Saturday, April 23, 2016


This week, it was two nights of back to back dance, completely different and both worth checking out.

Thursday, Native Earth Performing Arts presented the closing show of its 15-16 season.  Like Canadian Stage, the company has determined to include productions in its regular season from creators and performers who work in traditions and disciplines other than theatre.

As the boundaries shift and blur between dance, performance art and theatre for artists and creators it seems smart for companies to to offer their audiences a broader range of contemporary performance on stage. 

Indigenous dance artists, particularly ones working within a frame of their own cultural traditions tend to get pushed to the margins.  The first show on the bill was the gorgeous to look at Luu hlotitxw: Spirit Transforming by Dancers Damelahamid from the northwest coast of British Columbia.  The dance is performed in button blanket regalia and wearable sculpture created by Gitxsan artists Andrew Grenier, Cori Savard, Jimmy Charlie and David R. Boxley.   If you've ever seen a piece of Haida art, you have some point of reference for the visual aesthetic. The masks and regalia worn by the performers were absolutely stunning.

There's also a nice use of projected video (Byron Kopman, and Eagle Wing Tours, BC)  and animation by Dallas Parker that really help ground the performance in the West Coast environment.  Andy Moro provides the subtle, effective lighting. This is the perfect piece for the Earth Day weekend!

The dancers, Rebecca Baker, Margaret Grenier, Nigel Grenier and Jeanette Kotowich are also vocalists and the singing, as much as the dance, moves the piece forward. SPIRIT TRANSFORMING is an uplifting synthesis of music, dance and design elements.

I only wish it had offered a little more narrative clarity.  There was some singing in English, but I think surtitles, or perhaps more detailed program notes, like the ones you get at the COC would have been a help.

Then, there was a 45 minute interval during which we went next door and had a quite a nice dinner for $10 at the PaintBox Cafe ( $20 if you had a glass of wine, and tipped the waiter, as you should).  You can skip the dinner and just hang out, but if you're going to make a night of it, it's money well spent.

The next piece up was NGS (Native Girl Syndrome) by Montreal based choreographer, Lara Kramer.
Two utterly fearless performers, Angie Cheng and Karina Iraola ferociously perform a day in the soul-destroying lives of two street involved female addicts.

The piece begins with a screech and a roar of metal music and traffic as we see two staggeringly drunk Aboriginal women, clinging to their respective Jerry-rigged carts.  The stage is littered with detritus.  The characters' clothes are trashed:  ripped, shoes held together with duct tape. These are the people in society who are seen as garbage and treated as disposable.

Everyone who lives or works downtown in a big city walks past or over or around women like these two every day.  Kramer and her dancers show us their suffering, their struggles, their small attempts at dignity and their valiant efforts to survive in a world that treats them as worthless.  At one point, Cheng's character goes on a tirade of  repellant invective:  the judgements that have been hurled against her and are bottled up inside.

As the piece nears conclusion, the performers are wrapped in ragged bits of fur, huddled together for warmth and companionship.  We treat stray dogs much better than we treat many of the homeless humans in this rich country.

In the end, the stage is lit only with two screaming red exit signs forming both a demand and a false promise. We'll get to leave and go home, but for them, there's no way out.  On the way home, about a block from the theatre, on a cold rainy April night, my friend and I passed someone asleep in a sleeping bag huddled in a doorway.

Kramer and company have created a piece of work that sears like a bottle of acid. Yes, it could be ten minutes shorter, but I'll be thinking about NGS for a long time to come.

The next night, I headed over the the Paula Fleck Theatre at Harbourfront to see EPOCAS,  Esmeralda Enrique's  lesson on the history of flamenco.  You know that one great history class you took, with the teacher that made the past come totally to life?  This is that class.

A flamenco show is as much about the live music as it is about the gorgeous, ferocious, percussive dancing. Two singers: Manuel Soto and Tamar Ilana, two guitarists, Caroline Plante and Benjamin Barrile, Rosendo "Chendy" Leon, the percussionist, and Jerry Caringi on accordion provide the lush, rhythmic and sensual music that accompanies this crowd-pleasing show. The music is a stand-out and the band alone is worth the price of admission.

Enrique takes centre stage much of the night, although this time she shares the spotlight with the charismatic Rafael de Pino who burned up the stage in MI BAILE (Alegrias) his second-act solo.

Enrique's company of dancers are also very fine, and they execute her choreography with skill and flair. The large scale projections provide context and anchor each piece with a sense of place.

My favourite number of the evening was ZORONGO GITANO, where a full moon floated over Enrique and dancers Pamela Briz, Virginia Castro, Paloma Cortes and Noelia La Morocha as they slid across the stage in their midnight blue ruched satin taffeta costumes to an Adulusian song with lyrics by Frederico Garcia Lorca, the great Spanish playwright and poet. It was absolutely beautiful.

If you are a flamenco aficionado, you may find yourself shouting "Ole!" at various points during the performance, as many in the audience did last night.  For a relative flamenco neophyte like myself, this was a very enjoyable theatrical escape.  It would make a great early Mother's Day present.

Native Earth Performing Arts and DanceWorks CoWorks present an Indigenous Dance Double Bill at 7:00 PM at the Aki Studio at the Daniels Spectrum Theatre, 585 Dundas Street until April 23 .

EPCAS by Esmerelda Enrique Spanish Dance Company continues at Paula Fleck Theatre at Harbourfront until April 24th.  or call 416 973 4000

Thursday, April 14, 2016

REVIEW: CAUGHT at Theatre Passe Muraille

Last weekend, I saw Jordi Mand's latest play, CAUGHT, in the intimate Passe Muraille Backspace. The Backspace is one of my favourite theatres in the city, not for comfort or beauty, but for the intimacy of the playing space, and the way the small room intensifies the experience of being in a theatre.

It was a perfect choice of venue for CAUGHT, which is set  in a tiny, soulless, concrete security room in a mall somewhere in Toronto.

A 30-something female security guard (Sabryn Rock) has apprehended a young male suspect (Jakob Ehman channelling his inner weasel) with a backpack full of stuff  he's shoplifted.  It's an amount of merchandise valued at over $2000, so the police are called. The young man is remarkably inventive and incredibly slimy in his myriad attempts to extricate himself from a situation he's created. The verbal sparring match between the guard and the kid alternates between fraught and frisky.

Then the police officer arrives ( a note perfect Meewun Fairbrother). Turns out he and the security guard know each other, and not just from the mall. Then, the cat and mouse games get really interesting.

Sarah Garton Stanley balances tension and humour in the production to good effect. There's great chemistry between the actors and the performances are all good.  Rock is particularly impressive, showing us the anger and bitterness in a woman who works in justice, but  receives almost none in her own life.

Mand is a very smart writer. As she did in BETWEEN THE SHEETS  she uses a highly charged situation to explore issues of status and power: who has it, who wants it, and what people will do to turn a situation to their advantage and make a power grab.

In CAUGHT, she examines what it really means to be trapped in a range of contexts: in an illegal act, in a dead-end job, on a rung of the professional ladder, in a bad relationship.  Who escapes, how, and why are all touched on, although some  of the issues she raises feel like they get short shrift.

The program says the play runs 75 minutes but I think it was closer to an hour, not really enough time to fully delve into the rich subject matter.  I really enjoyed most of CAUGHT.  The ending, alas, while blackly droll, feels rushed, and not as evolved as the rest of the play.  I think there's more to this story, and that perhaps Mand hasn't quite finished writing the play yet.

What's here is taut , provocative and very engaging, with a lot of food for thought about who gets off the hook, and why.

CAUGHT continues at THEATRE PASSE MURAILLE's Backspace until April 24.  or call:  416 504 7529

Sunday, April 10, 2016


I had an experience on Friday night that I don't have very often.  I walked out of a theatre at the end of a performance, shaking with disgust and rage.

Coalmine Theatre is currently staging Tracy Letts' 1993 play,  KILLER JOE. 

The actors:  Madison Walsh, Matthew Edison, Matthew Gouveia, Paul Fauteux, Vivian Endicott-Douglas all do fine work, physically and emotionally.  The play is very well directed by Peter Pasyk who cranks up the characters' despair, and the danger of their situation to terrifying effect. The set and lighting by Patrick Lavender work really well. Jenna McCutchen's costumes are appropriate, if a bit on the nose.

The play itself, alas, is ghastly.  This is a great production of a singularly nasty, misogynistic piece of writing, rooted in textbook Southern Gothic territory, with not a cliche left unturned.

Letts wrote AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, the Pulitzer Prize winning play about a dysfunctional family with a drug addict matriarch. We're in similar territory here in terms of familial dysfunction, but with a whole lot less finesse and a lot more violence, sexual and otherwise.

KILLER JOE was Letts' first play. He wrote it when he was 25. The set up is not bad, some of the dialogue is pretty good, and occasionally, someone gives a good speech.  It's not that the guy didn't show promise. 

Letts claims to have been heavily influenced by pulp fiction noir when he wrote it.  His plot owes a debt to noir, and its characters to both David Mamet and Sam Sheppard.

His female characters here makes Mamet look like a guy at the vanguard of feminism. The women in KILLER JOE are a sloppy mash-up of tropes derived from violent porn and bad television crime drama.  I suspect if Letts had not won a major prize for a latter creation, this ugly, pointless little tome would never see the light of day. 

The action is confined to the interior of a grimy trailer somewhere in Texas, complete with a junkyard dog outside, and and a big television inside. The dog barks a lot and the TV is usually on. The occupants of the trailer are the Smiths: father Ansel (Fauteux with a Duck Dynasty beard), step-mother Sharla (Madison Walsh oozing sexual agency), and Ansel's daughter from a previous marriage, Dottie (Vivien Endicott-Smith as a hot mess of a kid). The Smiths drink beer from a can, smoke weed and eat tuna casserole.

On a dark and stormy night (yes, really) Chris, Ansel's son from his previous marriage (a terrific Matthew Gouveia), arrives to borrow money.  Sharla greets him at the door wearing a cropped t-shirt and nothing else.  There's a good page of dialogue about her state of dishabille in the middle of the night, in her own home.  Why the man of the house wasn't the one to answer the door at that hour is never discussed or explained. Can you say gratutious nudity for shock value?

Sharla takes her naked derriere off to bed, while Chris explains to his father, that his biological mother, the thieving, alcoholic Adele (who we never meet) has thrown him out of the house because he slammed her into the fridge, with reason, apparently.  Adele, Chris claims, has purloined a stash of coke he was planning to sell to settle a debt with a drug dealer. Now he has no coke and no money, and the unhappy drug dealer wants him to settle up, stat, or else.

Chris and his father conspire to hire a contract killer, the Killer Joe of the title, to murder Adele, and collect on her life insurance policy, of which Dottie is the apparent beneficiary.  How or why Chris and Ansel think they are going to get Dottie's money is one of the play's many mysteries of construction.

Chris would like to use his portion of the money to start a farm, somewhere he can grow dope and raise rabbits.  He had a farm and rabbits once upon a time, but raising things requires thought, care and attention and the Smiths are not thoughtful, not careful, and not attentive. They are borderline feral, easily distracted, driven by impulse, and not especially bright. Their schemes do not go well, and this one is no exception.

Since all this machinating goes down in a trailer, which is an acoustically transparent domicile, both Dottie and Sharla are aware of the plans of the menfolk. Also Ansel tells Sharla, well, because, she's his wife. Sharla, it turns out later, has plans of her own.

Killer Joe is a corrupt cop, a sociopath with nice manners when he chooses, and a thing for little girls. Matthew Edison does a great job of showing us a tightly wound menace.

Since the Smiths can't furnish Joe with his usual cash upfront deposit, he takes their virginal daughter, Dottie, as a retainer.  Is Dottie 20, as she initially tells Joe, or 12 as she says later?

Sharla psychologically grooms Dottie, the virgin, for her deflowering by suggesting she serve a salad and rolls with the casserole and wear a dress to dinner. Sharla's collection of penis photos (which turns up again later in a different context) make an initial appearance in this unsavory discourse.

Then Joe arrives with flowers, for their "date" and the family leave Dottie alone with him. Post-casserole, he forces Dottie to get the dress she has told Sharla, then Joe, that she didn't want to wear and put it on.  First though, he has her strip naked and put the dress on with nothing under it. After that, he has her stick her hand down his pants.  We get to watch this because, apparently, the playwright felt we needed to see both actresses frontally nude.  No man takes his clothes off in the entire play, although a few turn up in their underwear. ( In fact, Mr. Edison did respond to a door being kicked opened by appearing buck naked near the end of the play, I have been reminded by the company's publicist.  My apologies to Mr. Edison for overlooking this in my earlier report. No slight was intended to his performance or his person.  My middle aged eyesight being what it is, perhaps I'm simply losing my ability to see certain things well at a distance, in a fairly dark room.)

After this sexual assault/courtship, Joe moves in with Dottie in the trailer. Why a police officer with a contract killing business on the side doesn't take her somewhere more comfortable for their assignations is never really dealt with.  It does serve as a convenient plot devise in machinating the play's graphically violent end.

In an early monologue of Joe's, he's quite clear that he doesn't likes grown women, and doesn't trust them. He does quite enjoy dominating, sexually degrading and brutalizing them, as he viscerally demonstrates, as the play builds towards a bloody climax.

That particular scene is so physically violent I actually feared for the actress' safety. Watching Joe abuse Sharla is like being stuck in the Big Ears Teddy chair on date night at Jian Ghomeshi's place.

Please, don't anyone write me any long-winded comments on how Joe is a metaphor for the way the American state and its agents treat its disenfranchised. Tennessee Williams'  27 WAGON FULLS OF COTTON or TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD or anything by Faulkner or Steinbeck does a much better job of that.

It's a pity COALMINE has squandered so much talent and effort on such a lousy, sexist play.

KILLER JOE continues at the Coalmine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Avenue, east of Coxwell Station, Tuesday to Sunday at 7:30 PM,  until April 24th.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

REVIEW: A Haunting Production of CRACKWALKER Ends the Factory's Season

Last Saturday night, I saw Judith Thompson's CRACKWALKER at the Factory Theatre. She wrote the play in 1979, and it made her famous.

The text more than stands the test of time. Thompson directs her own remount. While the staging is occasionally problematic, the performers more than make up for any directorial shortcomings. Their commitment and intensity make this a searingly memorable night of theatre.

The floor painting centre stage by Randi Helmers is rendered in the colours of the four directions. As grinding poverty, addiction, mental health problems and just plain bad luck push and pull on the characters, their lives are torn apart.

The Crackwalker of title is a homeless native man, living on the streets in a small Ontario city. Waawaate Fobister makes him a kind of trickster, who floats over and through the story, turning up, like trouble, when you least need or expect him.  It's a memorable performance with beautiful physicality.

Another painting hangs above the stage: the headless torso of a woman's body with an open, bleeding womb, positioned between two headlights.  The painting depicts an accident in which the viewer is both complicit and paralytic. It mirrors the play in which we witness an awful tragedy that seems impossible to stop.

Theresa is a young, intellectually challenged woman on social assistance, turning tricks in dive bars for pocket money.  When Fobister lovingly places a rainbow tutu on Theresa, he appears to be grooming her for a lover.  In fact it's a garland draped on a sacrificial lamb.

The play centres on two couples: Theresa and Alan, and Joe and Sandy.

Sandy, a tough, aggressive bartender lives and brawls in a sexually charged, punishing relationship with her alcoholic, abusive partner, Joe. Greg Gale seethes as Joe and plays the character on a knife edge. Joe is a victim of the vagaries of the economy as much as he's an abuser and his drunken fits of rage wax and wane with the state of his employment.  When he comes home to try repair their relationship after disappearing months before to get work, Claire Armstrong gives a brilliant depiction of a woman who can't shake her love for an abusive man.

Theresa and her boyfriend Alan are a different kind of heartbreak.  He truly loves her, but his obsessions and paranoia caused, in part, by the awful death of his father, have left him wary of institutional medicine and authorities in general. At first, he just seems like a good-hearted crackpot. When their baby arrives, and Joe becomes a breadwinner and a father to a sick baby, he cracks beneath the strain of overwhelming responsibility, with tragic consequences. Stephen Joffe gives an excellent performance as a fragile man in free-fall.

The character of Theresa is the lynchpin of the production.  Yolanda Bonnell is fearless in showing a woman who is so passive, she's incapable of acting in her own best interest. She says what she thinks other people want to hear, and does as she's told. In a wrenching scene off the top, she's living on Sandy's couch, having run away from an abusive caregiver.  Sandy accuses her of having an affair with Joe. Theresa explains Joe came home drunk and raped her.  When Joe comes home, drunk yet again, and molten with suppressed rage, Theresa confronts him and tells him he's going to jail for what he's done.  Joe says Theresa threw herself at him. Theresa realizes what ever she says, someone is going to be in trouble. She takes the path of least resistance and recants.

To reinforce this sense of a tragedy happening in community, Thompson puts a portion of the audience on stage. It doesn't serve to shrink the theatre and just looks awkward.  Fobister's role is beautifully executed, but sometimes his presence in a scene is a distraction rather than a support to the action.

Still the problems with the staging can't deprive CRACKWALKER of its impact.

The Factory ends a fine season with a haunting revival.

THE CRACKWALKER continues at The Factory Theatre until April 10. for tickets and information.