adore the medium?

But save such discussions for later, because finally, the important thing now is for people from both camps (and everybody in between, I suspect) to get down to the Berkeley Street Theatre to catch the beautifully staged version of the Tony Kushner/Jeanine Tesori collaboration that opened Monday, a co-production of Acting Up Stage and Obsidian Theatre Companies.

As musicals go, CAROLINE, OR CHANGE is admittedly a strange beast -- a slice-of-life affair set in 1963 Louisiana , a story where very little happens between the story's two protagonists, while a lot happens to the world around them.

The Caroline of title is Caroline Thibodeaux (played by Arlene Duncan), the long-serving black laundress and sometimes-maid in the Gellman household, where young Noah Gellman (Michael Levinson) still mourns the death of his mother. So too does his father (Cameron MacDuffee), for that matter, even though he is trying to incorporate a new wife (Deborah Hay) into the troubled household to serve as stepmother to his distant son.

Less-than-enthralled with his new family, young Noah initially sees the woman who rules his basement laundry room as something akin to an all-seeing goddess, but trouble flares when the boy's well-meaning but beleaguered stepmother tries to teach him to empty the change from his pockets before he puts his clothes in the laundry. It's a small thing, but in a world of the Vietnam War, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the rise of Martin Luther King, little things can and do get blown out of all proportion as that world teeters on the cusp of revolution.

But it is also a world of small joys and minor triumphs, of happiness and sorrow -- a world populated by a singing washing machine (Londa Larmond) and a steamy clothes dryer (Sterling Jarvis), a world where the radio comes to life in the impressive forms of Jewelle Blackman, Alana Hibbert and Neema Bickersteth (the latter of whom also hangs around in the evening hours as a haunting moon).

It's an extensive cast, and together, under the assured musical direction of Reza Jacobs, they tackle a songbook that overflows with everything from jazz to blues to gospel to klezmer, without missing a beat. Meanwhile, director Robert McQueen keeps an assured but unobtrusive hand on the storyline, incorporating stylish choreography from Tim French, and drawing beautifully centred performances from his entire cast.

In the title role, Duncan is a revelation, a living, breathing monument to the power of human dignity, perfectly balanced by Levinson's beautifully and hugely disciplined performance, blessedly as long on humanity as it is short on cute. That humanity is echoed by the youthful Derrick Roberts and Kaya Joubert Johnson, cast as Caroline's sons, while, as their big sister, Sabryn Rock provides even more balance with a powerful demonstration of her considerable talent.

Working on a multi-layered set created by Michael Gianfrancesco and lit by Kimberly Purtell -- both of whom do the show and themselves proud, as does costume designer Alex Amini -- McQueen creates a memorable, thought-provoking production that sidesteps musical theatre cliches as adroitly as the writer and the composer did in its creation. So, in the end, it is unimportant whether you love musicals or hate them --if you're one of those who like theatre that risks much and wins big, CAROLINE, OR CHANGE is a must-see before it closes Feb. 12.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Ronnie Burkett returns to town with Penny Plain

24 JAN 2012

At 54, Ronnie Burkett finds himself at an awkward age -- and quite frankly, he's enjoying it. Sitting in his bright and airy West Toronto studio -- a storefront, just downstairs from the home he shares with musician John Alcorn and their two dogs -- Burkett discusses the joys, and the vagaries, of aging with something akin to good humour.

"I'm not young enough to be the new kid or the saucy bad boy," he says, his raucous laughter indicating he remembers well being both. "And I'm too young to be revered and iconic." That said, it seems, nonetheless, that Burkett is right where he wants to be. For openers, he is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his company -- The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes -- with Penny Plain, a new show that's already drawn rave reviews in Vancouver and Edmonton in advance of its Toronto opening at the Factory Theatre Tuesday.

Even for Burkett, who's been known to tackle thorny subjects like Nazis, AIDS, homophobia, and a host of other tough topics, this is a dark one, set as it is at the end of the world and starring a blind old lady named Penny Plain. "It is what it is," Burkett says, with an enigmatic smile. "The premise is that it is the last three days for civilization and there is no 11th hour reprieve. It's dark, but it's really funny. Everything we're seeing is beautiful and it's not hopeless. The world would survive and regenerate if we just get out to the way."

And speaking of getting out of the way, there's an element of that in Penny Plain too, although it is Burkett himself who is getting out of the way of his celebrated marionettes. It's a direct result, he says, of his work in Billy Twinkle: Requiem to a Golden Boy, the loosely autobiographical and largely acclaimed work that preceded Penny Plain on Burkett's dance card. It cut close to the bone, he admits.

"The thing that saved me from having a therapy session up there is that I've never told people what's real up there and what's bullshit. There are performers," he concedes, "who go out there and tell their true stories, but they are only really telling you one half of their story and the truth lies somewhere in the middle."

But Burkett came face to face with some major truths during Billy Twinkle -- some, like winning the Siminovitch Prize for stage design, were for the good, others, like the death of his adoptive father, who died during the building of the show, and of his adoptive mother, who died during the run, a little less so. "The one thing that Billy left me feeling was I felt really prone and I really questioned being that visible," he recalls. "I think I'd forgotten the magic of puppets doing the work and just getting out of the way."

So, even though he wasn't sure he could do it, he set out to make a show that kept the focus squarely on his marionettes, and, as a result: " Eighty-five percent of this show, you're watching the puppets," he reports with quiet pride. "It's been thrilling," he adds, with a sense of rediscovery. "I didn't fall in love with puppets to be in the light. Puppetry, for me, was limitless."

There's a bit of irony there, for while puppetry has made Burkett an international sensation in the past 25 years, it hasn't done much for his reputation as a well-rounded performer, which is, after all, what led him into show business, as a kid from Medicine Hat, Alta.

Does he ever dream of deserting his celebrated coterie of marionettes to build a character the way other actors do? "Constantly," he says with a philosophic shrug, acknowledging the fact that he's seen as a puppeteer, not a performer. "You'd need a theatre full of directors who realize that I've been acting all these years. It's the same with design..."

Indeed, Burkett was deeply touched to be honoured in the field of design by the Siminovitch jury that finally awarded him that prestigious prize after several nominations. "I'm one of the few who could be nominated in every category," he says simply. "Not that I'm complaining," he adds with a laugh. "I do know my place -- at this age." Rarely has an awkward age ever seemed so downright, well, comfortable.

Prince of Broadway
pulls out of T.O.;
Strat vet returns to Fest in 2012

24 JAN 2012

Turns out that a musical about what happened in New York is going to stay in New York — at least for the time being. Producers for the new production of Prince Of Broadway — a musical retrospective of the career of the legendary Hal Prince — announced Monday that Dancap's scheduled run of the show, at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre this summer, has now been cancelled. Prince of Broadway will instead open directly on Broadway in November.

In announcing the change in plans, producer Aubrey Dan, president of Dancap, said: "The scale of the show has grown so considerably that the costs of a pre-Broadway try-out no longer make financial sense."

As for Prince himself, who will be intimately involved in the show with co-director Susan Stroman, he's not writing Toronto off entirely. Prince was quoted in Monday's announcement, saying "Hopefully, Torontonians will visit us in New York and, if things turn out as well as we wish, we'll visit them subsequently."


On other fronts, the Stratford Festival announced Monday that actor C. David Johnson, currently appearing on Broadway in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Musical is poised to return to the Stratford stage this summer, cast in major roles in 42nd Street (opposite his one-time 'Street Legal' castmate, Cynthia Dale) and in Pirates of Penzance.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


QMI Agency
21 JAN 2012
R: 4.5/5

Pictured: Adrianne Pieczonka

TORONTO - Over the years, her success has been thanks as much to a pantheon of incredibly talented operatic sopranos, one suspects, as to playwright Victorien Sardou (who first dreamed her onto the stage), or even composer Giacomo Puccini and librettist Luigi Illica, who subsequently turned her into one of opera’s most enduring heroines.

But, regardless of who put her there, Floria Tosca, the tempestuous and tragic heroine of the opera that bears her name, is firmly ensconced as royalty in the opera world. And the Canadian Opera Company’s latest production — a revival of their 2008 co-production with the Norwegian Opera and Ballet — could one day serve to enhance her golden reputation. TOSCA opened at the Four Seasons Centre Saturday where it will run through Feb. 25.

It is, in an opera world increasingly enamoured of high-concept stagings, a pretty straight-forward retelling of a timeless tale. In tracing the romance of a tempestuous diva named Tosca (sung here by soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, sharing the role with Julie Makerov) and her artist-lover Mario Cavaradossi (tenor Carlo Ventre, sharing the role with Brandon Jovanovich) as they become tragically entangled in a fatal web spun by the evil Baron Scarpia (baritone Mark Delavan), director Paul Curran and designer Kevin Knight wisely don’t stray much from the seven hills of Napoleonic Rome, where the story is set.

The church of Sant’Andrea della Valle where Cavaradossi labours, the private rooms of the Farnese Palace where Scarpia pulls his strings, and finally the parapets of the Castel Sant’Angelo where it all ends in tragedy are all impressively evoked by the designer, enhanced at every turn by the lighting of David Martin Jacques, as the story unfolds.

And, carried aloft as much by their own talents as by the music of Puccini, served up here with the kind of crystal clarity that marks fine champagne by conductor Paolo Carignani and the COC Orchestra, the extensive cast, bolstered by members of the COC Chorus, turn it all into a musical banquet, as Pieczonka leaps from note to note in a stunning display of mature artistry, tracing the path of her heroine’s descent into hell with surefooted skill. Meanwhile, as her love interest, Ventre proves to be one of those tenors audiences simply adore, serving up each honeyed note fairly dripping with emotion.

And finally, there is Delevan, drawing maximum malice out of every note his character sings, relishing the dramatic stretch as much as the musical one. There’s strong vocal work too, from a supporting cast that includes bass-baritones Peter Strummer (as the bumbling Sacristan), Christian Van Horn (as the noble but doomed Angelotti) and tenor David Cangelosi (as Scarpia’s henchman Spoletta).

In fact, all that’s missing finally, is a challenging directorial vision to mould it into a spectacular package, for despite all its promise it never quite soars under Curran’s direction — despite the promise of the first act, highlighted by Scarpia’s arrival. It slackens in the pivotal second act, however, as neither Delevan nor the divine Pieczonka seem adequately driven to match their acting talents with their magnificent vocal chops. Undone, it seems, as much by the sprawl of Scarpia’s headquarters as by the subject matter, Curran never quite succeeds in unleashing the full horror of Scarpia’s appalling lechery and the horrific choice he presents to the tortured Tosca — to sacrifice her honour or her lover.

Still, it is a memorable production, one that is all but certain to delight fans of Puccini’s enduring tragedy and ensure that here in Toronto, TOSCA will continue to reign as one of the toasts of the opera world.

Friday, January 20, 2012


QMI Agency
20 JAN 2012
R: 4/5

Pictured: Esther Jun, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee

TORONTO - While there are many things to celebrate in Ins Choi’s new play, KIM'S CONVENIENCE, it is, finally, the sense of promise that buoys Soulpepper’s winter season opener that rises to the top.

In case you hadn’t heard: After labouring long and hard on his tale of a neighbourhood convenience store and the Korean family it supports, Choi entered his script in the Fringe Festival New Play Contest. Not only did it win, it became the talk of the town in the process, leading Soulpepper (where Ins was enrolled as a member of the Academy) to program it as part of their season, where it opened at the Young Centre Thursday (where it runs through Feb. 11).

Set entirely in the Regent Park store from which it takes its name, the play spans a single day in the life of the family Kim — patriarch Appa (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) who with his wife Umma (Jean Yoon) fled North Korea to make a new life in Canada, and the couple’s two children, daughter Janet (Esther Jun) and son Jung (playwright Choi), from whom the father is estranged.

The store itself is almost a member of the family too, and thanks to designer Ken MacKenzie’s vision (which lacks only a lottery machine to finish things off), it breathes with a life of its own. As day breaks, Appa takes over, humming hymns as he opens his store for yet another, dealing with a desultory array of shoppers, all of them played by the hugely versatile Clé Bennett, who re-appears as a cop who just may be destined to play a pivotal role in the future of the Kim clan.

As the day progresses, Appa is temporarily joined by daughter Janet, who at 30 is an aspiring photographer still living at home and embroiled in a state of loving but exasperated warfare with her domineering father. Yoon’s Umma makes a fleeting appearance as well, a wisp of a woman, all but invisible but clearly strong in the Christian faith that informs the entire family. Slowly, the mystery of the missing Jung emerges then grows, as Appa wrestles against Janet’s independent spirit, attempting to coerce her into taking over the family business. Despite her refusal, he tries to teach her how to stock shelves and, in one very funny scene, how to spot shoplifters.

Yoon’s Umma, meanwhile, comes into her own in a clandestine meeting with her son — a meeting that reveals not only the power of her love, but the quiet desperation that fills Jung’s life as he finds himself trapped in a dead-end job with ever-increasing familial responsibility. But even here, the shadow of the domineering patriarch looms as large as the condo towers that are taking over their neighbourhood.

Under Weyni Mengesha’s direction, the cast is universally strong, but it is Lee who turns in the most accomplished performance, making this curmudgeonly, often racist and abusive, old man an often sympathetic comic character.

It is, in every respect a successful production — but throughout, there lingers the sense that Lee (and indeed Choi himself) hungers to cut a little deeper than what is, at its very best, a sort of Seoul brother to Archie Bunker. There is an almost palpable sense that this is a playwright capable of moving beyond the kind of light entertainment most successful Fringe shows offer, and actually say something deeper and more profound — to actually earn those comparisons to works like Death of a Salesman and All My Sons.

That KIM'S CONVENIENCE falls short of that achievement right now is not a sign of failure, but rather of his success — a promising beginning in what one can only hope will be a long and fruitful journey.


QMI Agency
19 JAN 2012
R: 2.5/5

Pictured: David Fox, Anusree Roy

TORONTO - The goal of every playwright is to take the audience deep into the head and heart of the characters that move from the playwright’s imagination to the page — and from there, to the stage. That said, it’s obvious that while some playwrights seem to paddle in tranquil seas, others prefer stormy weather, to a point where they will, on occasion, whip up hurricanes to make the voyage more interesting.

Based on Volcano Theatre’s acclaimed production of Peggy Pickit Sees The Face of God, German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig fits into the latter category. And indeed, dropping into Schimmelpfennig’s universe again in THE GOLDEN DRAGON, which opened Wednesday at the Tarragon under the direction of Volcano’s Ross Manson, confirms this is a playwright who thrives on a razor’s edge of credulity.

This time out, Schimmelfennig abandons Peggy Pickit’s middle class milieu in favour of the tiny kitchen of the Thai/Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant from which his play takes its name. In that kitchen, five Asians toil — an old man and an old woman, a young man and a young woman and a man of indeterminate years. And while the program suggests those characters will be played by David Fox, Lili Francks, David Yee, Anusree Roy and Tony Nappo respectively, Manson barely launches his cast into David Tushingham’s translation when it becomes obvious all bets are off and that in addition to being colour blind, this production will be wildly age and gender neutral as well.

As the play begins, the young man (played by Roy) — who is searching for his lost sister (Yee) — develops a toothache, and because he is in the country (apparently Germany) illegally, he can’t seek treatment. While his mates deal with this problem, Schimmelpfennig broadens his canvas, introducing some of the restaurant’s clientele, as well the life that is unfolding in the neighbourhood.

Upstairs, an old man (Yee) dreams of youth, while his granddaughter (Roy) struggles with an unwanted pregnancy. In another apartment, a man (Roy) mourns the end of his marriage, as his unfaithful wife (Nappo) packs. Meanwhile, a drunken shopkeeper (Francks) guards his secrets, and two flight attendants (Nappo and Fox) prepare to retire, having dined at the Golden Dragon and discovered that there can be something more off-putting than a fly in the soup.

It unfolds on a huge and hugely fluid set piece in the heart of the space, created by designer Teresa Przbylski, interwoven with a contemporary and hugely chilling retelling of the fable of the ant and the cricket, that will ultimately tie it all together as a contemporary tragedy.

And frankly, in binding things together, this production needs all the help it can get, as unconventional casting, meta-theatrical staging and a bag of writing tricks (that move quickly from charming to annoying) keep us on edge. When it works — when veteran actors like Nappo and Fox approach unorthodox casting with understated ease or when less-seasoned actors like Yee occasionally unearth real truth and tragedy in fanciful turns like the cricket — it works wonderfully, fired by true empathy.

But in the main, it is too often undone by promising actors whose reach exceeds their grasp, leaving them to fall back into caricature where nothing less than full commitment to character is demanded. Roy rarely leaves her comfort zone, Francks is too often stiffly strident and one hopes fate doesn’t force Yee to become the kind of old man he portrays.

Ultimately, however, Manson proves one thing. When a play is perched on a razor’s edge of credulity, it should be approached with nothing less than sure-footed artistry. Anything less threatens to topple it into the sea of mediocrity, where too many lacklustre works that over-reached themselves already dwell. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

OPERA NEWS: Stars return home
for COC's 2012/13 season

18 JAN 2012

TORONTO - In the Canadian Opera Company’s 2012/13 season, Canada’s opera chicks — the Canadian singers, directors and designers that have found success in the broader opera world — will definitely be coming home to roost. And thanks to Alexander Neef, the COC’s director general, it seems they will have something to crow about as they take part in the company’s 63rd season, announced Wednesday in the Four Season Centre’s Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.

That season begins next September, with our own Russell Braun leading a cast that also includes Ramon Vargas, Riccardo Massi, Elza van den Heever, Elena Manistina and Dmitry Beloselsky in the Opera de Marseille’s production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, directed by Charles Roubaud and designed by Jean-Noel Lavesvre.

It is paired in a fall season that also includes a brand new production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus, directed by Christopher Alden, with sets by Allen Moyer and costumes by Constance Hoffman. Canadian Michael Schade heads a cast that includes Tamara Wilson, Laura Tucker, Ambur Braid, Mireille Asselin, Peter Barrett, Christopher Enns, David Cangelosi and James Westman.

Acclaimed Canadian tenor Ben Heppner returns to the COC stage to help launch the winter season, sharing one of Tristan un Isolde’s title roles with Burkhard Fritz, while Melanie Diener and Margaret Jane Wray divvy up the distaff. Directed by the legendary Peter Sellars, the Wagnerian classic, a production of the Opera National de Paris, features a video design by Bill Viola and will also feature Daveda Karanas, Alan Held, Franz-Josef Selig, Ryan McKinny and Robert Gleadow.

Director Christopher Alden returns to helm the Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, working with designers Andrew Cavanaugh Holland (sets) and Terese Wadden (costumes). In addition to Schade and Gleadow, the work will also feature performers Keri Alkema, Mireille Asselin, Isabel Leonard and Wallis Giunta.

The English National Opera’s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, directed by David Alden and designed by Charles Edwards (sets) and Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes) launches the spring season. It will feature Anna Christy in the title role, with Stephen Costello, Brian Mulligan, Nathaniel Peake and Oren Gradus rounding out the cast.

Then, Canadian director Atom Egoyan teams up with choreographer Serge Bennathan and designers Derek McLane (sets) and Catherine Zuber (costumes) to revisit Richard StraussSalomé, in an all-new production, co-produced with the Houston Grand and the Vancouver Operas. In addition to Canadian Richard Margison, the cast will also include Erika Sunnegardh (in the title role), Martin Gantner, Alan Held, Julia Juon, Nathaniel Peake and Maya Lahyani.

To close out the season, acclaimed Canadian director Robert Carsen and designer Michael Levine team up to recreate the Nederlandse Opera’s production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites, featuring a cast that includes Isabel Bayrakdarian, Judith Forst and Adrianne Pieczonka, teamed with Helène Guilmette, Irina Mishura, Frederic Antoun and Jean-François Lapointe.

Johannes Debus, the COC’s music director, will conduct the COC Orchestra for four of the works — Die Fledermaus, La Clemenza di Tito and Salomé (with Derek Bate) and Dialogues des Carmelites — while Marco Guidarini conducts Il Trovatore, Jiri Belohlavek, Tristan und Isolde, and Stephen Lord conducts Lucia di Lammermoor.

Members of the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio will be featured in the Feb. 6 production of La Clemenza di Tito.

Subscriptions are currently on sale, and for further information, call 416-363-8231 or visit coc.ca

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Next Stage Fest sets record

QMI Agency
16 JAN 2012

TORONTO - A full two and a half  days before it became history, the 2012 edition of the Next Stage Festival, which wrapped up its fifth edition Sunday at the Factory Theatre, made some history.

At midday Friday, the winter spin-off of Toronto's summer Fringe Festival, broke all box-office records, finishing the 12 days of its run with a 22.5% increase in box office over previous year and a 132% increase over the first ever edition of the indie theatre extravaganza.

In hard numbers, that reflects some $78,552.40 in box-office revenue, which in turn translates to a total of 7,200 patrons who flocked to see the 10 shows that made up the festival. Organizers are now hard at work on this summer's Fringe Festival, slated to run July 4 through 15.

Friday, January 13, 2012


QMI Agency
13 JAN 2012
R: 4/5

There are, wags assure us, three sides to every story: his side, her side and the truth. In the case of Homer’s Odyssey, however, it seems Greece’s blind bard concentrated almost exclusively in the telling of the story of the marriage of Odysseus, hero of the Trojan War, and his long-suffering wife, Penelope, on the male’s side of the story — as witnessed by the story’s title.

But now, a few thousand years after Homer either spun his yarn or wrote it down, Canada’s own beloved bard, Margaret Atwood, takes up the torch to tackle the distaff side of the timeless tale, finally giving voice to the woman forced to keep the home fires burning when her husband carelessly angers the god Poseidon and is forced to spend a decade and more getting home from the war. Or at least, that’s what he claimed.

Atwood’s work, which first saw the light of day as a novella titled THE PENELOPIAD, quickly morphed into a stage-play under the same name — and now, after productions in Ottawa and Britain, it finally made its Toronto première Thursday in a production from Nightwood Theatre.

With Megan Follows in the title role, it, perhaps not surprisingly, relies heavily on the Greek model, even while it mocks it, sending it up with great if sardonic affection as part of the whacky world o’ men. Set in Hades and environs sometime after the death of all its protagonists, it’s a familiar tale, despite being viewed through a new prism, as the deceased Penelope, tired of being used as “a stick to beat other women,” reclaims her story and tells it from her perspective. The first half of the two-hour tale delves into her childhood, her subsequent marriage to the short-shanked Odysseus (beautifully, even brilliantly played by Kelli Fox) and the affairs leading up to the Trojan War, with Pamela Sinha, doing a particularly delicious and bitchy take on the divine Helen.

Act II, meanwhile, concentrates on Penelope’s stalwart post-war defence of the marriage bed, against the importuning of a bevy of suitors, eager to take over the kingdom of the missing and presumed dead Odysseus. Woven throughout the story, however, is the under-told tale of the 12 handmaidens who aided and abetted Penelope in the warp and weft of her plotting, only to be unceremoniously strung-up by the returning Odysseus, a tragic misstep for which a less-than-trusting Penelope and her competition with the aged Eurycleia (Pat Hamilton) must share the blame.

In tackling the admittedly unconventional structure of the story, director Kelly Thornton marshals a strong sense of high theatricality and uses it to maximum effect, often aided by Denyse Karn’s fanciful costume designs and her simple sets and the assured lighting design of Kimberly Purtell.

But while Thornton draws fine work from Follows and her 12-member chorus (Maev Beaty, Christine Brubaker, Raven Dauda, Sarah Dodd, Monica Dottor, Dara Gee, Tara Rosling, Sophia Walker and Bahia Watson round out the cast), she fails finally to fuse the diverse elements of Suba Sankaran’s music and Dottor’s choreography into her storytelling so that they sprout organically from the tale instead of merely being appended to it, like the shoulder horns sported by Penelope’s suitors.

That said, these should be considered minor flaws indeed, in a production that is, by and large, a triumph, not merely in its determination to bring history to life, but in its success at redrawing and humanizing it as well. In the end, it rings with a lot more human truth (his, hers or ours) than old Homer’s Odyssey ever did.


12 JAN 2012
R: 4.5/5

Scant weeks before the Chinese community welcomes a new year — this one, the Year of the Dragon once again — local theatres seem to have already fallen prey to the mythical creature, beloved in Sino-lore. In movie theatres, there's more than a bit of appreciation for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, while on the live theatre front the folks at Tarragon are putting the finishing touches on a new production of Roland Schimmelpfennig's The Golden Dragon, slated to open next week.

And then there's THE BLUE DRAGON, which has taken over the stage of the Royal Alexandra Theatre for a limited run, through Feb. 19, as part of the Mirvish subscription season.

Written in a collaboration between Marie Michaud, who is also a featured player, and the esteemed Robert Lepage, who directs, it is a story of deceptive simplicity, set in modern-day China — Shanghai and environs, to be specific. That's where 50-ish Pierre (played by Henri Chasse) has finally come to roost, fleeing artistic expectations and an unfocused marriage in Quebec, and carving out both a home and a career as a gallery owner from China's new openness.

But his life and his burgeoning romance with the lovely young artist, Xiao Ling (Tai Wei Foo), whom he has taken both under his wing and into his bed, is thrown into turmoil with the arrival of Claire (playwright Michaud), the wife he left behind. Now a successful career woman (and a bit of a lush), she has journeyed to China to fill a void she has found in her life by adopting a child. Slowly, the three lives intertwine, until they reach a surprise ending that really represents a world of possible new beginnings for each of them.
In short, it's a story that succeeds in holding one's interest, even while it stops short of being utterly compelling.

Or it would, that is, in lesser hands. But once it has been shaped by the finely honed theatrical vision of Lepage and his team, it becomes absolutely riveting, dazzling its audience with a rich blend of understated acting and a staging that is, as usual, utterly compelling in its mix of simple artistry and groundbreaking technology.

To cocoon this delicate story, designers Michel Gauthier (sets), Jeanne Lapierre (props), Jean-Sebastien Coté (sound), Louis-Xavier Gagnon-Lebrun (lighting), François St-Aubin (costumes) and David Leclerc (projections) conspire to transform, as if by magic, a simple two-level platform into everything from the interior of an airplane, to the skyline of Shanghai — with stops at galleries, restaurants, train stations, airports and sweatshops along the way.

They incorporate everything from Chinese calligraphy to dances of the cultural revolution into a story that unfolds seamlessly in three languages. And they do it with such an unstated ease that it rarely, if ever, impedes the flow of the storytelling. The set shifts and blends so perfectly, and so completely, with the action that the experience is transformed into a form of heightened cinema that is only slightly short of breathtaking, and never less than exhilarating.

But while the theatrical world that springs from Lepage's imagination proves, once again, to be a world of wonder, it also conspires to underline the fact that Lepage too often seems to limit his work to a technical canvas, choosing to leave the universe of big, theatrical emotions unexplored. This entry is, in fact, no exception. While THE BLUE DRAGON may breathe creative fire, it is a work that ultimately leaves its audience delighted and amazed but emotionally unruffled, still waiting for the story to catch fire emotionally.

Sunday, January 8, 2012


08 JAN 2012

TORONTO - If you want to know what would happen if they threw a theatre festival and nobody came, don’t ask the organizers of Toronto’s Next Stage Theatre Festival, currently underway at the Factory Theatre. In fact, since the organizers of the summer Fringe Festival decided, five years ago, to spread their wings in a January edition of the popular event, audiences have been braving the exigencies of winter weather in ever-increasing numbers, hungry to check out the annual line-up of promising, if frost-bitten, new works.

As usual, this year’s selection includes a few hits, a few strong efforts and the obligatory one or two that leave one wondering just how they made the cut. To help make your choices, here’s our run-down:

HYPNOGOGIC LOGIC: Great premise, charming performances and more than a few laughs in an off-the-wall, silly-buggers sort of style. In fact, the only thing missing in this offering from Montreal-based Uncalled For is a bit of judicious editing. It would still be lighter than air, of course, just as these things are supposed to be, but it would keep things firing on all cylinders all the time.

THE TIKI BIKINI BEACH PARADISE PARTY A-GO-GO: Okay, right off the top: A woody, in surf parlance, was a car, not a board, and sushi wasn’t big in the western world in the ’60s. But while playwright/director Allison Beula isn’t much on research, she does manage to keep things moving in this inconsequential send-up of ’60s surf movies, thanks to some slick choreography and fine tunes by Jeffery Straker, delivered with more enthusiasm than polish by a game cast.

LOVESEXMONEY: Hey, Kat Sandler. Last time I checked, it was 2012 and this was a Fringe Festival (of sorts) after all. So how come the play you wrote and directed — the one purporting to look at some of the more unconventional sexual hi-jinx of our age — comes across as a mash-up of bad British bedroom farce and ’60s sitcoms, inspired more by Neil Simon than Neil LaBute? Just asking.

LOVING THE STRANGER (or How To Recognize an Invert): Writer/director Alistair Newton builds both an unconventional history lesson and a cautionary tale around the life of artist Peter Flinsch, a gay man imprisoned by the Nazis during the Second World War for kissing another man. An homage to Berlin’s pre-war cabaret scene, it’s compelling, thought-provoking and often in-your-face funny — and Hume Baugh (as Flinsch) is the perfect anchor.

LIVING WITH HENRY: After scoring big in last year’s production of The Normal Heart — a play about people dying of AIDS — Ryan Kelly returns to the stage in a play about living with it, heading a hugely committed cast and bringing life and passion to an unflinching and promising new musical by Christopher Wilson, directed and choreographed by Donna Marie Baratta.

MODERN LOVE: Playwright/performer Jessica Moss takes a long, if not necessarily hard, look at love and the search for it in an age when we are so plugged in and turned on that we seem to have lost our ability to connect. And while she scores some telling, often funny points along the way, ultimately it all feels a little too self-referential, leaving one to suspect that it might benefit from a broadening of the cast list to include other characters and other viewpoints.

TOMASSO’S PARTY: Hopefully, the event that gives Jules Lewis’ play its title will prove more engaging than the play it’s inspired. Under the direction of Nigel Shaun Williams, a sleep-deprived couple, Simon Bracken and Leah Doz, anticipate the event in question and discover all sorts of things about themselves and their relationship. But while they may not be able to sleep, chances are their audience will, despite the best efforts of all involved.

THE WASHING MACHINE: Radha. S. Menon seems to have engineered a head-on collision between Tennessee Williams and Somerset Maugham in this little tale of tea and tedium in the post-Raj world — and sadly there are no survivors, despite the committed work from director Sasha Kovacs, designer Jung-Hye Kim and a cast whose commitment can’t be questioned. Talk about feeling like you’ve been put through the wringer.

The Next Stage Festival, which also includes two Ante-Chamber offerings — Love Is a Poverty You Can Sell and Morro & Jasp: Go Bake Yourself — continues at the Factory Theatre through Jan. 15. Visit fringetoronto.com for details.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


04 JAN 2012
R: 3/5

Pictured: Jake Epstein, Scott J. Campbell, Van Hughes

In GREEN DAY'S AMERICAN IDIOT, Dancap's Aubrey Dan has managed to slip a belated but impressive Christmas package under the tree -- one almost certain to delight the younger demographic of the theatre-going public, in particular.

They are, after all, the ones most likely to be heading into the Toronto Centre for the Arts (where a touring production of the Tony Award-winning musical opened late last year) humming the tunes to the 2004 album of the same name -- to the extent that punk rock lends itself to humming, of course. But even if you've never heard Green Day's music and don't have much of a taste for rock musicals, this is an impressive production which never misses a beat as it brings an impressive array of theatrical magic to bear in telling the story of three disaffected slackers, at odds with the American way.

While the story revolves around Johnny (a compelling and charismatic Van Hughes, who is about to be replaced for a few shows by Canadian Gabriel Antonacci), it is wrapped up in the lives of buddies Will (our own Jake Epstein) and Tunny (Canuck Scott J. Campbell), as well.

At the outset, they are mired not only in small-town American ennui, but lost as well in the stupefying effects of late onset adolescence, it seems. In response, Will has taken root in front of the TV, Tunny has withdrawn into a taciturn world of slumber and inchoate rage and Johnny has become a serial self-abuser. Convinced that any place is more exciting than here and now, they decide to head to the city. Will, however, soon discovers his girlfriend (Leslie McDonel) is carrying his child, and opts to stay home, leaving Johnny and Tunny to carry on.

An all-but-catatonic Tunny soon joins the military for all the wrong reasons but Johnny simply drifts, eventually falling under the influence of St. Jimmy (a chilling Joshua Kobak as the spirit of heroin), at about the same time as he falls for Whatsername (Gabrielle McClinton). Sadly, the two don't mix. Tunny, meanwhile, heads off to war (presumably Desert Storm) and loses a leg and gains a girl (Nicci Claspell) before the shock of 9/11 brings them all back to where they started, scarred, but only slightly wiser.

Under the direction of Michael Mayer, this is a production that starts technically strong and never lets up -- a showcase, not merely for a hugely committed cast, but for the driving, almost confrontational, choreography of Steven Hoggett and the design acumen of Christine Jones (sets), Andrea Lauer (costumes), Kevin Adams (lighting), Brian Ronan (sound) and Darrel Maloney (video/projection), all powered by the musical supervision of Tom Kitt, which ties it all together.

All of which serves to underscore the real tragedy of AMERICAN IDIOT. For while this little bundle from Broadway is certainly an impressive Christmas present, it seems that the batteries are not included. Thanks to Green Day, it may possess the musical bonafides to make it memorable, but thanks to the sketchy book created by lyricist (and Green Day frontman) Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer, it fails to engage in any meaningful way. Despite deeply committed work from Hughes, Epstein and Campbell, there's simply not enough story and character development to drive the narrative, and while we may develop grudging affection for these three lily-white losers, ultimately we are forced to acknowledge that they are likely to remain losers.

While the easily distracted are almost certain to be taken in by AMERICAN IDIOT's flash, most thinking theatre-goers, one suspects, will likely realize that, while a story about the disconnected that leaves us feeling disconnected might make for a fine punk musical, a musical about apathy that leaves us feeling apathetic is simply not great theatre -- in any genre.

Performing Artist of the Year

28 DEC/11

TORONTO - When Philip Akin became the first Canadian-born black man to hit the Stratford stage in the title role of Shakespeare's Othello back in  2007 — and subsequently pulled it off with enviable panache — we began to suspect that here was a theatre artist with whom to conjure.

But it wasn't until Akin assumed the mantle of artistic director of Obsidian Theatre that we really got a chance to take the measure of the man. Akin is an artist who made his name as an actor, but seems destined to achieve greatness as a director. 
Indeed, he has come awfully close in 2011.

First, he swept his audience up and carried them away to a brothel in the middle of the war-ravaged Republic of Congo, unearthing love and compassion among the Ruined as he brought life to Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
 Then, he moved his focus to the Shaw Festival, where his production of Topdog/Underdog, a compelling work for two actors written by Suzan-Lori Parks, proved to be one of the highlights of the season, despite the fact that it was programmed into the Festival's smallest space.

With Nigel Shawn Williams and Kevin Hanchard, Akin created a riveting production of familial trust and betrayal that proved as compelling to a Toronto audience in a subsequent Theatre Centre revival as it did to the audience in the Shaw's Studio space.

Taken individually, each of these shows represented impressive work from a journeyman director, but collectively, no matter how you do the math, they add up to our performing artist of the year.


28 DEC/11

Before we pack away the tinsel and get on with the business of filling up a whole new calendar, let's savour the things that decked our theatrical hall and made this a year to remember. Herewith, in no particular order, are productions that caught my eye, my heart and my imagination over the past year. Hopefully, one or two of them touched yours as well:

1. The Last 15 Seconds: Kitchener-Waterloo's MT Space's compelling piece of movement theatre, about a suicide bomber and the man he killed, exploded on the Theatre Passe Muraille stage and was gone before most people realized it was there. Pity, both for a hugely talented company and for those who missed them.

2. TopDog/Underdog: Nigel Shaun Williams and Kevin Hanchard teamed up with director Philip Akin to make Suzan-Lori Parks' compelling yarn of two black brothers one of the most riveting productions of the Shaw Festival's 60th anniversary season, remounted with equal power at the Theatre Centre.

3. Tout comme elle (Just Like Her): Theatre offerings at Luminato have been a little hit 'n' miss — and with 50 of our finest actresses on stage, under the direction of Brigette Haentjens, Louise Dupré's play (translated by Erin Moore) was definitely one of the hits.

4. Ruined: Obsidian's Philip Akin and playwright Lynn Nottage proved an explosive combination once again in this Pulitzer Prize-winning play set in the heart of the war-torn Congo, featuring a superb cast, headed by the always-memorable Yanna McIntosh.

5. Cat On A Hot Tin Roof: After Stratford's 2005 production, some thought Tennessee Williams' most enduring drama might have reached its best-before date. But with Eda Homes at the helm, the Shaw proved there's plenty of life left in it, thanks to performers such as Moya O'Connell, Gray Powell, Jim Mezon and Corrine Koslo.

6. The Normal Heart: Larry Kramer's look at the early days of the AIDS epidemic has lost none of its power in the almost 30 years since it was written — and if Studio 180's Joel Greenberg came up a little short on Kramer's monumental rage in his production, it still packed a wallop and gave us a look at what history might judge to be the birth of a gay nation.

7. Orfeo ed Euridice/Iphigenia in Tauris: When it comes to truly fine opera productions, the Canadian Opera Company proved it was all Greek to them. In the end, trying to say which of Glück's masterworks showcased the talents of director Robert Carson to best advantage was just too hard — so you decide.

8. Jesus Christ Superstar: Some questioned Des McAnuff's decision to program this Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice artifact at the Stratford Festival — until they saw the crackerjack production he put together. Currently Broadway-bound by way of the LaJolla Playhouse, it's earning a chorus of Hallelujahs there.

9. Alice's Adventures In Wonderland: The National Ballet of Canada teamed up with Britain's Royal Ballet and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and ended up packing a whole lot of modern-day wonder in Lewis Carroll's classic tale.

10. Red: A few critics sneered at the "middle-brow" level discourse in John Logan's Tony Award-winning script about painter Mark Rothko — but when Canadian Stage teams up actors such as Jim Mezon and David Coomber, under the direction of Kim Collier, middle-brow is just another word for brilliant.

Deluxe in the Redux: Still great the second time around: 2 Pianos 4 Hands, Onegin, The Shape Of A Girl, Assassins, The President