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Friday, 12 July 2013

Toronto Star Reports on 2014 Season

The Toronto Star is reporting - ahead of official announcements - that the 2014 Stratford season will include two versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, one directed by Chris Abraham, the other by Peter Sellars. Full story here.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Blyth Turns a Corner with Yorkville

It has been said that Blyth can do more with less - less budget, less time, fewer actors, costumes and sets - than its more well-known cousin down the road, because they invest in talent. Case in point, hiring Donna Feore, fresh off a hit with Fiddler on the Roof at the Stratford Festival, to direct a brand-spanking-new Canadian musical.

It is a gutsy move for a wee place like Blyth, investing in an unknown quantity, an untested story with unheard music, when their mandate and reputation is built on producing shows with local appeal. Local, in this case meaning rural, and not necessarily with worldly - shall we say Bardic? - sophistication.

But the acting artistic director Peter Smith knew a good thing when he saw it; he knew the story by Carolyn Hay with music by Tom Szczeniak was golden - rural roots soaked in enough sass to shake it up a bit in Blyth, and hired Donna Feore (who also recognized gold when she saw it) to not just shake it up but raise the bar to a whole new level.

This is not to say Yorkville is perfect - one or two characters are not as rounded as others, one of the subplots is a little weak, and there is no whiz-bang 11th hour number, so it is sure to be tweaked for some time yet. But it is as close to perfect that a world premiere is likely to get. Witty dialogue, characters that exude warmth and truth, snappy lyrics, hummable music, and funny!  Cleverly, lewdly, naughtily, hilarious. Running gags, double-entendres, a bit of slapstick - you name it, there's something to incite anyone to fits of laughter.

Providing an almost unfair portion of the laughs is the award-winning Sarah Cornell as Tasia. A glamazon in the truest but loveliest sense of the word and Canada's answer to Joanna Lumley, Ms. Cornell does not just steal her scenes because of her tall stature (in fact Ms. Feore gets her sitting as often as possible to not detract from the others), but because her timing, accent and delivery are pitch-perfect. Her part - an all-business mail-order Russian bride - is written funnier than the others, and Ms. Cornell makes the most of every opportunity without going completely over the top.

Of the two leads - Jess Abramovitch as Jules and Stephanie Sy as Gabe, the small-town girls heading to the bright lights of Yorkville - Ms. Sy has the easier part in that she can allow what must be a natural effervescence to carry off Gabe's unwavering but naive enthusiasm; whereas Ms. Abramovitch must work harder to make the sullen and more practical Jules likeable. Both inhabit the characters well, their singing voices blend beautifully, and kudos to them (the entire cast, really) for learning some pretty credible step dancing in a mere four weeks.

The men of the play are a little under the shadow of the power-house women, but I suspect that is an aspect of the writing and generosity of the actors rather than a fault. Ryan Bondy plays the phony-baloney Chase with the eagerness of a sweet puppy; Michael Torontow's Preston is both hunky and vulnerable, and Rob Torr has the enviable  task of filling out a host of other funny but small roles, from a snooty French waiter to an over-botoxed hairdresser.

The talent does not end with the cast, however. The elegantly simple set designed by Joanna Yu and lit by Rebecca Picherack suggests a ritzy boutique shopping neighbourhood, the shop windows filled with the Yorkville's trio of musicians - Junior Riggan, Stephan Szczesniak and his dad Tom - he who wrote the show's music (who treat Blyth's gathering audience to some truly bopping jazz as they take their seats). Their sound is deftly managed by John Gzowski - it is one of those "full-circle" moments when one realizes that John is the son of the late Peter Gzowski, who made it his life's mission to try "understand and express Canada's cultural identity"*. And is not this a perfectly fitting description of the Blyth Festival's production of Yorkville?

(That was a rhetorical question.)

Catch Yorkville at Memorial Hall at the Blyth Festival before it closes on August 11th. 

*Adria, Marco Peter Gzowski: An Electric Life (Toronto: ECW Press, 1995)

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Media icons take part in the Festival’s July “Forum Foray”

July 4, 2013… The Stratford Festival is gearing up for its second “Forum Foray,” another supercharged week of fresh new performances, film screenings, provocative panels and talks by A-list guests. Following the season’s theme of community, many of this month’s events explore the idea of storytelling – at the heart of all drama – and its role in defining, challenging and changing communities. Offering more than a dozen exciting events, the Foray runs July 9 through 14.

Highlights of the week include: The Kind of Life It’s Been, in which acclaimed broadcaster Lloyd Robertson, in an interview with CTV National News correspondent Seamus O’Regan, looks at the stories that have shaped and changed his life, and his role in sharing those stories with the world; To 1982 and Back, in which award-winning broadcaster and best-selling author, Jian Ghomeshi, uses his book, 1982, to talk about growing up as a reluctant outsider in suburban Toronto and finding his way into the mainstream; and a Storytelling Workshop with First Nations storyteller James Adams, improvisational comedian Joanne O’Sullivan and actor and journalist Barbara Budd.

The Foray also includes The Playwright’s Crucible, an exhilarating performance in which Canadian playwright Carmen Aguirre inspires a director and five top-rate actors, including Festival favourite Stephen Ouimette, to create a new play right in front of the audience; a panel of Canadian playwrights, including Carmen Aguirre, Sky Gilbert and Djanet Sears discussing the drive to write and the theatrical forum in The Power of the Pen; and the second instalment of Geraint Wyn Davies Presents… “Wordplay”, in which he and members of the company will present Cardenio, Shakespeare’s “lost play”.

Also of note: a screening of An Unlikely Obsession: Churchill and the Jews; author Barbara Kyle on Elizabeth and Mary, Rival Queens; a panel discussion with directors Chris Abraham, Tim Carroll, Antoni Cimolino and Martha Henry; and Marlis Schweitzer on Fiddler on the Roof and the 1960s Generation Gap.

The week’s schedule of events includes:

Geraint Wyn Davies
Geraint Wyn Davies Presents… “Wordplay”: Cardenio  
Studio Theatre, 8 p.m.  
Members of the company join host Geraint Wyn Davies for a dramatic reading of Shakespeare’s “lost play”. Based on an episode in Cervantes’Don QuixoteCardenio is a thrilling story of a friendship betrayed, disguise, dishonour and deceit played out in the heat and dust of Andalusia in 17th-century Spain.  Admission: $25.  


Storytelling Workshop  
Factory163, 163 King Street, 10 a.m.  
First Nations storyteller James Adams, improvisational comedian Joanne O’Sullivan and actor and journalist Barbara Budd share thoughts, traditions and approaches to finding the universal myths of your own life.
Admission: $50. (Pre-registration is required.)  

Barbara Kyle: Elizabeth and Mary, Rival Queens: A Study of Leadership Lost and Won
Festival Theatre lobby, 11 a.m.
Barbara Kyle, author of the recently published Blood Between Queens, will sign books following her talk.
Admission: Free.

An Unlikely Obsession: Churchill and the Jews  
University of Waterloo Stratford Campus, 125 St. Patrick Street, 5:30 p.m.
A screening of a powerful documentary examining a neglected aspect of one of world history’s most renowned leaders: Winston Churchill’s relationship to Jews and Jewish issues. Drawing on a treasure trove of interviews, the film explores the origins, implications and results of this world leader’s commitment to his generation’s most vulnerable people. Join director Barry Avrich and producer Michael Levine for a discussion following the screening.


Fiddler on the Roof: Song and Dance
Festival Theatre Lobby, 10:30 a.m.
Find out what it’s like to be in a musical at the Stratford Festival. Company members Matthew Armet and Julia Juhas teach a song and dance from Fiddler on the Roof. No observers, please.

The Playwright’s Crucible  
Studio Theatre, 11 p.m.  
With only a script outline and character descriptions, Canadian playwright Carmen Aguirre inspires director Varrick Grimes and five top-rate actors, Laura Condlln, AndrĂ© Morin, Stephen Ouimette, Anand Rajaram and Kaitlyn Riordan, to create a new play right in front of your eyes. Created by Joanne O’Sullivan.


Marlis Schweitzer: Breaking with Tradition: Fiddler on the Roof and the 1960s Generation Gap
Festival Theatre lobby, Friday, July 12, at 11 a.m.
Talk by Marlis Schweitzer, associate professor of theatre at York University.
Admission: Free.

Jian Ghomeshi

Jian Ghomeshi: To 1982 and Back
Studio Theatre, 5:30 p.m.

Jian Ghomeshi, the host and co-creator of CBC’s cultural-affairs program Q, uses his national bestseller, 1982, as a jumping-off point, as he shares hilarious and poignant anecdotes and insights of his journey from outside to inside: growing up Persian in Thornhill to being an award-winning, internationally renowned media personality.

Lloyd Robertson

The Kind of Life It’s Been  
Tom Patterson Theatre, 10 a.m.  
Stratford-born broadcaster Lloyd Robertson speaks to CTV National News correspondent Seamus O’Regan, one journalist to another, about his life behind the headlines and the world as he sees it now.

The Power of the Pen  
Festival Theatre Lobby, 5:30 p.m.  
Some of Canada’s most political and prolific playwrights, including Carmen Aguirre (The Refugee Hotel, Something Fierce – winner of 2012 Canada Reads), Sky Gilbert (Ban This Show, The Emotionalists) and Djanet Sears (Harlem Duet, The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God), discuss the drive to write and the theatrical forum.


Reform It Altogether: Directing Shakespeare Today 
Studio Theatre, Sunday, July 14, at 11 a.m.
A panel discussion with directors Chris Abraham, Tim Carroll, Antoni Cimolino and Martha Henry. Chair: Communications Director David Prosser.

Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream  
University of Waterloo Stratford Campus, 125 St. Patrick Street, 8 p.m.
Based on Neal Gabler’s best-selling book An Empire of Their Own, this award-winning feature-length documentary tells the story of the men who founded Hollywood. All were immigrants, or children of immigrants, who wanted to reinvent themselves as Americans. In the process, they reinvented America. Join co-creator Stuart Samuels for a post-screening chat.


Late Night with Lucy – Back by popular demand!  
Fridays, July 5 and 19, August 9 and 23, at 11:30 p.m.  
Join Lucy Peacock for her second series of after-hours cabarets with special guest performers from the acting company and from behind the scenes.

Table Talk
Paul D. Fleck Marquee, Festival Theatre, 11:30 a.m.
Buffet lunch followed by a talk on one of this season’s productions. Must book 48 hours in advance.
July 9: Mary Stuart led by David G. John – SOLD OUT
July 11: Blithe Spirit led by Alexander Leggatt
July 19: Measure for Measure led by Graham Roebuck
July 25: Fiddler on the Roof led by Bill Rudman

Tales Under the Tent
Festival Theatre Grounds, Wednesdays, July 10 to August 21, from 1 to 1:30 p.m.
Gather under the tent for family fun! Stratford Public Library staff provide stories and activities related to the play on stage at the Festival Theatre that afternoon. Look for the tent on the Festival Theatre grounds between the Discovery Centre and Upper Queen’s Park. Suitable for families with children ages 6 to 12. Cancelled in the event of rain.
Admission: Free.

Star Talks
Festival Theatre lobby and Tom Patterson Theatre stage, directly following performances
Toronto Star theatre critic Richard Ouzounian interviews the stars, following matinée performances in July and August.
·         July 7: Graham Abbey, Jonathan Goad, Luke Humphrey and Mike Shara (The Three Musketeers, Festival Theatre lobby)
·         Admission: Free.

Festival Exhibition
104 Downie Street, Wednesdays through Sundays, June 5 to October 20
Explore Present and Past Productions of Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice. A vast selection of costumes, props and artefacts from our Archives are displayed in a beautiful museum-style venue, with talks with Festival artists on:
·         July 6: Susan Coyne
·         July 20: Carmen Grant and Tom Rooney
·         July 27: Sara Topham
Cost included in admission to the Exhibition.

Festival Theatre, Wednesday to Sunday, June 5 to October 20, at 9:15 and 9:30 a.m.
Take this one-hour walking tour to see and hear about the magic of the theatre. Our knowledgeable guides will share stories and information about both the current and past seasons.
Admission: $8 per person; $6 students and seniors.

For tickets, contact the box office at 1.800.567.1600 or visit

The third and final “Forum Foray” is scheduled for August 9 to 18. Through debates, talks, concerts, comedy nights, hands-on workshops and more, The Forum offers theatregoers more ways to discover and examine the themes running through this season’s productions.

For those unable to attend, 15 of the over 150 Forum events will be available via Livestream:
Support for the inaugural season of The Forum is generously provided by Kelly and Michael Meighen and the Province of Ontario, in partnership with the University of Waterloo, with media sponsorship provided by The Walrus. Support for the Speakers Series is generously provided in memory of Dr. W. Philip Hayman.

The Festival’s new Toronto bus service Stratford Direct is now available twice daily on performance days for only $20 return. Reservations can be made through the box office.

Support for Stratford Direct is generously provided by The Peter Cundill Foundation.

The Stratford Festival’s 2013 season runs until October 20, featuring Romeo and Juliet, Fiddler on the Roof; The Three Musketeers, The Merchant of Venice, Tommy, Blithe Spirit, Othello, Measure for Measure, Mary Stuart, Waiting for Godot, Taking Shakespeare, and The Thrill, along with more than 150 events at The Forum.


Monday, 1 July 2013

A Marvelous Irony: Nothing But Good Choices in Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Jennifer Tarver, designed by Theresa Przybylski

The Story: Two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon (Didi and Gogo), wait somewhere, at some time, for the mysterious Godot - who never arrives. Didi and Gogo pass the time wondering what can be done, each time deciding... nothing.
From left to right: Brian Dennehy as Pozzo, Stephen Ouimette
as Estragon, Tom Rooney as Vladimir, Randy Hughson
as Lucky. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

I agree with director Jennifer Tarver who disagrees with the old saying that Waiting for Godot is a play in which nothing happens, twice. The tramps, Vladamir and Estragon continually say, "Nothing to be done!", when in fact, as they never seem to realize, there is everything to be done. If they would only choose.

The philosopher Kierkegaard would have revelled in the delicious irony of watching Waiting for Godot, because the very act implies a chain of very distinct choices made - to put on the play itself, the choice of director, cast, and design and finally to go see it - about a play in which the inability to choose leaves the characters in perpetual limbo.

Brian Dennehy as Pozzo.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
It is this dilemma that should be instantly - if uncomfortably - recognizable to everyone who watches it. When one thinks of the sheer number of choices one makes every day - to get up at seven or eight, cereal or toast, red or blue shirt, drive or bike, turn left or right - it is a wonder any of us get out of bed at all. And when faced with choices that will irrevocably change something - declare bankruptcy or live in debt, live with or abort an unwanted pregnancy, medicate or put down a sick beloved pet - the consequences of choosing can be debilitating. Immobilizing. In a nutshell, this is one of the points of the play. A leap of faith, choosing despite the consequences and living with those consequences - only then can we move forward and get unstuck from limbo, and thus, according to Kierkegaard, reach our potential as sentient, humane beings.

This is not a hard concept, but phrases like "existential absurdism" have a tendency to immobilize potential audience members from seeing such a play. Another irony, since the ensemble of actors and creative team have done such a lovely job of making this play both comic and tragic, accessible, and beautifully sublime.

Randy Hughson as Lucky.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
The minimal set - a rock and a tree set on an undulating, ragged path - seems to float in the ether above the glossy black stage. There is a suspended orb - deliberately unclear (even to the characters) if it is the sun or moon - which swings mechanically into place to start and end the acts. Indeterminate vocal sounds whisper around the plays' edges. Each element is a deliberate choice, representing the perpetual indeterminate state of the tramps who reside there; the orb does not ascend to or descend from the heavens, it simply resets itself - time in this unknown place is suspended. Even when the tree sprouts leaves - otherwise a sign of life, of time passing, a signal to the tramps that things could change if they would choose so - the audience cannot know, if there were an act three, if the tree would have more leaves, or if it would have reset itself too and have none at all. In fact, the one brief moment, brilliantly staged by Ms. Tarver and Mr. Ouimette, which signifies the possible impact that choice could have - in which Estragon hesitates, and almost chooses to leave his boots in a different spot - should have everyone's inner voice crying "Noooooo!" That one moment, one feels, could have been the one small change that would change everything else.

The outstanding cast Ms. Tarver assembled are so generous and respectful to the other that the resulting whole is awe-inspiring. Mr. Dennehy's cruel Pozzo, representative of the devil himself, certainly demands the audience's attention as much as he does Didi and Gogo's, but he does not overwhelm the production; likewise Mr. Ouimette could play Estragon's comedic whining for camp, but he entirely disappears whenever Tom Rooney's Vladimir begins to wax philosophical.  In fact, the actor who threatens to steal the scenes he is in is the one with the least to say (until bidden). Randy Hughson plays Lucky as so pale, hobbled, misshapen and rasping, that pity for him may distract from the others on the stage. It would seem this is also a deliberate choice by the director and actor to draw attention to Lucky - who may been seen to be a symbol of our humanity, someone who has chosen, unwisely, to be slave to a devil.
Tom Rooney as Vladimir (left); Stephen Ouimette as Estragon.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Do not let indecision or the habit of seeing "safe" plays deaden your resolve; do not wait to see this production of Waiting for Godot. It continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 20th.

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