King of Thieves
by George S. Walker with music by John Roby
Directed by Jennifer Tarver
Stratford Shakespeare Festival

John Bull’s Other Island
by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Christopher Newton

by Mary Chase
Directed by Joseph Ziegler
Shaw Festival

Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy
Written and performed by Ronnie Burkett
Factory Theatre

Fernando Krapp Wrote Me This Letter: An Attempt at the Truth
by Tankred Dorst
Directed by Mathew Jocelyn
Canadian Stage

Rock of Ages
Book by Chris D’Arienzo
Directed by Kristin Hanggi

Pricilla Queen of the Desert
Book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott
Directed by Simon Phillips
Mirvish Productions

Cirque du Soleil
Banana Shpeel
Written and directed by David Shiner

Death of a Salesman
by Arthur Miller
Directed by Joseph Ziegler

A Raisin in the Sun
by Lorraine Hansberry
Directed by Weyni Mengesha
Soulpepper Theatre

Reviewed by Robin Breon

My apologies to Aisle Say readers for these ten reviews in brief of recent productions in Toronto (including some late season shows at Stratford and Shaw Festivals), but I’m currently pressed working to deadline on a few other projects at the moment and cannot give each production the full review here that they all most certainly deserve.
Closing out the Stratford season this year was a disappointing musical by George F. Walker (his first) entitled King of Thieves (with music by John Roby) based on The Beggars Opera, the 18th century play by John Gay that was the same vehicle famously reconstructed by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill as The Threepenny Opera. Money markets, financial swindles, the corruption of the banks, fraud and outright theft should have made for an entertaining evening that just rings (and sings) with today’s headlines and readymade for Walker’s pulsating, spare-them-no-mercy writing style. Sadly, the lame direction by Jennifer Tarver, the repetitive score by John Roby (it sounded like he was playing the same song throughout the entire show - first fast, then slow then a little razamatazzy) and a meandering book by Walker left me scratching my head as to how this show ever made it to one of Stratford’s main stages (albeit the smaller Studio Theatre that did mitigate the damage somewhat). Some redeeming performances (the appealing Jay Brazeau and Nora McLellan come to mind as the libidinous Peachums) still could not pull off this heist successfully.
A much stronger closure was offered by the Shaw Festival productions of John Bull’s Other Island and Harvey. JBOI was a super production here directed by Christopher Newton, AD emeritus of the Shaw Festival. The politics of the play really defines Bernard Shaw in many ways as the phenomenon that he was; an Irish socialist in the British theatre of his day. Dubliners would probably have booed (or yawned) the play off the stage in 1904 but for Londoners it was not that simple. Standout performances by Jim Mezon as Peter Keegan, a  prescient liberation theologian who has been ex-communicated from the Catholic Church and Severn Thompson as Nora Reilly, the lass from the working class who has more faith in humanity than religion. The rest of this superb cast includes Benedict Campbell, Guy Bannerman, Mary Haney, Thom Mariott, Patrick McManus, Craig Pike, Ric Reid, David Schurmann, Graeme Somerville, Jonathan Widdifield and Tim Ziegler.
Harvey (playing through November 14th) by Mary Chase is (if you haven’t heard by now) a comedy about a gentlemanly alcoholic named Elwood P. Dowd (here played to great satisfaction by Peter Krantz) who, many years ago, was befriended by a six foot, two inches tall invisible rabbit named Harvey much to the dismay of his social climbing sister and niece with whom he lives in a not uncomfortably inherited house with a substantial inheritance that allows him to pursue a rather leisurely and sufficiently inebriated lifestyle. The interesting thing about this show is its enduring quality - and I say this modestly not having seen a production of Harvey on stage for at least 30 years. The original production (directed by Antoinette Perry, who invented the Tony Awards) opened on Broadway in 1944 and ran for five years later being made into a film with Jimmy Stewart in one of his signature roles. Joseph Ziegler directs here with the same surety that led him to such success in his acting of other major American classic roles such as Joe in The Time of Your Life and (currently) in an outstanding production of  Death of a Salesman  - both for Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto. In short, Ziegler just knows when to step back and trust the material - right down to the smallest roles which in this case was a wonderful turn by Peter Millard as the taxi cab driver, E.J. Lofgren who reminds us that no one - including all the psychiatrists of this world laid end to end - really has a handle on reality. One leaves the theatre with that warm glow that only a tall one can provide.
Meanwhile, back in Toronto several productions of note opened the fall season. Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes, (after two years of touring and an overwhelmingly positive reception to his work in Canada, Australia and the UK) chose to close Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy in Toronto at the Factory Theatre. To sold out audiences, Mr. Burkett continues to amaze with prodigious acting as well as technical skills in the manipulation of his various charges which at one point included a hand puppet skillfully handling a marionette who was putting on a show with yet another (tiny) marionette. Truly remarkable.
Next at Factory is the eagerly awaited Bethune Imagined, written and directed by Ken Gass, about the Canadian communist icon, Norman Bethune, who loved women as much as he did the revolution.
Canadian Stage opened their season with Fernando Krapp Wrote Me This Letter (An Attempt at the Truth) by German playwright Tankred Dorst. This is the first look at Mathew Jocelyn’s work for many in Toronto who was hired two years ago to helm one of Toronto’s premiere non-profit spaces replacing Martin Bragg as artistic and general director. Dorst’s parodic play was mirrored by Jocelyn’s satirical bit of street theatre at the play’s opening by having the theatre “picketed” by staffers carrying signs that read “Live Theatre is Krapp” as patrons entered the theatre. Although some in the audience agreed with them by the time they exited, I’m of the opinion that Jocelyn has programmed a challenging first season for Canadian Stage with a number of interesting local partnerships that should only enhance the theatrical landscape of the city. Upcoming productions of interest include the musical Parade (a collaboration between Studio 180 and Acting Up Theatre Company), Ruined (Obsidian Theatre in association with Nightwood Theatre), Studies in Motion: the haunting of eadweard muybridge from the Vancouver based Electric Company Theatre, and Saint Carmen of the Main by Michel Tremblay (directed by Peter Hinton and co-produced by the National Arts Centre in Ottawa).
Mirvish Productions has announced that Rock of Ages, which has now played at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto for over a year, will close in January so I thought it time to get in to see this acid rock jukebox musical featuring the tunes of Journey, Twisted Sister, Poison, Whitesnake, et al, about the shy country girl who meets the big city rocker on LA’s Sunset Strip circa 1980s.
First of all, let me say that I did not know any of the music from this show and the best I can say for the period is that it replaced disco which was fine by me (after putting in earplugs I was fine). In the musical We Will Rock You (which featured the songs of Freddie Mercury and Queen and was a better show) the “we shall overcome” dynamic revolved around the Orwellian Globalsoft Corporation that was hell-bent on controlling the world. In Rock of Ages the stakes are much lower with the threat coming from a developer who wants to tear down a seedy section of the Strip (probably not a bad idea when you think about it). In any case, it’s a musical and the niche marketed book by Chris D’Arienzo played successfully to the fans of the heavy metal bands who were there in abundance.
Just opening at Mirvish’s Princess of Wales Theatre is Pricilla Queen of the Desert which is based on the movie about three drag queens who hit the road in a bus named Pricilla to put on that one last show for one of their buddies. Found music is again interpolated in this fun filled romp which is hands down the best drag show in any city that it plays. Will Swenson, Tony Sheldon, Nick Adams and C. David Johnson all have their turn at the wheel of this fast paced vehicle. By the end of the first act (which by my watch ran 1 hour and 5 minutes) one can only take a deep breath and wonder aloud if they could push one more show tune into that space of time - oh wait, Act 2 is beginning…
And not to be outdone, Cirque du Soleil was also in town this fall (at the Canon Theatre) with a re-working of Banana Shpeel which by now has gone through several incarnations on its way to Broadway (again) and destinations internationally. This is the second Cirque show that I’ve seen this year. Totem, which opened in Montreal in May, was directed by Robert Lepage and centered on the theme of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Perhaps Lepage was thinking about his upcoming mounting of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Met in New York this fall as he was directing the show because it seemed like after a few funny sight gags (the evolution of homo sapiens in motion from the lowly ape to the upright man with suit and brief case was inspired) and some scenic effects, he lost interest in the script and just let the circus acts take over.
In Banana Shpeel there was a more concerted effort to develop a book (written by David Shiner) around the circus acts and for the most part the effort succeeds in elevating the clowns, which normally play second banana in the Cirque shows, to the central force driving the story. Danny Rutigliano (as producer and head ring master Marty Schmelky) is reminiscent of a young Danny DeVito in the lead role and is ably assisted by Shereen Hickman, Claudio Carneiro, Patrick De Valette and Daniel Passer along with some incredibly talented and agile aerialists, jugglers, contortionists and acrobats.
Finally, it should not go unmentioned that Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre continues to mount an extremely successful season and has just announced a blockbuster 2011 season (beginning in January) featuring 17 (I’ll spell it out folks, that’s seventeen) productions. Currently playing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts are two superb productions. Death of a Salesman features the husband and wife team of Joseph Ziegler and Nancy Palk as Willy and Linda Loman (directed by Albert Schultz) while the gifted direction of Weyni Mengesha guides the winning performances of  Alison Sealy-Smith and Charles Officer as Lena and Walter Lee Younger in A Raisin in the Sun.

Coda: for Aisle Say readers who are interested in a more in depth survey of the Canadian theatre scene nationally, there is a new outlet on the Net entitled “Webplay” which is a compilation of theatre reviews put together by members of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association (of which I am a member) that can be found at the following URL:

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