Tough questions, great acting highlight The Thrill

The Thrill – On The Run 2013

Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann
Lucy Peacock as Elora and Nigel Bennett as Julian in The Thrill.

Credit: Chet Greason

The Thrill, a play by Judith Thompson currently being staged at the Stratford Festival’s Studio Theatre, contains some incredible acting. It tackles some difficult issues from multiple viewpoints, leaving tough questions largely unresolved- usually the way it goes in real life. However, the acting is what makes the play worth seeing.

The chameleonic Lucy Peacock plays Elora, a character based on lawyer and disability activist Harriet McBryde Johnson. She begins an unlikely relationship with an Irish author named Julian (Nigel Bennett), whose pro-euthanasia stance puts them at ideological odds with one another in the right-to-live/right-to-die debate.

Peacock does some amazing things in The Thrill. Her character, Elora, suffers from a neuromuscular disease and therefore spends the entire play in a motorized wheelchair. However, her performance goes well beyond the chair; she breathes like an asthmatic, has believable issues with the dexterity of her fingers, and suffers it all with the stoic dignity of a fiery southern lady.

The supporting cast also does a phenomenal job. Robert Persichini as Elora’s support worker Francis and Patricia Collins as Julian’s mother Hannah would both be nominated for best featured actor awards should the Stratford Festival ever adopt a Tony-style awards system.

Persichini is endlessly warm, funny, and frank, acting as both a fuel and foil to Elora’s dramatic nature. Persichini comes off as a very real and lovable character despite some awkward lines thrown at him from the playwright (something about “getting your juices flowing for your man”?)

Meanwhile, Collins is astonishing as the dementia-stricken Hannah. Her monologue reflecting back on her very average life includes some of the most blunt and well-written dialogue of the play, and would likely sell as a single should it ever be put to a musical backdrop. The scene where Hannah reveals her online life to her son is laugh-out-loud funny, and is followed by a very touching instance of a sublime moment of clarity. For anyone who has ever had a loved one suffer from a degenerative disease of the mind, this will likely pull some heartstrings.

The best scenes in The Thrill involve the peripheral relationships: Elora with Francis and Julian with Hannah. It is the pivotal relationship between Elora and Julian that suffers. This is largely due to how Francis’ role is written. Bennett does what he can, but the end result is that Julian comes off as way too creepy in his romantic pursuit of Elora. This has nothing to do with the fact that he’s an able-bodied man seeking a physical relationship with a woman in a wheelchair.

The back-and-forth would appear creepy even if both were physically fit, or both in wheelchairs. He’s simply far too pushy and forward, and will likely make most audience members feel very uncomfortable.

Elora, for her part, accepts him. One wonders if she’s also creeped out by Julian’s touchy advances, but responds out of a deep craving for a physical relationship. Either way, it all works out platonically, so I suppose we can’t fault either of them. Still, I was put off by some instances of silent acquiescence when there should’ve probably been a slap.

The set is also awkward. Director Dean Gabourie rightly opts for minimalism, but any focus on dialogue his lack of furniture affords is lost to the off-beat design of the stage itself. Blue sky and clouds comprise the disco floor, and wave-sounds dominate the soundscape between scenes. The single purple square that encompasses the backdrop makes the stage look like it’s part of a new wave music video straight out of the 1980s, or stuck in a crystal cube on sale at the local candle and amethyst shop.

The ethereal feel of the stage contrasts heavily with the grounded conversations that are happening. Perhaps this was done on purpose? The Thrill is full of references to heaven and hell and, later, purgatory. The political stances taken in the play also fall into strict black and white dichotomies, while its conclusion is undeniably grey. Perhaps the earthy acting and the sterile set are also meant to contrast one another? Unfortunately, whatever the rationale, it ultimately proves distracting.

But don’t go to The Thrill for the big purple square. Go to hear the tough questions raised by the text and to enjoy the admirable job done by its four actors.

Thought-provoking and affecting, it’s a fine production.

Original article on the Stratford Gazette’s website.

Stratford Festival extended run of Fiddler on the Roof by one week Oct. 22-27


Scott Wentworth as Tevye with members of the company in Fiddler on the Roof. (CYLLA VON TIEDEMANN Stratford Festival)

Credit: Beacon Herald staff

Thursday, September 5, 2013 11:02:47 EDT AM

The Stratford Festival is extending the run of the hit musical “Fiddler on the Roof” by one week.

Five performances were added beginning with Oct. 22 (8 p.m.) and matinees Oct. 24, 25, 26 and 27 (2 p.m.).

Tickets go on sale to Festival members on Friday and to the general public Saturday.

The musical, directed and choreographed by Donna Feore, stars Scott Wentworth as Tevye.

The Festival has now extended three productions this season.

Extra performances of “Mary Stuart” were added an unprecedented four times, the final of which run Oct. 16 (2 p.m.), Oct. 17 (8 p.m.), Oct. 18 (8 p.m.) and Oct. 19 (8 p.m.).

“Taking Shakespeare” was extended twice, with the final performances set for Sept. 24 and Sept. 27.

The rest of the Stratford Festival’s 2013 season runs until Oct. 20.

2014 Stratford Festival playbill released

Photo courtesy of the Stratford Festival

Photo courtesy of the Stratford Festival

Chet Greason, Stratford Gazette staff, August 29, 2013.

The playbill for the 2014 Stratford Festival season was released last week. With an overarching theme of “Madness: Minds Pushed to the Edge,” the season will feature plays that explore both old and new concepts behind mental illness.

“These plays explore minds that are driven out of balance by a variety of forces: love, war, poetry, age, sexuality,” says artistic director Antoni Cimolino is a press release. “The result is often heartbreakingly tragic, but can also be a trigger for comedy.”

Perhaps most notable amongst the plays set for next year are dual performances of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The first, staged at the Festival Theatre, will be directed by Chris Abraham, who helmed this season’s production of Othello. The other, directed by Festival newcomer Peter Sellars, will be staged in an as-yet unannounced location but is being described as “a chamber play.”

This will be the first time the Stratford Festival has staged two different interpretations of a play during the same season.

As 2014 will mark the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare, next year’s season will feature a total of five plays written by the Bard. The others will include King Lear (directed by Cimolino) at the Festival Theatre, and Antony and Cleopatra (Gary Griffin) and King John (Tim Carroll) at the Tom Patterson.

Another first for 2014 will be the Festival’s first-ever production of George and Ira Gershwin’s Crazy for You at the Festival Theatre. Directed and choreographed by Donna Feore, who helmed this season’s wildly popular production of Fiddler on the Roof, this high-energy musical features such well-known songs I’ve Got Rhythm and Embraceable You.

The rest of the 2014 line-up includes George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem (Antoni Cimolino) at the Festival Theatre; Noël Coward’s Hay Fever (Alisa Palmer), the musical Man of La Mancha (directed by Robert McQueen and choreographed by Marc Kimelman), and James Reaney’s stage adaptation of Louis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass (Jillian Keiley) at the Avon Theatre; Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage (Martha Henry) at the Tom Patterson; and Michel Marc Bouchard’s Christina, The Girl King (Vanessa Porteous) at The Studio Theatre. This production will mark the play’s English-language premiere, featuring a translation by Linda Gaboriau.

Cimolino says he’s excited about the various creative teams lined up to put the season together.

“What excites me about this playbill is it contains plays in which the protagonists are driven to extraordinary places,” he says.
“Extreme stakes lead to great drama.”

Reposted from:

Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival, September 20-22, 2013

Set in the heart of Stratford’s heritage garden district bordered by the Avon River and the historic City Hall and Market Square, the award-winning Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival takes place September 20-22.

Sip, sample and savour dishes, menus, talks and tastings with our local producers and artisan farmers and local and celebrity chefs, experts and authors from across the world. This year’s theme – globally inspired, locally grown – showcases international cuisine with local Perth County foods to enlighten and amuse the taste buds. With over 150 culinary chefs, farmers, producers, Ontario wineries and craft brewers, cheese makers and culinary personalities, the Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival is one of the largest culinary festivals in Ontario.

Come mingle among the farmer’s and artisan markets accompanied by free music concerts and surrounded by food stalls, special chef presentations, talks and tasting events – choose from over 40 talks, tastings and sampling events – set in picturesque Stratford.

This year’s highlights include:

  • Fanshawe College Carnival of Food – Opening Ceremonies
  • Toronto Star Culinary Stage – International Chefs Vikram Vij; Roger Mooking; Mara Salles; Francisco Alejandri; Wing Li and Elizabeth Rivasplata
  • Tutored Talks and Tastings – Chefs, cookbook authors and culinary experts present entertaining and informative stories and sampling of wine, spirits and foods from around the globe
  • The Taste of Ontario Artisan Alley – Celebrating the best Ontario wines, craft brews, spirits and cheese makers for an afternoon of fantastic sampling and nibbling
  • GE Cafe Cooking Series with Vikram Vij – An exclusive hands-on cooking class
  • Perth County Hoot! Presented by Mill Street Brewery – Rock, roll and swing at a hot Saturday night party headlined by the Lemon Bucket Orchestra with BBQ pork washed down with a selection of Mill Street brews, wines and spirits
  • Woman in Food Breakfast – A great Sunday morning brunch at The Church Restaurant with a provocative panel discussion on women in the food industry
  • Sunday Savour Stratford Tasting Presented by Scotiabank – Our famous culinary garden party set under an elegant tent in Market Square with 30 top local chefs paired with local food producers and farmers serving seasonal morsels, complimented by Ontario VQA wines and craft brews. While away the afternoon surrounded by food lovers and artists.

Plan to attend Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival - September 20-22, 2013.

Never too much garlic at Garlic Fest


Calling all “Foodies”! The festival “that really stinks” is celebrating its seventh year on September 7th, 2013 from 9 am to 4 pm and September 8th, 2013 from 10 am to 4pm at the Old Stratford Fairgrounds, adjacent to the Rotary Complex in Stratford, Ontario. It’s two days long because “there’s no such thing as too much garlic!”

Credit: The Stratford Gazette

Calling all “Foodies”! The festival “that really stinks” is celebrating its seventh year on September 7th, 2013 from 9 am to 4 pm and September 8th, 2013 from 10 am to 4pm at the Old Stratford Fairgrounds, adjacent to the Rotary Complex in Stratford, Ontario. It’s two days long because “there’s no such thing as too much garlic!”

Back-to-back presentations by celebrity chefs, including: Elizabeth Baird, and Rose Murray, Emily Richards, Chef Darryl Fletcher, and Karen Stickel kick off the event. As well, experts Warren Ham and Roman Osadca will release previously classified information on growing techniques and nutraceutical properties.

The Ontario Garlic Market features locally grown garlic in every form, from bulbs to scapes, and a chance to meet the farmers to learn all about the different varieties of garlic they have to offer. The market also features garlic gadgetry, preserves, sauces and dips, garlic-inspired crafts of every description, not to mention a wildly diverse group of food vendors with garlic-related fare to tantalize taste buds – from garlic-bison sausage to garlic fudge.

On Sunday, visitors can catch a demonstration by veteran garlic grower/braider, Bryan Mailer, or sign up for his garlic-braiding workshop. This exclusive workshop provides hands-on braiding techniques, with all materials provided and participants take home their own garlic braid. Cost is $50, but sign up is limited to 10 students. Contact

First thing Sunday morning, the popular Black Box competition finds Mayor Dan Mathieson and Peter Maranger paired up with Stratford Chef’s School students in a fun-filled, culinary duel to create a garlic-inspired appetizer in one hour. The grand finale performance – the ever-popular Garlic Chef Competition – find Stratford’s finest chefs facing-off in a grueling, iron-chef style competition to prepare a gourmet three-course meal in one hour. This year’s competition features returning champ Yva Santini from Pazzo Taverna + Pizzeria against Robert Rose from Grub-to-Go.

Both days will feature an outstanding folk/roots musical line-up, showcasing popular performers such as Shawna Caspi, Manitoba Hal Brolund, Steadfast, and this year’s Stratford Star, Stephanie Wivell.

Proceeds from the event will go towards the Kiwanis Club of Stratford. Visitors can find out more about local and global Kiwanis initiatives by visiting the Kiwanis booth at the festival.

“The Festival celebrates the world-class garlic produced in Ontario while supporting local farmers, food processors, restaurants, artisan chefs, and crafters.” says festival chair Warren Ham.

For more information, visit

Enjoy Great Theatre, Support a Great Cause!


Reeling in the Gears Blog



Our store was recently visited by Robert Cundari, who runs the blog Reeling in the Gears. His goal is to complete the challenging Tour Divide race in 2015. The race follows a fixed course called the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. It crosses the Continental Divide from Banff, Alberta, through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and ending in Antelope Wells, New Mexico. The Great Divide route is more than 2,700 miles, which is 500 miles longer than the Tour de France and involves more than 200,000 feet of ascent — the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest seven times.

We decided to give a shout out an inspiring story in the making. His blog at the moment covers his preparation from the race, everything from bicycle maintenance, to his favourite music to listen to while riding on trails. Colour us impressed.

Stratford Festival’s Merchant of Venice gets a lot right: review


Scott Wentworth as Shylock and Sara Farb as his daughter, Jessica, in the 2013 Stratford Festival production of The Merchant of Venice.

Sarah Farb gives performance of unshakable honesty, Scott Wentworth digs into a bottomless pit of hatred and Antoni Cimolino masterfully stages the courtroom scene

By: Theatre Critic, from

August 16, 2013

By William Shakespeare. Directed by Antoni Cimolino. Until Oct. 18 at the Festival Theatre. 1-800-567-1600

STRATFORD—Antoni Cimolino’s production of The Merchant of Venice, which opened at the Festival Theatre on Thursday night, shares all the ups and downs of Shakespeare’s play itself.

The first half looks like a series of scenes from three different shows that stubbornly refuse to come together but, after intermission, the triumphant trial sequence unites everything with some breathtaking drama, while a perfectly realized final sequence offers bittersweet romance, rueful laughter and an emotionally gripping last image.

Let’s be honest: The Merchant of Venice is not an easy play to produce or even to attend. Is it a romantic comedy with the venomous serpent of racism hidden coiled in its centre? Or is it a melodramatic saga of ethnic hatred run rampant, which happens to have a series of love plots swirling around it like satellite moons?

Some productions downplay the racism, others boost the romance, but Cimolino has the intelligence and honesty to largely play it as it lays. Virtually everyone in the show, with the exception of the clear-eyed Bassiano (an excellent Stratford debut from Tyrell Crews), harbours hatred for someone and doesn’t hesitate to express it.

“May all of his complexion choose me so,” sighs Portia with relief after the dark-skinned Prince of Morocco fails to win her hand and she’s supposed to be our heroine. It’s to Michelle Giroux’s credit that her initially madcap heiress character can mature into someone with the capacity for empathy.

And the unrelenting anti-semitism of Jonathan Goad’s Gratiano is delivered with such swaggering panache and cockeyed charm that it’s impossible to hate the hater.

By the time Antoine Yared’s Prince of Aragon is delivering a non-stop Spanish caricature to the delight of everyone onstage and in the audience (except, apparently, me), it becomes obvious that Cimolino’s tactic is to implicate us all in the web of hatred that fuels Shylock’s revenge and his tragic final end.

Intellectually, it’s a sound idea, but there are some practical things wrong with the first half that make us keep our distance. Cimolino has set his play in Fascist Italy, just before the start of the Second World War, which means there’s a sumptuous setting from Douglas Paraschuk, achingly lovely 1930s costumes from Charlotte Dean, deliciously dappled lighting by Robert Thomson and the mother of all pastiche Italian movie scores from Keith Thomas.

Cimolino has also staged his café scenes with a loving eye for the period, but there’s just a bit too much of it. Sometimes things just stop dead so we can all go, “Oh yes, Fascist carabinieri, impending doom, we get it.”

And the chosen period doesn’t really jibe with the seemingly endlessly scenes of Portia’s suitors trying to choose her by way of a series of metallic caskets. It takes a long time for Antonio to go into debt and Shylock to demand the pound of flesh he’s negotiated in case of a default.

Scott Wentworth begins by playing Shylock in an almost jovial mood, but when he loses his daughter Jessica (Sara Farb in a performance of unshakable honesty that is, hands down, the best onstage) to a gold-digging gentile named Lorenzo (Tyrone Savage, finding, as always, the decency in whomever he plays), this seemingly impervious moneylender starts to lose it.

When Wentworth suddenly screams, “Hath not a Jew eyes?” to a chorus of evil urchins who are baiting him, we irrevocably cross the line. The stakes are higher, the game is for real and the play can swing into high gear.

The courtroom scene has been masterfully staged by Cimolino and is played with precision by all involved. Tom McCamus’s almost invisibly low-key Antonio (the play is named after him?) comes to life as the knife draws near his breast, while Wayne Best offers us a commanding Duke of Venice and Giroux’s Portia pulls off the hardest cross-dressing scene in all of Shakespeare by passing herself off convincingly as a young male lawyer.

It’s a powerful scene but almost impossible to watch as Wentworth’s Shylock allows himself to dig deeper and deeper into the seemingly bottomless pit of hatred inside him. It makes us see in graphic detail what the final price of racism can be and it’s a horrible thing to witness.

A trial scene that powerful normally makes the final sequence that follows — where all the lovers, quarrel, joke, kiss and make up — difficult to finesse, but Cimolino and company pull it off admirably, although I found the repeated use of newscast speeches from Mussolini and Hitler a bit obvious.

Without revealing what happens, I will tell you that the final moment of the production, which leaves Giroux’s reformed Portia and Farb’s conflicted Jessica to share a unique last wordless exchange, unites everything that has gone before and lets us end with a feeling of rueful resolution.

Is there such a thing as a perfect production of The Merchant of Venice? In a post-Holocaust world, I highly doubt that’s possible. But the one now on view at Stratford gets enough things right to make you ultimately forgive the ones that are wrong.

Ruled – and overcome – by passion at the Stratford Festival’s production of Othello


Graham Abbey, left, as Iago and Dion Johnstone as Othello star in the Stratford Festival production of Othello.

By Bruce Urquhart, Woodstock Sentinel-Review and Stratford Beacon Herald

August 15, 2013

Director Chris Abraham artfully sets a fatalistic tone in the opening moments of his ominous – and mesmerizing – production of Othello.

Blood-red wooden panels open on designer Julie Fox’s haunting set as the Avon Theatre stage shifts from an uneven geometric shape to a darkened Venetian street, revealing the scheming Iago and hapless Roderigo. A droning rumble – part of the brooding score by composer and sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne – underscores Iago’s opening soliloquy while flashes of lightning punctuate every villainous word.

From this opening scene until Othello’s final doomed moments, the staging is masterful, using a rotating rhomboid stage, spare but well-placed props and Michael Walton’s skillful lighting to create throne rooms, claustrophobic streetscapes and stormy seas.

But as stunning as this stage design is, it’s more than matched by the performances of the two leads. Graham Abbey is a brilliant Iago, bringing unexpected nuance to arguably the most evil of Shakespeare’s antagonists. Abbey explores the hurt at the centre of Iago’s malice, showing how the spurned ensign’s love for his general has turned to hate. While Abbey reveals Iago’s spite in his soliloquies and asides, he also uncovers the underlying feelings of betrayal that trigger his Machiavellian plotting.

But Abbey is just as compelling as “honest Iago,” bringing laughter and open smiles to his character’s myriad false faces. His Iago is everyone’s friend, patting backs and dispensing advice while scheming to bring the whole thing down in blood and flames.

Even at the end, his unrepentant Iago seems to take joy in the suffering he’s caused while offering his captors no satisfaction: “Demand me nothing; know what you know.”

As his opposite, Dion Johnstone brings an emotional heft to his Othello. In the opening scenes, Johnstone’s Othello, speaking in a rich patois, brims with joy as he holds his beloved Desdemona. That joy turns to madness as Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona has strayed with Cassio, Othello’s former lieutenant.

His passion corrupted, the noble Othello becomes someone detestable, his jealousy mirroring the malignancy in Iago’s own wicked heart.

Johnstone particularly shines in the scene in which Iago’s sinister plot is finally revealed. His Othello, a proud, battle-hardened warrior, visibly crumples as he realizes the extent of his folly – and his doom.

Abbey’s malevolence and Johnstone’s blind honour are bolstered by an able supporting case. Bethany Jillard brings an early timidity to Desdemona but shows a quiet strength during a poignant scene when she asks Deborah Hay’s Emilia to shroud her in her wedding sheets. Brad Hodder’s Cassio, while noble, struggles with his own insecurities, demonstrating that vulnerability in an early scene where he’s easily goaded into a career-ruining brawl. As Roderigo, Mike Shara balances the gullibility of a romantic with an increasingly desperate thuggishness.

In a Stratford Festival season marked by triumphs, Abraham’s Othello continues that winning run. Elevated by its bold production design and a wonderful cast, this enthralling Othello is one that demands attention.

Othello continues through Oct. 19 at the Avon Theatre. Tickets are available at 519-273-1600 or online at

Lindsay Kroes interviews 50 Stratford seniors’ for book Gather by the Avon


University of Waterloo student Lindsay Kroes, who lives in the Amulree area northeast of Stratford, is author of Gather by the Avon: The Stratford Story Project. The 250-page book captures the historical stories of 50 Stratford seniors between the ages of 70 to 98 years. (SCOTT WISHART The Beacon Herald)

By Laura Cudworth, The Stratford Beacon Herald

August 13, 2013

AMULREE - The memories of 50 Stratford seniors won’t be forgotten and may well become ingrained in the community’s consciousness.

Some rode on the wagon with workers during Stratford’s infamous general strike in 1933, others participated in the war effort both at home and abroad and others rode the rails during the Great Depression. All of those stories have been anthologized in a book called “Gather by the Avon” by Lindsay Kroes.

It all started when the University of Waterloo student was doing a work term at Doon Heritage Village.

“It was amazing to me that so many senior visitors saw things, like the gramophone, and recognized it from their childhoods,” said Kroes, a Stratford Central graduate who lives near Amulree. “Their stories were historically rich, fun and interesting.”

That gave Kroes an excellent idea to document the stories of Stratford seniors and share them.

Students create their own business for the enterprise co-op program at UW. Kroes decided to publish a book of short stories based on the recollections of Stratford residents between 70 and 98 years old. The result is a 250-page book with photos detailing poignant moments in Stratford’s history and in the lives of some of the people who live here.

“It’s been really neat to hear about people’s adventures and where a life can go. It made me think of my own life and where it could go,” Kroes said.

Kroes will host a book launch on Thursday at 7 p.m. at the University of Waterloo Stratford Campus.

Kroes went to three city retirement homes and took referrals to find her storytellers.

It was an enriching experience and several of the stories surprised her. One woman spoke of her time on the carnival circuit working the goldfish game. A man originally from out West talked about riding the boxcars during the Great Depression to find work.

“I can’t imagine what kind of life that was,” Kroes said.