October, 2016

Southern Dis-Comfort: An evening of fun

Reviewed by Iris Winston

Image courtesy of Eddie May Mysteries

Image courtesy of Eddie May Mysteries

Southern Dis-Comfort

By Dan Lalande and Noel Counsil

Eddie May Murder Mysteries

Directed by Thea Nikolic

Murder mystery dinner theatre is not intended to be taken seriously. Neither should it be viewed in the same light as regular theatre.

Rather, the mystery is the frame for a variety of clichés about characters and plot, bookended by a meal and a miniscule amount of suspense as the audience solves whodunit. Audience members must also be prepared to interact with cast members in character while they are eating. In addition, they should be ready to laugh a lot between mouthfuls.

For two decades or more, Eddie May Mysteries have proved conclusively that the formula works. Now, the company has expanded to a second venue — the Velvet Room attached to Fat Tuesdays restaurant in Kanata Centrum.

Southern Dis-Comfort by Dan Lalande and Eddie May founder Noel Counsil is the first show to play at both the downtown and the west end location. The storyline not only speaks of murder and mayhem at the Caj-Inn hunting lodge in Louisiana, but also provides a vehicle for banter about Canada versus the U.S. and even a few moments of song. There are also some slow-down film-like segments that work very well. (more…)

‘da Kink is powerful as ever, but keeps the present at arms length

Reviewed by Kat Fournier

Photo: Trudie Lee

Photo: Trudie Lee

Trey Anthony’s influence in Canadian theatre is remarkable, and ‘da Kink in My Hair sits at the very heart of her contributions to Canadian culture. Originally a box-office-breaking Toronto Fringe offering in 2001, the play has taken on a life of its own and evolved into a modern classic. It has been adapted for television and re-worked as a musical. As part of a partnership between the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and Theatre Calgary, the musical has just finished its run in Calgary and now Ottawa audiences are fortunate to see Trey Anthony reprising her role as Novelette at the National Arts Centre until November 5.

Anthony as Novelette is irreverent, saucy, and no-nonsense. The character brings humour and healing to the other women that come through her salon. More importantly, Novelette is also a key literary device that underpins the whole production. Her name may be your first clue that she is the “man behind the curtain” so to speak, and the all-knowing curator of the stories that we hear in this transcendental space. The setting, Letty’s Salon, is a shifting type of reality that allows these women’s stories to be woven together. It’s a space that incorporates a touch of magical realism and, paired with the musical elements of the production, emphasize the indeterminate nature of the stage. The set design by Cory Sincennes blends modern and retro elements. Red-framed mirrors adorn the walls, while dryer chairs and hair cutting stations flank stage right and left, respectively. The most important details of the stage are two elements that are rigged on a pulley system: The larger-than-life Letty’s Salon sign that hangs over the playing arena, and the backdrop that features dozens of black women’s hairstyles. When they are pulled up, we know we’re not at Letty’s anymore…. (more…)

’da Kink is a hopeful, generous piece of theatre

Reviewed by Patrick Langston

Photo: Trudie Lee

Photo: Trudie Lee

’da Kink in my Hair
NAC English Theatre/Theatre Calgary co-production
NAC Theatre

Everyone should have a Novelette in their life.

A combination of bestie, mother and motivational speaker, plain-spoken Novelette is the Caribbean-Canadian owner of Letty’s Salon of Beauty, the setting for playwright Trey Anthony’s wonderfully resonant musical about the lives of black women.

Beyond that, and the fact that she’s arrived at a point in her life where she’s happy with herself, we don’t know much about Toronto’s Novelette (played with verve by Anthony).

But that’s as it should be. Novelette’s job is not to talk about herself, but to offer a safe place where her clients – we meet seven of them, six black and one white – can open up about their entangled inner lives. In a series of artfully linked vignettes, she strokes each woman’s hair, that mythic symbol of power, persona and self. She then steps back as the women slip into their monologues about family, violence, love, race, sex and all the other factors that make their lives sometimes joyful and sometimes unbearable.

Patsy, for instance, is a proper, middle-aged lady. Played by Tamara Brown, she’s terrified of change, her Bible a shield against a world that has turned on her in the singularly vicious fashion that too many black mothers have experienced. Her challenge is to trust again in the future and in herself, the kind of storyline that could so easily have been cliché, but which Anthony has handled with sensitivity and veracity and which Brown leavens with a touch of welcome playfulness.

Like the other vignettes, Patsy’s includes a song that encapsulates and extends her story. Anthony transformed her original work into a full musical (there are four composers) only after it had been staged multiple times, but the music, narrative and character, which don’t always support each other in musicals, are all integral to her show. Too bad poor sound quality on opening night sometimes impinged on both the singing and especially Anthony’s speaking voice.

In the hands of its no-nonsense proprietor, Novelette’s salon is the great equalizer. All stories are valued, and while overbearing clients must sometimes be put in their place, all women are welcome. That includes Suzy (Rae-Anna Maitland), a white woman with a son whose father is black.

Her presence initially foments resentment among other clients, but Suzy is eventually accepted. It’s a nicely engineered bit of writing by Anthony, who added the character long after the show debuted. Suzy is very much us, the mainly white audience, if we were to suddenly find ourselves in a black world. Our common humanity may connect us all, but whites and blacks, especially black women, also live radically different lives, have drastically divergent hopes and dreads, something Suzy learns most painfully when she takes her young son to visit her racist father.

Letty’s Salon of Beauty, it turns out, may treat all lives as things of equal grace, but that doesn’t erase the reality outside its door. Those mirrors on the salon’s walls (naturalistic set plus costumes by Cory Sincennes), in which we occasionally see the characters reflected, suggest that by reminding us that what we see isn’t necessarily what is.

Anthony’s story, which once or twice veers toward the didactic, includes other rich characters from the frisky, elderly Miss Enid (Brenda Phillips) to the tragic business woman Sherelle (Lennette Randall in a spellbinding portrayal) who’s so entrapped in a world of white, male power and family commitments that she’s vanishing bit by bit. Sherelle’s story of the weight of expectation that all women bear is one scarcely understood by men.

Despite Sherelle’s exceedingly dark story, ’da Kink, which is directed and choreographed by Marion J. Caffey with musical direction by S. Renee Clark, is ultimately a hopeful and generous piece of theatre. As Novelette tells Suzy, “It’s never too late to reinvent yourself.”

Continues until Nov. 5.

Tickets: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca


Novel House:

Reviewed by Iris Winston

Photo: Allan Mackey

Photo: Allan Mackey

Novel House

By Jayson McDonald

Blacksheep Theatre

Director: Dave Dawson

In Novel House, a family named Novel lives through the highs and lows of daily life, while family patriarch James Novel, a former greeting-card writer, attempts to write the great Canadian novel with a quill pen. The subject matter of said novel is his family. Therefore, James periodically steps out of the action to address the audience. Meanwhile, his ditzy wife, Mary, floats back and forth, incompetent but full of love for her family, and James’ crazy father, Geoffrey, lives through his memories and the ghosts of his past, personified in small appliances and lamps. (Don’t ask.)

Meanwhile, the relatively normal daughter of the house, Rebecca, introduces Thomas, the love of her life, to her parents and grandfather. Closest to a through line in Novel House is the course of the young couple’s romance and future, which follows their engagement, marriage, loss of their first child, separation and reconciliation. And the most — actually, the only — moving moments of this Blacksheep Theatre production are during the well-executed reconciliation between Rebecca (Whitney Richards) and Thomas (Tony Adams). (more…)

The Novel House: Misguided production of predictable play

Reviewed by Patrick Langston

Photo: Allan Mackey

Photo: Allan Mackey

The Novel House

By Jayson McDonald

Black Sheep Theatre at The Gladstone

Why bother?

That’s the question about Black Sheep Theatre’s misguided production of Ontario playwright Jayson McDonald’s tiresome family drama Novel House.

The plot – contrived and coy when it’s not simply inert – finds the jaunty writer James Novel (William Beddoe) working on – wait for it – the great Canadian novel in his rambling, leaky and apparently ghost-riddled home called Novel House. For reason that eluded at least me, Novel is writing his masterwork with a quill pen even though the setting is present-day.

We the audience are apparently reading the novel as he writes it. This allows him to address us directly from time to time before stepping back into the action of his novel which, if it tells the story of his and his family’s collective life, may not be a novel at all. Assuming you care to plumb things to that depth.

James’s wife Mary (Alexis Scott) is an annoyingly fidgety scatterbrain, but one who loves her husband and adult daughter Rebecca (Whitney Richards, who brings a welcome freshness to this dank show). There’s a cutely weird grandfather (James’ father Geoffrey, played by Jeffrey Lefebvre) who talks to a lamp and hangs out in a wardrobe (one keeps hoping he’ll be whisked away permanently to Narnia). Also on the scene: Thomas Winding, an earnest, whiny kind of guy played by the able Tony Adams, who marries Rebecca, almost fathers a child and does other stuff. (more…)

Ottawa’s weird and wonderful Fresh Meat theatre festival is a treat for daring audiences

Reviewed by Kat Fournier

The Fresh Meat Festival returns to Arts Court theatre for its fifth instalment. Were an unsuspecting audience member to stumble upon this event, it’d be one for the books. Fresh Meat is for fearless audience members who are looking for a taste of the experimental, unhinged and up-and-coming. The festival distinguishes itself as one that presents unbridled artistry from local theatre makers in the early stages of their careers. That these works are unpolished and presented with minimal set or costuming only adds to the atmosphere; the DIY aesthetic is met by truly experimental performances by Ottawa’s next generation of creators.

The Fresh Meat Festival runs two weekends, the second of which kicked off on Thursday October 20. During the second weekend of Fresh Meat 5, five shows run the gamut of theatrical styles, from self-reflective storytelling, to scripted sketch comedy, physical comedy and more. Across the board, the performances are comedic in nature. That’s where the comparison ends.

The evening opens with a performance by the winners of the 2016 Prix Rideau Awards for Outstanding New Creation for their 2016 Ottawa Fringe offering, Rideshares and Ropeswings. Catch Matt Hertendy and Matthew Venne’s succeeding show, Boy vs. Chair at Fresh Meat 5. The show is a disorienting stand-off between a man in a propeller hat and a not-so-inanimate, black chair. It’s a kind of parody of the common narrative convention that “things are not what they seem,” delivering to its audience a silly, peculiar and awkward story that is more rooted in the physical comedy of the two performers than it is in making itself understandable. What starts as a power struggle soon becomes a Bop-It! duel, then a reconciliation, then a choreographed pas-de-deux. Just kidding, they obviously aren’t dancers. Hertendy and Venne are advantaged by their awkward physical presences on stage, and this show will undoubtedly give you the giggles. (more…)

Dial M for Murder: Dialing A for show Murder

Reviewed by Iris Winston

Photo: Maria Vartanova

Photo: Maria Vartanova

Dial M for Murder

By Frederick Knott

Ottawa Little Theatre

Director: Margaret Harvey O’Kelly

When amateur theatre becomes amateurish, even a carefully constructed play suffers under the strain. Sadly, this is precisely what happens with Ottawa Little Theatre’s production of Frederick Knott’s 1952 drama Dial M for Murder.

Among the clues that this thriller is unlikely to thrill are the numerous lighting miscues that frequently draw laughter from the audience, awkward pauses and embarrassing silences that are the result of one of the actors forgetting his lines and the slow set changes. Further clues that the production is not working are a lack of apparent chemistry between the heroine and her erstwhile lover and the declamatory style of the villain of the piece.

All this is particularly depressing in the light of the obvious effort that is behind ensuring the accuracy of the period costuming by Gillian Siddiqui and the set design by Robin Riddihough.

More of a will-he-get-away-with-it than a traditional whodunit, Knott’s script is probably best remembered as the 1954 movie starring Grace Kelly and Ray Milland. And more than 60 years later, it can still work on stage as a recent production by the Perth Classic Theatre Festival demonstrated. (more…)

Fresh Meat: DIY Theatre Fest

Reviewed by Patrick Langston

The fifth annual Fresh Meat festival of local, DIY theatre features ten, 20-minute shows by established and emerging artists. The emphasis is on testing new ideas in front of audiences. Some past Fresh Meat shows have gone on to bigger venues including the undercurrents festival and the fringe circuit. The following opening night shows comprised the festival’s first of two weekends.

Space Jameration (Greg Houston Comedy). Houston is a stand-up comic eager to transition into more theatre-based performance. He’s not there yet. His autobiographically based piece, quite witty at times, hovers in a no-man’s land between stand-up and storytelling. Houston seems to know he’s not yet where he wants to be artistically, and his discomfort intrudes on the performance.

S.S. Lightbulb (Second Step). Three bumbling electricians are tasked with repairing an out-of-commission lighthouse during a storm at sea. They demonstrate zero technical competence, cower in fear at nature’s fury, and are shaken when they realize the danger that those at sea face. It’s an inconsequential show by emerging performers who love physical theatre but S.S. Lightbulb manages to remain mostly amusing and well-timed. (more…)

Romeo and Juliet REDUX: Classic play best left in original

Reviewed by Patrick Langston

Photo: David Whiteley

Photo: David Whiteley

Passion is all well and good, but too much of it wears pretty thin pretty fast. And too much is the central problem with David Whiteley’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s much-loved Romeo and Juliet.

Taking a cue from Peter Sellars’s chamber play version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream mounted at Stratford in 2014, Whiteley, who also directs, has boiled the tragic tale of young love and feuding families down to 80 minutes. For the most part, he’s cherry picked the play’s most intense moments – for example, falling in love, dust ups, and death scenes – and further distilled the play by using only four actors. The action takes place on a bare stage surrounded by white fabric, the stark minimalism of the set presumably meant to further focus our attention on the play’s emotional high points (Whiteley credits much of the set design to The Night Room by Winnipeg’s now-defunct Primus Theatre).

The problem is, with the connecting tissue between all those intense moments largely stripped out, the show feels like a synopsis set at a high boil. The storyline is well enough known that one can follow along, but what we see and hear are parts of a whole which signal too clearly that they are just parts.

There are other issues. (more…)

The Plough and the Stars contemporized

Reviewed by Jane Baldwin

Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Dublin’s renowned Abbey Theatre has brought a modernized production of Sean O’Casey’s four act drama The Plough and the Stars to the American Repertory Theatre. In keeping with today’s conventions, it is played as four scenes with one intermission. First performed in 1926, ten years after the Easter Uprising when outnumbered Irish nationalists attempted to drive out the British, the play deals with the horrors and uselessness of rebellion by showing its effects upon the working poor.

Seven of The Plough and the Stars’ fourteen characters are tenants of a rundown tenement where the play begins and ends. Nora (Kate Stanley Brennan) and Jack Clitheroe (Ian-Lloyd Anderson) are a young married couple whose financial circumstances are better than their neighbors because they are able to rent out a room in their flat to Jack’s communist cousin the Young Covey (Ciará O’Brian), and Peter Flynn (James Hayes), Nora’s uncle. Nora, in particular, has middle-class ambitions, as seen by her fancy hat and demeanor. Mrs. Gogan (Janet Moran), the second floor tenant is a gossipy widowed charwoman with a young tubercular daughter and baby. She is jealous of Nora’s attractiveness and comfortable life. Unlike the other women, Nora does not work. Mollser (Rachel Gleason), the sickly girl on the verge of death, is symbolic of society’s neglect of the impoverished. Bessie Burgess (Hilda Fay) is the third-floor neighbor, a tough Protestant Unionist and fruit vendor, often at odds with Mrs. Gogan. As the play draws towards its end, we see Bessie’s compassion.

Scene two takes place in a pub where the audience is introduced to the bartender (Ger Kelly) and the prostitute Rosie Redmond (Nyree Yergainharsian). Despite Rosie’s good looks and flirtatious manner, she has no customers. Most of the neighborhood men have gone to a meeting of the Irish Citizen Army. When the Covey enters, she tries to seduce him, but he runs off in fear. In 1926 Dublin, this scene was a shocker. After the meeting, the men enter the pub. Rosie finds a client in Fluther (David Ganly), a neighborhood carpenter, and they leave together. Jack forsakes his pregnant wife for the independence of Ireland. As he tells his soldier buddies, “Ireland is greater than a wife.” (more…)

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