The Front Page at The Stratford Festival – A Review

In 1928, The Front Page was a huge Broadway hit for the legendary writing team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Set in the Press Room of a Chicago courthouse, it tells the story of how rapacious newspaper editor Walter Burns tries to retain the services of his star reporter, Hildy Johnson, who perversely has decided to get married and go to New York to work in advertising. All this against the background of the unfolding story of the pending execution of the hapless Earl Williams, accused of the murder of a black cop on the eve of an election in which the corrupt Chicago political machine desperately needs the black vote. Hildy’s plans are sabotaged when Williams mysteriously escapes and the Chicago police department goes nuts trying to find him. Needless to say, it’s a comedy.

The play is a sprawling ensemble piece (the current production boasts a cast of 23).  That may be why it is seldom revived, but it makes it an ideal choice for the Festival Theatre’s thrust stage. In addition to the colorful assortment of hack reporters, including one given to fastidiousness and poetry, there is the corrupt mayor and the incompetent buffoon of a sheriff; the condemned man, Earl Williams, and Mollie Malone, the shopworn prostitute who has befriended him; Hildy’s betrothed and her starchy mother; and a Runyonesque criminal whom Burns uses to do the dirty work.

Most people today are familiar with the story thanks to the rollicking 1940 film adaptation, His Girl Friday (on which Hecht collaborated). The film starred Cary Grant as Burns and Rosalind Russell as a gender-swapped Hildy. The current Stratford Festival production is an adaptation by Michael Healey of the original stage play in which the genders are switched once again. This time around, Hildy Johnson reverts to his male persona, while Walter Burns becomes Penelope “Cookie” Burns, Walter’s widow.

Healey has also brought the racial dynamics into the foreground. According to the program notes, the character of Alderman Willoughby, a black politician, that was eliminated before the original play opened, has been “reconstructed” in the present version. It works well as Abernathy turns up the pressure on the mayor by threatening another race riot if Earl Williams isn’t executed on schedule. There is also a black reporter in the Press Room who maintains his dignity amidst the casual racism of his peers (and, yes, the n-word is spoken).

Those who tremble when they hear that a great classic play has been “updated” or “adapted” (I am one of them) can relax. The sturdy bones of the story are intact and Healy proves himself to be a comic writer with whom Hecht and MacArthur would have been happy to get drunk. The plot remains a magnificent Rube Goldberg device that, once set in motion, careens wildly and improbably to its conclusion.

The play has been given a perfect period feel by set designer Lorenzo Savoini and costume designer Dana Osborne. Kimberly Purtell’s lighting and John Gzowski’s sound design are appropriately unobtrusive.

Of course, material like this can fall flat unless it is carried off by an impeccable cast and that is where this production, under the astute eye of actor-turned-director Graham Abbey, excels. (Abbey, not so incidentally, is delivering a star turn as Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor this season.)

Although Hildy Johnson is considered the co-lead in the play, and Stratford veteran Ben Carlson is rock solid in the role, Hildy is pretty much the straight man in the play, the fixed center around which the comedy swirls. The real star part belongs to Cookie Burns and Maev Beaty is nothing short of incandescent in the role. Hers is easily the funniest performance at Stratford this season, and she has some stiff competition. Her flat Chicago accent is as impeccable as her comic timing. Her takes and asides are mini master classes in the art of comedy. In fact, the only thing wrong with Beaty’s performance is that it doesn’t begin until the second act.

What makes the play and this production a total joy are the performances of the featured players. As Mollie Malone, Sarah Dodd is heartbreaking, while Johnathan Sousa brings an original take to the small role of the condemned man. Mike Shara hams it up shamelessly (and perfectly) as the bumbling sheriff while Juan Chioran is majestically slimy as the dressed-to-the-nines mayor. Michael Blake is impeccable as the flashy crook Diamond Louis; he is an actor who seems to be able to change voices as easily as he changes costumes. Amelia Sargisson and Rosemary Dunsmore are perfect as, respectively, Hildy’s fiancée and her mother. Of the gang of reporters, Michael Spencer-Davis is first among equals as the prissy Bensinger.

The Front Page is a solid hit for the Festival, one which I can wholeheartedly recommend.

The Front Page  will play in repertory at the Festival Theatre through October 25, 2109.

Stratford Festival
(800) 567-1600

Birds of a Kind at the Stratford Festival – A Review

This season, the Stratford Festival’s Studio Theatre is home to two plays set in the Holy Land, both of them dealing with issues if identity and religious tolerance. They also share most of the same actors, so seeing them both makes for an instructive exercise. Nathan the Wise was written in the eighteenth century and set during the Crusades, while Birds of a Kind is a 2017 play set in the troubled present. Nathan is the better play, but Birds is by far the better production.

Wajdi Mouawad’s Birds of a Kind (translated from the French by Linda Gaboriau) is the result of a commission from Stratford’s artistic director, Antoni Cimolino, who also directs this production. The play is inspired by Natalie Zemon Davis’ book Trickster Travels about al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan, a sixteenth century Moroccan diplomat captured by Christian pirates who, impressed by his obvious erudition, presented him to Pope Leo X as a sort of trophy. He converted to Christianity and became known as Leo Africanus. He went on to write a number of scholarly works including what would become the standard work on Africa until the age of modern exploration. Eventually, he returned to the Maghreb and was lost to history.

Mouawad’s play is not about al-Wazzan himself (although he appears as a dream character). Taking its inspiration from a tale told by al-Wazzan about a bird who is able to live both with its own kind and in the sea with the fishes, moving between the two realms at will, the play asks whether people who exist across a seemingly unbridgeable ethnic, religious, and political divide can coexist. Is it possible to move from one of these worlds to the other as easily as birds fly over walls built out of fear and hatred? Or to exist in both? The answer would seem to be no.

Eitan is a young man studying genetics in New York. His parents, Norah and David, live in Berlin. Norah, is a German Jew; David was born in Israel, came to Berlin as a teen, and now considers himself German. His grandfather, Etgar, is a Holocaust survivor who emigrated to Israel where he married Leah (whose origins are unclear). Wahida is a Moroccan student writing her PhD thesis on al-Wazzan. Eitan and Wahida meet cute in the library at Columbia University and fall in love. Eitan’s parents, David and Norah, are less than enthused by this development (Wahida’s parents are both dead). Eitan’s grandfather Etgar, now estranged from his wife Leah, feels that love is love and is more supportive. After an explosive confrontation at a seder dinner, Eitan is convinced he can’t be related to people like this and, in one of the play’s least plausible devices, spirits away the silverware to do a little DNA analysis.

The tests show that while Eitan is indeed David and Norah’s son, Etgar is not David’s father. With Wahida in tow, Eitan travels to Israel to confront his grandmother and unravel the mystery. Thanks to a terrorist bombing that sends Eitan, comatose, to the hospital, the entire family is reunited in Jerusalem. Wahida, meanwhile, is confronted with the unpleasant reality of being a Muslim in an uneasy Israel. Eventually, the mystery is solved with devastating consequences.

Mouawad has created a gallery of wonderfully vivid characters, each with their own distinct voice, and director Cimolino has elicited terrific performances from all of them. As noted, most of the cast members also appear in Nathan the Wise, but to much less effect. What a difference a great director can make!

Much of the play is given to passionate speechifying by the main characters and while the writing is very good indeed, almost poetic in places, the play is often in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own earnestness. One of Mouawad’s more successful conceits is to have characters speak in Hebrew, German, and Arabic at times; it might seem a bit arch, but thanks to projected subtitles it works beautifully.

Birds of a Kind may prove to be one of the more controversial productions Stratford has ever mounted. Mouawad does not paint a particularly flattering portrait of modern day Israel. One character goes into an extended anti-Arab rant that is chilling in its resemblance to both Nazi rhetoric and the bloviations of present-day “nationalists.” While the politics of the play, such as they are, reflect the consensus of what is loosely considered “the left” in the West, I can see that doctrinaire Zionists, who feel that any criticism of Israel is tantamount to antisemitism, might take offense. Time will tell.

What is less in dispute is the quality of the physical production that Cimolino has given the play. It is the best I can remember seeing in The Studio, a space that imposes definite restrictions on designers. Francesca Callow’s ingenious set, which cleverly includes a perfect place on which to project the translations of the play’s many languages, solves all the problems the space creates, and the simple device that opens the play is magical. Michael Walton’s lighting, Adam Harendorf’s sound design, and Jamie Nesbitt’s projections work together to create one stunning effect after another.

I hesitate to single out individual actors because they are all so good, but I was especially impressed by Sarah Orenstein’s fiery Norah, Alon Nashman’s tortured David, and Jakob Ehman’s effusive Eitan. I hope the Festival will find leading roles for Orenstein in future seasons and that both Nashman and Ehman will be invited back.

Birds of a Kind is not easy theatre — it runs just over three hours for starters — but it will reward the thoughtful theatregoer, especially if seen together with Nathan the Wise. If only Stratford had a good Middle Eastern restaurant where we could gather over meze and mint tea to discuss it all.

Birds of a Kind continues in repertory at the Stratford Festival through October 13, 2019.

Studio Theatre
Stratford Festival
(800) 567-1600

In the Wake of Wettlaufer at The Blyth Festival – A Review

Between 2007 and 2016, Elizabeth Wettlaufer, a registered nurse in Ontario, murdered eight elderly patients under her care and attempted to kill six others. Her weapon was lethal doses of insulin. Astonishingly enough, her crimes were never detected by the institutions and agencies for which she worked. It was only when she entered a drug rehabilitation program and confessed that they came to light. The case sent shock waves through the province and resulted in a prolonged inquiry that produced damning evidence of a criminally dysfunctional health care system. Wettlaufer is currently serving a life sentence with no chance of parole for twenty-five years. Ontario is still dealing with the repercussions.

The Blyth Festival has a history of creating dramatic works that address headline grabbing events in the province. The Pigeon King (2017), for example, was based on a $70 million ponzi scheme involving breeding phony “racing” pigeons. In the Wake of Wettlaufer continues the tradition. But whereas The Pigeon King told the story of how Arlan Galbraith bilked hundreds of farmers, Wettlaufer takes a different tack, one that is devastatingly effective.

Co-authors Gil Garratt and Kelly McIntosh focus not on the criminal and her modus operandi but on the human toll the scandal takes on a single fictional family of four siblings, three daughters and a son, dealing with the dementia of their father and his eventual placement in a long-term care facility. Wettlaufer isn’t even mentioned until almost an hour into the play, when their father is dead and buried. Like everyone else affected by the revelation of Wettlaufer’s confession the siblings learn of the case, not from the nursing home, not from the health authorities, but from the evening news.

The family struggles through settling their father’s estate, which strains their relationships to the breaking point, as details of the failures of the long-term care industry are revealed. The play uses actual recordings from news reports, statements by the Justice of the Court of Appeal who conducted the Public Inquiry, and even the testimony of a survivor of one of Wettlaufer’s attempted murders. It’s powerful stuff.

The siblings in the cast, Caroline Gillis, Nathan Howe, Rachel Jones, and Jane Spidell, are uniformly excellent. I would single out Ms. Spidell only because she was a late addition to the company. Robert King offers a moving and scarily accurate portrait of a man descending into the hell of dementia. Garratt has directed them well on the minimalist set which he also designed. Rebecca Picherack’s lighting does a nice job of easing the transitions between scenes.

By focusing on a single family, Garratt and McIntosh avoid the sensationalism and righteous anger that the topic might suggest or even seem to demand. The Public Inquiry ended with a result guaranteed to please no one who had been affected. No individuals were cited for censure, let alone punishment; rather the broken system was held responsible and recommendations for corrective action laid down. For many of the families whose loved ones were directly affected or who were in long-term care there seemed no sense of closure.

In the Wake of Wettlaufer attempts to provide some semblance of closure and comfort to the Ontario community Blyth serves — and it’s safe to say that virtually everyone who will see this play at Blyth has been affected to a greater or lesser degree by the tragedy. The play ends with a messenger from a higher realm bearing a message of hope and reconciliation. The ancient Greeks used to do this sort of thing and it is from them that we get the word for what Garratt and McIntosh have given us — catharsis.

In the Wake of Wettlaufer plays through September 6, 2019 in repertory with other productions.

Blyth Festival
423 Queen Street
Blyth, ON N0M 1H0
(877) 862-5984

Beside Myself at The Foster Festival – A Review

These days it seems the most “transgressive” thing a musical could possibly do is tell a tale of heterosexual love. And yet Norm Foster and his musical collaborator, Steve Thomas, have boldly gone where few have dared to tread recently. Foster provided the book, Thomas the music, and they shared lyric writing duties.

The world premiere Beside Myself is a vest-pocket musical with a cast of four, an orchestra of three, and a bare-bones, but surprisingly effective, unit set designed by Peter Hartwell. This is the fifth Foster-Thomas musical and the first I have seen, so I have little to which to compare it. It struck me as less a musical comedy than a Norm Foster comedy with music, which is by no means a bad thing.

As the show opens Paula and Sam are splitting up after 35 years of marriage. Not only do they loathe each other, they don’t have much good to say about their now-grown kids.  They are sorting through two boxes (“one and a half” Sam corrects) of marital “keepsakes” to see if either of them wants any of them. One item that emerges from the boxes is a “wishing stick,” a wedding gift from friends who are “cheap as bad wine.” While holding it, Sam idly wishes they could go back in time to warn their younger selves against getting together.

As they take the boxes to the curb for recycling they notice the bizarre number of “vintage” cars in the neighborhood. Then Paula realizes that the hideous drapes in their windows were those of the people from whom they bought their house. They have indeed gone back in time, to the early eighties. There’s nothing to be done but to rush to the nearby university in hopes of saving their younger selves from one another.

It’s a fun premise and Foster, with a few nods to Star Trek and Back To The Future, makes the most of it. When they accost their 19-year-old selves, the kids are puzzled that they know so much about them. After a brief moment of panic they explain it all away by announcing that they are the youngsters’ “campus liaisons” whose mission it is to advise them on their first days at school. It becomes a running gag that never seems to grow old.

Foster has great fun with the time travel aspects of the play. At one point the kids ask why their liaisons haven’t changed clothes in several days. Paula solves the problem by heading to the theatre arts building (“It’s the one shaped like a pipe dream”) because not only do they have costumes there, they have lousy security.

After succeeding remarkably well in their mission to prevent the kids getting together, Sam and Paula begin to have second thoughts. No spoilers here but I don’t think most folks will have trouble guessing where the show is headed.

Director Patricia Vanstone, the Foster Festival’s artistic director, has solved the biggest challenge of the piece — finding performers who actually look as if they could be younger and older versions of the same people. It’s an added bonus that they are all terrific actors and singers. Gabrielle Jones and Jonathan Whittaker are very funny as the disillusioned elders, while Breton Lalama and Griffin Hewitt score as the kids.

Another challenge Vanstone faced was what to do with the band. Ingeniously, she and Hartwell have placed them upstage center on a slightly raised platform. Thanks to Chris Malkowski’s lighting and the great performances, they are barely noticeable.

Vanstone called in choreographer Jane Johanson to add dance moves to the number “I Used To Rock” in which the two Paulas declare their rock bona fides (and in which Jones amusingly shows the ravages of time). I would have liked to see more movement during the songs that punctuate the action. As it is, the songs seem rather static. They recapitulate or extend what has just been said rather than move the plot forward; only rarely do they deepen our understanding of the characters.

Beside Myself — the title takes on several punny meanings as the show progresses — is light, frothy and filled with laughs; it offers everything a late summer trip to the theatre should.

Beside Myself continues at The Foster Festival through August 17, 2019

The Foster Festival
FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre
250 St. Paul Street
St. Catherines, ON L2R 3M2
(855) 515-0722
(905) 688-0722

The Team on the Hill at The Blyth Festival – A Review

When it comes to life on the farm, Dan Needles knows whereof he speaks. Needles, the scion of Canadian theatre royalty and something of a national treasure, is best known as the creator of Wingfield Farm, a series of wryly humorous tales of rural life in Ontario. They started as newspaper pieces and evolved into seven one-man shows that have become something of a sinecure for Stratford Festival veteran Rod Beattie. They are all on DVD and well worth seeking out.

Needles has also written a number of actual plays and the Blyth Festival is reviving his 2013 The Team on the Hill in a spirited production under the steady direction of Severn Thompson, Blyth’s Associate Artistic Director. If the audience reaction at the last preview, which I saw, is any indication it will be a major hit — and deservedly so.

The Ransier family is at a crossroads. The farm, which has a magnificent view of Lake Huron, has come through a bruising period of debt and near disaster thanks to some poor decisions by grandpa Austin, whose love of farming often outstripped his business sense. His son Ray had fled the farm to work on the ships plying the Great Lakes, but he came home to rescue his father from ruin. His many years of hard work have paid off — barely — but the strain has taken its toll. He is angry and bitter and sorely tempted to sell the place to a developer who wants to turn it into a golf course.

As the play begins, son Larry, fresh out of Ag school, returns with his girlfriend Leanne. He loves farming as much as his grandfather and wants to come back and set the farm to rights with his newfound knowledge of the benefits of soy bean cultivation (the play is set in 1970). Grandpa, meanwhile, has started down the slippery slope of dementia and spends his time on the porch seeing things that aren’t there.

This might sound like the kind of scenario that John Steinbeck would turn into an operatic spectacle of despair. Needles doesn’t turn away from the very real pressures his characters face, but he unfailingly finds humour in their travails and reveals the deep and abiding love that ties the family together even when they are having screaming fights and breaking things in their fury. The result is a heartfelt and heartwarming comedy that provides plenty of laughs and, yes, a tear or two.

In Austin, the family patriarch, Needles has created the kind of rich comic character who, like Falstaff in the Elizabethan era, leaves audiences wanting more of his company. He is the heart and soul of the play and Layne Coleman gives him the kind of bravura performance that for once makes the standing ovation at the curtain call perfectly appropriate.

Coleman’s performance alone would warrant a trip to Blyth, but Thompson has surrounded him with lovely performances by Julie Tamiko Manning as Marion, Ray’s loving, long-suffering wife, Tony Munch as Ray, and Kurtis Leon Baker as Larry. Lucy Meanwell, as the girlfriend, has little to do but look adorable and she pulls that off nicely.

Kelly Wolf has provided a clever set with a revolving farmhouse, Noah Feaver has lit it sensitively, and sound designer Heidi Chan has provided unobtrusive music to fit the period.

Then again, as someone once said, the play’s the thing, and Needles has created a loving portrait of the world of Ontario farming and the special breed of people who inhabit it. It was clear to me, who wouldn’t know a soy bean if I fell over it, that the audience had a deep connection with the world on stage. Indeed, The Team on the Hill represents the epitome of Blyth’s mandate, to produce new Canadian work on rural themes and in a rural setting. Once again I find myself urging my fellow Americans to come north to enjoy the kind of terrific theatre that will probably never be seen south of the Poutine Curtain.

The Team on the Hill plays through September 5, 2019 in repertory with other productions.

Blyth Festival
423 Queen Street
Blyth, ON N0M 1H0
(877) 862-5984

Twelve Angry Men at Drayton Entertainment – A Review

Reginald Rose’s reliable workhorse, Twelve Angry Men, is receiving a stunning, Broadway-quality production from Drayton Entertainment, whose repertory typically leans more to Disney musicals and British farces than to searing drama. Seeing a dramatic piece of this quality in the modest but comfortable confines of Drayton’s Huron Country Playhouse II near the shores of Lake Huron just outside Grand Bend, Ontario, simply proves that great theatre is everywhere if we only seek it out.

Twelve Angry Men began life in 1954 as a live television drama (boy, those were the days!), which became a hit Broadway show a year later. The 1957 film version became a classic. It tells the story of a New York jury deciding the fate of a 16-year-old minority kid (the play never specifies his ethnicity) accused of the first-degree murder of his father. The jurors, cannily identified by Rose only by their jury numbers, are a cross-section of white, male New York. In the initial vote, eleven are in favor of finding the defendant guilty. Only Juror #8 has “reasonable doubt.”

As their deliberations continue, tempers flare, lines are drawn, and prejudices revealed in sometimes ugly ways as the men’s true natures are inexorably laid bare. Rose handles all this beautifully, making it all the more startling for a present-day audience to believe that this was the sort of thing people could once see on the “idiot box.” Despite its 1950s setting, nothing in it seems dated. The only “updating” I detected was that no one smokes.

This is a production that would be the critical success of the season at the Shaw or Stratford Festival. That’s probably not too surprising considering that many in the superb cast are veterans of those august institutions. The director, Marti Maraden, has acted and directed at Stratford, and for a brief time shared artistic director responsibilities with Des McAnuff and Don Shipley. She has assembled a flawless ensemble cast and directed them with a sure hand.

The play has a few “star” roles. As Juror #8, Skye Brandon does a masterful job of chipping away at the certainty of his fellow jurors. Brad Rudy, Juror #10, is positively volcanic as perhaps the angriest of the bunch; his extended racist rant is harrowing and, alas, just as timely today as it was in the mid-50s. And Benedict Campbell, Juror #3, is absolutely shattering as his real motivation to see this kid “fry” is made painfully clear.

But there is literally not a weak link in the entire cast. Even those who have the fewest lines illustrate the timeless axiom that there are no small parts. So I will simply list the rest of the company in their Juror Number order: Jacob James, Cyrus Lane, Jeffrey Wetsch, Thomas Duplessie, Terry Barna, Kevin Kruchkywich, Keith Dinicol, Neil Barclay, and J. Sean Elliott. All of them are excellent and, as a native New Yorker, I was also impressed by the perfect New York accents.

Allan Wilbee’s clever set perfectly captures the drabness of New York’s halls of justice and Jennifer Wonnacott has provided spot-on costumes.

It also occurred to me that, while a production of this quality might deserve to grace the better-known stages of Stratford and Shaw, it simply could not be mounted at either. The multicultural, gender-balanced nature of their ensembles would make it virtually impossible to field an all-white cast of this size and this is a play that is very much about lily-white 1950s America. Then, too, there would almost certainly be institutional pressure to cast some of the roles (maybe fifty percent?) with women, despite the fact that the toxic masculinity of most of the jurors is very much the point. These days it is becoming increasingly difficult to see a production of a “classic” play that hasn’t undergone at least some revisions dictated by the socio-political winds blowing through the theatre world. Maraden’s reading of Twelve Angry Men is that rarest of theatrical treats, a classic play that hews closely to the original vision of the playwright.

Twelve Angry Men plays at the Huron Country Playhouse II through August 3, 2019. It then moves to the Hamilton Family Theatre in Cambridge from August 7 through August 24, 2019.

Drayton Entertainment
(855) 372-9866

The Ladykillers at The Shaw Festival – A Review

The original “mandate” of The Shaw Festival was to produce the work of the eponymous playwright. That was broadened to include any work written in his lifetime, which conveniently enough was quite long (he died in 1950). Eventually, that was tweaked to allow new Canadian plays to be showcased. Now that Tim Carroll is Artistic Director, any semblance of a mandate is a mere memory; he even managed to sneak a little Shakespeare in last season. Now programming at Shaw has come to resemble nothing so much as that of a typical American regional rep company. Something has been lost. Then again, something has been gained.

A case in point is the North American premiere of Graham Linehan’s light-as-air 2011 comedy, The Ladykillers on the stage of the Festival Theatre. In a way it’s surprising that it took so long to cross the pond. I suspect potential producers were put off by the fear that it would be compared unfavorably to the 1955 Alec Guinness film of the same name. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that it doesn’t come close to erasing the memory of that classic, but to its credit it doesn’t really try. Taken on its own terms, it’s a pleasantly amusing piece of escapist theatre and if it reminds you to rewatch the Guinness film one more time so much the better. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

For those whose education has been sadly lacking, The Ladykillers tells the tale of an oh-so-British gang of crooks under the guidance of the evil genius Professor Marcus (Damien Atkins in the Guinness role) who are planning a cunningly clever train robbery at the Kings Cross station. To cover their nefarious activities, the Professor rents a room from the elderly widow Mrs. Wilberforce whose tumbledown house is perched above a railway tunnel near the scene of the projected crime. Their cover story is that they are an ardent group of amateur musicians whose string quartet is in need of a private, very private, rehearsal space. The beauty part is that Mrs. W, unwittingly, picks up the “lolly” and delivers to her house.

All goes swimmingly until the cello case containing the loot accidently bursts open and scatters money all over the living room. There’s nothing for it: Mrs. Wilburforce must go. In the end, she’s the only one left standing.

Linehan has done a very good job of solving the problem of transposing the film to the stage. He has devised some ingenious new ways for the crooks to kill each other off, and he has added some clever character traits for some of them. Major Courtney (Ric Reid) has a very funny women’s clothes fetish, the Romanian gangster Louis (Steven Sutcliffe) has an old lady phobia, and One-Round (Martin Happer), the monumentally stupid enforcer of the gang, actually learns a bit on the cello.

Tim Carroll has directed with a light touch. The only overt homage to the original film I noticed was the way Professor Marcus’ silhouette looms menacingly on the frosted glass of Mrs. W’s front door as he makes his entrance. One of Carroll’s best conceits is to have the criminals discuss the manifold shortcomings of old people while looking directly at the Festival’s aged audience.

The cast is uniformly excellent, but the greatest performance of the evening is provided by Judith Bowen’s incredible set, easily the best I have seen at either of Ontario’s major festivals. It is a multilevel masterpiece set on a revolve that spins through 360 degrees several times during the play and the cast seemingly uses every square inch of its many facets. Every time a train goes through the tunnel below it shakes, rattles, and rolls wonderfully, making its odd angles and crooked pictures utterly believable.

Damien Atkins is emerging as a most engaging comic leading man and, mercifully, he makes no attempt to mimic the great Guinness. He milks beautifully a recurring (and crucial) gag in which Mrs. W steps on his incredibly long scarf, and he uses a wonderfully theatrical trick of dropping his voice an octave to get a laugh. Of the other crooks, I was most taken by Martin Happer’s rendition of the hulking simpleton One-Round. Chick Reid may be too young and too beautiful to be the ideal Mrs. Wilberforce, but her engaging performance quickly puts such qualms to rest.

I am sure there will be those who will dismiss The Ladykillers as inconsequential fluff that is beneath the high ideals of the Shaw Festival, but I doubt anyone in the audience when I saw it would agree. And besides, even high-minded festivals have to pay the bills.

The Ladykillers runs through October 12, 2019

The Shaw Festival
(800) 511-7429
(905) 468-2172

The Russian Play at The Shaw Festival – A Review

A “like-a-joke” is a dismissive term of art in the world of TV sitcoms. It denotes a snippet of dialog that is structured like a joke, that is recognized as a joke, that triggers the laugh track, but that is not actually funny. To my way of thinking Hannah Moscovitch writes like-a-plays. I should temper that nasty crack by admitting that I have only seen two of her plays, The Russian Play and Bunny. Neither seemed to have much of interest to say.

The Russian Play, now playing as a morning one-act in the Royal George Theatre at The Shaw Festival, tells the story of Sonya (Gabriella Sundar Singh), an illiterate peasant girl working as a menial in a Stalin-era flower shop. She falls in love with Piotr (Peter Fernandes), a grave digger, who gets her pregnant and, thoughtfully, gives her an abortion and helps bury the fetus. She discovers that Piotr has a wife in Moscow and to add insult to injury she gets fired for spending so much time with her grave digger. She flees to another city where she becomes the mistress of Kostya (Mike Nadajewski), a kulak, a member of a wealthy peasant class, who has dodged the Stalinist purges of these ”enemies of the people” by cozying up to the secret police. When the affair goes sour, Sonya finds herself in the clutches of the secret police; she is tortured and sent to prison where she reconnects with Piotr who is now kept busy digging graves for the ever growing ranks of state enemies. Piotr tells her that his wife is dead and that she is the only one he loves. She dies in his arms and he buries her. A sad tale, indeed; a peculiarly Russian story as Sonya tells us.

You see Sonya also serves as both narrator and commentator on the action, breaking the fourth wall with some regularity to provide us with regular often amusing bulletins. Another, wordless character, the Violinist (Marie Mahabal) serves as an additional commentator, perhaps meant to symbolize Sonya’s inner self. When Sonya’s heart breaks, the Violinist shakes a box full of fragments of something or other and bangs it on the floor. The cast, for reasons that were unclear to me, speak in thick Russian accents. These devices tend to drain the main action of whatever emotional impact it might otherwise have had.

So what’s the point? That love stinks? Sonya says as much, but the J. Geils Band said it better. That Stalinist Russia was a nightmare? It needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us this. There’s plenty of sound and fury in Moscovitch’s piece and while she is certainly no idiot it winds up signifying very little.

Director Diana Donnelly has given the play a lively production, with a nice design by Gillian Gallow and effective lighting by Michelle Ramsay. Sundar Singh throws herself into the role of Sonya but has trouble navigating the shifts from character to narrator to ironic commentator and back again. She is at her best in the brief moments in which she mimics her cruel boss at the flower shop. Mike Nadajewski turns in his usual assured performance as Kostya but it is too little too late.

The Russian Play was an early effort by Moskovitch, one that established her reputation. It shows promise and I look forward to seeing a later play of hers in which that promise is realized.

The Russian Play runs through October 12, 2019

The Shaw Festival
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Hilda’s Yard at The Foster Festival – A Review

Hilda’s Yard

After mounting The Writer, Norm Foster’s newest play and something of a departure for the prolific playwright, The Foster Festival returns to more familiar ground with its revival of his cockeyed comedy, Hilda’s Yard.

Set in 1956, in the backyard of the Hilda and Sam Fluck (Artistic Director Patricia Vanstone and Foster himself) the play opens on a hopeful note. Now that that their two adult children have finally moved out, Sam has decided to splurge on a 21-inch television set so that he and Hilda can enjoy their sunset years watching Gunsmoke. He rationalizes his decision because of all the money they’ll save by not having to feed the kids.

Alas, the dream is soon shattered. Son Gary (Daniel Briere) climbs over the back fence, hoping to elude the enforcers of a bookie to whom he owes $395. Oh yes, he has also been fired from his job delivering pizzas. He is followed close upon by daughter Janey (Erin MacKinnon) who has left her abusive husband of six months. Soon they are joined by Bobbi (Amaka Umeh), the girl Gary is smitten with and the proximate cause of his firing, and Beverly Woytowich, the charming bookie himself who blithely announces that he will collect the debt or “things will get broken.”

On this seemingly fragile premise, Foster builds a sturdy comedy that provides plenty of laughs en route to a happy ending. Gary blames his chronic unemployment on his odd name — Fluck.  His father points out that it’s a proud name, brought to Canada by his Swiss grandparents who were acrobats. “The Flying Flucks,” Gary deadpans. Foster has fun with Gary’s ideas for new products that will become hugely successful fads years later, like Baby on Board signs (he calls them Child Inside) and the hula hoop. When Beverly, smitten with Janey, compares her to the sexy women he has seen walking on the streets of Rome, she tries to mimic the effect, to hilarious results.

Director Jim Mezon, a terrific actor who, alas, hasn’t been at the Shaw Festival for the last two seasons, has elicited wonderful performances from his cast and designer Peter Hartwell has once again provided a simple but marvelously effective set. Erin MacKinnon is perfection as Janey, pert and pretty and none too bright. When Beverly says “Your brother’s debt has been expunged” and realizes me may have to explain to her what that means, she waves him away with an airy, “Oh, I know what a sponge does.” As the gentleman criminal Beverly, Darren Keay makes a rather unbelievable character perfectly believable and when he is welcomed into the family fold, we buy it. Daniel Briere and Amaka Umeh as the head-over-heels in love Gary and his wiser inamorata are also very good.

Vanstone and Foster make a devoted couple. Both their love for their kids and their despair over their manifest failings are palpable. Foster’s acting, like his writing, is sharp and to the point, with no unnecessary flourishes. He frequently appears in his own work and I was told that when he plays a role it’s a signal that the play is one of his favorites. It occurred to me that he could have a lucrative career acting in television, but let’s hope it doesn’t happen. It might take him away from his writing.

Foster has been called Canada’s Neil Simon and the comparison is apt up to a point. But whereas Simon’s characters tend to be cynical New York types who seem to take pride in their snarky repartee and snide comebacks, Foster’s folks are down to earth Canadian types, unselfconscious and, dare I say it, polite in their interactions, even when threatening to kill someone. Indeed, Canadian critics have pointed out that Foster’s success is largely due to his uncanny ability to reflect the national character.

The humor in Hilda’s Yard is the sort of thing that has largely been banished from American stages thanks to television and theatre critics who insist that theatre must be transgressive or transgender or preferably both. “Oh, this is just a sitcom,” they might say. Perhaps. Yet the most successful sitcoms on the air know the value of pointing out that they were “filmed before a live studio audience.” If you’re American, do yourself a favor and next time you’re in Canada seek out a Norm Foster play. You’ll be glad you did. (Canadians are already in on the secret.)

Hilda’s Yard continues at The Foster Festival through July 26, 2019

The Foster Festival
FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre
250 St. Paul Street
St. Catherines, ON L2R 3M2
(855) 515-0722
(905) 688-0722

Sex at The Shaw Festival – A Review

I have wanted to see the 1926 play Sex ever since, as a Mae West-besotted undergraduate, I first became aware of its existence. Mae wrote, produced, directed, and starred in it and went to the slammer because of it. Who wouldn’t want to see it? Thanks to Peter Hinton-Davis and The Shaw Festival my curiosity is finally satisfied.

Sex wasn’t what I expected. Is it ever? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) I mean the play, of course. Rather than a comedy romp like her later films, the play is an old-fashioned melodrama, filled with all the hoary conventions of the genre, and yet it holds up remarkably well. Very well, in fact. So much so that it’s surprising that it is only now getting its Canadian premiere.

The story behind the play is almost as delicious as the play itself. Roundly denounced by critics and assorted bluestockings when it debuted in New York, it ran for almost a year before the forces of decency managed to get it shut down and have the entire cast and production team dragged into court. Surprisingly, they were convicted (although most of the cast were given suspended sentences). Mae went to prison – on what is now Roosevelt Island, not Jefferson Market as the program would have you believe – where she was wined and dined by the warden. She was sentenced to ten days and served eight thanks to good behavior. It was a publicity gold mine. As West herself remarked, “I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”

The play tells the lurid tale of Margy LaMont (Diana Donnelly), a “woman of easy virtue” who is not only inured to the marginal life she leads but who takes a distinct pride in being so good at it. She shares digs in Montreal – Sin City in the Prohibition era – with Rocky Waldron (a perfectly cast Kristopher Bowman), a petty criminal who specializes in seducing wealthy American women who have come north for a walk on the wild side, drugging them, and robbing them blind.

Margy returns one night with her friend and frequent customer, Lieutenant Gregg (André Sills), an English naval officer, only to discover Rocky’s latest victim passed out and near death. They revive her, but when the police arrive she accuses Margy of being the perpetrator and pays off the cop to get her out of her predicament. Margy finds it wise to skip town.

In Trinidad she meets – and enchants – young Jimmy Stanton (Julia Course), the innocent scion of an immensely wealthy Connecticut family. Jimmy proposes marriage. Lieutenant Gregg has also sailed into port and he, too, has a marriage proposal, one tied to a new and respectable life in Australia. Margy chooses Jimmy and returns to his palatial family home to meet his parents. I won’t give away the payoff to the plot, but it’s a doozy.

West’s play is a fascinating companion piece to other, more polite plays of the period that have survived the test of time and are regularly revived. Her portrayal of the underworld, the existence of which polite society of the day refused to recognize, is unvarnished but sympathetic. In this world, sex is currency, power, and social mobility all rolled into one. And women control most of the supply, a supply for which there is an ample demand. In this respect, the play is strikingly up to date and has a great deal to say to the twenty-first century audience.

Hinton-Davis has given the piece a sturdy if perhaps not definitive production in the intimate Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre. As a director, he likes to add … let’s call them grace notes … between scenes. Some work better than others but all slow down the pace. In the current fashion, he gender-swaps a few roles and, in a surprising break with current orthodoxy, he actually lets men play women’s roles. Jonathan Tan makes a perfectly believable, waif-like street-walker, while the excellent Julia Course makes a perfectly unbelievable young man.

One of Hinton-Davis’ best conceits is the music that accompanies the play from well before the opening scene until well after the final curtain. It is eclectic and not always of the period, but it is seldom less than apt. Most of it is recorded but there are live renditions of songs by several cast members, including most memorably Katherine Gautier, Monice Peter, and Allegra Fulton. Kurt Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” song serves as an envoi as the audience leaves the theatre and it is just perfect. Ryan deSouza is the music director.

The cast is universally excellent with outstanding contributions from Ric Reid as both a corrupt Montreal cop and Jimmy’s father; Fiona Byrne as Jimmy’s mother, who has a dark secret; and Allegra Fulton (who is a smashing Amanda in The Glass Menagerie) doing a Carmen Miranda-esque rendition of “Rum and Coca-Cola” in the Trinidad sequence.

In the Mae West role, Diana Donnelly faces the challenge of replacing the irreplaceable. Both she and the director wisely avoid the trap of trying to make her a Mae West impersonator. Her Margy is slender and slutty with a voice that could cut glass. She acquits herself admirably, but I kept wishing the role was filled (if that’s the right word) by someone a bit more zaftig and blowsy with more of the take no prisoners swagger that was Mae West’s trademark.

But why am I looking this gift horse in the mouth? Sex is a theatrical rarity and this revival long overdue. Who knows when you’ll have a chance to see another production? Come up and see it sometime!

Sex runs through October 13, 2019.

The Shaw Festival

(800) 511-7429

(905) 468-2172