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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Review: Urban Tales

The Dark Side of Xmas
by Caitlin Murphy

A Montreal tradition with an anarchic mission, Urban Tales, presented by Theatre Urbi et Orbi in association with the Centaur, brands itself as ‘anti-holiday’ storytelling.  This year’s sixth edition once again subverts the expectations of the season by ditching the cozy for the caustic, the sacred for the sarcastic and the holy for the hellish.

It’s a little delightfully ironic then that the Centaur space has never looked warmer or more welcoming.  The leftover set from their production of Good People serves as a perfect base; decked out with wreaths, twinkly lights, garland, and even Santa’s boots peeking out from the fireplace, the setting’s ambience is like a big hot cup of cocoa.  And with added cabaret seating and a bar right on stage, it’s fun to watch the first brave patrons – like teenagers venturing out onto the dancefloor – decide to actually sit on the stage.  The setting not only echoes the topsy-turvy world of dark holiday tales, but it’s always fun to do things in the theatre you’re not supposed to.  Spirited musical accompaniment – mutations of well-known carols, playfully provided by Nick Carpenter on keyboard – perfectly rounds off the evening’s yuletide vibe.

There is moving simplicity and stillness in his tale of alcoholism, AIDS and time not healing all wounds.

The stories themselves float between genres – some veer towards straight-up narrative, a sort of third-person reportage, while others are more monologue-like, spoken by a distinct voice, from a particular (though not always clear enough) place. 

They are varyingly poignant, absurd, cynical, confessional and darkly ironic; and most move in and out of all of the above.   

Of the evening’s seven stories and their tellers, a couple truly shine.  Bryden MacDonald, in a story he penned himself, exudes a quiet confidence that makes you want to lean in and run at the same time.  There is moving simplicity and stillness in his tale of alcoholism, AIDS and time not healing all wounds.  In the second act, Deena Aziz plays a brittle cynic of a middle-aged actress in a monologue by Urban Tales Director Harry Standjofski; as she endures the neighbourhood cocktail party, her character comes to realize that all the world’s supposed failings actually originate from within.  Aziz’s subtle comedic instincts and her crisp and nuanced delivery brilliantly serve this well-sustained monologue.

Like the Christmas tree, some of the stories, and the production overall, could use trimming.  Clocking in at almost 2.5 hours with intermission seems a bit of an over-burdening of the format.  Some of the more ‘zany / random adventure’ type tales, for instance – though squarely fitting into the anarchic concept – could have used some reining in.  That said, the festive vibe and playful spirit of Urban Tales are intoxicating.  And, as with that offer of a second, third, fourth, or tenth cup of egg-nog, one is best-advised to simply surrender.

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