Saturday, October 19, 2013


I first came to Toronto in autumn, many, many years ago to work on a show at what is now Canadian Stage.  I lived with a friend in his Victorian loft on King Street East, near Parliament Street.  I rehearsed near the corner of Queen Street West and Spadina in a long-gone Hungarian church.

I was 16 years old.  It was my first time away from home, my first time on an airplane, my first time living in a city other than Winnipeg where I grew up.

There was a transit strike that fall and I often walked the 16 blocks to work in the morning, past the 19th century houses and shops of Cabbagetown, past the bank towers further up King Street and then I'd switch and head north, usually up Bay or Simcoe towards Queen Street West.

There were still greengrocers and vintage shops along that stretch of Queen.  I ate my first concord grapes and my first russet apples that October.  I also started going to see new Canadian plays, in spaces down alleyways and up dark staircases.  It was that autumn, spent wandering through Toronto's many delights:  the Museum, the Royal Winter Fair, the University of Toronto grounds, St Lawrence and Kensington Market, the green house in the Allan Gardens that made me fall in love with this place and determine I wanted to make it my home. It was also the fall that really clinched my life-long love affair with theatre.

To this day, there is no thrill for me like the thrill of sitting in a darkening theatre, as the music starts and the lights come up on the stage.

I had that old feeling last week when I sat in the Princess of Wales Theatre as the orchestra tuned up and the curtain rose on the new production of LES MISERABLES.  I remembered not only the delicious anticipation of waiting for a big show, in a big theatre, in a big city to begin but also how it felt to be that young woman standing in the wings, waiting to go onstage in a big show on opening night.

The new production is fabulous, with a fine cast, a tight orchestra and a brilliant stage design combining to  provide a memorable night at the theatre.  Hugo's tale of love, politics and redemption is well-served in this inventive revival.  I was moved to tears several times by the beautiful singing of the affecting score.  It is well worth splashing out for a ticket.

Then, last weekend, an actress friend of mine and I went to see VENUS IN FURS at Canadian Stage. PIG, which I didn't see, just closed at BUDDIES.  BSDM is very flavour of the month in the theatre community this year.  Personally I'll be glad when this trend is over.

There were however, a lot of younger couples there on dates.  I'm glad CanStage found a script that appealed to a more youthful audience, though its charms were largely lost on me.

The play depicts a battle of the sexes between a very attractive and determined working -class actress and a somewhat nebbish bourgeois male writer-director who is trying to cast the female lead in his adaptation for the stage of the famous 1920s novel about a sadomasochistic relationship.  The cat and mouse game between the two characters in VENUS... heats up, but it is more tepid than hot and in many ways felt like a very old story about heterosexual relationships.

I'm not sure this show wouldn't have been better served by the intimacy of Berkley Street.  The huge stage on Front Street, stripped nearly bare, seemed to dwarf both the actors and the story.

The stage needs a desk, two chairs, a tea cart, a casting couch and a pole. A more intimate space might have helped crank up the heat and made the shifts in dynamics between the pair more unsettling for the audience

Street is a terrific actress and she makes a meal of the part. The show is worth seeing for her performance alone.

Miller's role is somewhat underwritten.  As well, he's a charming and likeable performer, but not an  imposing guy on stage.  I would have liked to have seen an actor with a bit more of an edge. Street so clearly has the upper hand and Miller is so non-threatening that there was no real game for me to buy into.

There's a rule in writing that if you make a weapon appear, someone has to use it. Two knives come out in this play and no one really uses them or is even very threatening with them.

This is basically a play about a hot woman using her sexuality to try get a job and a guy using his power to offer a job so he can get to see a bunch of women stand around in front of him in their underwear for free.  Sorry folks but any way you want to slice it, the guy who signs the paycheque is the guy with the power in this exchange. 

And as usual, in a play about straight sex,  the girl is in her panties and bra and high heels for most of the show and the guy - wait for it, takes his shirt off near the end.  I never want or need to see that on stage again.

UNIDENTIFIED HUMAN REMAINS... is a hell of lot scarier, a hell of a lot sexier and has a lot more to say about the state of relations between men and women and about bsdm.  Come to think of it so does any decent production of PRIVATE LIVES.

This material would have needed to be smarter and the partners more evenly matched economically to be a hot, even-handed battle of the sexes for me. As explorations of contemporary power dynamics between men and women go, VENUS is pretty vanilla and very old-school. 

I did see a great Canadian play at SUMMERWORKS about young people, sex and relationships back in August: WILD DOGS ON THE MOSCOW TRAINS.  I'd LOVE to see CanStage mount a production of that script.

Oh yes, and Pamela Sinha is remounting her electrifying Dora-award-winning production of CRASH at Theatre Passe Muraille this weekend.  The entire run has nearly sold out.  It's too bad someone didn't give her a bigger theatre. There's nothing tepid about the gut-wrenching story she tells.  If you missed it last time, go.