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Ins Choi’s Bad Parent Giggles and Coos Entertainingly, Even With All That Crying and Fighting in the Bedroom

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Putting it all together, child bed-wise, out on stage, is what we bear witness to first as we file into our seats excited to see Ins Choi’s new play, Bad Parent currently being presented at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. It’s a well-oiled construct, the IKEA-inducing cries of frustration and pain, in this attempt to build something symbolic of what the play is trying to do in its opening act of the new play by the writer of the legendary Kim’s Convenience. The writer is trying his best to assemble something that is as successfully constructed as that earlier play without hurting himself in the process. That earlier play is a hard act to follow, I imagine, but Choi dives forth, attempting to explore the life-changing family dynamics that assault a young couple trying their best to deal with having and caring for a newborn baby. It’s the first child for them both, and it doesn’t take them long to unpack the idea that this baby didn’t really come with a solid mapped-out instruction sheet like the bed did. They stand there, looking at the pieces of what is now their life, and realize, quite quickly, that they are totally unprepared for the task from day one. What were they thinking?

Josette Jorge and Raugi Yu in Ins Choi’s Bad Parent at Soulpepper Theatre.

I mean, they just hand over a baby to two young adults right after birth nowadays, and send them, now official parents, on their way to figure it all out. As if it is going to be as easy as putting away groceries. It’s crazy, right? Just ask any mother or father you know. Yet Choi (Alligator Pie; Window on Toronto) dives right in, blasting down the fourth wall with confidence. He bravely delivers something that is quite entertaining and fun, although sometimes a bit repetitive and generic. It plays with the same realistic component, but in totality, it is a very different engagement to his earlier play, Kim’s Convenience, mainly by taking the leads and having them be (and speak) direct and upfront straight to the audience. Like a stand-up comedian.

It’s a commanding formulation, all while trying to cradle and take great care of his keen ability to unearth humanity and unpack the complicated interpersonal dynamics that bubble up within this couple’s real-world arena. From the get-go, we like the two new parents, understanding their hesitation and discomfort, but we also become acutely aware that we are being asked to bear witness to each of their struggles, side with one against the other, like a game of Battleship, and see and maybe participate in whose ships sink first. Whether we want to remain neutral or not.

Bad Parent, the comedy, is a well-crafted and skilled declaration, generally successful, staged and directed with an engaging eye by Meg Roe (Shaw’s Middletown). She delivers the two sides of a baby-born conflict with humor and honest grace, scattering the fierce competitive processes in a comically clear manner much like the toys and such on the floor. Etched out by two solidly connecting actors doing pretty fun and engaging work, Josette Jorge (Mnemonic’s Proof) and Raugi Yu (The Firehall’s Yellow Fever) take their stories to the standing microphone center stage and ask us, directly, and indirectly, who is doing the better job at not being a Bad Parent. They both have a few good legs to stand on in this battle of the baby-rearing adult, but I’m not sure I ever wanted to jump into this crowded kiddie pool as they were requesting. If anything, I felt myself wanting to take one or two steps back and check the temperature of the water first. And maybe thinking, as I watched the war escalate, that it isn’t quite warm enough to want to jump into the fray.

Josette Jorge and Raugi Yu in Ins Choi’s Bad Parent at Soulpepper Theatre.

Co-produced by three stellar theatre companies; Soulpepper Theatre Company, Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre, and Prairie Theatre Exchange (PTE), the 90-minute one-act play that is being rolled out across the country in stages, somewhat successfully navigates the constructed “as is” dynamic without ever losing internal focus, or the actual baby that takes center stage without ever actually taking center stage. The two compelling actors actively and entertainingly embody two roles; both a “parent in the trenches, and a witness to that struggle.” Mother Norah, played arrestingly by Jorge, and father Charles, charismatically portrayed by Yu, are both determined from the onset to tell us their stories; the origin story of their partnership, even if the two don’t exactly match up, and the other one, the crumbling fraught situation we are being brought into; of being new parents to an infant, and seeing pretty clearly that it is not going all that well.

The friction within leads them down two separate roads, apart and alone, bringing on more squabbles than any two humans can honestly withstand. I must admit the chaotic way the two bicker borders on traumatic, albeit sounding completely honest and hopelessly painful. The conflictual dynamic did get a bit much about halfway through, flatlining the emotionality as if there was nowhere to go, especially for this baby-less singleton watching five rows back (yes, I’m basically a happier Bridget Jones at most dinner parties I attend). But it’s a difficult task, listening to two people bitterly engage in a war of words on a flat heteronormative plain, with neither soul wanting to empathetically hear the other or find a way to move it forward and up. There is humor and engagement in the construct, that is true, especially when each actor takes on the secondary more sympathetic role, one step removed from the battle. Yu successfully portrays a kind and consoling accountant who works in the same office as Norah once she returns from her extended mat leave. And the other is the Filipino nanny, Nora without an ‘h’, played solidly by Jorge, who cares for “Mister Charles” in a way that uncomfortably resembles the often mentioned overbearing mother of Charles, feeding him directly from a fork or spoon, in a similar way she would feed the infant child that sleeps (or cries) in the other room.

Josette Jorge in Ins Choi’s Bad Parent at Soulpepper Theatre.

The battle rages on and on, escalating as each partner starts to turn more and more to their sympathetic counterparts for understanding or comfort. Infidelity is not the play here for Choi, as the contrasting roles help formulate a clearer picture of each of the parents’ unmet needs and uncomfortable complications. In that way, this theatrical intervention is well played, even if superficially exaggerated. But Choi isn’t trying to reinvent the parental-disheveled wheel. Rather he is attempting to play with the hostilities that becoming a new parent can elicit, from the beginning of a relationship to the moment when these two new parents, after being ‘just let..go” from the hospital with a newborn in their arms, with no instruction or guidance, find themselves stranded in a jailed “as is” crib of their own making; exhausted, overwhelmed, and seemingly isolated from one another. Communication has broken down, and the connection that once was there, inside a “Run Run Norah” theme song, has completely fractured apart. Unplugged and discarded. And even if the stand-up comedy within succeeds, the heartbreak cries out, without any way of possibly settling itself down to sleep.

Their child has been named “Mountain” because Charles believes that “the mountains were my way of getting my bearings where I grew up.” A name and an idea that doesn’t really get the absurd attention or traction it deserves. Norah thought the baby was ironically named after a WWE wrestler, although if she really believed that, this strong-willed woman would never have allowed that to happen. Am I right? Yet, when connected, the two have an easy, refreshing appeal. But as they start to split off from one another; Charles into his silent man-child pop music disconnection, and Norah into her detached yet ambitiously engaged career woman role in a world she loves, the play begins to distance itself from the unique, and starts to slip down the playground slide into a more mediocre pile of play toys, destined to be engaged with superficially by most, and to entertain those who can relate.

Raugi Yu in Ins Choi’s Bad Parent at Soulpepper Theatre.

The characters’ development is ultimately cradled in a combative and competitive tone, each trying desperately to hold on to the spaces that give them strength and pride, all the while attempting to steer us, audience members, to their boxing-ring corner. The writing never swings too far outside of reality, keeping the characters completely recognizable as sub-types throughout. It is some pretty quirky glue that holds this ‘as is‘ piece of furniture together, screwed tightly and wisely together on a well-defined set by Sophie Tang (Stratford’s Rez Sisters), with solid lighting by Gerald King (Touchstone’s Lights), simple effective costuming by Brenda McLean (PTE’s The War Being Waged), and a vibrant musical production sound design by Deanna H. Choi (The Grove’s The 39 Steps), but I’m not sure this glue is strong or quirky enough to play long or deep. Luckily the ending finds its way back, somewhat, just in time, to a place where real emotions and connections can be unearthed and engaged with. The sympathetic side characters vanish into the darkness, and the leads return, back to the IKEA mattress and the mess they mutually created. Hopefully to find one another again.

The idea could easily become a similarly themed TV series, much like Choi’s Kim’s Convenience successfully did on CBC. All of the plotlines, primary and secondary, could add some weight and direction, but in the end, I think it would feel as commercial and safe as any good solid rerun of some other sitcom. For this Guncle and baby-less single man, who never really dreamed of having a child of his own, the material never really found its way into my heart. I do love being the gay uncle to my friend’s two fantastic kids and look forward to watching them grow up to be whomever they desire to be. (One of them, I imagine, might beautifully rule the world one day.) I was there when she was sent home from the hospital with her first, utterly in pain from the birthing process, yet with an infant in her arms that was in need, 24/7. The idea was wildly crazy at the time, but this was how it was done. Lucky for her she had a fair bit of help. Yet even knowing all this, Bad Parent, while being entertaining and funny for the most part, never really found its way out of the crib. It played, wailed, and cried, like any bed-stealing toddler would, stealing our attention and demanding its presence be acknowledged, but in the end, for this gay uncle, the play, never really found its way to offer up anything particularly new or uniquely compelling.

The play moves to Vancouver’s Cultch (October 13-23) and PTE’s Winnipeg home base (November 2-20) after its Toronto run. For information and tickets in Toronto, please click here.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

 

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last...so far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

Out of Town

Crow’s/Obsidian Theatre Company’s “seven methods of killing kylie jenner” Kills It, Elevating the Dissertation with a Precise Brilliance

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Dragging their baggage in with a determined force, these two, dressed in fake fur and leather, enter the space at Crow’s Theatre with manic laughter and a forceful narrative. Sharply and expertly written by British playwright, Jasmine Lee-Jones (Curious), the play dives in with a tightness and fortitude that elevates and enlightens the darkness of its exploration. With a hypnotic frustrated energy, the play masterfully rolls out the seven methods of killing kylie jenner without missing a beat, unpacking the intricate exploration of cultural appropriation and queerness with a sharp precision. Delivered in a modern vernacular that excites, it circles around its formula with a careful carefree existentialism, becoming deeply entwined in the pervasive influence of social media and celebrity culture that can do mental damage to those around them, especially in the arena of the ownership of black bodies online and IRL, as well as the connecting energy and complication of female friendships.

Déjah Dixon-Green in Crow’s/Obsidian Theatre’s seven methods for killing kylie jenner. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

It’s completely hyper-engrossing and thrilling, giving power back provocatively to our heroine, Cleo, dynamically portrayed by Déjah Dixon-Green (Stratford’s Much Ado About Nothing), a young black woman who, after a confessional breakup with her cheating boyfriend, expresses her fevered frustration and anger via Twitter using the profile name @INCOGNEGRO. She dives in with gusto, flying into the fray with an aggressive rage that rarely fizzles. The play unwraps the seven methods in a layered unhurried manner, giving space and time to the framework, while also delivering engagement energy to her forever friend, Kara, fascinatingly well-played by Jasmine Case (Tarragon’s Black Girl in Search Of..), a queer person who has lots to say, both positive and negative, about Cleo’s unpacking online.

Dixon-Green is solid and on point throughout, with Case finding engagement at every turn somewhat brilliantly, and together, they excel in every way possible, finding attunement and synchronized energy throughout. Veering somewhere between real life and the virtual space, the play, as directed with exacting intent by Jay Northcott (Tarragon’s A Poem for Rabia), spirals in a rich media space, focusing its lasers on the framework that the born-wealthy media personality, Kylie Jenner, can call herself “self-made“, basking in the positive warm glow of what that label means to a woman like her, and how it can be felt by a woman like Cleo. The unwrapping is expertly intricate and verbally captivating, forcing us to dive in with these two and pay close-close attention to this vivid exploration of Blackness, queerness, and the way the online world can spiral one way and then another in an instantaneous flash of engagement and brutality.

You think you’re funny, don’t you?” as her tweets spiral into the abstract world of death threats and verbal violence enlightening the space, designed with inventive flair by set designer, Nick Blais (Factory’s Trojan Girls…), with well-formulated video graphics, designed by Laura Warren (Outside the March’s No Save Points), helping guide us through the dynamic experimental argument that expands the needed structure addressed. Jones’ dialogue radiates quick, sharp, clever constructs, expanded in thought, and reduced to a parade of letters in caps most brilliantly. The sexual undercurrents are both hilarious and brazen, giving us ample reason to connect as she fastidiously piles up all the injustices against Black women that are woven into the wording of this expert play, and we find ourselves forever invested in her outcome and ultimate safety.

Jasmine Case and Déjah Dixon-Green in Crow’s/Obsidian Theatre’s seven methods for killing kylie jenner. Photo by Dahlia Katz

Steeped in the language of internet culture, assisted strongly by the sound design of Maddie Bautista (Stratford’s Les Belles-Soeurs), straightforward lighting by Christopher-Elizabeth (CS/Bluebird’s Maanomaa, My Brother), and precise costuming by Des’ree Gray (Coal Mine’s Appropriate), the delivery and online reaction to Cleo’s escalation pushes the agenda outward and upward. Embodying numerous online characters, the two flawless performers combine as an exacting unified force, showcasing Cleo’s viral methods for murder and the resulting pushback from the unseen faceless community that has a lot to say about her tweets. The recitation and debate are raw and deliberate, finding truths and the complicated echoings of racism and rape threats that are honestly horrifying and troubling. It’s a terrifying landscape, displaying the vile and horridness of the internet culture that we all play a part in, either as an active participant or abject denier.

Cleo’s tweets and dissertation gain momentum and the back-and-forth conversation becomes more drenched in blocked anger and hurt, with the two reclaiming their time when needed, as they navigate the difficult cloud space filled with personal dredged-up resentment and smoky spaces of connectivity. Demanding to be heard, yet also needing to find the empathy to apologize when required, these two friends work hard inside the vividness of this captivating play so they don’t get swallowed up whole by the racist violence of the world, even as Cleo vocalizes the seven methods of killing kylie jenner one after the other. Its high-minded viewpoint is crystal clear, and delivered with an expertise that is both thrilling and epic, finding inventive casualness in its meticulous unified delivery.

Gripping tight to our emotional attention with a brilliant determination by writer Jones, the play, while feeling a bit trapped by the body bag hidden in the back, seven methods of killing kylie jenner, produced by Obsidian Theatre in association with Crow’s Theatre, Toronto, finds its sharpness and quick wit in the end, reinventing the meta imaginative exit with the weight of history and cleverness. “What are you going to do now?“, they ask. Well…., I’m going to tell you all that this play is something to engage with, learn from, and completely celebrate, but more importantly, I’m going to tell you to get your tickets and dive into this inventive striking new play without delay or hesitation.

Déjah Dixon-Green in Crow’s/Obsidian Theatre’s seven methods for killing kylie jenner. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Crow’s/Obsidian Theatre Company’s seven methods of killing kylie jenner. For tickets and more information, click here.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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Live From The Hotel Edison Times Square Chronicles Presents tick, tick…Boom!

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We are so pleased to announce our guests this week are Director Eric Rosen, Andy Mientus and Krystina Alabado about tick, tick…Boom! at The Cape Playhouse this summer. Join us Wednesday May 22nd at 5pm.

Andy Mientus as Jon in Tick, Tick…BOOM! at Bucks County Playhouse.
(© Joan Marcus)

Artistic Director Eric Rosen brings his acclaimed production – hailed as a powerful and bold new interpretation of this show – for his Cape Playhouse debut. Rosen directed the original production of A Christmas Story: The Musical, which opened on Broadway in 2012 and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Musical. He co-wrote and directed Venice at the Public Theatre. He is also known for his reimagining of classic musicals including Sunday in the Park with George, a punk rock production of Pippin, and Hair: Retrospection in collaboration with and starring members of the original Broadway companies of Hair

As a playwright, his work includes the play Dream Boy which won a Chicago Jeff Award for Best New Play and Best Direction.

In 2000, he co-founded About Face Youth Theatre, one of the nation’s foremost arts and advocacy programs for at-risk LGBTQ youth, and the 18 year old program continues to serve thousands of young people in Chicago.

Director Eric Rosen

Andy Mientus toured with the first national touring company of Spring Awakening, appeared in the 2012 Off-Broadway revival of Carrie: The Musical, He made his Broadway debut in the 2014 revival of Les Misérables as Marius Pontmercy. In February 2015, he was cast as journalist Brett Craig in Parade, for a one-night-only concert presentation at the Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. In LA he appeared in the show Bent at the Mark Taper Forum. He also reprised his role as Hänschen in the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening, directed by his partner Michael Arden. The production then transferred to Broadway. In 2013, Mientus was cast in season two of the musical drama television series Smash as series regular Kyle Bishop. Following the cancellation of Smash, Mientus and co-stars Jeremy Jordan and Krysta Rodriguez joined the cast of Hit List, the real-world staging of the fictional rock musicalcreated for season two of Smash

Mientus appeared in several episodes of the ABC Family series Chasing Life as Jackson, the CW series The Flash as the Pied Piper (Hartley Rathaway), having previously auditioned for the lead role of Barry Allen. Mientus made history with this role by playing the first openly gay supervillain ever. He was in GoneGrendel, an eight-episode Netflix series based on Matt Wagner’s Dark Horse comic books.

Andy Mientus

At the age of 18, Krystina Alabado joined the national tour of Spring Awakening and made her Broadway debut in 2011 as a replacement ensemble member and understudy in American Idiotlater reprising her role in the show’s first national tour. In 2013, she joined the national tour of Evita (based on the 2012 Broadway revival) playing Juan Perón’s mistress. In 2016, she appeared in the short-lived Broadway production of American Psycho.  In  2019, Alabado joined the cast of Mean Girls as Gretchen Wieners, replacing Ashley Park. In March 2020, Alabado started a YouTube channel to explain to her followers different aspects of how Broadway works and interview her fellow castmates during the COVID-19 pandemic that temporarily closed Broadway

Krystina Alabado

“Live From The Hotel Edison Times Square Chronicles Presents ”, is a show filmed at the iconic Hotel Edison, before a live audience. To see our past episodes; First episode click here second episode click here,  third episode click here, fourth episode click here, fifth episode click here, sixth episode here, seventh episode here, eighth episode here, ninth episode here, tenth episode here, eleventh episode here, our twelfth episode here, thirteenth episode here and fourteenth here

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Another Barricade Visit for Mirvish Toronto’s “Les Misérables”

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I was apprehensive and excited, all at the same time, as I entered the touring company staging of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s  Les Misérables, now taking form at the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto. The production, brought to us by Mirvish Productions, transported me back to that time, about forty years ago, when I first saw this glorious musical over in London’s West End. Twice actually, with the magnificent Patti LuPone. Lupone was divine, broking my heart at every moment given. This might have been the show that somehow created this theatre junkie, so much so that I had to return again a few weeks later, spending more than this young man could really afford. And I believe I also returned to see that same beautiful revolving stage design when it made its award-winning debut on Broadway, about two more times before it closed.  It was heavenly and forever memorable.  I remember being swept away by the intensely moving story, and sumptuous music and songs. Tears were in my eyes at so many emotionally heart-breaking moments, that I left fully satisfied and happy each and every time.

The staging this time around, with set and projected image design created by Matt Kinley (25th Anniversary Production of Phantom of the Opera) is said to be “inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo”, and with a stunning musical staging by Geoffrey Garratt and directed most beautifully by Laurence Connor (Mirvish’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) and James Powell (London’s The Witches of Eastwick), the production still found its way into my emotional heart. It carried forth all of the same powerful moments, even without that famous revolve. It was different, and in some ways, it felt smaller and not as expansive and connecting, but maybe, with time and an awareness that I didn’t have when I first saw the same touring revival on Broadway back in 2016, this familiar staging fully engaged, taking me happily on that same emotional journey, even while missing the expansive previous revolving set design.

The music and those powerful tragic moments still deliver with a vengeance, mainly because of the incredible vocal performances of this touring cast. Tears came to my eyes at numerous moments, and I knew that I would enjoy myself from the moment the Bishop of Digne, played by a wonderful Randy Jeter (Public’s Parable of the Sower) told the constables that he had in fact given Jean Valjean, embodied by a magnificent Nick Cartell (Broadway’s Paramour) the church’s silver (that he, in fact, had stolen). And furthermore, he had forgotten to take the more valuable pieces of silver during the epic Prologue and ‘Soliloquy’. That and each subsequent moment, lasting all the way from the beautiful ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ sung with such loving sadness by Haley Dortch, the saddest of all sad songs; the engaging ‘On My Own’ by the powerful voiced Mya Rena Hunter; to Valjean’s stunningly rendered of ‘Who Am I?’ and all points in-between, moved me most generously. The songs, delivered graciously by these glorious-voiced actors brought it all back to life, and embedded itself inside my soul once again.

The glorious “Bring Him Home“, sung with incredible intensity and love by the gifted Cartell, felt as tender and angelic as ever. Understudy Cameron Loyal (Broadway’s Bad Cinderella) as the determined Javert couldn’t match the heightened level of expertise that Cartell climbed himself up to and was maybe the weakest link in this beautifully performed construction, but it never tarnished the overall effect. The Thenardier husband and wife team, gorgeously well-played by Matt Crowle (Mercury Theater’s The Producers) and Victoria Huston-Elem (Goodspeed’s Gypsy), performed the wonderfully crafted ‘Master of the House’ number with great comic timing and delivery, and the Student’s songs, ‘The People’s Song’ and ‘Drink With Me to Days Gone By’ were also lovingly performed, although there were a few over-done attempts of humor and inauthentic drunkenness. Marius, lovingly portrayed by the handsome Jake David Smith (Off-Broadway’s Between the Lines) delivers a tender (but not so well stage-designed) version of one of my favorite songs, ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’.  His voice graced us with its loving tones, lifting us in its softness, and working well our emotional heartstrings with this sad sweet song.

All in all, my friend and I had gathered together to hear all these aforementioned, beautifully crafted, and much-loved songs, sung with care, expertise, and love. Les Misérables sounds as glorious as ever, and I must add that I was happy to have had the chance to insert these songs back into my head. I’ve been humming these numerous melodies, all of which brought me great joy and happiness, all weekend long.  This small simple staging still packs a musically beautiful and powerful punch, and I’m forever grateful for that gift, revolving or not.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” Burns Hot and Cool at Coal Mine Theatre

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With homecoming flowers and the sound of strings, Coal Mine Theatre‘s revival of the classic Hedda Gabler gets underway. It’s a captivating runway set-up, giving intimacy to the struggles of Henrick Ibsen’s anti-hero and namesake by placing the audience on three sides of its wood-planked rectangle. Played with wild abandonment by Diana Bentley (Coal Mine’s Detroit), her Hedda finds herself sitting in the moonlight at the piano, hunched over in some complicated state of anguish, trapped and caged in a backless gown. It’s clear, from that first image and the music that comes, that this production, adapted with tinges of modernity by Liiisa Repo-Martelli (Crow’s Uncle Vanya), is aiming itself directly at the naked soul of Hedda Gabler, now Hedda Tesman, the married woman who had once enchanted the men of this town with her beauty and cool exterior. But in what time frame does she come from and live within? That is a complex question that doesn’t actually have to be answered because as directed by Moya O’Connell (Actor: Coal Mine’s The Sound Inside) with a fierce passion that sometimes overflows the sparsely-used space created by set and costume designer Joshua Quinlan (Crow’s Theatre’s The Master Plan), this Hedda is from no distinct era, floating and fighting against her position and place in the world that never fits her frame.

Fiona Reid and Diana Bentley in Coal Mine Theatre’s Hedda Gabler. Photo by Elana Emer.

When the sweet Auntie Julia, played lovingly by Fiona Reid (Shaw’s Dance of Death), is ushered into the living room by an overwhelmed nervous Berta, played quietly by Nancy Beatty (“The Shipping News“), it is clear that there is tension in this newly acquired home of Hedda and her newlywed husband, Jorgen Tesman, played a bit too obviously by Qasim Khan (Canadian Stage’s The Inheritance). Jorgen is forever oblivious, even when prompted by the sweet maternalness of Auntie Julia. He doesn’t seem to see much beyond his books and personal interests, even when addressing the woman he has married and is completely spellbound by. Khan’s Tesman is a bit dense about marriage and what comes next, sailing in worlds that are oceans apart from his wife, especially when it comes to sensuality and seduction. It all flies over his head, but not ours.

Trapped in a marriage and a house that she does not want, Bentley’s Hedda is a heap of contradictions, struggling with her new life and the timeframe she must live in. Devoid of any excitement or enchantment, she battles with an inner demon that only comes out when she finds herself alone on that stage. Her fighting spirit erupts in those moments, making it clear that when she is in the room with others, she is mostly insincere and putting on whatever face is required. This is especially true when it comes to her interactions with the timeframed women who float in and out of the room in a more traditional tone. She belittles them, slyly, for no other reason than knowing how. Playing nice, when she needs security or information, but shifting gears the moment she is no longer in need. Hedda’s tragic flaw, as we all know, is her willful narcissism that latches itself on to a destructive force within. Her only focus is getting whatever she wants at any given moment, even if it comes at the expense of another person’s feelings.

Diana Bentley in Coal Mine Theatre’s Hedda Gabler. Photo by Elana Emer.

This Hedda, passionately portrayed by Bentley, needs to manipulate others as an undercurrent form of power and control, forcing those frameworks forward, most likely, because of societal expectations and norms. Ideals Hedda can’t abide by. Bently does a fascinating job at flinging herself into the role, flipping back and forth from insincere politeness and care to manipulative and suggestive power dynamics, usually involving one particular way of sitting on that lounge chair. Unfortunately, those two aspects get used repeatedly without much variance or subtlety added. Where is the steady climb to destruction? And where is the fall from grace? She is supposed to be a woman born into a higher class than the one she finds herself in; more her regal father’s daughter than her intellectual husband’s wife. Thus the play’s focus on her maiden name. But rather than class consciousness, she simply comes off as a hungry smooth sociopath, with no empathy and an impulsive streak that stings all that get too close. This Hedda sometimes falls into the form of a one-page, two-sided narcissist without a soul, and with nowhere to go, she doesn’t hold our interest as sharply as she is supposed to.

A sense of subtlety seems to be the key that is missing in much of this production of Hedda Gabler. Everyone is hitting their marks, doing what is required of them at any given moment, raising their voice when they are told to, but the deeper depiction of the manipulative nature feels a bit hurried, as we watch the characters move with urgency around the space. Within this patriarchal society, Hedda pushes a bit too hard and obviously, trying to gain some agency or control over her existence. It’s clear that she is forever disturbed by her marriage to the boring Tesman, now that she has found herself caged in a new house that, while being more extravagant than they can really afford, “smells like old lady” and death. And it will never bring her any contentment unless she seizes control.

(L to R) Andrew Chown, Diana Bentley (back), and Leah Doz in Coal Mine Theatre’s Hedda Gabler. Photo by Elana Emer.

So when she hears from a former classmate Thea Elvsted, portrayed tense and uncomfortable by Leah Doz (Coal Mine’s The Effect), that a former lover, Eilert Lovborg, handsomely portrayed by Andrew Chown (Crow’s Bad Roads) has resurfaced, her focus shifts. “He’s nothing to me“, Hedda delivers, but a shaking, dynamic need has been awakened. A spark has been lit inside this trapped animal, and this spark leads all to chaos and a sea of drunken madness and despair. “No one trusts a tea toddler,” Hedda says, tempting and creating her own manifesto for the future, one of manipulation, deviance, and a roaring fire of pages destroyed. Why, we may ask? Because something must happen in this woman’s new world order, and she must find a way to take control. “This night will be the making of him,” she says, for someone, or herself.

Hedda is smug and cruel, out of boredom and shallow emotional connection to others. She moves through the space like a caged lioness, under captivating lighting by Kaitlin Hickey (Factory’s Wildfire) with a strong sound design by Michael Wanless (Coal Mine’s Appropriate). Hedda initially only finds excitement in the eyes of their family friend and helper, Judge Brack, played suggestively and a bit overtly by Shawn Doyle (Canstage’s A Number). But that triangle only works with one rooster in it, the Judge tells the woman he wants to control, and once he sees the glint in Hedda’s eyes for the firebrand that is Lovborg, a different tension climbs up and out of its box. And like any caged animal unleashed, destruction must come for all those who get too close and demand too much.

Diana Bentley (back) and Shawn Doyle in Coal Mine Theatre’s Hedda Gabler. Photo by Elana Emer.

The ending is legendary, complicated and raw. A different fuse has been lit, as we witness what happens when Hedda discovers that the intended destruction did not go how she had conceptualized it. She must take control of something, but unfortunately, after such a solid buildup, the end disappears into the depths in a far too quick undynamic fashion with an inauthentic mayhem following soon after the firing. The symbolic bodily unleashing is fascinating, but doesn’t actually carry the emotional weight and magnitude that is intended. It’s overwrought and disconnected from the heart, even with the thought-provoking physicality thrown out with wild abandonment. The tragedy doesn’t connect to the desperation that is underneath in Coal Mine‘s Hedda Gabler. It’s distinct and electric, but doesn’t manage to shoot itself deep into the soul.

Qasim Khan and Shawn Doyle in Coal Mine Theatre’s Hedda Gabler. Photo by Elana Emer. For tickets and more information, click here.

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Out of Town

Studio 180’s Four Minutes Twelve Seconds Ignites Tarragon Theatre’s Extra Space

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The sharpness and pointedness of this new play, Four Minutes Twelve Seconds is signaled quickly within the first few minutes and unknown seconds when the first of many lies are told from one partner to another. The lie, once revealed, seems simple enough, protective even, but as directed with a diligent focus to detail by Mark McGrinder (Studio 180’s Oslo), the unpacking that follows is anything but simple. This play, written to make us sit up and take notice by James Fritz (Parliament Square, Start Swimming), is as unrelenting as peeling an onion in tight quarters. It seeps inside, igniting a myriad of emotions that will stay with you long after the 85-minute play comes to its final resting place.

Megan Follows and Sergio Di Zio in Studio 180 Theatre’s Four Minutes Twelve Seconds. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Do you really want to do this now?” asks the husband as he watches anxiety grow in his concerned wife and mother. The production, by Studio 180 Theatre in association with Tarragon Theatre, revolves with intent around the actions or inactions of a couple around the unseen son’s state that starts with a nosebleed, which isn’t exactly a nosebleed. “It’s the circle of [bloody] life in Scarborough.” But it’s not just teenagers being teenagers. Nor is it “kid’s stuff” that ignites the forever-shifting dynamic. Their teenage son has either found himself, or placed himself in an unforgiving framework of sexual assault rumors, that are seen one way and then another as the plot thickens.

His parents, Di and David, expertly portrayed by Megan Follows (Soulpepper’s Top Girls) and Sergio Di Zio (Coal Mine’s Between Riverside and Crazy), find themselves at a crossroads, faced with a dilemma of the highest, most complicated order. Forever fencing with one another, skirting the formalities of truth and deception, they must come to terms with actions that are hard to take in, let alone process or understand. Impossible, in a way. They have devoted their whole lives to the care of their prized son, Jack, ushering their “good boy” through the world so that he may have every opportunity they never had. He must succeed, they think, after all they have done for him, but within an instant, some Four Minutes Twelve Seconds, a startling incident outside of school escalates into something they can’t quite seem to wrap their heads around. The gravity is huge, threatening everything they have tried to achieve, while also, more importantly, possibly destroying their faith in each other and the family unit.

Jadyn Nasato and Megan Follows in Studio 180 Theatre’s Four Minutes Twelve Seconds. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Who are they to trust, inside and out of their family unit? “Are people always gonna believe her?” they ask, and as the play sharply progresses forward, questions of a huge magnitude are asked; to us, to them, and to those around them. The framing thrusts Follows’ concerned and confused Di into a number of possibly ill-advised one-on-one interactions with both Jack’s “idiot” friend, Nick, played beautifully by a tender Tavaree Daniel-Simms (New Harlem’s The First Stone), and Jack’s now-ex girlfriend, Cara, powerfully embodied by a wonderful Jadyn Nasato (Canadian Stage’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream), who represents everything the parents have tried to keep Jack away from. She makes regrettable accusations one after the other, and the interactions dig deep holes in the outlook of almost everyone around. It’s tense powerful stuff, beautifully played out in two angled pathways to light and understanding, orchestrated with distinction by set and costume designer Jackie Chau (NEPA’s HUFF), with precise lighting by Logan Raju Cracknell (Bad Hats/Soulpepper’s Alice in Wonderland) and a solid sound design by Lyon Smith (Soulpepper’s Pipeline).

Tension lives and breaths in this production, deftly produced by Studio 180 Theatre, with important ideas and questions hanging in the air just long enough for us to breathe them in and sit inside them. The answers aren’t easily given, as we watch these two parents lie to one another for purposes unknown at the time. Each moment meticulously unveils more problematic ideas that lead to larger questions of morality and responsibility, while also shining a harsh light on how we engage with one another, and maybe on how we try to use each other. There are no easy straightforward answers to be had in Four Minutes Twelve Seconds, but it sure will linger in your head and heart for a much longer time than that.

Megan Follows and Tavaree Daniel-Simms in Studio 180 Theatre’s Four Minutes Twelve Seconds. Photo by Dahlia Katz.
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