Theatre Review | The Motherfucker with the Hat

I’d recently read Fr. James Martin’s A Jesuit Off-Broadwayan account of his time as theological advisor to Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play The Last Days of Judas IscariotThe book included excerpts from Guirgis’ play, and while the story certainly seemed compelling, much is lost seeing Guirgis’ words only on the page.

10342925_594387707339778_8339064364632971756_nFortunately, Bob Kills Theatre has just brought another Guirgis play to Toronto – The Motherfucker with the Hat. Coyly termed “the play that dares not speak its name” by the New York Times, Hat is loud, crude, in your face, and absolutely electrifying. The production in Toronto is at The Coal Mine, a new theatre at Pape and Danforth (Hat is their first production). The Coal Mine is an intimate space — two rows of viewers line the walls, and the set is right in the centre of the room. It’s the perfect setting for Guirgis’ intensely personal narrative. We can’t help but get sucked into the characters’ lives, and every nuance of emotion is visible to the entire audience.

The story follows recovering addict Jackie (Sergio di Zio), who has recently been released from prison, and his girlfriend Veronica (Melissa D’Agostino). As the play begins, Jackie comes home thrilled at having landed a job at FedEx, and is about to celebrate with Veronica when he finds another man’s hat in their apartment. He accuses Veronica of cheating on him, and turns to his AA sponsor Ralph (Ted Dykstra) for advice.

The play is hilarious, but with a definite edge. There’s an underlying sense of bitterness beneath the punchlines. At one point, Jackie screams, “I’m in pain!” and that pain just seeps through, not just from Jackie, but from all the other characters as well. Above all else, the play feels raw — the characters are all wounded in one way or another, and particularly in such an intimate venue as The Coal Mine, the audience can almost feel them bleed.

Guirgis’ genius is in the truth that reverberates throughout his words. In one scene, Ralph points out that friends are made before you’re 25 — any “friend” made after that age is merely an associate, because “friends are for the playground.” I don’t know if I completely agree, but I can certainly remember feeling that way. The sentiment rings true. Yet contrasted with that disillusionment is also a sense of hope. In one of my favourite lines in the play, Jackie says, “Your – whaddyacallit – your world view? It ain’t mine. And the day it is, that’s the day I shoot myself in the head. I didn’t get clean to live like that.” 

As the naive, almost child-like Jackie, Sergio di Zio’s performance just about broke my heart. The moment in the first scene when he discovers that Veronica may have been unfaithful, his face just falls, and you can feel the jubilation about his new job gradually draining away as realization dawns. And that final scene — I won’t give any spoilers away, but really, with that look on his face, I just wanted to give him a hug.

All the performances were really strong, but Juan Chioran as Jackie’s cousin Julio stole the show. I last saw (and loved) him as the Emcee in Shaw Festival’s Cabaret, where he pretty much dominated the stage with each of his songs — in the much smaller Coal Mine, he seemed even larger than life. As an empanada-making, kung fu fighting cousin with solid advice and a heart of gold, Julio stands out in contrast to the more fucked up characters in the cast. Chioran revels in the character’s exuberance, yet also imbues him with pathos that somehow seems much deeper than Jackie’s more overt emotion. “I’m only doing this for your mother,” Julio warns Jackie, admitting he doesn’t like Jackie very much. Yet later on, when Jackie’s world falls apart and he goes to confront the man he believes is sleeping with his girlfriend, Julio is the one who stops him, and offers to “go Van Damme” on the man himself, so Jackie won’t break parole. Chioran is charismatic and brilliant, and the moment when Julio reminisces about a childhood incident between him and Jackie is just beautiful.

If you’re in Toronto, I definitely recommend checking this play out. The play has also received positive reviews in NOW Toronto, The Globe and Mail and The National Post.

The Motherfucker with the Hat is on at The Coal Mine until November 30. Tickets are $30 and available online:

The Coal Mine is such a new venue that they don’t even have a website yet. In the meantime, you can follow them on Facebook or Twitter, for the latest news. Keep an eye out for Mike Bartlett’s Bull in March and August Strindberg’s Creditors in May.


Wab Kinew to Host Canada Reads 2015

Great news, Canadian booklovers – CBC just announced Wab Kinew as the host of Canada Reads 2015!

Wab Kinew. Photo courtesy of the CBC.

Wab Kinew. Photo courtesy of the CBC.

If you followed 2014’s Canada Reads debates, you’ll remember Kinew as the passionate defender of Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda. This year’s contenders had some pretty big shoes to fill — Canada was looking for “the one novel to change a nation.” The Orenda won, partly because it’s a really good book about important subject matter, but also partly because of Kinew’s eloquence and obvious love for the novel.

In a CBC press release, Kinew enthuses that he “can’t wait to host the debates.” He says, “Canada Reads is an amazing show to be a part of because it is both a chance to celebrate Canadian literature, and also to have some really important conversations which concern us all.” The theme for Canada Reads 2015 will certainly spark some important conversations: “one book to break barriers.” Panelists will debate books that change perspectives, challenge stereotypes and illuminate issues. 

Personally, I’m most interested in how panelists and readers will interpret the concept of “breaking barriers.” What barriers will be privileged and deemed “significant” enough to debate? What books will be accepted as representative of whatever community is breaking these barriers? Thematically, yes, this will be a good platform to discuss diversity in Canadian literature, but I’d also be curious to see books that break stylistic barriers. A memoir written in poetry form, or a novel like S. by J.J. Abrams where handwritten notes, maps and graphic elements are incorporated into the traditional novel. Or (I hope) a book I’ve never even heard of, where the format somehow renders it more accessible for readers with some form of disability, for whom it is difficult to find books to read.

The theme is a tall order for any book. If there was a theme to push the boundaries of creative freedom in literature, this is it, and part of me wishes that with this theme, Canada Reads opened itself up to poetry, drama and other forms of literature. Imagine a work by artist and poet Christian Bök being included in the debates!

That being said, I’m still excited about the Canada Reads 2015 debates. Wab Kinew is a fantastic choice by the CBC, and the theme should raise awareness of some really important issues that literature is at least attempting to address.

Do you have a book in mind? Readers can submit their suggestions at or tweet their suggestions to @CBCbooks with the hashtag #CanadaReads until Sunday, November 30. The Canada Reads panelists and their chosen books will be announced on January 20, 2015 and the debates will be held from March 16-19, 2015.

Click here for more information, and follow @WabKinew and @CBCbooks on Twitter.

Review | After, Anna Todd

22557520Anna Todd’s After is a classic “good girl meets bad boy” love story that began as a fan fiction romance about teen heartthrob Harry Styles (of British boy band One Direction). It became such an online phenomenon that the story has since published by traditional book publisher Simon and Schuster and movie rights have been optioned.

After is a fun, entertaining read, and I zipped through the book in a weekend. Hardin (the Harry Styles character, renamed for publication) is definitely not my choice in boyfriend, whether literary or real life, but I think that’s just me being old. I can imagine teenage me going gooey at his broody grouchiness. As Anna Todd said when I met her at Indigo, there’s something undeniably attractive about being the one woman special enough to make the bad boy want to change. And indeed, as with TwilightFifty Shades of Grey, Wuthering Heights , Pride and Prejudice and other such influences for this book, in After, bad boy Hardin falls for good girl Tessa and finds the impetus to change his ways.

As a hero, Hardin insults Tessa, smirks a lot (though nowhere near as much as Edward Cullen) and acts like he’s too cool for practically everything. I had been dreading a controlling, abusive bad boy type, but he struck me more as bratty than abusive. The romance and their arguments felt immature, more Sweet Valley High than Fifty Shades of Grey, and it was more amusing than anything.

To Anna Todd’s credit, Tessa isn’t the precious snowflake that Bella Swan and Ana Steele are. She’s a young, innocent girl who is so prim and proper at the beginning that even I wanted to tell her to loosen up. She’s a realistic character, even with her odd quirk of setting alarms for every single bit of her day, but her personality shift happened much too quickly. The odd quirk of setting multiple alarms was abandoned fairly early on, and while she never turned into a Jessica Wakefield, she still felt like a completely different person a few chapters into the story.

To be honest, the turbulence of their relationship didn’t bother me as much as the fairy tale nature of Tessa’s internship. Minor spoiler alert for the rest of this paragraph: she lands a dream internship at a publishing company thanks to Hardin’s family connections (shades of Fifty Shades here). Thing is, the internship is so good that it stretches credulity past the breaking point — it’s paid, for one, and despite the job being just a part-time internship, the pay is enough for rent. Also, Tessa gets her own computer, her own phone line and her own office. Then, during her first day, the head of the company gives her a stack of manuscript submissions and tells her to send on to him any manuscripts she thinks worth publishing, and to throw away any that she doesn’t like. Seriously? I’ve never worked in publishing, so there may be some truth to this, for all I know. But I doubt it. Now, granted, a lot of my response is sour grapes at not having my own office, but well, even a wish fulfillment fantasy should have some credence of believability, no?

That being said, the romance was entertaining to read. There were some troubling aspects, but again, I think Hardin’s brand of bad boy was just too immature for me to really get into. Tessa’s jealousy over Hardin’s past relationships leads to some pretty stupid decisions, but again, it all feels very high schoolish. I generally like YA, and I know there are adult fans of this story. I’m just not one of them — I think I’m just too curmudgeonly and at multiple times wanted to tell the characters to grow up. But I did enjoy reading the book, and I even might pick up the next book in the series for a snowy weekend.


Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Want You Dead, Peter James

20613547The best part about a mystery series is believing that no matter how horrific the villain is, he will get his comeuppance eventually, because the series hero is so awesome. This is particularly true for Want You Dead, 10th in Peter James’ Roy Grace series. Villain Bryce Laurent is the stuff of women’s nightmares — handsome, rich and charming, until he turns out to be creepy, controlling and obsessed with you. The heroine/potential victim is Red Cameron, a realtor who met Bryce on an online dating site. As the story begins, she has already broken up with Bryce and is unaware that he has been stalking her ever since the breakup, biding his time until he can make her sorry she ever dumped him.

This story reminds me somewhat of Elizabeth Haynes’ Into the Darkest Corner. James doesn’t delve as deeply into the psychological effects of having a stalker, but he does hammer home the horrible point that as much as Red thinks she’s safe, she can never be completely free of Bryce. James, who reminded me of Giles the librarian from Buffy when I met him years ago, is unsettlingly convincing in his description of Bryce’s fantasies for revenge. You will be cheering Roy Grace and his team on all the way through.

unnamedThis 10th instalment in the series also brings big things for Roy Grace. (SPOILER ALERT if you’re not caught up to date with the series.) he’s days away from his wedding to the forensic pathologist Cleo, and also utterly unaware that his wife (officially declared dead in an earlier book) is alive and planning to come back into his life. There is a dream sequence I didn’t like — too cutesy a plot device — but overall, it’s great to see Grace preparing to settle down and lead a happy family life. Throughout the story, the wedding and honeymoon are mentioned with Grace’s determination to take the break from his work to be with his new wife. In a couple of scenes, he rejects phone calls from work so that he can focus fully on being with Cleo. I love that — these little details make Grace seem more real as a human being, beyond his skills as a detective.

I devoured Want You Dead in a single weekend. My poor cat was shooting me the side eye for neglecting both him and my chores as I kept turning the pages. It was well worth it, though. And Mr. James — I cheered out loud at the final chapter. Thank you for that ending.


Thank you to Minotaur Books for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Choose Your Own Autobiography, Neil Patrick Harris

nph_bookLeave it to Neil Patrick Harris to take the celebrity memoir to an all new, absolutely freaking awesome level and dare I say, legen (wait for it) dary heights. I grew up on Choose Your Own Adventure books and Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser was one of my first and biggest celebrity crushes), so combining both just set my girly little heart all a-flutter. I’ll be honest — I was afraid the Choose Your Own Adventure format was too gimmicky to work for an autobiography — but I also knew that if anyone (celebrity or otherwise) could pull it off, it would be Neil Patrick Harris.

And pull it off he did. I cannot fangirl enough over NPH’s Choose Your Own Autobiographywhich was just three hundred pages of pure, unadulterated awesomeness. As a memoir, it doesn’t delve too deep, nor does it make any shocking revelations — partly due to format, though also likely due to NPH’s notoriously private nature and by all accounts, his actually having had a happy childhood. (This autobiography does provide the option of having an unhappy childhood, which leads to one of the very few comedic hiccups in the book. With multiple storylines to choose from, some are inevitably funnier and more entertaining than others.)

The best part about the format is that it puts the reader right in NPH’s shoes and takes you on quite a number of possible adventures. Just beginning the story is exciting — where will this adventure lead you? — and well, living NPH’s life is just a tad more glamorous than living my own. My first foray into being NPH, I ended up a career meat slicer at a deli and missing out on Doogie Howser etc altogether. This, I must admit, is pretty much how my Choose Your Own Adventure forays usually ended, except with myself being eaten by a crocodile or buried alive with an Egyptian mummy. Fortunately, this format gives us multiple chances to get it right.

My second attempt at living NPH’s life did get me into Doogie Howser, then eventually I meet the “rakishly handsome James Dean-like hot dude” David Burtka. That is probably my favourite chapter of the entire book, because it features David’s handwritten commentary about the meeting. For example, the James Dean description is circled and an arrow leads to the phrase “I wish!” When NPH writes that David is “well rounded,” David cracks “You calling me fat?” Then, in a line that just made me swoon, NPH says that if David is interested in you, “it’s because he’s decided you’re the kind of guy he wants to be with long-term. Longer-term. Longest-term.” Beside that in brackets, is David’s handwriting: “For forever term.”

After falling in love with David Burtka, I then happily go on work with Joss Whedon on Dr. Horrible and somehow make some other choices that end up with my drowning in quicksand. Seriously though, those choices were totally reasonable, and there was no reason I should have ended up in quicksand. No matter, on to take three.

In my third attempt at NPH’s life, I have children with David and learn the story behind their birth. NPH’s love for these kids just radiates off the page, and you have to check out this Oprah episode about their house and family because it’s all just too adorable. Then I go on to my personal ultimate goal: hosting various awards shows and learn the story behind the epic Tony’s opener “It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore.”

I may have messed up the order in which I did these things, but, as with Choose Your Own Adventure books, it doesn’t matter. Each attempt at a life is a whole new adventure, and I figure each set of choices leads to you living NPH’s life in a completely different way. I completely missed out on How I Met Your Mother, performing on Broadway, being a magician and possibly a list of other things from NPH’s life that I don’t even know about. No matter, the book is here and waiting for me to step into NPH’s shoes once again. And again and again and so on, because NPH’s life is definitely one you’d want to experience over and over again.

Still need a bit more convincing? Hear from the man himself!


Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. For more information on the book, visit

Author Encounter | Anna Todd, at Indigo Green Room Eaton Centre

22557520With the success of Fifty Shades of Grey (originally Twilight fanfiction) and the Mortal Instruments series (which allegedly began as Harry Potter fanfiction), the success of Anna Todd’s After series should come as no surprise. Originally published on Wattpad as fanfiction of British boyband One Direction, After received millions of views and was eventually picked up by Simon and Schuster for traditional publishing.

I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet Anna in the Indigo Green Room before her signing last Wednesday. I hadn’t read the After series on Wattpad and new little beyond the fact that it starred Harry Styles and had millions of fans online, and I was interested in finding out more.

In brief, After is about innocent college freshman Tessa falling in love with bad boy older student Hardin. Their relationship is a classic good girl/bad boy romance, with Tessa’s goodness making Hardin want to reform.

Fellow blogger Hayley commented that the relationship between Tessa and Hardin was “so toxic, but I couldn’t stop reading!” Anna admitted that their relationship was indeed toxic, but pointed out that it’s fiction. She brought up an interesting point about what we look for in book boyfriends versus real life boyfriends. Readers want some level of difficulty in book boyfriends, she says, without necessarily wanting it in real life. She spoke about the popularity of the bad boy trope and pointed out that the idea of a boy wanting to change for the better, for the sake of a girl he loves, is attractive. Anna was quick to point out that most readers distinguish between the fantasy of this within fiction, and what we actually look for in real life. “I wouldn’t want my husband to treat me like [Hardin treats Tessa],” she said. Yet fiction is a safe place to indulge these fantasies, and allow ourselves to fall for a boy who would be better for no reason other than love for us, and us alone.

Anna says that After is “a combination of all these things I love.” Beyond the hero being originally inspired by Harry Styles, Anna’s love of the Fifty Shades trilogy is also reflected in Hardin and Tessa’s romance. Another influences include Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice (an early scene between Hardin and Tessa closely resembles Elizabeth and Darcy’s first encounter at a party).

Meeting Anna at the Indigo Green Room, Eaton Centre

Meeting Anna at the Indigo Green Room, Eaton Centre

The transition from Wattpad fanfiction to published novels was very smooth, which Anna credits to her editor at Simon and Schuster. She views the published version as a definite improvement to the unpolished original. Awkward phrases and grammatical errors were smoothed out, and the story expanded to add complexity to certain characters.

Despite her positive experience with traditional publishing, Anna maintains loyalty to the Wattpad community, and asserts her thankfulness at the support of the online community. She particularly loves the constant stream of feedback from readers that Wattpad provides. When working with her Simon and Schuster editor, Anna admits the switch from crowdsourced editing to editing by a single person felt odd, and that, in order to mimic the Wattpad environment, her editor gave more detailed edits than he usually would.

After has since been picked up for a movie deal, and we naturally asked Anna about who she sees in the roles. She says Indiana Evans is far and away the definitive choice for Tessa in her mind. For Hardin, she thinks Douglas Booth would be a great choice, and she would love to see Ansel Elgort as Landon (a classic good boy and friend to Tessa). For Zed (a friend of Hardin’s whom fellow blogger Hayley describes as “the Wickham” in the series), Anna admits that he was originally based on Zane from One Direction, and in her mind, she still can’t think of anyone else in the role.

Just a small section of the long line awaiting Anna's book signing at Indigo Eaton Centre

Just a small section of the long line awaiting Anna’s book signing at Indigo Eaton Centre

What’s Anna working on now? Other than publicity for this title and writing the fourth book in the series, she’s also expanding on a story about Landon’s romance with someone (I can’t remember the name and can’t find it on Google, but Hayley, who’d read the entire series on Wattpad, was really excited to hear this, so I think fans of the series will be thrilled). The next two books will be published by Simon and Schuster over the next couple of months, and Anna highly recommends waiting for the published versions — Simon and Schuster’s editing has smoothed out the rough edges, and the stories have been expanded for print. As well, Anna says that she may change the ending of the entire series for the print version, just because of the way the characters and storylines have developed in print.


As an aside and possibly minor, but to my mind important, note about my feelings on celebrity fanfiction in general: while I have few reservations about fanfiction on fictional characters getting mainstream recognition, the idea of fanfiction about real people does make me very uncomfortable. Not that I’ve never fantasized about celebrities, but to actually make these fantasies public seems to me somehow a violation of those celebrities’ boundaries. All that to say that the origin of After makes me uncomfortable not because of its plot or any pre-formed opinion about the quality of fanfiction, but because of its use of a real celebrity as the hero.

I did receive a copy of this book for review, and will put aside my reservations about its origin and celebrity fanfiction in general as I read it. Just a thought, and if celebrity fanfiction becomes more of a trend, I’d love to know what the rest of you think about it.


Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for the opportunity to meet and speak with Anna Todd.

Film Review | Listen Up Philip, Opens Today at TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto

Listen_Up_Philip_posterListen Up Philip is a hilarious sendup of the pretentious capital-W Writer type. Jason Schwartzman plays Philip, a literary novelist awaiting the publication of his second book, and an utterly miserable human being.

In the opening scene, he meets up with an ex-girlfriend and, after she (rightly) calls him out on keeping the conversation all about him, declares that he will no longer give her a galley of his new book, even though he’d even written a personalized note on her copy. The next scene shows him accusing a college friend on giving up on his dream to be a writer too easily and tossing the writer’s pledge they’d written into his glass of beer. “It’s harder for some people,” his friend retorts, before exiting the bar and revealing his wheelchair. None of this fazes Philip’s air of superiority and he fishes out the crumpled, beer-soaked pledge.

Writer and director Alex Ross Perry plays it straight, imbuing the film with the mock gravitas fitting to a character of Philip’s ilk. Perry even includes a narrator, a portentous voice detailing characters’ inner thoughts. In a later scene with Philip’s girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss), upon Philip hearing good news about Ashley’s career, the narrator intones that it was hard for Philip, being reminded how proud he could feel for Ashley. Schwartzman then delivers Philip’s spoken response with such perfect dickishness that you wonder just how reliable the narrator really is.

Fortunately for Philip, he meets Ike (Jonathan Pryce), a Philip Roth-type writer he idolizes, and who is essentially an older, grizzled version of Philip. Ike’s latest novel is called “Audit,” he confesses having been unable to write another page since his move to New York, and he invites Philip to his country house, where the quiet will allow him to write. The quiet does indeed provide Philip with some inspiration, though as Ike’s daughter (Krysten Ritter) rightly points out, her father has simply provided a substitute to take over his moping duties.

Listen Up Philip is sharp, witty and brilliant. Parts of the middle dragged a bit for me, particularly Philip’s stint as a creative writing teacher, possibly because just as with pretentious, narcissistic bores at parties, there is only so much I can take of Philip at one time. Despite insight into Philip’s inner thoughts, there is little redemption to the character, and deliberately so. The ending was pitch perfect.


Listen Up Philip opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox today, October 24. Schedule and tickets here.


Thank you to TIFF for a screener of this film in exchange for an honest review.