“Walter” full reviews, Mar 2020

“Sean Emberley, in the title role, is engrossing, so completely does he inhabit this complex, confusing but ultimately compelling character.”

“His performance is like a poem. … He’s like the face of everyman with a mental illness.”

#1:  WHATSON Mar 11, 2020 by Jeff Mahoney  The Hamilton Spectator   “A moving look at schizophrenia”

Walter is a one-man play that delves into the challenges, drama and uneasy truce with life that define the experience of a man who has schizophrenia.

I’m not quite decided whether David Laing Dawson’s play “Walter” puts us inside Walter James Cross’s head or puts him inside of ours. In a way, it’s one and the same.

What I’m sure of is that, once it’s happened, if you’re like me, you’ll find it hard either to get yourself out of his head or to put him out of yours. That’s interesting because, as Walter James Cross states in the first line of the play, “I have schizophrenia.”

And it’s the power of “Walter” that still, long after I’ve left the theatre, the way he experiences the world is very much with me — to the extent that I can understand it, and the play enlarges that extent.

Sean Emberley, in the title role, is engrossing, so completely does he inhabit this complex, confusing but ultimately compelling character. You feel not so much that you’re seeing him onstage but passing him on the street.

Emberley’s remarkable achievement is that he lifts our engagement with Walter beyond the stare of curiosity, albeit sympathetic, into a trance in which we begin to identify with the struggle of his being.

It’s partly the play of his eyes and the mobile features of his face and his movements across the stage, by turns agitated and sedate. It’s also his voice, wounded but also strangely hypnotic. And aside from his own, there are the voices “in his head,” as the expression goes, which we get to hear along with him, thanks to the “soundscape” by Dave Gould.

The soundscape consists of recorded voice, music and other aural effects that essentially take what’s “in his head” and project it outward so that it seems to float around the theatre, echoey, almost submarine, reverberating through space, as though dislocated from him.

This sound disembodiment breaks down the space of the self and the spatial metaphors behind such idioms as “out” of one’s head or “inside” one’s head. They make us question this construct of identity as a continuity of integrated thought and feeling, separate from what is not “I.”

The play begins with Walter sitting at a simple table, on which a corps of pill bottles are almost sacramentally arrayed, his medications — Walter names them all.

Before long we hear the voice. We’re introduced to obsessions, and then Walter takes us through his day, in effect, his anxieties in a coffee shop, his loud humming, the attention of two police officers. There’s a visit to emergency, episodes of paranoia; detours into his past, the difficulty of high school, his parents, then back to present where’s he’s immobilized on the street.

We get a vivid sense of the immense difficulties of Walter’s life but also of his humanity and his uneasy truce with life, the pills clacking in his pockets, the squeak of his running shoes, his shadow dilating and contracting against a black curtain.

We feel his being as a kind of cavernous train station or airport, full of muffled echoes and vague distances, where not everything properly belongs to him. Like the voices. They’re at once inside and outside, apart from him, all over the place and nowhere at the same time.

The play is informed by playwright Dawson’s 50 years in psychiatry, treating schizophrenia. And the words are lit with both knowledge and compassion, which comes through as Walter soliloquizes himself over the barriers we put up against the “different.” This very powerful production is directed by Ronald Weihs.


#2:  Walter: Theatre Review by Tamara Kamermans
View Magazine, VIEW MARCH 12 – 25, 2020

I’m pleased to say that this production of Walter, written by David Laing Dawson, has been created in collaboration with [Artword Theatre’s] Judith [Sandiford] and Ron Weihs and the Gallery on the Bay, which is co-owned by the playwright. It’s an exciting new beginning for Judith and Ron as they have moved out of the original Artbar space downtown but are clearly still planning on making an impact in the Hamilton theatre scene.

Their home for this production and potential future productions is St. Andrew’s Hall at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in the core of Hamilton on James and Jackson. It’s a beautiful space and works particularly well for this one man show which follows the journey of Walter James Cross, the schizophrenic protagonist of the production.

Playwright Dawson actually created Walter as a film nearly 20 years ago. The current production is the script re-imagined for the stage by director Ronald Weihs and local actor Sean Emberley. Dawson was the former director for the Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital and has used his some odd 50 years of observation and real life experience to create the compelling portrait of Walter and his journey through schizophrenia and the medical system.

Director Weihs lights the space evocatively as we follow the recollections of illness. David Gould creates a haunting soundscape that floats in an out like Walter’s recall. Blocking is relatively basic and perhaps some emphasis on segues between memories would help the general flow since it is 80 minutes in total. It’s the difference between feeling like you are hearing a speech and you can tune out and hearing a story that you don’t want to miss. That said Emberley is enigmatic enough to maintain the focus but it wouldn’t hurt to help him a little.

In the central role, he is captivating as he embodies the many ages of Walter. As a young man, we see his angst and then terror upon realizing his trajectory into the mental health system, then, as he ages, his new struggles with the system and the balance of medication. Emberley never once over sentimentalizes; instead, he allows the emotional reaction to resonate with the audience member. He simply tells the story as a grippingly real person. He leaves the richness and the ironies to his audience to ruminate.

His performance is like a poem. It’s presented with simplicity but has as many meanings as there are seats in the audience. He’s like the face of everyman with a mental illness. We’ve all seen him or known a piece of his story at one time in our lives. If you’ve worked in retail, or food service, or security, you’ve met him every day on the job. You’ve asked yourself what he’s doing and why or where he goes at night. Sometimes it seems he doesn’t even see you even though you knew him in high school. He begs for money and mutters strange things when you walk by him.

Emberley’s Walter is a theatrical vessel through which we can all better understand our personal interactions with the mentally vulnerable. It’s impossible not be emotionally touched by his presentation and each and every audience member will be remembering their own Walter as the stage lights go down.


Cancelled! Charly’s Piano – 2020 Toronto Storytelling Festival

NEWS March 14, 2020. The Toronto Storytelling Festival has just been cancelled, due to Covid-19 concerns.

Charly Chiarelli has been invited to bring the Artword Theatre production of Charly’s Piano to the 2020 Toronto Storytelling Festival. So Ron and Charly and Judith will be on the road (not very far). We will do the Fringe 2019 version of the show, with projections. Our date is Tuesday March 24, 2020  at 8:30 pm.


The venue is the Alliance Française, 24 Spadina Road, one block north of Bloor in Toronto: https://www.alliance-francaise.ca/en/culture/events/toronto-events/special-events/toronto-storytelling-festival-2020-en

2020+ Artword Theatre without Artword Artbar

Ronald Weihs and Judith Sandiford, in Artword Artbar, September 2019, photo by Cathy Coward for the Hamilton Spectator

Yes, the facility at 15 Colbourne Street is now closed, and Artword Artbar is no more.

The building changed hands on December 5, 2019. But Ronald  Weihs and Judith Sandiford are working on plans for theatre projects for 2020.

Meanwhile, here is the 15 Colbourne story:
Big news for Artword Artbar:

Artword Artbar closure a sign of changes in the James Street North arts scene in Hamilton.  News September 4, 2019, by Mark McNeil The Hamilton Spectator

For 10 years, the bohemian-styled ‘listening room’ was part of the arts revival of James that’s moved into a new phase with rising property costs. The closing of one of the pillars of the arts and cultural revitalization of James Street North is being viewed as part of a shifting landscape driven by changing economics.
Artword Artbar owners Ron Weihs and Judith Sandiford say that after a decade of running the performance space on Colbourne Street, just around the corner from James, they feel it’s time to move on.
They sold the building, Weihs says, for a “fair price” in the “the most painless real estate transaction ever.” The closing takes place Dec. 5.
A real estate agent made a cold call in June saying he had an interested client who had been searching to find a building to house his architectural design studio.
“Ten years is a long time,” says Weihs. “We had been thinking lately that we would be winding down in a year or two, to try something new.”
The sale happens at a time when the area is moving into a new phase in which low-commerce artistic endeavours are becoming incompatible with new realities. While the street is set for the colossal Supercrawl celebration of music on James from Sept. 13 to 15, the smaller galleries and arts spots that laid the artistic groundwork of the street’s revitalization are vanishing.
Property values have doubled or tripled over the last 10 years — with rents in some cases quadrupling — making the cost of business much higher and beyond the means of homespun arts-related establishments.
The other main musical performance space in the James Street scene, This Ain’t Hollywood, is listed for sale at $1.89 million. Weihs wouldn’t divulge the selling price of the Artbar.
“James is becoming more of a street of shops and restaurants,” said Weihs. “When we first came, there were quite a few art galleries. But this is a normal progression. We have been part of this three times in different areas of Toronto.”
Especially interesting is how the building on Colbourne so perfectly mirrored what was happening around it. When the bunker-like structure opened in 1984, it was used as an Italian-Canadian social club, reflecting the large numbers of Italians who lived in the area. It eventually morphed into a Portuguese social club.
Amid a burgeoning arts scene, Weihs and Sandiford transformed the property from its ethnic roots into a small performance space for music and theatre with an art gallery in the basement.
And now the building is going the way of professional services office space, something that would have been very unusual a decade ago in that part of town.
“We want to be part of the downtown core. We want to be part of the hustle and bustle,” said Joel Tanner, the owner of SMPL that expects to open in February after renovations. The company specializes in residential design, an area that he says is growing with large numbers of affluent people coming to the city from the GTA willing to pay for major renovations.
Tanner said he had been looking for two years for a place to buy close to James to house the company’s nine employees.
Actor and storyteller Charly Chiarelli, who grew up in the North End of Hamilton and has been a frequent performer at the Artbar, says it’s unfortunate to see the grassroots arts leaving James.
“It’s the artists who create the buzz, the effervescence in the area. But it becomes a sabotage onto themselves by making the area popular and increasing the economic value of the area,” he says.
“I think it was a defining moment when Ron and Judith came to town off James Street, and I think it is a defining moment now that they are leaving.”
Weihs and Sandiford came to Hamilton a decade ago after their rented Artword Theatre on Portland Street in Toronto was sold to a condo developer.
They looked all over the GTA, but could find nothing that was suitable.
“We were in Mimico looking at a horrible building and we were told there was a place in Hamilton. We said, ‘How do you get there?’ So we drove to Hamilton.”
Over its 10-year existence, the Artbar became a hub for artists to develop their skills and for audiences to experience a wide range of music, theatre and dance. Weihs and Sandiford did much to develop local talent and build audiences.
Spectator theatre critic Gary Smith once wrote, “If you missed Greenwich Village in the early ’60s, when the Café Bizarre and the Village Gate were the ‘in’ places to go, don’t worry. You can find it all again, just off Hamilton’s James Street.”
Ron Corsini, a one-time city councillor and former James Street North property owner says, “I’m really disappointed to see the Artbar close down. The changes on James Street are good in one way but really bad and sad in another way.”
“When I was on James Street (as a property owner more than 10 years ago), the buildings were affordable. They were priced right and people could buy them. Businesses could survive paying the rent. It was a different era. Now you might have to pay $5,000 a month in rent.”
For their part, Weihs and Sandiford are upbeat about the future and say they’ll continue to participate in theatrical and musical shows in Hamilton and are currently figuring out the logistics of doing that.
And as Weihs notes: “There are lots of other areas of Hamilton that the arts could help to revitalize.”

ARTWORD ARTBAR dates & facts:

July 31, 2009: Ron Weihs and Judith Sandiford take possession of 15 Colbourne, the former Three Amigos, a Portuguese sports bar.
Sept. 25, 2009: First concert.
Nov. 16, 2019: Final concert.
Dec. 5, 2019: Closing date of sale to SMPL Architectural Design.
October 2009 to October 2014: Various visual art shows took place in downstairs gallery.
Fall 2014: Downstairs gallery transformed into a dance studio by Learie McNicholls.
By the numbers:
More than 1,000 musical performances
36 theatrical productions with 354 performances
35 dance productions
123 literary events.”

Fringe BYOV: Charly’s Piano, nine shows July 18-27, 2019

July 18 to 28, 2019: Artword Artbar, a Hamilton Fringe Festival BYOV, hosts Artword Theatre’s 60-minute version of Charly’s Piano, performed by Charly Chiarelli. The show is written by Charly Chiarelli and Ronald Weihs, directed by Ronald Weihs, with songs by Charly Chiarelli.
Charly’s Piano tells the true tale of Charly as a young hippie looking for work in Toronto in 1972. He gets a job in a psychiatric hospital, and organizes a fundraising concert by patients and doctors to buy a piano.
Tickets: $12 Tickets: hamiltonfringe.ca/shows/charlys-piano/
Runs 60 mins. Showtimes: 18 Jul Thu: 9:00 pm, 19 Jul Fri: 7:00 pm,
20 Jul Sat: 9:00 pm, 21 Jul Sun: 7:00 pm, 23 Jul Tue: 9:00 pm, 24 Jul Wed: 7:00 pm,
25 Jul Thu: 9:00 pm, 26 Jul Fri: 7:00 pm, 27 Jul Sat: 9:00 pm.

Charly Chiarelli and Ronald Weihs originally developed Charly’s Piano back in December 2017 as a two-act play. In 2019, the Fringe 60-minute time slot offered a challenging opportunity to develop a shorter version. They took out the Christmas carols and tightened up some of the songs. They cut out a few of the anecdotes about the patients that Charly worked with. And there we have it, a fine new version of the show. The projected image sequences are still there for all the songs:

Something About Toronto
Winter Time Blues
I Ponder
The Magic of Cats
Down and Dirty Blues
A Simple Minstrel’s Tune
Have a Good Time
When the Well Runs Dry
Pills they keep popping…
Something About Toronto

Fringe Press and Reviews  2019:

Charly’s Piano, Fringe advance article by Gary Smith, Hamilton Spectator, July 12, 2019

Hamilton favourite Charly Chiarelli brings back his wonderful remembrance of falling in love with music as a young hippie on the streets of Toronto. He takes us inside his complex world as he organizes a concert for patients and doctors in a psychiatric hospital. A warm, touching 60-minute show by Chiarelli and Ron Weihs that provokes laughter and more than a few tears.

Charly’s Piano 2019 review Raise The Hammer
July 25, 2019 https://www.raisethehammer.org/fringe/3144/charlys_piano

By Marianne Daly

Charly’s Piano is the interesting, inspiring and funny true story about Charly Chiarelli’s time working in a psychiatric hospital in 1972. This version of the story is terrific, with direction and background guitar by Artword Artbar’s own Ronald Weihs and black-and-white photos of Toronto projected on the back of the stage.

Charly is an animated and expressive storyteller who plays a mean harmonica. This show features Charly acting out many of the people he met when he worked at the Clark Institute. The story is packed with Charly’s self-deprecating humour and his open-hearted acceptance of quirky characters, and conveys a good-natured feeling of “hey, we’re all in this together, trying to figure it out as best we can.”

It also has a healthy dose of “fake it till you make it” when Charly organizes a variety show fundraiser to buy a piano for some informal music therapy.

Charly’s story ends on a rather sad note, when Charly goes back to visit the hospital several years later. It is a powerful ending, but Yours truly – ever the optimist – hopes the future is brighter for music therapy in psychiatric programs. Two recent visits I made to the psychiatric departments at St. Joseph’s give me faith that there is reason to hope.

This is a show that can inspire mental health professionals – and advocates like myself – to see how important music therapy is. In the meantime, go see Charly’s Piano, for wonderful stories and music guaranteed to make you feel better!

Marianne Daly is a writer, storyteller and retired high school teacher.

Charlys Piano,  ViewMagazine 2019 online Fringe Reviews

By Arthur Bullock

Charly’s Piano is a charming true story of empathy and compassion, set in early-1970s Toronto. The protagonist and storyteller, Charly Chiarelli, recounts his time at the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry, working as a psychiatric assistant. Throughout the course of the story, Charly gets to know the staff and patients of the institute, forming close bonds with all of them. Each patient is treated like an individual, with the dignity and respect that they rightfully deserve. As a Fringe storyteller, Chiarelli is friendly and energetic, speaking to the audience as though he was having a warm conversation with them. Chiarelli also incorporates live music into his act: he will periodically sing a blues tune and play the harmonica, while Ronald Weihs accompanies him on the acoustic guitar. Charly’s Piano is not just a story: more than anything else, it is an invitation to step into someone else’s shoes. It sheds light on the lives of mental health patients just as much as it recounts Chiarelli’s own life, and it reminds us of the incredible potential for change that one person can have.


Whoever You Are, a science-fiction play, May 14 to 26, 2019

May 14 to 26, 2019. Artword Theatre presents Whoever You Are, a play written and directed by Ronald Weihs, based on a 1952 science fiction short story by Judith Merril.

The human race has built a web around the Solar System that traps alien life forms. A SolSys scout ship returns with aliens aboard and is caught in the web. When a young recruit boards the ship and investigates, it becomes evident that the aliens have what may be an irresistible weapon: they love everybody.

Do we dare let them in? On Phobos (one of the moons of Mars), three people must decide what action to take: two men, a military commander and a psychologist, and one woman, the public information officer.

Performed by:
Jordan Campbell, Paula Grove and Jay Shand as the team at Phobos Base,
and Pamela Gardner as Private Fromm, the new space recruit.
Live soundscape by Dave Gould (and voice of Sergeant Bolster).
Video effects by Ronald Weihs and Judith Sandiford.

Show times: May 14-18 and 21-24 at 8 pm.
Matinees: Sat May 18, 25, at 3:30 pm. Call 905-543-8512.

Written in 1952, Whoever You Are was Judith Merril’s answer to the “Fortress America” paranoia at the beginning of the cold war, and her protest against the emotional and sexual repression that fueled it. Although the lines today are less sharply drawn, fear of the alien is as prevalent today as it was then.
Like most of Judith Merril’s work, Whoever You Are has fun with the science fiction setting, but uses it to make some serious points. Merril had a major influence on science fiction as one of the main voices for more human themes and complex issues. In her own fiction, and in a series of key anthologies, she championed the position that Science Fiction was about exploring alternative realities.

The play by Ronald Weihs was first developed in 1997, when Ron asked her permission to adapt one of her short stories for the stage. Judith Merril died on September 12, 1997, when the project to put Whoever You Are on the stage was well underway. Just before she went to the hospital, she read a draft of the script. Her most significant comment was that the play must convey the sense of inward-looking paranoia, fear and sexual repressiveness that underlies nationalism and xenophobia.

It seems even more urgent to revisit these themes now, in 2019, 22 years after our first presentation of the play (in our first Artword Theatre on Portland Street in Toronto), and 67 years after Judith Merril wrote the original story.

Whoever You Are review by Allison M. Jones. View Magazine Issue MAY 23 – 29, 2019

Theatrical productions at Artword Artbar are always multifaceted and ambitious. Whoever You Are, on now until May 26, is no exception. With multiple screens, pre-recorded dialogue, live action, images and aerial acrobatics, the play unspools within an otherworldly soundscape created with both pre-taped and live instrumentation.

Whoever You Are is derived from a 1952 short story by Judith Merril, written and directed by Artbar co-founder Ronald Weihs. It’s science fiction, and yet little of it is farfetched, particularly in the current geopolitical climate. To ensure their safety, humans have built a protective ‘web’ around the solar system. Alien outsiders cannot penetrate that barrier, while exploratory scouting ships venture into the great galactic void to find new habitable spaces to place humankind’s burgeoning population. Everything is under perfect control; the system is so effective that Sergeant Bolster (Dave Gould) and Private Joanne Fromm (Pamela Gardner) can play long games of checkers while keeping watch over their sector. Bolster is on the cusp of retirement and that, as any reader or viewer knows, means all hell is about to break loose.

When a scouting ship returns with aliens (but none of its human crew) aboard, it’s caught and held in stasis. It’s up to Bolster and Fromm to investigate while three officials, military Commander William Hartson (Jordan Campbell), ‘Information Officer’ Lucille Ardin (Paula Grove), and Psych Officer Dr. Bob Schwartz (Jay Shand) determine how best to manage the situation and package it for public consumption.

Weihs first developed and presented Whoever You Are in 1997, the year he reached out to Judith Merril, shortly before her death, to gain permission to adapt one of her stories into a play. Merril’s original story Whoever You Are was inspired by the protectionist paranoia of America’s Cold War era, but as the show’s program alludes, fear of the alien ‘Other’ has become a tense preoccupation yet again.

But as Private Fromm discovers, the aliens may not be as imagined and promoted by the higher ups. They are unexpectedly humanoid. I was reminded of the quote, “We have seen the enemy, and he is us,” used by a Walt Kelly comic strip in the Vietnam War era, and derived from the words of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry in the War of 1812.

There’s reason to believe these aliens mean no harm; they may literally be ‘coming in peace,’ offering goodwill in exchange for help. Tor Lukasik Foss and Taylor Sutherland relay opposing accounts of the alien encounter in pre-recorded segments as Captain James Malcolm and George Gentile, Birdman 1st Class, members of the ‘doomed’ scouting ship.

Is the aliens’ lack of aggression a trick? Are they manipulating the humans’ minds? When the paranoia is this strong and embedded, truth becomes trick and hope becomes hallucination.

I liken this play to an old time radio drama come to life, in mostly good ways. The drama is high, the characters are clearly drawn, and it gives the audience something to think about. From time to time the dialogue verges on a bit wooden (particularly among the three officials), and perhaps the script is a little too on the nose in some areas and light on character development. Rather than hear Sergeant Bolster call Private Fromm a nutty misfit yet again, I’d have liked to have learned more about what motivated her.

Dave Gould is Sergeant Bolster, but also master of the soundscape. It was odd to see him on screen while simultaneously offstage playing his antler stringed instrument. Gould’s programmed and live music played nicely off one another, evoking emotion, tension, and the peculiar sounds of space

As Private Fromm, Pamela Gardner uses her aerial skills to great effect, tumbling and twisting to suggest the weightlessness of space. It was magnetic to watch her mimic movement in zero gravity while images of a space capsule floated gently behind her. When I heard that Whoever You Are would feature an aerialist, I was surprised. The Artbar is modestly sized with a relatively low, drop ceiling. But where there’s a will there’s a way, and the folks at Artbar have plenty of heart. Throughout, Artbar co-founder Judith Sandiford captains the sound, projection and lighting cues in quietly capable fashion.

Whoever You Are is original and timely, a philosophical story built within a multisensory environment. It’s worth a look.


Langston Hughes vs Joe McCarthy, Mar 9-17, 2019

March 9 to 17, 2019. Artword Theatre is bringing back its timely and sensitive piece of documentary theatre, Langston Hughes vs. Joe McCarthy, written and directed by Ronald Weihs and produced by Judith Sandiford. Dancer-choreographer-actor Learie Mc Nicolls plays the role of Langston Hughes and character actor Howard Jerome plays The Interrogator.

Permission for the use of the poems has been granted by Harold Ober Associates Incorporated, for the Langston Hughes Literary Estate.


Is poetry subversive? U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy thought so.

On March 24, 1953, Langston Hughes, renowned poet of the Harlem Renaissance, was summoned before the Senate Committee on Investigations. Did his poems contain communist ideas? In reply, Langston Hughes tells about his personal encounters with racism in America. The script is based on the actual transcript of his testimony, interwoven with the controversial poems, and incorporating dance, music and powerful images of the era.

Only 8 performances! Runs about 60 mins. All tickets $15.
*Sat March 9 at 7:30 pm, OPENING Special, stay for the Beg To Differ concert at 9 pm  (no extra charge) .
*Tuesday to Friday, March 12-15 at 7:30 pm,
*Three matinees at 3:00 pm Sun Mar 10, Sat Mar 16, Sun Mar 17 mat, final show.

*** Read Gary Smith’s review in The Hamilton Spectator, March 13, 2019:

Langston Hughes vs. Joe McCarthy is a moving and probing drama

Howard Jerome as The Interrogator

“Langston Hughes vs. Joe McCarthy,” playwright Ron Weihs’s probing drama, packs a lot of power into an hour. This short play, interspersed with elegant stage moves, as well as haunting poetry by the iconic Hughes, is a fusion of art forms that sits neatly on the Artword Artbar stage. The room is small. So is the stage. But the ideas are large.

It’s 1953 and we’re immersed in the aggressive rhetoric of a select American committee that hounded intellectuals and artists. The fiefdom of Joe McCarthy and a band of loutish interrogators, these folks ultimately became the genesis of playwright Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” with its comparison of witch hunts in Salem and the persecutions by the infamous McCarthy Committee in the ’50s.

Weihs’s play, based on Congressional records, presents some of the actual language used as McCarthy struggled to nail the elegant black poet Langston Hughes, suggesting his poems had a communist beat.

Witch hunters were behind every wall and tree in those days, seeking out communist sympathizers unfaithful to the U.S.A.’s increasingly tattered red, white and blue mantra that suggested liberty for all.

Weihs’s play goes beyond the documentation of Hughes’ interrogation, however. It suggests the times, depicted clearly and powerfully in the images of pain that set designer Judith Sandiford projects onto a stark white screen. We see hunger, joblessness, fear and desolation. And we see the segregation and denigration of black citizens, particularly in romantic old Dixie, where they were forced to sit at the back of buses, refrain from drinking from whites-only water fountains and barred from most hotels, dining rooms and movie theatres.

These images, along with the always elegant language of Hughes’s poetry, summon a vision of a world of haves and have-nots. That such a world could be defined simply by the colour of someone’s skin remains as ugly and reprehensible today as it was in the times of Hughes’s powerful poetry.

Fearing the face of communism was about to undermine American values, McCarthy frequently picked on artists and the intelligentsia.

As an important leader in the “Harlem Renaissance,” a movement that celebrated the writers, musicians and intellectual black artists who would shape the diversity of American culture, Hughes was a target. Playwrights such as James Baldwin, musicians such as Duke Ellington, and singers Billie Holiday and Mabel Mercer were faces of this movement, too. The times were changing. Lovely Lena Horne would no longer have her image cut out of prints of Hollywood musicals playing in the Deep South because she was black. Sammy Davis Jr. would soon become a huge star in films, television and Las Vegas.

In a sense this is the background for Weihs’s moving play. It is the kaleidoscope of change that was about to sweep across America. It’s not just about Langston Hughes and Joe McCarthy. It’s about so much more.

Weihs has wisely refused to make his play a virtual confrontation. He has interpolated movement from actor-dancer Learie McNicolls that suggests such yearning, such illuminating thought that Hughes’s poems sing physically as well as aurally.

You long for McNicolls to go on dancing to the throbbing sounds of “Lady Be Good,” “Sunny Side of the Street” and “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good.”

The play moves gracefully from the probing questions of McCarthy, a gnarled presence with a rumbling rasp of a voice intoned by Howard Jerome, an actor of infinite colours. He makes McCarthy a hard man who finds dark and sinister meaning behind every sweetly constructed phrase of poetry.

McNicolls is a handsome presence with a voice as warm as honey. He makes the confrontations between art and intellect in Weihs’s self-directed play quiver with truth.

Quibbles? Hardly any. The transitions from poetry to dance might be more seamless, and the broad space between the actors to allow for visual projections could be tightened now and then.

Mostly, the play reminds me of the glory days of New York’s Greenwich Village, where poems were read to live jazz and the elegant dance steps of folks like Willy Blok Hansonat the Café Wha? created entertainment that was glorious, yet bizarre.

This one’s for people who like their theatre to be different.

Gary Smith has written on theatre and dance for The Hamilton Spectator for more than 37 years. gsmith1@cogeco.ca

Scroogissimo, our seasonal treat, is back Dec 1-15, 2018

December 1 to 15, 2018. Artword Theatre’s delightful Christmas comedy Scroogissimo returns for a fourth time to Artword Artbar. Hamilton’s North End meets Charles Dickens in a wacky script by Ryan Sero and Charly Chiarelli, directed by Ronald Weihs – and the original cast!
Charly Chiarelli as Ebenezu Scroogie
Pamela Gardner as Christmas Past
Paula Grove as Christmas Present
Valeri Kay as Christmas Future, Mrs. Cratchit
Jon-Gordon Odegaard as Bob Cratchit
Jay Shand as Marley’s Ghost and nephew Fred
Musical support by Alex Tomowich on piano.

Bob Cratchit (Jon-Gordon Odegaard) and Scroogie: (Charly Chiarelli)

A sell-out hit in 2013, 2014 and 2016, Scroogissimo features Charly as “Ebenezu Scroogie”, a Christmas-hating old Hamiltonian from Racalmuto, Sicily, who finds himself haunted by three ghosts of the Past, Present and Future.

Show Times and Prices: Wed to Sat at 8:00 pm, Sun matinées Dec 2 and Dec 9 at 3:00 pm. Tickets: Adults $25,  Child 14 and under $10.


Scroogissimo is performed by the Artword Ensemble, an acting company that has been working in Hamilton under Weihs’s direction since 2008. The company includes Charly Chiarelli, Pamela Gardner, Paula Grove, Valeri Kay, Jon-Gordon Odegaard, and Jeremy Shand, all experienced practitioners of the Artword Ensemble style. Musical support for Scroogissimo in the 2018 remount is provided by Alex Tomowich, an accomplished pianist currently in the Mohawk College Jazz Program. Previous musicians were Jennifer Lockman (2013) and Tim Nijenhuis (2014 and 2016). In 2016 we added the backdrop projections and the aerial rig for Christmas Past, and took the piano off the stage.

The original idea for Scroogissimo came from Charly in 2013, in a conversation with Weihs and Judith Sandiford, Artword’s producer and designer. Charly told them how he used to play his harmonica in an annual production of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens in Kingston. “I only had one line, but after sixteen years, I knew all the lines.”

Ron said to Charly, “Why not do our own version in Hamilton? A North End version.” (Hamilton’s North End, where Charly grew up, was largely inhabited by Sicilian immigrants.) Charly did some of Scrooge’s lines North-End style, and Ron and Judith were soon aching with laughter.

So Charly got to work. He “translated”, from the original Dickens story, all Scrooge’s speeches into North-End Sicilian English. He dictated them over the phone to Judith, who tried to figure out how to spell words like “umbaggo” (humbug). Meanwhile, Ron had casually suggested to Ryan Sero, that Ryan might write the script. Ryan replied, “Be careful what you wish for.” Ryan is well known in Hamilton for his over-the-top comedy productions, including the Fringe hit Romeo and Juliet: An Escapist Comedy.

Ryan took the “Scroogie” speeches, and the original Dickens story and put them through his own zany comedic mind. The result is great fun. There are the ghosts of course (Christmas Present is a pasta-loving lady named Natalia), the parties, the revelations, all with a dash of Marx Brothers, and a touch of the Dickens social criticism.

Ron and Judith have worked with Charly on all his one-man shows about Hamilton. Ron directed, and Judith designed, the first productions of Cu’Fu? and Mangiacake at Artword Theatre in Toronto – productions which were later filmed for Bravo Television. They also brought Charly’s third play in the Hamilton trilogy Sunamabeach to the stage in 2009. In 2017 Artword remounted Cu’Fu? and developed a new play called Charly’s Piano.

Our favourite review, from the first production in 2013: “Artword Theatre is cramming a whack of seasonal fun into their tiny package of a space. Mixing local Sicilian-Canadian storyteller Charly Chiarelli and “Charly” Dickens makes a Christmas-cracker exploding with musical and comedic goodies that will make an addition to your festive season you will never forget….” Robin Pittis for View Magazine.   (The show is even more fun, as we add new goodies with each remount.)

Gary Smith’s review of the 2018 production in The Hamilton Spectator, December 10, 2018:

Scroogie at Fezziwiggi’s party

Scroogissimo! is delightful and charming

It’s the best Scrooge I’ve seen all year.

With apologies to Charles Dickens, this Hamilton version of the transformation of a crusty old skinflint to a giving and caring benefactor of humanity, will make you believe in something more than ersatz holiday entertainment.

We’re in Hamilton, where Bob Cratchit (Jon-Gordon Odegaard) and his family live at 487 Barton St. Cratchit scratches out a living in the office chambers of Ebenezer Scrooge a wily old Sicilian played of course by the irrepressible Charly Chiarelli.

As in Dickens, you’ll go with those three spirits of Christmas, Past, Present and Future (Pamela Gardner, Paula Grove and Valeri Kay) as they force the grumpy old miser to confront the waste of his life. For the purposes of Ryan Sero and Charly Chiarelli’s sometimes hilarious, always touching script, this Scrooge is known as Scroogie.

Marley’s Ghost (Jay Shand) and Scroogie

Dickens, of course, might well roll in his grave if he saw the antics these characters, based on his originals in “A Christmas Carol,” get up to. The thing is though, the story has been given a modern context, a Hamilton location and at least one character that resembles Harpo Marx without harming its heartfelt intent. It all works, you see, in reclaiming an old reprobate and in fostering the same message of kindness, love and generosity at Christmas Dickens, intended.

Charly Chiarelli gives his usual broad, somewhat off the wall performance he is famous for. He has an interesting capacity for not letting us know how much of the text he’s actually speaking and how much of the evening is supported with comic ad-libs and zingers. It doesn’t really matter because whatever he does it works and it would be difficult to imagine this “Scroogissimo!” without his exuberant presence.

The rest of this fine Artword Theatre cast is up to speed, providing ingratiating, charming and artfully comic performances that adhere to Dickens’ original notions, even if they are flying off in other, less Victorian directions.

Christmas Past (Pamela Gardiner) and Scroogie

And fly these character do. Especially Pamela Gardner’s frisky Christmas Past. She takes to the overhead silks in that Cirque de Soleil way and scares the bejeebers out of poor Scroogie before she even confronts him with all those pathetic moments from his past. She has a terrific presence on stage and highlights everything she does with a warm smile that would heat you up on a cold Hamilton night.

Valerie Kay is the horn-tooting Harpo Marx based Spirit of the Future. She shuffles her way along to a little bit of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” (let’s not call it dancing) and she helps rehabilitate the old miser Scrooge with a shake of her exotic gold wig and her relentless honking of a kid’s bicycle horn.

Scroogie and Christmas Present (Paula Grove)

Then there’s the wonderful Paula Grove. Singing a snatch of “Mambo Italiano” she insinuates herself on stage in a mulberry sparkle dress, with ample peeks at her bold cleavage. All decked out in golden Christmas balls, with a poinsettia firmly plopped in her mane of black hair, she’s the bold and brassy Natalia, The Spirit of Christmas Present. And what a present she is. Her turn is the highlight of a show filled with delirious highlights. Don’t miss her.

Jay Shand as Marley’s Ghost has a delightful laid-back quality about him and he fills the stage with a number of characters that give this “Scroogissimo!” a modern and quirky tweet.

Mrs. Cratchit (Valeri Kay) and Bob Cratchit (Jon-Gordon Odegaard)

Jon-Gordon Odegaard is a remarkable actor who brings such humanity to Bob Cratchit. Every time you see him in an Artword Theatre show he’s totally different. Now that’s a consummate actor.

Judith Sandiford’s projections and Ron Weihs’ direction of this neat little show are completely charming. Things are never forced and the innate warmth and sweetness of the piece never fights with the humour, they just coexist.

Major joy of the evening too, is the piano accompaniment of Alex Tomowich, a tall handsome pianist, who looks like he’s having as much fun as the actors on stage. We get snatches of “Theme from The Godfather,” “Over The Rainbow” and a host of Christmas songs and carols interpolated into the proceedings. Look to hear from this guy in the future because he is a real artist on those black and white keys.

“Scroogissimo!” doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a delightful evening of holiday entertainment. It works splendidly in the intimate space at the Artbar and you’d have to be a Scrooge yourself not to be captivated by its endearing charm.

Gary Smith has written on theatre and dance for The Hamilton Spectator for more than 35 years.

The Man in the Vault by Ronald Weihs, Fringe, July 19-28, 2018

July 19 to 28, 2018. Hamilton Fringe Festival. The Man in the Vault (an Artword Theatre production). Written and directed by Ronald Weihs. Produced and designed by Judith Sandiford. Performed by Mariam Bekhet, Jordan Campbell, Jason Thompson. 

A Russian spy defects with information about Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination. James Angleton, the CIA’s legendary head of counterintelligence, is convinced he is a disinformation agent sent by the KGB.

The Man in the Vault: Mariam Bekhet, Jordan Campbell,

The defector is kept in a concrete vault in a secret location while interrogators try to extract the truth from the man in the vault. Based on true events in the 1960s that resonate with today’s headlines.

Part of the Hamilton Fringe Theatre Festival. Running Time: 60 minutes. Tickets: $10 (Fringe Backer Button required)  hamiltonfringe.ca/tickets/
Show Times: Thurs July 19 @ 9pm, Fri July 20 @ 4:30pm, Sat July 21 @ 7pm, Sun July 22 @ 8pm, Tues, July 24 @ 9pm, Wed July 25 @ 7pm, Thurs July 26 @ 9pm, Fri July 27 @ 5pm, Sat July 28 @ 6pm  (Final show)

The Man in the Vault: Jason Thompson as James Angleton

The Man in the Vault, written and directed by Ronald Weihs, is a true story about James Angleton, the legendary head of CIA counterintelligence, who described the spy business as “a wilderness of mirrors”. In 1963, a Russian spy defects with information about Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination. Angleton is convinced that he is a disinformation agent sent by the KGB. The defector is kept in a concrete vault in a secret location while interrogators try to extract the truth. Based on events that resonate today, when headlines are dominated by disinformation, collusion and Russian spycraft. 

PRESS RELEASE: For immediate release: July 6, 2018

Artword Theatre production: The Man in the Vault
written and directed by Ronald Weihs

Shortly after President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, a Russian KGB officer defected to the CIA. His name was Yuri Nosenko, and he said he knew the answer to the most incendiary question of the time: was Oswald a Russian agent? Nosenko’s answer: no, he wasn’t.

James Angleton, the CIA’s legendary head of counterintelligence, was convinced that Nosenko was a disinformation agent sent by the KGB. Angleton was busy tearing the CIA apart looking for a mole, acting on information from another defector, Anatoli Golitsyn. He believed that Nosenko had been sent to discredit Golitsyn, with the Kennedy information as bait.

Nosenko was locked a concrete vault in a secret location for over three years, while interrogators tried to break his story. The Man in the Vault imagines a last-ditch attempt by Angleton to determine the truth.

Playwright Ronald Weihs became fascinated with this story about the famous CIA spyhunter, James Angleton. He began a major research effort, filling a large bookcase as he found himself spiraling deeper and deeper into the dark world of spies, disinformation and the assassination of President Kennedy. As complexities multiplied and theories and conspiracies proliferated, he found himself lost in the world that Angleton called “a wilderness of mirrors”. After many false starts on a script, he put it all away in a drawer. Anyway, he thought, that Russia/US spy stuff is all outdated.

Now suddenly, with Trump in the White House, it’s all back again: intelligence, counterintelligence, disinformation. With the encouragement of his partner Judith Sandiford, Ron found all his old notes and fragments and stitched them into a script. Last April, some actor friends helped with a staged reading at Artword Artbar. To his surprise, it hit home with actors and audiences! So he sat down and started rewriting. He trimmed the cast from five to three, and focused and tightened the narrative. And every day he watches MSNBC, marvelling how, in James Angleton’s phrase, “the past telescopes into the present”.

Artword Theatre is the creative vehicle of Ronald Weihs and Judith Sandiford. They built and operated a major theatre at Bathurst and King in Torontofor seven years, until the landlord sold the building to a condo developer. The pair moved to Hamilton in 2007, and in 2009 they bought asports bar just off James Street North and turned it into Artword Artbar.Since coming to Hamilton, Artword Theatre has produced 16 original works, including four BYOV productions, all acclaimed by reviewers: Trumpet Romance with Stuart Laughton (“an extraordinary experience, not to be missed”); Transformation, by Learie McNicolls (“a masterpiece of poetic theatre”); Once I Lived in the Box, choreographed by Learie McNicolls (“may also be the best thing you see at the Fringe this year”); Langston Hughes vs Joe McCarthy (“should be touring the country”).

Review: WhatsOn Jul 24, 2018 by Lori Littleton, Special to The Hamilton Spectator

The Man in the Vault at Artword Artbar

Last Fringe, Ronald Weihs staged a play about Langston Hughes, an American poet and social activist who was called to testify before U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. This year, he’s back with another historical exploration.

It’s the early 1960s and a Russian KGB officer has defected to the CIA. James Jesus Angleton — expertly played by Jason Thompson with poise and authority — is the legendary CIA head of counter-intelligence. He’s convinced Yuri Nosenko (Jordan Campbell) is lying and that Lee Harvey Oswald was a KGB officer.

Campbell’s Russian accent is spot on and he’s so convincing, we don’t doubt his denials for a second. Angleton sends Christine (the excellent Mariam Bekhet) to grill Nosenko toward the end of his three-year solitary stint in a concrete vault.

Five years ago, an audience might have watched this play and thought, well, isn’t that interesting? Today, it’s compelling. Weihs examines what is truth and what are facts and lies and we mentally halt when Angleton tells Christine that “it’s all part of a long-term plan — disinformation.”

With news stories abounding about Russian spies, indictments from Robert Mueller and Russian collusion and election meddling, you can’t help but wonder if history is repeating itself. Possibly in an effort to stay within a one-hour time frame, the action jumps quickly from a final interrogation scene to Nosenko appearing before a committee.

Rather than feel satisfied that the play’s wrapping up, you’ll want more.

The Man in the Vault review by Mark Fenton
Published July 23, 2018

Perhaps it’s because I was born six days after the Kennedy Assassination, but I have a voracious appetite for novels, journalism, movies, and plays about JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald. (Frames from the Zapruder film are frequently up on my desktop background.)

This is a necessary disclosure, as it might make “The Man in the Vault” more compelling to me than to the average Fringe-goer. I knew there were communist conspiracy theories around Oswald’s time in Russia, but to my shame I knew nothing of James Jesus Angleton and Yuri Nosenko. So I’m like a boy on Christmas morning who’s just gotten some new action figures to augment his tableau.

James Jesus Angleton, chief of CIA Counterintelligence (there’s a delightful sidebar in the production about how he got his middle name) sends a young woman in the intelligence agency to interrogate Yuri Nosenko, a Soviet defector.

As the play opens, Yuri has been held in solitary confinement for almost a year. The young woman is to pose as a disinterested psychologist examining Nosenko’s mental state so that he’ll let his guard down. “By indirections find directions out.”

Nosenko had a low-level intelligence job in the Soviet Union when Oswald was in Russia. Angleton believes that Nosenko can give information proving the Kennedy Assassination was a Soviet plot, and that Oswald was their agent.

Dramatically, the situation provides an effective distancing between Angleton and Nosenko. They never meet during their cold war stalemate. For Nosenko, the inability to confront his adversary amplifies the menace of unknowable persecutors.

For an increasingly inebriated Angleton, his physical distance from Nosenko is its own prison as Angleton struggles in a web of good information, concealed information, and willfully false information.

This complexity is countered by the bare simplicity of the staging, to the point that the projected images of Washington, Oswald, and newspaper clippings about the assassination feel redundant and diminish the claustrophobia and isolation of working on a classified case. But this is a small criticism for a play that had me on the edge of my seat, like an unproduced Twilight Zone episode scripted by a young John Le Carré.