SummerWorks Review: Toronto Noir [Cheeky Magpie]

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Toronto Noir1

Noir seems to be coming around in popularity again for some reason. I’m not really sure why. Film noir had it’s heyday in the 40’s and 50’s after all, and noir crime fiction 20 years before that. Applying noir cliches and stylings to different things seems to be gaining in popularity, though. I’ve even heard there’s a superhero comic book series out now called X-Men Noir. Go figure.

Toronto Noir, the play, is based on Toronto Noir, a collection of short stories that came out last year. It’s exactly what the title implies: noir stories, set in Toronto. I haven’t read the book, but after seeing the play, I think I might like to.

The play is based on three of the stories from the book that run concurrently: one about a stand-up bass player (Great Big Sea bassist Murray Foster) who has to dispose of a body ’cause of a dame; one about a bar owner (Jack Grinhaus) who has a run-in with a cop (Adrian Griffin) whose wife (Alicia Johnston) he’s having an affair with; and a failed actor (Sarah Mennell) who has an attack of jealousy when a much younger recent theatre grad (Emily Andrews) who idolizes her gets a part in a movie. And, of course, all are set around Toronto: respectively, in the Humber Loop, the Distillery District and the St. Lawrence Market.

It’s quite a cast; as a whole they’ve got a number of TV and movie roles to the credit along with a mess of big theatre roles across Canada, the US and the UK. Oddly enough, though, it’s Foster, who’s best known for being a member of Moxy Fruvous and has been the bass player with Great Big Sea since 2002, who steals the show. His segment is the best, and he uses his double bass to great prop effect, mostly as a stand-in for the body he’s dragging around, and he deftly throws in a few tunes to boot.

The problem is, the other two stories just aren’t as good. Grinhaus spends most of his time showing the cop around the unlicensed bar and boxing ring he has; there’s a brief sparring match between the two, but no real tension. Mennell’s story has a few laughs, many of them from Marilla Wex playing Mennell’s boss at the “Honey Hut,” but Mennell’s character mostly comes across as a terrible person who can’t cope with her jealousy of Andrews’ character. Noir protagonists are frequently flawed and only occasionally redeemed in the end, but are still usually likable. Mennell’s character really isn’t (maybe you have to be an actor to really get the insane jealousy, I don’t know), and while Grinhaus’s character is likable enough, his story just isn’t that interesting and the climactic “twist,” if you can call it that, is pretty weak.

The on-stage DJ is a nice touch, however, and the way the scene changes between the three stories is quite good; none of the actors really leave the stage, they just freeze in the background and one of three photos, like the one above of Foster, on a big wheeled placard is shown to indicate which story is up. It’s rather skillfully done, and it’s never confusing which story is going on, nor is it particularly jarring switching between them, a nice accomplishment.

Still, if this play were re-imagined as a vehicle for Foster to star as his Plunk Henry character, I’d have liked it a whole lot more.

Toronto Noir runs on August 11th and 13th at 4:00 and August 15th at noon, all at The Theatre Centre, as part of SummerWorks. Check their site for schedule and ticket info.

SummerWorks Review: The Ecstasy of Mother Teresa [Ecce Homo]

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The Ecstasy of Mother Teresa1

Toronto – The title of The Ecstasy of Mother Teresa or Agnes Bojaxhui Superstar is pretty apt in a lot of ways: the show comes across as though it’s trying to be two different shows, one that works a whole lot better than the other.

The first, the “Ecstasy” part, is a harsh look at Mother Teresa, formerly Agnes Bojaxhui, the Catholic Church, and the nature of sainthood. In one of the first scenes, an angel and devil take up station on either end of the stage, and a series of actors come to one or the other relating what I assume are real life quotes either praising or criticizing Mother Teresa and her hopsice and missionary work in India with the very poor.

It sounds like it’s going to be heavy, powerful stuff for the evening, but in the next moment the “Superstar” part of the show turns up, and the scene becomes a big song and dance number with the angel and devil taking off their robes to reveal stockings and flashy underwear and high heels (both are guys, by the way) and grinding against each other, while the rest of the cast on stage sings a chorus.

And it’s good. The “Superstar” part of the show is great; the songs are clever, the guy playing the keyboard is very good, and the singers are terrific. The music is not only a funny send-up of the weighty matters of sainthood and Catholicism in general, but also make for a pretty excellent parody of a big Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

But the “Ecstasy” part lets the musical material down. Despite the opening that intimates the show will take a serious look at Mother Teresa, that never really happens until the tail end of the show. The parts in between are largely incomprehensible, full of strange imagery with random bouts of plot, sometimes losing the plot entirely to take pot shots at the Catholic Church. As an agnostic I don’t have a problem with this per se, but I do think that it’s a pretty easy target. If you’re going to take shots at the Church, you should be saying something new or offering some kind of insight. This doesn’t. The show culminates in a disjointed criticism of Mother Teresa’s rant on abortion in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech and her tepid reaction to the Bhopal Disaster of 1984, and a strange man in a black and white suit muses on the rightness of making humans, who are frail, insecure, and make mistakes, into saints at all.

But if that was the play’s point, that Mother Teresa was human like anyone else, it’s a line that should’ve been uttered a whole lot sooner, rather than making the show hastily philosophical at the end. The songs are terrific, but The Ecstasy of Mother Teresa or Agnes Bojaxhui Superstar never really decides if it’s a funny parody of the church and Webber musicals, or a serious look at sainthood, Mother Teresa, and human frailty. If it had solely been the former, the “Superstar” part, it would’ve been a whole lot better.

The Ecstasy of Mother Teresa or Agnes Bojaxhui Superstar runs August 11th at 8, August 13 at 8 and August 14 at 6 at Theatre Centre as part of the SummerWorks Festival.

SummerWorks Review: Montparnasse [Sheep No Wool Theatre Company]

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Montparnasse Program Picture

An opinion on nudity in theatre/film/whatever: I don’t especially mind it. I usually find a lot of nudity gratuitous, and lately I seem to be seeing it largely for either shock value or emphasis on emotional turmoil, that kind of thing, which gets a little old after a while. But for the most part I don’t take offense to it, nor do I find a lot of novelty in nudity for nudity’s sake.

Montparnasse, running right now as part of the SummerWorks Festival here in Toronto, does manage something I haven’t seen for a while: nudity that’s not really about the nudity. It’s not that Maev Beaty and Erin Shields, the playwrights and cast of Montparnasse, take their clothes off in a cavalier way. It’s more that one or the other of them is naked for almost the entire running time of Montparnasse, but it’s not especially important. That takes a whole lot of acting chops and a lot of self-confidence, and I sure as hell couldn’t do it, but Beaty and Shields both pull it off with relative ease. It’s impressive; to spend time on stage performing a play set in 1920’s Paris, dealing with subjects like friendship, identity, and the nature of art and inspiration is one thing, but doing it while naked half the time is something else.

But while Beaty and Shields’s performances in Montparnasse are great, the material they’ve written for it is merely good. The plot is pretty straightforward, though the setting is pretty interesting: Amelia and Margaret are expats beginning their lives anew in Paris in the 1920’s, during the inter-war period when the city was teeming with all kinds of artists, sculptors, and painters and was crazy with culture and nightlife, especially in Montparnasse. Of course, if you don’t know much art history, names like Man Ray, Henry Miller and Juan Miro that are sprinkled throughout the script won’t mean a whole lot to you, but even if you know just a little bit it’s enjoyable. Margaret is working as a nude model and muse for painters; Amelia wants to be a painter but soon ends up in the modelling racket to make some money. They plot a course through the hedonistic cultural scene in the city, Amelia trying to find her artistic muse and growing more comfortable in her skin and in the city, Margaret getting wilder and wilder in her indulgences but coming close to her breaking point. In the end it comes to a slightly predictable end, with the two women’s respective jealousy and ego rearing their ugly heads, and a couple of the narrative devices didn’t work too well for me, particularly when one actress would tell a story, and the other would play out various roles within it.

It’s a good piece of work, though, and with a little development has the potential be a great one.


Montparnasse has three more shows at SummerWorks: August 12th at 8:30, August 14th at 6:30, and August 16th at 2:30, all at Theatre Passe Muraille.

SummerWorks Festival Preview

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


Toronto – This week sees the beginning of the SummerWorks Festival in Toronto, a growing theatre/music/multimedia performance expo from August 6th (hey, that’s today!) until the 16th. Centred mostly around the Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst), Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Ave, near Bathurst & Queen), and The Theatre Centre (1087 Queen West), with performance gallery events at the Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen West) and a handful of events going on at a few other venues, SummerWorks is celebrating their 19th year by giving us a media pass. It’s also their second year under Artistic Director Michael Rubenfeld, he of the excellent production The Book of Judith. Did my favourable review of that show help facilitate our media pass? Eh, probably not, but I’m in a conspiracy-seeing kind of mood today…

Anyway, Panic Manual will have reviews of shows all festival long. Currently on my schedule is something like 18 theatre shows and a couple of music shows, this alongside a trip to Niagara Falls this weekend, starting tonight with a show called Montparnasse at Theatre Passe Muraille (if you’re going to it and you see a guy there by himself looking tired and daunted by just what he’s gotten himself into, come over and say hey).

Since these are all new shows, I’m not sure how many recommendations I can make. However, since this is primarily a music blog, you might be interested in The Nick Drake Project, a play with music and inspired by 60’s folkie Nick Drake. You may also be particularly interested in the music portion of the festival, which features, in order of performance: Miracle Fortress with Karkwa (tonight), Think About Life and DD/MM/YYYY (tomorrow), The Got to Get Got with Oh No Forest Fires (Saturday), Still Life Still and Kids on TV (Sunday), Boys Who Say No and Foxjaw (August 11th), Matthew Barber with Claire Jenkins (12th), The D’Urbervilles and Forest City Lovers (13th), Panic Manual favourites Sunparlour Players with Josh Reichmann Oracle Band (14th), and Germans and Great Bloomers (15th). All music shows take place at the Theatre Centre.

New this year is SummerWalks, a series of three Queen West walking tours leaving from the Factory Theatre courtyard both weekends of the festival. For only $5 you can get a guided tour of the area based on a different theme. Also, spend a day checking out the Performance Gallery at the Gladstone, a series of performance art events that are 5-8 minutes long, cycle throughout the night, and is pay-what-you-can.

As I said, a lot of these plays are new so I can’t really recommend many without seeing them, but some of the stuff I thought sounded most interesting from their descriptions on the SummerWorks website are Apricots, Toronto Noir, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Piano Tuner, The Middle Place, and I’ll Be There to Kill You, all of which are among the shows I’ll be seeing, so if you want some guy’s recommendations for things to see, keep checking in here for my show reviews.

Oh, one show you should see is Impromptu Splendor, put on by The National Theatre of the World. An improvised play put on by three cast members, the guy to watch for is Ron Pederson. A cast member of MadTV for a couple of seasons, I used to see Ron do improv every week when I lived in Edmonton with the city’s legendary live improvised soap opera Die Nasty. He’s a funny, funny guy.

Check out the SummerWorks website at and keep watching this space for play and show reviews.

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