Saturday, February 27, 2016


The current production of David French’s iconic Canadian play Salt Water Moon – playing at Factory Theatre until March 13 – is a brilliant version of a haunting, subtly explosive bit of national history. 

In 1985 French managed to explore, in a seemingly simple two hander, the intricacies and intimacies of a ruptured relationship as a gesture toward the ruptured nature of political history and how it can affect both personal and national identity. Set in 1926 in Newfoundland, by the sea, all the romantic trappings are at hand as lovers enmesh themselves in memory, loss, abandonment, and sheer physical longing. 

Voting against joining Canada in 1869, Newfoundland began its varied history as an extension of complex colonization, becoming a part of Canada in 1949 after a lengthy period as an independent Dominion. The Depression and then the Second World War played key parts in the region’s complex history. In Salt Water Moon the elements of separation and eventual union are characterized by a young couple on the verge of love and warfare – simultaneously – in love with the image and the idea of each other but never quite knowing who they might be and what they might want.  

                                                                           DIRECTOR RAVI JAIN
Directed by Ravi Jain, the only crucial thing missing in this production is an intense sense of desire. It does come across as an obvious element of the mutual, conflicted attraction, but during an early performance the interaction could have been somewhat more intense given the stakes of this ninety-minute sexually charged journey through very young love compromised by separation. Within the promise and the disappointment of a very large, very young country, the characters are remembering a single exciting moment that occurred a year before they meet – on stage – by the sea, to rekindle what might have been. 

                                                                      MAYKO NGUYEN AS MARY SNOW
A bare playing space covered in unlit candles sets the tone for this minimalist production. As small flames light and flicker, constellations of emotional strategies – drenched in denial and material need – gain a filtered darkness, filled with points of life, within which to materialize.  Kawa Ada as Jacob Mercer and Mayko Nguyen as Mary Snow take full command of the stage as the direction clearly and concisely enables their characters to rid themselves of traditional notions of naturalistic costume and setting, and focus upon the words they are speaking. In crisp, emotive tones, without any excessive emotion - yet retaining a smouldering intensity throughout that might have been played (during an early performance) with light physical abandon – the performers bring a unique clarity to the local accents and phrasings employed by the playwright. 

By adding a third character in the form of a self-accompanied singer, Jain has given the play an incredible meta-narrative that includes the stage directions – memorized and spoken by the singer at various intervals. The written emotions, described by the playwright in the script, are resisted by the actors as they are spoken by the onstage singer. Ania Soul, as the musician, possesses a beautiful haunting voice that opens the play, and continues throughout the entire ninety minutes in varied from, from snippets of lyrics written into the script as well as instrumentally inclined vocalizing as romantic atmosphere surrounding the dialogue.
                                                                      ANIA SOUL - MUSICIAN
Paradoxically, this production strips away excessive emotion and theatrical paraphernalia and exposes the diversity of a Canadian landscape that has been too often marginalized and neglected - in a country that has spent a considerable period of time trying to embrace it’s multi-cultural heritage. Ravi Jain’s vision of Salt Water Moon adds fresh new life to an old Canadian classic.
                                                                      KAWA ADA AS JACOB MERCER


Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre at the Sony Centre
Beloved by Toronto audiences, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre at last returns to the Sony Centre after a two-year absence. Heralded as America’s Cultural Ambassador to the World, the company comes to the Sony Centre to showcase the vision of Robert Battle, Artistic Director, with programming that embraces the tradition of such beloved classics as Revelations and extends the legacy in dynamic new directions. While forever true to their illustrious heritage, the company also prides itself on debuting new works by the foremost emerging choreographers. Experience the power of Ailey and see for yourself why this extraordinary company is hailed as “possibly the most successful modern dance company on the planet.”
(New York Times)

*selected interview segments with Samuel Lee Roberts ©Bateman Reviews, 2016
                                                                       SAMUEL LEE ROBERTS
Samuel Lee Roberts has been described by Dance Magazine (July 22, 2011) as “a dancer of extremes. This whirlwind of raw energy was “On The Rise” in May 2006 when he was still a Battleworks dancer…” In the same issue of Dance Magazine he exclaimed;

“I have always found it physically impossible to be still if there is music playing. Doctors today might diagnose me with ADHD…and that’s fine. Just hold the Ritalin and put me on the stage!”

At five years old Roberts would watch Michael Jackson dance and he would dance along, prompting friends and relatives to say * “You were always dancing…you would dance into the room.” He feels that dance is in his DNA – * “embedded in my soul” - and that he has been fortunate enough to be able to work with acclaimed companies, for more than ten years, including Battleworks and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Studying at Julliard gave him the chance to meet Robert Battle during his student solo for a senior year project. After graduating in 2001 Battle asked Roberts to be a part of the company. Since that time they have created a lot of work together. In\side, a solo piece, was created for him by Battle. Roberts performed the piece in his first year with the company and continued to do so for two years before it moved out of repertory.
                                                                          SAMUEL LEE ROBERTS

As part of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre (since 2009), with Robert Battle at the helm (Artistic Director since 2001) Roberts will be performing at the Sony Centre March 4th and 5th. The program will showcase the vision of Robert Battle, with Roberts appearing in Toccata and Awakening.

 Toccata (new production – Canadian premiere) program A - March 4th & 5th, 8pm

Roberts describes Toccata as “a very jazzy ballet, high octane, very exciting and fun [and] a throwback to the good old days of jazz.”

Awakening (Canadian premiere – Robert Battle’s first new work as Artistic Director) program B – March 5th, 2pm

“Set to a symphonic score by frequent collaborator John Mackey” Awakening showcases Battle’s “taut, ritualistic style to powerful effect in a dance that expertly balances chaos and resolution, dissonance and harmony.”
Founded in 1958 by Alvin Ailey, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre was formed in order to “carry out [Ailey’s] vision of a company dedicated to enriching the American modern dance heritage and preserving the uniqueness of the African-American cultural experience…Alvin Ailey was a pioneer of programs promoting arts in education, particularly those benefiting underserved communities…” 

Ailey’s legacy continues as the company showcases work such as Revelations (a signature choreographic work by Alvin Ailey) in Norfolk Virginia to hundreds of students bussed in from surrounding areas. Samuel Lee Roberts sees the company as being true to its specific heritage as well as serving a broad demographic that * “reflects all American culture. [The company] gives people a chance to see themselves reflected onstage – the beauty of their lives, their struggles, what they’ve gone through – giving to as many people as possible – [this is] part of our legacy."


Thursday, February 18, 2016


Teenage Thai still has an imaginary friend named Mustard who lives under the bed. How can her mother, recently divorced and looking for solace at the bottom of a wine glass, persuade her that this is not normal, when she just started seeing him too? Mustard is a darkly comic fairy tale about an imaginary friend’s quest to stay in our world; a whimsical story about loss, family, growing up, and our need to belong.
                                                                                    program note

Kat Sandler has an immense knack for combining the ridiculous with the sublime and coming up with an unnerving blend of tragedy and comedy that moves at a breakneck pace from start to finish. Mustard is a hilarious and thought provoking piece of writing that prompts future tele - visions of CBC sitcom proportions that could join the ranks of the iconic King of Kensington and the currently acclaimed Schitt’s Creek. The writing is clever and witty and takes great risks by utilizing a subtle form of meta-theatrical joke telling that pushes the boundaries of corny by creating a character who just adores very bad jokes. But this is just one of many intricately drawn character traits that populate this hilarious and touching children’s play for grownups who have plenty to learn about managing their kids.
With a populist Freudian take on imaginary childhood friends Sandler layers this dramedy with plots, sub plots and peculiar fantasy characters that abound with contrasting energy that never provides a dull moment.

Tony Nappo and Julian Richings as Bug and Leslie become devilishly macabre characters who begin as ruthless and gradually morph into…(see the play and find out). As a dynamic duo of insect like scale they appear from the shadows as a necessary contrast to the kitchen sink setting and naturalistic tone that permeates the set and the dialogue. Sarah Dodd as Sadie plays a strong, near to crumbling maternal figure with great grace and emotional range, while Rebecca Liddiard as her daughter Thai matches Dodd’s emotional range and intensity as the two manage a wonderful rapport mixed with familial love and angsty distress. Paolo Santalucia as Jay, the hapless lover, is a fine study in handsome geekiness as he bears the brunt of a family he so engagingly attempts to become a part of.
 But perhaps the star turn in a brilliant ensemble comes from the title character of Mustard. Anand Rajaram somehow manages to grace the stage in an appropriately outlandish children’s show type costume, utilizing a comic and poignant vocal range that transforms in a strikingly climactic moment by the end of the story.

Set and costume design by Michael Gianfrancesco cites the classic sitcom effect of casual dress moving among a few rooms - all accessible via the a small staircase and an unassuming entryway. This works extremely well in the context of the dramedy that unfolds, creating a detailed, claustrophobic environment that attests to the minute neuroses and surprising love triangles that magically and maniacally unfold in a cluttered suburban space.

As my companion that evening remarked, Mustard is “a cross between The Polka-dot Door and A Midsummer Night’s Dream… As for Bottom, well, there’s a bit of butt cleavage at one point, and it is delightful…

The Two-Character Play

goød old neon theatre

 At one point, amidst the ten years of rewrites this play underwent during the twilight of Williams’ life, the piece was released under a different name – Outcry – a title that strikes me as just as apt for this work as its eventual title. To me, this play is an outcry: against logic, against isolation, and against all that keeps us mortals tip-toeing towards the edge of danger but so often afraid to take the plunge.
                                                Director Amy Keating

The Two-Character Play

I read or heard somewhere that cockroaches are immune to radiation and so are destined to be the last organic survivors of the great “Amen" – after some centuries there’s going to be cockroach actors and actresses and cockroach playwrights and Artists’ Management and audiences…

                                                                       Tennessee Williams – The Two-Character Play
There is a kind of abject elegance in the line “the energy of seaweed at low tide” – or something like that – from Tennessee Williams’ The Two-Character Play. The swirling beauty of something dank and delightful, slowly rotting, smelling, moving in and out of the glamourous and the grotesque as we squint and sigh and try to make sense of what we are actually seeing, actually experiencing in life, as we peer into the frequently shallow, metaphoric depths of the deep blue sea. Yikes! Words! And there is plenty more magical metaphor, symbolism, simile – what have you - where that came from in this brilliant, somewhat absurdist ninety minute two hander currently running at The Tarragon Theatre’s Workspace. Brought to audiences by goød old neon theatre, a young company filled with the ecstatic energy of seaweed in a tsunami, the program mandate reflects a refreshing and daring commitment to “investigating moral, political, and social paradoxes by integrating avant-garde aesthetics with traditional storytelling.”

Williams’ two-character play (premiere - 1975) is the perfect vehicle for this impressive meta-theatrical vision. Meta-theatre in this case has the actors trapped within two distinct scenarios – the real and the imagined – as they make their way through family and architectural dysfunction. They in fact feel like many of has have felt countless times when we are ten minutes into a very bad production and wondering if we will ever get out of the theatre. Happily, this is not one of those productions. From start to finish the performers, directed by Amy Keating with an amazing sense of pacing and kinetic frenzy, mixed with manic, at times graceful physical diversity, turn the cluttered stage into a maze of psychological precision sprinkled lightly with psychotic disarray. A trigger warning in the program specifies “gendered violence” and “mental health issues.” It’s a Tennessee Williams’ play, for the love of god! What did we expect? Neil Simon? But for audiences unfamiliar with Williams’ career, especially the less traditional narratives of his later work, the trigger warning might have included, “Don’t expect a southern belle languishing in jilted solitude, misogynist mania, and despairing memories.” As beautiful as his early masterpieces were, the later plays, critically panned during the premiere productions, are the ones that allowed Williams to soar above the gratuitous mainstream and into the glorious margins.
Matt Pilpiak & Nicole Wilson in The Two-Character Play

Late in life Williams began to create work more akin to Beckett - under the influence of theatre practitioners such as Erwin Piscator whose techniques encouraged a socio-political examination of life, espousing a form of epic theatre that discards naturalism in order to reveal the heightened effects of the frequently battered worlds we inhabit. The Two-Character Play (aka as Outcry) is a tragi-comic maniacal romp through the lives of what appear to be touring players bemoaning poorly heated theatres, low wages, and the ways in which the props that inhabit our lives (e.g. – telephones, pistols, doorways, lamps) can become obsessive objects that simultaneously distance us from and bring us closer to surrounding environs both human and horrid, peaceful and panicked.

Matt Pilpiak as Felice is a flawless study in melancholy and intense drive. With a robust fragility and a face that expresses a range of emotion in a single phrase, he gives a crumbling character the mixture of strength and deterioration needed for a man trying to simultaneously love, and cope with, a life and a career that appear to be driving him insane. Nicole Wilson as Clare matches Pilpiak’s performance with a perfect sense of familial rapport as she takes the archetypal southern belle and turns her inside out, giving her both dignity and disgrace at the turn of a phrase, the flick of a wrist, the sweeping race across a stage filled with props and furniture placed within deceptively organized disarray – beautifully conceived by designer Lindsay Jagger Junkin.

Both performers seamlessly move in and out of southern accents at appropriate moments, reminding us that we are watching a play, and that this particular play, until recently, has been a much neglected masterpiece from one of the twentieth centuries great artists as he ventured out of the collective comfort zone of naturalism and into the harsh exciting light of experimentation and enthralling illusion….Well, that was a mouthful.

Don’t miss this brilliant production of a play recently mounted with performers such as Amanda Plummer and Brad Dourif, giving somewhat absurdist meta-theatre a chance in  an absurd world inundated by – to paraphrase Blanche from A Streetcar Named Desire - too much realism and not enough magic.
The Two-Character Play runs at Tarragon Theatre Workspace until February 28th

Friday, February 5, 2016



Chelsea Hotel - The Songs of Leonard Cohen, is a thoroughly entertaining evening of fun-cum-flimsy narrative structure held together by the powerful poetic lyrics of a Canadian legend. For decades now Cohen’s words have melodically traversed the boundaries between the personal and the political, the sexual and the serene with a characteristic mocking, semi-self-deprecating tone that can appear, at once, both comical and sublime. The current production possesses a wealth of musical talent within an ensemble that has been tightly directed, musically arranged, and choreographed in a manner reminiscent of The Tiger Lilies - and particular ways of imagining the collaborations of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. 

For the most part palatable and entertaining, the evening dips lightly into scathing gender critique in the heteronormative vein, with moments when this queer critic longs for one – just one!!! – queer kiss among the ensemble. Just one!!! There is the odd chest grabbing, titillating embrace between the Cohen figure and his ghostly male muse/cum literary shadow, but it never moves beyond the homosocial continuum and into my own oft desired blatantly erotic clutch. Perhaps a female Cohen with a butch/femme counterpart would be a fantastical twist for future productions.

By setting the piece in a stylized hotel room with mammoth clutters of crumpled pages – one resembling a soft apocalyptic Christmas tree that opens wide – the stage is set, at the outset, for a movement through the times when the poet inhabited a room at the Chelsea, surrounded by other aspiring icons, and began to create his impressive oeuvre. The paper clutter is a clever idea that moves into poodle like proportions when the pages cluster around the legs of a writing table. And despite the seemingly unintentional imagery, I am a pushover for all things poodley.

The entire ensemble is impeccable, with the three women taking powerful positions that might have been shaken up a bit by placing them in less secondary poses from time to time. And yet their presence is always strong and slightly resistant to a dominant male, magically menacing quality that controls the poetic output at the heart of the cabaret drama – as it unfolds, tra la – la - la. La la…

There is an exquisite moment where staging and lyrics merge into a beautifully imagined light mockery of marriage and procreation, something along the lines of ‘do you really need this labour’ where the very idea of following the normative path through children and conjugal bliss (melded with the oft ensuing dis-bliss) is questioned in a haunting, harrowingly amusing manner. This only adds to the delightfully mixed pleasures of the evening – an evening that reminds us of the simple power and powerful simplicity of particular forms of figurative language (repetition, rhyme, alliterative delight, etc. etc. etc.) mastered and re-mastered by an international Canadian’esque celebrity whose work continues to be interpreted in a variety of profoundly entertaining, at times mind boggling ways.

And then there’s Hallelujah. . . The way in which it enters the mise-en-scene, and is reprised in a consciously contrasting manner, is an incredibly pleasing bit of lyrical and not so lyrical (yet necessarily and fabulously dissonant) proportions. It crashes and soars, crashes again, then flies back into harmonic heaven. Not to be missed in an era of Hallelujah adaptations ranging from popularized operatic tenors, to a children’s chorus, to light-hearted bans on new interpretations due to the sheer number of people inclined to interpret – again and again and again - this anthem-like tune and the creator behind them.

CHELSEA HOTEL The Songs of Leonard Cohen runs at Theatre Passe Muraille until February 21st.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Cherry Orchard

The Chekhov Collective’s The Cherry Orchard

The current production of The Cherry Orchard takes a light-hearted look at heavy-hearted sentiment and camaraderie in the midst of a crumbling family empire. Anton Chekhov’s lifelong preoccupation with familial ties that bind unravel then bind again in the midst of social turmoil finds itself elegantly staged in the Canstage upstairs space on Berkeley Street, running until February 14. And Valentine’s Day seems a fitting closing date for a script that bears one of the most humourous, annoying, frustratingly romantic beginnings, denouements, and climaxes in the history of theatre.
Varya and Lopahkin - played with contrasting dispositions - play out Chekhov’s teasingly torturous trio (man, woman, real estate) with a fine mixture of attraction and distance that unfortunately lacks a kind of smouldering sexuality that might have added a little titillation to the drama.  Nevertheless, Llyandra Jones as Varya does represent a strong, studied, suitably staid commitment to family that her fate demands, while Andrew Pogson’s Lopahkin consistently - with vigour and lightly played inner turmoil - casts the necessary light-hearted, land grabbing tone to the overall narrative.
Rena Polley as Lyubov Ranevskaya, the stubborn, hapless, gaily guarded matriarch gives a lovely varied performance as she moves in and out of denial and financial frivolity until the bitter end. The strongest performance, from the smallest role, comes from John Gilbert as Firs, the loyal servant. His final lines are delivered in a fading block of light beside a makeshift stage that serves throughout as a kind of meta-prop framing the action from start to finish. Director Dmitry Zhukovsky gives this iconic final class conscious moment a wonderful twist by turning the gaze upon the departing characters as their subservient and beloved Firs delivers one of Chekhov’s infamous anti-climactic cries from a lost and lonely world. Gilbert takes on the role with a paradoxically dazed, beautifully executed dignity. He wanders throughout the action, simultaneously taking in and shutting out the small world he inhabits, ultimately punctuating the syntax of a particular cultural grammar that has loved him, left him, and sentenced him to a lifelong lament that reveals his chosen family to be nothing of the kind.
And yet the action retains the light comic tone the playwright insisted upon when he exclaimed “But it’s a comedy” – insomuch as the greatest material tragedies of our lives are often filtered through the banal seemingly inconsequential trappings of small daily conversation and socio-economic, culturally inclined control. Dimitri Khilchencko’s beautiful garden set places numerous set pieces, occasional chairs and the solitary pivotal bookcase within a scattered maze of elegance that foreshadows an empty house, all the time graced by the patchwork stage-cum-gazebo like creation that Firs ends up in by the end. The brushed whitewashed tone of the set and the moving screens allow the actors to freely play at characters who are never quite sure where they are or where they have been. But they all end up in the same emotionally challenged place – the free floating class struggle that hides its funny, lavish ruthlessness behind expensive furnishings, sumptuous clothing, and money to burn in a forest of beautiful blossoming trees that becomes obsolete at the end of the day…
The entire ensemble is a tightly balanced study in Chekhovian humour and melancholy. Don’t miss this movingly comic production as magic takes the stage and pulls tricks out of sleeves that become both sad and happy.

Until February 14th, Berkely Street Theatre, Upstairs