Robin Breon Reviews:

Written and performed by James Gangl
Directed by Chris Gibbs
Theatre Passe Muraille

Written by Jean Genet
Translated by Martin Crimp
Directed by Brendan Healy
at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

CHESS, The Musical
Music by Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus
Book and Lyrics by Tim Rice
Direction and choreography Craig Revel Horwood
Princess of Wales Theatre

by Noël Coward
Starring Kim Cattrall and Paul Gross
with Simon Paisley-Day and Anna Madeley
Directed by Richard Eyre
Royal Alexandra Theatre

Written by Henrik Ibsen
Directed by Morris Panych
Young Centre for the Performing Arts

Written by Larry Kramer
Directed by Joel Greenberg
Produced by Studio 180
in association with Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

The runaway success of Sex, Religion and Other Hang Ups owes much to the winning, hyperkinetic performance - the only performance in the show in fact - by James Gangl. But his success is also due, perhaps more than Mr. Gangl realizes - to Steve Carell’s work in the film, The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The movie, embedded as it is so firmly in the public consciousness - let’s us believe whole heartedly in Mr. Gangl’s central conceit involving an aspiring actor (Mr. Gangl) strongly rooted in the Roman Catholic religion of his youth, who, despite numerous opportunities with several beautiful and willing women, has found himself unable (and unwilling) to consummate a sexual relationship.

               The play really has three concurrent through lines. Mr. Gangl’s struggle as an actor; Mr. Gangl’s struggle with beautiful women that he meets in the entertainment industry (one in particular while shooting a Coors beer commercial in Quebec); and the post traumatic stress that he suffers when recalling the catechism of his youth that he still promulgates (unproductively) in adulthood.

               I won’t go into details or divulge the splendid ending that Gangl reveals in the closing moments of his play except to say that of all the one person shows that proliferate out of the fringe festivals, this is one that certainly lives up to its well deserved rave reviews. The play is LOL funny, fast paced and finally pulls our sympathy firmly into Mr. Gangl’s corner, who we hope will not only get himself laid one day but will do so beyond the confines of the religious and moral rectitude that has repressed him for so long.


The French novelist, playwright and poet, Jean Genet, who counted as his friends intellectuals the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault among numerous others, was at once a revolutionary as well as a poet. But unlike his academic friends, Genet (whose mother was a prostitute) rose to prominence as a writer by documenting his interactions with the French criminal justice system (he was in and out of jail as a result of 10 court convictions for various crimes in his youth). Although The Maids (written in 1947) may be based on a celebrated court case in 1930s France about two sisters who murdered their wealthy employer and her daughter, Genet clearly endows the tale with his own contempt for the local bourgeoise and his identification with the oppressed of his day. He does so with a heightened sense of language and use of poetic prose so articulate and eloquent that it seems as though he is gifting the actors who are privileged enough to find themselves speaking the words.

               The incomparable Diane D’Aquila (as Solange) and Ron Kennell (who portrays a marvelously gender bended Claire) offer just the right balance to paint all the shades of passive-aggressive behavior, degradation and sadomasochism that moves from infatuation to conviction in planning the murder of Madame (Maria Ricossa).  Director Brendan Healy has staged the action evenly, taking his time and trusting in his actors to give Genet’s sublime poetry the time it needs to dig into our consciousness. There is nothing like the planning of a murder to keep one’s attention in the theatre. With the help of Julie Fox’s production design and Richard Feren’s soundscape, we remain rapt as Genet concocts his lethal scheme in full view of many witnesses.


The one thing I must give the venerable Tim Rice credit for is candor. In a recent CBC radio interview prior to the opening in Toronto of his mid-1980s musical, Chess, written in collaboration with ABBA composers Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, the commentator seemed unaware that the musical has had a troubled history and was never really embraced by critics or the theatre going public. The interviewer began by complimenting Rice on the huge success that Chess has enjoyed over the years and how lucky Torontonians are to have the opportunity to see it. Rice responded modestly by saying that he hoped that would be true but that in fact the musical has never enjoyed great success especially in comparison with his other projects (he mentioned Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita) and that he is still trying to sort out the problems every time it is revived.

               In truth, the pieces in Chess are problematic, with its rambling story line based loosely on the Boris Spassky/ Bobby Fischer face off in 1972 for the title of World Chess Grandmaster and its huge compilation of power ballads piled so high on the staff that we lose sight of who is castling whom. I won’t go into a litany of critique because Mr. Rice is far more articulate than I on this point. Suffice it to say, there is something compelling about the old cold war being played out on a hot chess board filled with political intrigue and romantic betrayal. Shona White joins the ranks of great Florences (Judy Kuhn, Elaine Page and Julia Murney to name a few others who’ve sung the demanding role) who belt out numbers like Nobody’s on Nobody’s Side which basically sums up the whole cold war and therein lies the strength of this vehicle.

               The multi talented cast is one of those arrangements that demands an actor/singer/dancer/musician capability that is fast becoming the quadruple threat de rigueur tool box for performers  in the competitive world of musical theatre. And the cast of Chess does not let us down here, with chops flailing in all directions they are a marvel to behold. Tim Rice may feel the show still needs work but in the meantime no one feels rooked when the board is cleared.


When I mentioned to my sister, who lives in Clearwater, Florida, that I would be seeing Kim Cattrall as Amanda in a production of Private Lives in Toronto, she was excited to hear about it, having recently concluded a production herself in which she played the same role at Ed Fletcher’s Early Bird Dinner Theatre (the buffet is quite good by the way, if you are ever in the area). “Tell me how they did the fight scene in the second act” she wanted to know, “ours was a real slug fest.”

               Such is the enduring and amenable quality of Noel Coward’s comedy of irresponsible adults, which was first produced in 1930 with Coward himself in the role of Elyot opposite Gertrude Lawrence as Amanda. At the time, Coward was 31 and Lawrence was 32. Ms. Cattrall (whose smash hit opening in Toronto has broken box office records at the Royal Alexandra Theatre) is 55 and although she does not look her age, it really wouldn’t matter if she did (or older for that matter). The timeless quality of this porous play allows actors of varying generations to access it as needed for a good revival about every decade or so in venues as disparate as the two mentioned above. The current Toronto mount in its pre-Broadway run proves the point. Director Richard Eyre has given us a new look at an old play and comes up with some wholly original bits that only add to the enjoyment of what Coward had already set down so meticulously in his stage directions (and yes, the fight scene in the second act is choreographed superbly).

               It is especially gratifying to see Ms. Kattrall succeed so admirably in the storied role of Amanda. As an artist and a commodity she has parlayed her talents well since being typed as the libertine, Samantha Jones, from her years on HBO’s Sex and the Ctiy. With the able support and encouragement of Paul Gross, Anna Madeley Simon Paisley Day and Caroline Lena Olsson she continues to be bad in a really good way.


Buddies in Bad Times Theatre continues its strong season with Larry Kramer’s play, Normal Heart, which is presented in a coproduction here with Studio 180 and directed by Joel Greenberg. It was not by prior design that I saw the show the night after I attended Soulpepper’s excellent production of Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen (directed by Morris Panych). Whereas Kramer’s time capsule of a play chronicles the progression of a growing concern (the discovery of AIDS as a sexually transmitted disease) into a grand campaign, Ghosts reminds us that it is just as likely that within any given historical period society’s unco guid would closet the truth behind closed doors whenever it becomes inconvenient. Ghosts was first performed in 1882, The Normal Heart had its first performance in 1985.

               Without belaboring a lengthy comparison between these two very different plays, it is interesting to note that both feature a leading character bent on building an organization. Ibsen’s Helen Alving (played with a reservoir of subliminal apprehension by Nancy Palk) is engaged in finalizing the paper work on a not-for-profit organization, in this case an orphanage in her rural seaside community named after her late husband whose philandering led to the contracting of the sexual disease that is at the heart of the play. Mr. Kramer’s drama centers on Ned Weeks, a complex and many times unsympathetic character (who nonetheless is very sympathetically portrayed by Jonathan Wilson). Weeks is an autobiographical stand-in for Mr. Kramer whose goal was to build the first AIDS awareness educational organization in New York City. Both Ghosts and The Normal Heart are confrontational plays and both are driven by a social dynamic that is at once personal as well as it is political.

               Morris Panych furnishes direction as well as an adapted text for Ghosts while faithfully keeping with the naturalism of the period in mood and style (aided here by a lovely set designed by Ken MacDonald). Joel Greenberg continues to build on a directorial vocabulary that is always a great pleasure to watch. His reconfiguration of the malleable BBT space (a building not designed as a theatre but retrofitted variously over the years) here takes the form of arena staging. Not only is every seat in the house desirable, it also opens the play up and encircles us with an uninhibited flow of dramatic action. Brilliant.

               As is the case in most Studio 180 productions, there are regular “talk-back” sessions after designated performance with local AIDS activists in Toronto such as Tim McCaskell and other educators who have worked on these issues within (and sometimes without) the various school districts in the Greater Toronto Area over the years.

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