Saturday, February 13, 2016


Two Fridays ago, I saw one of the most anticipated theatre events of the Toronto winter season to date.  Graham Abbey, long-time Stratford leading man has founded his own company, Groundling Theatre. In collaboration with COALMINE THEATRE  he is presenting his company's inaugural production, Shakespeare's THE WINTER'S TALE in the intimate confines of  Coalmine's new 100 seat venue at 1454 Danforth Avenue in Toronto.

If you join the groundlings in the cheap seats, as I did, for $20 you can have a plump velvet cushion against the wall, at the very edge of the stage, pretty much in the actor's aisle for entrances and exits.  The only way I could have been more immersed in the action, was to actually don the motley and go tread the boards myself. Not that the talent on stage needs any help from me or anyone else, thank you very much. It's an excellent production of the play with an absolutely stellar cast.

THE WINTER'S TALE is a difficult play to do well.  King Leontes (a masterful Tom McCamus)  the male protagonist is an unsympathetic character, and to a modern audience, incredibly sexist.  The tone of the first act is tragic, with a family destroyed by his jealousy and rage: the second act is comic and romantic, as a collapsed marriage gives way to young love among the rustics, reconciliation, and hope.

The action of the show begins with McCamus/Leontes watching his wife Hermione (an elegant and understated Michelle Giroux) and son in a film, a ghostly presence in his house. His late wife's closest ally  Paulina (Lucy Peacock, commands the stage as show's heart and its moral compass) hovers. He's tortured by regret and remorse.

McCamus plays Leontes as a man whose narcissistic rage and insecurity drive him to destroy his relationships with all the people he loves. He treats his wife and son like chattel, and drives his brother and his most loyal courtiers away.

The "exit pursued by a bear" at the end of the first half  is handled in an extraordinary fashion.  Brent Carver morphs from the victim, Antigonius, who is handed the horrifying task of leaving Leontes and Hemione's baby daughter to die in the woods into the beast who consumes him. Carver plays the moment as if his own grief and guilt come out of him to literally, eat him alive. Amazing.

Collectively, the company nails the tonal shift between the two halves, supported by a very simple but evocative design  by Steve Lucas and pitch-perfect music by performer and composer George Meanwell. Meanwell also provides a nice cameo in the role of Time at the top of second half of the play.

The second act, with Carver as the singing pick-pocket Artolycus and Mark Crawford and Robert Persichini as two hilariously dim-witted and good-hearted shepherds was an utter delight. As Perdita and Florizel, Sarena Parmar and Charlie Gallant are charming as the young star-crossed lovers, and Patrick Galligan was a suitably outraged Polixenes. The play ends with a real reconciliation between parents and children and then, Leontes and Hermione: tenuous but tender, and hard won.

There are rush seats at the door, but you need to arrive early, as they are coveted and few. I'd be hard pressed to think of a more romantic place for a theatre-lover to spend this Valentine's Day weekend, then as a groundling watching this polished, intelligent and very intimate production of Shakespeare. It's a night at the theatre to cherish.

If your Valentine likes having their funny bone tickled, you might want to head over to the Factory Theatre tonight and catch ONE NIGHT ONLY.- THE GREATEST MUSICAL NEVER WRITTEN this weekend.

An exceptionally good crew of improvisors: Ashley Botting, Carly Heffernan, Ron Pedserson, Jan Caruna, Reid Janisse and Alex Tindal,  in tandem with a kick-ass band led by Jordan Armstrong , and backstage Deus-ex-machina director Melody Johnson, create a musical, based on a series of suggestions from the audience on the spot:  For real! -and it totally works!

 The Factory's stage, which often feels unwieldy is put to excellent use here, with a gorgeous red velvet curtain hung in the proscenium arch centre stage, adding glamour and covering quick changes, entrances, and exits.  I'm not always a huge fan of improv, but the cast has great chops and work together like a well-oiled comedy machine.  After the show, there was a cabaret performance in the bar and an artist painting scenes from the show. I had a great time from start to finish. It's a very fun night out.

It's the last weekend for one of my favourite plays, THE CHERRY ORCHARD by independent company, The Chekhov Collective. It's about a family of charming upper class spendthrifts who have so squandered their fortune, that their family estate is about to be sold out from under them to pay their debts. A hundred years after its debut, it's still a great play about a paradise of carefree innocence lost to folly and fortune's changing tides. It's also a very challenging tragi-comedy, whose tone is tricky to capture. For the most part, this production gets the blend of humour and sorrow just right.

The largely white set by Dimitrii Khilchenko was very pretty to look at, but a little cluttered, and the scale of the set pieces felt too dainty for the space.  The director, Dmitry Zhukovsky  made vivid tableaux at the top of each act and did a lot of fine work with most of his actors. 

This production has some outstanding performances, particularly Andrew Pogson as Lopakhin, the peasant turned successful entrepreneur, Richard Sheridan Willis as Gaev, one of the owners of the orchard,  Llyandra Jones as the put-upon adopted daughter, Varya, Joy Tanner as Charlotte, the eccentric governess, and John Gilbert as Firs, the family's old servant. I also really enjoyed the antics of Nina Gilmour as the affected and silly besotted maid, Dunyasha and Yury Ruzhyev, the pretentious footman and object of her affections. Clayton Gray was charming as the sad-sack Yepihodov, the man who actually loves her, and who she wants nothing to do with. Harrison Thomas and Thalia Kane were a credible pair of young lovers as starving student Trofimov, and soon to be penniless daughter, Anya.

As Ranevskya, the family matriarch, Rena Polley seemed to struggle with her role and neither lighting, direction, or her costume did her any favours.

Most of the wardrobe was perfect for the period production, but Polley  looked out of place in a dress that was incongruously contemporary.  Worse yet, the lighting and blocking frequently left her delivering speeches in the dark.

In one of the play's most powerful moments, when her brother arrives at a party she's decide to throw on the night their house is auctioned off by the bank, they exchange a look and we see she finally grasps that they have lost their home for good. She delivers a moment of great emotional intensity that was barely allowed to register, as she was positioned onstage so she was visible to only a small portion of the audience.

It's worth checking out for both the play itself, and for the many good performances in the production.

THE WINTER'S TALE by GROUNDLING THEATRE COMPANY and presented by COALMINE THEATRE COMPANY continues at the Coalmine Theatre until February 20th ONE NIGHT ONLY continues at THE FACTORY THEATRE and click "What's On"( top upper l/h side)  or call (416)504 9971.  The CHEKHOV COLLECTIVE'S production of THE CHERRY ORCHARD continues at the Berkeley Street Theatre upstairs for dates, times and tickets.

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