Spring 2012 Round Up

Written by Nick Stafford
Based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo
Directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris
Starring ŅJoeyÓ, Alex Furber and Patrick Galligan
Princess of Wales Theatre

Written by Marie Michaud and Robert Lepage
Translated by Michael Mackenzie
Directed by Robert Lepage
Starring Henri Chassˇ, Marie Michaud and Tai Wei Foo
An Ex Machina Production
Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto

Book and lyrics by Tony Kushner
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Directed by Robert McQueen

Adapted from Sophocles
Trachiniae by Martin Crimp
Directed by Atom Egoyan

Bluma Appel Theatre

Created by Crystal Pite

Original music by Owen Belton

Bluma Appel Theatre

The National Ballet of Canada

Produced, orginally staged and with additional choreography

by Rudolf Nureyev after Marius Petipa
Staged by Karen Kain

Four Season Centre for the Performing Arts

by Carole Frˇchette
Translated by John Murrell

irected by Wyni Mengesha
Starring Claire Calnan, Sarah Dodd, Raquel Duffy,

Rick Roberts, Nicole Underhay 

Written by Ins Choi

Directed by Weyni Mengesha

Yonge Centre for the Performing Arts 

Written by Lee MacDougal
Directed by Stuart Hughes
Featuring Oliver Dennis, Michael Hanrahan,

Diego Matamoros, Mike Ross

Written and performed by Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner

Directed by Richard Hurst

Panasonic Theatre

 Reviewed by Robin Breon

 Act II of the Toronto 2011-2012 season is upon us and what a strong second act it is.

War Horse is now on the stage of the Princess of Wales Theatre, and words fail me to come up with any additional superlatives that have not already been accoladed by the international press for this exceptional piece of stagecraft (see David SpencerÕs review of the New York production in the Aisle Say archives). It is, in its essence a powerful example of theatrical narrative (presented very much in the style of Joan Littlewood) and ultimately a profound condemnation of war.

When the National Theatre of Great Britain commissions a new piece of work for the main stage, they donÕt do so without putting a challenge in front of their actors which then becomes the benchmark for all future productions. This all Canadian cast has met that challenge and carried the day. Outstanding performances here by Alex Furber, Patrick Galligan, Brad Rudy, Tamara Bernier-Evans, Richard McMillian, Steven Yaffee, Brendan Murray and Brian Paul to name a few from this talented group of 35 actors. Design elements contributed by Rae Smith (set and costumes) and Paule Constable (lighting) take us from the verdant paddocks of Devon, England, to the brutal battlefields of France and back again that, in the end, leaves only the most cynical and hardened theatregoers among us not reaching for a hanky as the curtain falls.

However deep and powerful the message of War Horse, the success of this vehicle rests in the old show biz adage, Ōyou gotta have a gimmick if you wanna get applauseÕ. The gimmick here is the artistry of Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, the founders of Handspring Puppet Company of Cape Town, South Africa. Not since Michael Curry designed the puppets for Lion King has such remarkable work been deployed so convincingly on the stage. With the help of choreographer Toby Sedgwick and the co-direction of Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, these animals (one hesitates to even call them puppets they are so lifelike) move convincingly from one gait to the next, propelling Michale MorpurgoÕs 1982 novel into an emotional evening of dramatic storytelling.

Also on the Mirvish subscription season this year, The Blue Dragon by Marie Michaud and Robert Lepage (which recently concluded its run in Toronto but is still touring internationally), is, on the surface, a deceivingly simple story of Mr. Personal meeting Ms Political set against a huge backdrop - modern China. My introduction to the script was by way of the glorious graphic novel adaptation illustrated by Fred Jourdain. The reason I mention this at the outset is because the graphic-novel application (published by House of Anansi Press) is a marvelous introduction to understanding the real depth and cultural sensibility that is at the core of the play.

Le Dragon bleau, was written and designed to be performed in three languages - French, English and Mandarin. For a better understanding of the text in the graphic adaptation, the authors and the publishers agreed to have the dialog between Claire and Pierre in English while in the stage production it is performed in French. In short, spending some time with the comic book first not only allows a deeper insight into the story, it also improves your language skills.

With only three characters, Pierre (Henri Chassˇ), Xiao Ling (Tei Wei Foo), and Claire (Marie Michaud) the signature visual style that Lepage has mastered so eloquently over the years, transports us (travel and journey is often at the centre of LepageÕs mise en sc¸ne) in time and space, through personal relationships and political agendas that affect the characters and eventually force them (and us) to ponder which ending (of three offered) would be for the betterment of everyone. As this Ex Machina procduction continues to make its way around the world, it should be a must see.

For a long time now, the small to mid size theatre companys in Toronto have resisted producing new musical theatre projects. Probably the cost involved is one factor that scares off artistic producers although many of the cityÕs stages would be musical -sympathetic including Tarragon, Factory, Theatre Passe Muraille, Buddys in Bad Times, and especially the Bluma Appel. A creative vacuum developed and now that climate is beginning to change a bit with the emergence of new companys that have as their sole mandate the production of musical theatre. Acting Up Stage Company (founded in 2005) is one such group that is to putting together an impressive track record.

In collaboration with TorontolÕs Obsidian Theatre Company, AUSC recently produced a magnificient production of Tony KushnerÕs Caroline or Change. I do believe that Mr. Kushner is probably the only librettist/ lyricist alive today that could have fashioned such a story (much of it autobiographical) that combines a profound meditation on Jewish American and African American solidarity as well as the pain of racial divide and class antagonisms - all framed in what might be described as a kind of dialectical surrealism. Hum a few bars of that why donÕt you.

The production values were superb in the larger space at Berkeley Street that accomodated the upstairs/ downstairs motif of the story (with a set nicely designed and executed by Michael Gianfrancesco). Reza Jacobs led the five piece band admirably conducting Jeanine TesoriÕs rich score that, swung sweetly in and out of various ethnocultural neighborhoods without becoming a cliche. Kimberly PurtellÕs lighting was subtle when it needed to be while also shining the harsh light of reality when called for.

The ensemble was exceptional and evenly balanced througout but special mention must be made here of the superb performance by Arlene Duncan in the leading role of Caroline Thibodeaux.  It is wonderful to see Ms. Duncan back on the mainstage where she belongs after having laboured long and diligently on the hit CBC television show, Little Mosque on the Praire, that, for all of its entertainment value as tv sitcom, sorely underused DuncanÕs prodigious talents as a dramatic actor and singer.

Canadian Stage continues with an interesting albeit uneven second half of its 2011-12 season under the overall artistic leadership of Matthew Jocelyn. Cruel and Tender is Martin CrimpÕs adapation of a lesser known play by Sophocles, called The Women of Trachis. The play appeared as a bold and urgent stroke of writing when it was originally mounted by the Young Vic in 2004, as a condemnation of war, terrorism and torture only one year after George Bush invaded Iraq, defying millions of anti-war protestors who marched in tandem in cities throughout the world prior to the invasion. After all who does war better than the Greek classics?

And although the urgency is now somewhat deflated and replaced by the droll cynicsm and wry humor of playwrights like Roland Schimmelphennig, the message was still delivered in the Canadian Stage production with white hot emotion from Arsinˇe Khanjian in the central role of Amelia, a woman who is caught in the middle of extreme events. KhanjianÕs partner in life, Atom Egoyan, directed with competence and skill. Plus, his participation helped to make it a high profile media event which never hurts when it comes to putting bums in seats.

One of the interesting innovations brought to Canadian Stage by Matthew Jocelyn is the notion that a theatre company may expand its mandate to ecourage multi-disciplinary perfomance styles within its season. Thus the presence of choreographyer Crystal PiteÕs acclaimed creation, Dark Matters which was also presented in the Bluma Appel. Following in the La La La Human Steps of choreographers like Louise Lecavalier, Ms Pite has fasioned two tales that ask us to think about fate and the nature of existence. 

In the first piece, Pite uses her ensemble in a unique way by turning five of them into puppeteers with only one dancer portraying a kind of young Gepetto character who is creating a puppet. But rather than Pinochhio, the puppet turns into Chuckie. Well, you can take it from here. In the second part of Dark Matters, Pite asks us to contemplate human existence and in case we miss the point she calls upon Voltaire to remind us that Ņthis temporary blend of blood and dust was put together only to dissolveÓ  as we watch her tightly woven style that has dancers literally flirting with the dark, always in and out of the shadows, within a broader template that at times freely appropriates the b-toying and crunk styles of street dance while imbuing it with a message that makes us sit up and take notice.

While on the subject of dance, one should mention that this kind of cross programming only enhances attendence at other dance events, or at least that was true in my case recently when as a result of seeing Dark Matters I was moved to pay a visit to the National Ballet of CanadaÕs production of Sleeping Beauty at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Any production that can blithely note in its program notes:  Ņproduced, orginally staged and with additional choreography by Rudolf Nureyev after Marius PetipaÓ immediately envelopes you in an aura of great expectations and NBC artistic director Karen KainÕs work here is a triumph.

In the midst of all the uproar at the Tarragon Theatre recently it is important to remember that The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs, written by Quebec playwright Carole Frˇchette and artfully directed by Weyni Mengesha, does great justice to the mandate of the theatre established just over 40 years ago. Beyond the developement and presentation of new work, Tarragon haa ensured that the best of Francophone theatre has an opportunity to be translated and produced in Toronto. Carole FrˇchetteÕs update on the BluebeardÕs Castle tale is a good case in point.

In ways similar to Bart—kÕs opera, Frˇchette reconceives the piece with a heavy dose of psychological thriller. Also, like the opera, it is short (90 minutes in length) and ends with a rumination on the essence of what constitutes Ņtrue tearsÓ. Nicole Underhay, as Grace, starts off a few emtional decibles too high for my way of thinking and finds herself having to maintain that dramatic pitch throughout the play as a result. I think she could have underplayed a bit at the start and built to the hysterical as she went along, but thatÕs just me.

Astrid JansonÕs flat lined set worked well for the piece as did Bonnie BeecherÕs spot on lighting. Thomas Ryder PayneÕs composition and sound design might have included a bit more underscoring. Hey - if we are moving into Psycho territory, a little Bernard Herrmann wouldnÕt hurt.

Now just a quick update on the uproar at Tarragon. As everyone in Toronto knows by now, playwright Michael Healey and his partner Morwyn Brebner have packed their bags and moved out of their long term residency at Tarragon over Richard RoseÕs refusal to consider staging Proud, HealeyÕs new play that apparently does not treat an unamed but sitting Prime Minister of Canada all that politely. Rose apparently sought the advice of a lawyer who sits on the TarragonÕs board of directors and was told that the theatre could face libel charges and that Rose should not produce the play. While Healey went public on the incident and Rose has decided to stay mum, one look at TarragonÕs board would suggest that prominent arts advocate (and lawyer), John D. McKellar, might have been the person from whom Rose sought consultation and advice (Healey also sought legal counsel and was told the play was not libelous).

This becomes all the more awkward and worrisome because McKellar also sits on the board of the Toronto Arts Council and to speculate that grant monies that come from the TAC may or may not be awarded or adjudicated on the basis of how they hold up to libel chill from conservative politicians just will not stand in front of the Toronto arts community. At this writing, Andy McKim, artisitc director at Theatre Passe Muraille, has announced that his company will produce a staged reading of HealeyÕs play on March 19th. Look for a packed house. 

If there is one theatre in Toronto this season that just cannot make a misstep, it would be the Soulpepper company. KimÕs Convenience, written by Ins Choi and directed by Weyni Mengesha (seemingly the fastest rising artistic director in the country) is an excellent example of how all theatre is really local in its perspective no matter what the subject matter. The playwright responds to local stimuli, ethnocultural dynamics, history, politics and pressures that exist locally and produces a play which comes out of a specific environment that varies from city to city and country to country. In this case, Choi looked at his own Korean upbringing in the city where his father managed a local convenience store. The fact that the store is located not too many blocks from my own neighborhood, only increased the honesty, sincererity and emotion of the piece for me. Choi himself plays the small role of Jung, the alienatied son who returns home to the store to reconcile with his authoritarian father. If Paul Sun-Hyung Lee does not win the Dora award for best actor for his performance as the father, Appa, there is simply no justice anywhere. Strong supporting performances also by Clˇ Bennett, Esther Jun and Jean Yoon.

Choi has clearly learned the art of playwrighting from his tenure with Soulpepper. To see his work blossom with such striking beauty is a great thing to behold. Althouigh the playÕs run is over at this writing, it will be remounted beginning May 16th at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts for a three week run. If you missed it first time around, hereÕs your chance.

A second Soulpepper hit this season is High Life by Lee MacDougall. This script speaks to a question IÕve had to ask myself recently: why is that much television - including smart sit-coms as well as dramatic series - contains a quality of writing that far surpasses what i often find in the theatre? Is it because television and film can pay more so that our best writers go there and donÕt even bother with the theatre anymore? And why is it, when a play gets produced that is funny - really funny - it often gets put down by critics as being Ņsitcom materialÓ - as if this is a terrible thing?

In High Life, Lee MacDougall has written a great heist movie. The scenes move along quickly, the characters are carefully (and humorously) delineated and the whole thing keeps its secret right to the end with an almost unbearable dramatic tension for reasons I wonÕt disclose here. Suffice it to say that male readers of a certain age will relate to one of the characters ŅurgencyÓ with great sympathy. Oliver Dennis, Michael Hanrahan, Diego Matamoros and Mike Ross are all perfiectly cast and therein lies another reason why Soulpepper is a great theatre company.

The development of an ensemble of actors that has the opportunity to grow and develop together over a number of years simply cannot be compared to casts who come together for a limted three or four week rehearsal run that culminates in production. Artistic director Albert Schultz has thought about this problem long and hard and his ability to respond to the needs of the company artistically as well as financially is one of the great attributes of Soulpepper. It is also a large company of actors that allows it to produce small but artistically brilliant work like KimÕs Convenience as well as larger classical plays. I predict the upcoming revival of George S. Kaufman and Moss HartÕs You CanÕt Take It With You next month (April) will be a huge popular success and Soulpepper is the only company in the city that has the financial resources as well as the actors to take it on.

Under normal circumstances in scheduling what shows I choose to review, Potted Potter, The Unauthorized Harry Experience - A Parody by Dan and Jeff, probably would not have created a blip on the radar screen. But since my young friend, Sammuel Zimbel (age 10), who has read all of the books and seen all of the movies, expressed a keen interest in this show, I relented. I should add here that we were accompanied by his mom who is also a big Potterhead.

Forewith master ZimbelÕs review:

ŅPotted potter was a great show! There were some extremely funny parts where I almost cried I was laughing so hard. The only problem was you kind of had to read the books because it hardly explained the plots at all. Even seeing the movies wouldn't have helped you understand what was going on. Obviously, it wasn't very descriptive. The funniest part was the part with the dragon, but I won't spoil that for you. Playing quidditch was pretty funny too. I liked that they were British and made jokes about Canada. It was great - see it. (also the tickets were cheap! Just kidding even if they were) see it!!Ó

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