Sunday in the Park with George

Martha Ansfield-Scrase, Brandyn Eddy and Peggy Busch
Credit: Nancy Caldwell

At Jericho Arts Centre until February 12, 2017


Posted January 22, 2017

After seeing the off-Broadway premiere of Sunday in the Park with George in July 1983, composer Leonard Bernstein sent a note to Stephen Sondheim calling the show “brilliant, deeply conceived, canny, magisterial. . . Bravo.” Critics and audiences didn’t immediately agree and despite ten Tony Award nominations, it won only two: Best Scenic Design and Best Lighting Design.

Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book), however, were redeemed when the show went on to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award in 1984 and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985.

Sunday in the Park with George, like most Sondheim musicals, isn’t “hummable”, as one critic commented; it challenges the singers and audience alike. But like all Sondheim musicals, it’s intelligent, playful and witty.

Under the direction of Ryan Mooney, this United Players production more than meets the challenges. Running away with our hearts is Martha Ansfield-Scrase as Dot, the fictional mistress of late-19th century post-Impressionist artist Georges Seurat whose most famous painting is A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.  Now in the Art Institute of Chicago, it’s a monumental pointillist work measuring 207.6 cm x 308 cm that took Seurat two years to complete and was the inspiration for Sondheim and Lapine.

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
Georges Seurat, 1884

We meet Ansfield-Scrase first as Dot poses for the artist/lover while singing her complaint (“Sunday in the Park with George”). Sunday after Sunday she spends standing bored and immobile while Seurat obsessively paints. Ansfield-Scrase has a beautiful voice and such clear enunciation that not a word of Sondheim’s lyrics is missed. She’s young, lively and pretty in Act I; director Mooney could have pulled back on her Act II portrayal of Marie, the now 90-year-old daughter of Dot and Seurat. Marie is old; she’s not batty.

Martha Ansfield-Scrase
Credit: Nancy Caldwell

In this production, Brandyn Eddy portrays Seurat in Act I and Seurat’s imagined grandson George, also an artist, in Act II. A charismatic performer, Eddy has a fine, confident voice; he sings the frenzied “Finishing the Hat” while up a ladder feverishly dabbing thousands of little points of paint on what we know will be A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. In Act II, Eddy and Ansfield-Scrase sing “Move On”, a song that captures what artists (including Sondheim) must do to continue evolving. Mooney capably directs a terrific cast of fifteen while Clare Wyatt directs four (unseen) musicians.

Sunday in the Park with George fictionalizes Seurat’s history: he had a mistress named Madeleine Knobloch (not Dot); he had two sons both of whom died in childhood; no daughter named Marie; and no grandson named George.

What has not been fictionalized, however, are the values Seurat said art should strive for. Order. Design. Tension. Composition. Balance. Light. Harmony. These are the values we see in all of Sondheim’s work, too.

Set design: Sandy Margaret
Credit: Nancy Caldwell

Set design by Sandy Margaret begins as a beautiful exercise of white-on-white: white floor, white background, white props and all performers dressed in white-on-white period costumes (by CS Fergusson-Vaux). Later, colour – eventually black – is introduced. The staging is lovely to look at and perfectly matched with the subject.

One critic called Sunday in the Park with George “lopsided” with Act I and II at such stylistic odds. But Sondheim cleverly moves us from fictionalized biography to the contemplation of the business of art – including theatre: the marketing, displaying, buying and selling thereof. One thing is certain: you will look at A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte with new, more curious eyes. This production is a feast for the eyes and ears, food for thought and classic Sondheim.



By Heart

Tiago Rodrigues (right)
Credit: Magda Bizarro

By Heart: PuSh International Performing Arts Festival

At Performance Works

January 20 and 21

Posted  January 20, 2017

Portuguese playwright and actor Tiago Rodrigues evokes disparate writers – Shakespeare, George Steiner, Ray Bradbury, Joseph Brodsky, Boris Pasternak and others – while teaching Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 to ten volunteers. “I won’t be manipulating,” he promises them. Pause. “But if I do, I will do it gently.”

Gently is the operative word and Rodrigues is true to his word. He’s unassuming, funny, generous and passionate.

The creative spark for By Heart are George Steiner’s words, “Once ten people know a poem by heart, there’s nothing the KGB, the CIA or the Gestapo can do about it. It will survive.” And so, to ensure Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 lives on, Rodrigues travels the world’s stages, teaching ten volunteers each night to commit the sonnet to memory. Why Sonnet 30? The reason, an event in Pasternak’s life, may take you close to tears.

“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought/I summon up remembrance of things past/I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought/And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.”

Woven throughout the hour-and-a-half performance is the story of Rodrigues’ grandmother Candida, an avid reader who, in her 90s, began going blind and asked Rodrigues to choose a book that she would then memorize – keeping it, therefore, in her heart forever.

While the volunteers struggle – and they do – to learn their lines, we struggle with them, willing them to succeed, embarrassed for them when they fail. Seated on wooden chairs lined up on the stage, at first they simply responded verbally to Rodrigues; but eventually their hands begin to move, some heads are bowed in concentration, they lean forward toward their ‘conductor’ who, just as a conductor of an orchestra, draws them out. Rodrigues’ single deep inhalation and a gesture is the learner’s clue to repeat. Again. And again.

Tiago Rodrigues (right)
Credit: Magda Bizarro

Rodrigues is not only intelligent, humourous and political, he’s deeply, deeply passionate and that passion infects the audience. I was startled to find that at the end when, indeed, Sonnet 30 was performed by ten strangers on the Performance Works stage, I was so moved. So moved by the recitation, so moved by the power of the spoken word, so moved by Shakespeare and Pasternak, so moved by the notion that once memorized, the written word is inviolable. What I considered drudgery in school, having to memorize poems (“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks” or “Out, out brief candle”) was the highest form of praise, the highest celebration of what informs my every day: words strung together to enlighten and move me.

By Heart, produced by Portugal’s Teatro Nacional D. Maria II and presented by the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, is for word lovers, for lovers of poetry and Shakespeare, for lovers of freedom of expression. For everyone.

The Fighting Season

Tom Pickett, Siona Gareau-Brennan and Kyle Jespersen
Credit: Javier R. Sotres

At The Cultch until January 21, 2017


Posted January 13, 2017

There’s no good season for war; broken bodies, broken hearts and broken minds are shipped back to their loved ones in spring, summer, fall and winter. But it’s not only soldiers who leave the battlefield with wounds physical and/or psychological; it’s also medical personnel who have to deal with the hideously wounded that are continuously being airlifted into makeshift field hospitals in places like the Kandahar Air Base in Afghanistan.

In Sean Harris Oliver’s play, Karine (Siona Gareau-Brennan), Kristy (Kyle Jespersen) and Terry (Tom Pickett), are three Canadians who have recently been sent home from Kandahar, each experiencing PTSD following a life-threatening event on the base where sand, dust, heat and blood are the elements under which they worked.

But the injured they struggled to save were sometimes Taliban warriors – young, frightened, in pain, bleeding out. Sometimes choices had to be made between the wounded, the rule being that the most likely to survive – regardless of allegiance – is attended to first.

Siona Gareau-Brennan
Credit: Javier R. Sotres

Playwright Oliver’s father served as a doctor in Kandahar and was the inspiration for The Fighting Season so the play feels excruciatingly real and scrupulously honest. Under the direction of Evan Frayne, it’s a powerful piece of theatre made even more potent by three superb performances, very simple staging, creatively and sometimes alarmingly lit by Itai Erdal.

Tom Pickett, arguably giving one of his career’s best performances, is Terry, a surgeon who has been sent back to Canada and to his wife of many years. Of the three characters, Terry is the one who appears least troubled by what he has experienced in the Middle East. Pickett imbues the character with wry humour and a gentle manner. Terry fusses over his lawn and his golf game; “My golf game went for shit over there”, he tells us. He talks about hockey. Pickett’s slow drawl and friendly grin provide a cover for Terry’s inner turmoil but he eventually loses his carefully maintained composure when he uncharacteristically tears strips off a woman he does not know.

Kyle Jespersen is f-bombing Kristy whose anger is just barely below the surface; forgetting a name or a word can make him explode. Jespersen plays the character tightly wound yet desperate to be sent back to Afghanistan because being a medic in a war zone has become how Kristy defines himself. Who is he otherwise?

As Quebecoise nurse Karine, Gareau-Brennan is almost translucent; you feel you can see her beating heart. Karine copes by talking, talking, talking (sometimes in French) and going over and over the catastrophic event that plunged all three over the edge.

The Fighting Season is framed as if the characters are undergoing psychological assessment; dialogue is addressed directly to the audience. Each of them presents as ‘normal’ at times but each is clearly suffering and in need of counselling.

Kyle Jespersen, Tom Pickett and Siona Gareau-Brennan
Credit: Javier R. Sotres

The most interesting aspect of Oliver’s play is the variation in response to the characters’ shared experience: Kristy’s anger, Terry’s avoidance and Karine’s confusion – individual reactions to the same trauma.

Awkward are a few sequences in which Jespersen speaks lyrically as opposed to his character’s usual ‘f’ heavy dialogue. Who he is at those poetic points is unclear. And, although it later becomes obvious, confusion arises when we are led to believe all three have been killed in an explosion. The edges between fantasy and reality are briefly blurred.

At times I felt these were stories I had heard before, but The Fighting Season, presented by Bleeding Heart Theatre, is, nevertheless, riveting theatre from Sean Harris Oliver, a new playwright who’s well worth watching.



Year In Review



Martin Happer and Gabrielle Rose in The Rivals
Credit: Tim Matheson

January 2016 kicked off with the effervescent Blackbird Theatre production of The Rivals. Everyone’s favourite character in this 18th century comedy is Mrs. Malaprop and, almost bursting out of her bodice, actor Gabrielle Rose showed once again her spectacular dramatic versatility.

In February, the harrowing Betroffenheit exceeded all expectations. A collaboration between choreographer Crystal Pite and writer/performer Jonathon Young, it was grotesque, beautiful and profoundly moving. While time may not heal all wounds, Betroffenheit suggested turning tragedy into art can offer some solace.

Jonathon Young (centre) in Betroffenheit
Credit: Michael Slobodian

That same month, Robert Lepage blew into SFU Woodward’s with his deeply personal 887, an evocative exploration of memory. He blew audiences away with tiny jewel-box images and cutting edge technology.

In March, arguably the hit of 2016, was Onegin, a collaboration between writer/director Amiel Gladstone and musician/composer Veda Hille. It was epic, musical, enchanting and loaded with stars: Meg Roe, Alessandro Juliani, Lauren Jackson, Andrew McNee, Josh Epstein, Caitriona Murphy and Andrew Wheeler. Presented by the Arts Club, Onegin is deservedly bound for international glory.

April, the cruelest month according to T.S. Eliot, brought The Invisible Hand – a term coined by economist Adam Smith. The tension-filled script was set on a Middle Eastern-inspired set by David Roberts. Craig Erickson brought nervous almost savage energy to the role of an American banker taken hostage by Pakistanis.

Craig Erickson in The Invisible Hand
Credit: Tim Matheson

Revolutions, co-created by Steven Hill and Alex Lazaridis Ferguson, made us dizzy with excitement in May. The limited-sized audience was seated on a platform that receded, advanced and rotated: it was a completely unnerving, absolutely unique experience with an apocalyptic interwoven story.

Hair was the big surprise in June. This Renegade Arts Co.’s inaugural production was presented on The Shop stage, a funky, soon-to-be-torn down venue. The non-professional show warmed our hearts with peace and love and the big closing number, “Let The Sun Shine”.

Pericles, directed by Lois Anderson for Bard on the Beach, was a sumptuous production of Shakespeare’s seldom-produced play. Costumes by Carmen Alatorre, set design by Amir Ofek and sinewy soundscape by Malcolm Dow made Pericles the exotic pick of Bard.

David Warburton, Kayla Deorksen and Ian Butcher in Pericles
Credit: David Blue

Summer came and went and then it was the Fringe Festival with some terrific shows. Personal favourites were Jonathon Young’s A Great Day For Up, The Nether, And Bella Sang With Us, A Dog At a Feast and Bella Culpa, the sweetest bit of clowning.

By October every theatre company in town opened its 2016-2017 season. Nicola Cavendish was a brash and mouthy delight in the Arts Club’s Bakersfield Mist but Théâtre la Seizième stole my heart with Straight Jacket Winter, the inventively told story of a couple relocating from Montreal to bleak Vancouver in January. The tableau at the end had the audience standing around in childlike wonder.

Frédéric Lemay and Julie Trépanier in Straight Jacket Winter
Credit: Phillipe Renaud

Next up was Fight Night, presented by Belgium’s Ontroerend Goed at The Cultch. Hugely provocative – even subversive – and very entertaining, it rubbed our noses in how arbitrarily we cast our ballots. Very troubling was, on the night I attended, the number of audience members who were persuaded not to vote if there was not a candidate in whom they could place their trust. They voted with their feet.

Studio 58 did a terrific job of Angels in America Part I. It was epic theatre writ large with an outstanding performance by gaunt and hollow-eyed Conor Stinson O’Gorman as the gay lawyer dying of AIDS.

Also in October was The Flick, a quirky, real-time play that, for me, took a while to get going but eventually hooked me. Three adrift young characters were caught up in the inevitable transformation of an old-time movie house into a slicked-up digital cinema. Only the popcorn all over the floor was going to remain the same.

Rachel Aberle (centre) in the East Van Panto
Credit: Emily Cooper Photography

The East Van Panto – a mash-up of Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs – was better than ever. Andrew McNee, as the Big Bad Wolf, stole the show with his comic genius: a shrug, a double take, a look and he had everyone in stitches. Shout-outs from the kids in the audience were a bonus.

Looking forward into 2017, it’s the PuSh Festival with a full package of treats for everyone and the kick start to a Happy, theatre-rich New Year.



Mary Poppins: The Broadway Musical



The cast with Kayla James as Mary Poppins (centre)
Credit: David Cooper

At The Stanley. Held over until January 8, 2017

Posted December 18, 2016

If your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews have all grown up, take the child-you-used-to-be to Mary Poppins: The Broadway Musical directed by the Arts Club’s artistic managing director Bill Millerd. If you think you’ve completely lost your inner child, go to a matinee where you will find dozens and dozens of little girls (in satin, velvet, lace and organdy party dresses) and little boys (many in shirts and bowties) caught up in the magic that is Mary Poppins. Their excitement and wonder are infectious and you’re sure to catch it.

English nanny Mary Poppins has been popping into the unhappy Banks’ household at Number 17, Cherry Tree Lane, London, since 1934 when she first appeared in a story by P.L. Travers. She has continued flying in on the blustery east wind in various ways since then.

In 1964, Walt Disney released the movie with all the songs we love, written by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. Famous for cartoons, Disney had a hard time convincing Travers he could do justice to her story with a combination of animation and live action but by 1961 she relented although she kept a firm grip on the project. “Travers was an adviser to the production. However, she disapproved of the dilution of the harsher aspects of Mary Poppins’ character, felt ambivalent about the music, and so hated the use of animation that she ruled out any further adaptations of the later Mary Poppins novels” (Wikipedia). Apparently, the original Mary Poppins was stern and pompous but wise. A pompous Mary Poppins would not likely have been nominated for thirteen Academy Awards, winning five, including Best Actress for Julie Andrews.

Mary Poppins: The Broadway Musical is a fusion of the Travers books and the Disney film; it opened in December 2004 in London’s West End and on Broadway in 2006 where it ran for 2,619 performances, closing in 2013.

Scott Walters and Kayla James
Credit: David Cooper

Kayla James is Mary Poppins in this Arts Club production and she will steal your heart. Petite and prim, but with a sparkle in her eye, she plays the role a little closer to Travers’ original than the much-loved Sara-Jeanne Hosie who starred in the 2013 and 2014 productions. James has a pure, clear voice, a daintiness about her that’s utterly enchanting, and when she lifts her Edwardian skirts and joins the chimney sweeps in the big tap dance number, “Step In Time”, James proves she is also a formidable hoofer.

As chimney sweep Bert, Scott Walters channels lovable Dick Van Dyke (who played the role in the film) while adding his own comedic licks. He finds all the colours – from bright to somber – in the recurring song, “Chim Chim Cher-ee”.

Milo Shandel makes a dignified yet troubled George Banks whose transformation is brought about by Mary Poppins and his devoted but unhappy wife, Mrs. Winifred Banks (warmly and graciously portrayed by Caitriona Murphy).

Glen Gordon, Kayla James and Elizabeth Irving
Credit: David Cooper

Katey Wright plays two completely different roles; as Mrs. Corry, famous for her gingerbread cookies, Wright is madcap and funny but as Mr. Banks’ own childhood nanny Miss Andrew, she’s witchy and nasty. Polar opposites are played out when Mary Poppins’ approach to child rearing (“A Spoonful of Sugar”) battles with Miss Andrew’s (“Brimstone and Treacle”). The Banks’ children are played like pros by sweetly earnest Elizabeth Irving and serious little Glen Gordon.

Alison Green’s fanciful sets are back; some old, some new, Sheila White’s costumes range from crazily colourful to elegant Edwardian; under the musical direction of Bruce Kellett, the six-piece orchestra is heard but not seen. Lively choreography is Valerie Easton’s.

To date, there are thirteen sold out performances so, “spit spot”, to quote Mary Poppins, you’ll want to take your inner child or another real live child and get to The Stanley to catch the “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” enchantment.

The Cast in the finale.
Credit: David Cooper

Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol

Linden Banks
Credit: Guy Fauchon


At Jericho Arts Centre until December 18, 2016

Posted December 8, 2016

“Jacob Marley was dead.” In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol we know that Ebenezer Scrooge’s business partner is “most sincerely dead” but we don’t know why he comes back on Christmas Eve to haunt Scrooge’s bedchamber. What’s in it for Jacob Marley?

That’s where playwright Tom Mula begins: Marley is in The Counting House, a sort of antechamber to the next world, where he awaits his everlasting fate. The Record Keeper (David C. Jones) offers him a deal: to avoid going to Hell, Marley must reform Scrooge, “the only man worse than I”, claims Marley.

Accompanied and guided by the Bogle – a hobgoblin or ghost – Marley visits Scrooge’s past, present and future in his efforts to redeem him. On their journey we learn about Marley’s own childhood and discover why he turned out as warped as he did. Continue reading “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol”

Troilus and Cressida

Ratline Harewood and Teo Saefkow Credit: Emily Cooper
Raylene Harewood (Cressida) and Teo Saefkow (Troilus)
Credit: Emily Cooper

At Studio 58 until December 4, 2016

Posted December 2, 2016

There’s always a good reason why some Shakespeare plays are frequently produced – Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example – and others so seldom – Coriolanus, Cymbeline, Timon of Athens and Troilus and Cressida.

Studio 58 is never one to shy away from a challenge and Troilus and Cressida, with its two-pronged plot, certainly presents problems, not the least of which is its length. It’s a full three hours long – almost three-and-a-half hours with intermission. There are long stretches of text – Ulysses’ speeches (despite the clear and spirited delivery by Emily Doreen Wilson)  – with little action. And the two plots – the love story of young Troilus and Cressida set against the dying days of the Trojan War and the squaring off of the war’s two opposing heroes, Hector and Achilles – don’t always intersect. Indeed, each of the plotlines could be a play in itself.

But under the intelligent and creative direction of Kevin Bennett (whose King Lear in the tiny Havana Theatre in 2012 remains unforgettable), almost twenty Studio 58 students wade right in with swords cutting the air.

Greek and Trojan warriors Credit: Emily Cooper
Greek and Trojan warriors
Credit: Emily Cooper

As is often the case with Studio 58 productions, the full ensemble scenes – in this case with movement direction by Lisa Goebel and fight choreography by Nathan Kay – are rousing, noisy, even blood-curdling. This show kicks off with actors leaping and howling while banging wooden swords on wooden shields. It sets the stage for bloody conflict.

Set designer Shizuka Kai offers a raised, planked square, open in the centre and with one side of the square that can be pushed upstage and downstage to create a larger, open performance area: simple and functional. The set is backdropped by a brick wall with a retractable opening for characters to enter and exit. Three or four children’s swings hang offstage left and offstage right for additional, up-close and personal seats for a few in the audience.

That intimacy and audience interaction is one of director Bennett’s trademarks. Before the play starts, all the actors mill around, squatting in the aisles, sitting in empty seats and talking to the patrons. And throughout the play, dialogue is directed to the audience sometimes as if looking for confirmation. It makes the performance tremendously inclusive: we are all here together on this night.

And although Shakespeare’s text is all there, the asides are definitely contemporary: “Is she serious?” “No one’s gonna be saying that”. “Oh yeah?”

With a preponderance of young women in the theatre program and a scarcity of female characters in Troilus and Cressida, there is a lot of cross-gender casting. It takes a while to accept Quinn Cartwright as Menelaus, Krista Skwarok as Calchas, Emily Doreen Wilson as Ulysses and Chloe Richardson as Thersites.

But Camille Legg as Ajax works like a damn. As Romeo in last season’s Romeo + Juliet, Legg was coltish and winsome. As Ajax she’s pumped full of bravado, flexing her muscles and ready to take on Hector, by far the better swordsman.

Teo Saefkow and Raylene Harewood make a sweet pair of puppy lovers forced to grow up quickly when Cressida is exchanged for a hostage and sent away to Greece as a sex slave for Diomedes (Scott McGowan).

An interesting directorial choice is Zack Currie as a very fey or gay Pandarus. Currie carries it off – and it’s a huge role – but that particular take on the character borders on stereotypical and possibly offensive.

Julien Galipeau and Conor Stinson O'Gorman Credit: Emily Cooper
Julien Galipeau and Conor Stinson O’Gorman
Credit: Emily Cooper

Absolutely outstanding are Julien Galipeau as Achilles and Conor Stinson O’Gorman as Hector. Galipeau plays Achilles as somewhat thick, gullible and vulnerable to the plotting of Ulysses who’s trying to persuade Achilles to leave his tent where he hangs out with his lover Patroclus  (Josh Chambers). O’Gorman, on the other hand, plays Hector as thoughtful, sensitive and brimming with integrity. There is something about O’Gorman that is so still, so ‘considered’ that his performance comes close to being mesmeric.

This Troilus and Cressida is worth seeing not only because it’s rarely offered but it will be the last chance to see some of these performers in their graduating year. Read the synopsis, be prepared for the cross gender casting – reading the cast list beforehand is a good idea – and be prepared for a long evening. Thankfully, the show wraps up with another full ensemble, rowdy, upbeat, choreographed celebration to send you on your way.

East Van Panto: Little Red Riding Hood


Rachel Aberle (centre) Credit: Emily Cooper Photography
Rachel Aberle (centre) as Little Red Riding Hood
Credit: Emily Cooper Photography

At The York Theatre until December 31, 2016

Posted November 26, 2016

“P-A-NTO. P-A-NTO”. Out of the mouth of babes: a tousled hair little kid – not more than four years old – chanted as he headed out into the lobby, past the candy canes and into the rain after opening night of Theatre Replacement’s fourth annual East Van Christmas Panto. Past his bedtime and still going.

In the huge hole left in the Christmas season when Leaky Heaven Circus quit doing their much-loved show, Theatre Replacement, in association with The Cultch, jumped in and are we grateful? “Oh, yes, we are”. “Oh, no, you aren’t.” “Oh, yes, we are.” The East Van Panto has become the made-in-Vancouver kickoff to the festive season.

Don’t worry if you don’t have kids, grandkids, nieces or nephews: give yourself the gift of rib-tickling laughter. Directed by Anita Rochon and written this year by Mark Chavez, it’s as much for adults as it is for kids. Jabs at US politics, school board firings, over-parenting (Little Red is wrapped in bubble-wrap by one of her two fathers – a nice touch), bike helmets and jaywalking all go over the youngsters’ heads but tickle adult funnybones. Also for the grownups are one-liners like, “Wolves are cool; they’re, like, Nature’s dogs”. Two little pigs have already been eaten by the “devilishly handsome” Wolf (Andrew McNee); the remaining one (played by Chirag Naik) is, accordingly to the Wolf, “my best friend”. The pig, however, disagrees: “I’m your hostage”.

Andrew McNee and Chirag Naik Credit: Emily Cooper Photoggraphy
Andrew McNee and Chirag Naik
Credit: Emily Cooper Photography

It’s full of references to familiar places: the Adanac Bike Path, the big ‘W’ atop the old Woodward’s Building, Knight and Hastings streets and, “Womyn’s Ware. That’s where I’m gonna buy my clothes when I’m a woman”, says Red (Rachel Aberle). Hmm, do dildo harnesses count as clothes?

Obviously there’s a lot for the kids, too, and do they get into it? “Oh, yes, they do.” “Oh, no, they don’t.” “Oh, yes, they do.” In a big way. McNee (also playing Holiday Claus or maybe that’s Holiday Claws or Holiday Clause) tells the kids right off the bat that it might be scary but, “It’s all pretend.” Right.

Some of the best moments are when a single small voice pipes up from somewhere in the audience. “Why didn’t anybody warn me?” asks the Wolf – or maybe it was Red. Tiny voice:  “We did.” And when Red’s bicycle gets vandalized and she asks how is she going to get to Grandma’s house, another small voice calls out, “Walk.” It’s a big part of the fun.

Some of the cartoonish, painted sets are recycled but it only makes sense: the East Van Panto is always set in, where else? East Van. Set designer is Marshall McMahen. Marina Szijarto has whipped up fantastic costumes too numerous to count. And, again, the fabulous Veda Hille, with drummer Barry Mirochnick, make beautiful music together. Two dozen songs, from “I Will Survive” to “Bicycle Race” have been re-worded to fit the story – a mash-up of Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs. Choreography is by Tracey Power.

James Long as Grandma Credit: Emily Cooper Photography
James Long as Grandma
Credit: Emily Cooper Photography

Rachel Aberle is a perky, scrappy Little Red; James Long makes a sort of raunchy Grandma and weird Wheel Man, a bicycle-wheel forager with a speech impediment; Chirag Naik is the last surviving little pig as well as filling a variety of other roles. Completing the cast are three lucky Studio 58 students Elizabeth Barrett, Mason Temple and Stephanie Wong.

A big shout out has to go to Andrew McNee who is, truly, a comic genius who can get several hundred people laughing with a single look. As the Wolf, he relishes every “Boooo” that rises like a tsunami from the audience.

Thank you, Theatre Replacement and The Cultch, for the lovely Christmas present. “You shouldn’t have”. “Oh, yes, we should.” Well, thank you. I loved it. I really, really did. Best present ever.




Brothel #9

Adele Noronha and Laara Sadiq Credit: Emily Cooper
Adele Noronha and Laara Sadiq
Credit: Emily Cooper Photography


At The Cultch until November 27, 2016

Posted November 23, 2016

It’s appalling to consider that in 2016 a young girl from a good middle-class family can still be sold into the Calcutta (now Kolkata) sex trade by her brother-in-law. And while the amount of money he received for his sister isn’t really material, 2100 Indian rupees (about $40 CDN) is such a pittance in exchange for all her pain, all her humiliation, all her suffering.

Brothel #9, a shocker from beginning to end, has the ring of authenticity to it beginning with Drew Facey’s remarkable set that spans the entire width of the Vancity Culture Lab at The Cultch: shabby, weathered wooden walls, street litter, a concrete sink and doors leading into two rooms (#3 and #9) where the brothel’s clients are serviced.

Rekha (Adele Noronha) has been led by her brother-in-law to believe she has left her village to work in a Kolkata light bulb factory owned by Birbal (David Adams). She arrives excited at the prospect of her first job only to realize she has been sold into prostitution. Within hours she has been brutally raped by Salaudin (Shekhar Paleja), a corrupt cop who sells protection to Birbal and Jamuna (Laara Sadiq), an older prostitute who manages the brothel. As well as handing over money to Salaudin, Jamuna services him every Tuesday and Thursday and gives him each new girl to deflower as her gift to him.

Shekhar Paleja and Adele Noronha Credit: Tim Matheson
Shekhar Paleja and Adele Noronha
Credit: Tim Matheson

An ugly, dangerous triangle quickly arises: Jamuna, Salaudin and young Rekha.

Shocking as the material is, the performances are superb and they carry the sordid story to its almost hopeful conclusion.

Laara Sadiq only gets better and better and playwright Anusree Roy gives her an amazing character to flesh out. While generally tough talking, quick-tempered and unsympathetic, Jamuna has moments of genuine compassion especially toward Birbal whose wife is dying. And there are times, however brief, that Jamuna feels sorry for Rekha. As Jamuna, Sadiq has as many colours as the various saris (by costume designer Farnaz Khaki-Sadigh) her character wears: fierce, violent, passionate, devastated, humiliated and grovelling. Really hard to watch is Jamuna, in a last ditch attempt to hang on to Salaudin, lifting her sari and offering her genitals/pubic hair and a BIC lighter to him: “Burn me.” Even more moving is Sadiq, as Jamuna, recounting the death of the two infants her character bore. It’s enough to make you weep.

Balancing all that toughness is Adele Noronha whose bright-eyed, girlish Rekha is soon transformed into pragmatic, plotting Rekha. Noronha makes the moments after Rekha’s rape so believable, it’s hard to watch: crying, hair and clothing in disarray, clutching between her legs, frantically trying to wash herself. But as time passes, Rekha begins to flaunt her youth thereby kindling animosity between herself and Jamuna.

Shekhar Paleja’s Salaudin is what you would expect: a strutting, cocksure, self-satisfied bastard. Even here, though, the playwright offers a small concession: Salaudin has a soft spot for his little son.

David Adams brings remarkable humanity to what is, in fact, inhuman. Birbal buys young girls, hunts them down when they escape, takes most of the money they make yet Adams brings a little playfulness to the role. Everyone here is just staying alive by using his or her wits. It’s ugly, but it’s the world they live in.

David Adams and Adele Noronha Credit: Tim Matheson
David Adams and Adele Noronha
Credit: Tim Matheson

Munish Sharma plays all the clients from the one who expects rough sex with Jamuna and an easy-going American to what appears to be a Brahmin.

Very sensitively directed by Katrina Dunn for Touchstone Theatre and part of Diwali Fest, Brothel #9 isn’t easy to watch but it feels disturbingly honest and real. It’s a deeply affecting piece of theatre, a window on a world that we would prefer not to know exists. And not only in Kolkata.

A play like Brothel #9 is a reminder that we won the lucky-to-live-in-Canada lottery. As for Canadian values, we all know – even those involved in the sex trade – that what happened to Rekha in Anusree Roy’s play is a crime for which there is no excuse, no forgiveness.

Adele Noronha Credit: Tim Matheson
Adele Noronha
Credit: Tim Matheson






Tanja Dixon-Warren and Francis Winter Credit: Nancy Caldwell
Tanja Dixon-Warren and Francis Winter
Credit: Nancy Caldwell

At the Jericho Arts Centre until November 27, 2016

Posted November 13, 2016

Fresh is not a word often applied to a production of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. But directed by Michael Fera for United Players, that’s exactly what this production is: fresh. It’s also relevant despite its late 19th century setting in Skien, Norway.

Written in 1881 in Danish by the great Norwegian playwright, the script was offered at the time to various European theatre companies all of whom turned it down because of its subject matter: syphilis (although the word is never used in the play), incest, criticism of the church, sex outside marriage, divorce and euthanasia. And so its world premiere was not in Norway or elsewhere in Europe but in Chicago, Illinois in 1882; productions followed in Sweden, Berlin and London (in 1891) where The Daily Telegraph reviewer had this to say: “Ibsen’s positively abominable play entitled Ghosts…. An open drain: a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly…. Gross, almost putrid indecorum…. Literary carrion…. Crapulous stuff”.

Ibsen has been called the father of modern drama and it’s amazing how contemporary Ghosts – an English translation of the title that Ibsen never liked – feels. (According to the playwright, a more accurate translation of the Norwegian gengarere would be ‘The Ones Who Return’).

Tanja Dixon-Warren and Francis Winter Credit: Nancy Caldwell
Tanja Dixon-Warren and Francis Winter
Credit: Nancy Caldwell

One who has returned is Oswald Alving (Francis Winter) who had been sent away as a child by his mother Mrs. Helene Alving (Tanja Dixon-Warren) to prevent the boy from being corrupted by his philandering father, the late Captain Alving. Unhappy in her marriage, Mrs. Alving had, years ago, been determined to leave her husband but was persuaded by morally upright/uptight Pastor Manders (Linden Banks) to stay with her husband out of a sense of Christian duty.

Now, years later, it is the eve of the opening of an orphanage funded by Mrs. Alving. Oswald has come home but he is ill; worse, he’s begun dallying with Mrs. Alving’s maid Regina (Elizabeth Willow) and behaving much as his father had.

Perhaps Captain Alving is another one who has returned or, at least, his penchant for promiscuity has come back to haunt the son. Winter, stylishly dressed, makes Oswald’s mood swings credible. We get it: something is dreadfully wrong with Oswald.

Dixon-Warren as Mrs. Alving is maternal in an almost Freudian way as she pulls Oswald to her breast and cradles him. But Dixon-Warren also brings an opinionated, New Woman aspect to Mrs. Alving as she spars with Pastor Manders over the books she’s reading. She’s a sympathetic, nuanced character confronting a huge moral dilemma.

Ghosts is, to some extent, Ibsen’s exploration of Nora (in A Doll’s House) had Nora not abandoned her husband and children to escape a miserable marriage.

As Pastor Manders, Linden Banks initially presents a decent man but soon the cleric’s conservative, patronizing, interfering views become apparent and thoroughly odious. Banks stepped into this production only days before opening due to a medical emergency with the original performer. He manages well and when reaching for lines he cleverly makes it part of Manders’ speaking style.

Elizabeth Willow makes a spritely Regina with her pragmatic, looking-out-for-number- one attitude; Michael Vairo is a blustery, roguish Jacob Engstrand.

Elizabeth Willow and Michael Vairo Credit: Nancy Caldwell
Elizabeth Willow and Michael Vairo
Credit: Nancy Caldwell

Production values are excellent with Michael Fera and Linda Begg’s set design lit by Graham Ockley and period costumes by Caroline Cheng and Linda Begg.

Dusting off this one hundred and thirty-five year old script, director Fera, his cast, crew and design team breathe new life into Ghosts in a face-paced, no intermission, eighty-minutes. It raises contemporary issues in a non-didactic manner. As the lights fade, Oswald calls out for “the sun”. Oswald (and the playwright) are calling for light to shine into all the dark, dingy corners of a hypocritical society: speak the unspeakable and, fully informed, squarely face the future. What, exactly, does that mean for Mrs. Alving? Ibsen and director Fera leave the question tantalizingly, provocatively hanging.