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Soulpepper: Masters of finding joy in 'yes' country

Ken MacKenzie and Karen Rae in a scene from "(re)Birth"

Sian Richards

3.5 out of 4 stars

In Toronto, it is finally, mercifully, full-on spring. The occasion calls for some E.E. Cummings in exultant mode:

"i thank You God for most this amazing day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes"

The American poet Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962), who did not insist his name be printed lower-case - unlike many of the artists who imitate his idiosyncrasies today - had a love of the affirmative, about everything "which is yes." That spirit he shares heart and soul with actors, who are taught that the first rule of improvisation is: Always say yes.

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Members of the Soulpepper Academy - a paid training and performance residency at the same-named Toronto theatre company - have learned that lesson well. The double bill of collective creations they are currently presenting grew out of improv. And though only the first half deals specifically with Cummings, the whole illustrates one of the poet's truest lines: "Yes is a pleasant country."

In (re)Birth, originally created for Soulpepper's Global Cabaret Festival two years back, Academy members plus an old(er) pro or two like Trish Lindstrom become a band and sing selections of Cummings's poetry under the magical musical direction of Mike Ross.

Dressed in whimsical costumes (newspaper pirate hats and such), the Academy performers also take turns playing a variety of instruments, standard and unorthodox, including piano, trumpet, banjo, dustpan, meditation balls and a squeaky, plastic frog.

The resulting sound is very tuneful, if not always precisely in tune. Uplifting American indie bands and musicians like Beirut, the Decemberists and Sufjan Stevens come to mind, though the inclusion of Academy artist Tatjana Cornij - with her indeterminate accent and mad accordion skills - and the charmingly shambolic nature of the concert does, on occasion, evoke early Arcade Fire.

In generic genre terms, the dominant style is mostly alt-country, and many of the performers affect a folksy, Southern twang, even though Cummings was really as New England as they come.

There is no stage director credited, so (re)Birth's 10 performers must be held responsible for the clever configurations they find themselves in. At the start of one song, the strap and power cord of an electric bass fly across the stage in slow motion and into the waiting arms of Academy artist Ins Choi. During another, three performers attack an upright bass with four bows, only their shadows visible to us through a hanging sheet.

The entirety of (re)Birth is jubilant and joyous; and as a cleverly staged concert I have no qualms.

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Whether or not the music the collective has created actually serves the poetry of Cummings - with its read-it-over-twice syntax and painterly arrangement on the page - is another matter altogether. A few lines are communicated with great force, such as "Love is more than love" and "Nobody loses all the time," but generally what comes across is fuzzy conviviality. The words largely fly in one ear and out the other like so many pop lyrics on a first listen. It makes you want to go home and pick up a book of poetry, which is fine, but not what you would call a complete artistic experience.

Thankfully,though, it's not over. After intermission comes Window on Toronto, a more traditional collective creation, though with an original twist: The visible stage area is reduced to a window about four feet (1.2 metres) by four feet. Directed by Laszlo Marton, the conceit is that we are in a hot-dog vendor's van, looking out at the chaotic city. Eight actors - including Lindstrom again and Andre Sills - run past the window in the guise of such familiar urban entities as oversharing yuppies in face-eating sunglasses, and mumbling crack addicts.

The result is an unpretentious, chattier Canadian cousin of The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other by Austrian playwright Peter Handke, a 1992 play that also shows a day in the life of a town square.


Ins demonstrating his talents as a sensitive comedian as a Korean ESL student slowly integrating into the city; Lindstrom as an old lady who remembers a Toronto lost; Sills as an aggressively vain actor; and the superb Gregory Prest as a series of misfits and malcontents, notably a scowling bicyclist. Lots of laughs, as they say. On their own, these two performances might leave you relishing more, but as a double bill they certainly cut the mustard.

(re)Birth: E.E. Cummings in Song

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  • Musical direction by Mike Ross

Window on Toronto

  • Directed by Laszlo Marton
  • Starring the Soulpepper Academy
  • At the Young Centre in Toronto
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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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