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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.

Theatre review: VCDS’ The Importance of Being Earnest

Student theatre cleverly tackles the theme of identity in its second play of the season

Theatre review: VCDS’ <em>The Importance of Being Earnest</em>

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Victoria College Drama Society (VCDS) received resounding laughter and applause from pleased audiences with director Rachel Bannerman’s interpretation of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Arguably one of Oscar Wilde’s finest plays, it is his playful response to William Shakespeare’s serious question to audiences: “What’s in a name?” Wilde’s answer? Everything.

In Earnest, Jack Worthing, our main protagonist, is in love with Gwendolen Bracknell, but he has been passing off as Ernest Worthing instead — a lie which, it seems, comprises a large part of Gwendolen’s love for Jack.

Meanwhile, Jack’s friend Algernon Moncrieff has plans to secretly go visit Jack’s ward Cecily in the country so as to woo her — a plan that ends up with him also passing himself off as Ernest, a name that Cecily, like Gwendolen, places much importance upon. What happens when their real names are found out? That, of course, is much of the fun of Earnest, as are its other characters, namely Lady Bracknell, a typical Victorian mother character exposing both the monotony and falsity of Victorian morals. Add in a black handbag, a lot of muffins, and a couple of diaries, and you have the wonderful play that is The Importance of Being Earnest.

What makes Earnest so hilarious is that it is a world where everything is inverted: characters say the opposite of what you would expect them to say, but with all seriousness. For example, Lady Bracknell, who has been visiting a friend of hers who is recently widowed, notes that the woman looks “quite 20 years younger.” The play is chock-full of such clever bits, and this comprises its hilarious nature.

Bannerman’s production understands that Earnest is ultimately a play of identity, where the central question is “Who am I?” It is a play that laughs at the absurdity of nothingness, of a purposeless existence, and fills that void with beauty and wit.  In assembling a cast of mostly women and changing the character of Mr. Jack Worthing to a Ms. Jack Worthing, Bannerman brings the play into the twenty-first century in a manner that is quite fitting for the play’s central question of human identity.  

The cast is, overall, quite strong, with some standout performances. Gianni Sallese as Algernon Moncrieff is an excellent decision, and his skill with the character often outshines Sylvia Woolner’s Jack, with whom he is often on stage.

Kara Austria’s Lady Bracknell maintains the veneer of Victorian high society while treating the character with just enough irony to result in a truly wonderful performance. Carmen Bezner Kerr’s Gwendolen Bracknell and Kenley Ferris Ku’s Cecily Cardew also both display the actors’ full awareness of the wit of the dialogue, which they play into very well.

A clever set design, which changes three times during the show, helps to keep the stage interesting and the audience engaged. Overall, Bannerman makes good use of the stage, and characters are constantly moving, sitting, running, and taking up space, which is very entertaining.

Some moments that could have been further emphasized include the classic encounter between Cecily and Gwendolen during tea, which is quite hilarious but could have been further drawn out. This is, of course, a minor detail, and is outweighed by the many other clever directions, including the very funny aside when Algy and his servant Lane plug their ears.

As is often the case, the VCDS offers audiences a well-rehearsed, clever production of a classic play that is well worth seeing. You’ll leave with many good laughs and an appreciation for the clever wit of Oscar Wilde that is not lost upon this production team.

Theatre review: VCDS’ Twelfth Night, Or What You Will

The final show of the 100th season pays homage to an early production

Theatre review: VCDS’ <i>Twelfth Night, Or What You Will</i>

For the final play of its 100th season, the Victoria College Drama Society (VCDS) chose a production of Twelfth Night, Or What You Will. The show runs for two and a half hours, with a 15 minute intermission.

Notably, the same show was first put up by VCDS a century ago, with an all-female cast. “We re-mount it to celebrate our past and to look to our future as we continue to grow,” Executive Producers Alyssa DiBattista and Leora Nash wrote in their producers’ note.

During their introductory statements, DiBattista and Nash also pointed out how appropriately coincidental it was for opening night to fall on International Women’s Day.

Directed by Maya Wong, VCDS’ Twelfth Night is aesthetically cohesive, thanks to the clean and naturalistic set designed by Wong and Artistic Designer Abby Palmer. Often, student productions use similar ‘classic’ sets that are meant to be timeless. It was refreshing to see VCDS use wooden furniture, IKEA chairs, and even plants to create a modern stage.

The plot of Twelfth Night revolves around Viola (Kashi Syal), who falls in love with Orsino (James Hyett), who is in love with Olivia (Jasmine Cabanilla), who mistakes Viola for a man and falls in love with her. Madness, of course, ensues. Ironically, the chemistry between Syal and Cabanilla is palpable, perhaps more so than either of their chemistries with Hyett.

Admittedly, the show’s modern context is a bit confusing, as the hierarchal relationships between the characters are never fully explained. The blocking of the play also falls lacklustre at times, with multiple actors simply standing in a line during certain scenes.

However, Cabanilla sparks laughter every time she used her cell phone as a prop, and Wong creatively modernizes the traditional Shakespearean sword fights written into the play, with choreography by Jade Elliott McRae. 

Maria (Nicole Bell) and Sir Toby (Jacob Levitt) are especially strong characters, thanks to Bell and Levitt’s performances. The two deliver their lines with such ease that the audience can clearly understand Shakespeare’s jokes. The scene with Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew (Braden Kenny), and Fabian (Maher Sinno) tricking Malvolio (Ryan Falconer) is particularly delightful to watch.

An original score composed by Music Director and Composer Sam Clark and Assistant Composer Wilfred Moeschter also makes this classic love triangle story unique. With the harmonizing voices of Percy Thomas and Yasmine Shelton, the musical interludes are gorgeous.

Overall, Twelfth Night is an aesthetically pleasing production featuring strong actors and a uniquely creative production team. For the love of VCDS, do not miss the end of this historic season.

Twelfth Night, Or What You Will will run at Isabel Bader Theatre until March 10.

Disclosure: Kashi Syal is The Varsity‘s Associate Arts & Culture Editor.

Campus theatre review: SMC Troubadours’ Hairspray

A fantastic cast and catchy music make for a worthy, politically charged rendition

Campus theatre review: SMC Troubadours’ <i>Hairspray</i>

The St. Michael’s College Troubadours’ production of Hairspray: The Broadway Musical is a radiant mix of feel-good drama and revolution. 

Hairspray gives its audience the rare experience of being moved by a gripping dramatization of racial struggle while also enjoying a night of lighthearted musical comedy, making it a must-see. It boasts witty, politically charged one-liners and love stories that defy expectation.

Many of the actors’ voices wowed; Hannah Lazare’s Tracy Turnblad is reminiscent of the original Broadway actress’, both in her stunning vibrato and charm. Sasha L Henry’s Motormouth Maybelle immediately evokes Effie from Dreamgirls — unsurprising, as she has played this role before. Her powerhouse solo “I Know Where I’ve Been” is breathtaking, and her final belting note was met with whooping cheers on opening night.

Robert Bazzocchi’s Link Larkin rivals Zac Efron’s in dreaminess. Between his crooning voice, smooth dance moves, and winning smile, the audience can understand why Tracy crawls after him, practically drooling, as he serenades her in “It Takes Two.” Zoi Samonas steals every scene she’s in as Velma Von Tussle, oozing stage presence as she showcases dazzling vocal range and perfect comedic timing.

Alexandra Palma is vibrant and talented as Amber Von Tussle, making it hard to hate this notoriously dislikable character, and Jamie Fiuza’s over-the-top Penny Pingleton is delightful and fun as she expertly walks the line between frenetic dork and loveable comic relief.

The production quality is mostly sound, bar the odd microphone malfunction. A live band provides the music, costumes are era-appropriate and enviably bedazzled, staging and choreography is smooth, and not a hair is out of place.

The audience is bound to be laughing throughout, entertained both by pithy one-offs — “Save your personal lives for the camera!” — and the ongoing antics of Tracy’s quirky yet loveable parents, played by Brendan Rush and Kody McCann.

Under the direction of Armon Ghaeinizadeh, the Troubadours’ production of Hairspray emerges as a theatrical success, hooking the audience from the very first note. Tracy lies in bed, which is set vertically on the stage to create the effect of an aerial view, and wakes up with a comically wide smile that proves to be contagious. By the end of “Good Morning Baltimore,” you’ll find yourself grinning along with her, and only at intermission will you realize you haven’t stopped. 

Hairspray: The Broadway Musical runs at Hart House Theatre until February 17.

Theatre review: VCDS’ The Drowsy Chaperone

A look at a world more glamorous than our own

Theatre review: VCDS’ <i>The Drowsy Chaperone</i>

The Victoria College Drama Society’s (VCDS) recent production of The Drowsy Chaperone was absolutely incredible. The show was written by Bob Martin and Don McKellar in 1998 as a parody of musical productions from the 1920s, and it featured music by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison.

Directed by Meredith Shedden, the production combined the magic of a bygone era with comedy, singing, dancing, romance, danger, satire, and blindfolded rollerblading antics.

The play’s events took place on the day of the wedding between star personality Janet and her fiancé, George. The central premise of the show was keeping the groom from seeing his bride, and this is where the cast of quirky characters play their part.

The set transformed from a 1990s living room to a glamorous 1920s wedding mid-show; it continued to switch back and forth throughout the play, pulling the audience in and out of the fantasy created by the narrator, Tom Fraser, who pulled the show together with his witty commentary.

The set’s French doors opened and immediately engulfed viewers in a magical time. The detailed costumes were particularly notable, full of lace frills, elaborate wedding dresses, luscious velvets and furs, coats and tails, and sequins.

Drowsy‘s incredible cast pulled off iconic numbers, like “Show Off,” wonderfully. Ryan Falconer was perfectly sleazy in the role of Aldolpho the ‘Latin lover,’ with his self-titled solo, “I am Aldolpho,” drawing rowdy laughter and applause. Arin Klein and Jamie Fiuza were excellent as a gangsters-turned-pastry chefs vaudeville duo, and Lucinda Qu was a show-stopper with a wonderful vocal performance as Trix.

Best of all, Olivia Thornton-Nickerson, who played Drowsy herself, was truly a star. She was funny and glamorous, showing off her incredible voice and stage presence in an enchanting red velvet ballgown. Her rendition of “As We Stumble Along” was hilarious and awe-inspiring.

Drowsy was a complete pleasure to watch, and it transported the audience into a world more glamorous and more musical than their own.

Hart House’s Putnam County Spelling Bee is D-E-L-I-G-H-T-F-U-L

The ensemble cast portrays their roles with humour and sincerity

Hart House’s Putnam County Spelling Bee is D-E-L-I-G-H-T-F-U-L

“My parents keep on telling me just being here is winning, although I know it isn’t so!” sings Chip, a character in the charming musical comedy The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which opened at Hart House Theatre on Friday, November 10.

The show is set in a high school gymnasium, where contestants compete in the Putnam County Spelling Bee and for a place in the national competition. The story is told across nearly two hours, with the contestants taking turns to spell words that range from easy, like ‘cow,’ to more difficult, like ‘Weltanschauung.’ As the show progresses, the spellers are eliminated one by one, until a single contestant is left. They reveal their backstories between rounds.

The contestants consist of an eclectic and quirky mix of characters. Former spelling bee champion Rona Lisa Perretti (Amy Swift) and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Art Carlson) are introduced as the host and pronouncer of the competition, respectively, alongside a mix of overachieving student competitors.

Leaf Coneybear (Kevin Forster) is the only student who didn’t make first place in his district’s spelling bee and spells his words in a trance, and Marcy Park (Braelyn Guppy), who speaks six languages and skipped fourth and fifth grade, has high expectations for winning the competition.

William Barfée (Hugh Ritchie) exudes confidences, using his “magic foot” to spell out words before giving an answer, and the determined Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Erin Humphry) faces severe pressure from her two dads in the audience, frequently ranting about the state of politics in America.

Chip Tolentino (John Wamsley), last year’s champion, is back to defend his title amidst some raging hormones, and Olive Ostrovsky (Vanessa Campbell), a somewhat nervous newcomer, is best friends with her dictionary and the only contestant without parents or supporters in the audience.

Finally, Mitch Mahoney (Carson Betz) is present at the spelling bee in order to complete his community service by comforting the eliminated contestants with a hug and a juice box.

The ensemble portrays these roles with both humour and sincerity. The audience often erupted with laughter at the production’s endless jokes, but attendees were also moved by heartfelt moments like “The I Love You Song” sung by Olive and her parents. Another unique aspect of the show is its audience participation, with several theatergoers brought onstage to participate as contestants in the spelling bee. These unscripted scenes make for hilarious moments.

Throughout the story, the characters learn that winning isn’t everything. This is especially true in a scene near the end, when Marcy asks Jesus himself (Wamsley) if he’ll be disappointed if she loses, to which he replies, “Of course not… I also won’t be disappointed with you if you win… this isn’t the kind of thing I care very much about.”

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will play at the Hart House Theatre until November 25.

Victoria College Dramatic Society celebrates its centennial

Theatre organization commemorates milestone with a seasonal focus on Canadian heritage

Victoria College Dramatic Society celebrates its centennial

The Victoria College Drama Society (VCDS) is celebrating its centennial season by focusing on bringing the works of Victoria University and University of Toronto alumni to life. Since its founding as the first drama society of Victoria University in 1918, the VCDS has developed into a platform that strives to provide the experience of drama to U of T community members of all disciplines, ages, genders, and cultural backgrounds.

The selection of plays for the centennial season leans heavily on drama, exploring the development of Canadian heritage and the meaning of a uniquely Canadian identity. Leora Nash, one of the VCDS’ two Executive Producers, told The Varsity that the idea to focus on a celebration of Canadian theatre and its relevant themes came alongside the Canada 150 celebrations this past summer. Nash and co-Executive Producer Alyssa Dibattista began planning the centennial last year.

Of the many diverse play proposals submitted by potential directors, Colours in the Storm, written by  Jim Betts and directed by Shannon Dunbar, was chosen to kick off the season on October 19. The musical follows Tom Thomson and his struggles as a painter, from his debut in Algonquin Park to his mysterious death. The show focuses not only on an “iconic” Canadian artist, wrote Nash, “but also looks at the evolution of conservation… and the beginnings of what we might consider some of Canada’s iconography (lush nature, outdoors).”

Contrasting with Colours in the Storm, which inhabits a more traditional perspective on Canadian identity, the play Lady in the Red Dress will display a more contemporary representation of our culture. Written by David Yee and directed by Jasmine Cabanilla, the play is a modern-day noir unfolding within the context of the Chinese-Canadian redress movement. “[It] comments on the state of diversity and inaction in our history,” Nash stated.

The season will also include a production of Bob Martin and Don McKellar’s musical The Drowsy Chaperone, a parody of American musical comedies centring on the wedding of an oil tycoon and a Broadway star. Despite the show being a late addition to the season, Nash believes that it complements the other selections well, as it embraces a classical musical spirit. The final production of the VCDS’ 2017–2018 season will be a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the first production ever put on by the society.   

Nash stated that the VCDS is “very proud” to be including so much Canadian theatre in its season. The group has also been working in conjunction with Victoria University alumni on outreach efforts, including advertising, and on a centennial subcommittee focusing on planning and event logistics. A closing gala, to be held in March, will honour both alumni and current students involved in the VCDS and Victoria University theatre.

A preview of this weekend’s U of T Drama Festival

From pho to family, and everything in between

A preview of this weekend’s U of T Drama Festival

Now in its twentieth year after its resurrection in 1993, the University of Toronto’s annual Drama Festival has returned to Hart House Theatre this weekend. Since its founding in 1936, the Festival has launched the careers of many, and serves as a showcase for students, especially now in its 15th year of accepting only original student work. 

Playwright and actor David Yee will be adjudicating this year’s festival. Yee is a playwright-in-residence at Tarragon Theatre, and has been awarded the Governor General’s Literary Award for his work carried away on the crest of a wave. The student productions are eligible for awards including ones for technical achievement, playwriting, and best direction.

Read on for a preview of each of the nine shows that will be performed as part of this year’s U of T Drama Festival. 

Thursday, February 9

  • Family Portrait / St. Michael’s College — Troubadours

Family Portrait is a deeply personal look at familial trauma; playwright and director Kat Hatzinakos hopes the audience will be able to see their own family reflected in the characters.

Of the inspiration for the play, Hatzinakos says that the story is based on her own family’s history, and that she “found it remarkable that although we never openly discussed our trauma, we discovered other outlets for telling our story.” By channeling the pain and difficulty of her family’s experience into a new medium, Hatzinakos hopes to bring the story back to life.

  • Swipe Right / Woodsworth • Innis • New • Drama Society (WINDS)

Inspired by the alternately comedic and aggravating aspects of online dating, Swipe Right attempts to bring a “cheeky” perspective to the more discriminatory aspects of dating apps.

Savana James, who cowrote Swipe Right along with Mackenzie Stewart, says she hopes the audience identifies not only with the characters who face discrimination within the play, but also the ones doing the discriminating. Director Nicole Bell echoes this sentiment, saying “having the audience connect with all the characters on stage will hopefully help people see that sometimes what people say can be hurtful, regardless of intention.”

  • Just the Fax, Ma’am, Just the Fax / UC Follies

This marks Lucas Loizou’s fourth year participating in the Drama Festival, and his first year having submitted his own original work. He describes Just The Fax as a “world made up of fragmented dreams” that explores the tensions between our psychic and social lives, the fantasies we conjure for ourselves, and the characters in our lives.

“That’s where magical realism lies,” he said. Loizou also described director Deniz Basar’s vision of the play as a portrait in cartoonish and bright colours, while “encouraging a goofy, clownish atmosphere.”

Friday, February 10

  • Mama / UTM Drama Club

Shaquille Pottinger says that Mama was inspired by his desire to tell a “uniquely Black” story — one that serves as a showcase for the “many talents of Black artists who study at this very institution.”

Director Fuchsia Boston says that Mama might seem like a deceptively simple play about a conversation between two sisters. However, the structure of the play gradually reveals new depths to each of the characters, some of whom have dark histories. This served as an anchor for Boston, who aimed to have the actors “highlight reasons their characters are human and how they can connect to them.”

  • A Lullaby and an Apology / Woodsworth • Innis • New • Drama Society

The second offering from WINDS is a story that aims to respond to the problem of bigotry and overgeneralization in the media in the name of realism.

Playwright Cy Macikunas says that the play was written with the goal of telling “a story with diversity that isn’t about the tragedy of being different.” He also acknowledged the opportunities offered by the festival, saying “I just think it’s a brilliant idea, theatre made by and for other students. It provides a platform that many of us wouldn’t have, or wouldn’t attend otherwise.

On the takeaway for viewers of the play, Macikunas said, “If I wanted to make anything clear, it’s that this world we’re in is always changing, always falling apart, and it’s okay to look after yourself first, and it’s okay to be falling apart.”




  • Suzanne / Trinity College Drama Society

When asked about his inspiration for Suzanne, writer and director Jonathan Dick describes one image, at length — a photograph of a woman clutching the chest of a girl to whom the woman’s son’s heart had been donated after his death.
“I remember feeling so touched… I found that sentiment really quite beautiful, that idea of hearing the heart of a loved one beat one more time,” Dick said.

He also explained that many of the people who impact us the most are our loved ones, leading Suzanne to ask the question: what do we do with the things they leave behind? Without giving too much away, Dick said he hopes viewers come away with not only an emotional response but also a resolve to discuss organ donation with their loved ones.

Saturday, February 11

  • A Perfect Bowl of Phở / Victoria College Drama Society

Writer Nam Nguyen was inspired to write A Perfect Bowl of Phở after reading an article that discussed the more intriguing elements of the history of the traditional Vietnamese dish, leading him to realized that “pho was interesting enough to write about.” What resulted was a humorous musical touching on the Asian-Canadian experience that includes songs such as “Vietnam Pimpin’” and “Refugee Flow.”

Director Abby Palmer also noted the timing of producing a show about immigration, saying that upon reading the script, “it was… evident that this story of Asian-Canadian youth, historical characters, and refugees needed to be told in Toronto, right now.”



  • Touch / UC Follies

Marium Raja’s Touch centres on Florence, who has difficulty making contact and forming connections with others. Raja says, “the need to reach out to someone but not knowing how to, the ease of touching someone who you have a strong connection to — these are things that everyone I know has dealt with at some level.”

In casting Touch, Raja emphasized diversity, wanting the characters to reflect the people she had come to know at university.

  • Monsters / UTM Drama Club

Monsters aims to examine the weighty topic of sexual assault with compassion. Director Kailtyn White says that audience will find the use of movement in the play compelling. “I was lucky enough to work with women who are incredibly connected to their bodies and understand how to tell a story through them,” said White.

While the crux of the play is to be taken seriously, White also noted that “if we were to make Monsters a straight drama, it would be draining.” Instead, she aims to incorporate elements of humour without being disrespectful towards an story that, though is a reality for many, is often underrepresented in media.

The U of T Drama Festival runs at Hart House Theatre from February 9-11.