The Cog and Sprocket Theatre Collective’s “The Dumb Waitor”

I had the pleasure of seeing The Cog and Sprocket’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waitor at Shō, a fantastic piece of absurdist theatre which had me hooked from beginning to end.

Samuel Beckett’s influence on Pinter is clearly evident in The Dumb Waitor, but Pinter makes some very calculated deviations from the conventions set down by Beckett, making The Dumb Waitor a piece of “practical absurdism” for director Miriam Goldstein-Cedroni. While the situation itself, two men waiting seemingly endlessly for someone to come along, is recognizably an homage to Waiting for Godot, what makes The Dumb Waitor unique are the ways in which Pinter artfully manipulates that situation to create a far more linear but no less thoughtful piece. 

The setting is one of the major elements in Pinter’s play which sets it apart from most of its absurdist counterparts, and not only gave the play context but a solid grounding in reality. The set for The Cog and Sprocket’s production used the intimate space to truly put the audience in the basement with Gus and Ben. The setting creates a sort of claustrophobia for the characters, resulting in dynamic tension between the two. The Cog and Sprocket’s production utilized that closeness and extended it to include the audience by placing everyone in close proximity to the action. The anxiety, agitation and anticipation permeate the space and impresses upon the audience that feeling of inescapability.

 Gus and Ben themselves are fascinating as characters in the realm of the absurd. Far from their Godot counterparts, Gus and Ben go through moments of intense emotion expressed both verbally and physically which gives the play these moments of mounting tension followed by relief, only to boil up again. Megan Milette (Gus) and Taylor Brimner (Ben) both gave powerhouse performances, breathing such life into the assassins that you couldn’t help but get attached to them. With just the two actors on stage, and nothing but the mechanical dumb waitor to break up the monotony of the character’s condition, so much relies on the strength of their performances and they did not disappoint. I became so invested in what was happening to them and wondering who or what was messing with them, and that concern is wholly due to their exceptional performances. 

I was very pleased with the portrayal of Gus and Ben by female actors. I agree that the idea that our suspension of disbelief can’t seem to reach beyond gender is disheartening. What’s even more unbelievable to me is how works like Waiting for Godot come with the stipulation that only men may play those roles. The initial conception behind of Theatre of the Absurd was works showing life for what they truly were, in all of its chaotic glory. Does that mean our world is only populated with men? Or are men’s stories the only way to convey the true nature of the world? By using women to portray these characters, The Cog and Sprocket’s production puts the emphasis on the humanity of the play and thus truly reaches the heart of the Absurd movement and founding ideals.

What really stood out to me about the story of The Dumb Waitor was the fact that it had a definite ending. While that ending is still ambiguous (did he or didn’t he shoot him?), it follows a more linear plot line with subtle hints as to who they’re waiting for dropped throughout the text. Because the audience comes to know and have concern for the characters, it makes the ending all the more startling and impactful. The final moment where Gus and Ben stand there looking at each other made my heart sink. It’s a mesmerizing, breath stealing ending to an engaging, visceral piece of theatre.

Bravo to all of the cast and crew, whose hearts were clearly in the making of this piece and whose dedication and perseverance definitely paid off.

Stratford Festival’s “Shakespeare in Love”

I know this might come as a shock, but I have never seen the movie version of Shakespeare in Love. I mean, I own the movie: I bought it one time when it was on a great sale, but I never got a chance to watch it. So I wasn’t totally sure what to expect when we went to go and see the play. I knew it was a little historically inaccurate, and I knew that people LOVED it. I can now join the list of people who LOVE that story. 

One thing I hadn’t known going in was that Tom Stoppard was involved in writing this story. That small fact gave me a whole different perspective on the piece. Stoppard’s works are brilliant, and this one is no exception. The integration of Shakespeare’s works into the world around him, the nods to the real people who were instrumental in Shakespeare’s success, and just playing with the conventions of the period (a woman on stage?!? Never!) and using it all in a way that is so smart and humorous, I was thoroughly entertained. While  it’s certainly a play which rewards those who are familiar with the period and its players, this was a show that had everyone laughing!

Being able to have the sets and costume designs from the West End production was a real treat! The set was beautiful, with the wood panneling looking so much like Shakespeare’s Globe. I was amazed by the number of places the actors had to run up and down, in and out of the woodwork. It was totally mesmerizing! The costumes were equally beautiful, intricate and transportive; showing the extravagance of court and the simplicity of everyday life. From lace and pearls to leather and linen, they were all dressed perfectly. The addition of on-stage musicians also enhanced the Renaissance feel, and it was so great to see those musicians playing actual roles within the play. 

Like Humphrey (Will Shakespeare) and Shannon Taylor (Viola de Lesseps) lead the incredible cast, full of Startford’s finest playing Elizabethan England’s finest. Notable mentions going to Tom McCamus (Fennyman), Stephen Ouimette (Henslowe), Micheal Spencer-Davis (Tilney), Saamer Usmani (Christopher Marlowe) and Brad Hodder (Ned Alleyn) just to name a very few. It was a great joy for me to see these people who I’ve read about, studied and imagines brought so beautifully to life. I could hardly contain myself as they talked about Beaumont and Fletcher, had Hemmings and Condell as part of Shakespeare’s cast, John Webster being uber creepy and gory (sings of things to come), Tilney being such an uptight Master of Revells; I was in my glory. 

I cannot express how much I enjoyed Shakespeare in Love. I look forward to a rainy day off where I can finally watch the award winning film of one of my newest favourite stories. If you’re in Stratford this weekend, make sure to catch this amazing play on Sunday for its final performance.

Stratford Festival’s “The Hypochondriac”

The Hypochondriac may have started a little later in Stratford’s season, but it was definitely worth the wait. A hilarious Restoration comedy which was just as relevant today as for Molière himself, The Hypochonriac is sure to tickle everyone’s funny bone!

I really enjoyed the frame narrative for the play; not only was it based on the true facts surrounding the original play itself, but also was a great nod to the time period in general. I loved the Commedia Dell’Arte performance, the juggling and music and tumbling, all beautiful examples of the kind of street art which was so prevalent at the time and heavily informed Molière’s theatre. We also get to see Molière’s company preparing for the performance, totally unaware of what will befall them later in the evening. When the “doctors” came out at the end of that section with the cell phone, I nearly feel out of my chair laughing; I love it when they’re able to give the standard “Please turn off your cell phone” message in a unique and funny way. 

The appearance of King Louis further solidified the time period for the piece, but then also gave context to the many nods which are given to him throughout the play. It also added a level of meta-theatricality, making the frame all the more complete. 

However, at the end of the play, when the play within the play is over, and Molière (Stephen Ouimette) has taken ill, that meta-theatrically comes into play again as La Thorilliere (Ben Carlson) calls out “Is there a doctor in the house?” Reality comes crashing in on the hilarity we have just witnessed. This sobering ending was totally smashed to bits at the performance I attended, where someone said back “I’m not a doctor, but I’m a dentist!” We all laughed at the spontaneity of the whole incident, and yet it’s one of the things that make theatre the beautiful art it is; no one had ever shouted back before, the cast was flabbergasted! And yet that afternoon that lone voice responded to La Thorilliere’s pleas. And who knows if it’s happened again since? These one-off experiences make the show all the more memorable.

However the expert acting in this show is what’s truly memorable! Ouimette especially was pitiful, hilarious and yet loveable; a perfect Restoration lead. He was supported by a large, impressive cast, including Brigit Wilson, Trish Lindström, Ian Lake, Luke Humphrey and Shannon Taylor. They were truly able to bring not only Molière’s story, but his whole world to life on stage. And some of the cast exhibited extraordinary tablets: from tumbling to juggling to music and dancing, the expertise of the whole cast was truly put on display, and made for a feast for the eyes.

The Masque at the end of the play has to be one of my favourite conclusions to one of Molière’s works, as Argan (Ouimette) becomes the solution to his own ailments, and we can see a clear path to happily-ever-after for the characters involved. It provides a perfect juxtaposition to the ending to the play itself as I had mentioned previously; once Argan’s problems are solved, Molière’s begin. 

One of the things that I found the most interesting was how a modem audience was able to connect so fully to this play. Often times with Restoration comedy, there are so many jokes which are couched in inuendo or timely references that they don’t play well for a modern audience. Yet because this play deals with the human body, our health and the medical system, it remains totally relatable and still hysterical for today’s theatre-goers. It actually gives the show the same kind of universally human qualities that we see in other of our most beloved plays. 

The Hupochondriac closes on the 14th, so make sure to catch this hilarious comedy!

Stratford Festival’s “All My Sons”

I’ve always had a tumultuous relationship with Arthur Miller’s works, I’ve been reading his plays since grade 12 and frequently found that I was disappointed; in the characters or the plot trajectory, nothing really grabbed me. All My Sons did everything but disappoint. Honestly, it totally redeemed Miller in my opinion, with this gripping, troubling, beautiful play.

I found that the themes of this play were very similar to some of Miller’s other works. All My Sons focuses on the relationship between father and son, and how the “American Dream” fits into that relationship. In this case, Joe Keller wants his business to be passed down to his sons, so he makes questionable decisions to ensure that that’s able to happen. Where we see the real tension is between the older generation’s idea of what is necessary versus the younger generation; as the information of the true events of Keller and his former business partner Mr. Deever get revealed it becomes more and more of a burden on Chris, Joe’s son. We see, in two very different ways (through the Keller’s and the Deevr’s), how the sins of the fathers are visited on their sons: one is through anger and mistrust, the other a crushing guilt.

Kate Keller is convinced that her elder son, Larry, who is MIA from the war, is bound to come home. We watch as it consumes her waking and sleeping thoughts. She evens involved her neighbours in trying to convince the rest of the family that she must be correct and Larry must be alive. Her passion boarders on insanity, and yet we see that come crashing to reality when Ann Deever (who used to be Larry’s girlfriend but is now beloved of Chris) shows Kate a letter which Larry sent to her just before he disappeared. It was one of the most striking moments in the play, as Kate reads the letter, she only lets out one shriek, one moment of total release, and then it’s as if all of her sanity has been restored. Instead of destroying her, which I thought it would, the letter makes her somehow more resolute and strong. The change was so instantaneous and the opposite of what I expected, I was floored.

With the play being performed as theatre in the round, these difficult issues and moral crises were inescapable, and I loved it. While the set itself was beautiful and you truly feel like you’re in a beautiful backyard, there was a moment where I realized that there was no way out, for the characters or for us as audience members. Because you are denied the esthetic distance of a proscenium stage, it forces you to be just as involved as the characters are and go on the ride with them, for better or for worse.  

This play was superbly acted, they left you no choice but to care deeply about the characters on stage. Lucy Peacock and Joseph Zeigler lead the cast as Mr and Mrs Keller, providing passionate perofmances that cut to the core. Tim Campbell’s performance as Chris Keller was marvellous, his emotions reached out to every member of the audience, and he had us all feeling heartbroken by the end of the play. Sarah Afful and Michael Blake play Ann and George Deever, who have such drastically different relationships with the Kellers that it hardly seems like they’re related at all, yet their performances were equally beautiful, showing how one event can impact people so differently. Supported by the talents of E.B. Smith, Lanise Antione Shelley, Rodrigo Belifuss, Jessica B. Hill, Maxwell Croft-Fraser, and Brandon Scheidler, this was a well constructed cast without a weak link. 

All My Sons is a play that will leave you puzzling and thinking long after the performance is done. This amazing production only runs until Sunday, so get your tickets now!

Stratford Festival’s “Breath of Kings: Rebellion and Redemption”

When the news came out that Graham Abbey had been working on an adaptation of four of Shakespeare’s history plays, and that they were going to modify the Tom Patterson Theatre especially for the production, I was thrilled. There’s nothing more exciting than getting to see a brand new piece and in a totally different way than it would normally be staged. Breath of Kings exceeded my expectations and gave me a totally different view of Shakespeare’s histories; it made me want to see the full versions immediately!

Breath of Kings: Rebellion tells the story of Henry Bolingbroke and his rise to power over King Richard II, using the plays Richard II for its first act and Henry V Part 1 for its second act. A political thriller for the first act turns into a bloody battle for supremacy by the second, making for an amazing buildup to the final battle. Breath of Kings: Redemption focuses more on young Henry, or Prince Hal, and his rise to power through Henry V Part II and Henry V. Once again culminating in an epic battle, this piece was fascinating and fast paced as young Hal goes from miscreant to King overnight.

The most immediate thing that struck me was the stage. Not only was it redesigned to be theatre in the round (which I LOVE) but for Rebellion there was a thick layer of mulch covering the stage. This mulch would be pushed, dragged, and raked all over the stage. I loved how when the play needed to take place indoors the mulch was pushed aside with the boxes to create a hallway-like path. But for me the best part was after the battle scene, the mulch had been spread back out over the stage, so there was this amazing map of the battle left on the floor after the actors had left, I can only imagine how incredible it must have looked from above. For Redemption, the stage was the bare white that you could see underneath the mulch, but as the battle of Agincourt was waged, the floor came up in these massive, jagged pieces which left the earth turned up and ragged by the end of the play; a torn world which Hal will be responsible to put back together. Paired with amazing costuming and lighting, the play was a visual spectacular and every detail and movement carried such weight and purpose.

The cast was massive, with a whole host of Stratford’s best populating the stage. Helmed by Graham Abbey (Henry IV), Tom Rooney (Richard II), and Araya Mengesha (Henry V) the level of passion in these performances breathes such life into these pieces and makes them the memorable experience that they are. Richard II was such a fascinating character, the way we watch him succumb to Bolingbroke and his men, then seeing Bolingbroke, who used to wield amazing power, get so ill was heartbreaking. The whole time you’re watching their enemies try to rise against them, while others rally to their side. I had previously seen Henry V in full, and so knew of the death of Falstaff, but what I hadn’t realized was that he died of a broken heart; it broke my heart to see Hal cast off his old friends, miscreants though they may be, in favour of being the “king” he thinks he has to be. He rejects their company almost immediately instead of helping them as he’s now able to do. This deeply saddened me, and actually made me watch the second act of Redemption with a totally different gaze than I had when I saw Henry V. I was also thrilled that the Chorus in Henry V was kept, the Chorus has some of the most beautiful poetry in Shakespeare’s cannon, and the play would have felt incomplete without it.

One of the elements that was particularly interesting was how many men were portrayed by women. It brought the dynamic to a totally different level to both pieces, and seeing these women in power roles was inspiring. It confirmed the level of innovation and expertise that was poured into this show and made it an experience I’ll never forget.

I was absolutely blown away by this production. I cannot begin to recommend it enough. The plays close September 24th, so catch it before it closes!!

Stratford Festival’s “Bunny”

I was fortunate enough to attend the first preview of Bunny back on July 29th. It’s absolutely exhilarating to know that you’re in the first performance of a show, especially when it’s a brand new Canadian play. Bunny is a fascinating story which is masterfully told by the Stratford Cast.

The piece is narrated by Sorrel, played by Maeve Beatty, as she goes through some of the most pivotal points in her life thus far. We watch as Sorrel goes from being painfully shy and unliked, so desirable (albeit still rather shy); the way her awkwardness was captured and expressed was so beautifully real, I absolutely loved it. It was incredible to watch her begin to own her womanhood in a deeply sexual way which is usually shied away from on stage.

Once she gets to college, she meets Maggie, who calls Sorrel “bunny” because she’s always nervous “like a rabbit.” Maggie becomes Sorrel’s lifelong friend, and as their bond strengthens and their lives intertwine more and more, we see the kinds of true connections Sorrel becomes capeable of.

The cast is small but mighty, helmed by Beatty and Krystin Pellerin, with amazing performances by Tim Campbell, Cryus Lane, David Patrick Flemming, Jessica B Hill and Emilio Vieira.

One of the aspects I loved the most was how Sorrel was rarely (if ever) off stage. She transformed physically before our eyes, always in a blue dress with some form of brown shoes and accessories. She was aided in these transformations by the other characters, giving us a glimpse at their relationship usually encore we’re ever introduced to them. The set was also simple, but had many moving parts which where also operated by the actors; it was the perfect embodiment of how others shape our lives.

Maggie’s character really touched my heart, for many reasons, but mostly I think because I saw much more of myself in her than I did in Sorrel. But with my Mother being a Breast Cancer Survivor as well, the play really hit home. It was written so beautifully and with so much truth about our society, I look forward to seeing it staged and restaged for years to come.

Bunny only runs until September 24th, so get your tickets before this amazing and moving production is gone!!

Stratford Festival’s “John Gabriel Borkman”

I had been greatly anticipating this show since it’s announcement. I was excited to see a new Ibsen play which I new nothing about and which starred so many of my favourite actors at the festival.  John Gabriel Borkman surpassed any and all expectations I had for the show, presenting an intriguing story beautifully told by its actors and designers.

John Gabriel Borkman is one of those shows which you carry with you once you leave, which is something that I love about theatre. You leave feeling like you’ve been affected by this piece.  It’s rather incredible really, because it is an odd premise, but it’s presented in such a way that I left the theatre mulling it over in my mind for hours.

The story itself is interesting, about a Bank Manager who looses everything and we watch how it affects his family dynamic long after the event has actually occurred. The tension between family members is palpable, and it makes for a riveting story as detail after detail is revealed about their past an how that has come to affect their present. The events of the play were eerily similar to modern cases such as that of Bernie Madoff, making the play far more relatable to our modern audiences than Ibsen could have ever anticipated. At the same time it always is a little unsettling when you see a play written 120 years ago and can find the same behaviour in the world around you; an amazing situation of how life can imitate art.

The stage and set where so whitewashed, and then when the characters enter in their jet black costumes, they seem so foreign in their environment. For me, their dark ensembles truly embodied the pain and suffering that they were enduring. From the black lace of a widow, to draping black velvet, their costumes outwardly displayed their inner torment in such a beautifully visual manner. Especially when juxtaposed against the crisp white of Frida’s dress or the light purple of Mrs. Wilton’s ensemble, all of which plays against the white stage and the snow that tumbles from the sky at the play’s end; it’s a visually stunning show which left me breathless.

Another breathless moment occurred right at the beginning of the play, as twin sisters Mrs. Borkman (Lucy Peacock) and Miss Rentheim (Seana McKenna) first see each other after years of not speaking. When Seana enters the stage, there is this amazing moment where they just stare at one another, taking each other in after so many years apart, and it’s like the theatre collectively held their breath until one of them spoke. Seana and Lucy are such incredible foils for one another in whatever show they are in, but this one was particularly impressive. The way that they are able to play off of one another and the struggle between the two which only gets deeper the more we discover about their pasts made the piece riveting. You become so invested in their lives and why they don’t get along any more and it truly makes you feel deeply for them, especially once you realize that they’ve both been hurt by the same man: John Gabriel Borkman. While I don’t want to give away the juiciest of details, it’s amazing to see how one man in his quest for greatness is able to destroy everything and everyone around him. Scott Wentworth did a phenomenal job portraying the tortured Borkman, whose dream of wealth and glory still haunts him after so many years of his scandal haunting his own family. While you want to hate him for what he’s put his family through, there’s something sympathetic in his desire for something greater than himself and wanting to be able to pick back up once he’s been knocked down. The three leads were perfectly cast, and to watch them all play so well off of one another was truly a pleasure; it’s like watching an All Star game, where the best of the best get to play together and the audience watches in awe of them.

Something that really strikes me is how the play bears the name of John Gabriel Borkman, and while the story is about how his decisions have affected all of the people around him, it’s truly the women who drive the play. It’s Mrs. Borkman’s need for her son to make something of the Borkman name again which drives young Erhart away, but it’s also Miss Rentheim’s total denial of Borkman’s dreams has more power than I think even she realized she could wield over him. Erhart (Antoine Yared) thinks that running off with Mrs. Wilton (Sarah Afful) and Frida (Grace Eddleston) will give him a new life, yet he’s still under the influence of a woman and her desires. In the end, it’s the reconciliation of the sisters which provides a true sense of satisfaction and closure to the piece. It was truly a marvel, one which I will not soon forget.

There’s only one week left of performances of this stunning show! It closes Sept. 23rd, so don’t miss out on your chance to take in this amazing work.