Friday, February 10, 2017

REVIEW: At Coal Mine Theatre SUPERIOR DONUTS is a treat to savour.

Consider if you will, the lowly doughnut: deep fried, delicious, greasy goodness.

Doughnuts and comedy have a few things in common.  The pleasures they offer are often regarded as plebeian, and while both may seem common-place, they are not all that easy to make successfully as anyone who's ever tried their hand at either will tell you.

Tracy Letts has written a very successful comedy, and while some of the strokes may be broad, his hand is skillful and assured.

In Superior Donuts, Letts takes a rueful look at The American Dream:  the promise of prosperity and endless possibilities offered to the huddled masses.  Specifically he's looking at the many ways that dream gets perverted by cowardice and greed and destroyed by casual violence.

In the current political situation to the south of us, Letts offers a gentle meditation on what it means to be an American. This might not sound particularly funny, and the play is not without tragedy, but it offers a lot of joy and it has a big warm heart.

As usual, at Coal Mine, the standard of acting is one of the joys of the production. It's rare to see such a fine and skillful ensemble deliver such uniformly good performances.  I keep going to the theatre in Toronto and seeing television acting on stage.  It was nice to see a bunch of actors who know the difference between the two and give theatrical performances on a stage. The opening night audience loved it.

Director Ted Dykstra has assembled an excellent nine member cast anchored by the utterly wonderful Robert Persichini as Arthur Przybyszewski, the sad-sack proprietor of Superior Donuts, a failing donut joint in a part of Chicago where the old businesses of immigrant families are giving way to tonier chain stores like Starbucks.

The shambolic Przybyszewski has abandoned hope: his child, his marriage and any vestige of ambition either personal or professional.  At the start of the play, his shop has been trashed by vandals who've spray-bombed a sexist expletive used to describe a coward. The cops (who are regulars) are there. The female officer, Randy (a delightful and very funny Darla Biccum) is sweet on him but Arthur has long ago gone blind to possibility.

In one of his monologues, Przybyszewski describes himself as an evader, rather than a resister. "Resisters," he explains, "fight."

He hires a new shop assistant:  a young, black kid called Franco. Nabil Rajo brings a great deal of charm and youthful energy to the role of  Franco: a dreamer, a hustler and more than a bit of a gambler.  Franco's written a novel "America will be...", the title an homage to the great American poet, Langston Hughes. He believes fervently in his dreams which are the source of all his joy and most of his troubles.

In the space between Franco's exuberance and Arthur's pessimism, Letts explores some very interesting territory about what it means to be an American man in these troubled times. Anna Treush' set and costumes perfectly evoke both place and time.

Lett's Chicago reminded me of old Queen Street West, back when it was lined with East European butchers and bakeries and I went to Rooneen's bakery for soup on cold winter days while my laundry was spinning across the street. Thugs and hustlers, cafe philosophers and bag ladies inhabited the 'hood.  Now there's a Loblaw's instead of the Czech butcher and the Ukrainian baker.

The Galaxy Donut at Queen and Bathurst is long gone: replaced by a Starbucks.  You may know where Letts is going with this story but there's a lot of joy in the ride

Coal Mine Theatre presents SUPERIOR DONUTS at Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Avenue, Toronto, Tuesday-Saturday @ 7:30 • Sunday Matinee @ 2pm (new this year!)*
*Sunday, February 5 @ 7:30pm
Rush seats are sometimes available at the door at 7:00 PM.
All Tickets $35 (previews $25)  http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2595274
For more info visit www.coalminetheatre.com


Robert Persichini in Superior Donuts









Tuesday, January 24, 2017

INTERVIEW: Sandra Shamas is Back! This Time, There are No Rules!

It all started with a couple of wild turkeys.  And no, Sandra Shamas is not talking about bourbon shooters.

"They were in my yard."  She lives in the country. I ask about the impact of rural life on her as an artist.

"Well, the move took a lot of creativity!  It evoked my adaptability.  You're constantly adjusting to new conditions.  Some days just getting from the house to the barn is an adventure. I have to trust myself."

Shamas' career began long before the turkeys showed up.  Her phenomenal success started  in 1987 when she won a slot in the Edmonton Fringe.  This was back in the pre-lottery days, when it was first come, first served, and hopefuls lined up to get a place.  She had an hour slot and an idea for a show: but she didn't have a play.

"I knew it was about a relationship - and I knew the end: we fall in love.  I knew there was a break-up in the middle and a week in stinky pajamas, crying on the phone with  your girlfriends.  And I knew when he came back, when I looked beside the bed in the morning at the pile of his clothes on the floor from the night before, there was going to be laundry."

Shamas figured out the rest on the plane to Edmonton. The result,  MY BOYFRIEND'S BACK AND THERE'S GOING TO BE LAUNDRY was described by one male critic "as a woman having a conversation at a kitchen table". He meant it derisively.  Who wants to hear some woman talk about her life in an intimate way?  It was an instant hit.

"I took it (his critique) as a great compliment.  I wanted to speak about the culture of women - and women talk at the kitchen table."

For legions of woman, young and old, who have spent most of their lives having some man or other talk at them, not to them, Shamas was a voice in the theatrical wilderness. The show she came up with on that fateful trip to Edmonton marked the start of a career that has spanned 30 years, many more hit shows and packed theatres across the country, including an eight week sold-out run at Toronto's Winter Garden Theatre.

This time, Shamas has chosen the Paula Fleck Theatre at Harbourfront. "I wanted an intimate venue. The Fleck is 441 seats:  half the size of the Winter Garden.  And it has soft seats - soft seats are very important at our age."

I'm laughing already.

There's always plenty of laughter at a Shamas show, although she doesn't see herself as a comedian.  "I see myself as a truth-teller.  Truth-telling is primary - and the truth can be funny."

When Shamas gets hold of it, the truth can be hilarious:  also, painful, enraging, thought-provoking and very moving.

Back to those wild turkeys:  four years ago, Shamas was standing at her kitchen sink doing the dishes in her rural Ontario kitchen, looking out the window at the birds and thinking about a conversation she'd had at a dinner table the night before.

"I was the MC at a local charity event.  It was chaotic:  you know the kind of thing run by people who control by chaos? I was seated at a dinner table with several couples.  An 89 year old woman asked me, "Where's your husband?"  I said, "I don't have a husband."  She said, "What do you do all day?"  I realized she thought of her husband as her job.  This got me thinking:  how do we as women see our relevance in society as we age? If we want a partner at this point, what would we want that to look like? What do want the next 30 years to look like?"

Very few women in Canada have had lengthy and successful careers as monologists. Touring and child-rearing are nearly impossible to reconcile.  I suggest to Shamas that at the point when many women start to have career momentum, they drop out to have children. This issue continues to affect women's careers in many professions.

"I didn't have kids. My niche was to amuse the women who were having those kids. Now those kids are grown up and they come with their moms and their aunties and grandmas and form part of my audience."

We talk about how things are - and aren't different for younger women.

"We're in a period where women's rights seem to be regressing. Women are marching in the streets over blatant sexism:  Trump, Ghomeshi. Like marching, theatre is an expression of solidarity."

How does she see her relationship with the audience?

"I'm trying to ask the audience questions. Theatre is a communal experience.  We come together to have a shared experience, a shared catharsis. We're all in this together."

What's changed  for her personally as a performer, in 30 years?

"My memory. It's not as easy to remember 55 minutes! I have a special word now for the start of each piece.  I've given up certain things:  no caffeine, no alcohol."

How does she see the next 30 years of her life?

"I'm re-calibrating my direction. I have my independence, a life worth living that gives me things worth talking about.  Helen Mirren said, "There are no rules over 60. I want to see what it's like when there are no rules."

Me too:  I can't wait.




Everything But the Kitchens Inc. presents

THE BIG ‘WHAT NOW?’

Written and Performed by Sandra Shamas
Fleck Dance Theatre, Queens Quay Terminal Building, Harbourfront Centre
207 Queens Quay West, Toronto
January 25 to February 4, 2017
Wednesday to Saturday @ 8pm, Sunday @ 2pm
Tickets are $45 & $55 and can be purchased by calling
416-973-4000 (Press Option 1)
or online at  my.harbourfrontcentre.com












Wednesday, November 16, 2016

REVIEWS: THE DAMAGE DONE & COMFORT

The first thing that struck me when I walked into The Citadel for THE DAMAGE DONE last week was the smell of fallen leaves.

The stage is covered with them, drifts and piles of them.  Collapsing beauty, decay, loss, remorse, and nostalgia for the long past autumns of childhood are all evoked by the dying foliage bathed in a golden light, courtesy of Guiseppe Condello .

At the back of the stage hangs an industrial window, the frame rusted, the panes dirty with one visibly cracked.  Downstage, a man in middle age uses a park bench as a balance beam, walking the planks with his arms out, then pitching pebbles at the fractured pane of glass.

This is Bobby (Wes Berger) and he's here to meet his childhood sweetheart, Tina (Sarah Murphy-Dyson) at their old haunt, a park in the working-class neighbourhood where they grew up. She's asked to meet to see if he will take their two girls for awhile, while she goes away to get straight.

If you're a George F. Walker fan (and I am) you've met Bobby and Tina before.  THE DAMAGE DONE is the third play in Walker's trilogy about the estranged couple and their travails.

In the earlier plays, TOUGH and MOSS PARK, Tina and Bobby are a young, off-again, on-again couple, struggling to face parenthood.

Nearly 20 years later, Tina has boot-strapped her way out of a childhood of abandonment and privation.  She's married a lawyer, got a house, gone back to school, become a social worker, raised two kids - and become an addict.  Bobby, a dreamer and petty criminal has gone in and out of work, and in and out of his children's lives. He's trying to write, and dreams of a life without the drudgery of manual labour.

Walker shows, as Dickens did, what poverty does to people. The stress created by insecurity about having one's most basic human needs met traumatizes survivors.  Poverty may be behind Tina, but the fear it has created in her has never gone away.  In the aftermath of a break-up, it's threatening to engulf her. Bobby, underemployed and slacking, looks like a disaster, but Tina is the one who is falling apart inside.

Berger and Murphy-Dyson have great stage chemistry and inhabit their roles with an authentic physicality, nicely enhanced by Ken Gass' confident, understated direction.

As always, Walker and Gass  underline the warmth and humour,as well as the challenges and sorrows of Bobby and Tina's troubled relationship and their messy, imperfect lives.

THE DAMAGE DONE is a clear-eyed and impassioned look at the  long-term consequences of an impoverished childhood. I had tears in my eyes at the end of the night.

Saturday night, Red Snow Collective opened COMFORT at AKI Studio, in the Daniels Spectrum Theatre.

Diana Tso revisits a particularly ugly aspect of the Second World War: the so-called "comfort women". Chinese and Asian women were captured by the Japanese Imperial Army and brutally used as sex slaves by Japanese troops.

Tso and her director William Yong tell this difficult story with great artistry and sensitivity, employing dance, live music and Chinese opera to support the well-researched text.

Tso uses the frame of a famous Chinese story, THE BUTTERFLY LOVERS to underpin the love story of Li Dan Feng and Zhou Ping Yang, who cannot be kept apart: not by class differences, parental opposition, or the truly awful catastrophe of war.

Viki Kim and Jeff Yung are very affecting as the star-crossed lovers. The rest of the cast does a fine job in a multiplicity of roles, handling the tonal shifts and physical demands of the various characters with great dexterity. I particularly enjoyed Oliver Koomsatira as Ping Yang's faithful and mischievous cormorant.

The live music by Constantine Caravassilis is wonderfully played by Cathy Nosaty (piano, Accordian),Patty Chan (Chinese  violin) and Brandon Valdivia (percussion) and greatly enhances the production.

I felt the second act could have been trimmed a bit, but the ending was heartfelt with out being in any way sentimental or cloying.

The play is not only an homage to the survivors of the comfort women's horrifying ordeal, it's a powerful plea for an end to war.
Aleppo ran out of food this week. The cries for an end to violence can't be loud enough.

These two new Canadian plays by smaller,independent Toronto companies are both well worth checking out.

The Damage Done by George F. Walker continues at
The Citadel, 304 Parliament Street (south of Dundas), Toronto

to December 11, 2016 (NOTE - No performances on Dec 1 &2)
Tues - Sat 8:30 PM,  Sundays at 2:30 PM
Sunday matinees are Pay-What-You-Can at the door. Tickets are available at  www.canadianrep.ca   or by phone at 416-946-3065.


Red Snow Collective presents Comfort until December 10, 2016 at Aki Studio Theatre, Native Earth Performing Arts, 585 Dundas Street East (Daniel’s Spectrum), Toronto, ON  Tuesday – Saturdays @ 8pm • Saturday Matinees @ 2pm   Pay-What-You-Can Tuesdays
Tickets can be purchased online at nativeearth.ca/boxoffice, by phone at 416-531-1402, or in-person at Toronto Centre for the Arts’ Box Office, 5040 Yonge Street





PROARTE DANZA Opens Tonight as part of NEXTSTEPS at the Paula Fleck Theatre



Called "the best small-scale contemporary ballet company in Canada" by the Globe and Mail, (2012) ProArte Danza has been presenting its unique fusion of ballet and modern dance  in Toronto since 2004.

I've seen the company several times now, and I've never been disappointed.  The talent of the dancers and the strength of the repertoire are both consistently first-rate.

Tonight, ProArte opens their 2016 Toronto run with a double-bill featuring Fearful Symmetries a world premiere choreographed by Artistic Director, Roberto Campanella and Diversion the Ontario premiere of a work by Artistic Associate Robert Glumbeck that Vancouver's Georgia Strait described as "mind-blowing."

Campanella's Fearful Symmetries employs American composer John Adams' composition of the same title to underscore an exploration of the choreographer's own experiences as a young immigrant arriving to Canada from Italy, against that of the current generation of young artists, with particular attention to the influence of urban aesthetics and pop culture on both.

Robert Glumbeck's Diversion examines various departures in life, both expected and unexpected, with the company of eleven dancers performing to an electronic score by Britain's Marconi Union.

This season, ProArte's  dancers are Sonja Boretski, Caryn Chappell, Tyler Gledhill, Benjamin Landsberg, Ryan Lee, Sash Ludavicius, Tori Mehaffey, Daniel McArthur, Julie Pecard, Anisa Tejpar and Christopher Valentini.

I have seen fragments of this work in rehearsal in the studio and it was both charged and beautifully danced.  I can hardly wait for tonight's performance.

 


ProArte Danza Season 2016 Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront Centre, 207 Queens Quay West, 3rd Floor  from Wednesday, November 16 until Saturday, November 19th, 2016 nightly at 8:00 PM.  Tickets range from $25 - $45 with discounts for students, seniors, arts workers and groups. To order, call (416) 973 4000 or go to http://proartedanza.com



Monday, November 14, 2016

REVIEWS: ACQUIESCE at FACTORY and CONSTELLATIONS at CANADIAN STAGE Contemplate This Life - and the Next

It's November.  Even on a sunny day in Toronto, there's not much light, at least not for very long. Brief and golden when it comes, grey and dismal on the overcast days: by 5:00 PM it's dark.

Maybe it was contemplating November,the month of Remembrance Day and Dia de los Meurtes that has encouraged so many of Toronto's theatres to open their seasons with meditations on death and its aftermath.

In ACQUIESCE, currently at the Factory, David Yee looks at the relationship between an estranged father and son in the aftermath of the father's death. The play begins when the son is tricked by a distant cousin into coming to Hong Kong to bury the father he avoided his entire adult life. Sin hated, still hates his father. He's also much more like him than he wants to admit.

What do we get from our parents? As we, and they, age, what do we owe them?  Duty, devotion, charity, compassion?  What do we understand about their lives, really?

Sin has run, no, fled his past, but he hasn't escaped it and it threatens to overwhelm him.

It's a familiar journey; the angry young artist rebel son making peace with the ghost of a controlling and demanding male parent. Thanks to sure the directorial hand of Nina Aquino, a lovely design (Robin Fisher, sets, Monica Lee - props) and gorgeous lighting by Michelle Ramsey, ACQUIESCE feels like a fresh look at a universal human story.  It's beautifully and inventively told.

Aquino fills suitcases with luminous images: the shimmering detritus of the inescapable past.  She also makes great use of the Factory's often difficult mainstage, using its depth to move the action forwards and backwards in time.

While the play is deeply affecting,  it also has moments of flat-out hilarity: a talking stuffie in the form of Paddington Bear, Kai's obsession with face cream.

The cast:  Yee as Sin Hwang, the author, John Ng as his old-school Chinese immigrant dad, Richard Lee as Kai, the Hong Kong cousin and the embodiment of filial piety and duty, and Rosie Simon as Sin's long-suffering girlfriend, Nine all do fine work here.

Yee initially wrote this play as a much younger man.  The first act could have easily lost 15-20 minutes and never missed them.  It's a minor fault with a moving, heartfelt story about fathers, sons and families. The Factory's 16-17 season is off to a very good start.

Love, loss and string theory are currently on the boards over at Canadian Stage where  CONSTELLATIONS, British playwright Nick Payne, gets a Toronto production.

Ostensibly, the play is a human exploration of a scientific theory. If there are other universes, could there be one in which someone who is dead here on earth, is alive somewhere else?

The conceit of the play is this:  a man, Roland  (Graham Cuthbertson) and a woman,(Cara Ricketts) come together and drift apart, through a series of repeated scenes, played for different emphasis and effect.  Their choices within the scenes determine the range of outcomes.

You can see why actors love this play. It's really an extended acting exercise.

I've seen other plays written using the same construction. Toronto playwright, Erin Thompson had a hit on the Fringe with MEET CUTE  two summers back, which I think worked a lot better dramatically than this beautiful to look at, but oddly chilly production.

As a theatrical examination of human relations and theoretical physics, CONSTELLATIONS can't hold a candle to say, COPENHAGEN or POSSIBLE WORLDS. In spite of a gorgeous stage production, CONSTELLATIONS is also not a particularly engaging love story.

Hinton and his design team create an exquisite visual allusion to our planet's place in the universe: a tilting platform floating adrift in the cold, beautiful heavens.  The opening stage picture  with its wash of clouds and the mirrored back wall suggesting infinity is utterly arresting. The live cello accompaniment by Jane Chan underlines the action with an aching loveliness. The staging is fantastic.

The couple at the heart of the piece, alas, don't have much chemistry onstage. In a measure that further distances the audience from the material, they eschew the British accents written into the dialogue and perform them in good old Canadian, a decision I always find distracting.

The conceit of CONSTELLATIONS is much better as theory than as theatrical practice, although it's worth checking out for Hinton's fine production of an OK play.

AQUIESCE continues at the FACTORY THEATRE until NOVEMBER 27th: For times and tickets go to:  https://www.factorytheatre.ca/what-s-on/

CONSTELLATION continues at the Bluma Appel Theatre, CANADIAN STAGE also until November 27th. For dates times and tickets:  https://www.canadianstage.com/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=constellations




Thursday, November 3, 2016

REVIEW: Coal Mine' Theatre's BREATHING CORPSES is SPOOKY and SHARP

Last Wednesday on a chilly, dark autumn night, a few short days before Halloween, I went to see Coal Mine Theatre's season-opener, British playwright Laura Wade's BREATHING CORPSES.

It's a perfect late autumn entertainment: a dark elegiac meditation on mortality, and the effect one person's death can have on the people around them, even those who never knew them in life.

A group of seemingly unconnected characters are impacted by a series of violent deaths: a suicide and two murders.

Wade's play is elegantly constructed, smartly written, and filled in equal measure with difficult relationships and dark humour.  Here, doors are a potent and chilling metaphor. Do you really want to know what's on the other side?

Director David Ferry and his talented cast: Simon Bracken, Erin Humphry, Kim Nelson, Johnathan Sousa, Benjamin Sutherland, Severn Thompson and  Richard Sheridan-Willis skillfully enrich the inter-connected stories with their performances, bringing individuality, poignancy and charm to each  character and relationship.  I particularly enjoyed Erin Humphry's turn as a chambermaid in a semi-sketchy hotel. Is the sparkle in her eye the twinkle of charm, or the glint of pathology?

As always at Coal Mine, the show makes excellent use of the minimal space, in great measure due to the excellent set design by Steve Lucas.

In his notes in the program, Ferry muses on the difference between determinism and chance in the matter of death. Certainly none of us will live forever: that much is determined. The rest?  Wade's twist of an ending left me in shock:  horrified and laughing uncomfortably at the same time.

BREATHING CORPSES is a very entertaining night of theatre: especially if you like a walk on the scary side of the street. On a dark, wet November night, is there any other side?

BREATHING CORPSES continues until November 13th at the COAL MINE THEATRE,  1454 Danforth Avenue from Tuesday to Sunday at 7:30 PM with a matinee on Sunday at 2:00 PM. For tickets and further information go to:  www.coalminetheatre.com






Saturday, October 29, 2016

Interview: WhyNot Theatre Presents the Beautiful and Innovative Like Mother/Like Daughter

Ravi Jain has got to be one of the busiest guys working in theatre these days.  He's remounting A BRIMFUL OF ASHA, his run-away hit about his relationship with his mother.  He and his mom open at Soulpepper later this week.

He's also helmed a fascinating piece of devised theatre ending its far-too short run at 918 Bathurst Street tonight, where mothers and daughters get together around a dining room table, and talk about their relationship, their histories both apart and together, and the impact of that relationship on their lives.

Full, rich, and fascinating, right?

Last Saturday afternoon, I spoke with two of the participants in the project, daughter, Ximena Huiza and mother, Isabel Iribarren about what drew them to the project, and about the process of creating the production.

Ximena is a theatre practitioner; an actor and creator.  Since graduating from the theatre program at Fanshawe five years ago she's worked in Toronto with Aluna Theatre. WhyNot posted on the TAPA blog, asking for mothers and daughters, where one half of the pair were born outside Canada.

You can tell Ximena and Isabel are related, not only from their features, but from their personalities and the way they use their bodies and hands when they talk. They're both lively, warm, sharp, engaged, passionate, smart: we talked for close to an hour and the time flew by.

Isabel and Ximena came from Venezula with their family, Isabel's second husband and younger son from her second marriage, Jesus, now 13.  Ximena started her theatre program when they got here.

When she graduated, she lived at home for 6 months. 'We can't live together!  We fight too much!"

Isabel went back to school also: a schoolteacher with a business degree, she went to George Brown here and got a degree in Early Childhood Education when she arrived in Canada.

As we spoke, I thought of the Chilean women I worked with at a formalwear rental shop in Winnipeg, while I was in university.  All of those women had been teachers in Chile:  in Winnipeg, they were doing laundry and steam-pressing suits in the back of the store. My own immigrant grandmother worked in a candy factory.  I'm glad Isabel is teaching.

I ask them how they are alike:  Ximena says, "Our personalities are so similar! We both want the last word."

How are they different?   At 27, Ximena is the oldest childless woman in her family in four generations.    Does she want children?  She looks at her mom.  They both laugh.  She sighs.  "Eventually, yes.  Not now!"

Her older sister is married with kids and living in the US.  So Isabel has those grandchildren moms seem to want. "Oh yes!  it's wonderful."

What is her best childhood memory?  "On Margarita Island, (off the coast of Venezula) where we used to go for summer vacations."

Their biggest worry? A pause.  We have a long conversation about both women's broken relationship with their biological fathers.  Neither sees or speaks to that man in their life.

We sit in silence.  I think of my own Dad and our mutual admiration society, how much we adored each other.  Last Saturday would have been his 81st birthday. Even though he's gone, I still know I have his love.  Not having that in life is an inconceivable suffering to me. The pain of it knocked all of us on our heels, reeling in the  silence of that void.

Ximena says, "Here, I am Canadian.  But I tell my friends, if you want to under stand ma vida loca, you have to meet my mother. They you'll know who I am."

We stop.  We hug.  They go back to Ravi and the other moms and daughters to continue to prepare the show.

I saw Like Mother/Like Daughter last night with a girlfriend.  I would love to have gone with my own mom, but she's in Winnipeg, and I'm not sure she could do the stairs these days.

It's beautiful:  delicate, generous, inspiring, warm, funny, and in moments, heart-rending.  Just like going home to mom.

After the show, we are invited to join the performers around a dinner table to share food and talk about the experience of being there, of being mothers and daughters.  Connection, community, catharsis:  these are some of the best things theatre can bring and this show offers all of them.

Please bring this back!

WhyNot Theatre in collaboration with Complicite Theatre presents Like Mother/Like Daughter until October 30th at 918 Bathurst Street: http://www.theatrewhynot.org/project/like-mother-like-daughter/