Saturday, July 23, 2016


Summer:  a grove, a warm, clear night, a Shakespearean love story.  Sounds romantic, right?  In the case of two productions currently playing in Toronto, not so much.

Both Canadian Stage and Driftwood Theatre have their annual outdoor summer productions onstage here this weekend.  Both productions are sharp and stylish, but take a decidedly darker look at love than you might expect from a mid-summer frolic in the park.

Canadian Stage's ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL is an assured, droll, and unsettling production of one of Shakespeare's more difficult romances.  Ted Witzel is a clever and imaginative director and there's much to admire in his production. His battle scenes are particularly compelling.  He makes great use of contemporary music in the transitions. The set by Teresa Przybylski is dynamic.  I particularly liked the mismatched chairs as a metaphor for all of the mismatched couples. The relationships are clear, the character work by the actors is skillful.  It's a production with a lot of style and lot of soul, but sadly, very little heart.

Helen lives under the protection of the Countess Rossillion, mother of Bertram, and proprietress of a spa in the south of France. As the Countess, Nicky Guadagni is confident and capable: the best actor onstage with the delivery of the text.

As Helen, Mina James fares far less well. She seems adequately besotted with Bertram, but plays  Helen as a one-note "nice girl" driven solely by desperation, without a shred of malice or cunning, which hardly seems in keeping with the course of action she takes to close the deal with him. She's also not very nuanced in her delivery of the text.

Helen pursues Bertram to France where the King of France (a funny and well-spoken Marvin L. Ishmael) bestows the hand of her heart's desire, and a sizable dowry in exchange for curing a fistula. The butt-plug on a drill she deployed made me think her old man was a scholar of South Park, not medicine. The torture device turns up later in the show in a more sinister context.

Betram, who seems to be having an affair on the down low with his clearly love-struck friend Parolles, and, is wilding with girls on the side, wants nothing to do with Helen, who he considers beneath contempt. He marries her, but refuses to consummate the relationship, choosing instead to flee to a battlefield in Florence, leaving Helen with a list of near-impossible contractual conditions to meet before the marriage is valid.

Kaleb Alexander plays Bertram as a good-looking, privileged douche-bag. It's certainly a valid take on the character, but it leaves the audience with no possibility of rooting for him and Helen as a couple.  I kept hoping he'd get a fatal case of clap or die in a road-side explosion.

As it is, when it turns out Diana has deceived him, and he has, indeed, bedded and impregnated his legal wife, he seems inexplicably chuffed by the turn of events.

The director has made the centre of the production Betram's friend, the bad apple, Parolles.  Here, Parolles is a gay man who is being punished for who he is.  Quasim Khan give a wonderfully complex performance, garnering our sympathies, while clearly exhibiting the character's less attractive qualities. The scene where Parolle's fellow soldiers give him a comeuppance for bragging and lying, is, here, an ugly gay bashing. It's the most powerful moment in the production.

The other star turn is Rachel Jones as the clown Lavatch, in cow prints and a Dolly Parton wig, delivering a series of beat poems by Witzel. Like Parolles, Lavatch is castigated for owning her sexuality.  You can't take your eyes off Jones when she's onstage.  She does a great job with Witzel's monologues, though I would have preferred Witzel had concentrated on ensuring all his actors delivered the poetry in the text of Shakespeare's play, rather than supplementing the Bard's writing with his own.

As stylish, clever and well-observed as the production is, you can only feel sorry, rather than hopeful for the couple at the heart of the play. It's entertaining as social satire: but it's not much of either a comedy or a romance.

Then, over in Withrow Park, Driftwood Theatre has set the even more problematic TAMING OF THE SHREW in 1989, turning it into a pop musical.  The '80s love duets as sub-text can't wall-paper over the fact that Kate (a suitably fierce Siobhan Richardson) is handed by her mother over to Petruchio, who, with his eye on her dowry, starves her, hits her and gas-lights her into submission.

D. Jeremy Smith has directed a fast-paced and engaging production, heavily focused on music and on a secondary gay rights theme.  Lucentio (a lovely Fiona Smith) is gender fluid, giving her secret courtship of Bianca (a very sweet Tahirih Vedani) a plausible contemporary context.  These are the lovers we find ourselves rooting for. Paulo Santalucia is also delightful as Tranio.

Geoffrey Armour has the thankless task of playing Petruchio.  He comes off as a guy who believes he is in love with Kate, and that he's doing the right thing: in short, he plays him as a textbook nice guy abuser.  I don't think I've ever seen a production of the play where the dynamic between Kate and Petruchio was as disturbing.

The premise of the production is ostensibly that Kate and Petruchio are in a consensual D/s relationship. I can see how this concept held appeal, but the text of the play doesn't really support it. It's a fun production and it's worth seeing, but nothing that happens here changes the dark heart of the story. This SHREW is a portrait of an abusive relationship in a fancy black leather music box.

ALLS WELL THAT ENDS WELL continues in High Park until September 4th, with performances Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday at 8:00 PM. TAMING OF THE SHREW continues in Toronto in Withrow Park until July 24th with performances at 7:30 PM  and then in various Ontario destinations:

Thursday, July 21, 2016

INTERVIEW: SIOBHAN RICHARDSON TALKS to S&G about Boundaries, Respect and a Modern Take on TAMING OF THE SHREW

Siobhan Richardson is an in-charge kind of woman.  When I haven't called her by 12:09 for our scheduled noon chat, she's calling me.  In fairness, I was bearing down on Saturday morning housework, and lost track of time. She hadn't. She very graciously gave me five minutes to get organized, and call her back. Good thing I'd prepared a list of questions the night before!

It's two days until Driftwood Theatre's Toronto run of TAMING OF THE SHREW opens for the Toronto leg of its tour.  They've already been to several Ontario cities, including London, and her home town of Kitchener.  So far, the show has gone really well.

"We've been playing to really large houses:  larger than we anticipated.  It's exciting.  The energy of the audiences has been wonderful."

I find Richardson's energy infectious.  She tells me that Driftwood's take on Shakespeare's infamous battle of the sexes is being set in 1989, in Toronto. Lucentio is gender-fluid and woos Bianca secretly.  Kate and Petruchio are in a consensual D/s relationship.

"The production uses Shakespeare's play to explore issues of acceptance, respect, and consent. Petruchio says, "If she be pleased, and I be pleased, what's that to you?"  Good question.

"To tame, isn't to subjugate, but to create ties. Petruchio uses the metaphor of a falconer and and a falcon. When the bird doesn't eat, the keeper doesn't eat."

Yes, I point out, but the falconer still owns the bird.  The bird is chattel.  Petruchio treats Kate as chattel.

Not in this production. Richardson tells me that her Kate willingly gives control to Petruchio because she knows he loves her. "Kate is surrounded by people who hate her, or fear her.  Her own mother treats her with no respect.  Petruchio accepts her as she is, and for who she is. Their relationship is one of great trust.  This allows her to be pushed to the edge of her limits."  A pause. "Jeremy(Smith, Driftwood's artistic director, and the director of the production) lit a candle that I could walk towards.  He gave us a lot of reading material.  He had a really clear vision of the production that inspired all of us. Doing this has been an immersive experience."

The late '80s setting allowed them to employ pop music from the period, giving Richardson and company an excellent opportunity to use their vocal chops.  She has done a lot of musical theatre and loves to sing.  Does she have a favourite role? "Oh, I played twins in a musical, THE LAST RESORT at Sterling.  It was great fun, a great challenge. members of the audience actually thought there were two actors!"

Richardson likes all kinds of challenges. She's a well-trained stage combatant, and is the fight captain of the production, as well as its leading lady.

"I'm a tough girl. I can take what he (Petruchio) dishes out.  Look, ultimately, the play is a comedy. We want the production to stimulate conversation among people, and to help them enjoy the story."

I've certainly enjoyed my conversation with Richardson.  She's thoughtful, tough-minded, energetic and passionate.  I hope Petruchio appreciates her.

Driftwood Theatre's production continues in Toronto at Withrow Park ( a short walk from Pape Station) until July 24 and then resumes touring Ontario throughout the summer.  Toronto performances begin at 7:30 PM .  All performances are Pay What You Can.  Chairs can be rented on site and refreshments are available. for more information.

Correction:  Richard Lee is the fight director of Taming of the Shrew.  Ms. Richardson is the fight captain for the production.  The author wishes to apologize for her earlier error, and for failing to credit Mr. Lee for his work.

Friday, July 8, 2016


The Toronto Fringe, is sadly, winding down to its final weekend.

As I sit back at my desk at work, I thought I'd share some moments I'm going to cherish from this year ,and tell you about some shows you still have time to see until Sunday, July 10th when the Toronto Fringe draws to a close.

One of the things that made this year so special, was a visit from my sister, Lisa.  Lisa loves going to the theatre as much as I do, and a big part of her holiday here was spent running from Fringe show to Fringe show together, and then going home and comparing notes late night.We shared a room, as we had when we were girls.

We started Fringing on Thursday evening, as Wednesday night she treated me to a Peter Gabriel/Sting concert.  It was my first time at an ACC show and I felt like a tourist in my own city.We walked home down Bremner Boulevard through a neighbourhood that didn't exist 12 years ago, the last time she was here for a summer vacation.

So it seemed fitting that her first ever Toronto Fringe experience was a walk through the Annex with writer/performer Alex Eddington for LIFE LIST, letting her be a tourist in one of my favourite neighbourhoods in this city.  Alex takes the audience of twenty-four on a bird-hunt. The show combines music, ritual, and story-telling as Alex shares his love of bird-watching inherited from his mom, who passed away recently. LIFE LIST is a unique immersive theatre experience.  I found myself with a tear in my eye at the end.

Then we hiked back to the beer tent.  We were going to see BLIND TO HAPPINESS at 10:30 PM in the Annex Theatre and had time for a drink with some old friends between shows.  Lisa went for an Arnold Palmer, an iced tea and lemonade combo on offer from Insomnia, one of the food vendors at the tent this year.  Delicious, and not too sweet.

BLIND TO HAPPINESS was packed, and absolutely wonderful:  great performance and writing by Tim Murphy, and fine direction by Johnnie Walker. Murphy's performing chops are gob-smacking, and the story about the nature of happiness is moving. Last night, he took a best of festival award, so if you miss him this week you have a chance to catch him later this month at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.

We'd had dinner and a football game earlier in the day, so at that point, we called it a night, and headed home.

We started Canada Day by seeing TOLLER, Sky Gilbert's story about Canadian figure skating legend, visual artist, and tortured soul, Toller Cranston.  David Livingston bears an uncanny resemblance to Cranston, and he gives a fine performance in a challenging role.  One of the experiences he shares is a story about being bullied as a kid in a small town for the offense of wearing a scarf to school.   On the eve of the Pride parade, it was, I felt, important to be reminded of what gay people have endured just for being themselves. This show has an extra performance on Sunday.  It's one of the best shows in this year's festival.  Catch it while you can.

Lisa caught another football match and I went to see Keir Cutler do SHAKESPEARE CRACKPOT. As always with Keir, I left the theatre more knowledgeable than I was when I entered. This time, I learned more about the cult of Shakespeare, and also about Cutler's remarkable parents. The stories about their accomplishments and contributions to Canadian society on a Canada Day afternoon, were more than worth the price of admission.

Friday night, it was BRIGHT LIGHTS.  Again, the theatre was packed for Kat Sandler's highly anticipated collaboration with Amy Lee, Heather Marie Annis, Chris Wilson, Peter Carlone and Colin Munch.  As always with Sandler, the set-up generated  tons of conflict-driven action, and laughs aplenty.  High energy performances, great comedy chops, and tight ensemble work made this a real crowd-pleaser.

Then we stayed at the Tarragon to see ABSOLUTE MAGIC with Keith Brown.  Brown is incredibly personable and engaging, and his illusions left the audience gasping.  Years from now, when he's playing Vegas, you'll be able to say you saw him when.

Saturday, I scheduled myself for a four-show day.  Lisa had scheduled herself for a 3:00 PM Euro-Cup match. We started our morning seeing THE ROAD TO SANTIAGO, Rory Ledbetter's charming love story about his trip to Spain with his then-fiance.He made me want to walk the Camino, or at least try the red wine and coke combo beverage he describes in the show. It was a romantic, thoughtful and engaging story, well-told.

Lisa went back to watch football at Paupers.  I went to see the delightful Penny Ashton in PROMISE AND PROMISCUITY.  Ashton gives a witty, captivating, and high-energy performance in her very funny and wickedly clever, musical, Jane Austen homage/satire.  Ashton's character work is superb throughout. I particularly enjoyed the ball scene.  I've seen two shows at the Randolph, and the acoustics are less than optimal, no fault of the performers, although it certainly makes them have to work even harder to be heard. I think the centre of the house is likely the best place to sit or at least, close to the front.

I joined Lisa at the pub for the overtime portion of the game, and then, we wandered over to the Factory Theatre to see CAM BABY and CURIOUS CONTAGIOUS.  CAM BABY was a stand-out: a terrific ensemble of young actors tackling a torn-from-the-headlines script about voyeurism, body image, quarter-life crises, and the ways in which social media has challenged expectations of privacy in relationships. I hope a theatre picks it up for a remount.  It's one of the best new plays I've seen this year.

CURIOUS CONTAGIOUS was one of the shows I was most excited to see this year. Mind of a Snail is an endlessly inventive company and their beautiful story uses magic realism, gorgeous layered projections, masks, costumes and an original score to talk about the impact of urban sprawl on the environment. It was heartfelt and utterly lovely.  They won Patron's Pick, and have an extra show on Sunday.  It's a kid-friendly show.  Go check them out.

We had pizza for dinner and headed in to see HAPPINESS at the Passe 11:00 PM.  The play is a stylish and sharp social satire, written and performed by Tony Adams and Cory Thibert. I didn't think the show need the over the top ending, but I really enjoyed both the otherwise well-crafted story, and the fine and energetic performances.

We took the day off Sunday for PRIDE and football and I headed off to see one of the festival's hottest tickets, FOR THE RECORD. Shari Hollet, Chris Earle, and their daughter Lucy created a solid, vinyl-driven, coming of age tale set in Kops Record store.  The venue is tiny -30 seats - and following the performers through the crowded space was both fun, and occasionally frustrating. Hollet and I are of the same vintage, and her tale of growing up poor in a wealthy neighbourhood really resonated. Hollet played her 17 year-old self with both insight and abandon, and Lucy's transitions through all of the other characters were both understated, and polished.  Mostly, the show is an homage to Hollet's tough-minded, hard-working, chain-smoking, thrice married, barely present mother. I'm very glad I saw it. It's one of those gems that could only happen at the Fringe.

I went home, shared a cheese board with my sis, and dragged her off to see BEST PICTURE at a late night show which was on past her bed time.  We were really happy we stayed up that night!  Funny, well-observed, and lighting quick, the cast of three makes EVERY Oscar-winning picture happen in 60 minutes. It's a treat of a show.  Go, and take a film buff.

Sadly, I had to go back to work on Monday.  While I was off earning the rent, Lisa ducked into DANCE ANIMAL and told me I had to see it. I went for their 11:00 PM show last night.  Super high-octane fun from an incredibly funny cast of improvisers: it's one of my feel-good faves of the festival.It's also held over.

I rushed out of work early to catch OUT, Greg Campbell's deeply personal, very funny, occasionally terrifying, and moving  story about coming out at the age 17 in the late '70s.  It's excellent: beautifully written, and wonderfully performed, with  skillful direction by Clinton Walker.  OUT also took a best of fest award.  It 's well-deserved.

Monday night we went to see GOD OF CARNAGE.  It's a polished production of the black comedy that explores the darker aspects of human nature beneath our civilized veneers.  Stephen Flett on his cel phone is worth the price of admission.

Last night, I went to see WEIRD, which combines aerial silks and Shakespeare to tell the tale of the Scottish play, from the point of view of the three witches.It's an innovative  and compelling take on an old story, with a decidedly feminist bent. Well worth seeing, and the winner of  the Cutting Edge Award last night, for the originality of the production.

I'm going to immerse myself for the last weekend, and catch a few more shows before the festival ends on Sunday.  I plan to see:  IN THE TRENCHES, because no one else is doing commedia dell'arte this year, and I was impressed by the way they busked the line-ups, FALLING AWAKE , because it has had great buzz from other performers, ALL KIDDING ASIDE because I know Christel Bartelse, and love her warmth onstage, PERSEPHONE because a friend saw it, and told me he loved it - and I have a soft spot for Greek myths, FAR AWAY, because it had good buzz, ANGELS AND ALIENS, again because I've heard good things and because Jeff Leard is in it, and he's a terrific performer, THE COMEDY of ERRORS, because dinner and Shakespeare together seems like a good way to end a four-show day, LITTLE PRICKS because  Denise Norman is telling a story that intrigues me, and RATED R, because several choreographers and dancers I respect told me it was one of the best dance shows they'd seen this year.

I never get to everything I want to see.  For instance, I haven't seen a single musical this festival, and I would like to have seen several of them, including LIKE A FLY IN AMBER. I saw nothing at Kids' Fringe.Sigh.

Many shows don't sell out their runs and there are often tickets available an hour before the performance at the door, including tickets for the Patron's Picks performances, which are currently listed on the Fringe website. I have had some great Fringe experiences walking into the show next door to a show that was sold out.

I'll see you in line, or around the tent this weekend.  Happy Fringing!

The Toronto Fringe Theatre Festival continues until July 10th at venues around west central Toronto.  For tickets, schedules, and information about the festival, and  the list of held-over shows playing at the Toronto Centre for The Arts and  foe one extra show on Sunday,  go to: or call (416) 966-1062.  Advance tickets may also be obtained at the Fringe Box office, located in the tent behind Honest Ed's at Bloor and Bathurst.