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Cottagers and Indians

A cottage is the palace of humble man, said a renowned Turkish writer who had obviously never been to Ontario cottage country. In Drew Hayden Taylor’s smart, funny comedy, Cottagers and Indians (loosely based on true events) a local native and a well-to-do widow and summer cottager spend time verbally sparring about their own vested interest in an unnamed lake which might be anywhere where cottage communities have sprung up. Native Herbie Barnes (Arthur Copper) believes that he has a right to plant and harvest the wild rice, ‘manoomin’, in the lake, a long time water receptacle for the native population which has provided a healthy food source for them, while Maureen Poole (Tracey Hoyt) feels that the rice plant chokes the lake and makes it difficult to swim or boat.

While it doesn’t sound like an exciting argument on paper, Hoyt and Copper as Maureen and Herbie make it come alive onstage with humor, good natured bantering and their own genuine love of the land, Herbie in his beloved canoe along side Maureen’s lakeside deck, a lit barbecue prepared for a solitary dinner of chicken and chilled Chardonnay. Robin Fisher’s set design makes it every so appealing. The good life. Both characters have known each other for years and have a knack of baiting each other on native rights versus the cottage industry with owners who have invested heavily in pricey vacation properties.

Maureen, an attractive widow whose husband has recently passed away, has a storehouse of memories in her cottage she and her late husband bought as young marrieds, when they welcomed their only child, a son, who has also grown to love the cottage and its surroundings, while Herbie who has has canoed across the precious lake his entire lifetime, looks upon the it  as more than a means of transportation but a source of well being for his people. Each has his or her own vantage point in appreciation, and the playwright weighs each with an equal sense of importance. And frustration.

While Taylor pinpoints his play to the current disputes over harvesting of wild rice on Pigeon, Chemong and Buckhorn Lakes in Ontario’s Kawarthas, it might be anywhere on the Great Lakes. Wherever it may be, Cottagers and Indians is both an entertaining comedy and an illuminating look at what divides people who together share the love of the land.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger.
Photo: by Cylla von Tiedemann. Arthur Copper and Tracy Hoyt in Cottagers and Indians.

Cottagers and Indians plays at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace Until March 25, 2018. 30 Bridgman Avenue, Toronto. Tickets  can be purchased online at www.tarragontheatre.com, or by phone at 416-531-1827. Discounts are available for seniors, students and groups and arts workers. Patrons under 35 & arts workers visit www.tarragontheatre.com/tarragon22.


Retribution, no matter what its cause, is always a no-win situation. In hang, Debbie Tucker Green’s award winning British play given a stellar production by Obsidian Theatre, there’s very little room to feel much compassion for a woman who has been summoned to determine the fate of a prisoner convicted of the brutal murder of members of her family. The time is somewhere in the near future where victims of crimes have been summoned to choose the right penalty (hanging the electric chair or lethal injection) for the perpetrator, a page out of Margaret Atwood.  

We don’t discover the nature of the crime and the woman’s involvement until later on in Green’s 1 ½ hour drama, which leaves us almost too long a stretch to wonder why she’s been the chosen one. It also is something of a puzzle as we try to wend our way, baffled, through much of the opening scene.  But Sarah Afful as the woman will turn in a power house performance, leading us through a range of emotions as she struggles through the ordeal of recollection and retribution.

Her only companions during the process are two prison officials (merely referred to as 1 and 2) played by Zoe Doyle and Vladimir Alexis. Doyle stands out as a self-satisfied prison/government employee cum social worker who is determined to lead the woman to an acceptable conclusion without getting involved in the decision herself, while Alexis impresses in an additional brief appearance as the would be killer who befriends the woman before he commits a crime of which we will have very little knowledge.  

While the playwright doesn’t take it much further than that leaving us to speculate why the woman would be so naïve, it bears frightening resemblances to actual similar events that haunt the newspapers and TV today. Still, the crime itself is not centre stage in Tucker Green’s work, as much as the burden placed upon the living victim of the crime. There is a particularly moving scene in which the woman recreates the circumstances which led her to believe that the would be killer was her friend -  and her grief is moving.

Co-directed by Philip Akin and Kimberley Rampersad and performed on the intimate stage of the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs, hang is a shot in the arm for high drama on a small stage. It plays until February 25 at The Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs. 26 Berkeley St. Tickets to the Canadian premiere of hang can be purchased via the Canadianstage.box office or by phone at 416.368.3110.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger
Photo: by Racheal McCaig. L to R: Zoe Doyle, Vladmir Alexis, Sarah Afful.

Beauty and the Beast

Young People’s Theatre’s holiday production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast will be familiar territory for anyone who has seen the Disney film.  I would guess that moviegoers who have seen it far outrank the ones who haven’t since one of its accolades is becoming the world’s 10th highest-grossing film of all time.  Bigger may sometimes be better -  but not necessarily so.  The downsizing of a big Broadway musical -  and its film component -  can have its own charm.  For starters, it’s just the right size for a lot of the young people who filled the mainstage audience at the city’s premiere theatre for children.

The 85-minute show directed by Allen MacInnis, moves along at the right pace, not too slow and not too fast, with its familiar storyline and its fetching songs by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, intact. There is just one glitch and it’s there that movies can perform feats that live stage can’t. The ‘beast’ who must metamorphize into the handsome young prince, only does it on the YPT stage from inside a closet where’s he’s enclosed and where his ‘transformation’ takes place without our seeing it. When he walks out a handsome young man, my companion, who is just under under 5 years, seemed a bit concerned about the beast and asked me if he had died. Turns out that the Beast, played by the talented Stewart Adam McKensy, had some caring friends no matter what guise.

It’s a treat taking someone to the theatre who had never seen live theatre before and who, little by little, is captured by that particular ‘magic’ that can happen onstage, miles apart from the amazing technology of the motion picture industry. But, technology aside, it’s still up to the characters to make the story come alive.  One great thing about Disney’s female characters who have been transferred from page to stage and screen, is their stouthearted approach to trouble. Cinderella, The Hunchback’s Esmeralda, the Lion King’s Nala and Frozen’s no nonsence Elsa, have all left the sugar and spice behind to take on the lesser mortals with flare.

In Beauty and the Beast, Belle’s temper lights up like a match when the presumptuous, pompous Gaston (Aaron Ferguson) tries to corral her for his bride. And it flares up even more when she finds her gentle dad (Neil Foster) imprisoned by the Beast. Celine Tsai’s charming Belle might be a bit more forceful in some of the scenes, but this Belle is no one’s fool, enough to recognize little by little how love can grow with this very human – and humane –beast, despite his frightening appearance.

Damien Atkins brings some comic relief as the well lit Lumiere, along with the behind the stairs kitchen crew, Susan Henley’s motherly teapot Mrs. Potts, her errant son Chip (Pheobe Hu), and the unforgettable singing wardrobe, Madame de la Grande Bouche (Zorana Sadiq).

The 85-minute show is one of several holiday treats currently playing in Toronto theatres for young people and has been extedned due to its popularity. You can find the full list of holiday shows on our Preview Page. Beauty and the Beast plays at the Young People’s Theatre until Jan. 7, 2018. Recommended for Ages 5 & up. Runs Approx. 85 min.Performances: Tuesdays to Sundays at various times, with 8 performances during Holiday week. All performances open to the general public.Schedule: http://www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca/shows-tickets/beauty-and-the-beast/ Young People’s Theatre . 165 Front Street East, Toronto
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger
Photo: by by Cylla von Tiedemann. Stewart Adam McKensy and Celine Tsai in Young People's Theatre Beauty and the Beast

The Illusionists

With at least three Christmas Carols in and around Toronto currently conjuring up spirits past, present and future, it was a treat to see some real magicians in top form conjuring magic tricks right, left and centre. The Illusionists, now playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto features an international cast of seven magicians that are absolutely first rate.

Jeff Hobson, aka The Trickster, acts as MC for the show and does magic along with a bit of stand up comedy. He does it all including a bit that interacted with Mark Saunders, Toronto’s chief of police who had his watch picked right off of his wrist. With much audience interaction, including an endearing balloon segment with one youngster chosen from the audience, Hobson kept the show moving and the audience in good humor.

Also centering the show was Winnipeg native, Darcy Oake, The Grand Illusionist, who provided the big reveals of the evening via motorcycles, turtle doves and mice. Where on earth did they all come from and where did they go in the blink of an eye? 

Colin Cloud was the mentalist and, for all that I could tell, was the updated Kreskin, now using cell phones with passwords that only he could decipher while interacting with astounded audience members. Raymond Crowe pleased the crowd with a heartwarming shadow puppetry set to music the likes of which I’ve never seen.

Jonathan Goodwin (The Daredevil) is the escape artist and stunt performer who calls up the memory of Harry Houdini especially when he escapes from a straight jacket or lies down on a bed of nails. Actually, not nails plural but one very sharp and dangerous nail! 

South Korea’s An Ha Lim has won top prize in five international magic competitions and the elegance with which he keeps producing playing cards out of thin air - literally hundreds of cards! - is one of the high points in the evening and a spectacle that has to be seen to be believed. 

But I have to say that my favorite performance of the evening did not come from one of these excellent magicians. Charlie Frye, known as The Eccentric, is just that. Perhaps out of place in a magic show but there he is nonetheless, a world class juggler who has worked with Ringling Bros. he did it all and never missed (or dropped) a beat including an extremely difficult segment that saw five balls juggled in the air at one time!

Jim Millan, another Canadian and a Torontonian with a long history in Canadian theatre, acted as creative director. His pacing and construction of a playlist for how the various acts could be orchestrated into one show was an act of prestidigitation all on its own.
Reviewed by Robin Breon

The Illusionists plays at the Princess of Wales Theatre until January 7, 2018. 300 King St. West, Toronto.  Tickets: Available online at  mirvish.com. By phone 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333. Or mirvish.com.

The Lorax

We have all been watching the National Theatre Live bringing performances at the Old Vic and the New Vic into Canada via satellite. This time, David Mirvish brings the Old Vic production of The Lorax with a British cast and creative team to Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre for a perfectly executed performance of The Lorax, live without the camera!  The experience is so completely exciting it had the little ones and the older ones glued to their seats, for almost two hours and 15 minutes including the intermission.
Photo: by Manuel Harlan. Simon Paisley Day, Laura Caldow, Ben Thompson and David Ricardo Pearce in The Lorax.
With 16 actors/singers dancers, numerous understudies and musicians, the company puts on a show for both children and adults, an exceptional feat that has transformed the chubby beaver-like orange creature with the humongous voice and thick whiskers, into one of the vital figures of Anglophone popular culture. Writers, choreographers, singers, musicians and all manner of talented individuals under Max Webster’s direction, along with Rob Howell’s design, Drew McOnie’s choreography, and Charlie Fink’s music and lyrics, have set the show into several levels of performance appealing to all generations, in the unmistakably playful and creatively twisted language of author Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss. 

Going back to the original book on which the first animated cartoon film scenario was based, the show opens in the murky space of a “Street of the Lifted Lorax “where an empty pedestal arises out of the ‘smogular smog.’  A group of inquisitive children sneak onto the property of the Once-ler, a strange old fellow hiding at the top of the rotten wooden structure. They want to find out what a Lorax is, and where he went, and what happened here?  Two eyes burning in the dark agree to reveal all their secrets as the children settle down for a fascinating two hours of a most unbelievable story.  From that moment on, we're hooked.

The set explodes into the past, the cockney brood and family of the young Once-ler leap on stage headed by a figure that is mindful of Eliza Doolittle’s father.  The young, dreamy and too poetic Once-ler, played by a most versatile Simon Paisley Day, is tossed out of the family and sent on his way to find greatness and a way to make money .  From then on extraordinary multi-colored creatures fly past, pop up, climb, swing by, bury themselves and create an atmosphere of nonstop magic as they all harness their special energies. The special trees grow in brightly colored masses. It’s a world subjected to magic lighting that brings to life the golden Swomee Swans, the bouncing Barbaloo bears, and the humming fish.

Out of this natural paradise comes the ‘tuffs’, the material that will allow the Once-ler to create his “Thneeds”, objects that don’t seem to serve any purpose. But soon, he predicts, everyone will need them, and Simon Paisley Day raps out a solo explaining the multiple uses of Thneeds knitted from the tufts of the Truffula trees. Neighbors and family in a frenzy of collective excitement gather around the Once-ler, a Steve Jobs in the making , and let themselves be hypnotized by the project which will  better their lives and change the world, but ultimately destroy nature.

The stage inventions grow ferocious as tree cutting machines inspired by images of The Terminator gobble up the land and modern structures spring up like weeds. The Once-ler becomes a corporate fanatic, a consummate liar, and an astute business man which will resonate with the adults. There is even a moment when a trio of the most perfectly synchronized lawyers: Von Goo, McGee and McCann turn up to find the loopholes in the
Once-ler’s contract with The Lorax so that he can ignore their agreement and continue chopping trees. It resounds with the forestry conflicts on the Canadian west coast and becomes very real for a Canadian audience.

It was the most powerful musical moment in the show as the lawyers are suddenly transformed into a sparkling trio headed by Wendy May Brown. With an operatic voice that works on multiple musical levels, she could have taken over the show.

Michael Ajao ,who plays many roles, left his mark during intermission when he began improvising a rap monologue to amuse the audience with his spoken word performance, his sense of humor and great corporeal control. The show was bursting with talent and the conception of the play opened the artistic space to give all forms of talent its outlet.  Even the puppetry was imposing as the three puppeteers brought The Lorax to life by operating his voice, and movements in a Bunraku style of manipulation with the voices of Owain Gwynn and David Ricardo-Pearce.

One might wonder if such an overflowing of staging would confuse young people, or if the strange language games of Dr Seuss might confuse the message. But even if a four year could not follow Seuss’ verbal tricks, the ecological message about unbridled capitalism, and the destruction of nature, was clear as a bell.  “I speak for the trees” roared The Lorax, projecting anger, sadness and deep emotion.  We could almost feel his eyes fill with tears as the tree stumps rotted away under the gaze of the greedy Once-ler. The staging showed it all, even if the language was not always easy for the young ones.  It was the great art of the show, and it worked at all levels. An astounding artistic success.
The Lorax  plays at the Royal Alexandra Theatre until  January 21, 2017. 260 West King Street, Toronto. Tickets: Online www.mirvish.com.  By Phone 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333.
Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht, an Ottawa based theatre critic.

Peter Pan

Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie’s 1904 stage play, has had scores of presentations from its early beginnings as a novella graduating to a stage play, film and then a Broadway musical with the inimitable Mary Martin as Peter. The genius of the work is that no matter what form it takes, there’s something about Peter Pan that appeals to almost every age group from five to ninety-five. The latest Toronto production, a stage musical based upon Barrie’s play, is in Toronto for the holiday season.  Produced by Bad Hats Theatre and presented by Soulpepper Theatre with a new adaptation by Fiona Sauder and Renanne Spitzer and music by Landon Doak & Company, this Peter Pan has all the necessary ingedients of a musical filled with high energy performances and lively songs, primarily aimed at the young set, many of whom sat around the stage area as the show progressed.  
Photo: by Nicholas Porteous. L to R: Graham Conway, Fiona Sauder.

There’s no lack of fun or action in the show, and though the theatre and stage dynamics don’t allow for Peter and Wendy to actually fly off to Neverland and back home again, director Severn Thompson and her first-rate cast work wonders with our imaginations seeped in the bountiful magic of Barrie’s play. In fact, while the Broadway staging of Peter Pan with its aerial tricks inspired generations of theatre productions to try and emulate Peter and Wendy and crew flying back and forth from home to Neverland and back again like the flying Wallendas, there's no such thing on the small Soulpepper stage. Wonder of wonders, we still believed that they could fly.

There are some added and appealing touches of humor which were a little sophisticated for the younger crowd.  Wendy Darling (Lena Maripuu) let her genuine affection for Peter out of the bag when someone asks her why she’s doing so much for Peter. Peter himself, the man of the hour, played by Fiona Sauder, is a rock for all the lost boys in Neverland, especially on the track to buck the conceited pirate Captain Hook by fooling him with the chilling sounds of the Crocodile.

We never do find out whether the Crock cornered his prey, though Hook did get his in the end by being shoved into a suitcase. But I loved Graham Conway’s first gesture in introducing the supreme vanity of pirate chief by twirling his moustache like a Victorian playboy as he approached his pirate gang.  And a round of applause for Reanne Spitzer’s most visible Tinkerbell ever, who being her own woman, rang her own bell.

If there’s one thing that I found lacking in this Peter Pan, it was the warmth that I found in Barrie’s play when the lost children that Wendy has rounded up from Neverland have been brought back to her London home to be adopted by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Darling. There is something beautiful in Barrie’s ending when Peter realizes he cannot convince Wendy to return to Neverland to be his and the lost boys’ mother. Instead, Wendy wants to grow up and have her own home and her own children. In real life, J.M. Barrie was a terrible husband and father who turned his own marriage and home life into a disaster. In Peter Pan he got it right. Peter Pan plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Historic Distillery area uontil Dec. 31. 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto until December 31, 2017. Tickets: Phone: (416) 866-8666.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger

The Goat or Who is Sylvia?

What is this thing called love? Edward Albee’s 2002 searing drama produced by Soulpepper Theatre under Alan Dilworth’s direction, doesn’t pretend to solve that puzzle. It does however provide a host of some interesting questions about the random definition of love.

Photo: by Cylla Von Tiedemann. Raquel Duffy and Albert Schultz in The Goat or Who is Sylvia?

The play opens with Lorenzo Savoini’s pristine, carefully arranged living room set.  White brick walls and white bookshelves are perfectly arranged with several books – just enough to keep the balance between them and the odd piece of china or family portrait. The congenial, laid back Martin (played by Albert Schultz who is always a master at the unflappable), a world-famous architect who has just landed a big contract, is having a conversation with his devoted wife Stevie (Raquel Duffy), that shines with brittle humor. It’s a repartee that can only be had by two people who are sure of their relationship.

There is one slight ripple in the perfect family compound: their son Billy (Paolo Santalucia) is a dysfunctional kid who happens to be gay. Martin and Stevie joke about it with each other and with Billy himself, just short of trespassing a comfort zone.

But there’s something in the air that you can’t quite put your finger on. Despite all the perks of a good life: money, a wonderful marriage, a brilliant career with accolades and awards, Martin seems strangely distant, forgetful, even apprehensive, like a man on the verge. When his oldest and best friend Ross (Derek Boyes), a television producer, arrives to interview Martin for a TV show, he has to convince him that’s he’s a sterling subject for the interview. “Some people are more extraordinary than others,” the good-natured Ross tells him. . Martin in fact has just won a billion dollar contract for his design of a project called World City. It will turn out to be a smaller world than he anticipated.

Ross also suspects that something is amiss. Reminiscing about their randy young buck days before Martin settled down contentedly with Stevie, Ross’s mind as a matter of course heads straight for the obvious. He thinks Martin is having and affair, and eager to find out if his suspicions are on target, pries it out of him using the bait of their longstanding friendship.
When he discovers that Martin is indeed involved with someone, though the object of his affection is a four-legged goat named Sylvia, his reaction is at first amusement, then disbelief and finally revulsion. “This is Sylvia who you’re fucking?” he asks incredulously. “Don’t say that,” snaps Martin. “It’s whom.”

Albee packs so much into the next hour of the 90-minute play – Stevie has found out about Martin’s affair from “good” friend Ross – that it’s easy to miss the other thematic strains sandwiched in between the ongoing dialogue about Sylvia. The basic animal instincts we all have, the social outcasts who are condemned by the moral majority for doing something outside the norm (Martin’s son Billy has been his own home grown social outcast and is suddenly relieved he’s taken second place to Dad), and Stevie’s primal scream of agony when she can no longer tolerate the idea of sharing her husband with someone else, let alone an animal, is the work of a playwright who looks with undiminished eyes on both the absurdities and the reality of life. There is even a point in the play when you forget for a moment that what Martin is describing is his love for a goat. It’s a revelation.

And so the play continues with humor that is even more biting, with the excoriation, the anguish, the admonishment, and the pain, building into a smashing finale with a wallop: the primitive human animal protecting its lair in the only way it knows. Until retribution sets in, it’s left to Paolo Santalucia’s Billy to convince us that he is the one truly tragic figure in the play. His final scene with his father is both touching and uplifting, a contemporary Greek tragedy that is unforgettable. The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? runs until November 18, 2017. at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts; 50 Tank House Lane. Distillery District. For Tickets: 416-866-8666 or soulpepper.ca.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger


The world is too much with us said British romantic poet William Wordsworth.  It was a phrase that crossed my mind recalling the number of plays this past year dealing with the escalation of political and social problems in the world: war, immigration, refugees, and crimes against humanity, racial and religious discrimination. Theatre is a reflection of what mankind is and teaches us some tough lessons.  Perhaps playwright Aydan Akhtar said it more cogently in his addendum to his Pulitzer Prize winning play Disgraced: “The only way we can change the world is by recognizing what it is now.”
Photo: Karen Glave and Raoul Banja in Disgraced.

In Disgraced, Director Robert Ross Parker’s simmering 90-minute production currently playing at the Panasonic Theatre until November 26, all seems well in the household of Amir Kapoor (Raoul Banja) a smug and successful Wall Street Lawyer and his lovely blonde, level headed wife Emily (Brigitte Solemn), a painter who specializes in Islamic art and is anxiously awaiting to see if she’s been accepted into the upcoming exhibit at the Whitney Gallery. They live in a tasteful, streamlined Upper East Side New York apartment (designed by Sue LeSage). Both have ‘good’ taste in clothes (also Ms. Lippage’s artful hand), Amir boasting that he pays six-hundred dollars for his crisp Charvet designer shirts. He’s also unmercifully lords it over a mere paralegal who is late in returning his phone call. Amir is a man at the height of his career – which is about to collapse.

His well stacked house of cards, has a foundation that is built on lies. Amir, who works for a Jewish law firm, has been questioned that afternoon by firm’s principal partners regarding his parentage.  Amir who was born to Muslim Pakistani parents, changed his name from the Islamic Abdullah to Amir Kapoor, and his birthplace to India. It sounded better on a job application he tells Emily. The name change promised more attention to his ambition than his religious persuasion which he has successfully stifled. His upward mobility is a precious commodity to Amir who is line for a handsome promotion from the firm.

The fact is, Amir is a lapsed Muslim who abhors many of the religion’s tenets and has no qualms about pretending to be defined as something else. Until he is encouraged by Emily and his nephew Abe (Ali Momen) to become part of a legal team to defend an imam, a Muslim cleric, who has been unjustly accused and imprisoned for raising money for Hamas.  Amir had been living comfortably in his adopted skin, but the wall comes tumbling down when a newspaper article only singles him out “supporting the imam.” Like a bolt out of the blue, Amir begins to realize that his identity, his background, his religion, is like a birthmark. You can try to wash it off but it just doesn’t go away.

That realization hits him like a bombshell a few months later during a dinner party Emily has planned for her African-American colleague Jory (Karen Glave) and her Jewish husband Isaac (Alex Poch-Goldin) who is also a curator for the Whitney Museum and a fan of Emily’s work. At first their camaraderie is almost contagious, friends who ‘get’ each other’s jokes, appreciate each other’s wry sense of humor, understand each other’s likes and dislikes. The conversation is amiable and ranges with non-committal banter from where to buy the best dessert to how to make a great salad. Karen Glave’s Jory is the delightfully sharp witted wife who can spar ‘smartly’’ with her husband, Alex Poch-Goldin’s more laid-back Isaac.

Everyone is relatively comfortable until that one unthinking, loaded remark that Isaac makes. He wouldn’t even know that Amir is a Muslim if it weren’t for the article in the New York Times. And from there on in the party’s over, ultimately ending in a vicious verbal free for-all that finds Amir defending the religion from which he had distanced himself. When he and Emily are alone, he commits a brutal act that stuns him. It’s a hard awakening and brings him face to face with the contradictions he had safely stored away, the awakening of an identity he has suppressed in a post 9/11 world where being Muslim and American are not seen as compatible.

The plays answers no questions for us – even the ending which finds Amir and Emily at a turning point in their marriage isn’t clear cut  - but it does ask questions of us which is the playwright’s point. How do we get past that point of no return in looking at people only through a historical lens, and not for their individuality.
Disgraced plays until November 26 at the Panasonic Theatre. 651 Yonge St., Toronto Available online www.mirvish.com; Ticketking 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger.
(This review was published originally for the April 2016 production of Disgraced at the Panasonic Theatre. The cast remains the same except for Alex Poch-Goldin who now plays the role of Isaac, originally played by Michael Rubenfeld.)

My Name is Asher Lev

Chaim Potok’s 1972 book My Name is Asher Lev is prefaced by a quote by Picasso: “Art is a lie, which makes us realize the truth.” It’s no wonder that Aaron Posner’s theatrical adaptation of Potok’s book, has much to do with the ‘truth’. The truth is not always easy to digest for young up and coming artist Asher Lev, with his strict Hassidic background. 

Photo: by Dahlia Katz. L to R: Jonas Chernick, Ron Lea, Sarah Orenstein.

The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company in a co-production with Studio 180 Theatre, under Joel Greenberg’s direction, has turned out a strong production of Posner's play that manages to show off the versatility of its actors, all of whom except for Jonas Chernick as Asher Lev, take on several roles. The pain of turning against one’s society, especially the people who are closest to you, is apparent when Asher Lev, who no longer wants to simply paint the flowers and sunny skies that his mother prefers, but people at the cross roads, meets his mentor, a great  Expressionist painter who bluntly tells him “Be a great artist. It is the only justification for all the pain you are about to cause.”

And Asher makes his choice. There is pain, so much so you can feel it emanating from his pragmatic, religious mother (Sarah Orentstein) who cannot understand how her son, who as a child drew ‘beautiful things,” could now turn to painting nudes – against Hassidic beliefs -  when there are so many ‘happier’ things to paint, and his angry father who sees Asher’s artistic path as a betrayal. Asher’s insistence to keep his ground is a grand slam against religious tradition. His father is not only religious but a spiritual advisor who travels the world, and healing the wounds will be non-existent. 

Ron Lea as the father (Lea plays all the men, the mentor, and Asher’s beloved and understanding uncle who passes away early in the play) doesn’t allow us to feel anything more than annoyance at his intractability, while his mother, is of less sterner stuff, worrying about what the community will think, though the wonderful Sarah Orenstein as Asher’s mother, who will later double as a congenial nude model, and a sharp art dealer, is impressive as all three.

Staged without an intermission, My Name is Asher Lev, does not edge toward any auspicious ending and there are times when its almost seems repetitious, especially with an ongoing declamation of what makes a good artist.  Asher does become a well-known painter by virtue of his highly debated work entitled The Brooklyn Crucifixion, one who is totally accepted, not only by the community, but by the world. Unlike Potok’s other great book, The Chosen, which was also made into a play by Aaron Posner, and builds up to a more emotional finale, My Name is Asher Lev ends quietly, unceremoniously, the passage of time hopefully healing the pain of hurting the people you love to make great art.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger.

My Name is Asher Lev
Plays at The Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts (Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge Street) until November 26. Tickets can be purchased online at www.hgjewishtheatre.com, by calling Ticketmaster at 1-855-985-2787, or in person at the box office of the Toronto Centre for the Arts.

Party Today, Panic Tomorrow

At Second City Toronto, it’s always something of a party. With the opening of their new Mainstage show, Party Today, Panic Tomorrow, the atmosphere smacked of one big ongoing frat party. The crowd’s boisterous enthusiasm is always the lightning rod to the show in a nightclub style space which seems to be filled with die-hard fans who start the cheering even before the show begins. It’s an indication of the popularity of Second City shows, especially among the millennials who dive into the shows especially when the comic routines deal with the “absurd dilemma of living in 2017.”  It happens to be the theme of Second City’s newest addition:  Party Today, Panic Tomorrow.
Photo: by Rachael McCaig: L to R: Allana Reoch, Ann Pornel.

According to the program it’s that stretch of modern day breathe in and breathe out when political exhaustion just gets us down. That may be stretching it a bit, but one only needs to drop into Party Today, Panic Tomorrow to feel the electricity in the air from the audience,  the anticipation of watching six very funny performers do some hilarious sketches about modern day marriage (it seems to be a favorite topic in Second City shows); sleepless,  panic- stricken nights with baby played with a properly glassy eyed look by Brandon Hackett and Nadine Djoury; the lonely guys in the bar (a sketch which manages to be both funny and sad at the same time. All we miss is Billy Joel singing about the sad young men.  

There’s the three women (Ann Pornel, Nadine Djoury and Allana Reoch)  who don’t like the ‘new’ Wonder Woman character of the recent film, and just to prove their point, strip down to the bare essentials onstage to show us some very human proportions; the Toronto real estate market interpreted by a man with money and an ordinary Joe; and a hilarious bit starring an audience choice inclusion, in this case lemon scented Windex migrated into a send-up of The Trojan Women with Allana Reoch and Colin Munch in great form with makeshift togas.  No further explaining the logic behind that one, but trust me, it was a winner.

I also liked the sketch between a bride (Ann Pornel) and her nervous Dad, a talkative baseball freak (Allan Roech) just before the inimitable walk down the aisle when all the fatherly affections come to an aggravating  surface. And my favorite, the wackiness of modern day life when the only person you can tell your troubles to to is an imagined giant banana.

What I do miss are the barbs of political satire which seems to have disappeared from the Second City sketches of late. Party Today (Panic Tomorrow) has been written and performed by the entire cast and directed by Leslie Seller and is a thoroughly enjoyable evening. But certainly the absurdity of living in 2017 and all its ramifications might have had its wings stretched more along the lines of sharper satire with a more perceptive look at the many faces of the human comedy. Oh, and by the way, pass the bananas. Party Today, Panic Tomorrow plays at 51 Mercer Street (at Blue Jays Way), Toronto for an extended run. Tickets available online at secondcity.com, or The Second City box office at 416-343-0011.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger

The Wedding Party

Anyone who has ever planned a wedding is familiar with both the ups and downs, the indelicate intricacies and sometimes just the plain horror of watching everything start to fall apart. In The Wedding Party, Kristen Thompson’s wonderful comedy produced and premiered by Crows Theatre and back for another glorious run, we never see the bride and groom, Sherry and Jack Jr, only the rest of the wedding party who will make a mash-up of the affair. We, the audience, sit there drinking it all in, in the slick Guloein Theatre Mainstage of the Streetcar Crowsnest complex which can be rented out for real wedding celebrations, hoping that prospective couples will have a more positive experience than the characters have in The Wedding Party.

The Wedding Party has an assortment of colorful characters played by a cast of seven, each of whom take on several roles including all the split second costume changes rendered by designer Ming Wong. The character line-up includes the mother-of-the-bride, Maddy Boychuk, played by Jane Spidell, a tippler who is always on the sauce, but has paid for all the flower arrangements and figures she’s entitled to give a speech at the wedding dinner. Spidell also plays the family dog with some intensive tail wagging, a talent perhaps perfected by Maddy’s history as a circus performer.

Tom Rooney is the laid back well to do father of the groom, Jack senior, who has forked out a hefty sum for his son’s wedding and rules over it like a potentate. He is after all the head of the wealthy Sealey-Skeets family of Toronto, thanks to his rich wife Margaret (Moya O’Connell), as opposed to the Boychuk family from Hamilton. His twin brother Tony (also played by Rooney is unmarried, out of work and has attracted Margaret’s attention, tired of her husband’s airs.

Ms. O’Connell will also pop up as a muscular brother to Sherry, which is another brilliant feat of the 7-member cast who can cross gender lines slickly, without a hitch in dress or manner. Rooney especially impresses in a slinky red gown as the imperious older sister of the bride, and Jason Cadieux is a standout as the unappetizingly loud mouth grandma.

The high point of the show is Thompson’s Maddy who has managed to climb on top of one of the tables and give her own version of the toast to the bride. By this time the dazed wedding planner (Virgilia Griffith) has despaired of any protocol and looks as if she wishes they’d all fall through the floor.

The Wedding Party moves along at a brisk pace, unerringly hilarious as it plows the territory of farce with couples coupling and uncoupling in an atmosphere of mayhem along with an unintentional pointer to anyone planning a wedding: Beware of leaving out the mother of the bride who can out distant everyone in her numbing powerhouse of memories about her little girl. The Wedding Party runs until Jan. 20, 2018 at the Streetcar Crowsnest (345 Carlaw Avenue) in the Guloien Theatre. Get online information and make ticket purchases at crowstheatre.com.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger

London, Ontario
The Grand Theatre

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Based on the award-winning novel, “A Thousand Splendid Suns” follows a family trying to survive one of Afghanistan’s wars.  Exit the Soviets and enter America, with thousands dying because they are “in the way”.  Still, thousands are faceless statistics and far less personal than the story of Maryam and her family.  Haysam Kadri’s brilliant stage production has hit the Spriet Stage at London’s Grand Theatre with standing ovations for moving performances and superior design, both in set and sound, supported by very good music.

Developed by an American Stage company in San Francisco, it breathes new life into a story that we could miss because the news mentions numbers only and the true tragedy is discovered in the suffering and pain of the characters, particularly the women.  They must live as second-class citizens with forced marriages and very poor support from a male-dominated system.   

Deena Aziz is compelling at Maryam, often in conflict with her husband Rasheed, who is played as extremely selfish and cruel by Anousha Alamian.  He has actually been booed at curtain calls.  The story surely pulls the audience into an unfair world.

The unfair world contains a young woman who is forced into marriage at age fifteen and spends a good deal of her life with one pregnancy after another.  Laila is played with sensitivity by Mirian Katrib.  She seems to be dragged into one problem after another until she eventually is reunited with her childhood sweetheart.  You have to bring some personal energy to this production which runs two and a half hours.  It could be just as wonderful if they could cut twenty to thirty minutes from the running time.  Still, it is strikingly good theatre and runs to March 31st.
Reviewed by Ric Wellwood.

London, Ontario
The Grand Theatre

Blind Date

A production designed to chase away the Winter blues has opened at London’s Grand Theatre and it is getting standing ovations amid waves of laughter.  It is difficult to review “Blind Date” because no one will ever see that particular production again.  There is a different show every night because there is a different presentation every time.

The show’s star and key creator is Rebecca Northan, a drama graduate of the University of Calgary whose infectious humour is both physical and verbal.  Her very large presence on the Spriet stage is accented by what she brings out in her blind date.  With a little red clown nose, she cruises the lobby before the show to select a number of men she feels will be loose enough to respond to her precocious performance as Mimi, a hot French chick looking to match up with a stranger.

On the opening night, Mimi, wearing a tight red dress, summoned her chosen partner from the audience.  He turned out to be Doug, an expert working in computers at the London Public Library.  Doug’s teenage daughter was with him and she remained in the audience.  What she may have said when she described the experience to her absent mother would probably be as funny as the show.  Mimi turns out to be very sensitive and she balances the broader moments with sharp bits of physical comedy.  Personally, my biggest laughs centre on her unique way of hiding her glass of wine from a curious cop or heating up her date’s beer.

Rebecca and her performance helpers have been on the road from some time, with shows performed Off Broadway or in the West End of that other London.  Rebecca’s creation is franchised and in other countries there are as many as four other Mimis looking for a date. 
Blind Date is on stage at the Grand Theatre for a limited-time engagement from February 13 to March 3, 2018 are available at www.grandtheatre.com, by phone at 519-672-8800, or at the Box Office, 471 Richmond Street. '
Reviewed by Rick Wellwood, a London, Ontario based theatre critic

London, Ontario
The Grand Theatre


Every play has its first production as a World Premiere, but some are more significant than others. Actually, few of the productions ever have a second opening.  Only the best get a long life, and I believe that Trina Davies’ drama “Silence” will make a lot of noise in theatre communities around the world.
Photo: by Claus Andersen. Graham Cuthebertson and Tara Rosling in Silence, Grand Theatre London ON.

The play gets its introduction to audiences at London’s Grand Theatre under the inspired direction of Peter Hinton.   The show is excellent in many aspects:  Michael Gianfrancescos’ costumes are good, but his superior set design gives Hinton a clear, strong canvas on which he paints an unforgettable picture.  Beth Kates and Jeff Pybus add good lighting and significant projection skills to Richard Ferens powerful sounds.  They include a  musical score that supports a series of solid moods that allow  a cast of good performers to supply the feelings that show handicapped people can sense what “normal” people can feel.

In Silence, Canadian actress Tara Rosling has created a signature role in her career.  Her rendition of Mabel Hubbard Bell is compelling and her chemistry with Graham Cuthbertson as Alexander Graham Bell is at the centre of a production that has great heart.  It also asks the questions that Ms. Davies adds to the play and the attention that the well-researched story demands of the audience.  The story demands involvement, and its greatness relies on people plugging in to the plot and the characters who give us the keys to understanding. 

The supporting cast is strong and clear in performance, particularly Suzanne Bennett as mother and Michael Spencer-Davis as Mabel’s capitalist father who happens to ensure that Bell gets the patent for his inventions, including the telephone. The Grand’s artistic director Dennis Garnhum commissioned the work and placed it at the centre of his first season.  So far so good for audiences in London and Southwestern Ontario.
Reviewed by Ric Wellwood, a London, Ontario based theatre critic.

London, Ontario
The Grand Theatre

A Christmas Carol

A headache for most Artistic Directors in Canadian Theatre is the lack of Christmas material and most are going to the Dickens for a Christmas Carol.   Most theatregoers have seen several productions of this Christmas classic and many would expect that the current production at London’s Grand Theatre will be the “same old same old”.  It is not so with Dennis Garnhum’s new version of the play with new dialogue featured in the largest production staged in modern times at the Grand.
Photo: Patrick Monaghan as Jacob Marley and Ben Campbell as Scrooge in the Grand Theatre's production of A Christmas Carol. Photo credit: Claus Andersen.

With the flawless sound design by Jim Neil and newly-composed music by Jeremy Spencer, Garnhum blends in traditional Christmas Carols presented on a clever, practical set by Alan Stichbury, running from a Victorian Bedroom to an outdoor skating rink.  The designed frame of the production is effective for a distinguished cast, including Benedict Campbell with a Scrooge that possesses more humanity than you might expect.  He is given strong support by Blythe Wilson as the Spirit of Christmas Present in a lyrical soprano singing performance, Sean Arbuckle as Bob Cratchit and Aidan DeSalaiz as Fred. 

There is much to like in this new production with the exception of the costumes for the three spirits, which are unconvincing and looking uncomfortable for the players.   The show verges on spectacle but keeps its focus on the central theme of the redemption of Scrooge.  The entire cast is strong and credible, particularly Kelsey Falconer, Ian Deakin, Alexis Gordon and the narrative skills of the legendary Christopher Newton as the voice of Charles Dickens delivering new material from Dennis Garnhum.

This show will be expensive to build in other theatres, so this new version may not go beyond London, but it’s definitely worth a look. A Christmas Carol plays at The Grand Theatre, 471 Richmond Street, London ON. Tickets: GRANDTHEATRE.COM; 519.672.8800.
Reviewed by Ric Wellwood, a London, Ontario based theatre critic.
Photo: Patrick Monaghan as Jacob Marley and Ben Campbell as Scrooge in the Grand Theatre's production of A Christmas Carol. Photo credit: Claus Andersen.

London, Ontario
The Grand Theatre


The Dennis Garnhum Era is off to a roaring start with a musical production developed in partnership with the Manitoba Theatre Centre.  “Once” has all the elements of good theatre, delivered by an ensemble cast who tackle the material with energy and honesty.  The production has many levels of meaning, including video text for anyone who speaks fluent Czech.

Essentially it’s the story of a guy and girl from different relationships who happen to meet and make music together without a single kiss or caress.  The guy is Jeremy Walmsley, last seen at the Grand in the title role of Buddy Holly.  The girl is Amanda LeBlanc who returns to the Grand from successful roles at theatres from coast to coast.  The dozen actors in the cast  play Irish music in an infectious manner that gets the toes tapping and the audience captivated.  The silent moments in the story are greeted with equal rapt silence from the audience.

The story takes place in a bar, and the set is truly authentic and the audience is invited to get up on the Spriet Stage to buy a drink they can take back to their seats.  It’s incredible that so much can be stuffed into less than two hours of production, but it coasts along with enthusiasm and skill.  Special notice goes to the sub-plot story of a relationship between Bar Fly Billy and attractive blonde fiddler Reza played seductively by Alicia Toner.  Tracey Flye directs and choreographs the show with a sure hand making “Once” something you might want to see more than once.  It’s a piece of musical theatre that is hard to describe but easy to enjoy.  If the remainder of the season can match “Once”, we are in for a treat. Once plays until Nov. 5 at the Grand Theatre Spriet stage, and is a co-production with the Royal Manitoba Centre. 471 Richmond Street, London ON. Tickets: GRANDTHEATRE.COM; 519.672.8800.
Reviewed by Ric Wellwood, a London, Ontario based theatre critic.

OTTAWA. Ontario
The Gladstone


There’s an undeniably powerful moment in Theatre Kraken’s production of Othello when the tormented Venetian general of the title unleashes his savagery on Iago, the diabolical ensign who has been slowly and subtly driving Othello to his doom.

Photo: by Maria Vartanova. Chris Lucas as Othello and Meghan de Chaste lain as Desdemona.

By this point in the play, Iago has already planted the canker of suspicion in the man he hates —  the suspicion that Othello’s wife Desdemona has been unfaithful. So this sudden explosion of wrath comes as Iago is stepping up his insinuations. Othello abruptly loses it — grabbing the man he considered a friend, locking his head in the stocks, and proceeding to beat him mercilessly.

It’s an over-the-top sequence, also a shocking one. But it shows the readiness of its two stars — Chris Lucas (Othello) and Michael Swatton (Iago) to reach levels of raw-nerved theatricality. And it has been staged with unbridled ferocity by director Don Fex who can claim validation for its excesses from the intensity of Shakespeare’s own text at this point in the play.

But in the production currently at the Gladstone, the scene is also useful in correcting a recurring imbalance in one’s perception of the play — the perception that Othello is really about Iago, whose cunning manipulations cause mayhem. In the current instance, Othello does take control of things  — but, with sad irony, his meltdown signals further loss of control over his life. And soon Iago will push him further towards his ultimate self-destruction.

Next to Richard lll, Iago is probably the most popular Shakespearean villain among audiences. And with the largest number of lines in the play, he has further capacity for engaging our attention. Furthermore some directors do focus unrepentantly on Iago. American actor James Earl Jones, who  portrayed Othello with distinction on more than one occasion, once did the role on Broadway under the direction of Peter Coe who believed that this was really Iago’s play and gave full rein to Christopher Plummer who had been cast in that part. It was not a happy experience for Jones.

The most memorable productions have sought to maintain a balance. Indeed, one legendary post-war revival at London’s Old Vic Theatre featured Richard Burton and future Stratford Festival artistic director John Neville giving full value to both roles by alternating in them.

Othello is a tragedy about jealousy — in this instance the canker of sexual jealousy — and its dreadful consequences as Iago gradually manipulates Othello into believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful and eventually drives him into murdering her in a sequence that in this production is driven by an unhinged brutality.

So what about the production itself? Let it be said that on its own terms, it provides a worthwhile and sometimes riveting three hours of theatre. However, it seems more successful with the melodramatic flourish than in invoking the hothouse, psychological intensity of the play’s confined world. Furthermore, it fails to provide a case for its foolish gesture toward “relevance” by resetting Othello amidst the turmoil of the 19th Century Civil War in the United States, Director Don Fex’s comments in the printed program even imply some peculiar connection with Donald Trump and the rise of the alt right and last year’s infamous Charlottesville protests.

This is more than a stretch. It is preposterous nonsense to apply this agenda to a play with the full title, Othello: Moor Of Venice, and blithely to ignore references to Turkish wars and the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. It is also pure fantasy to suggest that miscegenation, in the form of the black Othello’s marriage to the white Desdemona, would be tolerated under any circumstances — even in the fabricated world presented here. Still, there remains enough in this production to allow us to appreciate its virtues and disregard its pretensions.

J.C. Trewin once observed that the real tragedy of Othello is its “inevitability” — an inevitability that takes root in that early midnight scene where Iago seizes on Othello’s marriage to Desdemona to further his campaign of hate. But here, we have a production that seems a little loose and uncertain at the beginning in its failure to get a secure hold on what is happening and on the smouldering racial subtext of the exposition.

But Iago is still present to get our attention — and he does. Michael Swatton gives us something of a scruffy, second-rate schemer, with an innate gift for causing chaos and revelling in it. Whether we are able to accept him as pure evil is another matter. This Iago seems more earthbound than unearthly. Is there a real sense here of evil for evil’s sake — a sense of the mystery, the enigma, the motiveless malignity that has puzzled scholars for centuries? Perhaps not, but Swatton’s take on the character can be compelling. The power of a warped personality is there — also an inability to show compassion or remorse, an unsettling characteristic leading to bizarre manifestations of pleasure that betray an unsettling psychosis.

And what of the Othello of Chris Lucas? There could be more majesty here — Shakespeare gives Othello some great lines to speak — but the essential simplicity of the man’s nature is persuasively defined in Lucas’s performance. There is also the crucial revelation of fault lines — glimpses of vulnerability and insecurity — tiny moments that hint of a mind capable of snapping under certain conditions. What we don’t expect is the extent of Othello’s meltdown and the horror of his response when he fully accepts Iago’s trumped-up evidence of Desdemona’s infidelity. Yet even with the play reaching its ghastly climax, the sense of an unfairly ravaged life remains — reminding you that, in Cassio’s words, this was “a man great of  heart.”

Lighting designer John Solman ensures some appropriate gloom for a play that takes place largely at night. Director Don Fex’s set design is spare but functional, but Trish Murray’s costumes are a bit of a mish-mash and at times ill-fitting.

The play emerges almost as a chamber piece under Fex’s direction. That’s all to the good. Othello is essentially a domestic tragedy, claustrophobic and scalding in its emotional intensity. These are qualities underscored in a production that also isn’t afraid to take on the chemistry of a fevered dream — particularly when emotions become violent and uncontrollable. Bernard Shaw used the term “word-music” to describe the wild, abstract imagery of the jealousy scenes, and he scorned any attempt on he part of an actor to make sense of them, suggesting instead that the voice should merely become an instrument at such moments.

So if this production of Othello may not convey the full tragedy of a noble soul brought down, it still proves rewarding. It has narrative clarity. It moves fluidly. And it features a cast generally comfortable with the demands of Shakespearean verse.

The Desdemona of Meghan de Chaste lain gives us a child bride, capable of genuine love and affection, but also trusting and courageous. As Cassio, an early victim of Iago’s machinations, Nicholas Dave Arnott succeeds with a sturdier reading than one might expect from such a problematic character. Ian McMullen is very effective as Rodrigo, the muddle-headed ninny who can’t get over the fact that Desdemona preferred Othello to him. The dependable Lawrence Evenchick delivers a solid little cameo as a Venetian envoy. Robin Hodge overcomes some early tentativeness as Iago’s unfortunate wife, Emilia, to supply some powerhouse moments at the climax. Steph Goodwin is a delight as a tenacious tart named Bianca.

And yes, the production does serve the play’s essential message — that Othello is the tragedy of a free and open nature.
Reviewed by Jamie Portman, an Ottawa based theatre critic.
(This review was originally published in the Capital Critics Circle publication)

Othello plays at the Gladstone Theatre until Feb. 10, 2018.910 Gladstone Avenue. Tickets:1 613-233-4523.

OTTAWA, Ontario
The Gladstone

Building the Wall

It was historian Hannah Arendt who famously advanced the concept of the banality of evil.
This viewpoint threaded its way through her book, Eichmann In Jerusalem, a riveting account of the trial of an infamous Nazi war criminal.
Photo: by Iri Tapiereo.
L to R: Brad Long, Cassanda Mentor.

But you’ll also understand what she was getting at if you venture out to the Gladstone this weekend to see American dramatist Robert Schenkkan’s quietly lacerating new play, Building the Wall, and take in Brad Long’s unsettling portrayal of a redneck prison officer who has been complicit in unspeakable crimes against humanity.

Essentially, this is a smoothly crafted piece of polemic by a dramatist best known for supplying right-wing filmmaker Mel Gibson with the screenplay for Hacksaw Ridge. Schenkkan himself admits it was written quickly in the heat of the moment following Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president a year ago. But there is little in this dystopian vision of an America under Trump to suggest it is driven by hysteria. It is too measured, too thoughtful, to be dispensed with that easily. Instead, under the equally tactful direction of Sean Devine, it demonstrates its power as a slowly unfolding horror story.

It’s a story that gradually emerges from the lips of Rick, a former supervisor in a private, for-profit prison — yes, they condone such things in today’s America —  who is now under arrest himself and awaiting sentencing for crimes committed on his watch. The year is 2019, two years into the Trump presidency, and the setting is a drab prison meeting room in the border town of El Paso. Designer David Magladry has created an appropriately scummy venue for the play’s dramatic confrontation between Brad Long’s Rick, who initially manages a swaggering disdain as he arrives in his orange-hued prison garb, and Gloria, the black academic who is trying to understand the forces that led to his actions and his ultimate conviction.

But what actions exactly? We’re left in the dark for a while — Schenkkan is adroit enough to appreciate the suspense that can be created simply by allowing an unanswered question to linger. Meanwhile. he is building another kind of tension in the course of this 70-minute drama, the psychological tension that can be triggered by a confrontation between two wildly disparate individuals.

Subtext asserts itself early on when Rick discovers that Gloria, portrayed with great subtlety by Cassandre Mentor, is black. Rick has to make a mental adjustment here and it shows up in body language and the way he addresses her and in his flickering moments of uncertainty. And if these two don’t exactly bond, they do move into a sort of relationship that isn’t really comfortable for either.

It doesn’t take long before the irony emerges. You have Gloria, who is black but also educated and increasingly secure in her middle-class comfort zone. And you have Rick, the quintessential Trump supporter — a disgruntled white guy who feels marginalized and disenfranchised by a system that, among other things,  allows aliens, both legal and illegal, to come into the country and take away jobs.

And again, you have Gloria’s own insecurities surfacing as a result of what Rick represents about the age of Trump. And then again there’s Rick who, two years into a Trump presidency, has entered the promised land but not the promised land of his dreams. “Who speaks up for us anymore?” he complains. So here’s the thing — does he really consider the persistent hollow in his own world sufficient to excuse his conduct as a prison officer?
Gloria pleads with Rick to help her to “understand.” The script, skilful in exposition, gradually allows us to get the story of what happened — a terrorist attack in New York’s Times Square, the declaration of martial law, mass arrests of immigrants, incarcerations without trial, an outbreak of cholera in the prison system — and finally a deadly solution.

To hear Brad Long’s Rick finally give us the details, his flickering shame finally trumped by a sullen last-ditch defiance, is to evoke memories of 70 years ago. He sees himself as “a regular guy” caught up in “extraordinary circumstances.”

Donald Trump, in his railings against his  “elitist” enemies, talks of the need to drain the swamp. And this play suggests that he has plenty of loyal allies who find reason to share his fantasy world. In brief, Ottawa’s Horseshoe and Hand Grenades Theatre has delivered a must-see production. At the Gladstone Theatre until December 3. 910 Gladstone Avenue. Tickets:1 613-233-4523.
Reviewed by Jamie Portman, an Ottawa based theatre critic.
(This review was originally published in the Capital Critics Circle publication)

The Gladstone

The 25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee

The world has changed since this Tony Award winning show (book by Rachel Sheinkin, music and lyrics by William Finn) was created in 2005  but somehow, in spite of director Kodi Cannon’s exciting  Broadway style energy and classy choreography, this Spelling Bee grated on my nerves. The Indie Women are noted for some fine productions and we loved their recent fund raising event Next to Normal featuring Skye MacDermid and Wendy Berkelaar’s  group that did justice to Rebecca Feldman’s music, giving a highly professional touch to the evening. As is their custom , the Indie Women  bring us this show as a fundraiser for the “Do it for Daron”  foundation, linked to the  Royal Ottawa Hospital and its ongoing research into the devastating effects of mental illness .

This event at The Gladstone features six actors as the young constestants all driven to win the spelling contest for many different reasons, all of which are played out  in flashbacks and choreographed moments of excellent theatre as the troubled backgrounds of each of the contestants are intertwined with four randomly selected guests who are added to the chorus of spellers. These guests are thrust on stage as the outside spellers who do their best to hold their own spontaneously, while the scripted spellers have to take on a character and explain their choices.

The set design conceived by producer C.Lee Bates was a perfect space for all this talent  It all worked from that perspective and certainly the interaction with the audience tickled the spectators and kept us interested most of the time. However, one moment suddenly changed the atmosphere and I must admit, it set me off on a completely different course.
When one of the guests was asked to spell Crapaud, (or toad in French), which he did, and correctly, the judge said no its not that. I realized than that something was wrong. All this was clearly meant to allow the judges to keep control over the knowledge by imposing whatever answers they found useful. Thus, even if  this  production is quite fun,  the script had definite ideological undertones which I found difficult to ignore.

This Spelling Bee, inspite of all its playfulness, becomes a power game. It shows  how two prejudiced judges are able to wield power over their enthusiastic  competitors  by manipulating the spelling only because the  judges have the power to force them to say what they want to hear.  The judges can even refuse correct  spellings, they can hand out silly information that has nothing to do with these sometimes  inexistant words.  All this is  supposed to be funny but it became unbearable to me because it was linked to the notion that we the audience  are  just as helpless as the contestants  and we take pleasure in being manipulated. It does however, take us to a realm of stupidity that was so nonsensical that I couldn’t laugh anymore.  

I gather that  in an American setting if the judge rejects the spelling of a French word which the contestant had spelled correctly, or if French names are badly pronounced on purpose, …that could be seen as funny since French is a foreign language in the US of A and that makes absolutely no difference to anyone if French is being manhandled. The situation is very different in Canada  where French is not an exotic and funny sounding way of talking that  warrents gales of laughter when one mispronounces a name. Nor would  it be  so hillarious when one of  the  contestants spells the word “toad”  correctly, in French,  but is told that his spelling is wrong.

At the same time, would that be so funny if they were doing the same playful twisting of Spanish in front of a California audience" and everyone was laughing  at the Spanish?    It does of course  highlight this critique of authority and undermines the judges credibility, but it also defines the audience as a simple-minded group  of people who dont care and who are ready to make fun of anyone who is different. 

Obviously Tony awards and the great success  of this show  across North America  has proven me wrong,  but to my  mind, it is just too bad that such a talented company had to waste its  precious time on such material when there is so much good work to be performed across country. 
The 25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee continues until November 19 at The Gladstone Theatre.910 Gladstone Avenue. Tickets:1 613-233-4523.

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht, a London, Ontario based theatre critic.
(This review was originally published in The Capital Critics Circle publication).


The Mady Centre for the Performing Arts


With Leonard Bernstein’s centenary celebrations approaching in 2018 there are a slew of new publications and productions planned to celebrate one of the most talented American composers ever to write for the stage. Talk is Free Theatre in Barrie (now celebrating its 16th season) is doing its part by reviving Candide, the musical (adapted by Hugh Wheeler from the satire by Voltaire) that has a storied history, originally opening on Broadway in 1956 (with the original libretto written by Lillian Hellman) and later revived in a “reconstructed” version in 1975 in a production directed by Harold Prince and an entirely new libretto by Wheeler. This significantly paired down version at Talk Is Free Theatre is directed by Richard Ouzounian.

I don’t know if “paired down” really describes the ingenious concept that Ouzounian settled on to mount this production because from the very first, Candide, has always been a show that engaged audiences musically and that’s what appears here front and centre.This pleasing 90 minute performance features a powerhouse cast that includes Thom Allison as Pangloss, Holly Chaplin (Cunegonde), Gabs Epstein as Paquette and the Old Lady), Mike Nadajewski (Candide) and Michael Torontow (Maximilian).

With the clever use of hand puppets to flesh out a number of minor supporting roles, the pacing never flags and the music (truly a magnificent score) just keeps on coming. The story is really all about Candide’s coming of age in this “the best of all possible worlds.” The irony of course is how can any age be “the best” if war, famine, poverty and natural disaster still exist and continue to wreak such havoc.

Musical director Lily Ling provides solid support on piano as does percussionist, Jamie Drake, who doubles easily on vibraphone. Both musicians collaborated on the orchestrations bringing an appropriate chamber music feel to the piece. With the added musical dynamic of such a talented vocal quintet, the Mady Centre for the Performing Arts is filled with glorious sounds.

Spoiler alert: the final scene of the show injects an unanticipated coda. Quick access to a hanky or two is strongly advised. Candide plays until December 2 at the Mady Centre for the Performing Arts in Barrie. 1 Dunlop St. West, Barrie, Ontario. Tickets: 705-739-4228.
Reviewed by Robin Breon, a Toronto, Ontario based theatre critic.

Guest Review

Boston, Massachusetts
Lyric Theatre

Stephen Sondheim's Road Show

Spiro Veloudos, the producing artistic director of Boston’s Lyric Stage, has long admired the work of the prolific composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. During his twenty years at the Lyric, he has directed at least eight of Sondheim’s musicals. Veloudos’ latest, Road Show, which he co-directed with choreographer Ilyse Robbins, and a book by John Weidman, has a somewhat checkered past.

Photo: by Maggie Hall. L to R: Neil A. Casey, Vanessa Schukis, Sean McGuirk, and Tony Castellanos.

Sondheim was originally drawn to the story when as a young man he read a biography of the Mizner brothers, Addison and Wilson, both unsavory characters.  Over the years he would create three versions of the piece with three different titles and three different directors and casts. Wise Guys, the first, which opened in 2000 in an unfinished workshop production, was written and played in a brassy comic style. In 2003 he and director Hal Prince turned out Bounce which focussed more on the brothers’ love lives. Wilson’s was heterosexual, Addison’s, homosexual. Bounce played Chicago and Washington D.C. and received poor reviews in both. In 2008 John Doyle, a highly talented British director impassioned by Sondheim’s work opened the musical under the title Road Show at the Public Theatre. In this latest and last rendition, with a book by the mood and plot had changed, the show reduced to one act, the cast cut back, and the financial failure of the Mizner Brothers was in tune with the economic crisis of 2007-2008.

Although it didn’t make it big in New York Road Show continues to be produced in the U.S. The Mizner brothers’ lying, money craving, and immorality are evocative of the era in which we are living.  

The show opens as the brothers’ father played by Sean McGuirk is dying. Having been left penniless by his illness, he advises his sons in “It’s in Your Hands Now” to take advantage of the upcoming twentieth century to make money and influence the American way of life. Their mother, the only developed female character in Road Show, encourages them to obey their father. Vanessa J. Schukis gives the role complexity.

Drawn by the gold rush Addison and Wilson leave for the Klondike. Addison seems honest and hardworking while Wilson is wily and self-serving. Several times during the show Wilson leaves Addison in the lurch. Both Addison and Wilson travel the world, generally separately in their attempts to acquire riches. Wilson, a gambler and philanderer with charm, is usually more successful. He marries a rich woman who supports him until disgusted by Wilson’s behavior she throws him out. Typical of Addison’s experiences is his trip to Hawaii where he buys a plantation that burns down. Though Addison is more attentive and kinder to their mother, she prefers Wilson. Over time, Addison’s unattractive side emerges.

Addison moves to Florida, develops an interest in architecture and meets Hollis Bessemer (Patrick Varner), a wealthy young man whose dream is to develop an art colony. Addison and Hollis become lovers, but Addison is more involved in building Spanish-style houses for the rich than he is with Hollis whose money is supporting his architectural business. He leads Hollis along in “The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened.”   

Down on his luck, an impoverished Wilson turns up in Florida and convinces Addison to let him become part of the enterprise. All goes well for a period, but due to Wilson’s unconscionable business strategies, the real estate company’s biggest project, the development of Boca Raton, collapses. Addison dies, but not before he has admitted once more to his brother that he loves him. Their relationship with its ups and downs is the most significant in their lives. Their father returns to rebuke his now two dead sons for not having contributed to the American dream.

The two leads Neil A. Casey as Addison and Tony Castellanos as Wilson are believable. Over the course of the performance, they became stronger and more passionate.

Cristina Todesco’s clever set consists of unmatched pieces of old furniture and luggage, perhaps souvenirs from Addison’s travels. Actors clamber over them during the performance, sometimes for a choreographed routine, at others for a chorus number. When the ensemble is not involved in the action, they sit on the furniture and observe the goings-on.
Road Show plays at the Lyric Stage through February 11. 140 Clarendon St. Boston, Mass. Tickets. Phone: 1 617-585-5678'
Reviewed by Jane Baldwin, a Boston, Massachusetts based theatre critic, a Boston, Massachusetts based theatre critic.

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