Theatre Review on Ludwig van/Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life

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Photo by Dahlia Katz

Just published my review on the Ludwig van website of Musical Stage Company and Outside the March/ Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life, book, music & lyrics by Anika and Britta Johnson, directed by Mitchell Cushman, music director Elizabeth Braid, Heliconian Hall, Sept. 13 to Oct. 14. Tickets available at 1-888-324-6282 or DrSilverTO.ca.

Here’s the link. https://bit.ly/2IfSzAz.

Theatre Review: 4th Line Theatre 2018 – Who Killed Snow White? by Judith Thompson

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Photo by Wayne Eardley

The 4th Line Theatre bill of fare is typically jolly and/or whimsical, and always informative because of a tie-in to local historical happenings. (The outdoor summer theatre is located on a farm near Millbrook, Ontario.) The world premiere of Who Killed Snow White? by Judith Thompson is a radical departure. Thompson is a distinguished Canadian playwright who writes with her heart on her sleeve. Who Killed Snow White? addresses sexual assault, cyberbullying and teenage suicide head-on. In her program notes, Thompson says that the wellspring of the play was the heart-breaking life and death story of Rehteah Parsons, an infamous 2013 case of cyberbullying that made national headlines. The traditional 4th Line audience, who usually comes to the theatre for a good time, is going to find a serious treatment of a serious subject.

Thompson’s heroine is a young girl called Serena (Grace Thompson) whose life is presented from cradle to grave. By tracing Serena’s life story, clearly Thompson is trying to come to grips with why Serena is so overwhelmed and destroyed by being plastered over social media, that death is preferable to living. (The posted video shows Serena lying naked and unconscious being sexually assaulted by a trio of boys at a party.) Thompson hypothesizes that Serena has always been fragile. From her early years, she was sensitive and an outsider, which made her an easy target to be bullied by the more popular girls. In fact, Serena is devastated when her one and only friend Fancy (Cassandra Guthrie) ditches her to join the ruling clique. In her teenage years, Serena is still an outsider, but she has a support system. Fancy is back in her life, and the girls have a firm friend in the openly gay and fellow outsider Riley (Tom Keat). Yet, despite a loving family and loving friends, Serena cannot survive the onslaught of negative social media.

Photo by Wayne Eardley

The playwright tries to bring out many points of view. The narrator Ramona, Serena’s mother (Cynthia Ashperger) drives the telling of her daughter’s story with her rage, asking the audience if they can see where and how Serena’s fate was sealed. In Ramona’s powerful speeches, Thompson has embedded all the frustration, helplessness, despair and incomprehension that the tragedy has left within her. The parallel lives of the spoiled brothers, one of whom gives Serena the date rape drug, is also presented. Pratt (Steven Vlahos) and Dodge (Andrei Preda) are brought up to be manly men by their Uncle Si (Christian Lloyd), who speaks for the male state of entitlement. As police chief, Si makes the boy’s indiscretions go away. On the other hand, Dodge, who is against the assault of Serena, still supports his brother in the cover-up because family is more important than truth. Fancy’s grandmother Babe (Maja Ardal) represents the older generation of women, who as lesser vessels in society, learned to manage men. Doreen (Saskia Tomkins), the mother of Pratt and Dodge, is her sons’ enabler because, in denial, she sees them only as good boys. Rounding out the main cast are Vlad Khaimovich and Joseph Roper, who join with Pratt in taking part in Serena’s rape, and Mark Hiscox as Serena’s loving but ineffectual father.

Writing character has always been a Thompson forte, and there are strong portrayals in this play. In fact, the acting is excellent overall, with Ashperger and Grace Thompson (the playwright’s daughter) being standouts. Even though some of the monologues are obvious in message, and Thompson does use words as a cudgel to hit the audience over the head to make a point, there is no denying the fact that the play does pack a wallop.

Who Killed Snow White? is a vehicle that could be performed by just a few people in an empty school gymnasium. What is fascinating about this production is how director Kim Blackwell has opened it up to accommodate the main barnyard performing space and the fields beyond, with her actors ranging far and wide. Blackwell presents Serena’s story as a Greek tragedy, because, sadly, cyberbullying and teenage suicide have become a universal theme in today’s world. Set designer James McCoy has added a facade of a Greek colonnade onto the barn, with a further archway in the field. The stonework appears to be crumbling – a metaphor for a civilization in ruins, perhaps? Costume designer Meredith Hubbard has clothed the entire cast in white Greek-style tunics with wreaths of vine leaves for their hair. The uniformity of the stark visual concept works very well indeed.

Photo by Wayne Eardley

One of 4th Line’s charms is that it mounts productions with very large ensembles. A director can always round up a humungous cast that includes very young children right up to the older generation. A remarkable aspect of Who Killed Snow White? is that it features a company of 17 young people who represent the Greek Chorus, and Blackwell, working with choreographer Monica Dottor, has fashioned some very evocative movement patterns for them. For example, to represent the bullies, the Chorus is wedged into a phalanx that bears down on Serena. These young people are almost always on stage, either in the barnyard or in the field, shaped into some telling formation or other, and are a very strong visual component to the show.

There is none of the usual 4th Line live music in this production. Rather, the cinematic soundtrack that runs throughout includes an atmospheric score by composer Justin Hiscox and ambient sound by Esther Vincent. It is a rich background that adds depth, breadth and gravitas to the production. Taken together as a whole cloth, Who Killed Snow White? works on every level.

Photo by Wayne Eardley

And a few final notes. The program includes a flier from the Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre with a 24-hour help line, a timely feature indeed. In a conversation I overheard at intermission, two elderly gentlemen were talking about the play, and one of them said, “Isn’t it terrible the pressure young kids are under these days?” Clearly, he was getting Thompson’s message. At the very end of the play, which is a devastating recital by the cast of the names of young people who have killed themselves, I noticed that the middle-aged couple across from me, both the man and the woman, were wiping away tears. Blackwell’s leap of faith to mounting more serious fare such as Who Killed Snow White? has clearly touched the audience.

4th Line Theatre 2018, Who Killed Snow White? by Judith Thompson, Winslow Farm, Millbrook ON, Aug. 6 to 25.

 

 

Interview – Laura Nanni, artistic and managing director of SummerWorks Performance Festival

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Photo by Tanja Tiziana

INTRODUCTION

Laura Nanni, 38, is a mover and shaker in the arts. She is a curator, artist and producer, who since 2016, has been the artistic and managing director of the prestigious SummerWorks Performance Festival, Toronto’s annual curated showcase for contemporary new work in theatre, dance, music, live art and multidisciplinary productions. She has also been on the staff of some of the city’s most experimental forums such Nuit Blanche, the Rhubarb Festival and HATCH. Nanni’s wide background also includes front of house, stage management and programming experience with important arts organization such as the Stratford Festival, the Luminato Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. Her career also includes mentoring emerging producers and curators, most notably for the Banff Centre’s Leadership Development Program. Her own creative endeavours include performance and installation work, often site-specific, that has been presented across North America, the UK and Europe. Both artistically and administratively, the prime focus of Nanni’s career has been on experimentation, community building, and interdisciplinary collaboration.

As SummerWorks heads into its 28th season (Aug. 9 to 19), Nanni gave paulacitron.ca a wide-ranging interview about her relationship with the festival, and the festival’s relationship with the cultural scene in general.

THE INTERVIEW

Where did you study, and what was the wellspring of your career focus on arts experimentation?

I did my degree in theatre and visual studies at the University of Toronto. The epiphany for me was bluemouth inc.’s 2003 production of What the Thunder Said. We were blindfolded and taken on a bus to a warehouse. This site-specific work, a mix of dance, visuals and theatre, showed me the possibilities of what performance could be. I’ve been a passionate supporter of innovation ever since.

(Note: The devised work, What the Thunder Said, is the third part of the trilogy, Something About a River. It used the metaphor of the family to examine the political and emotional contradictions that face society today.)

How does SummerWorks contribute to experimentation?

 We help artists to realize new ideas, to take creative risks. We nurture innovation by creating spaces where they can experiment and find solutions. At the same time, artists can find something new about a piece that they didn’t know that they were looking for. Experimentation can often mean learning something new about yourself that can be unexpected or exciting.

What have you seen as key factors in your job?

Evolving a structure that can be sustainable for artists – not growing in size, but developing the artistic environment. And discovering who we are engaging with, and playing too. The ecology of SummerWorks has always been a platform that artists aspire to, and we must maintain that. The productions are multidisciplinary – we cover dance, music and hybrid works. We also have a very adventurous audience, and both are part of the mix. The festival is highly regarded nationally and internationally. We attract 30 to 50 presenters a year. These curators come to discover work to be shown elsewhere. I inherited an artistically strong entity. My job is to discover how we can improve on that strength by determining our platform needs.

You mention that you don’t want the festival to necessarily grow larger.

Because of increased volume, larger festivals can tend to embrace cookie cutter formats. In SummerWorks, we can address questions like, how can we be more nimble in addressing artist-specific needs? For example, does an artist want their work to evolve during the festival? Does a work need rehearsal time between shows? What spaces can support new technology? I believe we can keep reimagining our relationship with artists and be responsive to individual demands, while not forgetting that we are a place where artists, audiences and presenters want to come. We can be a resource for artists. We want to get better, not bigger by finding the right essence of evolution.

Part of the thrust of this year’s festival is reframing? What do you mean by that?

We have formalized practices that have been ongoing at the festival for some time by naming three official streams. This way the audience absolutely knows what they are getting. Presentations is the showcase of contemporary performances that have had extensive previous development or are touring productions. Lab is a place for work being shown at a crucial stage of development that needs to be performed before an audience. These artists are experimenting with form or new technology, and have feedback sessions with the audience. Exchange is for the industry and arts professionals, and includes such things as open studios, the presenting of early works, workshops, and meet the artists.

How do you choose the SummerWorks programming?

I read every application myself, and there is also a different multidisciplinary artistic advisory committee each year to help formulate the short list. There are even follow-up conversations with some applicants about their goals. The Lab is a special call project because of the special nature of these shows. Applicants identify the multi-genres that apply to their productions by checking discipline boxes. The emphasis overall is on new work, but obviously, the curating of what proposals rise to the top is more complex than that. How much dance and music should there be? You have to think about balance. What about the range of artistic forms? What conversations can develop between works? What can we learn from them? What connections can happen? Are we targeting specific audiences, and if so, how do we create an overlap? All these considerations play a part.

SummerWorks has waved the $700 participation fee. Is that not a big drain on your budget?

True, the fee did help defray infrastructure and production costs. We have certainly had to readjust the budget and the calibration of expenditures, and we are actively looking for a core sponsor or infrastructure donor. On the other hand, one of my key priorities is accessibility. Waiving the fee has encouraged a growth in the number of applicants, which shows that we are moving in the right direction by taking away that barrier. This year we had 300 applications, 50 more than last year. We want artists to take creative risks, not financial ones.

How else is accessibility manifesting itself?

This year we have an accessibility coordinator, Victoria Lacey, to oversee this aspect. All venues will have ASL interpretation and relaxed performances. We also have Tangled Art + Disability doing an audit. This is an organizations that presents the work of and enhances performing opportunities for artists with disabilities. They also provide consultancy services and examine cultural shifts concerning the disabled. How we can support artists, audiences and staff members identified as disabled, is part of our long-term discussions with Tangled Art. Accessibility is a multi-year commitment for us.

Can we talk about nuts and bolts, so to speak? How many shows, out of town productions, number of performances for each show, box office split, venues, ?

This year there are 32 productions equally split between Presentations and Lab. It happened that way organically. Five projects are from outside Toronto or international. Six shows are collaborations between Toronto-based artists with either Canadian or international artists. The average performance number for Lab productions is three, while Presentations have five showings. The artists get 70% of the box office, the festival 30%. There are two venues – three spaces at the Theatre Centre, and six spaces at the Toronto Media Arts Centre. The latter is a new cultural hub that is two floors under a condo on Lisgar, so, on the same street as the Theatre Centre. It is a home for media arts and new technology. We really wanted to centralize the festival footprint this year so people can get easily from one building to another.

It seems to me that being both artistic director and managing director is a huge job.

The structure is changing. Originally the board amalgamated the two jobs to make it a more fulsome fulltime position, with me as the only permanent employee. The rest of the staff is on contract. This year there will be a festival producer, Rosanna Lowton, who will stay on beyond the actual festival, and who will be my collaborator. Her responsibility will include management and operations. I will be in charge of artistic and strategic planning. The main point is, our jobs will be evolving together.

In summary, how would you define SummerWorks?

How we represent ourselves is important. My hope is that we will always remain responsive to the needs of the community, and that all change will happen with that in mind. At our heart, our core, is the possibility of performance – how performance is presented, created and experienced.

(SummerWorks Performance Festival runs Aug. 9 to 11 at the Theatre Centre and the Toronto Media Arts Centre.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Theatre Review/Blyth Festival 2018 – The New Canadian Curling Club by Mark Crawford

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Photo by Terry Manzo

Playwright Mark Crawford is a comedy genius. The Blyth Festival is featuring the world premiere of his The New Canadian Curling Club, and it is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Crawford’s wickedly funny and very clever one-liners just keep rolling off the stage. But here’s the kicker – the subject of the play is anything but funny, because the main theme is racism and prejudice, with searching questions about what makes someone a Canadian thrown in for good measure.

Crawford’s premise is brilliant. His setting is an unnamed, small, southern Ontario town in a rural backwater. (How small is it? It has only one Tim Horton’s.) Every such town has a woman of good deeds – in this case, Marlene, whom we never meet. It is Marlene’s brainchild to get the local curling club to host lessons for New Canadians on the assumption that learning this quintessential Canadian winter sport will help with integration. Unfortunately, Marlene slips on the ice and breaks her hip. The ringer she brings in is her bigoted, red neck ex-husband Stuart MacPhail (Lorne Kennedy), the club’s icemaker and Zamboni driver, and a former championship curler. Stuart is 7th generation Scottish descent, who even snubs his nose at the Dutch who closely followed his ancestors into the area. It never occurs to him that his family were once immigrants.

Two of the quartet of New Canadians who show up for the lessons are there out of loyalty to Marlene. Jamaican-born Marcia Johnson (Charmaine Bailey) is a good friend of Marlene’s and they belong to the same church. She ended up in the town because she met her Dutch-descent husband when he was on vacation in Jamaica. Even after 27 years, she has never been fully accepted into the fabric of the town. The designation “New” Canadian is laughable in her case. Marcia is the manager of the one and only Tim Horton’s. High school student Fatima Al-Sayeed (Parmida Vand) is a member of a Syrian refugee family whom Marlene’s church sponsored into Canada.

Photo by Terry Manzo

On the male side, South Asian Anoopjeet Singh (Omar Alex Khan) has been in Canada for seven years. He had grown up in a small town in India and wanted to find small town life again. He also wanted to get his wife and sons (one of whom is called Peter Mansbridge Singh) away from the suffocating control of their large extended families in Brampton. Anoopjeet works at Tim Horton’s, and he joins the lessons to cozy up to Marcia because an assistant manager’s job is coming up, and he desperately needs the promotion for financial reasons. Matthew Gin (Mike Chang) is a doctor from China who is a resident at the local hospital. He wants to build a warmer relationship with Stuart because his doctor fiancée is Stuart’s granddaughter, and needless to say, Stuart has never accepted the situation. (Matthew turns out to be the most promising curler because he is learning more from YouTube videos than from Stuart.)

It is on the curling club ice that collisions, both physical and metaphorical occur. From the very beginning of the play, Stuart hurls racial insults at the immigrants, and for a few uneasy moments after the lights go down, the discomfort of the audience is palpable. People even gasp. In this age of political correctness, what Stuart utters is absolutely outrageous and unacceptable. Some of his more printable slurs are referring to the group as the “international house of pancakes”, or “the gang from It’s a Small World”, or pointing out that he has a yellow, black and brown, so all he needs is a red. Mercifully, the audience can soon relax and enjoy the war of words because the unbowed if bloodied New Canadians stand up to Stuart and start getting their verbal licks in almost immediately. In fact, later in the play, they fire Stuart and elect Matthew as their instructor. It is interesting to note that prejudice, either overt or implied, also exists among the immigrants themselves. For example, Anoopjeet continually insults Matthew by seeing no difference between the Chinese and Koreans. For her part, Fatima won’t let Marcia drive her to her front door because she can’t let her father see that she is in a car with a black woman. The play is a clash of cultures on many levels.

How wonderful it is to have the great Lorne Kennedy back on stage. During his long and distinguished career at both the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, this gifted actor gave many memorable performances, and his portrayal of Stuart MacPhail must surely join that pantheon of honours. He skilfully portrays an appalling, narrow-minded, bitter, lonely man who literally has no redeeming virtues. Stuart snarls and barks at his so-called students, while he lords his white Canadianism over the newcomers. It’s laughable how this little man, in both stature and mind, sees himself as the one who belongs to the entitled class, and it is a testament to Kennedy’s consummate talent that his characterization never rings a false note.

The other roles are also well-defined and superbly acted. Chang’s intelligent Matthew shows just the right amount of anger and exasperation at the truculent and immovable Stuart. Khan’s role as Anoopjeet is blessed with the funniest lines in the play, and he is absolutely endearing in an earnest, bumbling way. It falls to Johnson to be the purveyor of sarcasm, and her Charmaine is one feisty lady. But then, she has been fighting for acceptance for 27 years. Vand does an excellent job as the timid and reserved Fatima who has to cope with language problems, yet she too holds her own against Stuart. Some of the funniest dialogue rises out of the miscommunication between Fatima and Stuart.

Photo by Terry Manzo

You can always count on old pro director Miles Potter to create great ensembles, and this is one of the delights of The New Canadian Curling Club. In this production Potter demonstrates, once again, his knack for putting real characters, dealing with real situations, on stage. We know these people – all of them, but then, Crawford has given Potter a lot to work with. Set designer Steve Lucas has pulled off a miracle. He has literally built a curling rink on the Blyth stage with a floor that looks likes actual slippery ice. This allows for physical comedy such as the newbie who slides down the ice leaving the rock behind, and, conversely, the person who can’t let go of the rock and is taken for a ride. Lucas has also created a mezzanine bar that overlooks the rink. It’s a terrific set all round.

Crawford has thrown in a few subplots to spice the mix, but The New Canadian Curling Club is essentially a play about character and ideas, and profound thoughts do lurk amid the hilarity. We cannot escape the question of identity, national and personal, or our role in the acceptance of newcomers that Crawford presents before us. In fact, the playwright’s intention is all the more prescient in this scary new age of growing populism. Yes, admittedly, we do laugh at political incorrectness in the play, but the shared laughter of the audience is over the absurdities of Stuart’s pronouncements. He is the one whose very words and attitudes make him look more the fool. Our laughter is not condoning Stuart’s racial slurs or the stereotypical hogwash he spouts, but, rather, we are recognizing just how very wrong-headed he is.

Because this is Blyth, there has to be the obligatory happy ending, and Crawford does verge dangerously close to the saccharine, but he does leave some dark clouds at the end. Even though the curse of racial prejudice is not solved in this play, yet, rapprochements are made.

Blyth Festival 2018, The New Canadian Curling Club by Michael Crawford, directed by Miles Potter, Blyth Memorial Hall, Blyth ON, Jun. 20 to Aug. 23, additional performances Sept. 18 to 21.

 

 

 

 

 

Luminato 2018 Theatre Review – Burning Doors/Belarus Free Theatre

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Belarus Free Theatre is an ironic name, because the renown company is anything but free in their own country where they are banned. In fact, when they do manage to perform there, they have to go underground. To inform their audience, they put up fliers in university washrooms. Belarus, apparently, is the last dictatorship left in Europe. The exiled company, founded in Minsk in 2005, now calls London home.

Clearly BFT is a company of dissent, and their production Burning Doors is like a bludgeon. Their modus operandi is to weave their plays around personal stories, the more harrowing, the better. Burning Doors has been inspired by Crimean-born, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who is in a Russian jail for 20 years on apparently trumped-up charges of terrorism; Russian performance artist and political activist Petr Pavlensky, infamous for sewing his mouth shut and nailing his scrotum to the pavement in Red Square in protest; and Maria Alyokhina, a member of the Russian feminist, anti-Putin, punk rock group Pussy Riot, who performs guerrilla concerts guaranteed to irritate the establishment. (The latter is actually a member of the cast). There is also a strong intellectual component with reference to the writings of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault, and French poet and surrealist Paul Eluard. BFT also cites Austrian expressionist painter Egon Schiele as an influence. In other words, pretty heady stuff as BFT delves into questions about art and dissent, freedom and oppression, and risk-taking and punishment.

How does Burning Doors play out? Well may you ask. The production is made up of a barrage of graphic scenes that depict arrest and detention, none of it very pretty, mixed in with quoted passages from the writers. Comic relief comes in the form of conversations between two Putin apparatchiks. It is rather amusing to hear them talk about how to deal with dissidents, such as Sentsov, Pavlensky and Alyokhina, interspersed with chats about what is better, a yacht or a private jet, and the relative merits of Picasso. The set contains a steel scaffold and a back wall with three cell doors, perhaps for each of the three activists. There are also livecam projections and news videos. The thundering drumbeat score has been composed by Alexander Lyulyakin, drummer with the Ukrainian band Boombox. The play is performed in Russian with excellent surtitles on the back wall.

BFT’s artistic directorship – Natalia Kaliada, Nicolai Khalezin and Vladimir Shcherban – prefers a gritty, realistic style of delivery enhanced by imaginative details. For example, the insidiousness of incessant police questioning is conveyed in a round-robin. Each of the four women portrays a seated prisoner being verbally hounded, and then stands up and becomes the relentless interrogator of the next woman, and so it continues around the circle. Burning Doors is not for the faint of heart. The scene where a naked prisoner is humiliated by being body searched is horribly uncomfortable to watch. At various times, the cast is beaten, tortured, kicked, choked, smothered, drowned, hoisted up by their arms, or have their stomachs stood on. There is long passage, seemingly endless, where a captor flings a prisoner around like a doll by repeatedly grabbing his neck and throwing him to the ground. The eight-member cast, who helped devise the play, are clearly supermen and women. The physicality required on the part of the performers is monumental, not to mention aerial skills for those strung up.

Every time I see a performance like Burning Doors, I realize, that despite all the injustices we have in Canada, we really are living in La La Land. “Pampered” is what an acquaintance called Canadians after the show. I’m sure very few people attending Burning Doors voted for Doug Ford. Who else is going to attend a hard-hitting, brutal, explicit production like this except lefties, or conservatives with a conscious? The tragedy of Burning Doors is that it is preaching to the converted, while the human rights of a huge swath of the world’s population are being eroded away.

As an after note, Burning Doors has a couple of interesting turns. Two-thirds of the way through the production, there is an impromptu Q&A with Alyokhina, who spent two years in prison for hooliganism, for a guerrilla rock concert that Pussy Riot staged in a Moscow cathedral to protest the Orthodox church’s support for Putin. And then, at the very end of the performance, the audience was given protest banners by the cast, and we were filmed by BFT shouting “Free Sentsov!” three times. And thus, life imitates art. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Luminato Festival 2018, Burning Doors, Belarus Free Theatre, devised and performed by the company, directed by Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada, Belarus Free Theatre, Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre, Jun. 20 to 24.