I caught this on the closing weekend, and was quite looking forward to what was described as a “play with opera”. I love merging and blending forms of performance that might not normally mingle.
Director Marjorie Chen helps the cast elicit beautiful performances, both in the singing and acting, however the overall direction felt muddled. The staging, which required often overlapping time periods evocative of Stoppard’s Arcadia, felt clunky, and the set was indecisively between surrealist and naturalist. The costume design, however, was stunning; with such clear costuming, the stage design could have benefitted from a touch of minimalism, I think.
The story Jani Lauzon mines the script from is intriguing, following a young indigenous opera student attending the RCM, and his exploration of a turn-of-the-century opera about an indigenous woman. The play unveiled some of the beautiful tension that occurs when we view historical work with a contemporary lens, offering the historical characters an opportunity to talk a bit about their intentions, helping the contemporary viewpoint come even more clearly into focus. That said, the script unfortunately came across as heavily education-focused; it could have benefitted from some revision to make the message clearer through less exposition.
I think that in its current form it might make a very fascinating TYA script. Which, to clarify, is not necessarily a bad thing…I just did not get the impression that was the intention.
I saw this quite some time ago, and it has taken me some time to sit down and write about it. Playwright Natalie Frija weaves an intriguing tale of adventure and feminism, drawing parallels between turn-of-the-twentieth century anti-cycling messages and contemporary experiences of female cyclists. I think that the script is definitely a niche; if you never cycle, you might miss pieces of the story, and definitely jokes. Overall, however, a strong feminist message stands out, as she highlights the differences in how we position adventure to young boys versus young girls.
Director Mandy Roveda handles the staging challenges well. How do you block a show that primarily takes place on a bike?! She does a great job managing a relatively stationary stage setup, using additional spaces well to create the many locations we visit. Performer Clare Blackwood is engaging, and really makes the material sing.
Overall, I think that dramaturgically this could have had a few edits to tighten up the message while simultaneously making it a little less didactic. That said, it is a great fringe show, and one I hope gets to some more audiences.
I preface these thoughts with an apology for the extreme delay in getting them posted.....I had to bolt out of town the next morning and haven't really stopped since.
Frances Koncan's new play, Women of the Fur Trade, was shared in an early-ish form as part of Toronto Fringe, ahead of what I understand to be a subsequent full length version coming to Native Earth. The simplicity of the fringe production was enjoyable; 3 rocking chairs, 3 action figures, and a simple bunting of envelopes clipped to a string created a space for the 3 women to interact, allowing their similarities to shine, while their differing circumstances became increasingly apparent.
What I loved about the script was the anachronism, with contemporary pop culture references interwoven with historical fact and circumstance. By positioning the 3 women in between history, it served to illustrate their absence from recorded history and the decisions that affect their lives historically, and through to today. By objectifying the male characters both intellectually, and literally with the use of the 3 action figures, the women begin to regain some power.
The 3 performers (Liz Whitbread, Haley Vincent, and Joelle Peters) were delightful in their performances, clearly distinguishing the hierarchical relationship amongst the women. The pacing could have been tighter and more dynamic to provide a sense of movement in the piece, which grew a bit stationary at times (both verbally and physically).
I'm very intrigued to see the full production, and can't wait to bring my Louis Riel obsessed Manitoba-born daughter. It seems the perfect vehicle and context for young women to relate to and learn about a historical event which still affects us today.
Ryan G. Hinds is an absolute delight. His one-man homage to iconic musical theatre writers Kander and Ebb (of Chicago, Cabaret, Kiss of the Spider Woman...you know, all the good musicals) is a 60 minute tour de force. Hinds is magnetic as he shares personal stories of a life obsessed with and then living the dream of performing musical theatre. The show is fun and silly while also being serious musical theatre performance. Hinds really showed his skill, when after noticing in the first song the mic wasn't working, he adapted quickly, vamping with jokes while the tech team ran a corded mic cable, then picked up as if NOTHING had happened. You would have sworn the show was always performed mic-in-hand.
The show has been to a few festivals now. If it comes to your city, I can guarantee there isn't a better way to spend an hour.
This smart, funny, and unpretentious comedy about the perils of chasing success is just what we need. The 4 performers deftly navigate a multitude of unique characters in space and time, aided by some smart choreography in the direction. This is a world sort of like our own, but stretched from reality, and all aspects of the production are smartly guided to this logical imperative by director Aaron Jan.
The pace is spot on, and the play carries a message without being preachy. Kudos to this young team for fine work! The production is perfectly fringe-y.
I'll be honest; I am not the intended audience for this show, as a millennial in a long-term (15+ year) relationship, dating, new relationships, and middle age are foreign to me. Dennie Theodore's The Mating Game is an exploration of returning to and navigating the "dating scene" after some time away. This two-hander is well performed by Luc Nogna and Nawa Nicole Simon (who is utterly charming) however the material and the staging leave something to be desired.
There are a few scenes that are directed clunkily with slow changes in space, and a stilted attempt at a few intervals for audience participation. Each actor plays a plethora of roles, but it is challenging to glean a perspective on any of them. There are some bizarre lighting choices (including one scene where one actor is in the dark for almost the entire scene...) and some awkward voice overs, all of which combines to make it difficult to connect to the characters and material.
The idea is great, but I think more a fruitful and engaging script could come from mining the material we just got to at the end of the play.
Toronto company Theatre By Committee bring us a delightfully fun piece about the celebrity and following along with their participatory piece, Wagon Play. From the second the gate opens, the audience are invited to engage with the performers, setting the tone for the remainder of the hours. The gentle setup serves well to help the performers gauge participation, and also to allow the audience their own pace to engage with the piece. Smart, silly, and irreverent, the performers are engaged 115%, with surprising staging choices, and a shocking attention to detail (kudos to the designer!!). The team don't fall victim to the pitfalls I see in a lot of immersive or participatory performance.
I don't want to say too much, as Amber says it is best if you can experience a re-setting on your own, as you learn to live your truth.
Suffice it to say this is probably the most fun, and the most re-set you will feel after a Toronto Fringe performance!
RAGE AGAINST The Complacent presents an allegorical story of young and idealistic journalism students who attempt to fight against "the complacent" mainstream junk-food media a la Buzzfeed and BlogTO. Staged on a blank space, with a lot of mime and chorus-like speaking from the 5 performers, the characters speak at length about how they want to change things, while their actions rarely go further than some internet-activism.
The didactic script is not helped along by the style of direction, which despite some strong individual performances from the actors, lacks a cohesiveness in its vision and rather than showing unity among the characters, comes across as half-baked. The ideas aren't new or exciting, nor is the staging, yet it is all presented to us as if it were.
It isn't all for nought; the young performers are earnest and engaging, but they are failed by the weak material and poor direction. I hope to have the chance to see them in something else down the road.
Toronto Playwright Michael Ross Albert's first Toronto production of his acclaimed play hits some great notes. Staged in a gallery, surrounded by smashed artwork, the production immerses the audience in the world of the play immediately. Starting the dialogue snappily, we are brought along on the journey of these friends and their tumultuous relationship filled with pride, envy, and a bit of spitfire. The snappy dialogue and searing pace set up for a great release as the major dramatic crux is revealed, allowing the characters to spin out as they reel from this information.
The performances were strong at moments, but also at times felt rushed; there was a sense of uneven direction which was to the detriment of our engagement with the story as some text was glossed over. Each performer alternately had fantastic moments, and weaker ones, which was a touch frustrating. Nonetheless, the performers got some great laughs out of the audience, and we felt a distinct voice from each.
Found spaces can be a challenge, and I felt the direction used the space well, although there were some lighting choices toward the end which limited the full engagement with the space and the choice of staging it in such a manner.
This has been a hot ticket already, and with good reason; definitely worth grabbing an advance ticket for the small space!
Kitchener-based company Informal Upright take over The Hideout at College and Bathurst with Ciarán Myers' new two hander, Hamburger. Staged in the bar (with drinks and food available during the show!) the play shares the story of two coworkers as they grow in their careers and as people, but always in some relationship to one another. It explores themes of workplace romance (and the propriety or welcome of advances) along with aspirations and the politics of working in a kitchen while building a career as a young female.
Although it is a mainly light story, there is a darkness to the play as we see hints of frustrations for the characters, specifically Lib (subtly and intelligently performed by Mina James). Zach Parsons plays Arie admirably, particularly knowing that he joined the cast as a replacement only a few days before this preview.
The use of the space is interesting, if not always effective, and the pacing of the show doesn't do the best to show off the script through the build and release of tension, however some of this is likely due to the last minute cast change, thus not to be judged as a tick against them. All in all, an interesting story, well performed, and under some dire circumstances. Definitely worth putting Hamburger on your list.
This is a difficult story. Yolanda Bonnell's solo show, bug, is a daring construction which weaves creation story with real life and esoteric worlds to create a moment in which we witness all the joy and pain, hope and despair of a young indigenous woman. She is many women. Women whose babies are taken, or whose daughters and sisters and mothers and aunts disappear or are killed. The women Bonnell shares with us, however, have hope. Hope that they can and will do better.
The physical work in the play is beautiful. Haunting images of Bonnell dancing, creating shapes to transform the space, throwing herself on the ground, or reaching oh so gently for the little ladybug. Situating the audience in a sharing circle, Bonnell connects eye to eye with many of the audience members. This isn't simply a performance, it is a shared story, which does not allow the audience to sit back. It is difficult viewing, but intentionally so.
Director Cole Alvis does a great job pacing the production to build tension and release just where we need it. The production team's choice to share the creation story of the top, and also to bring a spiritual healer to each performance is a wise one. Despite the hopeful tone, the real pain of the characters is palpable, and audience members are visibly shaken.
This is a challenging, emotional piece of theatre, and one that needs to keep living across the country.
In case you forgot, there is a war going on. A war not only of annexation of Crimea by Russia, which Ukrainians are resisting, but also a war against the artists and others who protest the Russian annexation as well as the totalitarian measures enacted within Russia on their people.
Belarus Free Theatre make their Luminato (and I believe Canadian) debut with a piece of theatre centred as many of their pieces are around the imprisonment of artists under current totalitarian regimes. Unlike some of their other work, however, the stories told in this piece not only come from artists like Pussy Riot's Maria Alyokhina who is now free (and joins the company in the creation and performance) but also in artists still sitting in Russian prisons, like Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov.
The work is urgent. Using their language of extreme physical exertion, the company are led by artistic Director Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin in the creation of a performance that is demanding. One that doesn't allow the audience to sit back and watch, but requires them to endure, much like Sentsov continues to as he endures day 37 of his hunger strike. What I always find striking in their work is the inclusion of humour. Dark and biting, their portrayal of the Russian yes-men as selfish and idiotic, while completely flippant about the lives of others is the perfect counterpoint to the extreme images of physical abuse and torture we see elsewhere in the production. Images of bodies dangling from circus ropes, or thrust out into the audience unsettle and inquire. Repetition of gesture defamiliarizes, seducing us into seeing the actors as just bodies, then jarring us into remembrance that these are real, living, breathing people.
For many, the work is too extreme. The actors work like athletes, and have the physiques to show it. Hurling themselves through space, lifting and carrying one another. What's amazing is to see the reactions of a North American audience to this kind of dangerous physical work. While this tradition is far more common in Eastern Europe in the tradition of Grotowski and Barba, in North America this is foreign.
Their work is not for everyone. It is difficult to watch, and causes some to shut off. I believe, however that it is this intentional polarization that makes the work so evocative. They don't just politely ask us to act, they require it.
If you haven't seen their work, you should. But prepare. This is not easy watching, no matter how prepared you think you are.
For more on Oleg Sentsov and the campaign to free him, visit the joint statement issued by Luminato and TIFF earlier this month.
The Fever is a participatory performance created by New York artists 600 Highwaymen. It is based in storytelling and choreography, and posits the question of our relationship to other people, and our willingness to be there if someone needs help. Right off the top, the show demands participation. The actors are embedded in the audience, and begin a choreographed movement. There is no explicit instruction to participate, however those not participating face an encouraging look from one of the creators. This subsides when they concede and participate.
From here, audience members are asked to join in participation in various physical activities. From as simple as raising a hand, to chasing an actor around the space, all in service of the story of connection and community that is unfolding. There are certainly some beautiful images and thoughts posed throughout this; do our feelings change when it is an older man lying on the ground versus a younger man? Are we willing to jump up and help when invited? And what happens when a large group of people participate in a physical movement, together, uncertain but together.
What was problematic for me, however, was twofold. First, while the performers (in a subsequent Q&A) indicated that audience members were not required to comply, that dissent or refusal was something that there was "space for" in the work, there was no explicit indication of this. So when you place a group of people in the setting of a theatrical performance, looking at one another, and ask someone to do something, there are social obligations and expectations at play, to "not ruin it for everyone else". Without the actor who initiates the physical participation indicating verbally that it is okay if someone doesn't want to, there is an unspoken pressure to do so. It would take immense strength and bravery for an audience member to come out and deny participation when the space for this has not been made explicit.
Second, the implication of this group participation, of this necessarily being swept up so as to not "ruin it" is a dangerous parallel to our own society, where people refrain from voicing concern at upsetting statements or dangerous beliefs for fear of "getting too political" or causing a scene. Without the expression of consent, I continued to hope that they would flip this on its ear, and show the audience something about the dangers of playing along blindly. But they did not.
It was an interesting concept and experience, but problematic for me, and easily fixable. We have a responsibility to ensure there is clarity of the rules of a space in immersive and participatory performance, otherwise we risk alienating when the goal of that work is to unite and engage.
This play is gigantic. Both in terms of action on the stage, story, and the ideas contained within. In many ways it is difficult to imagine a production that could accurately capture the scope, the sheer scale of this play.
Beginning with Part 1: Millennium Approaches, Marianne Elliot creates a world that is fast-paced, urgent, and disconnected. Rooms appear and disappear on three revolves, wherein actors run in and out, appearing in new spaces. Neon lights gleam and cut the edges of the darkness to create clear definitions of where people do and don't belong. This is a world that it is difficult to keep up with, where news and pain are revealed, fought against, and denied in favour of continuous movement. If I don't stop it won't catch me. Of the two, I find Part 1 the weaker play, mainly because it sticks to a more traditional form for the majority of the play. Elliot does a wonderful job creating engagement and anticipation, while also helping the audience to become accustomed to the more esoteric events, such as Harper's arctic adventure, ultimately preparing us for the Angel's arrival.
This cast are astounding. For me, Denise Gough (Harper) and James McArdle (Louis) are the stand outs, purely because their characters are so east to become flat and one-note. We all know the beautiful arc of Pryor (a devastating Andrew Garfield) and Roy Cohn's toxic energy (played with sheer bile by Nathan Lane) but for me it is their foils who leave the greatest opportunity for an actor to show their true technique.
The audience, I think, in part didn't know what they were there for. Which is both fantastic (what a play to encounter by accident!) but also annoying; they applauded at Lane's first entrance, and also at Garfield's. It was interesting, however, to sit among a crowd for whom this story was still unfamiliar. There were moments of humour I hadn't previously thought of, which made the moments of sadness all the richer.
Being of sound mind and not too interested in paying to spend 9 hours consecutively in a theatre, I returned the following day for Part 2: Perestroika. Our spinning world has simplified somewhat, with the walls falling away. Rooms are now signified by a neon frame, or simply a door, and perhaps a piece of furniture. The breath of the Angel is everywhere in part 2, which Elliot realizes through the use of actors who function as puppeteers to the Angel and her wings, but also manipulators of space and time. They aren't hidden; we see them creep in to move objects, witness choreographed movement of set pieces and actors through the space. This all comes together to have an effect of normalcy; somehow the world is functioning better when the angels are there and in charge. It is less confusing.
The sheer magic of Elliot's staging creates moments of beautiful theatricality. This is a production that doesn't pretend to be anything but theatre at its least naturalistic. It moves and swells physically, audibly, and emotionally to sweep the audience along in the logic of this world.
It was interesting to think about how the play worked in the space of the Neil Simon, a traditional proscenium space, when this production was conceived for the Lyttleton at NT London, which is a considerably more open space. The lighting did a lot to envelop the audience, but I feel that in the original space it was probably even more effective.
The opportunity to see Glenda Jackson or Laurie Metcalf work with such an amazing text is one you can't pass up, so particularly the opportunity to see them working together on Albee's Three Tall Women is a once in a lifetime event. Joining them is the younger, but still highly experienced Alison Pill, all under the skilled and steady direction of Joe Mantello.
The set is beautiful; conveying the lavish existence while maintaining a minimalism that gives it a coldness. This house, and this room in particular are not places of happiness. In act two, when we step "through the looking glass" so to speak, and the room mirrors and mirrors in a never-ending reflection of both the actors and the audience, it calls into question our own reflection of ourselves in this moment, and the moments that passed.
The play is about memory, and about reconciling the ideals and dreams of our younger self with the realities of survival and the choices we make as we age. It is funny. Extremely funny, yet jet-black in its undertones, and Mantello mines each and every moment of laughter to its full and dark extent. The humour in the performances, particularly from Jackson as she reflects on 91 (or is it 92?) years, makes the cold reality of aging, choosing, and forgetting all the more sad. Metcalf's comic timing is ideal for this interpretation of the play, humour used to shield the pain of her experiences so that when her son appears, the shift to anger is so wonderfully pained. The humour isn't there to protect her any longer.
Jackson is sublime. Her performance was salty, spunky, witty, and real. The pure craft we watched on display for an hour and forty-five minutes is like nothing else - I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to watch her live and in person, to feel her radiate up to the balcony with such minimal effort.
Alison Pill has the desirable but challenging task of rising to these two forces of nature. She does well for the most part, shining particularly in her monologues in act 2. It was definitely interesting to hear the difference in vocal skill between Pill, who primarily worked in film and Metcalf & Jackson who have countless years on the stage. Pill had to work to be heard and to send her thoughts to the back of the room, while Metcalf and Jackson just existed and soaked up the massive room.
This play, which centers on womens' experiences and choices throughout their life feels altogether even more important and poignant in today's world. Unlike many plays which age and grow distant from us, this one actually seems more and more familiar as time goes on.
Robert Lepage's work with images is a part of what makes his theatrical performances so astounding; the way he understands perspective and illusion is like nothing else, so the idea of him working not just with actors, but with dancers who move in shapes and formations was obviously very exciting.
Lepage pairs up with the National Ballet of Canada's Guillaime Cote to create Frame by Frame, a mildly biographic homage to the life of Norman McLaren, the renowned film maker and animator. The piece is best when it is tied to McLaren's work, providing Cote and Lepage the tools - light and movement - to create magical pictures inspired by or re-creating McLaren's images. These scenes, which often offer a glimpse into what McLaren's perspective on the creation might have been by positioning him in relationship to the images, play on ideas of perspective and control. The most poignant for me was where the dancer playing McLaren used a paint brush to shape the movements of the dancer we saw on the screen.
The scenes that focused on McLaren's life and travel were less interesting; although the scenes about his travel to China created some beautiful imagery using a screen (which definitely foreshadowed the scene I spoke of earlier) they felt superfluous. Similarly, a couple of scenes about dance classes, which I don't doubt reflect historical accuracy of his relationship and inspiration from dancers, felt like unnecessary devices to just give the dancers in the company something to do.
Surprisingly, the music of the piece really stood out as well, with jazz in contrast to Tchaikovsky, all starkly in relationship to the synth-based sounds of his more experimental animations.
The most exciting part of the ballet, however, wasn't necessarily what I saw on stage, but the ideas that these images elicited in my own imagination, both while I was watching it and in the days since. I think it is a testament to an artist's craft that they can inspire new ideas while not detracting from those they are presenting.
Sweet Mama and the Salty Muffins is getting a one-night remount! We are pleased to be invited to share the play as part of the first annual D'Arcy Symposium Pop-Up art show. The show will bring together installations and performances from a variety of artists in a 120 year old house in downtown Toronto. The show runs throughout the evening on May 26 and is PWYC. More details here.
My new-in-development piece of site-specific promenade theatre called DO YOU KNOW THIS PLACE? is invited to be a part of Crapshoot, a performance art scavenger hunt in the neighbourhood around TPM. Crapshoot is produced by Art is Hard, currently in residency at Theatre Passe Muraille. For more on Art is Hard, Crapshoot, and the TPM Residency, check this out.
DO YOU KNOW THIS PLACE? is conceived by Kendra Jones, and written/performed by Justin Otto, Liz Whitbread, and Kendra Jones
As of 2014, 51% of Toronto’s residents were born outside Canada. This means that the majority of people in the city have a first memory of the city itself, coming to the city to visit or live for the first time. In the time since these first visits, the city’s physical and social landscape has changed considerably. Neighbourhoods which were once edgy are commercial, areas which were once forlorn industrial parks are now vibrant neighbourhoods. The imprint of the history of each part of the city remains, as we rush forward in time, constantly developing, changing, and experiencing the city.
DO YOU KNOW THIS PLACE? is a one on one walking experience that uses the busy city street as a character.
More details on the May 6 performance to come soon.
I love seeing this kind of work on Canadian stages, particularly stages of this size and reputation, and not just relegated to an indie company with a 50 seat capacity. Soulpepper's production of Idomeneus challenges the audience with form, providing a starkly minimalist, brutal set, with actors in anachronistic modern costume. The adaptation by German Roland Schimmelpfennig (which premiered at Bavarian Staatsschauspiel in 2008) plays both with an irreverence to the language itself, injecting modern phrases within the more traditional speeches and images, and also with a take on the unreliability of memory and how stories are told -- poignant in our "post-truth" times. At times the irreverent language feels out of sorts (I wonder whether it was smoother in German), but as a whole, it is a relevant update to the ancient text.
The production itself was uneven, at times feeling like there was no clear sense from the company on what the tone should be; some actors spoke the text with a classical & declamatory style, while others spoke it in a more colloquial and contemporary manner, with still others in between. Couple this with a rather static choreography (the only real movement seemed to occur in the dark, or in vague and displaced choreographed movement scenes devoid of text), and unfortunately despite the electricity of the language and imagery in this brutalist space, the production fell short of leaving me electrified. In some sense, it felt like the idea of a German production, actualized by Canadians not steeped in the postdramatic style.
All this said, in no way do I discourage people seeing it, as it is boldly un-like work you will see on major stages elsewhere in this country, and for that reason alone it should be on your list. Now, for us to make more....and do it even more successfully.