A Big Fish In a Hilarious Pond*

stacy smith & jeremy webb

JEREMY WEBB is a magical word in Halifax; it brings people to the theatre. His newest play Fishing has been charming audiences since May 2012 and it comes to Chester Playhouse for a short run this summer July 31st to August 3rd.

Fishing chronicles the misadventures of Paul Fisher, played by Jeremy Webb, as he attempts to wade through a sea of bad fishes in the often depressing, destructive and hilarious world of Online Dating. The play works on two levels. The first is that Webb is very gifted at writing dialogue jammed packed with jokes in a way that doesn’t feel artificial and also, that much of the comedy comes from the interaction between Webb’s “Fish” and a multitude of zany nightmare dates played by the magnificent Stacy Smith. The second, and the aspect that I really appreciated, was the ending, which I won’t spoil for my readers except to say that Webb doesn’t just slap an obvious happy ending on his protagonist, but instead offers some real insights into the reality of finding love in your 40s after your heart has been broken, your marriage has failed and it seems as though you are destined to be alone forever.

There are certain performance elements that fans of Jeremy Webb anticipate when they attend an Off The Leash Show and Fishing does not disappoint. There is a lengthy and very silly “I’m alone in my living room and may even be hallucinating this” dance sequence, several karaoke numbers, a few popular culture references, Improv with the audience and Webb’s signature British charm woven well throughout. Like Webb’s character in Shakespeare On Trial, Stacy Smith plays a multitude of extreme caricatures and so much of the delight comes in watching her change her costume 25 times and continually coming back onstage with another fresh, dynamic and terrifically quirky character.

Smith has created some Saturday Night Live-worthy characters in this play, and it is really interesting to see Webb playing the straight man to her constant insanity. I especially loved her drug dealer club hopper and her cake baking stalker. There is a really great dynamic as well between Fish and his best friend/boss Sonia, one that reminded me a bit of the “I Love You/ Your shirt’s ugly/I need you/ Honey, what are you going to do with your hair?” relationship between Grace and Karen on Will & Grace. I think the hilarity between these two can be pushed even further to the comic limits and that Sonia can be even more biting in her retorts to “Fish” because their chemistry is apparent enough to allow for her to be meaner without ruining the sense of deep friendship.

Alexis Milligan directs this play very cleanly, with brisk comic timing, a lot of playfulness and a good use of a space that alludes to a multitude of venues simply but effectively. With the variety of characters played by the same actor coming and going, Milligan’s clear and precise direction ensures that the audience never becomes lost or confused. The other fantastic element of this show is the technology. There is one point where “Fish” fills in his profile on an online dating site and it is projected on the screen in a beautifully meta-theatrical way. It is magical and sharp and pokes great fun at an experience that a great many people have had.

If the Internet had existed when Seinfeld was on the air it is very likely there would have been an episode very similar to Fishing. Whether you’re an avid fan of Jeremy Webb or someone completely unfamiliar with his work, I urge you to check out this charming little show.

Fishing plays at Chester Playhouse (22 Pleasant Street, Chester, Nova Scotia) July 31st-August 3rd 2013 at 8:00pm with a 2:00pm matinee August 3rd. Tickets are $18.00-$28.00 and are available by visiting this website, or calling 902.275.3933 or toll free 1.800.363.7529 or visiting the Box Office at 22 Pleasant Street in Chester, Nova Scotia.

*Interview re-posted from May 19, 2012. 


I’m Not Sure What’s Going On…

elizabeth richardson

Going On, the Canadian premiere of a new play by Canadian actor Elizabeth Richardson is the last of the Supernova plays to open at Eastern Front Theatre’s annual festival and it has its final performance tomorrow at Neptune’s Studio Theatre.

I found this play to be a challenge. Elizabeth Richardson is a highly acclaimed and accomplished Canadian actor and her writing and the imagery in Going On is beautiful, but for some reason I found that, as a performance, the play just coasted along the surface rather than submerging me into the characters and the emotional arc of their stories.

Richardson offers up two disparate and continually alternating narratives, one takes place in 1978 at the beginning of her acting career when she is cast as the understudy for touring productions of Uncle Vanya and Present Laughter starring Peter O’Toole. The second takes place over twenty years later and focuses on the impact that her decision to go on a year-long Shambhala Buddhist retreat had on her relationship with her elderly mother. Both narratives offer opportunities for great fun and humour. I loved her audition rendition of Noel Coward’s “Don’t Put Your Daughter On The Stage, Mrs. Worthington.” Throughout the retreat there is a great tension between the expectation for serenity and Richardson’s fury at how boring silence and meditation can be and how much she is missing every single other thing in the world.

Perhaps what kept me so detached from Richardson’s performance was that I had so many questions about the way she had chosen to construct the show and the way that Linda Moore had decided to stage it. First of all, I wasn’t entirely certain why Richardson had chosen these two specific times in her life and what effect she was trying to procure by bringing the two of them together. What was the significance of Uncle Vanya and Present Laughter beyond just being the beginning of her career? How do these plays, and her experience in them, connect to the themes of Buddhism and a Buddhist retreat? I thought perhaps a stronger parallel may have been made between the idea that once an actor is in front of an audience, if the performance is to fly, she needs to be grounded in the moment, arguably inhabiting Eckhart Tolle’s NOW. Yet, this wasn’t deeply explored.

I wasn’t sure if when Richardson was performing the roles that she was understudying in 1978 she was performing them consciously as an inexperienced twenty one year old whose character choices were funny caricatures of Coward and Chekhov, but far from being performed the way one would expect from a professional in a tour headed to Broadway. If this was a deliberate choice, I wasn’t sure how that connected to the rest of the piece. To make matters even more confusing, as “Liz,” the character telling the story, Richardson doesn’t seem vocally grounded. Her voice is very affected and “actor-y,” which makes the parts of the play that are the most personal and with the most potential to be moving seem more like narration than something genuine and from the heart.

I wondered why so much of the portrayals of the other characters in the piece were done almost entirely with the voice and just one stylized physical trait rather than inhabiting the whole body. This seemed like a deliberate choice, but I was unsure about the intended effect. For me, it made the characters seem stuck, unable to come alive, and some of the voices of the minor characters were so generic that they didn’t create any impression of individuality at all.

Ultimately, I felt uncomfortable between the disparity of the experience that I was having and the intentions that Richardson seemed to have for the show. Initially, I was able to appreciate Going On as a humorous show with some great industry jokes and some impressions of clichés that are easily recognizable within the theatre community and likely with those who have a better knowledge of Buddhist teachings and practices as well. Yet, once Richardson began trying to take me to a much sadder and deeper place, I felt like the material did not allow me to connect to these people as three dimensional individuals. I was suddenly made very aware of the hollowness between the text and the performance and the show began to lag.

I am very interested to follow this play’s future journey. I know, undoubtedly, that there is a play in this material; I am just not sure if Elizabeth Richardson has found it quite yet.

Going On plays one more time at Neptune Studio Theatre (1593 Argyle Street, next door to the Argyle Grill) on Sunday May 20th at 7:00pm. For more information or to book your tickets please call 902.429,7070 or click this link.

This Is Cancer & Laughter Is Pretty Good Medicine

bruce horak as cancer

Festivals like Eastern Front Theatre’s Supernova Festival are terrific for fostering new Atlantic Canadian work but they are also equally exciting for providing the opportunity for Halifax audiences to see world-class productions that have toured to great acclaim across the country and around the world. This year, Supernova brings us Bruce Horak’s brilliantly funny show This is Cancer from Toronto, which sold out its runs at the Edmonton Fringe Festival in 2010 and 2011 and won Horak a Betty Mitchell Award for his performance in Calgary in 2007. This show will most likely be a Festival Sell Out so you should all do your best to book your tickets right away and make sure to come down to the Neptune Studio Theatre this weekend because you will not want to miss this once in a lifetime opportunity to meet Cancer face to face.

This is Cancer is a bouffon show, essentially the darker and more grotesque side of clown, where Bruce Horak transforms himself into a personification of the deadly disease, who looks a bit like a demonized hobo version of Lumiere from Beauty and The Beast. Cancer wants nothing more than to seduce you and to be loved and adored by his public. The interesting part of this show is that despite his lumpy and sinister outward appearance, cancer is oddly charming with his smooth British accent and affable charisma. Cancer is suave in his ability to sing witty little songs (reminiscent of Danny Elfman tunes in Tim Burton films) about how “coo coo” he is for us and our brains and our lungs and our colons and our stomachs and our esophagi and our eyes. Cancer makes us laugh despite the fact that he is, in fact a murderous bastard, who has probably taken someone that every single person in the audience loves far too soon. And yet, we still laugh.

One of the things that makes CANCER so ominous is that it feeds off what we don’t know. There is nothing tangible to fight, nothing to shake our fists at but our own bodies, but here, Horak has made Cancer into something concrete that we can shout at and boo like the villain in a melodrama, or, as in the case of one lucky audience member, we can pelt him with pool noodles and watch him cower and fall to the floor. We are given some control and an object to direct our anger, sadness and fear. In being able to laugh at cancer, we empower ourselves, and that becomes beautifully cathartic.

The show was written by Horak and the show’s director Rebecca Northan and together they have done a terrific job of juxtaposing a great bit of dark comedy with truly moving and honest moments that keep grounding this show back in its more somber roots and then quickly bringing the audience back toward the laughter. Bruce Horak is a cancer survivor, having kicked the ass of bilateral retinoblastoma when he was just a baby, which left him legally blind. He also lost his father to the disease several years ago. This very personal story is woven cleverly into the narrative of the performance.

Horak is a brilliant performer. His ease in improvising with the audience creates an environment where the unexpected is always possible and most impressive of all, he imbues Cancer with so many wonderfully human attributes that he becomes a fascinating three dimensional character. At times the audience is empathizing with this hideous being that everyone hates and rejects, sometimes he is delightfully playful and childlike, sometimes he is a stand up comedian on fire, and at one point he takes Charlie Rhindress, Festival Artistic Producer, hostage. One of the most moving moments of the show for me was when Horak, as Cancer, paid homage to Sammy Davis Jr. while doing an impression of him singing “Mr. Bojangles”. It was an incredibly tender moment. Cancer’s defense of his heinous actions is always that he loved people, often literally, to death and it is so superbly apparent during this number that he is lavishing Sammy with love through his music. It’s a lovely moment that becomes more disturbing as you think on it.

As a director, Rebecca Northan has shaped this show like something of an old Vaudeville Cabaret, an ambiance that works perfectly to showcase Cancer the Celebrity. Horak’s movements always seem entirely spontaneous, he makes great use of all the space afforded to him and the musical numbers, with musical direction by Waylen Miki, are choreographed with panache and gusto. He is aided in his endeavours by his lovely assistant Lucinda, played with perfect comic timing and sexiness by Christy Bruce.

Ultimately, This is Cancer is a play about inspiration, about the way we choose to live our lives while we are here, rather than expiration, and the joy in that is both welcome and contagious.

If you would like further proof of Bruce Horak’s awesomeness, don’t just take my word for it: check out this interview with him and Cancer on CNN!

This Is Cancer plays at the Neptune Studio Theatre (1593 Argyle Street, next door to The Argyle Grill) as part of Eastern Front Theatre’s Supernova Theatre Festival at the following times:

Friday May 18th at 9:00pm

Saturday May 19th at 7:00pm

Sunday May 20th at 2:00pm.

For more information or to book your tickets please call 902.429.7070 or click this link right here. You don’t want to miss this one!

I, Animal, I Like.

richie wilcox, ingrid risk, antonio cayonne, kathryn maclellan & stewart legere

A large crowd came out last night to the Opening of Daniel MacIvor’s new play I, Animal, presented by Kazan Co-Op as part of Eastern Front Theatre’s SuperNova Festival. It runs at Neptune’s Studio Theatre until Sunday May 20th and then heads to Toronto’s SummerWorks Festival in August. You should all stop reading and order your tickets now, because this is absolutely a Festival sell out and you won’t want to be disappointed on Sunday Night.

 I, Animal is comprised of three characters who each connect to the audience through a beautifully crafted monologue. Of all the great playwrights in this country, and there are many, I think Daniel MacIvor is the master of creating the most vividly profound and poetically irresistible monologues in the theatre. What continually amazes me about MacIvor’s writing is that he is able to write hilariously and perceptively about the human condition with an obvious literary sophistication and yet it always seems to come from the depths of the truth of each of his characters, whether they are a nurse, a high school student or a worldly woman in her prime.

Our three unnamed protagonists, Man in Scrubs, Boy in Hoodie and Woman in Prada, are not obviously connected to one another. They do not share the stage at the same time and their stories do not intersect. The relationship that builds throughout I, Animal is the relationship between each of these three with us in the audience. Yet, there are a few recurring themes to tie these stories together. The man, the boy and the woman all speak about their love for a particular animal and they each comment on the beauty of the moon. As MacIvor’s title suggests, the fact that we are all animals and interact with other animals in a myriad of different ways, along with our communal experience of the moon, is something that binds not only these three people together, but all of humanity.

The man, the boy and the woman each tell us a story, but they are all very specific stories, told about one particular time in their lives. So, rather than experiencing the full journey of someone’s narrative or the “most important” moment of their lives, we are dropped right into the middle of a story, one that may not necessarily be THE story, for a limited amount of time and then our perspective is shifted into the life of someone else. I loved this delicate balance that MacIvor maintained of giving us enough of a taste of these three individual personalities to be captivated and invested in what happens, but also that he leaves us wanting to get to know these people better, to hear more of their stories, eager to see what happens next.

Monologue-based plays require exquisite actors and I, Animal has three. Antonio Cayonne plays Man in Scrubs, a nurse who identifies as Queer, as well as Halifax-born with a Jamaican mother. Too often we see stereotypes of sexual orientation, race and ethnicity in film, in theatre and on TV, and it is so refreshing to see that in bringing these three things to one character, through Cayonne a unique individual is born. Man in Scrubs is the perfect example of how much more fascinating individuals are to watch onstage. There are beautiful complexities, contradictions, surprises, great humour and unmistakeable humanity at play here and it makes his story so compelling to experience.

Stewart Legere plays Boy in Hoodie, a music aficionado who loves photography but got into a heap of trouble for a photo of a cat he once posted on his website. Legere brings a beautiful innocence to this boy, a sweetness surrounded by a shell of shy indifference. He also has this lovely restless energy and a slight mischievous streak to him which makes his boyishness all the more endearing. Kathryn MacLellan plays Woman in Prada, an easily exasperated wealthy powerhouse woman of the world who finds herself in an airport with gorgeous luggage unsure of what she is leaving and no idea where she is going. One of my favourite things about watching Kathryn MacLellan is that she is not afraid to push her characters into the terrifying waters of absolute vulnerability. There is a moment at the end of the play when she begins to laugh and cry simultaneously and it is just effortless. As an audience member you really feel like you are witnessing a real moment unfolding, nothing canned, no tricks, just a spontaneous moment of the beauty of life. That is brilliant theatre. The best part about MacLellan doing MacIvor characters like Woman in Prada is that there is an immediate tension between that gorgeous inherent vulnerability and the chic, sleek, confident and urbane facade of the character. It is this tension that hooks you immediately and keeps you clinging along for the ride.

Likely thanks to Daniel Brooks my immediate connotation with Daniel MacIvor’s plays is people (or a person) in a room in deep darkness. The director of this production, Richie Wilcox fulfills my expectations to great effect in this piece, with the talents of lighting designer Ingrid Risk. I think one of the reasons that keeping the stage intensely dark works so brilliantly for monologue-based shows is that it channels the audience’s vision toward the person who is speaking. They become swathed in the darkness and suddenly it doesn’t matter how big the stage or the theatre, the room shrinks and you are immediately on intimate terms with the people who are telling you their stories. Wilcox also manages to create a shared ambiance for these three unaffiliated characters, their stories and their shared themes without it ever seeming contrived or obvious.

I, Animal is a beautiful play beautifully done by a Halifax-based company. I am sure that it will be received very warmly in Toronto this summer, so I hope that you all will run to check it out while it is here through the weekend!

I Animal plays at the Neptune Studio Theatre (1593 Argyle Street next to The Argyle Grill) as part of Eastern Front Theatre’s SuperNova Theatre Festival at the following times: For more information or to book your tickets please call 902.429.7070 or click right here

Thursday May 17th at 9:00pm

Saturday May 19th at 2:00pm

Sunday May 20th at 4:00pm

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