Reviewer: Kat Fournier

Kat Fournier

A unified vision and deft artistic team make The Butcher a memorable play

Reviewed by Kat Fournier

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Photo: Andrew Alexander

An old man, clearly drugged, shows up at a police station wearing a Santa hat and military uniform. A meat hook skewering a lawyer’s business card hangs around his neck. This is the jumping off point for The Butcher by Nicolas Billon, playing now at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. It’s a pretty enticing teaser to begin with, but the real success of the play is the fact that it found its way into the hands of an impressive artistic team. From direction to design to acting – there are a lot of reasons that The Butcher just works but at the heart of it is a shared vision.

To reveal too much of the script is a disservice to future audiences, so suffice it to say: This is a play that is not what it appears to be at its inception. Playwright Billon weaves an unexpected and affecting story that weighs in on some heavy ideas, while rooting them in well-crafted characters. It’s the characters that drive the play, and here the cast rises to the occasion.

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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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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…)

Monstrous, or the Miscegenation Advantage, an important piece in undercurrents 2016

Reviewed by Kat Fournier

MG_8317The lights bathe a vast, empty stage. A massive projection screen is mounted along the back. Performer Sarah Waisvisz enters the stage from the audience, singing along with French singer Chantal Goya’s “Adieu les jolis foulards”, a version of the Martinique folk song, “Adieu foulard, adieu madras”. Waisvisz evokes a sense of nostalgia and longing, singing the song out to the audience with open arms. It isn’t until later that the audience will learn the full impact of this saccharine anthem.

Monstrous, or the Miscegenation Advantage is in part theatre, in part dance, and in part social provocation from Calalou Productions. It’s a true piece of auto-ethnography, inspired by the artist’s own Ph.D. level research into colonial interference in Caribbean literature. The script finds its footing in creator and performer Sarah Waisvisz’s own story. It is in part Sarah’s personal history as a multi-racial woman who traces her heritage back to the slave coast of West Africa. Here, dance plays a large role as Sarah embodies dance styles that reflect that history. Yet, the script also sets its sights on Sarah’s modern-day, lived experience as someone whose skin colour has been an unavoidable topic of discussion since birth. Waisvisz moves with intention and fluidity on the stage, though sometimes under-vocalizes her lines. Overall, she is dynamic and even a little mischievous. (more…)

Particle is a playful and complex homage to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves

Reviewed by Kat Fournier

Photo: Stéphanie Godin

Photo: Stéphanie Godin

A woman creeps her way onto the stage, holding a tattered book in her hands. The pages are so well-loved that the book is falling apart. She extends it to her audience and her mouth curves into words that might explain the book. But how can you put into words something as nuanced as our reaction to a piece of great literature?

Particle, co-created by Kristina Watt and Martha Ross, is a rumination on inspiration itself. This year, audiences have a chance to capture the World Premiere of this production at the undercurrents theatre festival.

At the centre of the play is Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves, but where you might expect a straight-forward adaptation, 100 Watt Productions sets its sites on the impossibility of wholly capturing the impact of art. Yet, through the lens of this cleverly conceptualized, metatheatrical production, Particle succeeds in inviting the audience to experience a delicate moment of shared understanding.

The stage layout features a prominent projector screen to its right where images of rolling waves are projected—a nod to the book that is at the heart of this production. The play features some basic set pieces, for example, a desk with a small bell and some clutter directly center, or a coat rack that stands at stage left. It’s all intentionally vague; the set is simply a play-ground for the characters. And these characters aren’t what they seem.

Actress Kristina Watt uses costumes (including exaggerated noses, lab coats, glasses and more) to take on various characters, and yet, these characters are heavily symbolic in nature. They are exaggerated and far from realistic—they are characters that Watt wears like a coat as she tries to home-in on the meaning behind Woolf’s enigmatic novel. Underneath the characters is another nameless, tenuous character that is just as present on stage, finding moments of silence to simply stare back at the audience. There’s a complex balance between what’s real and what’s not that Particle manages to capture, a credit to director Martha Ross. (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 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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GCTC’s Angel Square brings the good and the bad of post-war Ottawa to audiences

Reviewed by Kat Fournier

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Photo: Barb Gray

Solve the crime and win the girl’s heart, all in time for Christmas. Superficially, Angel Square presents a sweet holiday yarn, but just below the surface we get a glimpse at race politics through the eyes of children, and a hopeful depiction of Ottawa’s working class heritage. Brian Doyle’s classic novel by the same name is newly adapted and directed by Janet Irwin. The production recounts twelve-year-old Tommy’s memory of Lowertown, Ottawa (Ontario, Canada, Planet Earth, The Universe) in 1945. It is the first Christmas after World War II and the impact of the war—from war rations to a sense of post-war relief—peppers the script, while anti-Semitism rears its ugly head.

Tommy (played by Bruce Spinney) is gutted that his best Jewish friend, Sammy, has left town. Sammy’s father has been badly beaten up and sent to a hospital in Kingston. Inspired by his superhero idol, The Shadow, Tommy is determined to find the ‘bad guy’. Stylistically, this production rides the line between being a memory play and youth theatre. Janet Irwin’s adaptation maintains Tommy’s role as the narrator of the story, while thrusting him inside the action of the play as he recalls the events leading up to Christmas.

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TACTICS 2015: Highs and lows abound in interdisciplinary productions from emerging performers

Reviewed by Kat Fournier

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TACTICS is an independent, collective series that features work by emerging and professional performers. The plays occur in short runs ––no more than a week in length—and so audiences will have to rush to the theatre if they hope to catch the performances before the next shows take the stage. It goes without saying that original performances and emerging artistry are vital parts of a theatre community. With that mandate comes the potential for some really great or really bad theatre, and the first weekend of this TACTICS series exemplifies this divide.

The first show of the evening, (off) Balance, is the brain-child of Naomi Tessler who both wrote the piece, and acts in the production. The stage is fairly bare and a large, red cloth circle outlines the playing space. This one-woman, autobiographical piece employs monologue, dance, and a live music; the musician sits outside the red circle, and plays African drum and chimes alongside the performance. But even with the intervention of Bronwyn Steinberg’s direction and dramaturgy, the production is underwhelming.

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Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God at the NAC is an immersive, epic, must-see production

Reviewed by Kat Fournier

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Photo: Black Theatre Workshop

A chorus of ancestors pour down the aisles from the back of the orchestra and converge on stage, all the while their wordless song grows in intensity. From within that rising chorus of ancestors, Rainey Johnson (Lucinda Davis) mimes holding her infant daughter in her arms—a bundle of cloth that is pulled away from her. Rainey loses her young daughter, and the chorus of ancestors encircles her, their a cappella melody meet Rainey’s pain with a mournful song. Even the very first scene of the play will send shivers down your spine with its ability to be so deeply emotive, and yet so beautifully constructed.

The new season at the NAC has opened with Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God, and it sets a high standard for all that is to come. It is an immersive theatrical experience that blends theatre, dance, and song. The result is a seamless performance that is haunting in its depth of portrayal of the human experience of grief. What’s more, the play is equally lighthearted, finding humour and joy even in face of terrible pain. This is the power of Governor General Literary Award winner Djanet Sears’ impeccably crafted production.

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