Reviewer: Patrick Langston

Patrick Langston
Patrick Langston is the theatre critic for the Ottawa Citizen. In addition to reviews of professional and the occasional community theatre production, he writes a monthly theatre column and previews of major shows for the Citizen. Patrick also writes for Ottawa Magazine, Carleton University Magazine, and Penguin Eggs -Canada's folk, roots and world music magazine. Patrick lives in Navan.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams: A fractious relationship

Reviewed by Patrick Langston

Photo: Colin Furlong as Joey Smallwood. Credit: Paul Daly

Joey Smallwood, the diminutive guy who led Newfoundland into Confederation in 1949:  with a subject like that, audience members for The Colony of Unrequited Dreams could be forgiven for fearing an evening of excruciating boredom.

They would also be proven dead wrong.

Adapted by Robert Chafe from Wayne Johnston’s celebrated 1998 historical novel of the same name, the play is an enthralling glimpse into the heart of the earnest and tenacious Smallwood, into the soul of his beloved Newfoundland, and into Smallwood’s complicated relationship with a caustic newspaper columnist named Sheilagh Fielding.

Directed here by Jillian Keiley (herself a native Newfoundlander) with especially thoughtful attention to pacing, the story hums along so fluidly that you’re scarcely aware that three hours have elapsed when Smallwood finally attains his dream, Fielding reaches a goal of a different kind, and issues of identity, family, love and loneliness settle into their ultimately unresolvable conclusion.

Politics and the personal are inextricably woven together in this show’s vision of Joey Smallwood, played with a buoyant sense of mission, principle and rabble-rousing fearlessness by Colin Furlong. We meet Smallwood when he is a young man determined to carve out an influential place for himself in a Newfoundland where the old boys’ network and corruption are endemic in government. Doubtless partly in reaction to his father (Steve O‘Connell), an alcoholic whose life is a string of might-have-beens, Smallwood never meets a challenge that he won’t wade into like an up-and-coming welterweight. (more…)

Other Desert Cities at the OLT. A Compelling Family drama!

Reviewed by Patrick Langston

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Photo: Maria Vartanova

Other Desert Cities By Jon Robin Baitz, directed by Geoff Gruson.

In case you hadn’t noticed, truth is slippery. Everyone has his or her own version of it, as Donald Trump demonstrates almost daily. Playwright Jon Robin Baitz has made that slipperiness – and the crazy-making process of trying to grab hold of it – a principal theme in his compelling 2010 family drama, Other Desert Cities.

Set in Christmas-season California during the mid-2000s, the play finds two generations of the Wyeth family grappling with multiple truths – from matters of personal motivation to what the Republican Party truly represents – after 30-something, left-leaning daughter/author Brooke (Venetia Lawless) writes a memoir about the dark side of her family. The book is awaiting publication, and the potential of public exposure terrifies her parents Polly (Jane Morris) and Lyman (Robert Hicks), who years ago made a killing in the movie business and have gone on to a prominent role in conservative social and political circles.

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Trudeau Stories: A fondly funny look back in time.

Reviewed by Patrick Langston

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Photo: Kelly Clipperton

Trudeau Stories By Brooke Johnson, Great Canadian Theatre Company Directed by Allyson McMackon

Pierre Elliott Trudeau may have been a kind of sorcerer, a shape-shifter and ultimately unknowable, to public affairs writer Richard Gwyn, who titled his 1980 book about the former prime minister The Northern Magus: Trudeau and Canada.

To Brooke Johnson, 40 years Trudeau’s junior, he was a friend, an occasional swimming and hiking companion, a man who once slid down an icy Montreal street with her shouting “Whee!”

Johnson relates the course of that unlikely friendship, one that began in 1985 when she was a theatre student at Montreal’s National Theatre School but which inevitably dimmed in the years that followed because of the busy life each was leading, in her finely sculpted, one-woman show Trudeau Stories.

A mix of storytelling and performance, the show is a compelling, clear-eyed and often fondly funny look back at a time when Johnson was a young artist searching for direction and identity and when Trudeau had left politics to return to the practice of law but had lost none of the insatiable curiosity, cerebral horsepower, and blend of public display and closely guarded privacy that marked his years at the helm of the federal Liberal party.

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A Christmas Carol at the NAC: NAC English Theatre finds fresh perspective in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol

Reviewed by Patrick Langston

Final Review posted by Patrick Langston in the Ottawa Citizen!!   December 17, 2016.  PatrickLangston  We wish him well.

A Christmas Carol at NAC English Theatre

A Christmas Carol at NAC English Theatre Photographer: John Lauener / –

Bringing Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to the stage is a risky business. The story is as well known as that of Adam and Eve – indeed, there’s something of The Fall and subsequent Redemption in Ebenezer Scrooge’s journey from innocent boyhood to miserly misery and finally into bliss – and finding a fresh interpretation of Dickens’s tale can be tough.

The NAC English Theatre’s production of A Christmas Carol, newly adapted by director Jillian Keiley and starring Andy Jones as Scrooge, finds that fresh perspective and does so with élan.

At the centre of the production is Bretta Gerecke’s startling design. She’s cast the set, which is minimal to the max, in a cold, snowy white and done the same with costumes including wigs. There’s little to no colour in this world because there’s none in Scrooge’s wizened one, and Gerecke’s design choices reminds us that we are seeing the world through Scrooge’s chilly gaze. The vitality and warmth of the other characters in the story – and, of course, Scrooge’s own growing humanity as he visits Christmases past, present and yet-to-come – are what give this frozen world colour.

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’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

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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…)

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…)

Spring Awakening: The Musical – Authenticity Permeates the Show

Reviewed by Patrick Langston

Spring Awakening: The Musical, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 German play, is about many things: coming of age amid sexual and other late 19th century bourgeois repressions; the chasm between generations; the sometimes dire consequences of challenging the prevailing social ethos.

As well – and this seems especially important in light of our own era’s cynicism and our confused sense of what’s real and what’s merely artifice (our digital lives, for example) – the show is about trust and authenticity. It’s about discovering and trusting who one really is, finding the determination to live authentically in the face of a social order deeply opposed to the individual’s need for self-expression, love, sexual connection.

You may know the storyline already. In a nutshell, a group of young people find themselves severely constrained by their society, their church, their families. Hypocrisy, cruelty and power call the shots, causing some of the young people to crumble but others to assert their individuality and pursue what they perceive as right. The narrative, with its rock/pop score, is fundamentally dark despite the unfortunate Hollywood ending tacked on in keeping with the tradition of musicals.

Orpheus’ rendering of this story is rewarding on many levels, but it is the sense of trust and authenticity permeating the show that shines most brightly. For that, choreographer Lola Ryan deserves special applause. (more…)

How iRan: A thoughtful and intriguing production

Reviewed by Patrick Langston

Disruption and reconstruction: That’s the experience of regular immigrants and refugees alike as their lives are first scrambled and then rebuilt in a new land. It’s also to some extent what those in the host country experience as the existence they’ve always known is challenged by people with different perspectives, beliefs and languages.

Now disruption and reconstruction come to the Ottawa Public Library’s main branch thanks to How iRan, a site-specific iPod play – well, actually three plays – by Calgary-based playwright Ken Cameron. The Ottawa Fringe Festival is presenting the production.

Based on interviews with new Canadians and a prisoner of conscience, Cameron’s text is about an Iranian man named Ramin who leaves behind his wife and son when he comes to Canada. Once here, he lands a job as a security guard in a library where he meets the librarian Emily. Complications, some serious and some humorous, ensue including the eventual arrival of his son Hossein and Ramin’s wife.

Cameron, who also directs, has made an audio recording of the narrative, which is played out in 25 scenes. He’s put the play on three differently coloured iPods, each containing about one-third of the entire piece. Audience members get an iPod with the narrative order shuffled and then, prompted by the recording, go to different stations in the library to listen to scenes in a random order. In effect, each audience member hears a customized play. (more…)