Word On The Street – Sunday, September 25th – Toronto

There will be books, books and more books—a veritable cornucopia of books—at Toronto’s Word on the Street this coming Sunday, September 25th. Buy a book; give a book; read a book! And as you browse your way through the bountiful tables do drop by Inanna Publications – booth 328. I will be there from 12: 00 to 13:00 hours engaged in two of my favourite activities: buying and selling books!

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 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: 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.

This Marlowe — A Mystery by a Master Storyteller

There are authors and books that make a powerful first impression. When that feeling is sustained through subsequent encounters in person and with their writing, then I know I’m in the presence of someone with a gift. Michelle Butler Hallett is such an author.

This MarloweI met Michelle in the early 2000’s at the Humber School for Writers in Toronto. We were both in Alistair MacLeod’s seminar group and we have each written about that honour. Michelle was a student whose commitment to form and language was articulate and impassioned, yet quietly and respectfully stated. I, who was secretly stumbling about on my keyboard, was in awe that anyone could find the words to speak about writing. Since that time, Michelle has produced five novels and several short stories. Writing is as natural for her as breathing.

Michelle’s most recent novel, This Marlowe, a work of historical fiction is set in the twilight of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It’s a tense spell-binding story of the last year of Christopher Marlowe’s life. Marlowe, the son of a cobbler, was also a graduate of Cambridge. The two facts, an unlikely combination for a poor boy, add fuel to the speculation that Marlowe may have been a spy for the Queen’s Secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil. Marlowe’s violent death at the age of twenty-nine adds to the mystery and the rumors of espionage.

This Marlowe immerses the reader in the political machinations of an unstable time against the backdrop of Elizabethan England with all its beauty and grit. There were times when I felt like I could see, hear, smell, and touch the surroundings and experiences of Marlowe and his lover Thomas Kyd. The writing is taut, yet eloquent. Michelle has captured her characters, their language, phrasing and cadences in a way that is just shy of magic. She writes vividly about pain and suffering whether it comes from pneumonia, arthritis or torture.That same skill of offering the reader a virtual experience is equally present when she writes about love and compassion.

This Marlowe is one of the few books in my library I will be re-reading, as much for the pleasure of doing so as for the challenge of deciphering how Michelle Butler Hallett created this masterpiece.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope, humor, and knowledge, 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).

Matilda The Musical - Mirvish

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.