Reviewer: Maja Stefanovska

Maja Stefanovska
Born in Bosnia and Herzegovina to a political journalist father and arts critic mother (Rajka Stevanovska) , Maja has been immersed in the performing arts since she could barely walk and learned very early on to look upon works with a critical eye. She has a Master's degree in communication and currently works for the government in her field, as well as writing theater reviews on the side.

Lara Loves Leonard

Reviewed by Maja Stefanovska

Lara Loves Leonard is a real gem at the 2015 Ottawa Fringe Festival. Lara MacMillan performs parts of Cohen’s poems and songs such an infectious passion that she elevates the already great artist’s work. Her interpretations of Cohen’s songs are emotional and sensually sultry. Her diction and pacing while reciting the artist’s poetry allow the words to seep into your very skin. MacMillan knows just how much time to give each word and each pause. She leaves you hanging on a word, desperate for her to continue, to fill you with the emotion she so readily shares through her craft and talent. Everything is so precise when it comes to MacMillan’s performance, from her diction to her movements.

She intersperses the songs and poetry with personal anecdotes of how a particular songs affected her. However, she maintains a balance between the three elements so the show, even though it’s just her standing on stage, never feels stilted or boring. It helps that MacMillan has such an expressive face and oozes charisma. This is a performer you want to get lost in; you want to be taken along on her journeys. This is a performance you wish didn’t have to end after only one hour.

For those who love Leonard Cohen, and for those who wish to be carried away and feel something extra, this is the show for you. Wonderfully put together with

Lara Loves Leonard plays at Studio Léonard Beaulne

Hannah & George

Reviewed by Maja Stefanovska

Photo: Cory Thibert

Photo: Cory Thibert

Strange VIsitations’ production, Hannah & George, is typical Fringe fare. George is a “loser” type looking for love and Hannah is his invisible, magic fairy who adores him. Although he barely gives her time time of day, she helps him any chance she has. Kevin Reid, Madeleine Hall, and Hannah Laviolette all deliver solid performances. It’s a show with hardly any words, so the onus is on their facial expressions and body language to pick up the slack and they succeeds. The set is also very cute and functional. Yet, despite the solid performances, the show still fails to impress because the storyline and the characters don’t seem well thought out.

To put it simply, George is a jerk. He continually ignores Hannah and is quite cruel to her. Hannah, on the other hand, will do anything to get just a smidgen of his love, even changing her fundamental self by removing her magic wings. By the end, it’s easy to feel for Hannah. The audience finds itself hoping that she rejects George and finds someone worthy of her, someone who actually loves her.

Likewise, there were several superfluous elements that bogged the production down. In a show of 60 minutes, it doesn’t make sense why there is an intermission and, while a kind gesture, bribing the audience with candy doesn’t really add anything. Likewise, Rebecca Laviolette’s character, the stage manager, doesn’t have a purpose, other than to show just how incompetent George is, which is needless; he does that quite well himself.

Overall, a cute idea with poor execution.

 

Hannah & George plays at Studio Léonard Beaulne

The Untitled Sam Mullins Project

Reviewed by Maja Stefanovska

Press photo courtesy Ottawa Fringe.

Press photo courtesy Ottawa Fringe.

Sam Mullins tells personal, sometimes painful, and often funny stories ripped from his own life. For all his self-deprecating comments about being a bad actor, he promises, with a bit of work, to become a great storyteller. His show, The Untitled Sam Mullins Project, is framed around four truths he is told to write down in a comedy workshop. They are that “embarrassing things always happen to me,” “I will never find love,” “life is fleeting,” “I’m in a perpetual state of panic.”

The stories he weaves around these truths have the raw content to be poignant and  Mullens’ stage presence is nothing short of captivating. He moves about and fills up the space, both with his movements and his personality. His diction is exceptional, but sometimes the pacing is a bit stilted. Likewise, some of the stories still need further shaping. Some, like the one dealing with love, have potential, but lack direction in their current state. Mullins notices patterns in his life when it comes to love, but doesn’t do much with them, making the story feel unfinished. Others, like the one dealing with the fleeting nature of life, go on a bit long.  (more…)

Take Me Back to Jefferson: Theatre Smith-Gilmour puts on a highly enjoyably production

Reviewed by Maja Stefanovska

Photo: Katherine Fleitas

Photo: Katherine Fleitas

William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying is a complex work of fiction. Part tragi-comedy, part scathing critique of American society, and a large part philosophy, the story is told in 59 chapters through no less than 15 characters, mostly through internal monologue. I consider myself a fairly open-minded person, but if you were to tell me that you wanted to stage this as a play told through mostly physical actions, I would likely send you to the nearest doctor. Therefore, it was with trepidation that I sat to watch Theatre Smith-Gilmour’s adaptation, Take Me Back to Jefferson. Luckily for me, I was in for a very pleasant surprise. While not flawless, the production grapples masterfully with the source material and shows an understanding of its own medium and strength that could enrich the story that is rare to see.

As the play begins, Addie Bunden (Michele Smith) lays dying in her bedroom on the family farm in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Her carpenter son, Cash (Dan Watson), nosily building her coffin in the near vicinity. When she dies, the entire family – daughter Dewy Dell (Nina Gilmour); sons Cash, Darl (Julian de Zotti), and Jewel (Ben Muir); and husband Anse (Dean Gilmour) – set out in the family wagon to honour her death wish, to be buried in her home town of Jefferson. The family is confronted with almost every piece of bad luck possible on the nine-day journey, but they persevere, some out of a duty to their mother, but most for their own, not so considerate reasons.  (more…)

Marion Bridge: Engaging production shows humanity

Reviewed by Maja Stefanovska

Photo: Jennifer Scrivens / Resonate Photography

Photo: Jennifer Scrivens / Resonate Photography

According to the Director’s Notes, Marion Bridge is about three East Coast women trying to tell their own story, and to get that story straight. Of course, the difficulty in getting any story straight is the myriad of personal details and emotions we keep locked up inside. The more we lock ourselves up, the easier it is to misunderstand and pass over each other’s perspectives, even if we’ve technically lived the same experiences. Marion Bridge is yet another dark comedy about a highly dysfunctional family. Stories like these are a dime a dozen. However, the heartwarming production of Marion Bridge differentiates itself by truly focusing on the humanity of its subjects – flaws, misunderstandings, and inner worlds. The production is engaging and compelling with the different aspects coming together to form a heart-warming whole.

The three sisters in Marion Bridge are brought together in Cape Breton in order to be with their dying mother. From the moment the play opens, the tension between them is palpable. Each of them, Agnes, Theresa, and Louise, carries her pain in a different way. Agnes (a furiously sarcastic Robin Guy) shields herself in alcohol and irony while struggling to make it as an actress in Toronto. Theresa (a restrained Shawna Pasini) is a nun who lives a cloistered life and blankets herself in responsibility. She is wound up so tightly that one gets the impression that event the slightest relaxation would find her crumbed on the floor. Louise (a wonderfully direct Cindy Beaton), the “strange one” of the family, lives in her own world of daytime television. As the story progresses and the women are faced with more obstacles (dinner with their estranged father, the death of their mother, etc), chinks begin appearing in their armour, bringing them closer together.  (more…)

Narnia: A flawed production with lots of spirit

Reviewed by Maja Stefanovska

NarniaEarly on in Narnia, a cranky housekeeper tells the four Pevensie children, sent to the English countryside during World War Two, that they all “have that ‘I’m going to explore Marbleton Manor’ look. Forget it. The Age of Exploration is over. Understood?” Thankfully, the four completely ignore her and, as a result, are transported to the magical world of Narnia. The story, by C.S. Lewis, is a childhood classic and combines allegory and adventure into an exciting and thought-provoking work. It’s a big bite for any company to take and 9Th Hour Theatre makes a valiant effort with the complex, often quite dark subject matter. The performance has its flaws, but manages to respect the depth of Lewis’ work while still keeping it appropriate and fun for the younger members of the audience.

The story takes the Pevensie children – Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy – to the land of Narnia, a frozen wasteland of perpetual winter (but never Christmas) ruled by the White Witch, Queen Jadis (a wonderfully expressive, over-the top Gabrielle Lalonde). After stumbling into this land, the four meet magical talking animals, as well as their once king, Aslan. The children are informed of a prophecy stating that, as sons of Adam and Eve, they are to be the future kings and queens of Narnia. They join the revolution and, with the help of Aslan, defeat the White Witch. Other than an entertaining adventure, the story is also an allegory for Christ’s sacrifice. Aslan gives his life for the wayward Edmund, who betrays his siblings and joins the White Witch, becoming her prisoner. (more…)

Ashes to Ashes: Unicorn Theatre does justice to the haunting work

Reviewed by Maja Stefanovska

On particularly dark days when I have binged too long on depressing world news or, as I am wont to do, taken a tumble down the darker holes of historical reading, a rather grim mood settles over me. In such cheerless moments, optimism becomes harder to summon and thoughts about the way we live and our never-ending ability to hurt one another start spinning. At first glance, Harold Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes seems like the wrong play for me. A layered, disturbing work that touches obliquely on the Holocaust and, by extension, all of human history, it seems downright depressing. However, as horrifying as references to “babies being ripped out of their mother’s hands” by one of the main characters are, plays like Ashes to Ashes are a secret weapon against depression and pessimism. This is because Ashes to Ashes, while touching on the horrors of history, is at its core a play about our ability, whether innate or through an artistic medium such as theater, to empathize with our fellow humans, even if we haven’t suffered as they have. The more ability we have to understand others, the less of a chance there is that we will continue being the victims of history. Directed by University of Ottawa MFA Directing Candidate James Richardson and supervised by Dragana Varagić, Unicorn Theater’s production is haunting and stays with you long after you’ve left the theater.

Two characters, Rebecca and Devlin, confront each other in a lamp lit room. Their relationship is intentionally murky (is he a lover? therapist?) as he interrogates her about a violent, sexually dominant past lover. Rebecca’s answers are elliptical and often seem meandering. She answers his questions with more questions or non-sequiturs. Of course, when critiquing a production of Ashes to Ashes, it is imperative to remember that this isn’t a play about characters, but about ideas. Devlin and Rebecca are concrete entities which serve to house abstract ideas. Devlin, as mannered as he is, represents the aggressor through his relentless questioning. History for him is something entirely separate from himself, something to be compartmentalized, academically understood, and dragged from Rebecca if necessary. Rebecca, on the other hand, represents history’s empathetic subject. She identifies with both its victims and aggressors through her empathy, becoming an echo for its horrors as she slips in and out of memories that strongly suggest the deportation and interning of Jews in concentration camps during the Holocaust. Rebecca’s experience culminates as she is transformed into one of the women whose children are torn away on the train platform, while Devlin’s aggression grows until his apex echoes the violent actions of her former lover. (more…)

The Importance of Being Earnest: The audience is repeatedly beaten with slapstick humour.

Reviewed by Maja Stefanovska

Photo: Andree Lanthier

Photo: Andree Lanthier

Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, is a biting satire of Victorian artifice. You wouldn’t think a play criticizing a society where appearance trumps substance, so close to our own image-obsessed society, would require too much tweaking. What makes this play so funny, other than Wilde’s mastery of language, is precisely that it works within the social conventions of late Victorian London. The play works best when the characters let their actions speak for themselves, without added trappings. I talk a lot about directors’ seeming lack of faith in their audience’s ability to get and be amused by a more subtle type of comedy. It often feels like there’s a fear that, unless we’re repeatedly beaten with slapstick-type humour (with side-winks, just in case we forget to laugh), we will fall asleep in our seats. Ted Dykstra’s version of The Importance of Being Earnest falls into this category, as he inserts needless physicality and self-reflexiveness in the presentation. This denies the play its gravitas by reducing it to something trivial and renders the production forgettable.

The Importance of Being Earnest is a story about two friends, Algernon (Alex McCooeye) and his friend Jack (Christopher Morris) who, having little else to do in their privileged lives, make up imaginary friends and relations in order to get away from real-life ones, who they can’t stand. The characters in this version of The Importance of Being Earnest roll their eyes, throw muffins at each other, and, most inappropriate of all, hide under the skirts of their beloveds in the presence of the latter’s (very proper) mother. They leap over settees and foot stools in a way that would have undoubtedly gotten them thrown into Bedlam in a second.  (more…)

The Hunchbacks of Notre Dame Misses the Mark

Reviewed by Maja Stefanovska

Photo by Under the Table

Photo by Under the Table

The idea of a play within a play, like Under the Table’s The Hunchbacks of Notre Dame, is not a new concept. Neither is the concept of artistic awkwardness in order to make a point. Indeed, we see this latter technique in almost every commercial these days. All this to say that, in order for these elements to work well and seem fresh, they really have to come together in a natural and artistic way. Under the Table’s performance of The Hunchback’s of Notre Dame missed the mark. Instead of being funny and provocative, it ended up just being awkward and tiring, despite the three actors’ abilities, which were considerable.

The Hunchbacks of Notre Dame, created and performed by Matt Chapman, Josh Matthews, and Sarah Petersiel is the story of the Hunchinson Family Players, a theatre troupe of hunchbacked siblings trying to make it big with their misguided adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. No matter that neither Johann (Matt Chapman) or Hilda (Sarah Petersiel) can remember the author’s name, or that Johann is more focused on selling merchandise than anything else. Poor Paul’s (Josh Matthews) vision, such as it is, keeps getting crumbling until it finally explodes in an epic way.  (more…)

The School for Wives: Brilliantly directed production of a hilariously modern translation

Reviewed by Maja Stefanovska

Photo by Erin Finn

Photo by Erin Finn

If there’s one conversation I have had over and over again with fellow theatre lovers and critics, it’s on how to attract younger audiences to the theatre. Do you make theatre going mandatory in elementary schools? Do you change your advertising? How about we entirely update classics while keeping the period costumes and staying true to the original context instead? While we’re at it, let’s also translate the play to make it relevant for today, but ensure that it respects the complexity of language and ideas of the original. If possible, let’s also put in an homage to the 17th century rhyming scheme. Just, you know, make it sound like prose and keep our attention.

Seems like a lot to ask, doesn’t it? I’m going to be honest here. When I heard that Polsive and Seven Thirty Productions was putting on The School for Wives as translated by David Whiteley, I proceeded with caution and a heavy dose of fear. They say experience shapes our perceptions and I’ve seen one too many awkward “modernized” adaptations and translations of classics to avoid the gut reaction. Imagine my growing joy, then, as I realized the genius of the translation and direction in this production. Whiteley and director John P. Kelly have come together to create a work of art that is modern while still remaining reverent of the original. They’ve managed to capture Molière’s sense of humour and sharp critique of society and make it relevant for today’s audiences, young and old alike.  (more…)

Past Reviews