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: 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).

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: Our Town

Our town

The stark simplicity of the set and stage props in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town belies the depth and breadth of life on the eastern seaboard in the early 1900’s. The setting is Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire and we are introduced to it by the Stage Manager who takes the audience on a social tour of individual, family and community life over a ten year span. It’s a relatively quiet period of history, after the Civil War (1861-1865) and before the outbreaks of World War 1 (1914) and the Spanish Influenza (1918).

The play reveals a truth about life both then and now: Days, weeks and years go by so quickly that we seldom see, hear and appreciate the complexity, richness and beauty before our eyes and ears. The point is underscored by Wilder’s commitment to the staging of this play through miming of domestic chores and the use of a minimalist set and stage props.

There is much to celebrate in this production. The actors portray their characters with consummate skill from the precocious Emily, to the cynical and worldly Mr. Webb. The props are multi-functional and elegant in their simplicity, and the lighting effectively portrays changes in time of day and season. My only reservation was with some costumes for every day wear. The fabrics would not have lent themselves to scrubbing on a washboard, which would have been the mode of cleaning at that time. Having said that, I also doubt that the folk of Grover’s Corners would have had Scandinavian styled household furnishings. So consider my comments to be only a minor irritant from someone who examines costumes perhaps a tad too closely!

Our Town is definitely worth your while. It runs until October 14, 2016 at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

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

 

A Theatre Buff Reviews: If/Then

If/Then is a musical that delivers through story, song and dance. It’s engaging and it’s clever. The premise explores possible futures for Elizabeth (Jackie Burns), a young and recent divorcée, as she learns how to make a life in New York City after moldering in Phoenix for ten years.

If/Then seamlessly blends two versions of Elizabeth’s life from the pivot point of one day in Central Park. As Liz/Beth’s futures evolve, then so do the lives of her friends. Not surprisingly, the story-line becomes complex. Audience members who prefer a linear tale could find the play/musical confusing. Mirvish often has a synopsis in their programme, but not this time.

This musical examines the fabric of living and loving in the city. Elizabeth, who has a PhD in urban planning,and her social activist friend, Lucas (Anthony Rapp), explore the form-function question: How does one design city space to enhance constructs like social justice and hard realities like personal safety? The same question plays out in relationships. How does one weave in threads of love, joy and spontaneity into structures of marriage, job and family. These complex questions are explored through characters who are intelligent and reflective, and they are handled in a way that is funny yet serious, and light-hearted yet poignant. As one character notes, “How much you love your life is what every life is worth.” This statement summarizes the ethos of the play perfectly.

While I will admit to preferring musicals where I leave the theatre humming, If/Then’s music and lyrics are compelling. The performers are energetic and they are ‘on their game’ for both acts. Jackie Burns, is the lynchpin and she never wavers. She has an outstanding ability to convey a range of emotion through song.

The set designers skillfully convey a range of space in NYC by the creation of two levels: A walkway, like an industrial High Line, runs the length of the stage. Above the walkway, images of brownstones and iconic NYC buildings are projected and  often overlaid on city planner grids of neighborhoods. Most of the performance takes place below the walkway using a movable feast of stage props to proficiently create a variety of scenes: city park, office, living room, bedroom, bathroom, and subway.

If/Then is a musical, which much like Rent, is likely to bring a young audience into the theatre. And that’s a good thing for those of us who enjoy the artistry and energy of live theatre!

If/Then is performing at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto until May 8, 2016.

2016-If-Then

A Theatre Buff Reviews: Cinderella

I’m not sure which pleased me more – the edgy, contemporary take on the Cinderella story, or the rapt attention of my six and a half year old seat mate. Mirvish’s Cinderella is lushly costumed, fast paced, fun and filled with humour that has a multi-generational appeal.

What’s so different about this version? Cinderella (Kaitlyn Davidson) is a modern young woman, dressed in 19th century clothing, who becomes empowered through the timely intervention of her mentor/ fairy godmother “Crazy Marie” (Liz McCartney). At court, Cinderella demonstrates the power of kindness and compassion in a culture that has come to celebrate ridicule. And with a wonderful twist on an age-old story, the handsome prince, Topher (Andy Huntington-Jones), is ‘saved’ by the humble Cinderella. I fear giving away the plot but let me just say that when Act 1 ended with Cinderella running off at midnight wearing both glass slippers, the audience gasped. The lost slipper has always been Cinderella’s calling card.

The principals play their roles with a combination of humility and gusto:

  • Cinderella and Prince Topher — gentle and well-intended
  • The Wicked Stepmother (Blair Ross) and the Prime-Minister (Blake Hammond)— nasty and scheming
  • The Fairy-Godmother — confident and capable
  • Charlotte (Amyee Garcia), a wicked step-sister — narcissistic and opportunistic
  • Gabrielle (Kimberly Fauré), a not-so-wicked step-sister —  friendly and cautious
  • Jean Michel (David Andino) — hopeful and almost revolutionary.

The staging is splendid with something always happening. There is a fairy-tale appeal to the forest, the family home, and the palace, and the set changes occur seamlessly.  The transformations of pumpkin to carriage and critters to footmen take place before the audience’s eyes. The choreography, verging at times on gymnastics is engaging. The costumes are vivid and lush. And at risk of having you catch something I could not capture, do watch closely for Cinderella’s on-stage quick changes. They are amazing, and as close to magic as the costume designer would have envisioned.

Cinderella

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music and lyrics were new to me. The original production of Cinderella had been designed as a musical for television in 1957 and showcased Julie Andrews. As a Julie Andrews fan, I would say that Kaitlyn Davidson’s voice is a good match. It’s pure and strong.  One young woman I spoke with had been expecting the music from the Disney version and was disappointed to not hear ‘Bippity-Boppity-Boo’, however it did not prevent her from enjoying the show which she found “enchanting”.

I am left with one quote from Crazy Marie aka The Fairy God-mother: “If you have a dream, then very soon thereafter you’re going to have to fight for it.” It’s a positive message for all of us, regardless of generation.

Cinderella is playing at the Ed Mirvish Theatre on Yonge Street until January 10, 2016.

See you at the theatre!

A Theatre Buff Reviews: Jesus Christ Superstar

If you have not yet booked tickets to see “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Hamilton’s Hillfield Strathallan College, then do so now. It’s outstanding ! The run is limited to three performances: Thursday December 3 and Friday December 4 beginning at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday afternoon at 2:00.

This production is far from the average high school musical. The set is a minimalist industrial space which uses the sidewalls of the auditorium for the projection of media which range from news clippings of the sights and sounds of Occupy, to text messages, Facebook likes, and vivid graphics. It’s an edgy and relevant backdrop for an age old story of love, betrayal, compassion, remorse  and resignation.

“Jesus Christ Superstar” is the story told through song of the last week of Christ, from the time he enters Jerusalem until his crucifixion.  The relationships between and amongst Jesus (Adrian Felice), Judas (Michael Lewis) and Mary (Sasha Paikin) are at the forefront. Judas is portrayed as a friend who is worried about the throngs who gather around Jesus calling him the King of the Jews. He fears it could spell trouble with the Roman rulers and bring harm to Jesus and his disciples. Judas is also unsettled by, and perhaps jealous of the deepening friendship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

About the time the priests—Caiaphas (Ryan Bennett), Annas (Allie Snopek)— become alarmed by the threat that Jesus could present to their authority, Pontius Pilate (Nicholas Richardson), the Roman governor, has a dream that he will be held responsible for the death of a man from Galilee. When Jesus becomes enraged by the debauchery taking place within the Temple his fate is sealed. The priests and the angry crowd will have their way.

Jesus Christ Superstar 2.jpg

This production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” is the ultimate team performance with every cast member, student stage crew/technician, teacher, and adult volunteer contributing to its success. The performances are polished; the actors have embraced their roles. The ensemble and the disciples are a capable core. They move with ease between being a riotous crowd to a rapt audience. The leads have challenging solos which they sing superbly:  Caiaphas’ slow and low bass underscores the power that he holds within the Temple;  Judas’ anger and his anguish comes forth in a raw edged tenor; Mary’s compassion is expressed with both strength and sweetness; Pilate’s torment as he determines justice is clear and measured; Herod’s (Brendan Darcel) narcissism is both campy and irreverent; and Jesus, who has a full range of emotions to express, does so with eloquence.

The costumes have the look of soft grunge and suit the production. (Look for the armbands on the disciples.) The choreography is tight, fresh and well executed. The musicians are accomplished. And the lighting/media screens are timely and effective.

It’s a superb production. I saw the dress rehearsal which was close to flawless. But why believe me? Buy a ticket and see for yourself.