Wednesday, December 3, 2014


Last Thursday night, my god-daughter and I bailed out of a taxi and joined the throng outside the Elgin Theatre, queuing up for the opening night of CINDERELLA - The Gags to Riches Musical.

I freely confess that I love pantomimes.  The venerable English Christmas tradition has a history going back to the Saturnalia pageants of the ancient Romans.  Ross Petty's 19th incarnation of his annual holiday production did not disappoint.

The show began with two Wayne's World types, Dwayne and Zane ( Panto stalwart Eddie Glen and fine panto writer, Reid Janisse, respectively)  who are wizards in training at a magic academy that bears a passing resemblance to Hogwarts.  The dudes steal their pompous Professor Yongenbloor's (Dan Chameroy, who re-appears as an utterly delightful Plumbum, the Fairy Godmother) magic wand and use it to transform the old French fairytale of Cinderella into a pop musical, set in present-day Toronto.

Singing, dancing, satire, sight gags, double entendres, loud booing of villains and all manner of merry mayhem ensues.

A put-upon Cinderella (Danielle Wade) struggles to save her organic market from the clutches of Revolta Bulldoza ( Ross Petty), her evil stepmother, and her awful step-sisters, Nastine ( Bryn McAuley) and Shakiki (Cleopatra Williams).

Petty shoe-horns on the Spanx, and coats himself with the contents of an entire MAC counter to concoct a deliciously nasty Wicked Stepmother.  He delivered some of the best lines - scripted, and otherwise - of the night. Revolta's offspring, Williams and McAuley channel a combo-platter of  Kardashian and Jersey Shore to create their  fun-to-watch Mean Girls. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a handsome and successful Prince of Pop (Jeff Lillico) is stalked by groupies, but seeks a significant other who shares his love of healthy organic food.  A reality television ball on the CBC gives him a chance to find a girl  he can  give a rose to.   Lillico is perfectly cast as a soulful, singing and dancing Prince.

Danielle Wade makes a lovely Cinderella. With the help of her dear friend Buttons, (panto stalwart and charmer, Eddie Glen) some garden gnomes, and a fabulously unbalanced Fairy Godmother, good triumphs over Evil, and Cinderella gets her fella - and a ride to the ball in a show-stopper of a horse-drawn carriage.  My young charge and I gasped in delight when it appeared, as did the rest of the audience.

This is a stylish production, with a well-crafted and funny script, solidly directed by Tracey Flye.  There's more than enough satire to keep this fairy tale out of saccharine territory . Bob Foster keeps the musical numbers going at an energetic clip. Michael Gianfrancesco designed some lovely costumes and makes clever use of projections to create an appealing and uncluttered set. Both the cast and the audience had a lot of fun during the proceedings.

If you've never made a panto part of your holiday tradition, this is an absolutely excellent way to waste some time and money with young people you love during this festive season.

My god-daughter was still talking about the show a week later.  And we both got a pony for Christmas - without having to try and convince her parents to let us turn their garage into a barn!  Have an ice-cream in the interval, and go look at the mechanical windows at the Bay and the lights at City Hall after the show. Holiday magic in the city doesn't get much better than this.

Cinderella at the Elgin Theatre continues until January 4th 2015

Friday, November 14, 2014


I had a two show Sunday last weekend:  it was almost like a Fringe festival Sunday.

My day started at Queen and Spadina where I went to see CIRCLE JERK, a collection of four short plays punctuated by musical interludes.

Rather than the usual recorded interval music, Soup Can Theatre, safeword and Aim for the Tangent commissioned composers to write interstitial music inspired by the lines that begin and end each of the four, short plays that form the circle.

Those lines were elicited from from over 300 audience submissions.  The companies settled on "Subtlety is not your specialty", "What's Bulgarian for slut?", " I think it's time we talked about your filthy rituals" and "I fucking hate potatoes".

DUST PEDDLING feature Scott Dermondy ( who also wrote this script) and Lisa Hamalainen having a mildly kinky sexy time.  She requires poetry of her lover, and his choices are not always to her liking. I enjoyed the actors' enthusiastic performances, which were well directed by Joanne Williams, but I was less keen on the amorphous text.

SEX and THIS feature Tiffany Deobald and Carys Lewis, as two friends preparing for a costume party being hosted by a frenemy. Things change when they receive a disturbing electronic message.Wesley J. Colford's study of the influence of of social media on the rituals of grieving  among the young is sensitive and well-observed. It was deftly staged by Jakob Ehman.  The text could have done with a bit of pruning, but it was affecting and well-done.

We then had an interval, and returned to MAYPOLE ROSE, my favourite of the shorts.  The script is about a young gay married couple having a night in. One fella is a suit and the other a former twink, turned house-husband.  Alexander Plouffe and G. Kyle Shields made an adorable couple, teetering on one of those turning points in a marriage. Brandon Crone did a fine job both writing and directing.  Fair warning:  you may never look at a banana the same way again.

The final piece, THE SESSION is a high-stakes micro drama set in a nuclear plant.  It's a smart script, if a bit too wordy, though very well performed by Allan Michael Brunet and Matt Pilipiak, as a bottle rocket of a safety engineer and an uptight, newbie HR appointed therapist, respectively. The ending packs a wallop.

It's a tiny space. The writers are young and often loquacious.  The intimacy of the space makes the pieces even more in-your-face, but that's part of the charm of the work.  I enjoyed CIRCLE JERK.  It was committed work from a bunch of energetic young theatre practitioners, self-producing with their own money.  Go with an open mind.  It's not polished perfection, but it is entertaining, challenging, spirited and fun.

Polished perfection takes place over at COALMINE THEATRE, a 65 seat space at Pape and Danforth. Layne Coleman rigorously directs a stellar cast in a gritty, blackly hilarious, and deeply humane production of Stephen Adly Guiguris' Tony-nominated, THE MOTHER F**KER WITH THE HAT.

Jackie (Sergio Di Zio) and Veronica (a terrific Melissa D'Agostino) are childhood sweethearts.  He's fresh out of the joint, and trying to hang onto his sobriety. Veronica is still drinking hard, and using, but she's a workhorse, who has held down their place, and waited for him to get out and clean up.

When Jackie comes home with news of  a job, they decide to celebrate but then, the appearance of a hat on their breakfast table causes all hell to break loose.  What's been going on while he's been away?  Is there another man?

Wounded, scared and furious, Jackie sets off to find the MOFO who left his hat. He heads over to his sponsor's place, Ralph D (a note-perfect Ted Dykstra playing a guy you alternate between pitying and wanting to punch) who is living with his chronically pissed off wife, the sullen and sorry Victoria (a cast against type, and very good Nicole Stamp). He also enlists his put-upon gay cousin, Julio (Juan Chorian in a show-stealing turn) to help him exact revenge.

I don't want to tell you what happens, because I want you to go see this show.  It is a great examination of guilt, betrayal, loyalty and lies in long relationships and old friendships.

Di Zio is the engine of this piece, and he sensibly runs at a low, tight throttle for most of it.  He reminded me of a pissed-off cat about pounce. It is a finely nuanced performance, and he takes us where we need to go. I defy you to leave the theatre with a dry eye.

This is great script, well-directed, in an intimate space, with a uniformly wonderful cast.  Get a ticket:  this will sell out.

CIRCLE JERK is at lemonTree studio, 196 SPADINA  (lower level) just north of Queen, Friday to Sunday until November 23rd. for tickets

THE MOTHER F**KER WITH THE HAT is at the Coalmine Theatre , 798 Danforth Street. Tuesday through Sunday at 7:30 pm.  No show Mondays.  Tickets:

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Smart Southern Gothic: TAKE ME BACK TO JEFFERSON at Factory Theatre

Last Friday night, I headed off to see a revival of Theatre Smith-Gilmour's adaptation of William Faulkner's 1930's novel, AS I LAY DYING.

Theatre Smith-Gilmour has made a fine business out of adapting literature into theatre using its unique Lecoq -influenced blend of text and physical theatre.  Here, the marriage is particularly successful and the company gives a full throttle physical adaptation of the book.

Faulkner's dense, multi-character, lyrical text is a study of a family hell-bent on disaster.  Tragedy after tragedy befalls them, often thanks to their lazy, stubborn, self-pitying, selfish and not-overly bright patriarch, Anse Bundren.

Dean Gilmour is masterful as Anse, showing every unsavoury angle of his repellant character.  It's a rare actor who can play someone like this, without trying to make him likeable.  Gilmour never falls into that trap.  As the audience, we can laugh at Anse, pity him, hate him, feel repulsed by him, resent him, but we also see him as he sees himself,: hard done by, and set upon by vicissitude, just trying to get by in a harsh world.

Anse's wife Addie ( a great physical performance from Michelle Smith)  lays dying as her son, Cash meticulously constructs her coffin beneath her bedroom window. The doctor, Peabody is summoned, but too late. Addie dies, and her brood determines they will take her body to the town of Jefferson, where Addie is from, to bury her, as was her wish.

That night, heavy rain falls.  The deluge triggers a series of events that lead the strained family lurching on a torturous road trip, where they meet one catastrophe after another, usually made worse by some self-centred decision of Anse's.

The rest of the Bundren family is is very well conveyed by Nina Gilmour as the heart-breaking Dewy Dell, Ben Muir as fury-wild Jewel, Daniel Roberts as sweet, little Vardaman, whose imagination leads him to think his mother may have become a fish, Dan Watson as stoic Cash and Julian De Zotti in a fine turn as Darl, a young man drifting into madness.They mastered a very physically demanding style while doing lovely work with the challenging text

The above-mentioned cast also plays all the other characters that appear in the epic story, with the addition of some bird-like noses and a few deft shifts of costume pieces.  Andre Du Toit (lighting) and Teresa Przybyski (set and costumes) provide a magnificently evocative, yet minimal design, conveying the poverty of the inhabitants, and the epic scope of the tragedies that befall them.

This version worked much better on textual level than the earlier production I saw.  This is a stunningly effective adaptation of an epic tragedy.  I highly recommend it.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014


It's tough to want to write  about a play on a day when the nation's capital has come under armed seige, a gunman was shot dead by the Sergeant-at-Arms on Parliment Hill, and an unarmed member of the Armed Forces was shot dead while performing his duty, as an honour guard, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A real bunker suddenly seems like a far less crazy idea.

However, here we are.  Last night, five days after THE ART OF BUILDING A BUNKER opened, the media was invited to attend, and review the show.  While I was at the theatre, I was handed a postcard by a group called, and offered a prize for posting an opinion. On my way out the door, some young thing walked up to my friend and me, and asked for our "gut reaction".  I should have said, "no comment." I didn't.

I don't write for prizes, though it is always nice to win one. I don't write "my gut reaction" when I write critical analysis. I try to go away and think, carefully, about what I want to say.  Sometimes, that takes a few days.  I want to refine my thinking, as I hope the playwrights and the creators of the show have done.

THE ART OF BUILDING... tabled a lot of good ideas, and some very fine work from the performer, as well as from the design team of Camellia Koo (set and costumes) Michelle Ramsay, (lighting) and Richard Feren (sound).  However, the script  by Adam Lazarus and Guillermo Verdecchia still feels like work in progress, albeit work that is potentially really interesting and certainly topical.

This is a "gut" play.  The protagonist, a guy called Elvis, has been sent for sensitivity training.  When we meet him, he's starting Day One of the week-long process, with a bunch of really irritating people, and, an absolutely insufferable group leader.

Adam Lazarus is a fine physical comedian. He deftly creates the "group" Elvis is subjected to, switching with ease from character to character.  The ponce of a pseudo-spiritual leader is a particularly funny turn. In the first half, we're in Ricky Gervais  meets Benny Hill territory. While somewhat slight, and mildly offensive, (sexist, homophobic, racist) it's basically light-weight observational comedy.

Then we end up in the bunker Elvis has built in his basement, as he tries to summarize what he's learned in the week. If he fails, he loses his government job. His wife and baby are upstairs, while he remains alone with his paranoia, irritation and increasingly dark thoughts.

The two halves are so poorly joined, I felt as if I was watching two separate, and tenuously linked, short one acts, glued together to make a 90 minute show. The writing was interesting, but it was not of a piece, and the direction did nothing to wallpaper over that.

What I said, in my "gut reaction" last night was, "you need to finish thinking before you write."  What I should have said was, "Writing is easy.  Re-writing is hard."  This play needed a re-write and it didn't get one.  That;'s too bad, because it could be a brilliant exploration of the ways fear drives prejudice.  All the ingredients are there:  they just need to be put together a little better.  The bunker is still under construction.

As to the Factory Theatre's decision to ask critics to review five days into the run:  well, it sold them three or four more subscriptions, or at least a few more tickets.  Richard Ouzonian at the The Star, J Kelly Nestruck at The Globe and Mail, and NOW Magazine ( the three big guys, and they are guys, writing at all three papers) bought tickets and reviewed earlier in the run, as did Lynne Slotkin. Did the experiment to "foreground the audience in the discussion" work?  Not so far.  Does this mean, to be relevant, I should just buy a ticket and review early?  Does the theatre want to stop giving out media comps? Why not just say so?

I'd just like to make a further observation, also about money and management.  Since the end of the Factory's last season, their Director of Marketing, their General Manager and their senior dramatist are all no longer in the employ of the company.  All three of the former staff: Gregory Nixon, Sara Meurling, and Iris Turcott, number among the most senior and respected cultural administrators, producers, and script developers in the country.  Only the artistic staff, and the hated board remain.

Currently the Factory has no General Manager. They are in the middle of a significant renovation of their second space.  I was asked for donations last night, but not to a capital campaign, only to subsidize the development of new plays. Judging from what I saw last night, they need more development time on new work.  However, is the new theatre totally paid for? How?

I can't imagine a senior business staff member would have taken a decision to stir the pot with the media at a time when the Factory  is so badly in need of goodwill, and money, especially from subscribers and donors, who are, generally, older.  The theatre already alienated many audience members (and artists) with  their decision, two years ago, to fire the old(er) AD, Ken Gass, and replace him with his younger assistants. Now, all of the old(er) people are gone.

Your dad may read the paper online, he may even have a FB page and a Twitter account, but, he's reading the paper, and, probably, listening to the radio. He's also more likely to donate to the theatre, because generally, he has more dosh.

I'm just an old irrelevant blogger, not one of the cool kids.  I spend, on average, $1200-1500 a year, attending the theatre. I have richer friends in my age demographic who spend 10K.  A lot of them ask me what's good. I've been going to the theatre, and working in the business, since the '70s.What the hell do I know?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Film Noir as Art Project: HELEN LAWRENCE at Canadian Stage

I saw HELEN LAWRENCE,  the collaboration between internationally renowned visual artist, Stan Douglas, and his long-time friend, acclaimed television writer Chris Haddock, on Saturday night.

The conceit of the piece is that it is simultaneously a play, and a film noir, taking place in real time, shot with multiple cameras onstage,operated by the actors.

The performers execute their scenes behind a backlit screen, while they appear blown-up, foregrounded, in blue and white, on the screen in Haddock's complex, and intense script.

It looks fabulous: a loving homage to film noir. However, it works like a movie. You don't connect with the actors on the stage (who are uniformly terrific), you connect with their performances, blown up on the screen, in front of the stage.  The score by John Gzowski really adds to the ambiance, and the cinematic feel.

Haddock is a great writer, and one of my favourite television writers in Canada.  The script is almost Dickensian in scope, with multiple plot lines, and rich, complex characters. The thing just churns out conflict and tension, providing many hair-raising, seat-grabbing moments, sharp dialogue, and an insightful and provocative view of post-war society in Vancouver.

Similarly, the look of the projections is gorgeous. 1940s post-war Vancouver comes to life.  Combined with the wonderful costumes by Nancy Bryant, the show nails a period look and feel.

Still, I walked out of there, wondering why they didn't just make a film.  The technology looked good, and worked well, but it did not help deliver a better play, as it does with Lepage.  It helped deliver actors in a live movie: technology for its own sake.

This script is a set of converging story lines:  all really interesting, and full of wonderfully drawn characters.  What it doesn't do well is tie things up:  it leaves many story lines open-ended, the way a good writer of serials does. I wanted to know more.  I left just slightly unsatisfied.  This is perfect when the writer's goal is to have his audience come back, and see the next episode, the following week. It's not the best way to end a play.

Great theatre is cathartic. This is a fine entertainment, but it is not a play, it's a 90 minute television pilot, wonderfully written, by a fine writer, performed by a terrific cast, and beautifully staged by a visual artist, who makes films and images. I hope they get green-lit for a cool-looking series.  I promise to watch.

This is absolutely worth seeing.  Take it on its own considerable merits, and enjoy it for what it is.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


On Sunday afternoon, before we went off to our respective Thanksgiving dinners, I headed to Theatre Passe Muraille with a few friends to see LIFE, DEATH and THE BLUES.

Raoul Bhaneja and his fine three piece band (Jake Chisholm, Tom Bona and Chris Banks), team up with the fabulous Divine Brown to share Bhaneja's personal story about his obsessive love for blues music. He's not just a fan:  he's been a blues bandleader for 16 years, and has won a Maple Leaf Blues Award.

Bhaneja, a diplo-brat and private school boy, seems an unlikely advocate or frontman for hard-loving, hard living, blues refrains, but, as he explains, the blues speaks to the heart and soul of universal human experience.  With an Irish mother, and a South Asian father, he's a "beige" man, not a black one, but he feels the blues in his soul.

He's also a charming performer, and, his unassuming and personable style draws the audience into the story.

Divine Brown makes a compelling foil to the enthusiastic Bhaneja, and an interesting discussion around race, cultural appropriation, and gender ensues between them.  Does Bhaneja have the right to sing the blues?

In the end, the music speaks for itself, and the lively performance of the band, with vocals by Brown and Bhaneja (who also plays a mean harmonica) give the show its beating heart.

Bhaeja's passion for his subject and the depth of his knowledge, combined with the mix of projections, story-telling and great live music make this an interesting and fun night out.   Divine Brown has a voice that is heaven on earth, and her singing is a great highlight of the show. The night ends with a jam session, which features a special musical guest each night. Sunday it was Danny Marks.  The audience loved it!

You've got one week left to grab a ticket, order one of those fancy bourbon "theme" cocktails on offer at the upstairs bar, and see this highly enjoyable show.

LIFE DEATH AND THE BLUES at Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Street, Toronto, Tuesday to Sunday, October 19th. call (416)504 7529 for tickets.

Thursday, October 2, 2014


I admit to having felt some trepidation before seeing AROMAS last weekend.  Oh great, I thought, a middle-aged man writes about a a woman doing sex work.

I was wrong, wrong, wrong.  Andrew Faiz has written and directed a nuanced, thoughtful, and intellectually challenging monologue about a woman who makes her living being whoever her clients need her to be to get where they want to go. Her racks of costumes are right on the stage, for us to see.  We are invited into the lady's bedroom, which, for her, is a kind of stage. She sees her work as a performance, a variation, of a sort, on her former career as a skater in ice dancing shows.

Andy Fraser gives a very subtle and controlled performance, gently, but decisively taking the audience on a journey that illuminates her personal history, her current working life, and how she came to be where she is.  Her acting choices are terrific.

I also loved the simple, elegant set by Brandon Klieman, consisting of floor-to-ceiling, old-school, hotel room keys, behind a filmy panel of curtain.  The set reinforces the show's invitation to explore who we are when we are in an intimate space with someone to whom we give ourselves, with whom we are free to completely be ourselves.

It is the great gift of the script that it passes no judgement, offers no sermons, gives no lectures.  The protagonist simply looks in a clear eyed and compassionate way at the way things are for her, for her clients, for her parents, for a woman who nearly killed her, for her former colleagues from her skating life, and for the other women she knows who do what she now does for a living.

Many people write about this subject matter, but few do it well.  AROMAS is a well-written play, well-directed and very well performed.

This is the final weekend of performances of  the elegant and sharp-minded production. Go with a good friend.  You'll have a great conversation afterwards.

I also saw Richard Linklater's BOYHOOD a few weeks back.  If you haven't made it into a cinema to see it yet, I highly recommend it.

I'm going to the SHAW FESTIVAL tomorrow and to NUIT BLANCHE on SATURDAY.  We'll talk again soon.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

DUSK DANCES or How I Spent My Summer Vacation

It's coming up to mid-August.  The summer is precariously close to over.

I spent a good chunk of  June, July and early August, rehearsing, and then, dancing, in a piece called INCANDESCENT, choreographed by Kate Franklin and Meredith Thompson.  The work was part of DUSK DANCES, an annual outdoor performance of contemporary dance, now completing its 20th year.  The Toronto leg of the provincial tour, took place in Withrow Park, from August 4-10th.

I was part of a group of about 40 people. Five professional dancers:  Danielle Baskerville, Tyler Gledhill, Molly Johnson, Pugla Muchochoma and Meredith Thompson, were joined onstage, by a crew of enthusiastic non-professionals:  young dancers in training, a few of their parents, some former dancers, a gymnastics teacher, a couple of actors, some retired professionals, and mostly just regular folks, ranging in age from nine to about 79. Together, we committed to spend one night a week and then, ten pretty intense days, teching and performing a show that involved a big dance corps and a community choir.  Our crew only performed in Toronto, although the piece has been staged by other groups, in Vancouver, Peterborough and Haliburton, in other years.

I began my career in the theatre in a similar enterprise. My hometown of Winnipeg has a terrific outdoor musical theatre, Rainbow Stage.  The leads are generally professional actors, and it is a full up professional, unionized theatre.  The chorus is mostly comprised of actors and dancers in training, and a bunch of dedicated amateurs.  Winnipeg is full of well-trained choral singers, music teachers, ballet and modern dance students, who moonlight in musicals and opera choruses.  The results are generally pretty good.

Those summers spent singing, and dancing in the park, the friendships I made, and the lessons I learned about being a performer, drew me to try and spend my adult life in the performing arts.

There are few feelings to compare with the joy of performing for an audience, when it is going well.

I've been way-laid, and sidetracked a few times, but performing remains one of my happy places, and dancing in the chorus of  INCANDESCENT last week, again reminded me of the fun of being in the chorus of a big show, free of the worries of producing or taking the lead, just being there for the joy of dancing with, and for other people.

One of the reasons I decided to participate in DUSK DANCES, was to challenge myself to learn choreography, something I haven't had to do, without singing at the same time, in many, many years.

The nine-year olds can learn anything in a hurry, it seemed.  Me, not so much! My middle-aged brain and body got a decent work-out from the process of memorizing those dance sequences, not just with my brain, but with, and in, my body.  Believe me, repetition IS good. Finally getting it down cold, felt like a real accomplishment.

As I looked around the bar at our closing night party, I thought about all the other closing nights I've attended, and how I cherish the sense of community and camaraderie, among those who share a love of dance and theatre. There had been great pre-show conversations, pub nights, a pot-luck picnic, daily emails, a pre-show happy dance with sparklers, and daily quotes of inspiration, pre-performance, from Meredith and Kate. Old friends came to see me dance.  There were lots of post-show hugs. The after-glow from all that shared joy onstage, and off, kept me warm on the late-night bike rides home.

That week dancing in the park felt blessed. We got good press!  The predicted rain held off.  My first great niece arrived safely into the world on the Wednesday, a moment of great joy.  On the last night, a full moon rose high above us, when we carried our candle-lit jars into the field to begin the dance, one last time.

INCANDESCENT needs to take place at twilight.  We lost two minutes of light each evening.  In a week, it would have been be too dark to perform the piece at 9:15 PM.

Time and live performance are both exquisitely, and achingly ephemeral. I keep my programs. My opening night card from Meredith and Kate is still on my dresser. This time, I even bought a t-shirt.

Really, what I have to keep from all my years of performing, are the memories of the happiness I've felt when doing it, and the memories of the happiness I shared with others, who were present for those moments, either onstage, or backstage with me, or in the house.  Whether I'm in the audience, or on the stage, I leave the theatre, holding only a few pieces of paper, my memories and my thoughts.

Our revels now have ended. As the end of summer, 2014 draws to a close, the memories I have of my warm nights spent dusk dancing in Withrow Park, are cherished, and will be for years to come.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

What I'd Like to Watch in Winnipeg at the Fringe This Week

OK, Winnipeg I know you like to watch and I wouldn't want you any other way.  Winnipegers are great audiences.

How I wish I was at home this week seeing friends and family and hanging out and catching shows at the Winnipeg Fringe.

The Winnipeg festival is markedly different than Toronto.  Far more touring shows play Winnipeg ( and points further West) than Toronto and this gives Winnipeg Festival goers an opportunity not only to enjoy the fine local talent pool but performers from across the country and around the world.

I'm mostly going to talk about road companies here as I am not as plugged into what Winnipeg artists are doing at the festival this year.

If I were in Winnipeg, this is some of what I'd be seeing this week:

Bruce Horak in THIS IS CANCER because it is one of the best shows I've ever seen anywhere by anyone, period.  It's an unforgettable theatre experience. Get a ticket and go.

Ken Brown and Theatre Public are in Winnipeg with ANATOLIA SPEAKS about a Bosnian conflict survivor relocated to Canada.  A passionate script from a fave writer and skilled director combined with a great performance by Candice Fiorentino make this a must-see.

MAGIC UNICORN ISLAND is written and performed by Jayson Macdonald ( GIANT INVISIBLE ROBOT, FALL FAIR) and that's more than enough to get me in the theatre.

FAKE NEWS FANGIRL by Sharilyn Johnston is an utterly original well delivered monologue about late night talk shows, fan culture, intelligence, fear and ambition.  I've seen this show twice.  I loved it both times and I learned something.  Directed by Laura Anne Harris (Pitch Blonde).

THE CANTEBURY TALES by Erik de Waal who is a great storyteller.  The chocolate-voiced spell-spinner always takes me on a magical trip. Erik also has AFRICAN FOLK TALES with him if you've got children to entertain this year.

SOUND and FURY brings HAMLET and JULIET to Winnipeg.  The divine madness of this bunch of talented fools always leaves me smiling.  Go have a laugh for me.

Shelby Bond is so delightful as a performer and this year he's doing ONE MAN BACK TO THE FUTURE.

Tim C. Murphy is doing a story called THE HOBBLING BUDDHAS about a 10 day silent meditation retreat. I've seen Tim before and he always takes me someplace I've never been before.

SAM MULLINS is in Winnipeg this week.  I finally got to see him at NSTF here in Toronto last winter. That monologue was picked up for broadcast by NPR.  Go: you're in for a real treat and you'll be able to say you saw him when.

I saw SEX, RELIGION and OTHER HANG-UPS in Toronto and it was fabulous.  James sold out here and I bet he'll sell out in Winnipeg when word gets out about how touching, honest and flat-out hilarious this show is.  Chris Gibbs directed. Need I say more?

PENNY ASHTON is doing a Jane Austen mash-up called PROMISES and PROMISCUITY.  I love Penny and from all reports this is good show from the talented satirist and cheekily entertaining performer.

CRUMP was inspired mayhem and a ton of witty fun and I'm sure NO TWEED, a drunk detective satire of 70's television icons featuring Ryan Gladstone will be a hoot.

Two shows that I didn't get to see last week in Toronto but that had great buzz and are in Winnipeg this week are AIDEN FLYNN LOST HIS BROTHER SO HE MAKES ANOTHER by THEATRE HOWL from Saskatoon and Mark Shyzer in GREAT BATTLES IN HISTORY which had great press about both the writing and the performance.  I'd be checking them out.

Christel Bartlse is getting married this summer but that hasn't kept her from Fringe touring.  She's a very charming performer and she's brought a relationship comedy SIGNIFICANT ME to Winnipeg.  I hear she's already got a 5 star review for it, so I'd get a ticket fast.

RibbetRepublic is doing BEST PICTURE with a massive cast of Fringe stalwarts including Jon Patterson, a man who can do no wrong on a stage.  This should be a blast.

DIE ROTEN PUNKTE is back with EUROTRASH.  Words fail to describe how sad I am to miss two of my favourite musician/clowns.  Go laugh for me and will someone please bring me back a banana t-shirt?

Like roller derby?  Want to see a funny, feel-good show?  Check out Nancy Kenny in ROLLER DERBY SAVED MY SOUL. I saw it last week and the audience was eating out of her hand.

Kim Zeglinski and Heather Witherden, my old BREAST FRIENDS buddies both have shows this week.  Kim is talking about love, life and parenting and career  mid-life in a solo show, MITTELSCHMERZ.  I'm sure a lot of you will be able to relate to the material. Heather's show is called CHUBRUB and knowing Heather, it will be naughty and fun.

Chris Gibbs, Randy Rutherford, Keir Cutler and Rob Gee are all reprising hits.  If you didn't see LIKE FATHER,  LIKE SON, SORRY (or if you're like me and there's just never enough of Chris' brand of humour to go around) or you missed FRUITCAKE (or you just need a Rob Gee fix) or SINGING AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD (a show I love) or you've never seen TEACHING SHAKESPEARE (Keir's first hit) they are all worth seeing.

Mike Delamont is back with GOD IS A SCOTTISH DRAG QUEEN: THE SECOND COMING. I'd be back to see Mike in a flash.  Few performers made me laugh as hard as he did last year.

Martin Dockery is doing THE SURPRISE which I missed in Edmonton.  Insiders say it is his best show and from the five-star solo performer, that's saying something.

As I mentioned before, JEM ROLLS has a great show this year also.

Finally, my beloved ex, John D. Huston is doing THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS.  John is the bomb at this kind of literate satire and I'm sure this show will rock.  I'd go see him and I hope you will too.

Have fun Winnipeg.  I'll be home in December to workshop a new theatre/dance piece I'm developing with Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers.  More on that later.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Who Needs TICKETS? Previews for Winnipeg and a review of the 2014 Toronto Fringe

The Toronto Fringe ended on Sunday night as it always does, with a party.

I always feel sad the next day.

Like Christmas, an event that takes place in a fortnight is planned and saved for and worked for much of the year and seems to be done in an instant.

I saw most of what was on my list, made some happy discoveries and missed some things I heard great news of and wished I'd seen. I got to eighteen shows which was not bad for a week in which I worked full time.  The shows below were a few of my favourites.

The two best happy accidents: TRUE by Rose Laborde.  My friend and I were on our way to dinner at the Drake when we came a cross a line-up outside a show.  "I've heard good things about this," I said.
"You wanna go?"  he said.  It was sold out.  A man in the line came up to us and said, "Do you want to buy my tickets?"  My friend bought them for us and we went and I'm very glad we did.  It was one of the best written, best acted, best directed new plays I've seen in Toronto this year. Five actors in a tiny (30 seat) site specific venue did a galvanizing show about three siblings (and  one of their spouses) coming to terms with a messed-up parent and an ugly past.

The play cut so close to the bone I walked out of the theatre in tears.  I sure as hell didn't have that dad, but I  have loved people who did and I saw what it did to them.  I hope some artistic director in town will pick this show up for a remount. One of the ADs from the Factory was in the line-up the night I was there.  Fingers crossed.

The second was a beer tent happenstance.  I sat down with Fringe goddess Alex Dallas, Jem Rolls and a couple from New Zealand I had never met.  The couple were doing MR AND MRS ALEXANDER, SIDESHOW and PSYCHICS. Lizzie Tollemache and David Ladderman were very charming and fun and invited me to see their sold out show on Saturday night.  Winnipeg, get your butts over to the West End Cultural Centre.  These two are a total treat and this show is unlike anything I've seen at the Fringe in many years.  Part magic, part mind-reading, part mystery and all fun.

If you're in Winnipeg also check out WHO KILLED GERTRUDE CRUMP? Tara Travis has charm and aplomb to spare and she made a byzantine plot and twelve characters in a PBS style British murder mystery (Agatha Christie makes an appearance but I'm not telling you anything else) come to life on a lovely set.

I enjoyed THE DEVIL'S CIRCUS,  by Winnipeg-based, The Wishes Mystical Puppet Company who did a pop-rock musical about Orpheus and Eurydice with trick marionettes and lots of music.  It's a fun take on an old story and really gorgeous to look at. They're coming home with this. It's well worth a look.

Jem Rolls may be in the best show he's ever written, with JEM ROLLS ONE MAN TRAFFIC JAM and that's saying something.  Brilliant writing, full of thought provoking ideas and luminous imagery is coupled with Jem's trademark flat out performance.  Jem is also in Winnipeg this week.

Two shows not coming down the road I thought were good were POTOSI and PARALLEL PLAY.

POTOSI takes place in a Canadian-run mining town in a corrupt outback somewhere. It was a thought-provoking and compelling drama and it was well worth seeing though the tone was uneven and the woman lawyer character is a bit problematic as she's currently constructed.   I hope they get a chance to twig it with a good dramaturge and remount it somewhere, because it certainly has good bones.

One of my other favourite shows was PARALLEL PLAY (also not touring alas) a really smart sketch  comedy show that made me laugh and wince in recognition. Elvira Kurt and Megan Fahlenbock are fine writers and terrific performers.  It was a really enjoyable show.

This was a great festival.  There was a lot of  good work, some great parties and as usual, the Toronto Fringe was well run and well-organized.  Props to the staff and volunteers on a great job.

The only fly in the ointment this week was the "new and improved" ticketing system which was great for the festival, which now makes $2 out of $12 on every advance ticket and gets to keep the pass money that patrons pay in advance, up front, if the patrons can't use their passes because the shows they wanted to see were sold out.

I get that the festival needs money and I get that this can be an advantage to hot-selling shows, though it isn't much of one really.  I have produced two five-star sell outs, one here and one in Winnipeg and  50% tickets available at the door didn't hurt me one bit.  I still sold out. Yes, patrons with passes paid me less than patrons who just paid for a ticket.  I'm fine with that.  The pass holders come back year after year, like subscribers who also get a deal. Is there a theatre in town who doesn't want more subscribers?

I have no problem with making 100% of the tickets available in advance, but a big problem with penalizing the most dedicated paying audience members for buying a pass by refusing to take those passes at the box office for advance tickets.

The festival really put a lot of spin on this new system: "better for performers" and "the same as Edmonton" and "lots of other shows to see today, folks" but we all know what it has done is penalized the audience to improve the festival's bottom line and effectively raised the price of a seat and kept the raise for the festival as opposed to passing it on to the performers.

No matter what you call it ( a box office surcharge) or how you want to spin or slice it, 100% of the box office no longer goes to the performers.  $2 of every advance ticket goes to the festival. Yes Edmonton does it but what it really means is Edmonton and now Toronto both gets fees from the performers ( about $700 a show) as well as chunk of their box office.

The Winnipeg Fringe takes discounted passes at the box office for advance tickets. So does TIFF.  Come on TORONTO FRINGE, don't punish our best customers by offering them a back-handed deal.  Take advance passes at the box office, forego some revenue ( and yes, the performers will get $8.80 instead of $10 for a ticket to a sold-out show) and play fair with your patrons.  The performers and the festival both absorb the cost of VIP tickets because those patrons donate money or in-kind service to the festival.  Those pass-holders can get advance tickets with their passes.

Also if the festival is going to go to this system of taking a box office fee, it needs to STOP saying ALL the box office revenue goes to the performers when it solicits audience donations because it is no longer true.

I get that the festival needs money to operate but it needs to do it in a way that is honest and doesn't suck for its most loyal audience members. I'd rather you charged us all $1 per drink more for alcohol.

Have fun at the Winnipeg Fringe, my Western readers.  I'm sad to not be there this week.  Maybe next year.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Don't Just Stand There Toronto! Plan to See Some Fringe Theatre!

Well boys and girls, it's that time of year again.  The giant sign is up on the side of the Bathurst Street Theatre. A Fringe program sits on my desk full of tantalizing theatrical possibilities.

There are clean sheets and towels and late-night snacks laid in for my Fringe billet and me.  On Wednesday, the eleven-day extravaganza begins.

Of all the weeks in my theatre calendar, the ones with FRINGE written on them remain my favourites.

The anticipation, whether I'm mounting a production or just watching, is delicious. I love a three show day that ends in the beer tent on a warm night, chatting with friends, comparing notes on what we've seen and catching up with each other.

I won't get to as many shows as I'd like to.  I never do.

As the festival opens, here is a list of a few things ( in no particular order)  I plan to try and make it to and why I think they're work considering.

WHO KILLED GERTRUDE CRUMP?  West Coast-based Monster Theatre doesn't come east of Winnipeg very often. Tara Travis is a wonderful performer of great charm, skill and invention and she's brought puppets for grown-ups, which is one of her fortes.  This will be a treat.

SLUT:  I've seen parts of Erin Thompson's show in development and it was provocative, in all the best ways.  Thompson is a good actress  and I want to see where she goes with this material.

GOLD FEVER:  The last Keystone Theatre production I saw was a delight and I seldom get to see this kind of physical theatre.

FANTASTIC EXTRAVAGANCE:  Steady State did HATCH! which I really enjoyed and Clyde Whitham is in this, which is always a reason for me to put my bum in a seat.

JEM ROLLS:  ONE MAN TRAFFIC JAM:  Jem is Fringe royalty and the advance press from Ottawa on this show was very good.

PETER AND CHRIS at the SORT of OK CORRAL:  At some point, you're going to need a laugh.  These guys can deliver the comedy goods and they won't offend your mom.

ROLLER DERBY SAVED MY SOUL:  Nancy Kenny is a smart writer and this show had great buzz in Edmonton and Ottawa.

THE TROJAN WOMEN:  New theatre school grads take on Greeks.  This kind of thing always makes me nervous and excited.

NO CHANCE IN HELL:  It's a new musical.  I thought the plot sounded charming. Susan Wesson is in it and that woman can sing.  Besides, I like musicals.  Sue me.

RED HEADED STEPCHILD & AMUSEMENT:  Johnnie Walker reprises his hit.  I missed it the last time. Now's my chance.

PUNCH UP:  More high-octane dramedy from the prolific Kat Sandler and the Theatre Brouhaha crew.  I loved HELP YOURSELF and hope to check this out.

PARALLEL PLAY:  Well-known comedy writer Elvira Kurt teams up with Megan Falenbock in a sketch comedy about love, work and parenting.  A good bet for a night out with that exhausted mommy-blogger in your life.

THE DARK FANTASTIC:  Martin Dockerty consistently 5 stars and sells out across the country. Friends who saw this in Winnipeg last year loved it.

THE DEVIL'S CIRCUS:  A puppet company from Winnipeg adapts Orpheus and Eurydice using Bunraku puppets and 19th century trick marionettes.  I'm so there!

So this is my short-list before the festival starts.  I haven't covered any dance or site-specific here, but I do plan to see some of that work as well.  Oh yes, and my billet is here from Montreal with BARD FICTION described as "Shakespeare meets Tarantino".  Now that sounds like a Fringe adventure!

In case you were wondering: I've seen shows in the past two weeks, but near or at the end of their runs.

Dance goddess Louise Lecavalier gave a mesmerizing and bravura performance in her choreographic debut, SO BLUE at the end of LUMINATO, marred only by the fact that latecomers arrived 20 minutes into an 80 minute show of arresting intensity and tromped down to their seats near the front, in the middle of a row, with two flustered, flash-light wielding ushers in tow.

I won't have that problem next week.  The Fringe does not admit latecomers. LUMINATO might want to consider adopting the same policy, or at least making sure late patrons know they'll sit, quietly at the back, if there's room or watch the performance on television in the lobby.  Those two patrons certainly behaved as if they were watching TV at home, with nary a care for the performers or the hundreds of people they disturbed with their disruptive entrance.

I also saw a very solid independent production of JULIUS CAESAR by the ENDEAN Collective with a 15 member, all-female cast.  It was skillfully and intelligently directed by Jennifer Parr and well performed.  The tale of a state collapsing into civil unrest after the murder of a dictator felt ripped from the headlines. The Red Sandcastle Theatre was packed and that was heartening as the company got little press and had a very limited publicity budget.

I know that's the case for most Fringe performers.  Merde to all the staff, volunteers and performers as they prepare for the festival opening.  I look very forward to seeing what delights await.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

SHELTER:  Post Nuclear Opera

Do you ever go see a show and walk out thinking:  "that was really interesting and very well done, but I'm not sure what the hell just happened?"

That was me last night at SHELTER, the latest production from TAPESTRY NEW OPERA in co-production with EDMONTON OPERA.

The show is gorgeous and fascinating to look at, thanks to a dream design team of  Sue LePage (scenery and costumes) Robert Thomson (lighting) and Ben Chaisson with Beth Kates (video).  A huge round screen fills the sky above the stage, floating a series of thought-provoking and beautiful images above the playing area which is surrounded by a tiny fence comprised of drawings of bungalows.

We are in post-nuclear America somewhere and a geeky, repressed guy Thomas (well-sung and well-performed by Andrew Love)  meets meets the out-going Claire, (Christine Duncan whose acting is as good as her fine singing)  and they quickly marry and have a little girl, Hope (the beautifully voiced and emotionally compelling Teiya Kasahara).  Hope is born damaged, emanating a eerie glow.  Her parents keep her inside and home school her.

At the same time as this disturbed domestic enclave is being established, physicist, Lise Meitner (an excellent Andrea Ludwig) is fleeing Germany (the real Meitner was Jewish but spent the war in exile in Sweden) and avoiding being signed up for the Manhattan Project which was responsible for the creation of the atomic bomb.

SHELTER plays fast and loose with historic time-lines and history.  It's OK:  you can suspend your disbelief.  Meitner ends up as Hope's governess in America.

One day, a handsome pilot appears out of the sky with a Geiger counter (Keith Klassen who plays the role with great bravado) that leads him to Hope.  Does he love her?  Or does he want to take her away for some more nefarious military purpose?

The six-piece orchestra does a fine job with the score. The staging by director Keith Turnbull and movement coach, Jo Leslie is very well-done. I found the piece beautiful to look and listen to. The performances were all fine.

Librettist Julie Salverson says in her program notes that the show was developed in part using red-nose clown.  I could certainly see that, especially in the characters of Claire, Thomas and Hope.

In spite of its many virtues, SHELTER struggles due to an uneven tone textually and in performance, which, coupled with a certain amount of narrative murkiness, pulled me out of the story intermittently and kept me from liking this as much as I would have liked to. A few more clean decisions would have taken this from good to great.

SHELTER is certainly interesting and well worth seeing.  Expect a great looking and sounding show with very good performances.  Just don't expect great narrative clarity.

Shelter plays at Berkely Street Theatre Downstairs, 26 Berkeley Street until June 14th.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Who's in There?: Queer Bathroom Stories at BUDDIES IN BAD TIMES THEATRE

You are where (and how) you pee.  Or are you?

This week, a commercial independent remount QUEER BATHROOM STORIES, the 2011 Audience-Pick Award winner at the Toronto Fringe opened in Buddies' Mainspace.

The script is an adaptation by sociology professor Shelia Cavanagh of  her book, "Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality and the Hygienic Imagination."  The book is based on over 100 interviews with LGBTQ and Two-Spirited people about their experiences in public washrooms. This is Cavanagh's  first stab at writing a play.

It's one thing to concoct a sociology thesis from 100 disparate tales, but quite another to make a play out of them. There is plenty of dramatic material here. The stories selected are by turns, disturbing, funny, sexy, terrifying and achingly sad.

The terrific cast of Tyson James, Chy Ryan Spain and Haille Burt are a great boon to the production, shifting effortlessly though the dozens of people they play through the evening. A few of those characters, especially the kids, stayed with me long after I left the theatre.

The show features a set by Cory Sincennes that is a marvel of simplicity and sophistication, consisting of a series of panels with demarcated "tile"  that can be made transparent or largely opaque with a shift of lighting.   Sincennes created  a  men's and women's space on opposite sides with a liminal space in between that the characters occupy and drift through as they are forced to or refuse to choose  the "side" society forced them into. The toilets positioned on either side of the stage and covered with mounds of tp are there simply to define parameters.

Coupled with Megan Watson's intelligent and clear direction, the storytelling is well-supported and enhanced by the visual elements.

However, there is no story arc that a play requires. The design and direction give the show a good form and the performers make the material compelling. This is a set of stories constructed to support a thesis that the writer hammers unsubtly home at the end.

The bench mark for transforming this kind of found narrative from a wide range of sources into coherent drama probably remains George Luscombe's adaptation ( with Cedric Smith and others) of Barry Broadfoot's  non-fiction book, 10 LOST YEARS. As we sat in Luscombe's former theatre, I wondered what dramaturgical notes he would have given Ms. Cavanagh on transforming an academic book into a night of theatre.

This is a wonderful evening of storytelling, well shaped and well-performed. It's a topic well-worth discussing as a community as we head towards World Pride here in Toronto. Certainly Cavanagh and her talented crew furnish the audience with plenty to discuss after the show.  If you take QUEER BATHROOM STORIES on its own merits, it is well worth a look.

It runs until June 15th at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Watching Glory Die @ Canadian Rep Theatre in the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs

This was my first visit to Canadian Rep Theatre, Ken Gass' newly formed theatre company after the Factory Theatre unceremoniously dumped him in 2012.  He seems to be doing just fine, judging by the list of donors in his program and the first-rate crew he's assembled for this interesting, intelligent and challenging, if not entirely satisfying production.

Canadian Rep's second show uses Canadian Stage's Upstairs space at the Berkeley Street Theatre to good effect, presenting a solo show written and performed by lauded Canadian playwright, Judith Thompson.

'Watching Glory Die" is an exploration of the death in custody of a teen-aged girl.

"Glory" is a stand-in, of sorts, for Ashley Smith, the 17 year old who died of auto-strangulation while in custody at the Grand Valley Correctional Institution in 2007. Guards stood and watched her asphyxiate, without intervening.  Her death was eventually ruled a homicide.

In her final year of life, Ashley was moved between 17 institutions in one year, including a three-month stint at a forensic mental health facility, where she eventually refused treatment, as is everyone's right. She was then taken to Grand Valley, where she died in solitary confinement.

It was a tremendously disturbing case, highlighting issues with both the Canadian justice system, and the mental health system. As a society, we incarcerate far too many seriously mentally ill people without adequately treating the mental health issues that landed them in prison in the first place.

The play explores the circumstances and events leading up to Glory's incarceration, and eventual death, from three points of view: her mother's, a female prison guard's ; who was present at the time of  Glory's death and Glory's own.

It is the gift of Thompson's writing and performance, and the restrained direction of Gass that allows the audience to empathize with all of the characters. While some of the transitions between scenes were a bit awkward, each character was clear in both the writing and the acting. Gass has given the three characters their own space, which helps clarify and highlight the differences between them.

I saw a grief stricken and enraged mother, a prison guard with a long, sad family history working in the corrections system, and a mentally disturbed girl, ostracized in solitary confinement, who has escaped into a world of fantasy as a refuge from her pain and isolation.  Glory imagines her birth mother as an alligator luring her to a swamp, a poetic allusion to the genetic set-up that perhaps, at least partially determines her fate.

The design (set and costumes by Astrid Janson, lighting by Andre du Toit, sound by Debashis Sinha and projections by Cameron Davis) was brilliant, allowing the actor to interact with the set, creating the sensations of Glory's inner life, and making palpable both the abuse she endured in custody, and her tragic death.

While the structure of the play allows the individual points of view of the characters to be explored in depth, it affords very little interaction or development of the relationships between the characters.

To really explore the tragedy that unfolds, I needed to see the darker side of the personalities of all of the characters, and, how those darker nuances played out in the conflicts in their respective relationships.  For the most part, that didn't happen.

We see the guards watch Glory kill herself. We never see even a glimpse of what it is about Glory's behaviour that turned her into a pariah in prison. Glory's mother idolizes her verbally, but we never see them interact.

There's some beautiful writing here, some very fine acting and a heart-felt exploration of the tragedy of this situation. WATCHING GLORY DIE has the bones of a great play, but it is the wrong kind of subject for a one-woman show. 

Ashley Smith was a physically imposing, socially difficult girl.  She was adopted as a baby and relentlessly bullied at school.  She was diagnosed variously with 'oppositional defiant disorder", "borderline personality disorder" and "sadism".  Her initial incarceration was for throwing crab apples at a postal worker in a small Cape Breton town. A six month sentence in juvenile detention turned into six years of incarceration because of Ashley's pathological inability to stop acting out. In prison, Ashley Smith smeared feces on the walls, covered the cameras and windows in her cell, masturbated and auto-asphyxiated in front of the guards. She strangled herself many times a day.  She assaulted and spit on staff. She took obvious pleasure in hurting people.  I sure as hell didn't see that kid onstage today.  I saw a high-spirited, slightly awkward girl who drifted into delusion under stress. What actually happened is a lot more complex than that.

As it is currently structured, the play is too much of rant against the prison system, and not enough of an exploration of the kinds of questions the Ashley Smiths of the world invite us to consider.

How does someone get to be like Ashley in the first place? As a society, how do we offer equal protection under the law to people who repulse and enrage and exasperate and defy and disgust us?  What, if anything, can we as a society, do for someone hell-bent on destroying  both themselves and any constructive relationship they're offered?  How do we love and care for someone who refuses care, and is determined to be unlovable? When does tough love/not enabling, that is, not rewarding bad behaviour with support or attention- become abuse?

Thompson is a brilliant writer, and a fine actress but I'm not sure this was the best way to tackle such complex material.

The treatment of mentally ill people in custody is a topic worthy of exploration.  WATCHING GLORY DIE is worth seeing for what it is:  a valiant and artistically beautiful, if flawed attempt to look at the mentally ill in prison with sensitivity and compassion.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

A warm and funny BINGO! at The Factory Theatre ends the 13/14 Season

Last night,  I went with a friend of a similar vintage to see Daniel MacIvor's BINGO! about a 30 year high school graduating class reunion in a small town in Cape Breton.

Five former friends hook up for a booze-fueled weekend of shared reminisces, regression and regrets. As they approach 50, the reunion confronts them with both the depreciating amount of time left on their clocks, and the limitations aging is beginning to impose on their bodies, and their dreams.

The play starts off  in a hotel suite, with three guys from the class: Nurk, Doogie and Heffer playing bingo, a drinking game in which the first person to throw up, wins.

Doogie (David Keeley) is a big, good-looking, douchey ex-jock, a self-important bully, who sells real estate. Doogie flaunts his trappings of success:  his looks, his marriage to a trophy wife, two kids to brag about, though he prefers the boy to the girl, a job where he makes a lot of money, without much of an education, or getting his hands dirty.  There's trouble in paradise though:  Doogie is on the edge of being turfed from his marriage for lying, and, we suspect, cheating on his no longer impressed spouse.

Heffer (Dov Mikelson) is Doogie's side-kick, and punching bag: a short, slightly over-weight guy ,not smart enough to get into university, or motivated enough to leave his small town.  Heffer has taken the one down seat in every relationship he's ever had, including his marriage.

Nurk (nicely played by John Beale) is a smart, thoughtful guy who got an engineering degree, and a good job in Calgary, in unsexy waste management.  His marriage has recently ended in divorce.

Nurk wins the first round of bingo. Once the lads are loaded for bear, they head to the bar to find the girls, Boots (a terrific Jane Spidell) and Bitsy (the wonderful Sarah Dodd) who never married,and never left town.  Are they lesbians, or just unlucky in love?

High school reunions are about comparing your life against the lives of the people you grew up with. 
Did you win or lose?  Does it matter, and if it does, who and what determines what "winning" looks like, within the confines of that old school-room you left a long time ago?

As the girls stand around in the bar, waiting for the party to start, Boots, a forthright, crusty woman and career mail carrier tells her shy, underdog friend, Bitsy that she looks desperate because she's dancing alone.  "What if I am desperate?" Bitsy replies. 

There's a lot of this kind of smart, observational humour and some wonderful monologues.  Watch for the scene where the two women, neither wearing their glasses at the outset, try to see who's arrived at the party.  Hilarious.

Keeley and Mickelson pushed a bit hard for laughs off the top of the show but as they relaxed and joined the rest of the ensemble, the laughs became more intrinsic and less forced and all the other emotions evoked by MacIvor's script became apparent.

The night wears on, more shots and beers get downed, a cassette player and a bag of tapes comes out, defenses go down and we see and hear much more of the truth about the former classmates' lives.

BINGO! is a gentle, well-written and well-played light romantic comedy, capably directed by Factory co-artistic director Nigel Shawn-Williams. Williams makes great use of music from the period of this gang's youth to evoke all the feelings and memories that old music arouses for both the characters and the audience.

The unified set by Lindsay Anne Black is simultaneously a hotel suite, a boardwalk and a bar.  It clearly creates different playing spaces with the help of a good lighting design by Jennifer Lennon. The set made good use of the breadth of the stage but I did wish it had made better use of the soaring vault of the Factory.  Perhaps in a piece that is largely about failed hopes and diminished expectations, a lower ceiling was an artistic choice.

High school has been over for all of these people for a long time. What is left to hope for after 50?  Well that depends on how you've lived your life and what you're prepared to risk or change on the back nine of the game. MacIvor ends the play hopefully, at least for some of the characters.

In the program notes, MacIvor said he wrote this show for his brother back in Cape Breton.  He wanted to write an approachable piece that spoke to the working stiffs he grew up with.

He clearly knows these people and he paints them with his usual trenchant wit and clear eye but also with much empathy and affection. It's a kinder, gentler MacIvor than I'm used to, but I didn't mind that at all. As he said in ARIGATO TOKYO, "none of us are one thing." I hope his brother liked his present.  I certainly did.

Anyone over 40 who has ever endured one of these "homecoming" weekends - or avoided them like the plague, is bound to enjoy BINGO! The FACTORY is ending a turbulent season on a high note.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Belleville and the Role of the Artist as Critic

I went to see BELLEVILLE this afternoon, Company Theatre's production of the Amy Herzog play about Americans in Paris.

The script owes a debt to GASLIGHT, but is really more about the cognitive dissonance contained in the space between a young American couple's aspirations, and their actual life.

Abby is a girl who'd be at home in a Woody Allan film.  She's trained as an actor, but works as a yoga teacher. She's a neurotic as a cat, can't hold her liquor, and is trying to withdraw from prescription anti-depressants.

Her husband Zack, trained as a doctor, and is in Paris working for Medicins Sans Frontieres, on a cure for HIV in children.  He smokes a lot of dope with their landlord, the male half of a house-owning couple of African immigrants, with two children under five, who lives downstairs.

Zack says they're in Paris because he wants to cheer Abby up.  Abby says they left the States for Zack's career. Early on, we find out the couple is four months behind with the rent.  Abby is unaware of this state of affairs, perhaps because she doesn't speak French.

I just saw BLUE JASMINE, and my question in both these pieces was the same:  who the hell are these university educated women in 2014, who don't know how, or if, the rent is paid?

I don't know: maybe this is commonplace among the bourgeoisie on the U.S. Eastern seaboard. I don't know a single woman of any age, in any class, who doesn't know how much the roof over her head costs, or who is footing the bill, or if the bill is paid.  It's a ridiculous, antediluvian premise, but if you can get past that, the script has merit.

BELLEVILE's strength rests on Herzog's nuanced examination of the marriage of two emotionally unstable people on shaky ground.  The couple reminded me of the twenty-somethings I see in GIRLS. The play works as a study of race, class, and culture. It absolutely nails the fact that French adults in that same age demographic are not, still, semi-adolescents.

Does it work as a thriller?  Almost: but not quite.  A thriller is a twenty-one jewel watch.  It requires a structure of exquisite mechanical precision. This is a collection of intriguing, but not quite functional parts. There was too much telegraphing of plot points, and the ambiguous ending felt lazy, and fell flat.

In the end, because of the script issues, the acting and solid direction by Jason Byrne couldn't sustain the tension he and the cast so carefully built up in the first 3/4 of the play. There's a meal here, thanks to fine work from Allan Hawco, Christine Horne, Dalmar Abuzeid and Marsha Regis. It's worth seeing for the acting, but don't expect great noir.

Now on to topic number two.

There was a very smart and interesting set of articles on theatre criticism on #CanCult Times last week.  Michael Wheeler, the director at Praxis Theatre and a sharp (and delightfully acidic) blogger, political commentator and fine stage director, wrote an article about why Praxis decided not to review their fellow artists' work on their blog. I think he has a valid point: reviewing pushes you outside.  It probably doesn't help you much when you go to be peer-reviewed by arts council juries, either.

There does seem to be a consensus that the community really needs more open and informed discussion about work onstage from more sources, a point well made by reviewer Carly Manga in her #CanCult article on the state of current professional theatre criticism.

When I started this blog back in 2009,  I decided to undertake critical examination of my colleagues' work because I wasn't seeing much writing about why scripts worked or didn't, or about certain issues in the community. I am trying to write less as a reviewer, and more as a writer thinking critically about writing for the stage, and, as an artist writing about the experience of working in the theatre.

There was some discussion by both Manga and Nikki Shaffeeullah about whether reviewers who are not members of a particular community are qualified to discuss work made by that community, an issue several theatre practitioners have raised this winter.

Are there many more theatre creators working now, coming out of a tradition that is not white, or Western?  Sure. It's about time!  Could we use more critical writing about theatre from practitioners who are not middle-aged men, mostly white?  Absolutely.  #CanCult Times issue did just that in a very thoughtful way this week.

For the record, I am a member, not yet carded, of the Metis Nation of Manitoba. My ancestors fought at Batoche.

I had a guy walk up to me in a restaurant over a year after I wrote about a show I didn't think worked very well and tell me we needed to support each other in the Aboriginal community, and that by writing critically about a play by a fellow Aboriginal artist, I had effectively betrayed the community.

I invited him to sit down and join us and discuss the show, and my criticism of it, but he just wanted to talk at me, not to me. After looming and finger-wagging, he walked off.  

Is there anything more patronizing, belittling, and demeaning than assuming my fellow artists, Aboriginal and otherwise, can't tolerate a critical discussion of their work?  Are we really that insecure?Are we to treat each other like kindergarten students, and hand out gold stars just for showing up onstage? 

I'm not going to tell someone that a show works when it doesn't, and I don't care what "community" created the work, even if it is my own, especially if it is my own.  No talk about hegemony excuses a bad show.

THE  PENELOPIAD used an all female, mixed race cast, to talk about war.  It  was brilliant.  Pamela Sinha used  South Asian myth and dance in CRASH to great effect, in a play about a violent sexual assault. She won a well-deserved DORA.  Aboriginal writer and performer Cliff Cardinal made an array of characters come to life in HUFF, and served up an incendiary cocktail of rage, pain and inter-generational abuse, placed very specifically on a reservation. He and Sinha are both at the Playwright's colony at Banff this week.  I can't wait to see what they come up with next.

I have been reviewed since I was eleven years old as an actor, director and writer.  I have had good reviews, mediocre reviews, and bad reviews that smarted like a smack up the side of the head. Some of them were well deserved, some weren't.  I wish more of them had been written by actual theatre practitioners.

If anyone can spend time and money at a show, hopefully it'll be reviewed by the mainstream media.  Why? Because good reviews are free p.r. and sell tickets (duh!) I don't think there's anyone making theatre, who could use less box office revenue.

Like it or not, this still means that means a play, will, most likely, be reviewed by white men, and a few women. If we, as a community, want that to change, more of us are going to have to stick our necks out, and talk about each others' work.

I wouldn't want my work to be reviewed exclusively by mixed race, middle-aged, unmarried, straight, feminist, left-leaning, theatre-making women, anymore than I only want to be seen by that group. Call me willfully naive, but I think if I'm willing to take any one's money for a ticket, anyone who saw the show, can weigh in on my show.

I hope that by thinking long and hard about why my fellow theatre practitioners' plays work, or don't work,  I'll become a better writer myself.  I see the critical thinking required to write about theatre as an important part of my artistic practice. I am trying to write from inside, not outside.