Chekhov’s Three Sisters gets a new staging, while John Patrick Shanley’s Doute inhabits a real church and music drives three new shows
Toronto Chekhov the lovers were very lucky. This fall, you have to see not one but two excellent productions of the Russian master’s plays. First came the bright Uncle Vanya from the Crow’s Theatre. And now, thanks to a fruitful collaboration between The Howland Company and Hart House Theatercomes a memorable moment Three sisters (Rating: NNNN).
It’s been a while since Toronto has seen a professional production of the latter – and even then, the 2007 version of Soulpepper looked spotty. But as adapter and director Paolo Santalucia points out in his program notes: “Chekhov’s plays have never had so much meaning… as in the past two and a half years. Three Sisters especially.
So true. Shortly after the death of their father, the three orphan women of the Prozorov family – teacher Olga (Hallie Seline), the eldest, the disenchanted married younger sister Masha (Caroline Toal) and the idealist Irina (Shauna Thompson), who celebrates her birthday in the opening scene – all the time for something, anything, something else. They grew up in Moscow, but it’s been more than a decade since they moved to the provinces. Like their irresponsible brother Andrei (Ben Yoganathan), they are stuck in a disappointing and uncertain present that shows no signs of improving.
Santalucia’s production is contemporary without being too specific. The costumes (by Nancy Anne Perrin, who also designed the sets) feel modern. A party guest snatches the Beatles’ Yesterday from the piano – thematically appropriate. And yet, Irina’s birthday gifts include an old-fashioned samovar and a spinning top. Curiously, such details make these characters seem to be floating relentlessly in time.
One change that feels very contemporary is the gender change of glamorous Lieutenant Vershinin, a friend of the siblings’ late father, who embarks on an affair with Masha. Here the role becomes Alex and is played beautifully by Christine Horn, which delivers some of the most philosophical and in-depth passages in the play with clarity, spontaneity and what I can only call contained passion. The couple’s connection – even though they’re across a room in the vast play area of the Hart House Theater – is palpable.
There’s heartbreak galore, of course – this is Chekhov, after all, and the tracks create harrowing portraits of unfulfilled lives. But there’s also effective comedy, and Santalucia draws on the comedic tricks of Dan Mousseau (who filled in for Colin A. Doyle in the performance I saw), like the pedantic Theo, as well as Cameron Laurie, Maher Sinnon, Ethan Zuchkan and steven hao as characters competing in various ways for Irina’s attention.
Stage veterans Robert Persichini and Kyra Harper deliver exquisite performances as tragicomic aged characters caught up in their own obsessions. And Ruth Goodwin is one of the most effective Natashas – the clumsy woman who marries Andrei and gradually takes over the family home – that I have ever seen.
Despite some occasional sound issues (always a problem in this venue), I highly recommend this production.
Three Sisters runs at the Hart House Theater (7 Hart House Circle) until November 12. See info here.
Speaking of locations, the promising new company B&E Theater presents its first production of Doubt: a parable (Rating: NNNN) in the magnificent Church of the Holy Trinity next to the Eaton Center. It was an inspired decision.
John Patrick ShanleyThe Pulitzer Prize-winning play is set in the mid-1960s at a Catholic school in the Bronx, where the school’s strict headmistress, Sister Aloysius (Deborah Drakeford) comes to suspect one of the parish priests, Father Flynn (Brian Bisson), acted inappropriately with a young black student and altar boy.
Sister Aloysius—whose name evokes both a warrior and the patroness of youth—acts on information from young novice nun Sister James (Emma Nelles). Is the traditional taskmaster – who understands with precision the motivations and actions of all his young proteges – unreasonable? Does she have an ax to grind? Shanley’s script is wonderfully ambiguous as to the priest’s guilt or innocence. And this opens up broader ideas about doubt and faith in institutions and organizations.
Director Stewart Arnot brings out the intricacies of the story in many pleasing touches. Father Flynn de Bisson addresses the public as a congregation, and so we are immediately under his spell. Bisson plays the man as a charming, progressive figure who voices collective doubt and uncertainty in the post-John F. Kennedy assassination era and also knows a thing or two about basketball. He is interested in the (unseen) young Donald Muller because, as the only black child in a school of mostly Italian and Irish students, he needs a friend and protector.
But as Sister Aloysius’ investigations continue, we begin to see him in a different light. Even though Shanley is ambiguous about some things, with others he is clear. The role of women in the Catholic Church is deeply restrictive, from their wardrobe (Lara BerryThe costumes actually emphasize this difference) to their working hours and living conditions. One of the most telling scenes occurs when Father Flynn walks into Sister Aloysius’ office and quickly sits down at his desk, with Sister James serving him tea. And the way Bisson raises her voice to later exercise his supposed power over her speaks volumes about the patriarchal institution.
It’s fascinating to watch this production at this precise moment. The setting of the play is specific, but is it so different from a large corporation run by a traditional old boys club mentality? How many black and indigenous students suffered under the Catholic Church? And the themes of the play resonate unsettlingly, especially in a time when leaders of all kinds rarely shy away from a single position, even if they don’t believe in it.
I’ve mentioned Bisson’s layered performance before, and Nelles brings openness and candid simplicity to her sister James. But I must also mention the work of Kim Nelsonwhich paints in a single scene the troubled portrait of a mother who finds herself looking for the lesser of two evils (according to her) to make her family happy.
The most intriguing figure in the piece, however, is Sister Aloysius, and Drakeford lets us see the woman’s intelligence, warmth and frustration in everything from a raised eyebrow and wand-straight posture to a real concern for a blind colleague or an unprotected tree. I hope she will be recognized at the time of the awards.
Doubt: A parable continues at the Church of the Holy Trinity (19 Place de la Trinité) until November 13. See info here.
Opening this week
One of the highlights of any season is musical stage companyit is DISCOVERED, a concert series dedicated to unique arrangements and interpretations of songs by famous artists. This year, the company is trying its luck on the music of Swedish pop supergroup ABBA, with a roster of talented performers that includes Hailey Gillis, Kelly Holiff, Germaine Konji, Landon Doak, Vanessa Sear, Rosie Callaghan, Matthew Joseph and Gavin Hope.
The multiple winner of the Dora Prize Reza Jacobs (London Road, Life After, Caroline, Or Change) provide musical supervision, arrangements and orchestrations for humbling pop anthems such as Dancing Queen, Fernando, Mamma Mia and The Name Of The Game. But after more than a decade and a half, this concert marks his last concert at the head of Uncovered; he diverts his attention from the arts and pursues a career in psychotherapy.
In what is sure to be a heartbreaking moment, Jacobs himself will take the mic to sing Thanks for the Music. Indeed, thank you.
UNCOVERED: The Music Of ABBA takes place at Koerner Hall (273 Bloor West) from November 8-10. See information here.
soulpepper kicks off its own concert series this week, with The golden recordinspired by The Voyager Golden Record, a message NASA sent into space in the 1970s to communicate with possible extraterrestrials.
Conceived by mike rossthe concert – conducted by Frank Cox O’Connell – includes stories and songs performed by Divine Brown, Beau Dixon, Raha Javanfar, Travis Knights, Andre Penner, Sarah Wilson, Erin James, Erika Nielsen and Amanda Penner.
It promises to be a distant evening.
The Golden Record plays November 9-20 at the Baillie Theater at the Young Center for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House). See information here.
Even though it’s not a musical, choir boy contains a lot of glorious music. It is a piece of Tarell Alvin McCraney, who is probably best known as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of the movie Moonlight. (Soulpepper also mounted a brilliant production of McCraney’s play The Brothers Size a few seasons ago.)
Choir Boy centers on Pharus, a senior at a prestigious boys’ prep school, committed to building “strong, ethical black men.” Leader of the school’s gospel choir, Pharus also comes to terms with his identity as a young gay man.
Michael Payette leads a terrific cast (Andrew Broderick, Scott Bellis, Daren A. Herbert, Clarence “CJ” Jura, Kwaku Okyere, David Andrew Reid and Roach of Savion) in this Canadian scene/Arts Club Theater Company production.
Choir Boy runs November 8-19 at the Bluma Appel Theater (27 Front East). See information here.