Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Five Guys With A Show - One-Man Show Reviews

Ghetto Klown - Lyceum Theatre - Broadway - New York, NY - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written and Performed by John Leguizamo, Directed by Fisher Stevens
Opens in London's West End Oct. 25th thru Nov. 12th 2011, Texas Feb 2012

Sex, Religion and Other Hang Ups - Theatre Passe Muraille - Toronto, ON - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written and Performed by James Gangl, Directed by Chris Gibbs
Runs until Oct. 22nd 2011

Mickey and Judy- Toronto Fringe Festival - Tarragon Theatre Extra Space - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written and Performed by Michael Hughes
Ran until July 21st 2011. More shows to be announced soon.

Hugh Jackman in Concert - Princess of Wales Theatre - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Created and Performed by Hugh Jackman, Directed by Warren Carlyle
Back on Broadway starting Oct. 25th 2011

The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs - Anspacher Theater at The Public Theater - New York, NY - ***** (out of 5 stars)
Written and Performed by Mike Daisey, Directed by Jean-Michele Gregory
Runs until Nov. 13th 2011, Returns in 2012

If you tell me it's going to be a one-man show, I will tend to shudder and run far far away. Give me a big ensemble number. Give me characters yelling at each other, interacting with each other. Give me multiple parts harmony. But don't give me one person standing alone on the stage. I picture that episode of Friends when Chandler shows up to Alex Borstein ranting a feminist one-woman diatribe at him. And some of the one-person shows I've seen have felt that way.

So I'm amazed that I went to 5 one-man shows so far this year and they not only did not make me want to run, they were all excellent in their own way.

John Leguizamo's Ghetto Klown is the 5th in his series of solo shows, though the first one I've seen, and apparently, the most personal and revealing, as he continues to reveal his personal meltdowns and career choices all while dishing the dirt on his fellow celebrity co-stars. Johnny Legz bounces around the stage with that same kinetic energy you know from his films, but he's insightful and thoughtful while never losing that urban street vibe where he originally came from. From his feelings on his family, his original hood, to his career goals and ultimate love for theatre, Ghetto Klown is a hilarious and revealing tour of the life of a grounded celeb and actor.

On the other end of the fame spectrum, James Gangl, a not famous actor trying to work his way into the game, shares what happened after he fell in love with the perfect girl while filming a Coors commercial. Gangl weaves his search for love, his devotion to his religion, and the hang-ups from mixing the two. Hence the title, Sex, Religion and Other Hang Ups, now running after being a hit at this year's Toronto Fringe Festival. Gangl has an easy going presence that's immediately likable, and he turns what first sounds like a comedy act, into something deeper and personal (and hilarious to us) as he struggles with staying true to his religion while gettin' some.

Michael Hughes' Mickey & Judy, another hit at this year's Toronto Fringe Festival, is an exquisitely intimate evening as Mickey takes us on his personal journey growing up, trying to be fabulous, and looking to Judy Garland as an idol. We get to see a sweet and fragile side of Mickey growing up, and uses the life and songs of Judy herself to build himself to the man he is today. The show becomes a warm and enrapturing cabaret with Mickey's personal struggles becoming an engaging story thread between well placed Judy Garland songs that begin to blend musical theatre storytelling within the solo show. (Disclosure: Since seeing and loving the show, I have become twitter friends with @mickehughes)

Then there's another Hugh who is taking his singing and dancing show back onto the stage. A little actor named Hugh Jackman (who starred in some movie called X-Men) brought his new solo show to Toronto, and soon will be Back on Broadway with the show. Known in the mainstream as a big action star, Hugh Jackman goes back to his musical theatre roots on the stage and sings, dances, sings, tells jokes, tells stories from his childhood, sings and dances some more and Hugh has the entire audience in rapture. Hugh Jackman knows how to command the stage and has that old-timey star quality that is rarely found these days. His voice is strong and splendid and while some of his song choices lean a little too much towards the Vegas side, when he's performing musical theatre classics (such as "Siloloquy" from Carousel, the opening number of The Music Man, or the title song from Singing in the Rain (which he really should just star in a revival of)), Hugh Jackman is in full force in the right element. His energy never lets down, and he's simply a born entertainer, backed with an 18-piece orchestra and 2 backup singers. Hugh's improv skills are snap-on as he banters back to the audiences yelling their devoted love, and proves that he really needs to stop making crappy movies and come back to the stage permanently.

While Hugh Jackman runs around the stage, dancing up a storm, Mike Daisey is a large man who sits at a table and talks. On occasion, he will take his small towel to wipe the sweat from his face, and once in a while, he will turn a page from the few sheets sitting on the table, but make no mistake, Mike Daisey's theatrical monologue The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is absolutely fascinating, entertaining and enthralling. Daisey weaves his rants and stories of Steve Jobs and the rise and fall and rise again of Apple into a surprisingly emotionally engaging piece of theatre (with a beautiful lighting design that is subtle and yet totally obvious). Daisey loves his Apple, loves his Apple gadgets and even takes apart his Apple devices apart and puts them back together as a form of comfort. So he takes quite a bite out of Apple when he begins to investigate closely at the religion Steve Jobs built around Apple, and how Jobs got those Apple products into our hands, via the factories in China. The tales of Daisey's visit to Shenzhen China to see where Apple products are made become quite damning on Steve Jobs reputation and while Daisey has changed the ending to acknowledge Jobs' recent death, he makes no apologies for his ultimate statement, all done without sounding like a lecture.

Having been told of Daisey's amazing storytelling skills, I still could not have imagined how amazing and theatrical this show felt, and how funny, amusing, shocking and interesting a monologue about a computer guru could be. I know only wish I could see some of Daisey's former shows including the apparently amazing How Theater Failed America.

Luckily, these 5 solo shows did not fail me and I have a full new appreciation for a well created one-man show.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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Monday, October 03, 2011

Theatre Greatness in Canada - Play Reviews

His Greatness - independent Artist Repertory Theatre at Factory Studio Theatre - Toronto, ON - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Daniel MacIvor, Directed by Edward Roy
Runs until Oct. 23rd 2011

White Biting Dog - Soulpepper Theatre at Young Centre's Michael Young Theatre Stage - Toronto, ON - ** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Judith Thompson, Directed by Nancy Palk
Runs until Oct. 21st 2011

Another Africa - Volcano Theatre presented by Canadian Stage Company at St. Lawrence Centre's Bluma Theatre - Toronto, ON - **** (average out of 5 stars)
Shine Your Eye, Written by Binyavanga Wainaina, Directed by Ross Manson - ***
Peggy Pickit Sees The Face of God - Written by Roland Schimmelpfennig, Directed by Liesl Tommy - ****1/2
Runs until Oct. 22nd 2011

I had a little bout with Canadian plays in the past week to various results, but the excellent plays are definitely exciting entries for Toronto's theatre scene.

A play about Tennessee Williams, a gay hustler (and wanna be porn-star) and a theatre opening? My three favorite things and I had never heard about this play before? How did I miss it? Now I'm glad I didn't miss seeing His Greatness.

His Greatness is the fictional story of the true event when Tennessee Williams, near the end of his career, went to Vancouver to attend the opening night of a revival of a re-written version of one of his failed plays. His Greatness takes place in his Vancouver hotel room where his assistant organizes his entire life, including hiring a male escort to attend to Tennessee's needs.

Richard Donat's tremendous Tennessee Williams is big, suave, seductive and frightening. Delusioned by his own grandeur, Tennessee has become a celebrated playwright and uncontrollable child. His assistant, played by Daniel MacIvor himself, knows Tennessee's every want, whim, and need, and is prepared for every turn William throws at him. It's a co-dependent and dysfunctional relationship that truly begin to reveal itself when the assistant hires a male escort (a terrific Greg Gale with defined abs to match) who himself gets seduced by Tennessee's power while seducing his greatness himself.

Each relationship gets nicely explored and evolves through that opening night, and the disastrous morning after, as the Male Escort becomes a sort of muse to Tennessee, letting the relationship with his assistant splinter. It's a wonderfully evocative play, with some fascinating interplay between the three characters, all with the haunting ghost of Williams giving it some historical drama, while MacIvor beautifully uses the personal drama as statements on life and theatre itself.

The set wonderfully engulfs the tiny Factory Studio Theatre, and while the whole play takes place in the hotel room, it never feels confining to the play, and only to the characters. Richard Donat (who incidentally, actually appeared in the play in question in real life!) simply BECOMES Tennessee Williams. It's a truly magnificent performance. MacIvor and Gale are terrific foils to Donat's Williams, and the production gels together under Ed Roy's direction. His Greatness truly is some great theatre.

White Biting Dog may have been controversial and shocking when it was first written and produced, but time or Soulpepper's current remount has not helped Judith Thompson's play. Studied in many Canadian Theatre schools, I have actually never heard of it prior to this staging, and Nancy Palk's production has me left wondering why this play is so studied.

The play, about a suicidal man who stops himself after hearing instructions from a dog to help save his dying father, becomes a chaotic and surreal mess as his mother, her new young boyfriend, and a passerby, get involved in this new quest, all while taboos get thrown into the story for good shocking measure. Only now, the taboos have become cliches and with little reason to empathize with any character, it just becomes an entertaining, if confusing and unsatisfying jump into a dysfunctional family. While Mike Ross has a naturally endearing demeanor, and Fiona Reid is a hoot as his cougarish mother, I left feeling like I had been gnawing on a fake bone.

Canadian Stage presents Volcano Theatre's Another Africa, first mounted at Luminato a few years ago where it was a trilogy of one-act plays. This time, only 2 have survived with an added prologue. While I barely even realized what was the prologue (as it is used to segue into the 2 plays, the two plays, Shine Your Eyes and Peggy Pickett Sees the Face of God were two very different plays that nicely present African through various eyes.

Shine Your Eyes encompasses Another Africa's first act, with a fascinating look into modern day Africa via the eyes of a young computer hacker Gbene (played by a wonderfully thoughtful Dienye Waboso) who works the computer scams under a man from her home village. Meanwhile, the young hacker chats up with a woman from Toronto (Ordena Stephens-Thompson) and manages to set up a way for Gbene to come over permanently. It's a beautiful play with ideas about home, belonging and where one comes from in a world sitting between an old country and a modern world.

Beautiful direction from Ross Manson, and terrific performances from the cast keep things flowing but I found that there was an overuse of monologues directed to the audience that lost its punch as the piece went on. At first beautiful and heartfelt, became a little mundane and slow, as I'm not a fan of the Greek theatre style of telling a story as opposed to showing. Luckily, mixing in dance and movement with a sleek set into the ensemble moments of the play generates the energy and interaction between the characters that brings the fascinating story to life.

Act 2's piece Peggy Pickett Sees the Face of God is about one couple who throws their friend's a little homecoming soiree upon their return from Africa on a humanitarian mission. In the 6 years they were gone helping in Africa, the couple that stayed home bought a house, had a child, and other suburban sounding stuff, but things begin to unravel when the initial excitement of seeing each other, and the politeness and manners start to wane when real issues begin to surface. Without spoiling anything, the play itself hints at the underlying story at hand in moments of fast forward, rewind, and glimpses of future moments in a time jumping piece, and what seems like a comedy of manners, turns into something far darker and emotionally compelling.

If the set up sounds a bit like God of Carnage, it did feel a lot like Yasmina Reza's overrated play (soon to be the film Carnage) except Peggy Pickett was far better constructed with far more depth and soul. While the laughter was often awkward because of the painful situations, the awkward jokes and character reactions fully made sense once the audience realizes the entire situation at hand.

The cast of Kristen Thompson, Tony Nappo, Maev Beatty, and Tom Barnett were impressive in conveying the multiple layers within each character, all while trying to play nice in a civil dinner party. Each actor is superb, while Liesl Tommy's direction, that also uses a live projection being handled the actors themselves, is precise and taut and manages to unravel the chaos in what must be a precise series of events.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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