A Credit to the Coal Mine Theatre


liisa repo-martell & noah reid photo by michael cooper

Every once and awhile a production of a play comes along that leaves you so breathless and, ultimately, so entirely satisfied that words allude you, because everything you think to say falls short of capturing that perfect, ephemeral, living, breathing, reverberating theatrical experience. Sometimes the most important words are a simple “Go see it.” Creditors by August Strindberg now playing at The Coal Mine Theatre is one such production.

Strindberg considered Creditors (1889) his “most mature work,” although it is the much lesser-known Irish twin to the much-produced Miss Julie (1888), often considered Strindberg’s seminal play. Like Miss Julie, Creditors is a constructed as a triangle, although in this case we have two men, the young artist Adolph and the older teacher, Gustav, and the free spirited novelist Tekla who finds herself, like Julie, caught in a web fashioned of societal constructs that attempt to drain the life from her cheeks and the freedom from her heart.

The play begins with Tekla’s husband, Adolph, emotionally exhausted by a a churning, insecure mind, physically lame and requiring crutches, grasping onto his new friend, older, wise, Gustav, in the desperate hope that he will replenish him and make him strong enough to return to his creativity and faith in his talent as an artist. Yet, from the onset Gustav begins to slyly do the very opposite for poor Adolph. Like Iago with Othello, Gustav plants an entire garden’s-worth of seeds of doubt in Adolph’s ear. Surely he cannot believe there is a future in painting. Surely he must not trust his wife, considering that their own relationship began as an affair she had while married to her first husband. Has he heard all the gossip everyone has been spreading about them? It’s clear to everyone that he is being played for a fool. In fact, it seems like Adolph is on death’s door and has been driven thus by a philandering wife. Gustav latches on to every worry that Adolph has ever even briefly considered and deftly turns molehills to mountains and then to monsters that seek to devour even the possibility of joy from him just in time to greet Tekla, returning from a week away from home.

It quickly becomes apparent that Creditors is a play centred on the concept of revenge, of having been hurt so thoroughly that one is completely consumed with the torture and annihilation of those who have betrayed him. To Adolph, Gustav first verbally attacks Tekla, and indeed all women, as being vicious, selfish, leeches, appropriating knowledge, power and influence from their husbands to intentionally leave them weak, carcasses of their former selves. He builds himself up into such a misogynistic frenzy that the audience can’t help but laugh, delightedly, at his absurdity. It is incredible to see a play from 1889 that has pushed anti-feminist rhetoric to such an extreme that it inherently makes a mockery of itself. Yet, while the audience guffaws and triumphs, Adolph finds it difficult not to be sucked in by the nagging doubts concerning his wife’s fidelity. He loves her too much. She is too beautiful, too charming, too alluring, to possibly love him the way she says she does. Once Adolph has been convinced of his need to exert his masculine dominance over a wife who must be conquered and tamed, the trap has been set

Noah Reid gives Adolph a beautiful agonized desperation as he oscillates between mistrusting his friend and mistrusting his wife, and every ounce of his self-confidence crumbles in on him. Subtlety, Reid is able to give the audience brief glances of why the relationship between Adolph and Tekla works so well, but also alludes to the challenges that preceded the entrance of Gustav. The way he deflates when she teases him and calls him “Little Brother” betray his repressed humiliation. Yet, there are also moments when he looks at her with such tender admiration that their happily ever after seems so tangible. Liisa Repo-Martell’s Tekla is sparkling and radiant with a bright, concealing laugh that attempts to push all but the fun, frivolous and pleasurable away. She is sensual and coy, confident and refreshing, but as much as she is trying to be playful and condescending with Adolph, his strange behaviour tears a strip off her, and Repo-Martell allows Tekla’s vulnerability to shine through like a wide, cascading sunbeam. She becomes much more guarded and careful when finally confronted with Gustav, her flirtatiousness calming down into kindness as she shrinks a bit under his paternal shadow. When, at last, Repo-Martell’s Tekla realizes the horror of her predicament, it is absolutely heartbreaking.

Hardee T. Lineham’s pummelling Gustav is relentless, stone faced and with intense ire-ridden eyes. His sense of pacing, of meticulously well cautioned-steps toward bursts of carefully considered bouts of passion and urgency, is a marvel in subtext. Then he turns on a dime when faced with Tekla and even the audience’s mind is spinning trying to figure out his endgame.

In the wonderfully intimate basement theatre of the Coal Mine, under the Magic Oven, the audience faces one another, literally poised on the edge of their seats, hardly daring to breathe as Rae Ellen Bodie’s production holds the house captive and still. It’s one of those rides that finds you jarring back into consciousness during the curtain call when you suddenly become aware of the fact that you’ve been sitting in a theatre the entire time and the balloon of illusion you were floating in has just popped.

You owe it to yourself to go.

Creditors plays at The Coal Mine Theatre(798 Danforth Avenue, Toronto) until May 17. For tickets visit brownpapertickets.com.

Embalmed in Chemistry

david fox and steven ratzlaff
photo by steve salnikowski (chronic creative)
When I was studying 20th Century History in grade twelve I developed an entertaining system that helped me contextualize and simplify the information I was reading in my textbook. I would imagine that all the countries in the world were kids interacting on a playground, where “Germany” kept beating up “Poland” and “Russia” was the two-faced kid who pretended to be friendly and play nice with everyone but who ultimately only looked out for himself, especially if a fight broke out and “Canada,” younger brother of “Great Britain” spent a great deal of time both idolizing and comparing itself not only to its far more popular sibling, but also to its charming and vivacious, albeit slightly conceited, older cousin “America”. Vern Thiessen’s play Lenin’s Embalmers, produced by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre and running at the Al Green Theatre at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre until November 21st, 2010, reminded me that infusing our history with this sort of humour and dramatic irony not only makes the learning of it more gratifying, but it also can become a wry commentary on the absurdity of past political infrastructures and emancipates specific moments concerning relationships and overall ambiances from the complex and intricate historical web of facts, dates and technical minutiae.
Lenin’s Embalmers is a work of fiction, but its basic storyline about two Russian Jewish scientists who were chosen to embalm the body of Vladimir Lenin after his death in 1924 is historically accurate and based loosely on the book of the same name by Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson, translated by Barbara Bray. Thiessen chooses to tell this story in a very Brechtian way, with characters speaking directly to the audience, their lines overlapping one another with a driving rhythm amid the ominous and tumultuous world of the Russian Revolution on the brink of instability as power is seized by Joseph Stalin, that director Geoffrey Brumlik has created with the help of Guido Tondino, Victoria Zimski and Danny Carroll. As the fourth wall is continually being broken, the audience is simultaneously offered a joke or witty one liner, which helps to humanize the conditions of this time in history and reflects humour’s connection to suffering and the power it is able to give to the oppressed, while also creating a Verfremdungseffekt, or Alienation Effect, from whence we are encouraged to think critically about these characters and the political circumstances out of which they have been immortalized, or, in the case of the two embalmers, nearly forgotten.
Indeed, Lenin’s Embalmers is a play very much concerned with the concept of preservation, not only of the body of one particular man, but, even more significantly, the preserving of ideas, memories and Stalin’s desire to perpetuate a myth of Lenin as a God, one who would always remain visible and vital to the lives of his people, in the hopes that upon his own inevitable death he would be remembered, worshipped and grieved over in the same way. In this way, Lenin, played by the very graceful and charming Harry Nelken, weaves throughout the play like a ghost, truly unable to leave the world from whence he has departed despite his desire to rest in peace.
Circling around Lenin under the guise of two secret police officers is the cyclical regime of Joseph Stalin, where his rules and logistics of government are changed often and by whim, but the result, of terror fed by paranoia and the purging of resistance in even its most innocent forms, remains the same. David Fox gives a chilling and formidable performance as Stalin, capturing perfectly the terrifying unpredictability of his nature as well as his unwavering and absolute power over all aspects of life and death. Fox has a particularly incredible moment upon learning of the death of Trotsky (by his own orders in a deliciously terse telegram to an assassin in Mexico) where he simultaneously reflects on the atrocity he has committed while also savouring the favourable consequences of his greatest threat suddenly being removed from his shadow. Fox holds the audience entirely captive for every moment he is onstage, filling each silence with the potential for bloodshed.
Janine Theriault plays a myriad of different women, all named Nadia, which suggests that, like the cyclical nature of revolution, perhaps all women, whether ambitious intellectuals with a thirst for scientific knowledge or a spendthrift wife eager to take on a lover, are relegated to the same story in Stalin’s world, as the keepers or betrayers of their men’s secrets, but without the freedom to become their own unique protagonist.
Our protagonists for the evening are surely, as the play’s title suggests, Lenin’s two embalmers, the jolly, opportunistic lover of society Boris Zbarsky, played by Martin Julien, and the more reclusive, morose, hardworking Vladimir Vorobiov, played by Hardee Lineham, who has a genius for science and a weakness of vodka. Julien and Lineham have unmistakable chemistry and create a friendship which runs thicker than blood, but is also seeped in deep rooted resentment, jealousy, bitterness and betrayal. These dynamics make Boris and Vladimir simultaneously magnetic and volatile which is fascinating to behold. It is interesting also that, as with Stalin’s duplicitous stance on anti-Semitism, it is left entirely ambiguous whether the fact that Zbarsky and Vorobiov were Jewish prompted their eventual demise, or if they were simply becoming too big for their britches and therefore a threat to the dictator’s supreme control.
Geoffrey Brumlik’s direction is predominantly brisk, with all the actors remaining in almost constant movement on and off the stage building the momentum as Stalin accumulates his power, yet, perhaps the most interesting part of the play is the choice to depict the lengthy embalming process and to do so in complete silence. For a society obsessed with forensics, glued so often to television programs like CSI, this sequence is captivating simply in its realism and its detail; but I was also struck by how natural the silence was as the two scientists were working. This became a bit forced, I felt, when something went wrong and the silence turned for a moment into more of a mime, but it settled itself nicely once the task was completed and Julien was able to communicate a monologue’s worth of words with the simple rise of his eyebrows.
As a teenager I found it helpful to deflate the mammoth egos of history and to impose my seventy years of foresight onto the events of the past so I could understand them on terms that I understood. I feel that Thiessen, through his humour and his wit, does the same with the characters of Lenin’s Embalmers. In thrusting them into our laps, commenting on their own story as though watching their circumstances through the eyes of the twenty first century, we become both oddly connected and yet also set apart, as though we are all spirits, like Lenin, staring down at the bodies of the former figures of humanity searching for a laugh and striving to remember.

Lenin’s Embalmers plays at the Al Green Theatre at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (750 Spadina Avenue (at Bloor Street)) until November 21st, 2010. For more information or to book your tickets please call 416.366.7723 or visit www.hgjewishtheatre.com.

Riveting Stuff is Happening At the Royal Alex

nigel shawn williams with hardee t. lineham, david fox and sarah orenstein (2008)

The old adage “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” is vividly on display in the Studio 180 production of David Hare’s play Stuff Happens presented by Mirvish Productions at the Royal Alexandra Theatre until December 23rd, 2009.
This play catapults its audience right into the centre of the Oval Office in the moments before September 11th, 2001 and with gripping urgency thrusts itself into the world of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice and Blair as they launch the world into the War on Terror and then curiously shift gears from one strategic quest for Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan toward the ultimate invasion of Iraq. It is largely a piece of Verbatim Theatre, as Hare has successfully woven the plot together with real excerpts from political speeches, interviews, diaries and other sources within the public record, and it is continually difficult to differentiate between that which is historically accurate and that which has been concocted by the playwright. What is so striking is how Hare has captured such a sense of urgency, such a driving and riveting pulse while ultimately he is telling a story that is so familiar to us all. We are watching a recreation of events that we all lived through, whose effects still shape the world we live in each day. There is no suspense and no opportunity for a surprise ending. And yet, Hare’s choice of words, the manner in which he chooses to cast light on each individual player, and his dramatic and shrewd sense of timing makes Stuff Happens an intensely compelling evening at the theatre.
The performances in this production are absolutely top-notch. It is fantastic to see fifteen Canadian actors filling the Royal Alexandra stage and each one of them is at the very top of his/her game. Sarah Orenstein gives a beautiful performance as a Palestinian academic who has one of the most poignant monologues in the play about how often those who have been continually victimized and whose history is besieged with oppression and brutally so often in their liberation and redemption become the captors and the oppressors of others. Paul Essiembre is wonderful as the shrewdly perceptive Dominic De Villepin who refuses to allow diplomacy to grant the United States a UN supported free access pass into Iraq solely for its own ambitions and political agenda. Karen Robinson plays Condoleezza Rice as, primarily, George W. Bush’s translator, who acts like the White House’s referee and keeps her own opinions on all matters strictly to herself. She captures Rice’s poise and sense of propriety beautifully and is equally proficient in capturing her rare self-righteousness expressions of anger. Hardee T. Lineham plays a Dick Cheney who broods quietly throughout most of Act I and then seizes his moment, seemingly blinded by pure, dark visions of power dancing like machine gun wielding Sugar Plum Fairies across his consciousness. Lineham and David Fox (as Rumsfeld) have a chilling moment near the end of the play where all pretenses are thrown to the dogs and these two men speak candidly about their personal reasons for wanting to go to war in Iraq. Andrew Gillies captures Tony Blair’s tense nervous sense of decorum amid chaos fantastically in a portrait of a man whose pursuit of lofty humanitarian ideals ultimately proves the theory that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
David Fox is brilliant as Donald Rumsfeld, with absolutely perfect physicality and Fox captures his vocal quality with unbelievable precision. Michael Healy inhabits the role of George W. Bush so entirely, he becomes nearly unrecognizable. He has the former President’s vocal timbre down so perfectly, if you close your eyes you may be tricked into thinking that you are listening to a prerecorded presidential speech. Healey’s performance was also distinctly hysterical, both in the quotations that Hare chose to include in the play and in the actor’s flawless delivery. Stuff Happens is a play filled with some of the strongest personalities in recent history, and I could see that in different productions of this play different performances may stand out as being the “starring” role. In Toronto, the star is undeniably Nigel Shawn Williams as Colin Powell. Williams gives such an impassioned performance as a man torn between his moral instinct to do “the right thing” and his commitment to respect and dutifully obey the orders from his government. Williams has all of Powell’s dignity, his intelligence, his strength and his humanity and it is fascinating to contrast Williams’ Powell, who is so filled with emotions and feelings and genuine concern, with all his American colleagues who are dangerously devoid of them. Joel Greenberg directs the play with vivid creativity and the utmost precision. The production is clean, sharp and has all the professionalism of a tightly-run meeting in the boardroom.
Stuff Happens is a gripping play and for any one who opposed the Iraq invasion, who objected to the Bush Regime and the choices of the Republican Party of the United States of America, this play reaffirms the position that the choice to defeat Saddam Hussein and destabilize his country was not rooted in humanitarian efforts or directly linked to the 9-11 attacks. It turns Cheney and Rumsfeld into villains and makes fun of George W. Bush at every opportunity. While I found this fun, I also found myself asking if Hare’s play wasn’t a little bit *too* one-sided. Yet, as much as I deliberate on the issue, I am at a loss for what exhibition of virtue Hare could have injected into his Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush to make them more complex and sympathetic. The one complex issue that this play raised for me was one that I had not previously encountered: should the United Nations have supported America’s invasion of Iraq, not because it agreed with the mission, but because with the support of the rest of the Western World, the Iraqi people may have been better provided for throughout the insurgency. This question has percolated in my mind since last evening and remains one for which I do not have an answer.
There is a monologue near the beginning of the play in which a frustrated journalist (played by Essiembre) rants that we are so “Western” in our need to debate and to intellectualize the methods of every political decision. Stuff Happens is an incredibly “Western” play, but it is one that seems to suggest its own limitations, its own bias and one that refuses to accept the rhetoric that was created to sell a war, to mobilize an army and to invade a country which has killed between 94,349 and 102,949 innocent Iraqis. The curtain may have fallen on Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice and Blair; may it, like in Hare’s play, now rise on Iraq and the country’s need for relief from the devastating consequences of America’s “War on Terror.”

Stuff Happens plays at the Royal Alexandra Theatre until December 23rd. Call 416.872.1212 or visit www.mirvish.com for tickets and more information. For Discounts use the following codes: $25 Equity tickets with the code EQUITY and 25% off for all with code STUFF25.

This Blackbird is Dark but It Might Not Provoke You

It seems like everyone these days wants to be provocative and the mandate of Studio 180 , whose play Blackbird is playing until April 4th, 2009 at the Berkeley Street Downstairs theatre, is to provoke a dialogue in the audience long after the curtain call. The issue I am having is that I’m not sure I would categorize David Harrower’s play as “provocative.” I will try not to give too much of the plot away, as I think the production gains much of its momentum and power from information being revealed in the moment. That being said, Blackbird without a doubt tackles social taboos and situations that audience members may find disgusting, offensive, off putting, or that might make them feel a little queasy around the belly button. But, I don’t think the subject matter is necessarily shocking or as closeted as it may at first appear, after all, this was all covered, and very eloquently, poetically and controversially, by Vladimir Nabokov in 1955. 1955!! And as a girl who has read Nabokov’s novel and who adores it, despite the nauseated feeling it gives her by times in the belly, I felt that I recognized Blackbird straight away, I could see where it was going, and I felt as though I had heard it before and had thought about the moral ambiguities before and that Harrower wasn’t offering up anything new that Nabokov hadn’t already launched into my brain. Am I too hard to provoke now? Have I really seen it all? Nothing shocks me anymore?
That said, David Harrower is an extremely proficient playwright and his dialogue is as disjointed as an After Liverpool scene, but far more poetic. There are explosive moments, high stakes all build around pain, anger, shame, passion and confrontation. Dark humor sits amid heartbreak and the characters slide between seeming entirely genuine, rational and realistic, and being utterly absurd and perverse. Michael Gianfrancesco’s garbage laden set immediately roots the audience somewhere seedy, a place where people are overrun with rubbish and lives have exploded into mounds of crap. The play is well directed by Joel Greenberg, Studio 180’s Artistic Director, in particular, a blackout fills the theatre with remarkable tense eeriness, and then everything turns on a dime with the entrance of Samantha Somer Wilson. Greenberg makes no attempt to tie the play up into a neat little package, or to provide the audience with a moral compass to help them navigate through these characters’ journeys.
Hardee T. Lineham is brilliant as Ray, a man obviously guilt-ridden, filled with shame and self-loathing, who has tried ardently to bury his past mistakes and repress his questionable emotions and desires. It is unclear though throughout Lineham’s performance, how successful Ray has been at quelling the beast inside of him. He is entirely ambiguous and the audience is never sure when he is being heartfelt and genuine, or whether he is a very skilled liar. Jessica Greenberg plays Una, a traumatized woman who still reacts as though she were a very little girl, with a very limited spectrum from which to choose her responses. She struggles to grow up, to put her past behind her, but she is stuck. She is an immature girl unable to decide whether she wants to take the steps toward maturity or to stay in the ambiguous world that has caused her so much pain, confusion, and ecstasy. Greenberg and Lineham both have the ability to fuse their characters with so much confusion and contradiction, without making them appear sloppily portrayed.
It is nice to see theatre companies not shying away from material, that although it was thrown rather unabashedly into the world of literature in 1955, is still gritty, taboo, and that can stimulate fruitful discussions about morality, sexuality and consent. The performances in Blackbird are absolutely worth seeing, and who knows, you may even find the show provocative! Blackbird plays at the Berkeley Downstairs Theatre until April 4th, 2009. 26 Berkeley Street. For tickets please call 416 368-3110 or visit http://www.studio180.ca/