Theatre Review – 4th Line Theatre/Bloom: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Fable by Beau Dixon

Photo by Wayne Eardley

4th Line Theatre’s latest production, Bloom: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Fable, is another entertaining evening from this most enterprising of summer festivals. The piece is filled with music and dance as it traces the journey of a small town rock band from nothingness to near greatness to oblivion again. Perhaps the story is a bit predictable, which always happens when a girl gets between two band guys and wrecks a friendship, but Bloom lopes along at a fast clip, thanks to director Kim Blackwell’s astute staging  and the raucous enthusiasm of her 30-member cast. While the story per se may be age-old, playwright and co-songwriter Beau Dixon throws in enough interesting plot twists to outbend a pretzel.

Dixon chose Peterborough as his forever home twenty years ago, and he dedicates Bloom to the talented musicians produced by the Kawartha region in the early days of Canadian rock ‘n’ roll. Apparently, rural Ontario was responsible for nurturing a great many band boys, in particular, the fictional Spruce Street Ramblers who are the central protagonists of Bloom. The action covers the period from 1956 to 1976, which were tumultuous years for the Ramblers, and begins and ends in the little town of Assumption at the Tanner farm. In the past, we watch the formation of the band and the rise to near greatness. In the present day, we wonder if the planned Ramblers’ reunion will actually take place. The band must perform the concert to pay off a debt.

There are five Rambler band members, with the main focus being on Eli Tanner (Griffin Clark) and Neph Burnstall (Owen Stahn). These boon companions are the band’s songwriters. The Ramblers swell to six when they add talented vocalist and songwriter Theresa “Tess” Wilson (Kate Suhr) who has star potential. Another major character is Neph’s Uncle Jack (JD Nicholsen) who had his glory days as a musician with country star Hank Snow, and is the band’s mentor. Eli’s single mother and hard-working farmer Rose Tanner (Shelley Simester) is the island of calm in the Ramblers’ sea of storms. Richard Brockton (Matt Gilbert) is the band’s devious manager whose underhanded tactics help tear the band apart. Nonetheless, though egos collide and jealousies are stirred, music reigns supreme.

Set designer Esther Vincent has covered the barn walls of the stage area with enlarged posters of period album covers bearing the likes of Bob Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins and Joni Mitchell. The platform stage in the middle of the playing area that Vincent built works very well for the Ramblers’ concerts. The progress through the decades is marked by period music from Elvis Presley to Procol Harum, while choreographer Monica Dottor has shown the passing years through changing dance moves. Meredith Hubbard has clearly had fun designing costumes from the fifties, sixties and seventies, and her psychedelic hippie outfits are particularly hilarious. Interspersed with the known music are the impressive songs of Dixon and Dave Tough, including  “Groovy Day”, the Ramblers’ supposed first hit, and the utterly beautiful ballad “Your Love Will Carry Me”, with music and lyrics by the fictional Neph and Tess. Once again 4th Line’s music guru Justin Hiscox has done a brilliant job of weaving all the song elements together. He also does double duty playing Huff Wilson, the Ramblers’ keyboardist and Tess’ cousin.

The five young boys who begin the Ramblers as teenagers are delightful, but then 4th Line can always rustle up talented youngsters. Their adult counterparts are absolutely believable as a band hungry for fame. Dixon has not only given us a journey of a small town band, but a history of Canadian rock ‘n’ roll, weaving his fictional Ramblers with real life. We meet legendary Peterborough radio announcer Del Crary and listen to Toronto’s CHUM radio and its fabled DJs. We visit famous pubs like the Royal Tavern where bands on the rise toil away, as well as music festivals when they have garnered some fame. We gain insight into the complicated and often unsavoury relationships between record labels and their bands. Dixon certainly has a way with words and produces snappy dialogue that reflects the band’s ups and downs. There are also some genuinely funny lines such as this description of a neighbour: “It goes in one ear and over the back fence.”

Finding young singing/acting/playing actors could not have been easy, but the cast of Bloom is certainly more than able to carry off the sturm und drang of band life with a realistic edge. 4th Line always has a couple of equity actors in the company (Nicholsen and Simester), but basically draws on up and coming talent to fill out its ranks, and Clark, Stahn and Suhr do a great job with the characters and their conflicts. This play has plenty of tension and there is never a dull moment. Dixon’s only plot slip up is a death that seems gratuitous. That character needed a different, darker ending, but other than that, his story is anchored in solid ground. The rolling hills and fields that surround the open stage placed in a barnyard, is just one of the joys of 4th Line. That the company can mount huge casts is a tribute to the area’s thriving community theatre, and a host of willing volunteers of all ages. It is always delightful to watch the multi-generations play before our eyes.

Bloom: A Rock ‘N’ Roll Fable is another of the long line of enjoyable 4th Line productions set in Peterborough County and the Kawarthas, and while aimed primarily at local appeal, the musical is a theatre piece that resonates on a universal scale.

4th Line Theatre, Bloom: A Rock ‘N’ Roll Fable, written by Beau Dixon, songs by Beau Dixon and Dave Tough, directed by Kim Blackwell, Barnyard Theatre, Winslow Farm, Millbrook, Ontario, July 2 to July 27, 2019.

Theatre Review: 4th Line Theatre 2018 – Who Killed Snow White? by Judith Thompson

Photo by Wayne Eardley

The 4th Line Theatre bill of fare is typically jolly and/or whimsical, and always informative because of a tie-in to local historical happenings. (The outdoor summer theatre is located on a farm near Millbrook, Ontario.) The world premiere of Who Killed Snow White? by Judith Thompson is a radical departure. Thompson is a distinguished Canadian playwright who writes with her heart on her sleeve. Who Killed Snow White? addresses sexual assault, cyberbullying and teenage suicide head-on. In her program notes, Thompson says that the wellspring of the play was the heart-breaking life and death story of Rehteah Parsons, an infamous 2013 case of cyberbullying that made national headlines. The traditional 4th Line audience, who usually comes to the theatre for a good time, is going to find a serious treatment of a serious subject.

Thompson’s heroine is a young girl called Serena (Grace Thompson) whose life is presented from cradle to grave. By tracing Serena’s life story, clearly Thompson is trying to come to grips with why Serena is so overwhelmed and destroyed by being plastered over social media, that death is preferable to living. (The posted video shows Serena lying naked and unconscious being sexually assaulted by a trio of boys at a party.) Thompson hypothesizes that Serena has always been fragile. From her early years, she was sensitive and an outsider, which made her an easy target to be bullied by the more popular girls. In fact, Serena is devastated when her one and only friend Fancy (Cassandra Guthrie) ditches her to join the ruling clique. In her teenage years, Serena is still an outsider, but she has a support system. Fancy is back in her life, and the girls have a firm friend in the openly gay and fellow outsider Riley (Tom Keat). Yet, despite a loving family and loving friends, Serena cannot survive the onslaught of negative social media.

Photo by Wayne Eardley

The playwright tries to bring out many points of view. The narrator Ramona, Serena’s mother (Cynthia Ashperger) drives the telling of her daughter’s story with her rage, asking the audience if they can see where and how Serena’s fate was sealed. In Ramona’s powerful speeches, Thompson has embedded all the frustration, helplessness, despair and incomprehension that the tragedy has left within her. The parallel lives of the spoiled brothers, one of whom gives Serena the date rape drug, is also presented. Pratt (Steven Vlahos) and Dodge (Andrei Preda) are brought up to be manly men by their Uncle Si (Christian Lloyd), who speaks for the male state of entitlement. As police chief, Si makes the boy’s indiscretions go away. On the other hand, Dodge, who is against the assault of Serena, still supports his brother in the cover-up because family is more important than truth. Fancy’s grandmother Babe (Maja Ardal) represents the older generation of women, who as lesser vessels in society, learned to manage men. Doreen (Saskia Tomkins), the mother of Pratt and Dodge, is her sons’ enabler because, in denial, she sees them only as good boys. Rounding out the main cast are Vlad Khaimovich and Joseph Roper, who join with Pratt in taking part in Serena’s rape, and Mark Hiscox as Serena’s loving but ineffectual father.

Writing character has always been a Thompson forte, and there are strong portrayals in this play. In fact, the acting is excellent overall, with Ashperger and Grace Thompson (the playwright’s daughter) being standouts. Even though some of the monologues are obvious in message, and Thompson does use words as a cudgel to hit the audience over the head to make a point, there is no denying the fact that the play does pack a wallop.

Who Killed Snow White? is a vehicle that could be performed by just a few people in an empty school gymnasium. What is fascinating about this production is how director Kim Blackwell has opened it up to accommodate the main barnyard performing space and the fields beyond, with her actors ranging far and wide. Blackwell presents Serena’s story as a Greek tragedy, because, sadly, cyberbullying and teenage suicide have become a universal theme in today’s world. Set designer James McCoy has added a facade of a Greek colonnade onto the barn, with a further archway in the field. The stonework appears to be crumbling – a metaphor for a civilization in ruins, perhaps? Costume designer Meredith Hubbard has clothed the entire cast in white Greek-style tunics with wreaths of vine leaves for their hair. The uniformity of the stark visual concept works very well indeed.

Photo by Wayne Eardley

One of 4th Line’s charms is that it mounts productions with very large ensembles. A director can always round up a humungous cast that includes very young children right up to the older generation. A remarkable aspect of Who Killed Snow White? is that it features a company of 17 young people who represent the Greek Chorus, and Blackwell, working with choreographer Monica Dottor, has fashioned some very evocative movement patterns for them. For example, to represent the bullies, the Chorus is wedged into a phalanx that bears down on Serena. These young people are almost always on stage, either in the barnyard or in the field, shaped into some telling formation or other, and are a very strong visual component to the show.

There is none of the usual 4th Line live music in this production. Rather, the cinematic soundtrack that runs throughout includes an atmospheric score by composer Justin Hiscox and ambient sound by Esther Vincent. It is a rich background that adds depth, breadth and gravitas to the production. Taken together as a whole cloth, Who Killed Snow White? works on every level.

Photo by Wayne Eardley

And a few final notes. The program includes a flier from the Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre with a 24-hour help line, a timely feature indeed. In a conversation I overheard at intermission, two elderly gentlemen were talking about the play, and one of them said, “Isn’t it terrible the pressure young kids are under these days?” Clearly, he was getting Thompson’s message. At the very end of the play, which is a devastating recital by the cast of the names of young people who have killed themselves, I noticed that the middle-aged couple across from me, both the man and the woman, were wiping away tears. Blackwell’s leap of faith to mounting more serious fare such as Who Killed Snow White? has clearly touched the audience.

4th Line Theatre 2018, Who Killed Snow White? by Judith Thompson, Winslow Farm, Millbrook ON, Aug. 6 to 25.



Theatre Review – 4th Line Theatre/Sky Gilbert’s St. Francis of Millbrook

Sky Gilbert writes timely plays. St. Francis of Millbrook is about growing up gay in rural Ontario. Gilbert provides a good dose of humour to make his message of acceptance and tolerance more palatable, but the scene where the father savagely beats his teenage son for being gay is a sobering moment. The fact that the audience gave the play a standing ovation speaks volumes that Gilbert’s (and 4th Line’s) bullying theme is being given the importance it deserves.

At the heart of the play is a farm family, and that the setting is Millbrook where 4th Line is located, puts the action squarely in the home base of the audience. On the other hand, placing the scene in 1994 goes back to more conservative times, which also lets the audience of today off the hook.

Dad (William Foley), who has an alcoholic past, is upset with his eldest son Luke (Nathaniel Bacon). Luke, a superb hockey player, wants to give up the team. He also loves Madonna, spends a lot of time with his sister Courtney (Robin Hodge) and her girlfriends, and is obsessed with St. Francis and his gentle words of wisdom. Dad has intimated he will leave the farm to second son Shane (Griffin Clark) who is an insensitive clod. Mother (Sherri McFarlane) is long suffering, to say the least. She understands that the farm has problems that plague her husband, but she also worries about Luke.

Gilbert is an uneven, rambling writer, and sometimes the play bogs down in repetitious talk. He does, however, write character well and Ruby is a role made in heaven for the peerless Elley-Ray Hennessy. She and hubby Ned (Robert Winslow) are aging hippies. For example, Ruby hosts moondances for the outcasts in the Millbrook community, and has her eye on Luke. Ned can’t get a word in edgewise as Ruby takes flight with Gilbert’s hilarious dialogue.

The most inspired moments of the play are Luke’s fantasies, which include the Marlborough Man clone John (Ken Houston), a newcomer to the Millbroook area. Director Kim Blackwell has played these up to the hilt, whether it is Luke mimicking a Madonna video, or a flock of homing pigeons taking off as Luke swirls his cape, or a bare-chested John arriving on his horse to rescue Luke from dire straits.

When the gay sex scene happens between the very drunk Luke and the very straight and very drunk, hormones raging Roy (Spencer Robson), it is absolutely logical. Blackwell slips her actors into the embrace with consummate taste. In fact, the logic of the scene makes one wonder whether virulent homophobia is a result of a straight guy ending up in a same sex situation while under the influence, which is then a source of shame.

Blackwell works best when dealing with a cast of thousands like the Stag and Doe party that ends the play. She has also pulled clear characterizations out of her players – the sensitive Luke, the brutish father, the harried mother, the boorish brother, and a particularly strong performance from the dangerously flirty Jasmine (Emily Gray), a friend of Courtney. Once again the cast is a mix of professionals, recent drama school grads, and members of the community, and Blackwell weaves them all together with her usual dispatch. The fusion is a 4th Line trademark. The theatre is known for showcasing emerging talents and both Bacon and Robson are ones to watch. Jacqueline Campbell’s costumes are character perfect.

(St. Francis of Millbrook, written by Sky Gilbert, 4th Line Theatre, (starring Nathaniel Bacon, Sherri McFarlane, William Foley, and Elley-Ray Hennessey, directed by Kim Blackwell), Aug. 13 to Sept. 1, 2012)







Theatre Review – 4th Line Theatre/Shirley Barrie’s Queen Marie

Marie Dressler was a force of nature whose fascinating life was crying out to be made into a play.  The Oscar-winning actress/comedienne was born in Cobourg and raised in Lindsay, and that made her the perfect subject for a 4th Line Theatre production.

The company only does original plays anchored in Northumberland and Peterborough counties and the Kawartha Lakes district. Its outdoor productions, performed in the courtyard between three barns, are epic in nature because the company can field a large cast. Equity actors are surrounded by recent theatre school graduates and members of community theatre. There are 24 cast members in Queen Marie who play a multitude of gender-bending characters.

Playwright Shirley Barrie has created a play that is bursting with life, with the help of dramaturge Maja Ardal. Justin Hiscox has written the delightfully droll music that turns Queen Marie into a musical. Designer Julia Tribe’s colourful costumes are brilliant. They cover the period from the Gay Nineties to the Roaring Twenties, but are cleverly fashioned for quick costume changes, of which there are many.

Director Kim Blackwell has crafted a production rich in action, gilded by Monica Dottor’s to-the-point choreography. Blackwell has cleverly included a bevvy of nine nubile young dancers to be Dressler’s Greek chorus. Apparently, Dressler surrounded herself with gorgeous chorus girls when she was on Broadway, and these mostly teenagers do a terrific job with both singing and dancing, as well as reflecting Dressler’s highs and lows. Blackwell has loaded Dressler’s story with marvelous vignettes. A highlight is the scene detailing Dressler’s first foray into silent film where the actors move their mouths and physically act out the melodrama. It’s a laugh-out-loud moment.

The action covers Dressler’s early life beginning in 1874, and ends with her death in 1934. There is reference to her lesbian inclinations, but she also had a long liaison with a married man. Dressler’s ups and downs are chronicled in seamless fashion, but the second act does sag a bit with Dressler’s final films, and a portentous chorus, swaying back and forth, moaning about wind and rain.

The play details Dressler’s life in vaudeville, music hall, Broadway and film. Her signature song was “A Great Big Girl Like Me” that stressed her large frame and homely face. Barrie has created a larger than life character whose self-deprecating humour was her stock in trade. Dressler was the first to laugh at herself.

Shelley Simester gives the performance of a lifetime as Dressler. She is absolutely charismatic and holds centre court with her commanding presence. She can sing and dance, and can be very funny. She absolutely lives and breathes Dressler in a relentless performance that never stops. As she travels through the actress’ highs and lows, Simester shows subtle nuances that make her performance three dimensional. Her Queen Marie is complex and in-your-face, all at the same time. Simester is as vibrant at the end of the show as she is at the beginning.

The other equity actors are strong. Jeff Schissler is particularly effective playing everyone from movie mogul Louis B. Mayer to song and dance man Dan Daley. He has an excellent singing voice and can dance up a storm. I’d really like to see more of this young man and his compelling presence. Robert Winslow, Alison J. Palmer and Sedina Fiati all bring depth to their various characters. Fiati, with her character’s cynical reality check, is Dressler’s maid, and later friend, Mamie Steel. She is the perfect counterpoint to the outgoing Dressler and her eternal optimism.

Mention should be made of two young women who are recent theatre grads and show tremendous promise. Allie Dunbar really finds the dramatic arc of Claire Dubrey, Dressler’s lover, while Heather Maitland makes a sympathetic Nella Webb, Dressler’s long-suffering friend.

This production is a run don’t walk. Its grandeur, its comedy, its poignancy make it a most satisfying evening of theatre. 4th Line, and director Kim Blackwell, have scored another winner.

Queen Marie, written by Shirley Barrie, (starring Shelley Simester, Robert Winslow, Alison J. Palmer, Sedina Fiati and Jeff Schissler, directed by Kim Blackwell), 4th Line Theatre, Jul. 3 to Aug. 4, 2012