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The First Stone Powerfully Starts it All at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

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On a large canvas, centered around a thatched roof circle, a company of actors delivers a communal song and dance of unity and collectivity, inviting us into their circle of warmth, power, and humanity. It’s a strongly formulated beginning, filled to the brim with ambition and meaning, structured around an idea of history and society. It’s all stated strongly before the crew splinter off to form chalk poetry with strong visuals of circles and symbols representing all that is dear to this village. These provocative and emotional first images of The First Stone fill the wide open stage of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre with energy, planting the familial struggle firmly in the earth and soul of this small village town somewhere in Uganda. Approaching first, on the great fractured divide, is the omnipresent Ancestor, played with organic force by Tsholo Khalema (Vancouver Playhouse’s The Drowsy Chaperone), who pulls us into their communal hands, guiding us towards this big themed new play by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard (Cake; Sound of the Beast), with a verbalized regret of throwing the titular first stone. Spinning a question forward that we can’t quite understand yet.

Makambe K. Simamba and Dorothy A. Atabong in Buddies in Bad Times Theatre‘s The First Stone. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

I can’t say that I was completely clear about what he was referring to, nor what this first act of violence was or what it represented or began, but the emotional meaning comes naturally over time, as playwright St. Bernard paints out the play’s ideals, both big and small, first focusing its gaze down inward on a small village community. It is there was we first are given an edge into the way of life that is being disrupted by a decades-long war that pulls fathers away from families, and where young innocent children are being abducted and forcibly trained to be brutal soldiers in a war that they can’t possibly understand.

It’s a harrowing journey, but we are assisted along the path by the titles and scenarios that are projected on the back wall, thanks to the projection design by Cameron Davis (Studio 180’s Oslo). Davis’s projections pinpoint our thoughts by showing pieces of the dialogue puzzle in order to highlight significant themes and ideas. It works for the most part, but sometimes the formula distracts us from the emotional truth at the center. But when it works, it leads us to the play’s inner fire and simultaneously opens up the intellectual canvas to a grander more epic scale. It’s not just inside this small bubble, but through this unique lens, the play helps explore the global themes of war, justice, interdependence, the use of innocent children as forced warriors, and the difficult road to thoughtful reconciliation that must follow within these torn-apart communities once their children return.

Forgiveness is at the heart of The First Stone; forgiveness for their crimes and their restructuring, and as directed by Yvette Nolan (Gwaandak Theatre’s Map Of The Land, Map Of The Stars), the tense global and more distinct internal themes reverberate from within. They are galvanized by grand movements and gestures that fundamentally impact our sense of dread and connection, even when, unfortunately, the background movements of the large cast sometimes are unneeded and distracting. Stillness might have been a better choice for our focus. But the play’s heart and focus live and breathe in the earlier day-to-day drudgery of an unnamed family living without a father figure in this small village in Uganda with war marching towards them.

The mother, played with a solid connection to the earth she farms by Dorothy Atabong (Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale“), tries her best to hold the chalk-circled home together through historical movement, tradition, care, and worry. She has to tend to an infant that is wrapped close up to her body, as the seeds are planted in the land that surrounds them. The two more grown children, who bicker and fight in the loving way most siblings do, find solace in her visual embrace, and a sense of community within the town. The ‘Girl’, played solidly by Makambe K. Simamba (Sage Theatre’s Bea), and the ‘Boy’, played dutifully but sometimes overly exaggerated in style by daniel jelani ellis (Tarragon’s The Circle), live out their existence with curiosity and energy, gathering water together from the wells while stepping over a crack that never really seems to have a deeper meaning (other than one terrifically harrowing baby moment later in the play). The ‘Boy’ tags along, exuding the immature posturing of the “man of the house” now that father is away at war. ellis overwhelms the dialogue and the posturing while never really expanding outward from where he began. The ‘Boy’ says he’s there to watch over and protect his younger sister, but his ambivalence to her work gives away his secret flirtatious true agenda; to see a local girl named Uma, played dynamically by Nawa Nicole Simon (Tarragon/TFF’s The Mating Game) that he dotes upon. “Uma is strong,” we are told, but the journey that awaits Simon’s Uma is a devastating one, much like every young person on that stage, but for the time being, their flirtations lay a great foundation for what is to come.

Ucha Ama in Buddies in Bad Times Theatre‘s The First Stone. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Yet the air isn’t idyllic for very long, obviously, even if the youthful antics give an inaccurate casual edge to a story that is dynamically shifting under their feet. Their mother and her sister, Auntie, played beautifully by Uche Ame (Obsidian’s 21 Black Futures), see the rumbles that surround them. The two are very concerned about the young children who are systematically disappearing from their village, and look at the ‘Boy’ and the ‘Girl’ with increasing anxiety. They peer at their father, Granddad, portrayed awkwardly and unconvincingly by Michael-Lamont Lytle (Obsidian/Canadian Stage’s Dixon Road), with suspicion as they believe he might be the one responsible for the disappearances. Yet the two never find the courage to confront their Granddad in any significant way. Perhaps it’s because of cultural norms and gender/status inequality, but for that matter, we are left to make up our own minds. Yet their worry and fear exist in the fiber of their very being and are palpable in both Atabong and Ame’s engaging portrayal of the two sisters. They don’t quite seem to be born from the same earth, but their connection registers, alongside the mistrust and fear that revolve around Lytile’s Granddad. The violence within him that we are told is there never really vibrates out from Lytile’s performance, and if there is one flaw that sets The First Stone off balance, this is it.

When both the ‘Boy’ and then the ‘Girl’ are abducted and brutally forced to become savage warriors for a cause that never seems clear by Granddad, the play’s energy noticeably shifts towards the violence that symbolically escalates as the production as a whole ignites with a harrowing discomfort that sits solidly in our gut. Simamba and Ellis both elicit the youthful energy of siblings without a care in the world, but when we watch the restructured brother and sister swing their branch-like machetes in the background, as Granddad tortures the others into obedience, we can sense that these kids are already forever changed, and particularly in the stunning performance of Simamba, the violence is now embedded in their very fabric. To untangle it from their bodies and in the way their communities now look at them, knowing the violence they enacted as soldiers, this is going to be a hard act of reconciliation and a hard road’s journey to get to a place of ultimate acceptance and a return into the folds of the community.

On a stage designed with integrity by Jackie Chau (Factory’s Wildfire), with vibrant costumes by Des’ree Gray (Theatre Passe Muraille’s Designing the Revolution), simple lighting by Michelle Ramsay (New Harlem’s The Hours that Remain), and a solid sound design by Maddie Bautista (Stratford’s I Am William), The First Stone unpacks one family’s effort to reunite after being torn apart. It focuses on the struggle before, during, and after the two young children are captured by their Granddad and forced most horrifically and violently into an army. The piece dutifully unpacks the trauma, delving into the harrowing exploitation of children who are abducted and turned maliciously into soldiers, and expands the visceral feelings of both the village’s sense of tradition and harmony. The play speaks volumes in whispers and movement across that great divide even when the overall use of the large cast is at points somewhat messy and distracting. But thanks to the divine choreography of Indrit Kasapi (lemonTree creations’ MSM[men seeking men]) with the assistance of associate choreographer Pulga Muchochoma (Theatre Passe Muraille’s Cake), the play’s themes hit true and uncomfortably hard.

Together the choreographers utilize the cast’s communal body as the physical formulations of that training as well as the historical connections to one another through dance and movement. When the cast unites in that movement, the play, and its imagery fly forward and it hits hard, marrying text with movement and song to tell a story that looks at and beyond the trauma of generational violence, and into a historical racial reckoning. The play paints well the inner horizons with specifics, particularly with this family, but as we look inward, finding our way through the historical violence of our own nation and its horrific treatment of the Indigenous, the clues and parallels struggle a bit harder to pose the most intriguing of questions, specifically around what happens after the children leave the child army and return to their village, and how does that reflect on the treatment of the Indigenous children pulled from their own families and forced into the brutal and deadly world of the Residential School system.

The First Stone, drawing on several intense interviews with Acholi families whose children were abducted during the civil conflict in Uganda, does find its quick and quiet footing. The scope of the story is large, but in this play, part of 54ology, a larger project of plays written by St. Bernard and inspired by each of the African countries, this epic and powerful exploration succeeds in giving us an experience that echoes out wide and strong. “Were they ever mine?” their mother asks, as our hearts collectively break. “Only to care for,” Auntie replies, “they will be killers now.” The question that remains is will their village pull them back into their embrace, and forgive the world for what has been brought down on them. Reconciliation is the hard road that follows.

Bad Times Theatre‘s The First Stone.
written by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard
directed by Yvette Nolan
photo of Daniel Jelani Ellis and Makambe K. Simamba by Dylan Mitro
styling by Cat Calica, hair and makeup by Robert Weir
graphic design by Awake Studio

This New Harlem Productions and Great Canadian Theatre Company production of The First Stone had its world premiere in downtown Toronto at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander) featuring the following cast members: Uche Ama, Dorothy Atabong, Courage Bacchus Taija Shonée Chung, Tavaree Daniel-Simms, daniel jelani ellis, Tsholo Khalema, Michael-Lamont Lytle, Megan Legesse, Gloria Mampuya, Willow Martin, Kendelle Parks, Makambe K Simamba, Nawa Nicole Simon, and Paul Smith. The First Stone began performances on October 6, and was extended to October 23, before relocating to Ottawa for an April presentation. This ambitious new project has been supported through the NAC’s National Creation Fund.

Established in 1979, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre is Toronto’s leading destination for artistically rigorous, alternative theatre and a world leader in developing queer voices and stories for the stage. Over the course of its history, it has evolved into the largest facility-based queer theatre company in the world and has made an unparalleled contribution to the recognition and acceptance of queer lives in Canada.

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

Canadian Stage’s Dream in High Park Gives Toronto a Hamlet Under the Stars

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Canadian Stage celebrates 41 years of High Park performances with a production of one of Shakespeare’s most iconic plays Hamlet directed by Jessica Carmichael and featuring a luminous cast led by Qasim Khan as Hamlet,
with Prince Amponsah, Raquel Duffy, Christo Graham, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Sam Khalilieh, Breton Lalama, Beck Lloyd, Dan Mousseau, Amelia Sargisson, James Dallas Smith and featuring Diego Matamoros as Claudius. On stage July 21 – September 1 in the glorious High Park Amphitheatre

For 41 years, Canadian Stage – one of the country’s premiere producers of large-scale theatre and the largest not-for-profit theatre in Toronto – has been an accessible and foundational theatre experience for generations of Torontonians through its beloved summer theatre tradition Dream in High Park.   This magical annual event returns this July with a new production of one of Shakespeare’s definitive tragedies, HAMLET, on stage under the stars from July 21st to September 1st.

Jessica Carmichael – whose 2021 production of The Rez Sisters for the Stratford Festival was called “the most confident directorial debut at the festival in ages” by The Globe and Mail, directs a stunning cast led by Qasim Khan as Hamlet, joined by Prince Amponsah, Raquel Duffy, Christo Graham, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Sam Khalilieh, Breton Lalama, Beck Lloyd, Dan Mousseau, Amelia Sargisson, James Dallas Smith, and featuring Diego Matamoros as Claudius.  Dream in High Park is generously supported by Lead Sponsor TD Bank.

Set amidst the tumultuous backdrop of political intrigue and familial betrayal, this iconic tale follows the tormented Prince of Denmark as he grapples with existential questions of life, death, and revenge. The upcoming production is only the second time in Dream in High Park’s history that Hamlet has been produced and this year’s show serves as a companion to Canadian Stage’s hotly anticipated Canadian Premiere production of the 2022 Pulitzer prize-winner, Fat Ham.

“Hamlet is one of the most loved and iconic titles in Shakespeare’s canon and also one of the most thrilling psychological dramas in the theatre,” says Canadian Stage Artistic Director Brendan Healy. “We are incredibly excited to be able to offer Toronto audiences the opportunity to experience a new production of the original text in the park this summer, and then to also discover the Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning adaptation FAT HAM, later this seasonWe are also thrilled to introduce our audiences to Jessica Carmichael, an exceptional director whose work at Shaw and Stratford has proven her to be an essential voice in this country.”

Coming off a breathtaking performance as Eric in The Inheritance, Canadian Stage is delighted to welcome Qasim Khan back to its stage. Khan, in fact, performed in the one previous production of Hamlet in 2016 as Horatio, now stepping into the titular role. He now leads a luminous cast comprised of many of Canada’s most talented actors, both seasoned and up-and-coming.

Largely considered one of the most complex and coveted roles in classical theatre,

Shakespeare is thought to have written Hamlet in 1599 or 1600 and the play is most likely to have first been performed in 1601.  It has been translated into over 75 languages in the over 400 years since publications, and, like many of Shakespeare’s texts, coined several phrases now embedded in the English language including; ‘to the manner born’, ‘cruel to be kind’, ‘the primrose path’, ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’, ‘more honoured in the breach than the observance’, ‘something is rotten’, ‘more things in heaven and earth’, ‘the time is out of joint’, ‘brevity is the soul of wit’, ‘this mortal coil’, ‘hoist with one’s own petard’ – and Gertrude’s line, ‘the lady doth protest too much, methinks’.

Hamlet runs July 21st through September 1st.  Performances take place Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00pm with Sunday performances now offered at 7:00pm. For tickets and information, click here.

Photo by Dahlia Katz.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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Live From The Hotel Edison Times Square Chronicles Presents Bradley Jaden In A Special Edition

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“Live From The Hotel Edison Times Square Chronicles Presents”, is  filmed live every Wednesday from at the Hotel Edison.

In this episode T2C’s publisher and owner Suzanna Bowling talks with Bradley Jaden. This is a special episode as I was at Bradley Jaden’s concert in NYC and asked to interview him, but he was flying back ASAP to London to do two sold out concerts there. This was very last minute but I am so glad it happened.

I am so grateful to my guest Bradley Jaden.

Suzanna, Bradley Jaden and Rommel Gopez

Thank-you Magda Katz for videoing and creating the content to go live, Rommel Gopez and The Hotel Edison for their kindness and hospitality.

We are so proud and thrilled that Variety Entertainment News just named us one of Summer’s Best Picks in the category of Best Television, Radio, PodcastsThe company we are in, has made us so humbled, grateful and motivated to continue.

You can catch us on the following platforms:

Pandora:

https://www.pandora.com/podcast/live-from-the-edison-hotel-times-square-chronicles-presents/PC:1001084740

Stitcher:

https://www.stitcher.com/show/1084740

Spotify:

Amazon:

https://music.amazon.com/podcasts/e3ac5922-ada8-4868-b531-12d06e0576d3

Apple Podcasts:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/live-from-the-edison-hotel-times-square-chronicles-presents/id1731059092

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Out of Town

Stratford’s Romeo and Juliet Satisfies But Never Truly Finds its Originality

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Drumming up a goddess in white, she sings from the opening monologue that lays the groundwork for Stratford Festival‘s Romeo and Juliet. It’s a sparkling starry opening, drawing forth images of star-crossed lovers that look to the heavens for guidance. Captivating and engaging in its creation, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is getting the full treatment this year playing well and true. Directed with determination by Sam White (Stratford’s Wedding Band), the production digs its heels into the traditional, holding on to a visual that feels more historical than forward floating. It’s a pleasurable outing, giving these fine actors ample opportunity to do what they are trained to do, with the older guard finding an authentic connection to the material. At the same time, the younger, less seasoned souls deliver their lines compassionately and with respect, but did not manage to find an earthy grounded nature to their unpacking. They say lines cause they are written, not because they feel them moving through them.

Jonathan Mason as Romeo and Vanessa Sears as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

The famed star-crossed lovers, dressed in color-coded costumes by set and costume designer Sue LePage (Shaw’s Brigadoon), are utterly sweet and endearing in the first half of their love story. Romeo, played warmly and compassionately by the handsome Jonathan Mason (Stratford’s Little Women) finds ample opportunity to give us a youth who falls quickly in love with his Juliet, played wide-eyed and giggly by the lovely and captivating Vanessa Sears (Stratford’s Twelfth Night). Following the straightforward path to love and marriage, these two come together as if following the stage directions of the play, rather than us feeling the electricity in their actions. It does feel sweet and engaging when they talk about love to others, especially in the first half, but when the actually falling in love happens, it comes too fast and somewhat forced, saying lines about love, attraction, and devotion as if they know they are famous lines, long before we even feel the spark of lust or fascination flying between them. In the second half, filled with despair, grief, and anger, these two struggle to find the emotional truth hidden deep down inside their young hearts. They stay, following the text and emoting as instructed. The lines are delivered with force, but never feel like it is in their bones or their flowing in their red hot blood.

From left: Glynis Ranney as Nurse, Andrew Iles as Mercutio, John Kirkpatrick as Balthasar, and Steven Hao as Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

The same can not be said of Glynis Ranney (Stratford’s Much Ado About Nothing) and Scott Wentworth (Stratford’s Twelfth Night) as the Nurse and Friar Laurence, who find clarity and deep connection to every line uttered. Ranney’s Nurse gives a well-rounded and clever portrayal that is both touching and lovely, making every line have a personal journey and meaning. And “Holy Saint Francis“, Wentworth’s Friar also unpacks frameworks and understanding into every movement he makes and every line spoken. It feels rooted in the here and now, and motivated by what is happening around him and what is being said to him. This can not be said of the majority of this production.

The same can be said of the always reliable and talented Graham Abbey (Stratford’s Much Ado About Nothing) as Capulet, Juliet’s father, who has to manage his emotional state through a range as large as a roller coaster. He first has to be open and accepting when he sees Mason’s Romeo at his masked party, a party that is filled with sexual tension and energy. Abbey’s Capulet must chastize the overzealous (and not all that believable) Tybalt, portrayed by Emilio Vieira (Stratford’s Grand Magic), to settle his fury down. He instructs him to just enjoy the party, as Romeo is doing no harm, and he hears he’s quite likable. Yet, later, he must shift to the father figure who is ready to throw his daughter down and away almost violently when she says she does not want to marry the good, somewhat bland, Paris, played by Austin Eckert (Stratford’s Twelfth Night). It’s a difficult and dutifully performed swing that Abbey must make, and we believe it, drinking the shift in authentically.

Unfortunately, Jessica B. Hill (Stratford’s Richard III) as Lady Capulet doesn’t achieve the same level of understanding. She, like the somewhat forgettable 郝邦宇 Steven Hao (Tarragon’s Cockroach) as Benvolio, the underused Michael Spencer-Davis (Stratford’s Love’s Labour’s Lost) as Montague, and Antonette Rudder (Stratford’s Hamlet-911) as Lady Montague, never really finding a strong footing within this rendering. They all, like the two leads, deliver fine presentations, without discovering a unique framework or motivation for them to actually speak those famed lines. [On a side note, I’ve always been curious about the disappearance of Lady Montague in the second half for reasons of plot. leading me always to question why Shakespeare doesn’t include her for that emotional final scene when all the other parents and players arrive. I wonder if some double-casting complications prevented Romeo’s mother from being present in that final scene. Did the same actor also play the Friar? Or Paris? The reasonings are there and reported by Montague, but they don’t seem necessary to the plot or the play, and are somewhat imposed upon.]

Andrew Iles as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

One of the better performances of this production lies within Andrew Iles (Stratford’s Three Tall Women) and his double-duty portrayal of Mercutio and another hooded role that surprisingly makes us sit up and take notice in a production that does not have a lot of surprises within. The sword scenes are generally thrilling, produced by fight and intimacy director Anita Nittoly (Stratford’s The Rez Sisters), although the epic battle between Romeo and Tybalt felt awkward and misrepresented. Romeo doesn’t actually stab the fiery cousin of Juliet, but strangles him in a way that looks more like a neck and shoulder rub than anything remotely deadly, yet they continually speak of blood being shed. Now in a production that took a lot of liberties with the language, this could be forgiven, but this is not the construction of this Romeo and Juliet. It’s literate and determined to follow the text to a level that almost hurts their unpacking. And speaking of literate, Thomas Duplessie (Stratford’s Grand Magic) as the illiterate servant Peter also manages to find moments of charm and engagement that feel honest and clever. I wish the production took more chances like it did with these two, delivering moments of unique thoughtfulness and earthiness that live deeper in the soul and soil of the play. Many in the cast, thanks to White’s direction need to dig down much deeper below the obvious surface to create more complex formulations, contemplations, and emotional states that would make us sit up and pay more attention. Giving us a slightly different vantage point to unpack, Like they did with the apothecary casting.

But as delivered here on Stratford’s Festival Stage, with lighting by Louise Guinand (Stratford’s Les Belles-Soeurs) and musical composition and sound design by Debashis Sinha (Stratford’s Casey and Diana), this Romeo and Juliet delivers a Shakespearean staple that isn’t all that deep or unique. It’s genuinely straightforward and unpacked in a clear obvious manner – beyond the seasoned pros who find some captivating weight. It keeps us tuned in but not dazzled or fascinated by this well-known story. This Romeo and Juliet needed some freshness and a formula that didn’t feel so standardized. It needs some originality stitched inside its well-wornness. The Stratford Festival can do better than this. It’s definitely not unwatchable nor is it terrible, but it does hang out in the world of fine and functional, and I was hoping for more. I guess I’ll have to hold my breath and wait to see what is in store for me this week when I see the new West End production of Romeo & Juliet, directed and produced by Jamie Lloyd, and starring Tom Holland as Romeo and Francesca Amewudah-Rivers as Juliet.. It just opened a week or so ago at the Duke of York’s Theatre, and I’m seeing it tomorrow. Cross your fingers for me. And for these two star-crossed lovers.

Jonathan Mason as Romeo (left) and Vanessa Sears as Juliet with Scott Wentworth as Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

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Stratford Festival’s “La Cage Aux Folles” Is The Pride and Joy of This Ontario Town

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Surrounded on all sides by an excited opening night crowd, that’s not exactly gaudy, but certainly glittery, Stratford Festival gloriously presents a thrilling production of the 1983 Tony Award-winning musical, La Cage Aux Folles. With a delightful endearing book, written by the wonderful Harvey Fierstein (Torch Song), showcasing all those memorable songs by Jerry Herman (Hello, Dolly!), the production soars with just the right balance of comedy and tragedy, dressed up in heels and draped in sequins. Based on the 1973 French play and 1978 film by Jean Poiret (Douce Amère) of the same name, the show hilariously and tenderly tells the story of an older gay couple hopelessly in love and trying to survive change and hurtful propositions. All the while forever trying to hold it all together for the sake of family and their Saint Tropez nightclub which features a cascade of drag queens that will amaze and entertain.

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.

Opening up the stage like a glorious, glamorous French version of that dirty M.C. at Cabaret, Georges, played lovingly by Sean Arbuckle (Stratford’s Casey and Diana), gestures us into the glittering space, dazzlingly designed by set designer Brandon Kleiman (Theatre Rusticle’s The Tempest), with spectacular lighting by Kimberly Purtell (Crow’s The Master Plan) and a solid sound by Brian Kenny (Musical Stage’s Kelly v. Kelly), with gentle loving coaxing. When not leading the show forward, Arbuckle’s Georges spends his days and nights taking care of his self-created family; namely a stable of queens called the fabulous 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), kicking it up high and hilarious during every spectacularly show-stopping number. The dancers, masterfully giving it their all in acts choreographed by Cameron Carver (Stratford’s Richard II), are a special kind of tucked treat, dressed deliciously by costume designer David Boechler (Stratford’s Spamalot). They are fierce and funny, finding unique characterizations within each, but the true star of their stage is Albin, or should we say, Zaza, Georges’ romantic partner and the club’s premier attraction. And a lot of Georges’ work is managing, loving, coaxing, and fawning over the delicate demeanor of his temperamental but captivating star.

Sean Arbuckle as Georges (left) and Steve Ross as Albin in La Cage aux Folles. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

Now “chase me!” Albin cries out in the giddiest of girlish ways possible as Steve Ross (Stratford’s Something Rotten!) gives us a touching and vulnerable Albin this is as impossible as he is adorably sweet. Ross sensationally shows us what a wonder he is, playing it wild and free, while also finding a way to sneak into our emotional hearts. The show is ultimately a farce of epic sweet, gay proportions, that unwraps the emotional truths of these two behind a story stitched with some very solid ideas about shame and the pain of hiding oneself authenticity. With Albin at the core of this show, feeling vulnerable and hurt, but standing tall for his truth, the show unpacks layers upon layers of emotional truth, pain, maternal love, and disappointment, while also gifting us a whole lot of reasons to laugh.

Outrageously funny and deeply lined in love, La Cage Aux Folles gets this high-wired balancing act right, not only in its great one-liners, but in its gentle unwrapping of homophobia and the farce of the straight ‘normal nuclear‘ family. Thanks to the fine work of music director Franklin Brasz (Stratford’s Chicago) bringing it all solidly to life, the show, the ideas, and the musical numbers blend in and shine as bright as can be. “I Am What I Am” is no accident, it’s a rallying cry and a song of determined visibility that feels as powerful today as it did when it first made its way to the stage. And the song “The Best of Times” feels as solidly engrained in our culture as any other.

Opening on Broadway in 1983, La Cage broke all kinds of barriers, giving over the center stage spotlight to a gay couple, the first of their kind in a hit Broadway musical. The show lovingly focuses its heart on a long-term homosexual gay couple who aren’t dealing with tragedy or sickness. They are a couple like any other, in a way, just living their love in full support of one another. Georges and Albin are presenting their gay lives as authentically as possible, being as glamorous and feminine as they so desire. It might not feel as radical as it must have back in 1973 when the original play premiered in France. But the grand anthem and the emotional truth still hit home, reminding us all that hiding and disguising who we are is as relevant and as hurtful as ever.

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 framing never feels overly pointed or heavy-handed, yet when Georges’ grown son, Jean-Michel, solidly portrayed by James Daly )Off-Broadway’s Dracula – A Comedy of Terrors), returns to his familial home to the two parents who raised him, he comes in with an announcement that is embraced, after a bit of wrangling, and an ask that is sharper and more hurtful than most kitchen knives. Jean-Michel finds himself in a bind, announcing to his father Georges that he is engaged to be married. And announces that the woman, Anne, gorgeously portrayed by Heather Kosik (Toronto’s Chris, Mrs), he has fallen in love with is the daughter of a dangerous close-minded, right-wing politician by the name of Edouard Dindon, played well and clear by Juan Chioran (Stratford’s Something Rotten!). Dindon, his Puritan wife, Marie, played obediently and wisely by Sara Jeanne Hosie (Musical Stage’s The Wild Party), and their lovely daughter are on their way to meet Jean-Michel’s parents so they may give their blessing.

Naturally, there are more jokes and jabs than one can imagine on all sorts of reversed formulations that keep us laughing along the way, but it’s also hard not to notice, and feel, as the son stabs forth the kicker of the evening. Jean-Michel wants and thinks he needs Albin, who basically raised this young (now very handsome and tall) man as his own, to hide himself away from the judgmental eyes of the overly righteous parents of the woman he loves. Daly does a fine job presenting this cruel idea to Georges as if he’s asking for a small simple favor. But for his true parents, and for anyone who knows, it’s a shameful, cruel thing to ask. For a moment or two, mainly because of some fine performances, we only mildly hate this young man for asking the impossible, of his father Georges, and his pseudo-mother, Albin.

Members of the company in La Cage aux Folles. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

To further shove the knife in deeper, he requests George to ask his biological mother, “Sybil who?” to come to the dinner party and stand in for Albin when Ann’s parents arrive. And when she cancels at the last minute, as she always does, it seems, Albin finds the courage and determination to rise up and engage. And for anyone, which is almost all of us who has seen the magnificent film adaptation, “The Birdcage”, starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, we have a good idea how this will all play out and end. There will be gorgeous laughs from within and from us, centered around inappropriate dishes flying through the air, courtesy of their faithful and fierce manservant, Jacob, effervescently portrayed, sometimes a bit too big, by Chris Vergara (Rainbow Stage’s Rent), and automatic physical reactions to moments that give it all away, thanks to their neighbor, Jacqueline, played gloriously well by Starr Domingue (Stratford’s Something Rotten!). And the whole thing will be quite the drag, in the best and most glittery way possible.

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 (Stratford’s Rent) 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.

Steve Ross as Albin playing Zaza in La Cage aux Folles. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

For more information and tickets, go to the Stratford Festival website, or click here.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

 

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Out of Town

Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: Illuminated Majestically at the Stratford Festival 2024

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Tom Patterson was a man of great vision. He was a Stratford, Ontario-born journalist who founded the Stratford Festival, then called the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, the largest theatre festival in Canada. He saw something in this small town that maybe no one else saw. Now his namesake theatre, the lovely Tom Patterson Theatre is home to two ultra-captivating and illuminating revivals, shedding light on two classics that sometimes can overwhelm and conquer others. But not here. Both productions; Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, are epic and transformative, digging into complex themes steeped in intrigue, with battles for control and power over others at their core. And both are delivered forth with a vision and preciseness that astounds and illuminates, ricocheting light and understanding that is seldom felt when watching these timeless tales.

Members of the company in Cymbeline. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

Directed with a magical force of nature by Esther Jun (Stratford’s Les Belles-Soeurs), Shakespeare’s complex and daunting Cymbeline, contains plot points that could easily overwhelm and entangle those in charge. They twist and envelope, like tree roots in the earth, but here at the Stratford Festival, Jun expertly finds a way to unravel and expand the many threads that are so thick and entwined. So clear and determined is her stance that the resolution in the final scene, which generally feels endlessly complex and never-ending, is greeted with clever wit, so much so that the main queenly character voices the overwhelming onslaught of information with an exasperation that almost every audience member can fathom and engage with. Yet we are in it, giving ourselves over almost immediately after the first whispers that come within the smoke.

Oh lady, weep no more,” we hear, tunneling in from the depths of mystic destruction, as the play pulls us under its spell, thanks to the other-worldliness of both Jupiter, played by Marcus Nance (Stratford’s Frankenstein Revived), and Philarmonous, the Soothsayer, portrayed by Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks (Neptune’s The Play That Goes Wrong). We are enraptured in those first sharp strains of white light, detailed and dynamically delivered by set and lighting designer Echo Zhou (Tapestry Opera/Crow’s Rocking Horse Winner), and we bow our heads to their power.


Allison Edwards-Crewe as Innogen and Jordin Hall as Posthumus Leonatus in Cymbeline. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou

Based on parts of the Matter of Britain, the dense legends that focuses their eye on the early historical Celtic British King Cunobeline, this Shakespearian tragedy (although some refer to it more as a romantic comedy) is crafted and ushered forward with full-blown epic style, worthy of a stage production of The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, thanks to costuming by Michele Bohn (Stratford’s King Lear), the composer Njo Kong Kie (TPM’s The Year of the Cello), and sound designer Olivia Wheller (Factory’s Here Lies Henry). It feels as powerfully big and dense as its source, legendary and mystically, while unpacking emotional truths that feel authentic and human.

The gender shifting from King to Queen Cymbeline, played majestically by the always fascinating Lucy Peacock (Stratford’s Three Tall Women), now married to the evil conniving Duke, portrayed by Rick Roberts (Stratford’s R+J) in full fiendish delight, finds weight and credence in their mutual unraveling, dismantling concepts that go far beyond even Shakespeare’s grand and complex ideas. Emotionally centered around the secret marriage between the Queen’s daughter, Innogen, sharply portrayed by Allison Edwards-Crewe (Stratford’s Much Ado About Nothing), and the worthy, but low-born Posthumus Leonatus, dutifully played by Jordin Hall (Stratford’s Grand Magic), their act of love upends the court, as Innogen was orchestrated to wed the Duke’s only son, her stepbrother, Cloten, played flamboyantly by Christopher Allen (Tarragon’s Redbone Coonhound), and rally the land against the tribute-demanding Roman Empire.


Irene Poole as Pisanio with Rick Roberts as Duke in Cymbeline. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

And that’s just the beginning of this complicated upheaval. By telling the interwoven tale of love, forgiveness, and the interconnectivity of all, “like the roots of trees“, Stratford’s Cymbeline, overflowing with the most talented of actors, magnificently finds clarity, as it speaks to the world at large. Moving through the in-humanity (and humanity) or trauma, war, misogyny, decolonization, and this abstract code of patriotism and nationalism, the cast; particularly the incredible Irene Poole (Stratford’s Les Belles-Soeurs) as the mindful servant Pisanio; the seductive Tyrone Savage (Stratford’s Love’s Labour’s Lost) as the Roman schemer, Iachim; and Jonathan Goad (Stratford’s Spamalot), Michael Wamara (CS/Obsidian/Necessary Angel’s Is God Is), and Noah Beemer (Stratford’s A Wrinkle in Time), as the three honorable cave dwellers, Berlarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus, dig into the melodrama, as well as the authentic emotional attachment required to make this 3-hour play tick forward and engage. The play is unpacked with the boldness of separated lovers and stolen sons, imprisoned and banished, seduced and assaulted for chastity and heroic honesty.

Faith plays a tenuous part in the unraveling at hand, with the two lovers forced apart by parents unwilling to hear or engage, paralleling the soon-to-be-seen Romeo and Juliet, right down to the poison that isn’t exactly deadly. But the true art in this presentation is how smoothly and wisely it moves forward through the difficult web of plots and failures. The more seasoned company members know how to find the deeper subtleties within that knotty text, while the newer, younger members sometimes struggle with the emotional complexities tied within, but only slightly and in comparison. Yet it comes together, binding us into the ideas of forgiveness, compassion, and understanding, even as we swirl alongside the Queen in those last few moments of untangling and debriefing.

Lucy Peacock as Cymbeline (left) and Allison Edwards-Crewe as Innogen with from left: Julie Lumsden as Helen, Tara Sky as Queen’s Guard, and Caleigh Crow as Lady in Waiting in Cymbeline. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

Sara Topham as Hedda in Hedda Gabler. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

In the same manner that Jun orchestrated a compelling and understandable Cymbeline, director Molly Atkinson (Shaw’s Prince Caspian) unwinds the detailed Henrick Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler with a gentle force worthy of the epic guns unloaded and lent. Utilizing a compelling new version by Patrick Marber (“Notes on a Scandal“) from a literal translation by Karin and Ann Bamborough, this Hedda carries a bitter rage that rarely stays hidden or held but is casually shot out with a direct aim and purposefulness by a privileged beauty used to getting her way. Sharply defined by the wonderful nuanced Sara Topham (RTC/Broadway’s Travesties), Hedda, if she has to suffer in any way, shape, or form, will not do it in silence or on her own. Her boredom burns her from the inside out, shifting the light of frustration on two pistols in hand, fired casually at anyone she chooses to play with or against.

Dressed impeccably by set and costume designer Lorenzo Savoini (Soulpepper’s De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail) and drenched in epic light and shadows by designer Kaileigh Krysztofiak (Soulpepper’s Wildfire), the malice and rage find their home in the bare room and the precise stitching of the fabric of her creation, pulled at by outside passion, betrayal, devotion, and internal disappointment. Hedda is trapped, happily at one time by her father, but more then unhappily by her husband, the loving Tesman, portrayed simply and compassionately by Gordon S. Miller (Stratford’s Grand Magic).

Brad Hodder as Lovborg (left) and Gordon S. Miller as Tesman with Sara Topham as Hedda in Hedda Gabler. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

Their marriage is one-sided and corrupt, created simply because Hedda felt it was time.Now, trapped in a marriage and a house that she does not want, feeling the mistake in every bone of her bored body, the soul of Hedda Gabler, now Hedda Tesman, the married woman, believes herself to be more the regal father’s daughter than her intellectual husband’s wife. She was once the detached privileged woman who enchanted the men of this town with her beauty and cool exterior, but now, disturbed by and within her marriage, she finds herself caged in a new house that, while being more extravagant than they can really afford, “smells like old lady” and death. And it will never bring her any contentment unless she seizes control.

Backed by a compelling soundtrack crafted by composer Mishelle Cuttler (Arts Club’s Someone Like You), the unbearable heaviness of her new life is dragged out slowly and cautiously, noted and displayed in the photos of a honeymoon that was more trying than passionate. The housekeeper Berta, played with a great attention to hesitant details of subservience by Kim Horsman (Stratford’s A Wrinkle in Time), and Auntie Juliana, meticulously portrayed by Bola Aiyeola (Stratford’s Les Belles-Soeurs), showcase a realm and stature that Hedda can not tolerate. Newly married, unhappy, yet brilliantly bored and frustrated, this power-hungry and ultimately powerless Hedda finds silly pleasure in manipulation, cruelty, and belittling others, but on a more complex terrain, twisting and torching the hearts of women like Mrs. Elvsted, played compassionately by Joella Crichton (Stratford’s Wedding Band).

Tom McCamus as Judge Brack and Sara Topham as Hedda in Hedda Gabler. Stratford Festival 2024. Photo: David Hou.

It’s shocking that people like Mrs. Elvsted keep returning to the abusive parlour, as if they might be greeted by a more mature and caring soul, but that kind of punch is rarely served here honestly. Other women are playthings to this Hedda, as it is clear to her that they hold no real power over anything that matters. Judge Brack, played to subtle perfection by Tom McCamus (Soulpepper’s King Lear/Queen Goneril), on the other hand, holds a triangular association to something more akin to excitement and advancement. She adores the offensive and defensive fencing that occurs in the presence of these self-important powerful men, particularly McCamus’ deliciously delivered Judge who never fails to find the base truth. But her passion is completely enflamed by the wildness and intellectual freedom that lives, drunkenly, inside Lovborg, played compellingly by Brad Hodder (Mirvish’s Harry Potter…). It’s so connected to her personage and her power that it engulfs her focus, and she must either control it by having or destroying its nature. There are few in-betweens.

Topham’s Hedda carries cowardice hidden just below her haughtiness magnificently, masked by a bravery that doesn’t exist authentically inside her. It appears she holds herself tall and determined, but only if she feels she has the upper hand on those around her. She’s desperate and impulsive, selfish and ungrateful. Her true calling, as she tells us with a laugh, is to “bore myself to death“, with a stance that is defiantly fueled by rage, fear, jealousy, and helplessness.

She tests the waters of her sweeping control, trying to distract and entwine. Yet, when she discovers that her ability to enthrall has evaporated before her very eyes, thrown to the sidelines by the man she thought she had unlimited hold over, that demise is overwhelming. Everything she believed in and held on to just went up in smoke, granting us an ending that is as sharply defined and shocking as it is beautifully staged. There is no saving in this space for her, and even though the last line, delivered almost too casually by the Judge lingers in the complicated air feeling cold, distant, and detached from emotion, the overall darkness cuts sharp and true. It hits like an angry Hedda slap out of nowhere, in a way that this play hasn’t hit in a long time. Burned from the act that just played out before us, the sneak bullet attack in a way, fires out into our souls without warning. “I can’t live like the others,” and so she doesn’t. That idea, and the way this Hedda takes control of her one parloured arena, gets embedded in our hearts as painfully as it does her temple, leaving its mark and its emotional disturbance for us all to carry home with us.

For more information and tickets, go to the Stratford Festival website, or click here.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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