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Slings and Arrows – The Best TV Show to Stream on YouTube, Hands Down.

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Many years ago I found myself hanging out with a good friend who worked in the film and television industry in Toronto. She asked me if I wanted to go to the set of a television series that was currently being filmed. It was a show that was going to explore the never-ending battle between creating art and the commerce of theatre. Hours later, I found myself standing in the corner of a large arts center watching a room full of actors film a scene of a bunch of actors doing an initial reading of the play, Hamlet. The stars of the show, Paul Gross, Stephen Ouimette, and Martha Burns were at that table reading that was being filmed, and the energy and excitement vibrated through the room. They were portraying passionate and conflicted actors and directors, determined to find meaning within the play, and although I had no context to understand what was happening and why, I could tell it was going to be something quite special.

Slings & Arrows was that show (stream the whole series here), and that scene was a part of the first season, episode 3. The darkly comic series is a Canadian TV show set at the fictional New Burbage Festival, a Shakespearean festival similar to the real-world Stratford Festival, and I must admit that it is, by far, my favorite television series.  I can’t speak about Shakespeare without finding the need to mention this show, especially whenever I see, watch, or write about HamletMacbeth, or King Lear. How these people talk about the text and those plays, as well as Romeo and Juliet, gave me a deeper understanding of those Shakespearean plays, and to the passion that goes into creating meaningful art and theatre. I love it, distinctly and forever. It makes me laugh and cry every time I’ve watched it, and that, I must admit, has been many.

First aired on Canada’s Movie Central and The Movie Network channels in 2003, it gained great acclaim in the United States when it was shown on the Sundance Channel two years later. Three seasons of six episodes each were filmed, with the final season airing in Canada in the summer of 2006 and in the United States in early 2007. Slings & Arrows was created and written by former The Kids in the Hallmember Mark McKinney, who plays the Festival’s administrative director, Richard Smith-Jones; playwright and actress Susan Coyne (‘Mozart in the Jungle‘), who plays his magnificent administrative assistant, Anna Conroy; and comedian Bob Martin, who gives a great performance as accountant Terry. “You’re the numbers man!” The entire series was directed by Peter Wellington.

Susan Coyne.

Slings & Arrows centers around life at a fictional Shakespearean theatre festival in New Burbage, Canada. Each season focuses on The New Burbage Festival’s production of a different Shakespearean play being produced on its main stage. The themes of the play are juxtaposed within the personal and professional conflicts facing the festival’s cast and crew. It finds parallels that keep making the viewer’s experience of the show deeper and more emotional, while also becoming more endearing and funny. So “Go for it, man!“, “these are the words a director most likes to hear.

Season 1: Hamlet

As the show begins, actor/director Geoffrey Tennant, played perfectly by the excellent Paul Gross (‘Due South’, ‘Alias Grace’) is trying to run a small theatre company called “Théâtre Sans Argent” (French for “Theatre Without Money”) and it literally fits the threadbare title, as he tries to rehearse a Shakespearean storm scene while also dealing with a clogged toilet. The owner of the building arrives, demanding rent for the space, money that the theatre company doesn’t have. The writing of a bad check results in Geoffrey being arrested on their opening night, elevating the company and him into champions of theatre and the arts against commercialism, a theme that will resonate from beginning to end.

Paul Gross.

At the same moment, at the New Burbage Festival, artistic director Oliver Welles, gorgeously portrayed by the wonderful Stephen Ouimette (Stratford’s The Tempest), has slowly but surely dropped his focus at the festival, losing his drive for artistic greatness, and replacing his higher purpose for more commercialized and emotionally lame productions. It is the opening night of the New Burbage’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and actress Ellen Fanshaw, played to perfection by the glorious Martha Burns (“Blindness“) stars, but she is on the brink of despair, dissatisfied that Oliver has stopped caring about the details.  The tension is palpable between the two, but the attitude is true, Oliver has stopped caring, and it is apparent to all around him. “You don’t make demands of the audience, you soothe them. Your shows are comfortable, like an old boot.” as stated by theatre critic, Basil, played smart by Sean Cullen (“The Love Guru“).

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Sean Cullen and Martha Burns.

Seven years earlier, Oliver had directed Ellen and Geoffrey in a now-legendary production of Hamlet that many consider the quintessential production of the play and of the Festival, but something happened mid-way through one of the performances. Geoffrey froze, bringing the production to a grinding halt, with Ellen watching from the sidelines. He looks at her with all the pain of a Hamlet mourning the loss of his beloved Ophelia, and hops into her grave. Running and screaming out into the town, Geoffrey suffers a nervous breakdown and never returns, while Ellen stays solidly at the Festival, working and acting in productions directed by Oliver.

But on that opening night of Midsummer, Oliver sees Geoffrey on the news, chained to his theatre door, demanding that theatre be more about creation than commerce. “Now that’s theatre” he says. Heavily drunk, Oliver calls Geoffrey from a payphone and they argue, about the past, the present, and the future of theatre, but it doesn’t go very far. Oliver then passes out in the middle of the street and is run over and killed, not just by any vehicle, but by a truck bearing the slogan “Canada’s Best Hams“.

That is what this show is all about, on every emotional level, from the ridiculous to the important. It’s a great opening episode, but that first episode is all just pure setup, giving us the perfect leaping-off place. I tell everyone to watch at least the first two episodes of the show when diving in for the first time, so one can understand the illusionary heart and core of what “Slings and Arrows” is truly all about, the difficult task of making great theatre, art amongst the conflicting business of selling that commodity, unfolding under a truly ‘spirited’ eye of Oliver.

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Luke Kirby and Rachel McAdams

Episode two begins with Geoffrey being invited back to give a eulogy at Oliver’s funeral, but the speech slowly turns out to be more of a blistering critique of the state of the festival under Oliver’s watch. Surprisingly, especially to Geoffrey, it leads to an offer for him to take over as Interm Artistic Director on a temporary basis by May Silverstone, played by the wonderfully engaging Marcia Bennett. It’s not the greatest beginning, and most think he will fail, but after clashing with an old rival, Darren Nichols, played by the incredibly funny Don McKellar (“Last Night“), unleashing one of the best takedowns by Stage manager Claire (Sabrina Grdevich), Geoffrey is forced, most reluctantly, to take over the direction of the festival’s mainstage production of Hamlet. It stars, as many a Festival tends to do, a young action-movie star from Hollywood, Jack Crew, deliciously played by Luke Kirby (“Take This Waltz“), guaranteeing that the seats and the box office will be filled with gold. He’s an actor who has to feel it before he can say the true lines, leading many to wonder what kind of Hamlet he is going to be in the end. Geoffrey’s former lover and costar, Ellen, watches on with disbelief. She is playing Gertrude this time around, adding another layer of stress and conflict to the staging, all the while dating a young handsome man and rival, Sloan, played deliciously by the very studly Matt Fitzgerald (“Blindness“). “Poor Ellen, trying to screw the years off.

One of the best surprising bits is the casting of the magically Rachel McAdams (‘The Notebook’, ‘Mean Girls‘) as the adorable apprentice actress Kate, who dazzles us all with her understudied Ophelia heartfelt love and madness, and who also finds herself falling hopelessly and inconveniently for the sweet-natured Jack. Geoffrey feels a similar connection, as he sees a great Hamlet inside the insecure Jack, in a way that no one else can, and his love of theatre, acting, and Shakespearean text all flows out in order to help this young action hero film star find his light. Every time I watch Jack take to the stage, it makes me cry, for the beauty of the art, and the faith in the text and the craft. But the true intelligent beauty of “Slings and Arrows” is that Oliver can’t seem to really let go of New Burbage, the production of Hamlet, and most of all, Geoffrey. It’s a brilliant nod to Shakespeare and the power of Hamlet’s Ghost, bringing depth and hilarity to every episode in this season, and beyond. “Geoffrey, Welcome home!” “Oh, no…..”

On the business side of the festival, New Burbage manager Richard Smith-Jones, deftly portrayed by Mark McKinney is seduced by one of his sponsors, American executive Holly Day, deliciously played by Jennifer Irwin (“Superstar“). “I’m so sick of hearing it’s a difficult play. I don’t like Shakespeare,” he says to the woman who wants to rebrand New Burbage into a commercialized theme park called “Shakespeareville”. “Now take off your pants“. It all comes down to the concept of indecision, the grand theme of Hamlet, not surprisingly. Will Geoggrey listen to his ghost or find his own Hamlet? Will Jack find the power to step forward into the light and claim his place? Or will he give in to his fears and uncertainty? Will Richard marry himself to power and money, like Gertrude, or will he stay true to the ideals of art and love? Will they resist or will they succumb? Decisions must be made, and the parallels pile up.

Season 2: Macbeth

The second season is all about the power dynamics within and outside of the New Burbage production of Macbeth. It’s the next stage of man, as they say. Moving from the young prince to the power-hungry king.

Richard has had to eat crow after last seasons debacle and is desperate for money to keep the festival afloat. Geoffrey, frustrated over what he sees as a lack of commitment and passion from his actors, suggests downsizing the company, making it more lean and focused. A famous, overly arrogant actor, Henry Breedlove, well portrayed by Geraint Wyn Davies (Stratford’s Antony and Cleopatra), is brought in, at Oliver’s pre-death request, to star in the main-stage production of Macbeth, which is pushed onto Geoffrey to direct. It’s a difficult play, he believes, although he also has no faith in the curse of the evil “The Scottish Play“, but things start to suggest otherwise. The power dynamics start to shift, and there is treachery and treason in the midst between the director, the star player, and the cast. Luckily there is Jerry, the magnificently brave understudy to Macbeth, beautifully portrayed by Oliver Dennis (“American Hangman“) and a widely funny intern stage manager, Emily Lu (Grace Lynn Kung) to help orchestrate the whole proceedings to the bitter naked end.

Richard, luckily, thanks to the very under-appreciated Anna, finds funding in the form of a government grant that comes with a catch, it must be repaid, and may only be used for rebranding. Richard, the easily swayed insecure man that he is, hires an avant-garde advertising agency, Froghammer, to promote and rebrand the festival. The head honcho of Froghammer, Sanjay, hilariously portrayed by Colm Feore (“Chicago“), launches a series of shock advertisements and manipulates Richard into accepting them. It appears to be the worst of all moves, but will the risk pay off?

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Mark McKinney and Colm Feore.

Oddly enough, Darren has returned from an artistic rebirth in Germany to direct Romeo and Juliet. He is still as obtuse as before, wishing to strip the Shakespearean love tragedy of all its romance, forcing the miserable actors into chess piece figurine costumes who never touch or look at one another. But through the love and power of the craft itself, the acting couple who are playing the leads run breathlessly to Geoffrey pleading for help.

Meanwhile, back in the offices, Anna Conroy, the festival’s administrator played to delightful perfection by Susan Coyne, tries desperately to cope with an influx of interns while also getting pulled into a strange and adorable romance with the Canadian playwright Lionel Train, played by Jonathan Crombie (‘Anne of Green Gables‘) who has been tasked with creating and doing a reading of a new play in the festival’s studio theatre. Coyne, one of the writers of ‘Slings and Arrows‘ finally gives Anna a place to truly shine bright, drawing us completely in by holding us tight in the sweetest and most innocent of hugs.

There are a lot of things going on in this season now that the train has left the station. Ellen undergoes a tax audit, which becomes something quite different and therapeutic for both her, her brother-in-law, and the auditor. All the while, Geoffrey obsesses over the direction of his Macbeth, much to the chagrin of Oliver, who had almost every inch mapped out and stored away in boxes and boxes of notes and drawings that Anna found for Geoffrey’s inspection. The lines in the sand are drawn both on the stage and inside the corporate offices.  Who will triumph in the end? Will Oliver get his Macbeth as he so long ago planned? Or will Geoffrey find his own way forward against all the hurdles set before him? Will Ellen wash her hands of the betrayal, siding with her character’s husband or her real-life lover? Who will rule the proverbial castle when the battle is over?

Season 3: King Lear

In the third and final season of ‘Slings and Arrows‘, it comes to an end, most impressively in the last stage of man. We have moved from the young prince through the power-hungry king to the old king who must leave it all behind. It’s an obvious choice that the New Burbage production of King Lear is the one to be explored and put on stage, and it is with this play that the wild stormy adventure comes to an awesome and intelligent close.

The cast of Macbeth has returned after a successful run of the production on Broadway, filled to the brim with excitement and pride. In NYC, Ellen has rekindled her friendship with her old acting pal, Barbara, played solidly by Janet Bailey (“The Recruit“) who continually tries to get her to think about moving up and beyond the New Burbage Festival. Television is where the money is, she keeps reminding Ellen, even if the roles are not as classic and dynamic as what Ellen is being offered at New Burbage. As Richard tries to cope with being a success, Anna must deal with a group of stranded musicians, and Darren is back in town, this time to direct a new musical, East Hastings.

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Martha Burns, Paul Gross, William Hutt, and Sarah Polley.

Geoffrey, under a lot of pressure to soak in his professional success, has decided to cast an aging theatre legend, Charles Kingman, played strongly by William Hutt (“The Statement“) as Lear, despite Richard’s disappointment that he won’t be a big box office draw. As rehearsals begin with Ellen and Barbara as the evil older sisters, Charles proves to be a supremely difficult actor to deal with, terrorizes the cast and the crew with scoldings that sting. Sophie, played beautifully by the wondrous Sarah Polley (“The Sweet Hereafter“), gets most of his ire as she attempts to play the loving true daughter, Cordelia, a role she has always wanted to play. Sophie is not only struggling during rehearsal with Charles but is stuck in the middle of the rivalry between the young actors in Lear and the young musical theatre actors in the house they all occupy. Troubles escalate as Lear struggles against the storm to open, mainly because of Charles’s physical problems, which are a secret to everyone but Geoffrey (and Anna).  Charles is dying from cancer and has made Geoffrey promise him that he will get to play Lear before he dies, but the timeline is looking more and more harrowing, as his drug regime and his temperament are getting the best of his mental capabilities and his erratic performance. 

Things begin to spiral out of control as Charles’s health becomes more and more problematic, and the fear is that playing the role might actually kill him. Richard’s love with his beloved musical collide. East Hastings is a huge success, overshadowing the troubled Lear, causing Richard to push the Shakespearean production off the main stage and into exile in the smaller theatre. Oliver returns to help, at first with Geoffrey’s therapy with an unlikely professional, but then, much to their surprise, in a role alongside Charles that he didn’t see coming. 

Will the staging of King Lear drive everyone mad by the end sending them out screaming into the storm? Will the warring sister/friends kill one another, poisoning their friendship over love and the desire for success? And will Sarah Polley survive the heartbreak of both romantic and paternal love and rejection? Geoffrey loses his footing, twice, in two separate theatres, and finds he must wander out into the wasteland in order to find his Lear. “Now that’s theatre“, as Oliver said Season 1, Episode 1.

Macbeth, and moneyman Terry in ‘Slings and Arrows‘ says, “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” but planted inside the New Burbage Festival, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Since I saw that one scene being filmed so many years ago, this television series has been my Shakespearean touchstone, giving me more pleasure time and time again than almost any other television series that I can think of. It makes my heart swell, as well as laugh with joy at its sharp wit and astute observations. When I see one of these four plays that exist inside ‘Slings and Arrows’, I can’t help but reflect on the intense joy and serious love that exudes from Geoffrey Tennant when he digs into the meaning of some Shakespearean text. 

It has elevated my understanding of these “difficult” plays, and what it means to be enlivened by the attempt. I love the two older gentlemen, Cyril (Graham Harley) and Frank (Michael Polle) who sing and ring in the (brilliantly crafted) opening and closing numbers for each of the three seasons with a grand pub song. And even though the ending of the series leaves me sad and upset, I must confess I tear up when those same two older actors plead with Geoffrey to continue making great art at the Festival. “No, I’ve given my whole life to this place. I’ve been here ever since it’s been under a tent. I’ve played every Duke, Lord, and First Messenger, everyone in the canon, and finally, after all that, this year I made it to Broadway.” “Sean Penn finally got to see our Shakespeare, thanks to you.” “Thanks to you. Yes. You can’t leave.” It is every bit the heartbreak that I feel in those closing episodes, and the reason this show, after all these years, is still a must-see experience.  It will change how you see theatre, and those that try with all their might, against all odds, to make theatre that matters, to make theatre that makes us smile and laugh, but most of all, to make theatre that touches our heart and our soul. It broadening our life experiences with one another and deepening our collective artistic spirit, and it’s what we most need in our world, especially now. So please, if you haven’t seen it, watch it, but take your time, it’s an experience to savor with delight and love.

Slings and Arrows

Best of luck with what’s left of your lives.”

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

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“Player Kings” Shines in the West End With Ian McKellen at Falstaff

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I read that the first published book written about a Shakespearian character was focused not on the legendary Macbeth or Hamlet, but on the “dodgy, obese, cash-strapped, dissolute, self-interested” Falstaff, a larger-than-life antihero and cultural phenomenon, this time dutifully played in the new West End revival rich and tragic by McKellen (The Other Palace’s Frank and Percy; West End’s Ian McKellen on Stage).


Ian McKellen and Geoffrey Freshwater in Player Kings. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

His Falstaff is utterly dynamic and fascinating from the get-go, drawing us in with his grotesque drunkenness in a stained shirt. It’s flawless and funny, especially so as the character’s humor is delivered dry and philosophically portioned out for great effect, giving this slick modern-dressed production a thrilling brave heart and a solid foundation.

It’s a handsome, strongly staged production, not exactly centered around Ian McKellen’s great performance as one devilishly sharp Falstaff, but having that dynamic character involved lifts up the whole thing making the joined-together Player Kings a carnivalesque joy to witness. It’s a role he seemed destined to play, but unfortunately, he had a nasty fall from the stage in mid-June, forcing him to not only drop out of the play in the West End, but also from the tour that was created all around him playing this part. It’s a devastatingly sad turn but luckily for us, we were able to see him before his accident. And I’m hoping he will be back on his stage feet quickly so we all have the opportunity to take in his expert renderings for years to come.

Yet Player Kings, when I saw it in early June, had McKellen in full true form, creating this delivery as expertly as one could hope for. Surrounded by talent on all sides, the curtain is quickly pulled back in those first few moments, and all kinds of partying chaos flies forward in abundance. A bare-bottomed rendering destined to be king sends just the right energy into the air and we can’t help but lean into this expertly crafted production of the two Henry IV history plays combined into one, adapted and directed with strength and clarity by Robert Icke (Almeida/Park Avenue Armory’s The Doctor).

Toheeb Jimoh and Daniel Rabin in Player Kings. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

On a detailed, multidimensional set, incorporated with great intent by set and costume designer Hildegard Bechtler (Old Vic’s Mood Music), with sharply hewed slices of light by Lee Curran (Donmar’s Next to Normal) and a solid sound design by Gareth Fry (Donmar’s Macbeth), the brick and curtained crew of revelers and hang-abouts make playful use of the arena given. The cast is cleverly created for this sometimes complicated history concoction, a dual engagement that I have only seen once before, to a somewhat lesser effect. But with Toheeb Jimoh (“Ted Lasso“) as Prince Harry (or Hal) staggering about in his skivvies ready and willing to expose his true nature before us all, this Player Kings is destined to be remembered. And not only for McKellen giving it his all in a dream part.

But Hal’s difficult journey forward into the adulting royal circle, standing true and solidly performed, is just one of many contextual arrangements created with flair around the centripetal force that is Falstaff. Hal’s proxy-father relationship with Falstaff is balanced and pulled tight with tension by the hard-hearted King Henry, played with intensity by Richard Coyle (Almeida/Duke of York’s Ink). It unpacks layers of patriarchal complications that shuttle between coldness to death-bed loving attachment. It’s a compelling understanding delicately unfolding over the course of this fascinating adventure.

Samuel Edward-Cook in Player Kings. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Another tight-rope balancing act, this time between two different yet powerful worlds, Samuel Edward-Cook (Globe’s Titus Andronicus) finds compelling tones with his Hotspur, in suit and also donning fatigues, playing the modern dress unveiling with force, even with a few unclear contemporary connotations.

At just over three and a half hours, the tonal shifts of Player Kings between parts one and two are subtle yielding a suspenseful framing that leads into a less captivating battleground. But every moment of the complex condensed storytelling is well worth it, mainly to see McKellen living large inside a part that seems tailor-made for this expert thespian. The historical text is heavy lifting sometimes, not exactly created for those looking solely for light comic entertainment, but if Shakespeare is your thing, even the more complicated history plays, then Player King with McKellen feels like required viewing. I only hope that it has been recorded so those who unfortunately missed their chance, will have a further opportunity to take in his glory.


Sir Ian McKellen and cast at the curtain call during the press night performance on 11 April, 2024.

Player Kings was performed at Noël Coward Theatre, London, closing on 22 June, 2024.

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Fringe Festival “86 Me: The Restaurant Play” Serves It Up Strong

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Grabbing a seat inside and a drink from the bar on a Saturday afternoon (don’t judge me), we are welcomed into Our Lady Kensington, a dive bar on the verge of being 86’d from the scene. That is until this evening when chaos and fires erupt, and a seemingly straight-laced young man enters the space. He has been sent by management to inspect the bar for efficiency and professionalism, but what he discovers about the space, the people in it, and himself is far more complicated and difficult to correct simply with a clipboard and pen. The qualities listed are obviously lacking in this forever empty establishment, and this band of misfits who ‘work’ here, who harass, flirt, break up, drink, and indulge themselves silly during their shift, don’t seem like they are the ones who could help. Or are they?

With a cast of wonderfully focused actors, namely Luke Kimball, Marianne McIsaac, Mia Hay, Ben Yoganathan, Carson Somanlall, Elizabeth Rodenburg, and Jeff Gruich, 86 Me: The Restaurant Play, currently playing to sold-out crowds at The Supermarket Bar and Variety as part of Toronto’s Fringe Festival, is deliciously fun and invigorating. The play, as written, is definitely overly complicated and sometimes distracting. It veers this way and that through the immersive space trying to connect while dodging the problems within the framework, but with a solid tightening of that waiter apron, the heart of the piece could live quite solidly within the space, and inside these strong-minded performances and their pre-wrapped set-up. The actors do their job well, working hard trying to get to the essence of their inner world and bring it into some sort of order, all the while engaging with the delivery of drink orders and their lines to each other and us.

The cast of 86 Me: The Restaurant Play at Toronto’s Fringe Festival.

The central force of the play runs true and compassionately focused, as the cast runs circles around us all, flinging drink orders into the air for others to catch, along with other antics that endear us to this motley crew. But the catalyst really lies in Luke Kimball (Mirvish’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) and his portrayal of the socially awkward, young, but determined newbie, Zach, or as he is affectionately called, even by a member of the audience, the bar’s “little bitch boy”. And it sticks, mainly because of his focused portrayal of someone lost and looking for salvation, even if it seemingly is arriving thanks to “Mr. Fancy Pants“, played cleverly by Jeff Gruich as James “The Owner”.

There is a couple (Carson Somanlall & Elizabeth Rodenburg) who break up and quit each other more often than the number of times audience members bravely call out their drink orders to cast members who never break focus, even when the order comes at an impromptu moment. The drinks do make it to them, thanks to the staff of the actual bar, who keep the energy of the space filled and rolling, even as the drunk regular (Marianne McIsaac) preaches and yells at the staff from the back table wanting more of everything from anyone who will listen. An indulging host (Mia Hay) vapes and drinks in the corner waiting for connection, but ultimately looking for an escape, and a desperate server (Ben Yoganathan) cooly and constantly trying to use his French-ness as a ploy to get closer to the escape-artist host. It’s a lot, but it’s sold well, so we drink it all down, like a good tall Gin and Tonic on a hot day.

Directed and created by Jackson Doner, 86 Me: The Restaurant Play finds hilarity and some tender engagements within the chaos that lives and breathes in this dive bar on the verge of being 86’d out of existence. The talented crew and script offer up a problematic staffing situation that is completely out of control. Clearly, there is no one strong enough or focused enough on board to guide them through this tumultuous time, but maybe there is someone who can help, if only they can help themselves first. All this, while attempting to take care of a full bar of thirsty patrons and a father who doesn’t know how to really be there for his son. But even in all that chaos and wild shenanigans that transpire within this converted cabaret space, produced by Dead Raccoon Theatre, 86 Me keeps us tuned in and caring, while throwing coins in cups to show our appreciation.

Clockwise from top left: Carson Somanlall as Carson “The Supervisor”, Mia Hay as Eva “The Hostess”, Ben Yoganathan as Francois “The Server”, Elizabeth Rodenburg as Laurie “The Bartender”, Luke Kimball as Zach “The New Guy”, Jackson Doner, and Marianne McIsaac as Jasmine “The Regular” from 86 Me: The Restaurant Play at Toronto’s Fringe Festival. Photo by Ally Mackenzie.

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The John W. Engeman Theater Presents Legally Blonde

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The John W. Engeman Theater celebrated the opening night of Legally Blonde.

The Cast and Creative of Legally Blonde

Choreographer Jay Gamboa joins with Sorority Members- Lara Hayhurst, Rebecca Murillo, Juliana Lamia, Emma Flynn Bespolka, Julianne Roberts, Emily Bacino Althaus, Bridget Carey, Amelia Burkhardt and Jessie J. Potter

The Musical is directed by Trey Compton (Engeman: Once, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder; Off-Broadway: Yank!, White Lies; Regional: Seattle 5th Avenue, Goodspeed, The Ogunquit Playhouse, The Fulton, Riverside, Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, Millbrook, Mac-Haydn, and Cortland Repertory) and choreographed by Jay Gamboa (Engeman: Mama Mia!; National Tour: PJ Masks, Hello Kitty; Regional: Stages St. Louis, Gateway Playhouse, San Diego Musical Theatre, East West Players; Film/TV: The CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”).

Trey Compton (Director) and James D. Sasser

Elle Woods appears to have it all until her life is turned upside down when her boyfriend dumps her to attend Harvard. Determined to get him back, Elle charms her way into the prestigious law school. An award-winning musical based on the adored movie, Legally Blonde, The Musical, follows the transformation of Elle as she tackles stereotypes and scandal in pursuit of her dreams. Exploding with memorable songs and dances–this musical is so much fun, it should be illegal!

Emma Flynn Bespolka

Emma Flynn Bespolka

Quinn Corcoran

The cast of Legally Blonde, The Musical features Emma Flynn Bespolka as Elle Woods (UK Premiere: Clueless; Regional: Kinky Boots, South Pacific, Bye Bye Birdie, Grease)

Quinn Corcoran, Emma Flynn Bespolka

Quinn Corcoran

Quinn Corcoran as Emmett (Off-Broadway: James and the Giant Peach, Rescue Rue, Blue Man Group, Hair; Regional: Maltz-Jupiter Theatre, Sierra Repertory Theatre, Servant Stage, Mac-Haydn Theatre)

Chanel Edwards-Frederick

Chanel Edwards-Frederick as Paulette (West End: Hairspray; International Tour: The Book Of Mormon; Regional: The Royal Theatre, La Mirada Theatre, Repertory East Playhouse, Interlakes Theatre)

Nicole Fragala

Nicole Fragala, Emma Flynn Bespolka

Nicole Fragala as Vivienne (National Tour: Tootsie; Regional: Cmpac, The New School, Broadhollow Theater; TV/Film: “Pretty Little Liars: Summer School,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “The Prom”)

Nathan Haltiwanger

Nathan Haltiwanger, Emma Flynn Bespolka

Nathan Haltiwanger as Warner Huntington III (Regional: Sweeney Todd, Beauty and the Beast, My Fair Lady, Next to Normal, The Sound of Music)

Julianne Roberts

Julianne Roberts as Brooke Wyndham (Regional: Chicago, The Little Mermaid, Movin’ On, Catch Me If You Can)

James D. Sasser

James D Sasser as Callahan (Engeman: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; Broadway: Riverdance; National Tour: Jesus Christ Superstar; Off-Broadway: Teeth; Regional: Theatre Under The Stars, Four Corners Musical Theatre, The Village Theatre, Berkeley Playhouse; TV/Film: “Madam Secretary,” “The Good Fight,” “Succession,” “The Bite”).

Sorority Members- Lara Hayhurst, Rebecca Murillo, Juliana Lamia, Emma Flynn Bespolka, Julianne Roberts, Emily Bacino Althaus, Bridget Carey, Amelia Burkhardt and Jessie J. Potter

Katelyn Harold

Terrence Bryce Sheldon

Amelia Burkhardt

Matt DeNoto,

Joshua James Crawford

Rebecca Murillo

Zunmy Mohammed

Juliana Lamia

Bridget Carey

Emily Bacino Althaus

Yash Ramanujam

Lara Hayhurst and Trey Compton with Little Ricky and Cha Cha

Lara Hayhurst

The Swings-Amelia Burkhardt, Terrence Bryce Sheldon, Joshua James Crawford and Katelyn Harold

James D. Sasser, Nathan Haltiwanger and Quinn Corcoran

James D. Sasser, Trey Compton Nathan Haltiwanger and Quinn Corcoran

Legally Blonde, The Musical will play the following performance schedule: Wednesdays at 7:00 pm, Thursdays at 8:00 pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm. Tickets start at $80 and may be purchased by calling 631-261-2900, going online at engemantheater.com, or visiting the Engeman Theater Box Office at 250 Main Street, Northport.

The John W. Engeman Theater at Northport is Long Island’s only year-round professional theater company, casting actors from the Broadway talent pool. From curb to curtain, we have made it our business to provide affordable, quality theater in an elegant one-of-a-kind location with outstanding facilities and extraordinary service. The renovated theater offers stadium-style seating, state-of-the-art lighting and sound, a full orchestra pit, and a classic wood-paneled piano lounge with a full bar.

For a complete show schedule and more information, contact the theater directly at 631-261-2900, visit the box office at 250 Main Street, Northport or visit engemantheater.com.

The Cast and Creative of Legally Blonde

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Entertainment

Times Square Chronicles Presents The Hamptons

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Since “Live From The Hotel Edison Times Square Chronicles Presents” is so popular, we decided to do a summer edition called “Times Square Chronicles Presents The Hamptons”. We started with the Bay Street Theatre  Gala because it is what we know.,,,,,theatre. The Gala honored Neil Patrick Harris, David Burtka, and Dr. Georgette Grier-Key.

In this episode you can see Richard Kind, Marc Kudisch, Scott Schwartz, Tovah Feldshuh, Lena Hall, Tracy Mitchell, Rose Caiola, Stewart F Lane, Lliana Guibert, Kate Edelman Johnson, Steve Leber and Bonnie Lautenberg and Riki Kane Larimer.

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Out of Town

Soulpepper’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” Clashes Hard and True Against the Backdrop of Jazz and Booze

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It’s the quintessential sound of New Orleans that draws us in. Starting with the iconic rattle of that Streetcar Named Desire, clanging and banging its way through the streets, the unraveling, beautifully unpacked here at Soulpepper, brings a clearly out-of-place, white-clad sister to the door of a home filled with a rough and tumble energy that is as red as she is white. It’s a classic beginning, seeing her stand there, out-of-place and out-of-sync with a subtle modernist flair courtesy of director Weyni Mengesha (Soulpepper’s The Guide to Being Fabulous). It is that visual that delivers Tennesse Williams’ iconic damsel to the door of sister Stella, and we see it in her contemporary touch that this is an undoing worthy of our watch.

The big easy New Orlean chaos is rolled out and unmasked, here and there from time to time (with an energy that I wished I got to see a bit more), as the clashing of types overpowers and fills the stage and down the aisle. Meat is thrown from outside in, by a wife-beater-wearing Stanley, played with blue-collar deliverance by Mac Fyfe (Howland C0./Crow’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning), and caught by the love-struck Stella, played with a straightforward deliberation by a very game Skakura Dickson (Mirvish’s Dear Evan Hansen). Their engagement is effortlessly of that space, etched in the way they look and touch one another before she runs off to watch him bowl. And then she comes, dragging a hard-cased rollie bag down the aisle, banging the floor at each step as if to signal her approach. Or maybe an alarm. Possibly to her own self as much as to the others. It almost screams out, I don’t belong here. That I am a visitor, from another time and place, and this arrangement is a distinct contradiction to the word ‘easy’.

Mac Fyfe in Soulpepper’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo by Dahlia Katz

This Soulpepper Blanche, played timelessly as if a relic from some other world by the captivating Amy Rutherford (Segal Centre’s Fifteen Dogs), is worthy of the look the neighbor, Eunice, played to perfection by Ordena Stephens-Thompson (Soulpepper’s Three Sisters), gives as she leaves Blanche to her requested privacy and her secret consumption of Stan’s liquor. Rutherford’s Blanche is vibrant in her false framing, modulating her drawl for full manipulating effect, moment to moment. She gives us a magnificent creation based on nervous intention and supreme denial, pivoting this way or that, depending on the requirement that hangs in the thick air. It’s the smoothest of simulated posturing, that conveys a deft and disturbing downfall waiting in the wings, just behind another type of curtain drawn to protect and hinder inspection under a harsh unforgiving light.

Her statuesque framing is in harsh objection to all that runs around it, swinging and engaging in the smooth wildness of modern New Orleans. The sounds rise up from the edges and behind closed walls, singing and laughing in their jazz-infused joy, but they find no home in Rutherford’s Blanche. Here is the hot-blooded underlying surrounded by hard metal that reveals smokey sexuality when required, that breathes extra life and fire into the roughness of the room, designed to deliver by Lorenzo Savoini (Soulpepper’s De Profundis), with captivating lighting by Kimberly Purtell (Tarragon’s Withrow Park) and a strong sound by Debashis Sinha (Stratford/Soulpepper’s Casey and Diana). This hot musical energy is what I was waiting for as Soulpepper revisits A Streetcar Named Desire, which comes clanging back to their main stage (after a very successful 2019 production). Blanche’s downfall is clear and predetermined, mapped out from the moment Fyfe’s Stanley first sees her, and from the faulty flirtation she throws his way. Blanche is out of her dimmed-light element, and even though Dickson’s Stella tries her best to serve her in the way she likes to be cared for, the escalations of love, lust, and fury will have their way with this damsel in self-created distress. And she won’t have the strength to see her way through the smoke into the reality of the modern world that swirls around them.

Clinging to her distorted past that we hear glimpses of, playing in the background until the shot ends the fantasy, A Streetcar Named Desire delivers magic and the cruelty of realism balanced in abundance. The visuals and the musical energy, courtesy of both Mike Ross (Soulpepper’s Of Human Bondage), the original music director, and Kaled Horn (Shakespeare Bash’d’s As You Like It), the music director of this remount, emphasize the clash, excluding the delusional Blanche from the rest, even as she entices, for a moment, the kindly Mitch, played engagingly by Gregory Prest (Can Stage’s The Inheritance). The costumes by Rachel Forbes (Can. Stage’s Topdog Underdog), push forth the same cultural and societal clash. Stanley and his buddies, played well and true by Sebastian Marziali (“Dark Side of Comedy”) as Pablo, and Lindsay Owen Pierre (“Jack Reacher”) as Steve, are outfitted in your standardized blue-collar constructs, that feel curated from a different era then Blanche, although I never really understood the collection of coats and jackets these guys carry around with them on these hot humid nights. Stella finds herself straddling the timeframes in short shorts that bridge the gap that Blanche’s ensembles don’t. They engage with both, to different effects, igniting Stanley’s passion while also cementing a subtle connection to Blanche and her past life.

The cast of Soulpepper’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

But it’s Rutherford who our eyes are glued to, and she is a marvel inside her performative Blanche, weaving lies upon lies in hopes of escaping the trap she has created or found herself in. She tries her best to hold it all together, taking hot baths on steamy hot days to calm her nerves, and weaving tales of Southern elitist privilege often in comparison to Stanley’s less refined heritage. It makes her hard to feel much for, on the surface, as she lies and throws attitude, but Rutherford finds her way through the text pretty brilliantly, delivering a woman who is perplexed, anxious, and confused. It’s all wrapped up in one intense performance by one amazing actress. Dickson’s Stella doesn’t stand a chance in that rosy dim spotlight.

It’s no wonder this part is coveted by so many performers, and I’ve seen a few, including Cate Blanchette at BAM, Jessica Lange on Broadway, and Gillian Andersonat St. Ann’s Warehouse. It’s an emotional and deeply complex role that gives an actress such a deviating journey to move through from entrance to heart-breaking exit. Rutherford’s Blanche finds her way into the room inside a unique framing, taking us through an emotional journey that is epic, devastating, and deeply affecting. It’s an extremely complex and modern take on the role, weaving in layers of addictive energy and validating anxiety that feels so deeply integral to Blanche, especially during the incredibly uncomfortable interaction with the young newspaper collection boy, played captivatingly cute by musical director Horn.

Amy Rutherford and Gregory Prest in Soulpepper’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo by Dahlia Katz

The time flies by as we watch Rutherford’s wounded, flailing, and righteous-sounding bird struggle to save herself, but Fyfe’s Stanley is too brutal of an animal force to be caught in Blanche’s desperation. He’s also difficult to ignore. He plays it more subtle than loud, unpacking unknown layers that intrigue, even when they don’t add the required heat. The same could be said of Dickson’s Stella who finds her space, but not always the right amount of heat.

At times we are drawn into Blanche’s flawed pain, especially the dramatic sad story of the love that seemed to break her apart. That famous monologue, as it should, destroys, but she’s also too difficult to love and to take. During many of those tense moments, we feel for her sister, Stella, who has no idea how to take care of her or even deal with Blanche’s grandiose facade. The only one who can actually save Blanche from Blanche and her situation is Mitch who attempts to balance the sweet suitor with the desperately defeated man. Prest’s Mitch is far more gentle than most I’ve seen tackle the part, bringing his own dreaminess to the role, but it doesn’t actually mesh well with the resulting pivotal provocative scene that erupts from inside him brought to the surface because of her lies and deceit.

The tension and the rise to violence does float in the air over and within, matched by the music that erupts from behind that wall. And with the loud crash of bed posts against the same, the loud collision elevates the heat and the heaviness, sometimes too fast and furious, changing direction and speed as if the anxiety and the alcohol levels fuel the fire and the fury, without enough underlying formulations. This idea includes the final inevitable collapse of Rutherford’s Blanche, and her disconnect from reality.  It’s a jarring, majestic, and heart-wrenching full-speed crash, and one not to be missed, but somehow it doesn’t hold the framing together as well as I expected.  I wanted more of a build-up; a long fuse leading from one room to another, lit by claustrophobia and an insulting fantasy world. But this one, pushed forward by Fyfe’s Stanley is short, popping up hard and violent into the hot humidity. Yet, as expected, we watch her walk out on the arm of the stranger; a gentleman doctor who is to commit her to a mental asylum, with compassion and sorrow.  Her disintegration into shattered collapse is complete, but the mystery and deluded fantasy of her grand self still holds even if it’s as wobbly as the legs that carry her forward into the night, and up the aisle before our very eyes.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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