Art & literature come out to play together at the Leon Rooke & John Metcalf Salon Exhibition

I had the great pleasure of attending the Leon Rooke and John Metcalf Salon Exhibition last night, hosted by Fran Hill Gallery at Rooke’s residence at 246 Brunswick Ave., Toronto—also the new contact space for the gallery since it moved from its St. Clair W./Christie neighbourhood Show Room. The event featured Rooke’s latest paintings and sculptures, and the Biblioasis launch of two new books by Metcalf: The Canadian Short Story and Finding Again the World—Selected Stories.

Ushered up to event in the spacious, open and bright second floor space of the home—with its striking sky lights, interesting nooks and gorgeous fireplace—several of us (including me) remarked that we wanted to take up residence there ourselves. And it was here that we wandered about, viewing Rooke’s art over wine and cheese, and  treated to a reading by Metcalf.

Comprised of small to medium-sized canvasses, and curious, detailed and often delightful sculptures and shadow boxes, much of Rooke’s (who is also an author) work in this exhibit has a light, playful, whimsical quality—with some of the pieces emerging with a richer, deeper palette and darker, mysterious and even erotic undertones. Be forewarned: Not all of the pieces on display are necessarily for sale (exhibit pieces are noted with a number, accompanied by a printed guide with titles and pricing) and at least one piece (the Fish sculpture, featured at the top of this post) sold last night.

Following a brief introduction by Biblioasis Publisher Dan Wells, Metcalf—who also worked for years as a highly respected editor, most notably on Best Canadian Stories, curating the anthology and shepherding writers—read us excerpts from The Canadian Short Story and The Museum at the End of the World. Part historical overview, part critical guide, part love letter to the form, The Canadian Short Story is anything but a dry, academic tome, despite its hefty size. Sharply insightful, and full of humour and interesting examples and anecdotes about authors; hearing the excerpt, it struck me as being the “inside baseball” for the short story lover. And the audiophile journey Metcalf took us on with the piece from The Museum at the End of the World (a series of linked stories and novellas) gave us sharply drawn characters; visceral and present details that pique the senses; and a curiosity shop environment that enveloped the intimate, almost confessional nature of the characters’ conversation—about the musicians, birthplace and evolution of the blues. I was so taken by this work of autobiographically inspired fiction that I left with a signed copy.

All in all, it was a lovely and inspirational evening of striking art, literature and people.

The Leon Rooke exhibit continues throughout the fall; give Fran Hill a shout at 416 363-1333 or franhillartgallery@gmail.com to book an appointment. The residence at 246 Brunswick Ave. is tucked in behind 244 Brunswick Ave., accessed by the walkway to the right.

You can visit the Biblioasis website or your favourite book shop to find works by John Metcalf.

Here are some snaps I took last night.

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Playfully whimsical, profoundly poignant & sharply candid ruminations in Dawna J. Wightman’s honey be

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Dawna J. Wightman. Photo by Vince Lupo.

 

Montreal-born Dawna J. Wightman is an award-winning Toronto-based actor, playwright and writer. Toronto audiences will recognize Wightman from her solo show Life as a Pomegranate, as well as Yellow Birds (Alumnae Theatre’s FireWorks Festival, 2015) and A Mickey Full of Mouse (Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 2016 and Toronto Fringe, 2017). She’s currently working on adapting her unpublished dark fantasy novel A Yarn of Bone & Paper, based on her ebook: Faeries Real & Imagined: How to Create Magical Adventures for Very Young Children, into a feature film. She’s also working with director Theresa Kowall-Shipp on her short Kid Gloves, set to shoot November 2018.

As part of the funding process for Kid Gloves, Wightman self-published and sold honey be, “a collection of sweet words and some that sting,” including hand-painted covers and “surprises” stuffed inside. The first 50-volume print run sold out in about a week; and a second run will be available this month, featuring cover art design by Wightman’s daughter Sabine Spare.

Much like Wightman’s theatre work, the stories, poems and snippets in honey be range from playfully whimsical to profoundly poignant to sharply candid—often all in the same story and sometimes autobiographical in nature. While there are no titles, each piece bears an italicized post-script at the end; in some cases, these take on a conversational and even self-deprecating tone, making for a personal, intimate read.

The themes of family, motherhood and friendship come up in several pieces. There’s the story about Mrs. Kay, written from the perspective of a precocious, neglected eight-year-old who finds a home with fellow misfit schoolmate Sandra Kay and her quirky family; and the goofy four-legged family member Bella in just a dog. Reminders that family can sometimes be found in unexpected places—and to never judge a book by its cover.

There’s heart-wrenching nostalgia with an ode to her son in little boy; and remembrances of wearing an itchy baby blue Phentex dress and being her mother’s go-fer at the bingo hall, in pretty little head. And the heartache and fumbling for what to say to a friend living with cancer tumble out in the visceral when we found out you had cancer and in the outpouring of loving, supportive words in the piece that follows.

Ruminations on body image and aging come up as well, from the erotic in late summer, to the sharply candid and calling bullshit on the ridiculous expectations placed on women’s bodies—professionally and personally—in tits and ass and #chubbyprettywoman, and the #MeToo shock of new neighbour.

Quirky, bittersweet, child-like grown-up, all of the stories in honey be are tinged with humour and poignancy, and the everyday acknowledgement of life’s remarkable moments. And one gets the sense that, beyond coming from a place of truth telling—there’s a deep longing to share these words. There’s a line in the movie Shadowlands, from a C.S. Lewis quote: “We read to know we are not alone”—one could easily also say “We write to let others know they are not alone.”

Copies of honey be will be available for $20.00 via emailing wightrabiit@gmail.com; website coming soon. Wightman will be performing a reading from the book at Stratford’s SpringWorks Festival on October 11.

 

Love, sacrifice & the heartbeat of time in the delightful, poignant Sisters

Laura Condlln & Nicole Power. Set design by Michelle Tracey. Costume design by Erika Connor. Lighting design by Kimberley Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper opened its striking world premiere of Rosamund Small’s delightful, poignant Sisters—a story of love, family, sacrifices and the march of time—to an enthusiastic full house last night. Inspired by Edith Wharton’s novella Bunner Sisters and directed by Peter Pasyk, Sisters is running in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre.

It’s the turn of the century in New York City, and sisters Ann (Laura Condlln) and Evelina (Nicole Power) live quiet, regular lives, working and living in a small shop, selling notions and jams, and providing sewing services. Both are single at an age that would label them as spinsters; and their small, humdrum workaday lives get a spark of excitement when Ann buys a clock for Evelina’s birthday—and both become enamoured with the quiet, charming clockmaker Ramy (Kevin Bundy). Adding to the fun is their observant friend and neighbour, Mrs. Mellins (Karen Robinson), a widowed dressmaker who lives upstairs.

Torn between her feelings for Ramy and love for her sister, Ann steps aside to make room for a match between Ramy and Evelina—a decision made all the more heart-wrenching when Ramy takes a job in St. Louis, taking his new wife with him and leaving Ann to run the shop alone. Dependant on return customers and referrals from more privileged ladies—like the affable Lady with the Puffy Sleeves (Ellora Patnaik) and the wealthy, entitled Customer (Raquel Duffy)—Ann and Mrs. Mellins are also facing a new wave of industrialization; one in which much of the textile industry will be mechanized, with factories churning out large amounts of pre-made, less expensive off-the-rack goods. Dealing with the separation as best as she can, when Evelina’s letters stop coming and her letters come back return-to-sender, Ann sets on a search for Evelina’s whereabouts; and with the help of Mrs. Mellins, gathers some troubling information about Ramy in the process.

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Karen Robinson, Laura Condlln & Nicole Power. Set design by Michelle Tracey. Costume design by Erika Connor. Lighting design by Kimberley Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Lovely work from the cast in this tale of everyday heroism and perseverance in the face of longing, heartbreak and loyalty. Condlln is heartbreaking and inspiring as the older sister Ann; practical and better with the accounts than she is with the creative side of the business, Ann puts her own desire for romance aside to make her sister happy. Power (who Kim’s Convenience fans will recognize as Jung’s quirky boss Shannon) is a day-dreamy spitfire as younger sister Evelina; bored and skeptical that things will get better, Evelina is more pessimistic than her sister—but is able to see colours in music and match the perfect accessories to a dress. Robinson (who Schitt’s Creek fans will recognize as Ronnie Lee) is a treat as Mrs. Mellins, performing with gusto and impeccable comic timing; while she has a morbid fascination in the seedier side of the city, Mrs. Mellins’ penny dreadful notions of life outside the shop make way for sage advice and motherly watchfulness over the sisters. And Bundy seduces as the reserved, gallant German clockmaker; shy, sickly and precise, Ramy is a mystery man of changeable temperament—which perhaps makes him all the more attractive.

The perspectival, display case-like set with a raked floor (Michelle Tracey), atmospheric lighting (Kimberly Purtell), stunning period costumes (Erika Connor) and haunting music box music (Richard Feren) make for an aesthetically pleasing, finely honed view of this world.

Sisters reminds us of the precarity of life for working women; reliant on men and those who are better off in general to make something of their lives. And of the saving grace of love, hope, faith and determination—with a little help from family and friends.

Sisters continues at the Young Centre until September 16. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Poetry 500 years in the making in Soulpepper’s exquisite, haunting, wondrous Orlando

Set & lighting design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Gillian Gallow. Photo by Aleksander Antonijevic.

 

Soulpepper Theatre brings Virginia Woolf’s Orlando to the stage with an exquisite Canadian premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s stage adaptation of the magical time-travelling, gender-fluid tale, directed by Katrina Darychuck.

Starting off in Elizabethan England, we find Orlando (Sarah Afful) as a young man; a darling of the court and a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I (John Jarvis), he loves to be in love and longs to be a poet. Finding solace and solitude under his favourite oak tree, he begins crafting a poem. Smitten by beautiful and mysterious visiting Russian princess Sasha (Maev Beaty), he is rapturously happy for a time, but his tendency towards melancholy grows when she abandons him to return to her home. When he finds himself unable to avoid the unwanted advances of the Archduchess Harriet (Alex McCooeye), he seeks a way to leave the country—and gets his wish when King Charles II sends him to Constantinople as an ambassador.

It is there that Orlando undergoes an amazing transformation, emerging from a long sleep as a woman; she also finds herself longing to return home. Upon arriving at her family estate in England, she is greeted with the surprising news that she was assumed dead; and, as a woman, is not permitted to own property. The Archduchess comes back into her life—though she has transformed into a man. Shifting into the 19th century, Orlando meets and falls in love with Marmaduke (Craig Lauzon), a gender-shifting person like herself. Returning throughout to finish the poem she started as a young man, Orlando eventually finds herself in the 20th century, with Sasha still on her mind and in her heart—and returning to her poem. And, after 500 years, she may very well be seeing its completion.

Like Orlando’s view of the world, the tone too shifts from playful and fun to furtive and melancholy as the story plays out on Lorenzo Savoini’s icy clean, bright, minimalist set; Gillian Gallow’s stunning period costumes and Thomas Ryder Payne’s haunting soundtrack complete the storytelling. Stellar work from the ensemble in this complex, multi-dimensional, multi-layered tale of love, beauty, poetry, transformation and time travel. Much of the storytelling is directed outward to the audience, with the narration being delivered by the three chorus members, as well as characters, as scenes play out.

Afful switches masterfully between Orlando’s playfully comic and darkly introspective moments, having us laughing one minute, and then breaking our hearts the next. Beaty is majestic and mysterious as the striking, spirited Sasha; a vivacious and wandering soul, the practical Sasha appears to be more anchored in the present than the romantic Orlando, whose mind lives more in the past and the future. Orlando wishes to possess her, and she will not be possessed. And the three actors (Jarvis, Lauzon and McCooeye) who comprise the chorus deftly, and delightfully, play a variety of male and female characters; further underlining the overlap and of “male” and “female” characteristics within each of us.

An embodiment of the spirit of the age, Orlando lives across time periods where “gender fluid” and “non-binary” weren’t even terms yet. And we recognize—as these characters so aptly illustrate—that, while gender-prescribed roles and gender presentation are socially-imposed constructs, we humans have been playing with the notion of gender for centuries.

Orlando continues in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre till July 29. Get advance tickets online or give the box office a shout at: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

A gothic fairy tale of spiritual connections, mystical protectors & escaping a monster in Brenda Clews’ gripping, magical Fugue in Green

Like a bullet in slow motion, she floated over treetops for as long as it took to blink.

A gothic fairy tale of spiritual connections, mystical protectors and escaping the clutches of a monster, this is the opening line of Brenda Clews’ mesmerizing, magical novella Fugue in Green, published by Quattro Books.

Teen siblings Steig and Curtis struggle to survive live with their cruel, controlling and abusive mother Leica while their filmmaker father Reb is away working in England. Their monster mother is a catalyst for Steig’s escapes into the woods that surround their Vermont home, where Steig finds solace in nature. It is in these moments that we learn that Steig is a magical, elemental young woman who becomes the landscape she loves and shelters in. She also sees ghosts: her grandparents and a former teacher. And the ghosts tell her things. And she has a spritely sentinel: a bird man called forth from her connection to the woods to be her guardian.

Reb lives and works with his dreams—and dreams while awake—the everyday becoming surreal, expressionist visions that surround him; a visual poet, he creates poetry with images instead of words. And what of the mysterious and angelic Clare, a magician with a camera who arrives in his life at the precise moment he needs her—both personally and professionally?

Steig’s younger brother Curtis busies himself with more traditional, earth-bound teen pursuits. While not fully immune to their mother’s unreasonable expectations, unpredictable behaviour and wrath, he bears the least of it. And when their mother goes too far with Steig one day, Curtis launches a plan to flee their mother, contact their father and join him in England. Their journey to safety is fraught with terrifying memories and shared visions, but is also protected by forest spirits.

Secrets are revealed—with devastating results. Reb had no idea about the child abuse going on in his own home; forced to move beyond his own sense of guilt of being so distant from his children, who he realizes he barely knows, he’s determined to make a safe, supportive home for them. He’s been away too much and for too long. Meanwhile, back at the family’s home in Vermont, and realizing that her children are gone, Leica flies into a spiralling, destructive rage that echoes across an ocean.

Supernatural, spiritual connections emerge and reveal themselves; the battle between order and wilderness embodied in the relationship between Steig’s mother and Steig—and even Reb. Love, family, myth and metaphysics intertwine, winding around these relationships as the two children escape the witch at home and into the arms of those who truly love them.

Magical, sensuous and seductive, Clews’ words swirl around you and draw you in; mesmerizing with evocative colours and haunting, ethereal—and sometimes disturbing—images. A short, gripping modern fairy tale, it’s perfect for curling up for an afternoon or evening read, easily finished in one sitting.

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Brenda Clews

Clews is also an artist and a poet; you can view her work on her website, and on YouTube and Vimeo. You can also connect with Clews on Twitter and Facebook.

Ergo Pink Fest: Character is fate & sisters start doing it for themselves in The Women of Casterbridge

Ergo Arts Theatre opened the Ergo Pink Fest at the Small World Music Centre at Artscape Youngplace last night. A three-day festival of new plays by female and non-binary identified playwrights, script criteria includes: “at least two women/non-binary people, who both have names; 2. These two people talk to each other; 3. They talk about something other than a man.” So these are Bechdel-tested works!

The festival opened with Claire Ross Dunn’s The Women of Casterbridge, a feminist retelling of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, directed by Diana Leblanc.

Sold in the market to a kind sailor (David Storch), by her drunken brute of a husband Michael Henchard (Patrick Galligan)—who blames them for his lack of social and financial opportunity and advancement—Susan (Catherine Fitch) and her four-year-old daughter Elizabeth Jane (Laura Schutt) leave England to live with the sailor, Richard Newson, in Newfoundland. Years later, after Newson is declared dead in a ship wreck and they’re evicted from their sailor’s lodgings, Susan (who is now quite ill) and Elizabeth Jane have no choice but to return to England in search of Henchard, in hopes that he will lend them some assistance and secure their survival.

In the intervening years, Henchard has quit drinking and sorted himself out, eventually owning a successful grain business and becoming the Mayor of Casterbridge. A miraculously changed man, when Susan finds him, he asks her forgiveness and plans to make things right. Elizabeth Jane is unaware of the circumstances that sent her and her mother away, so Henchard hatches a plan to woo Susan anew and marry her; in doing so, he must break off his understanding with his lover Lucetta (Kat Gauthier). He also has big plans for innovation with his business, convincing young Scot Donald Farfrae (Sergio Di Zio) to stay in Casterbridge and work with him. Farfrae and Elizabeth Jane, who is an unusually independent and strong-willed young woman for her time, are drawn to each other.

When Susan dies, Henchard decides to renew his relationship with Lucetta, newly returned to Casterbridge a wealthy heiress. She takes Elizabeth Jane, a like-minded independent woman, on as her companion; she also catches the eye of Farfrae, who favours her over Elizabeth Jane. Henchard’s inner demons of greed and pride rear their ugly heads; jealous of Farfrae’s popularity and charm, and of Lucetta’s interest in him, he fires him from the company and returns to the bottle, setting in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy that rolls out over the subsequent years. Turning his anger upon Lucetta, Henchard has letters from her that reveal their prior relationship, spelling her ruin if released. A group of townspeople (Marium Carvell, Stuart Clow and David Storch) catch wind of their earlier affair and make a public spectacle. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Jane, hungry for knowledge and “enlargement” herself, works hard and overcomes the heartache of losing Farfrae to Lucetta, who’d taken her on as a companion.

Excellent work from the entire—and mostly multitasking—cast. Chock full of melodramatic (and comedic) twists and turns, startling revelations and heartfelt confessions, Susan’s motto “character is fate” plays out for all.

Ergo Pink Fest continues in the Small World Music Centre this weekend, closing tomorrow (March 25). Coming up next at the Fest:

March 24 @ 1:30 pm: Being Helen by Laurie Fyffe, directed by Andrea Donaldson

March 24 @ 4:00 pm: The Sister Op by Shelley M. Hobbs, directed by Susan A. Lock

March 24 @ 8:00 pm: Witts: Ballad of the Queer Cowboys by Calla Wright, directed by Anna Pappas

March 25 @ 1:30 pm: The Next Mary by Mairy Beam, directed by Rebecca Picherack

March 25 @ 4:00 pm: Sol by Araceli Ferrara, directed by Anita La Selva

March 25 @ 6:45 pm: Manners by Nastasia Pappas-Kemps, directed by Sue Miner

The Fest also includes two free panels:

March 25, from 12:00 – 1:00 pm: Bridging the Gap: The Value of Mentorship and Relationships between Artists (Room 106). Mediator: Thalia Gonzalez Kane. Panelists: Tamara Almeida, Angela Besharah, Martha Burns, Erin Carter, Marcia Johnson, Heath V. Salazar.

March 25, from 5:00 – 6:30 pm: Colour. Culture. Curtain. Cross-racial Casting on Contemporary Stages (Room 106). Mediator: Nicole Stamp. Panelists: Dian Marie Bridge, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Tanisha Taitt, Paula Wing.

Check the full line-up details and book advance tickets. It’s an intimate venue, and last night was sold out and then some, so advance booking strongly recommended.

Quote of the week: October 24, 2016

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The next hundred years are going to be painful as we come to know Chanie Wenjack and thousands like him – as we find out about ourselves, about all of us – but only when we do can we truly call ourselves, “Canada.” —Gord Downie, on the Secret Path project