Hart House Theatre: Twelfth Night

Hart House Theatre: Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night was the second Hart House Theatre production of the year,  the classical Shakespearean story of a love dodecahedron.

In this play, directed by Matthew Gorman, we find Viola (Darcy Gerhart), a shipwreck survivor, disguised as the servant Cesario, in the service of the influential nobleman, Duke Orsino. Herein, we develop a very amusing set of love triangles that leads the play onward through a series of very enjoyable flirts, fights, pranks, and promises.



This play is character-heavy and features an impressive set. The tavern stands as the main setting for most of the play, and is cleverly used in various lighting in order to appear ominous or inviting.

The director made use of heavily caricatured characters in an effort to translate Shakespeare’s wit for the modern audience. However, this took away from the audience’s overall enjoyment of the play: for example, the superfluous flamboyance displayed by Malvolio and Sir Aguecheek came off as childishly offensive, and served no dramatic purpose other than mockery.



Twelfth Night presented a group of actors with a very large spectrum of talent: some actors impeccably embodied the characters they played. David Tripp’s portrayal of Sir Toby Belch was full of vim. The arrogance of his character was well-interpreted and energetically displayed. The chemistry between Tripp, Christopher Manousos (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Alison Blair (Maria), and Leete Stetson (Fabian), was solid and heart-warmingly amusing — the actors played very well of each other, and their energy transmitted itself contagiously into the audience.

The choice of live musical accompaniment was a poor one, as the music often drowned out the lyrics. The witty fool Feste’s (Alexander Offord) musical abilities were pleasant to all the senses. However, the character’s classic music became an independent demonstration of Offord’s musical talent, accompanied by interludes of modern music. These interludes served little to support the play’s theme, tempo, or timbre, giving the impression that Offord was cast more for his musical abilities than his acting skills.

In the end, the play fails to deliver anything more grand than a light-hearted, family entertainment. Although certain theatrical strategies were outstanding, they were mostly undermined by the caricatured characters. The directing, acting, and design all come together to form a mildly entertaining play, but fall short of the expectations from a Hart House production.


Twelfth Night is at the Hart House Theatre until Nov. 23, 2013. For more info, click here

Behind Hart House: Sara Herron

Hart House's senior graphic designer talks about creating designs that work for both the student body and theatre

Behind Hart House: Sara Herron

Hart House has always been one of the many institutions on campus that can seem mysterious. In first year, I remember seeing the posters for The Great American Trailer Park Musical all over campus and thinking to myself, “that’s an interesting poster.” It has been three years and I still can’t help but stop and admire the posters. I recently got in touch with Sara Herron, Hart House’s current senior graphic designer and digital media specialist. For the past five years, Herron has been working closely with the Hart House team during the year to create the promotional materials for the Theatre, along with other projects under the Hart House umbrella.




The Varsity: You’ve been creating work for Hart House for five years now, how has the design process changed over the years?

Sara Herron: [Hart House] and I work together for a few months, starting in April until the end of August. That’s when we develop the whole look for the season so that we’re ready to roll by September. But it hasn’t always been like that. The first year, I started in the month of August so everything was already done, but it was chaos. After the chaos of that year, we started to get a good system going. We wanted to present all of Hart House’s productions as a season. Before, they would do design work for one show… and then another. What I wanted to do was create a package because then you can sell that. Any other major theatre in the city would do the same. So we were trying to get on that track.


TV: Since you work very closely with the rest of Hart House, do you have full creative control over the design materials or is it more of a collaborative process?

SH: Initially, there was a lot of back and forth because it was a lot of figuring out what would work. It’s definitely very collaborative in a sense that I’m supposed to be creating what they need me to represent in order to sell the show. We’ve had such success over the past three to four years and now it’s like, “Go off! Be creative,” but I still have to make sure they’re very involved.


TV: When you’re designing the promotional materials, what do you hope to achieve besides, of course, getting people to go to the plays?

SH: Traditional theatre advertisements consist of production stills. You know, the images of the actors that are in the show. It’s not necessarily — for someone who’s not into theatre — the most interesting stuff. It’s not something that you look at and go, “I really want to go to that.” What I want to do is take it away from being literal, and more so, create a mood. I want to do something a little more creative, so people will go, “Oh that’s interesting! What’s that about?” I don’t want to create a theatre poster. I want to create something that someone will want to rip down from a pole and put up in his or her bedroom. That is what’s interesting. That’s what’s going to get people to go to the shows.

A bare-bones performance

Bone Cage is a well-staged first production but struggles to engage

A bare-bones performance

Bone Cage is the story of a group of young adults trying to seek out a place for themselves in a barren community in the midst of decline.  The play, written by Canadian playwright Catherine Banks and directed by Hart House Theatre alumnus Matt White, made its Toronto premiere last Friday.

Set in rural Nova Scotia, the play focuses on Chicky, played by the talented Samantha Coyle, and her friends and family as they navigate through life in a declining logging town. The highlight of the production is the far and away Layne Coleman as Chicky’s aging stepfather, Clarence, who spends most of his time imagining what life would be like if his son, Travis, were still alive. Coleman manages to steal every scene that he’s in with a performance that’s both believable and extremely moving. The women of the show, Samantha Coyle and Lindsey Middleton, who portray Chicky and her brother’s fiancée respectively, both handle the material well.

Unfortunately, the other men of the show, namely Nathan Bitton and Kyle Purcell, who play Chicky’s brother Jamie and his best friend Kevin respectively, falls a bit short. As Jamie, Bitton has moments of believable anger and self-doubt, but often lapses into a performance in which his acting is forced and not entirely believable. Purcell, while also having his stronger moments, tended towards the melodramatic too often to properly do the show justice.

Ultimately, Hart House’s production of Bone Cage shows the play for what it is: a gripping look into the lives of young-adults struggling to survive in an increasingly unforgiving environment. It is well staged, and has many insightful scenes, courtesy of director Matt White and actors Coleman and Coyle. However, the ultimate potential of the show is somewhat undermined by the weak performances from the male actors, leaving the audience with the feeling that while they could have witnessed a great piece of theatre, they instead were treated to something somewhat half-hearted.

Review: Toronto Fringe Festival

The Toronto Fringe Festival (Fringe), which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, is an annual celebration of all the wacky, heartfelt, and profound artistry that Toronto has to offer. With a staggering array of 148 shows — including buskers, bands, and visual artists — Fringe is a two-week-long art bonanza that is a staple of Toronto summers.

Trying to whittle down the shows to a manageable number to review, we decided to focus on what really seems to make  Fringe unique: the strange and unpredictable. Two shows that stood out this year were Fracture and Erotic Tales of the Old Testament.

Fracture is a modern dance production put on by the Good Women Dance Collective from Edmonton. Featuring two pieces,  “POD” and  “Shatterstate,” this dance troupe uses contemporary dance as a medium to explore relationships. While “Shatterstate” provided a fun and whimsical approach to the feeling of déjà vu, “POD” was the highlight of the show. This act conjured an image of a living organism that separated into two entities struggling to leave behind the safety of their home environment. A crumpled, opaque plastic sheet covering the stage opened the piece, pulsing with both light and the movements of the dancers within. The futuristic yet animal-like soundtrack served to heighten the eerie, corporal feeling evoked by the piece. With raw emotions and refined dance steps, “POD” bared the most primal instincts of human beings on stage, reminding us of our ever-present connection with the animal kingdom.

Erotic Tales of the Old Testament, a raunchy burlesque show purporting to  display the strength of the female characters whose names the Bible besmirched, took on a completely different tone. Although the lead narrator was a weak link, the show overall was a resounding success. Performed in the open courtyard of St. George the Martyr Anglican Church, audience members reclined on the grass, savouring a seemingly endless supply of grapes while being serenaded by a violin. Featuring burlesque acts interspersed with a musical number and a magician’s tricks, this performance far surpassed the realm of entertainment. Vivacious and bawdy, the dancers brought into focus the otherwise taboo topic of sexuality in the Old Testament, attempting to make the audience understand that in the right hands, sex is just another tool to attain power.

The Toronto Fringe Festival runs until July 14, 2013. 

Review: Carmen @ The National Ballet of Canada

Review: Carmen @ The National Ballet of Canada

It’s not everyday that you can describe a ballet as a wantonly carnal affair. Yet the National Ballet’s newest production, Carmen, takes sex to a whole new level.

A contemporary retelling of the traditional French opera, this version follows the story of Carmen, a gypsy intent on living her life as a free spirit and not subscribing to any moral or social code. Acting upon her most basic sexual instincts, she soon becomes entangled in a messy love (or rather, lust) triangle, which ultimately climaxes in tragedy.

Featuring a diverse array of musical numbers, ranging from tear-jerking solos to riotous cross-dressing pieces, Carmen never ceases to entertain. While at times the emotion onstage lags, the ensemble dancing itself is exceptional.

Although the ballet was first performed in 1875, the National Ballet’s timeless adaptation proves that the issues examined are still very much relevant today. Make no mistake; this performance is far from bawdy.

With an altered musical score and fresh choreography that bring a contemporary tone to a traditional dance, Carmen is executed with a refinement and grace that serve to highlight the issue at the heart of this tale: the apparent need in our society to trap and limit female sexuality, resulting in a destructive end for women willing to do anything to preserve their freedom.

Tragic Relief

The UC Follies production of Anouilh’s Antigone explores morality, authority, and choice

Dramatic tragedy is a relief because you know how it will end. As the chorus explains midway through UC Follies’ production of Antigone, it can be peaceful to not have to worry about hope. You know your path; now you just have to bear it.


In honour of the UC Follies Theatre Company’s first ever production in 1885, the company is currently performing the version of Antigone by Jean Anouilh, which is based on the Greek tragedy by Sophocles. Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, defies the authority of King Creon when he decrees that the body of her rebel brother Polynices will not have a proper burial. At the risk of punishment by death, Antigone attempts to bury her brother’s body and put his soul to rest. The play deals with the characters’ clashing perspectives as they struggle with the inevitable deadly outcome.

Anouilh’s rendition of Antigone was originally performed in Nazi-occupied Paris, adding subtle emphasis to Antigone’s rejection of a brutal authority. The present-day Follies’ production was staged in the UC Junior Common Room and is set in 1940s Europe. To emphasize the play’s contemporary setting, the cast uses French pronunciations of the characters’ names.

Directors Shak Haq and Noa Katz move beyond Anouilh’s script to great effect, creating a four-person Greek style chorus to act as both omniscient narrators and Creon’s staff. As soon as doors open, the members of the chorus are in character: they direct the audience to their seats, dust around the room, and fluff pillows. During the show, they provide context and foreshadow the action, alternating phrases between them and adding emphasis by stating some lines in unison. Unfortunately, Thursday’s preview show had the four actors occasionally interrupting each other while delivering their tightly-spaced lines.

Since most of the action takes place off-stage, it falls to the actors to push the story forward with their depictions of the characters’ emotional conflicts. The principal actors pull this off very well, most notably in a stand-off scene between Antigone and Creon. Siobhan O’Malley’s Antigone stares off into the distance with idealistic determination to carry out her plans, while Haq’s Creon is unyielding in his insistence that the law of the land is just. Both actors are able to show the clashing perspectives of their characters through a combination of their expressions, tones, and postures.

Antigone leaves the audience full of intense and profound questions. What consequences are you willing to face to do what you think is right? How far are you willing to go, and who are you willing to hurt to keep your view of justice and authority intact? The play provides no answers, instead detailing the perspectives of characters who see the issue of Polynices’ burial in very different ways. No matter which character you agree with, one thing is certain: when compromise is made impossible, a disastrous ending is unavoidable.

Feminists and typists

Age of Arousal is a hilarious yet complex portrayal of equality in the Victorian age

Feminists and typists

Two women sit side by side on stage. One is draped in a long white nightgown. The other, visibly younger, is cloaked in an emerald green corseted gown. The audience soon learns that the older woman, Mary, has just awoken in fright from a nightmare and is being gently consoled by Rhoda, who tenderly strokes her hair. The two women appear to be mother and daughter. Then, suddenly, they embrace and begin to kiss. thereby dissolving the audience’s preconceptions about their relationship and making way for a complex and riveting story that proves to be much bigger than the two lovers.

Age of Arousal, produced by U of T’s Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies, is set in London, 1885. It is a time when women are beginning to toy with the idea of independence and suffrage, much to the dismay of not only men, but also conservatively-minded housewives who are comfortable in their roles as homemakers. Mary Barefoot (Kate Lynch, who co-directed the play with David Jensen) and her lover Rhoda Nunn (Briar Knowles) run a secretarial school that teaches shorthand typing and financial skills to women, in an effort to help them find work and become self-sufficient. When Mary’s cousin, Dr. Everard Barefoot (Matthew Lawrence) comes to town, and Rhoda invites her three impoverished friends — sisters Virginia, Alice, and Monica — to study at the secretarial school, things start to get a little messy.

Lynch’s performance as Mary is vibrant and dynamic. She keeps the audience hanging onto her every word, believing in her struggle, and rooting for her cause. Sally Nakazi also gives a seductive performance as Monica, who struggles to suppress her sexual feelings for Everard, while exuding a composed, feminine demeanour. Yet the charming and debonair Everard has caught the eye of Rhoda as well, and this new and powerful attraction to a man forces Rhoda to question her relationship with Mary. Through a series of “thought-speak” monologues, the audience learns that while Everard has not refrained from the odd sexual encounter with Monica, he is keen to return Rhoda’s affections.

Throughout this tangled love affair, Mary struggles to reform spinsters Virginia and Alice, urging them to embrace feminist values and relinquish their self-deprecating attitudes. While this part of the play’s narrative is compelling in its own right, it is the moment when Rhoda must choose between her aching passion for Everard and her relationship with Mary that will have audience members holding their breath in anticipation.

Age of Arousal is sexually charged and hilariously crude, but this never detracts from the play’s riveting portrayal of five women who are quite literally trying to change the world. The production is rich and powerful, with a vibrant cast that breathes life into a complex tale of equality and individuality.

Age of Arousal runs Tuesday through Saturday until March 16.

Beauty and brutality

Hart House Theatre’s production of Bent is a rich portrayal of love during the Holocaust

Beauty and brutality

Bathed in soft red light, three lines of barbed wire snake around the outlines of the stage, a sight both arresting and ominous.

Hart House Theatre’s production of Bent blends this uneasy mix of beauty and dread through a love-tragedy of three men caught in the Nazi persecution of homosexuals. Director Carter West’s emotive vision of love contending against a state that rejects love’s freedom is brought richly to life by a talented cast and an exquisitely designed set.

Max is a charismatic wheeler and dealer in 1930s Berlin who wakes up one afternoon with a hangover, an unhappy boyfriend, and a naked sa (Nazi paramilitary) man in his bed. The situation doesn’t improve: the Night of the Long Knives has been extended to daylight hours, and after the sa man is discovered and killed by ss officers, Max and his boyfriend Rudy must flee Berlin.


Liam Volke — an adroit performer with a voice running the gamut from salesman’s patter to lover’s lament — plays Max, whose initial amoralities recede to reveal a strong dignity despite the terrible demands it requires. Volke’s energy leads the action on stage, and helps keep some of the slower scenes alive.

Opposite Max is Rudy, a mournful, sweet dancer played by Jordan Gray. Gray and Volke have a fine chemistry, and their first scene is a delightful dollop of drawing-room comedy played out against a backdrop of unrecognized peril.

The motion and bustle of the first act comes to a close when Max is caught and sent to Dachau, and the second act takes place entirely inside its confines. Here Max meets Horst, (Jad Farris), a queer nurse identified as such by the pink triangle stitched to his prison clothes.

The heart of the play revolves around a setpiece of prison scenes between Max and Horst, as they argue over Max’s rejection of the pink triangle in favour of the “safer” yellow star, reminisce about idyllic Berlin days, and slowly fall in love despite the brutal surrounding environment.

It’s here that West’s direction truly shines. The set is made stark and barren under the prison lights, and the action on-stage reflects this: Max and Horst have been assigned to carry bricks back and forth in work as senseless as it is maddening. With little more than their words and love, they build an achingly intimate world together, culminating in a love scene as notable for its loquacity as for its passion.

Bent is not without missteps — the pacing is a little too slow near the end of the first act, and at times, the script belabors certain points at the expense of depth — but a strong cast and production team bring this love story to fruition. Dominic Manca’s set and lighting design in particular deserve high praise for evoking such a disparate clutch of atmospheres — from cabaret to concentration camp — in a stylized and subtle fashion.