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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Theatre); Discoveries (Art); One Man, Two Guvnors (Theatre); How Can I Help? (Psychiatry)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Theatre) by William Shakespeare; directed by Kevin Hammond; starring Steve Coombes, Michaela DiCesare, Madeleine Donohue, Isaac Giles, Grace Gordon, Jordin Hall, M.E. Lewis, Tim MacLean, Matt Pilipiak; Humber River Shakespeare; Town Park, Aurora, Ontario; July 15, 2016 www.humbershakes.com

Here’s the recipe for a simple but smashingly good theatrical production:

- get a great script;

- add some ingeinous actors;

- mix thoroughly.

That’s basically what’s happening in this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Humber River Shakespeare. This production, playing in parks and gardens in the Greater Toronto Area (check the website above for dates in your community), is what you might call grass roots Shakespeare: little in the way of elaborate costuming, few special effects, a bit of lighting and amplification, almost no props, just some staggered platforms by way of sets. But the skill, verve and imagination of the company members make for a sensational show. Their version of the Piramus and Thisbe playlet is as funny as any I’ve seen in any major theatrical or cinematic production of Dream.

To single out any of the actors in this one would seem to imply unfairly that the others weren’t as good. This would not be true, as they each have moments when their individual excellence shines particularly brightly. (And, for obvious reasons, it’s not appropriate for me to comment on a performer with whom I have a close personal connection.) But I can’t leave the subject of this production without mentioing a few personal favourites. Tim MacLean delivers a Bottom whose bumptious, infectious charm is irresistible. Matt Pilipiak gives Puck a goofy, yet sarcastic spin that has a particularly contemporary feel. In the role of Lysander, Jordin Hall, a black actor, occasionally lapses into a hipster delivery to hilarious effect. Never more so than when he’s handling the moonlight duties in the Pyramus and Thisbe scenario.

My one complaint about the production: the singing that opened the show was so lovely that I was hoping – in vain – for more.

Director Kevin Hammond tells me that much of the success of the show is attributable to the inventiveness of the actors, that he simply lets them loose on the material. That can’t be entirely true, of course. Somehow, he has managed to inspire them to great comedic heights while, at the same time, exercising the necessary directorial control and guidance. His company, of nine years’ standing, has a great thing going. As the show’s program notes, a production like this – in open spaces with dogs barking, babies crying, kids squirming – makes you appreciate what theatre in Shakespeare’s time must have been like.

 

Discoveries – Jeanette Langlois Labelle; Neilson Park Creative Centre, Etobicoke, Ont. June 27-July 17. www.neilsonparkcreativecentre.com

This isn’t so much a review as a fond farewell to a dear friend from the Toronto Watercolour Society.

Jeanette Labelle, also an esteemed member of the elite Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour, died suddenly last fall. Her husband, Luc, and friends have mounted this show of some seventy watercolours and acrylics to demonstrate Jeanette’s artistic journey over forty years.

Like many exceptional artists, Jeanette showed early on that she had mastered the demanding techniques for exquisite representational work. Note, for instance, the watercolour portrait of a woman whose straw hat casts an intricate, lacey pattern of sun and shade on her face. Also, the close-up of lighted vigil candles in a church: the warm, transparent glow of the coloured glass and the brilliance of the flames. And the many works showing pears with a luminosity that gives them a transcendance beyond that of ordinary fruit.

Jeanette’s later paintings gradually became less representational, more evocative. Her semi-abstract "Interior Landscapes" suggest scenes that could be based on the countryside or urban settings, but they’re imbued with a vision that takes them out of the realm of ordinary pictography and into the artist’s emotive response to what she’s seeing.

And then there are the pure abstracts, where Jeanette’s combinations of colours and shapes, although unexpected, are never bizarre or wild. There’s always something still and contemplative about them, hinting at something that we almost feel that we know, at truths that we can almost – but not quite – grasp.

The ingenuity of Jeanette’s work as a whole is astounding. And humbling. How is it that this artist was able to take aspects of the visual world around us and to make of them creations that nobody else could have imagined, to see things that none of the rest of us could see before she showed them to us? The only appropriate response is gratitude to Jeanette for her gift to the world.

 

One Man, Two Guvnors (Theatre) Richard Bean’s adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s One Servant, Two Masters; directred by Nicholas Hytner, starring James Corden; National Theatre Live, HD Transmission, June 29, 2016

We're great fans of the Met Opera's HD Live transmissions, but this was our first time attending a re-broadcast from England's National Theatre. Glimpses of the audience members in the theatre help to give you a sense that you’re among them. There are some intermission interviews, some backstage stuff, but it's more casual, less glamorous than what you get from the Met. Still, it's a great way to catch a show that you'd never see otherwise. (I'm not sure when the original performance or broadcast of this one took place.)

One Man, Two Guvnors is loosely based on Carlo Goldoni's One Servant, Two Masters. Here’s a brief attempt to summarize the premise of the adaptation, in so far as I could understand it:

It's 1963 and we're at a hotel in Brighton where a small time criminal is holding a little engagement party for his daughter, who's about to marry a pretentious young actor. The party's interrupted by the arrival of a guy the girl was formerly engaged to. Everybody thought he'd been killed. Apparently not. Unknown to everybody else, though, this is not the man she'd been engaged to; he was actually killed. This is his twin sister impersonating him, so that she can collect the dowry promised to him. In the next scene, the guy who actually killed her brother turns up and we find out that he's the lover of the twin sister; they're hoping to elope together. Somehow or other, Francis Henshall, the hero of the piece, is hired as a servant to each of the lovers, without either of them knowing that the other is in town. How to explain the mayhem that ensues is beyond my narrative powers.

But the viewing was delicious -- after we got through a painful opening scene: stock characters, hammy acting, unbelievably contrived situations, phony sets, laboured jokes. I couldn’t understand why the audience watching the original performance in the theatre was laughing so much. Was it possible to be more caught up in this stilted farce if you were actually seeing it happen before you, if you could actually smell the greasepaint, so to speak? The filmed version certainly wasn’t working for me.

Then arrived Francis Henshall, in the person of actor James Corden. You almost had to wonder whether the opening of the play was intentionally meant to grate on your nerves, so that the appearance of Mr. Corden would come as such a relief. Given half a chance, he could rescue any failing play. He's charming, endearing, beguiling and just cheeky enough to offset the sweetness. Being light on his feet, in the way of some overweight men, he moves beautifully. Oh, and by the way, he's very funny.

As might be expected, given the connection to Goldoni, strong elements of Commedia del Arte prevail. At one point, Francis even refers to himself as the Harlequin character. But the show offers aspects of so many other kinds of theatre that it strikes me as something of a compendium of various genres. There are touches of Music Hall in the way that, during scene changes, the actors take turns coming out in front of the curtain and entertaining us with song, dance, and musical novelties that have nothing to do with the play. There are touches of panto in the satirical jabs at topical targets. (This being 1963, we're treated to a tongue-in-cheek prediction of the benevolence that will sweep over the kingdom when #10 Downing Street will finally house a woman prime minister.) The singling out of some audience members and making them look a bit ridiculous draws on the same theatrical tradition that shows up in Dame Edna's shows. And there are plenty of opportunities for the actors to deliver some highly-polished shtick, somewhat in the style of Monty Python. At one point, for instance, they get caught up in a dialogue that amounts to a prodigious flurry of exchanges employing the letter 'd' to excess – along the lines of: "He was diagnosed with diarrhoea but died of diabetes." On the whole, the performance reminded me of ones that I've seen in the British Isles that had a slightly impromptu, scatter-brained quality, something of a hodge-podge of comedy, music and theatre, not so much a finely crafted drama in the classical sense but more of an entertainment package.

That could be why we weren’t much bothered by the the show's one defect: the fact that the high point of the comedy comes at the end of the first act, causing the second act to feel like something of a letdown. In that first act climax, Francis is trying to serve two elaborate meals simultaneously to his two bosses in separate rooms in a hotel. Coordinating that dual effort takes some complicated logistics but what makes it nearly impossible is that Francis happens to be a great lover of food who can never deny himself any attractive morsel. This makes for shenanigans reaching a high level of hilarity. What made the scene excruciating for me was Francis’ assistance from a waiter who looked like something pulled from the grave to fill a vacancy on the hotel's staff. This man, who kept getting bashed by a swinging door, made me laugh so much that I had severe difficulty struggling to get my breath. When he left the stage, I was hoping, for the sake of my health and continued wellbeing, that he wouldn't return. But he did!

 

How Can I Help? A Week in My Life as a Psychiatrist (Psychiatry) by David Goldbloom and Pier Bryden, 2016

Maybe you haven’t spent a lot of time wondering what a psychiatrist’s daily life is like, but this book may show you that it’s a lot more varied than you might have imagined – at least for this psychiatrist.

David Goldbloom is senior medical advisor at Toronto’s CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health – formerly known as the Clarke Institute) and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. From 2012 to 2015 he served as chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada. His co-author, Pier Bryden, also a psychiatrist, is a clinical teacher and educator in the Department of Psychiatry at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

These two doctors have given us a Monday-to-Friday, hour-by-hour, week in the life of Dr. Goldbloom. It involves, as you might expect, private therapy sessions with patients in his office. Then there are the telepsychiatry sessions by video conferencing with patients in Northern Ontario. And one morning in the ECT (Electro-Convulsive Therapy) lab. Plus shifts in the Emergency Room at CAMH. As for life outside the hospital, Dr. Goldbloom gives about forty public talks a year – that’s one almost every week – to groups who want to know more about psychiatry’s role in our society. We even drop in on dinners with Dr. Goldbloom, his wife and their two adult sons. While we don’t actually witness Dr. Goldbloom’s early morning squash games, we’re well aware that this is how he typically starts his day.

It soon becomes apparent that the illnesses that a psychiatrist like Dr. Goldbloom meets most often are: depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. (The latter, contrary to the common notion of it as "split personality," involves hallucinations, delusions and chaotic behaviour and thinking.) Among other problems that crop up in the week portrayed here are anorexia and alcoholism. In several cases, what we’re witnessing is a first, diagnostic meeting with a patient; in other cases, it’s a follow-up meeting, a few weeks or months after the previous one. Sometimes, a patient is checking in with Dr. Goldbloom after not seeing him for several years.

For a couple of the diagnostic sessions, we sit in with Dr. Goldbloom as he supervises a resident in his final year of training who is conducting the interview. Following the first of these meetings, I thought Dr. Goldbloom was being a bit too critical in his comments to the resident; it didn’t seem to me that the guy had done too badly. After a session at the end of the week, though, Dr. Goldbloom is much more impressed with this same resident’s work. I guess we should be grateful that Dr. Goldbloom ends his interaction with the resident that way – a hopeful note for any of us who might be contemplating the prospect of an encounter with a psychiatrist some day down the line.

Dr. Goldbloom’s description of the procedures in the ECT lab should go a long way to calming the fears of anyone facing the option of that kind of treatment. Given advances in terms of anaesthetics and other refinements in techniques, it’s nothing like the horror of "shock treatment" that many people have in their minds, thanks to sensationalist images from movies. The best thing about ECT is that, in most cases, it has such marvellous results in terms of alleviating severe depression, even though no medical or scientific expert knows exactly why it works as well as it does.

And Dr. Goldbloom’s description of an emergency which necessitated the physical restraint and forcible sedation of a violent patient was conveyed so compassionately and humanely that it brought tears to my eyes. It would be too much to suppose that every incident of this kind is handled with such supreme professionalism and perfect control on the part of all the attendants, but it’s good to know that the expectation of meeting these high standards is in place.

We soon learn from Dr. Goldbloom that psychiatry these days doesn’t deal in long, drawn-out talk therapy over many months and even years. Dr. Goldbloom acknowledges that a few psychiatrists still practice that way, but not many. He makes it clear that he would not be amenable to offering prolonged therapy. He comes across as something of a "Mr. Fix-it." He wants to get a handle on a problem as quickly as possible and take the most efficient way of remedying it. And he makes no secret of the fact that his extroverted personality craves the constant turnover of patients, the meetings with new people, the confrontations with new problems. The kind of psychiatry that he practises is mostly a question of trying to diagnose the patient’s problem as expediently as possible, then deciding on the appropriate medication, if any, and changes in terms of lifestyle and daily programs that might help.

But he does show that, over time, he has had to approach his work with somewhat less of an attitude of the White Knight riding to the rescue. Experience has taught him to be more cautious about his certainties, to question whether he truly understands at times, to admit that he sometimes can’t see the answers clearly. That tends to make Dr. Goldbloom seem more human to us, less of a miracle worker. And any impression of the psychiatrist as the white-coated scientist who keeps an arm’s-length distance from his patients is dispelled by the fact Dr. Goldbloom appears to have no qualms about attending a patient’s citizenship ceremony or a college graduation.

Another humanizing quality is his lively sense of humour. Some people, on hearing that doctors and nurses at CAMH wear casual clothing, ask Dr. Goldbloom how an observer can distinguish the staff from the patients. Dr. Goldbloom’s standard reply: "It’s simple – the patients get better." Describing an attractive woman who, he assumes, is about his age, he adds parenthetically: "...in other words, she is probably younger than me." In one encounter, an angry patient was threatening to send letters to Playboy and Hustler about Dr. Goldbloom’s perfidious tactics. "Because let me tell you something, Dr. Rosenbloom," the patient trumpeted, "I remember your name." That’s right, Dr. Goldbloom answered and he spelled it out: "R-O-S-E-N-B-L-O-O-M."

If there is an overall theme to the book, apart from satisfying a reader’s curiosity about the workings of psychiatry, it's in the nature of an apologia for the profession, both in terms of its strengths and its weaknesses. Dr. Goldbloom wants to correct the bad image that some people have of psychiatry. There are those who, in the spirit of Michel Foucault, see psychiatry as a process whereby the powers-that-be enforce their notions of rightness and normality on society. Dr. Goldbloom’s answer to that is to point to the incontrovertible good that psychiatry has done for many people by helping them to lead more satisfying lives. He acknowledges, though, that psychiatry often doesn’t provide the kind of clear-cut solutions people may want. Psychiatry deals often in intangibles, in mysteries that we’re only beginning to penetrate. Even though, as Dr. Goldbloom points out, there’s more ambiguity in medicine generally than people suspect, he understands why some people get impatient with what seems like psychiatry’s uncertainty about some intractable problems.

But he also invites us to take a broader view – the societal perspective – of many of the problems that are brought to a psychiatrist for treatment. Often, better government handling of issues like housing and employment is crucial to helping psychiatric patients get their lives back on track. He argues, as well, for government coverage of other types of psychotherapy, not just psychiatry. And he hopes for the day when more openness about mental illness, a lifting of the stigma around it, will lead to quicker treatment and better results.

To my surprise, I raced through How Can I Help? Its being such a good read might have something to do with the fact that each case Dr. Goldbloom encounters provides its own mini-drama; you’re tugged forward by the suspense in each new patient’s story. Maybe there’s an element of schadenfreude involved, but that may not be any more reprehensible than the natural curiosity that draws us to medical shows. (Dr. Goldbloom’s interview with a particularly manic patient, although it’s presumably based on facts, reads like an excellent piece of scriptwriting.) Another factor in the book’s readability is it’s construction. Scientific and historical material dove-tails neatly with personal anecdote, reminiscence and reflection. The tone is consistently friendly and approachable, almost never – but occasionally – tipping over into the too technical or abstruse.

However, I did find the occasional awkward sentence:

Despite these overlapping findings, however, our understanding of how levels of dopamine and its transmission among different networks and structures within the brain relate specifically to psychosis and schizophrenia remains crude.

And this one:

And their friends and family have heard of or experienced the baby blues and may not understand the difference between the tears and transient mood swings that many women experience within the first couple of weeks of delivering but that resolve on their own with support and rest, and the tidal wave of postpartum depression that may bring psychosis in its wake and render a formerly functioning woman a wreck.

While we know that cramming all the events of the book into one week is artificial, we can accept that all these events might have occurred in a typical week for Dr. Goldbloom. In that respect, only one issue bothered me. And that’s the reference to the health of Dr. Goldbloom’s mother. At the outset of the book, we learn that there’s a chance that her lung cancer, diagnosed and treated six months earlier, may have metastasized. Throughout the week, the family is anxiously waiting for the results of tests that will answer the question. This further helps to humanize the psychiatrist by showing that he, like the rest of us, has his own problems. And yet, I couldn’t help feeling that the insertion of this concern into this particular week felt a bit contrived. Still, I wouldn’t want to lose the qualities that this issue – not least of which is the mother’s colourful character – brings to the book. Could it have been handled in a way to make it seem less like a plot device? I honestly don’t know.

My one remaining problem with the book is that the respective roles of the two authors are never explained. How Can I Help? is narrated entirely in the voice of Dr. Goldbloom, detailing his life as he experiences it. So what was Dr. Bryden’s contribution? Did she provide the historical and scientific content? Or did she pull together a rough manuscript sketched out by Dr. Goldbloom? To me, not knowing where I stand in terms of the writers’ voices in a co-authored book is disconcerting. It may not bother other people but it’s a problem for me. As a psychiatrist might say: I wonder what that’s about?

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com