& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Shakespeare in the Park

Cordelia & Lear in prison, painting by William Blake (1779)
Shakespeare in the Park has been on my bucket list of things to do in Toronto since I first heard about it. Finally, earlier this month, we went to see King Lear (actually Queen Lear) at High Park.

King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s more violent tragedies. Tolstoy hated it, Shaw loved it. Those who have read the original will agree it is one of the most engaging of Bard’s plays.  

Lear is driven to insanity by what would these days be described as elder abuse by his two older daughters Goneril and Regan to whom he bequeathed his entire kingdom based on their false flattery of his virtues. His younger, honest daughter Cordelia gets nothing because she chooses not to lie about Lear’s qualities.  

The older daughters quickly banish the doddering old Lear into the wilderness, where he is accompanied by the Fool and Earl of Gloucester, who has similarly been betrayed by his illegitimate son Edmund. The tragic death of Cordelia even after her victory both moral and in the battlefield, and of Lear at the climax of the play, makes King Lear one of the most devastating of Shakespearean tragedies.

The subplot of revolves around the Earl of Gloucester and his sons – the bastard Edmund and the legitimate Edgar. The Shakespearean establishment (in classrooms, not stage) consider the Earl’s blinding (3.7) as the most pivotal moment of the play.
Screen grab of actor Hannah Wayne-Philips during
the play's rehearsal 

Lest it see more, prevent it. Out, vile jelly!
Where is thy lustre now?

All dark and comfortless. Where's my son Edmund?
Edmund, enkindle all the sparks of nature,
To quit this horrid act.

Out, treacherous villain!
Thou call'st on him that hates thee: it was he
That made the overture of thy treasons to us;
Who is too good to pity thee.

O my follies! then Edgar was abused.
Kind gods, forgive me that, and prosper him!

Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell
His way to Dover.

Lear at High Park was rejigged and King became Queen. Diane D'Aquila, who I learn from the internet, is a veteran, much-acclaimed actor, performed the role of Queen Lear without affectation and with the right degree of lunacy.

Any actor performing Lear needs to know that he is a totally self-absorbed royalty who doesn’t see anyone but himself, even when (actually especially when) his condition is rapidly deteriorating. And he is a crazy monarch long before he is actually driven over the edge by the cruelties of his daughters.  D'Aquila instinctively conveyed this self-absorbed lunacy in her performance.

Jason Cadieux’s performance as the Earl of Gloucester’s role is compelling, too, especially while delivering his blind soliloquy.  

 Jason Cadieux and Diane D'Aquila

The reinterpretation of the play with a woman protagonist was planned to coincide with the imminent rise of Hillary Clinton to the US Presidency, which, of course, did not materialise. However, Lear retains its essential anguish and regret even with a woman protagonist. In fact, it acquires an intimate, profound pathos.

Shakespeare in the Park is a great way to enjoy Shakespeare. It's obviously quite popular, considering it is celebrating its 35th year. It’s Canada’s largest and longest-running professional outdoor theatre experience, attracting over 30,000 people each year. 

Creative Team
Director: Alistair Newton
Assistant Director: Sadie Epstein-Fine
Set designer: Claire Hill
Costume designer: Carolyn Smith
Lighting designer: Rebecca Picherack
Sound designer: Lyon Smith
Fight director: Simon Fon
Production stage manager: Elizabeth McDermott
Stage manager: Krista MacIsaac Barclay
Assistant stage manager: Sandi Becker
Apprentice stage manager: Cole Vincent

Countess of Kent: Jenni Burke
Earl of Gloucester: Jason Cadieux
Edmund: Brett Dahl
Queen Lear: Diane D'Aquila
Oswald, Duke of Burgundy: Peter Fernandes
Duke of Cornwall: Kristiaan Hansen
Duke of Albany: Richard Lee
Edgar: Michael Man
The Fool: Robert Clarke
Cordelia: Amelia Sargisson
Goneril: Naomi Wright
Regan: Hannah Wayne-Phillips

Meena Chopra's Eyes of Time

Meena Chopra’s bold figurative work has self-assured certitude. But her abstract work is perhaps more interesting because it has a liminal quality. It’s a reflection of her tenuous, hesitant, self-conscious process of freeing herself of creative excrescences and finding her core as an artist.

In her latest series of paintings ‘Eyes of Time’ on display at Heritage Mississauga, Meena has attempted innovation and has experimented with digitalization, and in doing so she has abandoned the ponderous ruminations that have marked her earlier abstract work. This freedom has transformed her work and given it a numinous, mythical quality.  In this series, Meena takes an untrodden artistic path by infusing her paintings with a touch of the mystique.

‘Eyes of Time’ is Meena’s boldest work technically. In its technique, it’s breathtakingly original. In her words, the paintings in the ‘Eye…’ series are “digitally manipulated…in some paintings I have used scanned images of my own artworks and then digitally combined them with some other images to make the final artwork. I have used different filters to get the right effects. These are then digitally printed on the canvas. To achieve a certain level of artistic satisfaction and to get the desired effects and results I used acrylic paint for the enhancement of the artwork.”

Meena has been experimenting with digitalisation since 2000, but this is her first exhibition of digital paintings. The layers and the hues that she has been able to achieve with her experimentation give the paintings a haunting quality. While the tangible manifestation is figurative – it’s the eye – all the paintings have innumerable layers of the intangible, often just interplay of light and shades. The different filters that Meena has used give each of the painting a distinct texture.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Diana Tso at Stratford

A scene from Diana Tso

Diana Tso is a performer, playwright, poet, storyteller and an artist in education. As the artistic director of the Red Snow Collective (www.redsnowcollective.ca) Diana’s vision of theatre merges the east and the west storytelling art forms through music, movement, and text.

I spoke to her in June to find out about her work at the Stratford Festival, where she has roles in two important plays – the Euripides tragedy The Bacchae, reinterpreted as Bakkhai, by director Jillian Keiley and based on poet Anne Carson’s 2015 version of the Greek classic, and The Komagata Maru Incident based on Sharon Pollock’s play and directed by Keira Loughran, which re-examines the historical event that defined racial relations and tensions in Canada in the early 20th century.  

In Bakkhai, Diana is enacting the role of one of the seven women in the chorus, and in The Komagata Maru Incident, she is Evy, a sex worker, and lover of William Hopkinson, the immigration officer.

Excerpts from the interview:

What is it to be performing at Stratford?

A scene from Bakkhai
I'm living the dream. I've met so many artists and actors. The unique part of performing at Stratford is to have coaches that enrich one’s journey and build stamina to work as an actor. There were coaches to help us vocally, with our text, with our movement. The sessions help actors perform in two or three plays in one season.

How did Stratford happen?

I auditioned for the character of Evy in Komagata Maru, and simultaneously I was also offered the role of one of the seven women in the chorus in Bakkhai. Rehearsals began for Bakkhai in March and the final preview was in June. For Komagata Maru, the rehearsals began in June and the play opened in August and will run through until September.

What is Komagata Maru all about?

This is Canadian history. It’s an exciting role because it explores the situation of a person of colour in the Canadian society in the early 20th century and how she is able to stand up for herself against the stereotypical characterization of both a sex worker and a person of colour.

The character is able to seize her independence and be brave enough to make a positive change in her life; to do something better for herself and for others. Evy’s character has to be seen from the perspective of the early 20th century when women were scarce in Vancouver and almost seen as prized possessions.

The original play was written in the 1970s but this version has been re-contextualised to reflect the South Asian element which the director felt was missing from the original version.

It is particularly poignant at this juncture in Canadian history when we are rediscovering our native heritage and putting it back up on a pedestal where it belongs; when we are acknowledging the native roots of our nation and recognizing its value both in terms of what was snatched from them as well as what we need to do to give it adequate representation in our cultural mainstream. 

It is this process that also finds a reflection in Komagata Maru.

The play is especially relevant in the present context when we are seeing a rise in white supremacist ideology in the United States and also in Canada.

To buy tickets to The Komagata Maru incident, click here: Komagata Maru at Stratford

To buy tickets to Bakkhai, click here: Bakkhai at Stratford
Images take from Stratford Festival website

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Weston Village

Saturday mornings is my time. I generally leave home to go to do my weekly groceries and buy my weekly transit pass.

When I have to also go to the bank at Keele and Lawrence, I stop by at the Flame restaurant for one the best home-style omelette, toast and tea. It’s owned by a Greek-origin gentleman. Some months back (in April) I took a photo of the grilled cheese veggie omelette I was having and posted it on Google maps. It’s got an overwhelming number of hits (135,900 at the last count).

Then, on some Saturdays, I have to visit the pharmacy at Weston and Lawrence, to get my medicines from Mohamed Ahmed, the Somali pharmacist with a Poona connection (he studied in there), or to meet the other Mohammed from Afghanistan, who runs the laundry and alteration place.  On such days, I usually walk down Weston to be in the midst of one of the most interesting streets in Toronto.

Weston has a history and heritage. I’ve developed a sense of belonging to this stretch of road from Lawrence Avenue to Highway 401. To its immediate west is the Humber River; to its east is the railway line on which the new Union-Pearson Express operates. The village was an industrial hub long ago and has changed in its composition and character over the last century (as has most of other neighbourhoods in Toronto). Wikipedia has some fascinating historical information about Weston village.

On some weekends when both Mahrukh and I are at home together (which is rare) we go to the P&M Restaurant on Weston. It’s also a Greek place and serves delicious breakfast and lunch. Since I stopped having meat, I restrict myself to omelettes, and this place, too, has arguably one of the finest omelettes in Toronto. The place is family-owned and everyone tries their best to make you feel you’re a part of their family.

Earlier this summer, Mahrukh and I walked down Humber River into the ravines and crossed the river on a wooden bridge. In autumn the trees on the river bank turn yellow and transform it into a surreal, magical psychedelic place that you’d only find in children’s storybooks.

Further to the north is the Weston Library, which celebrated its centenary in 2014-15. Originally constructed through an Andrew Carnegie endowment in 1914, the library occupies a heritage building. Entering the building is like taking a journey into the past because it evokes a sense of being in an early 20th century wood and red bricks home with stained glass windows. The original structure was expanded and extended to accommodate the growing need for space sometime in the 1960s.

(Read about the original building here and about the extension here). 

Since I made Toronto my home in 2008, I’ve regularly visited four libraries – the main Toronto Reference Library (at every given opportunity/excuse), the North York library when my workplace was at Yonge and Sheppard; the Amesbury Park library when I lived on Keele and Lawrence, and now the Weston library. The Toronto Reference and the North York libraries are grand architecturally, and the Amesbury Park one is functional. The Weston library makes me feel at home because of its ambience. It’s not at all like a library. It’s a place that encourages browsing of books arranged in neat rows of bookshelves, with the original section of the building housing fiction books.

Today, I went to the library to return a book and borrow another one, and while browsing through the rows of fiction books, I saw my novel Belief nestled between David Bezmozgis’s The Betrayers and Rachel Billington’s Perfect Happiness on the shelf. That made me smile. I took a photo on my phone and showed it to the library assistant. She peered into the phone, and smiled and said, “Is that you? Your book? That’s great! You must write another one now.”

Sunday, August 06, 2017


It’s only in the realm of fiction that the past and the present can be made to coexist. Both on the screen and on the stage, interspersing of the past and the present compels the audience to willingly suspend disbelief and, when the playwright and/or the director gets it right, this commingling of time and space creates incredibly poignancy that is heartwarming.

As GRAMMA, the latest offering by Sawitri Theatre Group reached its climax, I was disappointed that the play would end soon. Yes, the grandmother had passed away, but, I argued with myself, the play could’ve gone on for a bit with by switching over to the story Samantha and Raj. In these two characters, playwright Jasmine Sawant created characters that were endearing in their youthful innocence.

And as far as I could tell, they couldn’t have been part of the original memoir. 

The play is based on Dr. Jane Fraser’s memoir of her grandmother Lillie Carberry (1865-1949), and Jasmine makes it relevant to our times by incorporating characters in the present. Adopting an Indian theatre tradition of having a narrator (sutradhar), Jasmine turns Samantha and Raj into narrators of the story of the eponymous GRAMMA’s life.

Lillie’s story epitomises the lives of Canadian women and families living in Mississauga from mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. But she's not the docile and domesticated archetypal woman of her times. Lillie's an independent woman with a steely determination to do whatever she wants to do. Out of necessity, such strong-willed people (and especially women) lead a life that to others may seem lonely but that's not so. They prefer their solitude without feeling lonely. Lillie’s best pals are trees outside her the many homes that she lives during her lifetime.

The gradually changing dynamics of human relations between all the characters are evocatively portrayed and the witty and perceptive exchanges between Lillie and her daughter and her mother make the characters come alive. Lillie’s relationship with her mother and daughter also reveals her deceptively dominant (and manipulative) nature, all of which is conveyed in a few pithy lines. Her late marriage and relatively early widowhood strengthen her character even more.  The loss of her babies makes her a hard woman, who has learnt that it's only she who can adequately console herself to overcome her immense losses. 

Lillie's an intelligent woman with strong opinions on worldly matters; she doesn’t mince her words expressing unconventional views such as the futility of war. She lives through two World Wars. Jasmine makes that early 20th century period relevant to present times and makes a strong political statement by including in the narrative the contribution of Indian armed forces (then part of the British colonial army) to the war efforts. Although it’s a part of prattle between Samantha and Raj, it underscores the fact that this contribution has never been adequately acknowledged (the latest example is Nolan’s Dunkirk).

The material progress ushered in through technology that the Canadian society experiences in the early 20th century (such as the telephone and the automobile) and the growth of urbanisation in Mississauga (localities such as Derry Road and Meadowvale) in particular and the Peel region in general personalises the play for the local audience, nearly all of whom would’ve been familiar with the geography.  

Both Sawitri Theatre Group and Jasmine need to be acknowledged for producing a play that is as Canadian as it can ever be. It's a welcome departure from what the group's been doing in the past few years. I’m sure this is the first of many such efforts to follow. 


GRAMMA's author - Dr. Jane Fraser
Playwright - Jasmine Sawant
Director - Christina Collins
Producer - Nitin Sawant
Production Design - Joseph Pagnan
Sound Design - Christina Collins & Sid Sawant
Costume Design - Shruti Shah
Projection Design - Nitin Sawant
Choreography - Akhila Jog, Shruti Shah & Raina Desai


Lillie Carberry / Little Brown - Amy Osborne
Samantha Fraser - Ivana Bittnerova
Raj Nilan - Carlos Felipe Martinez
Isabelle Carberry & Grace Brown / Grace Emerson - Lucy Winkle
Henry Brown & Luther Emerson & Rag and Bones Man & Janitor - Jesse Anderson

Makeup - Akhila Jog
Stage Manager - Jeremy Pearson
Technical Director - Keyoor Shah
Production Assistant, Props & Wardrobe - Raina Desai
Makeup Assistant & Wardrobe - Forrest Jamie
Assistant to Stage Manager - Devansh Shah
Set Build - Keyoor Shah & Nitin Sawant
Marketing & Administration - Jasmine Sawant

Postcard & Cover Design - Arti Bakhle
House Program - Shamy Kaul
Period Costumes / Props - Courtesy Heritage Mississauga
Antique piano and table - Carol Ambrault
Antique chair - David Huband
Piano Tuning - David Patterson
Rocking chair - Emma Ryan