Still soaring after all these years: Ruminations on war & heroism in the entertaining, poignant Billy Bishop Goes to War

Eric Peterson in Billy Bishop Goes to War—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

 

Still flying high 40 years after its creation, the award-winning Billy Bishop Goes to War returns to the Young Centre. Written and composed by John MacLachlan Gray with Eric Peterson, and directed by Ted Dykstra, Soulpepper brings Billy Bishop back to the stage in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday.

Pulling dusty sheets from the piano, an easy chair, and a series of foot lockers and trunks, Bishop (Peterson) appears in pajamas, dressing gown and slippers. Despite the sense that we are here with him out of time and space, it’s as if we’ve woken him from a snooze. The foot lockers are a treasure trove of memorabilia and props for his story, as he dusts off memories, producing props and gear; and the framed photographs he produces along the way serve as poignant snapshots of moments and lives lived.

Through anecdotes, songs, poetry and letters to Bishop’s sweetheart Margaret back home, Peterson and Gray weave a tale of a life that was part luck, part pluck and all present. Going from the worst student at the Royal Military College (RMC)—known as a liar, a cheat and general executer of shenanigans—to an officer in the cavalry, Bishop always had an eye out for opportunity and adventure. Growing tired of being stuck in the mud or covered in sand, he looked for a way out of the cavalry. In his case, up and out. Finding his way into the Royal Flying Corps, he was taken on as an observer—a good job for him, as he was also known for his hawk eye and being a good shot—later becoming a pilot with the assistance of Lady St. Helier, who he met and befriended while recuperating in a London hospital (his tendency toward being accident prone bringing him good luck on several occasions).

As a pilot, he found a particular sense of drive and ambition, developing a friendly rivalry with fellow pilot Captain Albert Ball, and becoming famous for flying solo missions, including an attack on a German aerodrome; endeavours that earned medals, including the Military Cross, the Distinguished Service Order and the Victoria Cross. Realizing the colonies were more apt to respond to a living hero than a dead one, his British superiors gave him a new assignment, to return home as a hero and public figure, boosting morale in Canada.

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Eric Peterson & John MacLachlan Gray—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Gray (on stage as the Piano Player) and Peterson are a perfect match for this journey of an unlikely hero. In addition to acting as accompanist and singer, his gentle, raspy vocals performing catchy, often moving songs, Gray takes on the roles of army buddy and audience for Bishop, as well as a number of brief moments as various other characters as needed. And Peterson juggles a number of characters in addition to Bishop, including particularly fun turns as a befuddled British officer, a drunken Scot, the imperious and proper Lady St. Helier, and the slinky chanteuse Hélène.

Foot lockers, a stand-up ash tray and a miniature of Bishop’s famous plane, as well as shadow play and projections on the upstage scrim, are used to great effect to re-enact observer flights, the first solo flight and dog fights. Peterson’s playful scallywag adventurer performance as Bishop is balanced by moments of profound poignancy: his recitation of a poem to Albert Ball, and memories of the dead and dying, in the trenches or in the sky. And when Bishop returns to us in the present, it’s like we’re spending time with a grandfather, a beloved rascal regaling us with tall tales of the war, at times appearing lost in thought or memory. For better or worse, these things happened—and they shaped a life and a career.

With big shouts to the design team—Camellia Koo (set and costumes), Steve Lucas (lighting) and director Ted Dykstra (sound)—for their work on bringing this adventure in storytelling to life.

Still soaring after all these years. Playful, irreverent and thoughtful ruminations on the nature of war and heroism in the entertaining, poignant Billy Bishop Goes to War.

Billy Bishop Goes to War continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Check out the 2017 trailer:

 

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Reclamation & salvation—stories of Black women’s lives told with candor, sass & humour in powerful, theatrical for colored girls

Karen Glave, d’bi.young anitafrika, Ordena Stephens-Thompson, Akosua Amo-Adem, Evangelia Kambites, Tamara Brown & SATE in for colored girls—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

 

Soulpepper opened its production of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have committed suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, directed by Djanet Sears with assistance from Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, to a packed house and a triple curtain call standing ovation at the Young Centre last night.

From the innocent, playful childhood world of hopscotch and double dutch in the playground, to sexual awakening and the discovery of sensual power in young adulthood, to the harsh realities and challenges of life as a Black woman, for colored girls is poetry and politics in motion. Incorporating spoken word, a cappella vocals, dance and storytelling, the excellent ensemble creates scenes, moments and soundscapes. The result is startling, theatrical, hilarious and heartbreaking.

Kudos to the ensemble: Akosua Amo-Adem, d’bi.young anitafrika, Tamara Brown, Karen Glave, Evangelia Kambites, SATE and Ordena Stephens-Thompson. With choreography by Jasmyn Fyffe and Vivine Scarlett, and music composition and arrangement by Suba Sankaran, the cast deftly weaves the stories of these women with honesty, courage and emotional impact—commanding the stage as they engage, entertain and wake us.

Brown’s opening dance is magical and elemental. Glave takes us back to the excitement and anticipation of graduation day with a tale of young love in the back seat. SATE takes charge and takes us out dancing; a woman enjoying the music and the power of her own body in motion. Stephens-Thompson regales us with a poetic, sensual account of woman (Kambites) who attracts with the mystery and allure of an Egyptian goddess. Amo-Adem takes us to church with a proclamation of what belongs to her, coupled with an order to get back what’s been stolen. And anitafrika breaks our hearts as a mother struggling to protect her children.

Highlighting the lived experiences of public and private selves—the public strength and confidence that protect the private vulnerability and fear—from hope and joy to loss and despair, for colored girls is a celebration of Black women finding their voices.

Reclamation and salvation—stories of Black women’s lives told with candor, sass and humour in the powerful, theatrical for colored girls.

for colored girls continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre; get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

In the meantime, check out the for colored girls teaser:

 

Big surprise romantic gestures, coming together & falling apart in the endearing, fragile, funny I’m Doing This For You

Haley McGee in I’m Doing This For You—photo by Matthew Peberdy

 

She’s gone to great lengths to set up a surprise birthday party for the man she loves, an aspiring standup comic. We’re all invited to the festivities—and we’re going to be his audience.

Soulpepper closes its Solo Series with Haley McGee’s I’m Doing This For You, directed by Mitchell Cushman; the show opened to a packed house at the Young Centre in Toronto’s Distillery District last night.

Combining storytelling, improv and performance art, McGee gets us from the get go. Dressed in a bright orange vintage dress and wearing a bleach blonde wig, she’s a woman on a mission. She’s invited us to the theatre to celebrate her man’s birthday—and be his first major standup audience. Checking in with stage manager Robin (Munro), and making the rounds to ensure that everyone’s had their shot of vodka, she’s a flurry of super planning activity. And as we sit waiting in the dark for his arrival, she explains what will happen and we get ourselves ready to welcome him.

He’s running late, so the lights come up and we get some history. Her ever alert ear on the door, pricked by any possible sound of entry, she tells us how this engineer/amateur comic caught her attention. He made her laugh. And she really needed that. She finds it difficult to commit and—navigating emotional highs and lows on medication—we hear about how she made herself fit into the relationship so she could keep it.

Of course, things went astray. When he finally does arrive (the ex-boyfriend is played by a different actor each night), things don’t go exactly as planned—and even fantasy can betray. But there’s mini-cupcakes.

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Haley McGee in I’m Doing This For You—photo by Matthew Peberdy

McGee is a powerhouse of storytelling and entertainment, connecting with us in this immersive space. Conveying focus that shifts from razor sharp to scattered, a fragile psyche, and an endless capacity to feel hope and despair, she gives a quirky, genuine performance that is both entertaining and poignant. Touching on issues of relationships, mental health and obsession, I’m Doing This For You highlights the difference between needing and wanting a romantic partnership, and how we can be really attracted to something about someone even when we’re not that into them. And the crazy things we all do to maintain or avoid intimacy, and the regrets and after thoughts that go through our minds when it’s over. This woman is a super kooky, fun gal who’s seriously derailed herself—and we really come to care about her during this 65-minute journey.

With shouts to lighting/set/props designer Shannon Lea Doyle for the trippy performance art set, full of white and transparent balloons. Combined with McGee’s retro costume, the design is a flashback to Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (for those of us old enough to remember that sketch comedy show).

Big surprise romantic gestures, coming together and falling apart in the endearing, fragile, funny I’m Doing This For You.

I’m Doing This For You continues in the Michael Young Theatre in the Young Centre till this Saturday (May 6); this show is for adults aged 19+ (proof of age required) and booking in advance is strongly recommended. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Catch a sneak peek at I’m Doing This For You:

 

 

Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River

Spoon River ensemble—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

 

Is your soul alive?

As we make our way into the theatre, we find ourselves entering the funeral of Bertie Hume; filing past old family portraits and rows of headstones as we make our way out of the funeral parlor and into the cemetery. We are greeted by funeral home attendants and, possibly, friends and family of the deceased.

This is our introduction to Soulpepper’s immersively staged Spoon River, based on Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology poetry collection, and adapted by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz for the stage, with music composed by Ross. A remount of this beloved, award-winning show is currently running in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre, located in Toronto’s Distillery District.

As Bertie Hume is left to her eternal rest, former citizens of the town—now “asleep” in the cemetery on the hill—emerge to share their stories with us, the passersby. Set in small-town America, the lives, loves, joys and pain of its people are revealed with memories, regrets, confession; at times harrowing (“Fire”), hilarious (“Couples” and “Drinking”) and heartbreaking (“Mothers and Sons”). The quirks, the humanity, the secrets and betrayals—all interwoven with poetry, spoken word, music and song, as we get snapshots of the people they once were.

The remarkable, multitalented ensemble plays and sings, with rousing, foot-stomping sounds and gorgeous, resonant harmonies in a collection of blue grass and gospel-inspired songs. Stand-out soloists include Alana Bridgewater, Hailey Gillis (as Bertie Hume), Miranda Mulholland, Jackie Richardson (“Widow McFarlane”) and Daniel Williston (“Fire”). Soulpepper veterans Oliver Dennis and Diego Matamoros bring stellar character work, as do Raquel Duffy, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis and Michelle Monteith. Ultimately, Spoon River is a celebration of life (“Soul Alive”)—and a reminder that life, warts and all, is a cherished gift. I dare you to not stomp along.

With big shouts to the design team for their work on this magical, evocative production: Ken MacKenzie (set and lighting), Erika Connor (costumes) and Jason Browning (sound).

Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River.

Spoon River continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre until April 21; booking in advance is strongly recommended to avoid disappointment—the place was packed last night and this show is getting lots of standing ovations. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Up next: Soulpepper will be taking Spoon River to New York City’s 42nd Street in July as part of its first NYC season at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

The Spoon River soundtrack is available on CD in the lobby of the Young Centre; you can also find it on iTunes. In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

 

Shades of red & blue in the tapestry of interwoven lives in the beautiful, theatrical Of Human Bondage

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann: Gregory Prest & Michelle Monteith in Of Human Bondage

 

It’s all in how a man carries himself.

Soulpepper opened its remount of Vern Thiessen’s stage adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage at the Young Centre on Thursday. Directed by Soulpepper A.D. Albert Schultz, this is Soulpepper’s third journey with this production—and I finally got out to see it last night, with a packed house that gave it a standing ovation.

Orphaned as a child and painfully self-conscious about his club foot, Philip Carey (Gregory Prest) is a somewhat reluctant medical student; once a painter, and with fond memories of his time in Paris, he got tired of being broke and chose to pursue a more lucrative career path. And that path takes a serious detour when he accompanies friend and classmate, the nervous virgin Dunsford (Paolo Santalucia), to a local tea shop. Dunsford hopes to woo pretty waitress Mildred (Michelle Monteith), who catches the eye of Philip and she goes with him instead.

While it’s clear to us that Mildred is game for any man of good prospect, it is sadly not to Philip, who goes from smitten to obsessed with a woman who does not share his feelings. Obsession turns to possession, turns to rage when Philip learns that she’s become engaged to Miller (Brendan Wall), another tea shop regular. Meanwhile, he’s been flunking his classes and in serious danger of washing out of med school, much to the dismay of his crusty but supportive professor Dr. Tyrell (Oliver Dennis).

With the help of artist pals, painter Lawson (Dennis) and poet Cronshaw (Stuart Hughes), Philip meets the lovely writer Norah (Sarah Wilson), who falls for him—but he not with her. He’s doing better at school, though, and befriends a patient, Thorpe Athelney (John Jarvis), who opens his home to Philip. Philip’s direction changes again upon the return of Mildred, pregnant and jilted. Leaving Norah behind to look after Mildred and her baby, he finds himself at risk of losing his place at med school due to outstanding tuition owing. Desperate to make some extra cash, he invests in the stock market, only to lose it all; then loses Mildred, again, to another classmate, the randy Griffiths (Jeff Lillico).

Hitting rock bottom, evicted from his apartment and kicked out of med school, Philip reconnects with Athelney and his family, including his sweet daughter Sally (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster). And throughout the love and loss, shifting careers—including fashion designer for New York darling of the stage Alice (Raquel Duffy)—and friends and lovers whose lives are connected with his own, he gradually comes to know himself. And finds his life.

Masterfully staged on a red square playing area, set pieces are wheeled in and out, props inventively choreographed, and sharp dramatic lighting highlights the environmental and emotional tone (Lorenzo Savoini, set and lighting design). The whole ensemble (also including Richard Lam) gets involved, portraying figures in paintings, and creating the haunting soundtrack, rollicking music hall ditties and evocative sounds of daily life (Mike Ross, composer and sound design)—all live, onstage in the wings, which are visible to the audience. And, like the Persian rug Cronshaw gives Philip, scenes and characters’ lives weave in and out of each other with beautiful, artistic precision.

Lovely, nuanced performances from the cast. Prest is both heartbreaking and heroic as the quiet, introspective Philip; childish at first in love—loving where he is not loved, and loved where he does not love back—he only comes to find real love and true meaning in life when he finds love for himself. Monteith is captivating and wily as Mildred; forced into opportunism by circumstance, as Philip is a slave to his passions, Mildred is a slave to survival. You may want to dislike Mildred for her cruel, calculated use of Philip, but then you realize that all choices are not created equal in a world divided by class and gender privilege.

Dennis and Hughes make a great pair as the cheeky Lawson and bacchanalian Cronshaw, Philip’s jovial artist friends. Dennis gives Lawson a sweet, concerned nurturing quality; and Hughes brings a gentle melancholy to Cronshaw’s party animal.

Wilson shines as the sharp-witted modern woman Norah; a lovely, supportive girlfriend to Philip, you really feel for her when you see her affections aren’t returned in kind. Lancaster is both tender and irreverent as the quiet socialist Sally; you find yourself hoping—maybe she’s the one.

Shades of red and blue in the tapestry of interwoven lives in the beautiful, theatrical Of Human Bondage.

Of Human Bondage continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre in Toronto’s Distillery District; book in advance online. Get yourself out to see it before the production heads to NYC, to The Pershing Square Signature Center in July for Soulpepper’s first New York season, along with Kim’s Convenience and Spoon River.

Check out the trailer for Of Human Bondage:

 

 

Love, family, forgiveness & legacy—falling in love with Kim’s Convenience over & over again

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann: Jean Yoon & Paul Sun-Hyung Lee

Everybody loves Appa. When Paul Sun-Hyung Lee made his entrance as the Kim patriarch (marking his 423rd performance in the role) for Soulpepper Theatre’s remount of Ins Choi’s Kim’s Convenience, the packed house in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre erupted into applause.

I first fell in love with Kim’s Convenience during its sold-out run in the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival; arriving super early at the Bathurst Street Theatre (now the Randolph Academy) box office with my 10-play pass in hand (this was before my media accreditation). Then I had the pleasure of seeing Soulpepper’s production in May 2012 and fell in love all over again. I’m also a huge fan of the Canadian Screen Award-nominated TV series on CBC. So I was very happy when I, along with my friend Lizzie (who’d also seen it onstage twice before), had the opportunity to see it again last night.

Directed by Weyni Mengesha, Kim’s Convenience takes us along a day in the life of a mom and pop variety store in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood. For those familiar with the TV show, there really is a Kim’s Convenience, located at Queen/Sherbourne—and the exterior of the store is used in the show. Unlike the TV series, however, the play is set around 10 years later, with Janet (Rosie Simon) and Jung (Richard Lee)* now in their early 30s. And Appa, who is nearing retirement, starts his day receiving an offer from a local real estate-connected friend Mr. Lee (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) to buy the store; and finds himself considering the future—especially in the face of urban development and neighbourhood gentrification. He and Umma (Jean Yoon) have a big decision to make. Do they sell? And, if they don’t sell, who will take over the store? For Appa, Kim’s Convenience is his story, his legacy.

Janet, still living at home and working as a professional photographer, has no interest in pursuing the family business. And her older brother Jung hasn’t been seen or heard from since he left home at 16—a point that comes up when a police officer named Alex (Rowe) arrives at the store to answer a 911 call Janet made at Appa’s insistence over an illegally parked Japanese-made car. Alex was a friend of Jung’s when they were kids, and they’d since lost touch; and this chance reunion with the Kim family paves the way for an opportunity for Janet, who used to follow him and Jung around like a puppy when they were kids.

Generational clashes of the immigrant parents vs. first generation Canadian children variety emerge. Appa, who was a teacher back in Korea, opened the store and worked seven days a week with no vacations in order to give his family a better life in Canada. Appa’s and Umma’s sacrifices and struggles were all for their children, and things didn’t turn out how they’d hoped. Janet is 30, still single and working in a job that Appa finds questionable. And their hopes for their son were destroyed when an altercation between Appa and Jung turned violent, and Jung left home and never came back. Appa has a temper, evidenced in a fight between him and Janet over what is owed to whom after years of service at the store.

Umma has secretly been staying in touch with Jung, who is still working at a car rental place—a job he hates—and now the father of a two-month-old boy. The two have a poignant and revealing meeting at their local Korean church, where the family sang together at church events; Jung alerting his presence by joining his mother in a beautiful Korean duet. It’s the last downtown Korean church, and it’s closing after the land was sold to developers; the remaining churches are all now in the suburbs. It’s a time of change and upheaval, for the family and the neighbourhood—and everyone has some choices to make about the future. And, in the end, Appa realizes that his story isn’t about the store—it’s about his children.

Such beautiful, solid work from the cast. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee has been the only Appa, performing throughout multiple remounts, Canada-wide tours and the TV series; the role was made for him and fits him like a glove. I can’t picture anyone else playing Appa. An outspoken, opinionated man possessing of a sharp mind and an eye for detail, Appa is a keen observer of human nature, with a head full of facts about Korean history and a mouth full of words of condemnation for Japan. Despite his quick temper and abrupt manner, he’s a good man with a cheeky sense of humour; and concerned about the security of his family and community. Yoon, who has been Umma to his Appa on stage and on the small screen, is a perfect match and complement as family matriarch Mrs. Kim. A gentle and devout soul, with the patience of a saint, Umma works behind the scenes of her family life to keep her family safe—even if secretly and from afar, as in the case with Jung.

Simon gives a feisty, energetic performance as Janet, who has the wit to hold her own in mercurial, philosophical—often hilarious—banter with Appa. An independent young woman who can hold her own, she pushes back when her work, which she loves, gets called into question. Richard Lee does a great job mining Jung’s layers of conflict; restless, adrift and now a father himself, regret and longing come to the surface. Like his father, he too must consider the future—for himself and his young family.

Rowe does an awesome job playing four very different characters: store customers Rich (who gets schooled on the difference between ginseng and insam) and Jamaican Mike (who gets schooled on “steal”); the affable and empathetic Mr. Lee; and Alex the cop, who finds himself looking at Janet differently now that they’re both grown up (and gets schooled in courting in a hysterically unusual way by Appa).

It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s genuine. And even though it’s about a Korean Canadian family living in Toronto, the universal themes of love, family, forgiveness and legacy resonate no matter who you are or where you come from. And the standing ovation Kim’s Convenience got last night spoke volumes about the love audiences have for the show.

Kim’s Convenience continues the Michael Young Theatre in the Young Centre; booking in advance is strongly recommended. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Check out the 2017 production trailer:

And while you’re at it, check out Phil Rickaby’s interview with actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee on Stageworthy Podcast.

Up next: Soulpepper will be taking Kim’s Convenience to New York City’s 42nd Street in July.

*Ins Choi will be playing Jung for select performances: Feb 23 at 8pm, Feb 24 at 8pm, and Feb 25 at 2pm and 8pm.

Top 10 theatre 2016

Hope everyone’s been enjoying the holiday season. As we say goodbye to 2016 (for better or worse), it’s time for the annual top 10 theatre list. As usual, this is always a challenging endeavour, so I’ve added a few honourable mentions (in alphabetical order):

Top 10 theatre 2016

Blind Date (queer version): Spontaneous Theatre & Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

Chasse-Galerie: Kabin, Storefront Theatre & Soulpepper

Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen: Theatre 20, The Firehall Arts Centre & Theatre Passe Muraille

The Harrowing of Brimstone McReedy: Eldritch Theatre

The Hogtown Experience: The Hogtown Collective & Campbell House Museum

Late Night: Theatre Brouhaha & Zoomer LIVE Theatre

Mouthpiece: Quote Unquote Collective & Nightwood Theatre

The Queen’s Conjuror: Circlesnake Productions

She Mami Wata and the Pussy Witchhunt: The Watah Theatre

The Summoned: Tarragon Theatre

Honourable mention

The Clergy Project:  SOULO Theatre

Killer Joe: Coal Mine Theatre

The Taming of the Shrew: Driftwood Theatre Group

Three Men in a Boat: Pea Green Theatre

Up next: The Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF), running January 4 – 15, 2017 at Factory Theatre.