Bed and Breakfast at The Blyth Festival – A Review

Bed and Breakfast by Mark Crawford, a plea for tolerance wrapped in a deceptively simple (and quite funny) comedy, is packing them in at the Blyth Festival prior to a whirlwind tour of British Columbia.

Brett (Crawford himself) and Drew (Paul Dunn), two Torontonians in a committed relationship that has yet to blossom into marriage, are struggling to move from their small condo into a house. The real estate market conspires against them, however, adding to the stress of their unsatisfactory jobs as a designer (Brett) and an assistant manager in a hotel (Drew). Then Brett’s favorite aunt Maggie dies in the small touristy lakeside town where Brett spent his summers while growing up and bequeaths her large house to Brett. At the same time Drew loses out on an expected promotion. So the two decide to leave Toronto, fix the place up, and flip it to finance their Toronto dream home. When they realize how much they loathed their Toronto jobs, they decide to transform the house into a B&B.

That premise might suggest the play is about the humorous adventures of rehab with colorful local workmen and the foibles of oddball B&B guests — a sort of A Year in Provence meets Fawlty Towers. There’s all that, of course, but the play turns into much more. Brett and Drew are at first apprehensive about being the only gay people in town, but matters take an ominous turn when they experience some homophobic slurs and major anti-gay vandalism during the Christmas season. As it happens, the majority of the townspeople are quite supportive and Brett and Drew are not the only gay people in town. As the play progresses, we learn that while Brett and Drew may be “out,” there are a lot of things hidden away in both their family closets.

The “mystery” at the heart of the play may not be entirely new — indeed, it’s a plot device that goes back to Shakespeare and the ancients — but Crawford handles it beautifully as both playwright and actor and when the truth was revealed a tear came to my eye. The play also offers a subtle commentary on generational changes within the gay community. Brett and Drew seem to pride themselves on being “just-like-you-but-gay;” some of their Toronto friends seem to revel in their more flamboyant, old-school gayness; while the younger generation, on the other hand, seems to reject easy labels in favor of a more fluid definition of sexuality.

Bed and Breakfast has twenty-two characters, all of them performed by two actors. Crawford positions the play as a story being told to us by Brett and Drew, which makes that concept work quite well and seem considerably less arch. A great part of the enjoyment of the piece is watching Crawford and Dunn switch effortlessly from character to character, often with a little jump and a spin. I especially enjoyed Crawford’s renditions of both Alison, a lesbian who runs the town’s hippest coffee shop, and Dustin, a shy teenager who loves to bake and is gay but doesn’t know it. Dunn’s portrait of Brett’s teenage nephew, who answers every question with “I dunno,” is equally deft.

One thing that makes the conceit work so well is Ashlie Corcoran’s deft direction. Crawford and Dunn mime all the props and wear clothes in a muted palette of greys, which they change unobtrusively and only occasionally. Designer Dana Osborne, in addition to doing the costumes, has provided a malleable set, also in muted tones, that borders on the abstract but becomes quite believable as bedrooms and store counters. John Gzowski’s uncannily pinpoint sound design and Rebecca Picherack’s equally spot-on lighting add immeasurably to the illusion. All of this focuses the audience’s attention on the acting, which is quite wonderful.

As I noted, Bed and Breakfast is, on one level, a plea for tolerance. It seems to ask the question, “Can gay people be accepted as members of the community in small towns that are, sort of by definition, far less tolerant than big cities like Toronto?” Well, Blyth is a small rural town and if the standing ovation accorded the show by the mostly middle-aged and elderly audience with whom I saw the play is anything to go by, the answer would seem to be a resounding “Yes!” Even so, Bed and Breakfast, under all the laughter, has a message well worth hearing. I fear it will be quite some time before audiences come away from this play thinking, “How dated!”

Bed and Breakfast runs through September 28, 2019.

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

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
blythfestival.com

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
blyth festival.com

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
https://blythfestival.com/