Friday, September 23, 2011

New performing arts centre in St. Catharines one step closer

Earlier this week, I attended a special open house on the future site of the new St. Catharines Performing Arts Centre downtown on St. Paul Street.  Lots of others took the city up on their invitation as well, resulting in a real crush of people huddled under tents and umbrellas due to the rain Wednesday afternoon, but even the weather failed to dampen the spirits of those in attendance, myself included.

On hand for the first look at conceptual design plans supplied by architect Gary McCluskie of Diamond and Schmitt Architects in Toronto was a real cross-section of people throughout Niagara, all keenly aware of the importance of this project and the fact we have but one chance to get this thing right.  For that reason, I think many might have been pleasantly surprised by what they saw, as the design is basically set now; there is still a six-week period before the plans are finalized, during which time some tweaking of the design can take place.

But overall, what we saw this week is basically what we'll see once the project is completed in a couple of years or so.  Some people were suggesting the facade was rather bland, based on the graphic included in the electronic invitation sent out by city hall earlier this month.  But it wasn't really a true reflection of what was to come, and once we saw detailed design plans this week, everything seemed to be falling into place quite nicely.

In total, the $ 54-million centre will house an 800-seat concert hall, a 150-seat dance and theatre hall, a 180-seat film theatre and a 250-seat recital hall.  That is in addition to the adjacent space, also designed by Diamond and Schmitt, that will be the new home of Brock's School of Fine Arts.  Together, they will totally transform that stretch of St. Paul Street and with it, hopefully much of the downtown core altogether.  But more on that in a moment.

As for me, I like the plans, calling for a sort of three-pod design backing onto the sloping area towards Highway 406, with the front facade made up of glass and limestone right on St. Paul Street.  It is clean, modern, and at the same time in keeping with what buildings will remain on St. Paul Street.  Lots of wood on the interior, as it appears, will lend a warmth I think will certainly contribute to the overall acoustic of all the spaces, especially the large concert hall.

That is the key, of course, getting the acoustics right.  Many a lovely-looking concert hall has had terrible acoustics, such as Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, which received a major makeover years ago to help improve the sound there.  It is one of those things you simply have to get right the first time, so here's hoping this design team headed up by Gary McCluskie brings all their experience to the design table in that  regard.

Now, to the surrounding area.  I noted while visiting the site this week, already surrounding buildings are looking better, as many landlords are now investing more money into their properties and attracting many new, more upscale tenants. Just look across the street from the new home of the performing arts centre to see proof of that:  a nicely rejuvenated facade housing many businesses, including a stylish new cafe named Mahtay.  This is only the tip of the iceberg, of course.  There is money being spent to rejuvenate the old Leonard Hotel, for example, and the new parking garage on Carlisle is well on its way to completion.  So gradually that whole area will look better, and we can only hope that eventually spreads down the rest of the street and along adjacent streets in the years to come.  It will be a slow process, but the ball is now rolling, and things look good so far.

So, the early report card on progress on the new venue? I would give all parties an A at this point, as real progress is being made, and we can finally see the transformation taking place.  It can only get better, and when was the last time we said that about our downtown core?  Interesting, and fun times are on the horizon.

Let's enjoy the ride!

September 23rd, 2011.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Another great season of entertainment coming to downtown St. Catharines

Last week, I paid my annual visit to the Courthouse Theatre in downtown St.Catharines for the season launches for eight Niagara arts companies that use the venue, known collectively as DAPA, the Downtown Alliance for the Performing Arts.  Collectively, the organizations are presenting 26 different productions, special events and festivals in Niagara the coming season, with 15 of them at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre downtown.

Here's a brief overview of what was presented and what we can expect in the coming months:

Carousel Players:  They've created three new plays for young children for their 40th anniversary season; in fact, there will be a 40th anniversary party everyone is invited to at Market Square on June 3rd.

Essential Collective Theatre:  ECT produces contemporary Canadian playwrights, and in fact their newest production takes the stage starting September 30th, Trout Stanley by Claudia Dey.  There will also be the 6th annual reading series featuring new works by Niagara playwrights, and even Shakespeare will make an appearance of sorts at the Courthouse Theatre on March 3rd with Raoul Bhaneja's Hamlet.

Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects:  Artistic Director Kelly Daniels has decided this year to move the Young Company production of Our Town to the Courthouse for performances next April.  There will be two additional plays in their subscription series, Educating Rita in November and Memoir in February.

neXt Company Theatre:  NCT brings back the cult classic The Rocky Horror Show in February, and in the more immediate future, this weekend they present a documentary celebrating Niagara's migrant workers Sunday evening at the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre at the Centre for the Arts, Brock University.

Niagara Dance Company:  Niagara Dance Company will expand their programming of contemporary dance works, workshops and mentorship opportunities for Niagara performers and choreographers this season.

Stray Theatre:  They will be presenting Where's My Money by Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Patrick Shanley, the author of Moonstruck and Doubt.

Suitcase in Point:  They will be presenting their 10th season with the return of the ever-popular In the Soil Festival in April, as well as offering four special cabaret events in downtown St. Catharines.  There will also be a premiere of a new play about female daredevils at the Courthouse Theatre next February.

Theatre Beyond Words:  The creators of the famous Potato People have been expanding their horizons in the past few seasons, and this season will be presenting two plays for families on both sides of the border at the Leary Theatre at Niagara University as well as at the Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines.

The groups that make up DAPA have shown in the past they can provide creative, thought-provoking professional theatre for downtown audiences for several years now, and I expect this season to be no different.  I have often found the performances to be on a par with what you'll find in larger theatre cities if not better, and they are successfully filling the void for live performing arts in the city's core during the fall/winter/spring months.  They depend on your patronage to a great extent, however, so I would suggest you give serious consideration to some of their offerings this season when you want a night out on the town.  DAPA has a great deal to offer patrons of the arts throughout Niagara!

Most of the companies in DAPA have their own websites, but I will provide links to their sites on my website, at this coming week.  Just click on the Calendar page and you'll find complete listings for many groups throughout the Niagara Region and beyond.

Just before we wrap up, a couple of other arts-related notes to pass along as well.  This coming Wednesday afternoon, the latest plans for the new Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines will be presented at the site of the new venue on St. Paul Street.  I plan to attend and will be writing about it shortly afterwards, but you can attend yourself and get a first-hand look at what is to come for the much-anticipated St. Catharines Performing Arts Centre.  Also, the Niagara Wine Festival kicked off last evening, with lots of events planned throughout this weekend and next at Montebello Park in downtown St. Catharines.  This evening, in fact, I will be emceeing the musical acts onstage at Montebello Park, beginning with Canadian musician Mark Lalama at 6 pm and the Eagles tribute band, Hotel California at 8 pm.  If you have some wild vicarious thrill to meet me for some reason, that's where I'll be this evening.  If you come by, be sure to stop and say hello!

Enjoy the weekend!

September 17th, 2011.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Final two shows at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

I always find it hard to believe when I come to the end of another summer theatre season, as it seems I have barely just begun when it all comes to a screeching halt again.  Of course, the season ends for me, but there is still plenty of time for you to enjoy some great summer theatre either at the Shaw or Stratford Festivals.  Later this month, in fact, we'll review the late-season offerings at both festivals in case you want to pay a visit in September or October.

The last two shows I have to look at in Stratford this season are a couple of great shows, both of which continue until later October, so still lots of time to get to the Festival City to enjoy some great theatre.

Moliere's The Misanthrope opened at the Festival Theatre in August and is a beautifully staged version of the French master's classic tale of the love of several men for a winsome young lady.  The adaptation to English verse by Richard Wilbur is very well done and quite lyrical, almost making you forget it was actually written in French originally.  David Grindley's direction provides a good pace and just enough of a light touch to keep things from lagging behind.  The fabulous sets and costumes by John Lee Beatty and Robin Fraser Paye, respectively, are almost worth the price of admission alone.

But as beautifully staged as this production is, it is the cast that makes it really fly, as it were.  Ben Carlson plays the well-to-do Alceste, totally infatuated with the most sought-after widow in all of Versailles, Celimene, played by Sara Topham.  Sara is breathtakingly beautiful; Carlson is very earnest and convincing in his love for the lady.  Yet, Celimene's desire to enjoy the attentions of several suitors besides Alceste drives him to distraction, setting up some wonderful fireworks between the two in the second act.  The pivotal scene makes this production all worthwhile as both Carlson and Topham go at it on the subject of love and commitment.

The supporting cast is up to the task as well, including Juan Chioran as Alceste's friend, Philinte, and Peter Hutt as Alceste's main rival, Oronte.  Special mention must be made of Kelli Fox, a mainstay for many years at the Shaw Festival, of course, who makes a wonderful turn here as Celimene's friend Arsinoe.  Finally, Brian Tree is his usual reliable and likeable self as Alceste's valet, Dubois.

Moliere knew his audience and knew how far he could go satirizing them as he entertained them, even if they failed to recognize themselves.  But this light and airy look at the privileged class and their foibles I found left me a little indifferent at the end, wondering if we should really care about them after all is said and done.  No matter, the ride taking us to that point is an enjoyable one.

The Misanthrope plays at the Festival Theatre until October 29th and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

Meantime, over at the Avon stage, Harold Pinter's The Homecoming opened in late August and continues until October 30th.  It is a play both fascinating and unnerving at the same time, dating as it does from 1964.  How interesting, though, and perhaps reassuring in a way, there were grossly dysfunctional families portrayed on stage back then as well, and they don't come much more dysfunctional than this one.

Almost immediately we are introduced to the central character, Max, a crusty old widower played with great skill by Brian Dennehy.  He can praise his late wife in one breath and then do a complete 360 and trash her the next, leaving you to wonder how he can possibly be so kind one moment and cruel the next?  His nemesis right off the bat is his son, Lenny, played with razor-sharp wit by Aaron Krohn.  He is the grown-up version of the know-it-all kid, sparrring constantly with Max, finally meeting his match in the lovely Ruth, the wife of brother Teddy.  Ruth, played by Cara Ricketts, is wonderfully understated and as a result, very sexy.  Her husband, Teddy, played by Mike Shara, really has no idea what is coming in the second act, almost appearing as a deer in the headlights lost soul.  The other son is Joey, a fighter who shall we say, gets to know Ruth better than one could imagine.

Special mention goes to Stephen Ouimette's Sam, the put-upon brother of Max who never married and is a professional driver to and from the airport.  Stephen and Dennehy have a real chemistry here, first seen in their comedic roles in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night at the Festival Theatre.  I suspect Brian wanted Stephen for this role, and if that is the case it was a wise choice to agree on the part of director Jennifer Tarver.

The Homecoming is typical Pinter, which means an acquired taste; that was perhaps evidenced by the smallish crowd at the performance I attended in late August, but for those who choose to go, you're in for some very special performances that make it worth the effort.

The Homecoming continues until October 30th and rates a very strong 3 out of 4 stars.

September 12th, 2011.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Two late-season offerings at our two major theatre festivals

We're getting down to the final few shows at both the Shaw and Stratford Festivals this season, so we'll look at the final Shaw show opening this season and another late season offering at Stratford today, and next week wrap up the Stratford shows for the season.

The Shaw Festival has been going from strength to strength at their small Studio Theatre the last couple of seasons, and the final offering this season which opened a week ago Friday, is no exception.  Australian playwright Andrew Bovell wrote When the Rain Stops Falling as a commission for the Adelaide Festival of Arts, where it premiered in February, 2008.  The Shaw Festival production is the play's Canadian premiere, directed by Peter Hinton.

The play, to put it bluntly, is a bit of an enigma.  It looks at the Law, York and Price family histories in the context of the future, if you will.  As such, the play's first hour is more than a little confusing for many in the audience, as we struggle to come to grips with several people playing the same characters at different times in their lives.  We go from London in 1959 to Australia in the year 2039, with the plot-line following the many events that happen in the lives of the characters over that 80 year period.  Thanks to director Hinton who had the presence of mind to include a "family tree" on one page in the programme to help us understand the family lineage in each household.

Hinton has also decided to project the time/place of each scene over top of the set, which does help you put each scene in the proper context.  He also added character's names and birth & death (if applicable) dates on the backs of chairs surrounding the huge table that makes up a large part of the stage.  Trouble with this, of course, is you have to really squint to see what they say, and you can only see the chairs in front of you; the other three sides of the table are out of view to you, and with no intermission to allow you to walk around the stage and read them, you get only some of that helpful information.  By the time you realize this fact it is too late, and you have to struggle to keep up with the myriad of time and place changes.

Each character present has their own form of emotional baggage, and all effect what happens in the play at some point, as we see what happened in the past as well as in the future.  It is a fascinating concept, and  quite a challenge, but suffice it to say the challenge is worth the effort.  This is a play, as Hinton points out in his Director's Notes, wherein the characters are haunted by the past; it is a play about family and secrets and the ways in which we pass on our unresolved struggles from one generation to another.  I don't want to give away too much of the storyline, as it is difficult to do in a small space with this play, and besides I don't want to jeopardize the ending in any way.  But the journey, however convoluted it may be, will bring the audience to a heartfelt, compassionate conclusion in the year 2039, resulting in more than a few tears in the audience, at least at the performance I attended.

The cast rises to the challenge of presenting this difficult play with some degree of clarity, and each and every one is perfect for the role.  Ric Reid opens and closes the play in the year 2039 as Gabriel York, a man who is faced with the prospect of his son coming to visit him after many years apart.  Donna Belleville as the older Elizabeth Law and Tara Rosling as the younger Elizabeth Law are both great, as is Peter Millard as almost an odd-man out in the role of Joe Ryan, the second husband of Gabrielle York, played by Wendy Thatcher, who is sent packing by a wife suffering from a memory disorder.  Others in the cast worthy of note include Krista Colosimo as the younger Gabrielle York, who runs a cafe in Australia and falls for Gabriel Law, played by Jeff Meadows, who is on a mission to find out what happened to his father, sent to Australia by his wife for indiscretions back home in London.  Graeme Somerville as the disgraced Henry Law is very good and manages to pull at our heart-strings in spite of his indiscretions.  You can see the story is a complicated one just from this brief description, right?

Anyway, you don't have much time left to catch When the Rain Stops Falling; it runs only until September 17th at the Studio Theatre, and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

Meantime, over at the Stratford Festival, we have the prospect of another difficult storyline at their Studio Theatre, with Michel Tremblay's Hosanna, set in early 70s Montreal, when the country as a whole was coming to grips with the acceptance of gays moreso than in the past, and two men who live together in a Montreal apartment who find themselves on a journey of self-discovery.

Hosanna, as director Weyni Mengesha mentions in her Director's Notes, is "an investigation of the classic human struggle to face who we truly are."  The two characters in the play, Hosanna, played by Gareth Potter, and Cuirette, played by Oliver Becker, both have to come to grips with their own insecurities and acceptance of each other if they are to continue living together.

Hosanna is a former farm boy from the countryside, who now lives fast and loose in the big city as a hairdresser by day, and a transvestite prostitute by night.  His male companion, a leather-clad biker boy nicknamed Cuirette, still likes to think of himself as able to play the field whenever he likes.  Trouble is,  Hosanna is needs him more than he realizes, and by the end of the play he realizes he is in the same boat.

Now, as When the Rain Stops Falling can be seen as a confusing collection of characters, how about this with Hosanna:  Gareth Potter plays Hosanna, who is the alter ego of Claude Lemieux, the farm-boy from the sticks.  On this particular night as the action of the play unfolds, Hosanna is playing the role of his idol Elizabeth Taylor, in her role as Cleopatra.  How's that for confusing?

It all comes together in the end, as both characters come to realize the compelling universal truth that love is all that really matters.  While some parts of the play may appear to be somewhat dated to some, in many respects the story is entirely relevant today.  The seedy set and characters are as real today as they were when the play premiered in 1973, and in this production they become much more human as the play progresses, allowing the audience to actually care about them despite their insecurities and lot in life.

I can't imagine either character is easy to play, with Gareth Potter having a deeply troubled character to explore; both rise to the challenge, however, making Hosanna a challenging play worth catching this season.  Hosanna continues until September 24th at the Studio Theatre, and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

September 3rd, 2011.