Happy Valley: Great destination, but getting there involves a major detour

publicity photo for Happy Valley

Derek Chan in Happy Valley (Photo by Pedro Augusto Meza)

I won’t give away the confession in Derek Chan’s Happy Valley, but it’s the best part of the script.

In this interdisciplinary solo, Chan sings and recites poetry — often in Cantonese with English surtitles. We also get Cantonese surtitles.

Chan grew up in Hong Kong when it was still a British colony and he refers to the British handover of the territory to China in 1997 as The Apocalypse. In various artistic forms, he tells us that he lost the beloved site of his childhood: he can never go home again and he is both furious and sorrowful. He rails against the feckless British colonizers and the social, political, and criminal abuses of the current Communist overlords. Happy Valley is an agonized expression of dislocation. The song “Swallow” begins, “How much shit can a motherfucker swallow/Before they have to spit?” [Read more…]

First Métis Man of Odesa: Fall in love with it

publicity photo for First Métis Man of Odesa

Yeah, they’re pretty cute. (Photo of Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova by Nastya Gooz)

First Métis Man of Odesa is such compelling — and funny — storytelling. It’s charmingly performed, and exquisitely directed and produced. I hope The Cultch and Punctuate! Theatre can find pull quotes in those two sentences to use in their advertising because I want to help as many people as possible to see this show.

Written and performed by Métis playwright Matthew MacKenzie and Ukrainian actor Mariya Khomutova, First Métis Man of Odesa is, very importantly, their story. It matters a lot that they’re playing themselves, that we’re witnessing concrete, physical testimony. [Read more…]

Unexpecting: You’ve been warned

Unexpecting publicity photo. Zee Zee Theatre

Rahat Saini and Jessica Heafey in Carmen Alatorre’s costumes on Lachlin Johnston’s set
(Photo by Tina Krueger Kalic)

I hated this show so much that thinking about writing this review gave me a stomach ache. I don’t want to be cruel but, if I’m not frank, I’m not doing my job.

I first encountered playwright Bronwyn Carradine’s Unexpecting in early 2021 when it was an audio play produced by the Arts Club. Back then, I wrote that the script “skips along at a snappy sitcom pace”, but complained that “the piling on of obstacles often feels arbitrary and insubstantial.” Having gone through a couple of workshops since then — presumably with Zee Zee Theatre, the company producing this fully staged version — the script is now massively worse. And it’s been very badly directed by Cameron Mackenzie.

Within that, there are a couple of strong performances and Lachlan Johnston’s set is exciting.

Let’s get into it.

[Read more…]

The Legend of Georgia McBride: Toot

publicity photo for The Legend of Georgia McBride

Do we care about these two? Yep. Monice Peters as Jo and Jacob Woike as Casey.
(Photo by Moonrider Productions)

The script is mixed up and the production is inconsistent, but this show is fun — and that counts for a lot.

In The Legend of Georgia McBride, playwright Matthew López tells the story of an Elvis impersonator named Casey who’s struggling — and failing — to make a living in a little club on the Florida panhandle. Casey’s wife Jo is newly pregnant and they’ve missed their rent payments two months in a row. So the stakes are about as high as in The Perils of Pauline. But, when one of the queens in the two-person drag duo that’s supposed to replace him passes out drunk and can’t go on, Casey slips into a pair of heels, goes onstage as an instant drag artist, and starts to accumulate a lucrative following.

To be clear, Casey’s success in this show-must-go-on scenario isn’t remotely plausible, but it is good natured. And the next section, in which the script backs up and Casey’s mentor, an older queen named Tracy, works with him on building his skills and persona, is some kind of wonderful.

It’s wonderful because the script’s set-up and the affability of the performers unleash a tidal wave of good will from the audience. As written by López and fulsomely embodied by actor Jacob Woike, Casey is a sweet doofus, an irresponsible optimist who loves his wife with every cell of his being and picks up his guitar to sing her the song he wrote for her.

In a very smart move, López has allowed us to witness Casey’s transformation from the underwear up — starting with his tighty whities, and adding stockings, hip pads, cinching, and fake boobs. The process feels intimate. And, as Casey starts to develop more skills, glamour — and confidence — in a series of short scenes that alternate backstage prep and onstage performance, we are pulling for the guy. The night I was there, by the time Casey had acquired his drag name, Georgia McBride, and worked his Elvis swivel into sassy, girlishness, the audience was going wild. I knew I was being manipulated. I still had goosebumps.

[Read more…]

Under Milk Wood: sensuality and wonder

publicity photo for Under Milk Wood

David Hollinshead as the scheming Mr. Pugh (Photo by Nancy Caldwell)

I don’t know if language gets more glorious than this. The poetry in Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, a radio play from 1954 that was adapted for the stage, is unabashedly beautiful.

In it, two narrators introduce us to the fictional Welsh town of Llareggub (“buggerall” spelled backwards). I don’t know how you’ll react but, as soon as I heard their description of the night and its “slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea,” I was in. Like in.

Referring to the townspeople, the voices tell us, “From where you are, you can hear their dreams.”

“Young girls lie bedded soft,” they continue, “with rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided by glowworms down the aisles of the organplaying woods.”

This text might look overwrought as you’re reading it but, hearing it, it feels concretely ecstatic: even without speaking it yourself, you know how good it would feel in your mouth.

[Read more…]

Rubaboo means stew: This stew is bland

publicity photo for Rubaboo

Cimmeron Meyer’s set design is one of Rubaboo’s strongest elements.
(Robert Walsh, Andrea Menard, and Karen Shepherd in a photo by Dahlia Katz)

Artistically, Rubaboo is mostly terrible.

But there’s no denying the project’s good intentions. Core creator Andrea Menard, who also stars in this cabaret performance, has set out to explore the history and wisdom of her Métis culture. She’s aiming for truth and reconciliation. All power to her on that front.

And the evening, which ran about an hour and forty minutes the night I saw it, contains one song that really hits home. It’s about residential schools: the abuse, the discovery of the  unmarked graves of over 3,000 children in Canada, and, by implication, the staggering impact of systemic racism. Menard delivers this song with passion and zero sentimentality. It’s a gut punch.

But, for 90% of the show’s running time, the undeniably important thematic content of Rubaboo is appallingly badly rendered.

[Read more…]

Stupid Fucking Bird: inconsistent but sometimes glorious

publicity photo for Stupid Fucking Bird, The Search Party

Nathan Kay and Kerry Sandomirsky. Check the label on the wooden box. (Photo by Emily Cooper)

The Search Party’s production of Stupid Fucking Bird isn’t perfect, but it includes so many wildly successful elements that it’s worth seeing.

Aaaron Posner’s script is a riff on Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. The timeframe is updated to the present and some of the characters are rejigged, but the basic structure — including its major plot points and emphasis on triangles of unrequited love — remains the same.

We’re on Sorn’s country estate. His sister Emma, a star actress, is visiting with her lover Trig, a famous writer. In the play’s first action, Emma’s son Con presents his experimental play, We Are Here, on a stage down by the lake. Emma interrupts the performance so dismissively that Con aborts it. So the foundational unrequited love comes in the shape of Con’s search for approval from his narcissistic mom.

But Con is also yearning for Nina, his sweetheart since childhood, and the ingenue he has cast in We Are Here. But Nina has fallen for Trig, who is captivated by her beauty. (Trig is old enough to be Nina’s father and has vastly more power, so it would be just as easy to say that he’s a predator.)

Meanwhile Mash, Sorn’s parttime cook, is in love with Con and Con’s best friend Dev is helplessly smitten with Mash.

As Sorn says, “So much feeling!”

[Read more…]

Black & Rural: stuck in its head

publicity photo for Black & Rural

Shayna Jones. Set and costume by Cecelia Vadala. Lighting by Brad Trenaman
(Photo: Sarah Race)

I’m white and urban writing about playwright Shayna Jones’s exploration of being Black and rural. Keep that in mind as you read this.

In her solo show Black & Rural, which she has written and is now performing, Jones tells us that she lives in a mountain village of 800 people — and she’s one of the only Black people within hundreds of miles. As such, she feels constantly observed by her well-meaning, mostly white neighbours and constantly called upon to perform. After George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, Jones’s village held a Black Lives Matter march and, just by showing up, Jones became the day’s unwilling star. She appreciated the community’s action, but resented being thanked for the “enrichment” that her presence brings to the community. Within the message that her presence is exceptional, Jones heard the warning that she doesn’t belong there.

She tells us that, reeling from the alienation of this BLM experience, she set out to interview other Black and rural Canadians — searching, presumably, for some sense of solidarity and validation, some understanding of herself within a like-minded community. Over 18 months, she had 40 conversations that went on for “hours and hours.” From this research — and rumination — Black & Rural has emerged.

To present the results, Jones has written a 70-minute show that largely consists of newly invented “folktales”.

Although I’m sympathetic to Jones’s easily-imaginable sense of otherness, Black & Rural bored the pants off me.

[Read more…]

Hedda Gabler: Makes you watch

Publicity photo for Hedda Gabler, United Players

Powerhouse actors: Lola Clair as Thea and Hayley Sullivan as Hedda
(Photo: Nancy Caldwell)

Hedda Gabler rides the tension between realism and melodrama. This United Players production gets that combo right enough of the time to provide a consistently intriguing, often impressive evening.

Playwright Henrik Ibsen is known as the father of theatrical realism and, to a degree, that makes sense when you look at Hedda Gabler: the title character’s psychology is complex and her story is firmly rooted in the social realities of her time and place (late nineteenth-century Norway). But Hedda Gabler is driven by so many plot twists and so much high-stakes scheming and shock that it’s also a potboiler. (Think Succession but with more taffeta.)

[Read more…]

Oz: Not so wonderful or wizardly

publicity photo for Oz, Carousel Theatre

Megan Zong and Stephen Thakkar (Photo by Sarah Race)

“Is it going to be over soon?” is not what you want to hear when you take a kid to the theatre, but that’s what my partner was getting from his eight-year-old grandson during this production of Oz. I don’t blame the boy. I was wondering the same thing.

Patrick Shanahan’s script is basically an excuse to do a three-person version of the best-known Wizard of Oz story. L. Frank Baum, who wrote the series, is struggling with his manuscript for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz when a sooty urchin named Dot breaks into his study. Soon, Dot, Baum, and Baum’s housekeeper Bridgey are acting out the incomplete novel, filling in its holes and inventing an ending.

But why? In the press release for this production, director Jennica Grienke says, Oz transports us to a new place – not just a magical land with witches and wizards and talking scarecrows, but to a place of endless possibility – our own imaginations.” 

Well … sometimes it does. To tell their story, the narrators must use found objects in Baum’s study, so a mop (predictably) becomes the Cowardly Lion’s mane, and, more engagingly, flapping umbrellas turn into flying monkeys and the gramophone’s horn supplies the Wicked Witch of the West with a fantastical hat.

But the talkiness of Shanahan’s script defeats it. The framing story about Dot is laboured and its resolution unsatisfying. And there’s way too much description. I was interested in the Tin Man’s backstory from the vantage point of literary study, for instance, but theatrically it slowed things right down.

[Read more…]

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