Friday, January 27, 2012



The current Canadian Stage production of Martin Crimp’s Cruel and Tender is a bewildering, infrequently powerful telling of a Greek tragedy that has been updated in order to bring recent military disasters unfolding in Africa to the forefront of contemporary thought. The shelf life of this 2005 script may appear to have expired due to the relentless ongoing tragedy unfolding in the news of the world over the past half decade. However, seeing Atom Egoyan’s production of this rather surrealistic take on grotesque inhumanity makes one wonder whether Crimp’s broad stereotypes and undetailed political narratives ever made it onto the shelf in the first place. The talent is certainly apparent as Arsinée Khanjian, Jeff Lillico, Brenda Robins, Daniel Kash, Nigel Shawn Williams, Thomas Hauff and Abena Malika take the stage in a variety of over the top roles that never let up in their varied shades of loud vocal disarray. Robbins and Lilico rise to occasion with skilled renditions of their breathtakingly superficial characters. The rest of the cast however seem to have pumped the idea of strident stylization to the max, delivering performances that are difficult to comprehend as they emote and gesticulate as though they were in fact in an amphitheatre several centuries ago.

There are some fine beautifully rendered physical and vocal moments from both Kash and Khanjian, but they are few and far between. What with all the histrionic activity on the stage one would hope that the design and staging would have softened the misshapen blow of this melodramatic spectacle. Unfortunately this is not the case. A cold cavernous set coupled with jarring, staccato lighting effects and the strange ineffective use of a microphone throughout make the overall production profoundly uneven and largely uninteresting.

Costumes by Debra Hanson are gorgeous, especially a single red dress that provides Khanjian with the opportunity to make a series of gorgeous poses. And to her credit, she takes her directors overall mise en scene to heart and never falters in a relentless attempt to make this character come to life. A few basic directives from Egoyan regarding a gradual buildup of emotion could have served her well.

Had this been an opera it might have all worked out. Unfortunately the lives of these characters is stunted by a script that never moves into any real thought provoking detail about the primary subject it addresses. Africa becomes a mysterious entity told through shallow storylines masquerading as profound atrocity - storylines that have characters appearing as Billie Holiday pseudo-impersonators who never seem to quite make their way into the narrative at hand. The dramaturgical intent is clear regarding the ways in which Western privilege frequently relies upon African stereotypes drawn from familiar images within popular culture. This imagery however never really comes to life in any profound textual manner, depriving spectators of a truly powerful connection to the actual horror of what has occurred historically on a deeply exploited and under nourished continent.

Crimps acclaimed playwriting has proven itself internationally as provocative plots that are brought to life through intriguing narrative forms. Unfortunately the Canadian Stage production is all form, while the content is severely lacking and the direction appears to be out of its element. It might have made a better film.

running at the Bluma Appel Theatre until February 18th





Who can make the end of the world seem so delightfully terrifying? Who can take a profoundly depressing and fatalistic view of the future and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile? Ronny Burkett’s latest offering is a feast for the eye and ear as a barrage of unforgettable characters, running the gamut from streetwise poodles, to over sexed Chihuahuas, reluctant cross-dressers, little girls who want to be dogs, and Elvis impersonators in camouflage gear take the stage and overwhelm spectators with their tenderness, their cruelty, and their beautifully animated humanity. This menagerie of distinct and impeccably rendered personalities share their enchanting woeful tales with an elderly boarding house matron who is a sympathetic receptacle for all of the terrifying stories of her time. Penny Plain houses all the fear and the turmoil of contemporary life within the walls of Burkett’s intricate web of brilliantly conceived individual narratives that come together in a single one hundred and forty minute tour de force.

Opening with a conversation between Penny and her beloved canine companion each new episodic dialogue reads like a separate piece of brilliant storytelling that could stand alone as a single riveting plot. Burkett, however, is renowned for his skill as a master storyteller who insists upon weaving diverse intersecting plot lines into one epic performance. Penny Plain is perhaps one of his tightest, most relentless works to date as it moves along at breakneck speed, without room for a single misplaced breath. During a Friday night performance, when he appeared to improvise seamlessly regarding a tangled puppet string, it was hard to tell whether he was ad libbing his way out of a theatrical mishap or if it was a piece of brilliantly conceived meta-theatrical flair. Burkett is so skilled and so comfortable within his world of marionettes that it is a marvel to behold.

Having seen many of his shows over the past two decades one wonders how he will come up with yet another masterpiece. Penny Plain plays with many of the same themes from earlier scripts, but like all of Burkett’s work, the text brings new insight and fresh intriguing characters into a world filled with love, fear, hope, and the frightening news of the world that seems to fill the air waves more and more with each passing day. If you like your fear infused with laughter, human kindness, and bouts of astounding poetic horror and breathtaking beauty, then Penny Plain is not to be missed.

running at Factory Theatre until February 26th

Monday, January 23, 2012

Peggy Baker’s the sound and the feel of it

Peggy Baker’s most recent dance project, the sound and the feel of it, currently running at the Betty Oliphant Theatre is a diverse tour de force that runs the gamut from explosive rap stylings to a solo piece that invites the audience to share the silence of the theatre with Baker as she performs her stunning 2008 Dora award winning piece entitled Portal. At this point in her long career as an internationally acclaimed solo dancer Baker has decided to feature other dancers as the focus of her choreographic work. By placing her solo work in the middle of the current program, without musical accompaniment, she sets up an iconic epicenter for these young performers to emerge through, revealing themselves as highly skilled dancers capable of superb ensemble work as well as virtuoso feats of pure dance magic.

In the opening piece, In the Fire of Conflict Benjamin Kamino takes the stage and battles it out with a score that moves relentlessly through a melange of delicate tinkling sounds coupled with thunderous vocal rap stylings. There are times when the harsher tones, although powerful and evocative, tend to overwhelm the choreography, but Kamino comes through it all on top as he delivers a stunning rendition of Baker’s deeply nuanced dance vocabulary set to Christos Hatzi’s powerful multi-layered music.

Portal, Baker’s solo, features the sharp and brilliant rectangular lighting effects of Marc Parent. The performer’s simple elegant costume by Caroline O’Brien and the taut angular qualities of her body give the piece an intriguing flow that moves from one geometric lighting space to another, all done in complete silence. The overall effect of the solo acts as a centrifugal tour de force - a kind of quiet kinetic punctuation to the more thunderous accompaniment of the other two segments.

By highlighting both costume and lighting in the current program Baker gives visual voice to her desire to bring these “very close collaborators [costume and lighting designers] more to the awareness of the people. To say, these are the people who helped to shape my aesthetic. And now these are the dancers who are carrying my choreographic ideas forward as I finish my own dance life.”

The final section, entitled Piano/Quartet utilizes gorgeous costuming by Caroline O’Brien that might have been better served had it been withdrawn by degree throughout the piece, thereby exposing more of the angularity of the bodies as the work progressed. Set to John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes (1948) Baker’s choreography seems to cry out for more of a physical and visual progression/viscosity than the costumes allow. As it stands, Piano/Quartet is in an intriguing and demanding collection of ensemble and solo segments that interpret Cage’s work in a flawless series of vignette-like moments that are at times hampered by garments that do not allow the body to fully inhabit Baker’s detailed movements. Had the costuming provided a more explosive visual field for the bodies to emerge through, the poems Baker is interpreting from Cage might have seemed somewhat less obscure. Similarly, by giving the audience no access to the actual poetry it is difficult to imagine the import of these two forms, dance and poetry, coming together in a fully integrated manner.

The overall program presents audiences with an exciting new chapter in the career of a great dancer and choreographer whose presence within the sound and the feel of it allows her to re-introduce herself as a fine soloist committed to an ongoing project of brilliant collaboration.

running January 25-29, Betty Oliphant Theatre, 404 Jarvis Street

Sunday, January 22, 2012


'How do you tell stories about illegal immigrants' lack of rights: about people who cannot go to the dentist when they suffer from agonising toothache, people who cannot go to the police when they are forced into prostitution or abused by a pimp, people who get loved to death? How do you write about the parallel world of migrants who, condemned to the catacombs of prosperity, provide for the needs of our lower bodies, as kitchen coolies or sex slaves? And how do you depict all this without adding too much social kitsch to the theatrical pot (a pot full of fragrant Asian soup at the Chinese takeaway where Roland Schimmelpfennig's The Golden Dragon is set)? Schimmelpfennig avoids the risks inherent in a theatre of outrage by cooling down his dramaturgy in epic style, adding fairytale ingredients and chopping up the scenes like the little morsels on a sushi tray.'

(Christopher Schmidt, 2010 Berlin Theatertreffen programme)

Tarragon theatre’s Canadian premiere of award winning German Playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon does all of the things required of a complex and compelling script with a simple and direct elegance and power. Ross Manson’s direction, staged beautifully on and around the subtle yet looming dais of Teresa Przybylski’s set, brings intersecting stories to life in a subtle and powerful manner that mixes light comic play with intense tragic story lines that lead the audience toward a final poetic moment of harrowing recognition. As ants, grasshoppers, crickets, flight attendants, restaurant cooks and store owners mingle within the grim confines of class structures that create hostile hierarchies around race and gender, the stories unfold with layers of beautiful prose and dialogue that creates a vicious circle of inter-cultural disarray.

Manson’s cast is able to insert subtle nuances into gender blind casting that renders their portrayals both poignant and believable. David Fox and Tony Nappo deliver an array of diverse solid characters that never lapse into parody. As female flight attendants replete with slapdash wigs that complement and contrast their nuanced and subtle portrayals, they could be anyone, anywhere, within the confines of unwelcoming cultural contexts. The ensemble is able to provide a strong sense of working as a single, almost choral-like unit, as well as an array of distinct and powerful characters. Anusree Roy, Lili Francks and David Yee round out the cast with diverse performances ranging form the haunting insects that Francks and Yee bring to life, to the bewildered, boorish, and at times frighteningly endearing character of Roy’s man in the striped shirt. One scene between Roy and Nappo, with Nappo in a simple red wraparound frock and Roy in the signature shirt, presents an impeccable piece of gender blind casting that each performer manages to perfect with distinct characterization and subtle physical gestures.

The play’s central symbol of the decaying tooth begs the question regarding the rights of illegal immigrants when they are in need of specific healthcare, and illuminates Canada’s own conflicted state of sufficient medical support for those in need. The Golden Dragon’s episodic, intersecting dramaturgy, demanding a non-traditional approach to casting, resists realism in a way that puzzles, delights, and demonstrates inhumanity. The Tarragon production, although impressive and beautifully staged, lacks some of the grittiness the script demands, as it casts an intense and sharply poetic light upon the state of urban structures that dehumanize daily within the steamy, underbelly of what many of us take for granted as relatively inexpensive places to dine.

running until February 19th, 30 Bridgman Avenue, Tarragon Theatre

Saturday, January 21, 2012


So much positive press has already been spent on Ins Choi’s smash hit Kim’s Convenience that it is difficult to know precisely what to say that will further bolster this truly superb example of new and original theatre. What initially strikes one as a mark of excellence is the startlingly realistic set by Ken MacKenzie. The intricately detailed playing space not only captures the essence of the neighbourhood convenience store but also lends the overall visual experience a solid theatrical grace that allows actors to exist within a crowded environment as well as move outwards into an open playing space that frees them from the narrow aisles and crowded shelves of the classic small community grocery store. MacKenzie has taken a very basic design from a simple utilitarian model and presented it with truly iconic and epic proportions. His design is in perfect sync with a script that follows a solid and familiar plot structure and fills that structure with brilliant comic dialogue, political import, and extraordinary language play. All of these expertly crafted elements reveal the complex inner workings of a particular immigrant family struggling to survive within the day to day workings of a life-changing, working class, multi-cultural experience.

One conversation early on, between father and daughter, is an incredibly entertaining & complex example of rapid fire dialogue and break neck pacing that astounds the viewer with hilarious and unsettling comedy about the art of identifying customers as particular types according to race, gender, corporeal presence, and sexuality. By the end of this scene one is left with the distinct and disorienting feeling that they have been given a serious yet lighthearted lesson in sexual, physical, and racial profiling that reduces every customer who walks into Kim’s Convenience as an individual who must be quickly and astutely assessed in order to insure the safety and success of the store owner’s business. This is fine political parody and comic realism at its very best.

Toronto’s reputation for multi-cultural experience does not always meet with the most positive representations within diverse political discussions. What Choi’s script adds to this complex discussion is a very poignant, articulate, and comic look at the ways in which one man simultaneously holds his family together and splits it apart in his attempt to understand his own position within a difficult and exhausting familial and political milieu. The ensemble cast is impeccable, with Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Appa, the father and store owner, giving a performance so filled with vocal range and physical agility that he dominates the stage from beginning to end. The rest of the cast is able to equal his powerful presence as they deliver a diverse blend of physical and comic expertise, from the beautifully subtle yet powerful shades of Jena Yoon’s Umma, Appa’s wife, to the feisty and playful tones of Esther Jun’s Janet, as the daughter. Clé Bennett’s four tiered role as Rich, Mr. Lee, Mike and Alex moves so seamlessly through the script and is delivered with such depth and comic diversity that it is one of those startlingly perfect performances where each character, portrayed by a single actor, is thoroughly unique & believable through the use of distinct costume design and pure physical and vocal skill. Ins Choi's small pivotal role as the son, Jung, is presented with the strength and subtlety one has come to expect from this multi-talented member of the Soulpepper academy. Under the clear and concise direction of Soulpepper alumnus Weyni Mengesha Kim’s Convenience is a theatrical gem not to be missed.

running at The Young Centre (Distillery District) until February 11th