The Audience - Theatre Review

The Audience - Theatre Review

In the Bloomsbury neighborhood of London, there is a small, quiet park by Queen Square. I came across it by accident, years ago – I was looking for Virginia Woolf's former home – but once I found the park I wanted to stay. It's full of mature trees, shady, tranquil. At one end is a small monument. It's a broad, shallow bowl planted with flowers, nothing extraordinary, until you come closer and find a poem engraved on the ground. 

1952-1977
In times when nothing stood
But worsened or grew strange
There was one constant good
She did not change. 

It seems cryptic, doesn't it? Yet the meaning is simple; Philip Larkin, England's poet laureate, wrote those lines on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee. I've been thinking a lot about that small monument, humble and sturdy, and that poem since watching The Audience. It's a play in which governments rise and fall, wars are waged and lost, momentous events pass by at dizzying speed, and a small, steadfast woman stands at the middle of it all. The Audience is sharply written and sensitively performed. Nothing happens – and yet everything happens.

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Toronto Light Fest: The Art of Light

Toronto Light Fest: The Art of Light

By: Alison Silveira

Beat the winter blues and come out of hibernation to explore the unique light installations at Toronto Light Fest! Held in the historic Distillery District, the festival features exhibits from local and international artists. 

It's quite romantic to stroll through the Distillery District and take in the glittering lights twinkling against the space's gorgeous backdrop. The outdoor area is magically transformed and is a visual feast for the eyes. Here are a few photos I took of my favourite installations. 

Digital Origami Tigers by LAVA - Australia (pictured above)

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Shakespeare BASH'd presents Twelfth Night

By: Angela Guardiani

Shakespeare BASH'd is a theatre company with one mission – to bring the Bard to bars. 

I'm exaggerating, of course, but not by much. BASH'd produces early modern English dramas in some of Toronto's most iconic pubs (The Imperial and the Victory Cafe are some recent venues), bringing a sense of raucous, booze-fueled fun to a cultural experience that – for many of us – has become uncomfortably highfalutin'. In fact, the experience of a BASH'd Shakespeare play sounds very much like what it must have been like for those plays' original audiences. The company does a lot with a little, relying on the power of the texts rather than over-the-top production values to make an emotional connection with their viewers. 

Recently, I was lucky enough to have a long conversation with James Wallis, co-artistic director of Shakespeare BASH'd and director of their latest production. Wallis and the rest of the company are staging a 1920s Parisian Twelfth Night at the Monarch Tavern later this month and it sounds like it's going to be a riot. Here's a little bit of what we can expect from this production. 

One of the first things that jumped out at me as I was reading the promotional materials for this production is the setting. If you're not familiar with Twelfth Night, it takes place in “Illyria” - a location that has only the slightest acquaintance with reality, and putting it into the very real time and place of post-WWI Paris is a big change. Wallis points out that with his company, the venue informs the play, and as the Monarch Tavern dates back to the 1920s it seemed an obvious choice. It's also a natural fit for the play itself. “Twelfth Night begins in mourning,” says Wallis (and that's not a spoiler – literally in the first minutes of the play we meet Viola, in shock at having barely survived the shipwreck that took her twin brother.) “The play moves out of mourning into ecstasy, and that parallels 1920s Europe – everyone was just astounded to be alive.” The explosion of all kinds of creative art from that time make their way into this production too in the form of original music by Franziska Beeler. Wallis wouldn't reveal too much about it, but he described the music as being inspired by Kurt Weil, jazz, and cabaret. The music is worked right into the fabric of the production – the very first lines are, “If music be the food of love, play on . . .”

Wallis' enthusiasm for the play is clear throughout our conversation. “There's a mystery and an ambiguity about it that is almost magical,” he said, noting the powerful themes of love and madness that permeate it. Many characters speak of “imaginative madness”, the same creative fire that drove the poets, musicians, and artists of 1920s Paris. Even the ending of the play defies a neat fairy-tale conclusion. “There is so much left unsaid at the end, and we really wonder what will happen to these characters once the play is over.” 

Of course, that's not to say that the play isn't funny – it is, first and last, a comedy. But I found myself particularly drawn to Wallis' description of it as being rooted in something more than just music and laughs and trickery. “Twelfth Night is about finding love, finding your other,” he says. “It speaks to the sacrifice that love takes, of acceptance of what fortune brings you, and it's about building a community based on love – something we have to strive to achieve.” 

It's a tall order, but one that comes more easily with a drink in hand. 

Twelfth Night plays from January 31st to February 5th at the Monarch Tavern, 12 Clinton Street. Tickets are $19 and are available at shakespearebashd.com.

Twist Your Dickens - Theatre Review

By: Alison Silveira and Paul Lewkowicz

The Second City’s production of Twist Your Dickens – a comedic spoof on the Charles Dickens story A Christmas Carol – is an entertaining take on the classic Christmas story. Starring Seán Cullen as Scrooge alongside Patrick McKenna and many talented actors playing multiple roles, the show incorporates puns, historical and contemporary references, and improv to provide for an entertaining evening at the theatre. 

Whether it was poking fun at the recent U.S. presidential election or public protests, mocking past traditions or popular culture from specific decades, or offering comedic reflections on classic Christmas stories, Twist Your Dickens flipped Dickens’ story on its head while keeping the show's original plot line, but also creating spontaneity at the same time.

Prior to the show, members of the audience were encouraged to write a 'misdeed' that they had done in the past. Some of these misdeeds were cleverly used in the show and woven into the storyline on more than one occasion to make for some great laughs. In addition, the cast skillfully incorporated impromptu suggestions from the audience for their improv sketches, including the outlandish story of a lady's boyfriend who is a plumber and enjoys taming lions.

Cullen did not even have to utter a word to elicit a laugh; his facial expressions said it all. He was able to capture the spirit of Scrooge, while embracing the performances of the rest of the cast and adapting to themes suggested by the audience. The rest of the cast seamlessly moved from one role to the next, complementing Cullen’s key role. One funny role was that of a cast member portraying an audience member who pokes holes in the historical accuracies of the show, whether it be the use of modern props or the weaving in of contemporary themes.

Twist Your Dickens uses slapstick humour and audience engagement to appeal to diverse audiences. This show is certainly worth seeing and will add good-humoured holiday cheer to the festive season! 

Twist Your Dickens runs until December 30, 2016 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts (5040 Yonge Street). Tickets are available for sale at: https://www.ticketmaster.ca/Second-Citys-Twist-Your-Dickens-tickets/artist/2284148?tm_link=seo_bc_name

Photo by Paul Aihoshi. 

Sleeping Beauty - Theatre Review

By: Angela Guardiani

When I was very young, I lived a life devoid of glamour. I yearned for rhinestones and lipstick and drama but lived with bowl cuts and knee socks and science fairs. In other words, I was a very average ten-year-old who wanted to be Miss Piggy. 

Around Christmas of that year, though, my mother let me dress up in my Sunday best (I remember admiring my shiny new patent leather shoes) and took me downtown. I knew we were going to see a show and braced myself for the usual ballet / opera / Shakespeare that my parents usually dragged me to, calling it “culture.” 

Instead, what I saw was pure magic. 

Jeff Hyslop (from Today's Special!) sang! And tap-danced! Karen Kain, the most exquisite ballerina, pirouetted across the stage and cracked jokes, like Miss Piggy but better. Instead of sitting quietly and politely, I was told that I should boo the hilariously evil villain and cheer for the good guys as loudly as I wanted. And there were more sequins on stage than I had ever seen in my life. This was unbelievable! For the first time in my life, I was watching a show that was geared unapologetically to me.

That was Aladdin, one of the very first holiday pantomimes produced by Ross Petty. More than twenty years later, the annual spectacular is still thrilling kids with its over-the-top, kid-friendly fairy-tale extravaganzas. The celebrity guests stars are still there and the sequins are as sparkly as ever. But I now realize that what was pure anarchic hedonism to my ten-year-old self has plenty of sly wit, improvisational comedy, and topical references to appeal to my adult self, too. It was hard to know who was having more fun – the six tweenagers I sat beside, bopping along to every musical number, or me. I think I can safely recommend this show to all ages. 

The fairy tale production this year is Sleeping Beauty, but let me be honest with you – the story doesn't matter. It's cheerfully twisted out of shape to give the cast of thousands as many one-liners as can be squeezed into a two-hour show. The King and Queen of Torontonia (Laurie Murdoch and Lisa Horner, who, for me, shall forever be the “Start the car!” lady from a certain Ikea commercial) invite four fairies to gift their newborn Princess Rose with harmony and light. But alas, they forgot to invite the wicked Malignicent. Rose is cursed to prick her finger on a needle and fall into an enchanted sleep, but thankfully for the audience, we get follow Rose on a psychedelic journey through Dreamland (complete with sentient sheep and aging hippies) instead of watching her sleep. Rose manages to find a way back to the real world by using her brains and her heart, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Of course, the story is only a frame on which to hang ridiculously opulent musical numbers and campy scenery chewing. AJ Bridel is utterly charming as the compassionate and thoughtful Princess Rose, and James Daly makes a sweet and respectful love interest (with some slick dance moves). Paul Constable (the Canadian Tire guy!) and Eddie Glen remind me of something an old professor of mine used to say; there's just something really funny about a great big guy and a tiny mouthy guy together on stage. As the good fairy Sparklebum (my inner ten-year-old finds that name incredibly hilarious) and evil minion Egg, they make quite the dynamic duo. The dance ensemble are fantastic - colourful, energetic, and dressed in some very snazzy Chucks – but the show belongs to its villain. Hilary Farr (from Love It or List It) prowls and sneers and slinks across the stage, dripping with sparkles. She's part evil 80s soap opera schemer and part wannabe Darth Vader, and she is fantastic. With a commanding stage presence and a rich, purry, poshly-accented voice, Farr is the villian everyone loves to hate. Go ahead and boo – it's incredibly satisfying.

If you couldn't tell, I enjoyed myself immensely at Sleeping Beauty. I wondered, though, if I was letting my own nostalgia colour my experience too much. Was it the ten-year-old drama queen driving this review, or was it the older and wiser theatre reviewer? I turned to my partner, C., who accompanied me to this performance. I knew he'd be an impartial observer – he'd never seen a Ross Petty panto before. 

“C.,” I planned to say, “are you objectively enjoying this show? Have I remembered it as being better than it is?”

Turns out I never needed to ask at all. C. couldn't answer me. He was laughing too hard, tears of mirth rolling down his face. If you want an escape from the realities of adulthood, take a trip to Dreamland. I think you'll find it most rewarding.

Sleeping Beauty plays at the Elgin Theatre (189 Yonge Street) until January 7, 2017. Tickets are $27 - $99 and are available in person at the box office, by phone at 1-855-599-9090, or at rosspetty.com.

Photo by Bruce Zinger.