Friday, February 22, 2013


Pictured: Michelle Monteith in 'Little One'

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
21 FEB 2013
R: 4/5

TORONTO - Apparently, playwright Hannah Moscovitch doesn’t collect broken characters so she can repair them or at least patch them up, in the way a collector of clocks, say, might collect broken timepieces with a view to restoring them. Instead, her menagerie of the damned — soldiers suffering from post-traumatic shock, abused children and the obsessed and obsessive adults they become — seems to have been assembled so she can document their wounds and examine the ways in which they have been inflicted.

And while the plays she makes with them may not always make for comfortable theatrical experiences in the conventional sense, they almost always make for compelling ones instead. 
And the two plays on offer in the Tarragon Theatre’s Extra Space in what is billed as A HANNAH MOSCOVITCH DOUBLE BILL  — an exploration of twisted sibling rivalry titled LITTLE ONE and a dissection of a dysfunctional modern marriage titled OTHER PEOPLE'S CHILDREN — certainly fit the Moscovitch mold.

Linked somewhat nebulously by Asian immigrant women — the first an unseen mail-order bride from Vietnam, the second a Sri Lankan nanny —  and by the playwright, these two plays offer further proof of Moscovitch’s uncanny ability to dissect the human psyche with an almost clinical dispassion and lay bare the myriad ways in which it can be bent, folded and otherwise mutilated. Under the direction of Natasha Mytnowych, LITTLE ONE stars Michelle Monteith and Joe Cobden as adopted siblings, Claire and Aaron, growing up under the gathering shadow of Claire’s demons, while a troubled marriage plays out next door. A play of memory, told from the perspective of a grown Aaron, it is beautifully and precisely acted and simply but powerfully staged on Michael Gianfrancesco’s set, with a powerful assist from Kimberly Purtell’s lighting.

Gianfrancesco and Purtell also make a major contribution to the mood of OTHER PEOPLE'S CHILDREN, as well, in which a mysterious Sati, a Sri Lankan nanny played by Elisa Moolecherry, finds herself drawn into the heart of a troubled marriage. Hired by Ilana (Niki Landau) and Ben (Gray Powell) to care for their infant daughter, Sati is soon caught up and swept away in the riptides that swirl beneath the surface of this ‘perfect’ marriage. Under the direction of Paul Lampert, who successfully transforms this tiny space into a mansion, it too features fine acting creating a triptych of emotional horror, painted with a kind of precise detail normally reserved for tranquil still life paintings.

But finally, with character and shapes given so much precedence over plot and resolution, Moscovitch’s efforts here emerge more as complex character studies than as plays — and after seeing two of them in one evening, don’t be surprised to find yourself longing for a bit of theatrical catharsis to wash away the tension and make the journey worthwhile.

The HANNAH MOSCOVITCH DOUBLE BILL continues through March 24, with In This World replacing Little One from March 19.  


Pictured: Jeff Lillico, Sterling Jarvis, Maria Ricossa, Audrey Dwyer

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
21 FEB 2013
R: 3.5/5

TORONTO - It may be a Chicago suburb, but Toronto audiences have spent a lot of time in CLYBOURNE PARK nonetheless. First, in 2008, Soulpepper mounted a production of Lorraine Hansberry’s iconic race drama, A Raisin in the Sun, set in the sometimes-troubled inner-city area of the windy city, reviving it in 2010. Then last year, Studio 180 teamed with Canadian Stage to visit the same locale in Bruce NorrisCLYBOURNE PARK — a more recent play set in the same home in which Hansberry’s Raisin unfolds, and playing out in the days immediately preceding Raisin and a half-century after it.

But while the setting for both plays is same, the focus isn’t, for where Hansberry plumbed racial tensions festering in Shytown, Norris splits his focus, exploring other American values as well, the most important of which would seem be the value of American real estate. And now, CLYBOURNE PARK is back, with a revival of Studio 180’s production that opened on the stage of the Panasonic Tuesday, the latest entry in the off-Mirvish season.

Featuring the same cast, this is, nonetheless, a somewhat larger affair, featuring a subtly expanded version of Michael Gianfrancesco’s set design, originally created for the more intimate Berkeley Street space in which it was originally mounted. And it’s not just the set that’s bigger, with almost everyone in the cast tackling their double casting with a renewed relish, eager, it seems, to finally embrace the warts with which the playwright has imbued his characters.

But as they set about inhabiting the two eras in which the play is set — the white-dominated middle class period of the late ’50s and a more contemporary middle class era where prejudices are more closely held and guarded — they lose their way. Under the direction of Joel Greenberg, most of the seven-member cast go completely over the top, creating caricatures of racism and greed, where the script demands characters simply flawed by racism and greed instead.

While Michael Healey tackles both his roles with the kind of over-embroidered enthusiasm we’ve grown to expect, Jeff Lillico, Mark McGrinder, Kimwun Perehinec and, to a lesser degree, Audrey Dwyer seem so eager to demonstrate the range of their acting abilities that their thespian aspirations overshadow the demands of character and balance. Pity is, all they really had to do was look to performances crafted by Maria Ricossa and Sterling Jarvis, both of whom manage to create well-rounded characters whose good hearts and humanity are balanced in some degree by the racial and financial exigencies of life in Clybourne Park.

In his first go at this script, Greenberg seemed to encourage his cast to sidestep the uniquely American issues the play explores. This time out, he has allowed them to embrace those issues with a vengeance that ultimately unbalances things. The perfect production of CLYBOURNE PARK, one suspects, would be about half-way between those two extremes — and probably about 850 km to the southwest.

Friday, February 15, 2013


Pictured: Ted Dykstra, Jordan Pettle

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
15 FEB 2013
R: 3/5

TORONTO - Imagine being trapped in a situation where everyone else knows exactly what’s happening and what to do, while you are forced to make it up as you go along. It’s the stuff of which nightmares — and the best kind of absurdist theatre — are made. That would be absurdist theatre the likes of which was created by  playwright Tom Stoppard in a seminal deconstruction of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, titled ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD —  a work revived by Soulpepper in a production that opened Wednesday at the Young Centre.

As written, Stoppard’s 1966 work is a dizzying sort of affair, wherein our focus becomes not the melancholy Prince of Denmark and the horns of his dilemma, but rather the two all but inconsequential characters of title. And while Hamlet’s erstwhile classmates certainly seem surprised to find themselves suddenly centre stage in a crisis everyone understands but them, they give it a game try, even though it is obvious they are in way over their heads.

Under the direction of Joe Ziegler, Ted Dykstra is cast as Rosencrantz opposite Jordan Pettle’s Guildenstern — although even they seem to have trouble figuring out which is which and who is who, as they wander, in utter bewilderment, though the carnage Stoppard has created in engineering this head-on collision between Shakespeare’s best known tragedy and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

For those who have followed his work, Dykstra’s uncanny and oft-demonstrated ability to shine brightest as the dullest bulb in the chandelier is happily no less delightful here for its familiarity and, indeed, he proves to be the standout in what emerges, at best, as a pretty perfunctory production of a classic. As his more bookish, but no less confused sidekick, Pettle never lets us see him sweat, contenting himself with merely showing up and delivering his lines, making no attempt whatsoever to inhabit the utter bewilderment his character tries so hard to disguise with his bookishness.

As the two of them get more and more tangled in events that they clearly don’t understand, Stoppard anchors it all with glimpses of the familiar tragedy unfolding around them, with Soulpepper regulars Gregory Prest, Diego Matamoros, Nancy Palk, William Webster and Kenneth Welsh stepping into characters like Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius and the Player King respectively, all to adequate effect. From his directoral perch, Ziegler does a more than workman-like job of moving things along, enabling the intrepid titular twosome at the heart of his tale to wander with ease in and out of Shakespeare’s familiar story in search of meaning — but ultimately it feels like his focus has been more on dealing with the challenges of staging a proscenium play in the round, rather than on shaping performances to cultivate the confusion from which the comedy grows. So, in the end, the news that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead is more than mitigated by the fact that they failed to come to life in the first place.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


Special to TorSun
12 FEB 2013
R: 3/5

Dienye Waboso, Oyin Oladejo

TORONTO - Those who doubt the up-hill battle women face — who dispute that a successful woman must be able to do everything a man can do and do it twice as well — consider this: Moses only returned to Egypt once before he lead his people out of slavery to a land of milk and honey — and for that, a whole book of the Bible has been devoted to his exploits. An escaped black slave named Harriet Tubman, on the other hand, returned to the land of her enslavement numerous times to lead her people out — and she’s been all but forgotten. Mind you, in the promised land to which Tubman delivered her people — a place called Canada —  milk and honey might be frozen for months on end, but freedom was on tap year ’round.

Happily, a century after her death, the life of this escaped slave who became one of the most celebrated conductors on the Underground Railroad is being examined in a play titled THE POWER OF HARRIET T!, which opened on at Young People’s Theatre last week to mark Black History Month.
Written by Michael Miller and directed by Tanisha Taitt, THE POWER… is, in the main, a worthy endeavour, if one is prepared to discount the lacklustre musical contributions of Alejandra Nunez — a series of forgettable songs that not only add nothing to the tale, but serve to interrupt its flow in the process.

Tubman is well played as a young woman by Oyin Oladejo and, in her older incarnation, by Dienye Waboso, who often acts as mentor and helpmate to Tubman’s younger self as the script asks each to slip in and out of supporting roles as the story unfolds. With Michael Blake, Matthew Owen Murray and Hannah Cheesman in a range of supporting roles, Tubman’s story unfolds on an attractive set designed by Kimberly Purtell and lit by Rebecca Picherack.

But while Miller’s story does a fine job of documenting the things that drove Tubman to seek freedom, examining not only the appalling conditions of slavery in the American South while it celebrates the Underground Railway in which Tubman served such a pivotal role, its focus on her early life seems all wrong. For, while Exodus certainly touches on the bondage Moses’s people endured, what resonates today is not that bondage, but rather a leader’s willingness to risk everything in a flight to a better life.
 That’s the flight Tubman made more than a dozen times, according to most history books, before serving the Union side in the American Civil War, as a cook, a nurse and as a spy. And frankly, while the suffering she endured as a slave — the suffering  her people endured — should never be forgotten, it is her tremendous spirit, her indomitable will, her unflagging courage and finally what she did with her hard-won freedom that deserves to be celebrated.

Saturday, February 9, 2013


Special to TorSun
09 FEB 2013
R: 4.5/5

Pictured:Joseph Pierre, Sascha Cole

If Shakespeare knew he was writing for the ages, he might have done things differently — created more empowered women, for instance, or thrown in more cross-cultural casting to stave off carping in the 21st century. Instead, he wisely focused on keeping his audience engaged without offending the sensibilities of the last of the Tudors (who, after all, could not only close him down, but cut off his head). So, 450 years after his birth, hindsight has highlighted the the gaps in his work — and it has fallen to an elite group of daring contemporary playwrights to correct problems created by passing time and changing mores.

In Canada, Anne Marie MacDonald rather famously gave contemporary voice to Shakespeare's women in Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), for instance,  and now Joseph Jomo Pierre is doing much the same for the "Moorish" element in Shakespeare's roster in a play titled SHAKESPEARE'S NIGGA. It had its world première at Theatre Passe Muraille Thursday, a production of Obsidian Theatre, in association with TPM (re-establishing itself as one of Toronto's most daring theatres) and 3D Atomic.

As confrontational and subversive as its title implies, SHAKESPEARE'S NIGGA co-opts two of the playwright's most enduring black characters — the brilliant but insecure Othello and the malevolent Aaron, the driving force behind the horror of Titus Andronicus — and pits them in a duel to the death.

Played by Andre Sills and the playwright respectively, Othello and Aaron exist on a time-warped and decaying estate, overseen by an aging and self-satisfied Shakespeare (played by John Jarvis). Both are slaves to the bard, it seems, but there is a vast difference in their station. The ambitious Othello, in fact, has learned to work the system and prospers, while Aaron, the perpetual outsider, rejects the slavery in which he lives despite the whippings and confinement he is forced to endure.

Othello aspires to marry Shakespeare's daughter, Judith, played by Sascha Cole, with whom he has grown up and who is in turn madly in love with Aaron. When Judith's sudden pregnancy collides with a bit of "family lore" mined from the Dark Lady sonnets and served up by the aged house slave Tyrus (David Collins), tragedy of a truly Shakespearean magnitude ensues.

As directed by Philip Akin, this is thought-provoking, often daring stuff — edgy and sensual and subversively seductive, written in a language that honours Shakespeare at the same time as it refuses to be bound by him. Both Pierre and Sills give powerful, considered performances that deserve a stronger foil than Jarvis offers in his Shakespeare-lite turn. For her part, Cole (also cast in an equine supporting role) rises above the costuming excesses of Melanie McNeill and gets to the meat of the matter, while Collins skims fine comedic moments from the surface of his character.

In the main, however, Akin ensures that the real star here is Pierre-as-playwright, eloquently, boldly breaking dramatic chains inadvertently forged over four centuries ago, demanding in very meaningful ways that we look beyond race to define a man.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Special to TorSun
06 FEB 2013
R: 2.5/5

Pictured: Keri Alkema, Isabel Leonard

TORONTO - In today’s world, the quality of mercy may not be strained, but the quality of clemency has gone to hell in a handbasket. That would be “clemency” as in LA CLEMENZA DI TITO, an opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that, while not considered one of his best, still demonstrates his enduring genius as a composer.

Happily, the power of that music remains undiminished in a new production of LA CLEMENZA unveiled by the Canadian Opera Company on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre Sunday. In fact, in the end, it is his music, served up with superb artistry by the COC Orchestra under Daniel Cohen, backing a hugely talented cast, that keeps this production afloat. And they do it despite what appears to be the best effort of director Christopher Alden and his design team to sink the whole production like a stone.

Alden, the controversial director behind divisive high-concept productions like The Flying Dutchman and Rigoletto, once again approaches his task with more alacrity than finesse, jettisoning such superfluities as plot and character development lest they interfere in any way with what he wants to show us. And apparently, what he wants us to see is a decadent empire in modern-day microcosm rather than the ancient Roman variety in which it is set, because clearly, without his help, we aren’t bright enough to find modern day resonances on our own.

And just to ensure that we don’t miss his point, he sets us down in what appears to be the staging area of a vast sporting complex, populated by a masked chorus drawn from the ranks of las madres de la Plaza de Mayo and ruled over by an Emperor Tito (tenor Michael Schade) in love with his pyjamas and his security blanket (actually, it might be a carpet), nursing a vision of himself as a man of mercy. He is so caught up in reinforcing that image, in fact, that he completely overlooks the fact that Vitellia (soprano Keri Alkema), the daughter of the man he deposed, is expecting him to save her from her natural calling as a table dancer by marrying her and making her empress. In revenge for Tito’s apparent oversight, she seduces Tito’s noble friend Sesto (soprano Isabel Leonard) into fomenting a rebellion to sweep the emperor from his throne. By the time Vitellia learns Tito has feelings matrimonial, it is too late to stop the unsuccessful coup-in-progress and Sesta is sentenced to die.

The cast is rounded out by soprano Wallis Giunta (doing a truly bad Michael Cera impersonation as Annio), bass Robert Gleadow (captain of the guard) and soprano Mireille Asselin (as Sesto’s sister Servilia) and it’s an impressive group, rich in vocal artistry and power. But sadly, once designers Andrew Cavanaugh Holland (sets), Terese Wadden (costumes) and Gary Marder (lighting) are done fleshing out Alden’s bizarre vision, only Leonard is left with even a shred of human dignity. But not even she gets any time off for good behaviour.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


Special to TorSun
03 FEB 2013
R: 2/5

Pictured: Earl Pastko, Nina Lee Aquino, Jon de Leon

In the wake of the sacking of Factory Theatre's founder and long-time artistic director Ken Gass and his subsequent brawl with the board of directors, new hands are now at the helm of of the venerable theatre. Their mission? To steer the good ship Factory, badly damaged by the storm of controversy that followed Gass's dismissal, into calmer waters where it can find safe anchor to rebuild its reputation as a showcase for Canadian creativity.

And while Nigel Shawn Williams and Nina Lee Aquino have shown tremendous courage in stepping in as interim artistic directors charged with finding that safe harbour — or at least keeping things afloat 'til someone else is named to the position — it could be a rough ride, judging from their first endeavour. To put the best possible face on it, about the best thing that can be said of their first collaboration is that they've left themselves plenty of room for improvement.

Factory's shortened season opened Thursday with the world première of EVERY LETTER COUNTS, Aquino's very personal exploration of a brief childhood encounter with her paternal uncle, Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, a Filipino politician and activist whose assassination may have led to the fall of the regime of President Ferdinand Marcos. Courageous and charismatic, her uncle's life and death offers a motherlode of dramatic possibility — but what makes it to the stage, despite Williams heroic attempts at directorial triage, doesn't impress.

For openers, Aquino, who plays Bunny, (apparently, various younger incarnations of herself) in the production, anchors the work in a Manila museum dedicated to her uncle's memory and while museums rarely make a fertile medium for theatre, this one strikes new lows. For, in flashing backward and forward in time, the playwright fails to find any effective way of letting her audience know where and when we have been set down — a problem further exacerbated by Aquino's leaden performance, grinding out a belligerent Bunny untouched by time, exactly the same as an ailing child playing Scrabble with her uncle, or as a brooding, belligerent adult, wandering an empty museum in the throes of some ill-defined health crisis.

In this, it must be said, she appears to take after her father (played by Anthony Malarky), who prowls the periphery of the story, drink in hand, like he's hoping to find something to do before he passes out. Earl Pastko, meanwhile, drops in periodically, as the ghost of dictators past, dropping clichés like they were designer shoes. As the great man Aquino himself, Jon de Leon does some charming work — enough, in fact, that one wishes he'd been given more into which to sink his teeth than can be found this good-hearted but clearly wrong-headed project.

In attempting to pass off Scrabble as a metaphor for life, Aquino overlooks the fact that, while every letter may count, they count for so much more when they are transformed into words and then into meaningful sentences.


Special to TorSun
31 JAN 2013
R: 4/5

Pictured: Some of the RARE company

TORONTO - Normally, all theatre demands from its audience is a willing — albeit temporary — suspension of disbelief. But in RARE, playwright/director Judith Thompson has created a work that demands — and finally commands — a very willing and permanent suspension of long-held misbelief instead It is a show that more than lives up to its title, clearly well worth the investment of an hour of anyone’s time, and more. Created by Thompson and a cast of nine collaborators, RARE debuted at last year’s Fringe Festival and has been remounted for a limited run at the Young Centre, where it opened Wednesday, a production of RARE Theatre Company.

At the very start of the play, one might be tempted to observe that all nine of the performers who have collaborated with Thompson in the show’s creation — Sarah Carney, Dylan Harman, James Hazlett, Nick Herd, Suzanne Love, Mike Liu, Nada Mayla, Krystal Nausbaum and Andreas Prinz — suffer from Down Syndrome But as each member of this disciplined, but wonderfully rambunctious, group tells his or her highly personal story, interspersed with readings, dances and songs (backed by collaborator Victoria Carr), it becomes clear that what they suffer from, in fact, is not the condition that has marked them as different since birth, but rather the reaction the rest of the world has to that condition.

For, very quickly, though its manifestations remain, that shared “condition” disappears and they emerge as nine individuals, rich in love and dreams, each struggling as we all do to find and maintain a place in a complicated world. Male, female, gay, straight and of multiple ethnicities, they are each of them unique, connected too often, primarily by the doors that are closed to them. Some, like the smooth-talking Herd and the sweet-natured Carney have been friends for years, while others like the multi-lingual Mayla, who came to Canada as a refugee and dreams of returning to her native Lebanon, are newer to the group. They share, each of them, a simple dignity and grace as they — sometimes proudly, sometimes shyly — confide their heartbreaks and their dreams.

Nausbaum yearns for a child. Liu wants to keep his job. Herd dreams of meeting his Prince Charming. Love wants to be just like her sisters and Harman burns with an acting ambition that is little short of incandescent. All of which makes the simplicity and earnestness with which they discuss the pain of being seen too often merely as a disability rather than as an individual, even by members of their own families, little short of heartbreaking.

And in sharing their stories, they create a show that celebrates the life they’ve been given — lives clearly enriched as often as challenged by the condition they share. In the end, RARE is not a show about nine people with Down Syndrome, but rather a show about nine of the most extraordinary ordinary people you’re likely to find on any stage, anywhere.