Bang Bang - Theatre Review

Bang Bang - Theatre Review

Bang! Pow! Crash! Like a well-choreographed fight scene in a high-budget superhero movie, Kat Sandler’s play Bang Bang swirls with tension that builds and builds into sudden, startling violence - a slap, a slammed door, a punch to the jaw. It’s a vigorous, muscular play that skillfully plots out a collision course between people who all, with the best of intentions, believe that their claim to tell a story is the right and proper one, and if the play asks more questions than it can answer, well, I’m not sure that it’s the purpose of this play to provide answers. Bang Bang is unsettling, intense, and very, very funny. It will carry you along and if, at the end, you are still perplexed as to what it all means, then the playwright has done her job. When I asked her what she hoped audiences will take away from this production, Sandler told me that what she always wants is for people to have to think about something, to have their views challenged while at the same time being thoroughly entertained. It’s a challenging push-and-pull to achieve, but I think Bang Bang nails it. 

Bang Bang begins with Lila (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah), ground zero of The Incident. Everything ripples outward from her actions. A rookie cop, the Black daughter of another Black police officer, Lila shoots an unarmed Black teenager after mistaking him for a felon with a gun. The teen survives and makes a full recovery (such a refreshing change from the fictional bodies that pile up in over-earnest misery porn), but there’s an uproar that leads to Lila’s public shaming and eventual resignation from the force. When the play opens she is mired in a deep depression, forgoing meals for beer and cigarettes and sloppily attired in baggy sweats. She is in sharp contrast to her mother Karen (veteran Karen Robinson, whose gravitas serves her well here). Karen, a psychologist, is immaculately dressed and her tastefully decorated home becomes the unlikely battleground of the play. 

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The Enchanted Loom - Theatre Review

By: Paul Lewkowicz and Alison Silveira

The Enchanted Loom is a play that tenderly portrays the effects of war on a person’s psyche. Written by Suvendrini Lena, a neurologist, the play focuses on the painful struggle of Thangan, a Tamil political activist from Sri Lanka living in Canada with his family. He suffers from – and seeks to address – the scars left from being subject to torture during the Sri Lankan government’s mass offensive to obtain control of the Tamil Tigers' territory. The effects of Thangan’s struggle have a profound impact on his family, as they too, struggle to deal with memories of the war that have ravaged their minds, bodies and relationships. 

The memories of war have an impact on both those who experienced it and their descendants who have never lived in the conflict zone. The play poignantly situates itself in the context of a diaspora working hard to highlight inequities where the Canadian populace is generally unfamiliar with the plight of minorities in Sri Lanka. 

Thangan and his wife, Sevi (Zorana Sadiq) had to make difficult choices and the way in which they grapple with the consequences is heartbreaking. Sadiq plays the matriarch with grace and steadfastness. As we learn more about Sevi, Sadiq is able to break through her tough exterior and we see how the harrowing effects of war have changed her. So often, the mother is the glue that holds the family together, and Sevi is no exception. She also does not have much of a choice and strives to put her family's needs ahead of her own. Sevi is haunted by the choices she has made in the past and buries her passions to try and forget. But, with Thangan's post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis, forgetting and burying the past is futile. Kawa Ada's portrayal of Thangan and Sevi's sons Kanaan and Kavalan is superb. He is able to play the precocious son with ease and transforms into a child soldier that commands attention. 

Although there are many scenes with the characters spouting verbose medical jargon and the play can be slow to build its story, The Enchanted Loom has powerful performances from its cast and a tremendous second act. The sparse, sterile set serves as a canvass for the characters to paint their rich, colourful and complicated story. And, it's is an important story that needs to be told, as PTSD and other mental illnesses have been and continue to be stigmatized, especially in minority communities. Furthermore, the play serves to create awareness of Sri Lanka's brutal civil war, the post-conflict struggles and the injustices that many have faced.

The Enchanted Loom is certainly dense and difficult to digest, but the small space provides for an intimate evening for the audience to get up close and personal with the characters and be transformed by the story. 

The Enchanted Loom plays at the Studio Theatre (125 Bathurst Street) until November 27, 2016. Tickets are $25 - $35 and are available for purchase at factorytheatre.ca/tickets.

Photos by Dahlia Katz.

Acquiesce - Theatre Review

By: Angela Guardiani

November always makes me think of Margaret Atwood. I know that seems like a non-sequitur, but bear with me. In Negotiating with the Dead, she writes that, as a child, she hated having a November birthday because of its grim symbolism. No sunny summer flowers or Valentine's hearts for her! But as an adult, she “discovered that November was, astrologically speaking, the month of sex, death and regeneration, and that November First was the Day of the Dead. It still wouldn't have been much good for birthday parties, but it was just fine for poetry.”

Fellow Canadian and playwright David Yee has a new play at the Factory Theatre, and in keeping with the season, it's also about death and regeneration. Like poetry, it's deeply symbolic, complex and nuanced, and like Margaret Atwood, it engages with ideas of Canadian-ness and otherness. Beautifully staged and elegantly structured, Acquiesce will give you plenty to think about.

It's hard to summarize the story of Acquiesce in a quick synopsis. The play unfolds like a flower simultaneously forward into the future and backwards into the past, revealing its truth slowly and deliberately. To tell you the whole story is to strip the experience of its power. But I can tell you that the play centers around Sin Hwang, a Canadian novelist coping with his father's death with anger and bitterness. As Sin carries his father's body back to his native Hong Kong, we are shown that he carries other burdens, both visible and invisible, that affect his relationships with his girlfriend (the cryptically named Nine) and Kai, his strangely resentful cousin. As events move forward and Sin is given a monumental task to complete, we learn more about his past, and why he faces the world with such self-loathing disguised in sharp-edged wit. 

It's impossible to talk about this play without mentioning how strongly it features Asian voices. Acquiesce is a dual production of fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre and Factory Theatre, whose season this year is – for the first time – completely made up of artists of colour. The entire production is dedicated to exploring Chinese and Canadian identity. The Canadian-ness of it comes through in the mundane, the everyday, like Sin's Mountain Equipment Co-op backpack and smartass backtalk. The Chinese-ness is evident in images and symbolism. The set – beautifully spare, designed by Robin Fisher – features leaning pillars that look like joss sticks and delineate spaces not just geographically but in time, too. The pieces of baggage Sin carry hold shirts and underwear, but in brief, wordless scenes, they also hold water, light, ancestry, history. Scars – another form of baggage – are an important plot point in the second act, and instead of being portrayed realistically, they take the form of Chinese characters written across the body. Everything contributes to the visual poetry of the production.

There are only four actors in this play. Like the set, it's minimalist. Yee does double-duty as Sin Hwang; I have to admit, at first I didn't care for his brash acting style, but as his character evolved I found myself really enjoying his hilarious but bitter take on the character. Rosie Simon and John Ng are remarkably versatile actors, filling a variety of roles – a nosy fan, a bubbly funeral attendant – but also taking on Nine and Tien Wei, Sin's father, with power and gravitas. I think Kai is the most important character in the play. Both in the way he is written and in the way he is played (by Richard Lee), Kai explodes Asian stereotypes. He is funny but not a caricature – he has real depth, an identity beyond that of just being Chinese. He guides Sin on his journey and makes his own too, a mirror image of Sin's long, slow path of ignorance to enlightenment. In the end – which is also the beginning – Sin and Kai acquiesce to the injustices and pain they have carried and let go. 

There's so much to see and experience in Acquiesce – it's dense, with a lot to say crystallized into an intense two hours. If you feel like exploring poetry, death, and rebirth, then a visit to the Factory Theatre may be the best birthday present you can imagine.

Acquiesce, a fu-GEN and Factory Theatre production, plays until November 27 at the Factory Theatre. Tickets are $30 to $45 and are available at factorytheatre.ca.

Photos by Dahlia Katz. 

One Night Only: The Greatest Musical Never Written - Theatre Review

By: Saema Nasir

Improvised musical: two words that, when put together, can lead to disaster one would imagine. Or at least one very uncomfortable evening at the theatre.

Not so in the case of One Night Only: The Greatest Musical Never Written. The concept behind this production is fresh and the talent exceptional. The audience drives the musical, as the actors get their cues from them and make up the storyline and songs throughout the duration of the show.

Random audience members are asked three questions that will be the basis for the custom-designed musical. Three simple questions and the cast of impressive actors, comedians and singers (triple threats – watch out J-Lo!) spin and weave a storyline that makes sense and works well as a musical. Even song lyrics and music coming from a live five-piece band are all spontaneously created. The band’s amazing musical talent at times guides the song-and-dance numbers and at other times, the cast’s quick-witted dialogue influences how the music is shaped. In short, the actors and band were in-sync, perfectly working together to create a top quality musical. 

On the night I attended, audience members suggested ‘Calgary’, ‘infidelity’, and ‘the deep blue sea’ as ideas for the cast to play with. The resulting musical took place in the oil sands of Alberta and at the Calgary stampede with various characters scheming while shimmying to escape marriage, find love and even sell some pork rinds. I took a moment to observe the audience and judging by the hoots, hollers, guffaws and generous applause, they agreed with me; this show is rip-roaring fun!

It’s also a show that relies heavily on the talent of its cast – no elaborate set or well-crafted script to rely on, but it works. Free from the constraints of a predetermined plot, the cast shines; adeptly dancing, swerving, gyrating and singing into the audiences’ hearts. Ashley Botting stands out as the wronged, pork rind-selling wife of a mime. Her singing voice and dancing are superb, only to be beaten by the razing one-liners she spews out on the spot. Jan Caruana's ability to improvise is quite impressive. As a Calgary stampede organizer, she made the simple act of smoking ham hilarious and breathed life into the droll and cynical characters she created in each scene. 

Leaving out the cheesy jokes and avoiding boring archetypal characters, the actors keep it fresh with risqué jokes and edgy song lyrics. It's a mystery as to what your night at this musical comedy will entail and that's the point. In an era when even supposed reality shows are scripted and politicians deliver rote speeches, it is invigorating to witness live theatre that is neither pre-planned nor predictable. 

One Night Only: The Greatest Musical Never Written can best be summed up with the following three words: entertaining, vibrant, hilarious. Another three words? A must-see!

One Night Only: The Greatest Musical Never Written plays at the Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst Street) until February 14, 2016. 
Ticket prices range from $45-$55 + HST|students and seniors $30 + HST|Tickets can be purchased online: www.factorytheatre.ca/what-s-on/one-night-only

Photography: Robyn Bacon