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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

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


When Michel Tremblay wrote Hosanna in 1974, the winds of change for the Gay community was still a gentle breeze. Despite Tremblay’s insistence that Hosanna was a political play, viewers, especially those in English Canada, largely ignored the political connotations and saw Hosanna as a play about a gay man who had always wanted to be a woman, and who had  - at least by play’s end - begun to accept himself for what he was. It was a step forward. After all, it was only a year before when Pride Week 1973 went national, simultaneously, in Canada’s biggest metropolitan cities. The best - and the worst - was yet to come.

Liberal minded us, Tremblay’s play was exciting, explicit and an eye-opener. The outcast people of The Main in Montreal who until the late 1960’s lived on the fringes of society with its low-end cabarets, gay bars and brothels, pimps and prostitutes, was certainly colorful.  And Tremblay offered us the Queen of the Main, the incomparable Hosanna. It’s one of the two new season productions of Soulpepper Theatre. Directed by Gregory Prest and translated by John Van Burek and the late Bill Glassco, it was the latter who directed Hosanna when it had its English language premiere in 1974 at the Tarragon Theatre.

The play opens on Halloween eve as Hosanna (Damien Atkins) makes her regal entrance to the run down one-room apartment (Yannick Larivee’s set design is appropriately cheerless bed-sit) she shares with her longtime lover. She’s dressed like her idol Elizabeth Taylor in the film “Cleopatra”, heavily made-up, bejeweled and dressed to the nines in a glittering outfit she made herself. But there’s no Julius Caesar waiting to welcome her to Rome, only an aging leather clad biker with a pot belly named Cuirette.

Hosanna has come home to lick her wounds after being humiliated at the Halloween masquerade party engineered by her arch rival Sandra. Though we have to wait until the end of the play to find out the actual circumstances of the ordeal which devastated Hosanna, there is so much buildup to that moment in Tremblay’s two-hour drama that waiting becomes a kind of game between the audience and the character.  It’s both a tribute to Tremblay’s structure, with the first act and its brittle humor laying the foundation for Hosanna’s purgation, the breathless monologue of the second act, and our own intrigue with the character itself.

Even with her arrogance, her cutting barbs, her piercing sarcasm and her constant put-down of the one person who truly loves her, Damien Atkins’ dislikeable but unsinkable Hosanna, is fascinating. It’s a riveting performance that never masks the character’s faults or the flaming excesses, yet invokes the necessary poignancy when Hosanna finally learns to accept himself for he is, not the flamboyant drag queen who lives out his life in Technicolor fantasies, but an ordinary man who loves another man.

As Hosanna’s better half, Jason Cadieux delivers a Cuirette whose strength of character in dealing with a partner who alternately wounds, excoriates, shames and clings to him, outweighs his crudeness.

It’s been forty-two years since Hosanna was premiered in English at the Tarragon Theatre (you can still see the stunning portrait of Richard Monette, who played Hosanna, on one of its walls). The sensation that it caused, especially with its full frontal nudity which was a revelation for the times, has long ago died down. But Hosanna still remains a tightly crafted drama about a man who finally gains the self-confidence and maturity to see himself as he really is, without camouflage and artifice.  It’s a message that will never age. Hosanna plays until October 15 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto's Historic Distillery Area. Tickets: 416-866-8666 or soulpepper.ca
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger
Photo: by Brownen Sharp. Jason Cadieux and Damien Atkins in Hosanna.


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

"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 Arts Centre 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. 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

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 Plough and the Stars

Sean O’Casey’s powerful drama set against the start of the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin garnered no praise from audiences when it opened at the Abbey Theatre in 1926, causing riots in the auditorium. While Irish audiences took offense at the third act’s portrayal of the tenement poor during the uprising who were more interested in looting stores than they were enamored of the “cause” (Ireland’s emancipation from Great Britain), London audiences were more responsive to O’Casey’s tragedy. Though Abbey audiences gave him the unkindest cut of all, The Plough and the Stars remains one of its staple productions to this day. As for O’Casey, he left Ireland to attend the London premiere and remained there until his death.

With all that in mind, welcome to the Abbey Players and their touring production of O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, the company making  a welcome return to Toronto after 26 years – albeit too short a visit. The show, here for a mere 5 days, plays at the Bluma Appel Theatre until September 18.

Their new production of The Plough and the Stars which the Abbey Theatre premiered in March of this year, aims for the gut, and not just with the story but through the production values as well which turn Dublin into a palpable war zone, its people a heady mix of the brave, the bold and the self-serving, like people everywhere, who are a mix of all things good and bad and in between. In a sign of the times with internal wars waging across the globe, The Plough and the Stars reflects the best and worst of those involved in the Easter Uprising, and their fight for independence despite the human cost.

Though the tenement dwelling where the Clitheroe family live was once a much finer house (designer Jon Bausor’s transparent apartment complex allows us to see the skeletal remains of its former glory), the Clitheroe’s themselves are a seemingly typical young couple. But there is something dark about Nora Clitheroe (Kate Stanley Brenann), who is pregnant, and almost neurotically possessive of her patriotic husband Jack Clitheroe (Ian-Lloyd Anderson) who longs to get more involved in the Uprising.  Nora’s neuroses and intractability, wavering between poetic madness and melodrama, will eventually push her husband into the thick of the fight when she herself refuses to help a dying soldier.

Along with the Clitheroes, are the endearing Fluther Good (David Ganly), in a warm hearted portrait of everyone’s favorite neighbor (screen legend Barry Fitzgerald originated the role in 1926), a fidgety landlady Mrs. Grogan (Janet Moran), a rough-hewn  Bessie Burgess (Hilda Fay) whose son is on the western front and tries vainly to help Nora when she loses both her husband, her infant and her sanity. Goodness is often on the side of the least privileged. The play opens with a frail looking young girl dressed in red (Rachel Gleeson), who looks ill but commands all her strength to sing the Irish National Anthem.

Though so much of the play seems to exemplify the indomitable spirit of the tenement people toward their own survival, there are scenes which espouse the political concerns of the uprising. Eventually, its leaders will go down in flames (the British suppressed the insurrection and executed its leaders), but there is some nobility here amidst the war drums, Still, it’s a mixed bag of patriots that O’Casey offers, including the overgrown toy soldier of a man, James Hayes’ Peter Flynn, Ian-Lloyd Anderson’s imbued Jack Clitheroe, and Ciaran O’Brien’s pillar of the working man, the contemptuous Young Covey.

Gathered together in the omnipresent Irish pub presided over by the ever accommodating bartender (Ger Kelly), and an aggressive prostitute, Rose Redmond (Nyree Yergainharsian), their convictions are varied. With a resounding final scene as two jingoistic army officers lure Jack Clitheroe to his fate with all the bells and whistles of motherland glory, O’Casey has the last word in a stinging critique of overblown patriotism and the senseless excesses of war.

The Plough and the Stars is a bona fide tragedy, for no one emerges valiantly or heroically. It was the last play of O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy which included Juno and Paycock and The Shadow of a Gunman, and it marked the beginning of the end of the playwright’s long time association with the Abbey Theatre, and eventually with Ireland. That, too, was a real tragedy. The Plough and the Stars plays from September 14 to 18 at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front St. E.).
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger
Photo: Ger Kelly and Nyree Yergainharsian in The Plough and the Stars.


The Harold Green Jewish Theatre bookended the 2016 summer season with two strong one-woman shows. The amazing Tovah Feldshuh was an arresting Golda Meir in William Gibson’s Golda’s Balcony back in June, and starting the 2016/2017 season is the Dora Award winning Canadian actor Lally Cadeau in the warm hearted Martin Sherman play, Rose. It runs until Sept. 25 at the Greenwin Theatre.

Unlike Golda, the 80-year-old Rose is no political leader, no living legend, but in her own way she’s invincible, leading a remarkable life that has been filled with love and heartache and all the emotions in between. Sherman’s own grandmother inspired the play but the autobiographical elements have “been put in a blender, said Sherman in an interview before the show’s Lincoln Center Theatre run. The easy going nature of the play coupled with Rose’s warmth, her sense of humor and her unflinching honesty even in the direst of situations that Cadeau and director David Eisner capture so well, make it a pleasure to watch.

Cadeau sometimes has a tendency to speak too rapidly, and that’s a shame because we want to hang on every word, but her story is still captivating in its straightforward, no holds barred honesty. Melding her own history with political events, he 80-year-old Rose, grey-haired and sensible shoes, but still attractive, takes her seat on a wooden bench as soon as the play starts, and with a pitcher of water by her side tells us she’s sitting ‘shiva’ (the mourning for the dead), though we won’t find out for whom she’s mourning until the end of the play. It’s a heartbreaking story.

The time is the year 2000, and Rose is in Miami for what is probably the rest of her life.  “Suddenly it’s the Millennium, I stink of the past century,” she tell us, “but what can I do?”

She remembers everything, but admits that sometimes she can’t tell reality from fiction, like a movie in her head, like Fiddler on the Roof. When the Cossacks came to her shtetl in the Ukraine, they ruined her small village, and her salvation seemed to be in moving on to another village, this time a ‘safer’ one in Poland to live with her brother. And then the Third Reich happened. Her husband and child were killed but she escaped, and after the war ended is transferred to a displaced person camp in Germany, and finally on a boat, the Exodus, headed for Palestine, where she is wooed and wed to the first of her three husbands, an American who whisks her off to Atlantic City.

Rose moves around so much that it’s hard to keep track of her, and there are times when less might have been enough, but playwright Martin Sherman seems determined to let Rose be the voice of the Jewish diaspora, and it’s hard to keep a good character down. And so we travel with Rose from country to country, city to city and husband to husband from the pogroms to the ghetto to the camps, to Atlantic City to Miami Beach (where she owns a string of hotels), to the new state of Israel where her children and grandchildren will play a role in its difficult birth. Rose, however proud, will stay put in Miami, thank you. There is a time when you have to stop travelling.

Still, Rose is something of an icon, a tower of strength that transcends her small frame and long years, a survivor, which in today’s world, means a great deal. Rose plays at The Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Theatre of the Arts, 5040 Yonge St. until Sept. 25.Tickets: 1-855-985-2787 or http://www.hgjewishtheatre.com/
Photo: by Joanna Akyol. Lally Cadeau in Rose.

Reviewed by Jeniva Berger

The Watershed

Annabel Soutar’s documentary play The Watershed opens with a singular sound of dripping water. It’s a strangely lulling sound, but it’s deceptive. Directed by Chris Abraham and presented by Crow’s Theatre Company and Porte Parole, The Watershed takes us on one writer’s obsession and one family’s journey to find some answers about the lack of governmental funds to continue on-going freshwater research.

Soutar, whose play Seeds tackled the issue of genetically modified crops, and like The Watershed, featured a journalist/reporter interviewing dozens of people to get to the bottom of the story. Soutar takes it several steps further in The Watershed with her own family in the centre lane (her bubbly teenaged daughters and accommodating husband - played by real life husband Alex Ivanovici) as she continues her research, then decides to take the entire family across the country in a Winnebago so that she can conduct interviews.  
She calls it an educational trip for her daughters (she also appoints them her assistants), but strangely, Soutar never seems to do anything that might be of educational interest to them while on the road, which seemed a blip in the family dynamics that plays such an important part in the production. 

When Soutar realizes that the Experimental Lakes Area (The ELA) in Northwestern Ontario, one of the most important freshwater lakes in the world, is in danger of closing due to budget cuts, she springs to action, lobbying politicians and government bodies. It’s an exhaustive effort considering the number of characters involved in the chain of command. 

Outside of Kristen Thomson as the persistent but always level headed, very down to earth Annabel Soutar, 7 actors plays a multitude of characters in the production including politicians, Soutar’s daughters, TV personalities (Jian Ghomeshi in his heyday), Bruce Dinsmore as a musical Stephen Harper,  Eric Peterson as Thomson’s wry, intelligent right-wing dad (“You of all people should be happy that money doesn’t always talk” he tells Annabel), Tanya Jacobs as committed environmentalist Maude Barlow, and Ngozi Paul filling in for director Chris Abraham as the bearded director par excellence.

Abraham’s brilliant production values rescues the play from turning into a two and a half hour talk fest even with its healthy doses of humor which manages to break up an abundance of dialogue from a continual procession of government personalities, reporters and social activists. 

The entire back wall of the theatre becomes a projected ever changing list of who’s who, who’s speaking, what’s happening, and timelines, as well as a landscape for  Kenyse Karn’s wonderful projections, particularly the rushing water magnified by Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design. 

But it’s Julie Fox’s set design which is the icing on the cake, with multitudinous wooden slabs across the width of the stage which come together almost magically (with the help of some good stage hands) as Soutar’s comfortable home in act one is taken apart at intermission and re-designed as  the long and narrow confines of a Winnebago for the second act. 

The relevancy of the issue itself, is never an overstatement in The Watershed, but an imperative which is the strength of the play.  Soutar has called Seeds and The Watershed, her “verbatim” plays with everything heard on stage spoken by a real person. Her meticulous reporting, and her committment and care about one of our most precious resources, is impeccable. In that respect, The Watershed is a significant achievement. The Watershed plays until Oct. 30 at the Tarragon Theatre: 30 Bridgman Ave., Toronto. Tickets: 415-531-1827; tarragontheatre.com.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger
(This review of The Watershed was done for Panamania 2015 in Toronto when the production premiered at the Berkeley St. Theatre downstairs.)
Photo: by Guntar Kravis. Kristen Thomson and Eric Peterson in The Watershed.

The Grand Theatre


The Dennis Garnhum era at the Grand Theatre has begun with a terrific concert production. River, directed by Allan MacInnes and effectively designed by Dana Osborne,  the production features three singers, four musicians and 18 guitars borrowed from Londoners and well-played by Greg Lowe and Steve Clark.  The concert covers a large body of work from Canadian poet and songwriter, Joni Mitchell.  I happen to be a contemporary of Joni and a long-time admirer of her creations. 

This production is the fourth to be done in Canada and I fail to see why it won’t win praise in other countries as well.  It is simple and direct and should connect with people who love poetic language delivered through powerful melodies. Emm Gryner, Louise Pitre and Brendan Wall are on stage from beginning to end and their movements provide a counterpoint to the music.  Ms. Gryner is a graduate from the Music Industry Arts Program at Fanshawe College and a performer with challenging presence.  Louise Pitre has thrilled me from the time I saw her play Fantine in Les Miserables.     
We also shared a friendship with the late London playwright Rob Wellan who spent his final years as part of the Grand’s communications strategy.  I am pleased that Garnhum recruited talent with such strong local ties, proving my belief that the London region has many people with superior talents.   The third member of the vocal trio is Brendan Wall, whose interpretive talents bring some of Joni’s sadder songs into vivid focus.

Greg Lowe’s musical direction of the musicians seems to make the combo even bigger and he makes the 18 guitars a part of the company.  Watching the choreography of the instruments is amusing to observe.  The show runs to November 5, and I recommend it as a rare experience. Tickets are available at www.grandtheatre.com, by phone at 519-672-8800, or at the Box Office, 471 Richmond St.
Reviewed by Richard Wellwood, a London Ontario based freelance theatre critic.

The Gladstone Theatre

Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief

Paula Vogel’s Desdemona: A Play About A Handkerchief isn’t as clever as it thinks it is.
It emerges at the Gladstone as some sort of muddled feminist retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello. In the process, it turns the original tragedy on its ear, presenting Othello’s wife, Desdemona, as some kind of whore who has slept with just about everybody in town and who is turned on by phallic symbolism. This, we are told, is necessary to fulfil her quest for independence in a man-dominated culture.

Desdemona also finds she enjoys flagellation — or so we are led to believe as she turns her bottom up for a bit of strapping, administered in this production with ludicrous delicacy by her lusty pal, Bianca, who has a suggestive leather belt around her waist, where it has been conveniently placed in anticipation of carrying out these delicious honours.

What we’re getting here is Vogel’s attempt at an ironic back story to Shakespeare’s tragedy, set in a laundry room in the palace where three characters — Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca — give vent to their neuroses and their sexual proclivities. Tom Stoppard did something similar, with far greater skill and wit, in Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, a play in which two minor characters from Hamlet struggle to make sense of the greater tragedy happening around them. But Vogel doesn’t even attempt to match the cunning counterpoint brought off by Stoppard, a playwright wise enough to respect Hamlet as his continuing reference point.

We don’t see any of the men in Vogel’s play. Not Othello, although he makes an invisible appearance at the door for the purpose of striking Desdemona in the face in anger. Not Emilia’s husband, Iago, the evil driving force of the original play, although the women exchange tittering gossip about his sexual abilities.

The fatal handkerchief that ultimately sends Desdemona to her doom at Othello’s jealous hands still makes its appearance in the play. Indeed, it opens with Desdemona frantically flinging laundry about in an attempt to recover the object that might suggest proof of her infidelity. The laundry room setting is presumably designed to have a levelling effect on three characters of different classes and sensibilities. But at the Gladstone, much of this seems destined to have a sleep-inducing effect on audience members. It’s one of those evenings that seems interminable despite a running time of less than 90 minutes.

There admittedly is a problem with Shakespearean plays in which the female characters are given no real voice. It has encouraged academics to ramble on at length about it and contemporary directors and actors to confront it and try to deal with it. Paula Vogel can’t be faulted for looking at a traditional culture in which men treat women as sex objects and offering us a reverse situation in which women treat men as sex objects. But is Othello really a credible starting point for such a thesis?

Its validity is not evident in Bronwyn Steinberg’s lumbering production for the Three Sisters Theatre Company. Stylistically, the evening is a mess. The script consists of some 30 brief takes that are more or less naturalistic apart from a couple of embarrassingly staged attempts at farce — but they are punctuated by heavily stylized intervals in which the performers clumsily make like contortionists. The evening has no real flow, no continuity. We get a series of blips. We must also endure the spectacle of three talented actors trapped in inhospitable circumstances. At least, that’s the impression given by the often dogged work of Elise Gauthier, Robin Guy and Gabrielle Lalonde.

As Desdemona, Elise Gauthier seems too emotionally contained to be completely believable as the voluptuous wench who still fills in occasionally at the local brothel, fondles a hook pick as though it were a male organ, and exhibits sensuous satisfaction when Emilia washes her feet. There’s still more starch than substance here, and what does come through are this Desdemona’s most unpleasant traits — beginning with her selfishness and self absorption. But she is terribly hoity-toity, a sort of upper-class totem. Meanwhile, notwithstanding her declaration of sexual freedom, we surely need to be reminded more firmly of the crowning irony that she is still dependent on men.

Perhaps, however, Vogel was more interested in offering stereotypes instead of real characters. After all, her script does call for three separate and distinctive accents from her performers. At the Gladstone, Gabrielle Lalonde carries this requirement to unfortunate lengths: her Bianca exudes a brassy sexuality in her body language, but her Cockney accent is so extreme as to be incomprehensible.

Of the three players, Robin Guy offers the most complete characterization as Emilia, Desdemona’s personal attendant and confidant. She’s the one who is most morally conflicted, she’s the one who sees the wider picture. She’s riddled with anxieties, but her warm and sympathetic performance retains some link to the conflicted Emilia of Othello — to the woman who once said: “Have we not affections — desires for sport and frailty, as men have?” But this portrayal is not sufficient to make the evening work.

The character of Desdemona — once descried by critic J.C. Trewin as too often a wilting lily in performance — can provide fruitful subject matter for feminist analysis. But, for all Paula Vogel’s pretensions, it doesn’t happen in this production. German writer Christine Bruckner did it more than two decades ago in her book Desdemona — If Only You Had Spoken. The volume imagined what would have happened if the wives and companions to well-known men in history and mythology had spoken out. Women like the Virgin Mary and the wife of Martin Luther — women like Desdemona. Eleanor Bron’s English translation of these monologues has sparked successful stage productions overseas, Perhaps, the Three Sisters theatre company would have been more successful with this material. Desdemona, a Play About a Handkerchief plays at The Gladstone Theatre, 910 Gladstone Avenue, Ottawa, until Sept. 24  Tickets and Death-Fest™ subscriptions available now at www.thegladstone.ca.
Reviewed by Jamie Portman, an Ottawa based freelance theatre critic.

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