Posted Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Penelopiad at the Highland Arts Theatre is an Epic Adventure You Won't Want to Miss

Image result for penelope odyssey
Penelope - Statue in the Vatican, Rome
Near the end of Homer’s epic The Odyssey, the war hero Odysseus returns to Ithaca after years of battle and adventure, only to invite slaughter into his own home. His wife, Penelope, who has been – as Homer portrays it – faithfully awaiting his arrival, has spent years fending off boorish suitors with the help of her maids. Odysseus, accustomed to bloodshed, kills every wooer. Then, in a startling act of arbitrary justice, he orders the massacre of Penelope’s maids. Their crime? He calls its their amorousness – they have slept with the suitors – but in fact they have been taken by force.

If Ithaca hasn’t degenerated into a terrifying dystopia, nothing has. What would it be like to wait two decades for a man who might be dead? And how would it feel to learn that a dozen of your closest confidantes had been murdered by the very man for whom you have been waiting? 

Who better to examine these questions than the grand dame of dystopia, Margaret Atwood? And who better to keep the dark tale buoyant with acerbic wit than that same Canadian literary virtuoso? With pathos, empathy and dry wit, Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad retells the myth of Penelope and Odysseus from the perspective of its female characters.

This is a bold piece for the HAT to have assumed. The highly theatrical novella is relentlessly demanding. The tale is, well, epic, and the cast of characters are equally grand in scale. Additionally, the language, though contemporary, demands that the actors understand the rhythm and mood of the choric chanting of Ancient Greece. And, they must perform it while engaged in intricate choreography.

The HAT has risen to the challenge of this play at every turn. Directed by Kristen “Birdie” Gregor and choreographed by Thomas L. Colford, the Highland Arts Theatre’s production of The Penelopiad is among the finest pieces I have seen since my arrival in Atlantic Canada five years ago. 

The creative team has designed the production so as to showcase the physical, musical and theatrical feats of over twenty actors, each of whom rise to the challenge of the artistic and technical demands of the script. A spinning wheel – crucial to Penelope’s intelligent (and sympathetic) scheming – doubles as the steering wheel of a ship – vital to Odysseus’s bold travels. The unfurled sails that dominate the set are arresting in their own light. But, they are more astonishing still because they double as the sheets off which bounce intricate shadow plays (the technicalities of which befuddled and amazed me). 

But a good set and a demanding script can only be fully acclaimed if the performances complement them, and the company rose to the challenge. The ill-fated maids fill the space with physical grace, verbal dexterity and musical skill. From the outset we see that they are doomed. The horror of their lives was summed up in the first few seconds of the opening night performance when an audience member screamed in startled terror as the maids groped and clung their way along the house walls. Their cries filled the theatre with what could be best described as a reflection of Penelope’s great regret. 

For those readers who can’t bear tragedy, be assured that not all is darkness in this epic tale (though, admittedly, most of it is). Humour punctuates the plot in a recognizably Atwoodian manner. Ever tongue in cheek, she parodies the hypermasculinity of Grecian heroes and anti-heroes, and metamorphoses the petulance of Telemachus – Penelope and Odysseus’s son – into something as laughable as it is disturbing. The male cast members readily accept the challenge to be neither heroes nor villains but rather spoofs of the same. Even Odysseus is a parody of himself, though the mock-heroic turns into true darkness in the final scenes. Atwood adds just the right amount of burlesque before stripping Odysseus of everything but villainy. 

Often mixed in with the dancing, scheming or crying throng, Penelope (Robyn Lee Seale) nevertheless stands out as a lone figure bearing an unfathomable weight of grief. She works tirelessly to untangle the chaos presented by her absent and dangerous husband, her selfish servant Eurycleia (Sarah Blanchard) and her ambitious suitors. Surrounded by all of them nearly all the time, she nevertheless finds herself ultimately alone. And Atwood gives her the space to wail. Aware of her failings, Penelope suffers the consequences not only of her own actions, but of the actions of others for whom she also assumes responsibility. She is more sinned against than sinning, and her excruciating emotional penalty far outweighs her own mistakes. She is a true tragic hero. And she is played with incredible dexterity by the inimitable Robyn Lee Seale who must present the spectrum of emotions, from euphoria to despair, sometimes in the space of a mere few seconds. 

Swiftly fluctuating between monstrosity and merriment, between rapture and remorse, The Penelopiad is an epic adventure you won’t want to miss. It runs through April 22nd at the Highland Arts Theatre.

Posted Wednesday, March 14, 2018

If disco be the food of love, dance on!

The Highland Arts Theatre takes on Shakespeare in a fun-filled 70s version of Twelfth Night

It’s Saturday Night at the Illyria and the barometer is rising. Duke and Lady Liv are toe-to-toe in heated combat, and the kids who want to get their groove on are at risk of losing their favourite venue. They’ve got twelve nights to figure out how to save the club. Meanwhile, just about everyone is in love with Lady Liv and scheming to get a little bit closer and a little bit hotter. Meow

Written and directed by Wesley J. Colford, Disco Nights is a pulsating, gyrating, full-on comedy of the highest order. While the Shakespearean play on which it is based, Twelfth Night, is one of Shakespeare’s darkest comedies, Colford keeps things light as he weaves a psychedelic tale out of Shakespeare’s turn-of-the-(seventeenth)-century classic. 

For example, in Shakespeare’s version, Malvolio is a steward who is in love with the Countess Olivia. He’s such a sour-puss that a few of his acquaintances decide to pull a fast-one on him and make him look not just ridiculous but also certifiably insane in front of the woman he loves. I’ve always found this dark strain of Twelfth Night not just disturbing (I think Shakespeare mixed genres on purpose here) but frankly tedious. In Disco Nights’ version, there’s no room for boredom, and the scenes are too ridiculous to be upsetting. Malvolio, played by the incandescent Andrew Gouthro, does get restrained (cringe-worthy in a straitjacket), but his petulance is ever-light. He kept the opening-night audience in stitches. 

Likewise, in Shakespeare’s telling, Viola and Sebastian – twins separated by a shipwreck – spend 80% of the play awash in grief. Viola protects herself from harm by posing as a male, and Sebastian sidesteps the propositions of a man whose desire for him is “more sharp than filed steel”—which is to say, “potent.” The tragedy is offset by a side-splitting comedy of mistaken identities and a healthy dose of the subliminal erotic. In Disco Nights, the siblings’ separation isn’t tragic. In fact, the only grief “Seb” suffers (played by the royalty of slapstick, Rory Andrews) is his failure with the ladies, a problem he tries to resolve by dressing like one himself. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em? 

The crowning glory of this show is the choreography and the execution of it, though some of the acting performances rivalled the greatest dancers’ moves. In particular, Michele Stephens’ Lady Liv was truly “dope,” as the cool cats say (said?). She was a glorious combination of Tanya Cresham-Leigh, the sassy and flirtatious divorcee in the hit musical classic, MAMMA MIA!, and Patsy Stone, the acerbic lush of the smash British TV series, Absolutely Fabulous

A great big shout-out as well to the Dance Corps., whose giddy-downs and groovy one-twos helped transform the Highland Arts Theatre into an Atomic Ballroom. And, keep your eye on DJ Feste (Geoffrey Lee-Dadswell) during "Rasputin." There’s talent and then there’s talent. This is the latter, unmitigated. 

Finally, disco without glam is merely a shadow of the thing itself. Diana MacKinnon-Furlong’s costume design was dynamite. 

So, dust off your disco suit, shine your platform shoes and boogie on down to the HAT. You may be the only audience member in costume, but you’ll be so glad that you are.

Disco Nights has added two extra performances to its nearly sold-out run. Be there or be square. 

Posted Friday, November 24, 2017

Doktor Luke's Theatre Blog: She Loves Me

The three-time Tony Award winning musical She Loves Me tells a familiar tale: “He” falls in love with “She,” who falls in love with “He.” There is a twist, though. They’ve never laid eyes on each other. 

Though it’s set in a 1930s Hungarian town, the idea of meeting the love of your life without actually meeting them is exceptionally modern. OK Cupid. Tinder. They all give us the opportunity to create a better us. One that others might love. Sure, they’re platforms that are obsessed with looks. They abound with selfies of duck-lipped women and men with their muscles positively gorged. But we still make a story up about ourselves to accompany them. 

She Loves Me is based on the same premise: we present ourselves in our best light to assist others in believing that we’re lovable. But in She Loves Me, they do it without photos. The lovers have not so much as seen a sketch of each other when they finally rendezvous.

The Highland Arts Theatre’s production is simply splendid. Kayla Cormier’s arresting set design is its finest visual feature, and the creative use of a handful of set pieces, smoothly changed throughout the show, gives She Loves Me
 a level of technical and artistic professionalism greater than I’ve seen yet at the HAT. 

And the professionalism extends to the performers. It beings with the youngest—a rising star named Dane Pederson—and stretches to a more seasoned actor, Dave Petrie. Just as I was trying to determine—and thought I had decided—who was strongest performer, Andrew Gouthro entered stage left as the fastidious and self-important head waiter, and I had to change my mind again. He joined such theatrical powerhouses as Welsey J. Colford and Mark Delaney to complete a holy trinity of talent. Special mention must also go to Chris Corbett whose character’s lack of chutzpah endeared the audience to him throughout. The women were also superb. The score exploits Katherine Woodford’s musical range, and gives Stephanie Hennessey the opportunity to showcase her talent as a dancer. Behind the scenes, the best orchestra I’ve heard perform at the HAT accompanies the cast in this romantic musical comedy. 

This is not to say the musical itself doesn’t present problems or that the production is executed without a hitch. The biggest challenge is that She Loves Me
 is very much of its time, which is to say it’s unironically sexist (and slightly sizeist). The company at the HAT addresses this to an extent by flagging up the sexism through exaggerated—and thus hilarious—gestures designed to indicate its awareness of the story’s chauvinism. The cast is also slightly too big for the space, which means the company appears squished on stage from time to time. But, oh what a company to be squished! In these moments, the costumed bodies are presented as a woven tapestry of glorious design, thanks to the genius work of Diana MacKinnon-Furlong.

She Loves Me 
is about a boy who falls in love with a girl. But it’s also about giving ourselves and others second chances. It’s about drawing a wider circle to be more inclusive. Unless you’re having an affair with your boss’s wife – in which case, it’s curtains for you! 

She Loves Me runs at the Highland Arts Theatre through November 26. Go on your own or take someone you love. Whatever you do, don’t miss it. 

Posted Sunday, July 30, 2017

Doktor Luke's Theatre Blog: Marion Bridge

In celebrated Cape Breton playwright Daniel MacIvor’s Marion Bridge, three thirty-something sisters confront themselves, each other and the inevitability of death when they are brought together in their mother’s Cape Breton home to hold vigil as she passes away.

As the play opens, the “wayward sister,” Agnes, tells the audience about a recurring dream: “In the dream I’m drowning. But I don’t know it at first. At first I hear water and I imagine it’s going to be a lovely dream. Even though every time I dream the dream I’m drowning each and every time I dream the dream I forget. Fooled by the sound of water I guess.”

And the mood set by this tormenting reverie endures throughout the play, holding the audience in thrall. Each sister in her turn exposes her own private hell. We are all familiar with some aspect of their nightmares: dying faith in God, rotting belief in anything, suppressed dreams and desires, sharp stings of alienation and separation. Marion Bridge explores other familiar themes too: alcoholism, teenage pregnancy, strained familial relationships, to name a few. 

Refreshing humour often interrupts the examination of these solemn themes, as all three sisters occasionally reveal a side of themselves they have suppressed or forgotten about. It is in this versatility that all three actors in the HAT’s excellent production, directed by the talented Todd Hiscock, stand out. Louise, played with perfect and admirable consistency by Jenna Lahey, is a strange, whimsical woman, more child than adult, more drawn to the fantasy of television than the hard realities of her home. Theresa (Bonnie MacLeod) is a nun whose “cloister” is a farm, but the thin exterior of resolution stretches over an abyss of anger and pain. When she finally lets them out, she is a force to be reckoned with. If you need just one reason to see this show, it’s Theresa’s unleashing of pent up rage. MacLeod is one of Cape Breton’s finest actors, and this is one of her finest moments. 

Nevertheless, it’s Lindsay Mae Thompson’s portrayal of Agnes whose performance shines above the others. Agnes is a failed actress and an alcoholic whose feigned distaste for life outside Toronto is only proof of her deep disappointment in herself. Agnes’s wry and ironic lines characterize her self-curation. She pretends levity and apathy when underneath lies a deep well of discontent and self-loathing.

Can anything revivify these three women? Yes. They can be brought to life through the reunion forced on them by their mother’s death. 

In Stevie Smith’s iconic poem, “Not Waving, But Drowning,” the speaker relates the sad tale of an alienated man whose quest to be understood was a failed one. The dying man persists in explaining his suffering even when no one around him hears or understands. In Marion Bridge, Agnes dreams she is drowning and waving for help, but no one understands her desperation. Onlookers wave back as she slips beneath the waves. 

In Agnes’s self-assessment, she is the alienated figure of Smith’s poem. And yet, Marion Bridge suggests otherwise because in the end, Agnes is heard. Agnes is understood. Compassion trumps self-interest. The need for togetherness closes rifts and heals wounds. So in the end, the play is about hope, not hopelessness; love, not hate; joy, not despair.

Marion Bridge runs at the Highland Arts Theatre every Thursday through August 10. Don’t miss it. This is Cape Breton acting and directing at its finest. 

Posted Monday, July 24, 2017

Doktor Luke's Theatre Blog: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee 

The Tony-award winning musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a perfect summer show, and it’s playing at the Highland Arts Theatre every Saturday through August 12th. In this light and melodious comedy, six competitive kids—all as different from each other as chalk and cheese, and yet all connected by their strange penchant for the dying art of correct spelling—gather for their region’s annual spelling bee. They are joined by four guest spellers who are called up from the audience each night. Don’t worry! You won't be forced up, but if you're a keen speller, you may have the opportunity to find yourself on stage. 

The entire musical comprises the knuckle-biting experience (for the spellers; for the audience it’s just a fun ride) of a whole bunch of middle-school aged children spelling everything from “Mexican” to “chimerical,” with a number of words in between that I couldn’t possibly remember, let alone spell, but must have been Welsh in origin since they sounded like two steam engines screeching to a desperate halt as they hurl towards each other on a single track.

The real pandemonium begins when the guest spellers are pitched without warning into an eccentric musical number, aptly called “Pandemonium,” that has less to do with spelling and more to do with the arbitrary nature of life. Sometimes it’s hard; sometimes it’s easy. But no matter what, it never seems fair. And that’s the only real lesson this otherwise light and funny musical presents—one we all know but which we must repeat to ourselves every time we’re confronted with another unspellable word (figuratively speaking).
Directed and choreographed by the inimitable Ron Jenkins, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee might be the most accomplished piece of musical theatre I’ve seen yet at the HAT, and this applies to both its design and its execution. Ken Heaton’s light display was a wonder to behold; in particular, it exploited to a perfect art the disco ball that hangs above the centre orchestra seats. The pace of the show, along with its consistently tight harmony and skillful choreography, was superb. At the clip Jenkins demanded, the show was a quick two hours. And the actors were not just good at moving things along; they were also all accomplished singers. Among near equals, however, MacKenzie Sechi’s apparently effortless smooth vocals stood out. The live band—a delightful feature of many HAT productions—accompanied her performances, and those of all the other characters, with panache.
The actors’ astonishing pace and skilled vocals were matched by their capacity to believably play children. Nothing is more irritating in the theatre (people checking their cell phones excepted) than adult actors parodying kids instead of just delivering kids’ lines. Indeed, guilelessness and a lack of irony are what make children refreshingly candid, and these actors nailed both. They appeared as children, without over-acting children’s frankness. There are also adult actors playing adults, by the way, and Katherine Woodford, as the “number one realtor in Putnam county,” and Andrew Gouthro, as the perfectly deadpan Vice Principal Douglas Panch, both had excellent comic timing. 

In short, don’t miss The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
 at the Highland Arts Theatre. The planet is falling apart around us, and every piece of breaking news could also break our hearts. So, turn off your cell phones for two hours and enjoy a piece of theatre that will remind you that once upon a time, when you were young, your gravest concern was how to spell “chrysanthemum.” 

Posted Sunday, May 27, 2017

Doktor Luke's Theatre Blog: Next to Normal at the  Highland Arts Theatre

The award-winning rock musical Next to Normal is one of the finest pieces of theatre yet produced by the Highland Arts Theatre. For one thing, it’s very relatable and even personal. Even though Next to Normal isn’t about you (or me) precisely (heaven forbid our own secrets are told on stage), you can discover a lot about yourself when you take a journey with its characters into the world of mental illness. Now, this makes the musical sound like it might be a real downer, but in fact it’s often funnier than it is sad. Some of the musical numbers are so camp that you can’t help but laugh in the face of one of the darkest, most stigmatized health crises of our time. Take “Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I” as an example, which takes spectators through the dizzying list of pills, contraindications and side effects in a way that showcases the overwhelming nature of the drugs designed to combat mental illness (not to mention the incredible opportunity for profit for Big Pharma). 

But I digress. I was talking about discovering a lot about oneself. You may personally battle mental illness. You may be supporting a friend or family member who does. You may have faced trauma, alienation and doubt without suffering the shock of depression or anxiety. Or, you might have let the darkness overcome you. No matter what your experience is with mental illness, you will find yourself resonating with one character or another in this penetrating show. 

Next to Normal brings the pain of a small family into sharp relief. It tells the story of a bi-polar woman whose traumatic past conflates with her present. Any joys she may experience from her attentive husband and sympathetic teenage daughter are compromised by demons from earlier years. In other words, this is no breezy musical. But, director Ron Jenkins tackles the challenging subject matter with grace and the right amount of good humour. While there are many lines, actions or songs that elicit laughter from the audience, the humour is usually wry and exists to make the path to confronting mental illness a little smoother and a lot less daunting. 

And it’s not just the music, book and lyrics that will attract you. Bradley Murphy has fashioned an enticing set, and Ken Heaton’s lighting design is spectacular. Captivating in their own right, they also serve to exploit the talent of the six actors on stage. Highest accolades go to Heather Merrill, whose embodiment of the deeply troubled Dana is complete. In addition to her strength as an actor, Merrill’s musical talent is everywhere present. She expertly personifies a deeply-disturbed and yet wholly well-intentioned mother and wife (we don’t meet any of her friends or learn much about her life outside the domestic sphere, beyond a few memorable episodes with her therapist). The supporting cast comprises a troubled family (including a caring boyfriend to Dana’s daughter) and a puzzling therapist, all of whom try to intervene to help Dana overcome her living hell. The uneasy husband is played by the very-talented Marty Burt, whose subtle facial expressions outstripped even his most flamboyant musical numbers in their capacity to amaze. The distressed daughter is played by Alison Crosby whose sweet voice was among the strongest in the cast. 

Despite a number of powerful musical voices, the harmonies were frequently a little off. Each singer did better on their own than in a group—significantly, this is in counterpoint to one of Next to Normal’s overarching themes: We get by with a little help from our friends. And that helpful message is loud and clear, despite a few glitches in the harmony. In fact, the failure to consistently blend didn’t compromise my enjoyment of the musical one iota. And the live band that accompanied them was superb.

At once intimate and larger-than-life, Next to Normal at the Highland Arts Theatre is a must-see musical that tackles the tricky topic of mental illness. You’ll laugh and you’ll cry, occasionally at the same time.

Next to Normal ran May 17-24 at the Highland Arts Theatre.

Posted Sunday, April 23, 2017

Doktor Luke's Theatre Blog: The Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence by Madeleine George at the  Highland Arts Theatre

with Guest Blogger, John R. Sutherland

When my daughter, the erudite Doktor Luke (known to me as Julie), asked me to join her in writing a guest review for this play, I was drawn to the opportunity like a moth to a flame, this despite the fact that I have never written such a thing in my long life. Just seeing the name ‘Watson’ in the title, plus a magnifying glass on the cover of the playbill, was all it took. 

You see, I logically assumed that the play must be connected to my great hero and bedside reading companion of some 55 years, the inimitable Sherlock Holmes. I confess that I love mysteries as a fountain leaps to light (I’m trying to be literate here to impress both Julie and the cast of the play). I go through ‘whodunnits’ like Donald Trump does women (not sure who I’m trying to impress with that). 

And certainly, there was a Sherlockian link to the play here and there, although the great detective never appears, only his enabler and popularizer, John Watson. He is joined, in this time-shifting script, by Thomas Watson, Josh Watson, and just plain Watson, all of them enablers, and all played very capably by local actor Wesley J. Colford. The mystery is not who killed the butler in the drawing room with the candlestick, but rather why technology moves ever onward, ever upward toward perfection, while human beings in every era encounter the same problems of complicated, depressing, and at times seemingly hopeless relationships.

I don’t want to give too much away as I strongly encourage you to see the play for yourself. But in a very quick overview, the plot is as follows:

Strand 1 – Eliza, a very modern young woman with a doctorate in artificial intelligence, talks about both her professional and personal life with a Siri-like computer she has invented called Watson after the founder of IBM. She is particularly vexed with her ex-husband, a man named Merrick, who won’t stop leaving her voice mail messages, which she ignores. This impersonal computer constantly reassures her that he only wants to help her in any way he can.

Strand 2 – Another Eliza (played in all cases by the delightful Hilary Scott) tries to make an appointment with Sherlock Holmes. The famed eccentric is away on a case, but his slow-witted companion Dr. Watson attempts to employ his hero’s skills in a bumbling effort to help her. Among other things, this 19th century Eliza is frustrated with her genius inventor husband’s seeming disinterest in her personal life. His name is also Merrick. Watson assures her that “it is a privilege for me to witness, and to minister to, your humanity.”

Strand 3 – Alexander Graham Bell’s first utterance on his telephone was to his largely unknown companion, Thomas Watson, was “Mr. Watson—come here—I want to see you.” Fifty years later, Watson is being interviewed on the radio by a third Eliza (naturally, her surname is Merrick), about that great event. Eliza, whose own personality and worldview, are virtually identical to her 19th and 21st century namesakes, talks to him at length off-air about what a dreary life being a historic wallflower must be. The loyal engineer responds that to be associated with genius, and in some small but important way to help it come to flower, is a great privilege.

Strand 4 – The 21st century Eliza’s ex-husband Merrick (played with great intensity by Nicholas Porteous), who is running for city auditor, continues to fixate on his former wife’s plans for the future (which he is convinced include big-time vengeance on his good and undeserving self), and hires his computer technician, naturally named Watson, to spy on her and uncover whatever conspiracies there are to learn. Regrettably Watson falls in love with her, but puts first his desire to be of help to her in her future endeavours, wherever course that may take.

The results are at times hilarious and at others thought-provoking, and as befits any great mystery, end with a surprise twist. Nothing about the human condition is solved, but four advocates do provide some excellent insight into how one can cope. 

All of this unfolds against a backdrop that is intelligent in its simplicity—a web of wires, both figuratively and literally significant to a play of mysteries, secrets, lies, intelligences, confusion and communication. 

The Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence is showing at the Highland Arts Theatre April 19-23 and 27-29 at 8:00 p.m. The director, whose talents you may have already enjoyed in David Ives’ All in the Timing, is the matcheless Tom McGee.

Posted Thursday, Mar. 23, 2017

Doktor Luke's Theatre Blog: The Return of the Cape Breton Liberation Army at Highland Arts Theatre

An insidious provincial government with a band of surly super-villains versus the Cape Breton Liberation Army (CBLA): a team comprising a hoarder, a smelly homeless-looking musician, a boozing divorcee, a secretive “ginger” whose job at Immigration is on the line, and three pizza aficionados who live in their parents’ basement and don’t drive cars. The odds aren’t looking good for the Cape Breton Liberation Army.

Full disclosure: I am a CFA—a “Come From Away,” for the thousands of readers (ahem) who don’t live on this craggy island. No matter how long you live here, you’re not from here: and don’t forget it! This means I get to take an outside look at this musical tribute to the big hearts of Cape Bretoners.

As a Notorious CFA (not to be confused with Notorious B.I.G.), I had to do a little digging for context. Here’s what I found out:
  • The CBLA and its generals were the brainchild of Sydney Mines native Paul “Moose” MacKinnon, whose self-published Old Trout Funnies satirized Cape Breton politics and popular culture during the Island’s cultural renaissance of the 1970s and 1980s. (Thanks CBU webpage, and read more of that here.)

The Return of the Cape Breton Liberation Army—a new musical by Wesley J. Colford, with additional story and music by Thomas L. Colford—picks up the story 30-some years later. It’s well into the second decade of the 21st Century, and Cape Breton is under attack, by some of its own people! The provincial government, led by a Donkin-man, is conspiring to revive Cape Breton in the most xenophobic way it can: You’ll have to go to the show to find out what that is. The CBLA is stoutly opposed and will do what it can to fight from the inside. But they’ve got internal problems: relationship issues, skeletons in the closet, and something about “small dicks” (again, you’ll just have to show up to find out what I mean) means they’ve got some self-searching to do before they can really use might to fight for right!

The Return of the Cape Breton Liberation Army is a visual delight. There’s dancing. There’s fighting. There’s public urination. With great swaths of colourful material to make the space more intimate, the stage has never looked more attractive. There was also a clever use of projections for backdrops, and video interludes featuring such celebrities as the inimitable child-star Victoria MacDougall and the beloved Frankie MacDonald. I thought the video editing was particularly good (kudos to Thomas L. Colford), and the costumes (thanks to the very talented Diana MacKinnon-Furlong) were a wonder to behold. From party dresses at the Capri to a six-pack-and-rock-hard-pecs get-up honouring Peyton Chisholm in the 80s (I guess?? Good on you, Peyton), the outfits were a feast for the eyes.

The music is catchy too. I’m not even from here, and my toes were tapping and I was wishing I could do the Highland Fling. Most of the live accompaniment occurred to the side of the stage, but fiddles and guitars (of the Cat Stevens and The Edge types) came centre-stage a time or two. It’s not all music all the time, though. Witty dialogue (sometimes too drawn out to get the laughs it might have otherwise) punctuates the song and dance and drives the plot forward. Standout performances came from Andy Gouthro as the enigmatic Stool Pigeon and George MacKenzie as the feisty Scot. The physical work of Sarah Walker and Mark Delaney was flawless and mesmerizing.

With more kilts, fiddles and crustaceans than you’d see at a Canada Day Cape Breton lobster boil, The Return of the Cape Breton Liberation Army is a tribute to those CFA-loving Cape Bretoners who may cross the causeway from time to time but whose hearts will never leave.

The Return of the Cape Breton Liberation Army runs at the Highland Arts Theatre through March 30th.

Posted Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017

Doktor Luke's Theatre Blog: Morro & Jasp Do Puberty at Highland Arts Theatre

Girls just wanna have fun, right? They want love and freedom and independence, but these are hard to achieve when you’re, as Morro articulates it early on, bleeding from the crotch! Yes, folks, Morro and Jasp Do Puberty is a show about periods and pads and tampons and it’s totally funny, even if you haven’t ever experienced “a visit from Aunt Flo.” 

Does this mean it’s a show only for the ladies? In fact, only for the bleeding ones? Absolutely not! This entertaining romp through puberty had the whole audience – women and men, girls and boys, and anyone who might be a little bit of both – in stitches. 

And in case you just don’t “do” periods, there are side-splitting (and clever) adventures into breasts, sex, boys, high school dances, make-up and makeovers (watch out! you just might get one), rebellion, rivalry – and even touching explorations of rejection, exploitation and insecurity. 

This 60-minute show presents two award-winning Toronto-based clowns – Morro (Heather Marie Annis) and Jasp (Amy Lee) – who shamelessly and courageously confront the trials and tribulations of puberty. They play sisters who disentagle the mysteries of the human body as it pushes its way into adulthood. Jasp (the elder) is full-figured but hasn’t yet had her period. Morro has beat her older sister to that rite of passage – a fact she tries to hide under fathoms of wadded up toilet paper. You can’t hide bloody truths from your older sister though – she’ll always find you out! But, she’ll also help you out. What better friend is there than a sister, right? (I can hear the eyes of younger sisters rolling as they read this.) 

In other words, the show isn’t just funny. It’s sweetly touching too. We may hate our siblings, but we love them. We may adore boys, but they let us down. We may hide our bodies, but we marvel at these very miraculous machines – their nerves and sinews and bones … and hormones. We may act brave, but we’re terribly insecure. These are other truths the play explores. And these certainties hit home even for those spectators who are well beyond the pubescent years. In this way, the play is only partly about puberty.

But sentiment aside, the play is ultimately funny – and wickedly clever, too. Using clowns to explore sticky matters like menstruation removes us a little from the subject and we find we’re laughing outright at a subject we usually try to avoid (unless we need to get out of math class or PhysEd, in which case it’s a really useful excuse). The clowns’ physicality (and in particular Amy Lee’s, though Heather Marie Annis gave her a good run for her money) was electric and engaging. Their on-stage connection didn’t push us out; it brought us in. Literally in some cases. Pro tip: Keep your hands clean of the Cheezies that might get passed around the audience. 

For those of you well past puberty, you’ll find yourself taken right back into the horrors of sprouting new hair and getting caught kissing your pillow. For those of you just hitting this magical period of your life, you’ll be relieved that you aren’t alone. There will be a bunch of older people in the audience who are nodding and laughing in understanding. They have all been there, done that – and survived. You will too. After all, a little bleeding from the crotch never hurt anyone now, did it? 

Morro and Jasp Do Puberty runs at the HAT through January 14. 

Posted Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016

Doktor Luke's Theatre Blog: VIGIL at Highland Arts Theatre

Vigil is a touching black comedy by beloved Canadian playwright Morris Panych. The story is this: a nephew (Kemp) drops in on a dying aunt (Grace) to say his farewells. He is selfish and shallow and self-obsessed, and it becomes quickly obvious that he cares little for his aunt and lots for her money. The real intentions of his visit are to feign fidelity and encourage her to sign her life savings over to him. Much to his surprise, his aunt is taking a really long time to die, and his quick visit runs through Halloween, Christmas, New Year’s and beyond. 

As Kemp waits for his aunt to pass away, he fills the silence (she says almost nothing through the entire performance, but when she does there’s not a word out of place) with everything from banal chatter to observations about neighbours to his own sexuality and to, of course, what it means to die. 

Though Grace says barely a word, we learn over the course of the play that she is exceptionally well-named. Kemp’s intentions were dubious and he deserved nothing from her, but she offered him a grace he wasn’t expecting and didn’t deserve: love. She also taught him about patience and the importance of fidelity and she pulled him out of a loneliness he may not have even known he was stuck in. 

But he is well-named too. Kemp means champion, and he was Grace’s only knight. No one else came to visit, no one sent cards. Dubious intentions or not, Kemp’s fidelity was rewarded with friendship.

This all makes Vigil sound more serious than it was. While it is poignant and philosophical, comic moments punctuate the text and the audience I was in laughed continually. There is even a little slapstick in amongst the witty one-liners. More than it is philosophical, the text is wickedly funny. 

Even the best script needs good actors, and both Aaron Corbett and Josie Sobol must be commended for engaging the audience throughout. Corbett succeeded in the Herculean project of memorizing two hours’ worth of lines, and Sobol communicated more with her expressive face and subtle gestures than one might imagine possible. Both were hugely challenging roles for completely different reasons. Corbett must have had a heck of a time maintaining the energy he needed to tell all the tales he did while maintaining the loathsomeness of his narcissistic self. Sobol had a different obstacle: in bed for nearly the duration of the play, her character was a captive audience who only bared listening to Kemp’s self-obsessed, self-pitying monologues on account of being so lonely there was nowhere else to go. Her gestures and facial expressions at turns communicated pity, disgust, indifference, frustration, offense and even, occasionally, affection. 

The actors were supported by a strong production team; in particular, the piano score running nearly throughout was a thoughtful touch. It added an incongruent calm to a bizarre and somewhat tense situation.

I would have liked to have seen quicker blackouts after some of the witty one-liners. In fact, the pace throughout could have picked up a tad, but the actors might iron this out before the end of the run. Vigil feels like a fringe play, and its oscillations between sentimentality and wit could have been just as effective in one hour as they were in two -- and that much more succinct. Still, the skilled actors kept the audience engaged for the entire play. Spectators were on their feet for a heartfelt standing ovation before the final lights went down. 

If you like a good comedy and have a bit of a morbid streak (who doesn't?), then Panych’s Vigil is the play for you.  It runs at the Highland Arts Theatre through November 13. 

Posted Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016

Vampires and Goths and Lawyers, Oh My! Sucker Serves Up a Hilarious, Heart-Rending Tale at the Highland Arts Theatre.

When your parents die from an Aston Martin falling from the skies, the only thing for it is to become a vampire. Or a rabbi. Or try to become one or the other. Right?

Thus begins the quirky Hallowe’en thriller comedy Sucker, by Kat Sandler. Is it funny? you ask. Scary? Sad? All three? At times Sucker is genuinely funny, especially in the second act. If you’re finding the first act dragging ever so slightly, hold tight. Better things are to come. Funnier, scarier, more heart-rending things. Because all the characters are suffering in their own eccentric ways, and you will find yourself resonating with them even if you don’t want to move to Israel, drink rabbit or horse (or human) blood or be an adolescent goth. 

Sucker is brought to you by a team with a long pedigree of successes. It includes playwright Kat Sandler who wrote the hilarious and dark Punch-Up that played at the HAT last year. Sucker offers the same quirky thrills doled out in the earlier play. The team also includes director Ron Jenkins, a local lad-done-very-good, who wrote and directed the excellent wolfish drama, Extinction Song, which I hope you saw last May.

The actors cohere brilliantly in Sucker’s final, “sad party” scene, which despite what that descriptor points to, is truly hilarious, especially when the junior attorney Carter (played by the hugely talented Mark Delaney) invites total chaos to enter the scene with him. This is Sandler, Jenkins and the actors at their best, though many minutes prior to this are equally successful. Hilary Scott plays a most-compassionate vampire whose consistent dedication to living the expected life of her new-found self is as hilarious as it is poignant. Mark Delaney naturally draws cringes as a sleazy lawyer (Carter) whose conscience rebukes him at every turn. Both Tayves Fiddis (Jamie) and Nancy Orkish (Constance) capably handle playing “types” without parodying them too much – Jamie is an aspiring rabbi who doesn’t understand the intricacies of Judaism, and Constance is a “crazy cat lady” who suffers from a bad case of guilt for being a possible husband-slayer and failed mom. Highest honours must go to Andy Gouthro whose capacity to deliver dead-pan comedy as Aenthe (they’ll let you know how that’s pronounced) knew no bounds. Dressed in a skeleton onesie replete with a cute pink heart, Gouthro didn’t falter for a single second as his character unfolded and his secrets came out. 

Even though you’ve met all these characters somewhere before – the alienated teenager, the crazy cat lady, the pathetic junior attorney, the lost-boy-turned-to-religion, and the vampire – you’ve never seen them in this combination, nor have you encountered them telling this quirky, chilling tale. Don’t miss out. 

Sucker runs through Sunday night (October 23) at the Highland Arts Theatre.  

Posted Sunday, July 24, 2016

Doktor Luke's Theatre Review: DREAM - A 1950s MIDSUMMER MUSICAL

Two prevailing complaints about Shakespeare are that he is intolerably boring and unbearably irrelevant. While these may or may not be fair, DREAM – A 1950s MIDSUMMER MUSICAL, adapted from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream, is back at the HAT by popular demand – and for good reason. In this clever rendition of a classic tale, writer Wesley J. Colford has extracted the bard’s most enduring bits and reimagined them in the 1950s, that swingin’ decade that ushered in the birth of modern rock ’n roll. And this midsummer musical is brimming with 50s tunes that even Millennials, heck even Gen Z-ers, will recognize, from Mr. Sandman to Love Potion No. 9

DREAM follows the main plot of Shakespeare’s most enduring comedy.  Four young people are in love, and it’s an absolute mess: A loves B; B loves A; A’s mother wants A to date C; C isn’t really interested in A but is interested in the benefits of obeying the mother; C is plagued by D who is dangerously and desperately in love with C even though C is awful to her (as it turns out, C really loves D but just needs a little help from some magic to realize it). Get it? Doesn’t matter. All you need to recognize is, if you’ve ever been in love, you’ve been there/done that. The course of true love never did run smooth. 

You don’t need to know a thing about Shakespeare to enjoy DREAM. You’ll still get caught up in the tangled romances and the vintage music. But, knowing the play makes the musical that much more enjoyable: The Fairy King Oberon of Shakespeare’s most enduring comedy transforms into a philandering magician who abandons his lover, Tammy (a combination of Titania and Egeus in the original), who in turn wants her daughter Holly (Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to date Dimitri (Demetrius in Shakespeare), but Holly loves the magical, beautiful, innocent, love-struck Johnny Angel (Lysander in the original). To escape the domineering adults, they run to a cabin in the woods, but trouble follows. Oberon wants to help, so he sends his puckish sidekick, Robyn, to push the lovers into the most satisfying arms. But he’s got some other, more sinister tricks up his sleeves, and he sees to it that Tammy is seduced by a Beatnik-turned-Ass (Bottom, in Shakespeare). All the while, the jukebox in the corner grinds out toe-tapping, hip-swinging tunes. The music isn’t actually canned, though: the live band is superb, and they are prominently displayed upstage, with the HAT’s pipes from its organ serving as a glorious backdrop. 

There was an abundance of talent on the stage on Thursday night. Hilary Scott played a bewitching Robyn, whose energy was only surpassed by dancer Lesley MacLean, who, along with Emily O’Leary, acted as the 50’s diner waitress. When MacLean danced, everything else held still. The whole company danced well, and the choreography (by Cynthia Vokey) was really fun, but MacLean was truly transfixing. Likewise, the entire company had good singing voices, but when Holly (Margaret MacPherson) sang, nothing else really mattered. 

Despite the stage brimming with talent, it was Heather Merrill (playing Tammy) who stole this show. In a play celebrating the winning follies of youth, this “elder” was nevertheless the star. Her subtle facial expressions, as well as her theatrical ones, were tremendous, and her singing voice was sassy and inspiring. Merrill even admirably rose to the challenge of the technical glitches that hit last Thursday night. Her voice, without a mic, reverberated around the theatre and penetrated the most stubborn hearts. 

Please. Even if you find Shakespeare intolerably boring and unbearably relevant, give DREAM a go. If the bard can’t change your mind, let the talented company of DREAM do so instead. 

DREAM runs at the Highland Arts Theatre every Thursday in July and August at 8 PM.

Posted Sunday, July 10, 2016

Doktor Luke's Theatre Review: Highland Arts Theatre Summer Season Shines


Credit: Hilary Scott
The HAT is widely known for showcasing productions with local flavour, and while this season does not disappoint, it adds to this marvellous distinction at least one superb show that is completely different: I Love You You're Perfect Now Change is one of Off Broadway’s longest-running shows. It doesn’t reference Cape Breton once, but its scenarios could have – indeed, no doubt have – occurred behind closed doors, at restaurants, bars and cafes, in funeral homes, and at churches all over this Maritime island.

The first act of this hilarious musical showcases a number of quick-vignettes all focused on the perils and triumphs of the dating game. From desperate hopefuls dreaming of "getting lucky" to bored senseless women wondering why they don’t just date other women instead, I Love You You're Perfect has a little bit of something for anyone who’s ever wondered why they can’t find "the one."

The second act is focused on life after finding "the one" – and these scenarios are equally perilous, of course, except in this half the pairs have to negotiate the tricky minefield of "love that was meant to be until death do us part."  

The show escapes any uncomfortable sexism by equally laughing at both women and men. It takes a few more jabs at men (the book and lyrics are by a man, Joe DiPietro), but the parody is light, and the generalizations the show makes about dating and life-after-marriage are too self-consciously ridiculous to be offensive.

The quick vignettes feature dozens of dating and married characters, all played by four actors. To carry this off, these artists – bolstered by a tremendously intelligent director (Marc Richard, with music direction by Chris Mounteer) and crew – had to undergo countless costume changes and leap into dozens of different sets. The costumes were intelligent and funny, and only a seasoned professional like Diana MacKinnon-Furlong, sustained by the meticulousness of stage manager Ariadne Dunn, could have organized them to this high standard. 

The set, though the visuals were simple, was also smartly designed (Savannah Anderson). As actors performed in front of an inset backdrop, crew members dressed the stage on its back side so that actors would exit, the set would swivel 180 degrees, and a new location was ready for them to hop back onto, in fresh roles, new costumes and a different scenario.  Each of these scenarios was graced by subtle (and occasionally not-so-subtle) lighting techniques that comprised a lighting design that was one of Ken Heaton’s best to date.

Highest praise, however, must go to the actors themselves. Musicals depend enormously, of course, on the strength of the actors’ voices, and all four were of the highest quality. Expert ranges and superb harmony made for a glorious evening of music. The actors’ comic timing was also outstanding. Ciaran MacGillivray was particularly excellent in his surprisingly tender portrayal of an ageing New Yorker (or New Jerseyite?) who’s looking for love at a funeral, and Courtney Fiddis shone in her role as a disheartened mother whose son simply can’t settle down. Katherine Woodford’s versatility and powerful voice was exceptional even among these seasoned musicians. Wesley J. Colford, however, was the first among equals in this particular show. From the moment the lights went up and the four entered in the religious habit of the friar, Colford demanded the audience’s attention, both with his physical intelligence and with his subtle comic choices. Also, he dances a tango in underwear over shorts (I may be mixing up two vignettes here, but the image is seared in my mind till death do I part). 

Of this show, I must say, “I love it, it’s perfect, don’t change a thing.” 


Also on the summer season program is an original creation with distinctly local flavour: Kitchen Party is by Cape Breton’s own Wesley J. Colford, in collaboration with an ensemble of nearly two dozen.  

Credit: Hilary Scott

I can only imagine that if any tourists had wandered into the HAT on a whim last night, they would have been stupefied by the island’s local talent.  In a relatively remote and sparsely populated region, that this number of hugely talented performers, comprising singers, dancers, fiddlers, pianists, drummers, bass players and guitarists, could be brought into one place on a cool summer evening is nothing less than astonishing, and speaks to the vast talent on this little Atlantic rock.  

The setting of the show is, obviously, a kitchen (a rather big one), and the chatter at this particular party revolves around all the things Cape Bretoners love to talk about: the island’s mysterious draw, its glorious industrial history, its troubling ex-migration, its pride, its potholes. Using a blend of familiar songs – the audience often joined in for bits and pieces – and new ones (with a particularly lovely creation by Ken Chisholm called “When the Faerie Lights Dance on the Mira”), Kitchen Party is a musical patchwork quilt of toe-tapping, hand-clapping, foot-stomping Cape Breton memorabilia.  

As with I Love You You're Perfect, the performers’ musical talent was consistently excellent, but special mention must go to the ensemble’s youngest (by far) performer, Victoria McDougall. When she sang, solo (in Gaelic no less), the stars in heaven shone brighter.  

Now, full disclosure: I have never been to a kitchen party, though I was at one heck of a ceilidh a few years back and doubtless something was happening in the kitchen. I am one of those “Come From Aways” (CFAs) – another topic of conversation at this party – so perhaps it takes some time to get out to one of these iconic events. As such, I can’t really comment on the accuracy of what occurred. Do people really tell ghost stories? Do they harp on ex-migration and long winters? Is there really that much plaid? (I would venture to guess the answer is yes).

I would have liked to have seen more of a narrative arc in Kitchen Party, though it wasn’t bereft of one entirely. And yet, it would be just as fair to say that an individual “story” wasn’t really its purpose. Kitchen Party exhibits the coming together of a group of locals (and at least one CFA) to drink and laugh and dance and cry and, above all, sing. To tell their collective stories, with all their disparate parts and uncertain endings. 

While I don’t know what happens at a Cape Breton kitchen party, I do know that at the end of almost every Cape Breton theatre production, the audience hops to its feet in an appreciative standing ovation. Last night’s applause was markedly different: the audience flew up en masse. It whooped and hollered and clapped as loud as it could, all the while still trying to tap its toes. This is a  Cape Breton kitchen party you don’t want to miss.


Posted Monday, June 20, 2016

Guest Blog: Community Garden

by Dana Mount

Photo: Kate Boyle
The vase of purple snowglobe flowers on the table at Dr. Luke’s – A respectable Coffeehouse has a strange provenance. On Sunday night the flowers in a neighbourhood yard had their heads snapped off. A strange bit of vandalism indeed. People living in Sydney are not unaccustomed to uninvited midnight visitors rifling through our cars and taking what they will. Every few months a Facebook post queries: to lock or not to lock? Do you lock your car to shut out the passive thief or do you leave it unlatched in deference to the bolder thief who would make a mess of smashing windows? The debate continues. As for me, an unlocked car led to a strange midnight visitor once – someone who sat in our car one wintry night, moved a few things around, and had a smoke. The smell bothered me the next day but mostly I was curious. What audacity! What boldness! Or, what a cold night and how good to find a temporary refuge. And, why am I so boring that I find no joy or thrill in this type of mischief. How restrained I am and how few rules I’m willing to break. I once snuck into a shuttered public pool but this was during the Brownout of 2002 in Toronto and I was riding a wave of joyful rebellion. Plus it was really hot out. But other people’s cars? Not I. I suppose one question we could ask is – who, then? That’s for the sociologists to ask and answer. My interest is cultural instead. This town has a culture of petty theft and our responses to it seem to coalesce us. 

This morning’s exchange in the cafe was a great example of how these experiences—when they’re minor and non-threatening—are responded to in the best way possible. A young man, a new homeowner, was ordering his coffee as usual and chatting with the cafe owner. He told her the surprising and unexpected story of the garden vandals and they exchanged surprise and sympathies. A garden is a thing of labour, a thing of promise, and its results add to the beauty of the town and our enjoyment of it. Cheers to the gardeners and all they do in this brief season! The coffee was served and paid for and the banter ended. Ten minutes later the young man re-appeared with half-a-dozen purple snow-globe-flowers in a glass vase (shaped comically like a boot). The blooms from the nighttime ravage are sitting pretty on the table next to me. 

Posted Thursday, May 29, 2016


They say all the world’s a stage, but something is wrong with the numbers in this analogy. Earth boasts roughly a 49.5-49.5 female-to-male ratio, with about 1% of the population being a little bit of both (or neither).  

Not so the stage.  In this supposed microcosm of the planet, something like 62% of actors are male and female characters are even less prominent (take HAMLET, where approximately 8.5% of the lines are women’s). (You can read more data, if you’re interested, here.)

Now, one more thing: Don’t stop to think… just name aloud the first 3 famous people that come to your head.

Were at least 2 of those male?

Ok. So no wonder history is called HIStory, right? It appears to be HIS STORY and not HERS. Looks like the ladies are sorely represented.

Not so in HERstory: A Musical Guide for the Modern Woman by Cape Breton’s own Lindsay Thompson. In a cast of 15 (or so), 14 (I think) women play 17 (or so) women, and 1 man plays 2 men.  

Is your head spinning with numbers by now?

Let’s switch to the story. As the proverbial curtain rises, Allie (Jenna Lahey) is being dumped by her boyfriend of five years, Kirk (Rory Andrews). As the delightful chorus reminds her, no lying about her age (“I’m in my 20s, my early 20s…” she insists, while the chorus more honestly points out she’s 29) will save her dying ovaries, find her a job, land her a new boyfriend, or get her out of her parents’ basement.

She’s going to have to do that on her own…

Or, perhaps she’ll need a little help from her new friends, including, Cleopatra, Eve, Marie Antoinette, and Queen Elizabeth II, among other iconic women from the ancient past to the present day.  
What Allie learns from these women isn’t all sunshine and lollipops. After all, Eve suffers from perpetual narcissistic guilt for having driven the world into everlasting sin, and Marie Antoinette was more than a little harsh with the peasants…  

But HIStory has perhaps painted them all with a single brush, where HERstory prefers to view them through a kaleidoscope, in which their faults are all jumbled up with their strengths and, warts and all, they have something to offer a modern girl looking for a fresh start in life.

Now, on account of what this musical tells us, do we all need to start hating men, burning our bras, practising lesbianism, and – as Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell would have it – probably orchestrating 9/11? Of course not. HERSTORY is a comedy after all.  It’s got as many lipstick bi-curious cake-eating queens in it as it does women wearing beards (1 of each), and a whole lot of humour that all sexes will enjoy. The lesson (if there is one) is that we – all humans – need to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, be ourselves, stop apologizing for everything, and demand the dignity we deserve.  

Herstory – A Modern Guide for the Modern Woman manages to explore the minefield of sex, gender, sexism, and feminism with wit and grace. It’s always smart, often funny, and relentlessly energetic. Despite powerful performances by all of the cast – and Hilary Scott’s Marilyn Monroe was particularly excellent – the chorus was the most memorable part. It was nostalgic and lively and sweet and funny and my goodness those young women can sing.  Hats off to each of them.  

Drop everything you’re doing and rush to the Highland Arts Theatre. The music is lively, the dialogue is engaging, and the costumes are glorious. Whether you’re young or old, male or female (or something outside of this thoughtless binary), you’ll be glad you did. 

Herstory – A Musical Guide for the Modern Woman runs through May 29.  

Posted Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Doktor Luke's Theatre Review: EXTINCTION SONG 

Even the most magnificent childhood is beset with disappointment. But when life hands you a less-than-best childhood, sometimes you have to change the story.

Were you abducted by mermaids? Pulled into the centre of the earth? Hurled backwards in time?

For 7-year-old James, the story starts with wolves. The pack was his true family, and the alpha-wolf’s sharp teeth were tenderer than his drinking father’s bite. 

Though Extinction Song weaves a dark tale, the 90-minute one-man show is frequently comic, and the audience on closing night at the Highland Arts Theatre collapsed in laughter as much as it sat, poised on the edge of its collective seat, in electric silence.  

For the first half of the non-stop show, a 7-year old James uses his unmitigated belief in his wolfish infancy to entertain spectators, but references to the not-to-be-touched gun in his father’s drawer overshadow the hilarity of his walking in on his parents’ love-making.  We know from early on that this spirited performance is going to pull on our heartstrings and jerk us back into remembrances of our own trials as children. 

The second half of the show is largely consumed by James’s toughing it out in the cab of his father’s truck in the bitter cold of a Manitoba evening while his Mountie-father downs too many cold ones at the Scottish Piper and forgets about his son.  No wonder the boy feels neglected and full of rage.  

And yet, when James creeps downstairs, hell-bent on revenge, his sleeping father’s puerile and inebriated night-whispers placates the wolf within and brings out in James a deep compassion – or at least a human resignation. 

One of the most amazing aspects of Extinction Song is Ron Pederson’s astonishing physical intelligence, and he uses it to dance a relentless and mesmerizing tango with his equally astounding line delivery.  If Hamlet spoke all his lines at once, would he have had – or have had to remember – so many?  I didn’t have time to do the math.  With the kinetic energy of a freight train, Pederson conducted his story straight into the centre of the audience’s heart.

No man is an island, however, and Pederson clearly had a whip-smart director behind him, who was none other than the playwright himself, Ron Jenkins.  Jenkins’s careful choices about sound and blocking were clearly those of a master-artist who knows the potential limitations of a one-person show on its audience.   Extinction Song had no limitations.  It could be watched again and again, and the carefully nuanced script would insistently draw forth new truths.  I found myself fluctuating between sympathy for the father and rage at his negligence, just as I was torn between believing that wee James may indeed have been raised by wolves and an adult, anguished understanding that the imagination is as hurtful as it is vast.  

I deeply regret having had to wait till closing to see Extinction Song, since telling people to attend – at least during this run – was rendered impossible.  But, no doubt the alpha-wolf will tell James to come back.  The boy’s song will not die out.  And even if he doesn’t listen for a while, the buzz about this show will linger until he returns.  

Posted Thursday, February 11, 2016

Doktor Luke's Theatre Review: ALL IN THE TIMING is a Nutty, Wacky  Must-see!

They say that superb comedy is all in the timing – and it must be true because All in the Timing at the Highland Arts Theatre is superb.  It’s slick and witty.  It’s quirky and bizarre.  It’s real life reflected through a giant funhouse mirror.  

It’s easier for we anxiety-riddled human beings to reflect on questions of life, death and love when the protagonists are mayflies out of some kind of crazy carnival, replete with pipe-cleaner antennae and luminescent pastel wings.  And when those insects get down to doing the nasty, like any grown-up human might, the hilarity of human hedonism is cast into sharp – and sympathetic – relief.  Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.  

But the protagonists aren’t angsty mayflies for the run of the whole show.  David Ives’ All in the Timing is a collection one-acts, and the HAT showcases 7 of them.  "Sure Thing" is at the top of the bill and in lightning quick dialogue Jack and Jill must navigate the treacherous waters of a first, sexually-charged meeting without saying the wrong thing.  When they fumble (as we all do), they get a chance (oh, couldn’t we all?!) to start over.  But, no matter how many tries, love is just never a sure thing.  It’s all in the timing. 

Death isn’t a sure thing either. Well, it is, but it's a mysterious sure thing - and in this set of plays we get the idea that maybe all of us have the chance to be reborn.  Over the run of the evening, audiences are treated to 8 variations on the death of Trotksy and a weird and wonderful tale featuring the sudden reappearance of the long-dead Marie Antoinette.  We also gain an understanding (thanks to a group of hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil chimpanzees) that the human capacity to reason might just be a sham and that language is as gorgeous and crazy as life itself is.   

Tom McGee is a top-notch director.  He knows the importance of pace, especially in a wacky comedy, and he never lets his actors lie down on the job (even in cases where the characters are lying down on theirs).  And not only are the actors (Wesley J. Coford, Hilary Scott and Nicholas Porteous) each humongously capable of tackling myriad varied roles at high octane speeds, but they are well cast physically.  All different heights, sizes and complexions, the three of them fill the stage in vivid and dissimilar ways, making for an attractive and arresting visual piece in addition to a hilariously aural one.  A photographer would have a hey-day with photographable moments in this well-blocked production.  With their sharp and continuous dialogue, almost every one-act in the show could have been a radio play, but seeing the motley crew of three engage with a range of sets and levels made the works that much more delightful.

This zingy, acerbic set of one-acts confronts life’s big questions with zest and ease.  Dig yourself out of those 8-foot snow banks and get yourself to this show.   It’s worth it.  All in the Timing runs at the Highland Arts Theatre through February 14.  

Posted Friday, January 22, 2016

Front Flip Tumbles and Tumbling Romance Come to the Stage in The Wakowski Bros. A Cape Breton Vaudeville by Wesley J. Colford

Review by Julie Sutherland

Overlooking the hustle and bustle of an industrial Sydney in days gone by was a theatre called the Vogue.  Its seats heaved and creaked as they filled with theatregoers looking for a little respite from their workaday lives.  The popular style of the time was vaudeville, a variety theatre that boasted lightning quick acts and dynamite puns, Three Stooges style physicality and just a hint of raunch.  But, the theatre was demolished in decades past, and vaudeville went with it.  Wesley J. Colford wants to bring it back.  The Wakowski Bros. A  Cape Breton Vaudeville is dripping in nostalgia of days gone by.  With lively musical numbers and quick banter, Colford’s piece had his audience captivated in the first moments of the show.  There was even promise of a pie face.  

This was a show about vaudeville as much as it was a vaudeville show, and so a narrative arc emerged.  The story was at once universal and distinctly local. Two immigrants to Sydney, from Poland, try to make a go of it in their new home without resorting to the steel plant and coal mine approaches of their brethren.  Beginning with dire acts on Charlotte Street, the optimistic brothers turn their shtick into a full-fledged touring show, complete with jazz hands and twin-fingered eye pokes (or something like that).  The inspiration for a lot of the showmen’s material is a waitress called Caitlin Rose.  Of course, one of the brothers marries her, and while both are in love with her, she is woefully neglected.  Caitlin Rose manages to wrangle a spot on their tour, but the romance is constantly threatened by the nature of the work and her micromanaging husband.  Of course, too much bathtub gin, followed by free-flowing spirits as prohibition is lifted in Canada, may be one part of a larger problem. 

The Wakowski Brothers of the title are Jakob and Conrad, though the elder goes by “Jim” in an effort to sound less foreign.  Played by George MacKenzie and Ron Newcombe, respectively, these gents are indefatigable.  The physical energy demanded of them was relatively intense, and yet the actors never flagged. Their kitsch comedy was bolstered by powerful singing voices.  They met their match, however, in the sole female actor, Lisa Penny.  Penny added genuine pathos to the show, managing to display the harsh realities for women in the period – perhaps especially women married to travelling performers – while still adding glamour and grace to offset the boys’ bumbling antics.  She is certainly the most fully-fleshed out character of the three. 

The cast is rounded out by a top-notch live music performed by the Wakowski Band.  The lively sounds of piano, bass, drums and woodwinds are rich and energizing from curtain up to curtain call. Oh, and did I mention they even play a tango? 

There are a few glitches.  The slapstick sometimes falls flat, and the show runs a little longer than it needs to (90 minutes), but the audience was laughing and clapping through much of the show, and nearly the whole house was on its feet as the proverbial curtain went down.

It’s a privilege to watch the earlier work of an artist who comes into full fruition in Heart of Steel.  If you missed it the first time round, catch The Wakowski Bros now.  Or, see it again!

The Wakowski Bros. runs at the Highland Arts Theatre through January 24. 

Posted Thursday, November 19, 2015

Doktor Luke's Theatre Review: COMMUNION by Daniel MacIvor

In the end, we’re all looking for something more than we have. Some connection with other people, or with higher powers. We are looking for communion. For connection in those silent spaces. For a little tranquillity and mutual understanding between souls.

While achieving this togetherness is a challenge, it’s worth fighting for. And it’s not usually in the relationship or at the ashram we’re expecting it to be. Never abandoning the quest for the holy grail of intimacy is central to Daniel MacIvor’s Communion, running at the Highland Arts Theatre through November 21.

Communion tells the story of three women – a therapist, her client, and her client’s daughter. In three acts, we learn that each has great gaping maws of pain and regret, but more than that, each is self-alienated, lonely, and desperate for a sense of belonging. Over the course of the play, each makes some self-realizations – often initiated by conversation with one of the others – that prompt them to grow closer to themselves and, possibly, enable them to feel closer to others.  Sometimes achieving this means getting rid of those we thought we loved and running blithely towards the half-open arms of the least likely of souls. 

As that brief synopsis suggests, the play isn’t upbeat, exactly. The tales of each of these women don’t wrap up in a tidy happily ever after. No one really rides off into the sunset. No one is resurrected by a loving kiss. And yet, the emptiness doesn’t leave us continuously aching. The hunger for relationship is, in the way that life hands it to us, satiated, brought back to the brink of insatiate, and then gratified again.

Because of the emotional trajectories of each of these women, the play is not an easy one to stage: long silences in which the women ponder their own emptiness and regret need to seem deliberate and must be sustained for just the right length of time. These tricky pauses, this paucity of sound, must be carefully balanced by moments of profound emotion – catharsis for the character and for us – but they can’t seem melodramatic when set up against the moments of verbal reticence. 

Director Sarah Blanchard achieves this feat easily, and her skill is well matched by three hugely dedicated actors, all of whom present deeply variant characters, and who never shy away from exposing their characters’ vulnerabilities.  Maureen MacAdam’s Leda is raw and courageous and Carolyn Dunn’s Carolyn is at turns terrifying in her cool professionalism and then deeply sympathetic when she breaks down her emotional barriers.  Audiences witness considerable change in both of them as they shed their emotional barriers and learned that, in the end, we do not want to die alone.  Katherine Woodford (Ann) is hugely successful at exhibiting piety without burlesquing the genuinely pious.  Ann’s brand of spirituality in the second act is distasteful even, I think, to the most conservative (she’d done jail time for burning down an abortion clinic, an act the vast majority of pro-lifers would decry) – and yet Woodford manages to embody her character without irony. All three were very occasionally difficult to hear, but I suspect that the volume will be amended as the production grows. 

It’s no wonder that Danny MacIvor has become a household name across Canada; the script is a good one.  But, it isn’t without some problems.  It would have been helpful to see the shift in Ann, for example, from hugely pious and frustratingly self-involved to seeking spirituality more imaginatively. In the final act, she alludes to a new relationship with her mother, which we can assume was pivotal to her metamorphosis, but we don’t get to see it. Also, while the dialogue is superb, the content occasionally seems dated, despite it only being 5 years old – as though MacIvor is hashing out some personal demons from several years or decades prior to that.  Still, the themes resonate: the sanctity of life, human sexuality, loneliness, and abandonment. 

Some of the play’s themes were highlighted, quite innovatively, through dance numbers that served both as entr’actes and set changes.  These pieces, performed by Rochelle MacQueen and Raychelle Doue, were beautiful and memorable, but they were also surprising and somewhat incongruent.  I saw audience members murmuring to each other, asking what the dances were for and then breaking into spontaneous applause upon their finish. The spectators were simultaneously engaged and uncomfortable. And if that isn’t high praise, what is? If theatre can’t make us conflicted, stirring a wide range of emotions, then perhaps it hasn’t served its highest purpose. 

Once in a while a play comes along that reminds us about some of the important things in life, and we leave the theatre different than when we came in. Communion does just that.

Posted Thursday, October 29, 2015

Doktor Luke's Theatre Review: Make Black Jack Part of Your Halloween Plans

On a dark and stormy night a few young people head out to a cabin in the woods. In the relative safety of their isolation, they drink and dream and … are hacked to death by a machete-wielding madman. Such is the stuff of slasher films and such is the series of related vignettes that comprise Black Jack, running at Highland Arts Theatre through October 31. 

Full disclosure: I know very little about the slasher genre. I feel I know more now. Yes, it’s scary. People in last night’s audience jumped on cue. But, it’s also funny – a genre that is dripping in self-mockery.  If that’s not true of the slasher genre in general, it was accurate of Black  Jack in particular.  The play served us up many of the genre’s conventions – I Googled them – on a comically bloody platter and then made fun of the genre as a whole.  The self-ridicule was largely achieved by a mockumentary video presentation featuring interviewer Archibald MacGillivray (the video itself asked the question, Has anyone noticed he looks a lot like Ken Chisholm?) that unites the vignettes.

The story is this. A killer called Black Jack Smith wreaks havoc on the small island of Cape Breton, but his bloody reach is epic. No Canadian is safe. Even kitsch collectors in Vancouver cannot escape Black Jack Smith’s kiss of death. Five vignettes written by four authors and each directed by a different artist fill in some of the mystery’s bloody gaps even while they haunt us – and crack us up.  

Having multiple writers and directors unleash this murderous story had the effect of allowing the audience to view the unfolding tale from different perspectives, some more terrifying and some more camp. While Jenn Tubrett’s Tales from the Campfire: Jack Smith the Blacksmith's Son was almost exclusively dark and disturbing and James FW Thompson’s Black Jack V: Black Francis (directed by Mary-Jean Doyle) gnawed on the spectators’ insides as we saw a single man’s psychological deterioration (Francis, excellently presented by Cameron MacDonald), Black Jack 2 (by Jason Burke and directed by James FW Thompson) had a lot more humour.  Felicia’s (Erin Thompson) KISS t-shirt and garish eye shadow and Devin’s (Jonathan Lewis) spectacular wig created some of the levity in this macabre tale of dark butchery.  The makeup throughout the show – and particularly in the video – was really well done, thanks to Nicole MacDonald’s talent. 

Multiple creators with their various artistic choices also gave the piece as a whole an engaging variety. For example, Walter Carey’s Black Jack 3: The Final Slaughter (directed by Erin Thompson) was more dialogue driven than some of the other vignettes. Some of the suspense of this particular vignette was the result of the mundaneness of everyday life colliding with dark horror.  This was excellently achieved by a delivery man just doing his job – that he is delivering a mummy has almost no effect on him or the audience – until the stage is awash in blood (as with most of the scenes, the actual presence of theatrical blood is scarce, though not non-existent).  Joel Inglis’s delivery of the everyday delivery man was tremendously well executed in its casualness.  He could have just as easily been delivering printer paper as a corpse.  Walter Carey’s deadpan humour perpetuated the comedy that was ushered in by the delivery man’s parcel.  This vignette was also particularly successful in its use of dramatic irony.

As a whole, Black Jack's strength was in its humour – sometimes gorgeously understated and sometimes flagrantly exaggerated. The suspense and horror were there too, but I would have liked to have seen the play’s darker side brought out with greater variation in pace and further visual effects.  That’s not to say the production lacked these elements – in particular, some careful lighting (by Ken Heaton and Jason Burke) threw terrifying shadows and generated the effect of paralyzing storms – but the dark comedy was the play’s greater legacy.  So, get dressed up in costume and prepare to be terrified – and entertained – by Black Jack.  With its frequent local references, this is a true Cape Breton special.  

Posted Saturday, October 3, 2015

Doktor Luke's Theatre Review: Alice in Wonderland a Visual Delight

In a world at the bottom of a great rabbit hole, anything is possible.  Madness is the new sanity and sanity is tremendously passé.  This is the starting point of James F.W. Thompson’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, running at the Highland Arts Theatre until October 8.

For such a new reality to be believed, adult spectators must willingly suspend their skepticism and become much more like the many, many children in last night’s audience who seemed quite ready to accept that hares have tea with hatters and croquet mallets can be docile flamingos.  (No animals were harmed in the production of HAT’s Alice in Wonderland…) 

For any adults who might not be keen to return to their more innocent and credulous youth, Thompson’s production provided a gorgeous array of visuals that pointed to Wonderland’s zany fabric, and he punctuated the tale with metatheatrical jokes that, while possibly going over the children’s heads, kept adults thoroughly engaged.  The deeply-stoned Caterpillar had a solid case of the munchies (Doritos in place of a hookah), for example.

This production had a tremendously skilled crew behind it.  Adroitly managed by Erin Thompson,  Alice’s many lighting cues were successfully executed, the most stunning being when the audience watched white roses bushes turn red in the blink of an eye.  While the pretended reality was that characters were painting them red, the technical reality was that they were bathed in a rosy hue through the use of clever lighting techniques.  Joe Pagnan’s lighting design was complemented by his clever set design.  Large white panels framed the stage.  Their delicate and fanciful ornamentation suggested Wonderland was at once accessible and chimerical.  When Alice is swimming in her own pool of tears, great swaths of shimmering fabric drenched the horizontal axis of the stage in bluish light.  

Equally attractive were the costumes.  Designed by Lindsay Junkin and collected and masterfully built by Diana MacKinnon-Furlong, the wardrobe is a thing of excellence.  A cast of 11 swiftly changed in and out of costumes for 19 characters, and every single one of them was carefully designed to suggest the fundamentals of the character.  The Queen of Hearts was bathed in a scarlet red, indicative not only of her reign over that vital organ, but also of her bloodlust (“OFF WITH HER HEAD”).  Conversely, Alice’s innocuous dress and pinafore still had a playful air – the light-heartedness of children willing to believe any tale, no matter how mad, with which they are confronted.  It is significant that Alice doesn’t really argue with the Cheshire Cat when he notes that “We’re all mad here,” implicating her in the craziness of Wonderland.  Graeme Robinson’s puppets (the ubiquitous Cheshire Cat comprising two or three among them) were superb.  Particularly excellent was his Humpty Dumpty: half was a puppet and the other half was the spectacularly rude talking egg-head (engagingly executed by Maggie Musgrave).  These puppets were among the myriad props that assisted the audience in immersing themselves in Wonderland where, in the blink of an eye (or the munching of a tiny piece of cake) children can turn into monsters, shrink to 3 inches tall and believe in the impossible.  Hilarious hands coming in on long poles from the wings indicated directions to the characters (EAT ME/DRINK ME/RABBIT HOLE HERE) that likewise helped the audience to follow Carroll’s winding tale. 

Notable performances were made by Rachel Colford whose sinister yet wholly mad Queen of Hearts was gorgeously bizarre.  Her quick change between this tremendously imposing character and the much more insipid Lorina was demonstrative of her skill as an actor.  Rory Andrews’ cowed King of Hearts, doped-up Mouse and wildly eccentric March Hare were also tremendously captivating.  

Condensed to a quick 90 minutes, Thompson captures the essence of Lewis’s tale without drawing out some of its lesser known parts.  Those unfamiliar with the story don’t need to know it before they see this production, but those who do will better appreciate some of the play’s fanciful events. 

Bring your kids! And money for concession! Popcorn and (as it happens) Doktor Luke’s coffee is in abundance – but grab it before you go in, as there’s no intermission.  On that note, even without a break, kids stayed engaged.  There is even some opportunity for them to help Alice find her way home.  

Alice in Wonderland is on tonight (Saturday), twice on Sunday, and once more on October 8. 

Posted Sunday, July 19, 2015

"If I Can't Dance, It's Not My Revolution!" Friday Dance Parties at Doktor Luke's

You may have heard by now about the Friday Dance Parties at Doktor Luke’s. If you haven’t, you will.  There is a buzz.  People from all areas of Sydney have cornered me to ask about them, as they’ve seen pictures or heard radio broadcasts (thanks 101.9 The Giant!) or viewed videos on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram that show a bunch of people – anywhere from 2 to 20 – getting up and dancing for 20 seconds to 2 minutes on the floor (no one’s tried a table yet) at Doktor Luke’s.
Photo: Harry Doyle

We’ve had all ages, all genders, all professions, all races, colours, and creeds (okay, we haven’t actually collected all the data, but we have had young and old) jive and boogie to everything from Paul Simon to Iggy Azalea to Kylie Minogue.  

Sometimes they show up intentionally to dance, while other times they are unsuspecting souls who just happened to be at the right place at the right time

The thing is, we just can’t take credit.  It wasn’t our idea.  We just love it and are glad it happened.  It all happened because of an icon in the community, Ms. Leah Noble.  

And why does she do them?  This is what she has to say: “Because I believe community -- and making our community a more prosperous, welcoming, abundant and wealthy, healthy place -- is about FUN. Connecting with each other in person, but also using social media to connect, is at the heart of the solutions to our problems as a community.”

And she sure has brought a wide range of people together at Doktor Luke’s.

The cool thing about dancing in the morning is that it makes you feel better.  Most of us have no desire to do more than stagger around in the morning, wondering what it’s all for.  The idea of DANCING seems preposterous.  However, dance can be stupendously effective as an antidote to depression.  While attending one Friday Dance Party is not going to solve all your problems, the magic of dance is that it can make a positive contribution to your mental health. Multiple studies have shown connections between dancing and an increase in productivity and an enhancement of health and happiness.

And, if you don’t like dancing, you can always just watch.  Even that might bring a smile to your face and reduce some of the angst you may feel as you crawl out of bed for yet another day.

You can see a whole lot of our dance parties on Leah’s Instagram page:

Or, here’s one that has nothing to do with Friday Dance Parties at Doktor Luke’s that always cheers me up:

So, feeling a little blue? Come on down to Doktor Luke’s on a Friday Morning at about 8:10 … and dance!

Posted Sunday, July 12, 2015

Ancient Love Turns into Modern Small Town Romance in Mature Young Adults

By Doktor Luke

Mature Young Adults has all the beloved conventions of classic tales of forbidden love: overbearing parents (or a moralistic society), ingenuous young lovers forced into maturity by problems outside their control; obstacles to their happiness that seem – and  just may be – insurmountable; and, the audience’s uncompromised and unflagging sympathies. 

This is the tale we’ve heard a thousand times: Romeo and Juliet, Pyramus and Thisbe, Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Isolde. Though not the most familiar (until you realize it’s just an older version of Romeo and Juliet), Pyramus and Thisbe is perhaps the most conventional.  Boy loves girl. Girl loves boy. Parents disapprove. Children refuse to obey. They communicate in secret (in their case, though a chink in the wall that separates their houses). When they plan to break all the rules and love each other come what may, disaster ensues. 

The largest difference between Mature Young Adults and stories like Pyramus and Thisbe is that the disasters are not quite as disastrous. Not as epic. There are no lions; there is no blood; there is no falling on swords.  In this way – in its greater realism – Mature Young Adults has evolved the genre, setting itself squarely not only in the modern world, but also in the modern small town world.


But elements of the original survive.  Cell phones replace the chink in the wall, and illicit night texting the forbidden conversations the wall facilitates.  The park in which the lovers meet replaces Juliet’s balcony and the boy’s bike replaces “love’s light wings.”  Public censure has become more vicious and its reach more vast. 

Community shaming comes in the form of cyberbullying and nasty personalized hashtags – in this case #whataslut.  This realistic, small-town version of epic forbidden love is unapologetic about its regionalism.  Caitlynn (Breagh MacNeil) is from New Waterford, and the play’s humour is often derived from wry jokes relating to the small town from which she hails.  So is the play’s morality.  Jonathan (Jonathan Lewis) is a good boy – a respectful boy.  Caitlynn’s parents couldn’t possibly have a good argument against his dating their daughter beyond that he comes from away.  

Both actors kept good pace throughout the play.  Ably directed by Anna Spencer, Mature Young Adults was visually compelling on account of careful blocking and meticulous attention to tone. Even in the sad parts, the production’s energy didn’t flag.  The natural dialogue of the mature young lovers can be attributed to the careful writing of Sydney’s esteemed Wesley J. Colford.

Because of the privacy of the relationship and the intimacy of the dialogue, I would have liked to have seen the play performed in a more closed space.  The vastness of the set – an attractive swing set was nicely suggestive of the characters’ childishness even while they were striving to be mature young adults – detracted somewhat from the affectionate confidentiality of the lovers.  Still, it’s a small point, since the actors’ energy relentlessly called spectators’ attention back to the duo’s action.   

In the end, you’ll leave the theatre smiling and saying “teacup.” Go see it to find out what I mean.  

Mature Young Adults runs  at the Highland Arts Theatre every Friday through July. 

Posted Monday, July 6, 2015

Cape Breton Pride Everywhere in No Great Mischief at Highland Arts Theatre 

By Julie Sutherland and Guest Blogger, Amy Packwood 

No Great Mischief at the Highland Arts Theatre will haunt you, delight you, and make you proud to be a Cape Bretoner – or it will make you wish you were one. Before the figurative curtain rises, theatre goers’ feet are pounding the floor boards to the rhythm of the music filling the house.  So keenly part of Cape Bretoners’ lives, the fiddle sounds enter the ear and move swiftly to the heart.  

The entire play capitalizes on this region’s cultural highs and lows, from the dangers inherent in living on an island cursed by wild weather and perilous labour, to the great joy and pride every Cape Bretoner experiences when she bundles up against the cold and sings with those whom she loves.  The mantra stick with your blood resonates throughout the play and reminds us that the pain of tragedy can always be dulled by the support of loved ones who understand. 

One of this production’s most remarkable aspects is its design.  Subtle and nostalgic images are projected onto a screen while continuous soft lighting perfectly dovetails with the backdrop’s pictures to generate a mood of both darkness and soft memory.  

Additionally, puppets designed by Lindsay Thompson add a theatrical flair.  A play within a play is told by actors working soft-skinned marionettes and miniature set pieces, ranging from dogs, to humans, to boats.  This tale provides the background for the live show it interrupts.  A family has met tragedy and must rise above it in any way they can.  When they fail, when mistakes are made, when lives are threatened and the ties that bind are nearly severed, each character recalls that you stick with your blood, and the family triumphs once again. 

No Great Mischief is directed by Sydney’s own Todd Hiscock, whose deep commitment to the region is underscored by his careful crafting of a piece that relentlessly plays up this island’s idiosyncrasies. The plaid and suspenders, the accents, the fiddle music, the Gaelic singing, the MacDonald pride, the brazen refusal to listen to weather advisories and cross a causeway when waves threaten to swallow you whole – these are all aspects of living on the island to which every local spectator would instantly relate.

Hiscock’s set was spare and powerful. Several chairs were nearly the only moveable set pieces and lent themselves to riveting scenes both in their requirement of agility from the actors (admirably achieved) and their swift transformation from car to boat to bed, mine shaft, coffin. 

Sam White’s performance of Calum MacDonald was particularly superb.  Those familiar with White’s theatre history know him to be a well-loved comic actor, so seeing him demand pathos was a marvellous surprise.  It shows a versatility that he rarely gets to demonstrate.  He presented a flawless portrayal of a victim of difficult circumstances who, once he had been to hell, refused to stay there.  The Cape Breton pride lifted him to his feet and called him home.  

Indeed, versatility was demanded of the entire cast, with several actors moving not only among roles, but also among languages. Several scenes included Gaelic and French singing as well as French dialogue. 

I might suggest the actors and director understood the text more intimately than the playwright himself.  While David S. Young’s script elegantly captures the novel’s haunting themes, it is the production that made it resonate with local audiences.  Being familiar with the novel, it was easy for me to see where Young sacrificed narrative moments in the name of larger themes – but the narrative moments he erased provided details to the story that perpetuate the novel’s success.  The actors rescued the play from disappointment in this regard, however, by flagging up the parts of the script that would speak loudly to a Cape Breton audience. Far from disappointing, the Highland Arts Theatre has produced a show that will move and delight Cape Bretoners and visitors alike.

No Great Mischief runs at Highland Arts Theatre every Saturday through July.   

Posted Friday, May 15, 2015

Audiences Get Lucky with First Time Last Time by Scott Sharplin

Two virgins walk into a bar.  It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but in fact it is the start of a wild and crazy ride for Airlea and Ben in Scott Sharplin’s First Time Last Time, playing at Highland Arts Theatre through May 16.  

What begins as a night in which they both hope to “get lucky” turns into a romantic-comedy/tender drama that suggests that getting lucky can be a complex affair.  Two commitment-phobic young people try to have a one-night stand and fail hopelessly.  They’re simply built to last.  They see their friends’ marriages fall apart, but against all odds – and even against their wishes – Airlea and Ben’s union endures. It’s a surprising twist on a play that professes to be about non-traditional relationships. 

First Time Last Time begins as a play within a play.  Our two virgins stand tentatively downstage and look out at the audience. Last night’s house was full.  Jenna Lahey (Airlea) and Wesley J. Colford (Ben) drew laughs from the crowd before they’d uttered their first lines, and they held the audience in thrall with their strong performances throughout the play.  Both are established actors in the Sydney scene and could probably work magic out of even a terrible script, but they had a good one to work with here. Incredibly natural dialogue is peppered with metatheatrical references to the audience and even commentary on the characters’ own lives that is at clever variance with the play’s general realism.

The performances were bolstered by particularly notable lighting and costume design.  This was not a play with general washes and quick blackouts.  Rather, Ken Heaton’s design perfectly complemented the plot and added an extra layer of atmosphere.  At one point, the spectators gasped as the night sky was filled with stars that reached beyond the stage and into the crowd, again connecting the theatre audience with the lives inside the play (and the play inside that one). 

The costumes, too, were carefully designed.  Airlea, an alternative girl from the “big city” is quirky and unconventional.  She wears outrageous and dramatic wigs that both capture the audience’s attention and underscore her offbeat nature.  Ben is just a guy and his basic casual wear accentuates who he is and where he’s from – the small town (in this case, Glace Bay).  When he’s down to his underwear (there is a lot of underwear in this play about first times and never-quite-last times), he’s still pretty straightforward. Having said that, from where I was sitting, it did look like he had superhero boxers on.  Perhaps there was a Wolverine lurking under his non-descript façade?

Sharplin’s stage and word craft, an outstanding design team, and stellar actors, all masterfully stage managed by Mary-Jean Doyle, result in a play that ensures this won’t be your last time out at the theatre, even if it’s your first time.

Posted Thursday, April 16, 2015

Doktor Luke's Review: Odds are Good You'll Love Zadie's Shoes!

The human tapestry is woven with myriad unforgettable tales of love, joy, hope, and laughter. Its darker underbelly is spun with stories of betrayal, addiction, grief, and fear. Zadie’s Shoes by Canadian playwright Adam Pettle has all these elements and more, and they are adroitly managed by director Sarah Blanchard. The audience sees a great curtain unfurled where humour intertwines with sorrow and spite laces fingers with love.

Zadie’s Shoes tells a familiar story of addiction and perceived betrayal. Benjamin (Rory Andrews) is a compulsive gambler. His girlfriend, Ruth (Amber Tapley), who is battling cancer, does her best to be supportive despite the strains it puts on their relationship. Deep in debt, Benjamin turns to religion. He enters a synagogue for the first time since his boyhood and finds some solace in a curmudgeonly but ultimately kind older man, Eli (Duane Nardocchio). Unfortunately, Eli hinders as much as he helps by giving Ben a tip on a horse that might assist the younger man in getting out of debt. 

The synagogue scenes are augmented by artistic flashbacks to a younger Benjamin and his father, Jacob (Mark Silverberg), from whom Ben has inherited his addiction. These scenes are captivating. It takes a few moments to realize we are hearing voiceovers as the characters, bathed in atmospheric smoke, mouth the words on stage. It’s a nice artistic touch and adds a theatrical element to a generally naturalistic production. Throughout the show, the cast and crew ingeniously use the basic set elements to subtly create a variety of uncluttered backdrops for this tale. 

The play isn’t simply a series of Jewish yarns. It escapes underscoring Jewish stereotypes (by the skin of its teeth – this is the playwright’s issue, not the production’s), but we do get our fill of wise and witty tales from the Old Country, yarmulkes, and Jewish superstitions. It’s in fact tremendously refreshing to see Judaism on stage in Cape Breton, where Gentiles generally rule the socio-cultural landscape. 

Benjamin’s return to Judaism is balanced by others’ own journeys into different faiths. Ruth’s sister, Lily (Rachael Rossiter) is trying Buddhism on for size but cries out just as naturally to Jesus, Allah, and Vishnu as well as the “guys on Olympus” and her “girlfriend goddesses.” Lily’s general self-absorption is pleasantly offset by her protective care of the baby she is growing inside her and, despite her tempestuous relationship with Ruth, her ultimate concern for her sick sister. Ruth’s other sister, Beth (Jill Taylor), just might be even more self-absorbed as she strives to become one of Canada’s great athletes in curling. Her life may seem perfect from the outside, but she too is fighting demons. The compulsion to win is destroying her life, and her marriage to Sean (Mark Silverberg) is making her equally unhappy. 

Despite the dark subject matter, Pettle charges this play with humour. It is not a narrative of ultimate defeat. This is one of its strongest points. There are no cheap jabs – just smart, and sometimes gloriously camp, comedy. The play bathes addiction in a light that might give us hope to battle our own obsessions, whatever they may be. In particular, Amber Tapley's dry humour and comic timing was impeccable, as was her character’s capacity for grace. This doesn’t mean she allows herself to be destroyed by her gambling boyfriend. She sets admirable boundaries, but she never lets hate creep in. 

Her central role is dexterously executed. Tapley is luminous. Andrews played a convincing well-intended boyfriend who is plagued by demons he is terrified he cannot exorcise. Despite these actors’ talents, both characters may have been delightfully upstaged by Benjamin’s friend, Bear (Clayton D’Orsay), a recovering gambling, heroin, and alcohol addict who manages to get himself into outrageous scrapes. D’Orsay commands attention on stage and ably handles both anger and humour. He is joined in his excellent comedy by the entire cast and even the crew in a magnificent scene that the exploits the beauty of the venue by showing off its gorgeous pipe organ as the players join in a campy rendition of “You Can’t Always Get what You Want,” and the skies open up and pour out wealth. This scene alone is worth the cost of the ticket and more. 

Zadie’s Shoes runs at the Highland Arts Theatre through Sunday, April 19. 

Posted Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Doktor Luke's Review: Heart of Steel at Highland Arts Theatre

Move over Rogers and Hammerstein. A new talent’s in town and his name is Wesley J. Colford. Heart of Steel is an original musical by Cape Breton’s very own Wesley, who undertook the astonishing task of writing the book, music, and lyrics. But he certainly wouldn’t want to take full credit for the show itself – a musical that had the entire house enthralled in its first few moments. The cast of 42 included people of all ages and a smorgasbord of talents that ranged from stunning vocals to nostalgic Highland dance, from physical comedy to tap. At the enormous curtain call, audience members of every ilk roared in appreciation.  

The basic story is that it’s wartime, and the women of Cape Breton have to defend the home front – keep the steel plant going – while the men are off at war. The tale trains its focus on one particular family whose eldest daughter must put her dream of being a pilot aside so as to help support the family and pay down the mortgage on their home. She and her younger sister battle their mother’s old-fashioned sense of propriety (“we are ladies!”) and rampant misogyny at the steel plant to assist their family and move closer to their own dreams. 

They are supported by their perfectly hilarious and delightfully humorous Aunt Edie (Diana Furlong-MacKinnon). The audience loved her performance. She was the Ginger Rogers to Sam White’s Fred Astaire, whose heart-winning role as the hyper-masculine Jinks O’Toole nearly burst the spectators’ hearts with glee. Aunt Edie keeps a supportive and protective eye on her niece, Amelia (Margaret MacPherson), whose ambition is huge but whose heart is huger. MacPherson’s vocals were stunning: the young woman has pipes of steel. Amelia is joined at the steel plant by her intrepid younger sister, Jenny, played by Lesley McLean. Remember this name. You can say you saw her first at the Highland Arts Theatre in Sydney, Cape Breton. McLean’s stage presence was as big and beautiful as the show itself.

The story is an engaging one, but – as with all musicals – the heart of the piece lies in its bigger vision. And the vision for this show was gargantuan. The set is truly wondrous. It is a tribute to blue-collar workers everywhere. Colford’s use of the whole stage space – vertical and horizontal – was magnificent. It is a titanic tableau vivant of steel and steam and sweat and pride. 

If the set stirred feelings of satisfaction in any audience member with an industrial background, the lyrics and music grabbed the spirit of all locals. Constant references to Cape Breton Island kept the musical close to home. Charlotte Street, George Street, Glace Bay, and Gabarus rang in the ears of the audience. Even Goldilocks is a MacDonald. 

Despite its Highland dancers and Scottish Pride, Heart of Steel paid tribute to the diversity of labourers on Cape Breton Island. Its Ukrainians and Acadians, for example, received more than honourable mention in this memorable production.

In many senses, this is a very traditional musical. The curtain rises on a large and energizing company. The pathos is channelled through massive choruses, and the witty jokes are the domain of the main company members’ dialogue. Songs and dances are given equal or greater weight than the carefully-crafted story itself. The score is wide-ranging, moving from love duets to full-company declarations of self-confidence and joy. Moments of dramatic intensity are expressed in song. 

But the familiarity of the shape belies the novelty of its themes. This isn’t about boy meets girl, temporary chaos restored in the form of traditional patriarchy, or young women dreaming about their prince to come. Rosie the Riveter would be proud. The women can do it, did do it, and will keep doing it.

This musical is a feast for the eyes, a feast for the heart. It runs at Highland Arts Theatre through March 27.

Posted Thursday, March 12, 2015

Coffee and Cigarettes: Rebels without a Cause

First off. Full disclaimer. I am a vegetarian and have been longer than a lot of Doktor Luke’s customers have even been alive. So, when I stumbled across a study in which scientists used rats to test a connection between coffee and nicotine, I was rightly – and righteously – disturbed. 

Now, rest assured Doktor Luke’s coffee was not tested on rats. I mean, for heaven’s sake, those of you who drink our Aroma Nica Black Roast can wear the label like a badge of honour. That stuff is not only organic and grown by a family in Nicaragua that our roaster has gotten to know, but it is also shade grown and migratory bird certified

But why am I talking about rats? Well, because I had this sort of sad but still highly amusing visual image when I stumbled across this study. In my mind’s eye, I perceived a human-sized rat – yes, he was wearing an overcoat and sunglasses and looking beaten-down but remarkably clean – hauling on a cigarette and sucking back a coffee like his life depended on the two of them.

But despite all that, this blog isn’t about animal rights, animal testing or even about rats at all. It’s actually about the romantic image we have (rats can exit stage left now) of coffee and cigarettes.  Why do we see the pairing through such exotic lenses? The woman waiting for her lover in the café at the train station? The tortured student hovering over plans for revolution? 

In 2003, a whole movie was dedicated to the phenomenon. Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes was a tribute to the two intoxicating substances. I have to admit I was disappointed in the film – I watched it twice – but there is a tremendous scene featuring Iggy Pop and Tom Waits. If you haven’t seen it, watch it now.

In 2015, we all know that cigarettes are truly horrendous for us. The Marlboro Man is simply no longer sexy. He has to get all rough and tumble and defend himself , all the while fighting for visual space over and above those icky images of what nicotine does to your teeth, lips, gums, lungs and, well, your virility (ahem). 

Coffee has a better reputation. Studies have shown that it can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia, drive down the chances of acquiring Type 2 diabetes, guard the brain and boost the reproductive system. Also, it’s delicious.

But where did all the whimsical notions of coffee and cigarettes come from? They’re like the badasses’ wine and cheese. What’s the deal with coffee and cigarettes? Well, historically they’ve both encouraged us on our quest for vivaciousness. As stimulants, they both improve our focus and arouse our ability to respond to the world around us. They’re also mutually reinforcing. Those poor rats helped scientists understand that those who reach for one will more naturally be inclined to reach for the other. (With genuine respect for the rats, I must disagree.) 

Anyway, after years of research – one 2009 study out of Durham University even suggested coffee can help you achieve out of body experiences. I guess we don’t need aliens anymore – the bottom line is, no one knows why these two are such good mates. 

Those tortured students and anxious lovers are just going to have to go on doing what they do without knowing why.

The sad news for any smokers is, you’re going have to enjoy that magic connection probably from the furthest recesses of your car’s trunk, providing no children, dogs, or employees are within 250 metres of your vehicle, as that is, at this point in time, about the only place you’re allowed to smoke.

Posted Friday, February 13, 2015

Doktor Luke's Theatre Review

Punch Up is the Perfect Antidote to a Long, Cold Winter

Highland Arts Theatre, 8PM | Running until Feb. 15.
Review by Julie Sutherland

Buckle up. You’re going to want to brace yourself for the riotous dark comedy, Punch Up, an award-winning Fringe show written by Toronto’s Kat Sandler. This show isn’t for the meek – its sharp comedy is peppered with cringeworthy tales and language that would make the devil blush. The night I attended at least two people had walked out of the Highland Arts Theatre within the first 5 minutes.

If horrified departure isn’t high praise, what is? The remaining audience – and the house was delightfully full – was treated to 60 minutes of what I might call theatre nouveau: a clever cross of stand-up comedy, slapstick comedy, traditional drama, and dialogue more typical of cinema or TV. And I think this description is accurate. Theatre Brouhaha, the playwright’s company, has a mandate to create theatre for a “new generation of audiences, the ‘HBO generation’.”

This isn’t to say the play is only for the young. Thursday night's audience was positively geriatric, and I half anticipated the paramedics’ showing up to assist the elderly, whose relentless guffaws occasionally overpowered the dialogue on stage. 

Punch Up is about a man named Duncan, “the most pathetic man that ever existed.” Duncan is trying to win the heart of Brenda, “the saddest girl in the world.” Brenda is sad because everyone she loves dies, and she holds herself responsible. Duncan believes if he can make her laugh, she will reciprocate his love. The problem is, he isn’t funny. His solution? Chain up Pat Wallace, “the funniest man alive,” to teach him how to make Brenda laugh. The next problem is that “the funniest man alive” has just been spurned by his wife and comedy-partner and is feeling neither funny nor helpful. But what can a man do, in chains? Crawl under the table of course and feed Duncan jokes that just might get Brenda to fall in love with him. 

You’ll need to get tickets to see how it all ends. And the tickets are worth every penny. The three actors’ comic timing is impeccable – this is especially true of Wesley J. Colford (Duncan), who hits the mark a dramatic savoir-faire. Nicholas Porteous (Pat Wallace) triumphantly carries off the role of the disgruntled comedian – it was the vitriol in his opening stand-up act that prompted the small exodus from the theatre. And Hilary Scott (Brenda), with her ubiquitous Irish whiskey and tragic tales, presents a truly dolorous spectacle. If it weren’t for her Fisher Price tape recorder and self-conscious irony, audience members might truly get caught up in her grief. 

Instead, grief will be the last thing on the theatregoers’ minds. Smack in the middle of a long, dark winter, Punch Up is the hilarious and surprising antidote to sadness. This show is 19+ and features a cash bar with rum punch. Get a double. 

Posted Friday, January 9, 2015

Doktor Luke's Review: Shit Song for Some Island (Highland Arts Theatre)

They say to get the most important “stuff” in first, so here it is: Go see Shit Song for Some Island by Kyle Capstick. In an age where theatre is still hugely dominated by male characters, the all-female cast of a show where every character is female (but whose sex matters not at all) is both significant and revitalizing. But this isn’t why you should see Capstick’s play. This lyrical, complex love-song to “some island” has moments of potent revelation about the way we see ourselves in our environment, see others encroaching on our spaces, and dream to get out even while we are mourning the idea of leaving. 

The story is this: Duana, a girl with haunting prophetic vision, has left an island for the city (her character, lost and questing, is skillfully depicted by Bonnie MacLeod). The island and its inhabitants feel betrayed—at least one of them does, anyway: Fiddler Girl, played faultlessly by Jenn Tubrett. But before a cynical audience of islanders can get their knickers in a knot about a young fiddler woman who idealizes this complicated island, they are introduced to Fiddler, a slightly older character whose witty and important pragmatism is beautifully captured by Diana Furlong-MacKinnon. Despite Fiddler’s matter-of-factness about the island, Fiddler Girl is unconsoled; she feels terrified for Duana. What will a girl with “rural eyes” and a funny accent become in a place where drugs run rampant and at every turn, disaster threatens? Even prophetic vision does not save us from ourselves. Duana quickly falls in love, but not with the city, rather with a city-dweller (Ryann—“of course it has two Ns”—played convincingly by Kathleen O’Toole), who does her best to draw Duana away from her roots. 

But the story isn’t one of loss for “some island.” Instead, Duana expresses the great divide so many of us feel in this remote and magical place. “It’s shit,” she says repeatedly, but the images of it she paints with her words belie her noisy censure. Indeed, she is partly responsible for another character’s departure for that dangerous and dreamy island, where waves crash endlessly against rock faces and onto stony shores. This is the final third of the story. Jane—whose character, both hesitant and headstrong, is captured brilliantly by Lindsay Thompson—had intended some time ago to try her life on the island, called there by Fiddler Girl, whom she had met online. In the end, however, it is Duana’s coaxing that warms Jane’s feet and sends her on a quest for love, both of an island and a girl. So the “shit island” must not be so horrible after all. 

A refreshing aspect of this play is the entirely unstated point that the romances are same-sex. They just are. There is no issue. Cupid shoots blind.

The actors successfully play distinct roles that meld seamlessly into artful chorus work, which in turn diverges into sometimes humorous, sometimes melancholy dialogue. The narrative is accentuated with sweet melody and arresting visuals. While the stage itself is starkly set, captivating images of urban and rural life are projected onto a screen that serves as the scene’s backdrop. The simplicity of the stage artfully contradicts a far less simple tale—one of rebellion, frustration, fear, and love. 

Part A Christmas Carol, part Country Mouse, City Mouse, and infused with the melodious magic of stories like The Selkie Wife, Capstick’s Shit Song for Some Island should not be missed. The play runs until January 11 at Highland Arts Theatre in Sydney. 

Posted Monday, October 20, 2014

Why "a respectable coffee house"?

Many times in the last year, individuals have walked into “Doktor Luke’s - a respectable coffee house” with an ironic smile on their faces, enquiring whether we will welcome them despite their being disrespectable. 

Oh yes. Oh yes, indeed. We like you better. 

For, like any good urban café, we thrive on a fair bit of irony. Not the irony, mind, that comes dripping with superiority. We couldn’t in good faith call ourselves a hipster café. We don’t even own lumber jackets and we couldn’t grow an ironic mustache if we tried. But, like the original hipster, we value independent thinking, creativity, and progressive politics. Heck, we can even slip on a pair of skinny jeans (as long as they’re second hand and never saw the inside of a sweatshop…)

But why am I talking about hipsters? Well, because I am talking about irony and surely if anything fits together, angle to angle, curve to curve, it’s hipsters and irony. But the irony we are talking about is the false respectability presented by those independent minded pioneers who fled the stuffy conservatism of their surroundings for the open spaces of the Wild West. 
As any patron has probably noticed, we have a ‘thing’ for the frontier. We like distressed enamel, tin, and timber, and if we were allowed to light a campfire in the middle of the seating area, we would. 

When we first talked about moving over 4,000 miles east to open up a little café, we liked the idea of giving a nod to the western region we had just journeyed from. We all know that the lawless lands of the west gave pioneers the opportunity to redefine themselves. And we all know that with the freedom of redefinition comes the liberty to rebel

So, while those pioneers put up neat little respectable facades on the front of rickety, mud floor buildings, they shirked the conventional moral codes of the societies they had eagerly fled. Inside the doors of these tidy edifices was the pulsing blood of freedom. These were the establishments where rules did not apply. Where any dreamer could become the queen of her castle. Where wealth meant nothing because anyone could find it, and lose it just as quickly. Where the only time was the present. The tidy, respectable facades were the gateway to new life. 

Well, any patron of Doktor Luke’s knows we do not have a respectable façade. We’ve done away with even that. But, we found an open space just waiting to be repurposed and inside we celebrate today. Inside, the old rules do not apply. Any serf can be a baron. Any slave a king. Welcome to the new respectability. 

Posted Tuesday, June 10, 2014

I Know What You're Doing this Summer

 (Nothing like an American slasher flick from the 90s to get you into the mood for summer, right?)

Ok, so it’s 21 degrees and sunny (at least it was when I started to write this post) and Doktor Luke is not one to sit still. 

Summer may be lauded as a time for lying about, but we’re just so excited about all the summer stuff going on in the next little while that we can’t help but flag a few things up that we’re excited about:

As part of Active Living CBRM, Doktor Luke’s is offering 50% off all coffee drinks to cyclists who come by on their bikes! This runs till June 15, so get your bike and get cycling!

Okay, so this annual international event is a pledge-based fundraiser.  On June 21, a whole lotta men are dressing up in the shoes of a whole lotta ladies and walking a mile to support the work the Cape Breton Transition House does to provide a safe haven for abused women and children.  Get out your pumps, gents, cause it’s time to get walking!

Two things you might not know: Cymbeline is by Shakespeare and Cymbeline is not a woman. So why would you see a play by a guy you hate about another guy with a girl’s name that you’ve never heard of? BECAUSE OF THIS: think Game of Thrones meets a variation on An Indecent Proposal meets an affordable summer evening outdoors in Sydney!!! 

It’s an action-packed adventure-romance starring a whole lot of locals that are rehearsing right now to bring you some superb Shakespeare June 25-29. Admission is by donation and all money from coffee & tea purchases, provided by Doktor Luke’s, will also be donated to the show. Don’t worry, there will be lemonade too!

4) Voices for Change at Holy Angels (Hosted by Nicole MacDougall)
You might have heard word about this important piece. The Facebook page says, “Voices for Change is a collection of dramatic pieces on the topic of violence against women in Cape Breton. Our script is a collectively created piece of theatre by women in the community. Our hope is to use theatre to create dialogue around the issue of violence against women in Cape Breton.” 

It is important and it is serious, but it’s not a downer! You will laugh even as you shed profound tears. This show runs late June too (26-28), so check it out on a night you’re not attending Cymbeline!

Doktor Luke’s is excited to be an in-kind sponsor for Sydney’s debut into the world of TED. As their website says, “TEDxCapeBreton aims to combine evocative optimists, leaders, thinkers, storytellers, dreamers, doers, creators, adventurists, mavericks and other change agents to spark deep discussion.” 

No doubt this is going to inspire some people to think in ways and about things they’d never imagined possible. Taking place Friday, July 11 at the Boardmore Playhouse at CBU.

Doktor Luke’s will see you this summer all around the city!

Posted Wednesday, April 17, 2014

Just say YES to caffeine

If you’re Generation X, as I am, you grew up during the “Just Say No” campaign. (If the Reagan Administration’s active role in that crusade is too painful for you to recall, you might rather reminisce about the glorious “This is your brain on drugs” t-shirts that gained cult status around the same time.)

“Just Say NO” was geared at elementary school students while “This is your brain on drugs” made its appeals to teenagers. So we Gen-Xers entered adult life with a clear sense that the hallucinogenic highs of the 1960s Free Lovers were truly morally and physically disastrous. 

But then we hit adulthood. Some of us had kids. Some of us went to college. Some of us did both. In any case, it was a life of no sleep and a deep need for caffeine. 

But wait? Isn’t it a drug and aren’t drugs bad? A “situation” arises as the innocent self of your decaffeinated past languidly lifts its unleaded head and yawns as it asks these questions. Meanwhile, the 24-hour-party-person of your new caffeinated self simultaneously winces in some shame and laughs in a superior fashion at the naiveté of your youth.

Doktor Luke is here to reassure you. But we don’t like to tell lies. So, the straight up truth is that caffeine is indeed a drug. But before you give it up for its Swiss Water Processed cousin, you should know that in not-too-rigidly-moderate amounts, coffee is a hugely beneficial drink. 

Coffee is essentially 99% water and 1% coffee. Only 1/100th of that coffee is caffeine. So, when you have a cup of delicious, organic, fair-trade, single-origin, shade grown dark, you are consuming a drink that is 99.99% drug-free. (I think I did that math right.)

And it gets better! While caffeine is a drug, it’s legal and unregulated. Health Canada recommends that you cap your caffeine at 400 mgs per day, though the FDA is fine with you reaching levels of closer to 1,000 mgs. The average brewed mug of coffee contains just over 100 mg, so you would have to drink 9 or 10 cups before you hit levels that might make FDA give you a second glance.

And here’s all the good stuff that happens in the meantime:

1) It increases dopamine and blocks adenosine reception (don’t worry – I don’t know what that means either). In plain language, what I’m saying is that it gives you the lovely boost of energy you so long for in this crazy age.

2) Studies have linked it to reducing the risk of various forms of dementia.

3) Since caffeine is a mood stimulant, there are connections between coffee consumption and decreased depression (in women anyway…sorry gents). 

4) It can also combat Type 2 Diabetes (also in women…sorry gents) and Parkinson’s (gents, that one’s for you).

In short, it’s a wonder drug! À votre santé!

Posted Thursday, March 27, 2014

I like my coffee like my books: rich, dark, and compelling

 “This coffee falls into your stomach, and straightway there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move like the battalions of the Grand Army of the battlefield, and the battle takes place. Things remembered arrive at full gallop, ensuing to the wind. The light cavalry of comparisons deliver a magnificent deploying charge, the artillery of logic hurry up with their train and ammunition, the shafts of wit start up like sharpshooters. Similes arise, the paper is covered with ink; for the struggle commences and is concluded with torrents of black water, just as a battle with powder.” 

This celebration of the power of coffee comes from the great writer, Honoré de Balzac. And indeed the magical connection between writers and coffee (and writers and alcohol, but that is for another kind of blog) is pure, sweet, and strong (just like many coffees... and many books!).

The connection between readers and coffee is just as potent. Little is more healing to the embattled soul than sinking into a chair with a steaming mug of java, opening a good book, and devouring it and the cup of coffee at once.

So today, dear coffee-book lovers, I thought I would write about a few of my favourite compositions (that they happen to be for sale at discount prices at Doktor Luke’s is merely a pleasant coincidence...).

Timothy Findley, Famous Last Words (1984)

"It seems to me...this world is nothing more than someone’s revenge. We are led into the light and shown such marvels as one cannot tell...And then...they turn out all the lights and hit you with a baseball bat." Thus saith Wallis Simpson in the late Canadian author’s epic tale of political intrigue and terror set against a backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and World War II. This unnerving dance along the blurry lines of fact and fiction swears early on that it will mercilessly propel the reader into a web of truth and lies. By the end of the novel, in which we meet a maverick American ex-pat named Mauberley who gets sucked into a cabal that is plotting a startling coup, readers are compelled to embrace the idea that the greatest fiction of all is to believe that anything is knowable, that any truth does not contain a thousand lies.

Maggie deVries, Missing Sarah: a memoir of loss (2008)

Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is a notorious hotbed of drugs, disease, and despair. Early this millennium, the area gained particular prominence when a large number of missing sex trade workers were linked to a pig farmer named Robert Willy Pickton, who was later charged with the murder of 26 women, many of whom - including Sarah of the book’s title - solicited in that neighbourhood. Sarah’s DNA was found on the Pickton farm. In this moving – but not sentimental – account, Sarah’s sister, Maggie deVries, uncovers an image of her sibling that many would not have recognized as they turned their eyes (from shame or conscience – who can say?) away from where she was standing provocatively at the corner of Princess and Hastings Street. In deVries’ account, Sarah is a dynamic and creative young woman who got caught in a web of addiction and violence that led finally to her early death. It is a tribute to a woman whose virtues were recognized far too late.

Shakespeare’s Collected Works (first published collectively in 1623)

Many of you may know Trevor Nunn, a great theatre director who gained prominence in North America for his more commercial exploits, Cats and Les Miserables. Lately, he controversially quipped, “Shakespeare has more wisdom and insight about our lives, about how to live and how not to live, how to forgive and how to understand our fellow creatures, than any religious tract. One hundred times more than the Bible. I’m sorry to say that. But over and over again in the plays there is an understanding of the human condition that doesn’t exist in religious books.”

Now, I love reading the Bible. What an epic collection of stories about tyranny, rebellion, rage, and mercy.  But Trevor Nunn’s got a good point.  Shakespeare’s attractiveness cuts across races, religions, classes, and sexes. He was the star of the honky tonk halls of the Wild West even while the social elite observed his plays in luxurious theatres across Europe. He is the voice of English patriotism even while the Union Jack is ripped from his shoulders as indigenous peoples in post-colonial nations produce his shows. Shakespeare has inspired great political leaders and soothed dark nights of the poorest person’s soul. He is a balm to the broken-hearted and a spark to the down-trodden. He incites lovers to act and haters to forgive (and to nearly die trying). For the less sentimental, he weaves violent tales of revenge so bizarre as to be almost hilarious and comedies so ludicrous as to be almost bizarre.

Thinking on these things, perhaps it is appropriate to mildly oath, “For God’s sake, read Shakespeare!”

Posted Saturday, March 8, 2014

Everything you always wanted to know about coffee* 

*but were afraid to ask

PART ONE: What on earth is a macchiato?

To want to know everything about coffee is a tall order (a venti order, some cafes might say). I may have bitten off more than I can chew. I mean, where to even begin? The history? The mythology? The art? The science? The politics? 

What about its origins? Let's begin with a story from The Odyssey

[Once upon a time…] Helen, daughter of Zeus, thought to slip a drug into the wine [her compatriots] drank, one that calmed all pain and trouble, and brought forgetfulness of every evil. Whoever tasted it […] would shed no tears that day, not though his mother and father lay there dead, not though they put his dear son or his brother to the sword, before his very eyes.  

(With thanks to Homer and A.S. Kline, the translator.)

This "drug" was called nepenthes, and its first known mention is from this ancient book. As the story above suggests, it literally means, "an elixir that banishes sadness and wrath from the heart" or "a cordial that chases away all sorrow."

But what was nepenthes?

Some say blithely it was opium.

The cleverer faithfully maintain that this secret potion which vanquishes unspeakable anguish is coffee.

And for has done just that. In twenty-first century Canada, it comes in so many exhilarating variations, that even the most celebrated aficionados can find their heads spinning.

Let us begin with one of the more perplexing:
What on earth is a macchiato?

The most exciting thing is that it comes in a cup like this:

A macchiato at Doktor Luke's

And looks that cute. 

In fact, that IS a macchiato!

Carrying on, “macchiato” comes from the Italian for “marked” or “stained” – and the itty bitty drink is an espresso marked or stained with a wee dollop of steamed milk. An aptly named elixir! 

(PS. Some of the Big Boys call something else a macchiato… where the marking comes in the form of a drizzle of some kind of sweet goop, and the whole concoction is, while doubtlessly tasty, not as cute and tiny. Not so Doktor Luke’s macchiato perfetto. Hopefully this will spare you some confusion.)

Ready for Part Two? Watch this space!

Posted Monday, Feb. 24, 2014


Be just and if you can't be just, be arbitrary. (William S. Burroughs) 

Sometimes one encounters rules so seemingly arbitrary that it prompts the individual encountering them to wonder if she missed the blatantly obvious logic that would explain away the apparent randomness of a decision.

Alas, poor Doktor Luke seems to be in that whacky predicament just now, along with a few other small businesses on the harbourside of Kings Road, just where it meets the Esplanade. 

Many of you have seen and commented on the recent story on CBC about the pedestrian walkway that has been gated and locked for nearly a decade despite its cost to the taxpayers of $280,000

If you haven’t read about it, you can here:

If you don’t feel like reading about it, here’s a summary:

Doktor Luke’s asked CBRM (Cape Breton Regional Municipality) if they would consider opening the covered pathway that permits safe passage below Kings Road and stretches from Wentworth Park to Doktor Luke’s, Look Used Furniture, and Park Place Hair Salon. We offered to keep the key and close it at or before dusk—this would ensure security at night and would mean that there would be no extra cost or work for CBRM. They said no. When the CBC asked them for their rationale (we didn’t get any explanation), CBRM said it was for security reasons and they would open it in 2 or 3 years from now when the boardwalk is extended in that direction. 

This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to many of us. Why wait 2 to 3 years to address security concerns, keeping people’s tax dollars in limbo, rather than tackling related issues now and facilitating safe passage from the park to the harbour? Sure, the increased number of saunterers on the boardwalk in several years from now does mean more people will use the walkway at that point, but until then, do people out for leisurely strolls mean so little? Are the small businesses who hope to greet them of no concern?

Of course, there are always multiple sides to a story. Perhaps the decision is not as arbitrary as it seems. But we can’t get the full story. The individual in charge at CBRM didn’t seem to want to communicate the decision himself, asking a colleague to break the bad news to us instead.

So, since we can’t get the whole story, we have to work with what we know. What we know is many of our customers join us in wishing the walkway would be opened and we are more than happy to take responsibility for keeping it locked by dusk or earlier to eliminate any costs to CBRM.

Rather than consume several weeks of blog posts with this, I am going, very soon, to make a page related to this concern for anyone interested in taking part in the conversation. All ideas are welcome!  Thanks to those who have already joined in this dialogue and begun to offer suggestions and support! Until I’ve published that page, please feel free to write us on our Facebook page, talk to us on Twitter or e-mail us with suggestions that you may have.

We don’t want to vilify CBRM. Goodness knows it employs many well-intended, hard-working individuals who have the region’s residents’ best interests in mind. We simply want answers, creativity, and solutions. 

We want to engage the CBRM in a democratic dialogue about ways we can keep our residents and tourists safe while simultaneously supporting small businesses.

Thanks in advance for your thoughts!

Next post: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Coffee * But Were Afraid to Ask

Posted Monday, Feb. 10, 2014

Florence the machine

People have been saying really complimentary things about our coffee, and it makes us terrifically happy.

We have a few priorities here at Doktor Luke’s related to paying farmers fairly and taking good care of the earth, but our ultimate priority and our greatest joy is bringing you the coffee you love.

So what’s our secret?

In one respect, the secret’s in the sauce, to borrow from a great film, Fried Green Tomatoes. In our case, though, the secret’s in the quality of the coffee cherry and the soil in which it grows, the care of the farmers who tend it, the skill of the roaster who helps it transmogrify into something delicious, and the absolute freshness that is a result of small, regionally-made batches.

But the other secret is Florence, our machine. Here she is:

Florence the Machine

Pretty, isn’t she?

But, why Florence? Well, for one, we were thinking about the marvellous musician Florence + the Machine when we named her. “Flo” as we like to call her makes the most beautiful music when we push the right buttons and blow the right whistles and tamp the grounds just so.

Next, playing on her name, the richest, smoothest, and most well-balanced stream of espresso known to humankind “flows” from this plucky machine. It’s a medium-roast espresso – ours is lovingly called BIG SLICK – which is known by aficionados to be the best roast for appreciating the intricacies of the bean. The crema that rises to the top when Flo has finished her handiwork is the breath of a perfectly-pulled espresso shot rising to the surface. Only superior coffee from a perfectly-calibrated machine will give you the kind of crema you see here:

Finally, what better name for a machine than Florence, the heart-stopping city in the country with which the name espresso is nearly synonymous? Florence, Italy. A city of sprawling piazzas, gardens, and parks, of magnificent palaces and arresting cathedrals.

But who needs all that when we have Cape Breton, an island of immeasurable beauty? And the great thing about Doktor Luke's is guests can enjoy the vista from our windows. Here, sipping a perfect cappuccino, coffee lovers can watch mists rise up from the harbour, ships pull into the docks, sunrises flash off the harbour and sunsets sink below it.

Sydney Harbour, from Doktor Luke's

So, speak kindly to the spritely Flo next time you pop into Doktor Luke’s and see what miracles she can make for you.


Posted Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014:

Why Sydney?

Rumour has it we’re not from here and it’s sort of true (more on that below) and so every day at Doktor Luke’s, people ask Why Sydney? And our answer is always kind of cute: Isn’t everybody who’s anybody moving to Sydney? And people laugh, and we laugh, and then we make their lattes.

But the real answer is so much bigger and frankly so much better.

And that’s because the rumours are only halfway true. The ghosts of Doktor Luke’s ancestors whisper in the coniferous trees of Pictou County. Cloaked in mists and spray, they remember wild tales of adventure, perseverance, and endurance in centuries past.

And running through Missy’s blood is the courage of the Acadians who, in 1755… well, we all know the story. Some left against their will. Some stayed and survived against all odds. The fortitude of all these souls is exhibited in the proud marks they’ve carved up and down this rugged, wild coast. 

So, we kind of had to come back. One can’t ignore the calls of one’s forebears without punishment.

But why Sydney? Why not some other haunt of Sutherlands and des Acadien(nes)

It’s a story of wild imaginings mixed in with that devil pragmatism. 

It starts in Vancouver, BC. This is a mighty coastal city where the great teeth of the earth push up to meet a sky whose clouds weep endlessly over buildings of glass. Its beauty is unspeakable and yet its realities are cold and hard. It is a place whose jarring pulchritude is a veneer that only barely hides a city’s great divides, her deep sorrows. 

We wanted out.

The pragmatic side said, find a city where the market for cafes isn’t entirely oversaturated and the opportunity to connect oneself with academia isn’t utterly lost. 

The dreamy side heard its ancestors whispering from thousands of miles away and saw them beckoning across mountains, prairies, great lakes, and wild woods. 

But can one have her cake and eat it too? In this case, yes. Sydney was a town of expanding coffee culture and had a university that just happened to have space in its Department of Languages and Letters for a doctor (doktor) of those arts.

It was in a province of Sutherlands and seascapes and Acadians and sandy beaches and good ghosts. 

And so we packed up our things and rode east into the sunrise.

And here we are (yes, that’s really us):

But it’s got its sunsets, too, and we spend magic moments looking at the sky from Doktor Luke’s windows, wondering how we were so lucky.

Posted Sunday, January 26, 2014:

Who is Doktor Luke?

Pretty much every day someone at the café asks, “So who is Doktor Luke?” We thought you’d never ask! We thought no one would care! We imagined you were just here for the coffee.

But Cape Bretoners are a brilliantly curious lot and just so personable. That’s one of the reasons we like it here! (More on that in another post.)

So, here’s the answer to that question.

It all began back in 2004. Only 10 years ago, but a lot’s happened since, hasn’t it? 

2004: the year that Stardust sailed her starry flight past Comet Wild 2 and Opportunity rover landed on the surface of Mars. 

But Luke wasn’t born on some rogue star. 

She was born right here in Canada in 1976. Not Cape Breton, mind you. But still, she emerged wailing like a panicked fire engine onto the land of the silver birch and home of the beaver.

But, let’s return to that remarkable date - 2004. The 21st century is still taking in early breaths and the decade hasn’t yet discovered Nicki Minaj (speaking of stars). The new millennium is pelting out wild technology at the speed of lightning, but – bizarrely – mobile technology still has a fatal flaw: auto-correct. (Of course, 10 years on we’ve figured that out, haven’t we? Ha! Ever tried typing Sudoku into your phone? More on that here.)

Well that girl back then was called Jule. You may have met her. She makes your lattes at Doktor Luke’s de temps en temps. 

Jule was faced with a mild technological challenge in those early days of the millennium. Her phone just wouldn’t learn her name. Every time she typed in “Jule” it would auto-correct to “Luke.” From that day forward, people accepted that “Luke” meant “Jule” and started calling her “Luke” just to escape further identity confusions and crises. Plus, it was kind of cute.

Why “Doktor”?

Well, for her sins, Jule (Luke) did a Ph.D., and her students began calling her “Doctor Luke.” 

But how did the “K” get into “Doktor”? 

Ah, that story’s for another day.

Doktor Luke