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All's Well That Ends Well

The Canadian Stage Company has been performing Shakespeare deep in the wooded glens and evergreen boughs of Toronto’s beautiful High Park for going on 34 years. I may exaggerate the setting a bit, but there is something Shakespearean about the atmosphere even if we all sit like lemmings on a hill - actually it’s an amphitheatre - watching the stories of heroes and heroines, loves lost and gained, triumph over evil, power over the innocent, and even the rampaging ocean waters that claim a ship or two and disgorges someone’s missing and very much alive relative.  One thing about outdoor park theatre is that your imagination never fails to chip in and complement the story.
Photo: by Cylla von Tiedemann. L to R: Kaleb Alexander, Mina James in All's Well That Ends Well.

Canadian Stage’s Shakespeare in High Park which runs until September 4, is celebrating Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary with two shows presented by Canadian Stage in Collaboration with the Department of Theatre at York University. Though I missed the opening production of Hamlet due to a rambunctious rainstorm that seemed entirely apropos for the Bard’s celebrations, I caught up with its second production, All’s Well That Ends Well, on a fair night that proved a perfect setting with weather that boded well.

All’s Well is a love story with a difference. True love isn’t returned, lovers are often mean spirited, and, at least in Ted Witzel’s bold and entertaining production, sex is not only a driving force, we stand in awe of its unlimited possibilities.

Done in modern dress, All’s Well opens with a funeral. The story takes place in France and the Countess whose husband has just died, is a stunning widow (Nicky Guadagni is the picture of elegance in the role), and a savvy business woman who runs a spa in the south of France. Her less glamorous and down to earth ward, Helen (Mina James) is in love with the Countess's son, the Count Bertram, and devises a plan that will enable her to follow him to the King of France’s court to be near him. Ah, love – or something similar.  As it happens, the king has an ulcer and Helena who has learned how to treat certain illnesses from her father, a famous physician who died and left his daughter in the care of the Countess, is set on curing the king and in return asking for Bertram’s hand in marriage.

But while Bertram has his own thoughts about love which has nothing to do with Helena. The latter, dressed in a skin tight nurse’s outfit like a character from the glory days of burlesque (Shawn Kerwin’s imaginative costume design),  manages to cure the king with a long dildo style device which she shoves into his rear end as if she’s operating a power drill. The gasp is more from the audience than the king, played with bonhomie by Marvin L. Ishmael, who is miraculously cured of his ulcer. He’s more than delighted to give Helena Bertram’s hand  in marriage. As for Bertram, played by Kaleb Alexander, the last thing he wants is Helena and after their marriage, makes a hasty exit to pursue greener pastures in war-time Italy along with his affectionate and mouthy wingman Parolles (Qasim Khan) whose conceit will eventually be cut down to size by Florentine soldiers.

The interweaving plot line keeps you hopping with its characters and situations. For instance, Helen’s secret compact with Bertram’s new love Diana, involves all of them in an all too familiar bedroom farce: Bertram thinks it’s Diana he’s making love to when it’s really Helen in the dark. Set Designer Teresa Przyblski who keeps it simple, provides a desert style tent whose goings-on inside are left to our imagination.

There’s no question that Witzel has extracted some intriguing characteristics from the actors in this more condensed version of the play which doesn’t leave much time for character building: Parolles is gay, Bertram is an ass (until he reforms of course), Helen is a stubborn go-getter, and Bertram’s mother, the regal Countess Roussillion, is into flagellation.

You can forget romance. My favorite character is Lavatch, the “other woman”, a clown and ‘metatheatrical device’ played by an incomparable Rachel Jones, looking like a bleached blonde Hollywood bimbo, a one-woman Greek chorus, standing off to a side of the stage, and in a smoky voice singing atonally into a mike about love, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - obviously not penned by Shakespeare. “You fight for love, or your king, or because you’ve come this far, or the happy story your end should have.” She doesn’t smile or over emote, she just stands and sings as if she’s been electrically tuned and switched on for the moment. It’s absolutely wonderful, like listening to Leonard Cohen in a dress.

Shawn Kerwin’s costume design runs the gamut from kingly figures to soldiers dressed to kill with a bone to pick, and women who look as if they’ve dressed in a hurry or in the case of the Countess Rousillon, as if they’ve just come from a Galliano fitting.

All’s Well is all about love, or the lack of it or the gyrations that Helena goes through to win Bertram’s love as well as his body. Her pact with Diana, a disguised rendezvous, and an exchange of rings that salvage a marriage, are a few of the propellers that make All’s Well That Ends Well, end well. At least the King of France thinks so.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger

All’s Well That Ends Well runs until September (alternating with Hamlet) with performances on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at 8 pm. Both performances run approximately 90 minutes without intermission at the High Park Amphitheatre (1873 Bloor St. W). Gates open at 6 pm. Each performance is pay-what-you can. Advanced $25 premium seats can be reserved online at canadianstage.com .

A Doll's House

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen had already become interested in women’s independence well before he wrote A Doll’s House, his 1879 drama,  one of his protest plays, about a woman who leaves her husband and children because shewanted to discover herself. It shocked European audiences of the time whose society was built upon the sanctity of marriage (though George Bernard Shaw not surprisingly found the play exhilarating).

Skip ahead some 85 years and  the dawning of the Women’s  Liberation Movement which in a few years had spread across countries and continents,  and suddenly,  Ibsen’s A Doll’s House became one of the icons of the movement, “After Nora slammed the door” a banner for progressive feminism.

A Doll’s House is a hand in glove fit with Ibsen’s period. Transplanted to the present time, however, it has its shortcomings. That’s not true with all Ibsen’s plays, some of which when updated, have fared well with today’s social mores.  An Enemy of the People, for instance, about a present day’s small town government officials who turn their back on the poisoning of the water supply fearing an economic downturn because of it, is not only familiar but relevant as it proved in Richard Rose’s production in 2015 for the Tarragon theatre.

But Soulpepper Theatre’s modern production of A Doll’s House, directed by Daniel Brooks with a translation by Frank McGuinness, and set in the present, raises some questions about what happens to a play when it’s taken out of its original period, one that provides a fixed social context that steers its characters to either adapt to a strict social order, or toward a personal disaster. In today’s climate, where social order is so fluid, individualism is a given and marriage a partnership, it’s hard to imagine the likes of Torvald Helmer and his child/wife Nora whom he disciplines like a child.

The upwardly mobile couple, Torvald and Nora Helmer, seem to enjoy the good life and everything that goes with it. Torvald has just secured a position as an executive in the local bank; Nora is an exuberant mother – and shopaholic. Their light and bright modern home looks as if it had been furnished by Ikea (credit Lorenzo Savoini with the design), and they have a loyal nanny named Anne-Marie (Michelle Fisk). More than that, it is Christmas time with all its bonhomie and spirited family and friends, and Nora is preparing her special dance for a festive gathering and is depending upon Torvald to tell her which dress she’ll wear for the occasion.

The interplay between them is almost laughable in today’s climate with Torvald  (Christopher Morris captures Torvald’s  congenial smugness perfectly) calling Nora his “songbird,” his “ twittering skylark”,  and his “little featherbrain,” while Katherine Gauthier’s constantly breathless Nora is always willing to please Torvald by behaving exactly like a  featherbrain and enticing him sensuously. Their healthy sex life is obviously not one of their problems, and director Brooks in emphasizing it has certainly put that aspect of it squarely into the modern period. It’s a lesser concern to Nora who uses her sex to her advantage in wheedling Torvald for more spending money, which gives yet another dimension to the relationship, and of Nora.

The turnaround comes when she is faced with a true dilemma: being blackmailed by a man called Krogstad, who works at the same bank where Torvald has become his superior and intends to fire him.

Years before when Torvald was very ill, Nora took out a bank loan to take her husband to Italy for his health, and forged her father’s signature for the loan. Though she has been paying back the loan herself, Krogstad threatens to tell her husband and publish libelous articles about it unless Nora intervenes with Torvald to save his job.  For all his duplicity, Krogstad, played by Damien Atkins, seems more human than Torvald, certainly more vulnerable in facing economic extinction because his superior at the bank doesn’t think he gives him enough respect in front of the other employees.

While the Helmer home seems to handle the in and out traffic of a good many characters: among them Krogstad, Nora’s good friend Kristine Linde (Oyin Oladjo) who has undergone hard times herself and appeals to Nora to ask Torvald for a job at the bank,  Dr. Rank (Diego Matamoros) Nora’s old family friend who is dying of tuberculosis and for some reason needs to confess his secretive long -time love for her, Nora and Helmer’s two children, and the nanny and the maid, there doesn’t seem to be enough doors to handle all of them considering there are supposed to be separate rooms on the other side.

In the final big scene when Nora and Torvald have the stage to themselves, everyone else thankfully out of the way, Torvald who has only been informed of Nora’s duplicity from Krogstad's letter awaiting him in the mailbox, calls her a liar, a hypocrite and a criminal, unfit to raise their children. It’s a devastating blow. Until a letter is delivered to Nora personally from Krogstad which contains the incriminating bond, freeing Torvald and Nora from any further threats.

In his magnanimous way, Torvald forgives Nora and wants things to return the way they were, but  Nora, who finally realizes what a sham their marriage has been, walks away from him, their marriage, and the children, feeling they’ll be in better hands than hers. Gauthier is at her best in the final scene. Clearheaded, in charge of her life, and ready to take on a hostile world outside their doll’s house, she even gains a kind of nobility.

Ibsen based the character of Nora on a close friend who had signed a personal loan to find a cure for her husband’s tuberculosis. The ending of her story was far more tragic than Nora’s whose ending was bold but brave in Ibsen’s eyes, if sacrilegious to the audiences of his day. But how do we look at A Doll’s House with today’s eyes? The applause for Nora’s decision was inspirational in the 1960’s, a period in time when women’s liberation to many was a force majeure. A Doll’s House only stands the test of time in its own period; reset in ours, it only seems quaint.  A Doll's House plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until August 27. Distillery District.  50 Tank House Lane. Tickets to Soulpepper productions are available by calling the Young Centre Box Office at 416.866.8666 or by visiting soulpepper.ca.

Photo: by Cylla von Tiedemann. L to R: Christopher Morris, Katharine Gauthier in A Doll's House.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger

Incident at Vichy

When Arthur Miller’s drama Incident at Vichy opened in 1965 at the Washington Square Theatre in New York, it was neither a great critical nor a commercial success, closing only after 32 performances. But time has proved differently for Miller’s morality play about a group of Jewish men who have been gathered up by the Nazis in 1942 occupied Paris and taken to a detention room for interrogation.

The current revival of Miller's plays have hit a new high that includes the New York revival of Incident at Vichy in 2015 which followed on the heels of a resounding production of Miller's A View from the Bridge, and the current much lauded revival of The Crucible set in modern times, while Miller's post-war drama All My Sons has has been a successful addition to the Stratford Festival's current season.

What is remarkable about Incident at Vichy, is that during the ninety-minutes there’s relatively little physical action. The men talk to each other, argue, debate and ruminate, as they’re awaiting their ‘turn’ to enter a room from which few return. But like nothing of Miller’s other works, Incident in Vichy is a play where man’s humanity is examined and put on the line to prove itself.

In director Alan Dilworth’s production, anxiety hangs precariously in the air as the 9 men, from various backgrounds and walks of life, sit in a single line on a long bench in an otherwise empty room. At first, they question their own involvement.  Why are they are there?  Their documents are in order. It must be a mere “routine document check,” says Marchand (William Webster), a well-dressed business man who is a little on the pompous side and is more concerned about the business appointment he’s going to miss than what is happening now. 

But something is off. The interrogator, a well-known Nazi, Professor Hoffman, (Kevin Bundy), and his uniformed Major (Oliver Dennis) who keeps the interrogation flowing efficiently despite his own discomfort with the situation, are obviously more than organization men who are doing this to check documents. The possibility that the detainees have been picked up because they’re Jewish might have had something to do with it. It creeps into the conversation tentatively, then hangs in the still air until Lebeau (Peter Fernandes) a painter, whose anxiousness about the situation surfaces regularly, mentions that he had his nose measured by the people who picked him up and wonders if anyone else did as well. It strikes a chord.

Bayard (Gordon Hecht), a socialist and rail yard worker whose views about the common good don’t extend to the one gypsy in their mist (Meegwun Fairbrother) whom he accuses of stealing a pot, begins to tell a horrible story he heard at the yards from the railroad engineer about Jews from Toulouse being locked up inside the freight trains that are going to Poland.

Of the group, only two have little or nothing to say, an old Orthodox Jew (Robert Nasmith) who is one of the later arrivals and sits quietly, guarding a pillow he has brought with him, and a teenaged boy (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster) who feels more concerned for his neighbor who asked him to pawn her ring to buy food for her family. He was doing the favor for her when he was picked up. The others will speculate - and debate.

Miller leaves it to three men who will represent the strength and the fallibilities of the group: Leduc (Stuart Hughes) a psychiatrist, who was picked up when he went out to get some medicine for his sick wife, will desperately try and fail to induce the men to overcome their captors who number far less than they do; Monceau, a demure actor (Kawa Ada) who can’t believe that any Germans could possibly ‘murder” anyone. He argues that no one is as sensitive as a German audience who treat the theatre with respect as if they are in church, and listen to every nuance; while the elegant Von Berg (Diego Matamoros), a prince with  a thousand-year-old family name who has left Austria where he demonstrated utter distaste for the Nazis, debates the vileness of their intentions with the deluded Monceau. “That is their power," he says cooly. "To do the inconceivable. It paralyzes the rest of us.”

Unlike Miller’s more dramatic works like Death of a Salesman and The Price, Incident at Vichy relies on argument, rationality, the victimization of minority groups, the forces and the definition of evil which itself depends on the complicity of those who are aware of the injustice but do nothing about it, and man’s commitment to his neighbor through personal sacrifice, the latter a force which crowns the ending of the play when Von Berg actually makes a supreme sacrifice to save Leduc’s life.

It is a play that you listen to very carefully, that has as much to say in 2016 as it did in 1965 when Miller campaigned vigorously against the Vietnam War. The superb production by Alan Dilworth for Soulpepper Theatre has been extended yet again at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts where it plays until July 2. Distillery District.  50 Tank House Lane. Tickets to Soulpepper productions are available by calling the Young Centre Box Office at 416.866.8666 or by visiting soulpepper.ca.
Photo: by Cylla von Tiedemann. L to R: Kawa Ada, Oliver Dennis, Stuart Hughes.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


Though Cirque du Soleil hasn’t taken up residency in Toronto as it has in Las Vegas, Orlando and Los Angeles, its annual summer visit underneath that Grand “Chapiteau”, wherever it puts its stakes, is a given. This year the mighty Cirque takes a different turn than usual with its spectacular built around a country, a salute to Mexico in fact, with its colorful, flamboyant, exciting production of Luzia  - “a fusing of the sound of light” (luz in Spanish) and lluvia (rain) which are the core of the show’s creation.

Luzia isn’t the only Cirque show that incorporates a Mexican influence; the Vidanta Theatre in Playa del Carmen, Mexico has been presenting Joyà (Jewel) for a few years now, and is the only one of the Cirque shows which features a dinner theatre. You won’t find any three course dinner in our Grand Chapiteau, no, it’s strictly circus fare with hot dogs and popcorn, candy and cold drinks (the big people can indulge in a glass of wine),  but after all isn’t that what a circus really is?

I love Mexico, and this year’s Cirque is a joy to watch, or make that a joya to watch, thanks to writer/director Daniel Finzi Pasca.  It is all the things a circus does (no live animals of course, never on their stages) and then some. The design is gorgeous and vibrant, while the acts and the actors/gymnasts simply amazing.  

A first for Cirque, at least here, is using water as a source for inspiration. I haven’t seen water used as much in any Cirque show since the company’s Las Vegas premiere of “O” where the stage contains what appears to be a miniature lake. In Luzia, the rain curtain backdrop, beautiful to look at, creates a feeling of the outdoors indoors, while artists actually perform on the Cyr Wheel on water and in the rain.

The separate pools of water are yet another Mexican symbol, here of the cenotes found throughout the Yucatán Peninsula, used by the Maya for sacrificial offerings. One of the highlights of the show is an artist representing a demigod of rain, rotating in a circle on the straps above a cenote, around and around and around, his hair whipping the surface of the water.

Luzia’s  journey begins with a parachutist free falling from somewhere in time and space, landing in a phantasmagoria of brilliant flowers, and opening that magic door for us, as in all Cirque shows, this time with a giant key. And the parade begins with one of the most spectacular of visuals, a woman and a silver horse (we’ll meet the horse again later on), who run together while the woman spreads multicolored butterfly wings which fill the entire width of the stage. It represents the migration of the incredible monarch butterfly which travels over 1800 miles from southern Canada to a mountainous forest in central Mexico.

Other acts plays tribute to the Day of the Dead celebrations in a parade of the grand percussionist and singers, professional wrestling, the ritual sport of football, speed juggling (with the emphasis on speed) while the juggler has a “conversation” with the marimba, Mexican cinema with a hand balancing act that finds an overbearing film director directing a strongman do his stuff while a bevy of bathing beauties in spangled suits watch. A personal favorite was Masts and Poles, with acrobats climbing up vertical poles and criss-crossing in the air, reminding me of the high flying Voladores from Veracruz whose amazing pole flying feats entertain visitors throughout Mexico.

While the high point of Luzia are the none-stop individual acts, the show basks in its breathtaking design elements by Eugenio Caballero, especially the great disk that towers about the Luzia stage representing the sun, the moon and the Aztec calendar, and moves throughout the show changing colors and setting the mood, and Giovanna Buzzi’s costume design, from the animals (which play an important part in Mexican lore and mythology) to the artists’ costumes on the ground and in the air. In every way, Luzia is a feast for the ear, eyes and senses. Just like Mexico. Luzia is presented at under the Grand Chapiteau at the Toronto Port Lands, 51 Commissioners St, until Oct. 16. Tickets: www.cirquedusoleil.com/LUZIA or 1-877-924-7783.
Photo: Laurence Labat / Costumes: Giovanna Buzzi / 2016 Cirque du Soleil
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger

Matilda the Musical

Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical has captured audiences across the pond and in the U.S. Chalk Toronto up to its latest fan. The show running at the Ed Mirvish Theatre has been extended to Nov. 17.  Besides its cast of overpowering young actors who drive the show in high gear, Dennis Kelly’s book and Tim Minchin’s vigorous score and clever lyrics bring home the message of child power and the value of friendship. It's no wonder Matilda the Musical is irresistible to today’s audiences, young and old alike.
Photo: by Joan Marcus. Hannah Levinson in Matilda The Musical.

Matilda, played by the remarkable Hannah Levinson in the opening night production (there are three young performers alternating in the title role, Jamie McLean, Jenna Weir and Levinson), Miss Levinson steps right into the role and into your heart from the opening sequence. As Matilda, she’s the girl you’d like to sit beside your own kid at school in hopes that her insatiable appetite for learning would rub off.  Matilda’s only problem is that she’s too darn brilliant for her young age, and way too intelligent for her plebeian parents who can’t understand why she won’t watch more telly instead of her annoying habit of reading books.

Her overbearing, pompous Dad, Mr.Wormwood (Brandon McGibbon), a used car salesman who is trying to sell decrepit cars to Russians, wanted a son and insists on referring to Matilda as ‘he’.  But then Mr. Wormwood is something of a nincompoop with an IQ that doesn’t go above his blonde Donald Trump hairpiece. Matilda’s egocentric mom (Darcy Stewart), a tango dancer who fancies herself in show business, never forgave Matilda for coming along and ruining her chances when she was getting ready for a big dance competition. And that’s just the home life.

School is a different kind of nightmare, serving up a principal with the improbable name of Mrs. Trunchbull who lives up to it with a vengeance. Mindful of the disastrous Mrs. Meany from the Annie Rooney comic book series, Miss Trunchbull, played by Dan Chameroy, is the character you love to hate, larger than life and amply padded by designer Rob Howell in an outrageous military inspired outfit. Howell’s designs run the gamut brilliantly from the smart school uniforms of the young set in the musical, to Mrs. Wormwood’s flashy dance costumes and Mr. Wormwood's tasteless checkered suit, to the sedate simplicity of Matilda’s kind grade school teacher Miss Honey (Paula Brancati) who lives up to her name in being Matilda’s greatest supporter and championing her intelligence, instead of putting it down.

Miss Honey’s friendship to Matilda is the bedrock of the play since Matilda needs a good friend who believes in her, especially since Matilda’s along with the other students suffer constant bullying from the mean-spirited Miss Trunchbull, who behaves like a prison warden, locking naughty children in her special ‘tiny’ cupboard filled with sharp objects.  

But author Roald Dahl has also given Matilda a make-believe life which lifts her to an imaginary, happier plane, fabricated from the books she reads, and stories that she embroiders and tells to another friend and eager listener, Mrs. Phelps, the school librarian (Keisha T. Fraser). Mrs. Phelps can’t wait for Matilda to finish her story about a famous acrobat and his partner who try very hard to have a child and bury their sadness in dangerous high wire acts. It is of course, Matilda’s fantasy parents whose child will always be the very centre of their lives. Although the story in the musical becomes a little confusing when the story of Miss Honey’s childhood becomes intertwined with Matilda’s high flying circus duo, Matilda the girl wonder, is always the magnet that draws us.  

Matilda not only has a rich imagination, she manages to have real admirers from her school chums when she champions those who are bullied more than she is. Even with Miss Honey’s help, it’s tough to get by the frightening Miss Trunchbull who seems to have the edge on mental cruelty, with a little empowerment thrown into the mix.  Matilda, being a fighter, sticks it out until the wicked Miss Trunchbull is finally defeated in a Wizard-of-Oz Wicked Witch of the East moment (The Smell of Rebellion) and Matilda, with her parent’s blessing, or make that relief, begins a new life with Miss Honey as her guardian.

While my knowledge of Roald Dahl’s works began and seemed to end with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I was delighted with Matilda the Musical, its rich assortment of characters who people Matilda’s world, and the incredibly talented company of young people under Matthew Warchus’ direction who dance to Peter Darling’s vibrant choreography. These may be the dog days of summer, but Matilda the Musical is definitely another star in the constellation, and a real people pleaser. Matilda the Musical plays untl November 27th at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria St. Toronto. Tickets: Online www.mirvish.com. By Phone 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps has put on a lot of miles since the 1915 novel by John Buchan. Though it was Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film based on Buchan’s book that really gave the story a shot in the arm, a more innovative twist to the popular murder mystery was British director Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of the story in 2005, where four performers took on between 100 and 150 roles.

Not surprisingly, the fast pacing and innumerable characters became a fertile ground for some great comedy routines which spruced up an entertaining plot about an innocent man who is on the run after a glamorous spy is murdered in his apartment. By the way, you can watch several film versions of The 39 Steps on youtube including Hitchcock’s creamy white and black original. But give yourself a treat and catch Soulpepper Theatre’s hilarious live production of The 39 Steps directed by Ravi Jain, which has as much or more talent on its stage than any of the many film versions.

Though there was never anything overly sober about the original movie, Hitchcock, true tp form, included shafts of comedy that always took his films out of the ordinary to something more distinctively Hitchcockian. The current and most produced stage version of The 39 Steps goes beyond that, filled with popular comedy styles through the years, ranging from the Syd Caesar’s dead panning in The Shows of Shows, the vaudeville of the Marx Brothers, and the physicality of Charlie Chaplin.

That’s all thanks to the four-member cast led by Kawa Ada, the only actor in the show who plays a single character, Richard Hannay, an ordinary guy – supposedly - who just happens to look like a matinee idol with impeccable manners and a pencil thin moustache, but still manages to be more down to earth than Robert Donat who played Canadian Richard Hannay in Hitchcock’s film - with a British accent.  

Hannay happens to attend a vaudeville show which stars the incomparable Mister Memory (who remembers everything anyone ever told him), where he meets a blonde beauty sitting next to him named Annabella Schmidt (Raquel Duffy), a British spy who is running away from foreign government spies. They’re played by the fantastic and exceptionally funny duo of Andrew Shaver and Anand Rajaram (only known in the program as Clown 1 and 2, and share some 100 roles between them). In the theatre, they cause a ruckus, and Hannay with Isabella escape back to his apartment where he reluctantly agrees to let her to stay for the night.

No, there’s no funny business here. All is dead serious with the emphasis on the dead. Annabella feels that there are men spying on the building who want to kill her, all working for an enemy spy group in Scotland known as The 39 Steps. When Hannay wakes up the next morning, Annabella has been murdered with a knife in the back, and Hannay, who is being accused of the murder, is on the lamb and bound for Scotland. But not to worry about Annabella being totally wiped out, Duffy goes on to play two other unforgettable women.

Hannay’s escape takes him into the Scottish highlands where he spends the night in a crofter’s cottage and under the eyes of the weird crofter with crossed eyes (Andrew Shaver) and his sex hungry wife Margaret (Raquel Duffy). When the jealous crofter who is suspicious of Hannay as the murderer, calls in the police, Hannay flees to catch a train to Edinburgh.

Watching Hannay on the train is an adventure in itself (thanks to Jain’s imaginative direction) as Hannay in disguise, is pursued by two creepy criminal agents, all of them with coat tails flapping in the wind, making us believe they’re on the actual Flying Scotsman hanging on for dear life on the outside of the train. Hannay finds Pamela (Raquel Duffy), a beautiful passenger, and in order to make a duplicitous exit, handcuffs her to him. Out they go to finish the story, which ends in the Palladium Theatre, starring Mister Memory. When Hannay remembers that Mister Memory who remembers everything and just might hold the key to the mystery of The 39 Steps, we’re right there cheering him on.

There isn't a shred of realism in The 39 Steps, but who needs reality (Ravi Jain even takes away the use of fake pistols from the production) when you have Hitchcock's cleverness merge with the fantasy of James Bond. With a superb cast and top direction, The 39 Steps goes the distance in enjoyment. And that’s entertainment. The 39 Steps plays until September 3 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. Historic Distillery area.  50 Tank House Lane. Tickets to Soulpepper productions are available by calling the Young Centre Box Office at 416.866.8666 or by visiting soulpepper.ca.

Photo: by Cylla von Tiedemann. L to R: Anand Rajaram, Raquel Duffy, Kawa Ada, Andrew Shaver.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger

Millbrook Ontario

4th Line Theatre

The Hero of Hunter Street

One of the most unique open air summer theatres in Ontario, the 4th Line Theatre offers real life front page stories about real people and real events.  Many of the stories are unknown to audiences, which is what makes the 4th Line’s season opener, The Hero of Hunter Street, so compelling. The story is about the 1916 explosion which destroyed the Quaker Oats Factory in Peterborough, killing or seriously wounding many of its workers, many of them immigrants who had come to Canada looking for a better life. Directed by Kim Blackwell, the theatre’s Artistic Director, and written by playwright Maya Ardal, the production which is sponsored by Quaker Canada, plays in Millbrook until July 23 at the Winslow Farm.
Photo: by Wayne Eardley Brookside Studio. L to R: Monica Dottor, Ryan Hollyman in The Hero of Hunter Street.

The Hero of Hunter Street is a sprawling drama that stars Monica Dottor, Ryan Hollyman and features the 4th Line debut of Mac Fyfe. The huge ensemble features 41 actors playing over 75 characters.  It seems a formidable task for any director, yet Blackwell who has been the theatre Creative Director since the company’s debut, is used to the large casts, comprised of both adults and children, seasoned professional and community theatre actors, and newcomers. On 4th Line’s generous stage area which overlooks a country proud grassy field that stretches far beyond the playing area, the cast of The Hero of Hunter Street seems to comprise a small town in itself.

The strength of Ardal’s script is melding the personal with the general, engaging us in the hardships facing the new Irish and Italian immigrants in a strange land as they try to support their families, learn a new language, and fit into a sometimes daunting environment which also zeroes in on their own prejudices with each other - as well as zeroing in on the individuals who are the heart of the play.  Ardal turns the attention to one particular family, the O’Briens.  The stalwart Laura O’Brien is played by Monica Dottor, who captures the both the discipline  and the nurturing power of the pioneer women of earlier times, and Mac Fyfe as the hard-working Dennis O’Brien, a foreman at the Quaker Oats factory, who surprises his wife with the down payment on a small house for his family. It won’t be a favorable decision for Laura who delays telling her husband she’s expecting a baby. Until it’s too late.

The O’Brien children, daughters Irene (Frances Loiselle) and Kay (Maude Rose Craig), who are expected to be helpful learning family values as  future mothers  and wives themselves, older son Joe (Justin Laurie) who without telling his parents, enlists in the war, and the adventurous younger son George (Liam Davidson) who amuses himself by wandering around Peterborough’s streets where he discovers a circus con man who calls himself Alex The Strong Man (Mac Fyfe in the dual role) who looks as if he stepped out of a comic book, and his intrepid, bleached blonde wife Gertie played by Monica Dottor. These aren’t the only dual roles in the play taken on by one actor,  but it shows off the versatility of these two talented performers, who are very good in either of their roles, and so well made-up and costumed (Designer Clarke Stanley gets kudos for these two), that you wouldn’t really know you’ve just seen them as other characters.

Alex the Strong Man and Gertie provide the comedy in the play as well as provide the atmosphere of the era. With the First World War in full mode overseas, the vaudevillian entertainers who travelled the circuit of small towns were often a necessary road show for supplying some amusement and levity as the men marched off to war.

All of the elements of The Hero of Hunter Street are neatly foreshadowed by Ryan Hollyman as The Man, in a role similar to the friendly Stage Manager of Our Town. The Man is always there to steer us in the direction as to what’s significant, or amusing or sentimental or heart rending. The explosion on of the Quaker Oats factory on Dec. 11th as the town was preparing for Christmas, is well handled by director Blackwell.  With a deafening  crack (Beau Dixon has delivered  the sound effects with Richard Szajkpowski’s outstanding pyrotechnics), the fate of the men and the valiant efforts of men like Dennis O’Brien, who put their own lives on the line in a sometimes futile rescue mission,  alerts us to the dangers – and the sacrifices.  

While the O’Brien family takes centre stage in the aftermath of the explosion, there are other affecting performance as ordinary citizens scramble to help the injured and dying.  Hilary Wear as Sophia Lorenos, a former nurse in Italy, is especially moving as she demands to be allowed to help the injured.

On Julia Tribe’s effective multi-layered set which takes you inside the O’Brien’s home, next door to the Quaker Oats factory, the upper level of the stage area where the female immigrant workers sew the casings for the oats, and the stage area where the townspeople gather and other family lives are played out, there’s no corner which isn’t used. Added to this are the 17 pleasant musical songs written by Maya Ardal, which don’t define the show as a musical so much as a show with music, gives further richness to a production which is an outstanding contribution to Ontario’s outdoor theatre scene. The Hero of Hunter Street plays until July 23 at the 4th Line Theatre. Tuesday to Saturday at 6 pm. Additional performance Monday, July 18, 2016; 4th Line Theatre. 779 Zion Line, Millbrook, ON L0A 1G0. Direct Line 705-932-4503;Toll Free 1 800 814-0055;Fax 705 932-3347.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger

Strathcona Park

The Servant of Two Masters

This rollicking production of Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters,  under the direction of Andy Massingham is intended to bring us back thirty years when Ottawa’s Odyssey Theatre Company first introduced Commedia dell’arte to the capital. This is in fact the same play but it isn't the same production and that is the great lesson Massingham has taught us this time: adapting a play does not necessarily mean imitating slavishly the original text, the original style and the original way of performing the event. The question becomes, when is a play no longer the play we thought we were watching?

I came across a similar dilemma this year with Dostoevsky’s The Double, performed and directed by Adam Paolozza at the National Arts Centre, not because it was badly performed but because it had nothing to do with Dostoevsky’s novel except for some of the situations and quotes from the original text that always appeared to be taken out of context. The problem was that Paolozza turned Dostoevsky’s disturbing book about paranoia into a clown show. But the Russian protagonist is not a clown. He is going out of his mind in a nightmarish adventure. 

The Toronto company might have  advertised their version of the Double as a play  “loosely inspired by The Double”.  As it was, their show was a serious misrepresentation of the Russian writer’s work, and one could guess that Paolozza, who is interested in corporeal theatre, appeared to be using the text as a  crutch for his own brilliant comic stage work that seemed to give little thought to  the  original narrative or characterization.
Luckily, this is not what Massingham did. He is also a great specialist in corporeal theatre which he is now teaching in Toronto, but Massingham remained very close to Goldoni’s story and the characters’ evolution. That is the secret of the whole process.

The plots and subplots create a web of complex relationships. Truffaldino, the valet of the title, is the servant of Florindo, Béatrice’s lover. He is also in the service of Federigo who is Béatrice’s brother. It all gets complicated when we learn that Clairice (the daughter of Pantalone) who loves Silvio (the son of Doctor Lombardi) is promised to Federigo, and does not want to marry Federigo.  However, it seems that Federigo has died. So when Frederigo arrives, he is actually Beatrice his sister disguised as her own brother.  All that adds spice to this wild story that turns this microcosm of Venetian society on its head. Misunderstandings turn into games of identity, well kept secrets and hysterical goings on.

Truffaldino, who has sworn to respect the identity of his two employers sets up spectacularly chaotic encounters that produce moments of pure farce where the energy is high and the action is lighting-like. All run in different directions at once: the servants as well as the masters and the hotel personnel. Even the chief waiter and hotel manager Brighella (Zack Counsil) succumb to the magic of his mask and fly away as lightly as a feather.!! 

Massingham respected Goldoni’s parody of Venetian life, his playful satire of ruffled class relations, and the plight of the poor protagonist Truffaldino who is torn by his sworn duty to two masters. The director even respects the comic origins of Goldoni’s more refined commedia style that has evolved  through the 18th Century. However, instead of imitating all that, Massingham has found contemporary equivalents of those fanciful performance styles, turning Goldoni into someone whose origins were very transparent but whose actions become comedy with much more emotional substance, theatre that can touch all current audiences!!  It’s an excellent principle which opened up an endless source of stage creativity where popular Steven Lafond’s music, tango and even opera-comique came into view.

Truffaldino (Jesse Buck) frees himself from his circus clown conventions (he did perform with the Cirque du Soleil for a long time) to take on multiple forms of comedy tinged with  melodrama. The slim masked body of the “Zani” is first crushed with despair by his love for the beautiful maid Smeraldina (an excellent dancer by the way), and then suddenly our protagonist is transformed into a hysterical servant, engaged in a mad dance with Brighella to prevent the two “Masters” from recognizing each other as each is being served by Truffaldino at the same time!!  That was the most  breathtaking event of the evening. The bottles of wine flew off in all directions, bread was tossed from one plate to the next as the entrées slid from one tray to the next and the public held its breath, waiting for a collision to ruin everything. But no, the machine was well oiled, the timing was perfectly calculated down to the last second, and they all came out of it none the worse for wear. 

This new reading of Goldoni with only four masks, suggested in the Commedia tradition, is well integrated into the global conscience of European and American culture. English has become the new popular language of that world. Word plays, jokes and all manner of popular expressions that replaced the popular dialects of Venice, Torino and all the regions of Italy were deftly integrated into this theatre. Vanessa Imeson’s beautiful costumes seemed to cross over all the periods, as set designer Jerrard Smith’s masks and volumes painted in brilliant colours, were moved by the actors who became stage hands, changing the set into gardens, streets of Venice, and even the canals of Venice with fish jumping!!  

This world of great fantasy left the vulgarity of the Commedia far behind as comic opera and all sorts of popular music wafted in the background. There is no doubt that this performance could become a model of the “adaptation” as it incarnates the new world spirit. Don’t miss it.  Plays in Strathcona Park until August 21, Tuesday through Sunday.! For advance tickets, email box office@odysseytheatre.ca, visit www.odysseytheatre.ca, call the box office at 613-232-8407, or stop by The Arts Court, 2 Daly Avenue between 10am and 5pm.
Photo: Barb Gray with  Brighella (Zack Counsil) and Truffaldino (Jesse Buck)
Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht, an Ottawa based freelance theatre critic.

Various Ottawa Parks


This lively adventure concerns Prince Pericles who finds himself fleeing from the angry King Antiochus and then setting out to hide from the monarch's hired killers. They pursue him around an imaginary image of the Hellenistic world from Tarsus, to Pentapolis, across the great sea to Ephesus where shipwrecks, storms and much disaster separate him from his wife (whom all believe has died).  Pericles then comes into contact with the temple of Diana and the Middle Eastern world of Dr. Cermion.  Fourteen years pass and Pericles' Daughter Marina has grown into a lovely young lady. But before the jealous Queen Dionyza can do away with Pericles’ daughter, terrifying pirates kidnap her and sell her to the brothels of Mytilene, where she is befriended by Lysimachus the kind governor. And so it goes until all are united at the end. 

I did have to leave for a few minutes during Pierre Brault’s performance of Simonides, but I returned quickly to immerse myself in this humongous mixture of plots and adventures and catastrophes and encounters of the most fabulous nature that suggest a twisted sort of Odyssey where all the themes and characters of epic tales of heroes inflame the imagination of young men. And Shakespeare was no exception.

It is all performed by six actors playing 45 roles.  It could be hard to figure out because they all whizz by so quickly, but since Al Connors only plays Pericles, he is the pillar of the story and the production and keeps us on track even though his adventures shift us from one place to the next and from one catastrophe to the next as wigs and costumes, accents and marvellous props are changed around him with lightning speed.

Luckily, director Catriona Leger and her six actors keep the text accessible. Emphasis is placed on the meaningful sentences, rhythms are maintained, personalities shift, accents are clear and characters clearly blossom out of this mass of movement that maintains our attention nonstop.

Some of the highlights worth mentioning: The court poet who is Shakespeare’s narrator is transformed into a chorus spoken and sung by the team of actors.   At times that appeared to slow down the movement of the play because the chorus did not maintain the comic energy of the ensemble. Stronger narrative voices were needed, but that did not happen, though Pierre Brault in his inimitable way set the pace for the acting.

One of our most versatile actors in Ottawa, Pierre Brault has a real comic gift. His rhythm and sense of mimic brought all his characters to life from the most evil and the kindest to the most perverse. He was a pleasure to watch and he even plays the guitar which I had forgotten. Mary Ellis also shifted from the seedy Antiochus to Pericles beautiful wife Thaisa, finally blooming as the vestal of the goddess of Diana. These highly experienced professionals brought much solidity to the team which was necessary in the context of this fantasy nightmare that whisked us off to a land that emerged out of this mish-mash of adventures and acting styles.

But the biggest surprises were the faces of the younger performers who appeared for the first time on the Fool’s stage. Jennifer Cecil as Dionyza was superbly funny.  A voluptuous Queen reigning in a land of starving people was already a funny/nasty statement about her selfishness and her style of kvetching that was hilarious. She and the quiet subdued husband Cleon (Pierre Brault) made an excellent team.  She quickly set the stage for her transformation into the wicked witch of the play with a good sense of far out comedy that never went overboard. 

Mekdes Teshome moved beautifully and was a delicate specimen who, with a slight tendency to overact, shifted easily from the evil Dr. Cerimon to the wise Helicana. She seemed be less suited to the wild kind of comedy that defines this company even though she did use her face , her voice and her whole body in a most expressive way. One would want to see her in other more serious roles just to see what she would do with them.

Finally, I was quite enthralled by Mahalia Golnosh Tahrirha who is a natural! She seems to have great comic instincts and  knows how to use her whole physical presence  in most unassuming but totally convincing ways, capitalizing on her shifting facial expressions that make one feel she is really laughing at them all and having a great time at everyone else’s expense.   She even plays the violin beautifully.

The Company has found a group of newcomers that add much to their image and I hope we see them all again. As for this production, it is certainly worth seeing. The set (Stephanie  Dahmer Brett)  is reduced to its most minimal expression which helps the company in  moving across the city from park to park.  The costumes (Vanessa Imeson)  are extremely appropriate and suggest the variety of worlds into which Pericles tumbles during his unfortunate adventures. A good show for the whole family, bring your own snack and your own pillows and blankets. It makes for a lovely evening, but is not for very young children; ideal ages would be from 8 and up. See the schedule on the Company of Fools web site as it moves around Ottawa. Plays July 4 to August 20. See schedule on the site. http://fools.ca/2016/04/25/torchlight-shakespeare-pericles/
Reviewed bv Alvina Rupercht, an Ottawa based freelance theatre critic.

Prescott, Ontario
The St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival

Julius Caesar

During the first moments of the play, the Roman tribune admonishes the people of Rome for wasting their time rejoicing about Caesar’s triumph over Pompey : “You blocks you stones, you worse than senseless things!” The same crowd recently cheered Pompey when he came to Rome.

In this first tableau, Shakespeare and director Rona Waddington make several points. The Tribune , a male role, is played here by a woman so we know we are in a contemporary world of theatrical fun (never mind Brecht) , especially as the carnival atmosphere bursts joyously onto the stage. The audience is seduced immediately . This first contact also emphasizes the important notion that the fickle Roman crowd is easily manipulated by any talented orator such as Mark Antony, Brutus or Cassius whenever it serves their purpose. Thisis one of the important strategies of Shakespeare’s text which clearly appears to be indestructible, no matter what one does in the acting space.

Julius Caesar is full of wonderful soliloquys , superb rhetoric, touching exchanges between the senators and warrriors, between husbands and wives, moments that create truly tragic confrontations. Even as we hear Johnathan Purvis as Mark Antony subtly swaying the crowd in the conspirator’s favor, just after Brutus (Ash Knight) in a strong moment has convinced them all that Caesar’s death was necessary for Rome, it quickly becomes clear that Shakespeare’s text soars above the crowd as the  majority of actors seem to struggle with it. However, not even accomplished performers  such as Richard Sheridan Willis (as Julius Caesar) who shows us we are in the presence of an actor who dominates his text, or even Michael Man who has some very good  moments as Octavius, cannot distract us from the generally unequal level of the performances .

Nevertheless, director Rona Waddington with her usual great sensibility and imaginative use of the acting space, has produced a youthful, playful version of the play with actors rushing up and down the amphitheatre, entering from all sides of the area, using  collective rituals and colourful spectacle with lively choreography of the attacking Roman armies, frightful nightmares that haunt the conspirators – where sculptures wielded by black clad creatures suggest avant-gard  forms  out of a cubist tableau! 

Or what about the vestal virgins who float by in flowing white robes from the world of the Soothsayer, or the latin chants set to music by the talented Melissa Morris, who directs the choir singing portions of Carl Orf’s Carmina Burana and performs a very sexy young Portia with equal ease. Her beautiful blue dress as well as the other costumes by designer Alex Amini were bright, colourful and glowing with life…Not quite the products of a tragic or bloody world which we have come to expect in this play. It is all upbeat and positive. No doubt there has been enough horror in the world these days and they were glad to avoid that.

The portion of the performance that followed the intermission when the hunt is on for the conspirators and the opposing armies set up their strategies, was a lot more exciting because the battles turned death and sorrow into fun choreography and the ghost of Caesar came in to unsettle the murderers. There always remained a certain malaise because  something was missing ; the actors  seemed to lack experience and they also at times slid over the nuances in their texts because they were fixated on the emotional outpouring of a more obvious sort.

Attila Clemann’s minimalist set design draped with  burnt sienna  curtains, supported by huge roman pillers, suggested an arena where war, murder, and violent emotions could be staged in a space of highly theatricalized blood and violence, but it was all essentially playfulness. This is a  good-looking production intent on interesting an audience that is not in the habit of seeing Shakespeare.  But there is still Richard Sheridan Willis as Julius Caesar, and he is so good!

Take note that there were a lot of young teenagers in the audience so it is a show that will attract and hold the attention of all ages. Julius Caesar plays until August 20 at the Kinsman Amphitheatre in Prescott by the Saint Lawrence, as part of The St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival. Sandra Lawn Harbour, 1 Water Street West, in Prescott, Ontario. Box office: 613-925-5788, www.stlawrenceshakespeare.ca.
Note the coming on August 26 and August 27 at 1 and 7pm, of Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery , directed and adapted by Rona Waddington.
Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht, an Ottawa based freelance theatre critic

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