Now Magazine Reviews

“George Brown Theatre Ends its Season with a Pair of Stylistically Contrasted Productions”: Ring ‘Round the Moon & The Rose Tattoo
By Jon Kaplan, April 2014

The George Brown Theatre season ended with the 2014 graduating class presenting a double bill of Christopher Fry’s translation of Jean Anouilh’s Ring ’Round The Moon and Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo, running in rep. The shows closed Saturday (April 19).

Ring 'Round plays with the idea of doubling; its central figures are a pair of twin brothers who couldn’t be more dissimilar or, in this staging, funnier.

Anouilh’s plays, many dating from the 1940s and 50s, can have an old-fashioned mustiness, a quality of preciousness that doesn’t touch today’s audiences.

But in the hands of director Sue Miner and the young actors, this production has the air of a light romantic comedy. It plays well, moves swiftly, and generally succeeds in entertaining and making the audience feel for a wide range of characters.

On the eve of a ball at a French chateau, twin brothers Hugo and Frederic (both played by Alessandro Costantini) have some troubles. The shy Frederic loves Diana (Charlie Gould) and has been sleeping in the rhododendrons outside her window; the manipulative Hugo, who has no trouble wooing women, thinks Diana is wrong for his brother and concocts a plot to break up their relationship.

He forces Romainville (Michael MacEachern) to invite young ballet dancer Isabelle (Fiona Sauder), whom Romainville fancies, to the ball, with the intention of having Frederic fall in love with her.

The plot, filled with ruses, disguises and mistaken identities, moves along with entertaining briskness under Miner’s direction. She’s included a number of choreographed scene changes and some physical business that help develop the characters.

The cast, clearly enjoying themselves, play the comedy with the right delicacy, never turning it into farce, while underlining the differences between the social classes.

There’s lots of acting to admire here, including Gould’s snobbish, jealous Diana; Nicole Buscema’s Lady India, a relative of the twins who loves excess of any kind and the thrill of romantic danger; Matt Shaw as her fearful lover, forced to play Isabelle’s jealous suitor; Stephan Ermel as Diana’a father, a millionaire who’s not always happy with his money; and Michelle Langille, performing with a touch of Carol Burnett as the brothers’ haughty mother who’s wiser about the affairs of the heart than she initially appears to be.

Adam Pellerine turns the minor role of a butler into a scene-stealing part, not only with his command of language but also with his reactions to the silliness around him.

Sauder’s serious, practical Isabelle starts intentionally quiet and diffident in this upper-class world, but comes to life during the action, and she’s a moving figure by its end.

But it’s Costantini who drives the show, defining the identical twins vocally and by the way he holds himself. Frederic speaks slower, almost drawing into himself, while the impetuous, self-confident Hugo is brash, bites his words and is more confrontational with others. The dual performances, rich and complementary, help make this a memorable production.

Jackie Chau’s set is effectively airy, and Erika Connor’s costumes, especially the ball gowns, are a delight. It’ll be hard to forget Gould’s red dress, with an added bow so large it could cover the CN Tower.

Williams' The Rose Tattoo, in which a troubled widow decides to take a romantic gamble, starts more slowly than the Anouilh. Serafina Delle Rose (Tiffany Deobald) loves her truck-driving husband passionately but is unaware of his affairs and that he's a smuggler. When he's killed, she mourns for three years, protecting both his memory and the honour of her daughter, Rosa (Lee Ann Ball), especially when a young sailor (Jack Everett) appears in Rosa's life. Finally made aware of her husband's philandering, Serafina starts to trust her own feelings for Alvaro (Warren Macaulay), another Italian truck-driver and a man who reminds her of her dead husband.

When Alvaro appears on the scene, the show becomes more touching and engaging, with Deobald blossoming into a rich figure; her scenes with Macaulay are among the production's best.

Under director Todd Hammond, the female chorus of neighbours and gossipy outsiders -- among them Buscema, Langille, Sauder and Kasey Dunn -- shines throughout.

“Winning Wife”: The Country Wife
 By Jon Kaplan, February 2014

There’s probably no wittier or bawdier play in the English language than William Wycherley’s Restoration comedy The Country Wife.

In George Brown Theatre’s production, director Alan Dilworth catches the right combination of elegance and speed in the story of Horner (Adam Pellerine), a London rake who spreads the rumour that he’s impotent, thus reassuring the noble husbands in his circle that it’s safe for their wives to spend time with him. The women, more determined to protect their reputation than their virtue, are only too happy to go along with the deception.

Add to the plot Pinchwife (Stephan Ermel), a jealous newlywed; young Margery (Alina Kouvchinova), the title character, his naive but fun-loving and curious bride; his upright sister, Alithea (Fiona Sauder), wooed by both the foolish Sparkish (Alessandro Costantini) and the more loyal Harcourt (Jack Everett); and a slew of wives and daughters happy to partake of Horner’s company and the comedy is nicely set up.

Dilworth winds up the action with care, moving the story along quickly. He’s especially successful at the end of the production’s two acts, increasing the speed and revving up the laughs.

Pellerine shows us the sensual side of Horner as well as his trickiness, while Costantini’s broad performance proves an audience favourite as the ass who thinks he’s a wit. Sauder’s Alithea has great presence, the actor handling text and emotions expertly. Though Kouvchinova captures Margery’s plainspoken nature, the character’s innocence often feels forced.

Other standouts are Kasey Dunn as Lady Fidget, one of Horner’s lovers, who helps dupe her husband, Sir Jasper (Matthew Shaw), about Horner’s illness, and LeeAnn Ball as Alithea’s tart maid, Lucy.

Jorge Sandoval’s design includes touches of contemporary clothing at the start, but by the second act we’re in full period mode, complete with wigs and beauty spots. The British accents also intentionally snap into place here. It’s as if the first act gives us a view of these characters unadorned and then, when we know what they’re really like, dresses them not only in 17th-century costumes but also with the hypocrisies they present to the world.

And we loved seeing, on Valentine’s Day weekend, Sir Jasper innocently reading NOW’s Love & Sex issue while Horner was in an adjoining room diddling three women, including Sir Jasper’s wife.

 "Wilde Insights" : An Ideal Husband 
 By Jon Kaplan, November 2013

Oscar Wilde is best known for the clever epigrams in his plays – not just The Importance of Being Earnest but also more serious social comedies like Lady Windermere’s Fan and A Woman Of No Importance.

Director James Simon catches just the right balance of laughs and emotional truths in An Ideal Husband, George Brown Theatre’s season opener. The show closed last Saturday (November 16).

Up-and-coming politician Sir Robert Chiltern (Warren Macaulay) conceals an indiscretion from his youth: he sold a state secret, and that made him rich. Years later, at a party in his fashionable Grosvenor Square home, he’s blackmailed by Mrs. Cheveley (Nicole Buscema), an elegant woman fully aware of his action. He’s staunchly protected by his wife, the morally inflexible Lady Chiltern (Charlie Gould); she insists she could only love a man who is a model in both public and private life.

Also figuring in the central action are Lord Goring (Matthew Shaw), the Chiltern family’s friend, dubbed “the idlest man in London” and a dandy whose almost every line is a witticism; his father, the Earl of Caversham (Stephan Ermel); and Mabel (Lee Ann Ball), Sir Robert’s sister, who anticipates becoming Goring’s wife.

Buscema, flirtatious and dangerous, and Gould, believably innocent and sympathetic when she becomes desperate, spark whenever they’re onstage together, their characters’ enmity fed by the fact that they were enemies at school. It’s hard not make Chiltern a stiff figure, but Macaulay does the best he can, especially in moments of passion. Shaw delivers Goring’s witticisms with elegance, but just as importantly he knows how to step out from behind the mask of droll boredom to reveal his concern for those he wants to protect.

Ermel has the gravitas for the senior statesman, and there’s some dry comedy from Michael MacEachern as Goring’s butler and Fiona Sauder as a jaded society woman.


“Fond Fun”: The Fond Husband
Now Magazine, February 2013

It’s rare to see the production of a play we’ve never heard of, so we didn’t know what to expect from George Brown Theatre’s A Fond Husband (Or The Plotting Sisters), a 1676 play by English writer Thomas D’Urfey.

Better known for his songs, D’Urfey was also a playwright during the Restoration, a historic period of newfound license, in morals and other areas.

A Fond Husband, a tale of libertines, cuckoldry, amorous plots and counterplots, is a fast-paced work with over a dozen characters trying to bed or fool one another.

Under the guidance of Shaw Festival actor and director Blair Williams, the production is a treat: funny, well acted and filled with surprises as to who’s going to best whom.

Its central characters are Bubble - Matthew Pilipiak and his wife, Emilia - Kelly Defilla. She’s sexually pursued by and encourages Rashley - Ryan Bommarito, right under the nose of her husband; the gullible Bubble even invites Rashley to live with them. At the time, “fond” didn’t mean “affectionate” but rather “foolish,” and Bubble is certainly that, pooh-poohing every piece of evidence of his wife’s affair.

Pilipiak is a wonderful figure of fun, his verbal and intentionally large physical comedy a treat, and Defilla uses big-eyed, innocent expressions to keep him in the dark. Some of her best scenes are period bitch fests with Bubble’s sister, Maria - Merritt Crews, the comedy aided by the difference in their heights and the gunshot sounds of fans flicking open and closed. On the surface a censorious upholder of morality, Maria in reality lusts after Rashley herself and plots with another of Emilia’s admirers, Ranger - Graeme Black Robinson.

This is the kind of play in which the person with the sharpest wit usually wins the day; it’s filled with clever and entertaining putdowns, which the young cast put across with confidence as they draw fully realized characters. There’s memorable work, too, by Alexander Offord as the old, deaf, licentious Fumble (actors his age rarely capture such a convincing portrait of old age), Scott Farley as Sneak, a dull-witted, reluctant wooer, and, in a bright cameo, Gabriella Colavecchio as Mrs. Snare, whom Sneak’s gotten pregnant.

David Wootton’s costumes are as bright as the performances in this rarely seen work filled with sex, vengeance and laughs.

“Dinner With The Folks”: Saturday, Sunday, Monday 
Now Magazine, November 2012

You get a sense of the culinary focus of Saturday Sunday Monday, the first show in this season’s George Brown Theatre season, as soon as you walk into the theatre: the air is full of the smell of onions cooking.

Eduardo de Filippo’s comic drama, adapted by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, centres on the well-to-do Priore family’s Sunday meal. Set in 50s Naples, the first act (Saturday) begins with cooking and sets up the play’s various characters and often strained relationships, not least between father, Peppino - Alexander Offord, and mother, Rosa - Gabriella Colavecchio.

He’s jealous of the attention she’s getting from neighbour and friend Luigi Ianiello - Michael Man; she’s upset that her husband’s been distant for the past four months.

When you count their three children, one’s spouse, Rosa’s father, Peppino’s siblings and other relatives and friends, the Sunday meal is a huge family affair. It ends in a potentially tragic row, which is resolved the next day.

Director James Simon creates a fine ensemble from the George Brown graduating class and one returning grad; the production has an acting chemistry that’s as necessary to the plot as the proper reduction of the ragu cooking in the first act.

It’s Colavecchio who stands out in the generally strong cast, commanding everyone from the temperamental maid - Erin Eldershaw, to Rosa’s talkative sister-in-law - Merritt Crews, and passive-aggressive husband. We take Rosa’s side in the fight at the climax of act two, even sympathizing with her when she plays the melodramatically rejected spouse in the next.

Adding strength to the period production are traditional Neapolitan melodies, 50s Perry Como songs, striking costumes by Michael Gianfrancesco and a group dance number at the end.

Jon Kaplan

“Williams Well Done”: Orpheus Descending
Now Magazine, April 2012

George Brown Theatre closed its season with Tennessee Williams' sometimes sprawling Orpheus Descending. It’s a pleasure to see the graduating students, under the direction of Todd Hammond, deliver such a strong ensemble production, one that captures most of the script’s moods and passion.

Lady - Tennille Read, has married the older, ill store owner Jabe Torrance - Jeffrey Dingle, after the death of her Italian father in a fire that burned down his bar. What she doesn’t know is that the racist Jabe was instrumental in causing her father’s death.

Enter Val Xavier - Edward Charette, a drifter with a guitar and a shady history; the sparks between Lady and Val are evident from the start.

Add Carol Cutrere - Hannah Anderson, a woman from Val’s past, her brother, David - G. Kyle Shields, from Lady’s, and a Greek chorus of women and you have a variation on the myth of Orpheus, with Val attempting to bring Lady back to life from her metaphoric death in a loveless marriage spent in a hellish community.

The show wouldn’t work without chemistry between Lady and Val. Read and Charette supply it, with a passion that burns slowly but is dramatically palpable.

Read, an actor to keep an eye on, plays Lady’s various notes – jumpy, tender, fervent, uncertain, needy, distrustful – with involving clarity; watch how her protective stiffness melts away when Val finally touches her. Charette captures much of the enigmatic, erotic quality of Val, a difficult character to define. Their first scene together is filled with some beautifully suggestive, lyrical poetry.

Anderson catches the otherworldly and sympathetic in Carol, a visionary and outsider in this community.

The chorus of gossipy, judgmental women is also strong, notably Lesley Robertson as Beulah Binnings, who has lots of exposition to deliver at the top of the show and does so in an engaging fashion; that’s often a hard thing to bring off.

Orpheus Descending, which closed last Saturday, April 21, ran in rep with Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Happy End, directed by Alan MacInnis.

Jon Kaplan

“Mod Man”: The Man of Mode
Now Magazine, February 2012

We rarely see Restoration comedies, in part because it’s hard to pull off the writing’s language and wit; the latter’s a source of both laughter and power in these 17th-century English plays.

George Brown Theatre does a lot of things right in director David Latham’s production of George Etherege’s 1676 play The Man Of Mode. Its central character is the rake Dorimant - Jeffrey Dingle, who’s trying to break off his affair with Mrs. Loveit - Hilary Carroll, with the help of his new amour, Loveit’s confidant Belinda - Celine Peel-Michaud.

The title figure isn’t Dormant, though, but, rather, the pretentious Sir Fopling Flutter - G. Kyle Shields, recently returned from France and full of affectations that he thinks vault him to the height of social and sartorial stylishness. A figure of quirky fun, he’s unwittingly roped into Dorimant’s plan to rid himself of Mrs. Loveit.

But that’s only the start of the love games and triangles, plots and counter-plots. Young Bellair - Mitchell Court loves Emilia - Megan Robinson, and she returns his affection. But his father, Old Bellair - Jordan Probst, falls for Emilia himself and wants to marry his son to a country heiress, Harriet - Anne Cassar, recently come to town with her prim mother, Lady Woodvill - Megan Miles.

Director Latham updates the setting to today – Dana Osborne’s costumes are at times stylish, at times intentionally over the top – and edits the script to add text-messaging, Whole Foods, Givenchy, Botox and other modern references. It works much of the time, but the important wit play is sometimes pushed to the background.

Those who handle the language of this brittle comedy of manners best include Cassar, Peel-Michaud and Robinson, and several other actors – Erin Wotherspoon and Nicole Wilson as serving women and Miles’s staunchly prim (at first) Lady Woodvill – also understand how to deliver the material with style.
Dingle, key to the action, makes a slow start at establishing character, but by the time he confronts Carroll as the mistress he wants to make jealous, there’s fire in his words, which lasts through his encounters with Cassar’s Harriet.

That fire is combined with vocal precision and real presence in Jakob Ehman’s Medley, Dorimant’s best friend. He may be a secondary character in the script, but in this staging he’s especially memorable, a queer figure who knows all the town’s gossip. Described as “the very spirit of scandal” and using his iPhone to take revealing photos of those around him, this Medley fits right into Etherege’s bitchy world as one of the girls.

Jon Kaplan

“Winning Women”: Little Women
Now Magazine, November 2011

There’s strong new talent onstage at George Brown Theatre, which opens its season with Emma Reeves’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

It’s a compressed version of the popular children’s novel, done in storybook-theatre style with the actors stepping out of their roles and narrating what’s happened to their characters and others. The format doesn’t always succeed here, sometimes suggesting the feel of let’s-run-through-this-section-of-the-book-to-get-to-a-more-interesting-point.

Director James Simon, working with the members of George Brown’s graduating class, happily avoids most of the sentimental quality that can envelop the tale of the four March girls – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy – during and after the American Civil War. They’re cared for by their patient mother (nicknamed Marmee), their father is away fighting in the war (in the first act) and all four sisters have different dreams of their future.

It’s structured as a memory play for Jo -Lesley Robertson, the boyish daughter who yearns to become a writer. Robertson grows into the role, giving added layers to Jo as she matures. There’s also fine work by Hannah Anderson as Meg, the eldest, who brings a vivid emotional truth to the part, even in her quiet moments.

Anne Cassar Taschereau’s Amy, the youngest, develops into a much pleasanter figure than the annoying, self-centred girl we meet in the first half. And though she has few scenes, Tennille Read brings warmth and generosity to Marmee, the calm centre of the March household. Too bad there isn’t much scope in the role of the kind, sickly Beth, but Hilary Scott does what she can and never aims for pity.

Another standout is André Morin as Laurie, the playful boy next door who’s caught up in the activities of the March family. His chemistry with Robertson and Taschereau makes their scenes together among the production’s most memorable. There’s another good pairing of actors in the second act, when Robertson’s Jo meets the shy Professor Bhaer - Edward Charette, giving a charming performance.

Jon Kaplan

Graduating Exercises: The Skin of our Teeth & Hated Nightfall
Now Magazine, April 2012

It’s a tradition for George Brown Theatre to throw its graduating class the challenge of a repertory double bill as a final exercise before the young actors leave the school. This year’s two productions closed last Saturday (April 23).

The plays are, in fact, more daunting than usual. Thornton Wilder’s The Skin Of Our Teeth may be a Pulitzer Prize winner from 1942, but even today its story – which moves from the ice age to convention-happy Atlantic City and finally to a civil war in which the men in one family fight on opposite sides – is an absurdist blend of woolly mammoths, bathing beauties, generational feuds and Biblical allusions.

Director Rosemary Dunsmore’s production plays up the work’s theatrical artifice, even giving the story a Toronto connection. Its thematic thread, the indomitability of humankind, resonated during the Second World War and still does today; somehow, even with all the awful things we do to each other and to the planet, we endure “by the skin of our teeth” and, optimistically, life always begins again.

It’s a striking juxtaposition to have Soulpepper’s excellent production of Wilder’s Our Town, another Pulitzer Prize winner, performed in the theatre next door at the Young Centre. Though each play breaks out of traditional theatrical narrative, stylistically the two scripts are markedly different. At the same time, both deal with the continuity of life, a concept that includes death as part of the cycle.

Todd Hammond chose to direct Howard Barker’s Hated Nightfall as a companion piece to Skin. A demanding playwright whose philosophical sparring matches between characters makes audiences think hard, Barker was a favourite of Richard Rose when Rose led Necessary Angel back in the 90s.

As surreal as the Wilder play, Hated Nightfall (1995) focuses on the last days of the Romanov family, guarded by two former servants, Jane, the cook - Geneviève Trottier, and Dancer - Kristofer Van Soelen, the tutor, who awaits the order to kill the deposed royals.

Dancer debates with the family and a series of revolutionaries who arrive from headquarters. Though he seems to be in control – he refers to himself as “the doorman of the century” – he knows that he himself will be put to death and forgotten quicker than his charges.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the writing is the chorus, who pop out of trapdoors in the floor and around more conventional doorways to comment on what Dancer does and argue further with him. Are they his subconscious? His conscience? A group of bloody-minded serfs?

The play rests on Van Soelen’s shoulders, and he handles the language and its rhythms well. His best encounter is with the second trench-coated revolutionary, played by Carter Hayden, who uses silence as well as words to make his points.

Among the nobles, Karen Knox as the czarina offers the most focused performance. A narcoleptic who regularly falls asleep, the empress is a striking figure who offers a well-phrased defence for her actions on the throne. The actor is also a standout in The Skin Of Our Teeth as Sabina, the temptress/maid who tries to seduce the paterfamilias - Kevin Ritchie and supplant his wife - Olivia Marshman.

Jon Kaplan

“George Grads Double Up”: Cock a Doodle Dandy and Clérambard
Now Magazine, April 2010

George Brown Theatre’s graduating class presents its annual double bill, the final shows before grads step into the professional world. 

This year’s productions, Sean O’Casey’s Cock-A-Doodle Dandy and Marcel Aymé’s Clérambard, share a touch of fantasy and a look at the role of women, that role defined by societal (read patriarchal) pressure. Neither play, unfortunately, is a first-rate piece of writing.

Still, several performances and directorial choices counter the script problems.

Cock-A-Doodle Dandy (1949), written several decades after O’Casey’s better-known works Juno And The Paycock and The Plough And The Stars, looks at an Irish household haunted by a black cock, which some see as the Devil incarnate. The penny-pinching Michael Marthruan (Andy Trithardt) worries about the wildness of the women who live under his roof: daughter Loreleen (Katherine Barrell), new wife Lorna (Jennifer Balen) and pert maid Marion (Tal Gottfried), none of whom want to be subservient to Marthruan.

The cock of the title, an actual character, divides the community between those who see him as harmless (most of the women) and the forces of rigid conservatism, led by Father Domineer (Alex Dault). 

Too bad the characters are largely two-dimensional, something director Todd Hammond can’t fully overcome, though the final 20 minutes – when the work’s tone shifts from satiric to starkly tragic – develop some dramatic weight. The four actors who make up the Marthruan household offer the most rounded performances.

Clérambard (1950) is the family name of a noble, centuries-old French family, now penniless. The father (Dault) is a taskmaster who pushes his family to work ceaselessly and kills domestic animals for food. A visit from Saint Francis of Assisi and a related miracle convert the man, turning him to a life of poverty, humility and charitable acts.

Meanwhile, the nouveau-riche Galuchon family want a marriage between one of their daughters (Rebecca Perry) and Clérambard’s son, the Vicomte Octave (Jonathan Brass); Octave’s mother (Leah Holder) and her mother (Alexandra Manea) second the plan. But Octave loves the prostitute Poppy (a vibrant Kate Ross), and the converted father favours his son’s choice.

The story goes off in several strange directions from there, sometimes with cloying whimsy, but director Gina Wilkinson energizes a number of scenes with puppetry and comedy. There’s some good fun in the meeting of the two families, with Balen offering a sharp portrayal of Madame Galuchon; there’s another entertaining episode when Octave and the Galuchon paterfamilias (Justin Goodhand) have an embarrassing meeting at Poppy’s.

The two productions run in rep through Friday, Cock-A-Doodle Dandy tonight and Clérambard Friday.

“Jumping over the Bard” – Love’s Labour’s Lost

February 2010
By Jon Kaplan

At George Brown Theatre School, director Christopher Newton sets Love’s Labour’s Lost in Rio during carnival, creating more pressure for the four central men, led by the King of Navarre, who withdraw from the pleasures of the world. The set, with its complement of hanging tropical leaves, is by William Schmuck.

Shakespeare’s comedy is full of wit involving English and Latin, much of which doesn’t work for today’s audiences. We’re not unhappy, then, that Newton has pruned the text and focused on the quartet of lovers, young people passionately caught up with the opposite sex. One of the strengths of the production is the way it captures the freshness and impetuosity of the youthful characters.

Communicating the poetic language and the relationships between characters is key. As the main couple, Berowne and Rosaline, James Pettitt and Tal Gottfried know how to present arguments and bandy words with each other in a theatrical yet believable fashion.

The performer who stands out is Andy Trithardt as Boyet, servant to the Princess of France (Katherine Barrell, who has a strong scene near the play’s end). Natural in handling the text and the emotions that go with it, Trithardt’s an actor to watch.

Deep Brand
November 2009
By Jon Kaplan

If you’re going to tackle an obscure philosophical play, you can’t do better than bring in Jennifer Tarver to direct.

That’s what George Brown Theatre did for their opening production, Henrik Ibsen’s early poetic drama Brand, about a preacher whose beliefs set him at odds with those around him. The production closed last Saturday.

The script is filled with heady monologues and spiritual questions that don’t necessary translate into strong drama onstage, but Tarver gave theatricality to the talky script, from the opening storm on a Norwegian ice field to the final cataclysm.

Standouts in the cast included Alexandra Manea as a conservative church official who turns the fickle townsfolk against Brand; Carys Lewis as Brand’s wife, asked by her husband to give up most of the things she prizes; and Fraser Elsdon as the self-serving, conniving mayor.

But the production wouldn’t have worked without a powerful title character. Andy Trithardt brought out Brand’s passionate side, as well as suggesting the hypnotic quality of his preaching about the importance of human will rather than deeds.

Tarver made good use of vocal and instrumental music created by the company, and Andjelija Djuric’s abstract design of mountains and wilderness, lit superbly by Steve Lucas, was another plus. That avalanche at the end was unforgettable.

“Brown’s Best”: The Relapse and The Baker’s Wife
By Jon Kaplan
April 2009

George Brown Theatre finished off its year last Saturday (April 18) with two shows for the graduating class: a Restoration comedy and a contemporary musical, both focused on the theme of fidelity.

The first, John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse, gave the 17-member cast a chance to play with language and gesture that are foreign to most young actors.

The central characters are a married couple, the reformed womanizer Loveless (Patrick Kwok-Choon) and Amanda (Norah Smith). Vanbrugh took the pair from an earlier play by another writer and involved them in further intrigues, this time having Loveless tempted by Amanda’s cousin Berinthia (Eleanor Hewlings) and Amanda by the ironically named Worthy (Luke Marty).

Also brought in from the earlier play is the egotistical dandy Sir Novelty Fashion (Daniel Pagett), raised to nobility as Lord Foppington. Much of the play’s comedy involves the plot in which his younger brother (Evan Smith) tricks Foppington out of a rich, unsophisticated country wife, Miss Hoyden (Caitlin Driscoll).

Director Todd Hammond’s production caught the essence of the work’s comedy, and Pagett ably sailed through the sometimes intricate language of Foppington’s self-centred witticisms. Hewlings and Marty made the witty bitchiness of Berinthia and Worthy’s plotting scenes sparkle, while Driscoll suggested energetic naïveté as the liberated Hoyden and Kelly Hoare blustered comically as her suspicious country squire father.

The musical, Joseph Stein and Stephen Schwartz’s The Baker’s Wife, is a charming, small-scale piece about a small French village that welcomes a new baker (Patrick Foran), an older man with a wife (Jamie McRoberts) young enough to be his daughter. When she runs off with the chauffeur (Evan Smith) of the local marquis (Pagett), the baker loses his spirit and his interest in baking, and the breadless townspeople do their best to bring the couple back together.

The simple, uncomplicated story is nicely spiced by composer Schwartz’s clever lyrics, and director Allen MacInnis highlighted them by turning some musical numbers into cabaret turns, complete with standing microphone.

In addition to the central characters, there was good work by Marty as the village’s domineering café owner, Teresa Labriola as his ignored, bitter wife and Amanda Cortes as another woman who realizes that she can only be free if she leaves her husband (Hoare).

“Dickens of a tale” - Laius
By Jon Kaplan
February 2009

It’s been too long since we’ve heard from playwright Ned Dickens.

At a George Brown Theatre production of Laius, the third in Dickens’s seven-play cycle The City Of Wine, we were reminded how powerful a storyteller he is.

The cycle deals with the city of Thebes, best known as the home of Oedipus. His tale comes later; here we meet Oedipus’s father, Laius, first as a put-?upon prince thrown out of the city when he kills the reigning regent with the help of a pair of twins who have their own designs on the kingdom. The second act, 20 years later, shows the bitter, hot-tempered man Laius has become in the nearby town of Elis, and the events that bring him to the throne of Thebes.

Thematically, the play also deals with the struggle between male and female forces, the former loyal to Zeus and the rational, the latter worshippers of Bacchus and the sensual.

In a work with nearly 30 characters, audiences might be forgiven if they lose track of who’s who, especially since there are seven figures with generic names like Firewood, Blood and Bread, played at various times by different male and female actors. But in the hands of director Eda Holmes, it’s easy to sort everyone out.

The 19 member George Brown troupe works as a generally strong ensemble, but some actors stand out. Patrick Kwok-Choon literally weaves hypnotically through the play as the blind, drunken seer Tiresias, blurring past and present. Luke Marty’s Laius is a more compelling figure in the second half, while Evan Smith and Erik Martin give an edge to the duplicitous twins who claim to be the sons of Zeus.

Claire Burns brings a sharp sensuality to Dirce, the regent’s wife, and later the party-girl Blood; Caitlin Driscoll is nicely comic as the self-centred nymph Thebe, who gives her name to the city.

This year each of the cycle’s seven plays receives a production by different theatre schools across Canada; Humber stages Pentheus in April. Then, hosted by Nightswimming, all the companies come to Toronto in May to present two whole cycles at Theatre Passe Muraille. Can’t wait.

"Epic Storey" – South of China
November 2008

By Jon Kaplan

Most theatre companies can’t present large-cast plays unless they have a big budget. But a school troupe like George Brown Theatre can put on a show like Raymond Storey’s epic South Of China, which before now has only been staged once, at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre a decade ago.

Using the graduating class of 17, the show sometimes feels cramped in the small Tank House Theatre, but director James Simon and his young company invest it with lots of energy.

Dealing with a 16-year period beginning in 1925, the play focuses on the Canadian Sam (Adam Cunningham) and the English Cecil (Evan Smith), both of whom travel to Malaysia to begin their professional careers, Sam in the rubber industry and Cecil as a colonial overseer. Linking them is Adelaide (Claire Burns), Cecil’s sister, to whom Sam becomes engaged.

That romance parallels a more covert one between Cecil and his Malaysian houseboy, Abas (Patrick Kwok-Choon), fraught not only with same-sex but also class and racial problems.

Kwok-Choon makes Abas an aware, compassionate friend to his master, while Smith grows over the course of the play, creating a Cecil who believably moves from a self-centred snob to a man who finds his moral compass and proudly accepts who he is.

Burns shows fire and wit as Adelaide to in the first act, though the writing limits her in the second, when she discovers that Sam has taken a native woman (the strong Teresa Labriola) as his lover.

Daniel Pagett brings a knowing wisdom and not a single stereotype to the role of a Eurasian hermaphrodite who acts as conscience to several of the play’s characters.

George Brown Theatre Shows

Jon Kaplan

April 2007

George Brown Theatre School tackled William Congreve's stylish Restoration comedy The Way Of The World. Under director Diana Leblanc, who knows her way around the classics, the company presented Congreve's text with delicious precision, clarifying what can be a dizzyingly complex storyline. It  was impossible not to be drawn into this society of scandals, libidinous desires and the importance of polite, morally unblemished appearance, where status depends on how clever one can be with language. Michael Gianfrancesco's simple, elegant sets and costumes, lit by Steve Lucas, captured the period's feel.

The women stood out in the production, with especially fine work by Laura Schutt as Mrs. Millamant, able to run verbal rings around just about all the other characters to maintain her independence. She was especially sturdy in her flirtatious romance with Mirabell (Ryan Bondy), whom she eventually agrees to wed on her own terms, for she refuses to "dwindle into a wife." Given Schutt's stylish cleverness and her ability to point her words with emotional colours, it was easy to see why this Millamant was at the apex of her social world.

Alex Paxton-Beesley turned the conniving maid Foible into a fine, sharp minx, while Kate Kudelka made the older Lady Wishfort, hungry for a young lover, into an aging drama queen with touches of Ab Fab's Edina Monsoon. Though Lesley Smith's Mrs. Fainall succeeded better with her honest anger than her social wit, Hannah Miller gave the scheming Mrs. Marwood all the cold treachery the role requires.

Bondy's Mirabell was best in his scenes with Schutt, scenes with the occasional undertone of fiery passion; she drew him emotionally into the play in a manner that didn't occur in his work with other actors. I also liked Seann Murray as the foolish Witwoud, with his sense of self-importance and, just as importantly, the actor's sense of how to play the comedy of the piece.

Didn't see Way Of The World? You have two more chances to catch the admirable George Brown company before they graduate. Starting Tuesday (April 8), the actors offer two plays in rep: Federico Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding, directed by Todd Hammond, and John Guare's Six Degrees Of Separation, helmed by Jordan Pettle.

School's Out

by Jon Kaplan

Dec 27, 2007

I make a point of regularly catching productions by local theatre-school conservatory programs, where I have a chance to watch students in their final year and see the talent that will soon be on professional stages. It's a way for me to watch process, just as enjoyable as catching workshops of scripts that will come to fruition somewhere down the road.

I mostly see shows at George Brown and Ryerson, and over the years I've watched the early work of such talents as Ben Clost, Brett Christopher, Julie Tepperman, Aaron Willis, Ryan Ward and Janick Hébert.

This fall George Brown staged Jean Giradoux's The Madwoman Of Chaillot, directed by Jason Byrne, who wowed audiences with his work on the Company Theatre's Whistle In The Dark. Giradoux's script, in which the title character and her friends battle the greed of money-hungry capitalists and lead them to a private dark hell underneath Paris, is too full of whimsy for my taste.

Byrne helmed a spare production with the company in whiteface, and encouraged an edgy physical style. Alex Paxton-Beesley as the paradoxically naive yet wise countess who knows how to deal with evil has a fine stage presence, and I look forward to see how her work develops over the next few years.

Two, By George  

 Jon Kaplan


George Brown Theatre School finished off its season earlier this month with a pair of shows intended to show off the skills of its graduating class.

It's almost a convention that the plays are a classic and a contemporary piece, chosen to display the range of the young actors.

First up was William Wycherley's sparkling Restoration comedy The Country Wife, in which the randy Harry Horner spreads the rumour that he's become impotent due to the clap. Just as he hopes, the town's husbands are happy to leave their wives in his company, even making jests at his expense. But he's the one who hopes to have the last laugh, especially with Jack Pinchwife, who's recently married the innocent Margery, the title character.

Tim Walker's a delight as Pinchwife, with a great command of Wycherley's demanding language, and Marie Jones nicely captures the wide-eyed naiveté of his wife, here a simple woman from cottage country pushed to infidelity by her jealousy-fixated husband. Other standouts in the company are Krista Kehn as one of several women who are happily involved in Horner's scheme, happy to keep their reputations while also having sex, and Wade Bogert-O'Brien as Horner's friend.

Todd Hammond, George Brown's head of acting, helms the companion piece, Sarah Daniels‚ 1988 The Gut Girls. Set in England a century ago, when feminist ideas were being discovered by the working classes, the play focuses on a group of bawdy, hard-drinking, self-sufficient women working in an abattoir, both making a living and generally finding emotional support from their sisters at work. The villain here is Lady Helena, who wants to improve them by means of Bible lessons and undergarments. Eventually she tries turning them into proper maids in service to the upper class, an act that destroys the women's financial and social independence.

Here the memorable work comes from Noa May Dorn as the fiery Maggie, forcibly backed into a marriage she doesn't want; Lise Maher as the unintentionally condescending Lady Helena; and Kehn as the abused wife of a social-climbing property owner (Roger Bainbridge), proof that a woman higher on the Victorian social scale has no more freedom than a working girl.

And again I have to mention Tim Walker, in a small and largely comic role as Lady Helena's helper and inept wooer. Here he strikes just the right note of light comedy, supplying a lovely cameo performance and never stealing focus.

In fact, Walker's stood out in each of the George Brown shows this year - War And Peace, The Winter's Tale and now this double bill. He's off this summer to 4th Line Theatre, but I hope to see him on a Toronto stage in the near future.

Stage Scenes - February 2007

Rare Bard

Earlier this month George Brown Theatre turned its attention to Shakespeare, presenting a play not frequently staged. What distinguished the show was the general clarity of the text work, a key point in bringing a contemporary audience into the Bard's world.

The George Brown show was a late romance, The Winter's Tale, directed by Joseph Ziegler with his usual attention to detail. A tale of anger, potential tragedy and ultimate reconciliation and redemption, the piece has some wonderful characters and a few scenes that are among Shakespeare's best.

After a leisurely opening, the production revved up when Rick Jongejan's King Leontes became mistakenly jealous of his wife, Hermione (Noa May Dorn). Jongejan started his ravings at too high a pitch and had little place to go, though he was more emotionally convincing later on. Dorn had a nice range of emotion, and Lise Maher brought a properly steely quality to Paulina, one of the play's most memorable characters.

Among the other strong performances were those of Roger Bainbridge as the charming rogue Autolycus, involving the audience in his tricks, Tim Walker as the simple and comic Clown. Craig Pike made the courtier Camillo more sympathetic than usual.


Stage Scenes – November 2006

Lengthy War

Leo Tolstoy's War And Piece is epic, so it's no surprise that Helen Edmundson's theatrical adaptation is also supersized; it runs nearly five hours.

But the rich story, set before and during Napoleon's invasion of Russia, justifies the performance length. Director Jeannette Lambermont's production for George Brown Theatre's graduating class, which played earlier this month, had an intentionally filmic sweep.

Staged with the audience on either side of the action, the show swirled from one scene to another and one set of characters to the next. Though at times the feeling was that of never-ending furniture moving, the central narrative involving Natasha (Marie Claire Marcotte), Andre (Craig Pike) and Pierre (Tim Walker) came across clearly.

There were sharp portraits by Noa May Dorn as Pierre's unfaithful wife and Roger Bainbridge as her unscrupulous brother. They were both involved in a striking operatic episode about an attempted seduction, which drew its music from Beethoven's Fidelio.

The cast's standout was Tim Walker, who created a nicely rounded Pierre, at first pro-Napoleon and then one of his bitterest opponents, a character who moved from pleasure-loving naivete to enlightened generosity.

Jon Kaplan

April 27, 2006

Brownie Points

It's fascinating to watch the same cast playing completely different roles in a pair of shows back-to-back. We had that chance with the graduating class of George Brown Theatre School, whose double bill of Charles L. Mee's Big Love and Lanford Wilson's The Hot L Baltimore closed last weekend.

Daryl Cloran gave Big Love, the more plot-driven show, some nice directorial touches. The script is adapted from a classical Greek play in which 50 sisters flee from an enforced marriage to their 50 cousins. Yes, you read right.

Cloran wasn't afraid to go for large emotions and acting in this play dealing with variations on love, and the company threw themselves – in some cases literally – into the work.

Standouts in the cast were Kristan Hendriks as Olympia, the most submissive and malleable of the sisters, swayed by whoever spoke to her last, and Jennifer Harding as her gutsy, Medusa-haired sib Thyona, a woman who has no need for men and nurses murder in her heart.

Taking a viewpoint between the extremes of the other two is Bridget Norris's Lydia, whose relationship with Nikos (Jamie Spilchuk) grows from friendship to passion.

Todd Hammond directed the Wilson work, an ensemble piece that emphasized character work by the cast of 13. Set in a rundown hotel about to be torn down, it ends on a depressing note and is the flip side of Grand Hotel; everyone here is in some way on the skids.

By the end of the play, the company created a sense of an extended dysfunctional family, several of whose members care about the fate of others.

Among the memorable performances were those by Hendricks as a brassy, insecure prostitute and Harding as a shy, retired restaurant server who listens unobtrusively to everyone else's conversations; both women's work was a strong contrast to that in Big Love.

Denise Pinnock was attention-grabbing as a demanding, extrovert prostitute with a big heart, and Ryder Britton won sympathy as the beaten-down, needy brother of a desperate woman (Perrie Olthuis) who plans to make it big out west.

February 2006

The School For Scandal
High Grades!

scandal_2Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1777 comedy The School For Scandal is one of the wittiest plays in the English language. The George Brown Theatre School production captures much of the piece’s smartness, still topical today in its exposure of society’s hypocrisies. Director Miles Potter’s production keenly exploits the play’s language and the graduating class offers a clear reading of the play’s convoluted text. Jennifer Harding makes a playful Lady Teazle, alert to the pleasures of the town but with a soft spot for her cantankerous husband (Derek Paradiso). There’s also much fun in John Bryan’s smarmy, Machiavellian Joseph Surface, a seemingly moral man who tries to ruin the reputation of his brother Charles (Jamie Spilchuk).


April 2005

Marriage A La Mode

"Director Paul Lampert gets maximum mileage from the wit of a quartet of unfaithful, flirtatious lovers played deliciously by Paul Kit, Alison Deon, Eli Ham and Jayne Walling. The set-up alone suggests comedy; the couples are either married or engaged, and each man's mistress is the other man's partner. The standouts are Deon, whose perky character is obsessed with all things French, and Ham, who knows how to give the 17th-century language a clear and modern feel."

Dear Brutus

"Director Todd Hammond gives a nice sense of mystery to the opening act and some comedy to the third, along with a wonderfully moving final scene."

"His ensemble is generally strong, with especially good work by Louis Adams as a failed, drunken painter and Alison Deon as his elegant, discontented wife and former model. There are also entertaining laughs involving a romantically shifting trio: Paul Kit, Lindsay McMahon and Jacqueline Pijper."


Photos by Andrew Oxenham