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
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