The struggle for normalcy in the wake of a horrific past in the haunting, disturbing Strangers, Babies

Jeff Lillico & Niki Landau in Strangers, Babies—photo by Neil Silcox

 

Theatre PANIK presents its immersive production of Linda McLean’s Strangers, Babies, directed by Paul Lampert, assisted by Sadie Epstein-Fine, this past week. A Canadian premiere, the show opened this past week at Artscape Sandbox.

As we enter the space, projected text welcomes us and invites us to wander around and take in the five exhibits; at this point, we see only the five men, each one occupying an exhibit. There are no paper programs (you can access the program online), but there are labels with brief descriptions accompanying each exhibit, as well as binders on the benches (the kind you see at an art gallery, containing descriptions of the art). There are spaces to sit or stand in and around each exhibit; only the final exhibit is an enclosed room that we must peer into from the outside.

When May (Niki Landau) enters, we follow her on a series of vignettes from her life, unfolding over the course of a couple of years. What makes this journey remarkable is the art gallery layout of the space, where each exhibit contains a scene. Starting in May’s condo, where she lives with her husband Dan (Richard Ausar Stewart), we see her fretting over a bird that’s flown into their window and is now lying motionless on the balcony. She wants to save it and Dan thinks it should be euthanized. Clearly a lover of nature and animals, May longs for a garden and they ponder switching to a house.

We then follow May on a visit to her dad Duncan (David Schurmann) at a hospice. Here, we get a glimpse of a troubled childhood and a desire for a normal life. Hints of violence and a longing for connection continue during May’s trip to a hotel room to meet Internet hook-up Roy (Richard Lee); and flash again to the past, with warnings for the future, when she meets with her brother Denis (Jeff Lillico) in a park. In the final scene, May’s social worker Abel (Edmund Stapleton) has come by for a spot check; he’s monitoring the welfare her young son and makes extensive notes in order to report his findings.

7 Strangers Babies - Niki Landau and Ausar Stewart - Credit Neil Silcox
Richard Ausar Stewart & Niki Landau in Strangers, Babies—photo by Neil Silcox

Compelling work from the cast on this uniquely immersive production; each actor adeptly mining the opposing sides of their characters’ personalities. Landau is both heartbreaking and eerie as May, whose delicate, nervous and vulnerable personality and flat aspect both reveal and conceal a troubling inner turmoil. Stewart’s Dan is the perfect emotional foil; precise, fastidious and mildly patronizing, Dan is a loving and patient husband to his kind-hearted wife. Schurmann brings a cantankerous and regretful edge to Duncan’s fragility; confused by pain and age, and befuddled by morphine, Duncan lashes out with biting rage in his impatience—then melts into reminiscence and guilt as the drug takes hold.

Lee gives a complex performance as Roy, who like May, is in a passionless marriage and needs to step out to feel lusty excitement; his nervous awkwardness is a mask of repressed violent urges. Lillico’s Denis is both heart-wrenching and menacing; clearly a tortured soul and sharing in May’s horrific history, Denis is like a caged, scared animal growling out warnings. Stapleton’s Abel is affable, firm-handed and wary as he interviews May; a young social worker with a serious task at hand, he must balance respect for his client with a thorough examination of her situation—especially regarding the safety of her child.

Rage and calm, violence and tenderness. A life on display—each scene (exhibit) is a piece of May’s puzzle, played out across space and time. Ultimately, Strangers, Babies is profoundly human.

With shouts to the design team for their work on creating this fascinating and unique experience: Michael Gianfrancesco (set), Ming Wong (costume), Bonnie Beecher (lighting), Christopher Stanton (sound), Cameron Davis (video) and Kate Alton (movement).

The struggle for normalcy in the wake of a horrific past in the haunting, disturbing Strangers, Babies.

Strangers, Babies continues at the Artscape Sandbox till May 28; get advance tickets here. Advance booking strongly recommended due to the unique staging and popularity of this production.

Check out the trailer:

Big surprise romantic gestures, coming together & falling apart in the endearing, fragile, funny I’m Doing This For You

Haley McGee in I’m Doing This For You—photo by Matthew Peberdy

 

She’s gone to great lengths to set up a surprise birthday party for the man she loves, an aspiring standup comic. We’re all invited to the festivities—and we’re going to be his audience.

Soulpepper closes its Solo Series with Haley McGee’s I’m Doing This For You, directed by Mitchell Cushman; the show opened to a packed house at the Young Centre in Toronto’s Distillery District last night.

Combining storytelling, improv and performance art, McGee gets us from the get go. Dressed in a bright orange vintage dress and wearing a bleach blonde wig, she’s a woman on a mission. She’s invited us to the theatre to celebrate her man’s birthday—and be his first major standup audience. Checking in with stage manager Robin (Munro), and making the rounds to ensure that everyone’s had their shot of vodka, she’s a flurry of super planning activity. And as we sit waiting in the dark for his arrival, she explains what will happen and we get ourselves ready to welcome him.

He’s running late, so the lights come up and we get some history. Her ever alert ear on the door, pricked by any possible sound of entry, she tells us how this engineer/amateur comic caught her attention. He made her laugh. And she really needed that. She finds it difficult to commit and—navigating emotional highs and lows on medication—we hear about how she made herself fit into the relationship so she could keep it.

Of course, things went astray. When he finally does arrive (the ex-boyfriend is played by a different actor each night), things don’t go exactly as planned—and even fantasy can betray. But there’s mini-cupcakes.

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Haley McGee in I’m Doing This For You—photo by Matthew Peberdy

McGee is a powerhouse of storytelling and entertainment, connecting with us in this immersive space. Conveying focus that shifts from razor sharp to scattered, a fragile psyche, and an endless capacity to feel hope and despair, she gives a quirky, genuine performance that is both entertaining and poignant. Touching on issues of relationships, mental health and obsession, I’m Doing This For You highlights the difference between needing and wanting a romantic partnership, and how we can be really attracted to something about someone even when we’re not that into them. And the crazy things we all do to maintain or avoid intimacy, and the regrets and after thoughts that go through our minds when it’s over. This woman is a super kooky, fun gal who’s seriously derailed herself—and we really come to care about her during this 65-minute journey.

With shouts to lighting/set/props designer Shannon Lea Doyle for the trippy performance art set, full of white and transparent balloons. Combined with McGee’s retro costume, the design is a flashback to Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (for those of us old enough to remember that sketch comedy show).

Big surprise romantic gestures, coming together and falling apart in the endearing, fragile, funny I’m Doing This For You.

I’m Doing This For You continues in the Michael Young Theatre in the Young Centre till this Saturday (May 6); this show is for adults aged 19+ (proof of age required) and booking in advance is strongly recommended. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Catch a sneak peek at I’m Doing This For You:

 

 

Rich tapestry of image, sound & dance tells a powerful story without words in remarkable Century Song

Neema Bickersteth in Century Song—photos by John Lauener

 

Nightwood Theatre partners with Volcano, Richard Jordan Productions UK and Moveable Beast Collective to present Century Song, opening last night in the Guloien Theatre at Crow’s Theatre’s home at Streetcar Crowsnest.

Created by soprano/performer Neema Bickersteth, choreographer Kate Alton and director Ross Manson, the multimedia, multidisciplinary Century Song tells the stories of women throughout the past hundred years, incorporating the music of composers Sergei Rachmaninoff, Olivier Messiaen, John Cage, Georges Aperghis and Toronto’s Reza Jacobs; and including accompaniment by Gregory Oh (piano) and Ben Grossman (percussion, computer). The show also includes stunning projected images—black and white, and colour portraits, visual art pieces, and evocative landscapes, cityscapes and environments—projection design by Torge Møller and Momme Hinrichs from Germany’s fettFilm; and featuring the works of numerous photographers and artists.

This is a show unlike any I’ve ever seen—and I’ve seen a lot of theatre—so how can I describe to you this beautifully moving, powerful and innovative piece of storytelling that is really best experienced on an emotional and visceral level, as opposed to a cerebral level (though it does leave you with plenty to think about).

Opening in 1915 with Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, we see a woman corseted and engaged in repetitive action, evoking housework and an agricultural setting. Moving into the 1920s/1930s, she is now clad in a sleek golden gown, placed in a magical forest—the setting, sound and imagery changing as time shifts into the 1930s and 1940s, with increasingly intense and horrific renderings of social and economic upheaval, and the devastation of war.

Century_Song_7With projections covering both the back wall and floor, the zooming in on images provides the illusion of movement. This technical aspect takes on a playful effect as we journey from the 1950s through 1978, where we see multiple Bickersteths as a variety of characters in various living room settings. And it’s particularly cool when she returns to the stage, joining her projected, life-size selves.

The landscape gets intense again, as we’re whisked up a skyscraper and onto the roof where we see a vast, endless cityscape before us. It’s dark and stormy. Now dressed in a business skirt suit, she is caught up in a frenzy of chaos and speed—overwhelmed by the pace and bleakness of it all.

Century_Song_6Returning to a quiet moment, Bickersteth closes with Vocalise for Neema by Reza Jacobs, a piece commissioned specifically for Century Song; with a haunting, yet soothing, lullaby quality that shifts into bluesy and playful tones, it promises to bring some to tears as we return to the safe confines of the theatre space in the present time.

Bickersteth is a wonder up there, bringing a powerhouse performance that combines operatic vocals and dance. Taut and precise, flexible and present, her work is masterfully fluid and evocative as she travels through time and space—presenting the lives of these women, with all their joys, fears, challenges, successes and expectations as they play out their roles.

With shouts to the design team: Camilla Koo (set), Rebecca Picherack (lighting) and Charlotte Dean (costumes).

A rich tapestry of image, sound and dance tells a powerful story without words in remarkable Century Song.

Century Song continues at Streetcar Crowsnest until April 29; advance tickets available online. Get out to see it—this is theatre like you’ve never seen.

Department of Corrections: The original post contained a typo in director Ross Manson’s surname; that has since been corrected.

Amazing peeps and artists at RAW’s electric, eclectic VERVE artist showcase

DSCN2208Had an awesome time at the opening night of RAW Natural Born Artists VERVE showcase, which featured artists, music, fashion, makeup, accessories, film and performance art — with music by Tony Smart and hosted by Jack. This show runs two nights only (closing tonight) at Mod Club.

I chatted with artists Brenda Clews (who does beautiful, vibrant, erotic work), Jennifer Radford (whose portraits range from poignant to spooky) and Alfredo Galvan (who paints gorgeous fine cars), and photographer Ian G. McIntosh (who loves to bend reality with his cool, at times super close-up shots, where the everyday becomes remarkable). Fantastic art work all around, including the dark, disturbing work of Razmig, haunting photo-realistic images by H. Jordyn Taylor and cool tattoo illustrations by Lindsay Rose.

Caught some great performances as well, including Brenda Clews doing a multimedia poetry performance that included pieces using mask and Medusa wig; and some entertaining, tight acoustic music performances from Chantelle Hope and Trevor Dubois from Charlie the Kid.

So much to see — and the place was packed last night. I wasn’t able to stay for the whole night, but I can say you’ll find amazing peeps and artists at RAW’s electric, eclectic VERVE artists showcase. Catch the next roster of artists tonight before the showcase closes; doors at 8 p.m.

Here are some snaps I took last night:

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SummerWorks: A personal & scholarly look at naked women throughout history in bold, brave & moving Naked Ladies

 

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Thea Fitz-James in Naked Ladies

When Thea Fitz-James does a theatre piece about naked women throughout history, she goes all in, performing naked in her multimedia solo show Naked Ladies, directed by Zoë Erwin-Longstaff and running at the Drake Underground during SummerWorks.

Using projection (moving and still images) and scholarly research, as well as personal anecdotes, Fitz-James takes us on a physical, emotional, political and thought-provoking journey. Secret and secret(e)ing, Naked Ladies is personal and political, artistic and academic, as it delves into the revealing and concealing nature of female nudity throughout the ages. The piece looks at the difference between ‘nude’ and ‘naked,’ a distinction illustrated with a fine example from art history, when ‘nude’ referred to works of reclining goddesses – until Manet’s ‘naked’ woman in Olympia.

Fitz-James gives a direct, candid and engaging performance; the presentation is equal parts humourous, poignant storytelling and accessible lecture in this cheeky (pun intended) and smart examination of the reasons behind female nudity. Celebration or exploitation? And what about the nakedness of a fully or partially clothed woman? It’s a revealing and thoughtful look – one that’s worth seeing. There is some audience participation; all very gentle and consensual.

A personal and scholarly look at naked women throughout history in the bold, brave and moving Naked Ladies.

Naked Ladies continues at the Drake Underground until Aug 12.

Tantalizing treats & 2016-17 season sneak peeks @ Nightwood Theatre Dramatic Spring Social

It was a fabulous night of tantalizing treats and 2016-17 sneak peeks in very good company as Nightwood Theatre gave invited guests a sneak peek at its 2016-17 season at a Dramatic Spring Social, held at the home of Nightwood Board Chair Karon Bales on Wednesday night. The evening’s festivities included delicious food and drink, with wine supplied by GreenLane Estate Winery, and food from Sublime Catering and Beacon Restaurant Concepts.

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A.D. Kelly Thornton & Managing Director Beth Brown – photos by Taylor Trowbridge

Host Karon Bales welcomed us to her home, thanking us for our attendance as she highlighted the importance of theatre and the arts, and our shared dedication to the advancement of women. Nightwood A.D. Kelly Thornton and Managing Director Beth Brown echoed the importance of equity in the arts, hearkening back to the founding of Nightwood in 1979 – and shouting out founder Cynthia Grant, who was present – and its dedication to producing “relevant, dynamic and powerful theatre.” And that the low proportion of produced works written by women (22%) is evidence that, even in 2016, there is still a need for a women’s theatre.

We were then treated to excerpts from three of the four productions from Nightwood’s upcoming 2016-17 season:

Mouthpiece (Oct 21 – Nov 6, 2016 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre). A Dora award-winning Quote Unquote Collective production; created and performed by Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken, and directed/composed by Amy Nostbakken. Presented as a double bill with Quiver.

Amy Nostbakken & Norah Sadava
Amy Nostbakken & Norah Sadava

Gorgeous, fluid a cappella harmonies, unison spoken word and expressive movements make this an engaging and evocative piece. Performing an excerpt from the second half of the play, Sadava and Nostbakken portray two sides of a character whose mother has died. Shifting from the hauntingly beautiful a cappella harmonies of a roots spiritual to the unison voice message from the woman’s aunt, the audience is both moved and tickled as this young woman deals with conflicting emotions, inner turmoil and a funeral fashion crisis. I missed the RISER Project production last year – and will be sure to see it this time around.

Anna Chatterton
Anna Chatterton

Quiver (Oct 21 – Nov 6, 2016 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre). Written and performed by Anna Chatterton, directed by Andrea Donaldson. Presented as a double bill with Mouthpiece.

Chatterton incorporates a vocal processor, laptop and microphone to create atmospheric and vocal effects to orchestrate this multi-character one-person show. In the excerpt, 14-year-old Maddie observes the world around her, particularly her mother’s bad romance with boyfriend Daniel, who turns out to be cheating on her. This revelation is exacerbated further when her teenage sister tells them the one he’s cheating with! Funny, dramatic and quirky, it’s a remarkable and engaging piece of solo storytelling.

Unholy (Jan 15 – Feb 5, 2017 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre). Written by Diane Flacks, directed by Kelly Thornton.

Niki Landau
Niki Landau

Set as a live, televised debate, four women argue the question: “Should women abandon religion?” The play weaves flashbacks with debate moments, where each woman’s personal life is revealed (showing us what’s not being said). In the excerpt, Niki Landau performed a flashback: a hilarious drunken Jewish wedding toast from the sister of the bride that turns into confession and accusations of favouritism.

Century Song (April 12 – 29, 2017 at Crow’s Theatre). A Volcano Theatre production; created by Neema Bickersteth, with Kate Alton and Ross Manson, directed by Ross Manson and performed by Neema Bickersteth.

Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, Century Song combines song, movement and projected images to create a feast for the senses as the storytelling takes the audience on a stunning journey of 100 years of women and art.

With thanks to Nightwood’s Marketing Coordinator Taylor Trowbridge for the photos and Development Coordinator Victoria Leberge for the invite.

Coming up soon for Nightwood: The annual Lawyer Show fundraiser; this year, it’s Guys and Dolls (June 9-11 at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts). Also, coming up: the Creativity Gym; contact Michelle Alexander for info.

Can’t make it to The Lawyer Show, but want to support Nightwood? Consider making a donation.

You can keep up with Nightwood Theatre on Twitter and Facebook.

 

 

Luminous, organic & abstract works, vibrating with colour & tension in Mediated Space exhibit

Humans react and respond to their environment.
The space, atmosphere and the room ingredients, especially the art. Abstract expressionist art has an active and interactive effect on the occupants of a room – offering windows and doors, mood and attitude where there are otherwise merely walls to contain the space. Come and experience mediated space. – Nora Camps

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Nora Camps & Avril Bull-Jones

Abstract expressionist Nora Camps launched a unique exhibit of her work, along with guest artist Avril Bull-Jones, last Thursday night: Mediated Space at Arbitration Place. The site-specific show had an opening reception, and from there will be an immersive experience for those who work in and use the space.

The idea came from an experience Camps had when her work was incorporated into a house staging a few years ago. When the buyers took possession of their new home, they were distressed. The space didn’t feel right. Something was missing. Turns out, what they were missing was the paintings. In the initial showing of the home, the paintings impacted how they perceived and responded to the space.

Arbitration Place is a dispute resolution facility, equipped with a series of hearing rooms, and a staff of resident and member arbitrators, and in-house legal support, as well as a concierge administrative/services team. Two parties will meet to resolve an issue – and although this is not a trial setting, strong emotions and high stakes will still come into play. How will the presence of these works transform the space and impact the rapport between the arguing sides?

Camps and Bull-Jones are two very different artists, with divergent approaches and media. There is an intensely deep, expressively dramatic feel to Camps’ work, while Bull-Jones’ pieces have an organic, storytelling quality, at times nostalgic and whimsical. And yet, both artists create works that are rooted in a personal response to nature and the space around them – engaging, moving and evoking a response in the viewer.

Abstract expressionist Camps works mainly in acrylic, with pieces ranging from the shimmering, luminous and textured Flowers Silver to the deeper, dramatic palate of Red Trees Reflected, to the sensual and organic touches in On Pond and Below Sea Level 3. Interesting dynamics emerge in how the works are placed in the space (in the reception area, hallways and hearing rooms): Red Trees Reflected is hung opposite Blue Portal in a startling and moving contrast of hot and cold, with the Blue Portal canvas revealing tension of its own, as a red horizontal line cuts across an oceanic blue and white background.

Bull-Jones’ work incorporates a variety of printing processes, as well as acrylic and watercolour, creating images inspired by the patterns and dance of nature. Falling for You is a whimsical portrait of falling leaves. Contrast is evident here as well, the cool blue background of the falling leaves in Plunging Lines hangs in the same room as the hot, organic orange and cinnamon of Balanced Sizzle. There are scenes of anthropomorphized flora in the nature love-in So Special and the emerging figure in In and Out; and an illustration style in the fable-like Mystical Universe, where four elephants ride a sea turtle.

As these spaces get used over the course of the exhibit, I imagine these works acting as both flies on the wall and catalysts to the nature and tone of the proceedings that unfold.

A lovely combination of luminous, organic and abstract – vibrating with colour and tension – in Mediated Space.

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