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.

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