Weak play cradles some good performances

Reviewed by Iris Winston

Photo courtesy of Kanata Theatre

Photo courtesy of Kanata Theatre

Three strong performances and an attractive set do not make up for a weak play weighed down with exposition.

Leslie Sands’ 1983 “psychological mystery” Cat’s Cradle is slow moving mainly because the lengthy back story is the key to the small amount of action that occurs on stage.

Set in the residents’ lounge of an English country inn, it is the eve of local resident Sarah Fulton’s wedding. A shadow hangs over the happy occasion when Detective Inspector Jack Frost appears, determined to clear up his last unsolved case before he retires: the kidnapping/murder of Sarah’s baby brother 12 years earlier. The second part of the mystery is why the family and friends of the victim are so hostile to Frost and so determined to preserve the secrets behind the crime.

At first, Cat’s Cradle (the title is a reference to a child’s game of creating changing three-dimensional thread patterns) seems carefully constructed to explain each character’s behaviour. But there are some inconsistencies, particularly in the bride’s reactions. It is also hard to accept that almost everyone can be bought off. (more…)

The Convert: A Story of Colonialism

Reviewed by Jane Baldwin

Photo: Bird Desi

Photo: Bird Desi

Danai Gurira’s The Convert, now playing at the Central Square Theatre in Cambridge, MA, gives the audience a picture of late 19th century Zimbabwe when it was undergoing British colonization. The British usurpation of the country’s natural resources and the displacement of peoples led to civil war between the Shona and the Ndebele. Cultural changes took place, religious conversion not the least of these.

Although there are several plotlines, the most dominant is the story of Jekesai (Adobuere Ebiama), a young Shona woman whose uncle (Paul S. Benford Bruce) wants to marry her off to an elderly man with a great many wives. The bride price is of great concern to the uncle. Misogyny within the native culture is an underlying theme of the play as is classism.

Jekesai runs off, and is rescued by her Aunt Mai Tamba (Liana Asim), the trickster maid of Chilford, a would-be Catholic priest (Maurice Emmanuel Parent). To keep her job Mai Tamba pretends she is a believing Christian while hiding amulets in the house to appease her dead ancestors. Following her aunt’s advice, Jekesai asks Chilford to convert her. Chilford, a lay religious teacher, thrilled to find a willing convert who claims she wants to dedicate her life to Catholicism, takes her in to his home, after changing her name to Ester. He tutors the gifted Ester in English, reading, writing, and religion. Although he too is Shona, he acquired English as a child when he was taught by missionaries. Ester, enamored of her new religion, devotes time to converting other Shona people. Like her aunt, she is also a servant, and addresses the pompous Chilford as Master. She is now modestly attired like an English woman with a long dress and shoes rather than her Shona self where her breasts were almost uncovered and her feet bare. (more…)

Cat’s Cradle On The Dull Side At Kanata

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo courtesy of Kanata Theatre

Photo courtesy of Kanata Theatre

The most puzzling thing about Cat’s Cradle, which tottered onto the Kanata Theatre stage the other day, as why anyone thought it was worth doing n the first place.

Furthermore the fragile fortunes of Leslie Sands’s dull psychological thriller are not boosted by the general lethargy of Susan Monaghan’s production.

When you start glancing at your watch to find out why the first act seems endless, only to discover you’re only 45 minutes into the performance, that’s a sign of a show in trouble.

To be sure, this February offering does have a few things going for it. Set designer Rom Frigon has given us a splendid representation of a vintage country inn in the England of the early 1960s. Marilyn Valiquette has supplied serviceable costumes. Actress Caro Coltman is persuasively in character as the landlady who may or may not have secrets to conceal. Martin Weeden exudes terrier-like authority as Sir Charles Cresswell, the embodiment of local privilege. And Douglas Cuff convinces as the world-weary police inspector who has returned to the scene of his greatest failure to make one more effort to discover the truth about the disappearance of a young child years before.

That mystery is supposed to be haunting all the play’s characters as they prepare for the wedding of the young, 19-year-old woman who may, in the blocked recesses of her mind, have knowledge of what actually happened to her missing sibling on that fateful day. But you wouldn’t know it from the tepid emotional temperature of this production. (more…)

Love Letters Offers Much Pleasure

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo: Plosive Productions

Photo: Plosive Productions

A pair of desks on opposite sides of the Gladstone Theatre stage. Behind each, a chair — one occupied by a woman named Melissa Gardner, the other by a man named Andrew Makepeace Ladd lll.

A.R. Gurney’s 1989 play, Love Letters, has a deceptively simple setting, but one rich with possibility. In an age of e-mail exchanges and text messaging, this Pulitzer Prize finalist evokes the past, conjuring up a whole emotional world by means of the written exchanges between these two people over the course of 50 years. Because those lifetimes also involve the choices they make within a wider social and political context, and because those choices are sometimes questionable, the play also assumes a rueful “what if” quality as it approaches its climax.

That quality keeps emerging in Teri Loretto-Valentik’s production at the Gladstone Theatre — although it seemed somewhat tentative on opening night. Pierre Brault and Lucy van Oldenbarneveld, both pleasing performers, are responsive to the material and also — one would assume — to the challenge of creating fully developed characters out of what is essentially a platform reading, but are they completely there yet? (more…)

Nice Fish: A Reverie on Life

Reviewed by Jane Baldwin

Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

Louis Jenkins’s poem, “The Afterlife” begins: “I didn’t get it,” they are saying.

“Older people are exiting this life as if it were a movie.”

He says, “It didn’t seem to have any plot.”

Those words characterize Mark Rylance and Jenkins’ play Nice Fish, now appearing at the American Repertory Theatre, which they adapted from Jenkins’s prose poems. With its short non-linear scenes, it seems more a piece of performance art than a play. This remark is not meant as a put-down; I enjoyed the performance. It is reminiscent of Beckett’s plays in which the characters inhabit a predominantly empty world.

At the same time, the work projects a Prairie Home Companion quality, no surprise since Louis Jenkins has appeared on the radio show reading his poetry. Like Prairie Home Companion, his poetry frequently portrays distinct Minnesota characters and culture. That quality is even more forceful in the play where the actors bring a theatrical reality to the work. (more…)

TotoToo Delivers A First-Class Hosanna

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo: Maria Vartanova

Photo: Maria Vartanova

It’s the most famous scene in Michel Tremblay’s contemporary classic, Hosanna.

It comes at the top of the second act when the title character, an anguished Montreal drag queen, unveils a chronicle of disaster in telling us what really happened when she showed up at a Hallowe’en costume ball, dressed as Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra.

It’s an extraordinary moment of theatre and a high point of this new TotoToo production. But we shouldn’t really call it a “moment,” not when it consists of a monologue lasting more than thirty minutes and taxes the resources of actor Barry Daley to the utmost.

The scene proves to be an emotionally compelling tour de force, its intimacy heightened by the production’s venue — the new Live On Elgin space. There’s pain here, also slivers of corrosive humour in the glimpses Daley’s performance gives us into the human comedy as it exists in one particular underground culture.

It’s a fading culture because events over the last four decades have turned Tremblay’s play into a period piece. But Daley’s monologue, an extended journey into Hosanna’s troubled psyche, still proved a show-stopper the other night. Daley harnesses the urgency and — importantly — the joual rhythms of the still serviceable English translation by Bill Glassco and John Van Burek in laying bare some messy emotional realities and in probing the shifting nature of identity (more…)

Little Fire hands the questions back to the audience

Reviewed by Kat Fournier

Photo courtesy of TACTICS

Photo courtesy of TACTICS

Aithne starts life as a starry-eyed child prodigy, who creates beautiful, inspired paintings that she believes are sent to her by God. As she grows into adolescence, a terrible tragedy causes the visions to disappear. Without the comfort of God’s voice to lead her, Aithne must pave her own path. Caught in the crossfire of existentialism and mystical realism, and at the mercy of an over-bearing father who wants to nafunetize her gift, Aithne struggles to find meaning in her life. As her own life begins to unravel, Aithne crosses paths with others for whom circumstances have conspired and left them deflated.

Above all, I was struck by the lack of fortune that permeates these characters’ stories. Each one has met a challenge that has become their undoing. Playwright Megan Piercey Monafu has created a stage-world where God has left the building–and so now what are they to do? Piercey Monafu’s script contains some moments of beauty through sweeping, poetic monologues that evoke colourful imagery. And in actress Emily Bozik’s hands, these monologues are given a powerful presence on stage.

Bozik finds a strong stage partner in Johnny Wideman, who plays Roy. Roy is set adrift by his inability to find meaning in his work, when a set of circumstances lands him in jail. Wideman’s portrayal of Roy perfectly contrasts Bozik’s portrayal of Aithne. Where Aithne is thoughtful, Roy is perturbed, and where Aithne is profound, Roy is crude. Wideman turns Roy into a comical counterpart for Aithne, and it works. William Beddoe takes on the role of Aithne’s father, and he is subtly loathsome in a way that suits the character very well. Carol Sinclair plays a homeless woman and others, but paces and casts her eyes about wildly regardless of the character. It’s somewhat distracting. (more…)

Matchstick. A pair of winning stage presences but the aura of spontaneity diminishes as the material progresses

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

matchstick2DSC_0019

Photo: Barb Gray

The first point to be made about Matchstick, GCTC’s new winter offering, is that it Nathan Howe and Lauren Holfeuer are a pair of winning stage presences.

The second is that Howe, wearing his creator’s hat, has attempted a genuinely original script — one which, in its fusion of word and often delightful music, tells the story of a young girl named Matchstick whose yearning for a better life leads to a calamitous relationship.

The third point is that the material is delivered in a visually imaginative and often enchanting production package. Director Kristen Holfeuer’s excellent collaborators include David Granger (set), Bill McDermott (lighting) and Jessica Gabriel and Chloe Ziner (projections). Particularly, in the first part of the evening, with bold and colourful fairy-tale images on a scrim and arresting puppet silhouettes that are not quite of this world, this is a show that repeatedly seduces us into its magic.

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Twelfth Night: Light production sacrifices depth for fun

Reviewed by Maja Stefanovska

TristanD.LallaBruceDowJanelleCooper_thumb.jpg

Photo. Andrée Lanthier

The NAC English Theatre Company has teamed up with The Old Trout Puppet Workshop for a visually stunning production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The Old Trout Puppet Workshop hits it out of the park with the sets and masks, which director Jillian Kieley elegantly brings to life. It’s not a flawless production, or a version that gives Shakespeare’s elegant balance of comedy and melancholy its due respect, but it is fun and visually appealing.

Twelfth Night hardly needs much explaining, so let me be brief. Viola is separated from her brother Sebastian in a ship wreck. She washes up on the shoes of Illyria, cross-dresses as a eunuch named Cesario, and serves in the court of count Orisno, who is in love with a disinterested Olivia. Viola-as-Cesario is sent to woo Olivia, who falls madly in with her/him. Did I forget to mention that Viola is in love with Orsino? Or that there is a sub-plot between Olivia’s perpetually drunk cousin, Sir Tobey Belch, his drinking buddy Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and the servants?

The production is light, colourful, and fun. It’s described as directed by Keiley and imagined by the Old Trout Puppet Workshop. This is very clear throughout the production, as the wonderful aesthetics overwhelm the story. Much of the depth of Shakespeare’s text is sacrificed for the visuals and an over-reliance on farcical, physical comedy. The joke Sir Toby Belch and his group play on Malvolio is treated as just a bit of fun, so the blighted man’s anger and despair seem out of place.

Likewise, the decision to set the play in the late 17th century would have been more believable had the costuming been more consistent. A sailor’s very modern raincoat and hat seem out of place in a sea of stockings, embellished jackets, and wigs. Likewise the jester Feste’s white costume looks out of place in the 17th century, and too simple and colourless for the 16th. (more…)

Matchstick: A great story with a lot of potential

Reviewed by Rajka Stefanovska

Photo by electric umbrella images

Photo by electric umbrella images

The story of Matchstick starts as a familiar cold war-era propaganda machine in action: An orphan girl lives in a cold, restricted – undesirable – land and dreams about America, a free land of opportunities. She meets a prince charming – Alik – who takes her heart by storm and sends her hopes soaring!  But, life is rarely what we hope for. The story leaves the realm of the cliché and enters different, darker waters after they marry and come to the promised land. Little by little, Matchstick realizes that Alik is a paranoid liar, and her life is as far from the freedom and big opportunities she dreamed of as can be. Through her life of misadventures, Matchstick comes to the realization that fairy tales do not happen in a real life. Even more than that, she understands – only too late – that real freedom and opportunities exist where you are loved and where your family and friends are.
The topic of the play is very interesting and worth serious exploration. Digging deeper, going beyond the facts and basic emotions, would make it great theatre. For now, the narrative in Matchstick has some very touching moments and some cleverly constructed dialogues, but the story stays on surface.
Its execution is reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and her Children,” as it uses the elements of storytelling, a simple but effective set with the projection of city in the center, actors who change characters, and a few songs sprinkled throughout the play to accentuate the theme. Only in Matchstick, due to lack of depth, the writer misses an opportunity to boggle our minds.

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