Monday, April 29, 2013

THEATRE REVIEW: carried away on the crest of a wave

Pictured: Richard Zeppieri, Mayko Nguyen

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
29 APRIL 2013
R: 3.5/5

TORONTO - In the metaphorical world as in the real one, the best way — perhaps the only way — to eat a whole pod of whales is one mouthful at a time. Some things are just too big to swallow whole. So, in his attempt to digest the unfathomable horror of the Boxing Day tsunami that devastated the coastline of the Indian Ocean back in 2004 (leaving hundreds of thousands dead in its wake), playwright David Yee cuts it up into bite-sized stories and serves them up in a play titled carried away on the crest of a wave. carried away...  had its world première Wednesday on the stage of the Tarragon Theatre, where Yee is playwright in residence.

And while his work — a collection of almost a dozen loosely inter-related vignettes — alludes unabashedly to the full devastation of the event, it eschews any attempt to recreate its full horror, choosing instead to examine the individual scars left behind from an event that marked us all. From two Malaysian brothers, adrift on what is left of their family home, to two men trying to come to terms with their own survival, to a Toronto-based shock-jock determined to jump the gun on the old equation that tragedy plus time equals comedy, carried away… bobs gently, sometimes even elegantly, on the ripples spawned by one of the most devastating events of the current century.

But, at other times, Yee overreaches, throwing in elements of magical realism and otherwise getting tripped up by his own cleverness as he attempts to tie everything and everyone together as proof that, as he puts it, “We are all connected” and “None of us alone.”

Director Nina Lee Aquino has assembled a strong ensemble here, and much credit goes to them, both individually and collectively, for the commitment they bring to the project. In one or two of the vignettes that comprise Yee’s two-and-a-half-hour script, it is primarily the strength of the performers that keeps things afloat. Richard Lee, Richard Zeppieri, Kawa Ada, Ash Knight, John Ng and a delightful Eponine Lee join forces with the beautifully understated Mayko Nguyen to tackle the myriad character demands Yee gives them with varying but mostly positive degrees of success.

As for the set — a plastic-swathed water park created by Camellia Koo, presumably in emulation of a wall of water frozen in time — it’s less successful, often making its point at the expense of Yee’s intersecting narratives, despite the best efforts of Michelle Ramsay’s lighting.

This is, of course, a huge topic, and one must applaud both Yee’s ambition in tackling it and finally his success, limited though it is, for while he never truly gives us a full picture of the leviathan which inspired it, he certainly leaves us with its taste lingering in our mouths But instead of carried away on the crest of a wave, a less ambitious and certainly more reflective title just might have been carried along on the crest of a wave.

Thursday, April 25, 2013


Pictured: Erika Sunnegårdh

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
25 APRIL 2013
R: 4/5

TORONTO - The opera, it seems, is no place for escapists these days — at least not here in Toronto. Hot on the heels of last week’s opening of David Alden’s  blood-soaked and definitely Dickensian take on Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Four Seasons Centre, the Canadian Opera Company Sunday took its audience on a another dark and bloody trip. The destination?  A somewhat reworked version of Richard StraussSALOME as envisioned by director Atom Egoyan, who has already helmed two productions of the work for Toronto audiences, in 1996 and 2002.

And for those asking “Has his SALOME aged like fine wine, or simply grown older?,” the answer is: “A little bit of both. On the plus side, Egoyan has arguably never had finer tools with which to paint his soundscape, led here by soprano Erika Sunnegårdh, bringing a wonderful touch of child-like malice to the title role. With mezzo Hanna Schwarz as her grasping mother, Herodias, and tenor Richard Margison as her malignant royal stepfather, this is a family with problems of biblical proportions, all brought to a head by the capture and imprisonment of Jochanaan (John the Baptist), a small but pivotal role magnificently sung by baritone Martin Gantner, who will be replaced by Alan Held for the final four performances of the run. 

The supporting cast is equally impressive, featuring  debuting talents like tenor Nathaniel Peake as a love-struck Narraboth teamed with familiar talents like tenors Michael Colvin, Michael Barrett and Adam Luther and soprano Claire de Sévigné in supporting turns. Meanwhile, under the baton of Johannes Debus, the COC Orchestra is on hand to give a finely-etched and sensitive reading of Strauss’ complex score. 

As for the story, it will be familiar to even the most casual biblical scholars, although it has been given a few fine fin-de-siècle twists by Oscar Wilde, upon whose play both Hedwig Lachmann’s libretto and Strauss’s often atonal and once ground-breaking score is based.

And, over the course of three productions, Egoyan has brought much to the story, too, layering on filmed and video effects, shadow plays and psychological motivations until Derek McLane’s stark and other-worldly rhomboid-riddled set, magnificently lit by Michael Whitfield, is fairly awash. 

But in the end, it all plays out in with a terrible familiarity: Spurned by the prophet, SALOME gains her revenge, trading on her stepfather’s lust-fuelled ardour to secure the head of his prisoner in exchange for the legendary dance of the seven veils, used here as a tool to explore the biblical femme fatale’s damaged inner psyche. But at a certain point — somewhere between the numerous close-ups of Gantner’s admittedly magnificent and hard-working uvula and the inevitable speculation as to why both a sword and a wood axe are required to relieve John of his head — it all becomes more about the production than the story it is telling For all his tweaking, Egoyan has overlooked the fact that while it may not always breed contempt, familiarity can certainly play hell with shock value.

Thursday, April 18, 2013


Pictured: Anna Christy

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
18 APRIL 2013
R: 4.5/5

TORONTO - Seems we've strayed a long, long way from Brigadoon, Jocko. So, consider that fair warning to those who hope to find even the tiniest bit of highland romance hidden in the heather in the Canadian Opera Company's latest production of Gaetano Donizetti's bel canto classic, LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR. The production that opened at the Four Seasons Centre Wednesday favours "dour" over "ardour" at every turn.

In fact, in this production (borrowed from the English National Opera), director David Alden seems to do everything he can to strip even the faintest vestiges of romance from Salvatore Cammarano's libretto, itself adapted from Sir Walter Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor. In the process, he makes it abundantly, even validly, clear that he has found absolutely no romance in the notion of a young girl driven to madness and beyond by her venal, even depraved, brother's plotting. Think of his Lucia as the love child of Scott and Charlotte Bronte, raised by Charles Dickens, and then analyzed for the stage by Tim Burton's depressive brother, with the help of Freud.

And the surprising thing is that, at least for those whose hearts aren't fired by the the imagined romance of the moors, it proves to be a valid take, for all that Alden could be accused of going more than a little heavy on the incestuous underpinnings he imposes on the tale. Set in a bleak and decaying Victorian manor house where doors are apparently at a premium (designed by Charles Edward and lit by Adam Silverman), this is Scott's tale glimpsed through a glass darkly, the bloodbath unleashed by the heroine's forced marriage offering scant and certainly vivid scarlet relief from the monochromatic greys of Brigitte Reiffenstuel costuming.

But if the story and its setting are bleak — and they most certainly are — the full power of Donizetti's music is undiminished in a musically muscular production, served up by the superb COC Orchestra under the baton of Stephen Lord and magnificently sung at every turn by a virtuosic cast. Principal amongst them, of course, is the diminutive soprano Anna Christy in the title role, playing flawlessly and courageously into Alden's vision of Lucia as the tragic plaything of her corrupt brother Enrico, sung by baritone Brian Mulligan in an impressively over-the-top portrayal of greed and malevolence.
And though, sadly, in this dark and stormy production, we never get even the slightest inkling of the joy their love might have brought them, the soaring passion of Christy's magnificent voice is powerfully teamed with the raw but flawlessly controlled richness of tenor Stephen Costello's impassioned performance as her lover Edgardo. Madness and despair have rarely been given such terrible beauty, as these two strive to milk the last drops of bel (beauty) from enduring cantos (songs), regardless of how sordid Alden's vision becomes.

There is superb work, as well, from supporting players and from the always strong COC Chorus, all of which adds up to a fine evening of entertainment It may not be Brigadoon in the end but it is, in its way, bloody impressive.

Monday, April 15, 2013


Pictured: Jason Priestley, Nigel Shawn Williams

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
14 APRIL 2013
R: 3.5/5

TORONTO - It sits at our very core  — one of the things by which we too often define ourselves and by which we are too often defined, for good or for ill. And nowhere is the whole issue of race more complicated, perhaps, than in America, where a legacy forged in slavery and segregation continues to hold an entire nation in its thrall, despite attempts by people of all races to heal their wounds and move forward.
 Just how complicated is evidenced by playwright David Mamet who, in his latest work, fittingly titled RACE, sets out to do for racial relations what he did for relations between the sexes in his highly controversial two-hander Oleanna. It’s an interesting choice as the vehicle Canadian Stage has chosen to mark the first 25 years in theatre — a quarter-century that began with a production of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. It opened Thursday at the Bluma Appel.

RACE is a tension-charged work from its very opening scene, as the lawyers in a small but successful small-town American law firm meet with a wealthy local man accused of rape. The accused, played by a too-youthful Matthew Edison, is white, as is the lawyer who is clearly at the helm of the firm, played by Jason Priestley, but the young victim of the crime in question is African American, as are the other two lawyers in the firm, a partner, played by Nigel Shawn Williams, and a junior, played by Cara Ricketts.

The accused is determined to engage the firm to act as his defence and while the partners are reluctant, they are soon embroiled in the case nonetheless —  a case fraught not just with racial overtones but class and sexual tension as well. It is, in many ways, vintage Mamet, despite the playwright’s much ballyhooed conversion to conservative politics — an often bleak, always thought-provoking and profanity-laced exploration of the underbelly of American life, astutely observed and couched in the kind of elegant prose that never, ever suffers a preposition to hang on the end of a sentence. But even as the play dissects the ongoing effort to balance power, sexual politics and, most importantly, race in the world’s most powerful nation, director Daniel Brooks suffers from a power balance of his own.

While Williams and Ricketts are comfortable in their roles, Priestley simply lacks the dramatic heft to play Jack Lawson, perhaps the best drawn of the four characters and a man who clearly sees himself, in his private moments, as the leonine heir to the noble liberal traditions of Atticus Finch. 
And while Debra Hanson’s barebones set may indeed serve to focus an audience on the debate at the heart of RACE, it also serves to undermine both Priestley and Willams in their attempt to create the feeling of a successful firm with much at stake. RACE will still send you from the theatre with much to ponder, regardless of your political stripe, of course, but, as it plays, it simply lacks the tension to make it truly memorable.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


Pictured: Olivier LaQuerre

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
08 APRIL 2013
R: 5/5

TORONTO - When it comes to collaborating on a certain operatic work by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, it doesn’t seem to bother Opera Atelier’s director Marshall Pynkoski and its principal designer Gerard Gauci one whit that, thanks to the vagaries of the English language, a flute can be either, a) a high-pitched musical wind instrument, or b) a tall, narrow wine glass usually reserved for serving champagne.

In fact, rather than attempt to underline the fact that the flute in question in their lush production of THE MAGIC FLUTE is of the musical variety, they just shrug their shoulders and serve up a production which is, in a very delightful way, a flute that is quite simply all of the above and a fair bit more. Opera Atelier’s revitalized FLUTE opened at the Elgin Theatre Saturday, the latest incarnation in the company’s two decade-long love affair with the work.

And, as usual, OA doesn’t so much revive a show as re-build it, this time out decanting Mozart’s glorious music — served up with winning charm by Tafelmusick Baroque Orchestra under David Fallis — and Emanuel Schikaneder’s fanciful libretto — translated with humour, respect and clear affection by Andrew Porter — in such a way that it fairly dances with bubbles that tickle a lot more than your nose. To accomplish this, they use a mix of singers, drawn from the OA stable of regulars — tenor Colin Ainsworth dons the role of the reluctantly heroic Tamino in such a way that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t tailor-made for him, while bass baritone Olivier LaQuerre turns the role of the bird-brained Papageno into a romp — mixed with exciting newcomers to the OA fold, like soprano Laura Albino, stepping into the role of Pamina with both assurance and style.

Then they throw in superb turns by bass João Fernandes (an elegant Sarastro) and soprano Ambur Braid (magnificent as the Queen of the Night) and two wonderful trios (Carla Huhtanen, Cassandra Warner and Laura Pudwell as the Queen’s Ladies; and Grace Lee, Lucy Fitz Gibbon and Cynthia Smithers as the Three Spirits) and it all gets even more impressive. And happily designers Gerard Gauci (sets) and Bonnie Beecher (lighting) have conspired to create a FLUTE that visually sets all those musical bubbles — romantic and comedic — to dancing, blending Gauci’s talent for stretching the imagination to its outer limits  with trompe l’oeil eye candy with Beecher’s ability to  make the most of a modern lighting grid, without ever sacrificing the imaginary golden shimmer of candlelight from the finest beeswax.

Finally to complete the blend, director Pynkoski manages to seamlessly incorporate just the right amount of elegant, even stately, choreography created by his co-artistic director Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, as well as the work of an impressive chorus, all the while never sacrificing a single drop of his madcap vision for Mozart’s work. So, finally, not only has Opera Atelier served up another truly magical FLUTE, they manage to keep it filled with a whole jeroboam of talent.

Monday, April 8, 2013


JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
07 APRIL 2013
R: 4/5

TORONTO - When he wrote LA RONDE in 1897 — a controversial play about musical beds in the declining years of the 19th century — playwright Arthur Schnitzler aimed to highlight the hypocrisy at the heart of fin-de-siècle Vienna, where everyone did it, but nobody acknowledged it. In a contemporary update of Schnitzler’s work, playwright Jason Sherman highlights the despondency in a world where everybody does it and talks about it but nobody really feels it.

Where Schnitzler’s work outraged audiences in its delayed première, Sherman’s second Soulpepper adaption of it — the first was in 2001 — is likely to send an audience from the Young Centre, where it premiered Thursday, filled with little more than bemusement and quiet despair. 
This is still, however, in many ways, Schnitzler’s play, featuring a daisy chain of sexual trysts between a cast of characters drawn from every level of society.

But where Schnitzler concerned himself with the goings on between counts and courtesans, maids and military personnel, Sherman brings together academics, lawyers, financiers, refugees and filmmakers,  playing fast and loose with Schnitzler’s A to B, B to C, C to D sexual progression and even touching lightly on same-sex attraction before chastely averting his eyes. And that’s about the only time he does, for this is graphic stuff, for all that it is presented with such clinical detachment that it is rarely, if ever, titillating, although it is, thanks to Sherman’s often mordant wit, occasionally  bleakly amusing.

And though, under the direction of Alan Dilworth, we see a lot more of the ten-member cast — Maev Beaty, Leah Doz, Miranda Edwards, Stuart Hughes, Grace Lynn Kung, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Brandon McGibbon, Adrian Morningstar, Brenda Robins and Mike Ross — than we might expect, it’s safe to assume that neither playwright nor director is likely to be juggling offers from the porn industry for their efforts in bringing life to a world where the screwing one gets from a partner has little or nothing to do with the sex they ‘enjoy.’

But while it is a fearless production in many ways, it is also flawed, marred not only by uneven performances — Lee is particularly weak in a thankless role — but by an over-elaborate staging, courtesy of designer Lorenzo Savoini’s fussy set. Not only do the requisite scene changes consume way too much of the production’s two and a half hour span, things are further complicated by the overly theatrical fracturing of the set, meant to highlight the rather obvious conceit that the world is crumbling around us, one assumes.

Still, if your taste in theatre runs to light, amusing fare, it’s a safe bet to assume that this particular merry-go-round will leave you more than a little nauseous. If, however, you like theatre that  reflects warts-and-all life and sends you from the theatre in a questioning, if somewhat despondent frame of mind, then, by all means, climb aboard LA RONDE.

Thursday, April 4, 2013


Pictured; Stuart Hughes, Mike Ross

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
04 APRIL 2013
R: 3.5/5

TORONTO - Stretching back as far as Cain and Abel, the mysterious bonds of brotherhood — that fusion of love and loathing unique to certain male siblings — have fascinated storytellers of all stripes. And while the petty grievances and jealousies at the heart of TRUE WEST might not lead to fratricide on a biblical scale, they come precariously close, as playwright Sam Shepard explores those bonds from a distinctly modern 1980’s perspective. After largely disappearing from main stages, Shepard’s work is once again in the spotlight after a successful Broadway revival of TRUE WEST — which has led in turn to a Soulpepper revival that opened Wednesday at the Young Centre.

Elder brother Lee, played by Stuart Hughes, has returned to the family home in suburban California for a re-charge, only to discover that his mother (played by Patricia Hamilton) has headed off to Alaska and left things in the care of younger brother Austin, played by Mike Ross. A clash, of course, is inevitable.

Lee touts his amoral values and the freedom that comes from living hand to mouth on the wrong side of the law, while Austin smugly cloaks himself in the respectability of being a family man, smug in his burgeoning success as a screenwriter. The two even lock horns over who is closer to their absent father, a drunk who crawled into a bottle and largely disappeared from their lives years ago. Their bickering comes to a head then boils over with the arrival of Saul Kimmer (Ari Cohen), a putative movie producer with whom Austin has been working. The ensuing battle proves, once again, the truth in the old axiom that it is much easier for someone to pull you down to their level than for you to pull him up to yours. It’s a bleak, blackly funny play that the cast, under the direction of Nancy Palk, tackles with more enthusiasm than finesse, leading to a production that puts more emphasis on the acting than on the story.

In the pivotal role of Lee, Hughes gives us a man not merely cracked, but broken — not the opportunistic hustler the script suggests, but rather a middle-aged derelict, already well on his way to being what his father was before him. Ross, meanwhile, never fully inhabits either Austin’s desperation to lift himself out of a past that both attracts and repels him nor the character’s deep need for his brother’s approval. Cohen’s Kimmer, meanwhile, is right out of sitcom central casting, while Hamilton seems to have wandered in from another play entirely.

And they all get scant help from Ken MacDonald’s set, seemingly more inspired by The Golden Girls than by the shabbier milieu the playwright describes, or from lighting designer Graeme Thomson, whose apparent attempts to end each scene with a freeze frame of sorts comes across merely as uncharacteristically sloppy work. TRUE WEST remains, however, a play worth seeing, even in a production that seems to veer off track too often.