Monday, October 29, 2018



The current production of Secret Life of a Mother is a tour de force of exquisitely imagined solo performance, with superb meta-theatrical interventions by the writer director and co-creators throughout. The simple performative act of including the script on-stage, at times reading directly from it as a brief acknowledgement of the process, yet often abandoning its lettered properties and using it as a tissue-like prop submerged in onstage aquariums acting as metaphors to that first journey from the womb to the outside world, as well as as the frequently isolating states women can find themselves trapped within - ultimately reminding spectators that theatre and performance are a kind of birth, never far from their creator, always changing, and always reminding one how difficult and joyous that originary birth, and the life that follows, can be - for women in particular as they are too often left with the bulk of the 'labor' - before during and after.
Maev Beaty as Maev & Hannah

With the support of Maev Beaty, Anne-Marie Kerr, and Marinda de Beer, Hannah Moscovitch has crafted a very different kind of drama from her previous work. The autobiographical nature is deftly and cleverly split between her and her close friend, Maev Beaty. Moving between the split personas of both Moscovitch and Beaty, Beaty delivers a beautifully layered monologue about the intense joy and fear of bringing a child into the world, and being an artist at the same time. At one point Beaty is called, by Moscovitch, an “Art Monster” who must never feel ashamed that their art might be taking away from their maternal responsibilities. From the vantage point of an audience member and/or ‘fellow’ artist, the responsibilities both artist/mothers take on over the course of this incredible 70 minute performance is a devastatingy beautiful exercise in self examination, poignancy, bitter tears, joy, and comic laughter provoked by some of life’s simultaneously complex /simplest - yet hard won - pleasures.
Beaty is at her usual best as she immediately yet generously lays claim to a script that has been carefully and expertly crafted onstage by Director Anne-Marie Kerr. The use of the two fish tanks - one large one small - creates imaginative and highly effective playing spaces that also stand in as unassuming screens for gorgeous projections of the actual corporeal elements of having a baby. At one point a laptop that Beaty carries around the stage for audience members to see, reveals the extreme physical results of particular moments described in an, at times casual and conversational - at times emotionally fraught and intent upon letting the audience know just how intense childbirth and the ensuing life one holds in the very palm of their hands can be.
A sequence that chronicles an international flight, and all that entails for a pregnant woman, and then in another sequence, a woman with her very young child who also takes on immense theatre, residency, and television projects during these times, is a strong material feminist form of enlightenment for those who just don’t seem to know how big a job motherhood is. 
Beaty’s own story of being at Stratford when her child was very young, doing three shows and learning lines while she had to care for her baby, is not simply a well written tale of descriptive prose, it is also an example of how she always manages to deliver, onstage, a full fledged example of her talent as one of Canada’s leading performers when it comes to creating incredibly nuanced and layered characters. 

Not to give an unnecessary spoiler for those who may not know, but just a hint of a secondary yet powerful solo performance happening in the closing sequence of The Secret Life of a Mother that is both vulnerable, powerful and fully appreciative of the ways in which a selection of women artists have come together to create this incredible performance piece. And by doing so, reminding us of how the tremendous work of artists often coincides with the tremendous work of committed parents attempting to reconcile all of  their life choices through rigorous self-examination and exquisite representation.



Saturday, October 27, 2018

Virgilia Griffith as Billie/She/Her

“Trapped in history. History trapped in me.” 

― Director/Playwright Djanet Sears, Harlem Duet

21 years ago a Nigthwood Theatre production of a devastatingly beautiful Canadian play premiered at the Tarragon Extraspace. Over those two decades the play has become acclaimed internationally and has garnered complex reviews that at times take part in a racist discourse that the play examines through the playwright’s complex and astute way of writing particular histories and staging them in ways that challenge racist assumptions about the theatre;

I remember there was one negative review of Harlem Duet where the reviewer spent a paragraph and a half talking about the white woman who didn't appear in the play, and I'm thinking, that's interesting, that's curious, since the play isn't about white people I think that the review reflected her own discomfort with seeing herself as other, or not central to this story. So it must have been hard for her to relate to the protagonist, who was Black. Until recently, a lot of Canadian plays didn't really have Black people as the central or principal characters, so I think a lot of discomfort is reflected there. Plus, there are some conscious thematic choices that I made in order to encourage people to look at their own ideas on race, to look at their own contradictions.
Beau Dixon as Othello/He/Him with Virgilia Griffith as Bille/She/Her

The current Tarragon mainspace production of Harlem Duet, with two more shows this weekend, is a worthy testament to the timeless quality of this masterwork. Djanet Sears has crafted, through the use of complex musical and linguistic structures, what she calls “A rhapsodic blues tragedy.” The early incarnations of this structural choice, in the opening moments, create a spoken melodic inroad/introduction into what is in store. By the end of the play each character has been given the actor’s dream opportunity of being able to infuse, into this beautifully wrought language, their own immense skill and emotional aptitude. 
the ensemble 

The ensemble, led by Virgilia Griffith as Billie/She/Her, and supported by Beau Dixon as Othello/He/Him, Walter Borden as Canada, Tiffany Martin as Amah/Mona, and Ordena Stephens-Thompson as Magi, create an impeccable cast that moves through this multi- tiered drama - from pre-emancipation eighteen sixties scenes, to 1928 sequences during the Harlem Renaissance, and contemporary Harlem in an apartment located at the corner of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X Boulevards. 
Tiffany Martin and Virgilia Griffith

As a prequel to Shakespeare’s Othello, the play stands alone as a eloquent and dire foreshadowing to so much that has come to pass over the past two decades, and beyond. The Shakespearean revisionist element adds an added ominous layer for anyone familiar with the plight of Desdemona once Othello changes partners and becomes trapped within complex dual histories of racist oppression. 

Onstage musical accompaniment - Cello (Cymphoni Fantastique) Bass (Bryant Didier) becomes a powerful component during key moments throughout the narrative. Walter Borden’s second act appearance adds a bittersweet lightness and genuine emotion through the actor’s immense skill at creating intricate vocal and physical presence to each line he delivers. Like the rest of the ensemble, he has taken the playwright’s powerful language and featured it as the dramatic poetry it is meant to be. 

Historically Harlem Duet is a uniquely Canadian play set largely within an American environment, with strong symbolic gestures made toward Nova Scotia in particular in one comical yet portentous line - “I can't take it no more, I'm moving to Nova Scotia.” Sears has referred at length, in a 2004 interview, to the phrase, and how it reflects a complex reference to Canada and Canadian identity.*

With only two performances left don't miss this opportunity to see the 21st anniversary production of a truly timeless play.

Ordena Stephens-Thompson and Walter Borden

photos by Cylla von Tiedemann


*I probably haven't read all the criticism about the play that exists. I've read a piece by Leslie Saunders and a piece by someone else … But what it says about Canadian identity…? I think one of the things that is clear to me is the role of Canada in the play. The play is set in Harlem in New York, and I remember when Winnie Mandela came just after Nelson had been released from prison, when they were still together, and she said that Harlem was the Soweto of America. And it is, it's a central location is the psyches of Black people. Harlem is almost mythological. It's this place where the best and the worst of everything Black exists or has existed. It has an extraordinary history, a rich culture and my relationship to it is borderless, very much like my relationship to Blackness. Harlem feels like another country, not exactly the USA, a country unto itself that I am part of as well.

But in the midst of the play, a character called Canada shows up. The character Canada is in a way a reflection of Canadian identity. Historically, Canada has been known as a place of hope for escaping African slaves and freed Africans in the Americas. You know, we follow the North Star to Canada. However, the character Canada is portrayed in the play as flawed. You know, Billie's father, Canada, comes to Harlem, but he's unable to change her situation, he's unable to make things better for her. However, he does remain a strong symbol of hope in the play, in terms of relationships, relationships between men and women, fathers and daughters in this particular case, but the relationship is still flawed. It's not this ideal father coming to save the day. There's even a phrase that's used in the play that is an actual common saying used by Black people in South Carolina. I've forgotten the quote exactly but it's something like “I can't take it no more, I'm moving to Nova Scotia.”

But the truth about Nova Scotia is far from glamourous. Canada is not Canaan land, but there is hope here. Even amidst the flaws and the criticisms I have of the country, it's the place where I choose to live; it's the place that has the most hope for me. There's a possibility of something here for me.

for the full 2004 interview on Harlem Duet with Djanet Sears;


Thursday, October 25, 2018



In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is…

When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

Yogi Berra

L-R SASCHA COLE (Isabelle) & AUDREY DWYER (Lee) - photo by Jim Ryce

Director Esther Jun describes Norman Yeung’s play Theory as “a stylish old fashioned thriller that [taps] into contemporary neuroses.” What Jun refers to as stylish, with a gradual build toward psychological thriller, becomes lightly, yet engagingly, bogged down by - in stage practice - theory…Well, that was a mouthful and a half. 

As a very engaging yet frequently wordy play that ultimately cannot - and should not - try to escape its own longwinded discourse (it is about theory after all) the overall effect becomes a frequently dizzying and extremely entertaining interrogation of the ways in which academia can become a hotbed for practical and theoretical implosion.

Replete with an extremely elegant and effective set design by Joe Pagnan, alongside impressive, fully integrated projections by Cameron Davis, the stage acts as the living space for Isabelle and Lee, as well as a lecture theatre and office for the classroom scenes where Lee encounters the beginnings of a very threatening & challenging form of pedagogical interaction. The simple elegance and fast paced changeability of set pieces, crucial to the design, gives the action an incredible ease and flow that alleviates some of the wordiness and allows for menacing physicality to take place as suspense unfolds. 

As a tightly written script about an environment - academia - that depends upon verbal and visual communication Theory becomes an eloquent endgame of word and action. How language is used and how much freedom it affords us has been examined by the playwright in a complex and terrifying way that speaks indirectly to current events that have individuals being removed - and rightfully so - from positions of power when their “lousy language” (to quote/cite Anna Deveare Smith’s transcription from 'Fires In The Mirror') demeans and terrorizes historically oppressed groups. The potential violence that unfolds throughout Theory is a frightening reminder that we live in a global environment where sexual assault, murder, death threats, and potential bombings seem to be delivered, debated, and broadcast on a near daily basis.

Isabelle and Lee, threatened by racism and homophobia, surrounded by students who display levels of empowerment and victimization by their peers, are complicated characters who certainly garner great empathy from spectators. And yet there is no real sense of the kind of class consciousness or privilege that their respective positions might afford them as tenured and tenure track individuals. When Lee encourages Isabelle to play the tenure game that she so successfully won, so they can start a family, Isabelle rebels, by degree. Any audience member (if you can afford a ticket) familiar with an income consistently hovering around the poverty line might feel compelled to interact with Lee’s aspirational outburst by saying “Try living on one big salary why don’t ya!” Tenure and tenure track positions can triple and quadruple (and beyond) economic conditions once compared to people identifying as poor. But there is no real class analysis in a play where one might expect some astute economic awareness to reside. This points to one surprising weakness in the script. It is not quite long enough. Two fifty minute acts with an intermission, instead of one ninety minute go at it, and a slice of mid script gripping suspense and complex privilege pondering could raise the stakes in a thriller that is not quite thrilling enough. One may leave the play with a fearful sense of what could happen, but it is all a bit too gradual and a bit too discursive. Like Hitchcock without the birds actually flying in and doing what their ominous  looming flocks portend. 

But there are some truly scary scenes where one is on the edge of their lecture hall seat as Esther Jun’s effectively harrowing blocking has student and teacher in a kind of verbal and physical sparring. And the visual violence of onscreen hate speech taking place on an unmoderated online message board is a horrifying sight to behold, especially in the wake of a city shocked by the presence of a mayoral candidate with white supremacist affiliations. 

The four younger actors are outstanding and a formidable match for the three other members of the ensemble. Breakneck conversational pacing mixed with brief snippets of lecture hall scenes make for a diverse dramaturgical structure. A brief standout performance by Fabrizio Filippo as a concerned supervising academic creates an authentic sense of the authoritative liberal straight looking straight acting white male alternately mansplaining and doing damage control around the role of the academy in a troubled student’s life. Filippo injects vocal nuance and detailed physical mannerisms into a scene where the institutional pressures of making it all work for the good of the university become infuriatingly transparent, stylish, and maddeningly gestural. 

Sascha Cole as Isabelle, the threatened tenure track film studies Prof, gives a layered performance that quickly and effectively moves from composed and self-assured to a kind of empowered fragility when the threat of violence actually appears. Audrey Dwyer’s Lee is a strong varied portrait of a woman who has fought hard for her position of power and knows how to succeed within a game of academic cat and mouse. The rapport between the two women alternates between warm romantic interactions and bouts of mild to hot hostility when their lifestyle and marital/familial hopes are challenged by their differing teaching methods and their diverse subject positions regarding race and sexual identity.

The recipient of the Herman Voaden National Playwriting Award, Yeung’s script has had a long journey from developmental productions (Summerworks) to the Alumnae Theatre Company’s FireWorks Festival, and Rumble Theatre’s Tremble Festival. The current Tarragon run is the premiere professional production. 

In practice, Theory is definitely worth seeing. In theory, it is a densely written, challenging piece of theatre that is being given a wonderfully entertaining and thought provoking production for anyone interested in the frequently enlightening, often inflammatory interactions between - yes - theory and practice.

THEORY runs at the 
Tarragon Theatre Extraspace 
until November 25th

Monday, October 22, 2018


The current production of THE MEN IN WHITE at Factory Theatre holds the promise of a play that could provide powerful cultural reflection in the face of great turmoil. But much like the clash of politics and religion in both countries where the action occurs, that promise is divided and corrupted in complex and tragic ways. Unfortunately these divisions manifest themselves in a theatrically compromised manner onstage that may have more to do with production values than dramaturgy. 
Anosh Irani’s script is a well constructed interplay between two disparate worlds that share similar dreams within vastly different environments. Irani’s intense dramedy moves from fast paced romantic misconception to intense religious and social conflict. Components of the stage setting give the overall scenic tension a kind of IKEA cabinet look that perhaps unconsciously downplays the raw setting of the chicken slaughterhouse that opens the play, and finds a much more  contrasting and vivid representation in the stage directions of HOUSE OF ANANSI'S published version (generously supplied to reviewers on opening night) - “a large cage with live chickens in it, packed shoulder to shoulder.” Except for a lightly blood splattered apron on one of the players, the setting feels like a tightly caged cleaned up model, with a few fake chickens penned into small cabinets that have been stripped of the gritty enterprise that (given the stage directions) the playwright must have had in mind. 
The use of large projections might have solved the obvious problems with representing this kind of naturalistic set design. As it stands, some of the smaller set pieces move around between the two worlds (a Mumbai chicken coop/slaughterhouse and a Vancouver Cricket Club locker room) in ways that blur the worlds in bewildering and awkward ways. When one cricket players sits on a chicken coop cabinet, the caged side of the cabinet filled with chickens lies directly below him, while at other times the side of the cabinet is a simple seating space for the player. Was this a mistake on opening night regarding blocking or was it a weak example of the two worlds mixing as the action moves rapidly back and forth between the two playing spaces? 
Similarly, the players within the two separate worlds differ in their style of performance in a blurred and problematic way. The Mumbai cast is a rapid-fire, breakneck exercise in comedy and romantic mayhem that possesses great comic timing on the part of all three actors, with moments of unsettling conflict that play out later n the work. 

Unfortunately, with some momentary exceptions, the Vancouver locker room cast is uneven, and the timing, vocal intensity, and physicality is consistently off during these all male, frequently failed acts of boisterous camaraderie. It becomes difficult to gage the power and success of Irani’s longer speeches as they become stifled by awkward delivery and stilted banter - unexpected outbursts rather than furious integrated responses. 
An early sequence about one of the players dates with a Russian woman becomes a very questionable moment of toxic masculinity as it weaves in and out of the comic overtones of the piece. This may point to one weak aspect of the script - whereby women become absent players in the after hours escapades of desperate cricketeers craving an adrenaline rushing ‘win.’ And yet this might have been avoided had the locker room performers been able to inject far more empathy into a complex tragicomic drama.
The overall direction of the Mumbai half of the play’s action seems lacking in physical nuance, and the kind of objectifying locker room banter that has become such a troubling part of the current response by defensive global political figures who attempt to write it all off and misidentify their behaviour as simple locker room antics. More intense physical altercations and a more rambunctious representation of the conflicts in the cricket club could have enlivened the scenes that played, on opening night, as frequently entertaining but generally flat exercises in misplaced self restraint.
Two of the saving graces of this production lie in the performances by Chanakya Mukherjee as Hasan and Huse Madhavji as Baba. Their robust, often comic, at times lightly abusive interplay as loving cohorts in the slaughterhouse, depends on genuine performances that embrace the complex duality of emotion and action that the script embodies. Both actors deliver this with great expertise. Tahirih Vejdani as Haseena plays well as the powerful subject of Hasan’s romantic aspirations, moving the play toward its intense climax. But the script does not always allow her character the opportunity to fully explore her position as a woman attempting to release herself from paternalistic interplay. 

Unfortunately, half of the stage - half of this significant cross cultural story - rarely matches the physical and vocal success of the slaughterhouse scenes  (a significant metaphoric connection to the global violence the overall play refers to) - thereby leaving a crucial element of the action in limbo. There are valiant attempts by all of the actors but they get lost in a melange of downstage confinement penned in by a chicken coop and a locker room that lack the visual and emotional components that might have contributed to a more successful production of The Men In White.

Not to suggest, after all this critique, that this is not a production worth seeing. The Men In White, despite shortcomings in its current Factory Theatre production, is a powerful, at times engaging, but flawed attempt to bring to the stage the Toronto premiere* of an award winning 'Canadian' play that addresses serious global issues from a dual (Vancouver/Mumbai) perspective.
*The Men In White debuted at the Arts Club Theatre Company's Granville Island Stage (Vancouver) 
in February of 2017