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Plays at Luminato explore masculinity, dystopia, jealousy
Monday Nights gives shooting hoops an existential twist and Ronnie Burkett's show Forget Me Not immerses the audience in a world where writing is banned

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Tuesday, June 11, 2019 – Page A16

To be clear: Luminato is not on the Raptors bandwagon.

No, Toronto's late-spring international arts festival was a true believer long before you were - and saw the city's current NBA Finals fever coming.

How else to explain how new artistic director Naomi Campbell (with an assist from predecessor Josephine Ridge) had the foresight to program an interactive theatrical performance about basketball to open at this exact moment, long before anyone else knew Toronto was going to transform into one giant Jurassic Park?

If you want to find a new way to channel your We The North spirit, check out Monday Nights.

The show is performed by a group of Toronto-based actors who also have played pick-up basketball together for years.

These five men (plus one woman, Sarah Miller, the stage manager billed as co-creator) have set up a court in a former condo presentation centre on Lake Shore Boulevard East.

Upon entering, audience members can explore the gym bags of Byron Abalos, Darrel Gamotin, Richard Lee and Jeff Yung, listen to playlists they've put together, and then decide whose team to join. I chose Team Jeff based on the discovery of Sour Patch Kids and a book of poetry in his backpack.

Monday Nights is simple on the surface. Each team captain leads a basic b-ball clinic: How to pass, how to dribble, how to shoot.

Then, the teams - captains aided by a volun-teammate or two at a time - compete in a series of skills contests followed by a short game of three-on-three.

You can watch, but you'll have more fun if you strap on running shoes and pull on a Marc Gasol jersey, as I did. (Yes, Gasol.)

You don't have to get into Monday Nights quite as much as the playwright who, the night I was there, was wiped out trying to make a play; a young boy and a pregnant woman were two of my teammates and made great contributions off the bench.

In between the action, while the captains get their breath back, each team listens to recorded monologues on headphones that hang from the back of seats on the sidelines. (Sound design is by Christopher Stanton.)

In the ones I heard, Jeff talked about how basketball helped him get clean many years ago - and how his biggest dream is to, one day, be able to go into a restaurant and tip a server a whole month's rent.

His pick-up pals whispered other things about him into our ears: One suggested Jeff's biggest wish is actually to be "a winner"; another that the actor feels insecure because he has been hired as Richard's understudy several times.

So, who is Jeff? We don't get the details of his addiction, or recovery, or how he learned Cantonese. When I saw an earlier version of Monday Nights at the Theatre Centre, I thought it - like the Raptors at the time - didn't have enough depth.

But, in this retooled version, I found the lacunae part and parcel of its exploration of masculinity and vulnerability in friendship. The basketballers go from speaking to us only in recorded form, to talking to us directly once we've played together. Or: From honest silence, to the selfconsciousness of theatrical performance, to the unabashed honesty of athletic performance.

The lines between acting and doing are explored in an intriguing ways in a show that, ultimately, turns shooting hoops into existential philosophy. Are we nothing but net?

I haven't mentioned the fifth actor: Colin Doyle plays the referee, guiding the audience through the show's complicated structure entertainingly. He trash-talks his pals and is not above the most terrible of puns. I was tempted to, critically, foul him out when he told us to "Be Kawhi-it!", but who doesn't love to boo the ref?

Ronnie Burkett could use a referee for his new Luminato show, Forget Me Not.

The Siminovitch Prize-winning puppeteer seems to have caught the interactive and immersive bug. His latest new puppet play, set in a dystopia where writing is outlawed, is staged all around a giant Canadian Opera Company rehearsal room.

Burkett passes out hand puppets, there's a basket of flashlights that the audience is to use to illuminate his marionettes, and records we're to put on a phonograph in when he orders us.

At one point, Burkett even hands over a pair of his precious, delicate marionettes to audience members; later, he - via hand puppet - washes a spectator's feet. (Yuck.)

I'm not one of those people who hates audience participation, but this is more of a to-do list that keeps lengthening.

Forget Me Not is a dark tale, with a shocking climax, populated by gorgeous, detailed animated objects - notably, a tattooed lady and a bear riding a unicycle.

But, due to the immersive design, the acoustics are frequently bad and the sightlines not much better.

Honestly, I also didn't really love thinking about how many people had previously had their hands up the puppet I had to hold up on cue. It's hard to give a good review when your first, exhausted, thought on exiting is buy some hand sanitizer.

Artists want to accentuate the liveness of theatre these days. I get it; it's a Netflix world. But Burkett has sold out shows around the world because people love his incredible puppets, not because they want to be one of them.

Some traditional theatre - that you sit and watch - opened at Luminato this weekend, too.

After last year's presentation of Uncle Vanya, the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia and Lithuanian director Rimas Tuminas returned with an 1835 play by the Romantic writer Mikhail Lermontov called Masquerade.

An aristocrat named Arbenin (Evgeny Knyazev) becomes convinced of the infidelity of his young wife, Nina (Maria Volkova), after one of her bracelets goes missing at a masked ball.

Poisoned by jealousy, he poisons his wife - only to discover he jumped to conclusions.

Othello, anyone? The problem with old - sorry, classic - plays on this theme is that the tragedy of it all seems predicated on the "innocence" of the woman in question. The misogynist subtext is that killing a truly disloyal wife might be justified.

"Crimes of passion," "honour killings" - these toxic notions are not expunged from our world yet, so how do you stage these works and keep them dramatically effective without buying into the garbage behind them?

Director Nigel Shawn Williams's current production of Othello at the Stratford Festival is an unromantic one that simply allows the title character to be seen as a bad guy; it's a strong take, but makes for an unsatisfying narrative.

For his part, Tuminas deconstructs and comments on Masquerade with his staging. He places the entire play in a snowy graveyard where a memorial statue of a woman will eventually be replaced by Nina herself; she's literally objectified and Volkova's performance, flitting about in pointe shoes, is a send-up of female stereotypes.

There's a fun sequence where a character called the Baroness (the excellent Lidia Velezhova) asks "What is the woman for?" in a proto-feminist speech that must have seemed stirring in the early 19th century; the chorus of women who have been following her around primly as a clump then individuate and repeat the speech in hilarious ways.

Tuminas likes to entertain: Hockey players skate onto the stage, characters climb the curtains - and a clown keeps rolling a snowball that gets bigger and bigger until it crushes Arbenin like an unlucky Indiana Jones at the end.

Monday Nights continues to June 16; Forget Me Not continues to June 23; Masquerade closed June 10. Visit for more information.

Associated Graphic

Top: In the interactive theatrical performance Monday Nights, audience memebers are invited to join actors on the basketball court. Above: Ronnie Burkett's Forget Me Not also makes use of audience participation when he passes out puppets to the audience.


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