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Two Big Plays: 3 Fingers Back & Three Sisters Take to the Toronto Stage to Unpack War, Colonialism, Violence, and Oppression.

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Two plays take to the Toronto stage in two nights courtesy of a few wonderfully inventive theatre companies, delivering some deeply moving and ultimately compelling theatre that sets its eyes on Africa, to explore some pretty compelling constructs. They each demand our attention, even when the pieces feel a bit stuck in the bloody mud of Africa slogging their way through with slow heavy steps. The plays, Tarragon/lemonTree‘s 3 Fingers Back & Soulpepper/Obsidian‘s Three Sisters, both centered and placed around the continent of Africa, pull us in with force, trapping us in their war-torn violence, while unwinding in fascinatingly different ways, the complex intersections of conflict, colonialism, violence, misogyny, oppression, and regret, to name only a few of the severely important topics that unwind within these two very different but oddly connected plays, written with elegance and passion by two compellingly different playwrights.

The cast of Soulpepper’s Three Sisters. Photo by Dahlia Katz

In Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s complex double bill, 3 Fingers Back, presented by Tarragon Theatre and lemonTree creations, the pairing feels almost more like a fully constructed undertaking in two proper pinholed parts; “Give It Up” and “The Smell of Horses“. The panoramic plays fold themselves in together like a jab and a punch, delivering its form as a powerful unit unpacking “rife with deceptive binaries.” They walk forward with a tonal poetic tension and a deep breath, both revealing themselves with clarity to be conjoined pieces of a greater, more elaborate puzzle, namely the 54ology series, with these two slices inspired by events in Angola and Guinea-Conakry, “but the realities that the soldiers in both pieces face resonate here on Turtle Island.”


St. Bernard (The First Stone) and her dialogued words don’t melt doors and bars, but they do ripple through the cell walls with force, starting with an unhooded laugh that quickly shifts to a loss of power and autonomy that has been yanked away violently. Pushing us into the cell with the others, 3 Fingers Back asks us, once we get our eyes focused and adjusted to what is in front of us, to not look away from the violence that comes from warring sides living together on a common land. The tension within these connected plays finds off-stage power in their adept construction, and as directed, somewhat casually, by Yvette Nolan (Imago’s The Flood) and Cole Alvis (Theatre Aquarius’s Salt Baby), we find ourselves forced to come face to pained face with the big questions around power, resistance, and the way we humans can and do treat one another when lines are drawn in the sand (but really in the air).

Uche Amav and Megan Legesse in 3 Fingers Back – Tarragon Theatre 2024 – Photo by Jae Yang.

On one side of the coin, in “Give It Up“, two women are caged without any questions answered, and in that cage, set off too much on the side of Tarragon’s Extra Space, designed a bit awkwardly by César El Hayeck (CS’s Nowhen), faith and earned trust seem to unravel and tie themselves up in a combative consolidation of two strong but very different spirits, both trying to survive and understand. The movements of caged thought and defensiveness are played out with force by Uche Ama (Cahoots Theatre’s Sweeter) as the seemingly older and more experienced Yol, and Megan Legesse (Buddies/GCTC’s The First Stone) as the younger, more uncentered Ada. They engage in a friend/foe dynamic that is both compelling and tense, even when all we want them to do is find comfort and trust in one another.

Our desire for that is humanistic, but maybe not wise inside the Cariguna Outpost where the two try to contemplate the day-to-day harrowing existence at the hands of a few, almost faceless, soldiers who are doing unseen and unknowing damage to one, but not both, of these two women warriors. Ama’s Yol is repeatedly taken away, time after time, by a young warrior soldier (Tsholo Khalema) who radiates a complex underlying that lingers in the stale air around him. We can’t quite figure him out, nor does it seem he can either. Yet, inside those complex dynamics, the play feels timeless, albeit current, and filled with unseen violence against the ‘other’, more specifically, the females who are rebelling against the unknown domination of the male soldiers in power. This transaction could be almost anywhere, but this moment in time for these two women is more specific. It is filled to overflowing with complex engagement, as they fight a fractured battle with each other that is defensive and filled with longing, compassion, fear, and pain all jumbled together into a mix that is both raw and heartbreaking.

Megan Legesse & Uche Ama in 3 Fingers Back – Tarragon Theatre 2024 – Photo by Jae Yang.

The energy and fantastical elements of mental escapism and camaraderie step forward compelling, thanks to some strong lighting gestures by Michelle Ramsay (Factory’s The Waltz), detailed costuming by Des’ree Gray (Coal Mine’s Appropriate), and an exacting sound design by composer Janice Jo Lee (TPM’s Suitcase). Even as the play meanders far too long than what is really needed, we float with it, in and out of our attachment to these two, as the repetition fails to keep us completely tuned in from beginning to end. It’s possible that a tighter formulation or a deepening of understanding could have created a stronger sense of anxious attachment to these two scared women, hitting and bruising our senses with their understandable fear and suspiciousness, rather than being left with the gradual numbing we start to experience alongside Yol’s ever-increasing battle scars being presented to us and her cellmate.

The same could be said of the second play, which is entwined and layered on top of the first. It’s all clean to them, we are told, as we are led through the same time frame and locale, but from a differing perspective and angle, with shadows of what we already bore witness to being played out behind scrims. We are presented with the previously unseen vantage point; the male-centric warring view on the other side of those bars, as we watch them grapple with ideas of rank, power, and control. The three soldiers that exist up above on a staging platform (at a level I wish the cell was also on for the purpose of cleaner sight lines) that sometimes invigorate the action, but also get in their rotating way, play an interactive game of soldiering that feels wisely inauthentically scripted as if they are being fed their soldier lines from some obscure misogynistic video game about domination and violence.

Indrit Kasapi, Christopher Bautista, & Tsholo Khalema in 3 Fingers Back – Tarragon Theatre 2024 – Photo by Jae Yang.

It’s a strong edition and formulation, watching lines feed themselves down the food chain almost comically. It makes us realize that these boys are just playing the roles of fearless warring soldiers, while never really understanding why they are there, what kind of person they truly are, and what kind of person they would like to ultimately be. Each soldier attempts to embrace their ranking with a different energy, stance, and level of power, yet struggling within their own cells for some kind of validation and advancement without really connecting to it on any level externally. It’s very macho and inhumane, what we take in from these three, as we watch them unearth animalistic mentalities and actions to extract information from the caged women who they have in their possession.

The writing is fascinating, but unyielding, unpacking formulations but not really giving us enough to find connection within these souls, especially the top-ranked Adam, played with a riveting sense of abstract destiny by a very game Christopher Bautista (Grand Theatre’s Fences), and his trusted/not trusted second in command, Beech, played with determination by a forceful Indrit Kasapi (MSM [Men Seeking Men]; Mutual Friends Co-op’s Other People). Their paralleling speaks volumes about their internal dialogue and mentoring, but they also are both given some confusing masturbatory dance moments that don’t really add up to much beyond the already obvious machismo posing and conflictual non-self-awareness.

Indrit Kasapi, Christopher Bautista, & Tsholo Khalema in 3 Fingers Back – Tarragon Theatre 2024 – Photo by Jae Yang.

At least an hour or so, in my humble opinion, could be edited out, but what does make the two plays worth the 3+ hour double bill commitment lies most fascinatingly in the unraveling near the end, brought forth by the more compelling, yet confusingly embodied creation of the young and lowest ranking soldier, Saad, played compassionately (and a bit awkwardly) by Tsholo Khalema (TPM/New Harlem’s Cake). The twisting of the pillars of power on that stage, an act that initially felt overly symbolic in “Give It Up“, starts to find its central pin and main function. As the ping-pong tables are turned and the ultimate function is released from its trappings, the writing and the plays finally pull it all together, wrapping it up and finalizing a production that has a lot to say, but has also been made wobbly by some long-winded conversing and awkward staging. 3 Fingers Back steps itself up, finally, in the end, becoming a fully formed thesis on power dynamics between captors and their captives, and those who bear witness to the pain and torture we can somehow enact on one another all in the name of orders and commands.

Over in the distillery district of Toronto, the music of a different African country leads us into a similarly complex undertaking. Soulpepper and Obsidian Theatre Company have delivered a beautifully rendered production of Inua Ellams’ Three Sisters, a personally inspired reformulation of Chekov’s classic story to wrap our heads around colonialism and war. Stitched elegantly together from her own family’s immigration story, Ellams (The Half-God of Rainfall) sets out to examine the effects of neo-colonialism and the Nigerian Civil War, that is, as he states, “part of British History, and by extension, part of Canadian history.

Melting skillfully together two exacting worlds; Chekhov’s structural landscape with Nigerian heritage and culture, with a strong level of confidence, Three Sisters follows closely the structural walls of the classic play but expands on ideas put forth concerning the unnerving aspects of civil war and the manipulating effects of colonialism in Africa (and beyond). The historical context of Ellams’ engaging Three Sisters takes us to the year 1967 in Owerri, Nigeria, where the unfolding dynamics take place over the next three years of the Nigerian Civil War. In their thoughtful formulation and solid recreation, the heart of the piece beats strong and true, especially in the performances of the three women at the center of this play; Akosua Amo-Adem (Stratford’s Les Belles Soeurs) as the eldest sister, Lolo; Virgilia Griffith (Soulpepper’s Queen Goneril; King Lear) as the middle sister Nne Chukwu, and Makambe K. Simamba (Buddies’ The First Stone) as the youngest, Udo. Their dynamic attachment holds this meandering piece together as it winds itself around the longing and frustration that lives inside a typical Chekhovian play, but adding elements of status, colonial culture, and political manipulations that lead to widespread massacres and an aftermath where there was “no victor, no vanquished.”

Makambe K. Simamba, Akosua Amo-Adem, and Virgilia Griffith in Soulpepper/Obsidian Theatre’s Three Sisters. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The play adeptly chronicles the survival of these three Igbo sisters through the Nigeria-Biafra war, telling the story of how their lives, filled with regret and longing, are transformed and held captive, with their dreams displaced and their hopes thwarted, much like all those thousands of Igbos who were killed and fled to the southern and eastern regions of the country at war within its own borders, fueled by greed from England and beyond. And similar to those two abducted women in 3 Fingers Back. The framework is solidly distinct, with those who colonized standing outside, watching and waiting for the dust to settle, yet knowing full well that they would control the financials (and oil) regardless of who is able to come out as the so-called victorious.

As directed with purpose and finesse by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu (Tarragon’s Post-Democracy), this version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters moves itself forward slowly and with a sense of dignified purpose, laying the parallel plot points on this vantage point with precision. It’s almost too clever for its own good, elongating the tale somewhat with too much honor and prestige. It feels, just like the other production reviewed here, that a tightening of the reins and a stronger focus on the key points would have created a more compelling and engaging journey through war, but as it stands, this Three Sisters, on a strongly designed set by Joanna Yu (Factory’s acts of faith) with clear straightforward lighting by Andre du Toit (Factory’s Here Lies Henry) and detailed sound by John Gzowski (Buddies/That Theatre Company’s Angels in America), bows regally to the compelling themes of both Chekhov and the dismantling of the colonial narrative that is etched, most inaccurately, in the history books. A formulation that is most slyly embedded in the curriculum of the town’s school system, forever frustrating and angering the eldest sister who has to teach it against her wishes and desire for truth.

Ordena Stephens-Thompson and Tony Ofori in Soulpepper/Obsidian Theatre’s Three Sisters. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

With a strong cast that holds the piece together, even when it feels like it is losing its way through the blood-red landscape, this co-production from Soulpepper and Obsidian Theatre Company relishes itself in the details, particularly in the developing formulation of the disturbingly funny secondary character, Abosede, played to bodily perfection by Oyin Oladejo (CS/Obsidian/Necessary Angel’s Is God Is) in wonderfully designed costumes by Ming Wong (Crow’s The Master Plan), and her interactions with the elderly Nma, played lovingly by Ordena Stephens-Thompson (Grand’s Fences). The others; Daren A. Herbert (Soulpepper’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train) as Ikemba; Sterling Jarvis (Mirvish’s The Lion King) as Eze; JD Leslie (Factory’s Vierge) as Oyiridiya; Tawiah M’Carthy (Canadian Stage’s Topdog/Underdog; director) as Onyinyechukwu; Ngabo Nabea (Factory’s Twisted) as Nmeri Ora; Tony Ofori (Soulpepper’s Pipeline) as Abosede; and Amaka Umeh (Stratford’s Hamlet) as Igwe; find moments of engagement and emotional connection throughout, even in the muddy terrain, giving the play a deep sense of family and understanding.

You will be mothers of the nation,” they are told, and these Three Sisters dutifully carry the flag of regret and longing much like their Russian counterparts. They also engage in service in ways those Chekhovian sisters never did. War is not in the vast background as it is here in Ellams’ well-tuned adaptation, with bombings being the acts of destruction that bring to a boiling point the pathos of the sisters’ loneliness and desperation. They talk of Lagos longingly, like those other adapted sisters, written spectacularly by playwright Halley Feiffer, who talk of Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow to the point of abstractionism, where hopes, aspirations, and dreams go up in flames and gunshot wounds. This Three Sisters play is dutiful to the text, expanding the classic form with its clever and wise observations centered on power, colonialization, and the manipulations of foreign bodies in civil wars in Africa. It held me, even when I was fading from its slow march forward, delivering an adaptation worthy of its fine form and structure.

The borderline of War is made of air, not of the earth, and it is controlled and played with by forces outside of those who actually feel its pain and the soldiers who inflict it. The heaviness and disturbances that these two productions unpack make for two dynamic nights at the theatre, even with both of them being a bit overblown in their theatrical interactions and dialogue. The key elements within the historical timeline and context of these two nations of Africa unfurl the ramifications of replacing one flag for another, and the brutality that may follow. So hold your sisters close, you Saras of dissension, and find your way to Tarragon/lemonTree‘s double bill of 3 Fingers Back and Soulpepper/Obsidian‘s adaptation of Three Sisters. Maybe spread the viewing of them out a bit more than I did, as both run around 3 hours each. I guess 3 is the number to embrace here, although 3 stars sounds like a too-low rating, unless it is 3 out of 4, and not out of 5.

Akosua Amo-Adem, Virgilia Griffith, and Makambe K. Simamba in Soulpepper/Obsidian Theatre’s Three Sisters. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

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

The Wrong Bashir Fits Right at Crow’s Theatre Toronto

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All this play needs is a few doors to go in and out of, or slam, for The Wrong Bashir, the new play at the Crow’s Theatre, to become a full-fledged farce. It’s hilariously and wickedly fast-paced and original, flying forth on speedy laugh-out-loud wings, and as directed by Paolo Santalucia (Soulpepper’s The Seagull) and written with wit and intelligence by Zahida Rahemtulla (The Frontliners), The Wrong Bashir gets it perfectly and lovingly right.

Sugith Varughese, Nimet Kanji, and Sharjil Rasool in Crow’s The Wrong Bashir. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

With a cast of sure-footed professionals leading the charge, The Wrong Bashir whips its way through a farcical family drama of high comedic proportions that quickly starts rolling forward in urgency when Bashir Ladha, the wildly unfocused son played well and true by Sharjil Rasool (FX’s” What We Do in the Shadows“), is chosen by their immigrant community to a distinguished religious position that does not fit him like a glove. That is clear. His parents; Sultan Ladha and Najma Ladha, deliciously played in all the right tones by Sugith Varughese (Soulpepper’s Animal Farm) and Nimet Kanji (Northern Light’s Contractions), are completely over the moon in excitement, early accepting the role before they even inform their wandering bohemian Bashir. Bashir’s sister, Nafisa, played wonderfully by the engaging Bren Eastcott (Tarragon’s Orestes) is privy to the celebratory news, knowing both that this is of the greatest importance to her parents and (soon-to-be informed) extended family, and also a role so unimportant and ill-fitting to her lost philosophizing brother. It is etched within her role that we can see and understand all sides to this wrong choice, and she becomes the simple subtle connective tissue that holds the framework together, all the while sitting on the sidelines helping out on both sides of the aisle.

Sugith Varughese, Nimet Kanji, Sharjil Rasool, Zaittun Esmail, Bren Eastcott, Vijay Mehta, and Parm Soor in Crow’s The Wrong Bashir. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Selected by a pair of pseudo-elders; Al-Nashir Manji, portrayed solidly by Vijay Mehta (Repercussion’s Macbeth), and Mansour, hilariously over-played by Parm Soor (Walt Disney’s “Prom Pact“), the two mosque committee members quickly arrive at the door to share the news, followed soon after by the sari-wearing grandmother and cognitively-challenged grandfather; played by Zaittun Esmail and Salim Rahemtulla (Western Gold’s 90 Days); and their meddling sly family friend, Gulzar, ingeniously portrayed by Pamela Sinha (Soulpepper’s Happy Place). It’s a madcap recipe for family tension and complications as it becomes increasingly obvious that there has been a mistake. But the jubilant energy in the main room is something that the two mosque committee members, bumbling and ridiculously loveable, can’t bring themselves to destroy.

Running interference between generations and ideals, the play manically runs full speed ahead, almost getting away from us before a few surprising twists pull us back into the spotlight of what is actually important. The ultra-realistic set, beautifully created by set and lighting designer Ken Mackenzie (Shaw’s Sherlock Holmes…), with strong costuming by Ming Wong (Soulpepper’s The Guide to Being Fabulous) and a clear sound design by Jacob Lin 林鴻恩 (Tarragon’s Withrow Park), lends itself well to the manic energy being thrown out into the audience bringing full-on laughs with increasing regularity, even though a few more walls and doors could have been utilized to really give the idea of farcical conversations happening out of earshot to the others. But this is a small slight situation in a play that gets it over the top right. Rahemtulla’s writing gives you family, compassion, love, and so many laughs that you’ll walk out smiling at the insanity of it all, while also feeling the love that family brings to one another. Even when pushed too hard one way or another.

Salim Rahemtulla and Sharjil Rasool in Crow’s The Wrong Bashir. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

There’s cleverness in the care that lives in this community, with family values and ties to one another floating down the stream from generation to generation, and even when rocks get in the way of this flow, the love and honor bubble in and around. There is so many moments of people running about, escaping to the kitchen, over-spiced, smoky beverages served, side glances, eye-rolling, and faulty attempts to leave, that we struggle to stay up, yet the play never boils over into complete, disrupted, disconnecting chaos. It is clear early on that Bashir is not their man; to us, to them, and to himself, but there is another level of immigrant understanding, particularly between father and son, that also floats lovingly through the piece. It prompts questions around purpose and personal dreams, fulfilled or not, and in those more humane moments, we can only see what is most right about The Wrong Bashir, and more importantly, whether Bashir may fit the role better than even he can imagine.

Sharjil Rasool and Bren Eastcott in Crow’s The Wrong Bashir. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

For more information and tickets, click here.

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Comedy On in Noises Off

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Opening their 2024 Season at the Bucks County Playhouse is Noises Off, a farce by the English playwright, Michael Frayn. Definition of “farce” – a comedic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including ludicrously improbable situations. Yes, yes and yes. Synonym: slapstick comedy.
To be in this production, directed by Hunter Foster, you must either be an olympic gymnast or have the stamina of a race horse for there is much hopping up and down stairs, pratfalling, back flipping, slow splits and general rolling about.

Ah, but I digress. Let us get to the plot. The what? Well, actually there really isn’t much of a plot. You see, the play is a play within a play. It is a troupe of second rate actors in a second rate tour of a second rate play, a sex farce entitled, “Nothing On”. It begins at midnight the night before the cast’s first performance and they are ill prepared. Many things go awry. Missing props, missing cues, missing lines, etc. etc. etc. And to top it all off, there are relationship problems amidst the members which become exacerbated as the tour progresses. Act One is the rehearsal. Act Two is a performance viewed from behind the scenes and Act Three is the disastrous results at the end of the tour.

The play premiered in London in 1982 directed by Michael Blakemore. The 1983 Broadway production again directed by Blakemore earned four Tony nominations and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Director of a Play and Outstanding Ensemble. Since then it has had seven revivals between Broadway and the West End and has become a staple of both professional and community theaters alike. Standout performances are in order for the entire ensemble.

Amanda Kristin Nichols

Amanda Kristin Nichols (as Brooke Ashton) is hysterical in her skimpy underwear preening and posing in the most ridiculous positions, thinking she’s looking sexy.

Jen Cody

Jen Cody is appropriately dotty as the sympathetic Dotty Otley, whether she’s doing a split or hanging upside down.

John Bolton

John Bolton is simply super as Frederick Fellowes, the sensitive actor who always needs to know “why” he must complete an action on stage no matter how nonsensical it is.

John Patrick Hayden

John Patrick Hayden is marvelous as the director we sympathize with for having to deal with these screwball actors even though he turns out to be a cad. Though Roe Hartrampf is hard pressed to express himself with words as Garry Lejeune, he goes ballistic when he mistakenly thinks that Dotty is seeing Frederick.

Marilu Henner

Marilu Henner is the proverbial peacemaker always trying to smooth things over even when they are inextricably fouled up. Barrett Riggins as Tim Allgood, the Assistant Stage Manager, has greatness thrust upon him through no fault of his own.

Folami Williams

Folami Williams as Poppy Norton-Taylor, the Stage Manager is adorable as she reveals her secret at the end of the play.

Richard Kline

And Richard Kline as Selsdon Mowbray, the man with a drinking habit is quite lovable. They say the director’s hand should be invisible in a play, but I’m afraid that Mr. Hunter’s hands are all over this one for this production is choreographed to a “T”. Credit must be given to this director because usually there aren’t many laughs in Act One as it’s all just a set up for Act Two and Three. However, there are a lot of laughs in the first act. And needless to say, it’s a non-stop laugh fest for the next two acts. So if you need a good laugh – and who doesn’t with fire, floods, tornadoes and earthquakes all around us – this show is a very good panacea.

For tickets visit buckscountyplayhouse.org or call 215-862-2121.

Noises Off by Michael Frayn Directed by Hunter Foster
Running now through June 10, 2024 70 South Main Street

New Hope, PA 18938

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Out of Town

Tarragon’s Come Home: The Legend of Daddy Hall Rewinds With Layered Results

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The “sweet, sweet boy” lies in a spotlight, shrowded in Spanish moss and mystic lighting. He’s drowning in the mystic feeling of death with ghostly faces of ancestorial connection shimmering forward to engage and recount. This memory play, written with purpose and desire by Audrey Dwyer (Calpurnia), spans time and place, layering in the histories of both Black and Indigenous teachings that float out the realities of the cultural framing. Spanning generations and one man’s ever-so-long lifelin is as epic in its scope as can be, distinct and smart in its construct, and sometimes lacking in focus, leading us to lean in and tune out with some regularity.


Daren A. Herbert & Emerjade Simms with Nicole Joy-Fraser & Brandon Oakes in Tarragon’s Come Home: The Legend of Daddy Hall. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The beginning, as staged by Tarragon artistic director Mike Payette (Tarragon’s Cockroach), floats into our system like the smell of ghostly swamp air, hidden behind layers of mist and secrecy. Giving abstract vantage points to breathe in the complexities of this man’s trauma, the play spirits out souls from his epic life for us all to engage with, as well as a future generation stumbling forward while trying to unpack a past, all so he, Billie, played by Troy Adams (TIFT’s The Other Place), a descendant, can understand the present condition and navigate life forward from a wiser perspective. The framing is unique and contextual, letting Hall’s mixed heritage of Mowak and Black Jamaican ancestry find equal footing on that somewhat overstuffed stage, designed by Jawon Kang (Tarragon’s A Poem for Rabia), while giving layers of space to try to understand personal trauma and confusion.

Helen Belay & Daren A. Herbert with Troy Adams, Emerjade Simms, Brandon Oakes & Nicole Joy-Fraser in Tarragon’s Come Home: The Legend of Daddy Hall. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Hall, played forcibly by Daren A. Herbert (Soulpepper’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train), finds clarity in his rewinding, looking back over his timeline with curiosity. He fought as a Black loyalist in the War of 1812. He survived capture by American forces and was systematically enslaved in Virginia and Kentucky. He escaped, with his wife, using a threaded map of rice and beans braided into his hair that helped lead him back home to safety in Canada. Throughout his journey, he held true to his yearnings for home, family, and love, marrying, we are told, up to six wives and was father, or should I say “Daddy Hall” to somewhere around 21 children. It’s a lot to cover in this one-act wonder of a play, and even when it falters in its complicated unpacking, muddling the journey with an overly fussy rearrangement of wood pieces and somewhat jarring blocking and movement, the journey has marked moments of wonder that are highlighted and expanded by the gentle fantastical music delivered out from the depths by Unsettled Scores (Spy Dénommé-Welch & Catherine Magowan), the production’s sound designers and composers.

The notes float in, elevating the dialogue with background poetic illusions of ancestorial and cultural undercurrents that consistently save the framing from sinking down underneath the crackling ice. They trigger tragedy and loss, even when the interconnectivity feels jagged and forced. Lit from a place of historic warmth and engagement, designed by Michelle Ramsay (Factory’s The Waltz) with simple yet clever costuming by Christine Ting-Huan 挺歡 Urquhart (Tarragon’s Cockroach), Come Home: The Legend of Daddy Hall works hard to relive all those key moments in this man’s complex life, particularly around the ideas of home, safety, and attachment. The cast, that includes Indigenous actors Nicole Joy-Fraser (Tarragon’s My Sister’s Rage) and Brandon Oakes (CBC’s Diggstown), and Black actors Helen Belay (Soulpepper’s Queen Goneril & King Lear) and Emerjade Simms (Cahoots Theatre’s Sweeter), engages with intent in the non-linear mystical unpacking, allowing us to consider and engage with Hall’s ancestral lineage and all the trauma that has been layered on this man throughout his journey.

Emerjade Simms & Daren A. Herbert in Tarragon’s Come Home: The Legend of Daddy Hall. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The play spirits forth the dynamic from this misty ancestral plane, sometimes finding complete visual and poetic illusions, like in the crackling watery descent of his wife, Mary, played lovingly by Belay. At the same time, other moments feel disconnected from the emotional journey and its overarching themes. The modern stance in Tarragon‘s Come Home: The Legend of Daddy Hall never really finds its connective tissue throughout and feels put upon and not completely organic to the main Hall stance. There’s wonder in their search for bigger pictured themes and answers to complex historical and connective questions, sometimes feeling grounded in emotional truth, and sometimes masked behind layers of Spanish moss. The energy shifts, floating in and out of the murky cold waters of memory and ancestral history, and when it hits its mark, there is clarity, but other times, we swim in cold waters looking for the light and air of understanding.

Daren A. Herbert & Helen Belay with Nicole Joy-Fraser & Brandon Oakes in Tarragon’s Come Home: The Legend of Daddy Hall.  Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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Music

The Canadian Festival of New Musicals Unveils Three New Works

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This Saturday, thanks to the theatre gods of Toronto, I was gifted with the chance to experience the next wave of new Canadian musicals. Getting underway earlier this week, the inaugural season of The Canadian Festival of New Musicals, running from May 23rd – 26th at the Berkeley St Theatre, unveiled a few new musicals. Presented by The Musical Stage Company in association with Canadian Stage, the three new shows were given the grand opportunity to present snippets of their work-in-progress; new musicals that are being experimented with, played with, and developed for our theatrical enjoyment. And what a joy it was to be in the room with all these enthusiastic souls.

New Voices. New Stories. New Musicals.” is the Festival’s motto, as I made my way downtown to join the celebration of creativity, innovation, and collaboration, giving the audience a glimpse of three of the Musical Stage Company’s musicals in development.

Featuring excerpts from IN REAL LIFE, AFTER THE RAIN, and COWBOY TEMPEST CABARET, the Canadian Festival of New Musicals was an electrifying showcase that gave audiences a first look and listen at the new stories being created by some of our country’s most promising lyricists, composers, and writers, and delivered by some amazing performers, such as Brandon Antonio (Broadway’s & Juliet), Raquel Duffy (Coal Mine’s Apppropriate), Eva Foote (Stratford’s Hamlet-911), Brendan Wall (MSC’s Natasha, Pierre…), and the phenomenal Elm Reyes (Factory’s Trojan Girls…). The festival also provided opportunities for music theatre creators to meet new collaborators, learn more from experts in the field, and engage in the conversation around the development of new musical theatre in Canada.

These musicals are all being developed for full-length productions, with AFTER THE RAIN already programmed into the upcoming Tarragon season, a production that I am super excited to have the chance to experience again.

THE CANADIAN FESTIVAL OF NEW MUSICALS

Details and schedule:

AFTER THE RAIN (Double bill with COWBOY TEMPEST CABARET)

May 23RD 8:00pm and May 25th 3:30pm

Co-Commissioned and Co-Developed by The Musical Stage Company and Tarragon Theatre

Book by Rose Napoli

Music & Lyrics by Suzy Wilde

Featuring Eva Foote, Raquel Duffy, Brendan Wall, and Shaemus Swets

Her parents are famous. Her boyfriend is stupid. And Suzie is a mess.

When she accepts a mature piano student obsessed with mastering only one song, Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie No. 1”, struggling songwriter Suzie’s life takes an unforeseen turn. Full of family turmoil, life’s complexities, and centered around a devastating discovery, AFTER THE RAIN is a musical based on a true story about the healing power of music.

COWBOY TEMPEST CABARET (Double bill w AFTER THE RAIN)

May 23rd 8:00pm and May 25th 3:30pm

Commissioned and Developed by The Musical Stage Company

Book by Niall McNeil, Lucy McNulty & Anton Lipovetsky,

Music by Anton Lipovetsky

Lyrics by Niall McNeil

Featuring Brandon Antonio, Raquel Duffy, Eva Foote, Dylan Harman, Yousef Kadoura, Elm Reyes, Shaemus Swets, and Brendan Wall

Guns and magic. Love and hurt. When gunslinger Prospero conjures a storm in the desert, he begins a chain of events that forces every cowboy and spirit into a fight for freedom. Created by an artist with Down Syndrome and his longtime collaborators, Cowboy Tempest Cabaret is a totally lawless adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest musicalized in the styles of rock, folk and country & western music.

IN REAL LIFE

May 24th and 25th at 8:00pm, May 26th at 2:00pm

Commissioned by The Musical Stage Company and Co-Developed by The Musical Stage Company and fu-GEN Theatre Company

Book & Lyrics by Nick Green

Music & Lyrics by Kevin Wong

Featuring Alicia Ault, Janelle Cooper, Colleen Furlan, Hailey Gillis, Matthew Joseph, William Lincoln, Jacob McInnis, and Daniel Williston

Set in a dystopian future, technological prodigy Max is an ideal student with a bright future, until, with a single swipe, he sets out on a journey to forbidden corners of the Internet, underground societies, and forgotten parts of himself. A story filled with twists and turns, In Real Life examines the complexities of power, technology, and freedom in the digital era.

For more information, click here.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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Music

The Canadian Festival of New Musicals Unveils Three New Works

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This Saturday, thanks to the theatre gods of Toronto, I was gifted with the chance to experience the next wave of new Canadian musicals. Getting underway earlier this week, the inaugural season of The Canadian Festival of New Musicals, running from May 23rd – 26th at the Berkeley St Theatre, unveiled a few new musicals. Presented by The Musical Stage Company in association with Canadian Stage, the three new shows were given the grand opportunity to present snippets of their work-in-progress; new musicals that are being experimented with, played with, and developed for our theatrical enjoyment. And what a joy it was to be in the room with all these enthusiastic souls.

New Voices. New Stories. New Musicals.” is the Festival’s motto, as I made my way downtown to join the celebration of creativity, innovation, and collaboration, giving the audience a glimpse of three of the Musical Stage Company’s musicals in development.

Featuring excerpts from IN REAL LIFE, AFTER THE RAIN, and COWBOY TEMPEST CABARET, the Canadian Festival of New Musicals was an electrifying showcase that gave audiences a first look and listen at the new stories being created by some of our country’s most promising lyricists, composers, and writers, and delivered by some amazing performers, such as Brandon Antonio (Broadway’s & Juliet), Raquel Duffy (Coal Mine’s Apppropriate), Eva Foote (Stratford’s Hamlet-911), Brendan Wall (MSC’s Natasha, Pierre…), and the phenomenal Elm Reyes (Factory’s Trojan Girls…). The festival also provided opportunities for music theatre creators to meet new collaborators, learn more from experts in the field, and engage in the conversation around the development of new musical theatre in Canada.

These musicals are all being developed for full-length productions, with AFTER THE RAIN already programmed into the upcoming Tarragon season, a production that I am super excited to have the chance to experience again.

THE CANADIAN FESTIVAL OF NEW MUSICALS

Details and schedule:

AFTER THE RAIN (Double bill with COWBOY TEMPEST CABARET)

May 23RD 8:00pm and May 25th 3:30pm

Co-Commissioned and Co-Developed by The Musical Stage Company and Tarragon Theatre

Book by Rose Napoli

Music & Lyrics by Suzy Wilde

Featuring Eva Foote, Raquel Duffy, Brendan Wall, and Shaemus Swets

Her parents are famous. Her boyfriend is stupid. And Suzie is a mess.

When she accepts a mature piano student obsessed with mastering only one song, Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie No. 1”, struggling songwriter Suzie’s life takes an unforeseen turn. Full of family turmoil, life’s complexities, and centered around a devastating discovery, AFTER THE RAIN is a musical based on a true story about the healing power of music.

COWBOY TEMPEST CABARET (Double bill w AFTER THE RAIN)

May 23rd 8:00pm and May 25th 3:30pm

Commissioned and Developed by The Musical Stage Company

Book by Niall McNeil, Lucy McNulty & Anton Lipovetsky,

Music by Anton Lipovetsky

Lyrics by Niall McNeil

Featuring Brandon Antonio, Raquel Duffy, Eva Foote, Dylan Harman, Yousef Kadoura, Elm Reyes, Shaemus Swets, and Brendan Wall

Guns and magic. Love and hurt. When gunslinger Prospero conjures a storm in the desert, he begins a chain of events that forces every cowboy and spirit into a fight for freedom. Created by an artist with Down Syndrome and his longtime collaborators, Cowboy Tempest Cabaret is a totally lawless adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest musicalized in the styles of rock, folk and country & western music.

IN REAL LIFE

May 24th and 25th at 8:00pm, May 26th at 2:00pm

Commissioned by The Musical Stage Company and Co-Developed by The Musical Stage Company and fu-GEN Theatre Company

Book & Lyrics by Nick Green

Music & Lyrics by Kevin Wong

Featuring Alicia Ault, Janelle Cooper, Colleen Furlan, Hailey Gillis, Matthew Joseph, William Lincoln, Jacob McInnis, and Daniel Williston

Set in a dystopian future, technological prodigy Max is an ideal student with a bright future, until, with a single swipe, he sets out on a journey to forbidden corners of the Internet, underground societies, and forgotten parts of himself. A story filled with twists and turns, In Real Life examines the complexities of power, technology, and freedom in the digital era.

For more information, click here.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

Continue Reading

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