Book Review: The Carpenter From Montreal

Who knew that the original 4G network was a nexus of gamblers, girls, guns and gangsters, and that the Canadian hotspot was Montreal?  Until I began George Fetherling’s latest novel, The Carpenter From Montreal, I did not know that Montreal was a Babylon of the North during the 1920’s and 1930’s .

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Fetherling spins his taut tale of two lads from immigrant families who Americanize their Lebanese names to Jim Joseph and Pete Sells. Through a combination of wits and good fortune, the two men become successful bootleggers and purveyors of games of chance in a “town” somewhere south of Canada. (My bet is on Brooklyn.) It’s Jim who encounters the French carpenter on one of his early bootlegging runs. A mentoring relationship of sorts begins. Unlike the expectations one would have of someone called “The Carpenter,” this character never touches tools traditionally associated with the craft. He’s more of a fixer—behind the scenes. From him, Jim learns about moving goods across borders and keeping the wheels of justice greased. And he acquires the carpenter’s habits of elegant attire, lavish surroundings and bodyguards.

The story-telling in The Carpenter From Montreal is unconventional but compelling. Three characters—a ghost, a newspaperman, and a lawyer—recount the rise and fall of Jim and Pete against a rich backdrop of characters, conversations, and street-life. There were times when I marveled at how Fetherling, who was born after this epoch, had captured in almost cinematographic detail the corruption and swagger of the time. I was fully immersed in the period.

The Carpenter From Montreal is an engaging and entertaining examination of a period and a lifestyle from an author who is a master craftsman. (See a recent article in The Globe and Mail for an update on Montreal’s red-light district).

 

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 A Few Good Men

Last week I commented on a stage performance (North by Northwest) that began life as a screenplay. Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men however first featured on Broadway before it became a film. I’ve never seen the movie. As a result of Theatre Aquarius’ production of A Few Good Men, it’s now on my Must See list.

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Ruby Joy, Benjamin Sutherland, Lovell Adams-Gray and Mike Shara in A Few Good Men. Photo credit: BankoMedia

A Few Good Men at its core is a fast-paced convoluted tale of two conspiracies within the U.S. Marines: a charge of murder against two junior marines, and the attempt to keep the charge from coming to trial. It’s bracketed by a sub-plot of confrontations: ideals vs. pragmatism; privilege vs. duty; female vs. male; seasoned vs. junior. The dialogue is intense and it’s riveting. The lead actors are compelling in their delivery.

As a result of seeing over thirty plays a year, and being a volunteer with amateur productions, I’ve paid more attention of late to how a production comes together. Yes, the actors are critical, but without the teamwork behind the scenes, the audience would see a variation of script reading. What struck me in this performance was the military precision of the fly system, the introduction and removal of set pieces (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fly_system). At Theatre Aquarius this system is operated manually. I’m impressed.

As summer theatre at Shaw and Stratford comes to a close, the fall and winter theatre season elsewhere begins. I look forward this year to the lineup at our regional theatre, Theatre Aquarius. It’s varied and it’s professional. And yes, there is a musical—Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. This is a production I’ve wanted to see since it came to Toronto in 1992. At that time, the combination of babe in arms, a toddler at my feet, and a busy career meant that the only theatre I could see was within a thirty minute radius. Thank you for being there Theatre Aquarius!

A Few Good Men is playing at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton until October 7, 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 friends and family who want to prepare themselves to help fulfill the final wishes of someone they love. 

A Theatre Buff Reviews North By Northwest

Campy special effects are not usual associations with stories of cold-war intrigue and mistaken identities; however Mirvish has found a way to combine both in its current production of North By Northwest. The result is laughter throughout and, at opening night, a standing ovation.

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Olivia Fines and Jonathan Watton in North by North West – Theatre Royal Bath. Credit: Nobby Clark

The play is an adaptation of the movie and while it seems ‘true’ to the movie, something I learned after seeing three very different productions of Agnes of God is that there is never ‘one right way’ of producing an art piece. There is no end to human creativity when given the same words and directions. Playwright Carolyn Burns has risen to the challenge of transforming an action-suspense script to the stage.

The play is set in the sixties during the cold-war. The plot line is simple—a case of mistaken identity set inside international espionage. There are good guys, bad guys, a sexy dame, and FBI/CIA agents. With a 1940’s sense to the cadence of dialogue and conduct my sense is that the playwright’s intention was to create a mash-up of these two periods to allow for the use of particular special effects.  (Now I have to re-watch the movie to see how it was produced!)

Anyone who comes to this play with distant recollections of scenes from the movie (the drunken ride, the crop duster airplane and the climb down Mount Rushmore) will wonder how they might be recreated on stage. Superb choreography in combination with AV technologies and sound effects make them happen. The choreography is first evident when a set piece that looks like a leather two-seater couch is ‘transformed’ into a taxi. Actors in behind the piece move it in time with the projected street scene and sound. It’s simple and it works because it’s live theatre and the audience’s imagination and willingness to suspend belief are essential to the magic of every performance. But what is really interesting is the use of the overhead projector. The audience’s first introduction to it is a ‘zoom-in’ of an address on a rolled cardboard tube. After that, this old technology is used to great and somewhat campy effect to create the scenes I had recollected from the movie as well as many more.

North By Northwest is an excellent example of the amazing team work that goes into every production. It’s playing at The Royal Alex in Toronto until October 29, 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 friends and family who want to prepare themselves to help fulfill the final wishes of someone they love. 

 

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.