Theatre Review – Theatre Smash/Fu-Gen Asian Theatre Company – Julia Cho’s Durango

durango1Julia Cho is a much-admired American playwright so any work of hers is highly anticipated. The combined forces of Theatre Smash and Fu-Gen have come together to present the Canadian premiere of Durango to mixed results – excellent acting, awkward production values.

There’s a saying that any ethnic can relate to any ethnic play, and this is very true of Durango. The story of the pressures of immigrant parents on the first generation children can be felt across a wide spectrum. In Durango, they happen to be Korean, but children of Jewish, Italian, Ukrainian etc. heritage can absolutely relate.

Durango is a town in Colorado that has a scenic railway up the mountain. Korean widower Boo-Seng Lee (Hiro Kanagawa) decides to take an impromptu road trip to Durango to ride the train with his two sons, Isaac (David Yee) and Jimmy (Philip Nozuka). It is a trip he has always wanted to take. All of them have secrets which are revealed on the trip from their Arizona home to Colorado.

durango2Lee has just been downsized out of his job, and is ashamed and humiliated. Isaac has been earmarked for medical school but wants to be a musician. He has just returned from Hawaii where he was supposed to appliy for medical school. Jimmy, the golden boy, is a competitive swimmer who hates the sport that is supposed to get him a scholarship in a top university. He wants to be a cartoonist and has created his own superhero, Red Angel (Adrian Shepherd). Jimmy may also be gay. Rounding out the cast, Ardon Bess is on board as several characters, including a security guard at Lee’s work, and a fellow traveler, a retired teacher, at a motel.

For both sons, the expectations of the father are enormous. Because of them he has toiled away at his low level clerical job. It would be nice to say there is some sort of resolution at the end of the play, but Cho hits hard at the American dream. There is no Hollywood ending which makes the play all the more compelling, even courageous. Cho’s flights into magic realism with the superhero adds a layer of richness.

The acting is extraordinaryily good, particularly the love-hate relationship between Jimmy and Isaac. As for the father, Kanagawa radiates pain with every word he utters. In terms of character, director Ashlie Corcoran is spot-on. None of the three main characters expresses a false note. Corcoran clearly is a director who finds meaning and nuance in dialogue.

The one mistake concerns accents. Cho has written three monologues spoken by the dead wife and mother. The two boys adopt heavy accents when speaking her lines. The father, because he already speaks with an accent, slips into pure unaccented English, obviously to differentiate his wife’s speech from his own, but it jars. On the subject of the dead woman, Cho shows what a loss she is to the family painted by their memories.

Theatrically, the play is poorly served. Set designer Jung Hye Kim has created a slanted roof with a dormer window. There are two side pockets and a playing space in front of stage where action also takes place. The car ride is four chairs that move about the roof. The set changes are unbelievably clumsy, and it is to the credit of the actors that the play works at all. If the slanted roof is to evoke the metaphor of fragility, like Fiddler on the Roof or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, it doesn’t work.

One hopes to see more Julia Cho plays in Toronto, because she is a very interesting writer in the best meaning of the word.

(Durango by Julia Cho, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, May 16 to May 31, 2015.)




(5 Star Rating System)

LondonRoadCanadian Stage. LONDON ROAD (4 ½ stars). Run don’t walk to see one of the most unusual shows in town that is soon to close. The serial killer of five prostitutes in Ipswich, England, had a flat on London Road. Verbatim playwright Alecky Blythe interviewed residents of the street to capture what they went through during the investigation, arrest and trial. These conversations were then set to music by composer Adam Cork. The resulting sung monologues/dialogues are astonishing in their reality. The cast is unbelievable (all kinds of Stratford/Shaw types), gilded by director Jackie Maxwell and her Shaw Festival music director Reza Jacobs. The costumes and the set are terrific. I’m deducting marks for some impenetrable accents. Nonetheless, once again, CanStage scores big with a North American premiere. (Written by Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork, directed by Jackie Maxwell, Closes Feb. 9, Bluma Appel Theatre,

Tarragon Theatre. FLESH AND OTHER FRAGMENTS OF LOVE (3 stars). Evelyne de la Chenelière is one of Quebec’s foremost playwrights, but she falters on this latest offering. The play is inspired by a novel by French writer Marie Cardinal, and dabbles in magic realism. A troubled French couple (Blair Williams and Maria del Mar) is on vacation in a remote part of Ireland, when the husband finds a dead body washed ashore on the beach. The corpse is Mary (Nicole Underhay), a medical student and single mother. Pierre and Simone begin to make up a back story for Mary influenced by their own negative experiences, while Mary herself speaks about her own life and that of Pierre and Simone. Karyn McCallum’s set and costumes are arresting, but the text itself runs out of steam. Richard Rose’s direction seems a tad on the slow side. (Written by Evelyne de la Chenelière, directed by Richard Rose, Tarragon Theatre, Jan. 7 to Feb. 16, 2014,

Soulpepper. IDIOT’S DELIGHT (2 ½ stars). This is another one of Soulpepper’s irritating productions – good intentions that fizzle out. The very successful play, written in 1936, by Robert Sherwood, actually anticipated World War 2, and which side various countries would end up on. Sherwood also adapted his play for the MGM all-star movie featuring Clark Gable and Norma Schearer, directed by Clarence Brown. Director Albert Schultz’s version doesn’t come even close. The Soulpepper production is beset by uneven acting and insipid direction. More to the point, Raquel Duffy, in the key role of Irene cannot be heard. Doesn’t anyone at Soulpepper actually do a voice check in the theatre? Some like Dan Chameroy, and particularly Evan Buliung, rise above the fray, but there is no sense of an ensemble. The play is one where a group of people end up being marooned together (in this case, an alpine resort on the northern Italian border), and collisions of ideas happen. The recipe is here for intense interaction, but this whole production is paint by numbers. And then there is Lorenzo Savoini’s set that looks like a giant tiled washroom. Soulpepper gets a plus mark for putting this rarity on the stage, but not for the production. (Written by Robert E. Sherwood, directed by Albert Schultz, Jan. 30 to Mar. 1, 2014,

Tarragon/Theatre Smash. THE UGLY ONE (4 stars). This revival from 2011 retains the original cast and creative team, all to good advantage. German playwright Marius von Mayenburg has written a fable that deals with important issues like image, identity and perception. The plot begins with an inventor who works for a large corporation. His boss will not let him present his discovery at a convention because he’s too ugly. And so begins von Mayenburg’s twists and turns which also take on the whole obsession with plastic surgery. The acting is superb, while Ashlie Corcoran directs with both passion and humour. The play is short, sweet, and packs a wallop. (Written by Marius von Mayenburg, directed by Ashlie Corcoran, Jan. 7 to Feb. 16, 2014,

Nightwood Theatre. FREE OUTGOING (3 ½ stars). The over the top melodrama of Bollywood movies carries over into this play whose premise is that a teenage girl’s sexual encounter ends up on youtube. Indian writer Anupama Chandrasekher has set the play in the conservative city of Chennai (where she is based), and the action is relentless as the fallout spirals out of control. From the neighbours who want the family kicked out of the apartment building, to the hungry media and their feeding frenzy, the consequences are extreme for everyone involved. Anusree Roy as the mother gives another of her sterling performances. (Written by Anupama Chandrasekhar, directed by Kelly Thornton, Factory Theatre, Jan. 28 to Feb. 16, 2014,