Toronto Chekhov lovers have been very lucky. This fall, we’ve got to see not one but two excellent productions of the Russian master’s plays. First came Crow’s Theatre’s luminous Uncle Vanya. And now, in a successful collaboration between The Howland Company and Hart House Theatre, comes a memorable Three Sisters (Rating: NNNN).
It’s been a while since Toronto saw a professional production of the latter – and even then, Soulpepper’s 2007 version felt uneven. But as adapter and director Paolo Santalucia points out in his program notes, “Chekhov’s plays have never made more sense… than in the last two and a half years. Three Sisters especially.”
How true. Shortly after the death of their father, the three orphaned women in the Prozorov family – hard-working school teacher Olga (Hallie Seline), the eldest, disenchanted married middle sister Masha (Caroline Toal) and idealistic Irina (Shauna Thompson), who celebrates her birthday in the opening scene – all long for something, anything, else. They grew up in Moscow, but it’s been more than a decade since they moved to the provinces. Like their feckless brother Andrei (Ben Yoganathan), they’re stuck in a disappointing, uncertain present that shows no signs of improving.
Santalucia’s production is contemporary without being too specific. The costumes (by Nancy Anne Perrin, who also designed the sets) feel modern. One party guest plucks out the Beatles’ Yesterday on the piano – thematically fitting. And yet Irina’s birthday presents include an old-fashioned samovar and a spinning top. Oddly, such details make it seem like these characters have been floating restlessly through time.
One change that feels very contemporary is switching the gender of the glamorous lieutenant Vershinin, a friend of the siblings’ late father, who embarks on an affair with Masha. Here the role becomes Alex and is played beautifully by Christine Horne, who delivers some of the play’s most philosophical and probing passages with clarity, spontaneity and what I can only call restrained passion. The pair’s connection – even if they’re across a room in the wide playing area of the Hart House Theatre – is palpable.
There’s heartbreak galore, of course – this is Chekhov, after all, and the leads create poignant portraits of unfulfilled lives. But there’s also some effective comedy, and Santalucia gets inspired comic turns from Dan Mousseau (who filled in for Colin A. Doyle in the performance that I saw), as the pedantic Theo, as well as Cameron Laurie, Maher Sinno, Ethan Zuchkan and Steven Hao as characters competing in various ways for Irina’s attention.
Stage veterans Robert Persichini and Kyra Harper deliver exquisite performances as tragicomic older characters caught up in their own obsessions. And Ruth Goodwin is one of the most screechingly effective Natashas – the awkward woman who marries Andrei and gradually takes over the family home – I’ve ever seen.
Despite some occasional sound problems (always an issue at this venue), I recommend this production highly.
Three Sisters runs at the Hart House Theatre (7 Hart House Circle) until November 12. See info here.
Speaking of venues, the promising new company B&E Theatre presents their inaugural production of Doubt: A Parable (Rating: NNNN) in the magnificent Church of the Holy Trinity next to the Eaton Centre. It was an inspired decision.
John Patrick Shanley‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is set in the mid-1960s in a Bronx Catholic school, where the school’s strict principal, Sister Aloysius (Deborah Drakeford) comes to suspect one of the parish’s priests, Father Flynn (Brian Bisson), has acted inappropriately with a young Black student and altar boy.
Sister Aloysius – whose name suggests both a warrior and the patron saint of youths – is acting on information from the young novice nun Sister James (Emma Nelles). Is the traditional task master – who accurately understands the motivations and actions of all her young charges – unreasonable? Does she have an axe to grind? Shanley’s script is wonderfully ambiguous as to the priest’s guilt or innocence. And it opens up larger ideas about doubt and faith in institutions and organizations.
Director Stewart Arnott brings out the complexities of the story in many nice touches. Bisson’s Father Flynn addresses the audience as a congregation, and so we’re immediately under his spell. Bisson plays the man as a charming, progressive figure who expresses collective doubt and uncertainty in the period after John F. Kennedy’s assassination and also knows a thing or two about basketball. He’s interested in the young (unseen) Donald Muller because, as the only Black child in a school that consists mostly of Italian and Irish students, he needs a friend and protector.
But as Sister Aloysius’s investigations continue, we begin to see him in a different light. Even if Shanley is ambiguous about some things, with others he’s clear. The role of women in the Catholic church is deeply restrictive, from their wardrobe (Lara Berry‘s costumes effectively point out that difference) to their working hours and living conditions. One of the most telling scenes comes when Father Flynn enters Sister Aloysius’s office and promptly sits himself at her desk, with Sister James serving him tea. And the way Bisson raises his voice to exert his supposed power over her later on tells you a lot about the patriarchal institution.
It’s fascinating to watch this production at this particular moment. The setting for the play is specific, but is it that different from a big corporation ruled by a traditional old boys’ club mentality? How many Black and Indigenous students have suffered under the Catholic church? And the play’s themes resonate disturbingly, especially in an era when leaders of any kind seldom waver from a single stance, even if they don’t believe in it.
I’ve already mentioned Bisson’s layered performance, and Nelles brings an openness and guileless simplicity to her Sister James. But I should also mention the work of Kim Nelson, who in a single scene creates a troubled portrait of a mother who finds herself seeking the lesser of two evils (in her opinion) to make her family happy.
The play’s most intriguing figure, however, is Sister Aloysius, and Drakeford lets us see the woman’s intelligence, warmth and frustration in everything from a raised eyebrow and her ramrod straight posture to a genuine concern for a blind colleague or unprotected tree. I hope she’s recognized come awards time.
Doubt: A Parable continues at the Church of the Holy Trinity (19 Trinity Square) until November 13. See info here.
Opening this week
One of the highlights of any season is Musical Stage Company‘s UNCOVERED, a concert series devoted to unique arrangements and interpretations of the songs of famous recording artists. This year the company takes a chance on the music of Swedish pop super group ABBA, with a talented roster of interpreters that includes Hailey Gillis, Kelly Holiff, Germaine Konji, Landon Doak, Vanessa Sears, Rosie Callaghan, Matthew Joseph and Gavin Hope.
The multiple Dora Award-winning Reza Jacobs (London Road, Life After, Caroline, Or Change) provides music supervision, arrangements and orchestrations for such hummable pop anthems as Dancing Queen, Fernando, Mamma Mia and The Name Of The Game. But after more than a decade and a half, this concert marks his final concert helming Uncovered; he’s shifting his focus away from the arts and pursuing a career in psychotherapy.
In what will surely be a tear-inducing moment, Jacobs himself will take to the mic to sing Thank You For The Music. Thank you, indeed.
UNCOVERED: The Music Of ABBA runs at Koerner Hall (273 Bloor West) from November 8-10. See info here.
Soulpepper is starting up their own series of concerts this week, with The Golden Record, inspired by The Voyager Golden Record, a message that NASA sent out into space in the 1970s to communicate with any possible extraterrestrials.
Conceived by Mike Ross, the concert – directed by Frank Cox O’Connell – includes stories and songs performed by Divine Brown, Beau Dixon, Raha Javanfar, Travis Knights, Andrew Penner, Sarah Wilson, Erin James, Erika Nielsen and Amanda Penner.
It promises to be a far out night.
The Golden Record plays November 9 to 20 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts’ Baillie Theatre (50 Tank House). See info here.
Although it’s not a musical, Choir Boy contains lots of glorious music. It’s a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who’s probably best known as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of the film Moonlight. (Soulpepper also mounted a brilliant production of McCraney’s play The Brothers Size a few seasons ago.)
Choir Boy focuses on Pharus, a senior at a prestigious prep school for boys, one committed to building “strong, ethical Black Men.” Leader of the school’s gospel choir, Pharus is also coming to terms with his identity as a young gay man.
Mike Payette directs a terrific cast (Andrew Broderick, Scott Bellis, Daren A. Herbert, Clarence “CJ” Jura, Kwaku Okyere, David Andrew Reid and Savion Roach) in this Canadian Stage/Arts Club Theatre Company production.
Choir Boy runs November 8 to 19 at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front East). See info here.