A bold new family drama and three iconic singers: this week in Toronto theatre

Reviews of Paolo Santalucia's Prodigal, the diva-fest Billie, Sarah, and Ella and The Darkest Dark

A bold new family drama and three iconic singers: this week in Toronto theatre
Dan Mousseau (right) delivers a startling performance in Prodigal, also starring Michael Ayres. Photo by Dahlia Katz

This post is sponsored by the CBC podcast PlayME, which just dropped its audio drama version of David Paquet's Wildfire, beautifully translated by Leanna Brodie, on Monday. It's available wherever you get your podcasts. (More info below.)

Prodigal packs a powerful punch

If Edward Albee were a contemporary millennial playwright, openly queer and living in Toronto, he might have penned something like Prodigal (Rating: ✭✭✭✭), an audacious, serious and hugely entertaining new work receiving its world premiere in a Howland Co. production in association with Crow's Theatre.

Paolo Santalucia, who also directs, obviously knows his Albee... and his O'Neill... and his Letts. But he's crafted something that feels new, bold and fresh. Even though it just premiered, Prodigal already feels like a classic.

✅ = Critic's pick / ✭ or ✭✭ = didn't work for me / ✭✭✭ = recommended / ✭✭✭✭ = excellent / ✭✭✭✭✭ = outstanding, among best of the year

In the kitchen of the stately Toronto home (Rosedale? Forest Hill?) of an established family, we watch as a chef named Pauline (Meghan Swaby) and her entrepreneur husband Quentin (Jeff Yung) prepare and plate dishes, before taking them into the unseen dining room to gasps of understated, WASP delight. Also present is Simone (Shauna Thompson), who's the assistant of the family patriarch, Rowan Clark (Rick Roberts), a figure who will remain offstage for a little while yet.

It's significant that our first glimpse into this rarefied world is through the kitchen, and from the perspective of three non-white characters. These are the people who have the least power and resources in this milieu, although they may just use whatever means they have to achieve it later.

Santalucia understands that in order to become absorbed in a story, an audience needs to do some work. Gradually, after watching brief visits into the kitchen from the privileged inner sanctum, who are celebrating something (an upcoming wedding, it turns out), we will piece together who is who, what is going on and, more importantly, what's not being said, who's not there at the celebration – and why.

Veronica Hortiguela (left) and Meghan Swaby navigate power dynamics. Photo by Dahlia Katz

An act that takes place in this first scene – which is played mostly for satire, of The White Lotus variety – will be resolved by the end. But it also comments on the main story about the return of the Clark clan's prodigal son, played here by Dan Mousseau with twitchy, neurotic perfection.

I'm being intentionally vague about the narrative because Santalucia has carefully crafted his play, and I don't want to spoil anything. But there are coincidences, confrontations, revelations and, eventually, some form of catharsis. Most of the people in this world are unlikeable, but there's room for redemption – and, as a preacher character (Thompson) suggests at the beginnings of both acts – if not redemption, then perhaps forgiveness.

The cast is uniformly fine, with veterans Roberts and Nancy Palk convincing with every passive-aggressive utterance; what they know and don't know about the others' secrets remains one of the play's chief mysteries, and neither tips his or her hand.

Dan Mousseau (left), Cameron Laurie and Rick Roberts

Hallie Seline and Cameron Laurie play siblings whose hatred of each other is equal parts tragedy and comedy. And Swaby and Yung go through their own mini crisis with their dignity and principles intact – at least for now.

A parallel narrative involving Simone and her brother Levi (Michael Ayres) is the least effective part of the play; the resolution also could use finessing. I wonder if Santalucia could develop both further. Veronica Hortiguela plays an outsider character with such original yet authentic line readings that each utterance earns a laugh.

And Mousseau's Edmund seethes with self-loathing, entitlement and insight into his fucked up family; the actor delivers a performance that goes so deep it's almost frightening to witness.

The design elements – Mark Hockin's elegant, deceptively perfect set, Laura Delchiaro's character-appropriate costumes, Logan Raju Cracknell's moody lighting and Jacob Lin's atmospheric sound – are essential to the play's effectiveness.

Don't miss it.

Prodigal continues at Crow's Theatre (345 Carlaw) until March 12. See info here

See what else is currently playing in So Sumi's Toronto Theatre Listings
Renée Rowe is spectacular as Sarah Vaughan. Courtesy of Soulpepper

Ladies sing the blues

Soulpepper's concert series of shows have always drawn big audiences; and their latest, Billie, Sarah, and Ella: Revolutionary Women in Jazz (Rating: ✭✭✭), is no exception. People are packing the theatre to hear about the lives and revisit the music of legendary singers Billie Holiday (Divine Brown), Sarah Vaughan (Renée Rowe), and Ella Fitzgerald (Shakura Dickson).

✅ = Critic's pick / ✭ or ✭✭ = didn't work for me / ✭✭✭ = recommended / ✭✭✭✭ = excellent / ✭✭✭✭✭ = outstanding, among best of the year

Unfortunately, the script – also by Brown – is riddled with cliché, and the fine actor Akosua Amo-Adem is tasked with trying to make the fragmented facts and impressions sound like more than a warmed-over A&E doc narration. In addition to some bits of trivia, the script's highlight is Amo-Adem's narration of a brief history of jazz in under two minutes (there's even a counting down clock).

Brown delivers a fine interpretation of a few of Lady Day's songs, evoking the quavering, fragile quality of Holiday's voice, although her version of Strange Fruit near the end feels affected and overdone. Dickson sounds (and looks) nothing like Fitzgerald but she has a lively demeanour, especially in a note-by-note recreation of the singer's famous recording in Berlin in which she forgot the lyrics to Mack the Knife and made up her own.

But the standout performer is Rowe, who's got power and charisma and knows how to shape a song for full emotional and musical effect. The accompanying band, at least on opening night, seemed underrehearsed in some numbers, although there's one spectacular piano solo that, combined with Brown/Holiday's performance, brings "Don't Explain" to exuberant life.

Billie, Sarah, and Ella has been extended until March 12 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. See more info here.

Hannah Forest Briand (left), Xavier Lopez and Ziska Louis light up The Darkest Dark. Photo by Dahlia Katz

Illuminating The Darkest Dark

If you're looking for my review of The Darkest Dark, Jim Millan and Ian McIntyre's adaptation of the Chris Hadfield children's book (written with Kate Fillion), it was published earlier this week in the Globe and Mail. The show continues at Young People's Theatre until April 2. See info here.

Zorana Sadiq (left), Soo Garay and Paul Dunn record the CBC PlayME version of Wildfire back in January. Photo by Chris Tolley

Wildfire rekindles at CBC PlayME

Wildfire, written by Montreal playwright David Paquet and translated by Leanna Brodie, was one of the most acclaimed plays of 2022. It made my Top 10 Toronto theatre productions list, and also made it onto the collectively-written Toronto Star list, Christopher Hoile's Stage Door list and Paula Citron's LudwigVanToronto list. In addition, Wildfire took home three major Dora Mavor Moore Awards: best production, best new play and best direction (for Soheil Parsa).

Now the acclaimed play is available as an audio drama thanks to CBC PlayME's podcast. It features the original Factory Theatre cast – Soo Garay, Paul Dunn and Zorana Sadiq – and works very well in this medium. I especially like how the use of sound – staticky phone calls, rattling cages, munching cookies – helps bring the first section, about tragic triplets Claudette, Claudine and Claudia to life. There's a real intimacy to the second section, in which young misfits Callum and Carol meet and form a bond. And the final, sensually poetic section works as a terrific, haunting monologue.

You can listen to the podcast here or find it where you listen to your podcasts.

And next Monday (March 6), the show will upload an interview between PlayME's co-host/producer Laura Mullen, playwright Paquet and translator Brodie. Paquet discusses how he discovers his characters, geneology, Greek tragedy and his love of people on the margins. Brodie talks about having seen several productions of Wildfire and hearing audiences in the first few minutes wonder if it's okay to laugh at the dark things. Brodie, who's an actor and playwright herself, also explains what it's like to translate something – she calls herself an "interpreter," in the same way an actor in a play is an interpreter.

The two discuss how the characters' sense of loneliness and isolation resonated with audiences during the pandemic. And they've got intriguing things to say about what it means to be a writer today. They're both articulate, engaging and amusing, providing a perfect complement to this fascinating play.

See what else is currently playing in So Sumi's Toronto Theatre Listings