Review of “A Woman Is A Secret”

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TC15011_AWoman_slider_G1-page-001-800x302Friday night was the opening of the world premiere of the new John Patrick Shanley play, A Woman Is A Secret. The show is a joint production between The Storefront Theatre and Rip Jaw Productions, and is being presented at the Theatre Centre on Queen St. in Toronto.

The writing was brilliant – I wasn’t surprised. This is coming from the man who wrote Moonstruck and Doubt: A Parable among many, many others. Shanley is well known for his deeply complex, honest and often funny female characters, something that was in no short supply in this production. Skillfully played by some of Toronto’s top female talents, the play was well cast, but while story and actors were top-notch, confusing design and weak directing made for only an alright overall experience.

Skillfully played by some of Toronto’s top female talents…story and actors were top-notch.

I have been unable to find any photos of the set but the premise is basic; downstage centre is a vintage styled bar table and two bar chairs that are used in every scene. Generally they are just that – a bar set – but in the second act they are moved around and also act as a couch, maybe a bed. Despite the fact that 99% of the action occurs in a small area downstage, the entire stage was decorated with fake trees and an abundance of dead leaves on the ground. While the look was interesting and something we discussed before the show opened, there was absolutely no reference to it, no use made of it, and I was left feeling like it was a concept that the designer came up with before even reading the script. The costumes as well, were lacking. Singer Matthew Barber accompanied the show, playing guitar and singing beautiful renditions of some great 50s love songs. Unfortunately, the funky burgundy jacket he had been outfitted in was ill-fitting, and as someone who often does costumes, I found myself distracted by the tight shoulders and rolled up sleeves. I was disappointed by the dress the sexy and seductive Sparkles (Molly Flood) was wearing as well, but it was less ridiculous looking than the shoes that Blanche (Anna Hardwick) had to wear in the first scene; for a woman who was supposed to “walk slow”, glide across the stage in a sexy, sultry fashion, she was put in the wrong shoes. Her movements were unfortunately stilted in those heels, and while I initially thought that was part of the performance, I quickly realized it was just another poor costuming choice. All in all the look of the show reminded me of a college production. I think I would have preferred to see a work-shopped version where the focus was only on the actors and writing, as those elements were spot-on.

Confusing design and weak directing…the look of the show reminded me of a college production.

In a play about women, it’s no surprise that the female parts were the stand-out roles, and the casting of greats like Martha Burns, Anna Hardwick and Karen Knox made for a thoroughly enjoyable performance. Knox’s Kasia, (a sultry Polish woman looking to have an affair) was hilarious, with each line delivered with a practiced dry wit that got the audience every time. While her accent wavered on some lines, her performance was strong and in-keeping with what I’ve come to expect from this Toronto-staple. While costume issues weakened her performance in the first scene, Anna Hardwick was outstanding as the embittered newlywed in the second act. The chemistry between Hardwick and Anand Rajaram was electric, and made for a not only funny, but very touching scene. Rajaram is not an actor I am familiar with, but one I will certainly be seeking out in the future; he was the stand-out male performer in this show. Katie Swift was another notable performer; her comedic timing made-up for an unfortunately weak performance by Jade Hassouné, in one of the less interesting scenes in the play. Martha Burns was hilarious as the Banshee Genevieve, and Tony Nappo matched her performance in energy and sincerity. However, it was the scene between Sparkles (Molly Flood) and Hank (Trent Pardy) that had me on the floor. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for the old-school Noir dialogue, but even writing that good could have been wasted if not performed by actors who understood the style & could handle the delivery. Flood & Pardy made for a scene that was both funny and honestly, very sexy.

It was the scene between Sparkles and Hank…that had me on the floor…Flood & Pardy made for a scene that was both funny and honestly, very sexy.

When I first learned that the world premiere of a show by such an established playwright was not only being produced here in Toronto, but by a couple indie companies (rather than a large force like Factory, or Mirvish) I was surprised and excited. Unfortunately, despite having an exceptionally strong cast, the show felt lacking, and I wish that it had been put in the hands of a stronger director and design team. Despite its flaws, it really is an enjoyable show. You’ll spend much of it laughing, and if you’re like me, may find a few moments bring you close to tears. Definitely worth the trip.

A Woman Is A Secret runs March 19 – April 5, 2015 at
The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. West, Toronto.
Tickets are $20-$30 and can be purchased at 416-538-0988 or online.

A Review of Tarragon Theatre’s “Abyss”

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It’s not often that I go into a play having no idea what it’s about, but that’s what happened last night when a friend and I spontaneously went to see Maria Milisavljevic’s Abyss at the Tarragon Extraspace. I was in for a pleasant surprise as I found the show (aptly described on their site as a “lyrical thriller”) to be one of the most intriguing and moving pieces of theatre I have seen in a long time.

Admittedly, the show didn’t catch me right away; the first 15 minutes or so felt a little stale as actress Cara Pifko recited lines in a style that felt dated and forced. Like the sort of thing you see in a sketch comedy making fun of actors. However, once the pace picked up and she was required to show real emotional intensity, the choice in casting Pifko was clear; her raw performance was chilling, especially during the climatic moments (I won’t ruin the story with more details) and by the end I was on the verge of tears. Her chemistry with fellow actor Gord Rand was also dead-on, and the scenes in which the two were lovers were especially poignant.

Rand’s performance was captivating throughout and I was impressed by his ability to seamlessly transition from the cold and distant Vlado into the quirky and loveable Jan. The depth of emotion shown on his face was startling and I often found it difficult to look away.

The quiet star of the performance was undoubtedly Sarah Sherman, who, while playing secondary characters stole the show with her electric energy and range. She was equally compelling and convincing playing concerned sister Sophia as she was as a frightened young Russian mother, or the drunken derelict Göran. Sherman’s ability to create such distinct characters and flow through them effortlessly was refreshing and impressive.

Artistic Director Richard Rose staged the show and did justice to Milisavljevic’s beautifully composed piece. Rose chose to have the performers linking hands though nearly the entire play, a choice that may sound bizarre on paper but was really startlingly effective. Designer Jason Hand created a simplistic set that was transformed dramatically scene to scene with his brilliant lighting design (props to stage manager Nicola Benidickson for keeping on top of all those cues!). While at the top of the show I found the sound design to be a little overbearing, by the halfway mark Thomas Ryder Payne succeeded in creating a moving and often beautiful soundscape. I am unsure of what exactly should be credited to choreographer Nova Bhattacharya versus director Richard Rose, as the entire show was stylized and almost dance-like, but however the two created the piece they did an excellent job, and I was pleasantly surprised to see a simulated sex scene that was neither uncomfortable or laughable!

Finally, credited must be given to playwright Maria Milisavljevic who composed this dark and unique story, first in her native German and now in a wonderfully translated English form (this was the English language premiere of the show). Milisavljevic skillfully juxtaposes a beautiful and heroic poem, Nis Randers (1901) by Otto Ernst with an honest and modern story of love, lust and loss. Each character is compelling and complete, and the chemistry between them should be equally credited to playwright and performers. The interjection of a disturbing “how-to” on skinning rabbits breaks up the fluid movement of the dialogue and is surprisingly effective. Overall, I found the play poetic and utterly captivating, and am thrilled to see such a well-written work by a young female artist.

Abyss opened Wednesday February 11, 2015 in the Tarragon Extraspace and plays until March 15. For show dates and ticket information see their event page.