Tuesday, July 21, 2015


Jeremy Smith is in his 21st year as the founding artistic director of Driftwood Theatre.  The company performs Shakespeare every year,  but it is the company's first time doing HAMLET.

OK, so why HAMLET this year? Well for one thing, we're in an election year.

"The play is a powerful exploration of grief and revenge. Post 9-11, we have lived with governments that employ the politics of fear.  In the period when HAMLET is set, Denmark is in a state of fear. HAMLET examines the ways governments use fear to maintain power."

Also Smith explains, this is a very different version of HAMLET than audiences usually get to see.

"We're doing a version of HAMLET based on the 1st quarto, which is roughly half the length of the 1st Folio version."

Huh?  I am about to get a lesson in dramaturging Shakespeare.

"There are three printed editions of the canon (the collected works) attributed to Shakespeare.
All three were printed within 20 years (1603-23). The first quarto is the so-called “bad quarto”,  because the language is often rougher. The two versions that follow are the 2nd quarto, and the 1st Folio, which is the one most people read in high school, and university."  

I look over at my well-worn Bevington, resting on the bookcase: sure enough, it's first Folio.

"We decided to go with the 1st quarto, because it's action packed, very dynamic. There's also a scene not in other versions.  Our dramaturge, Toby Malone worked to retain the lyricism of the later versions, but hang onto the dynamism of 1st quarto.  He also incorporated line structure from the later drafts, so you have the beautiful speeches, but  it's not three and half hours long, like the one currently playing at Stratford."

How did a different version of the text affect Smith's selection of an actor to play Hamlet?

"I wanted a young Hamlet for this: someone who could credibly be rash and impulsive." 

So a bit of a badass?  

"Oh yeah. Paulo Santalucia has great classical training and experience, as well as an abundance of youthful energy.  His Hamlet is a hothead."

Smith is excited. "There's lots of fighting, including a great sword-fight. Tod Campbell, has worked with us since 2001. He's our go-to fight director, and he really pumps up the action."

Driftwood maintains a rigorous touring schedule, in support of its mandate to take classical theatre to communities with little or no access to the art form. "We opened last Saturday in Oshawa.  We will appear in over 20 venues this summer  from  London to Bobcaygeon. Not everyone can afford to go out of town to see theatre.  So we take theatre to them. Our performances are always pay what you can."

Jeremy is an avid motorcyclist and takes his bike around the province, to visit the company on the road, as well as the people, and places he has grown to know and love.

"I look forward to driving the back roads of Ontario on my bike, and going to meet our audiences.  People come back to see us perform year after year.  We are part of their summer."

One of the directorial challenges for Smith, is creating a production that will work well in many different playing spaces. "Oh yes, parks, city squares:  I've set the production in the round, and we use amplified sound to make sure the audience can hear over traffic, planes, barking dogs, kids." This year, he also designed the show, as he often does.

Tonight, Driftwood Theatre begins a one week run of HAMLET in Withrow Park, in Toronto. Bring some bug repellent, and a picnic and go experience one of the joys of summer: live, outdoor Shakespeare.

Driftwood Theatre performs HAMLET in Toronto, from July 21st-26th , 2015, nightly, at 7:30 at WITHROW PARK, ( CARLAW & STRATHCONA) in Riverdale, before resuming their tour of Ontario, which continues in various locations  around the province, until August 16th.
PAY WHAT YOU CAN (but they'd really love it if you can manage to pay $20)
Reservations can be made for $20 by calling (416) 703 2773 x 246 or at
www.driftwoodtheatre.com which also has a calendar of other dates and locations.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

REVIEW: PANAMANIA Week One: Miller, Jain and Lepage

Last week, I saw three of the theatrical productions on offer as part of PANAMANIA: 20,00 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, Rick Miller and company's take on Jules Verne's novel, GIMMIE SHELTER, Ravi Jain's re-imaging of the Indian epic story,  THE MAHABHARATA and 887, Lepage's very personal story about his childhood in Quebec City, during the Quiet Revolution and the FLQ crisis.

Like Verne's novel, Miller's production is epic in scope, and madly ambitious.  He has collaborated with filmmaker, Deco Dawson who creates the world of Captain Nemo's submarine, THE NAUTILUS, and life under and on the sea, with a series of fantastic layered projections. Puppets and performers animate a world that floats between a polluted, technology driven present, and a past where war, and whaling left the oceans awash in blood.

The production has jaw-dropping magical segments, and plenty of plot:  perhaps a little too much.

The script's fusion of a contemporary narrative with a Verne-inspired past works pretty well in the first act, but hasn't quite been sorted out in the second half.

There's a big chunk of clunky exposition in Act II that isn't integrated into the rest of the action-driven script. I get that we are going to have to resolve water issues as a society, but that doesn't absolve playwrights of the need to resolve the plot lines in their scripts. Moreover, the story doesn't have any clear ending.

200,000 Leagues has a lot going for it.  The cast has good chemistry and it is beautiful to look at.  I think once the story is more polished, and the script and the technology are better integrated, this show will really shine. Last week, the tech and the story hadn't quite melded into a seamless whole. The show has another outing at the GRAND Theatre in London this winter.  Catch it there, when it is a bit more together.

Down the street, at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Ravi Jain is performing an intimate folk tale from his childhood, which he uses to examine the plight of people forced into exile, by climate change.

As the son of immigrants, Jain tells us he is drawn to the plight of migrants, and you really feel his heart in this production.

Jain is both a thoughtful and and intelligent writer, and a wonderfully engaging, and skillful performer. He slides out of a formal black paisley South Asian gentleman's coat, and magically materializes a series of costume pieces, and a traditional masque, which he uses to transition into the narrator of a compellingly told tale of two warriors, engaged in a game of greed, and gambling run amok.

Jain's fine physical performance of the story is well supported by Gurpreet Chana's hypnotic tabla music, Nicholas Murray's sound design, and Daniel LeClerc's video shadow puppets. The blend of projections on two spinning, sliding screens and Jain's clever movement let us fly with him, as he moves through his epic folk tale. The elegant set by Ken MacKenzie is simple, evocative, and very effective.

Towards the end, Jain invites the audience to join him in telling the story, or rather in imagining a world where connection and compassion triumph over greed and self-interest. I understood why he chose to end it as he did, given his theme.  However his sophisticated performance, and the amorphous ending aren't well-melded, and I felt left hanging.

It's a lovely show with a lot of heart, it just didn't feel quite finished.

Then Tuesday, Robert Lepage opened 887 at Canadian Stage, and we all got what we came for: a stunning work of art by Le Maitre, at the top of his form.

Simply, on a black stage, Lepage begins to tells a story. He has been asked to learn a poem, for the 40th anniversary celebration of a famous night in Quebec cultural history: La Nuit de Poesie. The poem is "Speak White" by Michele Lalonde.

The present day Lepage worries about his memory: is he going senile, like his grandmother?  Why can he remember phone numbers from childhood, but none from last week? Why is it so hard to learn a poem, now that he is past 50?  What will the world remember of his ephemeral theatre creations when he's gone?

"Je me souviens" - "I remember" is on every license plate in Quebec.  Lepage, does indeed, remember, and he masterfully takes us back 40 years in time, to his childhood home, in a three bedroom apartment, at 887 Murray Street, in Quebec City, where he lived with his parents, his brother, his two sisters, and his failing grandmother.

As the black cube stunningly morphs into his childhood apartment building, his aunt and uncle's house,  his present chic downtown condo, and many other things, he shows us what led to the Quiet Revolution, the FLQ Crisis, and to the separatist sentiments in Quebec, that go underground, but never die:  the way French Canadians were exploited as cheap labour, and treated as second-class citizens.

Lepage's family, neighbours, and hometown come to life:  from his father's taxi cab awash in cigarette smoke, and American music, to the sad, scary and funny goings on in the homes of his neighbours.

The integration of the many design elements: projections, scale models, and smart phone technology was seamless, drawing us deeper and deeper into the vortex of the story. The show makes brilliant use of technology to enhance and support Lepage's heart-breaking narrative about a part of Canadian history many of us would rather forget.

In 887, Lepage perfectly melds the personal, and the political, into an explosive play about race, class, language, politics, family, love, and loss and he tells it with disarming skill, passion, humour and grace.  His electrifying recitation of SPEAK WHITE is a moment in a theatre I will never forget.

Lepage knows exactly where, when, and how he wants to end his story, pulling together the narrative  lines of history and family in a gut-wrenching, emotional punch.

Lepage brought his technicians onto the stage for the curtain call. He, and they received a well deserved standing ovation. Ex Machina, indeed.

887 reminds us if we forget our history, we are destined to repeat it. It is the theatre event of the festival.

20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA will re-open at the Grand Theatre, London Ontario, this winter. GIMMIE SHELTER and 887 continue this weekend at the PANAMANIA Theatre Festival.
For dates, times and tickets, go to www.toronto2015.org/panamania

Friday, July 10, 2015


Today, the Pan-American Games open in Toronto. It's a once-in-a-lifetime event, and a chance for the city of Toronto to really shine.  The arts community is proudly joining our athletes on the world stage, showcasing some of the best creative talent this country has to offer.

PANAMANIA, a massive 35 day arts and culture festival, runs along side the international athletic competition.
It's a phantasmagorical mix of over 250 free and ticketed performances, including an incredible selection of live theatre, created by a range of luminary Canadian theatre artists, around the theme of Aqua Culture.

On Saturday night, theatre creator, Rick Miller and his co-producer, Craig Francis, along with a team of performers, visual artists and puppeteers present the world premiere of 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, their 21st century multi-media adaptation of the famous 19th century work of speculative fiction. I spoke with them about their collaboration and this creation, by telephone,earlier this week.

Miller begins. "2015 marks the final year of the United Nations Decade on Water. The festival decided to use Aqua Culture as a thematic pillar. I had loved the Verne book as a kid. Verne lived in an era of wonder, and, in many ways, so do we. Verne wrote about life on The Nautilus, (the submarine in the book), when submarines were first invented. We've gone for a kind of retro steampunk aesthetic, bringing the past and the future together. Verne was concerned about the life of oceans, and the diminishing whale population due to over-hunting. Those ecological themes in the book still resonate, and were perfect for both Kidoons' platform and a stage production."

Francis jumps in,"I have an online educational company, Kidoons, directed at a family audience. Rick and I are partners in developing projects for the company. We went looking for a story that would work onstage as compelling theatre, and, online, as sustainable creative, educational content for young readers about the science of oceans, water and the environment."

Francis and Miller have co-written the script, and are co-producing the show.

So is this theatre for young audiences? "No." says Francis, "It's not a kids' show: it is for families and their kids. It's great for kids over 10.  You know when you go to New York, Broadway has shows like LION KING that both kids and adults can enjoy?  Rick and I wanted to create something for that audience."

Miller is a legendary solo performer. He spent close to a decade touring MAC HOMER, a one-person version of MACBETH, using characters from The Simpsons. The show catapulted him from the Fringe circuit to international stardom.

Miller also took the stage alone here, earlier this winter in BOOM, his critically acclaimed whirlwind tour of the last five decades of the 20th century.  20,000 LEAGUES... has a cast of four, plus a large crew of artistic collaborators. Why the switch from solo shows?

"Well, even when I do a solo show, I work with a team to create it. I've worked with (Robert) Lepage. He similarly collaborates with a team of artists, whether he is creating a show for one performer, or many. I'm directing, co-starring, and co-producing on this. That's plenty! I love the opportunity to connect with other players onstage.  Working collectively and collaboratively is a theme in the show."

Francis elaborates. "For example, we partnered with the City of Hamilton on this project, which has enabled us to use footage from the wrecks of two sunken battleships for the War of 1812, as part of our online story, and as projections in the show."

Miller chimes in. "There is a character, Jules, in the show, who is kind of living the entire book in his imagination, as I do when I create these things."  He laughs. "Jules escapes into the wold of Verne's book, and takes the audience with him on a voyage of discovery." He stops for a moment, gathering his thoughts.

"The show is about global water issues, and how we are going to solve them. That's something we are going to have do as a community, collectively and collaboratively. There's a talk-back after every performance."

Before Rick Miller became a theatre practitioner, he trained as an architect.  I ask how, or if, this has influenced on his work in theatre. "There are no silos for me. All the things I learned in architecture: about beauty, structure, harmony, contrast, are elements I strive to bring to the construction of my shows.  I think of my plays as buildings I've created, that I inhabit with the audience. A live performance is unique, shared, and experiential."

The video of the show on the website is certainly intriguing. I look forward to experiencing Miller and his team's re-imaginging of Verne's iconoclastic novel, in the world premiere tomorrow night.

20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA http://www.20kshow.com plays at the DANIELS SPECTRUM THEATRE from JULY 11-15th as part of PANAMANIA www.toronto2015.org/panamania 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

FRINGING THE NIGHTS AWAY: Notes from the Beer Tent

The Toronto 2015 Fringe festival is at the half-way mark.  I'm feeling a bit bleary.  It's hard being at work at 8:30 am, when you're going to bed at 1:30 am most nights, after seeing that 11:00 pm show.  I used to be able to handle 12 straight days of this. Now, sleep deprivation seems to be catching up with me at the half-way mark.

Tonight my BFF has gone to see U2 ( there are other shows on beside the ones at the Fringe, apparently) and she and her consort asked me if I'd like to babysit my god-daughter.  Perfect circumstances for blogging about the festival so far - and, having an early night.

The beer tent, as the main festival site is affectionately known, has much more on offer than booze.  For starters, this year, it has a large water station in the middle, opposite, but not too close to the port-a-potties.

The bar always had pitchers of water out, and plastic glasses handy. This year, the bartenders told me, they wanted to offer easy access to water, but be more environmentally friendly, and toss out fewer cups.  To that end, the Fringe is selling reusable metal water bottles for the insanely low price of $2.00 - or you can bring your own.

Don't worry:  there's still beer, as well as wine and cocktails.  Seagrams and Steam Whistle are both sponsors.

The club has a great vibe: social, comfy, and relaxed.  There's live music, a photo booth, some cool vintage dealer-vendors in the mix of artisans, and a nice range of food offerings, including good vegan choices as well as pulled pork, curry, and burgers.  Pretty green umbrellas over the tables help complete the transformation of what is usually a parking lot, and alleyway, in a theatre party patio.

By the way, that patio is now completely non-smoking. If you want a cigarette, you need to step outside.

As usual, there are alley and shed shows at Fringe Central, for donations or pass-the-hat.  There are also theme nights (DJ Bingo on Friday!) and interesting tent talks, a series of professional development lectures directed at the arts community.

The tent is also open until 4:00 am on Saturday nights!  Whoo-hoo!  Now, if we could just have one, old-school, late night, dance party, my joy would be complete.

The festival has tried to address the thorny issue of pass-holders not having equal access to hot-selling shows as advance ticket purchasers, by giving them the option of paying a $2 per ticket fee, which then allows them to purchase tickets, in advance, for any show.  It's not a perfect solution, but it is a fairly reasonable compromise.

Now, if only those nice front of house people would stop saying the entire box office is turned over to the artists, when they pass the watering can around for donations. I am all for supporting the festival by tipping the Fringe. However, ticket fees, like the fees charged to artists to be in the festival, are, to the best of my knowledge, retained by the festival itself.

I've seen thirteen shows so far, and have about another dozen to go. For the most part, the standard of the work I've seen so far has been very high.

In addition to my pre-festival preview picks, I've lucked into a few great shows by chance.

NANTUCKET, which I went to because a friend wanted to see it, is a very well-told, beautifully written, and powerful family drama by American writer and actor, Mark Kenward.

On the advice of Ottawa theatre bloggers, Brian Carroll and Barb Popel, I decided to check out ZACK ZULTANA: SPACE GIGOLO.  Writer/performer Jeff Leard throws himself at this spoof of block-buster space adventure films, with the velocity of a rogue asteroid.  His energetic charm is irresistible, and I bounced out of the theatre on a wave of his exuberance. This is great, good fun.

In addition to the shows left from my preview list, I'm hoping to get to LUST and MARRIAGE on Friday night, if I can get a ticket, SHEVIL, because I know the terrific Susan Wesson is singing in it, and I haven't seen a musical yet this week, DEBRIS a shadow puppet show from Winnipeg, because the puppets they brought when they fliered the line-up the other night were so beautiful, HEY GOOD LOOKING! because Jillian Rees-Brown is a fine actress, and COMING and GOING, a contemporary dance piece, because they had great reviews out West last summer.

Not every show gets reviewed, and even the shows that do manage to get reviewed, aren't always covered by someone who is a specialist in their discipline. I've see shows reviewers loved that I didn't like at all, and shows that got less than stellar reviews, or no reviews, that were wonderful, or at least interesting.

Go see something because you liked the flier, or the program write-up, or the line-up pitch was cute, or someone you met on the way out of a show told you about something they really liked.  Some of the shows I've seen by accident this week have been among my favourites.

See you in line!

THE TORONTO FRINGE FESTIVAL continues until Sunday, July 12 at theatres around downtown Toronto.  For tickets, programs and information go to:  http://fringetoronto.com or visit the box office in person at 918 Bathurst Street, in the parking lot behind Honest Ed's.

the hat shows, the great selection of tent talks, the open to 4:00 am on Saturday night socializing, all good!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


It's Canada Day!  The CBC is blasting Can-pop and Can-rock.  Fireworks went off last night at Harbourfront and my Fringe billet, and I watched the shimmering rain dust the heavens.

The sky looks kind of threatening.  It hasn't been the warmest summer so far.  Rain or shine, I anticipate spending a crazy amount of time inside a theatre over the next 10 days. The  Toronto Fringe opens tonight, and along with cheap beer, and cupcakes, they have over 150 shows on offer.

Tonight, I'll head off to the festival site behind Honest Ed's, pick up my pass, and commence one of my favourite rituals of summer:  twelve days at the most democratic theatre festival in town.

After combing through my Facebook event invites, press releases and tweets, scouring the program, and chatting with some hard core Fringe watchers, here's a list of a few things I'm planning to see this week.

Jem just picked up the SPIRIT OF THE FRINGE: LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD  in Montreal for his distinguished career as a performance poet. If you've seen Jem before, I hear this is a great show.  If you've never seen Jem, performance poetry doesn't get much better than a Jem Rolls show. NB: He's not in the printed program, as he got a late slot. What this means is someone else dropped out and he took their times.  Check the festival website (at the bottom of this post) for dates times of performances.

As one half of the comedy duo, DIE ROTEN PUNTE, Aussie export Tobias regularly sells out in Western Canada, but it is his first time in Toronto.  I have loved all of his previous outings, and can't wait to see this tale of wit in the face of adversity tomorrow night.

FOOL'S GOLD  www.metaphysicaltheatre.com  RANDOLPH  THEATRE
I love commedia dell'arte, it doesn't get done very often anywhere these days, and Stephen Lafrenie, who is a Keystone Theatre regular, is a skilled physical comedian.  If the rest of the company as accomplished as he is, this should be a treat.

ANATOLIA SPEAKS http://www.poiemaproductions.com ST VLADIMIR'S THEATRE
Last time Ken Brown came to Toronto, from Edmonton, he brought SPIRAL DIVE, which 5 starred two days before they closed. It sold out across the rest of the country. Here, he and the wonderful Candice Fiorentino bring a Bosnian war refugee in an ESL class to the stage. This show has already been a hit in Winnipeg and Edmonton.

Some bunch of bright young things have decided to turn a GBS chestnut about philandering on its head.  I'm going to gamble on this one.

MEET CUTE  erinnorahthompson.tumblr.com ANNEX THEATRE
Boy meets girl: this rom-com features two good actors, and is the brain-child of Erin Thompson, creator of last year's run-away hit, SLUT. If you're looking for date-night theatre, this might be the show for you.

Daniel Giverin is taking a run at one of the greatest poets in the English language.  I'm there.

This show gets my vote for best title in this year's Fringe program, and the Weaker Vessels are generally pretty hilarious.

Mind of a Snail, a Vancouver troupe of puppeteers have arrived with their hit show about a couple of crows who re-imagine the world.  I've met these performers, they are lovely, and all the other performers I know who saw this show on the road,  raved about it, and that doesn't happen often.  It got five stars from the CBC.

The DINNER TABLE  http://www.failbettertheatre.com  Site Specific 918 Bathurst
Fail Better Theatre seats 12 people a night.  They feed you, and some very well regarded theatre practitioners  (Sky Gilbert, Nina Aquino, Judith Thompson) tell stories at the dinner table.  I suspect this will be the toughest ticket to get this week.

Oh yeah, SAM MULLINS and PETE 'N CHRIS are in town. So are MORRO and JASP.  But you knew that already. I hope to see them too.

I need to get out of here, and go grab some tickets.  See you in line!

The TORONTO FRINGE runs from July 1st -12th at theatres across the city.

Tickets to the Toronto Fringe are available in person, at the box office in the parking lot behind Honest Ed's, 581 Bloor Street West,  by phone at: (416) 966 1062 or at:  http://fringetoronto.com/