Wednesday, December 18, 2013

THE VALLEY and the Delights of the Holiday Season

Sunday was a two-show day.  It began as I scrambled into a taxi at 9:15 am to make my god-daughter's Christmas pageant at her family church.  Her mother is a very talented writer for screen and television and wrote the script for this stage outing: a very endearing re-telling of the Christmas story, giving the inn-keepers a major role.

There were angels in tinsel and cardboard wings, a kid dressed as a sheep and a Cabbage-Patch baby Jesus. My god-daughter delivered the "tidings of great joy" standing on a chair and wearing a golden star and tinsel garland halo. The whole exercise was followed by carols, dainties, those mini-sandwiches I so adore, clementines and a toboggan run down-hill behind the church.  There was a brief moment where I thought my time on earth was going to end careening into the side of a Lutheran church on a sheet of plastic but we managed to avert catastrophe and dumped over into a snowbank. Yes, boys and girls, it's Christmas Time once more.

The serious plays are coming to an end for the fall half of the theatre season, giving way to parties and pantomimes and pageants and ballets with dancing bears. Before I trot off, shortbread in hand, to several weeks of family friendly seasonal delights, I went and got one last good dose of serious drama.

I hit the TARRAGON for the closing matinee of  THE VALLEY.

Two very different families, both struggling with mental illness, collide through a happenstance on the Vancouver Sky Train.

Any deep relationship tests your human capacity for unconditional love.  A relationship with a mentally ill family member, lover or friend can take you to the edge of your own sanity.

The marriage between Daniel, the cop ( Ian Lake) and his post-postpartum depressed wife,  Janie ( Michelle Monteith), desperate to escape the house and the suffocating demands of a colicky baby was really well drawn. So was the relationship between the anxious,over-functioning, divorced, obsessional mom Sharon, (Susan Coyne) and her collapsing mess of a resentful, angry, brilliant, struggling, depressed son, Conner (Colin Mercer).

THE VALLEY was well-written by Joan MacLeod, well-directed by Richard Rose and  uniformly well-acted with great work from all four performers. Placing the audience on either side of the pit of a stage was a terrific choice.  This was thoughtful theatre with an up-to-the minute subject.

I was very glad to see a realistic depiction of what life is like for families coping with mentally ill family members. I think plays like McLeod's and the discussions that follow help eradicate the stigma that still exists around mental illness. That is a good and very necessary thing if mentally ill people are going to get help.

The upbeat ending was a little hard for me to take.

The therapies currently available for depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder manage the symptoms and give sufferers and their families and loved ones better coping skills.With luck, patients go into remission.  If the drugs don't work and this happens more often than Big Pharma would like you to think, patients commit suicide. This has happened to people I know..

Mental illness can be managed:  it can't, at present, be cured.  I hope the money raised for CAMH by the TARRAGON helps change that fact.

There's two weeks left in the year and I have seen all the gloom and doom I can stand.  It's time to go get jolly!

Last night, I went to "MORRO and JASP: Eat Your Heart Out." the launch of a cookbook by the delightful and intrepid DORA-award-winning clown duo. Food made from the recipes was on offer and it was delicious.  I plan to try out some of the recipes on my holiday guests. The cookbook is available for those of you who are looking for a last minute holiday gift.

I'm going to go AWOL for a while while I bake and decorate and develop some shortbread muscles. If the weather holds, there may even be more toboggan runs!  May your holiday celebrations be joyous and may your New Year be blessed in every way. I'll be back in 2014 ( if not before)!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Sublime and the Superficial: NEEDLES AND OPIUM and WINNERS and LOSERS at Can Stage

When you and your best friend come from different classes, how do you navigate that divide?

How do great artists transform their deepest emotions into art?

These were two seminal questions posed by two very different productions at Canadian Stage this past weekend. One production provided a rich and affecting exploration of its subject matter:  the other was content to skim the surface, and was consequently, much less satisfying.

Let me explain.

On Friday night, I saw WINNERS and LOSERS.  Crow's Theatre presents challenging and thought-provoking work and they were co-presenting with Canadian Stage. 

The show is one of those high concept things:  reality television meets improv theatre.  The two actors, Marcus Youssef and James Long are friends in real life. They created the script together.  It is 75% memorized and 25% improvised.  It's done a bit like a game show and games get played;  wrestling and ping pong.  Lines get drawn on the floor to define the parameters of space, and perhaps debate.  Bells get rung: to end things.

This was less a discussion about class, and more a discussion about money, and how some people use money as a way to keep score in relationships.  Is the person with the most money always the winner? How do men judge their male friends?  Their fathers? What makes someone or something a winner or a loser?

I wanted to like the piece:  I liked the actors and some of the dialogue was funny, some of it was thought provoking, but always, I felt what wasn't being said or discussed was more interesting than what was.

Youssef married young and has grown children. Long married late and has young children. That means Long dated a lot longer.  It also means they had two very different experiences of being a parent.

These two subjects alone would have made a meal, but we barely get an appetizer.

Long masturbates watching porn: Youssef  uses his imagination, which is pretty lively.  Did they take on how they felt about watching porn?  Or why one guy watched porn and the other didn't?  No.

Long is white with a cop for a dad.  Youssef comes from an Egyptian family of intellectuals and bankers.  There was a lot of talk about Youssef's dad handing him money, but did they touch white male privilege, that thing money can't buy?  Oh no, hell no.

A deeper conversation about parenting, and about their respective relationships to their own parents comes close to happening, but backs off as soon as it goes deep.

That was too bad.  As actors, I am convinced these two had the chops to do this, but the subject matter needed the distance and structure of fiction to elevate the text from play to art.

As it stands, WINNERS AND LOSERS is a night spent watching two skilled players in a shinny game:  no hard hits, skating on the surface, old buddies drinking a beer and passing the puck around, a bit of stylized aggression going nowhere with no real stakes.  This was a rec game.  No one really cared who won.  The concept was better than the pay-off. I would have preferred to have seen an actual play  that fully addressed the questions this provoked, but never really dealt with.  You know:  less game and more play.

Then, on Sunday afternoon, I had an experience in a theatre I will treasure for the rest of my life:  Robert's Lepage's intense and exquisite re-visitation to his script from over 25 years ago:  NEEDLES AND OPIUM.

The play starts off with an illuminated map of the acupuncture points on the human body projected on to Robert (Marc Labreche), an actor in Paris doing the English and French voice-over for an American/French film about Miles Davis.  Alone in a hotel room where Julie Greco, Satre and de Beauvoir once lived in the over-heated Hotel Louisiana, Robert is struggling in the aftermath of a break-up.  Acupuncture can cure almost everything: except anguish and a broken heart.

Lepage muses on Jean Cocteau, existentialism, jazz and the life and the music of the great Miles Davis to create an exquisite and compelling aural and visual meditation on the power of artists to transform their personal anguish and heartbreak, their needles, if you will, into the great opiate of sublime art.

Cocteau and Davis both fell prey to the needle of opium: heroin.  Lepage, the writer understands that addiction is about the self medication of the existential pain of living. Art is an alternative track:  in the right hands, it yields similarly consuming results but offers a path not to destruction, but to creation. In the transformation of human anguish to art, the stars are truly born.

The show features three fabulous performers: Marc Labreche, who plays both Robert and Cocteau, seamlessly moving between two worlds and two characters, Wellesley Robertson III who plays Miles Davis with powerful physicality and great elegance, and an uncredited woman who plays the sensuous Julie Greco.

Lepage's highly skilled and accomplished design team provided the cast with an endlessly evocative and inventive set:  a rotating blank canvas of a cube that shape-shifted with a series of lighting and costume changes, traps, aerial wires, sound, music, and projected film to create a world of beauty, sensation and human emotion.

One hundred and twenty uninterrupted minutes flew by:  a complete psychic immersion for the audience. We were transported, body and soul.

NEEDLES and OPIUM was intellectually rigorous, aesthetically beautiful and profoundly moving.

This was absolutely the high point of my theatrical experiences this year.  What a trip!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Luminous Art: The Margie Gillis Dance Foundation at the Paula Fleck Theatre

It's been seventeen years since The Margie Gillis Dance Foundation, the company of internationally renowned dancer and choreographer, Margie Gillis appeared in Toronto.

As I watched last night's performance, I could only wonder how much we've missed.

Margie Gillis is celebrating her 40th year as a dance creator this year.  THE LIGHT BETWEEN, one of three works she is presenting this year, ran for two nights at the Paula Fleck Theatre at the Harbourfornt Centre this week.

More than two years in the making, THE LIGHT BETWEEN is a highly evolved collaboration between Margie Gillis and sculptor and painter, Randal Newman. The work explores the charged, complex and nuanced terrain of the relationship between an artist's life and their work.  They were joined in their creative process by dancer, director and dramaturge Paula Styron, dancer Marc Daigle, costume designer Anne Dixon, lighting designer, Pierre Lavoie, sound and music designer Larsen Lupin and dancer Holly Bright, who did not perform last night, but was instrumental in the creation of the piece.

The result  is an exquisitely beautiful, highly refined, deeply felt and profoundly moving work of art. Sound, text, music, visual elements, dance and performance were intelligently and sensitively synthesized by a team of seasoned collaborators.

Joy, passion, carnality, desire, longing, grief, suffering, compassion, empathy and loss all passed before us and indeed through us, as Gillis, Styron and Daigle  took us on a journey through a series of shifting relationships with themselves and others. The company made palpable the human struggle to fill the deep soul need for love and connection and how that need gets channeled through and satisfied by the creative process of making art.

Lately, I am often physically impressed by dance performances I see, but  mostly I'm left feeling cold.  Last night, the lyricism and emotional commitment of the performers combined with the other creative elements of the production achieved what physical pyrotechnics seldom do.  I was moved to tears.

Ms.Gillis and I share a set designer, Randal Newman so I know from professional experience what a sensitive and inventive collaborator he is. Here, Newman has created a series of eight, large, sculptural, hanging black mesh panels incorporating both fragments of text and elements of the human body  As a stand-alone work of art, the set is beautiful.  As the dancers both moved through and interacted, it became a performer in its own right.

I can count on one hand the number of times in my life I've seen a production this good on every level. Each and every element of the performance: physical, technical and artistic was executed at the highest possible level.

The only thing I was sorry about last night was that the show was over.  Toronto was the last stop for this production for now.  I hope some producer will bring it back here again for a longer run.  If you missed THE LIGHT BETWEEN, you missed something very special.

Saturday, October 19, 2013


I first came to Toronto in autumn, many, many years ago to work on a show at what is now Canadian Stage.  I lived with a friend in his Victorian loft on King Street East, near Parliament Street.  I rehearsed near the corner of Queen Street West and Spadina in a long-gone Hungarian church.

I was 16 years old.  It was my first time away from home, my first time on an airplane, my first time living in a city other than Winnipeg where I grew up.

There was a transit strike that fall and I often walked the 16 blocks to work in the morning, past the 19th century houses and shops of Cabbagetown, past the bank towers further up King Street and then I'd switch and head north, usually up Bay or Simcoe towards Queen Street West.

There were still greengrocers and vintage shops along that stretch of Queen.  I ate my first concord grapes and my first russet apples that October.  I also started going to see new Canadian plays, in spaces down alleyways and up dark staircases.  It was that autumn, spent wandering through Toronto's many delights:  the Museum, the Royal Winter Fair, the University of Toronto grounds, St Lawrence and Kensington Market, the green house in the Allan Gardens that made me fall in love with this place and determine I wanted to make it my home. It was also the fall that really clinched my life-long love affair with theatre.

To this day, there is no thrill for me like the thrill of sitting in a darkening theatre, as the music starts and the lights come up on the stage.

I had that old feeling last week when I sat in the Princess of Wales Theatre as the orchestra tuned up and the curtain rose on the new production of LES MISERABLES.  I remembered not only the delicious anticipation of waiting for a big show, in a big theatre, in a big city to begin but also how it felt to be that young woman standing in the wings, waiting to go onstage in a big show on opening night.

The new production is fabulous, with a fine cast, a tight orchestra and a brilliant stage design combining to  provide a memorable night at the theatre.  Hugo's tale of love, politics and redemption is well-served in this inventive revival.  I was moved to tears several times by the beautiful singing of the affecting score.  It is well worth splashing out for a ticket.

Then, last weekend, an actress friend of mine and I went to see VENUS IN FURS at Canadian Stage. PIG, which I didn't see, just closed at BUDDIES.  BSDM is very flavour of the month in the theatre community this year.  Personally I'll be glad when this trend is over.

There were however, a lot of younger couples there on dates.  I'm glad CanStage found a script that appealed to a more youthful audience, though its charms were largely lost on me.

The play depicts a battle of the sexes between a very attractive and determined working -class actress and a somewhat nebbish bourgeois male writer-director who is trying to cast the female lead in his adaptation for the stage of the famous 1920s novel about a sadomasochistic relationship.  The cat and mouse game between the two characters in VENUS... heats up, but it is more tepid than hot and in many ways felt like a very old story about heterosexual relationships.

I'm not sure this show wouldn't have been better served by the intimacy of Berkley Street.  The huge stage on Front Street, stripped nearly bare, seemed to dwarf both the actors and the story.

The stage needs a desk, two chairs, a tea cart, a casting couch and a pole. A more intimate space might have helped crank up the heat and made the shifts in dynamics between the pair more unsettling for the audience

Street is a terrific actress and she makes a meal of the part. The show is worth seeing for her performance alone.

Miller's role is somewhat underwritten.  As well, he's a charming and likeable performer, but not an  imposing guy on stage.  I would have liked to have seen an actor with a bit more of an edge. Street so clearly has the upper hand and Miller is so non-threatening that there was no real game for me to buy into.

There's a rule in writing that if you make a weapon appear, someone has to use it. Two knives come out in this play and no one really uses them or is even very threatening with them.

This is basically a play about a hot woman using her sexuality to try get a job and a guy using his power to offer a job so he can get to see a bunch of women stand around in front of him in their underwear for free.  Sorry folks but any way you want to slice it, the guy who signs the paycheque is the guy with the power in this exchange. 

And as usual, in a play about straight sex,  the girl is in her panties and bra and high heels for most of the show and the guy - wait for it, takes his shirt off near the end.  I never want or need to see that on stage again.

UNIDENTIFIED HUMAN REMAINS... is a hell of lot scarier, a hell of a lot sexier and has a lot more to say about the state of relations between men and women and about bsdm.  Come to think of it so does any decent production of PRIVATE LIVES.

This material would have needed to be smarter and the partners more evenly matched economically to be a hot, even-handed battle of the sexes for me. As explorations of contemporary power dynamics between men and women go, VENUS is pretty vanilla and very old-school. 

I did see a great Canadian play at SUMMERWORKS about young people, sex and relationships back in August: WILD DOGS ON THE MOSCOW TRAINS.  I'd LOVE to see CanStage mount a production of that script.

Oh yes, and Pamela Sinha is remounting her electrifying Dora-award-winning production of CRASH at Theatre Passe Muraille this weekend.  The entire run has nearly sold out.  It's too bad someone didn't give her a bigger theatre. There's nothing tepid about the gut-wrenching story she tells.  If you missed it last time, go.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

If A Change is a Good as A Rest, Why Am I So Damn Tired?

Gentle Readers,

The Toronto Fringe ended and what was supposed to happen was this:  I was to get on a plane, go home, see my nephew and niece-in-law tie the knot, visit with friends and family and spend a week at the Winnipeg Fringe.

What actually happened was this:  one of my bosses ( I can't quit my day jobs and pay rent) decided it was preferable I holiday in August. If I went home it would be for two days, max.

Also, the Monday after the wedding, which would have been Day 5 of the Winnipeg Fringe, my worldly goods and chattel - well, most of it, at any rate -  which had come out of a storage locker in Winnipeg on the previous Wednesday arrived on my doorstep in Toronto.  I spent last week, not at the Winnipeg Fringe, but doing something I longed to do and dreaded doing, something I had both worked hard to make happen and avoided:  I unpacked my baggage and settled into one place for the foreseeable future.

My plans for celebrating my nephew and niece-in-law's joy (and my family's) and spending time with hometown friends and my Fringe buddies from all over the world got buried in a pile of paper and packing lists, as I re-established a permanent home in Toronto.

When I lived in Winnipeg, for a good part of the time,  I lived with my (now-ex) fiance.  I left that city and that apartment, in large part, because his ghost haunted every corner of the place.

I felt frozen in time.  Like a shark, I knew I either moved forward or died.

This week, as cards he wrote me and gifts he gave me came out of boxes, as I found a picture taken of us on the weekend of our first anniversary that used to sit on my dresser in our old bedroom, as I repositioned furniture we'd bought together in another city into different spots in my new singleton apartment, as I discovered I'd given him his books and my bookcases and kept my books and a few of his bookcases, I realized this:  no matter where I go or what I do, his ghost will haunt me for the rest of my life. Not in a bad way:  I just came to realize that no amount of moving was going to change what happened.  We were supposed to get married and we didn't.  We were supposed to spend the rest of our lives together and we won't.

Five years later, as I emptied box after box and positioned the furniture in my new, lovely apartment I also realized that I am not good at letting go of things - or people.   The surplus is in a pile in the hallway and I'm giving it away. It needs a new home that's not mine.

I also realized I now have a reasonably well-equipped kitchen again and one of the things that gives me joy: having friends over to dinner and cooking for them on a regular basis will be possible once again.  Books and art and sweaters I'd loved and forgotten about reappeared like long-lost friends.  For the first time in nearly three years, I slept in my own bed.  It felt right and good.

My dad has also been gone for five years now.  I put his picture in one of those bookcases and I heard his voice, " Sweetheart, it beats hell out of the alternative."  Yes Chief.  I think of him every day, hear his voice in my head every day.  I know I will until I die.

For the past three years, I have performed Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" at Dalnavert Museum in Winnipeg at Christmas.  It is a gig I look forward to with great joy.  At the end of the play, Scrooge says, " I will live in the past, the present and the future and strive to let the Spirits of all Three live within me."

As I unpacked, I was with Scrooge:  haunted by the ghosts of the past, dealing with the present and not really sure what the future looks like besides amorphous and somewhat overwhelming.

This week, I'm having dinner in my new home with a friend who has been instrumental in helping me make this move.  Like me, she went away and has returned to an uncertain and precarious future.  We are both trying to move forward, in late middle age, with purpose and hope.

I have work I like. I enjoy my health, a nice place to live, family, friends.  I live in a safe country. It's lonely sometimes and scary sometimes but it is not so bad.

I'll paint the furniture on my balcony that used to be in my kitchen and in the instance of the table, my grandmother's kitchen before that.  I'll plant more flowers.  In the mornings, I'll have coffee outside before I walk along the harbour to meet my colleague and her daughter to drive to work together for one more week before she moves from an apartment on the water to the house she and her husband have spent the summer renovating.  They moved back here too - from Chicago.

Not long after I returned here, I met a man who was similarly in transition.  His marriage and his last job were both over.  His dad had died the year before.

Like me, he  put everything in a locker and went away for awhile and like me, he came back here to start over, one more time.  For a while, we were both crashed out with friends, hanging out, two souls adrift.  Then our respective ghosts came between us.  We quarrelled and I lost track of him. I hope he can unpack the past, deal with present challenges and embrace the future with more joy than trepidation.  I hope he finds what he needs, whatever that may be.

I needed to stop moving.  I needed a home of my own again.

After two and half years, twenty-five beds here and on the road, some false starts and failed experiments, I am home, "home at last, home for good and all, home for ever and ever,"  to quote Dickens.

My ex said that to me when he moved in.  The future, I have learned, is an uncertain thing.

Me and my baggage, all of it, are for better or worse, once again in one place.  A few friends helped me do this.  You know who you are and I need you to know how grateful I am for your love, your faith and support.

That's not to say I won't go back on the road.  I will.  I will do it from a base of operation.  I am done with being homeless. I plan to stay here and to do my best to make that plan go forward.

I have two plays that need to get written, furniture that needs painting, pictures that need hanging and friends I want to cook for.  For the next while,  I'll stay home, cook, redecorate, plan my next production - and write. 

Oh yeah, and go to movies and the theatre.  When I come home from the shows late at night, I'll sit on the balcony and look out at the city skyline and feel happy and lucky to be here, to be home at last.

Next week, I'll write about something I've seen, I promise.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The 25th Toronto Fringe: The Site and the Shows in a Wet and Wild Year

The last time I lived through a summer this wet in Toronto was 1993.  It rained every weekend for two straight months.

One night I awoke and the top of my head was wet.  A big chunk of the ceiling above my bed had collapsed and fallen on my pillow while I slept.

The exterior concrete on my apartment building could not withstand the amount of rain we received that summer.  Water had seeped through the exterior walls into the building and was causing the interior ceilings to collapse.

The festival has suffered under a similar record-setting deluge this year.  The beer tent, which is so nice this year and really feels like a wonderful summer party and art space again was shut down Sunday night and Monday due to the rain.  When I walked through the grounds on Monday to try and find out which theatres were still up and running, many of the roofs of the tents had collapsed under the weight of the water.

By  Tuesday,  the intrepid festival staff had the site up and rocking, looking as if nothing had happened.  There was art, music, alley shows, food, laughter:  eating ,drinking, theatre and art-making, sharing, socializing and fun.  Well done!

The same festival staff magically turned  Honest Ed's  underground garage into a club on Saturday night - a hot, steamy dance club with bartenders mixing  Fringetinis, curtained walls, vintage festival posters, fancy coloured lights and a DJ.  Thanks guys - that was the most fun I've had working up a sweat in a while:)

The Factory Theatre, Theatre Passe Muraille and the Annex Theatre lost power in Monday night's  rainstorm.  A board member told me last night that the Factory remained closed for much of Tuesday as staff struggled to restore power.

This is financially devastating to both the festival and the performers in the shut down venues.  They need every minute of every day to make back their costs.

Bridget McIntosh, one of the Toronto Fringe's many brilliant former administrators, made a great post on Facebook yesterday, encouraging festival patrons and supporters to "buy the festival a beer".

The Fringe is literally financed in large measure on revenue from the sale of alcohol (and other beverages) at the bar in the beer tent.  If every person who would have had a drink on Sunday or Monday night on the site put that $10 in a "tip the Fringe" can, we could all help finance what has, to date, been one of the best Toronto Fringes in years.

As to the performers, help them sell out this last Fringe weekend and make up their lost revenue.

Some shows I've seen this week and enjoyed include:
JEM ROLLS ATTACKS THE SILENCE!:   the circuit's poet laureate in fine form at the George Ignatieff. At least five seasoned Fringe goers have come up to me and said they thought it was his best show yet and that's a high benchmark.
THE HOMEMAKER:  Laura Anne Harris is closed now, but she did a delightful, then devastating turn as a 1960s French-Canadian Saskatchewan housewife married to both her husband and the bottle.
YARN:  Alex Eddington, in probably the nicest BYOV I've ever been to, inventively tells a story of a voyage of personal discovery in the Scottish Highlands.  I particularly loved his imaginative use of both a sheep puppet and a ball of yarn and his fabulous live soundscape.
ASSASSINATING THOMSON:  Incredibly talented Bruce Horak explores, art, creativity, ways of seeing and the death of Tom Thomson in a unique, engaging, and understated performance.
THREADS:  my favourite script so far this week by Tonya Jones Miller.  Miller's mother taught English at the Buddhist University in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War, while living with her Vietnamese partner's family.  Miller's mother's history is fascinating, gut-wrenching, and completely unforgettable. She's in a 50 seat venue.  Get there before she totally sells out her run.
GOD IS A SCOTTISH DRAG QUEEN:  Mike Delamont may not be God, but he is a gift from God to comedy.  The last time I laughed that hard at a Fringe show was the year I saw HOOPAL, Chis Gibbs' former comedy duo. Delamont riffs on everything from homophobia to the afterlife with such pointed wit, candor and insight that he had the audience in stitches the entire time.

Stuff I'm planning to see before the festival is over:
THE ADVERSARY by Andrew Bailey, who is one of the best writers on the circuit
LOVE IS A POVERTY YOU CAN SELL:  Weimar cabaret always floats my boat.
KUWAITI MOONSHINE: I want to see what the charming Tim Murphy does with a tale that evolved out of his time spent teaching in Kuwait.
TEACHING HAMLET:  no Fringe experience is complete without a Keir Cutler show.
KIN: I know nothing about the script but I've heard great things about the acting
WEAKSAUCE:  I have tried twice to get into this show, and am hoping three is the charm. Sam Mullins isn't in the program but his last show, TINFOIL DRAGON was a hit, and I want to see his new work.
THE SOAPS:  National Theatre of the World takes on the Ford Nation.

I have seen the Dora-award winning MORRO AND JASP: GO BAKE YOURSELF, but if you haven't, go see Toronto's favourite clown duo in a BYOV.  

I am going to lose most of my Thursday night sitting around waiting for Bell to show up and fix my internet connection. After that's over with,  I will come down and party like it's 1989 at the festival's anniversary party.  Hope to see you there!

Happy Fringing and remember to tip the Fringe generously this week.  They've done a great job and they need the money.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

As the 25th Toronto Fringe Opens, let's toast the guy who got the party started!

Tonight, the 25th Toronto Fringe Festival opens.

The largest theatre festival in Toronto will have 148 shows in 35 venues, site-specific performances, an art alley, rocking parties, bands and a beer tent.

There will be new plays, revivals of classic texts, poets, clowns, musical theatre, dance, street performances and hybrids of some or all of the aforementioned.  It is a feast of theatre that is central, accessible, inexpensive, and a ton of fun.

Instead of previewing shows I think you might enjoy this week ( I'll do that in a day or so), I'd like to invite you to stop and thank the person who initially made the Fringe festival in Toronto possible in the first place.

As audiences and performers experience the large, (relatively) well-financed festival we have today, it is hard to believe this started with a few venues, 25 shows, very little money, and a guy who was crazy enough to give bringing the Fringe festival concept to Toronto a shot.

While he was still in his 20s, Gregory Nixon, a musician, producer, and actor got together with a few friends and decided to create an artist-driven theatre festival in Toronto.

Edmonton, Winnipeg, Victoria and Vancouver already had fringe festivals.  Bringing an unjuried and uncensored theatre festival to the largest centre for theatre production in the country (and one of the more conservative) was a gutsy and risky move that has brought enormous benefit to theatre practitioners and audiences alike.

In large measure, I write plays because of the Toronto Fringe.   I know I'm not alone in owing an enormous part of my career to the festival.  DA KINK IN MY HAIR, ONE MAN STAR WARS, THE DROWSY CHAPERONE,  Rick Miller, Mump and Smoot, Sandra Shamas:  the shows and performers who started at the Toronto Fringe are legendary.  

Commercial hits were never the point of the festival however.  The point was to give artists a venue for absolutely free expression.  That fine and laudable tradition continues to this day.  As long as you don't go over your time, you can do anything you want at the Fringe.

After five years at the helm of the festival, Gregory went on to contribute to the growth and development of other important cultural events, and institutions in Toronto including Nuit Blanche, Harbourfront Centre and the Toronto Arts Awards. He has made over 20 films about art, and artists from a range of disciplines, exhibited his photography, and served on the boards of directors of many arts organizations.

As we get our party on for the next twelve days, and celebrate all the great theatre we'll see this week, the generosity of the sponsors, and the hard work of the administration and staff of the festival, past and present, I think we ought to pause, and take a moment to thank the man who made all of this possible in the first place. All of us who have ever attended or made work at the Toronto Fringe owe a debt of gratitude to Gregory Nixon.

Gregory, we are all richer for your vision and your commitment to the arts community in the city.  Thank you.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

"Blancnieves" - a dark, disturbing version of an old fairytale

Last Saturday night, I slipped off to the Varsity Cinema to see Pablo Berger's version of SNOW WHITE and THE SEVEN DWARFS.

Forget Disney and think Almodovar.  A great bullfighter has his life change in a flash.  His only child, Carmen is born at the same time.  Her family tragedy marks her life.  This is a black and white film bathed in blood.

Sent to live with her grandmother and a pet rooster after her father's remarriage, Carmen is desperate for her father's love.  There is music and dancing at her grandmother's house but never the longed-for parent. Carmen's longing for her father's acceptance and regard sets her up for disaster.

When the grandmother dies unexpectedly, Carmen  gets her wish and goes to live with her father and her stepmother in a palace in the countryside that is both splendid and terrifying.  This turn of events is simultaneously the best and worst thing that can possibly happen to her.

The film, gorgeously shot in black and white is epic:  a big, bad psycho-drama that reminded me of the kind of film Bette Davis or Joan Crawford did at the height of their careers:  think JEZEBEL or MILDRED PIERCE.

The step-mother is that rare creature in cinema these days, a great villainess: pathetically vain, socially ambitious, gleefully sadistic and massively insecure (don't those two always go together?) fantastically played by Maribel Verdu.

Carmen ( an utterly captivating Macarena Garcia)  is good, talented, beautiful, smart, resourceful, curious and punished for her gifts at every turn.  She eventually escapes the stepmother and finds professional success and happiness with a band of dwarf bull-fighters. Alas, her moment in the sun is brief and comes at a great price.

This is not a story about lasting happiness.  It is about how happiness gets taken away from good people by the toxic poison cocktail of greed and envy.  It's about the unspeakable damage selfish, amoral people inflict on the vulnerable, the trusting , the naive and the young..

It is a beautiful film, compelling, disturbing and grandly tragic. Image and music powerfully drive the relentless narrative forward in a way dialogue seldom does. Go - and take a hanky:  you'll need it.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Gentle readers, I apologize for my absence.  Recently I  attended work in progress at HATCH! a festival of new work at Harbourfront and the remount of a show I have previously discussed here, I WON'T HATCH!

I decided not to write about of those two pieces.  It seemed redundant to review "I Will Not...." and unfair to comment on work in development.

Last weekend,  I  walked to to the TIFF Lightbox in downtown Toronto on a Saturday night to go get lost in a movie.  The Lightbox is a beautiful building and going there always feels special. But I digress...

The "angels' share" is a term used by distillery makers to describe the 2% of production of fine, barrel-aged single malt Scotch that vaporizes.  The theory is, the angels drink it.

Who could blame them? A "wee dram" of "Visge Beatha", the "water of life", one of Scotland's finest exports is a fine celebratory drink to share with a dear old friend over a long catch-up or to savour at the end of a long, tough night.

Robbie, our unlikely protagonist is introduced to the delicacy by Harry, his community service supervisor on the occasion of the birth of Robbie's first son.  Robbie thinks it tastes horrible and asks to have it diluted with Coke and ice.

Robbie is a working class kid.  Unemployed, hard-scrabble, dirt-poor he's from an inter-generational underclass. Toughs beat the crap out of him and he beats the crap out of others, especially if high or enraged.  Robbie has been high or enraged a lot. He has a knife scar on the side of his young face that advertises the kind of life he's led and that advert keeps him from being considered for employment.  So the vicious cycle continues.

The film starts with four offenders being sentenced to community service.  Robbie has beaten an innocent young man who accidentally bumped him with a car while parking.  As his long-suffering and heavily pregnant girlfriend Leoni watches, Robbie  is told his next brush with the law will land him a long prison sentence. The victim of Robbie's coke-induced wrath has been left blind in one eye.

The victim impact meeting is one of the film's most powerful moments. Robbie is rendered speechless and tearful with shame and guilt as he is confronted by the family of the young man he injured.  Then we see his girlfriend's father lay a beating on Robbie of equal severity for the crime of dating his daughter.

Not even a brutal father-in-law can deter Robbie. He loves his girlfriend and  his son. He is determined to turn his life around for the sake of remaining with her and for the sake of their new baby.

Loach is a great creator of social realism and he doesn't disappoint here.  There's a great scene where Robbie, who is living in a shared flat, is sitting on the bed in his room.  There's a wild party going on his house.  The crap stereo thuds through the wall. His bedroom furniture is a mattress on the floor.

The bond Robbie develops with Harry, who becomes a kind of father to him, the appreciation he develops for fine whiskey and the sheer desperation of his situation, lead him to come up with a plan with his new community service worker cronies to give them the cash injection and confidence boost they need to turn their lives around.

The charm and thrill of the second act caper had me rooting hard for for a pack of petty criminals who need a break.  Unobtrusively shot, well-acted, well-written and well-directed, this is a great feel good film from a fine old-school socialist. At the end, ( and I'm not going to tell you any more about what happens) you hope their luck holds.

A friend gave me a very expensive bottle of whiskey for a birthday gift this past year.  I decided to have one before bed, as a toast to Loach and his fine crew for an engaging story and a tribute to the appreciation of fine whiskey, "the angels' share."  Go and enjoy the film.  Like a single malt, it is special treat.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

THIS is great acting but the script is not all that...

"Your problems are, what is that word you taught me? - dinky."

So says Christian, the only real grown-up in the room as he leaves the over-heated loft of Marrell and Tom, the thirty-something couple and their friends Jane and Alan in THIS, an articulate, well-acted, well-designed but unsatisfying exploration of the beginning of mid-life, currently on at The Berkley Street Theatre at Canadian Stage.

Let me begin by saying this production is worth seeing for the uniformly fantastic acting, the inventive re-design of the space by Astrid Janson and the cerebral direction of Matthew Jocelyn which is both one of the production's strengths and part of its problems.

The script, which while witty, articulate and well-observed was full of people I couldn't warm up to.  The acting made me care. The writing didn't. THIS is admirable to watch, but not easy to love.

Jane (a wonderfully angst-ridden and awkward Laura Condlln) is a poet and educator, recently widowed and left to raise a daughter we never see, though they have a scene together. Jane's best girlfriend since college, Marrell, decides Jane needs to "get over it" and her solution is to set Jane up with a guy she herself finds hot, Christian, a buff, French, single doctor who works for Doctors Without Borders.

The problems here is Marrell wants to sleep with Christian as the sex in her marriage has gone down the toilet since having a baby that wakes up every 15 minutes. Yanna McIntosh made her character's sexual, emotional and professional frustration palpable.

Her husband Tom wants to sleep with Jane.  Jane wants to sleep with her gay best friend Alan, an alcoholic singleton with a career based on an eidetic memory, Alan has the hots for Christian.  Christian cops to being bisexual but finds Alan's solipsistic wit and drunkenness "irritating".

The problems with this play began, as they so often do in life, when actual sex rears its selfish and ugly head.

I really wish the one sex scene, so germane to the plot of this play, if you can use the word plot this loosely, hadn't taken place on stage, for all kinds of reasons.

As Tom, a self-pitying and selfish asshole of an underachieving husband, Jonathon Young makes a meal of playing a really unlikeable guy with a big chip on his shoulder.  The articulation of his desire for Jane was far more electrifying, dangerous and sexy than their awkward tryst. I am no prude about sex onstage.  There was plenty of it last week in ARIGATO TOKYO but is intrinsic and felt natural. Last night,  I felt sorry for the actors having to do that in front of us . It felt unnecessary and almost exploitative. I sat there thinking some things really are better left to the imagination. 

Then there are the things I wish Jocelyn had let happen on stage. I really wish that baby had screamed every 15 minutes in every scene it was in until the end.  I wish the writer had made the sullen, grief-stricken 9 year old an actual character.

Once you have kids, you have to grow up. You either give up being selfish or you become a really shitty parent.  That is the real struggle I see most of my late thirty-something friends engaged in, besides failed career expectations and overwhelming debt. I sure didn't see that struggle on stage in any substantial way last night. It gets hinted at, but never really happens.

Melissa James Gibson, the much-awarded writer said in the program notes she initially thought she was writing about infidelity, but really she was writing about mortality. THIS is a little about both, but really, about nothing much.

Maybe I'm too old for this kind of thing.  Or maybe it's too hard to watch a play about an affair in a group of friends when I've seen Pinter's BETRAYAL brilliantly done a few times.

I've had friends die too young.  I dated a man whose best friend committed suicide.  When he spoke of him, more than 20 years later, stone-faced and dry eyed, I felt the pain of his loss and his guilt for surviving, as though the death had happened last week.

There needed to be a hole in the room where Roy, the departed husband, used to be. He needs to be the elephant in the room and he is hardly there in the play.  Neither Roy, nor the hole left by his absence is made palpable by the writer until the end. It was Condlln's and Nashman's thankless task to try and deliver a pay-off emotionally that isn't on the page. They did a terrific job.

When I got home, I wished I'd had a copy of  GHOST or TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY or hell, BLITHE SPIRIT to watch. I found myself craving something about death where the writing was as good as the acting.

I was very glad to have seen the play for the wonderful acting, some of the inventive directing and the terrific set.  As for great writing:  I got that from Daniel McIvor last weekend.


Saturday, April 6, 2013

Arigato Tokyo at Buddies in Bad Times and the Debate about How to Get More Bums in Seats

"All suffering is caused by grasping and illusion."  So say the Buddhists.

Canadian writer Carl Dewer is on a book tour in Tokyo, promoting his fourth novel to a room full of people who don't speak his language.  Dewar sees himself as free of attachment: a man for whom satisfaction is derived from the ephemeral sensations he obtains from coke, casual sex, booze and clubbing rather than deeper connection.

Then Dewar finds himself in Tokyo immersed in another culture and an overwhelming  love triangle with his translator, a woman who describes herself as "made of longing" and her brother, a Noh actor dedicated to physical and spiritual perfection in the service of the creation of his art.   When Dewar arrives in Tokyo he thinks he is beyond love. He learns that he doesn't know the first thing about it.

McIvor has written a beautiful play, a profound contemplation of the nature of human love and desire and the suffering that so frequently attends it.  The script is so filled with exquisite language, complex ideas and emotions that I wanted to re-hear it immediately.

The production  is wonderfully directed by Brendan Healy and performed on what may be the best-designed and lit stage I've seen this season.  Julie Fox and Kim Purtell deserve kudos for their excellent work.   Watch how the lighting shifts on the metal rear screen, suggesting a moon, a pool, a club, a sky. It's just beautiful.

The performances are as restrained, sophisticated, elegant and evocative as the production elements. David Storch as the troubled Dewar, Cara Gee as Nushi Toshi, the translator who falls in love with him and Michael Dufays as her brother,  Noh actor Yori Toshi all give wonderful performances.

The company worked with a choreographer (Hiroshi Miyamoto) and a dialect coach (Eric Armstrong) and their detailed efforts at making the world of the play come to life have certainly paid off.  The actors did a great job of conveying another culture, another way of hearing and seeing the world, another way of expressing feeling and making art. The accents were terrific.

Special mention must be given to Tyson James as the lip-syncing nightclub performer Etta Waki.  This is a very difficult turn to do well and James nails it. Waki is both Dewar's lover outside of the triangle, and the play's narrator.  In a way, s/he is the embodiment of Tokyo: glamorous, decadent, dazzling, ageless and enigmatic.  "None of us are one thing...."

Brendan Healy, who is also Buddies in Bad Times artistic director has very publicly come out this week and said the show was struggling to find an audience.  There was apparently a meeting of artistic directors in town earlier this week due to concern about attendance levels at theatres across town this past season.

The City of Toronto could help the theatre make more money by changing a ridiculous liquor law that only allows alcohol to be consumed in the seats of a theatre with fixed risers.  If the risers are stable enough to support seated patrons, they are stable enough to support seated patrons with a drink in hand.  It's not like there will be beer hawked in the aisles.  Patrons will have, at most, two drinks during the course of the performance.  An extra $100 a night from the concession is an extra $1400 across the run, not a small matter to a struggling theatre company.

Buddies wasn't full last night and it certainly deserved to be.

Yes I know:  it is $30-$40 to go see a show on a weekend night. Spend less at the pub, take lunch for a week, eat dinner before the show at home, cut back on $4 lattes, ride your bike, walk or take the TTC, don't buy another crappy piece of clothing or cheap pair of shoes to sit unworn in your closet and go out and support your local theatre instead.  I was certainly glad I did last night. ARIGATO TOKYO is a great play and this is an excellent production.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

AS I LAY DYING at Theatre Passe Muraille

Theatre Smith-Gilmour is one of Toronto's most treasured independent companies.  The company is well-known for unique adaptations of literature, grounded in a very French school of physical theatre and clown.  Rooting a piece that has its genesis in a text in the very body-focused language of physical theatre, clown and buffoon seems an unlikely marriage, but for the most part, Smith-Gilmour makes it work, and work very well.  They have many awards to prove it.

The company's current offering is an adaptation of William Faulkner's AS I LAY DYING.  The Southern Gothic novel is chock-a-block with tragic and comic figures, strong compelling visuals and dramatic plot points.   I can certainly see why the company was drawn to the story.

Make no mistake: this is drama writ large.  Dying matriarch, floods, river crossings, fires, incest - and I'm just hitting a few of the page-turners.

Smith-Gilmour's production brings all of Faulkner's out-sized characters and epic drama fully to life. The pathos, tragedy and comedic moments are all wonderfully realized.

Dean Smith-Gilmour makes a suffocating monster of a victim-narcissist father fun to watch even as you want to hit him.  The scene where he uses guilt to manipulate his daughter out of ten dollars she desperately needs to hang onto, a "loan"you know he'll never repay is both funny and seat-squirmingly infuriating.  As the town doctor points out, he's the kind of man who would show up without a shovel to bury his own wife and then borrow one.

The rest of the cast was uniformly good.  All the Bundren kids stole my heart tonight. Daniel Robert's is a marvel as the young son. Nina Gilmour as the tragic Dewey Dell, Benjamin Muir as the damaged, angry Jewel, Julian De Zotti as driven-mad Darl and Dan Watson as the long-suffering and stoic Cash were uniformly terrific.  They all took on multiple roles tonight with great aplomb and fine character work.  They are a talented bunch.

With a great lighting design and sound score and a few simple costumes changes, the uniformly talented cast drew the audience into the story in all of its complexity.  Physically, the creation of character, scene and mood was impeccable.  Great, clear physical action made a burning barn, a raging river, a host of characters and an untamable horse palpable tonight.  Physically, this is a really exciting and dynamic show to watch.

Faulkner's heightened language is exquisite but complex and very challenging.   When the language is this beautiful, I want the words to count for as much as the physical action.  I want the play with the language to be as nuanced as the beautiful physical work.

The company's work with the text was uneven and their use of accents was inconsistent.

Some of the actors try to have a Southern accent and some don't. This was frustrating to listen to.  Given that Michelle Smith has never lost her strong French accent, I thought the entire cast should have just decided to forego the accents and focus on the other aspects of the text.

The actors could also have titrated their volume more, especially in the first act.  There are scenes where dialogue occurs over a loud soundscape but there were also monologues spoken in an otherwise silent theatre, where actors shouted through most of the entire speech.

The physical action of the production works beautifully.  Vocally it needed to be more specific and more pulled back. Dan Watson's last two speeches on the back of the wagon tonight were powerful and poignant in their nuance.  I would have liked to see more of that clean restraint, more pauses to let the ideas and word pictures breathe and less shouting so that the vocal work was as good as the physical work onstage.

I was very happy to have seen such a muscular production of a challenging text.  It is a fine production, well worth seeing.  I hope the company will revisit  it in the future with more attention to the words they have brought so powerfully to life in actions.

It's on at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto until March 31st.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Sexism: It's not just from men.

We are at one of my least favourite days of the year:  International Women's Day.

Let me explain.  About 20 years ago, I went out with a bunch of friends to The Rivoli Cafe in Toronto, a favourite old haunt of mine to an event to celebrate International Women's Day.

The Rivoli has three spaces:  a restaurant, a bar on the side and a famous backroom that is a club/performance space with a stage.

I went out with a group of men and women, gay and straight, coupled and single.  We grabbed a table in the bar, planning to see the show and attend the party in the backroom.  We were told by the organizers of the event (not, I hasten to add, the lovely people who run the Rivoli) that the backroom was for women only, so we, the women, would have a safe space.

I went back to my table of friends and explained that we couldn't take any guys into the back.  The men were all terribly good sports about it.  I went into the back with one of my girlfriends to check things out.  There was music and dancing and a lot of really, really, drunk women. One woman came up behind me and full-on grabbed my breasts.

I wheeled around, hands up, to see a woman, only a bit larger than me, drooling drunk. When I confronted her, she said, ( I'm not making this up) "Oh, you look so beautiful and I just wanted to talk to you."  I said, "If you were a guy, I'd have decked you, and by the way, that's no way to start a conversation with anybody."  She started to cry.  I left, and went back to my table of friends. I was there as a feminist, and a woman, and I'd just been sexually assaulted by a feminist and woman. I haven't been to an International Women's Day event since.

I went to a gender segregated school, and I was fine with that.  I like gender segregated bathrooms.  I host girls' night a few times a year.  I get that the vibe is different when the room is mixed company.

Excluding men from an International Women's Day celebration feels, well, sexist.

Yes, I get that gay women and gay men have clubs that exclude patrons who are not of the same sex to avoid trouble-makers and harassment.  Many gay bars however, are open to members of all sexes and persuasions.  I have had great fun dancing and chatting in gay bars all over the country. Certainly I never had any trouble like the kind I had that night.

An event  billed as an event for people who support women's rights should include men.  Otherwise, it discriminates on the basis of gender.  Women fought hard to break down the boys' clubs. I don't feel comfortable locking men out of a room they want to help me be in.

Drunk members of either sex groping me without permission don't make me feel safe.
I've worked for women who thought it was OK to pay me less than a man, I've heard women make comments about other women's bodies that were viciously sexist.  Women put huge pressure on other women around dress, weight and grooming. There are a lot of women on the editorial boards of those magazines pushing plastic surgery, hair dye and diets.

Then there are all those great high-status equal opportunity exploiters of female labour: Margaret Thatcher, Leona Helmsley and Imelda Marcos, to name a few.  Let's not forget Asma al Assad who seems quite content to shop in London, and stay silent of the subject of the distress of the people in her country, Syria, while women, men and children are murdered and forced to flee as refugees.

You don't have to be a man to exploit or abuse a woman, or indeed other people. You just have to feel entitled to do it.

I don't want an International Women's Day.  I  will not attend any "women's only" events tonight.

I want an equal number of  men and women in Parliament and the Legislature. I want a National Daycare Policy and I want equal pay for work of equal value, which the Supreme Court of Canada just ruled lawful - wait for it - in 2011. I don't want anyone of either sex to feel free to make free with my person without my permission, or degrade or exploit me in any way.  I would  like to see more women take to task other women who trash women, pay them less, judge them solely on their appearance or contribute to their one-down economic position in society by providing them with unstable, insecure, employment.

My International Women's Day includes men who support the above-mentioned values. Not including men in the fight to win our equal rights feels, well, sexist.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

La Clemenza Di Tito: nice opera, too bad about the production

Mozart was a genius: even when he was dying, poor and taking gigs for money.

La Clemenza  Di Tito is a powerful story, of love, friendship, honour, betrayal and redemption.  The music is beautiful and the singing was mostly great.  So why this gimmicky, "let's see how cool and ironic we can be" production was foisted on the last work of a dying genius by the COC is anyone's guess.

This production was contrived and without respect for either the story or the performers. It pushed for comedy where there wasn't any. It bent gender so we had four female voices in more or less the same range. It used sight gags:  a constantly stretching runner, an Emperor wearing his pyjamas for the entire production, including his wedding, complete with a fuzzy Linus-blanket for a cape.  The director's choices undermined the performers and the story and robbed both of dignity and impact.

There was a lot of action for the sake of action: Tito knocking down the velvet ropes one by one for example, that did nothing to support the emotion the performer was trying to convey.

The singers struggled heroically to bring substance, intellectual and emotional integrity to this vacuous interpretation of what could have been a far more enjoyable opera, The power of  the singers and the orchestra did much to convey Mozart's story's heart in spite of the ham-fisted and attention-seeking direction.

Women in trouser roles are a long tradition and had they been presented less ironically, it could have worked to better effect.

Opera is struggling to find a younger audience, but vacant pandering without respect for either the opera, the performers or the audience is no way to get it. Note to directors:  you're not smarter than Mozart or Shakespeare or Aristophanes.  Get over yourselves and just do the bloody play by illuminating the characters and the emotional truth in the story.

It is possible to dynamically revisit a great work from a fresh perspective.  Robert Lepage's production of BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE was inventive and spell-binding. The COC did a great production of OEDIPUS some years ago that was visually compelling and emotionally harrowing. These productions respected the moral universe of the operas. Directors who fail  to do so can't possible hope to illuminate the work for the audience and serve to alienate us.  Sorry, no: you're not being fresh or avant-garde:  you're just being lousy at your job.

Mozart believed in Heaven in Hell, in truth and justice and in the power of love to transform and redeem people and relationships. He lived, as many people in the world still do, in a country where it was possible for the state to put someone to death, horribly, for treason.  The production could have been set in Syria, Egypt or the U.S. if  the director wanted  to offer the audience a more contemporary exploration of the relationship between the power of the State to both set a moral tone for its people and uphold the rule of law.

I am tired of seeing productions with no respect for the moral universe in which the work was originally created.  Scorched Earth irony seldom serves a production where someone is trying to talk about the balance between power and mercy and what it is possible for love to achieve.

Opera Atelier packs people in and does pull a young audience by doing productions that respect the history of the time in which they were written and the style in which they were originally performed.  The next time the COC does Mozart, they might want to visit the competition who deliver stylish baroque opera with heart.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Pyscho B***ch and a Few Thoughts on Mental Illness

Last night I headed to the Electric Theatre to see Tamara Lynn Robert perform PSYCHO B***ch, her very moving, intensely personal monologue about her experiences as a woman trying to manage her life with bi-polar disorder.

Robert describes a harrowing struggle to obtain some kind of equilibrium through therapy and use of medications.  Therapy worked (eventually).  Medication never did. She now has a good career (as a therapist) a loving partner, and the openness and insight to speak out about a subject that largely remains taboo.

Robert is a confident and compelling performer.  I've seen this show before, but I went back out tonight, in part because it's great material well-performed and, in part, because she is donating the proceeds of her run to Youthlink, a counselling service for gay, bi and trans-gendered youth, a community with a very high suicide rate. 

Left untreated, mental illness can cost sufferers theirs jobs and relationships, leading to homelessness, isolation, and poverty. Mental illness can also cost an afflicted person their physical health or in some cases, their life.

Sadly, the stigma attached to disclosing mental illness remains a powerful barrier to sufferers seeking treatment.  A lot of people with mental illness and their loved ones continue to suffer in silence, too ashamed to go get help. Substance abuse and addiction are both often efforts, conscious or unconscious, to self-medicate a mental health issue. We all know how well that tends to work out.

One in five Canadians suffers with some form of mental illness, me included. It is often a hereditary illness as was the case for me. A GP can refer you to a qualified mental health professional, assuming there are any where you live. It can takes months to get in to see a therapist covered by Medicare in smaller cities.  In Winnipeg, I waited 6 months and I found my own therapist that was covered by Manitoba Health.  The GP I disclosed my crushing depression to handed me a suicide hot line number on a piece of paper and sent me home. The shrink I did get to see, once, thanks to a doctor friend pulling some strings, told me she wasn't taking new patients.

One of the many ways we stigmatize the mentally ill is by providing so little treatment for mental illness under Medicare. By not financing mental health treatment as a health care issue of equal importance to say cancer or heart disease or diabetes, our society powerfully reinforces the idea that seeking treatment for a mental health issue is flaky or self-indulgent. 

Here in Toronto, the Canadian Centre for Addictions and Mental Health did a great campaign to support the destigmatization of mental illness when they opened their new facilities, but good luck getting them to give you or your loved one anything but an assessment.  It's great to know what's wrong with you but it is not much use without someone who is willing to try and help treat you fix it. The artist-health clinic at Western Hospital refers artists (average income $15K a year) to non-medicare covered psychotherapists who charge $89 an hour. Help you can't afford is worse than useless.

Can you imagine this being the way we deal with cancer or cardiac patients? "Yup, you're sick, sorry we won't treat you" or " Here's someone to treat you:  pay them yourself " or my favourite " we know you're still sick but you can only have short-term therapy and anti-depressants. We don't do long-term therapy, even though we know it works best for some people. It costs the system too much."  It would be a national scandal. This is in large measure how we treat the mentally ill until something catastrophic happens: job loss, marital breakdown, a suicide attempt, a run-in with the law, out of control substance abuse.

Many people with mental illness were horrifically traumatized as children and young adults.  Rich or poor, kids get abused at school and at home and it sets them up for mental health issues as adults. You don't have to grow up in a camp or a war zone to be abused as a child.

In her talk-back session tonight, Robert said she had paid tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket to get the talk therapy that actually worked when drugs didn't. That someone diagnosed with a serious mental illness was forced to go to the private sector for treatment in a country with universal health care is a disgrace.

Some of the smartest, most accomplished, creative and talented people I know have struggled with mental health issues.  We lose out on their abilities to give their best to society when we fail to provide them ready access to decent mental health care when they need it.

Poor mental health often leads to self-destructive habits that lead to poor physical health. As a society we need to accept that the mind and the body are connected and equally deserving of qualified, publicly funded care. When we don't, we get to pay for our neglect of mental health by treating the physical problems that result as a consequence.

As it is, many mentally ill people are left to struggle with no help.  If they have the personal resources they often end up having to both find and finance their own help, often-times from questionably qualified therapists. Those with no means to pay often end up with well-meaning but unregulated and largely untrained self-help groups and peer counsellors, if they get any help at all.  Twelve step is a great resource but it is no substitute for a mental health professional.

Mental illness deserves the same compassion and care as any other form of chronic illness that can lead to death. Thanks to people like Tamara-Lynn Robert and Clara Hughes, the great Olympic athlete and mental health champion, attention is finally being given to this important issue.  I feel extremely fortunate to have had the support of family and friends and an excellent psychiatrist here in Toronto to facilitate the treatment of my own metal health issues. My life is immeasurably better thanks to good treatment. I've survived depression. I know not everyone is so lucky. There have been suicides in my extended family.

I'd like to see Health Canada put pressure on the provinces to provide more and better access to qualified mental health practitioners covered by Medicare. How about a mental health check-up along with the annual or bi-annual physical?  I have a great GP who does check-in with me and who led me to my psychiatrist but it is not always the case as I found out in Winnipeg.

It's hard enough work trying to recover from mental illness without having to scramble for treatment.  Trust me I know.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

THE PENELOPIAD: classically great theatre

"Now that I'm dead, I know everything." So begins Penelope, the narrator and protagonist of the PENELOPIAD,  as she floats out of the mists of Hades in the theatrical adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel, currently on at Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto. 

The production is a remount of last year's Dora-award winning production.  It is that rare show that is great on every count: acting, direction, choreography, script and production.

Distance allows a dispassionate view and a wiser if broken Penelope ( a sharp, understated performance by Megan Follows) has come back from the underworld to explain how she ended up married to a serial killer.

Atwood is arguably my favourite writer of fiction.  Here the great author offers a blackly humorous, deeply empathic, wickedly smart and inky dark feminist retelling of the classic tale of Odysseus and the Trojan war.

The battle of Troy and the voyages of Odysseus are shared, not by the male hero but by his wife, the long suffering Penelope and her gaggle of lovely, murdered maids who died at the hands of Penelope and Odysseus' only child and heir.

The wily and much admired Odysseus (the brilliant Kelli Fox) marries the 15 year old Penelope and carts her off to Ithaca where he seduces her, knocks her up with a trophy son and then abandons her.

For the next twenty years, she waits for him to come home:  on a pile of rocks with a bunch of goats, his overbearing nursemaid, her spoiled and resentful son, a senile father-in-law, a toxic mother-in-law and twelve loyal, clever beautiful, female servants who help her keep her wits and her virtue. Meanwhile Odysseus  is off in Troy to fight a war in honour of her hotter and - totally self-absorbed cousin, Helen, (a luscious and droll Pamela Sinha).

Odysseus doesn't bother to write and Penelope doesn't know if he's alive or dead, but she's a good woman, and her husband has told her he'll kill her if she sleeps with someone else, so she waits.

In Atwood's version of events, Helen runs off with the hot Paris because her father has married her off to a rich, disgusting idiot and she wants to get banged by a guy she actually wants to sleep with.  Odysseus heads off to war, well, because he can, oh yeah and because he likes to screw around.  Apparently sauce for the goose isn't sauce for the gander. Nice guy.

The long-suffering Penelope enlists her maids to fend off and contain a stable of boorish opportunists, who are trying for her husband's kingdom and her fine form while she tries to deal and remain faithful to a totally unfaithful man who is in no hurry to come home.

Atwood shows the audience the dark side of being a hero's handmaiden:  the largely unappreciated and overworked stick propping up the entitlements of a glamorous, self-important and heartless narcissist. 

Kelly Thornton and her fine cast unfold the drama with all its power, beauty, absurdity and awfulness. With a few effects, great lighting, effective movement and unadorned embrace of a powerful story the cast and director bring the author's vision to majestic life.

It's not that narcissists don't care about anything.  They care, as Odysseus cares, about ideas, principles and battles.  They care about opportunities for self aggrandisement:  a hot wife, land, winning, a son.   More than anything, they cares about appearances, especially how they appear to the world.  What they never care about is other people.  They just never care about you. Not even the gods can protect you from their entitlements and the wrath of their wounded egos and morally vacant souls.  Penelope learns this lesson the hard way.   Atwood gives voice to a woman who never managed to get a word in edgewise.

It's a great play.  Go, just go.