Monday, June 18, 2012


JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
18 JUNE 2012
R: 5/5

Pictured: Etienne Lavigne in 'Elite Syncopations'

TORONTO - Short of a scenario involving fresh strawberries and well-chilled vintage champagne, it’s tough to think of a more beautiful way to launch a late spring/early summer evening than watching choreographer Kenneth MacMillan’s ragtime-themed Elite Syncopations, as danced by some of the finest dancers in the world. Save the strawberries and champagne for another night however because, clearly, Karen Kain is on the same wavelength.

In fact, the artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada launches the company’s latest evening of mixed repertoire, which opened last week at the Four Seasons Centre, by bringing the stage to colourful life with that bewitching piece, set to the music of Scott Joplin and his peers. With erstwhile principal conductor Ormsby Wilkins conducting an onstage orchestra as he tickles the ivories, the infectious music might at first seem the star of this show. But once an array of colourfully and sexily clad dancers, costumed by Ian Spurling ­— seasoned talents the likes of Greta Hodgkinson and Etienne Lavigne, mixing it up with up-and-comers like Jenna Savella, Juri Hiraoka and Robert Stephen, balanced by the excellence of Keiichi Hirano and Stacey Shiori Minigawa and their ilk — comes together to bring MacMillan’s whimsical, witty work to sparkling life, music and motion strike a perfect balance.

And while it is impossible to say if these are the finest dancers in the world, it’s hard to imagine that this particular work has ever been danced any better any place else in the world. Best of all, it’s just the opening number of the evening, and while Kain may bring both the tempo and the mood to a more serious level with her next offering — Maurice Bejart’s Song of a Wayfarer, a stunning work for two dancers set to the music of Gustav Mahler (vocals by Peter Barrett) — she doesn’t stint on quality.

While there are numerous ways this work can be interpreted, as danced by Aleksandar Antonijevic (celebrating his 20th season with the company) and Piotr Stanczyk, it becomes a highly personal salute from a dancer still exploring his prime to a dancer at the very pinnacle of his form, facing an inevitable end of a wonderful career. It’s a timeless piece, beautifully, even exquisitely rendered, but it leaves Kain with the challenge of how to send an audience out into the summer starlight with a smile and something to savour on the stroll home.

Wayne MacGregor’s Chroma was a certified crowd-pleaser when it entered the company’s repertoire back in 2010 and time has done absolutely nothing to diminish the charm of its artistry. Set to music by Joby Talbot and Jack White (of White Stripes’ fame), it is a work of cutting-edge artistry, showcasing the skills of ten dancers of diverse experience. Featuring flesh-toned androgynous costuming by Moritz Junge and a bathed-in-colour set by John Pawson, it’s an edgy, sexy romp that gives the audience a chance to savour the artistry of dancers like Jiří Jelinek, Heather Ogden, McGee Maddox, Brett van Sickle, Xiao Nan Yu and a breathtakingly leggy Adji Cissoko, in what might well be a breakout performance.

Short of a scenario involving fresh strawberries and well-chilled vintage champagne, it’s tough to think of a more beautiful way to end a late spring/early summer evening.

Friday, June 15, 2012


JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
14 JUNE 2012
R: 4.5/5

Some theatre artists look at a stage and see limitations. Robert Lepage sees possibilities. And it is through the realization of those possibilities that he has become the Christopher Columbus of modern theatre, bringing life to rich new worlds of theatrical imagination. Which is precisely what he does in PLAYING CARDS 1: SPADES, the opening instalment of what will eventually be a four-part offering from Ex Machina. SPADES had its North American première at the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre Wednesday as part of the ongoing Luminato celebrations.

In SPADES, the artist who has done so much to stretch the limits of the conventional proscenium abandons it, opting instead, for a work staged completely in the round, cocooned in a space-age sort of pod that proves to be a theatrical top hat from which he pulls a never-ending stream of tricks.

They are all, however, tricks that serve a purpose, as Lepage and his six-member cast spin out a series of interconnected tales, set in Las Vegas in 2003, in at world teetering on the edge of an American invasion of Iraq. Cast members Sylvio Arriola, Nuria Garcia, Tony Guilfoyle, Martin Haberstroh, Sophie Martin and Roberto Mori share a writing credit with Lepage (who, of course, directs) and Carole Faisant.

In bringing life to the un-related but intersecting stories of two soldiers training for duty in Iraq, a British TV executive with a gambling problem, a newlywed Quebecois couple with a baby on the way, an illegal immigrant working as a hotel maid and a host of incidental characters, each cast member is challenged with tackling several roles and several languages in a storyline that starts out stretched a trifle thin but grows stronger with every passing scene. While the playing card motif is tidily evoked in a recollection of the playing cards American military used as wanted posters during the Iraqi invasion, there is also deeper echoes of tarot, where spades (or swords) are also a sign of impending danger.

It’s a scenario that gives each of these gifted and versatile cast members a chance to shine. Jean Hazel’s magical set meanwhile morphs from various Vegas hotel rooms and bars to desert wasteland, doors popping up and disappearing (admittedly, not always completely on cue), supported by a quartet of TV screens (one of which gave up the ghost on opening night) that descend from the canopy that hovers over the proceedings like a spaceship, beaming down effects on command.

In short, it is everything we’ve come to expect from an extraordinary artist and his company — everything, and somehow something a little bit less. Where Lepage’s staging has always been laden with high-tech gadgetry, there has always been the simple little effects that are the mark of a true genius — little touches that in the process of capturing a moment of real life somehow nudge you and whisper in your inner ear a reminder that this is the theatre and it is indeed a magical place. Those moments have been sacrificed in SPADES — victims, one suspects, to an ambitious new vision. But one or two of them would be welcome, particularly when an audience is relearning the lesson that the mind can only enjoy what the butt can endure. Even with Lepage in command, three hours sans intermission on seats less than luxurious, proves a trial — but in the end, it is worth the agony In SPADES, you might say. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012


Special to TorSun
10 JUNE 2012
R: 3.5/5

Pictured: Diane D'Aquila

TORONTO - From a plot perspective, it’s a story familiar long before the good folks at Disney sunk their sweet little claws into it and set it to music — and aside from a few psychological twists, the folks at Lemieux Pilon 4D Art and Théâtre du Nouveau Monde have left the main facets of the story of The Beauty and the Beast (or LA BELLE ET LA BÊTE: A CONTEMPORARY RE-TELLING, as they call it) pretty much intact in a production currently playing the Bluma Appel Theatre as part of the ongoing Luminato Festival.

But if the story of their version of Beauty and the Beast, as translated by Maureen LabontéPierre-Yves Lemieux, Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon share credit for this version’s creation, with the former taking a writing credit while the latter two share a director’s credit as well — is almost certain to be familiar to a Toronto audience, the manner in which they set about telling it is certainly nothing if not ground-breaking.

Inspired, at least in part by an 18th century painting by Henry Fuselia titled The Nightmare, these Quebecois artists conspire through the use of the very latest in modern technology to bring all the diverse elements of the painting to life, from the horse that hovers in the background to the demon perched atop the supine form of a sleeping woman, filtering it all through the context of the more familiar children’s tale of a deformed man redeemed by the love of a good woman. To accomplish this, they bring to bear a whole battery of complex video projections, coupling, even fusing, them with live performance in such a way as to create a unique world that exists only within the four walls of the theatre.

It is a world where the three-member cast — Belle, an artist, played by Bénédicte Décary, The Beast, played by Stéphane Demers and The Lady, who serves as narrator and something more, played by Diane D'Aquila — can not only interact with each other and with video incarnations of themselves, but with demons and alter-egos which come to them in an ever-shifting panorama of videoed performance, architectural elements and sound.

While The Beast confronts himself in less-beastly form and Belle quite literally argues with herself, a ghostly white horse races through the story, apparently determined, at least figuratively, to lead them both to a new world of theatre. And in many ways, that’s just what is accomplished here as a team of visual designers (Lemieux and Pilon teamed with Mathieu St-Arnaud) join forces with lighting designer Alain Lortie, composer Michel Smith and designer Anne-Séguin Poirer to create a work for the stage that constantly pushes an ever-expanding theatrical envelope.

What they accomplish is certainly visually impressive, but sadly, while it may lead its performers to a brave new world, it leaves its audience in large measure far behind, impressing primarily as a demonstration of just how far theatrical technology has come. Weighted down with a stilted translation, which sounds, on occasion, like it is being rendered by two-thirds of the cast largely in phonetics, the cast is not freed in any way by this new technology, which should of course be the primary reason for using it. Instead they are hamstrung by it, forced to cleave to a stately pace that ensures live performance elements remain in sync with the technological elements, effectively removing anything even remotely resembling spontaneity from the dance card.

This chasm between the two elements is further underlined in a production that constantly challenges an audience in thrall to the technology to figure out just where each of us fits into the story being told. The short answer, simply stated, is that we don’t, for in a theatre where technology is king, that story and the audience apparently get left behind.

Friday, June 8, 2012


JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
07 JUNE 2012
R: 4/5

Pictured: Heather Ogden, Guillaume Côté

For lovers of all things Shakespeare, it is, one suspects, an experience not unlike seeing a portrait of a loved one, painted by Picasso. The features you love are, for the most part, all there, but they have been rearranged to such a degree that it is difficult, at least at first, to recognize this as the face of someone you know.

The National Ballet of Canada’s new production of HAMLET, originally choreographed by Kevin O’Day for the Stuttgart Ballet, had its Canadian première last week on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre. And while it is, in many ways, a HAMLET almost utterly devoid of Shakespeare, stripped as it is of the Bard’s timeless eloquence, it is so rich in immediate raw emotion that it often, although not always, succeeds in putting a new face on a tragic hero some might have thought we already knew a little too well.

Designed by Tatyana van Walsum, it is set in a strange, otherworldly sort of Elsinore, dankly lit by Mark Stanley, comprised of elements seemingly lifted, holus-bolus from an ancient ossuary then placed under a microscope — a strange sort of bred-in-the bone interior place where yesterday collides with tomorrow and Hamlet’s grief-fuelled madness becomes palpable.

With principal dancer Guillaume Côté dancing the title role with sensitivity, intelligence and a sort of recklessness that is thrilling, that madness is particularly affecting, the full tragedy of the Prince of Denmark’s confusion and sorrow driven home in brief encounters with the lovely Ophelia (an ethereal Heather Ogden) and with childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, danced with youthful bravado and swagger by Robert Stephen and Christopher Stalzer, respectively. In those moments, John King’s score — more of a soundscape, really, ripped still throbbing from a tortured, battered psyche — turns fleetingly and touchingly melodic, evoking the simplicity of happier days.

As Claudius, Hamlet’s murderous uncle, Jiří Jelinek, fairly oozes a suave and assured malevolence, while Stephanie Hutchison’s Gertrude — Hamlet’s mother and twice a queen but not much of a mother — seems utterly in this new king’s thrall. And while Brendan Saye gives us a wonderfully altruistic Horatio, Jonathan Renna’s Polonius unfortunately lacks the gravitas for the role of senior advisor to the king, and despite his best efforts, seems more like brother than father to McGee Maddox’s powerful, passionate Laertes and Ogden’s tragic Ophelia. As the travelling dancers, standing in for the bard’s player king and queen, Elena Lobsanova and Dylan Tedaldi bring a showy sensuousness to their performance, while Kevin D. Bowles is charged with having perhaps too much fun as the gravedigger, casting a sort of demented Clockwork Orange-ish glow over the proceedings.

Taken as a whole, this represents a major balletic achievement, although it is far removed from traditional balletic adaptations of other classics, both musically and in its angular dance style which, even at its most fluid and passionate, remains oddly disturbed. But it takes awhile to come to life — unfortunate for those, not insignificant in number, inclined to give up after a brief first act and not return for a second which quickly gets down to the gripping business at hand, arriving at a spot where, finally, often discordant music, served up under the baton of David Briskin, fuses with fine dancing and a timeless tale.

By the time the swords start to flash, chances are you’ll recognize the HAMLET you love. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


Special to TorSun
04 JUNE 2012
R: 4/5

Pictured: Seana McKenna

STRATFORD — At first blush, it certainly seemed like a strange union. Turns out, however, that in pairing director Chris Abraham, best known for “serious” stage work like Antigone and Eternal Hydra, with Thornton Wilder’s script for THE MATCHMAKER, the Stratford Festival has created a marriage made in heaven.

Actually, that should read Wilder’s scripts, because Abraham’s production of the classic comedy that opened on the stage of Festival Theatre Saturday, is an amalgam of three different takes on the work — a blend that adds up to something pretty close to comedic perfection. It is also a love letter of sorts to the human race that is all but certain to have you humming the score as you leave, even while you recognize that this isn’t Hello Dolly! and, in fact, the only song featured is that old chestnut “East side, west side, all around the town…”

But the fact that it is not a musical doesn’t keep Abraham from creating a production that virtually sings from start to finish as he fuses an impressive cast into a formidable comic force to tell Wilder’s wonderfully enduring story of the indomitable matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi (Seana McKenna) and her efforts to find a wife for the misanthropic Horace Vandergelder (Tom McCamus) — a search that will finally extend no further than her own mirror.

But while it is Dolly’s ongoing courtship of the irascible old moneybags Vandergelder that drives the story, what gives it its charm is the plot’s ancillary romance: Between Horace’s niece Ermengarde (Cara Ricketts) and her artist/suitor Ambrose (Sky Brandon); between Cornelius Hackl (Mike Shara), Horace’s sheltered chief clerk and the widowed Irene Molloy (Laura Condlin), a respectable hatmaker; between Barnaby Tucker (Josh Epstein), Cornelius’ sidekick in adventure, and Minnie Fay (Andrea Runge), assistant to the lovely Mrs. Molloy; and finally, it must be said, between the audience and a divinely-inspired supporting cast that includes Geraint Wyn Davies as the whiskey loving Malachi Stack, Nora McLellan as the whacky Flora Van Huysen and John Vickery in a trio of fine comedic turns, as well as Robert King, Brian Tree and a host of others, recruited to flesh out Wilder’s lovely vision of New York in the 1880s.

McKenna is superbly understated as the subtly meddlesome matchmaker of title, espousing love and art and all things good, while McCamus brings just the right touch of lovability to his portrayal of the curmudgeonly old tycoon. Shara, meanwhile proves his comedic genius time and again while still bringing a leading man sensibility to his romance with Condlin, who, in turn, crafts a complex Irene more than worthy of his attentions.

So, a perfect script, an all-but flawless cast — what more could one ask? A fair bit, actually. In designing this production, Santo Loquasto has created gorgeous sets that steadfastly refuse to recognize any of the constraints imposed by the Festival Theatre’s unique thrust stage. By ignoring those demands, Loquasto has, in his work here at the Festival over the years, consistently robbed audiences seated at the outer reaches of the theatre’s bowl of much of the visual charm of the stories he’s been involved in telling — and when the story is this good and the telling is being accomplished with so much style, his cavalier attitude towards those seated in the “cheap seats” seems little short of contempt.

This is still a marriage made in heaven, mind you, but unfortunately, one of the groomsmen seems to have had too much to drink and forgotten his responsibilities. This is a five-star review, Mr, Loquasto, but unfortunately, you can’t see all five from where you’re sitting.

Monday, June 4, 2012


JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
02 JUNE 2012
R: 2.5/5

Pictured: Sean Arbuckle

STRATFORD — In venturing into the beloved world of Gilbert and Sullivan on behalf of the Stratford Festival, director Ethan McSweeny has tried to rise above the same old same-old as represented by the D’Oyly Carte Company and its heirs and assigns.

That is the same kind of determination, one suspects, that fired Tyrone Guthrie and Brian MacDonald when they each brought G&S to the Stratford stage. But as THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE that took to the Avon stage Friday under McSweeney’s direction proves, there’s many a step between determination and realization — and countless ways to get lost in the wilderness of recreation. To put it succinctly, McSweeney finds some new ideas for a modern take on Gilbert and Sullivan, but he fails utterly to separate wheat from chaff. Not only do his ideas tumble over each other in this too-often cluttered production, they also collide regularly with the very tradition he’s trying to overthrow.

In a production alternately engaging and infuriating, McSweeney and his creative team set out to lead an energetic cast on a merry chase without first establishing a through-line in the silly, delightful tale. It all starts from a backstage point of view — and while the transition to a traditional production is handled effectively, it creates expectations of some sort of future pay-off — but as this tale of a bunch of madcap pirates and their misadventures with a “modern” major general and his bevy of beautiful daughters unravels, it adds up to a promissory note returned at the end of the evening stamped “non-sufficient fun.” Worse, in a world constantly on the edge of crisis, the most topical and contemporary this production gets is a self-congratulatory history of the Stratford Festival that is simply too ingratiating by half.

From a casting point of view, there are hits and misses, with Kyle Blair turning in a strong, unfaltering performance as Frederic, the dutiful young man mistakenly apprenticed to the pirates of title by his befuddled nursemaid Ruth (Gabrielle Jones, starting strong until she’s forced to appear looking like an extra from and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). As Frederic’s love interest, Mabel, Amy Wallis is adequate but never gets the chance to shine.

Sean Arbuckle also starts strong as the Pirate King, too, serving a potent mix of a swash-buckling Errol Flynn and a swish Johnny Depp transplanted from the Caribbean, but sadly, by the time the second act begins, he’s drunk too deeply of it and loses his way. And while C. David Johnson’s Major-General Stanley might be “the very model of a modern major general,” his singing voice and his command of music and lyrics probably need some adjustment before that model goes into production. Happily, Steve Ross proves a commanding presence as the Sergeant of Police, but like so many in this cast, he’s undone by the costuming choices of Paul Tazewell and further tripped up by Marcos Santana’s choreography and Anna Louizos’s fussy set design. Finally, even the glorious music on which this operetta has endured gets a bit of a mash-up from musical director Franklin Brasz, whose efforts to add modern flourishes simply add to the muddle.

There are more than a few people involved in this modernization who should, methinks, be very grateful keelhauling is no longer in fashion.


Special to TorSun
01 JUNE 2012
R: 5/5

Pictured: Graham Abbey, Cara Ricketts

STRATFORD — As he prepares to assume the mantle of artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival — where he has already served as everything from actor and leading man to General Director — Antoni Cimolino seems to have recognized that one must walk before one runs. To that end, he’s abandoned distractions like rock music scores and time shifting, which marked his earlier flawed forays as a director of Shakespeare, and embraced notions like textual clarity and solid performance instead The result is a production of Shakespeare’s oft-overlooked CYMBELINE that, for fans of the classics, ranks as nothing less than a must-see production. CYMBELINE opened on the intimate stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre Thursday.

Featuring a labyrinthian plot that all but defies description, the work is set in the court of Cymbeline (Geraint Wyn Davies), King of the Britons, in the time of the Roman occupation — a court filled with intrigue and strife. While his new queen (Yanna McIntosh) plots against her lord and master in an attempt to place her own son, the thuggish Cloten (Mike Shara), on the throne, Cymbeline himself is in a rage because of the romance that has sprung up between his beloved daughter Innogen (Cara Ricketts) and Posthumus (Graham Abbey, reclaiming the spotlight on these stages), an orphan raised in the court of the king.

But when Cymbeline, determined to force his daughter into the arms of his conniving stepson, exiles Posthumous in a fit of pique, the king inadvertently sets in motion a plot that comes close to bringing his entire world tumbling down around him. Posthumous ends up in Italy where he meets the ignoble Iachimo (Tom McCamus) who succeeds in casting doubt on Innogen’s fidelity and driving a fatal wedge between the two lovers. As if all of that is not enough to set your head to spinning, Shakespeare throws in a sub-plot involving a long-exiled nobleman (John Vickery) and Cymbeline’s kidnapped sons (E.B. Smith and Ian Lake), long presumed dead, for good measure.

This is, it must be said, a hugely impressive ensemble, its numbers swelled by the likes of Peter Hutt, Nigel Bennett, Ian Clark, Andrew Gillies, Brian Tree and a host of others — and from the very top of the show, Cimolino makes the most of its talents, shaping performances that showcase the best of each actor’s individual skills, while still serving the complex demands of text and story. This is a CYMBELINE that will keep you constantly engaged and often delighted, even as it wracks up more happy endings than a whole book of fairytales.

And while he makes the most of his technical team — sets by Scott Penner, costumes by Carolyn M. Smith, lighting by Robert Thomson and music by Steven Page — Cimolino keeps the focus on his superb cast, never allowing them to be overshadowed by directorial or technical flourishes. Rather than trying to impress by entirely reinventing the work, he incorporates the best of previous productions and adds his own ideas to make this production thoroughly and completely his own. And it pays off in spades. Wyn Davies, Ricketts, Abbey, McIntosh, Shara, McCamus — they all give performances that are utterly fearless and little short of thrilling, supported at every turn by a strong supporting cast, each of whom seems to not only know his stuff, but his place within the production as well.

As he prepares to assume artistic control of his beloved Festival, Cimolino has proved that while he is prepared to let fine actors talk the talk, he has finally learned, at least from a directorial point of view, to walk the walk.