My Theatre

20 February 2017

On Stage in TO: Tough Stuff

By // Theatre (Toronto)

photo by Jordan Probst

Blue Remembered Hills (Good Old Neon)
This dark, unpleasant, uncompromisingly strange piece of physical theatre is born out of a British teleplay in which a group of children play and torture each other, as children do. The children are meant to be played by adults but director Nicole Wilson has fully grown the characters up, having her adult actors play adult characters who act like (and claim to be) children. There are times when it’s all just a bit too dissonant- too many stylistic layers of too much artistic interpretation of too many commentaries all at once- but when this bold, hard interpretation of already fairly bold and hard material works, it really works; most notably the beginning, the end, and the scattered, stirring two-handers in between. We begin in a stark white room at Artscape Youngplace, lights bright, the cast strategically placed around the room, silently staring. Hayden Finkelshtain’s mesmerizing singing voice starts winding its way through the space; it’s joined by Ara Glenn-Johanson’s powerful mezzo then eventually by the full ensemble in a carefully constructed and enticingly harmonized round. We end in almost exactly the same place, but there won’t be anymore singing. The space between these parallel states is filled with bullying and nitpicking and power plays. Most effective are Alexander Offord as John, the wry one who doesn’t buy into the hierarchy until he’s given a shot at being the top dog, and Michael-David Blostein as Peter, the alpha male whose spot John forcefully takes. Blostein gives a transformative performance as the meanest kid on the block, seeming to tower over everyone else on the not-really-a-playground despite not actually towering over most of them. The production’s greatest achievement is a delicate scene between Peter and Finkelshtain’s vulnerable outcast Donald when Wilson’s physical direction and adult interpretation combine with standout performances to mine gut-wrenching insight from Peter’s battle to keep his empathy at bay for fear of losing his power. There’s a certain amount of buying in that Wilson’s production demands, and surely some audience members won’t be able to pay; but if you can wrap your head around all the madness and the dirt (and the whiteface and the pre-show soundscape), the returns are remarkable.

How Black Mothers Say I Love You (Factory Theatre)
There are a lot of people who find this show incredibly moving. The play tells a story many people can relate to but have never seen depicted before; that’s an incredibly cathartic experience and a valuable thing to put out into the world. But a good story does not immediately translate to a good play, nor does an emotional theatre-going experience necessarily prove a play’s worth, and Trey Anthony’s play (which she unhelpfully directs herself) does justice neither to her story nor to the emotional experience of finally seeing it realized. There is zero subtext in Anthony’s script and even less subtlety. Though the story being told is full of long-simmering resentments and under-expressed feelings, the action Anthony presents us with is all climax, a two-hour hashing out of issues we didn’t get to see. Everything is literal, from the characters’ insistence on saying all of their feelings out loud rather than letting the actors act or the audience interpret, to the depiction of death as someone actually walking towards light while someone else says “walk towards the light”. This story didn’t just deserve to be told, it deserved to be told well and Anthony didn’t do that part.

photo by John Gundy

Deceitful Above All Things (Favour the Brave Collective & Storefront Arts Initiative)
I realized partway through that I’d already seen this production (as part of SummerWorks in 2015). Almost nothing has changed though nearly two years and one workshop have passed and a new director has been brought in (though the big block of ice that revealed the play’s final twist is thankfully gone). The one casting replacement is a downgrade that contributes to the show’s stifled feeling and the pace has only marginally picked up. Thankfully, Imogen Grace and Garret C. Smith are as engaging as ever as star-crossed lovers in 17th century Quebec, their quiet chemistry anchoring the action and raising the emotional stakes.

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