(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,

Theatre Review – Nina Lee Aquino’s Every Letter Counts (Factory Theatre)

First of all, kudos to Nina Lee Aquino and Nigel Shawn Williams who stepped into the breech and planned a season for Factory Theatre after the big Ken Gass debacle. Their first effort is Aquino’s own play Every Letter Counts directed by Williams. It is a powerful story that, unfortunately, deserves a sharper treatment.

The play is a personal memory of Aquino’s relationship with her famous uncle, Ninoy Aquino, who fought against the Ferdinand Marcos regime in the Philippines (yes, husband of Imelda of the many shoes), and was assassinated for his dissent. Apparently, Aquino, who plays herself, had just one meeting with her uncle (Jon de Leon) when she was six, but it seems to have been life-defining.

The play’s clever leitmotif is the game of Scrabble. Her uncle uses the letters to both teach her to read, and to opine on his philosophy of democratic freedom. Unfortunately, Aquino, in her writing for herself as a child, has made a character in the state of terminal whine.

Unfortunately, the play takes a long time to get underway, with time spent on “Why am I here” etc. The set is the Aquino museum. We find out that her father (Anthony Malarky) has sent her to Manila to discover her roots. Yet, during the play, he is in one mode – always angry at is brother for putting the family in danger. The other character is Marcos himself (Earl Pastko) who appears from time to time spouting monologues that detail the corruption of his character and regime.

There is an irritating factor. We keep hearing about the strong Aquino women – her mother who is a diplomat, her grandmother who was an activist – but they don’t appear, and should have, to give us the sweep of the Aquino family and its fight for social justice background. I also wanted more on Ninoy’s life. I got by implication that he was the youngest senator ever elected, but I wanted more biography acted out in scenes – a show not tell. He was in the play, but not enough. Williams does what he can moving the characters through the many doors of Anna Treusch’s set.

The strongest element is the visuals. Cameron Davis’ projections are outstanding, bathing the stage in Filipino history. Through these images we get the biographical bumf that we’re missing on stage.

I hope Aquino keeps working on the script because there is a good story here. The Scrabble imagery is a great idea that deserves more fine tuning. She should get rid of the whine and concentrate on the plot development about her uncle and her, clearly, remarkable family.

Every Letter Counts by Nina Lee Aquino, Factory Theatre, (starring Nina Lee Aquino, Jon de Leon, Anthony Malarky and Earl Pastko, directed by Nigel Shawn Williams), Factory Theatre Upstairs, Jan. 26 to Feb. 24, 2013

Factory Theatre/Artistic Fraud – Robert Chafe’s Oil and Water

Artistic fraud of St. John’s, Newfoundland, is one of Canada’s most imaginative companies, both in staging and subject matter. Oil and Water, which is part of Factory Theatre’s Performance Spring Festival, is the latest show from the fertile minds of writer Robert Chafe and director Jillian Keiley.

First, mention must be made of Shawn Kerwin’s remarkable set. The main image is a triangular scaffold structure – a tower set on a rocking horse base that can convey the movement of the waves, as well as being a ladder that can evoke a steep cliff. On either side are tables made up of pails and metal washing bowels set on planks of wood. Tall ladders are at the back. In other words, we get the image of the sea, the rough hewn landscape of coastal Newfoundland, and the starkness of rural poverty, all at the same time.

The inspiration for the play is the American sailor Lanier Phillips. In 1942, his convoy ship, USS Truxtun, floundered on the rocks near the village of St. Lawrence. Phillips was one of only 46 men who made it to shore, covered in oil from the leaking bilges. He was also the only black sailor to survive. The most touching part of the show is when Violent Pike tries to wash his skin clean of oil, and only after scrubbing intensely, does she realize that the sailor is a black man, the first she has ever seen. The kindness and equality shown to Phillips by the Newfoundlanders changed his life forever.

Chafe has three different storylines in his play. In the first act, we see Lanier, the young man (Jeremiah Sparks) on board his ship, interacting with his black messmate Langston (Mike Payette), and the white sailor Bergeron (Clint Butler). Blacks in the navy could not rise above being mess attendants or deck swabbers. There is also the ghost of his slave grandmother Adeline (Neema Bickersteth), always counselling him to be wary of white people. The second story is about the much older Phillips (Ryan Allen) in 1974, and the horrors encountered by his daughter Vonzia (Starr Domingue) as Boston tries to integrate its schools. The third is the life of the Newfoundland Pike family, Violet (Petrina Bromley), her husband John (Jody Richardson), her nephew Levi (Mark Power), and her friend Ena (Alison Woolridge) who is obsessed with taking pictures.

While the older Phillips watches all the stories, we see that John is constantly coughing as a result of dust from the mine that is killing him. That Phillips’ daughter Vonzia is traumatized by the stones and rocks thrown at her school bus. That shipboard life has just as much racism as on land. The crucible of the play comes with the second act, and the rescue of the men. Lanier throws himself in the sea against the advice of his grandmother who warns him about the white people on shore. The scene of Lanier in the sea is absolutely dramatic and brilliantly conceived, with pails of water being thrown on him as he struggles on the ropes of the rocking triangle. His rescue and interface with the Pike family is absolutely poignant.

Vonzia holds her father to account which her tormented question, “What are you going to do?” That is when Phillips tells her about the Pike family and their kindness, and in that tale there is hope. Chafe chose to end his play there, but there is a curious dissatisfaction, and I, for example, wanted to know what he did do. The program notes tell us that Phillips became a civil rights activist with Martin Luther King, but maybe we needed to see this. The play does seem to end abruptly.

On the other hand, the characters are absolutely believable and the Chafe/Keiley team scores another winner with the presentation of the raw truth. How the town of St. Lawrence rose to heroic stature, despite their poverty, whether on the sea or in the mines. How Phillips always remembered his encounter with them as a life-altering experience.

Once again, the very talented Andrew Craig has composed a soundscape that his hummed and sung by the acting ensemble, made up of both Newfoundland folk melodies and black gospel tunes. There is always music in the background of Oil and Water that captures the cinematic nature of the story.

Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland never disappoints. The large cast is a powerhouse of acting skills, particularly Bromley’s Violet. The set is a visual canvas of many images. The contrast between the stories evokes many disturbing themes. In short, the cleverly titled Oil and Water is a total theatrical experience that is not to be missed.

Robert Chafe’s Oil and Water, Artistic Fraud, Factory Theatre’s Performance Spring Festival, (starring Ryan Allen, Neema Bickersteth, Petrina Bromley, Clint Butler, Starr Domingue, Mike Payette, Mark Power, Jody Richardson, Jeremiah Sparks and Alison Woolridge, directed by Jillian Keiley), choral score by Andrew Craig, April 18 to May 6, 2012.

Theatre Review – Anoush Irani’s My Granny the Goldfish

The more playwrights coming out of Canada’s ethnic communities, the happier I am. They are truly the new Canada, reflecting the fact that we are an immigrant population. That being said, a flawed production can chip away at the enjoyment factor.

My Granny the Goldfish by Vancouver’s Anoush Irani seems to be a crowd pleaser. In truth, Irani has some very funny lines which elicited waves of laughter from the audience. Here’s an example. His granny is complaining that Canadians state the obvious, such as, “Madam, this is an airport!”, when she is standing in the airport. A further conversation reveals that she was smoking a cigarette at the time.

Irani’s picture of a dysfunctional South Asian family is also amusing because it is atypical. Vancouver business student Nico (Kawa Ada) is a hypochondriac, but at the start of the play, he does have something to worry about – a lump on his back. He has just had a biopsy. Back in Bombay, where his family lives in the red light district, his father (Sanjay Talwar) is a bookie, and his mother (Veena Sood) is an alcoholic. Granny (Yolande Bavan) also likes to tipple scotch. As the play opens, Granny has made a surprise visit to Vancouver. The first act scenes cut between Nico’s hospital room and his parents’ Bombay apartment.

The audience seemed to be enjoying the play more than I was. While I did chuckle at Irani’s dialogue, the play’s structure is flawed. We never do find out why granny and mother drink, for example. As well, director Rosemary Dunsmore has granny constantly in motion, and for no reason. At the other end of the scale, mother and father are rooted on a small couch. In the second act, when Nico’s parents arrive in the hospital room, there is little coherence in the stage action. John Thompson’s set of the two scenes beside each other is functional enough, but there are inconsistencies. The parent’s television is miles away from the couch. While the curtain separating Nico from his roommate is logical, the position of the unseen third patient make no sense.

Another problem is the pacing. Just like music, acting has rhythm. Only Ada seemed to be up to speed. Talwar, a seasoned actor, is given mostly reactive lines of bluster. The burden of the dialogue falls to Bavan and Sood. They are the drivers, and while the women do nail the characters, their halting delivery, particularly Bavan, is painful. It felt like Bavan was having trouble remembering her lines, and Sood was deliberately putting in pauses. It’s hard to give in to the rhythm of a play when it’s not there. Bad pacing can sink a production.

As for the very talented Ada, he literally saves the show. This young actor deserves more exposure on a national level. As for Irani, let’s hope his next production has better theatrical values.

My Granny the Goldfish, written by Anoush Irani, (featuring Kawa Ada, Yolande Bavan, Veena Sood and Sanjay Talwar, directed by Rosemary Dunsmore), Factory Theatre, Mar. 17 to Apr. 15, 2012.)

Theatre Review – Ronnie Burkett’s Penny Plain

Ronnie Burkett showed his genius from the very beginning of his career 25 years ago. He rose to fame based on his adult marionette shows. He is the lone actor of all the voices and the sole manipulator of the puppets. His marionettes look like miniature real people wearing everyday clothes. He deals with mature themes. Burkett does not put on shows for children.

His newest marionette play, Penny Plain, at Factory Theatre is perhaps his darkest to date. The show begins with an assault of voice-over newscasts. It is the Apocalypse. A virus is wiping out millions of people worldwide, while global warming is causing mayhem in the environment. Burkett’s concentration is on how people are facing their final days on earth.

Penny Plain, an elderly woman, runs a boarding house, and her boarders are the main characters. The play inhabits the world of magic realism as Burkett builds his story around the human condition, particularly people’s proclivity for clinging to illusions. As the Last Days present themselves, human behaviour becomes more erratic.

Miss Plain is blind, and we learn that she lost her sight when her beloved dog was killed by her father when she was a young girl. She pretended that she was Dorothy, and her dog Big Boy was Toto. The Wizard of Oz, and its escape into fantasy theme, is an underlying metaphor of the play.

Miss Plain is able to have conversations with her dog Geoffrey, who leaves his mistress to try living as a human. Geoffrey is replaced by Tuppence, a little girl pretending to be a dog. Other characters include Jubilee Karloff, a spinster editor with a demanding mother, the realistic little boy Oliver, and a cross-dressing banker. Even Gepetto and Pinocchio are part of the character mix, albeit, modernized and assimilated.

A perfect example of Burkett’s doleful musings is the woman who wants a child of her own. She approaches Gepetto and asks him to make her a puppet that will become a human child, just a Pinocchio did. Gepetto produces a monster made of plastic so it will last forever, with a green head from a detergent bottle, a body from a ketchup bottle, and limbs from plastic cutlery. This is just one of the shocking twists and turns Burkett takes in his story.

What makes this particular play intriguing is that Burkett is more in the shadows than ever before. He confines himself to an upper gallery while most of the action takes place on the stage level, and Kevin Humphrey’s lighting ensures that divide. As a result, we watch the puppets as if they were actual actors on a stage. Burkett’s skill is manifested in the clever manipulation of the marionettes, including their emotional levels, and the clarity in the differentiation of the voices. Once again, John Alcorn has devised a sound score that suits the action like hand to glove, including a beautiful and mournful passage of vocalise that acts as the segue between scenes.

The story is fantastical and dark. If this were a play performed by actors, perhaps, Burkett’s wild flights of fancy might not be as readily acceptable. But because the characters are portrayed by marionettes, the audience is more willing to go along with Burkett and his ­dystopian view of life. Nonetheless, whatever one feels about the relative merits of the apocalyptic plot, there is no denying Burkett’s genius as a puppeteer and visionary.

Penny Plain, created and performed by Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes, Factory Theatre Mainspace, Jan. 2 to Mar. 4.