Thursday, March 29, 2012



On the way home from the theatre I stopped at the liquor store to buy a four pack of vodka coolers. Silently waxing nostalgic on my last trip to Vegas to see Elton I encouraged myself to indulge in a little Smirnoff induced glee. Having just been to the opening night of Bliss at Buddies, a theatre that differs from Caesar's Palace in one crucial way - they don't let you take a bucket of Budweiser cans to your seat with you - I was in the mood for a cheap nightcap of the chilly kind. I've never seen Celine at the palace but I wonder if her fans also get to indulge in an iconic brand of American booze while they sit and adore her. I sure hope so.

If Salvador Dali had lived to paint a mural in the lobby of the theatre built for Celine Dion, only a limousine ride away from her palatial custom built home, it might have looked like the text of Bliss sounds. It would have moved in and out of desert locales with babies melting into the landscape and the outline of Walmarts would have marked a burning horizon. Inverted lips, inside out skeletons, fleur-de-lis, and cracked maple leaves might have littered the foreground. But it was not meant to be. Instead we have the beautifully written, surreal, poetic seventy-minute long performance/play currently running at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre. For half-crazed fans and mordant detractors this is a fine example of ensemble acting that elevates the cult of the Dion phenomenon to new and staggering heights of real and imagined devotion.

Olivier Choinière’s script, translated by Caryl Churchill and brought to life under the sharply conceived and stylish direction of Steven McCarthy, reads like a narrative long poem for four voices in search of a plot. Delphine Bienvenu, Jean Robert Bourdage, Trent Pardy, and France Rolland deliver layered and passionate performances as they create an ensemble of images and narrative strands that are at once harrowing, beautiful, comical, moving, and absurd. Set and costume design by James Lavoie creates a glistening, uniform brand of intrigue that unfolds by the end of the piece and plants the audience firmly within the realm of the ordinary and the sublime.

I am one of those people who claims to love Celine, rarely listens to her music, defends her with an embarrassed ambivalence, and is half-ashamed to admit to any of this. Now that I have seen Bliss I love her a little less, but not much less. In my vodka infused icepack of chilled, distilled, and unfulfilled emotion she remains an icon to be reckoned with from a part of culture that high society seems to have disengaged from a very long time ago, leaving her and her loved ones alone in a series of mirage-like tableaus, ensconced within a posh, seemingly blissful Mojave compound (or an island in Laval) and surrounded by the spoils of millions of fans, and millions - upon millions - of dollars.




Monserrat Roig’s hour long monologue, beautifully performed by acclaimed actor/director Dragana Varagic, is a subtle and powerful testament to the ways in which one woman’s life can assimilate all of the ups and downs of material existence and seamlessly - and deceptively - channel them into the text of a classic tragedy that becomes, in the hands of a skilled actress, a contemporary analogy to the shadows of past lives presently lived.

Varagic’s great skill for understated nuance that smoulders with the effortless quality of her very natural speech patterns and controlled movements were enhanced in the recent Theatre Passe Muraille production by a meta-text that was created through the use of her projected film image - an image that took over the playing space from time to time, creating a dual role for a single actress.

As Clito Mestre and Clytemnestra Varagic instills a poetic elegance into every word that appear, on the surface, to be the day to day ramblings of a woman preparing to go onstage. Frequent forays into less ordinary occurrences rise softly from the script, and in Varagic’s hands become a moody, slowed down roller coaster of diverse emotion.

Moments of blatant reference to the play of life and art appear as they slowly begin to ruthlessly commingle -

A Woman of the theatre is no ordinary woman. She is every woman, all the women in the world.

Flirtatious, potentially erotic episodes provide engaging, titillating moments of theatrical playfulness -

We made love lots of times. … Every Saturday we went to that hotel and he would ask me to recite poems, or else to put on the costume of a famous character and play the part. One day I would disguise myself as a whore, another time as a nun, or perhaps Mary Queen of Scots.

And ultimately, the culmination and coming together of Clito the woman and Clytemnestra the iconic role from Greek tragedy -

We spent three hours in bed and it was then that he said in a whisper, “This time I want you to be you…” …I was me, and I couldn’t bring a single poem to my memory. It was just me screaming, only Clito screaming, Clito screaming ( in a whisper) Clito screaming.

Roig’s script and Varagic’s interpretation created an engaging collaborative effort that resulted in a powerfully measured production that provided for a provocative interrogation of one woman’s life as it makes a series of blurred entrances into - and exits outside of - the theatre.



The Wooster Group's Version of Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carre


a pathology of naturalism

I knew an aging director once, who had a reputation for beautiful experimental renderings of fine drama. He barely made it into the mainstream and lived out his life on the margins, only flirting with dominant cultural forms when he was allowed in. I would see him, from time to time, at a local bathhouse. He would take the somewhat grim, banal surroundings of the little cubicles assigned to those of us interested in casual sex and habitual promiscuity, and throw a colourful translucent scarf over a light bulb, an upholstered pillow from his couch behind his head, and there he would sit, with his door open, reading a book as he awaited the varied delights of a dimly lit evening among like minded men. Like Tennessee Williams, he knew how to decorate the reality of life and make it magical, for a moment. He knew how to adorn the text of his own existence with something decidedly more glamourous than overt realism.


"Is Vieux Carre a good play?" …. "Probably not. But it depends what you mean by good. It is a play of blatant melodrama and crepuscular atmosphere — poetically speaking, and he never tried anything less, Mr. Williams always writes of violence at twilight. Its qualities are those of texture rather than form. It is a series of vignettes, based on fact, falsified by art, transformed into short stories, and woven into a play . . . If we always expect the unexpected to happen—and as playgoers we do—nothing happens. And the play has no structures other than the interweaving of caricatured characters. Yet it has a haunting nature — you leave the theater with the impression of having been told a secret. Not necessarily a truth, but a secret . . . It is unquestionably, the murmurings of genius, not a major statement. Yet beneath those murmurings, through the meanderings, is an authentic voice of the 20th-century theater. It is slight but not negligible. Which, considering so many dramas, is a pleasant reversal.”

Clive Barnes - The New York Times - 1977


Like a long beautiful run-on sentence, Tennessee William’s Vieux Carré is a brilliant modern masterpiece that has been misunderstood for decades. The current World Stage production of The Wooster Group’s Version of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré proves, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the playwright’s production notes to The Glass Menagerie, written during a period when Williams was beginning the early drafts of Vieux Carré, were derailed by directors with more traditional productions in mind, paving the way for a series of conventional twentieth century versions of his plays that focused upon the ways in which a kind of southern poetic writing can lend itself well to the dominant representational form of the time - naturalism. Naturalism has been subject to the greatest cultural phobias and pathologies of the periods that it has embraced over the past century, thus the absence of a wealth of plays that deal with marginalized subjects and a proliferation of scripts that regurgitate dominant heteronormative scenarios.

In his introduction to The Glass Menagerie, included in the World Stage program, Williams imagined a theatre that forsakes realistic conventions” in order “to resume vitality as a part of our culture.” The Wooster Group does precisely this through the use of a variety of acting styles, body microphones that give the voices a subtly powerful cinematic quality, as well as non-naturalistic sets that move seamlessly in and out of a series of tableaus that connect a cast of characters living in an unseemly rooming house in the French Quarter.

What Clive Barnes sidestepped in his review in the late seventies was the notion that a good play need not adhere to any specific pattern regarding the organization of scenes that comprise an entire script. A good play can depend upon the kindness and sensitivity of strangers - a group of gifted actors guided by an insightful director who sees the script as something more than a depiction of life as we view it through the deceptively biased lens of everyday experience. Williams chose a more expressionistic style for Vieux Carré that connected his characters in almost surreal and startling ways in order to highlight the ways in which the real and the imagined can become so integrated within a single psyche that they begin to blur and shape our lived experiences.

Scott Shepherd’s performance brilliantly exemplifies this integration of normative and fantastical characterization as he creates the roles of Nightingale and Tye McCool. He never falters as he holds the listeners attention from start to finish, delivering sharply dissimilar characters that have been seamlessly integrated into the production, producing an almost magical presence for these two vary distinct and engaging personas. Ari Flakos as the writer possesses a soft, cool, seductive tone to his voice as he embraces his character as a kind of objective observer, as well as an over-wrought artist caught within the drama at hand. Kate Valk as Jane Sparks, and Mrs. Wire, alongside Kaneza Schaal’s superb supporting role of Nursie, brilliantly insert the element of nuanced caricature so crucial to the playwright's vision.

Williams was able to see, as he experienced a variety of chaotic class settings during his childhood, and into maturity, the ways in which personality can move seamlessly into parody - a caricature of what we often perceive as real, when in fact the parody is every bit as real as the so-called normative presence. The French Quarter remains to this day an environment where this kind of character shifting can appear in high relief through the glare of a scorching southern sun, and the intense humidity of the Mississippi River Delta, not to mention the ongoing threat of Katrina-like ‘acts of god’ that re-invent the human and geographic landscape drastically, and at a moments notice.

Andrew Schneider’s complex videos and Jennifer Tipton’s evocative lighting, combined with a brilliant soundscape by Matt Schloss and Omar Zubair, under the impeccable direction of Elizabeth LeCompte, render the overall production a truly exciting exploration of the proverbial human condition. LeCompte has sighted the influence of playwright Charles Ludlum. The dildos, the melodramatic poses, the fright wigs and the overt sexuality Ludlum was a master of, all conspire to make the production a gorgeous, at times gaudy rendering of this semi-autobiographical journey through the early career of a great American playwright.

The Wooster version is a sight to behold, and not to be missed, and may remind some of us of the ways in which our lives have been consistently jammed into the corners of culture by infamous critics, among others, and perceived as “crepuscular,” “melodramatic,” and “falsified by art,” when in fact the eternal play of art and life has never been a falsification by any stretch of the collective aesthetic imagination. It has been, as Williams so aptly put it an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation, through changing into other forms than those which were merely present in appearance.”

Clive Barnes may have been somewhat shortsighted regarding the form and structure of Vieux Carré. But he was right when he suggested that it may not be a "good" play. It is a brilliant play, and the Wooster Group Version is a brilliant production that should set the standard for any truly innovative future incarnations of William’s great dramas.

running at the Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront

Centre, as part of World Stage, until March 31st

Thursday, March 22, 2012


The melting voice through mazes running;

Untwisting all the chains that ty

The hidden soul of harmony.

John Milton, L'Allegro and Il Penseroso

Given the strong literary connections embodied by Laurence Lemieux’s critically acclaimed 2003 choreographic work Varenka, Varenka!, it seems only fitting to compare the sheer beauty of this very measured and elegant piece of dance theatre to another literary genius. Although Milton’s famous odes L'Allegro and Il Penseroso represent notions of both joy and sadness, while Lemieux’s connection to Dostoevsky’s novel Poor Folk appears to be a more pensive, melancholy meditation, Lemieux’s gradual choreographic rhythms, moving from sharp, quietly gestural forms to a finale rife with minute, explosive characterization through the brilliant articulation of finely detailed bodily movement, is a mesmerizing study in the quality of rhythm as it relates to emotional, romantic, and material attachment.

Set design by David Gaucher provides a simple interconnected skeletal form representing the modest rooms that the two characters inhabit across the street from each other. A backdrop reminiscent of a surrealist canvas by de Chirico grounds the relationship within the bleak confines of poverty that dominate Dostoevsky’s narrative.

Nell Coleman’s costumes provide subtle and elegant forms for the two bodies to emerge from within, neither inhibiting nor distracting them from the sheer agony/frustration and the meager, frequently passionate contentment they seem to discover along the way.

Accompaniment by Vladimir Sidorov, on the bayan, (a type of chromatic button accordion developed in Russia in the early 20th century and named after the 11th-century bard Boyan) is utterly engaging as Sidorov’s onstage presence provides a kind of meta-theatrical connection through the astounding versatility of a unique musical instrument that builds a diverse soundscape for the narrative to inhabit. Voice-overs in Russian add to the mystique of the piece and allow anyone unfamiliar with the language the insatiable desire to crave a long moody look at Dostoevsky’s first novel - an impressive work that paved the way toward the Russian Master’s iconic literary status.

The current re-mount of VARENKA, VARENKA! at the recently opened Citadel Theatre on Parliament Street is a testament to the dedication and the immense skill and collaborative brilliance of the partnership of Lemieux and her husband Bill Coleman. Lemieux is able to move through the piece with great finesse, at one point using the voluminous folds of her lower costume to sharply inhabit the quick expressive forward movements of her arching body. Coleman’s subtle balletic movements, combined with the sharp explosive minute tableaus he creates in the finale, and throughout, reveal how the simple fold of an arm or the abrupt turn of the head can become a profound and moving example of fine dance theatre, infusing an old classic with the vibrance and immediacy of a live performing body.

Varenka Varenka! Runs until March 31st. at the Citadel Theatre,

304 Parliamant Street, just south of Dundas

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Sylvain Emard’s recent Danceworks presentation of Fragments - Volume I was a brilliant and diverse evening of movement that ranged from athletic solos beginning with an upside down body straddling a chair, pure gestural movement that featured the idea of actor as dancer, and a gorgeous same sex duet that ended the evening with acute and engaging characterization.

The only weak moment in the program occurred in the second piece, Emoi, emoi, and was caused by a disarming pair of track pants that distracted the eye away from an otherwise beautifully rendered solo that was filled with tremendous grace and precision by Catherine Viau. Viau’s upper body was adorned by a skin tight near animal-like print that allowed the movement to soar, and yet the lower portion was a constant and unsuitable contrast, cloaking the hips and legs in a rather dull, block of shapeless, unsculpted fabric. Poetic program notes by Carol Anderson illuminated the piece yet gave no hint as to why “the liquid physicality of long phrases . . . interspersed with quizzical, flailing motions, and spiked with spiraling gestures that wrap her torso and send her skimming, crawling, leaping, through space” would require dark baggy trousers and white stripes down the side of the dancers legs. This was costume malfunction at its most bewildering.

The opening piece, Dans mon jardin, was a powerful exercise in athletic fluidity as Manuel Roque framed a series of “compulsive rhythm and spasmodic flurries of movement” with a departure from and return to his chair with a seamless agility.

Roque was paired with Laurence Ramsay for the final segment in Bicéphale (two-headed) for an intricately rendered, at times breathtakingly poignant and powerful duet that was at once, violent, sensual, and syncopated with an enormous sense of characterization on the part of Roque. His face, without over acting, managed to complement every movement with an engaging sense of overall body narrative, from head to two. Laurence Ramsay’s physical movement was equal to his partners, but his sense of character was no match for the raw yet subtle plasticity of Roque’s intricate gestural narrative.

At times modern dance can rely upon a neutrality of facial expression as a way of letting the body take over. This was certainly not the case with Roque’s performance, and his ability to emote in a fluid and utterly engaging manner connects directly to perhaps the highlight of the evening. Monique Miller, a film, stage, and television veteran, rendered the third offering of the evening with magnificent precision, giving the overall piece, entitled Absence, a gorgeous fluidity that inhabited every part of her body. In a year when a silent film took all of the major awards at the Oscars, Miller’s performance was a grand, elegant testament to how the highly skilled acting body can speak multitudes without uttering a word. Emard’s beautifully diverse choreography gave Miller the opportunity to act her way through music and movement that, as Carol Anderson so poetically expressed in her notes, speaks of “engulfing heartache” reaching out for “gentle company, romance” that is “punctuated by silences, by a sense of hauntings in old dance steps, old jazz tunes, a bass line’s throb.”

Fragments - Volume 1 was a diverse and enthralling evening, attesting to Sylvain’s Emard’s over-riding desire to “develop dance that is anchored in everyday life, without losing its poetry . . . to concentrate on what is at the very heart of life in our society.”


ran at Harbourfront’s Enwave Theatre for one night only, March 3rd, 2012

Friday, March 2, 2012


I have perceived much beauty

In the hoarse oaths that kept

our courage straight; Heard

music in the silentness of duty;

Found peace where shell-

storms spouted reddest spate

Wilfred Owen

In the true spirit of equine excellence the current production of Warhorse is a magnificent hybrid, a thoroughbred of theatrical stagecraft that is moving, humorous and vastly entertaining as life size puppets take the stage and make us forget, for over two full hours, that human beings have anything at all to do with the theatre. The visible puppet handlers very quickly disappear into our imagination as these gorgeous creatures, with the famed Joey in the lead, display incredible nuance of both sound and movement as they make their way through a harrowing world war one narrative about a boy’s love for his four legged friend.

The ensemble cast delivers powerful yet emotionally reserved performances that may heat up as the run progresses. In the lead role as Albert Narracott, Alex Furber has some fine moments as he struggles to keep his beloved Joey from becoming part of a devastating war machine. The very delicate balance between a kind of reserved yet powerful naturalistic acting, existing alongside the meticulous movements of the horses that the production requires has not yet reached its stride for the ensemble as moments of underplayed mechanical connection between actor and puppet occur. Nevertheless, the overall mise en scene is a brilliantly realized spectacle that well serves the epic quality of the text.

More than a dozen puppet handlers display impeccable expertise as they move seamlessly across the stage with five beautifully designed horses. Joey’s luminous rusty brown tones contrast effectively with the darker hue of Topthorn, setting up a dramatic interplay between the two lead puppets from the outset.

There is a very brief homo-social moment of heroic camaraderie between Furber and Patrick Kwok-Choon as David Taylor. In a trench positioned at the edge of the stage they share their hopes and desires about life after battle. Both actors create a strong slightly comic connection as Albert dreams of his horse and David dreams of his beloved back home across the channel. A later scene where Albert describes his wartime buddy as “handsome” becomes a light moment of the kind of typical, teasingly homo-social heroism WWI narratives are filled with. But this is a family show, picked up by Spielberg for the film version, and promptly de-puppeted and romanticized in the way only Disney can manage, giving Hollywood yet another example of feel good trauma for the movie masses.

Projections of rural landscapes moving from England to France over the course of the war years aid spectators in locating the drama at hand within specific time frames. A standout performance by Addison Holley as Emilie occurs in the later scenes as she sweeps onto the stage and renders the child-like trauma of her war torn character, and subsequent connection with Joey, with great ease and an immense powerful charm.

Onstage music by Melanie Doane (violin) and Tatjana Cornji (accordion) provides a strong cohesive framework that moves the play along, with beautiful narrative vocals by both musicians that poetically punctuate the action at hand.

The story of Warhorse may not be all that interesting to anyone looking for a more unique, revisionist account of what great wars might involve, but the visual spectacle of Warhorse is breathtaking.

I cried a tear, or two.

Runs through Sept at the Princess of Wales Theatre