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Fury: Life, love and loss on stage in Blyth

2 Aug

 

Fury at the Blyth Festival.

Fury at the Blyth Festival.

By Diva Shari Parsons

BLYTH – Though waves may crash, this play doesn’t.

Having never before attended any production of the Blyth Festival, I looked forward to the opening night performance of Fury, along with a girlfriend who had also never attended.

The Blyth Festival is summer theatre that celebrates original Canadian theatre. The professional productions are held in the cozy and comfortable theatre housed in the historic red brick Blyth Memorial Hall.

Fury is a thought-provoking and, in the end, heart-wrenching look at the effect of The Great Storm of 1913 on the lives of five different people from various walks of life in the Port of Goderich.

I found that the script, written by playwright Peter Smith, was intelligent, sensitive, witty and even humorous at times.

Jeff Irving did an excellent job playing the boyishly handsome Michael Grey, a young farmer from Carlow with a mischievous grin, a twinkle in his eye and a devil-may-care attitude.

Michael’s love interest, the slightly repressed yet opinionated Margaret Mackey, niece and ward of Judge Cassidy was given what I felt was a somewhat wooden performance by Rachel Cairns.

Comedic relief and camaraderie was wonderfully provided by Keith Barker in the character of somewhat simple-minded and kind-hearted Bernard Smoke, the offspring of an Aboriginal mother and a Scottish father. Bernard may seem simple, but his “mind roads” can lead him to some profound places.

David Fox was a very convincing autocratic Judge Cassidy. His speech and mannerisms exemplified the character of a crotchety old man who was more concerned about public appearance and his standing in the community than he was about his niece’s happiness. But he is hiding a painful past and his frosty reserve thaws slightly in the end.

The young and up-coming lawyer, David Cooper, was well portrayed by Jason Chesworth. David, who comes across as slightly, annoyingly, obsequious and ingratiating has struck a bargain with the Judge that will give David career advancement and increased standing in the community. Margaret is the unwilling pawn in this agreement.

The stage setting, designed by Ronnie Burkett, was simple but very effective. There were four separate sections constructed to resemble a wooden pier. These sections were moved around to create the various settings, including what I thought was an ingenious rowboat. A large structure in the background served as both the stone balcony of the Judge’s house and the bow of the ship, the Wexford. The effective use of lighting and sound created the necessary changes in atmosphere and mood. The storm scene upon the Wexford was particularly well done.

Fury literally explodes upon the scene, pops up unexpectedly in the audience, makes you think, makes you laugh and if you are sentimental like me, may even bring a tear to your eye. My girlfriend and I both really enjoyed it.

Fury runs until Sept. 12 at the Blyth Memorial Hall. Tickets are $30 & $34 for adults and $15 for youth. Tickets for preview performances are $22 & $26. Tickets may be purchased at the online box office; by phone at 519.523.9300 or 1.877.862.5984 during box office hours: non-performance days 9am-5pm, evening performance days 9am-9pm; in person at 423 Queen St., Blyth; or by mail with cheque or credit card information and including a $4 service fee to Blyth Festival, Box 10, Blyth ON, N0M 1H0

Snow White: The Panto – Happily ever after in Huron County

1 Aug
Jamie McKnight and Sarah Higgins in Snow White: The Panto in the 2015 Season. Photo by John Sharp.

Jamie McKnight and Sarah Higgins in Snow White: The Panto in the 2015 Season at Playhouse II. Photo by John Sharp.

By Diva Shari Parsons

GRAND BEND – If you like corn on the cob slathered with butter, then you will like this play – Corny with a capital “C” and slathered with silliness.

Having never attended a “panto” I did some research before setting off to see this production. Unlike the name may suggest, a panto is not made up of actors in white face going through strange silent routines. It is, in fact, a very British tradition of winter musical comedy theatre based (somewhat loosely) on well-known fairy-tales and children’s stories. A panto is filled with slapstick, Vaudeville routines, risqué innuendos, contemporary wise-cracks and, of course, lots of music, singing and dancing. It is also famous for its noisy and cheerful audience participation.

The opening night performance of Snow White: The Panto at Huron Country Playhouse fulfilled every one of those British panto traditions.

The scenery was painted to look like those wonderful illustrations in my childhood fairy-tale books. The staging, though simple with just painted backdrops and a prop or two, created the necessary atmosphere but also allowed for the maximum amount of movement – of which there is a lot!

As a person who enjoys history, fashion and fabrics, I greatly appreciated the design and detail of the costumes as well as the designer, Rachel Berchtold’s, decision to create costumes that are reminiscent of all those wonderful illustrations in our favourite childhood stories, but with the occasional modern flavour, such as glittery shirts for the dwarfs or maids uniforms reminiscent of early Hollywood musicals. I must confess to being somewhat envious of Queen Diabolica’s wardrobe – sassy and sexy  with form-fitting designs created using luxurious fabrics and lots of bling, although I don’t think it would look quite the same on me!

I was very interested to learn that the musical accompaniment was performed by a live band. The four musicians and Music Director Scott Christian  did a wonderful job performing a wide variety of musical styles from hip-hop, to Broadway, to R&B.

No musical would be complete without dance numbers and this play did not disappoint. Routines included tap dance, ballet, ballroom, jazz and hip-hop. Choreographer Gino Berti put together an absolutely brilliant routine that required precision timing on the part of the dancers or some serious whacking of heads and thwacking of shins would have taken place. A nice touch to a number of the dance routines was the inclusion of a troupe of 14 children   of various ages and sizes (extremely cute in animal pyjamas.)

The characters in the play were exaggerated versions of many of those we know and love. Snow White, played by Sarah Higgins was predictably sickeningly sweet while Prince Justin of Timberlake portrayed by Jamie McKnight was youthfully handsome, in a pale vampire kind of way.  Sexy Queen Diabolica, portrayed by Jackie Mustakas (who has great legs by the way), reminded me a bit of Bette Midler dressed for the Oscars. Cutie pa-tootie Tim Porter played the Queen’s hapless woodsman, Woody, with an almost perpetual grin on his face (made my cheeks ache) and restless energy in his movements. The portrayal of the dwarfs was both surprising and amazing. Stephanie Pitsiladis stood out as Grumpy, complete with Bronx accent, attitude and a voice that could fill a stadium.  Another favourite of mine, performed by two members of the Ensemble, was Prince Charming’s white horse , Avalanche, who had attitude, could tap dance and wouldn’t let anybody ride him.

While all the actors did a great job, hubby and my favourite character had to be buxom and flirty Nurse Tickle, who was brilliantly portrayed by Justin Bott. This continues one of the old British theatre traditions of having male actors play female parts.

While I am not sure that panto is exactly my cup of theatre tea, I did enjoy many aspects of the production and my hubby thoroughly enjoyed the entire production.

When you go to see this performance, be sure to bring your best booing, hissing, and cheering voices along with your waving, clapping hands because they are sure to be busy.

Snow White: The Panto runs to Aug. 29 at the Huron Country Playhouse II.

Tickets are $42 for adults and $25 for youth under 20 years of age. Tickets for preview performances and groups of 20 or more are $34. Tickets may be purchased online, in person at the Drayton Entertainment Box Offices, or by calling (519) 238-6000 or toll free 1-855-DRAYTON (372-9866).

I am telling my friends: Go cut Footloose!

27 Jul
Colin Sheen and Company in Footloose, 2015 Season. Photographer: Darlene O’Rourke.

Colin Sheen and Company in Footloose, 2015 Season. Photographer: Darlene O’Rourke.

By Diva Caroline Thuss

I am feeling a flashback after enjoying another stellar musical at the Huron Country Playhouse near Grand Bend yesterday.

From the neon coloured clothing, teased hair with scrunchies, acid washed jeans and large wads of chewing gum, the cast of Footloose: The Dance Musical in Sunday’s opening performance had me looking through old photos from my childhood and reminiscing about what growing up in the 1980s was like (even though I was very young when the original Footloose movie was released).

Having the pleasure of taking in several of the offerings so far this Drayton Entertainment season, I was excited at the opportunity to see another hit.  This time I was up in the balcony and I was pleasantly surprised by how good the view was. The rows were staggered so that even if the person in front of me shifted a lot in his seat it would not affect my view of the stage. Definitely worth considering getting tickets up there the next time.

As soon as the curtains open, the audience starts to feed off the high energy of the ensemble of “Footloose” and it allows us to get the feel for Colin Sheen as the defiant outsider, Ren McCormack. Sheen oozes talent (who can rollerskate like that anymore?) with his vocal talents, dance moves and looks the role of the teen heartthrob. I enjoyed Sheen as Gilbert and Danielle Wade as Anne in Anne of Green Gables earlier this season. The chemistry between Sheen and Danielle Wade, who plays Ariel, is evident in the pair’s rendition of “Almost Paradise” although my theatre companion thought it was a bit corny…that was the traditional love ballad of the ‘80s! Wade is able to portray the multiple sides of Ariel with ease and belts out one of my favourite tunes “Holding Out for a Hero” with passion.

I found that as good as Sheen and Wade are in their leading roles – and they are both excellent – my favourite scenes are the ones with Nick Settimi as Ren’s dancing challenged friend, Willard and Jade Repeta as Ariel’s friend, Rusty. The number of one-liners that Settimi delivers has the audience cheering for him and Repeta’s rendition of “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” had me dancing (and very quietly singing) along in my seat.

Director and choreographer Timothy French has put together a solid cast filled with amazing talent and backed by a great orchestra led by the incredibly talented Craig Fair. The ensemble was great as well with some very talented dancers. It was easy to hate David Cotton’s character of Chuck Cranston, Ariel’s abusive boyfriend. I was hoping that Ren would knock him out at several points.

Victor A. Young delivers a very moving performance as the Reverend Shaw Moore. In his song near the end of the show, “Heaven Help Me,” Young wrings every ounce of emotion out of it he can. Susan Gilmore as the Reverend’s wife, Vi, Rebecca Poff as Ren’s single mother, Ethel, and Wade come together beautifully for “Learning to be Silent”.

Once the cast kicks off their Sunday shoes for the finale, the audience was all up, clapping and dancing along with the ensemble. I can almost guarantee that you will leave the theatre dancing and singing too!

Footloose: The Dance Musical runs until August 8.

Tickets are $42 for adults and $25 for youth under 20 years of age. Tickets for preview performances and groups of 20 or more are $34. Tickets may be purchased online, in person at the Drayton Entertainment Box Offices, or by calling (519) 238-6000 or toll free 1-855-DRAYTON (372-9866).

Workshops explore working with fabric, textiles

16 Jul

blyth1419paintbrushesBy Diva Heather Boa

BLYTH -A blank canvas of burlap lay on the table. Surrounding it were small pots of coloured paint, a handful of brushes, bits of sponge and even a couple of toothbrushes.

Various painting techniques yield varying results.

Various painting techniques yield varying results.

“Do you do any fabric painting?” asked Jennifer Triemstra-Johnston, a university fashion and textile arts instructor who is leading two weeks of classes created for Blyth Arts & Cultural Initiative 14/19 Inc., an ambitious arts and culture endeavour taking root in this small community.

“No. I do absolutely nothing,” I replied, with a sense of déjà vu, recalling that just last month I stood in front of a canvas in an art shop, preparing to paint my first masterpiece.

And so we started at the very beginning, my painting companions and I. We each chose two colours of paint and began to experiment on a scrap of burlap. We dipped and dabbed, wetted and flicked, sponged and sponged again. We tried watery paint, viscous paint, and even spray paint. We took aim at our canvases with toothbrushes then ran our thumbs across the paint-laden bristles, drops of paint raining down on the fabric. We sprayed paint from bottles, sometimes finding a dud bottle that squirted paint to the left or right of where we aimed. We tinted and shades.

A trio of stencilled patterns  adorn a book bag.

A trio of stencilled patterns adorn a book bag.

While we played, Jennifer gently guided us through various fabric painting styles, sharing stories from her days as costume designer for the Blyth Festival and her experiences teaching. Conversation about careers, grandchildren, clothing and other topics in which strangers find common ground filled the moments when we weren’t engrossed in our projects.

When our burlap canvases were crowded with our experiments, we started again.

Lorraine Brophy, of Goderich, pulls back the stencil to reveal her handiwork.

Lorraine Brophy, of Goderich, pulls back the stencil to reveal her handiwork.

We played with store-bought stencils and patterned doilies, layering colours and experimenting with brushes, then carefully lifting the stencils, never knowing what the final results would be. We tried stamps in the shape of flowers and stars. We oohed and aahed at each other’s work, comparing styles and admiring techniques.

And for the finale, we each completed a project – a burlap book bag with a trio of red stencilled damask-like pattern for me and an apron adorned with stamps of pretty Dutch-blue flowers for my class companion.

I’m pretty proud of what we accomplished and plan to go back next week for a rug hooking class.

This diva tries her hand at stencilling.

This diva tries her hand at stencilling.

Other classes include fabric dyeing, pattern drafting, rug hooking, lace knitting, millinery and jewellery. There is also a sustainable fashion workshop that will involve a clothing swap and alteration and styling tips with sewing machines on hand for re-designing.

Prices range from $10 to $25 for a class or workshop, or $45 for a day pass or $100 for a weekly pass to unlimited classes. (Materials are extra).

There are also Open Artist Studios with experts on hand to answer questions and offer advice and demos. Open Artist Studios are free to anyone who wants to drop by and work on their own projects, continue working on projects started in class or just visit.

For a complete listing of classes, workshops and open studios and signup details, visit online.

 

 

Theatre so silly you have to roll with it

12 Jul
Lisa Justine Hood as, um, the balcony, Ben Van Osch as Juliet and Shawn Van Osch as Romeo. Photo courtesy of Devin Sturgeon.

Lisa Justine Hood as, um, the balcony, Ben Van Osch as Juliet and Shawn Van Osch as Romeo. Photo courtesy of Devin Sturgeon.


By Diva Heather Boa

GODERICH – If you’re looking for high-brow culture in summer theatre, then The Livery Theatre is probably not where you want to be.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for some well-over-the-top rollicking fun, then this is precisely the place to be, in order to catch a showing of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), directed by David Armour.

Relying on a script that gives the impression of being written by a pre-pubescent male for all its cheap sexual innuendos, cross-dressing and fixation on bodily functions (specifically, puking), the trio of actors – Lisa Justine Hood, Shawn Van Osch and Ben Van Osch – take to the stage with all the gusto of neighbourhood kids playing make-belief long into a summer’s evening.

I’ll tell you straight out that this play is uproariously funny if, and only if, you give in to its persistent silliness.

It might seem a little weird that Ben Van Osch really relishes his roles as Ophelia and Juliet, with massive wigs and long dresses, but then again, there was a time when women’s parts were exclusively played by men. And this is the season of community reunions where more than a few men will inevitably dress in skimpy women’s lingerie and plaster on makeup for shirt-tail parades. So best to just roll with it.

When you accept that its entirely appropriate for Ken and Barbie dolls, an inflatable dinosaur, a few lines from The Time Warp, and the Van Osch brothers’ mother to be woven into the production, then you’ll have a grand time.

In this play, the 37 or so tragedies, comedies and histories spun out during Shakespeare’s prolific career are turned into a series of quickies strung together over two hours. They are irreverent, raunchy and sometimes swollen with bad puns. Oh yeah, and definitely not appropriate for a young audience.

Last night, it was a very friendly audience. Perhaps a quarter of the people were related to the Van Osch brothers, and a number of producers and directors from other plays staged at The Livery were there.

You can still catch a performance of this play on July 16, 17 or 18, starting at 8 p.m. Tickets are available online or by calling 519-524-6262 on Thursday or Friday, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are $25 (adults), $22.50 (seniors) or $15 (youth). Livery Members: $20 (adults), $18 (seniors) or $15 (youth). Seating is by general admission.

The Wilberforce Hotel: History made relevant, accessible in world premiere

12 Jul
Sophia Walker as Milly Steward and Marcel Stewart as Austin Steward in Wilberforce Hotel. Photo by Terry Manzo for the Blyth Festival

Sophia Walker as Milly Steward and Marcel Stewart as Austin Steward in Wilberforce Hotel. Photo by Terry Manzo for the Blyth Festival

By Diva Danica Rush

The sounds of The Wilberforce Hotel are foreign to Blyth Festival audiences of today. Musical bones, shackle keys and clapping rocks harmonize with raw and spirited voices to create soul-aching melodies that never had a chance to root themselves into Ontario’s landscape.

A sense of familiar backdrops the little known story of the Wilberforce Hotel, a play wonderfully executed in its world premiere last week at the Blyth Festival.

You don’t need to know anything about the Wilberforce Colony to enjoy this production. From the moment it starts, the story is easily placed within Huron County’s history. The set and props are local textures – wooden tables, clay jugs, farming hoes – these are items that share heritage with the audience. Places discussed in this play are our soils – Birr, London, Lake Huron – we know these lands. The Wilberforce Hotel unites our local senses to a historical time period that we seldom see as connected to rural Ontario. And I have to say, seeing this play during a week where the American confederate flag was under scrutiny made me realize that no time or place is immune to political seasons, not even Huron County in the 1800s.

Playwriter Sean Dixon and Director Philip Akin excel in their work by bringing the autobiographical tale of Austin Steward to the stage to make this historical story accessible and relevant to local audiences. The characters of this play are identifiable yet complex. I image several couples went home from the play with different perspectives on the characters and stayed up late discussing them.

Austin Steward is the play’s moral compass, whose unwavering values can be frustrating at times. His wife, Milly, the only female character, is a strong woman whose love for her husband does not blind her to his flaws. For me as a woman and a partner, I felt Milly’s pain as she stood by her husband knowing she would draw a line in the sand at some point. Austin is a man whose struggles with purpose and pressures and is committed to faith and family. He’s so good that he simply can’t see the bad in others. The other major characters are easy to identify with too. Henry Hill, the wet blanket who doesn’t understand how he gets in or out of tense situations, and Robert Cole, a man of “leisure and corruption” whose hotel high jinx and brushes with the law would probably tire out any horse or woman he came across. Austin’s goodness is matched up against a fraud by the name of Israel Lewis, a toothy-grinning narcissist who dresses himself in popular fashion and politics. The actors should be commended for their ability to stay true to the many accents they take on during the show. At no point did a cartoon impersonation come out as they transitioned smoothly between Southern and European speech of that time period. Strong actors have the ability to show their characters’ nature and reflections beyond the script and this cast brings body to the characters’ words. A puffing of the chest, a toiling back, a memory flickers on someone’s face… you feel as if you are sitting at a table at the Wilberforce Hotel pretending not to be listening to the men.

The audience laughed alongside Milly and men’s banter, and grew silent during darker speeches. The standing ovation at the end was well deserved. As soon as I got home I did Internet searches on the Wilberforce Colony, as I just needed to know and understand more about this piece of local history.

The Wilberforce Hotel will definitely entertain you. This play lingers with you in the corner of your mind for days afterwards, as you slowly realize that those familiar textures and lands hold stories that haven’t been given breath yet. If you open yourself up to truths that lie between histories and art this play will, to paraphrase Austin Steward, show us to ourselves.


 

The Wilberforce Hotel runs until Aug. 8.

Blyth Festival Box Office

Location: 423 Queen St., Blyth

Phone: 519-523-9600

Hours: Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on show nights)

Website: www.blythfestival.com

Tickets: Adults: regular $30, preferred $34; Preview: regular $22, preferred $26; Youth: regular $15, preferred $15.

Chicago brings “all that jazz” and more to Huron Country Playhouse

8 Jul
Jodi McFadden and Company in Chicago, 2015 Season.Photographer: Hilary Gauld-Camilleri.

Jodi McFadden and Company in Chicago, 2015 Season. Photographer: Hilary Gauld-Camilleri.

By Diva Caroline Thuss

As the lights dim in the theatre, I know that my husband is in for an interesting experience, as he has no background knowledge (other than the quick Cole’s notes version I gave in the car ride to Grand Bend) about the iconic Broadway sensation Chicago.

Boy, was I right.

The opening night of Drayton Entertainment’s Chicago at the Huron Country Playhouse had the audience captured from the start. Lots of long legs, toned abs and barely-there costumes along with amazing musically talented ensemble definitely grab the attention of all in the theatre. This is not a show for young children!

The darker, sultry side of life in the 1920s Chicago comes alive through edgy dancing, strong musical numbers and humour as the cast razzle dazzles its way through the story of the two divas, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, who vie for the spotlight in Cook County Jail after doing away with their cheating lovers. Both Jodi McFadden (Velma) and Jayme Armstrong’s (Roxie) powerful voices demand the audience’s attention from the moment they start singing.

It is hard not to find a soft spot in your heart for Geoffrey Whynot’s Amos, Roxie’s hapless husband, who just wants to be seen but can never catch up to the spotlight. His rendition of Mr. Cellophane captures the sympathy of the audience, as Amos is just pathetic.

Dean Hollin portrayed the sly lawyer Billy Flynn and made me hate how slimy and sleazy his character was but done in such a smooth way. Valerie Boyle gets the audience going as Mama Morton after her opening song “When You’re Good to Mama” that had us cheering for her and her powerful vocals.

HCPgazeboMy husband and I enjoyed some salted caramel ice cream bars during the intermission under the new, large gazebo that has been recently built on the front lawn. It was great to overhear conversations from other viewers about what they thought so far. Many talked about the athletic ability of the ensemble and the vocal talents of the whole cast. Others discussed the costumes (mostly the men) who seemed to be pleased that their wives and significant others brought them to the Huron Country Playhouse.

R. Markus as Mary Sunshine’s operatic voice could possibly shatter glass. I loved the shocker that comes from the character at the end!

The ensemble is simply mind blowing. It demonstrates beauty and strength in its dance routines, and is definitely not hard on the eyes, thanks to Ivan Brozic edgy costume designs that leave little to the imagination. This ensemble is full of talent as its members, especially the men, take on many roles throughout the performance. The murderesses’ “Cell Block Tango” is a favourite of mine along with their performance alongside McFadden in the opening number “All that Jazz”.

I loved the two-storey jailhouse set design that allowed for a very smooth transition between scenes and the orchestra being moved to the second level of the jailhouse just within view.

Director and choreographer Mike Jackson has a hit with Chicago. Alex Mustakas, the artistic director of Drayton Entertainment, calls Chicago “…the hottest ticket in town this summer” and both my husband and I agree! As we walked to the car, my husband was humming “All that Jazz” and was discussing how many of his friends would enjoy seeing it.

The Playhouse was packed on opening night and I am sure tickets will be limited so I would suggest clearing an afternoon or evening in your calendar to catch this show before it’s gone.

Chicago runs until July 18.

Tickets are $42 for adults and $25 for youth under 20 years of age. Tickets for preview performances and groups of 20 or more are $34. Tickets may be purchased online, in person at the Drayton Entertainment Box Offices, or by calling (519) 238-6000 or toll free 1-855-DRAYTON (372-9866).

 

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