Wednesday, September 26, 2012


Special to TorSun
26 SEPT 2012
R: 2.5/5

TORONTO - Until now, Michael Healey’s PROUD could claim to be Canada’s best known contemporary play — despite the fact it had never been produced. Written while Healey was playwright-in-residence at the Tarragon Theatre, PROUD became a cause celèbre when Tarragon artistic director Richard Rose chose not to produce it — a decision Healey very publicly proclaimed to be motivated by fear of political retribution. For reasons both ethical and legal, Rose said nothing in response and controversy about his decision grew to national proportions.

Having exited stage left from Tarragon, Healey and PROUD resurfaced Saturday in an independent première production that opened in the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs, finally affording Toronto and, indeed, Canadian audiences, a first look at a full production of the work.

As everyone by now surely knows, it is set in an alternate reality in the Prime Minister’s Parliament Hill office in the wake of the last federal election. Although he is not named, all references point to the fact that, despite the fictitious nature of the work, the Prime Minister (played by Healey himself) is in fact Stephen Harper, and he is savouring the fruits of an election victory that has given him the second largest majority in Canadian history.

But while he and his politically pragmatic assistant (Tom Barnett) juggle the “very important decisions” of forming a government, their ruminations are interrupted by Jisbella Lyth (Maev Beaty), a rookie MP from Quebec who swept in on the Prime Minister’s coat tails, and is looking to christen her office in rather unconventional style. The two men, initially appalled by the newcomer’s political naiveté, set out to teach her the game of power as played by Stephen Harper’s rule book of situational ethics.

This is not, as one might have already guessed, a flattering portrait of either the man currently at the helm of our government nor of the party he leads — and, in fact, as a playwright, Healey does score more than a few glancing blows to Harper’s carefully maintained image, right off the top. But as the play wears on (95 minutes, without intermission), it grows tiresome — as thrilling, at least for all but the most virulent anti-Harperites, as shooting fish in a barrel.

Despite his best efforts, Healey’s laudable determination to give Harper a fair shake is at constant war with his own personal politics, and PROUD emerges as not only a two-dimensional portrait of of a multi-dimensional man, but a bit of political polemic almost as cringeworthy as Clint Eastwood’s conversation with a chair.

Performance-wise, under the direction of Miles Potter, Healey and Barnett give the same performances for which audiences have rewarded (and consequently awarded) them in the past, as does Jeff Lillico, charged with delivering Healey’s political and personal vision in a passionately boyish coda. Beaty, for her part, rips into her role in such a way as to suggest that, despite the critical acclaim heaped upon her, she is only beginning to explore the full range of her talents.

Her performance notwithstanding, we may never know why Rose chose not to program this as part of Tarragon’s season, but thanks to this production it seems to be a decision of which he should be Proud.


Special to TorSun
25 SEPT 2012
R: 3.5/5

Pictured: David Fox, R. H. Thomson

Sometimes, great literature becomes great theatre, usually in the hands of an adaptor and a director prepared to sever the ties that bind the story to the page and set it free. In the hands of adaptor David S. Young and director David Rose, however, Alistair MacLeod's NO GREAT MISCHIEF never manages to slip those surly bonds of earth poet John Gillespie Magee Jr. immortalized and soar into a theatrical wild blue yonder over the rugged wilds of Cape Breton.

For that is where MacLeod's tale is rooted and much of it plays out, with side trips to Toronto's Spadina Avenue and its flophouses and the mines of Elliot Lake, of course. It is the tale of two MacDonald brothers — Calum, the elder, played by David Fox and Alexander, the youngest, played by R. H. Thomson, from whose perspective the story is told. And it's a long story indeed, at least in the temporal sense, stretching back to the times when General Wolfe invaded Quebec (and gave this play its name, it might be added) and the brothers' forefather, Calum Ruadh, shook the heather of Scotland from his plaids and set sail for the Maritimes.

It is a familial history fraught with tragedy, and the two brothers and their siblings do not escape its curse, orphaned when their parents and a brother fall through the ice and disappear, leaving almost no trace of their passing. Unable to support the entire crop of orphaned grandchildren, their paternal grandparents, played by John Dolan and Nicola Lipman, opt to raise young Alexander, while leaving Calum to ride herd over his siblings, creating him as the de facto head of a clan of hard rock miners in the process.

Initially, it appears Alexander will escape the hard life of his siblings, but after he graduates from dental school, he opts to join his brothers underground, putting himself in a position to bear witness to the great tragedy that will ultimately destroy Calum's life.

Although the cast is rounded out by Daniel Giverin, Stephen Guy-McGrath, J. D. Nicholson and Ben Irvine (who seems to think he's cast in a send up the '60s), carrying the story forward falls largely on the shoulders of Fox and Thomson. While each gives a quality performance, they are undone finally by a combination of their own shortcomings and a text that never really seems to leave the page. This is dialogue written for the eye, not the ear.

For his part, Thomson never quite seems to strike the right note of self-effacing humour that makes his character so appealing as a story teller, while Fox succeeds in mining the full depth of Calum's tragedy without ever really grasping the wild and youthful Highland nobility that underscores it.

A really good stage adaptation — and they do exist — makes one forget the book that spawned it, while the merely adequate serves only to make one want to read the book again. A lot of people, one suspects, will be re-reading MacLeod's glorious novel in the wake of this production.

Saturday, September 22, 2012


Special to TorSun
21 SEPT 2012
R: 4/5

Pictured: Christine Horne, Susan Coyne

TORONTO - In drama, as in engineering, a triangle has proven itself, time and time again, to be a hugely dependable building block. So, fledgling playwright Jordi Mand doesn’t explore much new ground in BETWEEN THE SHEETS, a play about a love triangle that had its world première in the Tarragon Theatre’s Extra Space Thursday. In setting up a confrontation between the wife and mistress of a philandering husband, Mand is definitely ploughing familiar turf, dramatically speaking.

Happily, the strength of this work can be found not so much in the ground the playwright turns over, as the contemporary perspectives she unearths along the way. Set in the classroom of a private school, the play starts late in the afternoon, as Teresa, a young teacher played with spot-on awkwardness and touching commitment by Christine Horne, prepares to call it a day after a slew of parent-teacher interviews.

But before she can depart, Marion (a cooly elegant and edgy Susan Coyne), the mother of one of Teresa’s young students, arrives, all brittle and patronizing efficiency, despite the fact she is clearly late. She is, it develops, hugely annoyed, perhaps because she seems to have been cut out of the loop in discussion regarding the progress of her only child.

As the two women circle each other with ill-concealed hostility, however, it becomes clear there is much more at stake here than good grades. What initially seems to be a problem of communication between Marion and her husband is revealed as something far deeper — and as we learn about the affair between him and the young teacher half his age, things initially seem to be falling into a dramatic rut.

But not for long, as the playwright and director Kelly Thornton conspire to make this old story very much of today, picking the scabs off the guilty wounds contemporary working mothers have been receiving, some of them self-inflicted, and examining in ways both stark and moving, the pain of biological clocks transformed for whatever reason into a time bomb.

From two very gifted performers, Thornton draws strong performances, allowing each to don the time-worn roles of victim and victimizer before casting those roles aside in recognition that neither can be tailored to fit either woman in this modern world. Wounded as they may be by the struggle in which they are engaged, each of them is forced to confront the role she has played in her own wounding, even while she is made intimately aware of the pain the other is experiencing.

Thanks to the performance quality, audience sympathy careers back and forth between each of the women, compassion forcing everyone to the very edge of their seats. If the play has a problem — and obviously this writer feels it does — it comes in an ending in which the playwright, having made us care deeply about both women, abandons them both in an ending that would seem utterly hopeless. A fair reflection of life perhaps, but also, finally, a helluva place to leave an audience.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

HIDING WORDS (for you)

Special to TorSun
17 SEPT 2012
R: 2.5/5

Pictured: John Ng, Rebecca Applebaum

The more one delves into the history of mankind, one can’t help but be impressed, not only by the depths some segments of society have plumbed in their efforts to oppress others, but by the ingenuity of the oppressed in thwarting those oppressors. Centuries ago in China, for instance, when they were forbidden access to the written word, resourceful women developed their own way of communicating — a hidden language called Nushu, literally woven into the very fabric of their lives and passed under the noses and eyes of those who oppressed them.

This fascinating secret script is at the heart of a new play, titled HIDING WORDS (for you), which had its world premiere Saturday at the Enwave Theatre, a production by Eventual Ashes. Written and co-directed, with Esther Jun, by Gein Wong, it tells the story of two young women: Grace (played by Stephanie Jung), a modern-day young Canadian of Chinese descent who finds herself suddenly and inexplicably on the wrong side of the law; and Wing-Yin (Rebecca Applebaum), an ambitious young girl of mid-19th century China, hungering for knowledge in a world teetering on the brink of bloody revolution. Grace has been inadvertently caught up in an international investigation of terrorism, while Wing-Yin’s hunger for knowledge has led her into the heart of the revolution sweeping her land and into tragedy.

Through a bit of theatrical hocus-pocus, playwright Wong brings these two young women and their problems together, despite the disparity in their eras. But ultimately, what she fails to do is make her audience understand in any meaningful way the depth of their oppression, or their courage in fighting it.

Her cast, which also includes Traci Kato-Kiriyama, Richard Lee, Susan Lock and an over-wound John Ng, is obviously committed to the project as is dancer Soomi Kim, cast as the living embodiment of this ancient text. On a design front, Wong creates a sometimes impressive sound and projection design, backed by designers Jung-Hye Kim and Faline Park who take care of sets, props and costumes. But in the end, she has stretched herself too thin on several fronts.

As a playwright, Wong fails to provide a tight and cohesive script. As directors, she and her associate fail to impose not only a strong sense of time and place on the work, but a sense of pacing as well. Instead, they allow elaborate technical demands to trip up the storyline, slowing the action and leading us off on tangents that do little or nothing to serve the story, adding only a sense of confusion to an over-elaborate plot.

Still, this is a visually powerful work that manages to shine a light into the bottomless well of inventiveness from which the oppressed have always drunk. Best of all, that light, unfocused though it may be, illuminates a part of history that deserves to be more widely known. There’s a good play buried in here. Wong has yet to find it. 
R: 5/5;
R: 3.5/5

Special to TorSun
17 SEPT 2012

Proprietors of a certain type of establishment figured out years ago that pairing a single dancer with a single patron was a sure-fire way to awaken passion. And now a group of theatre artists have discovered that if you take that particular equation out of smoke-filled and seedy back rooms of strip joints and make it a public event, the end result is not passion, but rather compassion instead.

The work is titled QUEEN WEST PROJECT, and, paired with another bit of theatrical rethinking inside the box, titled, appropriately enough THE TOY BOX, QUEEN WEST PROJECT launched Theatre Passe Muraille’s new season last week.

While THE TOY BOX takes the latest in theatrical technology and turns it into a creative playground for all ages in the TPM mainspace (it moves to City Hall this week), QUEEN WEST PROJECT finds its home further west, beginning in the courtyard of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art and eventually embracing the storied street on which it sits as well as the park-like grounds of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, which, of course, in another incarnation as a mental hospital whispers another darker story from across Queen Street.

Where theatre is usually an experience shared with other audience members, QWP is an experience in isolation, equipping each audience member as it does with an iPod and a single dancer and only bringing performers and audience together at its very end, in a moment filled with exultant theatricality.

For the rest, writer-director Deborah Pearson and choreographer Allison Cummings team up with sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne and six wonderful dancers (Lucy Rupert, Viv Moore, Jolyane Langlois, Kevin A. Ormsby, Andrew Hartley and the wonderfully gamin Bill Coleman, who proved to me that he can coax squirrels out of trees and break hearts even while he makes them soar) to remind us in a most intimate way that while Toronto appears to have a problem with homelessness, what we really have is a problem with mental health and how we deal with those who are struggling to find it.

To do this, they provide a narration that is part history lesson, part political polemic and a lot of first-hand experience as each individual audience member finds him or her self on the street, attuned to a voice only he or she can hear, following a muse that seems all but invisible in this milieu. In three decades of theatre, this ranks, despite its brevity, as one of the most intimate and moving pieces of theatre this reviewer has ever experienced.

THE TOY BOX, meanwhile, as imagined by designers and creators Ben Chaisson and Beth Kates, offers another way to get involved in theatre, focusing as it does on “play” as something one does in the theatre as opposed to something one sees. Using everything from crayons and play-dough to the latest in green-screen technology, they create a laboratory where one is invited to dissect one’s imagination and discover what might be lurking there. In short, it’s a great place to unleash the theatre artist lurking within kids of all ages.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
8 SEPT 2012
R: 4.5/5

Pictured: Iuliia Mykhailova, Edouard Doye

TORONTO-Since New Testament times, we've known that in attempting to service two masters, even the most willing servant ends up serving neither really well. But one suspects that even Matthew himself would be impressed with how close director Diane Paulus comes when she sets herself in dual service to playwright William Shakespeare, and to Guy Laliberté, founder and driving force of the show business juggernaut that is Cirque du Soleil in a new show titled AMALŬNA.

Backed by a team of Cirque collaborators, Paulus does her level best to create a show in the finest Cirque traditions, while taking a fresh new approach to the Bard, and his timeless work The Tempest (with liberal reference to Shakespeare's other works as well). AMALŬNA opened Thursday on Cirque's Toronto home on Cherry Street.

It is set on a magical island, ruled over by the sorceress Prospera (Julie Andrea McInnes) and an army of fetching Amazons, and as the show begins, she is preparing to initiate her young daughter, Miranda (Iuliia Mykhailova) into the rites of womanhood, ending a childhood spent playing with a lizard-like creature called Cali, masterfully created by juggler Viktor Kee.

Before that can happen, however, Miranda's heart is stolen by a young sailor (Edouard Doye) who washes up on the island's shores, his good looks and impressive six-pack earning the enmity of Cali and seemingly derailing Prospera's plans for her suddenly besotted daughter. This is, as anyone who has ever seen a full-on production of The Tempest will tell you, a pretty complex tale — one that could be easily derailed by an enthusiastic troupe of dancers, gymnasts,
unicyclists and aerialists.

But for at least the first half of this almost three-hour show, Paulus and her extensive and accomplished team hold their audience in the very palms of their hands, creating an enchanted world where actions may not speak louder than words, but are clearly audible nonetheless. Filled to the very brim with magic, it is a near-perfect blend of awe and aw-shucks charm that serves to keep an audience utterly immersed in the world which AMALŬNA inhabits and the story it tells.

Act II starts brilliantly as well, and while Paulus continues to do a fine job of incorporating the circus artistry and athletics into her masterful re-imagining of Shakespeare's tale, she slowly, almost imperceptibly, loses her heretofore finely honed sense of balance, allowing her production to tilt too far into Laliberté's world of Cirque while her audience is still immersed in the magical hybrid world she has brought to life.

Things are no less awe-inspiring, mind you, but that magical thread that is theatre is broken nonetheless — despite the best efforts of a dedicated cast, a a top-notch all-female band and a design team that never seems to lose its determination to blow our collective minds. The shift is, in fact so subtle that one might not even realize what has happened until, in the final scene, Paulus returns to the simple magic of theatre to remind us just how daring this effort has been and how very close she came to serving both Shakespeare and Cirque. AMALŬNA may not be perfect, but it certainly shouldn't be missed.