Peace in Our Time – Review

20 Sep


L-R: Albrecht Richter (Fritz Dickmann), Lyia Vivian (Elizabeth Marshall Black), George Bourne (Joe Kirkendall), Nora Shattock (Celeste Roberts), and Chorley Bannister (Joel Sandel). Photo Credit:


Peace in Our Time

Written by: Noël Coward

Directed by: Rebecca Greene Udden

Company: Main Street Theatre in collaboration with the University of Houston School of Theatre and Dance

Run Dates: Sept 13 – Oct 19, 2014


“We got licked. We lost the battle of Britain”, announces bar owner Fred Shattock unnecessarily to the British patrons in his pub who are all too aware of the occupation they find themselves under. The year is 1940 (at least at the start of the play) and this alternative universe where Nazis occupy England, Churchill has been shot and the Isle of Wight is now a POW camp, is uncharacteristically courtesy of Noel Coward and his rarely produced 1947 play, Peace in Our Time. Coward, known for his fizzy drawing-room comedies that cast a satiric eye on London’s upper classes, here sets aside his trademark genre and instead delivers a ‘what if ‘scenario focusing on working class men and women who have very little to laugh at indeed. It’s an interesting scenario, this switching masters narrative, and one that Coward was by all accounts quite interested to explore. But sometimes there’s a reason a play is rarely produced and sometimes it seems even a great writer falls flat when stepping too far outside of his wheelhouse. Peace in Our Time is a clunky bore of a show made even more bereft of any resonant emotion thanks to some slipshod direction, sloppy acting and a set design that doesn’t quite gel.

To examine how an occupied Britain would react to their new reality, Coward sets his play entirely inside Shattock’s bar. The set up allows for a stream of patrons (24 actors in total) to come and go in flashcard like fashion spanning several years (1940 to 45), ostensibly representing the developing views of the people over time. Instead what we get are snapshot clichés. Oh look, there’s Mr. and Mrs. Grainger (Carl Masterson and Lisa A. Williams) the couple who suffers in silence over their missing son. Over there is Lyia Vivian (Elizabeth Marshall Black) and George Bourne (Joe Kirkendall) the wealthy couple not all that perturbed by the turn of events. Then there is Chorley Bannister (Joel Sandel) the magazine editor with sycophantic leanings towards his German conquerors. It’s not that these characters wouldn’t have existed in Coward’s imagined scenario that’s the problem. It’s that they are thinly drawn as nothing more than the description on the page. Inner lives or any sense of development/motivation gets utterly dismissed by Coward’s preachy heavy-handed writing that is far more obsessed with boasting the stiff upper lip and ultimate patriotic resistance of the English than it is in examining that it might have actually felt like for these people. And if the characters aren’t feeling, the audience can’t be expected to either. When Shattock and his wife Nora (Rutherford Cravens and Celeste Roberts) miss their son and eventually experience the worst kind of parental tragedy, dry eyes abound. We don’t really know these characters and by the time we are asked to respond to their grief, we’re bored from trying.

While it is true that an artist can only do so much with what is on the page, Director Rebecca Greene Udden does little to bring gravitas to the action. Instead she often has her cast scrabbling about like chickens on the small stage resulting in an unfortunate comedic effect during many of the play’s more serious moments. Actors run in and out, fall on the floor, slam doors, and gather together etc. in an unattractive and gawky fashion making it seem at times like the only stage direction was “go!”

Similarly the cast in general does the play no favours save for Pamela Vogel as Janet Braid, the plucky middle age patron not afraid to stand up for England in public. Vogel manages to rise beyond the script’s shortcomings and brings as nice amount of warmth and interest to her character. The rest of the cast varies from passably forgettable to egregiously ill-accented. In the mouths of more than one performer, poorly executed trills of Cheerio and Right-O were enough to make your teeth itch. The German characters fair no better with their, “Pahaps zey vill lehrn.” But accents aside, it’s an age divide that really separates the fine from the not so fine in this production. As part of the collaboration with the University of Houston’s Theatre and Dance department, several emerging performers have been cast into the mix. As a reviewer, I am hesitant to comment on student actors as I feel that they should generally be immune to the critic’s eye until they are more fully fledged and have had time to play, make mistakes and learn. But this is a professional production and it would be remiss not to point out that the younger cast members here just aren’t up to the task despite some overly eager efforts.

With the script and the performances lacking, it would have been a welcome distraction if Claire A. Jac Jones’ set had been anything interesting to look at. Instead the pub’s unadorned interior with large horseshoe-shape bar and wooden tables and chairs takes on a minimal look fairly befitting occupation. What was distracting in a problematic way however were all the empty ashtrays strewn throughout the set. Empty because no one was smoking. This is England in 1940, how could no one be smoking? Somewhere it seems Jac Jones’ and Green Udden got their wires crossed in what I imagine could have been a “smoke or not to smoke” conversation resulting in yet another sloppy imagining of a play that to my mind, should had been left on the shelf.



For Noel Coward fans – This is not Coward the way you know and love him. Nor is it a side of Coward you need to see. Neither well written nor entertaining, you can stay away with your love of the great writer intact. SKIP IT

For the occasional theater goer – At around two hours with little dramatic arc or tension or anything to really grab hold of, this play is a slog. One that you might appreciate for the idea, but not in execution. SKIP IT

For theatre junkies – There seems to be a trend these days of companies producing early or little known works of great playwrights. And while it can be interesting to see a writer’s first attempts or side steps, there is also much to be said for leaving the not so great stuff out of your canon. SKIP IT

The God Game – Review

16 Sep

God Game

Justin Doran and Kim Tobin-Lehl in The God Game. Photo Credit,  Gabriella Nissen.


The God Game

Written by: Suzanne Bradbeer

Directed by: Jennifer Dean

Starring: Justin Doran, Philip Lehl, and Kim Tobin-Lehl

Company: Stark Naked Theatre

Run dates: Sept 5th – 20th, 2014


“I’ve just been asked to run for the Vice President of the United States, the most powerful country in the world. Don’t you want to admire me or something?” So says the cool-headed, capable and charismatic Junior Senator from Virginia, Tom, to his wife Lisa. But as Suzanne Bradbeer’s play title, The God Game, suggests, Lisa’s answer won’t be based on Tom’s merit alone. Higher powers, or the belief in them, are what’s really being held up for consideration in this wonderfully directed and performed play that poses some decidedly meaty questions but never really digs down enough to turn our heads for more than a moment.

The premise is terrifically uncluttered. Tom (Justin Doran) and Lisa (Kim Tobin-Lehl) are a seemingly typical, mostly-happy, middle class political couple. Tom works too hard, Lisa throws herself into charity work. Even the wrinkles are clearly drawn. Tom’s brother Jay (who was also Lisa’s best friend) has died recently in an accident and the couple is struggling to come to terms with the loss. Lisa turns to her strong Christian faith for solace; Tom turns away from belief in God altogether. It’s a source of some friction for the couple who, in Tom’s words, are managing to navigate the situation. That is until Tom and Lisa’s ex-friend Matt (who also happens to be Jay’s old boyfriend and an advisor to a right-wing Governor) shows up on the couple’s anniversary eve with more than well wishes and mending fences in mind. Matt (Philp Lehl) has a proposition for Tom in the shape of a VP running-mate offer from his boss. It’s an incredible opportunity for Tom who jumps at the assurance that as part of the deal he would be able to push forward his environmental agenda and not kowtow to the Governor’s extreme right views.

There’s just one hitch. The God stuff. Upon learning that Tom is a non-believer, Matt starts his spin in hopes that he can talk Tom into “sounding more Christian in his speeches and views…and saying God bless American more.” Its good spin that everyone is buying into expect for Lisa who sees the pitfalls ahead both professionally, “You can’t run if you don’t believe in God. Better if you kicked small dogs or tweeted photos of your penis”, and personally, “How am I supposed to look at you across the breakfast table if you lie about your belief if God?”  It is with this dilemma that Bradbeer sets in motion what could have been a searing or even disquieting discussion of the place of faith in modern politics or the lies we tell ourselves in the name of faith to get what we want.

Instead, Bradbeer’s script stays on the comfy side of the road and examines the issue with a fairly light touch. Yes, we see marital strife and career hand wringing over what to do, but this is all couched in humour (which is often quite funny) and narrative that makes sure no seat squirming takes place. My quarrel with this is not that the results aren’t entertaining. They are. Bradbeer’s script does a splendid job capturing politicos in process, old friends finding their footing again and comic relief in the form of an ongoing Nixon gag. Under Jenifer Dean’s direction, the nearly two-hour show breezes by with ease and grace and ensures that all sides of the faith discussion are given equal affection. But entertaining doesn’t mean intriguing and in this case opportunity lost clouds any true enthusiastic engagement with the issue or the play.

What is crystal clear however, is the talent on stage. What the script lacks in complexity, each of the three performers makeup for with holistically human portrayals that reach far beyond the character parameters they are given. Doran gives us a Tom that while calm and practical in his doubt is also vulnerable enough to be tempted into putting his ambition before his convictions. It’s a smooth, almost liquid performance that utilizes his physical presence to the utmost. Wrapping his wife Lisa in his arms and shushing her to calmness is like a warm blanket over the entire audience. How could we not trust this lovely man even if he’s willing to put his principles aside? Tobin-Lehl’s Lisa is a wonderful mix of emotion and reason and anger and foresight. Tobin-Lehl’s gift in this role is that she combines it all together to give us a woman that we may not side with philosophically, but we always respect. But it’s Lehl as Matt that impresses the most. Lehl’s take on the one not terribly likeable character is to make no apologies for him. Lehl plays a gay man with mercifully no cliché or affectation but still wondering if love will one day be his, a political animal who puts career first and only blinks to see what he’s lost every once in a while and an old friend who may have behaved badly but still cares. These shades of grey come off Lehl like continually thrilling cascades made even more impressive by how effortless his whole performance seems. Together this cast elevates Bradbeer’s script and almost makes us forget what we are missing.



For those that want religious debate – The question is there, but the discussion is weak. The God Game looks more closely at what believing or not believing in God does to a relationship than its implications in society or politics as a whole. Its debate-light at a micro level and this may not satisfy your need for robust discussion. MAYBE SEE IT

For fans of political process stories – Here is where Bradbeer does some good work. The VP vetting process, including the faith issue, while not exactly House of Cards oily, is shown in an unflattering light. Spin and promises and managing personalities are in full bloom here and it’s intriguing to watch. SEE IT

For the occasional theatre goer – Issue plays can be problematic for you as they are often talk-heavy or even preachy. This is not the case here. The issue is kept fairly light; the players are fun to watch and the trajectory of the plot clear as day. Add in a polished production and it’s an entertaining dramatic night in the theatre. SEE IT

For theatre junkies – Lack of depth in writing renders this a ‘so what’ type of play post production. But even with this disappointment  there is much to admire. Deft direction, excellent performances and some tightly written comic bits make this play enjoyable if not terribly intriguing. MAYBE SEE IT

The Old Friends – Review

22 Aug

Alley Theatre-Old Friends

(L-R) Betty Buckley as Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff, Cotter Smith as Howard Ratliff and Veanne Cox as Julia Price in the Alley Theatre’s production of The Old Friends. Photo by John Everett.


The Old Friends

Written by: Horton Foote

Directed by: Michael Wilson

Company: Alley Theatre

Run Dates: August 20 – September 7, 2014


Is there anything more delicious than stories about Southern family dysfunction? Unlike it’s northeastern counterpart which whines and naval gazes with New York-esque neurosis, southern family feuds seethe and claw while cloaked in the humidity of comportment, raising the stakes even higher by the duality of purpose. Beloved American Dramatist and Texas native Horton Foote, surely knew this when he sat down to write The Old Friends in the mid 1960’s. The play, which lingered on the shelf and in re writes for several years until its first professional (and posthumous) production Off Broadway in 2013, is now on offer with largely the same cast and production at the Alley Theatre’s temporary location at the University of Houston. It’s an early effort by Foote to be sure although he apparently kept working on it up until his death. The writing is overly brash at times and the characters a tad too tactless to fully absorb, but none of that really matters in this wonderfully performed comedic and visually striking production that milks more enjoyment from its audience that the play probably deserves.

The plot is one of bruised egos and rivalries and loves not realized all set in a small town just outside Houston in the 1960’s. And just like every good feud, there is a conflict at the heart of it. Actually there are several. Matriarch Mamie Borden (a fantastically put upon Annalee Jefferies) lives miserably with her thoroughly unlikeable and selfish daughter Julia (Veanne Cox wonderfully oozing greed in all things) and her nasty, loveless husband Albert (Jeffrey Bean). While Julia barely gives her mother one thought now that she’s secured all of the inheritance, Albert seems to revel in expressing his inexplicable and over the top hatred for Mamie. When the play opens they are all waiting for daughter in law Sibyl (a perfectly taut Hallie Foote) to return from many years abroad with Mamie’s ill and unsuccessful son, Hugo. None of them of course realize that Sibyl comes with upsetting and life changing news. While they wait, the wealthy and permanently booze soaked family friend/enemy Gertrude (Betty Buckley giving an uproarious larger than life performance) pops by with her dead husband’s younger brother Howard (played with superlative subtlety by Cotter Smith) who now manages her farm and possibly other more intimate matters. At least that’s the way Gertrude would have it. She’s as determined to chase Howard’s love as she is her next drink, despite his assurance that whatever may be between them physically, he will never love her. His love, we come to know, is reserved for Sibyl who he was set on marrying before she let her own ego get in the way and instead set off with Hugo. Complicating matters in this ‘conflict abounds in every corner plot’, is the fact that Gertrude’s father cruelly bankrupted Sibyl’s father when he forcibly took possession of her family’s farm.

Director Michael Wilson nicely balances the soap opera nature of the story with unshowy staging. Downplaying the grandeur of the drunken brawls and cruel barbs, broken hearts and bad behavior. Wilson rarely has his characters speak directly to one another, instead keeping each one seemingly locked in their own little solipsistic world. It’s a nice touch that thankfully gets put aside the few times when kinder hearts prevail in the dialogue. Jeff Cowie’s gorgeous set design also plays opposite to the chaos. Whether it’s his peacocked-walled and mustard furnishing of Mamie’s house or the sumptuous billowing greys and pale blues of Gertrude’s mansion, Cowie brings beauty and calmness to an otherwise crackling stage.

But really it’s the performances that make this production such a kick. To say that this is a fantastically talented cast is an understatement, especially given the general lack of character development or meatiness in the script. Of particular note is Smith’s Howard who seems to speak with a disembodied voice that grows stronger and stronger as he figures out what kind of man he’s going to be. Howard is the least flamboyant of the bunch and is a character that could have easily been trounced by the hysterics, but Smith elevates him to centre stage by allowing his trepidation to linger and his confidence to grow organically. Julia on the other hand doesn’t seem to know what subtle is and in Cox’s expert hands we are thankful for it. Her Julia literally slithers around the stage in dance and flirtation provoking everyone in her path.  Employing a deep-throated drawl with killer comedic timing, Cox gives us a woman we can laugh with despite our hatred of her as a person. However, it’s Buckley in the pivotal role of Gertrude that steals the show most often. Drunk, spoiled, insecure, spiteful, besotted and prone to temper tantrums, Gertrude is a whirlwind that Buckley embodies fully and without apology. She staggers  and flirts and belittles and embarrasses herself constantly with misbehaviour but Buckley ensures that Gertrude never loses the command of a woman who by virtue of wealth is able to demand and get.  The only misstep in her performance is a late scene drunken and destructive tantrum that feels stiflingly planned and lacking in emotion. It’s perhaps here that Wilson’s unshowy direction could have eased up to let Buckley truly lose composure as she tears apart her surroundings.

Because after all, tearing apart is what The Old Friends is about in the end. In one of her more lucid moments, Gertrude declares, “Isn’t it wonderful! Nobody is mad at anybody else!” It may be true at the time, but we also know that peace in Foote’s script is a fleeting thing that will end as soon as the next drink is poured or past moment revisited. But as melodramatic as the script may be, in the end no one is really happy. Foote’s characters may be larger than life or lacking in dimension, but he has the good sense to let them spin and leave the audience to wonder. Wonder may also be the appropriate word to describe our feelings on whether this script or these characters will stick with us much past leaving the theatre. Probably not. But thanks to such a terrific production and a cast with talent for days, we happily enjoy the time we’ve given them.



For Foote fans – Certainly from a canon point of view it’s incredibly interesting to see an early piece that was tinkered with almost up until the writer’s death. No, it isn’t as developed as his other works and it does veer towards serial storytelling, but there’s still that Foote magic in the way small town life bleeds into our behaviour and interactions. SEE IT

For Foote newbies – Are there Foote newbies in Texas? Kidding of course. This is a light comedic intro to Foote’s way of seeing things. An amuse bouche if you will for his more poignant and subtle inquiries. But you’ll laugh with at this terrific cast and enjoying your first Foote play is a gateway drug to see more, which is a good thing. SEE IT

For the occasional theatre goer – This is a value for the money type play. Undemanding yet full in its production values and wonderful talent, you’ll feel like you spend a solidly entertaining night at the theatre. SEE IT

For theatre junkies – Yes some of the writing will irk you. Why is Albert so angry at his mother in law and why did Foote have to take Gertrude so far over the top in places? But just calm down and focus on what these performers are achieving on stage. Then revel in a gorgeous set and direction that helps underplay the scripts failings. Manage that and you’ll be swept up just like the rest of the audience. SEE IT





Full Gallop – Review

10 Aug


Sally Edmundson as Diana Vreeland. Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett.


Full Gallop

Written by: Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson

Directed by: Kenn McLaughlin

Company: Stages Repertory Theatre

Run Dates: August 6 – September 14, 2014


“Vulgarity is marvellous! We all need a splash of bad taste. No taste is what I’m against”. So says the recently deposed Vogue Editor in Chief, Diana Vreeland about halfway through Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson’s 1995 one woman show, Full Gallop, about Vreeland’s post magazine career move. It’s a marvellously brassy line, one of many, in this somewhat rambling two-act play that lives or dies on the force of the Vreeland performance. Thankfully, Stages Theatre under the direction of Kenn McLaughlin, has made sure the fashion icon’s shoes are filled to the brim. Reprising the role (which she played on the same stage in 1999), Sally Edmundson chews the set with her portrayal of the ballsy dame of high fashion and delivers a performance that more often than not compensates for a script that has a tendency to veer into dullness.

We meet Vreeland in 1971 in her ornately decorated, red-hued New York apartment wonderfully created on set by Jodi Bobvrosky. She has just returned from several months abroad in Europe to lick her wounds after unceremoniously and with no explanation being dumped from Vogue. Such is life in the fashion business Vreeland tells us. One day you are in, the next you are out. But out doesn’t mean down. At least not yet. Clad in her signature black clothing with war paint rouge, Vreeland is planning a dinner party where she is hoping that a notoriously oily backer will come to her rescue and somehow reinstall her position in the fashion industry. Or at least her assistant Yvonne is planning it. Vreeland barks orders at the put upon French woman (voiced by Maria Edmundson) via an intercom in her living room with great bluster despite the ever crumbling circumstances of the evening. Vreeland’s cook fails to show up, the food she ordered won’t arrive, even if it does she can’t pay for it and worst of all, the rich oily gentleman will not be joining them. But then the dinner party really isn’t the point of the play. Hampton and Wilson use the evening instead to unleash Vreeland on the audience, allowing her to pontificate directly to us as though we were a confidant. Or at least an arm’s length one.

The script works best when Vreeland treats us to the juicy inner workings of the fashion world. The time that cosmetic magnate Helena Rubenstein and Coco Chanel had a tete a tete in her apartment. The method by which Vogue Editors get canned. The frustration of shopping at Bloomingdales. In the one genuine emotional moment, Vreeland describes the death by cancer of her beloved husband and this too draws us in. But amidst all the bon mots and gossip is endless name dropping, self-aggrandizing  and pedantry about other minor people and places that may very well be faithful to the true nature of the woman, but it doesn’t make it all that interesting to listen to despite Edmondson’s formidable performance. Also not helping matters (at least on opening eve) was the straining we needed to do to hear the full breadth of the monologue. Working in a theater in the round configuration, Edmundson’s voice at times seemed to be swallowed up by all the signature red brocade in her apartment often giving a muffled tone to her words.

By the close of the play, Vreeland’s dinner party is a bust, but not her career thanks to a new opportunity taken that those in the fashion know will nod their heads approvingly at.  And despite our minds wandering and our eyes glazing at times, we can’t help but be captivated by this larger than life character brought vividly to life by such a talented performer. “It’s not the clothes, it’s the people who wear them”, says Vreeland. In the case of Full Gallop, it’ not the script, it’s the actress who delivers it.



For fashionistas – Although you will wish for more inner workings of the fashion industry as told by Vreeland, there is lots of good gossip and talk of designers and clothing and style and taste to keep you happy. SEE IT

For the style averse – Make no mistake, this is an insider play where if you don’t know your Bunny Mellon from your Balenciaga you will be left if the dust. Still, Edmundson plays Vreeland with such unironic bombast that it’s hard not to be amused even if you’re not exactly sure what she’s talking about half the time. MAYBE SEE IT

For the occasional theatre goer – Solo performances are often hard to love due to their talkiness and general lack of action in the plot. And Vreeland certainly talks up a storm in this show. But it’s wonderfully funny in spots and terrifically performed despite meandering at times. MAYBE SEE IT

For theater junkies – This is one of those bio-plays you will refer to as a confection. Fun to look at and certainly entertaining for the most part, but lacking any real substance or character examination. No one will walk out of Full Gallop truly understanding what made Vreeland tick. And yes, the script needs a good edit. But Edmundson is a delight to watch and her talent mostly trumps the failings of the play. MAYBE SEE IT





Pollywog – Review

8 Aug


Courtney Lomelo as Polly. Photo Credit – Gentle Bear Photography.



Written by: Keian McKee

Directed by: Matt Huff

Choreographed by: Jennifer Wood

Original Music: Andy McWilliams

Company: Mildred’s Umbrella Theatre Company

Run Dates: July 31 – August 16, 2004


It’s a blissfully exciting feeling when you first hold your breath and open your eyes underwater. A world opens up where what you see and how you feel is completely different from your normal waterless existence. But stay down there too long and your eyes start to sting, your lungs ache and all your instincts scream for foot on dry land. It’s a similar experience watching Keian McKee’s ambitious, at times wonderfully creative but ultimately water-logged new play about one woman’s journey to deposit her dead mother’s ashes and say goodbye. Upon first blush, the play’s delights are many but spend some time and those delights get betrayed.

Pollywog, getting its premiere at Mildred’s Umbrella Theatre Company under the direction of Matt Huff, introduces us to Polly (Courtney Lomelo), an adult woman struggling to move past her beloved stroke-victim mother’s recent death. Taking a cue from the hours and hours her mother spent teaching her (with drill sergeant obsession) to swim, Polly embarks on her first open water swim, carrying her mother’s ashes along the way. It’s a dangerous endeavour, one that most swimmers wouldn’t attempt alone and one that most likely would have made for a rather dull solo performance. Instead, McKee sends ghosts from the past to occupy Polly (and the audience) as she attempts to make it across. In a series of flashbacks, we meet Polly’s mom, Jule (Celeste Roberts) in her pre and post stroke state and Mort (James Belcher), Polly’s father and get a glimpse into the relationship dynamic the three shared. Also along for the journey as allegorical guides and touchstones are famed swimmer/movie stars Esther Williams (Autumn Clack) and Johnny Weissmuller (Jason Duga), heroes of Jule’s and Polly’s.

It’s an interesting construct setting the play inside of Polly’s head either in real-time or as she mines her past. But despite Huff’s incredibly nimble time warping direction, Jennifer Wood’s wonderfully athletic choreography that mimics all manners of swimming with great gusto, moody and effective lighting courtesy of Greg Starbird and strong performances from everyone in the cast, McKee’s script fails to resonate. Part of the issue lies with the language. Much of the script plays like spoken work poetry rather than actual dialogue. Verbs are tossed out. Nouns too. Not always together. It’s an effect meant to simulate memory and flashes of insight, but more often than not, it feels laboured and affected.

Far more problematic is McKee’s lack of interest in the inner lives of her characters. We see Jule as little more than a woman hell-bent on teaching her daughter to swim. Yes, we know Polly loves her, but we’re left to question why when there seems to be so little warmth or breadth to the relationship. We are spoon fed Polly’s grief yet we know nothing about her outside of the pool. Mort’s depiction is even more knotty. Shown as a man far more interested in getting it on with his wife than forming a relationship with his daughter, he is at best dismissive and worst, cruel to Polly. And ultimately both to Jule when her body betrays her. The ‘bad guy’ character satisfies the need for tension to be sure, but it’s a hollow and distancing effect due to lack of context. At no point is the curtain pulled back to show Mort’s motivations or Jule’s for being with him or the emotional core of the mother daughter connection.  We certainly feel for young Polly when her father forces her to eat the tadpoles she caught as some kind of power play punishment. Watching Polly try to impress her mother by mastering a new stroke has its uplift as well. But empathy or engagement beyond a moment by moment level is almost impossible when we aren’t given anything substantive to hold onto. A grief-stricken woman swimming with her mother’s ashes is just an idea unless you’re made to care.

But while the emotional demands of the script weren’t justified, the production still manages to shine thanks in large part to the visual splendour that the Esther and Johnny characters bring to the stage. Whether it’s assisting Polly in her strokes (holding arms and legs to create effect or spinning her on a stool to simulate direction change) or creating ballet-like pairs water moves while spouting swimming theory, Clack and Duga execute Wood’s demanding choreography with an ease that belies the physical intensity involved. It was these scenes that elicited smiles and approving gasps from the audience and ultimately brought a kind of creative magic to the production.

As exciting as it is to see a play in its premiere production, especially a risk-taking show like Pollywog, it’s rare that first incarnations of these kinds are problem-free. McKee has a compelling idea with her show and a production team that can obviously do wonders with it on stage. My hope is that with another examination of emotional engagement and some script tweaking, Pollywog can wriggle back onto the stage at some point and provide the experience that was lacking this time round.



For the occasional theater goer – This certainly isn’t conventional story-telling but with such broad strokes (no pun intended) the play isn’t all that demanding either. Most probably you will greatly enjoy the physical acrobatics of Esther, Johnny and Polly but that may not make up for the lack of heart-pulling attachment to the characters or their situations. MAYBE SEE IT

For the theatre junkie – There is no harm in seeing a new play to pull from it what works. And there is a lot on the production side that does. A uniformly strong cast, great choreography, visually complex direction and the seed of an idea that certainly intrigues. But in the end, there’s only so much that can be done with a script that just isn’t there yet. Taking the plunge on Pollywog at this stage mean being ok with its deficits. MAYBE SEE IT

A Very Tamarie Christmas – Review

19 Jul

photo: Anthony Rathbun -

The cast of A Very Tamarie Christmas. Photo Credit, Anthony Rathburn.  


A Very Tamarie Christmas

Conceived and Directed by: Tamarie Cooper

Book By: Patrick Reynolds

Music by: Miriam Daly and Joe Folladori

Lyrics by: Tamarie Cooper, Miriam Daly, Joe Folladori and Partick Reynolds

Company: Catastrophic Theatre Run Dates: July 18 – August 30, 2014


As the new theatre critic in town it’s inevitable (and a bit daunting) that you’ll bump up against a beloved annual show and be asked to comment. Yes, you come to the experience with new eyes and a sensibility not sated with anticipation, but it would be a lie to say that the heft of the thing doesn’t factor if even just a bit. Will you align with your new city and embrace the show or will you drink the Kool Aid and conclude that it’s simply sugared water? So it was with this carry-on baggage that I found myself at Catastrophic Theatre’s annual Tamarie Cooper show, A Very Tamarie Christmas. Cooper ( Catastrophic’s Associate Director) has been running these summer shows for well over a decade and from what I gather no matter the subject matter (age, doomsday, 3D revue) irreverence is the name of her game. This time Cooper’s cheek is focused on Christmas and the myriad of other holidays in our yearly cycle. The result is in an uneven show that occasionally leaps to smart comedic heights but all too often mucks about in low hanging fruit territory.

Set on a minimal stage adorned with oversized Christmas packages and hanging Calder-esque snowflakes, it’s apparent right from the start that this is a show not expected to rest on impressive production values. Or a complex premise – the gist of which is that Christmas (played with Dean Martin panache) is fed up with the aggravation of the gig and quits. This propels Cooper to search for America’s next great holiday by meeting with impressively costumed incarnations of all manners of celebrations and rejecting them as her most favourite holiday for one reason or another. Setting up the show is the opening number, It’s Christmastime!, a rather pedantic song explaining Cooper’s obsession with Christmas and her desire to do a holiday show in July. We get pat zingers such as, “Christmas is a special time and if you don’t agree you’re a dick” and it’s also noted that the holiday is about, “Jesus and stuff if you are into that.” Added in are some easy laugh jokes involving Australia’s baby eating dingos and Catastrophic’s dark holiday programming schedule. While there is no doubt that the Christmas-costumed cast is doing their enthusiastic best with lovely vocal results, it’s an alkaline bath instead of an acidic romp.

What follows from there in the overly long hour-forty minute show does occasionally bring some terrifically caustic and dark jabs at our collective obsession/glamorization of minor and major holidays. Most notably, “It’s a Secular Commemoration of an Unspecified Event” which notes that December 25 might instead be lauded for being Jimmy Buffet’s birthday, does a spectacular job of taking the piss out of our Political Correctness gone wild. Similarly, “Up With Earth Day”, not only features some of the evening’s best vocal talent, but its sarcastic anti-environmental message which has mother earth herself positing that global warming is a fantasy, is brilliantly conceived and executed. Cooper’s Thanksgiving number (featuring Kyle Sturdivant in full Turkey costume) has minor success exposing stereotypical family dynamics that allows the cast to play some truly funny characters. But in total just doesn’t have the bite of the other two numbers.

The rest of the show introduces us to a seemingly endless parade of celebrations including the Union of Lesser Know Holidays – i.e. Flag Day, Administrative Assistant Day, Susan B. Anthony Day, Veterans Day, Arbour Day and some of the bigger players, Valentine’s Day, July 4th, Easter and Halloween. These musical numbers play out with overly obvious sit-comy sensibility in a no moment feels unplanned enough to be shocking or no moment feels campy enough to be outrageous manner. So sure the Easter Bunny is a horny devil, Valentine’s Day smokes and is jaded and July 4th is a brash, loudmouth American. Nothing new here.

Yet I do need to mention that for all my tut tutting re the missed scurrilous opportunities in the play, the majority of the audience seemed quite content to laugh heartily whether or not they too saw the jokes coming a million miles away. This was most definitely a crowd coming to be entertained (as they probably have been with Cooper’s shows for many years already) and they weren’t going to let familiar barbs or instances of heavy-handed writing get it the way of their good time.

In the end, while I can absolutely appreciate the love Houston feels for a show that has embedded itself into the culture of the city, I just can’t jump on the bandwagon with this year’s offering. So I guess for now, this critic remains an outsider.



For the sit-com with a soupçon of dark humour lover – This show is just darkly comedic enough to keep you laughing throughout without every really offending. The costumes are great fun, the performers are all grand and you’ll easily settle into the familiar humour. SEE IT

For those that like sharp bite with their comedy – There are some impressive moments/numbers that dig below the obvious jokes but you have to wade through a lot of padding to get to them. SKIP IT

For song and dance fans – The music (played by a live 4 piece band) is fine but not in any way memorable. Dance numbers do shine in several places. This is not a glitzy show by any means – but the large cast, the terrific costumes and the well populated stage make this visually enjoyable. MAYBE SEE IT

For the theatre junkie – This is a talented cast directed with enthusiasm and a nod to a good time. Plus it’s a Houston institution and perhaps that alone is reason to add it to your cannon. But the writing often fails to impress resulting in an uneven tone to the show that overall feels like a bit of a slog. MAYBE SEE IT

Spaghetti Code – Review

7 Jul


L-R Drake Simpson,  Ivy Castle, Mischa Hutchings and Andrew Love. Photo credit: Adam Baker. 


Spaghetti Code
Written by: Abby Koenig
Directed by: Jacey Little
Company: Horse Head Theatre
Run Dates: Saturday, Sunday & Monday, July 12 – 28, 2014


Eighty thousand dollars to adopt a Chinese baby, sixty thousand for a surrogate or twenty thousand for a medical treatment that has only a slight chance of creating a successful pregnancy. These are the choices Milly and Tim face in their desperate attempt to get pregnant in Abby Koenig’s new show, Spaghetti Code. Directed by Jacey Little, this dark comedy (which to my mind was successfully more of a dramedy) examines the agony of failing to get pregnant and the often insane measures couples will go to in their attempts to conceive.

Milly (an emotionally resplendent Ivy Castle) has tried everything from ovulation monitoring to warming her uterus via yoga to spending hours on pregnancy chat rooms hoping for the one magic piece of advice that will solve her reproductive challenges. Her science-geek, quirky husband Tim (played with terrific nuance and comedic ease by Drake Simpson) posits that maybe she’s simply suffering from Spaghetti Code – a type of computer code that should be correct but isn’t. You think only one teeny line in the code is off but really it’s the whole thing that’s a mess. Trust me, this comes off better in person. Tim’s biological clock may not be ticking with Milly’s ferocity, but his love and support is strongly evident and tenderly constructed. All this guy wants out of life is to make his wife happy. Which is why he steals her chart and takes it to his best friend/Milly’s high school ex, Phil, a top-tier fertility doctor who we later learn still holds a torch for Milly.

A quick insert here. The play begins wordlessly in the couple’s living room where Milly falls asleep on the couch and Tim walks off with the chart. Little then makes the very jarring directorial decision to break from the play and allow a Horse Head Theatre rep to come on stage and address the audience about such things as cell phone silencing and company back-patting. This removal from the narrative felt tremendously indulgent and ill-timed, leaving us wondering what the intrusion was really for. Thankfully, Little takes back the reins for the remainder of the show and cleverly navigates a difficult stage bifurcated by a huge post that divides the set up into two distinct parts – the couple’s living room and Phil’s office.

But back to Phil (a disappointingly wooden Andrew Love), who tells Tim that Milly’s chances aren’t good, who in turn goes home and tells Milly the bad news. Furious that Tim has shared their troubles (“it’s easier to hide it if no one really knows”) Milly begins to hatch a plan. Unable to afford adoption, surrogacy or event the iffy fertility treatments, Milly calls upon her sexually aggressive, seemingly carefree, pretty and single best friend, Stacy (a confidently nimble Mischa Hutchings) to do the kind of favour that most wives would consider their worst nightmare – sleep with her husband, get pregnant, have the baby and give it to them.

To Koenig’s credit, what could have been a ridiculous plot twist lands swimmingly due to smart writing that doesn’t take the easy comedic road. This is no “Hall Pass” Part Two. Koenig’s characters believably embrace and struggle with the sex/pregnancy decision before, during and after Stacy agrees to do it with wonderfully amusing results. Little’s direction of the sex scene further develops the bittersweetness of the situation by switching back and forth between Stacy and Tim’s awkward encounter (“I don’t want to kiss you”, says Tim. “That would feel like cheating”) to Milly cooling her heels in Phil’s office starting to question if she’s really ok with all of this. We watch and laugh but it’s the near surface discomfort and the audience’s ability to see that all is not going to be peachy that keeps us engaged.

At just over one hour, the first half of the play feels a bit long from a moment by moment standpoint even if in total it’s a nice set up for what’s to come after a short intermission. Little moves her cast into the dead middle space around the post and more interestingly into the audience for a baby shower scene that comprises much of the final Act. Once again Koenig gives us comedy to take us through the pain of unraveling. Milly’s jealousies and confusion bubbles to the surface and spills out in all directions, Tim loose lips himself into creepy contradiction, Stacy plays the martyr but is stung by the realization of what she is missing and Phil takes his lust to a problematic level. Koenig allows the comedy to take a back seat here as she lifts the veil and shows us just how broken her characters really are. It’s a beautifully conceived and performed scene that takes the show up a notch despite some surprisingly cliché lines. When Milly and Phil finally have it out, Milly declares, “I am a wife and will be a mother. That’s all I need”. It’s a shame after such subtly intriguing dialogue that hackneyed lines such as these slip into the mix. It’s as if after resisting all the trappings a story like this suffers, Koenig just couldn’t help herself anymore.

But to my mind, any mild failings fall away due to Koenig’s bravely ambiguous ending to the play. No spoilers here, but I will give a hearty bravo for not tying this intelligently funny, emotional and uncomfortable story up into a pretty hermetically sealed bow at its conclusion. Instead Koenig let’s the narrative be messy, just like the subject matter and it made the distinction between a play I would have breezily liked to one that I respect.



For those trying to conceive, pregnant or past pregnant – While I hope you won’t relate to the crazy circumstances the play examines, no doubt you will empathize with many of the issues faced and laugh in camaraderie. Which is not to say that you won’t also be uncomfortable along the way. In fact, maybe a lot. But then wouldn’t it be oh so trite to have a shiny happy infertility play? SEE IT

For those of us without kids by choice or other happy circumstances – A whole play about infertility may sound like torture. I know whenever I go out with my breeding friends and they start in on what doctor they are using and the latest pre natal vitamins my eyes cloud over and I start ordering large glasses of wine. But regardless where you are on the baby continuum, this show appeals. On the surface it’s about fertility, but scratch a little and you’ll find lots to chew on about relationships, our ability to deal with jealousy and the strings we pull with those we care about for our own selfish reasons. Plus it’s funny. SEE IT

For the occasional theatre goer – Dark humour must be in your wheelhouse for you to enjoy this one. And then if you’re good with that there is also the possibility that the inconclusive ending will throw you. But if you are open-minded you’ll be treated to some great performances, many laughs and a script that takes you places you weren’t expecting. MAYBE SEE IT

For the theatre junkie – As with all new works, this show could benefit from a little breathing room to settle and get tweaked. Not much, however. Yes some of the dialogue needs to smarten up and there is the odd dropped thread (why is Milly the only character that doesn’t seem to have a job?).  But the minimal failings are greatly overshadowed by some superlative performances, intelligent comedic writing that doesn’t shy away from pain and many instances of splendid direction. You’ll want to say you saw it when. SEE IT


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