You Are Scared

tabitha keast
photo by karen braaten
Toronto’s Alumnae Theatre was founded in 1919 by women graduates of the University of Toronto, at a time when Torontonians had little opportunity to see theatre of any kind. The Little Theatre Movement, as the development of these Amateur or Community Theatres was called, was inspired by the advent of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and the resurgence of Irish Nationalism that accompanied the work of Lady Gregory, W.B. Yeats and John Middlington Synge as well as the decline of “The Road,” the touring shows that came to Canada along a number of different American circuits after the rise in popularity of film, along with advent of the First World War. Today, Alumnae Theatre is still dedicated to presenting the best in classic and contemporary plays and to provide opportunities for all women in theatre. Its 92nd Season kicks off with a production of Daniel MacIvor’s play You Are Here which plays until October 9th, 2010.
I had a very unique experience watching this production because I could perceive a widespread blanket of trepidation and hesitance, stemming not only from all the actors, but also from the director’s choices as well, that seeped into every aspect of MacIvor’s play. Daniel MacIvor is a bold playwright who often tackles dark themes and characters struggling to resist or conquer their demons and certainly You Are Here, my personal favourite from the MacIvor canon, is no exception. Alison, a journalist, and her best friend Richard, unravel before our eyes into coked-out drunken messes of despair, anxiety and emotional crises. The play is gritty, but also has the potential to be exquisitely beautiful simultaneously and also, of course, entirely devastating.
Tabitha Keast plays Alison and she has created her to be a strong and endearing protagonist. There are particular moments in the play where the rhythm of her speech and her interactions with the other characters spring vibrantly to life. For example, the tone that she adopts when speaking to a University professor she detests and his girlfriend, her nemesis, Connie Hoy, is brilliantly deadpan and an instant switch from the more casual dialogue she has with Richard. There is a beautiful moment between Keast and Alyssa Quart, who plays the actress Diane Drake, where in an interview Alison manipulates Diane into recalling her first feature film as a child, Santa’s Postman. Quart shines brightly in her portrayal of Drake, exuding both a cool, confident aura of exclusivity and a far more vulnerable sense of being somewhat damaged.
Yet Keast seems to continually hit a wall which inhibits her from really leaping into the dark and frightening territory that Daniel MacIvor is leading her. This trepidation starts at the beginning when Alison, in classic MacIvor style, has a long, rambling, poetic monologue that is meant to be delivered directly to the audience. Keast gives life to MacIvor’s words, but insures that the third wall remains between her and her public, and thus there is no connection between Alison and those with whom she is sharing this intimate story. Keast, and all the performers in this play, also seem remarkably shy with one another. Sexual dynamics are essential to the construction of this play because, essentially, everyone wants to fuck nearly everyone else, and often with a fiery, lustful rawness. It’s not that these actors don’t have chemistry with one another, but even from the audience, a palpable respectful distance is maintained between them which makes the relationships fall a bit flat. This also makes certain aspects of the play a bit unclear since it is the sexual tension between Alison and Richard that makes the ensuing drama so tragic, and also the sexually charged atmosphere between Diane and Jerry is crucial to create a sense of anxiety as Alison watches the ending of her marriage march purposefully toward her. Will O’Hare gives a great performance as film director Thomas Roman, he captures the character’s passion for film and his torment between a desire to create art and his need to fulfill his financial obligations, but O’Hare could also benefit from pushing himself into seedier territory and for the spark that he feels toward Diane and Alison to smolder intensely so that the audience can see and feel his desire for them melding with his ardor for filmmaking, so that art and sex become synonymous with one another.
Paul Hardy directs You Are Here just as tentatively. He glosses over the aspects of the play that are the most disturbing and the most graphic. It is almost unclear when Richard, Alison and Justin are doing cocaine because the drugs are only ever passed quickly between two of them once, rather than simply being a natural presence in the environment. There is a blow job sequence that Hardy chose to cut altogether and the actors haven’t been pushed enough into the dark crevices of this world to find the depth of meaning that makes this play so poignant. In general, Hardy’s direction could be bolder, all the characters, especially Richard, tend to pace aimlessly and there are two visual sequences involving the spilling of substances from a glass and then a bottle, which have the potential to be powerfully stunning moments of theatre, but here they are rushed and lack the strong artistic vision needed to make them work.
In all, I think that the actors involved in this play are generally quite talented and that the production shows a strong potential toward creating well-polished and riveting theatre. I understand that Alumnae Theatre, with its rich history, does cater to a specific demographic and that, for this reason, the powers that be may be inclined to want to censor certain aspects of the plays they choose as to not offend these patrons. Yet, I think that too often theatre artists underestimate their audience’s sensibilities and that it is always a stronger choice to be brave and to delve wholeheartedly into the depths of the world the playwright has provided for us. It is only by unshackling the actors that the director can watch them fly.

You are Here plays at Alumnae Theatre (70 Berkeley Street) until October 9th, 2010. For more information or to book your tickets please call 416.364.4170 or go online to www.alumnaetheatre.com.

This Tightrope is a Little Bit Wobbly

Tightrope, a play by R.J. Downes currently playing at the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace in the Toronto Fringe Theatre Festival, explores the familial dynamics of a travelling circus and seeks to reveal the dysfunction of the grimy underbelly of an institution built on entertaining audiences and making people laugh.
The story is a predictable one. A young girl named Sheila has been born into the circus business and has found herself quickly ensnared by her alcoholic father and her frigid philandering mother when suddenly a charming young stranger arrives to inspire her to seek the freedom to pursue her own ambitions.
There is much in this play that works. Downes excels particularly well in his evocative monologues; there is an especially interesting prologue in this play, a perverse fairytale about the decay of the universe, which I wished had been featured more prominently in the rest of the piece. Sheila, played with a nice balance of sweetness and defiance by Stephanie Seaton, has an utterly endearing relationship with her father, the circus’ lion tamer, which I thought could have been a more central aspect of the story. Will O’Hare plays the father with such richness that I wanted his emotions and his experiences to have more of an impact on the narrative. Adam Seybold plays Mark, the young stagehand who comes to rescue Sheila from her cage, and like with O’Hare, there is something in Seybold’s performance that gives Mark the potential to be more than a thinly disguised solution to Sheila’s problems.
Director Kate Fenton makes good use of levels, although at times it is difficult  for her to convey the perils of the tightrope walker both symbolically and effectively. June Morrow seems to be struggling with her portrayal of Sheila’s mother, a character without a single redeeming quality that borders on being utterly devoid of humanity. Morrow has watered the Ring Mistress’ bitchiness down, but perhaps the character would be more gratifying for the audience if Morrow instead embraced and accentuated her vileness and truly committed to her role as despicable villainess.
The most wonderful aspect of Tightrope is an incredible performance by Richard Beaune as a mute stagehand named Dodo who performs three magnificently charming and delightfully compelling mimed clown routines which capture the very best of the circus spirit. Dodo is the beating heart of this play, and I think the show would benefit greatly if all the actors had such unique and strong characters to play.
In all, I think Tightrope has a lot of potential for further development, but in this version it is for Richard Beaune’s scenes that I would recommend the show.
Tightrope plays at Theatre Passe Murialle (16 Ryerson Avenue) at the following times:
Thursday July 1st 8:15pm
Friday July 2nd 1:15pm
Monday July 5th 8:30pm
Tuesday July 6th 1:00pm
Friday July 9th 4:00pm
Sunday July 11th 8:30pm
All tickets $10 at the door or book in advance by calling the Fringe Hotline at 416.966.1062 or online at www.fringetoronto.com.

Hutton and Higginson Make Lear the King

peter higginson

Jeremy Hutton’s production of King Lear playing at the Hart House Theatre is a beautiful epic theatrical event. The first few moments of the production play like a movie with fascinating lighting effects (designed by Joshua Hind) and an intense soundscape (designed by Jason Browning) so aesthetically stunning you won’t want to blink in fear of missing a moment.

In Lear, Shakespeare’s characters are deeply embedded in an unsettled world where uncertainty leads to terror, which ultimately leads to death. The fear creates the illusion of blind madness where the innocent appear guilty, the politics are saturated in lies, and webs of deceit and betrayal are woven to preserve self-interest, wealth, power and land. The choice of play seems pertinent given the instability of our own political situation and that of our neighbors to the south.
 
Hutton’s direction is beautiful and exciting and the fight choreography by Jeremy Hutton and Christopher Mott is as captivating and exhilarating as a scene in a film. There is a particularly horrifying scene involving Cornwall (Philip Lortie) and Gloucester (Thomas Gough) which combines intelligent, crisp, simple staging with a crowd of servants reacting with extreme revulsion that sends shivers down the spine. Hutton may overuse his fun lighting effects slightly, as at times it does seem as though he is divorcing the character’s aside thoughts too much from the rest of the play. However, the lighting design works well to suggest this unstable world, and the disconnect between reality, and the skewed perceptions festering within the characters’ minds.
 
The performances in this production are so rich, and the lines are spoken with such clarity that one is able to really appreciate how gifted William Shakespeare was with words rather than feeling alienated, overloaded with pretentiousness, or awkward about actors stumbling over iambic pentameter. Some standouts include Lada Darewych, who plays the cold as ice Goneril without a hint of mercy, Will O’Hare who infuses the play with broad much-needed humor that remains within the realm of Jacobean fools and the traditions of carnival and Neil Silcox who infuses Edgar with a rich emotional journey from confusion to feigned-madness to anguish and despair. Benjamin Blais is deliciously wicked as Edmund, the young bastard son, who continually repels the audience’s inclination toward sympathy or pity, while slyly defying them not to enjoy his villainy. Thomas Gough is perfection as Gloucester; his performance is stunning and at times breathtaking, and it is balanced beautifully by the phenomenal portrayal of King Lear by the brilliant Peter Higginson. Higginson was born to play this role and I feel truly lucky to have been there to witness his performance.
 
King Lear is a story about the madmen leading the blind, where none but the fool speaks true. In honor of the fool, the player- the actor- who dares to speak truth amid the blindness and madness in the world, support Hart House Theatre and feast your eyes on a truly terrific production.
 
King Lear plays at Hart House Theatre until October 18th, 2008. 7 Hart House Circle. Toronto, Ontario. 416 978-8849 or visit http://www.harthousetheatre.ca/.