Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Pictured: Curtis Sullivan,
Ambur Braid

Special to TorSun,
28 OCT 2013
R: 3/5

TORONTO - It may be hard to walk a mile in another man’s shoes, but it can be even harder to re-walk a mile in your own, attempting to retrace your own footsteps exactly. But don’t just take my word for it. Ask Opera Atelier’s Marshall Pynkoski, whose revival of his 2008 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s ABDUCTION FROM THE SERAGLIO at the Elgin Theatre (where it opened Saturday) leads his audience through familiar territory, but shows them a radically different adventure.

Where Pynkoski’s original take was so deliciously light it threatened on to take wing, his new take seems often laboured, even desperate, as it struggles to escape the cocoon of Gerard Gauci’s lush Persian sets and take wing, arrayed in Margaret Lamb’s jewel-tinted costumes. In attempting to recapture his vision, Pynkoski has even recruited some of the same players to help re-tell this comedic tale of two British women, kidnapped and held captive in a pasha’s harem, from which their paramours try to rescue them.

The always-delightful soprano, Carla Huhtanen, succeeds in recapturing the magic of her winning performance as the morally adaptable maidservant Blonde, while bass-baritone Curtis Sullivan and bass Gustav Andreassen do some fine work in their returns as Pasha Selim and his bloodthirsty henchman, Osmin, respectively. To round out the cast, soprano Ambur Braid steps into the role of the noble Konstanze, mistress to Blonde and object of Selim’s affections, while tenors Lawrence Wiliford and Adam Fisher are cast as the noble twit, Belmonte, a man madly in love with Konstanze, and Pedrillo, manservant to Belmonte and Blonde’s paramour, respectively.

And while they all try, the production just doesn’t come together, as Pynkoski forsakes his hard-won reputation as a director with a light, deft touch and strains for a broader, more frantic comedic take, throwing off the production’s timing in the process. Things become tedious, despite some lovely interventions by choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, who manages to bring the stage to sparkling life with her corps of dancers, every time things get deadly.

Pynkoski’s over-reach is particularly evident in the performances of the new-comers, for while Braid does her usual fine work vocally, she clearly hasn’t been given a clear vision of just who her character is. Wiliford, meanwhile, seems totally at sea and, as often as not, is content to merely show up and sing, an approach which, ironically, Fisher, who brings so much in the way of over-the-top mugging to his performance, might want to consider on occasion.

But all is not lost, despite Pynkoski’s apparent decision to transform Mozart’s opera buffa into an opera boffo — apparently wooing an audience steeped in the frenetic comedic styles of Robin Williams and Jim Carrey without much success. There is still the enduring charm of the music, and with David Fallis in superb control of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chorus, it is the music that saves the day. If not the production.

Thursday, October 24, 2013


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

TORONTO - When it comes to potty-mouthed puppets, it’s pretty old hat here in Toronto, where Ronnie Burkett and his Theatre of Marionettes have been happily and successfully stretching the envelope of good taste for years, so that it now resembles nothing so much as a bee skin stretched over a rain barrel.

Which means if you’re hoping to impress a Toronto audience by transforming family fare like the Muppets into X-rated stuff for the adult set, you’d better bring your A-game. And in many ways, that’s precisely what WestBeth Entertainment has done with PUPPET UP! UNCENSORED, which opened at the Panasonic Theatre this week, produced (and co-created with director and host Patrick Bristow) by Brian Henson, son of the late Jim Henson.

With a menagerie of puppets, obviously inspired by the Henson’s Muppet mob, six hugely talented (and oddly uncredited) puppeteers take to the stage, with Bristow at the helm, prepared to take even the most ludicrous suggestions from their audience and riff on them to the delight of just about everybody involved. Yet, very early on in Tuesday’s opening, it became very obvious that Bristow and his crew hadn’t done much in the way of homework or acclimatization, assuming apparently that Canadians were just Americans in toques and Toronto, merely New York running on an outdated Swiss movement.

In assembling the elements for one of their first improv skits, Bristow called for a political name and, surprise, surprise, Rob Ford’s was proffered with an enthusiasm this crew clearly seemed to think should reserved for John Boehner. In fact, the Ford name meant nothing to the host and his cohort of American puppeteers, until one of them dredged up a memory of an infamous video no one seems to have seen despite the international attention it has received. To be fair, it all came together in an irreverent sketch involving Hisawner dancing a pickup ballet at the Gay Pride parade, but one shudders, nonetheless, to think of what might have happened had the name of Senator Mike Duffy collided with this crew’s clearly limited vision of the world.

Still, PUPPET UP! UNCENSORED offers a new perspective on puppetry, forcing the felt, fur and tennis ball set to share the spotlight with their human underlings. Where conventional puppet shows go to great pains to conceal the puppeteer, PU! U puts the puppeteers front and centre, showing the puppets-only versions of their work on two video screens, located on both sides of the stage, often incorporating technology to turn the work of six talented artists into a cast of hundreds, And it’s all good fun — at least until it isn’t. Puppet improv, it develops, follows the same downward trajectory as regular improv, and things get pretty silly pretty fast. Happily, Henson has revived two of his father’s earlier puppet skits that, at least for a short while, serve to slow the transition from work filled with childish wonder to work filled with simple potty-mouthed childishness. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


William Webster,
Tara Nicodemo

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

TORONTO - Think of it as the world’s second oldest profession — the career some men make of sweeping women up who are plying the world’s oldest profession to try to carry them away from it all, whether they want to be carried away or not. Playwright John Murrell, however, didn’t go back to the beginning of time when he wrote his story about a prostitute and the men determined to save her, back in the early ’80s. Instead, Murrell rewound only a century or so to recount the true story of the prostitute/madame May Buchanan and the two men determined to lift her from the way of life into which she had fallen.

Problem was, May didn’t fall into it as much as she jumped into it with her eyes wide open, embracing it for the freedom it could give her. She didn’t want lifting.

Murrell’s play is called FARTHER WEST, and it recently made a return to the Toronto stage after an absence of more than 25 years in a Soulpepper production currently playing the Young Centre.

We first meet Meg, played by Tara Nicodemo, as a young woman, naked and asleep in her father’s Ontario home in the equally naked arms of a man she has seduced. As Meg recalls her pragmatic father’s advice to keep moving west ’til she encounters a society that won’t judge her, we see her take her place in the frontier town of Calgary, where she catches the eye of Constable Seward (Dan Lett), a moralizing police constable obsessed with saving Meg’s soul, even while he aches to despoil her body. She also catches the eye of Thomas Shepherd (Matthew MacFadzean, too long absent from Toronto stages), a rancher who simply wants to look after Meg and build his life around her.

Surrounded by her stable of whores (Akosua Amo-Adem, Christine Horne and the ever-capable Kyra Harper) and her clients (Dan Chameroy, Jeff Lillico and Evan Buliung in a small but lovely turn), Meg struggles to maintain her own vision of herself in the face of the two men’s visions of what she should be, all the while moving ever further westward against the backdrop of designer Astrid Janson’s evocative mountainscape, beautifully lit by Graeme Thomson.

This is graphically adult and often compelling fare, almost operatic in its scope and staging, but despite the best efforts of director Diana Leblanc and a strong supporting cast that also includes Jesse Aaron Dwyer and William Webster, the triangle on which Murrell has built his story eventually buckles and collapses. MacFadzean’s and Nicodemo’s finely etched performances continuously wash up on the shoals of Lett’s shallow one-dimensional take on Seward, whose crazed religious zeal proves inadequate to even Nicodemo’s perhaps-too-understated commitment to freedom and is certainly no match for the powerful passion with which MacFadzean fills his performance as Shepherd.

So while everyone else seems determined to keep things moving FARTHER WEST at every turn, when the focus is on Lett, things just seem to go further and further south.

Pictured: Grace
Kung, François Klanfer

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
21 OCT 2013
R: 3/5

TORONTO - There’s a problem with perching oneself on the cutting edge of something. Cutting edges, after all, are usually honed to an exquisite sharpness and theatre artists have learned that one wrong move while perching on the cutting edge of things can leave one bleeding on the stage. Case in point: Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Theatre production of YUKONSTYLE, the second in a pair of plays by Quebecois playwright Sarah Berthiaume to grace this stage — The Flood Thereafter played this same space just before YUKONSTYLE began last week.

This time out, Ted Witzel directs, stepping into shoes filled by Ker Wells in the earlier production — the two comprising the inaugural cohort of the York University/Canadian Stage MFA in Stage Direction program. And at first blush, it must be conceded that Witzel has put together the livelier production of the two, for in spinning out the tale of four disparate characters brought together during the seemingly endless Yukon winter of 2007, while the equally endless Vancouver trial of pig farmer Robert Picton dominates the airwaves.

The trial has caught the attention of Garin (Ryan Cunningham), whose mother, a young First Nations’ woman like many of Picton’s victims, disappeared from the streets of Vancouver when he was only a child. Now, grown and living with Yuko, a young Japanese woman with problems of her own, played by Grace Lynn Kung, he pesters his alcoholic father, a displaced French Canadian played by François Klanfer, for information but the old man refuses to talk about Garin’s mother and her disappearance.

Then, one night, Yuko encounters Kate, an aspiring under-age Harajuku girl played by Kate Corbett, as unprepared for the Yukon winter as she is for the baby she’s carrying. Yuko promises Kate a place to stay for as long as she needs it, but the casually ignorant and blithely racist Kate proves to be trouble for the already-overwound Garin.

The playwright’s work is once again translated into English by Nadine Desrochers and once again emerges as an unwieldy mix of poetry and the prosaic — Kate at one point worries she might become “a Mama Burger squashed between two snowbanks” — and although lighting designer Bonnie Beecher and projection designer Cameron Davis conspire with the hardworking cast and director Witzel to impose a sense of order on Berthiaume’s fevered imaginings (or at least show them in their best light), in the end, they are undone by a play written more for radio or television than for the stage.

What is perhaps most ironic here is that while each of the cast members manages to shine for a few brief moments in this ‘cutting edge’ piece of theatre about alienated young people, it is left to the seasoned Klanfer, with his strong skill set and a commanding voice, to make things come briefly alive as his character is dying. They may all be perched on the cutting edge here, but only Klanfer succeeds in making us see flesh and blood.

Saturday, October 19, 2013


Pictured: The Company

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

TORONTO - It’s not the miracle of creation that is likely to impress any adult lucky enough to catch Young People’s Theatre’s presentation of Kaha:wi Dance Theatre’s and the Banff Centre’s A STORY BEFORE TIME. Mind you, it is that very miracle, as recounted in the folklore of the Onkwehonwe First Nation, that sits at the very heart of this tale — and it is a tale well told indeed.

But the true miracle here can be found as much in watching a theatre-full of children at an age when they normally operate at two volumes — loud and “If you don’t cut that racket ...” — rendered utterly speechless by their absorption in this simple tale, as in the tale itself, exquisitely told through the fusion of word, dance, music and the artistry with which they are all brought together. But let’s start at the beginning.

In the Onkwehonwe’s version of creation, the lovely Sky Woman is sent to earth from her celestial home by her loving mate, and after being aided by the animals, establishes her home on Turtle Island, built on the back of a giant turtle. There, she gives birth to a daughter, who in turn, mates with the West Wind, and from that union, produces twin sons — the good-hearted Holder of the Sky and the dark-natured Bent One. Constantly at odds, it is nonetheless these two offspring who shape and populate our home on Turtle Island and give it its balance.

The bare bones of the story are delivered up by a storyteller (Semiah Kaha:wi Smith) and brought to life by a cast of talented dancers — Sarain Carson-Fox, Zhenya Cerneacov, Michael Demski, Louis Laberge-Cote, Emily Law and choreographer Santee Smith — making the most of Smith’s choreography, set to music created by Donald Quan, music which seamlessly blends traditional First Nations’ elements like drum and flute with more contemporary instrumentation, all with lovely effect.

There’s the same sort of blending of elements of the timeless indigenous culture and the modern in both Harry Frehner’s delightful sets and costumes and in Smith’s demanding, spell-binding choreography, both of which serve to make the story compelling to a modern young audience while, at the same time, respectfully serving the spirit of the tale they are telling. Overall, A STORY BEFORE TIME is presented more as an exercise in sharing than in proselytizing and that too is refreshing.

Finally, it is only in the text, written by Drew Hayden Taylor that A STORY ... disappoints.
 In a production that clearly trusts its young audience in every other respect, Taylor’s attempts to achieve collegial status — references to ice cream and things that are “icky” — are jarring in their obvious intent to patronize an audience that has proven itself content to meet the challenges this story throws at them. And to soar on the wings of it.

Pictured: Sirena Irwin
Special to TorSun
18 OCT 2013
R: 2.5/5

TORONTO - At some point in each of our lives, we’ve all loved Lucy, or more specifically, the late Lucille Ball, the flame-haired queen of comedy whose reign over the golden age of television started, fittingly enough, with a little show called I Love Lucy. Today, Lucy still lives in golden memories, re-runs and YouTube clips, but for theatre maker Rick Sparks, apparently, that’s just not enough. So, he’s acquired the rights to two episodes of Ball’s ground-breaking sitcom and with the help of collaborator Kim Flagg, adapted them as a stage show titled I LOVE LUCY: LIVE ON STAGE, currently on the boards at the Royal Alexandra Theatre under the Mirvish imprimatur.

The two episodes — The Benefit and Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined — have been recreated as a live taping, complete with an unctuous emcee (well played by Mark Christopher Tracy), back-up singers and even the obligatory flashing “Applause” sign. After the audience has been suitably ‘fluffed’ by Tracy, the taping commences in CBS studios cheesily recreated by Aaron Henderson, with Sirena Irwin playing Lucy, Bill Mendieta playing Ricky, Kevin Remington playing Fred, and Joanna Daniels playing Ethel.

And let’s be clear here, that’s who they are playing, for the names Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are never mentioned — even a certain Chevrolet pitch mistress (who was in fact a staple on NBC), appears under the moniker Dinah ‘Beach.’ And for a little while, it all kind of works, at least on the nostalgic level, although the audience plants and the silly bonhomie start to wear a trifle thin pretty rapidly.

And as the 100-minute show drags on, one starts to realize that there’s a whole lot of impersonation going on up on stage — and very little acting, at least of the commendable kind. Through the magic of make-up, Irwin has been tricked out as some sort of broad caricature of the woman she is playing and she even manages moments where she successfully mimics some of that beloved actor’s moves. But finally, ironically, she works so hard to capture a few moments of acting like Lucille Ball that she fails to even come close to reacting like her — and it was in Ball’s reactions that her brand was born.

Under Sparks’ direction, Mendieta, Remington and Daniels seem trapped in a similar box as Ricky, Fred and Ethel, utterly failing to capitalize in any way on moments where they’ve been given an opportunity to show us the actors behind the characters. In an attempt to enliven the growing tedium, Flagg and Sparks throw in re-creations of period commercials and even a fake trivia contest, but in the end, it all adds up to something distinctly underwhelming. For anybody who really did love Lucy, this isn’t “Live On Stage,” but merely “Going Through The Motions.”

Friday, October 18, 2013


Pictured: Laura Condlin,
Albert Schultz, Fiona Reid

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
17 OCT 2013
R: 3.5/5

TORONTO - There was a time in Canada, back in the ’70s, when every regional theatre included at least one comedy by Alan Ayckbourn in every season. But times change, and for an entire new generation of theatre-goers, the works of the British playwright who spun out comedic hits like A Chorus of Disapproval and How the Other Half Loves have become unexplored territory.

Now, after a renaissance in the country of its birth, one of Ayckbourn’s more clever works has returned to the Toronto stage in a Soulpepper production at the Young Centre. Actually, make that three productions, for in THE NORMAN CONQUESTS, Ayckbourn created a ground-breaking theatrical triptych — three plays, each (more or less) capable of standing on its own that, when viewed in total, come together as a single comedy in six acts, with scenes that interweave and interlock to tell a larger tale.

As stories go, mind you, it’s a relatively simple one, unfolding over the course of a weekend and set in a country home inhabited by an aged invalid (whom we never meet) and her spinster daughter, Annie, played by Laura Condlin who serves as caregiver. Annie, it seems, is the youngest of three children, and she has called upon her elder brother Reg (Derek Boyes) and his prissy wife Sarah (Fiona Reid) to take over while she goes away for a weekend of rest. What she hasn’t told them is that her partner for the weekend won’t be Tom (Oliver Dennis), the hang-dog veterinarian who’s been sniffing around, but rather her brother-in-law, the Norman of title (Albert Schultz), wild-boy husband to Annie’s work-addicted sister, Ruth (Sarah Mennell).

It all begins in the dining room of the family home in a work titled Table Manners and from there moves to the living room (Living Together) before wrapping up in the garden (Round and Round the Garden), with each instalment revealing more and more of Norman’s efforts to keep everybody — or at least all of the women and himself — happy and fulfilled.

All plays take place simultaneously, with characters exiting one play and re-appearing in another, carrying elements of plot and character with them. It’s an often giddy romp, saved from pure farce by the human insight of Ayckbourn’s work. (As for each play standing on its own, it’s true — if one can live with a lot of loose ends. The time is the mid-’70s and while there is no reference to the time of year it takes place, this Soulpepper cycle would suggest it is autumn, judging from the amount of mutton on stage, masquerading as lamb.

In staging the work in the round on sets designed by Ken MacKenzie, director Ted Dykstra manages to keep the pot bubbling despite it’s slightly dated feel, making the most of performances that range from comedic gold (Reid) to a rather disappointing brass plate (Mennell), with Condlin, Boyes and Dennis each given plenty of opportunity to shine along the way.

But as the title implies, the success or failure of the cycle revolves around Norman and the actor playing him — and while Dykstra and Schultz collaborate to ensure Norman has sufficient charm to cut a wide swath through all three plays, physically, they go a trifle overboard on the “unmade bed” couture the character cultivates. This is a Norman of such slovenly mien that one suspects his “unmade bed” just might be hiding a few critters — finally more dirty old man than over-sized boy. Still, even if Norman isn’t much of a conquerer, there’s enough charm here and enough cleverness to count this production a win in three parts.

Friday, October 11, 2013


Pictured: Earl Carpenter, Ramin Karimloo

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
10 OCT 2013
R: 4.5/5

TORONTO - If, despite Thomas Wolfe’s injunction, you did decide to go home again, chances are, the first thing you’d probably do is redecorate. Certainly, that seems to have been much on producer Cameron Mackintosh’s mind when he returned to LES MISÉRABLES, the mega-musical woven by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer from Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name — or, at least, that novel’s dramatic high points.

As a consequence, the silver anniversary Broadway-bound edition currently playing the Princess of Wales Theatre boasts not only a spanking new staging from directors Laurence Connor and James Powell (replacing John Caird and Trevor Nunn) and new orchestrations, but a whole new design too, conceived by Matt Kinley, a design, inspired by novelist Hugo’s own paintings, that embraces an entire-quarter century technological innovation. Not surprisingly, it’s spectacular.

To bring the story to life, there’s a whole new roster of talent too, led by Richmond Hill’s Ramin Karimloo, returning in triumph from London’s West End. Karimloo’s strong, impassioned take on the one-time criminal Jean Valjean is pitted against Earl Carpenter’s equally fine performance as the unbending Inspector Javert — and the two provide some of this production’s finest moments as they play a deadly game of fox and hound across the width and breadth of 19th century France.

Of course, that’s always been the strength of both this musical and the novel that spawned it. But things get a little rockier when LES MIZ, the musical, morphs into a love story between Marius, a young revolutionary played by Perry Sherman, and Cosette (Samantha Hill), an orphan raised by Jean Valjean. Though both actors give it a game try, the plot has become so episodic by the time they meet that their audience must take their passions on faith. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast enjoys mixed success. As Fantine, Genevieve Leclerc all but disappears, done in as much by memories of Susan Boyle and of Anne Hathaway’s over-wrought Oscar-winning performance, one suspects, as by her own shortcomings.

Cliff Saunders and Lisa Horner are all but out-of-control as the child-abusing Thénardiers — and quickly become tedious, then irrelevant. Melissa O’Neil plays their daughter Éponine with a touch of Che but makes it work nonetheless, while Mark Uhre has stirring moments as Enjolras, the golden-haired leader of the revolutionaries, making his wig — a bizarre 19th century version of a Trump comb-over — all the more regrettable.

Ultimately, of course, what Mackintosh and his team have done to make LES MISÉRABLES sparkle for its silver anniversary involves a lot more plate than sterling, which is fitting in its way. LES MIZ may boast some of theatre’s most enduring musical earworms, but historically, this adaptation has always relied too heavily on incident over character development, using a theatrical shorthand comprised of cute kids, waving flags and a musical palette both jingoistic and anthemic, to make up for its shortcomings. And while all the new glitter is likely to make this the best LES MIZ you’ve ever seen, for many, it may still seem oddly hollow at its core.

Thursday, October 10, 2013


Pictured: Ben Heppner

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
09 OCT 2013
R: 4.5/5

TORONTO - A lot can change in 70 years but not everything gets simpler. Certainly, thanks to a seemingly never-ending flow of horrific news stories, composer Benjamin Britten’s darkly masterful opera PETER GRIMES is, if anything, more emotionally complex and morally ambiguous for a contemporary audience than it was for the audience at its 1945 première in London, England.

Back then, one suspects, it would have been easier by far to condemn the nosey hypocrites that populate the small fishing village at the heart of George Crabbe’s poem, The Borough (which inspired the opera), as moralizing poseurs for their treatment of the fisherman of title, a lumpen, hard-working anti-social type who exists under a cloud of suspicion after his young apprentice dies in mysterious circumstances. But in today’s world of heightened social awareness and responsibility, it is not so easy to dismiss their concerns, particularly in the fine production currently gracing the stage of the Four Season Centre, under the aegis of the Canadian Opera Company.

At least initially, director Neil Armfield (whose work for Opera Australia, the Houston Grand Opera and the West Australia Opera is ‘revived’ here by Denni Sayers) makes the most of that ambiguity, letting us believe there may be something to their suspicions, as a malevolent Ben Heppner (in magnificent tenor voice, despite some lingering vocal problems that forced him to cancel an opening night appearance) simmers and stews in the title role. In a magnificently nuanced performance, Heppner builds a memorable Grimes, completely human, undone but undiminished by his own obstinacy.

And happily, Heppner has been surrounded by a superb supporting cast that works hard to showcase that humanity, from bass-baritone Alan Held as the gruff but compassionate Balstrode, to soprano Ileana Montalbetti, whose soaring high notes as school mistress Ellen Orford make up for the fact she all but disappears in the lower registers. Throw in tenor Roger Honeywell (as a feisty, fiery Bob Boles), mezzo Judith Christin (as the addled Mrs. Sedley) and a host of others and it is all but impossible not to get caught up in this dark tale, particularly when it is anchored by the strength and musicality of the COC Chorus backed by the nuanced work of conductor Johannes Debus and the COC Orchestra.

In staging the work, Armfield embraces Britten’s conceit wherein the poet Crabbe haunts the stage in a spectral, non-singing turn, and while Thomas Hauff adds an element of detached depth to the production in his role of observer and arbiter, one can’t help but wish Armfeld and his associates had found something more for him to do than re-arrange the chairs on Ralph Myer’s austere and highly evocative community hall set, finely lit by Damien Cooper. Granted, it affords us the opportunity to enjoy Britten’s musical evocations of nature and humanity to the utmost, but it also impedes the dramatic flow of what is otherwise a strong and moving production.

Pictured: Dimitri Pittas, Grazia Doronzio

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

TORONTO - There’s a reason LA BOHÈME is one of the most popular operas in the world — and in staging it in a new co-production for the Canadian Opera Company, the Houston Grand Opera and the San Francisco Opera, director John Caird seems to have plugged directly into it.

Caird’s new production of Giacomo Puccini’s most enduring work recognizes that, despite the fact that LA BOHÈME deals in no small part with the tragic romance between the poet Rodolfo and the frail seamstress Mimi, what Puccini and his collaborators, librettists Giuseppe Giacoso and Luigi Illica created in their adaptation of Henri Murger’s short stories is an operatic celebration of life and art, even in the face of poverty and death. As a result, Caird’s new production, currently playing at the Four Seasons Centre, fairly spills over with life. In fact, sometimes — specifically in Act II, set on Christmas Eve in the Café Momus in Paris’s bustling Latin Quarter — Caird seems overwhelmed by all that life, letting it crowd out the story he has heretofore done a pretty fine job of telling.

In this, Caird shares blame with designers David Farley, whose execution of the fine idea of a belle époque Paris which flows from the brush of Rodolfo’s painter friend, Marcello, claims far too much of the stage, and Michael James Clark, who relies too much on that life to light up the scene. Toronto audiences, after all, have grown accustomed to LA BOHÈME played out on a pretty spectacular set in an earlier, now retired production and this scene in particular is likely to make you regret its passing. Happily, however, Caird has been given a cast that more than makes up for the production’s shortcomings at almost every turn.

In the pivotal roles of Rodolfo and Mimi, tenor Dimitri Pittas and soprano Grazia Doronzio are vocally almost perfectly matched and do a fine job of capturing the romance, the passion and the pathos of their story. Meanwhile, life goes on in the (admittedly rather expansive) garret loft Rodolpho shares with his good friend, Marcello (baritone Joshua Hopkins), and two other artists — the philosopher Colline, sung by bass-baritone Christian Van Horne, and the musician Schaunard, sung by baritone Phillip Addis.

And despite their shared poverty and the double drama Rodolfo and Mimi’s romance and Marcello’s stormy affair with the coquette Musetta (soprano Joyce El-Khoury in fine voice despite the fact she seems to have parachuted in from another production), Caird manages to capitalize on his characters’ youth and their shared passion for art and life, using it as a powerful counter-balance to the tragedy at its heart, making death very much a part of the vibrant life they share.

As usual, it is a production well served by the COC Orchestra, this time under the baton of conductor Carlo Rizzi, who adroitly keeps a firm rein on Puccini’s gorgeous score without ever appearing to drive it. While it isn’t likely to make it even more popular, this is at least a production that should do nothing to diminish the place LA BOHÈME holds in the world of opera.

Pictured: Rick Miller, Carly Street

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
08 OCT 2013
R: 4.5/5

TORONTO - Every now and again, a piece of theatre hits the stage that reminds us that the operative word in theatre is ‘play.’ At their best, playwrights ‘play’ with plot, words and their audience, after all, and certainly, all the best actors ‘play’ their parts, even when working their butts off. And when all this play comes together, an audience is able to climb aboard and join the game. Canadian Stage’s production of VENUS IN FURS, currently gracing the stage of the Bluma Appel Theatre, is one of those theatre pieces.

It features a clever, thought-provoking and thoroughly modern script, courtesy of playwright David Ives, one that, even though it is built around it, it proves to be far, far more than a mere adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 19th century Venus im Pelz — the novel which gave the world “masochism” as counterbalance to “sadism.” It also features two strong players, kept more or less in balance by the increasingly sure-handed skills of director Jennifer Tarver.

Rick Miller plays Thomas, a playwright who has adapted Sacher-Masoch’s famous novel, while Carly Street plays Vanda, a brash and brassy New York actress who arrives just as Thomas is finishing a long and disappointing day of casting. That he sees in this latest arrival everything he loathes about the actresses he has so far seen is of little consequence to the force of nature that is Vanda. She steamrolls him into an audition wherein Thomas’ adaptation opens windows into something far more personal — and definitely more real — than the 19th century novel they are bringing to life.

The story unfolds on an intimate little set created by Debra Hanson and lit by Michael Walton, and while it might be considered a little on the romantic side for a 21st century rehearsal studio, there is no doubt it lends a certain romance to the proceedings. Miller, for his part, turns in a strong performance, marred only slightly by the fact that he plays his emotional cards a little too close to his vest, never letting us feel the heat until it is in full flame. Which makes it that much easier for Street to steal the show, seamlessly inhabiting a part filled with so many quicksilver character changes with such ease that one suspects that Mercury is as important here as Venus.

Finally, although it is marked with an almost giddy sense of play throughout, this is very grown-up work, challenging at every turn, evolving gender roles along with conventional notions of what represents the sexual norm. Ultimately, these are things to ponder after you’ve left the theatre, however. In VENUS IN FURS, as in few other productions, from lights up to lights down, the play (and the playing) really is the thing.

Pictured: Pamela Mala Sinha
JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
07 OCT 2013
R: 5/5

TORONTO - Amongst a veritable bouquet of awards, Pamela Mala Sinha’s CRASH earned the playwright/performer Doras for both Best New Play and Best Actress last season. So, small wonder then that Theatre Passe Muraille’s increasingly savvy artistic director Andy McKim chose CRASH to inaugurate a new season in the company’s ‘intimate’ Backspace, where CRASH opened to a capacity audience.

Which gives a Toronto audience a second chance to get a first impression of Sinha’s finely crafted one-woman show, adapted from her own short story, Hiding, and to appreciate it for the little jewel it is — even while they try to figure out just what kind of jewel that might be, its diamond-hard edges framing both the depth and the warmth of a sapphire.

Unfolding on Kimberly Purtell’s multi-level set, impressive in its complex use of simple elements, CRASH is exquisitely directed by Alan Dilworth and expertly performed by the playwright, who, working in the third person, shares a harrowing story of a young girl, shattered by an horrific crime — she’s the victim of a vicious home invasion and rape — and a family tragedy — the death of her beloved father. Over time, these two cataclysmic events become inexplicably joined and set her on the road to redemption, as she finds triumph, not in revenge or mourning, but simply in picking up the threads of her family and her life.

The play starts simply, even happily, as Sinha unleashes joyous memories, establishing her character as part of a happy loving family, before introducing darker threads and weaving them into her tale until CRASH fairly shimmers with pain and desperation. Not until then do the playwright and her collaborators begin once again to highlight the brighter shades in the tapestry they have woven, finally creating a voyage both tragic and oddly joyous in its catharsis.

Fittingly, in a play in which both the pain and the power of family is so richly explored, Sinha includes amongst her impressive list of collaborators — Cameron Davis’ brilliantly unobtrusive projections and Purtell’s lighting design, worthy of her fine set — two other family members. The playwright’s mother Rubena, trained as an Indian classical dancer, joins forces with Monica Dottor and, as movement directors, they weave their magic seamlessly into the tale. Meanwhile, Sinha’s brother, Debashis, provides a finely-tuned sound design which helps to bind the entire package together. Best of all, despite the multi-media nature of the work, Dilworth ensures that every element serves the story without ever overshadowing it.

Finally, CRASH may not be a long play, clocking in at less that 90 minutes without intermission, but it is unquestionably a complete play — a voyage that lifts you up, takes you deep into the human experience to show you the world through someone else’s life and eyes, then sets you down in a better place than it found you, richer for the voyage you have shared. Kudos to McKim and TPM for giving us another place to CRASH.

Thursday, October 3, 2013


Pictured: Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster, Maggie Huculak

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
03 OCT 2013
R: 2.5/5

It's a little bit like picking out bits and pieces of your favourite clothing in your grandmother's latest quilting project, but there are, hidden here and there, recognizable elements of Homer's The Odyssey amongst the detritus of life in the modern-day Gaspé fishing village that is the setting for Quebecois playwright Sarah Berthiaume's THE FLOOD THEREAFTER.

Translated to English from its native French by Nadine Desrochers, THE FLOOD… opened last week in the Berkeley Street Theatre, a production of Canadian Stage. It's directed by Ker Wells, who also helmed CS's summer production of Macbeth in High Park and it boasts a pretty impressive cast including local stalwarts like Maggie Huculak, W. Joseph Matheson and Oliver Becker as residents of the bizarre little town in which the play is set.

Life there is pretty uneventful, it seems, save for that fact that every evening before the sun goes down, the lovely young June, (Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster), walks into the local bar and sheds every stitch she is wearing, while the assembled male audience watches and weeps. She is the daughter of a strange woman (Patricia Marceau) rescued from the deep years ago by Matheson's dispirited Homère, a fisherman being torn apart by his attraction to June and the suspicion that he, like most of the other men in town, just might be her father.

Meanwhile, Homère's wife, the hairdresser Penelope, (Huculak) waits every night for him to come home, weaving men's hair into wigs for young June to while away the time. These oddly tranquil lives are all thrown into flux with the arrival of trucker Denis (Kevin MacDonald) who want's nothing more than to get back to his sweetheart — but the fates (and his truck) conspire against him to tragic effect.

Now, lest this encapsulation makes you think this might be compelling or even riveting theatre, let's be clear. It is not. But it's certainly not for lack of trying. Working with a translation that careers madly between the poetic and the merely prosaic, director Wells tries mightily to create the atmosphere of magic realism in which the tale can breath and grow. But despite the best efforts of his hard-working cast, things seem to come up magical when they should be real and real when it should be magical, the confusion separated by long periods of the simply dull. Not even Huculak, whose voice could could turn the periodic table into a smorgasbord, can rise above this dross for long.

In fact, the most exciting things get — at least while everyone remains fully clothed — is when Yannik Larivee's helter-skelter set gets all shook up by all the running around and seems for just a few seconds like it might collapse. Once the clothing starts to fall, of course, there are one or two rather steamy, even poetic moments, but frankly, for anyone who has left puberty behind, those aren't likely to add up to a satisfying theatrical experience. Despite everyone's best efforts, in the end, one leaves the theatre wondering how an epic that has endured as long as The Odyssey could be cut up and incorporated into something as simply pedestrian as this.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Pictured: Daniel MacIvor, John Beale
Special to TorSun
01 OCT 2013
R: 3.5/5

The dog days of summer — normally limited to July and August — get a holdover, thanks to the play which launched the Tarragon Theatre's season last week. Written by Daniel MacIvor, it's called THE BEST BROTHERS, and not only was it commissioned by one of our pre-eminent summer festivals — Stratford, to be specific  —  it also has a highly seasonal feel, built as it is around the sort of gay-pride celebrations that demand summer's wealth of sunshine and hot weather.

As the play begins, Bunnie Best, the free-spirited mother of Kyle and Hamilton Best, has met her end in a colourful, if gruesome, way, crushed under the combined weight of a sound speaker and a drag queen, both oversized and both of which toppled on to her as she watched the Gay Day parade. Which means that the better part of the play is devoted to ensuring that the Best brothers of title do a good job of dealing with the rituals of a parent's death. Obituary, visitation, funeral — all are dutifully arranged by the two brothers, who after years of practice, are adept at working around the filial antipathy that binds them together.

Hamilton, played by the playwright, is an uptight engineer, engaged in building design and enduring a failed marriage. Free-spirited Kyle (John Beale) , meanwhile, is a real estate agent, happily involved in a same-sex relationship with a sex worker — a relationship that both brothers know was the catalyst which led their mother to the fatal parade in search her search for  a more appropriate partner for her gay son. There remains one sticking point between the two brothers however: Who will take charge of their mother's beloved pet, a rather spoiled canine who exhibits great (and hugely expensive) taste in modern kitchens.

As the brothers Best try to sort out custody of the mutt, they take turns channeling their mother's now-departed spirit, providing background not just on their family life but on the story of the unwanted dog as well.

For those accustomed to the hard-edged style that marks most of the MacIvor canon, THE BEST BROTHERS will surely seem a little soft at its centre, its cleverness not nearly as well integrated into the mix of drama and black comedy that is the playwright's milieu.

But it is still an entertaining piece for all that, only seriously marred by director Dean Gabourie's staging of scenes in which the spirit of the late Bunnie returns to the stage. Ultimately, Gabourie's initial, heavy-handed way of marking each performer's transition from brother to mother is just lazy staging, telegraphing a lack of trust in both the material and his audience. And while the fact that it slows things down is of little consequence in a production  spanning slightly more than 80 minutes, the fact that it throws a wrench into a storyline that otherwise moves at a brisk MacIvor-eque clip proves more bothersome. Finally, as good as it is, THE BEST BROTHERS, at least in this production, does not emerge as one of MacIvor's better works.