With great fanfare and a whole lot of theatre junkie excitement firing up inside me, Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino delighted us all with his announcement of the Stratford Festival’s 2024 season. It is a strong collection of 12 productions, packaged together with more than 150 events at the Meighen Forum, reflecting on the idea of “A World Elsewhere.”
“What unites the plays for next season is a journey away from the known,” says Cimolino, “a journey away from the comfortable towards something that – while it’s an immense challenge – often brings us to a much better place.”
The season will feature three Shakespeare plays, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, and Cymbeline, along with the early Victorian comedy London Assurance by Dion Boucicault, the Ibsen masterpiece Hedda Gabler; the North American première of Wendy and Peter Pan, an adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s classic children’s book, by Ella Hickson; and Edward Albee’s 21st-century classic The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? – a play that frontmezzjunkies is totally thrilled to have the opportunity to see, as I’ve never seen that particular Albee play before.
Two musicals will be presented. The Festival Theatre will be home to the hilarious musical comedy Something Rotten!, with a book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell and music and lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick. At the Avon Theatre, it’s the Tony Award-winning La Cage aux Folles, with a book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by Jerry Herman.
The season will also feature three world premières: Salesman in China by Leanna Brodie and Jovanni Sy; a new adaptation of Margaret Laurence’s classic The Diviners by Vern Thiessen with Yvette Nolan; and Get That Hope by Andrea Scott.
“As I put together this new season, I looked for works that speak to departing from the past, stories about people who strike out in new directions,” says Cimolino. “I feel we are at a moment in society when we are genuinely ready to leave behind much of what was. In order to make that journey successfully, we need inspiration, joy, and delight along the way. I hope these plays will lift our hearts, make us laugh, and maybe show us that some risks are worth taking. And at the Stratford Festival perhaps the world elsewhere will be Peter Pan’s Neverland, Illyria of Twelfth Night, or the nightclub of La Cage aux Folles.”
The 2024 season will go on sale in December, with a special advance pre-sale for Members of the Stratford Festival in November. The events of the Meighen Forum will be announced in the coming months. The season will run from mid-April through October.
“I’m immensely proud of the directors and creative teams that have come together to bring these plays to vibrant life,” says Cimolino. “With their talent and inspired work there will be a world elsewhere right here in Stratford – and it will be beautiful.”
Proud Season Partner: RBC
Support for the 2024 season of the Festival Theatre is generously provided
by Daniel Bernstein & Claire Foerster.
Production support is generously provided by Priscilla Costello, by Dr. Desta Leavine in memory of Pauline Leavine, by Peggy Ptasznik, and by Laurie J. Scott.
A shipwreck steals Viola’s twin brother from her and lands her in a foreign country. Seeking safety and income, she disguises herself as a young man, Cesario, and gains employment with the lovesick Count Orsino, who is pining for his beloved Olivia, deep in mourning for her own brother. Desperate to win Olivia’s love, Orsino sends Cesario to court her in his stead. But love is found in unexpected places in this rollicking romance of mistaken identity.
Making her Stratford directorial debut with this production is Seana McKenna, who has played both Viola and Olivia, along with the rest of Shakespeare’s leading ladies in a storied career. At Stratford alone, she has played almost 60 leading roles, including the leading role of Rose Ouimet in this season’s Les Belles-Soeurs. She has taught extensively across Canada and the U.S., including at the National Theatre School, the Birmingham Conservatory, and American Conservatory Theatre. She has directed for The New Globe, The Shakespeare Company/Hit and Myth Productions, and Here for Now Theatre, and has received acting and directing awards for her work in theatre and film.
Book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell
Music and Lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick
Conceived by Karey Kirkpatrick and Wayne Kirkpatrick
Brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom are playwrights toiling away in the shadow of the great William Shakespeare. Desperate for a hit, Nick visits a soothsayer who predicts that the next great thing in theatre will be something called “a musical.” Wary but trusting, the brothers set off to create a new theatrical genre – only to find Shakespeare wants in on the act. Featuring songs like “God, I Hate Shakespeare”, “Will Power” and “Hard to Be the Bard”, the Tony Award-winning musical Something Rotten! (The Broadway production’s frontmezzjunkies review can be found here) is perfect for the Stratford stage and for all audiences, whether they know and love Shakespeare or are just jumping on the bandwagon now.
Filled with glorious dance numbers, this production will be helmed by Director-Choreographer Donna Feore, returning to the Festival for her 28th season with a string of hits under her belt, including 2022’s Chicago, 2019’s Billy Elliot the Musical and Little Shop of Horrors, and 2018’s The Music Man and The Rocky Horror Show. She has recently been working in the U.S., developing the new musicals Mythic and The Griswolds’ Broadway Vacation, as well as Summer Stock, for which she opened the world première this summer.
The production is co-sponsored by RBC.
Production support is generously provided by John & Therese Gardner,
by Robert & Mary Ann Gorlin, by The William and Nona Heaslip Foundation
and by Riki Turofsky & Charles Petersen.
ROMEO AND JULIET
By William Shakespeare
An age-old feud precludes the passionate love Romeo and Juliet feel for each other, but its fervour cannot be quelled. Blinded by hatred, Juliet’s father makes a fateful decision that prompts the lovers to rebel in a manner that will lead to the destruction of both families.
The production will be directed by Sam White, who made her Stratford directorial debut in 2023 with another story of forbidden love, Wedding Band, by Alice Childress. White is the founding Artistic and Executive Director of Shakespeare in Detroit, where her productions include The Tempest and Othello. She directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream for The Old Globe and also served as the assistant director for the Festival’s 2018 production of The Tempest with Martha Henry in the leading role.
By Dion Boucicault
This delightful comedy follows the aging Sir Harcourt as he travels to the country estate of Oak Hall, where he intends to marry Grace, the 18-year-old niece of his old chum Max. He leaves his studious son, Charles, at home, not realizing Charles is in fact a riotous man-about-town. Charles meantime assumes a disguise in order to follow his father to Oak Hall and pursue Grace himself. Laughter ensues as Sir Harcourt finds titillation in the married Lady Gay Spanker, who is clearing the way for Charles to woo Grace.
The production will be directed by Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino, who has helmed a number of hilarious period comedies, including 2022’s The Miser, The School for Scandal (2017), The Hypochondriac, (2016), The Alchemist (2015) and The Beaux’ Strategem (2014).
Production support is generously provided by Dr. Dennis & Dorothea Hacker, by Jane Fryman Laird,
by Dr. M.L. Myers, by Catherine Elliot Shaw and by Dr. Robert J. & Roberta Sokol.
LA CAGE AUX FOLLES
Book by Harvey Fierstein
Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Based on the play by Jean Poiret
Jean-Michel and Anne are deeply in love and about to get married. The only problem is their parents. Anne’s father is a politician and head of the Tradition, Family, and Morality Party. Jean-Michel was raised by his two fathers, Georges, a nightclub owner, and Albin, a drag performer. Before the wedding occurs the two couples must be introduced. The orchestration of that meeting makes for hilarious theatre with a touching and emotional conclusion. Winner of 11 Tony Awards and two Oliviers, La Cage aux Folles was also adapted into a hugely successful movie, “The Bird Cage“, starring Nathan Lane and Robin Williams.
The production will be directed by Thom Allison, who brought us this year’s hit production of Rent and the 2021 cabaret You Can’t Stop the Beat. Next season will be Allison’s eighth with the Festival. His directing credits also include YPT’s Seussical and the record-breaking production of Mary Poppins, as well as Million Dollar Quartet at Theatre Calgary.
The choreographer will be Cameron Carver, who choreographed this season’s Richard II and recently won a Dora Award for Outstanding Original Choreography for Sweeney Todd (2022) at Talk is Free Theatre and the Bad Hats Theatre production of Alice in Wonderland (2023) at Soulpepper.
Production support is generously provided by Laurie J. Scott and by Peter & Carol Walters.
SCHULICH CHILDREN’S PLAYS
WENDY AND PETER PAN
Adapted by Ella Hickson
From the book by J.M. Barrie
North American Première
This imaginative re-telling of J.M. Barrie’s classic family tale looks at the story of the lost boys through the eyes of Wendy, making sense of Neverland in a way you’ve never seen before. Commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, it opened to rave reviews and now the Stratford Festival has secured the rights to the North American première.
The production will be directed by Thomas Morgan Jones, who directed this year’s Schulich Children’s Play, A Wrinkle in Time. Jones is the Artistic Director of Prairie Theatre Exchange. His other recent credits include Darla Contois’s The War Being Waged and Hannah Moscovitch’s Post-Democracy.
The choreographer will be Jera Wolfe, a performer and choreographer of Métis heritage whose recent work includes Bare for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Arise for the National Ballet, and Trace by Red Sky Performance, for which he won the Dora Award for Outstanding Original Choreography in 2019.
Production support is generously provided by The Schulich Foundation.
SALESMAN IN CHINA
By Leanna Brodie and Jovanni Sy
Suggested by the memoirs of Arthur Miller and Ying Ruocheng
Chinese translations by Fang Zhang
A Stratford Festival/Banff Centre Co-Commission
In 1983, Arthur Miller traveled to China to collaborate with another giant of the theatre, actor and translator Ying Ruocheng. Their vision is to mount a Mandarin version of Death of a Salesman with Ying in the iconic role of Willy Loman and Miller directing (despite not speaking a word of Chinese). They soon confront the challenges of staging a play about the American Dream in the heart of Communist China. Against enormous obstacles and with the world watching, Ying and Miller must discover whether art can indeed build bridges between two seemingly irreconcilable cultures.
This new play is by Leanna Brodie and Jovanni Sy. Sy will also direct the production. Brodie is an award-winning playwright, translator, and actor whose work has been performed from Vancouver to Halifax, London to Auckland. Her translation of Rébecca Déraspe’s I Am William was part of the 2021 season. Sy is an actor, director, playwright, and the former Artistic Director of Cahoots Theatre and Gateway Theatre. He has directed for Arts Club Theatre, Vertigo Theatre, Native Earth Performing Arts in Canada, and Theatre du Pif in Hong Kong. His plays include A Taste of Empire, Nine Dragons, The Tao of the World, and Kowloon Bay.
Production support is generously provided by Marilyn Gropp,
by Martie & Bob Sachs and by Esther Sarick.
TOM PATTERSON THEATRE
By William Shakespeare
Imogen, daughter of the monarch Cymbeline, has married against her parent’s wishes, but this is only the beginning of her woes. When her husband is tricked by the villainous Iachimo into believing her unfaithful, Imogen embarks on a daring adventure to clear her name. In the process, she finds herself and a new family, which helps pull back a world on the brink of war.
The production will be directed by Esther Jun, head of the Festival’s Langham Directors’ Workshop, who directed this season’s production of Les Belles-Soeurs, as well as 2022’s Little Women and 2021’s I Am William. She has directed across the country and served as Assistant Artistic Director at Tarragon Theatre from 2016 to 2018.
Production support is generously provided by The Westaway Charitable Foundation.
By Henrik Ibsen
A new version by Patrick Marber
From a literal translation by Karin and Ann Bamborough
In Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen created one of the most fascinating heroines of the stage. Newly married to a man she finds uninteresting, Hedda becomes reacquainted with an old friend, a historian like her husband, with a fatal flaw that Hedda exploits out of jealousy. Ibsen, thought to be the father of modern drama, brings all of his skill to the character of Hedda, building an intricate psychological portrait of a woman out of step with her surroundings.
The production will be directed by Molly Atkinson, who has been directing at the Shaw Festival for several years, with productions including this season’s Prince Caspian, as well as A Christmas Carol, The Tortoise and the Hare, Middletown and Saint Joan. She was a member of the Stratford Festival acting company in 2000 as well as a member of the Birmingham Conservatory.
Production support is generously provided by three generations of the Schubert Family.
Based on the novel by Margaret Laurence
Text by Vern Thiessen with Yvette Nolan
Considered a masterpiece of Canadian literature, Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners is the story of Morag Gunn, a woman who perseveres through every challenge life throws at her to become the person she was meant to be. Adapted by a team of some of Canada’s best theatre creators, The Diviners points us towards a path where we might reconcile with the injustices of our colonial past and achieve a collective peace.
The play is written by Vern Thiessen with Yvette Nolan. Thiessen, whose work has been celebrated and produced across Canada and internationally, is one of this country’s most-produced playwrights. His production of Shakespeare’s Will was performed here in 2007 and 2011. Nolan, director of this season’s hugely popular Women of the Fur Trade, has been key to the creation and performance of Indigenous work as a director, playwright, dramaturg, and educator.
The production will be directed by Krista Jackson with Geneviève Pelletier. Jackson is the Artistic and Executive Director of Imago Theatre. Her recent credits include the world premières of Iago Speaks at Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan and of Awaken, which was a co-production between Shakespeare in the Ruins and zone41; A Doll’s House: Part 2, co-produced by Mirvish Productions and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre; and Dancing at Lughnasa at the Shaw Festival. She was the associate director of 2016’s All My Sons, here at the Festival.
Pelletier is a Red River Métis actor and theatre director from Winnipeg and has led the Théâtre Cercle Molière, as its artistic and general director, since 2012. She is inspired by the meeting of cultures, the possibilities that stem from these encounters, and how to nurture safe and fertile creative spaces to spark conversations of change.
Production support is generously provided by Karon C. Bales & Charles E. Beall,
by Cathy & Paul Cotton, by the Harkins & Manning families in memory of Jim & Susan Harkins,
by The Fabio Mascarin Foundation and by The Tremain Family.
THE GOAT OR, WHO IS SYLVIA?
By Edward Albee
Martin is turning 50 and is at the top of his game. He has just become the youngest architect to win the prestigious Pritzker Prize. He has a perfect marriage and a loving son. But he can’t remember a damned thing! Probed by his best friend about his distraction, Martin makes a startling confession, one that will tear his life apart. Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, this drama was written by Edward Albee in 2000 and won the Tony Award for best play in 2002.
The production will be directed by Dean Gabourie, returning for his 11th season. He has directed five productions for the Festival, including The Best Brothers (2012), The Merry Wives of Windsor (2011), and the 2010 production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which contains the song “Who is Silvia?” which served as inspiration to the playwright.
Production support is generously provided by Sylvia Soyka.
GET THAT HOPE
By Andrea Scott
Daddy wants to win the lottery, Mommy’s still bitter about, well…everything, Simeon has war-related PTSD, and Rachel just wants to get out of her parents’ apartment and have a home of her own. It’s Jamaica’s Independence Day, sweltering, and everyone is on edge so, of course, there’s a city-wide power outage. This new play by award-winning playwright and producer Andrea Scott, loosely inspired by Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, looks at a dysfunctional Jamaican-Canadian family that has no idea how to communicate without wounding. But never forget, “sometimes you need a little bit of suffering to get that hope.”
Scott, an award-winning playwright and producer, served as a producing intern at the Festival in 2018. Her play Controlled Damage was performed at Neptune Theatre in 2020. Every Day She Rose, co-written with Nick Green, ran at Buddies in Bad Times in 2019.
Making his Stratford directorial debut with this production is André Sills, a member of the acting company for nine seasons, this year playing Edgar in King Lear and Don Pedro in the miraculous Much Ado About Nothing. Other key roles include the title role in Robert Lepage’s 2018 production of Coriolanus (2018) here at Stratford and the lead role of BJJ in An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at the Shaw Festival. In 2022 Sills directed another Jacobs-Jenkins play, Gloria, at Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre, earning a Dora Award nomination for Outstanding Direction.
Production support is generously provided by Bryan Blenkin & Alan Rowe and by Sylvia D. Chrominska.
The Stratford Festival’s 2023 season continues until October 28, with a newly announced extension of Monty Python’s Spamalot, which will now run until November 12. For tickets and information visit www.stratfordfestival.ca or call 1.800.567.1600.
For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com
Shaw Festival Canada Announces 2024 Season
Topdog/Underdog Fires Up the Ring Magnificently for Canadian Stage Toronto
Round one begins with a ringing that transcends the boxing ring apartment over in the corner of Canadian Stage‘s spirited and raw revival of Topdog/Underdog now playing at their Berkeley Street Complex. “Follow the card,” we are told, numerous times (maybe a few too many, to be honest), yet whether it’s the red or the black card that is the winner, this play is most definitively the medicine we all need that doesn’t come in a bottle. Written most dynamically by the legendary Suzan-Lori Parks (Public’s Plays for the Plague Year; White Noise); the first African-American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama unsurprisingly for this 2001 play, this vibrant exploration of sibling rivalry and resentment feels as powerful, tense, and engaging as ever. Even after seeing it brought to life most dynamically in the celebrated Broadway production last year. It’s still timely and explosive, particularly as we watch the world we inhabit uncomfortably gripped inside an increasingly violent war of hate and fear layered within the political landscape. Even here in Canada.
The play feels as ripe and raw with meaning as it must have felt some twenty years ago when it first hit the stage at the Public Theater in New York City. Maybe even more. Filled with energy and insight, the Canadian Stage production, directed with a serious intent for unpacking by Tawiah M’Carthy (Obsidian/Canadian Stage’s Fairview), unleashes numerous rounds of difficult troubling interactions between two brothers, fascinatingly (and cruelly) named Lincoln, solidly and magnetically portrayed by an upright Sébastien Heins (Outside the March’s No Save Points), and Booth, captivating and angrily embodied by Mazin Elsadig (Soulpepper’s Pipeline). Their given names send forth a profound message of conflict, both captivating and telling, that plays out a complicated and combative history before our very eyes. It’s a violent conflict in the making, unraveling a replay for us all to see, in close quarters, roped in without any support from the outside world. Especially their abandoning parents, long gone, yet painted with folklore and fantasy.
Heins’ Lincoln, the older of the two, sits straight, framed in a hat befitting his name, finding himself colliding with and crashing into and on his younger brother’s recliner, in need but without a lot of faith in the future. He is newly discarded; tense and separated from the wife we only hear about in a sideways kind of way. He goes to work daily and unapologetically, to a sit-down job with benefits that fits on his impressively tight frame as uncomfortably as that outfit he is made to wear for it. His brother, Booth; handsome, strong, and virile, steals his way through an existence that keeps him combustible, trapped in this rundown room with no running water and a single bed propped up with old porn magazines. Aching for something more grand, he exists, wanting more, even if it is through a con and a lie. And that’s only how the first card is played.
Designed with clarity by Rachel Forbes (Canadian Stage’s Choir Boy), the whole small roomed scenario seems lopsided and uncomfortable; delirious but without hope, shoved a little too claustrophobically in the far corner, when maybe a thrusting forward on an angle would have suited the intimacy more. Yet, Topdog/Underdog still radiates with a tense, angry energy that refuses to go down without a count of ten. With perfectly formulated costuming by Joyce Padua (Factory’s Vierge), detailed lighting by Jareth Li (Factory’s Trojan Girls & The Outhouse of Atreus), and a strong bell-ringing sound design by Stephen Surlin (Outside the March’s No Save Points), the room speaks volumes quietly as is unpacks itself before us. Determined and cluttered, it looks like a boxing-ring firetrap just waiting to be knocked out, and it is, in a way. The energy within this production is of a fight brewing, waiting and wanting, tightened by hardship and ignited jealous rage, and as written by Parks, sparks fly quickly as the two engage in a battle for who will sit on top at the end of the day. And who will be knocked out. Throwing cards in hopes of something more fulfilling, or more exciting, we are riveted and hypnotized by their historic reimagining, even as the play continues to repeat itself again and again. But we are never given an easy out, never quite sure where and when the sparks will land. And who will be counted out by an always-watching, invisible referee.
“We’d clean up bro,” Booth says to the other, hoping Link will return to the cards and they will team up, “ranking in the money” but if history, their joke-namesake set-up, and Lincoln’s white-faced day job are any indication at all, the elder’s days are numbered, at the boardwalk arcade and beyond. Every day he sits down at his job, dressed up like Abraham Lincoln so tourists can walk in and shoot him in the back with toy cap guns. And we can’t help but feel the discomfort and the internalized shame that Link must feel with every trigger pulled. The idea, although historically accurate, feels just so messed up and complicated to comprehend. So it’s no surprise that the future looks dark and bleak to this man. Layoffs or not. And we can most definitely feel it in Heins’ very textured, magnificently tense, tight performance and frame.
Parks is a known admirer of Abraham Lincoln and writes about the legacy of the man and the meaning to those who descend from slaves. Topdog/Underdog, through the unpacking of complicated brotherly love and family identity, tries to explain that legacy inside the complicated textured story of two African-American brothers struggling to stay above water. Heins’ Lincoln lives with eyes stone cold, still but filled with unspoken discomfort, taking a job that is as disturbing as life must be for this man in that single room with no running water, reclining and waiting for something to save him from his situation. It’s clear he got the job because he accepted less than what the white man before him would take. And all one can say, watching the weight of that legacy on his frame is: “This shit is hard” to swallow, like the Chinese food he unpacks on a makeshift table for his angry brother and him to ingest. But Parks does not judge the legacy of Lincoln in this epic play but rather believes the man and his death have somehow “created an opening with that hole in his head.” She enjoys, through her poetic pulsating rhythm, pushing forth the discomfort into her rapt audience through her own Booth and Lincoln, challenging us to see what lies ahead and take note (and maybe some action).
In a way, we all have to pass through that historic hole in Lincoln’s head to understand the quest that lies ahead for us all as we watch world politics, particularly America’s, do collective damage to our psyche. Living large in their small slowly tightening story, the play drives forward, sometimes intensely, while other times, in between rounds, the energy gets stalled. I kept wanting the gathering tension to move forward more succinctly and tightly, like Tom Stoppard’s magnificent Leopoldstadt, gathering tension with each moment and each scene. Like a boxing match, never giving in to the need for too much rest for the boxers in between bells. Topdog/Underdog keeps giving us a bit too much space to fill in, losing its momentum here and there, allowing us the space to disconnect, during intermission and during those intuitive moments inside many of the scenes. But when it does aim its gun sharply, inward, upward, and with continued energy, the bullet, and the internal fire, find their form, sometimes in the beauty of music and guitar, scorching the ropes that surround this decrepit room with a heat that can’t be denied.
The two actors dominate the ring, taking full control of the scripted energy and tensions that enslave them, even if the play sometimes de-evolves into repetitive reenactments a bit too often. The actors play with the cards dealt, and pour out the medicine and morality that lives and breaths inside them with a level of uncomfortable anger that lingers. The messiness and jealousy carry the play forward, born out of their upbringing and family history with magnetic resonance. It’s a sharply constructed interaction, that stuffs dreams and love underneath the bed with such determination. It collides strongly with all that violence and unfairness that lives outside the door, including the Three-Card love and desire that will destroy them all. Reenacting that emotionally charged moment in history at Ford’s Theatre, Topdog/Underdog teases the dream of some sort of better connection for these brothers, but also gives rise to other darker conflicts that were born when a mother shoved her life into plastic bags and left. Inheritance or not, Topdog/Underdog illuminates a shift in position, resurrecting a larger sad family history that is forever steeped in abandonment and pain, that will never release them from its heavy burden. No matter how hard he tries to strut with confidence.
Haunted by a past that refuses to let go, the playing card poetry of the play lives and ignites a flame inside Lincoln’s legacy and his country’s enduring struggle with racism that hangs on the side curtains with a dangerous weight. Topdog/Underdog, brought to life by Parks twenty years ago and finds new life inside Canadian Stage’s Marilyn & Charles Baillie Theatre, raises all of those complex ideas that hang in the background waiting to engulf our world. Take notice of this production and this play, and find your way in so that it may live on inside you as intensely as it was intended. That flame burns strong in American politics and in our collective hearts these days, filling us with dread and fear of a possible chaotic future in the world at large. This play’s presence is needed here, and its legacy, with all the cards played, should not be forgotten or ignored.
The Innocence of Seduction Will Seduce You
The Innocence of Seduction, now being presented in a World Premiere Production by City Lit Theater in Chicago, is the second installment in an ambitious trilogy of new plays by actor, director, and playwright, Mark Pracht, about the comic book industry and the individuals who created it. Although not as interesting a human drama as was the first play in the series, The Innocence of Seduction remains a fascinating glimpse into a little known aspect of pop culture history.
The Innocence of Seduction revolves around a group of artists, writers and publishers who were producing the lurid, violent, and sexually provocative comic books which lead to a congressional investigation into the comic book industry in the 1950’s. The claim that comic books were corrupting our young people and contributing to juvenile delinquency lead to the creation of the Comics Code. That was censorship solely at the personal discretion of one man, Judge Charles Murphy. In a sad parallel to our current times, legislators back then sought to repress access to ideas by their children, rather than teach their children how to think for themselves and live in a world with opposing viewpoints.
The whole story is framed with narration by by Dr. Frederick Wertham, whose book, The Seduction of the Innocent, warned that comic books contributed to juvenile delinquency. In Pracht’s play, Wertham, played with oily, Germanic smarm by Frank Nall, keeps things moving with a creepy comic book gestalt of his own.
The first play in the trilogy, The Mark of Kane, was an excellent, character driven drama. That story was shaped by the personal ambition of artist Bob Kane, creator of The Batman, who stole the credit for all the key story elements added to Kane’s very basic idea for the Batman character by his writer-collaborator, Bill Finger.
In The Innocence of Seduction, largely unchanging characters are dragged through the events swirling around them. That formula, called melodrama, has been around ever since the bad guy twirled his moustache as he tied poor Pauline to the railroad tracks. The focus is on the dilemma rather than character development.
But it takes a long time to get to the central conflict between the creators of early comic art and their would-be censors. When we finally do get to the bad guys, in the person of a grandstanding senator, Robert C. Hendrickson, played with appropriate bluster by Paul Chakrin, and Judge Charles Murphy, the creator and administrator of the Comics Code, played with self-righteous indignation by the fine Chuck Monro, neither antagonist is given enough stage time.
Pracht has no apparent interest in giving the opposing point of view equal time. So both antagonists are quickly reduced to one-dimensional cartoons. What is interesting, however, is that such simple mindedness is frighteningly close to today’s reality, when you look at the behavior of those who are leading the call for censorship in our own times.
The central figure in this story is William Gaines, Jr., a failed teacher who reluctantly assumes the helm of Educational Comics. That company was established by his father, Max, who had created the first American comic book, Famous Funnies, in 1934. Max, embodied by bellowing actor Ron Quaide, visits his son, William, like Hamlet’s ghost, haunting his dreams and stoking William’s feelings of inadequacy. William’s passivity until the very end of the story frequently feels like a big hole in the action instead of moving it forward.
Realizing that nobody wants to buy the illustrated bible stories his father created, William rebrands the company as Entertainment Comics, better known as “EC”. Their bread and butter would be stories with dark, twisted, graphic, sexually provocative and violent imagery. The artists and publishers in this story just see their work as innocent fun, until they run into censorship under the nascent Comics Code.
One of those artists is Matt Baker, played with sincerity if not complexity by Brian Bradford. Baker was a closeted, black, gay artist, who drew the sexiest female characters in the industry. Matt has a clandestine affair with his bisexual publisher, Archer St. John, played with sensitivity by John Blick, while hiding his real sexual preferences from his long suffering lady friend, Connie, played honestly by Latorious Givens. Despite the potential of the juicy ménage a trois, Pracht’s sketchy rendition of their interaction comes off as simultaneously simplistic and overwrought.
Apart from that relationship, the production features a gaggle of really fine character actors who bring lots of individual color to their roles. They include Laura Coleman as Gaines’ wisecracking secretary, Shirley; actor Robin Treveno, who is especially engaging as the good hearted publisher, “Busy” Arnold; Paul Chakrin as Senator Robert C. Hendrickson, who led the congressional investigation against the comic book industry; and affable Andrew Bosworth, doubling both as Max’s friend, Frank, and as artist Jack Davis, whose work would later define the look of Gaines’ greatest success, Mad Magazine.
However, for me, the shining star of this production is Janice Valleau as Megan Clarke. Ms. Valleau was a talented female artist trying to get a foothold in a male dominated industry, and the creator of a pioneering female detective character. Ms. Clarke is an absolutely riveting performer, full of heart, smarts, depth, and personal fire. See her while you can, as Chicago off Loop theater will not be able to contain her for long.
The set, lighting and projection design by G. “Max” Maxin IV is the best I’ve seen from him in this space. Beth Laske-Miller adds some nice, accurate period elements to a slim costume budget. Music composition and sound design by Peter Wahlback were a great enhancement of the foreboding atmosphere. Finally, Tony Donley’s program cover and poster art captured the tone of the story brilliantly.
As his own director, Pracht does a very good job weaving all the elements of his production together, and giving his work a fine showcase.
As with the previous play in the trilogy, you don’t need to be a comic book nerd to enjoy this tale of creative expression battling conservative oppression. The Innocence of Seduction will seduce you as well.
With The Innocence of Seduction, City Lit Theater continues a 43 year tradition of bringing intelligent, literate stories to the Chicago stage. In conjunction with this presentation, they also are presenting readings at libraries across Chicago and the suburbs of works from the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, which have been identified as the “Top Ten Most Challenged Books” facing censorship in libraries and schools. That series is called Books on the Chopping Block. If you live in the Chicago area, be sure to check for a presentation near you.
The Innocence of Seduction continues at City Lit Theater in the Edgewater Presbyterian Church, 1020 West Bryn Mawr in Chicago, through October 8th. For ticket information call (773) 293-3682 or visit www.citylit.org.
“speaking of sneaking” Spins It’s Queer Folktale Web Fascinatingly at Buddies In Bad Times Toronto
Weaving and bobbing, drawing chalk lines with a focused gyrating audacity, a fascinating dynamic radiates out from the central core of an all-encompassing plastic spider web. The actor/playwright squats and shifts his black-clad body close to the ground, teasing us almost to enter the web, and maybe get caught in its arms. It’s a sharply defined space to walk into, fantastically intricate but straightforward in its plastic sensibilities, created with thoughtful intensity by set + costume designer Rachel Forbes (Canadian Stage’s Topdog/Underdog). It makes us feel that we are inside something intimate and intensely important as we make our way to our seats in the main theatre at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto to see and get enveloped by the unveiling of speaking of sneaking.
The new play, performed and written by theatre artist Daniel Jelani Ellis (Buddies’ First Stone), comes alive slowly, seizing the stylistic moment that takes its time connecting. Deep inside this queer Black man’s ultimate navigation through folklore and reality-based hardship, the play shifts itself inward, as directed and dramaturged with a fiery fluidity by d’bi.young anitafrika (Trey Anthony’s ‘da kink in my hair) with a strong sense of movement and momentum by choreographer Fairy J (Obsidian/Canadian Stage/Necessary Angel’s Is God Is), from his youth in one “Yard” to another “Foreign” place, Canada. The tension and engagement are as tricky to outsmart as a folktale spider, that weaves out captivating stories with wisdom, knowledge, and power. The formula engages, even when it loses some captivating focus along the way.
Yet, it is a compelling web that is woven, ultimately feeling important and personal throughout the intersectionalities of identity and culture, playing with the deep multidiscipline unpacking of complicated self-discovery drawn from his familial Jamaican roots and the complexities of gender, sexuality, and class that creep out of the “Yard”. The performance is vivid and vital, frenetic and feisty, combining aerial light-footedness with dance, poetry, and all that lies in between. It attempts with a true heart and unending energy to captivate, and Ellis, as the determined Ginnal, manages, maybe not at first, but eventually, to take us in and snag us, as the web he weaves gets more grounded in the complications of survival alongside familial expectations.
Surrounded by barrels of regret and disappointment in himself, Ellis needs to keep weaving and weaving, “for me, not for you!” He shifts himself around the space, throwing his arms off balance but fully in control, collapsing his past and future from a spider-framed creation from Jamaica to a video web call rubbing his feet and seeing the future for a few PayPal donation dollars. The playful but ancient guide, “Anansi” lifted up from an Akan folktale slides in to the perspective to illicit shouts of “That’s enough” to the symbolic quarreling married sky and earth, trying to weave a web that will keep the collapse from occurring.
These folklore spider tales, which I knew little about, long ago sailed their way to the Caribbean by way of the transatlantic slave trade, and became a mythical model about skill and wisdom, giving praise to Anansi and his ability as a spider, to outsmart and triumph over any and all powerful opponents through the wise use of cunning, creativity, and wit. It’s no surprise Ellis as Ginnal digs into these formulations and folklore, basking in the delicately crafted light designed by André du Toit (Stratford’s R+J) with a strong sound design by Stephon Smith (B Current’s Wheel of the Year Walks). It will take all that cunning creativity to unpack the complexities of culture, homophobia, and ideas of masculinity that are weaved into his Jamaican “Yard” and the family that celebrates unity and care from way over there.
Wrestling with the fraught and trickster dynamics of survival in this new “Foreign” land, the expensive city of Toronto, Ginnal struggles with empty barrels waiting to be filled with donations of a different kind, feeling guilt and shame each time the phone rings. The spider steps in, initiating a journey towards liberation and freedom, after leaving one home to find another. The web is a complex construct, sometimes captivatingly embodied, sometimes not, with Ellis shifting from one well-formulated character to another, generally drawing us in as he straps himself in from above for this aerial journey, bungee jumping and creeping towards a new sense of home and acceptance.
Anansi was seen as a symbol of slave resistance and survival, turning the constraints of those plantation power dynamics around onto the controlling oppressors. Ellis embraces that energy, as he finds his way to generate dancehall-infused formulations by igniting cunning online trickery of his own. Through a compelling examination of colonial imprints on queer Jamaican identities by all those involved, as well as utilizing Afro-Caribbean-Tkarontonian storytelling aesthetics to elevate the spider mode of behavior and performance, the details of the intricate interweaving of bodies and family transcend the battle for survival and shifts it all into the flight for authenticity and identity. It has been written that the symbol of Anansi played a multifunctional role in the enslaved Africans’ lives, inspiring strategies of resistance to establish a sense of continuity with their African past and offering a context and formulation to transform and assert their identity within the darkened boundaries of captivity. It’s fairly clear how that energy resonates throughout the piece.
As he asks for world peace from a bachelor pad base camp created by new family members by choice, the weaving in of Granny Luna to “Petty Labelle” offers itself up into the sky wonderfully, ultimately capturing us in its complex web. Groundwork Redux and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre‘s production of speaking of sneakingdelivers, working its magic, eventually, fulfilling the folktale form with chaotic care. Through a Black queer lens, with the support of Buddies, Obsidian Theatre, and the Toronto Arts Council Black Arts Program, this new weaving finds its way into our collective consciousness, navigating itself through portals of neo-colonial contexts and out of the escape room axe throw party that might have destroyed him. The archetypal Jamaican Ginnal and the mythical African Anansi, together, discover and embody something akin to survival and connection. And in the weaving of that web, we find a different kind of soul rubbed true all for our wonderment and enlightenment.
For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com
The Argyle Theatre Encore! Gala and You Are There
The Argyle Theatre held its Gala, Encore! A Musical Celebration, hosted by Artistic Director Evan Pappas with musical direction by Jeffrey Lodin, on September 22, 2023, at 7:30 PM. Long Island’s premier theatrical showcasing the remarkable talents that ha graced its stages over the past four seasons.
The one-night-only special event featured Becca Andrews (The Argyle’s Legally Blonde, Honky Tonk Chicks)
Tyler Belo (The Argyle’s Spring Awakening, Hamilton National Tour)
Dana Costello (The Argyle’s Cabaret, Broadway’s Finding Neverland, Pretty Woman)
Hana Culbreath (The Argyle’s Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Annie National Tour)
Alex Grayson (The Argyle’s Spring Awakening, Broadway’s Parade, Into The Woods)
Jack Hale (The Argyle’s Rock of Ages)
Elliott Litherland (The Argyle’s Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Opera North Carousel)
Michelle Mallardi (The Argyle’s Elf, Footloose, Broadway Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Les Misérables)
Ellie Smith (The Argyle’s Grease, Miracle Valley Feature Film)
and Ryan Thurman (The Argyle’s Disney’s The Little Mermaid, The Producers).
“It brings me immense joy to celebrate the exceptional talent that has graced our stage over the past four years. Encore! A Musical Celebration is a testament to the dedication and artistry of our alumni, and it’s an opportunity for us to express our gratitude to both the performers and our loyal audience for their unwavering support in creating unforgettable moments.” The Argyle Theatre Artistic Director, Evan Pappas stated.
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