Eavesdrop: The Coffee Shop Show – Review

16 Apr


Actors pictured (l to r) Wil Knoll and Geneviève Paré. Photo credit Cassie’s Camera


Eavesdrop: The Coffee Shop Show 

April 15 to May 2, 2014

Various locations


Listen to my review from CBC’s Calgary Eyeopener at



For everyone - This show is a great  idea without the content to back it up. The wireless headphones and the working coffee shop locale fall into gimmick territory thanks to a script that is neither engaging nor terribly unique. If we don’t care about these characters then why would we want to eavesdrop on them in the first place? On the plus side, Swallow-a-Bicycle has a history of reworking and remounting its plays several times. Perhaps the next incarnation will be more fully formed. SKIP IT TILL NEXT TIME

The Diary of Anne Frank – Review

7 Apr

Anne Frank

The cast of RosebudTheatre’s The Diary of Anne Frank. Photo credit: Kelsey Krogman


The Diary of Anne Frank

March 28 to May 17

Rosebud Theatre


Listen to my review from CBC’s Calgary Eyeopener at 




For fans of the book – While the play doesn’t capture the literary prowess and imagination of this precocious young teen, it does give full life to situations that can only be described on Anne’s pages. So it’s a bit of give and take in this gorgeous production that sees many fine performances but an Anne that is too perky to be completely engrossed by. MAYBE SEE IT

For The Diary of Anne Frank newbies – This is a 60-year-old play that still is relatable and relevant. We can all imagine the horror of being locked in at attic with 7 other people in fear for your life and terrified that someone may hear you. But the real draw of the story is Anne, who managed to remain hopeful throughout her ordeal. While the production may do Anne some disservice, overall this is a very good introduction to her story. SEE IT

For occasional theatre goers – The story may be familiar but you will not find a dull moment in this production thanks to a magnificent set,some very fine acting and a few laughs amongst the ultimately tragic story being told. SEE IT

For theatre junkies – It’s odd to say forget about Anne when watching The Diary of Anne Frank but if you are willing, there are some outstanding performances in this eye-catching production. While Director Paul Muir may have faltered with getting his Anne to really resonate and once or twice goes in for some terribly hackneyed staging (the final attic scene in particular), the majority of the direction flows effortlessly and shows a real talent for navigating a small, stagnant set. MAYBE SEE IT


Dad Day 1 – Review

3 Apr


Dad, Day 1 playwright and actor, Dave Kelly. Photo by Nicole Zylstra


Dad, Day 1

March 31 – April 19, 2014

Lunchbox Theatre



Dad, Day 1, Dave Kelly’s confessional monologue about his reflections on parenting brought about by the birth of his first child, begins predictably with the cry of a new-born infant from a darkened stage. When the lights go up, we see Dave in what looks like a garbage strewn outdoor hospital parking lot (sloppily conceived by Terry Gundvordahl) looking for his car just a short while after he and his wife have welcomed their son, John, into the world. From the cliché and sit-commy patter that follows (Are these booties or socks? The scramble story trying to make it to the delivery room, the gushes of joy at becoming a Dad) it seems that Dad, Day 1, under Rebecca Northan’s direction,  is to be an unabashedly over sentimental light comedy about first time fatherhood. But just when the gooey-smirky-sweetness of the whole things begins to lull us into sugar shock, something interesting happens. The birth of John becomes a mere device for Kelly to give us a far more interesting, dramatically complex and meaty narrative. One that more or less leaves baby John aside and has everything to do with Dave’s own upbringing and his contentious relationship with his parents.

But to get there you need to wade through about 30 minutes (half the show) of what amounts to Dave doing his best PG- friendly stand-up routine. In it he delivers a series of set ups and punch lines (with constant outstretched arms for effect) on everything from a guy giving him the finger to preferring to set up the home stereo system over building the crib. It’s the unbuilt nursery by the way that’s underneath Gunvordahl’s garbage parking lot tarps and it’s Dave’s job in the second half of the play to remove the coverings,  put the baby’s room together  and use the furniture as  a stand in for items in his parent’s home.

Meeting Dave’s parents in the play is a fluffy occasion. Projections of photos of Mom and Dad appear on what looks like an oversized schoolroom movie screen with Dave saying hello to them as if starring in an episode of Mr. Dressup.  We hear tales of how strong, decisive and full of stories and laughter they are.  We also learn of his father’s emotional distance and his mother’s extreme devoutness and how both of these traits develop into huge roadblocks in Dave’s relationship with them.  It’s here that Kelly finally stops performing and begins acting and it’s here that the narrative gives the audience something to truly pay attention to. Vulnerability and hurt are at the heart of these scenes even when they are wrapped in humorous bed-wetting scenarios that has Dave praying to his mother’s many saints to make it stop. As the tensions between the always sweet – even in rebellion – Dave and his absolutist parents come to a head, we can’t help but feel the child in all of us break a little at the thought of being rejected by a mother or father.

However, the immersive empathy doesn’t last long. It seems Northan can’t leave well enough alone on the dramatic front and instead of trusting Kelly’s writing and performance to draw us into his struggle; she keeps interrupting the action with schmaltzy music overlays. To be fair, she does this the entire show, but while it was simply groan-worthy to have heart-stringy music playing as Dave describes holding his child for the first time, it’s inexcusable to do the same overtop of Dave reading a dramatically crucial and curious letter from his father.

By the end of the show, the device and the drama do eventually meet up again. Will the birth of Dave’s child mend broken fences between him and his parents? Being a true story, I suppose it’s unfair to wish for an unresolved yet compelling ending where neat answers aren’t always available. Besides who could wish anything but good things for the always affable Kelly?  But if I had one wish for both he and Northan in this production it would be to take the finger off the corny trigger and let us warm to the ending quietly and calmly without the inclusion of one last tear-jerky manipulation.  After all, we may not all be parents but we all have or had our own and none of us need cheap dramatics to feel the emotion of those relationships.



For parents – I have no doubt that many of you will relate to the joy and uncertainly of being a first time parent exhibited in this show. But reflecting back to you what you already know is easy. Making you think about what you don’t know or haven’t thought about is what makes for a good piece of drama. And yes, Dave’s relationship with his parents is a revelation. Put those together (if you don’t mind the schmaltz) and you should enjoy well it enough. SEE IT

For the childless – It’s quite possible that you find the whole ‘wonder at being a new parent’ thing tiresome and unfortunately that’s a large part of the show. But get past that and some awfully hackneyed treatments and there are real family relationship gems to be found. MAYBE SEE IT

For the occasional theatre goer – Even when Kelly over plays the delivery he is a likeable and sweet presence on stage. The tidy arc, the gulp in your throat story and the way no one is ever played as a bad guy may be just the sweet uplifting tale you long for. SEE IT

For the theatre junkie – There is no doubt that buried in this play is about 20 minutes of honest, raw, splendidly-written and performed theatre. And yes sometimes it’s advisable to date a lot of frogs to get to the prince. But in this case, the combination of the exhaustingly familiar, the sitcom timing, the heavy-handed emotional manipulation and the unimpressive staging and set design make this particular layer of frogs possibly too thick to bother with. MAYBE SEE IT

The Mountaintop – Review

31 Mar


KEVIN HANCHARD (Martin Luther King, Jr.) and BERYL BAIN (Camae) in The Mountaintop. Photo by Trudie Lee.


The Mountaintop

March 25 – April 20, 2014

Max Bell Theatre


Listen to my review on CBC’s Calgary Eyeopener at 




I’m far too conflicted about this one to break it down into neat categories. So instead let’s look at the positives and negatives of this show:

On the plus side - Killer performances are the major draw for this production. Both actors tear up the stage and are thrilling to watch despite the script betraying them in the end. The  first 50 minutes or so in this fictional account of Dr King’s last night on earth is an entertaining (if a bit thin) piece of theatre deftly directed by Jan Alexandra Smith that while not revelatory, has several satisfying themes and arcs to keep our attention.

Where it falls apart – After the BIG plot twist is revealed, things go downhill quickly. Once the surprise wears off, the play begins to drag seemingly not knowing how to wind down. Then when it does end, it is such a mess and so out of step with the rest of the show that it almost makes us forget what we liked about the play to begin with. Here we have writing that lacks confidence and direction that is both overly dramatic and shallow.

SEE IT or SKIP IT? - The good is great, the bad is awful. Enjoyment of this show depends on how full you view your half glass.



Closer – Review

27 Mar


(l to R) Alana Hawley, Ryan Luhning, Allison Lynch and Curt McKinstry. PHOTO CREDIT: Trudie Lee



March 21 – April 5, 2014

Studio at Vertigo Theatre



On the benefits of honesty, Mark Twain famously said that if you speak the truth, you don’t have to remember anything. But had Twain been able to see Patrick Marber’s play, Closer, he may have revised his thinking to add that telling the truth can also come back to bite you. And shock you in the process. Marber’s 1997 play which won the English playwright London’s most prestigious awards including the Critics’ Circle, the Evening Standard, and the Olivier, is marketed as the expletive-ridden, ribald story of four intertwined characters and their sexual indiscretions. But while the play is rife with words you still can’t say in polite company, it isn’t the language or even the promiscuity that makes Closer a scandalous type of story-telling. Rather, it’s the frankness with which the characters discuss their bad behaviour and true adulterous desires that makes the script worth noting. Add to this Kevin McKendrick’s brand of elegantly economic direction and you have a production worth noting. At least parts of it.

Dan (Curt McKinstry) is a wannabe novelist who works as an obituary writer at a local paper. He meets a beautiful young stripper, Alice (Allison Lynch) when she is hit by a car and he takes her to the hospital to bandage her leg. That act of kindness (and a crustless sandwich) is all Alice needs to fall head over heels in love with Dan. Initially Dan returns her affection. He leaves his girlfriend and is so enchanted with Alice that she inspires him to write a novel based on her life. But eventually it becomes clear that while he fancies Alice, love is not something he feels for her.  Love comes to Dan when he meets Anna (Alana Hawley), a photographer hired to take his head shot for the jacket of his novel. Instantly attracted to Anna’s maturity and confidence, Dan hits on her unsuccessfully but lays the seeds for a fire that will grow between them. However, inadvertently through an extremely funny and wonderfully staged cybersex prank, Dan introduces Anna to Larry (Ryan Luhning) a dermatologist who also becomes besotted with Anna and the two marry. Despite the marriage, Dan can’t let go of Anna, Anna is still bewitched by Dan and Alice and Larry are the poor saps who watch the destruction of their relationships and take their own brand of sexual and emotional revenge.

In Marber’s script, very little of this wanting and having another goes unspoken. It’s as if the characters have some kind of mental disorder that renders them unable to lie or even soften the blow. So an exchange between characters typically goes like this:


Larry: I slept with someone in New York. A whore. I’m sorry. Please don’t leave me.

Anna: Why?

Larry: For sex. I wanted sex. I used a condom.

Anna: Was it good?

Larry: Yes.


But while Marber’s characters demand and give honesty freely, it seems that not a one of them can take it with neutrality or be truthful about what they really want to know or hear. Watching each one of them blurt out these pivotal/hurtful truths and in turn be hurt themselves, is certainly interesting and even shocking for a time. However with two acts spanning three years of this kind of behaviour, the play becomes less zesty in a moment-by –moment way and begins to feel like a wash-rinse-repeat type of storytelling.

Still, supported by Cimmeron Meyer’s minimalist, stark white set design with mercifully restrained use of video projection, the play certainly has its outstanding moments. The aforementioned online sex prank is pretty much worth a ticket as are a number of exchanges between characters including Larry and Anna’s divorce signing and Anna and Alice’s discussion of male behaviour. “The dog loves the owner and the owner loves the dog for doing so,” says Larry bitterly to Anna.  “We arrive with our baggage and they are fine with it for a while. They are baggage handlers,” says Anna to Alice. These may be truths blurted out, but at least here Marber is trying to comment on something more substantive than who wants to jump into bed with whom, next.

Also of issue with the production is the uneven casting/character development. Alice and Larry are the fuller-drawn characters and both Lynch and Luhning give fantastic all-in performances as the cuckolded partners capable of inflicting damage of their own. Without a doubt, it’s the scenes featuring only these two where the real heat and discomfort of the plot gets turned up. Conversely, Dan, the man both women are supposed to be gaga over is written as a whiny wet blanket without one ounce of sexual appeal. Faced with a problematic character, McKinstry does little to bring much-needed charisma to Dan which results in a forgettable performance. Coupled with Costume Designer Rebecca Toon’s decision to dress him in old man brown corduroy-looking pant and jacket, I can’t imagine anyone in the audience could understand his appeal to the ladies. Similarly under-drawn is Anna with her lacklustre personality and zero sexual energy. Here Hawley seems unsure how to play her. Uptight and cool one minute, looser and almost girly by the end. Toon again seems to have missed the chance to make us see why Anna is so universally desired. Clad in mumsy clothes (nude stockings with granny wedges) and her hair in an old-fashioned bun, Hawley’s Anna is about as appealing as a dry piece of toast.

In the end, Closer, is more than just shock theatre about people behaving badly. It’s about how even in the purest truths we tell; there are still elements of deceptions when it comes to romantic love. To others or to ourselves. To riff on Oscar Wilde’s belief that “the truth is never pure and rarely simple”, this production of Closer is never perfect but occasionally excellent.



For sensitive ears/tastes – Don’t….just don’t. There isn’t enough of an important take away here for you to spend 2 hours offended by language and plot. SKIP IT

For occasional theatre-goers – The jumping around from one year to the next and pivotal point scenes filling in for comprehensive storyline might feel too skittish to you. Add to that four totally unsympathetic characters behaving deplorably and there isn’t much for you to hang your hat on here.  However the scandalous nature of the story is certainly not boring and that might be a change you welcome. MAYBE SEE IT

For theatre junkies – McKendrick’s direction is as always a joy to watch even if half of his cast feels lost or miscast. While this type of staccato, shock-type narrative might not be new to you, it’s intriguing to note that a 17-year-old play still has the power to shake us awake in moments. Also of note is the decision to set the play not in London, but in Vancouver, ridding the cast from having the attempt accents of any kind. It’s a smart move in a production that had enough smart moves to warrant some attention. MAYBE SEE IT








Travel’s With My Aunt – Review

22 Mar


Christopher Hunt (top) and Stephen Hair (bottom). Photo by Ben Laird.

Travels With My Aunt

March 8 – April 6, 2014

Vertigo Theatre


It’s not quite accurate to say that I didn’t know Simon Mallet had it in him. A director whose work I’ve come to admire, Mallet usually plies his trade in the small confines of the Motel space at EPCOR Centre. In the past I’ve used words such a deft and taut to describe his ability to make thoughtfully  intimate stories visually arresting without much room to move them  about. So it was somewhat of a surprise to learn that Mallet was to direct Travels With My Aunt, a globe-hopping comedic caper based on Graham Greene’s novel and adapted for the stage by Giles Havergal. But I suppose, considering Mallet’s staging strengths, it should be no surprise that this show is gorgeous top to bottom, even if the story itself is a little lacklustre.

The play, set in 1969, tells the story of Henry Pulling, a 55-year old retired straight-laced bank clerk who seems to have no interests or passions outside of tending to his dahlias. Yes, there’s an equally boring woman who seems to want to marry him, but Henry is ambivalent to the whole thing much as he is towards life in general. It isn’t until his Mother’s funeral all this changes thanks to meeting his flamboyantly unconventional Aunt Augusta who promptly informs him that his mother wasn’t actually his mother after all. It seems that Henry’s father was a notorious playboy who saddled Henry’s now deceased step mother with him before taking off some years later and mysteriously dying. Tempting Henry with the mystery of his real mother and drawing him in to what increasingly seems like her involvement in a litany of illegal for-profit activities with a bunch of colourful characters, Aunt Augusta whisks Henry around the world from one adventure to another with the police never far behind. You can easily guess the rest – Henry is transformed, his mother is revealed, any tragedy is swept aside in the zaniness and it all works out in the end.  It’s too long, overly obvious and just not all that interesting despite the twists and turns and occasional laughs the play throws at us. But this one of those rare productions where the story itself can take a back seat thanks to Mallet, his design team and a foursome of talented performers.

The biggest ace up the sleeve in Travels With My Aunt is Havergal’s call for rotation and interchange of actors and roles. Each actor in the show (the dream team of Stephen Hair, Braden Griffiths, Christopher Hunt and Michael Tan all dressed alike in suits and hats) take turns at playing Henry, sometimes simultaneously. Additionally the actors are given many other characters to play with each one taking ownership of a key role. Hair delightfully conjures his best Auntie Mame in Aunt Augusta, Tan plays Augusta’s much younger valet/boyfriend Wordsworth, Griffiths plays O’Toole the undercover CIA agent and Hunt plays Mr. Visconti, the con-artist love of Augusta’s life.

All this back and forth and changing characters, often in mid-sentence could have been a jumbled mess, but Mallet flows the men through the shape shifting comedic narrative with elegant dancerly-like staging. For their part, the actors helped the transitions with their effortless slips in and out of characters. However it should be noted that while the men on stage were able to bring many great personalities to life, their prowess at some of the accents left much to be desired. Freetown-born Wordsworth often sounds Jamaican, Turkish police come off as Slavic and if that’s what an Italian accent sounds like, I’ll eat my shirt.

But again and surprisingly, all this is generally forgiven, especially when the lapses in accent are offset by our besotted obsession with Anton De Groot’s set design. Consisting of a two level structure made of suitcases, hidden compartments and peep holes, DeGroot’s set is as useful to the narrative as it is arresting to look at. Throw in the clever use of bell hop carts as cars (with a Flintstones driving technique that I admit made me laugh every time) and even when the story lagged, we were kept alert waiting to see what the set could do next.

Production over substance has rarely rung my bell. Take all the glitter away, I still want my theatre to grab me one way or another. But while Travels With My Aunt may not amuse enough to sufficiently tickle or intrigue enough to sit up and pay attention, it’s one of those production where maybe it doesn’t need to in order for it to be enjoyable.


For Mystery Lovers – Since Vertigo is a mystery theatre, some will come to this production expecting a Who Done It. But this play is more a comedy with a caper thrown in. Relax though, it’s still a fun ride and there’s enough of a reveal in the play satisfy you.  SEE IT

For occasional theatre goers – At intermission I heard several folks talking about being confused at times with all the character changes. Still no one seemed to dislike the play. Consider this one where you might need to pay more attention than you are used to in order to have the good fun. MAYBE SEE IT

For the theatre junkie – This is not a show that NEEDS to be part of your canon. But if you can forgive the story and the accent issues you will luxuriate in some terrific direction, gorgeous set design and the efforts of four talented actors. MAYBE SEE IT

Tomorrow’s Child

20 Mar

Ghost River

l to r – Tomorrow’s Child Co-Adaptors / Co-CreatorMatthew Waddell and Eric Rose. Seated: Evan Medd (Assistant Director). Photo by David van Belle.


Tomorrow’s Child

March 17 -22, 2014

2007 10 Ave SW



“Is not life a hundred times too short for us to bore ourselves?” It was this quote from Nietzsche that came to mind upon receiving the news that innovative Calgary theatre company Ghost River Theatre was embarking on what they call their SIX SENSES SERIES, a series of six plays, each one based on a single sense with sound being the focus of the first production. This is not to suggest that traditional theatre is boring. I still easily get goose bumps seeing a fantastically produced/performed conventional piece of work. It’s just that too much of the same, even good customary theatre, can become routine after a while. Therefore companies trying to push boundaries and offer theatre-goers new experiences are always of interest to me. With Tomorrow’s Child, Ghost River’s audio-only play, not only has this company given us something different, they’ve delivered a stimulating performance that engages the audience deeply and rewards them with an intriguing immersive experience combined with compelling storytelling.

Adapted from celebrated science fiction author Ray Bradbury’s 1948 short story Tomorrow’s Child, the play, conceived and co-created by Eric Rose and Matthew Waddell and directed by Eric Rose, tells the story of a couple whose child is born into another dimension. Through mechanical malfunction of a futuristic birthing machine (ironically set in 1986) Polly (voiced by Anna Cummer) and Peter’s (Tyrell Crews) baby boy Pi is born looking in this dimension like a blue pyramid with tentacles. Dr. Wolcott (David Van Belle), the attending physician explains that in Pi’s dimension he is a normal baby but technology hasn’t advanced enough yet to crack the dimensions and bring Pi the human-looking baby back to Polly and Peter. The couple has no choice but to go home and look after their pyramid-infant while the doctors/scientists try to come up with a solution.

But it’s the telling of the story here that is the real point of the production. Reimagined as a purely sonic experience, audience members are blindfolded and taken individually into the theatre space and placed in swivel chairs by performers in white lab coats. It’s in total blackness upon entering that we are bombarded with the 360 effect of happy playground noises. It’s a familiar and delightful sound no doubt designed to soothe what can be at first an anxiety inducing experience. Once everyone is seated, the playground titters fade away and the sci-fi story begins.

Using 10 speakers and 3 subwoofers that boom, echo, whisper come at you from different spaces in the dark and often feature concurrent dialogue or sound effects, Sound Designer Waddell brings to life the feel of Tomorrow’s Child. This production may only operate on one sense, but to us it feels distinctly multisensory. No, we can’t see the action being describe to us, but Waddell’s effects are so comprehensive and complex that we can’t help but see, feel and become committed to the tale. At times the soundscape feels like dreaming (when sound is the only offering) at times it’s like having and e-book read to you in the dark (dialogue portions of the play) and at times it felt markedly like an art installation a la Janet Cardiff’s celebrated piece The Forty Part Motet.

Of particular note were Waddell’s plot advancing montages that featured a cacophony of ideas all at once. A scene where Peter and Polly decide on Pi’s name is beautifully illustrated by a litany of boy’s names ringing out around the space in whirlwind-like fashion. Fast forwarding the everyday realities and hardships of taking care of Pi is sounded out through overlapping sounds including, “Is he down? Here comes the choo choo…mmmm! I can’t do this all by myself!”, that any new parent can relate to. Equally smart was the imagining of what Pi’s voice would sound like to his otherly dimensional parents. Part squeaky toy filled with sand with just the inkling of baby coos, Pi sounds human enough that we are made to care about him and his parents plight.

Less successful are the moments Rose and Waddell become too enamoured with their own soundscape, lingering on effects for too long and perhaps overestimating the audience’s ability to listen to machine malfunction or alarmist tone-setting effects. Here Waddell’s sound was reminiscent of the drug addled days when Led Zeppelin would take the stage and do nothing but wail vocally and instrumentally for an hour before taking off. But thankfully these moments are few.

In the final moments of the production where the surreal solution to the dilemma in Tomorrow’s Child is revealed and the audience is invited to take off their masks, we are gently brought out of our mind’s eye to finally see the space we’ve inhabited. With full senses back and a feeling of having experienced something remarkable, we leave the theatre just a little more tuned into our imagination and aware of what listening can bring us. And isn’t that what all theatre ought to aim for?



For Ray Bradbury Fans – You’ll be happy to know that Mr. Bradbury’s estate blessed this production and I do believe that the great author himself would be intrigued by the treatment of his work. What the soundscape experience affords is the ability for a theatre company to stage a sci-fi production without worrying how to create grand visual effects worthy of the narrative. Plus, those of you who have enjoyed visualizing the world’s Bradbury created will be able to hold onto your vision of Polly, Peter and Pi. SEE IT

For the sci-fi averse – If the story/genre turns you off so much that you aren’t even curious about the soundscape experience than this one isn’t for you. But if you are willing to take in a story that might not be your first choice in order to experience an intriguing production, than go for it. MAYBE SEE IT

For the occasional theatre goer – This is a big leap from watching Jersey Boys or Shirley Valentine. And if it’s these easily digestible, lightly entertaining show’s you’re after, then better to give this one a pass. SKIP IT

For theatre junkies – The ability to challenge how you experience a play is always intriguing and this show rewards on many levels. Yes it might have been nice if the story told was original as opposed to a well-known Bradbury short story. Not already knowing the plot might have enhanced the experience. But give this company credit for moving the conversation forward, if not completely, more than enough to be paid attention to. SEE IT


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