Thursday, February 25, 2010


Patricia Delves and Kyl Chhatwal.

The Village Players have staged a very entertaining production of A.R. Gurney’s The Golden Age. The play, a three-hander, needs to be paced properly and requires an exceptional actor for the leading role. The Village Players were in luck in that regard.

The setting is a Manhattan brownstone in 1978 (or perhaps 1984, the date of the first production of the play which is supposed to take place “today”). A brownstone on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan means or is supposed to mean, in any event, money, beauty, elegance, class, taste. The owner is Isabel Hasting Hoyt, an old woman who had all those attributes in her youth in the 1920’s. Old age has had the inevitable effect on her physical appearance but money seems to have suffered the worst depletion.

Isabel knew everyone who was anyone during “the golden age” of her youth, including Hemingway, Picasso, T.E. Lawrence and others. But that’s not all. She also knew F. Scott Fitzgerald who gave her an unpublished chapter of The Great Gatsby.

Isabel has a niece, Virginia, who has gone through a couple of disastrous marriages, a great deal of booze and a bit more food than is absolutely necessary to keep hunger at bay. Not the type of woman that would attract a lot of men and Aunt Isabel is right to worry about her future.

Enter Tom, an ambitious writer and academic who wants to get his hands on the Fitzgerald manuscript. The reclusive Isabel demurs but sees an opportunity of getting a decent man for her niece and goes into high-gear female plotting.

Director Aaron Marcus does a deft job of keeping the sometimes creaky play moving along. He is lucky in having Patricia Delves in the role of Isabel. Ms Delves gives a wonderful performance as an old woman who has vivid memories of the greats of the literary and artistic scene of her youth and who retains her charm and cunning. She is so charming in fact that you wonder how many of her acquaintances are merely products of her imagination

She needs her wiles to outwit the young and aggressive Tom played by a wide-eyed Kyl Chhatwal. Poor Tom must maneuver between his ambition, his wife and the old woman’s niece. Will he get his hands on that manuscript?

Virginia (played by Lynn Zeelenberg), the means to the manuscript, with her drinking problem, and initial awkwardness is not a very enticing prospect. She is supposed to become more attractive as the plot develops but the transformation is not particularly convincing.

The Village Players or The Bloor West Village Players Theatre Company, to give them their full name, have been around for 36 years. Their theatre is in the basement of a commercial building at 2190 Bloor Street West, Toronto, premises that can at best be described as functional. The stage is the size of a suburban living room, the ceiling is low and there is a column at one corner of the playing area that impedes the view of some people.

None of that has deterred the Players or the audience. The company produces five plays a year and has been able to more than survive. This is, I suppose, what community theatre is all about. It used to be called amateur theatre which meant that you loved what you did, spent countless hours at it and got paid nothing for your efforts. The word amateur seems to have been devalued to mean inept and has been replaced by community theatre. So be it. It is theatre based on love of the craft, hard work and no pay. Inevitably they produce some clunkers but they produce far more fine theatre. This is community theatre that is amateur in the best sense of the word and deserving of kudos.

This 36th season’s productions by The Village Players were Cyprienne, an adaptation of Divorcons by Victorien Sardou and Emile de Najac, and Cliffhanger by James Yaffe.

The upcoming productions are The Price by Arthur Miller and Key for Two by John Chapman and Dave Freeman.

The Golden Age by A.R. Gurney played from January 15 to February 6, 2010 at The Village Playhouse, 2190 Bloor St. West, Toronto Ont.
Tel. 416 767-7702

Monday, February 22, 2010


Carly Street as Mrs. Van Buren and Raven Dauda as Esther
Photo: David Hou

The Canadian Stage Company has struck gold in its presentation of Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage. They get credit for choosing the play and the company that produced it. The rest of the kudos goes to the Obsidian Theatre whose production they have borrowed. It is theatre at its best.

The initial credit goes to playwright Lynn Nottage for a beautifully constructed and moving play that has drama, humour and sheer humanity. The play had its premiere in Baltimore in 2003 and was first produced in Canada by the Obsidian Theatre at the Berkeley Street Theatre two years ago.

The play takes place in New York’s garment district in the early years of the twentieth century. It revolves around the life of 35-year old seamstress named Esther (Raven Dauda) whose special talent is making intimate undergarments for the upper crust.

Esther is single and living in a rooming house. She has five relationships in the play and Nottage examines all five with humour and drama. Mrs. Dickson (Marium Carvell) is Esther’s landlady and she may be nosey but in the end she is deeply humane and proves to be a real friend.

Esther is befriended by a lonely Fifth Avenue woman who is unhappily married. The friendship develops haltingly and incompletely because of racial and class differences. In the end the desperate Mrs. Van Buren (Carly Street) reaches out to Esther for sexual intimacy but that is impossible to consummate and the relationship ends there.

Even more moving is Esther’s relationship with Mr. Marks (Alex Poch-Goldin), a Jewish fabric vendor. Esther and Mr. Marks are worlds apart but they also have a great deal in common. Because he is a devout Jew, she cannot even touch him nor can he touch her. But he is a lonely man who is waiting for his wife to come from Romania. It is an arranged marriage and he has never seen his prospective bride. Esther’s and Mr. Marks’s friendship and attraction for each other grows but Nottage wisely leaves us to decide whether the racial and religious chasm that separates the two lonely people can be bridged.

Mayme (Lisa Berry) is a hooker but Esther treats her like a friend. That will not stop her from betraying Esther. Mayme will prove to be a whore at heart as well as body.

The most important relationship in Esther’s life is with George (Kevin Hanchard). Initially, they “correspond” with each other. He is in Panama working on the Canal and they write affecting letters to each other and they fall in love. He comes to New York and they marry. Esther’s dream of finding love is fulfilled; her friendships are intact and her work and expertise at making fine underclothes have provided her with a small nest egg.

There is a hilarious honeymoon scene as the two awkwardly begin to consummate their marriage. But Esther’s world starts unraveling almost from the moment that her honeymoon is over. George does not turn out to be the husband she was looking for. In the end, he takes her money, he takes up with Mayme and Esther’s world crumbles.

Philip Akin directs a superb cast in this marvelous piece of theatre. Raven Dauda is outstanding as the decent, hardworking woman who wants to improve her lot. She knows fabrics and how to sew. What she does not know is how to read and her letters to George are written for her and of course she cannot read his. George pays someone to write his letters.

Kevin Hanchard’s George starts out as the soul of decency but ends up being a creep. Nottage does not paint him in monochrome because he is the victim of rampant racism when he tries to get a job. In the end however he is the villain of the piece.

Alex Poch-Goldin is wonderfully affecting as the traditional Jew who cannot even touch another woman but who breaks away from tradition in the face of friendship and love. Maybe, just maybe, human contact is more important than faith and tradition and Poch-Goldin does a marvelous job in the role.

Akin brings everything together to give us an outstanding night at the theatre.


Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage opened on February 11 and will run until March 6, 2010 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Maria Vacratsis and Michaela Washburn in SUCH CREATURES
Reviewed by James Karas
Two years ago Judith Thompson brought home what Saddam Hussein, the Americans and the British have done to the people of Iraq. Her play Palace of the End consists of three monologues through which the incredible human suffering brought on the Iraqis is described with unerring accuracy and unbearable pain.
Thompson told the story through “An American Soldier” who happened to be a torturer at Abu Ghraib, “A British Microbiologist and Weapons Inspector” who tells stories of torture and deception and by “An Iraqi Mother” who was tortured unspeakably by Saddam Hussein’s security forces.
It was an unforgettable night at the theatre.
Now Ms Thompson is back with Such Creatures, a play that consists of two intertwined monologues and once again she provides riveting theatre.
In Such Creatures, Ms Thompson has chosen two disparate characters very far apart in age and milieu to tell their stories. In the end they have a great deal in common.
The first character is Blandy (brilliantly acted by Michaela Washburn), a 14-year old girl living in contemporary Toronto.
At first blush she appears like a rebellious, disobedient teenager, tough, mouthy and to be shunned. She is being raised by an aunt and has been thrown out of a number of schools. She is in a Special Education Centre and is the type of teenager you would expect to find in Youth Court. She belongs to a gang and that will prove to be her downfall.
Blandy is also highly intelligent. She played one of three Hamlets in school and is able to relate to the troubled prince. Love of Shakespeare and references to Hamlet and The Tempest form one of the unifying features of the two monologues.
Blandy’s real name is Bernadette and she can relate to the young French girl who saw a vision of the Virgin and became a saint. In fact Blandy watches the movie The Song of Bernadette every week with her grandmother. She considers school the equivalent of purgatory and wants to tell the Pope of her discovery. In other words, she is not an ordinary punk.
The gang members will form the impression that she has betrayed them and in the end Blandy will be severely beaten and thrown on the ground.
The other monologue is by Sorele (a superbly serene and controlled Maria Vacratsis), a middle-aged woman who is facing her second and probably last bout with cancer. Sorele is a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp and she retells her experiences there as a teenager forty years later as she is approaching death.
In one of Ms Thompson’s piercing touches of irony, Sorele played Miranda in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and she has vivid memories of it. Shortly after that she was rounded up by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. She worked in a munitions factory making gun powder. She and her friends collect explosives spoonful by spoonful, enough to blow up a crematorium.
The two monologues are interwoven and aside from the Shakespearean connection the experiences of Blandy and Sorele have amazing connections. Sorele was at Auschwitz in 1945 and she is recalling her experiences in 1985 while Blandy tells her story in 2010. Standing up to a gang as opposed to the Nazis may seem far-fetched but for the individuals involved the result may not be all that disproportionate.
In the end when Blandy is on the ground after being pummelled senseless, she is lifted and comforted by Sorele and the two separate lives are united.
The play was commissioned by Nightswimming which describes itself as “one of Canada’s leading creators of new works of theatre, dance and music.”
Brian Quirt directs the production. He attempts to use as much of the stage and balcony of the small theatre as possible. When Sorele first appears she is in the audience, a few rows from the stage. The people in the upper rows were looking at her back and those in front of her had to strain their necks to see her or just listened to her. It is a minor hitch in a well done production.
 The final result is literate, intelligent and brilliant theatre.
Such Creatures by Judith Thompson ran until February 6, 2010 at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, 16 Ryerson Ave Toronto, ON M5T 2P3.
Tel. 416 504-7529

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Opera Hamilton is alive and kicking and celebrating its 30th anniversary season. It staged Die Fledermaus last October and will put on La Boheme in April. In between it put on Popera Plus!, a potpourri of favourite pieces from operas. It is a concert of familiar and not-so-familiar pieces that are no doubt intended to grab people and convince them to go to the opera more often.

The concert featured Greek-Canadian mezzo-soprano Ariana Chris, Canadian-Italian-American soprano Gianna Corbisiero, American tenor Richard Troxell and Welsh baritone Jason Howard. The Opera Hamilton Chorus was augmented by the McMaster University Choir and The Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by David Speers.

The programme consisted of 18 operatic excerpts that were performed in a little over two hours. There were three orchestral pieces and the rest were arias and duets, some with the chorus. Speers did not venture into trios or quartets.

Ms Chris sang “Nobles seigneurs, salut!” from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. A rather cocky page delivers a message from his royal lady to an assembly of nobles. Ms Chris did not just carry the vocal line with ease but also captured the braggadocio of the page as he praises his employer.

She also sang two wonderful duets that gave her some opportunity to display both vocal dexterity and acting ability albeit in the limited setting of a concert performance.

The first duet was “Dunque io son” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville where the clever Rosina shows Figaro that she can outwit him if need be. Howard is the match-making Figaro who suggests that Rosina send a letter to her prospective lover. The demure and shy Rosina immediately produces a letter. Some comic business and vocal charm resulted in a wonderfully done piece.

Ms Chris also sang the final scene of Carmen with Troxell as Don José. This is the dramatic end of the opera where Carmen rejects the final desperate pleas of Don José and he stabs her to death. Both sang well and again managed to bring the atmosphere of the scene with a few gestures.

Howard’s big moment came with his singing of “Credo” from Verdi’s Otello. This is Iago’s declaration of the absolute evil that lies in him. He is proud and defiant in his declaration and Howard brings out the drama and horror of his statement with power and vocal conviction. He also sings “Nemico della Patria” the aria of the corrupt Gerard from Andrea Chenier.

Ms Corbisiero got two lovely arias: “Io son l’umile ancella” from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur and “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. She has a lovely voice and bearing but she did not always enunciate properly.

Troxell’s big moments were provided by “Lenski’s Aria” from Eugene Onegin and “Ah, leve toi, soleil” from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. Unlike the evil Howard, Troxell is the distraught lover in both arias and he hits the high notes and displays the passion that goes with the territory.

The results from the combined chorus were not as happy. What they gained in size they lost in vocal quality. They sang the “Soldiers’ Chorus” from Gounod’s Faust and their defects were not terribly evident. When they got to “Regina Coeli” from Cavalleria Rusticana they didn’t seem to be all on the same page. They also sang the indestructible “Va, Pensiero” from Nabucco and they managed to sound better but that may be more Verdi than them.

Listening to an evening of excerpts is like going to a fine restaurant and being served a mouthful from each item on the menu. You will not go hungry by the end of the night but you will not have tasted anything to the fullest.

The concert format has another disadvantage. The singers are left mostly to their own devices. They have no sets, no costumes, little freedom of movement and must jump from one role to the next in quick succession. Some handle the change better than others. When two singers are put side by side with shoulders touching there is very little leeway for moving a hand let alone making any pronounced gesture.

That’s what happened to Troxell and Howard when they sang “Au fond du temple saint” from Les Pecheurs des Perles by Bizet. At one point Howard did not know what to do with his hand and absent-mindedly (one hopes) stuck it in his pocket.

Nevertheless whatever issues there may be with the format and the performances the audience loved it and gave them a standing ovation. No doubt, that was the point of the programme all along.


Popera Plus! was performed on January 28 and 30, 2010 at The Great Hall, Hamilton Place, Hamilton, Ontario. Tel. 905 527-7627

Friday, February 5, 2010


Patrick Galligan and Tom Barnett. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann
Michael Healy’s new play Courageous opened on January 6, 2010 at the Tarragon Theatre. It has many virtues and one wishes one could write about them only and ignore the play’s faults. Unfortunately the latter are too awful to ignore and almost outweigh the good parts.

In the beginning we hear the Canadian version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” with Bonavista and Vancouver Island replacing for California and New York Island. No matter because it sets the tone for a Canadian event. Good. On the stage we see quotations from Northrop Frye, Isaiah Berlin and Michael Ignatieff. That sets the tone for pretty serious stuff and anticipation is built for intelligent and perhaps witty theatre.

The play opens in the office of Tom (Tom Barnett), a Justice of the Peace who performs civil marriages and we meet a young couple who are about to be married. They are Todd (Brandon McGibbon) and Tammy (Erin MacKinnon). Tammy is arguing very vociferously with her friend and witness Lisa (Melissa MacPherson). The argument is centered on the fact that Lisa “blew” Todd. The latter is wearing a baseball cap sideways; he is unshaven and unkempt and is wearing shorts because that was the only thing that was clean.

Todd forgot to inform the second witness to show up for the ceremony and they are forced to induct a bystander called Arthur (Maurice Dean Wint) to perform that function. Without belabouring the point, these people can best be described as white trash.

Brian (Pat Galligan), a self-righteous and aggressive lawyer charges onto to the scene and asks that his marriage ceremony be performed immediately because he has a luncheon appointment with a client. Tom refuses to perform the ceremony because he disapproves of gay marriages. He is a devout Catholic who is also openly gay. In other words he belongs to a church that does not want him. A nice bit of irony.

Brian files a complaint against Tom with the Human Rights Tribunal and the two face off in the Tribunal’s waiting room just before the hearing. A lengthy Shavian discussion follows about gay rights, the right to refuse to perform a civil ceremony on the grounds of personal beliefs etc. It has some highly entertaining moments.

That is the first act. In Act II we meet the trashy trio again. The whole tenor of the play changes. Todd becomes a narrator and commentator as well as a character. As narrator he has some pretensions to intelligence. The incongruities between the first and second parts of the play are painful. We can treat them as two separate plays with some of the characters crossing over into the second play but that would not help the situation at all.

Arthur, who was a suave, meticulously-spoken wealthy Sudanese man in Act I returns as George, a Somali refugee who occupies an apartment next door to Todd and Tammy. Now we face the other side of “rights” – the rights of refugees to government support and the rights of the trashy couple to the same among other issues of newcomers versus locals.

The intelligent discussion of Act I becomes dreary sitcom jokes in Act II. Whatever connecting links there may be between the two acts, they are to be gleaned on close examination without adding one bit to the enjoyment to Act II.

Healy had a good idea for a one-act play and he took it as far as he could. For the second act he changed gears and could not even figure out how to end it. A character simply says “the end” when enough time has gone by and the audience can be released to go to their homes.

Despite the uneven quality of the play or plays, the actors do superior work. Tom Rooney plays Brian’s lover and would-be husband as well as an alcoholic employer called Pete in the second half. He is excellent. Very high marks to Galligan and McGibbon. Two very good roles for Wint and he excels in both. Tom Barnett is simply hilarious as the devout but gay Catholic who tries to be realistic about his position even when he is out in left field.

The kudos for good acting belong to the actors and no doubt the director gets a part of the praise for bringing it out. But a lot of blame must rest with Richard Rose. He should have insisted on more dramaturgical remedies before choosing to produce the play.

Courageous by Michael Healy opened on January 6 and ran until February 7, 2010 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Photo of Anusree Roy by Alex Felipe

The multicultural makeup of the Greater Toronto Area has been noted, studied and commented upon extensively. One of the less edifying features of multiculturalism is the habit of some of the immigrants bringing over, and the continuation of old country conflicts here. This feature tends to be more reprehensible when others do it. When one ethnic group marches on Ottawa to protest the treatment of its people in the old country, it considers its action as a rational exercise of democratic rights. When other groups fight their internecine battles in Canada some people are far less sympathetic and simply retort that you should not bring your ethnic differences here.

Landing in Canada, enjoying the material benefits that it so generously bestows (for those that can get them) and even acquiring Canadian citizenship does not sever immigrants from their roots. However one may wish that they will leave their political, sectarian and religious issues behind, it is impossible to accomplish. They are part of the essential being of the immigrant and they can not be abandoned upon landing at the airport.

The experiences and memories (some real, some borrowed) of the old country have become sources for works of literature and the theatre and Anusree Roy’s play Letters to My Grandma, now playing at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace is a good example of the genre.

The play, a one-woman show with numerous characters played by the author, takes place in two worlds: the world of India of 1947 and today’s Canada. The connecting link is Malobee, a Canadian woman who on her wedding day opens some letters about her grandmother’s life in 1947 India.

Ethnic cleansing and movements of populations became almost commonplace in Europe in the 20th century. From the Armenians to the Pontians, to the Jews and more recent examples in the Balkans, mass killings of people hold few surprises for us. When Britain left British India in 1947, it partitioned it into two countries: India and Pakistan. What followed was religious violence on a massive scale that resulted in the deaths of some two million Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. More than 12 million people were displaced (more than the entire population of Greece).

Roy has attempted quite successfully to capture the fear, the utter terror, the hatred and the horrors of events that are incomprehensible. The plump, bright-eyed Canadian Malobee is dressed in a traditional white dress and is getting married in Canada in 2009. She opens her grandmother’s letters that describe events of the past. The scene switches to 1947 India and humanity is reduced to fear, terror, horror, begging for survival and searching for pity. In a powerful performance, Roy switches from one character to the next as her grandmother tries to survive and escape from a world that is sheer hell.

The play is performed on an empty stage and director Thomas Morgan Jones brings out an emotionally charged production that is quite riveting.

Letters To My Grandma is classically Canadian in its reach from Canada to India, from the immigrant to her roots half way around the world. The immigrants’ roots, however disparate and different, may be what unite Canadians or at least provide points of connection in a country whose people often seem to have very little in common.
The play is only 45 minutes long and it needs to be expanded or perhaps combined with another short play to make a complete night at the theatre.


Letters to My Grandma by Anusree Roy opened on November 25 and ran until December 12, 2009 at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto, Ontario. (416) 504-7529