Saturday, August 18, 2018

Foster Festival Finale leaves the best for last

The third and final offering of the 2018 Foster Festival opened just over a week ago, and it is quickly proving to be the hit of the season.  It is also the second of two World Premieres at the Festival this season.

Canadian playwright Norm Foster has outdone himself this time, crafting a play with an intricate and complex plot, brilliant scene melding and some absolutely spot-on characterizations that take summer theatre to a whole new level.  Expect to see Renovations For Six on many summer theatre playbills starting next season and for several years to come.

Foster clearly knows what his audiences want, and then he takes them to places they never knew existed.  With Renovations For Six he pushes the comedic and dramatic envelope even further, providing us with perhaps his best play to date.

Renovations For Six involves three adult couples, each at different stages of their lives.  The first, Grant and Shayna Perkins, have moved here from Vancouver where both had successful careers.  However, while Grant has a new position as manager of a furniture store, his wife is feeling cast adrift in a way, and contemplates starting up her own Pilates business.  But before that happens, she thinks meeting some new people in their new city is overdue.  After all, they have been here six weeks and have yet to make any new friends.

Maurice Dudet and his wife Veronica Dunn-Dudet have a tense, acidic relationship due in large part to the fact Maurice has quit his well-paying engineering job in order to write a novel.  His wife, a psychiatrist who feels put upon for now having to shoulder the entire financial load of the family, is firmly in sarcastic mode from the moment we meet her.

Billie and Wing Falterman, meanwhile, are the gem couple in the trio.  Billie is outgoing, suspicious of others and just plain earthy.  Husband Wing (we never do find out why he is named Wing, incidentally) is a more down-to-earth sort who works hard for a living as the top salesman at Grant's furniture store.  Together they used to have a successful song and dance act, which Billie longs to return to.

All three couples come together in one generic home, with furniture covered for renovations.  This cleverly allows director Patricia Vanstone to skillfully have all three couples use the same set with no changes, oftentimes appearing in the same home at the same time yet in their own dwellings.  The set design by Peter Hartwell is creatively outfitted with oversize paint chips depicting colours each has chosen for their chosen renovations.

Vanstone keeps the pace lively and takes advantage of every opportunity to accentuate the conflicts furthering the plot, culminating in the trademark Foster finale of exposing the demons in each of the characters and how it affects the others in the cast.  It is brilliant writing on the part of Norm Foster.

The characterizations are uniformly good and finely drawn, although I found Wes Berger's portrayal of Grant Perkins strangely stiff and wooden in the early going, a fact that seems at odds with his readiness to jump into the sack for a 'quickie' with his wife Shayna at every opportunity.  As the play progresses and we find out why he is not spending more quality romantic time with his wife, his meanness and nasty streak makes his characterization much more believable.  For her part, Cosette Derome as perky Shayna is beautifully portrayed, particularly when her world starts to fall apart as the play progresses.

Real-life couple Peter Keleghan and Leah Pinsent are a pleasure to watch as Maurice and Veronica.  Their painful relationship, culminating in their own revelation at the end, mirrors people I suspect we have all met at parties and ultimately try to avoid.

The pairing of Shaw veterans William Vickers and Nora McLellan as Wing and Billie Falterman is a stroke of genius.  Vickers perfectly captures the essence of Wing, a humble man in a humble position,  yet comfortable in his humbleness.  Nora McLellan has and always will be a national treasure, and I still have memories of her spectacular turn in Gypsy at the Shaw Festival several years ago.  She imbues Billie with the fun and games demeaner of the kid who was always the class clown in school. Her overly creative imagination and suspicious nature easily plays off William Vickers' more stable portrayal as Wing.

The culminating scene of Renovations For Six is described by director Patricia Vanstone as the "cocktail party from hell" and indeed it is.  It reveals all in this telling comedy and leads us to the wordless finale when five of the six characters support Shayna in her time of grief.

Renovations For Six plays for another week in the Cairns Recital Hall at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, and if you have yet to catch it you really should.  It is the highlight of not only this year's Foster Festival, but really, the summer theatre circuit that I've experienced so far.

Tickets are available by going to or calling or visiting the FirstOntario PAC box office.  The number is 905-688-0722,

Enjoy your weekend!

August 18th, 2018.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Shaw Double-Bill offers up laughs along with food for thought

Most people - myself included, I must admit - have sort of a love-hate relationship with George Bernard Shaw.  You can admire his creativity and ability to tell a good story, but when it comes to sermonizing on subjects near and dear to his heart, which is quite often, well, most of us check out at some point.

It is, therefore, a delicate balancing act now for his namesake festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake to present Shaw's plays.  In an age when attention spans often last at most through the first couple of paragraphs of one of Shaw's patented diatribes, how do you you keep the public interested and coming back for more?

The answer, in recent years at least, appears to be avoid Shaw altogether whenever you can.  When you must, find someone to reimagine Shaw's work for a modern age.  Not a bad idea, in theory at least, but oftentimes it seems to muddy the water even more.

So kudos to the Shaw Festival and director Philip Akin for playing it straight with a comedy double-bill at the Royal George Theatre this season.  Of Marriage and Men:  A Comedy Double-Bill brings together two short Shaw plays demonstrating Shaw's interesting views on marriage, fidelity and relationships.

This is not the first time these two short plays have been paired together.  Indeed, the great Arnold Daley did just that at Toronto's Princess Theatre all the way back in 1904.  The first play, How He Lied to Her Husband, was first produced in New York in 1904; the second, The Man of Destiny, was first produced in England in 1897.

For this production pairing, Aiken has assembled a strong cast of Shaw actors, including David Adams, Krystal Kiran and Shawn Ahmed for the first play, and Fiona Byrne, Martin Happer, Andrew Lawrie and Kelly Wong for the second.

The first play, How He Lied to Her Husband, is about half an hour in length and full of lighthearted banter and unlikely scenarios.  It is perhaps the better of the two in terms of comedy.  The story involves young 18-year old He, played by Shawn Ahmed, who is hopelessly in love with She, Krystal Kiran.  Alas, She is married to Her Husband, David Adams.  The triangle intensifies over the course of the half hour, reaching an improbable conclusion before intermission.

In a clever bit of theatrical gamesmanship, director Aiken has the closing scene of the first play reprised as the curtain raises for the start of act two, before the cast of the second play shoo them offstage and orchestrate an enjoyable scene change that sees the set move from a flat in London to an inn on the road from Lodi to Milan in northern Italy run by Giuseppe Grandi.  The change offers much of the comedy relief to be found in act two.

The Man of Destiny involves Kelly Wong as Napoleon Bonaparte, fresh from another military victory, stopping at the inn run by Grandi for some rest and good food before moving on to his next military conquest.  While there he learns his hapless Lieutenant, played by Andrew Lawrie, has lost the important communiques he was to deliver to him.  Well maybe lost is not the correct term to use here, as another military man tricked him into turning them over and then he was gone.

But Bonaparte meets a Strange Lady at the inn, played by Fiona Byrne, who offers to return the communiques to him.  She claims to know who this military officer is.  Bonaparte sees through the ruse and realizes the man and the woman are in fact one in the same.

What ensues is the patented Shavian wordplay and exchanges that make up the better part of the hour-long act.  In true Shaw fashion they do tend to get a bit tedious, but to this audience member at least, following the many twists and turns as they verbally spar back and forth is part of the fun.  Just when you think you've figured everything out, Shaw lobs another verbal shot at you and throws the doors open to more speculation.

The cast for both plays are uniformly strong, with the first act team getting top marks for keeping things moving in such a short space of time.  In the second act things seem to drag a bit, but overall the cast does a fine job with Shaw's barbs.

The set design is simple and elegant for the first play, transformed in the second act to a rustic inn with grape vines and a sky backdrop that gradually darkens from day to night as the play unfolds.

While I have not seen everything Shaw has to offer this season, this double-bill was for me, at least, a little more entertaining than the other two we attended this season.  And it was good to get a laugh or two out of Shaw's plays presented here pretty much as Shaw wrote them.

Of Marriage and Men:  A Comedy Double-Bill continues at the Royal George Theatre until September 2nd, and rates a respectable 3 out of 4 stars.  Tickets are available by calling the Shaw box office at 1-800-511-7429 or by going to

Have a great weekend!

August 11th, 2018.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Enjoying the holiday weekend in Niagara

The midway point of summer is upon us this weekend...well not really, but the August holiday weekend feels like the midway point of summer, doesn't it?  So time to take a bit of a break from the usual business and look at some things, musical and otherwise, going on in Niagara at the moment.

First off, Music Niagara continues in Niagara-on-the-Lake with lots of great performances planned on the weekend and continuing until the end of the summer music festival on August 11th.  Tonight, for example, a highlight of the festival will feature a traditional Last Night of the Proms concert at St. Mark's Church at 7:30 pm, when Kerry Stratton conducts the Niagara Proms Orchestra in a collection of popular classics.  Yes, these will include all your favourite patriotic British musical gems like Rule, Britannia!, Jerusalem and of course, Elgar's Pomp & Circumstance March No. 1.

The ever-popular Sunday in the Park series continues tomorrow afternoon at Simcoe Park in the Old Town, with Frog & Henry, two musicians who collectively play seven instruments, presenting their take on American popular music from the 1920s and 30s.  Bring your lawn chair and a picnic lunch and enjoy the music and ambiance.  The event is free and begins at 11 am.  Tomorrow afternoon at 3 a concert entitled Remembering Sasha will take place at St. Mark's Church.  The concert, featuring everything from Bach to Piazzolla, is a tribute to the late Alexander Sevastian of Quartetto Gelato fame.  Members of the group will perform the tribute to the long-time and multi-talented accordion and bandoneon player.

Monday, Toronto's All-Star Big Band will perform at Ravine Estates Winery in St. Davids at 7:30 in the evening.  The group revives the spirit, sound and style of the 30s, 40s and 50s, when the big bands were king.  The rest of the week sees the Music Niagara season wind down with performances Tuesday through Saturday, with the Season Finale featuring music by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich at St. Mark's Church Saturday night at 7:30 pm.

The soloists for the finale include pianist Victoria Kogan and violinists Bora Kim and Artistic Director Atis Bankas accompanied by the Canadian Chamber Academy Orchestra.

Tickets and more information can be had by going to, or by calling the Shaw Festival box office at 905-468-2172.

Elsewhere in Niagara, we have the St. Catharines Rotary Ribfest happening all weekend long at Montebello Park in downtown St. Catharines, with musical acts taking to the stage all day every day.  This is an annual fundraiser for Rotary to continue their good works in the community and it has grown tremendously over the years.  You can also purchase tickets to the Hospice Niagara 5-Car Draw on site at Montebello Park; the draws take place about 3 pm on Monday afternoon.

Up in Port Colborne, one of my favourite summertime escapes, things are hopping all weekend long with Canal Days, featuring music on stages throughout the downtown and at H.H. Knoll Park overlooking Lake Erie.  But for me the real charm of the festival is where it all began at the Port Colborne Historical Museum, where the grounds come alive all day today with all things nautical and otherwise, and Arabella's Tearoom is busy all weekend long serving afternoon tea.

And on Monday, the third annual Facer Street European Festival will be in full swing all day from 12 noon to 9 pm, all along the historic street running through the part of St. Catharines affectionately known as Little Europe.  Lots of food vendors will be on the street selling their wares, many closely associated with the multicultural community there.  There will also be contests and other family-friendly events, and of course, music from the likes of our own Walter Ostanek along with John Gora and a host of others.

The Facer Street European Festival is designed to bring people back to the historic area and rediscover their roots here, and also help fund much-needed repairs and upgrades to the streetscape, making it even more of a destination in the future.

All over the Region people are enjoying the time off and spending it with family and friends doing whatever suits them.  Be it structured fun or simply a walk through Centennial Park in St. Catharines for example, to check out the refurbishments done recently, it is a great time to get out and enjoy what we have to offer right here in our own backyard.

We are lucky to be here and have a great arts community to tap into.  But more than that, we have what it takes to become even more of a destination point for people both far and near than Niagara already is.  We just need to embrace the amazing things we have going for us right here, right now.

Have a great holiday weekend!

August 4th, 2018.