A Theatre Buff Reviews The Lorax

What more could you ask for from a play like The Lorax that entertains, engages and educates? Perhaps it’s the presence of a wee one to whom you’ve read the Dr. Seuss story fifty times or more. Perhaps it’s even the presence of someone who was once a youngster and who knew much of the story by heart after multiple bed-time readings.

I’ve never felt the need to see a favourite book or story be turned into a movie or play. In fact I’ve often worried when I’ve heard that it is about to happen because my own images have always been vivid. Curiosity usually prevails and I succumb,  So it was with some trepidation that I went to see The Lorax. It’s a story that has been much loved in our tree hugging family. (We planted two-hundred and thirty-six trees and berry-bearing bushes twenty eight years ago and are now surrounded by a forest.)

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(Left to Right) Laura Caldow, David Ricardo-Pearce, Ben Thompson and Simon Paisley Day. Photo by Manuel Harlan

The play, which has come to Toronto straight from London’s Old Vic, is a satisfying and visually rich production. The creators have taken some licence with the fable and created a back-story, a new middle, and revised the ending. I was not disappointed by these changes. (As I type, I have the original beside me to check out the differences!) For those readers who are not familiar with the story it’s about an enterprising young man, the Once-ler, who comes across a forest of  brightly colored Truffulo trees which he describes: “The touch of their tufts was much softer than silk. And they had the sweet smell of fresh butterfly milk.” For want of a ladder to harvest the tufts he chops down a tree so he can produce a Thneed. When he finishes, a strange sort of man with a “sawdusty sneeze” pops out of the stump and declares “Mister! I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.” And so the battle between capitalism and environmental protection begins.

The Once-ler is perfectly embodied by a string-bean of an actor (Simon Paisley Day). He is joined by a cast of characters who are not in the original story, but who fit the play perfectly. It’s possible though that the puppets upstage the actors! The Lorox’s three handlers are brilliant: the little “beaverish guy” absolutely pleases on every level. The Swomee-Swans swoop gracefully over the audience and the Humming-Fish leap in and out of pails and ponds. The Bar-ba-loots (actors in costume) give audio effects to illustrate the experience of  “getting the crummies.” The set and props satisfyingly re-create the “far end of town where the crickle grass grows,” the “Whisper-ma-Phone” and the glorious feeling of Truffulo trees “[m]ile after mile in the fresh morning breeze.”

The Lorax is playing at Toronto’s Royal Alex Theatre until Sunday January 21, 2018. My recommendation? Re-read the story to someone you love and then take them with you to see the production. I think you’ll be happy you did.

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. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend. 

 

 

 

 

A Theatre Buff Reviews On A First Name Basis

An older friend of mine once declared that, “If at the end of your days you can count true friends on the fingers of one hand, you are a lucky man.” David Kilbride, the author/employer in On A First Name Basis doesn’t have such luck. He pays his ‘friends’; they’re on his payroll…his agent, his publisher, his lawyer and his business manager. The one employee he sees every day, his housekeeper, doesn’t make that list. David doesn’t even know her first name after twenty-eight years of service.

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Norm Foster and Lally Cadeau in On A First Name Basis. Photo by BankoMedia.

Her name is Lucy, by the way: Lucy Hopperstaad (Lally Cadeau). David learns this detail after he has insisted that she stay one evening as she prepares to leave. Through a humorously uncomfortable, witty, and insightful conversation, David and Lucy explore the themes of relationships and death…over several glasses of single malts and Chablis.

Because my husband volunteers as a set builder, we both take note of the set as we settle in before a play begins. This one represents the gracious, well-appointed home of a wealthy man. The ceilings are sixteen feet high; the wood panelling is smooth and dark; mill work abounds; the wing-back chairs  are tufted leather. But I wondered, as I ‘watched’ the play through two sets of sunglasses and often with closed eyes if it was all necessary (I’m managing another concussion!). Like Ravi Jain’s interpretation of David French’s play, Saltwater Moon, that is just wrapping up in Toronto, this play has a captivating back and forth dialogue. A beautiful set may be superfluous.

I saw the play opening night. The leading man, due to illness, was replaced by no other than the playwright Norm Foster. It had to have been very satisfying for Mr. Foster to volley lines with the leading lady, (to whom he had given the best ones!). On A First Name Basis is a fine play; it entertains as it niggles at one’s conscience.

On A First Name Basis is playing at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton until November 11, 2017.

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. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to families and friends who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of someone they love. 

A Theatre Buff Reviews Salt-Water Moon

Salt-Water Moon is a play that both entertains and educates. It’s the story of an interrupted relationship between two teenagers, Jacob Mercer (Kawa Ada) and Mary Snow (Mayko Nguyen) that began in the summer of 1925, and is on the crux of being re-kindled almost a year later. Much has changed for each of them in the intervening months. Righteous indignation has become compromise; fear has transformed into pursuit. Absence has made their perspectives sharper.

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Kawa Ada – Jacob Mercer and Mayko Nguyen – Mary Snow. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography

The year in which the play is set is critical to the story. It’s close enough in time for the memories  of Beaumont Hamel to be raw, and for the consequences of that slaughter to still be felt by fatherless families up and down the coasts of Newfoundland.  And 1926 is close enough in time for islanders to recognize that men who were heroes of WWI are being treated with brutal injustice by owners of fishing boats/fleets. The youth have been changed by their parents’ experiences.

In 1994, I saw Salt-Water Moon at Theatre Aquarius.  The actors were in costume and the set simulated an outport. This production, by contrast is stripped down. A singer/ narrator (Ania Soul) describes the set which we then imagine, and provides stage direction to which the actors are oblivious. If this sounds bizarre, it’s not. The play immerses the audience in a powerful rhythmic give -and-take of dialogue on starlit night by the sea.

Salt-Water Moon is a satisfying play that is exquisitely performed and directed (Ravi Jain). I loved the regional accent, identified with the shame of poverty,  and understood the rage against oppressive labour practices. It’s a play that brings Canadian history to life, much like 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt.

Salt-Water Moon is playing at Toronto’s Panasonic theatre until October 29th. If you need any more encouragement to see this play here’s Kelly Nestruck’s review from 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. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend. 

 

A Theatre Buff Comments On The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Strobe lights and loud noises will keep me away from opening week of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Yes. I’m concussed again. (Insert a choice string of expletives here!!) In November 2015, eleven months after the first concussion, I saw the show on Broadway. Even in my somewhat addled state, and despite flinching from the light and sound, I loved this production.

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The play is based upon the best selling novel of the same name. I had read the book some years before and was curious about how it might be produced. Let me just say it’s creative and edgy. Both are told through the eyes and ears of a teenage lad with an Aspergers-like syndrome who is trying to make sense of the violent death of a neighborhood dog. The Broadway production demonstrated the magic of theatre where the whole is more than the sum of its parts (script, direction, acting, set, lighting, sound). I expect the Mirvish production to be a match for the one I saw two years ago.

Call a friend and book tickets to see The Curious Incident Of The Dog in the Night-time, then tell me how you liked it. I’ve given up my tickets for opening week and will see it later in November.

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. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend. 

 

A Theatre Buff Reviews Three Plays

This summer feels like the season of too many plays and too few minutes at the keyboard. This is not a complaint, except for the bit about time because there are theatrical productions I have not commented on in a timely manner.

When I established this blog my commitment was to comment only on the plays that I enjoyed and to remain silent on the ones that did not move my needle toward “Enthusiastic.” Unfortunately, I’ve been silent on far too many productions for the only reason that distractions and obligations have abounded. I will attempt to make amends by first noting observations that I suspect are the result of seeing over thirty plays per year. Then I will provide impressions of three plays seen over the past month: 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt; Middletown; The Madwoman of Chaillot.

I’ve been struck this year by the power of theatrical ensembles. Perhaps it’s because I’m in my third year of having season’s tickets to The Shaw Festival that I am observing the ensemble performing a full range…from musicals-to dramas-to comedies. I’ve heard actors changing accents as easily as they switch costumes, and I’ve watched them easily inhabit a role playing a different gender.  As my basketball playing husband would put it, “The ensemble is an incredibly gifted team. Each player can move easily and skilfully between offence and defense, and any one of them is capable of being a star player. Shaw has a strong bench this year.” Point taken!

The other feature that has struck me is the power of a small stage embraced by the audience on three to four sides (At the Shaw: 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt, Middletown, Androcles and the Lion. At Stratford: The Madwoman of Chaillot, The Virgin Trial [see A Theatre Buff Reviews The Virgin Trial]). For my husband and me it’s a riveting experience. The staging connects us to the storytelling and the performance in a way that is quite different from observing a play on a proscenium stage.

With these observations out of the way I can move on to impressions of three plays. If you can catch only one play at Shaw this year, and you are a Canadian,  then make it 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt.  

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Travis Seetoo, Ric Reid and Donna Belleville. Photo by David Cooper.

(The Americans who make up a large part of the Shaw audience, are staying away in droves I understand…their loss.) Rick Salutin is the playwright; the story addresses the Upper Canada Rebellion. It’s history that I certainly did not learn in elementary school probably because that history was written by the victors, the ‘ruling class’ who in this portrayal are “thieves, rogues and villains”. The staging is superb. There’s a rhythmicity to the performance that is like a heartbeat throughout the production. The strength of the ensemble is extraordinary.

Middletown at The Shaw is a play that asks if anyone can really know what goes on in the heart and mind of another. Middletown profiles life in a small town where inhabitants have histories that others will not let them forget or they’re newcomers seeking to develop friendships and roots in a place where others have lived for generations. The staging is intimate. That quiet space makes it possible for one character to observe that he “wants to calmly know love on earth and to feel beautiful” and for another to note that we’re “born with questions and the world is the answer”. Unlike 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt there are leading actors, Moya O’Connell and Gray Powell. Their performances are outstanding and they are superbly supported by their peers. It’s been some weeks since I saw this performance and I can still return to the last few scenes in my mind’s eye. Middletown raises questions that that are part of living an examined life.

The last play to comment on is The Madwoman of Chaillot.

The Madwoman of Chaillot, Stratford Festival 2017

Seana McKenna as Aurélie, The Madwoman of Chaillot. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

I saw this production over a month ago and sadly, did  not keep my notes. It’s a well crafted play, creatively staged, that explores the literal and figurative  underground of  Vichy France. There’s an element of fantasy that would have been a welcome solution had the Resistance had access to it, but that was not the case. In a curious instance of synchronicity about the time I saw this play I was reading a novel about the period, and also came across the obituary of Simone Veil .Vichy France was a grim period of what is still recent history. Thank goodness for people who inspired the development of characters like the Madwoman of Chaillot and her friends, and for real life survivors like Mme Veil.

With all the theatre I see, there is more than my happy quotient of musicals. In a fit of pique last season, I actually cancelled our Mirvish subscription and thereby missed out on Come From Away! (We have renewed for this year and have been granted a second chance to see this award winning production). Given my contention that not every story lends itself well to a musical I did see two superb productions this season: Guys and Dolls at Stratford and Me And My Girl at Shaw.  Go see them for the sheer joy of watching the dancers perform.

1837: The Farmers’ Revolt  is playing at the Shaw Festival until October 8, 2017.

Middletown was playing at the Shaw Festival this summer. The last production was September 10, 2017.

The Madwoman of Chaillot is playing at the Stratford Festival until October 3, 2017.

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. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend. 

A Theatre Buff Reviews An Octoroon

If you can get past two men in jockey shorts, revealing more buttocks then you might care to see, then you will likely enjoy, and appreciate, An Octoroon. It’s a nineteenth century melodrama (The Octoroon) embedded in a twenty-first century play (An Octoroon). Had I read my program notes before the play began, I might have understood this fact and been more relaxed about the actors revealing their glutei maximi on stage, and then applying white face and red face make-up as they prepared for the melodrama.

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Ryan Cunningham Starr Domingue, and André Sills. Photo by David Cooper.

An Octoroon explores racism from the perspective of both centuries. As we watch the performances of a black actor in white face and white actors in black face and red face, “We cannot not see race while watching this play. We cannot declare ourselves colour blind and get away with it.”1. It’s a disruptive theatrical technique that is profoundly effective.

At its simplest, An Octoroon is the entwined story of the sudden foreclosure of a southern plantation and the consequences for a  young woman, Zoe (Vanessa Sears), of mixed race who thought she had been assured her freedom by the legal papers her recently deceased father (the plantation owner) had signed some years before. But where there are issues of rights, freedom, property, and love, nothing is simple.

The performances by the ‘slaves’ (Lisa Berry, Kiera Sangster, Starr Domingue, and Ryan Cunningham) are compelling in part because the playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has liberated the actors’ voices by his stage directions: “I don’t know what a slave sounded like. And neither do you.” He might have also added, and I don’t know how they acted either. The result is an effective mash-up of language and conduct with the language moving between southern cadences/pronunciations and modern street-talk, and the conduct ranging from obsequious to cheeky. André Sills who plays three roles portrays the playwright, BJJ, with anger and resignation, and draws clean distinctions between the kind but ineffective heir, George, and the scheming plantation owner, M’Closky.  Patrick McManus is in character at the outset as the verbose and drunken Irish playwright of The Octoroon and then for the remainder in red face as he plays a reserved and faithful Indian. Diana Donnelly (Dora) plays the white heiress who, if only George would marry her, could join two plantations together. We’re left with the distinct impression that were that to happen she would not be bothered with the details of day to day operations.

There are two scenes in this play within a play—the slave auction and the knife fight—that for different reasons are seared in my mind. The auction is foreshadowed by a bill of sale that is handed out with each program. I thought that reading The Book of Negroes might prepare me for that experience. It did not. The knife fight is extraordinary acting. It’s performed by André Sills who plays George/M’Closky, and is literally the struggle between good and evil.

If you plan to attend be sure to look up Br’er Rabbit (Samantha Walkes) on Wikipedia. Understanding the folk lore will help you to understand the timing of the appearances of this character who has Nanabush qualities.

An Octoroon makes for superb, if somewhat discomfiting theatre. It’s well worth your time. Catch it before it leaves the Shaw Festival (Niagara-On-The-Lake) after the October 13th performance.

  1. Program notes by Jennifer Buckley

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. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend. 

A Theatre Buff Reviews The Virgin Trial

Playwright Kate Hennig demonstrated her grip on an audience with The Last Wife at Stratford in 2015. This year, she’s doing it again with The Virgin Trial.

The Virgin Trial, Stratford Festival 2017

Brad Hodder as Thom and Bahia Watson as Bess. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The play covers the life of the young Princess Elizabeth (Bahia Watson) between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. It’s an unstable time for the throne.  Two brothers, Lord Somerset (Nigel Bennett) and the Lord High Admiral Thomas Seymour (Brad Hodder) are jockeying for position at the court of the young King Edward (heir to Henry VIII).  Thom has proposed to each of the Princesses (Mary and Elizabeth) and been refused by the court. He settles for Catherine Parr, the dowager queen and the last wife of Henry VIII, and by so doing he becomes Bes’ stepfather. It’s the combination of Thom’s illicit rallying of troops, sexualized tickling and teasing of Bes, and attempted break-in of the young King’s apartments that puts the future queen in peril. The pivotal question posed by the regency council (Yanna McIntosh) is whether the future queen knowingly conspired with Thomas Seymour to depose her step-brother, King Edward VI .

Could a teenage girl reasonably be implicated in treason? This one could be. She’s smart. She’s strategic. And when she realizes the significance of the charges that have not yet been made against her, she makes every effort to protect her governess, Kat Ashley (Laura Condlin), and comptroller Thomas Parry (André Morin). When Ashley and Parry are sent to the Tower of London, Bes does what any motherless teenage girl would do: She seeks the counsel of her older sister, Princess Mary (Sara Farb). Interestingly, these latter exchanges offer the only break from the tension that reigns on the stage.

The dialogue in The Virgin Queen is taut. The acting is impeccable. The set is sparse. And the costumes are modern. If you plan to attend, be prepared to sit on the edge of your seat.

The Virgin Trial is playing at the Stratford Festival until September 30, 2017

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. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of someone they love.