Wednesday, November 28, 2012
THEATRE REVIEW: IGNORANCE
Special to TorSun
29 NOV 2012
TORONTO - “You gotta have a gimmick, if you’re gonna get ahead,” Stephen Sondheim famously wrote in his lyrics for the musical, Gypsy — and clearly, it’s advice the folks at Alberta’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop took to heart, even though they — currently and somewhat mercifully, I think — appear to have no aspirations when it comes to shucking their duds, à la the trio of strippers for whom the song was initially written.
Instead, Old Trout’s hook, in a life-affirming puppet world famously populated by Elmo, Kermit and their puppet ilk, is mayhem that seems to always end in death. Old Trout rose to prominence, you may recall, with a show titled Famous Puppet Death Scenes, which played Toronto in 2008 and featured — what else? — a parade of puppets doing everything but living happily ever after. And now they’re back with a new show, titled IGNORANCE, that opened at the Berkeley Street Theatre Tuesday and — Surprise! Surprise! — it opens with a rather whimsical encounter between a puppet and a happy-face balloon (a visual leitmotif that runs throughout the show) that ends in gruesomely comic death.
It proves to be the first of many as puppeteers Nicolas Di Gaetano, Viktor Lukawski and Trevor Leigh seemingly stumble across that special place where old elk go to die, where they stage an Old Trout-style puppet extravaganza, the purpose of which is the examination of mankind’s mostly futile search for happiness, beginning with a pair of Cro Magnon block-heads named Adam and Eve and stretching all the way to the modern day.
In this, they are assisted by an off-stage narrator (Judd Palmer) who, in the basso profondo style of the nature films of the ’50s and ’60s, offers often outrageously cynical commentary as our cave-dwelling protagonists alternately hunt for happiness and food, avoiding monsters and slaying mastodons in the process. Against a videoscape designed by Jamie Nesbitt that combines old television footage and rudimentary animation to underscore the futility of our constant search for happiness, they establish that we have indeed evolved — but not much.
The puppets are nothing if not inventive, ranging from egg-headed moppets to mastodons, apparently cobbled together from the remains of a charnel house — and happily, there are some moments of utter if perverse delight. But finally, despite what mama may have told you, IGNORANCE is not bliss, although it does offer a few blissful moments. While it manages to do a fine job of sending up society’s obsession with feel-good moments, it too often lacks focus, allowing itself instead to become bogged down in its own hijinx.
The three puppeteers, arrayed though they are in bizarre puppeteer mufti and sporting their Movember best, may come out of the gate like the Three Stooges, but finally they resemble nothing so much as little boys playing in a sandbox. And while that can provide a few delightful moments of engagement, it does not finally come together as 75 minutes of drop-dead puppet entertainment.
Monday, November 26, 2012
THEATRE REVIEW: TERMINUS
JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
26 NOV 2012
Pictured: Maev Beaty
TORONTO - Despite their decline in general popularity, there’s still a lot of entertainment value to be found in a good, old-fashioned radio play For proof, look no further than the production of TERMINUS that launched the spanking new enterprise known as the Off-Mirvish season on the stage of the venerable Royal Alexandra Theatre Friday night, offering Mirvish subscribers a walk on the wild side of theatre and a sampling of more alternate fare.
And, to be clear, when we say “on the stage,” that’s precisely what we mean, for in TERMINUS everything, save for the brief second that ends the show, takes place on a stage where the audience is seated.
Written by Mark O’Rowe, TERMINUS is a harrowing Trainspotting sort of tale featuring three characters — “A” played by Maev Beaty, “B”, by Ava Jane Markus and “C”, by Adam Kenneth Wilson — whose unhappy lives collide for one brief moment on an ill-fated night of horror in Dublin before being blown apart in memorable fashion. In a series of interwoven monologues, O’Rowe leads us through his tale in flashback, using rich language punctuated by unexpected rhymes, and seasoned with dark, gallows-like humour, to paint verbal images that leave one feeling like what’s playing out is a bizarre stage adaptation of a graphic novel.
But as the tale spins deeper and deeper into the troubled world of murder, Irish junk food and the supernatural, littered with references to everything from Faust to Bette Midler and Beaches, it slowly becomes obvious that the images one sees have little or nothing to do with Nick Blais’ set design nor even Richard Feren’s often-ominous soundscape. Instead, they play out primarily in the mind’s eye, the story projected there in much the same fashion as a really good radio play. Rather than show us what is happening, this script, at almost every turn, tries to tell us instead.
This is not, nor should it be construed as, any sort of negative comment on three finely honed performances from the principals, each of whom tackles a meaty role with relish and manages, under the direction of Mitchell Cushman, to serve it up simultaneously well-done and medium rare, sporting more than just a touch of pink. Nor is it a knock on director Cushman, whose Outside the March company developed and produced TERMINUS for Mirvish — although one suspects that if queried as to his decision to place both audience and cast on stage, the most honest answer Cushman could offer would be: “Because I could.”
In fact, rather than demanding a set that would reinforce his unique staging and force his audience to see this theatre or theatre in general in a different light, Cushman allows Blais’ forced-perspective set piece to obscure his unique location for most of the 90-plus-minute duration of the play — and in the process, reinforces the notion that as live theatre goes, TERMINUS is a pretty damn fine radio play. Sans radio, of course.
Monday, November 19, 2012
THE LITTLE YEARS
Special to TorSun
19 NOV 2012
Pictured: Pamela Sinha, Chick Reid, Irene Poole
Playwright John Mighton doesn't put time in a bottle, in the fashion dreamed of by balladeer Jim Croce. Instead, he mixes it with a lively discussion of art and humanity, then puts it under a microscope in a wonderful play titled THE LITTLE YEARS.
If that title sounds familiar, small wonder. Premiered on the stage of Theatre Passe Muraille in the '90s, the play was reworked for the Stratford Festival as part of its 2011 Studio season and now, it's made its way to the Tarragon, where it opened last week. This is however still, in many ways, the Stratford production, featuring the same director and designers,and many of the same actors. But an instrument as delicate as a Mighton play, it develops, can be changed in a big way by the smallest things, and while this treatise on art and time remains a deeply moving and thought-provoking piece, it seems oddly diminished.
Essentially, it is the story of two women — Kate (played as a precocious, prickly teenager by Bethany Jillard and as an increasingly broken adult by Irene Poole) and her sister-in-law Grace (played this time out by Pamela Sinha.) Born into a 1950's world on the cusp of feminism, both, as young women, yearn to change the world. Instead, in myriad ways, they find themselves changed by a world more inclined to embrace the facile contributions of William, Kate's brother and Grace's husband, whose presence looms large over their story although we never meet him.
By play's end, after rubbing up against a cast of characters that includes Kate's shallow, no-nonsense mother (Chick Reid), a popular artist (Ari Cohen) and a God-fearing school teacher (Victor Ertmanis), Kate and Grace see their dreams reborn in a new generation, as Tanya, Grace's daughter (played by Jillard as well) steps blithely into a new world.
This isn't just good theatre. It is also an intensely involving discussion on a veritable encyclopedia of topics as Mighton examines a whole range, all within the context of a rapidly evolving society. But in spinning out the tale on this new, larger stage, director Chris Abraham allows his love of Mighton's art to consume just a bit too much of our time, slowing the pace of his production not just to accommodate scene changes in this larger space but to savour some of the finer performance elements on display.
As she did in the Stratford incarnation, Poole turns in a gut-wrenching performance, certain to break all but the hardest hearts, capably supported by Reid and Jillard. Sinha, meanwhile, succeeds in bringing life to the character of Grace, but finally, one senses that, in much the same way as the stylish costumes designed for the character by Julie Fox seem to be wearing the actress instead of being worn by her, Sinha is wearing Grace instead of inhabiting her. Still, THE LITTLE YEARS is a big piece of theatre.
Saturday, November 17, 2012
Special to TorSun
17 NOV 2012
Dan Chameroy, Fiona Reid
Canadian Stage's Artistic and General Director Matthew Jocelyn is clear about the kind of theatre he wants to produce — edgy, cutting-edge stuff that pushes the envelope and establishes theatre as something far more that mere 'entertainment.' But, if his vision is both clear and commendable, it too often falls apart on the way to the stage. With the opening of Max Frisch's chillingly absurdist comedy THE ARSONISTS, written in the wake of World War II and informed by the rise of the communist party in Czechoslovakia, Jocelyn fails to deliver again.
Featuring an acclaimed new English-language translation by Alistair Beaton, Canadian Stage's production, directed by Morris Panych, opened in the Bluma Appel Thursday. The good news is Beaton's translation proves both easy and edgy — but sadly, Panych's interpretation of it, influenced by a too-literal definition of absurd, is far less so.
There is, of course, always an element of the absurd in absurdist theatre, but finally, if it is to be effective, it must be firmly anchored in some sort of reality too. But everything in this production — from Ken MacDonald's Barbie-does-Bauhaus set to Justin Rutledge's hugely intrusive and muddy score and the way it is used — is content to be merely absurd without ever achieving absurdist.
Set in an arson-plagued, un-named city, THE ARSONISTS tells the story of the Biedermanns, played by Michael Ball and Fiona Reid, comfortable members of the city's bourgeoisie, who suddenly find themselves playing host to a pair of thugs played by Dan Chameroy and Shawn Wright. Ensconced in the attic of the Biedermann home, the interlopers fill it with drums of petrol, and though their nervous hosts try to confront them, the thugs take refuge behind their hosts' liberal sensibilities, coercing the hapless couple into helping to set fuses and even supply matches to ignite a conflagration. Along the way, commentary is supplied by a chorus, led by Rutledge, and comprised of two musicians, Chameroy, Wright and Sheila McCarthy, who also plays Anna, the Beidermanns' maid.
Incorporating a chorus is often problematic — and here, Panych not only allows it to intrude, but often to overshadow the playwright's focus. He also fails to find a dramatic through-line of the tale, allowing each of the performers to inhabit their own world without connecting to the others. So while it all works, after a fashion — Reid and McCarthy fall back on well-honed bags of tricks, Chameroy and Wright grasp wildly at the proper mix of charm and menace and Ball simply walks through it all, often merely reciting his lines — it never really gels.
In a world steeped in fractious politics, THE ARSONISTS has much to say to all the colours of the political spectrum and, as a result, it is hard not to be impressed that Jocelyn has the vision to program it. But finally, that just makes it all the more regrettable that too often his vision doesn't seem to make it all the way to the stage.
Friday, November 16, 2012
MUSICAL THEATRE REVIEW:
JEKYLL & HYDE
Special to TorSun
16 NOV 2012
TORONTO - Judging from his Broadway-bound production of JEKYLL & HYDE: THE MUSICAL, it’s a good thing director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun chose a career in theatre and not the amusement park. Had he chosen to make rollercoasters instead of stage musicals, one suspects, his rides would begin at the very peak of the steepest drop and simply not go anywhere from there. Which is pretty much precisely what his production of the freewheeling, bodice-ripping Leslie Bricusse/Frank Wildhorn “adaptation” of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel seems to do in its limited but tightly-wound engagement at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, where it opened Wednesday.
That would, of course, be the same adaptation that Robin Phillips directed on Broadway back in the mid-’90s — a production that, while it ran for years, failed nonetheless to make it into the fiscal black. But while it can never be counted a financial triumph, the Phillips’ production, if happy memory serves, tried mightily to and often succeeded in exploring both the emotional light and darkness of the tale as spun out in Bricusse’s hyper-gothic book. In the process, Phillips also provided a dramatically textured voyage into the heart of the story that did much to minimize the shortcomings of Wildhorn’s overly anthemic music and Bricusse’s elementary rhyming schemes, which hit the very apogee of good taste in the pairing of “upper class” with “his ass”.
Instead of minimizing the faults of the book and music, however, Calhoun’s production embraces them, turning pretty much the entire song-list into a score sung in the key of overwrought, with American Idol’s Constantine Maroulis struggling to find dramatic depth in the dual roles of the good doctor and his villainous alter-ego, but finding only (Johnny) Depp-lite instead.
Deborah Cox, meanwhile plays the tragically fallen Lucy Harris, her character’s tragedy lessened in no small way by the fact that Cox seems to think she’s starring in a steamy music video. Meanwhile, as Emma Carew, virtuous foil to Cox’s Bring-On-The-Men Lucy, Teal Wicks opts for more stainless ’n’ steel than sugar ’n’ spice, although she still manages to offer up the most tender moments in the show in a surprisingly under-stated Once Upon a Dream.
But, in the end, it falls to Richard White, cast as Emma’s loving father, and Cox’s fellow Canuck, Laird Mackintosh, cast as Jekyll’s friend, John Utterson, to periodically coax the production off the clenched-hair cliff on which it is so often perched, affording in the process, moments of genuine true human emotion — but only moments.
And while Tobin Ost’s sets and costume designs are suitably goth, if not always strictly Gothic, they do in fact sit well with Calhoun’s high-test vision, as does Jeff Croiter’s lighting — but sadly, rampant over-amplification in Ken Travis’ sound design leaves Maroulis’ Mr. Hyde panting like an over-eager Pekingese in too many of his scenes. If you’re looking for dramatic texture, all this production offers is a game of Hyde and seek.
Monday, November 12, 2012
BALLET REVIEW: ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND
JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
12 NOV 2012
Pictured: Sonia Rodriguez
It's common knowledge that love is better the second time around. But it turns out love's not the only thing that can be improved by a second turn around the block.
Case in point: The National Ballet of Canada's much-lauded production of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND — their latest full-length story ballet produced in association with London's Royal Opera House, currently making its second appearance on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre, where it opened Saturday night. It had it's Canadian première there back in June of 2011 — and in between, it's even clocked a few frequent flyer points, having checked in and wowed them in Los Angeles earlier this fall.
In fact, it was in Tinseltown that choreographer Wheeldon made a few tweaks to this tale wrapped in a tale, then wrapped in yet another tale — changes that seem to tie it all together and make it more of a piece, adding a lovely and loving pas de deux between the young heroine, danced with impressive grace by the evergreen Sonia Rodriguez on Saturday night, and her dual love interests, Jack the gardener and the Knave of Hearts, both danced by the equally impressive Naoya Ebe in a memorable debut.
Wheeldon's changes serve finally to put the romantic pair squarely in the the heart of his story, where before, in a scenario hewn from Lewis Carroll's enduring children's adventure by playwright Nicholas Wright and set to original music composed by Joby Talbot, they were more or less the bookends of Alice's curiouser and curiouser adventures. There are other changes too, most notably a memorable entrance to the enchanted world of the Mother/Queen of Hearts (Xiao Nan Yu, exhibiting a fine flair for comedy) through an oversized jellied confection that should over-ride all parental injunctions against playing with one's food.
For the rest, it is substantially the same as previously staged — good news for all of those who fell prey, the first time around, to the combined and potent magic of Wheeldon's often frenetic choreography and the design vision of Bob Crowley, aided by the lighting of Natasha Katz and the projections of Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington.
It's good news too, for those who enjoy the National Ballet's stable of superb dancers, led here by Aleksandar Antonijevic, cast as both Carroll and the enigmatic white rabbit and finding a lovely balance in both. There's fine work too, from the likes of Rex Harrington, hamming it up in the role of Father/King of Hearts; from Robert Stephen as a tap-happy Mad Hatter; from Jiří Jelinek as a sensuous Caterpillar and from a host of others as well. And this is, as usual, all borne aloft by the seemingly flawless efforts of the NBOC Orchestra, masterfully conducted once again, by David Briskin. In the final analysis, while Wheeldon hasn't found new depths to his artistry, in fine tuning his Alice, he's certainly given her more lustre.
Friday, November 9, 2012
Special to TorSun
9 NOV 2012
It's a good thing, one suspects, that kids so enjoy the poetry of Dennis Lee. Because, even if they didn't find such joy in Lee's sweet and simple rhymes, they'd still no doubt face a more-or-less constant diet of his verse, read to them by parents who apparently can't get enough of the off-beat charm of Toronto's most beloved children's poet. For proof, look no further than the stage adaption of a collection of Lee's work, assembled under the title of one his most enduring works, ALLIGATOR PIE, which hit the stage of the Young Centre Tuesday, the handiwork of Soulpepper's recently-minted creation ensemble.
Tellingly, at the end of this hour-long romp, during which creators Ins Choi, Raquel Duffy, Ken MacKenzie, Gregory Prest and Mike Ross hold the younger members of their audience in complete thrall, the cries of "More! More! More!" came from the adults accompanying those children. And while credit for that, at least in part, must go to the utter charm with which this quintet has gotten in touch with their inner brats and brought them to life to inject the right spirit into what proves to be a delightful compilation of Lee's work, much more of it must go to the work itself.
Lee's poetry, after all, whether he's playing with silly doggerel or examining the ties of childhood friendship, has always seemed to plug directly into the notion that the childhood we try to complicate at every turn is often really nothing more than a blissful state of mind. And from the moment Choi, Duffy, MacKenzie, Prest and Ross make their entrance — seemingly arriving by pure chance in a strange attic space, littered with the assorted detritus of everyday life — they seem to have a direct connection to that bliss, channeling it at every turn as they work their way through Lee's stuff.
Some of his poems, of course, are merely recited, their simple rhythms driven home with enthusiastic and highly creative percussive force, but a lot of them are sung too, and while there is no composer or musical director credited, the utter joy that infuses Ross's face tells us from where this music has sprung. Along the way, they employ a host of seemingly found costumes and props, finding new and deliciously inventive uses for everything from a racquet case to staplers, scissors and scotch tape, before going completely over the top with a length of bubblewrap that could well result in it becoming one of the most requested toys of the Christmas season.
From start to finish, it's a delightful romp, but what is ultimately its greatest charm is not its childish spirit of fun and adventure but the depth of its heart, for while ALLIGATOR PIE is certainly driven by a child's love of playful invention, it revels in a child's need to give and receive affection, regardless of whether he or she is two or 82. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much the age range to whom this show will appeal.
Monday, November 5, 2012
THEATRE REVIEW: SPEAKING IN TONGUES
JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
3 NOV 2012
Yanna McIntosh, Richard Clarkin, Helene Joy, Jonathan Goad
There are many reasons those who love good theatre should be consider catching the Company Theatre's new production of Andrew Bovell's theatrically noir-ish SPEAKING IN TONGUES, which opened Thursday, produced in association with Canadian Stage on the Berkeley Street Theatre's mainstage. First and foremost, there's the acting — a quartet of fine artists, each juggling two or three characters with an easy understated assurance, weaving their way through a dense thicket of time and place, moving with such sure-footedness that, regardless of what the plot throws in their path, no one in their spell-bound audience seems to ever feel the need of the theatrical equivalent of a GPS system.
As Bovell ties time and space into knots, often staging two scenes simultaneously in the same space, at others, folding time back on itself to re-arrange the natural progression of things, Jonathan Goad, Yanna McIntosh, Richard Clarkin and Helene Joy move from character to character and from scene to scene with such ease and fluidity that their audience is never left behind.
For this, full credit to director Philip Riccio who, despite the complexity of the tale and the relationships, never seems to take his eye off the dramatic through-line, ensuring a smooth ride in even some of the plots most twisted routings, and only occasionally sacrificing dramatic tension for clarity as he leads us through the labyrinth Bovell has spun. That he does it all with such unobtrusive ease is not only impressive but refreshing in a world where too many directors seem intent on showily demanding recognition.
Despite Bovell's heavy reliance on dramatic coincidence, what starts out as a pair of couples flirting with infidelity is soon transformed into a dramatic thriller made up of equal parts "Whodunnit?" and "Whodunwhat?" as the playwright examines our inability to say the things we really mean to the people with whom we intimately share our lives.
To accomplish this, Riccio deftly blends John Thompson's highly effective open concept stage design and dark and eery lighting with an equally evocative soundscape from Michael Laird in a production that is starkly understated and often deeply disturbing. There are a few references to "going to America," that prove jarring in a production that, in accent and style, seems to have already arrived, but that aside, this is a smooth and elegant staging.
So, as usual in a world where unset gem stones are rarity, a production showcasing fine acting is also worth seeing for its direction and its production values as Riccio delivers on the early promise he showed in his production of Through The Leaves.
For many theatre-goers, however, the play is still the thing, and while actors and director come together in a strong showcase for Bovell's skills, in the end, SPEAKING IN TONGUES feels a little too much like a writing exercise — a brilliant bit of noodling from a fine writer that someday might be worked into a cracking good play. As it stands now, it's a memorable voyage in search of a destination.