Monday, May 25, 2015


I was at the hipper-than-thou (and certainly hipper than I) Storefront Theatre Friday night, to see TROUT STANLEY, Severely Jazzed Productions' revival of Claudia Day's absurdist romance, from a decade ago.

It begins with a dance sequence/burglary. I had a brief moment of terror, thinking I was about to spend 2 hours trapped in some twee/ironic break-neck take on the text, that was all about style, trashing any, and all, substance in the process.

My concerns were rapidly assuaged, and proved unfounded. The opening warms up the audience to what is a very good production.  This TROUT STANLEY is a stylish show, but one with both a lot of laughs, and a lot of heart.

Dey's play is Canadian Gothic, at its most over-wrought, and a tough play to nail tonally.  Director Daniel Pagett, and his talented, and very funny cast deftly make the most of the laughable aspects of the script, without abandoning either the poetry of the text, or the script's romantic core. The pace never flags, and the two acts fly by.

The trio of Tess Degenstein, as Grace Ducharme, the out-going, garbage-picking, poster girl, Hannah Spear as Sugar Ducharme, her gangly, agoraphobic, depressed twin sister, and Colin Munch, as the mysterious, bearded, Trout Stanley, all do fine work.

The performers have backgrounds in improv comedy, which they draw on to good advantage:  bringing both skilled physicality, and a willingness to take both their situations, and their affect, to the edge of insanity. Both their character, and ensemble work are a real treat to watch.

Spear and Munch make a delightfully gawky, yet endearing, couple. Degenstein, also manages to hold her own, makes us sympathize with a not especially sympathetic character.  In her too-tight romper, white rodeo-cut cowboy boots, and Marie Antoinette-like pink wig, she slowly reveals the insecurity, and neediness inside a girl who has always had all the attention in the room, and isn't willing to give it up without a fight.

Production designer Hanna Puley provides a sophisticated, minimal, but, workable set. The sound, and lighting (Daniel Maslany and Melissa Joakim) amp up both the tension, and the laughter in the play, in all the right spots.

TROUT STANLEY is a very fun, feel-good, and enjoyable night out.

TROUT STANLEY, written by Claudia Day, continues at The STOREFRONT THEATRE, 955 Bloor Street West, until June 6th.  Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 pm, with matinees at 2:00 pm on Saturdays and Sundays. tickets range from $15-$25 and may be purchased in advance through:

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


As the famous anarchist, Abby Hoffman once pointed out, in North America, when someone asks you what you do, what they mean is, "What do you do for money?"

Work:  it's the place most of us spend a third of of our lives, sometimes more. A job can be a dream come true, or soul-crushing drudgery.  For most of us, it is a bit of both.

In their eighth production, the Dora-award winning comedy team of Heather Annis, Amy Lee, and Byron Laviolette take on work: cleverly skewering both corporate culture, and self-employment in a very funny show.

After a string of unhappy work experiences, (one ending with a restraining order for Morro)  Toronto's beloved clown sisters decide to abandon wage-slavery, and begin their own company: JMI (Jasp and Morro Industries).  The logo is an Rorschach-like fruit core.  They have slick promo videos in the lobby. They have  furniture: well, one desk.  They have stationary.  They have a business consultant, and HR person on call.  All they need is a high-quality product - and some money to make it.

The show makes a meal of the tropes of office culture, as well as the financial difficulties of trying to start a company.

No matter where you work, or what you do, you will find yourself howling in recognition at the range of ridiculous workplace situations on offer.

More than anything, work is about relationships: and it is the fractious, affectionate, competitive, and utterly adorable relationship between the neurotic, controlling, buttoned-up Jasp and the messy, chaotic, and endlessly inventive Morro that gives the play its heart.

Laviolette does one of the best directing jobs I've seen all season, making particularly effective, and strategic use of both music, and blackouts. Special credit must go to the design team of Joanna Yu (set), David DeGrow (lighting), and Lyon Smith (sound), as well as the spot-on technicians who run the show with aplomb. The environment they've created supports the performers perfectly.

The audience is charmingly inveigled into functioning as the various planners, consultants, and would-be backers needed to run JMI. Resistance is futile.  You want to work at JMI.  Trust me, it's more fun than anyplace you're working now.

MORRO and JASP: 9-5  is a high-quality product created by a committed, collaborative, and talented team of artists, and theatre technicians.  Take some favourite colleagues, and go after work.

The Factory Theatre and U.N.I.T. Productions present MORROW AND JASP: 9-5, continuing at the Factory Studio Theatre until May 31st.  Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 PM,  with  Sunday matinees at 2:00 PM. Ticket prices range from $35-45 with discounts for students/seniors/arts workers and a Pay What You Can matinee. for tickets.

Friday, May 8, 2015


Drew Hayden Taylor is one busy guy. He bounces into the Jet Fuel, bike helmet in hand, blonde rocker hair flying. He knocks back a huge glass of water, grabs a latte, and then we sit down to speak: quickly.

There's a lot of joking and teasing.  When I tell Hayden Taylor that I'm a Metis from Manitoba, he retorts, with a grin, " You know what you call thirty-two Metis in a room?"  "No," I reply, knowing I'm being set up. "One full-blooded Indian."  I'm laughing.

It's a trope of Native culture. We tease each other, sometimes pretty mercilessly.  It's a sign of affection or, as Hayden Taylor calls it, "permitted disrespect."

"I've got three shows on right now," he informs me.  "Roseneath Theatre is touring SPIRIT HORSE in south-western and central Ontario.  It's the fourth production of that play in six years. Then, GOD AND THE INDIAN opens with Native Earth here, in Toronto on Thursday. Then, I've got a new comedy opening in Saskatoon, CREES IN THE CARIBBEAN."

"What's that about?"  I manage to squeeze in a question.

"So a Cree couple is having their 35th wedding anniversary, and their kids pool their money, and send them to a resort in Mexico.  It's their first trip abroad: they've never been out of the country. It's a two fish out of water story: classic comedy." He continues: "I write four kinds of plays: theatre for young audiences, comedies, dramas and intellectual satires."

"What kind of play is GOD AND THE INDIAN?"

"It's a drama. Yvette Nolan came to me a couple of years ago, when she was AD at NEPA and said, "I want you to write me a play (for Native Earth) and not one of your comedies.  I want a drama:  write something darker, more serious, more challenging."

"So I decided to write a play about residential schools and the aftermath."

"Why? Was this part of your experience or your family's?"

"No. I grew up in Curve Lake, just outside of Peterborough.  The rez had its own DIA (Department of Indian Affairs) school.  I went there, and so did my mom.  My mom raised me at Curve Lake.  My dad, who was a white guy, took off when I was a baby."

He pauses.  "Some kids from Curve Lake did get sent to residential school.  It was a punishment for so-called difficult kids.  Residential schools have had a universal effect on the entire (1st Nations) community.  We still struggle to define normal."

My Metis father also went to school in his own community.  He and my mom sent us to Catholic school, which is private in Manitoba. As Hayden Taylor is speaking, I recall the threat, when I was a kid, of being sent to the Christian Brothers, if you were extra-bad.  Those kids came door to door, in winter, selling meat.  Not all of them were Native, but they all looked cowed, broken, terrified.

In our house, it was a joke. I knew it wouldn't happen to us, but it did happen to people we knew.

Hayden Taylor explains, "Johnny Indian is a woman outside a Tim Horton's in Vancouver.  She's an unreliable narrator, a woman who is a substance abuser, who lives on the streets.  When she spots her childhood abuser, she follows him to his bishop's office and confronts him.  She puts him on trial.  He of course, denies he was the one who sexually abused her, he denies everything. She tries to obtain privately, the thing the courts will never get her: the truth, and justice."

He raises the case of Greg Furlong, the former head of the Vancouver Olympics, who was accused by three Aboriginal women of sexually abusing them when they were children.  None of the charges could be proven in court. We don't speak about the Gladue case in Alberta, or Pickton, or the missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

There's been a lot of talk in the media this year, in the wake of Ghomeshi, about the difficulty of proving sexual assault allegations.  The rest of the country is finally beginning to cop to something Aboriginal people have known for a very long time:  a trip to the courts is unlikely to bring  much justice, when it's your word against the word of someone with more power.

The play sold out its run at the Firehall in Vancouver, and is going back there for a remount after its Toronto run.

Hayden-Taylor has to go. In addition to his opening night in Toronto, he has a book launch for ME ARTSY, published by Douglas & McIntyre taking place Native Earth's lobby, this Saturday afternoon. It's the third book in a trilogy of essay collections about what it means to be a Native person in contemporary society.

Hayden Taylor is a very reliable narrator on the subject.  He has lectured in over 18 countries, at more than 300 universities, "Spreading the gospel of Native literature," he says, with a big smile.  ME ARTSY is his 26th book.

At the end of our time together, he goes back to GOD AND THE INDIAN.  "I'm excited to see the discussion this play generates: around blame, around the legacy of the schools, around reconciliation."

Then he's off on bicycle to his next meeting. Like I said, he's a busy guy.

I can't wait to see the play this weekend.

ME ARTSY has a book launch open to the public from 3:00 PM  - 5:00 PM, Saturday May 9th,  in the lobby of AKI STUDIO THEATRE, 585 Dundas Street East. Free.

GOD AND THE INDIAN produced by Native Earth Performing Arts, and The Firehall Theatre continues in the AKI STUDIO THEATRE, in the Daniels Spectrum Building ,585 Dundas Street East, Toronto, until May 17th, with performances Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 PM and matinees Sunday at 2:00 pm. For tickets or further information:

Thursday, May 7, 2015


I saw two great dramas last week, in Toronto: THEREFORE CHOOSE LIFE, written by Kathy Kacer and Jake Epstein, and produced by the HAROLD GREEN JEWISH THEATRE, and CREDITORS, a rarely performed play by August Strindberg, produced by COAL MINE THEATRE. Both productions are sophisticated, intelligent and very, very good.

THEREFORE CHOOSE LIFE is the story of a man confronted with an impossible dilemma. Joseph, (a perceptive and moving performance by Avery Saltzman) is a Holocaust survivor, who relocated to Canada after the war, and married a Canadian, Evelyn (played by a very funny, and then achingly poignant, Shelia McCarthy). He has a career, a home, a grown son. Then, twenty-five years into his second marriage, Joseph receives a letter. His first wife, Chava (the fine Lisa Horner) who he last saw in the camp, and who he thought was long dead, has been looking for him since the end of the war. It's the 1970s and it is now possible for her to leave Russia. She wants them to reunite.

Horner appears, upstage and down, letters in hand, reading in an elegant European accent, and exerting a powerful, yet somehow, almost ghostly presence.

Sam, Joseph's son, (playwright Jake Epstein) hates all of his stories about the war: they literally give him nightmares.  Sam's girlfriend Suzanne, (a very charming Amelia Sargisson) is pressuring him to make a decision about their future, and his mother wants grandchildren. Sam, who feels he has been pressured into every decision he's ever made, wants to live in the present.

Epstein gives a very effective, and convincing portrayal of a young man trapped between wanting to please others, and trying to figure out what he actually wants and needs for himself.

I was deeply struck by the universality of Joseph's problem. Can anyone ever go back to an old love and get a happy ending the second time around?  What is the right choice in a situation in which, no matter what you choose, someone is going to get hurt?

It's a lovely, thoughtful, well-performed, and well-directed production, in the company's new 260-seat Greenwin Theatre. My friend and I had a lot to talk about after the show.

Meanwhile, over at the Coal Mine Theatre, CREDITORS, one of the best productions of Strindberg I've ever seen, is currently playing.

Two men talk late into the night: Adolph, a sensitive artist, with a delicate physical and emotional constitution, and Gustav, a shrewd and worldly academic, old enough to be his father. They discuss: art, ambition, love, women, a woman; the younger man's beautiful wife.  Adolph is highly suggestible: Gustav is articulate, manipulative, masterful, and utterly malevolent.

As Gustav, Hardee T. Lineman commands the stage, and gives a searingly disturbing performance as a devil who has come to collect what he believes is his due.

Noah Reid does fine work in the tricky role of Adolph, carefully constructing a sensitive romantic, without veering into melodrama. 

When Tekla, the young man's wife does appear, we realize that Gustav knows a lot more about her than he has let on.

Liisa Repo-Martell, with golden curls and a shimmering gown, plays a great charmer and a great beauty, a woman teetering on the edge of 40, happily ensconced with a younger man, and coming into her own as a writer. The misogynistic Gustav has other plans for her.

Rae Ellen Bodie boils a frog here:  getting her actors to ramp up the tension, one degree at a time, until we are immersed in a simmering cauldron of rage, frustrated desire, and sexual jealousy. The set, by Andrea Miller is simple but effective. It's an incendiary production, and absolutely brilliant.

The Coal Mine is a tiny theatre: 77 seats, and the intimacy of the space adds to the impact of the tragedy that unfolds before us.

I highly recommend seeing both of these exceptionally fine productions.

THEREFORE CHOOSE LIFE at the THE TORONTO CENTRE FOR THE ARTS until May 10th with matinees on Sunday. Call (416)932 9995 x224 for tickets. CREDITORS continues nightly at THE COAL MINE THEATRE, Tuesday to Sunday, at 7:30 PM until May 17th.

Friday, May 1, 2015

INTERVIEW: Laura Anne Harris and Janelle Hanna on COMMENCEMENT

We're in Jimmy's Coffee Shop in Kensington Market, on the warmest Sunday afternoon Toronto has seen this spring, but that hasn't kept Laura Anne Harris and Janelle Hanna from working on their show. Their efforts are beginning to pay off.

"We're sold out opening night!" says Janelle.  "Yeah, and not just our friends" adds Laura Anne. We all laugh.  Even the big guys struggle for audience for "serious" work.  As a small, independent production company, Harris' company, Convection Theatre is working hard to establish a presence in Toronto's dynamic independent theatre scene. COMMENCEMENT is the company's fourth production,

COMMENCEMENT was written by Clay McLeod Chapman, a New York-based writer who teaches playwriting at the Actors' Studio. I've seen a previous production of COMMENCEMENT, and I think it's one of the best plays I've seen in the past 5 years.  The play is written for one actor, who plays three women in the aftermath of a school shooting:  Sara, the mother of the assailant, Mary, the mother of the victim, and Julie, the victim and a promising young woman, the class valedictorian. It was a critic's pick by Time Out NY.

"I discovered this script when I saw an American production of it touring on the  Fringe circuit, a few years back. It's a rich, layered text, full of vivid imagery," says Laura Anne.  "Chapman was really approachable, and excited to have us do it.  As we've rehearsed, we've gone to him with questions about the script, and he's been really open."

Laura Anne continues: "I was looking for a project for Janelle and me to do together.  We had such a great time working on SWELL BROAD last year. It's a demanding role, and I knew she had the range to be able to pull it off.  I am a playwright, and my company has produced shows I've written, but I don't always want to be the playwright.  This was a good vehicle for us."

Janelle jumps in, smiling. "I was the class valedictorian.  My picture is in the  library at my old high school, Quinte Secondary."

Janelle continues: "I'd hate to be in high school now.  The easy access to weapons now is terrifying.  Social media was just beginning to be popular, when I was leaving high school. We grow up in high school.  Social media can be part of building community, but often it is used to fuel alienation, insecurity and aloneness."

Laura Anne says, " You see it in Mary, too. She's surrounded by people, but alone in her grief. It's a play that feels very 21st century, in its grasp of the issues of community and alienation in contemporary society."

Janelle says, "We wanted to do something to help kids who are struggling in isolation."

Laura Anne looks at her. " So we decided to donate 50% the box office from  our Saturday May 9th 4:00 pm to Kids Help Phone.  It's our way of trying to support the community.  There's a donation jar out during the run if people want to give them something.  They operate without government support."

"Like an independent theatre company?" I ask.

We all laugh. Laura Anne adds, "We're in an independent space too: Hub 14. I know Andrew Gaboury (who runs the space) from working with him in AS THE FOO TURNS.   He's an associate artist with the Toronto Festival of Clowns."

She pauses. "When I studied clown with John Turner, he taught us that it is important to invite the audience into the environment of the show. We are trying to build that inclusive environment, onstage and off."

COMMENCEMENT opens tonight, May 1st at HUB 14, 14 Markham Street, one block west  of Queen St W. and Bathurst, for six performances: May & 2 at 8:00 PM May 3rd at 4:00 PM and continuing the following weekend: May 8 & 9 at  8:00 PM with matinees Saturday May 9th and Sunday, May 10th at 4:00 PM. Tickets are $20/$15 (arts workers) and may be purchased in advance at