Friday, October 17, 2014

Filmed Noir - Kiss & Cry and Helen Lawrence - Theatre Reviews

Kiss & Cry - Charleroi Danses at Canadian Stage at Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts - **** (out of 5 stars)
By Michèle Anne De Mey and Jaco Van Dormael
Ended Oct. 5th 2014. Continues on tour.

Helen Lawrence - Canadian Stage at Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Chris Haddock, Conceived and Directed by Stan Douglas
Runs until Nov. 2nd 2014

The first two shows in Canadian Stage's main stage season both utilize cameras on stage to film and project the live proceedings directly onto a screen, turning our live theatre experience into one of both a film experience and a live stage show. Watching them happen simultaneously is fascinating and when they dichotomy works well into the tension of the accompanying story, these new works are at its most compelling.


It takes a few moments to take in what's happening in Kiss & Cry, a "dance piece" by the Belgiam company that utilizes miniature sets and camera tricks on a set that looks like the control room of a live TV show, as the screen shows the results of their live performance of fingers, dancing on the tiny set pieces. Yes, fingers. With haunting narration, an old woman recounts the tales of her past loves, with the fingers of a woman clad in black, dancing and performing as the old woman, alongside her paramours, another pair of fingers from a man clad in black and hidden away from the cameras.

It's all quite odd and unique but slowly, the tales of lost love, heartbreak, passion and longing lures us into this faceless but emotionally compelling memory piece. All while we watch the cast manoeuvre and manipulate the various technical pieces on stage, with a laptop sitting centre stage editing it all live and playing on the screen above. Technically fascinating and yet strangely lyrical and eloquent and despite all the props and equipment on stage, the show feels very dreamlike.


In Helen Lawrence, first produced at the Arts Club in Vancouver, a scrim sits at the front of the stage with a blank blue walled stage behind it. Blue boxes sit around the stage, and several cameras on a camera track slide back and forth just within the scrim. Using instant editing, actors appear in the giant bluescreen stage as their giant faces are projected in closeup on the scrim in front of the live action, with their film image now within a CGI background. It's an interesting experiment, and with the mysterious story of Helen Lawrence and various characters just after WWII in Vancouver, it's a perfect set up for a film noir shown on screen, being created live on stage just behind the screen itself.

Watching both the live actors in action, and the resulting film noir directly projected in front of them simultaneously is quite a technical wonder, and it is even more impressive when you realize the camera angles and matching cgi backgrounds must match to make it all look believable on screen. It is live filmmaking as theatre and it's quite amazing to see.


Moments when you see different scenes happening live, together on the same stage, as they cut between scenes on the film are particularly thrilling, or when the film blacks out and we only see the preparation scene begin behind the scrim.

With all the technological impressiveness though, the story is both fascinating and problematic. The mystery follows various characters just as Helen Lawrence (Lisa Ryder) arrives into town as she tries to track down a certain Percy Wallis/Walker (Nicholas Lea) who seems to have crossed her in a different life in Los Angeles. There's are crooked cops (Greg Ellwand, Ryan Hollyman), an enterprising kingpin of the ghetto Hogan alley (Allan Louis) who may be being pushed out by his returning brother (Sterling Jarvis). There is a down-on-his-luck man (Adam Kenneth Wilson) with a beautiful German wife (Ava Jane Markus), as well as a creepy hotel manager (Hrothgar Mathews), the hotel's orphan worker (Haley McGee), a sweet prostitute (Emily Piggford) and a woman waiting for her missing husband (Crystal Balint). All the characters live amongst this noirish Vancouver as the stories intertwine with backstabbing and seduction, blackmail and violence.

It's a fun setup and the great cast have fun with the film noir speeches and cadences, but with so many characters to develop in the various plotlines, none of the story lines really have time to reach their full potential, and I wanted more about Helen Lawrence and Percy, and the great Allan Louis is so fantastic as Buddy Black, with such hints of a deeper story, especially with his relationship with (the terrific) Crystal Balint's Mary Jackson, it all seems to be cut short and rushed through so that we can get to the next plot point. The story of the unlucky Edward Banks and Ava Banks either seems too slight for such time given, or not enough for what the wonderful Adam Kenneth Wilson and Ava Jane Marcus can offer in developing a richer storyline that is hinted at, as their story gets squeezed between the corrupt cops and the fight for control of Hogan Alley.

The play is still a fun homage to the film noir genre, as it tries to squeeze all the usual suspects into a tight story. With the gimmick of the theatrical presentation as a literal background to the film noir being projected, it (physically) adds another layer to the mysteriousness of the story(ies) but the story set up might have benefitted from more time to play with and might have suited a long-form storytelling format that television has had the benefit of utilizing of late. (And considering Chris Haddock is known for the television series DaVinci's Inquest, he might have too expertly designed a story that has a better long term plan).

Photos of Helen Lawrence by David Cooper
Photo of Kiss & Cry by Maartan Vanden Abeele
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

School Ties - To Kill A Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies - Theatre Reviews

To Kill A Mockingbird - Young People's Theatre - Toronto, ON - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
By Harper Lee, Dramatized by Christopher Sergel, Directed by Allen MacInnis
Runs until Nov. 2nd 2014

Lord of the Flies - A New Adventures and Re:Bourne Production at Sadler's Wells - London, UK - **** (out of 5 stars)
Based on the novel by William Golding, Music by Terry Davies, Choregraphed by Scott Ambler, Adapted and Directed by Scott Ambler and Matthew Bourne
Ended Oct. 11th 2014. Continues on Tour.

Either To Kill a Mockinbird or Lord of the Flies, if not both, were probably in your required reading in school, and have long become modern classics. New stage productions bring these classic tales to life that remind us that these controversial and dark tales still have an enduring punch. A sad reminder that despite the many years since these stories first debuted, little progress in societal behaviour have been made, as we sit watching these old stories all while things like Ferguson, still happen in this day and age.


Young People Theatre's To Kill A Mockingbird doesn't flourish the still-gut punching story with fancy directorial visions and presents Harper Lee's still urgent tale of injustice in a plain and matter-of-fact staging. While the lighting and vision could have added a bit more atmosphere (perhaps with a musical score and lighting that could add to the heat of the south during the summer this story ), a strong cast, lead by Jeff Miller (The Normal Heart) as Atticus Finch, is all the emotional punch required to make this classic book work on stage.

In 90 minutes, Harper Lee's story is effectively streamlined without skimping over the darker issues in this production geared for young people. The story of Tom Robinson, a Black man accused of sexual assault and his trial as seen through the eyes of his lawyers young daughter Scout Finch, is a great entry for Young People's audience, and the parralel story of the hidden neighbour Boo Radley, nicely bookends the morality tale of the ostracized in society.

Up-and-comer Caroline Toal (in a total 180 from her seductive turn in Cockfight) plays the curious and young Scout, who along with her brother Jem  (a genial Noah Spitzer) and visiting kid Dill (a spunky and luminous Tal Shulman), mischievously investigates and follows along the trial Scout and Jem's lawyer father Atticus' client Robinson (the solid Matthew G. Brown), despite the misgivings of their caretaker Calpurnia (a radiantly feisty Lisa Berry from This is War). Rounding out the terrific cast includes a horrifyingly mesmerizing turn from Jessica Moss (Was Spring) as accuser Mayella Ewell, an equally scary Hume Baugh as her father Bob Ewell, and Mark Crawford (The Normal Heart) as the prosecuting lawyer and later Boo Radley.


Now Lord of the Flies, the tale of boys trapped on an island who must learn to survive and live as their own society but sadly devolves into treacherous madness and violence, is not exactly the first story that you would think of as something to be translated into a ballet, but that's what Matthew Bourne and his New Adventures company has done. To spectacular, if sometimes inconsistent results.

Originally commissioned to create a dance piece for boys as a community project in Galway, Bourne approached the Golding estate, lead by William Golding's daughter Judy, who agreed to the piece. What has transpired is a professional piece that combines a professional cast of dancers with local amateur boys, some who have never danced before, in each tour stop that, and the mix of the professional and raw movements are a perfect match for the story of school boys who devolve into their inner wild demons.

With some retooling for the dance stage, the story has been reset into a theatre, and with that, some clever changes (like salvaging for food, the boys end up eating ice cream cups and crisps), as they are trapped in the isolating space as some sort of riot seems to be going on in the outside world. As the school boys first appear, they are lead in synchronizing choreography. Well behaved boys following the rules society has set. As the isolation and power plays devolve, we get incredible choreography with boys trying to out power each other, that eventually ends up in wild and loose movements and in dance duels, allowing for the rarity of seeing male dancers together in struggles of strength and control.

Transferring the story into a theatre doesn't always work, and is most glaring when the pig shows up (where would a live pig appear in a theatre?) but while some of the story details require one to gloss over the re-imagining of William Golding's classic island tale, the raw emotions, and easily identified struggles of the boys are still effecting and powerful.

Sam Plant's Piggy, our central nerd, is exceptionally wonderful and moving as the bullied and the true hero of the story. Danny Reubens is thrillingly disturbing as master troublemaker Jack, and Layton Williams has some beautiful solo moments as Simon. Dan Wright, Sam Archer, Jack Hazelton, Ross Carpenter and Philip King round out the excellent older kids while the younger cast are just as stunning.

Photo of To Kill A Mockingbird by Jill Ward
Photo of Lord of the Flies by Helen Maybanks
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Sounds from Beyond Broadway - Holler If Ya Hear Me - Musical Review

Holler If Ya Hear Me - Palace Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Lyrics by Tupac Shakur, Book by Todd Kreidler, Directed by Kenny Leon, Choreographed by Wayne Cilento


Yes, there is a musical on Broadway that features the words, eloquence and anger of Tupac Shakur, the rising rap star who was just breaking into the mainstream before his young life was tragically shattered when he was murdered at the young age of 25. His music and words were full of anger from his view of the streets and the hoods he came from and while his song of hope, "California Love" probably became his most famous song played on Top 40 radio, Tupac Shakur spoke most of the frustrations of living amongst the violence and trap that Black America has been put in. And he spoke from his own view, with his own voice, and it created a devoted following.

Holler If Ya Hear Me, the new Broadway musical uses Tupac's deeply personal songs but tells an original tale of various characters living in the same violent and hopeless streets where nonsensical gang wars rule the day, and people live in fear, or retaliatory anger. Todd Kreidler's book spreads Tupac's word into various voices, mainly concerning a now-freed con John (an amazing Saul Williams, a noted poet) who returns to the streets and tries to stay out of trouble by getting a job at the local mechanics shop owned by the one White man in the cast Griffy (an endearing Ben Thompson, American Idiot). Unfortunately John's girl Corine (a divine Saycon Sengbloh, Fela, Hair) has moved on in during his 10-year imprisonment and is now with John's old friend Vertus (a terrific Christopher Jackson, In the Heights). The plot machinations gets moving pretty soon though when Vertus' brother Benny gets killed before we even register who Benny quite is, and then plots of revenge, pride and rising up are placed as steadily as a rap beat.

Unfortunately, while Tupac's songs have potential to be effective storytelling material in a musical, the cliched plot, and the multiple character plot lines give very little characterization and time to get deeper into each person, and thus the songs, which could have been more effective to deepen the emotions, fail to deliver any real resonance that may further the story.


When the songs fully come to life, like in "Holler If Ya Hear Me", or the respite-from-anger "California Love", they are a burst of energetic brilliance that shows the potential in the show, and the potential to create some real emotional connections. The stirring moments offer a glimpse of what might have been, but this would have benefited from a tryout Off-Broadway or out-of-town and another edit at the book.

The wonderfully game cast, which includes the commanding presence of Tonya Pinkins as Vertus' mother, Mrs. Weston, inject as much energy as they can into this dark and angry piece, and when there is choreography (by Wayne Cilento), it keeps the staging interesting from the plodding book, but alas, the overall structure and vague characters and motives are not enough to make this musical be heard properly.

Photos by Joan Marcus
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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Friday, June 06, 2014

Uni(que)sex - Casa Valentina and Queer Bathroom Stories - Play Reviews

Casa Valentina - Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel Friedman Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Harvey Fierstein, Directed by Joe Mantello
Runs until June 29th, 2014

Queer Bathroom Stories - Buddies in Bad Times Theatre - Toronto, ON - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Sheila Cavanagh, Directed by Megan Watson
Runs until June 15th, 2014

Sexuality is far more fluid and if we seem to be a bit better at understanding that, the fluidity of gender identity is an even more misunderstood aspect of humans, and two new plays attempt to explore how we identify genders from within ourselves and from society.


Casa Valentina, the new play by Harvey Fierstein, who has had great success in several drag comedies (Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage Aux Folles, Kinky Boots) brings things back to a calmer, more introspective play about a group of straight-identified men who love to dress up as women. In 1962. Even today we don't quite understand that notion as a society and would assume that the men are just gay men who have not realized, or wanted to come out. But back then, in the Catskills, a married couple opened up a resort hidden away from the prying eyes of the world where these men could, at least momentarily while on vacation, be who they truly wanted to be, in a dress.


It's a fascinating look into a world we tend to mesh with the trans, gay or drag community, and maybe there is some intermixing (as a dramatic plot point interludes) but Fierstein embraces these men, and the woman who loves them (in a heartbreaking performance by Tony-nominated Mare Winningham (Philomena)) that the play is fascinating and fresh when he lets the characters slowly reveal themselves in their natural and most comfortable surroundings, letting them interact at their true core.


The cast is first rate, with layered performances by Nick Westrate (Unnatural Acts), Tom McGowan (Frasier), John Collum (The Scottsboro Boys), Gabriel Ebert (Matilda), Patrick Page (Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark), Larry Pine (Moonrise Kingdom) and Reed Birney (also Tony nominated for this performance).

Unfortunately, Fierstein also tries to set up a dramatic plotline to ante up the stakes, with financial troubles forcing a possibility this refuge may end up closing forever. The machinations to get the plot going bog down the spirit of the play, and distract from an otherwise fascinating character study (and entertaining ensemble). With so much to already explore with the issues at hand, the plotting device only clouds up the most fascinating ideas in the play.

In Queer Bathroom Stories, a series of vignettes written by Sheila Cavanagh based on real-life incidences and interviews about stories that take place in and around the public lavatory, the opposite problem of the play keeps the show from its potential best.


While there are plenty of funny moments, most of the humour derive from the final punchlines from a response that ends up being lighter than its weighty set up. The play, while hints and mentions many fascinating aspects about queer and gender identity culture that is cleverly revealed through the simple act of choosing which gendered bathroom to go into while in a public space, the tone tends to stay serious and dark, and the stories tend to be short and abrupt, sometimes down to a couple of lines per story. Each one individually is interesting and revealing, but put them together as a whole, and it never quite amounts to as much as a play as a whole.


While plays like The Vagina Monologues and Love, Loss, and What I Wore have successfully tied together short stories (with a female empowerment slant), the varying tones and styles, from humorous to serious, and the variation of short quips to longer, more in depth stories. Queer Bathroom Stories has a nice baseline to work with and with some finessing and editing, can possibly become a great night at the theatre, as some of the vignettes are fascinating but seem to end before it truly gets into the dramatic part of its core.

Great direction by Megan Watson keeps each bathroom story flowing from one to the next, keeping what can be a static style of theatre, into something that feels theatrical. Hallie Burt and Chi Ryan Spain don't always hit on every story but when they truly connect with a particular story, it can be powerful and dramatic. Tyson James is quite haunting from the first moment and never lets up, revealing strengths and vulnerabilities between each character in each story, that often jump from one to another in lighting speed.

Photos of Casa Valentina by Matthew Murphy
Photos of Queer Bathroom Stories by Dahlia Katz
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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Thursday, June 05, 2014

The Shoe Must Go On! - Cinderella - Ballet and Musical Reviews

Cinderella - National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Choreographed by James Kudelka, Music by Sergei Prokofiev
Runs until June 15th 2014

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella - Broadway Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics and Original Book by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, New Book by Douglas Carter Beane, Directed by Mark Brokaw, Choreographed by Josh Rhodes

We never seem to tire of the classic tale of the poor girl Cinderella, tormented by her wicked stepmother and two stepsisters, who, thanks to her fairy godmother, manages to meet and fall in love with the Prince. Of course, at midnight, the magic disappears and Cinderella must leave the ball, but not before leaving behind her glass slipper (or in the ballet's case, her sparkly pointe shoe). A ruse to get the Prince to search for his love, before a humble Cinderella slips into the shoe that fits perfectly. Plotholes and feminism be damned, but it's a well worn tale that we still seem to clamour for.


The National Ballet of Canada revisits the classic tale that I adored back in 2008, and this time around, I adored it even more. While the tale itself isn't revolutionary, James Kudelka's choreography still feels fresh and new, within this very classic story. It's a lovely and amusing ballet and Cinderella, especially with it's grande ball at the centre of its story as a grand excuse for some glorious dancing from the entire company, with beautiful costumes that billow as the dancers partner up and dance around in this fantasy dream.


Kudelka adds a world wide search by the Prince in his search for the woman who fits the shoe, which adds a fun element for the Prince and his Officers, with additional roles for the women representing his potential princesses from each locale he searches.


Add in some physical comedy in the wicked Stepmother and Stepsisters, played to joyous sneering delight by Alejandra Perez-Gomez as the Stepmother, and Tanya Howard and Rebekah Rimsay (repeating her deliciously hilarious role from 2008) as the Stepsisters (above), and this Cinderella keeps things light between the dreamy romance, anchored by the swoonworthy team of Sonia Rodriguez in the title role and Guillaume Côté as the handsome Prince.


Wonderful dancing and characterizations by the rest of the company, and this time, a new standout to note was Trygve Cumpston, one of the Officers, joining the corps that has many dancers to watch for in the future.

The new Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella on Broadway (now running over a year), based on their TV movie special score , with a revised book by Douglas Carter Beane, manages to modernize the old-fashioned tale and adds a nice girl-power twist, and adds some dimension to the Prince's plight. While I saw the wonderful original cast (with Laura Osnes in the title role and Santino Fontana as the Prince), the current cast boasts pop star (and former Canadian Idol contestant) Carly Rae Jepsen as Cinderella, with TV star Fran Drescher as the Wicked-Stepmother. The rest of the cast includes original (and very funny) Ann Harada as one of the wicked stepsisters (and a sweet Stepahnie Gibson as the other stepsister who isn't as evil as we initially think), and Victoria Clark as the fairy godmother, but while I adored this production the first time around, with it's clever modernization of the story (adding a political element, a misunderstood "evil" stepsister, and a Prince with more depth than this story usually allows for), the beautiful originating music, and the gorgeous Tony winning costumes by William Ivey Long, the big question currently is: How are Carly Rae Jepsen and Fran Drescher.


Fran Drescher plays Fran Drescher as the evil-Stepmother, here called Madame, which is perfect for the role of the evil-stepmother. It's not really a stretch but you can delight at Ms. Drescher having a delight on stage, spitting out her lines with relish.


Carly Rae Jepsen, with her lower and raspier natural singing voice, sounds very different than the more classic and smooth voice of Laura Osnes, but Jepsen is surprisingly strong and her voice sounds beautiful singing R&H's songs. She's also wonderfully loving and winning in the role, which admittedly, isn't the most difficult role to act out, but Jepsen more than acquits herself and manages to turn in a very strong stage performance.

I also managed to see the understudy as the Prince but to my delight, it was Cody Williams, who was a revelatory delight in Arena Stage's Oklahoma!, and again here, was perfectly wonderful as the pondering Prince.

Photo of Cinderella Ballet - Rebekah Rimsay and Tanya Howard by Aleksandar Antonijevic
Photos of Cinderella Ballet - All others - by Cylla von Tiedemann
Photo of Cinderella on Broadway by Carol Rosegg 

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Survival of the Fittest - The Killer - Play Review

The Killer - Theatre for a New Audience - Brooklyn, NY - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Eugène Ionesco, Newly Translated by Michael Feingold, Directed by Darko Tresnjak
Runs until June 29th 2014


Famed actor Michael Shannon (Grace, Revolutionary Road, Man of Steel, Boardwalk Empire) is known for his intensity in his roles, usually playing the nemesis. Here in Ionesco's The Killer, he's oddly not playing the title character, and instead, Shannon plays Berenger, the hapless everyman hero who accidentally happens upon a utopian town called Radiant City after taking the wrong bus. He's in awe of the beautiful houses, the never-ending blue skies, the beautiful flowers that receive rain from underneath. Everything seems perfect except for the fact that a serial killer has been murdering everyone and the authorities have simply given up catching him and let the killer continue along his ways.


Being an Ionesco play, it is dark, and darkly funny. The absurdity is all veiled political commentary and the absurdity of human's nature, and our willingness to accept a followers position. The Killer is presented in three vastly different acts, with this production, directed by Darko Tresnjak (A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder), following Ionesco's many stage directions and sound effects to great effect, using a mostly bare stage to evoke the utopian world that gets dispelled by a mysterious menacing killer.


When we follow Berenger back to his apartment (in the only literal set) in the depressing real world, we meet Edward, a friend who the audience can easily see is the Grim Reaper, there to seduce Berenger to his world. Against the madness of a busy world (and some hilarious lines spat out by a cleaner played by the always reliable Kristin Nielsen (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike). When Berenger ultimately meets the Killer in the third act, the two opposing figures creep towards each other on two separate turntables that slowly spins them together until the ultimate match up. Berenger offers up a rant to save himself in what turns into the slowest chase scene ever, staged with incredibly creepy sound effects and in such slow and precise physical movements, that while the build up should work to build up an air of suspense, it instead deflates itself with too much atmosphere and not enough substance in this final act to sustain the act.


While the play loses steam in the final act, Michael Shannon, an unlikely everyman hero, is wonderfully intense but in an unusually hopeful way, and we easily root for his Berenger, who returns into 3 other of Ionesco's plays, and the first two acts breeze by in its mix of satirical absurdity and the intense allusions it manages to create. Robert Stanton as perfectly dry as The Architect of Radiant City, while Paul Sparks is derangedly creepy and yet amusing as Edward.

Ionesco's The Killer is not the easiest play to sit through, and it has an abundance of ideas, particularly pointed in today's world of cell phones and NSA that seem particularly forward thinking for a play written and produced in the late 1950s, but when it mostly works, with a commanding lead in Shannon, it can be quite absorbing and chillingly humorous.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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Tuesday, May 06, 2014

A Whole New World - Sultans of the Street - Play Review

Sultans of the Street - Young People's Theatre - Toronto, ON - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Anusree Roy, Directed by Nina Lee Aquino 
Runs until May 15th, 2014 


Sultans of the Street first presents a colourful world of the streets of India before slowly revealing pieces of information that show the dark side lying underneath all the floating coloured sheets (in a beautiful and versatile set by Camelia Koo). When two brothers (Ali Momen and Colin Doyle) skip school to fly kites, they encounter siblings (Mina James and Richard Lee) dressed up in costumes, begging on the street. The brothers are intrigued but discover the siblings giving the money they've "earned" to th
eir "Aunty" (Zorana Sadiq) before Aunty catches the brothers in a lie and blackmails them to work for her.

The new play does not shy away from a controversial subject into a world I know little about (and I imagine the intended audience sitting here in Toronto isn't that knowledgable about either), and presents the street life of exploited children in a matter-of-fact way. While the machinations of the plot tend to bog down the dramatic flow of the overall play, there's a lot of chilling information being introduced for us to take in before we get the true verity of the situation.

Did I mention this is theatre for young people? Ultimately, there's a hopefulness to the play as things get worse for the brothers, who try to convince the siblings that their way-of-life under Aunty's exploitation isn't their only option.

There's a boldness to Roy presenting the dark hard facts in such a plain, this-is-the-way-it-is way, and with some beautiful sweet moments between the siblings under the stars (and the shelter of umbrellas), where death and their sad situation are just accepted, gives the whole situation a heartening reality check. The story does not soften things or talk down to the intended young audience, but it is quite an eye-opener for adults alike.

Nina Lee Aquino keeps things balanced with some amusing double casting with Sadiq playing multiple roles as the adults who pass these street kids, all in silly costumes, and Momen and Doyle have a nice brotherly rapport that highlights the imbalance of power within the brothers (that eventually leads to their troubles) while also showcasing the protective love they hold. James and Lee’s moments under the umbrellas are sweet and moving.

While the pacing and careful reveals tended to slow down the drama and over-spelled things out, there’s also something to be said for presenting such a difficult subject matter without moral judgement.

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Body Politic - Flesh and The Ugly One - Play Reviews

Flesh and Other Fragments of Love - Tarragon Theatre MainStage - Toronto, ON - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Evelyne de la Chenelière, Translated by Linda Gaboriau, Directed by Richard Rose
Runs until Feb. 16th 2014

The Ugly One - Tarragon Theatre Extra Space - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Marius von Mayenburg, Translated by Maja Zade, Directed by Ashlie Corcoran
Runs until Feb. 16th 2014


Flesh and Other Fragments of Love has an intriguing concept and a beautiful set up as a play, but while there is a poetic flow to the language, it never quite pieces it altogether. The play follows a married couple on an Irish holiday, trying to rekindle their romance, when they discover a dead woman on the beach. Tons of possibilities, and the plays eventually leads to it, particularly when the dead woman comes alive to recite poetic speeches that recount her tragic death and life. The tone however is an odd match that never quite stirs the plays central heart.


With muted reactions and a blasé attitude, the couple Pierre (Blair Williams) and Simone (Maria del Mar) discover the dead body and immediately go back to quibble about their own relationship problems. Former free-spirits, the melodramatic Simone has become a nagging wife and mother while Pierre thinks he can be beyond the suburban rut they've fallen into. Meanwhile, the dead girl is still laying there wrapped in seaweed and the play begins to pulse when she slowly rolls over and intrudes and interjects the couple, slowly goading them with their own problems while revealing her own story. We discover the dead girl is a local Irish girl Mary and Nicole Underhay breathes wondrous life into her words and her dead body. When Blair Williams steps into the centre of stones Mary has been laying upon, his Pierre turns into Mary's paramour and Williams' chemistry with Underhay shows exactly why Pierre and Simone were never meant to be.


On the other side of Tarragon Theatre in the Extra Space, a remount of The Ugly One has changed the extra space into a board room of sorts, with audience members sitting on both sides of the table. Under a harsh and seductive lighting design (by Jason Hand), the weird and absurd, but highly entertaining and enthralling play by Marius von Mayenburg, bursts into the room and basically sticks their face into the audience with full force.

When Lette (a wonderfully game David Jansen) finally realizes for the first time that he is actually ugly, after his boss (Hardee T. Lineham) disallows him to present his own electronic plug creation at a conference, Lette decides to undergo face surgery and much to his wife's delight (Naomi Wright), he turns out to be unimaginably beautiful post-operation. Life completely changes for Lette, whose professional and sexual life rapidly rises, all while his former assistant Karlmann (Jesse Aaron Dwyre) gets thrown to the side for the newest beauty. Throw in a sex-crazed septuagenarian business woman with a fey son who are both in love with Lette's face, and the original surgeon who manages to capitalize on his latest creation, and things start getting out of control when people begin wanting to look like the new Lette, all while Lette wonders who he really is.


Ashlie Corcoran beautifully directs the very odd and fast-paced play with aplomb, with instantaneous scene changes that are as smooth as Lette's new face, while the impressive cast shifts from the various characters and tonal shifts that adds to the absurd humour to the piece. With nice touches such as apples constantly used as props, as well as sound and folly effects (by John Gzowski and cast), The Ugly One is a beautifully well-put-together production that zips by as the weirdness and nonsense of the play ramps up while the allegories layer upon each other like the bandages that first covered Lette's ugly face.

Photos of Flesh and Fragments of Love by Cylla von Tiedemann
Photos of The Ugly One by Bronwen Sharp
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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Friday, January 24, 2014

Musical Journeys - London Road & From Here to Eternity - Musical Reviews

London Road - Canadian Stage at Bluma Apel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts - Toronto, ON - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
By Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork, Directed by Jackie Maxwell
Runs until Feb. 9th 2014

From Here to Eternity: The Musical - Shaftesbury Theatre - West End - London, UK - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music by Stuart Brayson, Lyrics by Tim Rice, Book by Bill Oakes based on the book by James Jones, Directed by Tamara Harvey
Runs until Mar. 29th 2014

Two new musicals out of London, one an innovative new take on the traditional musical, using interview verbatim as its lyrical source, and setting music to punctuate and highlight the spoken source, London Road is often clever and always thought provoking. A new musicalized version of From Here to Eternity harks back to musicals of yesteryears via its source, but with its pop score and traditional staging, it is a big mainstream show that it yearns to be. Both are entertaining in their respective aspects, but flawed in their own ways that may be inherently built into their goals.


London Road is a fascinating experiment in musical theatre first become a hit at the National Theatre in London, and now making its North American premiere at Canadian Stage. Using interviews with the townsfolk of Ipswich verbatim, the musical chronicles a small British town as they deal with the murders of five prostitutes. Think of it as a Laramie Project set to music. The musical score by Adam Cork was composed to Alecky Blythe's interviews with the residents of London Road and the added musicalization is a beautifully artistic way to highlight, and reimagine and examine the community's reaction to a grizzly and horrifying event. It's an interesting combination with innovative possibilities, but the effort does not always work. When it does, it is quite an interesting way to underline key moments, ideas and thoughts about the case and the community's reactions. It brings journalistic theatre to an operatic level, and if only the words of the residents had been a bit more revealing, it might have had a far bigger impact.

Using musics repetitive nature, lyrics were often repeated, and while the effect can be illuminating, or used in a humorous way, like emphasizing the "umms" and "yeahs" punctuates speech, at times, became ineffective in its overuse. There's a lot of fascinating moments during the residents' awkward attempts at normalizing after the discovery of the murders, and their suspicions and fears as the police try to capture the killer, but it is not until the second act when some prostitutes get their (musical) moment when things become truly chilling and the verbatim structure has its most impact. There's another small moment when another resident reveals her true feelings about the victims but it is surprisingly not mined for its dark nature that the show could have gone deeper with. For a show about murders, it felt relatively safe, calm and uplifting for much of it (though partly because of beautiful uplifting flower song that returns but then overstays a its welcome a tad too long).


Despite the fascinating flaws with the piece itself, the Canadian all-star theatre cast was one to behold. From Fiona Reid to Ben Carlson to Sean Arbuckle and Shawn Wright to Julain Molnar and George Masswohl and Michelle Fisk to Steve Ross. It's a whose who and the talented cast play the numerous characters with heart and humanity and while the piece at times is built to poke fun of these regular folks, the cast never lets them become caricatures. And from the impressive cast, Damien Atkins continues his impressive streak here while Deborah Hay illuminates the stage and demonstrates why she's the toast of the Shaw Festival.

Jackie Maxwell directs the cast through the various vignettes with maximum efficiency, and although while there are a few moments I found slightly static, there are other brilliant moments (like the use of police tape cutting thru the stage) that require minimal movement for maximum resonating effect. I loved the idea of the set, with literal strips of yellow highlight along the shades of black set pieces, sliding and rotating amongst an image of London Road, though the designer in me would have tweaked the set in slight ways to give more intimacy to the used stage.

There is so much to admire about London Road and its innovative musical concept and hearing the rhythms of regular British folk speaking. While the overall emotional resonance doesn't quite hit its potential high, partly because we still learn very little about the actual victims or the caught killer, the show is a intriguing experiment that is never boring, and with a superb Canadian cast at their very best.


From Here to Eternity: The Musical is based on the novel (which got turned into the movie with the famous beach scene) that I actually haven't read, and so I didn't know if the musical changed all that much from the novel or the film, but I was surprised at how much darker and complex the story was. I was expecting (and secretly hoping for) a big cheesy romantic sweeping old-style musical, and it was a big mainstream old style musical in many ways, but the musical book kept the main characters flawed and 3-dimensional with some morally questionable actions, but it definitely added some depth into what felt like a lowbrow version of South Pacific (and to be honest, may be more my cup of tea).


With a musical score with a pop feel to it, it's catchy to make it a big mainstream musical and that keeps it from being taken too seriously, but I rather enjoyed the songs. With an impressive ensemble, the songs sounded great, and the dark tone of the story kept the musical in balance of romantic cheese and serious melodrama. Robert Lonsdale and Siubhan Harrison (above) turn in star-making performances, with the handsome Lonsdale giving a complex and unwaveringly moralistically dubious turn as Private Prewitt, a new addition to the regiment who refuses to use his talents for the sake of furthering his career.

Darius Campbell sounds terrific in his baritone voice as the Warden, and has a commanding and old school presence perfect with the time period and his partner Rebecca Thornhill is lovely as Karen.

Marc Antolin, understudying the role of Private Angelo, was particularly impressive and gives a deep and emotionally complex performance as the happy-go-lucky Angelo whose life takes a turn after innuendos and mistakes are made.

Tamara Harvey makes efficient use of the beautiful set by Soutra Gilmour and the choreography by Javier du Sutros works wonderfully in setting up the tone. While From Here To Eternity doesn't change musical theatre in any innovative way, it still manages to deepen the depth of the story within a mainstream feeling musical without losing any of the entertainment value.

Photos of London Road by David Hou
Photos of From Here to Eternity: The Musical by John Persson
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Oh God, The Theatah - Theatre Reviews

Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary - Pleiades Theatre In Association with Buddies in Bad Times Theatre at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre - Toronto, ON - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Michel Tremblay, Translated and Directed by John Van Burek
Runs until Feb. 2nd 2014

Rifles - Next Stage Festival at Factory Theatre - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Nicolas Billon, Directed by Michael Wheeler
Runs until Jan. 19th 2014

On the Other Side of the World - Next Stage Festival at Factory Theatre - Toronto, ON - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written and Directed by Brenley Charkow
Runs until Jan. 19th 2014

A Misfortune - Next Stage Festival at Factory Theatre Studio - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Music by Scott Christian, Lyrics by Wade Bogert-O'Brien and Kevin Shea, Book by Kevin Shea, Directed by Evan Tsitsias
Runs until Jan. 19th 2014

Can I think a production is great and/or well done if I'm not sure I fully understood the show? Does ambiguity or an understandable narrative sway our opinions about the show as a whole or the play itself, even if we recognize when a theatre piece is well put together? There are so many pieces to create the puzzle that is theatre that I'm still in awe when things come together and almost frustrated when things almost seem to come together. Or maybe when I just don't understand?

The Pleiades/Buddies production of Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary has a beautiful set by Teresa Przybylski, which is beautifully lit by Itai Erdal, and two powerful performances by Irene Poole and Richard McMillan. While their two opposing stories, one of Manon (Poole), an extreme Catholic whose view of the world is seen through her devotion and a giant rosary, and Sandra (McMillan), a transexual who is pretty liberal in his sexual talk and offbeat tangents, are both fascinating glimpses into the lives of two very radical extreme people, the purposely confusing narrative and ambiguity kept me just enough at bay to fully delve emotionally into the emotional stripping happening on stage.

This Michel Tremblay revival has a beautiful elusive and elegiac quality to its beautiful set up, with Manon and Sandra speaking in chorus, then telling opposing stories that slowly reveal itself in its collision, but while the structure is clever, I'm still left confused and emotionally wanting, a bit like Manon actually (although it may not have helped that I have only seen 1 of the plays in Tremblay's Belles Soeurs cycle and Manon, Sandra is one of the last ones).

Rifles, a new play from Nicolas Billon (who wrote one of my recent faves Iceland) based on Brecht's Señora Carrar's Rifles, slowly builds with clues and hints at the Spanish Civil War. With a tense atmospheric (including sound effects and score from Beau Andrew Dixon sitting centre stage) and claustrophobic setting in Señora Carrar's home, we see the debates about joining the war or sitting as safe as possible on the sidelines as Franco's army comes closer. With various characters coming in and out of Carrar's home, her protection of her two sons from joining the war comes to a feverish pitch when Carrar's brother shows up, looking to borrow her rifles she has hidden away. Billon might have outlined every argument a little too precisely into the numerous characters, but it makes for an intense drama, helped by Kate Hennig's restrained turn as Carrar and Cyrus Lane as brother Pedro.

On the Other Side of the World is an ambitious production telling the fascinating and moving tale of the Jews who escaped Europe during the rise of the Nazis only to find themselves stuck in Shanghai, China on their attempt to eventually reach the US. While the story offers up the fish-out-of-water story, as well as the story of survival in a hideous war, the play is structurally clunky with some very poignant and moving scenes happening between 4th wall-breaking narratives that are somewhat effective if a bit over-reliant. Charkow who wrote the play, manages to smooth things over with some clever direction in the transitional scenes.

The large and game cast, and Charkow's clever use of Scott Penner's sets and Siobhan Sleath's lighting gives us a wonderful glimpse into the world surrounding a young Jewish girl as her family finds safety, if not solitude, in 1940's Shanghai. While the play still needs some editing and streamlining, the essence of the story and the insights from the characters still manage to illicit a moving historical (if perhaps a bit too textbook-like) tale.

(Disclosure: A close friend is in the cast)

A Misfortune, a new little chamber musical based on a Chekhov play, is a new gem thanks to the music by Scott Christian and lyrics and an amusing book by Kevin Shea with Wade Bogert-O'Brien as co-lyricist. With efficient direction by Evan Tsitsias on a small but versatile and evocative set by Joanna Yu, the musical, with a romantically gorgeous score, is surprisingly funny despite being about the troubled love lives of five Russians. The yearning, the infidelity, the threat of infidelity, and the complete ignorance of it all, allows for some comedy of errors set in the moody emotionally restraint Chekhovian tale.

Trish Lindstrom is devastating as Sofya, the woman at the centre of a the love triangle. Stuck between the young yearning of Ivan (Jordan Till), and a strong, stoic, if completely oblivious husband Andrey (a hilarious Réjean Cournoyer). A magnificent Kaylee Harwood and an amusing Adam Brazier fill out the love tale as married friends who offer up the flip side of marriage, where passion and hatred are only separated by a very thin line.

As a big fan of Scott Christian's previous work (Hero and Leander, Through the Gates), A Misfortune offers up more of Christian's beautiful musical composition, this time matched with a witty book that feels pretty complete, and ready for the next level.

Photo of Irene Poole and Richard McMillan in Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary by Cylla von Tiedemann
Photo of Kate Hennig and Cyrus Lane in Rifles by Max B. Telzerow

Photo of Ashleigh Henley, Phoebe Hu, Susan Lock, Eunjung Nam in On the Other Side of the World by Dahlia Katz
Photo of Trish Lindström, Réjean Cournoyer, Kaylee Harwood, Jordan Till, Adam Brazier in A Misfortune by Dan Epstein
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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