Thursday, December 20, 2012

Critics Choice Spotlight Awards and Year-End Theatre Reflections

Another year nearly over, and my poor neglected blog has not had a review posted since this spring. Oh happens. Highlights of my theatre-going this year have been generally outside of Victoria. Not to diminish the theatre that I see and review in town, but it is always wonderful to have the chance to see some shows in a larger centre. Earlier this year I saw Robert Lepage's Blue Dragon and Ronnie Burkett's Penny Plain, both of which were running in Toronto in February. How great to see two of Canada's finest theatre artists' works. My vote was for Burkett's dark but often funny end of the world exploration over Lepage's visually beautiful but emotionally cool transnational and trilingual storytelling.
Catherine Walker, Niamh Mc Cann and Eleanor Methven in The House by Tom Murphy, directed by Annabelle Comyn. On the Abbey stage, Thursday 7 June to Saturday 14 July 2012. Photo - Anthony Woods.

However, the best show I saw in 2012 was at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, on my birthday no less! The play was The House by Tom Murphy, one of over 20 plays Murphy has had produced at the Abbey, Ireland's national theatre. It was 3 hours of Chekhovian Irishness, set in the 1950s when many young people were emigrating to England and North America for better opportunities. We see some of these emigrants as they return for summer visits to a small town where locals are falling on hard times, including a formerly wealthy family now forced to sell their house. With echoes of The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters (there are three sisters in the de Burca family at the heart of the play), Murphy weaves a tale of ambition, passion, disappointment and despair. The pub scenes felt anthropological in their accuracy portraying that aspect of Irish life. The acting, directing and design work (with a large cast and impressive moving set) were all topnotch. I was riveted throughout, as was my husband, and we felt both entertained and enlightened, that the play had taught us a lot about Ireland and its recent history.
Featuring (L to R): Gerry Mackay (Jacob Marley), Tom McBeath (Ebenezer Scrooge), and Simeon Sanford Blades (Tiny Tim) in A Christmas Carol / Photos by David Cooper

In town, I have to admit to feeling this year was a bit so-so, despite the massive hit that was Drowsy Chaperone at Langham Court.  And Slowly Beauty swept the Critics Choice Spotlight Awards, as can be seen below, but was a 2011 show. I liked both Red and Christmas Carol at the Belfry this fall, both directed by Artistic Director Michael Shamata, although I have groused about the latter being one of only four mainstage productions when I'd rather have it as an add-on. For me, as fine as show as it is, a sell-out hit (not surprisingly as it has done very well in Toronto and elsewhere in other productions by Shamata), it takes the place of a contemporary play in the season. That quibble aside, it is a pretty seamless show, beautifully cast and performed. Vancouver's Tom McBeath is an excellent Scrooge, Gerry Mackay does great work quadrupling as Jacob Marley and the three ghosts, and many local actors (Brian Linds, Jan Wood, Celine Stubel, Amanda Lisman), a couple more Vancouver-based actors and four charming young actors round out the cast. The show has lovely costumes (although I found the Xmas Past, Present and Future costumes to be a little bizarre, but perhaps accurate to descriptions in the novel) a simple yet effective design, and devotes itself to a well-paced and engaging rendition of this familiar tale. I felt the Tiny Tim death scene was milked a little for its sentimentality, which for me verged a bit too closely to melodrama, and slowed the pace somewhat. But these are nit-picky points in the face of what is obviously a very strong production.

The only other show that made a significant impact on me this year was one that I was in myself, and therefore am in no place to comment on from a critical perspective. My friend Kate Rubin was invited by prison theatre company William Head on Stage (WhoS) to direct an adaptation of The Hobbit (which she had done herself some years ago for her acting studio's youth ensemble) and asked me to play Thorin, leader of the dwarves. I was cast along with two other local female actors, Bronwyn Steinberg and Anne Cirillo. I have seen and reviewed a number of WHoS shows over the past few years, and was intrigued by what it would be like to be a part of a WHoS project. Well, it proved to be a fascinating, challenging and hugely rewarding experience. Working alongside a group of about 20 inmates, we created a very strong production that was seen by over 1400 people in its five weekend-long run. Kate did a tremendous job directing the show, making excellent use of the difficult high school stage/gymnasium-like space in the institution. We had over half a dozen exit and entry points, all around the space, so that the audience was literally surrounded by the action. Designer Carole Klemm and puppet-master Tim Gosley worked with the guys ("The Guys" being our preferred term for the inmates) to create a post-Apocalyptic and more adult version of this favorite tale, featuring amazing giant spider and eagle puppets. We had no furry feet or elf ears, thank god, and all of us were in contemporary dress. Gandalf wore jeans, a denim jacket and a hoodie...although he had a kick-ass staff he made himself. In this way, the show was attempting to create a Middle Earth made up of "tribes" trying to survive in a hostile environment. Overall, I have to say from my admittedly biased perspective that we pulled it off...audiences seemed to love the show. We held Q & A sessions after each performance, which gave us a good sense of the audience reaction, plus dozens of positive comments were written in a guest book at the front door of the auditorium.
Anne Cirillo as Gert the Troll and Monica Prendergast as Thorin the Dwarf in The Hobbit. Photo provided courtesy of William Head Institution.

We were all very proud of what we created together. Half of the cast had never been on stage before, and it was astonishing to see all of the guys' commitment to making the show the best it could possibly be. I learned a lot along the way, about prison systems (largely how broken, dehumanizing and corrupt they can be), prisoners (how totally "human" they are, and generally how hopeful about turning their lives around) and my own attitudes, privileges and abilities. It was a joy working on this show, side by side with these men. I was delighted to get to know them, feel each and every one of them to be a friend, and wish nothing but the best for them. We became an ensemble, we worked hard, came to trust each other deeply, and ended up having a ball. As one of them wrote in the program, the past is over and the future unknown, but " this moment, we are free men". That's the power of theatre, the power of the present moment rendered on stage, and it can be freeing. Doing this project reminded me why I love the theatre, as its freeing power took on such literal force in the context of a prison.

Happy holidays to all, and best wishes for the New Year!

* indicates winner

* John Ferguson and Tamara Marie Kucheran, And Slowly Beauty, Belfry
Ian Rye, Mary's Wedding, Pacific Opera
Mary Kerr, Euridyce, Phoenix
Patrick Du Wors, Little Shop of Horrors, Blue Bridge
* Susan Ferguson & Di Madill, The Drowsy Chaperone, Langham Court
Patricia Reilly, Of Mice & Men, Blue Bridge
Erin Macklem, On The Edge, Belfry
Patrick Du Wors, Little Shop of Horrors, Blue Bridge

* Brooke Maxwell, And Slowly Beauty, Belfry
Donna Williams and Alan MacKenzie, The Drowsy Chaperone, Langham
Brian Linds, Of Mice & Men, Blue Bridge
Neil Ferguson, Euridyce, Phoenix

* Rebekah Johnson, Of Mice & Men, Blue Bridge
Bryan Kenney, Euridyce, Phoenix
Michael Walton, And Slowly Beauty, Belfry
Alan Brodie, Mary's Wedding, Pacific Opera

* Michael Shamata, And Slowly Beauty, Belfry
Roger Carr, The Drowsy Chaperone, Langham Court
Brian Richmond, Of Mice & Men, Blue Bridge
Glynis Leyshon, God of Carnage, Belfry

* Melissa Blank, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg / Crackwalker [both], Inconnu
Kyle Kushnir, The Drowsy Chaperone, Langham Court
Nick Sepi, The Foreigner, Langham Court
Naomi Simpson, Beauty Queen of Leenane, Langham Court

* Dennis Fitzgerald, And Slowly Beauty, Belfry
David Ferry, Of Mice & Men, Blue Bridge
Gary Farmer, Of Mice & Men, Blue Bridge
Jackie Richardson, Big Mama, Belfry

* The Drowsy Chaperone, Langham Court
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Chemainus Theatre
Big Mama, Belfry
Little Shop of Horrors, Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre

* Kitt and Jane
Mary's Wedding
Cougar Annie Ta
The Adversary

* The Drowsy Chaperone, Victoria Theatre Guild
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Theatre Inconnu
Euridyce, Phoenix
Shining City, Theatre Inconnu

* And Slowly Beauty, Belfry
Mary's Wedding, Pacific Opera Victoria
Of Mice & Men, Blue Bridge
God of Carnage, Belfry

* Hanafuda Denki
Fear Factor: Canine Edition
The Tenant Haimovitz

* Rookery Nook, Phoenix Theatre

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

God of Carnage - Belfry Theatre

Photo: Cast of God of Carnage at Belfry Theatre  (L to R, Bill Dow as Michael, Sarah Orenstein as Victoria, Vincent Gale as Alan, and Celine Stubel as Annette). Photo by David Cooper.


1. The final show of the Belfry season is French playwright Yasmina Reza's satirical comedy God of Carnage. Quite a popular play I understand?

Indeed! As with Reza’s earlier play Art, also produced at the Belfry, God of Carnage has been seen in Paris, London (where it won an Olivier for Best New Comedy), New York (where it won the Tony for Best New Play in 2009) and many other places. It’s playing right now at the Vancouver Playhouse, in fact, and is (sadly) that theatre’s final production. The play has been adapted into a film, Carnage, directed by Roman Polanski and featuring Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz. I saw the play on Broadway a couple of years ago, with Jimmy Smits, Annie Potter, Christine Lahti and British actor Ken Stott. I’ve also seen the film, so I arrived at opening night on Thursday to see this play for the third time!

2. How did director Glynis Leyshon and her company tackle the play, compared to the other versions of it you've seen?

The Belfry production is a solid one, if directed with not with as much broad physical comedy as I see the play as having. This lack of restless, almost animal-like physicality sometimes slows the pace of the production down. The premise is that two upper middle class Brooklyn-based couples, strangers to each other, are meeting because one of their 11 year old sons has hit the other one’s son in the mouth with a stick at a park, breaking two of his teeth. The meeting is for these parents to agree on how to deal with what’s happened. Everything starts out very civilized and (of course) somewhat tense, but all four are on their best behavior. However, this ‘civilized’ response is soon seen as a thin veneer hiding all four characters’ true feelings about this incident, each other, their respective spouses and the world at large. By the end of this 90 minute one-act play we have witnessed this quartet of highly unsympathetic people broken down and more than one of them whimpering that this has been the worst day of their lives.  Along the way we see unbelievable mayhem break loose as signs that the world is really controlled, as obnoxious cell phone toting lawyer Alan attests to, by the God of Carnage, rather than a more hopeful vision of humanity triumphing over its basest desires and fears.  The play definitely sets out to skewer its middle class audiences and much of the resulting laughter is due to our recognition of aspects of ourselves revealed in the abhorrent, childish, selfish things of which we are all more than capable, under the right (or wrong) circumstances.

3. Any standout performances or particular moments to share?

Leyshon has cast the play very well with local favorite Celine Stubel, and a trio of exceptional Vancouver actors; Bill Dow as Michael, Vincent Gale as Alan and Sarah Orenstein as Victoria. All of these four fine actors have their moments, definitely, although I felt the women slightly outdid the men on opening night. Celine Stubel has such vulnerability as an actor that she almost makes us feel a bit of pity for her uptight and privileged character Annette. And Sarah Orenstein finds the right sense of moral outrage and political correctness in self-righteous wife and mother Victoria that no doubt many audience members will squirm in uncomfortable recognition. I would have liked to have seen a bit more overt class tension between the two husbands, as this was an effective element of the Broadway version I saw, with one husband clearly from a more ‘old money’ background and the other a man who has risen above his working class roots to success. That said, I have no doubt that all four characters will grow and that the company will find even more comic moments over the course of the one month run.
The show looks good with a simple yet effective set design by John Ferguson that gives us a very modern urban space with low slung couches and coffee table covered with art books. The large African sculpture given the focal point upstage signals the kind of primitive tribalism at work in the play’s theme, although I wonder if it perhaps signals a bit too much, nevermind in a pretty politically incorrect way? Overall, this is an entertaining, intelligent, if not profound, exploration of human weakness that will enjoy a strong run, I am sure.

4. The Belfry has announced their new season...what's your take on what's on offer for 2012-2013?

Well, it’s a mixed bag, to be sure, featuring a new British play, an adaptation of Dicken’s Christmas Carol, an Australian play and a locally created musical. I’m looking forward to seeing Red by John Logan, another show I’ve seen on Broadway and a fascinating portrait of artist Mark Rothko. I’m also intrigued by the play from Australia, Speaking in Tongues by Andrew Bovell, which promises to be a dramatic take on film noir. The new musical Let Me Call You Sweetheart, by local composers and musicians Bruce Ruddell and Bill Henderson, tackles a senior citizen’s memory loss, which is a very interesting focus for a musical, so that one grabs my interest as well. I have to admit to being less excited about the prospect of seeing A Christmas Carol as a mainstage production. I’m sure it will be a fine show, but my expectation at the Belfry is to see contemporary Canadian and international plays…I’d prefer to have Christmas Carol offered as an additional show over the holidays so perhaps a hot new Canadian play might have been programmed? That said, Shamata is bringing in a summer show starring blues singer Jackie Richardson, and a studio show from Quebec playwright Carole Frechette in the New Year, plus lots of great productions in the next Spark Festival, including a new play by Hannah Moscovitch. So, all in all, plenty to look forward to coming up next season in the heart of Fernwood.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Playing Catch-up - Best Shows to Date of 2012

Ronnie Burkett with his puppet creation Penny Plain.
Five of six cast members in Goodness by Michael Redhill
Kyle Kushnir as Man in Chair and Allison Roberts as Janet van de Graaff in The Drowsy Chaperone
Marie Michaud and Robert Lepage's The Blue Dragon
Four of five cast members in Theatre Inconnu's The Crackwalker

I haven't posted a review since November, much to my horror, and so I'm going to provide some capsule reviews of what I've seen the first quarter of this year. My Top Five to date:

1. PENNY PLAIN by Ronnie Burkett (seen in Toronto at Factory Theatre, February 5th)

Ronnie Burkett is what the Japanese would call a "living national treasure", one of the most remarkable and original theatre artists in Canada. His marionette shows, which he writes, creates and performs solo, have been seen across the country and internationally for decades. This latest production, Penny Plain, is probably the darkest show I've ever seen by Burkett. It takes place in the weeks and months before the end of the world, in and around a boarding house run by a sweet little blind old lady named Penny Plain. Her pet dog Geoffrey, life-sized and talking, decides to go out into the world for a final adventure. What happens in the time in-between his leaving and the play's final moments involves dozens of characters, all manipulated and performed by Burkett in a dazzling display of virtuosity, who each face the inevitable destruction and death ahead in their own ways. Geoffrey's return in the play's final scene is beyond horrific, as he calmly informs his beloved Miss Plain what will happen next. We are left to consider how savagely nature will reclaim this planet that we humans have so savagely destroyed. A masterful performance, the best show by far this season.

2. GOODNESS by Michael Redhill (seen at Belfry Theatre Spark Festival, March 16th)

I often prioritize getting to a touring show from Toronto when one lands for a few days in Victoria. Toronto is the theatre capital of Canada and my former home, so I'm well aware that chances are very good these shows will be worth my while. This Volcano Theatre production, directed by seasoned director Ross Manson, does not disappoint. Novelist Michael Redhill uses meta-theatricality to help him spin a story of genocide, revenge, guilt, rage and forgiveness. Six actors are on stage with chairs as the only 'set' present, along with a very few hand props. The narrator who addresses us directly is the playwright himself, and he implicates us in the action, through our watching, as silent witnesses to genocides throughout history. His story weaves back and forth from past to present and there is an extended story-within-a-story which is presented as a factual event reported to Redhill during an interview. The cast is extremely accomplished, both as actors and singers, as traditional songs from Africa and Europe frame a number of scenes. The central question explored in the play is how good people do bad things, a question that has plagued humanity for eons. To Redhill's credit, we are left with no easy answers at the end of this intelligent, moving and thought-provoking play, only more questions and and uneasy recognition of our own complicity in events that may seem very distant from our safe and comfortable lives.

3. THE DROWSY CHAPERONE book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar and music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison (Langham Court Theatre, January 12th)

This is one of the biggest hits of the Victoria Theatre so far. Tons of fun! you can hear my review of it here:

Marie Michaud and Robert Lepage (Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto, February 2nd)

This Lepage show was remounted in Vancouver for the Winter Olympics in 2010 and is now playing in Toronto. As ambitious and filled with over-the-top filled technical Lepage-style wizardry as ever, The Blue Dragon spins a trilingual (French, English and Mandarin, all spoken and surtitled through the show) story of a displaced Quebecois art dealer in Shanghai, a character first created in Michaud and Lepage's Dragon Trilogy in 1985. Pierre is now 50 and in a relationship with a very young Chinese artist named Xiao Ling. All seems well until Claire, Pierre's former lover, arrives with an agenda of her own: to adopt a Chinese baby...and it just so happens that Xiao Ling has fallen pregnant! The narrative is not the strength here, although all three performers have their moments. The star of a Lepage show is the design, and set designer Michel Gauthier has created a stunning two-level set with hidden panels that hide and reveal, and projections that take the breath away as they work with the story to show giant Chinese calligraphy letters twenty feet high emerge onscreen as Pierre writes them onto a scroll. Or dazzling multicolored lights that blur and swirl as Xiao Ling performs a traditional Chinese dance. There are plenty of treats for the eye in this show, which moves toward cinema and away from theatre in my mind. It therefore comes as no surprise that the program being sold in the lobby is a graphic comic version of this tale, which seems well-suited to that visual form as opposed to a good, if old-fashioned, well-made play.

5. THE CRACKWALKER by Judith Thompson (Theatre Inconnu, Saturday, March 3rd)

Theatre Inconnu continues to present well-chosen, directed (by Inconnu regular Graeme McDonald) and performed series of challenging, often dark, plays. My review is here:

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Critics' Choice Spotlight Awards 2010-2011

Happy New Year!

Here are the Critics' Choice Spotlight Awards for theatre productions in Victoria and Lower Vancouver Island for the season beginning September 2010 and ending August 2011. Awards were selected and voted on by David Lennam and myself (CBC Radio's On The Island), John Threlfall and Chris Felling (CVV Magazine), Adrian Chamberlain (Times-Colonist) and Amanda Farrell-Low (formerly of Monday Magazine).

Congratulations to all nominees and winners!!!



Judith Bowden, Cinderella (Pacific Opera Victoria)

Nancy Bryant, Rodelinda (POV)

Narda McCarroll, The Trespassers (The Belfry)

Janet Munsil & Megan Newton, Influence (Intrepid Theatre)

WINNER: Narda McCarroll, The Trespassers


Judith Bowden, Cinderella (POV)

David Hardwick, The Wizard of Oz (Victoria Operatic Society)

Cat Haywood, Twelfth Night (Phoenix Theatre)

Erin Macklem, Influence (Intrepid Theatre)

WINNER: David Hardwick, The Wizard of Oz


John Gzowski, It's A Wonderful Life (Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre)

Miles Lowry, Influence (Intrepid)

Joelysa Pankanea, The Life Inside (Belfry)

Tobin Stokes, The Cryptogram (Belfry)

WINNER: Joelysa Pankanea, The Life Inside


Bonnie Beecher, Cinderella (POV)

Kerem Çentinel, The Trespassers (Belfry)

Itai Erdel, The Life Inside (Belfry)

David Ferguson, Influence (Intrepid)

WINNER: Itai Erdel, The Life Inside


Mark DuMez, The 39 Steps (Chemainus Theatre Festival)

David Ferry, Inside (Phoenix)

Linda Hardy, Twelfth Night (Phoenix)

Brian Richmond, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Blue Bridge)

WINNER: Brian Richmond, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


Kesinee Haney, Twelfth Night/Yerma (Phoenix)

Clayton Jevne, Moscow Stations (Theatre Inconnu)

Kyle Kushnir, Elizabeth Rex (Victoria Theatre Guild, Langham Court)

Chelsea Tucker, The Wizard of Oz (VOS)

WINNER: Clayton Jevne, Moscow Stations


Jennifer Clement, The Trespassers (Belfry)

Brian Dooley, The Trespassers (Belfry)

Vincent Gale, The Cryptogram (Belfry)

Meg Tilly, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Blue Bridge)

WINNER: Meg Tilly, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


2 Pianos, 4 Hands (Belfry)

Ride the Cyclone (Atomic Vaudeville)

[title of show] (Urban Arts)

The Wizard of Oz (VOS)

WINNER: Ride the Cyclone


Chalk, by SNAFU

Influence, by Janet Munsil

Inside, by Daniel MacIvor

Son of Africville, by Justin Carter

WINNER: Inside


Elizabeth Rex (Langham)

Inside (Phoenix)

The Laramie Project (Langham)

Twelfth Night (Phoenix)

WINNER: Twelfth Night


2 Pianos, 4 Hands (Belfry)

The 39 Steps (Chemainus)

The Trespassers (Belfry)

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Blue Bridge)

WINNER: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


Giving Into Light (DancingStorySinger)

Grim & Fischer: A deathly comedy in full-face mask (Wonderheads)

SmartArse (Rob Gee)

Tara Firm and the Lunar War Chronicles (Launch Pad)

WINNER: Grim & Fischer


Death of a Clown (Phoenix/Itsazoo)