Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night features all of the hallmarks of a Shakespeare comedy: mistaken identities, clever wordplay, the interplay between nobility, servants, and commoners, breaking the fourth wall, and a raft of others. It’s one of the most-produced plays in London and area—this year alone there’s already been a high school production, and it’s on at Stratford too. So why should you see LCP’s production if you’ve already seen the play?

In short, because it’s fantastic.

Director Kaitlyn Rietdyk has created a millennia-spanning pan-Balkan musical mashup that essentially one-ups Shakespeare at every turn. She’s integrated a Greek chorus into the play, which is traditionally set on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. She and composer Matthew J. Stewart have taken the songs in Shakespeare’s text and expanded the role of music, using the chorus in its full traditional sense. She’s also borrowed the storm fromThe Tempest, converting the opening scenes from a lighthearted introduction to a surprisingly effective shipwreck; “If music be the food of love, play on” is no longer an invitation by Duke Orsino but a challenge from Poseidon.

The shipwreck also serves to highlight the simplicity of the production. There’s no prerecorded sound: everything the audience hears comes from the people on stage, including Stewart on a small drumkit. The all-female chorus, led by Rachel Flear with some impressive solo vocalizations by Margarita Sanchez Leon, invokes the Illyrian setting using only their voices and movement; the simple drapes provide little more than a surface for lighting changes. The costumes are ideally suited—particularly those of the chorus—and given the number of people credited on the costume sewing team one has to assume they’re all made to order.

Rietdyk has assembled an outstanding cast, including long-time collaborator Jennifer Hale as Viola. This is very much a play about women; it’s hardly a surprise, given their company Empty Space Productions and other past work. While the male characters, plus Julia Webb’s Maria, are largely comic relief, they’re essential to the plot and well-performed, and while they flirt with going over the top they’re almost always reined in just short. Feste, the troubadour fool often considered the representative of the chorus in productions that don’t include an actual one, is more than given his due by Lliam Buckley.

The best cover versions of songs aren’t simply remakes or tributes; their artists use the original work as a springboard to create something uniquely their own. LCP’sTwelfth Night is a great cover of some seventeenth-century rock and roll.

Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens

Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens: Unabashed, Unashamed, Unquestioned—and Sexy—Fun Set to a Disco Beat

What do you get when you combine the interplanetary funksmanship of Parliament, the fluid and overt sexuality ofRocky Horror Picture Show, and the bell-bottom-infused passion for disco of Saturday Night Fever? You get the over two hours of ribald revelry and energetic entertainment of Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens.

Listen, this isn’t Shakespeare. It’s not high art. But it’s unabashed, unashamed, and unquestioned fun. It’s a musical that will have you moving to the beat and—for a select few—even dancing up out of your seat.

The story?Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens is a story of love, murder, betrayal, duty, respect, and, of course, disco and glitter boots. The story takes place in a bar on planet Frottage III called Saucy Jack’s. It seems performers keep finding themselves murdered, all by slingback-force trauma. The Space Vixens, a trio of intergalactic police arrive to solve the crimes. And each of the bar’s regulars has his or her own story to tell—and dreams to realize.

It’s campy, sexy, and hilarious.

The entire cast is spot on. The singing is magnificent, from the soloists to the harmonies. And while there are honestly no weak parts of the cast, there are a few people who need to be recognized.

Stephen Ingram, in the titular role, has become a must-see performer in London. In the past year alone, he has made an otherwise abhorrent production tolerable by the strength of his performance (Manuel); he has stood out in a strong ensemble production (The History Boys); and now he continues to show the strength and power of not just his voice, but his very presence inSaucy Jack.

Alicia D’Ariano stood out last year as one of the Heathers in the play of the same name. InSaucy Jack, as lead Space Vixen Jubilee Climax, she takes command of the role—both through singing and acting—and brings a mixture of sensitivity and power to a woman torn between love and duty.

And can we take a moment to appreciate the force of nature that is Jenn Marino. In another tour de force performance—much like as Magenta inRocky Horror—Marino stole every scene in which she appeared. Continuing theRocky Horror parallel, Marino’s entry is reminiscent of Meatloaf’s both in terms of bravado and vocal power.

But it almost feels unfair to not recognize the other actors. Everyone in the cast had their moment to shine. Nicola Klein hit some beautiful high notes and showed incredible vocal power; Tatyana Austrie more than held her own in a passionate duet with Marino and had a wonderful moment of sadness; Sam McEwan not only won over the hearts of us ’80s kids with a fantasticCareless Whisper sax solo, but he effectively developed his character and kept the story progressing, even during the intermission, through his interaction with the crowd; Connor Boa and John White had a hilarious—and revealing—scene in the second act; Rick Kish brings an entertaining combination of heart and humour to his role of Booby Shevalle; and Isabella Majewska, Margaret Martin, Jesslyn Hodgson, and Elle Hounse all provided pitch-perfect background support and movement. Hodgson, in particular, drew applause for some inspired and athletic pole dancing.

The location is inspired: a play about a bar, taking place in a bar. From custom-named drinks to neon coaster marks on the tables, everything is near letter-perfect in design. Even the use of A/V contributes to the sense that we are not just watching a play, but rather patrons of Saucy Jack’s, with a front-row seat to the shenanigans.

Is it perfect? No. Although the bar venue adds much to the production, it can also make it challenging to see everything—and, trust me, you want to see everything. Performers intermingle with the audience,including clever use of socializing both before the play starts and during the intermission; songs and dances take cast members all around the bar. Some dance numbers have three points of interest, which forces the viewer to pick and choose. For those with mobility issues, it may be better to sit towards the back of the venue to ensure you see everything. If you’re up front, be prepared to have your head on a swivel.

Is this a play that everyone’s going to love? No. It’s clearly one that’s intended for those who enjoy a little levity in their productions, don’t mind a healthy dose of raunch, and are willing to laugh along with the cast. Like I said, it’s not Shakespeare, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s a production featuring talented singers and performers that will have you clapping your hands, tapping your toes, and walking out with a huge smile on your face.

Frights of Spring IV

After two incarnations at The ARTS Project, Jason Rip’sFrights of Spring anthology has returned to its original Grosvenor Lodge home for a fourth outing. Featuring five new plays by six playwrights—two new to theFrights of Spring stable of writers—it’s a mostly-satisfying evening of new takes on classic horror tropes.

The familiar stories include the abused woman whose partner has mysteriously disappeared; the bad seed; the tortured blind man; the person flung out of time; and even a sorority seance. These are all Richard Matheson/Val Lewton-style creeping terrors, and to their credit there are few cheap “jumping out of the closet” scares. Four of the plays are solidly inNight Gallery territory, with the fifth (which I found to be the most satisfying, despite its short runtime) moreTwilight Zone fare.

All of the short plays rely on elements of dread and surprise at their twists, so there’ll be no further summaries here. However, several spoiler-free aspects are worth calling out.

First, Madison Stoner’s evil foster child in Rip’sNew Girl is as creepy as all get-out, and kudos to director Emma Wise (and/or perhaps producer Rip) for setting the piece in the claustrophobic basement. Stefannie Flannigan and Demis Odanga, in Adam Corrigan Holowitz’sWings, deal well with the difficult task of emoting with their faces and eyes, respectively, invisible to the audience. And Lisa DesGroseilliers’ audio tracks, despite being broadcast from a different room, are just the right touch to make Alexandra Grant and Charlene McNabb’s performances in Jen Frankel and Jennifer Venner’sKiss Love Sky all the more believable.

Frights of Spring is a unique experience in London, giving a group of selected playwrights the opportunity to create an evening of themed performances. While the plays and performances aren’t all of equal calibre, they’re all entertaining, and worth a night out.

A final aside: as a building, Grosvenor Lodge is a great place to hold this event. However, as a performance space, the signs of its day-to-day use as an office for heritage groups and wedding venue make suspension of disbelief difficult. With the dearth of available sites in London, though, one has to do with what one’s given.

Colours in the Storm

Colours in the Storm: Vibrant Individual Elements Result in a Production Whose Parts are Greater than its Sum

Colours in the Storm features many fine elements and some outstanding techniques, but it fails to come together into a cohesive and satisfying whole. Combined with a paint-by-numbers second act, you have a production that’s generally pleasant to look at, but falls far short of being a masterpiece.

The play dramatizes the final years of legendary Canadian artist Tom Thomson’s life, from his first arrival in Algonquin Park in 1912, through his embrace of the natural landscape and his attempts to satisfy his internal vision through painting, to his eventual—and controversial—death in 1917.

Colours in the Storm features a number of outstanding moments that are a joy to watch. Vocally, the cast is incredible. Their solos are all strong and their harmonizing is uplifting. The musical elements help to propel the action forward and only feel forced once: in the second act, there are moments of dialogue repeatedly broken up by song. The resulting pauses aren’t just pregnant, they feel as if they’ve been fully gestated and are heading to school. It’s representative of a second act that feels disjointed and rushed.

Ma-Anne Dionisio steals the show with her performance as Thomson’s Algonquin love interest—and rumoured fiancee—Winnie Trainor. Michael Dufay’s Larry Dixon (who belts out an awe-inspiring solo that completely seems out of character with his chosen speaking voice) and Tim Funnell’s Martin Bletcher provide effective comic relief. And the remaining secondary characters all provide effective dramatic moments, plot development, and context to the story.

Jay Davis’ Tom Thomson suffers in comparison. The play starts with an outstanding opening scene, where Davis stands before a translucent video screen that contrasts the Queen’s Park area of Toronto with the Algonquin set and cast peeking through the background. Thomson literally and metaphorically sheds his Toronto roots (removing his bowler, tie, and suit) and dons his northern garb. Clearly, Thomson is out of sync with the Algonquin natives, but the sense of eagerness to embrace the north and desire to become one with the nature around him feels more goofy than earnest. It’s one thing for the character to be out of sync with the Algonquin natives around him—that makes sense—but it felt like Davis was often out of sync with the production.

And perhaps that’s a result ofColours in the Storm trying to be all things to all people. There’s a historical fiction aspect to it, there’s the musical component, there’s drama, there’s comedy—and there’s a story that feels like it’s intended to be at once a learning opportunity for youth and a dramatic production for adults. For a play about Thomson’s obsession with Algonquin, perhaps the production could have used more focus.

The set and costuming are both stunning and subtle. The simple stage features a pair of slate-like pieces that are deftly moved and shifted to represent different areas, rock formations, and even a canoe. Costume designer Jessica Poirier-Chang cleverly shows the progression of Thomson from his early work to a greater understanding and appreciation of his art through changes in the cast’s clothing. In the first act, all characters are garbed in predominantly sepia clothing, with an ombre styling. In the second act, the ombre style remains, but the characters are now outfitted in more vibrant colours, coinciding with Thomson’s increasing skill and production.

Visual elements play a huge role in the production and are used with great success. The actors themselves add to the visual mosaic, cleverly incorporated into moments where they effectively represent waves or wind. With a simple set, this use of actors as elements was both beautiful and inspiring. A video production that represents the creation of Thomson’s iconic Northern River painting is absolutely breathtaking when first presented in the first act.

Unfortunately, the painting has less impact when the effect is shown again. It’s a flaw repeated throughout a second half that suffers from repetition and blatantly obvious pandering to the story, as characters repeat key phrases from the first act during a scene showing Thomson’s final descent into madness. It’s obviously meant to provide a frame of reference, but you can unfortunately see the “paint-by-numbers” writing under the imagery.

Story-wise, the play focuses on a brief period of Thomson’s life. We watch as he struggles to become an artist—a label he soundly rejects early on—and his frustration stemming from his obsessive quest to capture the environment around him. As well,Colours in the Storm presents Thomson’s death in a much different manner than the official accidental drowning—making it clear that foul play was involved—although, again, the representation was a little ham-fisted in its approach.

There are many exciting elements inColours in the Storm, but this is not masterpiece—the parts, in many cases, far exceed its sum. And, in the end, it’s an interesting, but disjointed, bit of historical fiction that tries to help us learn more about and appreciate a Canadian artistic legend.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams

Nothing Unrequited Here – Love for a “Rock”-Solid Production

With all due respects to Mr. Telford—who did an admirable job back in the day in my gifted history program—if only all Canadian history was this dynamic and entertaining, we’d have a nation that truly appreciates the richness, diversity, and—yes—intrigue of our national past. Fortunately, we have productions like Artistic Fraud’sThe Colony of Unrequited Dreams to bring our past—both real and imagined—to vivid and entertaining life.

Ostensibly, the play is the story of Joseph Smallwood, the self-proclaimed Last Father of Confederation who is best remembered as the person who spearheaded the drive to bring Newfoundland into Canadian confederation in 1949.Colony is not strictly a by-the-book recounting of Smallwood’s life—well, not by the history books that is.Colony is based upon Wayne Johnston’s fictionalized biography of Smallwood, played admirably by Colin Furlong, and benefits from some of the creative license taken in that representation, including the creation of a fictional foil, Carmen Grant’s Sheilagh Fielding, who helps to establish key scenes and drive the narrative.

The play is broken up into three acts: the first covering the period from 1927 through 1932, where the Newfoundland government falls and Smallwood is working under its Prime Minister Sir Richard Squires; the second covers the period of return to British rule between 1933 and 1941, where Smallwood develops his voice through his role as The Barrelman, the host of a radio program that celebrates the uniqueness of Newfoundland culture; and, finally, the third act covers the negotiation of Newfoundland into Canadian Confederation, the referendum efforts, and, ultimately, Smallwood’s success.

There is little not to like in this production. The pacing is spot on—three tight 45-minute acts, broken up by two intermissions; the characterization is well realized; and the accents, while evoking that unique Newfoundland brogue, aren’t so dense as to make comprehension a challenge.

There are no weak points in the cast. Each and every actor embraces his or her role and helps to naturally drive the plot: from Steve O’Connell’s portrayal of Joseph’s alcoholic father to Brian Marler’s sycophantic Daniel Prowse, each character is fully formed and adds motivation to the production. There are no minor characters. Even the Broom child (in a role shared by Kira Shuit, whom we saw opening night, and Blake Carey) has a purpose to furthering the plot—a physical representation of Smallwood’s disgust for the inequity of society that’s hearkened back to in the third act when Smallwood shows his acquiescence to the reality by indulging in what he once condemned.

But it would be criminal to not recognize Keiley’s direction in this production. Her clever use of transitions, movement, and blocking alone are worth the price of admission. One scene, which sees Smallwood and Fielding sending missives over print and radio respectively, sees the actors physically circling the stage in ever-decreasing concentric circles until they meet—face to face, desk to desk—in the centre of the stage for the final confrontation. We are moved from office to hospital to home, and from St. John’s to Ottawa, with grace and dexterity in a way that never detracts from the production. It’s a marvel to behold and is a testament to the stage choreography and the talent of the actors who have embraced it.

Boyle’s musical accompaniment and all the sound cues were all incredibly integrated into the production to add layers. Moments such as when Smallwood’s radio show is simultaneously represented as being live on stage and “broadcast” hundreds of kilometres away on a vintage radio, were deftly handled and showed expert sense of flow and pacing.

The story itself is entertaining. We are presented with themes of personal motivation, the desire for a legacy, and the question of how personal gain integrates with socialist ideals. We see Smallwood progress from a poor idealistic young man, embracing socialism with all his heart, to one who embraces power and holds fast to the idea that many people don’t want to participate in their own freedom but prefer to be led. These themes, presented in the first act by the incorrigibly corrupt Sir Richard Squires (played by Jody Richardson), are reflected in the third act, as Smallwood’s confidence—and, some might say, arrogance—grows commensurate to his role in his country’s future.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is a story of passion versus principle, pride versus pragmatism, and personal idealism versus personal goals all framed by the backdrop of 20 years of Newfoundland’s history.

You don’t need to be a Canadian history buff to enjoyColony, but it’s safe to say that you’ll leave the theatre with a new appreciation for a key part of our national history. It’s a testament to the talent on the stage and behind the scenes that makesColony a story that transcends time and place.

Art

Art: From a Blank Canvas Springs a Multi-Hued, Multi-Layered Delight

Art is, on the surface, the story of a trio of friends who are forced to re-evaluate their beliefs, their actions, and the very foundation of their friendship, precipitated by one character’s purchase of a white-on-white painting. But despite the monochromatic nature of the catalyst, the play is one imbued with rich hues of colour and texture, thanks to a combination of flawless performances, and deft direction and lighting.

The stage itself is minimalist by design. The three actors interact on a starkly adorned set: a couple of grey couches, a pair of movable drops (which are manipulated by the actors with skill and alacrity to mark location transitions), and a black and white Piet Mondrian-styled background. But the stage is filled by the performances and verbal dexterity of all three actors.

Simply put,Art — and, in particular the performances of Kalileh, Smith, and Spencer-Davis — is a masterclass in timing and reaction. The actors fully embrace and embody their roles, their cadence is natural and believable, and the interlocking and overlapping dialogue moments are a pleasure to experience. No one actor stands out from the other, with all three combining to produce a far stronger whole — though Smith’s hilarious soliloquy was intense, dynamic, hilarious, and greatly appreciated by the crowd.

The story addresses the nature of friendship through and examination of the nature of how we interact. How much truth is too much? And, in many cases, do we even have our own truths or are we simply adorning guises to appear to be something we want to be?

There is a wonderful undercurrent that pits the pretentiousness of art — and those who profess to appreciate it — with those who prefer a more visceral view of the arts. Kalileh’s Serge argues that one must be properly educated and exposed to appreciate art, choosing to undervalue the opinions of those who don’t meet his arbitrary threshold. Conversely, Spencer-Davis’ Marc rails against the pretentiousness of such a proposition — suggesting that arbitrary designations are nothing more than excuses to allow adherents to justify their appreciation of what is essentially false idolatry. And in the middle is Smith’s Yvan, who is cast in the role of a peacemaker — one who has hampered his ability to form his own frame of reference.

Williams’ direction is superlative in this production. Again, for a play centred around a plain white-on-white piece of art, the director is able to fill the stage with textures and visual depth. The actors’ pacing and blocking makes the maximum use of the stage and prevents the actors and the minimalist set design from being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of space.

The production’s lighting is also something to behold. The production makes effective use of asides, dimming the majority of the stage whilst shining a spotlight on the speaker. These moments of honest introspection fuel the underlying honesty of the production whilst allowing the on-stage social dance to continue. The audience is privy to the absurdity of the duality of message and the social relevancy of those behaviours are embraced and understood.

When it comes to honesty, how much is too much? Fittingly, given the impetus of the play, it concludes with a little white lie designed to salvage a friendship. But the audience is left to question whether that’s the right decision in the long run — though it’s one we’ve all likely undertaken in our own relationships.

Art is an absolutely enjoyable 80-minute romp filled with entertaining wordplay, humour, and incredibly gifted performances by the three leads. There’s nothing monochromatic about this production — it’s a rich and textured social commentary that’s well worth your time.

Cherry Docs

Ninety minutes is not a lot of time to unpack the motivations behind racism, the challenges of balancing social responsibility with personal beliefs, and exploring personal growth and understanding. And though the Procunier Hall venue should serve as an ideal setting for such a study of intimate emotions,Cherry Docs suffers from a superficiality that’s magnified by acting, directorial, and set-related challenges.

Cherry Docs is the story of Danny (Kyle Stewart), a liberal Jewish lawyer assigned to be the legal aid representation of skinhead Mike (Derek Barr) who has confessed to the murder of an Asian restaurant employee. The production centres around the interaction between the two as they deal with their individual demons and try to get to the core of what produced the environment for which the murder was the result.

The script, itself, is strong. Unfortunately, its execution—in several ways—hampered the production.

First off, volume substituted for emotion on a far too regular basis. Vocal tics and performance crutches served to distract the audience from the statements at hand. Stewart, in particular, relied too often on a vocal affectation that would see him raise his voice in anger, swallow his words, then whisper-talk the closure of the line. Used once or twice within a production, it can be effective and show true passion and highlight a moment where the emotion threatens to overwhelm the character. Used too often (and, during one scene, I counted 11 examples of this affectation in a five-minute piece of dialogue) it becomes distracting and steals attention away from the story.

Overall, Stewart’s Danny is defined primarily by two elements: his religion and his one-note anger. He enters the play raging with little in the way of buildup. There was little in the way of character development throughout, which caused a disconnect during the play’s dénouement. A scene, clearly intended to elicit a feeling of pathos, fell flat—simply because the audience was given no reason to care.

Barr’s Mike, who could easily fall into the trap of being a one-note reprehensible skinhead, actually showed solid range. Yes, there were moments of rage—some which threatened to tip over into self-parody—but overall there was a nice balance and sense of introspection and reflection. Sure, the conclusion seemed to wrap up a little too quickly and a little too neatly to be believable, but Barr’s performance allowed you to suspend that disbelief.

The stage posed challenges of its own. It was set up in an “in-the-round” style, with seats along the east, south, and west walls. The south end of the stage was adorned with nothing more than a steel bench, intended to represent Mike’s prison cell; the middle of the stage featured a simple wooden table and a pair of chairs, the location for Mike and Danny’s interaction; and the north end of the stage had a white wicker chair and a kitchen/dining room table set up to stand as Danny’s home. Upon entry, 30 minutes before the show, the actors were already in place: Danny reading a magazine in his chair; Mike leaning forward, wringing his hands.

The in-the-round setup should have allowed for greater intimacy with the crowd and more fluid motion. However, the sheer volume of items on the stage only served to limit the ability of the actors to move around. Raised stages and limited space meant that the actors could really only move from point A to point B, with very little use of the space in between.

Lighting was also a challenge. Though the stark white light in Mike’s cell was effective, Danny’s home was dramatically underlit. This was exacerbated with the presence of an unnecessary video still along the north wall. The video image was used to mark the changing of scenes (and seasons, as well as tying into the seven-day religious theme), but it also served to completely obscure Danny’s face during a pair of soliloquies. Already emoting was at a premium and the backlighting caused by the video only served to eradicate any chance of seeing an emotion from Stewart’s face.

As a story itself,Cherry Docs is well-written and is able to resonate with an audience—especially in light of today’s political climate. And Barr’s performance as Mike was effective and shows promise. But for a play that’s supposed to delve into the intimate nature of humanity, this production was too greatly hampered by superficiality and technical difficulties.

Jenny’s House of Joy

Prostitution may be the world’s oldest profession, but it’s also one with its own ideas of propriety, ambition and politics. This play is an enjoyable exploration of that kind of life, a comic tale with a refreshingly non-judgmental tone laced with a genuine humanity.

In the Old West, Jenny (Colleen McGeough) runs a successful brothel with the naively socially ambitious Anita (Bronwyn Wilson) and the hard bitten Frances (Charlene McNabb) as her employees. Suddenly, the refined and desperate Natalie (Kaitlyn Rietdyk) comes pleading for a job and proves, after some adjustment, to be surprisingly talented at the profession. However, Frances suspects there will be trouble ahead with this addition, and it does come, both from within and without.

Considering that the stereotypical view of a brothel story is one rife with cynicism and tragedy, this story is a welcome change of pace. Here, it is a place stocked with real people going about their professions, albeit one with its own unique health and safety concerns. With that sense of normality in place, the character interaction gives this show a fun workplace comedy that feels strikingly familiar for anyone maintaining a business.

That ambience takes on a different significance as the story takes a powerfully dramatic turn as ambitions are both shot down and inflated in the second half. With that mix creates a memorable conflict as different ideas of honour and gratitude collide like freight trains, until the consequences of another conflict barge in with shocking clarity. When that happens, the story takes a powerful tone as everyone gets shocked into new perspectives no one anticipated. When that happens, it creates an surprisingly uplifting ending that feels completely logical and humane for all involved.

The players help make that story possible with a welcome comfortableness with its subject matter. For instance, Colleen McGeough is a special rock of drama stability as the title character as she reaches out with a mix of compassion and pragmatism in a life she grown reasonably comfortable with. When her main act of both seems to be answered with betrayal, you can understand how her outrage combines with her fears to lash out with some justification.

McNabb performs a fine dramatic counterpoint as Frances, an older veteran with a ruined former life from drink and an irascible attitude now making it worse. However, her character still has a believably keen eye and the well-hidden compassion to guide it. That comes out in a beautiful moment of courage that reveals how much of the best of her was in reserve after all.

In contrast, Wilson is a delight as Anita, a naive hayseed who desperately wants to be more than her work can allow. Wilson is able to perfectly convey a infectious sincerity and lightheartedly sweet nature that is tempered with sufficient dramatic weight to keep it from being cloying. As such, a fun character is created to lift or lower the mood of the play with masterful skill.

Rietdyk plays off those characters magnificently as Natalie, a woman of education and breeding who is suddenly thrust into an alien world by the direst of necessities. Seeing her character adjust to her new life and then excel would have been so easy to play to caricatured extremes, but Rietdyk refuses that crutch. Instead, she plays her role with a perfectly balanced mix of hardening experience, a well-considered business acumen no one anticipates, and a misplaced sense of honour that confuses superficial politeness with a true consideration of others.

Finally, Margot Stothers is powerful as an desolate wife trying to get some control over a situation anyone would find as horrible as it is humiliating. So, when she makes the plunge to bargain with the women she despises with hopeless self-righteousness, you can spare some pity for her, even if her later choices are so unacceptable. When the weight of her choices finally hits her against a nobility she never expected, Stothers is able to create the logical reaction perfectly as a woman realizing all her prejudices have collapsed along with her self-worth around her.

Finally, the stagecraft is exquisite as always with the stage beautifully setup with all the furnishing of a proper high class brothel. Complimenting that is gorgeous costuming that feels right in period for the story’s time and characters. Finally, the special effects are artfully limited to one shocking usage with well timed economy for the best impact.

Sexuality as a commodity is a concept rarely treated as a positive in our culture. However, this play is a powerful look at women who make that choice in a way that is not only amusing, but memorably enlightening in the bargain.

The Secret Garden

Modern adaptations of classics of children’s literature can be a minefield, with sometimes jarring cultural attitudes or a numbing preciousness that has nothing to relate to. Thankfully, this does not apply to this play, which is tuneful and even moving story about a girl learning the power that can come from empathy and personal faith in an ideal guided with a little perspective.

After being orphaned in an cholera epidemic in India, Mary is taken under the care of her troubled Uncle Archibald at his personal estate in Britain. With her uncle largely refusing to see her, Mary explores the estate until she finds boundaries and secrets she is determined to defy and learn. When those lines are crossed, she learns of the true sickness in that gloomy home, but finds friends ready to help her find true beauty and hope in the unlikeliest of places.

For someone expecting the above stereotypes in a production based on an Edwardian era children’s novel, the story is much more engaging than I anticipated. While it does have elements reminiscent ofPollyanna andAnne of Green Gables, such as the basic plot of a young girl coming to a cold adult world and shaking it up positively, it has its own dramatic weight. For instance, the story has a charming magic realism that could be really supernatural in the story, but it is up to you decide how much that is the case. In that regard, making the story a musical is right in keeping that with that narrative spirit.

Yet, for that suggested fantasy, it is artfully counterbalanced with the characters having a refreshingly believable realism for its literary era. For instance, Mary is prone to being highly reserved and presumptuous to others, but is allowed to lighten up as she finds something to care for in her new home. Likewise, the supposed villain, Dr. Neville Craven (ably played by Matt McCarthy) of the story is not truly evil, or even cruel, just misguided in his own definition of compassion. For a story from a literary era derided for pushing a rigid simplistic moralism, this kind of character complexity can really be a surprise.

Complementing that is some fine performances that allow those nuanced characters hit home. For instance, Conlan Gassi is intriguingly soulful as Archibald as his personal bitterness wrestles with his better nature when Mary’s influence is able to spark the conflict. In comparison, Connor Boa is delightfully spritely with an elfin charm as Dickon who is able to provide a kind of magic of his own with only a staff and some clever lighting.

Likewise, Melissa Metler proved a welcome mature kindheartedness as Martha gives the drama a solid foundation to help Mary and other principal characters to base their dramatic development. Dennis Johns plays off her charmingly well as Ben, an old gardener who is able to make the seemingly fanciful dreams of Mary and her new friends come true with a quiet expertise. Against that, Mary Jane Walzak is well suited as Mrs. Medlock, a cold housekeeper whose impersonal manner is simply in the service of keeping her job, even it is at the expense of humanity.

As for the music, the songs are engaging enough, but only the Indian-influenced pieceCome Spirit, Come Charm is truly memorable with its intriguingly suggested mysticism. Otherwise, the music has a certain anonymous sameness to it, almost to the point of becoming a drone throughout the production. Furthermore, while the live band is pleasantly tuneful, the fact remains that the Palace is apparently not suited to musicals as the singers’ voices tended to come off as distorted too often to becoming incomprehensible, especially in big numbers.

However, the stagecraft is excellent in its efficiency. For instance, the static props are only some carefully built step platforms and a large wall for back projects to establish the various scenes’ settings. With that, the company merely has to move some select items like furniture to change scenes without closing the curtains. As such, the play’s narrative is allow to flow with little disruption and a steady pace for this seemingly leisurely story is assured. That is facilitated well with the gate of the Secret Garden itself, which is able to suggest a special world behind with only a door, some careful decoration late in the story and some well placed light. The costuming is similarly exquisite with a seemingly well-placed historical accuracy to establish the period with the right verisimilitude.

There are some stories that cannot age, and some that are truly timeless. This play is an entertaining example of the latter and a pleasant surprise depending on your assumptions about Edwardian kids’ lit.

Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me

Being a prisoner in too many countries can involve extreme privation for an agonizingly long and indefinite time. To cope, you might have only your own mind and what it can provide for some kind of way to maintain your humanity. This play is a creative, if rather slow, psychological drama of a trio of such prisoners trying to do just that.

In the early 1990s, two prisoners in Beirut—American Adam Canning (Jeremy Hewitson) and Irishman Edward Sheridan (John Reid)—have been confined for some time with little hope of release. Now, they have a companion, Briton Michael Watters (Stephen Flindall) who is now in the same situation. With nothing else to do, the trio use their imaginations to the utmost as they find some solace in the hellish situation they are in.

In a situation where the body is chained, but the mind is free, imagination can be a life raft amidst the madness. This play is a reasonably entertaining demonstration of that as the characters take advantage of both that and their memories to find some solace in their confined misery. However, the play’s premise practically dictates a leaden pace for the story considering that none of the characters can do anything substantive that is in their control.

Regardless of such restrictions, the players make the best of the material to make the story as entertaining as possible. For instance, John Reid pulls off a convincing Irish accent as the most beaten down of the trio even as his grumpy reflexive personality. That mix of curmudgeonly grouchiness and growing despair is a powerful thespian mix for which to create a memorable character. Likewise, Stephen Flindall is perfect as an amiable British intellectual horribly out of his element, where his outdated field of expertise is the only thing along with his memories keeping him sane. Finally, Jeremy Hewitson is excellent as the story’s straight man, moderating the intellectual and ethnic frictions with a guarded optimism of his own, until it proves in vain.

Finally the stagecraft is a glory of simplicity with nothing needed but the most basic things like bottles and blankets to suggest a spartan cell. Add to that some beautifully well-timed sound effects, and the dark hell of being a hostage in the chaos of Lebanon is brought to agonizing life.

As much as the pace is a burden, this story is a powerful one about confinement, companionship and imagination when one has nothing else.

La Ronde

Love is an emotion often rife with impulse, pretensions and deceptions depending who is both expressing it and reacting to it. This play is a passably entertaining linked anthology of characters in various romantic situations even when the material struggles to make an emotional connection.

In 1914 London, Ontario, romance is in the air for all sorts of people. To illustrate that, there is a series of episodes where romantic assignations occur throughout the city with the newcomer of the previous story meeting someone in their own encounter. In each, there are plenty of the same elements including flowers, sweets, and promises they don’t intend to keep even as they manoeuvre through the different emotional minefields.

As someone whom the dedicated self-contained romance story leaves cold, this series of romantic tales feels rather impersonal for its subject matter. Each sketch is only a few minutes long with barely any time allow for you to understand the characters and their motivations beyond the broad strokes and cliches. When you compare that to a full novel, or a television series’ luxury to establish a deep empathy for the characters, this play comes up wanting in that regard.

In its favour is a mildly titillating sense of humour and verbal wit. For instance, the characters manoeuvre through their trysts as they try for home runs with their acquaintances not always understanding the game. As a result, the cliches and truncated character development has some narrative justification, but usually not enough for you to actually care about them.

That said, the players make the most of the material. For instance, Charlotte Weeks is fun as the Young Wife, a sophisticate consumed with social facades and the fear of exposure. Thomas Fox plays against her well as the Husband with an arrogantly oblivious hypocrisy that presumes to lecture on prostitutes’ social worth when it’s obvious he’s a regular customer. Aimee Adler shines yet again as the Actress, with a grand dame presence overpowering everyone, be they a pretentious poet character like Philip Krust or a slippery Industrialist character by Michael Wilmot.

However, where the play really shines is in the stagecraft. For instance, the centre section of the stage revolves which enables instant scene changes with each turn the next scene prepared as the current one plays. Furthermore, I like how two people set up a privacy screen for the sexual interludes to project comical visual euphemisms for the action it is concealing. The fact that the stagehands operating it have their own mischief to make is a bonus to make the scenes all the more entertaining. Combine that with well chosen lighting and music, and you have a play where the interludes are more entertaining than the main action itself.

This play defied some sensibilities for its time, but its abbreviated character play undercuts the dramatic effectiveness even as its humour partially redeems.

Joni Mitchell: River

Appreciating Joni’s Lyrics and Music

The showJoni Mitchell: River is the season opener on stage at London’s Grand Theatre. Before I can tell you about it, I need to tell you what it’s not.

It’s not the story of Joni’s life; there are no words spoken, nor any account acted. It’s not an impersonation or impression of Joni; each singer is himself or herself. It’s not a re-creation of Joni’s songs; none of the songs actually sound like Joni. It’s not a musical; it’s a concert.

Now, here’s whatJoni Mitchell: River is—it is an enchanting evening, presenting a fascinating interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s songs. It is three powerful singers who draw you into the lyrics. It is four impressive musicians interpreting the compositions.

If you grew up listening to Joni on pop radio in the 1970s, you might not recognize the songs in this show—there are several I’m not familiar with, and even those I know well are not presented in the way we usually heard them. But let me stress that this is not a bad thing—in fact, I paid attention to the lyrics and message for probably the first time. Of course, there are also familiar favourites, such as the ever-popularBig Yellow Taxi.

Creator and director Allen MacInnis has asked his three singers to decipher the lyrics and they have done so with great passion. Mitchell’s songbook is not easy to sing—they call for stretching ranges, changing tempo, and moving from major keys to minor. The three singers all have impressive vocal ranges and the power to belt. Occasionally they sing solo, other times in harmony.

Louise Pitre (best known for originating the role of Donna inMamma Mia! on Broadway, after performing it in Toronto) is at home in London as a graduate of Western University. Pitre’s deep, enveloping voice is perfect for the tortured love songs, such asA Case of You. In this tale of unrequited love, Mitchell says “Oh, you’re in my blood like holy wine. You taste so bitter and so sweet, Oh, I could drink a case of you, darling, And I would still be on my feet.” Pitre makes us feel Joni’s hurt.

Emm Gryner is recognizable to Lambton Country residents, growing up near Forest when she was still known as Mary. As part of the band Trent Severn, she is a popular at the Grand Bend Beach Concerts. Gryner gives a gut wrenching interpretation of Mitchell’sMagdalene Laundries where young prostitutes were sent to work. As well, she is stunning in her a capella numbers.

Brendan Wall has a rich, powerful voice and uses it to tell the story of each song he sings. HisWoodstock makes us feel like we were there in 1969. Wall’s experience includes Mirvish’sOnce andWar Horse.

Joni Mitchell, known for her guitar playing, made each of her compositions unique with her own style of tuning her guitar. It would have been impossible for musician Greg Lowe to tune his guitar for each song. Instead he reached out to the London community, asking to borrow guitars for the duration of this show. Londoners generously lent the Grand their beloved instruments, so 18 different guitars are used in the performance, all tuned differently. Photos of these guitars are featured in the program with the make, and lender’s name. There are some very unusual prize pieces.

One of my guilty pleasures at Christmas time is watching the DVDLove Actually. In the jumble of characters, Emma Thompson plays a wife and mother who tells her husband “Joni Mitchell is the woman who taught your cold English wife how to feel.” Later, she finds out that her husband (played by the late Alan Rickman) bought an expensive, romantic piece of jewellery, but it’s not for her. Instead he gives her a Joni Mitchell CD, and while she goes through turmoil about how to confront him, Mitchell’sClouds is heard. That same heartbreak is present when the trio singsClouds at the conclusion of this theatrical concert, and I was reminded of that scene. Interestingly, Director MacInnis refers to the movie in his program notes.

The last time I was so moved by a theatrical concert was Stratford Festival’sJacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris in 2010. This show, like that one, features singers who present the music to you as if it is a special dish they created just for you.

And a final thought: If Bob Dylan can win the Nobel Prize for Literature, then certainly, after hearing her poetry in this concert, we should nominate Joni Mitchell.

The History Boys

The History Boys Shows London’s Theatrical Future is in Good Hands

If anything, Calithumpian Theatre Co.’s inaugural production,The History Boys, shows that the future of local theatre is promising, courtesy of a well-paced, entertaining production of the Alan Bennett play.

Some outstanding youthful casting, complemented by a pair of key performances from more veteran actors and deft direction by John Gerry, ensured that the two-hour-and-40-minute-long preview performance of the play thoroughly entertained.

The History Boys is a play about the contrast between learning and education, set in a British grammar school. A supply teacher is brought in by an aggressive, results-seeking headmaster to complement the teachings of an eccentric English teacher. It pits the headmaster’s desire to earn glory for his school through his students’ acceptance into marquee institutions like Oxford and Cambridge against the desires of a teacher who wants to go beyond learning and imbue knowledge into his charges. It is a play that examines truth and whether truth is an absolute—regardless of whether it relates to sexuality, personal growth, or fact.

What strikes the viewer most about the production is that its younger actors, on the whole, outshine the older members of the cast. There are some notable exceptions on both ends of the spectrum, but by and large, the youthful “History Boys” carry the show. Alex Bogaert is notable for his performance of Dakin—one that grew stronger as the second act progressed. But it is Alex Bowman’s Posner and Stephen Ingram’s Scripps that drive the play, and these two actors shine not only in the moments in which they’re featured, but also in the moments where they’re part of the periphery.

That, presumably, is thanks in no small part to Gerry’s direction. Throughout the play, the action on stage seems natural. Instead of all the focus directed to the principals, the background characters maintain their roles and interact in a way that seems fluid and convivial. Instead of presenting a play, we are presented with a window into another world.

Amongst the more veteran actors, Matthew J. Stewart comfortably steps into the role of supply teacher Irwin, contracted to help the titular History Boys prepare for their entrance examinations. It’s an intellectual-yet-reserved role similar in tone to what we’ve seen before in previous performances such asArcadia,Mr. Richardson was Jesse James, and even as Ambrose J. Small in theLost Soul Stroll. And it’s one that Stewart settles into comfortably.

George Jolink’s Hector accomplishes the task of making a wholly deplorable man sympathetic and his performance inspires the production. By all rights, the audience should revile Hector, but his performance successfully leaves one with an appreciation for his message and an uncomfortable acquiescence to the methods.

Not everything is perfect. Ancillary roles, such as the politicians, the director, Fiona, and the makeup artist are cumbersome and tend to disrupt the progression. The elements in which they’re featured could have just have easily been completed with an actor talking off-stage and implying the responses—and it likely would have created a better flow.

As well, the use of video through the production, while interesting, seemed to be a bit out of character. Although the videos were beautifully composed and showed progression of the story, they seemed to be more akin to a music video interlude (complete with an ’80s soundtrack) rather than a natural part of the show. That said, my partner at the show completely disagreed with me and she felt the videos complemented the production well.

Set-wise, the production was stunning. Polaroid-like styling for the video screen, a separation of classroom and lounge furniture on the stage, wooden doors hanging from the ceiling, and an effective use of a chalkboard and messaging to transition between scenes all served to keep the play focused.

For a preview performance on Thursday, most of the production was extremely taught. There were a couple of fumbled lines, but nothing that derailed the show. In the end,The History Boys is not just a show that’s worth seeing in the present, but also one that’s showcasing the promise that London theatre has for the future.

Prelude to a Kiss

For the happiest of couples, the time when one doesn’t seem like themselves to the other can be the most sustained traumatic time to test any love. This play is a powerful fantasy about one such couple facing a bizarrely premature version of that situation, one told with emotional heft and special insight.

After a young man named Peter (Matt Green) meets and falls in love with the eccentric cynical woman Rita (Charlotte Weeks), they agree to be married. However at the wedding, an elderly stranger (Alan Legg) requests a kiss from the bride and something strange happens. Suddenly, Rita acts nothing like herself and more like she is bluffing her way with her husband. As the real situation dawns on Peter, there seems no way to set things right even as his love is put to the test in the most otherworldly way possible.

The greatest test for love is when it is most difficult, and this play is a powerful testament with that. While I don’t care for dedicated and self-contained romance stories, this play is able to encapsulate a believable relationship with a deft mix of humour and passion where the true character of the lovers is the real purpose of the story. A concerted effort to establish the characters is made in the extended prologue decorated with appealing humour and genuine warmth.

In effect, the real meat of this play is a clever fable about relationships after one partner has had a traumatic mental crisis like a stroke or a psychotic break. As Peter struggles to comprehend what has happened to his wife, you can understand his confusion and helpless even as you suspect the truth. When the nature of the situation hits home, there is a thrilling suspense and sympathy knowing that Peter cannot explain it anyone else, lest he be written off as crazy.

To make this subtle fantasy work, delicately expert acting is necessary and the cast delivers that with aplomb. For instance, Matt Green is perfect as the story’s anchor, a young romantic in a situation right out ofThe Twilight Zone as he wins you over from the first scene. From confusion to anger to utter helpless in a bizarre predicament of seemingly no escape, Green is perfect as the emotional centre of the story. When he struggles against basic urges in the insane conundrum he is in, you can understand even as you ask yourself if you could do better.

Weeks and Legg shine even more brightly as their characters, who have to become completely different from their original personalities even as they are forced to hide the truth with all their resources. To do that requires a real insight of character with a funhouse distortion as they fake it just badly enough to arouse your suspicions. To play essentially two roles at once is a testament to the thespian skill of both and it plays off Green’s lead to create a drama of such imagination and soul.

Weeks is obviously having a ball in that regard as the quirky character she playfully established becomes greedy and selfish as her personality gets a change of perspective known to her alone. If anything, Legg is even better, as the prisoner inside his character gains far more than he bargained for even as the situation drifts into the horrific. This stellar performance climaxes with a moving soliloquy that feels so bleak even as the soul inside finds more a reason to live for some happiness than you’d expect. As this trio fights to cope with this predicament, your assumptions will challenged brilliantly as the players work this fable to perfection.

All the supporting players do their parts well, but the stand-out is definitely Lori Fellner as Mrs. Boyle. In her major scene, you can see a woman who is struggling to understand why her daughter is so distraught and so inexplicably different, while trying to understand her son-in-law’s pleading that he cannot fully explain. The fact that she could have the understanding to help Peter even when the problem is beyond her comprehension is quietly heartwarming, topping anything I have seen in London theatre.

Finally, the stagecraft is a delight to behold. The primary prop is a massive turntable set with three facets that allows the scenes to change instantly as far as set arrangement can allow. Combine that with some sliding platforms for secondary props and the appropriate music and a masterwork staging is evoked with fun and imagination.

Fantasy at its best can be a mirror to the real world that a more prosaic story cannot provide. This play is a stellar example of that as a romance that is fantastic in more ways than one.

Sleuth – A One-Man Play with Two Actors

Sleuth’s tag line is “think of the perfect crime… then go one step further.” And while not necessarily a crime in the purest sense, John L. Moore’s performance stole the show, overwhelming his co-star, in a play about love, revenge, and the games we play.

Moore’s performance and the story itself are the two defining elements of this entertaining, but flawed, production. The story, centered around two men who have a relationship with one woman—a woman never seen or heard from—deals with the meeting and aftermath of the meeting between the two principals: Andrew Wyke (Moore), a mystery writer and the man seemingly gleefully divorcing the woman in question; and Milo Tindale (Shawn Dyson), the younger paramour who is planning a future with Wyke’s wife—one that he may not be able to afford.

Wyke concocts a plan that would ensure that he is rid of his wife and that Tindale obtains the resources needed to keep her in the lifestyle to which she’s grown accustomed. Needless to say, not everything is as it appears andSleuth, which has also been directly adapted into two feature films and inspired a third, jumps from twist to turn and back again.

In the director’s notes, Grunté states that “the sub text [sic] is a study of sexual conflict and jealousy while painting a psychological portrait of both of the characters.” Unfortunately, that’s only half true. Moore’s depiction of Wyke is enthralling, ranging from manic bombast to measured contemplation. There’s a range and diversity to his performance that is enchanting and serves to be the beating heart of this play.

However, Dyson’s portrayal of Tindale has none of those layers and very little depth. There’s a stiffness of movement that’s compounded by a flatness of delivery. Unfortunately, the monotone nature of Dyson’s performance is only amplified by the manic dynamism of Moore’s portrayal. Add some stumbling over lines and you’re left hoping that this is a case of opening-night jitters that may be alleviated with subsequent performances.

Overall, the set decoration and production were charming. However there were some issues and continuity errors that served to sever one’s complete investment in the play. For example, though Rubik’s Cube was invented in 1974 (and we’re generously going to allow that the play takes place during that time frame, despite a specific reference to 1970), it did not rise to prominence until the early 1980s. For it to have a position of prominence in the set was egregious enough; it’s an error that’s magnified by its total irrelevance to the play. Other items, like Dyson’s running shoes with a suit combination and prominent modern Reebok-branded half-socks could be simply fixed and show a lack of attention to detail. And some terrible facial hair makeup effects meant that disbelief needed to be suspended beyond all reasonable expectation as part of the plot progression. In addition, the sound cues were not supportive of the gravitas of the moments—with gunfire being particularly underwhelming.

That said, the story rose above the challenges, propelled largely by Moore’s entertaining performance. It is a comedy with dramatic elements, but it never rises to the psychological examination that’s alluded to by the director. It’s a pleasant play that entertains in spite of its flaws.

Les Misérables

The Grand Theatre is celebrating 20 years of High School Projects with the opening ofLes Misérables, which includes a cast of 47, plus 17 crew members and three student musicians. And this year, the ensemble shines, raising the roof and filling the house with the rich anthems that makeLes Mis memorable.

Les Mis is the epic story of convict Jean Valjean (Dean Holbrough) who serves his time for a minor crime and becomes mayor under a new name. Although he is aided by a kindly Bishop (Peter Nye), he is hunted by Inspector Javert (Preston Cooper-Winder) for breaking parole. When a worker in Valjean’s factory, Fantine (Keirsten Overton), dies leaving young Cosette (Amber Sellars) an orphan, Valjean raises her as his own. He retrieves her from the conniving innkeepers M. Thénardier (Christopher Pitre-McBride) and Mme. Thénardier (Colleen Moodie) and their daughter young Eponine (Olivia Farquar).

Eventually Cosette (Claire Latosinsky) falls in love with the student Marius (Justin Eddy), but sadly Eponine (Isabella Majewska) loves him, too. Marius joins the students rebels under the leadership of Enjolras (Jared Brown) with little Gavroche (Marcy Gallant) is their young spy. Eponine and all the rebel students but Marius, who is saved by Valjean, die in the battle. The story concludes with the marriage of Marius and Cosette, surrounded by the spirits of all those they have loved.

The entire cast deserves praise for their handling of the rich score. Harmonies are excellent and the voices magnificent, making it difficult to believe that they are students whose vocal ranges may not have fully matured yet. The rousing anthemsOne Day More andDo you Hear the People Sing? are beautiful and powerful. In particular,Drink with Me shows the scope of male voices in this production. Another favourite isMaster of the House which features the Thenardiers as comic relief. Pitre-McBride and Moodie display the humour perfectly, with the ensemble backing them in drunken fun.

Marius’ songEmpty Chairs at Empty Tables is well presented by Eddy, and Overton gives a moving rendition of Fantine’sI Dreamed a Dream. As well, credit goes to Majewska for Eponine’s heart wrenchingOn My Own.

The opening night audience, filled with proud parents and family, was very appreciative of the production. Especially poignant was a warm send-off for former Artistic Director Susan Ferley who directed this production ofLes Mis. Ferley has been at the helm for 15 High School Projects, and was honoured by the current cast plus a myriad of grateful alumni who joined the cast on stage at the end of the show. Ferley was thanked by two notable alumni, Doug Price and Ben Sanders, as she heads to the UK to study.

Twice a year the professionals at the Grand audition high school students across the area, and select the most promising for a big musical production or a play. We trust this 20 year tradition will continue at the Grand under new Artistic Director Dennis Garnhum.

The Porno Play

While some kinds of entertainment have the social warrant to bring out the best in people, pornography in Western society is too often cornered into bringing out the worst. This play is an amusing look at the grimiest of popular entertainments and the people who have to work in it.

In a porno peep show establishment, work has its own set of routines, which Rich (Nick Regan) has had nearly enough of. Unfortunately, his job and his co-workers face more than their share of irritations like bothersome customers, weirdos and an overly sentimental boss making the situation worse. Meanwhile, those customers have their own concerns with group support meetings that reveal far more than you expect.

Pornography is an entertainment that historically adapts new technology more easily than any others. In that regard, this story is an intriguing contradiction considering porn has largely moved on to online services that offer privacy and convenience at home. A dedicated viewing establishment with DVDs is a glaring anachronism that can only appeal to people too poor or insecure to have anything more private.

This creates a special kind of workplace comedy where the staff have to deal with people polite society would rather ignore and whose rationality is a tossup. In that spirit, the story runs a fine balance of drama and surreal comedy. For instance, one character’s repeated addresses to the audience are fun interludes of an almost Pythonesque surrealism as the nut faces the fourth wall that no one else recognizes. With that, the support meeting episodes are oddly touching where the customer characters are forced to face some honesty about themselves, except for one who still too busy lying to himself to accomplish anything there. When those personal realities clash, sparks fly that you won’t expect.

In this mixture of personal sleaze and street audacity, the players carve out their characters with a confident air for all. For instance, Nick Regan provides a good balance of experience and cynical endurance as Rich, a veteran of the business who is past his patience with the goings-on, and too numb to help any newcomer. Shannon Beatrice as Marty is a good contrast as the survivor who can still function with her job’s nighttime demands.

The players of the upper management characters prove their own contribution to the dramatic mosaic, such as Kathy Yan Li as Olivia, Rich’s former lover, who has her own contribution to the workplace even though she has shared more than Rich would have wanted. She has just the right mix of night charm and workday professionalism to wonder what Rich sees and knowing what he would miss. In comparison, Mik Patton as Brad is an even more intriguing mix of contradictions. He seems to try to run a tight ship, but his sentimentality towards his customers feels inexplicable, especially how some of them don’t appreciate it. You’ll keep wondering about his real motives and maybe you won’t get all the answers at the end, but you’ll want to find out.

Of the customer characters, Michelle McMurray is a disreputable ball of fun as a transsexual tease who is bizarrely personable in her own way. Anyone who can effortlessly be an obnoxious snarker and still have a sympathetic ear is someone who you can’t dismiss easily. That makes Douglas Stewart’s role as Scotty, a repellent crackhead, all the more memorable with his miserably cynical pushiness taking advantage of the one generosity he gets, especially when you know how he is ruining his own life in the process.

Against that drama, Ryan Baldrock is a delight as Glen, a crazy clown who figures himself the star of his own surreal farce, and thus is perfect to give some needed lightness in the unbearableness of the others’ beings. In the face of that, Keith Alward’s own character has a bizarrely compelling nature, even if you want to toss him out for his pointless rambling, which has its own strange point of a man who nothing better to do.

The stagecraft has a special dirty economy to it with the main setting feeling deceptively elaborate with the counter and display shelves working neatly with the shrouded section to suggest the main business area. Even with that setup, there is enough room for the various other business in other settings without much setup required without taking away from the needed atmosphere. With a little suggestion from the players, a whole underworld is created with an atmosphere that will keep you off guard all throughout.

Watching this play is to see a world you wouldn’t want to admit knowing too closely, but it is still a rewarding story to explore.

Skylight

The intimate third floor space at The ARTS Project with its exposed yellow brick, floor-to-ceiling windows, and old wooden floors provides an exquisite backdrop for David Hare’s Olivier and Tony Award winning playSkylight. Set and Props Designer Alina Subrt has done an exceptional job of creating the shabby Northwest London flat of Kyra Hollis (Francesca Ranalli), a 30-something East Ham schoolteacher.

Tom Sergeant (Jeff Miller), a successful restaurateur and hotelier is shocked and disapproving of Kyra’s minimalist life when he unexpectedly appears at her door one evening in the dead of winter. He cannot understand why she would forsake the life of luxury she had when she lived with him, his wife, Alice, and their two children, to live in cold discomfort and teach students on the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder.

Kyra had been Tom’s employee, close to both him and his family, but also his mistress. Once discovered Kyra fled, but one year after Alice’s death Tom has come in search of the girl he lost.

The actors, under the direction of Brenda Bazinet, do a masterful job of moving toward and away from each other in a dance of remembered desire, betrayal and fundamental differences in character.

The play is bracketed by the appearance of Edward Sergeant (Jeff Dingle), Tom’s angst-ridden teen son looking for answers to Hollis’ quick and unexpected disappearance from his life, thus shedding light on the collateral damage of the affair. Edward’s final appearance with a basket of things that Kyra tells him she misses from her old life—scrambled eggs, bacon, toast wrapped in a white napkin—felt as much like closure as it did a new beginning.

The dialogue, at times witty, at times raw, is always authentic and flawlessly delivered, providing an immersive and engaging audience experience.

Recently formed Troubadour Theatre Collective cites its mission as “sharing professional theatre and opera in intimate, immersive and varied site-specific venues,” to allow for an arts experience that “should be powerful, visceral and transformative.” Their production of David Hare’sSkylight is definitely in keeping with that mission.

A Minor Midcareer Retrospective

The less a performer has in stagecraft, costume or makeup to perform a story, the more the talent he has must show through.

For this one-man show, James Judd has that talent in spades as he tells a variety of hilarious tales of his very full life with boisterous thespian enthusiasm. Furthermore, to do that with only some careful lighting and a single prop is a supreme artistic confidence Judd obviously has as he spins wild and wacky tales of his life that straddle the line of the real and preposterous.

While he performs that balancing act, you will be laughing too hard to care as you savor a master storyteller turning memories in glorious comedy.

London Fringe 17: First week reviews

Theatre in London’s team of volunteer reviewers is ready to see and review every show in the 2016 London Fringe before the end of the opening weekend. (By Sunday morning, in fact.) Reviews will initially be posted to each show’s comments section on the Fringe website, and they’ll all be archived here after the festival ends. They’ll also be in this week’s edition ofThe London Yodeller, along with their own coverage. Keep an eye on @theatreinlondon and the #ldnfringe hashtag on social media for updates during the festival.

1-900-DEE-LITE

Life and love have a way of repeating with different variations on a theme. This play is an intermittently entertaining way of illustrating that with a story of mature love entwined with a story of young love which does not wholly work.

Life is reasonably good for Dee (Deborah Mitchell), a widow quietly working as a sex phone caller, even if she shares her home with her emotionally immature son and aspiring children’s writer, Scott (Kevin Cope). However, her burgeoning romance with the retired English teacher turned church volunteer, Tom (John Palmer), is threatened to be spoiled by her secret occupation. Meanwhile, Scott’s own ambiguity about his childhood friend, Jennifer (Heather Rivet), seems to be posing its own quandaries.

Romance stories of the mature are less common in our culture, ribald behaviour in them, even in a mild form, is rarer still even years after the classic TV sitcomThe Golden Girls made it a source of light humour. With that in mind, this play has a refreshing charm as a privately uninhibited widow and an amiable if stiffnecked English teacher work out an awkward relationship. With each tentative gesture and move, Mitchell and Palmer infuse a meaningful humanity of the story. Even in their own scenes, their talent shines through with their characters’ idiosyncratic ways that feels quite human.

However, the pace of the overall story is laborious with the romantic subplot of Jennifer and Scott feeling far less appealing. Considering it involves a well-educated woman trying to get the romantic interest of a man who is a complete bore with the apparent emotional development of an eight-year-old, the emotional impact is impaired as you keep wondering why the woman is bothering at all. While Rivet feels engagingly believable at this quixotic ambition for her character, Cope perhaps performs too well bringing a character to life who is so childishly unlikable.

However, the story has a decent climax when the secrets come out on Thanksgiving, beginning with a beautiful subtlety, until the truth explodes in their faces for the big confrontations. That itself proves to be a mixed bag; while Dee and Tom’s argument is treated with intelligence and brokenhearted intensity, Jennifer and Scott’s parallel conflict is amateurishly stiff and unconvincing enough to injure the whole scene’s credibility. The result is an unsatisfying conclusion where the cliche seems to sink the touching ambience of the story. In the end, there is an ambiguity that comes as a relief considering the main character is all but gently browbeaten into giving up a career she enjoys.

The stage is of a simple construction that easily suggests a widow now in difficult times: well-appointed, but with a hint of decay. With the offstage voice and the ending music, the whole world is created with the right atmosphere.

While this play is woefully uneven, there is heart enough to engage and entertain for the discerning audience.

Present Laughter

Noel Coward is considered of the great British comedians for several reasons and this play is a good one. Here, we see the epitome of the sophisticated drawing room comedy he was famous for with cutting wit and memorable characters well played by a good cast.

Garry Essendine (Todd Baubie) is a successful matinee theatrical star who is dealing with a mid-life crisis being in his late 40s, only to find that is the least of his life’s complications. That is because Garry is inundated with fans, relatives and partners of either questionable motives or sanity even as he prepares for a tour abroad. Amidst this, Garry has to dodge intrusions and double dealing even as he tries to discover what he really wants in his life.

As the embodiment of British wit, this play is obviously a disguised autobiography to some degree. To that end, the story is an enjoyable one about the pressures of an aging entertainer who is still in his career prime even as the march of time is bearing down on him. The story abounds with urbane comic conflict and misunderstandings with a surprisingly effective wistful touch about getting old. In fact, it is that latter tone that grants a welcome emotional universality to the story that transcends its upper class British setting for a larger world.

With that story in mind, the players bring it to life with glorious talent. For instance, Baubie plays the lead with an understated snarky presence as a man who has it all materially, but is still frustrated by human anxieties that no high life can completely bury. By contrast Elizabeth Durand is fun as Monica Reed, Garry’s frustrated secretary who has to accommodate the most awkward parts of her employer’s life.

Jane Upfold adds some welcome physical comedy as Miss Erikson, a housemaid who has seen it all with her employer and has long been at peace with it enough to figure out how to take advantage of it. Unfortunately, while Sara Brookfield has some genuine pathos as one of the women Garry has to push aside, Robyn Deverett feels far less convincing as Joanna with a manner and accent feeling more like Frank Oz’s Miss Piggy than anything convincingly human.

While the supporting players like Robin Rundle Drake and Christopher F. Parker as Garry’s estranged wife and frustrated producer, respectively, are able players, the real standout at that tier is Stephen Flindall as Roland Maule. Compared to the others, Flindall is able to cut loose with hilarious aplomb as the crazy would-be playwright and groupie who knows no boundaries or inhibitions with his idol. Much like how Coward’s homosexuality was obvious to all but still delicately unspoken during his life, Flindall’s character is the perfect personal metaphor that only a man with the artistic confidence of Coward could have dared write in the 1930s. To watch him is to see a farcical delight that becomes much more if you look under the surface.

The stagecraft is of a standard semi-minimalist design with the requisite hallways and doors to give the illusion of a well appointed home. However, the costuming is exquisite, from Gary’s suits and housecoats to Miss Erikson’s comically shapeless work clothes to Joanne’s over-the-top evening gown. With such accoutrements, the period of the play is effortlessly established with subtlety and grace.

To the casual viewer today, Noel Coward can seem too genteel and refined to be enjoyable. If that’s your belief, just watch this and see the humour and true sophistication of a great British master.

I Take Your Hand in Mine

Unless you are willing to look beyond the superficial, the great artists of the past can seem untouchable and unrelatable. However, this play is a welcome defiance of that prejudice with two great actors bringing the all too short romance of the playwright Anton Chekhov and the actress Olga Knipper to vibrant life.

While I usually do not care for dedicated self-contained romance stories, this story has an enthralling passion with master actors performing those luminaries’ correspondence. With that voluminous resource—about 400 letters from a passionate six year relationship—the romance of these greats of Russian theatre takes on a depth of personality and emotional content as few other historical relationships have ever granted to posterity.

Beyond that is an intriguing look at the world of Russian theatre at the turn of the 20th century through the eyes on some of its greatest contributors who were on a first name basis with literary contemporaries like Leo Tolstoy. In that realm, there is a human drama of its own as Chekhov struggles against the age old conflict of creative differences as he finds the director of his supposed comedy,The Cherry Orchard, interpreting it as a serious drama much to his indignation.

What makes their performance all the more remarkable is that they barely interact beyond speaking to each other from their reading desks. As such, it is their performances by word and simple gesture that convey their characters with remarkable clarity and passion that brings their characters to life. When they finally do interact completely and in character, it feels like a true consummation of a relationship far beyond the physical even as it reaches its end.

To make the thespian effect complete, the players are well costumed with rich period dress that evokes late Tsarist Russia with visual perfection. In addition, the stagecraft is both gloriously simple and ornate with beautifully arranged reading desks that position the players not only in place, but in era as well. That is neatly complemented with two adjustable screens that illustrate the play’s theme with considerable power in a variety of ways.

Historical figures and their concerns can seem distant to a casual view. However, this play will bring this pair into a powerful focus.

Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story

The Day the Music Died

The story is heart-breaking, but the music is energizing on the Grand’s stage:Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story is always a crowd-pleaser and this production is no exception.

The story tells of the very short career of Buddy Holly. In 1957, he appears on local radio as a country & western singer with his two bandmates, The Crickets. One night he plays a rock ‘n’ roll song he’s written, and the local disc jockey tells him his music has a “coloured feel to it”, which upsets advertisers. Hoping to find someone to record their music the way they want it, they finally find Norm Petty who agrees to let them do rock ‘n’ roll. He’s already recording another young fellow by the name of Orbison. Finally their music gets radio play, and they are on their way to stardom.

They even book a concert in the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, where the organizers believed they were a black band. Buddy meets Maria Elena and proposes to her after just a few hours. Eventually rifts flare up between Buddy and his band, and Buddy goes on tour on his own, reluctantly leaving his pregnant wife at home. And after topping the charts for just over a year, his life ends all too soon. Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens are killed in a plane crash on February 3, 1959, the day the music died.

Zachary Stevenson offers a very convincing Buddy, and well he should, having played the role many times. In fact, I saw him in this role in 2006 at Huron Country Playhouse in Grand Bend. (Huron Country Playhouse has offeredBuddy: The Buddy Holly Story three times — 2003, 2006 and 2013 — and Stevenson was the best of the Buddys.) When he dons the heavy, black-framed glasses, and slides his hand through his hair, he becomes Buddy. He has the “aw shucks”, humble, good guy attitude, but still demonstrates Buddy’s stubbornness when it comes to music. Yet he makes Buddy so very likeable.

This show calls for quadruple threats — the cast must sing, dance, act and play a musical instrument. Credit goes to director Susan Ferley for finding the talent to handle the challenge. Each cast member plays more than one role and all handle it superbly. Credit also goes to musical director Bob Foster for bringing a group together and capturing that ’50s sound, and to choreographer Amy Wright for recreating the ’50s moves.

We hear all the Buddy Holly favourites:That’ll Be the Day,Oh Boy!,Peggy Sue,Every Day,True Love Ways,Rave On and more, as well as the Big Bopper’sChantilly Lace and Richie Valens’La Bamba. The audience is at a party of one hit after another.

The finale to the show is a re-enactment of Buddy’s final concert before that fateful plane trip. The entire cast is on stage singin’, dancin’ and rockin’ it, bringing audience members to their feet.

I overheard one theatre patron say as he was heading out the door, “I had no idea he was popular for only about 18 months. He did a lot in a short time.” So true, but so sad if you think about what more Buddy Holly could have done. This show nicely encapsulates all his talent, with cast members who have talent of their own.

Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story continues at the Grand Theatre until May 7. Tickets are available at the Grand box office at 519-672-8800 or visit www.grandtheatre.com.

August: Osage County

Oscar Wilde said that each unhappy family is like that in their own way. This play is a moving drama about one such family being unhappy in a myriad of ways, but having one common denominator who has her own price to pay.

In the country of Beverly (Deighton Thomas) and Violet Weston (Dinah Watts), the ailing couple hires a live-in maid called Johanna (Niyiri Karakas) before the whole family visits. However, Beverly disappears just before the gathering and the answer to that mystery will be the spark to tear the family apart.

Family dramas are older thanOedipus Rex, but they still can reflect their times like this dramedy perfectly does. As such, we get an insightful story of a family’s multiple generations finding themselves going into conflicts that all seem rooted in Beverly and Violet’s misanthropy and apparent bad parenting.

As such, the impacts run deep with each of the immediate family and their friends having serious hangups that could drive full plays on their own such as Barbara’s (Sarah Green) bitter need to control everyone around her or Mattie Fae’s (Lesley Quesnelle) contempt for her clumsy son. However, here they play as a full dramatic mosaic that creates a bitter picture of a damaged family trying to find some emotional warmth even as its chances for that are collapsing.

The players are at their zenith at the banquet with Violet going into a drug-addled tirade supplies the emotional high point of the story. As the matriarch digs into everyone’s personal weaknesses with shameless vitriol, the company creates an enthralling dramatic frisson as the family fights to hold their tempers with draining patience. When Barbara explodes with outrage at her mother’s antics, it moves to the kind of angry wish fulfillment for anyone who has had to deal with an obnoxious relative at social gatherings.

In that regard, Green gives a triumphant performance of her own as Barbara, playing a controlling harridan who is still sympathetically considering her mother’s intolerable nature. Seeing her personal triumph at the dinner scene is put in stark perspective as she drives away her own family and her own self-respect with a vindictive ferocity that definitely runs in the family. In the end, Green is able to create a most compelling tragic heroine who manages to escape her domineering mother, only to at best plague other with her belligerent attitude.

By contrast, Karakas is special in her own understated way as Johanne. As a professional Johanne is forced to be the observer of this familial train wreck and try to maintain her own neutrality. However, when Johanne is forced to intervene when things are going too far, the sheer ambivalence of the family at her heroism says more about Johanne’s integrity and how far gone her employers are.

However, sometimes the dramatic conflict is awkwardly maintained such as when Ivy’s (Eva Bahlut) secret relationship is revealed to have a heartbreaking secret of its own. Against all character logic, Ivy reacts as if it is the end of the world when she should know that she inadvertently rendered the basic biological rationale for the taboo involved irrelevant. While it is a minor point in the plot, and ingrained cultural mores can be hard to shake, ignoring character logic in a drama simply to maintain conflict hurts the story as a whole.

Regardless, the ending, if rather overlong after the climatic dinner confrontation, has a powerfully moving coda as Violet, who has neatly alienated her entire family with vicious efficiency, is left alone and desolate. In the face of utter isolation she brought on herself, she seeks solace from the one person she didn’t want in the first place, even knowing that her own motivations are plainly mercenary to a certain degree. When Violet quotes T.S. Eliot as her husband does in the beginning of the story, it completes the tragic circle she is so unconsciously determined to complete.

Finally, the stage is a marvel of artistry: it has a masterfully constructed three-storey skeleton of the farmhouse that serves as the background for the various simpler furniture replacements. Thus designed, it gives both some essential boundaries for the story setting while still setting the story free for its emotional landscape. With the Eric Clapton recording, which is soon replaced with increasingly ominous jazz drumming, the whole atmosphere is easily set for the turmoil to come.

It is said you can’t choose your relatives, and this play is an memorably engaging example of that with a show both amusing and tragic at the same time.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Modern Take on Classic Story Fails

I loved Rick Miller’sBoom, which played at the Grand Theatre last year. He cleverly wove together a history of culture, politics and news for baby boomers, playing all roles and using amazing projections. So I was looking forward to hisTwenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea coming to the Grand.

Unfortunately, it is disappointing by comparison. Following the classic Jules Verne novel, this play tells the story of the ship that goes out to find the horrible sea creature that others have reported. On the ship are the narrator Jules (Andrew Shaver), Professor Aronnax (Marie-Eve Perron) and Ned Land (Eric Leblanc). They find that the creature is actually a sci-fi submarine, the Nautilus, under the command of Captain Nemo (Richard Clarkin), who alternatively locks them up or wins them over.

Ned Land (Éric Leblanc), Professor Aronnax (Marie-Ève Perron) and Captain Nemo (Richard Clarkin).
Ned Land (Éric Leblanc), Professor Aronnax (Marie-Ève Perron) and Captain Nemo (Richard Clarkin).

I know this is a classic tale, published in 1870 by the visionary Frenchman, Jules Verne, and we should all appreciate it. But frankly, the book is a tough slog, and the story seems slow-going and disjointed on stage, too, despite Miller and Francis’ attempt to modernize it.

The modernization comes in the form of updating Jules to present day. He is a Ph.D. student working on his dissertation (for seven years, which produced a chuckle from the audience). But rather than write, he plays with action figures, which are then used several times to tell the story in projections. His professor reverts to Claire Aronnax, a female, which is another modern take on the old story. They are concerned with the amount of plastic pollution in our oceans, when suddenly we are taken back to 1868 to hunt down the Nautilus.

The creative use of projections saves this play for someone who enjoys such devices. Water appears to pour across the stage, strange sea creatures come out of nowhere, and the submarine surfaces realistically, thanks to high quality projections. In one interesting scene, the four sit at the dinner table and suddenly we have a view looking down at the tops of their heads, as if we were sitting in the hatch of the submarine.

Unfortunately, Captain Nemo’s lack of stability causes the characters to turn on each other, which prevents the audience from connecting with any of them. The actors aren’t able to develop relationships and the audience loses interest. The characterization should add to the suspense, but instead seems to create confusion.

The actors are difficult to understand. The noisy sound effects of the submarine and ocean waves, plus their accents, make it problematic. At one point, they put on deep sea diving suits including the big round head coverings, and it is impossible to make out what they are saying.

The steam punk styling is intriguing, but not consistent. Isn’t the whole story from the steam punk era?

And while the action figures are fun at first, they get tiresome in the second act, as does the cell phone videotaping, thus making the attempt at modernization weak.

One redeeming feature in this play is the reminder about ocean ecology, ecosystems and marine life. We need to act on eliminating the great plastic blob floating in our seas. It’s scarier than any sea creature or sci-fi submarine.

The Mountaintop

The Lorraine Motel 1968

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his renowned “Mountaintop” speech in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land,” King said, foreshadowing his imminent assassination. He had received many death threats, yet he said in that speech “I’m not fearing any man.”

The play,The Mountaintop, currently on stage at the Grand Theatre, tells the fictionalized account of what happened in room 306 at the Lorraine Motel where King was staying. The next day, he was killed, at age 39, standing on the balcony of the motel.

A two-hander, this play is about the interaction between two characters: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Camae, a motel chambermaid, who brings him his cup of coffee and shares her cigarettes with him. E. B. Smith has brilliantly captured the essence of King, and while he starts out exhausted, coughing, and disappointed in the turn-out for his speech, he soon smiles and grows playful with Camae, partaking of a drink from her flask and then laughing through a pillow fight. Beryl Bain has created an interesting Camae, sassy and a bit mysterious. We wonder right away if she is an evil temptress or an angel of deliverance.

But just as we are enjoying this unusual relationship developing between two very different people, the plot takes a turn. Without spoiling the ending, I can only say it feels too contrived. We expect King, a man of God, to talk to the Lord in prayer, but it just seems too much when he speaks to God on the telephone. However, it’s nice to know God’s female.

The set is excellent. We see the outside of the infamous Lorraine Motel, where the shooting is about to take place. Then the set rotates and we are in the motel room, complete with the typical two beds, wood panelling, and sixties décor.

The play concludes with a montage of events that have occurred around in the world since that sad day in 1968, projected on the sets and taking the audience on a journey. A series of black and white photos and videos covering news events from the Vietnam War to 9-11 clearly state that we have yet to reach the Promised Land.

Despite the supernatural, artificial conclusion to the King-Camae relationship, it is very much a play worth seeing. We need to be reminded how far Martin Luther King brought the cause, and how much more work needs to be done in terms of non-violent change and obtaining peace.

To Ashes

Debts and confusion about them is never a happy combination for anyone, and it’s considerably worse for those who don’t have the maturity to handle either. This play is a powerful testament to that potentially nightmarish pitfall of life as we see two surprisingly similar losers clash over that problem.

In a city, a short tempered clock factory worker, Tom Ash (Jeff Werkmeister) is being harassed by a bill collector who has confused him with his house’s previous owner, an unemployed recluse, Thomas Ash (Tyler Parr). Infuriated by this misapprehension on top of his hopeless child custody problem, Tom Ash repeatedly confronts Thomas Ash and intimidates him into calling the collection agency. However, the emotionally disabled Thomas will not let the frightening incident go and plans his revenge even as Tom’s own anger issues ruin his own life.

Speaking as a person who has faced similar problems with debt collectors, I can understand the persistent aggravation such a situation can cause. As such, there is a powerful tragic tone to this play as two men emotionally ill equipped to handle their linked coincides of character and fate as they collide. However, as these characters flounder in their misanthropic ways, you can’t help but find the dark humour in their excitable natures even as they recklessly escalate their problem into the absurd. Even so, their serious personal faults loom large and clash against what sympathies you have for two loathsome characters blundering through their lives.

The players help make that story work with practiced ease. Werkmeister is remarkable as a redneck with a self-destructive short fuse who finds his life falling apart because of it. Even though he comes off a bully, you can understand the deeper pain he bears as the cost of his bad temper closes in all around him while he lashes out at Thomas. To create that balance of traits for a character that could too easily drift into a mere thug is a thespian challenge Werkmeister is equal to.

If anything, Parr surpasses him as Thomas, an emotionally handicapped man whose life has already collapsed with real losses, childish frustrations and skewed priorities. Although more obviously pathetic than Tom, Parr spares no effort making it plain that Thomas is horrid in his own way. Whether it is his senseless obsession with gun collecting when he cannot support himself financially, or his childish climatic revenge plot, Parr is no problem creating a shambling loser who simply cannot function in any meaning way. For all his character’s loathsomeness, Parr still is able to hold a reasonable portion of the audience’s sympathy with a clear understanding of his personal life, burdened with challenges anyone would dread.

The stagecraft is a masterwork of clarity and simplicity with the respective homes of the Ashes. Tom’s has a rough-hewn look with all the mementos of his work as a castle that is being breached by his personal problem. By contrast, Thomas’ home has all the details of a dump occupied by a man who can’t keep his life in order. However, Thomas’ gun collection, both in main room and the set’s side room makes for a glaring contradiction in his character to have obviously spent a fortune on a hobby that is obviously bankrupting him. All that setting comes brilliantly into play as the confrontations occur with a believable destructiveness that will ensnare the most bored viewer’s attention.

You don’t have to like characters to be fascinated by them. This play is a shining local example of that as you enjoy the result of what lies in the Ashes.

The Catering Queen

If there is a job that can be more aggravating depending on the customer than the retail trade, the hospitality industry qualifies. This play is an amusing look at a group of people working in that trade, even as their personal lives intrude, with delightful character play and wit.

At the Smythe residence, Melanie (Alida Liberman) heads a group of caterers working a Christmas party. As she attempts at some kind of efficiency despite Timothy’s (Sam Didi) misgivings with one familiar guest and Cynthia’s (Aleen Kelledjian) grousing about the job, her own personal life intrudes. Eventually, there is more work and resolutions to come under the most unlikely circumstances.

Inside looks into the occasionally thankless jobs that make our happier times possible can be a fascinating source of stories, and this play is a fine example of that. For one thing, it mirrors the cynical work humour of the comic stripRetail as we follow the struggles of caterers dealing with their clients’ annoying demands and intrusions. For the worker characters in this play, however, they have to interact with their customers for hours with drunkenness and emotional conflicts occasionally sucking them into their clients’ lives.

With that kind of work pressure, the play excels with snarky wit about the kind of work frustrations and more awkward difficulties that can happen when you do your job in a client’s private residence. With that kind of setting, you will gain a new appreciation for the characters’ work even as their patience is tested with its realities. Yet the characters’ personal lives coming touchingly into view as each dreams of true callings and decent hopes, giving the play a touch of wistfulness much like the theme music of the TV show Taxi.

To make that kind of comedy work, the players are up to the task. Alida Liberman is a shining example of that as Melanie, a put upon soul trying to manage her discontented employees and irritating clients. That challenge becomes all the more engaging as her two-faced ex-boyfriend, Nick (Robert Mills), literally barges back into her world, followed by his present girlfriend, Julia (Agnes Kes). Those two provide ideal antagonists with his slimy seductiveness and her drunken paranoia while still feeling like people. In such an aggravating situation, Liberman creates the right mix of authority and vulnerability as her character tries to balance her work and her own self-confidence.

Against that character play, Kelledjian has an easier task providing the bulk of the laughs as Cynthia, performing with clenched teeth outside of the kitchen and acid-tongued commentary inside. I am more leery of Sam Didi’s performance of an obvious gay stereotype as Timothy, a caterer who has to struggle with discovering someone uncomfortably familiar on the job. However, Didi supplies an ample humanity to the role that helps mitigate the awkward connotations of his performance.

The kitchen setting is a model of immaculate perfection with the right feel of a wealthy resident’s kitchen to equip caterers while suggesting a separate world where Melanie and her employees try to have some semblance of control. Thus when the antagonists enter, it feels all the more like an intrusion as rude as it is unwelcome. That in turn establishes the smallness of Melanie’s world, where she cannot be left alone and her growing need to leave it to become more.

With a dash of occupational insight and a dollop of laughs, this play serves up a fun show for anyone’s night.

Arcadia

The past and one’s interpretation of it can be two completely different things. Unfortunately, this play is a wildly uneven production with one half being witty and engaging while the other is slower and more difficult for the unprepared, until they come together for a sharing of dramatic strengths.

In a British country estate in 1809, Septimus Hodge (Matthew Stewart) is the tutor to the precocious girl, Thomasina Coverly (Emma Ratcliffe), even as his own extracurricular activities with his lordship’s wife threaten him. In modern times, scholar Bernard Nightingale (Chris McAuley) is researching a scandalous discovery of Hodge’s close associate, the great poet Lord Byron, while the current resident, Hannah Jarvis (Caroline Dolny-Guerin) is researching the estate’s history; her kids have discoveries of their own to make.

Tom Stoppard’s plays are always challenging productions and this play is especially true in that regard with a story about knowledge, the conclusions that one can jump to, and the real answers that can be lost. In keeping with that theme, the plot takes two parallel paths in two separate time periods, as the characters in the past play out the events that the modern characters puzzle out with the meager historical sources available.

With those plotlines in the play, the 1809 scenes are much more interesting, with Matthew Stewart dominating the action with a masterful wit conveying an intellectual arrogance the character can justify with ease. Emma Ratcliffe is able to match that thespian virtuosity, creating her character’s gifted intellectualism that strains against her naivety in an age that cannot abide the former quality in a woman. Between them and the supporting characters, their scenes crackle with comic wit and subtle tragedy.

Unfortunately, the modern scenes just cannot match that kind of dramatic momentum. For instance, the purely intellectual gymnastics involved in the dialogue have an arcane nature that is easy to lose track of and it is difficult to re-engage when that happens. Furthermore, the external drama is comparatively abstract with the characters arguing over their personal pretensions and philosophies coming off as rather dry whereas the 1809 conflicts are much more clear and stark in their intensity. The result that despite the talent of experienced performers such as McAuley and Dolny-Guerin, the contemporary scenes have considerable difficulty making a connection with the audience and the whole play suffers for it.

That said, the plots eventually intersect in a climatic surreal flourish typical of Stoppard as the characters from both periods appear together to put their efforts in stark perspective. In that bizarre turn, each plotline is able to support the other with an engaging twist that lifts the drama to an interesting conclusion for an audience ready to keep up with the cerebral conflicts.

To frame this play, the Procunier Hall is neatly set up with an appropriate gentility with convincing gates and doors to suggest the larger world around the setting. The accompanying sound effects lend a welcome verisimilitude to the stage craft to help transcend the hall’s physical boundaries.

Although uneven in its demands on the audience, this play offers an enjoyable night’s entertainment if you feel up to the cerebral challenge.

Fly Me to the Moon

The Life of a Personal Support Worker

Personal Support Workers are unsung, underpaid heroes. They look after the elderly, allowing them to stay in their homes and avoid nursing homes. The comedy,Fly Me to the Moon, currently on stage at the Grand Theatre, is a something of a tribute to those workers.

On the other hand, it isn’t an all-fun-and-games comedy. It also has a dark side, with a look at the seedier life of a PSW.

Francis Shields and Loretta Mackie are two workers, looking after an elderly gentleman who is a big Sinatra fan. Unfortunately, after Francis helps him to the bathroom, he dies.

“I could be arrested for theft, fraud, and murder and it’s not even four o’clock,” Loretta says, as a comedy of errors and bad judgement ensues. No more can be said without spoiling the story.

The play is set in Belfast, Ireland, and presented entirely with delightful Irish accents. What struck me is the fact that the life of personal support worker, whether across the ocean in Ireland or here in Canada, is decidedly the same. Anyone who knows such workers will enjoy humour of recognition.

The two cast members—Deidre Gillard-Rowlings and Carmen Grant—are excellent. Gillard-Rowlings is remembered for her stellar role as Nurse Bennett in the 2012 production ofTempting Providence at the Grand. She is equally convincing in this role as Francis, winning over the audience early on with her story about her son’s great business acumen selling illegal copies of DVDs.
Grant is perfect as Loretta, trying to make ends meet in tough times, showing her heartfelt concern for her unemployed husband and his efforts to make money appearing on game shows. Grant is best known for her powerful performance inThe Syringa Tree at the Grand in 2009. She played 20 characters in a story about apartheid in South Africa.

The Grand Theatre is known to be haunted by the ghost of theatre magnate Ambrose Small, and with a dead body on stage for this entire production, perhaps Ambrose has been conjured up. Many audience members were startled on opening night as if there were a ghost flying overhead, but I think it was just a bat coming down from the belfry. In any case, the bat made a couple of rounds, causing audience members to flinch, and the two actors on stage to corpse (break character and laugh)! After some surprised chuckles, they found their lines and got back on track.

Together, the two women introduce us to Irish co-workers who have a fascinating relationship. Credit goes to director Krista Jackson for letting the audience see and feel this bond. The result is an excellent evening of laughs created by hilarious dialogue, physical comedy and dark humour.

Three Viewings

However much you want to ignore it or welcome it, death is the moment that will likely shake up all around you—and especially yourself. This play is a powerful collection of dramatic monologues that become more enthralling with each well-played story.

InTell Tale, Emil (Rob Faust) is a funeral director who can’t bring himself to confess his love openly to his dream love, a realtor who always comes to his funeral home.The Thief of Tears has Mac (Kathleen Morrison), a high class coffin robber with her own secret reasons for this life of crime. Finally, there isThirteen Things About Ed Carpolotti, which has Virginia Carpolotti (Fern Tepperman), a widow whose late husband’s financial sins and more come to haunt her.

For a series of monologues, these players have no trouble creating a cavalcade of characters in their solo performances, giving each nuance and heart. For instance, Faust is able to create a classic tale of unrequited love with his character only having the courage to interact subtly about it. There is such a feeling of tragedy to this kind of tale, only for it to be dramatically undercut at the end in the most blunt way possible for an ending that is certainly for the best for all concerned.

Morrison is even more evocative as Mac, a shameless high class thief who is perfectly comfortable stealing from the dead and is subtly brazen enough to do it at funerals. Morrison is able to both convey a high class feel of her main character, and yet is able to ground her shamelessness with a past whose darkness deepens with every new memory revealed. When it climaxes with the confession of a horrific mistake, her words spoken with a deadpan drawl take on a literal nature you will not expect. The result is a memorable tragedy of family and desires.

After that performance, Fern Tepperman tops in the final story with a brilliant performance as Virginia, a naïve widow who finds herself facing the consequences of her late husband’s actions. Tepperman is masterful in creating a story that becomes quietly harrowing with a memorable thespian skill worthy of Jean Stapleton as her innocent character finds herself trapped with obligations and threats she has blindly walked into. Tepperman’s talent applies also to all the other characters she reacts with only her voice, who come vividly to life as their true intentions arise. The whole result is a gripping story that has an ending you will not see coming.

The setting for such fine performances is minimalist as far as the needed props goes, but the stage is still well appointed as a funeral home where the oddest tales are being told. The accompanying music matches the drama with classics likeYou Can’t Take That Away From Me that evoke an emotional ambiguity to keep you off kilter for the stories come.

Monologue shows rise and fall on the quality of the stories and the singular talent of the people telling them. This show has both qualities equal to the task for a great evening.

The Trials of Robin Hood

Robin Hood is a seminal legend in our culture, thus the subject of many a parody. Unfortunately, while this play’s attempt at that kind of humour that can be entertaining for some, others used to similar parodies will have to endure a labored production.

King Richard (Mark Speechley), recently returned to England, puts Robin Hood (Sean Brennan) on trial, and the outlaw gives his obviously slanted story about his adventures. In annoyed response, Maid Marian (Ashley Berklemans) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (John Darnell) in turn testify their own accounts of the events from their points of view.

Robin Hood has been parodied for generations by such luminaries like Mel Brooks and Daffy Duck, so this play is handicapped from the start by following such well-trodden ground. To its credit, the play strives for some originality uses the classic narrative technique of the film Rashomon where characters explain past events from their often self-serving point of view. With that framing, the story’s comic exaggerations largely take on a believable humanity to ground the humour.

Unfortunately, while the audience around me largely enjoyed the play, I found it a chore to endure with largely hamfisted attempts at farce and too many jokes that were better done by previous artists. The physical humour of this play too often feels forced and laboured with that unconscious comparison in mind. However, there certainly is variety with the conflicting stories taking the classic episodes of the legend in all sorts of comic business that twist the old clichés into thankfully newer directions.

Regardless of the deficiencies of this production, the players are hardly to blame for them. For instance, Sean Brennan and Ashley Berklemans perform admirably anchoring her accounts with their characters displaying an engaging self-absurdness at their obvious bias. John Darnell is even better with a bellowing ineffectualness as his character tries to salvage his reputation in the face of pending legend. In addition, while the rest of the staff are engaging enough, Andrew Richardson is a delight playing Prince John with a gloriously hammy performance that all but takes the phrase “chewing the scenery” literally.

In addition, Donna Creighton and Ceris Thomas provide exquisite accompanying music that both excels in the background for the production as a subtle performance and when it has to be more up front, such as promoting the theatre’s renovation fund. Finally, the costuming is excellent, especially within the budget of community theatre, whether it be Darnell’s elaborate suite, or the simpler costuming for his character’s troops. The combined effect is to create a joyous feel of a medieval frolic as an old heroic legend is told yet again with innocent gusto.

Judging by the audience I was with, the show was a well-received comedy production, but I personally found the play a struggle to watch with material too familiar and inadequately staged for me.

A Christmas Story

Getting what you Really Want for Christmas

We all have a memory of that one thing that we really, really wanted for Christmas. Maybe you asked Santa at Eaton’s, maybe you told your parents repeatedly, but whatever it was, you just had to have it!

Well, little Ralphie inA Christmas Story, now on stage at the Grand Theatre, really, really wants a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle with a compass and a thing that tells time in the stock. Set in the early 1940s,A Christmas Story reveals the otherwise mundane life of a slightly dysfunctional family as they prepare for the excitement of Christmas.

The stage version follows the 1983 (almost cult) movie closely. The adult Ralph narrates the tale, as he, his parents, little brother and classmates act out the story. And it is very inventive: they even act out Raphie’s fantasies and day dreams.

Stratford actor Steve Ross returns to the Grand after portraying the title role in Shrek last year. As the adult Ralph, who narrates the entire play, he handles a huge script more than capably. Ross combines an understated style with a storyteller’s charm to keep his audience with him. He makes it seem like you’re just listening to a friend talk about his childhood.

Sarah Machin Gale is perfect as the housewife who is smarter than her husband without letting him know. You will remember Machin Gale for her excellent portrayal of Julia Child in To Master the Art, and as one of the Calendar Girls, both at the Grand. She was also exceptional as the mother inOld Wives’ Tales in Port Stanley this past summer.

Matthew Olver is ideal as Ralphie’s hapless and often angry father, otherwise known as The Old Man. He spews forth the most remarkable foul language, never missing a beat. Olver’s stream of invective is mostly directed at the smoking coal furnace and its clinkers, but it’s enough for little Ralphie to learn each word. Olver’s Old Man isn’t quite as offensive as the movie character and for that we’re thankful. His love for the leg lamp is just as powerful, though!

Rachel Jones is hilarious as the teacher Miss Shields, especially with her feather boa in Ralphie’s imagination.

Callum Thompson is adorable as little Ralphie, although sometimes difficult to hear and understand. That’s not a problem, though, as the dialogue and situations are explained by adult Ralph. Isaak Bailey playing little brother Randy is delightful, especially bundled up in his snowsuit and scarf. Logan Thompson is suitably scary as the bully Scut Farkas, and Devony House is endearing as Esther Jane, the little girl with the crush on Ralphie. Josh Buchwald and Hunter Burgess as sidekicks Schwartz and Flick, along with Angelina Foster del Mundo as Helen round out a cast of engaging kids.

The set and costumes are impressive and accurate. The 1940s kitchen and living room are typical of the era, and the car they drive is imaginative and amusing.

The Old Man’s eccentricities create a charming comedy. The Parker family shares its foibles as a nostalgia trip for grandparents, laughs for the parents, and fun for the kids.

Dirty Dancing

Nobody puts Baby in the Corner!

The movieDirty Dancing, with the very hot and incomparable Patrick Swayze and sweet young Jennifer Grey, has a huge following. It was the surprise hit of the 1980s and has gone on to become a favourite even with those who weren’t born when it came out. So the stage show has tried to copy the movie exactly to keep those devoted fans happy.

The production now on stage at Budweiser Gardens in London brought in an opening night audience of keen Dirty Dancing enthusiasts. Many young 20-somethings (female and male!) waited for the show to begin with excited anticipation.

The stage production relies on video footage, which may even be actual clips from the movie. Across the back of the stage we see grand views of Kellermans resort, the lush golf course, and beautiful sunsets. We see Baby’s family’s cabin and the staff accommodations, just like the movie. This all works well to give us the feel of being at the 1963 resort.

But then the creators rely a bit too much on video clips. The famous scene of Baby and Johnny dancing on the log across the creek happens behind a scrim, so we miss the blossoming chemistry between them.

After that, the video becomes too cheesy; the audience laughs at the movie background in the parts that were meant to be romantic and serious. Baby and Johnny practise their dance in a field and then in a lake, behind a scrim on which the audience sees video of a waving meadow and rippling water. But when the dancing couple fall into meadow, grasses stay standing and when they go into the lake, the water doesn’t splash. The audience titters at the ridiculousness of it. Later it grows worse when they climb into an imaginary car—we hear the sound effects of the doors slamming, and Johnny grabs the pretend steering wheel. Behind them flashes scenery as if they were in a car going down the road. Seeing two people standing there, pretending to be in a car the way little children do, causes laughter again.

So unfortunately, the corny video, along with the lengthy scenes of dance rehearsal, prevents the audience from seeing Baby and Johnny fall in love.

In Act Two, however, there is less reliance on video and the action picks up. Baby’s defence of Johnny is heartfelt and the audience cheers when he says “Nobody puts Baby in the corner!”

Christopher Tierney as Johnny dances with all the finesse of Swayze. Gillian Abbott as Baby combines innocence with feistiness and has the dance skills necessary for the finale. Jenny Winton is excellent as Penny, the pregnant dance instructor. Winton has the legs and the expertise for the big dance numbers.

The show also features two outstanding singers: Jennlee Shallow is excellent with the big numbers such asDon’t tell me What to do, and Doug Carpenter gives a great rendition ofIn the Still of the Night. Together they are amazing with the iconic finaleI’ve Had the Time of my Life.

ADirty Dancing fan will love seeing their favourite show brought to life. The dancing, singing, and even the recorded music take us back to Kellermans in the 60s or maybe to the movie theatre where we first sawDirty Dancing in the 80s. Leaving the Bud Gardens, a young woman squeals “I love it! I love him!”

All The King’s Women

Elvis Presley was an icon of popular culture that became so much more after he died, regardless of whether he deserved that kind of worship. This play is an amusing look of the lives of several women reacting to this star that can range from the interesting to the pathetic, depending how much you know about the life of Elvis.

As much I personally consider Elvis Presley overrated as musician, his impact on North American culture is without question. As it is, this play reflects that with the reaction of various women who dealt with this star, like the store clerk who talked Elvis into accepting a guitar instead of a rifle for his birthday and the White House functionaries in 1970 with Elvis’ visit to Richard Nixon to the young woman who wants to leave the worship behind.

For what overall story there is in this series of vignettes, there is considerable humour, such as with the aforementioned retail story, and the executives on the Steve Allen Show shackling Presley in a humiliating stage arrangement. Unfortunately, the play’s timeline has gaping omissions: it has nothing about the events in Presley’s career from 1956 to 1962, the height of his artistic career and when it was derailed by his military conscription. The idea that there are no female witnesses for this most important time for Presley is not only absurd, but outright excluding this period is like having a film about Orson Welles’s life as a whole without any mention ofCitizen Kane.

Still, there are interesting ideas, like how Andy Warhol took Elvis’ image and created a whole interpretation of it in his audacious pop-art style. That makes for an interesting bookend with the car dealership scene where two female car dealers view Presley as not just a sex symbol, but also as a financial motherlode with expensive eccentricities to exploit for their own gain. So with an insightful comedic tone, you can see how Elvis the man became subsumed by his image to the expense of any depth of either his art or character.

Furthermore, there is a kind of stealth humour at the overreaction of fans to a man increasingly not worth that kind of attention. That especially goes for the scene at the White House with three of its functionaries going ga-ga over Presley’s visit. Remembering that Presley wanted President Nixon to dub him a Special Federal Agent for the “War on Drugs”, the scene really pays off when you appreciate the irony that Presley at that time was an overweight faded star who was himself continually drugged nearly out of his mind with prescription meds. Combined with the fact that Elvis, driven by petty jealousy, also tried to get the Beatles banned from America, the real laughs come from these silly women mooning over a man who was less a rock star at this time than he was the American precursor of Rob Ford.

However, there are some sweet later scenes such a young woman who gets a personal boost when she is invited to sing backup for Presley. That vignette has a fun feel of a glorious opportunity that the King of Rock and Roll could provide. Then there is the sketch where a woman gets the spectacular, if embarrassing, 1967 encounter of her life when she meets the star in a late night grocery store where her fear is neatly countered by his gentlemanly manner.

Finally, the concluding sequence has a bittersweet tone about a young woman wanting out of a business that treats Presley as less than a good singer than some kind of semi-religious fetish over his silent image. The argument with her boyfriend, an obsessive Elvis impersonator, about her need to move on is oddly touching as both come to realize how an obsession for a very human singer has become too much for them both. When one compares that cult to the evergreen interest in the Beatles for their music itself, then the ending is truly touching, as two people do perhaps the most loving thing they could in the memory of a man whose talents have been overshadowed.

The stage design is interesting, with some hanging pictures of Presley, including some art by Andy Warhol, and three raised platforms. With those structures, the players are easily able to differentiate the action into separate rooms, while the news reader characters are able to maintain their distance with appearances on the sides in front of the stage. Regrettably, the presence of Elvis’ music itself plays a far less significant role than it should, apart from the records during intermission. Even the ending of the play is completely quiet. There is no fanfare or any finale; the play just stops. On the other hand, that silent finish to the play makes sense when you put the concluding vignette in context, where the image and shadow of Elvis is everything and the musical soul of his art is all but lost.

However incomplete the story is, there is a special intelligence in this play about the phenomenon, and the tragedy, of Elvis that gives a picture of his impact and the larger truth it obscures.

The Conchologist: A Dream of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allen Poe was one of the great gothic literary masters with a fertile imagination that not only created great tales of horror, but also a new kind of hero with the detective story. This play is an imaginative, if rather leaden paced, examination of this great writer’s life and inspirations.

On October 3, 1849, Poe was found in Baltimore, badly delirious and in dire medical peril for unknown reasons (although abduction by cooping thugs has been suggested). In Poe’s remaining lingering days, unconscious from this trauma, he experiences a surreal delirium in which his characters of his stories visit him to review his life and his deepest values.

Exploring the mind of a writer who could create such dark masterworks likeThe Raven in the very early days of the genre is a fascinating exercise. In service of that goal, we are treated to an intriguing look at Poe’s life, full of tragedies, doomed love and career frustrations with even his masterworks. Unfortunately, the pace tends to drag as the events of the play move in a relentless dreary inevitability in an inherently introspective plot. Furthermore, the final soliloquy unfortunately is a bit overlong and a more succinct ending would tighten the ending up appropriately. Finally, given that most of the characters are taken straight out of Poe’s writings, the story can feel a little impenetrable if you are not at least passingly familiar with his work.

However, the players go a long way compensating for such weakness with inspired performances. For instance, Chris Bancroft, aided by excellent makeup, is endearingly compelling as Poe, a man tormented by tragedy and frustration until an end that was all too soon for the world. Helen Hey casts her own shadows as Sissy, Poe’s sickly wife, although her own lines tread dangerously into the whiny. However, she has a stunning singing voice that helps provide a sparkling opening for the play.

Franklin Davis is brilliantly haunting as Nevermore, the raven who seems to represent Poe’s most rational aspects, a wisdom literally on high. Given that he is inspired by Poe’s greatest work, the excellence of his strangely knowing performance is all the more appropriate. Marina Sheppard and Kerry Hishon are effective as the orangutan and the cat who artfully personify Poe’s animal joys and dark resentments respectively.

However, it is Rachel Haich who has the most effective role as the Gold Bug, representing Poe’s career quest that proves almost as self-destructive as in the one in the story. With a bizarrely creative manner, Haich is powerfully succinct representing Poe’s contacts in the publishing business who have to deal with a dark imagination in a world unprepared for it. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Remi Kaitell who simply stands around as the Red Death. While her costume is eerily effective as the overhanging macabre presence in the story, the character’s squeaky voice feels wholly inappropriate for the role and the effective of her character is damaged by it.

Complementing the production is ingenious stagecraft. With simple props and inspired costumes, such the Gold Bug’s golden armour, a whole eerie world within Poe’s mind is instantly established. The swirling pattern on the floor is a particularly inspired touch; it is a traditional visual cue for madness and its presence helps provide a foreboding atmosphere for the story to work. Add the well-chosen music and sounds and the emersion is complete.

Poe is one of the great authors of gothic literature and this play, however overlong, is a moving tribute to him and his creativity.

2 Pianos 4 Hands

Tickling the Ivories and the Funny Bone

Did you hate it when you took piano lessons and your mother forced you to practice for one full hour every night? Or did you pace the hallway, straining to hear the piano notes through the closed door as your son struggled with his conservatory exam? If you’ve lived through either of these experiences, you’ll appreciate2 Pianos 4 Hands.

2 Pianos 4 Hands is a funny and touching musical comedy currently on stage at the Grand Theatre. The story is semi-autobiographical, written by Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra, two Canadian actors/pianists who realized that they had the same experience growing up and learning to play piano. They collaborated on the play, which was first performed in 1994 in Toronto. Since then, it has been off-Broadway, all across Canada and the U.S., as well as London, England, South Africa, and Japan. It’s been called Canada’s most successful musical comedy. Greenblatt and Dykstra originally played the roles themselves, but many others have followed, including female performers playing characters Rachel and Thea.

The story starts off with Richard and Ted as little boys. While one is at the piano, the other plays a strict parent or a strange piano teacher. We’re with them as they prepare for the music festival, while the elderly Kiwanis member stumbles through the introductions and the bizarre adjudicator offers words of advice. There is an assortment of eccentric piano teachers as the boys cram for conservatory exams and practise their ear training. Somewhere along their journey, the emphasis shifts from trying to avoid practise to spending every spare minute at the piano. As nerdy teenagers they are told to find other interests and get out more. Finally comes the crushing blow—reality sets in and they realize they aren’t going to be classical concert pianists. Harsh teachers tell them they are good, just not good enough.

Bryce Kulak plays Richard, and Richard Todd Adams plays Ted. Both are accomplished pianists and excellent comedic actors. With author and performer Richard Greenblatt directing, we can rest assured that this production is exactly as it was intended to be.

The music played ranges from Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart to Heart and Soul and Chopsticks. Tucked in with the beautiful classical music is a pop medley including Elton John, John Lennon, and even Linus’ song in the Peanuts movies.

It’s a poignant everyman story—from the kid on the hockey rink who’s sure he’ll make the NHL but gets cut from the try-outs, to the smart university student who can’t get the marks for med school. Sometimes the dream doesn’t unfold as hoped, but the journey is always interesting, and in this case funny, emotional and entertaining.

Fortunately for Richard and Ted, they do move on in the world of entertainment—acting, directing and writing a wonderful musical comedy. The heartwarming result is worth seeing.

Steel Magnolias

As much as I try to avoid assuming stereotypes, for some women a beauty salon is better than a church confessional. It offers all the chance to get their troubles off their chest without the moralizing and you look better in the process. This play is a heartwarming and witty dramatization of such an environment and the women who use it.

In Chinquapin, Louisiana, Truvy Jones (Sookie Mei) runs the busiest beauty salon around and has taken on Annelle (Andrea Hutchison) as her new assistant. At the salon, Jones has a regular clientele who are more than simply customers; they are a close knit group privy to their most personal happenings and trials. Whether it be personal triumphs, family conflicts, or tragedies, this group sticks together thick and thin through whatever life has to offer.

When I was a teenager, I avoided the 1989 movie version of this play since it seemed to have nothing of interest for me. I am glad to be proven wrong now with a play that can convey universal truths with such keen wit. In fact, it is all the more fascinating a story as a look into an inner woman’s world that I wouldn’t have reason to enter.

Furthermore, amid the laughs, the play thankfully avoids the usual feminine stereotypes and sentimental clichés for a real humanity. For instance, Kelsea Meredith and Norah Cuzzocrea’s characters have an evocative daughter-mother character arc running through the story, namely a conflict that turns from the usual humourous petulance into a meaningful drama about a daughter determined to fulfill a traditional feminine ambition regardless of the cost. In that face of that, Meredith is memorable as a mother helpless to dissuade her child from this ambition, but mitigating the price through sacrifice. When the story turns tragic, the drama feels powerfully real with characters you can identify with.

The other players are no less masterful at their roles. For instance, Mei is at her usual excellence as Truvy, the anchor of this drama with grace and earthy charm through worst of life. Hutchison compliments as Annelle, a neophyte employee who still is credible at her job while still providing the everywoman figure to introduce the others. Better still, her character becomes a born-again Christian without falling into the usual clichéd obnoxiousness and keeps her charm.

Deborah Mitchell is a delight at Ouiser Boudreau, the local curmudgeon with considerable charm along with the humour she effortlessly evokes. Megan Moorhouse is similarly fun as Clairee Belcher, the football businesswoman of her community who finds herself the pillar of her community to a degree she never anticipated. The fact that it applies also to the characters in a closer way than she has is all the more meaningful in this story.

Finally, the stagecraft is appropriately convincing in suggesting a beauty salon, complete with running water and the sundries of such a business. Furthermore, the sound is exemplary with one unseen character’s disturbingly noisy hobby. Combine that with classic 1980s music likeNeutron Dance by the Pointer Sisters, and you have all the ambience of the world of the American South of that era.

I came to this play expecting insufferable chick flick clichés, and I came out enjoying a powerfully affecting story with the performances to match.

Steel Magnolias

Steel Magnolias, currently on stage at the Palace Theatre, is a beauty of a play. Set in the late 1980s in Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana, Steel Magnolias begins as salon owner Truvy (Sookie Mei) hires young Annelle (Andrea Hutchison), a mysterious new arrival to town to help get the ladies beautified for Shelby’s (Kelsea Meredith) wedding. One by one the characters enter the shop, including: Shelby’s mother, M’Lynn (Norah Cuzzocrea); the town’s former first lady and now widow, Clairee (Megan Moorehouse); and the curmudgeonly but lovable neighbour, Ouiser (Deborah Mitchell).

The difficulty with staging a show that has been made into a highly recognizable film is that it will always be compared to the better known version of the work, and whether fair or not it’s the reality. But there are many differences between the movie and the play, with the main differences being that all the action takes place in Truvy’s beauty salon, and the fact that we never see any of the male characters; they are only referenced. With the secondary focus on the men, it allows the female characters (some of whom were secondary in the movie) to shine more brightly. And that, it seems, is the underlying theme of the Palace Theatre’s 2015-2016 season: bold, strong women.

The women ofSteel Magnolias are regulars to Truvy’s shop, but don’t come to the shop each week out of vanity. They gather as girlfriends and a sort of tight-knit family and make the shop a warm, loving, gossip filled haven of sisterhood. If I were to find a place so loving and genuine as this shop, I’d make an appointment every week too.

Every actor in the cast performed their parts incredibly well (bravo to each of these stellar women), yet there were a few standout performances for me.

While Deborah Mitchell (Mame, Death of a Salesman) commands the stage as Ouiser (loud, brash, human and believable), and Kelsea Meredith (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) is endearing and adorable as Shelby, the most interesting and moving portrayal for me was Megan Moorhouse (Annie Get Your Gun, Nine) as Clairee. Natural, affable and confident are words I would use to describe her performance. I was drawn to Clairee more often than not, though her character could be considered secondary to that of Shelby and M’Lynn.

In the early scenes, Norah Cuzzocrea’s portrayal of M’Lynn came across as slightly flat and more reserved than the Sally Field movie version I was used to, but I grew to like that character difference in the end. It showed more of the complicated yet loving relationship she shared with her daughter rather than being so saccharinely sweet you got a toothache. Her meltdown in the final act brought me to tears, and the palpable emotion of the entire cast brought to my feet. Their opening night performance earned a well deserved standing ovation from a very appreciative audience.

Set designer Sean Armstrong has done a nice job of creating a salon that is realistic and weathered looking yet still attractive. The layout and decoration was quite well done and while your head travels back and forth across the stage several times to catch the dialogue, it still feels genuine and comfortable as if we are spying on these very private beauty shop moments. The story as a whole unfolded beautifully and the transitions felt easy and seamless. It is well worth seeing for men and women of all ages.

The Gin Game

As one ages, the world too often closes around oneself, clinging to something to feel good about even while personal regrets loom all the larger. This play is a powerful comedic drama about two nursing home residents in such a situation over a gin game that has higher stakes than anticipated.

In a ratty nursing home, Fonsia (Irene De Salaiz) is having a difficult adjustment moving there when she meets Weller (Rob Faust) who invites her for a game of gin rummy. As they play, their growing rivalry over the card games brings their dark sides and regrets to the surface. As the last card is played, the losers become obvious.

Going to a nursing home is one of the less palatable prospects of a long life, and this play explored the emotional life of such residents long before the idea became a standard source of sitcom humour. As it is, we are treated to a moving tragicomedy where two lonely elders find a kinship after a lifetime of heartbreak and lost opportunities. As their games continue, with Fonsia winning constantly to Weller’s frustration, their personal foibles boil up revealing why each is alone. The progression of the characters from friendliness to hostility to despair is a journey of spiritually epic proportion as profound as a great Victorian novel and just as moving.

Even better, Salaiz and Faust perform this classic production with powerful emotion and clarity about two seniors with much more on their minds than gin rummy. Salaiz is magnificent as Fonsia as an isolated lost soul who hides a vindictive streak that unfortunately is inextricably linked to her confidence. When her ladylike manner decays in front of Weller’s frustration, the fall from grace in the audience’s eyes feels all the more profound with the sympathy Salaiz builds for her character.

Faust is her equal in every way as Weller, a ruined old man who desperately clings to his gin game as the one thing left in which he can claim some success he can claim above the decrepit neighbours around him. When Fonsia instantly outclasses him in that sphere, all his life’s frustrations and disappointments come surging back to the surface like an emotional Krakatoa. Considering that kind of character can be so easily played as a one note caricature, Faust performs with grace and subtlety to create a spiritual mosaic that enables a great tragedy. When he finally has a last chance to regain his petty dignity, the result of that desperate hope reveals all he lost with more eloquence than any Shakespearean soliloquy could ever achieve.

Finally, the stage has a well-conceived ramshackleness to suggest a rundown nursing home for the elderly with nowhere else to go. With threadbare doors with peeling paint, decaying lights, and disordered piles of sundry items among other blemishes, you can understand Weller’s complaints about the dump they are in. Furthermore, the music coming from inside is perfect to suggest the community neither character wants, whether it is religious hymns or the gravelly sonorousness of Leonard Cohen. When you hear that, it can feel like either like a comforting togetherness to join, or a kind of seductive resignation of the aged that these gin players desperately resist.

Facing old age is rarely an easy thing, and this play forms a unforgettable cautionary tale about the pain ahead when old shames linger through that time of life.

Hello, Dolly!

The Matchmaker is a Hit!

Dolly Gallagher Levi is savvy, sassy and yet sweet—and young actress Isabella Wolder fits that role perfectly, inHello, Dolly! now on stage at the Grand Theatre. It is a wonderful romp back to the 1890s in Yonkers. Dolly Levi is a widow, missing her husband, but quite capable of looking after herself. She is a matchmaker who finds suitable spouses for others, but at the same time, asking her late husband for a sign that she should find a mate for herself. On the side, she also offers dance lessons, mandolin instruction and many more options.

It seems like half the population of Yonkers is eager to go into New York City to see the parade. Dolly uses this opportunity to acquaint her client, the wealthy Horace Vandergelder, with a couple of potential matches. But Dolly also finds ways to discourage these matches, wanting to keep Horace for herself. In the meantime, two of Horace’s store clerks, Cornelius and Barnaby, play hooky from work to go to the city, too, each hoping to kiss a girl for the first time. Luckily, they meet up with the widow Mrs. Molloy and Minnie Fay.

Isabella Wolder is a delight as Dolly. She has the verve down pat, and the singing voice to match. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and the entire cast rises to meet the standard she sets. Her crew of dancing waiters, maitre d’, and chefs who welcome her back with a rousing chorus of the title songHello, Dolly! are perfect. As well as strong singing voices, they give an excellent combination soft shoe and tap dance.

Christopher Pitre-McBride’s comedic talents stand out as the hapless Barnaby Tucker. Zach Peddie as Cornelius Hackl and Danie Dixon as Mrs. Irene Molloy demonstrate excellent vocal abilities with the songIt Only Takes a Moment. Keirsten Overton and Max Chevrier show their talent as Minnie Fay and Horace Vandergelder. The rest of the supporting characters, the ensemble and dancers are all excellent. In total, 43 high school students are on stage, two playing instruments with the musicians in the pit, and 16 in the crew.

Credit goes to costume designer Lisa Wright for the “steampunk” look. Dresses are in 1890s style but exaggerated for fun. Colours are subdued beiges, browns and maroons, which make the unusual accessories stand out. In act two, when Dolly arrives in a glamorous bright red gown, she stands out among the muted colours.

Kudos to the Grand’s artistic director Susan Ferley who directed this production, choreographer Sara-Jeanne Hosie, and musical director Floydd Ricketts for taking a group of high school students and creating performances worthy of the Grand’s professional stage.

Middletown

A town is simply a semi-organized collection of people of different personalities and dreams, at least at the surface. This play is a somewhat meandering take on that truism that considerably ramps up the emotional power of its telling of life’s different directions in its second half.

In the midwest USA, there is a town called Middleton where Mary Swanson (Kara Gulliver) has moved with her husband expecting her first child. There, she meets John Dodge (Jeff Werkmeister), a struggling handyman and a local mechanic who is also the local drunk (Josh Cottrell). As this trio try to live their own lives, the local cop (Deighton Thomas) and librarian (Shirley Barr) can’t help but step in their own respectively authoritarian and helpful ways. Eventually, things come to a head at the hospital where revelations are made for its residents even as things balance out in bittersweet spiritual ways.

This play starts with a rather Seinfeldian tone with the play opening with a meandering character monologue of a public speaker giving an introduction that tries to include everybody. The result is an overlong joke that drifts into a strained drone. With that unpromising start, the rest of the act feels more like a loose collection of character vignettes of residents of a town with no appreciable history and little interest to exploring.

However, there is the featured story of Mary, John, and the Mechanic, which develops with a touching sincerity as Gulliver and Werkmeister develop a believable platonic friendship even as Cottrell’s character interferes with kooky aplomb that masks darker realities. This trio provides a vital emotional backbone to the play as the mature woman and the flighty handyman try to sort out their feelings and hopes with the believable limits their lives allow. In doing so, there is a feeling of cosmic influence like a feeling of gravity that matches Mary’s accommodating optimism with John’s growing despair that drives to a mistake that dooms him. When that story reaches its conclusion, it ties the whole play together with something touchingly meaningful.

Josh Cottrell parallels that storyline wonderfully as the Mechanic, a drunken wastrel with self-esteem so cratered that his proudest moment is when he was born. As others remind him of what he could do in his youth, Cottrell will draw your sympathy irresistibly as a man who wishes he could be more, but can’t understand how to make that possible. The character’s struggles are deeply affecting as a man who hits rock bottom for seemingly his own choice, only to find some fulfillment with a talent you will never see coming. Even better, he is a fun comic relief in his lighter moments, floating about the action like a gadfly giving his comments (or random animal sounds, depending on the context) to either the characters or the audience with an equally surreal detachment in either direction.

Sadly, the rest of the play is rather dull with supporting characters featured in their own scenes that might have a thematic link for the main story, but have little to engage one’s interest and certainly not much story logic to them. However, Deighton Thomas and Shirley Barr are delightful exceptions to this as memorable supporting characters. Thomas, for instance, cuts a powerful presence as a cop who applies his authority with an easy going bullying to the Mechanic while still being civil enough for John as the situation allows. Barr has a charm all her own as a librarian who finds herself at the center of the main characters’ interaction, but maintains a beautiful matronly charm with glows like a gentle sun into the darkness the trio struggle with.

Another of the play’s virtues is its stagecraft, the most memorably creative I have ever seen in the Palace Theatre. For instance, the play is able to produce most of its visuals with easily movable props whether they be beds or trees. The best visual of them all is the back screen that easily creates a colour ambience that can be reassuring or striking. With that effect, your eyes are drawn to the center stage like filings to a magnet to provide a background you will never forget. Finally, the music is well selected, such as using Dire Straits’ classic songSo Far Away, to close out the play with the perfect melancholy tone.

Although this play takes too long to find its dramatic focus, the second act is worth the wait for a powerful ending that make much of the audience’s effort worthwhile.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel is a seminal horror story: an allegory of human nature that still resonates today. While this play takes some liberties with the original tale, ranging from the basic to the trivial, the soul of the tragedy is kept true with gripping performances.

In 1883 London, Solicitor Gabriel Utterson (Dustin Freeman) comes to learn that his friend and client, Dr. Henry Jekyll (Timothy Richards), has a mysteriously sinister new associate, Edward Hyde (Liam Grunte). As the lawyer becomes more and more concerned with this development, the true internal relationship of the two is worse than he knows considering the two are one and the same. As those sides of Jekyll begin to conflict, they sweep in others such as a chambermaid, Elizabeth Jelkes (Bronwyn Wilson), who becomes but one of the innocents in the battle. In the end, the borders of the doctor’s nature collide and no one escapes unscathed.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has been adapted numerous times, often with little regard to the original story, but this play makes a better effort than many I have seen. For instance, this play largely keeps to the original plot, but also takes some interesting liberties that add a bit more psychological nuance to the story. This includes the plot element that, while Jekyll is aware of his activities as Hyde in the book, he suffers from blackouts, a common side-effect of a heavy addiction to psychoactive chemicals, to give a believable means of providing some mystery to the internal conflict. The result is that Jekyll and Hyde’s conflict of personalities takes on a real tension with secrets and betrayals now made possible.

With such changes, the players mold the classic tale with new vigour into something special. Of these, Liam Grunté is a revelation as Edward Hyde, a malevolent presence throughout the story considering he is always present when Timothy Richards appears as Jekyll. While I wish they could have conveyed the odd malevolent feeling Hyde gives off in the story to others, Grunté manages something not unlike that with his constant presence as an malignancy only Jekyll can recognize. Grunté is also able to bring a touch of sympathy to Hyde as he displays a kind of rough compassion for Elizabeth that is oddly touching, in a similar way as Oscar the Grouch can be on Sesame Street.

By contrast, Richards is able to create a powerful portrait of a man whose moral authority is degenerating through his secret bizarre addiction. From being able to argue against hurtful snobbery from his colleagues with confidence and alacrity, Richards portrays a man eventually driven to the most desperate and self-serving acts to the point where his personalities almost exchange places in personal morals. Richards is able to make the most of that thematic irony in ways that apparently even Robert Louis Stevenson did not consider.

While I don’t usually care for adding unnecessary subplots to a story—in the original story, female characters are wholly in the periphery—the inclusion of Elizabeth Jelkes is evocative. With her performance, Bronwyn Wilson deftly guides her character from an angry youth recklessly confronting the dark soul who could casually trample her sister to a woman who finds herself strangely drawn to Hyde with a combination of love and naivety that feels as dangerously addictive as Jekyll’s potions. A lesser actor would have fallen into cheap stereotypes, but Wilson rises above those crutches.

Alas, Dustin Freeman simply does not exude the quiet authority and perplexity of the often forgotten character of Utterson, a lawyer who finds himself on the edges of this tragedy. Here, he is just a supporting character who reflects the ordinary person’s point of view, unable to know that it is an extraordinary situation. Ian Badger benefits more from the adaptation as Dr. Lanyon, even though making him a young colleague of Jekyll is a striking difference from the elder doctor in the original book. However, his fate is appropriate for the pace of the story that cannot allow for more lingering alternatives. By contrast, Jayden Rogers is excellent as Sir Danvers Carew and what happens to him is a improvement to the story, eliminating an easy coincidence in the original book that was beneath Stevenson’s usual plotting creativity.

Being a black box theatre, the company were able to evoke Victorian London with excellent costuming, lighting, and sound. The company able creates the alternately urbane and lurid world of both physical London and the inner apocalypse of Jekyll’s soul with equal skill. Finally, the concluding cover song of INXS’Devil Inside is a final superb touch give the tragedy’s ending a haunting grace.

The tragedy of Dr. Jekyll is a story told many times, and not always with the greatest of care or creativity. However, this version manages to reach beyond the clichés and become a version with a creativity all its own.

A previous version of this review misidentified Timothy Richards. Apologies for the error.

In Real Life

Ever since video games became a mainstay of popular culture, and then a dominant one, they have attracted a passion as powerful as the kneejerk criticism that inevitably followed their rise. This play provides a newer perspective of four gamers getting deep into a massively multi-player game and finding that the real world still has a hold they cannot ignore.

Considering that popular culture is just beginning to shed the old arcade game stereotypes of the medium, this play is a more nuanced story about gamers as it’s written by one. What we have is a humorous milder version of the old exploitive Mazes and Monsters movie with an element of the film, Her, with the central video game having a seemingly artificially intelligent, and certainly insistent, narrator voice. Interspersed with the story are some playful interactions of the gaming world.

We follow the story of four gamers whose interest in an immersive new game threatens to consume all their free time, with each one understanding the pull of other interests and realities, until the power goes out for them all. In doing so, we focus on each person in turn with their own concerns, such as Liam (Collin Glavac) with troubles in his job and his love life that prove far more important to him.  Glavac plays an able straight man to present some scale of reasonable behaviour and give the others’ eccentricities a needed perspective. Coby (Nicola Franco) has her own troubles, leading a life of exploration into strange areas of inquiry that the game is only a part of; Franco adds a second gradient to the others to provide the necessary sliding scale of character.

Darr (Eduardo DiMartino) has an intriguing tale of his own as a man wanting to fit in, and he is willing to do the silliest, and most reasonably generous things, to do so. DiMartino’s playful stuff, like his choice of headwear, contribute a third necessary touch to the story. However, the most poignant aspect lies with Sebastian (Colin B. Anthes), the most game-obsessed of the bunch, to the point of being disturbing or pathetic as his own imagination runs wild to a dangerous degree. The result is a themed anthology that gives different sides of the gamer world that feels realistic and dramatic—a subtler understanding of gamer life without condemnation.

The stagecraft has some interesting innovations, like the projection screen that allows titles and Google searches to structure the story and give it a context within the minds of the characters. In addition, Hayley Malouin, playing the game’s voice, is a delight while she carefully straddles the line of fantasy to be a presence that seems more than simply a programmed presence in the minds of the characters.

There is one minor detail that makes no sense: during the gaming scenes, the characters playing a multiplayer game together each have a controller that are exclusive to entirely different, and incompatible, game consoles. Maybe it is a joke or a reference for the characters, but it looks like a complete newbie mistake you would expect from a lazy Hollywood production. However, when compared to the lavish use of music and light, it is a small blemish for a good production.

With its proposal of how video games can be taken too far, this comedy enables a look at the medium with understanding and humour.

Romeo and Juliet

There have been a bazillion and one productions ofRomeo and Juliet over the year. It’s arguably William Shakespeare’s most famous play, and sometimes companies go a little overboard trying to be unique in their presentation. Troubadour Theatre Collective’s production ofRomeo and Juliet, running at the London Roundhouse, straddles that line effectively — modernizing the play whilst staying true to its roots in an overall enjoyable presentation.

[Note: theatreinlondon.ca webmaster Peter Janes is the producer of this play.]

This is not your grandfather’sRomeo and Juliet — even if it’s performed in the same Shakespearean tongue that he would have been familiar with. And that’s clear from the opening scene where Paris and Tybalt are doing lines of cocaine while playing foosball.

This is the first production in the London Roundhouse — the former Great West Steakhouse location that has been restored in a style reminiscent of its original, pre-restaurant grandeur. But before we get into the surroundings, let’s look at the performers, because there were some notable performances that raised up the quality of this production.

Colt Forgrave and Alex Bogaert were exceptional as Mercutio and Benvolio, respectively. And David Bogaert was effectively authoritative, yet never over the top, in his dual Police Officer/John role. Rahim Attai’s Romeo was whiny and pouty throughout, but that works because Romeo is a whiny, pouty character — whether by design or by accident, the portrayal worked.

But the far-and-away star of the show was Christine Anderstedt, who brought life, heart, and honesty to the role of Juliet.

It’s easy to become melodramatic in Romeo and Juliet — a sin a couple of the cast fell into — but Anderstedt was able to capture the passion and immediacy of Juliet’s emotion (remember, this is a 13-year-old girl she’s portraying) without descending into self-parody or hyperbole. Her command of the role, her performance and effective use of body language and projection at times served to overwhelm her titular counterpart. But Anderstedt’s performance is worth the price of admission alone.

(There was one moment that was saccharine in nature, bordering on downright cheesy. Following the balcony scene, we enter Juliet’s bedroom to a soundtrack of Carly Rae Jepsen’sI Really Like You. Again, it works understanding it’s a modern representation and she’s a modern girl.)

The secondary characters suffered in comparison. Team Capulet — so referenced because I’m including Paris in this group — were fairly wooden in demeanour and performance. The direction was solid — and the director literally served to guide the viewing of this play. It’s a mobile experience, so the stage team would walk towards areas of interest, imploring you to follow.

The play strikes an acceptable, if not tenuous balance between modernity and traditionalism. The characters all wear modern clothing, the music at the party is contemporary dance, and even Juliet’s walls are adorned with One Direction and Taylor Swift posters. But the language is straight from The Bard.

Which brings us to the Roundhouse itself. The venue is normally home to web/digital technology companies Ellipsis Digital and Engine SevenFour, but the space has been transformed, rather effectively, into a staging area for the production. There’s a second-floor seating area that would seem to be almost custom-built for the balcony scene; an upstairs boardroom serves as the final resting place for Romeo and Juliet (note: spoiler alerts expire after 400 years); and the kitchen and main area are used to effect.

The audience, held to a maximum of 25 people, follows the performers as they progress through various scenes. It’s an immersive experience that feels almost voyeuristic at times: Romeo and Juliet’s first kiss took place literally within arm’s reach of me. The audience is even part of the party scene (complete with beverages), though that experience was slightly awkward as it seemed many were unsure if they were to join the dancing actors or just stand and watch. In the end, a few gave an awkward shuffle.

On a negative side, the venue sometimes made it challenging to fully experience the play. Descending from Juliet’s bedroom, half of the audience arrived just in time to miss Romeo and Juliet’s wedding dance. And on multiple occasions, the actors began the scene before some were able to arrive. While that lends itself to the voyeuristic, happened-upon-it-ness of the production, it also means some people miss some content.

Acoustically, the Roundhouse leaves something to be desired when it comes to staging plays. High ceilings combined with air vents running served to drown out some of the quieter members of the cast. This was compounded when actors would stand with their backs to the audience to deliver lines which tended to fade off into the ether. And a party conversation was all-but-drowned-out by the DJ-provided dance tunes.

Fortunately, this play is well-enough known that you’re not going to be lost. And the experience of following the cast and immersing yourself in this virtual Verona more than makes up for the deficiencies of the environment.

In the end, Troubadour Theatre Collective’s production ofRomeo & Juliet is well worth attending to see a new spin on the play, in an intriguing location, with a few standout performances — especially that of Juliet. With shows running only until Sunday and with limited seats available, it may be worth a repeat run in the near future.

Dracula

The danger of adapting plays from literary works is that the mental experience of reading a book is substantially different from the physical experience of a performance. Ironically, it’s dialogue that is often the problem, particularly when the playwright has an affinity for the source material: a paragraph or two of exposition isn’t much to process, but those same two paragraphs as a speech can send a play to a screeching halt.

Funeral Pyre Theatre’sDracula, adapted by Liam Grunté from the Bram Stoker novel, lurches along more like Frankenstein’s monster. It’s not bad—a rock opera adaptation I saw in Sarnia several years ago was truly terrible—but the creeping horror of the story gets tripped up by the text.

There are some notable performances and interesting directorial touches. Those aspects overlap in two hypnotism scenes, where Kiersten Rozell and Stephen T. Holmes portray Mina Harker channeling the thoughts of the titular count. Other than a few over-the-top moments that may have left bite marks on the scenery, Jason Freeman’s van Helsing is also effective; both physically and in demeanor he reminds me of the Buffyverse’s Daniel Holtz (Keith Szarabajka). A visibly nervous Cody Martina also acquits himself well in his stage debut as Jonathan Harker.

Ultimately this by-the-book adaptation ofDracula rises and falls on exactly that: the book. By twenty-first century standards, the horror of Stoker’s novel is pretty tame, and some of the earnest dialogue is unintentionally funny due to double entendres that have sprung up since the Victorian era. Grunté’s choice to present the story in a film noir idiom is a smart one; the original novel was told in retrospect through letters, diary entries, and newspaper clippings, similar in execution to Max Brooks’ novel World War Z (the film version of which would have greatly benefitted from a more direct adaptation).

I hope Grunté’s other horror novel adaptations coming in Funeral Pyre Theatre’s season—The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in September, and Frankenstein in December—will remain as true to the stories of their source material, but perhaps stray a bit further from the text. I’m curious to see what this cast, some of whom are returning inJekyll and Hyde andFrankenstein, can do with a modern script they can really sink their teeth into.

London Fringe 16: Opening weekend reviews

Theatre in London’s team of volunteer reviewers is ready to see and review every show in the 2015 London Fringe before the end of the opening weekend. (By Sunday morning, in fact.) Each review will initially be posted to the Fringe website, and they’ll all be archived here after the festival ends. They’ll also be in this week’s edition of The London Yodeller, along with their own coverage. Keep an eye on @theatreinlondon and the #ldnfringe hashtag on social media.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl

The creative process and its element of inspiration can be elusive, and the lure of cliche character is always an unconscious attraction to fall into. The play is an enjoyably surreal illustration of that idea as stock character meets writer and both find a way to be more than either on their terms.

I came into this play expecting a rip-off of the film Ruby Sparks, and had my expectations pleasingly upended. Instead, I was treated to a wonderfully eccentric character story about creativity that challenges all the stereotypes of fiction for its own observations. In doing so, it is able to poke fun at and deconstruct the subtle biases that can drift into fiction to present something wholly its own.

For instance, the sexist elements of the title stock character come under this dramatic scrutiny and are stripped away as the title character learns to walk away from the stereotypes involved to become her own woman, almost against herself. In the process of doing so, we see her guide a frustrated writer as his most insistently active muse as they work through a story. Although she seems to be the one in control, we see how she does her job better than she ever expects as the writer learns to contribute his own ideas, and it throws her for a loop to discover what real creativity is. For the writer’s part, it’s a revelation for him to come into his own with confidence to know the cliches and then subvert them for his own creative decisions that define the story his way.

Furthermore, the telling itself is a delight of the imagination of acting and reacting as writer and muse work out their story for the audience, only to eventually have the show’s fourth wall shattered with a blow as resounding as it is hilarious. However, the best part is how the characters move past that revelation and come to their own resolution where they transcend not only their roles, but their whole story as well. The result is a starkly different perspective on drama and the struggle to create something more than the expected, but also something original that feels true.

Rarely have my expectations have been overturned so well with such graceful intelligence. It is a fine sensation to enjoy, and may many more Fringe visitors get to experience the same in the festivals this company will tour in the future.

The Untitled Sam Mullins Project

Sometimes the most impulsive statements you can make can be the truest. This play is an intriguingly bittersweet testament of that fact as Sam Mullins tells four tales based on such ideas.

Given that all we know from these tales is what Mullins says, there is a certain feeling of embellishment to them. However, they are told with a certain frank spirit that sells it easily to the audience, such as the first story where Mullins has to endure the kind of role that no modern actor would want to be caught dead doing, unless you are a thespian genius like Robert Downey Jr. with a great screenplay backing you up. [And even then, yikes. –ed.] The second one is a romantic story of gain and loss which feels much more farfetched, but it has an ending with an emotional weight that feels believable on a gut level where personal loss meets the show that must go on.

The third story is by far the best with a powerful plot that seems outright absurd on a surface level, but has far more depth to it. It is about Sam’s father meeting a down-and-out would-be baseball star who needs some fatherly advice and gets it when he most needs it. That a story about terrible mistakes and redemption is granted such emotional content with so little literary pretension is stirring in itself. Furthermore, Mullins manages to convey a confident underselling tone to it as a simple outsider to that loser’s world being called upon to dispense wisdom he never thought had to give. Whether you wish to believe the tale or not, it is a masterwork of storytelling that gives the tragedy that follows a power all its own with its origins and consequences.

Compared to that, the final story is a more of an anecdote of personal weakness coming to be managed.  It does have a certain sweetness, but feels more like a gentle comedown at best compared to brilliance of story 3.  Likewise, the framing story has some good humour and does its requisite job of framing the tales, but ends more on an obligatory note to wrap things up. However, these lesser stories are never boring, and you are never able to take your eyes off Mullins’ performance.

True confessional or tall tales? You are free to decide about the accuracy of these stories. That being said, the spiritual truth within them is good enough for me.