Happy holidays 2018!

Hey all!

Holy cow, it’s that time of year again! Time to get the holiday activities into high gear, with shopping and social events taking over the calendar.

This also means it’s time for the cowbell blog’s annual December hiatus. This gives me a chance for some R&R after a very busy Fall theatre season, and to take some time with friends and family.

As usual, I’ll be covering some holiday shows: two next week and one during the last week of December. Also keep an eye out for my Top 10 Theatre of 2018 list at the end of December.

In the meantime, I wish you and yours love and joy this holiday season—and all good things for 2019!

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Inside the brilliant mind of the man behind the message, silenced by stroke in the mercurial, theatrical, moving The Message

R.H. Thomson. Set designed by Camellia Koo. Costumes designed by Charlotte Dean. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Video design by Carla Ritchie. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Tarragon Theatre takes us into the brilliant, lighting-fast mind of professor turned internationally hailed pop star prophet Marshall McLuhan with its mercurial, theatrical and moving world premiere of Jason Sherman’s The Message, directed by Richard Rose, with assistant director Taryn Jorgenson. Silenced by a stroke as he struggles to reconcile his life’s work communicating ideas and warnings about the impact of our modern world on our bodies and souls, McLuhan’s mind replays the events, ideas and memories of those closest to him.

The pre-show soundtrack (sound design by Thomas Ryder Payne) takes us back in time, with snatches of Coke commercial jingles and beloved TV theme songs from the 60s, among others; then the first scene throws us into darkness—forcing us to temporarily abandon our sight and use our ears. Marshall McLuhan (R. H. Thomson) has had a stroke; the event interrupting his work on his latest, and possibly last, epic tome—a  600-page manuscript already running well behind deadline. And while his physical and cognitive functions gradually return, he’s left unable to speak.

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Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster & R.H. Thomson. Set designed by Camellia Koo. Costumes designed by Charlotte Dean. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Video design by Carla Ritchie. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

We circle around McLuhan’s mind as snatches of memory, conversations and ideas bubble to the surface. There are raucous pop culture connections with TV (Peter Hutt, in hilariously crass turns as Feigen and Klein) and ad men (Patrick McManus as the slick Gossage). And more intimate, personal interactions with his long-time, devoted assistant Margaret (played with a soft-spoken, intrepid sweetness by Ch’ng Lancaster) and wife Corrine (Orenstein, in a lovely, passionate performance as his fiercely protective, imaginative, loving Texan partner for life) who rally around him during his recovery. A bizarre, surreal trip into his experience with neurosurgery to remove a benign tumor—a procedure that takes ideas from him even as it saves his sight and hearing—is balanced nicely with quiet, contemplative moments with Father Frank, a former student who’s now a priest (a gentle, poetic performance from McManus).

Thomson gives a stellar performance as McLuhan, capturing the essence of a brilliant, quicksilver and playful—if not distracted—mind. It’s no wonder that some people found it hard to keep up with McLuhan; it’s possible he had trouble keeping up with himself at times. The ideas flow quickly and constantly, but closest to his heart and soul are language, literature, religion, and the theories and questions about the evolution of the modern world—and how modern urban living in the electronic age are impacting our bodies, minds and even our very souls. And while the public may be looking to him for answers, he knows that one can only keep asking the questions. Thomson navigates the range of McLuhan’s character with cerebral, sharp-witted, punny precision. And as he navigates the aftermath of the stroke—frustrated and conflicted, wondering what it all means—we watch in awe, this luminous mind still hard at work, with the heartbreaking realization that it can no longer communicate its crucial thoughts.

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Peter Hutt, R.H. Thomson, Sarah Orenstein & Patrick McManus. Set designed by Camellia Koo. Costumes designed by Charlotte Dean. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Video design by Carla Ritchie. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Camellia Koo’s practical and whimsical multimedia set design combines nicely with Carla Ritchie’s video design (set up on in a grid of nine TV screens upstage that also serve as peep holes for the actors—reminiscent of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In). These are highlighted nicely by Rebecca Picherack’s lighting design, which shifts our perceptions of the action with darkness, spotlight and general wash—forcing us to hone our senses. And shouts to costume designer Charlotte Dean for the fab 60s threads, nicely tailored to reveal each character.

As I left the theatre last night, I couldn’t help but wonder what McLuhan would’ve made of the ever-evolving digital age and social media platforms—where letters and phone calls have been largely replaced by email, text and DM. As with other evolving modern conveniences that are meant to bring people and ideas together, we must all be mindful of how and why we use specific media. And maybe put the devices down once in a while, look into each other’s eyes and speak face to face for a change.

The Message continues in the Tarragon Mainspace until December 16. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office at 416-531-1827. Go see this.

A photo album of family, love & memento mori in the profoundly moving, nostalgic, candid Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias

Beatriz Pizano & Julia (projected photo). Scenography by Trevor Schwellnus, with associate lighting designer Rebecca Vandevelde. Costume design by Andjelija Djuric. Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh.

 

“They say blood is thicker than water —
I say, love is thicker than blood.”

Aluna Theatre premieres Beatriz Pizano’s Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias, a photo album of family, love and memento mori; written and performed by Pizano, and created with director Trevor Schwellnus and composer/sound designer Brandon Miguel Valdivia, and running now at The Theatre Centre.

Losing her mother when she was a toddler, Pizano was adopted by her Aunt Julia and Uncle Jorge after her “Marlboro Man” father took off, leaving her and her two siblings behind—and a deep and lasting connection evolved with her new parents. Years later, after Pizano has moved to Canada, when an aged, widowed Julia drifts away in a lost, confused haze of dementia, she keeps her promise, returning home again and again to be with Julia during her “Calvary.” Weaving a personal history of distant and recent past—from her years growing up with Julia in Columbia to travelling back and forth from Canada during Julia’s final years, to and from hospital and nursing home; Pizano shifts from romantic nostalgia to harsh, heartbreaking life and death reality. And then, a chance meeting with a doctor at the nursing home—there to perform euthanasia on another patient—and an act of love, mercy and personal sacrifice to make a decision for a loved one who is unable to do so.

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Beatriz Pizano. Scenography by Trevor Schwellnus, with associate lighting designer Rebecca Vandevelde. Costume design by Andjelija Djuric. Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh.

Incorporating photographs and props, projected on a row of overlapping burlap legs that flare out and merge together on the floor, we see an evolving collage of life and family—from the broad strokes of wide-ranging world events to the God-is-in-the-details moments and wisdom of shared lives. The storytelling, relayed in English and sometimes Spanish, is visually rich; full of a lust for life, liberty and equality; and resonating with the music of childhood and the revolution—and, ultimately, with hope and closure. Pizano gives us a deeply personal, candid, raw and romantic—at times interactive—performance; balanced with a cheeky sense of irreverence where religion is concerned, and a revolutionary bohemian spirit when it comes to class and politics.

Part personal memory play, part confessional, part memorial, Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias reminds us that the one thing that’s certain in life—and we all have in common—is that we die. What would you do for a loved one who’s lost to the world, incapacitated and in pain—to set them free?

Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias is in its final week, closing on December 2. Advance tickets available online or by calling The Theatre Centre’s Box Office at 416-538-0988.

Check out this CBC piece on Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias, including Matt Galloway’s interview with Beatriz Pizano on Metro Morning.

The battle for survival & inclusion in an elite Chinese sanctuary in the provocative, darkly funny Yellow Rabbit

En Lai Mah & April Leung, with Amanda Zhou in the background. Set & costume design by Jackie Chau. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Video design by Zeesy Powers. Photo by: Cesar Ghisilieri.

 

Soulpepper presents the world premiere of Silk Bath Collective’s (SBC) provocative, darkly funny, multimedia and trilingual Yellow Rabbit, written by Bessie Cheng, Aaron Jan and Gloria Mok, directed by Jasmine Chen and running at the Young Centre. Set in a post-nuclear apocalypse dystopia, with dialogue in English, Cantonese and Mandarin (with surtitles), contestants are tested and assessed in a life or death competition to gain entry into the Chinese sanctuary Rich-Man Hill. A beautiful oasis from a harsh and dangerous land, competition is fierce and standards are strict—and only those who are deemed worthy are allowed access.

Yellow Rabbit represents the evolution of SBC’s sold-out production of Silk Bath, which debuted at Toronto Fringe and went on to the Next Stage Festival—making history as the first trilingual play at the Fringe. While Silk Bath focused on external stereotyping and oppression of Chinese-Canadians, Yellow Rabbit dives deep into internalized racism and extremism. You have to be the ‘right’ kind of Chinese to get into Rich-Man Hill.

Woman (April Leung) and Man (En Lai Mah) are brought into the testing facility, paired as husband and wife by Rich-Man Hill authorities, as they’ve been identified as a good match to carry on the Chinese race in this post-apocalyptic world. Overseen by Mother (Amanda Zhou), assisted by Child (Bessie Cheng), Woman and Man must pass a series of tests and challenges designed to prove their excellence—and ultimate worth—as ideal Chinese citizens; and the assessment process is a life and death prospect.

Hounded and hunted in the outside world, Chinese survivors are willing to risk anything to get into Rich-Man Hill. Contestants are fitted with collars, which Mother and Child use to manipulate and discipline with painful shocks. In between challenges, contestants view propaganda videos (by Zeesy Powers) showing Mother and Child enjoying a loving, trusting relationship in a breath-taking, verdant landscape highlighted by a refreshing waterfall. The Woman and Man both have secrets they’re keeping from Mother, but share with each other in an attempt to connect and work together to get through the trials. Meanwhile, Mother and Child find they don’t agree on the standards Mother has set; the more narrow-minded, old-school Mother is much more stringent on who is deemed worthy, while Child is more progressive and desires more modern, forward-thinking parameters.

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Amanda Zhou & Bessie Cheng. Set & costume design by Jackie Chau. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Video design by Zeesy Powers. Photo by: Cesar Ghisilieri.

Great work from the ensemble, balancing the dark humour with the disturbing nature of the situation. Leung and Mah have great chemistry as Woman and Man; both are strong-willed and determined, but realize that they must try to get along and work together, as all the tests are applied to them as a pair. Both deeply troubled and conflicted, the secrets that Man and Woman harbour speak to the core of their identity; and it’s heart-breaking to watch them try to be something they’re not in order to pass the tests and survive. Zhou gives Mother an ethereal air of mystery—a combination spiritual and community leader spouting wisdom and guidance; but beneath Mother’s nurturing exterior is a harsh and unforgiving authoritarian. Cheng’s Child is an innocent, devoted follower and assistant to Mother; but even Child’s loyalty goes only so far—and, despite her more modern-day views, her model is still based on the totalitarian regime already running Rich-Man Hill.

Extreme standards and isolation breed fear and contempt for outsiders and those not deemed the ‘right’ type of Chinese. And with such strict rules for entry and fewer potential contestants at her disposal, Mother risks weakening the community she’s supposed to be protecting.

Yellow Rabbit continues for its final week at the Young Centre, closing on December 1. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Advance tickets are a must; if a performance appears to be sold out online, check again—as some tickets may be released close to or on the day of.

A warrior’s heroic journey in the wondrous, enchanting, multidisciplinary The Monkey Queen

Diana Tso and Nicholas Eddie. Scenic design by William Yong. Costume design by Robin Fisher. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Projection design by Elysha Poirier. Photo by David Hou.

 

The Theatre Centre presents the world premiere of Red Snow Collective’s wondrous, enchanting, multidisciplinary The Monkey Queen, by Diana Tso, directed and choreographed by William Yong. A feminist re-imagining and counterpart to the well-known, beloved traditional Chinese story The Monkey King, from Wu Cheng’En’s 16th century epic Journey to the West, The Monkey Queen is mytho-biographic—part autobiography, part mythology. Part one of a trilogy, the journey takes the artist east, in search of her spiritual and ancestral roots; running parallel to the warrior’s search for enlightenment in a series of challenges and quests.

A multidisciplinary, multimedia piece of storytelling, The Monkey Queen weaves personal anecdotes from Tso’s life into the Monkey Queen’s heroic quest as artist and warrior travel their respective paths towards enlightenment and meaning. From the moment you set foot in the Incubator space, you feel transported to a place outside of time and space. The haunting, otherworldly music (composers Nick Storring and Brandon Valdivia) echoes like the sound of the spheres—soothing, hypnotic and mysterious—as the snow white set reflects the blue light (lighting design by Rebecca Picherack) from five branchless tree-like structures (emerging from the ground or descending from the sky?) that will change colour throughout. As the lights come up, you can see tufts of fluffy white snow along the ground, and waves of white origami flowers that seem to float along the upstage wall (scenic design by Yong). At times, images related to the action are projected (projection design by Elysha Poirier) on the upstage wall; conjuring up skeletal dragons, vast mountain ranges and a vast star-filled night sky.

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Diana Tso and Nicholas Eddie. Scenic design by William Yong. Costume design by Robin Fisher. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Projection design by Elysha Poirier. Photo by David Hou.

Performers Tso, who plays herself and the Monkey Queen, and Nicholas Eddie, playing her friend and a multitude of other characters—male, female, old, young, demon, god—tell the tale with movement, music and text; using their voices, posture and motion to sharply define and shift between characters. As the Monkey Queen, Tso is proud, fearless and determined as the female warrior bounds across the stars, shape shifting in the blink of an eye; and pragmatic as she comes to terms with mistakes in judgement stemming from her power and emotions. Eddie transforms from the mysterious old shaman, mentor to the Monkey Queen, to fearsome demons and dragons, to a charming, handsome prince. The performances are playful and brave, with a mischievous edge; sculpted with supple, powerful and expressive movement—all tempered with a sense of gravitas in the face of insight, enlightenment and penance.

The effect is magical; and as the tale unfolds, you may find yourself feeling like a child at story time. And despite the multimedia tech, most of the work is done by the performers—this is storytelling at its fantastic, imaginative best. And while this is a tale for children of all ages, girls will be especially gratified to see that they can be heroes too; particularly when they learn that Tso’s inspiration for writing the piece was so she could play a hero who was originally written and cast as a man.

The Monkey Queen continues at the Theatre Centre until December 2; please note the 7:30 pm curtain time. Running time 65 minutes, followed by a 15-minute Q&A with the artists. Tickets available by calling The Theatre Centre’s Box Office at 416-538-0988 or online.

In the meantime, check out the What’s On TOnight? Take Five interview with Diana Tso.

Portrait of a family in messy, human shades of grey in the intimate, intense, complex What I Call Her

Charlie Gould & Ellie Ellwand. Lighting design by Imogen Wilson. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

In Association—which led a sold-out production of Ellie Moon’s Asking For It last season—partners with Crow’s Theatre once again, this time with the world premiere of Moon’s intimate, intense and complex What I Call Her, directed by Sarah Kitz and opening to a sold-out house at Streetcar Crowsnest last night. Exploring a family dynamic of abuse, estrangement, grief and reconciliation, What I Call Her gives us the messy—ultimately human—blacks, whites and greys of family relationships shaped by trauma, conflicting memory and divergent lived experiences.

Estranged from her mother and younger sister Ruby, and recovering from childhood abuse at the hands of her mother, English MA student/writer Kate (Charlie Gould) now finds herself navigating the myriad mixed emotions of her mother’s impending death. Triggered by her mother’s distant death bed, as well as her mother’s startlingly contrasting history of abuse, abusive behaviour and philanthropy for survivors, Kate starts writing a frank obituary for her mother. Her supportive, live-in boyfriend and women’s ally Kyle (Michael Ayres) acts as her anchor, sounding board and Devil’s advocate on the idea of posting it on Facebook.

When Ruby (Ellie Ellwand) surprises them with a late-night arrival at their apartment, the family conflict—in particular, Ruby’s contradictory and hugely different experiences of childhood and their parents—gets too close to home. While Ruby’s appearance sparks Kate’s rage over the family’s denial of her experience, she’s got some anger to unpack as well; and the sisters face-off over their shared history and their mother’s desire for a death bed reunion and subsequent redemption.

The finely-tuned three-hander cast of What I Call Her plays out the various levels of family conflict in a series of contrasts—in moments of quiet and explosion, trauma and comfort, remembering and forgetting—turning the blacks and whites of family history, memory and corresponding emotional/psychological responses into complex, messy and profoundly human shades of grey.

What I call her 1 - Michael Ayres, Charlie Gould - by Dahlia Katz
Michael Ayres & Charlie Gould. Lighting design by Imogen Wilson. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Gould’s broken, neurotic, sharply intelligent Kate can be self-involved, but also self-aware; and Kate’s self-professed knack for hyperbole is matched only by her lonely, hopeless sense of familial gaslighting. As Ruby, Ellwand is both adult and baby sister; brutally honest and perceptive, but needing support and validation. While Ruby’s directness with Kate tends toward cruelty, she desperately needs Kate right now. And Aryes’ Michael is that sweet, #MeToo woke good guy you want to see your sister with. Michael’s calm, quiet demeanour is a perfect foil to Kate’s mercurial outbursts of emotional activity—but, caught in the middle of and pushed away from this family war, and exhausted from keeping Kate from spinning off, even he can only take so much.

It’s especially noteworthy that Kate and Ruby’s mom, who is a fourth but unseen character in this piece, has a history of family abuse—both she and her own mother are survivors. And while it’s no excuse for her verbal and physical abuse of Kate, it’s a reason. The Kates of the world need be able to tell their stories; and as contradictory to the experiences of other family members and painful as these stories may be, they need to come out so real reconciliation and redemption can begin.

What I Call Her continues at Streetcar Crowsnest until December 8; advance tickets are available online. It’s an intimate venue and the show is getting a lot of well-deserved buzz, so booking ahead is strongly recommended.

 

 

Outrageously fun, horrific good times in Space Opera Zero!

Clockwise, from top left: Eric Woolfe, Lisa Norton & Mairi Babb. Set & costume design by Melanie McNeill, assisted by Emily Butters. Lighting design by Michael Brunet. Photo by producer Adrianna Prosser.

 

Eldritch Theatre returns with more outrageously fun, horrific good times with Space Opera Zero, written by Eric Woolfe and directed by Dylan Trowbridge. Based on Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean tragedy The Changeling, Space Opera Zero! is a space horror erotic macabredy that combines poetic language, a B-movie/pulp fiction sensibility, feats of prestidigitation, 30s slang, mask and puppetry, operatic tragedy and a lesbian/alien love triangle. Space Opera Zero! opened on Friday at Red Sandcastle Theatre; I caught it last night, in an enthusiastic, sold out house.

Our story begins in 1930s America, where intrepid lesbian pilot Emily Trueheart (Lisa Norton) and mad scientist Hjalmar Pomeranki (Eric Woolfe) set off—in a space ship Pomeranki designed—on a mission where no man has gone before. Forced off course, they land on a strange faraway planet, where Emily rescues Princess Jenora (Mairi Babb) from certain death in the jaws of a vicious alien creature—and the two fall instantly in love.

Things are peachy keen until the Princess’s father, the Emperor (puppet, Woolfe), orders her to marry a fearsome tentacled alien (Norton) for the sake and safety of their planet. And while the Princess makes an unsavoury deal with the Emperor’s servant Doggo the Mutant (Woolfe) to get out of the marriage so she can be with Emily, Pomeranki is hatching an apocalyptic plan of his own back at the space ship. Caught in a web of lies and deceit, things go from bad to worse for the Princess; desperate to have things go her way, she enlists the aid of her maid/sex robot Ro-Berta (puppet, Woolfe) to distract Emily.

Will true love find a way in this faraway universe—and will there be any universe left to make sweet nookie in?

Big-time LOLs, twists and turns, and surprises from this engaging, energetic, uber-talented cast. Norton’s Emily Trueheart is the definition of moxie, combined with old-fashioned romantic; taking names and no guff (especially from men), Emily is a pioneer and explorer with the guts of a warrior and the heart of a poet. Woolfe does a stand-out job, juggling multiple hilarious and poignant characters, utilizing mask and puppetry. Notably the verbose mad scientist Hjalmar Pomeranki, who seems a nice enough fellow but has a dark purpose in mind; the reviled, put-upon servant Doggo the Mutant; and the loyal, sex-curious robot Ro-Berta. Babb gives the lovely Princess Jenora a slinky, femme fatale edge; driven to extreme measures to achieve her heart’s—and loins’—desire, the Princess risks painting herself into a corner.

With shouts to the outstanding interstellar design team: Melanie McNeill, assisted by Emily Butters (set and costumes), Michael Brunet (lighting) and Christopher Stanton (sound). And to stage manager Sandi Becker, for keeping it all running smoothly and showing us how to navigate our way through the set to access the washroom.

Space Opera Zero! continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre until December 2; advance tickets available online. It’s an intimate space with limited seating, and a super popular company getting great buzz, so advance booking strongly recommended.

Check out the cool trailer: