Molière's George Dandin may be the darkest farce you'll ever see.
The title character, a rich peasant who weds the daughter of impoverished aristocrats, knows from the start of the play that he's made a mistake, for he's still treated like a low-born country boy by his in-laws and cuckolded by his wife, Angélique.
It's the stuff of humour, true, but in the hands of director Guillaume Bernardi and actor Martin Albert, this production by Théâtre français de Toronto provides a strong element of sympathy for Dandin, even a touch of tragedy. Albert's Dandin is a figure we really care about, even if his fixation has its roots in classic comedy.
There are laughs in the show, as Dandin tries three times to demonstrate his wife's increasing infidelity to her parents (Robert Godin and the attention-getting France Gauthier) but is bested by the hypocritical Angélique's cleverness. Colombe Demers's Angélique plays everyone around her with ease, and her scenes with Albert are the show's finest. There's a real sensuality in her encounters with the nobleman (Julian Doucet) she'd like to bed; the first is a kind of anti-wooing scene - her actions and her words move in opposite directions - that Bernardi shapes with surprising passion. Designer Glen Charles Landry picks up that sensual quality with sheer white curtains that billow as erotic undercurrents build.
Some of the other elements in the production are less successful. The comedy involving the servants (Mélanie Beauchamp and Dino Gonçalves) isn't especially funny, and the decision to include Paul Chaput's musical numbers, suggesting that we're watching a commedia troupe, doesn't contribute much to the piece.
But Albert and Demers make this George Dandin a memorable production, even if you're jumping back and forth between the onstage action and the French production's English surtitles (on Saturday matinees). Sometimes acting transcends language.
Whale of a tale
Producer/performer Melissa-Jane Shaw is aware of the lack of opportunities for women in the arts. But rather than just complaining, she's doing something about it.
Shaw founded Seventh Stage Theatre to give a chance to established and newbie female artists, and her first production, Anthony Minghella's Whale Music, relies on the talents of 44 women.
"I had proof of the importance of such a project when I posted an audition notice and got 600 applications, mostly from Toronto," she recalls. "It's shocking to see how much unused talent is out there."
The 1980 Whale Music was British writer Minghella's first play; he's best known for writing The English Patient and Truly Madly Deeply. Whale Music is the tale of Caroline, who returns home to the Isle of Wight to await the birth of her child. She's surrounded by a group of women who provide support, comfort and sometimes conflict.
The title comes from a disc of whale sounds given to Caroline to soothe her anxieties.
"Whales communicate in frequencies, in ways we humans don't understand," explains Shaw. "We've found that the women in the play are similar, offering a secret language that lies under the words; it's not what's said but what's unsaid that creates the music, the frequencies that crack the shells that isolate these people."
Shaw, who's acting in Whale Music, also wants to provide a leg up for emerging female artists, so each show begins with a brief new piece by a young performer. The showcase is called whale riders.
And how well does Minghella understand the world of motherhood?
"He sure has insights into female psychology. I guess if there's a secret language of women," laughs Shaw, "Minghella's bilingual."
The CrossCurrents Festival has come full circle for producer Nina Lee Aquino.
Devoted to works by artists of colour, the fest, sponsored by Factory Theatre, highlights new scripts in development and the talents of senior and upcoming theatre practitioners.
Jovanni Sy hired Aquino as apprentice dramaturge when he produced the first festival, and this year Aquino's bringing Sy back as a playwright, with his script The Five Vengeances, a kung fu take on the 17th-century British play The Revenger's Tragedy.
"Last year's CrossCurrents was hot and bright, but this time the themes are darker," says Aquino. "What ties the works together is a loss of innocence, a sense of danger, the idea that the world isn't as safe and secure as we might have thought. War, conflict, deception and abuse are common themes."
Two of the pieces look at children who have to face a world that asks too much of them. Bhopal author Rahul Varma's Truth And Treason focuses on a martyred child in Iraq, and Beatriz Pizano's The Communion looks at a 17-year-old woman, a guerrilla soldier in Colombia, who wants to flee to Canada.
C.E. Gatchalian's Who Beat Rocky? shifts from 90s Vancouver to 50s Korea in its discussion of masculinity, sexuality and boundaries, while Jason Maghanoy's The Corner is based on the story of a Filipino teen in Scarborough shot by police.
Also look for events programmed by Cahoots Theatre Projects, Theatre Revolve, Obsidian Theatre, the fourth annual fu-GEN Potluck, a reading of David Yee's lady in the red dress and a collective creation by emerging artists in the UnderCurrents mentoring program. The opening multidisciplinary performance, co-produced by Diaspora Dialogues, features excerpts from each show.
"I'm proud that CrossCurrents deals with the hyphenated Canadian," says Aquino, "and presents works about the intersection of cultures. We're about process, and we celebrate and honour the fact that a Filipino-Canadian playwright develops a work differently than, say, a Colombian-Canadian playwright.
"Our artists have a stake and voice in the community, and as long as we can be heard, we're visible and recognized for the stories we tell."
See Opening on theatre listings page or www.factorytheatre.ca/crosscurrents.
Ruth Howard sees theatre in community.
She founded Jumblies Theatre in 2001, but even earlier than that the designer was co-creating projects involving both professional artists and non-artists in a site-specific community. Her last show was 2004's Once A Shoreline.
Her latest effort, Bridge Of One Hair, is part of this year's New World Stage, a commission from Harbourfront Centre's Fresh Ground. The show features more than 100 performers of various ages and cultures, many based in central Etobicoke, whose residents inspired the piece through their lives and stories.
Bridge Of One Hair grew out of a three-year residency in the Dundas/Islington neighbourhood, with support from Montgomery's Inn and Toronto Community Housing.
"There's a large newcomer Somali population there," says Howard, as dozens of people congregate nearby to rehearse the show. "We met Hawa Jibril, an oral poet, and her story is one of the central narratives in the piece. We've also drawn on a poem by native writer Duke Redbird about a fictional old woman who parallels Hawa."
Filtering through the story are the Cosies, clown characters inspired by British tea rituals. The differing Somali and British tea ceremonies are part of the action.
"It's operatic in scope, with a score by Chinese-Canadian composer Alice Ping Yee Ho, and I've also worked in a Celtic fairy tale about a brave girl named Molly. That's where the piece gets its name: Molly escapes from a giant across a bridge of one hair that only the valiant can cross."
The production features professional actors Diana Tso and Sid Bobb as well as a children's choir and a large contingent of Etobicoke district teens.
See Opening on theatre listings page.