Toronto’s Fall Season Highlights


Written and directed by Kat Sandler

Featuring: Claire Armstrong, Will Greenblatt, and Seana McKenna

Set and costume design by Joanna You

Lighting design by Jennifer Lennon

Sound design by Christopher Ross-Ewart

At the Tarragon Theatre (Mainspace)

“If you go out in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise…” especially if Baba Yaga is lurking anywhere nearby. And be especially careful if the witch in question is a contemporary update on the old Russian fairy tale, remolded into a bold tale of woman’s power that transcends centuries and geographies. This modern day woman of the woods lives by her own rules and is intellectually superior to any of the men who might think they have a thing or two up their sleeve or down their pants when they pass by her sylvan neighborhood. 

Playwright Kit Sandler has concocted a witches brew (appropriate for this time of year) of story telling by mixing healthy doses of legend and myth derived from ancient tales and then simmered them over a hot fire that crackles with the pulsating pace of a page turning mystery thriller which doesn’t end until we finally find out whodunit. 

Sandler has stacked her narrative with native wit and energy, but with no recognizable roadmap so be careful of the potholes and detours that may take you out of your normal comfort zone while navigating this piece. Part fairy tale, part police procedural and part pent-up Furies’ rage calling out #MeTo, this compelling mashup excels, especially with the acting talents of Claire Armstrong, Will Greenblatt and Seana McKenna on exhibition. The playwright also directed her play, so – for her at least – the path was clear from the very start, even without dropping breadcrumbs along the way.

The Jungle

Written by Anthony MacMahon and Thomas McKechnie

Directed by Guillermo Verdecchia

Set and costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle

Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay

Featuring: Shannon Currie and Matthew Gin

Tarragon Theatre (Extraspace)

Not since Guillermo Verdecchia gave us The Noam Chomsky Lectures (written with Daniel Brooks) have I had the experience of seeing a play that is so clearly anti-capitalist in its format while being so entertaining in its content. Is there something dialectical going on here? Yes, I think so and perhaps that is why Tarragon Theatre asked Verdecchia to direct The Jungle.

Anthony MacMahon (Animal Farm) and Thomas McKechnie’s (Remembering the Winnipeg General) Marxist romp on the gig economy does yeoman’s work in illuminating the current stage of predatory capitalism that continues to seek out the lowest global common denominator with regard to working conditions, environmental regulation, economic equality and social justice while exalting Wall Street, higher profits, the meritocracy and the power of the few over the many as the apex of human achievement. 

In The Jungle, Shannon Currie and Matthew Gin play two young working people – Veronica and Jack – who meet one night in the taxi cab that Jack is driving for a living. Having been part of the gig economy myself as a young person and having driven a cab for a period of time, I can think of no better venue for anchoring an agitprop explanation of Karl Marx’s theory of surplus value. The play does this by cutting back and forth from its developing love story between driver and fare, and moving into their various living spaces (cramped apartment living rooms and kitchens) while freely using the white walls of their various abodes (cleverly designed like chalk boards by Shannon Lea Doyle) as magic marker friendly lecture sounding boards with equations and diagrams that help illustrate microcosms from their own work-a-day lives and expand upon them to explicate the big picture of what global capitalism is all about. No small task for a short 90 minute play, btw.

All of this while maintaining the love story and the stress and strain that goes with trying to maintain a relationship, as they slowly begin to realize that all personal relationships have economic foundations to them that either bolster or tear you apart. The chemistry between Currie and Gin is delicate and tender. When they love each other, we root for them – when they argue, we silently boo the system we know is oppressing them.

Although The Jungle does not have anything in common really with the novel of the same name by Upton Sinclair – except perhaps its broadly anti-capitalist thesis – the writers have courteously provided an homage of sorts to Sinclair in their program notes, as the inspiration for the play. He is an author well worth covering for anyone seriously interested in socialist ideas and how they can be popularly portrayed within literature, poetry, drama, dance and the visual arts. 

The last time Upton Sinclair’s name was mentioned in any mainstream way within popular culture was some years ago by way of the film, There Will Be Blood, starring Daniel Day Lewis. Unfortunately, here again, Sinclair’s novel, Oil, which was said to be the inspiration for the film, had nothing to do with the script that was fashioned as a Hollywood star vehicle. George Bernard Shaw once said that “when I look at the history of the world between 1919 and 1949, I refer people to the novels of Upton Sinclair.” He was referring to Sinclair’s epic 11 novel, The Lanny Budd Series, that follows the life and times of the fictional art collector, savoir-faire socialist, and political dilettante, Lanny Budd. 

Actually, there is a movie or Netflix series that is just waiting to happen. 

A Streetcar Named Desire

Written by Tennessee Williams

Directed by Weyni Mengesha

Set design by Lorenzo Savoini

Costume design by Rachael Forbes

Lighting design by Kimberly Purcell

Sound design by Debasha Sinha

Music direction by Mike Ross

Featuring: Akosua Amo-Adem, Leah Doz, Mac Fyfe, Sebastian Marziali, Gregory Prest, Amy Rutherford, SATE, Lindsay Owen Pierre, Oliver Dennis, Kaleb Horn

To paraphrase one of the most well known songs of the musical theatre: 

“Oh, hello Weyni, well, hello Weyni It’s so nice to have you back where you belong…”

I am referring, of course, to Soulpepper’s new artistic director, Weyni Mengesha whose inaugural production of Tennessee Williams’ classic play, A Streetcar Named Desire, not only marks her first production since taking over the reins of the company but also demonstrates that Canada does not need to go searching abroad looking for artistic leadership. Although in Mengesha’s case they did have to lure her back home from that siren’s call of the television and film industry in Los Angeles.

Of all the dramatic plays within the American canon it is difficult to think of one that deconstructs so particularly the notion of class as does Streetcar. This is especially important with regard to the American theatre because Americans historically like to think of themselves as without the encumbrance of class. The upper classes, class snobbery and royalty is more of a British thing that Americans pride themselves on having divested in the 18th century. Although politicians today on the centre left side of the ledger refer ad infinitum to the “one percent” beyond that, it is all about the middle class. No one apparently wants to think of themselves as representative of the working class. 

When Blanche DuBois gets off a New Orleans streetcar and walks into the run down small apartment of her sister, Stella Kowalski, we begin to understand the meaning of déclassé. Although the time is 1947 – the same year in which the play was written – Blanche in every way represents the fading aristocracy of the South which found itself expropriated after the Civil War. In Blanche’s case the old homestead property, a plantation named Belle Reve, slipped away because of her own carelessness and mismanagement. Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard transported to the agrarian southern U.S. .

When Stanley presses her on what happened to Stella’s inheritance (because, as he reminds her, under the Napoleonic code governing the state of Louisiana, what is Stella’s property is also his property by law since they are spouses of each other), Blanche pushes back and says she is the only one in the family who really cared about Belle Reve and stayed to fight for it. But Stanley wants to see the legal paper work on what happened and when. Says Blanche: “There are thousands of papers, stretching back over hundreds of years, affecting Belle Reve as piece by piece, our improvident grandfathers, and fathers and uncles & brothers exchanged the land for their epic fornications – to put it plainly!”

But Mengesha doesn’t stop there in her investigation of the play’s intertwining themes, particularly those of race and sex. Here she holds up a magnifying class so that we can look more closely at the racialisms and sexual abuses that abound in the play. This is perhaps her most creative contribution in this new reading of the text.  

The cultural anthropology is done well also. The New Orleans jazz played faintly in the background for the purpose of ambience at the opening builds into a Mardi Gras like procession from the back of the house. Other live musical segues cover scene changes with the jazz, skat and Cajun rhythms that one could hear anytime of the day or night along Bourbon Street and in the famed clubs of the French Quarter. Here Mengesha (with the assistance of music director Mike Ross) insists on live musicians front and centre playing and singing with great period sounding music.

The poker game with Stanley Kowalski and his drunken friends is loud, raucous and angry as an argument ensues over a bet. One feels that a fight could break out at any moment. There is real danger in the air.

The play is very well cast with Amy Rutherford (Blanche DuBois), Leah Doz (Stella Kowalski) and Mac Fyfe (Stanley Kowalski) excelling in the lead roles. Amy Rutherford’s Blanche, a coveted role for many actors, was originated on Broadway by Jessica Tandy in 1947 in a storied production that also starred Marlon Brando as Stanley.

If there is any justice, this production will win Doras and Toronto Theatre Critics Awards come next award season. And finally, award or no award for his acting skills, Mac Fyfe should be congratulated for definitively breaking through the “Brando curse” that hung over the role of Stanley for so many years. Brando’s mannered and totally self absorbed acting that he described as “method” did a disservice to a whole generation of actors who mistakenly thought they must mimic his brooding interpretation of the role that echoed even more abrasively after the movie came out in 1951. 

Mac Fyfe searches deep within himself after physically abusing his wife and we interpret his subsequent wailing, “Stella! Hey Stella!” as the cri de couer of a very conflicted soul. Yet, for Stanley anyway, it was a plaintive plea to his wife for forgiveness. Prescient characteristics associated with wife abuse then and now.

All of the supporting roles were done with the grace and skill one has come to expect from this repertory company. Even the calm and dignified Oliver Dennis, playing the doctor who is summoned in the play’s concluding moments to transport Blanche to the sanitarium. Without Dennis uttering one word, there is eloquence nonetheless. Blanche is visibly moved. Our sympathies are firmly with Blanche – who has always appreciated the kindness of strangers.

the book of life

Co-created, written and performed by Odile Gakire Katese

Co-created and directed by Ross Manson

Projection design by Sean Frey and Kristine White

Composer, Mutangana Moise

Music recorded by Ingoma Nshya and the Women Drummers of Rwanda

Canadian Stage

Odile Gakire Katese, a talented Rwandan theatre director, actor, playwright and story teller, here is co-partnered with Canadian director Ross Manson of Volcano Theatre to produce a one hander that is part play and part African story telling. The production had a limited run at Can Stage’s Berkeley Theatre venue in September.

The form for the the book of life put me in mind of the early work of Rita Cox and Amah Harris here in Toronto. Cox was the story teller/ librarian who developed the form so effectively while building the Black and Caribbean Heritage section of the Toronto Public Library system. And Amah Harris, as director of Theatre in the Rough, took her series of Anansi plays on tour across Canada and South Africa. 

The Rwandan genocide is the horrific backdrop of the story but don’t look for any historical detail that will explain the catastrophic attacks against the Tutsi tribe that began in April, 1994. This play is largely told in metaphor and is meant to cover a wide age span that includes adolescents as well as adults. There are helpful backgrounder notes in the program, however, and references to the genocide that can be found in other sources.

In her opening remarks, Katese made mention of the Women Drummers of Rawanda. It is sad that the Conservative government of Stephen Harper cut the Department of Canadian Heritage touring budget so drastically when he was in power. The story behind the women’s drum ensemble is central to the show and although we hear them by way of a recording throughout, it would have been very exciting if money could have been found to bring them to Canada and make them central to the performance. Maybe now that we have a new government…?

Written by