A Theatre Buff Reviews: The Nether

When consenting adults can put their imaginations together in virtual reality, what are the implications for morality and ethics? The Nether, a brilliant sci-fi crime drama, poses these questions and others through Jennifer Haley’s tightly written script. The production at Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius is both spare and elegant; the cast and the creative team have excelled.

The story is set in the not so distant future where a coder extraordinaire has created a disturbing haven for consenting adults —The Hideaway.  Safely hidden by deep coding, adults can act out their most disturbing fantasies on children. The audience does not see these enactments. They are implied, and that’s probably how this PG14 movie and theatre goer was able to stay in her seat for the entire show. Although I have to say that for much of it, I was on the figurative edge.

The play is a series of vignettes that alters between a sparse nether1interrogation room and the lush space of The Hideaway. During the interrogation, a scrolling script details the charges as a detective from The Nether challenges two detainees (‘Papa’ the coder, and a site visitor) about the morality of their cyberspace activity. Their  responses are evasive and disingenuous. Only the threat of never being able to login again evokes an emotion of fear. The Victorian styled Hideaway, by contrast, is warm and welcoming, and there are gentle familial style interactions between Papa and one of the children, Iris.nether2 Any feelings of this being a safe space are severed when a visitor is received by Papa, and then brought to Iris. The drama plays out in the imagination of the audience, as much as it does on the stage.

The Nether is a play that deserves a much larger audience than Hamilton can provide. It would play well at Off Mirvish which is why Toronto theatre-goers should plan to make the hour-long westward trek to see this superb production.  The Nether is being performed at Theatre Aquarius, Hamilton, from October 26-November 12, 2016.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humor despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands.

Photos of Andrea Runge & Randy Hughson, and of Randy Hughson & Mary Maria Bourdeau are by Banko Media (http://theatreaquarius.org/onstage/the-nether/).

A Theatre Buff Reviews: Adventures Of The Black Girl In Her Search For God

Brilliant! That’s my conclusion about Lisa Codrington’s one act-one hour play, Adventures of The Black Girl In Her Search For God. Codrington pulls no punches yet leaves the audience in stitches, unless the theatergoer happens to be an older white male. At least four such men exited within the first twenty minutes of the production I saw yesterday. It was their loss.

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Adventures Of The Black Girl In Her Search For God is an adaptation of a novella written by George Bernard Shaw in 1932. At the time, it was a radical piece for an old white guy to publish. The play is an exploration by a inquisitive, orphaned black girl of theism, colonialism, slavery, racism, atheism, evolution, scientism and feminism. The script is tight; the set is small, yet astonishing; and the acting* is superb.

I’ll not say more. As the calendar has rolled into September I am limiting observations for a Theatre Buff Reviews. Writing time for my current manuscript is taking precedence over promoting plays I have enjoyed.  I would refer you instead to some excellent reviews on Adventures Of The Black Girl In Her Search For Godhttp://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/theatre-and-performance/theatre-reviews/bernard-shaw-short-story-adaptation-is-the-highlight-of-the-shaw-festival/article30673122/     and https://nowtoronto.com/stage/theatre/the-adventures-of-black-girl-search-for-god-review/        

With eight plays ticked off and two more to go, Adventures Of The Black Girl In Her Search For God  and Master Harold and The Boys have been my highlights of the Shaw Festival’s 2016 season.

Adventures Of The Black Girl In Her Search For God has been playing in the lunch-time slot at the Shaw Festival’s Court House Theatre, Niagara-On-The-Lake. It has one more show date and that is  September 11th. If you cannot catch it then, watch for it over the next few years. It’s bound to reappear.

*Actors: Natasha Mumba, Guy Bannerman, Tara Rosling, Ben Sanders,Kiera Sangster, André Sills, Graeme Somerville and Jonathan Tan.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humor despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands.

A Theatre Buff Reviews: Engaged

Morris Panych’s production of Engaged at the Shaw Festival is unabashed fun from beginning to end. The play was released in 1877 yet the social conventions being satirized are as relevant today as they were over a century ago.

Shaw-EngagedWe know W.S. Gilbert by his association with Arthur Sullivan and the comic operas they created. By the time he began composing librettos for Sullivan’s scores, Gilbert was a well-established playwright. His plays leaned to satire. While George Bernard Shaw was still in short pants, Gilbert had several plays in production.

Engaged is a satire of about the ‘rules of engagement’ leading to marriage. The play begins on the grounds of a humble cottage in the Scottish lowlands on the border of England and Scotland. The location sets the curious premise of the play which is that any man and woman who, when in Scotland, proclaim that they are husband and wife are considered to be married. In the case of Engaged, mayhem ensues.

Gilbert pokes fun at fidelity as easily as he derides love as a basis for marriage. He skewers the class structure relentlessly through the interactions of lowland Scots with English townies, and by way of flirtations between a maid and a lord. As for the innumeracy that is supposed to be the fate of the kinder, gentler sex, Gilbert knocks that by having a young female character know more about a failed bank than does her father. The bank in question in this case is named the “Royal Indestructable Bank.” Gilbert took pleasure in roasting many sacred cows.

The actors* have a formidable sense of comic timing. That teamwork is essential to pulling off a madcap production.  They perform against a set that is simple yet very effective. Even the ten foot high thistles in the first act are used for their comic value. Some costumes gave me pause. There were curious inclusions that were out of place for the period: the Vonda Dr. Martens on Maggie, the silk trousers on Belinda, the modern jeans on the male servant and on Cheviot. Having said, that Angus’ costume is superb. Note the streaks on his legs in Act 1, consistent I would think with the traditional wearing of a kilt! Do keep an eye on his sporran.

If you go, don’t be put off by the beginning which is a vaudeville-like warm-up act. It’s not part of the play that Gilbert wrote. I concluded that it was inserted as a commentary on Gilbert’s time when acting and playwriting were not respectable endeavours.  The play is delightful. On the drive home, we were still laughing at elements that tickled our funny bones.

Engaged is playing at the Shaw Festival in the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-On-The-Lake, until October 30, 2016.

*The cast of Engaged: Julia Course, Martin Happer, Mary Haney, Jeff Meadows, Nicole Underhay, Shawn Wright, Gray Powell, Ric Reid, Mathew Finlan, Diann Donnelly, Claire Julien

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humor despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands.

A Theatre Buff Reviews: The Dance of Death

Tolstoy’s observation that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is just as true for marriages as it is for families. In Strindberg’s The Dance of Death, the marriage of Edgar (Jim Mezon) and Alice (Fiona Reid) is a combination of “hate and love forged together in a foundry of Hell.” It’s the unhappiest marriage I have ever encountered, yet it makes for excellent theatre.Shaw-The Dance of Death 3.jpg

The play is an exploration of a search for meaning in life as much as it is a study of relationships. Alice and Edgar have become socially isolated from their military peers on an outpost island in Sweden. Edgar’s behavior is overbearing at best and tyrannical at worst; Alice’s is no better but managed in a shrewd, manipulative manner. Their antidote to arguing is to recall nasty encounters with other couples and to make denigrating comments. Let’s just say that Edgar and Alice would not make pleasant dinner companions. However, watching the give and take from the safety of the audience is fascinating.

Both Edgar and Alice struggle with what has brought them to this point in life. Their marriage of almost twenty-five years has been a “long miserable mistake”; Edgar’s fellow officers are eager to be rid of him; their children despise them.  Edgar, whose heart appears to be failing, notes, “I always believed we must be dead and paying some horrible penance.”  It’s a sad observation from someone who appears to have neither the skill nor the motivation to change, and it’s a sentiment Alice shares. She notes that, “If we can be patient, death will come.” It doesn’t come, but Alice’s cousin, Kurt (Patrick Galligan), does make an unexpected visit. For a short while his presence relieves the oscillating lassitude and hostility. It’s through the assorted interactions that we learn the backstory to the marriage—the many deceits, both innocent and treacherous, that have played out over a quarter of a century.

This review undoubtedly makes the play seem grim. It’s not that by any means. In many instances, it is quite funny. Edgar’s nearsightedness and his ‘spells’ are shy of slapstick, and points in the marital bickering are humorous, perhaps because they are familiar patterns even in healthy marriages.

The Dance of Death is well worth your time. It has been deftly directed by Martha Henry, and the actors are a strong ensemble. As I left the theatre, a song from my youthful explorations of existentialism came to mind—Is That All There Is?.  From this vantage point in life, my response is: ‘Yes, and….’

The Dance of Death is playing at The Shaw’s Studio Theater in Niagara-On-The Lake until September 10, 2016.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humor, despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands.

A Theatre Buff Reviews: Matilda The Musical 

Matilda The Musical is the delightful tale of a little girl who survives the emotional abuse of her narcissistic, conniving and stupid parents, and the spirit crushing conduct of the headmistress of Crunchem Hall Elementary. The book upon which this musical is based was written by Roald Dahl, so we know that there will be both harrowing and hilarious moments as the story unfolds. Matilda survives these wretched adults because she is a precocious reader and a gifted storyteller. And she thrives because she has support: her Grade One classmates and two mentors (the librarian and her teacher).

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The role of Matilda is demanding. The night I attended it was performed by the talented Hannah Levinson.  She shone, and she was capably supported by her ‘classmates’ who are also triple threat performers.  Matilda’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (Brandon McGibbon and Darcy Stewart) were suitably despicable, and the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (Dan Chameroy), was the embodiment of a mean spirit. The roles of teacher and librarian (Miss Honey-Paula Brancati and Mrs. Phelps-Keisha T. Fraser) were understated by comparison. Both were performed with engagement and compassion.

Kudos to Tim Minchin who created the tuneful music and spirited lyrics and to Rob Howell who designed a set that incorporates colourful and eclectic tiles from the game of Scrabble.

If you plan to see Matilda, do take one or more children with you. The children surrounding me were totally absorbed in the story, as were their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Matilda is a superb introduction to the joy of live performance.

Matilda The Musical is playing at Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto until October 16, 2016.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of one family’s journey through palliative care.

A Theatre Buff Reviews: Master Harold And The Boys

If the United Nations aspired to be a dancing school for world leaders and if politicians learned to dance life like champions moving with grace, never colliding with other leaders, then the world would be a better place. That’s the hope expressed by characters in Master Harold And The Boys as they struggle to find ‘place’ during apartheid in 1950.MasterHarold

Master Harold And The Boys is set on a rainy afternoon in a tea room in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. It’s a single act play that immerses the audience in the story of a boy and two men. Master Harold/Hally is a schoolboy — white, and the son of the tea room’s owner; “The Boys”, Willie and Sam, are two black men — the family servants who operate the establishment and have known Hally since he was in short pants.  The three reminisce about the events that have bound them together, explore the notion of social reform and men of magnitude, and dread the return of the sickly patriarch from the hospital.

It’s a compelling story, told with compressed energy that is intermittently released by Willie as he practices the fox trot and the waltz in preparation for a state championship. We become aware of the affectionate father-son relationship that has developed over the years between Sam and Hally. We also see and hear Hally’s dismissive and imperious treatment toward others he considers not equal: his mother and Willie.  What the three characters ultimately share is their struggle to find their places in a society that seems ruled by the “principle of perpetual disappointment”.

The play is elegantly and tightly written by Athol Fugard. It is performed by three actors with superb chemistry: Allan Louis, André Sills and James Daly.

Master Harold And The Boys is a play for our time — a ‘must see’.

Master Harold And The Boys is playing at the Shaw Festival’s Courthouse Theatre (Niagara-On-The-Lake) until September 10th, 2016.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of one family’s journey through palliative care.

A Theatre Buff Reviews: Alice In Wonderland

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Aspiring set and costume designers will love the Shaw Festival’s Alice in Wonderland, as will anyone who remembers the book with fondness. Others not so much.

The production itself  is spectacular. There is a stunning merge of audiovisual effects with the stage that is playful (the drinking of the potions), eerie (the pop-up appearances of the Cheshire Cat), terrifying (Alice drowning in her ocean of tears), and peaceful (the skiff on the river). The technology magically extends the meaning of ‘set.’ The costumes match the quality of the production. They are colourful, richly designed and creative.  As one expects at Shaw, the actors are uniformly superb in their roles. Alice (played by Tara Rosling) is onstage for the entire production and never once flags.

So why my reservations? Once into the play I remembered I had never really enjoyed the book. There are points of clever wordplay but the story has always lacked an emotional core for me. How Alice emerges from a dream believing she has  grown up is as much a mystery to me today as it was decades ago.

If you have fond memories of the story, then see the play. If you cannot recall your impressions of the book, then take along an observant, artistic and inquisitive child. Had I done so, I may have enjoyed the production more than I did.

Alice in Wonderland is playing at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake until October 16, 2016.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of one family’s journey through palliative care.