Wednesday, February 19, 2020

bug – REVIEW OF YOLANDA BONNELL’S CREATION AT PASSE MURAILLE

James Karas

Yolanda Bonnell’s solo show bug opens with her singing a simple chant that could be a dirge or an invocation. She sings about the eternal life-supporting substances of water and land. She is reaching for an all-inclusive spiritual connection.

The performance moves on a number of levels. Ms Bonnell is listed as the creator and performer of the work and not strictly speaking as the writer. She is Ojibwe-South Asian in a ritual and spiritual journey that goes from the many and mostly tragic lives of oppressed Indigenous women to searching for a connection with the stories and culture of the Indigenous people and bring them forth in the theatre.

On the realistic level, she relates stories of an Indigenous woman or many women growing up and becoming involved in smoking, drugs, addiction, sexual awareness and promiscuity. There are descriptions of unalloyed happiness with her little daughter and wrenching descriptions of her being taken away from her.

The lives of Indigenous women are a running theme throughout the performance and they go from the most tender like the touch of the skin of a child (a rare occurrence) to the ugliest and most devastating. Bonnell represents many women but they are not differentiated. She encompasses all indigenous women universally. 
Yolanda Bonnell in bug
Another recurring theme is the spiritual level which is more difficult to comprehend. The spiritual aspect of life is represented by the bugs of the title. There are many references to bugs from fireflies, to flies, to vicious bees covering her body.

She walks around the stage, raises her hands in invocation, falls on the ground and engages in physical activity throughout her performance. This is not realistic theatre but a series of rituals that encompass the real and the spiritual world as a continuum or amalgam. There is a complexity to the performance that is not easy to decipher in a single viewing.

The production is done in an intimate theatre-in-the round set in the small Theatre Passe Muraille with fewer than a hundred people in the audience. Cole Alvis directs and Michel Charbonneau provides dramatic lighting.

Ms Bonnell’s women are infused with the poison of colonialism and she wants to do much more than illustrate her views in bug.  She is determined to decolonize theatre and dismantle its colonial structure. She wants to find other ways that theatre can exist.

She describes her mission in a note in the programme titled On Decolonizing Theatre. She finds partners in Indigenous artists, especially women and artists of colour who want, in her words, “to bring deep Indigenous teachings back to our ways of storytelling.” It is something of which many (most?) of us would readily admit ignorance. If there is an Indigenous way of storytelling, it would be embraced and lauded by everyone and not just Indigenous people and people of colour.

She admits that she does not have all the answers, time, patience and a lot of work will be required to effect a fundamental shift in thinking. Bonnell has indeed a bold and revolutionary concept.

The Western literary and dramatic canon has been involved in story telling for a long time and not always within a colonial structure. Ancient Greek tragedy was born out of the dithyramb, a hymn to Dionysus, the god of wine abd fertility. Thespis, the first actor known to history, appeared on stage and told stories about the gods and myths. Drama itself originated largely from people’s spiritual beliefs. Greek tragedy in its story-telling always had liturgical and ritual aspects. In other words, the Ancient Greeks had found a way of telling their stories.

Is Ms Bonnell striving for the same idea for Indigenous people? The character or many characters in bug are they not reaching from the depths of desperation and alienation for spiritual contact with what they have lost? Is Ms Bonnell moving forward, however haltingly, back to the beginning and what happened two and a half thousand years ago on the foothills of the Acropolis?
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bug created and performed by Yolanda Bonnell in a production by manidoons collective, co-produced by Theatre Passe Muraille and Native Earth Performing Arts  continues until February 22, 2020 at Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto, Ontario. www.passemuraille.on.ca

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press

Monday, February 17, 2020

GROUNDED - REVIEW OF THEATRE SIX PRODUCTION AT STREETCAR CROWSNEST THEATRE

Reviewed by James Karas

George Brant’s play Grounded has one character who tells an apparently simple story about herself. The plot develops slowly and methodically, and our interest never flags until we reach the tragic end. It makes for superb theatre with an outstanding performance by Carly Street.

The sole character is an unnamed fighter pilot who is ordinary and extraordinary. She is a tough woman, a pilot in the U.S. Air Force fighting in the Middle East. She loves her job and has an almost musical relationship with her uniform and the open sky that she always refers to as the blue.

Almost to her surprise, this tough fighter meets Eric, has sex with him and becomes pregnant. This necessitates a leave of absence. On her return to active duty, she is reassigned to what she contemptuously refers to as the Chair Force. That means operating drones over a desert in the Middle East from a chair in the desert outside Las Vegas.
Carly Street as The Pilot. Photo: Ross Spencer
Her husband gets a job as a card dealer in a casino and they try to balance parenting and careers while he works the night shift and she has to put in 12-hour days.

She is part of a team that tracks enemy movements in the desert, finds them, zeroes in on them and kills them. It is a proxy war where the killing of enemy soldiers is done from a screen thousands of miles from the battlefield. But the strain of family life and taxing work is starting to take its toll on her. She attempts getting help but does not go through with it.

Carly Street is on stage for all of the 80 minutes of the show and, of course, she talks and acts out all the permutations of her story. The changes to and effects on her mental and psychological balance are slow and insidious. She seems to take pride and perhaps pleasure in eliminating enemies on the ground. She yells “boom” with almost delight when she pushes a button and a second and a half later she sees the enemy destroyed. But the enthusiasm may be just a much a cover as genuine feeling.

Carly Street has a small playing area in the Streetcar Crowsnest Theatre’s Scotiabank Community Studio. The set consists of a strip of sand in the shape of a U and an office chair and she walks back and forth in that area telling us her story.

The couple have a routine that is not that much different from what many people live with. They go to work, take care of the child and try to balance the demands of each part of their life. But the power inherent in her job of being able to follow and kill people so far away make her aware of the existence of surveillance cameras everywhere. She starts getting paranoid, for example, about someone watching her in India as she goes to the change room of a department store. Is no one safe?    

The pilot becomes part of an assignment to track down an important enemy. He is called Number Two and is later referred to as the Prophet. The drones follow him for days hoping for a definite identification and then liquidation. She becomes obsessed with the chase but is she perfectly well? She starts to believe that she is god.

The Prophet is located driving a car and is followed by the drone and of course viewed by the pilot. He stops. She sees a little girl run to meet him. The little girl looks like her daughter.
I will not spoil the ending for you because it is pivotal to the story.

Brant’s monodrama is a highly demanding play for actor and director. Kerry Ann Doherty shows a steady and intelligent hand in directing Carly Street.  The play and the performer must seem normal almost all the time. The pilot is just a normal but capable woman who can do a tough job as a fighter pilot and a drone pilot as well as being a good mother. But all is not as it seems.
This is a fine-tuned and superb production of a terrific play.
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Grounded  by George Brant in a production by Theatre Six continues until February 29, 2020 at Streetcar Crowsnest Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M4M 2T1. theatrefront.com, http://crowstheatre.com/

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press

Saturday, February 15, 2020

HANSEL & GRETEL – REVIEW OF 2020 COC PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas
           
The Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel has so many virtues one feels downright churlish to mention some of its less admirable aspects. Alas, we must deal with both.

Richard Strauss by happenstance conducted the first production of the opera and he declared it a masterpiece without hesitation. That is about as good as a Good Opera Seal of Approval as you could get in 1893 and not too many people have taken issue with the quality of the work.

It is based on the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm which Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid Wette molded into a libretto and it was a hit from the start. With its wealth of gorgeous melodies and luscious music, the story of children in the forest with a Sandman, a Dew Fairy and a Witch with unique gastronomic tastes, it can hardly fail.
 Emily Fons as Hansel and Simone Osborne as Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper
The singing is superb. Canadian soprano Simone Osborne (a regular with the COC since 2013) has a clarion voice and sings a gorgeous Gretel. American mezzo-soprano Emily Fons has a big and lusty voice and as Hansel makes a perfect partner for Osborne.

Hansel and Gretel are of course children and Osborne and Fons, though young, are not. Their costumes indicate their youth but that is not enough. They have mastered the movements, mannerisms and gestures of children to the point where we never doubt that they are children. Amazing performances.

Ontarian operatic veterans Kristina Szabo and Russell Braun handle the roles of the mother Gertrude and the father Peter with their usual assurance and exceptional singing.

The role of the Witch, usually sung by a mezzo-soprano, is given to Torontonian tenor Michael Colvin who approaches the meaty part with relish. He wears a very colourful, clownish costume and sings with nasty delight. Marvelous.

The young Canadian soprano Anna-Sophie Neher is cast as both The Sandman and The Dew Fairy and gets to sing some of the most beautiful arias of the work. She does superb work with her deliciously lyrical voice.

Johnannes Debus conducted the COC Orchestra and did more than justice to Humperdinck’s marvelous and superbly orchestrated score.

The production is directed by Joel Ivany with set and projection designs by S. Katy Tucker, costume designs by Ming Wong and lighting design by JAX Messenger.

They have set the opera unapologetically in an apartment building in Toronto occupied by people of the lower rungs of the economic ladder. We are treated to panoramic views of the city and the apartment building where we see through the windows of numerous units. Then we zero in on several apartments on two floors. Those apartments are the central but very changeable set of the production.

We are treated to extensive use of projections and a kaleidoscope of colours that are eye-catching and impressive. There is some indication of a forest in the midst of all this but it quickly disappears and we are kept so busy looking at everything else that we hardly notice the forest.
 
A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper
Then it gets murky and confusing. We know the fairy tale and we know the plot of Hansel and Gretel. Ivany has something happening in one or two apartments at most times and there are occasions when I have no idea what is happening there. Hansel and Gretel are dealing with the Witch below and someone in the upper apartment is drinking something that he took from the fridge and a woman in another apartment is doing something else. I try to ignore them but what in the world are they doing?

Hansel and Gretel’s first meeting with The Witch takes place in the corner of the stage and they stay there for a while. Why? The oven in which the children are to be roasted is a large wooden cabinet. We don’t need anything more graphic, thank you. But what is Peter doing coming on the stage, getting in the oven and shaking it? Who is the woman that comes in from the other side of the stage and speaks with The Witch and disappears? What did I miss?

Did I tell you about the cute dog in the upper apartment? And my companion noted that the children go and sleep in a strange man’s apartment. “Shouldn’t we be calling social services?” she asked.

All of this was unnecessary, annoying and confusing. It has the effect of making the post-performance conversation focus on the needless aspects instead of the main point which was a splendidly sung and otherwise wonderful production.
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Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck is being performed seven times between February 6 and 21, 2020 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671. www.coc.ca

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

JESUS HOPPED THE ‘A’ TRAIN - REVIEW OF SOULPEPPER’S PRODUCTION OF GUIRGIS’ PLAY

Reviewed by James Karas

You have two inmates in solitary confinement, two prison guards and a lawyer. That is a heady start for drama and violence and it only gets worse when you find out that the venue is Rikers Island. The program informs us that this prison holds more than 8,000 inmates and has been described as a stain on the soul of New York City. 

After seeing Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train you may consider the word stain as a euphemism.

Soulpepper’s production is gripping, dramatic, indeed almost melodramatic and so relentlessly intense that it leaves you almost breathless after a couple of hours. 
Daren A. Herbert and Xavier Lopez. Photo: Dahlia Katz
The action takes place in the two cages holding Lucius (Daren A. Herbert) and Angel (Xavier Lopez). They are in “protective custody” because the other prisoners may devour them if they mingle with them. Lucius is a psychopathic serial killer who murdered eight people. He is loquacious, articulate and has a turn for poetry or at least rhyming couplets. He has become a born-again Christina and can name all the books of the Old Testament backwards and at breakneck speed.

He believes that God has a plan for everyone which, I suppose, includes his brutal killing of innocent people. Lucius is an interesting and powerful character who shows no remorse and no fear. Herbert gives a bravura performance in a highly demanding role as he goes from grandiloquent, almost bombastic in the first act to more humble Christian in the second act as he tries to make contact with Angel.

Angel is a pathetic young Puerto Rican who, in his words “shot Reverend Kim in the ass.” The reverend is the leader of a corrupt cult and he convinced Angel’s friend to join it. As a result, Angel lost his friend. Lopez gives a superb performance as the foul-mouthed, scrawny kid who has little comprehension of his situation. Reverend Kim dies from the gunshot wound regardless of what Angel intended to do.

The play features two guards. D’Amico is very friendly with Lucius and supplies him with “Oreo cookies” and when caught he is summarily dismissed from his job. What exactly was the filling of those cookies? Gregory Prest handles that small role without any difficulty.

The other guard is Valdez (Tony Nappo) who comes from central casting for sadistic, psychotic thugs who treat prisoners like animals. Nappo gives us an animalistic Valdez who is almost too sadistic to take.

Diana Donnelly plays Mary Jane, a public defender assigned to represent Angel. We accept that she is intelligent, comes from a poor background and is trying to make good as a lawyer. She is somewhat more sympathetic than other public defenders who treat their ‘clients’ with contempt.
Xavier Lopez and Diana Donnelly. Photo: Dahlia Katz 
Mary Jane wants us to believe that she is a crackerjack lawyer who get acquittals for her accused murderers using her forensic skills. Dressed in a white blouse, sleeves rolled up, and a simple skirt, Mary Jane looks too young to have acquired the skills and trial results that she claims. When Angel first sees her he demands a “real” lawyer.

We want to see one too. No one doubts Donnelly’s acting ability and I wonder why Director Weyni Mengesha lets Mary Jane appear relatively weak. Her conduct in advising Angel to lie on the stand is just plain stupid with horrendous consequences for her and her client. I have difficulty understanding the lawyer and the approach to the character taken by Mengesha and subsequently Donnelly. Otherwise Mengesha directs with a firm hand for the drama that rises to crushing ends for both inmates.

Ken MacKenzie’s set design consists of scaffolding that forms the two cages where the prisoners are kept for 23 hours a day.

This is riveting theatre that kept me glued to my seat and left me using the inmates’ profane language at the end: “holy, feces….” Well, almost.
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Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train by Stephen Adly Guirgis continues until February 23, 2020 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press

Sunday, February 9, 2020

THIS WAS THE WORLD – REVIEW OF NEW PLAY BY ELLIE MOON AT TARRAGON

Reviewed by James Karas

This Was the World, Ellie Moon’s new play at Tarragon Theatre, is based on the simple premise that some very smart people can do some really dumb things. The setting is a faculty of law somewhere and the central character is John (R.H. Thomson), a professor of Constitutional Law and Aboriginal Rights.

The professor has been hauled into the Associate Dean’s Office (played by Kim Nelson) over comments he made in class that may have been insensitive or offensive. He was talking about intersectionality and managed to give offence and bring in his daughter Ava (Rachel VanDuzer) as a means of illustrating what he meant.
 R.H. Thomson and Rachel VanDuzer. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
I found myself behind the eight ball, as they say, because I had no idea what he meant. My adeptness in the use of Google gave me this definition of the word:  Intersectionality is a theoretical framework for understanding how aspects of one's social and political identities (e.g., gender, race, class, sexuality, disability, etc.) might combine to create unique modes of discrimination. Well, that’s perfectly clear and helpful!

The professor attempts to defend clarity of expression, respect for spelling and the use of correct grammar but he is told that those may be colonial constructs. Really?

He reminds us or is reminded of section 35 of the Canadian Constitution but we are not given much information about that either. Dei gratia and Google, I find out that it deals with the recognition and affirmation of existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada.

The professor’s problem aside from his incurable foot-in-mouth disease is that the law school has hired a new faculty member who is an aboriginal woman. He expresses his disapproval none too subtly and none too privately. He talks about his daughter’s mental issues with Niimi (Dakota Ray Hebert), an indigenous, bright, articulate and ambitious student who is also his mentee.

He believes, quite genuinely I dare say, that there should be more indigenous people involved in our legal system but he feels that the new professor who was hired after proper vetting is just not up to his standard. He does not stop there and goes on to give an example of a bright man doing something stupid and much worse than that. 
Brittany Kay, Dakota Ray Hebert and Rachel VanDuzer. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
In the end, he has a breakdown, quits or is fired from his job and becomes an Uber driver. Ava has a breakdown as well and drives off with his Uber car and her friend Tanya (Brittany Kay) and ends up picking up Niimi. The scene that develops is too melodramatic for words.

The play lasts about eighty minutes. Most of the scenes are played in front of a mirror so that we see the front and the back of the players. There are scene titles projected on a screen.

We have a professor and very attractive women and no sexual interest at all. Forget Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes and Oleana. The issues that Ellie Moon touches are just as or more serious.

The performances are outstanding. The five actors give it their all and the play’s virtues shine in the cast. It has some fine moments but unfortunately the play has some serious weaknesses as well. To put it simply, it creaks. We have the mentee with issues with the professor, the daughter with her mental issues and the setting of academia and private life that do not meld into a focused drama.

This is Ellie Moon’s third play and she continues to show great promise. We are waiting for its fulfilment.  
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This Was the World by Ellie Moon continues until March 1, 2020 at the Tarragon Theatre, Extra Space, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.  www.tarragontheatre.com

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press

Thursday, February 6, 2020

UNCLE VANYA – REVIEW OF CHEKHOV’S PLAY AT HAROLD PINTER THEATRE

Reviewed by James Karas

Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in an adaptation by Conor McPherson receives a masterly production at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London. Directed by Ian Rickson, the production brings out all the desolation, boredom, despair and unhappiness of the characters as well as providing an image of Russia that is reflected by them.

Uncle Vanya is set on a provincial estate and it is sub-titled “Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts.” Indeed, the play is supposed to take place in the garden of the estate, the dining room, the drawing room and Vanya’s room. Rickson and designer Rae Smith have opted for a single set. They use a large room that looks like an undusted space in an abandoned museum. It may have had previous glory but now it looks depressing. 
Toby Jones, Aimee Lou Wood and Rosalind Eleazar. Photo: © Johan Persson
Despite that and the general malaise of the people, the production has considerable humour. In fact, Rickson manages to get a laugh in the first couple of lines and throughout the performance. Marvelous.

Professor Serebryakov (CiarĂ¡n Hinds) returns to his estate from his teaching post accompanied by his beautiful, 27-year old second wife Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar) who is about 40 years younger than him. The professor writes books and treatises that no one cares about and are published in journals that no one reads. He is an intellectual who contributes nothing to society. He is what 19th century novelist Ivan Goncharov called Oblomov, an aristocrat and useless human. Hinds is superb in the role and brings out the professor’s hypochondria, lack of common sense and bad temperament.

Dr. Astrov is a middle-aged man who is tired of his profession and is examining the state of the country surrounding the estate. He sees deforestation, destruction and desolation. He is a modern-day climate change watcher who is emotionally barren until he falls in love with Yelena only to be rejected. Richard Armitage is an energetic and sympathetic Astrov who gets nowhere.

Toby Jones is Uncle Vanya. He has been running the estate for twenty years with Sonya, the daughter of the professor by his (the professor’s) first wife. The latter was his sister and the estate belonged to her. Vanya has nothing and if the professor sells the estate as he threatens, he will have nowhere to go. His humour is on par with his emotional outbursts and both are done expertly by Jones in a superb performance.  
Richard Armitage and Peter Wight. Photo © Johan Persson
Eleazar as the beautiful and totally bored Yelena stirs up emotions and creates tensions and complications when Astrov and Vanya fall in love with her. Do we sympathize with Yelena the St. Petersburg snob? Excellent work by Eleazar.
Unreserved kudos go to Anna Calder-Marshall as the old nurse Nana who is humane and tolerant; Dearbhla Molloy as Mariya, Vanya’s mother and the professor’s faithful assistant; Peter Wright as Telegin, an old former landowner who has fallen on bad times; and Aimee Lou Wood, the professor’s sad daughter who loves Astrov but he does not reciprocate and who may be the only optimistic character in the play.

The ensemble acting is of sterling quality. That can only be achieved when there is directorial discipline and acting ability. Rickson shows that he is a master of both.

This is a highly nuanced and successful production. It grabs the audience from the opening scene and keeps us riveted until the final, somewhat ambiguous end of the play. In short, a very good night at the theatre.
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Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov in an adaptation by Conor McPherson continues until May 2, 2020 at the Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton St, London SW1Y 4DN.

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press

Monday, February 3, 2020

MARJORIE PRIME - REVIEW OF COAL MINE THEATRE PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Marjorie Prime appears like a simple, naturalistic, low-key family drama. It takes place in an ordinary kitchen where Walter (Condon Hecht), a well-dressed man is talking very nicely to Marjorie (the great Martha Henry) an old woman seated in a comfortable chair.

Author Jordan Harrison dispels all these notions systematically and leaves us with an extraordinary play about dementia, memory, family dynamics, death and reincarnation. The latter is a rather special kind. We are in the latter part of the 21st century and a human being can be brought back to “life” after death and communicate with his or her loved ones.

Walter is a man of about thirty who has been dead for about ten years. He has been brought back as he was at age thirty and he is talking with his wife Marjorie who has advanced dementia. The scene may appear realistic, but it is in fact out of this world.
 Martha Henry. Photo: Dahlia Katz
The Walter we see is a robot that we realize absorbs whatever information it is given, especially memories, and he reminisces with his wife about “the good old days.” The issue here is that memories of those days may have little to do with what actually happened but reality is irrelevant. We remember whatever our brain has retained and transformed into our current reality.

Marjorie’s daughter Tess (Sarah Dodd) has difficulties with her mother and her relationship with the robot who is just like her father in his youth. Her husband Jon (Beau Dixon) is more tolerant.

I do not wish to give much more information about the plot for fear of spoiling it for you. I will say that it develops organically and there are significant twists. Reality is elusive and we are not entirely sure of where we are. Harrison gives us plenty of clues but most of them become obvious in retrospect.

Martha Henry gives a stellar performance as Marjorie. Her acting is nuanced, understated and superb. Marjorie relives her early days with Walter when they used to go the movies and when he proposed to her. The “memories” whether they are true or not, have a therapeutic value, it seems, because by “remembering” she somehow keeps dementia at bay, at least in part. 
Beau Dixon and Sarah Dodd. Photo Dahlia Katz
Beau Dixon’s Jon is a decent man who understands more than his wife the value of keeping “memories” alive. Sarah Dodd gives a superb performance as the troubled Tess. There are memories of life with her parents, her children and her deeply troubled present. The emotional climax of the play and some of the most dramatic scenes are hers.

The small Coal Mine Theatre is turned into a theatre-in-the-middle with seats on each side and the playing area in the centre. The set by designer Gillian Callow consists of a simple kitchen/seating area.

The direction by Stewart Arnott is detailed and impeccable. He manages to maintain realism in an unrealistic play and take us to another world without our suspecting that he is doing it. Marvellous work.

A note of recognition for the Coal Mine Theatre’s unfailing ability to choose outstanding plays, often by unknown authors. “Chief Engineers” Diana Bentley and Ted Dykstra must have the most sensitive and far-reaching noses for high quality drama anywhere. They find it and bring it to the theatrical Mecca of Danforth Avenue in the huge 80-seat Coal Mine Theatre.
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Marjorie Prime by Jordan Harrison opened on January 29 and will run until February 23, 2020 at the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Ave. Toronto, M4J 1N4. www.coalminetheatre.com

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press