Orphans for the Czar by George F. Walker

Now playing at Toronto's Crow's Theatre

Now playing at Toronto's Crow's Theatre

Dave Rabjohn

This sterling cast combines years of experience and new talent

It was a full and excited audience that took in the opening night of the world premiere of George F. Walker’s newest work ‘Orphans for the Czar’ at Crow’s Theatre in Toronto. A prolific playwright for decades in Canada, Mr. Walker chose Maxim Gorky’s ‘The Life of a Useless Man’ to suggest this play centering on the evils of class warfare, duplicity, and hypocrisy.

Mr. Walker’s talent for mashing the horrific with the comic elevates this story about 1905 Russia and the seeds of revolution.

The strength of this production comes certainly from the writing and from a sterling cast of actors that combines years of experience and new talent.

Vasley is an orphaned fool who moves to the city to work in his father’s bookstore. Exceptionally performed by veteran Paolo Santalucia, he is furtive in his movements and indecisive at many turns. He grows impressed with the many shades of both the revolutionaries and czarists to the extent that he becomes a double agent which suggests no future.

Eric Peterson, an audience favourite in any venue, plays the crude and foul-mouthed father with comic fervor.

Other revolutionaries are Yakov (Christopher Allen) and Maya (Shauna Thompson) whose strong characters are more decisive. Vasley is foolishly playing both sides as he interacts with czarist henchmen such as the well-dressed professional Makarov (Patrick McManus) and his dim wit side kick Sasha played with comic abandon by Kyle Gatehouse.

The cast is rounded out by the tragic blind girl, Rayisha, played with subtle strength by young newcomer Shayla Brown and the refined book enthusiast Olga, played with elegance by Michelle Mohammed. These two characters define the interaction between classes that fascinates Vasley and drives the plot.

Lorenzo Savoini’s set design is a rustic wood planked stage with a high wall suggesting interiors. A lengthy staircase centres the set and is often the centre of the story as characters, at various times, ascend or descend with difficulty and confusion, reflecting the moods and struggles of the characters. Books are the other clear motif on the set. Mr. Walker cleverly weaves the story around the notion of books as instruments of learning, opportunity and hopeful achievement. The books are slept under, used as mini-stools, and thrown about symbolizing the chaos of events.

Ming Wong’s costumes clearly, but subtly define the distinct classes. One highlight is Vasley’s long bedraggled coat thread worn to his ankles – it might once have been stylish but years of poverty have taken a toll. Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design particularly enhanced the horrors of war with bombs and rifle fire. At times it was difficult to hear Miss Brown’s voice, but to her credit, much of the stage left dialogue for some reason was difficult to hear.

Veteran director Tanja Jacobs lived up to the challenge of directing a very forceful play and orchestrating a large cast of limitless talent. In a conversation she has with Mr. Walker, they discuss the idea of blending the horrific with the comic. The director suggests that it comes partly from “the resilience of human beings and their capacity for wit.”

Mr. Walker’s wit and an extraordinary cast combine for a powerful story and exceptional production.

‘Orphans for the Czar’ by George F. Walker
Produced by Crow’s Theatre – Toronto

Players – Christopher Allen, Shayla Brown, Kyle Gatehouse, Patrick McManus, Michelle Mohammed, Eric Peterson, Paolo Santalucia, Shauna Thompson

Director – Tanja Jacobs

Set Design – Lorenzo Savoini

Costume Design – Ming Wong

Sound Design – Thomas Ryder Payne

Production runs through April 17, 2022.

Tickets – crowstheatre.com

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