Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Review: 2017 Toronto Fringe - so far...

The Toronto Fringe is sliding into the back half and it's time to take a look at this year's proceedings, just past the mid-point.

The site moved to Dundas and Bathurst Street to the hockey rink pad beside the skateboard park at Scadding Court. The festival staff and volunteers have made a concerted effort to tart the place up:  there's fairy lights around the bar, a big, raised stage with a good sound system at one end, green umbrellas and colorful table cloths dot the floor.  The stage has been inventively programmed. The  DJs on Saturday night gave the place a great vibe and lots of people were up dancing. There's a tented area on one side to provide shade:all good.

Posters are  mounted at the front of the site and in the Jon Kaplan Tent at the path leading into the tent, beside the community centre. Jimmy's has a coffee stall out there. The ticket booth is also outside, at the front. Don't get me started on the ticketing system which the staff is struggling heroically to deal with.

The downside: the concrete pad is unbearably hot (and therefore pretty empty) during the day. When I arrived at 6:00 PM on Tuesday night to grab dinner before a 7:15PM show, the one lonely food vendor on the inside was just setting up. He had a few cold bowls available, but his grill was going to take 45 minutes to heat up. Cold tofu wasn't going to cut it. I wandered over to Dundas Street West and had a great, cheap Asian dinner at Chop Chop.

There are a lot of nice bars and restaurants in that stretch of Dundas, just west of Bathurst, but I would rather have given my money to the festival and its vendors.

After my 7:15 show I went back for a drink with friends:  the bar filled up as the sun went down, the food stall inside was operationalby then and it was a fun night.  I have to say however, that I approached my stroll out of the bar at 10:00 PM with some trepidation.

The park and the community centre at the corner of Queen and Sherbourne is possibly the only sketchier public space than Scadding Court on a major intersection in the downtown core. There are signs in the planters leading into the community centre asking patrons not to leave syringes in the flower beds.

The festival has placed a strong and very visible security presence at the entrance to the beer tent (as usual) and also has a security person at the entrance to the site.  I've locked my bike out there
(a few more racks at the front would be fantastic) because then I can unlock and know my bike and I are safe under his watchful gaze.

An exit from the rink that doesn't involve a stroll down an alley behind the rink would go a long way to making the site feel safer for this woman after dark. 

Meanwhile Honest Ed's is tagged and abandoned.  As I biked past it on the way home from the Tarragon the other night, I couldn't help but wonder why the festival couldn't have been allowed to use the site until construction actually started. An entire, once vibrant block of the city is now a dead zone of chain-link fence and vacant properties. There's another block of tagged hoarding and chain-link fence on the walk from the Factory to the site, along Bathurst Street between Adelaide and Queen, where some scammy developer has only managed to acquire half the houses he's hoping to raze for yet another condo project.

The festival has made the best of a bad business - a site move in downtown Toronto: a city with exploding land values and massive intensification in the core. It's too bad the festival can't just take over half the CNE for 2 weeks - or relocate there permanently and have a permanent location like Edmonton has with theatres on-site.  The Queen Elizabeth is certainly under-utilized.

The art:  the festival is huge this year:  160 shows. I'm about half-way through my viewing. I've missed the Robert Gill as a venue. I also stupidly missed Delirium the other night because I under-calculated the length of time it would take me to bike to the Tarragon. Sorry, Martin.

There's been a great pool of acting talent on display this year. A few stand-out performances:Jakob Ehman in 10 Creative Ways to Dispose of Your Cremains, Adam Bailey in The Life of Henri and Penny Ashton in Olive Copperbottom who sings, dances and acts her way through a panoply of Dickensian characters with great verve and wit.She also wins hands-down for best costume of the festival. Vanessa Quesnelle in Moonlight After Midnight gives a star turn in beautiful and very affecting performance. She co-stars with her husband Martin Dockery who penned the script: there's real magic in their chemistry onstage.

In other dynamic duos: Pete N' Chris killed it on Monday night before a packed throng of adoring fans in their utterly ridiculous romp through a series of holiday classics, A Peter n' Christ-mas Carol.  Similarly, Jessica Gabriel and Chloe Ziner (Mind of a Snail) created a saucy, feminist, mad and unique look at love sex and relationships in Multiple Organism. They got a big standing O from the crowd who howled with laughter (and recognition) throughout the show.

Finally, I saw two solo shows that featured that rare combination of a great story and a terrific performance:  Sam Mullins in Weaksauce and Joanne O'Sullivan in She Grew Funny.

All the shows above are well worth a visit.

This weekend, I'm going to see quite a few shows created by women: more on that later. See you in the  line-ups and at the beer tent.




The Toronto Fringe continues at various sites across the West end of Toronto.  For schedules and tickets go to www.fringetoronto.com









Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Preview: TORONTO FRINGE 2017 - because I LIKE to watch...

 How do you know your Fringe billet is soon to arrive?

The rubber vomit in the mail should have been my first clue:  SHOULD is the operative word in this sentence.

Two weeks ago, a plain brown envelope arrived at my office containing a back-page -of the comics slab of rubber vomit.  Who the hell would gift me with a 10 year old boy's idea of a joke? No sender except for Amazon and some random gag supplier in Las Vegas.   A weekend of paranoid speculation ensued as well as a number of long, deep conversations about strategies for dealing with harassment.

A week later, I'm on Messenger with Penny Ashton.  She's my billet/Fringe guest this year.  Her promo materials arrived ahead of her - at my office as we arranged.  "Did you get my small package?"  she asked.  Oh no. I expected the posters, fliers and magnets but had totally forgotten about the parcel.  "Was it rubber vomit?"  I asked?  "Yes!"  I needed fake gruel and I thought - vomit - perfect!"  I sheepishly confessed to having returned it to sender with no note.  "Did they not put my name on it?"  No, because if they had, I would have known it was a prop.

I should have known:  as those of us who have been hanging around these festivals for a few years can tell you:  anything can happen at the Fringe.

Ms. Ashton and her petticoats are now ensconced in my domicile.  Kidding Awound in Yorkville had replacement ersatz gruel.  I'm feeling a bit less stupid now. Penny's new show opens tomorrow:  and the 29th annual Toronto Fringe Festival opens tonight.

What to see at a festival that now offers 160 shows over eleven days?

Here's a few thoughts, organized in order of venue.

Venue #1 Tarragon Theatre Mainspace

A PETE N' CHRIS-TMAS CAROL
 The beloved Fringe faves are back with a Dickens send-up.  I'm interested to see what the lads do with the literary great's most popular tale.

DELIRIUM
The lanky American storyteller returns with a tale he says is "search for meaning."  He five-stars and sells out a cross the country.  A number of people have told me they think this is one of his best shows. He also co-stars with his wife Vanessa Quesnelle in a thriller MOONLIGHT AFTER MIDNIGHT,  which is billed as both a mystery and a romance.

Venue #3 TARRAGON THEATRE SOLO ROOM

MAGICAL MYSTERY DETOUR
Gemma Wilcox is a physical performer of astonishing dexterity and precision, well worth watching.
She regularly sells out in Winnipeg and Edmonton.

Venue #4  Al GREEN THEATRE

OLIVE COPPERBOTTOM: A NEW MUSICAL by Charles Dickens and Penny Ashton
Ms. Ashton is not only my room-mate for the duration of the festival, she that rare combo platter of talented writer and skilled performer.  I can't wait to see her sing, dance and act her way through this parody of Dickens.

JAMES &JAMESEY IN THE DARK
The admired British comedy duo are back with more high-stepping ridiculousness. I find them very charming.

Venue #5 THE RANDOLPH THEATRE

ROUGH MAGIC
My friends, apt 613 reviewers Barb Popel and Brian Carroll told me this was a favourite show at the Ottawa Fringe this year.  I quite enjoyed WEIRD this company's take on the Scottish play and I look forward to seeing what they do with a fanciful tale about the relationship between Ariel and Caliban.

6 QUICK DICK TRICKS: A DIRK DARROW INVESTIGATION
Magic meets comedy meets noir:  how much Fringier can you get?

VENUE #6 ANNEX THEATRE

BAD BABY PRESENTS: RULES CONTROL THE FUN
I always enjoy Janelle Hanna and she's working with Briana Brown who is a fine director.  I look forward to seeing her clown turn.

IN SEARCH OF CRUISE CONTROL
James Gangl teams up with Chris Gibbs.  Gangl is an excellent comedian and a terrific writer.  this will be well-worth seeing.

VENUE #7 ST VLADIMIR'S

WEIRDER THOU ART
Stephen Flett is in this:  it's hardly the Toronto Fringe until you've seen a show with Stephen Flett in it.

Venue #8 HELEN GARDINER PHELAN PLAYHOUSE

WEAKSAUCE
Storyteller extraordinaire Sam Mullins returns with a show I hope I finally get to see this festival.

Venue #9 THEATRE PASSE MURAILLE MAINSPACE

THE SEAT NEXT TO THE KING
I always check out the winner of the Best New Play competition.

TEN CREATIVE WAYS TO DISPOSE OF YOUR CREMAINS
Playwright Rose Napoli is a good enough reason for me to be there.

GRAHAM CLARK'S NOT HERE
Graham Clarke made a show out of a phone book.  This time he's apparently not even showing up.
I guess we'll have to go and see.


VENUE #10 FACTORY THEATRE MAINSPACE

MULTIPLE ORGANISM
Mind of Snail Puppet Company is beyond fabulous.  If you've never seen them, here's your chance.  If you have, well, you've probably already got a ticket.

PINEAPPLE CLUB
So last year, I took a flier and went, on my sister's recommendation  to see DANCE ANIMAL.
It was fabulous and I stayed awake through the whole thing after 11:00 PM on a school night.  At my age, that means it's a great bloody show.

VENUE #12   FACTORY STUDIO THEATRE

SHE GREW FUNNY
Chris Earle (Radio 30) directs Joanne O'Sullivan in a story that intrigued me.

As the survivor of a broken engagement myself, I'm thinking about DISENGAGED, also at this venue.  I'll see.

SITE SPECIFIC SHOWS

VENUE #15 THE LIFE HENRI

Adam Bailey (ADAM BAILEY IS ON FIRE!) and Laura Anne Harris ( PITCH BLONDE, THE HOME-MAKER) team up to tell the story of  French painter, Henri Rousseau.  I'm an art history buff and - full confession - Harris directed me the last time I toured - so I'll be seeing this.

VENUE #21 SCADDING COURT

SNAP!
A bunch of terrific Toronto actors team up to do a dark comedy.  Hey, it's next to the beer tent, so you don't tell me you can't find the venue.

VENUE #24  MONARCH TAVERN

MADDIE'S KARAOKE BIRTHDAY PARTY
Byron Laviolette  (Morro and Jasp) directs this 1/4 life crisis musical.

VENUE #32  FALLING ANGEL
Bruce Hunter is in this and that's a good enough reason for me to recommend that you check it out. Carolyn Azar directs this show which takes place al fresco - in Shaw Park - CAMH.

VENUE #33 LYSISTRATA
The ladies of Greece put the booty thang on lock-down until the men-folk stop being at war.
My Fringe experience is never complete without seeing some bunch of young things take on Greeks.

OK,  I need to order tickets and work out my schedule.  I'll see you in the beer tent - which is now at the south-east corner of Dundas and Bathurst, behind the Scadding Court Community Centre.

For show schedules and tickets go to: www.fringetoronto.com

Happy Fringing everybody!























Wednesday, June 21, 2017

REVIEW: MORRO and JASP are out of this world in the smart and hilarious STUPEFACTION


Two clowns, Morro and Jasp, dressed in their finest (by Robin Fisher) enter a theatre as the lights go down.  It’s a rainy night, they’re struggling with their umbrellas, and they’re late for the start of a play. Morro wants to take Jasp to do something special, to cheer her up after she’s weathered a bad break-up.

A rather officious usher (the very funny Elliot Loran) chivvies them into – one seat. The show they’ve come to see is delayed by technical difficulties.  A theatre tech appears (an excellent Sefton Jackson)from back stage and tries source the problem in a pit below the stage. Then things start to get a little weird.

Fed Ex (Anand Ramjaram as a charming sad sack) arrives with a mysterious package.  Is this a sign?

How do we explain the inexplicable to ourselves and to others?  Are there mysterious forces above and beyond us? Is someone – anyone - in charge, ever? What do we believe in?  How do those beliefs bring us together and how do they drive us apart?

These are big questions, and Stupefaction tackles them boldly, with a sense of wonder, ineffable charm, audience participation, and Cheezies. Annis, Lee and company make a night of theatrical magic.

This is the most ambitious Morro and Jasp show to date with a five-member cast and complex tech. In contrast to the big production values, the script has a kind of loosey-goosy vibe: this disparity creates a perfect container for the cosmic subject matter.

Make no mistake:  there’s plenty of skill underpinning the gleeful chaos that unfolds before us.

The sound design by Lyon Smith, Deanna Choi, lighting by David DeGrow and projections by Montgomery Martin adds a compelling otherworldly aura to the proceedings. The technicians on this show more than deserved their applause.

The entire cast delivers great ensemble work marrying physical comedy and hilarious, well-timed delivery. Byron Laviolette’s smart direction makes creative use of the entire space. He and his cast do a great job of escalating and slackening the pace in all the right moments. 


Stupefaction takes the audience on a wild and magical ride ending in a joyous conclusion.  Any room with Morro and Jasp in it is always a happy place. They’ve extended their run. I suggest you rush to  get a ticket.

Morro and Jasp

Kabin and U.N.I.T. Productions present

Morro and Jasp in STUPEFACTION
Crowsnest Streetcar
345 Carlaw, Toronto 
For tickets and information go to: www.crowstheatre.com

Friday, May 12, 2017

REVIEW: It's All Tru: Sky GIlbert doesn't let facts get in the way of politics

There's much to admire about the prolific and always provocative Sky Gilbert's latest play, IT'S ALL TRU.

It's a sharply observed examination of age, class, sex, and politics among gay white men, centered around a love triangle:  Kurt (a well-cast Tim Post), a buttoned-down, Brooks Brothers professor with a good job, a nice condo and a thing for younger men, his fiance, Travis ( an excellent David Coomber) a young theatre director who's nowhere nearly as dumb as he acts, and Gideon ( a heart-breaking Caleb Olivieri), a trick Travis picks up on some"dating" app one night when Kurt is out of town.

Kurt and Travis are a modern couple:  their relationship is an open one, with parameters and rules governing sex outside the relationship. Gideon and his ilk: hot, under-employed, emotionally confused young gay guys are to be used for sex and discarded like take-out containers.

Gideon however actually likes Travis and felt an emotional as well as a sexual connection during their one night stand. He flat-out pursues Travis with an endearingly awkward ardor and he does manage to gain some ground with the object of his affections.  Gideon is  spottily employed, he's been in trouble with the law, he lives in Hamilton and, well - he has no money.

Travis initially rebuffs Gideon, but as Kurt becomes increasingly controlling and proprietary, Travis has a decision to make.

Oh yeah: Travis and Gideon had unprotected sex (something Travis tells us he and Kurt NEVER do) and Gideon is HIV-positive. Travis is taking "after" pills (he forgot his "before" pills).  No one is going to die from this:  not like 25 years ago.

Consent is an issue:  did the party drugs they both took nullify Travis's consent to bareback?  Kurt says it does. Gideon is sure Travis consented to bare-backing:  in fact, he claims Travis asked for it.  Travis isn't sure-or is he?

This is where things got complicated for me.  Replace HIV with "pregnant" and you've pretty much got a straight couple dealing with the fact that sex without protection sometimes has unexpected and undesirable consequences not easily remedied by a course of antibiotics.  Geez, really, you think?

My sister was the lead defense counsel on R. v. Mabior, the 2012 case that redefined the law around HIV and disclosure.  The rule of law is simple and the decision of the court was unanimous:  you don't have disclose your status if you wear a condom, if you want to bareback (or your partner does) you do.  Mr. Mabior, for the record, was straight. My sister felt the law should be "caveat emptor".  So, apparently does Gilbert. The court did not agree.

By the way, Kurt could not call someone at the private bar (lawyers you hire to defend you) and get Gideon charged with aggravated sexual assault, convicted, and then incarcerated.  Travis would have to have gone to the police and charged Gideon.  The police and the Crown would have to have determined if there was sufficient evidence to lay charges.Travis would have to have testified at a sexual assault trial. Any half-decent defense lawyer would have made mince-meat out of his testimony.  Professor Gilbert really ought to know better.

Gilbert also has Kurt troll Gideon ( he's in a hoodie:  we and he can't see his face) at a urinal in a men's room.  Oh how I wish Gideon had whipped out his camera and photographed the incident.  A far more interesting discussion about sex, power, consent, and the law might have ensued when the photo and the story turned up on Twitter.

Without consent, it's sexual assault.  Why is it so hard to get men - gay or straight - to understand something so bloody simple?
Image result for It's all tru photosThe Cabaret Company and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre present It’s All Tru written and directed by Sky Gilbert, playing until May 14th at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre 12 Alexander Street. Tickets may be purchased by phone at 416-975-8555, at the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre box office, or online here.







 













Thursday, May 4, 2017

REVIEWS: Madness and Civilization: WhyNot Theatre Delivers a Compelling Prince Hamlet

It's WHYNOT Theatre's 10th anniversary and artistic director Ravi Jain decided to revisit HAMLET, the first show the company ever did.

It's was a wonderful choice. Jain's intellectual rigor, bold choices and risk-taking really shine in this imperfect, but fascinating production.

One of Jain's bold choices is the casting.  Most of the company are female. Jeff Ho takes the role of Ophelia - so we have a straight couple with the gender roles reversed - or do we?  All the women playing men are dressed in haberdashery. The only obviously female character on the stage is Karen Robinson, who plays Gertrude with great warmth and lush sensuality.

Jain's production effectively stands "received practices" on its anachronistic head. Nice going!

HAMLET is a tough play for a modern audience. In Shakespeare's time most spectators would have believed in ghosts,in an after-life,in God, in Hell and Heaven. For a cross-cultural, globe-trotting audience more likely to regard religion from an anthropological perspective, the play can demand a little more suspension of disbelief than it can muster.

Jain and his cast surmount this difficulty with elan.  When Hamlet's father's ghost appears on the ramparts, the scene seems to begin in reality with the guards,then shifts to Hamlet's bed as he tosses and turns alone and asleep. Did Hamlet dream his late father's visitation?  Is the dream prescient -or just a product of his disturbed imagination? Brilliant.

The Danish court, wonderfully designed by Lorenzo Savoini,is a hall of mirrors illuminated by gilt chandeliers suspended above a parquet platform. There's a visual nod to Versailles, but also to self-reflexive modernity, where we all watch ourselves and each other constantly on social media. The mirrors face the audience,implicating the spectators in the spectacle.  Piles of dirt surround the stage and as the characters are subsumed by their weaknesses and mortality; despair (Ophelia),rage (Laertes), carnality (Claudius and Gertrude)they become covered in dirt.

I don't think I've ever seen a better or more convincing Claudius and Gertrude.  In his pale, tight suit, silver hair just slightly too long, Rick Roberts epitomizes a certain kind of aging sleazebag.
I believed he would have killed his own brother in order to sleep with his sister-in-law.

His delivery of the "your father lost a father" speech was perfect: a patina of parental concern and reason coating a core of disgust and annoyance. When he prays, it's to the looking-glass, a moment less with the Almighty and more with the reflection of his own soul: a mirror held up to Nature indeed.

Maria Vancratsis is an outstanding Polonius, deftly drawing a meddlesome,self-important courtier and helicopter parent. The Stratford veteran's delivery was beautiful.

Horatio is played by Dawn Jani Birley. She uses sign language to communicate.  A skilled and compelling performer,the statuesque artist commands the stage.  Her Horatio occupies a parallel place to the audience, also seen but not heard, silent witness to all of the action.

Christine Horne, rail thin, her ghost-like,luminous pallor accentuated by an all-black wardrobe plays Hamlet as depressed, and so grief-stricken by the death of her father as to be teetering on the edge of insanity. Horne looks like she hasn't had a shower in a week.

Her scenes with Horatio and Gertrude are nuanced and credible. Her relationship with Ophelia is also well-drawn. She and Ho make us feel the loss of their love through the intrusions of meddlesome parents. Her relationship with Horatio is a total bro-mance, showcasing her mastery of Hamlet's wit. The scene with Hamlet, Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is uproarious.

The night I saw her, Horne seemed less confident with the self-reflective soliloquies. One of the few flaws with the production is the company's uneven ability to deliver the text with clarity and precision.

Jain privileges the emotional underpinnings of the text over its gorgeous language. He has made a lot of cuts, moving things around in a way that enhances the psycho-drama and downplays both the supernatural elements of the play and the physical violence. No swords are ever drawn,though Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah's Laertes evinces a great and chilling moment of physical violence in the scene before the duel.

At the end of the tragedy, when the bodies are piled on the stage, Horatio is left with us, the dead, and the dirt to which we all return. Her grief is palpable. Hamlet's conclusion,like our own is inescapable and final.

Jain and company made all tickets "pay what you can afford" starting at $5.00 so money was no excuse not to see this fine and affecting contemporary production of what is arguably the greatest play in the English language.

I would like to apologize for putting this up so late. This is the second show I've seen and not had an opportunity to write about until after the fact.  The other was the wonderful LITTLE PRETTY and THE EXCEPTIONAL at The Factory Theatre.

I want the artists I've seen, but not covered to know I appreciate you sharing your talent.  The city is a richer, more vibrant place because of you.


 
WhyNot Theatre in association with Soulpepper present Prince Hamlet ran  until April 29th at The Franco Boni Theatre, The Theatre Centre.





Sunday, March 26, 2017

REVIEW: SOUSATZKA'S Talented Cast Can't Salvage Its Mess of a Book

With the help of a talented and devoted group of colleagues, a disgraced theatre impresario raises a small fortune and gambles it on a bid to redeem his reputation and his career: but, will his madly ambitious new musical be a hit?

SOUSATZKA's backstage story is crystal clear.  We know who the protagonist is, what his stakes are, and what he must do to achieve his goal.

Unfortunately for Mr. Drabinsky and his cohorts, the same can't be said of the production at the centre of the current chapter of his personal drama.

I saw SOUSATZKA twice: once in early previews and again on opening night.  I wanted to see how a team of world-class experts develop a new show for Broadway.

Apparently they move things around, make some cuts, and then add more scenes. 

In a program note insert provided opening night, we are told that Mr. Drabinsky's vision was to bring the Jewish diaspora of pre-WW II Eastern Europe and the South African anti-Apartheid activists in exile together in one show.

The source material onto which  Mr. Drabinsky's ambitious idea is fused is a 1962 novel,"Madame Sousatzka" by Bernice Rubens.  No South Africans appear in the novel, nor does the Holocaust.  The novel is about a compelling eccentric of a Russian piano teacher training a Jewish child prodigy who is torn between loyalty to his clingy mother and loyalty to his demanding music teacher.

So; an ambitious concept has been superimposed onto a novel about something else altogether, and then was turned into a musical, with a score written in several styles, by different composers. Richard Shire is credited with the music and Richard Maltby Jr, with the lyrics, and additional music created by Lebo M. who provided the South African music in LION KING.

There's a lot to admire about SOUSATZKA: a fascinating protagonist wonderfully played by a brilliant Broadway star, impassioned performances from a talented cast, beautiful choral singing, skillful  ensemble work, a fine orchestra and some gorgeous costumes by Paul Tazewell.

Alas, the show's unwieldy book by Craig Lucas is a mess. It has more plot lines than a Brazilian soap opera and there's a musical number - or three - to go with every one. There's sixteen numbers in Act One and seventeen in Act Two. SOUSATZKA is cluttered, clunky, manipulative and way too long. The direction by Adrian Noble is uneven.

The show desperately needs forty-five minutes to an hour's worth of cuts. 

The prologue, set in South Africa is straight exposition, awkwardly staged. The Holocaust memorial scene at the end of Act One comes hard on the heels of a skin-crawling rape scene that feels exploitative. A Christmas sequence in Act Two is lovely to look at, but does nothing to move the plot forward. There's a scene in a punk club inexplicably underscored by a sugary pop dance tune. The DJ would have been beaten up by the crowd in the Queen St. West punk clubs of my misspent youth.

The current messy state of the show is no fault of the excellent cast.  As Madame Sousatzka, Victoria Clark shines like the Tony award-winning star she is.  She brings the ambitious, cultivated, troubled and eccentric Sousatzka fully to life, both emotionally and physically.  Her lush soprano voice fills the theatre.  She also has the best-written part in the show.

Her prized pupil, Themba, fares much less well. Jordan Barrow is a talented guy who unfortunately only gets to mope around the stage asking "Who am I" over and over, mime playing the piano (Why, why, why?  Why not have the actor playing the role of a musical prodigy actually play the piano?) and sing a couple of the worst songs in the show. "Gifted" is absolutely painful.

There's a side plot line where Themba has a white girlfriend who's a dancer. The story is underdeveloped, goes nowhere, and was responsible for one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the night. Virginia Preston, who is lovely, talented and deserving of a whole lot better executes a horribly choreographed solo in a two-piece red spandex hooker-wear outfit, straight out of an American Apparel ad. The only thing she's missing is a pole.

The habitues of Sousatzka's boarding house: punker and good-time girl Jenny (Sarah Jean Ford); Mr. Cordle, an osteopath and former actor (Nick Wyman); and Sousatzka's childhood friend, The Countess (Judy Kaye) are all well-drawn and delightful and charmingly played. Kaye and Clark's friendship and old history leads to one of the best musical numbers in the show, the moving "Let Go".

The whole South African plot-line is poorly developed, as are most of the South African characters. They are under-used, under-written and awkwardly integrated into the action of the show. It's a terrible waste of talent.

Naledi (Fuschia!)is an interesting character, played by a compelling actress with a gorgeous voice. We hardly get to see or hear her. Ryan Allen is terrific as Themba's imprisoned father Jabulani Khenketha. His singing is magnificent. The moments when he voices the redacted letters he's written from prison to his wife and his son are some of the best in the show. At the end, it's not even clear if he's alive or dead.

As Themba's activist mother, Xholiswa Khenketha, Montego Glover sings beautifully, but her poorly -written role leaves her stuck playing bitter, strident or clingy. Why the dinner after Themba's initial failed concert isn't at her house, when she was the one doing the cooking makes no sense whatsoever. She needs more nuance and more agency.

The philandering impresario Felix Manders (John Hillner) and his snobby wife (Christianne Tisdale) do fine comedic turns and actually move the plot forward. The Gilbert and Sullivan-influenced choral number in their salon is great fun, but the scene that follows goes on far for too long. 

"Rainbow Nation" is a moving anthem and should be Themba's encore. It feels like the natural place to end the show.

The denouement is the result of SOUSATZKA's most problematic plot line and left me wincing at its insensitivity. If you're raped at eighteen, and you have a baby as a result of that rape, are you really going to be unreservedly thrilled when your son with the rapist turns up at your door? It's a pretty big leap from that ugly truth to a teary reconciliation.

SOUSATZKA feels more like a vision of two solitudes than the creation of one rainbow nation: three, if you count the creators' tone-deafness to gender issues.



SOUSATZKA continues at the Elgin Theatre until April 9th, 2017.  For tickets or further information go to:  http://sousatzka.com  





  













Thursday, March 23, 2017

INTERVIEW: Adam Bailey and Laura Anne Harris on ideas whose time has come (again)

Laura Anne Harris and Adam Bailey are friends, colleagues and Fringe rock stars. Tonight, they open remounts of their national hit shows, PITCH BLONDE and ADAM BAILEY IS ON FIRE in a double bill at the TORONTO CENTRE for THE PERFORMING ARTS for two nights this week.

I spoke to both of them last week as they prepared their respective remounts.

Laura Anne is coming up here from Syracuse, N.Y. especially for PITCH BLONDE. Her husband, musician Chris Peterson is completing a graduate degree tin the U.S. and she decided to join him for his final year. It's her 10th year performing the show.

Ten years! Where have you been?

"All across Canada on the national Fringe circuit. Also to FemFest in Winnipeg, to Orlando and Lancaster, P.A. in the U.S.: now that I have a green card I can go EVERYWHERE in the U.S. After touring this show off and on for ten years, going back to do it this time feels like visiting an old friend."

It's certainly a great moment to tell the story of a woman who persisted.

PITCH BLONDE is the story of Judy Holliday, the Academy-Award winning actress with an I.Q. of 170 who made a career of playing dumb blondes.

"The best performance of Holliday's career wasn't her Oscar-winner in BORN YESTERDAY: it was her testimony during the McCarthy trials. She needed acting to get out of the situation she was in. She used her perceived persona to control the interview."

Holliday's situation seems eeirily and sadly current.

" Roy Cohn, one of McCarthy's notorious associates was also one of Donald Trump's lawyers. Holliday was a woman who opposed tyranny. She was Jewish, and McCarthyism had antisemitic overtones. The alt-right is doing the same thing as McCarthy did: looking for bogey-men under the bed. "

She continues: " Holliday's moment of great success ( her Oscar) was followed closely by a moment of great infamy. She triumphed."

I ask Harris what is different for her playing Holliday 10 years later. "It's more grounded. I'm more grounded. " She laughs. "I've changed the script a little bit over time. We meet her husband, David Oppenheim in this version. I wanted to show Holliday's full humanity; to honour her story and to honour her as a person."

Harris has five starred and sold out everywhere with this show. If you've never seen it before, you're in for a treat.

A few days later, I finally manage to catch up with the other half of the bill, Adam Bailey. I ask him how the double-bill came to be.

"They (Toronto Centre for The Performing Arts) asked! And Laura and I have such a great relationship."

Harris directed HENRI, Bailey's play about early 20th C painter Henri Rousseau, which he's bringing to Toronto this summer.

"I am the gay son of an Evangelical Christian minister. I grew up in Belleville where my dad ran the Quinte Christian Fellowship."

That sounds like quite a story.

"It's called ADAM BAILEY IS ON FIRE because there are people who think I am on fire: that I will be in hell for being a gay man. The play hasn't stopped being relevant. In the States, there's this perception of gay vs. religion. But I live between two worlds in this play: the world of my upbringing and my world as a gay man."

How dis his family take it?

"My family is not a worry: my sense of responsibility is towards the audience. The play is an exploration of me trying to be truthful to who I am, in every sense. It isn't didactic: there is no right answer."

Like Bailey, I had a very religious upbringing that I rebelled against as a young woman. We talk about that and I ask him, how wild was he?

"When Amish kids turn 16, they are no longer Amish by default. They get to decide. They have two years to make a final decision. Some of those kids are pretty wild for two years. I was pretty wild."

I'm Catholic. We can repent for our sins. If you're an evangelical Christian, what do you do, I ask?

"What is sin? Less than perfection. Sin is imperfection. To ask for forgiveness is to admit you're less than perfect. We're all less than perfect."

Bailey is older now and he's married to his husband. I ask him where he got married. "Outside." After a pause, he continues: "One of the hardest things to talk about was respectability politics within the gay community. That stuff was important to what this has meant to me. There are a lot of harsh realities about being in the gay community."

That topic is as taboo as religion.

We are running out of time. I ask Bailey what he wants people to know about the show.

"It's hilarious!" Is that it?

"A friend of mine came up to me after the show at the Fringe last summer and said"You made me laugh so hard and then you made me cry and now I have to hurt you!" Then she gave me a big hug."

I want to give Bailey a big hug but we're on the phone so I just wish him Merde and tell him I'll see him on Friday night.


PITCH BLONDE and ADAM BAILEY IS ON FIRE are at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, Studio Theatre on Thursday March 23 and Friday, March 24th starting at 7:00 PM.  Click  HERE to order tickets.  Please note you must purchase two separate tickets for the double bill.







-->


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

INTERVIEW: Sean Dixon Talks About Creating THE ORANGE DOT with S&G

It's one day before THE ORANGE DOT opens at Crows' Theatre and Sean Dixon is on his way to his play's final preview. We speak as he walks to the theatre.

Dixon is an acclaimed and internationally successful novelist and playwright, who began writing in 1991. THE ORANGE DOT is anticipated for good reason: Dixon's last play in Toronto, the critically acclaimed A GOD IN NEED OF HELP was short-listed for a Governor General's award. He describes the new play as its companion piece.

THE ORANGE DOT has had a long genesis:  you might say an ancient one.

The idea came to Dixon back in 2012. Initially, he planned to write a play as a reaction/response to Harold Pinter's THE DUMB WAITER:  a challenge (and a commission) set out for him by THEATREFRONT artistic director, Vikki Anderson.

"Before my mother died, she was in the hospital for a long while.  I spent a lot of time with her there. While she slept, I read The EPIC of GILGAMESH. Do you know it?"

I've heard of it, I tell him, but I have never read it. My bad.

"It's considered the world's first book," he tells me. "The Sumerians had a massive, well-developed culture in what is now Northern Iraq."   That much I knew from a long-ago visit to the British Museum, where there's a spectacular display of  cultural artifacts from ancient Mesopotamia. "Gilgamesh is a Sumerian text. It dates to 1800 BC, about 1000 year before the Old Testament was written. In one of the stories, a goddess takes a tree and floats it down a flooded river because she wants to sleep in its branches. "

There is something inherently matriarchal about a tree:  its roots drawing from and nurturing the earth, its lofty arms variously offering shelter, challenge, and embrace. "You know that silver maple on Roncesvalles?  Outside the church?  The big one? The silver maple? That's near my house. It's one of the oldest trees in city: it's over a hundred years old. In my mind, that's the tree in the story."

So the tree is a character?  "Oh yes: there's a tree and two actors. It's a character-driven piece. I love the collaborative aspect of working with the company.  It's been fun to hand the story over to the actors and to Vikki and watch them take it over and make it their own."

Dixon is in good company:  his two-hander is being played by renowned actor Shawn Doyle making a  return to the stage, and Daniela Vlaskalic, who created and toured nationally in the acclaimed DROWNING GIRLS.

"He's (Joe, the character played by Doyle) is a regular guy with a hidden emotional life.  She ( Natalie, Vlaskalic's character) has just come back to work after the death of her mother.  They work for the city as arborists. They are waiting by this tree for a piece of equipment that's stuck in traffic.  They're killing time: hanging out with their phones, chatting, waiting to take the tree down."

Dixon has arrived at the theatre: our time is up. From our conversation I can guarantee you two things about his new play:  you'll have a lot to talk about afterwards, and you'll probably learn something you didn't know.  For me, those are always two good reasons to check out a show.

Image result for the orange dot play theatrefront  photos 
THE ORANGE DOT written by Sean Dixon and produced by THEATREFRONT continues at Streetcar Crowsnest Guloien Theatre until April 1, 2017.  To book tickets or for further information go to:  www.theatrefront.com




Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Review: The Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival: Good Cheap Fun!

I always find March the grimmest month of the winter. The city is coated in a film of grey grit, the weather is dodgy, and real spring seems a long way off.

In an effort to shake off the winter doldrums, I ventured off to the Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival for the first time ever last Saturday night.

I had this idea that I was going to do a survey of a few of the female comedians at the festival:  Flo and Joan, Dame Judy Dench (there are guys and gals in that one) Full Time Idiot...

Somehow I managed to grab a Sunday ticket off my desk when I headed to the Theatre Centre on Saturday night.  I'm crediting pre-flu brain for that winner move.  "No problem," said the nice woman at the box office. "Do you want to see the 8:00 PM show here tonight instead?"

Why not?  So I ended up seeing OSFUG from NYC and HIP BANG! from Vancouver instead of TEMPLETON PHILHARMONIC and DAME JUDI DENCH.

This is one of the things I love about festivals:  going random - by choice or by chance, often takes me  to something really enjoyable I would have otherwise overlooked.

OSFUG it turned out is a troupe of  smart young sketch comedians from New York City doing a high-speed, high-energy series of mini-sketches with minimal, but effective props and costumes: some well used bananas, a donut box, a few hats and an excellent set of devil's horns.  I particularly enjoyed their hell-hole town hall bit. The poignancy of the young barista looking for a coffee client with the same name as her absentee father had me both laughing and tearing up.

After a brief interval ( The Theatre Centre has a lovely cafe lobby) HIP BANG! from Vancouver took the stage. The duo has played the Toronto Fringe before, but had somehow escaped my notice.
Devin Mackenzie and Tom Hill have great stage chemistry and I really enjoyed their delightfully daffy material.  I don't think water bottles have ever made me laugh before, but these two deployed them in a way that had me in stitches.

The only bad thing was this:  I couldn't go back on Sunday to see that other show.  An evil virus completely took over my being Sunday morning and I've been home, febrile and hacking ever since.

The festival begins the second half of its two-week run tonight.  There are some favourites: Pete 'N Chris, Spoon and Hammer with sections of their hit  "Behold The Barfly" on this week, as well as some big names in Canadian comedy, including a panel interview with Baroness Von Sketch the all-women comedy troupe with a hit series on CBC.

Go have fun for those of us who can't - and, if you're seeing two or more shows - go random on at least one of them. I'm sure glad I did!

The Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival runs until March 12, 2017 at various venues in downtown Toronto.  For schedules dates, times and tickets go to: http://www.torontosketchfest.com or call to order tickets at (647) 505 1050.


Friday, February 10, 2017

REVIEW: At Coal Mine Theatre SUPERIOR DONUTS is a treat to savour.

Consider if you will, the lowly doughnut: deep fried, delicious, greasy goodness.

Doughnuts and comedy have a few things in common.  The pleasures they offer are often regarded as plebeian, and while both may seem common-place, they are not all that easy to make successfully as anyone who's ever tried their hand at either will tell you.

Tracy Letts has written a very successful comedy, and while some of the strokes may be broad, his hand is skillful and assured.

In Superior Donuts, Letts takes a rueful look at The American Dream:  the promise of prosperity and endless possibilities offered to the huddled masses.  Specifically he's looking at the many ways that dream gets perverted by cowardice and greed and destroyed by casual violence.

In the current political situation to the south of us, Letts offers a gentle meditation on what it means to be an American. This might not sound particularly funny, and the play is not without tragedy, but it offers a lot of joy and it has a big warm heart.

As usual, at Coal Mine, the standard of acting is one of the joys of the production. It's rare to see such a fine and skillful ensemble deliver such uniformly good performances.  I keep going to the theatre in Toronto and seeing television acting on stage.  It was nice to see a bunch of actors who know the difference between the two and give theatrical performances on a stage. The opening night audience loved it.

Director Ted Dykstra has assembled an excellent nine member cast anchored by the utterly wonderful Robert Persichini as Arthur Przybyszewski, the sad-sack proprietor of Superior Donuts, a failing donut joint in a part of Chicago where the old businesses of immigrant families are giving way to tonier chain stores like Starbucks.

The shambolic Przybyszewski has abandoned hope: his child, his marriage and any vestige of ambition either personal or professional.  At the start of the play, his shop has been trashed by vandals who've spray-bombed a sexist expletive used to describe a coward. The cops (who are regulars) are there. The female officer, Randy (a delightful and very funny Darla Biccum) is sweet on him but Arthur has long ago gone blind to possibility.

In one of his monologues, Przybyszewski describes himself as an evader, rather than a resister. "Resisters," he explains, "fight."

He hires a new shop assistant:  a young, black kid called Franco. Nabil Rajo brings a great deal of charm and youthful energy to the role of  Franco: a dreamer, a hustler and more than a bit of a gambler.  Franco's written a novel "America will be...", the title an homage to the great American poet, Langston Hughes. He believes fervently in his dreams which are the source of all his joy and most of his troubles.

In the space between Franco's exuberance and Arthur's pessimism, Letts explores some very interesting territory about what it means to be an American man in these troubled times. Anna Treush' set and costumes perfectly evoke both place and time.

Lett's Chicago reminded me of old Queen Street West, back when it was lined with East European butchers and bakeries and I went to Rooneen's bakery for soup on cold winter days while my laundry was spinning across the street. Thugs and hustlers, cafe philosophers and bag ladies inhabited the 'hood.  Now there's a Loblaw's instead of the Czech butcher and the Ukrainian baker.

The Galaxy Donut at Queen and Bathurst is long gone: replaced by a Starbucks.  You may know where Letts is going with this story but there's a lot of joy in the ride

Coal Mine Theatre presents SUPERIOR DONUTS at Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Avenue, Toronto, Tuesday-Saturday @ 7:30 • Sunday Matinee @ 2pm (new this year!)*
*Sunday, February 5 @ 7:30pm
Rush seats are sometimes available at the door at 7:00 PM.
All Tickets $35 (previews $25)  http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2595274
For more info visit www.coalminetheatre.com


Robert Persichini in Superior Donuts









Tuesday, January 24, 2017

INTERVIEW: Sandra Shamas is Back! This Time, There are No Rules!

It all started with a couple of wild turkeys.  And no, Sandra Shamas is not talking about bourbon shooters.

"They were in my yard."  She lives in the country. I ask about the impact of rural life on her as an artist.

"Well, the move took a lot of creativity!  It evoked my adaptability.  You're constantly adjusting to new conditions.  Some days just getting from the house to the barn is an adventure. I have to trust myself."

Shamas' career began long before the turkeys showed up.  Her phenomenal success started  in 1987 when she won a slot in the Edmonton Fringe.  This was back in the pre-lottery days, when it was first come, first served, and hopefuls lined up to get a place.  She had an hour slot and an idea for a show: but she didn't have a play.

"I knew it was about a relationship - and I knew the end: we fall in love.  I knew there was a break-up in the middle and a week in stinky pajamas, crying on the phone with  your girlfriends.  And I knew when he came back, when I looked beside the bed in the morning at the pile of his clothes on the floor from the night before, there was going to be laundry."

Shamas figured out the rest on the plane to Edmonton. The result,  MY BOYFRIEND'S BACK AND THERE'S GOING TO BE LAUNDRY was described by one male critic "as a woman having a conversation at a kitchen table". He meant it derisively.  Who wants to hear some woman talk about her life in an intimate way?  It was an instant hit.

"I took it (his critique) as a great compliment.  I wanted to speak about the culture of women - and women talk at the kitchen table."

For legions of woman, young and old, who have spent most of their lives having some man or other talk at them, not to them, Shamas was a voice in the theatrical wilderness. The show she came up with on that fateful trip to Edmonton marked the start of a career that has spanned 30 years, many more hit shows and packed theatres across the country, including an eight week sold-out run at Toronto's Winter Garden Theatre.

This time, Shamas has chosen the Paula Fleck Theatre at Harbourfront. "I wanted an intimate venue. The Fleck is 441 seats:  half the size of the Winter Garden.  And it has soft seats - soft seats are very important at our age."

I'm laughing already.

There's always plenty of laughter at a Shamas show, although she doesn't see herself as a comedian.  "I see myself as a truth-teller.  Truth-telling is primary - and the truth can be funny."

When Shamas gets hold of it, the truth can be hilarious:  also, painful, enraging, thought-provoking and very moving.

Back to those wild turkeys:  four years ago, Shamas was standing at her kitchen sink doing the dishes in her rural Ontario kitchen, looking out the window at the birds and thinking about a conversation she'd had at a dinner table the night before.

"I was the MC at a local charity event.  It was chaotic:  you know the kind of thing run by people who control by chaos? I was seated at a dinner table with several couples.  An 89 year old woman asked me, "Where's your husband?"  I said, "I don't have a husband."  She said, "What do you do all day?"  I realized she thought of her husband as her job.  This got me thinking:  how do we as women see our relevance in society as we age? If we want a partner at this point, what would we want that to look like? What do want the next 30 years to look like?"

Very few women in Canada have had lengthy and successful careers as monologists. Touring and child-rearing are nearly impossible to reconcile.  I suggest to Shamas that at the point when many women start to have career momentum, they drop out to have children. This issue continues to affect women's careers in many professions.

"I didn't have kids. My niche was to amuse the women who were having those kids. Now those kids are grown up and they come with their moms and their aunties and grandmas and form part of my audience."

We talk about how things are - and aren't different for younger women.

"We're in a period where women's rights seem to be regressing. Women are marching in the streets over blatant sexism:  Trump, Ghomeshi. Like marching, theatre is an expression of solidarity."

How does she see her relationship with the audience?

"I'm trying to ask the audience questions. Theatre is a communal experience.  We come together to have a shared experience, a shared catharsis. We're all in this together."

What's changed  for her personally as a performer, in 30 years?

"My memory. It's not as easy to remember 55 minutes! I have a special word now for the start of each piece.  I've given up certain things:  no caffeine, no alcohol."

How does she see the next 30 years of her life?

"I'm re-calibrating my direction. I have my independence, a life worth living that gives me things worth talking about.  Helen Mirren said, "There are no rules over 60. I want to see what it's like when there are no rules."

Me too:  I can't wait.




Everything But the Kitchens Inc. presents

THE BIG ‘WHAT NOW?’

Written and Performed by Sandra Shamas
Fleck Dance Theatre, Queens Quay Terminal Building, Harbourfront Centre
207 Queens Quay West, Toronto
January 25 to February 4, 2017
Wednesday to Saturday @ 8pm, Sunday @ 2pm
Tickets are $45 & $55 and can be purchased by calling
416-973-4000 (Press Option 1)
or online at  my.harbourfrontcentre.com