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…]

My Little Tomato: Tasty until it’s not

publicity photo for My Little Tomato

Taylor Kare and Nelson Wong on Sophie Tang’s excellent set.
(Photo by Sarah Race)

I really enjoyed My Little Tomato — until I started to get tired of it.

It’s audacious, that’s for damn sure. In Rick Tae’s new script, Keaton Chu inherits his parents’ produce farm when they’re killed in a freak accident. Produce wholesaler Joe McKinley interrupts Keaton’s grief to insist that he honour his delivery obligations.

Keaton’s family is Chinese Canadian. Joe’s Irish on one side and Japanese on the other. Keaton and Joe are both gay and, when they figure out they’re attracted to one another, things quickly get complicated. Joe reminds Keaton of his white “best friend” from university, who coerced him into sex then ignored him. Keaton is still carrying a torch for white guys and feels like he’s never been enough. Joe, who is a bit of a bar star, is sexually confident, but emotionally he’s just as lost as Keaton is — never white or Japanese enough.

Right off the top, director Cameron Mackenzie serves notice that he’s going to deliver a slammer of an interpretation. When the lights come up, the first thing we see is Keaton lying in a circular pool — it looks like concrete — neck deep in brightly coloured plastic balls, an agonized look on his face. (Sophie Tang’s set is terrific.) More balls rain down on Keaton from high in the proscenium and right away we know two things: this character is awash in grief and the storytelling is going to be surreal. [Read more…]

Sense and Sensibility: How about some respect?

publicity photo for Sense and Sensibility

Nyiri Karakas, Amanda Sum, and Janet Gigliotti
(Photo by Moonrider Productions)

There might be a satisfying production to be had based on Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility but I haven’t seen it yet.

The script itself is problematic. In the story, when Henry Dashwood dies, the law says his estate, including his palatial country home Norland Park, must go to John, his son by his first marriage. That means his second wife and their three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, must vacate the premises and live on a limited stipend in a cottage.

Sense and Sensibility, which Austen wrote in 1811, is about the financial vulnerability of women, for whom well-being depends upon negotiating a good — meaning a financially secure — marriage. In this setting, Elinor embodies sense (clear-headedness) and Marianne sensibility (emotionality).

The novel recognizes both the serious impact and comic absurdity of the period’s still-relevant gender norms. The novel’s comedy is restrained. For instance, when John’s awful wife Fanny is convincing him to give his half-sisters and their mother nothing more than the bare minimum, she says, “People always live forever when there is an annuity to be paid to them.”

Hamill’s adaptation retains that line, but not the style in which it was originally couched. The play is broad — sometimes almost slapstick, condescending to both its characters and its audience. [Read more…]

The Wrong Bashir: The Right Stuff

publicity photo for The Wrong Bashire

A study in contrasts: Hussein Janmohamed’s Al-Nashir Manji and Parm Sour’s Mansour
(Photo: Matt Reznek)

This style is so hard to pull off. But this creative team is mostly doing it very well — sometimes astonishingly so.

Zahida Rahemtulla’s The Wrong Bashir is a farce. An Ismaili farce.

In the story, a nominating committee selects Bashir Ladha, a philosophy student who can’t decide what to do with his life, to become the next student Mukhisahib, or spiritual leader of the Ismaili population at his university. Bashir’s parents are thrilled; Bashir, who produces a podcast called The Happy Nihilist and can’t remember the last time he attended a religious service, has zero interest in the role — and nobody can figure out how he got nominated in the first place. But, when two members of the nominating committee show up at his mom and dad’s house (where Bashir is living) along with several members of his ecstatic extended family, Bashir gets cornered: he doesn’t want the gig, but he doesn’t want to hurt his folks either. [Read more…]

The Woman in Black: Entertainment with goosebumps!

publicity still for The Woman in Black

Bernard Cuffling in a publicity still for The Woman in Black
(Photo by Bill Allman)

The Woman in Black is a good ol’ yarn and I am for that.

On one level, Stephen Mallatratt’s script, which he adapted from Dame Susan Hill’s novel, is a straight-up ghost story — and it scared the bejeezus out of me a couple of times. (Fellow critic Jo Ledingham, who was sitting beside me, said she felt my chair lurch.) [Read more…]

Teenage Dick: Everything I try sounds like a double entendre, so you fill in this headline

publicity photo for Teenage Dick

Cadence Rush Quibell, Christopher Imbrosciano, Jennifer Lines, and Marco Walker-Ng in Teenage Dick
(Photo by Moonrider Productions)

Although it contains things to admire, this production of Teenage Dick feels too much like an afterschool special or not great theatre for young people.

Teenage Dick is playwright Mike Lew’s reimagining of Shakespeare’s Richard III as a high school drama. Shakespeare’s Richard is a murderously ambitious “bunch-backed toad.” (The historical figure’s recently discovered bones testify he probably had scoliosis.) In Lew’s retelling, the junior class secretary, seventeen-year-old Richard Gloucester, who has cerebral palsy, has his eye on the “throne” of the school presidency. A hated outcast by his own account, Richard sets out to improve his social standing — and chances of election — by dating Anne Margaret, who used to go out with Eddie, the stereotypically dim-witted football player and current president, who bullies Richard. [Read more…]

Starwalker: Less than starry

Publicity photo for Starwalker

Dillon Meighan Chiblow and Jeffrey Michael Follis in Starwalker
(Photo by David Cooper)

Corey Payette’s new musical Starwalker is going to be meaningful to a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons. And there’s significant talent on the stage. I don’t mean to deny any of that when I say that, from a craft perspective, especially the craft of storytelling, it fails big time.

As well as directing Starwalker, Payette wrote the book, music, and lyrics. In his book, a drag performer named Levi picks up Star, an Indigenous sex worker, on Lee’s Trail in Stanley Park. And that sets up a story that is predictable on virtually every level. Within seconds of their meeting, we know Levi and Star are destined for lasting romance. Star has never done drag, but they’re interested, so we we’ve got a pretty good idea what the Act 1 finale is going to look like. And when Mother Borealis, who heads Levi’s drag family, the House of Borealis, coughed in the first act, I felt like calling a hearse just to have one on standby for the end of Act 2.

[Read more…]

Clementine: A (True) Story – tenderness that could be better shaped

publicity photo for Clementine: A (True) Story

Laura (Anaïs Pellin) and Clementine (Isabelle Bartkowiak) take a ride to the beach.

Watching a tender kids’ show is a very pleasant way to spend 45 minutes on a Sunday morning.

Writer Anaïs Pellin started her process with Clementine: A (True) Story during a workshop in Belgium, where she’s from. (Pellin is now based in Vancouver.) The workshop was about memory and the show is about how a little girl named Clementine and her younger sister Laura negotiate their parents’ divorce.

Clementine uses a technique called object theatre: the show’s two actors (Pellin as Laura and Isabelle Bartkowiak as Clementine) use toy-like props to tell their story: a tiny yellow cab for Dad to drive away in, little pairs of shoes to represent their friends at school. This technique amplifies the pure imagination — and innocence — of kids’ play.

Pellin and Bartkowiak also voice and embody other characters, including Mom (Martina) and Dad (Pierre).

Within this style, I enjoyed the company’s inventiveness. The actors perform from behind a raised table that’s covered in black fabric. Bartkowiak takes out a toy sand pail and pours a perfect line of sand across the blackness, creating a road by a beach. Pellin “drives” a tiny red car along that road. We know it contains the whole family and we can hear Mom and Dad fighting. When the scene is over, the actors flip the fabric and the road disappears.

It’s pretty great. And it’s pretty great watching how completely this style of theatre engages kids. [Read more…]

The Cull: revelatory design and direction

publicity photo for The Cull

I wasn’t expecting this stylized staging of The Cull. (Photo by Moonrider Productions)

Not to take anything away from the actors or anybody else, the real stars of this premiere stage production of The Cull are director Mindy Parfitt and set designer Amir Ofek. Their treatment of Michelle Riml and Michael St. John Smith’s script elevates it spectacularly.

As written, the play is naturalistic. In their 12,000-square-foot home, Nicole and Paul are hosting a twenty-fifth wedding anniversary dinner for their friends, the decidedly less wealthy Emily and Lewis. Lynne, another friend from their high school years, is also there to celebrate, along with her super-rich husband, John.

I first heard The Cull as an audio play in January of 2022. (Covid had scuttled the Arts Club’s plans to stage it.) Back then, I couldn’t tell what kind of world the play was trying to inhabit. Was it a sitcom? A melodrama?

But, with a stunning set of decisions, Parfitt and Ofek have established stylistic coherence. As I said, the baseline of the written script is naturalism: there are all sorts of references to food prep (slicing, tasting) and specific props, including bamboo napkins. But Parfitt and Ofek have discarded physical naturalism.

Ofek’s set is a gigantic square that looks like a thick, stylized slab of wood. The only other set piece is an enormous, exquisite chandelier: it looks like a collection of simple, delicate seashells.

On the slab, the actors sit on white, modernist chairs.

The characters still talk about tasting the food and folding the napkins — but they don’t do any of those things, which adds a revelatory level of abstraction. We can suddenly see how their conversations are rituals of dominance, alliance, and information seeking.

Parfitt’s setting of the actors’ movements, including their arrangements of the chairs, is satisfyingly choreographic. And the slab spins! It’s on a revolve, which makes the choreography feel even more sophisticated.

[Read more…]

An Undeveloped Sound: an overwritten script

publicity photo for An Undeveloped Sound

An enigmatic figure called The Little One (Photo by David Cooper)

Exquisitely directed and designed, and responsively acted, An Undeveloped Sound is, nonetheless, thematically repetitive and therefor dull.

Jonathon Young has set his new script in a call centre located in a crumbling, repurposed commercial outlet near an ocean. In my mind, it was in an abandoned strip mall.

There, four characters stonewall angry callers who have invested in a development. The callers want to know what’s happening with their units and when they’ll be able to move in. The employees cheerfully reassure the callers that they can see the investors’ non-existent units from where they’re sitting and, when the questioning gets insistent, they put the callers on hold.

So the set-up is about a false narrative — and that quickly expands into a larger thematic statement about the fallibility of all narratives, all ways of understanding, of attempting to connect. A newcomer named Heidi is seducing a hapless worker named Wade, but is her interest sincere or malign? Bell, once the star spokesperson for the project, desperately clings to the performance of a hope she no longer feels. A parent-child relationship has fallen apart. One’s fellow workers are not to be trusted. Language itself is suspect, a poor approximation of meaning. And, underlying all of this is a critique of the manipulativeness of capitalism.

[Read more…]

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