Friday, October 30, 2015


Governor General's Award winner, Nicholas Billon's latest play, BUTCHER received its Toronto debut on Wednesday night at The Theatre Centre. It's an excellent production of an intelligent and unsettling script, but it is not for the faint of heart.

The play opens in a police station in Toronto, on Christmas Eve. An elderly man (a commanding John Koensgen) in an old military uniform and a Santa hat, with a butcher's hook strung around his neck, has been deposited on the steps of the station. On the end of the meat hook, a lawyer's business card has been spiked, with a note on the other side, "ARREST ME". The old man is from some unknown East European country, and he doesn't seem to speak any English.

The police officer (a riveting Tony Nappo) has summoned the lawyer (a beautifully nuanced Andrew Musselman) named on the card to the station, to ascertain how it is the old man happened to have his business card on him in the first place.  The lawyer, a ex-pat Brit named Hamilton Barnes, claims to have no knowledge of the old man.  The police officer has determined what language the old man speaks, and has called in a translator (Michelle Monteith, making the best of a thankless part). She arrives, and things get - intense.

No one is who they initially claim to be.

Billon has written an old fashioned revenge tragedy, placing it in a contemporary setting, where a war criminal is dragged out of hiding  and held to account for his sins of the past by one of his former victims.

In this kind of play, vengeance is seen, by the perpetrator of the act of taking vengeance, as a passion for justice. The vengeance seeker is not interested in balancing the scales of justice, but rather in blindly and bloodily wielding Justice's exacting sword. This sentiment is articulated very clearly in the play, and put horrifyingly into action through the capable direction of Weyni Mengesha, and fight staging of Simon Fon.

Billon does have a character argue the other side: that the courts and the law are the way to punish the perpetrators of crimes against humanity, but that perspective don't get much floor time in this excursion.

Billon is a brilliant writer.  The play is inventive, well-structured, articulate, and churns out both ideas and action.  The questions he poses about crime and justice, as well as his theatrical treatment of the subject of revenge, allude to dramas on the subject by the Romans, (Seneca) and the Greeks (Euripides).

The writing, acting and direction, are all admirably strong. It's rare to see such a great exploration of this difficult subject.

Contemporary audiences, however, are subjected to torture-porn/vigilante justice in the guise of police procedurals, and Dexter episodes seven days a week. I suspect I am not the only spectator with vengeance fatigue.

Billon clearly demonstrates that vengeance is pointless. This is both the play's moral heart and its greatest structural weakness.  The character who is the engine of the action of the play is singular in pursuit of a horrific objective.  The actor executing this role is given one note to play by the writer. The performer does a fine job, but one note is one note.

Yes evil is both banal and appalling. Watching 90 minutes of unrelenting horror visited on victims is not cathartic, in this play, just exhausting and draining. I left the theatre feeling sullied, as if, by the act of viewing such atrocity, I was somehow complicit in its enactment.

The Elizabethan statesman, Francis Bacon said, "In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy, but in passing it over, he is superior, for it is a prince's part to pardon."  Mercifully, the writer affords us a glimpse of that prince at the end, as well as a shimmering vision of innocence and hope. Would that the voice of reason, and the vision of hope had been given more voice in this disturbing production.

BUTCHER continues at THE THEATRE CENTRE until November 15th, as part of The November Ticket Theatre Festival at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West.  For dates, times and ticket prices go to or call (416) 538 0988. 

Thursday, October 29, 2015


Last Saturday night, a friend and I attended a great production of Linda Griffiths' hilarious and provocative, THE AGE OF AROUSAL at the Factory Theatre. It is undoubtedly the strongest production to have graced the Factory main stage in a number of years.

In the aftermath of the First World War, England has 400,000 more women than men. That was a whole lot of of impecunious spinsters and widows.  Women had won the right to vote, and were joining the workforce in large numbers, mostly in some form of domestic service, or retail.  Unless you'd been left an inheritance, as a single woman you were facing a life of genteel - and sometimes not so genteel - poverty.

Enter Mary Barfoot (Julie Stewart): suffragette, lesbian, intellectual, heiress, and educator. Barfoot, a formidable woman of great intellectual and sexual power hovers on the cusp of losing her beauty.  Barfoot knows most women don't inherit and many won't  - or don't want to marry a pay cheque. She is determined to improve women's lot by securing them financial independence through vocational training.

Barfoot and her much younger lover/business partner Rhonda Nunn (Marie Beath Badian) run a secretarial college for women.  Armed with a trio of terrifying looking Remington typewriters, the couple undertakes the emancipation of a hapless trio of sisters:  the Maddens.

Griffiths' play was loosely based on an 1893 novel called THE ODD WOMEN and the Maddens are decidedly an odd lot.  Alice (Juno Rinaldi) is a high-strung neurotic, Virginia (Aviva Armour-Ostroff), a cross-dressing dipsomaniac and Monica (Leah Doz), a sexually voracious shop girl, who is way too pretty for her own good. When Barfoot's wealthy, handsome, nice guy male doctor/dilettante cousin, Everard (Sam Kalilieh) returns from abroad, putting a fox in this hen house, things get very complicated indeed.

Griffiths' brilliant script may be set 100 years ago, but it still feels very fresh and current in its exploration of feminism, sexuality, gender politics, aging, money, power, and loneliness.

The cast uniformly executes wonderful physical and vocal character work.  This is a very solid ensemble.  Brewin directs a smart, brisk-paced production that lets Griffiths' intellectually and emotionally complex, and delightfully mad script really shine.

The actors are required to articulate both their outside and inside voices, which leads to many moments of hilarity, and a few of gut-wrenching and painful truth.

Two things about the production made me feel sad.  One, was sitting and watching the wonderful play unfold and  again, mourning the loss of Linda Griffiths last year. She was a unique voice in Canadian theatre:  intellectually brilliant, and fearlessly intense. She will never write another play again.  What a tragic loss!

The other thing that saddened me was the embarrassing lack of production values on stage: set, lighting, and costumes. No designers were credited, although a wardrobe coordinator was hired.  My heart goes out to her. The show looks like someone went to Goodwill, Ardene's, and the Kind Exchange with about a hundred bucks.

I don't expect to see stretch polyester on an actress in a period play on the stage of a major theatre. Leggings? Tank tops? Seriously?  Everard, a wealthy, well-traveled womanizer is in a suit that doesn't fit.

With the exception of the typewriters, the visual elements of the production were below the standard of an underfunded community theatre. A performance this good deserves an equally fine standard of production design.  This isn't naked theatre: it's just a pound-foolish decision not to employ a design team.

THE AGE OF AROUSAL continues at the Factory Theatre until November 8th from Tuesday -Saturday at 8:00 with pay-what-you-can matinee performances at 2:00 pm on Sunday afternoons. Call (416) 504 9971 or go to

Friday, October 16, 2015


It's a cool, overcast autumn day, when I meet Cliff Cardinal in the lobby of the Daniel Spectrum Theatre, home of Native Earth Performing Arts (NEPA).

We head out the door of the theatre and stroll through Cabbagetown to the Jet Fuel for a coffee. We look at the Victorian mansions, and the remaining town homes from the original Regent Park development in the '70s.  I say they remind me of London tenements. " I like those houses." says Cardinal. "They're where the stories are."

Cardinal is back living in Toronto after a three year stint training at The National Theatre School of Canada as a playwright.  It's the most prestigious theatre school in the country, and the most difficult to get into.  The playwriting program takes two students a year. Last spring, after completing the three year program, he graduated.

As we enter the cafe, he takes a picture of the exterior, and texts it to a friend who is meeting him after we're done.  She's here from Montreal, and he wants to be sure she can find it. This guy is on it.

When I first met Cardinal, almost four years ago, HUFF was in development.  He was being pushed to make it a multi-actor show.  He wanted to write and perform a multiple character monologue.  Even in its earliest iteration, the play was a wild ride: heart-breaking, terrifying and blackly hilarious.

Cardinal sagely ignored the dramaturgical advice, and wrote a monologue, which he performs alone.  It was a good call. Cardinal has performed HUFF over 70 times and is opening NEPA's 15/16 season with the show.  As usual, HUFF has opened in Toronto to praise from both audiences and critics for the script and the performance.

"Huff is about risk-taking. Wind (the protagonist) lives for dangerous joys." A pause. "I write about outsiders:  the freaks, the people who defy social convention, the ones who don't fit in.  They are the ones who will do anything to be accepted and loved.  That's what gets them in trouble."

What did Cardinal learn in Montreal?  "To meet the work."  Cardinal's been working hard. "Every morning, I get up and write between 6:00 and 9:00 am."

In addition to writing, performing, and touring HUFF, his play STITCH closed NEPA's last season.  The play he wrote during his sophomore year at NTS, ROMANCESHIP is "coming to a theatre near you next season."  He grins.  What's it about? "Oh a couple in a dysfunctional relationship. I also wrote a vicious social satire in year three. It's a frontal attack on Canadian values. It needs a big cast.  We did it as a graduating project.  I'd love to do it here in a big theatre."

Another grin.  I ask him about his earlier education. "My mom (actress Tantoo Cardinal) and my family moved around a lot.  I've lived in Pine Ridge, L.A., Vermont.  I've been in Toronto off and on since I was 15.  I attended 7 different high schools.  I dropped out.  My mom said, "OK, you're going to work as an apprentice with Video Cabaret. Billy (Merasty) will keep an eye on you." Michael Hollingwoth (the artistic director) said, "Sit at the back and watch and if someone asks you do something, do it."  Another grin. Michael eventually gave me my first professional acting job.  Watching the rehearsals of NEW FRANCE taught me a lot - about, history, about theatre, about acting, about how plays get made and developed."

This year, Cardinal is is the writer-in-residence at Video Cabaret. "In rez-indence?" I pun?

Cardinal has had an excellent education.  The outsider is inside the theatre now, sharing the dangerous joys of his work with admiring audiences.

This winter, HUFF goes on tour to Vancouver, Victoria, Kelowna, Edmonton, Calgary, Peterborough and Quebec City.

I saw the show last night. The play, the performance and the production are all excellent. Cardinal is more than ready to bring his edgy, challenging work to audiences in Toronto and across Canada.

HUFF continues until October 25th at the AKI STUDIO THEATRE , 585 Dundas Street East as part of NATIVE EARTH PERFORMING ARTS 15/16 season. Tuesday- Saturday 8:00 PM. SUNDAY at 2:00 pm. .Tickets are $15-$30 and may be obtained online at or  by calling 416 531 1402.