SummerWorks Review: The Nick Drake Project [Picture Box Theatre Co.]

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I suppose it’s no one’s fault but my own that I don’t know much about Nick Drake. Other people seem to, even if no one seemed to know who he was when he was alive. Drake was a folk singer in the 70s who didn’t achieve much success during his short career and died young at 26 from an overdose of anti-depressants, probably suicide. Since his death, though, his music’s only gained in popularity, to the point that all kinds of British musicians list him as an influence.

The Nick Drake Project, meanwhile, is only tangentially about Nick Drake. Mostly it’s about the protagonist that can’t remember his name, who’s run away from his own life and finds himself in a very strange dream world full of bizarre characters trying to convince him that he’s on some kind of important journey, even though none of them are too sure where they’re sending him or why. Director Ryan Ward sits at the back of the stage, his back to the audience, and sings and plays Nick Drake songs while the action goes on behind him. It’s a pretty neat device, and sometimes more compelling than what’s going on in the play.

I gather that for fans of Nick Drake, there’s lots of references to his tunes here that will delight. “River Man” is the name of who the hero is supposed to be seeking, “Hazy Jane” is the name of a siren figure in a gauzy dress who tempts the hero to leave the path he’s on, the hero refers to a “Black-Eyed Dog” as part of a vision he’s been having, and are all names of Drake songs, for starters. The characters the hero bumps into are odd but interesting, including a very cool demonic Robert Johnson puppet that tries to keep him from his goal (Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for his devilishly good guitar-playing abilities, dontcha know).

But the plot is more than a little difficult to follow. So many things are intentionally vague: whether this is taking place in the real world, a dream, some kind of limbo; whether the people are real, ghosts, some kind of visions; whether Nick Drake’s ghost is haunting our hero for some purpose, like to redeem him somehow, or to free his spirit from some kind of personal hell, things like that. I’m all for having a different sort of take on the traditional hero’s journey setup, but with practically everything in the storyline, every threat the hero runs into, and even his final goal being extremely vague, it’s like there’s nothing solid in the story to really sink your teeth into.

It doesn’t help that the protagonist (played by Jonathan Seinen) is exceptionally bland. Whether that’s because of Seinen’s acting or how he’s written I’m not sure, but he’s so uninteresting, particularly when he comes up against these other wonderfully strange characters, that it’s hard to follow him as the centre of things. Isn’t this his story? Shouldn’t he be different somehow than he was when he started? Why does it feel like he just gets thrown into this with an ambiguous feeling of being lost, then at the end the only sense we have of him being changed by his journey is him explicitly telling us he doesn’t feel that way anymore?

If Ward ever does a show playing Nick Drake songs I’d seriously consider going, but this play could use some work.

The Nick Drake Project has two shows remaining at SummerWorks, on August 14 at 8:30 and August 15 at 2:30, both at Factory Theatre. See the SummerWorks website for schedule and ticket info.

SummerWorks Review: Impromptu Splendour [National Theatre of the World]

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Improv theatre. I used to be really into it. Oh, back when I lived in Edmonton, we’d go to long-form improv shows every Monday night and sometimes on the weekend too. Edmonton has a great long-running improv troupe called Die Nasty that’s been running every Monday for nearly two decades, and I was such a fan.

Oh, the memories. The season whether they were in the Old West and had a talking mule. The one where they were in Rome. The one where they were in space and the funniest character was a puppet. Star improviser Mark Meer and his Dr. Doom costume that morphed into space villain to evil knight to any number of things. The 53 hour Soap-a-thon every fall that my roommate and I were crazy enough to spend all weekend at more than once. The guest stars they got from Dana Anderson’s connections with Second City: Mike Myers, Joe Flaherty, Nathan Fillion…

And a young cast member named Ron Pederson, always one of the best performers, who we, the regular audience, had to wave goodbye to after he was recruited by MADtv and went off into the world.

Impromptu Splendor, running now as part of the SummerWorks festival, is mostly a nostalgia trip for me and a chance to see Ron do improv again. Still, it’s a good show in it’s own right, and I suppose I should offer some kind of review instead of getting all starry-eyed and pining for the old Die Nasty days.

The National Theatre of the World is a Toronto improv group featuring Ron and Second City veterans Matt Baram and Naomi Snieckus. The idea behind Impromptu Splendor is that they take a famous playwright and improvise a play in the style of that playwright during the hour they have on stage. Someone from the audience picks the name of the playwright out of a hat at the end of the previous show, so they do have a bit of time to prepare, but it’s mostly just to pick proper costumes and design a simple set.

Obviously this leads to a different show every night, and if there’s one thing I know from seeing many improv shows it’s that the quality can vary greatly from one show to the next, so reviewing is kind of a fruitless endeavour. But on the night we attended, the playwright they were doing was David Mamet, and based on words the audience yelled out at the beginning was called The Perverted Metronome, about an office that sold aluminium siding.

So, as you can imagine, there was intrigue, betrayal, terse dialogue, a romantic subplot, a subplot about pederasty, and very generous use of the word “fuck.” The thing you hear most often from people who haven’t seen this kind of improv before is disbelief that everything was made up on the spot. For myself, though, being very familiar with Ron Pederson, my expectations for a brilliant, funny show were very high. It’s a credit to the cast that they almost met them.

Impromptu Splendor has three shows left in their SummerWorks run: August 13 at 10:30, August 15 at 4:30, and August 16 at 6:30. The playwright for the show on the 13th is Tennessee Williams. Should be a good one. See the SummerWorks website for schedule and ticket info. National Theatre of the World, meanwhile, have a regular show in Kensington Market and a new show starting in October. See their site for info.

SummerWorks Review: Red Machine Pt. 2 [The Room] and La Señorita Mundo [Music Picnic]

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It was a muggy Toronto afternoon as my companion and I entered The Theatre Centre for two shows as part of the SummerWorks Festival on Monday. The first show, Red Machine Part Two, the second part of an ensemble piece supposedly about one story from the perspective of different parts of a single character’s brain, had always promised to be kind of challenging, but though the second, La Señorita Mundo: An Operatic Allegory (promo picture above) started off much simpler, we left just as perplexed.

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SummerWorks Review: Toronto Noir [Cheeky Magpie]

Posted on by Brian in Everything, Summerworks, Theatre | 3 Comments

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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.