Stage: Picture This

PictureThis

Based on a 1924 Hungarian play (The Battle of Waterloo by Melchior Lengyel), Soulpepper’s Picture This is an entertaining farce that serves up real laughs. Relying mostly on slapstick and physical comedy, it’s a play that manages to both feel fresh and act as an affectionate throwback to a different era of comedy. It’s not profound. In fact, I probably won’t remember much about this play a year from now, but Picture This is most definitely a fun night out that saves the best for last in a hilarious post-credits scene.

In a 1920s Hungarian hotel lobby, the concierge doesn’t answer the phone, the bell-hop never seems to carry any luggage, and the waitress passes by without taking drink orders. No, it’s not the worst hotel ever, directors, actors, and composers from the local film scene have temporarily taken jobs as staff in hopes of being noticed by major Hollywood director Red (Cliff Saunders), who is staying in the building.

At the heart of the play is Romberg (Jordan Pettle), a down-on-his luck local film producer who hopes to convince Red to make his next silent film at his film studio in Budapest for $5,000 American dollars – a fraction of what it would cost to produce in Hollywood. In on the plan is old flame Milli (Michelle Monteith), an actress posing as a cocktail waitress, who would star in the film.

The twist comes in the form of a misunderstanding. When Red runs into an old friend, Mr. Brown (David Storch), who also immigrated to the United States decades earlier, they immediately catch up. The film industry observers witness the meeting and assume Mr. Brown is a business associate of Red’s. In actuality, he runs a fur shop in Buffalo and is kept on a tight leash by his prudent wife, who has just left town for a few weeks. Left in charge of the exactly $5,000 in life savings he and his wife possess, and free from under his wife’s thumb, Mr. Brown is swayed by Milli’s flattering attentions and goes along with the plan to finance a movie in Budapest – just as long as it’s completed in two weeks (before his wife returns!).

The second act sees Romberg and the rest of the local film scene trying to cobble together an epic film with a limited budget and a short window in which to complete the project. Adding to the dysfunction is temperamental (and somewhat sleazy) lead actor Boleslav, who has been cast as Napoleon.

The set is quite frankly so stunning that it deserves its own paragraph. I mean, I would happily live on this set for the rest of my life! Designer Ken MacDonald outdoes himself, creating a turquoise, art-deco inspired hotel lobby that is elegant, yet playful. Featuring dark wood and a recurring pineapple motif, the set is so evocative that I lamented its loss when the lobby gave way to a film set for Act II.

The humour is generally strong, with a few gags, both verbal and physical, landing particularly well. I guffawed as Romberg pitches his idea for a film about The Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon, and his beloved Josephine. ‘Of course, where would Napoleon be without his noble horse?’ cries a clueless Milli. An accordion-playing gag and a scene where bad actor Hudascek (Gregory Prest) lurks outside a window with his headshot are also laugh out loud funny. While Prest is excellent in a minor role, generating laughs even without speaking, I was less impressed with the actor playing the writer character, who comes off very one-note as he repeats his frustration with the historical inaccuracies in the film.

The standout performances of the night come from Buffalo couple Mrs. and Mr Brown (David Storch and Brigitte Robinson, respectively) though. Storch is pitch perfect as the meek fur salesman. Jumping at the chance afforded by a case of mistaken identity to gain some autonomy over his life by emulating his powerful old friend Red, he is swept away by the grandeur of the plan and the excitement it brings to his mundane Buffalo existence. Brigitte Robinson is an excellent contrast, stealing every scene she’s in with a wry and commanding presence.

On the otherhand, while I enjoyed both Michelle Monteith (as Milli) and Jordan Pettle (as Romberg)’s performances on their own, I would have liked to see more of a connection between them. As a couple they’re sweet enough, but the chemistry never really fully ignites.

All in all, Soulpepper’s Picture This is an entertaining comedy that’s sure to please, and has the added benefit of the best ‘Exit, Pursued by a Bear’ I’ve seen since The National Ballet’s (excellent) production of The Winter’s Tale! It’s definitely worth checking out, especially in this day and age, where we could all use a few hours of escapism and a good laugh.

Picture This plays until October 7th, 2017 at the Young Centre for Performing Arts in the Distillery District.

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

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Stage: King Lear (Shakespeare in High Park)

Lear

Shakespeare in the Park feels like a summer rite of passage. Every major city has at least one seasonal production of the Bard’s works, performed in an outdoor theater under the stars, and Toronto is no exception. Celebrating its 35th anniversary this season, Canadian Stage’s Shakespeare in High Park is a local institution. So it may be surprising to learn that until this year I was a Shakespeare in High Park virgin!

I’ve lived in Toronto for five years now and I’m still slowly working my way through essential Toronto experiences. I’ve visited the Island, the Beaches, waited in line for instagramable food, trekked out to Scarborough to see the Bluffs, and visited the Christmas Market in the Distillery District. Shakespeare in High Park has always been on this to-do list, but it took a female-fronted production of King Lear for me to finally make it to a performance.

Canadian Stage sets Shakespeare in High Park’s Lear loosely in the 1600s, drawing inspiration from the reign of Elizabeth I, but its selling point is definitely the casting of a woman, stage veteran Diana D’Aquila, in the role of Lear. Her performance itself was transcendent, but the casting of a woman also allows this Lear to explore issues of what it means to be a powerful woman in a traditionally male-dominated role. Of note is the fact that, according to a director’s note, the play was originally approached with the thought that the audience would experience a female Lear in the context of a Hilary Clinton presidency. Instead, President Trump’s vision for the United States has brought misogyny in the Western World into sharper focus.

A female Lear allows for some fascinating commentary on how women are viewed by others, and how they choose to present themselves to inhabit traditionally male roles. Following in the example of Elizabeth I, Diane D’Aquila presents Lear as a once-powerful ruler in decline. Although I thought the opening scenes of the play, in which D’Aquila enters as a frail older woman in a white chemise and is dressed on stage, fitted into the black corset, hoop skirt, and ruffled high collar that show her to be a Queen, went on too long, I liked the concept and symbolism behind this ceremonial dressing.

Diane D’Aquila is the number one reason to watch this play. As Lear, she is captivating, portraying the mental decline of this once powerful woman, the anguish of loss and regret, and the tyrannical fits of fury expected from a woman who has never been denied in her life. At times she displays physical tics and tremors, as well as lapses in concentration that indicate a descent into senility, but these are subtle choices and never feel over-the-top. I couldn’t take my eyes off her whenever she was on stage, and I held my breath as she staggered into the audience, climbing the outside arena’s stairs into the storm. D’Aquila admirably balances fragility and strength in her portrayal of this ailing monarch and it’s an incredibly sympathetic performance.

This masterful performance is just one more reason why a female Lear is such an interesting choice. While King Lear is one of the greatest roles a classical male actor of a certain age will play, it’s that much more difficult for older women to be cast in leading, or at least major, roles. Seeing a woman take on Lear, and do so with such success, was incredibly powerful to witness.

King Lear is perhaps not the most well-known of Shakespeare’s tragedies – Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet are more commonly cited as favourites – but I adore this play. For those new to King Lear, the play tells the story of an aging monarch, who plans to divide her kingdom between her three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and her youngest and dearest daughter Cordelia. Before issuing them each a parcel of land, she demands a declaration of love and devotion. While the eldest daughters extol Lear’s virtues and are rewarded, Cordelia speaks honestly and is banished. Goneril and Regan soon reject their mother, casting her out into a raging storm. Meanwhile Edmund, a bastard son, schemes to supplant his half-brother Edgar as heir to their father’s earldom.

At the heart of the play is the fraught relationship between Lear and her daughter Cordelia. The last actress I saw play the role of Cordelia was inexplicably wooden, and it threw off the whole dynamic of an otherwise solid production. Fortunately Amelia Sargisson is an excellent Cordelia. She is honest and compassionate in the play’s early scenes, creating a character who is likable and wronged by Lear’s ego. A highlight of the play was seeing Cordelia appear on the second level of the set, backlit, and surrounded by billowing smoke. I had chills watching this armor dressed Cordelia, a sword in her raised hand, rallying her troops. Seeing this scene in a play where Lear is portrayed by a woman adds a feminist undertone to the story, and I loved that Cordelia had this grit and determination without losing her compassionate nature.

The other performances were generally solid, particularly the sarcastic Fool (Robert Clarke), and Earl of Gloucester (Jason Cadieux). I liked Michael Man’s Edgar, but in this shortened version of the play it felt like the “B” story, featuring Gloucester, Edgar, and Edmund, had less time devoted to it so we saw comparatively little of his Edgar.

My one complaint is with Edmund (Brett Dahl). I can’t say whether it was an actor’s choice or a case of direction gone wrong, but Dahl played Edmund as stereotypically gay, complete with a lisp and an inexplicable costuming choice where he was the only character wearing an open shirt (or no shirt at all!) for most of the night. I’m of two minds about the choice to play Edmund as homosexual. It does add an interesting element to the scenes between Goneril and Regan as they fight over Edmund’s nonexistent affections, because Edmund is all the more coldly calculating while he clearly plays the women for power/ambition. My problem with it is that the portrayal was just so over the top! Subtlety, thy name is not Edmund. There have been so many cases of the stereotypically gay or coded-as-gay villain in film and other mediums that it’s murky enough territory to wade into, but particularly with such an insensitive portrayal.

The costuming is also a little hit-and-miss. Shakespeare in High Park uses black-and-white costuming that melds the modern with the Elizabethan. This is most effective in Lear’s period black gown, which evokes Elizabeth I with her high ruff collar, and in the simple white chemise she wears underneath. I was less impressed by the more modern gowns worn by Goneril and Regan and the men’s costuming, which had a contemporary feel to it, despite the swords. Since Canadian Stage runs two Shakespeare productions in rep (this year Twelfth Night was the other play), set design has to work for both. This lead to a fairly sparse two level set, brought to life mostly by lighting (which I thought was well done) and a tall throne, which acts as an anchor for the production. The throne design is reminiscent both of a medieval torture device (there are straps for the ankles and wrists) and of the Iron Throne, an interesting commentary on the cost of power.

Some mixed results with the costumes and set and a portrayal of Edmund that didn’t work for me personally are minor complaints though in a production that feels so fresh and interesting. Diane D’Aquila’s performance alone was worth the trek to High Park, and there’s a lot here to admire, from a strong yet kind Cordelia, to the commentary on what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated role. This was my first trip to Shakespeare in High Park and if the quality is generally this high, it certainly won’t be my last.

King Lear
wrapped its summer run in High Park on September 3rd.

Photo of Jason Cadieux & Diane D’Aquila, by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Stage: Hamlet

Hamlet

Hamlet at The Public Theater in New York City has the odd distinction of being the funniest production of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy I have ever seen. Certainly Shakespeare’s work is often humorous, but with the possible exception of Polonius, the morose Dane isn’t usually a great source of comedy. Directed by Sam Gold, this production throws all that out the window to deliver a Hamlet that is comic, contemporary, and delivered in a way that feels accessible for Shakespeare fans and those less familiar with the Bard’s work alike.

Hamlet at the Public Theater is also the most #aesthetic performance I’ve seen of this play. A table covered with fresh cut flowers sets the scene, but the lighting choices as well, particularly in the ghost scenes, have a beauty all their own. The set is spare, consisting mainly of a metal table and chairs and a few props on a red carpeted stage, but it’s used effectively. Actors who are not actively involved in a scene often sit just off stage, but visible, on a carpeted stair at the back of the set. A just off-stage washroom, visible to the audience, is also used to great effect.

It’s a distinctly contemporary version of Hamlet. The actors wear modern-day dress, including Polonius in a business suit and Hamlet alternately in a hoodie or in a cozy sweater and a pair of briefs, the poison is delivered using a syringe, and lasagna features prominently in one scene. Yes, there is a lasagna splash zone! This has its pluses and minuses. The costuming isn’t particularly original, and the play removes some of the broader context of Hamlet, such as Fortinbras and the European political situation of the day, but the contemporary setting does lend itself better to physical comedy and it feels like a very accessible version of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

I’d be lying if I said the chance to see Oscar Isaac live on stage wasn’t the impetus for my most recent trip to New York City. First introduced to Mr. Isaac’s work through the most recent Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, I began working my way through his filmography (more of a feat than it sounds because I’m generally more of a TV viewer than a moviegoer). I marveled at his on-screen charisma and admired his ability to transform into completely different roles with conviction. When the news that he would be taking on the Dane in New York City broke, a friend and I quickly hatched vacation plans, egged on further by the knowledge that the new season of Broadway musicals featured exciting shows like Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 that we both wanted to see.

So, after all of this build-up how was Oscar Isaac’s Hamlet? His performance is every bit as good as expected. Isaac appears comfortable and at ease on stage, his charisma radiating throughout the theatre. His Hamlet is animated, seeing to teeter on the edge of madness throughout the play, and Isaac is adept at balancing low comedy (as he plays mad, Isaac’s Hamlet quite literally spends much of the play without pants) with soliloquies that are heartfelt and imbue the well-known text with meaning. He engages directly with the audience and is fully committed to a very physical performance that must be exhausting to perform each night.

The other standout of the evening was undoubtedly comedian Keegan Michael Key. Even before the performance began Key brought the laughs, giving a pre-show speech where he asked the audience not to plug-in their cellphones to a socket at the back of the stage during intermission. “You would think I wouldn’t have to say this,” Key said, “but it happened last night.” Personally, having skipped dinner before the nearly four hour show due to train delays back from Coney Island, by intermission the tray of lasagna still on stage was looking more interesting than the socket!

Keegan Michael Key’s portrayal of Horatio, much like this production of the play itself, relies heavily on physical comedy but it’s extremely effective at doing so. Key’s depiction of the murder of Gonzago in the play within a play scene not only had the audience laughing uproariously but also had his cast-mates struggling to keep straight faces! The rest of the cast is generally strong, especially Peter Friedman (Polonius) and Ritchie Coster (Claudius). Gayle Rankin certainly provides a unique take on Ophelia, as an angry, sarcastic young woman who doesn’t seem to have much of a connection with Hamlet at all, but I’m not certain it worked for me.

This production of Hamlet also acts as an effective ad for Dyson or other industrial cleaning products. By the end of the night the red carpeted stage is such a mess of fresh cut flowers, lasagna, and mud that I don’t envy the cleaning staff!

All in all, it’s a very good production of a play that, full disclosure, has never been a favourite of mine, but I think Hamlet at the Public would have benefited from a more cohesive vision overall. Running four hours, it also begins to feel a little long. Oscar Isaac’s performance would be worth the price of a ticket on its own though and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to see his energetic and charismatic take on the Dane live.

Hamlet plays until September 3rd at the Anspacher Theater of The Public Theater in New York City.

Stage: Toronto Fringe Festival Wrap-Up

Last month, the editor of My Entertainment World asked if I was interested in joining her staff to cover Toronto theatre, beginning with the Toronto Fringe Festival. I enthusiastically, but with some anxiety, said yes for a few reasons. As much as I love writing reviews here, and will continue to do so, I’m aware that most of my wonderful followers are not local and read my stage reviews out of curiosity or out of a (very flattering!) desire to know my opinion on a show, not because it’s something they’re considering attending. Writing for My Entertainment World offers a really cool opportunity to support Toronto theatre and ballet by sharing my honest opinions on what’s worth seeing to an audience who just may buy a ticket for the show. I had a wonderful time reviewing 11 shows for My Entertainment World this year at the Toronto Fringe Festival, an annual independent theatre festival featuring 160 shows in 12 days, and I’m looking forward to writing more for them in the future.

The opportunity to help cover the Fringe also brought with it some nerves . You see, I am a former Fringe virgin (well, almost virgin – I’d previously seen exactly one Fringe show The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!) in 2013). The sad part is that I honestly don’t know why I never attended the Fringe Festival before. I follow enough theatre-related publications and social media accounts that despite not attending before, I generally knew which shows were the year’s standouts. I’d even talked about seeing a show since the festival’s “Best of Fringe”(not held this year due to restructuring at the usual venue) is in my neighbourhood. Sure enough, this year as I looked through the programme I noted several shows that I was interested in seeing!

In the end I attended 16 shows, 11 of which I reviewed for My Entertainment World. Interested in reading my reviews? You can check them out, including my feelings on one of my highlights of the Fringe, Grey, here.

The remaining 5 shows, I’ve reviewed below in order from least impressive to most impressive. Since I already have this nifty stars and half-stars system, I’ve recycled my star ratings for the plays and musicals I witnessed.

06-02-2017-163909-2413Everything There Is To Know
star-2-half
I enjoyed Everything There Is To Know, an original 90 minute musical by Aaron Jensen, more than you might guess from my 2.5 star rating, but I can’t justify giving it a higher rating than this when it needs so much work. To quote Meatloaf, ‘two out of three ain’t bad’ and that’s where this musical currently stands. I found the cast strong overall, especially Sheridan College graduate Quinn Dooley in the lead role of Sophie. Plucky and precocious, but with real moments of feeling, Dooley is believable as a preteen with an overactive imagination. Much like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Sophie makes up stories and likely unconsciously casts her friends and family in the various animal roles. It’s a shame that the last note of the show didn’t seem to fit comfortably in Dooley’s range, although judging from a few stifled coughs following the show, it’s possible that the actress was sick. I also enjoyed Christopher Wilson as Dad/Buffalo, and while Sara Stahmer (Mom) was outmatched vocally by the score, she made up for it with an energetic performance. Most of the cast play multiple roles and threw themselves with abandon into each part, but it’s Karolina Kotus (Beatrice/Turkey) who steals the show as an intimidating camp counselor in a patter song that also shows off her ability to belt called “The Forest Is Not Your Friend”.

I generally liked the music, although at times it comes off a little Sondheim-lite. There are no obvious earworms here, but the score is enjoyable and the lyrics often witty. The lyrics did have some of the cast tripping over their diction, but I’m not sure if this is an indication that the tempo is too fast, or that they didn’t have enough rehearsal time.

Unfortunately this family-friendly musical loses all it has going for it with an awful book. It starts out strongly enough as a play about a girl whose parents are going through a rough patch. Former free spirit Mom leaves, Dad lies about it, and it seems to be about a girl who escapes into imagination and stories when her parents split up. Unfortunately, there’s a completely unnecessary, and so unclearly depicted that I didn’t even pick up on it, twist. Suddenly it’s about the end of the world. Honestly the way it’s currently scripted and staged, I thought the whole ‘the world is ending’ thing was one of Sophie’s nightmares right up until father and daughter were in a bunker! The passage of time is unclear, leading to questions such as ‘Why did Dad bother painting the kitchen when the world is ending?’, ‘Does Mom know the world is ending?’ ‘What happens to her?’, and even ‘It’s been long enough that he built a bunker in the backyard!?’ I know the story is supposed to be from Sophie’ perspective, but I don’t think that excuses this muddled writing and staging! It’s unfortunate because a more grounded approach that focuses on separation/divorce from the perspective of an imaginative child might have served the show better. I honestly do hope Everything There Is To Know goes somewhere. As it stands now though, it’s a bloated musical and the great cast and good music aren’t enough to redeem this muddled mess of a book.

a0d0f6_f45c6c03e2b74087af496caee9b498a7Confidential Musical Theatre Project
star-3
Waiting in line for the Confidential Musical Theatre Project (or CMTP) to open its doors, is a bit like waiting to be inducted into a cult. “This is my third Confidential,” said one man in line to an older woman, who replied that she had been to all of the Fringe Festival performances so far. Certainly after the 60 minute show ended I felt as though I had been brainwashed. ‘Maybe I should go to another performance,’ I found myself thinking. Perhaps the odds would be in my favour and I’d get Les Miserables, Company, or a show that I was more familiar with than the musical I’d just witnessed. After about ten minutes, happily ensconced in the nearby used bookstore, I returned to reality. I can understand the appeal of the Confidential Musical Theatre Project, which offers the guarantee that no two shows will be the same as well as the ability to be let in on a secret. It’s a strategy sure to incite repeat visits, but I wasn’t as thrilled with the output as I expected to be. The show I saw was good, not great. It was generally well sung and acted, but the performances (with one exception) weren’t stunning, and the show wasn’t as funny as I expected. Part of my meh response comes from the fact that the classic musical they performed is not one I’m very familiar with, or one that I particularly like. Ultimately I thought the rest of the audience got more out of it than I did. There was a general atmosphere of joy and willingness to laugh easily, which makes me suspect the audience was mostly made up of fellow actors and/or artists at the festival, who had a different perspective on how difficult it is to step into something after only an hour of group rehearsal. That said, I was very impressed by Jada Rifkin, our lead for the night, who was funny, charming, and unafraid to go all out, even when the risks didn’t always pay off. Rifkin alone was worth the price of admission. Would I go to another CMTP show? Possibly, but as much fun as the element of surprise is, I think I’d like to know what the musical is before committing.

e4e0a2a037Maddie’s Karaoke Birthday Party
star-4

Above all, Maddie’s Karaoke Birthday Party is a really good time. Set in The Monarch Tavern, cast members mingle with the audience before the show, snapping selfies and giving out birthday hats, while audience members play keep it alive with the dozens of yellow happy face balloons covering the floor. Although the pre-show talk and banter between songs is a little weak, the original pop songs, which range from a power ballad (sung beautifully by Erica Peck) to charming comic number “I’m a little bit Basic” (a hilarious Tess Barao), are catchy and well-sung by this talented cast. Throughout the show, Maddie’s friends provide insight into how reliable, kind, and smart the missing Birthday Girl is, but when Maddie finally arrives at her party (spoiler-alert!) she’s drunk and not nearly as put-together as she has always seemed. It’s a musical made with the millennial in mind and, as part of this oft-disappointed in the world generation, I was won over by Maddie’s Karaoke Birthday Party. The site-specific nature of the show does mean that sight lines are sometimes compromised, but not significantly enough to impact the experience, and the casual immersive atmosphere would be hard to duplicate in a more traditional venue.

06-02-2017-174128-9050Recall
star-4-half
Recall was the last of a four show evening for me, and with an 11 PM curtain on a day when I got up at 5 AM, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to stay awake. Fortunately Recall is such a clever and captivating show that all thoughts of my bed were banished for its 85 minute duration. Eliza Clark’s intelligent science-fiction dystopia Recall examines a world where children with sociopathic tendencies that have not yet manifested are hunted down by the government. The cast is terrific, with Kyla Young giving an unnerving performance (with an excellent dead-eyed stare!) as Lucy, and Warren Kang providing a sarcastic, yet vulnerable, presence as Lucy’s friend Quinn, who is also suspected of being abnormal. The standout though is Genevieve Adam as Justine. A few months ago I mentioned that one of the things I would like to see more of in fiction is mothers in SFF and with Justine my prayers were answered. Adam plays her as a spitfire, spunky and flirtatious, but also practical and tough when she needs to be. Her attempts to balance having some semblance of a life with keeping Lucy safe by dodging the authorities drives the story forward. Dialogue flies back and forth at a brisk pace throughout this script, which also finds moments for humour and affection despite the bleakly atmospheric world. As someone who loves fiction about morally grey characters and situations, and as an admirer of effective science-fiction, Recall spoke to me. It’s a clever play with charismatic performances and strong world building. It’s also completely unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and I would gladly watch it again.

the2bseat2bnext2bto2bthe2bking2bbannerThe Seat Next To the King
star-5
The worry with a play like this, a play that received a coveted Fringe 5N review from Now Magazine’s Glenn Sumi and won the ‘Best New Play’ award before it had even premiered, isn’t that it won’t be good, it’s that it won’t live up to the hype. I attended the second last performance of The Seat Next To The King and for me it falls into the rare category of shows, along with the likes of Hamilton, that actually live up to the hype. The Seat Next To The King imagines a sexual encounter between a pair of men in a 1964 public washroom. One of the men is Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King’s right hand man. The other is Walter Jenkins, top aide to President Lyndon B Johnson. Playwright Steven Elliott Jackson’s script deftly explores themes of race, sexuality, and politics in 1960’s America, and it’s brought to vivid life through a perfect marriage between playwright, director, and actors.

The Seat Next To The King was easily the most professional show I saw at the Fringe Festival this year as well as the most affecting. Some of the credit for this clearly belongs to director Tanisha Taitt. What struck me most about her vision for this show is how well it uses transitions between scenes. Simple set pieces, such as a bathroom sink, are turned into a hotel bed by the two actors, but continuity is maintained through period-appropriate musical selection, and the actors remain in character, using the time to reveal more about their characters’ mindsets. I was fortunate enough to attend a talkback after the show with the cast and creative team, and it sounds like Taitt also deserves credit for her role in the casting process. The chemistry between Kwaku Okyere (Bayard Rustin) and Conor Ling (Walter Jenkins) is intense, and both actors, as well as the creative team, described the chemistry as “immediate” from the first read. I know that down the road there will likely be other productions of this play with other actors, and I imagine they will be very good, but it’s hard to imagine anyone fitting as well as Okyere and Ling do onstage. As wonderful as the script is, this two-man play wouldn’t work without a strong cast who are believable together. Between Okyere and Ling the atmosphere is charged. Bayard is charming and self-assured, while Walter is cautious and afraid of what he has to lose. Watching the initial cat and mouse game develop into something deeper and more meaningful is truly beautiful to watch. Like most reviewers who attended this show, I can only add my voice to the chorus of those hoping The Seat Next To The King will be picked up by a professional company and added to their season. It’s a gorgeous moving work that begs to be seen again.

Hope you enjoyed reading my (not at all concise) coverage of the 2017 Toronto Fringe Festival.

Next up in August: a trip to New York City to take in some Broadway shows!

Stage: The Virgin Trial

virgin

Some of the best theatre I saw earlier this year was on a whim, including the closing performance of Soulpepper’s Of Human Bondage (I scored a rush ticket), and The Last Wife, a Soulpepper remount of a Stratford play. Taking advantage of my 30 and under cheap ticket status, I went in knowing only that it was a contemporary feminist spin on the relationship between Henry VIII and his final wife, Catherine Parr. I walked out devoted to Maev Beatty, who played Parr, and determined to see the second part of this planned trilogy about the Tudor Queens when it premiered over the summer in Stratford. Several months and one long, but not uncomfortable, bus ride later, I’m happy to report that The Virgin Trial lived up to my anticipation. Intense, well-written, and exceptionally acted, it’s a worthy successor to The Last Wife, and left me salivating for part three. Full disclosure, I attended The Virgin Trial while it was still in previews and aspects of the show may have changed since the performance I saw.

Inspired by historical personages and events, The Virgin Trial is centered on the aftermath of Thomas (“Thom”) Seymour’s attempt to force his way into the rooms of young King Edward VI. Following his capture and arrest, fifteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth (“Bess”) is implicated and questioned about her role in the events, and about the nature of her relationship with Thom, her step-father and possible lover. Director Alan Dilworth keeps the tension running high and the audience on the edge of their seat, but the play really comes together in the second act, as we see more of the underestimated Bess’ guile that lies beneath her projected innocence.

Darker and more intense than its predecessor, The Virgin Trial‘s starkly modern set, and location in the small Stratford Studio Theatre with its an unusually steep rise, has a vaguely claustrophobic feeling, as though the audience is trapped in the interrogation room with Bess. Torture scenes take place behind a backlit semi-opaque curtain at the rear of the stage and are eerily reminiscent of images from Abu Ghraib. Although most of the present day scenes take place at a metal table, flashbacks to conversations Bess has had with Thom and with Mary add movement and colour into the space.

Bahia Watson is excellent as Bess, expertly capturing the point where girlhood and womanhood intersect. Under interrogation in the play’s present she proclaims her innocence of Thom’s scheme to break into Edward VI’s apartments at Hampton Court with a girlish vulnerability. However, through flashbacks to conversations with her attendants (Laura Condlln as governess Ashley and André Morin as Parry), Thom (Brad Hodder), and, in some of the play’s best scenes, her sister Mary (Sara Farb), Bess’ agile mind and guile is seen at work. Her role in Thom’s actions is slowly revealed as Bess matures and begins to shape her image through the persona of ‘virgin power’.

Some of the best fictional antagonists I’ve encountered are those who can turn on a dime from a genial person who seems to have values to someone who casually carries out acts of violence for his or her own purposes. Ted is one such antagonist, reassuring Bess that he will ensure that she receives a pot of tea while torturing her friends for information. It’s a chilling performance and Nigel Bennett is fabulous in the role.

The standout, however, is Sara Farb, in a smaller role this time around as she performs Juliet in repertory at the festival. Farb received entrance applause more than once at the performance I attended. Although I suspect this reflects her status as a beloved Stratford actress rather than her role in this particular play, she stole scenes as the acerbic, blunt, yet good-hearted Mary, who assists Bess when she needs it most.

Although audiences may get more out of The Virgin Trial if they’ve seen the companion play first, it can just as effectively be watched as a standalone piece. Playwright Kate Hennig’s dialogue is sharp and intelligent, skillfully using contemporary dialogue put in historical context to tell her story, a quality that is mirrored in the superb costuming. Modern dress is used, including business suits for Ted and Eleanor, but some outfits draw inspiration from the renaissance. Bess’ costumes are of particular note, as she initially wears a flowered dress, which is both tailored to her body and yet modestly girlish, and a symbolic white renaissance inspired gown as the end of the play as she reinvents herself as a virgin Princess who is actively in control of her image.

According to a 2016 interview playwright Kate Hennig gave to Timeline theatre, early drafts of the third play, Father’s Daughter, focus on Mary’s story as she becomes Queen of England, with Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey, the 9 days Queen, also playing large roles. I can’t wait to see the conclusion to this stunning trilogy, and hope very much that The Virgin Trial, a dark and thrilling piece of theatre, will be remounted at Soulpepper like its predecessor so I have the chance to see it once more.

The Virgin Trial
 
plays until September 30, 2017 at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Studio Theatre.

Photo (l-r) of André Morin (Parry), Nigel Bennett (Ted), Laura Condlln (Ashley), Yanna McIntosh (Eleanor), and Bahia Watson (Bess), by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Stage: Spoon River

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Based on Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, a collection of short poems, this musical adaptation features the residents of a small town mid-west graveyard returning to share stories of their lives and deaths with curious passersby. By turns funny and moving, Spoon River serves as a celebration of life.

Inspired by immersive theatre, the audience arrives as mourners to a funeral. Instead of entering the theatre through its main doors, the audience walks down a hallway decorated with black-and-white photos and files past an open casket with a young woman in it. An usher in black historical costume expressed his condolences on our loss, and we file across the back of the stage (a series of tombstones that make up the cemetery), before being guided to our seats for the service. This unique entrance certainly adds to the atmosphere of the show, which begins, appropriately enough, with a eulogy.

As the preacher finishes his eulogy and leaves the graveyard, the various dead residents of Spoon River sing “The Hill”, the first of Masters’ poems set to music, a bluegrass theme about how in death all are equal. Throughout the show, some cast members double as musicians, accompanying on the fiddle, percussion, and brass instruments in a folk style that’s reminiscent of Once. The mixture of Americana, Appalachian folk tunes and gospel music is not outstanding or particularly memorable on its own, but it works to set the period and tone of the show and alternates nicely with scenes of spoken dialogue. Some of the songs work more effectively than others, particularly a quiet duet between a husband and wife who sing about being in love and growing old and dying together, the penultimate song where the young woman whose funeral opens the show sings a bittersweet goodbye to life, and the final earworm, that encourages us to live life to the fullest with lyrics like, “you will die no doubt, but die while living” and “is your soul alive? then let it feed.”

Spoon River is very much an ensemble piece. The play unfolds through a series of vignettes, and the actors play multiple characters over the course of the performance, appearing as an individual figure only briefly for a short monologue, scene, or song. These short appearances and the lack of an overall arc for the characters or the show offer little opportunity for standout performances, and mean that the ensemble must cohere.

Although more than half the cast has changed since I saw the production two years ago, I thought performances from the new cast members were strong and worked towards a cohesive whole, with one exception. A rare standout from Spoon River‘s 2015 run for me and the friend I attended with was Colin Palangio as an arsonist (since none of the character names are provided in the programme, we referred to him as “pyro guy” until we could look up the actor’s name). This time around, I believe the role was played by Daniel Williston and I didn’t find his performance nearly as engaging or charismatic. Williston chooses to growl rather than belt his main song and on the night I attended this meant that his vocals were not strong enough to be heard over the orchestra.

On the other hand, Hailey Gillis remains a standout as Bertie Hume, the deceased young woman whose funeral the audience (passersby) is attending. In a floral dress with tears rolling down her cheeks, she is an ethereal presence with a distinctive voice as she sings a farewell to life. Gillis has the sort of presence that makes anyone watching want to see more of her, and I’m very glad that she’ll be leading the cast of new musical Onegin performed by The Musical Stage Company in May.

This was my second time seeing Spoon River and while I still enjoyed it and found the show unique, for me it lost some of its charm this time around. I think the format of the show both helps and hurts it. The eulogies and decision to have actors play multiple characters in shorter cameo appearances makes Spoon River distinct from other musicals, but without time to get to know the characters and their stories, it’s difficult to feel any deep attachment to them. Soulpepper is also primarily a play company and although they have a cast of actors who can sing, it’s sometimes evident that this is not a company full of singers.

Personally I tend to prefer musicals with strong storytelling, with characters who you connect with deeply, and with gorgeous music. Spoon River doesn’t tick those boxes for me, but I do know devotees of the show who have been to see it upwards of five times, so it’s a musical where your mileage may vary. I think it’s a show that should be experienced once for the unique premise and take on small-town history, but whether or not you’re engaged enough to revisit this sleepy graveyard town of secrets after that, is up to you.

Spoon River plays until April 21st, 2017 at the Young Centre for Performing Arts in the Distillery District. You can also catch it this summer at the Pershing Square Signature Center in New York City.

Photo of the 2017 Spoon River Ensemble, by Cylla von Tiedemann

Stage: Of Human Bondage

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Adapted from W. Somerset Maugham’s epic novel of the name name, Of Human Bondage focuses on medical student Philip Carey’s obsessive love for manipulative tea-shop waitress Mildred Rogers, and explores themes of art, class and privilege, and love.

While the semi-autobiographical novel (which I have yet to read) starts with Philip’s early years in Paris, the play omits this to begin instead with his entrance to medical school in London. Although Philip is a promising student, his club foot has made him self-conscious and insecure, untrusting of other people’s high opinions of him. He initially dismisses tea-shop waitress Mildred as vulgar and common, but asks her out anyway and is quickly smitten.

The script is good, but what elevates Of Human Bondage are its evocative design and staging, and the strong performances from its cast, anchored by Gregory Prest as Philip Carey and Michelle Monteith as Mildred Rogers.

Gregory Prest plays Philip Carey as a character who has both a certain superiority about art and beauty, and yet is self-destructive and depressive. An early scene where he is humiliated in a class of his medical student peers, as the lecturer forces him to put his disability on display,  makes it easier to see why Philip would continually fall in thrall to a woman who abuses him. Of course, in her rages Mildred only serves to deepen Philip’s belief that he is not worthy of love. Not coming from a privileged background, the choices he makes impact him monetarily to the point where he seems poised to lose everything he has left, and the deeply sympathetic portrayal makes it difficult to watch.

Not having read the book, Michelle Monteith’s Mildred first struck me as assertive and independent. Initially Mildred’s restraint and seeming caution about moving too quickly with Philip, as well as her repeated coy “I don’t mind” refrain struck me as practical, but as the story progresses, Mildred’s other favourite phrase, “if it gives you pleasure” turns out to be her words to live by. She repeatedly turns on Philip when a better offer for comfort, wealth, and a good time comes along. I don’t know that it’s possible to make an audience like someone like Mildred, who blatantly and without remorse manipulates Philip financially and emotionally, but Monteith is never over-the-top and she is so convincing that at times you can understand the pull she exerts over Philip.

It is a testament to both actors that it becomes uncomfortable and even difficult to watch Philip continually be drawn back to Mildred just to undergo more of her abuse. Monteith’s performance is a masterclass in manipulation as she humiliates Philip, making him beg on his knees. In particular, there is one scene where Mildred is introduced to Philip’s handsome school friend Griffiths. The moment she learns that he has graduated and will be earning money, her behaviour shifts and she begins to flirt with Griffiths and exclude Philip for the rest of the night. When Philip becomes upset, she’s able to manipulate him so effectively that he even gives her money to spend the weekend with Griffiths!

The two leads are supported by equally strong performances from Sarah Wilson, as the charming divorcee and novelette writer Norah Nesbit, Stuart Hughes and John Jarvis as Carey’s artist friends, and Jeff Lillico, as Carey’s handsome medical student friend Griffiths, among others.

A tale of obsessive love that goes beyond reason, Of Human Bondage expertly explores the full range of human emotions. Its characters feel love, loss, fear, despair, and jealousy, and all of these emotions feel real and earned. I cared so much for these characters in spite of, or perhaps because of, their flaws that, not knowing how the play would end, I found myself hoping desperately and against type that it would end happily because I wasn’t sure that I could emotionally handle tragedy.

The production is enhanced by a minimalist but effective set. A large red square serves as the playing area, but left and right of the square are shadowed, and actors who don’t appear in a scene provide background sounds, music, and noises of the tearoom, gardens, or industrial London. In one scene, Philip and Norah sit facing the audience as we hear the final lines of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest spoken by actors in the shadows. The audience watches Philip and Norah watching the play. This use of sound combined with lighting that can instantly change the tone and location of a scene from the bright lights of a sunny day in the park to the use of shadows to create an eerie atmosphere immerses the audience in turn of the century London.

Additionally, the inventive staging is some of the best I have ever seen. Actors holding frames close to their bodies freeze in place on stage to give dimension to the portraits that adorn Carey’s flat, or hold the frames at arms length to convey a mirror. There’s a live montage in which Philip buys a flower and then a necklace from a vendor and Mildred accepts them elsewhere on stage in the next instant. And in one effective scene, the use of shadow and light combined with a chair knocked over convey suicide by hanging.

I was fortunate enough to grab a rush ticket and catch the closing performance of this excellent Soulpepper production. Ultimately, I found the play so profoundly moving that it was hard to believe I had nearly missed seeing it. This is a beautifully designed and staged, well-acted play that is at times difficult to watch in its intensity. If you’re in New York this summer, or have a chance to see this production at any point in the future, it is not to be missed!

Of Human Bondage closed its Toronto run on March 17th, but you can catch the play in July 2017, at the Pershing Square Signature Center in New York City.

Photo of Paolo Santalucia & Gregory Prest, by Cylla von Tiedemann

Stage: Kim’s Convenience

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Set in a family-run Regent Park variety store, Kim’s Convenience tells the story of the Korean-Canadian Kim family as they navigate the complicated relationships they have with one another, and make choices about their future that will have lasting consequences.

Kim’s Convenience has a long history on the Canadian stage, winning the New Play Contest at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2011, being mounted at Soulpepper, and touring across the country, but this was the first time I’d seen the show. I’m delighted to say that Kim’s Convenience lived up to the hype. The play is hilarious, heartfelt, and moving, resulting in a standing ovation at the performance I attended.

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee is a standout in a universally strong cast, as he depicts Appa’s struggle with the knowledge that neither of his children want to take over the store when he retires. When he receives a fair offer from a real estate agent to sell the store as the neighbourhood gentrifies, Lee’s nuanced performance balances the choice between leaving the store, which Appa considers to be his story, to his children, and retirement.

What truly makes the play are the relationships it depicts, each with a different but equally compelling dynamic. Jean Yoon is subtle but effective as Umma, the steadfast wife who also maintains surreptitious contact with estranged son Jung (Richard Lee) through church. Their brief a capella duet makes for a touching moment in the show, as does the reveal that she is a grandmother for the first-time. Jung is a relatable character, having had an epiphany in his early thirties that he feels left behind by his friends and is unhappy with the form his life has taken. The relationship between Jung and Appa is fraught and largely unseen but certainly alluded to until a climactic scene in the second act, while the nervous but earnest connection between Janet (an excellent Rosie Simon) and police officer Alex (Ronnie Rowe Jr.), a childhood crush, as they fall for one another adds a lighter note.

It was Janet’s relationship with her father that resonated the most with me though. Appa wants Janet to take over the store after he retires, but thirty-year-old photographer Janet has dreams of her own. Although there is obviously love between them, both Janet and Appa feel unappreciated and that tension comes to a head in an argument about taking out the garbage. The audience can see both sides of the argument and I think it’s a very realistic disagreement as both parents and their children feel frustration when they perceive themselves to be undervalued by family.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Kim’s Convenience is as funny as it is touching. Although far from politically correct, I laughed at Appa’s detailed racial profiling of customers most likely to be thieves in “steal or no steal”, and at the opening jokes about boycotting Japanese products.

The play features realistic, flawed, and fully formed characters, and is a loving portrait of the City of Toronto and its diversity.

I’ve since finished watching the first season of the CBC television sitcom of the same name, and while I mostly enjoyed the TV show (it takes a few episodes to get into and the pilot was perhaps not the best choice for an opening episode), I do feel like the longer format means that it suffers somewhat in comparison. The compact self-contained nature of the play makes for jokes that land each time and for emotional resolution that is incredibly effective.

Kim’s Convenience plays until March 4, 2017, at Soulpepper Theatre.
You can also catch the play in July 2017, at the Pershing Square Signature Center in New York City.

Photo of Paul Sun-Hyung Lee by Cylla von Tiedemann