Archives for July 2017

A Master Class in what, exactly?

The Ensemble Theatre Company is presenting David Pownall's Master Class at the Jericho Arts Centre.

Playing Stalin in Master Class, Tariq Leslie is working David Pownall’s script for all it’s worth—but it’s worth is questionable.

The audience I saw Master Class with was intrepid: most of them returned to their seats after intermission.

In David Pownall’s 1983 script, Joseph Stalin and his cultural commissar Andrei Zhdanov bully the composers Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich for a long and unentertaining time.

It’s 1948 and the artists have been summoned to an apartment, which is heavily wired for surveillance and well stocked with vodka, so that Stalin and Zhdanov can impress upon them the importance of sacrificing their individuality to the needs of the state. “No matter how often I listen to your music, Shostakovich, I can never remember the melody,” Stalin complains to the formalist. Atonality and dissonance, apparently, do not serve the people.

The tension between art, government, and public taste can be downright flammable. Think about this summer’s Public Theatre production of Julius Caesar in New York, for instance, which featured a very Trump-like (orange?) Julius. Right-wing protestors interrupted the show, sponsors pulled funding, the twitterverse had an orgasm, and the National Endowment for the Arts cravenly distanced itself from the interpretation.

But, theatrically, Master Class is dead on arrival: in the first act, nothing really changes. Stalin has virtually all of the power in the room. Zhdanov challenges him occasionally, but he knows exactly how far he can go with that. And the rest of the time, Zhdanov and (mostly) Stalin cajole, threaten, and generally intimidate the musicians. Prokofiev, who has had a stroke, excuses himself to puke in the bathroom, but that’s not what you’d call a dynamic shift.

Act 2 is marginally better in that it has a focus, but that focus is goofy: Stalin insists that the four of them compose some good, healthy proletarian music. “You can’t just sit down and write folk music,” Shostakovich protests, but Uncle Joe will hear none of it and soon offers these inspiring lyrics for their folk cantata: “To him who has been bitten in the liver by a snake/Treacle is better suited than red candy.”

The other slight saving grace of the second act is that Prokofiev and Shostakovich, start to slyly mock the dictator. When Stalin chooses G major for their opus, Prokofiev makes a crack that only Prokofiev understands, about what an inexpressive key that is. Finally, there’s a levelling of the playing field and a hint of dynamic conflict emerges But the underlying joke about ignorant politicians trying to define artistic standards is obvious and it goes on for a long time.

Even though some elements of the script, including “Treacle is better than red candy” feels absurdist, director Evan Frayne has decided that the script is basically serious, naturalistic business. Within that choice, heightened theatrical passages, including the Act 1 closer, in which Stalin and Zhdanov engage in an orgy of destruction, gleefully shattering a large collection of recordings of Shostakovich’s work, feel orphaned.

The actors survive, which is a testament to their skill—and Frayne’s no doubt. I was particularly touched by Chris Lam’s work as Shostakovich. Lam is always emotionally present and his Shostakovich is always bracing for the worst, like a tethered dog who knows he’s about to be beaten. Chris Robson makes a credibly frail and urbane Prokofiev, and—this is a major bonus—he can play the piano. (All four actors are called upon to do so; Robson is the only one who delivers.) James Gill is fine as Zdhanov, although is performance is more artificial than the others.

Tariq Leslie’s portrait of Stalin raises questions that are central to the whole experience. Leslie is a good actor and he gives it his all: his Stalin threatens irrationally, weeps suddenly, and ingratiates falsely. But what the hell are we supposed to make of the character? Besides all of the effort and skill that Leslie is so clearly putting into the role, what would be required to make it really work? Is Pownall’s Stalin a showpiece for a mercurial, charismatic performer? Is he supposed to be terrifying in his unpredictability? Comic in his crude outlines? If the answer is “all of the above”, what kind of style would hold it all together?

I have no idea.

MASTER CLASS By David Pownall. Directed by Evan Frayne. An Ensemble Theatre Company production at the Jericho Arts Centre on Saturday, July 22. Continues in rep until August 16.

To purchase tickets go to

I DON’T HAVE A JOB YET—but I’m building one. Join me in keeping independent theatre criticism alive

Colin Thomas's Fresh Sheet will appear on Theatre Wire.

This girl doesn’t have a real job—not in the sense of a regular paycheque—but she’s working the internet angle (hence the wardrobe). Help support independent theatre criticism. And keep this girl fed. She’s getting too skinny.

Today, I’m thrilled to be launching Colin Thomas’s Fresh Sheet, my collaboration with Theatre Wire, the Vancouver Fringe Festival’s newsletter. Yahoo!

If this venture is going to succeed, your participation is key, so let me tell you about it.

Every week in Fresh Sheet, I will offer curated theatre coverage—local, national, and international—and I’ll highlight my favourite shows, the ones you really need to buy tickets for.

Vancouver’s theatre community needs independent criticism. And I am delighted to see the possibility of making some money, once again, while writing about the art form I love so much. (Baby needs new shoes.)

To pull this off financially, I need your collaboration—but not necessarily your cash.

There are two things you can do: subscribe to the Theatre Wire newsletter (FREE!), and/or buy ads on it (SMART!) [Read more…]

This Drowsy Chaperone isn’t fully awake

Shannon Hambury is playing Janet in The Drowsy Chaperone at TUTS.

In another life, I have legs like this. In another life, I can kick like this. I have not yet lived that life. This is Shannon Hanbury in The Drowsy Chaperone at Theatre Under the Stars. (Tim Matheson photo)

There’s about half an hour of very entertaining material in the Theatre Under the Stars production of The Drowsy Chaperone. The rest of the show ranges between okay and pretty good.

Famously, The Drowsy Chaperone started out as a skit at a stag party in Toronto, then it turned into a fringe play, then it went to Broadway, where it won five Tony Awards, including Best Book and Best Original Score, in 2006. Beat that trajectory.

The Drowsy Chaperone is as camp as Pee Wee Herman. A character called Man in Chair plays a recording of his favourite musical, The Drowsy Chaperone, from 1928. (It never existed.) In the show-within-the-show, an impossibly handsome groom named Robert is about to marry Janet, an impossibly glamorous actress, but, according to superstition, he must not see her on their wedding day. The Man in Chair says, “That’s the whole plot, really.”

But, of course, there are complications. A producer named Feldzieg wants to stop the wedding because, if Janet marries, she will drop out of the show he’s producing and his gangland backers don’t want to see that happen: they’ve sent a couple of goons disguised as pastry chefs to shake him down. The Drowsy Chaperone herself, who is supposed to keep the couple apart, is a tippler who gets entangled with an Italian named Aldolpho who fancies himself sexually irresistible. You get the picture.

To pull this off, you need truckloads of visual style, wit, and heart. This TUTS production has all of those elements—but not in sufficient supply.

Let’s start with the things that really work. Crowding the top of that list are Shannon Hanbury’s performance as Janet and Dimitrios Stephanoy’s work as Aldolpho.

Why is Hanbury not a star already? She has a perfect Broadway voice—warm and powerful. She dances like a leggy dream. And she’s got a laser-focused sense of camp: her every move is as artificial as can be, yet she fills those movements with apparent sincerity. Hanbury makes Janet’s big number, in which she sings (disingenuously) “I don’t wanna show off no more”, the highlight of the show.

Stephanoy delivers a performance that’s approximately the size of the moon—and just as lovely. His character, who is a former silent-film star, must cover two octaves every time he asks incredulously, “He wh-a-a-a-t?” But, even within that size, he stays fresh and loose.

I also particularly enjoyed Kai Bradbury and Nicholas Bradbury as Gangsters #1 and #2. Because the actors who play these characters in the play-within-a-play are a vaudevillian team, the two Bradburys are called upon to deliver a lot of physical comedy, which they pull of with precision and an infectious sense of fun.

Stuart Barkley (Robert) exudes suave confidence, there’s elegance in his tap-dancing, and his voice is pleasing.

A couple of the most significant performances disappointed me somewhat, though. Shawn Macdonald (Man in Chair) and Caitriona Murphy (the Drowsy Chaperone) aren’t bad—they’re far too professional and talented for that. But they’re not great either, and both of these roles require a kind of brilliance.

In a way, Man in Chair is pathetic: my take is that the blues that he refers to are serious; they’re what make him seek out the fantasy world of musical theatre. But Macdonald only shows us the tip of that sadness. Generally speaking, his Man is perky. Similarly, the role of the Chaperone is a star turn. I’ve never found drunkenness a hilarious trope but that’s what’s on offer and, to make it work, you have to flood the stage with eccentricity. By instinct, Murphy is too subtle an actor to go there.

Unfortunately, a number of the performers playing secondary characters aren’t up to the task. Curiously, a number of them also have such a dusty quality to their voices that their singing lacks power.

Set designer Brian Ball finds lots of playing areas in the Man’s implausibly large apartment—there’s room for characters to dance on the stairs, on the counters, and the windowsills—but I don’t understand what’s going on with Chris Sinosich’s costumes. Her work on Mary Poppins, the other show that TUTS is offering this summer, is gorgeous, but here the palette is incoherent. In a bathing-beauty number, for instance, some of the women show up in neon-hued suits. In 1928? And, on the same stage, others are performing in flat, utilitarian blue. Some of the costumes are flat-out fails. I’m thinking of the stewardess uniforms, for instance. They start off promisingly enough with copper-spangled jackets, but the tight, fringed, robin’s egg-blue skirts are unflattering and the fabric bunches up.

Fortunately, the orchestra, which is under the direction of Kevin Michael Cripps, is unfailingly on the musical money.

Director Gillian Barber’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone isn’t bad. The people around me certainly seemed very happy. I wanted more.

THE DROWSY CHAPERONE Music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison. Book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar. Directed by Gillian Barber. A Theatre Under the Stars production at Malkin Bowl on Tuesday, July 18. Continues in rep until August 19.

For tickets, phone 1-877-840-0457 at go to

In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play): just lie back—or not

The Ensemble Theatre Company is presenting In the Next Room at the Jericho Arts Centre

Girls will be girls. In In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), Mrs. Daldry and Mrs. Givings try out a new toy.

In 2010, Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) was nominated for three Tony Awards, including Best Play. I don’t know why.

In The Vibrator Play—let’s just call it that—we’re in 1880s America and the commercial use of electricity is just becoming popular. Dr. Givings treats his “hysterical” female patients with an electric vibrator, inducing orgasms, which he refers to as paroxysms. The theory is that the patients’ symptoms—sensitivity to light, a tendency to burst into tears—are caused by an excess of fluid in the womb; in releasing that fluid, the paroxysms provide relief. [Read more…]

Silent woman make the loudest statement in The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Scott Bellis is directing Two Gentlemen of Verona at Bard on the Beach.

In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Charlie Gallant and Nadeem Phillip play Proteus and Valentine, two guys who are decidedly unwoke.

Thanks to director Scott Bellis, silent woman make the loudest statement in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Warning: I’m going to give away some major plot points here, but I will not give away what makes their realization so astonishing in this production.

This comedy is famously problematic because of its bizarre treatment of an attempted rape. Proteus and Valentine, the eponymous two gentlemen, value their friendship so highly that, when Proteus sexually assaults Silvia, who is the object of Valentine’s romantic aspirations, Valentine is enraged, but only for about 20 seconds. When Proteus begs his forgiveness, Valentine not only bestows it, he also jovially offers Silvia to his friend “All that was mine in Silvia I give to thee.” But Proteus chooses Julia, the woman he previously abandoned to pursue Silvia. As the men celebrate their acquisitions, the women stay mute. [Read more…]

Mary Poppins: Go ahead and weep with joy

Theatre Under the Stars is producing Mary Poppins at Malkin Bowl.

Chris Sinosich’s costumes look good enough to eat in the TUTS production of Mary Poppins. (Tim Matheson photo)

This is what life is for. Really. I’m not exaggerating.

This realization hit me as I was in Malkin Bowl watching the Theatre Under the Stars production of the musical Mary Poppins. The backdrop behind the number “Step in Time” was soaked in indigo lighting that was more seductive somehow for being outdoors. Sensual in itself, the natural setting highlights the beauty of artifice, the joy of human self-expression. In front of that fake blue sky, there was a cheesy—lovely—curtain of stars, bright reminders of the invisible stars above our heads. I was sitting next to someone I love—my ex’s 18-year-old daughter—in a community that I love, Vancouver. And I was watching a damn good show. What could be better? [Read more…]

City of Angels needs a vision

The Pit Collective is presenting City of Angels at Performance Works.

Michael Lomenda plays a private eye named Stone on the film noir side of City of Angels.

City of Angels is all about style and this production doesn’t have enough of it.

This entertainment, which won six Tony Awards in 1990, including Best Musical, Book, and Score, presents two overlapping worlds, both of which are set in the 40s. One is a film noir in which a society dame named Alaura hires a private dick called Stone to track down her runaway stepdaughter, Mallory. In the other, an author named Stein struggles to turn his novel into the screenplay for this film noir without selling out in vulgarly commercial Hollywood. Characters from Stein’s life pop up, only slightly altered, in his fiction: his wife Gabby becomes Stone’s ex-fiancée, Bobbi, for instance, and we get it because they are played by the same actor. [Read more…]

The Merchant of Venice: a politically deliberate but arresting take

Bard on the Beach is presenting Nigel Shawn Williams's take on The Merchant of Venice.

Well dressed, Shylock (Warren Kimmel) and Bassanio (Charlie Gallant) face off in The Merchant of Venice

Director Nigel Shawn Williams’s take on The Merchant of Venice is furious and uncompromising. The force of his vision makes his Merchant the most striking of the three shows I’ve seen at Bard on the Beach this year—the other two being the mainstage offerings Much Ado About Nothing and The Winter’s Tale.

That said, I found this production extremely problematic. There’s plenty of passion in it, but that passion springs largely from polemics. Williams’s Merchant is more an illustration of a hard-edged thesis than an exploration of a subtle emotional world. It gave me lots to think about but considerably less to feel. [Read more…]

FRESH SHEET 9: Be a Canadian Spice Girl in New York, brace for a possible financial storm, and batten down your mental-health hatches


FRESH SHEET: This week’s theatre recommendations and news from Colin Thomas


Vern Thiessen adapted W. Somerst Maugham's Of Human Bondage for Soulpepper Theatre

Vern Thiessen’s adaptation of “Of Human Bondage” is one of the 12 Canadian productions that Soulpepper Theatre is showcasing in New York this month.


Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre is bringing Canadian spice to New York for the month of July. At a cost of $2.5 million, the company is taking over the entire Pershing Square Signature Centre to present a dozen shows that feature 65 artists, most of whom are making their New York debuts.

After The New York Times published this piece about the venture, interest spiked: (To get this kind of press, Soulpepper hired Sam Rudy, the publicist behind Hamilton.)

The three biggest shows are Vern Thiessen’s Of Human Bondage, Mike Ross and Albert Schultz’s musical Spoon River, and Kim’s Convenience by Ins Choi, but humbler productions, including Pamela Sinha’s Crash, which is about the aftermath of a rape, and the collectively created (re)Birth, which is based on the poems of e.e. cummings, are also on offer.

What’s the point of this pricey trip? The Globe and Mail’s J. Kelly Nestruck asks that question—and comes up with some excellent answers—in this article:

Here’s a New York review of Thiessen’s take on Of Human Bondage: [Read more…]