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
(800) 511-7429
(905) 468-2172

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

The Glass Menagerie at The Shaw Festival – A Review

The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee William’s 1944 memory play (and the one that established him as a major playwright) is receiving a thrilling production at The Shaw Festival. Directed by Hungarian director László Bérczes in the intimate Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, it features four nearly flawless performances that may convince you that this is the best rendition of this classic that you’ve ever seen.

In Depression-era St. Louis, the Wingfield family lives a hard-scrabble life in a cramped apartment. Amanda, a single mother from the deep South, long ago abandoned by a “charming” husband, frets over making ends meet and what will become of her children. Tom, the elder, who narrates the play wants to be a writer, but he works a low-paying job in a warehouse and disappears at night, supposedly to go the movies. Laura, the painfully shy younger daughter, has a deformed leg and a slight limp. She has dropped out of a business school and seldom leaves the flat, except to run errands for her mother. Instead, she plays obsessively with her collection of petite glass animals, the menagerie of the title.

Amanda recalls happier times at her home, Blue Mountain, when she was young and gay and never at a loss for “gentlemen callers.” The main action of the play revolves around her effort to get Tom to invite a coworker to dinner so Laura might find her own gentleman caller. It goes well. Until it doesn’t.

Thanks to Williams’ lilting prose and keen command of character, the play still packs an emotional wallop in our more cynical time, despite Tom’s warning that the play will be “sentimental.”

Bérczes’ fellow Hungarian Balázs Cziegler has done wonders with the narrow confines of the Studio’s in-the-round playing space by making it even narrower, and creating a claustrophobic warren of small rooms, highlighting the pressure of the tight quarters in which the Wingfields exist so uncomfortably.

Amanda Wingfield is a role usually associated with great ladies of the theatre and Allegra Fulton, making her Shaw debut, can feel right at home with the stars who have preceded her. Her Amanda never lapses into a caricature of the faded southern belle, an ever-present temptation with this role. Nor does she make the mistake of turning Amanda into a crazy person. While her Amanda is certainly over-dramatic and even self-delusional at times, Fulton never lets us forget that here is a strong woman doing her level best to keep her family afloat in trying times with ever diminishing prospects.

André Sills, who was a towering Coriolanus last season at the Stratford Festival, brings out the seething anger, born of frustration, that eats away at Tom, while Julia Course makes a touching Laura. Finally, Jonathan Tan hits just the right note as Jim, the gentleman caller, who all too briefly offers a ray of hope for Laura.

I had my quibbles. André Sills is such a force of nature and his outbursts of anger so genuinely terrifying that his performance, as finely observed as it is, occasionally tends to distort the shape of play. Hanne Loosen has made some odd choices of costume. I found it impossible to believe that Amanda would let Laura dress as shabbily as Loosen has and Tom’s never-changing outfit seemed far too modern. On the other hand, the embarrassingly dated dress that Amanda wears to greet Laura’s gentleman caller is perfect. The program credits two voice and dialect coaches yet, while Amanda was believable as a transplant from the deep South, Tom and Laura’s very different accents had little to do with St. Louis.

The Glass Menagerie continues through October 12, 2019

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

Jumbo At The Blyth Festival – A Review

Few people associate P. T. Barnum with southern Ontario. Yet one of the most traumatic events of his storied career occurred in St Thomas, a city not far from the shores of Lake Erie. There, in 1885, during a Canadian tour, his circus’s prize African elephant, Jumbo, was killed by an unscheduled freight train as he was being led to the boxcar in which he traveled. The Blyth Festival is now telling the tale of Jumbo’s death and its immediate aftermath in an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful play by Sean Dixon titled, appropriately enough, Jumbo.

The play is an uncomfortable mixture of styles and moods. The first act introduces us to the members of Barnum’s traveling circus, all actual historical figures, and to the history of Jumbo, purchased from the London zoo when he was quite young and no one knew how large he would eventually become. Dixon uses short, fragmented scenes to give us a sense of the razzle-dazzle of the circus and the colorful characters who inhabit that world. This is an approach that other Blyth productions have used quite effectively. Unfortunately, few in the cast possess the requisite circus skills to make any of this truly compelling. Only the Spanish acrobat, Juan Caicedo (Mark Segal), who does a Cirque-du-Soleil-like aerial turn in the tight space between stage and audience, impresses.

Director Gil Garratt hasn’t helped matters by using placards set on easels at the sides of the stage to indicate the geographical location of the many scenes. It adds an old-fashioned, period flavor to the proceedings, but having an actor change the signs, first one, then the other, slows the pace to a molasses-like crawl. Then, too, there are gaps between short scenes you could drive the proverbial truck through. A little tightening would go a long way.

Of course, the center of Act One is Jumbo and both playwright and performers do a good job of making him a real presence and a believable character. The best parts of the show are scenes in which we come to appreciate the bond between beast and keeper and the almost loving relationship that grows between Jumbo and the bearded lady of the circus (Lucy Meanwell).

Act One ends with Jumbo’s fatal accident which Garratt has staged very effectively. Deprived of Jumbo’s charismatic presence, Act Two suffers as it struggles to find the right tone, lurching from straight drama, to commedia dell’arte comedy, to a sort of expressive dance, and back to straight drama. When the play shambled to a close, few in the audience seemed to be aware that it had, in fact, ended.

There are some good performances. The aforementioned Mark Segal as the aerialist Caicedo is physically compelling, although his Spanish accent was often impenetrable; he also is effective in Act Two as a local butcher ready to hack Jumbo to pieces. Tony Munch is touching as Jumbo’s devoted keeper and Michael McManus is a standout as “The Armless Wonder.” Peter Bailey gives an animated and ingratiating performance as an African-American veteran of the war between the states, although his function in the play was something of a mystery to me.

The indisputable star, however, is Jumbo, or rather the enormous and ingenious life-sized puppet Gemma James-Smith has created to represent him. Almost literally a thing of rags and patches, her creation is remarkably life-like and believable thanks to some exquisite puppetry. Kurtis Leon Baker, who also plays other roles, does a masterful job of manipulating the large head and ears, while Tony Munch unobtrusively brings Jumbo’s trunk to life. When Jumbo turns his sad, soulful eyes to the audience he almost seems to be saying, “Why can’t I be in a better play?”

[Photo: The cast of Jumbo by Terry Manzo, © 2019 courtesy of The Blyth Festival.]

Jumbo plays through August 10, 2019

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

The Writer At FirstOntario PAC – A Review

Norm Foster, Canada’s most prolific and most produced playwright, is known primarily for light comedies that often have a tinge of sadness running just beneath the surface, as was the case with Jonas and Barry In The Home, which I saw last year.

The Writer, his latest play now having its world premiere at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catherines, reverses that formula. It’s a nicely observed character study of a father-son relationship with occasional flashes of humor. It also contains a clever plot twist that makes it something of a mystery play.

Donald Wellner (Guy Bannerman) is living in a barely furnished bachelor flat. His wife has turned him out and his daughter has turned her back on him because it has come to light that he has been paying the rent of an English actress for 33 years, seemingly prima facie evidence of an illicit affair. His son Blake arrives to check up on his father and try to understand the mystery behind the breakup. It’s a tough knot to unravel.

The senior Wellner, we learn, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, A Kind Heart, which has made him very wealthy, despite the fact that he has never had another play produced in the 35 years since its premiere. When the play was running in the West End, he became close to a beautiful actress in the cast, but he insists that nothing untoward happened, just a deep and abiding friendship. Why then has he been paying her rent all these years? “It’s complicated” is the best he can manage.

It soon becomes apparent that a marital blowup is not Donald’s only problem. He is becoming forgetful. In fact, he is slowly, inexorably declining into dementia. Dead center stage, serving as a metaphor for the creative void in Donald’s life since the success of A Kind Heart, is a manual typewriter with a single piece of paper on which he is writing his latest play. He never gets past page 10.

In eight scenes, over the course of eight years, Foster masterfully details the ravages and cruel ironies of the disease. As he becomes increasingly disoriented, for example, Donald’s Scrabble skills remain razor sharp while his memory of what happened this morning has vanished.

His son Blake (Jamie Williams) is a model of the devoted child who perseveres with kindness in the face of his father’s casual micro-aggressions. Blake is a travel writer, a successful one apparently, but his father can never bring himself to admit that his son is a writer at all. Blake is single and therefore must be gay, despite his claims to the contrary.

Throughout the play the question of the English actress and the “complicated” relationship resurfaces. In the final scenes, as dementia chips away at Donald’s normal reticence, the truth comes out and helps explain Donald’s 35 years of non-productivity. Foster’s dialog is lean and muscular, devoid of ornament. This can give the illusion that he is merely sketching in his characters, but the economy works wonders in propelling the piece to its conclusion.

Bannerman, a 30-year veteran of the Shaw Festival, is quite brilliant in delineating the small steps that take Donald from gruff old man to a blank state. Williams is equally impressive as his long-suffering son. Director Patricia Vanstone has done a lovely job of orchestrating these performances into a moving duet. The Writer is Foster’s sixtieth play and he makes it seem like he’s just hitting his stride. Peter Hartwell, who also did costumes, has contributed an elegantly simple set that moves from bachelor pad to nursing home seamlessly. Chris Malkowski has lit it with discretion.

This production is part of The Foster Festival, now in its fourth season, and devoted exclusively to the work of Canada’s greatest comic playwright. The Writer has closed but the Festival continues with Hilda’s Yard (July 10 – 26, 2019), and Beside Myself, a musical (July 31 – August 17, 2019).

The Festival’s home, at least for now, is an ultra-modern performance space, one of several in the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre. The seats are super-comfortable and the sightlines excellent. I hope the Festival continues to prosper. It would be wonderful if it blossomed into a multi-venue event that would showcase not just Foster’s work but that of other Canadian playwrights. From what I’ve been able to sample, there seems to be a treasure trove of impressive Canadian work going back decades.

Cakewalk at The Blyth Festival – A Review

The mission of the Blyth Festival in tiny Blyth, Ontario, is to produce new Canadian work on rural themes. That might seem a tough nut to crack, but they’ve been at it successfully for 45 years now and the quality of the plays I’ve seen has been remarkable.

Not everything they produce is new. They regularly remount productions from earlier years that have stood the test of time. A case in point is Cakewalk, a very funny, old-fashioned, family-friendly comedy by Colleen Curran from 1984. It was Ms. Curran’s first professionally produced play and it is a remarkably solid piece for a tyro playwright.

Director Kelli Fox has wisely chosen not to update the play. A medley of pop hits from the era (courtesy of sound designer Verne Good) ushers us back to 1984 at the Canada Day celebration of a small Ontario town. The setting is a basement room where five of the fifteen contestants in the best cake competition will be sequestered awaiting the call for the judging.

Curran has assembled an assortment of characters that opens up great comic possibilities. For starters, there’s Vivien Leigh Cleary (Rachel Jones), a nun, somewhat uncertain in her vocation, who has come to the competition in mufti, feeling that appearing in her habit might draw unwanted attention and asking her best friend to keep her “secret identity” secret.  That friend, Martha (Rebecca Auerbach), runs a new-fangled healthy food restaurant called Heaven on Earth with her draft-dodging American husband; she is eager to have kids but despairs of ever being able to conceive. Ruby (Catherine Fitch), the wife of a tow truck operator who has set a goal of towing every car in town, shows up in her Cub Scout den mother uniform, convinced it will win the judges’ sympathy. Augusta (Caroline Gillis) has decided to enter the three-tiered cake she has created for next day’s wedding of her daughter, Tiffany (Lucy Hill), who is most definitely not amused. Finally there is Taylor, a painfully inept but ever so sweet archaeologist who is the sole man to enter a cake in the competition. He’s single and looking for love. No extra points for guessing who he falls for.

The plot careens along its zany course as Ruby, desperate to win, begins sabotaging other contestants’ cakes, attempts to get Martha disqualified, and finally makes cakes mysteriously disappear. Meanwhile, Augusta is determined to keep the wedding cake from the grasp of daughter Tiffany who is equally determined to claim it lest the surprise on her wedding day be spoiled. Of course, Taylor and Vivien fall hopelessly in love the moment they set eyes on one another, a totally unbelievable moment that the actors and director manage to make utterly believable.

The cast, many of them longtime Blyth veterans, is terrific. Catherine Fitch, who I love every time I rewatch Slings and Arrows, makes a delightfully bitchy villain of Ruby. Caroline Gillis (Slings and Arrows again) is spot on as the mother saddled with an impossible daughter and Lucy Hill as that daughter is a delicious bit of overwrought crumpet. Rebecca Auerbach creates an utterly sympathetic Martha. Rachel Jones does a masterful job of tiptoeing through the minefield of playing a nun in the throes of first love; she is utterly charming and very funny. Nathan Howe, who was so enjoyable as an amiable doofus in last season’s Wing Night at the Boot, is just as engaging and loveable this time around. At play’s end we feel genuinely pleased that he and Leigh have found one another.

Is Cakewalk perfect? Of course not, but in a way that’s beside the point. There is so much good humor and heartfelt humanity in this piece that minor flaws become part of its charm. This is the sort of play that audiences love but that hoity-toity New York critics would hate; it’s New York’s loss. Sure, Director Fox might have dialed back some of the performances, but there are times when, as Mick Jagger so sagely observed, too much is never enough. As designer, Laura Gardner, works wonders with what is obviously a limited budget, the bulk of which must have gone into Tiffany’s deliriously tacky wedding gown.

The Blyth Festival is one of Ontario’s best-kept secrets, at least for American visitors. I would urge my compatriots who are heading anywhere near the Canadian shores of Lake Huron to seek out this gem. And if you need further encouragement, the smashing Cowbell Brewery and restaurant is on the edge of town.

Cakewalk plays through August 10, 2019

(Illustration courtesy of The Blyth Festival.)

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