January, 2016

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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Twelfth Night. A creative physical production

Reviewed by Connie Meng

There’s a unique production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” running at the NAC. Directed by Jillian Keiley, it’s “as imagined” by the Old Trout Puppet Workshop who designed the set, props, and costumes. It’s one of the funniest and most entertaining productions I’ve seen. The Renaissance style proscenium is inset so that the wings, flies, and set manipulations are visible, including at times the human actors watching from the wings or running across upstage with a cutout of a deer on a long pole. From the creatively staged shipwreck to the cut-out passersby, the production is all about Old Trout’s imaginative work.

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Matchstick: A weird and wonderful musical bolstered by clever storytelling

Reviewed by Kat Fournier

Her name is Matchstick, and she lives in an undesirable country. But this is her play and so she is free to cast herself as the hero. After all, she is a poor orphan and so she must be destined to rise against all odds. When she meets Alik, a stranger from far away, she is convinced that this must be the fairytale she has been waiting for.

Yet—as with all great fairytales—something lurks below the surface of the story, and the dramatic irony is darkly delicious. Even as the veneer of Matchstick’s musical fairytale world starts to crack, the audience is still left with a surprise that will take them by storm. It’s a slight of hand that subtly permeates the very fabric of the play, endowing it with a palpable tension. This clever manipulation of the audience is a credit to Nathan Howe’s strength at conceiving a calculated story.

It’s bolstered by a creative team that have imagined an enveloping backdrop for this fairytale-gone-wrong. David Granger’s set gives the impression of a band shell tucked away in a magical forest. Jagged trees with thick boughs frame the main stage, and instruments are perched around the playing space waiting to be swept up by Alik (Nathan Howe) or Matchstick (Lauren Holfeuer). Behind that, a scrim endows the stage with depth. Beautiful illustrations are projected onto the scrim (Jessica Gabriel and Chloe Ziner) and it becomes another playing space where the actors use their shadows to become a part of moving pages in a story-book. Dark, moody lighting (Bill McDermott) furthers the tension in the plot. The quirky fairytale stage-world is visually rich, musical, and mysterious.

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Twelfth Night at the NAC: A theatrical free for all!

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht

Tristan D. Lalla, Bruce Dow, Janelle Cooper

Photo. Andrée Lanthier

Shakespeare has become material for all forms of experiments in countries around the world. Nowhere more so than in Quebec where he is constantly transformed, mutilated, reorganized and reworked, in most cases with much success. It is sufficient to say that Shakespeare’s material lends itself to multiple readings because the plays consist of so much richly textured material that they allow one to go beyond the limits of any one style , thus opening the doors to infinite readings. Jillian Keiley’s version of Twelfth Night, a collaborative effort with the Old Trout Puppet Theatre from Calgary makes a similar attempt.

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Past Reviews