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.

University Player’s “An Experiment with an Air Pump”

I had the absolute pleasure to see the University of Windsor’s latest offering An Experiment with an Air Pump last Saturday night. As usual, it was a thrill for me to walk into a play with no expectations other than the good word I had heard buzzing about the show. With some of my cast members by my side, we were thrown into a world of science, art, love and intrigue which certainly did not disappoint.

The set was immediately striking, and set the tone perfectly for the rest of the play. Swathed in curtains and centring on a large arch/doorway, you immediately felt the sense of grandeur that the piece calls for. The use of projection throughout the play was certainly one of the most interesting aspects to me. When entering the theatre the curtains are scrawled with scientific jargon (my more scientifically minded comrades assured me it was quite legitimate though) about DNA, next there was the painting the play is based off of, then a dove, and then finally the noose that does in poor Isobel. It was not only visually stunning, but also made moments that would have been otherwise difficult to stage powerful and meaningful. The costumes for each period so beautifully complimented each other, allowing for ties to easily be drawn between the two scenarios and yet capturing the strong individualities of each character.

The play itself takes place in two different time periods, 1899 and 1999. “On the threshold” as the play discusses of two centuries, we see the juxtaposition of science, what it means, how it clashes with the arts, and how two families living in the same estate but generations apart are dealing with both similar and vastly different issues. I think this is the element that I have been puzzling over the most in regards to this production: How is it possible for science to have progressed so much in a hundred years, and what on Earth will it look like in another 84 years from now? In 1899 the scientists are obsessed with the human anatomy, and dissections are still practically public entertainment. We see these sorts of fascinations in Frankenstein with its chopped up bodies and creating life. In Air Pump we see Thomas Armstrong (played by Brendan Kinnon) pine for Isobel Bridie (Emerjade Simms), not truly for her love, but for the opportunity to asses her deformity. We see how all life was submitted to science, great or small, in an age where discoveries were abounding. But then when you flash forward to 1999, and we start looking at the Human Genome Project, and all of the ethical questions surrounding that, there is a sense that while the technology has come a long way, our fascinations with “fixing” humanity and understanding all of its facets certainly has not depleted. Armstrong’s character comes off as monstrous for engaging in such machinations in the name of science, yet Ellen (Clarisse Reid) thinks the world will see her as similarly cruel for the work she intends to pursue. It brings about a great moral debate, how far is too far? Or does too far even exist? All of this is contrasted with the spouses of the scientists. Isobel who loves words, Tom who is an out-of-work English Prof, and Susannah Fenwick, wife of Dr. Joseph Fenwick (Ryan Iwanicki) whose experiments on his daughter’s dove we see at the very start of the play. The struggles between the minds and hearts of artists versus their scientific counterparts becomes paramount to the play, as the artists tend to bring the moral issues to the fore for the scientists. And all of this is brought down on the heads of the Fenwick daughters, Harriet (Natalia Bushnik) and Maria (Andrea Meister). Harriet especially possesses the scientific mind of her father but is forced to attempt to apply it to creative activities by her mother. While Maria’s mind is purely romantic and wistful, that is much to the chagrin of her logical minded twin. We watch them bicker and fight, just as their parents do, and just as their descendants will do 100 years later. How much has changed, really? It would seem like everything and nothing, all at once.

The actors handled this dense, deep text with an ease and grace well beyond their years. Simms’ physicality especially was impressive, as she convincingly played her hunchbacked deformity. Also, the amount of quick changes that occurred in the second act were astounding, and both the cast and crew deserve huge kudos for pulling off such seamless changes. I’ve watched these actors bloom from their first year into these impressive young adults who are ready to take on the world. For some of these actors this was their last time on the University stage, and they have every reason to be VERY proud of themselves.

I was enthralled with this play, and I feel like it has changed the way I see the world, which to me is the hallmark of a great piece of theatre.

University Player’s “Anna in the Tropics”

The Univeristy of Windsor is starting off their 2015/16 season with a bang! Nilo Cruz’s beautifully crafted story was an inspiring way to get the season going.

On a cold October day, there is nothing better than to be transported to the hot Tampa, Florida of Cruz’s play. The sets and costumes exude the heat of the setting, while also providing a functional and beautiful backdrop upon which the story can unfold.

One of my favourite aspects of Cruz’s script was its use of literature and its awareness of itself as a piece of literature, and also theatre. As an English Major who loves the theatre, it’s lovely to see a piece that revolves around a well-known and much beloved novel. 

The story itself is downright captivating. I was totally swept up in the romance, turmoil and lush language of the play. Conchita, a cigar roller in a Tampa factory, falls in love with her Lectore (Juan Julian) as he reads her and the other workers Tolstoy’s Anna Kerenina. However, it is more than their affair that stirs up the emotions of the other workers, creating a climax that happens so quickly you barely have time to register the event before it’s over. It is a truly gripping story expertly told.

The cast of Anna in the Tropics provided engaging, real and beautiful characters. The ensemble was spearheaded by Emerjade Simms and Callum Gunn as the aforementioned Conchita and Juan Julian. They were joined by the wonderful talents of Marina Gomes, Dani Zimmer, Ilya Ilyashyk, David Hudyma, Brian Haight, and Isaiah Kolundzic. The whole cast told their story with an excellence and talent beyond their years; they should be highly commended for such an awesome performance.

There are only 2 chances left to see this amazing show! Today at 8pm and tomorrow at 2pm! 

Drawing Board Production’s “Working Title: Undecided”

There are few things more exhilarating than getting to see a world première of a play. What can only make the experience better is when you have the absolute honour of knowing the artists involved in such a marvellous creation. Working Title: Undecided was presented at the University of Windsor at the inaugural UWillDiscover Research Conference (they won 2nd place in the performance category), as well as in the Jackman Centre for the Dramatic Arts on March 29th. Never fear! There are still a few more chances to catch this fantastic show!

One person shows should be a category of theatre unto themselves given their extraordinary nature. It is no easy feat to control a room on your own for over an hour, yet Working Title: Undecided’s star Tamlynn Bryson did just that. She was enchanting and amusing, letting us all into the mind of Tess, a woman with a very big decision on her hands. The way she was able to involve the audience in so many ways was wonderful, fun, and impressive, and will continue to work well for their future performances. Tamlynn was able to take the audience on a trip through all of the varying emotions facing Tess in a way that made the audience invested in the outcome of her decision while also having their own hopes for what her answer will be. Tess became very charming, and as an audience member I started to care about the conclusion of the play and what she was going to do because you really felt like you got to know her personally over the course of the play. This, of course, is also not easy to do, but by the reactions of the other audience members at the end of the play, they were similarly affected. Having the ability to not only connect to one’s audience but also to keep them fully engaged for such a long time is, to me, the sign of a well-seasoned actress, and I’m sure that Tamlynn is going to have a bright future in the theatre.

Tamlynn’s partner in crime for this piece was Kyle Kimmerly, who helped to not only direct the play, but also wrote it with her. The topic for the play (which I shan’t reveal, it would give too much away) is a fun one, and one that any audience member can relate to in some way. But then to hear about what a collaborative process it was and continues to be, and the amount of improvisation that is involved (because of the audience involvement) makes it all the more of an amazing feat. Kyle’s direction allowed for that collaborative process to have this beautiful outcome, and really tell Tess’ story in this fun, original way. For two young actors, who are just on the cusp of their careers to create something this impressive and this entertaining is truly awesome. When the play finished, I was blown away to think that I know the two brilliant minds behind this work. The creativity and style of both of these fine artists permeated the work and made it a true pleasure to watch.

I honestly cannot urge you enough to get out and see this wonderful new Canadian play for yourself! They will be showing the play at the Old Walkerville Theatre in May and in June at the Ottawa Fringe Festival. Please get out and see this award winning show and support some wonderful local actors!

“Elektra by Sophocles”

I have always been interested in seeing Elektra by Sophocles. Having helped to teach other Greek tragedies but not this one in particular, I was excited to have the opportunity to finally see it. I was certainly not disappointed. I cannot imagine a better experience seeing this play.

The first thing one noticed entering the theatre is that the play is to be performed in the round. The bright light that shone down from the ceiling created the playing space, with our seats in two rows around it. It was a brilliant set up because it forced us to be a part of the play, and be aware of not only all of the characters, but the rest of the audience as well. The next thing I noticed were these draped figures around the very outside of the circle. I said to my friend sitting next to me “Don’t those look like people?” and he said to me “They probably are people!” and of course, they were! I couldn’t believe how long they had been sitting there in waiting, finally taking off the cloth and coming into the light with their respective entrances. The whole atmosphere was amazing, and really put me in the right mindset for the rest of the play.

The performances were downright impressive. The cast told the story in a skilful and impressive manner. To me, I saw in this a culmination of everything that they have studied over the past four (and for some of them three) years of their schooling. There was such beautiful movement, voice, and text work, not to mention their costuming, hair and makeup; you can see the expertise that is taught at the University of Windsor and how it will stay with these actors long into their careers.

Alice Lundy played the title role of Elektra and there was not a moment that I did not believe her pain and suffering. Watching her go through such highs and lows was impressive and entrancing. Likewise, her sister Chrysothemis, played by Kathleen Welch goes through those same highs and lows, but with the respect and reverence that was expected of a proper Greek woman. She provides a stark contrast to her seemingly crazed counterpart, and Kathleen played Chrysothemis with a grace beyond her years. Daniela Piccinin portrayed their mother, Clytemnestra, with a stately presence that embodied matriarchy. Her delivery was beautiful, and her passionate pleas were impossible to ignore. Erik Helle played Orestes, brother to Elektra and Chrysothemis, and the vehicle for their revenge. Erik fully embodied this strong, compassionate and perhaps headstrong young man. Mauro Meo’s portrayal of Aegisthus and Ryan Iwanicki’s portrayal of the Old Man were splendid. While the Old Man acts as a sort of Deus Ex Machina for the play, Aegisthus’ return is feared and loathed, both Mauro and Ryan used these roles to their advantage and played them completely. However for me, one of the highlights of the piece was the Chorus. Portrayed by Brendan Kinnon, Emerjade Simms and Ilya Marvin Ilyashyk, they epitomized a traditional Greek chorus, and yet used the amazing movement techniques of a modern play. Their haunting chants and sound advice paired with the way they moved around the stage and interacted with the other characters made them a play unto themselves. I was so impressed with their costumes and mask work as well, they fit the bill perfectly.

The play itself was rather easy to follow, and I definitely saw how the Elektra complex can be thought of as a parallel to the Oedipus complex. The only thing that I found odd (and it is no fault of the actors, but purely the author) was how determined Elektra and Orestes were, and then they seemed to repent almost immediately after the deed was done! While this is rather true to life (how many times do we do or say something that we automatically regret) it just seemed so out of character, especially for Elektra whose struggles and pains we come to empathize with. Maybe it was just me, but it seemed like a really quick 180 for characters who felt so justified in what they had done. Otherwise, it was a fascinating play, totally engaging and fascinating, with many mythological allusions and alluring language.

The whole experience was so powerful, beautiful and moving, that my only wish is that more people could have the opportunity to see this amazing production. I must admit, this production inspired me so much, it made me realize that this is the kind of work I’d love to be doing, something fulfilling and artful and gorgeous. I was blown away by the talents of these wonderful actors, and as always am so proud to have been even a small part of their journey to this point in their careers.

University Player’s “Twelfth Night”

To be fair, I was involved in the beginning processes of this play, and therefore have a soft spot for it. That being said, the show that I saw on the 14th of March was certainly well beyond what I had last seen. I was so impressed, so pleased and just overwhelmed with the beauty of this production. By the way, there will be spoilers, so read on if you dare!

First off, I’d like to talk about the setting of the play. Being set in the 1920’s the play had a very distinct flair, and yet I found that it was one that didn’t dampen the text at all, rather it enhanced the sense of excitement and carnival that is prevalent throughout Twelfth Night. Gordon McCall, the play’s director, made sure that every detail adhered to the theme, from the set and costumes, to the music, even the props all evoke the fabulous roaring 20’s. By further setting it in Windsor and Detroit, it gives the play a local flair that highlights the history of a city that has fallen on hard times and is hopefully on the way back to its former glory.

The set for the play itself was a wonder. It’s amazing to see something go from a picture and 3D computer model to real life in front of me. I won’t say too much about it, but let’s just say that at the performance I attended, there was a round of applause for the sheer beauty of the set. It encompassed so many of the architectural ideas of the period as well as the fabulous warmth of a beautiful bar.

The costumes were likewise awe inspiring. It’s hard to even pick out a favourite amongst the beautiful ensembles on display during this play. The glitz and glamour of the dresses paired with the pinstripe tailored suits and then the leather and wool was just a feast for the eyes. Even Malvolio’s cross gartered stockings were perfectly suited for the period, and everyone looked perfect from their hair to their shoes.

The actors themselves were wonderful. There are so many in this play, and it is such an ensemble piece that it seems impossible to pick out one actor over another. However, I have seldom been more impressed with a Shakespearean production at the University. They had such a handle on the text, and made it come from such an organic and real place that there wasn’t a single one of them that wasn’t believable. They made the text easy to understand and fun to watch, and truly embodied these funny wonderful people that not only Shakespeare created but then were transformed with the setting of the play. Their voices, physicality, the way they make the jokes undeniably funny, all make this production something so special and an absolute must see!

I have known most of these actors since their first year of University. I have had the pleasure of being a classmate of theirs, a cast mate to some, and a teacher to some as well, and I have to say I could not be more proud of them than I was with this production. I could see their futures paved out before them, bright and shining like they are. I only hope that I will be able to continue to watch them grow and prosper and be that friendly face in the audience for them.

There is only one weekend left to catch this amazing production at the Hatch Studio theatre in the Jackman Building. For tickets you can go to http://www.uwindsor.ca/universityplayers/ or call 519-253-3000 x2808.

University Player’s “To Moscow”

To Moscow was certainly a play for people who love theatre, this reviewer included, and I had an amazing time watching the lives of two of the most revolutionary theatre practitioners unfold in front of me. If you haven’t seen it yet, you need to get out and see it ASAP!

Liza Balkan made an amazing decision to have the cast get ready for the show out on stage. For a play that looks at actors and acting, to have the cast talk to the audience, get ready and basically let us in on what would be going on backstage onstage was fascinating, educational and just perfect in my opinion. The seamless transition from “backstage” to the world of the play was fantastic, and it really gave an organic feel to the rest of the play.

The plot of the play itself is rather incredible considering how famous and how much work Stanislavski and Chekhov did in such a short period of time. These two men essentially created our modern notion of theatre, without them we would be still using the declamatory style of melodrama rather than Stanislavski’s more natural theatre. To watch how these two theatre giants met, developed careers, how their personal lives intertwined and developed, it made for a wonderful piece of theatre.

The actors portrayed their characters wonderfully. I was so impressed. Mauro Meo and Andrew Iles who played Stanislavski and Chekhov respectively were the centerpiece of a phenomenal cast. Gwendolyn Tofano’s performance as Masha Chekhov was powerful, and Rebecca Young as the actress Olga Knipper was enchanting. Breanna Maloney and Tamlynn Bryson embodied their characters so well, and Maloney especially made us have such empathy for her character and her situation. Robin Ross and David Hudyma rounded out this small but definitely mighty cast.

The costumes and set were amazing. It was a lot of fun getting to watch the actors get dressed. There are so many layers and the costumes are so intricate, that it makes you appreciate them even more. There was such beauty in the simplicity of the set, and the multimedia aspect of the play was awesome. To get to think about all of the amazing quotes from both the writings and plays of these two men were amazing, and set the tone for the scene very well.

When I see a play like this, which talks about the real lives of these amazing theatre artists, I wonder what they’d think of it. Would they like how we remember them? Did the events and conversations really go this way, or are we missing some unknown element to the story? To me, plays like this one are so important because they preserve in some way the amazing lives of men whose story cannot be forgotten.

Honestly, this is an amazing play. There are only two performances left, tonight at 8 and tomorrow at 2. Get there if you can! It’s definitely worth the trip and has nice romantic tones for Valentine’s Day weekend!