Theatre Review: The RISER Project 1/Mr. Truth and Tell Me What It’s Called

Toronto’s acclaimed Why Not Theatre is behind the annual RISER Project staged at the Theatre Centre. Called “A Collaborative Producing Model”, the aim is to provide performance opportunities for emerging artists with Why Not helping out with production infrastructure to allow the newbies maximum creation time. Four groups are chosen and appear two by two. The second set of RISER offerings has just opened and runs until May 12 featuring Speaking of Sneaking and Everything I Couldn’t Tell You. The importance of RISER (this is its fifth incarnation) can’t be underestimated in terms of getting noticed. Take for example, the wildly successful Mouthpiece, which was part of 2015’s project. The show just had a sold out run at Buddies, which followed extensive touring.

On the adage of better late than never, here is my assessment of the first two 2018 RISER performances which took place in April.

Mr. Truth was a two-hander created and performed by Lester Trips (Theatre) a.k.a Lauren Gillis and Alaine Hutton. It was a brave and saucy satire about human sexuality with the aim of outing our “erotic truths” and stripping away the veneer of denial and repression. The eponymous Mr. Truth was a menacing hooded figure straight out of a horror movie that silently and slowly crossed the stage from time to time. Clearly, he was the metaphoric torturer who worked us over, so to speak, and forced us into confronting our sexual nightmares.

The format was sketch comedy with a dizzying series of vignettes. In the program notes, the creators included a tantalizing statement that the show was structured to resemble a woman’s orgasm. As for the vignettes, the creators deliberately included material designed to shock and awe. For example, the opening scene went right for the jugular. It was set at a three-day couples’ “fingering retreat” with a mono-voice instructor teaching the participants the proper way to “stroke” a woman’s vagina.

Along Mr. Truth’s sexuality highway, the audience was treated to a conversation between a woman and her cervix (the latter’s costume was hilarious), the glories of anal sex, the erotic use of a salt lamps (don’t ask), not to mention abduction and rape fantasies. Gillis and Hutton played a myriad of characters with aplomb, my favourite being the women impersonating “woke” guys who were anything but. The production also sported ironic projections on the back wall and a clever sound design courtesy Wesley Mackenzie and Peter Demas.

The most appealing aspect of Mr. Truth was its freshness. If the RISER Project is about risk-taking and innovation, Gillis and Hutton came up trumps.

Alas, Tell Me What It’s Called, was a theatre exercise that should have stayed in the studio. Director Ximena Huizi and eight actors make up the collective known as Tell Me Theatre. The performance was built around an elaborate theatre game, which was the improv method this group uses to devise a play – in other words, an insider’s look at the rehearsal process. The structure comprised of a series of encounters, which were, in a word, incomprehensible.

The program notes detailed the parameters of the game, which were so complicated they made no sense. The description included deathless prose such as “Some scenes are games. All games are scenes.” Each of the actors also had an insect avatar (I kid you not), and seven were linked to a deadly sin, with one being a virtue. Apparently, the actors had to earn their insect skins, which were hanging on the back wall, and text had to be “unlocked”. Further complicating the mix was director Huizi giving notes about posture, energy etc., except she spoke in a soft voice and couldn’t be heard throughout the theatre. Oh, lest we forget, there were ropes that linked people together, but the how and why was unclear.

Now I happen to be a former drama teacher, so I’m an insider so to speak when it comes to theatre exercises. While the actors were clearly engaged and highly motivated, this workshop performance, in terms of being in the audience, was mind-numbing boredom writ large. It was tune-out time. Sadly, a fair number of the eight did show acting chops in the encounters, but their talent was lost in the miasma of confusion.

This collective must have beaten out some stiff competition to be one of RISER’s favoured four. Why Not Theatre must have seen some spark of promise in their choosing. Theoretically, these improvs are going to grow up to be a full-scale theatre production. I wish Tell Me Theatre lots of luck, and I hope for the best.

The RISER Project 1, Mr. Truth and Tell Me What It’s Called, The Theatre Centre, Apr. 15 to 24, 2018.






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.