December (pseudo) hiatus

Hey all—I can’t believe it’s December already!

That means it’s time for the cowbell blog’s annual December (pseudo) hiatus.

I say “pseudo” because, as usual, I’ll be seeing and reviewing a few holiday shows this month. In the spirit of holiday surprises, I won’t say what shows—but I will say there will be some holiday-themed/panto fun and shenanigans. So stay tuned later this month!

Happy holidays to you and yours—and all good things for 2020! It’ll be a brand new decade, with fresh opportunities and developments on the horizon.

 

Melanie Peterson’s “Christmas Breaks My Heart” a gentle, melodic nod to holiday heartache

Melanie Peterson, live at Free Times Cafe for last night’s “Christmas Breaks My Heart” launch.

 

It was standing room only at Free Times Café last night, as Melanie Peterson celebrated the launch of her new holiday single “Christmas Breaks My Heart”, featuring the talents of fellow Toronto-based singer/songwriter guests Matt Gerber and Angela Saini.

The evening opened with the whimsically playful sounds of Matt Gerber, whose delightful tunes borrow from folk, barber shop and pop—from songs for kids for all ages, to sweet and nostalgic romantic musings. Gerber had us singing along with his acoustic set, accompanying himself on guitar and ukulele, punctuated by kazoo and some impressive harmonica chops. Give Gerber a listen, and check out upcoming dates, on his website.

Shining with positivity and poignant at times, Angela Saini both moved and entertained with genuine, heartfelt, and sometimes cheeky, observations of life, love and self-image in a pop-inspired acoustic set. And I dare you to not smile, sing along and tap your feet to her upbeat, energetic sounds. Keep up with Saini’s music, merch and gig dates on her website.

Main attraction Melanie Peterson more than lived up to her “Mary Poppins with a broken heart” reputation, treating us to a selection of folk-infused songs from her earliest recordings to her new release in an acoustic guitar set accompanied by Peter Collins on bass. The lyrics and vocals are melancholy, but hopeful, resilient and determined through heartbreak; and full of gratitude and joy in love. Combining cheer with heartache—sometimes with hilarious results (the tequila song)—Peterson’s sounds get real with the warmth and gentleness of a good long-time friend; all delivered with her signature sweet, lilting vocals.

“Christmas Breaks My Heart” offers a rarely heard take on the holiday season—not always a joyful time for some—acknowledging the loss, grief and wistful nostalgia of missing that someone special by your side. Check out the lyric video; and wrap your ears around Peterson’s catalogue and videos.

Next up for Peterson: Live at Sauce on the Danforth on Sat, Dec 28 from 4:00-7:00 pm.

Here are some snaps I took at the show last night.

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Shades of gray in the intimate, entertaining, deeply poignant Between Riverside and Crazy

Allegra Fulton & Alexander Thomas. Set design by Anna Treusch. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Coal Mine Theatre opened its Toronto premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Between Riverside and Crazy to a packed house at its home on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue last night. Directed by Kelli Fox, the intimately staged storytelling plays in the gray areas of family and the legal system as a widowed retired NYPD cop holds firm in his bid for justice while being a father figure to a strange and diverse assortment of adults both in his home and on the job. Highlighting issues of politics, government, race and racism, Between Riverside and Crazy reveals, with candor and humour, a world where everyone is hustling and everybody lies.

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Jai Jai Jones, Alexander Thomas & Nabil Rajo. Set design by Anna Treusch. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Widowed retired NYPD cop Walter “Pops” Washington (Alexander Thomas) lives in a sweet rent-controlled apartment on New York City’s Riverside Drive, which he’s currently sharing with his son Junior (Jai Jai Jones), recently released from jail; Junior’s girlfriend Lulu (Zarrin Darnell-Martin), a college student studying accounting; Junior’s friend Oswaldo (Nabil Rajo), a recovering addict and ex-con; and a dog (which we never see). He’s also juggling a discrimination suit against the City of New York after being shot six times by a white rookie, who also called him the n-word, during a raid on an after-hours bar back when he was still on the job; a lot of time and money have been going toward this bid for justice, with no immediate end in sight-and on top of losing his beloved wife Dolores, the entire ordeal has impacted on him both physically and psychologically.

Complicating matters for Walter, a friendly catch-up dinner at his place with his former partner Det. Audrey O’Connor (Claire Armstrong) and her fiancé Lt. Dave Caro (Sergio Di Zio) becomes an intervention of sorts when they try to convince him to drop the lawsuit and take the settlement the City has been offering before the deadline arrives. Cajoling turns to manipulation turns to threat, as Dave’s entreaties take a nasty turn—putting Walter’s home, and Junior’s newly acquired freedom from jail, in jeopardy. In the meantime, Junior is suspected of using the apartment to store stolen goods; Lulu says she’s pregnant; and Oswaldo’s visit to family goes terribly wrong. Then, there’s the impending drop-in from the local Church Lady (Allegra Fulton), who turns out to be a substitute for Walter’s usual church visitor—and even she has an angle to work on him!

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Clockwise from left: Sergio Di Zio, Claire Armstrong, Jai Jai Jones & Alexander Thomas. Set design by Anna Treusch. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Stellar work from Thomas as the gruff but loveable Walter; a bear of a man, Walter has a big heart, but finds it difficult to express it. An older and less vital man than he once was, he lashes out by refusing to eat well or take his meds, and self-medicates with alcohol. But despite his stubborn, grouchy demeanour, we come to really care about Walter; during intermission, a woman who sat beside me remarked (as we were so close to the action in the living room) that, at one point, she wanted to reach out to comfort him.

Jones brings an edge of vulnerability to the cool, streetwise Junior; a young man who needs his father’s good opinion as he struggles to be a grown adult and get his life on track. Rajo’s Oswaldo is a struggling lost boy whose knowing swagger belies a fragile soul; and Darnell-Martin’s sweet but dim-witted Lulu isn’t as clueless as she appears. Armstrong’s warm, Tyne Daly-esque O’Connor plays nicely off of Di Zio’s slick, charismatic Caro; while O’Connor’s brand of manipulation is more motherly, Caro employs that reserved for the darker side of politics—shifting from flattering appeals to reason, to mercilessly going for the jugular. And Fulton’s eccentric clairvoyant Church Lady adds some much needed comic relief and magic following some intense moments at the end of the first act.

Nothing is clearly black and white here—all of these moments and relationships play out in the gray areas. Everyone’s on the hustle and everybody lies, so it can be hard to tell who and what to believe. That doesn’t necessarily mean these are bad people; just flawed and desperate, using whatever resources they can—especially manipulation—to get what they want. The big question is: will they do what’s right or what’s easy? Just like real life.

Between Riverside and Crazy continues at Coal Mine Theatre until December 22; advance tickets available online. Please note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time for evening performances; matinées are Sundays at 2:00 p.m.

 

Pride & BLM divide between friends in the provocative, fierce, meta Every Day She Rose

Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski & Monice Peter (as Mark and Cathy-Ann). Set design by Michelle Tracey. Costume design by Ming Wong. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Nightwood Theatre continues its 40th season with the premiere of Andrea Scott and Nick Green’s Every Day She Rose, co-directed by Andrea Donaldson and Sedina Fiati, and running at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Provocative, fierce and sharply funny, divergent responses to the 2016 Black Lives Matter protest during the Toronto Pride parade force two best friends—a straight Black woman and a gay white man—to examine their relationship and allyship. Their exploration of friendship, oppression and allyship gets meta as these characters morph in and out of the two playwrights who are writing their story; struggling and processing not only the structure of the play, but the nature of and relationship between the two characters, who are to some degree based on themselves.

It’s Toronto Pride 2016, and besties/roommates Cathy-Ann (Monice Peter) and Mark (Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski) are getting decked out and ready to hit the parade route. Out at the parade, the celebratory vibe of their annual ritual takes a somber turn when they encounter a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest blocking the parade route. Back at their downtown condo, Cathy-Ann becomes quiet and pensive, going online to learn about BLM’s demands for a more equitable, inclusive Pride celebration; while Mark shrugs the protest off as a momentarily scary and ultimately poorly timed inconvenience. No longer feeling like celebrating, she opts to absent herself from a night of drinking and dancing; unable to change her mind, he goes off to meet his friends.

That moment of protest at Pride becomes the tipping point of an ongoing series of micro-divisions that have been apparent in their friendship for some time, and these come bubbling to the surface as the debate continues, the heat turned high, when Mark returns. Divergent personal perspectives on the police, Caribana and privilege erupt—not to mention the collision of odd couple-esque personalities—and, more and more, they find that their differences outweigh their similarities.

Woven into Cathy-Ann and Mark’s story is the journey of playwrights Andrea and Nick; and this is where it gets meta, especially since the characters are, to varying degrees, based on the actual playwrights. Debating everything—from structure, to back story, to the inclusion of flashback scenes and fourth wall-breaking monologues—like the characters (Cathy-Ann and Mark) who question their friendship, Andrea and Nick find they must ultimately ask themselves why they’re writing this play.

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Monice Peter & Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski (as Andrea & Nick). Set design by Michelle Tracey. Costume design by Ming Wong. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Outstanding work from Peter and Shepherd-Gawinski in this complex, insightful and sharply funny two-hander that takes us to some uncomfortable places in a powerful, candid way. Playing characters that would otherwise be relegated to “sassy friend” supporting roles, the relationships go beyond the stereotypes to get real—becoming a microcosm of awareness, allyship and oppression Olympics, with issues of prejudice, intersectionality and privilege coming to the fore. Peter is a circumspect, grounded, Devil’s advocate delight as the cerebral, deliberate and sharp-witted Cathy-Ann; a scholar and somewhat of an introvert, Cathy-Ann has two degrees and is working temp jobs to pay the bills. Supportive of and engaged with Mark and the queer community, she finds herself having to rethink these relationships when she realizes the extent to which the Black community is excluded from Pride—and saddened to hear the clueless and negative responses from the white male-dominated queer community, including Mark.

Shepherd-Gawinski is a loud and proud treat as the gregarious, visceral Mark; flamboyant and impetuous, Mark is living the gay man’s dream—a great job, a fabulous condo, sex available with a swipe on his phone, and an awesome best friend. But, as much as he loves Cathy-Ann, Mark just can’t seem to get that the Black experience of oppression isn’t the same as his gay experience. His “colour blindness” makes the Black experience invisible to him—not to mention that, even though he’s gay, he’s still a white male, operating from a position of privilege that a Black woman does not. And, much like Cathy-Ann and Mark, Andrea and Nick are operating as opposites: Andrea is interested in a deep dive, less linear look at these characters and their relationship, while Nick is more comfortable with a less complicated, straightforward chronological approach. But, unlike Mark, Nick seems to get it when it comes to divergent experiences of oppression, and how intersectionality compounds the issue—and wonders how Andrea deals with it.

How does she do it? One day at a time—every day, she rises. We all need to check our privilege, and acknowledge the accompanying benefits; and be aware and mindful of the intersectional nature of oppression, and the barriers created therein—and educate ourselves on effective, positive allyship. And, as co-director Fiati pointed out during the opening night pre-show panel, no one wins when competing in the oppression Olympics.

Every Day She Rose continues at Buddies until December 8; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-975-8555. It’s a two-week run, and you don’t want to miss this—so advance booking or early arrival strongly recommended.

For dates/times of special events, talkbacks and a relaxed performance, check the show page. And, after the performance, check out the engagement space behind the playing area.

ICYMI: For more perspective, check out Jordy Kieto’s interview with co-directors Andrea Donaldson and Sedina Fiati in Intermission Magazine.

 

 

 

Love, joy & connection in the deeply moving, inspiring Between Breaths

Darryl Hopkins, Steve O’Connell & Berni Stapleton. Set & costume design by Shawn Kerwin. Lighting design by Leigh Ann Vardy. Photo by Rich Blenkinsopp.

 

Factory Theatre continues the celebration of its 50th anniversary with a presentation of Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland’s production of Robert Chafe’s Between Breaths, directed by Jillian Keiley, assisted by Sharon King-Campbell, with music direction by Kellie Walsh. A biographical memory play, the reverse chronological storytelling highlights key moments during the final years of the life of Jon “The Whale Man” Lien, an animal behaviour professor from South Dakota who came to find a home in Newfoundland when he took a position at Memorial University. Eventually becoming known for his work saving over 500 whales caught up in fishing nets before dementia took his mobility, memory and ability to engage with the world as he once did, his relationship with the gentle giants of the sea reminds us of how interconnected are land and sea, man and animal.

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Darryl Hopkins & Steve O’Connell. Set & costume design by Shawn Kerwin. Lighting design by Leigh Ann Vardy. Photo by Rich Blenkinsopp.

Otherworldly, yet grounded in time and place; intensely magical and real, Between Breaths takes us on a reverse trajectory from Jon Lien’s (Steve O’Connell) final days in a long-term care facility, to the frustrating and life-altering onset of his symptoms, to his emerging calling toward saving whales caught up in fishing nets, and salvaging the costly nets for the fishermen. Throughout, Jon is both supported and doubted by his beloved wife Judy (Berni Stapleton), and whale-saving friend and colleague Wayne (Darryl Hopkins), who are alternately exasperated with and taken up by his passion, drive and vision.

Beyond the conservation work, there is a kindred spirit connection between Jon and the whales; an inexplicable, ancestral calling that began the moment he viewed the Rock from the plane—his Viking DNA drawn to the rocky green and surrounding ocean. Present, passionate and proactive in an unwavering commitment to follow through with thoughts and impulses that eventually gel into a broader vision, Jon endeavours to save the gentle giants of the sea and the precious, costly nets that trapped them—contributing to both species conservation and the economic well-being of fishermen.

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Steve O’Connell & Berni Stapleton. Set & costume design by Shawn Kerwin. Lighting design by Leigh Ann Vardy. Photo by Rich Blenkinsopp.

Lovely, compelling work from the cast in this counter clockwise journey of a man, his work with the beautiful creatures he works to save, and his life and work partners. O’Connell gives a mercurial, profoundly poignant performance as Jon Lien. Charismatic, impulsive and at times infuriating in his single-mindedness, Jon has a sharp mind and enormous heart that can be a challenge for his family and colleagues to keep up with, but he always has a way of turning situations—and people—around. He is well-supported by Stapleton’s Judy, a loving wife and partner in life who holds the fort at home with their children, and continues to reach out in the face of his advanced dementia, even when it’s unclear that he can understand or respond. And by Hopkins’ gruff, salty Wayne; initially cynical and skeptical of Jon’s motives and vision—and wary of folks from away—Wayne is won over by Jon’s contagious optimism, passion and energy. And Wayne gradually comes to trust in himself as much as Jon does.

Accompanied by a live acoustic and vocal soundtrack performed by The Once (Brianna Gosse, Steve Maloney and Kevin Woolridge), and featuring beautiful, haunting whale song, the scenes are performed with minimal set pieces and props on Shawn Kerwin’s stunning blue stage, where the action plays out as if under water. The swirling blues and greens below the sparkling ripples reflecting the sun and sky above—and a C-shaped ramp wraps the playing area—evoking the unseen life beneath the surfaces of the ocean and the mind; the sights and sounds both mirror and complement the action.

Between Breaths reminds us of the strength and fragility of even the largest and most powerful of Earth’s creatures; and Jon Lien’s struggles with evolving dementia run parallel to the experience of a trapped whale—with all the notes of grief that accompany those moments when a living being comes face to face with its own mortality. Life, love, joy, memory and connection happen between those breaths. It is both heartbreaking and inspiring to witness.

Between Breaths continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until December 8; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416- 504-9971. Go see this.

 

 

Magical, disturbing, provocative art at ARTiculations’ 2019 Curio Shadow Box Show

I had the great pleasure of attending the opening reception of ARTiculations’ 6th annual Curio Shadow Box Show as a first-time participant last night. An open call exhibition, the show features approximately 40 boxes—all the same size, provided by ARTiculations upon registration—most of which are for sale.

It was my first time out to see the show as well; it’s a finely crafted assortment of styles and media—incorporating glass painting, metal and other objects, as well as wood carving, water colour and drawing. The results are magical, disturbing, beautiful and provocative.

By chance, my two pieces were hung together, one above the other: Love, Oscar (a tribute to Oscar Wilde’s love of Lord Alfred Douglas, aka Bosie) and Harry Potter’s Nightstand; one of the other artists I met said they struck her as memory boxes—boxes with images and objects that capture a moment, a person. My first shadow box was a biographical one—a memory box—for my brother Sean’s 40th birthday; I’ve made several more since, mostly for friends for their birthdays.

The 2019 Curio Shadow Box Show is up until December 15; ARTiculations is located in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood—store/gallery location and hours info here. The holidays are coming, and you might just find the perfect gift for someone—or for yourself.

I had a blast checking out the art and meeting some of the artists last night—and big thanks to my good friend Lizzie Violet for alerting me to the show. And big shouts and thanks to the good folks at ARTiculations for organizing and hosting this event!

Here are some snaps I took, including a small sample of the amazing selection of boxes on display.

 

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FireWorks Festival: Fairy tale favourites collide with a contemporary feminist twist in the hilariously charming, bawdy If the Shoe Fits

 

Erik Mrakovcic & Marina Gomes. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Margaret Spence. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre launches the final week of its FireWorks Festival with Genevieve Adam’s If the Shoe Fits, directed by Heather Keith—opening last night in Alumnae’s Studio Theatre. Fairy tale favourites collide, with a contemporary feminist twist, in this hilariously charming, bawdy deconstructed Cinderella story—and an inside look at what really happens after the “happily ever after”.

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Chris Coculuzzi & Erik Mrakovcic. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Margaret Spence. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Hosted by our glittering Narrator (Eugenia De Jong, with a twinkle in her eye and an arch in her brow) as she interacts with both audience and characters, we’re introduced to the intrepid Sir Eglantine (Chris Coculuzzi), who’s been tasked by the Prince to find the young maiden who fits the pretty size 7 glass shoe that was left behind at the ball. He’s been at it for over two years with no success, and is at his wit’s end—until he learns of a simple pig farmer Ned (Erik Mrakovcic) who has a sister that he believes may be the one. Having raised his sister and run the family farm since they were orphaned as children, Ned is incredulous at first—especially as his sister is a rough and tumble kind of gal—but the possibility of a life of wealth and comfort for Nora (Marina Gomes), and a plumb position as the Royal Hog Supplier, convinces him to let Sir Eglantine try. And the shoe fits!

Meanwhile, at court, Felicite (Sophie McIntosh), Amandine (Jennifer Fahy) and Virginie (Chantale Groulx) share laughs and woes over a good sisterly bitch session (think Desperate Housewives of the French Court); all have either neglectful or beastly husbands, and all are engaged in affairs to varying degrees—in some cases, for economic survival.

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Jennifer Fahy, Sophie McIntosh & Chantale Groulx. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Margaret Spence. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Upon his arrival at court with Ned and Nora, Sir Eglantine finds himself in hot water with Virginie after sending no word while he was away for over two years. Amandine has her eye on some fresh meat: Ned, who has also recently been fitted with some fancy court clothes (big shouts to costume designer Margaret “The Costumator” Spence for the stunning—and surprising—period wardrobe). Felicite is charged with training Nora to be a lady, with hilarious results as Nora navigates court fashion, manners and deportment. Enter a young court violinist (Mark McKelvie), who is not all he seems, who has been watching Nora with great interest. Plots, plans and unexpected alliances ensue; and even the Narrator seems at a loss about what to do. Will tattered marriages be mended—and will the Prince have his mystery sweetheart for his wife?

Excellent work from the ensemble in this fast-paced, sharply funny fairy tale for modern times that incorporates issues of gender, class, marriage and consent in candid, provocative ways. Coculuzzi rounds out Sir Eglantine’s loyal, fastidious sense of duty with a soft, romantic heart; this plays nicely against Groulx’s sharp-tongued, cynical and pragmatic Virginie, a desperate, neglected wife and mother who longs for love and security. Mrakovcic gives an amiable, but opportunistic, turn as the homespun pig farmer Ned, who has quite the eye-opening when he becomes Amandine’s boy toy; putting the shoe on the other foot, so to speak. Fahy is deliciously arch and saucy as Amandine; as experienced in the ways of love as she is in revenge, Amandine is tougher than her powdered, ribboned exterior would suggest. Gomes is extremely likeable and feisty as the rough, independent Nora; with a Puck-like agility and sense of irreverent fun, Nora plays along with her courtly transformation—but finds she’s got a big decision to make. McIntosh infuses Felicite’s poignant sweetness with a determined sense of resolve and virtue, even when she’s in doubt of what to do. And McKelvie gives the ridiculously handsome and adorably awkward Prince a boyish naiveté; entitled and sheltered, the Prince has no idea about the world outside the castle, especially when it comes to meeting women.

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Mark McKelvie. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Margaret Spence. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

The knights and princes who save the damsels, or use the damsels save them from themselves, or find the mysterious girl who fits the shoe she at the ball, all feel entitled to own these women through marriage—all the while calling it “true love”. But who says the women were in distress, or wanted to save a cursed man from himself, or marry a prince?

The shoe may fit, but she doesn’t have to wear it.

If the Shoe Fits continues in the Alumnae Studio Theatre until November 24; get tickets online, by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1) or in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only). There will be a post-show talkback with the director, playwright and cast following the Saturday, November 23 matinée performance.