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.