Shakespeare in High Park is on! It's a truly fabulous experience during a Toronto summer and it's imperative to be on the must-do list every year. This year we've got two productions again (which is super); TITUS ANDRONICUS, the uber bloody and violent play about revenge and..well, death, and AS YOU LIKE IT, the light-hearted comedy about love and forgiveness, and basically everything that's the opposite of TITUS. In fact, opposites is sort of the theme if you want to compare the two productions.
TITUS ANDRONICUS is seldom produced. It's a gory, mega-violent story filled with shocking crimes against humanity, and vulgar behaviour. But it's also a story of parental love and loyalty, and how trauma can lead a person to commit unspeakable crimes they may not have been capable of before their trauma influenced them. It's a real psychology textbook and it's a difficult play, so kudos to CanadianStage and director Keira Loughran for having the gumption to take it on. Shakespeare in High Park usually shows the Bard's comedies and so this bleak play was a refreshing change from the norm - sorry outraged parents, perhaps next time you will investigate the story before bringing your 7-year old to the theatre.
Unfortunately though, this production of TITUS is flawed. The intense strength of characters wasn't there, and so the extreme emotions needed to behave in such heinous ways never arrived, which made many of the violent acts seem like over-kill (no pun intended). The movements by the ensemble were awkward and out-of-place; the cast didn't look comfortable in group battle scenes or a forest scene where they suddenly took on animal characteristics, and so I was uncomfortable watching them. The show seemed bogged down in extraneous stage business added purely for spectacle, but none of it ever strengthened the story or character development.
AS YOU LIKE IT is the stuff that Shakespeare in High Park fans are accustomed to - it's drole and everyone gets married at the end; it's pretty much what we expect. However this production had an ace in the hole that isn't always seen in Park productions, and that ace came in the form of Amy Rutherford, the excellently cast Rosalind. Multi-Dora nominated Rutherford ROCKS as Rosalind. She animates the stage when she's on it and elevates the game of those around her. She really gets rolling when Rosalind dons her male persona of Ganymede - here Rutherford lets loose her full canon of playfulness as she wraps her tongue around the iambic pentameter like its her native speech pattern. The entire cast gelled in this production, with an sureness absent in TITUS - perhaps that's the result of TITUS being the more difficult play to navigate, or perhaps it's because they have Rutherford as a ringer. Regardless though, if you can only see one, make it AS YOU LIKE IT.
TITUS ANDRONICUS and AS YOU LIKE IT play on alternating nights (except Monday nights) at the High Park amphitheatre until August 31. For tix click here. Tickets are Pay-What-You-Can with a suggested $20 donation.
By Michael Hodgson
In BORNE, nine performers with lived experience of physical disabilities, share their stories while rolling, weaving, singing and even sitting on a spinning wheel. Challenging our notions of what it means to be a performer in a performance, these real stories told by their owners, are more than presented; they are inherently honest and a gauntlet of emotions and discourse.
We begin with the stunning wheel work of Nancy Xia underscored by the live piano accompaniment of performer Danilo Raralio. She is spinning and floating on the moon. Enter the others, as they all don masks and float with Nancy. “We are floating – not falling,” states the cast - and we agree. I was impressed by the full cast weaving in and out of one another and thought of how long this choreography would’ve taken to master. Quickly the masks are removed and we are face to face with the daily encounters and navigations of life in a wheelchair. We are told that the cast escapes to get away from the issues of life in a chair; the patronizing ways of the general public specifically – and they directly address us too. In the montage of “things we hear everyday” the cast shares the exclamations of pity in challenges, or shock in successes they are privy to. Have we ever said or done these things?
The ensemble work here is outstanding. It is clear to us that the performers are not trained actors. We don’t care. Hearing the tales of how these performers came to be in their chairs is of course hard to hear. We hear tales of attempted suicides, mishaps, crashes and are moved on a number of occasions. Do we pity these people? When we first begin to hear the personal stories, maybe, but quickly we learn of their determination, their strength and ability. We see this and rexamine our notion of what it means to be disabled. The cast is comprised of lawyers, arts industry professionals, graduate students and an Order of Canada recipient.
The title of the piece is conceived by a question and answer session with co-creator Judith Thompson in which performer Maayan Ziv uttered the answer “born”. We learn that when the performers began life in a chair, they felt born again. Dan Harvey states that if he could go back in time and tell his younger self to not go on the trip that caused the disability – he wouldn’t.
I highly recommend going to see this unique and informative piece. You will question yourself, feel more emotions than you're used to, and leave with a sense of hope and perspective.
BORNE is on at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane). For tix click here.
Reginald Rose's TWELVE ANGRY MEN is a theatrical classic. Twelve men, all members of a jury, debate the guilt of a teenager, and consequently decide his life or death fate with their verdict. Eleven men believe him to be guilty, one isn't sure; and so the outlier forces the group to discuss the crime when no one really cares to (there are baseball tickets to be used!). Through the discussion, individual prejudices are exposed, life's baggage is revealed and emotions run very very high. It's a truly fabulous play.
Soulpepper's current production of it is really good - but it's not great. I've come to expect greatness from Soulpepper and the caliber of men in their company is dynamite, so I was honestly expecting to have my face blown off by how fantastic this show would be....but it wasn't.
But let's talk about the high points, because those are always more fun to focus on, and there most certainly were a few of 'em: The set, galley-style with the audience on either side peering in at the men in the middle, brought the intensity of the emotion closer, and was one of my favourite parts. The crowd I saw the show with was largely unfamiliar with the play and so watching the surprised facial expressions across the way was oodles of fun. Joseph Ziegler as Juror #3 is at the top of his game (he's soooo goood), Stuart Hughes as outlier Juror #6 is pretty great, and Robert Nasmith as the elderly Juror #7 made me feel happy that I had the pleasure of watching him. There are definitely stellar elements to the show, but ultimately, it seemed... under rehearsed. For the first 30 minutes I was nervous actors were forgetting lines, the witty banter upon the men's initial entry sometimes seemed forced and the choreography of the movements was evident; the ease of which Soulpepper usually performs, particularly with large ensemble casts, was missing. All the elements of a fab production were present, but the X-factor that really lifts it over the top, was strangely absent. I'm still not sure what happened.
If there is a saving grace to the production, it's that the message that objectivity is impossible comes shining through. Our personal experience inevitably clouds our judgement and we don't even see it coming. It shapes our words and feelings and conducts how we guide ourselves through the world - this is what makes us all uniquely flawed and this is what should spark empathy in our hearts for others. I'm not sure if that's what Reginald Rose intended for me to take away from his play, but I'm glad that is what I've got; it was a refreshing reminder and I liked it.
TWELVE ANGRY MEN is on at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane). For tix click here.
By Michael Hodgson
Libido Production’s staging of QUEER BATHROOM STORIES at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre is full of information.
Let me begin with a statement: I am a gay male and have been comfortable being so for at least a decade, but not always. In my life however, I seem to have had very little contact with the trans-community and the issues, dilemmas and day-to-day navigations that result within this group of society.
We all use the washroom every day, publicly or at home, but how many of us question whether or not we will be accepted in the gendered bathroom we choose. As a trans-person though, which room do we enter? A thought that the majority of us do not own is explored, as is the notion of gender being a social construction. Sheila Cavanagh (the playwright), Associate Professor in Sociology and the Sexuality Studies Coordinator at York University wrote the original text for this show in 2010 after compiling over 100 letters written by LGBTQ and Two-Spirited individuals about such bathroom experiences; sexualized letters and also stories of tolerance and intolerance were in abundance.
How does the audience digest such a production? I would be lying if I said it was easy to digest the constant shifting of characters and the usage of toilet humor; there is a feeling of “academic essay” on stage and social commentary trumps narrative throughline. In the one-hour production, however, there are many transitions between the presentations of the letters that are somewhat effective. We see unique movement sequences, silhouettes of actors behind, in and around the bathroom stall setup. However, there are moments where it feels as though director Megan Watson wanted to try out some things just to be ‘interesting.’ In these moments, the stage devices feel contrived and nonsensical. The sound direction of Verne Good was lacking at times as well - static bursts and an overly used echo effect stand out as problematic. The head-mics worn by the cast seemed like overkill as the house isn't large and they only seemed to encourage the aforementioned echo.
The cast of three: Hallie Burt, Tyson James and Chy Ryan Spain have quite the task each night as they play hyperbolized versions of the letter writers and adopt countless voices and accents. I am sure this did not come without much effort. This vocal work, in particular by Tyson James, was indeed the highlight of his performance.
As a member of the queer community, I wanted to love the show. I wanted to feel connected. I simply didn’t, and it was mostly because it felt as though this production was a draft assignment for a group of university students in a gender studies course, and was not ready for a professional stage.
Queer Bathroom Stories runs at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander St.) until June 15th. For tix click here.
By Daniel Nyman
FLASHDANCE THE MUSICAL is just one of many movies-turned-musicals to grace Toronto stages over the last two decades. If you are at all familiar with the film you, like me, are surprised that this reinterpretation hasn't happened sooner. Flashdance, the early 80s film about welder-by-day-exotic-dancer-by-night, Alex Owens, has everything you would want out of a musical: classic dance numbers, a memorable soundtrack, and an inspirational (if not a little cliché'd) storyline to warm the hearts of even the most skeptical theatre season subscription holder.
FLASHDANCE THE MUSICAL delivers exactly what everyone came to experience: namely the opportunity to re-live live versions of the film's classic moments: maniac dance runs, a performance of the timeless Irene Cara classic tune "Flashdance What a Feeling", and most importantly the splash scene. The problem with the show, however, is that between these anticipated moments there’s little to write home about. Other than the original songs taken from the movie, the music is mostly forgettable; the big dance numbers are surprisingly few and far between; and the narrative focusing on the love story of the main protagonists, expanded for stage to fill the necessary two ½ hour musical run time, is frankly boring to watch. More leg warmers and 80s dance numbers please!!!
FLASHDANCE THE MUSICAL climaxes early. The first act of the show ends with the famous splash scene. As a result, I spent the remaining hour of the show drifting in and out of “meta” daydream moments, contemplating how it was kind of ironic that I was watching 26 of the continent’s most talented singers, dancers, and actors, who without a doubt have made great sacrifices to follow their passions, only to find themselves touring North America in a cheesy, completely unrealistic show about an aspiring dancer daring to dream big and pursue her passions. I kept wondering if any of the performers in real life had ever been welders before “making it big”.
One piece of trivia that may be the saving grace for the show is that the original screenwriter, Tom Hedley, apparently based the film’s script on his experiences in the early 80’s at a now-defunct Toronto burlesque bar called Gimlet’s (located just down the street from the Ed Mirvish Theatre where FLASHDANCE is currently playing). I knew about this going into the show, but completely forgot about it until I was reminded by my date afterwards. I suddenly realized that I had watched FLASHDANCE from the completely wrong perspective. The show is not a nostalgic fluff piece, but a heritage moment. Either way you cut it, Flashdance is history.
FLASHDANCE is on at the Ed Mirvish Theatre (244 Yonge St.) until June 8. For tickets click here.
By Lindsay Swanson
This weekend is a very special weekend in Toronto – it is the Toronto Festival of Clowns. You did not know that? That is ok! Because neither did I, but my oh my am I glad that I know now! This festival is jam-packed with affordable and fun performances, offering what clowns do best – impeccable comedic timing and slapstick humour. Going in with admittedly no expectations, I was humbled by the talent that our Toronto clowns have to offer.
Red Nose Does Date Night is a clown ensemble performance lad by everyone's favourite female clown duo Morro and Jasp (also known as Heather Marie Annis and Amy Lee – NOTE: clowns, while clowning, do not want to be referred to by anything other than their clown persona). They are fun and witty, and can improv like a clowny Ryan Stiles or Colin Mochrie.
The premise of Red Nose Does Date Night is this: Morro and Jasp are the hosts of a dating show, featuring 17 clowns of various idiosyncrasies / features / degrees of oddity. They take us through the stages of a dating show – Introductions and Q&A, speed dating, 1 on 1 dates, and finally – a match up ceremony. It was a long show – over two hours – but I suspect that is due to the improvisational nature of the <non->script.
There is simply not enough space or time to take you through each clowns featured in this ensemble, but I assure you they are all fantastic. Despite their significant differences, they somehow complimented each other fabulously. That said, I will make special mention that it was a pleasure seeing the hilarious Ken Hall and Isaac Kessler (both from 2 Man No-Show) as Captain Canuck and Barry (Beary?). I won’t lie – by the end of a night spent being entertained by these gentlemen, I was left wishing Isaac was my BFF, and having more than just a little crush on Ken.
Red Nose Does Date Night is an absolute delight of pure hilarity in all of its absurdity, and I loved it. Sadly, it was a one-time performance for the Toronto Festival of Clowns (which I found out after I texted approximately 27 friends, instructing them to get tickets for the following night), HOWEVER it is a perfect example of the talent and the fun that can be experienced at this festival. So, head over the Pia Bouman Theater this weekend and take in some clowning. You will not regret it.
If you missed the Festival, it'll be back this time next year! Punch it into your phone now!
2-MAN NO-SHOW 3D REVIEW
By Jeffrey Johns
Guys? Gotta be brief:
First thing? These guys aren’t clowns. Odd outfits yes – but not clowns. So don’t be scared.
Second thing: This is an improv show – A number of story points that need be hit, with anything goes on how to get there.
Third thing: Isaac Kessler and Ken Hall perhaps do not look like a “typical” comedy team. Kessler, the younger, a big teddy bear (kind of literally) with a devilish grin, and Hall the elder, diminutive only in height.
Fourth thing: These guys are awesome. So funny. Like seriously funny. Like “The Diary of Anaconda Frank” funny.
And lots of action! And good natured crowd interaction!
Last thing: Fave part. At one point, old school class pictures are posted of each of the performers, and there is a conversation, albeit brief, about their respective school-age experiences and the road taken from then to now. Don’t get me wrong, doing things like flopping around like a sea lion in front of an audience takes guts, no doubt. But the genuine vulnerability both Kessler and Hall opted to reveal in that moment, I think, took serious balls. I found it touching and found that it invested me more in the show. Does that sound weird? It prob sounds weird. But too bad! I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em.
Four and a half Go See Its out of five!
 Isaac Kessler and Ken Hall, if you read this, forgive me for stepping on the great line. I just think people with a certain sense of humour will REALLY love 2-Man No-Show and thought that line kind of perfectly captures the aburdity and tone of the performance.
One more change to see 2-Man No-Show: Sunday, June 1 at 6pm at Pia Bouman School (6 Noble St.) For tix click here.
WATCHING GLORY DIE is inspired, and very much based on, the real life death of Ashley Smith, the woman who strangled herself in her prison cell while five correctional officers looked on; they were ordered not to enter her cell until she had stopped breathing. They didn't. They waited until 45 minutes after she stopped to enter.
It was (and still is) a horrific story of failure in every possible way.
Judith Thompson wrote this play because she was so moved and disturbed by Smith's story, she felt compelled to; she stars in the show as it's sole actor and plays Glory the woman in prison, the Correctional Officer assigned to Glory, and Glory's Mother. It is an undeniably brave performance by Thompson; her vulnerability is almost palpable and the emotional reserves she must tap into for each show would almost have to be limitless.
Thompson clearly sides with the Smith-esque character of Glory, and feels the prison system victimized her and contributed (created?) her mental instability. Thompson should side with Glory; we all should. But because of this emotional bias, I can't help feeling like the play lost a richness that it could have had if there was a deeper exploration into the role of the Corrections Officer. These "CO's" have an extremely difficult job and to know the pressures and emotional havoc their job has on them would have asked the really tough questions I wanted the play to pose. These questions were touched on, but never in any real way that made me feel the emotional conflict that theatre can do best.
The show also seemed to support the common thesis that we fail to properly understand mental illness. John Doyle recently wrote an article on how we must love the stereotypical portrayal of a mentally ill person because it continues to happen and we continue to watch. The same seems to ring true here. If this play is based on Smith's situation, and many of the details would prove that it is, then the same should apply to the mental (in)stability of Glory. Smith was diagnosed with ADHD and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD); both, to my understanding, do not manifest symptoms of psychosis, which is predominantly what Glory seemed to suffer from. I got the impression Glory's illness was created by being institutionalized, which could very well happen - I have never been locked in a prison for 5 years nor been diagnosed with any mental illness - but it seems to be the easy route to take to portray an individual with mental health problems. Thompson is an intelligent woman who seems to maintain an ideology of social justice that she truly lives by, so I was confused when I was watching symptoms of an illness that I didn't understand Smith to have.
WATCHING GLORY DIE is a play that touches on uncomfortable characteristics of our social structure that need addressing. It's important that someone takes on these characteristics in a way that brings them to a larger audience base, so I sincerely applaud Thompson for taking this plunge, I just wish it was addressed with more accuracy.
WATCHING GLORY DIE is on at the Berkeley St. Theatre (26 Berkeley St) until June 1). For tix click here.
By Amos Crawley
In the eye of the hurricane that is George F. Walker’s Dead Metaphor, now playing at the Panasonic Theatre, is Dean (played by Noah Reid in a stellar performance), a sniper returned from the war in Afghanistan. He is soulful, slightly shell-shocked and above all else, honest. It’s his honesty which primarily differentiates him from the other characters in the play, all of whom are inveterate liars. Some, like his wife and his parents, lie because they believe they are doing more good than they would telling the truth, others like Oliver and Helen Denny use prevarication for considerably more malicious reasons. Even offstage characters like Dean’s mother-in-law or Denny’s unnamed daughter have their probity questioned. The play seems to be asking—is it possible to be straightforward and honourable in civilian life? What exactly is our relationship to the truth? Dean’s father, played here in a virtuoso turn by Eric Peterson, is suffering the early stages of dementia, making his relationship to the truth particularly nuanced and difficult—if we can’t recall something, or have no grasp of facts, what really is true, the fact itself or our (mis)understanding of the fact, which may contain a useful emotional truth?
Heady stuff. Walker’s great gift as a writer is of course to couch the philosophical questions in uproarious humour. While there are quiet and grounded emotional moments throughout the play, mainly between Dean and his father, much of the action and plot are painted in broad strokes, they are cartoony and parade around like so much sound and fury. This isn’t necessarily a problem and the experience of watching Dead Metaphor is often quite joyful. I found myself though wishing that Walker as director was more sensitive to the strengths of Walker the playwright. Because the staging and design are so thoroughly consistent we don’t get to see much contrast between those thriving in a dishonest world and those who are merely surviving. Added to that, the Panasonic itself is a difficult venue for this play. The acoustics, designed for spectacular musicals, preclude the actors speaking in their own voices. Instead they are fitted with LAV mics, so there is a further disconnect between their work and the audience. A cognitive disassociation takes place in our ears, so we don’t know when we’re being spoken to honestly and when we’re in the cartoon.
Dead Metaphor is an exciting piece of work, where the strong moments are extremely strong. It makes a worthy addition to Walker’s canon and I hope the run settles into a groove that allows the two halves of the play the breathing space they need.
Dead Metaphor is on at the Panasonic theatre (691 Yonge St) until Jue 8. For tix click here.
By Melissa Farmer
When I write about theatre I’ve seen, the first sentence is usually a statement about myself. That’s a good thing, right? I mean, ultimately, I think I go to the theatre to see things I already know, but don’t know that I know. And those realizations – those penny drop moments – when something that someone says or does onstage resonates with a part of me and my experience, well that’s what it’s all about.
Mike Daisey’s Dreaming of Rob Ford is two-hour monologue. Daisey doesn’t really move, the lights are pretty harsh, and you’re never sure when it’s going to end. That being said, it's a wonderful thing to listen to someone tell a story, and he’s a pretty awesome storyteller, so it’s a pleasure. And despite Ford being the subject matter of this story, if you can move beyond him (please, let's all move beyond him, okay?), the story becomes much more interesting. It’s a story about us, I think, as a city. It’s a story about keeping secrets and making choices, about how stories are constructed, about addiction, and about looking people in the eye. Now all of that stuff sounds pretty good to me, much better than Ford, actually, but I suppose when you package it up with some Rob Ford wrapping paper, you get a full theatre and an audience with one big thing in common.
It takes me a while to write about shows that I see (and I know, based on the level of intelligent thought in these paragraphs, that may be hard to believe), so by the time you're reading this, we'll be lucky if Daisey's show is playing for two more nights. If it is, go and see it. But don't get too hung up on the Ford business. He's a guy with some problems, sure. We all are, at some point or another. It's worth a listen.
1 more chance to see Mike Daisey's Dreaming of Rob Ford on Fri, March 23. For tix click here. www.crowstheatre.com mikedaisey.blogspot.ca
By Amos Crawley
Going to the theatre with your child is an unsettling experience. Despite the fact that WeeFestival is obviously designed and curated to be entertainment for children and therefore one has a pretty good idea that any and all performers or staff know to expect the inevitable behaviours and distractions that come as a part of TYA (theatre for young audiences), I still sat through both of these shows wishing that my son would sit still, quit talking, and just watch the show. But I think that might be me missing the point. Sure I long for the day when he can sit quietly for the duration of any given piece (both of these shows clock in at about 30-40 mins by the way), and intelligently process and maybe comment on what he sees, but actually all of his activity: jumping, fidgeting, checking out the other audience members reactions to the bits he liked, asking endless questions (“Why are the lights blue?”) were signs that he was engaging in a very real way with what he was seeing. For him, theatre is visceral, alive, and participatory that’s where the real value of this festival lies—also therein lies the lesson for us grown up types.
The Boat and The Moon, from Italy, beings with Carlotta Zini opening and closing the bellows of an accordion, it sounds like breath and also like the waves of the ocean. During the performance I saw it also put the kids under something of a spell. The very gentle tone was perhaps slightly too consistent throughout the show, I could sense my little guy longing for a touch more energy or for something to break up the somnambulant tone. There is however some beautiful music (a saxophone piece introducing a pelican is both funny and somehow accurate sounding,) and some wonderful simple wave effects using a large transparent plastic sheet.
My son’s need for playfulness was fully sated by Spain’s Bedtime starring Kevin Stewart and Estibaliz Veiga from an original idea by Stewart and Carolina Ramos. It’s terribly simple and endlessly imaginative as two kids (or adults I suppose) keep themselves awake using the various and sundry objects available in the bedroom—it’s an unmitigated joy.
As we were leaving WeeFestival I asked the little guy which show he liked better, giving in to the adult need to rank and classify—he just told me he liked it all, because of course you needn’t qualify what a day at the theatre is to him: an immediate experience.