Stage: A Streetcar Named Desire


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: Onegin


“Oh dear father up in heaven, release us from boredom, oh dear father up in heaven send us a good time,” sing characters in the opening earworm song of Onegin, a new Canadian musical written by Amiel Gladstone & Veda Hille. The Musical Stage Company’s new production certainly succeeds in this goal, with a show that is inventive and fun. By presenting the nineteenth century source material in a contemporary way, they show that this classic tale’s exploration of love has relevance today.

The musical is based on Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse about bookish country girl Tatyana Larin, who falls for St. Petersburg dandy Evgeni Onegin. She declares her feelings for Onegin in a letter but he condescendingly rejects her advances. Later he is invited to Tatyana’s name day celebrations by his good friend Lensky, a hot-tempered poet who is engaged to Tatyana’s younger sister Olga. Bored at the celebrations, Onegin avenges himself by flirting and dancing with Olga. The display upsets Lensky and he challenges his former friend to a fateful duel.

While the novel has previously been adapted into an opera (Eugene Onegin, first performed in 1879 and also credited as an inspiration for this musical), I’m most familiar with it from the excellent John Cranko ballet (created for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1965).

Self-referential and interactive, Onegin involves its audience. The actors move among the audience, break the fourth wall (as Lensky says in the first number, “that’s right, I’m actually talking to you. It’s one of those shows”), and even use the first row as a postal service to deliver letters between parties. This could easily be taken too far, but in Onegin it adds to the fun atmosphere of the performance.

The gorgeous two-level set, created by Denyse Karn, is designed to resemble the old house full of books that Tatyana dreams about. Clever staging allows the space to transform with minimal adjustments so a folded white sheet becomes a snow covered dueling ground, and the remnants of a cup of tea become the spilled blood that follows a duel.

Comprised of a three-person on-stage band and a seven person cast, the ensemble is strong and sounds richer than you would expect from its small number. A shout-out to Shane Carty, who plays Prince Gremin and others and whose baritone gives the ensemble depth (and I’m not just saying that because he brought me a shot of vodka in my second viewing!).

Rare is the show where it’s not just one or two songs that stick with you, but most of the score. That was the indie-rock inspired Onegin for me. Standouts are “Let Me Die”, Tatyana’s solo about falling in love, Lensky’s moving “Olga Will You Weep”, sung the night before his duel with Onegin, and the earworm “Oh Dear Father” that opens the show. This is a score I would happily listen to over and over again.

The standout performance of the night comes from Hailey Gillis. Her Tatyana has a naive earnestness in the first act and is believably awkward and lovestruck in her interactions with Onegin. She matures in the second act into a confident young woman, capable of feeling her youthful passion for Onegin while realizing how poorly he treated her when she was an uncultured country girl and not a member of society. I never feel like I have enough superlatives to describe a Hailey Gillis performance and here, where she plays a character that she can really sink her teeth into, she shines, showing vulnerability and passion by turns. Her voice has a light, almost ethereal quality to it, that suits the score, and her acting is subtle with every choice feeling genuine. You can see the hope leave her eyes as Onegin turns Tatyana down.

The other standout is Josh Epstein, reprising his Jessie award winning role as Vladimir Lensky. Serving as a narrator of sorts for the show, his Lensky is both genial and passionate. Epstein seems the most comfortable with the self-referential style of the show, and his soaring tenor is a treat to listen to, especially in the moving night before the duel solo “Olga Will You Weep”. Even knowing how the story would play out, each time I wished that Lensky would reconcile with Onegin, not ready to say goodbye to the character.

There’s something almost intoxicating about Onegin for me. I first saw the show when it was still in previews and by intermission was planning a return. Shortly into the second viewing I realized that I had to see this one last time before it closed and have since bought tickets for a final performance. Needless to say, I love it.

As much as I enjoy this show though, I do have some critiques of the production. I’m so glad I went back for more because some of the issues I had when I saw Onegin in previews had been fixed, most noticeably, the cast have settled into their roles and are more comfortable with the style of the material. This is especially true of Daren A. Herbert, who played bored so well in the first act that the charming rakish young dandy didn’t always come across, and whose voice wasn’t always settled in the score. This time around he was a standout, incredibly charming from the get go, which meant that I felt sympathy for his Onegin even as I cheered Tatyana on. His voice was also stronger, finding the perfect balance between rough emotion and pitch.

There are still a few things that don’t work for me with this show, most notably the comic relief. Admittedly I’m not a huge fan of the comic relief song in musicals. I’d be perfectly happy to listen to Les Miserables without “Master of the House”, or Jesus Christ Superstar minus “Herod’s Song”. Onegin has two such songs designed to break the tension.  “Queen of Tonight” at least draws a few laughs from the audience, although I thought its placement interrupted the flow of the show a little, but the song about rules for dueling fell completely flat and could use some re-writing, particularly since any musical in the modern age with a song about dueling is going to draw comparisons to Hamilton and “Ten Duel Commandments” this song ain’t.

As a mostly sung-through musical, I also found the transitions between songs were sometimes rough and could use some smoothing over.

All in all, Onegin isn’t perfect yet, but it’s a promising new Canadian musical with one of the best scores I’ve heard and a universally strong cast. I’m sure the road for this musical, which will also be heading to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa this fall, and on a tour of Western Canada, is not over yet and I hope very much that it will one day lead this very deserving show to The Great White Way.

If you’re in the Toronto area, don’t miss the chance to see this wonderful show before it closes on Sunday!

Onegin plays until June 4th at the Berkeley Street Downstairs Theatre.

Photo of Josh Epstein, Daren A. Herbert, Hailey Gillis by Racheal McCaig Photography

La Bohème: An Opera Newbie’s Thoughts

photo stage copy

Before Tuesday night I had been to a grand total of two-and-a-half operas, including an excellent and gorgeously sung production of Carmen, and half of a Don Giovanni best forgotten. With such limited experience of opera, I hesitated over whether I should write a review at all, but part of the magic of Against the Grain Theatre’s contemporary take on La Bohème is that it appeals to both opera newcomers and seasoned veterans alike.

I may not be qualified to comment on the technical aspects of this performance, such as how the English-translated libretto works compared to the original Italian, or on the vocal technique of the performers, but I can certainly discuss how the opera works as an introduction to opera newcomers, its timeless themes of friendship, love, and artists struggling to pay the rent, and the superb performances from a universally excellent cast.

This modern “transladaptation” of Puccini’s classic opera is set in present-day Toronto, sung in English, and takes place at a dive bar in the Annex (and yes, you can drink during the show!). Puccini’s characters and music are kept, with some minor updates (Rodolfo is a screenwriter, rather than a poet). The orchestration is stripped down to a solitary piano, but the simple accompaniment serves to highlight the strong voices in this well-rounded cast.

The opera opens with Rodolfo (Owen McCausland) and Marcello (Andrew Love)’s frigid apartment, as they burn sections of Rodolfo’s latest screenplay to stay warm. Joined by friends Colline and Schaunard (Micah Schroeder), who arrives bearing food and beer, they ply the shady landlord with liquor and send him away without the rent he demands. While the others head to the bar, Rodolfo stays behind to work on a script, but when a power outage strikes, he meets Mimi (Kimi Mc Laren), who is looking for someone to light her candle, and they fall in love.

Rarely have I seen a cast as strong as this one. From Kenneth Kellogg (as Colline)’s beautiful aria to his coat, to Owen McCausland (Rodolfo)’s strong tenor, which is particularly heartbreaking in his final tragic scenes with Mimi, there is not a weak link among them. Adanya Dunn is also captivating, introduced as a flirtatious, confident Musetta who does what she wants (including very nearly Marcello in a memorable scene on the bar!), she later shows a softer side as Musetta prays for Mimi to live.

The two standout performances of the night belong to Kimy Mc Laren and Andrew Love though.

Kimy Mc Laren is a wonderful Mimi. Her decline and death are incredibly affecting, aided no doubt by the fact that she imbues her character with a warmth and light that give the audience the impression that she is not just loved romantically by Rodolfo, but is also loved as a dear friend by the other artists, particularly Musetta and Marcello.

A fan of Andrew Love’s since his Les Miserables Toronto days, I was pleased but not at all surprised to see him steal every scene he’s in as Marcello. His characterization is nuanced, showing all of Marcello’s sides, from jealous suitor to clowning roommate, to grief-stricken friend, and it’s always a treat to hear Love’s gorgeous baritone again.

It would be easy for this adaptation of La Bohème to lean too heavily on the local setting, including references with a wink, but the subtler inclusion of details like a shot glass with a blue jays logo, and a casual reference to shopping on Bloor Street West, are just enough to set the scene and spark the thrill of recognition. Although less subtle, I also enjoyed the fact that Colline gets a job at BMV, a used bookstore located across the street that I frequent whenever I’m in the neighbourhood. Modern touches on the set and in the translated libretto add to the atmosphere, with the words, “I’ll text him” sung in a rich baritone drawing chuckles.

As a relative opera newcomer, I can’t imagine a better introduction to the art form than this one. Inventive and interactive (Musetta in particular wanders into the audience during the second act), La Bohème manages to be both laugh-out-loud funny and poignant by turns. The 1896 opera’s themes of struggling artists trying to make a living still carries weight in a world where millennials with four-year degrees struggle to find jobs in their field, and in a city where housing prices have skyrocketed. Its other themes of friendship and love are timeless. I highly recommend snagging rush tickets for this unique show if you can. I guarantee you will not regret it.

Finally, a shout out to the creative minds who came up with and designed the La Boheme faux newspaper that serves as the show’s programme, complete with articles, a headline (“The Rent is Too Damn High”), and a classifieds section. Given Toronto’s current housing market situation, the subject is timely. I particularly loved the listed requirements for renting an apartment in Toronto these days: “landlords now demand 10 post-dated cheques, first and last month’s rent, a cleaning deposit, a repair deposit (your landlord isn’t going to fix that thing on their own), a reference letter from all former employers going back five years, dental records, access to social media accounts, and, in some cases, a urine sample.”

La Bohème plays until June 2, 2017 at the Tranzac Club. The show is sold out for the rest of its run, but rush tickets are available for $35 cash only at the door for each performance.

Photo of Kimy Mc Laren and Owen McCausland by Nikola Novak

Stage: Spoon River


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: 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

Stage: Of Human Bondage


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


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