Saturday, February 27, 2016

REVIEW: LOVE CONQUERS ALL: SALT-WATER MOON Gets a POST-MODERN RETELLING at the FACTORY THEATRE

The Factory Theatre's program notes this season open with a discourse on the hermeneutics of the texts being presented, written by the theatre's resident dramaturge.

I know: I know.  No one has ever walked out of a theatre humming the narrative deconstruction. Ravi Jain seems to love staging  post-modern theory at present, and his current production of David French's SALT WATER MOON nearly drowns under the weight of the intellectual conceits he's tied to the old-school romance.

Fortunately, Jain's warm heart for the project trumps his egg-head inclinations in enough important ways to save it from being more fun to discuss than to watch.

David French's SALT WATER MOON is truly a Canadian classic. The play is so well-written, so passionate in its defense of the dreams of the working poor, so lyrical in its language, and so achingly romantic, that the script is damn nearly impossible to botch.

Jain and his team have made an arresting lovely decision to light the entire stage with candles in the formation of  a map of the firmament, literally making heaven on earth. Pure theatrical magic!

Then, he has Kawa Ada as Jacob Mercer, the boy (he's 18 in the text) who has come home to try and win back his beloved, Mary Stone, and wrest his former flame from the clutches of the town's balding, monied schoolteacher.. Mercer is the engine of the play, and Ada's charismatic performance propels the narrative with such charm and zeal that it's impossible not to cheer for him, and for them as a couple.

Jain's production also achingly illuminates the struggles of the working poor that  French so poignantly wrote about a quarter of a century ago, and that still resonate.  Both Awa and Mayko Nguyen as Mary Stone, make us powerfully hear and feel the the myriad constraints and humiliations of the lives they, and their parents before them, have spent in the service of other people's ambitions.

Less fortuitously, Jain also makes a series of  directorial decisions so head-scratchingly weird, that even after reading his program notes twice, I wondered what the hell he was thinking.

The company has decided to abandon any pretext of Newfoundland accents, but without making any  textual adjustments to the dialogue, which is written with all of the idiosyncrasies of East Coast speech.  So when  "S" gets left on the end of verbs, " I wants youse out"  for instance;  without the accent, it just sounds bizarre.

The good people of Newfoundland are descended from the Irish. This production is like hearing Behan or O'Casey performed without the appropriate Irish accent.  The musical cadences of the speech are lost.

Then there's the music he opts  for instead: a jazz musician, Ania Soul. He leaves her on stage, for the entire play, downstage right. She's dressed for a date in an up-do, lace stockings, boots and a frock, and constantly stealing focus. She sings intermittently through the entire show, which is lovely at times (off the top, before the play starts) and irritatingly distracting (the times when we are told we are hearing Mercer and hear her instead) at others.

Most annoyingly,  Jain has her recite the stage directions of the play throughout the show. So things happen like, we're told Mary is in a yellow silk dress, and Mayko Nguyen is wearing skinny jeans and a baggy, wrinkled, washed out looking peach top. When Jacob leaves after Mary has sent him away, back down the road to Toronto, we're told she screams to Heaven.  We hear a puppy like whimper, which would be a fine acting choice if it weren't so discordant with a text never meant to be articulated during the performance.

As a fatherless girl with a mentally ill mother, Mary has been a bread-winner since the age of 10, working as a live-in servant. Nguyen plays her as a woman who's decided make the best of a bad business: choosing a practical marriage to a man who can afford to support her, and, moreover, help to rescue her kid sister, who is living under the thumb of a sadistic matron in an orphanage. Mary can't afford a poor husband, or an unreliable one, and Jacob has already left her once.

Mary lives on the edge of the sea alright.  She's trapped between a rock and a hard place. Nguyen made me feel Mary's suffering and her struggle last night, but not her love for Jacob, until the absolute last moment of the play.

That moment, where two poor kids fall in love, not with love, but with each other, and let their hearts rule their heads is the triumph of nature over nurture, and the actors played it beautifully.  Soul picked that moment to hand her guitar over to a stage manager, before taking her curtain call, like a rock star.  Everything the actors had worked 90 minutes to earn was marred  by her striding upstage, and then taking her bow between the lovers. Ugh!

French wrote those stage directions for a reason, and that reason wasn't so a musician could sit on stage and recite them. Mary is wearing a yellow dress, as she stands on the on the porch of the house beside the sea,  as a potent visual metaphor. She's the moon to Mercer's ocean.  The love that brings her and Jacob back together is as inexorable as the tides of the sea.

Even a diva in training couldn't take the magic of their love away from them, or us, last night.

SALT WATER MOON continues at the Factory Theatre until March 13, 2016. http://www.factorytheatre.ca for dates, times, tickets and information.








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Monday, February 22, 2016

REVIEW: Staging Mortality: COLD BLOOD & BETROFFENHEIT at CANADIAN STAGE

I've been to Canadian Stage two weeks in a row, where I saw two very different shows about mortality. Both shows were dance/theatre hybrids.  The body often speaks what words cannot.

As a culture, we have a very uneasy relationship with death, and the suffering and sorrow that often accompanies it.  Mostly, we avoid thinking about it or talking about it. Even funerals are now often referred to as "celebrations of life." No wailing or gnashing of teeth allowed anywhere, ever. No black armbands, no mourning dress, no public show of grief.

Thank Heaven, for a theatre where you can leave your game face at home, and the artists will let you weep quietly in the dark.

The delightfully eccentric Belgian duo of Michelle De Mey and Jaco Van Dorael decided to look at death from the point of view of dead people: people who died suddenly, inexplicably, by accident or design. COLD BLOOD was weird, wonderful and quite magical.  The miniature dioramas used to stage the various nano-dances the company created and live-projected with their tracking cameras, were perfect for the blackly charming, surrealistic tone of the show.

A dark cloud drifted across the massive centre screen, inky and nebulous.  We were told we were being hypnotized: in three, in two, in one. We got pulled under: to a Hades of their own invention.

At one moment, early on, a giddily gorgeous, and completely silly finger tap number, in black and white, screened at a drive-in. The camera pulled in tight on fabulously synchronized nano-tap in an art-deco inspired Never-never Land. As memories of  late-night Fred and Ginger, and Busby Berkley chorus girls fill our collective imaginations, a voice-over reminded us that when we see these old movies, all the people in them are dead.  Nostalgia:  bringing the past back to life.

The play moved into darker territory, albeit leavened with uneasy humour.

Plane crashes and car accidents happened. A murderess committed suicide, and an elegiac contemporary solo dance exquisitely conveyed the crushing isolation of her life in a world of concrete high-rises, and Tinder swipes.

The most moving moments of the evening were the last. A man left his wife in the midst of an unresolved spat to walk to work.  He donned the gear of an astronaut and headed off into space, never to return. David Bowie underscores his demise: an otherworldly drift into a limitless void.  We know The Starman whose music was a part of so many of our youths is gone forever.  The silence that followed the music was heart-breaking. There weren't many dry eyes in the house.

The show is still a little raw, and there are places where it feels awkward, struggling to find the right tone.  No matter: it was a beautiful and trippy voyage of imagination to a place where we'll all end up, but rarely plan on going.

Last weekend, Crystal Pite, Kidd Pivot and Jonathon Young returned to Toronto with their critically acclaimed show from  last summer's Panamania:  BETROFFENHEIT.  The collaborative creation examines a horrific personal tragedy and its effect on one of the survivors.

Young's only child and two of her cousins died in a fire, at  his wife's family summer property, in 2009. Young and his wife were asleep in another cabin. News reports from the time made mention of the fact Young was injured trying, unsuccessfully, to rescue the children. His marriage did not survive the accident.

The show follows Young on a nihilistic journey to the bottom of a void of addiction, despair and loss as he tries to escape, then examine, and finally accept what has happened. He gives a completely committed, utterly harrowing performance as a man nearly destroyed by guilt and grief.

Pite's astonishing and demanding choreography was brilliantly danced by her-jaw-dropping good company, Kidd Pivot. A Weimar-influenced cabaret has seldom seemed so seductive or damaging.

The movement, combined with the sets by Jay Gower Taylor, costumes by Nancy Bryant, fantastic sound design and composition by Owen Belton, Allesandro Juliani and Mae Rae, and evocative lighting by Tom Visser came together perfectly to create an arresting, intense and memorable night of theatre.

Young's text is great in parts (the beginning) and weaker in others (the long speech in Act II) and could, overall, have been pared back, particularly in the second half.

It's hard to be both the writer and the performer when the material is this close to the bone.

Young, Pite and company have salvaged beauty from tragedy and created a deeply moving work of art.




COLD BLOOD and BETROFFENHEIT both appeared at CANADIAN STAGE this February. BETROFFENHEIT continues on an international tour with stops in Vancouver and Victoria later this month:   http://www.kiddpivot.org






                               



Saturday, February 13, 2016

REVIEW: Last Chances: THE WINTER'S TALE, THE CHERRY ORCHARD & ONE NIGHT ONLY

Two Fridays ago, I saw one of the most anticipated theatre events of the Toronto winter season to date.  Graham Abbey, long-time Stratford leading man has founded his own company, Groundling Theatre. In collaboration with COALMINE THEATRE  he is presenting his company's inaugural production, Shakespeare's THE WINTER'S TALE in the intimate confines of  Coalmine's new 100 seat venue at 1454 Danforth Avenue in Toronto.

If you join the groundlings in the cheap seats, as I did, for $20 you can have a plump velvet cushion against the wall, at the very edge of the stage, pretty much in the actor's aisle for entrances and exits.  The only way I could have been more immersed in the action, was to actually don the motley and go tread the boards myself. Not that the talent on stage needs any help from me or anyone else, thank you very much. It's an excellent production of the play with an absolutely stellar cast.

THE WINTER'S TALE is a difficult play to do well.  King Leontes (a masterful Tom McCamus)  the male protagonist is an unsympathetic character, and to a modern audience, incredibly sexist.  The tone of the first act is tragic, with a family destroyed by his jealousy and rage: the second act is comic and romantic, as a collapsed marriage gives way to young love among the rustics, reconciliation, and hope.

The action of the show begins with McCamus/Leontes watching his wife Hermione (an elegant and understated Michelle Giroux) and son in a film, a ghostly presence in his house. His late wife's closest ally  Paulina (Lucy Peacock, commands the stage as show's heart and its moral compass) hovers. He's tortured by regret and remorse.

McCamus plays Leontes as a man whose narcissistic rage and insecurity drive him to destroy his relationships with all the people he loves. He treats his wife and son like chattel, and drives his brother and his most loyal courtiers away.

The "exit pursued by a bear" at the end of the first half  is handled in an extraordinary fashion.  Brent Carver morphs from the victim, Antigonius, who is handed the horrifying task of leaving Leontes and Hemione's baby daughter to die in the woods into the beast who consumes him. Carver plays the moment as if his own grief and guilt come out of him to literally, eat him alive. Amazing.

Collectively, the company nails the tonal shift between the two halves, supported by a very simple but evocative design  by Steve Lucas and pitch-perfect music by performer and composer George Meanwell. Meanwell also provides a nice cameo in the role of Time at the top of second half of the play.

The second act, with Carver as the singing pick-pocket Artolycus and Mark Crawford and Robert Persichini as two hilariously dim-witted and good-hearted shepherds was an utter delight. As Perdita and Florizel, Sarena Parmar and Charlie Gallant are charming as the young star-crossed lovers, and Patrick Galligan was a suitably outraged Polixenes. The play ends with a real reconciliation between parents and children and then, Leontes and Hermione: tenuous but tender, and hard won.

There are rush seats at the door, but you need to arrive early, as they are coveted and few. I'd be hard pressed to think of a more romantic place for a theatre-lover to spend this Valentine's Day weekend, then as a groundling watching this polished, intelligent and very intimate production of Shakespeare. It's a night at the theatre to cherish.

If your Valentine likes having their funny bone tickled, you might want to head over to the Factory Theatre tonight and catch ONE NIGHT ONLY.- THE GREATEST MUSICAL NEVER WRITTEN this weekend.

An exceptionally good crew of improvisors: Ashley Botting, Carly Heffernan, Ron Pedserson, Jan Caruna, Reid Janisse and Alex Tindal,  in tandem with a kick-ass band led by Jordan Armstrong , and backstage Deus-ex-machina director Melody Johnson, create a musical, based on a series of suggestions from the audience on the spot:  For real! -and it totally works!

 The Factory's stage, which often feels unwieldy is put to excellent use here, with a gorgeous red velvet curtain hung in the proscenium arch centre stage, adding glamour and covering quick changes, entrances, and exits.  I'm not always a huge fan of improv, but the cast has great chops and work together like a well-oiled comedy machine.  After the show, there was a cabaret performance in the bar and an artist painting scenes from the show. I had a great time from start to finish. It's a very fun night out.

It's the last weekend for one of my favourite plays, THE CHERRY ORCHARD by independent company, The Chekhov Collective. It's about a family of charming upper class spendthrifts who have so squandered their fortune, that their family estate is about to be sold out from under them to pay their debts. A hundred years after its debut, it's still a great play about a paradise of carefree innocence lost to folly and fortune's changing tides. It's also a very challenging tragi-comedy, whose tone is tricky to capture. For the most part, this production gets the blend of humour and sorrow just right.

The largely white set by Dimitrii Khilchenko was very pretty to look at, but a little cluttered, and the scale of the set pieces felt too dainty for the space.  The director, Dmitry Zhukovsky  made vivid tableaux at the top of each act and did a lot of fine work with most of his actors. 


This production has some outstanding performances, particularly Andrew Pogson as Lopakhin, the peasant turned successful entrepreneur, Richard Sheridan Willis as Gaev, one of the owners of the orchard,  Llyandra Jones as the put-upon adopted daughter, Varya, Joy Tanner as Charlotte, the eccentric governess, and John Gilbert as Firs, the family's old servant. I also really enjoyed the antics of Nina Gilmour as the affected and silly besotted maid, Dunyasha and Yury Ruzhyev, the pretentious footman and object of her affections. Clayton Gray was charming as the sad-sack Yepihodov, the man who actually loves her, and who she wants nothing to do with. Harrison Thomas and Thalia Kane were a credible pair of young lovers as starving student Trofimov, and soon to be penniless daughter, Anya.

As Ranevskya, the family matriarch, Rena Polley seemed to struggle with her role and neither lighting, direction, or her costume did her any favours.

Most of the wardrobe was perfect for the period production, but Polley  looked out of place in a dress that was incongruously contemporary.  Worse yet, the lighting and blocking frequently left her delivering speeches in the dark.

In one of the play's most powerful moments, when her brother arrives at a party she's decide to throw on the night their house is auctioned off by the bank, they exchange a look and we see she finally grasps that they have lost their home for good. She delivers a moment of great emotional intensity that was barely allowed to register, as she was positioned onstage so she was visible to only a small portion of the audience.

It's worth checking out for both the play itself, and for the many good performances in the production.

THE WINTER'S TALE by GROUNDLING THEATRE COMPANY and presented by COALMINE THEATRE COMPANY continues at the Coalmine Theatre until February 20th http://www.coalminetheatre.com. ONE NIGHT ONLY continues at THE FACTORY THEATRE  http://www.factorytheatre.ca and click "What's On"( top upper l/h side)  or call (416)504 9971.  The CHEKHOV COLLECTIVE'S production of THE CHERRY ORCHARD continues at the Berkeley Street Theatre upstairs http://www.thechekhovcollective.com for dates, times and tickets.






Saturday, February 6, 2016

TRUTH and RECONCILIATION: The Royal Winnipeg Ballet's GOING HOME STAR

There was a lot of heart onstage last night at the Sony Centre.

Andre Lewis, artistic director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, spoke in French and English, welcoming and honouring two distinguished prima ballerinas, now retired from the stage: Karen Kain and Evelyn Hart. He also welcomed a contingent of elders from the 1st Nations community.  An elder, Bernard Nelson, from Eabametoong First Nation, held the feather and prayed over us. There were carvings from local aboriginal artists for sale in the lobby.  Social workers were on stand-by in case anyone found the story we were about to see too triggering.

The Bear Creek Drum Group drummed us into and out of the theatre, which was a truly spectacular highlight of the performance.

This wasn't your typical night at the ballet.

GOING HOME STAR is a collaboration between the 1st Nations Community and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB). For its 75th anniversary, the Winnipeg-based classical ballet company chose to create a full-length ballet derived from the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which was headed in Winnipeg. For those of you who have been living under a rock on Turtle Island, Justice Murray Sinclair toured the country, gathering an historic record of the experiences of the survivors of the residential school system.

The RWB commissioned a text from award-winning novelist Joseph Boyden, derived from the survivors' experiences, and then had their star choreographer, Mark Godden, turn the story into a ballet. The narrative is the lynchpin of the production.  It is one of the ballet's great strengths and also its principal weakness.

GOING HOME STAR is beautiful to look at, and certainly compelling, affecting, and disturbing. The set, projections, costumes, and score work well together.  The dancers were all in fine form. Tanya Tagaq's iconic voice glistened in Christos Hatzis' dense, and occasionally perplexing composition.

What GOING HOME STAR doesn't do very well is tell a clear story on stage.  Most of the audience studiously spent the interval with their faces in their programs reading the synopsis, trying to understand what they had just seen.  The second act used more voice-over as a component of the score, and was much easier to follow, and therefore connect with.

The cavernous Sony Centre stage rather overwhelmed the emotional intimacy of the piece. I so wished they'd had the Bluma Appel or even the Fleck as their Toronto venue.

GOING HOME STAR is a unique and valid, if uneven effort from Canada's oldest ballet company. The survivors of the residential school system have an important story to share with Canadians, and this iteration of the tragedy, with its message of hope and healing is well worth experiencing. Just be sure to get there early enough to read the synopsis first.

GOING HOME STAR is at the SONY CENTRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS in TORONTO  tonight with tour dates across Western Canada this coming spring.  http://www.rwb.org


Friday, February 5, 2016

Overwhelming Beauty: KISS & CRY Astonishes at Canadian Stage

This weekend, Michele Anne De May and Jaco Van Dormael of Belgium and their extraordinary crew of technicians reprise their hit production from last season,  KISS & CRY at Canadian Stage.  I saw it last night, and it is a marvel.

Sensual, droll, and heart-breaking, visually mesmerizing, technically astonishing, and achingly lovely, KISS & CRY tells the story of a woman in the winter of her life, remembering her loves.

A series of dioramas and miniature tableaux are employed in relating the story, along with two pairs of incredibly dextrous and expressive hands. These are shot by a series of very fluid tracking cameras and projected onto a massive screen, centre stage. Voiced-over text and music underscore the shifting images, driving and shading the narrative as it unfolds.  The synthesis of sound and image submerses the audience in a dream-scape of couplings, and the myriad emotions the evolving relationships evoke.

If you want to give your best beloved an enchanting Valentine's night, skip dinner in an over-crowded restaurant next weekend, and head to Canadian Stage this week instead.  I can't think of a lovelier, or more romantic gift. Apparently there are still a few tickets left.



Kiss & Cry  continues at Canadian Stage's Bluma Appel Theatre until February 7th. http://www.canadianstage.com or (416) 368 3110.