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