Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells): compelling, complex theatre of consent

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Celia Koughan as Laura in the Neptune studio theatre production of Toronto playwright Rose Napoli’s Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells), on stage to Feb. 24. (Stoo Metz)

Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells) — a 90-minute rocket of a drama about an affair between a teacher and a student — is compelling, complex and thought-provoking theatre.

Now running at the Neptune studio theatre as part of Neptune’s season, it stars Halifax actor Josh MacDonald as a loveable, though flawed, English teacher and Charlottetown-born Celia Koughan as his precocious, emotionally-needy, talented 15-year-old student.

Toronto playwright Rose Napoli’s poetic, suspenseful narrative goes against expectations. It is not a simple, victim vs. sexual predator story.

Instead, Napoli goes into the grey areas so it’s less Harvey Weinstein and more all the news stories over the years of male and female teachers falling in love with students and vice versa and where all that lands.

Napoli’s play starts with Laura as a self-possessed 25-year-old looking back at the affair as she approaches Mr. Wells’ house to give him a copy of the novel she’s written about it.

The present and past are beautifully intercut as the story is told in quick scenes set in a classroom of yellow cement-block walls with a very important door that is left open or kept locked.

Neither character does the right thing. Napoli flips the story with creating sympathy at first for Mr. Wells and later for Laura. The audience is gripped by clarity and insight as it watches a train speeding towards a wreck.

This strong production, directed with great understanding and speed-control by Halifax director Annie Valentina, features very fine perfomances by MacDonald and Koughan in difficult roles.

MacDonald’s Mr. Wells is a goofy, kind man who loves books and writing and wants to bring out the best in his students. When the troubled Laura reveals her creative writing talent he pushes her to express herself. They start a friendly writing club – for two.

MacDonald balances the goodness in Mr. Wells with a much less appealing sexual side; his overall body language of comfort and control is very interesting.

mr.wells10Playwright Rose Napoli makes great thematic use of The Great Gatsby which Josh MacDonald as Mr. Wells reads to his student Laura in Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells). Stoo Metz

Koughan treads Laura’s complicated emotional line very well. The teenager is demanding, brilliant and desperate for love. Recovering from an attempted suicide and fatherless, she mistakes Mr. Wells’ concern for romance and pushes him hard into a forbidden world.

The chemistry – both sexual and romantic – between MacDonald and Koughan is deeply felt. The sex scenes have no nudity – thank God! – but are realistic and disturbing. (The actors worked with intimacy director Amanda Cutting, and the play comes with warnings of explicit language, underage sexual content and “simulated non-consensual intimacy.”

Leigh Ann Vardy’s hot lighting inside director Andrew Cull’s classroom with contrasting  dark, moodier lighting is part of a creative design that includes falling papers, Janet MacLellan’s apt costumes and sound designer Aaron Collier’s driving beats of heels on hard floors and booming door knocks.

This play will hit people in different ways depending on their experience. There is a warning that it may be a trigger for some people.

As a mother of a teen and also as an English major who had a crush on at least one high school English teacher – or two – I’ve been been lost in thought and likely will be for some time time to come. It runs at 7:30 p.m. with 2 p.m. weekend matinees to Feb. 24.

Joyride just as thrilling as 25 years ago

Kya Mosey and Taylor Olson in Matchstick Theatre’s production of Michael Melski’s Joyride today, 2 and 8 p.m., Neptune studio theatre. (Samm Fisher)

Cape Breton playwright Michael Melski’s short, explosive Joyride is as powerful today as it was 25 years ago.

Matchstick Theatre gives the tightly-structured, suspenseful play its hard-core strength as well as all the bells and whistles with two shows today, 2 and 8 p.m., wrapping up a short run at Neptune’s studio theatre as part of Neptune Theatre’s 2018/2019 Open Spaces program.

At just an hour long and $15, this is a great chance to see a Cape Breton classic first produced in raw, indie style and launching Melski’s career as a playwright and, now, filmmaker.

Matchstick brings this deeply honest, sometimes funny, play alive with fine acting by Kya Mosey, Henricus Gielis and Taylor Olson, sharply focussed directing by artistic director Jake Planinc and a great set design by Wes Babcock of car doors standing in for gravestones, Tim Horton’s and a pool table.

Joyride is set in post-industrial Sydney in 1994 with references to the steel mill and tar ponds. Its tragic story of disaffected youth looking to escape a dead-end town is universal.

Rachel (Mosey) is making minimum wage at the corner store she hung out in as a kid and unable to realize any of her dreams. Jess (Gielis) is also broke but more optimistic about home and inheriting his dad’s lawn mowing business. He is obviously in love with Rachel, though she’ll have none of it.

When their old friend Craig (Olson) returns home after jailtime in Halifax, he is thrilled to discover that Rachel’s boss has $40,000 in a safe.

Rachel, whose wit and intelligence surpass her prospects, is attracted to his danger and drive. The more slow-witted Jess is desperate to belong but so obviously doesn’t. Gielis makes him really empathetic and lovable.

Henricus Gielis takes his talent to Matchstick for a second time as Jess in Joyride. (Samm Fisher)

Mosey brings a natural quality to Rachel. She gets all her edges but also a sweet side and a sense of humour so one cares about her future. Olson, with his blond hair long and lank, fuels Craig with an inner rage, intelligence and initial appeal.

Melski writes with a pace like a car’s wheels spinning faster and faster as those in the audience want to shout out, “No, don’t do that.”

Adding greatly to Joyride’s imaginative design is an excellent lighting design by Alison Crosby, who is emerging lighting designer for Neptune’s Chrysalis Project, contemporary costumes by designer Kelsey Stanger and a good use sound by designer Jordan Palmer. Stage manager Chelsea Dickie is in charge of picking up all those Tim Horton’s cups.

Matchstick is an emerging, Halifax-based company dedicated to revitalizing contemporary Canadian plays. Since 2017 it has produced seven plays and received Merritt Award nominations. Newly a registered non-profit, the company is able to receive donations through Theatre Nova Scotia’s partnership program. Information and advance tickets are online (www.matchsticktheatre.ca).joyride-17
Wes Babcock’s stellar set design with Alison Crosby’s light. (Samm Fisher)

Walk across The Bridge: powerful, poetic, Black N.S. story with gospel music

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Jacob Sampson as John Solomon and Sophia Walker as Anna in The Bridge, a 2b theatre and Neptune Theatre co-production in association with Obsidian Theatre at Neptune to Feb. 10. (Stoo Metz) 

Shauntay Grant’s The Bridge is a powerful, poetic, 75-minute drama about an embattled soul told with the heartache of gospel music and an all-Black cast.

In Grant’s rural Nova Scotian community people perceive life through the lens of religion and the play is steeped in religious music and biblical references, including the Song of Solomon.

Not surprising since Grant is an award-winning poet and former Halifax poet laureate, the style is less a linear narrative and more a rich, poetic structure with repeating themes, words and songs. Framing the drama is a phrase from an African-American spiritual: “There is a balm in Gilead/to heal the sin-sick soul.”

In 2b theatre’s premiere production on Neptune’s mainstage to Feb. 10, Nova Scotia’s Jacob Sampson is terrific as the central character John Solomon, who has been estranged from his preacher-brother, Reverend Eli (Jim Codrington) for 22 years.

John is an embittered drinker, a loving father, a man who can’t control his rage, who can’t forgive, who can’t crawl deep inside himself to see the truth.

The cast, seated in darkness behind a giant wooden bridge, is a Greek chorus sitting in judgment with whispering voices that swirl around John like ghosts.

The spirit of his deceased wife Anna — in a sensual, highly expressive performance by Sophia Walker – steps forward to try to lead him through his past to a present-day healing.

The incident driving the plot is the death of John’s mother and the return of his son Samuel (Daniel Ellis) for the funeral – a funeral John, himself, refuses to attend.

Grant balances her intensely biblical, tragic story with three marvellous, gossipy, church ladies who prowl around the cemetery criticizing the folk they once knew.

2bnep - the bridge - media photos-45Charla Williams, Murleta Williams and Chiamaka G. Ugwe. (Stoo Metz)

They are also the choristers and come alive in magnificent, salty, comic performances by Halifax singer Charla Williams, Halifax singer and musical director Murleta Williams and Halifax-born actor/singer Chiamaka G. Ugwe.

2b theatre’s artistic director Anthony Black directs The Bridge to envelop the viewer in a sensory, spiritual experience of music, word images and a lovely, holy design while still highlighting the extremes of emotion and active suspense.

Apart from the bridge, itself, which is as metaphorical as it is utilitarian, Toronto-based designer Rachel Forbes suggests a country kitchen and a pulpit with a stagefront graveyard expressed in piles of dirt making one think immediately of “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

The church ladies’ costumes are in variations of browns and Leigh Ann Vardy’s subdued, golden, lighting design amid much darkness suits a play set in a real and a spirit world.

The Bridge is told in broad strokes of high emotion and a few plot details are confusing, though the emotional content is clear and deeply affecting.

Grant is 2b’s theatre playwright-in-residence and this is her first play. She writes in the program that she approaches language “with the sensibility of a poet concerned with voice and cadence, metaphor and symbolism, and – in works like The Bridge – achieving a communicable balance between the natural and the supernatural world.”

2bnep - the bridge - media photos-045

Get Thee to the Theatre: Hamlet as you’ve never seen it before

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Micha Cromwell as Ophelia in Below the Salt’s Hamlet, staged at and on an enormous  Edwardian dining table, at Neptune’s studio theatre to Jan. 20. (Stoo Metz)

I’ve seen Hamlet at Point Pleasant Park, a film noir Hamlet and even Mel Gibson as Hamlet — what was I thinking?

I have never seen a Hamlet like Below the Salt’s startling, unique theatrical experience at the Neptune Studio Theatre to Jan. 20.

Jackie Torrens as Hamlet stomps on the longest Edwardian dining table this side of Downton Abbey in an intense, inventive, atmospheric production with the audience seated at the table, behind the table and in the Neptune’s studio theatre seats.

The six actors are a butler and five maids in black dresses and white aprons who decide to stage play around – and on –  the  dining table before guests arrive.

This Hamlet matches the intelligence and inventiveness of its director,  Two Planks and a Passion Theatre’s artistic director Ken Schwartz, with the skill, ferocity and emotive power of Halifax actor Jackie Torrens as Hamlet.

Schwartz specializes in making Shakespeare’s language sound like natural conversation and the actors talk, even in the famous soliloquies, to the audience members seated at the table.

Schwartz has nurtured a tight-knit ensemble for outdoor theatre during the summer at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts near Canning. He takes some of those actors to the city including fan favourite Burgandy Code.

She brings Hamlet’s uncle, the usurping king, alive in a way I’ve never seen before – as a crafty, comfortably powerful, two-faced demagogue.

hamlet jan 2019-191Burgandy Code as the duplicitous king in Below the Salt’s Hamlet.  (Stoo Metz)

Schwartz also utilizes his magic for transforming everyday objects into things they aren’t. For example, Code dips a dining knife as a pen into a glass of scotch to write on a blood-red napkin as a piece of paper.

Jackie Torrens, who in real life is far apart in years and build from a young boy, is highly convincing and compelling as Hamlet.

Her blond hair pinned back to look boyish, her body stance stiff and solid, she brings a powerful, often restrained – other times violently unleashed – emotional torment to Hamlet that rings true.

I recognize the deep anxiety, the effort to mask it, the head-hitting in self-directed anger, as female. My husband disagrees entirely but he’s never forgiven me for taking him to Mel Gibson’s Hamlet.

hamlet jan 2019-82Jackie Torrens as Hamlet. (Stoo Metz) 

Geneviève Steele is an excellent Gertrude, both queenly and a fraught mother. She and Matthew Lumley are wonderful as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with Steele slipping out of Rosencrantz and leaving behind a hat that Lumley holds as he switches into a high voice.

Sarah English and Micha Cromwell are both fine Ophelias, with English playing Laertes and Micha anchoring Hamlet’s friend Horatio as a more interesting, commanding and  loyal character than I’ve seen him played before.

It’s amazing that only six actors populate the stage. With the audience it seems like there are so many more players. The only quibble is that the device of the table while brilliant is sometimes distancing from the actors.

This production is intensely beautiful, like a Renaissance painting, with a great use of light by designer Susann Hudson – both overhead and as candles for an excellent ghost-on-the-ramparts scene with the ghost speaking in a scary, strangled whisper.

The design by Two Planks costume designer Jennifer Goodman and set designer Bob Chaisson is rich and polished, all dark wood with warmer golds and Ophelia’s shockingly white dress. Also on the creative team are assistant director Emily Jewer and stage manager Christine Oakey, with assistance by Virginia Iredale. Set pieces were built by “Ross Creek hero” Micah McGough.

It took four years to get this creative Hamlet to the stage. Tickets at the Neptune box office are going fast but are still available.

NOTE: The summer season at Ross Creek opens July 6 with three Two Planks and a Passion Theatre shows: the mainstage show, In This Light, an adaptation of An Enemy of the People by Governor General’s Award-winning playwright Catherine Banks, the fireside performance of Frankenstein by Fire, based on the novel by Mary Shelley, and an end-of-season special performance of The Ruins by Nova Scotia playwright Gillian Clark. Tickets are already on sale (http://www.artscentre.ca/twoplankscurrent.html).

Concord Floral haunting, teen mystery: great start to a theatrical January

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Ella Buckler as Bobbie stands behind Mai To as Nearly Wild in Concord Floral, produced by DMV Theatre with the King’s Theatrical Society, at The Pit to Jan. 13. (Emily Pettet)

Concord Floral is an intriguing, compelling, 90-minute, magical mystery about suburban youth hiding a dark secret.

Staged by DMV Theatre in partnership with the King’s Theatrical Society in The Pit to Jan. 13, it’s remarkable for its talent, for Pamela Halstead’s clear and passionate direction and for the play itself – an artful, profound and haunting work by Toronto hotshot Jordan Tannahill. (In 2018 he became the youngest two-time winner of a Governor General’s Literary Award.)

In this literary 2014 work, originally created with high school students from the Greater Toronto Area, Tannahill underpins a pungent realism and accurate, raw teen-speak with magic, mysticism and historical references.

There is a universal, eternal quality to this slice-of-life and examination of guilt, fear, redemption and mercy with a philosophical, talking bird, a fox and a greenhouise.

Concord Floral is the name of an abandoned greenhouse in a field at the back of these kids’ houses in their Ontario town north of the 407. It’s a hideout, a party place, a teen world of wildness and gritty reality apart from the everyday world of school and home.

One night on their way to get McFlurrys, Rosa and her best friend Nearly Wild drop back from the group to go into the greenhouse to smoke a joint.

Using their iPhones as flashlights to search for a dropped lighter, Rosa drops her phone down a pit and they stumble on a freaky mystery that will haunt them both, Nearly Wild in particular, as she heads towards madness.

Concord Floral has a Greek, choral structure with a narrator announcing mini-scenes as actors step out of line to become students in a classroom or a cafeteria – settings created just with the swift movemnt of chairs – or friends hanging out in a basement.

The play is very funny even as it deals with the big issues of sex and death, cruelty to one another and the need to belong.

The way these characters, so adept at social media, talk over each other, interrupt each other and finish each other’s sentences is wonderful.

Halstead, co-founder and artistic producer of  DMV, has an excellent cast of 10 actors who are either in high school or university.

They are good at defining character and natural in their roles so these teens feel authentic as Halstead moves them quickly around like chess pieces in an imaginary world made visible through words.

On stage are the play’s anchors in the very talented Mai To as Nearly Wild and the equally strong Ayline Sozdinler as Rosa; Harvey Gildea in a scene-stealing bit as the endangered Bobalink; Maika Villeneuve as an excellent fox; Ella Buckler, Lauryn Forrest, Daniel Halpern, David Woroner and Leela Shamash. The moral heart of the play turns out to be the greenhouse, a wistful, insightful character played by Adriana Loewen.

The creative team includes lighting designer Ingrid Risk, whose expert lighting is key; sound designer June Zinck, choral consultant Chuck Homewood, movement coach Emily Pettet, technical director Christopher Tully and stage manager Gina Thornhill.|

Concord Floral runs Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m. Enter The Pit through the main arts and administration building of the University of King’s College. Tickets are $20 adult, $15 artist and $12 students (http://www.theatrens.ca/buy-tickets/ or 902-425-3876) and good value for your money.

Concord Floral is one of four plays in Halifax this January including Below the Salt’s immersive production of Hamlet, set in an Edwardian dining room, directed by Ken Schwartz, now running to Jan. 20 in a Neptune Theatre presentation in its studio theatre; The Bridge, Shauntay Grant’s exploration of faith, family and foregiveness in a rural Black Nova Scotian community, Jan. 25 to Feb. 10, Neptune mainstage, a 2b theatre/Neptune co-production in association with Obsidian Theatre, and Matchstick Theatre’s staging of Michael Melki’s Joyride, also about disaffected youth and violence, for the play’s 25th anniversary, Jan. 24 to 27 at Neptune’s studio theatre.

Welcome to Dante’s Wild World

 Andrew Chen plays Dante in the fountain School of Performing Arts production of Dante’s Purgatorio at the Sir James Dunn Theatre, Halifax,  through Saturday. (Ken Kam)

 Dante’s Purgatorio is a noisy, funny, thought-provoking, visual extravaganza that makes remarkable use of the entire Sir James Dunn Theatre in a Fountain School of Performing Arts show running through Saturday.

Stripped down to its black brick walls, the theatre becomes the frightening world of Purgatory as protagonist Dante and his companion, ancient poet Virgil, climb out of hell – a glowing red, smoking pit – to meet the unusual, amazingly-costumed, often frightening denizens sometimes representing different sins.

These creatures rise up out of pits, appear in upper balconies, dash through an invisible lower door and race in and out loudly on wheeled stairs. There’s both a deus ex machina quality and a simplicity to the moveable, architectural set with removable, orange, metal fences – often banged down in frustration.

American playwright and Arizona professor Patrick Baliani’s translation and adaptation of Dante’s epic poem, begun c. 1308 and completed in 1320 just a year before the Florentine writer died, is crisp and clear, contemporary but not overly so and quite humourous. (He gives a free master’s class,Adapting Dante’s Purgatory, Friday, 1 to 2 p.m., in Studio Two, Dal Arts Centre.)

Andrew Chen as the hot-blooded, driven Dante and Logan Robins as the cooler, rationalist Virgil are very good as they argue about philosophy and religion, play word games and encounter fantastic beings who sing, gamble, beg to be remembered to their living loved ones, tempt or torment them.

Dalhousie Acting Program instructor Margot Dionne’s exuberant direction suits her young actors who put their all into character creation and the rush of movement in this inbetween world on this one day — Easter Sunday – when Dante is 35.

Waiting at the top of the Mount Purgatory is Dante’s beloved, celestial Beatrice (Ky Fleming). Also in this strong cast are: Zilong Chen, Kaylin Dean, John Gilchrist,Katie Graham, Rebekah Leon, Stephanie Mah, Greg Mansour, Linda Meian, Meaghan Taverner and Emily Pratt.

The visuals, the sound, the creatures themselves, make for a chilling, unsetttling experience with lots of ghosts called “shades” envying Dante’s living body.

dante4Dante’s Purgatorio features angels and ghosts in an amazing costume design. (Ken Kam)

“This play puts me in mind of such November celebrations as Allhallowtide (Halloween, All Saints’ Day,All Souls’ Day) and the Day of the Dead!,” the director writes in the program. 

It’s like being inside a highly populated Brueghel painting and the stern, good and evil drama of Blake’s images thanks to lighting designer Bruce MacLennan, set and projection designer Karyn McCallum, sound designer/composer Alex Arnold and costume designer John Pennoyer, who has outdone himself with the aid of many student cutters and stitchers. (The angel’s wings alone are amazing.)

Today  the Christian view of the world is less dominant than it was in the early 14th century. Dante’s world was heavily Christian and highly political; heaven and hell, good and evil were very real.

The  highly detailed program helps in explaining Dante’s time, the poem and the director’s intentions. And this producation actually makes you want to read The Divine Comedy.

Dante’s Purgatorio runs through Saturday, 7:30p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee, at the Dunn Theatre, Dalhousie Arts Centre. Tickets available at the arts centre box office(902-494-3820/1-800-874-1669 or online at http://dal.ca/artscentre).


The Changeling: #metoo meets 17th century in intense, fast-paced tragedy

Kayla Gunn as Beatrice and Michael Kamras as Deflores in The Villain’s Theatre production of The Changeling: Chimes of Bedlam at the Bus Stop Theatre today and Dartmouth’s Sawmill Theatre Wed. to Dec. 2. (Stoo Metz)  

The Villain’s Theatre updates The Changeling to make it about a young woman driven to extreme action because of male power structures.

 As a Jacobean tragedy, the play set in a madhouse is full of murky morality, murder, treachery and sexual appetite.

The protagonist Beatrice wants to get rid of her father who stands in the way of her marrying a gentleman she fancies.

To do so she leads on the nasty orderly Deflores who has long lusted after her. As everything unravels, she becomes a victim as much as a villain. When the song Let Me Call You Sweetheart comes on after an unpleasant end to Act I it’s super creepy.

This intense, fast-paced, atmospheric production – at 90 minutes including intermission – compresses the plot.  Some details are a bit confusing if you don’t know the early 17th century classic by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley.

Director Dorian Lang strongly creates a mood befitting all the references to fools and madmen at Bedlam.

The design of windows and mirrors with Matthew Downey’s spooky, low level lighting is very effective. Characters rush in and out; a mad girl sings presciently. The use of sound is good: dripping water, carnivalesque music for mad dances.

Particularly expressive in the cast are Kayla Gunn as the increasingly desperate, conniving Beatrice and Michael Kamras as Deflores, with scabby makeup on his forehead since it’s clear Deflores is physically repugnant. Kamras creates an unloved monster like a Caliban with a looming sense of violence and all the hopes-dashed misery of the outcast.

Abby Weisbrot as the servant Diana is a natural and makes the scene where Beatrice tests a drug on her to indicate virginity a lively, fun one. Also in the able cast are Dan Bray, Sherwin Buydens, Audrey Eastwood with a lovely singing voice and Colleen MacIsaac.

Also on the creative team are: dramaturge Laura Burke, stage manager Olivia McGinn, original composer Jenny Trites, set designer Patricia Vinluan, costume designer Kelsey Stanger and choreographer Holly Arsenault.

 In updating a classic to explore contemporary issues, the Halifax company’s artistic director Dan Brayand and artistic producer Colleen MacIsaac make it clear that Beatrice has no options to exercise her free will and has to navigate – and break – rigid societal structures as she seeks power.

Watching The Changeling: Chimes of Bedlam one thinks of all the male media and entertainment executives demanding sexual favours of young women to advance their careers and of the many rigid patriarchal structures – some crumbling, others still standing – that block women and other oppressed people around the world.

The Changeling: Chimes of Bedlam is at the Bus Stop Theatre, 2203 Gottingen St., today at 2 p.m. and at the Sawmill Playhouse (formerly the Dartmouth Players’ theatre), 33 Crichton Ave., Darmouth, Nov. 28 to Dec. 1, 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m.matinee Dec. 1 and 2.. Tickets are through villainstheatre.com. Next up for the nine-year-old company is Fox, based on Volpone, in February.