Barrie, Ontario

Arkady Spivak, Artistic Director

Dinner à la Art

Have you missed the combination of “dinner and a show” over the past year? Well, so have the many restaurants throughout the country who have benefited by the cultural synergy that has long provided economic support for so many establishments that are located close to their local theatres. In an effort to revive the tradition while stimulating the local economy, Barrie’s stalwart Talk Is Tree Theatre, company recently mounted 5 streamed plays curated by Richard Ouzounian and played for one night only from April 7th through the 11th. Admission was by way of the purchase of a meal at any of a number of select restaurants in the city of Barrie. 

The featured plays in in this creative combo were as follows:

Heartbreak House

Written by George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Richard Ouzounian

Featuring: Ed Asner, Len Cariou, Cynthia Dale, Alexis Gordon, Nicole Joy-Fraser, Amy Keating, Craig Lauzon and Michael Torontow.


Written by Andrew Moodie

Directed by Taiwan M’Carthy

Featuring: Daren A. Herbert, Vanessa Sears, Jahlen Barnes, Peter Fernandes, Cameron Grant, Virgilia Griffith


Written by Oliver Goldsmith

Directed by Richard Ouzounian

Featuring: Colin Mochrie, Gavin Crawford, Jason Allin, Malindi Ayienga, Noah Beemer, Brendan Chandler, Gabi Epstein, Jamie McRoberts, Glynis Ranney


Written and directed by Kat Sandler

Featuring: Brandon Antonio, Jakob Ehman, Jeff Lillico, Vanessa Smythe, Tahirih Vejdani


Novel written by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Adapted and directed by Richard Ouzounian

Featuring: Eric McCormack, Chilina Kennedy, Autumn-Joy Dames, Aidan deSalaiz, Griffin Hewitt, Gabe Maharjan, Mike Nadajewski, Kimberly-Ann Truong

Of the five plays listed above, I was able to see three: Riot, Bright Lights and The Great Gatsby. To be honest, I am not a great fan of streamed theatre as a fall back, ‘next to best thing during the pandemic’ kind of theatre going. I have been taking the time over the past year to binge-watch a lot of tv and movies on Netflix and elsewhere and have been very content to catch up on a number of series that I either missed or postponed watching as we sheltered in place and waited to get vaccinated against Covid-19. 

But the TIFT project was well thought out, had a good, worthy of support handle to it and, above all, turned out to be a well produced and highly entertaining experience with well known actors and plays that were adapted with sharp clarity, good production values and very few longueurs. 

Andrew Moodie’s play, Riot, won the Chalmer’s Award for best Canadian play when it premiered at the Factory Theatre in 1995. It concerns the lives of of six young Black Canadians who are living together while studying and working in various capacities. The sub-plot involves the brutal beating of Rodney King by several Los Angles police officers that occurs in real time as the play unfolds and records the characters reaction to the events and the racial unrest that follows all across North America. 

Occurring as it did against the backdrop of today’s news, including the trial of the police officer who stands accused in the death of George Floyd and more recently the shooting of Daunte Wright by another Minneapolis police officer, Moodie’s play and the issues that it raises could not be more timely.

Bright Lights, by Kit Sandler, premiered at the the 2016 Toronto Fringe Festival where it was a stand out hit for its comedic look at a group of folks who are sharing their experiences of alien abduction. A recent Angus-Reid poll has revealed that 4 out of 5 Canadians believe extra- terrestrial visitations may be occurring and that aliens may be among us.

Without the prompt of the de rigueur opening night audience shills who make sure we know when to laugh at the funny parts, I felt a little creeped out in the solitude of an empty room while watching this story unfold. It felt like I was sitting in on a QAnon meeting waiting for the cult leader to explain his latest encounter of the third kind. 

Funny what a period of five years can do to how a play is perceived after its initial opening. In the middle of a world wide pandemic of contended origins, four years of Trumpism spouting all kinds of conspiracy theories, anti-science nonsense and various other threats and intimidations at enemies seen and unseen, a play that had some truly funny parts has turned into something a bit scary. 

But don’t worry old sport, there is nothing like a good gin and tonic to perk up one’s courage while recounting the details of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby. Was the suave, mysterious Jay Gatsby an Oxford educated, self-made man who had done well in business or a gangster who had made a fortune trafficing in bootleg liquor? Therein lies the compelling secret behind one of the most famous love stories in American literature.

While watching the show, which moves along at a brisk pace and at 60 minutes leaves us wanting more, one is reminded how arbitrary the canon is when attributing the “great works.” Is it really the great American novel? I don’t know. But it is a damn good story.

Talk is Free Theatre has taken an initiative here that should be a model to the rest of the province as we build back after the pandemic. It reminded me of the early days of the Stratford Festival when Tom Patterson clearly had in mind the dual purpose of building a theatre company in a small town that could not only provide a bucolic destination for city folk to see an excellent theatre company with well known actors, but also to act as an income generator for small businesses that still form the bedrock of our economy. This idea needs to be expanded to include parks and public places as venues for the performing arts as we seek to rebuild and reclaim audiences that will have drifted to the less bucolic but more comfortable environs of couches and lazy-boys during the dark days of the pandemic years.

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