Thursday, January 31, 2013


Special to TorSun
31 JAN 2013
R: 4.5/5

Pictured: Melanie Diener, Ben Heppner

While it would never win any sort of following, one suspects, as a modern day action/adventure story, there is nonetheless something powerfully elemental about the power of Richard Wagner's epic opera TRISTAN UND ISOLDE. For while, in spinning out the timeless tragedy of an Irish princess and the knight torn between his love for her and his love for his liege lord, Wagner arranged it so that most of the action happened off stage, he concentrated his awe-inspiring musical creativity on the internal voyage of of the star-crossed lovers at the heart of his tale instead.

And in staging this epic work — which, no matter how you cut it, gives precious few minutes change from a five and a half hour investment — for a modern audience, director Peter Sellars opts to embrace its rather glacial pacing and explore it to its fullest, rather than attempt to pass it off as a lot of shaved ice. Originally created for the Opéra national de Paris in 2005, Sellars visionary production of the Wagnerian classic has been recreated for the Canadian Opera Company on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre, where it opened in a limited run Tuesday.

With soprano Melanie Diener cast as Isolde opposite our own Ben Heppner, returning to the COC stage in triumph as Tristan, this is a treasure trove of truly impressive vocal talent, as these two most impressive singers team with bass-baritone Alan Held, bass Franz-Josef Selig, and soprano Daveda Karanas to inhabit and illuminate Wagner's tragic yet oddly celebratory tale.

As befits such a story, Sellars stages it with stark simplicity, using only only a few risers and the impressive lighting design of James F. Ingalls to delineate his setting; at the same time, embracing the magnificent talent of his cast and spreading it through the breadth and width of the hall, transforming it into adventure in operatic surround sound. For the rest — from sea voyages through night-time trysts and lingering deaths — he cocoons his audience in the heart of the artistic vision of Bill Viola, who uses slow motion video footage to reinforce the interior aspect of the story.

While the result — footage in which both the heat of searing passion and and its cleansing fluidity are highlighted — could on occasion be compared to watching paint dry, it is unquestionably paint applied to maximum effect by a true master who renders the process far more riveting than mind-numbing. Seamlessly interwoven with Wagner's masterful and breath-taking score, served up virtually free of Wagnerian cliché by the COC Orchestra under the assured baton of Johannes Debus, this is a production that puts the audience at the very centre of the drama, for good or for ill.

And while it is clearly not to everyone's taste, as evidenced by some catcalls during the opening night curtain call, for those prepared to surrender to the sheer monumental quality of the emotion, TRISTAN UND ISOLDE is likely to leave you in a state of enervated exultation. Which, in the world of opera, is a pretty fine place to be.

Sunday, January 20, 2013


Special to TorSun
20 JAN 2013
R: 4.5/5

Pictured: Pam Patel, Brad Cook

In January particularly, most Torontonians require no reminder that life in Canada is no day at the beach. Which is just one reason why BODY13 — a new work from Kitchener's MT Space (which brought us a memorable production of The Last 15 Seconds a few years ago, you might recall) — proves so delightful.

A collective creation currently playing on Theatre Passe Muraille's mainstage, BODY13 in fact uses a day at the beach as a modern-day metaphor for life in contemporary Canada, filling Jennifer Jimenez's spare and beautifully lit set with Canadians we instantly recognize, be they the simmering exile played by Badih AbouChakra, the frustrated civil servant played by Jessalyn Broadfoot or the uptight and self-satisfied WASP so carefully crafted by Brad Cook. Other characters on their beach include a troubled young woman (Pam Patel) trying to scatter the ashes of a loved one, a young man from Ghana (Tawiah Ben M'carthy) struggling to reconcile sexuality and culture, a sometimes over-eager refugee (Nada Humsi) waiting for her status approval and a troubled young man Newfie (Trevor Copp), fleeing demons from his youth.

It is a disparate group, both in age and ethnicity, and if further proof of their quintessentially Canadian-ness is required, it can be found both in the number of times they apologize to each other and in their skill in a magical game of shinny in which hockey really does become a metaphor for life.

And while they are all eager to embrace a new day, none of them are quite so eager to completely abandon the memories of the past. Yet, slowly, as the day wears on, six of them find companionship and, through compromise and compassion, romances blossom. That leaves the seventh in their midst trapped completely unaware in a world and a Canada as outdated as the heirloom cufflink for which he's been searching.

Under the direction of Majdi Bou-Matar, BODY13's individual stories blossom slowly as the day at the beach unfolds and we learn as much about each of these characters from their interactions as from their actions. Driven as much by highly theatrical and effective movement, supported by original music by Nick Storring, Colin Fisher and Germaine Liu, as by dialogue, BODY13 speaks of the Canadian dream we all share with a theatrical eloquence that is as refreshing as it is welcome. Unabashedly and joyfully sexual, it embraces diversity on all fronts and makes of it all a celebration as they tell us seven little stories about a big dream we all share.

It is not, however, conventional theatre, eschewing linear storytelling and instead, simply setting out a welcome mat for its audience and challenging us to engage with them and, in the process, piece it all together on our own. It's a play as much about what Canada can be as it is about what it is and it is almost certain to fill you with joy. And enough quiet pride to warm you through on a January day at the beach.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
17 JAN 2013
R: 2.5/5

TORONTO - In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new adaptation of THE WIZARD OF OZ, the lead character really should be the Tin Man — and not, as you might suspect, because of any sparkling turn by Mike Jackson, who turns the character heavy metal in a production that opened this week at the Ed Mirvish Theatre.

As the production grinds on, it becomes obvious that the song at its centre isn’t really the iconic Somewhere Over the Rainbow as sung by Danielle Wade, the people’s lacklustre choice as Dorothy, but rather the particularly prescient If I Only Had a Heart, as sung by Jackson’s Tin Man. 
In creating their new musical theatre adaptation of the classic Hollywood movie (itself adapted from L. Frank Baum’s book), producer Webber and director Jeremy Sams throw everything imaginable at their production, forgetting in the process that what the success of the tale has always depended upon is its heart. As a result, from the very opening scenes, an audience gets swept up in a tornado of musical theatre clichés that hits them like a flying house but leaves them feeling oddly untouched.

There are a few high points, most of which involve the classic tunes composed by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg for the movie — tunes that can stand up to today’s unsubtle and ear-splitting singing style and still tower over the additional music and lyrics contributed by Webber and sometime-collaborator Tim Rice. For the rest, it all seems a trifle unfocused as director Sams careens between invoking the movie — not a wise move, unless you can equal it in matters of the heart — and adding contemporary references with a knowing wink that quickly grows tiresome.

Along the way in scenes set in the Wicked Witches’ castle, he does however come up with a plausible explanation for Dorothy’s status as a gay icon. And once she’s freed the cast of gay Riverdance from bad choreography and a life of servitude to Lisa Horner’s study in green greed, Dorothy also elicits a concise and devastatingly accurate review of Webber’s music from one of her worshipful Winkies.

And while there is occasional redemption in the scenic designs of Robert Jones and the video designs of Jon Driscoll, such touches are continually undermined by bad costuming, the aforementioned lack of heart and by dramatic choices that are just plain strange. For her part, Wade seems so wrapped up in proving she has a Wicked belt worthy of Elphaba that she forgets she’s expected to to connect with her audience — and stand up straight while she’s doing it. And while the Tin Man’s musical lament may indeed serve as an inadvertent theme for this production, Jackson, just like Lee MacDougall as a fey Cowardly Lion and Jamie McKnight as a budding Lothario of a Scarecrow, fails to impress. 

So, if you want to set off to see a truly wonderful Wizard of Oz, pass over the rainbow that’s appeared on Yonge Street, and instead consider hitting the local video store.

Sunday, January 13, 2013


Special to TorSun
12 JAN 2013
R: 4/5

Pictured: Kristen Thomson, Tom Rooney

If one accepts the premise that good theatre reflects life while great theatre illuminates it, then Kristen Thomson's SOMEONE ELSE is good theatre indeed. For while the latest rough-hewn work from creator of I, Claudia certainly flirts with greatness, it somehow always manages to stop just shy of it, despite the impressive talent and commitment everyone brings to the project. SOMEONE ELSE opened in Canadian Stage's Berkeley Street Theatre, a production of Crow's Theatre in association with CanStage.

SOMEONE ELSE is a play about the marriage of Peter (played by Tom Rooney) and Cathy (played by Thomson herself) — a marriage that, after 18 years, would seem to be as moribund as Cathy's stalled career as a stand-up comic. As the couple prepares to celebrate their porcelain anniversary, all they have to show for their time together is their rapidly maturing daughter Vanessa, a rather ghostly presence played by Nina Taylor, and a marriage built more, it seems, on rote and repetition than on romance.

Despite their desultory efforts at rehabilitating that troubled marriage, Peter finds himself oddly attracted to April (Bahia Watson), a disturbed and disturbing young habitué of the community clinic where Peter practices medicine. Cathy suspects the attraction reflects a sexual mid-life crisis, and while there are certainly elements of that, it is, in fact, something far more complex. When April attempts suicide, the attendant crisis begins a downward spiral that threatens to wipe out their life together.

In staging a work that as often as not seems to be carved with a chainsaw as opposed to a chisel, director Chris Abraham quite wisely doesn't try to smooth its edges, instead conspiring with designers Julie Fox (sets and costumes) and Kimberly Purtell (lighting) to accentuate those rough edges. The chaos and the disorder of the lives SOMEONE ELSE examines is reflected in the way detritus from one scene spills over into the next and characters haunt scenes in which they are not involved. And while Thomas Ryder Payne's sound design reflects the same studiedly harsh and chaotic approach, sadly, it too often overwhelms the dialogue.

And in a production such as this, every word counts, as a hugely committed cast, bolstered by Damien Atkins in a riveting cameo, battles its way through the dense and unruly emotions on which the play is built. And in the end, this proves to be far more of a no-holds-barred street fight than anything ever imagined by the Marquis of Queensbury, but it is the courage and commitment, with which that battle is joined, that carries the day. Rooney threatens to quite literally cut to the bone in his attempt to find the heart of his character, while Thomson and Watson fill their performances with the kind of subtle autobiographical detail that make a committed audience feel almost voyeuristic. SOMEONE ELSE may not be a great play, but when a good play is staged with this kind of passion and courage, it can come mighty close.

Friday, January 11, 2013


JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
10 JAN 2013
R: 3/5

Pictured: Mike Shara

TORONTO - Today, it’s hard to believe playwright Arthur Schnitzler set the world of fin de siecle Vienna on its rather staid ear with a series of one act playlets — curtain raisers, really — entitled ANATOL, particularly after you’ve seen THE AMOROUS ADVENTURES OF ANATOL, playwright/director Morris Panych’s new adaptation of Shnitzler’s work which launched a new year on the mainstage of the Tarragon Theatre Wednesday, after a Vancouver première a few years ago.

Both in Shnitzler’s tale and Panych’s collected adaptation, the story is built around the romantic entanglements of his titular character — a deeply attractive but deeply shallow man-about-town for whom falling madly in love signals not a call to settle down, but rather as signal to start of the search for the next ‘victim’ in his ongoing series of conquests.

For both the Tarragon production, and his earlier Vancouver run, Panych has chosen to build the action around Mike Shara’s Anatol, and, from a comedic perspective, it is a wise choice. Shara turns in yet another of his easy, loopy loveable comedic performances and has his audience eating out of his hand mere moments into the 90 minute run of the show. And Panych’s casting acumen doesn’t stop there, following it up with impressive turns from Robert Persichini, cast as Max, best friend and emotional foil to the mercurial Anatol — and from assistant director Adam Paolozza as Gregor, majordomo and valet.

Meanwhile, Nicole Underhay plays all seven of the women with whom Anatol is serially smitten and here, Panych is considerably less successful. While Underhay’s string of performances underline the fact that our ‘hero’ falls in love with the same woman time after time, that is accomplished in the first three costume changes. And, just in case math is not your long suit, that leaves four more wardrobe changes as Panych keeps striking his point like a gong.

Happily, those costume changes are pleasant, thanks to designer Charlotte Dean, and as usual, Ken MacDonald’s set — a lovely blend of art nouveau and Secession sensibilities — offers some ornate eye candy as distraction. But ultimately, something has been lost in Panych’s translation/adaptation, for despite Shara’s fine performance, with Persichini playing a curmudgeonly Colonel Pickering to his amorous Henry Higgins, Panych hasn’t figured out a reason for doing it all.

If, as Schnitzler seems to have intended, he’s staging it to make some sort of comment on the morality of the day, then the changing morals of the last century and more demand he probe far deeper, sexually and emotionally, than he does here. If, on the other hand, his intention is to turn ANATOL into farce, then he needs a whole lot more froth. Like Schnitzler’s Reigen — better known today as La RondeTHE AMOROUS ADVENTURES OF ANATOL just keep going around in circles, and frankly, it’s far more of a merry-go-round than a roller-coaster.

Saturday, January 5, 2013


Special to TorSun
05 JAN 2013
R: 3.5/5

Pictured: Lisa Berry, Sergio Di Zio, Ari Cohen

Playwright Hannah Moscovitch, one suspects, did not set out to write yet another entry in the massive War is Hell literary compendium — but that's what she has done in a new work titled THIS IS WAR, which had its world première Thursday in the Tarragon Extra Space.

But along the way, she manages to strike a few chords that resonate with a deeper truth — chords of human decency and compassion stretched to the breaking point as soldiers struggle to do right in a world painted almost exclusively in various shades of wrong.

Set in Canada, THIS IS WAR is a memory play, with four Canadian soldiers recalling a particularly tragic mission in Afghanistan in which they seemingly stood by while the Afghan army inflicted atrocities on the enemy. But as each of them recalls that mission, Moscovitch makes it abundantly clear that this entire war, like all war, is little more than a series of atrocities and that the seat of justice is a hot seat indeed. In a series of flashbacks to events that led up to the mission, she sculpts a series of complex human relationships, carved of necessity by the erosion of simple humanity in the face of horror and deprivation.

When it comes to war, Captain Hughes (played by Ari Cohen) and Corporal Young (Lisa Berry) are seasoned veterans, and, as such, they are both touched and amused by the naiveté of young Private Henderson (Ian Lake), fresh from high school in Red Deer and ill-prepared for the horrors Afghanistan throws at him, almost from the get-go.

But as they face the rigours of the next day's mission, pre-battle tensions are suddenly ignited by the long-smouldering sparks of human sexuality and the ensuing explosion leaves them all unprepared to cope with the tragedies they must face, despite the ministration of Sergeant Anders (Sergio Di Zio), a good-hearted medic doing his level best to keep things on an even keel.

On the plus side, director Richard Rose gives us four finely-hewn and commanding performances, although finally one wishes he'd reined the otherwise superb Cohen in for his final scenes, instead of allowing him to fly so high that his audience simply abandons him.

Sadly that's not the only problem. While, at least to the untutored eye, Camellia Koo's costumes fairly drip military veracity, her set — a intricate cocoon of desert camouflage — is heavy-handed and ultimately obtrusive. Meanwhile, as Moscovitch weaves her elaborate tapestry of time and place, a few of the events —  a scene involving Henderson's problems with inmate sweat, for instance —  simply don't ring particularly true, apparently existing only for comic relief. 

And worst of all, the recollection of each event described in the play is evoked by the unheard but apparently probing and insightful questions of an invisible but obviously omnipotent journalist, wielding an authority more appropriate to the presiding officer in a court martial. This may indeed be war, but, even in hell, could all four of these soldiers finally be so naive as to not simply tell their unseen interrogator to bugger off?