Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Amateurs, Armchair critics and Fringing in beautiful Victoria

I've been on the road for 6 weeks now. Edmonton which was frenetic and fantastic is well behind me and I am coming into week two at the VICTORIA FRINGE. It's my first time in this city and at this festival.

My darling eldest niece lives in this part of the world as does one of my oldest friends, the fine visual artist Maery Callaghan. Victoria is beautiful, I have a great tech,an idyllic billet and the weather is fine.

What's hard here: houses for the most part are small and the level of discourse online about the work at the festival is mostly painful.

There are 72 shows on here this week. I have yet to see a performance or flier a line-up that had more than 70 people in it. I hear there are people selling out and I hope it's true. It's nearly $600 to be in the festival. If you add the cost of flights or gas,food,posters,fliers,costumes and figure out what a performer makes when they play to 20 people a night you can easily see why some really talented people come here once and don't come back. It's the math - or rather just straight addition and subtraction.

As to the fifth estate: the reviewers in the Times-Colonist,the main paper are thoughtful and well-informed but there's only so many shows two people can write up in 10 days. Unlike Winnipeg the CBC doesn't seem to be giving the festival much coverage.

I arrived here off really good press in Edmonton from some tough pro critics in the dailies. I think Edmonton and Toronto have the toughest and some of the best theatre journalists in the country. I fear them and I often disagree with them, but I at least have respect for most of them.

I've been praised and slagged across the country for years now. I'll take a beat-down when I deserve it and try make the work better.

A problem in many smaller markets is that except for the dailies and hopefully the weekly arts journal reviewers, shows are being reviewed, in the main, by audience members and amateur critics online. These people mostly aren't paid and they mostly aren't pros.

You can have 6 months hard work dismissed in three lines by someone who reviews as a hobby, informally for nothing with no real background in your artistic discipline or any related education.

What this usually means is our audiences read critiques devoid of any real discourse about plot,character or structure: no consciousness of direction,rarely if ever any talk about design,pacing or heaven forbid,a discussion of the play in a historical or literary context.
"I liked or I didn't like the character" isn't a review. It's an opinion with no context. You aren't supposed to like Iago.

Plays are literature, word made flesh. I am all for online reviews. I would just really like to raise the standard of the writing about theatre online. Comments by audience members are NOT reviews, they are remarks. Good and bad, they need to be read the same way you'd take chat in a bar.

As a producer friend of mine pointed out in a recent conversation, when theatre is discussed as "entertainment" by random bloggers, restaurant,rock music and movie reviewers and other people who are really don't have an informed or qualified opinion, it cheapens and diminishes the whole process. Trust me, I'm not writing about hockey or opera here for a reason. I don't know enough about either to make informed commentary.

I did get well-written reviews from real journalists in Edmonton in the Sun and the Journal and I was grateful that someone thought hard about my work, because God knows I thought hard when I wrote it. Not all my fellow artists were so lucky. One friend of mine had his brilliant, dense cowboy musical full of references to Greek tragedy reviewed by the Journal rock critic who couldn't see the allegorical aspects of the fine script because she clearly lacked the literary education to be able to discuss the text in an informed fashion.

Yes there are amateur actors and neophyte playwrights out here. They only harm themselves when they are shoddy. Bad amateur critics harm everybody. They keep audiences away from good shows and damage the reputations of artists who deserve better writing and informed and lucid discourse, not tossed off opinion about their work.

Some shows I have seen and liked currently playing here:

JEM ROLLS IS PISSED OFF - because Jem can write,he's intelligent ,lucid,passionate and he is a great performance poet.

GRIM AND FISHER - you are unlikely to see a better physical theatre performance or a more moving and affecting show this year anywhere.

HOUDINI'S LAST ESCAPE: because Monster Theatre has tackled a great piece of theatre history with warmth and style and Bange and Travis bring seasoned performances and great stage chemistry to this artful creation, ably directed by Ryan Gladstone.

THE DONNELLY SIDESHOW: Jeff Culbert acts, he sings, he writes, he illuminates a dark corner of Canadian history in a lyrical and understated fashion and Jason MacDonald who directed is a very talented theatre creator.

LIMBO: Andrew Bailey is a brilliant writer and this is one of the most moving pleas for compassion for an outsider and one of the most beautifully written plays I've seen this year.

AN INCONVENIENT TRUTHINESS: Well written look at the dark side and the benefits of fandom.

THE SPARROW AND THE MOUSE is charming and Melanie Gall is a fine singer. I am going to see BREMNER DULTHIE do KABARETT 33 because you couldn't get a ticket in Winnipeg and I loved his Weimar cabaret in Edmonton. PHONE WHORE will take you for a walk on a sexual wild side with a searing set of stories you won't soon forget. THE HYSTERIC is a charming and clever parody of Victorian melodrama, stylishly performed and written. THE SEMINAR from Edmonton is a scalpel sharp critique of the "beauty" industry performed by a fine crew of young actor-writers from Edmonton. Miss Rosie Bitts is a burlesque artist who makes every reveal a lovely tableau. I have seen all of these performers and I can assure you they are well worth $11.00.

I'm planning to check out BURNING BROTHELS and anything else I can squeeze in on the days I'm dark.

Many of these artists have also had good press in the mainstream media.

What the hell do I know? I've been in this business since I was 3 1/2,I have a degree in theatre,I'm an award-winning writer,I see over 50 shows a year and for the most part,writing, acting and teaching people to write is how I make my living. I've been involved with the Fringe as a writer, producer and a performer since 1999.

By the way most venues have hard seating. Bring a pillow. If you were after a numb brain and a comfy duff you'd be home on the couch in front of the telly, wouldn't you?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

SEX, RELIGION and OTHER HANG-UPS: Time in Dating Purgatory is Pure Fringe Heaven

It was CHRIS GIBBS day for me at the Fringe yesterday. I saw both shows he's associated with in Toronto on Saturday: "Sex,Religion...." which he directed and THE SOAPS in which he was a participant.

"Sex,Religion..." is a young man, James Gangl talking about his quest for love. He starts the show by saying he's looking for a girlfriend.

Mr. Gangl then goes on to explain he's been raised as a devout Catholic. St. Genesius, the Patron Saint of Actors must certainly be smiling down on him.

Mr.Gangl is an extraordinarily gifted performer,both hilariously funny and deeply affecting. His script rises head and shoulders above most of the material I've seen in this genre,which I refer to as "the relationship show". He and Mr. Gibbs have given the play a sturdy structure,a wonderful series of emotional twists and turns and some terrific sight gags. The marriage of their talents is match made in well, Heaven.

I usually avoid plays on this topic like the plague. I have plenty of my own horror stories from the dating trenches. However,I liked this so much I'm going to take others back to see it: assuming I can get a seat. "Sex, Religion..." is in a small theatre. Get a ticket while you still can. Mr. Gangl has spun the dross of his love life into Fringe Gold.

THE SOAPS certainly also benefited from Mr. Gibbs considerable gifts for improv comedy last night. The premise: a theatre company at the Shawford Festival is a good one. This is a charming trifle of an amusement created nightly by NATIONAL THEATRE OF THE WORLD, an adept company of improv comics. The sold-out house was eating out of their hands.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year to be Random

Toronto is a very special Fringe for me. The first play I ever wrote got done here 13 years ago. I've since produced, directed and performed in the Toronto Fringe many times. I'm currently remounting WONDERBAR! a show I performed at the Toronto and Winnipeg Fringes in 2008, preparing to take it to Edmonton and Victoria. What this means is, like hundreds of thousands of other people this year, I'll be at the Toronto Fringe 2011 as a mere spectator. I'm really looking forward to it.

Two articles appeared in the Toronto Star this week highlighting some shows their arts writers thought might be worth checking out and giving some guidelines on how to pick the good from the bad in a festival with over 130 plays on offer.

Off the top of the Fringe, I'll see my friends' shows and I'll run in people I know who will flier me for their shows. This is mostly how I will choose shows for the first 5 days.

I am lucky enough to know talented performers here from all over the world. My director, Laura Anne Harris is also no slouch as an actress and is bringing PITCH BLONDE, her 5 star show about Judy Holliday and the McCarthy trials to Toronto. My friend Allan Girod is here all the way from Australia with WHEN HARRY MET HARRY, which was a hit in Ottawa last week and did well in Winnipeg last year. A very funny young lady,Sharilyn Johnson is doing AN INCONVENIENT TRUTHINESS about her life as a fan of Colbert and its unintended consequences. I saw it in previews and really enjoyed it. Chris Craddock is here and he's always worth seeing. Paul Hutchison and Sharon Nowlan have teamed up to do CANUCK CABARET which I know will be cheeky, naughty and fun. I'm going to see DESPERATE CHURCH WIVES by Diane Johnston because she's a fine actress and Laura Ann directed.

This year, I'm going to also be random. I'm going to stick my finger in the program and go see something my hand lands on that I know nothing about. I'll go see a show because I like the costume the person is wearing when they flier me (that's how I saw Ryan Paulson the first time) or because we have a nice chat in the beer tent or in a line-up.

Every year, I make a point of seeing someone who is here for the first time from somewhere else in the world. I saw MC JABBER that way a few years ago: he is a wonderful beat poet. I'll go see a clown show - just because I can. I'll go see something at 11:00 pm in the middle of the week because I know that performer will have a small house and will appreciate the business. That's how first encountered Mump and Smoot. I'll go see someone with wildly mixed reviews because I know it will be an interesting, if flawed show.

When performers do the Fringe, they gamble, often with their own money. They enter a lottery and hope and pray to be drawn. I know people who tried for 10 years before they were randomly selected for Toronto. Performers spend years honing their skills and months creating shows they hope will connect with you,the audience.

My ex, the very talented veteran Fringe performer John Huston used to say "without audiences, actors are just lonely people talking to themselves in an empty room."

Why not do the Fringe like a performer? Open your heart and your mind and your wallets and take a gamble this week. Stick your finger in the program. Walk into the next show after the 5 star hit . Go see someone who got no press, who you've never heard of who hands you a flier in a line-up. I've seen some great shows that way and I bet you will too.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean - On Stranger Tides

I am the honourary aunt of the delightful Miss Fields: Kimia,10 and Merzhad,12. We spent last afternoon in the land of pirates and mermaids, at the latest installment of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise.

I had only seen "Pirates" I on television some years back. My older nieces love this franchise, and after yesterday's pleasurable outing, I can see why. Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow is a 21st century swashbuckling hero: a Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to this generation of young ladies.

Jerry Bruckheimer and his cohort have thrown money around here like gold in Ponce de Leone's lost ship. The lavish outlay allows viewers to be treated to fabulous art direction, fantastic duelling sequences and a great international cast of actors, including the likes of Dame Judi Dench (as a grande dame with a great one-liner) and Keith Richards("does this face look like it's seen the Fountain of Youth?"). The first alluring and dangerous mermaid to float siren-like to the surface is none other than Vogue regular Gemma Ward. Classy.

In this chapter, Jack Sparrow escapes the gallows, only to be abducted by a purely evil pirate, Blackbeard (Ian McShane looking like Rasputin)and his lovely and dangerous daughter (Penelope Cruz). Blackbeard, the British Crown, (headed by a hilarious Geoffrey Rush, as a pirate trying to "go straight" and work for the King) and the Spaniards are in a three way race to the legendary Fountain of Youth.

The film churns out action, excitement and witty one-liners. Underpinning all this merry mayhem is a not uninteresting meditation on fate and mortality.

There's a lovely secondary story involving a missionary, Philip(Sam Clafin) and a mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) about the true nature of faith and love. Some have suggested Philip comes to an unhappy end with his beloved Serena but I believe the Paradise in his heart was his in her arms.

The kids I was with enjoyed this enormously. I think most grown-ups will find more than enough diversion in this well-made entertainment. It's a perfect way to spend a rainy afternoon or better yet,a drive-in night over the school holiday this summer.

The ending suggests Jack will be back for further adventures. I've no doubt the young ladies and I will return to the theatre for more pirate fun.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Saturday night, I headed out with two friends to see the summer comedy hit: BRIDESMAIDS. I was plesantly surprised!

There's some of the gross-out humour you'd expect in a Judd Aptow film here. Mostly this is a well-acted and quite adult story about a woman who has been invited to stand up for her best friend at a moment when she can neither financially afford or emotionally handle the duties placed on her by the bride. Buried beneath the tafetta, overblown showers, barfing, drinking and bitchfights is a woman who needs to be perfect in a moment when her life's a mess.

The bride's new BFF and our heroine's nemesis is the second wife of the bride's fiance's boss: all money, lacquered hair and Martha Stewart on steroids party-planning. For me the scene at the table in the tennis club was worth the price of admission: we see exactly what that woman has paid to have her "perfect" life in two minutes with her stepsons.

There's some truth-telling and honesty here I don't see in most rom-coms and I found that quite refreshing. This is a wedding movie that acknowledges no one gets the benefits of wedded bliss without giving up something of value. It's sweet but not at all saccarine and the writers have thrown in enough over the top slapstick to keep this light. It's a chick-flick but one most guys will happily sit through.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

a week of theatre in Toronto

I'm here for a few months, thanks to my friend Sheri who helped me continue my year as a happy wanderer by offering me space in her home in Toronto to live in and rehearse. The Manitoba Arts Council also gave me a grant towards my rewrite. So for now I'm in my other city, working and of course seeing theatre.

You can love the Big Smoke, you can hate it but you can't deny if you love film and theatre this is a great place to hang out for a while. This week I've seen three productions: a workshop of THE PROUST PROJECT created by Morwyn Brebner, produced by Canadian Stage as part of a spring festival of new, interdisciplinary work, FORESTS, the highly anticipated historical drama by GG-winning playwright Wajdi Mouawad and THE COSMONAUT's LAST MESSAGE TO THE WOMAN HE ONCE LOVED by Scottish playwright David Grieg.

Brebner gamely tackled the protean task of transforming Marcel Proust's A LA RECHERECHE DE TEMPS PERDU, a 60,000 page, 6 volume 19Th century novel of byzantine density into a digestible piece of physical theatre.

The talented cast of close to a dozen created a sensual, droll vision of Proust's dreamy novel. The costumes, essentially the underpinnings of 19Th century dress, a whole lot of strategically placed flowers, music, tableau, teacups, fairy lights, physical action and a very little lifted text is an evocation rather than a recreation of Proust's opus.

This was a 40 minute excerpt from what Brebner envisions as a two-hour work. I'm not sure you can do Proust justice by pussy-footing around the books as much as this current construction does, but it was lovely, charming and a lot of fun. I look forward to the next installment.

The rest of the week certainly wasn't lacking in textual density. Jennifer Tavner directed a fine cast in THE COSMONAUT"S LAST Canadian Stage's mainstage. The play is about loneliness and social and emotional isolation in a plugged-in universe. It's a beautiful piece of writing and the actors were uniformly fine if a bit uneven with the varied dialects required of them. I wondered why the director didn't just let the French guy speak French and use surtitles, which would have let the audience really have the characters' experience of trying to communicate with someone who doesn't speak the same language. Worth seeing,though my head was engaged more than my heart.

The most ambitious play I saw this week was Wadji Mouawad's FORESTS, currently selling out at The Tarragon. A three hour (with one 15 minute interval) epic saga about: war,inter-generational incest,cancer, European and Canadian history including both World Wars AND the Montreal Massacre,familial dysfunction,failed utopias and transubstantiation. If this sounds like too much for one play and one night,you'd be right.

The play alludes to Shakespeare's great history plays and tragedies, the Bible and a whole lot of complex history and theology. The writing IS beautiful but the structure is a mess. There's so much going on here you can't see the forest for the trees.

Maybe this worked better in French but GG or no, the damn thing needs an editor or it needs to be turned into a 6-part mini series for HBO. There was enough plot and more than enough characters in either one of the two acts to have made a fine night out. As it stands, this is far, far too much of a good thing.

Richard Rose, one of my favourite directors, tries to elucidate this overblown pageant but the plot twists are so frequent and at times so wacky it is hard to stay involved with the characters.

That's no fault of the actors. The stellar casts include R.H.Thomson and Vivien Endicott-Douglas who comprise the one consistent narrative thread in the nearly impenetrable story. The rest of the actors assume multiple roles and do fine work. Still the guys beside me were still trying to figure out whose kid was whose at the end of the night. That dear reader, is no one's fault but the writer's.

The language is beautiful, there are lovely scenes in the play, the richness of the ideas is unsurpassed but right now this is the intellectual equivalent of an episode of HOARDERS. There is much here of great value, but it needed to be cleaned up before anyone can be expected to enjoy three hours sitting and looking at it.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

One of Ours at Winnipeg Jewish Theatre

On a cold and snowy April afternoon I headed off to see Michael Nathanson's latest play ONE OF OURS at the WJT.

Billed as a comedy, the play is set at the posh cottage belonging to one of a pair of fractious brothers. The oldest brother, a dreamer and a ne'er do well has brought his very young, gentile actress girlfriend from New York home to West Hawk Lake to meet his brother, the business tycoon and his trophy wife sister-in-law. Complications ensue.

Indeed. This is a well-intentioned offering and certainly anyone with siblings will find plenty to relate to in this drawing room comedy about money, mores and familial expectations. The actors are a game lot: I particularly liked the oldest brother.

However, this type of thing is extremely tricky to pull off. In spite of a talented cast and some good material, I found it mostly fell flat.

The writer has functioned as the director and that's rarely a good idea. I speak from experience when I say it's hard to direct something you've written yourself. I think an outside eye would have gone a long way to resolving some of the production's problems and the issues with the script.

The cast members are far too close in age for the youth of the girlfriend to read as an issue. She seemed less like a goy from New York and more like some hippie kid from Wolseley. Moreover, she decidely does look Jewish. She's a lovely and talented young actress but woefully miscast in a part that needs a rewrite.

The brief nudity in the play is gratuitious. There's great sexual tension between the brother-in-law and the girlfriend at the end of Act One ( which needs to lose 10 minutes) but the pay-off is so scant it barely registers. We need to see her reaction to what happens between them at the end of Act I for Act II to have enough stakes.

The conflict that needs to take place in Act II never happens. We get a great set-up but a weak pay-off.

The oldest brother is the protagonist here and he needs to be made the engine that moves the play forward. Right now that's not what's going on. He gets the girl, but he needs to really turn the tables on his brother and take control.

Nathanson has concocted a potentially explosively funny cocktail of sex,money and family here but it needs a remix to have the zing of comedy and the sting of truth that he's striving for. This show needs a page one rewrite, an outside dramaturge and a different director to hit its mark. I hope he does that next production. He clearly knows this world. This material has the potential to be a great drawing room farce.

Go but don't expect perfection.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer

I had a perfect night last night: dinner with people I love, French wine and then, an American thriller.

THE LINCOLN LAWYER is a well-crafted drama about justice and the law. A criminal lawyer(Matthew McConaughey,mercifully not in a rom-com) practices out of the back of his Lincoln in a gritty and unlovely Los Angeles. His clients are hookers, bikers, dealers: mostly people you wouldn't want to run into in an alley unless you were up to no good yourself.

This is not one of those films that makes practicing criminal law look glamorous. It's an adversarial system,flawed and compromised. Our lawyer is divorced from his prosecutor wife(Marisa Tomei, great as usual)who still loves him but can't live with him and his choices. The film asks the interesting question: in a morally gray universe, which compromises are you willing you to make and which ones are you not?

A bail clerk brings our lawyer a client(Ryan Phillipe),a rich kid up on an aggravated sexual assault charge against a prostitute. He claims to be a victim too: framed by the lady of the evening and another john so he could be sued civilly for an amount that would allow her to retire from her dangerous and unsavory line of work. His mommy, a real estate mogul is more than willing to finance the kid's defense. However, when our lawyer's private detective(the great William H. Macy) begins to investigate,we discover the rich kid is not quite the innocent he is pretending to be.

An incident arising from this digging around(I'm not going to spoil the plot for you)takes our flawed hero to a dark night of the soul. How far has his brand of law taken him from justice? Moreover,what is he prepared to do to get justice for a wronged man?

It is a really good script: not a brilliant script,like CHINATOWN but a really good script very well made. If like me,you love a thriller with three-dimensional humans,a few deft plot twists and some fine acting by a uniformly good cast,this is a good night out.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

King's Park at the Rachel Browne Studio

Daniel Thau-Eleff's KING'S PARK opened Thursday night for a 10 day run. Produced by his own MOVING TARGET THEATRE, the play was apparently originally commissioned by the Manitoba Theatre Centre.

A psychiatrist returns to therapy when a mid-life health crisis forces him to confront the demons of his very troubled childhood. The script is an elegant, subtle and moving exploration of the nuances of the therapeutic relationship, replete with mirroring, transference and shifting boundaries.

The structurally complex play is sensitively and beautifully performed by Eric Blais and Harry Nelken who create not only patient and analyst but the key figures in the patient's life, including his wife and his father. In the extremely skilled hands of director Chris Gerald-Pinker the layered relationships are elucidated with great intelligence and delicacy.

The set and lighting by Joe Kalturnyk and Steven Hunnie respectively are simple but effective.

This is not a straightforward narrative, but your careful attention will be well rewarded by one of the most interesting nights at the theatre you're likely to have this season.

This is a fine production.
Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Barney's Version

As we near the eve of the Genies,it seemed a good moment to talk about BARNEY'S VERSION which is in contention for the most prizes at this year's Canadian feature film awards.

Based on the famous novel of the same title, it's the story of a an irascible Montreal television producer and the loves of his life. Paul Giametti manages to win our affection for Barney, making sympathetic a guy who is for the most part, an asshole.

It's a loving, attentively and very well-made cinematic adaptation of a best-selling book by a famous Canadian author. This doesn't happen often in this country and given the wealth of great books by Canadian writers, that's a pity.

Richler created a wealth of memorable characters and they are brought vividly to life. In this, BARNEY'S VERSION is very much an actors' film and there are a number of great performance by actors in smaller roles. Saul Rubinek as the religious father of Barney's first wife is brilliant as a self-righteous and thoroughly awful zealot. Bruce Greenwood as Barney's rival for his beloved third wife's affections manages to be a prize and a ponce at the same time, no mean feat. His speech about vegan-ism at Barney's dinner table is a hilarious comedic moment.

Dustin Hoffman plays Barney's retired cop father. He's a loving parent and an old school street smart guy with a lot of moxie. The scenes between Giametti and Hoffman sparkle and give the film much of its heart.

Scott Speedman nearly steals the film in the role of Barney's self-destructive, beautiful and talented best friend. Their relationship is the most interesting in the film and I was sorry the character was killed off so soon. However, it's not his story: it's Barney's.

For an unattractive man with no apparent style or charm who makes crap television for a living, Barney sure gets the ladies. He marries in fairly rapid succession: an insane but brilliant painter who suicides while they are living in Italy, a well-educated but vapid and hopelessly bourgeois society girl (Minnie Driver in a teeth-grittingly thankless role)and finally finds happiness with a luminous and intellectual broadcaster played by Rosamund Pike.

Barney courts Wife #3 relentlessly(while he's still married to wife #2)and then treats her like an acquisition, albeit a prized one, once he wins her reluctant affections. Conveniently, Barney manages to get through his first two marriages without having any children that are actually his.

Robert Lantos produced this film and it belongs to him as much as it does to anyone else. Famous directors and actors from other things he's helmed appear in cameo roles. Look for Oscar winner Denis Arcand as a waiter at the Ritz and Paul Gross, essentially as himself. You sense this memento mori is as much Lantos' as it is Richler's.

The Montreal shown here, a very white Montreal where French Canadians only appear as showgirls, servants and hockey players is long gone. BARNEY'S VERSION's main competitor at this year's Genies is a French language film INCEDIES based on a play written by another famous Montreal writer, Wajdi Mouawad. I have to say, I find this more than a little ironic.

BARNEY'S VERSION is a beautifully made homage to a time that is, for most of us, very thankfully over. This Barney, like another famous Barney is a lovable dinosaur.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Drowning Girls

My sister and I headed off to the Tom Hendry theatre earlier this week to see this three-hander about the victims of an infamous 19th century English serial killer.

I'd heard a lot of good things about this show from its run at the Tarragon in Toronto and its previous incarnation as a Fringe show. I was not disappointed.

The collective of Charlie Tomlinson, Daniela Vlaskalic and Beth Graham have created a visually and emotionally stunning show: tightly and elegantly written,well-performed,ingeniously designed by Bretta Gerecke. It's also the best directed piece of theatre I've seen here this season.

Three women who are seduced,conned,married and murdered tell us how they got duped out of their money and their lives. This is a true crime story from the victims' point of view: a love story literally turned on its head.

All three actresses do a fine job but I was particularly impressed by Natascha Girgis as Margaret.

Droll, dark and deeply affecting, this is a night of theatre you won't soon forget.

Burning Love at PTE

It was the Actors' Fund benefit performance of BURNING LOVE at PTE tonight and the theatre and the company in their opening week generously gave an extra performance to support the charity that supports their fellow artists in need. It was a lovely gesture.

Sylvia Fisher was sitting at the desk,handing out buttons and taking donations. It a city where there are many,many actors and theatre workers and this is a local play I wonder how only 40 people could manage to make it out to support their own community. Certainly the $10 ticket price couldn't have kept people out of the room.

Like the company's largess tonight,BURNING LOVE is a show with a big heart that encompasses, in no particular order: single parent families,bulimia,out-of-body experiences,bull semen, palliative care,star-crossed young love,mai-tais,car crashes,unlikely reunions and Elvis impersonators. Think magic realism meets soap opera with musical bridges provided by The King.

There's no shortage of plot on Sharon Bajer's script and that's occasionally problematic. There are story elements and twists that really,really strained my very willing suspension of disbelief. The play could also probably lose 10 minutes in the first act.

Having said that,the cast of Chelsea Rankin,Miriam Smith,Zachary Stevenson and Richard Waugh has good chemistry. Their warmth and charm coupled with solid musical performances mostly succeeds in wall-papering over the many plot holes and moving the heart-felt story ahead. The two Elvises who admittedly have the more fun part of the show were particularly delightful tonight.

The great set and lighting design by Brian Perchaluk and Scott Henderson respectively certainly helped move things along as did Metcalfe's brisk direction though I could have done with a bit less hop-scotch from light to light. I would love to have seen Miriam Smith's character in more than one costume to better distinguish between her younger,more carefree self and the troubled unhappy grown-up she becomes.

This is a show whose warmth and charm make up for its structural shortcomings. It's a very enjoyable night at the theatre.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The December Man at PTE

On my last evening in Winnipeg for a week, my sis Lisa and I set out to PTE to see THE DECEMBER MAN, a story about what happens to a family in the aftermath of the Montreal Massacre at the Ecole Polytechnique.

This is an issue play: always a dicey gambit. If the show is great, you get "Commencement" about to be presented by The Winnipeg Fringe in March or "Scorched" which was done at the Warehouse last season. If it's not, you get this kind of thing: half polemic, half kitchen-sink drama, clumsily constructed and clunkily written. Not even the able Anne Hodges in the director's seat is able to save this thing from itself.

The narrative unfolds backwards (think Pinter's BETRAYAL) which can be an effective device. In this case it means we don't meet the protagonist until a third of the way through the play and spend a lot of time mired in a zone of domestic siege until then.

The actors do their best to make a meal of this mess of a script but it is tough slogging. Ron Lea fares best here finding both the humour and the pathos in Benoit, the working-class dad. Marina Stephenson-Kerr unfortunately never gets a grip on her accent and is stuck playing a badly-written, two-dimensional unsympathetic character: the nagging, overtly religious mother.

Tristan Carlucci as Jean gets the unhappy task of delivering most of the author's own musings on the tragedy: why did a room full of men leave a roomful of women to be shot by a lone gunman?

Jean's relationship with one of the deceased is alluded to but never developed in the narrative. That relationship, centred on the young people's ambitions for themselves instead of their family's aspirations for them might have given the play the poignancy and depth it clearly strives for and misses.

In fairness, I have to tell you, gentle readers, that my sister quite enjoyed it and was moved by it in ways that I was not. It also won the GG so I am in a dissenting minority position when I tell you I thought the script a mess.

Since survivor guilt is the play's main theme, there are at least two deaths too many. After a disaster like Montreal, it is living, not dying that's hard and leaves us here to wrestle with our consciences, our memories and our thoughts. Go, but make sure if you do, to also see COMMENCEMENT next month and compare this uneven if well intended offering at PTE with a truly great production of a brilliant play on the same theme.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Tainted Love - A Festival of Strindberg

Tonight was the final of Winnipeg's annual winter theatre festival focused on the works of one master playwright. This year someone decided three of the coldest weeks of the winter were perfect for August Strindberg, one of the major freaks of late 19th century European theatre.

All three pieces I saw were adaptations: Julie Tepperman's "The Father" at WJT, Ross McMillan's "Miss Julie at the Gates" a staged reading presented by MAP and Patrick Marber's post-war take on Miss Julie "After Miss Julie" at MTC Warehouse. I really wish I'd seen more but a late taxi last Saturday night kept me out of "The Creditors".

To say Strindberg had a twisted view of human relations is putting it mildly. Strindberg it seems, was never happy and neither is anyone in any of his plays. It's often pointed out that he's a misogynist but really he doesn't like anybody very much.

Ross's tale about an imaginary visit by Strindberg's theatre company to a well-to-do Winnipeg home of dilettante theatre producers was charmingly quirky. Gord Tanner was a very convincing Strindberg, managing to make the paranoid misanthrope almost endearing. Supported by a fine cast of Winnipeg stalwarts including Carolyn Gray and Sharon Bajer, it was a most enjoyable romp.

The cast of AFTER MISS JULIE over at the TOM HENDRY was uniformly great and the whole servant-master, dom-sub gamesmanship of the piece was mostly quite effective. There was real sexual and emotional tension onstage and all of the relationships were believable. The third act of the play doesn't really work as a piece of writing. No amount of hard work on the part of the actors, director and designers can make biting the head off a bird really playable in a drama in 2011. John Cleese could have pulled this off in FAWLTY TOWERS but it's just so overwrought here it bordered on the ridiculous. CLOSER is a much better script from Mr. Marber, but kudos to the cast for a game take on a tough script and a mostly fine night of theatre.

My final day of the festival was spent at the WJT watching THE FATHER. In the aftermath of the tragic loss of one of their children, a couple becomes embroiled in a blame game leading to an act of brinkmanship that takes down their marriage and completely destroys the father of the title.

The great cast of Graham Ashmore, Jennifer Lyon, Miriam Smith and Arne MacPherson was very well directed by Mariam Bernstein. I particularly liked her use of family photos projected in the background as a constant visual reinforcement of what had been lost and what was at stake. Mr. MacPherson in particular gave a galvanizing and completely affecting performance as a man driven to madness by the idea that he's going to lose the only child he's got left. It was a great afternoon of theatre.

Now unlike our friend Robb who had seen EVERYTHING the festival had to offer, this was all I managed to get to. However, fine as these offering were, they were for the most part, well, grim. May I gentle readers, and gentle festival programmers, make a suggestion? I'm all for serious theatre. Hell I write the stuff myself. But people, it's January in Winnipeg! It's -29 without the windchill. I got my M/C card bill from Christmas this month and coupled with my Fringe debt, it's not pretty.
I need cheering up. Can we have someone - a little more lighthearted? Cheerful? Romantic? Funny, even? Just for one year? There's a recession on and we've been at war for 9 years and we're stuck with a dead-locked minority parliament and that's before we get to the international news. Three weeks of tragedy is over. Please Mr. Schipper, a comedy tonight?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The King's Speech

I have a terrible weakness for this sort of historical costume drama and I was not disappointed tonight. THE KING'S SPEECH features a cast of luminaries that includes Colin Firth, Helena Bonham-Carter, Geoffrey Rush, Guy Pearce, Claire Bloom and Derek Jacobi performing a fine script that is sensitively and intelligently directed and beautiful to look at.

As you might expect from a cast of this calibre, the performances are uniformly fabulous. Firth, Rush and Bonham-Carter do some of the finest work of their careers here.

As with THE BLACK SWAN, this is a film about the nature of performance.
What does it take to prepare for the role of a lifetime, especially if you're an understudy who never expected to have to go on?

This time the hero is not a performer but a prince who rather than ardently desiring the starring role of king has "greatness thrust upon him".
When his brother, Edward VII abdicates for "the woman he loves" as England and its Empire teeters on the precipice of war, the incredibly decent Duke of York instantly ascends to the throne.

In the age of radio, this meant a lifetime of public speaking, broadcast globally. For a diffident man with with a bad stammer, speaking to and for his people is a potential disaster.

THE KING'S SPEECH is nominally about a great moment in history. However, the film is really an intimate portrait of an unlikely friendship between a King(Firth)and his speech therapist, a failed Australian actor(Rush).

Logue may not have a great stage career himself, but he realizes being the King of England is the part of a lifetime and he's not about to let his favourite client pass on a good gig.

The abdication is not romanticized in this film in any way. We see two weak, spoiled people take off leaving others holding a massive bag of duties and responsibilities in a very difficult moment.

In the end, honour, duty, perseverance, loyalty and bravery do carry the day. I enjoyed seeing the good guys prevail in a film with no car chases and explosions only alluded to. This is drama, not melodrama with a fairly stiff upper lip.

Tom Hooper dedicates the film to his grandfather who was killed in WWII. I'm sure he would have appreciated this old-fashioned, lovely hero's journey.

I doubt I'll see many better films this year.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Black Swan

In spite of some great theatre offerings in town this fall, (The Seafarer, The Savannah Dispute and White Christmas all come to mind) I haven't reviewed much theatre or film lately.

There's one simple reason for this: I've been mostly working nights, and the evenings I've had away from my day job, have been spent onstage or on camera as a performer, rather than as a paying customer. Mea culpa.

New Year's Resolution #1: more blogging in 2011.

So in the last week of the year, my lovely housemate Brenda, arranged for me to join her, and a few friends at a screening of "The Black Swan".  Director Darren Arnofsky has done interesting work in the past, (The Wrestler) and I was anxious to see what he would do with ballet as his subject.

We were not alone in our enthusiasm. The theatre was so packed, we had to sit right at the front, a thing I hadn't done since my days at TIFF screenings, in years gone by. The curved screen, and the constantly moving camera made for unsettling viewing.

It's an unsettling picture. Nina, played by Natalie Portman, is chosen from the corps de ballet to replace an aging prima ballerina (Winona Ryder chanelling Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard") and dance one of classical ballet's most challenging roles: Odette/Odile the white and black swans in "Swan Lake".

Nina is a rigid perfectionist, sandwiched between a narcissistic, suffocatingly controlling, failed dancer of a mother (Barbara Hershy) and a Svengali-like director (a seductive Vincent Cassel) whose manipulations border on sexual and emotional sadism.

The tightly wound dancer begins to unravel under the stressors of both preparations, and expectations, to say nothing of jealous and competitive peers. She is driven to the brink of madness, as she tries to achieve both the technical perfection and the emotional depth and passion required to completely evince the duality of the role.

Arnofsky plays an interesting game with perception and reality in a portrayal of a discipline that is surreal to begin with. The film is told almost completely from the point-of-view of Portman's character and her increasingly intense emotional state affects our perception of the people surrounding her. Is it drugs? Is it a dream? Is it insanity? Or is it just a great performer surrendering fully to the heightened state necessary to play a great dramatic role?

I felt the "hot" lesbian sex was just a way to get straight men to see a film about about ballet and the swan-morphing went too far: come on, webbed feet?

However, a film this passionatly intense, beautifully shot and brilliantly acted is a rare treat. The costumes by Rodarte are perfection.

The film's misssteps are more than compensated for by its pleasures. Get there early if you want a good seat.