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July 5/08

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The date above is the date on which the page was started. The more recent reviews appear towards the top of the page.

Reviewed here: My Winnipeg (Movie); Time To Put My Socks On (Fringe Play); Opera On The Rocks (Fringe Show); Hockey: The Musical! (Fringe Show); Death To Dating (Fringe Show); The Faith Show! (Fringe Play); Without Whom (Fringe Play); One Woman Show (Fringe Play); Long Live (Dance)

 

My Winnipeg (Movie) written by Guy Maddin and George Toles; directed by Guy Maddin; with Darcy Fehr, Ann Savage, Amy Stewart, Louis Negin, Brendan Cade, Wesley Cade

When you buy into a Guy Maddin movie, you know you’re opting for weird. You also know there’s a good chance you may not like it but you go anyway because you figure it’ll be interesting weird. What you don’t bargain for is boring weird.

In this so-called documentary, we have a sleepy man on a train passing through the streets of Winnipeg. What marvel of engineering enables the train to navigate the Winnipeg streets, never mind: it’s all surrealistic and dreamy. In fact, references to sleep walking keep recurring in the monotonous, poetic voice-over narration which sounds like a would-be actor auditioning. We’re told over and over that Winnipeg is cold and snowy. We get some well-known facts about the General Strike of 1919. We also get references ad infinitum to the forks of the Red and the Assiniboine Rivers and the momentous significance there of: something to do with the lap of the narrator’s mother, among other things. What we don’t get is anything to care about.

But then the narrator decides to rent the house where he lived as a kid. So he installs the original furniture and hires some actors to play his family members. You think maybe this will produce some story, some drama. At least, the tiresome narrator shuts up for a while. But nothing comes of the family setup except a really lousy performance by the woman Mr. Maddin hired to play his mother. Maybe that is supposed to be part of the charm of the piece?

You see, it all has a kind of faux-primitive quality to it. Flickering, blurry black and white photography, hand-held camera, stark lighting – the kind of thing that will have you exclaiming "It’s all so cinematic!" if you’re the kind of person who drools over that kind of thing. And if you like scripts that throw around words like "palimpsest" and "decode", so much the better for you.

For me, it came as a surprise when, after about fifty minutes, something did catch my attention. When Mr. Maddin starts telling about the demise of the old Eatons store and its replacement by a cheap, inadequate arena, he leaves off the attempt at poetry and you feel his passion. Especially when he talks about the destruction of the city’s old arena which was redolent with memories for him. Then come some really odd facts about Winnipeg’s history. Like the time some horses escaping a stable fire got caught in the river and their frozen heads stayed poking through the ice all winter. Then there was that male beauty contest adjudicated by the city’s mayor for many years until the whole thing blew up in a scandal. And that little boys’ naked birthday party in the locker room at the swimming pool.

Apart from those items, which come late in the game, the rest of movie struck me as so pretentiously arty that I kept wondering if it was meant as a parody of a documentary. But no. Apparently, Mr. Maddin means everything he says here. Too bad he has so little to say.

Rating: E (as in the Canadian "Eh?" i.e. "iffy")

Later: Having read some commentary on this movie (something I seldom do before seeing a work), I now understand that one isn't supposed to know whether or not any of Mr. Maddin's opus is true to history. In which case, I guess it's all supposed to be some sort of fey joke. Maybe it takes a certain sensibility to get it. I don't.

 

[Disclaimer: Given that it's Fringe time in Toronto, the reader should be aware  that I may -- or may not -- have had some connection, familial or friendly, with people involved in the following shows.]

 

Time To Put My Socks On (Fringe Play) by Alan Shain, Michele Decottignies and Nicole Dunbar; directed by Michele Decottignies and Nicole Dunbar; starring Alan Shain

Mark wakes up in the morning on the first anniversary of his relationship with Linda. A phone message from her tells him that they have a lot to talk about this evening. But Mark doesn’t want to talk; he has other things on his mind. You see, Mark wants us to know that he’s just like any other guy, even though he has cerebral palsy. (At least, I assume that’s the case; there’s no program note explaining actor Alan Shain’s affliction.) For the rest of the play Mark talks to us about his life and his relationship with Linda. With humour, he points out some of the ironies for a guy in his condition but some of his best lines are observations on humanity at large. Linda wants him to wear socks that match his outfits, he tells us, but "men don’t wear outfits."

It must be admitted that this piece is not easy to watch. The sight of the very skinny Mr. Shain in his underpants scuttling around the stage on his hands and knees can make one feel uncomfortable. And it takes some time for one’s ears to get accustomed to his speech. It’s obviously very difficult for him to articulate words clearly but he does manage to make almost everything intelligible. The effort can wreck havoc with comic timing, though. By the time he manages to get some lines out, the joke has died.

So there's no question that this is a brave performance and a striking one. Mr. Shain makes some good points about what life is like for someone like him. Even after many years of intensive physiotherapy, he realizes, he will never manage to pass as "normal" in the eyes of most people. While listening, you find yourself thinking that you could relate to this guy as a friend, sitting in his apartment sharing thoughts and ideas.

But does this piece work as theatre? Not for me. A play needs to engage us emotionally, to pick us up in one place and put us down in another place at the curtain. In this case, we get a lot of circling around and around in a muddle about Mark’s attitude to Linda. A kind of resolution comes at the end but it’s impossible to discern any structural arc carrying us through the play. 

Maybe the piece would work better if we had Linda too on stage. Then there might be some conflict, some drama, something actually happening in front of our eyes instead of all this telling about stuff that has happened. That’s the great pitfall of one-actor shows. They can be interesting and informative but someone talking about his or her life doesn’t make for much of a play.

 

Opera On The Rocks (Fringe Show at the Pauper's Pub) Music by David Ogborn; Words by Leanna Brodie, Dave Carley, Lisa Codrington, Krista Dalby; Directed by Liza Balkan; Performers: Neil Aronoff, Neema Bickersteth, Keith Klassen, Jessica Lloyd

Opera until now – you wait expectantly in your expensive seat until the lights gradually go down, a hush comes over the audience, then a wave of applause breaks out as the conductor, in tails, enters the orchestra pit, comes forward into a spotlight and bows. Spotlight off, conductor turns, raises his baton and the opera begins.

Opera now – we’re milling around in the pub, chattering and laughing, eating and drinking, when gradually we become aware of a commotion at the bar. It’s the singers, they’re clustered there singing angrily about something. It’s hard to say what. They could almost be the ensemble in Don Giovanni decrying the Don’s perfidy. Then you realize they’re raging at a tv screen, and being Canadian, they’re fuming about what matters most – a hockey game. Fittingly, when the quartet stomp away from the screen in disgust at their team's disgrace, the final line of the aria hits the so contemporary note: "You suck!"

In this intriguing piece, we get a cross section of life today as it’s lived and expressed in bars. A drunk who thinks he’s charming tries to pick up women. A gay man and his woman friend meet over a drink for their weekly gossip and bitching session. A man and woman who’ve met on the Internet argue about their loyalties to various hockey teams. A woman who’s had a few too many begs the server for another drink after closing time.

Through all this, the performers are tossing off spectacular volleys of operatic vocalizing, but director Liza Balkan has managed to find the kind of action that makes the performers blend in naturally with the rest of us -- except for special instances requiring a more stylized choreography, as when a server’s boasting about her prowess as a high school basketballer. By way of accompaniment to the shenanigans, David Ogborn provides evocative instrumental effects, sometimes by a twanging on the strings of a guitar, at other times by a sort of generic electronic noise.

All four performers sing stupendously well. As an actor, though, it is, perhaps, tenor Keith Klassen who makes the strongest impression. That could be because he's the only one who plays the same character all evening – the drunk. Staggering around, he taunts the crowd with jibes that sound like genuine ad-libs. When his chance at Karaoke finally comes, his soulful lament "Jesus loves me, why can’t you?" sounds more bluesy than operatic but the singers slumped at the bar provide gorgeous backup.

Is there a place for such innovation in today’s opera world? Certamente! But I’ll still turn out now and then for Don Giovanni and the conductor in tails.

 

Hockey: The Musical! (Fringe Play) Book by Rick Wilson and Justin DeMarco; Music and lyrics by Rick Wilson; directed by Rick Wilson; starring: Michael Bien, Stephen Flett, Zahir Gilani, Michael Gill, Jennifer Hope, Michael Johnson, Christopher Leidenfrost, Arnon Melo, Ted Neal, Adam Pellerine, David Straus, Kenn Taylor (Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse, Toronto, until July 13)

Time was – maybe 20 years ago, the first year of the Toronto Fringe – when Fringe Festivals were all about experimental, off-the-wall shows with minimal production values. But gradually word got round that Fringes were great places for trying out more ambitious projects. So the grass roots stuff started getting edged out of the limelight by highly polished international productions. Like this one. Although most of the cast are Toronto-based, the key creative personnel are highly-experienced professionals from the US. That may sound like a complaint but it’s the only one I can come up with. Except to say that Hockey: The Musical! is too damned good for a Fringe Festival.

You know we don’t like to reveal much plot here at Dilettante’s Diary but it’s impossible to discuss this show without mentioning the main point of the story. A player on the Minneapolis "Turtles" hockey team is outed as a gay man in a scandal that has unfortunate consequences for lots of people Not least among whom are his teammates who grumble and grouse quite a bit about the impact of the kafuffle on them.

But the story, poignant as it is, isn’t what makes this show. What you’re gonna remember long after the curtain comes down are the songs and the production numbers (of which there are, unfortunately, not quite enough). When you get those eight hockey players out there on roller skates, in uniforms and helmets, blasting their testosterone-fuelled harmonies, meanwhile wielding their hockey sticks with picturesque precision, you’re really seeing something. The highlight of the show comes (a little too early) when a fuming coach decides to humiliate the players by forcing them to do a song and dance number demonstrating that they’re wusses rather than hockey players. Thus we get the theme song: "Hockey, the Musical!" As if that isn’t outrageous enough, then we get one of the players forced to do a soft-shoe number – on roller skates. And to top that, another roller-skating player tosses off a little classical ballet. At the climax of the piece, the coach chimes in with the high note, "Don’t cry for me, Minnesota."

With such show-stoppers, it would hardly matter about the acting but it’s uniformly excellent. Christopher Leidenfrost (he’s also a co-producer) does great work as the sexually conflicted player. Even better, he sings beautifully. In one very touching moment, he’s singing plaintively about his confusion and his deceased dad (David Straus), once a hockey player, appears in a ghostly spot behind him, singing along to encourage him. (Remember those paintings of the kid playing hockey with the ectoplasm oldster hovering over his shoulder?)

Rather than single out every one of the superb performances, I’ll just mention some highlights. Jennifer Hope has more than enough gutsy, belting voice and dymanic persona to do justice to the sports reporter/girlfriend. Stephen Flett, who always provides a solid, dependable presence in the Fringe, turns in one of his best performances ever as the bad-tempered coach with a yen for musical theatre. Michael Bien as team captain, with his manly swagger and his powerful voice, rules over the locker room mayhem with impressive authority. Michael Johnson, as a Swedish player, injects a note of sanity in all the panic by asking why Americans care so much about sexual hanky-panky. When it comes to double-casting, Michael Gill and Ted Neal each pull off two such contrasting characters that it didn’t hit me until just now that we were dealing with two actors, not four.

Since this highly-polished show is obviously heading for the top, I’ll make a few more critical remarks than one would in the case of a well-intentioned but less professional Fringe effort. The locker room scenes need to be tightened a bit. In some of them, the pace lags, with the result that some of the players stand around, waving their arms somewhat amateurishly. The set pieces – mainly two large boxes arranged in various configurations from scene to scene – seem cumbersome and require too much effort on the part of the cast to move. And I have one question about the acting. It seems to me that the jilted girlfriend didn’t need to be quite so bitchy. We understand her pain, but maybe we’d feel it more if she showed a little sympathy towards her outed boyfriend (after all, it hasn’t been any picnic for him). Then we might even cry a little – which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

Because we leave the theatre feeling like we’ve had a hell of a good time, thanks to that rousing finale "You’ve got to know who you are!" (Answer: "You’re a Turtle!") That number, along with many others, could have been encored if only the Fringe didn’t run on such a tight schedule. Only solution: see the show again. To manage that, though, you're gonna have to sneak up on the line outside the theatre and kill one of the lucky bastards who has a ticket to one of the remaining shows which are probably all sold out by now.

 

Death To Dating (Fringe Play) by R. J. Downes and Kathryn Malek; directed by Victor Correia; Music and lyrics by David Hein; Choreographer Jen Johnson; starring Julia DeSotto, Brad Hampton, Kesta Graham, Deva Neely, Adrian Proszowski, Noella Choi, Jamieson Eakin, Kevin Morris, Kathryn Malek

As in the case of Without Whom, reviewed further down on this page, my main reason for seeing this show was to compare it with an earlier production of the script. (For my comments on that show see Dilettante’s Diary, Mar 8/07: New Ideas Festival, Alumnae Theatre.) However, I was somewhat wary of this new incarnation because song and dance have been added. I’m not of the generation that feels that everything from the Bible to the phone book is automatically improved by being turned into a musical.

On entering the theatre, though, we were confronted with a pale-faced woman in a black veil sitting at an organ on stage and pumping out lugubrious melodies. Given her frequent resorting to a box of tissues, it looked like she had a bad cold but then I realized she was crying. And then I remembered from the original production: We’re at a funeral! (Those plastic flowers might have tipped me off.) The cast members, in mournful mein, started strolling in and shaking our hands, thanking us for coming. It looked like this might be fun.

And it was. The neat premise of the piece is that Lorene, a single woman of a certain age, figures that funerals are a great place to meet eligible men. Her determined pursuit of this quest has macabre results. Definitely what you could call a black comedy. Unlike the hard-driving rock that I was dreading, though, the music turned out to be lovely, with witty lyrics. All of which were delivered beautifully by the cast (although some voices weren’t up to making the words of the patter songs entirely audible).

Choreographer Jen Johnson made excellent use of a back-up chorus, bringing them into the action in quite imaginative ways – providing props just when needed, etc. Drilled within an inch of their lives, the five chorus members all performed splendidly but I particularly appreciated the elegant poise of Kathryn Malek.  One of the best moments came when a desolate Lorene was moping in her apartment and the chorus flocked around to console her with the song, "You’re not alone!" The helpful singers pointed out that Lorene had her 30 pairs of shoes, her seven cats and endless episodes of "Survivors" to keep her company.

In the starring role, Julia DeSotto has the brassy voice and the comic flair to make the most of the man hunter. Brad Hampton partners her ably, especially in the singing and dancing routines, as an attractive but elusive divorced man. Kesta Graham, as the sensible friend, provides a welcome antidote to Lorene’s mania.

 

The Faith Show! (Fringe Play) created by and starring Madeleine Donohue and Benjamin Clost; directed by Jonathan Geenen, Factory Theatre Studio, Toronto (to July 13)

Here’s this attractive couple who love each other very much. They figure they’re ready to get married. She’s sort of Catholic – goes to mass occasionally – but, like a lot of young people, she’s not sure what she believes. He has no use for religion. Trouble is, she wants a Catholic church wedding and you know how tight-assed the Catholic Church can be about these things.

Who would have thought such a subject would make a hit Fringe comedy? But that’s what seems to be happening – judging from the enthusiastic response of the almost sold-out audience at the show on Saturday, July 5th.

To hazzard a guess about the play’s appeal, I suspect it strikes a very contemporary note for many young people who can’t quite decide what to believe these days. There’s a certain respect and nostalgia for the old ways, and yet...and yet....what about all that crap like the Church’s stand on women’s rights, gays, etc? However, it’s not just the philosophical questions that make the play. The key to it – the issue at the heart of the matter – is how the young couple's tussle over these problems impacts on their love for each other.

So you’ve got a very strong script here, overflowing with great laughs, along with some wrenching pathos. The performances are excellent (need I say?). Ms. Donohue’s irrepressible high spirits bounce amusingly off Mr. Clost’s laconic wit. Director Jonathan Geenen does very clever work moving the two actors around the small stage, using only a large box and a blanket by way of set and props.

Although I was consulted on the research in the early development of this piece, the finished product came largely as a surprise to me. As it did to the creators themselves. They had intended to do a series of sketches, in various theatrical styles, exploring the subject of faith in today’s world. Through the rehearsal process, however, it was this story of the young couple that kept demanding to be told. So, instead of assorted skits, we get a well-crafted play with a compelling through-line. You could say, then, that this is the play that was meant to be. Call it fate. Or, as we used to say, the will of God.

 

Without Whom (Fringe Play) written by R.J. Downes; directed by Pat McCarthy; with Anne Harper, John Illingworth, Irene Carl, R.J. Downes (St. Vladimir’s Theatre, Toronto, until July 12)

We open with a dignified woman reminiscing about her deceased husband at his wake. But then the husband butts in and tells the wife that she is the one who is dead. Which one of them is right? As for the younger couple who are following the proceedings, we think we know who they are but then we’re not so sure. Toying with questions of reality vs illusion, this play, based in part on the life of Ray Bradbury, explores how the marriage of a writer raises issues of loyalty, egotism, fame, and life after death. Given the preponderance of combative dialogue, you could call it Edward Albee with a touch of sci-fi.

My main reason for wanting to see this show was to compare it with the original production of the script a couple of years ago. As far as I can tell, there are a few changes in the structure and in some details but the play remains essentially the same. It seems to me, though, that director Pat McCarthy has gone for a gentler, more humorous approach in this version. That’s most noticeable in the relationship of the writer and his wife. Anne Harper, playing the wife, is the only member of the previous cast still on board. She seems to have opted for a friendlier, more affectionate take on the role this time round; the last time, I found her more bitter and self-pitying. John Illingworth, as the writer, comes across as more likeable, almost affable, compared to his predecessor in the role, whose name I don’t remember and whom I found somewhat stern and detached. The other two new cast members – R. J. Downes (the playwright) and Irene Carl acquit themselves well.

 

One Woman Show (Toronto Fringe, Robert Gill Theatre) created by Daniel Shehori, Steven Shehori and Marco Timpano; starring Marco Timpano

Sounds like a great concept: a parody of all those self-indulgent one woman shows. You get this airhead up there explaining that she has found her subject – herself. So she treats us to an orgy of emoting about her loves and hates: her mom, p.m.s., her vagina, Cosmo magazine, men, romance, babies.

Take that great script (hardly a weak moment) and turn it into something brilliant: have it played by a guy, an ordinary-looking, chunky guy with a crew cut, in jeans and hockey shirt.

So why didn’t the play work as well for me as I wanted it to?

From the outset, something bothered me about Marco Timpano's performance. He’s obviously a very skilled performer but I kept wondering why he was yelling at us. Is it just that tendency in Toronto theatre to shout at the audience to convince them that this is theatre? I liked Mr. Timpano's bumptious male personality, you wouldn’t have wanted anybody up there acting faggy, but why couldn’t the character have felt real at some point? On the other hand, do we want this character to be real? Not sure. But maybe a little more subtlety in the acting would have helped.

What definitely did not help was the audience. Apparently, several relatives, friends and unabashed fans of Mr. Timpano were on hand for the first show, the one that I attended. These people obviously very much loved their man; for them, he could do no wrong. From the outset, they broke out into raucous laughter at anything he did. This was off-putting for those of us who came to him as strangers and wanted him to earn his laughs. The longer the inane laughter went on, the more alienating, particularly when coming from one hyena with a hysterical bark. Let’s hope she’s not in the audience when you attend; you might get a different show.

 

Long Live (Dance) Created by Kathleen Rea; music by Daniela Gesundheit and Dan Goldman; Costume designs by Amelia Ehrhardt; cast: Suzanne Liska, Robert Halley, Tom Brouillette, Karen Kaeja, Chelsea O’Brian, Lee Walder, Teisha Smith, Marlene Latour. (Betty Oliphant Theatre, Toronto, July 4-6)

While the Fringe is all about bargain basement values and helter-skelter productions, you find a very different atmosphere about a kilometre east on Jarvis street. Here, it’s all elegance, refinement and polish. Kathleen Rea, with her REAson D’Etre Productions, has almost single-handedly pulled off an amazing accomplishment with this full length (75 minutes) ballet, involving eight dancers and two musicians.

We at Dilettante’s Diary don’t often review Dance events, so we can’t claim much expertise in that department but we know a good show when we see one. While we didn’t always follow the narrative drift in this one, clearly there was something about a family happening. There were mom and dad fooling around, then kids arriving, then everybody riding in a car, a dog, family fights, eventually some deaths – all of it centering around a comfy armchair. Four "angels" in white watched over the family, inter-acting with them at times. Daniela Gesundheit and Dan Goldman provided a haunting background of music and lyrics that I would (again, not being an expert in the genre) describe as bluesy-folky. Ms. Gesundheit’s clear, resonant soprano reminded me at times of Joni Mitchell.

While all the dancers moved beautifully, one of the highlights for me was the solo work of Robert Halley as the brother. His dancing is precise and seemingly weightless. Maybe what helped me to appreciate his work was the fact that it included some jumps and twirls very evocative of classical ballet. I also appreciated the lithe, sinewy, mature grace of Karen Jaeja as the mom. Teisha Smith’s fluttery, fluid angel made a strong impression too.

A couple of favourite moments in the show: Tom Brouillette, as the dad, breaking into fragments of a plaintive song just before dying. It always comes as something of a coup de theatre when a dancer speaks or sings and this instance was especially poignant. Best of all was a summer snowstorm, the glittering beauty of which rivalled anything that you’d get in a major production of The Nutcracker – except that this one had the delightful contemporary touch of car headlights braving the blizzard.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com