Monday, December 12, 2022

 Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, 1833. Edmund Kean, the greatest actor of his generation, has collapsed onstage while playing Othello. Ira Aldridge, a young, Black American actor has been asked to take over the role, but a Black man has never played Othello on the English stage before. His groundbreaking performance upends centuries of British stage tradition and changes the lives of everyone involved.

As anti-abolition riots take over the streets of London, how will the cast, critics, and audience react to the race revolution taking place in the theatre?

Director Cherissa Richards (The Power of Harriet T, Manitoba Theatre for Young People), recipient of the 2021 Crow’s Theatre RBC Rising Star Emerging Director Prize, returns to Crow’s after working as Assistant Director on MixTape last season.

 for more info and video footage see -



Lolita Chakrabarti’s 2012 play, Red Velvet, is a powerful two act tour de force for a cast of eight characters as they inhabit the world of 19th century theatre where very particular styles of acting, and casting, dominated the consciousness of many theatregoers. This dominance, of course, was entangled with vehement racism and played an historical part in the long and arduous history of black actors being denied the possibility of playing black characters, Shakespeare’s Othello in particular. 


As director Cherissa Richards says in the program notes – “We often think Paul Robeson in the mid-twentieth century was the first Black man to play Othello in London” – and goes on to say that it was, in fact, Ira Aldridge (1807-1867), an African-American thespian who, at age 15, joined the Manhattan based ‘African Company’ and left New York in 1924 after finding it difficult to secure theatre work in the U.S. Aldridge was able to get roles at London’s Royal Cobourg Theatre (now The Old Vic), performing under the name of ‘Mr. Keane, Tragedian of colour’ -as a tribute to the acclaimed Shakespearean actor of the time, Edmund Keane.

                                                 Ira Aldridge

Becoming the first Black man to play Othello, over one hundred years before Robeson, Aldridge entered the theatre during a time of great change in acting styles, and an ongoing systemically racist time that begrudgingly allowed actors of colour to take roles clearly written for people of colour. 


This tendency, particularly in the case of Othello, continued well into the 20th century, with perhaps the most famous examples being Orson Welles’ contemporary adaptation in the 1952 film ‘The Other Woman’ and Laurence Olivier’s 1985 cinematic mess where he played the role in blackface, adopted an invented accent and a very particular way of walking. One could call it method acting, but by doing so, without revealing the racist tendencies frequently apparent in mimicry, a lot would be missing from the extremely problematic racialized equation.

                                             Orson Welles in The Other Woman, 1952

                                                                Laurence Olivier in Othello, 1985


But apart from all the deplorable historical detail, there lies Chakrabarti’s play, promoted by Crow’s Theatre as “an imagined version of true events.” The playwright has utilized, to powerful effect, Aldridge’s career, and the time period, within a traditional theatrical structure, in order to create a fable like kind of realism that heightens the intent and brings it to twenty-first century audiences in an effective, fast-paced journey through a moment in Aldridge’s career.


L-R: Patrick McManus, Nathan Howe, Amelia Sargisson, Ellen Denny, Starr Domingue, Allan Louis in Crow’s Theatre Red Velvet (Photo: John Lauener)

The ensemble, led by Allan Louis in the lead role, is directed by Cherissa Richards with great intricacy as actors must move seamlessly in and out of nineteenth and twentieth century acting styles – styles that began to mingle and evolve during Aldridge’s career. This is no easy task, and is handled expertly by all of the actors. Jeff Lillico as Charles Kean and Ellen Denny as Ellen Tree enact flawless transitions between styles. Lillico, in particular, has intense and convincing moments of passion when his character reveals the racialized biases contained within the differing styles. Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design punctuates, especially in the final dream-like moments, the non-stop struggle and conflict at the heart of the play.

Louis, as Othello, creates a highly charged and diverse intensity as he inhabits the role of Aldridge, punctuating every scene with passion and emotional fervour that reveals layers of sensitivity and bewildering challenge in the face of his detractors, both on and offstage.

l-r Allan Louis, Ellen Denny

l-r Amelia Sargisson, Allan Louis   

l-r Allan Louis, Nathan Howe, Ellen Deny, Jeff Lillico

Coming in at around two hours, with one intermission, the Crow’s production is a compelling and timely reminder of an ongoing tragedy that still occurs on streets, live stages, and in the cinema worldwide. The imbalance around representation, and the actors chosen to  play various roles, continues to play a dominant part, despite notable exceptions, in the systemic racism of the 21st century, nearing two hundred years after Ira Aldridge became the first black man to play Othello.


"Why is Ira's legacy forgotten? Why did this man who changed the world of British theatre disappear into the ephemeral mist of our memory? Why aren't theatres named after this iconic trailblazer? Why is he a mere footnote in the faded memories of our great Shakespearean actors?...

Almost 200 years after Ira made his London debut as Othello we find ourselves asking the same questions, and more. When change comes banging at our door, will we be ready for it? When the flames of change come roaring through your door, whose hand will you reach out for?"

Cherissa Richards,  DIRECTOR OF RED VELVET


red velvet runs at crows theatre until December 18th


Sunday, December 11, 2022

cover illustration by Claire Fines (drawn in grade two when she was seven)

Whether it be the whirling motion of a mesmerizing Sufi dance, the measured movement of a waltz or a polka, or the restrained abandon of a Virginia reel, PJ Thomas sets her sites upon a form of “ferocious dancing” that choreographs and gesticulates through vivid, striking images that gives her new collection Waves a kind of eloquent, homespun surrealism that constructs poetic language out of everyday objects and occurrences.

An anthropomorphic element surfaces at one point when fruit and vegetable 

become simmering enlivened symbols that glide out of the poet’s consciousness 

and create sharp, distinct ways of seeing the commonplace as both startling and 

joyfully unsettling. Peaches, tomatoes, cracked peppercorn, crickets and ducks join 

with mahogany rails, cut marble, aloe vera, and potted tropical plants that “festoon 

the dining room / creating candour.” 

Ultimately the reader, accompanied by these mesmerizing inanimate things & beings, takes a journey through this object laden landscape that addresses layers of friendship, fruition, and the fear of future isolation where “everybody weeps differently” - both in and out of enforced and re-enforced solitude, both remote and intimate. It is an environment of surprising force and comfort that simultaneously calms and disrupts. PJ’s words embody varied and moving ‘waves’ of meditation. She creates movement and depth of emotion as witness to the intricacies of landscape - “fruit-bearing cherry trees, ginseng growing wild, and prickly pear mixed with the stand of oaks” as well as the broad, compassionate, searching swaths of human interaction, questioning, and evolving nature. 

 * Rick Fines - 'Solar Powered Too'  Juno nominee for best blues album, 2021

And a wonderful moment in the frequent & constant commingling of poetry and music when we learn  that acclaimed Peterborough musician Rick Fines adapted one of the poems from the collection for his Juno nominated blues album.
Thomas's poem, Fundamental Nature, provides a perfect combination of lyric poetic prose for what has been described as the "warm-hearted blues, juke joint folk, and dockside soul" that Fines' music embodies.

Friday, November 11, 2022


Without the fantasy/horror elements, there are times when The Gospel of Now reads like an especially thrilling, extended episode of Stranger Things, conjuring images of teenaged characters caught in a socio-cultural set of chaotic and frightening circumstances that may lead them into complex and highly engaging situations - becoming an epic journey given the nature of the central image of the mushroom cloud that becomes a haunting symbol brandished upon the most surprising spaces - from football helmets to high school logos.

woodcut prints by the author, inspired by the work of Paul Gauguin and the German Expressionist Die Brücke

With woodcut prints by the author the book becomes an illuminated and illuminating journey chronicling one young man's journey through a particularly troubling period from history that changed the course of global destiny - an especially timely narrative in the midst of current international conflict.

Occullis's writing is crisp and detailed and moves at a rapid pace with the skill of a seasoned storyteller in touch with the emotions of each character. Ready to reveal their most innermost emotions, sensitivities, proclivities - the narrative engages, saddens, entertains, and surprises with it's seamless sequential style as a cast of teenagers and their frequently hapless parents all rise to the challenge of growing up/living in the US in the eighties and dealing with the aftermath of a town selected as the site for the construction of a profoundly deadly force still at work globally in the 21st century. Harrowing cinematic scenes occur within toxic physical and emotional sites, and the sense of a counter cultural force trying to transcend daily chaos shines through with each passing chapter. 

The opening lines set the stage for an experience many may relate to, as drug dependency, fashion, and music become, simultaneously, an environment about to be travelled through at high speed - ultimately becoming both a way in and a way out of social and cultural madness in all its glory and all its loss.

The day I quit taking Ritalin, I realized  was fucked.

Eighteen, uneducated, and dependent on a drug I couldn't afford without my father's health insurance - I was already a loser...

It was 1986, and my generation was the first in a century that wouldn't do as well as their parents. The music sucked, the clothes were shitty, and everything people valued seemed ridiculous. This is what happens when you elect a movie star as president.

Despite the intense trials and frightening global conditions that prevail - the microcosm and the macrocosm of this simultaneously local and global narrative - there is a strong sense of joy and survival underlying the seriousness and the challenging nature of the protagonist's intense trajectory. The Gospel of Now shines brightly with poignancy and electrifying storytelling as a testament to survival in a world where survival seems more and more fragile every day.

Friday, November 4, 2022


Currently running at The Church of the Holy Trinity, nestled along the edges of the mammoth Eaton's Centre complex and surrounding monoliths for mall shopping, John Patrick Shanley's explosive script DOUBT is a timely reminder that everything is open to debate - with no certainty as to when and how any given debate may or may not end. 

Directed with a very effective stoic grace, only giving in to grey areas when this paradoxically spare and emotionally charged script allows - Stewart Arnott brings the characters to life with very measured and deliberate performances and sharply focused blocking that echos elegantly and frighteningly within the cavernous walls of this beautiful space. 

When Father Flynn stands in the huge carved wooden pulpit, the authority of a permanent 'set piece' speaks volumes, giving his simple words and stories a kind of power that an ordinary setting would be hard put to provide. Brian Bisson's Father, and the rest of the ensemble, deliver complex performances that never falter. Vocal tone is crafted impeccably, making its way into reserved concern and peaking by the end in outright emotional intensity and powerful sobbing. Bisson is especially skilled at delivering passionate dialogue and prolonged speeches with a mixture of sensitivity, personable comfort, and subtle tinges of discomfiting authority.

Using the parable as a delineating form that simultaneously simplifies and elaborates upon the narrative, the playwright has taken the skilful liberty of creating the stark, direct language of composure, conflict, and compromise, mixed with the uncomfortable presence of doubt. A kind of wary jaded approach surfaces as character's make their way through complex situations. And yet at the heart of the drama is the single word that gives the play its title and its dramatic urgency. Doubt reigns supreme, and even in moments of great change and muddled success on the part of a dominant character, doubt continues to stand in for a basic and prevailing human strategy. Infuriatingly so as issues range from homophobia to domestic violence, male domination in the church, and the fearful subservient lives enforced upon women employed by both glorified ritualistic and daily gods/Gods of dogma and distress.

Deborah Drakeford as Sister Aloysius brings the strongest portrayal of stoicism and great suffering to the scene, very gradually releasing layers of emotion she seems unable to fully reveal due to the power of the men overseeing her every move. As the younger novitiate, Emma Nelles' Sister James creates a very complex and vulnerable character moved by her own commitment to her vocation, yet torn between the seemingly benevolent power of Father Flynn and what appears to be the less flexible views of Sister Aloysius.

And yet nothing is as at seems on the surface in Doubt. Kim Nelson as Mrs. Muller, in a powerful smaller role, provides a kind of questioning and enduring position as she deals with the inner machinations of a church that can give her child some hope for the future - and yet the same environment both questions and potentially compromises the quality of the boys position, for what is framed as a relatively short period, within the church. 

John Patrick Shanley, in his preface to this Tony Award, Pulitzer Prize winning work (published 17 years ago) gives us nothing to soothe the searing  doubt that courses through the veins of the play. He only heightens them  as he provides a timely reminder of what the world increasingly sees as ongoing global moments of profound uncertainty concerning the future of so-called civilization - in every facet of daily life -

Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite - it is a passionate exercise. You may come out of my play uncertain. You may want to be sure. Look down on that feeling. We've got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty. There is no last word. That's the silence under the chatter of our times." *

The last word is doubt. 


running at the Church of the Holy Trinity until November 13th

* John Patrick Shanley, Brooklyn, New York, March 2005

Thursday, November 3, 2022


Running at the Fleck Dance Theatre at Harbourfront until November 5th, the 2022 ProArteDanza fall season program is a four tiered powerhouse of nuanced meditative dance, intense athleticism, and lyric engagement that simultaneously brings all four choreographers together in an evening of excellence, and a mixture of flowing and staccato movement that both blends and abruptly divides in visually exciting and provocative ways.

Program notes for all of the choreography suggest ideas reflective of both conflict and harmony. Opening with Lesley Telford's ONLY WHO IS LEFT begins the tour de force with what Telford terms an exploration of "the heroism and beauty of plugging on, the futile sensation of the fight and the acceptance of where we end up." Lyrical bouts of free flowing movement are interspersed with a paradoxical sluggishly empowered agility as almost robotic forms and gestures represent "personal conflicts, protests, and day to day struggles." The use of music by Mozart, Beethoven, and Michael Gordon adds a deep elegance to the overall mood and renders the piece a beautiful meditation on a quote by Bertrand Russell that inspired the piece - 

                        "War does not determine who is right - only who is left."

Syreeta Hector's BEAST A LA MODE delivers, through vibrant costume, and independent and ensemble gestural liveliness-cum-athleticism, a kind of "environmental identity...revealed or concealed depending on different locales and social context." A pleasing comical element arises throughout the piece and attests  to Hector's idea of "the uneasy contradictions of character we develop to survive everyday life and highlights our essential need to compete, depending on circumstance." The diverse range of musical accompaniment, form Mozart to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stevie Wonder, and Cris Derksen offers up a  seamless kind of varied energy throughout.

TETHERED TO YOUR PALMS, by Chantelle Good, furthers this seemingly connected yet individually unique quartet of dance with a breathtaking assembly that "explores the act of preserving memories both within ourselves and with others." The dancers move in and out of intimacies that do precisely this through profoundly personal moments that join, divide, and ultimately conquer the spaces that come between bodies and emotions, both posing and answering  the choreographers question - "How can we hold someone's memory of a shared encounter, even when it is different from our own?" 

Roberto Campanella, founding artistic director of the company, ends the evening with his 2016 FEARFUL SYMMETRIES, giving the overall program a spectacular finale that speaks of both symmetry and divergent imagery, yet always attuned to the idea that the mirror image may at one point diverge and become the inspiration for yet another reiterative formation - simultaneously frightening, fragmentary, solidifying and joyful. Dancers present impeccably formed mirror-like relationships that appear to inspire singular images that electrify and soothe as music by John Adams (Fearful Symmetries) resounds throughout to a powerful conclusion.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

"It's a black comedy, a grisly horror show, and a metaphysical ghost story."

                                -The Hollywood Reporter

The current production of Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, in it's last week at Crow's Theatre, and mounted by Modern Times Stage Company, bears a somewhat less grisly, horror filled, and metaphysical ghost story ambience than one might expect from this montage-like script. When read on your handy kindle reader, the 100 page play clips along at a breakneck/jigsaw-like pace with ample opportunity to imagine how a production might become precisely what the Hollywood reporter suggested in its early productions.

Modern Times Stage Company's version of this puzzle-like story of war and senseless suffering requires a more rapid-fire rhythm and a setting that evokes the macabre carnivalesque quality that the Baghdad Zoo seems to have had in its heyday. Even the topiary animals, major set 'character's' throughout the piece, are hung high above the heads of the audience and dimly lit. By the end we are able to laugh lightly, in a sad kind of recognition, at the absurdity of hedges and trees shaped like living creatures. But the dark comedy essential to the script barely shines through at crucial moments that lapse into somewhat bewildering shouting matches.

The performances are solid for the most part, with Kristen Thomson as a frequently wily often understated tiger - at times too much subtly and not enough wiliness. Ali Kazmi as Uday Hussein steals the scenes he enters into with the perfect mixture of brash, murderous authoritarianism, and a darkly comic edge to his immense bravado, sprinkled generously with a taste for brutality. He inhabits the stage with the wild abandon of a truly frightening, and shockingly confident character hell bent on validating his horrific choices.

                                l-r - Ali Kazmi as Uday Hussein, Ahmed Moneka as Musa

Although the other actors (Christopher Allen as Kev, Andrew Chown as Tom) do a skilful job at moving in and out of blurred living and ghost scenes, and playing the horror and the comedy as it comes, they do tend to respond with a kind of shouting that could have used a bit of moderation and/or vocal range in order to make their suffering a little less blustery and a little more pathos inflected. 

Ahmed Moneka's Musa is a convincing and powerful topiary artist-cum-war ravaged temporary zookeeper and assistant to roaming American soldiers, and yet his scenes with the soldiers tend to be overpowered by too much high-pitched vocal warfare. Mahsa Ershadifar as the Iraqi woman and the leper, and Sara Jaffri as Haida/Iraqi teenager give the ensemble a layered sense of the people affected in the bombings, and provide a fuller sense of the lives being led by women within a profoundly compromised environment. When an American soldier laments the loss of a limb, and asks the character of the leper woman "how long she's not had any hands", she replies simply in Arabic, and is translated by Musa when he exclaims -

Since she was fourteen.

She said they slowly just fell off.

middle- Kristen Thomas as the Tiger, Andrew Chown and Christopher Allen as the soldiers (Kev & Tom)

The format of the play matches, in a sense, the ways in which America and some of its allies barged in under very suspicious pretences on the heels of 9/11, dropped thousands of bombs, and destroyed the lives and surroundings of innocent people, including animals living at the Baghdad Zoo. The double horror of animals already 'imprisoned' in unnatural 
surroundings far from their original homes creates a connection to the military presence in Baghdad, and yet this connection is never present enough in a very darkened atmosphere and in the hands of a tiger that frequently captivates yet never quite captures the essence of its entanglement until the end. 


The second act is worth waiting for in this sombre, at times too serious production, as it manages to rise above the first act's at times sluggish yet noisy rhythms. This is where the script reaches its peak and embraces the full senselessness of war in an environment haunted by too many gods -

MUSA: Don't pray to God. Don't you pray to any god, you piece of shit man. No god is going to hear you. Not out here. Not anymore . . . no god is going to . . . no god is . . . 

The irreverence toward the presence of some godly power-cum-rationale comes to a climax by the end and allows the tiger to find their way and stake their claim upon a script and a land they can never feel fully comfortable within. By the end one has the sense of a very moving and frightening piece of theatre that somehow lost its way in a production that only finds a fraction of the immense absurdity and darkly comic images that solid gold toilet seats, terrified animals wandering the streets, and war-torn zoos once adorned by hedges, bushes, shrubs, and trees shaped like giraffes and elephants could evoke. Large backlit projections might have given the overall experience a more animated, layered tone. As it stands, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo finds itself confined within a frequently pleasing, yet off kilter cage that doesn't quite fit.

Director Rouvan Silogix captures a frequently poignant mixture of the absurd and the tragic in his version of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. When he speaks, in a program note of "comedy, especially when it undeniably erupts in our most human moments, and it's relation the to the Tiger's existential journey" his vision becomes a layered and empathetic way into a complex script. 

The Modern Times/Crows production gives us a look at this complicated play and the complex horror that inspired it, and despite lacking some of the tragicomic nuances needed, is a powerful and thought-provoking piece of theatre.


Tuesday, September 13, 2022




Those who come a hundred or two hundred years after us will despise us for having lived our lives so stupidly and tastelessly. Perhaps they'll find a means to be happy.
                                                    Anton Chekhov


The current Crow's Theatre production of Uncle Vanya captures all of the comic pathos essential to a script that can seem bleak at the best of times. Lisa Repo Martel's brilliant adaptation contains a slick contemporaneity that allows the dialogue to move quickly, with flashpoint moments of quick-witted dialogue - words and emotions combust, ignite, and become the flame of language Chekhov so eloquently exemplifies in his work.   

Matched by fast-paced, expansive direction by Chris Abraham, the overall experience becomes an epic portrayal of a decaying culture wrought by the conflict between city and country. The devastation of nature becomes a thematic testament to the playwright's concerns for an earth ravaged by over-development and a thirst for capital. The only thing Chekhov got wrong was the timeline. It did not take a hundred years for the world to acknowledge the damage that has been done - the stupidity and the tastelessness that litters both urban and rural landscapes. But it is taking forever for reparations to materialize in any profound way.

beautiful and engaging semi- environmental set by Julie Fox allows the audience to feel as though we are part of the action as actors sweep to and fro in the midst of a large playing space that inhabits every corner - within and beyond the viewer's eye and yet always a sensory and scenic success. Lighting (Kimberly Purtell) and sound (Thomas Ryder Payne) collaborate in a smoky, enticing haze of aural and visual delight and atmospheric annotation.

The ensemble is remarkable as they play and squabble with fast-paced conversational flair and intense emotional  fervour. Scenes near the end with Sonya begging Vanya to cooperate reach peaks of poignant pleading that could have seemed too emphatic in the hands of another, less layered, performer. And yet Bahia Watson's Sonya somehow delivers a seamless performance that allows the most pessimistic of Chekhov's lines and sentiments to soar into a believable and engaging characterization.

Eric Peterson's Alexandre brilliantly portrays the brilliant, blustering and boorish gadabout dominating a family that has selflessly responded to his every need. Shannon Taylor's Yelena creates an elegant, subservient young wife to Alexandre's infamous fading charm - engaging with Sonya and Astrov with varied and complex emotion as she navigates her position as the bored beauty. Ming Wong's costumes excel in Yelena's simple classic dress forms, and move into varied tones and beautifully contrasting patterns and vibrancies in dtaborah johnson's layered ensembles.

Anand Rajaram, dtaborah Johnson, and Carolyn Fe take on secondary roles that provide the solid sense of family and community that holds the overall structure together, delivering performances that punctuate the emotional narrative, and fill the space with layered characterizations of a family dependent and devoted to all the people they must love in a day.

Together, as warring friends ultimately separated by their love for the same woman, Tom Rooney as Vanya and  Ali Kazmi as Astrov bring two emphatic kinds of romantic energy to the stage that makes for a complex and thrilling way of perceiving love and desire. Their physicalization and vocal diversity create such convincing portrayals that one might wish they could both win in this tortured game of love, or better yet, fall in love with each other's grand desires.

But of course, no one fully triumphs in Chekhov, but still, the emotion engages, runs high, and overflows in a boiling pot of tragicomic familial stew - simmering, bubbling, and overcooking emotion for an audience whose tastebuds are never disappointed in this wonderful adaptation of a timeless play addressing the humanity and the inhumanity of so-called civilization. 

How's that for a string of menu metaphors creating fabulous and theatrical food for thought. Alliterative. Dramaturgical. Delicious!!!

                                                PHOTOS BY DAHLIA KATZ                                            

Eric Peterson as Alexandre

                                                           Bahia Watson as Sonya


                                                           Shannon Taylor as Yelena

                                                   Carolyn Fe as Marina


                                                              Ali Kazmi asAstrov


                                                          dtaborah johnson as Maria


                                                             Tom Rooney as Vanya