We're still a few weeks away from Mother's Day, and further still from Father's Day, but several recently opened shows in and around Toronto will make you want to hug your parents extra tightly the next time you see them. (Or at least think of them fondly.)
The most moving of the bunch is Johnny Reid, Matt Murray and Bob Foster's Maggie: A New Musical (Rating: ✭✭✭), about the enduring love of a hard-working Lanark, Scotland cleaning lady (Dharma Bizier) who raises her three sons on her own after her husband is killed in a mining accident.
Times are tough in the depressed town – the musical begins in the mid-1950s – and there aren't many opportunities for her boys Shug (Lawrence Libor), an aspiring musician, and Tommy (William Lincoln), who dreams of being a footballer. Maggie is determined, however, to send the family's brightest, Wee Jimmy (Aidan Burke), to university so he can become an engineer.
Maggie's flamboyant and fearless brother-in-law, Charles (Jeremy Legat), meanwhile, also feels stifled in this cramped place.
As the years go on, with characters conveniently telling us how much time has elapsed ("Well that was 14 years ago, now wasn't it?"), we witness societal changes: the flare-ups between Protestants and Catholics, the massive migration to North America and, most vividly, the change in women's roles.
The musical is at its best when it shows us a group of women tirelessly doing chores in front of the intentionally drab tenements (set design is by Ken MacDonald), looking out for their kids and supporting each other through spousal abuse, feminist enlightenment and tragedy.
As a portrait of a loving, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth matriarch, Maggie succeeds admirably; it would be hard to remain unmoved by a series of heartstring-pulling songs in the second act, especially when sung by the powerhouse Bizier. And there are some rousing and effective ensemble numbers throughout.
But stoicism isn't an easy thing to illustrate or dramatize onstage, and the show suffers from the fact that there's no clear antagonist. Also, many things – from Samantha McCue's costumes for Maggie's sons when they're younger to much of the book and some lyrics – simply lack subtlety.
Some bits of the book and direction (by Mary Francis Moore) are confusing; when Maggie's husband, Big Jimmy (Jay Davis), is killed early on in the mines, we've seen several miners emerge already, unperturbed – did none of them hear the news? And some aging makeup would have made Maggie's later years more convincing.
Still, Maggie: A New Musical has a big, generous heart. And it's a terrific vehicle for some stirring, soulful songs and talented performers.
Maggie: A New Musical runs until May 6 at Theatre Aquarius (190 King William, Hamilton). See info here.
Unfinished paint job
After being separated from him for 25 years, a depressed woman suddenly hears from the father who abandoned her in Chelsey Woolley's Paint Me This House of Love (Rating: ✭✭), a thin two-act play that needs more than a couple of coats of paint to make it shine. Another draft or two might help.
Initially Woolley has Cecilia (Jessica B. Hill) and Jules (Jeremiah Sparks) talk in fragments, perhaps suggesting things they can't articulate – or aren't comfortable saying – directly to each other. But this soon becomes tiresome, since they're talking around things, and we never learn enough about either one to care about what's not being said.
In another scene, Cecilia's mother, Rhondi (Tanja Jacobs), is more forthcoming – and she speaks in complete, often very funny and direct, sentences. She also tells Cecilia things that shed light on her first husband Jules's life. Which leads to a drawn-out and more melodramatic second act in which Cecilia confronts her father and (no surprise) exhibits some of the same behaviour she's learned from him.
On Ken MacDonald's set, a believably run-down apartment and a metaphor for Cecilia's life, Mike Payette directs all three actors to be present and spontaneous. It's too bad all three seem to be plucked from different plays.
Paint Me This House of Love continues at the Tarragon ExtraSpace (30 Bridgman) until May 7. See info here.
Revealing rez rom-com
Like its central character, Lenna Little (Theresa Cutknife), it takes a while for Joelle Peters's Niizh (Rating: ✭✭✭) to find its way. But once it does it becomes an emotionally resonant and funny look at loss, healing and forgiveness.
Lenna is looking forward to leaving the rez to attend university – a first for her family, which consists of her father, Billy (Jason McDonald), and her brother Jay (Aren Okemaysim), who have barely spoken to each other since the departure of the children's mother years earlier. Lenna has become the de facto caretaker, helping out at the family store and cleaning up after everyone. She can't wait to get out.
But when her friendly neighbour KC (PJ Prudat) opens her home to her nephew, Sam (Kole Durnford), who's around Lenna's age and visiting from school, life suddenly gets more interesting and she begins to wonder if maybe the rez isn't so bad after all.
Director desirée laverenz brings lots of charm to Peters's script, which extends to the pre-show – if you get to the theatre early enough you can play bingo to some kickass recorded music!
While most of the production is as naturalistic as Nancy Perrin's set – there's occasionally a bit of confusion about what time of day it is – some sequences, featuring projections by designer Hailey Verbonac, plunge us into a fascinating world of dreams and symbols.
The actors are very good, especially Prudat as a warm and sympathetic auntie figure, and McDonald, whose gruff orders and pronouncements feel authentic. Some of Cutknife and Durnford's social fumblings feel forced and repetitive, especially early on. But as the show progresses they settle into more comfortable, and less contrived, rhythms.
What's most satisfying is how many themes Peters layers into the script – including the loss of Indigenous language and culture, the fear of failure of those embarking on something new and, most poignantly, the shame and anger around abandonment.
The play's best scene comes near the end when Lenna confronts her father about the past. The result is cathartic and deeply moving.
Produced by Native Earth Performing Arts, Niizh continues at the Aki Studio Theatre (585 Dundas East) until April 30. See info here.
A Number (Rating: ✭✭✭), Caryl Churchill's look at the ethical, philosophical and psychological implications of cloning, has the potential to be thoughtful and riveting theatre. And director Severn Thompson's production certainly plays at times like a thriller. But something's missing to make it feel like more than a live episode of Netflix's Black Mirror.
It consists of a series of one-on-one scenes between a father (Jim Mezon) and his sons (Craig Pike) who, as part of a cloning experiment, all share the same DNA. I won't spoil the plot by revealing the nature of the sons – part of the experience of the show is picking up on that – but I will say that the actor who performs them has the opportunity to create characters who might look the same but are vastly different. (Daniel Craig originated the role at London's Royal Court Theatre, and Shawn Doyle performed it here for Canadian Stage.)
Alas Pike, the founder of Craig's Cookies and also the new indie company producing the play, That Theatre Company, isn't quite up to the massive challenge. Acting, as we all know, is largely about listening and reacting. In the first scene, Pike seems only too ready to spurt out his dialogue without thinking much about it. He's better in the second scene, creating a sense of brooding, hulking menace.
Shaw veteran Mezon is superb as the father, whose motivations and desires we are constantly trying to figure out. Quietly manipulative, he's a much more sinister figure than he at first appears, and Mezon lets you see layers of guilt, regret, self-preservation and anger bubble up in the man.
It's a shame about the show's acoustics. Set designer Steve Lucas has tried to create an intimate, square playing area by providing thick, opaque plastic sheets for "walls," but the venue's ceiling is so high that much of the dialogue sounds echoey. I don't think this was intended.
That said, one of those plastic walls provides a decent backdrop for a video projection that appears twice in the show, underscored by Lou Reed's "It's A Perfect Day."
Like the cloning experiment, this production is far from perfect. But I look forward to seeing what this new company does next.
A Number continues at St. Anne's Centre (651 Dufferin) until May 7. See info here.
Cirque du Soleil may have changed the location of its Big Top from Ontario Place to the west end (2150 Lake Shore Blvd), but that's pretty much the only big change, at least upon viewing Kooza (Rating: ✭✭✭✭).
There's a reason why this touring production, here until the middle of June and then touching down in Calgary and Vancouver later this year, is a fan-favourite.
It features some of the company's most iconic acts, like the contortion sequence (pictured above), which will make you think its nimble performers are part crustacean, and a chair balancing act that feels like you're watching an Olympic gymnast balance himself on an enormous, about-to-topple-over Jenga tower.
I'm a little disappointed that the show no longer features the magnificent Cyr wheel (partly because I just love saying "Cyr wheel"). But the double highwire act, the show-closing Teeterboard sequence and some marvellous costumes and choreography – particularly in the Mexican-inspired Skeleton Dance – more than make up for that loss.
The clown work is varied and amusing, the songs are catchy and the show's set-up, involving a character named the "Innocent" and a whirling-dervish figure named the "Trickster," is suitably enchanting.
But Kooza's big show-stopper remains the Wheel of Death, a completely original contraption that seems like something you're not supposed to do at an amusement ride. The act starts out slowly and logically, but its danger factor keeps escalating until you're worried its two performers will fall and get mangled in the ever-moving machinery below.
I've seen the act a couple of times, and I'm never not terrified – and wowed. It's nice to know some things never change.
Kooza continues at the Big Top (2150 Lake Shore Blvd) until June 18. See info here.
I'm several chapters deep into True West: Sam Shepard's Life, Work, and Times, Robert Greenfield's just-published biography of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated actor (Crown, 435 pages, cloth, $41).
At this point, Shepard has just begun to make a name for himself Off-Off-Broadway with a double-bill of bold, game-changing one-acts (Cowboys and The Rock Garden). He was also part of a punk band. He's about to collaborate with the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni on the film Zabriskie Point, which will then bring him into contact with the Rolling Stones to work on a never-completed film. He hasn't yet met Bob Dylan, but their paths must have crossed while Shepard was bussing tables at the Village Gate. And his relationship with Patti Smith is still a couple of years in the future. Those early years are fascinating.
I'm giving away three copies of the book, courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada. To win one, answer the following question: What Shepard play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama?
Send answers to SoSumiContact@gmail.com, with True West Contest in the subject heading. Entrants must be subscribed to So Sumi (free or paid) and must have a mailing address in Canada. The deadline is Wednesday, April 26 at 11:59 pm (ET). Three correct entries will be randomly chosen and the winners will be contacted by email.