Family dynamics aren't only defined from within. In Serbian writer Biljana Srbljanovic 's Family Stories -- Belgrade , a father, mother and son delineate their day-to-day lives in large part through political externals and the reality of war. Set in 90s Belgrade following the bombing of the city by NATO, the play relies on youthful characters to create the world of their elders. A quartet of children play at being their parents, parroting the ideas they've heard around the dinner table.
"Each scene is about a new family life with different dynamics," notes actor Brett Christopher . "In one, the father is a tyrant and paranoid about the United States taking control; in another, there's a version of the ruling Milosevic family, where the overbearing wife offers delusional pontifications about life in Serbia."
A hit in Europe, Family Stories -- produced here by Actors Repertory Company -- will be given a context for Toronto audiences by Serbian music and relevant projections. Serbian-born director Aleksandar Lukac has overseen that aspect of the production.
Billed as a slapstick tragedy, the show is based on various theatrical genres, including clown and commedia.
"It jumps from a Chekhovian moment to one of caricature and then to a North American style of theatre," adds Christopher, who most recently performed in Much Ado About Nothing in High Park. "The play is Brechtian, acknowledging that it's a piece of theatre; the characters know they are playing roles.
"When I expressed my concern that we Canadians were commenting on another country's culture, Aleksandar responded that what's more relevant is the fact that the play looks at the victims of war, the innocents on both sides. People will only lay down their weapons, he said, when they can cry for the enemy's children."
There's a single, brief moment in Joe Boyd 's new play, I'd Call Her Cathy , when the writer/actor hints at his capacity for anger, and the suggestion of a genuine emotion almost makes up for the rest of the tedious, self-indulgent work. Boyd plays Mark, a struggling screenwriter living in Toronto, who opens up a photo album and decides to tell a picture of his mom -- dead now for 11 years -- about his life.
Why he's suddenly opening up to his mother remains unclear; if Boyd or director Maddie McGowan had figured this out, they'd have provided a better structure for the rambling, sentimental piece. Instead, they rely on sentimentality, awkward flashbacks that include cheesy audio clips and writing that tells us rather than shows. Only when Mark recalls his ex-wife -- who's now had a child -- do the actor and the script come alive.
The show continues until September 24 at the Centre for the Arts (263 Adelaide West), with a fundraiser for Victims of Crime on September 28. 416-508-9240.
Shadowland Theatre knows food is the glue of togetherness. Based on Toronto Island, the company is best known for its audience-involving outdoor shows (Quixand, The Bridge) and the elaborate costumes and props it builds for VideoCabaret productions. The Lost Supper , the troupe's latest work, brings these techniques indoors to look at what knits people together at a communal meal. "We realized that our work, which is about transformation in a community, fits perfectly into the idea of a meal," says Shadowland co-artistic director Anne Barber . "Food is a political issue, a health issue and constant topic of conversation. Sitting down for a meal provides nourishment for body and soul."
The ensemble show, directed by Mark Cassidy , gathers together several strangers -- life-size puppets manipulated by the cast -- who share stories as well as food. Style and content are related, as in an episode about Balinese ritual that uses shadow puppetry from Bali, while a bit of tabletop puppetry turns kitchen utensils into characters.
"The Lost Supper is a chance to bring together our visual work that people know from outdoor productions and concentrate them in the theatre," adds Barber, "to show the essence of our puppetry techniques."
David Mamet builds all sorts of tension into Oleanna - between a man and a woman, a teacher and a student, a have and a have-not. Sometimes the script can feel too manipulative, but Hart House Theatre 's production is the most even-handed we've seen. That's largely thanks to director Graham Cozzubbo , who gives both Carol ( Kearsten Lyon ), the student who feels she knows nothing, and John ( Richard Stewart ), the teacher who feels he has everything, an equal share of anger, self-righteousness and a sense of having been wronged by the other. Oleanna works best when we can see the power shift back and forth, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes wrenchingly.
Lyon generates enough fire early on for Carol to make a believable transition during the course of the play, while Stewart suggests that John feels he knows everything about his pupil without being downright patronizing toward her. Cozzubbo gives the power changes a visual parallel by reversing the set for each act.
Not everything succeeds. Mamet's trademark rhythms sometimes go slack, and early on Lyon can be hard to hear. The timing in the act endings drains away instead of increasing the tension, and the explosive finale is awkwardly staged. Still, the production captures the essence of these people, who talk to but never really hear or understand each other.
Oleanna runs to Saturday (September 24).
Banana Boys revisited
Fu-GEN Asian-Canadian Theatre knew it wasn't finished with Banana Boys , Leon B. Aureus 's adaptation of the novel by Terry Woo , which premiered a year ago. Though the run sold out -- and drew a new and often young Asian audience to the theatre -- director Nina Lee Aquino and Aureus wanted to make some changes in the piece, which looks at five Asian-Canadian guys whose relationships starts to come apart.
Some tinkering happened before the production went to the Magnetic North Festival in June, and other script changes are now in place.
"This production gives Rick, the central figure, his humanity back," says Aquino, "and we get a sense of closure between him and the other four. Just as importantly, the relationships are clearer."
Even in its early version, the play had lots of strengths, especially in the way it broke cultural stereotypes and looked at the choices and conflicts facing young Asian-Canadian men caught between family obligations and the expectations of a larger white society.
Aquino notes that as a result of the showcase at Magnetic North, companies in Vancouver, Shanghai and London have shown interest in Banana Boys and fu-GEN. She's also excited by the fact that the new production has fu-GEN teaming up with Factory Theatre in an equal partnership.
"It's great when an established theatre sees your potential and helps you reach it. We feel like we have an official big brother."