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.

Fight Night - Theatre Review

By: Paul Lewkowicz

The interactive play Fight Night provides for an interesting opportunity to reflect on the state of democracy and how and why we and others choose to support (or not support) political candidates. The show opens with host, Angelo Tjissens greeting the audience and explaining how voting devices allow each audience member to anonymously vote on various questions posed throughout the evening. 

Tjissens then introduces five “political” candidates, who arrive on stage in black garments covering their regular attire. Charlotte, Michai, Aaron, Aurelie, and Abdel take off their black garments and are then subject to a vote by the audience as to which of them is the preferred candidate based solely on appearance and after little or no discussion. On this evening, after the audience vote, Aaron emerges in first place (but with a plurality and not majority of votes), followed by Aurelie and Charlotte close behind, with Michai and Abdel at the bottom of the pack. Each candidate then ponders the result: Aaron emerges as a 25-year old fighter, Aurelie as a defender of the low income, Michai as someone who banks on votes because of his looks, Charlotte as the intellectual, and Abdel as the loser.

What follows throughout the night is each candidate gradually revealing broad perspectives on life and politics and how this compares to the results of polling from the audience. Aaron admits he has a racial bias in favour of Black people; Aurelie reveals herself as an anti-establishment candidate who wants to not change but rather eliminate the system; Michai campaigns as the proponent of democracy as a way to build consensus; and Abdel prides himself as the fighter for the underdog. 

Fight Night aims to expose the flaws and polarizations within democracy. Declining voter turnout has small groups of voters deciding elections for the entire populace; candidates emerge as successful, despite not having the majority of support from voters or the populace, beliefs that none of the candidates are worth voting for and that the public has to choose between “the lesser of two evils”; mobilizations to fight against the system, and strategic alliances or new candidates that go against voter’s initial intentions or expectations. These feelings are extremely relevant to the audience in light of the recent American presidential election. 

Fight Night explores, with different results based on different audiences, what it takes for “voters” to gravitate or move their support away from certain candidates. For instance, after admitting his racial bias, Aaron’s share of the vote from the audience declines rapidly and coalesces around Michai who reveals himself as a moderate proponent of democracy and appears to be more in line with the values of the audience. We are able to examine our political systems: what influences our decision to vote or not vote for candidates or abstain from voting and what changes we could make to our democracy that would make it more engaging and healthy. Given the extensive media coverage on the personalities of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and their recent election campaigns, the show is extremely relevant and timely and allows us to further reflect on current events with new perspectives.

Although the show is enjoyable and worth seeing, Fight Night would be even more exciting if each candidate more thoroughly expressed their perspectives on the state of democracy and on key issues currently facing society. This format would have helped to better explore the pros and cons of debate and topical issues.

Ultimately, Fight Night is a show that makes us think and its reliance on audience engagement gives it that added excitement and unpredictability while still weaving through core themes and opportunities to reflect on the state of democracy.

Fight Night is playing at the Panasonic Theatre (651 Yonge Street) until November 20, 2016. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit: www.mirvish.com/shows/fight-night

Photo courtesy of Mirvish Productions. 

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder - Theatre Review

By: Paul Lewkowicz and Alison Silveira

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is a Tony award-winning musical that tells the story of Montague “Monty” Navarro. A poor Englishman, Monty discovers that he was disowned by his wealthy royal family, the D’Ysquiths and is ninth in line to become the Earl of Highhurst. The comedy, which is loosely based on a 1907 novel by Roy Horniman, uses slightly dark humour to provide for an entertaining show as we follow Monty on his adventures to gain recognition from the D’Ysquith family and get closer to attaining the position of Earl. 

Monty goes on a tour of the D’Ysquith estate and begins to befriend each successor to the Earl, leading to him to gain the acceptance of the family. However, his sinister motives bring about tragic consequences in a wickedly humorous fashion. Monty is the unlikeliest of murderers and is after all, the protagonist in the story whom we cannot help but root for. Kevin Massey plays the leading role with earnestness and honesty. He brings charm and wit to his calculated, yet spontaneous plan to get closer to the title of Earl by eliminating his family members. 

Monty's mistress, Sibella is a self-interested woman who loves Monty, but marries another man for his wealth. Kristen Beth Williams plays a seductive woman we love to hate with brash confidence. Her over-the-top facial expressions and stinging one-liners make us giddy with laughter. Monty's cousin, Phoebe falls madly in love with him, which is all part of his big plan to become Earl. Adrienne Eller plays the prim and proper Phoebe with grace and elegance. Her soaring soprano voice is enchanting, delicate and matches perfectly with Williams' in many of their scintillating duets. Their stunning voices blend in perfect harmony. 

John Rapson is absolutely brilliant in all of the multiple roles he plays. Rapson switches from one character to the next with ease and does an incredible and hilarious job of portraying various female members of the royal family. He stole the show with his bravado and comedic timing. 

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is full of hilarious situations, great duets, and dancing and an engaging story throughout. The show concludes with a surprising and ironic ending. There's plenty of scheming and duping one another to get rich quick in this extraordinarily farcical musical comedy that's a rip-roaring good time!

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre until June 26, 2016. To purchase tickets, visit: mirvish.com.

Photos by Joan Marcus. 

Paul Lewkowicz is a fan of politics, the arts, travel and tennis. He lives in Toronto.

Alison Silveira is the founder and editor of The Charming Modernist, a lifestyle blog for curious minds. She also writes for The Hip + Urban Girl’s Guide and This Beautiful Day Blog. Follow her on Twitter @AlisonSilveira and Instagram TheCharmingModernist

The Crackwalker - Theatre Review

By: Paul Lewkowicz

The Crackwalker, written and directed by Judith Thompson, tells a powerful story of characters Theresa and Alan, and Sandy and Joe, as they live a life of poverty, abuse, and addiction in Kingston, Ontario. Throughout the play, the demons and challenges faced by the two couples is shadowed and met by a mysterious man known as the The Crackwalker.

The cast delivers strong and powerful performances. Yolanda Bonnell did a masterful job of portraying Theresa, a young and innocent woman who is cheerful and positive despite being subject to constant insults about her weight, sexual activity, and learning disability. Stephen Joffe plays the character of Alan (Al), a young man who looks up to the older Joe and who is a follower desperately seeking to fit in. Greg Gale portrays Joe, a tough guy addicted to alcohol and persistently looking for work while regularly parading around with the mayor of Kingston. He relishes telling stories of music and bars that are dear to his heart.

Waawaate Fobister portrays The Crackwalker, a man who appears as the voice and tells the stories of the four characters through dance. In the background is the mysterious Bonnie Cain, the town gossiper who spreads numerous rumours about the promiscuousness and mistakes of the Theresa, Joe, Al and Sandy.

The play has many key themes that haunt the characters and draws emotion from the audience. Theresa and Al are so innocent and desperate to fit in and to be accepted by others. They constantly worry about what Joe and Bonnie Cain think, despite the fact that these individuals have hardly been good to them. Theresa is so easy to please, as she leaves her troubled home and seeks a better place to stay. This results in her being taken advantage of and a quick marriage and pregnancy that have tragic consequences. The theme of sexual assault and abusive relationships confront Theresa and Sandy. Their stories of pain, abuse, denial, anger, submission, and a desire for happiness are painful reminders of the tragic situations that many individuals constantly face, particularly women.

Bonnell and Armstrong deliver outstanding performances that show their characters confronting their innermost demons that complicate and harm their lives. Their performances were particularly poignant as it came on the same day of the verdict of a major sexual assault trial in Canada and also amidst the attention that domestic violence and sexual assault has received from the media, politicians and legislators.

Joe’s addiction to alcohol and abuse towards Theresa and Sandy makes him the villain throughout the play, until the end when he demonstrates a small glimpse of his humanity in trying to wrestle with the tragic consequence facing Al and Theresa. Al’s struggle to grieve the loss of his father, his questioning of his sexuality, and his desire to fit in puts him in a place of vulnerability. Lastly, one cannot help but feel compassion for the plight of Al and Theresa, who question and grapple with “the system” that is the constant backdrop to their lives. Whether it be Al’s blame of doctors for the death of his father or Theresa’s persistent reference of the judgements and directions from her social worker (some of which are insulting), the audience gets the feeling that the system and society as a whole could have done more to help these four characters. It also makes one question how many children are in the care of families facing similar tragic situations.

The Crackwalker is a powerful play that is definitely worth seeing. As articulated by The Crackwalker character, the play showcases the intersection of two rivers: a river of poison (demons and stories that haunt the characters) and a river of purity (innocence and joy). The cast portrays complex characters that tackle sensitive issues that resonate with the audience in different ways. It forces us to reflect on how we as a society can help those in need and mitigate or avoid tragic events that plague so many lives such as those of the characters in the play.

The Crackwalker runs until April 10 at the Factory Theatre in Toronto. https://www.factorytheatre.ca/tickets.

Photos by Joseph Michael Photography.

Paul Lewkowicz is a fan of politics, the arts, travel and tennis. He lives in Toronto.

Bigmouth - Theatre Review

By: Paul Lewkowicz

Bigmouth is a unique and entertaining show, starring Belgian actor, Valentijn Dhaenens. The one man show has reached worldwide audiences everywhere from Edinburgh to Mumbai and it is currently playing here in Toronto for a three-week run. 

Dhaenens appears on a stage set with six different microphones and a blackboard suspended above him noting 20 names of key historical figures. He takes us on a journey of history by reenacting famous speeches of a variety of political leaders and villains. The diverse range of figures include Socrates from the times before Christ to more contemporary figures such as Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush. 

The show starts with a strong speech from the Grand Inquisitor, amplified to emphasize its delivery to a large crowd. Throughout the show, Dhaenens moves seamlessly from character to character, even doing back-and-forth speeches between Joseph Goebbels and George Patton. The contrast between the Goebbels/Patton speeches is quite remarkable. As Goebbels, Dhaenens is authoritative, calm and intense. As Patton, he is fervent and overzealous, both vocally and physically. It is impressive how Dhaenens is able to perform such a wide range of speeches in such a short time, which are full of a historical significance and emotion. He is able to embrace each unique character and move very quickly between different speeches. Dhaenens understands that words have the ability to mobilize and manipulate the masses and shows us just how excellent communicators were able to achieve this. 

Dhaenens is at his best when portraying speeches from the Belgian King Baudouin and Congolese independence fighter Lumumba. Ironically, Dhaenens reveals after the show that Lumumba was emotionally the most difficult speech for him, due to knowing that the historical figure would be killed shortly after the delivery of his famous speech. 

Dhaenens seemed to struggle with portraying some of the American leaders, whose speeches were clustered in the latter half of his show. Although he gave a great deal of time to reenact powerful speeches from the Grand Inquisitor, Goebbels/Patton and Lumumba, Dhaenens only gave a minute or less to famous figures such as Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Muhammad Ali. This left me wanting for more and wishing that Dhaenens had taken more time to capture some of the most famous and memorable speeches such as “I have a dream”, “Ask not what your country can do” and “How great I am”. He could have also better captured the humour and demeanour of George W. Bush and his father. 

Dhaenens reminds us that the power of speech is never to be underestimated, as they can and do alter the course of history forever. Bigmouth is definitely a show worth seeing and Dhaenens should be commended for his unique and powerful performances, as he delivers them with great emotion, intonation and conviction. 

Bigmouth plays at the Panasonic Theatre until February 7, 2016.

Photo: Maya Wilsens