SummerWorks Review: Homegrown

Posted on by Brian in Everything, Reviews, Summerworks | 10 Comments

It’s tough to separate Homegrown from the controversy it’s stirred up at this year’s SummerWorks festival (I posted links to the Toronto Sun articles that created that controversy in my preview article here), but let’s try.

Homegrown is a bad play. It’s not a bad play because it is sympathetic to terrorists, or because it got arts funding from the city that the Toronto 18 tried to bomb. It’s a bad play because it’s very badly written.

Homegrown is based on the story of playwright Catherine Frid and the interactions she had with Shareef Abdulhaleem, a man alleged to be part of the Toronto 18 bomb plot, while he was in prison. Cate started visiting Abdulhaleem with the goal of writing a play about prison, and ended up becoming obsessed “with separating fact from hype in the face of the uncertainty, delays and secrecy in his case,” according to the program.

Clearly there’s a good story in here somewhere, but Homegrown doesn’t tell it. Instead of separating fact from hype, it can’t separate fact from the playwright’s opinion. Frid’s opinion is pretty clearly that Abdulhaleem hasn’t really done anything wrong, or at least that he’s been treated unfairly by the system. That’s a fine opinion to have, but rather than explaining it or defending it, it’s like Frid just repeats it over and over again, without really backing it up. Sure, Abdulhaleem should’ve gotten to trial faster. Sure, the accusations about how long he was kept in solitary, if they’re true, are a serious matter. Sure, the fact that star witnesses in the government’s case were highly paid informants and probably not the most scrupulous of fellows is troubling. But none of this makes Abdulhaleem innocent, and in fact, if everything happened the way it’s shown in the play, I think he’s probably guilty of his charges.

The parts of the play that don’t feel repetitive feels badly developed. The part of Cate (played by Shannon Perreault) is especially poorly written, ironic since that’s the part the playwright should know best. There’s no real feeling or explanation for why she gets so caught up in Abdulhaleem’s story. The plot point about her long-term relationship falling apart because of her obsession feels like it’s added just so that Cate can rant at her boyfriend in a scene about how “we get the government we deserve,” and name-drop Maher Arar a couple of times, because it doesn’t fit anywhere else. Lwam Ghebrehariat, the actor who plays Abdulhaleem, does a fair job, but has some pretty nonsensical scenes to deal with, including one where he hallucinates about his cats dying without him to take care of them that feels totally out of place. The plot spends quite some time on the stories of two of the informants in the case, Mubin Shaikh (Omar Hady) and Shaher Elsohemy (Razi Shawahdeh), but then reveals that Shaikh had nothing to do with Abdulhaleem being arrested so his scenes are largely irrelevant to the plot. Abdulhaleem says his court-appointed lawyer isn’t competent enough to orchestrate a good defense, but then he’s never mentioned again, leaving me to wonder if Frid even talked to Abdulhaleem’s lawyer in all this. Part of Abdulhaleem’s trial is done on-stage, but it’s compressed in such a way that by the time the judge’s decision plays in a recorded voiceover I was left wondering “is that it?”

The most interesting part of the show is when Ghebrehariat reads the letter that the actual Abdulhaleem wrote to the festival in support of the play. But the most interesting part of Abdulhaleem’s story, as he tells it – the part where he got caught up in a terrorist plot because he thought the best way to deal with it wasn’t to call the police, but to try and control the situation so that as few people got hurt as possible – is largely put aside. Instead, we get “When Cate Met Shareef,” if you will, and if you can forgive me for being flippant over a play about terrorism. Just how much Abdulhaleem knew or did – whether he knew about the plan to short the TSX before blowing it up, whether he really did buy the fertilizer, whether he did anything on the stand besides yell to make the judge call his behaviour erratic and throw out his entrapment motion – is never really elaborated on. The only mildly interesting part of Cate’s story is when she tries to get a copy of some court documents, but is foiled by a bureaucrat in glasses (Hady again). We’re left to fill in the blanks about whether this is shady government cover-up stuff or not ourselves. I’m going to go with “no, probably not.”

Controversies aside, Homegrown isn’t bad because it’s sympathetic to an alleged terrorist, or because grant money was used to make it. It’s bad because it’s…well, it’s just bad. There is probably a good story to be told about Shareef Abdulhaleem. Maybe it’s one that will send ripples up the justice system and make all of us re-think what we know about terrorists and freedom in Canada. Or maybe not. Either way, Homegrown is not that story.

SummerWorks Reviews: Miss Caledonia, Iphigenia at Aulis, Or,

Posted on by Brian in Everything, Summerworks, Theatre | Leave a comment

There are a number of things I liked about Miss Caledonia. Set in the 1950’s, it’s a play about a young woman who badly wants to get off the family farm and dreams about show business. Melody Johnson, also the playwright, is joined onstage only by fiddler Alison Porter, who provides musical accompaniement while Johnson brings not only her young, naïve lead character Peggy to life, but also her father, mother, pageant judges, other contestants, Bing Crosby, and various other characters too.

Johnson’s skill at acting out all these characters by changing only her voice is certainly the highlight of the show. She’s a talented performer, and the two songs she does – the Crosby tune “Accentuate the Positive” and her talent show rendition of the Hank Snow song “I’ve Been Everywhere,” complete with baton twirling routine – both brought well-deserved rounds of spontaneous applause.

But the story’s pretty trite, and the relationship between young Peggy and her overbearing, all work and no play father that provides the dramatic tension is pretty standard. Occasionally it’s a bit jarring when Johnson skips forward in time in the story, and the voices she uses for some characters sometimes aren’t that distinct.

The live fiddler providing background and sound effects does add something, and the show’s worth seeing just for Johnson’s performance. But the story never really hits above the level of “cute,” and most of the references to 50’s pop culture went right over my head.

As I said in my SummerWorks preview, I wanted Iphigenia at Aulis to be good.

I have a degree in ancient history, you see. I have a book of ancient Greek plays on my bookshelf. I’ve read the Illiad and the Aeneid and Metamorphoses. For fun.

But this…

I hate to admit it, but maybe it really is that the source material  just doesn’t translate well to the modern day. It was written around 406 BC, after all. I mean, the Agamemnon and Menelaus characters (played by Stephen Bogaert and Eric Goulem, respectively) are meant to be very stoic and troubled men, with the fate of many men and women in their hands, but on stage they just come across as wooden, indecisive, and callous. Iphigenia (Eryn Murman) just seems odd, pleading for her life one minute, then gleefully going to her death for the good of Greece the next. Achilles (Stephen Gartner) and Clytemnestra (Sarah Orenstein) come across fairly well, but it’s not the best part for either one; Achilles is mostly a bystander in this play, while Clytemnestra’s job is mostly to weep for her daughter. The “Old Man” (David Fox) doesn’t have a heck of a lot to do after the first two scenes, though Fox does a good job with him. And the occasional intrusion of the chorus (Neema Bickersteth, Bronwyn Caudle, and Sarena Parmar), who stand at different spots around the theatre with little lights above their heads, is just confusing; does the rest of the cast see the chorus or what? Are they residents of Aulis or just some kind of wandering, singing nymphs or something who randomly spout expository information?

It doesn’t help that Iphigenia at Aulis really isn’t Euripides’ best work. But unfortunately, this production is just dull, and really doesn’t have a lot going for it besides the performances of Gartner, Orenstein and Fox.

In Or, meanwhile, a show where the comma is part of the title, befuddling grammar police everywhere, the story is about Aphra Behn, a notable 17th century woman who was, among other things, a playwright and a spy.

The strange part about Or, is the late 1960’s, summer-of-love sexual freedom and women’s lib themes that underly it. On stage, Behn is amorous with several people, both men and women, and it all leads to a lengthy “hiding lovers behind various closed doors” sequence like some kind of Neil Simon-esque late 70’s/early 80’s bedroom farce. It feels weird to come up with an obscure figure like Aphra Behn, then take some pretty big historical liberties by, for instance, making King Charles her secret supporter and lover.

Still, Behn is a pretty interesting figure, one I knew nothing about going into this show, and a cursory look at her history shows that there’s probably more truth than fiction in this play. Plus, Sophie Goulet is great as Behn, and her co-stars Damien Atkins and Melissa Jane Shaw do well in multiple roles, with some better than others. Atkins has the show’s best scene-stealer when he storms in as a female arts patron commissioning one of Behn’s works, who talks for five minutes straight without letting Behn get a word in edgewise, then leaves with a flourish. Shaw also managed to hold things together despite a wardrobe malfunction that required clothespinning as soon as she got off-stage, a pretty admirable feat in my book. If you can get past the free love vibe from the characters in 17th century costume, Or, ends up being a pretty good show.

Summerworks: Hidden Cameras, August 6, Upper Ossington Theatre

Posted on by Ricky in Concerts, Summerworks | 1 Comment

Toronto – Well, what can you say about the Hidden Cameras‘ showcase at Summerworks? Their theatrical interpretation of their 2009 album Origins: Orphans has elicited some interesting reactions.

I had received a fair warning about the show from people who went the previous night, saying it wasn’t really a concert, kinda weird and that sitting on the floor sucks. Knowing this, I went into the show with an open mind and obviously, got myself seats at the back of the Upper Ossington Theatre upon entry on Friday. I may or may not have budded everyone in line on the way in, but this is an arts festival, and art thrives on creativity and chaos, not structure, so taking that cue, I just went to the front.

Anyways, the show started at around 10:30 pm. The Hidden Cameras band featured both a horn and string section, which always impresses me. I’m sure there were some local music artists recruited to play various instruments, but I am not familiar with local artists much. I think one of them was Laura Barrett, based on her glasses. Joining the band on the floor space was a dance troupe that included a 12 or 13 year old kid. They were joined by Joel Gibb for their opening dance sequence, to the tune of the title track Origin: Orphan. They started off in a ball on the floor, and then got up into some sort of fishing motion, like, when you are reeling in a very large fish. That’s my take on it anyway.

The rest of the show consisted of songs off the album and the dance troupe acting out the interpretations of the song. Dressed like extras from a modern day Oliver Twist meets the Gap play, I gather the play was about an orphan being raised in some sort of harsh environment, constantly under the threat of abuse from some authoritarian figure played by Keith Cole. Halfway through the album, that figure decides that life is better as a woman or a cross dresser, then everyone is happy. Lots of dancing then follows.

Overall, the show was enjoyable on both an audio and visual perspective and not as weird as some had speculated. I’m not the most artistic person so I didn’t try to personally interpret anything going on, or try to figure out if each song was part of some sort of bigger message. The band and the music itself was rather strong and made me a fan of their latest album. I could have done without the 30-40 minute intermission, something that may or may not have killed any momentum the band had achieved. All in all, a very fitting way to start off Summerworks.

The hidden cameras – Walk on by jslacasa

SummerWorks Festival: Theatre Preview

Posted on by Brian in Everything, Reviews, Summerworks | 7 Comments

pictured: the National Theatre of the World cast

If you haven’t read Ricky’s preview of the music side of this year’s SummerWorks festival, I suggest you do so now. I’m of the opinion that SummerWorks really stepped up the music side of the festival this year with some great acts. With the music taken care of, and keeping in mind that all the plays at SummerWorks are largely new works and thus it’s nearly impossible to say whether or not they’ll be good with any great accuracy, here’s six SummerWorks shows that I personally guarantee confidently predict am totally guessing think will probably be worth seeing. Maybe. Click the show titles for the schedules and details.


If you’ve been following news about the Festival at all, you know that the Sun has printed three articles now expressing their distaste for Homegrown. Their problem? The play is about Shareef Abdelhaleem, a member of the “Toronto 18,” and as Don Peat so melodramatically puts it, “tax dollars from the very governments he’s convicted of plotting to blow up” went into this play in the form of grant money (Metro has a more balanced take here and SummerWorks has written about it extensively on their blog). I could write a whole post about this, but suffice to say that I’ve always thought the Sun newspaper chain sucks (Canwest rules!), and that I think tax money spent on arts sponsorships is money well spent. That aside, this sounds like it could be one hell of a good show. I mean, a play about a man who went to trial on bomb plot charges from the perspective of a lawyer, who “becomes obsessed with separating fact from hype in the face of the uncertainty, delays and secrecy in his case” (quote from the show listing) and it’s written by this lawyer herself? Sign me up. Get a seat in advance if you can, this is already in danger of selling out.

Iphigenia at Aulis

You may recall that I saw an adaptation of the Epic of Gilgamesh, my favourite ancient myth, at SummerWorks last year, and that I didn’t really care for it. Why, then, would I set myself up for disappointment again by getting my hopes up for Iphigenia at Aulis, an adaptation of a work by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides? I dunno. I didn’t learn my lesson, I guess. It could be good though, right? Man, I hope so. I’d really love to see a good staging of an ancient Greek play. No seriously, I would. Stop snickering at me.

The WITCH of Edmonton

“In the tightly-knit community of Edmonton, Mother Sawyer is falsely branded as a witch. Rejected and shunned, she takes revenge by selling her soul to a demonic hellhound.” This is the promo text for this play. More interestingly, it’s venue is listed as Trinity Bellwoods Park. Spooky stories in the park? Sounds cool.

The Kreutzer Sonata

A staging of a Tolstoy novella underscored by the Beethoven sonata of the same name, which is where Tolstoy got the title. An interesting concept from the director/playwright/sole actor Ted Dykstra, to be sure, this show played to sold out houses at the Harbourfront Centre for both of it’s runs in March of 2009 and 2010. I’m not sure if the music will be live or not, but if it is, expect this to be quite good.

The Hanging of Francoise Laurent

Apparently, in 1751 in Montreal, a woman could escape a death sentence if she could convince the executioner to marry her, or so says the promo for The Hanging of Francoise Laurent. Did you know this? I couldn’t verify this as historical fact after two minutes of Google searching, but it sounds like a pretty good basis for dramatic theatre. Worth a look.

The National Theatre of the World Presents: Fiasco Playhouse!

In a slightly confusing entry, the National Theatre of the World (past show reviews here [2010 Fringe] and here [2009 SummerWorks]) is going to be at the SummerWorks “Performance Bar” every night from 9 PM until around midnight. You may recall that the Performance Bar is also where a number of the fest’s music acts are playing, including Maylee Todd, Ghost Bees, Laura Barrett, and Grand Analog. I truly have no idea how this is going to work, and the web page is no help, except to say that it’s apparently going to feature “the newest and most dangerous innovations in improvisation!” I do know that Ron Pederson, Naomi Snieckus and Matt Baram put on a very good show, and that the music will be good, so that’s at least two reasons to check this out at least one night of the festival.

Keep an eye out throughout the festival, which runs August 5-15, for our reviews.