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Theatre Review: A Perfect Bowl of Phở

From U of T’s Drama Festival to Factory Theatre, Nguyen’s play doesn’t miss a beat

Theatre Review: <i>A Perfect Bowl of Phở</i>

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Halfway through fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company’s production of A Perfect Bowl of Ph, actress Kenley Ferris-Ku appears onstage as a waitress in war-era Vietnam. She delivers a monologue that is informative and sincere, telling of how she served ph to American soldiers by day and hid Vit Cng soldiers in the attic by night. It is a monologue about the Tet offensive and the legacy of the restaurant that hid those soldiers. It is also a monologue about ph itself. For this reason, it serves as a good entry point to the show, and it is as near to perfect as this ‘ph show’ gets. Ferris-Ku’s performance is confident and firm, and playwright Nam Nguyen’s dialogue is no less powerful.

The scene is also unlike anything else you’ll see in a show filled with meta-theatrical gags, lightning-fast rap numbers, and dialogue that jackhammers at the fourth wall.

Ph is not so much a distinct narrative as it is a variety show honouring the eponymous dish, with every cast member skillfully juggling several roles, occasionally even trading places with one another. Tying it all together is the arc of the playwright himself, played — mostly — by a wry and witty Kenzie Tsang, as he works out the show from its inception to the final product.

The audience is made to feel like what it is seeing is a work in progress, which isn’t entirely false. First showcased at U of T’s 2017 Drama Festival, fu-GEN’s production is the third iteration of the show — each one markedly different from the last. Questions of what the show is even about and whether it’s getting its message across are discussed openly onstage.

Yet, rather than bringing in new dimensions, these moments can read as overly didactic lessons on dramaturgy and do more to bar the audience from engaging fully and critically with the show. As someone who knows admittedly very little about Vietnam, I think the show would benefit from more scenes like Ferris-Ku’s, and fewer tangents into self-doubt.

In a show that does a brilliant job of being simultaneously entertaining and educational on the subjects of Vietnamese culture and history, Ph triumphs when it is sure of itself.

Watch as an extremely outgoing little girl (Meghan Aguirre) unleashes a lyrical torrent about bringing ph to school for World Cultures Day and you can’t help but be mesmerized. Watch as a white devil of a trendy ph chef (Brendan Rush) tears off his shirt to squeeze lime juice over the pentagram on his chest and you’ll be peeing yourself with laughter. Watch — or more accurately, read — an unflinching experiment in exposition as a gruesome story of Vietnamese refugees set adrift is projected onto an otherwise motionless stage and you will marvel at the risks that this show is willing to take with its material.

Despite its occasional missteps, there is no denying that A Perfect Bowl of Ph is a compelling piece of experimental theatre that you don’t want to miss. This latest iteration is the strongest yet — a good sign for the future if it’s as much of a work in progress as it claims to be. This show may indeed be well on its way to becoming a perfect bowl of phở.

A Perfect Bowl of Ph and Fine China are playing as a double-bill at the Factory Theatre until February 10.

The Bold Type is the best political show on television right now

The nuanced portrayal of female friendship, office dynamics, and complex political topics is commendable

<i>The Bold Type</i> is the best political show on television right now

It’s difficult to describe The Bold Type without inevitably describing the many tropes that have been prominent since the success of Sex and the City. Yes, a dramedy about best friends living in the city and navigating their personal and professional lives together is not an especially new or distinct concept, but there are ways in which The Bold Type makes it feel fresh and significant.

The Bold Type follows three women in their mid-20s, Jane, Kat, and Sutton, who work at Scarlet, a fictional women’s lifestyle magazine that is heavily based on Cosmopolitan. Jane is a staff writer who is especially interested in contributing to Scarlet’s political coverage, but is also assigned stories that incorporate the themes of the episode, including health, fashion, sexuality, morality, and personal growth. In other words, The Bold Type is interested in a comprehensive depiction of young personhood and the aspects of human life most pertinent to young people, with an emphasis on women.

The show also features Melora Hardin in a standout role as Jacqueline Carlyle, the editor-in-chief of Scarlet. At first, Jacqueline’s character seems like another version of The Devil Wears Prada’s Miranda Priestly: the cutthroat woman boss with unrealistically high expectations of her employees. But The Bold Type takes this trope and subverts it entirely. While Jacqueline is the editor-in-chief and maintains her seniority over the other characters, she also acts as a mentor to the protagonists. The series maintains that an effective editor supports their writers, an idea that is reinforced in the second season when Jacqueline is compared with the editor of a different publication.

If the friendship between Jane, Kat, and Sutton is the most important relationship explored in the series, the mentorship between Jacqueline and Jane is the second most important. Throughout the series, Jacqueline often encourages Jane to broaden her horizons or explore a specific issue through a different lens. I would argue that The Bold Type encourages this of its viewers as well.

It’s not that The Bold Type broadly addressing social issues is groundbreaking, it’s that the show does it so effectively. When it comes to political storylines, The Bold Type feels more grounded than Jane the Virgin, more universal than Dear White People, and more sincere than Riverdale. There are episodes that bring social issues and movements such as racism, gun control, affirmative action, sexual liberation, immigration, and, most notably, the #MeToo movement, into conversation. The show doesn’t attempt to drill a specific perspective into viewers’ minds; instead, it shows just how nuanced these issues are through characters who approach these complex topics from different perspectives.

While I’ve emphasized why The Bold Type is so admirably political, the main draw of the series is its characters. The friendship between Jane, Kat, and Sutton feels lived-in. There is a tangible history to their friendship and their intimate understanding of each other is clear in their interactions, and Jacqueline is that mentor we all wish we had someone who consistently encourages us to elevate our art. The show is character-driven, bringing real faces and voices to the political issues that it approaches. Lesser political shows focus on the politics themselves, often forgetting how those politics affect specific people.

The Bold Type is not an easy sell. In a television climate that values high-concept series with high production value on prestigious networks — think Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, The Handmaid’s Tale it can be easy to overlook the importance of this series.

Personally, I’m a fan of the less-is-more concept. I enjoy series that tackle everyday issues and function as reflections of ourselves. These are characters who I feel I know personally, and who I can have casual conversations about writing, relationships, and politics with over a bottle of wine and an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. This is a show that I find myself thinking about when I consider my own life, my goals, and my personal growth. The Bold Type is not necessarily a show that everyone will enjoy, but it is one that should be on your radar.

Theatre review: A modern take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The retelling of this classic story captured humour, whimsicality, and dreamlike themes

Theatre review: A modern take on <i>A Midsummer Night’s Dream</i>

“Then I saw her face, now I’m a believer,” sang Nam Nguyen, a guitar-playing fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of William Shakespeare’s most well-known comedies.

The Victoria College Drama Society (VCDS) opened its 2018–2019 season on Thursday night with a dreamy performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Directed by Abby Palmer, the play was adapted to suit a contemporary audience and ran for 2.5 hours with a 10-minute intermission. Some of Shakespeare’s original text is still used, but much of the convoluted words and language have been edited and translated into modern English.

More interestingly though, is that Palmer’s adaptation is set in 1968 America. The new setting is brought to the forefront with the inclusion of swapped gender roles, LGBTQ+ people, and people of colour, as well as snazzy costumes, lively singing, and dancing. In multiple scenes, characters dressed in bold miniskirts, platform heels, and tie-dye break out into popular songs like the ‘60s hits “I’m a Believer” and “Stand by Me.” This specific directorial adaptation is more relevant than ever in today’s political climate of social movements and regressive leadership.

Midsummer focuses on four interconnected plots: the relationships between the characters of Hermia (Eiléanór O’Halloran), Lysander (Rachel Leggett), Helena (Mitchell Byrne), and Demetrius (River Oliveira). Against the law of Theseus (Devon Wilton), Hermia and Lysander intend to get married, while Demetrius attempts to win over Hermia, and Helena tries to win Demetrius.

In the forest and the realm of Fairyland, Oberon (Wilton), king of the fairies, and his assistant Puck (Nicole Eun-Ju Bell) concoct a special potion to set things right among the couples. Meanwhile, a group of hippie actors rehearse a play of their own that they hope to perform at Theseus’s wedding. Things go wrong and chaos ensues, but everything seems to have a funny way of working out in the end.

This hilarity balances the commotion of the many different and deep themes and scenes in the play. Characters in serious conversations in the foreground are met with amusing moments between characters in the background. In one instance, Hermia and her father argue over her arranged marriage to Demetrius while Lysander and Helena secretly fight behind them. The audience was constantly having a laugh at these actions and other witty one-liners.

Visual elements helped to bring the dream world even more to life, with a colourful set design, hilarious sound effects like the characters’ car driving behind the audience, and lighting effects that featured prominently throughout the show.

The play was performed at the Emmanuel College Quad, which added to the ambience and fit seamlessly with the forest scenes on stage. Most of the seating was on tarps on the grass, although some chairs were provided.

Audience interaction was a large part of the show. It was a bit startling when characters suddenly walked up and down the aisles, and even across the tarps of people on their way to the stage. Puck spoke directly to the audience several times throughout the show, as if talking to a friend. For a small outdoor theatre, this truly enhanced the intimacy and sense of community, especially in the chilly fall evening.

Overall, the musical performances of the cast and the modern dream world setting made for a magical night.

TIFF 2018: Wildlife

Overlooked – except this time a TIFF special

TIFF 2018: <i> Wildlife </i>

Unlike many of the other films that played at TIFF this year, Wildlife has been making the festival rounds since Sundance in January. Since then, it has received rapturous reviews, but nowhere near the level of praise that films like Roma and A Star Is Born are receiving. While I have not seen those films yet, Wildlife is certainly not to be underestimated. Though somewhat overlooked by the festival circuit, Wildlife is one of the best films of the year so far.

Based on Richard Ford’s novel of the same name, the film is the directorial debut of Paul Dano. Having worked under directors such as Paul Thomas Anderson on There Will Be Blood, Denis Villeneuve on Prisoners, and Steve McQueen on 12 Years a Slave, Dano has seen incredible formalist filmmaking firsthand, and it shows in his work. His debut is assured and consistent, taking up a sombre, almost dread-filled emotional tone from the beginning and never wavering.

The plot is astonishingly bare for a movie that’s an hour and 45 minutes long. In 1960, a family of three moves to Montana, seeking to improve their lives. As told through the eyes of 14-year-old Joe (Ed Oxenbould), his father (Jake Gyllenhaal) encounters complications with his job. Each member of the family, most notably Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), Joe’s mother, must do what they can to survive, physically and emotionally. That’s it.

While it has beats of both a coming-of-age drama and a deep tragedy, Wildlife is ultimately a very simple drama, recounted with heartbreaking detail and craft. Working in the rich tradition of quiet Midwestern American dramas and taking influence from movies like Ordinary People and A River Runs Through It, Dano tells this story with remarkable self-assurance. The camera moves only when it needs to; the tightly controlled colour palette is made up of wonderfully muted pastel greys, greens, and blues; and Dano picks up on every smile, glance, and sigh that his actors give out.

What may be most remarkable about Wildlife is its sense of empathy. This comes from the feminist lens through which Dano and Zoe Kazan, his partner and co-writer, view the film’s events. Jeanette, in addition to working and coping with the loss of her own dreams, must deal with both her husband moving away and her son growing older.

A lesser film would present the actions that Jeanette takes to cope, and live with some hope of happiness as morally reprehensible, but Dano and Kazan understand not just what it means to live as a woman in a world dominated by men, but also what it means to live as a woman in a world dominated by feminine performativity.

Wildlife is a sobering depiction of what it means to live under the American Dream, and what it takes away from you — it’s the empathy that Dano and Kazan lend the characters that makes this portrait so effective.

TIFF 2018: Vox Lux

Brady Corbet’s musical drama explores domestic acts of violence, terrorism, and privacy rights

TIFF 2018: <i> Vox Lux </i>

At its TIFF premiere on September 7, Vox Lux received a great deal of praise from critics and plenty of exposure to the public. It had also premiered at the 75th annual Venice Film Festival, receiving a similarly positive reception.

Directed by Brady Corbet and starring award-winning actors Natalie Portman and Jude Law, the films tells the story of a young girl, Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), who catapults to fame after surviving a mass shooting.

Vox Lux presents itself almost as a mockumentary-type film, with its use of ’90s style videography and voiceovers by Willem Dafoe. Divided into three parts, the film portrays the progression of Celeste’s budding career and her own personal development from a naïve teenager to a careless adult. The first part, set in 1999, depicts a young Celeste and her older sister, Eleanor (Stacy Martin), who survive a traumatic school shooting.

The girls decide to write a song about their feelings toward the event, which captures the attention of a manager (Jude Law). Young Celeste and Eleanor savour their first taste of fame, travelling around central Europe and embarking on a music career.

In the later parts of the film, which follow a 31-year-old Celeste (Natalie Portman), she is now a careless pop star dealing with a plethora of scandals in both her public and personal lives. Celeste faces yet another act of violence in her life, with an act of terrorism using her image.

The film successfully tackles this difficult subject matter by echoing real life events, such as the Columbine mass shooting in 1999, and provides a fresh, first-person perspective.

It is at this point in the film that the audience notices the change in Celeste’s music style and image. They drastically shift from simple, teenybopper lyrics and bubblegum pop to an eclectic, edgy, and autotuned style, reflecting her troubles and overall downward spiral.

It seems as if Celeste is meant to be a parallel to real-life teen pop stars — 2007 was not a good year for Britney Spears.

In the end, the big question that the audience is left to contemplate is, “How much exposure is too much?”

TIFF 2018: The Predator

While not unbearable, Shane Black’s latest is ultimately too confused

TIFF 2018: <i> The Predator </i>

The latest instalment in the Predator franchise, The Predator, is, above all, a film that made me feel tired.

It’s fitting, at least, that Shane Black is the one behind the camera this time, having had a supporting role in the Schwarzenegger-starring 1987 original, though part of the problem here is that Black and Fred Dekker, his co-writer, seem to have thrown everything on their minds onto the wall to see what will stick. The result is a movie that, while it has its strong points, ultimately feels rather uninteresting.

The Predator is fairly effective in its immediate goal of, well, thrilling. But the final product is a film that is at once both formulaic and unrelentingly cynical.

To Black’s credit, he gets the setup and initial story right, delving into the lore behind the Predators’ species, culture, and internal politics — a term that is applied very loosely here, but still sort of fits. He explores interesting character dynamics, settling into a groove of doing what he does best: writing characters who are most entertaining while having casual conversation. Unfortunately, it’s mostly downhill from there.

Black’s filmography is full of underrated films. The Nice Guys is wonderful, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in particular is incredibly charming. However, the key to his charm is his irreverence.

The flippant, even rude conversations between his characters, plot-related or not, are the real centrepieces of his movies. It’s hard to explain, but watching actors rattle off Shane Black dialogue is often just really fun. His dialogue is how you wish you talked to people.

The Predator, designed to be a franchise entry from the start, is anything but irreverent. The gonzo ridiculousness of the original Predator is slightly present, but the impact of the Marvel/DC comic book movie industry is here too.

Mixed with the earnestness of a franchise movie, one in which the focus is designed to be the plot and the fight scenes, Black’s irreverence just comes across as overbearing cynicism. The characters veer away from flippancy and more toward being genuinely unlikeable.

This points to a broader problem within male-driven action filmmaking: the increasing popularity of confusing ‘damaged’ characters with well-rounded ones. Nobody is saying you can’t have both. But rather than rely on Black’s trademark dialogue to carry them through the movie, the characters of The Predator, alarmingly, use post-traumatic stress disorder as a crutch to explain both character motivations and personality traits.


Sometimes this is played for laughs — which might be even worse — but this confusion of motivations is what makes The Predator seem cynical. Of course, not all characters have to be subversive, and sometimes it is nice to ‘turn one’s brain off’ and watch a movie like The Predator.

But being damaged is not a character trait, and characters who are defined by this trait — perhaps attempting to emulate the antihero-driven storytelling style of shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, seem empty.

The Predator was also notoriously marred by editing problems, and it certainly shows. At one point, several characters show up in an RV, but its procurement is never really explained. The same thing happens with a dog featured on screen, and certain characters change clothes a few times without explanation.

The third act bears a general sense of incoherence: the dialogue doesn’t fit and it all seems rushed. It is fairly clear that even brilliant editing couldn’t have saved this movie. Black’s cynicism simply doesn’t mix with how formulaic the movie actually is.

There are alluring moments in The Predator and it’s certainly not an unbearable movie. At some points, the action is genuinely fun, and the art direction and creature design often goes in fun and inventive directions: The Predator has hunting dogs now! But I found myself waiting through most of the fight scenes to get to the conversations or the next interesting tidbit of Predator backstory.

Among other issues, The Predator is just too confused by its identities as both a franchise film and a Shane Black movie. Even if it gets some things right, it’s ultimately a slog.

In review: Brother and The Boat People

The Canadian novels depict the experiences of displaced, marginalized groups

In review:<em> Brother</em> and<em> The Boat People</em>


The world is currently seeing unprecedentedly high numbers of displaced peoples. Domestically, Canada faces growing tensions around immigration, race, discrimination, and systemic violence. It’s increasingly easy to forget the faces behind the numbers; human lives often get boiled down to statistics or identity politics.

A new novel published by Penguin Random House, David Chariandy’s Brother, aims to address this. It focuses on those living in marginalized communities.

Brother is set in Chariandy’s native Scarborough suburbs. Set in the early nineties, Brother follows the lives of two second-generation, mixed-heritage Trinidadian-Canadian brothers, Michael and Francis, as they navigate the violent, stifling fringes of the city and grow up understanding that almost everybody, by default, underestimates them because of the colour of their skin.

As the narrator, Michael is quiet and reflective, a natural observer. Francis, the older brother, is magnetic and strong-willed; he hopes to carve out a space for himself in the music industry. Meanwhile, their mother — single and perpetually exhausted — works multiple jobs, tireless in her ambition to provide ‘opportunity’ for her sons.

However, facing the hostile realities of being Black in a prejudiced community, Michael and Francis collide directly with the fear-driven forces of a single bullet.

Throughout Brother, Chariandy offers a sincere meditation on grief in the aftermath of careless brutality, the bonds that hold families together, and the corrosive despair of being stuck in one place and tied down by poverty. The book is longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and is a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and rightly so.

The book is a jewel. I found that along with its blatant and honest portrayal of inequality, it’s filled with moments of grit, pride, courage, and hope. Although barely longer than a novella, Brother dazzles and devastates. It’s brutal, poetic, and palpable, all at once.

The Boat People

Palpability is the strength of The Boat People too, the beating of a human pulse that readers will feel within the pages. Bala successfully weaves distinct stories together, transitioning between three perspectives: those of Mahindan, a Sri Lankan refugee and the father of six-year-old Sellian; Priya, his second-generation Sri Lankan-Canadian lawyer; and Grace, a third-generation Japanese-Canadian adjudicator assigned with the task of deciding Mahindan’s future.

Bala’s tale opens up with the quotidian sounds, sights, and smells of a refugee boat, where all sense of time is lost. When Mahindan first sees the approaching horizon of a strip of land — Canada — a singular thought floods his mind: “We are safe.” And if, as readers, we’re unable to relate to his feeling of relief, we can certainly recognize the moment the refugees are met with protest: “Send the illegals back! Go home terrorists!”

Despite representing an accepting and tolerant sanctuary to Mahindan, he soon discovers that the country is full of fear and resentment. He’s separated from his son and placed in a prison cell as he waits to be granted asylum.

In our current global climate, many refugees and immigrants are treated with the same indignation and aggressive pushback. Where The Boat People excels is in its depiction of the politics and bureaucracy surrounding refugee status, and the organization of refugees’ lives.

According to Anita Chong, Senior Editor at McClelland & Stewart and editor of The Boat People, Bala’s poignant novel “asks us to reflect on the often too-cozy image that we have of Canada as a welcoming nation, an image that many Canadians have been especially proud to burnish in 2017 in comparison to what is happening in the United States. It asks us to remember that we have never been immune to the forces of fear and xenophobia.”

“Now that the worldwide refugee crisis has begun to push against Canada’s borders, Canadians are being asked to consider who should be allowed safe haven and who should be turned away,” added Chong.

One thing can be said for sure: both Brother and The Boat People are very timely additions to Canadian literature. They show how fiction is the antidote to hate and divisiveness, because of its ability to foster empathy for other ways of life and to recognize the universality of others’ struggles and joys.

Brother and The Boat People demand self-reflection. When we sing “O Canada” and pride ourselves in being “the True North strong and free,” we must ask ourselves a few questions: is freedom in Canada an exclusive term? If so, for whom is it reserved? Through the stories of Michael and Francis, and Mahindan and Sellian, we can learn to examine the powers of the institutions that are allowed to distribute or confiscate it.

Brain on Fire fails to bring the heat

Gerard Barrett’s film aims to bring awareness to rare disease

<em>Brain on Fire</em> fails to bring the heat

Critics everywhere are rolling their eyes at Brain on Fire: a medical thriller based on a true story. It follows Susannah (Chloë Grace Moretz), a reporter that is repeatedly misdiagnosed as she becomes increasingly ill.

The movie’s major criticisms are as follows: inadequate development of a main character; the medical procedures shown are done in cliché; the ‘cure’ in the movie is unrealistic, discovered by a ‘genius doctor’ — a medical Ex Machina.

But Brain on Fire was never meant to be a hard-hitting film, nor had it intended on revolutionizing script and plot elements. As director Gerard Barrett admits, “There were sacrifices that I had to make, to make sure that [the disease] was understandable. And that was important to me.”

In the film, Susannah, a young and ambitious journalist, has anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a rare auto-immune disease where the body attacks the brain causing partial inflammation and resulting in symptoms of psychosis. The disease was discovered as recently as 2006, and is not widely discussed in medical curricula around the world, making it a unique plot point for the movie.

Filming and pre-production took about three weeks in total — a small amount of time compared to most of Hollywood’s giant blockbusters. Instead of focusing on possible stylistic choices and narrative, Barrett kept things simple. He didn’t want the plot to be complicated, nor did he want to distract the audience’s attention from anything but the disease. Barrett said he wanted the audience to “just watch it, take it in, and use it in real life.”

At the same time, though, Barrett spread himself too thin. Had Barrett struck a balance between truth and artistic vision, perhaps the film would have been better received. As noble as it seems to want to use film as a platform to raise awareness, in doing so, Barrett neglected to engage in truly creative filmmaking.