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.

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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

Toronto Fringe: The stages of grief & struggle for recovery injected with humour in the moving To Jane with Love

to_jane_with_love_web-250x250Promise Productions explores addiction and grief in their production of Deon Denton’s To Jane with Love, directed by Denton and running at the Al Green Theatre during Toronto Fringe. The show will also be featured in the Midtown International Theater Festival in New York later this month.

Scenes of the evolution of Henry (Geoff Mays) and Jane’s (Mish Tam) relationship weave in and out of the aftermath of a life-altering traumatic experience that changes their lives forever. As much as Henry resists help from his psychology-spouting parole officer Jonas (Philip Cairns), it’s his 10-year-old neighbour Sushanna (Aviv Cohen) who appears to be getting through. Running through Henry’s story, we also see the recovery process of two support group members (Fraulein Almariego and Shobba Hatte).

Mays gives a nice, multi-faceted performance as Henry; a sharp cynic with a serious drinking problem, he’s also a romantic at heart with a deep love of words. Tam is adorably bubbly as Jane; a vibrant spirit who loves books, and revels in performing choice quotes and pieces of poetry. Cairns gives a solid, layered performance as Jonas, the wry-witted and wise parole officer who executes his job with a no-nonsense brand of tough love, and struggles with the clients who don’t make it. Cohen is a treat as Sushanna; a wise guy herself, she shares Jane’s love of books and has an insatiable – and sometimes inappropriate – curiosity. And really nice work from Almariego and Hatte as two women in different stages of recovery.

The stages of grief and struggle for recovery injected with humour in the moving To Jane with Love.

To Jane with Love continues at the Al Green Theatre until July 10. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.

Compelling, poetic, unflinchingly honest snapshots of working class people in Of Being Underground & Moving Backwards

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Heather Babcock at the launch for Of Being Underground & Moving Backwards – photo by Lizzie Violet

Where do the words
Interrupted
Of the working class people go?
Lost somewhere within their time
Interrupted.

This is the prologue to Heather Babcock’s chapbook Of Being Underground and Moving Backwards, a collection of short stories published by DevilHousePress.

A compelling and vividly detailed collection of works, Of Being Underground and Moving Backwards opens with “Break,” a first-person narrative from the point of view of a heart-broken, over-worked waitress soldiering on through her shift to pay the bills – and finding emotional release in an unexpected moment of solitude during a much deserved break.

The workaday characters – Wilbur and Christina in “Half Off” and Betty in “The Trees Turned to Glass” – struggle through harsh and unfair circumstances, doing the best they can to survive as they scramble to eke out a living, and find snatches of happiness and moments of ecstasy when they can. Constantly faced with judgement in the present and haunted by ghosts of the past, daydreams and fantasies become a welcome escape – an oasis from the dull, grey hopelessness of a world that sees them as disposable. And in “Rebecca,” we get a portrait of one of those judgemental, comfortably smug points of view, as wealthy record producer Conrad washes his hands of responsibility for someone he supposedly loved once.

There is beauty and poetry, grit and defiance, especially in the stories of family and loss. Jake in “The Dancing Bear,” escaping from his brother’s hospital bedside and into a local bar and a pretty woman. First-person memories of a mother, a dead sister and flowers in “Marking Words” and the title story “Of Being Underground and Moving Backwards;” the sharp edges of family history smoothed by nostalgic recollections made bittersweet by family tragedy.

And the closing story “Wind Pudding and Wagon Tracks” is parable-like in its insight into the human spirit; set in a place where everyone is treated equally and all are given the same choice – only each comes from different places with which to make that choice.

Of Being Underground and Moving Backwards is a beautiful collection of unflinchingly honest snapshots of otherwise invisible working class people; their everyday drudgery finding momentary respite in after-hours second lives, rich fantasy worlds, moments of recollection and in the imperfect love of equally lost souls.

You can find more of Babcock’s work online on her website. Babcock performs regularly around the city reading her work; coming up, she’ll be performing with Neil Traynor at I Got You Babe! And Evening of Poetry and Music with Heather and Neil at Hirut Restaurant on March 19 at 8 p.m.

Toronto Fringe NSTF: Big rhapsodic fun with sketch comedy in Unbridled & Unstable

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Gwynne Phillips & Briana Templeton in Unbridled & Unstable

My second opening night show at the Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF) in the Factory Theatre Studio last night was The Templeton Philharmonic’s production of Gwynne Phillips’ and Briana Templeton’s sketch comedy romp Unbridled and Unstable.

From the moment they appear through the mist astride their noble steeds Dvorak and Duchovny (riding side saddle, of course), Philips and Templeton take the audience on an engaging, satirical ride of sketches: Victorian equestrian ladies, a book club discussion, a 1950s amateur foley artist radio show, a real estate agent’s absurd home showing and audience participation horse racing.

Drawing on psychological dramas and thrillers of the 50s and 60s, Phillips’ and Templeton’s voice and diction work is spot on. Most of the sketches are two-handers, but the gals break out for solo efforts: Templeton’s hilarious historic romance novelist reading, and Phillips as the drunken and inappropriately frank Aunt Gloria, staggering down memory lane as she describes the photos in a family album to the kids. Throw in some wacky fun dance breaks – with nods to disco, Michael Jackson’s Thriller video and Truly Scrumptious’s music box doll from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – and you’ve got one ripping good time.

Added bonus: Templeton Philharmonic merch is available for purchase before the show and the program notes include saucy renderings of horses by Philips, Templeton and SM/Associate Producer Vanessa K. Purdy.

Unbridled and Unstable is a big, rhapsodic fun trip though some sharp-witted and highly entertaining sketch comedy. Somewhere, Dorothy Parker is raising a martini glass to these two wacky, smart and fun-loving gals.

Unbridled and Unstable continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until Sun, Jan 18 – with a talkback at The Hoxton following the show on Sun, Jan 11. Click here for advance tix.