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SCRUTINY | Recent Openings: Prodigal (Howland Company); The Darkest Dark (YPT); The Fiancée (Chekhov Collective)

By Paula Citron on March 3, 2023

The Prodigal (Photo: Dahlia Katz); L-R: Ziska Louis and Aurora Browne (Photo: Dahlia Katz); Anton Pavlovich Chekhov in 1889 (Public domain)
The Prodigal (Photo: Dahlia Katz); L-R: Ziska Louis and Aurora Browne in The Darkest Dark (Photo: Dahlia Katz); Anton Pavlovich Chekhov in 1889 (Public domain)

The Howland Company in association with Crow’s Theatre/Prodigal, written and directed by Paolo Santalucia, Guloien Theatre, Streetcar Crowsnest, Feb. 21 to Mar. 12. Tickets here.

I have a lot of time for The Howland Company because it is an indie group that is forever challenging itself. Whether mounting extant plays or original ones, an evening with Howland is going to be provocative and substantive, for both the actors and the audience.

Their latest project is Prodigal written and directed by Howland co-founder Paolo Santalucia, and inspired by the biblical story in the Gospel of Luke. As a rule, I believe that writers should not direct their own plays because they have no distance from the material, but I have to say that Santalucia has done a bang up job with Prodigal in terms of pacing and tension, so he breaks the mould.

Prodigal is a huge sprawling play with ten characters and a gazillion subplots, tangents and themes, yet Santalucia does manage to mostly tie things together at the end. He is a writer with a lot to say, so brevity and simplicity are not on the agenda. In other words, Prodigal is relentless in information overload, but, at the same time, it is absorbing, compelling and never boring. As I said before, Howland is a company of theatrical challenges.

Whereas the biblical prodigal son was welcomed back with a fattened calf, a new robe, sandals and a ring, that is not the case that greets Edmund Clark (Dan Mousseau), the gay, alcoholic oldest son, when he returns. Before he left the family fold in disgrace, Edmund apparently created havoc with his colossally embarrassing anti-social behaviour. At this point let me say that if Mousseau is not nominated for a Dora Award for his outstanding performance as the mercurial Edmund, there is no justice.

The Prodigal (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
The Prodigal (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

The other part of the equation is the character of Levi Côle (Michael Ayres) whom Edmund met on the plane coming home. The two have since engaged in a passionate homosexual affair. There is one little blip, however. Much to Edmund’s surprise, Levi was also heading to the Clark house, because his sister Simone (Shauna Thompson) is Edmund’s father’s executive assistant. The dichotomy here is that Rowan Clark (Rick Roberts) is helping Levi with some serious legal problems, while showing nothing but contempt for Edmund.

At this point I’m not saying anything more about the plot — it’s just too wickedly unwieldly — but, suffice it to say, that another Santalucia skill is character development. He really does write rich portraits. The audience is aware of not only who each character is, but there is also a complete understanding of their relationship to each other.

What is interesting is that six of the actors have worked with Howland before. Only four — Nancy Palk, Meghan Swaby, Jeff Yung and Roberts — are Howland newbies. Needless to say, strong performances abound, and there is a real sense of ensemble. As well, every character comes with their own set of problems, adding to the mélange of conflicting currents and eddies that pepper the play.

The rest of the actors certainly deserve a mention. Other members of the Clark family are mother Marilyn (Nancy Palk), sister Violet (Hallie Seline), younger brother Henry (Cameron Laurie), and Henry’s fiancée Sadie (Veronica Hortiguela). Swaby and Yung are the caterers who are doing the food for Henry and Sadie’s engagement party. That Howland was able to bag Palk and Roberts, who are Toronto acting royalty, is a testament to the company’s enviable reputation.

In conclusion, Prodigal is as vastly entertaining as it is ambitious. For me, the most enjoyable element was watching the characters and relationships unfold. I also did wonder how Santalucia was going to put all the balls he was juggling to rest. In short, despite the serious questions that Santalucia raises, and the intense drama inherent in the script, I had fun.

L-R: Hannah Forest Briand, Xavier Lopez and Ziska Louis (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
L-R: Hannah Forest Briand, Xavier Lopez and Ziska Louis (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Young People’s Theatre/The Darkest Dark by Jim Millan and Ian MacIntyre, based on the children’s book by Chris Hadfield and Kate Fillion, directed by Jim Millan, Ada Slaight Stage, Feb. 20 to Apr. 2. Tickets here.

The Darkest Dark is an absolute charmer for both children and adults. The 2016 children’s book is based on a childhood experience of famous Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield, and the commander himself has even filmed a short introduction to the play.

It is 1969, and the Hadfield family is vacationing at a cottage on Stag Island.

Young Chris (Ziska Louis) is nine. He is also obsessed with space, particularly the fact that the astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission are about to land on the moon. He lives and breathes space, and so do his friends Herbie (Xavier Lopez) and Jane (Hannah Forest Briand). Also in the cast are Chris’ parents (Aurora Browne and Craig Lauzon), his teenage sister Cindy (Evelyn Wiebe), and the children’s canoeing instructor Keith (Shaquille Pottinger).

Veteran man of theatre Jim Millan, along with co-writer Ian MacIntyre, has crafted a delightful fast-paced play that literally embraces the imagination, as all of young Chris’ fantasies are acted out through Anna Treusch’s fantastical costumes, Bonnie Beecher’s fabulous lighting, and Daniele Guevara’s stunning space-infused projections, aided by Deanna H. Choi’s atmospheric sound design.

I don’t know how YPT manages on their limited budget, but their sets are always imaginative and eye-catching. For this show, Treusch has designed the outside of two cottages that open to become Chris’ bedroom, and the action takes place between the outside and the inside. There is also a back cyclorama for the projections, so the audience feels caught up in the stars.

Chris has a problem. He is afraid of the dark, and when he panics, one of his parents has to sleep with him. Herbie and Jane also have problems, which makes for equal opportunity fear, so to speak. The burden of the play has the children working through their problems while engaging in space-obsessed activities.

There is so much for the children in the audience to experience in terms of spell-binding visuals, a compelling storyline and the theme of personal bravery. There is strong acting throughout, with Louis, in particular, being an outstanding young Chris.

I had a wonderful time, as did every other child and adult in the audience. If you have a young person in your life, The Darkest Dark is a run-don’t-walk.

A posed photograph of Anton Chekhov reading his play The Seagull to the Moscow Art Theatre company in 1898 (Public domain)
A posed photograph of Anton Chekhov reading his play The Seagull to the Moscow Art Theatre company in 1898 (Public domain)

The Chekhov Collective/The Fiancée, a short story by Anton Chekhov, directed by Rena Polley, Red Sandcastle Theatre, Mar. 1 to Mar. 5. Tickets here.

To understand the nature of a Chekhov Collective performance, the key lies in the company’s mantra — Page to Stage: Theatrical Readings of Literary Works. Now, while this description seems a little dry, the offering is anything but.

Director/actor Rena Polley assembles top flight, experienced actors to manifest, in this case, the Chekhov short story The Fiancée into sound. Nothing is memorized and scripts are at hand. They just don’t read the story from behind music stands, however. Rather, they manipulate chairs and a screen to be a backdrop. Some of the story is played as a scene between characters, other parts are straight narration. In other words, there is infinite variety in delivery and visual impact.

Generally speaking, the performance is character driven, with the narration split along those lines. The most engaging aspect, however, is the way individual words are divided up among the actors, often for emphasis. For example, sometimes an actor is given just one word to utter, but it is perfect for what is being said, like the humorous repetition of a character’s name.

Because Polley’s actors are seasoned professionals, they can play with their voices. Everything is said with expression, even drama. The result is a sophisticated theatrical experience, and the packed audience was glued to every word.

In this particular story, the last one that Chekhov wrote before he tragically died of consumption at age 44, the focus is on Nadya, a young girl of 23 who is about to be married. Sasha, a frail, sickly distant relative, arrives to spend the summer as he does each year. He pleads with Nadya to get a life, to get out of this small town, to go to university, to learn something. And so a seed is planted. The change that Nadya goes through in relation to her husband-to-be is at the heart of the story.

The first rate cast includes Helen Taylor as Nadya, David Storch in the male roles, Polley as Nadya’s mother Nina, and Brenda Robins as the main narrator. They are quite mesmerizing in bringing both Chekhov’s quirky characters and his sly, ironic prose to vibrant life.

Apparently, this is the fourth Chekhov story the Collective is mounting. After this performance, I’m kicking myself that I missed the first three.


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Paula Citron
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