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.).

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The impact of image on memory, identity & social change in the remarkable, moving, visually epic Reflector

Abraham Asto, Louisa Zhu, Michelle Polak & Michael Spence. Lighting & projection design by Laird MacDonald. Set design by Michael Spence & Laird MacDonald. Costume design by Melanie McNeill. Photo by Michael Cooper

 

Theatre Gargantua celebrates its 25th birthday with the world premiere of Reflector, conceived and directed by Jacquie PA Thomas, and written by Michael Spence—opening last night in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Starring Abraham Asto, Michael Spence, Michelle Polak and Louisa Zhu, Reflector is a multimedia, multidisciplinary journey of sight, sound, memory and emotion as the storytelling explores the impact of image, tricks of the light and the perceptions of the mind’s eye. Combining physical theatre, poetry/spoken word, scenes and monologues with evocative soundscapes and a kaleidoscope of images, Reflector features projection and lighting design by Laird Macdonald, a set designed by Macdonald and Spence, sound design by Thomas Ryder Payne and costume design by Melanie McNeill.

We follow the interviews and experiences of three patients of psychologist/neuroscientist Dr. Haddad (Asto): photojournalist Declan (Spence), who took a Pulitzer prize-winning photo of a little girl who was killed among the charred ruins of her war-torn neighbourhood, and who now can’t identify everyday objects; Roula (Polak), a woman with hyperthymesia, who remembers every minute detail of everything she’s ever seen; and Kelly (Zhu), an Internet phenomenon who’s been living her life almost exclusively online, until one day she stopped doing so. All are poets; and this is reflected in the lyric language of monologues, rapid fire rap and spoken word, and the way these characters see the world, including themselves. Secret thoughts and inner conflicts emerge—even for Dr. Haddad, whose love of science is equalled only by his love of a childhood fascination with an art that at first betrayed him.

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Michelle Polak & Michael Spence (foreground); Louisa Zhu & Abraham Asto (background). Lighting & projection design by Laird MacDonald. Set design by Michael Spence & Laird MacDonald. Costume design by Melanie McNeill. Photo by Michael Cooper

The pacing and tone shifts back and forth, playing out opposites in a rich audio/visual tapestry of conflicting thoughts and emotions: calm and storm, light and shadow, break-neck speed and Sunday drive, fluid and erratic, soothing and jarring, cerebral and visceral. Movement matches sight and sound in evocative, innovative—and at times disturbing—ways.

Outstanding performances from the entire ensemble here, as the performers play out this story in a physical, vocal and emotional marathon. Asto brings a nice balance of warm, thoughtful professional and curious, child-like fascination to scientist Dr. Haddad— who gets an equally warm, child-like send-up from the other characters in a hilarious scene of self-reflection. Spence gives the tortured, frustrated Declan a fierce internal boil beneath the fragile, vulnerable surface. Polak’s Roula has a puck-like, wise-cracking frankness that belies inner turmoil and terrified grasping for identity. And Zhu’s got mad rapping skills, her mouth shooting words like a semi-automatic; then shows great debating chops as Kelly makes her argument for her virtual life—a life interrupted, but by what?

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Abraham Asto & Michael Spence. Lighting & projection design by Laird MacDonald. Set design by Michael Spence & Laird MacDonald. Costume design by Melanie McNeill. Photo by Michael Cooper

The impact of image on memory, identity and social change in the remarkable, moving, visually epic Reflector.

Reflector continues at TPM until November 18; get your advance tickets online .

Fairy tale meets crime procedural meets romantic dramedy as music, hilarity ensue in the magical, imaginative The Adventures of Tom Shadow

Kevin Vidal, Mark Little, Christian Smith, Lisa Gilroy & Natalie Metcalfe—photo by Samantha Hurley

 

Theatre Lab’s ensemble of top Toronto comedy talent brings a revised version of their hit musical comedy The Adventures of Tom Shadow to the Factory Theatre Studio, directed by Peter Stevens, with music direction and accompaniment by Jordan Armstrong.

Created and performed by Lisa Gilroy, Mark Little, Natalie Metcalfe, Christian Smith and Kevin Vidal, The Adventures of Tom Shadow takes us on a multi-genre, super fun musical comedy ride—just the thing to relax you after a long, hard day.

Story time turns into a real-life adventure when fiercely determined cop Bev (Metcalfe) and sensitive, nerdish lit professor John’s (Little) kids Martin (Smith) and Angeline (Gilroy) disappear after they’ve been tucked in. What the distraught parents don’t know is the two kids have gone off on a hero’s journey with Tom Shadow (Vidal, think Peter Pan meets Willy Wonka) to his magical kingdom in the clouds.

Things go downhill for Bev and John, as the stress and public’s suspicion over their missing kids takes a toll. John joins a gang of skater kids called the Runaway Boys, led by John’s teen pal (Vidal). And Bev tries to get into the mind of a psychopath in hopes of finding a clue to where her kids are, turning to convicted cannibal/murderer Diane (Gilroy, as a female Hannibal Lector). Meanwhile, the police chief (Smith, of the wicked Jack Nicolson-esqe facial expressions) is tired of being labelled a loser, and assembles an angry mob of jealous neighbours and townspeople to arrest Bev and John!

Combining physical comedy with music and genre-bending themes, the cast kicks it at high speed, rolling out moment after moment of big-time LOLs.

Fairy tale meets crime procedural meets romantic dramedy as music and hilarity ensue in the magical, imaginative The Adventures of Tom Shadow.

The Adventures of Tom Shadow runs in the Factory Theatre Studio till October 22. Get your advance tickets online or by phone at 416.504.9971, or in-person at 125 Bathurst Street (at Adelaide).

Update

New cowbells courtesy of my aunt Doreen Moore.

 

It’s Thanksgiving Monday here in Canada and I’ve been thinking about what I’m grateful for this year: friends, family, my colleagues at Nightwood Theatre—and you, dear reader.

I came out of hiatus in early September to cover INpulse Theatre Co’s production of Mockingbird Close at Red Sandcastle Theatre. Officially back, the cowbell blog will be operating in a reduced capacity for the next little while. Fall is a busy time for theatre companies—and, as I’m now working at a theatre company… You get the picture.

Although I’ll be covering fewer shows, I’ll still be shouting out the work on Twitter and Facebook, so please give me a follow if you haven’t already done so.

While you’re at it, drop by Nightwood Theatre’s Facebook page and Twitter feed, as well the Nightwood website, where I’ve been gradually resurrecting the blog there.

What are you grateful for this year?

 

The secret thoughts of grownups &the stories they tell in the gripping, darkly funny Mockingbird Close

Tiana Leonty & David MacInnis—photo by Jackie Brown Photography

 

When truth collides with fiction, who can you trust?

INpulse Theatre Co. presents the Toronto premiere of Trevor Schmidt’s Mockingbird Close, directed by Ryan F. Hughes and running at Red Sandcastle Theatre.

Iris (Tiana Leonty) and Hank (David MacInnis) live in a nice, clean split-level home on a nice, quiet cul-de-sac in a nice, safe, crime-free neighbourhoood. Their picture-perfect 1950s suburban life is turned upside down when their young son goes missing. Only, when they try to recall the day he disappeared, they can’t seem to get the story right.

As they conduct a door-to-door search on their street—the titular Mockingbird Close—we encounter their neighbours (all played by Leonty and MacInnis); and it’s dark comic portraits all around as we meet them. The vain, judgmental, hyper-religious, cooking baking Louis Vent. Sidney Blackwell, the strangely charming older man with his prized train set in the basement and a bed-ridden wife upstairs. The attention-starved, “Mrs. Robinson” Mona Hobbs. The odd, soft-spoken Jarvis Jermaine. No one has any information on the missing boy—and all are concealing something. And then there’s the malevolent, mysterious older lady; the one the neighbourhood kids call “the witch.” There’s a dangerous, unsettling undercurrent on this street; and each of its inhabitants has a dark, hidden edge.

Incorporating storytelling with satirical fetishization of normalcy and wholesomeness, Mockingbird Close is part fairy tale, part psychological thriller—one might even say David Lynchian. What really happened? And did it even happen?

Leonty and MacInnis are a two-person master class in their performances, playing on the edge of send-up and nuance as they flesh out these secretive, discomfiting characters. Leonty’s Iris is a neat, prim and somewhat high-strung wife and mother; the perfectly coiffed wife in an emerald green cocktail dress who greets her returning husband at the door with slippers, the paper and a martini. And Leonty runs the gamut, from narcissistic and controlling Louis to desperately lonely seductress Mona. MacInnis is the picture of the flawlessly pressed professional and husband; precise and socially astute, he too is tightly wound—more of the ticking time bomb variety. He is eerily engaging as Sidney and creepily attentive as Jarvis. MacInnis and Leonty seamlessly tag team a single character as they take turns portraying the mysterious and manipulative dark lady behind the final door at the end of Iris and Hank’s search.

The secret thoughts of grownups and the stories they tell in the gripping, tension-filled, darkly funny Mockingbird Close.

Mockingbird Close continues at Red Sandcastle until September 16; get your advance tickets online or at the door 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 INpulse Theatre Co. on Facebook. You can also find them on Instagram: @inpulsetheatre and Twitter: @inpulse_theatre

Hiatus 2.0

Okay, so not really gone fishin’ this time.

As you may have heard, I started a new job this month, joining Nightwood Theatre as its new Marketing & Outreach Coordinator. I spent the first week of July training with Nightwood’s former Director of Communications and Outreach, Taylor Trowbridge, who will be performing in Lewis Black’s play One Slight Hitch at Upper Canada Playhouse this summer, then heading off to York University to do her MFA in theatre. And, now, I’m it.

I’m very excited to be working with Nightwood; there’s a lot to learn and do—and I’m happy to be working with this amazing, creative group of women.

In order to focus time and energy on the new position, I’m putting the blog on hiatus again. I’ll still be seeing shows, and shouting them out on social media, but not posting on the blog for a while. Once I get a better handle on my schedule, I’ll be back with a scaled-down life with more cowbell blog.

Till then, enjoy all the amazing arts events this big, beautiful City of Toronto has to offer—and please support local artists.

And, while you’re here on the Interweb, give Nightwood Theatre a like and a follow on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Still soaring after all these years: Ruminations on war & heroism in the entertaining, poignant Billy Bishop Goes to War

Eric Peterson in Billy Bishop Goes to War—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

 

Still flying high 40 years after its creation, the award-winning Billy Bishop Goes to War returns to the Young Centre. Written and composed by John MacLachlan Gray with Eric Peterson, and directed by Ted Dykstra, Soulpepper brings Billy Bishop back to the stage in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday.

Pulling dusty sheets from the piano, an easy chair, and a series of foot lockers and trunks, Bishop (Peterson) appears in pajamas, dressing gown and slippers. Despite the sense that we are here with him out of time and space, it’s as if we’ve woken him from a snooze. The foot lockers are a treasure trove of memorabilia and props for his story, as he dusts off memories, producing props and gear; and the framed photographs he produces along the way serve as poignant snapshots of moments and lives lived.

Through anecdotes, songs, poetry and letters to Bishop’s sweetheart Margaret back home, Peterson and Gray weave a tale of a life that was part luck, part pluck and all present. Going from the worst student at the Royal Military College (RMC)—known as a liar, a cheat and general executer of shenanigans—to an officer in the cavalry, Bishop always had an eye out for opportunity and adventure. Growing tired of being stuck in the mud or covered in sand, he looked for a way out of the cavalry. In his case, up and out. Finding his way into the Royal Flying Corps, he was taken on as an observer—a good job for him, as he was also known for his hawk eye and being a good shot—later becoming a pilot with the assistance of Lady St. Helier, who he met and befriended while recuperating in a London hospital (his tendency toward being accident prone bringing him good luck on several occasions).

As a pilot, he found a particular sense of drive and ambition, developing a friendly rivalry with fellow pilot Captain Albert Ball, and becoming famous for flying solo missions, including an attack on a German aerodrome; endeavours that earned medals, including the Military Cross, the Distinguished Service Order and the Victoria Cross. Realizing the colonies were more apt to respond to a living hero than a dead one, his British superiors gave him a new assignment, to return home as a hero and public figure, boosting morale in Canada.

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Eric Peterson & John MacLachlan Gray—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Gray (on stage as the Piano Player) and Peterson are a perfect match for this journey of an unlikely hero. In addition to acting as accompanist and singer, his gentle, raspy vocals performing catchy, often moving songs, Gray takes on the roles of army buddy and audience for Bishop, as well as a number of brief moments as various other characters as needed. And Peterson juggles a number of characters in addition to Bishop, including particularly fun turns as a befuddled British officer, a drunken Scot, the imperious and proper Lady St. Helier, and the slinky chanteuse Hélène.

Foot lockers, a stand-up ash tray and a miniature of Bishop’s famous plane, as well as shadow play and projections on the upstage scrim, are used to great effect to re-enact observer flights, the first solo flight and dog fights. Peterson’s playful scallywag adventurer performance as Bishop is balanced by moments of profound poignancy: his recitation of a poem to Albert Ball, and memories of the dead and dying, in the trenches or in the sky. And when Bishop returns to us in the present, it’s like we’re spending time with a grandfather, a beloved rascal regaling us with tall tales of the war, at times appearing lost in thought or memory. For better or worse, these things happened—and they shaped a life and a career.

With big shouts to the design team—Camellia Koo (set and costumes), Steve Lucas (lighting) and director Ted Dykstra (sound)—for their work on bringing this adventure in storytelling to life.

Still soaring after all these years. Playful, irreverent and thoughtful ruminations on the nature of war and heroism in the entertaining, poignant Billy Bishop Goes to War.

Billy Bishop Goes to War continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Check out the 2017 trailer: