BAT OUT OF HELL (The Musical)

Book, Music & Lyrics by Jim Steinman
Directed by Jay Schieb
A Mirvish Presentation at the Ed Mirvish Theatre
Opened October 25, 2017

Bat out of Hell has an absurd plot, largely ridiculously cliched characters, boringly repetitive but energetic choreography, an ensemble of mainly posturing performers where posture or whine or grunt or roar is confused with acting, and some remarkable special effects. Confetti cannons shoot out silver tinsel, a banquet table converts into a pink convertible car that crashes slowly into the orchestra pit and sends some of the musicians scurrying out of it, and a largely static motorbike explodes, sending its parts flying into the air to form an iconic heart that floats above an anti-hero who rubs blood from it all over his bare chest. These are, no doubt, the moments and effects that younger generations will remember into middle age the way their parents probably cherish memories of a crashing chandelier, an underground secret lake, dancing jellicle cats, or an American helicopter hovering over the stage from their most treasured Broadway musicals.

Enduring the two-hour-forty-minute show (including intermission) is a test and a trial, except for (and this is a mighty exception, indeed) Jim Steinman’s music and lyrics that run the gamut from tribal rock to tender love ballad to pop diva arias and stunning blues. For the most part, the songs are very well sung, especially by Andrew Polec’s blond, bare-chested Strat (leader of a never-aging band of teen underground rockers aptly called The Lost), Christina Bennington’s raven-haired Raven (teenage daughter of filthy rich tycoon Falcon with his own Trumpian tower, though minus the gold furnishings), Billy Lewis, Jr.’s Jagwire (one of the more memorable denizens of The Lost), and Danielle Steers’s Zahara (a busty, long legged beauty with a voice as melodiously sexy and grainy as Cher’s). The last two share a wonderful duet entitled “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad,” which, alas, is not how I would score this production.

Trouble is that Jim Steinman (the great song-writer and lyricist) also did the book, which is about as silly a rock libretto as could be imagined. Obsidian (formerly known as Manhattan) is the dark city of this musical’s fiction, and it is apparently divided into the vulgarly rich (the Falcos, who seem to have no neighbours) and the vulgarly low (The Lost who never age beyond 18). Jon Bausor’s set design is massively Wagnerian in a 21st century punk rock manner (replete with dark cave, tunnel, and huge overhanging wooden beams) offset by the richly grandiose Falco Towers, where security thugs are in black leather, and where virtually every act in every boudoir or room is videotaped live. It’s Trump’s reality T.V. without the orange-haired scumbag, though Falco is a scumbag of a different type: he’s usually bare-chested, wears a scar, tattoos, and nipple rings, and walks around with a bat covered with barbed wire. In one scene, the Abu Ghraib of Obsidian where The Lost are tortured in orange jumpsuits in a large cage, he belts out “In the Land of the Pig, the Butcher is King” He is evidently a former rocker who is off his meds. Rob Fowler, who plays him, is as coarse as the role. His wife, Sloane, is played by Sharon Sexton, and she lacks entertainment by her mister, at least of the raw, carnal sort. She spreads her legs invitingly, tumbles over a sofa in a lubricious display, but the actress has a nice way with throwaway wit. Well, the lady’s not fully a tramp, and she does get her all-out moment of lyrical eroto-mania by way of auto-mania with her old man in the number “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.”

Andrew Polec (Strat) leads The Lost

The main thrust of the musical can be summarized as follows: teen rebel with a cause loves teen gal, loses her, wins her again, but loses a younger male teen devotee named Tink (evidently cursed with an obsessive gene and an even more perverse nickname) in the process. Shades of Hair, Peter Pan, Rent, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and who knows what else. But the devil is in the bad details. How is Strat able to penetrate Falco Towers and slip into Raven’s bedroom without being detected by heavy security thugs and surveillance video? Are Falco and family doing their own version of Gene Simmons’s Family Jewels reality television series? Why do teenage hard rockers fall so easily into a line dance with limited movement vocabulary? And why after an age of Glam Rock are they all dressed perennially for Halloween or a bargain-basement version of Hair or Rent?

The songs, as I’ve said, are wonderful.



A Choreographic Work by Andrea Nann
A Dreamwalker Dance Company Production
for NextSteps Mainstage Series
Harbourfront Centre Theatre, October 19-21, 2018

Yuichiro Inoue and Kristy Kennedy (photo: Jeremy Mimnagh)

Andrea Nann’s 60-minute dance piece is a splendid demonstration of how movement (when allied to intertwining voices) can provoke meditation on human memorials to our interconnectedness with one another, space, and time.  It is a profoundly personal work, in which which dancer-choreographer Nann (indisputably one of our national treasures) re-introduces herself to herself via a monologue addressed to her audience. Born in Vancouver to Chinese parents, Nann dreamed of living on a planet with two suns (East and West). Now 51, and as elegantly supple and sinuous as ever, she subscribes to the Taoist belief that humans express the bridge between heaven and earth. Her piece is non-linear, being, in effect, a collage of music, lighting, spoken word, minimal scenography, and dance movement—quick with thought, passion, and changing affinities. To appreciate Dual Light fruitfully, it is important to join our concentration with that of the dancers, and leave ourselves open to its distinctive amorphousness.

On a largely bare stage, except for four chairs and a large overhanging tilted silver rectangle that can be lowered and shifted at different angles, Dual Light may seem pretentiously abstract—almost a repetition of a popular fallacy that modern dance can equal philosophy. The large tilted silver rectangle doesn’t really work in any appreciable way to enhance meaning or scenic effect, and therefore seems like a possibly good idea gone wrong, but while Dual Light investigates dimensions of knowing and seeing, sensing and acting, it remains rooted in palpable, incarnate images of the human body in delicate or tense semaphores, flurries of motion or passive instances of thoughtful silence. Not for nothing is there a soundtrack of a beautiful Chinese version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” where the quartet of dancers (two Asian, two Caucasian) sit quietly listening to the lyric, rhythm, and tone of the haunting ballad. The dancers derive their impulses to move, to configure, to incarnate from vibrations, whether from music or from spoken word or an inner psychological compulsion. Nann is heard in recorded conversation with her 87-year old father, a distinguished former professor who, after living alone for 30 years, sold his Vancouver home and moved to Toronto to live with her and her small family. What Professor Nann (I remember his being a very elegant, articulate man from my one and only brief meeting with him many years ago) discusses is the theme of leavings, whether through death or in life itself. And his daughter (who clearly has a tender, loving relationship with him) expresses this bitter-sweet wisdom about creative acceptance or acquiescence through her choreography of enlarged arcs, tilts, sweeps of the body, and intertwining limbs.

Kristy Kennedy and Brendan Wyatt (photo: Jeremy Mimnagh)

The general choreographic emphasis is on a low centre of gravity, where the dancer finds an axis close to the floor. There are some stunning sequences: Yuichiro Inoue and Kristy Kennedy (who now lives in the U.S.) perform a delicate duet of slowly moving cupped hands; Inoue also has a striking solo where his body vibrates to the exact beat of a Japanese recitative; Kennedy delivers a touching soliloquy that is truly a prose poem and then demonstrates her dynamic vocabulary of movement; Brendan Wyatt and Andrea Nann complement each other and the other two perfectly in their expressions of supportive intimacies. Just as the sound design by Joshua Van Tassel (merging Skydiggers, The King’s Singers, Kitakabe, and the Graduates with sheer vibrations) is a form of investigation, so are the dances and the dancers’ personal narratives. There are strong leanings, arcs of arm and leg, where physical presence elicits choice and consequence, but the exquisitely unfolding of the piece is gentle, liminal, and skilfully resonant with feeling and thought. One of the underlying moods is melancholy at the passage of loved ones, but this melancholy is not an end in itself: it reaches for some fundamental existential wisdom in personal narratives and a path forward in life with what Keats once called “negative capability.”


Choreographed and Directed by Wang Yuanyuan.
A Beijing Dance Theater Presentation at the Living Arts Centre,
Mississauga. October 5-6, 2017

Zhang Qlang (Ximen Qing) and Feng Linshu (Pan Jinlian) in “Golden Lotus” 

Wang Yuanyuan choreographed the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, but she is also deservedly famous for creating China’s avant-garde productions of Raise the Red Lantern and Haze. Her resume can add Golden Lotus to its list of stunning achievements, though the Chinese government cannot be persuaded to agree. In fact, China, the source of the famous 16th century novel, Jin Ping Mei or The Golden Lotus, and the birthplace of Yuanyuan’s Beijing Dance Theater company, has been banned from that country because of its explicit portrayal of sex, adultery, and corruption in a decadent society. It is highly ironic and mordantly amusing to see an entire political party quaking and shuddering over images that can find their inspiration in centuries of Chinese pornography. And when will censors ever learn that the very act of censorship helps boost curiosity about the forbidden thing? China’s ban on the novel has led to massive downloads of the text on the Internet. Yuanyuan’s 90-minute dance piece dances past the dreary, pontifical censors—but its signal triumph is not as pornography. Far from it: Golden Lotus in its present dance form is a thing of rare beauty.

China’s majority needn’t worry. Yuanyuan’s adaptation is hardly a scrupulously faithful adaptation. How could it possibly be—as a dance piece that strips down most of the period and plot detail, simplifies the leading characters, and aims at aestheticizing what could be a schematic parable. The front curtain is a wide rendering in black and silver that remains down all through the Prologue in dim light where a tableau of half-naked dancers (in transparent gauze and flesh-coloured body suits) sets the tone for this piece that builds and subsides, builds and peaks over and over. When the curtain does lift, what we see is a jumble of almost nude bodies, limbs entangled, flesh unflinchingly exposed. It soon becomes evident that there is an anti-hero, Ximen Qing (Zhang Qlang), lean of body, supple in his sexual athleticism, who has an insatiable lust for women’s flesh. He catches the attention of Pan Jinlian (Feng Linshu), a married woman dissatisfied with her husband Wu Dalang (Qin Ziqian) and who, like Qing, is also infamous for her huge sexual appetite. The two principals perform a pas de deux that showcases his vigorous arms and sinewy body and her long, legged extensions that stamp her as an aggressive seductress of the first order. She sits on his back and pulls one of his legs, and subsequently aims her buttocks at his crotch. She is relentless in her lust, refusing to stop even when her husband appears at a window. When he does return to the house, the adulterers murder him, just so that Pan Jinlian can marry Ximen Qing. Alas, as his fifth wife, instead of inheriting uninhibited conjugal bliss, she inherits familial intrigue and corruption.

Corps in “Golden Lotus”

Wang Yuanyuan’s adaptation is but a skeleton version of the novel, opting to focus on destructive human appetite than an entire society’s social, political, and moral blights. But in its own tightly modest terms, it is an artistic triumph, with stunning décor and lighting by Han Jiang (inky black paintings, a cyclorama of burnished gold with impasto effects highlighted by top lighting, and a series of long tapestries whose flaps allow dancers to emerge from and disappear into the invisible). Oscar-winning costume designer Tim Yip suggests a social and moral landscape by his colours and fabrics, especially in the heavy black robes for what I took to be high-toned, haughty society censors offset by the filmy costumes for the principals and corps that permit an extraordinary amount of flexible freedom. Composer Du Wei has created one of the most fascinating soundtracks I have ever experienced for dance, mixing traditional Chinese instruments and tones with edgy, grainy, harsh contemporary effects.

Pas de deux from “Golden Lotus”

But everything returns to the question of choreography and narrative, and even here, despite all the rigorous trimming, editing, and re-arranging, Golden Lotus is thrilling. Combining slow ritual with passionate eroticism, mystery with morality, the story limits its focus, gaining in dance power what it loses in fidelity to its huge literary source. To be candid, I did not get all the allusions made in the ill-written house program. Nor did I feel that the dance answered all my questions about its narrative. But what stage images created by a corps of twenty with absolute trust and faith in one another and in their choreographer! An octet of women, half naked to the waist, swaying in unison, their long, rippling skirts moving like water; an aggrieved husband performing his soul-destroying humiliation; two women engaged in a passionate contest (with sexual motive) on a gently rocking bed; the anti-hero’s physical collapse while surrounded by the tangle of hands advancing upon him; and his eventual backward disappearance into a huge shadow of what looks suspiciously like a woman’s vagina—emblem of the uncontrolled wild sex he has sought all his life.

But what of the title? There is no tangible lotus anywhere on stage, but there is a final Buddhist chant in Chinese, a sort of swan song, to remind us that the lotus (symbol of purity) floats above mud and on water: in other words, it symbolizes freedom from attachment and desire—the very things that bedevil Pan Jinlian and Ximen Qing. A pity that there is neither an explanatory program note nor Sur-titles in English. A pity, too, that this magnificent production is wasted on the Living Arts Center, a huge cavern (never with a full house) built in all likelihood to commemorate a former mayor’s ego rather than for any sensible, rational, artistic reason. A pity, too, that the Chinese audience seemed intent on chattering and taking covert film or photos while the dance was in progress.

Highly recommended to those who value dance in a very high reach as art.


By Jean Giraudoux
Directed by Donna Feore
At the Tom Patterson Theatre. Till September 24, 2017

Seana McKenna (Countess Aurelie) with members of the company (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

While it is too long for the fable it spins, Giraudoux’s comic fantasy is witty, whimsical, and wise, and Donna Feore’s colourful production, though unable to find a single unifying style for it, attempts to mask the languid sections by rapturous humour and a sort of light, romantic unreality created by Teresa Przybylki’s set and costume design and Kimberly Purtell’s lighting. Peter McBoyle’s sound design serves up a little “jazz hot”—relic of a vanished Paris. Giraudoux wrote the play in the early 40s, during WWII, probably to sound notes of resistance to the enemies of France and its heights of culture and civilization. The title character, Countess Aurelie, is thought to be mad because she lives in a world of tattered fantasy, still pining for a long-lost lover. She certainly has lady friends (each from a different district) who could be certifiably mad: one (Constance) clinging to a droll fantasy of a pet dog that is always invisible to everyone; another (Gabrielle) looking like a rouged doll in ringlets, ribbons, and bustle, who hears voices from her hot water bottle and eagerly awaits an imagined suitor; and a third (Josephine) who, despite her rational knowledge of law, keeps waiting insanely for a parade that never comes by. Their scene-a-quatre in Part 2 plays with delightful delirium like something out of Alice in Wonderland, but the essential point of the play is that despite these women’s mad fantasies, the world has changed dangerously for the worse, because (according to the Ragman, the voice of rag-tag wisdom) “little by little, the pimps have taken over the world.” Greed is dominant and people are publicly worshipping the golden calf. When this dire news is brought to Aurelie, she devises a miraculous plan to rid the world of these parasites. Her plan involves making love the one decent motive for living: this plus Giraudoux’s magic literary wand that summons up a fantasy solution that comes full blown in this production with smoke and a farcical parade of victims.

Giraudoux’s play will undoubtedly remind some of Saroyan’s old-fashioned romantic and sentimental humanism, but Giraudoux’s is, perhaps, more sophisticated, though also far wordier (new English translation by David Edney). Set at first in an airy café in Chaillot (a district of Paris), where a President, a Baron, and a Broker meet to hatch a plot to make even more money (a plot creating a fantasy of oil under the streets), each rapacious man given the floor for a monologue, the play sets up its conflicts plainly. The greedy ones against the world of little men: waiter, peddler, juggler, press agent, police officer, kitchen girl, handyman, sewer worker, deaf woman, street singer, lifeguard, street musician, etc. The cast shines in these disparate character-sketches, led by Ben Carlson’s brusque, rude President who rails against the assorted “little” people for being puppets. Actually, he has a point: Giraudoux’s play revels in the very strings it manipulates to control the characters and thereby lead them to his pointed conclusion.

There are wonderful comic contributions from Cyrus Lane as a pragmatically helpful Sewer-Worker, and Gareth Potter as a Lifeguard who can’t swim and therefore saves only those drowning only on land, while Scott Wentworth makes a notably ruminative, cynical Ragman. Antoine Yared as Pierre and Mikaela Davis as his beloved deliver tender romance, but the most engaging performances come, not unexpectedly, from the madwomen: Kim Horsman as canine-obsessed Constance; Marion Adler as wispy, prudish, aging doll Gabrielle; Yanna McIntosh as legal-minded Josephine; and, of course, Seana McKenna as Aurelie, though she doesn’t make as much of the eccentricity as she could. But there is more diverting comedy than weighty drama, and I could have done without Wayne Best in a handlebar moustache and black cloak that he twirls like a villain from silent-screen melodrama. The final confrontation between Aurelie and the villains is treated as broad farce, devolved from Marx Brothers zaniness but lacking their freewheeling genius.


By Moliere
Translated by Ranjit Bolt
Directed by Chris Abraham
At the Festival Theatre. Till October 13, 2017

Maev Beaty (Elmire) and Tom Rooney (Tartuffe) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Although you would never know it from Chris Abraham’s wildly raucous and coarse version that is about as low as low farce could go, Tartuffe is a high comedy about arch hypocrisy and other human foibles. Moliere and his play ran afoul of the Church and even, to some appreciable degree, Louis XIV. The best version I ever saw (in Richard Wilbur’s superb English translation) was Jean Gascon’s, in which the incomparable William Hutt gave one of his greatest performances as the title character who dupes the master of a bourgeois household by displays of false piety. Gascon had an almost unbeatable cast, all of whom seemed to be marvellously suited to their roles, and Gascon had indisputable Gallic flair as director. Chris Abraham has a few strong actors in his cast but Abraham is a populist director with a finger on the pulse of fads and manners, and sometimes his work is highly engaging and intelligent—as in his staging of The Matchmaker and the central comedy of The Taming of the Shrew. However, his version of Tartuffe is re-contextualised far from France, beginning (for no sensible reason) with a loud wild party in progress (called “an orgy in Babylon” by the imposing Mme. Pernelle) and then later showing us a Tartuffe who strips down to his very underwear. While this is undeniably caviar to the general. it is poison to those who favour wit, sense, sensibility, and style.

Tartuffe is not, of course, the most important character. Thank goodness, for even in this wayward production, Tom Rooney’s bizarre interpretation of the role as a sort of latter-day Rasputin with long, oily locks and a black jacket over a black cassock, who has trouble with English pronunciation as well as the verse rhythms that he slows down as if in need of an ESL instructor, doesn’t hold a candle to Graham Abbey’s exceptionally funny and vulnerable Orgon, a man with blinders on, even though he is in peak physical condition as he races up and down Julie Fox’s two-storey setting (contemporary chic with modern appurtenances), makes himself espresso and smoothies, performs push-ups, and makes a certifiable ass of himself by worshipping his false idol who has oiled his way into his trust, guardianship, and generosity. Abbey is also one who knows his way with Ranjit Bolt’s jaunty mod rhyming dialogue that dares to be vulgar in the showiest contemporary vein, making audience and Moliere feel “fucked” all the way down to the denouement. Another sterling verse-speaker is Rosemary Dunsmore as Madame Pernelle (Orgon’s mother), a tempest of disgruntlement who earns a great laugh when she complains aggressively “May I be heard?” after her mighty gusts of grievances. And a third (sleekly sexy, to boot) is Maev Beaty as Elmire (Orgon’s much-tested wife). As her clear-eyed, pontificating brother Cleante, Michael Blake also has moments of gleaming articulation, as does Rod Beattie as officious Monsieur Loyal.

Apart from losing the French flavour of the play, and making a mess of many scenes—none as much as the attempted seduction scene, where the designer’s living-room furniture affords the most improbable hiding-place for Orgon to overhear his false “idol’s” hypocrisy—director Abraham fails to harmonize his cast, or, at least, to temper many of the outrages performed by Anusree Roy as Dorine, the saucy maid. Unable to negotiate the verse with any semblance of real impertinent wit, Roy is guilty of the worst excesses of Bollywood, with her incessant eye-rolls, and flamboyant overacting in which virtually every corporeal extremity appears to be in motion, whether warranted or not.

Director Abraham continues his acknowledgement of the modern age—or, at least, of North American vulgarity—by the very pointed allusions to the disgusting blight of Trumpism. All good for easy laughter, but the production exposes some of the worst aspects of Abraham as director. Instead of illuminating Moliere’s great satiric comedy with very dark undertones, this production revels in being a simple, silly fable that is unbalanced, unconvincing, and vulgarly conceived. It is certainly a crowd-pleaser, as Trump has been for his rabid base. But as recent events have shown, a crowd-pleaser can cause a nation to lose its collective mind, let alone its taste.


By Christopher Cameron

Seraphim Editions

264 pages, $19.95

Christopher Cameron’s memoir of his 12-year professional career as concert and opera singer begins with strange modesty. The son of a physician father and a mother who was a “decent pianist,” he claims to have had “an uneventful, undramatic, healthy relationship” with his parents and four siblings. He describes himself as “a miserable scholar,” “a model of recalcitrance when it came to high school discipline,” and “a non-starter” in athletics. As if this confession of inadequacy were insufficient, Cameron goes on to admit that “there was no single thread of expertise or musical preference that wove itself through [his] career as a singer,” though he made all his early solo appearances on the concert stage. He remains modest about his success in vocal competitions (he beat out Ben Heppner once in a Mozart Singing Competition), and he concludes that he failed in career-management. Cameron undermines the very title of his memoir when he confesses that he was not suited physically, dramatically, or temperamentally to the role of Dr. Bartolo, “one of the most famous of buffo bass opera characters,” and which he never managed to perform “with much success at all,” as many times as he sang it.

Given such devastating candour, why did he opt to write this book? Because of music and his love for it. In his immaturity and adolescent confusion, music was his “companion and confessor.” And when he developed in Grade 9 an infatuation for a girl cast, it seemed only fitting that she played percussion with him in the school band. He acted and sang in Oklahoma! a little later, sounding ridiculous in his “high-pitched countrified Pappy Yokum type of voice” but loving the comic lines as Andrew Carnes. Hired as a supernumerary for an upcoming Canadian Opera Company season, he played a captive Ethiopian in Aida, was paid a dollar per rehearsal, and two dollars a show, for which he wore black body paint and a fuzzy wig. When not on stage, he would stand in the wings or sit in the house during rehearsals to watch and listen. Fascinated by chorus master, Lloyd Bradshaw, who was a magician “seeming to draw the music out of the singers as if by sorcery,” he eagerly accepted Bradshaw’s invitation to sing in the youth choir of St. George’s United Church, and subsequently becoming the baritone lead in The Gondoliers, and giving various choral performances in another church and then being taped by the CBC at Christmas.

His book covers some of his personal life (romance, marriage, fatherhood) and moves over his early years in the profession, marking his audition for the Royal Conservatory of Music, the growth of his voice, reputation, and musical knowledge. It also details his experience with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Mendelssohn Choir (conducted by Elmer Iseler), his audition in 1976 for the Opera School, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto, and the culture-shock he suffered when he moved from choral music to opera. Famous names begin to collect in his narrative (Ben Heppner, Teresa Stratas, Ermanno Mauro, Gino Quilico, Mark DuBois, Mark Pedrotti, Caralyn Tomlin, Katherine Terrell, etc) but Cameron fails to share revealing anecdotes about these singers, opting, instead, for digressions on Verdi, vocal categories, technical information on vibrato and resonators, effects of the body or physiology on voice, stage management, costumes and footwear, or the requisites for being an opera director. While interesting and even important in their own right, these digressions are not made an organic part of his narrative but seem to serve as space-fillers that belong more properly in a manual or reference book. The impression of a guide or self-help book is reinforced when he categorizes the factors that led him to become a singer. There are candid moments when he does dare to pass less than complimentary comments on a celebrity or two or on the O’Keefe Centre (“the quagmire of acoustic quicksand”), and there is undeniably good memoir-writing in the chapter “Singing In My Chains,” but in sum, his book is too modest and too tepid by far.


by Sharon Pollock.
Directed by Keira Loughran.
At the Studio Theatre. Till September 24, 2017

by Colleen Murphy.
Directed by Reneltta Arluk.
At the Studio Theatre. Till September 22, 2017

Kiran Ahluwalia as Woman  in “The Komagata Maru Incident” (photo: Lynda Churilla)

Sharon Pollock’s The Komagata Maru Incident is based on an egregious racial incident in 1914, when a Japanese freighter carrying 376 Sikh immigrants from India was not allowed to dock in Vancouver by government officials because they came from the Third World and were not of acceptable colour, religion, language, and way of life. After a seven-week standoff, the ship returned to India, leaving behind only 20 passengers who proved that they had former residence in Canada. Pollock’s nobly intentioned original was set (inexplicably and sensationally) in a brothel, with an incongruous circus atmosphere created by a Master of Ceremonies dressed as ring-master. The playwright used documentary facts but sought to create a theatrical impression, using dramatic license and compressing time and place.

Director Keira Loughran has tried to make something new of the play, but has lost her way both in history and in theatre. The background story of Gurdit Singh Sarhali, the Sikh who devised a way of testing Britain and Canada’s immigration policy, is left shadowy, and by incorporating Chinese and First Nation characters in a bid to enlarge the issue of Canadian racism, Loughran has made the play diffuse and fuzzy in focus. Audiences are somewhat compensated by a free brochure that fills in historical details, but Pollock’s play (that certainly has historical significance) and Loughran’s treatment create problems. Quelemia Sparrow is an attractive lady who is beautiful both in her indigenous garb (at the outset) and in her circus jacket, top-hat, and boots, but her movement and dance choreography is rather insipid and her vocal performance low energy. Instead, it is left to Jasmine Chen and Diana Tso (as two Chinese ladies of unsavoury suggestion), Tyrone Savage (as Georg, the German-born ally of Immigration Inspector William Hopkinson), and Hopkinson himself (Omar Alex Khan) to provide dramatic and comic sparks, though the most enchanting performance is that of Kiran Ahluwalia as the unnamed Woman who is the only visible East Indian passenger. Pollock has admitted to not having represented any male Sikhs because of her lack of knowledge or direct experience with one at the time of the play’s creation.

Ahluwalia is a beautiful singer with dulcet tones that modulate to fine melancholy, and her economy of gesture have real allure, but she is forced to narrate what the playwright has neglected to dramatize. Moreover, the production seems to be unaware of its own self-sabotage. By having a First Nations woman serve as Emcee, the production turns one historical victim into an ally of the racists. And why is the English translation of the Sikh woman’s songs made to sound like pidgin English? Presumably the Sikh poets and balladeers knew how to form complete sentences in their own language, and this English translation is reprehensibly condescending, patronizing, and false. Moreover, did no one attempt to correct the misimpression that Sikhs are Hindus—a fallacy that is voiced in the script?

Where The Komagata Maru Incident loses dramatic impact and focus because of its flawed attempt to heighten cultural resonance of absent characters, Colleen Murphy’s The Breathing Hole manages to keep its course and gain power despite spanning centuries and having a puppet-polar bear as its main character. Angu’juaq is first seen as a mewling, abandoned cub saved from death by an old Inuit woman, Hummituq (Jani Lauzon), herself starving and abandoned by her family, but a visionary who looks into the black water of the breathing hole to see into the future, predicting eventually the arrival of the Erebus and Franklin’s expedition and a new concept of time. When first discovered, the bear is a clever hand puppet that is utterly charming, though restricted in its movements. However, as it grows into an adult (masterfully created with wood and cloth by an Inuit team, and controlled by Bruce Hunter), it rivals anything seen years earlier in War Horse. As it hunts seals at a breathing hole, ruthlessly hooking its powerful jaws onto its victim and raising it out of the water, it seems massively dangerous, and yet it has vulnerability, even delicacy, as it is subject to human whims and foibles. Indeed, just as a mask can often overtake an actor, this puppet appears to become almost human in its “feelings,” and because the main thrust of the play is a tragic history of human greed, wastefulness, and ruin, the figure and role of this bear is enlarged to symbolic proportions.

The play spans a vast stretch of Arctic history, beginning with a sort of exotically romanticized primitivism in 1534 as the old woman, in contrast to the others in her small community who feel full and satisfied from their hunt, howls with unhappiness. No wonder she takes ardently to the cub, caring for it as one of her own children. Later, the actress appears inside a second (adult) bear, Angu’juaq’s mate, and as the centuries pass, carrying us into the fatal end of the Franklin expedition of 1847, the didactic thrust of the play grows stronger. This section has earned critical disapproval in some quarters because of its highly charged satire aimed at the British explorers and scientists who find themselves ravaged by nature and left to die from starvation and cold. But this section is filled with interesting character sketches by the likes of Randy Hughson, amusingly eccentric yet dignified in his own right; Thomas Mitchell Barnet, Jamie Mac, and Victor Ertmanis as various crew members; and Juan Chioran as an interpreter who eventually goes mad.

The final section (set in future decades of the 21st century) takes us into the whole issue of environmental destruction by Western capitalists, but the playwright eschews being laboriously didactic by comedy of manners and a satire of technologies. Several of the actors who played natives in the initial sequences turn into despicably careless, heartless “whites,” living it up on luxurious Northwest Passage cruise-liners that litter the ocean with their garbage and pollute the world with their rampant consumerism. This is where Angu’juaq’s story reaches its tragic climax, and the final scene with the bear gasping helplessly as it drowns in an oil-slick ocean crystallizes the conflict between cultures, and that between human brutality and nature’s integrity.

Angu’juaq (Bruce Hunter) and Huumituq (Jani Lauzon) in “The Breathing Hole” (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

The Breathing Hole has a beautiful soul that transcends its intrinsic flaws—such as the urge to romanticize and sentimentalize the indigenous, or the undeniable necessity of suspending our disbelief at the bear’s existence in a huge time span. It has been given an utterly appealing non-naturalistic scenic design (Daniela Masellis), excellent costumes (Joanna Yu), extraordinary puppets, lighting of ineffable Borealis effect (Itai Erdal), and signature sound composition (Carmen Braden). The interplay between Inuit actors and some of Stratford’s best company members (under the direction of Reneltta Arluk, who has had extensive experience with Indigenous communities across Canada) is heartening and moving. This is a landmark collaboration between the Stratford Festival and Inuit artists that should become a continuing relationship, for in this our 150th year as a nation, it is time for our Inuit artists to tell their own stories in their own voices.