A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Posts Tagged ‘reviews

[REVIEW] RAGE AGAINST The King (Theatre Artaud), Toronto Fringe Festival (#fringeto, #rageagainsttrilogy)

RAGE AGAINST The King, a show staged by Theatre Artaud as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival which played at the Robert Gill Theatre, was a show that I had definitely wanted to see. I was curious about this play in its own right, and I had reviewed the two other plays in the RAGE AGAINST trilogy for Mooney on Theatre. What would this one be?

RAGE AGAINST The King was a good play in its own right. The strong cast did a good job of illustrating a script examining issues of fame and creativity in a world where fame is fleeting and memory of our lives shorter.

My fellow Mooney on Theatre reviewer Jonathan Lavallee had a very different take.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Randy McDonald

July 15, 2018 at 12:00 am

[REVIEW] Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire, Secret Path

Secret Path, drawn by Canadian cartoonist Jeff Lemire, is another account of the story of an Anishinaabe child Chanie Wenjack, the same told in Boyden’s Wenjack. Secret Path is a graphic novel, Lemire’s wordless drawings in pencils with watercolours being interspersed with lyrics from Downie’s album of the same name.

From Secret Path #canada #chaniewenjack #secretpath #gorddownie #jefflemire

Secret Path is a high point in Lemire’s career, and a high point for the the Canadian graphic novel, depicting the struggle of a young boy to return home in all of its sadness and all of its glory with beautiful art.

This, too, is a book that must be read.

[REVIEW] Joseph Boyden, Wenjack

Joseph Boyden‘s novella Wenjack is a sensitive retelling of the story of Chanie Wenjack, an Anishinaabe who ran away from his residential school one October day in 1967 and died of exposure. Wenjack’s story has gained national prominence in recent years as Canadians at large have become aware of the borderline-genocidal ills of our country’s Indian residential school system. Joined by another new project, Secret Path, an album by Gord Downie and a graphic novel by Jeff Lemire, Wenjack is part of a multimedia effort by Canadian artists to tell Wenjack’s story, the better for us all to know.

Wenjack is as superb as one would expect given Boyden’s reputation. In spare poetic prose, Boyden tells the story of how a young boy desperate to go home ended up dying alone one cold night northern Ontario railroad tracks, and why. Chanie’s interior voice feels true, as true as the voices of the manitous–spirits–who, in the guise of the different animals of the bush, accompany Chanie on his final journey. As we follow Chanie to the end, Boyden helps us to understand something of who he was, and what his sufferings and his joys mean for all Canadians.

Starting Wenjack #canada #chaniewenjack #wenjack #books #josephboyden #kentmonkmanWenjack is a sad story that needs to be told, and is here told heartbreakingly well by one of the masters of contemporary Canadian fiction. A quick read at just over a hundred pages, it’s something everyone who cares about Canada should take the time to read.

Written by Randy McDonald

October 24, 2016 at 8:59 pm

[REVIEW] Spoon River at The Mack, Charlottetown

I had not seen Soulpepper’s Spoon River after it debuted here in Toronto in 2014. I knew it got rave reviews from Mooney on Theatre, The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star, but I never found my way down to the Distillery District.

How fortunate for me that it is playing at Charlottetown’s The Mack this summer. Again, my thanks to my sister for getting me the tickets.

Directed by Albert Schultz, Spoon River was adapted for the musical stage by Island-born Mike Ross, drawing from the American writer Edgar Lee Masters’ 1915 Spoon River Anthology. I think I remember hearing of this book of free verse in one of my survey courses in school, though I never read it. Wikipedia’s description of it is as good a starting point as any: “Spoon River Anthology [. . .] is a collection of short free-form poems that collectively narrates the epitaphs of the residents of Spoon River, a fictional small town named after the real Spoon River that ran near Masters’ home town. The aim of the poems is to demystify the rural, small town American life. The collection includes two hundred and twelve separate characters, all providing two-hundred forty-four accounts of their lives and losses.”

In an interview with the CBC, Schultz suggested that Charlottetown was well-suited for this play.

“When [Ross] was here in Charlottetown working at the festival over a decade ago, he started working on taking poetry, the poetry of Dennis Lee actually, and turning it into songs,” explained Schultz.

“I had heard a lot of these songs, and so one day I was sitting in a meeting with him, and I went back to my office and I brought a Edgar Lee Masters, which is a book of poems, it’s not a script, it’s just a book of 250 poems, and I threw it in front of him and said, ‘Have you read this? I think you should.’ And the next day, he came in with two songs, and they’re still in the show.”

That connection alone makes it a good one for the Charlottetown Festival, but Brazier said there’s much more than that.

“Where it all began was me just going to see the play, and coming out and saying, okay, how do we get that?” he explained, saying he felt it was exactly right for Charlottetown audiences, both local and tourist.

“It’s community, in that the show speaks about a community, and I believe that the people in the community of Spoon River are recognizable in your own community today,” said Brazier. “And so it’s very easy to find yourself, and your neighbours and your families in this play.”

“I know that when Mike was writing it, he says it all the time, he was always thinking of home,” added Schultz. “He was thinking this piece is so perfect for home, this reminds me so much of home.”

I think Schultz is right. The town of Spoon River, located in the Illinois catchment basin of Chicago though we know it to be, did feel through the stories of its departed dead much like the small-town Canadian world I’m familiar with. Having the individual stories of the town come alive, through the performances of the spirits of the many dead in a town cemetery perhaps not unlike the ones I saw growing up, is genius. That my family happened to run into people we knew at this performance, and that this performance made inventive use of staging to guide us through a wake and into the audience, made ,

Spoon River's stage

The rave review of The Guardian‘s Colm Magner is perfectly well-founded. The cast is more than capable of handling the demands of performance, as singers and actors and musicians performers who convincingly evoke dozens of personalities in a single sitting. I was particularly caught by the performances of Jonathan Ellul and Susan Henley–the latter’s evocation of a German servant girl who, after giving birth to her employer’s son, lost him first to his father’s family then to a brilliant political career, was heartbreaking–but I could not say there was a single weak or undeserving performer in the cast. This is a show hard on talented actors but more than capable of rewarding them if they can live up to the tasks put to them.

What of the story? There is no single story, excluding a frame that I refuse to spoil. If there is any message to take from Spoon River, it’s the universality of the themes of life. Any individual’s experiences or emotions can be experienced by any other individual, not only those who are alive now but those who are dead. The lives the actors evoked in a few lines of prose written a century ago, in a short song done now, are eminently recognizable to us. A deep and enduring community of experience unites us all, and Spoon River evokes that superbly.

Province House at twilight

Spoon River ends after an hour and a half, releasing its audience into the twilight of the Charlottetown evening. People who want to partake in this experience, audience-members who would like to grasp the things that unite us, should try to catch it before this touring performance heads next for New York City.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 27, 2016 at 10:06 pm

[REVIEW] Anne of Green Gables: The Musical

Thanks to my sister, I was able to get tickets to see Anne of Green Gables: The Musical last Tuesday. This showing will have been the fourth time I’ve seen the act that has been headlining the
Charlottetown Festival
for the past 51 years, at least–I may have forgotten earlier performances.

What was my experience of this, possibly one of the preeminent cultural forms of my native province? Positive, if complicated.

Anne of Green Gables program and ticket

One thing highlighted in the local media about this year’s performance is the novelty of having the two lead characters being played by Island-born actors, Jessica Gallant as Anne Shirley and Aaron Hastelow as her sometime-rival and sometime-friend Gilbert Blythe. These, and their colleagues, did their jobs well, singing and dancing and acting their way through the roles that I know off by heart, to the music that I even now can find myself humming along to.

Another thing highlighted in the local media about this year’s performance is a limited modernization of the script. Out of a desire to keep Anne of Green Gables more relevant as a remembered past, the sort we might have absorbed from the time of our grandparents and great-grandparents, the era of the play has been advanced somewhat, from Victorian to Edward times. When the people of Avonlea gossip about the injuries Anne inflicted on Gilbert with her slate in the classroom, they do over the telephone. Later, Diana Barry sings rhapsodies about the miracle of the electric lights of Charlottetown’s Queen Street, lights which never burn down. On a separate note, Josie Pye, Anne’s rival for Gilbert’s attentions, is rather nastier than I remember from previous performances. The underlying story remains the same, with the songs and dialogue I remember from other iterations still intact: Anne surprises the Cuthberts and Avonlea, eventually makes her new family and community fall in love with her, and finds her place.

Wall of Annes through time

When I watched the musical, I was struck by darker elements of the plot. I don’t think I quite noticed the desperation of Anne’s early life, the young orphan suffering two failed foster families before being sent to the orphanage, long before she was sent to the Island with the Cuthberts. Her desperation to find a home bit much more with me now than before. At the same time, the desperation of the Cuthberts also came through to me: They arranged to take in an orphan not because they wanted to create a family, but because they needed a boy to do physical labour around their farm, the labour that Matthew could not perform after his heart attack but that needed to be done to keep the farm viable, even–as a last resort–saleable.

The relationship between Anne and Gilbert also made me think. Theirs is a complicated relationship, Gilbert’s attraction to Anne inexplicably leading him to tease her hair colour, which leads her to reject him, until she decides she is interested in him, by which time he has resolved to spend time with someone like Josie who appreciates him, and so on and so forth. There’s no question of any coercion, at either end, and I did not think Gilbert was behaving like a so-called “Nice Guy.”

I was also left wondering, of all people, about Matthew Cuthbert. We learn, in the musical and in the books, all about his sister Marilla, how her life was defined by her rejection of John Blythe when the two were younger. We the audience see Matthew Cuthbert as a kind man and a good man, the first kindred spirit that Anne met in Avonlea. He is the person whose counsel to Marilla that they might be good for Anne convinces her to let the young Nova Scotian orphan stay. We learn nothing about Matthew’s past. Why did he stay single and unmarried, living with his sister in the family homestead? Did he have no great lost loves, no terrible disappointments? I’m more than a bit tempted to speculate about the possibility of a queer Matthew.

Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery

I have to see Anne of Green Gables: The Musical first and foremost as a rite of community. It is a thoroughly professional and enjoyable theatrical show, two and a half hours long including an intermission, but it’s more than that. I found myself thinking of previous iterations of the musical that I had seen, of other versions I had read or watched (Megan Follows and her television movie came to mind). I found it functioning for me, someone who read all the Anne novels and most of the other in-universe stories and is familiar with the proliferating Anne mediasphere beyond books, as a sort of aide-memoire, functions as an aide-memoire for the fandom. Here is the character, here is her community, and here is what they do together for everyone to see.

It works superbly, and likely will continue to work superbly. It could not have lasted 51 years at the Charlottetown Festival if it did not. If you’re at all curious about Anne Shirley and her mythology, or about the ways Prince Edward Island is represented in popular culture, or indeed about the lived experience of Prince Edward Islanders (how many of us have not seen this musical?), Anne of Green Gables: The Musical is the show for you.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 27, 2016 at 8:22 pm

[REVIEW] X-Men: Apocalypse

I finally caught X-Men: Apocalypse Wednesday, sitting down in the VIP theatre at the Yonge-Dundas Cineplex Cinemas for more than two and a half hours with a pint and plenty of expectation.

How was it? Broadly, I agree with Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men called when they call X-Men: Apocalypse as a a “heartily enjoyable train wreck”. I liked Apocalypse and his horsemen, but I found the threat from Apocalypse depersonalized and unsatisfying. The heart and energy of the film lies in the characters, in Jean Grey and Cyclops and Nightcrawler and Storm and even Jubilee. (This last deserved more coverage.) We see how these young people end up coming to terms with their mutantcy and coming together as a team.

Plus, Quicksilver’s requisite of high-speed wackiness is great. Props to Singer for including “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”!

One thing I especially liked was the emphasis on Jean Grey’s agency. For too long, in the comics and even in the movies, Jean Grey is depicted as a victim of her powers, as someone who needs to have her powers controlled by others. No spoilers, but in X-Men: Apocalypse we see her embracing her powers, not being left to be made a victim of them as other characters (men, mainly) watch. This is refreshing.

Written by Randy McDonald

June 11, 2016 at 11:53 pm

[REVIEW] Melissa Scott, Proud Helios

As I mentioned before, starting in the late 1980s and continuing into the mid-1990s, I bought Star Trek tie-in novels consistently. I bought only the tie-in novels of shows actively running. I stopped buying Star Trek: The Next Generation novels at #37 or so, while with Deep Space Nine I never got past #10. Proud Helios, #9, may in fact have been the last one that I bought. It was not a bad place to stop: high points rarely are.

Melissa Scott‘s Star Trek novel, as noted on its Wikipedia page, is a novel about space pirates.

When asked why she wanted to write a Star Trek novel, Scott commented, “Partly, I think, it’s the simple fact that when you encounter a world and characters that you enjoy, you want to be a part of it, too. In a TV series, that temptation is particularly strong, because, after all, it is a series. There are people out there who contribute the stories, create the world, and there’s always the possibility that you can become one of them. In my case, because I came to Trek from the Blish novelizations, and was acutely conscious of how the written versions compared to the actual episodes, the idea of writing not screenplays but novels was very appealing. Plus, of course, I’m a better novelist than I am a screenwriter!”

Scott remembers how she got the assignment to write Proud Helios. “John Ordover approached me, knowing I was a Trek fan as well as an established SF writer in my own right, and asked if I’d be interested in doing a book in the DS9 universe. I really liked the series, particularly the constraints of keeping the show to the single station (this was early in the show’s evolution), so I jumped at the chance. I asked if he had any guidelines, any stories he particularly wanted to see, or any he didn’t, and he said, no, not really, he’d leave that up to me. So I went home, mulled it over and came up with the proposal that became Proud Helios. I sent it to John, who called me back almost at once, laughing. He’d promised himself that he wouldn’t do any stories with space pirates— and here I’d sent him one he wanted to use[.”]

Re-reading the used copy I bought here in Toronto, Proud Helios still stands out as a good novel. Set in the third season as the pirate ship Helios ventures desperately from Cardassian space towards the Bajoran wormhole, this is a fast-moving and well-written novel, with believable antagonists and many nice little character moments that shows Scott understood the show’s characters nicely. There felt like things were at risk, always an achievement in tie-in novels contemporary with the show. I also looked coming across the notes of queerness in the novel, particularly the smuggler couple Tama and Möhrlein.

Written by Randy McDonald

October 1, 2015 at 3:25 am