Friday, November 27, 2015


If you hurry up and book a ticket, you might get a chance to see one of the very best shows staged in the first half of the 15-16 Toronto theatre season.

BOMBAY BLACK is a love story set in a Mumbai slum, where desperate parents sell their children as private dancers to wealthy jaded clients.  "Darkness is a blank slate.  Draw on it what you will." BOMBAY BLACK tells a dark story, but both the cast and the production suffuse it with light.

Anosh Irani is both a novelist and a playwright.  The language of the play is dense and lyrical, the story layered and complex. It's a truly beautiful script, a powerful story told in heightened language.

Padma (Anusree Roy) is a single parent, who has fled an abusive marriage in rural India, and come to Bombay.  The marriage has left Padma a seething mass of rage and damage.

Padma sells her talented, unhappy daughter, Apsara as a private dancer.  The money the girl earns provides their livelihood. The bells around Apsara's ankles are both one of her enticements and the shackles of her imprisonment.

As played by Kawa Ada, Apsara is desire personified: a person everyone wants and no one can touch.  The parameters of the illuminated round stage where Apsara undulates nightly are both a protection (Padma applies an iron bar to the hands or head of anyone who dare touch her) and her prison. Apsara lives for the pleasure of others: wanted by all, and loved by none, not even her mother. Ada gives a luminous performance, allowing us to experience the damaged, untrusting child inside the seductive beauty. He also choreographed the show and the dancing greatly enhances the production.

One day, a blind man, Kamal (a wonderful Howard J. Davis) comes for a private dance.  He also comes to give Padma a message from her husband.  Her father wants to see Apsara one last time before he dies.  Kamal also claims that Apsara was his child bride, married to him when he was 10, and she was 3.  The first time he touched her, he was rendered blind.  He wants what was promised to him: love, the love that the celestial nymph gives to the lotus in the Indian myth.

Hinton initially chose an all male cast.  His decision to have two men play the lovers in the story works wonderfully.

I'm also very glad Hinton ended up with Anusree Roy. She lionizes the role of Padma, embracing her wit, while unflinchingly showing every venal cruel aspect of her character.  She truly earns our sympathy, as we see the suffering and neglect that made her  into the woman she has become. Roy's performance is a master-class in acting.

With the skillful deployment of a few well-used resources, Hinton creates theatre magic.

Lighting designer Jennifer Lennon does a spectacular job: creating clear spaces by defining and controlling the size of beams, and underlining the shifts in mood and tone in the story with shifts in colour.

BOMBAY BLACK is a must-see: gorgeous and compelling story telling from a creative team of impressive talent.

BOMBAY BLACK continues at the Factory Theatre Mainspace, 125 Bathurst Street, until December 6th, with performances from Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00 PM and pay what you can matinees on Sunday at 2:00 PM. or call: (416) 504 9971 

Thursday, November 26, 2015


Last week, I spoke with director Peter Pasyk, as he prepared to open LATE COMPANY, Jordan Tannahill's play about teenagers, parents, social media, and high-school bullying, 21st century style.

This Toronto remount is part of the Theatre Centre's NOVEMBER TICKET, a showcase of three recent scripts on provocative topics, by a trio of young, award-winning writers.

Pasyk directed LATE COMPANY's inaugural SUMMERWORKS production. "As a director, I have been quite focussed on developing new work.  This play is a project of passion for me. We did the Summerworks show, as a workshop production, then did a script workshop post-festival, to fine-tune it."

Clearly, the process has paid off.  LATE COMPANY has already had productions in Winnipeg, Vancouver, and now, at THE THEATRE CENTRE.

I ask Pasyk what drew him to directing in the first place. "I trained at Ryerson as an actor.  I was always very aware of the director and the ways they did, or didn't invite people's best selves to the table. I found myself doing a lot of silent brooding."  We both laugh. "I realized I could stay in a job that increasingly felt like a trap for me, and become bitter, or go change what I was doing. Directing felt like a calling for me, a vocation."

The rest of the November Ticket has been about about wars and genocide: big, global themes. LATE COMPANY is a family drama situated in that most domestic of enclaves, the dining room.  Much of the action of the play takes place at a dinner party, around the table.  Is it a case of  of "the personal is the political?" "Yes, absolutely," Pasyk responds."All the plays have been about accountability.  Who do we hold accountable for certain actions?  Family is at the root of human development.  Your family sets the course for how you understand the world."

So is this about blame? "There is never just one guilty party. The families in the play are trying to circumvent the usual system of blame, and attempt to apply a kind of restorative justice.  There are opposing views on who the good guys and the bad guys are: and there's the process of grief.  Jordan's play speaks to these topics across generations."

Certainly, the teenagers in the play are having a very different experience of high-school than their parents did.  Social media has radically transformed communication.

"There was no performing arts high school for me to attend where I lived. I participated in a youth theatre training program at the Tarragon as a teenager. I was drawn to the work of Tom Walmsley, and when I started directing as an adult, I did a very successful revival of THE JONES BOY. As a result, I  was fortunate to be invited by Richard Rose to be mentored as a director at the Tarragon Theatre.  While I was there, I worked with  Weyni Mengesha.  Now she and I both have productions as part of the NOVEMBER TICKET. It feels like I've come full circle - from starting in the theate as a teen-ager to now."

I saw Pasyk's production of LATE COMPANY last week, and found it both compelling, and very affecting. The last show on the NOVEMBER TICKET is well worth a visit.

Monday, November 16, 2015


Last week, I saw two shows that dealt with race issues and death: nice, light, theatrical fare to counter the depressing daily news of unrelenting global atrocity and violence.


The Obie-winning script by Jackie Sibblies Drury was written as a graduate thesis.  It both sounds and feels like one, and that's not always a good thing.

Ravi Jain's direction of the garrulous, over-wrought text is brilliant: inventive and intelligent.  He gets skillful and sophisticated performances from his talented cast.

Nothing any of them say, or do can rescue the play itself from its overwhelmingly starchy aroma of earnest, self-important, academic over-think. It's a terrific production of an incredibly frustrating script.

The conceit of the piece, an admittedly funny one, is that a collective theatre company has decided to create a devised theatre piece about the subject matter described in the title. It's a play within a play or an inter-text, as the post-modernists would say.

The theatre company consists of three black members, two men and a woman.  The black woman (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah) is directing the show and feels like the writer's alter-ego.  There are also three white actors, again, two men and a woman.

The premise of creating a piece of devised theatre is used to explore, discuss, and debate a lot of ideas about race, privilege, voice, the treatment of historical subjects in a contemporary context, group dynamics, and genocide.

The Germans, we learn, were occupiers in Namibia from 1884 to 1915, apparently committing genocide on the Herero people.  It was sort of a warm-up genocide before the one, 50 years later, in Europe. The play makes an effective case that, as the Heroro were not documented, one by one, as they were worked, starved, or executed into early graves, it was as if they simply never existed.

The play draws parallels between these events in 19th century occupied Namibia, and 19th century American society.  In case the audience is too dense to get the author's point, she has the white "Germans" speak to the black "Heroro" employing the dialects of the deep American South. Sigh.

What the play does do very powerfully is demonstrate how people get murdered, while other people stand around, watch, and do nothing.  I've seldom seen the convention of the 4th wall challenged to such disturbing effect.

A lot is demanded of the cast: Brent Donahue, Marcel Stewart, Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, Michael Ayres, Darcy Gehart and Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah.  As a group, they very convincingly have us believe they are making things up as they go along. The surreal scenes of the "play" are done as well as the light comedy off the top, and that's no mean feat.

As the friend who came with me said to me after the show, "I wish artists could take ideas seriously, without taking themselves so seriously." Indeed.

Down the street at the Factory, in its intimate backspace, Nina Aquino directs a sharp, stylized production of BANANA BOYS, a play about five young Asian Canadian men coming of age: their challenges, their passions, their losses, their victories, and their friendships.

The play, by Leon Aureus is based on the novel of the same title by Terry Woo. The script lacks a straight-ahead narrative structure, but that doesn't manage to deprive the play of power or charm.

The backspace has been stripped bare, with a raised steel platform in the centre of a pit stage, with the raked house at one end. Aquino puts the space to excellent use, particularly the various platform levels and the window arches in the back wall.  Cel phones are props/light sources in a lot of shows these days, but seldom used as effectively, or artistically as they are here.

The cast is uniformly polished and energetic. Slacker/DJ Luke (Philip Nozuka), nice guy/obsessional Sheldon (Darrel Gamotin), med student/wanna-be novelist Matthew (Mike Chao, also the narrative glue of the piece) rage-fuelled alcoholic Dave (Oliver Koomsatira) and power-broker Rick (Simu Liu)  a Bay-street super-star on the outside, and a hot mess on the inside, are all well-drawn by the performers, with both empathy and humour. The actors know these men intimately, and they let the audience know them intimately, too.

The play is very specifically rooted in a community, but universal in the story it tells about how we define success or failure for men in contemporary society, and in its exploration of male friendships. Banana Boys is a fine revival of a still-worthy play.

We Are Proud to Present...continues until November 29th, as part of THE NOVEMBER TICKET at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West for times, tickets and information.

BANANA BOYS  continues at THE FACTORY THEATRE , 125 Bathurst Street until November 22nd. for tickets, times and information.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015


The Coal Mine opened its second season this week with a captivating and assured production of  British playwright, Jez Butterworth's Broadway and West End hit, THE RIVER.

It's an enigmatic text, and director Ted Dykstra and his talented cast make a meal (literally and figuratively) of both its lyricism and constant shifts in mood.

The company has decided to forgo British accents, and set the play in Canada. I was a bit taken aback at first, but it proves a workable choice.

The  Man (David Ferry), middle aged, still attractive, likes to fish; no, he's passionate about fishing. It's in his blood, he learned from his uncle. He goes regularly to his uncle's former cottage, a rustic place in the woods, beside a river noted for its supply of  highly desirable and elusive sea trout.

The man likes to have company on these excursions:  female company.

Near the beginning of the play, the man's current female house guest (Jane Spidell) tries to persuade him to come with her to watch the sunset over the river.  The man is focused on preparing his fishing kit:  the best fishing takes place after dark, on a moonless night. He wearily declines, describing, in exquisitely poetic terms, the Turner sky he's missing.

The man is no philistine: he draws, he reads poetry, he's a skilled cook, he likes Cole Porter. There's whiskey in the cupboard, but wine for the dinner table. It's easy to see why women find him, and the chance to spend a weekend with him, well, alluring.

A lure is a kind of mechanical bait, designed to attract and capture a specific kind of fish.

David Ferry is in top form, playing the audience like a master angler: notching up and releasing tension, as he reels us into the world of a beguiling and slippery character.

As the Woman, Jane Spidell  is clearly drawn in by his charms, almost in spite of herself. In her role as a single, middle-aged woman early on in a courtship, Spidell is a marvel of defenses and vulnerability, letting the audience see the chinks in her armour appear, then vanish, as she lets down and raises her guard.When she speaks about her childhood, she makes palpable the pain of the damaged, neglected girl who became this brittle woman.

At one point, the woman disappears through a door, and the Other Woman (a sylvan and coquettish Dani Kind) appears: younger, more relaxed, flirtatious, confident. Is she past or present?A muse or a delusion?  Who is playing who?

The play takes place indoors: a domestic enclave, but one with strong auditory and visual suggestions of the natural world beyond the doors; the sound of a rushing river, light flickering through the branches of the woodland trees.

Water is a powerful element in the play, both reflecting beauty and concealing danger, outdoors and within. A knife floats in a dirty dish tub, a metal basin becomes a reflecting pool. This is what middle aged love affairs really feel like: sexually charged, potentially dangerous; fraught, delicate and uncertain.

The set and lighting by Steve Lucas and sound by Creighton Doane are note-perfect. Ming Wong's costumes are nuanced, underscoring the differences in characters and the shifts in mood.

The intimate space places the audience right in the middle of the courtships. There were moments of such arresting intimacy, that I found myself holding my breath.

Butterworth is less interested in answering questions than he is in exploring them. Dykstra and his talented cast have the courage to allow that to happen.

 The RIVER hooked me and didn't let me go.  Days later, I found myself  thinking about the turning points in the relationships onstage and in my own, long ago.

Coalmine Theatre has relocated into temporary digs east of their former home, beside the Only Cafe, in a converted storefront. The company receives no government funding and the space they've created is tight, but remarkably effective, a cosy and functional conversion of a former store into a performance venue.

For one thing, they've built risers, meaning that the sight lines are pretty good.  This, as many theatre-going die-hards can tell you, is not the case with many of the smaller, independent venues in town.

Slip down and see THE RIVER.  It's a trip you won't soon forget.

The RIVER continues until November 22 at the Coalmine Theatre's temporary location: 982 Danforth, just steps west of Donlands subway station.  Performances take place from Tuesday until Sunday, at 7:30 pm nightly for further information.