By Daniel Nyman
In 2010, Barbra Streisand published her first book. Interestingly it was not an autobiography, but a coffee table book exploring architecture and design. "My Passion for Design" showcased the entertainment legend’s Malibu estate, including a replica shopping mall which she had constructed in her basement in order to store and display all her belongings.
This tidbit of bizarre information is the seed of inspiration for BUYER & CELLAR, a funny, entertaining, and—as we are steadfastly reminded at the very beginning of the show—fictional one-man show by Jonathan Tolins, starring Christopher J. Hanke, and currently playing at the Panasonic Theatre. The play is an imagined recounting by main character, Alex More (Hanke), of his short stint as the sole employee in the Funny Girl’s private, subterranean mall.
Frequented by only Ms. Streisand herself, Alex
tells of his initial meeting with the legend, the slow development of their “friendship” and its inevitable demise.
The concept for BUYER & CELLAR is certainly an interesting one, and Tolkin manages to follow through with a narrative that both takes advantage of the absurd premise while also having some heart. After the show, I overheard a fellow audience member describe the play as candy, and I would have to agree. You do not need to be a Streisand fan to enjoy the show (although Barbra fans will probably catch many references and quips that went over my head). Regardless of your level of interest or appreciation for Streisand, there is something very satisfying in hearing about the personal, gossipy details of the private life one of the world’s most famous people, even if they are entirely fictitious.
Streisand is painted as a conflicted character having anything and everything one could imagine wanting, while simultaneously suffering from the isolation and mistrust that accompanies fame and fortune. While not a novel take on the theme of celebrity, Tolins’ script manages is bring a unique story to life, creating engaging, thoughtful characters. Similarily, Hanke’s solo performance manages to avoid the pitfalls of caricature and impersonation. With Streisand in particular, his performance finds the perfect balance between familiarity and authenticity.
At its core, BUYER & CELLAR is a great piece of storytelling. It is an imaginative, far-fetched tale that leaves you wanting it to be all true.
BUYER & CELLAR is on at the Panasonic Theatre (651 Yonge St.) until November 30th. For tix click here.
SEXTET, a new play by Morris Panych, puts a fresh twist on the old themes of love and sex. There is still the same confusion and anxiety over the possibility of intimacy, but now, to compound the stress level, there are also open-marriages, babies and fertility issues thrown into the mix. It's a wonder anyone gets lucky ever.
Panych is a very funny and intelligent playwright, and SEXTET has the biting gusto we've come to expect from his work, but (could you sense that coming?) there were so many quips and barbs littered in the mostly short scenes, that I feel like some of the heart of the show was sacrificed for comedy lightheartedness.
The cast, led by Damien Atkins, is excellent across the board. They've got their work cut out for them in creating a naturalistic throughline in a play which seems edited together with mostly very short scenes, but they do it, and well. They're funny, they have great chemistry within any coupling, and maybe most impressive, I didn't dislike any of the characters, despite their OTT neurotic tendencies that sometimes resulted in repetition and repetition...and repetition of desire.
The 7th character in the show, and equally as strong, is Ken MacDonald's set design - you can see it in the pic above, but it's impossible to discern unless you see it action how the kitchy yet plain design helped create the atmosphere for the show while also contributing to it's comedy, and tragedy. It's great.
SEXTET is a good show - it is. Atkins is predictably funny and endearing, and finding a new spin on love, the most exhausted but compelling subject ever, is a feat in itself. Panych is on to something with this show and I think, with a pair of joke scissors, he could really hammer the message to heart that he's looking to.
SEXTET is on at the Tarragon (30 Bridgman Ave.) until December 14th. For tix click here.
By Stephanie Silva
In his director's note, Jeremy Hutton describes William Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST as "his [Shakespeare's] last great work of magic." As someone unfamiliar with Shakespeare, I can't attest to this being true. But the visuals of this show were nothing short of magical, from start to finish.
Hutton's rendition of THE TEMPEST opened with a bang, lots and lots of bangs of thunder -- as is appropriate for a tempest. At first, I found myself taken by the special effects: lightening, thunder, waves, sounds of the ship creaking. I hadn't before seen or heard anything quite like it at Hart House, with maybe the exception of last season's Good Night Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), for which Hutton was both the fight director and sound designer. My only criticism of the opening scene is that I was unable to hear the actors' voices over the sound. This, couple with Shakespeare's English, had the delivery of the dialogue lost on me. Once this ended, things got much better.
The production of this play captured my attention and held it, at times distracting me from the actual performances, which, I feel, rarely measured up to the set, lighting and sounds all around them.
The set was simple when you really looked at it. A nod, perhaps, to the minimalism of the original sets Shakespeare's plays would've seen in the early 1600s. The wooden arches at the front of the stage were ethereal and dreamy in their simplicity. Scott Gorman's carpentry was beautiful -- a perfect match to the spirits that sat perched upon them.
The spirits (the ensemble cast) were acted and styled very well: like statues, frozen, they sat still, moving only in sync with the odd creek of the ship, slinky and seductive, with ghostly skin and tattered, flowing garments. I was impressed by how still each remained throughout the duration of the play. Even during the odd comical scene (carried mostly by Paolo Santalucia as the tipsy Stephano), not one budge from these otherworldly creatures!
Amaka Umeh's performance as the airy spirit Ariel stood out for me. She was bold and gave her lines with serious vigour. Peter Higginson's Prospero was also well done. He was believable and natural in the role. No stranger to the Hart House stage, Higginson held the role of Mereia in Caligula at Hart House in 1975 -- his first of many plays there.
Overall, I enjoyed this play. Supposedly inspired by travel literature of the time, of accounts of ship wrecks off the Bermudas, Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST is a commentary on colonialism and the resulting imbalance of power. In the play, Prospero seeks to restore order, the natural balance of things, in the midst of chaos, even if it means surrendering his own ability to control the world around him. A meaningful lesson; and I think Hutton has done a wonderful job relaying Shakespeare's message.
THE TEMPEST is on at Hart House Theatre (7 Hart House Circle) until November 22. For tix, click here.
By Randal Boutilier & Suzanne Duncan
Our first foray into the world of contemporary circus brings us to the Bluma Appel Theatre for Canadian Stage’s first night of OPUS. Gone are the twinkling lights, calliope music, and popcorn of the big top. Instead the audience shuffles quietly with wine in hand to sit down and face an empty black stage.
After the lights dim, the members of the Debussy Quartet shuffle barefoot onto the stage, conjuring Shostakovich out of their stringed instruments while a member of the Circa performance troupe climbs a pair of simple ropes, dangling and plunging while the quartet approach and surround him. If this is what contemporary circus is all about, count us in!
With very simple staging and subtly detailed costume, it all looks as though we’ve stumbled upon a dress rehearsal or workshop – but this is quite intentional. When you strip all of the sensory disguises of circus performance away, you’re left to bear witness to the marvels of the human body in motion. As the troupe members tumble and pull each other by limb, moth and neck, the visual link with modern dance performance is striking. The Quartet is brought actively into the choreography as well, moving around the 14-member troupe, at times playing for them, at other times controlling them through the various movements in the evening.
The 80-minute non-intermission performance is a test of endurance for all on stage. As the evening progresses, a few more minimal props are brought out in the form of a single trapeze swing and simple hoops. Feats of strength, skill and endurance increase as the simple wardrobe of the troupe is gradually shed to reveal more of the human form. The focus is always on the feats of the body, and watching the members perform complex lifts and poses evoked many gasps and rounds of applause from the audience.
The troupe performs without the safety of a net; the Quartet without the safety of sheet music. All of this comes to a head when the troupe blindfolds the Quartet for Shostakovich’s 8th quartet and them proceed to perform around them. The string music is our only consistent sound throughout the entire evening, occasionally punctuated with a percussive drop of bodies to the stage floor. While this was one of the darker phases of the performance, the tone lightened considerably towards the final segment. The mood was also reflected in the staging, as warm lights shone on muscle, skin, and violin.
There were no pauses for applause or “Ta-Da” motions throughout the evening, which makes it seem that contemporary circus is less concerned with the response of the audience than with the performance itself. The artists on stage all feed from one another’s energy, which is highly important for an act that relies heavily on perfect timing and accurate balancing. All in all, we were witness to acts of superhuman strength without the superhero costume.
OPUS is only on for 4 more shows at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front St. E.). For tix click here.
Listen closely to Tom Stoppard's text in ARCADIA, but not so closely that you forget to pay attention to how the ideas in the text make you feel. Both the theoretical arguments, and the subsequent influence of them on your emotions, are equally as important to experience the full intent of this play.
However, it's almost impossible to live up to this task, so don't be overly hard on yourself when you're lost amidst the sea of scientifc theory and historical facts that Stoppard throws at you at a wicked pace; the sound of the words sound fab and the actors are even better, so there's always something to entertain and appreciate in the show. And really, Stoppard couldn't have thought we would all be following every word in his script anyway, he practically wrote it so we can't But the challenge to keep up is a bit of a thrill.
Mirvish is presenting the smash Shaw Festival production of ARCADIA and it is really a refreshing change of pace from their usual fare. I don't mean that to sound anti-Mirvish; I like the company a lot. I think the longevity of the company's success is admirable and it has positively affected Toronto in a heap of ways; but as I watched the show, I felt good - almost happy - that the largest, most mainstream theatre company in the city, was bringing this classic, intelligent, funny show to the masses (not discounting the mass of people who saw it at the Shaw Festival) and seemingly, the masses were loving it.
ARCADIA involves work on the part of the audience and, from what I saw, no one was put off by this at all. Perhaps it was because Eda Holmes direction was so beautifully understated but so obviously well-thought out, or because the performances were all so top-notch, it was hard to pinpoint a fav (Gray Powell as Septimus Hodge is probably it though), or because the lighting design was so pretty or that Stoppard is really that great of a playwright that he can elevate anyone to challenge their notions of the world and not be bothered that the play forgoes the pure entertainment commodity that is so common.
Or maybe it's all of the above. Ultimately, it doesn't matter though, because it's how the play made you feel and what it made you think that is important. And if that's not the mark of good theatre, than I'm not sure what is.
ARCADIA is on at the Royal Alexandra Theatre (260 King St. W.) until December 14th. For tix click here.
If the announcement of their 2015 season this week was an indication that Soulpepper is looking to diverge from their norm, the two shows currently gracing the stages of the Young Centre of the Performing Arts proves that the desire to shake things up, has been a part of the company’s long game much before.
SPOON RIVER is a honky-tonk musical version of the not-new-at-all Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, a text that is most likely familiar to many drama school students. Think Mumford & Sons meets Our Town and you’re getting the gist of what SPOON RIVER has to offer.
Before I continue, let me first declare my love of honky-tonk music. I love it. I’m partial to the glitz of shiny objects and a good dance beat, but there’s something soul-fulfilling about a banjo harmonizing with a harmonica - pair that with a fiddle and I’m pretty much thrilled to bits. I had high hopes for SPOON RIVER. Fortunately, some narrative confusion aside, it lived up to my expectations and filled me with the salt-of-the-earth warmth I belive it intended to.
Entering into the theatre through the backstage, you’re taken through a picture adorned hallway, a sort of yearbook of Spoon River and it’s inhabitants. You’re immersed into the town by way of an old-school funeral visitation that ends in a forested graveyard…and then you take your seat. Someone in Spoon River has died too young and while the living mourn her, the dead, get ready to welcome her to their world. They reminisce about their lives – the joys and the much more plentiful sorrows, and what ultimately led to their death. Their stories weave together to paint the picture of a small town that both takes care of it’s living-inhabitants, but can also be unusually cruel to them. Ukulele’s and guitars are plentiful, thanks to Soulpepper Wunderkind Mike Ross who composed the show in it’s entirety. Brace yourself for the beautiful and haunting number by fiddler Miranda Mulholland (Great Lake Swimmers, Rattlesnake Choir, Jim Cuddy Band); it’s mesmerizing.
Some of the individual stories are hard to follow – both my date and I agreed on that. But we also agreed that, overall, it was one of the more beautiful shows we’ve sat through in a while and it just felt good to be there. Particularly when the banjos really went to town.
SPOON RIVER is on stage at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (55 Tank House Lane) until Nov. 15th , and again in March 7, 2015. For tix click here.
On stage next door is THE FOUR HORSEMAN PROJECT, a spectacle of poetry, sound, movement and some seriously great projections.
Based on the poetry of The Four Horsemen: Rafael Barreto-Rivera; bpNichol; Paul Dutton; and Steve McCaffery, an experimental poetry group from Toronto who had their heyday approximately 30 years ago, this show is an ode to these poets and also to their innovative arrangements of text and oratory. The 4 performers on stage kill it. Supported by Kate Alton’s hot and hard (ie. difficult) choreography, the actors take on this bizarre text (if you can call it that) with an enthusiasm that is admirable. Clearly skilled dancers, the four work together to create a cacophony of sound and movement that is at times funny, endearing, sweet and/or just plain weird. I admired what they were doing – but I didn’t get it.
After reading the program and doing some online research, I think the lack of understanding is my own artistic bias/ignorance and not something to be held against the show. Art is about pushing boundaries and looking at the ordinary in abstract ways; we need that to happen to progress as a species, and also to keep conversations lively, and THE FOUR HORSEMAN PROJECT was definitely lively.
A production of Volcano Theatre, in association with Crooked Figure Dances and Global Mechanic, THE FOUR HORSEMAN PROJECT is on stage at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (55 Tank House Lane) until Nov. 22. For tix click here.
By Lindsay L. Swanson
It may be November, but Hallowe’en is still at its peak in Leslieville.
“A blood-drenched, dieselpunk, gothic romance with puppets, people, and dark parlour magic”
This was not over-selling FRANKENSTEIN'S BOY.
It is a performance that frolics in fun and quirkiness, oozing creativity in set design and puppetry. Along with blood, guts and gore.
FRANKENSTEIN'S BOY has a two-person cast, with each actor (Eric Woolfe and Kimwun Perehinec) doubling down as puppeteers. Woolfe (actor, puppeteer and writer) is the quintessential narrator of the story: with a booming voice he commands the audience’s attention as he lays the backstory to Frankenstein’s assistant, Fry. Woolfe injects humour with ease, and transforms himself into each of his many characters (both human and puppet) with a fleeting moment of transition.
Let me be clear: this is not a typical puppet show. These are not puppets that dance along an elevated stage, and attempt to disguise the tell-tale puppeteer’s arm. This is a performance that blends puppetry with the movements and parts of its puppeteers. It is undeniable that Woolfe and Kimwun throw their whole selves – body and voice – into every character, human and puppet alike. What they do is physically demanding; their commitment to the characters is impressive.
The Red Sandcastle Theatre is very small. So small that it could be referred to as ‘extremely intimate’. It allows the audience a somewhat interactive role, and most definitely provides an up close and personal perspective. However, this performance could benefit from a larger space that better showcases the creativity of the puppets the set, and the casts’ talent. The two-week run of FRANKENSTEIN'S BOY is surely hard on the set and the puppets, and a little more space between the audience and set would most definitely create a less exposed vantage point.
Overall, this is a very entertaining show that would surely be a first of its kind to most audience members. For Hallowe’en enthusiasts, it is a must-see; for puppet enthusiasts, you have surely seen it already, but probably agree that it's worth a second seating.
FRANKENSTEIN'S BOY runs through November 8 at the Red Sandcastle Theatre (922 Queen Street East). 2 more shows! For tix click here.
By Jeffrey Johns
Guys. Han van Meegeren. Dutch fella. During the Nazi occupation of Holland in World War II, he sells a painting by Vermeer to none other than high-up Nazi terrible person Hermann Goering. After the war, the sale is discovered and Meegeren is put on trial as a traitor. His defence? “Oh, that thing? That wasn’t a real Vermeer, it was a forgery.”
“Oh, yeah, Meegeren? And just how do we know it was a forgery?”
“Because…it was I who was the forger!” (Assorted gasps, murmurs and general hubbub).
And then, to prove his story, he offers to paint another “Vermeer” during his trial! And then does it! Fascinating stuff. No wonder somebody wrote a play about it!
THE BAKELITE MASTERPIECE uses this actual story as the play's backdrop but re-imagines it as Meegeren’s (Geordie Johnson) fate being in the hands of one Captain Geert Piller (Irene Poole), former resistance member, now tasked with bringing those who sold any of Holland’s art treasures for Nazi gold, to justice. It is for her that Meegeren must now recreate a Vermeer in order to win his freedom.
Guys, it’s a Tarragon show, and directed by Richard Rose. Therefore, the production is, as always, rock solid. The set design. The lighting. They do it up right.
I thought Johnson and Poole did what they could to elevate the material they were given. But it was ultimately the writing that I was not crazy about. In particular, I felt Poole had a bit of an impossible task in trying to weave Piller’s words and actions together such that some sort of actual person was revealed.
I think the writing was “too” ambitious. The conversation between the two characters canvasses (get it? “canvasses”? #arthumour) the craft of forgery, the beauty of art, the Nazi occupation, the challenges in rebuilding a country post-war, Jesus, God and the devil. It seems to me a pretty gargantuan task to connect all of those thoughts together in one 70-minute production. And, unfortunately, it didn’t happen for me here.
Plus, to be honest, there was something else I wasn’t too crazy about. A couple of times it seemed like Poole’s character was purporting not to speak just of her own thoughts but to speak determinatively of the motivations behind actions of the Dutch people postwar. In particular, of the treatment of the women who had “socialized” with Nazi soldiers during the occupation. Personally, I just get a bit squicky about attributing determinative motivations behind real occurrences.
But I will also say this. The parts about how he made his forgery were hella-interesting!
One and a Half Tulips out of Five!
THE BAKELITE MASTERPIECE is on at the Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman Ave.) until November 30. For tix click here.
By Jeffrey Johns
THE ART OF BUILDING A BUNKER. Our main character – “Elvis” (and no, not Sonny Crockett’s alligator. Or Costello. Or any other famous Elvis’ that I can’t think of…) – has been sent to sensitivity training by his employer: pass the training, and he’s good; fail…and it’s the unemployment line.
Adam Lazarus plays the role of Elvis. And the instructor, Cam. And all his sensitivity class classmates. A gay fella. An Indian dude. A Chinese woman. A South African guy.
We follow Elvis through his training. And then home. Where he holes up in his basement. Which, spoiler alert, is a lot like a bunker. And while his wife, upstairs, cares for their baby. And then back to sensitivity training.
Elvis is scared of the world. Like really scared. And a racist. Like really racist. Like chicken-stealing racist. Can he hide these aspects of himself enough to pass his sensitivity class?
Look guys. I think this play looks at some super-important and super-topical issues. The role that fear plays in racism. And how corporate media outlets do their best to incite fear because it drives viewership/readership. And how politicians use code words to blow that racist dog-whistle as loud as they can to attract votes for the candidate who will keep you “safe”. While neither one gives any regard to the overall harm such practices do to our society. Their society.
And Racism in our world of heightened political correctness. No one says anything overtly racist, so racism is gone! Or is it maybe still there…and just hiding under the surface? Emerging only in moments of crisis. You know, like in anonymous YouTube comments from viewers of videos featuring people of colour. Or perhaps after yet another African-American fellow’s interaction with their local police department ends up suuuuuuuuper crappy.
But, personally, I found it hard to make the connection between Elvis’ fear and his racism. I didn’t get a “them” and “us” impression. Just kind of an “Elvis” and “everyone else” impression. Which made his character seem less racist and more mentally ill. Which to me kind of muddled things.
In sum, I think Adam Lazarus puts in an admirable performance, but I just couldn’t help being a little disappointed.
Two and a Half Stolen Churrasqueira Chickens out of Five!
THE ART OF BUILDING A BUNKER is on at the Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst St. W.) until Nov. 2. For tix click here.
By Lindsay L. Swanson
Concord Floral was a million square foot greenhouse property in Vaughan, Ontario and it is the true story of Concord Floral in its abandoned state that is the backdrop of Jordan Tannahill’s newest play, a modern re-invention of Giovanni Boccaccio's "The Decameron".
The cast is a group of 10 teenagers. Teenagers playing teenagers, which is one of the many elements of authenticity in this production. The story opens with a girl walking through a dark field in her underwear – which foreshadows the suspenseful-urban-legend nature of the story. Each of the other 9 teenagers are story-telling contributors, however two girls are at the forefront – played by Jessica Monk and Erum Khan.
The abandoned greenhouse had become a teenage after-hours hang out. From small gatherings, to large parties, Concord Floral can accommodate it all. When two girls head into the greenhouse to smoke a joint, they stumble across a reality that they cannot escape – and one which continues to haunt Khan’s character. However, what starts out as a teenaged thriller, unravels as an equally terrifying portrayal of a modern day teenagers’ life.
The story crosses generations. Everyone can relate to that time – or two – when they made a bad teenage decision. One that had the potential to impact the rest of their lives – or at minimum, the rest of adolescence. Our teenage years help shape our adult selves, but is it always for the better? Is it true what does not kill you, makes you stronger? CONCORD FLORAL makes you wonder about the lasting impacts of poor teenaged behaviour.
The set design deserves a solid mention - it completes the performance with a multi-faceted square of astroturf and inventive lighting. The photography of each cast member – in their own teenage bedrooms – is an impressive touch, and one that adds to the authenticity of the performance. It's great.
CONCORD FLORAL is entertaining, visually seductive, and thought provoking.
CONCORD FLORAL is on at the Theatre Centre (1115 Queen St. W.) until For tix click here.