The meaning of life, death & the role of a lifetime in the moving, tender & funny Or Not To Be

Andrew Robinson, Shawn DeSouza-Coelho & Karen Scobie in Or Not To Be—photo by Vic Finucci

 

I was back at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night, this time for Glass Hammer Productions’ presentation of Andrew Batten’s Or Not To Be, directed by Julia Haist. I saw the premiere at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival last year and was excited to see the evolution of the piece.

Actor Ben (Shawn DeSouza-Coelho) and director Sebastian (Andrew Robinson), also best friends, are working on putting together a production of Hamlet, with Ben playing the tragic hero. It’s the production of a lifetime—and the role of a lifetime for Ben—in more ways than one. Ben is living with a rare cancer, and his life now revolves around post-op treatments, medical appointments and an uncertain future. Rounding out his support team are his family and partner Sarah (Karen Scobie)—all touched in his or her own way by Ben’s illness.

Beneath the brave face Ben puts on for the world is a deep-seated internal conflict about the project and his treatment. As he struggles with side effects, low energy, frustration, and the fear of forgetting his lines and sucking at the role, he begins to wonder who he’s doing all of this for—and he’s faced with some hard choices, the impact of which will ripple out to those he loves.

Really lovely work and great chemistry from this three-hander cast in this intimate and candid production. DeSouza-Coelho’s Ben is a compelling picture of stoicism and determination, his thousand-mile stare and stillness belying the troubled soul beneath the surface; and he gives us nicely drawn Hamlet in a selection of classic soliloquies. Robinson brings the perfect balance of cockiness and warmth to Sebastian; Ben’s best friend since grade school, his theatrical ambitions are put into perspective by his support and care of Ben. Scobie gives Sarah a poignant sense of vulnerability and conflict as Ben’s lovingly supportive and uncomplaining partner; torn between wanting what’s best for Ben and not wanting to let him go, Sarah must confront her own feelings and motives. These relationship dynamics have all the truth, humour and feeling of people who know each other well—and in Ben and Sebastian’s case, a long time. And while the truth may be hard to take, it’s served up with love and honesty.

In the end, it makes you think. How would you react in Ben’s situation? What would your life be? And, as your life is right now, what’s your Hamlet? We are reminded that time is a precious, non-renewable resource—and despite the best intentions of those we love, it is we who must ultimately decide what path our lives will take.

With shouts to Liz Currie, the intrepid stage manager, lighting designer and tech in the booth; and to Wellspring, an organization—noted in the program—that provides programs and services for people living with cancer and their caregivers.

The meaning of life, death and the role of a lifetime in the moving, tender and funny Or Not To Be.

Or Not To Be continues at Red Sandcastle until January 28, Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm, with 2 pm matinees on Jan 20, 21, 27 and 28. Tickets available by calling the box office at 416 845-9411, or online at this link for first seven shows and this link for the final seven shows.

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NSTF: Giving the last word where last word’s due in the startling, sharply pointed, satirical JONNO

Jason Deline and Erica Anderson in JONNO. Costume design by Christina Urquhart. Set design by Chandos Ross. Lighting design by Steve Vargo. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Rabbit in a Hat Productions presents Alix Sobler’s JONNO, directed by Paul Van Dyck for the Toronto Fringe Next Stage Theatre Festival, running now at Factory Theatre.

JONNO was inspired by a famous sexual assault case that saw a popular Canadian radio personality put on trial—we all know who—and comes in the wake of subsequent sexual harassment and assault scandals that have called out Hollywood celebrities and, most recently, a prominent Canadian theatre artistic director. Delving into the mind of the perpetrator and providing a platform for the myriad complex responses from, and impact on, the survivors—the play speaks beyond any one particular case.

Jonno (Jason Deline) hosts a popular talk radio show; his rich, full tones open the episode with a spoken word essay, and his charming interview style doesn’t shy away from confrontation. One by one, we see his romantic encounters with women turn violent: feminist blogger Marcy (Erica Anderson), singer/songwriter Dana (Parmida Vand) and sex worker Bernadette (Glenda Braganza). The only witness is Mr. Donkey Long Ears (Allan Michael Brunet), a stuffed toy from his childhood who he shields from seeing too much.

When word of his actions goes public, he is visited by Maureen (Alanis Peart), a corporate rep from his employer who has some exploratory and pointed personal questions to ask. A self-professed feminist and lover of women, Jonno genuinely sees nothing wrong with what he’s done—he sees his sexploits as being simply imaginative and out of the ordinary.

The women he choked, hit, kicked and coerced into sexual activity would say otherwise. But, unlike Jonno, who’s perfectly clear and happy to rationalize the events surrounding the encounters, the women are left wondering what the fuck happened and try to make sense of it all as they second guess, struggle with self-doubt and give him second chances. And while the responses of the women are different, all are valid as they play over events in their minds and debate the situation with each other.

The shocking moments of sexual violence are balanced nicely by satirical scenes of corporate investigation, surreal conversations between Jonno and Long Ears, and some darkly funny girls’ night out debates over wine. And the imaginative, effective staging aptly illustrates the serial nature of Jonno’s behaviour, while creating space for the more playful, theatrical elements of the piece.

Amazing work from the cast on this sensitive and infuriating subject. Deline does a great job with the public and private faces of Jonno: the smooth-talking, accomplished, pro-woman radio host and the callous, violent and sociopathic misogynist. Brunet makes an excellent Long Ears; inspired by Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, he is sweetly droopy and sulky—and acts as both witness and counsellor to Jonno’s actions. A childhood toy/imaginary friend, he is Jonno’s displaced conscience and child-like innocence—even, perhaps, humanity.

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Alanis Peart, Jason Deline & Allan Michael Brunet in JONNO. Costume design by Christina Urquhart. Set design by Chandos Ross. Lighting design by Steve Vargo. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The women in the cast make for a powerful unit of their own. Like Jonno, these characters are attractive, intelligent and accomplished in their own right—and each takes the journey from victim to survivor in her own way. Philosophical and lyrical, Vand’s Dana strives to gain an understanding through conversation with Jonno. Anderson’s wide-eyed activist Marcy thrives in dialogue with fellow survivors—and finds her inner warrior as a result. Braganza’s Bernadette is sensuous, irreverent and outspoken; surprisingly conservative, Bernadette is a reminder to not judge a book by its cover. And Peart is a hilarious powerhouse as the mercurial, assertive Maureen, who fights fire with fire when she puts Jonno in the hot seat.

With shouts to the creative team for bringing this starkly real and magical world together: Christine Urquhart (costume), Chandos Ross (set), Steve Vargo (lighting), Richard Feren (composer and sound), and Jade Elliot (fight and intimacy coordinator).

In the end, while we may be able to muster a modicum of sympathy for the devil, we believe the women—and whatever personal history or demons Jonno may have do not excuse his actions.

Giving the last word where last word’s due in the startling, sharply pointed, satirical JONNO.

JONNO continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace till January 14; for exact dates/times and advance tickets, visit the show page.

The inescapable ghosts of the past meet tricks of the memory in the haunting, complex The Late Henry Moss

Anthony Ulc in The Late Henry Moss. Set design by Adam Belanger. Costumes by Janelle Joy Hince. Lighting by Steve Vargo. Photo by Curt Sachs.

 

Unit 102 Actors Co. takes us to an adobe shack in the middle of nowhere New Mexico in their intimate production of Sam Shepard’s The Late Henry Moss, directed by Scott Walker and running at their new home at The Assembly Theatre.

When Ray (David Lafontaine) arrives at Henry’s place after getting a phone call from his estranged older brother Earl (Mark Paci), their father (Anthony Ulc) is already dead, his corpse covered with a blanket on a cot. And when Ray presses Earl to repeat the details of the circumstances of Henry’s death, he gets the sneaking suspicion that something’s not right.

Earl got a call from Henry’s neighbour Esteban (Matthew Gouveia), who was worried about Henry’s welfare. We learn that Henry had a girlfriend named Conchalla (Jennifer McEwan), and a young Texan taxi driver (Michael Eisner) fills in the blanks about driving Henry on a strange fishing trip shortly before he died. Shifting back and forth between past and present as we see the story play out, we witness a tangled web of lies, secrets and selected memory unravel.

This is classic Shepard, featuring all the dark comedy, family dysfunction, alcoholism, secrets and haunting, conflicting memories—the stark realism tinted with moments of magic and poetry. The underlying sense of cruelty and violence starts at a slow boil, the heat getting turned up throughout with explosive results as inner demons are revealed and unleashed. In the end, the truth is both troubling, poignant and complicated.

Excellent work from the cast on this intense, intimate journey. Paci gives a compelling combination of a lost life lived in a state of exhausted estrangement and a longing to reconnect; there are things, moments, that Earl can’t bear to look at—but he finds himself unable to turn away from his dying father. Lafontaine’s tightly wound, mercurial Ray is the perfect foil for the more taciturn Earl. Menacing in his suspicion, and with a tendency towards cruelty and violence, Ray recalls bits of family history that his older brother has blocked—but memory is a trickster even for him.

Like Earl, Ulc’s Henry is a picture of haunted, hungover isolation; trying to forget, erasing his past with a bottle and a woman, Henry fears death as much as he courts it. McEwan is sensuous, mysterious and shaman-like as Henry’s girlfriend Conchalla; adding an otherworldly taste of magic, ancient tradition and heated romance—including some sexy choreography, with the dance illustrating their relationship—it’s like she’s acting as Henry’s guide to the next world.

Eisner’s taxi driver and Gouveia’s Esteban add some great—and much needed—comic relief. Eisner is adorably friendly and entertainingly cocky as Taxi; and, as Esteban, Gouveia is the sweet, guileless Good Samaritan with a lusty streak.

The inescapable ghosts of the past meet tricks of the memory in the haunting, complex The Late Henry Moss.

With shouts to the design team Adam Belanger (set), Janelle Joy Hince (costumes) and Steve Vargo (lighting) for transforming the venue into this blue and orange world outside of the rest of the world.

The Late Henry Moss continues at The Assembly Theatre until January 20; get advance tickets online.

 

Pun & games for kids of all ages, with hilarious panto good times, in RaPUNzel

 

Amelia Welcher as RaPUNzel (top) and Kristen Foote as Bunny (bottom)—photo by Burke Campbell

 

Red Sandcastle Theatre’s Panto Players are back at it again with more pantomime shenanigans in RaPUNzel, written by Jane A. Shields and Rosemary Doyle, and directed by Jackie English. RaPUNzel marks the company’s 7th annual holiday panto.

This time, the Panto Players take us to Italy in this delightful mashup of beloved fairy tales, pop music and musical theatre tunes as they deliver familiar stories and characters with some goofy—at times surprising—twists. A very pregnant Twankey’s (Chris Gibbs) cravings coax her husband (Farid Yazdani) to pilfer neighbouring ogre Monsanto’s (Taran Beaty) garden for lettuce. His mission becomes compromised and he’s caught in the act, forcing the expecting couple to make a terrible choice. Their thievery comes at a price: they must hand their baby over to the ogre!

Sixteen years later, and having held out on her end of the deal and lost her husband, the Widow Twankey gives in and the ogre gets her daughter RaPUNzel (Amelia Welcher), and locks her in an impenetrable, magically protected tower. Luckily, RaPUNzel’s nimble-footed bff hare friend Bunny (Kristen Foote) is able to get in and out of the tower, and provide our heroine with some company as they try to figure out how to get her out of there. Meanwhile, RaPUNzel’s hair is getting super long—and we wonder if the ogre is as naughty as he wants everyone to believe; after all, his faithful sidekick is a Chicken (Sebastian Marziali). And is Twankey as nice as she appears?

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Chris Gibbs as Widow Twankey, with Co-writer/AD Rosemary Doyle in the background—photo by Burke Campbell

Enter the handsome, though somewhat dim, Prince (Yazdani). Will he be able to free RaPUNzel from her tower prison? To add to the fun, director English returns as our favourite sassy pink cat, who first arrives on sabbatical, but comes on board to assist as only this cat can. And co-writer Doyle appears as the set-changing, noise-shushing Nonna,* a sweet old granny who suffers no fools.

It’s all very wacky and pun-filled—and we’re all invited to join in the fun. Gibbs gives a diabolically silly turn as the vain and manipulative Twankey; and Yazdani does an awesome Don Corleone impression as her husband, as well as a comedic, scene-stealing turn as the dim-witted yet determined Prince. Beaty is hilariously conflicted as the ogre Monsanto; holding RaPUNzel captive for “reasons,” the ogre’s love and care of his garden makes you wonder how bad to the bone he really is—and he brings some kick-ass guitar and vocals to that George Thorogood classic in the process.

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Taran Beaty as the ogre Monsanto, with Sebastian Marziali as Chicken (left), Chris Gibbs as Twankey (background) & Amelia Welcher as RaPUNzel (right)—photo by Burke Campbell

 

Welcher is adorably precocious as the feisty punster RaPUNzel; and impresses with great vocal chops on a Pink power ballad. Foote and Marziali give hilarious turns in multiple roles, starting with a pair of mobsters and a couple of dancing lettuce. Foote is hysterical and educational as RaPUNzel’s bff hare pal Bunny, schooling us on the differences between the hare and the rabbit. And Marziali brings cute and wacky fun as Monsanto’s right-hand man Chicken, providing comic observations and cheeky advice.

We’re invited—and encouraged—to cheer the heroes and boo the villain, and sing and groove along with the pop tunes, rap and musical theatre songs. And a few lucky young audience members will have a chance to get in on the action.

With big shouts to stage manager Deborah Ann Frankel, who’s been with this wild and wacky ride from the beginning; running all the lighting and sound cues, and shepherding the cast.

Pun and games for kids of all ages, with hilarious panto good times, in RaPUNzel.

RaPUNzel continues at Red Sandcastle until January 7, with evening performances at 7pm on December 29 and 30, and January 2-6; and matinees at 3pm on December 28 and 30, and January 3, 6 and 7. Get your advance tickets online (see the date-specific ticket links on the show page) or by calling 416-845-9411.

*As of December 28, Nonna will be played by Panto Players veteran Brenda Somers.

Top 10 theatre 2017

Another year, another embarrassment of riches. And, despite the fact that the blog has been operating on a reduced capacity since July, I still managed to see a lot of theatre this year.

In alphabetical order, my top 10 of 2017:

The Clergy Project: Soulo Theatre

for colored girls: Soulpepper Theatre

Mockingbird Close: INpulse Theatre Co.

Prince Hamlet: Why Not Theatre

Reflector: Theatre Gargantua

Slip: Circlesnake Productions

Spoon River: Soulpepper Theatre

Superior Donuts: Coal Mine Theatre

Tough Jews: Storefront Theatre

Unholy: Nightwood Theatre, January premiere*

 

Go see some theatre. Support local artists.

Happy holidays, all—and all good things for 2018!

* Full disclosure: I wasn’t working for Nightwood at the time.

 

 

 

Love in all its complex, messy, glorious forms in Love Between the Lines

Chelsea Riesz, Lisa Alves, Courtney Lamanna, Joella Crichton, Mercy Cherian & Cathy Huang—rehearsal photo courtesy of Jenna Borsato

 

HERstory Counts opened its second season at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night with Love Between the Lines, written and performed by the ensemble, and directed by Co-Artistic Producer/Co-Artistic Director Jennifer Neales, assisted by Ellie Posadas, with dramaturgy by Co-Artistic Producer/Co-Artistic Director Evangelia Kambites.

For those of you not familiar with HERstory Counts, it’s a company that produces true stories, performed by the creators themselves, offering a space to challenge and push past the ideals of the status quo. We feature and celebrate female-identified womyn of all backgrounds, all ages, all races, all histories, all sizes, all sexual orientations, and all abilities.”

Featuring autobiographical storytelling from six writer/performers, Love Between the Lines is an examination of love in its various forms and incarnations, each story weaving seamlessly in and out of the other. Joella Crichton’s exploration of the stages of grief following a break-up; Chelsea Riesz discovering sins of the father in her relationship dynamics; Cathy Huang’s love letter to a kindred spirit grandmother; Lisa Alves navigating identity and the complicated, close-knit ties with her mother; Courtney Lamanna connecting the dots as she recognizes and strives to break the cycle of abusive relationships; and Mindy Kaling doppelganger Mercy Cherian’s undying love for a dying, ever protective father.

Told with vulnerability, humour and courage, the storytelling is up close and personal—candidly revealing all the maddening, heartbreaking, messy struggle, comfort and elation of these relationships. Incorporating memory, personal insight and even confession, each actor plays out her truth on a bare stage; her story animated by the other actors, who deftly transform into parents, lovers, inner selves, a tarot card reader and even—most hilariously—goofy, fiercely protective street dogs in India. These stories move you to laughter, tears and even maybe your own a-ha moment. These stories resonate.

With shouts to Stage Manager Mariah Ventura, Creative/Production Assistant Robin Luckwaldt and Production Manager Jenna Borsato for their work on this production.

Love in all its complex, messy, glorious forms in Love Between the Lines.

Love Between the Lines continues at Red Sandcastle, with performances tonight, Saturday and Sunday night at 7:30pm, and a 2:30pm matinee on Sunday. Get your advance tickets online or purchase at the door half an hour before show time. Advance booking recommended; it’s an intimate space and last night’s opening was a packed house.

Keep up with HERstory Counts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Tracing identity through the sacrifices & dreams of matriarchal herstory in the moving, delightful, lyrical trace

Jeff Ho; set design by Nina Lee Aquino and Michelle Ramsay; lighting design by Michelle Ramsay—photo by Dahlia Katz

 

Factory Theatre, in association with b current performing arts, presents the world premiere of Jeff Ho’s trace, a multidisciplinary journey of family and identity, directed by Factory Theatre AD Nina Lee Aquino, assisted by Darrel Gamotin, and currently running in the Factory Studio space.

Written, performed and composed by Ho, trace is structured as a Piano Sonata, with Five Movements, plus a Prelude and a Coda. Featuring the three most influential women in his life, the storytelling weaves memories with family mythology and moments, travelling through time and across borders—taking family apart and reuniting them.

Starting in the present day, Jeff’s mother (Ma) Kwan Miu Chi (44 years old) returns home to Hong Kong with her eldest son, looking for a place to stay. She finds drastically different receptions from her grandmother (Jeff’s Great Grandma) Kwan Bo Siu (85 years old), who seems happy to see her, but proceeds to gruffly enlist her aid in ridding the apartment of rats; and mother (Jeff’s Grandma) Kwan Wei Foon (64 years old), who is decidedly chilly and resistant to having two more mouths to feed.

As the story shifts back and forth in time and place, we see the three women at various ages—and the world and circumstances that shaped them and their relationships with their children. As a young, single mother, Great Grandma Kwan Bo Siu fled the WWII Japanese invasion of China with her son to live in Hong Kong, where she faced new struggles to find work and survive. Grandma Kwan Wei Foon was 16 when she met her husband to be, receiving a scornful and cross introduction to his mother (Bo Siu); and subsequently garnering constant disapproval and always having to prove herself, and supporting her mother-in-law in her old age. And Jeff’s Ma Kwan Miu Chi, who left Hong Kong for Toronto in pursuit of a better life for herself and two young sons, was once refused tuition to go to school by her mother (Wei Foon). Finding support and commonality with her grandmother (Bo Siu)—who possessed mad skills and an ability to earn great sums at the mahjong table—she was able to pursue her education and chosen profession. And just as Wei Foon and Miu Chi battled over Mui Chi’s dream of becoming an accountant, the economically cautious, traditionally-minded Miu Chi goes on to butt heads with her youngest son Jeff, who eschews academics for the arts, especially the piano.

Ho, who gave us a lovely Ophelia in Why Not Theatre’s production of Prince Hamlet, does an equally beautiful job with these women, capturing their vulnerability, stubbornness—and ultimately determined strength as they ferociously carry on through tragedy and hard times. Charming, eloquent and a wonder on the keys, Ho shifts seamlessly between characters with precise body language and vocal qualities: the hard-talking, chain smoking mahjong Queen Great Grandma Kwan Bo Siu; the imperious, cold and distant Grandma Kwan Wei Foon; and the strict, practical, sharp negotiator Ma Kwan Miu Chi (who also inherited the maternal mahjong queen gene). Amidst the struggles for survival, family is of the utmost importance to these women. All are striving for a better life for themselves and their children—and keeping the line of caretaker from parent to child and back again intact.

The two pianos on stage play out the exquisitely beautiful, Piano Sonata-inspired framework of this story, composed by Ho—and stand in for the other characters the women encounter along the way. The Fifth Movement, played in the home key, is particularly heart-wrenching. During the talkback that followed the performance (hosted by Miquelon Rodriguez), Ho describes this as the most challenging aspect of performance: making the piano speak as a character so the interaction is as clear as possible.

trace is nicely bookended as we return to the present day. The revelations of family history, sacrifice and secret shame bring a painful sense of redemption and closure to the three generations of women—and the realization of why they are the way they are. For Ho, who combined fact, fiction and conjecture to create the piece, it is the story of the three women who made him who he is.

With shouts to Aquino and Michelle Ramsay for the elegant, multi-level platform set design; the black platforms with red legs evoking beautiful Chinese lacquer furniture.

Tracing identity through the sacrifices and dreams of matriarchal herstory in the moving, delightful, lyrical trace.

trace continues in the Factory Theatre Studio till December 3. Get your advance tickets online, by phone at 416-504-9971 or in-person at 125 Bathurst Street (at Adelaide St. W.).