Tuesday, December 27, 2011

We're Movin' On Up!

Hi My Theatre Readers, 

This is my final message to you on this version of the site. 

Over the last few months we at My Theatre have been working on the development of the central My Entertainment World site where we'll be joining with our current sister sites My TV, My Cinema, My Sports Stadium, My Bookshelf and My Music. The new central hub will feature highlighted articles from across My Entertainment World and a feature showcasing our biggest exclusive interviews as well as the most recent posts from all 6 existing branches (and our brand new venture My Games). 

But never fear, My Theatre will live on with it's own page as a branch under the My Entertainment World umbrella. At www.myentertainmentworld.ca/mytheatre you'll be able to find all the same content from this site brought to you by your dedicated authors in Toronto (myself) and Boston (Brian) and all the My Theatre contributors: Jim, Borah, Maddi, Tessa. 

Our annual My Theatre Awards and Nominee Interview Series are coming up soon and we'll be launching our New York coverage with our new head of My Theatre's NYC Division, Rebbekah Vega Romero, So be sure to come with us over to the new site, you won't want to miss it. 

Thank you all for your dedicated readership of My Theatre over the past few years. 

To all the performers, directors, writers and designers who've inspired us and supported us, this new site is dedicated to you. I can't wait to show you our new and improved selves. 

We launch www.myentertainmentworld.ca this week- get excited and I'll see you there!

All My Love, 

Kelly Bedard
Managing Editor, My Theatre

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Hannah Moscovitch's Children's Republic

The newest play from Canada's beloved playwright Hannah Moscovitch is a stirring and inspiring drama about groundbreaking Polish/Jewish educator Janusz Korczak, set in Warsaw in pre-ghetto 1939 (Act I) and oppressive and war-torn 1942 (Act II). Against Camellia Koo's innovative set of destructible paper orphanage walls and directed with sublime understanding by Alisa Palmer, Moscovitch's truthful and nuanced dialogue tells the story of The Children's Republic with great dexterity and heart, creating characters so palpably real it's all you can do to not leap out of your chair and try to save them.

As the central doctor and philosopher of childhood education, Peter Hutt is the best I've ever seen the stage veteran. His smart and tender performance contains a lightness and optimism that's key to the character's investment in children. The subtlety in Hutt's performance is what makes it so superb, he maintains a wonderfully dry humour as long as he can; a slow descent into illness and hopelessness is fought bravely with head held high. Korczak proclaims that children have the right to learn, love, make mistakes and be treated as full human beings, not just future ones, something that Hutt's intelligent kindness champions throughout the play.

Moscovitch gives her child characters those very rights in her character development. Misha, Mettya, Sara and Israel are the true stars of the piece, complicated children who learn, love, make mistakes and function through more grief and anger than countless "full human beings" put together. Elliott Larson particularly stands out with his soulful performance as Misha, the reluctantly fragile orphan whose heartbeat proves one of Korczak's most fundamental points. Mark Correia is also wonderful in The Children's Republic's most demanding role, that of the doctor's volatile new charge Israel, a severely damaged street kid with overdeveloped instincts to both fight and flee in equal measure. His understated love story with Katie Frances Cohen's optimistic and caring Mettya is a brilliantly humanizing element, sweetly conveying the gentleness Korczak's fighting to bring out in Israel. Emma Burke-Kleinman rounds out the group of children with her quietly hurting performance as the violin prodigy Sara.

The final piece to the puzzle is Korczak's deadpan and steadfast assistant Stefa, played with the perfect mix of no-nonsense strength and aching sympathy by the superb Kelli Fox. Amy Rutherford's kindly Madame Singer is the least interesting presence on stage, though the purpose she serves in establishing Korczak's educational priorities is a fascinating one.

The Children's Republic is one of those pieces of theatre that stays with you, haunting your thoughts as you exit the Tarragon Mainspace. It's a look back at one of the most terrifying pieces of human history and a celebration of a good man fighting for the survival and success of the next generation.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Soulpepper's Parfumerie

Adam Pettle and Brenda Robins' 2009 adaptation of Miklos Laszlo's 1937 Hungarian comedy Parfumerie, about the behind the scenes lives of employees at a beauty supply store, is not something you would assume would be a hit. But it is. Most performances of the Dora-winning remount have already sold out and a discerning friend of mine with superb comic taste called it her "absolute favourite thing at Soulpepper". As directed by Morris Panych with beautifully whimsical set design by Ken MacDonald, Parfumerie is a delight of comic distraction and a brilliant showpiece for company MVP Oliver Dennis.

As George Asztalos- an unexpected romantic lead, as bitter as he is sweet- Dennis is tremendously charming. With a cheerful face, brisk voice and stiff posture, his Asztalos contains all the contradictions necessary for his bungled double life as a daytime confrontational bachelor and nighttime anonymous letter-writing lover. When those worlds collide, the battle amongst Asztalos' contradictory instincts results in some superb physical comedy from the always-wonderful Dennis.

As the woman whom Asztalos picks on and unknowingly woos pen-pal style, Patricia Fagan has just enough sass to keep up and just enough heart to ground the unlikely (read: not that surprising, also the basis for You've Got Mail) love story. Her chemistry with Dennis is at its best when they bicker, though their Act II slow-burn romance is plenty wonderful too.

The supporting cast is anchored by Joseph Ziegler's endearing turn as shop owner Miklos Hammerschmidt, a fundamentally good man driven all sorts of crazy by the thought that his wife is cheating on him. Kevin Bundy is an appropriately skeezy/charming Stephan Kadash, the Hammerschmidt employee helping her with the cheating. Michael Simpson shines as a daffy do-right clerk who serves as counsellor to the love story and unfortunate fifth business to the infidelity plot. And the adorable Jeff Lillico gives the funniest performance of the lot as the upstart apprentice Arpad, whose mid-action promotion opens him up to an Act II full of riotous pride and self importance, bossing around the eager new apprentice Jancsi (Mike Ross, naturally, pulling double duty as the prat-falling and setpiece-jumping Jancsi and the accordion-playing Musical Director).

The practiced rhythms of the employees at Hammerschmidt's store play like a well-oiled and quirky ensemble should, their less-highlighted interpersonal relationships just as developed as the main plots (the friendship between Dennis' Asztalos and Ziegler's Hammerschmidt is particularly moving). The pace may sag from time to time but vibrant performances make all the difference in Laszlo's wordy comedy.

The Christmas-set comedy is the final piece in Soulpepper's outstanding 14th season, a very sweet way to head into 2012. Helped along by the Distillery District's annual Christmas market, a trip to the ever-so-slightly holiday-tinted Parfumerie is the perfect way to kick off the season.

Soulpepper's current production of Parfumerie plays at The Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto's Distillery District until Dec 31st. 

*photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

Saturday, December 10, 2011

In Albert Schultz's Toronto

I went to University in Boston. Don't ask me why but I had it in my head that I had to leave home after highschool, live in another city (another country, as it turned out), get some space from the town where my parents live, where I'd spent all of highschool and lived since I was 13 years old. What I learned while I was away was just how much I love being here, in Toronto. My Boston friends still laugh at the extreme enthusiasm with which I convince them to visit my hometown, but when they finally agree to come- Bostonians and New Yorkers all skeptical about Canada's greatness- the city never fails to win them over. Because it's the best place there is; that sounds hyperbolic, but I've been lots of places, and I've never found a city as vibrant and welcoming and just plain cool as Toronto.

In the past year, this firm-held opinion of mine has grown immeasurably due mostly to the influence one man has had on the artistic and cultural experience of Toronto. Downtown, in the heart of the ever-gorgeous Distillery District, sits the city's most valuable performance space: The Young Centre for the Performing Arts. The beautifully designed venue sports a spacious lobby with The William Hutt (*moment of reverence*) Library and a bar that serves everything from local beers and good wines to delicious espresso drinks, chai hot chocolate, gourmet sandwiches, soups and salads and the best fresh-baked cookies this side of my mother's kitchen. It's also home to no fewer than four diverse and convertible theatre spaces (not to mention studios, classrooms and offices). This space was built in 2006 to house George Brown College's theatre department and a little company called Soulpepper. Its General Director is Albert Schultz and it's from this perfect little slice of the city that he has designed and implemented more city-shaping initiatives than any other arts professional in recent memory. When I'm down in the Distillery, I'm in Albert Schultz's Toronto, and there's nowhere in the world I would rather be.

The Young Centre poobah is also (or, rather, coincidingly) the founding and current Artistic Director of Soulpepper, a thrilling repertory company that is in many ways the centre of Toronto's theatrical community. At only 15-years-old, Soulpepper easily rivals the acclaimed Stratford and Shaw festivals in the acting talent it attracts and with a year-round season of diverse works, it's the unrivaled go-to company for quality productions in Toronto. And Schultz is at the centre of it all as the face of the company as well as a participating actor and director.

The upcoming 2012 season hosts yet another lineup of promising productions covering all genres and periods. I'm particularly looking forward to seeing Kim's Convenience again, the 2011 Fringe festival hit written by Soulpepper Academy graduate Ins Choi, as it kicks off the new season on January 12th. In February, My Theatre favourites Evan Buliung and Gregory Prest will take on the intense Long Day's Journey Into Night with Soulpepper's go-to actress Nancy Palk in O'Neill's most demanding role, while the super wonderful Oliver Dennis and Mike Ross will appear with Diego Matamoros in High Life directed by Stuart Hughes. Schultz will direct Home in May and David Storch will take on Speed-the-Plow in July (Mamet's always done well for Soulpepper, being that they're mutually awesome and all). Big name Kenneth Welsh will return to the stage with The Sunshine Boys and Schultz will direct The Crucible followed by a remount of his hit production of another Arthur Miller piece, Death of a Salesman. Endgame (Lord help us all, but if anyone can convince me to like Beckett, it's Soulpepper), You Can't Take It With You, The Royal Comedians an A Christmas Carol round out the eventful season to come.

As an actor and performer, Schultz has quickly become a favourite of mine in my first year reviewing the company. He has an affable charm that makes him a superb figurehead (he can be seen wandering the halls of any Young Centre event, schmoozing and taking in shows) but he's also in possession of an incredibly unique blend of passion, seriousness and fun. Everything he does is executed seemingly effortlessly (the mark of a lot of effort) and he consistently has audiences eating out of the palm of his hand. Albert Schultz gives a sense of enthusiasm that's both unmistakable an infectious, a quality that's never more clear than at the Young Centre Festivals- weekend long events celebrating the arts, conceived by Schultz and the team and at The Young Centre (including 12 resident artists). A man whose job it is to run (and direct for, and act in) one of the most successful theatre companies in the country, you'd think would be content to just sit back and enjoy his work, but Schultz seems intent on supplementing it with celebrations of music and the spoken word at The Young Centre's Global Cabaret and Word Festivals.

Once a year, The Young Centre is filled with 3 days worth of Toronto's greatest musical talent at The Global Cabaret Festival. This year's was at the end of October, and it was the coolest weekend I've ever spent in this city.

The 4th annual showcase featured more than 150 musicians in 44 performances from Oct 28-30 and was composed of 3 types of cabarets: The Featured Artist Series showcased, well, featured artists, including some of Canada's most legendary talent (Jackie Richardson to Sharron Matthews to Daniel Taylor) performing their signature material. The Album Series was a set of tributes to the great artists and songwriters of the world (The Beatles, Paul Simon, Carole King, and more) music directed by the festival's resident artists and each featuring a plethora of guest stars. Finally there was the Theatrical Cabaret Series, which consisted of re)Birth: E.E. Cummings in Song, a Soulpepper original re-mounted from its earlier run, and The National Theatre of the World: The Carnegie Hall Show, a completely improvised musical event that was different at each performance.

I kicked my weekend off early Saturday afternoon at Albert Schultz's kids cabaret Young At Heart. The casually charming concert (which Schultz has performed for over a decade and recorded for the CBC) is a loving tribute to comedian/singers like Danny Kaye and a celebration of youthful wonder (he does a "cat medley" that includes "Everybody Wants to be a Cat", "Tigger" and "If I Were King of the Forrest", which he delivers in endearing goofy voices); it also features priceless contributions from the great Don Francks and Jackie Richardson. Housed in the Michael Young Theatre, beautifully transformed with cabaret tables and twinkling candles, Young at Heart was my favourite cabaret of the whole wonderful weekend and showed off exactly what it is that makes Schultz so incredibly good at the coolest job in the world.

Next, I was lucky enough to catch Jackie Richardson's own cabaret, a delightful hour of jazz and blues as delivered by one of Canada's most awesome performers. Richardson's show dragged only a little as she got lost in some of her more wandering anecdotes (most of which were simply hilarious) but the power of her voice and her engaging stage presence proved impossible to ignore.

Things slowed down from there when I wandered cluelessly into The Stan Rogers Songbook. Headed up by endearing performers like Miranda Mulholland  and the endlessly charming Brendan Wall, I'm sure this particular cabaret was wildly entertaining to fans of Stan Rogers' downhome melancholy, but I found it a little less than rousing (through absolutely no fault of the performers). The reason I went was to see one of the featured guests, Mike Ross, who delivered a couple strong vocals and livened up the proceedings with some cute banter, an anecdote about his expected baby (6 days overdue by then) and some fake rivalry fun (he accidentally knocked over Wall's guitar). Standing in line for a later show I overheard the audience members behind me discussing the E.E. Cummings piece that Ross was a major contributor to: "That Mike Ross is a genius" is not an uncommon sentence to hear at The Young Centre but that doesn't make it any less true. I thought he was great as a conflicted sociopath in White Biting Dog, then amazing in Acting Up Stage's Leonard Cohen/Joni Mitchell tribute, but the boyishly charming multi-hyphenate seems to whip out another mastered skill every time I see him and impress me even more. I'm just sad that at The Global Cabaret Festival I only got to see him sing Stan Rogers.

Next up was Sharron Matthews, of whom I've heard much but seen very little. The exuberant singer lived up to expectations with one of the most fun cabarets of the whole festival. With more of a focus on storytelling than the rest, Matthews gave the outright funniest performance I saw, complete with her divalicious takes on popular songs and a vicious demand for the monstrous Rob Ford to "get out of office and we'll feel alright" (sung to the tune of Bob Marley's usually peaceful "One Love"). Matthews' exuberance comes with a certain degree of self-righteousness, earned from a bullied childhood and years as an industry underdog, but that can be forgiven when she makes the glasses tremble with her powerful belt.

After that, I made the mistake of trying to get into The Beatles's Abbey Road from the Album Series at 8:15, missing my last chance to see the E.E. Cummings show I'd missed earlier this year at Soulpepper. When The Beatles turned out to be too popular (duh!), I called it a night.

I spent my Sunday with a musician friend of mine who was working at the festival instead of scouting out the rest of the Featured Artist Series (I figured between Schultz, Richardson and Matthews I'd gotten my money's worth). After dinner, my media pass got me in to see the final few minutes of Prince's Purple Rain, which I was glad to have mostly missed after musical director Suba Sankaran's gratingly forced enthusiasm proved too much for me to handle.

At 9:15 I capped off my excellent weekend at Toronto's coolest yearly event with the most popular show of the festival: Abbey Road. It was alright, not as memorable as I would have liked. After some of the brilliant cabarets earlier that weekend and the example set by Reza Jacobs' innovative takes on the Mitchell/Cohen songbooks, I'd come to expect a little re-interpretation when dealing with songs as famous as a Beatles track. But with the exception of a little extra drumming, the famous tunes remained largely untouched, delivered prettily but with a somewhat disappointing sense of adulation.

But a few underwhelming shows aside, the Global Cabaret Festival was freaking cool.

The Word Festival, which took place 2 weeks ago, was a less glamorous affair just in its first year of existence, but the slightly nerdy low-key-ness of the weekend gave it a sort of passion project feel that made it all the more fulfilling.

On the festival's opening night, Schultz MC'ed the Elmer Iseler Singers concert. He told a story about being a 15-year-old high school student asked to read Hamlet aloud in class. Most of the other students were struggling but he sailed right through, despite having never encountered Shakespeare before. He described the feeling of reading the verse like the experience of coming home, and realized that the reason he was so comfortable with the melodic, old-timey text was because he'd been raised going to church and singing in the choir; he'd been raised on the King James Bible. A classical acting career later, Schultz landed on the additional realization that we were in the year of the KJV (King James Version)'s anniversary, 1611, and that that was the same year Shakespeare produced his final play, The Tempest. So, for the 400th anniversary of 1611, Schultz and The Young Centre organized a celebration of the spoken word, honouring the publication of the two most influential texts in the English language- The King James Bible and The Complete Works of Shakespeare. It's a fascinating idea and resulted in a weekend of events, some utterly memorable, some wonderfully inspiring and some a little bit boring.

A main attraction of The Word Festival was the Live Reading of the KJV in the lobby of the Young Centre. 24hrs a day, 76 hours straight, someone was reading until the entire book had been spoken aloud at the festival. Soulpepper company members, the Young Centre resident artists and other prominent performers were called in to lend their voices to the reading, which concluded Sunday afternoon as Schultz read the final words and, punctuated by a fire alarm with a sense of humour, closed the book on Revelations. The whole thing streamed online, in case you were awake at 3:30am and just wanted to make sure they were still going, and was a fascinating thing to encounter as you moved from performance to performance.

Before the Elmer Eisler concert, the actual first event of the festival was a somewhat underwhelming introductory Shakespeare Panel that addressed the Bard's global influence. A Shakespeare nerd to the core, I was super psyched to hear from Professor Jill L. Levenson (who edited the Oxford R and J!) and Dr. Toby Malone (Soulpepper dramaturg, among other things). But what I found was that a panel discussion with festival artists (or, specifically, Schultz, if we're being honest here) would have been a lot more engaging. Academics like Levenson, though knowledgeable, can get caught up in theory (Levenson, for example, read from a prepared speech much of the time), whereas theatre actors/directors or just plain Shakespeare lovers are free-er to speak off-the-cuff, something Malone was much better at and panel guest Anthony Del Col (co-author of the comic book series Kill Shakepeare) excelled at. I would have loved to hear their in-depth thoughts about the texts themselves, to know which villain most inspired Del Col's narrative or pick Levenson's brain about what she thinks is the most important element in Romeo and Juliet. As it was, the stiff panel saw the expertise of its guests a little wasted.

But then I moved on to the Elmer Iseler singers for 2 hours of choral music that featured enough highlights to distract me from the fact that I was spending 2 hours listening to choral music. As narrated by Schultz, the concert was a lot more fun than expected. Reading corresponding Shakespeare and KJV passages, telling stories and cracking jokes, Schultz spread his love of choral music to the audience (as well as contributing some memorable sonnet reads and a truly great rendition of "All the World's a Stage" with the casual air of someone for whom Shakespeare is their native tongue). The singers themselves were beautiful, singing a combination of complexly harmonic contemporary pieces, some songs from Shakespeare plays and even a few jazz numbers accompanied by Gene DiNovi and Dave Young. They shone the brightest in the acapella numbers where their incredible layering really came through.

Next up was National Theatre of the World: Impromptu Splendor. The award-winning 3 person improv troupe's play series features a brand new hour-long improvised play at each performance, generally done in the style of a particular playwright (Mamet, Miller, etc...). At The Word Festival, NTOW did two performances: one inspired by the KJV and one inspired by Shakespeare. Though I'm sure I would have loved the latter, the former was the one that fit into my schedule and, though impressive, it was sort of underwhelming. The bible's just so abstract for long-form improv to use as inspiration, the stories themselves more allegorical than dramatic (and NTOW had the misfortune of finding an aged Solomon groupie in their front row, who tripped them up a bit by guiding them towards the Old Testament king and away from the much more well-known and therefore spoofable New Testament Jesus stories). The way that the three players picked up on each others' cues and and constructed stories on their feet was tremendous, making me wish all the more that I had gotten to see what they did later in the festival with the complete works of Shakespeare.

I returned to The Young Centre that Sunday for a jam-packed Word Festival calendar that made up for my missing Saturday (mostly, I only missed the Song of Solomon movement piece that I wasn't all that interested in and The Festival Cabaret, which I was very sorry to miss since it was hosted by, you guessed it, Mike Ross).

I started Sunday with The Gospel According to Mark, which I thought would be a dramatic interpretation but was in fact just a reading of "The Gospel According to Mark". But that reading was done by stage legend Kenneth Welsh and if there's one truth that was unavoidable at The Word Festival it's that you haven't heard the bible until you've heard it read by a proper Shakespearean actor. Welsh, whom I've never actually seen perform outside of The Word Festival, gave a spectacular reading- grand and evocative, surprisingly funny at times. Nonreligious as I am, I may have zoned out from time to time (it was 2 hours of just bible, after all) but the overall effect was a powerful one.

Besides, I had all sorts of fun to look forward to at my next performance- my most anticipated of the festival. I first heard about Kill Shakespeare when Stratford Festival Assistant Artistic Director Dean Gabourie gushed about it in his My Theatre Nominee interview earlier this year. I'd been in touch with co-creator Anthony Del Col about an interview for sister site My Books, but had simply run out of time and never gotten around to reading the comics. So I was beyond thrilled when The Word Festival hosted a staged reading of the series. Creators Del Col and Conor McCreery were joined on-stage by some of Soulpepper's best talent (including Prest, Malone, Wall from earlier in this giant article). The cast sat in two rows behind microphones, providing sound effects and the voices of the characters in Del Col and McCreery's epic battle of Shakespeare's heroes vs. Shakespeare's villains to save or kill the wizard Shakespeare. The whole presentation was pretty cool, the cast each voicing multiple characters, providing the shouts of a crowd, the murmurs of spirits, hoof prints, the sound of the wind and whatever else the story called for (Wall even played the score on a small keyboard to the side of his microphone). Andy Belanger's beautiful comic art was projected on a large screen as the story was told, giving the audience an excellent experience of the comic books, just a little more lively.

After Kill Shakespeare, was what turned out to be one of the best events of the weekend- Stand Up Shakespeare. In a nice reversal from his serious intensity during The Gospel According to Mark, Kenneth Welsh took to the cabaret stage as a drunken Shakespearean standup comedian, pulling lines from Shakespeare's cannon and piecing them together to create a coherent and laugh-out-loud funny standup act. He sang songs (accompanied by, wait for it.... Mike Ross! That guy is everywhere), did a little puppeteering, drank a lot, and after about 20 minutes of such wonderful tomfoolery, the show appeared to already be over. So Welsh then pulled out a presentation board with dozens of character names written on it and asked the audience to "pick one". For the next 40 minutes, one of North America's leading classical actors performed monologues on demand, brilliant renditions of the most famous works in the English language, just nestled in his pocket ready to be pulled out for the entertainment of 30 odd people in the Young Centre cabaret on a November Sunday afternoon. It was remarkable to see, if a little self-indulgent. Welsh "howl"d his way through Lear's heartbreaking 5.3 and joyfully exclaimed the Berowne-y "Love Combo".  He delivered an obscure Launce speech from Two Gents, then the rousing St. Crispin's Day from Henry V (stunning, his best by far). A bitterly hateful Lancelot Gabbo was followed by that play's more famous (and PC) "if you prick us do we not bleed" from Shylock. "All the World's a Stage" made its second appearance at the festival (I won't say whose was better, but it was Schultz's) then the 69-year-old Welsh wooed youthfully as an exuberant Romeo, grumbling "they never let me do that one" as he finished. There's nothing quite like a renowned actor playing for the sake of play, and Welsh's brilliant tour through whatever Shakespeare monologue we willed was something I would kill to see again.

After that I caught the end of Raoul Bhaneja's Hamlet (solo), a remarkable feat of nuanced characterization, human determination and insane line memorization. Bhaneja is a wonderful performer, each character being at once remarkably distinct from the others but still subtle and not over-played. With a bare stage, a single spot, no props and just black costuming, Bhanja's Hamlet is compelling and intricate, though I can't imagine I'd have been able to follow had I not known Hamlet incredibly well going in. The production is brilliant nevertheless, full of interesting interpretations (Polonius channels the actor's father with a subtle posh Indian accent) and compelling drama. Alone on stage, Bhaneja's focus is unparalleled- the fire alarm went off near the end of Act III so Bhaneja calmly broke character to explain what was going on and wait it out, cracking jokes and sipping water, then he slipped right back into it with mere seconds to refocus when the alarm stopped. Hamlet (solo) is massively impressive, but more than anything it made me want to see what the capable and complex Bhaneja might do with a properly supported shot at the title role alone.

The final show of The Word Festival was a comic look at The King James Bible through the eyes of 4 devout Christians; something I was hesitant about seeing but ended up loving more than anything else at the festival (yes, including all the Shakespeare). The KJV:The Bible Show is filled with rousing original songs and hosted by 4 captivating artists, each of whom take to the mic at least once to share a monologue of their experiences with The KJV. What makes The KJV: The Bible Show unique is its earnest appreciation for its subject and unabashed honesty about what it means to be a Christian in today's society. It's not cool to care about or believe in anything anymore, as Ins Choi points out in one of his superb monologues, he'd get nervous whenever someone found out he was a Christian. Usually the voices pointing such things out are harsh and stubbornly conservative ones on Fox News or worse, but the irreverent self-awareness of The Arts Engine (Choi, Rebecca Davey, Kris Van Soellen and Arthur Wachnik) gave the argument a whole new light. The KJV: The Bible Show is a wildly funny, completely dorky, honest presentation of what The KJV is, the influence it's had, what it means to these 4 people and even odd little factoids about the book. The rollicking good time simmers down as Choi delivers a hyperbolic and senseless sermon calling for everyone ever to "repent" that's at once funny and disturbing, but it's supposed to be. The performers then each take to the microphone to explain the ways in which they and the world have used The KJV as a tool for hatred and evil. It's a startlingly honest show that almost brought me to tears as the multiple sides of what's supposedly The Good Book were highlighted. The KJV: The Bible Show is a remarkable piece of theatre that entertains as much as it forces you to re-organize your thoughts on what it means to be a believer of any kind.

I don't think there's anywhere else in the world where so many brilliant theatre artists and musicians could come together in a place like The Young Centre. Across the Soulpepper seasons, The Word Festival and the Global Cabaret Festivals, the diversity of culture, style, generation and point of view is unbelievable; it all feels very Torontonian somehow (and not just because the artists weren't all New York imports, they're ours). The Young Centre is a place for artistic celebration, no matter what the trappings, and its Albert Schultz who's let it be that way. Whether I'm chatting with actors at  the opening of Soulpepper's Parfumerie, laughing at Bhaneja's daffy Polonius, or sitting in the back of the Michael Young as a packed house taps their toe alongside Jackie Richardson, I can't help but grin because this is where I live.

Take a tour of The Young Centre with Albert Schultz. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Out of Stratford: Behind-the-Scenes with Richard & Hosanna

Canadian theatre icon Seana McKenna's take on the title villain in Richard III was one of the star attractions of The Stratford Shakespeare Festival's 2011 season; Gareth Potter's ballsy (forgive the pun) and brash turn as disillusioned drag queen Hosanna in Michel Tremblay's heartwrenching play of the same name was a personal highlight. Their physical transformations (some of the biggest in festival history) are chronicled in this beautiful short film.

Through backstage shots and intimate interviews with the two thoughtful actors, the film delves into what it takes to slip into someone else's skin. It's quite the beautiful exploration- oddly melancholy as McKenna and Potter discuss leaving the roles they've spent so much time shaping (Potter, in particular, talks about how Hosanna will always stay with him).

But it's funny too. You haven't lived until you've heard Potter's recounting of "getting raunchy in the [ladies] dressing room" after putting on his lingerie and heels, and the usually very serious McKenna discussing "shift[ing] the bumps to the hump". It's a rare glimpse into the process of the Stratford actor and an insight into some of 2011's most fascinating performances.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Mayor Ford's Just Gotta Dance

Author and Ford-critic Margaret Atwood and Barenaked Ladies frontman Steven Page as Cannon Dolls;
Mayor Rob Ford stuck in the middle. 
Toronto's mayor is a Mr. Dursley-esque grump face with a popularity rate so low in the heart of the city that I've literally never met one of his supporters. They like him in the suburbs I guess, or so the electoral map suggested, but down where we use the TTC and go to the theatre and have GBLQT friends and spend time in city libraries, he's not so popular. The arts community, in particular, has it out for Ford- whose crusade to lower the city's out-of-control taxes seems to threaten their very existence (right from the get-go he freaked out during a debate on arts funding, declaring "people, we have roads to fix!"). Even when he is, on occasion, right, the mayor is so incapable of presenting an idea as anything but hate-filled bullying that he's become a symbol of everything the artist-intellectual downtown core hates. And with each "shut up, I'm going to my cottage" decision he makes, Ford only makes it worse.

So today's announcement that he's joining an age-old tradition of arts solidarity came as quite the surprise (and, frankly, a PR miracle for Ford's office). On December 10th, the National Ballet of Canada will open their yearly production of The Nutcracker (James Kudelka's oddly beloved Russian-influenced version that was created specifically for the company) with a 2pm matinee. Rob Ford will be there, but not in the audience. In Act I, the roles of the Cannon Dolls who begin the battle scene are generally reserved for special guests (past Petrouchkas include celebrities, politicians and sports stars like Margaret Atwood, David Miller and Mats Sundin). At the Dec 10, 2pm opening performance of the 2011 Nutcracker, the marshmallow-looking mayor of Toronto will play the role, dolled up in bright colours (and, I pray to god, a nice pair of tights!).

It seems every time I go to the theatre lately there's an improvised comment, a sarcastic dedication or a scripted joke at Ford's expense (he's all over this year's Ross Petty Pantomime, just for starters). Maybe he's finally realizing that Toronto lives and breathes with its artistic and cultural identity, it's what sets the city apart, and the artists have voices too loud to let them hate you this much. And maybe he was bullied into it, maybe the National Ballet isn't exactly the struggling institution he should be focusing on. But hey, it's a start, right?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Stratford 2012: Coming Soon

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is gearing up for their 60th Anniversary, recently posting the promotional photos for the 14 productions in their 2012 season. Head to www.stratfordfestival.ca for details on the upcoming shows.

42nd Street
A Word or Two
The Best Brothers
Henry V
The Matchmaker
Much Ado About Nothing
The Pirates of Penzance
The War of 1812
You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown

Performances begin with a preview matinee of 42nd Street on April 12th.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Seeing Red at CanStage

by Kelly Bedard

In my University writing classes I always wanted to write inside baseball stories about how Shakespeare people talk about Shakespeare. Every professor I ever had (playwriting, screenwriting, tv writing- all of them) told me I wasn't allowed. They said the audience would tune the characters out because they didn't understand, that everything had to be accessible, identifiable, universal. If a character was an expert, well, they had to be explaining their concepts to an audience proxy, for clarity's sake. But most great plays I've ever seen are about smart people talking inside baseball in some form or another. Red, the 2010 Tony winning play by screenwriting big shot John Logan now playing at Canstage, is a one act two hander wherein art people talk about art. If you don't know your Pollock from your Warhol you have to work a little harder to keep up with the characters and their points of view. But you do keep up, because it's worth it to try and keep up with one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Or you could just tune him and his brilliant and daring assistant out and go see Mary Poppins instead. But if you listen, the truth of Red is that it's actually impossible to truly understand everything Rothko and his assistant have to say, because they don't even understand everything they believe themselves.

I don't really have a head for art. I don't know my Monet from my Manet, let alone my Rothko from a hole in the wall, but the key with Red is to try and understand what the characters are saying through their conversation about art (Pollock, for example, serves as a metaphor for emotional freedom and the dangers of fame, it's not just about Pollock). To me, abstract expressionist paintings usually look like gradeschool art, the kind that the weird kid in the back of the class always makes, giving up on stick figures in favour of random smudges. But what's clear as day in Logan's play is how Rothko and Ken feel about abstract expressionism, about life and death and intellect and emotion and fame and money and all the other stuff- or at least how they think they feel at any given moment. They tell you how they feel about the world when they talk about the paintings. When Rothko and Ken talk about the colour red, they show you who they are. And if you're listening, you don't have to know the difference between carnelian and crimson to understand what they're saying. They'll contradict themselves, go round in circles, change their minds, but as well as the characters can, the audience can understand the incredibly human way Rothko and Ken explore their own beliefs- incoherently and indirectly.

Jim Mezon and David Coomber play the master and his apprentice with great energy (though I would've loved to have seen the original interpretations by Tony winner Eddie Redmayne and the legendary Alfred Molina). The frantic unease in Mezon's Rothko, his restless anger and dissatisfaction, create a fascinating contrast with Coomber's fresh-faced but steady-footed Ken. Rothko teaches Ken about life through art and art through life but there's a sort of discrepancy of groundedness between Mezon and Coomber that makes their relationship more complicated, their power dynamic more malleable and Ken's eventual outburst more believable. Coomber, hindered a little by repetitive speech patterns within some clunky dialogue, plays Ken with learned patience and surprising humour, as if he, as a commoner, is able to grasp a bit of perspective the great art idol Rothko can't see. Mezon, is the flip side, a thundering man/child obsessed with thoughtful consideration yet prey to catastrophic mood swings and emotional impulses. He believes in his views, his theories on life and art, his principals, so strongly that he spends more time spouting them than adhering to them. Rothko waxes poetic about the backdoor reasoning and political statements behind his decision to take a large commission for paintings to hang in a restaurant, but he spends so much time posturing that he doesn't notice his own obvious hypocrisy. It's a complex and contradictory performance that Mezon delivers with great finesse. As Rothko grapples with the world ceasing to care about his artistic identity (he's been replaced by pop artists like Warhol, whom he considers worthless), he desperately clings to all the possibilities of who he might actually be.

Director Kim Collier and designer David Boechler's work with moving walls and projections of colour and popular art is inspired, but I found Alan Brodie's lighting design a bit too on-the-nose. The colour red is everything in Red- it's the colour of paint Rothko uses almost exclusively, it symbolizes the blood Ken thinks he sees surrounding Rothko's collapsed frame, it's a metaphor for life and vibrancy and darkness and death and anything the contemplative characters can think it to be. It doesn't need to wash over the entire set at key moments too. At one point Rothko and Ken stand in the studio doing nothing but listing things that are red- it's the colour of tomatoes, and of dried blood in the carpet after a murder. It's everything. The characters never reach a conclusion about red, and I think I could watch Red a hundred times and each time reach a different conclusion about them. It's that uncertainty, the messy and imprecise study of human behaviour, that's what makes Red worth it; it's supposed to be hard to understand, because life and art are too.

Over the Rainbow with Ross

by Kelly Bedard

Ross Petty's annual Christmas Pantomime has been a beloved event in Toronto for 16 years. I can remember going as a kid and getting to see Canadian legends like Mr. Dressup (Ernie Coombs), Fred Penner, Kurt Browning, Rex Harrington and Karen Kain onstage as absurd twisted fairy tale creatures. It was the thrill of the season (never so much as the year when Aladdin featured household favourite Bret "The Hitman" Hart as a hilariously threatening Genie). We went every year, long past the age when it really made sense for me and my older brother to be there. But that's the thing about the Petty Panto, it's got jokes for everyone, and that camp-happy infectious optimism is even more important for us Scroogy adults misplaced in the audience.

This year's offering is The Wizard of Oz, except in this version Oz is actually a bizarro version of "Aus"(aka Australia), the tin man is Dorothy's love interest, the Wizard is a rock and roll wannabe and it's a massive blizzard that sweeps our heroine away from her hometown of cold and urban Toronto instead of a tornado from Kansas farm country. Oh, and it's Glinda who guides us through the story; well, it's the Glinda figure, who we've actually got is Splenda, the good witch of the South (the direction L Frank Baum forgot to name). Jessica Holmes is hilarious perfection in the odd-ball role, all lisping good intention with a feisty wit she pulls out just fast enough to knock the practiced Petty off his villainous feet. The man behind the brand, producer Ross Petty, steps into his usual role as the boo-able bad guy with the same deadpan, deep-voiced silliness he plays every year (this time as the predatory Wicked Witch of the West, riding around on a motorized broom/bike and casually hitting on Russell Peters who made the mistake of sitting in the front of the audience where Petty could find him).

Of the many, let's call them "liberties", co-adaptors Nicholas Hune-Brown and Lorna Wright take with Baum's famous work, one of the biggest is the expansion of Auntie M into an excitable and world-weary, but still fabulous drag queen named Aunt Plumbum (a recurring character from previous Petty Pantos) who gets carried along on the adventure by being in a portapotty at the wrong time. As played by Dan Chameroy, Plumbum easily becomes a crowd favourite (even among the kids, who clearly don't get 90% of her jokes). I adore Chameroy, have for as long as I can remember, and what makes his Pantomime performance so wonderful is that the dashing leading man (known for machismo roles like Gaston and Miles Gloriosus) seems like he's having more fun than all the kids in the audience combined and doesn't give a flying banana about anything but the silly exuberance of it all. There's a great joy to any Chameroy performance, but he's never seemed happier than he does in Plumbum's tacky spandex and insane wig.

As for the central quartet heading down the yellow brick road, Elicia Mackenzie is an adorably spunky Dorothy, a misplaced snowboarder with mad karate skills and a strong mezzo belt. Her chemistry with Yvan Pedneault's quirky magician/miner/temporary tin man Donny isn't the strongest, but with Shawn Desman's catchy and possessively Torontonian "Night Like This" as their adorably enthusiastic love anthem, they're cute enough to get away with very little sizzle. As for Pedneault himself, he's as charming as ever, if a little stiff beyond his tin man duties. He and his wife (Kelly Fletcher, ensemble/dance captain) provide the show's biggest scene stealer- their little dog Hauli, who plays the cutest Toto ever seen. Steve Ross and Kyle Blair are my favourites though, as a fussy/cuddly cowardly lion named Napoleon (Nap) and a hilariously limber, self-deprecating brainiac named Fig Newton, after the cookie not the physicist (aka Fig the Scarecrow). Both give wonderful comic performances (including brilliant physical work from Blair) and their strong friendship is more touching than any on stage.

The adaptation is a rollicking good time (though I could have done with more inventive song choices- Lady Gaga and "Funkytown"? Really?) and worth the price of admission for the cast's infectious enthusiasm alone. Oh, and any time a chorus of expert male dancers whips out a rendition of "Macho Man", my life gets just a little bit better.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Shakespeare in Action: Macbeth

photo by Joel Charlebois

by Kelly Bedard

Shakespeare in Action's second tragedy isn't as strong as its repertory companion Romeo and Juliet. While the casually modern staging works wonderfully in R and J, in a modern Mackers a low budget can make things look haphazard because of the precision necessary to pull off a military look. The company would have been better off going bare bones with it- all black, no set; just actors, their voices and some weapons. As it is, the capable company fights against the contradictions of their world the entire time- it's presented as though it's supposed to be big, but it just isn't.

From My Cinema: Anyonymous Takes on Shakespeare

by Kelly Bedard

In the weeks before Anonymous hit movie theatres I was asked no fewer than 20 times how I felt about the film. "Could it be true?" people wondered of the absurd tagline: 'Was Shakespeare A Fraud?'; "are you outraged?" demanded others, inquiring whether my bardolatry had me on the defense; "why is Xenophilius Lovegood in it?" some pondered, rightly wondering why the bright and witty Rhys Ifans was on the poster. "I don't know yet" was my answer to questions 2 and 3 since I'd yet to actually see the movie; question 1 has long had a definitive "no" attached to it, complete with a long rant about the gross pretentiousness that accompanies each and every theory positing that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wasn't educated or rich or respectable enough to be talented.

 No, the outrage never came.  And as for Ifans, I suspect it had little to do with anything other than the studio's need for a familiar face who could speak in a straight line and the actor's need for a paycheck.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Getting Dizzy on the Cyclone

photos by Tim Matheson

by Kelly Bedard

I'm loving the fact that Atomic Vaudeville/Acting Up Stage's Ride the Cyclone has all the buzz in the world heading into the last 2 weeks of their sold-out run at Theatre Passe Muraille, not because I adored the show (it's good, but nothing to write home about), because it's weird. Really weird. And when it comes to weird, it's not easy to get much mainstream love. The fact that Ride the Cyclone, an off-beat, largely structure-less, potentially alienating exploration of youthful oddity is a bonafied hit gives me hope that Toronto's everyman eyes might finally be opening to the theatrical world that lives beyond The Lion King and Mirvish's gilded playbills. The talent and creativity behind the wackadoo show is plenty to get excited about, so I'm thrilled to find that people are indeed excited.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Shakespeare in Action: Romeo and Juliet

photo by Joel Charlebois

by Kelly Bedard

I am extraordinarily picky when it comes to Romeo and Juliet. I adore the play and have what my friend Maddi calls "thoughts and feelings" about it, meaning I'm overly attached to a very strict interpretation that exists in my head of the pedestalled piece. I know it like the back of my hand, to the point where I'm counting off the scenes as they go "okay, 1.5 down, wow they completely cut 2.1, straight into the balcony?". Basically, I'm an R and J geek who believes that Lord Capulet is a key character, it's grossly detrimental to try and stage it in period, Paris should be highlighted and that the only truly great Romeos are those elusive golden boys with the priceless ability to light up a room just by walking into it. Shakespeare in Action's student-geared, pared-down matinee version is far from perfect, but when Romeo and Juliet is taken off the page by the right director and ensemble, it sweeps you up until you don't care about the details anymore.

My Theatre Watch List: 18 Under 25

by Kelly Bedard

We at My Entertainment World have a long history of predicting the future. For instance, My TV sang the praises of 2011 Emmy winner Ty Burrell as early as March 2008, and current it-girl Emma Stone first hit the site in early 2009. At My Theatre we've been placing our bets on early-spotted favourites like Jesse Nerenberg and Jessica Moss for over a year now and they're yet to disappoint.

One of the greatest pleasures in growing up around aspiring theatre artists is seeing people you've known since they were 15 take to the stage and blow the audience away. I experienced just that this week when two actors I'd known separately years ago ended up playing Romeo and Juliet opposite one another.

So I got-to thinking about some of the most incredible performers I've ever encountered outside of my reviewing chair. They're alumnists of schools and programs I used to attend myself, all still performing, all under 25, all so brimming with talent that it's just a matter of time until people take notice even more than they already have. Two are singers I first heard when we sang operettas together at age 15; one travelled with me to Ireland 8 years ago; there are six university classmates, four high school castmates, three alumnists of a company I created and one from a company I volunteered for; and there's one current all-star student who impressed me when I went back to my old high school for a performance. (And some people fall into more than one of those categories). Some are my close friends, some I haven't talked to in years, some I've never really met, some I've already profiled on this site, some have yet to land their first real gig. But they all stood out as the best of the best of the talented crowds I've encountered over the years.

So without further ado, in alphabetical order, here are 18 names you WILL be hearing again:

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The RLD Warns of FIREraisers

by Kelly Bedard

Toronto's Red Light District is the only company that's ever gotten me to like things I don't like- from audience participation to Trinity Bellwoods after 9pm to German expressionism to blatant stage sex. They sell all these off-putting adventures to this closed-minded critic by using them as mere wrapping paper for greater meanings that stay with me for weeks after the production. In a somewhat disappointing season for the company (two canceled productions and an underwhelming ... la ronde...), FIREraisers has proven a reassuring return to form, even if its director is different, its space is foreign and its text is entirely more modern than the company's usual fare. At its heart FIREraisers has things to say, and that's what I always think of when I think of the RLD.

Friday, November 11, 2011

“Spring Awakening” Stirs Energy and Passion from its Talented Cast

by Brian Balduzzi

I never saw the original production on Broadway; in fact, the F.U.D.G.E Theatre Company production (one of the first in the New England area) is my first foray into Spring Awakening’s dynamic rhythm of awakening youths. Impressed with the company’s summer production of Carousel, I was anxious to see Joe DeMita’s creativity in the punk-rock style, but, more specifically, I wanted to see if he would appreciate the German expressionism from the original play.

I wasn't disappointed in DeMita’s choices towards minimalism when it came to the set and staging. The stage is almost barren from start to finish- the actors bring on chairs, tables, and appropriate props to differentiate the scenes and locations- and stage manager Julia Murray keeps the production moving at a wonderful pace. DeMita’s creative use of ropes tethered to the ceiling, wrapped around characters, and tugged in interpretive choreography is effective in some points of the show, but it also distracts from the stunning chemistry and relationships between the actors. In a play about intimate bonds, I felt disconnected from the characters, wondering what the undead-looking ensemble members were going to do with the ropes next. I appreciate the wonderful metaphors around tying the characters up in their own confusion and emotions, but the choice ultimately detracts more than it adds.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

BU's Bug Shocks and Stuns for Less Gruesome Reasons

by Brian Balduzzi

On a particularly stormy night, I ventured out to Boston University Stage Troupe’s production of Bug by Tracy Letts, directed by veteran Chris Hamilton, hoping for a night of horror and suspense.

Unfortunately, I was less than smitten with the results. Billed as “the play that gets under your skin,” I was not moved by the production or many of the performances in it. Thankfully, some secondary characters were compelling and spot-on, but too few, too late.

The horror was in the production team. From the sound design to set design, each piece was unified but off-point for the play. The sound was loud; tip: subtlety and silence are unnerving. The music, while appropriate to the themes of the play, didn’t fit with the concept of creating a horror story. I was greatly annoyed when music and fighter noise played during one of Peter’s speeches. As I will say below, Dan Stevens (Peter) can deliver a speech in an interesting and compelling way. Just let him speak!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Horror-pop Halloween: Zombies, An Evil Videogame, and A Sinister Suburb

by Borah Coburn

Happy Medium Theatre’s production of Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom by Jennifer Haley is often funny, endearing in a nerdy (and sometimes intensely angsty teenage way), and engrossing. The basic story is that in the creepy/Stepfordian suburb of an unnamed town, all the teenagers have become totally engrossed with a videogame that uses satellite photos of the players’ neighborhood and zombifies its inhabitants. But the game isn’t just a game, and the consequences of in-game action start appearing in the real world—so what happens at the final level? It’s an enjoyable night of theatre, especially if you like the scary side of Halloween and/or gaming.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Rigoletto at the COC

by Kelly Bedard

Verdi's brilliant 3-act opera is given a beautiful if sometimes silly staging at The Canadian Opera Company this fall.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Dueling Cabarets

by Kelly Bedard

Sonus Stage Company's Sondheim revue Side by Side just opened at the Walmer Center Theatre. Earlier this week I had the opportunity to enjoy excerpts from Acting Up Stage's Both Sides Now, a revue of Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell songs. Sonus' production, a less polished restaging of a pre-existing cabaret has none of the jaw-dropping talent and music direction innovation of Both Sides Now, though they begin with more iconic musical theatre material.

The 1975 revue hasn't been updated since its original staging and therefore lacks many of Sondheim's most famous and more current melodies and while the company does an excellent job making the niche composer accessible to non-fans, an update would have really helped their cause.

Theatre Smash's Ugly One

by Kelly Bedard

Theatre Smash’s production of Marius von Mayenburg’s dystopic one act The Ugly One is a whole lot of funny and whole whack of unsettling all wrapped into a tiny 1 hour package.

Director Ashlie Corcoran and designer Camellia Koo pair to stage Maja Zade’s superb translation of the excellent play in a unique and effective way, using Tarragon Theatre’s Extra Space to full effect with a massive multi-use table taking up 80% of the playing area and characters joining the audience to observe during their down time. Jason Hand’s excellent lighting design makes interesting use of brightness to startle the audience out of its stupors and mimic the trademark surroundings of an operating room or big budget corporate presentation.

In Stratford: Twelfth Night

photo by Andrew Eccles
by Kelly Bedard

Ranking: #1
The most fun I’ve had at a Shakespeare play in a very long time was at Des McAnuff’s raucous celebration of anachronism: Twelfth Night, my favourite Stratford Production of 2011.

In Stratford: The Little Years

photo by Andrew Eccles

by Kelly Bedard

Ranking: #2
My first tears of the 2011 Stratford Festival Season came in the Studio Theatre one afternoon as I took in a play about which I knew nothing.

John Mighton’s original work The Little Years was the surprise delight of the season, a new play I loved so much that it usurped some of my favourite Shakespeares to take the silver medal spot in this year’s rankings.

In Stratford: Titus Andronicus

photo by Andrew Eccles

by Kelly Bedard

Ranking: #3
A lot of people consider Shakespeare’s early revenge tragedy trashy, vulgar, somehow incomplete and most certainly inferior (to the bard’s more “sophisticated” later works like Hamlet). But some of the smartest directors I’ve ever met are convinced there’s a certain darkly comic genius to it. That seems to be the trick with the grotesquely violent Roman drama- don’t be afraid of the absurdity but don’t mock the suffering either.

At The Stratford Festival this year director Dark Tresnjak made use of those very principals to create an innovative and stirring production of Titus Andronicus that proves why it belongs in the great revenge canon right alongside Hamlet.

In Stratford: Hosanna

photo by Andrew Eccles

by Kelly Bedard

Ranking: #4
After I read late Stratford artistic director Richard Monette’s beautiful memoir This Rough Magic, I couldn’t wait to buy a copy of the play that made him famous. But when I finally got to read great Canadian playwright Michel Tremblay’s groundbreaking 2-man play Hosanna, I was surprised by how much I didn’t like it. I thought on stage it would be campy, possibly even shallow. What I didn’t realize was that Hosanna is one of those plays that simply doesn’t belong on paper. It needs a beating heart, and that’s what Gareth Potter gave it this season at The Stratford Festival.

In Stratford: The Grapes of Wrath

photo by Andrew Eccles

by Kelly Bedard

Ranking: #5
Frank Galati’s stage adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath is incredibly demanding. With no fewer than 61 characters (not including “Travellers, Guards, Strikers, Citizens and Hoopermen”), an on-stage river, a rainstorm, ever-changing locales and a moving vehicle of remarkable size, it’s a wonder that any company would consider attempting a production.

But if there’s one company to tackle the iconic novel’s demands, it’s The Stratford Festival with their brilliant effects teams, ambitious corps of directors and designers and large, capable acting company full of diverse, classically-trained talent. The result is an entertaining production that’s both technically impressive and emotionally affecting.

In Stratford: Jesus Christ Superstar

photo by Andrew Eccles

by Kelly Bedard

Ranking: #6
Jesus Christ Superstar is inarguably the biggest hit The Stratford Festival has had in years. But that was fairly predictable. Current Artistic Director Des McAnuff is, at heart, a rock musical man and he’d been dreaming of JCS for quite some time. After the arrival of Josh Young in last year’s Evita and with the maturation that title role brought to ingénue Chilina Kennedy, the cast was finally starting to take shape to be able to pull off the massive task of the Lloyd-Webber/Tim Rice rock opera. Now, the soldout, extended-run breakout is headed not only to La Jolla playhouse but all the way to Broadway come March, where hopefully we’ll see some of Stratford’s best get some Tony love.

As for me, I liked the production an awful lot. But with a few weak points and a central character interpretation that’s pretty alienating, I think there are better things at the festival this year, which is why its biggest hit is only my #6 choice.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

In Stratford: Richard III

photo by Andrew Eccles

by Kelly Bedard

Ranking: #7
Take a look at that promotional photo- doesn’t that look like a kickass Richard III? Unfussily sexually ambiguous, surrounded by attack dogs and draped cockily on a throne that’s not hers- I really think that should have been Seana McKenna’s Richard III. I mean look at those boots! Who needs a penis when you’ve got bitch stompin’ boots like those? Alas, there seemed to be a bit of cowardice running around in Richard rehearsals at the Stratford Festival this year as their brave move towards busting open the great roles for whomever was most qualified dwindled into a single mediocre production without the heft to knock politely, not to mention break down any doors.

In Stratford: Camelot

photo by Andrew Eccles
by Kelly Bedard

Ranking: #8
I’m fond of Lerner and Lowe’s Camelot. It was one of the first things I ever saw at The Stratford Shakespeare Festival and this year’s iteration pays lovely homage to that great production with erstwhile Lancelot Dan Chameroy bringing his lovable swagger to the small part of Sir. Dinadan. That said, Camelot is not actually that good a musical. It has its moments and when executed well it can be pretty entertaining. But the source material here just isn’t as strong as sophisticated more contemporary offerings like, say, Jesus Christ Superstar.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

In Stratford: The Merry Wives of Windsor

photo by Andrew Eccles

by Kelly Bedard

Ranking: #9
The Merry Wives of Windsor is not a particularly great play on its own merits. It’s a silly “one more time, just for the financial benefit” retreading of beloved characters from superior plays (most notably, Henry IV’s breakout star Falstaff). It can be amusing, I would imagine, if staged innovatively with the unhelpfully broad weak points sidestepped in interesting ways. Almost anything can be at least enjoyable if cast right and directed well (I even found a Comedy of Errors that I liked last spring). But Stratford director Frank Galati didn’t even take a stab at innovation- he just cast well and leaned the incredible weight of a major mainstage production on the actors’ shoulders- not something even the best in company can handle on their own.

Broadway Bound

photo by David Hou

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival has just announced what I was hoping would be coming: Jesus Christ Superstar's move to Broadway!

The smash hit production (directed by Broadway vet and Stratford Artistic Director Des McAnuff) will premiere at the Neil Simon Theatre on March 22, 2012 after a sojourn at California's La Jolla Playhouse starting in late November.

The last Stratford production to make the move to NYC (2009's Importance of Being Earnest) recast all its best performers (Mike Shara, Ben Carlson, Andrea Runge and Stephen Ouimette). Here's hoping the same doesn't happen to the superb cast of JCS (including Chilina Kennedy, Bruce Dow, Brent Carver, Marcus Nance, Aaron Walpole, Lee Siegel and Mike Nadajewski), for many of whom world stage recognition has been a long time coming. If the cast makes it intact I'm calling it first that Josh Young's got Tony Nomination written all over him for his performance as Judas.

Look out for our upcoming review of the production.

In Stratford: The Misanthrope

photo by Andrew Eccles

by Kelly Bedard

Ranking: #10
Set designer John Lee Beatty hits The Misanthrope out of the park. As does costume designer Robin Fraser Paye. But there’s a reason the aesthetics and design teams are the standouts in this production- it’s a superficial one.

Moliere’s brilliant script is in predictably fine form with the superb English translation by Richard Wilbur- who had the insight to translate in verse, maintaining Moliere’s hard-to-deliver but wonderfully entrancing rhythms and rhymes. Director David Grindley does an uninspired but acceptable job of staging the amusing story but neglects to give it any real heart.

In Stratford: The Homecoming

photo by Andrew Eccles

by Kelly Bedard

Ranking: #11
Alright, Pinter is not my thing. In fact, he is so far from my taste that I found myself getting progressively annoyed at his characters and their seeming inability to make a decent decision about their lives. I have a tendency to not think nutso people are interesting or metaphorical, I usually just think they need help and to get off the stage. That’s why The Homecoming is so low in my Stratford rankings. It is, undoubtedly, a very well executed piece. It’s also a beloved script from a Nobel Laureate playwright. So this one came down to a matter of taste. It’s not my thing, so I didn’t love it. But I will tell you all the great things that the company did with it, in case Pinter IS your thing.

Sugar Cereal goes Girl Hopping at Club Oberon

 by Brian Balduzzi

I think it's delightful when I can just enjoy theatre; it doesn't happen often that I can sit back with a glass of Pinot Grigio and appreciate a play like a good sitcom. Sugar Cereal Productions' launch and world-premiere of Girl Hopping was such a night.

Housed in the infamous Club Oberon, Girl Hopping is a sweet, tarty look into the lives of six women. Six lesbian women. Really, the stories would have been the same if you inserted a couple of men, but I’ll talk more about how the energy is just right with this particular cast of actresses and characters. These women all live in West Hollywood, California, and they all sleep with each other. Or they want to sleep with each other. Or they have slept with each other. But as light and enjoyable as the evening proved, playwright Ilene A. Fischer left the mundane and saccharine to actual sitcoms, instead filling Girl Hopping with charm and bite, a devilish mix for this hot cast of women.

Monday, October 3, 2011

In Stratford: Shakespeare's Will

photo by Andrew Eccles

by Kelly Bedard

Ranking: #12
The crime of Shakespeare’s Will was not a grave one. It’s not last on my list of enjoyable fare at The Stratford Shakespeare Festival this year because it was offensive, badly executed or terribly written. In fact it didn’t bother me in the slightest… because I was too busy trying not to fall asleep.

Poor Put-Upon Bertha

by Kelly Bedard

Alumnae Theatre's current production of After Mrs. Rochester is somewhat of a mess.

Polly Teale's uneven script tells the story of Jean Rhys, a novelist who grew up in the West Indies, which inspired her to write a prequel to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre about the life of Bertha, Mr. Rochester's troubled first wife who hailed from the same area. While I'm all for telling Bertha's side of the story (the oft-ignored character is not only crucial to the understanding of Jane Eyre's male lead but she's a significantly more fascinating presence than any other woman in the novel- including its heroine), this is not the way to do it. Teale uses Bertha, more or less, as a metaphor for her characters' suffering- everyone sees the light through Bertha and her story and finds comfort in the connection. As Bronte's story, Rhys' story and Teale's story get meddled, the play becomes more and more disjointed, becoming harder to follow and giving you very little reason to try.