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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

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

Old Times

Harold Pinter was already a prominent player in the post World War II phenomenon of the Theatre of the Absurd when he wrote Old Times.

Life, for the Absurdists, was always questioned and expressed though language that was, well, absurd and often comical with characters who were funny, and sometimes pathetic. Pinter reigned over them like a conductor.

But Absurdism had its problems. Compelling to watch but often puzzling, it was Anthony Hopkins who was starring in the Broadway production of Old Times who asked Pinter what the play was about, to which he got the terse reply, “I don’t know. Just do it.” The ambitious Unit 102 Actors Company are doing it with panache, a riveting 88 minutes of Pinter’s Old Times being performed in the oddly named Beneath the Dirt Actor’s Space, about three flights up in a building that is the playing area for this production, due to their former home on Dufferin being sold. It’s an odd space which somehow seems to suit Theatre of the Absurd, but never mind, it’s the performances that steal the show.

The play centres around three people, a married couple, the rather bullish Deeley (Mark Paci), a filmmaker, his quiet, reserved wife Kate (Lauren Horejda), and Kate’s old roommate from pre-marital days, the cool and supremely confident Anna (Anne van Leeuwen) who has dropped into their country home for some reminiscing. Set Designer Pascal Labillois has kept it simple making it more condo than country. A friend of Kate’s from their younger freewheeling days as roommates in a Bohemian London, Anna is the opposite from country Kate.

Elegantly dressed with her fashionable hair style,  the first part of the 88-minutes playing time becomes  a platform for Anna as she recollects without almost no interruption, her and Kate’s very close friendship, one that sounds remarkably  - romantic. Anna knows everything about Kate, her preferences, her favorite clothes, her lingerie (which she borrowed), what she wore to bed, the food she liked, the concerts they attended together, the art galleries the frequented, the men they taunted.

Deeley, starts to become irritated with Anna’s possessiveness, and when he has a chance to interrupt her roundelay of living with Kate in swinging London, it’s in a booming voice that’s a little off-putting and makes you wonder what quiet Kate saw in him. It becomes clearer later on when we learn more about the beginning of Deeley’s own love affair with Kate, his extreme sentimentality, and even the possible affair he might have had with Anna, one he might have invented out of retaliation, or perhaps only imagined. It compounds this strange, sexual triangle that has enveloped the three. Kate of course, who sits there taking it all in, smiling benignly, inscrutable, with scarcely a word, is like a cat who has found the cream, listening to Deeley and Anna who battle it out for her. Bored, she decides to take a bath.

Certainly there are passages in Old Times, which make you wonder if it all is a mind game between the three that they’re not together, in this life at least, and these are all separate recollections that may or may not have happened. My advice is to just go with the flow. It’s never wise to pour too much investigation into Pinter’s purpose. Besides, the play is beguiling whatever you make of it and you leave feeling fully satisfied with Scott Walker’s direction and three fine performances. . Old Times plays on selected dates at The Dirt Underneath from Sept. 8 to the 24. 101 Niagara St. Toronto. Tickets: Unit102tix@gmail.com
Photo: Lauren Horejda and Mark Paci in Old Times.

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 during the Easter Uprising and the 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 which 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 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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