Review: Powerhouse Performances Deliver a Riveting LEAR

I’ll start by saying that LEAR was one of the most powerful theatrical experiences I’ve had in months. Led by a cast of Shakespeare professionals with vast Stratford Festival experience, Groundling Theatre’s production is a polished, compelling piece of theatre. Dropping “King” from the title, LEAR explores the play with a female in power – entrapping us with the familiarity of a female monarch. Every aspect of Graham Abbey’s production, designed by Peter Hartwell, serves a contemporary emphasis, seducing a modern audience to deeply feel and deeply connect with the humanity at the core of the Shakespearean drama.

In LEAR, an aging monarch’s daughters conspire against her to steal her throne. A son, suffering from the despair of his illegitimacy, conspires against his brother and father. Wives stray from their loyal, caring husbands, and faithful daughters and sons grant forgiveness when it seems surely impossible.

I have to admit that I have not yet experienced a live production of Lear with the title role portrayed by a man. In both this production and this past summer’s Shakespeare in High Park production, my Lears have been played by women. Personally, I think swapping the genders has an enormously powerful effect on some of the scenes between Lear and (in this case) her daughters, especially in scenes like Lear’s vicious attack on Goneril in Act I, Scene IV, “If thou didst intend to make this creature fruitful! Into her womb convey sterility!” Coming from the woman who conceived her, this attack on Goneril cuts much deeper in this stripped down, gender-swapped production.

I am a huge fan of minimalist productions. Some of the most beautiful designs I’ve seen have also been some of the most simple. Abbey and Hartwell’s less-is-better vision commands every aspect of what we see, with a clean, gorgeous set and delicious, sumptuous costumes. Taking place on a structure of moveable, soft gray blocks, the production’s aesthetic is timeless, modern elegance. The orderly nature of the design allows that same order to disintegrate as the drama unfolds. With Abbey at the helm, it all unfolds very naturally. Emotional outbursts never feel exaggerated – and Lear’s descent into madness – a collaboration between Abbey’s direction and Seana McKenna’s artistry – is masterfully presented.

In assessing Lear’s madness, I’m still unsure as to what was a greater indication of her madness – McKenna’s terrifying, sharp-tongued wit from her Lear in Act I, or the serene disposition of her Lear in Act IV. Reverse the two Lears, and the journey towards “madness” that takes place in between, makes sense in either direction – which is terrifically intriguing.

Sharing a space with the very present McKenna is sort of a profound experience. As Lear, her eyes either focus on a target, practically shooting daggers at their victim, or they shift around, eager for something to fixate on. Her emotions flip quickly, but you can practically feel the tension building in her corps before she explodes. Every movement, every emotion comes off as carefully planned, but effortlessly executed.

As Lear’s Fool, Colin Mochrie is ideally suited to the role. The Whose Line is it Anyway? actor is acclaimed for his comedic timing, so the riddles issued by the Fool throughout the piece definitely meet the mark. Possibly the ensemble member with the least amount of Shakespeare performing experience, Mochrie never appears under-qualified.

Alex McCooey delivers an exquisite, cunning interpretation as Edmund, especially in his Act I, Scene II soliloquy – McCooey had the audience eagerly following his every word. Goneril’s pre-kiss line, “Decline your head,” in Act IV, Scene 2 takes on a new hilarious connotation with McCooey towering over her at 6’9″.

Mercedes Morris, Seana McKenna and Colin Mochrie, photo by Michael Cooper

As Lear’s wicked daughters, Goneril and Regan, Deborah Hay and Diana Donnelly play both sides of a villainous coin. Hay seems to try to avoid relishing in her wickedness, but Donnelly seems to absolutely love it. Mercedes Morris is captivating as Cordelia, Lear’s initially dismissed faithful daughter. Morris leans on pleading vocalisms to become a model of purity and goodness.

Antoine Yared is a true chameleon as Edgar. Shifting from poised royalty to outlawed madman, the colourful actor gives an impassioned performance. As his father, the Earl of Gloucester, Jim Mezon demands great sympathy as the manipulated father.

The tension in the second half of LEAR is underscored by a brilliant musician, Graham Hargrove. Using a variety of percussive instruments, Hargrove heightens the impact of the already atmospheric production. The storm in the second half comes to life, a combination of Hargrove’s pounding music, and strikes of lightning from Kimberley Purtell’s astounding lighting design.

I guess what I’m trying to tell you is that LEAR is wonderful. The production thrives as a harmonious collaboration of a team of creative artists who are all the experts of their craft. In LEAR, beautiful design meets tremendous acting, making it a show you will not want to miss.


LEAR is presented by Groundling Theatre and runs through January 28, 2018 at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre, 235 Queens Quay W., Toronto, ON

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit

(main photo credit: Colin Mochrie, Diana Donnelly and Seana McKenna, photo by Michael Cooper)

Review: A Messiah that refuses to play it safe

Growing up as the son of a minister, I learned early on that a religious story like Handel’s Messiah can be told to a faithful audience without emotion or presence from its narrators. With those sacred texts – the proclamation of the coming of Jesus Christ, or the passion of the Christ – the weight is in the words, not in the nuances of how the stories are being told. But for the non-religious, Messiah is an epic story of prophecy, miracles, condemnation and resurrection – and that story requires passion, presence and conviction to be experienced memorably. As an increasingly non-religious society, I believe that these requirements will become increasingly influential in the performance of oratorio.

Following GRAMMY Award nominations for last year’s recording, this year’s Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) Messiah, running December 18 to 23, was brimming with fresh colours and presence, led by story-shaper Matthew Halls conducting the TSO, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and four exceptional Canadian soloists (soprano Karina Gauvin, mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, tenor Frédéric Antoun and baritone Joshua Hopkins). An annual tradition for many, Roy Thomson Hall was packed with a vast and loyal audience, many of whom would appreciate any performance of the work simply due to its status as a cultural devotional activity. But if we focus on the future of Messiah and the future audiences of the work – then Messiah requires refreshing.

Luckily, a few of the key players in the TSO’s Messiah understood this. From the top of the piece, guest conductor Matthew Halls established an energetic introduction with the overture, declaring his intention to present a refreshing take on the work and offering noticeably stark contrasts in tempo and colour. This unpredictable pacing continued throughout the night, with some tempos nearly startling, like the entrance before the baritone’s “For Behold.” Halls’ unusually agile tempo here – despite its rushed opening measures – flattered Hopkins’ flexible voice.

New pacing and new colours are exciting alone, but to refresh Messiah also requires presence from its other storytellers – the soloists. Tenor Frédéric Antoun entered with a soothing, calm disposition for his opening aria, “Comfort ye,” his radiant composure evident before he even opened his mouth to sing. The accompagnato built into a well-supported “Ev’ry valley,” with brave ornamentation. Antoun’s voice is well suited to the repertoire; his preference for soft consonants enhanced the lush characteristics of the music.

Not as calming, but equally as refreshing, mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó brought fierce presence to her music. Szabó vocalized the text with as much passion as one would with an operatic role, her interpretation rooted in feeling, depth and understanding. Because of her expert command over her instrument, Szabó demonstrated a genuine commitment to the text, inviting listeners to empathize with her burning intensity.

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir echoed some of these colourful moments, paying careful attention to Halls’ conducting. Responding to Szabó’s “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion,” Halls manipulated the choir through sweeping dynamic shifts and energetic crescendos, the sweet, unified choral sound providing an interesting contrast to Szabó’s dramatic vocals.

Baritone Joshua Hopkins also understood the need to be present with the material. Displaying marvellous animation in Part Three’s “The trumpet shall sound,” Hopkins soared through the coloratura so quickly that it nearly adopted the qualities of a Rossini aria. Hopkins was about as dramatic acting as they come. Before his first entrance, “Thus saith the Lord,” in true baritone fashion, Hopkins purposefully waited until every single person in the hall was quiet and attentive before rising to begin, introducing us to his exquisitely balanced instrument.

A well-balanced instrument will always be a focus of devoted Messiah attendees, and for them, soprano Karina Gauvin delivered an ideal baroque performance. Gauvin was technically sound, vocalizing with well-executed ornaments and a near-flawless navigation through her registers. Her performance was polished and focused, lips quivering from her energetic vibrato – but she stood out from the others in terms of presence.

The devoted Messiah audience will cherish her portrayal. It’s hard to match the dexterity of her voice in the coloratura sections of “Rejoice greatly.” But for the viewer that this review focuses on, the viewer that struggles to connect with this religious, classical mammoth – for this viewer, Gauvin may have come off as a stereotype of the inaccessible, unrelatable opera diva. This viewer would favour Szabó, whose performance may not have been as polished, but who was there, committed to telling a story in the moment.

This is not to say that technique doesn’t matter. Without a solid foundation, it would be impossible to navigate the grandiose singing required for this piece. But to inspire a new generation, Messiah needs something more. A safe Messiah will not endure. The TSO is on the right track, presenting a Messiah packed with ethos and colour. Fill the work with talented singers who are passionate about sharing a story, and add a conductor who isn’t afraid to expand on the expected – and suddenly Messiah becomes an experience that creates memories. That becomes a Messiah that will survive.


The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented Handel’s Messiah from December 18 to 23, 2017 at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

Originally reviewed for The WholeNote as part of the Emerging Arts Critics Programme

Review: Against the Grain Theatre’s BOUND, Toronto, Dec. 15, 2017

BOUND is Against the Grain Theatre at its best, blending old and new in an immersive operatic experience. With BOUND, Founder & Artistic Director Joel Ivany and Founding Member & Music Director Topher Mokrzewski have created a troubling exposition of an ominously potential future, by fusing the ethereal music of Handel with a newly-fashioned English libretto, framed around the laws of a conservative nation, ‘The State.’

Theatre experience from the get-go

The experience begins as you walk through the front doors of the theatre and receive a copy of The Way Forward Together: A Guidebook to Border Security and Anti-Terrorism Strategy (the opera’s clever program) and a questionnaire seeking to determine the risk involved with allowing you entry to The State. The theatre is set up in the round with seven characters dispersed, each confined to a cell (a strict square of white light flooding the floor from above). They sit—anxious, terrified, lost, defeated, defiant, curious and angry. From your seat, you feel as though you could be next.

The opera presents the experiences of the seven detainees during an unpredictable exchange of spoken scenes and sung arias. One by one, the individuals are interrogated by The State (actor Martha Burns), whose monotone, invasive voice echoes through the auditorium.

Justin Welsh, Miriam Khalil Photo: Darryl Block Photography

Characters are detainees of The State

One of the detained, Ahmed Habib (baritone Justin Welsh) was attempting to enter The State on a teacher-exchange program. After an invasive search reveals Habib changed his name to Joshua Washington, he is barraged with questions regarding his Islamic faith. Welsh, who possesses a resonant baritone, was one of the opera’s strongest actors, but his voice was at times, too husky.

Noor Haddad (soprano Miriam Khalil) is also targeted for religious reasons after refusing to remove her hijab. Pleading that it is as a symbol of expression, Khalil flaunts her ravishing soprano in Alcina’s “Ah mio cor!” The new, English text connects the soulful aria to a contemporary perspective, allowing the shift to the B section to deliver an even heavier emotional impact. As the aria returned to the A section, Mokrzewski and Khalil manipulated the tonal structure, leaning into an Eastern-inspired sound. Khalil’s focused pianissimo in this section was despairingly breathtaking.

David Trudgen Photo: Darryl Block Photography

Contemporary resonances in BOUND

The State isn’t merely Islamophobic. Kelly Davidson (countertenor David Trudgen) is stopped because of a disparity between declared gender and birth gender. According to State legislation, Davidson, a transgender man, will be forced to retrieve new documentation displaying his female “birth gender.” Trudgen’s affecting vocalism trumps his exaggerated physical performance. Lamenting intensely with his instrument, Trudgen is especially passionate when his voice slips into its chest register.

An immigration lawyer assisting Mr. Habib, Marina Navolska (Danika Lorèn—look for her profile in the early Feb. ’18 issue of Opera Canada) is detained in connection with her participation in various counter-protests. Lorèn is the production’s humanitarian, pleading in her arias for the rights of others. With a bouncing, shimmering voice, Lorèn vocalizes with phenomenally balanced coloratura in terms of placement and rhythm, thrilling with intriguing ornaments.

BOUND ends without resolution. A testament to our current state of affairs, Ivany’s production serves to confront humanity with humanity, leaving the audience affected, disturbed, and haunted. But there is a dim ember of hope, as the ensemble collectively sings, “We are the same.” We are all flesh and blood, feeling the same feelings. As humans, we are all connected. By that common thread, we are bound.

Originally reviewed for Opera Canada