Thursday, May 03, 2018

Taking a Deeper Look - Selfie - Play Review

Selfie - Young People's Theatre - Studio - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Christine Quintana, Directed by Stephen Colella
Runs until May 11th 2018


Selfie is a self assured new play by Christine Quintana, apparently a rare success story of an unsolicited script that made it through all the levels to be fully staged at YPT. With #MeToo discussions being brought to light, the issues of he said/she said stories is presented here in such a grey zone, where intentions are good, and social media complicates things even further, that Quintana's play becomes ever more timely.

Sadly, the issues of consent, especially under the blurred haze of drunken alcohol, has always been an issue, but there is finally more public discussions and admittance to the occurrences. Quintana future complicates things by carefully laying out the relationships between 3 teenagers who all mean well, but whose hormone driven, socially awkward, naive confusion, splits off resulting in different people reacting to the situation very differently.


Selfie follows Lily, her football star brother Chris, and Lily's best friend Emma. Lily is addicted to her Instagram, and each of the three presents themselves publicly far differently than how they are in real life. When Lily gets whiff that Emma has had a long-time crush on her brother, she tries to play matchmaker, setting off a series of events that culminates at a house party Lily and Chris throw. Quintana carefully sets us up, perhaps a bit too delicately, but we know exactly how each person feels. Until we don't, when Emma wakes us after the party confused. What should have played out like a romantic comedy begins to take a turn when Emma questions her own reaction, despite Chris having had the best intentions. It's an extremely delicate issue and deftly handled by Quintana, leaving us in the grey zone with only hints that pushes us to one side or another. It's less about taking sides, than it is about listening to Emma's story, but as in real life, the frustration of what to do next is palpable.

The cast, with Christopher Allen getting the unenviable job as Chris, Caroline Toal as Lily, and Rachel Mutombo as Emma, are uniformly excellent. A creative team of scenographer Claire-Allison Hill, projection designer Daniel Oulton, lighting designer Oz Weaver let the cast play out in a beautifully simple space, with a great way to represent social media in a theatrical setting. There are moments the pacing and the set up is held back to prevent us from getting to the moment that turn things around, but Allen, Toal and Mutombo are a pleasure to spend time with.

Photos by Ali Sultani
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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Monday, April 16, 2018

Nervy Playmaker - Risky Phil - Play Review

Risky Phil - Young People's Theatre - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Paula Wing, Directed by Stewart Arnott
Runs until April 27th 2018


"Risky" Phil is a cautious young black teen who lives with his hairdresser Aunt Gigi, who has a deal to play hockey and attend practice if he continues helping around his aunt's salon. The set up does not even hint at the ensuing drama, deftly handled by the delicate hands of Paula Wing, with touches of comedy and lots of heart, when teens Risky Phil and his best friend Jamie each encounter life changing decisions that affect their own family dynamics.

Phil's absent father, who Phil did not even know existed, shows up unannounced looking for his dead mother, Aunt Gigi does everything to protect Phil from his unreliable father who has just finished rehab and is trying to make amends. Phil's one outlet of escape, his hockey practice with his best friend Jamie, but while Phil is committed to hockey, Jamie is more interested in eating and hanging out, much to the chagrin of Jamie's father, who is also their coach David. Meanwhile, David has just landed an opportunity of a lifetime to play pro-hockey in Estonia, a decision which would mean leaving Jamie and divorcing his mother while David pursue's his life-long dream.


The parallel tracks of sons and absent fathers, one returning and one leaving, have heavy affects on the teen boys, still trying to navigate and understand the world they're in, but while Aunt Gigi is there, doling out advice that Phil doesn't particularly want to hear, she herself holds some secrets that will further affect her own relationship with Phil.

It's quite the risk for a young person's theatre to put on a play with such heavy themes but in the hands of Arnott, Wing and a terrific cast of five, Risky Phil the play feels heartfelt and is often funny (especially thanks to ace performances from Ordena Stephens-Thompson as Aunt Gigi and a very amusing Tal Shulman as Jamie). Brian Bisson as David and Jamie Robinson as Junior, Phil's biological father, each portray men whose selfish decisions ultimately affect their sons, but it's a testament to Bisson and Robinson that as frustrating these characters are, these fathers feel familiar and understandable in their own personal pursuits.

It's also nice to see a deliberate story of a black boy playing such a "Canadian" sport, and telling stories of his newly formed, if small and tight, family, played against Jamie and David's white family, and where race is integral to the story but not the crux of the drama. While the play had some pacing issues, despite some well choreographed scene changes, the stories of two different Canadian families  felt real and representative of families we see in the cities.

Finally, there's a terrific Daniel Ellis as Phil, who has the most dramatic heavy lifting, and keeps the centre of the play well balanced. Definitely not a cautious performance.

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

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Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Dazzled and Confused - After Wrestling - Play Review

After Wrestling - Factory Theatre Studio - Toronto, ON - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Bryce Hodgson and Charlie Kerr, Directed by Bryce Hodgson 
Runs until Mar. 18th 2018

To be honest, I have a limited understanding of mental health issues and have been trying to learn and be more open minded about issues surrounding mental health. It's quite the daunting issue and subject  and After Wrestling, a new play by Bryce Hodgson and Charlie Kerr, delves into the messy lives of four different people slowly intwined by a suicide.

The play slowly reveals itself in tidbits, in quick succession of scenes that add to the confusing mystery, only to later explain why certain characters felt uneven or unbelievable at first. It may be part of the structure to mirror the thinking of its confused characters, who try to deal with their friend's suicide. The living friends try to grapple with their own reaction and and their own mental stability while trying to understand what happened to their friend. The confusion adds to the frustrating nature of the play (though seemingly intentional), but the terrific cast lends credibility to elements that seem at first uneven (but is sometimes later explained).

While the show first seemingly wants to focus on siblings Leah and Hogan, who are both in different depressive and angry states, we are also introduced to Hogan's best friend Gibby in ghost form (but hilariously and fascinatingly done) who committed suicide. Meanwhile, Jaggy, a cop who saves Hogan from a breakdown, ends up asking out recluse Leah. The plot points speed by in the quick scenes but it's the discovery of the characters and their mindset that propels the play, even if we don't truly understand all that makes them up, which the characters themselves, probably are trying to figure out too.

While Charlie Kerr co-wrote the play, his Hogan seems the most underwritten, but is to Kerr's acting credit that we feel his anger and his reactions. As frustrating and annoying as Hogan's sister Leah's character can be, Libby Osler infuses a trapped and confused soul in Leah's toxic decisions. Osler brings us along for the ride, despite Leah constantly pushing against it, and against Jaggy, who seems smitten with her for his own reasons.

Anthony Shim is mesmerizing as Gibby, who appears to Hogan as a radio jockey and has some fun with his interplay with Hogan's mindset. Shim gets to have the most fun with the dead Gibby, which then adds to the truly shocking nature of seeing still-alive Gibby in a flashback in the time before his suicide. Numb to the world on the drugs doctors have prescribed him, Shim makes the days leading up to the suicide feel real and lived in, and reveals a whole other story behind Gibby's ghost we only get a faint whiff at that Leah and Hogan had been alluding to.

Jaggy, who is our intro into these three people in various mental states, has his own issues, but is also the positive light into Leah life (and somewhat by extension, Hogan's) and into this play, with his hobbies karaoke and wrestling partially giving the literal title to the play. It seems odd for what first seems like a side character, but the play dances best between Leah and Jaggy's building relationship, and is easily sustained with Gabe Grey's luminous performance.

The characters are fascinating, even if some of the plotting tends to contradict the characters (at first), and while this makes for dramatic plot reveals, it takes energy from the more fascinating aspects of the play and the characters we've been introduced to. The star-making cast keeps the story grounded in an exciting and promising production of this fascinating oddball play of oddballs trying to grapple with some serious issues.

Photos by John Gundy
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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Friday, February 16, 2018

Knotty Children - The Secret Garden and Pinocchio - Theatre Reviews

The Secret Garden - Young People's Theatre - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Paul Ledoux, adapted from the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Directed by Allen MacInnis
Runs until Mar. 17th 2018

Pinocchio - National Theatre's Lyttleton Theatre - London, UK - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Dennis Kelly, with songs from the Walt Disney film by Leigh Harline, Ned Washington and Paul J. Smith, Directed by John Tiffany
Runs until Apr. 10th 2018


The latest stagings for some kids classics gets some extra layers that deepen the stories and bring back some complexity to stories that had been simplified over the years. Tales of naughty children in The Secret Garden is given some extra shading with the casting of an Indian Mary at the centre of Frances Hodgson Burnett's original story. While Mary had always been born in India, it was written as a British child born away and returns home after the loss of her parents, but with the switch in ethnicities, and returning to a relative's English household, thus making Colin part Indian as well, gives the story an added aspect of colonialism. Over at the National Theatre, a new version of Disney's second film Pinocchio by Dennis Kelly, accentuates the darkness and creepiness more in tune with the original Carlo Collodi than the Disney film. Kelly, who turned Roald Dahl's Matilda into a successful musical, seems in opposition to the Disney aesthetics. Kelly's version of Pinocchio definitely ramps up the naughty children and, while still keeping Pinocchio on Disney's strings by melding the classic songs from the film, into this darker, slightly more adult version, helmed by John Tiffany. It's kudos to Disney Theatricals for allowing their properties to be given this chance to grow up, but like their stage version of The Jungle Book helmed by Mary Zimmerman (which yielded a far more spiritual, zen version of that classic), it often makes for an odd entity under the guise of Disney.


YPT's The Secret Garden is a nice slow and patient version with a wonderful Natalia Gracious as Mary, with Gracious managing to make the precocious, entitled, and selfish Mary a worthy heroine when it could have easily been cloying or annoying. She's eventually joined by a lovely Vivien Endicott Douglass as Martha, a servant, and a charming Benjamin Sutherland as Dichon, the village boy Mary befriends as they discover the mysteries of the house and the secret garden within it. Jack Runeckles plays Colin, Mary's hidden sick cousin, who like Mary, acts like a naughty entitled brat, but whom Runeckles somehow manages to make likeable. Simon Branken is great as both Lord Craven and Dr. Craven, while Dan Lett and Sarah Mennell round out the adult help of the manor.

There is a peacefulness to the production on Teresa Przybylski's simple but effectively changing set, as the mystery of the manor as Mary adjusts to her new life in England is slowly revealed. The story feels like a slow burn, and the added switch in Mary's origin, which changes little in the overall story, gives the play some added diversity and brings into the question of Indian colonialism, and even giving it a bit of a switch here, where the Indian children end up being in a higher class system than the caucasian folks working around the manor. It also gives Colin's story a greater dimension, as his father ignores him particularly as a reminder to his dead Indian mother and their similar features.


In John Tiffany's staging of Pinocchio, a joyously charming Joe Idris-Roberts plays our wooden boy Pinocchio as a life-size boy, while Toby Olié's giant puppet heads on Bob Crowley's oversize sets (and costumes) creates an oversized adult world that Pinocchio years to become a part of. With Dennis Kelly's added twisted tone, and some mutations of some of the famous songs, including a reprise of a morphed version of "When You Wish Upon A Star" during Pinocchio's introduction to fame, reminds us that this lesson on becoming a real man is a bumpy, and episodic journey. It's part of the nature of Collodi's original story, but the episodic nature of Pinocchio's journey doesn't necessarily make for a smooth experience as a stage entity, but Tiffany and the stage magic he creates, certainly makes it for an entertaining experience. And with Idris-Roberts centre stage, he pulls our heartstrings without showing any of the threads.

Audrey Brisson is a female Jiminy Cricket, and David Langham plays the Sly Fox, as they guide, or manipulate Pinocchio through this journey of life, but while Brisson and Langham are terrific in their roles, the characters as written seem like they are on differing paths, with Jiminy sounding far too modern at times, while the Sly Fox's villainous streak seem divorced from the overall arch, despite having the plot points directly affected by his machinations. As I had similar problems with Kelly's book for Matilda, I found while he manages to convey the dark tone he's yearning for, the emotional points never quite come through as he's working hard to hit all the plot points, and in Pinocchio's case, all the numerous adventures and troubles the wooden boy falls into. The plot strings are pulled but alas, all the emotional strings are purely from the hands of Idris-Roberts, who reminded me of the innate charm of Daniel Radcliffe.

Photos of Pinocchio by Manuel Harlan 
Photo of The Secret Garden by Cylla von Tiedemann
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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