A popstar’s failure opens the door to success

Vivek Shraya makes a convincing case for How to Fail as a Popstar. But she’s a success in the “I Did It My Way” mold. On the evidence of this show, Shraya is a terrific writer and performer, with a great voice and a gift for mimicry.

Popstar, a world premiere at Berkeley Street Theatre, was written by the self-described queer, trans, brown performer. And Shraya made it as an author, with the bestselling I’m Afraid of Men.

A straightforward tale of failed dreams, this one-woman show is spiked with satire, jokes and laugh-out-loud impersonations of the people in the Canadian music industry who helped Shraya along on her way to failure. And songs, which she performs in period moves choreographed by William Yong.

Covering all the gender bases, she enters in a full-length spangly gold cape over a black shorts jumpsuit, in glittering black high-tops and sparkling eye shadow to set off her abundant long blond hair; we don’t miss the chest hair peeking through her V-neck top. “I did not become God. I never got to perform with Madonna,” she says in reference to her youthful ambitions.

It’s a long story. Vivek, the son of Indian immigrants, grew up and went to school in Edmonton. He was teased, called faggot. He was geeky. But he had his own style, which girls at his junior high school approved of — and a voice. “You were chosen,” Vivek remembers thinking at services in the Sai Baba Temple. “I could feel my own divinity.” To demonstrate, she sits cross-legged on the stage and sings a bhajan, one of the hundreds he/she learned at the temple.

In the section entitled “The Judge”, Shraya gets a lot of laughs with her portrayal of Edmonton as a city of malls. The Youth Talent Quest, which she finally won at 19, wound up in the West Edmonton mall in the biggest food court. Vivek’s win, after many tries, was for a song of her own, “Madrid.” The judges, most of them older women in “floral blouses with shoulder pads,” had a suggestion. “Have you ever considered wearing leather pants like Ricky Martin?”

Eventually, Shraya gets the break she needs to “get the fuck out of Edmonton” and with a $20,000 loan, guaranteed by her parents, starts recording her songs with a Toronto manager. Her temporary housing was in the apartment of an assistant to the manager who calls herself Mama Carla. “I should have done my research,” Shraya tells us. Mama Carla’s luxury apartment turns out to be in Mississauga and every time the budding popstar starts asking questions about his progress, Mama Carla demands a backrub.

There is much more delight, honesty and poignancy. Defeated by the Toronto music scene, Vivek decided she was going back to Edmonton. Vivek’s mother was so accepting she asked her son if he was sure he has finished what he must do in Toronto.

The end of the show is a recitation of forty reasons why Vivek failed as a pop star. “Number one: I was born in Edmonton . . .”

Failure is relative. Shraya actually reached a stepping-stone to musical success with a Polaris prize nomination for an album made with Queer Songbook Orchestra: Part-Time Woman. And she needn’t worry about failure from here on in.

How to Fail as a Popstar

Written and performed by Vivek Shraya

Directed by Brendan Healy

Choreography by William Yong; sound design by James Bunton

Set and costumes by Joanna Yu; lighting design by C.J. Astronomo

Photo of Vivek Shraya by Dahlia Katz

Sunlight brought to a Vancouver women’s world

Marjorie Chan has done wonderful work bringing forward the six characters from Sunrise, a 1936 Chinese play by Cao Yu, in a multi-layered contemporary drama set in a money-and-real-estate-obsessed Vancouver.

Lady Sunrise takes its name from a beauty pageant in which Penny (Lindsay Wu) was once a runner-up. A native of Richmond BC, she now prefers to be known as Lulu and her work as a model has led to gigs as a paid companion to politicians and celebs at public events. She’s learned the lingo of female success (“Believe in yourself. . . fight the patriarchy”), but failure lies just around the corner.

Her boyfriend is Frankie Pan (the “men of the male species” in this play are present only by word-of-mouth), a denizen of clubs and casinos.

Tawny Ku (Ma-Anne Dionisio) is Penny’s auntie, not her real mother, but someone who takes a controlling interest in her. Tawny, known to her banker as Crazy Ku, is big in real estate – thanks to money obtained through husbands past – and she is on the verge of closing a deal on construction of a Vancouver condo tower.

Banker Wong (Rosie Simon) is a marathon runner, as aggressive in her power suit as she is in running shoes. Dealer Li (Zoé Doyle) is a croupier at a Vancouver-area casino and she has a less glamourous tale to tell. “I was a cleaner here first,” she says. Then her husband lost his job and she had to go to work as a blackjack dealer, a job that entails long hours and long waits for public transportation at night.

Charmaine (Louisa Zhu) enters in more traditional Chinese silk pants and short tunic. She finds Banker Wong on the road crippled with a Charley horse and fixes her up with a calf massage. Apparently Charmaine runs a massage parlor. Sherry (Belinda Corpuz) is the victim of an accident or injury: she appears in a hospital gown.

So tightly written is Lady Sunrise, that sorting out the relationships in the play can be a challenge. Despite the strong element of satire, it’s clear some tragedy is about to unfold, but you have to backtrack in your mind to see how the various characters are connected to it.

Director Nina Lee Aquino has staged the play on a series of ramps, angled up to one corner stage back and offering the perfect metaphor for parallel lives. At intervals during a character’s monologue, the other four or five women enter in formation in belted trench coats and neon-coloured wigs. They don’t speak but make an effective Greek chorus in their fancy footwork.

All of the actors turn in absorbing performances. What strikes the viewer is not some insight into the lives of Asian-Canadian women, but the fact that their stories could involve women of any background. In a week when Harvey Weinstein was sent to jail for sexual assault, Lady Sunrise seemed especially well timed.

Lady Sunrise

Written by Marjorie Chan

Directed by Nina Lee Aquino

Set design by Camellia Koo; costume design by Jackie Chau

Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay; sound and composition by Debashis Sinha

Movement directed by Natasha Mumba

At Factory Theatre, Toronto until March 8

Photo of (back) Zoé Doyle, Rosie Simon, Ma-Anne Dionisio, Louisa Zhu, Belinda Corpuz and (front) Lindsay Wu by Joseph Michael

 

 

 

A monologue in dance disturbs

Toronto actor Simon Bracken has the only speaking role in The Particulars. He’s Gordon, a very twitchy, quite off-putting fellow suffering from insomnia complicated by a bad case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. He’s dressed in a loose satin robe sashed over oft-revealed underpants.

In the vein of monologists Spalding Gray and Eric Bogosian, Bracken tells Gordon’s story as he enacts it. Gordon, a single man, has a set routine that involves tending his garden, which has become infested with aphids, watering his orchid, daily buying a bouquet of fresh flowers and performing his clerical duties in an office job where he fears ostracization.

Accompanying Gordon as if they were ghosts are seven dancers, draped head to toe in sheer veils, like dead brides (except one is a man). Matthew MacKenzie, creator of the very successful show Bears, wrote and directed The Particulars as a fusion of dance and theatre. Alida Kendell choreographed the movement. The fusion is less than complete, in that one can focus on Gordon’s increasing agony – and it’s hard not to – or on the active ensemble of dancers, but the two performances never really meld. Mostly the dancers’ movements, especially when they’re balled up on the floor scratching themselves, merely illustrate a story we can easily imagine from Gordon’s words.

Gordon seems made for bullying and a figure to make fun of. For the first 30 minutes or so, we laugh at his desperate manoeuvres, such as studying hockey statistics so he can sound knowledgeable about the game among his male colleagues. The reason for Gordon’s insomnia and neurosis is not immediately made known. Once his tragedy is understood, laughing at him becomes a problem.

Dancers Amber Borotsik, Lara Ebata, Bridget Jessome, Richard Lee Hai, Krista Lin, Rebecca Sadowski, Kate Stashko and Raena Waddell, cast as “mourners”, are competent enough, but because their faces are veiled, it’s hard to engage in their expressive movements.

This show needs more of the inventiveness displayed when the dancers form a human tower, illustrating Gordon’s fear that the scratching that awakes him every night might come from a squirrel trapped in his chimney.

The Particulars

Written and directed by Matthew MacKenzie

Choreography by Alida Kendell

A Punctuate! Theatre production presented by the Theatre Centre

At the Theatre Centre until October 26; in Edmonton Nov. 1-2

Photo of Simon Bracken as Gordon by Dahlia Katz

Reliving the 70s, 80s and 90s in style

Rick Miller is a treasure. The Montreal-born, Toronto-based writer, director and performer is the kind of guy who animates a set the minute he walks on stage. BOOM X, The Music, Politics and Culture of Generation X is the second in a trilogy of plays that began with BOOM, which chronicled the baby boom generation. (BOOM Y will premiere in 2021.)

The era of the baby boom generation (1945 to 1969) had a kind of homogeneity, Miller explains in his intro, that made BOOM a quite different proposition than the conflicted, messy and polarizing times of the 1970s, 80s and 90s. But just his thing, for Miller, born March 12, 1970, is a Gen-Xer.

A gifted impersonator and rock musician, Miller conceived a show that depends on the light and production design of Bruno Matte, Nicolas Dostie and Irina Litvinenko to provide a multilayered, multimedia buzz. At more than two hours in length, BOOM X feels like a big show, but it’s just one man in multiple costumes and wigs, acting in front of or behind a scrim over which video is running – along with headlines from each year he’s re-enacting. (His Tina Turner and Alanis Morissette are not to be missed.)

A baseball metaphor, employing the history of the Montreal Expos, provides the through line. Miller’s four Generation X representatives are introduced and framed as if they were on baseball cards: Howard, born in Winnipeg; Annika from East Germany; Steph from the small town of Exeter, Ontario; and Brandon, youngest of them, the son of a white South African and his Jamaican wife.

BOOM X is ingeniously presented. Four scrims surround a thrust stage upon the Belfry proscenium stage and as video footage comes up rapidfire on the scrim – everything from a scene from Altamont to a commercial for LIFE cereal to the shooting of four students at Kent State university in May 1970 – Miller either lip syncs their performances and speeches or acts as a narrator, or impersonates Howard, Annika, Steph or Brandon, telling each of their stories of the Generation X years. By the end we find out how they become important figures in Miller’s life.

Social commentary, political and cultural analysis, family history – BOOM X is all of these. But above all it’s just good entertainment, sure to please any generation.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/351489824

BOOM X

Written, directed and performed by Rick Miller

Produced by Kidoons and WYRD Productions, in association with Theatre Calgary and The 20K Collective

At the Belfry Theatre, Victoria BC, until August 18, 2019

 

 

 

The Revizor, revised, revamped and reborn as dance theatre

revisor is a parable for our times, adapted in a uniquely expressionistic form of dance and theatre from Nikolai Gogol’s play The Inspector General (Revizor in the original Russian) by writer/performer Jonathon Young and choreographer/director Crystal Pite. This is the same team (including composer/sound designer Owen Belton and scenic designer Jay Gower Taylor) that in 2015 brought us the brilliant Betroffenheit.

With revisor Young, Pite and their collaborating performers Doug Letheren, Rena Narumi, Matthew Peacock, David Raymond, Ella Rothschild, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Spivey and Tiffany Tregarthen have raised the bar again, with great inventiveness and spectacle, leading us into a nightmare-in-progress, reflective of the very political deceit, fake news, divisiveness and government corruption that dominate our airwaves today.

Gogol’s 1836 play, both a farce and a satire, trades in the same themes. He developed the play from an anecdote related to him by Pushkin, about the case of a lowly clerical figure sent to a regional outpost of the czarist empire on some minor assignment. The clerk is mistaken for an official of influence and authority and soon has the local department head and others toadying before him. For Young and Crystal, the play presents “a matrix for both voice and body . . .malleable and resonant.”

Inspiration for this adaptation of The Inspector General came from accounts of a 1926 non-naturalist production of the play by the Russian theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940). Meyerhold eschewed method acting for a kind of physical theatre that harked back to commedia dell’arte and expressed the symbolism he found in the text in the physical movements of his actors.

Ingeniously, Young et al created a spoken text that works like a score, the performers mouthing the words as they are heard overheard while performing exaggerated movements as if they were human puppets. These movements tell the tale of deceit, for the emotions they express often belie the words the actors are mouthing.

The performance of the farce in a series of tableaux – with Doug Letheren as Director of the Complex, Jermaine Spivey as the Postmaster, Tiffany Tregarthen (in removable beard) as the Revisor and a blousy, Cindy Salgado as the flirtatious Anna, wife of the Director – opens and closes the piece. What transpires in the middle is a dance deconstruction of The Inspector General, plumbing the emotional depths of the play, while stage directions are voiced overhead. Expressionism reaches its height with the appearance of a figure bearing a huge set of antlers that then get used as crutches.

The movement of the 10 performers is extraordinary, very dreamlike, an effect heightened by Owen Belton’s electronic, industrial soundscape and Jay Gower Taylor’s abstract video projections that trace needle-like paths on the scrim like an electronic circuit gone mad. The words of the text are repeated and broken down into phrases that apply the idea of the revisor to the dance – constantly regrouping, revising the movement, getting down to the elemental level.

All to say, catch revisor if you possibly can, and hope that there’s a chance to see it more than once, for its complexity demands revisiting.

revisor

Created by Crystal Pite + Jonathon Young

A Kidd Pivot Production presented by Canadian Stage

At the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, until March 16

Photo of Ella Rothschild, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Spivey, Tiffany Tregarthen, Doug Letheren, David Raymond, Rena Narumi, Matthew Peacock by Michael Slobodian.

Night travellers take us to our ancestral home

There must be millions of people in the world today who have never and may never experience a truly dark night sky. Such is the effect of urban and rural light pollution, that many will never witness the constellations or the Milky Way. The idea of losing the night came to Saskatchewan choreographer Shannon Litzenberger in 2014 when she took up an artist’s residency at Grasslands National Park, declared a Dark Sky Preserve in 2009.

That experience was the seed for World After Dark, a multi-media exploration in dance and words, of all that our connection to the night can mean, and how fragile our relationship to it has become. Christopher Dewdney’s book, Acquainted with the Night: Excursions through the World after Dark gave Litzenberger the impetus to assemble a dynamic creative team to collaborate in words, music, video imagery and especially dance in an exploration of the metaphors associated with night.

A poetic voiceover narrative — the work of playwright and dramaturge Guillermo Verdecchia, in part referring to and quoting from Dewdney’s text – is key to the coherence of this show. Rarely is speech employed so effectively in dance as it is in World After Dark, in the voiced-over narrations delivered offstage by Irene Pauzer and Dan Wild, and in short bits of spoken by the performers.

“Take a moment to let your eyes adjust (to the dark),” a narrator advises as the lights gradually come up on Linnea Swan, the personification of night. A goddess of darkness, she appears outfitted in designer Alexandra Lord’s black silky jumpsuit covered in shiny, spangly stars, as if she was wearing the night sky. Curled up on the floor in fetal position is Louis Laberge-Côté, our Everyman urbanite, as Swan takes us on the progress of night across the globe (courtesy of Elysha Poirier’s video projections on the upstage scrim). The night covers the Earth in darkness, as “dripping time passes . . . No trace of her is left on you.”

Aroused, agitated, Laberge-Côté voices a fragmented, disoriented shout of orders and numbers: “Six. . . Five . . .Rules . . . Sorry . . . This is the policy. . . I’m sorry . . . these are the parameters.” This is a desperate man, a bureaucrat trying to impose order, struggling against the darkness encroaching on him. Four figures in drab dungarees pull him down to the ground and remove him.

In the next scene, Ms. Night, relating the discovery of fire and the consequent light brought to early Earthlings, is our hostess at a disco bar or nightclub, where downtown workers seek the night to reinvent themselves, leaving behind their dreary occupations for more exciting identities on the dance floor. Syreeta Hector, Emily Law, Nikolaos Markakis and Kathia Wittenborn more or less depict themselves, as Swan continues her presentation. “Only losers will go to bed alone tonight,” she says.

And so it goes, with a voyage into the night forest in which our Everyman, fearful yet intrigued, recovers a connection to nocturnal creatures, including a mothlike being beautifully articulated in a solo by Wittenborn. There’s a brief sequence set to the text of Margaret Wise Brown’s famous children’s book, Goodnight Moon, and a beautiful monologue from Laberge-Côté about sneaking out of the house on summer nights to envelop himself in the darkness.

The choreography, with assistance from dance dramaturge Gerald Trentham and creative advisor Marie-Josée Chartier, is compellingly original, emerging organically from the story line and synched to John Gzowski’s haunting sound design, presented to advantage through Ken MacKenzie’s light and set design.

A huge creative effort went into the making of World After Dark and one only hopes it has a life beyond this premiere at Harbourfront Centre Theatre, perhaps in some dark sky preserve.

World After Dark

Concept, choreography and direction by Shannon Litzenberger

Harbourfront Centre Theatre, March 6 to 9, 2019, Toronto

Photo of Linnea Swan and Louis Laberge-Côté by Lyon Smith

A poignant love letter to a Vietnamese Mom

“I’m not Chinese. If I were Chinese I’d look a lot like this but less Vietnamese. . . My last name is “Nguyen” and not New Yen. Vietnamese is a tonal language. You need a special muscle to hit that “Ng” sound and that muscle is called “tolerance”.

With this bit of gentle confrontation, actor and comedian Franco Nguyen opens Good Morning, Viet Mom, playing now at Toronto’s Aki Studio in Daniels Spectrum. It is a very clever show, Nguyen holding his audience in his affectionate grip with a script he wrote himself.

First produced at the 2017 Toronto Fringe and the 2018 Next Stage Festival, Viet Mom is freshly mounted by Cahoots Theatre with a bigger production team. Director Byron Abalos has sharpened the edges of the show with choreographed movement by Andrea Mapili and Kevin Matthew Wong’s video and still projections, some displayed in a monitor shaped like a suitcase.

Good Morning Viet Mom is a love story. It came into being on a trip Nguyen, a Second City alumni and sketch comedy artist, made with his mother Dieu to Vietnam around 2012. It was his first time there, his mother’s return after 28 years, and the purpose was to visit Nguyen’s elderly grandmother.

Nguyen saw for the first time how much his mother had sacrificed for him after bringing her son, a babe in arms, to Canada. She worked in a factory in Toronto, generously sending money back home, even as her Winnipeg-born teenager – whose Vietnamese is too basic to really converse in a deep way with his mother – would be demanding a flashy pair of the newest Nikes. And getting them.

Viet Mom is Nguyen’s response to his loving, generous mother, saying in a poignant piece of theatre what he could not say in her language. The actor deploys his stand-up chops to describe frequent visits to Honest Ed’s, one-stop shopping for his mother, an emporium that looked like “a clown had sex with Dollarama.”

With self-deprecating humour, Nguyen tells of his coming of age as the son of an Asian immigrant, giving himself the hip-hop handle of Nip Dog. The laughs fall away as the performer segues to a tearful memory of profound gratitude when, as we see in his videos, Nguyen takes a journey of the heart to find out who his mother and his Vietnamese family really is.

This mom, just back from a visit with her journalist daughter in Hanoi, is grateful to have witnessed, through Canadian-Vietnamese eyes, all that a cross-cultural family can mean.

Good Morning Viet Mom

Written and performed by Franco Nguyen

A Cahoots Theatre Production

At Aki Studio, Daniels Spectrum, Toronto, until March 3, 2019

Photo of Franco Nguyen by Dahlia Katz

A bravura bear for our times

A one-man monologue, a song-and-dance routine, mime, performance art and, above all, storytelling, Bears has a unique charm that possibly only Sheldon Elter could realize.

This bear of a man of many talents is Floyd. Narrating his own tale in the third person, he identifies with the big grizzly bear, whose habitat in tar sands country is under threat. Floyd is accompanied by a chorus of seven fairy-like creatures – Shammy Belmore, Karina Cox, Skye Demas, Lara Ebata, Zoë Glassman, Gianna Vacirca and Kendra Shorter — who illustrate Floyd’s story, their words either echoing his thoughts or making a running commentary as they make like sleeping bears, butterflies, alpine flowers or prairie gophers.

There’s a lot going on in Bears, which earned MacKenzie several awards, including a Dora for Outstanding New Play. He wrote the play to reconnect with his family’s Métis, Cree and Ojibwe heritage on the North Saskatchewan River. He might have had Elter in mind as he wrote, for Bears displays elements common to Elter’s hit show Métis Mutt. A stand-up comedian, actor and very entertaining guy, Elter took us from laughter to tears in that intense performance, as he does in Bears.

Bears runs from high seriousness to banality to profanity, often within one or two sentences.  When Floyd muses about grizzlies, referring to “frolicking in alpine meadows,” then tranquilized, then reduced to art installations of “their shellacked bear droppings,” the chorus chimes in with “like, shitloads.” Elter plays his dual role well. One minute he’s an indigenous man complaining how “the Feds cut our funding” for a project. The next he’s a would-be bear ravaging the forest floor for wild strawberries or chatting with woodland chickadees.

The humour ranges from satire to farce. (The bear’s sense of smell is so good “he can tell which squirrels are menstruating.”)  The chorus also indicates mood, an assist to the audience, for the script can be confusing. Monica Dottor’s choreography is quite challenging for young performers who don’t appear to have had much dance training, but the dainty, shape-shifting choristers can be amusing.

Would that the playwright had made more of the role of Mama, played by fine Cree actor Tracey Nepinak, last seen at the Belfry in a revival of The Rez Sisters. She is the calm centre, and she’s especially moving when speaking in Cree. But for chunks of the 80-minute show she’s on stage with nothing to do.

Bring your imagination if you’re coming to see Bears, for it’s a thoughtful play that requires careful interpretation. T. Erin Gruber helps that process, having created a minimal set of shiny, reflective shapes like mountains and clouds that dramatically re-engineer the space with some brilliant lighting.

Beyond avalanches, desecration of the environment and a tale of a golden eagle drowned in a toxic tailings pond, there’s a home truth to convey, a statement that applies to all communities: “We must stand together for justice in this world.” Mama says so.

Photo of Sheldon Elter and chorus by David Cooper

Bears

By Matthew MacKenzie

An Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts and Punctuate! Theatre production

At the Belfry Theatre, Victoria, until February 24, 2019

The King redux

 

Let’s not look at all the ways a 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical misses the mark when measured against today’s views on imperialism, toxic masculinity and diversity. What can’t be challenged is the power of the music. This is what the producers at the Lincoln Center were counting on when they revived The King and I in 2015.

The show is an homage to the original stage and film production with Yul Brynner in the role of the petulant king and Gertrude Lawrence, then Deborah Kerr as the redoubtable Anna Leonowens. The book was based on the novel The King and I by Margaret Landon. It was inspired by a memoir by Leonowens, an Anglo-Indian teacher, recalling her time as governess to the children of the Siamese King Mongut in the 1860s.

Bartlett Sher, resident director at Lincoln Center, earned a Tony Award for best direction of a musical for this production and it’s easy to see why. While anyone trying to fill Yul Brynner’s curly-toed shoes has a tough job to do, Pedro Ka’awaloa’s “etcetera, etcetera, etcetera”s ring true. His stature is not as commanding as might be expected, but he nails the king as a case of arrested development who nevertheless had a desire to lead his country into modernity, if not reduce his absolute power. Ka’awaloa’s voice is not as strong as some of the others’, but he doesn’t have to sing much.

The women characters own this musical. Angela Baumgardner wears Anna Leonowens enormous hoop skirts very well, and has the voice, the hauteur and the love of children to make her governess come alive. She gets the opening number of the show, still on deck of the ship that is bringing Anna and her son Louis (Hayden Bercy) into Bangkok. “I Whistle a Happy Tune” is a full-throated anthem to female independence and courage, qualities that make The King and I a proto-feminist creation. Every woman here surmounts her straitened circumstances.

Paulina Yeung almost steals the show in the role of Tuptim, the slave girl gifted to the king of Siam by the king of Burma. She is secretly in love with Lun Tha, a scholar working in the palace on the design for a temple. Yeung’s rich, warm rendition of “My Lord and Master,” “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed” reveals her background as an opera singer.

Deanna Choi makes a dignified senior wife, Lady Thiang, especially singing “Something Wonderful.” She complements the unbridled playfulness of the royal children (a sampling of the king’s 67 offspring), delightfully portrayed in their topknots and purple silks by CJ Fernanado, Anjali Kanter, Kylie Kuioka, Linder Sutton, Kayla Teruel, Hiroko Uchino and Eliot Waldvogel.

Bern Tan takes on the part of the king’s righthand man/enforcer Kralahome and is suitably forceful, overshadowing the king when they occupy the same space. The role of British diplomat Sir Edward Ramsey is a placeholder for British imperialism and male dominance, but Stanton Morales is a good foil for the king and opens up the possibility that Anna has fallen in love with her king.

No sensible choreographer would mess with Jerome Robbins’s original choreography and Christopher Gattelli doesn’t. He enhances the lively production numbers with new moves and preserves the rollicking polka between king and governess, danced to the music of a nine-piece orchestra conducted by David Aaron Brown. This production of The King and I gets its dazzle from the Michael Yeargan’s economic, Buddhist-oriented set design and Catherine Zuber’s costumes, which so well illustrate the east-meets-west theme of the play.

Where this revival of The King and I excels is not in the reinforcement of identity politics but in its honouring of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s intent to show we are all the same under the skin.

The King and I

By Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

Directed by Bartlett Sher

Presented by Broadway in Victoria at the Royal Theatre, Victoria until January 6

Photo of Angela Baumgardner as Anna Leonowens with the royal children by Matthew Murphy

A journey to the past that keeps us in the present

A funny show about an unfunny subject. An interactive, very present performance about something that happened in the past. A talky, text-heavy show that relies on song, dance, video and mime to make its full impact.

All of these statements apply to We Keep Coming Back, which opened last week at Factory Theatre. In other words, easy to enjoy, even as the play explores some painful truths.

The performers and their equipment and props are sitting on stage as we enter the theatre. Funk music plays. Michael Rubenfeld performs as himself – it is virtually impossible to separate his acting from his actual, often explosive, behaviour. Michael is a Winnipeg-born Jew of Polish descent. He can act, dance, sing, do stand-up. Mary Berchard, an untrained actor, is his real mother and, it appears, is actually suffering poor health. As the lights go down, Michael and Mary tie a long, thick rope around their waists; it ties them together for the duration of We Keep Coming Back, even as one  performs while climbing a ladder or the other remakes her bed.

The third character on stage is Katka Reszke. She is a Polish-born U.S. resident, a writer, filmmaker, researcher, photographer – but not an actor. She tells her story, in Polish mostly (subtitles appear overhead) and performs it, all the while using a video camera that gives simultaneous footage of all the proceedings, projected on the blackboard behind the action. Also on stage at the side is stage manager Adam Barrett, operating a video camera on a tripod.

This is the essential plot: Michael Rubenfeld loves his mother but can’t stand being with her for very long. She feels the same way about him. But she needs some care at this point in her life. Mary, a daughter of holocaust survivors whose Polish family were mostly murdered by the Nazis, has a dream about Warsaw. Maybe she is ready to go to Poland and trace her family origins. Michael would like to go too, to find his roots. They make a contract. Katka is brought in as someone who can interpret Polish speakers for them, and document their encounters. She is also going to act as a buffer between mother and son.

Rubenfeld has another role: he’s the guy who steps to the front of the stage and addresses the audience about what’s going on. He introduces the participants, including his unseen collaborator, director Sarah Garton Stanley. He hands out bowls of his favourite Polish candies, which just happen to be named Michael. In a couple of other instances he polls the people in the seats about events on stage. “Whose trauma is worse?” he asks us, meaning his or Katka’s. We Keep Coming Back is not therapy (it may be that too); it’s pure entertainment, thought-provoking and joyful. From the moment when Rubenfeld draws a chalk outline around himself and his mother – she mimes that he’s made her too fat – through the long, once postponed, journey to Poland, to the villages where Mary’s father and mother came from, to the wedding of Rubenfeld and his Polish wife Magda and back to the Toronto stage, we are awed by, even amazed at  this multivalent performance.

We Keep Coming Back

Created by Michael Rubenfeld and Sarah Garton Stanley

Directed by Sarah Garton Stanley

At Factory Theatre, Toronto, until November 25

Photo of Michael Rubenfeld, Mary Berchard and Katka Reszke by Jeremy Mimnagh