Rest in Peace Jonathan Crombie

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jonathan crombie as gilbert & megan follows as anne shirley

I was shocked and very saddened this past weekend to hear the tragic news that Canadian actor Jonathan Crombie, best known for playing Gilbert Blythe in the Kevin Sullivan/CBC miniseries Anne of Green Gables, passed away in New York of a brain hemorrhage on April 15, 2015. He was only 48 years old.

One of the things that most people know about me is that Lucy Maud Montgomery and I are kindred spirits. She has had an incredibly profound influence on me, as a writer, a Canadian and a woman, since I was a little girl. Perhaps it’s because my grandparents were both born on Prince Edward Island, but the connection that I feel to Maud and her stories is ardent and seems to only tug firmer on my heartstrings as I grow older.

One day at the beginning of Grade 3 the friends that I played with at recess decided that they wanted to play “Anne of Green Gables,” and, to my horror, I realized that they, for some reason, all knew what this was, and I did not. This meant that they quickly called dibs on playing Anne and Diana and Josie Pye and I got stuck playing Marilla. I had no concept of who Marilla was, beyond that her name rhymed with gorilla and my friend Sarah (with a H) told me that she was the mean, old lady Anne lived with. Needless to say, I spent a few miserable recesses playing “Anne of Green Gables” trying to get a handle on the nuance of my character, and desperately wishing I had some sort of clue as to what these people were supposed to be like.

Soon afterwards, for my eighth birthday, my best friend Melissa, handed me the olive branch I was looking for, a VHS tape of the Kevin Sullivan CBC Television miniseries Anne of Green Gables (1985) starring Megan Follows. I went home that night and immediately watched it with my mother and I was entirely enraptured. This was not my introduction to Lucy Maud Montgomery, I had dutifully watched Road to Avonlea every Sunday since it premiered in 1990, but it wasn’t until I watched Anne of Green Gables that those two worlds collided for me. Of course, as a little girl, it was Follows’ Anne who I idolized and I began to name the trees in our yard and borrowed phrases like “the depths of despair,” and often I would express myself in dramatic flourishes of heightened, unbridled emotion, like a very young heroine in a Melodrama. Clearly, it was Anne Shirley who pointed me resolutely toward the theatre.

Yet, it wasn’t just Follows’ Anne that made this movie so special, it was that every aspect of it was absolutely pitch-perfect- from the sweetness of Richard Farnsworth’s Matthew (who, coincidently always reminded me so much of an older version of Melissa’s dad), to the hilarious Patricia Hamilton’s scandalized Rachel Lynde to Colleen Dewhurst’s heartbreaking Marilla, so full of subtext- even at eight years old, Dewhurst made me proud to play that part on the playground. I loved them all. And of course, if you are eight years old and you idolize the young female protagonist in a movie and she has a love interest, he just HAS to be the most perfect young gentleman in the world to be worthy of her… and that was, without a doubt, Jonathan Crombie.

There was such a kindness in Crombie’s Gilbert, a kindness that, I think, even surpassed the way Montgomery characterized him in the novel. At the beginning of the movie he has the cockiness of a smart, indulged boy in a small town, in a small schoolhouse, and he initially tries to win Anne’s attention by showcasing how brazen and coy and confident he can be, by calling her “Carrots.” This, of course, lands him with a smashed slate over his head. Anne is stubborn and proud in her assertion that she wants nothing more to do with Gilbert Blythe, but there’s always something gentle in Crombie’s Gilbert’s lingering attention to her and a sense that he’s reconsidered how best to try to connect with a girl- a timeless lesson. He respects her as his intellectual equal, and he encourages her, even while her wild passions drive him a little crazy, to reach her dazzling potential. He does this while simultaneously rooting Gilbert in the Canada of the early 20th Century, and the Canada of the 1980s. This integrity and respect, along with his boyish charm made girls all over the World fall in love with Gilbert Blythe.

I have seen Anne of Green Gables The Musical over fifteen times and I have seen Anne and Gilbert twice. I have seen many wonderful actors play Gilbert Blythe, but the Gilbert in my heart is always Jonathan Crombie.

I always feel a little badly when a Canadian actor, like Crombie, has a resume filled with impressive theatre credits and yet his or her legacy is hinged on one television or film role, that made him or her well known to those outside the theatre community. I wish that I had seen Crombie at the Stratford Festival, or doing sketch comedy or Improv, or as Man in Chair in The Drowsy Chaperone, or in Arcadia (which I can picture him doing so perfectly!). It saddens me that that is not an experience I will ever have. I feel sheepish that I learned more about Crombie’s career in reading about his death than I knew when he was alive. I wish we didn’t wait to honour and celebrate the careers of Canadian actors, especially those who have made most of their lives in the theatre. I wish we followed our own performers’ careers more like we are forced to follow American actors’ lives, whether we want to or not.

In the outpouring of grief and shock on Facebook of the great many people I know who knew Jonathan as a friend and a colleague most have had the same words to say about him: that he was sweet and kind, funny and humble and smart. To all of them, and to his family, I send my deepest condolences.

Like Lucy Maud Montgomery, who has lived on through her glorious works of art, so will Jonathan Crombie go on to enchant thousands of others through his earnest and playful portrayal of Gilbert Blythe for many decades to come.

In my heart, Jonathan Crombie, you are forever young.

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Cloud 9: A Comedy of Multiple Orgasms

blair williams and ann-marie macdonald
There’s a quote from Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye where he says, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it” (18). That’s exactly how I feel about Caryl Churchill’s plays. Her play, Cloud 9, which plays at the Panasonic Theatre until February 21st, 2010, is a wild orchard of contemplation and a deep labyrinth for the deconstruction of provocative images and layers of complex and overlapping ideologies of gender and colonialism.
Alisa Palmer’s Canadian production, presented by David Mirvish, reminded me of what it was that first ignited my zest for Contemporary Theatre. Cloud 9 is a play that, even after studying it in University twice, still has the power to leave my head spinning with, perhaps unanswerable, questions. It seems that the more ardently one delves into its meaty core; the more layers materialize in a sort of intellectual orgy of conflicting ideas. Yet, what immediately struck me in the transition from the page to the stage, was how much of Cloud 9’s charm lies in its humour and how vigorous and vivacious this play is in its constantly hilarity.
The play opens in Victorian Africa and focuses intensely on the relationships, hierarchies, divisions of power and constructions of identities of the extended family of Clive, a British colonial administrator. His wife, Betty, is played by a male actor to exemplify how Clive has fashioned her in his own image in the quest for “the ideal woman.” Joshua, Clive’s African servant, is played by a white actor, as a reflection of the Western World’s policy of “civilizing the savages” in Africa. Clive’s young son, the effeminate Edward, is played by a woman, while his daughter, Victoria, is played by a doll (meant to be seen and not heard, and is utterly reliant on others). The play also confronts the discriminatory nature of infidelity, as it is viewed as unforgivable for a woman, yet inevitable for a man, and explores the taboos of homosexuality and emphasises how absurd it is for Victorian men to condemn homosexuality when their misogynistic principles favour the “sacred comradery of men.” The second act of the play opens in England one hundred years later, although only twenty-five years have passed for the characters, and here Churchill explores the dynamics of relationships and societal interactions when Victorian conventions are broken and individuals claim the freedom to construct their own rules and their own identities. Here, not having fixed roles or ideologies to subscribe to leads to more overt clashing of opinion, crippling confusion by the overwhelming endless options that each character faces, and the smashing down of the walls of taboos such as homosexuality, unrestrained sexual activity, and incest.
Alisa Palmer’s direction of this play is quite Brechtian, which works well in conjunction with the construction of the play itself, and creates a nice distance for the audience to reflect on Churchill’s perceptions rather than simply escaping into the emotions of the characters. Palmer makes especially great use of stylized, sharp movements, which the cast often do in tandem, which emphasises the rigidity and ritualization of even the most mundane things within the Victorian experience. In many ways the characters in Act I are automatons who often behave in prescribed ways without much consideration or forethought. Conversely, the characters in Act II are often confronted with the difficulty of having to think too much. Palmer does not shy away from the raw unpleasant underbellies of humanity that Churchill so frequently exposes, and boldness and crassness are flung with absolute vigour and no apologies. At the same time, Palmer also protects all the sweetness, and the gentle, pure moments that Churchill has woven craftily into the fray. This production is one that encourages analysis, but will not leave you cold-hearted or unaffected by your journey into in this world.
One of Alisa Palmer’s greatest accomplishments in this production is her remarkable cast. They work together as a flawless ensemble that commit so fiercely to their characters so they are able to instantly captivate the audience. Blair Williams is particularly effective in striking a balance between Harry, Clive’s friend the explorer, as the roguish, daring, “masculine” explorer and his repressed urges to express his sexual desire for men. Yanna McIntosh is incredibly starched, stern and reserved as Betty’s mother, Maud, and then just as malleable as the grown up Victoria. Ben Carlson’s Joshua is fascinating and brave, and he shows off a strikingly gorgeous singing voice as Gerry with Paul Sportelli’s brilliantly catchy “Cloud 9” song. David Jansen is perfection as the brutish, boorish Clive, and then oddly endearing, if slightly disturbing, as explosive, opinionated five year old Cathy. Evan Buliung gives an incredible performance as Betty, with such nuance as she flies from tedium to delight and back again throughout the act. His Edward in Act II brilliantly mirrors Betty’s gentle disconnect from the world around her, although Edward proves his own strength and resolve to create a place of his own where he will belong.
Megan Follows and Ann-Marie MacDonald truly surpass even perfection in their performances in this production. Follows plays two roles in the first act, which means that backstage she must be in constant state of costume change. Ellen and Mrs. Saunders could not be more dissimilar and Follows finds the humanity, the humour and the integrity in them both despite the fact that Ellen, as a shy, young domestic, tends to fade into the background while Mrs. Saunders, a rebellious, promiscuous woman of the world, dominates every scene she is in. It is in the second act, however, as Lin, a free-thinking lesbian single parent, that Follows shines brightest. She has such strength and conviction, while it is still obvious that Lin is damaged and struggling against her own issues and insecurities. Lin’s humanity bursts from every pore of Follows’ body in a fascinating performance. Ann-Marie MacDonald is heartbreaking as young Edward, a boy who craves attention from his crush, Harry, and longs for the permission to play with his sister’s abandoned doll. MacDonald’s Edward feels every possible emotion in Cloud 9 and shines with vulnerability and innocence and shows how quickly adults can snuff out a child’s exuberant light and how dangerous this is for their bourgeoning sense of self. She is equally brilliant in Act II as Betty, a woman who prattles incessantly without saying anything worthwhile and who must work to learn how to engage herself in a world she allowed a man to take from her, and to acquaint herself with the woman she allowed her husband to suppress. Watching Ann-Marie MacDonald throughout this play is to watch a true master of the craft of performance.
“Cloud 9,” as Alisa Palmer writes in her programme notes, “is a phrase that evokes utopia and the pursuit of happiness,” and it makes me incredibly happy that such a thought-provoking Canadian production of this play is being produced in Toronto by David Mirvish. They are “simply divine in their silver Cloud 9.”
Cloud 9 plays at the Panasonic Theatre (651 Yonge Street, Toronto) until February 21st, 2010. For more information please visit www.cloud9toronto.com or www.mirvish.com or phone TicketKing at 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333.  If you would like to take advantage of special discount tickets (and really, who wouldn’t!?), book online and use the promo code CHURCHILL.

Top Girls: You’re the Top! You’re Napoleon Brandy

British playwright Caryl Churchill said in an essay that she published in 1960, “playwrights don’t give answers, they ask questions.” Her play Top Girls, which was recently revived by Soulpepper Theatre, definitely provides the framework to encourage some tough- yet stimulating- questions to be debated by audience members in the lobby, and possibly all the way home.
The play was written in 1982 as a comment on the tensions between two contrasting forms of feminism- the individual and the collective- raising the question whether it is possible for a woman to be successful in her career while maintaining a healthy relationship with her family. The issues raised in the play are complex and incongruous and do not contain any one simple solution even by 2008 standards. It left this third generation feminist with simultaneous feelings of frustrated despair, cautious pride, and a gritty determination to go out into the snowy night and have faith in her future as a young woman poised to at least try to fulfill her lofty dreams.
The first scene of the play is a dinner party held to celebrate Marlene (Megan Follows), who has just received a promotion at the employment agency where she works. Her guests of honor are all prominent and controversial (and dead) historic or legendary women. The scene is obviously fictitious within the context of the otherwise realistic play, and is implied to exist within Marlene’s subconscious- either in a dream or her imagination. The marvelous women performing in Soulpepper’s production bring various degrees and interpretations of strength to this dinner party- from the forceful Pope Joan (Ann-Marie MacDonald) who will interrupt anyone, to the guff Dull Gret (Liisa Repo-Martell) who manages to command the stage although she is often the only one not speaking, and Patient Griselda (Cara Pifko), whose unwavering patience, loyalty and confidence in her decisions is simultaneously frustrating and striking. The women speak overtop of one another filling the theatre with a medley of voices and accents (especially amazing are Kelli Fox’s Scottish accent and Robyn Stevan’s Japanese accent) and opinions- drowning one another out, challenging each other and forcing the audience to sacrifice one narrative for another.
Some of my Ontarian classmates who have been privy to more of these sorts of productions than I have, strongly criticized Alisa Palmer’s direction of this scene saying that she allowed her actors too much shtick, which counteracted the strong social commentary this scene ought to have. It seems to me, however, that the heightened performances in this scene work well to establish the dream-like state and are consistent not with the way these women actually were in their lives, but how they exist in Marlene’s mind. In reality, is Marlene actually having a dinner party by herself? Is she drinking copious amounts of wine? Is this hallucination a product of her drunkenness?
I also find Churchill’s choice of women to be particularly interesting. Isabella Bird, Pope Joan, Patient Griselda, Dull Gret and Lady Nijo are not stereotypical figures in history, in feminist teachings, or in popular culture. I found myself compelled to Google each of them when I returned home from the theatre. This speaks wonders of Marlene, that her education and breadth of knowledge expended so far that these would be the women she would invite to dinner (as opposed to, say, Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc).
In the Second Act we are introduced to two young girls, Marlene’s niece, Angie, (Liisa Repo-Martell) and her friend Kit (Cara Pifko) who dramatize poignantly how important it is for girls to have strong mothers, which connects with the admission of all the “top girls” at the dinner party that none of them had strong connections with their children. This scene is truly magnificent. Repo-Martell is brilliant as the deeply frustrated Angie interweaving disturbing images of hatred and violence, with innocent vulnerability and a strong desire to be liked and naïve admiration for her aunt. It is obvious that Angie has potential, but that she needs special encouragement and guidance in order to realize it. It is also clear that she will receive neither. Cara Pifko is superb as the younger Kit, a clever girl who looks up to Angie with exuberance simply because Angie is older than her, but who cannot understand why Angie is so disturbed. I give special shout out to Pifko for the way she runs up the stairs on all fours as she exits one of the scenes, as it is a beautiful homage to childhood that may too-soon slip an adult’s mind.
The formidable final scene between Marlene and her sister Joyce is the most gripping moment in the entire play and proves without question why Megan Follows and Kelli Fox are such giants of the Canadian Theatre. Fox creates a nuanced portrayal of Joyce, who on paper can seem even colder and more heartless than Marlene, who has been saddled with all domestic responsibilities and whose stress, despair and economic hardships has eroded any admirable ideals she may have once possessed. This leaves the audience to surmise that Angie is “not gonna make it” because neither of the women in her life have the energy it will take to help her, and thus she will most likely follow in Joyce’s dreary footsteps.
Similarly, Follows gives a glimpse of heart to the ruthless and selfish Marlene, a woman who has sacrificed her family for her career and yet finds herself craving familial relationships once she’s established herself as an independent woman. I will watch any show that Megan Follows performs in because she always brings such integrity and strong intelligence to every part she plays. The struggle between Joyce and Marlene in Top Girls epitomizes the entire play as two strong, talented and intelligent women portray two equally strong, complex, frustrating women who raise issues that audiences can sympathize with and tactics that audiences can find deplorable. It is a rivalry between sisters that dramatizes a rivalry between women of different classes, races, cultures, religions and opinions on feminism. How can we stand together and demand better for ourselves when each woman and her circumstances are so vastly different?
Caryl Churchill raises the questions. It is our responsibility to strive to live the answers.