Sunday, November 11, 2018

Theatre Highlights - 2018

Trace,  Canstage, November 9
Red Sky Performance

Trace is a sumptuous new dance and music creation that explores Indigenous connections to ancestral beginnings. Inspired by Anishinaabe cosmology - our star and sky stories - Trace maps our history and future evolution. We are traceable to the beginnings of the universe, our ancestral origins stretching across the Milky Way to the very atoms burning inside of us here on earth. Red Sky

This was so hypnotic. The Berkeley stage is big enough for a company of dancers and a trio of musicians, yet still small enough to feel intimate.

Many profound truths were enlivened by the dancers as visuals were projected behind them and live musicians sculpted sound. Beautifully choreographed. Memorable scenes: seeds struggle to open; star dust gives birth to human form; text from the Indian Act in 1921 strongly forbidding dance crumbles behind the dancers as their defiance grows stronger; human forms rise on the shoulders of those who have gone before; human sighs draw new constellations. Truly amazing! I am now a fan of artistic director Sandra Laronde and will watch for any new productions.

The Children, Canstage, October 13

There’s nothing better than watching the best actors strut their stuff. Actually, there is: wonderful actors performing in a superb play. Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children takes place at a cottage in England, near a nuclear power plant where there has been a catastrophic accident complicated by a tsunami – echoes of the 2011 disaster in Japan. Physicist Rose (Fiona Reid) is making a surprise visit to her former colleagues Hazel (Laurie Paton) and her husband Robin (Geordie Johnson), with whom she consulted on the plant’s construction decades ago. As the action unfolds, the true nature of the relationships become crystallized, the extent of the environmental disaster emerges and Rose makes a stunning proposal to the couple. (Toronto Star)

I puzzled a bit over the characters on stage. They were drawn so jaggedly it must have been intentional fragmentation. Appearing internally inconsistent they became predictably unpredictable, as though the playwright might have consciously modelled them do the opposite of their instinct.

Exploring the theme of what one generation owes the next, the mother stays to take care of her adult child; the childless woman braves a return to a broken nuclear plant to save future generations; the father makes an entrance with a tricycle, a Peter Pan who hasn't really grown up and likely never will. Three outstanding actors bring new definition to the meaning of character.

Portia's Julius Caesar, Shakespeare in the Ruff, August 28
Shakespeare in the Park

Outdoor summer theatre at Withrow Park. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar reimagined through the eyes of Portia and other female characters. Engaging and interesting but waaaay too long. Uneven performances in the sense that some were extremely one note (shouting every line), while others were delivered with more emotional complexity. Saw this near the end of the run, so maybe a few were a bit tired and ready to move along. Still, a wonderful way to spend a summer evening.

Midsummer Night's Dream, Canstage, July 19
Shakespeare in the Park

Outdoor summer theatre in the almost-round at High Park. This was a rather bawdy version with florescent coloured dildos being waved about. They could also pass for brightly coloured balloons to the kids in the audience. All the actors played several parts which led to some quick costume changes, especially for the actors playing Bottom/Oberon and Duke/Francis Flute. It wasn't until the cast took a final bow that I knew for sure they'd done double-duty.

Dead Talks, Fringe Festival, Tarragon Theatre, July 11
Original and in development

Interesting premise and lots of future potential for this play. I was intrigued when a talk-show angel welcomed the audience and announced we were all dead. This was just after the opening scene which has sadly become a bit cliche, where an older male publisher is plying a young female author with alcohol and starts coming on to her in his apartment. Cut to purgatory, where neither has a memory of the event until it eventually rises. I found the ending gratuitous, where the rape scene is re-enacted, because it was stuck so harshly and abruptly without a denoument.

Restless Spirit, Fringe Festival, Theatre Passe Muraille, July 10
Original and in development

A historical piece about a girl with a genuine gift for communicating with with the dead, around the time that spiritualism was finding an audience. Alex' longtime friend Dylan played the opportunistic villain, and did so alarmingly well.

Plays in Cafes, Fringe Festival, Poetry Jazz Cafe, July 5
Little theatre

This play was staged in Kensington Market, in a very small venue with a company playing to an audience of less than fifty. It was a fun concept, in that the audience could order moods off the menu, while the cast performed within the same small space. I got a chance to chat with the artistic director before the show started, and learned a little about how companies are guided through the production cycle by the Fringe festival, while volunteers and non-union staff help to keep the ticket prices so affordable.

Come From Away, Royal Alexandra Theatre, May 16
Just because it's popular doesn't mean it isn't fantastic

Why had I been avoiding this? A Canadian play with a triumphant Broadway debut returning to Toronto for sold out shows.

We finally went and it really was fantastic! More than a love story, thankfully. Yes, a "feel good" play, but in this world, these days, we probably need stories that remind us we can make a big difference in each other's lives that ripple out beyond islands.

The Overcoat, Can Stage, Bluma Appel, April 8
Do clothes make the man?

One of my favourite Russian short stories turned into an opera. Sur titles were appreciated, even though everything was sung in English. World premiere.

Akaky Akakievich struggles in his civil service job, with barely enough money to buy decent food and pay his rent. When his winter coat falls apart he finds a way to buy a new one - so beautiful it opens doors to parties and conversations with beautiful women and even talk of a promotion. Until, walking home from a party he is mugged for his coat. The police refuse to help and Akaky finds himself in dire straights. A straight jacket, in fact, in a madhouse. Gogol's story is as relevant today as when it was published in 1842.

Cottagers and Indians, Tarragon Theatre March 22
Cottagers and Indians takes a sincere and pragmatic look at the current conflicts between First Nations traditional water usage and property owners in cottage country who are looking to enjoy an undisturbed summer getaway.

Drew Hayden Taylor—a pioneer of Native comedy—turned to humour to better express his culture in the theatre. After hearing an interview with this playwright on the radio, we decided to check out the play.

Wild rice is being planted and harvested along the cottage shoreline. The story is based on actual events.

Love the Tarragon theatre space and we sat right up front. The performance we attended had a bonus treat of Q&A with the playwright and actors - we stuck around to hear a personal take. The performers talked about how every night is different, as different audiences laugh or gasp in different spots; they adjust lines and delivery accordingly.

The author repeated a line we heard on his radio interview, "humour is the WD40 of healing."

The Humans, Can Stage, Bluma Appel February 17
"Breaking with tradition, Erik Blake has brought his family to celebrate Thanksgiving at his daughter's lower Manhattan apartment. As darkness falls, tensions reach a boiling point, and the unspoken pressures facing the Blake clan simmer to the surface. Winner of four 2016 Tony Awards, including Best New Play, Stephen Karam's breakthrough comedy-drama is a scorchingly funny and frighteningly timely snapshot of a family caught in the wake of a changing nation."

Job loss, unemployment, underemployment, health issues, affairs, break-ups, 911, lights flickering on and off - everything falling apart. It all seemed pretty dark to me. Black humour provided minimal comic relief. 

At the very end of the play, Eric stumbles in darkness and finally finds the door to the hallway, confronting the dark tunnel of his nightmares. He has no choice but to enter the darkness if he is to leave the apartment to join the rest of his family and journey home. There is an interminable wait at the threshold while he screws up his courage, a small pool of light spilling on the floor. I had to fight back the urge to holler, "leave already!!"

The stage was a life-sized dollhouse of a Manhattan apartment, complete with spiral staircase, bars on the window, a bathroom inconveniently (and brilliantly) located. Brilliantly because placing it there meant when characters had to leave the main gathering, they could be and would be talked about, providing interesting portraits of family dynamics.

King Lear, Groundlings Theatre Company, Harbourfront Theatre Centre January 27

"Widely considered Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Lear tells the story of an aging monarch’s loosening grip on the reigns of power and the slow, lonely descent into madness that follows. The Dora award winning Groundling Theatre Company follows their celebrated productions of The Winter’s Tale and Measure for Measure with an intimate and provocative Lear at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre. Starring one of Canada’s most celebrated actresses, Seana McKenna, in the title role, this production promises to bring new life to Shakespeare’s classic tale, challenging our assumptions about familial loyalty and the fragile balance of sanity and chaos that exists within us all."

Casting a female lead may not change the overall story but it surfaces new dimensions, especially with the relationships between parent and daughters. Mother/daughter vs. father/daughter - is it becomes somehow more personal and less political? Why does the betrayal seem to cut so much more deeply, and the grief more physical? 

The stage was spare - 7 or 8 wooden boxes shifted around by players to suggest a changing landscape. A large drum half-concealed behind the curtain creating the sound of battle and storm. 

Monday, November 5, 2018

Writing Wild

I reconnected with an old friend this past summer via Linked In. Janine lives in Waterloo and while staying with my mother I popped by a few times to catch up.

We were high school poets and won some awards and recognition in our senior year, however we've both gone on to different careers to earn our living. I still love words, but haven't been doing much creative writing over these last decades.

So when Janine suggested we attend the Wild Writers festival, I thought it would be the kick in the pants I needed to write a few pieces, and bring them to the festival as works in progress.

I creatively avoided doing any creative writing and although I didn't have any works in progress, I was still happy to attend the festival as a poser.

Janine's invitation included a weekend stay at her condo, just a short walk away from the festival location, the Centre for International Governance and Innovation. CIGI is a great venue space, with a fantastic stage and lots of boardrooms and lecture halls for discussion and exploration.

The opening showcase  featured Sharon Bala and Rawi Hage in a panel moderated by Jael Richardson. When it turned to practical advice for new writers, both authors declined, which was a bit disappointing. However, the two workshops I attended the next day had lots of great tips for those aspiring.

The Creative Nonfiction workshop was with Jael, and she confirmed the importance of calling to all the senses to lift scenes from the page. She also shared practical advice given to her from Helen Humphries, which is to write from beginning through to the end before you start perfecting drafts. Save each draft as a separate version. Focus on just one or two things when doing your draft (dialogue or character or senses or...). Very useful.

How Research Shapes a Story was a panel with Liz Harmer, David Huebert, Pamela Mulloy, Clare Tacon, and Brent van Staalduinen. Here it was evident that there is definitely no one approach, with each author having a different take on the topic.

Writing Raw: How to Explore Personal Material that is touchy, dark, intimate, tangled, problematic, risky, taboo or downright radioactive was delivered in a very methodical way, which surprised me. First we attacked the question of what subjects made us most uncomfortable, then we listed some of the root causes, and next we read from a handout writer Mike Barnes included with some super-practical writing process tips.  Confronting fears of rejection and separation weren't neglected topics. Although surprised by the methodical approach, I really did appreciate how straightforward and demystified the process could be when deconstructed. It's true the best writing has a magical quality but sometimes we humans have a way of making things more difficult than they need to be.

Janine had signed up for the Poetry Masterclass, Writing New Poems from the Wreckage of the Old.  Participants were to bring books of their favourite poetry along with recent works. During the afternoon they explored techniques such as erasure, cento, glosa and text collages.

The next morning there was a Literary Brunch with Katherine Ashenburg (publishing her first work of fiction in her seventies), Claire Cameron (finalist for Roger's Trust Fiction Prize), and Michael Redhill (winner of last year's Giller prize).  Delicious food, writers reading from their books, and great conversation.

As a result of attending the literary festival, my reading list is now much longer! And I have renewed my interest in creative writing, too... since I don't have to earn a living at it, why not explore it as a means of self expression? The New Quarterly runs an annual contest with the winners announced at the Writing Wild festival. I think I will set a goal for myself to enter a submission in a category (or two). God knows I have enough raw material in the way of life experience.

It was also fantastic catching up with Janine and having a weekend get-together. Next time, to be held in Toronto!

Monday, October 29, 2018

Autumn garden notes

 Last April, the maple in our backyard was destroyed in an ice storm.  I loved its shade and we had done our best to tend to its health. Despite careful pruning by arborists, the tree was really struggling.

When it came down, the maple totalled the lower deck. Finally, after months of back and forth with the insurance, engineers, estimators and contractors, work has started on the rebuild. Six months! If it is done properly it will be worth the wait.

Last summer I held off any drastic changes to the back garden, not certain whether we'd get the go ahead. If we couldn't replace the deck, we'd have to rethink the entire bones - why have a winding path to nowhere?

Having the clearing in the backyard has opened up the sky, increased potential for more sun-loving plants, and helped create a feeling of lightness. There is still one corner of deep shade to retreat on the hottest of summer days.

The autumn crocus from Turkey planted last spring was a no show, and the autumn clematis I planted in early summer didn't thrive as I'd hoped.

The snakeroot has brightened the back corner with an abundance of white blossoms; the daphne has brought its scent and delicate ivory flowers right up to the end of October. There is a white rose in bud today, and I am hopeful it will be a late bloomer.

In red or deep crimson, there was coral bell, autumn sedum. Monkshood has finished blooming, it was almost a cornflower blue. The persicaria has been throwing purple plumes since September. It was so well-behaved in deep shade but has grown at an alarming rate, taking over the back corner and spilling down the hillside to such an extent I'm tempted to eradicate it from the garden entirely - and that's after trying to establish it for several years.

I love the nasturtiums, and they love all the sun they've been getting. Frost has not yet come and they are looking other-worldly, hiding bright petals under their broad leaves.


In the front yard, I spent a day or two transplanting. Moved the blood grass to where the euphorbia was, moved geraniums to where the sea holly had been, moved the sea holly behind the anemones.

The Japanese maples haven't yet turned their deep crimson colours. Last year there was no show, just a sudden deep freeze that turned the leaves brittle and brown almost overnight. We'll see what the late season may bring this year.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Thanksgiving 2018

Family Thanksgiving. Our home, Rob's family, my family.

So much to be thankful for.

Thanksgiving with my mother, brothers and sister has been celebrated a week or two after the formal event for years, allowing multiple celebrations. This year was the first holiday we celebrated without my mom. It was hard to land on a date, and even then we rescheduled with effort. I was persistent even though it was a bit like herding cats. But then, I guess it has always been a bit like that, it was my mom doing the herding. Like other years, we gathered at our childhood home, everyone brought a dish and we ate from paper plates. The groaning board, as we've come to call it, the meal-before-the-meal, was also set with everyone bringing at least one or two appetizers to lay on the table. At the end of the evenig we gathered some household mementoes as part of wrapping up the estate. My mom wasn't there - but she was there - in all of us. I miss her!

Thanksgiving with Rob's family also continued with the new tradition of going out to Lois and Mark's in Matewatchan.  This year however, we were also giving thanks for Mark's recovery, as he had a big health scare. One of the doctors in emergency pronounced terminal cancer - luckily a misdiagnosis. By Thanksgiving he was much better. There was the thanksgiving feast, a bonfire, fireworks, and breakfast the next morning. A beautiful drive in fall colours there and back. Alex and Penny drove in a separate car but we met them along the road as we stopped to take photos, pick apples and watch the salmon run in the Ganaraska.

Our own little family Thanksgiving was very non-traditional and we didn't even call it that, really. It was between the two family tree weekends. Penny's mom came by for dinner and a visit, and I made a few Indian dishes. Alex and Penny helped with rolling chapati. Rob picked up a tasty lemon cake,  Ameeta made chai. She also gifted me with a beautiful sari.

Lots of food! Turkey, ham, dal, fancy plates, paper plates, no plates. Abundance. Gratitude.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Full Hunter's Moon - October

Driving back from Kitchener I got an eyeful of the rising moon, big and gorgeous in the sky.  An unobstructed view that lasted at least ten minutes. My rearview mirror a scorching red sunset. Didn't mind at all being stuck in slow moving traffic on the expressway.

The moon is officially full Oct 24, 12:45 pm