Favourite Theatre of 2019

Just as I like to look back on my favourite books of the year, I love reminiscing about my favourite theatre productions seen over the last twelve months. These sorts of lists are always subjective and something that speaks to me may not have spoken to someone else. It’s also important to point out that while I see more theatre and ballet than probably the average person in the city, I am by no means an expert or able to take in all the wonderful shows that Toronto has to offer.

Honourable Mentions

First of all, honourable mention to the Canadian cast of the extremely short-lived Toronto production of “Dear Evan Hansen”, especially Robert Markus who played the titular role in a flawless performance. The set design, particularly the way it incorporated technology and social media, was clever, the music catchy, and the Canadian cast were all outstanding in their roles, but ultimately even this excellent production of the musical couldn’t overcome the standing issues I have with the book of “Dear Evan Hansen’/its themes. There’s just an ick factor I can’t get over and honestly I felt mental health issues were better handled in another show further up this list.

Honourable mention also to “Come From Away”. I hadn’t seen the show since its pre-Broadway try-out in the city and opted to revisit partly because there were rush tickets available but I’m tremendously glad that I did. The sit-down Toronto production is in fine shape, receiving a rousing response from the audience (particularly the East Coasters attending the performance I saw – if there’s a chance to see this show with East Coasters jump on it!) In dark times, this laugh-out-loud funny musical about kindness and giving one another a helping hand is a soothing balm. I’d forgotten how much heart there is in this show and I’d definitely recommend going to see it, whether you’re in Toronto, New York, London, Shanghai, or Australia (the cities where it’s currently playing, or will be playing the next year)!

The List

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11. “August Osage County” (Soulpepper)

I’ll admit to mostly going to see this one because Toronto actress Maev Beatty has reached ‘I’ll see anything with her in it’ status. I’m so glad I did though because Beatty wasn’t the only cast member to shine in this domestic tragicomedy. the play tackles weighty themes of addiction and the deteriorating state of the American nuclear family through its story of the dysfunctional Weston family reuniting after their father goes missing. As the self-medicating, dying matriarch Violet, Nancy Palk was compelling even as she hissed venom at her daughters and anyone else within earshot, while the aforementioned Maev Beatty was more than a match for her as headstrong daughter Barbara, whose marriage is failing. Although her lines were few, it was the subtle performance of Samantha Brown as the family’s Cheyenne live-in housekeeper Johnna, who functions also as a largely silent witness to the family hysterics, that really stayed with me. “August Osage County” is a long play, clocking in at over three hours, but it never felt long thanks to the mounting tension, cathartic reveal of devastating family secrets (sometimes to gasps from the audience) and a tremendous cast.
Watch the trailer

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10. “Piano Concerto”/”Petite Mort”/”Études” (The National Ballet of Canada)

Too often the problem with a National Ballet of Canada mixed program is its unevenness. I’ve been to many programs over the years where I’ve adored one short work and been left cold by another, so the pairing of Alexei Ratmansky’s “Piano Concerto”, Jiří Kylián’s “Petite Mort”, and Harald Lander’s “Études” was an inspired choice, resulting in one of the company’s best mixed programs in years.

“Piano Concerto” had its company premiere in 2015 and was an enjoyable work to revisit, although I certainly missed the presence of contemporary dancer Dylan Tedaldi, who I had seen in the role last time. The abstract choreography and use of design elements like hammers, stars, and bolts from soviet ideology effectively evoked composer Shostakovich’s struggle to reconcile his desire for artistic freedom with the demands of the state.

An ode to classical ballet, and to the ballet class in particular, “Études” progresses from work at the barre to pirouettes to more challenging moves like grand jetés. I’m pretty sure the casting process for one of the leading male roles in this ballet went something like this:

Person in charge of casting Études: So basically what we’re looking for is someone who can spend the entire ballet jumping and make it look effortless.

Naoya Ebe: *exists*

National Ballet Casting: Perfect!

Principal dancer Heather Ogden was a highlight as the female lead in “Études”, but actual ballet prince Harrison James and his classical equal Naoya Ebe, who spend most of the ballet spinning and jumping, respectively, were also superb. The progression from simplistic choreography of the warm-up to the showy finale was a joy to watch in this classical gem.

The highlight of the program though was “Petite Mort”, a clever, sensual, and strange exploration of sex that played with the innuendo of its title (Petite Mort or “Little Death”, referring to orgasm). Featuring six male and female dancers, who sparred with each other using both their bodies and fencing foils, “Petite Mort” was a treat to watch. Inventive and witty, I was transported (and not just from the opportunity to see one of my favourite dancers in the company with a sword).
Watch the trailer

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9. “Prince Hamlet” (CanStage & Why Not Theatre)

I’ve seen more productions of “Hamlet” in the last few years than a person who isn’t particularly fond of the play should, and while the excellent Public Theatre production which featured Oscar Isaac eating lasagna and one of the funniest pre-show announcements ever (asking the audience to please not try to plug their devices in to charge using the wall plugs on the set) has a special place in my heart, “Prince Hamlet” is undeniably the most innovative production of the play I’ve ever seen. Directed by Ravi Jain, “Hamlet” is remixed in this bilingual retelling that effectively integrates English and American Sign Language. “Prince Hamlet’ also breaks through restrictions on race and gender in its casting, giving us a female Horatio and Hamlet and a male Ophelia. While genderswapping some Shakespeare roles, such as Lear, can add new dimension and meaning to the play, I didn’t find that the gender swapped casting altered much of anything about “Hamlet”, it simply allowed actors who might not otherwise be cast in a role, to stretch their wings. Deaf actress Dawn Jani Birley did double duty, acting as both ASL narrator and as Horatio. Her dynamic presence and sharply punctuated, expressive signing were the perfect foil for the sullen Danish Prince (played here by Christine Horne). Scenes between the two of them sparkled, and I loved how they used ASL to communicate plans secretly so Claudius and Gertrude were unaware. As Ophelia, Jeff Ho gave a memorable performance, particularly in his mad scene, and Birley’s ASL retelling of Ophelia’s death had a hauntingly effective quality. The second act faltered a little and the dual didn’t totally work for either me or the friend I attended with, but “Prince Hamlet” is a remarkable achievement and a glowing example of how accessible theatre can be when it’s approached with the audience in mind and not as an afterthought.
Watch the trailer

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8. “
Rose” (Soulpepper)

Soulpepper’s first original musical boldly defied categorization in a memorable theatrical experience that was by turns heartwarming, funny, thoughtful, and empowering. Based on avant-garde poet Gertrude Stein’s collection “The World is Round”, it tells the story of inquisitive nine-year-old Rose who is faced with an unusual problem. Unsure of who she is or of her place in the world, Rose isn’t able to say her name. Her journey of self-discovery leads her into some unusual company, including a pride of lions and a terrifying group of giant otters? Star Hailey Gillis grounded a colourful and sometimes downright odd production with her endearing portrayal of the precocious Rose and Peter Fernandes brought a boyish charm and earnestness to his role as Willy, Rose’s best friend. Lorenzo Savoini’s design was simple yet effective, using a colour palate that reflected the iconic blue ink on pink page illustrations used in the original book. After the high energy first act, I found the second act dragged in the middle and could use some trimming off the long (2.5 hour) runtime for a musical ostensibly aimed at children, but “Rose” was an immensely charming show and a highlight of my theatregoing this year, particularly the climactic point in Rose’s journey of self-discovery, which had me inwardly cheering and outwardly tearing up for joy.
Listen to the cast recording on Spotify
Read my full review.

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7. “Next to Normal” (David Mirvish presents Musical Stage Company)

The Musical Stage Company has quickly become one of my favourite theatre companies in the city and this production continued to illustrate why exactly that is. Deftly handling themes of mental illness, addiction, and grief, “Next to Normal” is a rock musical about a suburban mother’s struggle with worsening bipolar disorder and the impact that has on her family. Any discussion about this production of the show has to begin by talking about the force to be reckoned with that is Ma-Anne Dionisio! Her performance as Diana was undoubtedly one of the year’s best. My jaw quite literally dropped watching her and I keenly felt Diana’s anguish and anger about her condition in this tour-de-force performance. The Toronto cast was refreshingly diverse, with Diana and her children all played by Asian-Canadian actors, and the role of Doctor Madden, usually played by a man, by the inimitable Louise Pitre. Stephanie Sy was another highlight, as underappreciated daughter Natalie. The set design seemed bland and uninspired for a show of this caliber though and I found the actors playing Dan (Troy Adams) and Gabe (Brandon Antonio) didn’t have the strongest voices and failed to live up to the energy or emotion brought to the musical by the other performers. Seeing this so closely on the heels of “Dear Evan Hansen”, I found the message in “Next to Normal” healthier and more relatable personally, and I was more moved by this production than by Evan’s duplicitous actions.
Watch the trailer

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6. Modern Broadway (Toronto Symphony Orchestra)

The TSO’s Modern Broadway concert was not only an entertaining, well-sung evening of recent(ish) Broadway hits, it also crossed an item off of my bucket list:

✔ See Jeremy Jordan perform live

Broadway is my favourite genre of music (I mostly listen to cast recordings) and Jeremy Jordan is my favourite vocalist. Seeing him live has been a dream of mine for years and although it wasn’t in a musical showcasing his acting chops, on stage in my hometown being impossibly charming and belting out his signature Santa Fe? Pretty much a dream come true. Jordan’s tenor is to die for and he was self-deprecating and charismatic as he introduced songs with anecdotes about his career. His take on Waitress’ “She Used to be Mine” brought the house down. Why then, you might be asking, wasn’t this my favourite theatre experience of the season? Well, although the Toronto Symphony Orchestra played beautifully of course, the problem with a pops concert like this is that it has to be as much about the orchestra as the guest vocalists. This resulted in some dubious song choices that stretched the definition of Modern Broadway. Unfortunately I also wasn’t so taken with Jordan’s co-star, Betsy Wolfe. Jeremy Jordan is a hard act to follow and though Wolfe gamely tried, she wasn’t able to live up to the high standard set by her fellow performer.

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5. “The Merry Widow” (The National Ballet of Canada)

A glittering delight, “The Merry Widow” was so incredibly charming that I seriously considered playing hooky from work so I could see it again with a second cast! Combining romance, whimsy, comedy, and the aesthetic splendor of Belle Époque Paris, the ballet told the story of a fictional Balkan principality on the brink of ruin unless the aristocratic Count Davilo (danced by Guillaume Cote) can woo rich widow Hanna Glawari (Xiao Nan Yu) before she is swept off her feet by a foreigner. Naturally, complications and miscommunications ensue. For all that I loved it, “The Merry Widow” was a bittersweet affair because it marked one of the final performances of principal dancer Xiao Nan Yu before she retired from the stage. I’ve been a fan of Nan’s for awhile and as thrilled as I was that I got to witness one of her final performances, I miss her presence on stage so very much this season and I haven’t quite accepted that I’ll never see her thoughtful Tatiana (in “Onegin”) or powerfully composed Paulina (in “The Winter’s Tale”) again. Guillaume Côté was the best I’ve ever seen him, displaying a talent for comedy as the drunken count, then partnering Nan beautifully in their romantic scenes later in the ballet. Jillian Vanstone was also winning as the young Valencienne and the set design and costumes deserve a mention for their sheer splendor. I really hope The National Ballet of Canada remounts this one sooner, rather than later.
Watch the trailer

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4. “Ghost Quartet” (Eclipse Theatre Company/Crow’s Theatre)
Offbeat, non-linear, and just plain odd, Dave Malloy’s song cycle “Ghost Quartet” was an absolute delight from start to finish. I’m predisposed towards Malloy’s brand of weird, being a huge fan of “Natasha Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812”, so his musical style obviously works for me. The structure of the show is cyclical, twisting, and plays with magical realism in a story that spans generations of characters, including a spurned sister bent on revenge, an astronomer, and even a bear. “Ghost Quartet” artfully balances the haunting intensity of the storytelling songs with the ease of four friends fueled by whisky telling ghost stories around a campfire. Lines like “I will transcend and vomit this loser out of me” are poetic and powerful, yet humourous, representing Malloy’s style, but it’s the catchy foot stomping “Any Kind of Dead Person”, in which Hailey Gillis tells us why she’d rather be a ghost than a zombie, mummy, or other supernatural creature, that was the show’s standout number. The Canadian cast of four (Beau Dixon, Hailey Gillis, Kira Guloien, and Andrew Penner) were all outstanding, having an easy chemistry with one another that got stronger as the run went on, voices that melded well in song, and the ability to play instruments as well as sing.  Set, Costume, and Lighting Designer Patrick Lavender created a warm and yet otherworldly space where anything felt possible, costumes that felt old and modern all at once, and dreamy lighting that transported us to another time. It was the perfect show to get me in the Halloween spirit. We went twice, and I was very tempted to go a third time. It was just that addictive!
Watch the trailer

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3. “School Girls; Or The African Mean Girls Play (Obsidian in association with Nightwood Theatre)

Dealing with issues of shadeism, racism, and classism in a nuanced way, “School Girls; Or The African Mean Girls Play” was such a joy! Playwright Jocelyn Bioh’s script about adolescent girls at a Ghanian boarding school in the 1980s is often laugh out loud funny and yet so beautifully poignant. Paulina (Natasha Mumba) has been Queen Bee of the school’s clique for years, but when new student Ericka (Melissa Eve Langdon), the daughter of a mixed-race couple, arrives from Ohio, Paulina’s control and social standing is threatened, particularly when a recruiter arrives to select one school girl to compete in the Miss Ghana beauty pageant with a shot of impressing on the world stage to become Miss Global Universe. Although the script is terrific, replete with 80s references and bitingly accurate in its depiction of adolescent nastiness between girls, it was the cast that made the Toronto production the success that it was. I can’t even choose one or two standout performances because the standard was so high across the board! Hilarious and heartbreaking, this was one of the year’s best.

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2. “The Brothers Size (Soulpepper)

Can I just RAVE forever about how fabulous and moving and important “The Brothers Size” is? The Canadian debut of Moonlight writer Tarell Alvin McCraney (who co-wrote Moonlight based on his play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue)’s play was the highlight of a strong season for Soulpepper. Part of McCraney’s Brother/Sister plays triptych, which incorporate Yoruba mythology into a contemporary setting that examines the issues faced by African-American men in the present, “The Brothers Size” is a huge achievement. The relationships between the three Black men, older brother Ogun, younger brother Oshoosi (who has just been released from prison), and Oshoosi’s cellmate and sometimes lover Elegba, were rendered artfully by actors Daren A. Herbert, Mazin Elsadig, and Marcel Stewart, respectively. The portrayals and the relationships between the characters in this intimate piece are even more impressive considering we learned at the talkback session following the play that Mazin Elsadig had replaced another actor in the role just two weeks before opening night! The performances delivered by all three actors were layered and thoughtful, charming and heartbreaking. Intimate, sensual, heartwrenching, and powerful in its examination of brotherhood, freedom, and responsibility, “The Brothers Size” was one of the best shows I saw all year and I desperately hope that one day soon Soulpepper will produce the other two plays in this triptych.
Watch the trailer

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1. “Kiss of the Spiderwoman(Eclipse Theatre Company)

Sold out before its limited run even began, Eclipse Theatre Company’s staged concert of “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” was the best thing I saw all year. Although the musical has a long history (and one that heavily involves Toronto) this was the first time I’d ever heard the score or seen a production of it. I bought tickets partly for the cast, all of whom I’d seen and liked in previous Toronto theatre productions, but mostly because it was being staged in the historic Don Jail (active as a prison from 1864 until 1977). The evening began with a tour of the jail, infinitely spookier at night than during the day, before we took our (extremely uncomfortable metal bar stool) seats for the performance. As one reviewer called it, “the perfect marriage of venue and subject matter”, “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” is set in an Argentinian prison during the country’s Dirty War. In order to escape from the dark reality of their days, gay window dresser Molina (Kawa Ada) spins colourful tales of the glamourous actress Aurora (Tracy Michailidis) to his cellmate, political prisoner Valentin (Jonathan Winsby), with whom he is falling in love. A grudging respect and tender camaraderie develop between the two men as they grapple with politics, masculinity, and the power of love over death. The Don Jail was the perfect venue for this musical, providing an atmospheric setting and acoustics that allowed the cast’s vocals to wash over the audience in a wave of glorious sound and emotion. The entire cast was phenomenal, starting with Kawa Ada, who was heartbreaking and honestly so perfect that it’s difficult to imagine another actor in the part of Molina. Tracy Michailidis was powerful and brought glamour and colour to her sensual performance as film star Aurora, and Jonathan Winsby’s vocals BLEW ME AWAY, especially his haunting performance of “The Day After That.” Even though this was by far the most uncomfortable theatre seating experience of my life, I would have gone back every night if it hadn’t been sold out. I’m devastated that there isn’t a cast recording or professionally shot video to capture this perfection but am so thrilled that I was able to witness it.

So there you go, my favourite things that I saw all year. What were your favourite plays, musicals, ballets, or operas of the year? Leave a comment and let me know!

 

 

Best of Stage 2018

Instead of delving into my most disappointing reads, I’d like to start the new year on a positive note by looking back fondly at my favourite theatre productions of 2018.

I desperately wanted to post a Best of Stage list in 2017, but time got away from me and I never did get around to writing one – something I regret to this day. Although my 2018 year of theatre (much like my year in books) didn’t live up to high standards set by 2017, Toronto and London stages still offered plenty to love.

10. The Dream Being and Nothingness (National Ballet of Canada)

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No one is more surprised than me that my favourite National Ballet of Canada pieces this year were not multi-act story ballets, but double and triple bills showcasing shorter works! I often find Principal Dancer Guillaume Côté’s choreography to be inconsistent, but he’s at his best with Being and Nothingness. It was an absolute pleasure to revisit the ballet three years after its Toronto debut. Based on the philosophical work by Jean-Paul Sarte, Being and Nothingness is an inventive and melancholy contemporary piece that featured strong performances by Principal Dancer Greta Hodgkinson and Second Soloist Felix Paquet (who’s had a breakout year) on opening night. New to me was Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, a one-act re-imagining of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in Victorian times. Combining enchantment with humour, The Dream benefited from dream (yes, I made that joke) casting. Actual Ballet Disney Prince Harrison James was a noble Oberon and the perfect partner for Jillian Vanstone‘s regal Titania. It was Skylar Campbell, perfectly cast as the mischevious Puck, who stole the show though, seeming to soar across the stage. Hopefully it won’t be another 17 years before The Dream returns to the Toronto stage!
Watch trailers for The Dream and Being and Nothingness.

9. Bed & Breakfast (Soulpepper – Toronto)

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Written by Canadian playwright Mark Crawford, Bed & Breakfast is a delightful farce about a downtown-dwelling gay couple who decide to leave the big city and open a bed & breakfast in a small Ontario town. Certainly there’s comedy to be found in the classic fish-out-of-water trope, which sees Brett and Drew adapting to life in a slower-paced locale, but Bed & Breakfast is also an emotionally resonant piece that doesn’t shy away from depicting small-town homophobia and long-held family secrets. What made the Soulpepper production this summer work so well though were the performances. Real life couple Gregory Prest and Paolo Santalucia played not only the central B&B-owning couple – they also portrayed every single one of the play’s other 20 characters! Both actors are well-known to Toronto audiences for their range, and Prest in particular has become an actor I would go see in just about anything (read my gushing review of last year’s brilliant adaptation of Of Human Bondage for more on Prest), so Bed & Breakfast served as the perfect showcase for their considerable talents. Through the addition and subtraction of simple props like an earring or a trucker cap, the actors stepped into the roles of the quirky townsfolk, including a flaky, pregnant coffee shop owner, an Irish lesbian, and an awkward adolescent boy in this heartwarming must-see Canadian comedy.

8. Les Miserables (Queens’ Theatre – London)

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Les Misérables is my all-time favourite musical, but the fact that it merits a place on this list is undoubtedly influenced by two things. One: I didn’t see a lot of shows this year that blew me away, and Two: The last production of Les Misérables I watched (the US tour cast in 2017) featured some of the worst across-the-board principal casting I’ve witnessed for this musical. The 2017/18 West End cast were not the best I’ve seen in their respective roles, but this was nonetheless a very solid cast.  Killian Donnelly was a standout in the role of Valjean, showcasing both control over and knowledge of how to use his powerful voice. For such a young actor (Donnelly was 33 when I saw him), his aging and death scene were among the most believable I’ve seen and I loved his dynamic with both Cosette and Fantine. Carley Stenson also stood out as one of the best Fantines I’ve ever watched. In the post-Anne Hathaway years there’s been a tendency to sing “I Dreamed A Dream” as a paint-by-numbers, heavily choreographed, ‘here is the big song the audience is waiting for’ kind of moment, but Stenson’s Fantine looked natural throughout and sang with a gorgeous belt that never edged into shouting. After becoming familiar with the Broadway/Tour staging over the last few years, it was also lovely to see the original turntable staging of the London production again. It is a shame that I missed David Thaxton (off sick the week I was there) as Javert though. After a string of awful Javerts, it would have meant a lot to see someone who understands the role take it on, and I have no doubt that Les Miserables would be higher on this list if I’d watched him perform.

7. The Dreamers Ever Leave You / The Four Seasons Emergence (National Ballet of Canada)

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My favourite National Ballet of Canada production of the season was this excellent triple-bill featuring works by Canadian choreographers. Originally co- produced with the Art Gallery of Ontario as an immersive ballet that allowed members of the public to walk around the dancers and take photos, The Dreamers Ever Leave You was inspired by the paintings of Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris. I missed the widly popular Art Gallery of Ontario staging, so I was thrilled to have the chance to see a version of the ballet (modified to fit a traditional stage) this Spring. It did not disappoint. Set to an original score written and performed live by extraordinary pianist Lubomyr Melnyk, this moving ballet succeeded in evoking the beauty and loneliness of Canada’s northern landscapes.

To say I’m not a fan of James Kudelka’s choreography would be putting it mildly. I hated The Man in Black (a short ballet set to music by Johnny Cash and danced wearing cowboy boots), and I was underwhelmed by his versions of both The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. But with The Four Seasons I found a Kudelka ballet I actually liked watching! Set to Vivaldi’s famous work of the same name, it depicts the life cycle of a man through the lively spring of his youth, sultry summer, lazy fall, and his decline and infirmity come winter. The choreography was still very classical for my tastes, particularly for a piece that debuted in 1997, and the costumes left something to be desired, but The Four Seasons was an enjoyable short ballet and an excellent showcase for Guillaume Côté.

An unsettling work that posits “the instinct for social organization found in the insect realm as a precise metaphor for human interaction and purpose”, Crystal Pite’s Emergence is one of the most unique ballets I’ve ever encountered. Opening with an eerily realistic approximation of an insect and set to a drone soundscape and a monotonous chorus of whispered counting, Pite uses ballet dancers to reproduce swarm behaviour seen in the insect world in this deservedly acclaimed ballet. Watch footage of Emergence.

6. The Music Man (Stratford Shakespeare Festival)

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With revivals of classic musicals like The King and I, My Fair Lady, and, most controversially, Carousel recently appearing on Broadway stages, there have been questions over whether some musicals are timeless classics or dated relics that have nothing to say to modern audiences. I can’t say that I have any particular attachment to The Music Man as a show, but Director/Choreographer Donna Feore did just about everything right in this thoroughly enjoyable revival. Her choreography breathed new life into a dated story by adding crowd-pleasing, high-energy dance numbers performed by a talented ensemble. Yet it was the inspired casting that made this production so memorable. The Music Man is based on the idea that one con-man is so damn charming that he manages to swindle an entire town, yet in the end no one really minds that much. Who better for the role of Professor Harold Hill than the vortex of charming that is Daren A. Herbert!? In his Stratford debut, Herbert was charismatic, playful, and had excellent chemistry with both Marian the Librarian (a likable Danielle Wade) and close friend Marcellus Washburn (Mark Uhre, a true triple threat). There are some elements in The Music Man that don’t translate as well to present day sensibilities (Harold Hill’s admonishment of fast women, for example) and, as a librarian, I’d be creeped out if a guy I had rejected wound up stalking me at my place of work, but minor quibbles aside this was a tremendous amount of fun.

5. Jane Eyre (Northern Ballet – London)

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My favourite ballet of the year was Jane Eyre, performed by Northern Ballet, an English touring company based in Leeds known for their storytelling. Part of the reason I chose to visit the UK when I did was so that I could catch their London engagement and I was not disappointed. Cathy Marston’s striking choreography uses classical ballet language but with a contemporary edge. She made adapting Jane’s internal narrative into a medium that doesn’t use speech look effortless. Antoinette Brooks-Daw (as Young Jane) and now-retired ballerina Dreda Blow (as Jane) were both gorgeous to watch, subtly conveying Jane’s strength of spirit and independence even as she undergoes hardship. Yet from the moment he appeared on stage, sprawling insolently into a chair and preventing Jane from leaving the room with an elegantly outstretched leg, I was captivated by Javier Torres’ Mr. Rochester. He was quite simply magnetic. and there was an immediate chemistry between his Rochester and Blow’s Jane that only intensified through a series of passionate pas-de-deuxs. It’s easy to understand why Dance Europe referred to Northern Ballet as boasting “the best dance-actors in the world”. I’m thrilled that I had the opportunity to witness such a talented company performing a largely faithful and clever adaptation of the early feminist source material we hold so dear.
Read my full review of Jane Eyre.

The acclaimed American Ballet Theatre (ABT) are performing Cathy Marston’s Jane Eyre this summer at the Metropolitan Opera House, so if you’re in New York City this June I highly recommend checking it out!
Watch the trailer for Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre here.

4. The Cursed Child (Palace Theatre – London)

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The Cursed Child is the only entry on this list that succeeds not because of its script, but in spite of it. As many Harry Potter fans found when the script was published in 2016, the plot is a convoluted mess that reads more like bad fan-fiction than a carefully constructed work of literature. The character of Delphie is so thinly written that even the most talented actress wouldn’t be able to imbue her with any depth, and the heterosexual romance foisted upon us despite a lack of chemistry and at the expense of developing the far more interesting gay subtext is, unfortunately, exactly what we’ve come to expect from Rowling. The script has its moments, using humour to great effect (in particular I’ll never be able to walk past a farmer’s market again without smiling), but it’s the theatrical wizardry (pardon the pun) and the performances that have made The Cursed Child work as well as it does. Without giving too much away, The Cursed Child made me believe in magic, or at least in the ingenuity and imagination of an exceptionally talented creative team. More than once I found myself wondering how’d they do that?! There’s such a feeling of nostalgia attached to Harry Potter for many of my generation and this play was able to recapture the magic of reading about the wizarding world for the first time in an immersive theatrical way. I caught the second year cast of the London production and genuinely enjoyed everyone’s performances. The original trio were all believable, particularly Thomas Aldridge as an endearing Ron, but I was actually most interested in the Malfoys. Scorpius (Samuel Blenkin) became my favourite character by the end of the show and the standout of the evening was James Howard as a pitch-perfect Draco. Ultimately The Cursed Child is a play about parent-children relationships with all of their complexities, friendship, and how you thought your life would go vs. how your life actually is. As a millennial, this is definitely a theme that speaks to me and I loved The Cursed Child in spite of its plot holes.

3. Fun Home (Musical Stage Company/Mirvish Productions – Toronto)

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I’m surprised it took this long for Tony-award-winning musical Fun Home to make it’s Toronto debut, but it was worth the wait! For the last few years The Musical Stage Company has been behind some of the best musical productions in the city (including Onegin and Life After, two of my theatre favs from 2017), so I couldn’t wait to see what they’d do with the funny and heartwarming story based on Alison Bechtel’s graphic memoir about growing up in a funeral home and the discovery that both her and her father were gay. Fun Home in Toronto was professional, well-designed and well-directed,  but the starry all-Canadian cast were the number one reason to see this production. All three Alisons (played as a girl by Hannah Levinson, as a sexually awakening college student by Sara Farb, and as an adult by Laura Condlin) were superb and stand to clean-up at any Toronto theatre award shows. Reliably excellent Evan Builing, Cynthia Dale, and Sabryn Rock rounded out the cast of this terrific show.
See Sara Farb perform “Changing my Major” (featuring the Toronto Reference Library!)
Watch the trailer for Fun Home in Toronto here.

2. The Wolves (Howland Company/Crow’s Theatre – Toronto)

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I don’t have a single negative thing to say about the Toronto debut of Sarah DeLappe’s Pulitzer-Prize nominated The Wolves. I went in nothing absolutely nothing except that it had been well-reviewed and was blown away by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster’s thoughtful direction, a talented young cast made up of women and non-binary individuals, and the clever dialogue that so perfectly captures the cadence and thought processes of teenage girls. The staging of this play about an indoor girls’ soccer team at a transitional time in their lives was kinetic, following the team as they stretched, warmed-up, and played, all while discussing everything from talking behind one another’s backs to periods and the Cambodian genocide. Characters were identified by their jersey numbers rather than their names, yet each player had a distinct personality and their unique place within the group. The Wolves was also one of the best-paced shows I’ve ever seen, with a 90-minute no intermission run-time that ensured the play didn’t overstay its welcome, yet gave enough time and weight to its characters to develop them fully and leave a lasting impact. Humourous, heart-warming, and featuring one of the best ensemble casts I’ve sen recently, The Wolves was undoubtedly a highlight of the Toronto theatre scene this year.

1. The Ferryman (Gielgud Theatre – London)

ferryman

On my final night in London I caught the closing performance of The Ferryman and all I can say is WOW. What a way to end a trip! Set almost entirely within the Carney farmhouse in Northern Ireland during the 1980s, The Ferryman is about a family haunted by the unexplained disappearance of one of its members (the brother/husband/father of those left behind). Predicated on the idea of physical and psychological ‘ambiguous loss’ – which occurs when a loved one disappears and their whereabouts are unknown – The Ferryman is a weighty play about family conflict, loss, and the toll of existing in an in-between state without closure. I loved the references to myths and folklore, the crowd-pleasing presence of live animals and a (very young and very well-behaved!) baby that made the play feel so real, and the emotionally charged performances given by the entire cast, especially Rosalie Craig as the maybe widow-maybe wife Caitlin Carney. As someone fascinated by Irish history, I adored everything about this. The Ferryman is currently playing on Broadway and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Go see this magnificent play while you can – oh, and stagger your water intake because it’s a long play with one short intermission!

Have you seen any of these ballets, musicals, or plays? What were the best things you saw on stage in 2018? Let me know in the comments!

Stage: Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre

Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre breaks your heart and then puts it back together again. Deftly adapted for the stage by choreographer Cathy Marston and brought to life by a talented company, Jane Eyre is an overwhelming love story with a feminist slant.

Departing from the Charlotte Bronte novel on which it is based, Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre begins on the moors shortly after Jane has escaped from Thornfield. Jane fights off violent attempts by male ensemble members, who represent her inner demons, to cage her spirit, before she is found by St. John Rivers. The ballet then takes us back through Jane’s memories to her abusive childhood experiences in the Red Room and at Lowood before depicting her burgeoning romance with her mysterious and haunted employer, Mr. Rochester.

SETS, COSTUMES, & MUSIC

Perhaps partially because this is a touring production, the minimalist set design uses few props or furnishings, beyond several chairs, to set the scene, but the gothic atmosphere of the novel is effectively captured through low lighting and neutral-toned costumes. Pops of colour occur in the form of Jane’s pupil, Adele’s, girlish pink dress and Bertha’s red ragged gown, which mirrors the fire she will eventually set.

I can’t say that the score, compiled by Philip Feeney, made much of an impression on me one way or another. Although certainly appropriate for the ballet, it’s a score that didn’t stick with me, unlike some of the more memorable ballet scores, like those of Cranko’s Onegin (selections from Tchaikovsky) or Neumeier’s Nijinsky (music by Chopin, Rimsky-Korsokov, and Shostakovich).

CHOREOGRAPHY

Cathy Marston’s striking choreography uses classical ballet language, but with a contemporary edge. Adapting a first person narrative as internal as Jane Eyre into a medium that doesn’t use speech should be a challenge, but Marston makes the transition seem effortless. Arguably one of the greatest accomplishments of Jane Eyre is Jane’s narrative voice as she expresses a feminist desire for agency that still resonates today. Working from source material that offers little in the way of male characters, Marston cleverly uses members of the male ensemble as ‘D-Men’, who represent Jane’s inner demons. The eight D-Men surround Jane in moments of turmoil and she physically fights off their influence, retaining the novel’s early feminist themes.

Jane’s inner struggle to repress her passionate feelings is shown through a repeated symbolic gesture where the ballerina calms herself by pressing a horizontally-held hand down from her heart through her body. I was also struck by a moment with Jane and Rochester where they shake hands with the requisite formality, but the choreography has each dancer duck under the other’s hand and indicate how the handshake has inwardly affected them before they snap back to reality. How I wish Cathy Marston would lend her considerable talents to my beloved National Ballet of Canada!

I’ve seen some criticism that the ballet is quite dark which, if you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you’ll know is the opposite of a problem for me! I often like my ballet like I like my books – dark and painful – so I loved that about Jane Eyre. Some critics also found the structure confusing. Admittedly if I hadn’t read the synopsis and/or the novel first, I may have been confused by the D-Men, but having done so I thought this technique was quite a clever way of depicting an internal struggle in a medium that doesn’t use words.

PERFORMANCES

In this adaptation, Jane is danced by two different ballerinas. Antoinette Brooks-Daw portrays Young Jane, while Dreda Blow dances Jane as a young woman. Brooks-Daw is immensely sympathetic as the orphaned, maltreated younger heroine. Jane’s childhood is far from idyllic, but Brooks-Daw retains Jane’s characteristic strength of spirit throughout and shows plenty of fire when she retaliates against her cousin John’s [a wonderfully cruel Matthew Koon] physical abuse.

In a subtly affecting performance, Dreda Blow conveys Jane’s strength, intelligence, and the passion she tempers down. She simply breaks your heart along with Jane’s. More than any prior adaptation (yes, even the excellent BBC miniseries starring Toby Stephens) I understood Jane’s attraction to the enigmatic Mr. Rochester. From the moment Javier Torres appeared on stage, sprawling insolently into a chair and preventing Jane from leaving the room with an elegantly outstretched leg, I was captivated. Torres is magnetic, portraying Rochester’s irritability, arrogance, and yet his charisma. The chemistry between Jane and Rochester is palpable from their first meeting and only intensifies through a series of passionate pas-de-deuxs.

The minor characters are no less excellent. Rachel Gillespie is a buoyant, excitable presence as Adele, Pippa Moore is flightier, younger, and perhaps more comic than the housekeeper, Ms. Fairfax, of the novel, but was lovely to watch nonetheless, and Kiara Flavin imprints herself on our hearts as well as on Jane’s as Helen Burns.

It’s easy to understand why Dance Europe referred to Northern Ballet as boasting “the best dance-actors in the world”. I’m thrilled that I had the opportunity to witness such a talented company performing a largely faithful and clever adaptation of the early feminist source material we hold so dear. Jane Eyre undoubtedly ranks among my favourite storytelling ballets, and should the company decide to revive it, I strongly urge even those who have never seen a ballet before to take a chance on it. I’m certain you won’t be disappointed.

Photo of Javier Torres and Dreda Blow by Caroline Holden.

World Ballet Day

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When you think of ballet, what’s the first thing that pops into your head? The Nutcracker? Swan Lake? The classics definitely have their place, but there’s so much more to discover about ballet. That’s where World Ballet Day comes in!

WHAT: Since 2014, this free 22-hour continuous livestream relay has taken viewers across the globe behind-the-scenes of five professional ballet companies. The livestream provides a peak into morning company classes, where dancers warm up for the day, as well as live footage of rehearsals for upcoming works, and interviews with dancers.

WHO: Five international renowned ballet companies: The Australian Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet, The Royal Ballet, National Ballet of Canada and San Francisco Ballet.

WHEN: Wednesday, October 4 at 9PM EST until Thursday, October 5th at 7PM EST. All times in EST.

9:00 pm (October 4) to 2:00 am – The Australian Ballet
2:00 am to 7:00 am – Bolshoi Ballet
7:00 am to 12:00 pm – The Royal Ballet
12:00 pm to 2:00 pm – The National Ballet of Canada (on tour in Paris)
2:00 pm to 7:00 pm – San Francisco Ballet

WHERE: Companies from Melbourne, Moscow, London, Toronto (but on tour in Paris), and San Francisco will be streaming live footage on Youtube. You can watch the livestream on the official website here!

WHY: To provide viewers with an inside look at professional ballet companies in the studio, on tour, and in performance. It’s 22-hours of ballet and you can watch as much or as little as you like of companies around the world. What’s not to like?!

Whether it’s due to ticket prices, or geographic location, ballet can sometimes seem inaccessible. World Ballet Day is a fantastic initiative that allows five of the world’s top ballet companies to show off the versatility of the art form, and provide a free look at what ballet’s all about.

If you’re interested, you can find more information on the program schedule, the companies participating, and everything here:
http://worldballetday.com/about

Wishing you a Wonderful World Ballet Day!

Stage: A Streetcar Named Desire

Streetcar

Unsettling and intense, A Streetcar Named Desire, danced by the National Ballet of Canada in the work’s Canadian premiere, is a striking ballet that sticks with you long after the standing ovation ends.

Rather than a literal retelling of the acclaimed Tennessee Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire is choreographer John Neumeier’s reaction to the thematic, emotional, dramatic and psychological realities that the play represents. He chooses to set the opening scenes of the ballet where the play ends, with Blanche DuBois in an asylum. The first act follows Blanche’s back-story, from her love for and marriage to a younger man, Allan Gray, her feelings of betrayal as she discovers him locking lips with another man, and Gray’s resulting suicide. Her devastation is hauntingly shown through the repetition of his suicide, the gunshot ringing out again and again in her mind.

As her home of Belle Reve falls into decay, Blanche follows her bolder sister Stella to the French Quarter of New Orleans and the second act more closely follows the story of the play. Out of place in the jazzy modern city, Blanche clashes with her sister’s rough husband Stanley Kowalski and although she is courted by his earnest friend Mitch, Blanche cannot escape her past.

The play is a perfect match for Neumeier’s dark and expressive choreography, which has the ability to convey emotional complexity. I’ve seen a few of Neumeier’s ballets before, most notably Nijinsky, my favourite ballet of all time, and each work seems to require its dancers to be especially strong actors in order to convey the emotional depth of the material. This quality makes Neumeier’s ballets an excellent fit for The National Ballet of Canada’s repertoire.

I was thrilled to hear that Sonia Rodriguez, in my view one of the most gifted dancer-actresses this universally talented company has to offer, would be dancing the role of Blanche DuBois on opening night. As Blanche, she is quite simply stunning, showing the fragility of a woman who can’t adapt to the changing world around her. From her opening scenes, where she trembles on the bed in an asylum, Rodriguez is vulnerable and expressive. She is matched by an excellent Guillaume Cote, as the rough Stanley Kowalski. A savage alpha-male, he beats his chest and engages in boxing matches (a change from the movie Stanley’s stationary love of poker to a hobby more dynamic and action-oriented). Despite this, Blanche is drawn to him, leading to the fateful rape scene, depicted with a brutal, unflinching, physicality.

The rest of the opening night cast was similarly strong. Jillian Vanstone is a lively, carefree presence as Stella, and although the character of Mitch doesn’t have a lot to do, Evan McKie makes the most of the role, giving a sympathetic portrayal of a man who genuinely cares for Blanche and is enraged when Stanley reveals the truth about her past.

There are just four leading roles, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Allan Gray, danced in the opening night cast by Skylar Campbell, had nearly, if not more, to do in the ballet than Mitch. Campbell’s duet with his friend, played by Francesco Gabriele Frola, was a highlight for me, as the choreography demonstrates the pull Gray feels towards the other man and his suppressed longing. Campbell is precise and expressive in the role, and reappears in the second act as a doppelganger newspaper boy who Blanche tries to seduce.

Like he did with Nijinsky, Neumeier chooses music that effectively intensifies the unnerving atmosphere of the work. Set to music by Prokofiev and by Alfred Schnittke, A Streetcare Named Desire has no live orchestra though, a decision that allows the stage to be extended over the pit and the action to take place closer to the audience. Although the loss of a live orchestra is felt, I think the choice works for Streetcar.

A Streetcar Named Desire is a very physical ballet, particularly for Stanley and for Blanche, who is thrown around the stage a great deal. In that respect it makes for an interesting contrast with Neumeier’s Nijinsky, where the male lead throws himself around the stage in a way that must leave bruises.

Personally, I not only enjoyed the inventive choreography and emotional intensity of the ballet, there were also several refreshing things to admire. The National Ballet of Canada has often focused, to a certain extent, on height-based casting, so the opportunity to see Evan McKie, one of the tallest dancers in the company, partner petite Sonia Rodriguez was a first for me. Although the height gap could look awkward, as McKie has to bend nearly in half to rest his head on her shoulder, I really enjoyed the opportunity to see these two gifted dancers duet.

A Streetcar Named Desire also presented the opportunity to see McKie play a role entirely different from the classical prince roles or, alternately, the characters who are quite frankly somewhat dickish (Onegin, Leontes) he has often played in the past. Although he dances these roles very well, it was a nice departure to watch him portray a slightly awkward sweet and earnest man.

And finally, kudos to the multi-talented Dylan Tedaldi, who shows off a fine singing voice (and to my untrained ear a pretty good southern accent!) with his rendition of Paper Moon.

I’ve never seen Tennessee Williams’ acclaimed 1947 play or even watched the movie. Beyond the famous STELLA! cry and Blanche’s famous final line, “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers”, I probably couldn’t tell you a single other thing about the play, so I certainly can’t comment on the ballet as an adaptation. I loved the National Ballet of Canada’s A Streetcar Named Desire though, and highly recommend it to those interested in an intense, emotional, but very beautiful night out at the ballet.

A Streetcar Named Desire is on stage until June 10, 2017 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

Photo of Guillaume Cote and Sonia Rodriguez by Aleksandar Antonijevic.

Stage: Pinocchio

Pinocchio

Based on Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, the National Ballet of Canada’s world premiere of Pinocchio is an inventive work that combines ballet and theatre in a vibrant and unique way.

In the ballet’s opening scenes, lonely Geppetto (Piotr Stanczyk), a lumberjack in this Canadian incarnation of the story, fells a tree and finds inside it a wooden boy. The Blue Fairy entrusts the boy to Geppetto’s care, telling Pinocchio (Skylar Campbell) that if he tries to be good, one day he might become a real boy. Naive and easily led down the path of temptation, Pinocchio is distracted from this purpose by a puppet show, a pair of naughty “friends” (the Cat and the Fox), and by the prospect of wealth. Appearances by the Blue Fairy (Elena Lobsanova), who acts as his conscience, set him back on course, but the second act sees him undergoing more trials as he is temporarily transformed into a donkey and later swallowed by a whale before reuniting with Geppetto.

Will Tuckett’s Pinocchio is a production that relies very much on strong acting performances. Fortunately, The National Ballet of Canada is a company I have always felt is particularly strong in that area. As Pinocchio, Skylar Campbell is such a perfect fit that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role. His Pinocchio is curious and impulsive, easily led down the path of temptation, yet he is also sympathetic in his naiveté. Campbell dances the role initially with an awkward colt-ish movement that sets the wooden boy apart from the real schoolchildren and other characters in the ballet, but as he becomes a real boy, Pinocchio moves with grace and fluidity to dance in celebration with his father Geppetto. Campbell’s acting is also excellent. He is eager and boyish in his portrayal of the wooden boy who means well but makes poor decisions, and his reunion with Geppetto is heartfelt and moving. On the other end of the spectrum, a scene where Pinocchio awakes to find the coins he has planted have not in fact grown into a money tree while he slept and have been taken by his treacherous friends, is humorous and displays a quickness of movement as Pinocchio sulks and checks for the buried coins again and again.

The whole company is excellent, but Piotr Stanczyk is a standout as the fatherly Geppetto, whose loneliness and worry is keenly felt as he searches for his son by putting up missing posters on every tree. Although I wish the ballet has spent more time on the father-son bond between Pinocchio and Geppetto, both dancers are gifted enough actors that the connection is felt and their reunion moved me. Another standout is Dylan Tedaldi’s fox. His movements are relaxed and appear effortless as he sinks into the jazz-influenced score.

The costume design is one of the first things I noticed about Pinocchio from its promotional material. All of the characters are vivid and colourful in appearance, from the beautiful dress worn by the Blue Fairy, to the plaid lumberjacks, and various animals. Pinocchio’s curly wig is designed to look like wood shavings and yes, his nose does grow! The sets and design of the ballet are similarly impressive. The ocean depths spring to life as dancers manipulate fish, and beautiful projections add to the ballet’s visual appeal.

The jazz-infused score by Paul Englishby also adds to the ballet, particularly through a spirited woodwind motif used for the character of Pinocchio, and a more delicate theme chosen for the Blue Fairy.

There are a few things about Pinocchio that I thought worked in this context, but I can’t imagine them adding to any other ballet. Chief among these are the use of spoken dialogue to tell the story and the abundance of Canadiana.

Five Blue Fairy Shadows, danced by principal dancers Guillaume Côté, Harrison James, Sonia Rodriguez, Xiao Nan Yu, and Corps de Ballet dancer Antonella Martinelli, give voice to the Blue Fairy’s thoughts through spoken dialogue, a rarity in the ballet world. Classical ballet often tells its story through dance and through codified mime. I’ll admit to being someone who finds the mother pointing to her ring finger to indicate that her son must get married, a technique found in ballets like Swan Lake, old-fashioned and unwelcome, but I also don’t find dialogue a necessity when choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon have so effectively communicated stories like The Winter’s Tale through dance. I thought the spoken dialogue worked in Pinocchio without detracting from the ballet, likely because it is so clearly targeted at children, but it’s not a feature that I can see working for most ballets. Additionally, the rhyming structure of the text gives off somewhat of a ‘Dr. Seuss meets the ballet’ vibe, particularly in the schoolchildren scenes. Not a bad thing in this case, but again not something I can see working well in other contexts.

While some elements of Canadiana, such as the Mountie accompanied by a few bars of “O Canada” and the beaver tourists, walk the line between being fun and over-the-top, I mostly enjoyed the Canadian content, from the sneaky raccoons in the Red Lobster Inn, to the subtler and very beautiful East Coast inspired setting where Pinocchio and Geppetto are reunited.

No doubt carefully aimed at the March Break crowd, The National Ballet of Canada’s Pinocchio is a family-friendly theatrical production that both parents and children will enjoy. Judging from reactions on social media, purists who go in expecting a classical ballet may be upset by this hybrid of theatre and dance. While it’s not something that I would see repeatedly, I very much enjoyed Pinocchio. For open-minded viewers, it’s a fun afternoon or evening out, that is well danced and acted by this talented company.

Pinocchio is on stage until March 24, 2017 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

Photo of Skylar Campbell and Heather Ogden by Karoline Kuras