Creatures of myth & memory in the playful, pointed, evocative Cryptids: Prose-Poetry from Creatures of Memory

Cover art from Cryptids: Prose-Poetry from Creatures of Memory by Dee Sparling     

dee original smallDee Sparling is a local Toronto poet/spoken word artist and singer. We’ve been friends for about 16 years, and folks who frequented Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir, either at Q Space or The Central, will recognize Sparling, who performed poetry and a cappella songs during the open mic spots. She’s previously self-published two poetry collections, Sol Believers: Prose-Poetry from the Orion Spur and Freedom Codes: Prose-Poetry from Empires Within, and has recently published Cryptids: Prose-Poetry from Creatures of Memory.

In the Author’s Note, Sparling describes Cryptids as playing “upon the concept of nostalgia and the role it takes in shaping personal and societal narratives,” as well as featuring “various types of mythical beasts and conjurings.” Cryptids as pieces of memory, and also as mythical creatures and monsters.

Cryptids is a magical, evocative collection of 16 poems, woven with rich, textured language that includes ancient biblical (“Ecce Venus” and “Gethsemane”) and mythological (the nod to the Kraken in “Fimbulwinter”), as well as political and natural, references. Reading these poems, one gets the feeling of being gathered around a campfire, hearing tales both fictional and non-fictional—especially “Credit Valley Cryptids (A Final Goodbye),” which conjures up reminiscences of a different time and place with its compass-eye view of ghosts, shades of history and natural landmarks.

Some of the pieces are playful in their observations, taking the point of view of the creatures themselves (“The Underground” and “Memory and the Moray Eel”) or ponder the situation of a creature (“Sparrow without a Care”). And “Painted Desert” portrays the otherworldly, deadly beauty of a landscape with a cheeky, Wild West flavour—the High Noon of the cacti—while drawing a metaphor for the will to thrive and live, coupled with warnings of more parched earth on the horizon.

The cautionary tone continues into space with “Centaurus Loves Cassiopeia,” highlighting humanity’s sense of entitlement with the line “Earth, thy vanity begins… with the licking of your lips;” into the digital realm in “Troll Bytes” and the perception of power in a world of ongoing obsolescence.

Creatures of politics aren’t spared in the pointed and sharply funny “A Day in the Counter-Revolution,” a satirical evolution of man as political animal. Or was it all a dream? And ruminations on the younger generation and nature take on an introspective, speculative tone in “Millennial Breeze” and “Nature Remembers You.”

Words that paint pictures, reminding us of how tricky memory and perception can be—and how these combine to create our own mythology.

Creatures of myth and memory in the playful, pointed, evocative Cryptids: Prose-Poetry from Creatures of Memory.

Keep an eye out for Dee Sparling at Toronto poetry/spoken word events.

Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River

Spoon River ensemble—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

 

Is your soul alive?

As we make our way into the theatre, we find ourselves entering the funeral of Bertie Hume; filing past old family portraits and rows of headstones as we make our way out of the funeral parlor and into the cemetery. We are greeted by funeral home attendants and, possibly, friends and family of the deceased.

This is our introduction to Soulpepper’s immersively staged Spoon River, based on Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology poetry collection, and adapted by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz for the stage, with music composed by Ross. A remount of this beloved, award-winning show is currently running in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre, located in Toronto’s Distillery District.

As Bertie Hume is left to her eternal rest, former citizens of the town—now “asleep” in the cemetery on the hill—emerge to share their stories with us, the passersby. Set in small-town America, the lives, loves, joys and pain of its people are revealed with memories, regrets, confession; at times harrowing (“Fire”), hilarious (“Couples” and “Drinking”) and heartbreaking (“Mothers and Sons”). The quirks, the humanity, the secrets and betrayals—all interwoven with poetry, spoken word, music and song, as we get snapshots of the people they once were.

The remarkable, multitalented ensemble plays and sings, with rousing, foot-stomping sounds and gorgeous, resonant harmonies in a collection of blue grass and gospel-inspired songs. Stand-out soloists include Alana Bridgewater, Hailey Gillis (as Bertie Hume), Miranda Mulholland, Jackie Richardson (“Widow McFarlane”) and Daniel Williston (“Fire”). Soulpepper veterans Oliver Dennis and Diego Matamoros bring stellar character work, as do Raquel Duffy, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis and Michelle Monteith. Ultimately, Spoon River is a celebration of life (“Soul Alive”)—and a reminder that life, warts and all, is a cherished gift. I dare you to not stomp along.

With big shouts to the design team for their work on this magical, evocative production: Ken MacKenzie (set and lighting), Erika Connor (costumes) and Jason Browning (sound).

Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River.

Spoon River continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre until April 21; booking in advance is strongly recommended to avoid disappointment—the place was packed last night and this show is getting lots of standing ovations. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Up next: Soulpepper will be taking Spoon River to New York City’s 42nd Street in July as part of its first NYC season at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

The Spoon River soundtrack is available on CD in the lobby of the Young Centre; you can also find it on iTunes. In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

 

SummerWorks: Caught in a web of deceit & love in the exquisite, heartbreaking Mr. Shi & His Lover

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I caught the closing performance of Mr. Shi and His Lover, a Macau Experimental Theatre/Music Picnic contemporary Chinese music theatre co-production, a special SummerWorks presentation at the Theatre Centre Mainspace. Inspired by the real-life love affair between a Chinese opera singer turned spy and a French diplomat, the show is performed in Mandarin with Chinese and English surtitles, with text by Wong Teng Chi, surtitle translation by Derek Kwan, music/music direction by Njo Kong Kie and direction by Johnny Tam.

A love affair between opera singer Mr. Shi (Jordan Cheng) and French diplomat Bernard (Derek Kwan) ends in scandal and imprisonment when it’s discovered that Shi is a spy – and a man disguised as a woman.

Lovely, nuanced and moving work from Cheng and Kwan – in moments of revealing solitude and in powerful, evocative two-handers. With a masterful combination of movement, gesture and voice, Cheng brings a beautiful balance of delicacy and strength to his performance as Shi; although Shi lives for, and revels in, a life of performance, he’s not prepared for getting caught in his own lie. Kwan gives Bernard a great sense of tension; his corporate sense of propriety and manners belie the deep love of ideal beauty and the heart of a romantic. As rational and logical as Bernard strives to be, he cannot explain love away when his ideal woman turns out to be a man. Mining the layers of public and private persona, betrayal, revelation, and attempted forgiveness and redemption, both must admit to real love. And in the end, each man ultimately becomes his own judge and jury.

Njo Kong Kie (piano) and Carol Wang (percussion) create a two-person orchestra for the production; positioned upstage on opposite sides, scoring and underscoring the story of Shi and Bernard’s life together and apart. The music and lyrics draw inspiration from Peking opera, pop music and modern-day music theatre; revealing the inner workings of these characters and heightening the poignant tragedy of their relationship.

Identity, perception, intrigue, scandal – and most potent of all – love; this story has it all. A performer and a diplomat caught in a web of deceit and love in the exquisite, heartbreaking Mr. Shi and His Lover.

Mr. Shi and His Lover closed its SummerWorks run at the Theatre Centre Mainspace yesterday afternoon. Keep an eye out for future productions on the show’s website.

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.

Powerful, deeply moving & bold investigation into the origins & echoes of the Black diaspora in Esu Crossing the Middle Passage

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d’bi.young anitafrika in Esu Crossing the Middle Passage – photo by John Gundy

How do I describe what I witnessed at the matinee of The Watah Theatre’s production of d’bi.young anitafrika’s Esu Crossing the Middle Passage at Storefront Theatre yesterday?

Written and performed by d’bi.young anitafrika, assistant directed by Charmaine Headley and choreographed by BaKari I. Lindsay, with music direction by tuku, and live vocals/music by tuku and Amina Alfred, Esu Crossing the Middle Passage is Part One of The Orisha Trilogy – an epic work examining activism, divinity and the Black diaspora.

Utilizing mask, movement, song, spoken word, storytelling and verbatim theatre – the space transformed into the belly of a ship (Rachel Forbes, set designer), Esu Crossing the Middle Passage takes the audience along on the journey of an African womxn* captured and sold in the Transatlantic slave trade. But she is not alone on that terrifying crossing. The spirit of Esu (pronounced “eh-shoo”), the trickster god of Ifa and keeper of the crossroads, dwells within her.

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Foreground: tuku, with d’bi.young anitafrika & Amina Alfred in the background – photo by John Gundy

Emerging from the horror, tears and death of that ocean crossing – not to mention ongoing mourning for family and home lost and never to be seen again – the stolen Black lives that survive are sold on the auction block in America. While Esu Crossing the Middle Passage is the portion of the trilogy that focuses on the past, it draws parallels to the present-day systemic oppression and discrimination; a system that includes classism, racial profiling/carding, poverty, chauvinism and homophobia. We are reminded of modern-day slavery of the unfair practices seen in domestic help and farm work, precarious work and work that doesn’t pay a living wage.

The vocalizations create a soundscape that evokes not only geography but emotion; it resonates as a mournful lullaby, a story, a people. And the voice-over is the true story as told by Olunike Adeliyi (who will be appearing in the final installment of The Orisha Trilogy) – how she was detained and strip-searched during a border crossing, based on an accusation from a woman she didn’t even know. From the fear and humiliation of the slave ship to that in the airport, the play is a stark reminder that – even in 2016 – passage and policing are still dictated by skin colour, and those with brown or black skin are judged by a different set of rules. It also highlights the multiple layers of privilege (based on skin colour, gender, country of origin, class, sexuality, etc.) that some enjoy and others do not – and why movements like #BlackLivesMatter are so critical and, sadly, necessary.

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From top: Amina Alfred, tuku & d’bi.young anitafrika – photo by John Gundy

For me, the most poignant scene was of a little girl asking her granny questions, and how as her questions grow out from her own little world into the world at large, she discovers some harsh truths – and her happy, care-free innocence turns saddened and anxious. And yet, even out of this scene, there is hope in recalling that spark of divinity within – the divinity that ancestors brought with them across the ocean when it was all they had left. It left me in tears – equal parts sadness and optimism.

The relaxed, informal talkback that followed offered an opportunity for further discovery and closure – done in a space of respect, love, and a desire to share and learn. Audience members shared personal experiences, asked questions, offered comments. We learned that Esu has been demonized in some parts of the world and seen as the devil – part of a colonizing, systemic move to erase indigenous spirituality out of a people, stripping away culture and religion to replace it with European values and Christianity. This play comes with a trigger warning – and the production has a counsellor available on-site for those who need to speak with someone.

A powerful, deeply moving and bold investigation into the origins and echoes of the Black diaspora, Esu Crossing the Middle Passage pays respect to a painful past, with a glint of hope for the future. Esu tells those at the crossroads to choose carefully – and that goes for all of us.

With shouts to the design team: Rachel Forbes (set), Melissa Joakim (lighting), Waleed Abdulhamid (sound) and Holly Lloyd (costume) for their beautiful, evocative work on this production; and to the extra multitasking stage manager Kathleen Jones and assistant SM Sa/ShOYA Simpson.

Esu Crossing the Middle Passage continues at the Storefront Theatre until April 17; advance tickets are available online. Do yourselves a solid and go see this.

Part Two of The Orisha Trilogy: She, Mami Wata & the Pussy Witch Hunt runs May 4-22 at Theatre Passe Muraille; Part Three Bleeders will run Aug 4-14 (venue tba).

* This spelling of “woman” is the choice of the playwright.

 

Drunk & delirious on life, love & art in Hooked

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Nicky Guadagni in Hooked – photo by Michael Cooper

Was back out to Theatre Passe Muraille last night for the opening of the last show of their 2014-15 season: Hooked, based on a book of poems by Carolyn Smart, adapted by and starring Nicky Guadagni, and directed by Layne Coleman.

Hooked features the stories of seven real-life women – each one creative, driven and sucking the marrow out of life in her own unique way – all played by Guadagni. Myra Hindley, the obsessed sociopath who murdered at least three children with her partner Ian Brady, gives a chilling account of their meeting and the aftermath of her incarceration. Unity Valkyrie Mitford, the entitled, bigoted upper crust Brit and exceedingly silly Hitler fangirl; giggly and slapdash, she speaks of meeting her idol and defending his brutal policies. Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, the fragile, self-destructive party girl; the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald and an artist in her own right, spinning and broken, cast off into madness. Dora Carrington, tomboyish, puck-like and intense, a gifted painter hopelessly in love with a gay writer Lytton Strachey – her desperation and loss pushing her to the edge of despair. Elizabeth Smart, the bored daughter of Ottawa nobility who seizes on her target, married poet George Barker, with single-minded drive, wanting art, love and children – wanting it all. Carson McCullers, physically damaged with health issues, sharp as a tack and wry-witted, the champion of misfits in her writing; she loved husband Reeves McCullers so much, she married him twice. Jane Bowles, a larger than life writer with a delightful Brooklyn Jewish accent, a woman of big fun and silent, infectious guffaws; a lover of women, married to composer and writer Paul Bowles, she fell in love at first sight with Cherifa, a woman she saw in a market in Tangiers.

All of these lives and voices are performed on a bare stage with a single chair, with Guadagni barefoot in a black dress. Chameleon-like and captivating, Guadagni channels these women using her body, her voice and her presence, shifting seamlessly from character to character in this dance of words and life experiences – and the result is compelling, funny and poignant. These women aren’t afraid to give ‘er – going home is not even an option as they go big, at full throttle.

Hooked is a remarkable, moving and entertaining one-woman show featuring seven exceptional, passionate women, drunk and delirious on life, love and art. Get on over to the TPM backspace to see this.

Hooked continues its run in the TPM backspace until May 10, with special performances Wednesday, April 22 at 6:45 pm (Egg Rolls with Andy – pre-show chat with Artistic Director Andy McKim); a post-show talk back on Sunday, April 26; and a student matinée performance on Wednesday, May 6 at 1:30 pm. You can purchase tickets in advance online here – highly recommended as seating is relatively limited in the TPM backspace.

With shouts to musician/composer Victoria Carr, who provided the original soundtrack of evocative piano and guitar music for the production – and who played live acoustic guitar during the show.

Check out the YouTube chat with Guadagni about Hooked:

Progress is coming! Final, revised lineup announced for international fest of performance & ideas Feb 4-15

ProgressLogoTransparentSummerWorks announced the updated lineup for the inaugural SummerWorks/Theatre Centre production of Progress: an International Festival of Performance and Ideas, running February 4-15 at The Theatre Centre. Progress is curated by SummerWorks, The Theatre Centre, Why Not Theatre, Volcano Theatre, Videofag, FADO Performance Art Centre, Dancemakers, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and Canada’s National Arts Centre English Theatre.

“Progress is bringing together a series of essential conversations being had by some of our city’s vital thought-leaders in performance. This is a festival led by a collective desire to collaborate in how we think about performance in Toronto and the result is a staggeringly unique and diverse program of work.” – Michael Rubenfeld, SummerWorks Artistic Producer

New to the lineup is Novorossiya: No One’s Land (Ukraine), by Pavel Yurov and Anastasiya Kasilova, directed by Pavel Yurov. Here’s the full final roster of shows for this exciting and intriguing new international performance fest, which will also include workshops and community dialogue:

Novorossiya: No One’s Land (Ukraine) – Curated and presented by SummerWorks
Reading performed in English, translated from the original Russian and Ukranian.
A documentary-style piece based on writer/director Pavel Yurov’s experience as he was taken into captivity by pro-Russian separatists. “Part journalistic experiment, part theatre, this remarkable project asks the painful question: how did the place Yurov once called home become his captor?”

Marathon (Israel) – Curated by SummerWorks, and co-presented with The Koffler Centre for the Arts, supported by Spotlight on Israeli Culture, the Embassy of Israel and the Israeli Consulate (Toronto).
Performed in English – a North American English-language premiere.
Three runners, running in a circle in a physical, psychological and emotional marathon in a deep dive into the Israeli consciousness. “Combining dance, text, theatre and grueling physicality, Marathon uses the autobiographical stories of the performers to reflect a state of constant emergency. Who will survive? And how?”

The Messiah Complex 5.0 (Canada) – Curated by Videofag
Performed in English.
A performance-lecture, multidisciplinary work that incorporates ritual, the piece uses the Harlow experiments – which were used to study infant/mother relationship by placing newborn monkeys with cloth and wire surrogate mothers – as a jumping off point for an examination of religious evolution. “The multidisciplinary work culminates in the creation of hybrid images, videos, diagrams and texts from pop culture, ancient religion, Freudian psychoanalysis, archaeology, queer theory and anthropology.”

D-Sisyphe (décisif) (Tunisia) – Curated by Volcano Theatre, generous support from Why Not Theatre and The Goethe Institute.
Performed in Arabic with English subtitles – North American premiere.
A construction worker, alone and estranged from his family, a social reject and deserted by God, ruminates about his life as he spends the night alone at the construction site as he tries to find hope in the ruins of his life. “Tunisian actor, dancer and playwright Meher Awachri performs his acclaimed interpretation of the ancient myth of Sisyphus, offering insights into contemporary Arab society and the idea of what revolution entails – all through spoken word and choreography.”

Margarete (Poland) – Curated by SummerWorks, supported by the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Toronto.
Performed in English or Polish.
Sixteen audience members. One creator/performer. Sitting down to have coffee or tea. “With humour and irony, [Janek] Turkowski recounts his experience uncovering and constructing stories based on a set of private 8mm films he discovered at an outdoor market in Berlin. The performance is a reflection on the lost and found, through memory and the legacy of silent film.”

Cine Monstro (Brazil) – Curated and presented by Why Not Theatre, with the support of Department of Canadian Heritage
Performed in Portuguese with English subtitles.
A Portuguese-language adaptation of Daniel MacIvor’s Monster. “Brazilian actor and director Enrique Diaz … transforms himself into a series of MacIvor’s characters, from a young boy who tells the story of the neighbour who hacked up his father in the basement to quarrelling lovers or a filmmaker who never completed his epic film, these characters are separate yet eerily related.”

Silent Dinner (Ireland/Canada) – Curated and presented by FADO Performance Art Centre
Performed in English and ASL.
Over the course of an eight-hour performance, 10 people – “a combination of Deaf, CODA (children of Deaf adults) and hearing artists, performers and non-performers from Toronto” – make and eat dinner in silence. After the show, the audience is invited for dessert and a chat with creator Amanda Coogan and colleagues; ASL interpretation will be provided.

But wait – there’s more! Workshops, discussions and panels:

Make. Make Public. – Curated by Dancemakers (workshop)
Creation workshop led by Dancemakers curators Emi Forster and Benjamin Kamino, with people “from any artistic background, with any level of experience are invited to join in collaborative, dance-derived processes.” The public will be invited to see the result and engage in a talkback.

Dancemakers will also curate Dance as Metaphor, Language and Lens, a conversation featuring Progress artists Aharona Israel and Meher Awachri, and Dancemakers’ resident Zoja Smutny.

The Republic of Inclusion – Curated by Alex Bulmer and Sarah Garton Stanley
Part of The Collaborations at Canada’s National Arts Centre English Theatre
“Alex Bulmer and Sarah Garton Stanley call for a rigorous and provocative discussion about the state of inclusion in our theatre community. A conversation for theatre makers, audiences, leaders, funders, all those in the performance world, and those who are being left out. Progress: it’s about accessing the arts and about the arts being accessible.” The event will be live-streamed through http://www.SpiderWebShow.ca

Workshop: Intelligent Body and Seeing Through Movement

Additional artist talkbacks and panels to be announced.

Check out the trailer: