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Review: An Enemy of the People

27 Sep

An Enemy of the People,Tarragon TheaterTalk about starting with a bang. Artistic Director Richard Rose has opted to present an English translation of a German adaptation of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People as the Tarragon Theatre’s 2014/2015 season opener. It sounds like the kind of project that could have easily and almost literally gotten lost in translation but Rose’s bold choice as AD of the company and equally bold choices director of the production pay off in no uncertain terms.

At the heart of Enemy is a modern moral dilemma; When Thomas Stockmann (Joe Cobden), a small town’s well-meaning doctor discovers that the town’s spa’s waters are contaminated with waste and bacteria from factories upstream from the source, he sees the problem as having a simple solution – move the spa’s water intake further upstream. But with the spa being the town’s primary source of income and his solution representing a serious threat to its financial viability, others around him, including his brother Peter (Rick Roberts) – a business-friendly town councillor – and his friend Hovstad (Matthew Edison) – the anti-establishment leaning editor of the town’s paper – react to his findings far less pragmatically, leaving him trapped in the middle of an ideological battle. Soon, Stockmann’s simple determination puts him at odds with the rest of the townsfolk – whose motivations are not all as noble – and he ultimately finds himself in the surreal position of having to defend what seemed like solid moral high ground as well as his own good standing in the community.

Although Florian Borchmeyer’s adaptation may not have been penned with Canada or Toronto in mind, the parallels are hard to miss. Our contradictory economic dependence on the oil sands and distaste for its ecological consequences is the most obvious, but the less honourable side of City Hall politics, which we have become all too familiar with, also permeates the dramatic proceedings. This is most wonderfully obvious when, during a scene taking place at a town meeting, the boundaries of the production are busted wide open in glorious fashion. If there is one weakness to note, it is the occasional stylistic inconsistency of dialogue; while the production is fully modern in most respects, some lines still have the musty air of an age of didactic theatre gone-by and clash with those that have been more artfully updated.

While the ensemble cast – which also includes Tom Barnett, Brandon McGibbon, Richard McMillan, and Tamara Podemski – and their performances are all very strong (Roberts is at times particularly fun to watch romp around in hysterics), it is Rose’s unconventional staging that steals the show. Making no attempt to create a sense of visual realism, Rose imbues the production with imagery scrawled in chalk on the slate walls of the set (designed by Michelle Tracey), using the idea of “black and white” both a stylistic and thematic statement. Recognizable pop covers performed by the musically adept cast add extra layers of meaning while reinforcing the mood of artifice. Even the no-brainer concept of actors playing to the audience is tested, with Cobden at times delivering lines to the walls, effectively enhancing his sense of isolation.

The whole thing is a wonderfully slow and thought provoking burn that eventually builds to a delightful state of mania. Here’s hoping the entire season is this good.

 

Summerworks Picks: Part 4

16 Aug

Due to time constraints, these productions aren’t getting the word-count they deserve, but are all strong entries in this year’s festival, which sadly winds down this weekend. Catch a few more shows while you can!

disappear_0113-copy-620x426How to Disappear Completely

Israeli lighting designer Itai Erdal’s utterly moving piece is best defined as a theatrical conversation, and the unfettered directness of the communication between performer and audience is only one of the many reasons that one may find oneself tearful by the curtain call. Erdal’s piece revolves around the story of his strong-willed mother, her losing battle with cancer, and his attempt to document via video the events and conversations leading up to her death. Fortunately Erdal is a natural and confident storyteller and he affords the heavy material the right amount of levity to make for a surprisingly entertaining – if ultimately bittersweet – 60 minutes. Erdal’s integration and dissection of his craft, in the form of lights and lighting cues he controls and discusses from the stage, doesn’t run completely parallel to the personal narrative, but this second facet to the show is fascinating enough (at least from a layman’s perspective) that it still adds considerably more to the experience than it distracts.

Enough-Rope-Photo1-620x500Enough Rope

This non-narrative performance-based piece manages to both parody and pay homage to its chosen genre with great aplomb – an apt combination for such a notoriously love-it or hate-it format. A physically confined tent-like setting breeds intimacy and circus-esque aesthetic choices hint at the tone of the show which is both tongue-in-cheek and earnest in equal measure. Rather than try to confront the audience, the quartet of dedicated performers engage with them, the spontaneous back-and-forth impressively quick. Charming and inventive stuff.

ADAM041-620x500The Art of Building a Bunker or Paddling the Canoe of my Self down the River of Inclusivity and into the Ass of the World

This incredibly politically-uncorrect comedy about a mid-level government employee forced to attend sensitivity training comes courtesy of Toronto clown community notable, Adam Lazarus, and director Guillermo Verdecchia. Bunker keeps one in stiches for the first half, but eventually the meat of the piece emerges which Lazarus, as the sole actor, supports with a fiery yet calculated performance. One may never agree with the protagonist or his views, but his journey does give one unexpected insight into the concepts of human fear and vulnerability.

to-myself-at-28-smTo Myself at 28

Queer theatre legend/pioneer/still-kicking-ass-and-taking-names-er Sky Gilbert takes to the stage with protégé Spencer Charles Smith in a piece that – in the hands of a lesser artist – could have come off as self-indulgent. Fortunately, Gilbert’s self-effacing, fourth-wall breaking, and reflective style, makes this sometimes contentious conversation with a younger version of himself (as embodied by Smith) an honest and refreshing work. Smith deserves special credit for mirroring Gilbert so effectively while still adding his own cheeky touch.

Late-Company-photo-credit-Erin-Brubacher-620x500Late Company

Playwright Jordan Tannahill impresses again with a nuanced and mainstage-worthy piece about the consequences of bullying and the extent to which those consequences reach far beyond the victim. Given the premise it would be easy to slip into preachy territory, but Tannahill artfully avoids it, instead giving some breathing room to every side of the argument – even those than come off as archaic. Director Peter Pasyk and the top-notch cast work together to present a taught yet natural performance; the always captivating Rosemary Dunsmore delivers a particularly strong turn as a mother in mourning.

 

Summerworks Picks: Part 3

12 Aug

salomes-clothes9528-copy-620x500Salome’s Clothes

This tender and nuanced work about, Queen, a caring and level-headed single mom raising her two whip-smart daughters is unfettered by overwrought drama or unnecessarily complicated staging, and as such is able to deliver tremendous emotional impact. Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s subtle yet powerful script leaves one wanting to shout in protest from one’s seat as the remarkable mother wilfully blinds herself in the name of stability and comfort. Even more impactful is the play’s conclusion, expertly staged by director Clare Preuss, in which the condensed passage time is used to great effect to punctuate the consequences of Queen’s singular misstep.

The cast of three, helmed by Karen Robinson as Queen, deserve much kudos. Their ability to communicate profound emotional truths through remarkably natural performances – and without having to resort to wailing matches or vitriolic breakdowns – is akin to a breath of fresh air.

Summerworks Picks: Part 2

11 Aug

More treats from the Summerworks theatre lineup!

 

Holy Mothers

This translated import from Austrian playwright Werner Schwab is most definitely not for those with sensitive constitutions, but it is nevertheless a strangely charming piece of theatre blanketed with delightfully dark humour. At the centre of it are three aging cleaning women (Vickie Papavs, Astrid Van Wieren, and Lorna Wilson) who spend their downtime regaling each other with unpleasant and exaggerated tales about shit, vomit, and their troubled children, as well as simple and hopeful fantasies about better lives filled with romance and goulash. Didactic philosophical statements about the nature of life interspersed in the script feel clunky, but do break up the scatological content and give the characters some depth. Schwab’s greatest choice is to have his piece literally parody itself, giving one the sense that it’s all part of a grand and well-crafted joke.

Director Elizabeth Saunders and set/costume designer Anna Treusch’s aesthetic choices enhance the piece greatly; the kitsch-adorned set and the characters’ personalized costumes communicate just as much as the dialogue. All three performers are commendable, but Vickie Papavs deserves special mention for her quirky and sympathetic portrayal of Mariedl, the pious and off-kilter member of the trio.

 

Delicacy

Yet another splendid offering from one of Toronto’s most reliable independent companies, Theatre Brouhaha, helmed by playwright and human spitfire, Kat Sandler. Delicacy is set in an upscale condo owned by Mark (Andy Trithardt), a pompous writer and Tonya (Tennille Read), his uptight interior designer wife as they entertain Colby (Kelly McCormack) and Len (Kaleb Alexander), a free-wheeling fauxhemian suburbanite couple they met at a swingers club. While the plan is for an experimental evening of spouse swapping, the socially-obligatory socializing that precedes it goes awry and produces more tension and cathartic soul-baring than arousal.

Sandler manages to comment on the urban lifestyle and its superficialities, contemporary racial perceptions, class relations, sexual politics, and the fallibility of love and marriage – all while still giving priority to her story, characters, and sharp and witty dialogue. The performances do the script justice with strong turns from the entire cast; each actor embracing their character’s archetype while still giving them palpable depth and humanity.

 

The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw

This toe-tapping musical, billed as a “bluegrass opera” is a quaint piece of storytelling from playwright Peter Anderson, supported by a talented and energetic cast and an outstanding soundtrack. Perfect summer fare.

Using the familiar trope of the southern farm boy who makes a deal with a devil at the crossroads in exchange for musical prowess (or in this case, a supernatural banjo), The Ballad of Weedy Peetstraw is a treat to sit through. While the cast are clearly having a ball on stage, and director Jennifer Brewin manages to evoke mood, location, and folksy charm with impressively few resources, it is John Millard’s music that is the true star of the show. Staying true to both the style of bluegrass and the expositional conventions of musical theatre, Millard’s score for banjo, bass, fiddle, and guitar is tuneful, moving, and far more interesting than the cookie-cutter ballads that have come to define the Broadway musical (I’m looking at you ‘Wicked’). His use of choral harmony is a particularly haunting treat.

 

Summerworks Picks: Part 1

9 Aug

One day in and we already have a gem of a show to tell you about!

Tender Napalm

Philip Ridley’s not-at-all-straightforward piece (the contrast in the title is appropriate) may be about two young people stranded on a tropical island, it may be about two people falling in love at a bittersweet party, it may be about both. There are few structural barriers to the reality presented, making for a delightfully fluid and vibrant experience. Ridley’s script is rich with overlapping themes; love, lust, violence, and loss all permeate the story without it ever feeling contradictory or overwhelming.

Director Cynthia Ashperger keeps her cast in constant physical and emotional motion, making the transitions between scenes (and the term is used loosely) impressively seamless. She, along with her talented cast (Kyle Purcell and Amelia Sargisson) capture the spirit of children playing make-believe while offsetting it with some very adolescent and adult moments.

Purcell and Sargisson both impress, each walking a fine line between aggression and remorse, reality and imagination. Sound designer David Mesiha also deserves a nod for his work.

Fringe Picks: Part 3

11 Jul

Liza Live! Full disclosure: Jennifer Walls, the performer playing Liza Minnelli in this production also appears in another production affiliated with the editor of this website. Normally, we would try to avoid situations where a review may be tainted by personal interests, but we feel strongly enough about the charm and energy of this show – an opinion that was evidently shared by the audience (let’s call them an independent litmus test) – that we’ll make an exception. Walls does a wonderful impersonation, nailing the voice and mannerisms of the colourful and oft-caricatured songstress and daughter of Judy Garland. Even more remarkable, she manages to utterly humanize Minnelli (and her many vices) and still pack in a few toe tapping numbers in just over 50 minutes. There is definite room for this production to grow – brief lines like “I was told I would never walk again” beg to be expanded on.

You Won’t Be Here (Tomorrow) On paper, this drama about two disparate adult sisters who re-hash their personal history and uncover fresh secrets is very well-trodden theatrical territory, but that isn’t to say that this creative team don’t pull it off artfully and with great impact. James Fanizza’s realistic characters organically navigate the dense swath of melodrama he lays out for them, and director Carrie Adelstein’s choice to present the piece in a raw and authentically rundown loft space only heightens the grit factor. Cast members Karen Ivany and Julie Lemieux impress, delivering performances well above the Fringe standard.

I Hired a Contract Killer This adaptation of the 1990 film by Finnish auteur and cinephile favourite Aki Kaurismäki recreates the story of a working class man who, after being fired from his non-descript government job, decides to off himself with the assistance of a professional – a plan he regrets when he unexpectedly falls in love after the contract is signed. Director Bruce Pitkin does an admirable job of evoking a cinematic mood somewhere between ‘Film Noir’ and Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ and uses the large and youthful ensemble to great effect as both narrators reciting screen direction, and as human set pieces – like a cab complete with windshield wipers. One of the few flaws: a charming but peculiar final note at stylistic odds with the rest of the piece.

Weaksauce In this earnest and achingly relatable one-man show, Sam Mullins (who some may remember from last year’s Tinfoil Dinosaur) tells the story of his first time falling in love – at the romantic hub that is hockey camp no less. Mullins is a natural performer and between his underdog-like quality and his friendly presence, he quickly has the audience completely along for the ride. Interspersed in his casual language are some great turns of phrase that leave one laughing much longer than expected. Weaksauce was a late addition to the Fringe and is not found in the print program, which is all the more reason to support this worthy show.

Fringe Picks: Part 2

8 Jul

Here are some more treats courtesy of Toronto Fringe Festival participants:

We are the Bomb Playwright Kat Sandler and her company, Theatre Brouhaha – who took the festival by storm last year with Help Yourself – are back with another outstanding entry. This site specific piece, set in the Paddock Bar at Queen and Bathurst, takes place in the hours before a modern-day prohibition is set to take effect in Canada. A small ensemble of revolutionary vigilantes and a handful of assorted strangers band together to fight the new law, but ill-conceived plans and heightened emotions quickly push the motley group into Lord-of-the-Flies-esque territory. Sandler can be given much of the credit for the piece, but it is apparent than the entire, and utterly wonderful, ensemble of Brouhaha regulars (and a couple of fresh faces), have put their personal stamp on the often hilarious and occasionally intense material. There isn’t a weak link among the bunch, but Benjamin Blais and Elliot Loran steal the show with their perfect yin-yang chemistry as the bl0whard and often clueless rebel leader and his nebbish and practical assistant.

Peter n’ Chris Explore their Bodies Peter n’ Chris can join Morro and Jasp on the wall of “Perennial Fringe Comedy Superstars”; this sketch-based dynamic duo wow once again with an imaginative take on the Hunger Games – set inside Chris’ body. It’s slightly darker and edgier fare than some of their previous work, but no less hysterical. Their synchronicity is spot on, their frequent fourth wall-breaking never feels tired, and their ability to evoke settings and objects with virtually no production elements is testament to their talent as true theatre artists. If you have never seen them before, just do it.

Polly Polly Toronto indie theatre darling Jessica Moss uses her trademark bluster and bravado to great effect in this tender piece about Polly, an aimless 20-something cinema denizen who wakes up one morning to find that her entire life is now narrated by a presence in her head. The narration prompts her to pursue her “true self” – the woman she thought she would be, or should be. It’s a simple narrative – and in the hands of a lesser artist the premise might even seem cliche – but Moss is a powerhouse performer able to charm and move the audience effortlessly. Highlights of the work include sketch-like asides, including one of Polly attempting to find her “true self” through Yoga – a hilarious scene that says out loud what I’m sure many people have always been thinking on the inside.

Fringe Picks: Part 1

6 Jul

The Toronto Fringe is now in full swing and here are a few early charmers and pleasers!

Adventure! Matt Gorman’s double-edged romp through a Camelot-esque world in which marital strife is a greater concern than any fire-breathing dragon is spotted with moments of hilarity, many of them courtesy of gangly and petulant Sir Godfrey (played by the comedically-blessed Andy Trithardt), his servant Osric (Colin Edwards), the foppish and imbecilic Prince Langley (Carter Hayden) and a straight-faced hermit (Jim Armstrong). Balancing the comedy is an more serious undercurrent loosely touching on the theme of mortality. The piece does have  are a few uneven patches where the energy lags – perhaps a first night issue that will be smoothed out as the run progresses – but even so, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable entry.

It‘s Always You: A Musical From Dan Redican, member of the legendary Canadian sketch comedy troupe, The Frantics (seriously, if you have never heard of them, google them now – do it!) and c0-starring Canuck screen queen Sheila McCarthy (I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, Little Mosque on the Prairie, Die Hard 2 – I like that movie, gimme a break), this quiet musical revisits the same three old friends in a plethora of “what if” alternate universes to explore themes of regret, sacrifice, and life choices. It’s simple but thoughtful material that is enhanced by Redican’s gentle humour and a likeable fourth-wall breaking narrator. The cyclical structure of the piece does hinder a feeling of linear narrative progression, but that isn’t to say that one does not feel as though one hasn’t been on a journey with the characters.

Radio: 30 Chris Earle’s one-and-a-half-hander (essentially a one man show with off-stage vocal support from Fringe vet Paul Constable) was a big hit when it debuted in 1999 – and with good reason. This subtle and ever so slightly dark comedy peels back the facade of the world of commercial voice work with great effect and surprising emotional impact. On a superficial level, one comes away with an appreciation for the artifice of the format and the performances behind it. On a more profound level, Earle reveals the inner turmoil of “Ron”, a professional voice over artist who examines his moniker of “artist”, the fragility of his career and the fragility of friendship, all while cooing to the audience in dulcet tones. A great performance from Earle mixed with unique material makes for a remarkable show.

Summerworks Picks: Part 3

18 Aug

Another round of impressive shows from the Summerworks festival!

 

Terre Haute

Terre Haute marks a stark departure for director Alistair Newton and his company, Ecce Homo. Their trademark style of ironic white-faced cabaret that has served them well in previous Summerworks productions The Pastor Phelps Project and The Ecstasy Of Mother Teresa, is notably absent, replaced by simple and profound naturalism – a choice dictated in part by Edmund White’s dialogue heavy script.

Based on Gore Vidal’s essays on and correspondence with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, Terre Haute imagines a series of meetings and interviews between partially fictionalized versions of the legendary writer and the notorious domestic terrorist in the days leading up to the latter’s execution. Through their discourse, James (Vidal) and Harrison (McVeigh) develop an odd sort of chemistry; even though their personal backgrounds and perspectives on morality are wildly different, they find kinship in their mutual disdain for the arrogance of American government, in their shared intellectual curiosity, and even in their common status as sexual and romantic outsiders. It’s a challenging pseudo-love story that is unambiguously anti-violence, but also makes the point that acts of violence – and the motives of those behind them – ought not to be universally dismissed as nothing more than the senseless work of the deranged.

Terrence Bryant is compelling as James, balancing the author’s default haughtiness with vulnerability and grace, while Todd Michael Sandomirsky’s treatment of Harrison is magnetic, his cold burning eyes and chiselled features contradicting the humanity with which he imbues his character. Newton’s direction is elegant and effective, allowing White’s conversation to dominate while nudging the audience perspective through the occasional rotation of the set and characters.

 

When it Rains

When it Rains is described in the Summerworks program as “a live-action existential graphic novel”, and impressively, this production from writer/director Anthony Black of Halifax-based 2b Theatre delivers on that lofty promise.

Using only a digital projector (the sole light source), a wall of flats, and a scant few props, the creative team paints a bold and block-print like world of pixels for the characters to inhabit. Simple animation elements enhance the minimalist look while a cinematic soundscape fleshes out the constructed reality. Clever and convincing illusions, like that of a couple seen top down sleeping together in bed, add to the theatrical magic.

The story – that of two interwoven couples facing the decay of their relationships and grappling with the unyielding nature of tragedy – is just as strong as the technical elements. Dry and funny, and augmented by uncluttered dialogue, Black’s script charms as much as it challenges. Detached and all-knowing text and voice-over elements reinforce the themes of fate and pre-determination that lace the work.

A strong cast and imaginative direction (especially given the two-dimensional restrictions of the piece) allow When it Rains to reach its full potential.

 

Terminus

The centrepiece of this Irish roller coaster ride is Mark O’Rowe’s stunngingly dark, disturbing, and equally colourful and imaginative script. The story takes place over one night in Dublin and is woven together via the first-person perspectives of a headstrong help-line volunteer on a moralistic mission, a young woman saved from death by a supernatural creature, and a greasy male wallflower with a sinister hobby. What makes O’Rowe’s words particularly impressive is that the entire piece is spoken in sort of broken rhyme – present enough to add lyrical grace, transparent enough that one never gets the sense the characters’ natural dialogue has been contorted in the name of gimmickry.

The rock-solid cast, comprised of Maev Beaty, Ava Jane Markus, and Adam Wilson, deliver painfully convincing performances, while director Mitchell Cushman makes some bold and effective choices, such as seating the audience on the stage with the actors mere feet away and thus eliminating any sense of comforting distance. An otherworldly lighting design by Nick Blais is the ominous icing on the cake.

 

Summerworks Picks: Part 2

14 Aug

Here are some more stand-out productions participating in this year’s Summerworks festival!

 

Iceland

From writer Nicolas Billon and directed by Ravi Jain, Iceland is set largely in a swank downtown Toronto condo and is structured as a series of three narrative monologues each delivered from a spot-lit chair. It’s a simple set up for a rich piece of storytelling that artfully weaves the three monologues together into a cohesive and circular whole. Money acts as a thematic centrepiece, although it serves to inform rather than overshadow the more important human elements.

Iceland’s unique characters (an Estonian student turned call girl, a ladder climbing real estate agent, and an unstable Christian conservative) share the same world, but each speak and act with such distinct style and perspective that the experience is very much like watching three separate but interconnected plays – a fact that speaks to both Billon and Jain’s versatility as artists. The notable cast of Christine Horne, Kawa Ada, and Claire Calnan all deliver excellent performances, but it is Horne’s delicate and understated naturalism that packs the most deceptively powerful punch.

 

Artaud: Un Portrait en Decomposition

“Decomposition” is an apt adjective to use in conjunction with Antonin Artaud, surrealist poet and rebellious theatre maker. This artist of alienation (his most extreme works would have even left Brecht scratching his head) was eccentric and misunderstood – a status no doubt exacerbated by his bouts with mental illness and drug abuse. His personal trajectory was not always a happy one, and towards the end of his life he was largely isolated save for a very few dedicated friends.

Creators Adam Paolozza and Michelle Smith can be commended for their artful restraint. They wisely do not play biographer by attempting to explain Artaud or his inner workings via transparently expositional monologues, or put him up on a pedestal as an unsung hero, but rather use his own words to paint an evocative portrait of the complex and enigmatic man. Paolozza, who also plays Artaud, delivers the entire piece in French (accompanied by English surtitles) doing justice to the poet’s words, and to his manic energy too, at times writhing and galloping with abandon.

Artaud: un portrait en decomposition is a well crafted, organic, and thankfully three dimensional homage to an artist whose work is now more commonly found in classrooms and textbooks than on stage.

 

Your Side, My Side, and the Truth

The Summerworks roster is often heavily coloured by issues of social justice, politics, and other chin-stroking material. That is not to say that there aren’t a few feel-good (and intelligent) antidotes in the mix. Atomic Vaudeville’s previous smash hit Ride the Cyclone is one perfect example, as is this year’s Your Side, My Side, and the Truth from writer/actor Rebecca Auerbach.

Charming without being annoyingly quirky, smart without being overwritten, relatable without being generic, and moving without being maudlin, Auberbach’s story about modern relationships strikes the perfect tone. Drugs, blowjobs, yoga, hangovers, and STDs all firmly ground Auerbach’s characters in urban twenty-something reality while matter-of-fact voice over narration gives her piece a literary edge.

Of the capable cast members, Auerbach herself shines brightest as Renate, an easy going hedonist whose thick hide is challenged by an unexpected romance.

 

Huff

Actor/Writer Cliff Cardinal (whose 2011 Summerworks show Stich turned a lot of heads) applies his comedic sensibilities to painting the some of the darker realities of contemporary native life in this compelling one man show. Using the story of two young brothers as a means to explore issues like gas huffing (in case you wondered what the title referred to), alcohol abuse, suicide, and other nastiness, Cardinal puts a human face on headlines that still seem all too familiar.

Cardinal spins this tragic material into theatrical gold with imaginative dream sequences, personified talking animals and video games, more laugh out loud moments than you think would be possible considering the subject matter, and a challenging moment of fourth wall breaking that had audience members yelling out in genuinely concerned protest.

Director Karin Randoja and designer Elizabeth Kantor support Cardinal’s script and performance with lively staging and a simple but visually effective and multipurpose set.

 

Petrichor

Writer/Director Erin Brandenburg, along with her company Kitchenband Productions, is back and wooing audiences again with their trademark combination of rural Ontario storytelling and folksy musical interludes played on unusual and often homemade instruments.

Unlike their previous productions, Reesor and Pelee, which were both set in the past, Petrichor is the tale of a modern day tomato farm near Leamington, and the love that blossoms between the boss’ son and a young migrant Mennonite worker. It’s a simple and tender story, and an authentic glimpse into the world of those who provide the sustenance on which we live day to day. It’s refreshing to be reminded that while many of us grapple with mundane problems like subway delays and line ups at Starbucks, there are others in this province whose livelihoods can be made or broken by nothing more than the whims of rainfall (incidentally, ‘petrichor’ refers to the distinct smell of rain hitting dry earth).

Brandenburg fills the stage with visual appeal, using subtle animation, shadow play, and plenty of rustic set pieces, while music director (and cast member) Andrew Penner provides a soothing and evocative soundscape.

What made this reviewer’s experience particularly memorable was that, unbeknownst to the patrons enjoying the performance inside, a light rain shower was simultaneously passing over outside, and upon exiting the theatre audience members were treated to the real scent of petrichor. Magical.

 

The Magnetic Fields – The Attraction’s Still There

5 Apr

Oh, The Magnetic Fields. It would be so easy to label them as a middle aged hipster band, but I won’t, because nothing could be further from the truth. And the truth is that they’ve always been understated, melancholy, and deliver a one two punch of wry-dry onstage banter – long before it was en vogue for musicians to behave like social wallflowers. It has taken hipsters twenty years to catch up to and appropriate their style, and that ahead-of-the-curve-ness is testament to the fact that they were pioneers, not followers perpetually concerned with reinventing themselves or giving a shit about trends. In twenty years, when the “cool kids” have worn their plaid flannel shirts threadbare and abandoned their über-thick rimmed glasses in favour of pink tutus and top hats (I say this under the assumption that the 2032 equivalent of ‘Lumberjack Buddy Holly’ will be “Ballerina Henry Higgins”), the Fields will still be themselves, anachronistic or not.

To call them an indie band bears an extra weight of accuracy, for that moniker is not bestowed upon them for conforming to a genre (the irony of the word “independence” being used to lump music into a convenient category is already lost on too many), but precisely because they have always stood on their two feet. May they never stop doing so.

That wish may be unnecessary. With the launch of their new album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea – an album filled with darkly comedic tales of love and revenge – they are already gaining a lot of renewed and positive attention. With the reintroduction of their trademark synth infused sound, the album is being favourably compared to their 1999 mega-opus 69 Love Songs, a triple album of poppy bite sized compositions rife with romance and irony.

The Magnetic Fields are currently on tour to promote Love at the Bottom of the Sea and recently made a stop at the Sound Academy in Toronto, where they performed to a generous crowd dotted with 20 somethings, 30 somethings, and 40 somethings in equal measure (regardless of age, plaid flannel – not yet threadbare – seemed to be the uniform of choice).

Opening for them was solo electronica artist Bachelorette who, in terms of charisma, did a pretty good impression of Wednesday Addams. Her enjoyable set of choral-synth pop had more panache, with hints of Bjork, Animal Collective, and even a little Enya to keep things interesting.

In contrast, the Magnetic Fields offered up an intimate, eclectic and almost entirely acoustic set, with Claudia Gonson on piano, Shirley Simms  on Ukelele, John Woo on guitar, and Sam Davol on cello. Magnetic Fields creative juggernaut and chief songwriter, Stephin Merritt – looking positively Dickensian sporting a beard, wool cap, and scarf – lent his distinctive sandpaper baritone to most numbers and alternated between harmonium, melodica, and a trio of kazoos. Although not as complex a sound as their studio output, the clean and crisp quality of their live performance meant that nary a witty lyric or poetic image was squashed.

Their set was, not surprisingly, an assortment of old chestnuts and new tracks. Fan favourite, ‘Chicken with Its Head Cut Off’ was plucky and bright in contrast to the hauntingly sombre and minimalist rendition of their standout hit ‘The Book of Love’. The country-infused ‘Plant White Roses’ offered an opportunity for Gonson, Simms, and Merritt to engage in beautiful three part harmony, while ‘Swinging London’ used the ensemble as a whole to create a notably full and rich soundscape – especially with Davol’s cello shining through.

Often just as memorable as the songs themselves were Merritt’s quirky introductions and musings, including “The audience is in a scary blue light. I’ll pretend you’re zombies.”, “We do not take requests. We took a request once and it did not go well.”, and “This is a song about a terrible place in the United States called San Francisco. Never go there, and if you do, come back.”

In a world where videos of precocious cats and groin destroying skateboard mishaps have become the gold standard for entertainment, such subtle showmanship and musicianship is a rarity that ought to be cherished.

For more information about The Magnetic Fields, their tour dates, blog, and discography, check out their website at www.houseoftomorrow.com.

Iphigenia in Tauris – A Hauntingly Beautiful Opera

24 Sep

The Canadian Opera Company launches their 2011/2012 season with a visually arresting and chillingly atmospheric production of Gluck’s bright and hauntingly beautiful Iphigenia in Tauris. Under the directorship of Robert Carsen and the baton of Pablo Heras-Casado, this Greek myth turned opera mesmerizes without relent.

The plot of Iphigenia in Tauris is not a simple one, and is further complicated by the fact that the events of Tauris are preceded and put into context by an entirely separate and equally grandiose tale, Iphigenia at Aulis (itself a sort of prequel to the story of the Trojan war). Needless to say, Tauris is the type of opera that necessitates a glance over the program notes before the house lights dim. The core of the narrative is this: Iphigenia (Susan Graham), the daughter of a famed Greek general, is clutched from the hands of death by the Goddess Diana, who transports Iphigenia to the isolated kingdom of Tauris. Indebted to Diana, Iphigenia lives as a priestess obliged to (as prescribed by the Gods) do the bidding of Thoas, Tauris’ king (Mark Doss). Thoas, terrified by an oracle’s prediction of his death at the hands of a stranger, orders Iphigenia to sacrifice any newcomers who enter Tauris. Tragedy strikes when Orestes (Russell Braun), Iphigenia’s beloved brother, and his dear friend Pylades (Joseph Kaiser), are shipwrecked on the shores on Tauris, placing Iphigenia in the heart wrenching position of having to either kill her sibling or defy the deities and suffer the consequences.

It’s the type of nightmarishly fatalistic drama that perfectly compliments the operatic medium. The entire creative team embrace this over-the-top quality and deliver a highly stylized performance that works hand in hand with the source material. Director Robert Carsen and his associates present the audience with a sparse production design; the set – essentially a large carbon coloured box marked with a grid like texture – acts as a canvas for chalk, ink black water, and vivid shadow play, all of which are used to great effect. The lighting, designed by Carsen and Peter Van Praet, is equally evocative, emanating from the performers’ feet like the glow of Hades and casting the characters’ silhouettes thirty feet tall.

Another wonderful choice is the substitution of an on-stage chorus for a dance ensemble that brings an entirely different form of performance into the already impressive mix. Philippe Giraudeau’s choreography is well synched with the rest of the piece, his dancers often moving through the space in organic unison like a flock of birds, or writhing in agony in tandem with the protagonists’ torments.

Gluck’s score is something of a counterpoint to the aesthetics; written in 1789, it possess the calculated grace characteristic of his contemporaries, such as Hayden or Mozart, but also an exuberance and energy more commonly associated with later romantic composers. It is this contrast that makes Iphigenia in Tauris such a rich and enjoyable musical experience. Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado relishes Gluck’s lively indulgences, making the work’s fleeting moments of joy stand out both musically and narratively.

Veteran mezzo-soprano Susan Graham shines in the titular role, her emotive voice capturing both the detached otherworldliness of Iphigenia’s existence and her more personal emotional turmoil. Russell Braun was absent due to a cold on the night this reviewer attended, but word on the street is that Canada’s own baritone star is feeling better and in fine form. His understudy, Adrian Kramer, stepped in to play Orestes and did not disappoint, giving a convincing and heart-felt performance – especially when across from Joseph Kaiser as Pylades, Orestes’ bosom buddy.

Combining age-old works with contemporary stagecraft is one of the common challenges of modern opera, but Iphigenia at Tauris pulls it off perfectly. It’s a powerful and visionary production that ought not to be missed.

For tickets and more information, head over to the COC website here.

Fringe Fest Review: The Tiki Bikini Beach Paradise Party A-Go-Go

9 Jul

One of the best things about the Fringe is the fact that frothy and entertaining escapism is celebrated with as much vigour and enthusiasm as any staid and straight faced drama. A perfect example of this is Allison Beula’s outrageously retro The Tiki Bikini Beach Paradise Party A-Go-Go which sends up the 1960s surf movie genre with so much up-beat energy and musical prowess that it is impossible not to leave the theatre tickled to the core.

The story is so utterly (and appropriately) inconsequential but earnestly played that it only adds to the appeal of the show. A gang of groovy teens want to celebrate the end of summer by throwing a party on Bikini Beach but are denied the privilege by leather-clad beach bully The Big Tuna. The solution to the sandy stand-off? A surfing contest of course.

A cast packed with comedic and vocal talents bring Beula’s lovingly and hilarious corn-ball script to life while surf-rock band the Von Drats provide a live and authentically vintage soundtrack. The show’s strongest element is its musical numbers which are not only incredibly catchy but colourfully choreographed too.

The Tiki Bikini Beach Paradise Party A-Go-Go is kitschy, campy, and an undeniable crowd-pleaser.