Sunday, January 31, 2016

From Russia with Love: Dmitry Zhukovsky Talks About DIrecting A CHERRY ORCHARD

Dmitry Zhukovsky is opening his production of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's most beloved play, THE CHERRY ORCHARD on the playwright's 112th birthday, January 29th.

"It's important to strike the right balance between drama and humour. I don't want it to be overly sentimental."

Finding the right tone has always been one of the trickier aspects of mounting the famous play. One of the most notorious "artistic differences" in theatrical history was a debate over precisely this subject. Chekhov gave the play to his friend, the great teacher, actor and founder of the Moscow Arts Theatre, Konstantin Stanislavsky to direct. Chekhov's wife, Olga Knipper, played Ranevskaya, the aristocratic matriarch, spendthrift and protagonist, whose ancestral family estate, including a beautiful cherry orchard is in danger of being sold to pay her family's debts.

The inaugural production, at the Moscow Arts Theatre also opened on Chekhov's birthday. Stanislavsky thought the play was a tragedy. Chekhov said his play was a comedy. The production received mixed reviews and the playwright was not happy with the debut, famously saying, "Stanislavsky has ruined my play."

Zhukovsky hopes to be more faithful to the playwright's intentions. I ask him why he thinks a play from 1904 still connects with contemporary theatre audiences.

"Chekhov poses universal and eternal questions of what it means to be human. At the moment of the play, each character is in an existential crisis. They are all overwhelmed by their own desires, their own issues. It's not about class structure, or old 19th century ideas. We've focused on human emotions and the emotional and intellectual relationships between the characters."

I point out that, in many ways, THE CHERRY ORCHARD centres around a real estate deal, specifically a fraught development deal. Certainly Toronto audiences can relate to that.

"Yes, the family at the centre of the play is trying to encapsulate a moment in their history, which is about to be lost. They have spent their childhoods in this incredibly beautiful pastoral landscape, a kind of Eden. The play is about a about a loss of innocence. In the design of the show, we have really worked to create the beauty and innocence of the place."
Zhukovsky has only been in Toronto for a few years, although he has already managed to start his own company, THEATRUS. This past fall, he presented work at Nuit Blanche. He worked for years as an actor, director and acting teacher in Russia. Russian is his first language. Whose translation is he using?

"Rena Polley, the company's instigator, has used a number of translations to assemble the script." Polley is also playing Ranevskaya. 

His cast includes a number of other well-known Toronto performers, including John Gilbert and Nina Gilmour.
I'm looking very forward to seeing what Zhukovsky and company do with one of my favourite plays.

The Cherry Orchard continues at the Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, until February 14, 2016. Performances are Tuesday -Saturday at 8;00 PM with matinees at 2:00 PM on Sunday afternoons. Tickets are available at or in person at the box office.

Thursday, January 21, 2016


Antoine Defoort is in France this week, at home with his kids.  His GERMINAL creation partner, Halory Goerger, however, is in Toronto with their other three cast members, plus their three technicians, presenting their internationally acclaimed creation, GERMINAL at WORLD STAGE at HARBOURFRONT CENTRE. The morning we spoke, his team was on the plane.

The show opened last night, and is here for the weekend, as part of the festival, before moving on to Usine-C in Montreal for four performances in early February.

Why isn't Defoort coming to Canada?

"Halory and I take turns.  Last week, I was in New York.  This week, Halory comes.  We both have kids."  I can hear his wry smile in his voice. Whatever you create comes with its own demands.

So is GERMINAL created on the spot?  "No, the text is fixed. We adapt (the performance) to the text, to the audience. But each night, we begin from scratch, with the void, in the black box."

GERMINAL is a piece about the process of creation.  It asks the question: " What would you do if you were to create the world from scratch?"

What provoked the creation of this play?  "Halory and I began a project: a conceptual box, an allegory of the genesis of human civilization. It didn't work.  So we said: what if we begin at the beginning: where does creation begin?"

Is this biblical?  "Oh, no!  There are certain elements that are in Genesis (the first book of the Old Testament in both the Torah and the Christian Bible) but we wanted to think more about the act of creation;  how do you create? Many sparks drew us. It takes many sparks to create."

GERMINAL was first created at the invitation of the prestigious Biennale du Danse in Lyon in 2012. 
"We were surprised: we work with text - and visuals."

Defoort trained as a visual artist and his partner, Goerger, comes from theatre. Their collective creations are a synthesis of their mutual interests and expertise in these areas, with equal weight given to both text and aesthetics.

Since its premiere in 2012, GERMINAL has been a critical success, going on to play at prestigious festivals including the Carrefour International de Theatre in Quebec City, and the Festival D'Avignon.

What  else does Defoort want to tell me about the show?  Not much!

"I don't want to ruin the surprise! We work to surprise you! I want the audience come to the work as we came to create this: blank, then, together, we can go with the flow. There's a lot of build in the piece."

After repeating this creation for several years now, I wonder if he is still surprised by the piece as a performer.

"Oh yes!  Working with the piece for so long has allowed us to acquire a deep knowledge of the text, of the rhythm. Now we can play it with more refinement.  You know, when it is live, it's always different every night because the audience is different, how you meet is different."

It's true. As a performer in live theatre, one is always exquisitely conscious of the attention and energy of the audience, of their level of engagement.  It's a very nuanced relationship.

"It went well in New York. We got a very nice review in the New York Times."

Indeed they did.  Having read it, I think it would be fair to say it was a rave.

I'm looking very forward to my surprise from Goerger, Defoort and company this weekend.

GERMINAL opens THE WORLD STAGE FESTIVAL at HARBOURFRONT CENTRE and continues until January 23, 2016 with nightly performances at 8:00 PM. or call (416) 973 4000. 
In Montreal for four performance from February 3-6 at USINE-C or 
(514) 521 4493 for tickets and information.

Friday, January 15, 2016


The tree is down, the seasonal parties are over, and the grim part of the winter has arrived: cold, snow, depleted cash, and expanded girth being all that remain of last month's festive excesses.

What better way to cheer oneself up after facing the dreary prospect of a Toronto January, then to travel down to the Factory Theatre where Next Stage Theatre Festival is heading towards its final weekend.

At this juncture, I've seen half the festival.  It's a strong program this year, with a number of exceptionally fine scripts. There's also a very nice heated tent housing the box office, and a bar with hot chocolate and other warming libations.

I started  my festival-going with THREE MEN IN A BOAT, Green Pea's adaptation of a turn-of-the century comedic novel by Jerome K. Jerome.  It's no wonder this Toronto Fringe festival remount has been a run-away audience favourite. The cast of three (plus Montmorency, the fox terrier) are absolutely delightful.  The arch production has a clever and very funny script by Mark Brownell and deft direction by Sue Miner, who keeps the trio's droll antics teetering on the precipice of camp. Matt Pilipiak, Scott Garland and Victor Pokinko play a hapless trio of toffs who decide to take a boating holiday on the Thames. Together they offer their fortunate audiences a combination of great chemistry, manic energy, and impeccable comic timing, making this feather-light vintage treat a must-see. Nina Oken's spot-on period costumes and the lovely vocal harmonies on those 1889 pop hits are the garnish on a show that goes down as effortlessly as a Pimm's #1 cup on a warm summer evening.

Next up was STUCK.  Natasha Boomer and an assortment of friends improvise a half-hour play on the basis of a suggestion thrown out to the comedic duo by the audience.  The day I was there, Boomer and Kevin Whalen were madly improvising on the premise they were stuck in his wife's bedroom closet. Whelan's actual wife, with baby in arms, was seated in the front row. As if that weren't enough plot for 30 minutes, the fire alarm went off in the theatre.  The performer's played through like the troopers they are, incorporating the ringing bells into their act, until the Toronto fire department insisted we evacuate the premises for real. We were about 12 minutes in at that point. Bummer! The performers were so three G (that's good, giving and game for you non Dan-Savage readers) that I'm happily heading back in this weekend to see what a complete version of this high-stakes premise turns out like. I'm betting fast and fun.

Monday night, I saw BLOOD WILD, by Rabbit in A Hat Productions from Montreal.  It's a cleverly written and well-executed (all puns intended) old fashioned, shoot 'em up Western, with whiskey, saloon girls, gunslingers, train robbers, and, of course, a sheriff.  Directors Paul Van Dyck (also the writer) and Sara Rodriguez keep the ton's-o-action plot moving along at a good giddy-up. The cast of David Baby, Julia Borsellino, Eric Davis, Patricia Sumersett, Alex Weiner and Paul Van Dyck manage the gun-play and word-play with equal ease. Sumersett and Borsellino play siblings, and the intensity and tenderness of their relationship gives the show heart.

Next up, was one of the most anticipated plays of the festival, Nicholas Billon's adaptation of the Greek tragedy AGAMEMNON. Billon does not credit his source material in the program, although "after the play by Aeschylus" is clearly on the handbill, so perhaps this was simply an oversight. Certainly, I was glad I knew the original play. His truncated and cryptic adaptation is long on visuals and smart ideas, but short on the development of story and relationships.

Designers Shannon Lea Doyle (set/costumes/projections), Kaitlin Hickey (lighting), Andy Trithardt (sound) and director Sarah Kitz offer a very stylized and au courant production, with the ghost of Iphigenia hovering over the production, unseen by the household, but ever present onstage, perched on a massive pair of stilts.

The cast is excellent and the characters Billon has created are fascinating, but the roles are, for the most part, underwritten. Susanna Fournier as Chrysothemis is a wilding teenager, anorexic-thin and throwing herself at any and every man who comes into her cross-hairs. Amy Keating  does a fine job of creating an Electra who is an asexual gamer/psycho/hobbit. Samantha Brown as Cassandra is a foreigner brought home as a trophy of war by Agamemnon.  Ron Kennell makes a blackly comedic meal of the role of  Clytemnestra's castrato/toy-boy/henchman Aegisthus. Marcel Stewart as Halaesus does fine work in one of the more developed characters in the play, Agamemnon's buttoned-down, PSTD addled aide-de-camp. Earl Pasko is also wonderful as the Old Man.

As Agamemnon, Nigel Shawn Williams plays the conquering hero with great gravitas and a smouldering undercurrent of violence. As  his wife, Clytemnestra, Brigit Wilson creates a middle-aged woman both defiantly reveling in, and afraid of losing her sexual power.  The murder of her rival here is so unsupported by the text that nothing the actors valiantly try to do can wall-paper over the gaping hole in the text. The laughter that greeted her bloody appearance after the murder came from complete disbelief at the turn of events. The ending was fantastically chilling: foreboding and terrifying.

It's a 45 minute show in a 75 minute slot. I hope Billon finishes writing the play and remounts it.  It's definitely going to some really intriguing places: but it's not quite there yet.

NEXT STAGE THEATRE FESTIVAL continues until January 17th at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street.  For a full schedule, tickets go to or call 416 966 1062.