I actually have a weekend more or less free, though I am hoping to take the kids to a museum or two tomorrow (even if we don't actually see the Basquiat at AGO -- it is worth noting that the crowds have died down and this is a good time to go). This morning was still way colder than I was expecting, and I knew that hauling them over the city wasn't the best idea. Even taking my son over to the library was a bit of a struggle.
I had been giving serious consideration to seeing Wyrd Sisters over at Red Sandcastle tonight (the timing is impeccable as a way of celebrating Terry Pratchett's life and career). However, this review suggests that the Socratic Theatre Collective is not ready for prime time and may never be. The reviewer basically felt that they were treating this as a glorified hobby and suggested they would be better off putting on plays for their friends and family. This review goes over the same issues that I try to tackle in this post, which is that while no one really likes to kick a struggling company, at the same time, they are asking the public to pay for a full price ticket. Ok, $20 is a fairly cheap ticket, but it's still a bit more than should be requested to watch what is basically a live version of fan fiction (again, according to this reviewer). I am sure that there are plenty of people who are looking for this sort of thing, just as there were lots of folks in Chicago who came out for the all-Klingon version of Dicken's A Christmas Carol. But it is not the same thing as a play that will appeal to the general public (and perhaps such a Platonically ideal play does not exist). At any rate, I've been really meaning to write my own work for a while, and I will take this as a sign to stay home and help the kids finish their homework early and do some writing.
In terms of what I did see recently, I agree very much with the Now review that says there are great performances in the very middling play by Christopher Durang (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike). This really could be a good play, but Durang just makes too many missteps, and really in a lot of ways it becomes fan service to the Boomer generation. Vanya's lament about 1950s culture being better or at least more of a shared collective experience goes on far too long. Durang intentionally considers this Vanya's aria, but it is way too self-indulgent. The recurring line about licking postage stamps is funny, but half of the description of TV sitcoms should have been cut out. What I was discussing with someone else though is that there is a serious problem with time. Durang positions Sonia as 52 and Vanya is probably mid 50s. If he was mid to late 60s, then he probably wouldn't even care about the "wasted life" thing -- he would accept his life is over before it even started (like a Prince Charles figure). But there is just a bit of life left in him yet, and he even thinks about getting a job to help out with the household expenses. At any rate, he would not be nearly as hung up on 50s TV if he was in his mid 50s. He would be a fan of 60s culture -- I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched and perhaps My Three Sons (which was its own throwback show). Also, Durang has Masha discussing how she was supposed to be the American Judi Dench, but at a time in her career when Judi Dench would have been a complete unknown in the U.S. So just a lot of sloppy writing and no attention to internal chronology. This is one of those things that while it may be a bit boring or annoying for the playwright to work out, there are always a few people (like me) who will be bugged immeasurably by getting it wrong. So it is better to put in the effort up front, and Durang simply didn't do it. I discuss my own challenges with keeping time periods consistent here.
Beyond this, I found Vanya's lusting after the entirely shallow Spike to be very disturbing. It's bad enough that his sister has fallen for this boring, one-note character, but Vanya as well? At least Nina (the next-door neighbor) is able to see through Spike and dismiss him instantly. I really thought Durang's take on Millennials was so extreme that it actually backfired for me (and I am hardly a defender of Millennials), but this was like kicking a puppy over and over. The experimental play that Vanya wrote was so terrible that I could completely sympathize with Spike for checking his texts during the reading. I did like Nina though, and she had a few interesting observations. I kind of liked Durang's nod to a younger character who was at least aware of the great art of the past. Certainly, the most successful aspect of the play was Sonia who turned herself into an entirely different person while impersonating Maggie Smith's turn in California Suite. I still found the writing entirely manipulative when Durang has her nearly throw away a chance at late-bloom romance (the audience actually goes "Awww") and then rallies herself to take a chance (and the audience practically cheered). I was not moved to the same extent, to put it mildly, though it was an interesting scene. So some great performances in general in an script that isn't really worthy of these actors. (It is still quite amazing that it won the Tony in 2013, but I guess that's what happens when you pitch a softball right at the Boomers in the audience.)
I did enjoy the John Patrick Shanley series of two-hander one acts (or mostly two-handers, the first one has a couple in a restaurant and a sexy, laconic French waitress) -- A Woman is a Secret. It's sort of amusing that the Toronto Star has no choice but to review this independent production because it is a world premiere. While I think they have gotten better with time, it still seems (to me) quite difficult for independent theatre companies to get any coverage in the Star. My take is that one of the six went on a bit long and the one that was basically a riff on film noir conventions fell flat (though the Now reviewer liked it -- again, taste is so variable*). But that is a very good success rate. It was nice seeing a pro put the actors through their paces in the script. I would recommend going and there are basically two weeks left to see this. I will write a separate post about the master class that Shanley gave last Sunday. It was really interesting discussion with a true professional, and a few points he made were actually quite helpful, so I will try to recall them and get them down before I completely forget.
Finally, last Tuesday I saw Cake and Dirt at Tarragon. I definitely have mixed feelings about the play. I guess I liked it a bit more than Ouzounian, who basically panned it, but a bit less than the Now reviewer who was reasonably positive. It's basically about the super elite of Toronto and how boring the idle rich are and how their issues and preoccupations are so removed from the rest of us (the hoi polloi). But it really pounds this into the ground to the point it gets boring. And, my god, the drunken party scene goes on far too long. I kept hoping someone on the floor would call the police just to break it up (though indeed one plot point is that the ex-wife is shocked to find out that she doesn't have the entire floor to herself). It's very dicey to write a play where there really isn't a truly sympathetic character (I don't even think the maid counts as she is so "uppity"). Why do we want to watch these group of rich buffoons act badly? And MacIvor takes it so far that it becomes difficult to believe that the husband really could succeed in his career as a big shot lawyer. I guess part of the bile that drives this play (which MacIvor admits to) is just a disgust at how badly Toronto elites act when no one else is around and watching them. But it is pretty tough to make a play out of this that people will care about, and I think that is where Ouzounian is coming from. So that's far from a sterling recommendation, either from me or the other reviewers, but there is a certain grubby fascination in watching the well-to-do let their hair down. If that sounds of interest, then this play is for you. Three more weeks.
As for me, I am looking forward to Tarragon's next show - Infinity. I'll catch this in a few weeks, and it looks a lot more up my alley. That's probably enough for now. Ciao.
* Update -- as I was cleaning up this post, I came across a review of A Woman is a Secret that I found so different from my own take that I was quite taken aback. The entire play was reviewed from a feminist perspective and judged to be an unworthy, misogynistic piece. Wow. Obviously the reviewer has the right to her opinion, but I find it unpleasant and strident and frankly a bit boring to review from such a political stance. This in general has always been my problem with the reviews in the Chicago Reader and Now (though the film reviews tend to be more political than the theatre reviews). They serve a really important function in letting me know about independent theatre, but I have to be willing to look past reviews that are slanted in ways that I disagree with. As far as this reviewer, after looking through a few other pieces, it is clear we are not on the same wavelength at all (except we both thought the film noir scene kind of sucked). She reminds me of the completely humourless feminists that I have learned to avoid (as opposed to the feminists who do have a sense of humour and/or don't see the world in such absolute terms), and there is absolutely no point in reading her blog. I'm aware people can have completely different takes on life and on specific plays. I don't need to knock myself out reading reviews that will just rile me up. Life's too short.