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REVIEWS

Botticelli in the Fire
&
Sunday in Sodom


Canadian Stage Company has ended its season with the proverbial bang and two world premieres by Jordan Tannahill, Botticelli in the Fire and Sunday in Sodom. Boticelli in the Fire, the longer of the two, skirts in and out of Forentine painter Sandro Botticelli’s amorous adventures with two lovers on separate occasions (though his reputation doesn’t do him justice here). The first is with Clarice, the wife of a wealthy patron who is one of the influential and redoubtable members of the Medici family, and the second is with his young male lover and assistant, the yet undiscovered Leonardo da Vinci (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff) who is finally learning how to mix his colors.
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann. L to R: Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Salvatore Antonio.

Botticelli, played with a relaxed take-it-as-it-comes attitude by Salvatore Antonio, paints well, but he isn’t terribly bright. His newest painting, the Birth of Venus, which commands his studio, features Clarice in the nude as a somewhat demure Venus. In real life, Clarice (Nicola Correia-Damude) is anything but - the play opens with her in the throes of a sexual climax with Botticelli - but what worries them both is that Clarice's husband, Lorenzo de’Medici, who is Botticelli’s wealthiest and most important patron, insists on examining the painting to make sure his money is being put to good use.

Both Botticelli and Clarice try all kinds of ruses to keep Lorenzo from seeing it, but of course he does, and the rest is not history, but it’s good comedy. The aggravated Lorenzo (Christopher Morris) who is sorely dissappointed with Botticelli, clasps him to his chest and says vigorously, “You’re like a brother to me.” The straight faced Botticelli answers, “You had your brother killed.”

It was the same kind of comedy that Canada's Wayne and Shuster thrived on in the golden era of television, low key, hilarious, mixing classical periods with contemporary lingo while they lampooned famous figures through the centuries. Everyone in Tannahill’s play wear the costumes of the 14th century or thereabouts, but walk and talk in today’s shoes, carry cell phones, and are very smart assed when it comes to sex.  “He can eat peanut butter like fellatio,” is one such bit of dialogue.

The figure of Savonarola, a flamboyant Alon Nashman as the legendary fanatic puritan priest who runs through the plague infested Florence which has savaged the gay community, spouting doom and destruction on the unbelievers. During a television interview he calls them the trespassers of morality, singling out the Medicis, who are “fleas and blood suckers.” Now, there's a contemporary touch.

Savonarola, for all his flamboyant rhetoric, his infamous Bonfire of the Vanities where Botticelli’s destroyed his own paintings, and the infamous book burning which brings to mind Hitler’s ‘Kristallnacht’,  did not come to a good end himself. Turned out he lied about all his premonitions and prophesies. Ah, but that’s another story. Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight.

Director Matjash Mrozewski, a recent graduate of York University/Canadian Stage MFA in directing, has reined in all the various twists and turns of the play to deliver a delectable comedy that still reveals some contemporary truths along with the satiric touches.

For Sunday in Sodom, the second show on the double bill, smartly directed by Estelle Shook (who is part of the same MFA program as Mrozewski), the humor is plentiful thanks to the narrator, the marvellous Valerie Buhagiar who plays Lot’s Wife, turned into a pillar of salt when she disobeyed God’s law and looked back at the destruction of Sodom. Though Lot’s Wife had no name in the bible (we're tartly reminded ), Jewish tradition has called her Edith, and so writer Jordan Tannahill follows suit.

Edith, who throughout the play is immoveable, standing tall and proud, front and centre (in James Lavoie’s stunning wrap-around cloak), dismisses her status with a verbal shrug: “I looked back.”  In fact we discover later that it was only because her only daughter Sahrah (Nicola Correia Damude) wouldn’t follow her when everyone else left that she had looked back. The burning city was being ravaged, and Edith, urged to leave by Sahrah, reluctantly left. But Edith couldn’t bear to leave without her daughter and looked back to see if Sahrah had changed her mind, and if she would by some miracle, please God, be there behind her. She wasn’t.

Tannahill gives us a family decimated by a political war in the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, but it’s Edith who faces us, talking to us, never moving as family members remain in the background, drifting in and out of the picture as if they were part of a film shoot. The country is at war and neighboring city Gomorrah has already been devastated. Sodom is next on the list. Kvetching husband Lot (Alon Nashman) is a CNN addict and spends his time watching Gomorrah swallowed up by the enemy on TV, while daughter Sahrah is an ambitious university student with two children who only wants to study and pass her exams. Everyone has his/her own agenda.

When the soft hearted Edith takes in her nephew Isaac (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff), who has been beaten by his father Abraham (whom she never liked), Lot is annoyed. Not only is Isaac gay, but Edith has put him up on his favorite couch. Far more disastrous problems follow when Edith’s family allows two badly wounded enemy soldiers (Christopher Morris and Salvatore Antonio) come into their home to take refuge.

Tannahill vacillates unevenly, between the heavenly wrath (Why else would Edith be turned into a pillar of salt, if she didn’t disobey God’s command?) and the human limitations when enemy soldiers, hated by the people from Sodom, turn into saviors, coming back to warn the family to get out quickly when the city is about to be obliterated by their commanders. Both themes are touched upon, but it is the latter, our own exposures to the hatred and prejudices levelled at outsiders and strangers, that ring a bell, and dominate the play.

Still, Sunday in Sodom (which sounds strangely like a Georges Seurat painting) is highly enjoyable, thanks to Valerie Buhagiar’s irrepressibly funny performance and a superior cast that shines in both productions. Botticelli in the Fire & Sunday in Sodom plays until May 15 at the Berkeley Street Downstairs Theatre (26 Berkeley Street) Tickets are available online, by phone at 416.368.3110, or in person at the Berkeley Street box office. For details visit www.canadianstage.com/online/botticelli
Photos: by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


Das Ding
(The Thing)

There’s an old loopy song by Phil Harris which came along in the 1950’s called The Thing. With a booming and war drum rhythm, it was about a man who discovered a box on the beach and curious about what it contained, ran around to show it to his wife, his friends and whomever could venture an opinion about what was in the box.  I doubt whether German playwright Phillip Löhle wrote his play Das Ding (The Thing) with Phil Harris’ song in mind, but sitting through Lohle’s perplexing  85-minute play at Canadian Stage’s Berkeley St. Upstairs, I wondered what kind of story the characters in Das Ding were trying to tell.

The premise is intriguing with a story line that is a tongue twister: “The fundamental connection between global economics and our domestic lives, forcing us to consider whether such a thing as coincidence truly exists.”  The ‘thing’ that gets the ball rolling is a ball – literally – an enormous white cotton ball or sphere made of white t-shirts that fills half of the Berkeley’s Upstairs’ theatre’s stage. It’s certainly eye-catching from designer Drew Facey, and when a few heads pop out of it, you feel as if you discovered a veritable cotton playground. Those t-shirts will also do some travelling.

Magellan himself – with a bad leg - makes an early appearance to convince his pontificating king that people are always looking for a quicker way to reach their destination, and the king should give him a raise to find it.  He doesn’t, but Magellan (a very funny Naomi Wright) proves his point in discovering the route to the Indian Ocean by sailing west.  

The play carries on through a series of mini-stories and people who are in some way making use of the cotton, perhaps even a single fibre of the cotton that goes around the world, used, enhanced, bought, sold and regenerated, like the t-shirts that will eventually wind up as soccer jerseys in Canada.  We are in fact all part of one big cotton family, interconnected with each other, and to prove it, Löhle introduces a galaxy of 14 people (ingeniously portrayed by here by five performers) most of whom have something in common which is how cotton has pushed them or helped them pursue their business goals.

And so we have the African Siwa, a farmer (Philip Nozuka) with his sustainable cotton cultivation, which in turn helps two Chinese business people to begin their own soya bean business successfully, which then makes an impact on Romanian pig breeders, a Quebec aid worker (Qasim Khan) an ersatz travel agent who would promote educated volunteers to take trips to foreign countries and build relationships, and a newly married couple. It’s hard to relate to pig breeders, but the married Canadian couple (the show’s setting has been moved from Germany to Canada), Katherine and Thomas (Lisa Karen Cox and Kristopher Bowman) are recognizable with their variant desires to keep their marriage intact until Katherine, the wife finds a way to make it more exciting by creating webcam videos for someone in Beijing.

While cotton sometimes seems to be the major player in the storyline, the character that brings the more contemporary message of the play home is Patrick (Philip Nozuka), a photographer who is travelling around the world with photos accidentally taken in his young sister’s apartment. Patrick is hailed as a great artist, his ‘magical’ photos of childhood, making him an instant celebrity around the world.  This is what rings the bell for us in an age of the Kardashians, rock stars and gossip magazines which are the real universal glue.

As for Löhle’s play, it too often leaves us puzzled with characters who are constantly changing and dialogue that is difficult to follow at the best of times. That’s no fault of director Ashlie Corcoran who has done an admirable job with a smart production that looks much better than it plays. Das Ding, like that old song, never really settles on what’s in the box. Das Ding (The Thing) is presented by Theatre Smash in partnership with Canadian Stage & in Association with The Thousand Islands Playhouse. Das Ding plays untl May 1 at the Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre (Previews: April 12 & 13).Tickets  are available online, by phone at 416.368.3110, or in person at the Berkeley Street box office, 26 Berkeley St. Toronto. For details visit www.canadianstage.com/online/thing
Photo: by James Heaslip. L to R: Kristopher Bowman and Lisa Karen Cox in Das Ding.  
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder

Being an ardent fan of the 1949 British black and white film Kind Hearts and Coronets, I was delighted to find that A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical based on the novel that inspired the movie, was a heck of a lot more fun than the film. That’s no surprise.  
Photo: by Joan Marcus. L to R: Lesley McKinnell, Kevin Massey, John Rapson.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is a sumptuously designed musical filled with some sexy 18th century costumes by Linda Cho, an ingenious score by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak, a sensational set design by Alexander Dodge that that takes you from the slamming bedroom doors of French farce to the colorful comic book graphics and projections of Aaron Rhyne, and a story where every murderous intent is executed with a sly grin and a character who gets the heave-ho by the ambitious ‘gentleman’ of the title. Directed by Darko Tresnjak and choreographed by Peggy Hickey, the musical plays at the Princess of Wales Theatre until June 26.

The poverty stricken gentleman, Monty Navarro played by an appealingly boyish Kevin Massey, lives in a shabby Clapham flat and  has been tipped off by Miss Shingle, a sudden ‘friend’ (a bucolic looking Mary Van Arsdel with blonde curls and a beatific smile) who seems to possess all the airs of a Victorian fairy godmother, and informs him that his late mother was really a member of the aristocratic D’Ysquith family who disinherited her when she married for love - a Spaniard no less.  Monty must take his rightful place in the family, orders Miss Shingle.  The romance of it all suddenly descends into sheer despair.  Monty may have regal blood, but he has no money.

He is in love with a gorgeous blonde, the calculating Sibella Hallward (Kristen Beth Williams) who is dressed totally in pink and surrounded with the blush of tender roses, though she's anything but a blushing bride to be. She would marry Monty in a flash if he had money. In the meantime, she will marry someone who does. Of course there are eight heirs ahead of him before Monty could claim the title, and as Sibella ever so discretely hints, eight people would have to die before he did.  Suddenly, the wide-eyed boyish Monty, becomes the beady-eyed boyish Monty, and the grim reaper of the peculiar D’Ysquith family heirs, all eight of them played by the remarkable John Rapson.

Since the musical begins with the Lord Montague “Monty” D’Ysquith Navarro, writing his memoirs in jail, we get a proper blow by blow account of all the deaths in the family as the musical progresses.  At first looks what looks like misadventure to the constabulary, is actually a thrilling adventure for Monty has quite a knack for the ingenious theatricals of murder.

With the exception of a single kind relative, the senior Lord Asquith who gives Monty a job in the family banking business, the others are bumped off on by one, in succession so to speak, all brought to life and death by Rapson: the Reverend Asquith with the protruding buck teeth and lisp who falls drunkenly from the church tower where he’s giving Monty a tour (Aaron Rhyne’s Projection Design is a show in itself); Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith, a podgy philanthropist who likes the fame of doing good and is lured into visiting the African jungle by Monty where she’s supposedly eaten by the cannibals; a gay bee-keeper who is stung to death, though his lively sister Phoebe (the vivacious Adrienne Eller) also falls for Monty – culminating in a  successful and happy marital union; a beefy body builder Bartholomew D’Ysquith, who is decapitated under his own barbell; the terrible actress Salome, who shoots herself with a real bullet Monty planted in her gun in a performance of Hedda Gabler; and the rake and playboy Asquith D’Ysquith who takes his mistress to a winter resort and falls through Monty’s neatly ‘designed’ ice hole.

The cream of the crop, however, is one in which almost fells Monty himself, the supposedly ‘regal dinner’ at the Highhurst Castle when Lord Aadelbert (Rapson of course) and his wife, the poisonous Lady Eugenia (Kristen Mengelkoch) give an circus side show of the most disastrous marital relationship seen on any stage. It’s both hilarious and horrific, Mengelkoch especially, demonstrating facial expressions that would frighten Dracula.

Arrested for poisoning Lord Adelbert, Monty is back where he started writing his memoirs expecting to be hanged.  He’s not (don’t act surprised), but the finale which mirrors the film version, is perfect. And so is the A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, which is not only terrific entertainment, but a great start to the summer theatre season. A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder plays at the Princess of Wales Theatre to Jun 26. 300 King St. West Tickets: 416-872-1212; 1-800-513-8720; Mirvish.com.


If/Then

Tom Kitt’s and Brian Yorkey’s musical If/Then plays out against a giant grid of New York’s east side, a mesmerizing combination of brilliant colors and criss-crossing streets designed by Mark Wendland with projections by Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully. You never have to wonder where you’re at in this show with its New York state of mind.  It’s harder to keep track of its lead character, Elizabeth, who keeps alternating personalities, though Jackie Burns tremendous vocal prowess as both Liz and Beth, is always the siren’s song that keeps us glued to the musical.  

The story basically follows one woman’s two possible life paths, the life she led and the life she might have led. The “What would have happened if” is similar to the conundrum that George Bailey faces in the film It’s a Wonderful Life, except he has a guardian angel that keep him on the right footing, and of course George never steps out of his skin, he just matures.

Elizabeth has left Phoenix, Arizona and a failed marriage to come to New York where she wants a fresh start as an urban planner, and will luckily score big in that area when she’s hired by a persuasive city planning executive (Daren A. Herbert) who practically begs her to take the job. Life should be that easy.  In the bustling area of Madison Square Park, she meets a new friend, the lively Kate (Tamyra Gray) with her generous advice about life and love, especially since the gun shy Kate keeps bumping into a good looking soldier (Matthew Hydzik), a doctor in the armed forces that she first saw on the subway and seemed overtly interested in her.  Elizabeth also runs into Lucas (Anthony Rapp), an old college buddy and former romantic interest, who has become an uptight social activist with his own views on urban improvement.

It’s about here where Elizabeth splits into two people: Beth, who revives her friendship and romance with Lucas, and becomes the star urban planner of a contentious redevelopment, and Liz who falls in love with Josh, marries him and has a child. Burns of course plays both with misgivings that are reconciled and reiterated and re-worked, but we can’t help but feel that it is Josh who has made the biggest impact on her life, while Lucas get the short end of the stick. The real trick is to try and follow all the other characters who never change, and their impact on Elizabeth, who is always changing.

In If/Then, we only know when it’s Liz’s story when she answers to the name of Liz, and likewise with Beth. There are other hints when Liz or Beth change romantic partners, or when one of them puts on her glasses (one wears glasses, the other doesn’t). If you didn’t get the connection, you’d figure that Elizabeth – singular - was simply promiscuous, and if she put on a pair of glasses in one scene, she just was nearsighted and didn’t need them all the time. Those of us who wear glasses from time to time and fortunately or unfortunately stay the same person, would likely never see the difference between Beth and Liz at all.  My advice is to go with the flow.

Even if you don’t entirely twig into the If/Then life she might have lived and the life she did live part of the story, you can still be knocked out by Jackie Burns, who as Liz or Beth takes centre stage amid a wonderful cast directed by Michael Greif, and enjoy the musical for its impressive if endless score, and Burn’s incredible vocal gymnastics. IF/THEN plays at The Princess of Wales Theatre until May 8.  300 King Street West. Online www.mirvish.com;Tickets: By Phone 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333.
Photo: by Joan Marcus
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


The Judas Kiss


“I can resist anything except temptation.” It’s one of many quotable quotes attributed to Oscar Wilde. Temptation and Oscar Wilde were inseparable. His greatest weakness was his inability to wrest himself from his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas – Bosie, even when his life and liberty hung in the balance. Playwright David Hare’s jumping off place in his elegant, humorous, and ruefully honest play The Judas Kiss, which has been impeccably directed by Neil Armfield, is based upon the last hurrah of writer Oscar Wilde, his downfall when he cannot give up Bosie, even as his home life (a socially prominent wife and two beloved young sons) is shredded.

The plays opens quite startlingly at a suite in the Cadogan Hotel in 1895, where two figures, a man and a woman outlined in the darkness, are in the throes of a sexual climax. When the lights go up, the liaison is actually between the chambermaid Phoebe Cane (Jessie Hills) and the footman (Elliot Balchin), who have used their time off to good use. Then again, Wilde’s suite must have produced some strong vibes.

The popular playwright had long been a favorite customer at the hotel. Even hotel manager Sandy Moffatt (Alister Cameron) who runs the establishment like a stylish automaton is particularly accommodating to Wilde. It was a barometer of how much the British public, the unbending Victorians, had adored the playwright during his less flamboyant years when there was nothing to forgive. Wilde’s plays Lady Windermere’s Fan, The Importance of Being Earnest, and A Woman of No Importance, were all critical and financial successes.

But public adoration had already changed dramatically when the The Judas Kiss opens in designer Dale Fergusons’ spacious if fusty looking hotel suite, with Oscar still completely enamored of Bosie, having sued his father The Marquis of Queensbury for libel. The Marquis had accused him of homosexuality, which in Britain was legally defined as The Sodomy Law (introduced by Henry VIII), a blanket term that covered a lot of territory. Once Oscar enters the suite to consider the alternatives to imprisonment, is where the play actually begins to take hold.  

The change in atmosphere is as dramatic and bitingly humorous as it can get with Rupert Everett’s larger than life persona of a kind and generous Oscar, whose love for life, good friends, and good food, and especially his infatuation with Bosie, overshadows everything else, including good sense.

Wilde was renowned for his keen wit which he never lost, and which Everett captured in a single beat with a mere inflection of a word. We hang on his every word, every reaction. Sitting in an easy chair, slightly dishevelled, worn looking, a little overweight (The very slim Everett was padded for the role), Oscar is at the ready for the slings and arrows of ill fortune that awaits him, as long as he gets the hotel’s famous lobster meal he ordered from room service.

Everyone gathers round Oscar, the infantile, immature Bosie (Charlie Rowe), and Wilde’s former love, now his astute manager and best friend Robbie Ross (Cal MacAninch), who is begging him to escape to France where he will be safe. Of all the characters who surround Wilde in Hare’s play, the most sympathy goes out to the unselfish Robbie Ross, who seemed to be the only person who truly loved Wilde.

Wilde, in true form, doesn’t take the most sensible way out. His mindset is due to Bosie’s temper tantrums and declarations of love which are so flagrantly outlandish and phony, you wonder if down playing Bosie’s playacting might have been more beneficial in appreciating Wilde’s intelligence. Love is indeed blind.

Wilde chooses a jail term of two years hard labor instead of escaping to France without his beloved, and for his sacrifice, gets very little understanding or love in return. Ill from the harsh jail sentence, and a social pariah, he arrives in Naples two years later to meet Bosie. Penniless, outside of a small allowance from his estranged wife, Wilde can hardly pick up where he left off, and hasn’t much of a relationship left to emotionally sustain him.

He spends time watching Bosie bring in outside lovers and parading them like trophies. One of them, a fisherman (played by Tom Colley), endowed with a rock hard body has no compunctions about walking around nude, an invigorating if cruel touch for the rapidly declining Wilde, whose joy and downfall came from the same kind of attentiveness he himself had paid to beautiful young men.

Oscar Wilde died in 1900 in Paris from Meningitis at the age of 46, a mere five years after his infamous trial and sentencing in London. Buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, his lipstick-covered Paris tomb which finally had to be protected by a glass encasement from the avalanche of female fans who had left their mark on it through the years, might come as a surprise to some. It is something of an irony that David Hare’s play is called The Judas Kiss.  But the appeal of Wilde which went beyond his literary brilliance can be seen in Rupert Everett’s brilliant performance of a man who could entertain and still remain humane. The Judas Kiss plays until May 1 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria St. Alternate entrance:263 Yonge St. (elevator at Victoria St. only. )Audience Advisory: Mature themes; sexual content; nudity. Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes (including intermission. Tickets: 416-872-1212 or Mirvish.com.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


Kinky Boots


High spirited stage musicals like Kinky Boots and Newsies are ready made for audiences who like their summers filled with feel good stories, great music and happy endings. There's something else that the two musicals have in common. Both have a book written by the amazing Harvey Fierstein, who along with being a stage, TV  and film actor, writes political editorials and children’s books. Fierstein is in good company with another musical heavyweight, pop icon composer Cyndi Lauper who won a Tony for her vibrant, pulsating score.

Photo: by Cylla Von Tiedemann. The Canadian cast of Kinky Boots.

Kinky Boots is based on the popular 2005 Miramax motion picture, and is a true story about a Northhampton England shoe factory that is on the verge of bankruptcy until it’s rescued by a surprising partnership between Charlie Price, its young straight laced owner who has inherited the business after his dad’s sudden death, and a hot drag queen.

Charlie is on the verge of marrying Nicola (Vanessa Sears),  a local girl with a brittle attitude and a penchant for expensive shoes. Nicola can’t stand the provincial Northampton and is set on a marketing job in London, taking Charlie with her. But Charlie has been indoctrinated with his dad’s love of shoes since he was knee high, and when he discovers that bankruptcy will put all his old friends out of work at the factory, he puts Vanessa on hold and hopes for a miracle.

While trying to sell the company shares In London, he rescues drag queen Lola from hoodlums harrassing her, then winds up in the cabaret where Lola (the matchless Alan Mingo Jr)  and her fleet of drag chorines called Angels, are pounding out a high stepping routine in Land of Lola. Charlie, played by Graham Scott Fleming, who looks as genteel as if he should be playing chess at Cambridge instead of rescuing drag queens, is fascinated by Lola. One of the highlights of the show is Lola trying to explain to the naïve Charlie, the difference between a drag queen and a transvestite 

Charlie realizes what Lola really needs are well- made performance boots with sky high heels that are sturdy enough to hold a grown man’s weight. He hightails it back to Northampton where he gets started on making a pair of boots to fit Lola’s needs.  When his assistant Lauren convinces him that he needs a niche market, it’s like a light bulb going off in Charlie’s head, except his interpretation of a performance boot is markedly different than Lola’s. When she shows up to pick up her new boots, she’s dismayed at the burgundy color and their lack of dazzle. “Bergundy is the color of hot water bottles,” she chides Charlie. It isn’t a big surprise when he appoints her his designer. The boots begin to be a show in themselves.

Not only does Charlie have to convince his workers to buckle down and make the kind of boots that will hold up, look good, and give Lola and the other performers the height and heft they need to wow the customers (“You are making 2 ½ foot tubular irresistible sex”!). But Charlie has another job - to be the middle man between Lola and the company’s  male co-workers, especially the boorish, rumpled Don (Daniel Williston) who resents Lola’s presence as well as his outlandish female clothing.

One of the most moving numbers in the show takes place between Charlie and Lola whose real name is Simon, and turns out to be the son of a wrestler. They realize that there is very little difference between them in not choosing to follow in their father’s footsteps with the poignant Not My Father’s Son.

Kinky Boots is a show where almost everyone ends up being a better person. Charlie finds his own level in making shoes, along with inheriting the love his father had with the business (even after a disastrous fashion show in Milan where Lola and her Angels save the day with an unforgettable runway unveiling of the new line of kinky boots); Don becomes a tolerant even likeable  person after Lola lets him win a wrestling match; Nicola gets the air and Lauren (A.J. Bridel) takes her place gladly, even though her quirky, over the top love song in the first act (The History of Wrong Guys) didn’t hold out too much hope. Best of all, the soft side of Lola emerges, the side that isn’t all spangles and stardust and like the tin woodman, he really has had a big heart (Hold Me in Your Heart).

The musical ends with of those Broadway show stoppers (Raise You Up/Just Be) that just comes within inches of raising the roof. Director/ Choreographer and Tony award winner Jerry Mitchell deserves the lion’s share of the credit for keeping the beating heart of the film alive but brilliantly adding a new dimension in giving Kinky Boots a personality all its own. Kinky Boots plays until May 15, 2016 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 Queen St. West. Tickets: 416-872-1212 or Mirvish.com. One final performance added at 7pm on May 15.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger

ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST MEMBER KYLE TAYLOR PARKER JOINS TORONTO COMPANY OF KINKY BOOTS AS ‘LOLA' BEGINNING MARCH 15, 2016 AT THE ROYAL ALEXANDRA.


Mistatim


A wild horse, a young Cree girl and a rancher’s son find common territory in Red Sky Performances’ beautiful production of Mistatim by Erin Shields, based on a concept by Sandra Laronde. The renowned Red Sky, one of Canada’s leading companies of Indigenous performance in dance, theatre and music, has been touring Mistatim (the Cree world for horse) in the U.S. for but only recently brought its show into the Young People’s Theatre for a limited run until Feb. 19 before it’s off for a five-province tour of Canada.  

Aimed at kids from 6 and up, Mistatim crosses several story lines from a teenager’s problems with his stern rancher father who breaks horses for a living, a Cree girl who is still haunted by stories of the Residential Schools that her Grandmother experienced, to the friendship between the two as they learn to trust each other in the ‘breaking’ of a wild horse named Mistatim.

Speck, the young Cree girl (Sera –Lys McArthur)) first spots Calvin (Brendan McMurtry-Howlett) trying to break the frightened Mistatim with a whip to calm the horse down. Calvin, whose dad uses the same method, only succeeds in drawing blood which angers Speck who offers to calm the horse in a much gentler way.  At first Calvin doesn’t believe Speck can do anything with the stubborn horse, but he’s soon fascinated by her method which involves talking gently to the horse, and then asking its permission to place the bridle around his neck.

Mistatim played by Carlos Rivera whose horse ‘costume’ created by Elaine Edding and Charlene Senuik, is capped with a stunning wire headpiece and  gives Rivera freedom with the rest of his body  to paw the ground, and  ‘gallop’ around the enclosure of the patch of country where Speck and Calvin first meet. The outstanding design work by Andy Moro extends to the simple wooden fence which separates Calvin’s ranch from Speck’s reserve, along with his effective video which frames an entire part of the upstage with windswept grass and an electric blue sky, later turning to dark clouds and raindrops so large you can almost feel them.

In time, Calvin confesses that he and his Dad never see eye to eye because he’s never given any credit for what he does, while Speck admits that her grandmother is always crying because of the memories she has of being in a residential school as a young girl where she endured much harsh treatment. While both are separated by culture and society, the comfort and help they give each other in understanding their differences and in dealing with problems in their own families, is enough to forge a true friendship. Like Mistatim who also needs time and kindness to exist in its world, Calvin and Speck take important first steps in bridging their different worlds.

Directed by Andrea Donaldson, Mistatim is a fine show for younger school aged children who were more interested in the engineering and design of the horse and the actors  in the Question and Answer period following the 75-minute production, than the troubling Residential School history of Speck’s grandma. That’s to be expected in a show aimed at young kids in a highly theatrical setting where all eyes are on the most colorful character. But it’s a start in helping to acquaint them with a part of native history though the medium of theatre. Mistatim plays at the Young People Theatre until Feb. 19. 165 Front Street East, Toronto. Tickets; Online: youngpeoplestheatre.ca; Box Office:416.862.2222. For more information visit youngpeoplestheatre.ca.
Photo: L to R: Carlos Rivera, Sera-Lys MacArthur, Brenden McMurtry-Howlett.
In 2016-17, Mistatim returns to the United States with a tour to: Michigan, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Washington, Montana, Idaho, Illinois, and New York. From there, it continues on a tour throughout the provinces of Saskatchewan and British Columbia.


The Model Apartment


The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company continues its spring season with Donald Margulies’ powerful dark comedy, The Model Apartment, though for the first 15 minutes or so you might think you’ve wandered into a Neil Simon play. Max and Lola, an elderly married Jewish couple from Brooklyn have just arrived at their vacation rental condo in Florida, a picture perfect one-bedroom apartment they've rented for their much needed holiday in the sun. Designer Katrin Whitehead’s interior smacks of Florida sunshine and Disney colors, but the problem is, nothing works. The refrigerator has no electrical outlet, the television set is a phony, there is no bed in the miniscule bedroom, only a pull-out couch in the living room - and the ashtray  is glued to the furniture. But it’s nighttime and after a long hard drive, Max, who finally figures out that the condo is a model suite for the salespeople because their own rental isn’t ready, says they’ll sort everything out the next day.

Margulies spends little time in demonstrating the couple’s efforts to ‘make do’, Lola, perfectly collected and ready to compromise (Clare Coulter is perfect as the benign, take-charge Lola), the crotchety Max (Eric Petersen) who would just as soon go to bed and forget about  the hollow TV set and lack of anything to eat.  But there is something more intruiging and a little off-setting about the picture. The couple argue about the different amount of money they’ve each given to someone back home so they wouldn’t be bothered by her when they’re in Florida. Her? Who did they have to pay off? Is Max married to someone else? Is there another woman in the picture? Margulies dangles this question mark in front of you like lines from a soap opera.

And then suddenly – a young woman, Max and Lola’s daughter, comes crashing through the doorway, and it’s the beginning of a nightmare of a different order.  Debby or Deborah is her name, but even though it’s the 1980’s, she’s a long way from the television teenaged charmers who always seemed to be called Debby. This Debby (the superb Lisa Norton in the role) is mentally disturbed, crass, demanding, and foul-mouthed, her grossly overweight body becoming a kind of mass weapon of destruction (Designer Katrin Whitehead again coming through with some awesome padding), angry that she’s been deserted, accusing her parents of running away from her.  

Debby is also running away from the institution where she’s been admitted, leaving her meds behind. Only Lola can calm her down. Temporarily. Soon, Debby will be followed by her boyfriend, the sweet tempered, mentally challenged Neil (Tony Ofori).  Both of them quickly engage in a sex side-show that leaves Max and Lola and most of the audience stunned.  Once it’s over, it’s back to a kind of familiar discourse between daughter and mother that will soon veer off into another, unsettling direction.

Debbie has long time been a repository for her parent’s horrific recollections of the ‘camps,’ both of them survivors of the Holocaust, and while she herself goads her mother on, sputtering on and off about Eva Braun mixed in with her current obsession about pop singer Connie Francis being raped in her hotel room, Lola is also in her own world, ruminating about her imprisonment in Bergen-Belsen, her recollections or wild imaginings of another prisoner, a young girl named Anne Frank, who wrote about the camp in her diary,  a different diary than the famous one discovered in her Amsterdam hiding place.

This all goes past Neil’s head, but we have an uneasy feeling where it is going. And it does, into that netherworld of a a family so dysfunctional that no one will ever be able to escape the past, especially Max and Lola who have unconsciously, inadvertently transferred their worst nightmares to their daughter. In a fit of uncontrollable anger, Debby, tells her mother, “You were cutting me open and stuffing all the dead people inside me.”

Max, who has escaped on foot the horrors of the concentration camp can only say, regrettably,“Did I walk from that field, and into this?”  For a moment, we feel his pain. He, too has experienced the haunting of what might have been, a phantasmagoria as an unnamed, young, attractive woman only he can see, walks silently in front of him, then disappears. Is it what Debby (Deborah) might have been had she been normal? When the woman returns (also played by Norton) as Max dozes on the sun porch with his earphones on, she turns to the audience and talks of everyday things, simchas, family celebrations and her beloved relatives, the warmth of togetherness. The “what might have been” suddenly becomes the most disconsolate words in the world.

Superbly directed by Tanya Jacobs, The Model Apartment is a powerful, unsettling, and penetrating play that holds you in its grip from start to finish. It is one of the best productions in town, certainly one of the boldest and most unforgettable ever presented by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company. It plays at The Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts until May 29. 5040 Yonge St. Tickets can be purchased by calling 1-855-985-2787 or online at www.hgjewishtheatre.com.
Photo: by Joanna Akyol. L to R: Lisa Norton, Tony Ofori, Clare Coulter in The Model Apartment.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


The Odd Couple

When Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple had its Broadway premiere in 1965, its two main characters, Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, were referred to in a press blurb as two “lovelorn men, one messy and one neat.” Life was so much simpler then.

The 1965 production directed by Mike Nichols and starring Walter Matthau and Art Carney, was a perfect contemporary comedy with Simon on the way to the top of his game – the production won 5 Tony Awards – and made the then middle-aged Matthau, a bona fide Broadway star at the ripe age of 44. The Odd Couple was about to embark on a long and happy journey, a triple threat on stage, film and television for years. The question is, can you live through all the years of seeing The Odd Couple in stage, screen and TV and not get tired of it?

Never. The Soulpepper Theatre production, it’s the third since 2008, is rock solid and still flies. Under Stuart Hughes’ direction, the show sails with all of Simon’s famous one-liners nearly as funny as they were when the original production opened. There are limits to how heartily one can still laugh at jokes like “It was linguine, now it’s garbage,” and Oscar being perplexed by Felix signing his letter FU (that’s for Felix Unger, in case you thought otherwise.) Like all well used jokes, there is a limit to them, just like having to listen to Dad or Uncle Charlie telling the same story for 50 years. What is still great about The Odd Couple is that the one-liners only serve the script, not drive it. Oscar and Felix are recognizable and very human, which is the genius of Neil Simon who based The Odd Couple on his own brother’s divorce.

In Felix’s littered Manhattan apartment, designed by Lorenzo Savoini, where green in the frig meant an entirely different thing way back when, The Odd Couple begins and ends with the men meeting for their weekly poker game at the apartment of good natured Oscar Madison (Albert Schultz). The guys are the salt of the earth, earthy and very salty – Kevin Bundy, Derek Boyes, Oliver Dennis, and John Jarvis doing the honors. All of them, except for Felix, who is unusually late, are anxious to get on with the game. When Felix finally does show up, he is a basket case, overcome with emotion because his wife of 12 years has thrown him out. Oscar, in a fit of generosity, invites him to move in with him.

Played by Diego Matamoros, Felix is vulnerable, pathetic, and a pain in the neck, his face crumpling like a balloon deflating when self-pity overcomes him. Most of the time, you can’t even like this lugubrious cry baby. You can laugh at his obsessions - and be thankful he hasn’t barged in on you. While Felix pulls his weight in Oscar’s messy apartment, tidying up, brushing, cleaning, polishing, vacuuming, spraying, even planning wholesome meals, his fastidiousness is overbearing. Soon the easy going Oscar is set to push him out the window.

There is one scene when you do tend to have some empathy for Felix. When the twittering Pigeon Sisters from the upstairs apartment – Raquel Duffy and Sarah Wilson as the irresistible bimbos – are invited to dinner, you can almost feel Felix’s pain at trying to make polite conversation out of the air, a wallflower in the corner hoping the floor will swallow him. In contrast, the happy-go-lucky Oscar is as anxious to get on with his sex life as Felix is content to wallow in his memories.  Albert Schultz’s rumpled Oscar, sloppy t-shirt, protruding stomach and baseball cap, is everyman at ease, the good life, the happily single life. Behind in his alimony, ahead in poker, the only thing Oscar doesn’t need is Felix behaving like a wife.

The barbs begin, and as in all Neil Simon plays, the repartee is priceless. No one you know may be as quick witted as Simon’s stage characters are, but at least they sound like real people who have a sense of humor. Refreshingly 1960’s in the era of live communication, when Felix and Oscar talk on the phone to their wives, they actually walk to the telephone in the living room - no cell phones, no e-mails. Communication actually took some effort way back when.  Small wonder The Odd Couple has a happy ending. The Odd Couple plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until June 11. The Young Centre for the Performing Arts. 50 Tank House Lane, Historic Distillery Area. Tickets to Soulpepper productions are available by calling the Young Centre Box Office at 416-866-866 or by visiting soulpepper.ca.
Photo: by Cylla von Tiedemann. L to R: Albert Schultz, Diego Matamoros, Kevin Bundy.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


Of Mice and Men


John Steinbeck wrote his novel Of Mice and Men in 1937 at the height of the Great Depression. Set in the Southern California agricultural valley, his novella about migrant farm workers who travelled from job to job for farmers who could no longer afford permanent help, was praised. Though the work was banned from US public schools and school libraries because of its language, racial slurs, profanity and vulgar language, a mere two years later, the book was adapted for a stage version, and two years after that, the film version. Its shelf life has been remarkable, especially onstage where most recently the National Theatre Live production of the 2015 Broadway show hit the screens.

Though it’s not a large scale play, it’s still rare to find it done in a space as small as the Unit 102 Actors Company stage where despite the size, ten actors and director David LaFontaine capture every inch of the playing area to present an outstanding production and exceptional performances. Even Adam Balanger’s simple set which pays tribute to the versatility of the indie theatres, offered a summer stock nostalgia with stage hands lifting huge pieces of scenery in between the acts. The 50-seat theatre was packed.

Though the story centers around two men, George (Brandon Thomas) and Lennie (Marc Pack) his mentally challenged travelling partner, the thrust of the play is about friendship, the need to bond with each other especially in times of hardship and duress when the human connection is a necessity. “Try to understand men, “said Steinbeck. If you understand each other you will be kind to each other.” George who looks after Lennie as if he were a child, seems to have endless patience.

When the play opens, George and Lennie, migrant field workers, are on their way to yet another job on a farm after suddenly leaving their last place of employment because of Lenny’s behavior. While George wants to settle down someday on their own piece of land – mirroring the yearning for all those who had been dispossessed of everything - Lenny is only interested in a vegetable garden and petting soft things, rabbits especially because of their fur, and mice, which he always unintentionally kills. A large man who speaks and acts like a child, whose temper can flare up suddenly, and whose physical strength is daunting, Marc Pack’s Lenny captures the innocence as well as the foreshadowing of something dark and disturbing.

Though the farm is owned by the stern but fair Boss (Mikles Meili), his surly son Curly (Daniel Staseff) is a man of short stature who dislikes any man who is taller than he is. That puts Lenny right in the line of fire with Curly who continually taunts him. Curly’s pretty new wife (Miranda MacDougall) is also a source of irritation. Her constant wandering in and out of the men’s quarters “just to talk” leaves her open to criticism from the men who consider her a tart, and the object of Curly’s jealousy. All of this goes right over Lenny’s head who is only interested in finding more mice to pet and listening to George talk endlessly about the farm they will have some day.

The bunkhouse where the men play cards, sleep and socialize is the heart of the play. It’s almost protected territory being the haven of the farm workers and their leader Slim (played with a touch of  majesty by Jim Gilbert), whose authority over the rules of what goes down and what doesn’t, what’s fair and what isn’t, is far more all-encompassing than anything Curly or The Boss says. Even when Lennie tries to protect himself from Curly's rabid anger by crushing his hand, Slim steps in to shield him. If George is Lennie’s big brother he never had, Slim will become his armour.

The rapport between the working men in the bunkhouse sets the tone for the play, to let the men be seen as friends who look out for each other’s backs. It becomes a surrogate family. The one farm hand not allowed in is the Negro, Crooks (Brandon McNight), who has his own room and has developed a territorial watch over it. It’s only Lenny who doesn’t know the separation that exists between black and white when he ambles into Crooks’ room and overwhelms him with his problem.

Steinbeck believed that if you knew a person well, it always led to love. The Depression and its alienation was a formidable force in tearing apart foundations, but it was up to everyone to help repair the damage. Steinbeck’s play might have had 'acute melodrama' as one critic put it, but more than that it offered a wonderful sense of humanity. George and Lenny allowed another man whose faithful dog has just been shot and killed, to join their precious dream of a place of their own, a three some now, where Candy (Thom Zimerle), the old man in mourning for his one true faithful companion, can also have a piece of their fantasy.

It’s good to see Curly’s wife not played as a tart as it has at times been performed, but as a lonely woman, isolated from everyone except her brutish husband of two weeks who only treats her as an fulfillment of his sexual aberration. She needs to talk to people and the only ones around are the men who work the fields. But when her childlike behavior leads to the one brutal act of the play that Lenny commits, it is up to George to make the final amends.

Steinbeck took the name of his novella from a poem by Robert Burns called To a Mouse, which translated reads “The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry.” There's no need to elaborate: the title says it all. Of Mice and Men plays from April 27 to May 14 at Unit 102 Theatre, 376 Dufferin St. To reserve: unit102tix@gmail.com or ca.brownpapertickets.comtix@gmail.com
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


Refuge


Mary Vingoe’s play Refuge, is brilliant in its timing. Vingoe’s 2013 drama about Canada’s refugee system was written two years before the Syrian refugee crisis was about to explode, journalistic fuel for our newspapers, magazines, and television. Next to the historic great migrations in the early part of the 20th century, and especially World War II which saw more than 40 million refugees in Europe alone, nothing has earned as much attention as this decade’s worldwide refugee crises.

Vingoe’s take on Canada’s refugee system is the bones of her play Refuge. Presented by Nightwood Theatre in association with Amnesty International, Refuge is a moving drama that looks at the country’s complicated Immigration and Refugee Law and the people who are affected by it. Based on true events and a 2010 CBC radio documentary called Habtom’s Path by Mary Lynk which is re-enacted in intervals during the play.  The story swirls around the efforts of an indo-Canadian art curator Pamela Ross (Pamela Mala Sinha) to help in the appeal of an Eritrean man with a fake passport and no immigration documents seeking asylum after being detained by the Canadian Border Services in Halifax.

At first, Pamela’s involvement is simply being sympathetic to her friend Amleset, Ayinom’s mother, whom she’s helping to learn English. Amleset herself (Andrea Davis) has landed status, but her son Ayinom, has managed to desert the brutal Eritrean army and has escaped to Canada for refuge. She’s devastated when she learns of his detainment and knows that if he loses his appeal he will be sent back to Eritrea to be tortured and be killed. Pamela decides that it’s time to take action, and she appeals to an old acquaintance with whom she was once very close, well known Immigration lawyer Saul Ackerman (Jason Weinberg).

There is a history between them that would make a play in itself. Pamela who lost her grandparents in the bombing of the 1985 Air India crash by Sikh extremists watched her father turn into an anti-Sikh militant extremist. When Saul later defended Sikhs seeing refuge in Canada, it infuriated Pamela’s father and caused a rift between Saul and Pamela that had never been healed.

It’s a minor thread to the story but it lays the ground for how distrust and prejudice can spread like a virus, not even detected by the people who are affected. Pamela, swallowing her pride, convinces Saul that he should take-on the case, and he finally agrees. There’s a catch. In order to get Ayinom out of containment, he has to have a temporary place where he can live. Why not with Pamela and her husband?  It doesn’t go down well with Pamela who is nervous about the arrangement. She reluctantly agrees.

Ayinom is a major player we only see through the eyes of the other characters. It was a smart move on the playwright’s part. We’re never called upon to judge his qualities or his motives. The other characters do that for us. To Saul Ackman, Ayinom is a challenge, with his lack of proper papers, his fake passport, his history with a military that is renowned for human rights infringements and murder; to his close friend and his translator Mebrahtu (Rais Muoi) who is being interviewed by the CBC host of the documentary and continually prompted to say the right things by the frosty interviewer (Mary Francis Moore), Ayinom was always quiet and gentle, a good person, a good friend, who would never hurt anyone; to Pamela, he’s part of her own personal crusade but he becomes an uncomfortable presence, going to the library in the morning, coming home and staying in his bedroom, not “bothering” anyone, always to himself; to Pamela’s husband, Allan (Ryan Hollyman), Ayinom’s reticence is suspicious. “He could be a terrorist. How does any really know” he queries Pamela, who begins to have doubts herself. And then one day, Allan finds a cord cut off from its electrical head in Ayinom’ bedroom, and a momentum grows.

The CBC documentary always refers to Ayinom in the past tense, so we know the story doesn’t end well. His refugee status turned down and his deportation imminent, he commits suicide in a park by hanging himself with the cord that Allan found in the bedroom. We hope Allan discovered that hindsight can be cruel. But what we do in the same circumstances?

Kelly Thornton has directed the play and while the staging is somewhat awkward on the small stage of Tarragon theatre's Extra Space) the cast is uniformly fine, though Vingoe’s play precariously straddles the lines between a case study and a tragedy. It’s fascinating to listen to lawyer Saul Ackerman legalizing the obstacles of the case, with a pasted smile and good natured smugness that Jason Weinberg captures so well, and you can feel the mourning in Rais Muoi’s Mebrahtu as he tries desperately to emphasize Ayinom’s goodness while being ‘handled’ by the CBC interviewer. Pamela Mala Sinha’s caring Pamela Ross treads a fine line in trying to overcome her indecision about Ayinom' guilt and the shadows of her own family background, and we feel the pain of Andrea Davis’ Amieset Zerisenai’s agony as she hopelessly waits for her son to come home.

Kaitlin Hickey’s projections of an angry sea stretches clear across the back stage, less mindful of Halifax’s rising Atlantic sea level than it does of the boat people, the refugees who have perished on other shores. More than anything else, it’s a startling image that stays with us. Refuge plays until May 8 at Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Tickets: , 416-531-1827 or at nightwoodtheatre.net or tarragontheatre.com For more information on Refuge or Nightwood Theatre visit nightwoodtheatre.net
Photo: by John Lauener. L to R: Pamela Mala Sinha, Andrea Davis in Refuge.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


Scarberia

The recent production of Scarberia at Young People’s Theatre, has a unique history. First produced in 2012 at Britain’s York Theatre Royal TakeOver Festival in 2012, Scarberia was written by Canadian Evan Placey who grew up in Scarborough, Ontario, later went to Scarborough England and researched the play through Skype and an email correspondence between young people in both places.

Young People’s Theatre is presenting it at the small Studio Theatre – a hearty walk up from the mainstage – where it almost feels a bit cramped. Intimacy is always on the side of small theatre (there’s no actual stage in The Studio) but there is a reasonable playing area and set designer Joanna Yu has created a workable set for the two teenagers who dispose of a dead body of a young woman in one Scarborough, is partially hidden in a crevice on a sea shore in another Scarborough.

The play alternates scenes between Ontario (the Scarborough Bluffs) and, Scarborough Yorkshire on the North East coast but the same actors play both places and each wear the identical de rigueur clothing for teenagers, hoodie and jeans.

While there is mounting confusion in keeping up with what shore we’re on, we can usually get a clue from the accents, though as the play goes on, more and more confusion sets in about the story line. That’s no fault of Nina Lee Aquino’s terse direction, nor the actors who by the way give powerhouse performances: Shelly Antony as Craig/Craven, Mishka Thebaud as Simon/Simion. Alejandra Simmons is Marisha, the dead girl in the crevice, and also the girl (the same name in either locale) who has innocently been caught up in gangland rivalry when she falls for the wrong person and is killed in retribution for her ‘crime.’ Simmons as Marisha alive, delivers some poetic monologues about life and love in the fast lanes of Scarborough.

At least that’s what I could make of the story, though there were some strong points made about the morality of respecting a dead body. At first, both teenagers are reluctant to tell anybody what they’ve found, afraid they will be under suspicion in her death. In the long run, they do the right thing and eventually learn something about where humanity begins. Scarberia plays until May 1 at the Young People's Theatre. Recommended for ages 14 and up. 165 Front Street East, Toronto. Tickets: | Online: youngpeoplestheatre.ca. Box Office: 416.862.2222.
Photo: by Cylla von Tiedemann. L to R: Shelly Antony, Mishka Thébaud.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


The Summoned

"If It Can be Done, It Will Be Done," are the hallelujah words projected on the back wall of the Tarragon theatre stage as we file into our seats for the The Summoned. What is missing is "Thy Will be Done. The man who coined the words is a demi-god, a tech wizard known only by the regal name of Khan, who has gone to his just or unjust rewards as his family and cohorts are gathered ‘round to hear his will. 

That’s the easy part of the opening gambit of Fabrizio Fillipo’s sci-fi semi-comedy which plays at the Tarragon Theatre until May 29.  That the play immediately reminds you of Steve Jobs is no accident. The brilliant co-founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of Apple Inc., portrayed in the 2015 film Steve Jobs, also had a controversial relationship with his co-workers, just as Khan had.

Directed by Richard Rose, the play opens with the lot of them strung across the stage in an nondescript airport hotel waiting to hear Khan’s will, introduced by the self-important Alduous, (Fabrizio Filippo), who spends a good deal of his time showing off his technological know-how and talking about his mother, Annie (Maggie Huculak) who was Khan’s ignored right hand woman, and seemingly the real brains behind Kahn’s biggest feat, the new nanotechnologies. The discussion of the latter takes up a good part of the first act and is so mind-numbing in its technological minutae that you feel like you’ve wondered into the wrong classroom. Sorry, I mean theatre.

Back to business. Alduous and Annie own the airport hotel, and along with the other invited guests have gathered round to hear the reading, which includes Alduous’ spaced out girlfriend Isla (Rachel Cairns), a flight attendant who does a number of inexplicable athletic moves which seem to confirm her expertise at serving drinks during turbulence; legal beagle Laura (Kelli Fox), who is subject to laughing fits and was intimate with the boss while he was still partnered with Annie, and Gary (John Bourgeois), a former business partner and VP who is all about money and has since gone on to more lucrative endeavors. There is also a security guard, Quentin (Tony Nappo), who keeps deliberately smashing his phone.

Maggie Huculak’s Annie, despite her emotional scars from a business and personal relationship with the departed Khan, comes across as the most intelligent and humane character in the bunch. Of course there is that brief respite when she joins the others to take a whiff of a strange aerosol, something that Khan has concocted, that makes everyone momentarily loopy. It’s another one of the moments that makes you wonder what planetary forces have got a hold of them.

But surprise. There is an ending to the play that is otherworldly, with alternate universes and metamorphosizing and life and death phenomena, with humor and a touch of real pathos. It’s as if we’ve hopped skipped and jumped from Steve Jobs to The Twilight Zone. Forget the reading of the wills which has passed us by like a forgotten scene from a b-film. This was far more interesting, and not a nano in sight. The Summoned previews from April 20, opens April 27 and runs to May 29 in Tarragon's Mainspace. 30 Bridgman Avenue, Toronto.Tickets can be purchased by calling Tarragon Patron Services at 416.531.1827 or by visiting www.tarragontheatre.com  
Photo: by Cylla von Tiedemann. L to R: Fabrizio Filippo and John Bourgeois in The Summoned.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


OTTAWA
National Arts Theatre
Belles Soeurs

A  chorus of  unglamorous  women of various shapes and sizes files onto the upper level of the  proscenium arch that frames the  kitchen where Germaine Lauzon (Astrid Van Wieren) and her “soeurs” are about to  party,  pasting  one million trading stamps into those booklets, making Germaine’s dream of owning all the items in the store catalogue, a reality at last. Little does she know that her dreams will come crashing down before the performance ends. A band of five talented musicians tucked into either side of the small kitchen space raises the excitement level and carries us  beyond a traditional Broadway style of glitzy performance.

This new English language production of Tremblay’s Les Belles-soeurs, a reworking of the French musical production presented in 2010 and originallystaged as a play in 1968, is actually not far from Tremblay’s original conception of the work. True, there is music, there are lyrics in English, and the original joual which was the essence of Tremblay’s  statement about Québécois culture, has been  replaced  by lyrics in standard English. Even the ending has changed radically. Yet, it works because director René Richard Cyr,  composer Daniel Bélanger,  adaptor of the English Book and Lyrics Brian Hill, musical adaptation and additional music by Neil Bartram and the musical direction by Chris Barillaro, have collectively  reinvented a stage language that compensates  for all that has changed.  

The final scene no longer ends as it did in the play with Germaine in despair and confusion as the chorus sings OH CANADA, which suggests independence was no longer possible because the Québécois were still fighting among themselves. That ending even fuelled a debate in 1968 about the nationalistic charge of this show.

This new show is a feminist statement telling us that the women will finally take charge of  their own lives in spite of all the squabbling.  Germaine rises to the occasion declaring she will no longer be subjected to the will of the church, to the oppression of men. She and her sisters will go out on their own and make it happen.  The triumphant tone leaves the audience with a sense that all the underprivileged women of Canada are now facing a good struggle for a brighter future. The feeling of purification was immense.

In spite of a smaller cast, this musical version has maintained a vibrant chorus, inspired by  Greek theatre which is central to the author’s  work. Tremblay,a great fan of opera, constructs the play with  solos, duets, trios, quartets and quintets  already paving the way for the musical numbers that take their cues from the text. Each number has the women challenge their surroundings and revealing their struggles, but not before confessing their secret lives, as well as their ignorance,  jealousy and narrow mindedness, and their blind subservience to religion. Clearly,  the  author both hates and pities  these women so that irony, satire, irritation,  annoyance and much ridicule all combine to create an attractive mixture that holds our attention all the way through.

The quartet (originally a quintet) that roars out “It’s a dull life” (une maudite vie plate) captured the anger and the rage of these women whose lives are unbearably  monotonous. Neil Bartram’s additional music which suggests whiffs of Kurt Weil , Steven Sondheim, and a highly expressionist pounding of drums, bass notes and kitchen utensils, underscored by  the women stamping their feet, transforms their  frustration into a furious dance around the kitchen table (choreographed by Linda Garneau) that  pumped up the energy and foretold all that was to come.

The  music is not just an accompaniment  but a real partner whose creative presence establishes the emotional tone of each number, often revealing deeper  hidden tension, underscoring  the threat of the more disturbing  nuances of  meaning  that  the lyrics don’t necessary  tell us. As the creative confusion gets started and the sisters start licking stamps, each character takes to the spotlight and tells her story!

Lisa Horner as Lisette de Corval  is the guest who thinks she is superior to them all  because she has been to Paris where everything is so much more “ civilized” -  an ironic but semi-serious anti-French crack against the former colonizer -  but Mme de Corval is also  the object of local ridicule with her fancy clothes and fussy ways. Underlying that laughter however is a nasty critique of that woman who is embarrassed by her friends who are not as high class as she would like them to be, but De Corval herself is the snob and the  embarrassment. 

In the original play, De Corval speaks a strange mixture of local ‘joual’ deformed by someone who speaks what she considers to be “Parisian French!”  But since the language of the show is now standard English, her whole persona that hinged on that phony imitation of “proper French” is gone, and what appears in its place is a hilarious parody of an opera Diva.  She warbles a grand solo about how she is ashamed of this working class scum, all the while conducting the orchestra with great awkward gestures,  flirting with the audience, with the musicians,  nd maintaining her original upper class pretense that  is cut down by her inappropriate gestures and clownlike stance. Such  compensation strategies were brilliant!

Many solos that became confessional monologues where the singers, frozen under a spotlight, expressed all their hidden fears, their anguish, the frustrations, their guilt,  living in a world where church morality and small minds have oppressed them all their lives and where men make their lives unbearable. The Ode to  Bingo was perhaps the most  significant collective moment when  all the women sing their hearts out  the minute they learn that Bingo has returned to the neighbourhood. 

As the  music  rises and the choreography builds, that tribute to their favourite game becomes a wild orgiastic experience where they are all panting, screaming and  gesticulating, leaping on the table in a frenzy of emotion. Such trivia becomes their ultimate moment of excruciating pleasure which, far from a caricature, becomes both  pathetic and sadly funny. And the music brings it all to the
foreground.

There is that dramatic return of Pierrette  the fallen sister, sung by  Geneviève Leclerc. Her enormous voice ripples through the theatre, confronting the chorus of furies hovering around her, shrieking insults at the devilish creature who has dared to show her face among them. A defining moment  in the show, Leclerc’s  magnificent voice  epitomizes Pierrette’s freedom and independence  that Germaine’s daughter Linda Lauzon has been seeking since the very first scene, right until the  final  discovery  of betrayal amid the roaring laughter of the jealous  sisters. 

This musical tragedy which keeps the audience laughing all evening has maintained the literary integrity of the play, while giving contemporary musical theatre a refreshing thrust into the future.  Belles Soeurs The Musical continues until May 14 at the National Arts Centre Theatre. 54 Elgin St. Tickets: Online on the NAC’s website: www.nac-cna.ca;In person at the NAC Box Office;At all Ticketmaster outlets**By telephone 1-888-991-2787.
Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht, an Ottawa based theatre critic.
Photo: by Andree Lanthier. Ensemble in Belles Soeurs.


OTTAWA
The Arts Court Theatre

Woyzeck's Head

Director James Richardson's adaptation is a completely original approach to Buchner's 1879 work, Woyzeck, which at its outset was unfinished.  Richardson eliminates the whole socio-political context and locates the play inside Woyzeck’s head. The man is starving to death because he is part of an experiment where he is only allowed to eat peas. Time and memory play games with this individual and as he hallucinates, he hears strange voices, catches rapid glimpses of other people whom he believes are torturing him – including the doctors, the captain, even his wife, performed by two other actors in the show.
Photo credit: Stephanie Godin

Terrified by all that appears to be threatening him, suffering from his throbbing head, the site of his bloody hands and a sense of guilt, Andrew Moore’s Woyzeck, lashes out and shifts us back to the moment when the ultimate monstrous act of murder took hold of his mind. But we aren’t sure if it is a cruel fantasy or a real act that took place in this psychotic space where the victim/murderer  is being detained. 

Since Richardson has eliminated the exterior world and limited the action to all that is interior, the play lost a lot of its intensity, its real anguish, its anger, its deep sorrow, its suffering and we see Woyzeck reacting to his “imaginary” captors. They are  turned into robots, mechanical creatures, undefinable beings who hover around the “beast” and whose strange voices are blurry echoes and distorted sounds in his head…He is now the victim of his own hallucinations, that suggest painful jealousy, lack of sleep, grotesque relations with others`. He wants all this to stop, but it can’t if it’s all in his head.

Clearly, from a theatrical point of view, none of this horror really captures us for the whole length of the play because the text has nowhere to evolve. It is locked in Woyzeck’s head . The terrifying moments that actor Andrew Moore projects are very disturbing and we are engrossed in his performance for the first half of the show. However, the world he evokes remains within the same intensity, there is no evolution of emotion, no building up of fear that we can really sense, no ultimate loss of control, even though the text mentions the killing of his wife Marie. The emotion remains the same, the rhythms remain the same and the other characters are locked out of his head. We see the same frightened body which wanders obsessively in circles, creating monotony based on an oral text that repeats itself for an hour.

Clearly, some more creative work on the actor’s body would have been a relief here. A character subjected to hallucinations and strange voices could possibly begin to somatize his imaginary experiences in a great many ways -  if the director were well versed in the works of Grotowski, Artaudian theories or all the groups of ritual theatre (Chaikin, Julian Beck ) that explored madness on stage in the 1970s. He might have had a lot more ideas about the use of the body in space. As it was, director Richardson used Graham Price’s light design very well. It became a blaze of heat that lit up the plain walls of his “cell , the inner prison of his own psychic nightmare.

Richardson’s sound design was also very effective as were the images projected onto the walls,  but they all became repetitive and ceased to be effective after a while, They did the right thing by limiting the performance to one hour. There was nothing more in this text to justify anything longer.

James Richardson has gone through a very serious evolution as a director in the last years because of his association with the graduate MFA programme in the department of theatre at the University of Ottawa. Now, as he is working on adaptations, and new texts and textual practice has been added to his staging mix. That complicates the work of a director, especially if one is dealing with a great work of art.

This performance is a point of intersection between an inspiring text, combined with performance theories based on the Freudian elements of the psychodrama while also suggesting much more in depth corporeal research with the actors . The work is not yet over. It is a huge task which Richardson has undertaken . His effort is palpable, and laudable. His actors did what they were told but this director still appears to be in above his head. Woyzeck's Head is a production of The Third Wall Theatre Company and plays at the Arts Court Theatre until April 30. 20 Daley Avenyue Ottawa. For more information and to book advance tickets, please visit ArtsCourt.ca/TACTICS @TACTICSeries #OutOfMyHead.
Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht, an Ottawa based theatre critic.


OTTAWA
The National Arts Centre

Concord Floral

Concord Floral was inspired by an existing greenhouse in Vaughan (in the Toronto area) that was demolished in 2012. The rotting space somewhere in a mysterious field that emerges from Tannahill’s imagination becomes the site of an encounter among ten young people and their deep-seated obsessions. The author also mentions Boccaccio’s Decameron as another source of inspiration, and perhaps Joey’s encounter with an older man looking for sexual satisfaction could bring us back to Boccaccio’s wild dreams of frantic coupling inspired by the terror of the plague, something that Artaud discusses in his seminal text about the way the plague transformed European culture.

However, Tannahill's imagination appears to be much closer to more recent television performances such as Bitten, Twilight, Paranormal Witness or The Haunting of….., inspired by repressed obsessions, exacerbated fears deeply embedded in the troubled psyche of young people who are at war with their parents, stressed out by the violence in the world around them, and by the lack of understanding outside their own microsocieties where they find understanding, support and refuge. Even in this enclosed world of young people, the “pack” instinct rears its ugly head as the most vulnerable is subjected to great cruelty, while a spirit of guilt engulfs the group and vengeance propels the most extroverted individuals. We are clearly in the very depth of the human psyche inhabited by archetypal figures defining the basic human instincts in the world.

We are also, in the midst of a strange ritual of theatrical proportions. A rectangle in the middle of the performance space is lit with an unreal flickering bluish tinge. The set is an amalgamation of non-material substances that build a whole world of their own: light, sound, colour, shadow, all ready to engulf and feed the performers with their power. Dark human shadows collect around that rectangle as a beautiful soprano voice floats out of the shadows, singing religious tones that evoke the beginning of what could be a sacrificial ritual! The same voice is heard at the end of the performance to close the event.

All is done and when the ritual is completed and we are left in our seats, transformed by what we have just seen. The 10 bodies are in a line across the “stage”. We don’t know if we are supposed to clap or not. We almost dare not move. And then it’s over…

Tannahill and his team of directors, musicians, choreographers and  multidisciplinary artists, bring us forward to the future by daring to take us way back to the origins of human impulses that these young people, unspoiled by classical training and strict rules of acting, have contributed to this event. The team has expressed all their spontaneous desires, frustration, anger, malaise,  sadness, all harnessed l through a mixed performance process.
Besides the ritualized event, one voice (Stefanie Velichkin) speaking as “the greenhouse”, appears out of nowhere and announces that we are showing you a play within a play. It is divided by ten voices, into ten parts, an oblique reference to the Decameron which does not convince me in the slightest even if each part is represented by one of the young people in the group. The dialogues are fractured, the feelings explode, the voices spit out their own declarations with little apparent linear connection, but what emerges is a vast boiling litany of troubled words, which flow rapidly out of the mouths of these young people.

It takes a while to plug into this. Some of the actors mumbled and whispered. Often I could not understand. That was fine because the voices at times produced a background of indistinguishable youthful murmur, provoking a certain malaise and a sense of fear. The directors purposefully orchestrated fragments of sentences, bits of words that passed from one mouth to the next, creating an oratorio of youthful buzzing.

Then there appeared clearly-spoken monologues that distinguished the actors and highlighted the best voices. There was Joey (Connor McMahon) who told us his disturbing experience with an older man, or Sofie Milito, speaking in the name of Couch the victim, the bell-like voice of Sadie Laflamme-Snow, or Aurel Pressat who became the young person absorbed into the world of the fluttering bobolinks and many more. Their uncertainty propelled them into different imaginary worlds as lights flashed, shadows danced, the ghost of the disappeared one returned to haunt them all . The sound of each young voice filled the space with attempted explanations, as the momentum of the event transported the bodies of the young people, towards the sacrificial moment , which slowly came to a head. And then I felt it almost ended too soon!

Also impressive was the group choreography, the orchestration of all those voices, as it coincided with the lighting effects that transformed banal spaces (Highway 417, a field, a school room) into magical places of being. Surrealism joined ritual transformation, something almost unheard of since Artaud! This is not Lepage, it’s Tannahill. We wonder where he will lead us next time? Concord Flora plays at the National Arts Centre Studio Theatre until April 9, 2016. 53 Elgin Street Ottawa. Tickets: Online on the NAC’s website: www.nac-cna.ca; In person at the NAC Box Office; At all Ticketmaster outlets**; By telephone 1-888-991-2787**
Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht, an Ottawa based freelance theatre critic.


LONDON, ON
Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story

The Grand Theatre

The show that closes the current season at London’s Grand Theatre was conceived at Drayton several years ago, and refined after many productions to the quality seen today.  “Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story” stars Zachary Stevenson, whose resemblance to Buddy has great resonance.  The voice and mannerisms are uncanny.  The sweet rendition of “True Love Ways” is one of the highlights of the production but the real action comes in the high energy displayed by Stevenson and a dozen other actor/musicians who When the Beechcraft crashed in that February night, 1959, I was in high school and curiously wore dark horn-rimmed glasses.  Years later, I was surprised to learn that in two years Buddy wrote a huge volume of hit music before “the day the music died”.

Alan Janes’ script is seamless and moving.  Shawn Kerwin’s design was colourful, particularly the fifties dresses that seemed to change colour under Renee Brode’ subtle lighting.  As usual Jim Neil’s sound design is solid and the audience only waits for the energetic cast to prompt a standing ovation.  This is the final mainstage production directed by Susan Ferley, who retires in September and heads into a change of career. 

Susan’s tenure as Artistic Director had its moments, but few are finer than the High School Productions in which she developed a new generation of performers, a few of which appear in Buddy.  Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane plays a singer at New York’s Apollo Theatre, delivering a foot-stomping version of “Shout” and Oscar Moreno is larger-than-life as the tragic Richie Valens.  Michael Clarke is good for comic relief and saxophone.

Just about everybody on stage doubles, but the secret weapon is Alicia Toner who plays Vi Petty the producer’s wife.  She also plays, piano, celeste, trumpet and fiddle.  .Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story runs until May 7. Recommended for ages 8 and up. Tickets: are available at www.grandtheatre.com, by phone at 519-672-8800, or at the Box Office, 471 Richmond Street.  London, Ontario.
Photo: by Klaus Andersen.
Reviewed by Ric Wellwood, a London, Ontario based freelance theatre critic.



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