Friday, September 21, 2018


James Karas

In 1996, Dolly became world-famous on the day of her birth. For those with a short memory. Dolly was a Scottish sheep that was cloned, well, from what else but another Scottish sheep. The cloning raised all kinds of questions but playwright Caryl Churchill took her own approach in her 2002 play A Number.

The two-hander takes place somewhere in England, sometime in the future. Salter is an awkward, uncommunicative, and emotionally almost paralyzed man, around sixty years old. When we first see him, he is wearing ordinary rumpled clothes but has a tie on. He has difficulty uttering a word. The other man on the stage is genetically the son of Salter.
Nora McLellan and M. John Kennedy. Photo by Dahlia Katz Photography.
Salter’s wife was killed in a car accident when his son Bernard was two. Bernard died when he was four and a grieving father had his son cloned and the young man talking with Salter is a copy, he is Bernard (B2). He is not the only copy of the dead child but one of “a number” of clones that were produced by the scientists.

Salter, whose emotional incompetence is severe enough to qualify him as a robot, is upset about the large number of copies made of his “original” son whom he thought dead but who is now confronting him about the fact that he is not the only son. Salter’s reaction is to threaten to sue for millions for the excessive number copies made of his son.

The original Bernard, (B1), appears and he wants to kill the other Bernards. The two Bernards and Michael Black may be clones but they are very different people. Not surprisingly, the father does not have the emotional depth or strength to make a connection with his three children, let alone the “number” of others who are out there.

The question of “who am I” is unanswerable on many levels and Churchill does not try to answer it or delve into the philosophical issues raised by cloning. That would have been the short route to producing a bore. But the four characters she has created do make an intriguing and mysterious quartet in a futuristic world.

Salter is played by Nora McLellan in man’s clothing and she gives a superb performance as the lost sheep of a father. The clones are played by M. John Kennedy who transforms himself into the three characters seamlessly and very ably.

The set by Cat Haywood represents a kitchen and sitting area of a modest house or apartment and is perfectly apt. Director Dahlia Katz has a perfect take on the play by emphasizing the characters of the father and the sons and she gets splendid performances from the two actors.

Dolly was cloned more than twenty years ago and cloning has been off the front pages for a long time. This futuristic play however is still worth seeing for Churchill’s imaginative reception of what might happen if someone like Salter is faced with three of his sons in the future especially if it is on stage.

A Number by Caryl Churchill in a production by Solar Stage and Lunar Stage Projects plays until September 22, 2018 at the Wychwood Theatre, 601 Christie Street, Toronto, Ont.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018


James Karas

I Call myself Princess is an ambitious new play by Jani Lauzon that tackles “half a thousand years” of the history of the indigenous people of North America and their white conquerors. The springboard for the play is the opera Shanewis (The Robin Woman) by composer Charles Wakefield Cadman and librettist Nelle Eberhart based partly on the life of Creek/Cherokee mezzo soprano Tsianina Redfeather.

Shanewis was produced at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1918 and was seen again in Hollywood in 1926. It disappeared almost completely from the repertoire after that but it serves Lauzon as an excellent metaphor for the fate of indigenous culture in North America.
The cast of I Call myself Princes. Photo: Dahlia Katz 
Tsianina was American but Lauzon adds a Canadian framework to bring the themes of the play to the present.

William Morin (Aaron Wells), a Metis from Winnipeg is granted a scholarship to study music in Toronto. He comes across Shanewis and the story of Tsianina Redfeather (Marion Newman). We are taken back to the beginning of the twentieth century and meet Cadman (Richard Greenblatt) and librettist Eberhart (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster). William has a black friend called Alex (Howard Davis who also plays the baritone Clyde in the play).

Whether we are in the early twentieth or in the 21st century, Tsianina is almost always present until she and William start interacting across time in the past/present. Cadman and Eberhart are interested in “Indianist” music and they borrow native songs indiscriminately. Tsianina owes her success to a white benefactress and sings “You Must Thank my Benefactress” from Shanewis. She is an American to the extent that she served as a volunteer with the U.S. forces in Europe during World War I. But she is very much an indigenous woman ahead of her time who wants to preserve indigenous culture and change the Americans’ view of Indians (that’s what they were called then and for a long time after that).     

William is a modern firebrand who looks back at half a thousand years of defeat, marginalization and destruction of indigenous culture and people. He does not go as far as pointing out that the American treatment of Indians was nothing less than a genocide and that the Canadian experience appeared more benign until the history of the residential schools was finally exposed in all its cruelty and genocidal intent.

The benign but realistic approach of Tsianina contrasts with the anger of William and in the end we can glean perhaps a wise resolution.

I Call myself Princess is described as a play with opera and we hear about a dozen pieces from Shanewis sung by the cast especially by Marion Newman. She describes herself as Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations, English, Irish and Scottish and, like Tsianina, is an ardent supporter of indigenous culture. 
 Ch’ng Lancaster as Nelle Eberhart, Marion Newman as Tsianina Redfeather. Photo by Dahlia Katz

Wells comes from Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tsmpsian Nations of British Columbia and he sings a number of pieces. 

The set by Christine Urquhart is minimalist consisting of a piano which accompanies the singers and a few pieces of furniture as necessary.

Director Marjorie Chan has to direct a play on grand themes as well as an opera to some extent. She has her hands full and does a good job.

Lauzon tackles the story of the indigenous people of North America with acuity and sensitivity. It is a story that has been at best mostly ignored and at worst grotesquely misrepresented. There are vocal limitations and the play gets occasionally preachy and even creaky but that does not detract from its value as a history that needs to be examined and told many times in the long process of changing the wrongful images into reality and giving us a complete and fair image of indigenous people.

I Call myself Princess is produced by Paper Canoe Projects and Cahoots Theatre Productions in association with Native Earth Performing Arts.

I Call myself Princess  by Jani Lauzon opened on September 13, 2018 and continues at Aki Studio, Native Earth Performing Arts, 585 Dundas St. East, Toronto, Ont.

Sunday, September 9, 2018


Reviewed by James Karas

Sisters starts auspiciously enough. The stage of the Michael Young Theatre resembles a cubicle which is open on all sides. We see a man and a woman at the rear of the stage and then are led into the cubicle which is a shop run by two seamstresses, the sisters Ann (Laura Condlin) and Evelina (Nicole Power). The man of the opening scene is Herman Ramy (Kevin Bundy) who runs a clock shop around the corner from the sisters’ business.

They are not in their first blush of youth and they have a hard time making ends meet. We meet their upstairs neighbour, the ebullient dressmaker Mrs. Mellins (Karen Robinson) and a couple of customers to get the flavour of their business. But most importantly, we meet Ramy. He is of a certain age and he has or had some serious health problems but in the meantime he is interested in one of the sisters and one of the sisters is interested in him.
  Kevin Bundy, Karen Robinson, Laura Condlln, and Nicole Power. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Rosamund Small’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1891 novella Bunner Sisters moves away from the original text rather quickly. Dancing is mentioned near the beginning of the play and Mr. Ramy walks in and waltzes a few turns with one of the sisters.  

The play continues to move from realism to dream or nightmare sequences to the point where one is not sure where events take place. The core story of Ann’s self-sacrifice for her sister remains. She rejects Ramy’s marriage proposal and allows her sister to marry him

Mr. Ramy is not the decent if lonely gentlemen that the sisters thought him to be. His health problem is far more serious and disturbing than anyone thought, his description of his former position is a lie and in the end he proves to be a horrible husband.

The two loving sisters lose touch with one another and the play takes us on Ann’s search for her sister that includes train rides and incessant searching. Eventually there is a type of reconciliation but I won’t spoil it for you.
Laura Condlln and Nicole Power. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Sisters is the story of the world of two sisters falling apart, of deterioration, separation and a tragic conclusion. Rosamund Small, a young playwright from Toronto, has taken Wharton’s languid telling of the tragedy and tried to add her own dimension to it by changing time sequences, adding dream or nightmare sections and in the end adding more confusion than clarity. She does not owe any loyalty to Wharton’s story but we expect more clarity than we get.

Bundy’s character is not well developed in that we see him as the would-be gentleman, awkward, at first, ill-tempered and perhaps stupid later on and then we mostly hear about him.

Condlin’s Ann is an attractive, strong and capable sister willing to sacrifice her happiness for her sister. We are not sure about Evelina who converts to Catholicism during a horrid marriage. There is an explanation and Power gives a fine performance.

Michelle Tracey deserves credit for an imaginative and fluid set. Peter Pasyk directs a play that is unfocused and in the end unsatisfactory.
 Sisters by Rosamund Small bases on Edith Wharton’s Bunner Sisters opened on August 29 and will play until September 16, 2018 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario.  416 866-8666.