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.