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REVIEWS

The Secret Garden in Concert

Anyone who loved Francis Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel The Secret Garden, can get lost again in Burnett’s shimmering story about Mary Lennox,  a young British girl who loses her parents to cholera in the early 1900’s India and is sent to live with her wealthy widowed uncle, Archibald Craven, in his vast Yorkshire Manor. has The new Podium Concert Productions had the brilliant idea of producing “Shows that Deserve to be Heard, ” with the best singers, actors and orchestra, but without the trappings of a full scale musical production.

Do we miss actually seeing the transformation of a secret garden come back to life with all the gorgeous colors of flowers suddenly in bloom. The answer is that we do see it.  Without any scenery, the twelve performer/singers who stand at the microphones engage our imagination and bring us right into the heart of the story. Theatre of the mind with added bonuses.

The Broadway stage production of the musical back in 1991 which was re-imagined by playwright Marsha Norman and composed by Lucy Simon starring Mandy Patinkin was deservedly a Tony Award winner, but Podium’s concert production of The Secret Garden directed by Steve Ross with musical direction by Mark Camilleri is a gem, outstanding in every way with an superb cast headed by Adam Brazier as Archibald Craven, Sarah Caraher as the willful Mary Lennox, Erin Fisher as the ‘ghost’ of Archibald’s wife who died in childbirth, Gabi Epstein as the acerbic maid Martha, who would rival anyone from Downton Abbey’s kitchen staff, and young Lucas Kalechstein as the sickly Colin Craven cured by Mary’s insistence, all part of a first rate ensemble cast.

The Secret Garden in Concert is presented at the newly renovated and acoustically enchanced Trinity-St. Paul Center/ Jeanne Lamon Hall, for three performances only Jan. 13 to 15, 2017. 427 Bloor Street West (at Spadina Avenue), For more info, and to purchase tickets, visit podiumconcerts.com
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger.


All But Gone: A Beckett Rhapsody


Samuel Beckett is anything but gone from Toronto’s Canadian Stage Company. Necessary Angel in partnership with Canadian Stage is presenting All But Gone: A Beckett Rhapsody directed by Jennifer Tarver, which features three of Beckett’s short plays with musical direction by Dairine Ni Mheadhra, in an exceptional evening of theatre and music by Garrett Sholdice and Finnish composer Kauja Saariaho.  
Photo: by Faisal Lutch. Paul Fauteux in All But Gone

The show is an “evolution” of the idea behind Canadian Stage’s much lauded 2012 production of  Beckett: Feck It!, a co-production with Queen of Puddings Music Theatre directed by Jennifer Tarver, who has also directed All But Gone.  I’m not sure that the current production has evolved that much from Canadian Stage’s earlier one, being more of a continuation. Tarver has newly labelled it “an examination of the character psyches of Vladimir and Estragon" (the tenacious duo of Waiting for Godot) "in a post Godot world," which just shows how stubborn we humans are.

So are the male characters in this selection of Brecht’s short plays which include Act Without Words I and II, Play, and Ohio Impromptu (several of the same plays presented in Beckett: Feck It!, with the exception of Act Without Words I, and Come and Go), though it’s the women, Shannon Mercer and Krisztina Szabo who carry the impressive musical interludes with some powerful songs from Kaija Saariaho’s From the Grammar of Dreams inspired by Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and the beautiful medieval inspired Gregorian chant Viderunt Omnes by Garrett Sholdice.

In the first of the Beckett plays, Act Without Words I, actor Paul Fauteux, responds to an offstage whistle and becomes part of an unending and desperate attempt to grab a bottle of water which is kept dangling in front of him by an unseen force.  Is the man dying of thirst? Perhaps, since he does everything in his power to grab the scissor, boxes and rope that’s offered to him. Then cruelly yanked back out of his reach, he simply gives up. The interpretation (not mine): The man has learned ‘the hard way’ that there is nothing he can rely on in life other than himself.

In Act Without Words II, which is the better known of the two short works, two burlap bags, each containing a man, benefit from the performances of Paul Fauteux and Jonathan Young, who one at a time craws out of his burlap sack. First, it’s Fauteux, unkempt and unhappily roused by a phallic looking rod that is sent slowly from the wings to awaken him with an insistent nudge. It’s a bright day (on the brightly lit no-nonsense bare stage lit by Kimberly Purtell) and Fauteux as the man, who prays and scratches, not necessarily in that order, eventually crawls back into the sack.

The second man to come out of his sack played by Jonathan Young, is neat and prompt with his watch obviously a devoted friend, and his clothes, carefully folded, put on in mechanical order after his morning exercises. The endless repetition in our daily lives which is endured over and over day after day, may be the message here, but the good performances far outweigh our minimal interest in two dissimilar men who live out their redundant lives in a burlap bag.
 
The most successful of the plays is the rarely done, but more effective, Play. Here, three people are buried up to their necks in dirt in graveyard urns: a man, his wife and his mistress. We only see their heads. Each of them recall their torture by one another when they lived, embroiled in a love triangle. The man in the middle (Paul Fauteux) and his two ‘women’ on each side of him, his wife and his mistress (Shannon Mercer and Krisztina Szabo), each pours out bitter memories in a steady stream of vitriolic run-on sentences. The play is repeated again, reminding us that their arguments will continue throughout eternity, each of them equally tortured by the past. If they only had their bodies, self-flagellation would have been the punishment of choice.

In the final playlet, Ohio Impromptu, Jonathan Young and Paul Fauteux, finish the evening with an esoteric play which was originally written as a dramatic piece for an academic symposium. It’s fascinating to watch both actors, whose characters sit quietly at a table, each in their long black coats and head scarves. The men are meant to be mirror images of each other and as one reads from a booklet in front of him, the other listens, tapping his finger imperiously when it’s time to stop for a second or two. The story behind Ohio Impromptu, is one man’s longing to find relief for his loss of his loved one through another. The explanation is puzzling with no apparent rationale that applies to the play, though once again, it is the actors themselves who bring life to this largely inanimate work.

Like Beckett: Feck It! the material in All But Gone: A Beckett Rhapsody is a compilation of dark humor, obscure messages and unusual characters. But it's an entertaining evening filled with déjà vu for those of us who remember the flowering of the absurdist movement, and how little it has changed. Plays until November 6 at the  Berkeley St. Theatre (26 Berkeley St.). Tickets: 416.368.3110.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


Breathing Corpses


Death certainly becomes her. Laura Wade the British writer whose 2005 breakout play Colder than Here, about an uncommunicative British family learning to live with an impending death in the family, preceded her award-winning play Breathing Corpses, by a mere month, the latter work picking up The Writers Circle Critics Award, the Pearson Playwrights Best Play Award and George Devine Award. The production was also nominated for an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre. Heady stuff.

Death has been a very fertile ground for Ms. Wade who has interpreted her favorite subject matter with the almost casual explanation of using “different ways to explore thinking about death and its effect on the living.”  And though the characters are the main attraction in Breathing Corpses, the play itself remains perplexing. Nonetheless, you’ll be riveted to The Coal Mine Theatre production of Breathing Corpses, thanks to David Ferry’s solid direction, and a superb cast.

The story line is something of a roundelay beginning and ending with Amy, a hotel maid, played with an appealing naïveté by Erin Humphrey, who finds a body hidden under the covers in a bedroom that she’s just started to clean. Her exclamation as soon as she sees the corpse is “Not again!” In fact, her manager calls her the angel of death. No, it’s not Bates Motel, it’s a bit more upscale than that. But Amy certainly has her feet on the ground when it comes to offering advice to the late departed such as how he could have got out of paying for the room upfront when he knew he was going to die. It was a suicide, she discovers from finding a bottle of his pills. Amy winds up stroking his protruding foot with care, like a mother waiting for her child to go to sleep.

The rest of the play proceeds with the same kind of fascinating relationships between the dead and the living. There is the strange understanding between Jim, the owner of a storage facility (Richard Sheridan Willis) who can't communicate with his lonely wife Elaine, (Severn Thompson) who has a low esteem of herself, though you have a feeling that both feed off each other with their insecurities, while Ray (Simon Bracken), Jim’s assistant, keeps insisting that there is a dead woman in one of the storage units. In one remarkable scene, Jim, who has slowly been unravelling with the thought of the dead “woman in the box” seems to go off the rails completely, taking down all the doors in the facility.

The last couple, Kate (Kim Nelson),  a no-nonsense entrepreneurial woman who runs an employment service and looks and acts as if she suffers no fools, lives with one, her young, good looking boyfriend, Ben (Benjamin Sutherland), whose best friend seems to be his constantly whining dog that Kate can’t stand. In fact Kate turns out to be somewhat sadistic in her cruel treatment of Ben’s dog, but then Kate has been a little upended because the day before she discovered a dead woman in the park.

After a big blowout between Kate and Ben, their sexual need rises above the numerous welts and bruises they have inflicted on each other. Such is the anatomy of a psychological disorder that buries real love. More than that, one wonders if Kate is turned on by the dead woman in the park. Sick, yes indeed. But considering Ms. Wade’s preoccupation with the many ways that death affects the living. . . .

Breathing Corpses goes full circle by ending with the opening scene - with a few differences. Amy, the hotel maid, who seems to collect corpses, has finally discovered who the man in the bed is and why he has committed suicide. It’s emotionally moving for her, but doesn’t end the play on a satisfying note. That’s left to the intriguing stranger named Charlie ( Jonathan Sousa) who just happens to come upon both Amy and the corpse. Charlie may be a hotel guest, but he carries a knife and convinces Amy that she should go out to dinner with him. His real motive is left to our imagination - and an earlier clue in the play. But at that stage it hardly matters. It’s a wonderful finale fit for Hitchcock, and leaves us with the feeling that perhaps Amy should give up cleaning hotel rooms and try for a desk job. Breathing Corpses plays until November 13, 2016 at the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Avenue, Toronto, For more info visit www.coalminetheatre.com. Tickets: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/profile/752042.
Photo: by BensoPhoto. Erin Humphrey and Jonathan Sousa in Breathing Corpses.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


Chasse-Galerie

Anyone who loves a rip-roaring story about temptation and its devilish repercussions, will find the musical Chasse-Galerie, non-stop entertainment. Based on a French Canadian folk tale written in 1892, the story has been passed down by generations of French Canadians in various versions, the latest, the award-winning 2015 production stage production, co-produced by The Storefront Theatre and Kabin, newly packaged for Soulpepper Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts where it plays until Dec. 1.
Photo: by John Gundy. Cast of Chasse-Galerie. Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Adapted by Tyrone Savage, with music and lyrics by James Smith, the new version features a 13-member cast bristling with energy most of whom take on several roles in the story, including performing, singing and playing musical instruments enhanced by some lively foot-stomping choreography by Ashleigh Powell, smooth direction by Savage, and rousing musical numbers by Smith.

Though it looks like a fantastical world with designer Lindsay Dagger Junkin’s marvelous flying canoe that seems to elevate even with its four crew members hoisting it, there is just as much human element in it when a group of woods women in a Quebec  - very strong of heart and otherwise those coureuses des bois, who yearn to go back to their lovers in Montreal for New Year’s Eve, and make a deal with the devil to get them there in time. There’s a catch, but then there always is. If they don’t make it in time, one presumes that their souls will be jeopardy. At least that’s the usual story.

To guarantee their undivided attention to their goal, the women themselves agree to sobriety in every respect from drinking to sex to swearing. It’s a tough stand but there’s the lure of that wild and woolly bar in Montreal awaiting them, which was presented to us at the start of the show with a piano player beating out some honky tonk music straight out of The Sting, as if we had missed the tour bus and wandered into a Dawson City saloon.

Though the atmosphere is far from boozy, there is an actual live bar at the front of the theatre for the theatre patrons, so the women paddle and paddle (cartoon projections on the back wall give it a whimsical touch), until they reach their destination, not only with Satan awaiting them at the end of their fruitful or fateful journey but his funny man apprentice, Uriel (Hunter Cardinal) who seems to appear out of nowhere to taunt the women during their travels with his offbeat humor.

While the devil is the most intriguing character in the production with his dual personality as Damien/Satan, the friendly if deceptive intruder who bursts upon the four women with no small measure of charm, then slithers into a personality change when his true purpose unleashes some hot air into the cold climate, Tyrone Savage plays Damien with style.

As the four women who have a rougher time carrying out their sobriety while repressing their sexual hunger, Kat Letwin, Nicole Power, Shaina Silver-Baird and Tess Benger, each offer characteristics which keep us intrigued, from the religiosity of one to the sexual prowess of another, and most interestingly, a gay pairing that seems the most genuine. But it’s the friendship that evolves with all four during the tough journey that is the crux of the play and gives the Chasse-Galerie a touch of warmth during the cold winter’s night in a Quebec forest. Chasse-Galerie plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until Dec. 1, 2016 in the Michael Young Theatre. 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto's Historic Distillery Area. Tickets: 416-866-8666 or soulpepper.ca
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


Concord Floral

There is a time to be silent and a time to speak. The teenaged high school students in Jordan Tannahill’s drama, Concord Floral, have yet to figure that out. Tannahill’s play, which has undergone a great deal of reworking and several productions since it was first introduced at Canadian Stage’s Festival of Ideas and Creation back in 2012, has come back to Canstage to open its 2016/2017 season. While the script has changed over the years, Erin Brubacher and Cara Spooner are still at the helm as the directors and along with Tannahill, comprise a strong production base.

That is very much in evidence with its unique setting – and seating -  at the Bluma Appel Theatre which is not in the normal viewing part of the theatre with the audience looking at the stage from its seats,  but directly on the stage, which has been opened up to expose the space's interesting bare bones of electronics, with stadium seating. We climb up to our seats as if we were going to watch a baseball game or a lecture. But there’s a motive here.

In a sense we are spectators, watching a show played out by a group of 10 young actors who have a story to tell, one that is senseless and brutal, and in the end, blameless, since there is no one who will admit to his or her part in it.

And so, at first we simply listen to some of their individual expressions and frustrations of adolescence. There is some interesting eerie music (by Christopher Willes), and a haunting song sung by Eleanor Hart which seems to come out of nowhere. It would be a great opening for the radio broadcast Murder Mystery Theater which features those old thrillers from the glory days of CBS radio, But here, the actors are positioned just so, orderly, as if they’re part of an assembly. They are indeed, in every way, well orchestrated in their youthful earnestness by the directors, and deserve a round of applause.

Their stage is made of luxurious looking green astro-turf. It could be a playing field, but it is in fact the Concord Floral greenhouse (modelled after an actual one in Vaughan township which has far less dark history we assume than the one re-imagined for the play). The greenhouse is a private haven for the teen crowd in the play, where they go to smoke, hang out, party, whatever. Tannahill modelled his play on Boccaccio’s The Decameron, comprised of 100 tales of young men and women taking shelter from the plague in a villa outside Florence to escape the Black Death, various tales which range from the erotic to the tragic. It’s quite a stretch from Boccaccio to the teenaged angst of Concord Floral.

Still, something happened in that greenhouse that doesn’t feel like a casual get together. When two girls, Rosa (Ofa Gasesepe) and Nearly Wild (Jovana Miladinovic) stop off one night to get their usual McFlurry pick-me-up, they drop into the Greenhouse to smoke a joint and discover a half-buried body of a girl. They’re so discombobulated by the experience that one of them drops her cellphone which winds up in the pocket of the dead girl. It’s a stretch in logistics but it serves the story well. They both decide not to say anything and not to report what they found to the police. Big mistake.

In time one of them, Nearly Wild, will be getting calls on her cell phone from the dead girl. Is someone playing a trick on her or something she’s imagining. Could they be psychotic interludes?  She even begins to annoy Rosa with her phobias. Ah, it’s so deliciously Hitchcockian. Better yet, we go back in time to when the two first encountered Bobbie (the dead girl), in the school cafeteria, a place where friendships are cemented over a tuna melt and gossip is as delicious as a frozen yogurt.

It begins with a jealousy by a couple of girls in the school cafeteria, Rosa (Ofa Gasesepe) and Nearly Wild (Jovana Miladinovic), the latter who finds out that the new girl named Bobbie, has bought the exact same red sweater as she has. It becomes a premise for retribution. And it turns deadly. The one positive thing here is the performance of Jessica Munk as Bobbie, the new girl, the innocent, who is so grateful to Rosa and Nearly Wild for making her feel a part of their circle, so happy to earn their friendship, to be accepted and then toured around the fun place of teenaged bacchanalia, the Concord Floral, as if she really belonged. And in time she will.

Though there’s much that’s intriguing in Tannahill’s play, in the end I wondered what story he was trying to tell. Along with the horror, murder and supernatural elements, the modern concepts of the sometimes overwhelming problems that today’s teens face such as puberty, school pressures, and a long enough list of other stresses which are part of growing into adulthood in a very complicated world, Tannahill also includes an exotic piece of lycanthropy as an unhappy teenaged boy (Franco Pang) imagines he is a bobolink who gets trapped inside the school cafeteria and finally smashes into a door to escape.

If there's any one statement that we can all relate to, it's the collective responsibility we share as members of the human race. The dead girl is simply left in her Concord Floral grave by Rosa and Nearly Wild as a random left over to be found by someone else. It was their time to speak, but the silence was deafening. Concord Flora plays until Oct. 16 at the Bluma Appel Theatre. Tickets are available online, by phone at 416.368.3110.  For details visit www.canadianstage.com/online/concord.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


Constellations


I seldom think about other worlds. I have enough to do to cope with this one. That being said, if anyone offered one of those parallel universes to try out, where I could relive my life or go back in time - no questions asked, and no repercussions, I think it would be a fascinating road to travel.

Photo: by Andree Lanthier. Cara Rickets and Graham Cuthbertson in Constellations.

Then again, maybe not. Writer Nick Payne’s 2012 play Constellations which finds a young man and woman meeting in alternate universes, seems to be a difficult road to follow. People change. Even if they start out as friends or lovers, they change. And when they do, their worlds can fall apart. Or perhaps become stronger. Certainly different. So when Nick Payne suggests that those alternate worlds, and varying choices, wouldn’t have necessarily offered a better relationship, he may be right.  

CanStage is offering Payne’s fascinating play 85-minute play which turns out to be quite enough time for us to sample the world of this alternate and imaginative universe with actors Graham Cuthbertson and Cara Rickets as two refreshingly ordinary young people, Roland and Marianne, grappling with Payne’s challenging script under Peter Hinton’s sensitive and surefooted direction.  Well, perhaps they’re not that ordinary. Marianne is a quantum physicist, used to the vagaries of the universe with its atoms, electrons and photons, while Roland is a beekeeper used to producing honey.  You wouldn’t think they would find a great deal in common, but they fall in love,  and then relive their courtship over and over. 

Retracing steps on Canstage’s enormous dais (designed by Michael Gianfrancesco) always turning  slowly on the centre of the stage, this is a compressed world where two people are constantly running into each, asking each other the same questions they asked before, questions that may be answered differently than before, answers that might mean something different than before, questions and answers that can change each other’s life in a minute.

The first scenes themselves are the most puzzling as two people meet, then the scene is repeated again and again with different nuances, different shading of emotions (expert timing by the two performers)  until it dawns on us that this is exactly what extracts the humor in the play. Both Cutherbertson and Rickets are able to work the timetable so well that we begin to enjoy their alternate worlds.

Still, with all the expert scissoring of the quantum multiverses, there are times when you feel a sense of melancholy in watching two people who might have done it differently, changed, controlled their destiny  - if only they knew. Which brings us back to our own existence in a world we only know as singular, and a question that we all grapple with from time to time: If we had to do it all over again, would we? Constellations plays until November 27 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, 27 Front 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/constellations.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


The Damage Done


George F. Walker’s family dramas have run the gamut from the caricatures of his East End Plays of the 1980’s to more recent works like Tough, about two inner city teenagers, Bobby and Tina, unmarried and about to become parents. While Walker’s off beat quirky humor was a staple of the East Ender plays, there is something more sobering in the direction that Walker takes in his newest work, The Damage Done, produced by Ken Gass’s Canadian Rep Theatre.

Gass, who has also directed the premiere of Walker’s play, was instrumental in launching the career of Walker back in the 1970’s for the Factory Theatre. The continuing saga of Bobby and Tina, has them approaching their forties, having been separated after several years of marriage and two teenaged daughters. Neither one has done especially well with the other relationships they’ve forged since then.

The Damage Done opens with a meeting about to take place between Bobby and Tina in a Toronto park, the latter a leaf covered stage which suggests it might be sometime in the early fall, but is definitely a place that means a lot to both of them.  Each one has been involved with someone else along the line, and amid the jokes about Bobby’s inability to make up his middle-aged mind about a career choice  -  perhaps he could he write a play? -  there have been a lot of hurt feelings, anger and resentment.

Wes Berger’s Bobby, whose boyishness and furtive ways to make money tells a story about his lingering immaturity, doesn’t seem to have a grip on his life, while Sarah Murphy Dyson’s seemingly cool and capable Tina, a successful social worker, has managed to raise their two daughters in a comfortable suburban home. But underneath the calm exterior, Sarah, whose last marriage has ended in divorce, is floundering. Approaching Bobby for a favor, a move that isn’t easy for her, she tells him she wants to go away, something to do with her job, and asks him to move into her home while she’s away and try to forge a better relationship with their daughters. It’s a nice try.

Anyone who has seen Walker’s two other plays which revolved around Bobby and Tina (Tough and Moss Park) at earlier stages in their life, may have some empathy for their once genuine love which ended when Tina left Bobby for someone else. And every now and then you get a sense of the longing that they once had and still have for one another. Young love dies hard. But Bobby and Tina’s story seems to be a page out of an age-old story that reappears time and time again in magazines and television sit-coms.

Both Sarah Murphy Dyson and Wes Berger, who were major players in Walker’s 2015 deft comedy, Parents Night at Theatre Passe Muraille, are fine as Bobby and Tina, but it’s hard to drum up any sympathy for this couple who really should move on, and especially in Bobby’s case, grow up. The Damage Done plays at The Citadel (304 Parliament St., south of Dundas until December 11. Tickets: www.canadianrep.ca or by phone at 416-946-3065.
Photo: Sarah Murphy-Dyson and Wes Berger in The Damage Done
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


Fight Night


Lately I’ve begun to turn off the TV whenever Donald Trump appears. Is it over exposure on the small screen or a resistance to the weariness of a political campaign that has revolted all the Americans I know, including me. Compared to the five political campaigners (plus one moderator) in the Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed’s production of Fight Night, all who seem pretty decent and likeable people despite their differences, the U.S. campaign goes one better with theatre of the absurd.

Fight Night, directed by Alexander Devriendt, comes to Toronto at the just the right time, on the eve of the U.S. election night. It couldn’t have been couldn’t have been timed better. Though there have been critiques of the production overseas not taking tighter aim at current political arguments in the countries they’re playing, that kind of reality isn’t what Fight Night is aiming at, but the pressures that individual voters undergo – no matter who they are nor where they are -  as they’re confronted with the machinations of the political machines, the “mediatized political campaigns, polls and predictions, debates – and charm offensives,” the latter of which I suppose lies in the eyes of the beholder.

While charm maybe a debatable component in the current U.S. election, the five ‘candidates’ onstage at the Panasonic Theatre where Fight Night runs until November 20, have enough of it to keep us vacillating.

We’re given electronic voting devices before we enter the theatre. At various points throughout the 90-minute show we’ll be instructed to punch in our votes which centre around the candidates themselves, not only their likeability (charm doesn’t enter into it), but their ideals and critiques of a system which is never identified, a political commonwealth which assumes that we can all be drawn into voting for a particular candidate or party depending upon how the message is delivered, how appealing the candidate is, and how commanding the connection is between us and the message. The message is the medium here.

In the beginning we’re like babes in arms, watching a boxing match. We’re told by the moderator (Angelo Tussens) who provides some levity and dry humor during the voting processes, to vote for one of the people onstage according to how they appeal to us. So we look them over – their dress, their sex, their stance, their ‘appeal’, – and we vote. We’ll get more and more information about them as the show progresses and the contest begins until we’re – hopefully – better prepared to cast our votes. The results of that and every poll is reflected on a screen. We ourselves are queried, our age group, our marital or single status, our relationships, our income.

The questions are sometimes uncomfortable: Are we racist? Do we think that certain terms like “faggot” or “retard” are acceptable? Do we use them ourselves? We look around to see reactions. The most interesting question is do we believe in free choice as put forward by one of the candidates. It’s not as easy a decision as one might think. “Don’t give away your choice” yells one of the other candidates. You’d think it would be a foregone conclusion, but no it’s not. It’s a scary thought.

The candidates themselves are eliminated, one by one, according to our votes. The eliminations of the ‘candidates’ begin until we’re left with one, the moderator being very non-committal in his reactions. It is what it is and you’re dismissed. It has a strange ring to it, like a session with Mr. Trump’s popular TV show The Apprentice.

As an audience we’re just as manipulated as if we were part of the madding crowds that gather to listen to the modern day rhetoric of politicians on the stump, which is the serious message that Fight Night brings to modern audiences in an entertaining way.  We have to listen very closely to those seeking political power, to understand that they aren’t simply echoes of change that service our own needs, but part of a bigger picture that many of us too often dismiss. Fight Night features a text by Alexander Devriendt, Angelo Tussens and The Cast which includes Aaron Gordon, Abdel Daoudi, Angelo Tussens, Aurelie Lannoy, Charlotte de Bruyne, and Michai Geyzen. It runs until November 20 at the Panasonic Theatre.651 Yonge St., Toronto. Tickets: Available online at mirvish.com; By phone 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


Infinity

Time waits for no man, nor woman either as demonstrated in Hannah Moscovitch’s intriguing play, Infinity. Moscovitch’s acclaimed drama which has returned to the Tarragon Theatre where it premiered in 2015 in a co-production with Toronto’s Volcano Theatre, provides some fascinating notes by the Consulting Physicist Lee Molin in the theatre program.  Smolin is an American-born University of Toronto professor and founding faculty member of Waterloo’s perimeter Institute for Theoretical physics best known for his book Time Reborn and his radical work with quantum physics. Moscovitch and director Ross Manson turned to Smolin for consultation when Infinity was in its birthing stages.

It was a new experience for both, one that Smolin applauded as one of those rare and important opportunities that happen when scientist and artists collaborate with each other.  Smolin’s contributed some of the text in the play dealing with physics; Moscovitch, the story line about the limits of love, which as it turns out to our satisfaction, is unlimited.

A note of caution: Don’t spend time trying to understand the stream of scientific references and text in the play. They’re only the “backstory” for Elliot Green, the physicist who has come to a turning point in his life.  Paul Braunstein plays Elliot, a scientist who is working for Ph.D. and becomes so obsessed with the relativity of time, that he forgets that  time is transitory, and that our connection with each other is limited to a mere lifetime. Or is it?  One of the three outstanding performances in the play, Braunstein’s Elliot is a man possessed by time.

His marriage to Carmen (a luminous Amy Rutherford), a violinist and composer, has been fraught with problems. The early passion between the two of them fades into an unwanted pregnancy, and later on Carmen’s resentment at workaholic Elliot’s obsession becomes a driving force.  Their daughter Sarah Jean (Haley McGee) is an obstreperous and obnoxious youngster whose violent temper tantrums are frequent, scary, and finally annoying. Is there a psychiatric problem here? No explanation is given, but Sarah Jean’s outbursts are calmed by an understanding Carmen, who has the patience of a saint.

The play goes back and forth in time (on a single simply dressed stage by Teresa Przbylski). At any given moment you may be watching Sarah Jean as a screaming child, pleading for her father’s attention, or Sarah Jean as a nonchalant college student and capable violinist (“Music is my solace”) who seems to be looking for love or attention wherever she can  find it, admitting to giving casual sex to complete strangers for no reason. At one point she becomes fixated on her roommates menstrual period.

Even though each segment seems to have no direct bearing on each other, we’re transfixed by this family who just keeps on going despite a wide emotional berth that seems to drive them apart. We’re left in the dark as to what makes these characters seemingly interdependent but still alienated. That may be the point. Their life forces are so entangled in the unnoticed, heartbreaking passage of time that a simple emotion like love seems to play a minor role. Even Violinist Andrea Tyniec’s interpretation of some magnificent musical passages by Mjo Kon Kie which accompany every mood swing and argument, cover an emotional range.

Outside of Carmen’s annoyance at Elliot’s compulsion to keep on plugging away at his quantum theory while time flies, there’s no reason to believe that they even occupy the same house. It is at times a house of strangers, a house of interludes in a time capsule. Love, for all its ramifications, only enters the picture briefly, and when it does, it’s so powerful it seems to make the world seem as if it has stopped. That comes at the very end when Elliott questions the meaning of time: “What if time is not a construct, what if time is real?”

Jarred by death, by something he thought had no meaning, he discovers that time is real, and that it’s something that eventually runs out for all of us. Only love goes on. We can all relate to that. Infinity runs until January 29, 2017 in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace, 30 Bridgman Avenue. For more information on Infinity’s Ontario tour please visit www.volcano.ca/on-tour.  Tickets: www.tarragontheatre.com, or by phone at 416-531-1827.
Photo: by Cylla von Tiedemann. L to R: Paul Braunstein, Amy Rutherford, Haley McGee
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


Luzia


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 contained 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


The Magic Hour


The Magic Hour is a new work by Jess Dobkin, a brilliant performance artist who can scale some outrageous heights without causing a meltdown. There is more of the familiar than the outrageous in her newest work, The Magic Hour, a piece which uses the medium of magic to color some familiar suppositions: one, that women have been influenced by  the homogenized romance of pop songs to define themselves, and two, that the world would be a much better place, actually a transformed place,  if it were imagined within art and performance.
Photo: by David Hawe.

The former, not surprisingly hits home more than the world view, which seems more and more lofty as the world gives way to the aftermath of the U.S. election and a President who threatens not only any congeniality between people of different religions and races  but world peace.  On the other hand there might be more of the performer in the President Elect than we thought.  Whichever way you look at it, Ms. Dobkin is certainly the optimist we need.

Magic didn’t figure heavily in the first part of the program, unless you consider Dobkin’s rapid costume changes which seemed to come alive in more ways than one thanks to Atom Cianfarani’s sexy costume design. There was also more humor than magic in the recorded music. The Captain and Tennille singing Do That To Me One More Time, Helen Reddy’s sexy Angie Baby, and even Babs’ remorseful You Don’t Send Me Flowers,” are past reminders of the way it was. No one thought of being programmed then.  Girls were girls and boys were boys and so went the world. For a time.  I sort of missed Mary MacGregor singing my favorite number from that period, I’ve Never Been to Me as a real kick in the memory bank, a sign of the times that someone was thinking ahead.

Moving on to the next portion of the show, the magic is not surprisingly more turned on when world peace is at stake. We the audience are sitting in a very wide circle under very bright lights as if we’re ready to be interrogated, and very aware of our neighbors right next to us.  We’ve been ushered in and then surrounded by a thick haze as if we’ve been transplanted to another world. It is a circus of the mind, and Dobkin is more of a ring master regulating the impressive circus style setting complemented by a fragile looking dome comprised of lights. It will magically rise at one point, and though it is Dobkin pulling the strings, lighting designers Jennifer Tipton and Michelle Ramsay have done a marvelous job setting the stage.

Around the circular space Dobkin is clearly carrying out the main theme: that we are all in this world together. I would add that we’d better make the most of it. But Ms. Dobkin makes sure that each one of us in the circle is approached to take hold of a long, thin plastic rope that she brings to the inner circle and ties down.  Togetherness. Later the plastic ropes will break with a resounding snap, and the dome of lights will rise higher. I am a bit mystified by what Dobkin is saying. Are we all players as in Shakespeare’s Tempest, a world where only the magic within us will bring us together, and without it will let us loose to become wanderers? Before we go out the door into another world where there is no magic, only the theatre lobby where punch is being served, she leaves us with some good advice again about being a member of the world community.

The Magic Hour, which is actually 80-minutes long, isn’t always clear in its purpose, but nonetheless it’s enoromous fun to watch. The time flies mainly because of Jess Dobkin herself who is funny, incisive, and imaginative.  Her own unique medium becomes the message and that’s no small accomplishment considering the amount of talent that contributed to the show under Stephen Lawson’s direction.  The Magic Hour plays until Jan. 21, 2017  at The Theatre Centre, The Franco Boni Theatre, 1115 Queen Street West For tickets call 416-538-0988 or visit online at theatrecentre.org .
Photo: by David Hawe.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


"Master Harold" and the Boys


When Athol Fugard’s semi-autobiographical 1982 play, “Master Harold” and the Boys, premiered in New York, the winds of change had already begun in South Africa. Fugard’s longstanding and blatant opposition to South Africa’s apartheid laws had been manifested in his earlier play The Blood Knot, which premiered in New York in 1964. But it wasn’t until 1994 that apartheid ended with South Africa’s democratic general elections, a dozen years after the premiere of "Master Harold" and the Boys. While Fugard’s plays were forbidden to be published and produced in South Africa during the apartheid regime, other countries including the U.S. and Canada, were the beneficiaries of Fugard’s works on their stages.

Fugard’s plays continue to be performed around the world, the latest in our neck of the woods, the brilliant Master Harold and the Boys which enjoyed a much lauded production at the Shaw Festival this past summer in association with the Toronto based Obsidian Theatre, directed by Obsidian’s Artistic Director Philip Akin. For those who missed it at Shaw, the production has been superbly packaged in its entirety with the original three performers, Peter Hartwell’s set and costume design, Kevin Lamotte’s lighting, and Akin’s direction, and is settled in the Toronto Centre for the Arts until October 23. It’s a powerful, unforgettable production. Catch it while you can.

The title itself is a testament to the rigorous racial segregation between the blacks, who numbered 65 percent of the population, and the white population of 19 percent, divides caused by apartheid, which by the way, is never mentioned in the play. Instead, we’re treated to an opening which seems to bode well for the spirit of congeniality and friendship in the play as two Port Elizabeth tea room employees, the ‘boys,’ two black men, Sam (André Sills) and Willie (Allan Louis) practice the ‘quickstep’ that Willie is determined to perfect for a local ballroom dancing  contest with his difficult lady friend. 

When the white owner of the café’s 17-year old son Hally – played by an arresting James Daly - stops into the cafe on his way home from school for a late lunch and a chance to catch up on his homework, it’s clear that the three have known each other for years. It’s a close, warm friendship. Recollections of Hally’s childhood pranks camouflaged by Sam who worked at Hally’s home, and the joy of Hally finally learning how to fly a kite that Sam made for him.

Their friendship is relaxed, genuine and long time, even allowing for some innocent barbs as the more knowledgeable Sam tries to help the very bright but lazy Hally, with his theme for a school paper, trying to explain to him the beauty of ballroom dancing, where no one bumps into each other. “To be one of those finalists on that dance floor is like….like being in a dream in a world where accidents don’t happen,” says Sam. It’s a piece of poetry, that for a brief moment sets Hally’s imagination on fire.

The atmosphere starts to change when Hally gets a call from his mother who tells him that she is bringing his long ailing and alcoholic father home from the hospital where he has been recuperating. Hally, up to this point, has seemed laid back and full of confidence, a self-assured private school boy with his school tie and natty monogrammed school jacket an emblem of his social standing, an assured intelligent Hally who has prided himself on being an advocate for social reform. If there was a smile on Sam’s lips as Hally espoused that, I might have missed it.

It’s is Hally’s tortured relationship with his father who treats his son as a servant and nurse rolled into one, which sets the tone for remainder of the play. Sick about his crippled father’s return, Hally takes out his frustration and anger on Sam and Willy, denigrating his father until Sam finally steps in and chastises him. From then on it’s all downhill as Hally, who can’t tolerate Sam supporting his father, uses his furor to humiliate Willy, and then stuns them both with a reminder of their station. It’s “Master Harold” who emerges in a staggering reversal of friendship, a return to an inbred prejudice that surfaces once more, culminating in humiliation and a racist joke that will leave all three stunned – their relationships forever changed.

Director Philip Akin has tightened the play since its Shaw opening and the result is a production that has you in its grip right from the start and never lets go until you know that Willie’s longing, hopeless plea that “tomorrow will be better,"might never materialize. As an added bonus, the South African accents are pitch perfect, and while the intimacy of the production suits the up close and personal feeling that the Studio Theatre offers, Peter Hartwell’s set a is a gem of a café that might have seen better days, but hasn’t lost its intimacy.

This is a rare opportunity to see a Shaw Festival play in Toronto. One that is as good as this shouldn’t be missed.  "Master Harold" and the Boys plays at the Toronto Arts Centre Studio until Oct. 23, 2016. 5040 Yonge Street. Tickets: Box Office. P (416) 250-3708. F (416) 250-5990. Tickets. Ticketmaster 1-855-985-ARTS (2787). 
Photo: by David Cooper. L to R: James Daly, André Sills, Allan Louis.
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 January 8, 2017 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


Much Ado About Nothing


The rather inconsequential title of Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing might lead you to believe that there’s not much going on in the humor department. In fact, it is probably one of the bard’s richest comedies ranking alongside The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew.

In Hart House Theatre's entertaining production of Much Ado About Nothing for its 2016/2017 season, director Carly Chamberlain has paid close attention to the comedy elements in the play and the characters who bring them home, without losing the poetry and the sentiment that also define Shakespeare’s story about a young bride who is wrongfully accused of sexual misconduct by the vengeful brother of her husband to be.

Setting it in the 1940’s during the Second World War, Chamberlain has been able to use a bona fide period to frame the play, though in reality the time line itself doesn’t make a lot of sense for Shakespeare’s play which used a civil ‘rebellion’ as the background for Much Ado, but concentrated more on the “merry war” between the sexes, especially Beatrice and Benedick, neither of whom can cancel their war of the words and admit their love for each other.

These two very different kinds of wars between the sexes, the humorous bickering between a sarcastic Beatrice (Shalyn McFaul) and proud Benedick (Christopher Darroch), and the near tragic one between the innocent Hero (Tatiana Deans) and her boyish fiancé Claudio (Alan Shonfield), are the bones of the play, with some sharp satire rendered by the Constable Dogberry and his officers who almost bumble their job keeping a night watch on Hero’s window.

Ms. Chamberlain colors the 1940’s background of the play by beginning it with a boogie- woogie dance routine (choreographed by Ashleigh Powell) and costuming by Adriana Bogaard which makes the women look as if as if they just stepped out of a an MGM wartime film with their their ballerina skirts and flat shoes, and their factory workers garb like the poster girls of America’s wartime sweetheart, Rosie the Riveter. Though it’s near impossible to make too much of the 1940’s setting with Shakespeare’s play and the near tragic consequences of Hero’s malignment as a non-virginal bride, or Laura Meadow’s non repentant, vengeful  brother to Don John,  it does make sense with Hero’s quick marriage to Claudio, recalling wartime’s many hasty marriages before the boys shipped out.

The performances are all first rate though there’s some standout work by Dylan Evans’s Borachio, Megan Miles as Ursula and the First Watchman, and Lesley Robertson’s riotous Dogberry, the lead constable who makes a standing joke out of her asinine behavior.
Though I found the figured panels across the rear of the stage a little too distracting and the characters not always close enough to the front of the stage to be heard clearly, the pluses more than outweigh any minuses in Carly Chamberlain’s enjoyable production. Much Ado About Nothing plays at Hart House Theatre until November 19.  7 Hart House Circle. University of Toronto. www.uofttix.ca / 416.978.8849.
Photo: by Scott Gorman. L to R: Chanakya Mukherjee; Mike Vitrovich, Christopher Darroch, and Alan Schonfield.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


Noises Off

It doesn’t take long for mass hysterical laughter to set in for Noises Off, Michael Frayne’s British farce which was his claim to international fame in 1982. Since then Frayne has done some stolid intellectual work like Copenhagen, his 1998 drama about Physics and Politics. But it’s Noises Off which has proved its staying power as a timeless comedy. To that add seamless direction, expert timing and actors who are farcically on top of things, and you have an invitation to Noises Off at the Soulpepper Theatre where it plays until Oct. 22.
Photo: by Bronwen Sharp.

Nearly every subplot turns around sex and its concomitant complications. The story in fact opens as a group of actors going through a last minute dress rehearsal for a regional English potboiler called “Nothing On’ (we’re even given a special playbill for the show) produced by a wacky actress of indeterminate age named Dotty Otley (Brenda Robins) who is starring in the show as the bumbling maid who is having an affair with one of her actors.

Dotty not only lives up to her name, she spends the first 15 minutes of the rehearsal for Nothing On, ruminating about a plate of sardines she keeps forgetting to bring in, and a telephone she answers without it being plugged in. This is great territory for Ms. Robins who is very good at comedy and primes it to the hilt in Frayne’s farce.

The plot is impossible to describe, but trust me, plot is ephemeral here. Despite all the detours, doors opening and slamming shut, foiled entrances and exits and misfired cues, you will follow the characters, not the plot. The characters in Noises Off are like open books, most of them have nothing to hide, nor do they have much between the covers. They are loveable, affected, not terribly bright nor terribly talented, but their personalities are the blueprint for the show.  

The first act takes place onstage as the show’s harried director, Lloyd Dallas (David Storch) tries to steer the ill-fated rehearsal toward some kind of orchestration. It if were successful, there wouldn’t be a need for a second act which takes place backstage and in the midst of the fallout from the first with jealousies, vendettas and temper tantrums holding the stage. The play, “Nothing On”, now on its last legs in the provinces, limps along out front while backstage everything falls apart, literally.

In its own way, Noises Off is a valentine to the stereotypical players who have cut their show business teeth in the small cities and towns, and who will never play the West End but are stars in their own little orbit, playing the same roles over and over.

There is the aging juvenile, Garry Lejeune (Matthew Edison), a bad actor who has the good sense to ensure his employment by having an affair with his producer Dotty Otley, but not the good sense to hide his interest in someone else. There is even the no-talented blonde girl friend with a great body and a small brain. It does seem a little late in the 20th century for such rampant sexism (even in the provinces) but Myrthin Stagg is very nubile as the blonde bombshell Brooke Ashton with a pea brain and even smaller undies, losing her contact lenses at improbable times, but a few other things at the right time.

The long-time married couple of Noises Off who play the long-time married couple in ‘Nothing On’ have been around the theatre and the block and everyone else so long that their routine endearments seem genuine. Raquel Duffy as Belinda Blair, and Christopher Morris as Frederick Fellowes do the honors there with Duffy as the understanding company housemother, while Oliver Dennis plays the boozy old timer Selsdon Mowbray whose love affair with the bottle keep him falling in and out of windows and up and down the stairs, like clockwork. Hats off to Patrick Clark who has designed a resourceful set that works well either as the comfortable suburban house of many doors or the backstage of a typical provincial theatre.

There are solid performances as well from Anand Rajaram and Oyin Oladejo as the overworked stage managers.

Director Ted Dykstra has let all of the character’s wonderful idiosyncrasies carry the comic weight of the show. Though the frantic pace dismisses any notion of continuity, it’s a given in British farce with any hint of subtlety being quickly sublimated in favor of the fractured story line. If you have to think during this show, you’ve missed the whole point. Noises Off plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts from Sept. 21 (Opens Sept. 29) to Oct. 22. 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto's Historic Distillery Area. Tickets: 416-866-8666 or soulpepper.ca
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


One Thing Leads to Another


Oh, baby. What a show. Until you’ve shared theatre space with 10 babies from ages six to 18 months, their obliging proud parents, and a clutch of colorful performers, you don’t know what fun is. Young People’s Theatre has brought back last season’s innovative hit show, One Thing Leads to Another, created especially for infants. Yes, that's right. The shows is aimed at babies, and their presence gives a distinctly joyous atmosphere to a theatre experience that will charm any age.  

What’s more, you don’t have to be a parent to applaud how the writers and performers have used movement, sound, songs, and simple items like bells, colorful ribbons, bubbles (well if Prince George can be charmed so can they), and floating curtains to get and hold baby’s  attention. For moms and dads, a lot of it will be very familiar, adapted from the world of popular nursery songs and crib toys and just plain home style entertainment for baby from the big folks. 

But One Things Leads to Another is much more than that. The inventive choreographed fluid half hour of entertainment for the small set is as smooth and satisfying as a cup of hot chocolate. What's remarkable is that the only sounds heard during the show is the occasional young one who was gurgling his or her approval as the performers do their thing. There wasn’t even a hint of restlessness. Some adult audiences could take a cue from that.

Once the show is over, an additional bonus is that the young ones can play with objects from the show right on the set.

One Thing Leads to Another is a collaboration between Maja Ardal, Audrey Dwyer, Mary Francis Moore (who has also directed the show) and Julia Tribe, though the original concept, research and theme was done by Ms. Ardal, a talented writer, actor and director whose works have has appeared on Canadian stages and on television.

One Thing Leads to Another is a gold ribbon winner for its unique approach to entertaining the very young through live theatre. They are, after all, the audiences of tomorrow who might not remember the thrill of seeing their first live performance sitting on a mat with their parents at the ripe old age of 18 months. But after all, one thing does lead to another.

One Thing Leads to Another is presented at Young People's Theatre, 165 Front Street East, in The Studio from September 22 to October 8. Recommended for ages 3 to 12 months, but suitable for up to 24 months. Tickets: Online: youngpeoplestheatre.ca. Box Office: 416.862.2222 | For more information visit youngpeoplestheatre.ca
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


The Wedding Party


Anyone who has planned a wedding is familiar with both the ups and downs, the indelicate intricacies and sometimes just the plain horror of watching everything start to fall apart.

Photo: by Guntar Kravis. L to R: Kristen Thompson, Tom Rooney, Jason Cadieux


In The Wedding Party, Kristen Thompson’s wonderful new comedy produced and premiered by Crows Theatre, we never see the bride and groom, Sherry and Jack Jr, only the rest of the  wedding party who will in timel make a mash-up of the affair. We sit there drinking it all in, in the brand new slick Guloein Theatre Mainstage of the Streetcar Crowsnest complex which can be rented out for real wedding celebrations, hoping that prospective couples will have a more positive experience than the characters have in The Wedding Party.

The Wedding Party has an assortment of colorful characters played by a cast of seven, each of whom take on several roles including all the split second costume changes rendered by designer Ming Wong. The character line-up includes the mother-of-the-bride, Maddy Boychuk, played by Kristen Thompson, a tippler who is always on the sauce, but has paid for all the flower arrangements and figures she’s entitled to give a speech at the wedding dinner. Thompson also plays the family dog with some intensive tail wagging, a talent perhaps perfected by Maddy’s history as a circus performer.

Tom Rooney is the laid back well to do father of the groom, Jack senior, who has forked out a hefty sum for his son’s wedding and rules over it like a potentate. He is after all the head of the wealthy Sealey-Skeets family of Toronto thanks to his rich wife Margaret (Moya O’Connell), as opposed to the Boychuk family from Hamilton. His twin brother Tony (also played by Rooney) is unmarried, out of work and has attracted the attention Margaret who is tired of her husband’s airs.

Ms. O’Connell will also pop up as a muscular brother to Sherry, which is yet another brilliant feat of the 7-member cast who can cross gender lines slickly, without a hitch in dress or manner. Rooney especially impresses in a slinky red gown as the imperious older sister of the bride, and Jason Cadieux is a standout as the unappetizingly loud mouth grandma.

The high point of the show is Thompson’s Maddy who has managed to climb on top of one of the tables and give her own version of the toast to the bride. By this time the dazed wedding planner (Virgilia Griffith) has despaired of any protocol and looks as if she wishes they’d all fall through the floor.

The Wedding Party moves along at a brisk pace, unerringly hilarious as it plows the territory of farce with couples coupling and uncoupling in an atmosphere of mayhem along with unintentional advice to anyone planning a wedding: Beware of  leaving out the mother of the bride who can out distant everyone at the party in her numbing powerhouse of memories about her little girl.

The Wedding Party runs until February 11 at the Streetcar Crowsnest (345 Carlaw Avenue) in the Guloien Theatre. Get online information and make ticket purchases at crowstheatre.com.The Wedding Party, runs until  February 11 at the Streetcar Crowsnest (345 Carlaw Avenue) in the Guloien Theatre. 
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger





OTTAWA, ON
The Gladstone Theatre

The Ghomeshi Effect



Nine bare desks arranged in three rows of three span the stage. An actor at each desk mimes and exaggerates the monotony of office life to a looped track that comprises the sounds of ringing phones, staplers, and photocopiers. They all wear simple grey and black officewear. The hum-drum is palpable, until a short gasping breath begins to weave its way in amongst the office noises, and the woman at the downstage right convulses with each breath.
Photo: by Andrew Alexander.

It’s such a simple sequence, and yet the pace and length of its progression gives way to a slow, wordless reveal about the psychological impacts of sexual violence. This abstract sequence stands in contrast with the rest of the play which relies on dense monologues paired with choreographed movement. Yet, that striking sequence reveals the foundation of The Ghomeshi Effect, currently playing at the Gladstone Theatre. This is a play that has an eye on the justice system, but is ultimately about the psychological (and unseen) impacts of sexual assault.

What’s in a name? It’s worth it at this point to acknowledge the elephant in the room. The play is not about Jian Ghomeshi. The “Ghomeshi Effect” is a term coined by the Vancouver Sun which refers  to  open discussions about sexual assault that followed Ghomeshi’s trials. Like a spark in dry tinder, the Ghomeshi trials sets off a wildfire of conversations, arguments, and perspectives across the country and beyond. Here, the inaugural piece from Perspective Collective seeks to ground that conversation by sifting multiple perspectives through fine mesh and displaying it to audiences.

Compiled  from a series of 40 or more interviews, the text featured in the performance is presented to the audience verbatim. The interviews are sometimes spoken by one actor as a monologue, or the whole cast by sharing one text, and at other times with two monologues delivered as  a dialogue. Some monologues are anecdotal, while others present the perspectives of people who work in the justice system. While it isn’t activist theatre per se, by virtue of its documentary style, the text adopts the language of its subjects which imbues the production with a political lilt.

The concept is quite straight-forward: The conversational monologues that comprise the bulk of the performance are paired with movement sequences. The pairing of words and choreography is used to emphasize, contrast, or otherwise impact the audience’s understanding of the stories they’re hearing. This distortion of the audience’s ability to neatly sink into a unidirectional narrative causes us to question our complacency as listeners and challenges our own pre-conceived notions, whatever they may be.

The actors show a variety of levels of comfort with dance and physical theatre,  creating some dissonance and matching the non-uniformity of the stories. The actors really bring a variety of approaches to character and movement on stage. Annie Lefebvre’s physical theatre background, for example, is leveraged to create some striking gesture-based sequences, while Marc-André Charette delivers powerful, gutting monologues that demonstrate his strong ability to connect with his character. Each actor seems to have a different role on stage, and most of the time director/creator Jessica Ruano is able to hone in on and showcase their strengths.

I realized at one point that, that where I would normally scribble notes furiously throughout a production,  I hadn’t written much for this one. It had caught my full attention. The sequencing is striking. Each sequence explores a unique arrangement of the actors in the space, which is a mark of choreographer Amelia Griffin’s keen eye for interesting and unusual movements. The lighting by Benoît Brunet-Poirier reinforces the psychological impacts of sexual assault through the use of dim stage lighting, and the deep dark shadows that streak the stage. Martin Dawagne’s soundscape is quite minimalist, using both mundane objects and simple solo instruments in between heavier electronic arrangements. The work of many hands, the production moves coolly from one eye-catching stage arrangement to another.

Documentary theatre is often criticized for presenting itself as being objective; the perspective of the creators and curators is often not acknowledged. Any relation the audience has with the interview subjects is filtered through the lenses of the creators. We are at a distance from the “truth”. This is true of The Ghomeshi Effect. The stories were curated, sequenced, and interpreted by director/creator Jessica Ruano. Even at a basic level, we tend to hear things that reinforce our perspectives. But the complex nature of “truth” has solid grounds in a play that deals with the often invisible crime of sexual assault. In the production, the role of truth is in fact questioned.

It calls to mind a passage where Lefebvre plays a mother to a teenage son who receives a call from his ex-girlfriend who claims he had raped her. It’s initially sympathetic with the alleged victim, but is quickly conflicted when her son’s account of the story stands in stark contrast to what she’d been told. Is he a rapist, or the victim of a jilted ex-lover bent on revenge? She is unable to grasp the truth between these two accounts. Her motherly impulse drives her to want to protect her son. Neither she, nor the audience, will know the truth.

To its credit, The Ghomeshi Effect wisely captures a broad number of voices, and the resounding “perspective” of this creation is one of empathy for its subjects. Ruano has done a commendable job in including within the production many contrasting perspectives as well as various intersections of gender, race, sexuality, ability, language, and stage of life.

The most powerful shifts happen when the sequences directly juxtapose one another. One monologue rages against the notion that men are equally impacted by sexual assault, while another monologue shows the perspective of an adult man who was sexually assaulted by a teacher when he was a child, and the subsequent trial.

The  perspectives in The Ghomeshi Effect run the gamut, but amongst them there will be one that sits close to home.  The value of this approach lies in its activation of local organizations, groups, and activists. During the run, each production is flanked by educational workshops, talk-backs, and presentations. It is an impressive reminder of the opportunity created by issue-based theatre to act as an anchor in our communities. The fervent energy surrounding this production is its telling of a shared need to indulge in this subject together, beyond the rabid comment sections of the latest news articles. The Ghomeshi Effect is more than a piece of theatre—it’s a multi-faceted event with its eye on change. The Ghomeshi Effect runs until January 28 at The Gladstone (910 Gladstone Ave. Ottawa) and February 2 at the Shenkman Arts Centre (245 Centrum Blvd, Ottawa). Tickets: https://theghomeshieffect.com/tickets/
Reviewed by Kat Fournier, an Ottawa based freelance theatre critic.

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© 2017 Jeniva Berger