Three Must-See Plays in Toronto This Week

Prince Hamlet


On stage till April 29 at the Theatre Centre. General admission seating, pay what you can afford ($5, $25, $50, $75). Buy tickets online.

The most visceral, emotionally powerful take on Shakespeare I’ve ever experienced, Ravi Jain’s ASL/English production Prince Hamlet is a must see. The stark set design compels us to keep our gaze fixed on the actors, and the dynamism of their movement through the space. The piles of dirt around the stage provide opportunities for fraught, highly symbolic engagement by the actors, and the mirrors on the far wall create moments of self-reflection done very well, as characters like Claudius and Hamlet deliver monologues not to the audience but to themselves.

The key to this play’s success in my view lies in the masterful performance by Dawn Jani Birley who plays Horatio. Tasked with telling Hamlet’s story after his death, Horatio narrates the events of the play in ASL. Birley also interprets much of the spoken dialogue into ASL, yet remains present in the scene, her gestures conveying emotions writ large. Birley’s performance is most powerful when she’s alone on stage, either signing a speech before another character delivers a monologue, or delivering her own monologue as Horatio. The scene where she narrates Ophelia’s death is heartbreaking, and the final scene of the play, where Horatio dissembles with grief at Hamlet’s death is beyond words. I try to write in more detail about the experience on this blog, but really, that final scene just about broke me. I’m usually too self-conscious to give a standing ovation when I’m as close to the stage as I was at Prince Hamlet (second row), but this performance brought me to my feet. It was incredible.

Banana Boys

Banana Boys

On stage till May 14 at Factory Theatre. General admission seating, Tickets $25, $20 for seniors, students and arts workers. Buy tickets online.

Raw, irreverent and surprisingly poignant at times, Banana Boys is a brash take on Asian-Canadian masculinity. The title is from a derogatory term to describe someone “yellow on the outside and white on the inside,” and the play tells the story of five Asian-Canadian men who are exploring their identities and navigating adulthood.

The story begins at the funeral of one of the men, Rick (Jeff Yung), a wealthy consultant who lived with drug addiction and the ability to time travel, and who was found with a mirror in his chest. The time traveling conceit sets the stage for a frenzied series of vignettes from the characters’ lives, as Rick pops in and out of various time periods in an attempt to find some potential for posterity.

For a show about death and drugs, it’s remarkably hilarious. I particularly loved a game show scene that mimicked the cheesy variety show formats on Asian TV, and Matthew Gin as Mike had to choose from four “acceptable” career options as his mother cheered in the background. Another favourite scene was a guerrilla warfare sequence where the characters were confronted with the landscape of being a “banana boy”, such as that white guys get girls from various backgrounds and banana boys are left with video games and bubble tea.

At other times, the play is in-your-face about its darker themes. For example, Oliver Koomsatira as Dave narrates an incident of racial violence from the stage, and his cast mates walk into the audience, look audience members in the eye and show images from the story on their phone screens. It was uncomfortable, and consciously so; we as audience members are forced to confront the reality that Dave had lived through. Dave struggled with anger management issues throughout the play, beating up white characters for real and perceived racial slights, and his anger becomes a constant reminder of the microaggressions Asian-Canadians face daily, and how all of that adds up inside you.

Banana Boys is raw and powerful and the staging is absolutely masterful. See it.

Little Pretty and the Exceptional


On stage till April 30 at Factory Theatre. General admission seating, Tickets $45, $30 for seniors, students and arts workers. Buy tickets online.

A Punjabi-Canadian man and his two daughters prepare to open up a sari shop in Toronto as the elder daughter Simran (Farah Merani) deals with mental health issues. I came into this play expecting a family comedy along the lines of Kim’s Convenience, and wasn’t prepared for how harrowing an experience this play would become. The play plunges us directly into Simran’s psyche, beginning with her stressing out over LSATs, and Merani is a tightly coiled spring, jittery and awaiting the slightest touch to explode. Later, she channels her long-deceased mother and walks around the store as lights flicker and sounds come from speakers and it’s just an overwhelming, utterly terrifying scene. I almost clutched the arm of the friend who watched the play with me, and had to remind myself this was fiction, so real did this scene feel. All kudos to Merani for her performance, as I can only imagine how tiring, how emotionally draining it must be to play this part day in and day out; I was exhausted just watching what she went through.

The performance standout for me however was Shruti Kothari as younger sister Jasmeet. Some online reviews have called her “effervescent”, and it’s true — she lights up the stage with her quest to become prom queen and her rom com scenes with new boyfriend Iyar (Shelly Antony). But as the story goes on, we realize there’s a strained cheerfulness to Jasmeet’s demeanour, a determination to remain positive and keep her family living as normal a life as possible. For all her love for her sister, she is the last to allow herself to admit that Simran needs help, and for all her desire to keep her family happy, she also harbours major unresolved issues about her mother. The play’s program calls her “the typical hip Toronto teenager”, which I think is a disservice, as to my mind, she gave the most nuanced performance and her character showed the most growth within the story.

Shelly Antony as Iyar is hilarious and charming, but more importantly, as the only character outside the family, he provides perspective and sees things before the family members allow themselves to acknowledge. He’s most fun as comic relief, but when he gets serious, you realize how wonderful he is as a boyfriend, and how much more he is than just the perfect prom king beside Jasmeet’s queen.

Sugith Varughese is fantastic as Dilpreet, the father whose dreams of a new life in Canada are inextricably intertwined with his dreams of creating a family legacy for his children. Dilpreet provides a much needed reality check; while Simran struggles with stress and Jasmeet turns a blind eye to the possibility that things are less than perfect, Dilpreet must keep the family going. He continues with the sari store because he needs to pay the bills. He has to confront his guilt over his wife’s death because he needs to help his daughters. Varughese imbues the character with humour and charisma, and serves as a wonderful foil for both daughters.

This isn’t an easy play to watch, but if you do, prepare to be moved.


Fun fact: I actually learned of these plays from each other. A friend invited me to see Little Prettyand in the programme I saw a promo for Banana Boys, and when I watched Banana Boys, there was a flyer in the lobby for Prince Hamlet. So many thanks to my friend Tina who started me on this whole series in the first place!

Theatre Review | The Motherfucker with the Hat

I’d recently read Fr. James Martin’s A Jesuit Off-Broadwayan account of his time as theological advisor to Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play The Last Days of Judas IscariotThe book included excerpts from Guirgis’ play, and while the story certainly seemed compelling, much is lost seeing Guirgis’ words only on the page.

10342925_594387707339778_8339064364632971756_nFortunately, Bob Kills Theatre has just brought another Guirgis play to Toronto – The Motherfucker with the Hat. Coyly termed “the play that dares not speak its name” by the New York Times, Hat is loud, crude, in your face, and absolutely electrifying. The production in Toronto is at The Coal Mine, a new theatre at Pape and Danforth (Hat is their first production). The Coal Mine is an intimate space — two rows of viewers line the walls, and the set is right in the centre of the room. It’s the perfect setting for Guirgis’ intensely personal narrative. We can’t help but get sucked into the characters’ lives, and every nuance of emotion is visible to the entire audience.

The story follows recovering addict Jackie (Sergio di Zio), who has recently been released from prison, and his girlfriend Veronica (Melissa D’Agostino). As the play begins, Jackie comes home thrilled at having landed a job at FedEx, and is about to celebrate with Veronica when he finds another man’s hat in their apartment. He accuses Veronica of cheating on him, and turns to his AA sponsor Ralph (Ted Dykstra) for advice.

The play is hilarious, but with a definite edge. There’s an underlying sense of bitterness beneath the punchlines. At one point, Jackie screams, “I’m in pain!” and that pain just seeps through, not just from Jackie, but from all the other characters as well. Above all else, the play feels raw — the characters are all wounded in one way or another, and particularly in such an intimate venue as The Coal Mine, the audience can almost feel them bleed.

Guirgis’ genius is in the truth that reverberates throughout his words. In one scene, Ralph points out that friends are made before you’re 25 — any “friend” made after that age is merely an associate, because “friends are for the playground.” I don’t know if I completely agree, but I can certainly remember feeling that way. The sentiment rings true. Yet contrasted with that disillusionment is also a sense of hope. In one of my favourite lines in the play, Jackie says, “Your – whaddyacallit – your world view? It ain’t mine. And the day it is, that’s the day I shoot myself in the head. I didn’t get clean to live like that.” 

As the naive, almost child-like Jackie, Sergio di Zio’s performance just about broke my heart. The moment in the first scene when he discovers that Veronica may have been unfaithful, his face just falls, and you can feel the jubilation about his new job gradually draining away as realization dawns. And that final scene — I won’t give any spoilers away, but really, with that look on his face, I just wanted to give him a hug.

All the performances were really strong, but Juan Chioran as Jackie’s cousin Julio stole the show. I last saw (and loved) him as the Emcee in Shaw Festival’s Cabaret, where he pretty much dominated the stage with each of his songs — in the much smaller Coal Mine, he seemed even larger than life. As an empanada-making, kung fu fighting cousin with solid advice and a heart of gold, Julio stands out in contrast to the more fucked up characters in the cast. Chioran revels in the character’s exuberance, yet also imbues him with pathos that somehow seems much deeper than Jackie’s more overt emotion. “I’m only doing this for your mother,” Julio warns Jackie, admitting he doesn’t like Jackie very much. Yet later on, when Jackie’s world falls apart and he goes to confront the man he believes is sleeping with his girlfriend, Julio is the one who stops him, and offers to “go Van Damme” on the man himself, so Jackie won’t break parole. Chioran is charismatic and brilliant, and the moment when Julio reminisces about a childhood incident between him and Jackie is just beautiful.

If you’re in Toronto, I definitely recommend checking this play out. The play has also received positive reviews in NOW Toronto, The Globe and Mail and The National Post.

The Motherfucker with the Hat is on at The Coal Mine until November 30. Tickets are $30 and available online:

The Coal Mine is such a new venue that they don’t even have a website yet. In the meantime, you can follow them on Facebook or Twitter, for the latest news. Keep an eye out for Mike Bartlett’s Bull in March and August Strindberg’s Creditors in May.


Theatre | I Send You This Cadmium Red by Art of Time Ensemble

Love art, theatre and music? Heads up on the return of I Send You This Cadmium Red by Art of Time Ensemble at the Enwave Theatre from April 9 to 12, 2014. Originally created in collaboration with Canadian Stage in 2011, the production was praised by critics of both music and theatre. Brian Johnson of Maclean’s Magazine described it as “a film, a painting, an essay, a concert — and yes, a play — all at once. Therefore none of the above. It’s something else entirely. And it’s extraordinary.”

Actor as Character

Julian Richings as John Berger. Photo by John Lauener.

When I first heard what the production is about, it set my geeky heart aflutter. In 1997, painter/filmmaker John Christie asked poet/art critic and Booker Prize-winning novelist John Berger (Ways of Seeing) about ideas for their next project. Berger replied, “Just send a colour.” Christie then sent a painted square of cadmium red, and thus began a discussion about the nature of colour through an exchange of letters. Three years later, their correspondence was made into a book, which was then adapted into a BBC radio play in 2002 with original music created by Gavin Bryars (The Sinking of the Titanic).

Art of Time Ensemble’s production brings this correspondence to life, led by the direction of Daniel Brooks (House, Possible Worlds) and musical direction of Art of Time Artistic Director Andrew Burashko. Berger (Julian Richings) and Christie (John Fitzgerald Jay) meditate on colours, evoking metaphors in art, music and other remarkable connections. Bruce Alcock’s set and imagery creates a world of colour through an animated backdrop that enhances the exchange of thoughts on stage. Music, lighting and animation fuse with text to create a theatrical experience for all of the senses.

John Fitzgerald Jay as John Christie. Photo by John Lauener.

John Fitzgerald Jay as John Christie. Photo by John Lauener.

I love the concept behind this production. The correspondence between Berger and Christie is itself fascinating — I remember watching Red at Canadian Stage a few years ago, and being utterly captivated by the exploration of Rothko’s use of colour, and in this case, overwhelming experiences of colour, to create a moment. Personally, I’d love to see that production again; I was completely caught up in the emotion and, despite not having an art background myself, I was inspired by the idea of how an artist’s work with a particular colour can resonate so much with the viewer. I loved Red‘s glimpse into Rothko’s work, and I’m excited to see Berger and Christie’s exploration of colour in Cadmium Red.

Even more exciting for me is that in this show, Art of Time takes it beyond straightforward storytelling — the production also expresses Berger and Christie’s correspondence through classical music, adding yet another layer of interpretation that will likely enrich the experience. I remember hearing of this when it was first produced, and not having gotten around to watching it then. I’m definitely not missing out this year, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out.

I Send You This Cadmium Red runs 60 minutes without an intermission, and is on stage from April 9 to 12, 2014 at the Enwave Theatre (231 Queens Quay West). Tickets are from $25 to $59 are available online at, by phone at 416.973.4000 or in-person at the box office.

For more information on Art of Time Ensemble, see and follow them on Facebook and Twitter at @ArtofTime.