Next to Normal: more interesting for the local talent than the prize-winning material

Chris Lam has directed Next to Normal.

If you don’t have production shots, I guess a poster will do. 

The cast is talented and the production is musically precise, but Next to Normal is not a well-built musical—despite having won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010.

Act 1 is mostly boring because the protagonist, a housewife named Diana who has bipolar disorder with psychotic features, is passive. Stuck in her own suffering, she ignores her teenage daughter Natalie. Diana’s relationship with her son is really all about her. Diana dismisses her husband Dan as boring and uncommunicative and, when he tries to help, she sings an angry song in which she tells him that he couldn’t possibly understand the pain she endures.

There’s not a lot to invest in here. Dan says that he was attracted to Diana’s wild spirit, but we never see the beauty and the love that were lost and may be recovered, so how can we care about Diana or her marriage? [Read more…]

No Foreigners delivers less than it appears to offer

Hong Kong Exile and fu-GEN Theatre are presenting No Foreigners at The Cultch.

There is a whole lot of blank space in No Foreigners.

No Foreigners is extremely stylish. Unfortunately, that style is rarely theatrical.

No Foreigners is a kind of fairytale, digitally told. In it, a young Chinese-Canadian man finds out that he can inherit his grandfather’s wealth, but only if he can tell the executor of his grandfather’s will what the password is. To determine that password, he has to become “authentically” Chinese.

To connect with his roots, this Canadian-born guy immerses himself in the culture of a mall in Richmond. The mall is fantastical and informed by the tropes of Chinese culture, including pop culture, so, not only must he master several Chinese dialects, he must also become adept at all sorts of martial arts, and visit a secret basement room filled with luna moths that are reincarnations of the dead. [Read more…]

The Skin of Our Teeth: Maybe not this time

Studio 58 is presenting Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth.

Can a temptress like Sabina bring about the collapse of civilization, or is that question flat-out sexist? (Photo of Erin Palm by Ross den Otter)

It’s easy to see why Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth was hailed as a great work when it premiered in 1942. And it’s easy to see why director Sarah Rodgers would choose to stage it in 2018. But that doesn’t mean it’s worth watching for two and a half hours.

The Skin of Our Teeth is a deliberately allegorical—and often comic—examination of the perpetual human cycle of tragedy and resilience. And it’s chock full of anachronisms. Although the play’s vernacular places the action in the forties, Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus are clearly Adam and Eve. “Antrobus” is derived from the Greek anthropos, which means “human” or “person”. And, in a little aside, Mrs. Antrobus, whose name is Maggie, is slyly referred to as Eva. She’s not the only family member who has undergone a name change either. Her son Henry was called Cain until that unfortunate incident with Abel. [Read more…]

Ruined: Don’t look away

Dark Glass Theatre is producing Lynn Nottage's Ruined.

Makambe K. Simamba and Shayna Jones take you all the way there in Ruined. (Photo by Jalen Saip)

War is fought on women’s bodies. That truth is at the heart of Lynn Nottage’s Ruined.

Nottage sets Ruined during the war in Congo, which was officially over in 2002 but continues to rage. The action unfolds in Mama Nadi’s roadside canteen and brothel. Government and rebel armies are fighting for control of the country’s natural resources, which include coltan, a mineral essential to the production of cellphones.

Eighteen-year-old Sophie is expected to entertain fighters from both sides as well as miners. But Sophie isn’t a sex worker, she sings. She has been “ruined”, so brutalized by rape that she lives with chronic pain and infection.

For five months, Sophie’s friend Salima was a sex slave to rebel forces. Now she must work as a prostitute.

Watching Ruined, the first frightening realization is that Mama Nadi’s is the safest place for these women to be. Because they have been dishonoured, their families and villages want nothing to do with them.

Throughout the play, everybody tries to figure out how to survive—as the fighting gets closer. [Read more…]

Shit: strong performances emerge from a distancing script

Increasingly, Sharon Crandall, who plays Bob in Shit, is making her presence felt as a dramatic actor. 

For a script with such an earthy title, Shit is oddly abstract.

In Shit, Australian playwright Patricia Cornelius presents us with three incarcerated women. Billy, Bob, and Sam have all grown up in foster care and they have all been brutalized sexually, emotionally, and physically. They have also committed a serious crime together, which is why they’re in jail: exactly what they’ve done becomes clearer as the play unfolds. “Do you think someone’s going to save us?” Sam asks. “We’re way past saving,” Billy replies.

Cornelius has constructed her text musically. It begins with an overture of fucks. All three women spew the expletive as if they’re gleefully shooting bullets at machine-gun pace. They compete to see if anyone can get through a sentence without saying “fuck”. They criticize one another’s facility: “You’re not usin’ it well.” And they revel in the energy of fuck and cunt: “The life in them words!” [Read more…]

Jitters begs the question, “Why bother?”

The Arts Club is presenting Jitters, by David French, at the Stanley Theatre.

Robert Moloney (Patrick) and Megan Leitch (Jessica) have a wig-off in Jitters. (Photo by David Cooper)

There are a whole lot of skilled artists at work here and there are a couple of good laughs in the script. Mostly, though, David French’s Jitters is a waste of precious theatre time.

Jitters is a backstage comedy, a show about putting on a show. In it, a Toronto company rehearses a new script called The Care and Treatment of Roses, goes through opening night, and deals with the aftermath of reviews.

In the play proper, Jessica Logan is a Canadian actor who has had some success on Broadway. She wants to get back to the Great White Way and, based on her presence in The Care and Treatment of Roses, a Broadway producer has been enticed to attend the premiere. All of this terrifies Jessica’s co-star Patrick Flanagan, who fears that, if the show does go to New York, he will be exposed as the minor talent he thinks he is. Of course, because they are at one another’s throats in real life, Jessica and Patrick play lovers in the play they’re rehearsing.  [Read more…]

King Arthur’s Night opens the door to new worlds

Neworld Theatre is presenting King Arthur's Night as part of the PuSh Festival .

Niall McNeil plays King Arthur in this adaptation of the legend, which he co-wrote with Marcus Youssef. (Photo by Tristan Casey)

Theatre moves me to tears on a regular basis. But after watching King Arthur’s Night I flat out sobbed. This show speaks so concretely—and so skilfully—to isolation and inclusion.

The publicity material for King Arthur’s Night describes it as “radically inclusive”—and it is. Niall McNeil and Marcus Youssef co-wrote the text, although, after an introductory scene between the two—McNeil plays Arthur and Youssef is Merlin—Youssef acknowledges that the rest of the play is in McNeil’s words. McNeil lives with Down syndrome and so do several other company members, including Tiffany King, who plays Guinevere. [Read more…]

Of all the shows that are on right now, The Aliens is the one to catch

Annie Baker's The Aliens is playing at the Havana Theatre in a production by Sticks and Stones.

Evan (Teo Saefkow) gazes at fireworks in The Aliens. (Photo by Matt Reznek)

This production of Annie Baker’s The Aliens is one of the best shows of the season. Go see it. I love virtually everything about it and the tickets only cost seventeen bucks.

Baker’s script is exquisite. In it, Jasper and KJ, a couple of slackers, hang out in the staff area behind a restaurant somewhere in Vermont. KJ admits to being 30. The only staff member who ever shows up is a 17-year-old named Evan.

Jasper’s girlfriend has broken up with him. KJ can’t drink anymore because the last time he did he went on a bender and stopped taking his meds. Evan thinks these guys are cool, partly because Jasper is working on a novel and he and KJ used to have a band—sort of; they spent a lot of time coming up with cool band names, including The Limp Wrists and The Aliens. Mostly, it seems, Evan likes Jasper and KJ because they include him. [Read more…]

Sleeping Beauty Dreams is a bit of a snooze—for this adult at least

Marionetas de la Esquina is collaborating with Presentation House to produce Sleeping Beauty Dreams.

In Sleeping Beauty Dreams, the Princess isn’t allowed outside. For a long time, she doesn’t even have a name.

The best fairytales don’t explain themselves or make arguments. They speak the more compelling and flexible language of symbolism. Unfortunately, Sleeping Beauty Dreams reinvents the Sleeping Beauty story as a rational thesis.

In Amaranta Leyva’s version of the tale, Sleeping Beauty is the victim of overprotective parenting. Because the Queen’s daughter, the Princess, has been cursed by a frog, the Queen fears for her child’s life and refuses to let the Princess go outside the castle walls. And she invents a dragon outside those walls to keep the Princess compliant.

For reasons that are less clear, the Queen’s overworked servant Octavia conjures a dragon inside the walls to prevent her son Mateo from following her to her job. [Read more…]

Topdog/Underdog: How does this American play about race resonate on Canada’s West Coast?

The Arts Club Theatre is presenting Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks.

In Topdog/Underdog, Michael Blake plays an African-American Lincoln impersonator named Lincoln. (Photo by David Cooper)

Big chunks of this play about African-American despair are boring. Said the white critic.

In Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog, brothers Lincoln and Booth—their father gave them their names as a joke—share a single room. The toilet is down the hall. There is no running water. Lincoln works at an amusement park, where he puts on whiteface and dresses as Abraham Lincoln. Patrons pay to shoot blanks at him and watch him pretend to die. Booth, who is younger, doesn’t have a job, but he’s desperate for Lincoln to teach him a street hustle called the three-card monte. Lincoln was a genius at the three-card monte before he gave it up and sought “legit” employment.

These guys are screwed. Topdog/Underdog is like Waiting for Godot—with more explicit social analysis. Domestically, Lincoln and Booth were abandoned. Their mother and father tried to make a home for them—even though the back yard was concrete and the front yard was full of trash—but their parents’ demons took over and the boys were on their own by the time they were 16 and 11. Socioeconomically they can’t win. As Lincoln says to Booth when he’s teaching him the card hustle and Booth is taking the role of the mark: “You may think you have a chance, but the only time you pick right is when the man lets you.” And, romantically, they are doomed. Sexually, they were scarred by their childhoods and now women are interested in them only as meal tickets. Referring to Grace, his ex, Booth says, “I had my little employment difficulty and she needs time to think.” [Read more…]