Tag: Christmas

Christmas Love

There was once a time when Christmas was a very big deal in my life. Christmas Eve was a swirl of hot chocolate, cartoons, and peeks under the tree; the day itself was filled with a bevy of boxes, shiny ribbons, stockings filled to the brim.

My mother would always laugh and say I was the last kid to get up on Christmas morning; sleeping in felt like another gift, and I wanted to indulge. One year my mother got sick of cooking, so she took six-year-old me down to one of her favorite old hang-outs, the Royal York Hotel. Me, in a long red velvet gown, and my mother, in a fancy, flouncy dress, enjoyed several courses, as I took in the spectacle of the room, the fancily-attired waiters marching through before dinner started with a succession of Christmas delicacies carefully laid out on silver platters.  Later, she would drive through the city, and we’d look at the festive lights and decorations; I’d be asleep by the time we got home, and would be carried into the house, changed into fuzzy pajamas, and tucked into bed. Boxing Day (and many days thereafter) were filled with play.

As both my mother and I grew older, our gift exchanges became decadent, dare I say exorbitant. I still remember her, one Christmas morning about a decade ago, sitting on a cream-color sofa near the tree and looking beautiful in a red satin dress, exclaiming, not in judgment but in simple awe, “We are very extravagant!” I think something about the sheer volume shocked her, having come from such a meagre life as a youngster, when Christmas meant little more than an orange and an apple. 
Not long after this, we mutually decided to end gift exchanges; her, sensing my writing didn’t really pay that well, and being exhausted with the entire shopping/wrapping process. Also, we both acknowledged, gift-giving tended to happen throughout the year anyway — I’d go grocery shopping, to posh grocers, picking up special, lovely delicacies and cooking them up — sometimes (frequently), it was for no occasion at all, but for the simple pleasure of sharing, preparing, and enjoying them with someone I loved. It was also gratifying seeing my rapidly-shrinking mother eat. One of my most cherished memories of this year is grilling sea scallops for her; I shall always cherish that look of love and gratitude she gave me, more than once, as she carefully carved and them ravenously devoured them. That enjoyment, to me, is worth more than anything you could buy in a store.

Value comes in many forms, of course. Having dear friends coming over through the holidays this year, people close to both of mother and me, is a gift in and of itself. I thought it would be fitting (and fun) to look back at old times. Going through the many old photo albums stored in my basement has forced me to admit it something I’ve been avoiding the last month or so: the holidays hurt. I’ve been keeping myself busy with writing, baking, all manner of household thing, but the shock of my mother’s absence this year is sharp, unrelenting, brutal. Beyond going to the Royal York, and, more recently, my cooking up a beautiful Christmas dinner for us, we didn’t have many traditions. That doesn’t mean her presence in and around the house — as I baked, wrapped presents, drove her to friends’ for merry deliveries — isn’t sorely missed. She’d always laugh whenever I’d put on How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown

“You’re a big kid at heart!” she’d say. True, I’d admit. I have to be; I never had any of my own.

Other memories of her at this festive time of year are dim, though I have some lovely photos to remind me of the wonder of childhood; a veritable smell of gingerbread and vanilla wafts off them, dreams of sugar plums and plush red dresses and the smooth threads of a Barbie’s hair. My world was cozy, cradling, perfect. Small snippets of that feeling came through in subsequent years; though I don’t have any photos from last year’s Christmas, I distinctly remember the absolute thrill I felt at seeing her take a second helping of turkey, exclaiming, “your chestnut stuffing is sooooo good!” 

An overpowering love pervades everything; that is what I see and what I feel when I think of Christmases past. The tidal-wave-power of that love is one I’m not sure I’ll experience again; I chose not to have my own children a long time ago, and I am really not the maternal sort (something my mother also acknowledged), though I admit it’s been very joyful to see updates of others’ families on social media.  “Christmas is for kids,” my mother dryly observed over the last few years. I couldn’t agree more. So it’s nice to experience the joy of the holidays vicariously, through the many hilarious/touching/smart updates I’ve seen on my Facebook feed; those photos and updates have brought many much-needed smiles and even laughter. To those who’ve provided such therapy: thank you.  

So, as 2016 rapidly approaches, the only way to move forwards — now, at the holidays, and after them, too — is to allow the memory of my mother’s love to power me forwards, through the scary melanoma stuff, through the work stuff, through the frequently lonely days and weeks that characterize so much of my life now. It also means remembering the kid who wants to play, and making room for that in my new normal; maybe that’s the best way to honor my mother, and the best way to keep the Christmas spirit alive, year round.

A Joyful Noise

Stephen Hegedus and chorus members in AtG’s Messiah Photo: Darryl Block

Handel’s great Messiah is associated with many things: ceremony, contemplation,  a quiet joy. One thing it is not widely noted for is playfulness. That’s just where Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre comes in. The company, known for their creative updates of opera works, is currently presenting a reimagined Messiah at Harbourfront Centre, one that fuses theatricality and musicality, and riffs off many moods: anger, fear, joy, rejection, abandonment, and… fun.

What makes this Messiah so special is the extent to which intimacy works as a strong, spicy partner to the essential grandeur of the work, which was composed as an oratorio and first performed in Dublin in 1742. Generally presented with an orchestra and soloists on a large stage, in a church, concert hall or auditorium, Against the Grain’s Messiah uses the audience as an integral part of the production, allowing us to experience the music in a closer and more revelatory way. At one point the chorus, divided by gender, fills the aisles on either side of the theatre and immerses the audience in a cascading waterfall of harmonies; it’s as if the God-made-flesh tale is being paralleled by the singers via musical metaphor, the heaven-to-earth connection made real. During the famous “Hallelujah” chorus, the ensemble is again in the aisles, singing and urging members to stand. (Some audience members at the performance I attended even proudly and loudly sang along.) Immersion and interactivity are not unusual for Against the Grain productions; their successful show #UncleJohn, a re-envisioning of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (produced in Toronto last winter) placed the audience in the middle of a wedding reception, with the action in the libretto unfolding with a delicious immediacy. What makes stagings like these so special is that one gets to experience the singularly unique experience of opera singing mere inches away, as opposed to several feet; the stage isn’t formalized, the performers aren’t distant. This choice of presentation has the effect of bringing the work — perhaps previously considered starchy, unapproachable, snobbish – into close relief, allowing an experiential understanding that frequently moves beyond the verbal. In Messiah, such an understanding approaches the divine, but it skillfully integrates an earthy aspect that is at once highly inspired and deeply moving.

Andrea Ludwig and Owen McCausland in AtG’s Messiah Photo: Darryl Block

While many symphonies program the Messiah this time of year (some featuring creative re-orchestrations), Ivany and Music Director Topher Mokrzewski make elegant use of a small ensemble to showcase ideas around beauty, spirituality, and play, within an intimate and ultimately enriching context. With an eighteen-piece orchestra and sixteen-person chorus, the work’s two-and-a-half-hour running time flies by, moving seamlessly through the various stages of the life of Jesus Christ. The work opens with tenor Joshua Davis carefully moving to Jennifer Nichols’s highly stylized choreography, eventually draping himself (in a rather impressive back bend) across a block. The music that accompanies is mournful and stately; as the work progresses, the musicians and performers onstage develop a synergistic chemistry that allows an equal and vivid exchange of energy that extends to the audience. Ivany features some nice meta-theatrical moments, throwing off the formalism of the work and its starchy classical associations. Tenor Owen McCausland removes his suit jacket, bow tie, shoes and socks near the start of the work; the female soloists (alto Andrea Ludwig and soprano Miriam Khalil) follow suit, their draping skirts revealing puffy layers of tulle beneath. The entire chorus and four soloists (including bass baritone Stephen Hegedus, who performs his own kind of strip-down later on) are barefoot throughout the production, despite their formal wear, pointing at an earthy experience, free of past constraints in either music or religion, though to some of course, they are one in the same. This Messiah doesn’t let you forget that.

Joshua Wales in AtG’s Messiah Photo: Darryl Block

The color scheme employed throughout the work is expressed via the rich, wintery tones of the dresses and suits — it’s a blend of wine reds and aquamarine blues — and helps to offset the stark, near-clinical simplicity of the set, which is composed of a few white blocks on a black floor. These blocks — picked up, carried, lain across, stood upon — resemble recognizable shapes (a cityscape, furniture, oversized toys) as different passages of music are performed; at one point, two tall rectangular shapes resemble nothing so much as the fallen World Trade towers, while at others, they’re a plinth for statuesque bodies and sensuous fabrics. Ivany marries Handel’s score with striking visuals to create a kind of Rorschach Test that integrates Baroque sounds and contemporary performance, where narrative is entirely secondary —or more specifically, non-existent. Ivany trusts his audience enough to allow us to to knit together the various fragments of the work. As opposed to emotional dictation, Ivany and AtG have opted for imaginative individuation, with elements of potential meaning (or non-meaning, in the form of pure experiential beauty) poking out like welcoming tentacles from a much older body.

The idea of “playing” — playing music, playing games, playing with each other, playing with notes, playing with ideas and identities — takes on huge significance in Ivany’s vision. As I’ve written about before, play is something I believe is central to creation; the act of play itself is akin to taking a ride on a highway of experimentation and imagination, and with Against the Grain’s Messiah, it’s given a robust workout. The famous passage “All We Like Sheep” is done with members of the chorus in a circular “flock,” shuffling back and forth across the stage, warily eyeing soloist Stephen Hegedus, who haplessly bleats out a few “baaaahs” after the chorus sings the title, as if against his own will. Watching the scene unfold, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a few pop culture corollaries; it’s strange to think of cartoons and puppets when one is watching a classic oratorio, but then, why wouldn’t you? Against the Grain seems to welcome these kinds of associations, and to see them as valid as references to Nordic mythology and gypsies. Why should classical culture be strictly self-referential? Surely a fusty insularity doesn’t help its broader appeal; a bit of pop culture might be just the thing — and with it, a bit of playfulness.

Stephen Hegedus in AtG’s Messiah Photo: Darryl Block

It’s that very sensibility, of playfulness fused with a kind of pop culture knowingness, that permeates one of the most memorable scenes in Messiah, which that occurs during “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” Stephen Hegedus, last seen for Against the Grain in their summer production, Death and Desire, jauntily delivers in his signature rich, robust tone, before stripping down to a gold unitard, striking various statuesque poses, and gleefully tossing glitter. What a refreshing contrast to his dour, serious expression in earlier scenes, and what a wonderful way to physicalize the joyousness of this passage! Dr. Frank-n-furter would surely approve, as would the travelers on the Priscilla. Ivany brings a fresh approach and wonderfully experimental spirit to each of these theatrical scenes, making Handel’s rich and (to my ears) sometimes dense score a highly digestible, vibrant, and yes, playful piece of music-performance art that suits the tone and tenor of the times, to say nothing of the direction opera and live performance may be moving in. By the end of Against the Grain’s Messiah, you feel buoyed by the energy, moved by the intimacy, and inspired by the sheer imaginative bravado it took to bring this piece to vivid life. Baroque music: ballsy, brave, and… fun? In AtG’s hands, you bet. Bravo.

Cracking Open

Heather Ogden in The Nutcracker. Photo by Bruce Zinger

There’s always something special about seeing The Nutcracker every December. The story of two children who, joined by stable boy Peter, enter a magical Christmas land, is a perennial favorite, and a compulsory part of many ballet companies’ holiday programming. The work, first premiered in 1892, features a libretto adapted from German author E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” and the National Ballet of Canada’s annual production, which features dancing bears, skittering chefs, and a sword-wielding King (of rodents, that is) —  is a feast for the eyes and ears. James Kudelka, choreographer and librettist, has created a visual feast that captures the glittering beauty of a snowy Christmas but still retains all the warmth and merriment of the season, with the perfect mix of grand and intimate movements reflecting Tchaikovsky’s famous score.

This year marks its 20th anniversary, and opening night, the company featured its first Peter, Rex Harrington, along with his partner, Bob Hope, as Cannon Dolls (various “dolls” through the years have included Toronto Mayor John Tory, author Margaret Atwood, skater Kurt Browning, and astronaut Chris Hadfield). The show, which is an opulent riff on Russian design motifs (it even features a giant, decorated egg from which the Sugar Plum Fairy emerges), is a clever blend of old and new, European and North American, art and entertainment, and it’s these integrations that make it so successful. You know you’re seeing something artful and beautiful (Santo Loquasto’s set and costume designs are truly stunning), but at the same time, you can’t help but smile, even chuckle, at the panoply of delights being presented, whether it’s the dancing horse, skating bears (my personal favorite) or the giant Christmas tree, with its gracefully waving branches and bobbing baubles.

Artists of the Ballet in The Nutcracker. Photo by Bruce Zingerr.

It’s equally heartening to see students of all ages from the National Ballet School onstage, proudly strutting their stuff; such a buoyant presence gives one hope for not only the future of the art form, but for cultural presentation and passion. Ninety-eight students in total are featured in the production; they’re from the Ballet School as well as local Toronto schools. That’s an incredible achievement in and of itself —I imagine the backstage area of the Four Seasons Centre this time of year to be something akin to organized chaos— so full kudos are in order to National Ballet School Rehearsal Director Laural Toto and assistant Patrick Kastoff, as well as Stage Managers Jeff Morris and Lillane Stillwell, and Assistant Stage Manager Michael Lewandowski. Thumbs way up.

As with any proper professional production, none of the backstage chaos is, ever sensed onstage. The audience is left to wonder over the myriad of riches being presented, and, because of this richness, there’s always something new for us to consider and marvel over. This year I felt drawn to the team of young male dancers who have an especially impressive ensemble number near the beginning of the show. From my own vantage point, 2015 has been a year littered with numerous (and frequently painful) examples of machismo gone awry, so watching this year’s presentation of The Nutcracker, it was deeply refreshing to note the young male dancers and their smiles, their light-footedness, their utter lack of self-consciousness. This isn’t to say ballet can’t be macho — ballet history is littered with many dancers, male and female in fact, who have channelled a particular brand of raw power that has thrilled audiences over the decades — but there was something, for me, awfully touching about seeing young boys onstage, engaging in an art form frequently thought of as “girlie,” from of a purely joyous, non-gendered place. “I love doing this!” their bodies seemed to hum, “I love it!”

McGee Maddox with Artists of the Ballet in The Nutcracker. Photo by Bruce Zingerr.

Greatly complementing this pure instinct on opening night was dancer McGee Maddox, who, as Peter, radiated a cuddly, floppy-haired boyishness in his impressive turns, pas-de-deux routines, and great leaps of James Kudelka’s choreography. Less swagger and more sweetness, Maddox is a lovely, deeply likable stage presence, the perfect fit for a production that is candy-apple sweet and spicy-cider cozy. Joining him was Heather Ogden’s Sugar Plum Fairy (a gorgeously warm performance) and Robert Stephen’s Uncle Nikolai, whose great leaps and dizzying turns nicely integrated both commanding authority and playful whimsy. There’s something so special about walking out of a production feeling plain old good, and in this, the National Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker absolutely excels. Smiles are in short supply these days, on both epic and intimate levels; it’s nice to have a work that channels pure joy, unapologetically. We need it.

December, Baby

Birthdays are always time for me to reflect. This one feels better than others, probably because I’ve been thinking I am the actual age I’m turning through most of the year. Always being one step ahead makes the actual date feel like less of a shock. Birthdays as a kid -complete with party dress, streamers & ice cream cake -are fun but their effect feels less temporary; the older one gets, the more one feels the wear of time bearing down, and the feeling one ought to be doing something awfully important -or at least, focused. Right now I’m focusing on the champagne that’s being uncorked at the end of the day. It’s a start, right?

I’ve also been thinking of the events that have colored many a December -deaths, both recent and not, as well as births. Sharing a birthday month with Christmas, no matter your religion, is a d-r-a-g. I used to tell my mother as a child that I wanted to celebrate my birthday in July with a pool party; now I’m overjoyed if people even remember, let alone take the time to write me, or to write on that eponymous modern mode of communication, the ever-present Facebook wall (which many have done, and thank you very kindly). It’s cheering and surreal, all at once.

Two of my favorite artists, people who music I grew up with, were born this month. Though the exact date of Ludwig van Beethoven‘s birth is disputed (possibly December 16th; he was baptized the 17th) his effect on the music world… well, earth-shattering. Plunking at the piano as a kid, LVB was always my go-to guy; I aimed to, and eventually did play Fur Elise and Moonlight Sonata, along with other (very hard, but very awesome) works. I struggled to manoeuvre my small hands over the wide swaths of ivory; I swore and gnashed teeth when I couldn’t put this note down with that one, let alone reach that other one. Ouch.

At some point, I knew my hands weren’t made to play his work (or indeed, much classical at all) but that realization didn’t dim my passion for those beautiful, indescribable sounds. I loved the energy and anger of his work; as an adolescent I swooned over the romantic melodies and dramatic qualities. I’d write great swaths of poetry while blasting the Seventh symphony, or one of the Concertos, especially the onerously misnamed Emperor. Really, I loved it all. I had a gigantic poster of Beethoven on my bedroom wall. He was my rock star. Dead? Whatever. Ugly? Whatever. I skipped my high school prom to go to a big symphonic gala featuring the famous (and mysteriously powerful) Ninth. LVB understood the frustrated anger seething through my veins and expressed it in powerful, bang-whoosh flights of orchestral mastery.

While I still love the manic, raging energy that emanates from his work with the force of a million waterfalls, I also adore (and swoon) over his capacity for tenderness. The second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto has been a favorite for over fifteen years, and indeed, it still is. I’ve done a lot to this piece of music: sighed, cried, drawn, written, meditated, driven in the dead of night, walked on an autumnal afternoon, cooked, and stared out windows on silently-falling snow. I should probably do that last one again before the season ends. I’m especially happy to share Daniel Barenboim‘s interpretation (above) as I think he really, truly captures the intricate beauty without getting bogged down in technicality; there’s a lovely blend of poetry and fussiness here, but ultimately, as you’ll hear, one definitely trumps over the other through sheer emotionalism. The charming unconscious-eyebrow-raises of Barenboim’s tells you everything you need to know about how deeply this piece reaches into the nether-regions of the soul, pulling out things you didn’t know, or want to acknowledge, gently, if firmly, ever profoundly plumbing depths that may not see the light of day again -or until you listen to it next.

That sense of keen emotional beauty is what makes my second December-born artist so special. He excelled at it, just as much as he excelled at joy. Frank Sinatra would’ve been 95 on December 12th. More than any other, this man profoundly shaped the way I experienced popular music; he opened doors into expression and interpretation not using any external instrument (as I’d been trained to do), but via his own body -via that remarkable voice he’d been blessed with, which alternated between tenor and baritone with effortless ease, wrapping like a cashmere glove around songs notes, and octaves, caressing ears, minds, and hearts across generations.

My first exposure to Sinatra (and to much jazz, both vocal and instrumental) was as a teenager. I was at the house of my mother’s smart, cool, downtown friends and looking through their CDs (remember those?) when I came across his stuff. Naturally, I’d heard of Francis Albert. I’d heard his work, and I knew him from the celebrity roasts on television. My mother was (is) a bigger fan of Dean Martin‘s work, so it was familiarity-via-association. Once I put on the CDs … that was it. I was hooked. My Sinatra obsession continued well into my twenties (and beyond), when I picked up his masterful, profoundly sad, hugely powerful albums from the 1950s: Only The Lonely, In The Wee Small Hours, Where Are You?. His poetic, masterful singing of “I’m A Fool To Want You”, written about Ava Gardner (who subsequently took her place among my gloriously surreal, beautiful collection of heroes), as well as songs like “Lonely Town”, “Angel Eyes” and the famous “One More For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” still stop my heart in my chest. Each is a revelation, a prayer, a blessing, darkness, and light, all at once.

Much as Sinatra excelled at expressing pain, he was equally good at doing happy, something a lot of singer and artists don’t succeeed at; as I recently said on television, painting in white is hard. Few do it well, with any effect that isn’t sickeningly saccharine or cloyingly cheesy. Sinatra pulled it off with just the right mix of joy and smarts. Albums like Swing Easy!, Come Fly With Me, Ring-A-Ding, and Nice And Easy demonstrate a man who can just as easily access pure, simple joy -in singing and in sound -as fear, anger, and loneliness. Sinatra-Basie and It Might As Well Be Swing (with Quincy Jones) are landmark recordings; they also have a place as two of my most cherished albums, ever. Musical mastery has never sounded better, or more obvious.

I had a recent upset at not being able to find my treasured collection of Sinatra holiday hits, if only because I love –love -his interpretation of one particular winter classic. Thank goodness for the internet:

Silly, smart, smarmy, playful, loving, celebratory… I hear a full embrace of life when I hear this song.

Maybe that’s why I love both LVB and Sinatra so much: they represent the pinnacle of artistic mastery and creative human expression, integrating all the colours of the human experience with a zeal I, and many, can immediately recognize and occassionally identify with. As to December babies… we might forget their birthdays, but we never forget them.

Salty and Sweet

First things first: don’t bring anyone who’s sensitive to the f-word to see How Now Mrs. Brown Cow. It gets a workout in the hands -make that mouth -of the formidable Mrs. Brown, also known as one Brendan O’Carroll, Irish comedian and super-performer. For two hours, any easily-offended ears will be singed by its extensive and creative usage.

It should be noted, however, that the word, within the context of the show, is made musical, magical, and even poetic. I mean, hell, it’s an Irish show -you have to expect the salty and the sweet, the dark and the light, the low and the high, the profound and the profane, all mashed up in one gorgeous, overwhelming package of funny, naughty, heart-tugging hilarity. How Now Mrs. Brown Cow is the fifth in the wildly popular Mrs. Brown series, which started life two decades ago as a radio series before extending into TV, movies, books, and videos. O’Carroll, donning a big wig, glasses, frumpy dress and dowdy shoes, takes on the persona of a working class Dublin mum. In this show, she’s readying her home for the family, including her beloved Priest-son Trevor, and tangling with her other three sons, daughter, and “granddad”, who becomes the unwitting guinea pig for Mrs. Brown and her friend Winnie (Eilish McHugh) to test mail order products on. The scene involving country music, a baking sheet, and a crash helmet is especially memorable; like the show itself, this single scene is a smart blend of dark humor and gleeful slapstick. Politically correct it ain’t, but funny… hells yes.

The humour extends itself to local references, with O’Carroll playing to both the Toronto crowd (with mentions of local discount store Honest Ed’s) and Irish expats (jokes about son Mark’s “Prod” wife abounded). Later I overheard an audience member remark that some of the show’s references were “too obscure” for most Canadians, which is true. Equally, O’Carroll’s portrayal of Rory (Rory Cowan), Mrs. Brown’s gay son, could be construed as stereotypical and offensive- but as I recall it, some Northside Dubliners (and indeed some Irish) have a pretty narrow idea and tolerance of homosexuality altogether. Should O’Carroll soften the writing? The Mrs. Brown series concerns rough people who say (and do) offensive things, many of which are specific to a cultural time and place. The write and director is full aware of the ridiculousness of Rory, and perhaps, knowingly, portrays partner Dino differently, clothing him not in gold lame pants, but suit trousers, like everyone else. To moan about the “offensiveness” of this show conveys a huge ignorance around Dublin culture, and, to be frank, a poe-faced Canadian seriousness that doesn’t match the larkish nature of the material. There are many other forms of entertainment that portray gay people (and others) in far more offensive ways; this show isn’t one of them.

Indeed, Mrs. Brown is fierce, feisty, and very, very funny -she’s no cuddly Mrs. Doubtfire or cutesy Golden Girl. She’s a lot closer to the tough Northside ladies I once knew (and would occasionally borrow hoovers, tin foil, and window cleaner, or buy fruit and veg from). Mrs. Brown’s shouts at the unseen drug-users outside her door -“injectin’ yer cannabis!” -may be momentarily funny, but reflect a darker reality, one those of us who lived in Dublin around that time vividly remember. Mrs. Brown is tough, loud, and weirdly, very real, with echoes of Dublin echoing with her every word, whether it’s a curse or a blessing.


The potent mix of dark and light is brought to the fore again and again, with sometimes hilarious, sometimes touching results. O’Carroll creates short, simple scenes involving friends and family to explore elementary, albeit timeless themes of human connection and bonding, especially in tough times. Part story, part sitcom, the material leaves plenty of room for improvisation, something that cast members take full advantage of. At last night’s North American premiere of How Now Mrs. Brown Cow (produced by Toronto’s Mirvish Productions at the historic Canon Theatre), cast members Danny O’Carroll (as local boy Buster Brady) and Gary Hollywood (as Dino Doyle, companion to Mr. Brown’s son Rory) couldn’t keep straight faces, as O’Carroll, consciously but keeping in character expertly chided them. One telling moment saw Hollywood’s lack of composure become so acute, he was doubled over hysterically laughing into his hands. Rather than being unprofessional or distracting, the reaction worked beautifully with his character’s extreme horror within the context of the scene. After all, extreme horror and extreme giggles really do look the same at a distance. Salty and sweet indeed. (And, for the record, O’Carroll’s deadpan response -in character -was, “I remember writing this – it wasn’t this feckin’ long.” Ha.)

Other moments where O’Carroll purposely broke the fourth wall included his character’s attempt to place a star atop the Brown Family Christmas tree. After trying a variety of chairs, s/he balanced on a railing in the set, and then took hold of the upper edge of the set itself. It was a good example of O’Carroll’s extreme, and extremely happy, disregard for theatrical convention. He definitely play with panto, with improvisation, and with his castmates in the most jovial of ways, but when it comes to delivering the more serious moments, there’s no horsing around. He goes straight for the heart, without any compromises. Talking with the lone daughter of the family, Cathy (Jennifer Gibney), Mrs. Brown delivers a heart-rending speech about the closeness of mothers and daughters, one that brings to mind possible parallels with fathers and sons, which is made all the more poignant with the knowledge of the comedian losing his own son some years ago. The square emphasis on family, and on the ties that bind between people, generations, faiths, lifestyles, and ideas, couldn’t be more apparent, F-bombs or not.

How Now Mrs. Brown Cow definitely has fun exploding a few proper theatrical conventions, but it also leaves you wondering just where you stand in terms of your relationship to family and those closest to you. Wandering down Victoria Street after the opening, I overheard comments confirming this connectedness. One man remarked to his friend that the title character “is so much like your own mum!” to which the man readily agreed, while another pair of friends noted that the show’s premise, with its mix of stress and joy, “looks just like our Christmas.” Several Irish grannies stood outside the stage door, one with a mobile phone to her ear.

“It’s lovely show, just grand,” one said, waving a cigarette around, “Now what time will you be over for dinner tomorrow?” Pause.

“Don’t be f*ckin’ late again.”

Good advice.

Photo credits:
Top photo of Brendan O’Carroll as Mrs. Brown courtesy of Mirvish Productions.
Photo of “Shadowplay – O’Connell Street, Dublin” by Dave Walsh, blather.net
Photo of Moore Street courtesy of goperimeter.org

Visions of Sugar Plums

Yes, it’s Christmas Eve, and you probably won’t be slaving in your kitchen reading this. But think of this recipe as good reference for the future -or even Orthodox Christmas, coming up in early January.

Personally, I’ve always loved dried fruits: their pungent sweetness and gooey, ever-so dessicated texture I find intoxicating. And they’re healthy too. So once I came across a recipe that integrated them with other ingredients (nuts and booze, huzzah!), and transformed the lot into a bake-free, semi-healthy holiday option, my tastebuds started leaping.

The recipe below is based on Lucy Waverman’s entirely excellent recipe for sugar plums that appeared in an old issue of Food and Drink magazine. I experimented a little bit and found this combination, with dried cranberries and green cherries, gives just the right amount of sweetness; the colours also add a cheerful Christmas touch. The recipe makes enough for roughly 24 small sugar plums, or 18 medium-sized ones. I like to keep mine toytown-small (to borrow Nigella‘s adorable phrase) -it makes popping them into one’s mouth so entirely satisfying, and after a huge holiday meal, the last thing you want is a cumbersome, vulgar-sized treat. These are also insanely easy; they don’t require any baking, and are great for getting other, non-cooking types involved. The plums are also good for those who are wheat or sugar-sensitive. Oh, and they’re totally delicious. Enjoy.

You will need:

  • 1/4 (50 mL) halved pecans, toasted*
  • 8 dried figs
  • 8 dried dates
  • roughly 1/4 cup (50 mL) dried cranberries (you want about a handful)
  • roughly 1/4 cup (50 mL) dried green cherries
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) grated lemon rind
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) cherry brandy
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) runny honey
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • roughly 1 cup sweetened shredded coconut

* To toast pecans, pre-heat oven to 400F; spread pecans on a baking sheet, making sure they aren’t overlapping. When the oven is hot, throw the sheet in the oven for about 5 minutes -they’ll be giving off a luscious deep scent by then, so you know they’ll be done. Keep an eye out so they don’t burn! Remove promptly and shake the sheet around; leave them until you’re ready to use them.

Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Roughly chop the dates; place in a food processor with the sharp blade already on.
Cut the tough little nubs off the figs (their tops, that is), roughly chop them, then throw them in the processor too, along with the cranberries, cherries, and toasted pecans.

Blitz the processor on and off, so that you get a fine, crumb-like texture. The cherries and cranberries will be big green and red flecks. Add the grated lemon rind, cherry brandy, honey and cinnamon. Turn the processor on. It’ll take a bit of time to mix everything down to a paste and properly integrate the honey throughout the mixture. You’ll know it’s ready, however, when the mixture starts to come away from the edges of the bowl.

When mixed, scoop out a lusciously sticky portion using a teaspoon (or other small measuring tool). With wet hands, roll into a tiny little ball and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Continue, wetting hands and teaspoon (or whatever you’re using -I have a small bowl of water handy), forming little balls.

When you have 24 (or so), get started on coating them with the coconut.

Wash your hands and then spread the coconut in a decent layer across a large plate or other flat, lipped surface. Carefully roll sugar plums, one by one, in the coconut, and place back on the parchment.

Leave them to sit on the baking sheet about 10 minutes, just to make sure the coconut sets. Mind putting them away -they’re delicious little morsels, but they are also very delicate. Then again, isn’t every good thing at Christmas in need of a little TLC? I think that squarely includes all the talented people cooking Christmas dinner tomorrow…

From my home to yours, much joy, peace, and deep gratitude. I wish all of you a wonderful, wonderfully delicious holiday season, full of love, laughter, wine and song.

I Can Weather The Storm

It’s been challenging to get in the Christmas spirit this year.

I’m marking one year since my father’s passing, which makes things sad, and I’m also marking ten years next year that I’ll have moved back from living abroad. Decades bring lists, reflections, and reminiscences on choices made and accomplishments won. Time, that old browbeater, keeps running by. It’s been especially tough for me and, I think, many others like me in the media industry; there have been layoffs, buy-outs, so-called “re-structurings” and considerable drops in income. I’m not actually able to buy presents this year, a fact that both mortifies and relieves. Karloff might intone, “maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store… maybe Christmas means a little bit more” but of course the nature of Western society is such that the act of buying or not has been rendered not so much a choice as a duty. And yet I’m the sort who’s taken a keen delight in the act of giving, which is a kind of lovely gift infused with reciprocal energy.

So I eschewed buying gfits -out of basic pocket-book necessity -in favour of hosting friends for a meal this past weekend. Combining a Christmas-y get-together with my own recent birthday made for a festive, fun atmosphere; we ate, we drank, we laughed. New friendships and connections were formed, experiences and observations shared, beautiful food and drink passed around. It felt like the perfect gift. And no, I didn’t post a bit of it online; no Facebook updates, Flickr photos or in-the-moment tweets. Somehow, choosing to keep the gathering out of the online public eye made it all the more intimate and special. I’d like to think one of the things I can give myself, my friends, and the world is a firm sense of borders, and an understanding of privacy. Narcissism be damned; the evening wasn’t about me, or any one person, but about us, as a unit, sitting around a food-filled table, drinking, talking, laughing. I was reminded of the innate value of friendship that evening, and how it is perhaps the greatest gift of all.

Still, there is, of course, of dealing with family this time of year. Are we friends with our family? Working towards it? Given up? I hate to admit it, but the first couple of years back from my time overseas, I’d purposely vanish in a haze of rummy nog and mulled wine to avoid the stress. This is not a wise course of action. I’m happy to say my own relationship with my family has improved to a point I could’ve never imagined a year ago, let alone ten. The old agage that “peace begins at home” has never felt more true. And this year, I have decided that music might be the best medicine -or perhaps complement. I’m still dealing with swallowing the bitter pills of guilt for the present, and nostalgia for the past, but knowing I’ve formed such strong, positive relationships with good, sincere people is a great reminder that those pills are … well, useless. I should spit them out so I can smile at the lovely sounds of Frank, Dean, Ella, Vinceet al. Next year all our troubles will be miles away. Right?

The Sweet Smell of The Season

There are very few truly delicious, filling dishes to be had, at least in theatrical terms, amidst the saccharine offerings through the Christmas season. Everything is so sweet and frothy, it’s enough to make one’s teeth rot from the cutesy-overload. So it was with more than a little curiosity that I attended the opening of Miklos Laszlo’s 1937 play Parfumerie at the Young Centre last week. What did this have to do with the season?, I wondered. Why choose an old, rarely-performed work to fill out the last gasp of the admittedly-varied 2009 Soulpepper season? Where’s my Scrooge?

As it turns out, my fears were calmed and entirely unfounded –and I didn’t miss the old Dickens chestnut one bit. Parfumerie is a truly perfect choice for the silly season, and a beautifully romantic, thought-full way of ending the year. Laszlo’s endearing, romantic work centers on the activities of a Budapest beauty shop in the 1930s. As Associate Artist Paula Wing notes in the show programs, Laszlo nicely integrates all the people he knew and observed in his home city, from the “well-heeled denizens” of posh Buda, to the working-class shop clerks and service employees of bustling Pest. The tension between them, while extant, also highlights the struggles and heartaches of each, and ultimately the work celebrates humanity in a grandly messy, heady mix of zany comedy and serious drama. No wonder the work has been adapted so frequently; one musical (She Loves Me) and three films (The Shop Around The Corner, The Good Old Summertime, and You’ve Got Mail) have all taken as their basis the Laszlo original, of unknown love amidst the hustle and bustle of the season.

The plot is more of a premise, but it’s rich with character exploration and theatrical possibility. The employees of Hammerschmidt and Company, a beauty shop, race around to prepare for the holidays, while revealing their inner lives in small but telling ways. Two of the shop’s employees, the scatty Rosana Balaz (Patricia Fagan) and the uptight George Asztalos (Oliver Dennis) are constantly sparring, spitting insults at one another and rolling their eyes in frustration. As it turns out, each has been unknowingly exchanging love letters with the other. This undercurrent of unspoken and unknown affection is the premise that fuels the action around the other subplots, involving the cheating wife of the owner, Mr. Hammerschmidt (Joseph Ziegler), who suspects George as the seducer. Dennis is keen at widening his big eyes and using his considerable experience in physical comedy to convey the confusion of a man who pipes up in his work but shuts down in his emotions. It’s refreshing to see Dennis finally play a romantic lead, too, particularly since he’s almost always cast as the amusing sideman.

Equally, Ziegler, who usually plays Scrooge for Soulpepper this time of year, brings a load of heart to the huffy boss. He employs stiff body language and keen, knowing silence to punctuate the new adaptation by Adam Pettle and Brenda Robins. This smart approach brings a kind of Chekhovian gloom to the proceedings (not entirely unsuitable, considering the infamous “Suicide Song” originated in Hungary) and a deep thoughtful quality to his performance, making Hammerschmidt less officious and more human, fallible, and ultimately, vulnerable.

This vulnerability especially extends to the way in which director Morris Panych has staged the scenes between the male employees. Mr. Sipos (Michael Simpson) sits on the shop’s round settee and shares a guilty secret with George at one point, their faces both portraits of pain and genuine confusion. It’s not difficult to recall a similar scene of understanding staged earlier between Mr. Hammerschmidt and his eager-beaver delivery boy, Arpad (Jeff Lillico), who acts as a kind of default son to the childless boss. Arpad runs to bring his crusty boss breakfast the night after an attempted suicide which the delivery boy helped to prevent. Ziegler balances a mix of gruff dismissal and shame-faced grief, while Lillico is wonderfully pure in channeling his character’s fierce protectiveness for his boss. There is a real hum of affection and a moving frankness between the male characters that is entirely in keeping with Laszlo’s loving look at human relationships.

In watching these scenes, I was reminded of Soulpepper’s production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple two seasons ago, where a similar tone of male understanding rang through many scenes. It’s this tender vulnerability that immediately gets shut away the minute any women appear, in both Simon’s or Laszlo’s worlds, as if a man betraying what could be perceived as weakness is unforgivable and entirely unfathomable. The Hungarian playwright uses the letters between George and Rosie to create a bridge, however –between genders, life experience, perspectives, and ideas, allowing a greater intimacy to creep in as a result of both characters allowing themselves to be vulnerable not only on paper, but face-to-face. You’re torn between wanting to stand up and cheer, or softly sigh, when George finally tells Rosie he’s actually the man behind the Abelard-and-Heloise poetics within the letters.

This beautiful bridging could’ve only happened with the care and class of director of Morris Panych, really. The award-winning director and playwright guides his gifted cast with a keen, knowing hand, playing up the comedy of the piece at one moment, turning down the volume to allow the drama to come through at others. We barely notice the shifting tenor of moments as he expertly navigates the emotional landscape Pettle and Robbins have laid out, and it’s a relief, because a work like Parfumerie could so easily veer into the trite and ineffectual, becoming another puffy comedy piece set in a pink-heart world. But, just as he did with The Trespassers at the Stratford Festival this past summer, Panych carefully reveals the layers of tender humanity contained within Laszlo’s world -with humour, patience, understanding, and affection. With Parfumerie, we have a marvelous, moving night of truly delightful theatre, with just the right touch of holiday spirit. Tooth-rotting, cutesy sugar plum shows be damned –this is exactly the sort of Christmas meal I wanted. Thanks again, Soulpepper. Yum yum.

All Parfumerie photographs by Cylla von Tiedmann.

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