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Stratford Festival’s King Lear 2023 Struggles in the Controlled Column of Rain

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It smells of mortality,” this King Lear, as the Stratford Police Pipes and Drums parade us into the opening night of the Stratford Festival in beautiful Stratford, Ontario. I must admit freely that I was thrilled. To be invited to all the openings of this world-renowned Festival is a dream, and I couldn’t be more thankful. Yet, I also couldn’t help but contemplate that moment in 2018, when, after watching The Royal Shakespeare Company’s King Lear at BAM, I surprised myself by thinking that I wasn’t quite sure I wanted another Lear viewing for some time coming. Don’t get me wrong. I love the play, with all its rich unfolding divisions around love, blindness, sanity, and a certain kind of madness that lies awaiting deep inside the sharp illumination of darkness and ego. Yet, this Shakespearian contemplation written with all the complexities of love, duty, and deceit intermingled is not my favorite of the bunch (honestly, I think that might be Macbeth). But it certainly isn’t my least favored either.

Yet after seeing that RSC production at BAM, which starred the incomparable Sir Antony Sher, I watched in awe as it dragged itself forward like an old Cleopatrian relic, spreading itself out slowly and ceremoniously in a way that made me slouch in my seat wishing for bed. That King never fully emotionally engaged, even with the hard-at-work Sher, one of Britain’s most esteemed classical actors, giving it his all. He enthrallingly stated in the program that once you play Lear, there’s really “nowhere else to go, Shakespeare-wise“. The part is a virtuoso solitary climb; a battle against time and importance; a “shouting at, arguing with, a storm.” And what could be better than that? It’s the ultimate human duel with the force of nature and existence, crackling with lighting and fury (as it should be). So it’s no wonder that I found myself, once again, ready and willing to engage, with this text and the trauma that is at the heart of this family breakdown.

Michael Blake (left) as Edmund and André Sills as Edgar in King Lear. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by David Hou.

My fingers were crossed, as the trumpets signaled us all to our seats. They beaconed us most impatiently, ushering us into the dynamic and expansive Stratford Festival‘s 2023 season with ceremonial aplomb, and I couldn’t be happier. This was the first opening of the season, and the energy of the event was electric, just as it was within those first few moments of this King Lear, with Gloucester, played captivatingly by Anthony Santiago (Citadel’s Of Mice and Men), talking uncomfortably to those men nearby about women and sex; as well as legitimacy and illegitimacy, in such degrading and callous terms. I couldn’t help but squirm inside the deafness of his speech, especially as he boasts about it all in front of his “bastard” son, Edmund, played anti-heroically by the wonderfully charming and talented Michael Blake (Arts Club’s Topdog/Underdog). No wonder Edmund has become the man he shows himself to be; to his father, and to his half-brother, Edger, played touchingly by André Sills (Stratford’s Coriolanus).

With utter diligent determination, this epic “crawl towards death” digs itself into the stark walled stage with clarity and the love of Shakespearean text. Designed with unique and compelling lines and lit boundaries by Judith Bowden (Shaw’s Desire Under the Elms), the impact from that first scene registers undeniably strong, brilliantly illuminated by sharp shards of light designed most impressively by Chris Malkowski (Shaw’s Chitra). It gives structure and significance to the geometric lines of space and power, never letting us disengage from the sanity and insanity of the form and the falling from start to finish. It truly is a brilliantly constructed visual, not exactly matched by the characters in its midst.

Parcelled in that frame, this King Lear is determined, mainly because of the casting of Paul Gross (“Slings and Arrows“; Stratford’s Hamlet) in the title role. He enters strong and vital, powerful and emotionally cut to the bone. He doesn’t look like a man ready to give up his throne, yet for some reason, he has come to this untimely decision, and I couldn’t help but lean in wondering how this will unfold. This becomes the question of the night. How will this Lear develop, giving clarity and a deeper understanding to his untimely rationale of departure and dependence? Will he let us in to see the “Why now?” that is at the heart of his King? With an impressive head of long white hair, Gross finds an engagement inside the text that delivers expressively, but maybe not entirely finding the answer. It’s smart and clear-minded, yet he doesn’t, at least in the beginning, give off an air of being “old before your time“. Yet it’s there, slowly, and with a tense heart-pounding pulse and a clutching of his chest. It lives somewhere in the pained heart; the idea that this man knows a thing or two about mortality and disease, whether conscious or not, and needs something (or someone) else to help him manage, to take hold, without the losing of his regal form, and without having to ask for it directly. Pride is a formulation that doesn’t serve this King well, and arrogance. That we all know.

The historical framework of Gross’s return to Stratford is one for celebration and excitement. And I was totally there for it from the moment I read of his casting. The construction seems sublime and timely as Gross played Hamlet on this very stage back in 2000. That appearance mimicked one of my all-time favorite television shows, the Canadian “Slings and Arrows.” The series unearthed a fascination with and an understanding of the three powerhouse roles for an actor: Hamlet, Macbeth, and, more importantly, King Lear (I would have said ‘male actor’ but I’m hoping that gender specificity is receding somewhat, especially after watching Glenda Jackson give us a Lear to remember). The television show relished over three seasons the idea of exploring the three stages of man, one per season. (If you haven’t seen this brilliant and funny look at art and commerce within the world of Shakespearean Summer Festivals, find it immediately and dig in.) Romeo and Hamlet mark the beginning of engagement, Macbeth takes on the middle years with a conflictual urgency, and King Lear, one of the greatest parts for an older actor, unleashes the madness in the grand finale. It seems Gross has decided to skip the Scottish play and run headlong into the storm that is King Lear. For that, I am intrigued. I couldn’t help but wonder, what does he have in store for us after all these years away.

As directed by Kimberley Rampersad (Shaw’s Man and Superman), the play somehow doesn’t find its way to the emotional core, seeming uncomfortable and surprisingly traditional in its unraveling of the inherent drama. It does hold some intellectual grace, and a great deal of found humor within its delivery, yet it somehow rolls in like a controlled storm without a clear unique fierce vision. Through its epic arc of realization in the face of betrayal, this production somehow struggles to clarify itself, attempting to give a darker meaning to blind needy arrogance and narcissism, yet never really unpacking its true personal ideology. It plays itself so straightforward with a direct clarity of the language, spinning the traditional yarn gracefully, but I wondered where this production’s true underlying vision lies. Or is it blindly wandering through the heath without a strong hand to guide it? I wanted a compelling vantage point to usher us through the known wild storm of Lear and into something fresh and exciting, one that matched the wild inventiveness of the stage and its structural illumination. Yet it feels flat and formulaic, even in its fine standardized telling. Don’t get me wrong, for the most part, it played itself out with a textual honoring that unpacks Lear’s slow mental decline well, even inside the youthful appearing body of the old man. But I wanted some contextual understanding that wasn’t so obvious and laid out. Something that made this Learcrackle like the storm that is coming.

Paul Gross as King Lear in King Lear. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by David Hou.

The strongest symbol of its unfortunate undoing is the visual impact of the storm. Years ago, when I was in my teens, I saw a production of King Lear that helped solidify it as one of my favorite Shakespearian tragedies.  It starred Peter Ustinov standing center stage at the same Festival Theatre (1980, directed by Robin Phillips), with a torrential rain and wind storm blasting him from every direction, almost ripping him apart. It was a powerful moment that stayed with me, but nowhere in this current production did I get the sense that Gross’s Lear could actually be blown to bits. The ‘rain’ did fall down on him, steady and straight, dampening his hair and his spirit, but there was no danger in it. No wind. No uncontrollable gusts. Just a steady stream of ‘rain’ that fell in a controlled small pool of light. Nothing to be afraid of here, I thought.

It has been said that Lear is somewhat of a paradox. He’s known for his wild and windy battles against the storm of dementia, but at the beginning of this tale, he feels technically sane, looking strong and centered in his proud but narcissistic insolence, even as it is clear that the stance is highly misguided. As portrayed by the compelling Gross, his almost youthful arrogance struck true, fortified by an absurd desire to hear only praise and levels of love that makes no sense. His older two “pelican daughters“, portrayed by the stern Shannon Taylor (Crow’s Uncle Vanya) as Goneril, and Déjah Dixon-Green (Grand’s The Penelopiad) as the violent secondary Regan, willing play the insincere game, showering him measurably with adoration that borders on the ridiculous. But Lear doesn’t hear that quality, he only registers the over-wrought deceptive venerations and digs his heels in with delight. The older sisters understand their father’s prideful need for idolatry, and praise him with words that are actually too grand and quite foolish in idea and theme. They stand, without any backstoried clarity (something that I blame on the interesting new play, Queen Goneril after seeing it at Soulpepper. I will always now look for hints and side glances of the problematic familial history, trauma, and the reasonings for these two older sisters’ heartless cruelty. But I wasn’t going to get that here, as the subtext wasn’t available to be seen). They are dolled up in detailed costumes designed confusingly by Michelle Bohn (CSC’s A Four Letter Word) that appear initially as somewhat symbolically bold and classical, yet unfurl and start to feel somewhat weird, haphazard, and unfocused, bringing at least one-time giggles from the audience because of one ‘funny thing happened on the way to the forum’ yellow frock. I just couldn’t understand the choices made in those sisters’ getups, just like I couldn’t fathom some of their overly melodramatic responses.

Standing in the background throughout, struggling in her own way, is the favored daughter, Cordelia, the youngest and most clear-minded, played somewhat flatly and blandly by Tara Sky (Soulpepper/Native Earth’s Where The Blood Mixes), who decidedly fails to play up to the arrogance and desperate needs of her father, the King. It’s an act of bravery, in a way, believing her unquestionable love will be seen, felt, and known by her father, but she is not, finding herself cast off, thrown away, betrayed most callously by her honesty and candor. The tides of joy turn dark, like white fluffy clouds that quickly darken and turn ominous with the changing of the wind. Dementia and madness start to blow in, and we watch as that seed takes hold and twists the King’s form and face into something quite scary, and then sad and despondent. The moment doesn’t actually fully resonate, but as she is packed off to France, we sit wondering what just happened, and why it never felt truly heart-breaking.

The Earl of Kent, played with an undetermined tone of voice and character by David W. Keeley (Stratford’s Coriolanus), attempts to stand up to the King, defending Cordelia’s public declaration of love for her father, but to no avail. He, like her, is not heard through the stubborn barriers that enclose this King. He and Cordelia are chastised and ordered away, and the two elder eager daughters take control of the kingdom, gaining power over all, including their father. Why the King doesn’t recognize Kent when he returns to serve him I can’t say. He has changed nothing about his appearance, yet we are instructed to believe, and so we shall. With some effort.

Paul Gross (centre) as King Lear with members of the company in King Lear. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by David Hou.

This is not going to end well for the old King, but as he brandishes his bullying privilege over Goneril and her court, we struggle to get under the skin of his or her predicament. Something about that first formulation of banishment and dismissal didn’t register in the way it somehow should have. We must almost instantly align ourselves with the discarded pair, or it seems the reformation doesn’t really stand a chance to fully emotionally engage. Cordelia is scantily only given that initial scene to connect to our collective heart, yet standing there, in her oddly fitted prom dress, our bond with her falls flat at her feet, hobbling the future traumatic undoing mainly because of this detached uneven first engagement.

Something isn’t sitting right, yet we know how this will run its course. We see it from the very beginning, and although King Lear in the hands of director Rampersad hasn’t fully captivated us or made us understand the director’s vantage point, the engaging Gross works hard to create a father and a King that is proud, argumentative, and sharp as a claw. We know, or at leastbelieve that the torturous journey through the wastelands will somehow cake his frame with mud and bruises, but somewhere along the path, we are challenged to see it, even though it never fully formulates itself strongly. His progression to his undoing staggers forward sneakily, with the wonderfully sly Fool, played with clever intuition by Gordon Patrick White (Neptune’s The Devil’s Disciple) delivering the truth through his sharply barbed tongue. It’s a wonderfully detailed deliverance, but I would have favored some more physical affection between the King and his fool, well, from anyone to be honest, as the play fails to touch and be touched with any kindness and connection, even as he derails himself against the approaching storm that never really materializes.

In the first and only subplot to be found in this Shakespearian tragedy, the bastard son Edmund (Blake) is also quite the devious and deceiving child. He orchestrates a well-thought-out and structured plot to forge mistrust between his father, the Earl of Gloucester (Santiago) and his legitimate son, Edgar (Sills). Paralleling the familial betrayal between parent and child, the deceitful Edmund finds a dark sensual stance to play out his cruel plot with ease and a coolness that registers, flying forward with heartless glee. He throws his half-brother underfoot, forcing the man to flee in a confused flurry of accusations, only to find himself later leading his blinded father through the same wasteland of distrust and deceit. Blake’s charming approach to deception is captivatingly engaging, selling the moment, even if initially Sills’ approach to Edgar doesn’t feel fully formed. At least not in those first moments. It deepens as the anguish builds.

Gordon Patrick White (front, left) as Fool and Paul Gross as King Lear with members of the company in King Lear. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by David Hou.

Now both fathers find themselves caught in the storm of misguided betrayal, but both are there, wandering through the wasteland unprotected solely because of their own doing and arrogance, believing in lies and flattery, even when it goes against their better judgment. The Earl of Gloucester has also been dutifully wronged, cut down, and gruesomely gored by the same plot and ploy, but we feel we understand, at least a little, why his illegitimate son would hate him so. (It isn’t so clear why Regan would though.) The destroyed son leading his blind accuser through the wasteland is one of the more fragile and clearly intimate moments of kind compassion seen between child and father. The image elevates the pain that has been forged by the cold-hearted damaged child, Edmund. Is this what happens when mothers are not anywhere to be seen?

It is said that with Lear, you do it big, or go home.  But delivering a revisitation of the compelling tale without a clear answer to the “why now?” question, both in terms of the production and the characterized stepping down of this King Lear, beyond some obviously broad strokes, becomes the central problem and obstacle. Returned from her banishment, Cordelia sits at the bedside of the found mad Lear, his sad confusion registers, but not completely. It’s painful to watch the struggle, as we know what the inability to recognize means, and what is in store for the poor upset former King as he lovingly remembers both his favorite daughter and his loyal Kent. The look is all the more engaging knowing how much he has lost out of pride and fury.

Yet when the King returns with her lifeless body, we are surprisingly not moved. The production didn’t lead us in deep enough to engage with the dark well of tragedy and sense of loss. Gross’s Lear nods himself off into death, unceremoniously, leaving us to wonder where our emotional pain and connection has gone. It’s sad that we aren’t that moved by Rampersad’s King Lear, even though it gives some insight metaphorically to the blind and foolish, especially through its diligent delivery of the text. But as a whole, it failed to sit heavy nor forcible in my heart. No tears of grief came to my eyes when the struck-down King sees the ridiculousness that lived inside his ego, and the destruction it has brought forth. And that’s a shame, as there is something clever inside Gross’s return to the stage, and his interpretation of his damaged and dying King Lear.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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

Out of Town

Stratford Festival’s Two Musicals: Something Rotten! & La Cage aux Folles Extended

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July 18, 2024…There was some great news coming from the Stratford Festival! Both of their acclaimed musicals – Something Rotten! and La Cage aux Folles – are being extended to mid-November.

Mark Uhre as Nick Bottom (centre-left) and Dan Chameroy as Nostradamus with members of the company of Something Rotten!. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: Ann Baggley.

Mark Uhre as Nick Bottom with members of the company in Something Rotten!. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: Ann Baggley.

Something Rotten!, the show that launched the Festival’s 2024 season in April, is being hailed by critics (including myself: read my review here) and audiences as one of the best musicals ever.

Helmed by director-choreographer Donna Feore (Stratford’s ChicagoBilly Elliot the Musical) with music director Laura Burton (Stratford’s You Can’t Stop the Beat), Something Rotten! is a hilarious, laugh-a-minute musical, filled with dazzling dance numbers and unforgettable songs, including “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” “Hard to Be the Bard” and “Welcome to the Renaissance.”

It follows a pair of discouraged playwrights, Nick and Nigel Bottom – played superbly by Mark Uhre (Broadway’s Les Misérables; Grand’s Seeds of Self) and Henry Firmston (Stratford’s Spamalot) – as they try to find a way to succeed in the theatre when their main competitor is the rock star William Shakespeare, played wonderfully by Jeff Lillico (Soulpepper/SignatureNYC’s Of Human Bondage). When Nick consults the soothsayer, Thomas Nostradamus, played deviously well by Dan Chameroy (Stratford’s Chicago), he sets out on a path to develop the world’s first musical, and true musical hilarity ensues.

The production also features Starr Domingue (Stratford’s Little Shop of Horrors) as Bea, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah (Stratford’s A Wrinkle in Time) as Lady Clapham, Steve Ross (Stratford’s Love’s Labour’s Lost) as Shylock and Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane(Stratford’s Rent) as Portia.

Each and every performance is producing super-fans, who are returning time and again, asserting that Something Rotten! is really something fantastic. Less than halfway into the run, more than 4,000 people have returned to see the show for a second time – some more than twice!

“It’s pure unadulterated joy watching this production deliver world-class entertainment with an endless supply of laughs and spectacular song-and-dance numbers, one that I would happily return to again and again. Here’s to hoping this production finds a life beyond the Stratford Festival. Because these Bottom brothers have certainly found their way to be on top of that silly scene-stealin’ Shakespeare. Rightfully so.” – Frontmezzjunkies

Steve Ross as Albin playing Zaza (centre) with from left: Jordan Goodridge as Mercedes, Josh Doig as Chantal, David Andrew Reid as Bitelle, Eric Abel as Hanna, David Ball as Phaedra, and George Absi as Angelique in La Cage aux Folles. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

Over at the Avon Theatre, the musical La Cage aux Folles has earned its extension, as it packs houses and makes headlines with a dazzling production, which at its heart is a touching family story about acceptance in a politically divided world.

It features the wonderful Sean Arbuckle (Stratford’s Casey and Diana), as Georges, the manager of a drag club in St. Tropez, and the incredible Steve Ross(Stratford’s Something Rotten!) as Albin, his life partner and the club’s star performer. Georges agrees to “play it straight” to meet the ultra-conservative parents of their son’s new fiancé, while Albin is shocked to discover that he is being sidelined. The ensuing clash unravels truth and consequences with heartwarming grace – and fabulous drag performances!

The production is directed by Thom Allison (Stratford’s Rent) and choreographed by Cameron Carver (Stratford’s Richard II) with music director Franklin Brasz (Stratford’s Chicago. It features Juan Chioran (Stratford’s Something Rotten!) as Edouard Dindon, James Daly (Off-Broadway’s Dracula – A Comedy of Terrors) as Jean-Michel, Sara Jeanne Hosie (Musical Stage’s The Wild Party) as Dindon’s wife, Marie, Starr Domingue (Stratford’s Something Rotten!) as Jacqueline, and Heather Kosik(Toronto’s Chris, Mrs) as Anne.

From left: Chris Vergara as Jacob, Sara-Jeanne Hosie as Mme. Dindon, Sean Arbuckle as Georges, James Daly as Jean-Michel, Heather Kosik as Anne and Juan Chioran as Edouard Dindon in La Cage aux Folles. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou

The production features the unforgettable anthem “I Am What I Am,” sung by Steve Ross in what many are calling the performance of a lifetime, as he brings the character of Albin to vivid life: by day, a caring, if dramatic, spouse and parent, by night a star performer, the headliner of La Cage aux Folles, home of Les Cagelles, played electrically by Eric Abel (Stratford’s Frankenstein Revived), George Absi (Toronto’s Chris, Mrs), David Ball (Shaw’s Sweeney Todd), Josh Doig (Stratford’s Spamalot), Jordan Goodridge (Drayton’s The Music Man), and David Andrew Reid (Shaw’s Brigadoon). These drag performers entertain in supreme style, with opulent costumes and sensational hair and makeup. Their cabaret-style performances range from sexy and sultry to zany and outrageous. The show is a perfect combination of guts and glitter – with a whole lot of love thrown in.

“With all that glamorous glitter and high kicks by men in heels, those fiendishly fun flashy numbers, and all those wild laughs delivered by a pained pseudo-mom (and ourselves), La Cage Aux Folles still rings engagingly honest, touchingly endearing, and endlessly entertaining as it plays itself out, beautifully and hilariously, on the Stratford Festival stage. I’m not sure what the old-time festival audiences will think of it all, but, as directed by Thom Allison with care and a grand eye for fun and all those complex feelings, it would take one cold dark heart to not walk out of Stratford’s Avon Theatre singing those songs and feeling completely invigorated by their visit to La Cage Aux Folles. The cabaret might be the pride of Saint Tropez, but this revival has to now be one of the joys of Stratford. It truly is the best of times in this small Ontario town, with this show and that other hilariously well-done musical, Something Rotten!, together, walking down Ontario Street arm in arm, feeling as handsome and tall as a Festival could.”

Tickets for the additional performances listed below go on sale Friday, July 19, and are available at www.stratfordfestival.ca or by calling the box office at 1.800.567.1600. Tickets are still available for current performances.

Henry Firmston as Nigel Bottom and Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane as Portia with members of the company of Something Rotten!. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

Something Rotten! Extension Dates:

Wednesday, October 30 at 2 p.m.

Thursday, October 31 at 2 p.m.

Saturday, November 2 at 8 p.m.

Sunday, November 3 at 2 p.m.

Tuesday, November 5 at 2 p.m.

Wednesday, November 6 at 2 p.m.

Saturday, November 9 at 2 p.m.

Sunday, November 10 at 2 p.m.

Wednesday, November 13 at 2 p.m.

Thursday, November 14 at 2 p.m.

Saturday, November 16 at 8 p.m.

Sunday, November 18 at 2 p.m.

Steve Ross as Albin playing Zaza (left) and Starr Domingue as Jacqueline in La Cage aux Folles. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

La Cage aux Folles Extension Dates:

Tuesday, October 29 at 2 p.m.

Friday, November 1 at 2 p.m.

Saturday, November 2 at 2 p.m.

Thursday, November 7 at 2 p.m.

Friday, November 8 at 8 p.m.

Saturday, November 9 at 8 p.m.

Tuesday, November 12 at 2 p.m.

Friday, November 15 at 2 p.m.

Saturday, November 16 at 2 p.m.

Festival Theatre, 2003. Stratford Festival. Photo by Richard Bain.

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Out of Town

Coal Mine Theatre Announces 24.25 Season

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For their 10th anniversary season, Toronto’s beloved “Off-Off Broadview” stage, Coal Mine Theatre is thrilled to announce a spectacular 24.25 programming line-up of what will undoubtedly be some of the hottest tickets in town.

As audiences have come to expect from the celebrated east-end venue, the upcoming season comprises hotly anticipated premieres of must-see award-winners and internationally acclaimed playwrights, performed by luminous ensembles of some of the most esteemed actors in the country, alongside new names waiting to be discovered. It’s a definitive Coal Mine season, true to their mandate to present challenging, provocative, and entertaining contemporary work in a refreshingly intimate and entirely authentic setting.

After the highs and lows the Coal Mine has been through in recent years it is absolutely incredible to reach this 10-year milestone and to know that we have pulled together what may honestly be our most exciting programming to date,” comments company co-founder and Artistic Director Ted Dykstra. “This is a classic Coal Mine season.  A Toronto premiere and three Canadian premieres, all thrilling, topical plays by some of the most provocative playwrights in the world today, and we have been able to bring together acting ensembles and creative teams for these shows that are simply…the best of the best.”

On the heels of hugely successful runs at The National Theatre in London and the Atlantic Theater Company in New York, Coal Mine’s 10th anniversary season begins in September with the Canadian Premiere of Annie Baker’s newest work, Infinite Life– the third production of Baker’s work at the theatre. A surprisingly funny inquiry into the complexities of human suffering, through a distinctly female lens, former Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival, Jackie Maxwell (Tarragon’s Withrow Park), makes her Coal Mine directorial debut with an all-star cast including Brenda Bazinet (Shoot the Messenger), Ari Cohen (The Antipodes), Kyra Harper (Hard Rock Medical), Christine Horne (Angels in America), Nancy Palk(August, Osage County), and Jean Yoon (Kim’s Convenience) returning to the Toronto stage for the first time since appearing in Kim’s Convenience on stage in 2017.

““Women’s problems” is a phrase that is guaranteed to leave many people, including much of the medical establishment, rolling their eyes and shrugging,” comments Maxwell. “Annie Baker takes them all on in her provocative new play in which we meet five women “of a certain age” who are all attending a desert fasting retreat for chronic illnesses. This is Ms. Baker at her best – antic, often hilarious conversation butts up against loaded pauses and silences as multiple ailments are discussed and compared and secrets are revealed along the way.”

Maxwell continues, “I am thrilled to be a part of this world, working with five of Canada’s most accomplished actresses (and one lucky man!) whose openness and ability to connect is renowned and will be so vital as we plunge into this very female world together and whose sense of bravery, fun and ability to share the stage with energy and generosity will be on glorious display throughout!”

In October, a beloved friend of the Coal Mine, Schitt’s Creek’s Noah Reid, makes his return to the theatre alongside rising star Mazin Elsadig (Topdog Underdog) in the Toronto Premiere of Samuel D. Hunter’s A Case For The Existence Of God, directed by Ted Dykstra.  Reid returns to the Toronto stage following his recent Broadway debut in Tracy Lett’s The Minutes and a starring role in the Amazon series Outer Range.  Winner of the 2022 New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award for Best Play,  A Case For The Existence Of God is a thoughtful and meditative two-hander, both intimate and expansive as it explores themes of parenthood, financial insecurity, and empathy.

“To me, the Coal Mine represents everything I find exciting about the theatre: the immediacy of live performance, and the timelessness of brilliant writing,” offers Reid. “These guys read so many plays, they go see so many shows, they work so hard to find the scripts that are going to bring that quality to their audience, and they curate their productions so beautifully with the most talented artists this great city has to offer. I just trust their taste, both as an actor and as an audience member. I’m always so excited to see what it is they’re doing next.”

In the new year, company co-founder and former Artistic Director Diana Bentley (Yerma) teams up with uber-talented choreographer Alyssa Martin (Sex Dalmatian/Rock Bottom Movement) for the Canadian Premiere of Duncan Macmillan’s acclaimed People, Places And Things. A quest for addiction recovery that combines dance, virtuosic design, and performance, the production will star Louise Lambert in the role that elevated Denise Gough to international prominence and won her the Olivier Award, currently remounting in the West End. Lambert (Detroit, Yerma) will be joined by Soulpepper veteran Oliver Dennis, making his Coal Mine debut, Farhang Ghajar (The Seagull), Matthew Gouveia (Killer Joe), Sam Grist (Sex Dalmatian), Sarah Murphy-Dyson (Off-Kilter), Fiona Reid (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Hedda Gabler), and Kaleb Tekeste (CLUE).

“I don’t think there is a play that deals with addiction as viscerally and brilliantly as Duncan MacMillan’s People, Places and Things does,” shares Bentley. “Collaborating with Movement Director Alyssa Martin to bring such a vivid experience to life in the intimacy of the Coal Mine is a dream come true. And of course, it’s the perfect part for Louise Lambert and her astonishing talents. I can’t wait to share this show with the Coal Mine audience!”

The 10th anniversary season concludes with the very recently premiered JOB by Max Wolf Friedlich, in a production directed by David Ferry and starring one of Canada’s most esteemed and iconic stage performers, Diego Matamoros, alongside Charlotte Dennis, making her Coal Mine debut as Jane. JOB premiered off-Broadway in the fall of 2023 at the Soho Playhouse, returned to New York in January of this year in a limited run at the Connelly Theatre, and has just begun previews at the Hayes Theatre on Broadway this week (Frontmezzjunkies will be reviewing that Broadway production next month). Coal Mine audiences will be the very first in the world outside of New York to see it. The story of an employee of a big tech company who arrives in the office of a crisis therapist after being placed on leave, JOB made a huge splash in this last New York theatre season, receiving accolades from all the major press and described as “New York’s buzziest play” (The Daily Beast).  An essential addition to the western contemporary theatre canon, JOB takes on the most immediate of subjects; what it means to be a citizen of the internet and our obligation to help those who need it the most.

For more information visit www.coalminetheatre.com

Coal Mine Theatre 2024/2025 Season:

Infinite Life (Canadian Premiere)

September 6th – September 29th

Written by Annie Baker

Directed by Jackie Maxwell

Starring Brenda Bazinet, Ari Cohen, Kyra Harper, Christine Horne, Nancy Palk, and Jean Yoon

Five women in Northern California lie outside on chaise longues and philosophize. A surprisingly funny inquiry into the complexity of suffering, and what it means to desire in a body that’s failing you.

A Case For The Existence Of God (Toronto Premiere)

November 3rd – November 24th

Written by Samuel D. Hunter

Directed by Ted Dykstra

Starring Mazin Elsadig and Noah Reid

Two young fathers — a mortgage broker, and a plant worker desperate to buy a piece of land — meet to discuss a loan in an unassuming cubicle. As Keith and Ryan grapple with the realities of adulthood, a shared quest for meaning and belonging transcends the systems that fence them in.

Winner – 2022 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, Best Play

People, Places and Things (Canadian Premiere)

February 9th – March 2nd

Written by Duncan Macmillan

Directed by Diana Bentley

Starring Oliver Dennis, Farhang Ghajar, Matthew Gouveia, Sam Grist, Louise Lambert, Sarah Murphy-Dyson, Fiona Reid, and Kaleb Tekeste

Emma was having the time of her life. Now she’s in rehab. Her first step is to admit that she has a problem. But the problem isn’t with Emma, it’s with everything else. She needs to tell the truth. But she’s smart enough to know that there’s no such thing. When intoxication feels like the only way to survive the modern world, how can she ever sober up?

JOB (Canadian Premiere)

April 20th – May 11

Written by Max Wolf Friedlich

Directed by David Ferry

Starring Charlotte Dennis and Diego Matamoros

Jane, an employee at the big tech company (you know the one), has been placed on leave after becoming the subject of a viral video. She arrives in the office of a crisis therapist – Loyd – determined to be reinstated to the job that gives her life meaning. A psychological thriller, Job zooms in on two careerists of different generations, genders and political paradigms to examine what it means to be a citizen of the internet and our obligation to help the people who need it most.

Since this artistic home for Toronto’s East End was founded in 2014 by co-artistic directors Diana Bentley and Ted Dykstra, The Coal Mine Theatre has become one of the most talked-about and critically acclaimed theatres in Toronto.  It was modeled after the Off-Off Broadway theatres in New York and branded as Toronto’s Off-Off-Broadview Theatre. In its intimate space on the Danforth, The Coal Mine has presented some of the most challenging, stimulating, and award-winning scripts from Canada and around the world.

In 9 seasons, each consisting of only 3 or 4 shows, The Coal Mine Theatrehas amassed over 40 Dora nominations, over a dozen Doras, many Toronto Theatre Critics’ Awards, and a fiercely loyal subscriber base. Their new home on the corner of Woodbine and Danforth, after a devastating fire in their old location, has already become a source of great neighbourhood pride. Partnerships are being formed with local businesses, making The Coal Mine, truly, a community theatre to be proud of.

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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.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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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.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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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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