Brian Jungen Friendship Centre at the AGO

NIGHTFEED at the Toronto Fringe Festival

WAITRESS at the Ed Mirvish Theatre


ART at Soulpepper

MEASURE FOR MEASURE, Shakespeare in High Park

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM presented by Shakespeare In Action

With only a few days left to the summer of 2019 (the September equinox occurs September 21st to the 23rd!), I would be remiss in not mentioning a number of performances and one remarkable art installation I attended over the last several weeks. My intention is always to devote as much space and time as possible to every production I see, but sometimes a retrospective will just have to do.

The Art Gallery of Ontario welcomed the Brian Jungen Friendship Centre as a special exhibition this summer. The artist, previously unknown to me, is of Dane-Zaa and Swiss ancestry currently working in the North Okanagan of British Columbia. His reuse of every day objects, drawing heavily in this exhibit on Nike sneakers, backpacks and other bits of paraphernalia, to recreate Indigenous icons and introduce alternative ways of seeing and knowing is quite extraordinary. The suspended whale skeleton, made entirely from white lawn furniture, was breathtaking. Sadly, the AGO informs me that the exhibition will be retired for now and taken off the touring circuit. But if you missed it, might I recommend the stunning catalogue that is available in the AGO gift shop and published by Penquin-Random House with thoughtful commentary by curators and art historians like Gerald McMaster and others, who bring the exhibit to life right on your coffee table!

NIGHTFEED, by Sarah Joy Bennett, was a definite stand out at this summer’s Toronto Fringe Festival. It had already won the Capitol Critic’s Award in Ottawa, before it hit the Fringe, so it already had some momentum behind it. Bennett is a multi-talented performer who has worked in varying formats over the years. Here she successfully captures what it means to be a new parent experiencing all kinds of new sensations (not to mention responsibilities) with baby by taking one night of torment and turning it into heartbreakingly funny comedy.

I was so impressed with the performances of Corinne Murray (Mother), Ginette Mohr (puppeteer) and Bennett (also a puppeteer) with their various anthropomorphized objects which included the star of the show, the infant baby who was front and centre in her mother’s arms throughout. Although there was no mention of the baby’s name in the actual play or the program, I couldn’t imagine that the actors did not have one made up for their co-star just among themselves, so I asked their media rep about this. Here is the response that I got from Sarah Joy Bennett: 

“Thank you so much for your question. Among us (the actors), all of the puppets have names. The dust bunny is named Jermaine and the breast pump is named Rhonda. The baby puppet was particularly special. When Shawna (Shawna Reiter, the puppetry director) finished constructing it and handed it over, it was presented to Corinne (who plays the baby’s mother) and Corinne was asked to give it a name. The baby puppet is also not stored away like the other puppets; it remains in Corinne’s care, who lovingly brings it with her to every performance and takes it back home afterwards. We were deliberate about the baby not being named on the stage, so that audiences have a blank canvas with which to imprint the baby’s identity, however it resonates with them.”

This is the kind of care and sensitivity to detail that rings true throughout the entire play.

WAITRESS (with book by Jesse Nelson and music & lyrics by Sara Bareilles) began as a film with Carrie Russell in a heartwarming but darker take on the story of Jenna (here played by Christine Dwyer in the musical), the young woman who works in a diner and sees a pie baking contest as her ticket to get out of an abusive relationship with her husband. The musical finds its own path through the dark humor without dragging us down into depression in the process. 

Jenna is ably assisted in all of her escapades by sidekicks Becky and Dawn. The two have separate musical numbers that allow Ephie Aardema and Melody A. Betts respectively to really raise the roof in their numbers, providing some of the high moments of the show. 

In the end, the audience responded by leaving a big tip for the pleasure of having some darn good comfort food! The Mirvish Season upcoming begins strong with the Band’s Visit opening this week followed by Piaf/ Dietrich (A Legendary Affair), the venerable musical Cats and the eagerly awaited Girl From the North Country that plays in Toronto prior to it’s opening on Broadway in February.

The Promised Land at Soulpepper continued musical director’s Mike Ross signature series of compilation music with narrative that this time concentrated on the work of John Steinbeck accompanied by a playlist including songs by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, et al. The duties of Narrator were performed with great warmth and sincerity by Joseph Ziegler. It actually gave me some hope that our American cousins to the south may indeed find their way out of this sad and forlorn period of the present.

ART’, Yasmina Reza’s crisp, funny 90 minute debate on art as a metaphor for the foundation of friendship also played at Soulpepper during the month of August. I originally saw this play in London soon after it opened in 1996 and have seen it several times since. I’m always amused by the way the playwright takes these three characters along a bumpy ride that lands warmly in the end. Directed by Philip Aiken (whose Canadian premiere of the Alice Childress play, Trouble in Mind, will be part of next season’s Shaw Festival) has followed the stage directions nicely and doesn’t miss a beat. His choice of casting Oliver Dennis, Diego Matamoros and Huse Madhavji as Marc, Serge and Yvan respectively was spot on.

I was intrigued by a program note that had Yasmina Reza recounting an anecdote about the character of Yvan in the play. Apparently, she herself was the basis of the character and the reason I found this interesting is that I’ve always thought that Yvan is one character that could easily be gender bent so that when women or transgendered actors see the play ‘Art’ on the audition roster, they don’t have to always shrug their shoulders and think, “oh well, nothing there for me.”

I saw this Soulpepper production with an artist friend of mine who did not think the playwright’s premise, that is, a plot that circles around the purchase of an all white painting for an exorbitant some of money, was convincing or believable. I pointed out that in our own Canadian experience, the painter Ronald Bloore (1925-2009) had a turning point in his own career where he destroyed all of his art work and renounced color altogether, preferring to work with either all white or all black canvass. He wasn’t convinced.

Finally rounding out this delightful summer in two Toronto parks with two plays by Shakespeare, I’m happily reminded that the Stratford Festival is not the only company that holds a franchise on producing the Bard. Canadian Stage’s annual Shakespeare in High Park played Measure for Measure and Much Ado About Nothing. I saw only Measure directed by Severn Thompson but thought her work was just spectacular, bringing forward the play with clarity and insight that I had never before experienced. But the jewel in the crown for me was in my own little village of Weston, located in north-west Toronto just south of where Weston Road crosses the 401 highway.

As a result of the city of Toronto’s Section 37 by-law developer’s clause, Artscape has made some low rent studio space available to Shakespeare in Action which now calls the Artscape Weston Common its new home. Their inaugural production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Little Avenue Memorial Park was just terrific. Directed by David Di Giovanni, it featured a high energy cast that included Michael Chiem, Amanda Cordner, Tammi Freeman, Gugun Deep Singh, Suzanne Roberts Smith, Rose Tuong and Suchiththa Wickremesooriya. Best of all, it is only one block away from where I live! 

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