Theatre Review – The Stronger Variations

strongervariations

Christmas Eve – a woman walks into a cafe to see her friend, who also happens to be her husband’s mistress, sitting alone at a table. A confrontation ensues – one-sided, in which the wife talks and the mistress listens, reacting only via facial expressions or laughter. The play from 1889 by August Strindberg is a mere ten minutes long, but is so easily open to interpretation, to variances and nuances, that the variations Theatre Rusticle present under the direction of Allyson McMackon could be endless.

Set in the 1950s and originally presented with a cast of three (Liza Balkan, Viv Moore, Lucy Rupert) this most recent adaptation of the play runs with the addition of Chala Hunter and Andrya Duff, allowing even more variations as each actress takes turns playing either the wife or the mistress with the use of simple props such as a hat or a shopping bag full of presents.

The variations range from sweet and naive to bitter and pained; Moore (my friend and neighbour) offers the mistress as demon early on in one of the funniest interpretations; while Hunter and Duff, in a scene choreographed by Simon Fon, give us a full-on WWF-worthy knock-down drag-out cat fight complete with hair pulling and face scratching. Sure, it’s slightly predictable, but how else do you create momentum in a show that is the same dialogue over and over? Besides it was brilliantly executed and completely fun to watch. As was the delightful slipper dance scene. More poignantly, some variations appear to verge on emotional breakdown as the wife details how the mistress, without any contact or communication, seems to have inserted herself into the wife’s very soul.

While the bulk of the dialogue centres around a (slightly updated) version of Strindberg’s original play, McMackon has wisely added a few scenes of additional dialogue that give the characters more depth and empathy, such as each actor in the role of the mistress remembering their first kiss, or a scene where the wife runs around the stage as the other actors dance about, begging them to stop repeating the same sad story – after all, the work, written in 1889, is still relevant today.

In fact, I desperately wanted a variation where wife and mistress commiserated, said “ahhh, to hell with him and his stupid slippers with the tulip embroidery” and shared a drink while they trashed dear husband and his philandering ways. But Strindberg’s original theme remains clear; despite the wife’s claims of inner strength, or the audience’s hope she will achieve some form of self-actualization – family – home and family, come first. Has she fought for her man and won, or is she the sad loser headed home to the man who cheated on her?

The Stronger Variations runs at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre until December 7th.

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People of the 1980s: The Street Fashion Photography of Derek Ridgers and Amy Arbus

ridgers

When I say 1980s fashion, most people are probably prone to shudder and reply “ugh!” Yes, the 80s were a bad time for mainstream fashion – big hair, big shoulders, jelly bracelets, parachute pants… it was all pretty awful. Which undoubtedly makes it confusing when I then say that the 80s were the best era for fashion – alternative fashion, that is.

In places like London and New York, the political climate encouraged lots of people who didn’t fit into the mainstream to express themselves via their clothing. Punk, post punk, new wave, no wave, goth and more all had their origins in the late 70s or early 80s, and while those trends gave way to rave and club culture on both sides of the Atlantic, the fashion of the decade was marked with an independent creativity that hasn’t really been achieved since.

Two books of street fashion demonstrate this point beautifully.

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Book Review – Eating Delancey – A Celebration of Jewish Food

delancey

Eating Delancey: A Celebration of Jewish Food
Aaron Rezny and Jordan Schaps
Powerhouse Books, 224 pages

In olde tymes, publishers would send a hard copy of a book to critics for review. In rare cases, this would be a galley copy, with a weird cerlox binding and double-wide pages, but usually it was something that resembled the finished version of the book. Technology has made this process much easier and cheaper – PDF files sent via the Cloud or email have replaced hard copies sent by mail, and pretty much everyone is happier for it, even reviewers who, while they often considered the reward of hard copies part of their (usually very minimal) pay structure, tended to find themselves with stacks of samples of things (books, CDs, jars of weird jams) that they really didn’t want.

The roundabout point of my complaint here is that, with a PDF file for review, I’m now going to have to go out and buy myself a copy of Eating Delancey. That’s right, even after reading it for free, I enjoyed this book so much I’m still going to buy my own copy.

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Film Review – 20,000 Days on Earth

20000days

For what I am about to admit, the great Goth council will show up at my door and take away my Goth Card ™. But… I’ve never been a fan of Nick Cave.

I appreciate what he does. I understand and respect his influence. But his music has never moved me, and he doesn’t make me swoon. So I was able to go into 20,000 Days on Earth with no expectations, knowing very little about it, waiting to see if it made me like Cave more… or less.

Knowing something about the film beforehand would have helped, actually, as 20,000 Days on Earth is a fictional documentary. It’s Nick Cave playing Nick Cave. There is no official Nick Cave archive in a bunker in Brighton, England. Friends and co-workers such as Kylie Minogue and Blixa Bargeld don’t actually appear in Cave’s car for a chat as he drives through the rain. (Digression – can I please have a documentary about Blixa Bargeld? Please?) Cave’s chat with his therapist is not real (the therapist, Darian Leader is a real psychoanalyst, but does not, apparently count Cave as one of his patients).

So what is the point of 20,000 Days?

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Review – Fictitious Dishes by Dinah Fried

Book_FictitiousDishes

The sign of a good writer is whether or not the imagery they commit to the page elicits a response in the reader. Can they make the place, the character, or the event vivid and real to the person reading the story? Oddly, one of the most difficult things for fiction writers to describe is food or meals, especially if the scene is integral to the story. But when the writing is well-done, the description of a repast (sumptuous or otherwise) not only progresses the plot but can be so vivid that the reader can almost taste the dishes described on the page.

In Fictitious Dishes, New York Graphic designer Dinah Fried thought to take the process one step further – she cooked, styled, and photographed foods from great works of fiction. Amassing a vast collection of props along the way (plates, tablecloths, cutlery), she chose 50 works of literature and set about bringing a meal from each to life.

Holden Caulfield’s Swiss cheese sandwich and malted milk from The Catcher in the Rye grace a Formica diner table. The potato salad and coconut cake from East of Eden adorn a picnic table and make the mouth water. And the spread of hors d’oeuvres from The Great Gatsby will have every reader wishing for an invitation to the party.

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Review – Erasure at Danforth Music Hall – Needs More Vince Clarke

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Pared down.

While Vince Clarke and Andy Bell showed up and delivered the goods last night at the Danforth Music Hall, long-term fans, and anybody who has seen their previous live shows, would have come away with the same term – pared down.

Working with a basic laptop, and occasionally an acoustic guitar, Clarke’s synth grooves remained as lush and infectious as ever, but compared to their 2011 show at Sound Academy and the stand shaped like a giant gargoyle (complete with light-up eyes), or the 1997 performance at the Molson Ampitheatre (for the album Cowboy) where Clarke had so much gear it was mounted on scaffolding that he regularly climbed up and down, there was little going on, and little for the talented keyboardist to do. Whole songs from the new album The Violet Flame, with many tracks emulating a Northern Soul sound, left Clarke with nothing to do – he was spotted for long periods during songs standing with his hands by his sides. Like we say about just about everything “Needs more Vince Clarke!”

Missing also was the sense of humour and dynamic between Clarke and lead singer Andy Bell. In 2011, Clarke came out to help Bell with a costume change, using an extra-large pair of scissors to cut a red satin corset off Bell’s body. Nothing like that occurred last night, and Bell’s costume change, where he stripped down to a tank top and sequinned shorts, was done off stage.

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Bell is definitely an entertainer and an energetic one at that, but after opening the set with Oh L’Amour, we were treated to a series of tracks from both the new album and what could be referred to as “the muddy middle” of Erasure’s discography. Sorry boys, but the songs we all know and love are from the 80s and early 90s. Efforts to update or rework tracks didn’t always succeed. I commented before the encore that they were still to play Ship Of Fools, only to have my husband point out that they had done it already – hadn’t recognized it at all.

They made sure we left still loving them however, saving the best for last with Respect, Chains of Love, Sometimes, and Always.

Erasure will always have a place in my heart, mostly because they are so much fun to see live. Their show last night was still great, but was less than I’ve been used to. It was fine compared to most concerts you’d see of a similar genre, but Erasure is usually so much fun live that the pared down version felt lacking on a few fronts.

You can never go wrong with giving Vince more to do.

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Exhibit – Politics of Fashion – Fashion of Politics

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When you choose your outfit in the morning, do you ever think about the statement you’re making? Sure, what we wears tells the world about who we are, but what about consciously choosing to make a political statement to the world? The latest exhibit at the Design Exchange is all about people who do just that – and the clothes they’ve worn.

Politics of Fashion – Fashion of Politics, guest curated by Jeanne Beker, is really a two-part exhibit. In the first section, political statements through fashion are laid out semi-chronologically, starting with the 60s youth-quake in Britain and the raising of hemlines as a means of self-expression and creativity.

Issues such as the Vietnam war, sexual freedom (the topless swimsuit by Rudi Gernreich), homosexuality (Bowie’s boots, Klaus Nomi’s tuxedo, RuPaul’s corset for the MAC VivaGlam campaign), and racism (a selection of pieces by African-American designer Patrick Kelly, who intentionally incorporated imagery of racial stereotypes into his designs, as well as pieces from the 1998 collection of varying length chadors by Hussein Chalayan) are all represented.

Various western sub-cultures and their “uniforms” are also prevalent, with a vast selection of Vivienne Westwood pieces from the 70s punk era, as well as pieces demonstrating the mod and skinhead styles that were worn at the time.

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Sunday Brunch – Beast

Beast Restaurant
96 Tecumseth Street
647-352-6000
brunch for two with all taxes, tip and coffee: $57

I’m breaking our ethical policy here. We normally prefer not to “review” places where we know the chef or owners. Just so that if it’s a bad review, nobody is hurt when their pal Sheryl disses their grub. And so that if it’s a good review, we can’t be accused of writing something positive only because we know the chef. But we really wanted to review Beast because Chef Scott Vivian is doing really unique brunch stuff, and in a land of never ending eggs Benedict, unique stuff deserves to be covered. And while I’m not going to be able to use the ideal situation of “anonymous and impartial reviewer”, know that I’m going to be as fair as I can in my assessment.

Like much of the regular menu, brunch at Beast is heavy on the meat. Burgers ($12 – $14) and the signature pig’s head pasta ($12) top the card before the traditional Sunday morning fare appears. Vegetarians have the option of French toast ($10) or yogurt and granola ($6), but if you’re not up for some form of beast, then Beast likely won’t appeal.

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Sunday Brunch – Frida Restaurant

Frida Restaurant
999 Eglinton Avenue West
416-787-2221
Brunch for two with all taxes, tip and coffee: $50

We know our readers love the brunch reviews, but after a while it can all get a little tedious. Hollandaise sauce now runs in my veins. So we were delighted to head up to Eglinton Avenue and check out the brunch offerings at Frida.

This upscale Mexican restaurant is run by chef Jose Hadad, and besides a really interesting dinner menu, offers a diverse brunch card full of Mexican favourites.

We start with some of Hadad’s famous guacamole and chips ($10) – both made in house and available for sale to take home. Beautifully presented and drizzled with chili oil, it’s easy to see why Hadad’s Mad Mexican line does so well. Our server also brings us each a small dish full of chunks of melon and pineapple, a fruit amuse bouche, which is a lovely touch.

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Sunday Brunch – La Palette

La Palette
492 Queen Street West
416-603-4900
brunch for two with all taxes tip and coffee: $45

La Palette is now considered a Kensington Market landmark, serving up classic French food in an adorable little bistro. So fans were rightly pleased when owners Shamez Amlani and Brook Kavanagh announced they’d be taking over the old Taro location to open a second La Palette.

The space is far more open than during the days of Taro – gone are the heavy booths; wooden tables are draped with pretty fabric and the exposed brick walls are covered in French posters and prints. The back skylight makes up for the lack of a patio, as the room is filled with sunlight.

Our server is friendly and patient, particularly given that I’m visibly upset since I’ve just had a run in with a man on the streetcar who was convinced that everyone attending the Pride parade was going to hell. (No… really. And no, despite my better judgment, I didn’t clock the guy.) Coffee and glasses of water arrive swiftly, and we’re able to settle down and peruse the menu.

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Sunday Brunch – Chuck & Co.

Chuck and Co.
126 Atlantic Avenue
416-533-3500
Brunch for two with all taxes, tip and coffee: $30

Messy. And that’s not a bad thing.

Known for their handmade gourmet burgers, you wouldn’t expect a burger place to do up fancy brunch. And to be fair, the selection of breakfast sandwiches is pretty straightforward. This is more of a “grab a great sandwich on the way home from the farmers’ market” kind of brunch than a leisurely afternoon with scones and mimosas and linen napkins. But sometimes that’s all you want, and the offerings at Chuck and Co are wholly acceptable.

It’s a nice looking space with leather benches, white walls and white-washed floors. It’s empty save for us on both occasions we’re there, and after two visits, we’re now known as regulars, on a first name basis with Chantal, who cheerfully takes our order at the counter at the back.

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Sunday Brunch – The Bloordale Pantry

The Bloordale Pantry
1285 Bloor Street West
416-530-2999
brunch for 2 with all taxes, tip and coffee: $40

A lifetime ago, I lived at Bloor and Lansdowne in an old warehouse space (which is what we called old warehouses before developers renovated them and put in marble counter tops and stainless steel appliances and called them “lofts”). It was a rough neighbourhood, and one of the roughest parts of it was the greasy spoon on the corner where locals bought $2 beer and did their drug deals.

Twenty years later, the corner of Bloor and Lansdowne, while still gritty, is the latest area to see improvements to businesses and services. There’s now a handful of decent restaurants and cool shops, co-existing peacefully with Indian sweet shops and African spice stores.

And that scary diner on the corner that I was never brave enough to set foot in is now a bright, cheery, hip little space with new (retro-looking) decor and a really decent brunch menu.

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Sunday Brunch – Blue Plate

Blue Plate
392 Roncesvalles Avenue
416-538-7500
brunch for two with all taxes, tip and coffee: $40

How long is long enough?

We’re known for hassling other restaurant critics about not giving new restaurants enough time to find their groove before slipping in for a review. Two or three weeks is usually considered an appropriate amount of time, and we feel we’re adhering to that standard of courtesy when we show up more than two weeks after opening day at Blue Plate, the new restaurant on Roncesvalles where Boho used to be. But while the food meets our expectations, the place very much feels like the staff on the floor and in the kitchen are barely keeping it together.

The two owners – Melissa Fox-Revett in the front of house and Julia Young at the stoves – aren’t unfamiliar with the space. Both were involved with Boho before it was sold to Fergus Munster a couple of years ago. The room got a gorgeous reno when the pair took it over earlier this year, and it’s once again a long, airy room with an open kitchen, and wow, what a floor.

But nice decor doesn’t make up for the constant mistakes.

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Sunday Brunch – Henhouse

Henhouse
1532 Dundas Street West
416-534-5939
Brunch for two with all taxes, tip and coffee: $32

Skinny jeans, plaid shirts, iPhones… when did crusty old Dundas West become the land of the hipster? Or is it because the area is still kind of crusty that the hipsters flock to it? In any case, throughout our entire meal at Henhouse, we are the oldest people there, save for a table with two girls and one of their mothers. This much hipster-ness could be overkill. The bright space is full of old 1950s tables and chairs (mis-matched, of course) and a fabulous selection of kitschy decor, including fun salt and pepper shakers, bunches of flowers on each table and mis-matched dishes. It could scream “look at us, we’re trying SO hard!” but it’s actually fun and comfortable (maybe because I can remember actually having those old tables with the chrome legs as real, non-ironic furniture).

In any case, we arrive just in time (10:30am on a Saturday), because by 11am, the place is packed and people are being turned away. Those of us with tables heave a sigh of relief and lift our bingo-themed coffee cups for another swig of non-ironic Joe ($2).

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Sunday Brunch – Le Select Bistro

Le Select Bistro
432 Wellington Street West
416-596-6405
Brunch for two with all taxes, tip and coffee: $60

I haven’t been to Le Select since they moved to the Wellington Street West location some three years ago. Once a landmark on Queen West, the restaurant there was tiny and narrow. This new space is easily double the size indoors, plus there’s a gorgeous terrace out front (well, it’s probably gorgeous in the summer) and a large garden patio in the back. Slightly off the beaten path for those of us who travel on foot or by TTC, their website reiterates the close proximity to lots of parking, which isn’t actually endearing to me, but apparently is to everyone else who can’t live without their gas-guzzler, because on a recent Sunday morning, Le Select is packed and the parking lot across the street is nearly full, despite the ongoing rain.

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Sunday Brunch – Cowbell

Cowbell
1564 Queen Street West
416-849-1095
Brunch for two with all taxes, tip and coffee: $50

Since it opened in 2007, Cowbell has never been open on Sunday. Chef/owner Mark Cutrara set that day aside to spend with his family. The idea of Sunday being family day is a big one in the Parkdale neighbourhood where the restaurant is located, however, and brunch is possibly more popular here than anywhere else in the city, with Gen X and Y hipsters from the area looking for a way to get out of the house and have a reasonably priced meal with their kids without resorting to a fast food chain.

So Cutrara’s decision to open for Sunday brunch (with Saturday service also being considered) offered both locals (and not so locals) another brunch option; this one made with regional, sustainable ingredients; and also kid-friendly, although maybe not so much of the “frenzied daycare” vibe one might get from neighbouring brunch haunts where hipsters sit around and compare their latest tattoos while setting their kids free to terrorize staff and other customers. Cowbell is not the kind of place where you let the rugrats run free.

Instead, it’s a fun, quirky brunch spot with some seriously awesome food and just enough cuteness to not feel stuffy.

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Getting Grubby

Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces
Gayla Trail
Clarkson Potter, paperback, copyright 2010, 207 pages, $19.95

It’s a romantic notion to think that we could all move to the country and start a farm. The fact is, the majority of people live in cities out of necessity, and few of us have space for a huge garden. But Gayla Trail thinks that fact shouldn’t stop us, and that most people have a little bit of space, whether it’s a yard, a balcony or a fire escape, in which to grow great grub.

Trail’s book is an excellent primer for anyone looking to get started on their own organic garden. Concepts and directions are presented in a straight-forward, down to earth manner that is welcoming to even the most alternative of personalities – and which will speak more to hipster than horticultural society matron. In fact there are a few passages that were even a bit shocking to me, such as the chapter where Trail discusses companion planting and uses the analogy of sticking “Jesus-loving uncle Bill next to your abortion doctor sister-in-law” at a wedding. Funny stuff, but it might offend anyone picking this up without being familiar with Trail’s style of writing.

Grow Great Grub touches on all the basics of gardening in small spaces, from how to build boxes or plant potatoes in garbage bins to creating great compost. A small section on community gardens and guerrilla gardens offers more alternatives to those with no space of their own, and Torontonians will recognize photos of some of the garden spaces included in the book from various spots around the city, particularly Queen West and Parkdale.

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Sunday Brunch – Mildred’s Temple Kitchen

Mildred’s Temple Kitchen
85 Hanna Avenue
416-588-5695
Brunch for two with all taxes, tip and coffee: $50

I am a student of the theory of dressing up to go out. Maybe it’s because I work from home and yoga pants and a t-shirt are my regular uniform, but I always find it appropriate, when going out into the world, to make a bit of an effort. Some make-up, a cute outfit, polished shoes. It makes me appreciate a nice place so much more, and there are some restaurants, whether because of the architecture and design, or just the food and service, where it feels that one should dress up.

Not everyone shares my philosophy on this issue, however. So while I’ve pulled together a groovy 60s inspired-outfit to have brunch in the gorgeously cool Mildred’s Temple Kitchen, the rest of the clientele is still arriving in ugly flip-flops and cargo shorts. People in Toronto really don’t dress up for brunch, do they? At the very least, most of the gentlemen wearing hats have the courtesy to remove them when they’re seated – all except for one hipster douchebag who continues to wear a brown wool toque (it’s August, buddy, come on!) throughout the meal. Even the little boy who came in wearing a baseball cap has removed his headgear at the table. Stupid hipsters, making life ugly for the rest of us.

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Sunday Brunch – Boho Bistro

Boho Bistro
392 Roncesvalles Avenue
416-516-7446
Brunch for two with all taxes, tip and coffee: $46

Didn’t this place used to be bigger? The pretty little bistro on Roncesvalles has a bit of a split personality – last year, owner Fergus Munster split the place in two and installed a classic pub called Liver Bird in the back half. The kitchen continues to turn out traditional bistro fare in the front along with some really brilliant gastro pub grub for the back room, and at brunch, it’s a combination of the best of both styles, jazzing up the classic brunch dishes with unique Boho touches.

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Stop Walking Past and Come on In

Caffino
1185 King Street West
416-588-9010
Dinner for two with all taxes, tip, wine and coffee: $110

I’ve walked past Caffino a hundred times – literally – without ever going in. When I worked in Liberty Village I would consider grabbing my morning coffee from there, but the Roastery was closer to work and on cold winter mornings, travel time really did count.

Even living 5 minutes away wasn’t compelling enough, especially when hot new places started popping up nearby. Their website didn’t help – the menu page never worked at all and the only thing I could find was a list of celebrities who had eaten there, which is more of a reason to stay away than make a beeline for the place in my book. (Their current website is no better –  it’s just a splash page with a note about it re-launching in December ’08.)

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