Stage Door Reviews of
Tarragon Theatre 1996/97 Season

by M. J. Kang

Tarragon Theatre, Toronto
Playing in the Mainspace from November 13 until December 15, 1996

A Stage Door Review by Roger Kershaw and Jim Lingerfelt
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M.J. Kangs new play, Blessings, now playing at Torontos Tarragon Theatre, examines the cultural clash when Old World and New World collide. Caught between these two worlds is Soo-Won, Kangs protagonist, who had emigrated to Canada from Korea with her parents when she was two. The play opens eighteen years later as she returns to Seoul with a question she cant properly articulate. "Why did we leave Korea?" she asks every relative she meets, but she is really trying to resolve her growing identity crisis by defining her place in her family, and in the Korean-Canadian mosaic.
-----In the first act, Soo finds herself the virtual prisoner of Emo, an autocratic aunt who tries to protect her from the dangers of the city. For three weeks, Emo confines Soo to her room, with only a television and a book on Proper Korean Behaviour. Soo shares this isolation with her imaginary (and Italian) father-figure, Luigi-Dad, conjured up to replace her own father who is obsessed with his variety stores and real estate. Eventually, Emo introduces her to various relatives and old family friends. None fulfill her romantic notions of family or roots, until meeting paternal grandfather Harabogee, who offers her the closest thing to an emotional hug she is to receive during her visit. The first act is filled with humour, especially in the scenes shared with Luigi-Dad, as the two of them delight in the discovery of a city filled with people "who look just like me!"
-----Darkness pervades the second act as Soo returns to the home of her Canadian parents, from whom she has been estranged for four years, and the memories of a less than happy childhood that compelled her to make this voyage of self-discovery. Director Sally Han describes Soos parents as having come to Canada "with the classic immigrant idea of a life that had more and was better, and in pursuing that dream they lost contact with their own child." Flashbacks examine Soos unhappy childhood riddled with neglect and pain and the shaky foundation for their tattered relationship. "The play," Han continues, "is a young persons vision of growing up, and were trying to keep the purity and honesty of that voice." Soo feels responsible for her parents happiness, something we can all relate to, until ultimately she recognizes shes sometimes wrong and this reality allows her to finally accept her parents for who they are.
-----Director Han has coaxed superb performances from the trio of performers who bring Kangs autobiographical story to life. Tarragon newcomer Rachel Lai grasps Soos emotional pain and capitalizes on the scripts humour. Never off the stage, she has several monologues that showcase her considerable gifts. Dennis Akiyama has a busy time with the four male roles of Dad, Luigi-Dad, Harabogee, and Monk. He is marvelous in all of them and travels from comedy to pathos with ease. Jean Yoon plays Emo, Mom and several other female roles, each one showcasing her emotional and physical techniques. She plumbs the depths of Moms wretched drunkenness, the quirky mannerisms of Emo, and the cool sophistication of a family friend.
-----The design team of Teresa Przybykski and Bonnie Beecher have done an admirable job in evoking both a Korean atmosphere and the Canadian home with a minimalist set. The central piece is a rotating wooden Buddhist temple that is the base for several emotion-packed scenes. The ceiling is festooned with Korean kites that form an effective sky while the backdrop is brick-like grey covered with bold graffiti reminiscent of Hangul, the Korean alphabet. Accomplished local musician Boko Suzuki composed the haunting incidental music.
-----Blessings is a little-known play that we attended with few expectations of what we were to see. What a pleasant surprise this gem is. Dont miss it. Blessings plays until December 15 at 30 Bridgman Avenue, near Bathurst and Davenport, in central Toronto. For tickets ($19 to $24) call the Tarragons box office at 416/531-1827.

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The Cryptogram
by David Mamet

Tarragon Theatre, Toronto
Playing in The Extra Space from October 25 to December 1, 1996

A Stage Door Review by Jim Lingerfelt and Roger Kershaw
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This Crytogram puzzling

Shocking," "heart-stopping," "high tragedy," his "best play," "eighty of the most densely packed, emotionally searing minutes this season" or so go many of the praises heaped on David Mamets newest play, The Cryptogram. Mamet is the author of such notable contemporary American plays as Oleanna, Speed-The-Plow, Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo and Sexual Perversity in Chicago. He has also written screenplays (Homicide, House of Games, The Verdict), collections of essays, a novel and a book of poems. His plays have won a Pulitzer Prize and the Obie Award. Filled with the highest of expectations, we were excited to find this play at Tarragon Theatre, but unfortunately this well-intentioned production falls short of the mark.
-----The play is described as his most personal, even autobiographical. Set in 1959, its central figure, John, a young boy seemingly obsessed with death, finds himself caught in the mysteries of adult behaviour. The other characters are his mother Donny, desperate about her missing husband Robert, and a family friend Del, vaguely implicated in the dark secrets of this household.
-----This one act play begins with John anxiously awaiting the return of his father with whom he is to accompany on a camping trip. His insomnia irritates his mother as he attempts to grasp, through the unending questions of a ten-year-old, the encoded behaviour of the adults around himtheir vulnerabilities, defences, evasions and lies. Ultimately, a different journey is started, away from innocence.
-----As the play progresses, an uneasy wait degenerates from nervous tension to serious discomfort, as the audience asks "where is Robert?" The unfolding character development between Del and Donny poses further questions. Are they having an affair? Did Del murder Robert? Surrounding these unspoken questions is the eerie interrogation of Donny by her young son. A broken teapot, a picture, a torn blanket, and a large knife...these objects are introduced and their mysteries become part of the unfinished puzzle. The play has been described as "a whodunit with the it waiting to happen."
----- The Cryptogram is directed by the award-winning Josephine Le Grice who creates an uncomfortable atmosphere but fails to galvanize her actors into the necessary buildup to the supposedly "shattering" conclusion. Julie Foxs set and costumes accurately recreate a 1959 middle-America living room replete with odd lighting, furniture and a Mary Tyler Moore wardrobe. Glenn Davidsons realistic lighting is superb, especially the car headlights, several subdued living room scenes and the plays closing moment, all particularly effective in the close confines of Tarragons Extra Space.
----- The trio of actors, though generally effective, create less than the anticipated tension. Young star-in-the-making Jordan Allison plays John in a good performance with a technique that would challenge that of many accomplished actors. Good timing is imperative to this script and Allisons is superb, his only drawback being his weak projection with some words not reaching the back of the small theatrespace. Mother Donny is solidly played by Tarragon veteran Maria Ricossa in the manner of a barely adequate mother. In his Tarragon debut, Ted Atherton plays quirky family friend Del.
-----This production does generate some of the moments that Mamet envisioned and if you wish to experience an eloquent treatise on mystery within the realm of family, call the Tarragon box office at 416/531-1827 for tickets ($17 to $21). The Cryptogram plays in The Extra Space until December 1, 1996.

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The Glass Menagerie
by Tennessee Williams

Tarragon Theatre, Toronto
Playing in The Mainspace from March 4 to April 13, 1997

A Stage Door Review by Roger Kershaw and Jim Lingerfelt
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Magical Martha in shattering Glass Menagerie

Tennessee Williams' masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie, is certainly receiving its share of deserved attention this season. No less than three major productions have been planned or mounted, the Grand Theatre's interpretation being first, and now the first of two Toronto versions at the Tarragon Theatre. The final staging will be later this month at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. Last night we witnessed the Tarragon's benchmark production with the transcendent Martha Henry as long-suffering matriarch Amanda Wingfield, in what has been billed as the performance to beat this season. La Henry surpasses all expectations while sending a message to Shirley Douglas and her son, Keifer Sutherland, who will have to pull out all the stops to remotely approach Henry and Company's stratospheric "dream team" efforts.
-----The Glass Menagerie is autobiographical in nature and has been described as the quintessential memory play. In a cramped, low-rent St. Louis apartment, out of which fire-escapes offer the only relief or solitude, the Wingfield family struggles to improve their lives: mother Amanda, a single parent, determined, often desperate for change; son Tom, rebellious, longing to flee; and daughter Laura, withdrawn and disabled. Tom seeks release and adventure at the movies and midnight wanderings. Amanda has her memories of a Southern girlhood, hoping to connect past and present by finding a "gentleman caller" for her own daughter. And Laura retreats into her private world of music and a collection of glass figures (the "glass menagerie"), which represent for the playwright "all the softest emotions that belong to the recollection of things past...all the small and tender things that relieve the austere pattern of life." Another character, the absentee father, "worked for the telephone company and fell in love with long distance." His image is softly projected onto two oversized mirrors at each mention of his name.
-----Director Diana Leblanc (Stage Door Award winner) has assembled a quartet of actors whose stellar efforts, while on Tarragon's intimate Mainspace stage, have to be experienced to be believed. Sitting in the front row we were dazzled, dumbstruck, and awash in the intense, searing emotional highs and lows, augmented by our proximity to the actors.
-----Martha Henry's Amanda is profound and deeply emotional without dissolving into melodrama, simultaneously exploring the character's emotional and physical claustrophobia. Several wrenching scenes with each child serve to illustrate Henry's unsurpassed technical wizardry. A turbulent argument with son Tom over his drinking leaves the audience breathless and embarrassed, so violently real is the acting. Conversely, in a tender moment, she takes daughter Laura outside on the porch to have her make a wish on the "slip of a moon."
-----Son Tom (and narrator, i.e., Williams) is convincingly acted by the talented Michael McManus. The aspiring poet anti-hero is played to perfection as a man completely immersed in himself and his lot in life. The sensitive side of this façade manifests itself in his poetry, and concern about his "crippled" sister. She (sister Laura) is magnificently portrayed by Stratford Festival veteran Kristina Nicoll, recently cross-dressing in As You Like It. What a difference a play makes. Reflecting her fragile glass menagerie, Laura is a waif-like, innocent and troubled woman-child, a role that Nicoll devours with relish. The final moments of the play see Laura blow out candles and collapse in an emotional heap. This demeanour continued through an emotionally spent Nicoll well into the third raucous curtain call.
-----The Gentleman Caller's role is played with optimistic and unbridled abandon by Tarragon newcomer Patrick Galligan. A student of public speaking to cover crippling self-doubt, Galligan's Jim O'Conner comes across like a motivational orator and seeks to help the vacuous Laura and then inadvertently destroys her. Their final scene together is towering achievement and Leblanc has to be given full credit for allowing her ensemble to act as that, in unison, rather than simply allow a star turn for Ms Henry.
-----The cohesiveness of this production is supported by a wonderful design team. Astrid Janson's set and costumes are richly evocative of the Depression era, yet full of life, colour, and accurate down to Amanda's stocking seams. The set, with its Escheresque fire escapes, frames, mirrors and transparent curtains, makes good use of Tarragon's intimate Mainspace. The set is lit by Tarragon veteran Louise Guinand. She uses realistic candle-lit and subdued lighting resources to perfection, especially in the scenes following the power failure.
-----This new triumph at the Tarragon Theatre will certainly live in our memory for a long time. This dream team's collective effort is doubtless the production to see this season. Get tickets as quickly as you can for this sure sellout. Tickets ($19 to this possible for such talent?) are available by calling the box office at 416/531-1827.

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The Four Lives of Marie
by Carole Fréchette
Tarragon Theatre, Toronto
Playing in The Mainspace from April 23 to May 25, 1997

A Stage Door Review by Jim Lingerfelt and Roger Kershaw
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An intriguing Marie

Carole Fréchette's The Four Lives of Marie opened last night at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace. Her unique play won the Governor General's Literary Award for French Drama in 1995, but curiously has never been fully mounted in its original language. Fréchette attributes this partly to "indifference" about the royal award in her home province. Last night's world premiere was translated into English by the Chalmers Award-winning (The Faraway Nearby) John Murrell, whose own play, New World, headlines Tarragon's new season. Sometimes confusing, but always literate, the translation succeeds in showing Marie's surreal existence and her living life vicariously through her fantastical imagination. 

Fréchette's work, directed by Jackie Maxwell, is a lyrical, passionate, and often funny account of a woman's history, told in four elliptic tableaux. The author has said she daydreamed "about a woman who dies and then gets up again, like one of those characters in a cartoon, and continues as if nothing had happened." Marie is introduced, first as an inquisitive 11-year-old schoolgirl on a day that changes everything as her mother deserts the adoring youngster to go and find herself. The portrayal of this moment is a boring six-fold repetitive montage of events. We get the message much sooner. The desertion is the defining moment in Marie's young life and plunges her into a fantastical, bittersweet journey of metaphorical deaths and resurrections. Her long-lost father soon appears and then expires just as quickly, bemoaning his losses and pitiful life.  

The second scene presents Fréchette's protagonist as a young woman caught between the allure of violent social upheaval and personal romance "waiting for spectacular events that give the world goose bumps." She conjures suitors out of thin air appearing and disappearing with disarming regularity as she tries to satisfy her love-starved psyche, in a bout of heroic dementia.

Later, in the third tableau and now as an older woman seeking social solace, the witty dialogue sparkles at a party thrown for a potential Marie's mind. Finally, in the concluding scene, our heroine rows away from the real world all "damp and desperate" soliloquising from mid-air (in a rowboat) about how she has dealt with the "unimaginable sensation of being all alone." While sometimes confusing, we ultimately recognize Marie as a woman who has made a purely independent contract with the world.

Tanja Jacobs says, "Marie lived a life entirely and richly with the possibility of experience, as long as it can be imagined." Jacobs' perpetually wide-eyed Marie is mostly successful, especially in the last three tableaux. In portraying a young girl, her attire helps achieve the moppet effect, though overall, Jacob's formidable talent transcends great heights, literally. Her interaction with Patrick Galligan's trio of characters is equally remarkable. This fine young actor recently wowed Tarragon audiences as the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie and his talents are displayed to equal advantage in this acrobatic and energizing role. We'll be seeing a lot more of him in the future. Jerry Franken plays two characters that don't allow him to shine quite as brightly as we have come to expect from him: As Marie's father, he relates his miserable existence well, but doesn't elicit much sympathy for the character; while as the reluctant suitor his eagerness to escape the "engagement" party uncompromised is quite convincing. In wonderful support are Nancy Beatty as mother Simone, and as adult friend Sylvette who breaks into uncontrolled peals of laughter whenever someone lies; and Tarragon newcomer Shawn Doyle as boyfriend/revolutionary Louis.

Costumes and the "junkyard" set are by Sue LePage, who has set the play in a pit (of depression?) surrounded by the audience who look down on the activities of the players until the final soaring scene when Marie is lifted above it all (oh, the metaphors!). Paul Mathiesen handles the lighting, with music and sound by Michael White. Kathryn Davies is the stage manager.

The Four Lives of Marie runs in Tarragon's Mainspace until May 25, 1997, Tuesday to Friday at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 and 8:30 p.m. (tickets $19 to $24), and Sunday Pay-What-You-Can matinees at 2:30.

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