Theatre review: TCDS’ Sunday in the Park with George

A visually stunning production following the life of George Seurat

Theatre review: TCDS’ <i>Sunday in the Park with George</i>

The Trinity College Dramatic Society (TCDS) opened its last show of the 2017–2018 season with a visually stunning production of the musical Sunday in the Park with George on Wednesday, March 21.

Directed by Shannon Dunbar, the play examines the creation of real-life artist Georges Seurat’s masterpiece “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” which features Parisians promenading at a park on the riverbank. It is a theatrical look at the artistic process, told with honest and humorous truths about life and love, and set in both the past and present.

The story loosely follows the artistic endeavors of George (Winston Sullivan) as he struggles to create meaningful art and maintain a relationship with his partner Dot (Jocelyn Kraynyk). George is obsessed with achieving perfection in his artwork and strives for the approval of the artistic community; in the process, his art thrives while his love fades.

Sullivan and Kraynyk are talented in the lead roles, giving strong performances in their acting and singing abilities. Kraynyk in particular carries the show with compelling vocals that clearly convey Dot’s frustration with George’s preoccupations.

The supporting cast, whose characters are included in the painting, is also skillful in bringing comic relief to the show in song and dialogue. Ethan Raymond as Jules, a successful artist, Olivia Thornton-Nickerson as George’s forgetful mother, and Cole Currie as the rowdy boatman provide contrast to the visceral portrayals of George and Dot.

While seemingly ordinary at first, the set includes a large projector screen that serves as the backdrop. The screen comes to life in brilliant animations of George’s famous painting in its various stages, from a simple pencil sketch to the final coloured product. These animations are powerful in visualizing George’s artistic development, and they add depth to the actors’ performances in the foreground as well.

Another highlight was the show’s accompaniment by a live band onstage, with music from the original production by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim. Musical director Michael Henley’s score complements the vibrancy of the scenes as they occur, as well as the pointillism style of George’s painting.

Sunday in the Park with George has a striking juxtaposition of musical and visual art aspects, especially in its animated set design. It’s an enjoyable theatre-going experience, one that gives a poignant examination of the lives of the people in the painting.

Disclosure: Ethan Raymond is one of The Varsity’s Lead Copy Editors; Cole Currie is The Varsity’s Deputy News Editor.

On queerness, on stage

Theatre is making space for more authentic representation

On queerness, on stage

In February, I had the pleasure of performing in Tinsel Town Bartleby: A Collection of Desperate Monologues at the Hart House Drama Festival. The show was written and directed by Emily Powers, a third-year English Literature student with a background in creative writing, especially in poetry.

Not only was this my first time in a U of T production, but it was also my first time portraying a queer character on stage. My background in the dramatic arts is slam poetry, so imagine my delight upon reading the character description for Maria Vasquez, the character I would later be chosen to portray.

“POC Lesbian. Would be damn good at slam poetry. Has a lot of gay guy friends because of that one time she quoted RuPaul.”

I ticked the boxes, fulfilled the categories, fit the criteria. I distinctly remember ringing my mum and squealing on the phone because it was such a shock that a writer actually wanted queer representation in their play.

Ultimately, theatre is a collection of worlds. There are the flamboyant, glittery musicals, the hard-hitting on- and off-Broadway/West End productions, cabaret, fringe festivals, and of course Shakespeare.

However, a new world is emerging: queer theatre. Queer theatre is another term for the gay theatre movement, which embraces the role of the gay community within all the other worlds of theatre.

Unlike Hollywood, theatre always reflects the social conditions of the political and cultural climate. Queer theatre would not have been celebrated during the Elizabethan era, for instance — ironic, considering all the actors were technically in drag.

Powers’ writing in Tinsel Town Bartleby is laden with a vast amount of personal experience and emotion, which resulted in her skillfully targeting the problematic behaviour of the queer community, as opposed to that of its individual members. My character’s monologue focused on the cisnormative and white members of the queer community.

Maria’s slam poem was a raw and humbling piece to perform. I was able to relate to many of the themes regarding female sexuality, vulnerability, and the unwanted ‘male gaze’ from both gay and straight men. It was such a gratifying experience to be able to portray a queer character on a safe stage and to have been given the opportunity to deliver a narrative that truly needs to be heard.

Theatre is a transformative tool, and with Tinsel Town Bartleby, Powers recognized her platform as a playwright to influence positive change, provoke thought, and suspend our realities. In her character descriptions, Powers specified that Maria and another character, Taylor Marsh, both fell under the LGBTQ+ umbrella.

I asked Powers if there was any significance behind the casting and character descriptions. “It was important for me to show queer visibility both in the characters and the actors,” she said. “My priority was casting queer people and people of colour, because visibility in theatre and art in general is so important.”

In Tinsel Town Bartleby, Taylor Marsh was portrayed by Justin Park, a fourth-year Computer Science and English Literature major, who told me he was “uncomfortable with [playing] Taylor at first, as I didn’t want to take a role away from a non-binary actor.”

Representation

Park said he “tends to be fairly critical of white washing and the like in mainstream media.” He feels that it is important for queer characters to be visible in theatre, but he also acknowledges that representation should be inclusive of other intersectional discourses, including gender.

While theatre has traditionally evolved alongside society, Hollywood is only just beginning to become more inclusive of women, people of colour, and the LGBTQ+ community. Through television, and to a small extent, film, the industry is now producing content that passes the racial Bechdel Test and its self-decreed ‘diversity quota.’

However, in their rush to respond to — and profit from — the current ‘politically correct’ climate, Hollywood has also been casting actors in roles that do not ‘belong’ to them. Traditionally, there has been less stigma attached to straight actors playing queer roles in theatre, as opposed to vice versa, but recently there has been a vast amount of backlash surrounding actors who appropriate identities and cultures.

There was an uproar surrounding Jeffrey Tambor’s portrayal of Maura Pfeifferman, a transgender woman, in the Amazon Prime show Transparent, and similar issues surrounded the films The Danish Girl and The Imitation Game, with lead actors Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch accused of preventing members of the LGBTQ+ community from portraying their own stories on screen.

Fortunately, now in 2018, there is finally a space for theatre that celebrates queer actors, comments on public pressures regarding sexuality, and makes the personal political.

Titus Andronicus set to open at Hart House in March

Director James Wallis discusses diversity in theatre and Shakespeare's continuing relevance

<i>Titus Andronicus</i> set to open at Hart House in March

From March 2–10, Shakespeare’s most gruesome tragedy will play out on the Hart House stage. Set in Rome, Titus Andronicus deals with themes of sexual violence, justice, and, ultimately, revenge.

The Varsity sat down with James Wallis, the director of the production, to discuss diversity in theatre, the relevance of Shakespeare in 2018, and the crux of what makes an effective director.

The Varsity: Do you have a set structure or idea that you tend to implement when directing a Shakespeare play?

James Wallis: I’m interested in how the text tells the story, characters, and the situation. You get that through three things: clarity, intention, and pace. If you have clarity, you will know what you’re saying and why you’re saying it. To me, acting is action — so you have to have intention. What am I doing to the other person on the stage? What are they doing to me? How does that affect the situation?

And then, because Shakespeare’s plays are mostly written in verse or in stilted prose, there is a rhythm to them, and you have to keep the pace moving forward. Shakespeare’s plays always move forward; they never go back. So those three things — clarity, intention, and pace — are my number one priorities whenever I do any work of Shakespeare or his contemporaries.

TV: Why Titus Andronicus?

JW: I’m always investigating Shakespeare. As I always say comically, it’s gone beyond obsession at this point! To me, it’s the fact that these plays exist in a realm of questions, which is what I find so fascinating. That is what I am constantly after — being able to ask those questions through my work. So, with Titus Andronicus: what does violence do to us? Why does it horrify and entice us? What do we do when we want to revenge ourselves on a person? Should we? Do we have the right to?

TVTitus Andronicus is another tragedy about revenge, but it is slightly more removed from reality. How have you been able to link this back to our current political climate?

JW: I think at times, taking relevant topics and putting them right in front of an audience can almost destroy the ambiguity of the piece. So my goal is always to allow the play to ask questions and not to give answers. With that being said, Titus Andronicus is a play that is about revenge, about a society at its peril, and a society at the height of its former history that is at a breaking point.

It’s about the violation of a young woman and how that affects the people around her — the play is about the consummation of taking vengeance on a person. My interest was, ‘How do we view revenge now? Is vengeance something we believe in? Is it an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?’ I don’t know. I think it’s different for everybody. In a society that is as divided as ours, I think vengeance acts as a catalyst for how that divide is brought forward.

TV: Diversity in theatre is so important, especially in Shakespeare — were you conscious of this when casting?

JW: My goal is always to bring more diversity into Shakespeare from the ground up, especially with the actors. There are a lot of great actors out there. [Titus Andronicus] was relatively successful. This play has a racial dynamic — it is about an individual who is an outsider, not only because of his race, but also because he is an individualist, an atheist, and a person who believes he can take this opportunity and roll with it.

He is the smartest person in the play, and he knows how to manipulate information and power over people. It’s an interesting dynamic that sits in the play, this idea of the outsider because of their race and ideas. How do you cast within that? You cast them on what they look like, but you are also bringing in more diversity because that is what you should be doing.

I try to do that, I don’t know if I succeed. To be frank, colour consciousness is something we have to be very aware of — how the idea of casting is affected by who the person identifies as, not just racially, but also in terms of gender and sexuality. We have to be very conscious and considerate of what people are trying to bring humanly to themselves, because it is effective and it is telling when it’s on stage and people are watching.

TV: Shakespeare’s been done to death, but I noticed that there are carnival elements to the production — what else is different about your version of Titus Andronicus compared to others?

JW: The play lives in the grotesque, it lives in the horrible and the comic, and I really wanted to use this idea of a broken being — something that reflects back but is also distorted. One thing that came to my head was a hall of mirrors at a carnival. The carnival aspect is a thematic and design idea that brings the play closer to that comic and horrible place. Titus Andronicus is like a distorted satire of the revenge trope. The tragedy is taking the genre of horror and subverting it a little bit.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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’ lady in the red dress

The show explores discrimination against Chinese-Canadians, both past and present

Theatre review: VCDS’ <i>lady in the red dress</i>

The Victoria College Drama Society (VCDS) began 2018 with its production of lady in the red dress on Thursday, January 25 at The Cat’s Eye Student Pub & Lounge. The show examines the anti-Asian racism surrounding the Chinese head tax imposed by the Canadian government, as well as issues of sexism, violence, and death.

The play takes place in Toronto, and loosely follows the timeline of the Chinese head tax, alternating between present day and the early 1900s.

A talented young cast was on hand for this adaptation of David Yee’s play, portraying their characters in dramatic, yet realistic and comical ways. Max (James Hyett), a lawyer negotiating the head tax redress, encounters Sylvia (Kenzie Tsang), an enigmatic woman in a red dress looking for vengeance.

Sylvia drags him into the history of the Chinese-Canadian struggle, and her search for the elusive Tommy Jade (Nam Nguyen). Along the way, Max is shot, stabbed, suffers a heart attack, and discovers that his son Danny (Cy Macikunas) has been taken hostage. As the show progresses, Max experiences the discrimination against Chinese-Canadians and the effects of the head tax firsthand.

While the show is at first insensitive to these disparities, he comes to the realization that everyone has a collective responsibility to do the right thing and draw attention to the harsh history endured by past generations.

Gianni Sallese gives brilliant performances in the roles of Hatch and Coogan, and Alice Guo and Victoria Ngai’s non-speaking roles in the chorus also added to the dramatics.

Overall, lady in the red dress is an extraordinary play that portrays the diversity of a predominantly Chinese-Canadian story well with mostly Chinese and mixed actors. It reverberates the significance of Canada’s diversity today, especially in Toronto, and helps us to shift our perspectives on critical issues of injustice.

lady in the red dress runs at The Cat’s Eye until Saturday, January 27.

Theatre review: TCDS’ Rumors

The Neil Simon production is a farcical descent into chaos

Theatre review: TCDS’ <i>Rumors</i>

The best way to sum up the plot of Neil Simon’s Rumors is this: the dinner party’s host shoots himself, and hilarity ensues. The Trinity College Dramatic Society (TCDS) presented a rendition of the 1988 play from November 22–25, directed by Vanessa Perruzza.

The setting of the play is the 10th anniversary party of Mira and Charles, although neither character actually appears in the show. Charles is unconscious and wounded from a shot to the ear and Mira is missing.

Rumors is a farce that combines slapstick humour and witty commentary on upper-class life, as well as the dinner party/murder mystery trope. It is full of big personalities and big misunderstandings. At times, neither the audience nor the characters know exactly what is going on, a recurring theme throughout the show.

The play opens immediately after an accident has occurred, although what exactly happened remains unclear. Through a conversation between two of the characters, Chris and her husband Ken, we find out that the host has suffered a minor bullet wound, perhaps attempted suicide.

As guests begin to arrive, the characters try to piece together exactly what has happened. Where are the hosts? Where is the help? Is a scandalous affair involved? Why were there gunshots?

Those who know try to keep the secret from those who don’t, and the miscommunications and rumours become increasingly elaborate and far-fetched. The characters spend the party trying to save their reputations, marriages, and the dinner itself, while their level of intoxication increases.

Gianni Salese gave an excellent performance in the role of Len, as did Kenzie Tsang as Chris. Perruzza did an outstanding job as director. The set and staging made the audience feel as if they were sitting in the dining room with the guests, experiencing the commotion firsthand.

Simon originally wrote Rumors to cheer himself up during a period of depression, and the dark comedy definitely lived up to this goal. Although it carries an undertone of sadness, Rumors was funny, smart, and featured some great talent.

Grease gets an update in its tech-savvy Toronto production

Matthew Haber of design studio BeSide Digital explains the challenges of updating the show

<em>Grease</em> gets an update in its tech-savvy Toronto production

The run of Toronto’s Grease the Musical was recently extended to January 7 at the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre, which the show attributes to the “amazing support” it’s received from the city. The production, which stars Janel Parrish as Sandy, Dylan S. Wallach as Danny, and Katie Findlay as Rizzo, makes heavy use of onstage technology, including animations and projections.

This is the work of Matthew Haber, the co-founder and managing director of BeSide Digital, a New York City-based experimental design studio. Haber is one of few Americans working on the production, and he travelled frequently back and forth from New York City to Toronto to create the large scale virtual designs that appear in the show. The Varsity spoke to Haber to discuss maintaining a balance between Grease’s 1950s setting, and the modern sensibility provided by the incorporation of technology.

The Varsity: How did you become involved in the production design for Grease?

Matthew Haber: The set designer Paul DePoo, and I had designed a show together a couple years back. When Josh Prince, the director of Grease, brought up a desire for world-building scenic projections, Paul suggested that BeSide and my approach to multimedia storytelling might be a good match for Josh’s vision.

TV: What were some of the challenges involved in the show’s production design?

MH: The story of Grease is really a personal story about young love between the characters. Any time I’m creating physically large-scale projections for a show that has a human-scale story, it’s a challenge to develop a design approach that supports the actors on stage instead of dwarfing them and their storytelling. For Grease, we had to develop compositional and stylistic techniques for the integration of the projection design to ensure that we were most effectively melding our work with the action on stage.

TV: Were you ever concerned about anachronism in using projection or other technology in the show and its setting in the 1950s, or whether this would distract the audience?

MH: Absolutely. We worked really hard to develop an aesthetic sensibility for the show that would help build the world of working class 1950s Chicago in a way that felt analogue and authentic instead of cold and digital. Typically we might rely heavily on techniques such as 3D animation, but for Grease, my team collected thousands of period images and videos over several weeks of research, and those formed much of the visual foundation of the design and really guided the way we constructed the computer-generated visuals that we do have. For example, in “Grease Lightning,” the characters are catapulted through 1950s Chicago surrounded by a complex CGI cityscape, but rather than looking harsh and animated, we developed a look for the sequence that feels more like a vintage postcard come to life.

TV: What sets Grease apart from other shows you’ve worked on, and what should potential playgoers know about the show?

MH: The vast majority of the shows I’ve designed in the past are new plays and musicals, so we’re really working from a clean slate in terms of the visual and narrative vocabularies of the production. Grease carries with it the baggage of an untold number of stage productions as well as the iconic film. Josh, the director, and my fellow designers and I have worked to respect that heritage while also trying to create a production that feels simultaneously true to the show’s roots and fresh for a contemporary audience.

TV: Finally, what is your favourite song from Grease?

MH: Definitely “Grease Lightning,” but that may be because of all the times I listened to it while we created animation for it.

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.