Friday, November 29, 2013


Sarah Orenstein,
Tony Nappo,
John Bourgeois,
Linda Kash

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

TORONTO - Whether it’s a friend destroying an expensive piece of artwork, or, as is the case in GOD OF CARNAGE, a woman’s simple failure to ask for a washroom when she clearly has a pressing need of one, playwright Yasmina Reza asks her characters to behave in ways that stretch an audience’s credulity almost to the breaking point.

But if you can get past the excesses of Reza’s characters — and with the help of a good cast and a solid director, that is certainly possible - international award-winning productions of Art and GOD OF CARNAGE have shown that she’s written some good, even great theatre. And while Toronto audiences have enjoyed a few opportunities to see Reza’s Art, her 2008 GOD OF CARNAGE, which has played numerous other Canadian centres, is only now receiving its Toronto English-language première in a Studio 180 production, presented by David Mirvish at the Panasonic Theatre.

Translated by Christopher Hampton, who also translated Art, GOD OF CARNAGE is directed here by Joel Greenberg. On a high-style set — a living room in Brooklyn, all blood-red and white marble, created by designer John Thompson — it brings together two couples: Allen and Annette, played by John Bourgeois and Sarah Orenstein; Michael and Veronica, played by Tony Nappo and Linda Kash.

On the day prior to the opening scene, it seems the couples’ young sons have had a playground altercation, resulting in a few lost teeth and a lot of questions and recriminations. Summoned by Veronica and Michael, Allen and Annette have made the trek to the former’s Brooklyn home to discuss just what is to be done. It is, of course, all very civilized, at least on the surface, but not so slowly and certainly very surely, that surface begins to crack and mayhem ensues. As things get more and more out of control, a certain sense of humanity — these are all characters we know, although not ones we necessarily like — keeps things on track.

Or it should, but in staging the play, although he succeeds in drawing four fine performances from his players, Greenberg seems to have trouble deciding whether G OF C is a comedy with dramatic overtones, or a drama that spills over into black comedy. And in trying to play it both ways, he manages only to unbalance his production. Holding up the comedy end of things, Kash once again proves her impressive comedic chops, leaving it to an affably-centred Nappo, Bourgeois, and Orenstein (who must and does make the unthinkable almost rational in the process) to argue for the dramatic end of things. And frankly, theirs is the more compelling argument here.

In the end, played as a comedy, G OF C comes across as little more than a put-down of the kind of elites Ford Nation so despises. Played as a drama, however, it’s a blackly funny reminder that in the battle of nature over nurture, nature always holds the winning hand.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Pictured: Marc Labrèche

Special to TorSun
28 NOV 2013
R: 4.5/5

Over the past two decades, Toronto audiences have become addicted to the works of Robert Lepage, bedazzled as much by his unique stage vision as by the sometimes rambling stories he chooses to tell. So, it is small wonder that people are lining up to catch his re-working of NEEDLES AND OPIUM, a play — actually, more of a meditation — he created more than two decades ago on the heels of a particularly painful romantic break-up.

Lepage himself created the pivotal role of Robert in the original, to be replaced eventually after an extensive tour by Marc Labrèche. Happily, Labrèche returns to this re-imagining, currently playing, under the aegis of Canadian Stage, at the Bluma Appel Theatre, bringing not just a depth of experience but the gravitas he's picked up in the ensuing time as well. And this time out, Lepage, serving solely in the roles of writer/director, has created a much richer environment in which Robert's story unfold, — a three-sided half-cube that seems to be in almost constant motion, as Robert's life spins ever more out of control.

He is in Paris, when it begins, in a seedy if somewhat historic hotel room, brought there from his Quebec home to narrate a film about the American jazz great Miles Davis (played by Wellesley Robertson III), whose love affair with Paris introduced him to some new and troubling demons. At the same time as Davis was falling under Paris' spell, the French artist Jean Cocteau (played by Labrèche) had fallen under the spell of New York while dealing with his own addictions — and in NEEDLES AND OPIUM, Lepage defies time and place to bring these three disparate characters together, offering a unique perspective on addiction, pain and art that is rarely anything less than riveting.

Which is a good thing, here, as Lepage still eschews almost everything that smacks of conventional linear story telling here, instead overlaying and layering the three stories he's trying to tell with snippets of Cocteau's poetic prose and his drawings, excerpts of Davis' music, clips of Jeanne Moreau in Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows and of chanteuse Juliette Greco, who shared a long romance with the troubled jazz legend. The end result is both state of the art and state of mind.Perhaps the most notable change Lepage has wrought in this revisiting however is in making Davis an actual presence in the story instead of consigning him to mere musical background — and it is a powerful one.

But finally, the real star of the show, with all due respect to the two fine performers, is the constantly shifting set-piece that magically transforms itself from street-scape, to hotel room to recording studio to airplane. That said, it is not quite as fluid as one might wish in its magical transitions, given too often to loud bangs and periodic groans in its revolutions. For anyone who remembers some of the early difficulties in Lepage's ongoing love affair with technology, these are niggling, albeit still intrusive, concerns — and in the main, NEEDLES AND OPIUM makes its points with typical Lepage style.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


Pictured: Dylan Tedaldi in night's bright day...

JOHN COULBOURN. Special to TorSun
25 NOV 2013
R: 4/5

TORONTO - For the second time in her tenure at the helm of the National Ballet of Canada, Karen Kain has surrendered her stage and her classically-trained company to some of the most promising dance makers around, challenging them to combine their talents and her dancers to dazzling effect. 
And dazzle they do, in a program titled INNOVATION, currently playing at the Four Seasons Centre -- although, in fairness, the dazz-ability of the four contributing choreographers is neither assured nor consistent.

José Navas, for instance, makes an impressive start to his Watershed which opens the program, set to Benjamin Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, then squanders it by having some of his male dancers appear in tutus -- a gimmick best left to comic ballets, in that it seems to always leave an audience in search of a punch-line.

And while principal dancer Guillaume Côté shifts gears to whip up a tasty, meaty work titled Being and Nothingness (Part 1) for fellow principal Greta Hodgkinson, setting it to Philip Glass's Metamorphosis, it is, at seven minutes and despite Hodgkinson's flawless work, really little more than a balletic amuse bouche, served up under a single electric light bulb.

The setting -- a huge rock, created by designer Hyemi Shin and lit by James F. Ingalls -- is also memorable in Robert Binet's Unearth -- so much so that it overshadows both Owen Pallett's original composition and a choreographic mission that suggests Binet has bitten off more meaning than he and his highly talented corps can digest, proving in the process that you never quite know what your going to find under a rock.

But happily in what proves to be a long two and a half hour program, Kain saves the best for last, inviting one-time artistic director James Kudelka back into the NBOC's creative fold to create another new work for the company. In ... black night's bright day... Kudelka continues his exploration of death and grieving in a work set to Pergolesi's valedictory, Stabat Mater, beautifully sung by soprano Dame Emma Kirkby and countertenor Daniel Taylor, backed by the NBOC Orchestra, masterfully conducted by David Briskin.
 In a series of wonderfully danced vignettes, a young woman (Heather Ogden) remembers the life and grieves the death of a young man (McGee Maddox), surrounded by a community which at first joins her in her grieving, then draws her back into the world of the living. But she is not alone in her grief, as attested by a solo from the indefatigable and always watchable Piotr Stanczyk as a lame young man determined to dance his sorrow and by the loverly duets danced by Côté and guest artist Svetlana Lunkina.

And while the transition from grief to joy is somewhat abrupt here -- leaving the impression that Kudelka has not said everything he has to say on this subject -- both dancers and audience seemed so happy to be reunited with Kudelka in the creative mode that everyone was more than prepared to overlook ... bnbd...'s minor flaws.

Monday, November 25, 2013


Pictured: Adam Jacobs

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
25 NOV 2013
R: 3/5

TORONTO - I don't have kids -- but I do have a pretty good memory. Good enough, in fact, to remember how wary I was, as a child, of grown-ups who came on too strong. Back then, kids -- at least kids like me, of which there were (and still are) many, I suspect --  wanted to be led to a good time and drawn into it, not dragged to its edge and simply tossed in.

And the good folks at Disney waste precious little time dragging anyone anywhere when it comes to their new Broadway-bound family edition of ALADDIN, currently playing the Ed Mirvish Theatre. 
Instead, we're simply tossed into the fray as director Casey Nicholaw and his production team whip up a maelstrom of sound and furious colour, signifying -- well, not much, as near as I can figure.

There is a story of sorts, of course, as Chad Beguelin tries to nurture a meaningful love story in the brief intervals between a cascade of songs, composed by Alan Menken, with lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Beguelin himself -- most familiar from the animated movie that inspired it all, with an additional tune or two thrown in for good measure. But there's precious little room for the delicate love story at Aladdin's heart to blossom -- the romance between the street-smart titular hero (Adam Jacobs) and the Princess Jasmine (Courtney Reed) is constantly pushed aside by the meta hijinx of the three other members of Aladdin's boy band (Brian Gonzales, Jonathan Schwartz and Brandon O'Neill) or the machinations of the villainous vizier, Jafar (Jonathan Freeman) and his pint-sized sidekick Iago (Don Darryl Rivera). Not to mention James Monroe Iglehart's over-the-top Genie, popping out of his lamp with enough voltage to light the Great White Way, stealing every single scene he is in. In a bottle, this Genie would be labelled over-proof.

And if that's not enough distraction, Nicholaw injects plenty of his own choreography (more memorable for enthusiasm than inventiveness) into the melee, whipping things into even more of a visual frenzy with Gregg Barnes' vividly bejewelled costumes and Bob Crowley's equally lurid sets. 
In short, it's a visual assault that doesn't so much draw one in as simply sweep one up in an overly long first act that washes one up on the shores of intermission, gasping for air.

Things improve, for a time, in a much briefer second act, as Nicholaw offers up a magical carpet ride, pulling out all the theatrical stops but muting the emotional ones, for A Whole New World providing the highlight of a production that tries mightily to be magical but never really pulls a rabbit out of a hat. With the exception of Iglehart's gigantically genial Genie, there is no character in which an audience can make an emotional investment -- no quiet moment that might allow any of the characters, good or evil, to exist in three dimensions. And while that approach may work in an animated feature, when it comes to live-on-stage, it's simply not enough to be merely animated.

Saturday, November 23, 2013


Pictured: Layne Coleman, Linda Griffiths

Special to TorSun
23 NOV 2013
R: 4/5

A man and a woman, once lovers, meet up at the wedding of a mutual friend and, later that evening, end up in her hotel room, where much booze and some illegal drugs are consumed. "Seen it," you are no doubt thinking as you fasten your seat belt for a voyage down a much-travelled road littered with recriminations and regrets for all the things that might have been. Or so you think.

But in her new play, HEAVEN ABOVE/HEAVEN BELOW, playwright-performer Linda Griffiths opts to take a road less travelled, introducing us to mature characters who are capable of wandering through their past without getting lost in it, regardless of what they ingest. After a health concern forced a delay last spring, HEAVEN ABOVE/HEAVEN BELOW opened this week in the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace in a production by TPM in association with Griffiths' Duchess Productions.

And there's a lovely synchronicity to it all, in view of the fact that the characters featured in this new play first saw the light of stage in Griffiths' The Darling Family: A Duet For Three, in which she starred back in 1991.

This new play is separated from the original by 20 years, and HE (played this time out by Layne Coleman) and SHE (Griffiths) have grown older, although initially, it is not clear how much they have matured, if at all. They arrive back at her hotel room — designer Kimberly Purtell transforms the small stage into a credible room in a boutique hostelry — armed with the dregs of a cheap bottle of wine, filched from the nuptial celebrations they have just attended.

The situation is obviously strained, but as the two indulge in some conversational thrust and parry, time starts to slip away and we begin to see the two characters who parted at the end of The Darling Family, having ended the pregnancy their brief romance had produced. She's now a journalist and a quite successful one, all things considered, while he's living in Britain, married, raising a four-year-old and writing for television.

Slowly, they reveal and examine the scars their union left, emboldened by booze, marijuana and cocaine, sometimes cautiously reading the ruins of their relationship and pouring over the past in the same way they once used I Ching to try to divine the future, at other times, tackling it all with alacrity. The repartee is both clever and cutting, and director Karen Hines quite wisely keeps things brisk, in an attempt to hide the fact that Coleman finally has been quite utterly miscast in the role of the urbane sophisticate to which his character pretends.

But Coleman's shortcomings notwithstanding, there is no denying these two work well together, and happily, when it comes to vulnerability, defiance and hard won wisdom, Griffiths proves capable of providing enough for two.

While it is not play to warm the hearts of the Calvinists in our midst, HEAVEN ABOVE/HEAVEN BELOW is a quietly hopeful evening of theatre that manages to put the past in the proper place. Behind us.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


Pictured: James Long, Marcus Youssef

Special to TorSun
20 NOV 2013
R: 3.5/5

TORONTO - Judged purely on dramatic merit, WINNERS AND LOSERS (the Theatre Replacement/Neworld Theatre/Crow’s Theatre production currently being presented by Crow’s and Canadian Stage at the Berkeley Street Theatre) would come up a winner on pretty much every front.

Conflict? You bet! In fact, it’s surprising just how much conflict can be generated by merely staging an essentially pointless game, wherein two contestants — in this case, Neworld’s Marcus Youssef and Theatre Replacement’s James Long, each playing himself and sharing a writing credit in the process — suggest topics, and summarily (and with an apparent spontaneousness that is the hallmark of satisfying performances) assign to them the status of winner or loser, defending their verdicts where appropriate.

Dramatic build and character development? It’s got those in spades too, as the game these two play grows ever more personal, moving from judging and justifying the win/lose status of obvious targets like Pamela Anderson, microwaves and Mayor Ford to riffs on the relative merits of their personal masturbating styles, their respective fathers, their own parenting skills and finally, each other.

Under Chris Abraham’s taut direction, things move at a satisfying clip toward inexorable trainwreck status with the two performers employing everything including beer drinking and Greek wrestling to avoid being reduced to the status of mere talking heads by the process. Taken at face value, this is theatre as entertaining and as disturbing as it is unorthodox, stripped as it is of conventional plot and staging, dwelling instead in a seemingly real world, the soil of its Vancouver genesis still clinging to its roots and littered with deeply personal improvised explosive devices that prove more than capable of not only wounding and scarring but taking off a metaphorical limb, should the occasion demand.

It’s Ultimate Fighting for the intellectual set. But — and yes, there is a big but here — finally, WINNERS AND LOSERS falls apart under the weight of its own pretension, asking that we extrapolate what we have seen on stage into the broader world — see it as a damning commentary on the capitalist system. Problem is, the boyish dynamic behind their game — a game, I suspect, that would be dismissed by most females of my acquaintance as utterly childish after about 10 minutes — would be exactly the same, were this game played with the same kind of earnestness by two men raised in a country where communism, socialism, informed dictatorship or even theocracy held sway.

Finally, it’s too easy to write it off as just a guy thing, and frankly, WINNERS AND LOSERS emerges more as condemnation of the mind-numbing effects of testosterone than of capitalism. One wonders if it ever crossed any of the three male minds involved in creating this work that perhaps God gave you wives specifically to save you from playing hurtful games like these.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


Pictured: Christopher Morris, Claire Armstrong

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
19 NOV 2013
R: 5/5

If it's gold you're seeking, make your way to a gold field. Pearls? Find an oyster bed. But you need something more than a theatre to strike theatrical riches. Case in point: the funky, friendly and aptly named Storefront Theatre, in the region of Bloor and Ossington — a charming place where one might expect to find theatrical offerings best defined by their earnestness rather than their excellence. But, thanks to the hard work of the Red One Theatre Collective, Storefront is currently playing host to a production of Patrick Marber's AFTER MISS JULIE that combines both earnestness and excellence to maximum effect. This is a riveting stuff.

AFTER MISS JULIE, as its title implies, is a brainchild of Strindberg's 19th century classic, Miss Julie, updated to the post World War II era, and Anglofied in a hugely successful attempt, all things considered, to render it more relevant to modern-day audiences. It is directed here by David Ferry in a sexy, muscular production that fuses the power of Marber's re-envisioning  with the talents of his three member cast in such a way that the production manages to keep its audience on the very edges of their seats for the duration.

Serving as his own (quite talented) set and lighting designer, Ferry takes Storefront's low-ceilinged, dimly-lit space and makes of its shortcomings - virtues, creating a dank "below-stairs" feel to the play's country house setting, standing in for a ruling class as tattered and torn as the Union Jack suspended over the audience.

Miss Julie (played by Claire Armstrong in a turn that is heartbreakingly luminescent) is a child of that class, and, as the lower classes around her celebrate an end to the war and the election of a Labour government, she finds herself perched on the very edge of the crumbling class system, a woman child, watching her world crumble beneath her very feet, unsure whether to jump or simply take the fall. Her father's chauffeur, John, played by with a note-perfect blend of swagger and obsequiousness by Christopher Morris, sees the same fault lines around him and is determined to land in a better place.

On this night, the two come together, drawn by the sexual tension that runs between them like an electrical current, fighting against the last vestiges of Victorian prudery and the British class system to find a way to save themselves from a coming social apocalypse. Meanwhile, Christine, Miss Julie's cook and John's intended bride, is determined to survive in the here and now, drowning the pain of John's betrayal in a simple pragmatism that is all but bulletproof, thanks to a triumphantly understated performance by Amy Keating.

Save for a few extended blackouts that strain an audience's patience, this is a superb production and as they breath new life into this old story, you're likely to realize that all it will take to turn AFTER MISS JULIE into a golden theatrical experience is a post-show drink and some fine conversation.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Pictured: Jenny Weisz

Special to TorSun
18 NOV 2013
R: 2/5

I couldn't have been the only one surprised (and yes, disappointed) when Young People's Theatre announced plans to produce the Broadway musical ANNIE.

YPT, after all, has built a golden reputation producing plays and musicals that refuse to talk down to its target audience — and ANNIE, for all its considerable popularity and numerous awards, is a musical that talks down to absolutely everybody. In the final analysis, it's little more that a series of musical flashcards (featuring saccharine lyrics by Martin Charnin, set to simple tunes by Charles Strouse) hung loosely on a scant storyline cobbled together by Thomas Meehan in an attempt to pass it off as family entertainment — theatre for young audiences only in the minds of people who don't really think young audiences have much in the way of minds at all.

Even YPT's artistic director, Allen MacInnis, who programmed ANNIE and helms the production now playing in YPT's Front Street space, conceded its weaknesses but forged ahead, determined to mine it for something more than musical ear wax. And, to give him credit, in this pared-down 90 minute version, he's certainly tried.

For instance, to side-step the terminal cuteness that has rotted the teeth of most earlier productions of ANNIE, he's cast a young adult in the title role, sparing us the leather-lunged pubescents who normally don an obligatory red fright wig and cuddle up to whatever mutt is playing Sandy (consigned here largely to the dog house), all for the opportunity to belt out a musical ear worm like Tomorrow like they have enough life experience to really mean it.

But despite the best efforts of young Jenny Weisz — a wonderfully talented Sheridan College graduate cast in the title role — it's a ploy that simply doesn't work. In the end, when you take the cute out of ANNIE, there's nothing left, save for a few depression-era jokes about the New Deal and Roosevelt that, one suspects, have long since lost the ability to amuse anyone collecting Old Age Security and simply fly over over the heads of anyone younger. At least, in today's Toronto, they'll have the virtue of being easier to explain to the kiddies than some of our Mayor's most recent remarks.

To add further roughage to ANNIE's purée, MacInnis has recruited some fine talent to flesh out the supporting roles, but though Sterling Jarvis (cast as Oliver Warbucks), Louise Pitre (cast as the evil Miss Hannigan) and Shawna Van Omme (cast as Warbucks' pretty right hand) do fine work, their best efforts prove only that the first thing a good supporting performer requires is something worthy of support.

That said, this is an still an ANNIE that looks pretty good, thanks to designers Teresa Prysbylski (sets), Melanie McNeill (costumes) and Michael Walton (lighting). But sadly, despite MacInnis's determination to mine the story for gold, ANNIE remains theatrical small change — deep as a dime and not worth a plugged nickel.

Saturday, November 16, 2013


Pictured: Ian Lake,
Colin Mercer

Special to TorSun
16 NOV 2013
R: 4.5/5

If it's simple answers to complex social questions you seek, you're more likely to find them, one suspects, in a church rather than in a theatre. After all, sermons most often wrap things up in nice simple packages, setting out answers most often painted in stark shades of black and white.
Theatre is a little messier, at least when its firing on all cylinders, serving up issues wrapped in sloppy, barely contained packages, coloured in the full spectrum of human experience. In the face of complicated moral issues,  it doesn't eschew answers in favour of helping us frame the questions we still need to ask. By those lights, Joan MacLeod's THE VALLEY, currently playing in its Toronto première on the stage of the Tarragon Theatre, is pretty fine theatre.

The subject is nothing if not totally contemporary — hardly surprising really, when one considers that MacLeod has often been amongst the first playwrights to tackle complex social issues like teen bullying and the like. On the increasingly mean streets of modern-day Vancouver, the lives of a hard-working police constable (played by Ian Lake) and a mentally tortured young man (Colin Mercer) intersect, with tragic, although not fatal, results. In the ensuing public firestorm, the young man's mother — Susan Coyne plays a proud, loving woman with a highly defined middle class sense of right and wrong — is highly critical of the officer's behaviour, although she has no idea of what really happened. She believes justice should be meted out with equal doses of compassion by those who serve on the front lines.

And while the police officer deals with her charges and accusations with equanimity, weighing them against a reality that embraces everything from murderous pig farmers to rioting hockey fans, the ensuing tension spills over into his home life, where his troubled young wife (Michelle Monteith) struggles to deal with a new baby, and a case of postpartum depression spinning increasingly out of control.

It all unfolds on a single sprawling set that serves not only as home to mother and son, husband and wife, but as a range of other locations as well, simply and effectively designed and lit by Graeme S. Thomson. Working in the round, director Richard Rose puts his trust in a finely honed script, a top-notch cast and an intelligent audience to sort things out — all to positive effect. Coyne and Lake give particularly well-drawn, solidly anchored performances, opening windows into the souls of good people who are not always right, while Mercer and Monteith offer less accessible turns reflective of our inability to connect with those touched by mental illness.

And while, on the surface, THE VALLEY would seem to be a dissertation on the shifting demands of modern day policing in a world where the social safety net is increasingly frayed — and a pretty effective one at that — it is, in the end, like so many fine works of art, also a compelling argument for empathy and understanding, offering an ending that leaves us with few answers, but a firmer knowledge of the questions that must be asked.

Monday, November 11, 2013


James Kudelka

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
11 NOV 2013
R: 4.5/5

Choreographer James Kudelka's legacy to the National Ballet of Canada, where he served as artistic director for several years, includes a whole library of memorable full-length story ballets. Of these, his re-telling of SWAN LAKE is probably the weakest — at least when judged exclusively from a narrative point of view. In the final analysis, it seems almost as if, in spinning out the story of the tormented Prince Siegfried, undone by his love for a Swan Queen in thrall to the villainous Rothbart, Kudelka simply couldn't come up with enough story to flesh out a truly timeless score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

But happily, not all full-length ballets are judged solely on their narrative depth, for as the NBOC proves in a remounting of Kudelka's 1999 masterwork currently gracing the stage of the Four Seasons, when it comes to story ballets, "story" is merely a modifier — and the subject is most definitely "ballet."

And when it comes to that particular form of dance, at least in its classical form, this SWAN LAKE is steeped in it. From its very opening scenes, in which Siegfried's courtly companions get carried away while cavorting with a local wench, through to the tragic and inevitable denouement, in which Rothbart succeeds finally in separating the young lovers forever, Kudelka fills the stage with breath-taking movement, bending it to his will to create not only showcases for magnificent leading artists, but moving tableaux of such great beauty and artistry featuring the entire company, that it often leaves you breathless.

For Saturday's opening performance, artistic director Karen Kain made some interesting casting choices, not the least of which is the casting of McGee Maddox in the role of Siegfried. A dancer of more mature physical dimension than a typical balletic leading man, Maddox is nonetheless a perfect partner for Xiao Nan Yu's stunning portrayal of the lovely Odette and her evil doppelganger Odile.
As well, possessed of a regal bearing, he requires none of the flourishes other dancers use to establish a courtly persona - but while that allows him to cut right to the chase, it also leaves him with precious little to do once that chase has been joined. Worse, in this production, it serves to unbalance the rivalry between his Siegfried and an otherwise wonderful Rothbart, as danced by Etienne Lavigne, who tends to disappear when pitted against Maddox. But such considerations are minor when one considers the artistry of, say, Keiichi Hirano's Fool or the work of Tina Pereira, Elena Lobsanova, Jenna Savella and Jillian Vanstone as royal aspirants to Siegfried's hand — all apparently found under mushrooms in the forest. Throw in a corps drilled to almost military precision and that magnificent music, all of it served up with high drama and even higher skill by the NBOC Orchestra under David Briskin and it's easy to overlook a certain look lack of narrative depth and simply float along, enjoying the scenery.

Sunday, November 10, 2013


Pictured: Peyson Rock, Alexis Gordon, Karen Robinson, Lucinda Davis

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
08 NOV 2013
R: 3/5

Theatre is built on trust: the trust a playwright places in actors who ultimately bring a play to life; the trust a playwright, director and actor place in a willing audience, that we will suspend disbelief and share their voyage; the trust an audience places in the play itself, a commitment to a shared voyage to someplace better, deeper, wiser, richer.

Ironically, though issues of trust sit at the very heart of Beth Graham's THE GRAVITATIONAL PULL OF BERNICE TRIMBLE, it is evident in the 90-plus minute production, co-produced by Obsidian and Factory Theatres, on the Factory mainstage, that the playwright doesn't trust anyone very much. Right from the top, there's the feeling the playwright wants to push us, rather than lead us through her tale of the title character's fight with early on-set Alzheimer's, as seen through the eyes of one of her three children.

Finally, when the playwright sets up a code to tell us whether we are in Bernice's kitchen or the kitchen of her daughter Iris, played by Alexis Gordon, the two locales in which the action is set, it's crystal clear she thinks we're not too bright.

And just as you are thinking "It's not that complicated," it dawns on you that for the most part, the entire play is concerned not with showing us what is going on in each of the character's minds, but with telling us, as Graham doesn't trust her cast with that task. Finally, Graham's belief that we aren't smart enough nor her cast good enough to take us where she wants us to be turns the whole thing into an illuminated monologue better read than performed. And that's a pity, for in examining a proud woman's struggle to regain some sort of control over a life spinning ever more  out of her own control, Graham raises issues not only thought-provoking but timely as well, Sadly, we have too much time to contemplate them, for the playwright's faulty dramatic structure brings us to the end of the play long before her characters arrive, leaving us plenty of time to think.

Faced with a play in which three of the characters exist only in the mind of the fourth, director Philip Akin does respectable work, drawing solid, if limited performances, from Karen Robinson as the tragic Bernice, Lucinda Davis as her daughter Sara and Peyson Rock as her son Peter. Despite Akin's best efforts, they all end up simply lined-up in support of the playwright's party line, with none of the shading that makes for memorable theatre.

In the role of narrator, Iris, Gordon spends so much time telling us what she is feeling that any attempt to inhabit those feelings becomes redundant. Her tentative, trembling need for approval grows a little wearisome. Still, many, I suspect, will support Graham's point of view, while as many will no doubt reject it —  but, trust me, this is not a play that will advance public debate.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


Pictured: Graeme McComb, Haley McGee

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
05 NOV 2013
R: 2.5/5

There's a lot of good red meat in George F. Walker's MOSS PARK, currently playing in a Green Thumb Theatre production on the Theatre Passe Muraille mainstage. But director Patrick McDonald serves it it up as a bland and watery vegetarian stew, offering precious little into which an audience can sink its teeth.

A stand-alone sequel to Walker's Tough!, which premiered in the '90s, MOSS PARK reintroduces us to Bobby and Tina, two young Toronto kids who seemed damned to a life below the poverty line when we left them at the end of that first play. In the real world, nearly two decades have passed, but it is only a few years on in the world of Walker's characters, and their situation still appears hopeless as they meet up for an evening in the neglected park of title.

Tina, played by Haley McGee, is struggling as a single mother, raising a two-year-old daughter, while Bobby, played by Graeme McComb, remains a child trapped in a man's body, sorting out commitment issues, not just with Tina, with whom he wants to share his life, but with potential employers, jobs, the truth and even his loser friends. But Tina is short of patience, perched as she is on the verge of eviction and trying to sort out whether to continue with the pregnancy she's just discovered or to terminate it.

In many ways, this is typical Walker fare, unrelenting and occasionally even brutal in its examination of the self-perpetuating nature of the poverty cycle, lacing it all with compassion and black comedy of the bleakest sort — and when he rubs our noses in the options open to young people like these, it is utterly devastating on so very many fronts. Or it would be, one suspects, had director McDonald attacked the script with the same honesty and passion with which it was written.

Instead, in what one assumes is an attempt to create characters with  whom a broad range of young people can identify, he soft-pedals everything, serving up a Bobby and Tina who, despite the words they mouth, look and act like nothing so much as a pair of middle-class high school students, having a bad day.

Had McDonald had the courage or the vision to demand the same kind of grit from the performers as he received from set designer Martin Conboy — poverty, after all, leaves physical and emotional scars as well as mental ones —  MOSS PARK could have been deeply moving — thought-provoking not just for young adults but for a broader audience as well. Though it's hard to tell, this is a play that could have been a worthy successor to the likes of The End of Civilization, which still ranks as one of the most powerful contemporary indictments of public policy to ever grace a Toronto stage.

If this were a grammatical progression, Tough! would be followed by Tougher!, but sadly that's not the way it seems to work in theatre. Pity.