The Last Wife: Dopey portrait of a smart woman

publicity photo: The Last Wife

(Photo of Courtney Shields and Matthew Bissett by Nancy Caldwell)

The script is so bad. There are some okay elements in this production, but … have I mentioned how bad the script is?

In The Last Wife, playwright Kate Hennig imagines the relationship between Henry VIII and his sixth wife, Catherine Parr, the only spouse who outlived him. Hennig keeps the major documented historical facts in place — more or less — but gives the characters contemporary speech.

Despite being married to a king who’d had two previous wives executed, Catherine accomplished an astonishing amount. She was influential in Henry’s passing of the Third Succession Act, which, years later, allowed his daughter Bess to become Elizabeth I. And, from July to September in 1544, when Henry was off fighting in France, he appointed Catherine regent. She ran the country. Keeping things fresh, Henry issued a warrant for her arrest in 1546, but quickly withdrew it.

Catherine had her wits about her. Unlike the script. [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…]

Vietgone: Wait for it

Production photo for Vietgone

Photo of Christopher Lam and Alison Chang by Nancy Caldwell

Stylistically, Vietgone is a huge mountain to climb. This production only gets part way up. But it’s an interesting evening —  and provocative in productive ways.

Off the top, an actor impersonating the play’s author Qui Nguyen tells us that this script is definitely not about his parents. The main characters, Quang and Tong, are “a completely made-up man” and “a completely not-real woman” he says — and, if anybody in the audience rats him out to his real mom and dad, they’re assholes.

More reliably, the playwright tells us that, even though Vietgone is about Quang and Tong escaping from Vietnam during the fall of Saigon in 1975, “This is not a story about war. This is a story about falling in love.” It’s also about the massive project of reinventing oneself as a refugee.

Tong is a fantastically original character. The way she puts it, she’s unlike every other Vietnamese woman. She’s assertively sexual — and determinedly unsentimental. When she and Quang meet at a refugee centre in the middle of nowhere in Arkansas and have sex for the first time — on her initiative — Quang refers to the act as making love. Tong laughs and corrects him: “What we just did had nothing to do with love.”

But she’s not a bag, even though she thinks she is. Tong defends herself, but she’s also honest and caring. And she’s living her life on her own terms. Throughout, actor Alison Chang is frank, funny, and persuasive in the role. [Read more…]

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney … is a long title

publicity shot for an A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney

Paul Herbert, Chelsea MacDonald, and Brian Parkinson (Photo by Nancy Caldwell)

There are several layers of experimentation going on here. Some of them work. A couple work splendidly.

Playwright Lucas Hnath really does present A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney as a public reading. Four actors file onstage, carrying their screenplays in black binders, and sit at a long table. “I’m Walt Disney,” one of them says. “This is a screenplay I wrote. It’s about me.”

Talk about a thesis statement: A Public Reading is an examination of megalomania. [Read more…]

Amphitruo: Wait for it …

publicity photo: Amphitruo, United Players

Ah, comic strangulation! (Photo of Claire deBruyn and Camryn Chew by Nancy Caldwell)

For a long time, there is virtually nothing entertaining in this production of the comedy Amphitruo by the ancient Roman writer Plautus (254-184 BC). Then, in a kind of miracle, it gets very funny — and more or less stays that way. [Read more…]

The Here and This and Now: Is that all there is?

promo photo for The Here and This and Now (United Players production)

Pharmaceutical sales reps gettin’ crazy (Photo of Evangela Kepinski, Jessica Wong, Ishan Sandhu, and Matt Loop by Doug Williams)

Skip to the epilogue: the last five minutes of this production are by far the best.

There are two earlier sections. Each unit is distinct.

In Part 1, we witness a training session in which a sales manager named Niall coaches three pharmaceutical reps on how to make a sales pitch for a questionable liver-spot treatment. Theatrically, there are a passel of problems here. Number 1: the pitch is ridiculously long and its manipulativeness is so transparent that nobody in their right mind would fall for it. Number 2: The pitch is repeated, with slight variations, four times. Everybody onstage gets a crack at it. Time threatens to go backwards. Number 3: The criticism of big pharma in particular and sales in general is simplistic.

Two of the sales reps also have a philosophical discussion of sorts in Part 1. Robbie, who’s been with the company for a while, keeps saying that, in life, nothing changes, things never get any better: “I just don’t think anything makes much of a difference.” Gemma, who’s new and who’s falling for Robbie, offers counterarguments: She invites Robbie to imagine the impact of having a baby, for instance. Then Robbie repeats himself and the two of them go in circles.

Fortunately, both Ishan Sandhu (Robbie) and Jessica Wong (Gemma) deliver appealing performances. Sandhu’s Robbie is playful and responsive. Wong’s performance as Gemma is grounded and honest — persuasively straightforward. She also has a velvety voice. [Read more…]

Silent Sky: a good night under the stars

publicity photo for Silent Sky

Henrietta (Jenna Hill) and Peter (Karthik Kadam) pretend to talk about the cosmos. (Photo by Doug Williams)


Writing this review of United Players’ production of Silent Sky isn’t as challenging as, say, astrophysics, but it’s still tricky, okay?

I enjoyed the show a lot. Playwright Lauren Gunderson’s script about the turn-of-the-twentieth-century career of pioneering astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt is witty and moving.

Leavitt’s task as a “computer” at the Harvard College Observatory was to record information from photographic plates about the brightness of stars. As a clerk — and, crucially, as a woman — she wasn’t allowed to look through the telescope. But, working from her observations of the brightness and pulsations of certain stars, Leavitt became the first to understand how to measure the distance to faraway galaxies. It was a watershed achievement. [Read more…]

She Sells Sea Shells: I ain’t buyin’ ’em. (But they’re pretty.)

publicity photo for She Sells Sea Shells

Krista Skwarok and Isaac Li in She Sells Sea Shells (Photo cropped from an original by Nancy Caldwell)

Watching She Sells Sea Shells is like watching somebody you like dating the wrong guy: admirable artists have worked very hard and very skilfully on this production, but Helen Eastman’s script isn’t worthy of their talents and attention.

I’m going to chew on the script for a bit before I get into the interpretive successes. [Read more…]

The Red Priest (Eight Ways to Say Goodbye): intelligent and moving

publicity photo for The Red Priest

(Photo of Steve James and Tracy Jennisson by Nancy Caldwell)

The Red Priest (Eight Ways to Say Goodbye) is a smart script and, in this United Players production, it’s being performed by smart actors.

Playwright Mieko Ouchi’s text is about a fictional relationship between Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi and the wife of one of France’s most powerful noblemen. The script identifies this character only as Woman. Her husband has bet the King of France that Vivaldi can teach her how to play the violin in six weeks — at the end of which time, she will perform for the French court. [Read more…]

A Hundred Words for Snow: but where’s the subtlety?

Hundred Words for Snow, United Players, Vancouver theatre

Hana Joi does her best with clumsy material in A Hundred Words for Snow. (Photo by Doug Williams)

This is the first time I’ve attended a live performance since the beginning of the plague, so I’m going to start off by talking about that.

Going in, I was mildly freaked out; I’m 68 and I’m taking immunosuppressant drugs. Because I’m vulnerable, I wore a mask and a face shield. But I ditched the shield after about eight minutes because it made me feel like I was in another room. Besides, I was aware that United Players, the producing company, was taking good care of me. [Read more…]

Sign up—free!—

YEAH, THIS IS ANNOYING. But my theatre newsletter is fun!

Sign up and get curated international coverage + local reviews every Thursday!