Small Axe is the latest play to come out of Project: Humanity, a non-profit org. that raises awareness of social issues through the arts. In Small Axe, playwright, and core Project: Humanity member, Andrew Kushnir ring leads the performers through true stories of homosexuality and racism; stories that could be applicable to many countries in the world, but here they focus on Canada and Jamaica. This is documentary-theatre with words taken verbatim from interviews Kushnir did with several gay Jamaicans, who reveal staggering examples of the abject torture they endured simply for being queer in Jamaica, and then the subsequent racism they endured for being gay and/or black in Canada.
My description above actually narrows the scope of the play, it's themes are much grander. But my blog post can only be so long before a reader's interest is lost, and truthfully one of the best things about Small Axe is the questions it raises and how you answer them within yourself. The questions will affect each person differently based on their individual life experience, and it's impossible for me to summarize those unknown emotions here.
It's clear that the artists involved - the writers, the director and the actors - take their job of representing these stories, very seriously. The performances are excellent and the earnestness to do right by those who they represent only serves to make the show stronger. The rhythm of the show is excellent and the best moments happen when the actors climb down from their respective scaffold (see pic above) and are brought closer to increase the intimacy. When that happens, the space gets smaller and the actors are impossible to look away from. I wish they spent more time off their scaffold.
Small Axe does what I think really good theatre should do; it asks difficult questions that ensure the audience members look inward for answers and the questions make you just that little bit uncomfortable as you try to reconcile them yourself. It's thoughtful and it's emotional and it's very, very real. For everyone.
Small Axe is on at the Theatre Centre (115 Queen ST. W.) unti Feb. 1 (5 shows left!) For tix click here.
Talking about cancer is tough. No one wants to hear about it - particularly those who have never had it. Discussing it can be awkward, and it is guaranteed to be utterly sad. But, as with most sad and difficult things in life, talking about it, can be the one thing that helps you through it. HER2, the latest play presented by Nightwood Theatre, takes on the cumbersome topic of women's cancers, and also how women can help one another cope with the unique anxieties that cancer brings with it.
One of my absolute favourite things about being a woman, is that when the chips are down, women rally 'round and lift you up. This support can take many forms, but it's always sensitive and nurturing and, in my experience, very unique to being female. This camaraderie is almost tangible in HER2, an aspect that playwright Maja Ardal intentionally tried to create. Based largely on Ardal's own experience with cancer, HER2 sometimes pits the science of medicine, against the non-textbook feel-good emotions of life, and places equal weight on their importance. Who can be sure how positive emotions affect a medical diagnosis?
HER2's cast of all women were a joy to watch. Aided by a simple, yet effective set and some creative projections, the cast were simultaneously one unit and individual people; a testament to Ardal's writing and the strength of the show's Director/Cast relationship. Each woman had their stand-out moment while also bolstering the performances of the others.
Although HER2 is about the devastation of cancer, it ultimately left me feeling inspired by the strength of women, and gave me a twinge of pride (again), that I am one. Cancer was part of the story, but, for me, not the point of the show. So don't be put off by the idea of a 2 hour play about cancer. Please.
HER2 is on at Buddies and Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander St.) as part of Nightwood's 14/15 seson. For tix click here.
The legend of Robin Hood has sparked oodles of different tales involving him and his band of merry men. The latest, The Heart of Robin Hood, on-stage at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, is the love story version; how Robin Hood and Maid Marion stick it to the Prince of Nottingham and end up happily-every-after.
Creatively staged on a seemingly never-ending bed of green moss, creating a 3D forest affect, the show allows the actors to climb and slide (literally) between scenes and entrances. It's rowdy and fun. Couple that with some high-rope stunts, some backflips, fight scenes and a tiny pool of water which many go for a dip in, and you've got a OTT physically demanding show for the cast - particularly performing it twice in one day. I'm not sure what the rehearsal process was like, but it must have been rigorous, and it's clear that the actors are work hard which deserves to be noted.
Also working hard is the live band who are very much a part of the show. Parsonfield, the 5-man banjo-playing honky-tonk band add not only atmosphere to the show, but also vitality. I couldn't understand 75% of what they were saying (instruments were perhaps louder than the mics?), but I cared less about that and appreciated the freshness of their involvement. In addition to the actors, they also never seemed to tire.
What DOES tire is the script. Drawing heavily on Shakespeare's comedic play structure, and even from some of his plot ideas, The Heart of Robin Hood's script does not equal that of the clever and agile performers. It's clunky and sacrifices intelligence for obvious jokes - something that was made more glaringly apparent when practically everything else about the show was unique. Were it not for some strong performances - most notably Euan Mortan as Prince John - the script would have barely worked. It has perplexed me for days that a show which so obviously tried to focus on creativity, could settle on a script that isn't.
The Heart of Robin Hood is an innovative take on an old story. It takes many theatrical risks which is awesome and appreciated. The performers also REALLY deserve kudos for the heavy demands placed on their beings. It's a great show for families and there are several funny moments - but ultimately I didn't heart the show completely because the script held it back from being a real stand-out.
The Heart of Robin Hood is on at the Royal Alexandra Theatre (260 King St. W.) until March 1.
For tix click here.
By Jeffrey Johns
Guys. Kids in hospital with life-threatening medical conditions, amirite? I mean, what is sadder than that? Not too much that this guy can think of.
Well that’s what Waiting Room, written by Diane Flacks, is about. So, spoiler alert, it does not involve too many pictures of puppy dogs or rainbows.
The play, which takes place entirely within a hospital, essentially follows two interacting story lines. The first follows Jeremy (Jordan Pettle) and Chrissie (Michelle Monteith), whose infant daughter was diagnosed with cancer shortly after birth, while the second follows the little girl’s oncologist, Andre (Ari Cohen), who has just diagnosed himself with early onset Alzheimer’s, and his fellow physician/lover, Melissa (Jenny Young).
Guys, to be honest, I have mixed feelings about this one. The first of the story lines, with Jeremy and Chrissie, is brilliant. In writing Waiting Room, Flacks drew from her own experience with her youngest son, who spent most of the first year of his life as a resident of Sick Kids. And it shows.
Every beat, whether explicit or nuanced, feels authentic both to the experience of dealing with a critical illness within the Canadian healthcare system, and its effects on family and friends:
- The waiting room, with its vinyl chairs and crappy magazines, the picture of discomfort.
- The doctor visits, taking place in the hospital’s waiting rooms or perhaps in its halls, where one has five minutes to extract as much information as possible (better have all your questions ready!).
- The father, whether through biology or culture, self-designated as the “fixer”, unable to keep still. Constantly offering to undertake simple tasks such as fetching coffee in an attempt to stifle his feelings of impotence; driven to direct his energy into a near futile attempt to comb the internet for experimental therapies for his daughter’s illness.
- The mother, placed in the no-win situation of either enduring the anguish of seeing her uncomprehending infant daughter put through an endless parade of painful interventions, or possibly dooming any chance of recovery by calling for even a temporary cessation of such measures.
- The relationship between the two parents, stretched to the breaking point, as each struggles not to let their fear, frustration and grief drive them to turn on the one they are closest to.
- The friend (an amazing performance by Jane Spidell), a former fellow waiting room tenant, whose child “got out”, wanting to offer support but herself scared that to offer that support may open her up again to those feelings that she hoped were put away forever.
There were no shortage of tears among those attending (least of all this guy!). But I don’t think their origin was only the sadness of the story. In me at least, they arose through my identification (even if my experiences have not been identical) with the story and the comfort of knowing that someone else out there empathized.
In fact, the only thing missing, and which would have been welcome, was a character portraying a nurse, to illustrate that profession’s intricate involvement in situations such as these.
That’s the first storyline. The second follows Doc Andre as he tries to treat himself with an experimental drug, with the assistance of Melissa. Personally, I couldn’t get invested in this storyline. It may have suffered from its contrast to the resonant shared-experience feeling of the first storyline, but I did not find the doctor a particularly sympathetic character, and numerous times while watching his fight against the onset of dementia I found myself itching to get back to what was happening in the waiting room. And even that the running time spent on this storyline necessitated a less fulsome production in the case of the first storyline (such as no time for nurses!).
I almost get the impression that someone along the way had the thought that just documenting one family’s crisis was not enough. That such a tale would be too mundane for the stage. If that was the case, I would just like to put it out there that I disagree. In my view, the family’s story reflects a vital part of what it means both to live in Canada and to be a human being, and tells it with such skill and deftness that I suspect almost any Canadian can identify.
Rating? Four "JJ Sobbing Like a Baby"-s out of Five!
Waiting Room runs through February 15 in the Mainspace at Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman Ave.) For tix click here.
LUNGS is a play about the parental burden-of-responsibility of bringing a child into the world.
Is it environmentally responsible? With the slew of horrific situations in the world, should a child be brought into it? If the answer to these questions is 'No', and you still decide to have a child, are you good people? Good parents?
Heady questions that would-be parents didn't commonly ask themselves 30-40 years ago and ones that struck a particular chord with me as I'm presently 7.5 months pregnant.
Having a baby is a big decision and one that shouldn't be taken lightly, but I can attest that attempting to figure out how your small babe will impact the greater good of the Earth and humanity, is entirely overwhelming, impossible to actually determine, and not in the least bit fun. So it felt good to watch someone else go through similar struggles, even if it is fictional art.
LUNGS starts off a bit forced; the pacing of the dialogue is constructed to be realistic-stacatto but comes off as contrived. However when actors Lesley Faulkner and Brendan Gall hit their groove, they're into it - and so are you. Following their journey was refreshing - it combined shades of my own and that of many friends, and so it felt famillar and validating that someone - playwright Duncan Macmillian in this case - GETS it, and somehow, we weren't all struggling with these burdens on our own or unnoticed. We are really trying to make sound, smart decisions, not just for ourselves, but for our unborn children and for everyone else they need to share the world with. Aside from a stereotypical portrayal of Faulkner as the occasional "hysterical pregnant lady" which I resented and found misplaced in an otherwise intelligent script, Macmillian seemed to grasp hold of the zeitgeist of contemporary, urban parents and the struggles they endure.
The show also doesn't provide any answers; what IS the correct thing to do? What can you live with? My husband and I wanted a baby so we're eschewing the environmental impact for our own personal joy (and hopefully that of our new babe), and there are those who will deem us selfish for that, and others who will deem us ridiculous for even questioning our intentions in the first place. You can't win - you just need to live the life you want in the most responsible way you can. I'm having this babe in 7 weeks, but am sussing out cloth diapers, bio-degradible wipes and used equipment - maybe we won't buy a car for another couple of years to offset some of the impact too. We're still talking about ideas of how to be responsible in the world, and hopefully always will be. I can live with that.
LUNGS asks the questions you want to ask yourself. Plays that do this are invaluable. Go.
LUNGS is presented by the Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman Ave) and is on until Jan. 25. For tix click here.
By Randal Boutilier & Suzanne Duncan
When the dark curtain rises and the magician walks on stage, his entrance is a little underwhelming. There are no pyrotechnics or booming music, and not a dove or sequined assistant in sight. David Ben doesn’t really look the part either - slightly disheveled, with untamed hair, slightly baggy pants and an untucked tuxedo shirt. Within the first ten minutes of the show, we see his bag of tricks contains little more than oranges, eggs, and cloth. But what looks down-to-earth turns out to be a great illusion, where simple appearances deftly hide a wealth of talent.
With THE CONJUROR, David Ben and Patrick Watson depict the Golden Age of Magic – setting the Young Centre stage as a London performance hall from 1909. Using techniques and tricks that are true to the period, we witness an age where colonial expeditions yielded “exotic” treasures from all corners of the world. A backdrop that depicts a library full of artifacts gives the scene a comic-book feel, and a sense of adventure comes through a musical score that shifts from Egypt to India to the Far East. Silent assistant Suleyman Fattah amps up the effect of this fictionalized age, appearing as an Oriental caricature to wheel out various props throughout the performance.
The playful visual and musical tone is what makes THE CONJUROR a family friendly affair. A show of magic could easily take a dark turn, but under this magician’s watchful eye, nothing ever becomes too frightening. Children raise their hands high for a chance to see some magical feats up close, and everyone eagerly awaits the next moment for the house lights to come up in the search for a new assistant.
David’s approach to both the monologue and the magic is quite casual – and both are delivered with ease and grace. As his hands weave illusions and his tongue spins tales of historic encounters, the magician’s personable nature pushes the 70-minute performance along. The complexity of the illusions progress as well – as opening sleight of hand tricks are followed by illusions that puzzle everyone in the room.
As we leave the theatre and navigate the historic alleys and cobblestone paths of the Distillery District on our way home, there seems to be just a little magic in the cold winter air.
THE CONJUROR is on at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane) until Jan 4 (tomorrow!) 4 shows left. For tix click here.
BLADES ON STAGE is a combo of jaw-dropping tricks on ice, graceful artistry, and complete fromage.
Featuring a slew of ice skating professionals, BLADES ON STAGE (I think) is designed to give the audience an up-close and personal experience with ice skating and a few of its superstars. Headliners are the gravity-defying mullet-man himself Elvis Stojko, ice-dancing superstar Shae-Lynn Bourne and circus performer-cum-figure skater Violetta Afanasieva and Pete Dack (both phenomenal). The first act showcases choreographed numbers set to a variety of Broadway showtunes (Les Miserables, Chicago, West Side Story, etc.) and the second act is to all holiday tunes.
Let's start with the undeniably cool things about this show:
1. The ice rink on stage is clearly a small fraction of what these skaters must be accustomed to so staying within the boundaries of the ice and performing some gasp-inducing jumps, spins, lifts and hulahoop tricks is truly something to marvel at. (any issues with the ice seems to have been resolved)
2. Shae-Lynn Bourne loves to ice skate and her enthusiasm is infectious. Bourne's number from 'Chicago' is the show-stopper but her palpable joy in all 3 of her solo numbers is super.
3. Company member, Carly Donowick outshines her counterparts 1000 fold. Her highlight is the second number in the show: Les Miserables, "I Dreamed a Dream'. She's got the moves the presence and the gusto.
4. Afanasieva & Dack are real ice-skating tricksters. Their acrobats and lifts are fantastic and when they take the stage, it's met with excited anticipation as to what they'll do next (at least from me they were).
5. Stojko, while unfortunately not heavily featured in the show, (2 solo numbers in 2 hours) seems to still have what it takes to do his signature triple jumps to wow the crowd.
What the show lacks is an overall vision to pull it all together. Cues were sharp and marks were hit - so technically it was strong. But it sometimes seemed a bit ad-hoc and an overarching artistic vision of the show was missing. Example: watching skaters in skimpy, sparkly blue outfits move to Les Miserables' 'At the End of the Day', a number about struggling to get through just one more day in poverty, was completely absurd.
But the overall lack of direction shouldn't take away from the raw talent on stage and so if you're looking for your chance to get nice and close to the ice skating experience, BLADES ON STAGE is an option worth checking out.
BLADES ON STAGE is on at the Princess of Wales Theatre (300 King St. W.) until January 4. For tix click here. 5 shows left!
POTTED POTTER is making it's second? third? appearance in Toronto (@ the Panasonic Theatre until January 11) and judging from the crowd's wild guffaws during the show, it's pretty simple to see why the demand is so great for this physical comedy.
POTTED POTTER takes it's lead from the 'Complete Works of William Shakespeare; Abridged" and summarizes the seven Harry Potter books (much LESS than Shakespeare's library, but still...it's the same idea) in 90 minutes. It's very silly, very slapstick-y physical, and mostly creative.
Performed by 2 characters - one who takes on the 'straight-man' role and plays Harry, and the other who takes on the 'wacky-man' role and plays the host of other characters complete with accents, wigs and gross-out moments with chocolate cake - the show sets the silly-tone immediately and doesn't let up...well, ever.
The show hits its stride and gets really great when performer Jesse Briton (in the "wacky-man" role) pulls 2 audience members up on stage to lead the crowd in a game of Quidditch. It's a test of Briton's strength as a performer as he's got to simultaneously improv with the entire audience, the 2 small boys on stage and keep the show moving. Briton is HILARIOUS. He's unbelievably comfortable on stage and seems as though he's doing the show more for his own enjoyment than for ours. His energy was infectious and even when I tired of the same shtick again and again, watching Briton kept it completely amusing.
POTTED POTTER is an excellent show to take the young Harry Potter fan to - really excellent. They'll revel in the inside jokes, be able to participate in the plot when asked and will certainly bask in the abject silliness on stage. For the adult Harry Potter lover (ie. me), the show lacks in the intelligent humour I was expecting (although the gross bit with the chocolate cake WAS hysterical, but I attribute that to how contagious it is to laugh at someone else when THEY (ie. Briton) are laughing at themselves...think of Jimmy Fallon in any SNL skit with Wil Ferrell) and the gags get repetitive.
By Randal Boutilier and Suzanne Duncan
We are in no holiday spirit as we hurry past the scores of tour buses parked in front of the Princess of Wales Theatre. Outside, a pair of gleaming, toothy grins festoon every surface – accented with candy cane colours, snowflakes, and brush scripts. As we enter the building, wafts of cologne and perfume trail through the air, as a mature crowd eagerly mill about the lobby to pore over memorabilia. Navigating the groups who are clumsily snapping selfies, we take our seats in a rapidly filling theatre. As we take a few moments to negotiate timetables for the holidays with family and friends, we suddenly ask ourselves: Why would we ever share our precious holiday prep time with a Donny & Marie Christmas in Toronto?
Donny and Marie Osmond each have five decades of entertainment experience under their belts. Their respective career paths navigate every form of recorded media – and they have been filmed ever since they were children in the early 60s. They grew up under the camera’s steady gaze, building a prolific resume that spans pop and country stardom, broadway performance, television show hosting, guest appearances, motivational speaking, and shopping network sales. Their most recent forays in entertainment have brought them back to the small screen in ‘Dancing with the Stars’, and back to the with a 6-year show run in Las Vegas. All of this experience comes to bear before our eyes and ears, as the lights dim and the curtain rises.
Dressed as elegant holiday hosts and adorned in sparkles and sequins, Donny and Marie take the stage, launching us all right into a Christmas frame-of-mind. Their broad range and significant experience come to the fore as they switch up the pace of this 2-hour variety show - complete with commercial plugs for weight loss systems, make up collections, new recordings, and charitable causes.
Performing together and independently throughout the evening, they treat the crowd to musical medleys with tastes of Motown, Broadway, opera, and YouTube pop. The second half of the evening is a little more down-tempo than the energetic first half, but it offers a space to show both Donny’s performance chops and Marie’s vocal range—and dizzying array of sparkling costumes. An on-stage live band accompanies their every change, and the lit-staircase staging and light choreography is switched up as often as their costumes.
Their faces are played back on a large video screen behind them, which gives the whole theatre a chance to see them up-close and personal. The playback screen is a bit of holiday magic – as it travels back through time to reveal glimpses of Osmond family life and their growing and evolving stardom. During their rendition of “A Little Bit of Country, A Little Bit of Rock n' Roll”, they sing along with younger versions of themselves, showing the countless times they’ve performed together in front of an audience.
You would think that longevity in the entertainment business would render these two people out-of-touch with the world around them, but it certainly doesn’t appear to be the case. There is a light and playful tone throughout evening, as Donny and Marie banter and joke with each other, sharing short behind-the-scenes stories from their careers. It turns out that opening night was Donny’s birthday, and as fans belt out happy birthday, he eagerly hopped off stage to receive gifts and mingle with the crowd, hug fans or applaud their screams of excitement.
The ease and comfort with which these two interact with their audience is warm and engaging. They are appreciative of their audience, and fan service punctuates the evening with social media giveaways and audience sing-alongs. The fans definitely bring a positive energy to the show, meeting the dazzle of these stars with their own desire to celebrate the season. When Marie takes the stage and brings up someone for a bit more of an intimate on-stage interaction, they grow under the spotlight to the eager applause of those around them.
These personal touches, more than the rapid-fire musical medleys, are what give the show a Christmas spirit. For a couple of people suffering from some holiday chill, spending a bit of Christmas with the Osmonds was a sparkly delight.
Donny and Marie Christmas in Toronto is only on until December 21! Catch the holiday sequins at the Princess of Wales Theatre (300 King St. W.) For tix click here.
By Jeffrey Johns
Guys. Pierre Teilhard De Chardin. A real guy. A Jesuit priest who was all “I love God!” But was also all “I love science too!”
De Chardin (played by Cyrus Lane) is the protagonist of our play. Our introduction to De Chardin comes as he lies lifeless on the floor of the stage. Until roused by a mysterious woman (played by Maev Beaty). It is revealed that De Chardin is at death’s door, but that before he goes, he has a last revelation to experience, which is why this mystery woman has appeared.
Thus are we thrown into a series of moments in De Chardin’s past, beginning with his childhood in France, and ending with a scene in the small New York apartment, which would ultimately be his last residence (at least in this mortal coil!). In each of these fictionalized vignettes based on the actual facts of De Chardin’s life, while he remains the main character, his foil’s identity, embodied in each case by Beaty, changes.
Guys, some things about this play are pretty freakin’ good.
First, it asks interesting questions about whether it is possible to reconcile science and religion, and to what extent the stories of the Bible should be taken literally. Or, you know, as metaphors.
Second, the set – a spare rectangle in the middle of the theatre, resembling a boxing ring. Where the battle between science and religion can be fought! (Or…must it be a war…could the two…co-exist?)
Third, the sound design. By placing a microphone above the stage and speakers placed at each corner of the stage, Thomas Ryder Payne creates an ethereal tone to the player’s voices that serves to accentuate De Chardin’s spiritual journey. Loved it!
And fourth (but really first) are both the role Beaty has been given and her performance of it. While Lane ably handles the title role as De Chardin, his character doesn’t really seem to be particularly conflicted. In fact, when one of the characters (Lucy!) points out to him that he travels with his head in the clouds, above the real world, I was all: “Totes” (while I nodded knowingly to myself, hand on chin).
But Beaty! Oh, Ms. Beaty! Playwright Adam Seybold gives her some meaty stuff and, in this guy’s ever so humble opinion, she kills it. I mean kills in the good sense. With only the barest of props on stage, Seybold relies on the delivery and body language of Beaty to fill in the scene around the two characters. She had me chuckling as she portrayed a young boy observing an archaeological dig in Egypt, and as a Canadian anthropologist in China. She had me enthralled as an England-educated Japanese army officer, interrogating De Chardin during World War II. (Sidebar! When she assumes an English accent, Beaty’s voice seems to assume a gravitas and timbre similar to Elven Cate Blanchett. Know what I mean? “But they were all of them…deceived…” It was pretty sweet.) She had me tearing up as the mother of a young boy aspiring to be an archaeologist, who comes to visit De Chardin as an elderly man in his New York apartment. And finally her portrayal of Lucy, the American ex-pat divorcee De Chardin meets after the church powers that be in Rome exile him to China. As we see their first encounter, she is forward, brash and exuding sexuality. Then, as we cut to the two later, now living as platonic partners, she had my heart breaking for her in just a few lines of dialogue.
The rating? Four “Metaphorical Stories That Were Not Intended By the Authors To Be Read Literally” out of Five!
THE DE CHARDIN PROJECT runs through December 14 at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Ave.). For tix click here.