February, 2016

Strong performances can’t save a weak script and staging in Anton in Show Business

Reviewed by Kat Fournier

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Audiences at Anton in Show Business, from Three Sisters Theatre Company, get to glimpse the backstage drama as a group of misfits try to stage Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters. But as economic pressures and personal narratives unravel, the show becomes the background track to their quirky antics. The play parodies the New York theatre scene through a throng of one-dimensional characters, satirizes equity in the theatre, and makes digs at the impossibility of artistry. It’s a play that leans into its sense of irony, and it’s built for the audience who knows a thing or two about the realities of living and working in the arts.

The play unfolds on two levels. On one level, the characters are trying to put on The Three Sisters. On the other, they are aware that they are simply portraying characters who are putting on a play. The play employs this “metatheatrical” guise principally to satirize the convention. It is gimmicky by design.

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Cuckoo’s Nest Has Some Soaring Moments

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

 

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest has become a period piece. However,
that doesn't necessarily mean that Dale Wasserman's adaptation of the
Ken Kesey novel about life in a state mental institution in the early
1960s has become dated. It still has historic importance in what it
has to tell us about U.S. psychiatric care in another era — and let's
remember that Kesey's novel, based on the author's own experiences
working in a state veterans hospital, was considered in its time to be
a blistering indictment of a culture that condoned electroconvulsive
therapy and pre-frontal lobotomy as legitimate ways of dealing with
mental illness.

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Booming through a kaleidoscope of memories of a generation

Reviewed by Iris Winston

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Photo: David Leclerc

The sound booms book-ending Rick Miller’s packed ride from 1945 to 1969 are the world-changing release of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima and the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.

The baby boomers, born, raised and living through those tumultuous years, are invited to relive their memories through Miller’s lens, a combination of multi-media flashes, impressions (some more successful than others), comic twists and the stories of three people with very different backgrounds: Miller’s mother, Madeline, originally from Coburg, Ontario; Laurence, an African-American draft dodger and jazz pianist; and Rudy, an Austrian who immigrated to Canada after the Second World War to become an advertising executive and illustrator.

As well as the kaleidoscope of political, cultural and social events with which Miller’s Boom bombards us, replays of advertisements of the period — oddly amusing from the perspective of the 21st century — remind us just how much times have changed.

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Boom: superficial approach to history but a superb performance by Rick Miller!

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht

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Photo David Leclerc

The long awaited Boom directed, written and performed by Rick Miller is both seductive and questionable, especially as it purports to be a cultural history of the Baby Boomer generation that will incite young people to become interested in their own stories as well as world history. It turns out to be an amalgamation of various narrative structures that function in different ways, some are successful and others much less so. Rick the actor begins by introducing us to a film of Maddy his mother, projected against a huge pole of light that stands in the centre of the stage. This is the background against which all the floating images, the films, the lighting effects and the great mass of visual information will unfold during the evening. Structured by chronological time (1945-1969), the stage event becomes, the story of Rick’s own life told through fragments of historical information and personal experiences by multiple voices whose identities are not at all clear and who splinter the whole narrative into so many pieces it is difficult to locate any kind of centre.

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Performances capture the disturbing community of a psychiatric institution

Reviewed by Iris Winston

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Photo Maria Vartanova

The biggest mistake of Randle P. McMurphy’s life was not to break the law but to assume that serving his time in a mental institution would be easier than being sent to a work farm.

At first, he sees the “cuckoo’s nest” where he — the cuckoo — lands (modeled on the Oregon State Insane Asylum in the 1960s) as a breeze. He wins assorted bets with the other patients, brings a little sunshine into their lives, even persuades an apparently catatonic patient to talk and thinks he can win his battle with the sadistic head nurse.

But this is not a fight between equals. It is a power struggle between an administration that holds all the chips and a patient who has been committed and may not leave at will.

In some respects, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, dramatized from Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel by Dale Wasserman, is dated. Electroshock treatments and lobotomies are no longer considered state-of-the-art treatments for mentally ill patients. Neither are the T-groups of the 1960s and 70s that ripped people apart emotionally (and did not always put them back together again) a regular part of therapy any longer.

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1984 Still Packs a Wallop

Reviewed by Jane Baldwin

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Photo  Manuel Harlan

The American Repertory Theatre is currently presenting George Orwell’s 1984. Newly adapted by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, the British company is touring the US after a long and successful run in the UK. It has a lot going for it, particularly the reference to the book’s appendix, which does not appear in the original American edition.

Most people who read the book will remember newspeak, the language which was to replace oldspeak (Standard English). Newspeak would destroy the individual’s ability to think conceptually by limiting the number and complexity of words. Early American editions of Orwell’s book left the reader with the impression that the totalitarian government had won. And it seems that even in Great Britain, few people pay attention to the appendix, an explication of newspeak principles, which although it appears to be written long after 1984 is in oldspeak from which one may infer that the regime no longer exists. To dramatize the appendix, there is a short scene out of time with the rest of the play in which unknown characters – linguists, politicians, historians? – discuss its content.

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The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee: The characters all have fun with their roles.

Reviewed by Iris Winston

Freakish, Friendless, Pushy Parents! The contestants in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee are never asked to spell any of this group of words, but they come to mind as the background of the kids and the adults involved in the cutthroat competition are revealed in passing.

Surprisingly, the 2005 musical, with book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn, won a number of Tony awards when it debuted on Broadway. (It must have been a lean year.) The music is entirely forgettable, although some of the lyrics are effective and the book holds more interest than simply testing spelling ability.

Heavily dependent on the quality of the characterizations by the six finalists and the three officials running the Bee, the inclusion of audience participation (four extra contestants) is more awkward than effective and the general presentation—partly because of the script and partly because of the limited stage space —is somewhat static. However, the members of the cast in the Suzart After Dark production define their characters well and have fun with their roles (despite the occasional stumble over lines).

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Suzart Spelling Bee A Mixed Bag

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo Suzart After Dark

Photo Suzart After Dark

There are some likeable moments in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, but this inaugural production in Suzart’s new After Dark series still leaves you wondering why the show collected several Tony awards and lasted more than two seasons on Broadway.

Its main merit lies in the few good performances that do take shape and in further revealing the exciting possibilities that the new Live On Elgin holds for Ottawa’s  cultural life.

The show, which involves some audience participation, essentially chronicles the progress of a spelling bee in words and music. But Elaine McCausland and her cast are delivering more of a staged performance than anything resembling a proper  production. To be sure, the nature of the material might suggest that it’s ideal for an intimate venue like this, but the end result lacks the imaginative vigour that represents this enterprising theatre company at its best.

Still there is pleasurable work from Liam Gosson as Leaf Conneybear, an amiable young contestant with a knack from conquering his insecurities and managing to come through at the last minute with the correct spelling at each round, and Jay Landreville, smug and self-satisfied, as an opponent named Barfee. Rachel Duchesneau has some nice moments of vulnerability as Olive, who’s travelled to the spelling bee by bus, Adam Goldberg is very funny as the increasingly frazzled vice-principal entrusted with giving contestants ludicrous examples of sentences employing words to be spelled correctly, and Axandre Lemours supplies benign comic menace as the guy whose involvement in the bee is part of his community service. (more…)

A Man Walks into a Bar: Uncomfortable, true to life exploration of gender politics

Reviewed by Maja Stefanovska

Photo by Tanja Tiziana courtesy of the Next Stage Theatre Festival

Photo by Tanja Tiziana courtesy of the Next Stage Theatre Festival

A Man Walks into a Bar is a well written, funny, and well-performed feminist show about a woman (Rachel Blair) who tries to tell joke and a man (Blue Bigwood-Mallin) who “helps” her tell is properly. It’s a simple enough premise, but playwright Blair infuses the text with complexity and an exploration of gender politics. The humour is in the delivery and interaction between the two characters. The punch line, when it comes at long last, only serves to underscore the conditions women are groomed to accept and the fear with which they live.  The play holds up an uncomfortable mirror to real life.

Both Blair and Bigwood-Mallin are terrific actors. Blair has great comedic timing and her delivery is spot on and her acting range is impressive. She has the ability to draw attention to her characters, even when they stand at the back of the stage or draw into themselves. Indeed, some of the most powerful moments of the performance were the moments she doesn’t speak. Although Bigwood-Mallin took some time to really settle into his character, toward the middle of the performance, he really comes into his own and sends shivers of disgust and annoyance through the audience. (more…)

A Man Walks into a Bar’s appealing staging distracts from a heavy-handed script

Reviewed by Kat Fournier

Photo by Tanja Tiziana courtesy of the Next Stage Theatre Festival

Photo by Tanja Tiziana courtesy of the Next Stage Theatre Festival

A Man Walks into a Bar does a lot of things right. It was doubtlessly a popular offering during its premiere at the 2015 Toronto Fringe, where it received many awards including the coveted Best of Fest award. Now, during its run at the undercurrents festival until February 20, Ottawa audiences can experience a play that wields humour like a weapon. Produced by Circle Circle Productions in Toronto, the play takes its lead from the popular kicking-off point of a joke, “A man walks into a bar.” But as the two actors approach the punch-line, the joke unfolds into a metatheatrical and cutting story that sets its sights on misogyny and harassment.

Created by Rachel Blair, who is also one of two actors in this performance, the script pulls its audience into two worlds. Blair has arrived to tell the audience a joke, and insists, “I’m not very good at telling jokes.” Performer Bigwood-Mallin convinces her that they should step inside the joke; he only wants to help. A small bar and two barstools allow them to clearly indicate when they are within the sketch, and when they are outside of it. The actors straddle these two worlds, and as Blair’s “joke” starts to reveal its true nature, a growing tension permeates both the play within the play, and their metatheatrical narration.

Approaching a gender discussion under the guise of humour, A Man Walks into a Bar gives its audience the opportunity to laugh its way through discomfort. What’s more, Blair as the Waitress and narrator was able to be genuinely funny and then genuinely sincere, making these turns on a dime. It’s convincing, and showcases Blair’s versatility as an actress. Bigwood-Mallin as “the Man” and the co-narrator also manages to strike a balance being obtuse, funny, and loathsome in turn. Here, the audience can also see David Matheson’s handy work who orchestrates swift staging between moments of outright cruelty before they swept under the rug and the “joke” regains its footing. (more…)