Theatre Reviews – The Big Smoke, Seeds, Dani Girl

Once again I have managed to fall behind in my reviews, so I am, once again, in catch up mode. The following productions are all very different, but they all have worth. They appear in the order of their closing.

The Big Smoke (Theatre Ad Infinitum Canada) – Closes Mar. 4

This is an astonishing performance by Amy Nostbakken who co-wrote the one-woman show with director Nir Paldi.  What the two have crafted is an a cappella mini-opera – and a very moving one it is too.

Nostbakken was inspired by the deaths of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton – three brilliant, talented women who were overwhelmed by life, and who suffered from acute depression. The subtitle of the show is “a story of the summer that I died”, which says it all.

Nostbakken’s Nathalie is a talented visual artist from Toronto who is invited to London by the Tate Gallery Modern for a competition. The text is about her breakdown, as well as a chronology of her past. It is a heart-breaking story.

As Amy, garbed in her pert, salmon-coloured, crinolined cocktail dress, Nostbakken is simply out-standing, and because she is singing the text, she can play with emotions more than one can with the spoken word. The marvel is just how she manipulates sounds and accents to deepen the meaning of the text. She is both an extremely talented actor and singer.

Paldi has directed with unerring dramatic punch. A must-see for those who like their theatre new and different. An inspired musical tour-de-force.

The Big Smoke, written and performed by Amy Nostbakken, written and directed by Nir Paldi, Factory Theatre Studio, Feb. 21 to Mar. 4, 2012


Seeds (Crow’s Theatre, Toronto, and Porte Parole, Montreal) – Closes Mar. 10

This production takes one back to the glory days of docudrama, such as The Farm Show, and The School Show. Annabel Soutar has written a work ripped from today’s headlines.

Her subject is Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser (Eric Peterson) and his battle with the corporate giant Monsanto. The mega firm sued Schmeiser for using their patented modified growth hormone seeds. Schmeiser said they blew onto his land. From this one court case, Soutar raises questions about food safety, farmers’ rights, ownership laws, civil liberties and a whole raft of other issues.

Soutar first produced the play in 2005 with her Montreal company, Porte Parole. This latest version has been honed and refined under the mentoring of director Chris Abraham of Crow’s Theatre. It unfolds like a judicial whodunit. The first act leads up to the court case. The second act deals with the fall-out.

At a dizzying pace, we meet the farmers, experts, lawyers, one after the other, each speaking their version of the truth. What makes this play so compelling is that Schmeiser himself is tinged with shades of grey. This is not just a David and Goliath story.

Liisa Repo-Martell plays Soutar, and it is she we follow through the morass of conflicting points of view. She asks the questions we are thinking, and echoes our thoughts at each new revelation. Each character on the stage is a real person, and their words, presumably, are too.

Everything works – the actors and their multiple characters, Abraham’s complex staging, Julie Fox’s imaginative set, Elysha Poirier’s visuals, Richard Feren’s atmospheric stage designs, Ana Cappelluto’s precision lighting.

This is a scintillating evening of theatre. You’ll leave the play in energetic conversation with your fellows.

Seeds, written by Annabel Soutar (starring Bruce Dinsmore, Mariah Inger, Alex Ivanovici, Tanja Jacobs, and Cary Lawrence, directed by Chris Abraham), Young Centre, Feb. 18 to Mar. 10, 2012

Dani Girl (Talk Is Free Theatre) – Closes Mar. 11

Arkady Spivak is artistic producer of Talk is Free Theatre based in Barrie, Ontario. Clearly he has his eye on a Toronto profile. Dani Girl is a remount of a TIFT Barrie production.

The musical is by young Americans Christopher Dimond (book and lyrics) and Michael Kooman (music). At least they don’t write the amorphous soft rock/sound-the-same that is au current in small-scale musicals. This team, at least, tries their hand at different genres of music to provide variety, and for the most part, they succeed.

The subject is grim, which seems to be the latest trend in American musicals. Dani (Gabi Epstein) is a 9-year-old girl suffering from leukemia. Amanda LeBlanc is Dani’s distraught mother. Jonathan Logan plays Dani’s feisty hospital roommate Marty. The driver of the action is Rafe (Jeff Madden) who represents God, or Death, or Fate – take your pick.

Dani Girl, is however, quite a charming show, as we travel through a young girl’s imagination, and the many ways she tries to cope with her illness. Madden, one of my all-time favourite musical actors, is perfect as the authoritative Rafe, but the other cast members hold their own as well.

Richard Ouzounian, yes, the theatre critic of the Toronto Star, is the director, and he is clearly a detail man. Everything is choreographed down to the smallest gesture, but the show works. If I have one quibble, Christine Barrett’s set of three moveable pods are over-moved by Ouzounian’s actors to the point of irritation.

Nonetheless, Ouzounian and his cast find just the right touch of humour and pathos.

Dani Girl, book and lyrics by Christopher Dimond, music by Michael Kooman, (starring Gabi Epstein, Jeff Madden, Amanda LeBlanc and Jonathan Logan, directed by Richard Ouzounian), Theatre Passe Muraille Back Space, Feb. 18 to Mar. 11, 2012)

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