SummerWorks Review: Melancholy Play [Project Undertow]

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


Man, this reviewing gig is tough sometimes. How can I write a coherent review of a show when all I want to do is rave about it and call it the best I’ve seen at SummerWorks, at least so far? I think it’s easier to write a detailed review of a show you hated…

So what can I say about Melancholy Play? It centres around a woman named Tillie who is embroiled in a very deep melancholy. The funny thing about it is, during her melancholy she says the most enchanting (and absurd, but that’s part of the reason it’s so funny) things about her sadness and suffering and the world around her that the people around her, both men and women, can’t help but fall in love with her. These people include her psychiatrist, tailor, hairdresser, and a nurse who’s involved with the hairdresser. They all fall for Tillie, but when Tillie suddenly becomes a happy person, their love for her fades and they become miserable.

It’s silly, but it’s a show that has a lot of heart, too, with an understanding of the certain kind of sadness and depression that makes up melancholy. The kind of sadness that leaves one staring out the window in the afternoon, doing nothing more than observing the passage of time, or leads you to see the beauty in another person’s tears and makes you want to keep them forever.

There’s a lot of talk like that in the show (in fact, these two examples are relatively tame and straightforward), and it takes a very skilled cast to deliver those sorts of lines without sounding just ludicrous and totally beyond what a person would actually say. Fortunately, Melancholy Play has just such a cast. Ennis Esmer (Frank) and Pamela Rhae Ferguson (Frances) have a couple of scenes where they speak the same lines in concert without looking at each other, which is a whole lot harder to do than it looks. Anna Hardwick has some memorable lines as Joan. There’s a woman on stage, Cheryl Ockrant, who plays cello throughout the show, giving it some very proper melancholic ambience. Salvatore Antonio is a hoot as Lorenzo, Tillie’s psychiatrist, who speaks with an over the top accent (“I am from a eur-OH-pee-an country”) and keeps bringing up that his mother abandoned him as a child in a candy shop. And both actresses who play Tillie, Ingrid Rae Doucet as melancholy Tillie and Melissa-Jane Shaw as happy Tillie, strike just the right notes.

And if I can be slightly lewd for a moment, I don’t need a play to have several beautiful female cast members with very lovely legs who mostly wear short skirts throughout the show to enjoy it, with two of them in a relationship and living together and spending one scene trying to seduce a third. I don’t NEED that to enjoy a play, but it certainly doesn’t hurt…

Really, though, it’s a wonderfully absurd script by Sarah Ruhl, directed nicely by Rosa Laborde with a superb cast. I laughed the hardest that I’ve laughed all festival throughout, and don’t have a single bad thing to say about Melancholy Play. Sounds like a 5/5 to me.

Melancholy Play has just one show left at SummerWorks: August 15 at 10:30 at Factory Theatre Mainspace. See it if you can.

SummerWorks Review: I’ll Always Be There to Kill You [Pure Cassis Productions]

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I_ll Always Be There To Kill You2

I really liked Patricia Marceau’s production of I’ll Always Be There to Kill You, or Je serai toujours là pour te tuer in its original French, for much of it’s hour-long running time. It’s a cute show, with an attractive, talented two-person cast with good on-stage chemistry.

The setup is quite cute too: Helen (Geneviève Trilling) decides she wants to die, but can’t do it herself, so she places a newspaper ad, answered by Simon (Christian Smith), and contracts him to kill her before the end of the summer. All she wants is to not see it coming and to go peacefully.

It sounds kind of dark, but it’s really not. Trilling plays her character’s resulting paranoia and fear of this stranger who’s living in her house and is supposed to eventually kill her to great comic effect. Smith, meanwhile, plays the straight man, but his character also not-so-subtly tries to convince Trilling’s that what she really wants is to live. Their interactions are, for the most part, quite cute, occasionally delving into the more serious matters like why she wishes to die and why he would accept such a job in the first place. And, inevitably, they fall in love. Aw.

Did you notice I said “cute” a whole lot in the preceding paragraphs? Ok, good.

Not that there’s anything wrong with cute, mind you. Sometimes I like a good piece of romantic fluff theatre, especially if the actors are good.

When I’ll Always Be There to Kill You falls down a little, though, is when it’s reach exceeds it’s grasp. It seems like at times, the play wants to be something more: a look at mortality, at the occasional desire that some people have to end their own lives vs. the fear of the unknown beyond this life. Which is great fodder for a play too, of course, and has been for centuries, but it seems like I’ll Always Be There to Kill You wants to explore this kind of heavy subject matter while at the same time keeping things as light as possible, and it’s a balancing act that doesn’t quite work. The characters are drawn in pretty broad strokes, with some fairly vague backstory offering few details about why Helen wants to die, or why Simon might agree to kill her, which is fine for a romantic fluff piece, but not for serious life and death talk. The ending, too, just doesn’t sit right; it goes from cute to serious in a split second and, without giving anything away, seems like a forced, concrete ending when something a bit more ambiguous might’ve been better.

It is distinctly possible that the play loses something in the translation from French to English, and if I knew enough French to follow it I’d probably see the French performance. Still, Trilling and Smith almost make it work.

I’ll Always Be There to Kill You or Je serai toujours la pour te teur has two performances left at SummerWorks, one in English on August 15 at 6 PM and one in French on the 16 at noon, both at the Factory Theatre Studio. See the SummerWorks website for schedule and ticket info.

SummerWorks Review: The Middle Place [Project: Humanity]

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

The Middle Place Alternate Program Image

Festival buzz is a funny thing. You get to this point, a week or so into the fest, a lot of reviews have been written, and you wonder sometimes: is the buzz that some shows are getting really deserved? Are they really the best ones out there, or are they just the ones that’ve done the best job getting known?

I wonder. Because it seems like the two consensus “buzz” pieces of SummerWorks right now are Greenland and The Middle Place. I’m seeing Greenland on Saturday, their last show, and I’m fortunate to have tickets. I saw The Middle Place yesterday in a packed house at the Passe Muraille mainspace. Did I like it? Sure. But I’ve seen three plays since then, and definitely enjoyed two of them more and the third is close, and none of them are getting the same kind of buzz.

I guess The Middle Place is a show that speaks to a lot of people. For a couple of years now, Project: Humanity has been teaching theatre workshops at a homeless shelter in the GTA. Playwright Andrew Kushnir (who’s name I know from something I saw in Edmonton but can’t remember what it was and it’s REALLY bugging me) sat down with various youths from the shelter and filmed interviews with them. The Middle Place is a presentation of some of those stories, with four actors onstage and one offstage, asking questions and prompting the homeless kids.

It’s all quite technically good. The stories are, as you might imagine, all kinds of sad, and in some cases inspiring and sweet. The onstage actors are all quite talented, and easily portray the youths of all different backgrounds and the shelter’s caseworkers too. Going from one story to the next is seamless, and each actor does a nice job making characters and voices distinct enough that it’s easy enough to recall them when they come up again, even though the four actors never leave the stage and there are no costume changes or anything.

But it all comes across as very clinical to me. If you like the sound of seeing a documentary film that has kids from a homeless shelter telling their stories, you’ll probably like this. And it’s not that I don’t like that kind of thing, it’s more that…well, this is theatre, not film. If Kushnir had done a documentary movie instead of a play it would look and sound and feel very similar, just with more faces. This play feels like a direct translation from that nonexistent movie, presenting the interviews as close to how they look on film as possible, even with the limitation of using just four actors. It’s like The Middle Place is a show stripped of a lot of things you can do on film and not on stage, but because it’s trying to ape documentary so closely it doesn’t really take advantage of things you can do on stage that you can’t on film.

And while in a lot of ways it’s a technical accomplishment (I wouldn’t have imagined it was possible to approximate documentary film onstage so precisely before seeing this show), The Middle Place is just an ok piece of theatre.

The Middle Place has one show left at SummerWorks: August 15 (Saturday) at 10:30. See the SummerWorks website for schedule and ticket details.

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

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


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.