Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Pictured: David Storch, Michael Dufays

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
26 MARCH 2013
R: 5/5

TORONTO - From a part of the world best known of late for cataclysmic collisions between shifting tectonic plates, playwright Daniel MacIvor has mined a stagework that brings together the templates of two cultures, not in a violent grinding confrontation, but in a thoughtful, exquisite fusion instead. 
It’s called ARIGATO, TOKYO and it had its world première at Buddies In Bad Times last week.

Inspired by MacIvor’s own visit to Tokyo, the play — the title of which translates loosely (and with cavalier inaccuracy) as Thank You, Tokyo —  tells the story of Carl, a Canadian writer, played with relish and artfully restrained abandon by David Storch. By his own admission, Carl lives for drugs and sex, but he is about to be transformed by a visit to the city of title. He’s there, it develops, to read from his collected and highly cynical works, which he does  — but there is a deeper reason for his visit too.

It might be to fall into the trap, spun by his beautiful and mysterious Japanese handler, Nushi (played by a note-perfect Cara Gee), who sees in him the embodiment of the hero of an ancient love story, or it might be simply to effect a sexual reunion with the exotic drag geisha, Etta Waki who, in the performance of the remarkable Tyson James, is transformed into the very soul of this pulsating and mysterious city.

Or finally, it might be to understand the subtle differences that hide in the spaces between “no,” “know” and “noh’ — the latter an ancient Japanese theatrical form practised by Nushi’s brother, played by a beautifully centred Michael Dufays — and thereby find his way back home.

Working with one of the more impressive casts assembled on a Toronto stage in some time, director Brendan Healy embraces the utter simplicity at the heart of all great Japanese art. In a memorable conspiracy  with his design team — sets and costumes by Julie Fox, lighting by Kimberly Purtell, sound and music by Richard Feren and choreography by Hiroshi Miyamoto — he creates a production spare in all the right ways, stripped of anything that might detract from the richness of the characters and the story they tell.

And best of all, he finds in MacIvor’s carefully and beautifully drawn script, a perfect balance of the elements of Japanese flavour. To the saltiness of tears, the bitterness of loss, the sourness of excess and finally the sweetness of love, he adds just the right amount of umami — that exquisite but oh-so-hard-to-define theatrical element that exists in all the plays we savour — to finish it off to perfection.
 ARIGATO, TOKYO is a deeply complex work that, in its setting and development, represents a major departure for a playwright known for simpler works like Here Lies Henry and Cul-de-sac, but ultimately, it soars on the same carefully considered construction and artfully under-drawn human compassion that has made MacIvor one of the greats of contemporary Canadian theatre.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
24 MARCH 2013
R: 3.5/5

In the quest for  minimalist theatre perfection, Canadian Stage's Matthew Jocelyn seems to think it all comes down to this. Or, more precisely, THIS — a contemporary one-act dramatic comedy (or "un-romantic comedy" as it is styled in press notes) by Canadian-born, New York-based playwright Melissa James Gibson. This opened under Jocelyn's direction in the Berkeley Street Theatre Thursday.

And in fairness, THIS is pretty good stuff — filled with witty, bordering on brittle, dialogue as it holds a magic mirror to modern life to show us a reflection that is probably more flattering, certainly more compassionate, than we deserve.

It's the story of four 30-somethings who have been friends since college, each of whom seems to be in the throes of a uniquely personal mid-life crisis. Jane (Laura Condlln) is about to celebrate her first anniversary as a widow, while Tom (Jonathon Young), a carpenter, and Marrell (Yanna McIntosh), a jazz singer,  find parenthood an awkward fit. Alan (Alon Nashman), meanwhile, may have  turned his photographic memory into a professional parlour trick, but as the gay man in the group, he's growing tired of being odd man out.

As THIS commences, this quartet is soldiering on, despite individual discontents, but the arrival of catalyst Jean-Pierre (Christian Laurin), a suave member of Doctors Without Borders, causes a tectonic shift in personal boundaries. Alliances are redrawn and the very fabric of their friendships are altered as they retrench for the life after THIS.

It's not earth-moving stuff, but it has a lot of conventional charm, particularly as it affords an opportunity to see artistic chameleons like McIntosh and Nashman strut their stuff. And with these two in top form, Jocelyn also manages to get the most from the rest of his cast, in the process proving himself seemingly more at home in the more intimate confines of this space than he has ever been on the more cavernous Bluma Appel stage.

All of which leaves one wondering why he has chosen, in concert with designer Astrid Janson, to give an essentially conventional play such an unconventional staging, stripping the theatre to its bare walls and moving seating from the balcony to a corner of the staging area to create a sort of diagonal thrust that blends players and audience in an inseparable landscape that, like Jean-Pierre's work, seems to have no borders.

It's an effective metaphor, as far as it goes, but it is also a perpetual reminder that we are in the theatre, sharing the space and the story with others — a sort of one-up on the more conventional black box, which sought to create a canvas for individual imaginations by offering a blank screen and licence to project. It could be an interesting bit of artifice for the right vehicle — but frankly, for my taste, THIS is not that vehicle, and it is a testament to the strength of story teller and the cast that all THIS comes together in the end.

Friday, March 22, 2013


Pictured: Greta Hodgkinson, Guillaume Côté

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
23 MARCH 2013
R: 5/5

To everything there is a season, we are told — and happily to every season, there seems to be a rhythm that rarely gets old. For proof, look no further than the balletic masterpiece that is THE FOUR SEASONS — a signature work created for the National Ballet of Canada in 1997 by then-artistic director James Kudelka. In the intervening years, despite its brevity (it clocks in just shy of 45 minutes), it  has emerged as one of the most treasured works in the company's extensive repertoire.

And with good reason, as proven once again in the current revisiting, which opened in concert with Crystal Pite's more contemporary EMERGENCE in an evening of mixed programming at the Four Seasons Centre Wednesday.

Set to Vivaldi's all-but-ubiquitous work of the same name and featuring violinist Stephen Sitarski, THE FOUR SEASONS overlays the seasons of a man's life with the seasons of the calendar and binds them into a stirring meditation that overflows with joy and sorrow, reflection and exploration, life and death. Guillaume Côté is cast as A Man, and he leads us through the seasons of his life with assurance and grace, each of those seasons made memorable not just by his interaction with a single ballerina, but by his work with the corps as well, creating in the process, a community that supports him even while it seems to interfere with his desires.

As his Spring, Stacy Shiori Minagawa turns in a performance as fine and delicate as the first snowdrops of the season, while as Autumn, Stephanie Hutchison gives us a highly feminine season rich and ripe, before mellowing into a glorious Winter, danced by Xiao Nan Yu, centred and soaring in her maturity.

But memorable as those three seasons are, Summer is, fittingly in a winter that seems determined not to relinquish its grasp, the season that lingers in the heart, danced as it is with commanding finesse by the ethereal and incomparable Greta Hodgkinson, who drew deserved cheers from an opening night audience, conspiring with Côté to evoke the kind of long, hot summer of which dreams are woven.

There is, of course, the rhythm of another kind of life at the heart of Pite's EMERGENCE, which uses the world of insects as its inspiration and moves to more natural cadences of captured in Owen Belton's naturalistic score.

A bold departure from the carefully controlled classicism that inspired THE FOUR SEASONS, EMERGENCE uses almost the entire company, moving in strict unity, to create a rhythmic militaristic quality that proves hypnotic in an eerily fascistic way. But it also offers a showcase for artists like Aleksandar Antonijevic, Keiichi Hirano, Elena Lobsanova, Heather Ogden, Sonia Rodriguez, Piotr Stanczyk and Patrick Lavoie, many of whom are given moments in the spotlight before blending once again with the dancing swarm. And happily, the rhythms of both linger long after the curtain falls.

Monday, March 18, 2013


Pictured: Dean Gilmour, Nina Gilmour, Dan Watson, Julian De Zotti

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
18 MARCH 2013
R: 4/5

In bringing a great work of literature to the stage, the goal should always be to capture the flavour and essence of the source work, rather than to simply re-tell its story, chapter and verse. And when the great work of literature in question is a complex piece of fiction like William Faulkner's ground-breaking AS I LAY DYING, capturing even the flavour and the essence represents a major challenge.

Happily, it's a challenge the collaborative company assembled by Dean Gilmour and Michele Smith, principals of the long-running Theatre Smith-Gilmour, proves to be more than capable of meeting in a new stage adaptation that had its world première on the Theatre Passe Muraille mainstage Wednesday.

A sort of Southern Gothic precursor to The Grapes of Wrath, complete with internal monologues, AS I LAY DYING tells the hard-scrabble story of the impoverished Bundren clan as they undertake the burial of deceased matriarch Addie (played by Smith) in far-away Jefferson (where she grew up), thus keeping a promise made to her in life by her shiftless, toothless husband Anse (Gilmour), whom she despised.

And so, despite tremendous hardship, much of it self-inflicted, the bereaved patriarch marshals the couple's brood — the dependable Cash (Dan Watson), the loquacious Darl (Julian De Zotti), the untameable Jewel (Benjamin Muir), the reluctantly fecund Dewey Dell (Nina Gilmour) and the wide-eyed Vardaman (Daniel Roberts) — and  undertakes a mule-powered voyage across rural Mississippi, flying in the face of conventional wisdom, good taste, a perpetual shortage resources and pretty much anything Mother Nature can throw in their way.

Rich in both occasion and character, this is a story that places a heavy demand on its cast, demanding that most take on several other roles in addition to their Bundren incarnation. And happily, working with simple costume elements and nose pieces, they successfully transform themselves into the required multitude as the Dundrens make their dolorous passage, charged with an increasingly noisome cargo that festers like the deep-rooted family secrets and antagonisms that travel with it.

Growing as it does from Smith-Gilmour's long tradition of mime and clowning, this take on AS I LAY DYING does, on occasion, feel a little over-simplified as it unfolds on an uncluttered and versatile set designed by Teresa Przybylski (who also created the costuming), but in the main, it is riveting theatre. This is an American tragedy, spiced by just the faintest lashings of black humour, applied with a master's touch. 

That's all tribute to the skill and creative vision of a strong ensemble, enriched by particularly vivid performances from Muir (who could be the world's first-ever horseless bronc riding champion), Gilmour the younger (who transforms desperation into a palpable companion) and Watson (who provides the heart and moral anchor of the tale).

And while, in the end, one may find oneself wishing they had honed it to  a darker edge on occasion, one can't help but be hugely impressed by what they have achieved nonetheless — and chances are, like fine wine, this  will no doubt improve with age. 

Friday, March 15, 2013


Pictured: Guillaume Côté, Elena Lobsanova

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
15 MARCH 2012
R: 5/5

TORONTO -  For many, it was love at first sight back in November, 2011, when the National Ballet of Canada premièred a brand new production of ROMEO AND JULIET, choreographed for a company determined to celebrate its 60th anniversary in high balletic style, by Alexei Ratmansky, a Russian-born dance maker and something in the way of an international sensation.

Time passes however, and for those who might have started to wonder whether that initial infatuation would prove to be fleeting or whether it would deepen into something more enduring, a second look was in order — a second look that came when NBOC artistic director Karen Kain brought Ratmansky's R&J back to the the stage of the Four Seasons Centre, where it opened Tuesday. And Toronto, it seems, fell in love with it all over again.

In fact, flushed as it is with the success of an Ottawa engagement earlier this year, and on the cusp of an engagement in London, England, Ratmansky's effervescent, youthful and highly energetic take on Shakespeare's most enduring romantic tragedy is perhaps even more winning than it was the first time around, carried aloft as much by its growing youthful swagger as by the glorious music of Sergei Prokofiev, served up with great style by the NBOC Orchestra, under Ormsby Wilkins, returning briefly to the company's fold.

Mind you, for those more accustomed to the stately elegance of the company's original R&J, a long-time dance staple choreographed by John Cranko, there is probably still something a little shocking about designer Richard Hudson's  colourfully sun-drenched take on an early Renaissance Verona, full of youthful exuberance. But as Guillaume Côté's Romeo — a joyous evocation of a lad simply in love with love — falls prey to to the sweetly innocent charms with which Elena Lobsanova imbues her Juliet — those reservations must surely melt like so much fine beeswax in the heat of the passion that rages across the stage like a bonfire. 

And while their ill-fated love story represents the major focus of the tale, Ratmansky provides plenty of opportunity for the supporting cast to show us there is more than one story to be freed from Shakespeare's tale by a choreographer with the vision and the drive to mine them. And principal amongst those wonderful side trips would be Piotr Stanczyk's scene-stealing take on the tempestuous Mercutio, who, paired with an almost equally charming Benvolio, danced by Robert Stephen, embodies the spirit of youthful exuberance and joy that, in its passing, turns this tale into tragedy.

There's superb work too, from Jiří Jelinek, as a dark and simmering Tybalt who seems to invest every scene he's in with danger, and from Lorna Geddes, who as Juliet's long-suffering nurse, manages to fill every fluttering movement with an endearing mix of sympathy and affection. In putting them all together, Ratmansky has taken the essence of youth — that rush toward a tomorrow surely filled with adventure — and distilled it into a potent dance, filled with joy and tragedy in equal measure.

Monday, March 11, 2013


Pictured: Kawa Ada

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
11 MARCH 2013
R: 3.5/5

You don’t need to have parsed the ruins and charted the financial missteps that led to the 2008 collapse of Iceland’s three largest banks. You don’t even really need to know how to find Iceland on the map, one suspects. Because ICELAND — a Summerworks’ offering written by Nicolas Billon and revived as part of the Factory Theatre’s resurgent mainstay season (where it opened Thursday) — uses the sometimes over-heated island nation and its financial woes as mere metaphor for the kind of greed and desperation that fuelled banking meltdown across the free world. Set largely in a condo in Toronto’s Liberty Village, ICELAND brings together three people in search of cash and what it can buy.

Kassandra (played by Lauren Vandenbrook) is an attractive and ambitious young Estonian who sandwiches a bit of prostitution between her history courses in order to help pay off her twin brother’s gambling debts back in Europe. Halim (played by Kawa Ada), may be the Canadian-born son of Pakistani immigrants, but he’s bought into the American dream hook, line and sinker and believes that “money is everything.” And in order to get more of it, he’s in the process of flipping the condo in which the play is set. But to the deeply-repressed and religious Anna (Claire Calnan) it is not merely a condo he’s selling, but rather the place she made her home until Halim evicted her — and now Halim’s improvements have put it out of her price range.

Set on a studiedly bare stage furnished with only three chairs by designer Joanna Yu, each starkly lit by Kimberly Purtell, ICELAND is one of those ripped-from-the-radio shows that tells us what is happening instead of showing us. Happily, director Ravi Jain serves it up with a fair bit of slick theatrical polish, although fault lines are still evident as he and the playwright attempt to interweave three monologues into theatrical whole cloth.

Vandenbrook certainly brings visual veracity to her role and she might even be acting the part but with her penchant for swallowing lines like they were incriminating evidence, it is hard to tell.
And while Ada serves up Halim’s over-arching ambition and confidence with relish, Jain allows him to get so carried away that he overbalances, allowing the actor’s self-satisfaction to overshadow the character’s, turning what should be a dangerously repellant performance into a stand-up routine. 
Happily, Calnan’s ability to disappear into a character is undiminished and she manages to make a theatrical banquet out of what could be the script’s most clichéd character.

Still, clocking in at just a few minutes more than an hour, ICELAND proves to be yet another piece of the theatrical tapas spun off by our two major summer festivals, both of which are more proficient at producing theatrical snacks than full meals. And while ICELAND is certainly a tasty snack, it’s got a ways to go before it’s a full meal deal.

Thursday, March 7, 2013


Pictured: Mary Walsh

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
07 MARCH 2013
R: 4.5/5

TORONTO - If you thought a few broken ribs and two shots of pneumonia would slow Mary Walsh down — or even mellow her out —  you’ll be disappointed. Which will likely set you apart from audiences at the Panasonic where a show called DANCING WITH RAGE — a wholly-Mary-Mother-of-Codco theatrical affair that, in true Walsh style, gleefully eschews the comforting of the afflicted in favour of the afflicting of the comfortable — opened Wednesday. 

After the aformentioned medical problems scrubbed it from the TPM season last year, it became the final instalment in the inaugural off-Mirvish season. Written and performed by Walsh, it features a cast of her iconic characters — everyone from Marg Delahunty and her alter-ego, Marg, Princess Warrior, through to the lecherous Dakie Dunn, the salty-tongued Mrs. Eulalie, the sugar-rushed Connie Bloor and a host of others.

Under the co-direction of Walsh and long-time collaborator Andy Jones, they are slotted into a single storyline that is the life of Marg, from cradle to the grave decision to be reunited with her Expo 67 lovechild before her vision is destroyed by encroaching macular degeneration — a condition from which Walsh herself suffers. Indeed, there is much of Walsh’s own life caught up in the weave and (perhaps more especially) the warp of Marg’s tale, whether it be in the faux children’s tale of The Girl Who Grew Up Next Door to Her Family, or her colourful career as a student at a Catholic school for girls or Marg’s late life realization that alcohol and anger are a lethal cocktail.

The story is set on the Rock, of course, although there is a brief and hilarious side-trip to Ottawa where Marg fears she might have inadvertently given birth to the conservative resurgence in Canada. But Walsh’s love for the province she calls home is clear not only in the way she occasionally waxes poetic on its beauty, but also in the loving, if acerbic, way she portrays its people.
None of of which gets in the way of Walsh’s penchant for taking the rich and powerful down a peg and everyone from Moses Znaimer, Garth Drabinsky and yes, even Rob Ford to Stephen Harper is skewered in the style fans have grown to love (although it is safe to say that Ford, John Baird and a few of her other targets have rarely looked as good as they do in one particularly funny scene where Walsh explores naked emotion.)

Like a skilled juggler, Walsh is absolutely engaging as she hits the stage, creating, then changing characters before our eyes, spinning things faster and faster (with the help of a strong and effective video component) as she hypnotizes with her highly-refined if none-too-subtle mix of comedic dexterity and social commentary.
 Of course, there comes a point when it all comes crashing down, but happily Walsh, so adept within the short comedic skit, settles into the  90-minute format well, letting us down slowly and sending almost everyone — including a few of her targets, one suspects — out of the theatre dancing with joy.

Monday, March 4, 2013


Pictured: Guillaume Côté

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
03 MARCH 2013
R: 5/5

TORONTO - Long before Côté and Antonijevic, before Harrington and Augustyn, Baryshnikov and Nureyev, there was Nijinsky. And while great and memorable male dancers would emerge whether or not Nijinsky had existed, when it comes to men in ballet, it is nonetheless a memory of Nijinsky that still serves as yardstick by which great dancing is measured.

That said, a man dead for more than 60 years — a man who hadn’t danced publicly for 30 years before that — risks becoming more a memory than a man in the world of classical dance. Imagine measuring yourself against a ghost. So in 2000, choreographer John Neumeier created a new full length ballet that examined the triumphs and tragedies that marked the life of this dance legend — a complex, often compelling work titled simply NIJINSKY, which did much to flesh out his fading memory. NIJINSKY was welcomed into the repertoire of the National Ballet of Canada Saturday at the Four Seasons Centre, by an appreciative and enthusiastic audience.

In the main, this is a work that eschews conventional biographical detail in favour of the turbulent emotional landscape that shaped and ultimately consumed the great man’s career. It starts in the ballroom of the Switzerland’s Suvretta House Hotel, circa 1919, as a crowd gathers for what proves to be the final public performance of Vaslav Nijinsky, danced with barely-controlled abandon by Guillaume Côté.

As he enters the room, the dancer sees — or thinks he sees — impresario Serge Diaghilev (Jiří Jelinek), his one-time lover and founder of the famed Ballet Russes. Already mentally fragile, the appearance of the man who played a major role in both his personal and private life pushes Nijinsky over the edge and, while personal and professional ghosts frolic, he descends slowly and inexorably into the madness that will mark the rest of his days.

In NIJINSKY, not surprisingly, Neumeier showcases a company’s finest male dancers, with Dylan Tedaldi, Brett van Sickle, Naoya Ebe, Aleksandar Antonijevic and Keiichi Hirano joining Côté and Jelinek, fleshing out roles ranging from Nijinsky’s tragic brother, Stansilav (Tedaldi in a memorable turn) through to some of the more famous characters Nijinsky created — Schéhérazade’s Golden Slave and the title characters from L’Après-midi d’un faune and Petruschka, to name a few.

In addition, in a breathtaking and ultimately visually and emotionally exhausting two hours, Neumeier also mines the riches of the company’s distaff, drawing fine performances from Heather Ogden (as the dancer’s wife), Xiao Nan Yu (his mother), Sonja Rodriguez and a host of others, cocooning it all in colour-drenched sets of his own design (exquisitely lit by Ralf Merkel) and setting things soaring on the wings of music by Chopin, Schumann, Rimskij-Korsakov and Shostakovich.
It is, in the main, delicious, complex stuff, and if, in the final quarter hour, as things career ever more out of control, one finds oneself longing for at least a semblance of sanity, it is all the easier to imagine how Nijinsky must have felt.

Friday, March 1, 2013


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

TORONTO - One of the first things one learns about art — great art, at least — is that it doesn’t so much imitate life as illuminate it. And once that lesson has been well learned, it keeps us going back to the theatre, the ballet, the opera, the symphony, the library and the gallery for the rest of our lives, looking for further proof.
 But in a new play by Michel Nadeau, titled AND SLOWLY BEAUTY… we are asked to imagine what life might be like if we had never learned that lesson — if we had risen (rather than grown) to middle age without ever experiencing the almost electric shock of recognition we get when we see elements of our own lives reflected in the art of others. AND SLOWLY BEAUTY… opened at the Tarragon Wednesday, in an English language translation by Maureen Labonté, a co-production of Vancouver’s Belfry Theatre and Ottawa’s National Arts Centre English Theatre.

It’s the story of Mr. Mann, played here as a character treatise on the many shades of grey by Dennis Fitzgerald. In his late 40s,  Mann is a middle-aged, middle-level Quebec-based bureaucrat who discovers theatre only when he wins a pair of tickets to a production of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, playing at a local theatre. With the rest of his family — his wife, beautifully played by Caroline Gillis, his daughter, played by Celine Stubel and his son, played by Shawn Ahmed — caught up in their own lives, he attends the theatre by himself and soon finds himself inadvertently caught up in the reflections of his own life he sees in Chekhov’s timeless masterpiece.

Initially, bemused as he is with the what he perceives as the meaninglessness of his own life and the sudden terminal illness of a long-time colleague (Christian Murray), Mann is not thrilled with what he’s seen, although he treasures the experience. Then, slowly through the intervention of a kindly waitress in a local coffee bar (Mary-Colin Chisholm in a performance that, in and of itself, lives up to the title of this play), he begins to see how his life and the lives of those around him are part of something much, much larger than anything he has ever imagined.

While Fitzgerald’s task is limited to a single role, albeit a large and demanding one, his castmates are asked to double as co-workers, fellow citizens, and even the cast of the play that so enchants our Mr. Mann, moving  through the story and John Ferguson’s wonderful  set — a wonderful mix of fun-house and gallery —  in a simple but stately choreography imposed by director Michael Shamata. 
And though the production —  clocking in at two hours without an intermission — is certainly filled with enough frissons of theatrical truth to win over an audience composed of theatrical neophytes like Mr. Mann, one suspects a more seasoned theatre-goer might find himself wishing that director Shamata had opted to cut a little closer to the emotional bones of the tale.