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Director Morris Panych will be directing Arms and The Man at the Shaw Festival. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Director Morris Panych will be directing Arms and The Man at the Shaw Festival. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Morris Panych: A critic meets his match Add to ...

Well into his fourth decade as a theatre artist, Panych’s career is still running on all cylinders despite his tendency to tell people what he really thinks, a policy of undiluted honesty rarely found in the low-stakes world of Canadian theatre. The world premiere of his next comedy, The Shoplifters, is opening Arena Stage’s season in Washington, D.C., in September, while another new work, Sextet, opens at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre in November with an all-star cast that includes Bruce Dow and Rebecca Northan.

Together with MacDonald – his partner for 34 years, and husband for the past 10 – Panych has mounted close to 80 productions. Which is why I have long been curious why he would let any reviewer get under his skin.

The truth is that Panych has been talking back to theatre critics his whole career, even before online comments made the process instantaneous. Back in British Columbia, where Panych was based for the first two decades of his career, critic Colin Thomas at the Georgia Strait was a regular target of his vitriolic letters to the editor. Even a rave for a production elicited a letter from Panych saying that he didn’t need Thomas’s – ahem – “constipated turdballs of praise.”

“He can’t take a bad review – or a good review,” says Thomas, by phone from Vancouver.

Panych says part of his irritation comes from the potential career impact of reviews – and he has a list of potential opportunities that he says were lost. Among them was a 2004 meeting with a high-powered artistic director in London that was cancelled after the British reviews of his movement play The Overcoat (a hit over here) came out.

But his resistance to critics seems to go beyond that, to a larger desire not to be pigeonholed or labelled or intellectualized. “I don’t want to be defined,” he says at one point.

But that’s the job, whether in review or a profile, so you’ll just have to go online (or click below) to see what Panych thinks of this one.

Biting Back

In a series of online comments, Panych has repeatedly taken The Globe and Mail’s theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck to task for his reviews – while, at the same time, crafting an entertaining monologue about magic pants and time machines. Here are some excerpts.

On Nestruck’s two-star review of Wanderlust at the Stratford Festival in 2012:

“People were fooled by the humour, by the sweet simple story, by the gorgeous melodies; but not you, not in those half-pants. You saw everything, instantly; even as the audience leapt, yes leapt, to their feet at the curtain call, you sat, calves exposed, knowing what hundreds of talented experienced, hard-working theatre people could never know; that mere serviceability lay at the core of this work, and that the audience now cheering wildly, yes cheering, were not possessed of the necessary abbreviated trousers.”

Read the full comment here

On Nestruck’s two-star review of Panych’s production of Our Betters at the Shaw Festival in 2013:

“Here is my humble thought: a time machine. A time machine to take you back to 1917, when the play was written, and to tell Somerset Maugham to his face what a piece of garbage Our Betters is going to be, especially with me directing it; get him to rewrite it – tell him how his love of strong independent women is going to be construed by some dweeb as misogyny, and how his disdain for British classism will be hilariously re-imagined as anti-Americanism; tell him all about 9/11 and WWII and frisbies and those weird running shoes with the toes in them – get him up-to-date, for God’s sake.”

Read the full comment here

On Nestruck’s column about German director Thomas Ostermeier’s approach to the classics in 2013:

“Hey Kelly, guess what? I made it for you; the time machine. I just took a pair of your special short pants and covered them in tinfoil (for heat resistance), and off you went to 1973 where you found me in a disco and guess what I was wearing? The same pants! (without the tinfoil but I did have a moustache and it wasn’t even November). I showed you all kinds of crazy goings on in theatre like people painting themselves blue or crawling over each other naked or even, yes, throwing things at the audience, and you were so surprised that theatres were so nonchalant, and messing with the classics this way but not me, because hey, it was all part of growing up; nobody was paying for any of it but, and we were young and who cared?”

Read the full comment here

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