Catch the Last Performance of This Prohibition-Era Piece of Toronto History



Catch the Last Performance of This Prohibition-Era Piece of Toronto History

A local theatre success breaks out in Kensington, while an internationally sourced show breaks conventions to critique theatrical "tourism".

Left to right, Greg Gale, Carlos Gonzales-Vio, & Naomi Wright in a scene from Kiss. Photo by James Heaslip.

Left to right, Greg Gale, Carlos Gonzales-Vio, and Naomi Wright in a scene from Kiss. Photo by James Heaslip.

Location, location, location. The where and when of a play informs so much of the how, who, and why. These two shows, both closing this weekend, are deeply rooted in their settings, and the tension and drama differ deeply due to the companies’ association (or lack thereof) to their imagined places. One is set half-way around the world and questions artists’ limits when it comes to “putting yourself in another’s shoes”; the other is keenly localized, in a bygone Kensington Market that still shows signs of its roots.

The program handed to patrons entering the house of the Canadian Stage / Actor’s Repertory Company / Theatre Smash production of Kiss is curiously missing a bio for its credited playwright, “Ameera Al Diri.” (It’s impossible to review this show without some spoilers.) And the show credited to her is over in less than 40 minutes—a breathless melodrama, located by a projected surtitle in “Damascus, 2014”, that seems to mirror the soap opera that its characters have gathered to watch. The actors quickly introduce themselves after the “curtain” and set up a talkback, excitedly announcing that while they’ve staged the show from an internet-posted translation, they’ve recently made contact with “Ameera” and pull up the image of her and her interpreter via Skype. Without divulging too much, it becomes quickly apparent that much has been lost in translation of the original artistic intent and meaning; our Western cast hasn’t nearly the proper frame of reference to understand what Syrians might connect with or crave from their topical theatre. The flummoxed cast decides to attempt the show again, hastily incorporating their new perspectives; it does not go well.

The roots of Kiss are complex: commissioned by a German company and written by Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón, it’s a striking metaphysical critique of art as activist-tourism; while well-meaning, the company (being portrayed) is emotionally and culturally unequipped to present the show. Simple quirks are revealed to be rooted in state and sexual violence, traumatic injury, and worse. By the end of the third attempt at staging the show in keeping with its writer’s intent, the scrupulously clean set has been trashed by the frustrated and off-kilter performers.

The cast—Naomi Wright, Greg Gale, Dalal Badr, and Carlos Gonzalez-Vio—are all engrossing in the first run of the melodrama; they, and the actors they are portraying, are in their comfort zone. The subsequent runs, where the “actors” are adrift after Bahareh Yaraghi’s Ameera and Liza Balkan’s interpreter have dropped their bombshells, are less conclusive. It falls on the audience to interpret whether the confusion on stage is appropriately matched to the discordant notes Calderón’s satire is hitting. The mixed critical reaction the show has received definitely mirrors the audience reaction we observed.

Less provocative intellectually, but more viscerally stimulating, Michael Ross Albert’s Tough Jews is a dirty, violent, and often howlingly funny story of a dysfunctional family trying to gain a footing in the Prohibition Era’s underworld. Staged in the basement of the historic Kensington Hall, which is convincingly a period-appropriate speakeasy, the first act starts and ends with bloodshed; in between, we get to know Luis Fernandes’s overtaxed eldest brother Joe and his younger brothers, cocky Ben (Blue Bigwood-Mallin) and earnest Teddy (G. Kyle Shields). Their fraternal dynamics are skewed both by business and the women of the family: Joe’s prissy showgirl fiancee Marge (Anne Van Leeuwen), young but already bitter Rose (Maaor Ziv), and especially Ida (a sublime Theresa Tova, whose Yiddish muttering during her entrances and exits always elicited hearty laughs), an archetype of an overbearing Jewish matriarch and shrewd survivor. The wildcard in this squabbling rabble is the fiery Ziggie (Stephen Joffe), a cousin whose base impulses are steering the already at-risk family ventures into disaster.

The speakeasy vibe in the basement carried over into the intermission, where the audience mingled with drinks on stage while diligent technicians cleaned up the chaos of the first act. We may be more than 80 years removed from the historical events referenced in the play—the Christie Pits riots, the gangland violence between bootleggers connected to the US mafia—but Albert and director Benjamin Blais skillfully immerse the audience in the desperate straits of a family tearing apart at the seams but still cleaving closely to one another.

“This isn’t a world for good men,” Ida tells Teddy at one point, as his brothers scheme; Ross wants to tell a good yarn, not try and point out how removed we are from these people’s hardships. A more sombre second act drives home that their moral failings lead to practical ones, but all that death and despair has proved sensationally popular—advance tickets sold out for the show’s run early on. A remount, providing the cast can return, seems likely; it’s an exceptional use of an under-utilized space, and an exceptional script deeply rooted in the neighbourhood’s history.

Kiss ran to April 16, Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street).

Tough Jews runs to April 16, Kensington Hall (56K Kensington Avenue), final performance tonight at 8pm, $20-$25. 

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