Pirates! Genies! Fishing! Wacky meta panto fun with A Ladd’n His Cat!

Red Sandcastle Theatre’s Panto Players have cooked up their most meta holiday panto ever! Written by Jane A. Shields and Red Sandcastle A.D. Rosemary Doyle, A Ladd’n His Cat! opened to an enthusiastic audience at Red Sandcastle’s storefront space at Queen St. East and Logan, Toronto last night.

Played out as a story within a story within a story, there’s a Thousand and One Nights quality to this year’s panto (the company’s 6th), with storytellers spinning tales for their lives.

It all starts on the high seas, where a pirate named Russell (Doyle, who also did the set and costumes) has taken a Lad (Ada Balon) and his Cat (Jackie English) under his wing among his band of pirates. When the Pirate King (Kristopher Bowman) becomes displeased with the Cat, the wily critter strikes a bargain to enthrall him with a story—where he must be the hero.

In the Cat’s tale, we find a hard-working, fastidious Fisherman (Brenda Somers), his wife (Susan Finlayson) and daughter Gesundheit (Jennifer Lloyd) toiling away on the water, where the Fisherman casts precisely three times a day. Catching a rusty old bottle on the third cast, Gesundheit unlocks a Genie (Kristen Foote). Extremely irate after years of captivity and thirsty for vengeance, the Genie threatens the family with death—but the quick-thinking Gesundheit makes a deal to entertain and divert her with a story in exchange for her family’s life.

And Gesundheit’s story brings us to the classic tale of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp—with a twist, of course, as this is the Panto Players, after all.

Aladdin’s mother the Widow Twankey (Adam Bonney) is beside herself with worry. She works her fingers to the bone at the family’s laundry business, but her teenaged son Aladdin (Bowman) is a lazy brat. Forced out of the house to find a job, Aladdin catches a glimpse of the fair Princess (Foote) as she takes a stroll through the market with her mother the Queen (Somers) and the court Magician (Bernie Henry), who has an upcoming marriage in the works with Handsome Prince (Balon).

Looking for big money and an easy job, Aladdin accompanies the Magician to a cave, where he finds precious jewels (Lloyd, Balon and Foote), a bat (Finlayson) and a magic lamp. Re-enter the Cat, this time as the Genie of the Lamp.

Plot upon plot upon plot later (with plots uncovered along the way), we finish where we started. And it all works out in its own implausibly plausible way.

Incorporating popular songs—from Gilbert and Sullivan to Beyoncé—and including some fabulous choreography, stunning costumes and magical set pieces, plus audience participation, A Ladd’n His Cat! is a whole lotta panto fun for kids of all ages.

Great work from the entire cast, with nearly all playing two or more roles throughout. Stand-outs include English, as everyone’s favourite pink Cat; surly and cheeky, but always lending a hand, this Cat is one smart cookie. Bowman gives great comic turns as the proud, narcissistic Pirate King (and look out for him at the Shaw Festival this coming season); and the petulant, lazy-ass Aladdin, who winds up being a hero in spite of himself.

Bonney is a riot as Widow Twankey, Aladdin’s put-upon, stressed out mother; and as a tattooed, sensitive pirate. Foote is hilarious as the fetching and enraged Genie of the Bottle; and as the self-absorbed, selfie-taking Princess. Henry is delightfully sly and manipulative as the Magician; and Balon deftly runs the gamut from the lovable, innocent Lad to the stand-offish oaf Handsome Prince.

With big shouts to stage manager Deborah Ann Frankel, keeping it all going from the booth; and Panto Players alumna Margaret Lamarre, who assisted Doyle with sewing the costumes—even on her birthday!

Pirates! Genies! Fishing! Plus our favourite pink Cat. Wacky meta panto fun with A Ladd’n His Cat!

A Ladd’n His Cat! continues at Red Sandcastle until Dec 31; reserve your spot in advance by emailing redsandcastletheatre@gmail.com or by calling 416-845-9411.

Photo: (top) Adam Bonney, Ada Balon, Jennifer Lloyd, Kristopher Bowman & Kristen Foote; (middle) Susan Finlayson & Brenda Somers; (bottom) Bernie Henry, Jackie English, Deborah Ann Frankel & Rosemary Doyle. Photo by Burke Campbell.


A world in a tea room in the powerful, sharply funny, deeply moving “Master Harold” …and the Boys

James Daly & André Sills, with Allan Louis in the background, in “Master Harold” …and the Boys – photo by Harold Akin

Obsidian Theatre, in association with the Shaw Festival, brought its production of Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold” …and the Boys to Toronto, opening last night at the Toronto Centre for the Arts Studio theatre.

Directed by Philip Akin, and inspired by Fugard’s childhood relationships with the black employees of his mother’s tea room, “Master Harold” …and the Boys is set in 1950s South Africa, in St. George’s Park Tea Room. It is here that young Hally (James Daly) spends most of his after-school hours, doing homework and hanging out with tea room employees Sam (André Sills) and Willie (Allan Louis). The three have an easy-going, friendly relationship, particularly Hally and Sam; full of witty banter, good-natured teasing and philosophical debates on everything from men of magnitude and social reform, to education and art, to the global vision gleaned from the local black community ballroom dance competition. Darkening Hally’s mood is the possibility that his crippled, alcoholic father will be returning home from hospital – a prospect that pricks resentment over having to help his mother be nurse maid, and keep an eye on the household and tea room cash.

Forced into adult responsibilities early in his life, and now the de facto man of the house, Hally is coming of age during apartheid; and as the action progresses, we see him waver between familiar pal “Hally” and stern boss “Master Harold.” Ironically, Hally – the privileged one in the room – is the most cynical and pessimistic about the world, seeing only ugliness. Meanwhile, Sam and Willie see beauty and possibility; their enjoyment of ballroom dancing a metaphor for harmony. Sam and Willie have hope, while Hally has none. Perhaps Hally has only fear. As the discussion between Hally and Sam becomes more heated, things are said that cannot be unsaid.

Beautifully nuanced, committed performances from the cast. Louis brings a lovable, child-like sense of joy to Willie, who is excited to be competing in the upcoming ballroom dance competition and determined to master the quick step. A simple man of the old school, Willie sees nothing wrong with laying a beating on his girl Hilda when she steps out of line – but at least he’s smart enough to take Sam’s advice to stop it. Sills gives Sam a quiet strength and dignity, combined with a sharp sense of humour. Pragmatic, but forward-thinking, Sam has a quick mind and a precise memory – and he genuinely cares for Hally, even to the point of being an unexpected father figure. Daly plays nicely on the brink of manhood as Hally; with a Holden Caulfield edge about him, Hally is self-involved, smart and arrogant. Playful and familiar at first with his parents’ employees, hints of a little dictator begin to show as he feels increasingly stressed out over his family situation – and during his tantrums, he takes it out on Sam and Willie. In the end, the boy who hadn’t noticed the Whites Only sign on the park bench must decide if he wants to be a man who sits on that bench or walks away from it. And while some things cannot be unsaid, they can perhaps become a source of learning and growth.

The tea room serves as a microcosm of the larger world it inhabits. And though the play takes place in another time and place, it has much to teach us today about everyday and systemic racism, and the subtle and blatant ways in which it creates barriers based on assumptions, fear and ignorance. Go see this production.

With shouts to the creative team for bringing this world to life – and creating a space that’s not only practical for the purposes of the play, but has an inviting aesthetic that makes you want to sit down for a snack: Peter Hartwell (set and costumes), Kevin Lamotte and Chris Malkowski (lighting), Corey Macfadyen (sound) and Valerie Moore (dance sequence).

A world in a tea room in the powerful, sharply funny, deeply moving “Master Harold” …and the Boys.

“Master Harold” …and the Boys continues at the Toronto Centre for the Arts until October 23. You can get advance tickets online; strongly recommended, given last night’s standing ovation.

My big fat artsy week off

It’s been a great week off, the first week of my favourite month, leading up to Thanksgiving weekend.










Monday night was dinner at Shanghai Cowgirl (http://www.shanghaicowgirl.com/) with my friend Dee, then we moved on to Bar Czehoski (http://www.czehoski.com/) for Windbag Cabaret, hosted by Michael Bell (Twitter: @Michael_Bell_), who treated the audience to some standards, as well as some pop favourites, throughout the evening as he introduced the night’s amazing music line-up. Missy Knott (Twitter: @missyknottmusic) offered up some sweet acoustic blues-inspired folk from her For No Reason At All… CD and Missy Knott EP, with sexy vocals making love to those lyrics. Joel Parkes (Twitter: @JoelParkes) did a nice, mostly driving country set, including a song he co-wrote with Shaun Shankel and Kyle Jacobs that became a country power ballad hit when American Idol finalist Kimberley Locke recorded it on her One Love album – “8th World Wonder.” And rounding out the evening’s rotation of amazing talent was blueVenus (http://www.bluevenusmusic.com/), who blows me away every time, mostly due to singer/songwriter Andrea de Boer’s incredible vocals and lyrics – with selections from her Grin CD, a sweet combination of jazz and pop. My favourite song is still “No Time To Waste.”

Tuesday, I went to see Farewell, My Queen at the Carlton. This heartbreaking and romantic historical drama takes us behind the scenes of a monarchy under siege as the revolution takes hold in France. Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) is a servant of Queen Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) – the Queen’s reader who becomes the Queen’s confidant – at her mistress’s beck and call. The Queen, burdened by rank and anxious about the uncertainty of the future, appears as a fragile, easily distracted and passionate woman – the object of her passion being noblewoman Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). Sidonie’s love of and loyalty to the Queen are put to the test as the nobles flee Versailles and Marie Antoinette fears for the safety of Gabrielle. Gorgeous art direction and beautifully shot, Farewell, My Queen gives the audience a peek into two very different worlds, with Sidonie acting as a bridge, as well as our guide, between the two. Check out the trailer:

Wednesday and Thursday was a great time, spent in Niagara on the Lake (NotL) at the Shaw Festival (http://www.shawfest.com/). Here’s what I saw there:

Wednesday afternoon, I saw Come Back, Little Sheba, by William Inge and directed by Shaw A.D. Jackie Maxwell, at the Royal George Theatre. This is an intimate and heart-breaking portrait of middle America post-WWII. Of being alone and lonely in a sea of apartments. Of longing for more innocent times gone by. Of AA and the Serenity Prayer. Middle-aged housewife Lola (Corrine Koslo) longs for the joy and romance of times past, missing her lost dog Sheba and sneaking peeks at – and living vicariously through – her beautiful young border Maria (Julia Course) on dates with her bad-boy boyfriend Turk (Kevin McGarry) even as she courts nice boy Bruce (Andrew Bunker). Not the greatest housekeeper, Lola scores points with her serious German neighbour Mrs. Coffman (Sharry Flett) by fixing up the house for Bruce’s impending dinner visit. As Lola lives in fantasy, her husband Doc (Ric Reid), who she calls “Daddy” while he calls her “Baby,” struggles with sobriety as he goes about the monotonous everyday business of his chiropractic practice. Quiet lives of desperation ready to implode or explode at any moment – the reserves of rage, strength and even kindness of these characters are remarkable. Outstanding performances, especially from Koslo and Reid, as well as Course and Flett. And I loved Christina Poddubiuk’s set design, which features the family living/dining room and kitchen, surrounded by hanging window frames in the background, giving the sense of a densely packed urban neighbourhood.

Wednesday night, I wandered over to the Festival Theatre box office and managed to get a last-minute – and really good – seat for the evening performance of Present Laughter (by Noel Coward, directed by David Schurmann). I needed that infusion of Coward comedy and this production gives it up big time. The audience gets a two-hour behind-the-scenes look at the personal and professional trials and tribulations of theatre star Garry Essendine (Steven Sutcliffe) as backstage and marital/relationship shenanigans unfold in his stunning studio apartment. Featuring some hilarious – and at times sexy – turns from Sutcliffe, Claire Jullien (as his sort-of-ex-wife Liz), Moya O’Connell (friend’s wife Johanna) and Mary Haney (secretary Monica), with shouts to Corrine Koslo (housekeeper Miss Erikson), Jonathan Tan (crazed student/fan Roland) and Jennifer Phipps (Lady Saltburn). Wonderfully gorgeous set design by William Schmuck, the dominant mural inspired by a smaller version at Central Station in Cincinnati, which is now an Art Deco museum with a train line operating to Chicago. It was some big, marvelous party, pandemonium fun.

Thursday night, I was back at the Festival Theatre for Ragtime – book by Terrance McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens – directed by Jackie Maxwell, with music direction by Paul Sportelli and choreography by Valerie Moore. I was fully expecting to be in tears – and I was – at the end of both acts as I watched New York City go through the birth pains of the 20th century. Interwoven stories of a wealthy WASP family, a Jewish immigrant and his young daughter, and a young educated black piano player who makes things right with the mother of his infant son only to be faced with a battle for justice and dignity when racist hooligans vandalize his car. The struggles of race, class and the hardships of immigrants, all reaching for the American Dream – or trying to keep their grip on what piece of it they already have. An incredible ensemble of performers, featuring Thom Allison as Coalhouse Walker Jr., Patty Jamieson as Mother and Jay Turvey as Tateh, with stand-out work from Evan Alexander Smith as Younger Brother, Kate Hennig as Emma Goldman, Kelly Wong as Houdini and Julie Martell as Evelyn Nesbit. Also featuring an impressive and effective set by Sue LePage – a framework of black steal girders and catwalks, with projected still photos and moving pictures in the background. An inspirational, powerful and moving work.

It was a truly enjoyable week – with thanks to my folks for always being up for a road trip and giving me a drive to NotL from Burlington, as well as the good folks at the Charles Inn (http://www.niagarasfinest.com/properties/charlesinn/), the lovely spot I stayed in at NotL.

Back with a photo blog of NotL soon.