Aunt Agnes For Christmas at The Foster Festival — A Review

The Foster Festival in St. Catherines is prospering and, in a first, Norm Foster, the Festival’s eponymous and prolific playwright, has offered up a celebratory piece to mark the holiday season.

Aunt Agnes For Christmas is probably not destined to rank among the best of Foster’s work. It is as airy and insubstantial as spun cotton candy and every bit as sweet, which makes it ideal for a family outing to the theatre, especially if there’s a tween girl in your clan.

Aunt Agnes (Nora McLellan), let’s not mince words, is a witch who arrives at the Trimble house on December 23rd and convinces Sally and George Trimble (Cosette Derome and Kelly Wong, who are married in real life) that she is a long-lost or rather totally unknown aunt on George’s side of the family. Rounding out this seemingly happy family are 14-year-old Melissa (Kate Peters) and the nearly silent 8-year-old Brian (Hayden Neufeld) who, in one of Foster’s odder conceits, fashions himself after Frank Sinatra and later Elvis, complete with period-appropriate costumes.

Agnes pretty quickly tips her supernatural hand to Melissa, but her parents are completely won over and decide that Agnes can be trusted to mind the kids while Sally, the mayor of the small town of Whitehaven, heads to the office and George heads to the RV dealership where he works expecting to collect a juicy Christmas bonus.

Melissa pegs Agnes as “a Mary Poppins from the dark side,” but her real mission is to do good things for the Trimble family, especially the precocious Melissa who sees no future for herself in this provincial backwater and dreams of the day she can escape. Agnes conjures up breakfasts and dinners for which Melissa gets the credit. All the while she teaches the kid new life lessons. Agnes can’t do everything though; she’s of little help when George gets a pink slip instead of his expected bonus. Through it all, however, Melissa learns the importance of family and by play’s end has resolved to build her future in little Whitehaven. Aunt Agnes really is a Mary Poppins figure.

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The humor is vintage Foster, gentle and character-driven and he and director Patricia Vanstone are well served by the cast, all with roots in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Shaw veteran  Nora McLellan has precisely the right tone for Agnes, often saying one thing to the family and something else entirely to the audience. When she compliments George on his facility with English accents, he proudly explains that he has had years of experience with the local amateur theater troupe. McLellan wrings every delicious drop of irony from the response, “And it shows!”

Kelly Wong, who was admirably sinister in Rope last season at Shaw, veers to the nearly opposite end of the performing spectrum as the insanely, one might almost say inanely, cheerful and optimistic George. It’s tough to make this kind of character remotely believable, but Wong pulls it off with aplomb.

Cosette Derome has a delicious moment as a clueless parent, when she explains Brian’s silence.

Sally: He doesn’t say much. He only speaks when he has something important to say.
Brian: Mom?
Sally: Not now, dear.

As good as the adults are, I was most impressed by Kate Peters’ preternaturally poised and professional performance as Melissa. She spends most of the play on stage with McLellan, the consummate old pro, and more than holds her own. This kid has a future.

Aunt Agnes For Christmas continues through December 22, 2019.

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

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 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.