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West End’s Best of Enemies Clashes Dynamically, Expertly, and Intelligently

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Landing in London earlier that day, I didn’t know how prepared we were for Best of Enemies, the new play meticulously written by James Graham (This House) that is currently playing at the Noël Coward Theatre in the West End until February 18, 2023. Directed with a sharpness that draws blood by Jeremy Herrin (St. Ann’s/NT’s People, Places & Things), the play thrusts forward a pivotal moment in history, and not just television history. It plays out a conflict when “running out of time” clashed live and loud on camera between two sides of a testy political argument that still rings on today. Based on Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s 2015 documentary, this West End transfer from the Young Vic in 2021, Best of Enemies flips its dynamic channel into the “Firing Line“, broadcasting a particular moment for the whole country to decipher and ingest, when conservative views ran head first into liberalism, delivering an impressively captivating punch-theatrical event, worthy of all the awards this production is receiving and the excitement it delivers.

Digging deep into the intellectual and historical, as James Graham likes to do, this electric production ignites as good or even better than Ink and This House, both of which found dynamic intensity inside Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of the Sun newspaper and parliamentary divisions in the era of Thatcher. This go-round boxing match focuses the camera on the onscreen clashes between the New Left liberal, Gore Vidal, played to perfection by Zachary Quinto (Broadway’s Boys in the Band), and the staunch conservative, William F Buckley Jr, played by the powerhouse David Harewood (Young Vic’s Peribanez). It is when CBS executives decided, as a way to boost their flagging ratings, to bring ‘opinion’ and debate to the news. And with that one shift in the structure of reporting and news giving, the world changed, fueling a kind of maddening descent, one that we are grappling with big-time in today’s divisive political landscape.

The cast of Best of Enemies. Photo by

On a spectacular camera-ready set, designed strong by Bunny Christie (Almeida Theatre’s Tammy Faye), Best of Enemies has an origin story, of a kind, to tell. Carving out glass boxes and multiple screens replaying the live action and adding sensational archive footage, courtesy of video designer Max Spielbichler (NT’s Afterlife), the play dynamically pulls us as if we are glued to the last episode of “The White Lotus“. It feels like event television. But this is history, more specifically, the lead-up to the 1968 US presidential nominating conventions and the election that soon followed. It’s a rewinding, back to that time when the assassinations of influential players dominated the news cycle, and caused a ripple effect that shifted the political landscape that is still being felt today.

This slice of conflictual history zooms in on a number of pivotal moments; speeches that changed the world, and protests that had lasting effects, underlining the tornado of emotional and ideological energy that flared up around these debates, building a fire that still can not be contained or put out. The play shoots from the hip, ringing forward all of the complications of that era to the forefront, with exacting lighting by Jack Knowles (West End/Broadway’s Caroline, or Change) and a captivating sound design by Tom Gibbons (Almeida/West End’s The Doctor). The point and shift in American politics and news programming become real, crystal clear, and powerfully dynamic, in the detrimental effect it had on our world and our political/social history. It ushered in celebrity obsession and angry conflict, that fed and overtook our culture, letting loose a horrific plague on all our houses, with one of the possible outcomes being that Orange Monster taking and trying to retake the White House.

Zachary Quinto and Sam Otto in James Graham’s Best of Enemies. Photo: Johan Persson.

Centering the action around these two equally detested political essayists, the battles shifted our focus from details to drama, making our television studios the place for National debate and grandstanding on a loud battleground scale. Inside two highly stylized, historical roles, the two leads never let history overwhelm their portrayals, somehow finding the humanity inside instead of bland impersonations on the out. Quinto is utterly fantastic and strong. Making his Vidal as snide and electric as can be. He finds inside a spectacularly convincing supervillain who talks from the left, dressed to the nines with a glass of champagne dangling in his leftist hand. His portrayal rachets up the bloody boxing match with Harewood’s Buckley simply by making Vidal’s’ swagger so compelling and different from his opponent.

Casting Harewood in the role of white rightwing conservative, Buckley, is a compellingly big gesture, finding the arrogance, fragility, and anger in the role, but adding the contrasting quality of race into the undercurrent picture. It works a kind of magic over us as we watch Harewood capture almost every aspect of Buckley’s privileged white man frame, except for the one we can’t deny, forcing us to play inside our own unconscious bias and comprehension about how race played a role in all this. The casting forces us to sharpen our eye on Buckley, and his wife, Patricia Buckley, played strongly by Clare Foster (Menier’s Travesties), and their view on race, a concept that is not addressed as succinctly as it could be. But it does resonate, particularly when unpacking the explosive debates between Buckley and James Baldwin, played well by Syrus Lowe (West End/Young Vic’s The Inheritance). The layers there are strong and intense.

Tom Godwin, Clare Foster, and David Harewood (on the right) in James Graham’s Best of Enemies. Photo: Johan Persson.

Recreating these dynamic interactions, verbatim insults galore, the energy in the theatre sizzles with its long litany of complex thoughts and arguments, especially around sexuality, race, intellectualism, and societal norms. “People like blood sports” it is said, and with the second half set at the Democrat convention in Chicago, where two sides of the same political party are tugging hard to win the way forward, mainly because of an assassination that shifted everything and a policy war going on outside (and inside) its doors, Best of Enemies keeps elevating the articulate anger while also lowering the discourse in that one key moment that we are teased with from the start.

This highly-stylized combative match of a play shoots out like an ideological slap that still stings from across the aisle. Graham, finding the clash fuel for a fantastically compelling interpretation of what follows, excels on multiple fronts giving us a Best of Enemies worthy of its history and its everlasting effect. That shift we are still doing battle with to this very day. And even though the Buckley-Vidal debates were a rating triumph for ABC, they changed the world forever, inviting, for example, the entertainment network, Fox News, to enter and play on the field of actual news reporting, further enhancing or detracting the interplay of media and politics. Just look at what Graham had to say about that in Ink, and we all know where that led. Best of Enemies is a well-crafted event, destined for lasting effect and remembrance. Let’s hope it makes its way across the pond and fills a Broadway theatre with that same edge. I know I’ll tune in again.

James Graham’s Best of Enemies at the Noël Coward theatre, London, until 18 February 2023. Photo: Johan Persson.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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

Out of Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something Rotten! Extension Dates:

Wednesday, October 30 at 2 p.m.

Thursday, October 31 at 2 p.m.

Saturday, November 2 at 8 p.m.

Sunday, November 3 at 2 p.m.

Tuesday, November 5 at 2 p.m.

Wednesday, November 6 at 2 p.m.

Saturday, November 9 at 2 p.m.

Sunday, November 10 at 2 p.m.

Wednesday, November 13 at 2 p.m.

Thursday, November 14 at 2 p.m.

Saturday, November 16 at 8 p.m.

Sunday, November 18 at 2 p.m.

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

La Cage aux Folles Extension Dates:

Tuesday, October 29 at 2 p.m.

Friday, November 1 at 2 p.m.

Saturday, November 2 at 2 p.m.

Thursday, November 7 at 2 p.m.

Friday, November 8 at 8 p.m.

Saturday, November 9 at 8 p.m.

Tuesday, November 12 at 2 p.m.

Friday, November 15 at 2 p.m.

Saturday, November 16 at 2 p.m.

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

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Coal Mine Theatre Announces 24.25 Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information visit www.coalminetheatre.com

Coal Mine Theatre 2024/2025 Season:

Infinite Life (Canadian Premiere)

September 6th – September 29th

Written by Annie Baker

Directed by Jackie Maxwell

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

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

A Case For The Existence Of God (Toronto Premiere)

November 3rd – November 24th

Written by Samuel D. Hunter

Directed by Ted Dykstra

Starring Mazin Elsadig and Noah Reid

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

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

People, Places and Things (Canadian Premiere)

February 9th – March 2nd

Written by Duncan Macmillan

Directed by Diana Bentley

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

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

JOB (Canadian Premiere)

April 20th – May 11

Written by Max Wolf Friedlich

Directed by David Ferry

Starring Charlotte Dennis and Diego Matamoros

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

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

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

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Out of Town

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Out of Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Out of Town

The John W. Engeman Theater Presents Legally Blonde

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

The Cast and Creative of Legally Blonde

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

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

Trey Compton (Director) and James D. Sasser

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

Emma Flynn Bespolka

Emma Flynn Bespolka

Quinn Corcoran

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

Quinn Corcoran, Emma Flynn Bespolka

Quinn Corcoran

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

Chanel Edwards-Frederick

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

Nicole Fragala

Nicole Fragala, Emma Flynn Bespolka

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

Nathan Haltiwanger

Nathan Haltiwanger, Emma Flynn Bespolka

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

Julianne Roberts

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

James D. Sasser

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

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

Katelyn Harold

Terrence Bryce Sheldon

Amelia Burkhardt

Matt DeNoto,

Joshua James Crawford

Rebecca Murillo

Zunmy Mohammed

Juliana Lamia

Bridget Carey

Emily Bacino Althaus

Yash Ramanujam

Lara Hayhurst and Trey Compton with Little Ricky and Cha Cha

Lara Hayhurst

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

James D. Sasser, Nathan Haltiwanger and Quinn Corcoran

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

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

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

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

The Cast and Creative of Legally Blonde

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