Theatre Review – Canadian Stage/Unsafe by Sook-Yin Lee

Photo by Dahlia Katz

Unsafe is billed as a performance documentary that is an inquiry into censorship and art in Canada. It is also the story of its own creation, as it were, because we follow how the idea behind Unsafe, grew into the show now being performed at the Berkeley. It is also, of course, something much more. Unsafe may fly off in tangents, and at times be unruly, but it is a fund of fascinating information that leads to provocative questions.

Polymath Sook-Yin Lee, who is credited as writer/creator of Unsafe, has a reputation as an interdisciplinary artist and media personality with a radical edge. Who better to construct a show about censorship and art? The initial idea came from former Canadian Stage artistic director Matthew Jocelyn, and Lee’s interview with him opens the show. Jocelyn had commissioned writer/director Zack Russell to create a play about the 1993 case of Toronto artist Eli Langer, whose paintings were confiscated from a gallery show by the police because they were deemed to be child pornography. Russell (who is listed as consultant on the project), in turn asked Lee to work with him, she representing the diversity card, so to speak. Through various circumstances, as outlined in the production, Lee ended up with the project.

The throughline of the play is the running conversation between Russell (actor Christo Graham) and Lee as they work through how they are going to treat the subject of censorship and art. Russell had already ruled out the writing of a conventional narrative. By default, documentary style was going to be their modus operandi. Unsafe is peppered with interviews Lee filmed with artists, critics and social theorists about censorship. A significant number were directly censored themselves, including Lee. From theatre pieces like Hair, Futz and Robert Lepage’s Slav, to forbidden indigenous music and the aborted TTC lightboard installation, the long arm of censorship has taken its toll. Some controversies just sneak delightfully into the show, such as one of the Russell/Lee conversations taking place with the two and a mannequin (Lee being naked), mirroring Manet’s seated trio in Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863).

Photo by Dahlia Katz

The show is strongest when it sticks to the point. The brainstorming duo raises a plethora of intriguing issues as they grapple with the topic. The times when Lee goes into personal matters, such as the break-up of a long-term relationship, seems gratuitous. Director Sarah Garton Stanley has tried to instil a casual, folksy, unstudied quality to the production, which, while at times seems contrived, works in the main. The conversations between Russell and Lee are of paramount importance, and the more natural they sound, the more rooted in reality is the project. There are, needless to say, some genuine laughs, such as finding out the law in the city of Kingston that said you can be naked on stage, but you can’t move, which affected a production of Hair.

Unsafe may have a “let’s put on a show in the barn” aspect to its unpolished veneer, but Lee was surrounded by some of the finest production designers in town. Christine Urquhart (sets), Steve Lucas (lights), Ming Wong (costumes), Ali Berkok (sound), Roxanne Luchak (video). This show just didn’t grow like Topsy. There’s also the work of dramaturg Birgit Schreyer Duarte who penned a long note in the program about the process of the show’s creation. And don’t forget master director Stanley. Sometimes the creation of something seemingly simple takes a lot of work.

The title Unsafe is clever. An artist is unsafe as soon as he/she begins a new work. It is unknown territory. The body politic feels unsafe when threatened by some artistic choices. The word unsafe can then be transmigrated to embrace a huge array of ideas related to censorship and art, and to her credit, Lee does cover a good chunk of the waterfront. Unsafe, despite its flaws, is still a stimulating conversation.

The short town hall that follows gives audience members a chance to express their views or ask questions. On the night I attended the performance, Unsafe had clearly engaged the crowd.

Photo by Yuula Benivolski

Canadian Stage, Unsafe, written and created by Sook-Yin Lee, directed by Sarah Garton Stanley, Berkeley Street Theatre, Mar. 12 to 31, 2019.


 (5 Star Rating System)

shrewRed One Theatre Collective. SHREW (2 ½ stars). This production is vibrant and silly at the same time. In short, it is a young person’s spin on Shakespeare (think Seth Rogan and Adam Sandler in terms of sensibility). Obviously, a bunch of friends have come together to have fun, and while the audience has fun too, somewhere Shakespeare has become lost in the colloquial rendering of the text. As to why Petruchio (Benjamin Blais) has a cowboy accent is anyone’s guess, although the Christopher Sly prologue as a puppet show is a neat idea. There are a lot of talented actors in the cast, particularly John Fleming as Tranio, but director Tyrone Savage (all grown up after playing a kid on the TV series Wind at My Back) just seems to be throwing a barrage of ideas out there to see what will stick. (Written by William Shakespeare (sort of), directed by Tyrone Savage, Storefront Theatre, Closes Mar. 2, 2014,

Theatrefront /Canadian Stage/Theatre Aquarius. TRIBES (3 ½ stars.) British playwright Nina Raine has concocted a totally dysfunctional family of intellectuals. At the core is a deaf son Billy (aurally impaired America actor Stephen Drabicki) who has been brought up without sign language, the rationale being that living as if there is no disability is better for him. Both parents and the other son and daughter each have their own hang-ups. The family’s universe really starts crumbling when Billy meets a girl (Holly Lewis) who initiates him into the world of the deaf, and opens a fissure between Billy and his family. The acting is very good and Daryl Cloran’s directing is fast-paced, even dizzying at times, but the play has a feel of being too clever by half. There are just too many subplots swirling around. (Written by Nina Raine, directed by Daryl Cloran, Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs, Closes Mar. 2, 2014,

Afterplay Collective/Campbell House Museum. AFTERPLAY (4 stars). This play by famed writer Brian Friel is very clever indeed. He has taken the put-upon brother Andrey from The Three Sisters (Steve Cumyn), and the over-looked Sonya from Uncle Vanya (Tracey Ferencz) and has them meet in a restaurant of a Moscow Hotel. He has thus created a new Chekhov play. The intimate setting at Campbell House is perfect because the antique look of the upstairs drawing room provides a realistic site specific venue. This play can be a lot of talk (about lives before and after the respective plays), so what is needed is superb characterizations. Both Cumyn and Ferencz are Stratford/Shaw veterans, seasoned pros who are consummate actors, and clearly, both they and director Kyra Harper have worked hard to breathe life into the wordage. My one cavil is that they stand up and move around too much without motivation. That being said, the samovar tea and Russian cakes served before hand is a nice touch that makes the performance even more satisfying. The experience (tea plus play) is delightful. (Written by Brian Friel, directed by Kyra Harper, Closes Mar. 2, 2014,

Mirvish Productions/Vesturport/Lyric Hammersmith. METAMORPHOSIS (5 stars). In a word, this Icelandic/British production is brilliant. The adapters have taken Kafka’s 1915 novel and transformed it into a wondrous play full of visual surprises. Kafka, being Kafka, the story is depressing. One day, Gregor Samsa (Björn Thors) wakes up and discovers he has become an insect. It can only go downhill from here as his family tries to cope with the tragedy. The direction for Thors is masterful as he climbs his ways up and down walls by handgrips. Börkur Jónsson’s innovative turn-on-the-side bedroom set is miraculous in concept. The characterizations are superb, and FYI, these Icelandic actors have better diction than most English-speaking born thespians. A definite run don’t walk. The best kind of European theatre. (Written by Franz Kafka, adapted and directed by David Farr and Gísli Orn Gardarsson, Closes Mar. 9, 2014, Royal Alexandra Theatre,

Mirvish Productions. THE TWO WORLDS OF CHARLIE F. (3 ½ stars). This is a hard show to rate because the subject matter cuts to the sentimental bone – namely, the performers are mostly British soldiers who have been physically and/or emotionally scarred by war. Nonetheless, one can’t get around the fact that the acting is uneven, with some accents being impenetrable. Charlie F. is a devised play that began with the soldiers’ own stories, crafted into a theatrical production by writer Owen Sheers. Although the soldiers are mostly playing themselves, they have been given fictionalized names to make the venture more theatrical. Despite the harrowing nature of their stories, there is a lot of humour, and even original songs. This recovery play is a journey through recruitment, training, and physio, leading up to the men and women coping with their injuries. The Two Worlds of Charlie F. wears its heart on its sleeve.  (Written by Owen Sheers, directed by Stephen Rayne, Closes Mar. 9, 2014, Princess of Wales Theatre, 




THEATRE – NOW PLAYING (five start rating system)

Canadian 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. london_road_4The 11-member 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. (Closes Feb. 9, Bluma Appel Theatre,


KYLE ABRAHAM/ABRAHAM.IN.MOTION. THE RADIO SHOW. You only have until Saturday to catch this World Stage offering. kyle abrahamAbraham is one of New York’s brightest lights. The supple dancers execute fluid, total body choreography in this show about memory and communication. As a dancesmith, Abraham knows how to rivet the eye with movement that always catches you by surprise. No wonder he won a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation. An ambitious show in content that maybe doesn’t get quite get to where it should in substance, but the choreography rocks. (Closes Feb. 8, Fleck Dance Theatre,

DANCE IMMERSION. CELEBRATING OUR MEN IN DANCE. This show, also on a short run, is part of Black History Month. Curator Vivine Scarlett has opted to program 8 male choreographers to present black men in a positive light. dance.immersionThey hail originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Nigeria, South Africa, Mozambique, and Jamaica, while two are Toronto born. The dance ranges from traditional to contemporary and presents a wide spectrum of themes. While the quality is uneven, the bill of fare is entertaining. This is an important show because it speaks to Canada’s multicultural mosaic. (Closes Feb 8, Enwave Theatre,

Mirvish Productions. Heartbeat of Home. Heartbeat_of_Home__(6)This new production, from the team that brought you Riverdance two decades ago, is an immensely enjoyable, professional-looking, polished dance show where everything hangs together as smooth as silk. The music score is sensational and the band is hot. Despite some weaknesses to the look of the show, it certainly deserves a long shelf life. (Closes Mar. 2, Ed Mirvish Theatre, See full website review,





(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,

Paula’s Picks and Pans – Dec 11th 2013


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