Aisle Say Toronto

NOVEMBER/DECEMBER in BRIEF

RED
Written by John Logan
Directed by Kim Collier
Featuring Jim Mezon and David Coomber
at the Bluma Appel Theatre
www.canadianstage.com

 TOPDOG/ UNDERDOG
Written by Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Philip Akin
Featuring Kevin Hanchard and Nigel Shawn Williams
at the Theatre Centre
www.theatrecentre.org

 THE REZ SISTERS
Written by Tomson Highway
Directed by Ken Gass
Factory Theatre
www.factorytheatre.ca

 MARY POPPINS
Original music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman
Book by Juilian Fellowes (based on the original stories by P.I. Travers)
Starring Rachel Wallace and Nicolas Dromard
Princess of Wales Theatre
www.mirvish.com

 PARFUMERIE
Written by Miklos Laszlo
Adapted for Soulpepper by Adam Pettle and Brenda Robins
Directed by Morris Panych
www.soulpepper.ca


Reviewed by Robin Breon

Plays about art and artists are always interesting because they seek to reveal the creative process, elusive though it may be. Yasmina Reza’s Art and Stephen Sondheim/ James Lapine’s musical Sunday in the Park with George come to mind as good examples. Now along comes Josh Logan’s play, Red, about the life and times of the abstract expressionist painter, Mark Rothko, which is now taking the international repertory by storm and being presented locally at the Bluma Appel Theatre as part of the Canadian Stage Company’s second season under the artistic direction of Matthew Jocelyn. For Torontonians, this production comes after last spring’s blockbuster show at the Art Gallery of Ontario dedicated to abstract expressionism where a number of Rothko’s works could be seen - especially the big red ones that figure prominently as background “props” in the stage play.
 
Jim Mezon as Mark Rothko turns in a blockbuster performance himself in a play that is big on bombast but short on nuance. Unlike Reza’s smart and funny play that is completely observational and totally subjective in its point of view, Logan is more concerned with the internal angst that he imagined Rothko suffered while producing his art. In other words, Red is a play about making the art and Art is a play about taking the art and tacking it up on a collector’s living room wall for everyone to see and comment on. A phenomenon that obsesses Rothko as much as it does the fictional characters in Art.
 
With Rothko’s suicide in 1970 at the age of 66, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the chronically depressed painter, who fueled himself on alcohol and nicotine while calming himself with anti-depressants, is fairly represented in Red. The play’s main structural problem rests with the thankless role of Ken (played by Kim Collier), Rothko’s fictional assistant, who acts as his (often silent) sounding board throughout the play with little more to contribute than trying to keep pace with the great artist (intellectually as well as physically) while at the same time trying to carve out some character arch of his own. This finally comes with a heartfelt eleventh hour appeal for attention which is a bit contrived to my mind.
 
Given the circumstances sketched out above it’s an impossible task for Ken to overcome, but then nobody ever said art was easy.
 
Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize winning drama, had its Canadian premiere this past summer at the Shaw Festival’s Studio Theatre space in a co-production directed by Philip Akin, artistic director of Toronto’s Obsidian Theatre. It was a rich and heart rendering production that has at its core a dark rumination on race between relations - in this case two African American brothers named Lincoln and Booth -  who are both practitioners of the Three-card Monte sham. The card trick forms the central metaphor of the play and as such sets out the conclusion of the play early on - there are no winners here - only someone who gets marked. As a result of the extended Shaw Festival run (which I saw on opening night), the re-mount, currently playing at the Theatre Centre in Toronto, has deepened the character development between Kevin Hanchard (as Booth) and Nigel Shawn Williams (who plays Lincoln) now offering  Toronto audiences additional opportunities to see this fine production.
 
The Rez Sisters, which had its orginal premiere at the Canadian Native Centre in 1986, is one of two plays by Tomson Highway that represents his most produced work. The other is its companion piece, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, produced three years later by Theatre Passe Muraille. In my opinion, Dry Lips...  is the superior play in many respects. The only reason I raise this is because Factory Theatre obviously had to engage in a little dramaturgy in order to make some decisions when considering which play to revive almost a quarter of a century later. The choice seems to have rested on artistic as well as sociological criteria.
 
Director Ken Gass has been wrestling for some time now with the whole concept of color blind and non-traditional casting as it applies to ethnoculturally specific plays. And Thomson Highway himself has gone on record (justifiably) in suggesting that some theatres have passed on his plays because there were simply not enough actors of Aboriginal descent available to cast the plays appropriately, depending on the community. With the playwright’s enthusiastic consent, Gass has utilized a racially mixed cast with surprising results. The syntax and the mise en scŹne rings true while the playwright’s original intentions are upheld. So far so good.
 
My problem is that the city of Toronto contains one of Canada’s brightest talent banks for Aboriginal actors who are ready and willing to work. However much Mr. Thomson professes a rennovated position on the question of ethnocentric casting, the fact is this production would have been enhanced with an all Native cast and it’s a shame that more time and effort wasn’t expended to find one.
 
I invited my friend, young Sam Zimbel, to reflect on this touring production of Mary Poppins that has set down (umbrella in hand) in Toronto as part of the Mirvish Production’s subscription series because I trusted the impressions of this articulate 10 year old more than my own. Following is Sam’s review of the show:
 
“The play, Mary Poppins, at the Princess of Wales Theatre, was very good in terms of sound, actors and most of the time the story. The actors did a very good job imitating and adding to the characters in the movie. The sound was great, but seemed to always have to be adjusted. The story was good but they eliminated a lot of my favorite parts from the movie, including the last scene in the park where Mr.Banks is flying the kite with his son, and a man from the bank comes up and says "Hello Banks. Sadly after you left the general manager laughed to death” (in the movie Mr. Banks gets fired and then cracks a joke that his kids said to him and then leaves). Anyways, Mr. Banks promptly says, “oh, I'm very sorry to hear that”. Finally the man says, “oh don't mention it”. In fact, we've never seen him so happy before in the whole history of the bank! Would you like to come back to work? Of course!! Says Mr. Banks! Sorry about that kind of a long recount but I think you get what I mean. They eliminated some really good parts. Otherwise it was a great show including Mary Poppins flying over the audience. But I won't spoil it for you. Better to go see it!!!”
 
Its been quite awhile since I’ve seen the movie so no quibbling from me on the fine points that Sam raises except to say that I agree completely with his assessment of the show’s warm hearted ending. Spiderman junkies take note: all that banging around and nonsense to construct flying sequences are outdone by a simple floating Mary Poppins who takes her leave in the most dignified of airborne exits. Put that in your chim-chim-a-ney and smoke it.
 
Two seasons ago I called out Soulpepper’s production of Perfumerie as a special holiday treat that deserved to be remounted. It’s back for another run at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. Following is a reprint of that review:
 
Morris Panych is pretty much a force of nature in these parts. As a first rate theatre director and playwright he works like an agronomist, tilling and cultivating the local talent from one end of the country to the other, season after theatrical season. Not every crop blooms as one might hope it would (100 productions and counting) but the bounty is significant (two Governor General Awards along with numerous other accolades) and the current seasonal harvest of delight at Soulpepper, Panych's production of Hungarian playwright Miklos Laszlo's 1937 play, Parfumerie, is just another example of how, when all the natural elements conspire as they should, beauty can prevail.
 
 Although this production will have closed by the time Aisle Say readers see this review, let this be my early bid (along with several others already submitted) to ensure that Soulpepper revives the show next holiday season.
 
 Most people will be familiar with the story of the beauty shop owner, Miklos Hammerschmidt (played here with just the right combination of authority and mordancy by Joeseph Ziegler) and its quirky covey of employees by way of its reinvention in two films (The Shop Around the Corner, You've Got Mail), one musical (She Loves Me) and one film musical adaptation (In the Good Old Summertime). What a treat then, to be able to return to the original play in a lovingly rendered new adaption by Adam Pettle and Brenda Robins that Soulpepper has appropriately mounted as a holiday offering.
 
 And before I go any further, let me say that Parfumerie not only smells like a hit, it looks good too with an inspired art nouveau set by Ken MacDonald that is the finest realization of design and construction that I have yet to see in the unforgiving black box of a theatre that represents the mainstage of the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. With no wing or fly space, MacDonald has worked a mini-miracle of his own.

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