Dance Review – DanceWorks/Jackie Burroughs is Dead & what are you going to do about it?, choreographed by DA Hoskins

hoskins1DA Hoskins usually creates busy pieces inspired by sophisticated intellectual inquiry. Elaborate is a good word to describe his epics that employ text, sets, and visual media, all rooted in a deep emotional base that pervades his choreography.  Jackie Burroughs is Dead & what are you going to do about it? has Hoskins going back to the basics. Three dancers, an empty stage, and a live musicmaker are the sum total of the forces employed to express this work.

The piece was commissioned by Danielle Baskerville, who was also one of the performers. As I have said countless times in my dance reviews, Baskerville is one of the best dance artists in the country, stunning in both skill and presence. In this work she was joined by Luke Garwood and Robert Kingsbury, two senior dancers of excellence. Hoskins needed three strong performers for this piece because it is naked and unadorned. No bells, no whistles – just dance.

Hoskins explains in his program notes that the commission came at a very fragile time in his life. His mother was diagnosed with the breast cancer that would ultimately kill her, while acclaimed actress Jackie Burroughs, an icon of Canada’s cultural community whom Hoskins admired greatly, died at too early an age. It appears that the very thought of mortality drove Hoskins back to exploring pure physicality. After all, movement is primal and dance expression comes out of the very fibre of our beings. Weighed down by the theme, he needed the simplicity of pure dance.

hoskins2When the audience entered, they found the three dancers on stage in their “good clothes”, the men in suits and ties, and Baskerville in a dress and high heels. The trio drifted quietly around, engaging members of the audience and each other in polite conversation. In the Q&A that followed the performance, Hoskins revealed that he envisioned the dancers as mourners greeting their visitors. The trio did leave the stage to change into casual clothes to perform the work, and in doing so, they signalled the move from a public world to a private one.

What followed was a dance of quiet reflection. As Hoskins noted in the program, his recent painful experiences dictated that he stay as far away from emotionalism as possible. Apparently, to engage in an outpouring of feeling would be too raw. To call the dance passionless is a bit unfair, but in truth, the dancers deliberately kept their faces devoid of expression. Instead, Hoskins allowed the purity of the physicality to speak of the inner turmoil that was buried beneath.

For example, there were many repetitions within the work, but each time they appeared, the movement was executed with a different tempo or rhythm, and it was these subtle shifts that spoke volumes through their nuance. It wasn’t just a body moving through space, but a body that hinted that the seeming calm and control were superficial. For me, the overall mood of introspection that Hoskins imposed, was in truth, a quest for tranquillity.

The movement was built around constrained torso and arms, distorted positioning and slow tortuous turns. There seemed to be a physical battle between control and balance. This perpetual motion, so to speak, was punctuated by walking and sitting, observing and interacting, sometimes in sync, other times in independent pathways. The three, in their shifting patterns, imbued a restless energy to the dance, although the movement itself was always measured and never forced. Occasionally there would be a break-out, such as throwing the body into a horizontal roll across the floor, but it was tame rather than violent. Although there was intra-gender partnering, in truth, there were ever just three solitudes on the stage, exchanging energy, but always on an interior plane.

hoskins3Musician Christopher Willes sat off to the side with his various electrified apparatus. One astonishing instrument seemed to be a tin can wired for sound into which Willes put what looked like wooden sticks, with each stick igniting a pinging sound when it entered the can. The abstract noises – drones and buzzes and the like – were as controlled as the dance. Nothing jarred. Together, the soundscape and the movement created a rarefied atmosphere suitable for reflection.

I am not sure, however, that Hoskins’ decision to seat the audience on three sides of the stage, presumably to make the dance seem more intimate, was a good idea. For me, the focus of the dance was splintered. In fact, I felt alienated at times when a dancer was distant from me. The three would have had a stronger impact if there had been a single point of view with the audience grouped together.

Nonetheless, in this work, Hoskins created absorbing physicality that managed to depict both overt introspection, as well as undercurrents of suppressed emotion. This piece ran deep.

Jackie Burroughs is Dead & what are you going to do about it? choreographed by DA Hoskins, presented by DanceWorks, Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Apr. 7 to 9, 2016.



Theatre Review – Modern Times/Theatre Centre – Bahram Beyzaie’s The Death of the King

death-of-the-king3.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterboxSince 1989, Modern Times Stage Company has come to stand for elegance of expression. Its productions are spare and passionate, whether the plays are original, classical or international. Co-artistic directors Soheil Parsa and Peter Farbridge believe in content that says something about and to humanity at large. As a result, there is a timeless quality to a Modern Times production. If I had to sum up the company in one word, it would be universality.

The Death of the King by Iranian-born, California-based playwright Bahram Beyzaie is vintage Modern Times. Its impact is part classical Greek Theatre (in its declamatory style), partly Pirandello (in its shifting reality of what is truth), and partly Scheherazade (in terms of storytelling as a way of staying alive). In the larger picture that Beyzaie presents, the play asks more questions than it answers.

death.king1The playwright has taken a real-life historical incident from Persia’s past as his wellspring for inspiration. In the seventh century CE, Arab conquerors, missionaries of the Moslem faith, overran Persia, chasing out both the ruling King Yazdgerd and the state Zoroastrian religion. The king apparently was a coward, hiding from both his own people and the Arab invaders. History records that Yazdgerd’s body was finally found by his courtiers in an out-of-the-way flourmill. The miller was then charged with the king’s murder.

Beyzaie begins his play with the discovery of the king’s body. There are two groups of protagonists. On one side are the miller (Ron Kennell), his wife (Jani Lauzon) and his daughter (Bahareh Yaraghi). Ranged against these poor peasants are the Commander (Carlos González-Vio), the Corporal (Sean Baek), the Private (Colin Doyle), and the Zoroastrian Priest (Steven Bush). As per Modern Times custom, the cast is multicultural which adds to the universality of the theme.

The playwright builds his dialogue upon the ever-shifting stories that the miller’s family keeps spinning. In fact, there are more twists and turns than a pretzel, leaving the king’s forces swinging in the wind as to what to believe. What was at first an easy and obvious summary judgement, that the miller killed the king for the riches that he carried, in time becomes a gigantic miasma of truths and untruths. At one point, there is an idea afloat that the dead man might not even be the king!

In the meantime, the audience learns about the almost farcical relationship between the king and his ministers, as well as the toxic dynamics within the miller’s family itself. Also explored is the unequal bond between the ruler and those ruled, the powerful against the powerless. In the search for truth, justice depends on your rank in society. As per the accuracy of history, it is recorded categorically that the miller is the murderer, but Beyzaie presents a multitude of other scenarios relating to the killing that could have ensued, and presents a parade of other motives for the killing beyond mere greed. Beyzaie’s various theme explorations might sound heavy-duty, but the playwright has scripted in surprising bouts of humour as well as peppering the dialogue with soupçons of irony and sarcasm.

death.king2Parsa has directed the play like a Greek tragedy. The actors pronounce their words in great oratory style. When each person speaks, they are given complete focus. There is a minimum of movement, and what there is, accents the dramatic outpourings. On opening night there were some fluffed lines and uneven pacing (particularly the priest), but then Beyzaie has written a torrent of words. This is meaty stuff, and Parsa gives the dialogue full weight.

The women excel. Lauzon gives a performance of a lifetime as the bitter wife, while Yaraghi’s fragility is beautifully detailed. Kennell’s miller goes through the most changes, and the actor carries both the humour and the horror with aplomb. All three military men hold their own, and Parsa has included stage business which accentuates their seize and control mentality, particularly González-Vio as the commander. Bush’s ineffectual priest speaks volumes of a religion on the wane.

As always, Modern Times theatrical values are strong. Kudos must go to Trevor Schwellnus’s inspired set, comprising of a sloping disc representing both the mill wheel and a main playing platform. The fabricated body of the dead king, lying centre stage, is like the elephant in the room. Schwellnus is also responsible for the subtle lighting that shifts focus of concentration, while Teresa Przybylski captures both the upper and lower class costumes without being obtrusive. Thomas Ryder Payne has provided one of his clever soundtracks which emphasizes the drama.

In Beyzaie, Parsa has presented an important international writer with a unique perspective on twisted realities.

The Death of a King by Bahram Beyzaie, directed by Soheil Parsa, Modern Times Stage Company/The Theatre Centre, Mar. 26 to Apr. 10, 2016.


Theatre Review – Coal Mine Theatre/Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe

killerjoe1Under artistic curator Ted Dykstra and artistic producer Diana Bentley, Coal Mine Theatre has become synonymous with quality and professionalism. The venue may be a storefront on The Danforth, but Coal Mine productions are top of the line in terms of programming and theatrical values. The company likes to style itself off off Broadway in design, and it’s a good comparison, because for many New York theatre goers (including visitors), off off Broadway is the last bastion of raw excitement amidst the musicals and safe dramas of the bigger theatres.

The Coal Mine mantra is to engage the audience with provocative material, and its newest production certainly hits the mark. Killer Joe (1991) is American playwright Tracy Letts’ first play. He is most famous for August: Osage County which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Letts’ specialty is family dynamics, no matter what rung of society his plays showcase. In Killer Joe, Letts has reached into the lowest strata of the gene pool. The protagonist family actually lives in a trailer so calling the Smiths trailer park trash is spot on. The play belongs to the genre I like to call low life comedy. Some of the works of American Sam Shepard and Canadian George Walker fit the category as well as Canadian Lee MacDougall’s High Life. Their worlds are populated by marginal people for whom crime and violence are a way of life. Men drink beer and knock their women around, yet despite the blood and gore, black humour abounds. Dialogue tends to be outrageously funny.

The Smiths live in a Texas trailer park. A Confederate flag is proudly on display and the fridge is filled with beer. The family is comprised of father Ansel (Paul Fauteux), son Chris (Matthew Gouveia), daughter Dottie (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) and stepmother Sharla (Madison Walsh). The plot revolves around hiring an assassin to kill Chris and Dottie’s hated mother to collect her insurance. The assassin in question is the Killer Joe of the title (Matthew Edison) who just happens to be a Dallas police detective. To give any more details would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say, that from the moment Killer Joe Cooper steps into their lives, the Smiths are headed into further chaos.

killerjoe2It is very important that Killer Joe be a sex god, and Edison, with his tall frame, tight pants, cowboy boots and 10-gallon hat makes a gorgeous specimen indeed. The audience must find Killer Joe attractive or there is no story. Edison commands with a soft voice that terrifies. Everything about him is alpha male. He is one very sexy badass who infuses the play with his testosterone. In short, Edison’s Killer Joe is every feminist’s nightmare – a totally seductive bad boy who attracts smart good girls.

Endicott-Douglas as Dottie is the innocent. Her young face, blonde hair, wide eyes, and soft voice are a perfect picture of someone who transcends the sordidness of her world. She is a wonderful foil for Killer Joe. The rest of the cast is marvellous. Fauteux (who has never given a bad performance in his life) brings the simple, easily-manipulated Ansel convincingly to life. Walsh manages to be a tarty Sharla with brains, which is not an easy job. She must show both sides of her character, and Walsh pulls off the resident sex pot who also happens to be the sharpest tool in the Smith tool box. It is Gouveia as Chris, however, who gives the stand-out performance. He is the driver of the plot, a coiled spring of bitterness who is willing to bring his family crashing down around his ears. Gouveia’s restless energy never lets up for one moment. He is a young actor who has a great career in front of him.

killerjoe3Apparently director Peter Pasyk has been shopping Killer Joe around for years, but the play was deemed too violent and amoral by safer companies. It is Coal Mine who is mounting the Toronto premiere of Killer Joe, and kudos to them. Kudos also to Pasyk who has showcased both the relentless drive of the play, as well as the dark humour, without ever losing Letts’ edge. Fight director Steve Wilsher has choreographed very scary mayhem, and a warning, front row audiences are in the firing line, so keep your feet tucked in. Patrick Lavender’s set is suitably trashy, while Christopher Stanton’s sound design of mostly country and western singers adds to the atmosphere. Jenna McCutchen’s costumes are aptly down market.

In short, Killer Joe, replete with violence and nudity, makes for a disturbing (if very entertaining) visit to the dark side. Definitely not for the faint of heart.

Killer Joe by Tracy Letts, directed by Peter Pasyk, Coal Mine Theatre, Apr. 5 to 24, 2016.




Regarding Rob Ford

First let me point out that the death of a relatively young man with a young family is a very sad story indeed. Rob Ford was only 46, after all. Nonetheless, within the adage of you don’t say anything bad about dead people, i’ve been very amused how Canada’s politicians have struggled to find the positives to say about the late Mr. Ford. My favourite is, “He was very dedicated to the city”. I wonder who thought up that bit of vagueness.

The truth of the matter is, Ford had to be stripped of his powers when the whole crack/cocaine scandal broke, which makes it incomprehensible to me that he is getting what amounts to a state funeral, the first in Toronto history for a former mayor, as I understand it. He might have been very dedicated to the city, but during his four years in office, not once did Ford ever attend the annual conference of big city mayors. Imagine the largest city in the country not being represented. I personally will never forgive him for trying to bring Conservative politics into municipal governance and playing cosy with the gone and unlamented Stephen Harper, the Calgary Dough Boy. As to not marching in the Pride parade, Ford was clearly a bigot.

How embarrassing was Rob Ford as my city’s mayor? Very, and here’s my proof. I was waiting for the trolley car in Aruba. With me at the stop was a lovely Argentinian family that spanned three generations. (Northerners are in Aruba escaping the winter, while South Americans are there escaping their summers.) They spoke practically no English, but with my deplorable Spanish, I was able to glean that the family lived in a town that was two hours flying time from Buenos Aires – in other words, completely out of the loop. When I told them I was from Canada, and when they then asked what city and I said Torornto, the six family members chorused in unison, “Rob Ford, Rob Ford!”. When Argentinians in the outback know about Toronto’s mayor and his scandals, that’s a huge problem. As for the very dangerous Doug Ford, Rob’s enabler, don’t get me started…

The Ford Nation people who are mourning the late mayor’s loss, and lining up to sign the sympathy book, I see as akin to our nieghbours to the south who are flocking to Donald Trump. You can clearly fool some of the people, some of the time.

Theatre Review – Tarragon/Studio 180, François Archambault’s You Will Remember Me

Remember_Final_WP2Studio 180, under artistic director Joel Greenberg, deliberately chooses plays that provoke. By presenting material on the edge, the company always guarantees an interesting visit to the theatre, and I mean interesting in the very best sense of the word.

At the heart of François Archambault’s play, You Will Remember Me, is a family living with Alzheimer’s. The title comes from the Yvette Giraud song, Tu te souviendras de moi, and the lyrics in English are provided in the program. We actually hear the complete song during the play, and the acclaimed Quebec playwright has cleverly woven aspects of Giraud’s lyrics into his characters and plot. Kudos to Bobby Theodore for his excellent English translation of both the play and the song.

Admittedly, there have been many plays, movies and novels about Alzheimer’s and dementia, but the acclaimed Quebec playwright tries to bring a new perspective to the subject. He concentrates on close encounters, specifically, the individual relationships the central figure Edouard (R.H. Thomson) has with his wife Madeleine (Nancy Palk), his daughter Isabelle (Kimwun Perehinec), her partner Patrick (Mark McGrinder), and Patrick’s daughter Berenice (Michela Cannon). With each duet, so to speak, we learn more about the Beauchemin family dynamics, which broadens out from the narrow theme of coping with illness, into the larger themes of loss, the impact of lives lived, and the legacy we leave behind. Particularly moving is Edouard’s growing bond with the teenage Berenice, a May/December friendship that manages to encapsulate the past, present and future all in one go, including a dark family secret.

You will Remember MeEdouard has no short term memory, but his long term memory is rock solid. This allows the playwright to weave into the plot the parallel theme of Quebec sovereignty. Edouard is acutely aware of the Parti Québécois’s failed referendums. He remembers those losses as if they were yesterday, and so the idea of Quebec independence, now a vague memory among the young of the province, becomes a metaphor for his own tenuous existence in the present. That Edouard is a former university professor makes his personal and political history all the sadder for the man he has become. There is laughter in the play, however, much of it at Edouard’s own expense. He knows  that he won’t remember anything that is happening in the now, which he treats with deprecating humour.

Thomson gives a riveting performance as Edouard. He is one of the country’s great actors, and he takes the audience through his character’s perilous journey with bravura and panache. The role is a broad sweep of emotions and there is never a false note. Also giving excellent account of themselves are Palk as the caustic wife and Cannon as a young woman who matures before our eyes. Berenice is a great role for a young actress, and Cannon is definitely a talent to watch.

remember3Obviously, Perehinec made the decision that Isabelle should concentrate on anger being her driver. Over time, however, her sour one-note characterization becomes very irritating,  reducing Isabelle to a cypher. McGrinder as Patrick is miscast. He doesn’t look or act old enough to be Berenice’s father or Isabelle’s partner. Although he does capture the irony of Patrick’s line delivery, McGrinder is definitely odd-man-out on the stage. He lacks the presence needed for this particular role.

The production is gorgeous to look at. Designer Denyse Karn has fashioned wraparound projections of a forest to cocoon Edouard’s existence. For Edouard, the forest has great meaning, so the set, with its split forest/livingroom areas mirrors his fractured state of mind.

Greenberg, who directed the play, and the Tarragon should be congratulated for bringing this important playwright to Toronto. Despite some acting flaws, You Will Remember Me is a fine production.

You Will Remember Me by François Archambault, directed by Joel Greenberg, Tarragon Mainspace, Mar. 1 to Apr. 10, 2016.