Friday, March 27, 2015


Last week, I saw both shows currently onstage at the Factory Theatre.

Mainstage is THE UNPLUGGING, Yvette Nolan's post-apocalyptic vision of a future where the lights have gone out, and aren't coming back on. If you were one of the unfortunate people who lived without power for a few days - or weeks - two Christmases past, you have a clear idea of how terrifying this can be.

In THE UNPLUGGING, two women, past childbearing age, have been cast out of their community, and into the woods, in the dead of a Canadian winter, for "not pulling their weight."  When we meet them, one grumpy and exhausted half of the duo, Elena (the wonderful Diana Belshaw) is ready to call it quits, and freeze to death right on the spot.

Her buddy, former good time girl Bern (a smoking hot and smoking good, Allegra Fulton) remembers there's a cottage not far away, where she used to go and party. Once they're out of the woods, so to speak, Elena dusts off the trap line skills she learned from her grandmother, and Bern turns into a savvy scavenger. They hunt and forage through the bush, and the abandoned cottages around them, making their way to a comfortable, if chaste, and rather lonely subsistence. Then Seamus, a hungry young man, played by newcomer Umed Amin, shows up on their doorstep.

The play examines the kinds of power that remain when we run out of fossil fuel and electricity. It's dark territory, and in Nolan's imagining, it is also dangerous, and wickedly funny. All three actors do good work. Sadly, for a show with such a dynamic premise, and so many provocative questions on the table, the production feels weirdly flat.

There are a couple of reasons for this. The script has four movement passages built into it. Unfortunately, their execution is painfully clunky and awkward, undermining any dramatic tension preceding them.

Director Nina Aquino has done some good work with the actors.  All the relationships are credible, and the humour in the script really shines.

She has also chosen to rapidly deflate any difficult moments in the play, and reinforce the didactic aspects of the script. We are never really allowed to sit with any sense of fear, menace, sorrow or flat-out terror, not even with weapons drawn. As Seamus, Amin has sexual chemistry with Fulton, but never feels like a credible threat. This robs the second half of the play of much of its power.

Camilia Koo's austere white set works well with Michele Ramsay's lovely lighting design, but it is not a good shape for a show with so much stylized movement. Seamus' upstage retreat takes up a whole lot of room for a barely used playing area .

I had no problem with the decision to cast non-Aboriginal actors, although I find it incredible that Aquino, a big advocate for non-white actors, and Nolan, the former artistic director of the oldest Aboriginal theatre company in the country, could not, between them, find one suitable, age-appropriate, available Aboriginal performer for any role in the three person cast. 

In a collaboration between Native Earth Performing Arts, and the Factory Theatre, I find it even harder to believe they couldn't have used Aboriginal music by Aboriginal musicians, or hired an Aboriginal choreographer to handle the movement. As I watched the production, I longed for the gorgeous choreography of the electrifying Santee Smith, the voice of Tanya Tagaq or the beats of a Tribe Called Red.

THE UNPLUGGING is worth seeing, for both Nolan's award-winning play, and for Fulton and Belshaw's fine performances.

Meanwhile, in the smaller downstairs studio, Ronnie Burkett is back, with his alternating cast of forty singing, dancing, and acting marionettes, gleefully tipping sacred cows in his endlessly inventive and delightful cabaret show, THE DAISY THEATRE.

Ronnie Burkett writes the shows, builds the puppets (with the team of Angela Talbot, Gemma James-Smith, Marcus Jamin, Gil Garratt and Martin Herbert) and with the help of some unwitting, but three-GGG (that's good, giving and game, for you non-Dan Savage readers) audience participants, provides two hours of non-stop, engaging, witty, and deeply affecting entertainment.

Burkett is that rare performer who gets on a stage, and with polish, assurance and masterful skill, totally owns the room. If you've never had a chance to be beguiled his charms,  THE DAISY THEATRE is on for another 10 days.  If you've seen the DAISY THEATRE, as I have, for the third time now, the cabaret-style show is different every night. The music by John Alcorn and Cathy Nosaty, with a theme song by Laura Hubert, is perfect.

It's World Theatre Day today.  Each time I see Burkett, I am reminded of what it is I love about theatre. Burkett's puppets, with their charms, sorrows, sufferings, illusions, foibles and dreams, remind us what it means to be fully human.

THE DAISY THEATRE and THE UNPLUGGING continue at THE FACTORY THEATRE, TUESDAY through SUNDAY, until APRIL 5th.   For both shows call: CALL (416) 504 9971 or go to for times and tickets. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015


I saw BULL and TIME STANDS STILL last week.  Both independent, both imported scripts, both interesting, if somewhat problematic productions.

BULL was written by British wunderkind, Mike Bartlett  He took the Olivier Award for the best new play in 2013 for this script.  I loved his play, COCK when Studio 180 staged it last year, and went in with high hopes.

BULL is a one hour, high stakes drama, set in one room, with no interval. Three employees: underdog Thomas (well-played by Ryan Rogerson), slickly repulsive Tony, (a fabulous Damon Runyan) and sexy manipulative Isobel  (a high-octane Diana Bentley) meet one boss (a steely and scary Mark Caven) because one of their heads is going to roll. You know, from the start, who it is going to be.

David Ferry uses the tiny Coal Mine Theatre to good effect, staging the production as a kind of UFC cage match in a subterranean office. All four actors deliver intense performances as Thomas  is selected as the victim of the other three, and subsequently bullied, badgered, humiliated, beaten, and then, bludgeoned to death.

People laughed through much of it, but I failed to see the humour.

I am not in the habit of giving away the plot of a show up front, but BULL's script is so remorselessly nasty, so relentless, and makes it so obvious from the start where it is going, (and nothing shifts or changes EVER) that I don't feel I'm spoiling anything. Moreover, the ending is so over the top, it's just stupid.

In life, Thomas probably would have very successfully assaulted Isobel, and then ended up in custody, or just walked out the door, after being sacked. Bartlett had no interest in letting a dose of reality spoil his toxic idea of fun.

The actors all deliver fine work, and the direction is great. The script, however, is nasty, sadistic, unfunny, and utterly pointless. It's worth seeing for the fine acting and directing. If watching people beat the crap out each other physically and emotionally is your idea of a good time, you'll probably enjoy it.

TIME STANDS STILL is a terrific script by American writer David Margulis about Sarah, (Kirsten Rae Hinton)  a war photographer with more than a bit of an edge to her, and James (Jason Jazrawy), her seemingly put-upon journalist partner.  When we meet the couple, they have just returned home to Brooklyn, after Sarah  has been seriously injured in a roadside bomb attack. Her fixer, a local driver/translator/go between has been killed.

Sarah and James reconnect with their best friend, editor, Richard (Sam Rosenthal) who has fallen in love with a younger woman, (Carleigh Beverly) who is much less professionally ambitious that the rest of them.

The play is a very intelligent and thoughtful exploration of the impact of a physical injury on a couple's relationship:  with each other, with their friends and on their respective careers.  It forces them to examine the role this kind of work plays in their lives. If work has defined their life together, who are they without their jobs?  Is work the most important and defining aspect of one's life?

Third World misery, sold for consumption as news, by the chattering classes to wealthy liberals sleeping in warm beds gets a hard, uncomfortable examination.  So does that great mid-life struggle: what gives a life meaning, and what brings greater happiness: "important" work or domestic bliss. Can you have both?

Finally, there's the issue for all of us who have lived in more than one place: you may depart physically,  but those people and places comes with you, whether you want them to or not.

The remounted award-winning 2014 Fringe hit is directed by Jordan Merkur, who makes good use of the space, though some of the moments between the actors could have used a little more focus.

Beverly, playing the younger, air-headed event planner girlfriend ( in my experience, you have to be pretty damn smart and well organized to be an event planner)  gives a show-stealing performance, full of warmth and humour.

The other actors are seasoned and capable in their roles, though both Hinton and Jazwary exhibited a disconcerting habit of playing off the house, rather than each other. As a consequence, I felt pulled out of the play at times, and less able to connect with their characters. It's a habit I sometimes observe in actors who spend more time in front of a camera, than on a stage. Maybe it was just opening night jitters.

There's an effective set, a good lighting design and an intriguing play that will give you lots to think about and discuss when you leave the theatre.  TIME STANDS STILL is well worth seeing.

TIME STANDS STILL by the TSS COLLECTIVE continues at THEATRE PASSE MURAILLE MAINSPACE until  Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 pm with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 pm March 29th.  Call 416 504 7529 for tickets or information.

BULL continues at the COAL MINE THEATRE 798 Danforth Avenue, nightly from Tuesday though Sunday at 7:30 pm, until April 5th.  Tickets at

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

POWER PLAY: Yvette Nolan and Nina Aquino dish it with S&G before THE UNPLUGGING opens

The Factory Theatre was a rocking place Sunday afternoon, as I arrived to interview recently appointed Factory AD Nina Aquino and her former boss, mentor, and now, collaborator; playwright, and former Native Earth AD, Yvette Nolan.

Rehearsal has just broken. Techs and front of house staff were hurrying around, getting ready for the preview that night.  We slid into Nina's office at the top of stairs to escape the bustle and talk.

Nolan and Aquino are a study in contrasts.

Nolan is an imposing looking woman, tall, dressed rocker chick tough in jeans, boots and a black T-shirt, her trademark silver mane, loose.  She looks relaxed and comfortable.

Aquino is in tan flats, a delicate white dress with fine hand made lace insets, a cream cardigan, an up-do, a long, delicate gold chain. She is measured in her speech, but the lively hand movements punctuating her comments, suggest a torrent of energy behind the contained exterior.

The office reflects Aquino's personal style:  red tulips on the desk, family photos, a throw on the sofa, signs of someone who cares about, and pays attention to details.

Nina sits behind the desk. Yvette offers me her big, leather, power chair, opposite Nina, but I'm already on the couch. Besides, this way, I can look at both of them while we talk.

S&G:  Why this play?  Why now?

Nina:  Well, in some ways it does feel like we are at at the end of the world. We're plugged in all the time to our technology, but we lack human connection.

Yvette:  I came back here (Toronto) around the time of the big black-out, the one in August, not last winter.  People were really nice for three days, but if it had gone on much longer, I could see it getting ugly. There was this woman next door to me, who kept watering her lawn, unconscious of the fact the reservoir needs electricity to be filled.  "We could run out of water," I said."My lawn will die," she said.  I thought, "If we run out of water, we will die."

I am, foremost a playwright.  While I was at Native Earth, I wrote 10 minute things, but no full-length plays. When I left, I wasn't sure I could still write a play. Around that time, my mother died. She was only sixty-five.  She was an elder, a residential school survivor, and yet, I felt her wisdom was devalued.

I've turned fifty.  I got a good education, I have a voice, I've had a platform, I've had power, and the responsibility of power.  I've been thinking about these things: about what happens when we run out of power, about how we devalue older woman, how they become voiceless. You see it in how few good roles there are for older women.  I spent twenty years, and three months writing this play: twenty in my head and three on the  page.

S&G: Has Yvette directed your work, Nina?  Yvette, how does it feel, as a writer and a director, to hand your play over to another director?

Nina: No! I have written plays, but I am really a director, not a writer. I wrote the play I felt I needed to write about my family history, about what it means to be an Aquino.  I don't feel compelled to write the way I need to direct. Yvette gave me great trust, and great freedom as a director.

Yvette: Yeah, well, and it was Nina!

Both laugh.

Yvette:  As I get older, I get more relaxed, less controlling.  In a way, writing a play is a kind of structured improv.  I create a frame, but then the actors, and the director, and the team bring their own creativity to it. It's great to see how it is different, production to production. (This is the play's 3rd production, but the Toronto debut) And we have our team.

More laughter.

Nina:  We both work with (lighting designer) Michelle Ramsay and (set designer) Camilla Koo.  There's a great understanding of what we want, what we need, a shared aesthetic.

S&G: Have you changed much since Vancouver? (THE UNPLUGGING won a Jesse, Vancouver's Dora Awards for Outstanding New Play in 2013.)

Yvette: A few things.

Nina:  Some little things.  Not much.

S&G: What did Yvette teach you about being an artistic director?

Nina: She gave me a template for leadership. She's never given me 'advice" but, in pivotal moments, without asking, I'll get a random text.

She's smiling at Yvette.

Nina:  It's like we have a psychic connection.

Yvette: Yeah.

S&G:  You've both been artistic directors. Not many women can say that.  Could you speak about that experience?

Yvette:  It's a hard job.  You're in service to your community.  I was very aware of not wanting to squander an opportunity.  I was very conscious of being a voice for the 1st Nations community, which is a big responsibility. Women don't get enough opportunities to train for that step-up, into a position of power. If you don't get to work very often, how can you become skillful?

Nina: Well, I had been a director of two companies before this, Cahoots and fu-GEN, so I was used to the ritual of wearing a lot of different hats. I think you have to be able to wear a lot of different hats if you want to have a career in this business.  This is a bigger production, a bigger plant.  Theatre is process, this job is process every day. I also have to think about where the company sits in the theatre ecology, and how we can transform, enrich and change the community.

S&G:  Was the decision to co-produce part of that?

Nina:  Yes! Emerging work, artists of colour, we want to give more people better opportunities.  We have a "yes" policy. If you invite us to see your show, we will say yes, if we possibly can.  I am vigilant about seeing work. Do you know this is the first time Native Earth has co-produced with the Factory?

Yvette:  That's really exciting!

S&G:  What's different for you, this season, from last season?

Nina: Oh, everything!  More clarity, more stability.  The first year, after all the troubles. we just had to deal with what was handed to us, and try to keep the place from going under. It's been a struggle. This year, we had the ability to make more choices. This play was my choice. It is the first play I am directing at the Factory.  I wanted to direct this play.

S&G:  If you were going to give some advice to your 20 year old self, now, what would it be?

Yvette:  Have more sex!

We all laugh.

Nina:  Yeah?  What's that line in the play? "More sex, less angst."

Yvette: Yes, more sex, less angst!

Yvette: Be less afraid. Get good teachers. Don't be afraid to make mistakes.

Nina:  I would tell my 20 year-old self to wait for love.  I married the first time at 21.

S&G:  Wow!

Nina: It was too soon.  When I married the second time, in my late 20s, I was ready.  I have a great partner, a wonderful daughter, that makes this job easier. And I'm excited.  This is a great opportunity. In Korean, opportunity is a dangerous chance.  I'm taking a chance.

Yvette:  I wanted the show to be on this stage.  It means something to have a show mainstage at the Factory Theatre.  This is the home of the Canadian playwright!

A crowd is waiting outside the door to meet the director and writer before the Sunday night preview.  Our time is up.

On the walk home, in the fading light of an early spring evening, I think about power, and not the kind you miss in a black-out.  I wonder how someone decides they're ready to embrace it.

Aquino has been handed the stage of the Factory Theatre, a powerful role indeed, and one few women ever get a shot at. She has the blessing of her mentor, and former boss, Yvette Nolan. The community is waiting, to see what she does with her dangerous chance.

THE UNPLUGGING, by Yvette Nolan, co-produced by Native Earth Performing Arts and the Factory Theatre, directed by Nina Lee Aquino and starring Diana Belshaw and Allegra Fulton, and introducing Umed Amin, at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street, opens Thursday, March 19th and runs until April 5th. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00 pm and at 2:00 pm Sundays (pay what you can).  For tickets, call (416) 504 9971.

Saturday, March 7, 2015


It's time to mix it up at Sprockets and Greasepaint. Time to chat with some writers and directors about what they are writing, what they are staging, why they've chosen what they've chosen, and how they are going to go about doing it.

Last week, I was offered an opportunity to speak with David Eisner, co-artistic director of the Harold Green Jewish Theatre in Toronto about the company's participation in this year's SPOTLIGHT ON ISRAELI CULTURE, currently taking place in Toronto, and about some other upcoming work at the theatre.

This Sunday, March 8, the company presents a reading of of APPLES FROM THE DESERT , by Savyon Liebrecht.  APPLES... won the 2006 Israel Best Play Award. Liebrecht was born in Munich to Holocaust survivor parents who immigrated to Israel.  The play is an adaptation of her own short story.

Rivka is the 18 year old daughter of a controlling father and a subservient mother.  Her father wants to marry Rivka off to an older man, a widower with children.  Rivka's single aunt thinks this is a bad idea, and so does Rivka, who has her own ideas about how, and with whom, she wants to spend her future.  She's met secular Doobie who want to live on a kibbutz.

I spoke with Eisner about his choice of play for the festival, earlier this week.

Eisner: "It's the second year we have participated in the festival. Avery (Saltzman, the company's co-artistic director) and I chose this script because, while it is set in Israel, in a religious Sephardic home, the play speaks to universal themes of love and family.  Liebrecht casts a critical gaze on  he meaning of family, and asks the question, "what do children learn from their parents?"

S&G: "Not always what they intend. She certainly learned what kind of marriage she didn't want."

Eisner, " Yes.  I liked the range of family dynamics the play presented: between the  husband and wife, between sisters, between Rivka and her parents, separately and together."

S&G: "And it's a love story; and a very sweet one, with a young woman who is determined to choose her mate on her own terms."

Eisner: "Yes, an Israeli love story, with universal themes of love and reconciliation, which was perfect for the festival."

S&G: "You've got a great cast for this reading: Sarah Dodds, Avery Saltzman, Shelia McCarthy..."

Eisner: "Shelia and Avery are also in our upcoming production, THEREFORE CHOOSE LIFE with Jake Epstein from DeGrassi.  We're really excited, because it will be our first production in the newly renovated 300 seat Greenwin Theatre at the Toronto Centre for the Arts."

S&G: " So this is not only a reading of a well-regarded script, it's a sample of what the company has in store for the rest of the season?"

Eisner: "Exactly.  We are in our eighth season. People seem to enjoy what we're doing.  We have 2100 subscribers - but we'd always love more!"

S&G:  "So APPLES... is a chance for prospective subscribers to get a free sample of what HAROLD GREEN does?"

Eisner: "Exactly! We'll be announcing the playbill for our 9th season at the end of March. Say tuned!"

Free theatre on a Sunday afternoon:  what more could you ask for?

APPLES FROM THE DESERT will receive a free public reading at the GALLERY LOUNGE of the  TORONTO CENTRE for the ARTS, 5040 Yonge Street, as part of  SPOTLIGHT ON ISRAELI CULTURE on Sunday, March 8th at 2:00 pm.  Seating is limited and reservations are required. Call (416) 932 9995 to reserve a seat.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015


A few weeks back. I had, what is a rare experience for me: I saw two plays, in two different commercial theatres, back to back.

One play featured a star, and one play was about a long dead star.

On the Thursday night, I saw BLITHE SPIRIT at the Princess of Wales Theatre.  It's an excellent production, with a uniformly fine cast, and a star of stage, screen, and television: British actress, Angela Lansbury.

Lansbury is known and loved on this side of the pond, primarily for her years as the writer-detective, Jessica Fletcher in a long-in-syndication, '80s who-done-it, MURDER SHE WROTE.

Lansbury is no former television star taking a turn on the stage.  Her career on the boards spans six decades, and includes numerous starring roles on Broadway, and in the West End.  She has won five Tony awards, and was made a Dame of the British Empire for her distinguished career in the arts.

The theatre was packed, and deservedly so. The famous actress ( who received a spontaneous round of show-stopping applause upon entrance) is part of a superb British ensemble, who more than hold up their part of this internationally successful production.

Charles Edwards makes a note perfect Charles Condimine, the droll and put-upon novelist who organizes a seance as research for his next book, and gets more than he bargained for. Charlotte Parry is lovely as the sensible Ruth, his second wife.  She convincingly shows us a sane woman slowly being driven mad by her husband's increasing distractedness and by the exasperating presence of  a singularly unwelcome otherworldly house-guest who refuses to drink up and go home.

Jemina Rooper brings an impish charm to Elvira, Charles ghostly first wife, making her a kind of force of Nature.  Susan Louise O'Connor nearly steals the show as Edith, a delightfully disastrous klutz of a housemaid. With Simon Jones and Sandra Shipley as the seance/dinner guests, the Bradmans, the entire company works together like a well-oiled  machine.  They nail Coward's arch tone and quick wit, as well as the style and pacing required to make this drawing room comedy soar.

As to Lansbury, she vigorously embraces the eccentric character of Madame Arcanti, knocking back gin and  calling down the dead with a dance that is part funky chicken, part walk like an Egyptian, and entirely hilarious.At the same time, she retains the character's wisdom, and dignity, and works with the rest of the company like the top-notch team player she is.  You don't see that every time someone gets star billing.

Director Michael Blakemore has struck a successful balance between the madcap aspects of the play and its darker, more stinging notes of cynicism about relations between the sexes, and its uneasy (some might say sexist) view of female aggression.

Coward apparently didn't think much of the institution of marriage. By the end of the play, Charles is less a man, trapped in the impossible situation of trying to keep two wives happy at once, and more in the situation of a a man trying to escape the clutches of two of the Furies. If you've ever dated anyone with an all-too present ex, you'll feel his pain - and Ruth's.

BLITHE SPIRIT is an absolute treat. Hurry up and get a ticket!

The next evening,  I saw MARILYN, FOREVER BLONDE, a one-person production about the life and work of  film star, and pop culture icon, Marilyn Monroe, featuring a convincing and committed performance by Sunny Thompson. Unfortunately, the script about Monroe's life was nowhere nearly as good as the performer in it.

Sunny Thompson had the necessary  aura of vulnerability and charm to play Monroe. As a performer, she  has great warmth and vivacity and a lovely singing voice.  She effectively  recreates Monroe's vocal patterns, inflection, walk and mannerisms.  It was a good, well-directed  performance, mired in a pretty lame script..

The premise that is set up at the beginning of the play is a good one. Monroe is having a photo shoot at her house in her bedroom - except, this is a one person show.  Flashbulbs keep going off , but we never see or meet a photographer, or any of the parade of  Monroe's husbands and lovers Thompson discusses in the two act piece.  We hear from some  in voice-over, Joe DiMaggio, for instance, but inexplicably, not others, like Arthur Miller.

Most of the singing ( which was very good) was weirdly unaccompanied. The numbers that did have music were far more punchy than the ones that didn't.

The costumes were not really period, and did not really look like any of the dresses Monroe so famously wore.  

The end of the play alludes to Monroe's death in her own bed, of an overdose.  We see her drink quite a bit, but she never takes a pill.

The set looked good, and director, Stephanie Shine makes effective use of the various playing spaces, but it's not always clear from the script where we are. The film projections were a good idea, but it would have been nice to see more images of the people Monroe describes from her life as she spoke of them, and their impact on her.

Part night club tribute show, part memoir, the play is a little bit of everything one might want from a show about Marilyn Monroe, but not enough of anything to really form a satisfying whole.

If you're a hard-core Marilyn Monroe fan, this might appeal, but I found the production wanting, in spite of Thompson's quite lovely  performance. I hope on her next outing, someone writes her a better script, or casts her in AFTER THE FALL and gives her a fair chance to really shine.  She deserves it..

MARILYN, FOREVER BLONDE, by Nu Musical Productions was at the Winter Garden Theatre between February 13-16th. BLITHE SPIRIT continues until March 15th at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King Street West, from Tuesday to Sunday, with matinee and evening performances. For tickets go to or call (416) 872 1212.