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.






Why Not theatre – Beyond Bollywood/Jerome Kilty’s Dear Liar

There are circles within circles in reference to Why Not Theatre’s presentation of Dear Liar.

First, the very name of the company comes from a quote by George Bernard Shaw from his 1921 play, Back to Methuselah. “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’” Second, Dear Liar is a play culled from the 40-year correspondence between GBS and the great actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Third, the umbrella name  for the event is Beyond Bollywood because Dear Liar is performed by revered Bollywood actor Naseeruddin Shah and his wife Ratna Pathak Shah. Fourth, co-producer/artistic director Ravi Jain is of South Asian descent. In other words, the GBS/Bollywood connection has provenance.

The late American actor/writer Jerome Kilty wrote the two-hander Dear Liar in 1960. While most of the play has the characters speaking text from their letters, they do, from time to time, add in narration to set the scene. The play is filled with GBS’s witticisms, but Mrs. Pat holds her own. The uncredited set comprises two windows behind which are hidden the necessary props. In front are a table and various chairs. The late director Satyadev Dubey gives the two just enough stage business to stop the play from becoming a wall of words. The uncredited costumes are two-fold. The two are garbed in formal wear in the first act, which ends with a 49-year old Mrs. Pat’s triumph as the original Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion in 1914. They are dressed more casually in the second act, which includes GBS’s famous belted country jacket.

Shah is apparently as active with his Motley Theatre Group as he is with Bollywood movie-making. Obviously, the couple has performed the play in India, but opening night found the pacing slow, particularly in Pathak’s case. This did not stop the production from being an absolute charmer. In an age when letter writing was an art. GBS and Mrs. Pat were grand masters of the words. Shaw was deeply in love with the actress (“Stella”), and she was certainly smitten with him (“Joey”), despite the fact that Shaw, and later Campbell, were married to other people. Because their letters convey intense intimacy as well as brilliant repartee, the actors have a lot to chew on.

Shah’s performance is simply remarkable. He manages to weave GBS’s one-line zingers neatly into the conversation. Rather than being trapped on a one note, wit-and-wisdom characterization, he shapes his delivery to capture the emotional level.  It would have been so easy to make Shaw a superficial player of words, but a deeper character does emerge in Shah’s skilful hands. In fact, he is downright lovable. For her part, Pathak runs the gamut from coy, to siren, to victim, to survivor wearing her heart on her sleeve. Her Mrs. Pat is capable of great grief – when she writes, for example, of her son Beo’s death in the first world war. Pathak’s attempts to find Eliza’s cockney accent seem a bit forced, but they are amusing. Both actors manage the aging very well. Shah’s sparkling, crisp performance may drive the production, but Pathak deftly rides his tail wind.

Dear Liar christens the theatre at the new Daniels Spectrum, aka the Regent Park Arts & Culture Centre. The Diamond & Schmitt designed building looks more like an office block than an arts complex. While I understand the concept of Spectrum, it doesn’t say theatre, so first timers are going to have trouble finding it. The halls are very institutional. The theatre looks like it has great possibilities, although the banked seating (which is quite comfortable and roomy) seems quite far from the stage. (Rows of individual chairs filled in the space.) The actual stage seems small, although the acoustics are excellent. In fact, Shah and Pathak can teach some Canadian actors about excellent diction. Over all, I think the jury is out on the Spectrum until it gets a few more productions under its belt.

Jerome Kilty’s Dear Liar, (starring Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah, directed by Satyadev Dubey), Why Not Theatre, Sept. 28 to 31, 2012.

(Shah, Pathak and daughter Heeba Shah perform Ismat Chughtai’s Ismat Apa Ke Naam, in Urdu with English surtitles, Oct. 5 to 7, 2012.)





Theatre Review – Ravi and Asha Jain’s A Brimful of Asha

A Brimful of Asha at the Tarragon Extra Space is a runaway hit. The added performances keep selling out, and for good reason. We all have mothers. Most of us come from immigrant parents. Put the two together and you have the perfect storm of a generational culture clash.

Ravi Jain’s Why Not Theatre never repeats itself. Each show is very different, one from the other. A Brimful of Asha is basically a conversation between Jain and his real life mother, Asha (who has never acted before). What’s so delicious about the show is that the audience has no idea just how much is scripted, and how much is improvised.

The topic of discussion is Ravi getting married. Apparently, as soon as children finish their education, they are supposed to get married, according to Indian tradition. Ravi did not do that, and this reflects badly on his parents in the view of their Indian relatives and friends. They must be bad parents because Ravi isn’t married. Not only that, he’s in theatre – not exactly the proper vocation for an Indian son who should be taking over his father’s business, or better still, graduating as a lawyer or doctor.

The opening of the play has a real buzz. Ravi and Asha greet the audience as they come in, serving samosas and other goodies to the hungry. (I had a samosa, presumably cooked by Asha, and it was delicious.) Thus, right from the get go, everyone is cocooned in friendship. At the end, Ravi and Asha say individual goodbyes, and the audience forms a reception line.

In between, we hear the story of the trip to India that inspired the play. Ravi was invited to give a theatre workshop in Calcutta, and he and his friend Andrew took this opportunity to extend the trip and backpack around India. Ravi’s parents also took the opportunity to come to India and introduce Ravi to some suitable girls.

As each tells part of the story, disputes develop. Asha sees things one way, and Ravi the other. Each one is trying to win the audience over to his/her side. The dialogue is genuinely funny. Asha is particularly adept at an ironic delivery of one-liners that zaps Ravi into silence or anger. She had the crowd howling with laughter. For his part, Ravi is a charismatic actor. There is also clever use of two flat screen TVs that show family photos and other suitable material.

Underneath the laughter, there is a very serious subject at play – the honour of the family and the well-being of a child. Asha’s story of her own arranged marriage is very poignant – engaged by the third day and married within a few weeks, then coming to Canada where she knew no one.  We hear about the dream she had to give up – of running a school for orphans. The title of the play, incidentally, comes from a song by the British alt rock band Cornershop.

The theatre is infused with warmth because there is such a strong connection between actors and audience. The laughter is of the shared good-natured kind. Asha and Ravi radiate vitality. You leave the show with a smile on your face. Yet, despite the fact that A Brimful of Asha is a delightful theatre outing, one does do some serious thinking after the show. Does the western falling in love mandate lead to better marriages? Not bloody likely when you look at the divorce rate.

I remember when I was in India, and our local guides talked about their own arranged marriages, and the Saturday papers that had all the bio datas on prospective brides and grooms. (Unbeknownst to Ravi, his father put his data bio in an Indian newspaper, and the family got 150 responses.)

Ravi is now 32. Will he ever get married and make his parents happy? Maybe that happens in the sequel.

A Brimful of Asha, written and performed by Asha and Ravi Jain, directed by Ravi Jain, Tarragon Extra Space, Jan. 26 to Feb. 26.