The Explanation: so untethered it’s like kissing in a hot-air balloon

Kevin MacDonald and Evan Frayne play a straight-male couple, one of whom cross-dresses.

In The Explanation, Kevin MacDonald and Evan Frayne play a straight-male couple, one of whom cross-dresses.(Photo by Tim Matheson)

“Feeling the air up my skirt…That was one of the greatest sensations.” So says John, a cross-dressing straight guy in The Explanation. Watching The Explanation, I got a bit of wind up my skirt, too. By loosening the restrictions on gender expression, The Explanation made me feel free—even exhilarated.

In James Fagan Tait’s script, John, who’s a mental-health worker, is surprised when he stumbles across his taste for wearing women’s clothing. But, before long, he’s popping on a wig, slipping into a Value Village miniskirt, and hanging out in the literary DVDs section of the Vancouver Public Library.

One day, a shy guy named Dick, who also identifies as straight, takes a leap and decides to chat to John, whom he perceives as an attractive woman. As soon as John speaks, Dick knows he’s a man, but they go for coffee anyway. And that’s the mystery: these guys are straight, one of them is wearing a mini-skirt, and they go for coffee anyway. What’s up? [Read more…]

Me and You is charming, gorgeous, and a little wobbly

Playing Liz, Patti Allan embraces her younger sister, Lou (Lois Anderson) in Melody Anderson's Me and You.

Patti Allan’s Liz protects Lois Anderson’s Lou in Me and You—or is that a stranglehold? (Photo by David Cooper)

Melody Anderson’s new play Me and You is sweetly soulful. And it could be better built.

In Me and You, Anderson logs exemplary moments in the lifelong relationship between sisters Liz and Lou. The first time we see them, Liz, who is four years older, is outraged when she realizes that Lou has coloured the elephant in one of their picture books blue. “Mom!” And that sets the dynamic: Liz is literal, controlling, and scientific, and Lou is a free-spirited artist. They also love one another. [Read more…]

Nine Dragons: a whodunnit in which you care who did it

Playing a police officer named Tommy Lan, John Ng sits at a desk in the Kowloon police station.

In Nine Dragons, John Ng plays Tommy Lam, a sergeant frustrated with the racism of Kowloon’s police force.

Much to the credit of playwright Jovanni Sy, Nine Dragons is a rewarding thriller.

Riffing on film noir, Sy sets the action in the Kowloon neighbourhood of Hong Kong in the 1920s. A character that the press calls the Kowloon Ripper is murdering women, then chopping off their hands and cutting out their tongues. The Ripper’s crimes haven’t been getting a lot of attention—but then he murders a white woman.

Because it’s set in colonial Kowloon, Nine Dragons is saturated with issues of race and identity. Tommy Lam is the best detective on the police force but, because he’s Chinese, he has never made it past the rank of sergeant. Tommy has reasons of his own for wanting to get his hands on the Kowloon Ripper but his white his bosses hesitate to let him loose, partly because Tommy’s prime suspect is Victor Fung, scion of one of the area’s most powerful Chinese families. [Read more…]

Misery: more like a bad cold

Playing Annie, Lucia Frangione attacks Andrew McNee's Paul with a sledgehammer in Misery.

Despite internally consistent performances from Andrew McNee and Lucia Frangione, the Arts Club’s production of Misery fails to hit home(Photo by David Cooper)

The Arts Club’s production of Misery is a journey straight to heck and back.

It’s not scary, which is a flaw in a thriller.

William Goldman, who wrote the play, also penned the screenplay for the1990 movie. Both are based on a book by Stephen King. In the story, a romance novelist named Paul Sheldon has just finished a more artistically ambitious—possibly pretentious—manuscript, when his car careens off the side of a mountain during a Colorado snowstorm. Suffering a dislocated shoulder and severely broken legs, he is rescued by Annie Wilkes, a former nurse, who takes him back to her house in the woods, tends to his injuries, and declares herself his number-one fan.

Annie promises to get Paul to a hospital the moment the roads clear, but it soon becomes apparent that she’s obsessed and she plans to keep him captive. When Annie discovers that Paul has killed off her favourite character, she becomes enraged—and psychotically sadistic. A whole lot of the “entertainment” in Misery derives from the suffering that she inflicts on Paul. [Read more…]

Mr. Burns, a post-electric play: surprising, funny, and deep

"Cape Feare", and episode of The Simpsons, becomes an opera in Mr. Burns, a post-electric play.

Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, reinvents The Simpsons—and gets to the heart of storytelling.

WTF is one of my favourite responses at the theatre. I had it a lot while watching Mr. Burns, a post-electric play.

Part of the pleasure of watching Mr. Burns is that the three acts are so different that you have to re-orient yourself after each of the intermissions. If you want to preserve that sense of bafflement and discovery for yourself, don’t read too much more of this review, just buy your tickets now. I highly recommend this show.

If you’re still reading, I’ll try not to give too much away.

Playwright Anne Washburn sets Act 1 of Mr. Burns in a post-apocalyptic near future. An unspecified disaster has set off a chain of events that involved the meltdown of nuclear power plants. We’re with a small group of survivors who are sitting around a campfire and trying to bring reassuring order back to their lives by reconstructing “Cape Feare”, an episode from The Simpsons. [Read more…]

Once on This Island: Vote that guy off

Ti Moune (Brianna Clark) tends to Daniel (Michael Gnansounou) in Once on This Island.

Ti Moune (Brianna Clark) tends to Daniel (Michael Gnansounou) in Once on This Island.

In Once on This Island, love triumphs—supposedly. It’s really sexism that wins.

If you want to be surprised by the story, don’t read any further; to make my point, I’m going to give away the plot.

In this musical, which premiered on Broadway in 1990 and which is currently enjoying a wildly successful Broadway revival, an island in the French Antilles is divided into two groups: poor, dark-skinned people and a wealthy elite whose ancestry includes white French colonialists.

A peasant girl named Ti Moune falls in love with a rich kid named Daniel Beauxhomme. When Daniel crashes his car on her side of the island, Ti Moune saves his life by nursing him—and by making a deal with Death. There are gods on the island and one of them, Papa Ge, is a Caribbean version of the Grim Reaper. Ti Moune offers Papa Ge her own life in exchange for Daniel’s. It takes a while for Papa Ge to collect. [Read more…]

Rent: I didn’t buy it

This is the poster for Renegade Productions mounting of the rock musical Rent.

Rent is a difficult musical. Renegade Productions’ mounting shows just how difficult.

This Renegade Arts mounting of Rent gets so much so wrong. There are talented people in the cast, and some elements of the show work, but fundamental errors undermine the production.

A rock musical, Rent features a group of young-adult friends who are living in New York’s Alphabet City in the late 80s or early 90s. An aspiring filmmaker named Mark, who keeps shooting footage of his pals, acts as the narrator. Mark lives in an illegal loft with Roger, a musician who has been sideswiped by HIV. Early on, Mark meets an exotic dancer named Mimi who is also living with the virus. Altogether, four of the seven main characters are infected. The other two are Collins, who is a philosophy professor, and Collins’s drag-queen partner, Angel. A lesbian couple—lawyer Joanne and performance artist Maureen, who used to be Mark’s girlfriend—rounds out the group. [Read more…]

The Humans is like Death of a Salesman (with more laughs, plus the potential of monsters)

At Thanksgiving dinner, the character Aimee lets her family have it in The Humans.

Aimee (Briana Buckmaster) lets her family have it in The Humans. (Photo by David Cooper)

The Humans is the real thing. Scripts like this are why I go to the theatre.

Playwright Stephen Karam starts with a standard set-up: the Blake family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner. Young-adult daughter Brigid has just moved into an apartment in New York’s Chinatown with her older partner Richard. Brigid’s parents, Erik and Deirdre, have driven in from Scranton and they’ve brought Erik’s mom, Momo, who has advanced dementia. Brigid’s sister, Aimee, a lawyer, has arrived from Philadelphia.

The moving van hasn’t come yet with Brigid and Richard’s belongings, so their new place is looking pretty grim. Even though it’s on two levels, the lower level is a windowless basement. The top floor has one window, which looks out onto what Deirdre describes as “an alley full of cigarette butts”, although Brigid prefers to call it “an interior courtyard.”

The Humans starts off like a dark sitcom. Deirdre’s daughters are tired of their mom’s endless communications, for instance: “You don’t have to text every time a lesbian kills herself.” But there’s a pugnacious affection within the family that keeps things buoyant. Relatively. [Read more…]

In Bar Mitzvah Boy, faith sneaks up on you

Playing Rabbi Michael, actor Gina Chiarelli stands at a synagogue lecturn in Mar Mitzvah Boy.

Playing Rabbi Michael, Gina Chiarelli radiates faith in Bar Mitzvah Boy—some of the time. (Photo by Emily Cooper)

Emotionally, Bar Mitzvah Boy is a sweetly stealthy play.

It takes a while for the script to find its feet. In the set-up, we find out that Joey, a successful divorce lawyer, wants to be bar mitzvahed before his grandson is. Somehow, Joey missed out on the ceremony when he was a youth. When the female rabbi, Michael, refuses to let Joey buy himself a quickie ritual, he insists on private classes with her and, for some reason—perhaps because she senses that there is something unspoken at stake—she agrees. [Read more…]

Butcher: Go vegetarian

Peter Anderson and Daryl Shuttleworth both act in Butcher, which is about ongoing ethnic violence.

Peter Anderson and Daryl Shuttleworth appear in Nicolas Billon’s problematic Butcher.

Nicola Billon’s Butcher exploits real suffering to create gimmicky entertainment. I hated it so much that I wanted to boo.

On Christmas Eve, an old guy in a military uniform has been dropped off at a police station. A butcher’s hook was tied around his neck and the business card of a lawyer named Hamilton Barnes was impaled on the hook. There were two words scrawled on the card: “Arrest me.”

In the opening scene, a cop named Inspector Lamb is trying to interrogate the old guy, whose name is Josef and who speaks a made-up language called Lavinian. (In the play, Lavinia is a real country.) Lamb has also called in Barnes to figure out why his card was on the hook. And, before long, a Lavinian translator named Elena arrives.

Whatever is going on, it’s about ethnic violence. Josef and Elena are from different ethnic groups within Lavinia. When Elena sees Josef’s military uniform, she reacts with horror and fury. When he finds out the she is not of his ethnicity, he spits on her.

Lavinia could be all sorts of places. For me, the most immediate reference point is the former Yugoslavia.

Here’s the thing: Butcher takes very serious subject matter, including extreme physical torture and child rape and, rather than giving that material the thoughtful attention that it deserves Butcher uses the energy of horror to drive a superficial and mechanical plot. [Read more…]