Doctor/patient relationship gets real as they exorcise demons in Criminal Girlfriends’ razor sharp, intense, darkly funny Fierce

 

Emmelia Gordon (top) and Marisa Crockett (bottom). Photo by John Gundy.

 

Criminal Girlfriends opened its intimate production of George F. Walker’s Fierce to a sold out house at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night. Directed by Wes Berger, assisted by Martha Moldaver, the new play bears all the classic Walker trademarks of tight, mercurial dialogue; quirky, complex characters; edgy, dark comedy; and surprising revelations.

Set in a psychiatrist’s office, Fierce puts us into a court-mandated session between patient Jayne (Emmelia Gordon) and doctor Maggie (Marisa Crockett). In order to avoid jail time for repeated disorderly and dangerous behaviour while on multiple drug-induced benders, Jayne must put in some couch time and get signed off by the doc. Jayne begrudgingly—and full of skepticism, insisting that she’s not an addict—attends the appointment, immediately throwing up walls of resistance as Maggie tries to get to the bottom of why the benders and the subsequent wandering into traffic.

Over the course of the next 75 minutes, the power dynamic shifts back and forth, and revelations emerge from both sides. Pushing for some personal give and take, and armed with some deep-dive research on Maggie, Jayne coaxes Maggie to tell her own story—which, while initially appearing to be a pain-in-the-ass move, becomes more about building trust. As each woman tells her story, they realize they have a lot in common: Both are survivors, with troubled pasts and criminal records. And both were drawn to occupations aimed at helping people (Jayne worked as a high school guidance counsellor). And while Maggie withholds details that come out later in the conversation, Jayne plays around with her story to the point that it’s hard to tell what’s true. And the session takes an even more unorthodox turn and, in a bizarre way, cements the bond that took root during their initial verbal sparring.

Brilliant, complementary performances from Gordon and Crockett, playing characters that are perfect foils for each other. Crockett brings a tightly controlled, almost prim, edge to Maggie; but, as we soon discover, there’s something more bubbling just below the surface there. Whip-smart and suffering no bullshit, Maggie is a straight-talking professional who gives as good as she gets; she’s tougher than she looks and genuinely wants to help. Gordon’s Jayne is part professional smart-ass, part unpredictable wounded animal; tough-talking and cagey, and deflecting with sarcasm, Jayne’s hard edges don’t entirely cover the deep-seated pain and denial. And when that mask starts to come down, we see a woman haunted by personal tragedy and in despair over not being able to do more.

It’s a complex, intense, at times disturbing, dance of revelation, confession and being real—as poignant as it is funny, and so very true to the mark. Walker is famous for writing about characters on the fringe of society, and while Jayne and Maggie are both what could be considered as white collar professionals, their shared histories of substance abuse, run-ins with the law and struggles with mental illness are a stark reminder that there’s more to people than meets the eye.

Bonus points for including Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper in the rockin’ pre-show soundtrack.

Shifting power dynamic and a doctor/patient relationship gets real as they exorcise the demons in Criminal Girlfriends’ razor sharp, intense, darkly funny Fierce.

Fierce continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre until March 3. Check here for dates, times and advance tickets. It’s an intimate space and getting good buzz, so advance booking strongly recommended.

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Three generations of women navigate life, love & those feelings “down there” in TIP’s hilarious, poignant, intimate Little Gem

Top to bottom: Rebecca De La Cour, Barbara Taylor & Billie Jean Shannon. Photo by Sean Walsh.

The Toronto Irish Players (TIP) opened their production of Elaine Murphy’s Little Gem, directed by Cliona Kenny, on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage to a packed house last night.

Drawing from the old tradition of the Gaelic storyteller (the Seanachai), Little Gem’s commentator device uses a Trinitarian approach—in this case, the story is told from the perspectives of three women: a granddaughter, a mother and grandmother from the same family.

Set in present-day Dublin, we open on Amber’s (Billie Jean Shannon) tale of the fateful night of her Debs (a city-wide high school prom), and the complex emotional dance of relationships with her boyfriend Paul and school teach-like bff Jo. Then, there’s her mother Lorraine (Rebecca De La Cour), a single mom, husband Ray long gone to who knows where, who works in a department store. She’s been forced to go on leave and see a shrink after she loses it on an extremely annoying and vindictive regular customer. And there’s Kay, Lorraine’s ma (Barbara Taylor), a breast cancer survivor and 24/7 caregiver to her husband Gem, struggling with an itch of her own.

Lovely, compelling—and endearingly comical—work from these three actors; each bringing her own brand of outspoken cheek, feistiness and strength to these characters. Shannon gives us a youthful, impetuous, and keen sense of social awareness and observation to Amber. Mouthy and full of teen sass and mortification, Amber’s a master at projecting an image of giving zero fucks, but there’s a tender, loving heart there that also longs to be loved. De La Cour brings a desperate housewife, poignant sense of resiliency to Lorraine. An anxious, exhausted member of the sandwich generation, Lorraine struggles to communicate with her distant teenage daughter, and worries about the well-being of her aging mother and seriously ill father; and she finds that she can’t stress clean away her own sense of loneliness and lack of a definitive life of her own. Taylor is a laugh riot and a force to be reckoned with as the family matriarch. Now in the winter years of life, there’s heat in that tired 60-something body yet—and Kay’s stubborn sense of resolve overcomes any sense of pride or shame as she actively, and at times hilariously, seeks solutions to her problems. Eschewing spoilers, I’ll have to leave it at that—and you’ll have to go see for yourself.

Life goes on for these three women; and unexpected events change the course of the day-to-day, forcing challenging decisions, personal growth, and acts of strength and courage. And, in the process, the lives of these three women—living separately together—are brought together into new and closer bonds of family and womanhood.

Nicely staged, on an effective and minimalist set featuring beautifully rendered charcoal family portraits (set by Bernadette Hunt and Sean Treacy), each character has her own playing area, with each storyteller staying within her own space until these inextricably intertwined lives gradually come closer together during the final scenes.

Three generations of women navigate life, love and those feelings “down there” in TIP’s hilarious, poignant, intimate Little Gem.

Little Gem continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until March 3; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888. The Irish Players are an extremely popular local community company, so advance booking strongly recommended.

And no worries about thinking this is a “chick play,” the men were laughing as hard as the women. Having said that, it also struck me that, even though Mother’s Day is some months away, this is the perfect girls’ night out for women, their moms and grandmothers.

Promises, empty houses & trying to make it right in the haunting, heartbreaking, thought-provoking Ipperwash

Samantha Brown, PJ Prudat & James Dallas Smith. Costumes by Jeff Chief. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay. Photo by Kaytee Dalton.

 

Finally got out to see Native Earth Performing Arts’ production of Falen Johnson’s Ipperwash last night; now in the final week of its run at Aki Studio.

The catchy, familiar pre-show music (assembled by composer/sound designer Deanna H. Choi) swings with the sounds of 1940s wartime favourites—cheerful, upbeat and brimming with optimism for the future. The music stands in stark contrast to the grim, derelict scene on stage: a girl lying still on the sand centre stage, flanked by a neglected looking house on one side and a beat-up life guard tower on the other.

This is where Bea (PJ Prudat) finds herself when she arrives at the Kettle and Stony Point Reserve. Startled and gravely concerned to find a child playing on the beach, she shouts out the danger to the girl (Samantha Brown). An Afghanistan war veteran, Bea has taken a year-long contract with Canada’s Department of Defence, joining the clean-up team at the former Camp Ipperwash. The place is a dangerous mess, the appropriated land riddled with shells, landmines and various other ordinance left behind by the army—and the environment poisoned by lead and waste dumped into the lakes.

The mysterious girl disappears and Bea meets another resident: the gruff, self-appointed reserve security guard Slip (James Dallas Smith), who softens when he learns that she’s native (Bea is Anishinaabe), and begrudgingly shows her the way to his Uncle Tim’s place, which Bea is renting during her stay. Now a resident at a seniors’ home, Tim (Jonathan Fisher) has kept his family home and rents it out; but, for some reason, he won’t join Bea inside for tea.

Taking this job because she wants to give back, Bea is confident that she can do some good, and soon finds herself climbing mountains of paperwork as she struggles with her own personal demons. And that mysterious girl keeps appearing—and there’s something strange about her. Beyond the environmental damage of Ipperwash, Bea learns of the devastating personal toll—of lives uprooted and lost. Tim is a WWII veteran, who left his mother and younger sister to serve his country. Upon his return, he found his home was gone, the house moved to a location convenient for the army; and his mother and sister dead, buried on the land where their home originally stood. Even though he’s a veteran, the camp is off limits and he can’t even visit their graves. Revelations and relationships emerge; and Bea ends up helping—and being helped—in ways even she couldn’t have foreseen.

Lovely work from the cast in this personal story of a national shame told with candor, humour and heart. Brown brings an ethereal, luminous quality to the strange wise child Kwe; and Prudat mines Bea’s exterior toughness and determination with a haunted, hunted vulnerability. Smith is entertainingly cynical and irreverent as Slip; and there’s a deeply protective quality and wealth of knowledge beneath that suspicious, detached front Slip puts on. And Fisher is heartbreaking as Tim, a man who gave to his country only to have everything he loved taken away—the very army he served with barring him from his homeland. Haunted and struggling with a displaced homecoming, Tim avoids the house he grew up in—the memories to fresh and raw.

Promises, empty houses and trying to make it right in the haunting, heartbreaking, thought-provoking Ipperwash.

Ipperwash runs until February 18. Get advance tickets online; it’s the final week of the run, so catch it before it closes.

Power, connection & identity in the potent, magical, eye-opening Watah Theatre Double Bill

“A world without fairy tales and myths would be as drab as life without music.”—The Watah Theatre

The Watah Theatre presents a Double Bill of biomythographies, including an excerpt reading of d’bi.young anitafrika’s Once Upon A Black Boy and the world premiere of Najla Nubyanluv’s I Cannot Lose My Mind, running in the Studio at Streetcar Crowsnest.

Once Upon A Black Boy, written and performed by d’bi.young anitafrika, opens with a mother singing to her infant son. Rocking him in her arms as she sings, she tells him he is beautiful and loved, enveloping him with encouragement and protection. When he grows into an energetic, self-involved (what teen is not?) 6’ tall 15-year-old, she must call him out on the condition of his room, slacking off on his chores and changing out of his uniform before he comes home from school. Because, now, she is afraid for him. She is afraid that others won’t see a 15-year-old child, but a scary, big Black man—and she’s terrified that assumptions based on fear, prejudice and racism could get him killed.

D'bi Young-54-flat-2
d’bi.young anitafrika

Told through spoken word, song and a cast of multiple characters, Once Upon A Black Boy is as much about Black motherhood as it is about raising a Black son—and how Black bodies are treated differently in the face of systemic and institutional racism. Joyful and hopeful, then exasperated and deeply concerned, anitafrika’s performance covers the complex array of experience of a Black mother—longing and hoping for the best, but bracing and preparing for the worst. The mother also fears what may happen when she’s not around, from having to be at work and, even more importantly, if she were to get sick. Her sister has just been diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer, which we see played out when the sister visits the doctor to check out a lump and is instructed to keep an eye on it and return in six months.

Moving, insightful and peppered with playful comic moments—and filled with music and sharply-defined characters—anitafrika’s storytelling is both compelling and entertaining. I look forward to seeing where this story goes.

I Cannot Lose My Mind, written and performed by Najla Nubyanluv and directed by d’bi.young anitafrika, chronicles a Black womxn’s* quest to be rid of depression. Discovering an inexplicable mutual connection with a kind and helpful Black female therapist, the womxn finds she must also put up with the therapist’s questionable colleagues: two white male doctors who are happy to push pills onto their patients, including a hilarious list of possible side effects—but, oh, they have additional pills to take care of those too. Experiencing a dreamscape of shared connections with a group of seven women, some of whom were also being treated for depression—and including the therapist and her sweet, elderly receptionist—the womxn finds a bigger world outside her day-to-day life. Trouble is, the doctors have also discovered these mythological connections and want to harness the womxns’ collective power for themselves.

rsz_najla_nubyanluv_in_i_cannot_lose_my_mind_-_photo_by_enas_satir_4_1
Najla Nubyanluv

Telling the story through movement, song and a cast of characters, Nubyanluv weaves personal experience, dreams and mythology, creating a landscape of magical connections with a larger community as the womxn navigates therapy, medication and health care practitioners who don’t have her best interests in mind. Dressed in a goddess-like white gown, Nubyanluv gives a fluid, playful and mesmerizing performance. Connecting with the audience on a personal level as the story unfolds, she draws us into this world. This is what it’s like to experience depression—and struggle to get better and get your life back as you try to make sense of an often senseless world.

Both of these biomythographies demonstrate how anitafrika and Nubyanluv walk the talk of some of the key principles The Watah Theatre teaches its resident artists: Who are you? How are you? And what is your purpose? Theatre-making as self-discovery: the artist coming to the work as a human being, connecting with their lived experience, and then sharing that discovery as they connect with an audience. Making their lives as the make their art.

These stories also highlight the intersections of oppression, particularly the health care system’s failure to treat women of colour with equal respect and diligence. During the talkback that followed the performance, anitafrika also mentioned the importance of recognizing how we all perpetuate stigma ourselves, and to turn our focus away from how we are oppressed in our daily lives to how we propagate oppression. We need to examine power, not just how it’s exerted upon us, but how we exert our own power on others. Are we using our power for support and allyship—or to oppress and demean?

Power, connection and identity in the potent, magical, eye-opening Watah Theatre Double Bill.

The Watah Theatre Double Bill continues in the Streetcar Crowsnest Studio till February 17; advance tickets available online.

*This is The Watah Theatre’s preferred spelling of woman/women.

Valentines through the ages & the private face of grief in Shotgun Juliet’s intimate, tender Jewel

Pip Dwyer in Jewel. Photo by Jackie Smulan.

 

Shotgun Juliet opened its production of Joan MacLeod’s Jewel, directed by Matthew Eger, to a packed house at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night.

Jewel was inspired by the sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland during a Valentine’s Day storm on the Atlantic on February 15, 1982, a national tragedy that saw 84 lives lost. The two-year Canadian Royal Commission that followed found numerous design and safety flaws, as well as ineffective inspection and regulation, and subsequently made a number of recommendations to the oil and gas industry, as well as the federal government. Lawsuits were settled out of court in a $20-million package, duly noted in the program notes as “peanuts for oil companies.”

Jewel puts a deeply personal face on this tragedy. Set in the Peace River Valley on Valentine’s Day 1985, three years after the accident, we’re in Marjorie’s (Pip Dwyer) mobile home. Dressed in a flannel nighty, long johns, boots and a heavy knit jacket, and holding a bucket of milk, we find her standing in her kitchen, starring a million miles away. Remembering.

She recounts Valentine’s Days over the years, a personal history of romance that is both touching and hilariously funny. Especially endearing is the unfolding romance with Harry, who proposed to her – a city girl from Calgary – in a tent in Northern Alberta. And then Valentine’s Day 1982, when Harry was one of the men working on the Ocean Ranger and the RCMP arrived on her doorstep. Listening to country music and local messages on the radio, and occasionally hollering at the dog to stay outside, she shares homemade beer and speaks to Harry throughout – and the love comes through. The heartache. The loss. The disbelief. The anger. The trying to move on.

Dwyer gives a luminous, compelling performance in this emotional, haunting solo show. Radiating that classic, independent Prairie girl can-do attitude, her Marjorie is cheeky, funny and straight-talking – and also deeply vulnerable. Fiercely and romantically committed to her marriage, Marjorie’s still wearing her wedding ring and speaking with the ghost of her love three years after he’s gone. The reason for this loss is infuriating – and we share her disbelief and anger, the intimate staging putting us in that mobile home kitchen with her. And that private expression of love, loss and grief is both beautiful and heartbreaking to watch.

With shouts to John Dwyer, who supplied his voice-over talents as the affable local Radio Host. And to the design team, including Jackie Smulan, Blair Purdy and the company for the homey, detailed kitchen set, and the equally warming music and evocative atmospheric sound.

Valentines through the ages and the private face of grief in Shotgun Juliet’s intimate, tender Jewel.

Jewel continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre till February 14, with evening performances at 8pm and a matinee on February 11 at 2pm; advance tickets available online. It’s an intimate space and a short run, so advance booking is strongly recommended.

 

Putting the spotlight on who gets to tell the story in the hilarious, gut-wrenching, deeply moving BANG BANG

Karen Robinson, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah, Richard Zeppieri, Jeff Lillico & Sébastien Heins. Set design by Nick Blais. Costume design by Lindsay Dagger Junkin. Lighting design by Oz Weaver. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

 

What happens when a white playwright’s play, inspired by the shooting of an unarmed young Black man by a Black female cop, becomes a huge success destined for a Hollywood movie adaptation?

Factory Theatre presents the world premiere of Kat Sandler’s BANG BANG, directed by Sandler, assisted by Kwaku Okyere, with dramaturgy by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard. Inspired by all too common headlines of innocent lives lost, the play turns a spotlight on how these stories are told and who gets to tell them.

Suspended from the force two years ago, former rookie police officer Lila (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah) now lives with her mother Karen (Karen Robinson), a psychologist, and the memory of her deceased cop father. Lila’s story—and that of Derek Chambers, the young man she shot—is of particular interest to playwright Tim (Jeff Lillico), who wanted to write an important, socially relevant piece about excessive and deadly police force; and this case is unusual—and dramatically juicy—in that it involved a Black female police officer.

When Tim shows up unexpectedly at Karen’s door to see Lila one rainy day, the reason for his visit is even more of a surprise than his arrival. His play Hands Up was a huge success and is being turned into a Hollywood movie. And they’re about to have another surprise visitor: actor Jackie (Sébastien Heins), who’ll be playing the police officer—and whose arrival is abruptly heralded by security detail Tony (Richard Zeppieri). And just when you thought things couldn’t get any weirder, amidst a morning of day drinking (all except Karen), Lila decides that they need to do selected readings of the play, insisting that this will be helpful for her. And that’s when shit gets really real.

Outstanding work from the ensemble on this roller coaster ride of ideas, emotions and storytelling. Robinson brings both ferocity and vulnerability to Karen, a protective mother and a sharp, wry-witted professional. Willing to do whatever’s necessary to shield her daughter from harm, Karen also struggles with how Lila’s actions reflect on her. As Lila, Roberts-Abdullah rides the edge of good-humoured self-deprecation and hopeless despair. Lost and isolated, and putting on as brave a face as she can, Lila is haunted by the shooting, nursing her pain with outbursts of edgy humour and sliding into day drinking as she tries to make it through the day.

Lillico’s multilayered performance as Tim gives us a driven, ambitious and socially awkward young man who longs to make a name for himself as much as he wants to make a social statement. Although he has no ties to the community or profession that are key components of the story, Tim feels entitled to tell it—and feels justified in researching the finer details through Google and interviews. Caught up in his own growing celebrity, does he even know who or what he’s writing this for anymore?

Heins is an energetic ball of fire as Jackie—and does an excellent job with the public and private faces of celebrity. An extroverted master of put-on sincerity, and referring to himself in the third person on the one hand, Jackie also gives a genuinely passionate account of a play he saw that also tells the story of a police shooting of an innocent Black youth. Driven and ambitious like Tim, Jackie is also biracial and more socially astute than his former Disney child star turned wannabe serious actor persona might indicate. Zeppieri is an irreverent, foul-mouthed delight as Tony; a former cop himself and a bull in a china shop socially speaking, Tony has some surprisingly gentle qualities beneath that gruff, macho exterior. And he gives a hilarious read of the Hands Up stage directions.

Who gets to tell these stories—and how and when? And what kind of impact will the telling have on the immediate audience and the public at large? Rarely do you get to see a play that makes you think, laugh, puts you on the edge of your seat and moves you to tears like BANG BANG.

The design team has created a marvelous, theatrical environment for this play within a play journey: from the visible props tables in the unmasked wings that flank the gorgeous living room set (set by Nick Blais) and lighting scaffolding (lighting by Oz Weaver), to the snippets of epic, sweeping soundtracks that emerge throughout (sound by Verne Good).

BANG BANG continues in the Factory Theatre mainspace until February 18; advance tickets strongly recommended.

The meaning of life, death & the role of a lifetime in the moving, tender & funny Or Not To Be

Andrew Robinson, Shawn DeSouza-Coelho & Karen Scobie in Or Not To Be—photo by Vic Finucci

 

I was back at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night, this time for Glass Hammer Productions’ presentation of Andrew Batten’s Or Not To Be, directed by Julia Haist. I saw the premiere at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival last year and was excited to see the evolution of the piece.

Actor Ben (Shawn DeSouza-Coelho) and director Sebastian (Andrew Robinson), also best friends, are working on putting together a production of Hamlet, with Ben playing the tragic hero. It’s the production of a lifetime—and the role of a lifetime for Ben—in more ways than one. Ben is living with a rare cancer, and his life now revolves around post-op treatments, medical appointments and an uncertain future. Rounding out his support team are his family and partner Sarah (Karen Scobie)—all touched in his or her own way by Ben’s illness.

Beneath the brave face Ben puts on for the world is a deep-seated internal conflict about the project and his treatment. As he struggles with side effects, low energy, frustration, and the fear of forgetting his lines and sucking at the role, he begins to wonder who he’s doing all of this for—and he’s faced with some hard choices, the impact of which will ripple out to those he loves.

Really lovely work and great chemistry from this three-hander cast in this intimate and candid production. DeSouza-Coelho’s Ben is a compelling picture of stoicism and determination, his thousand-mile stare and stillness belying the troubled soul beneath the surface; and he gives us nicely drawn Hamlet in a selection of classic soliloquies. Robinson brings the perfect balance of cockiness and warmth to Sebastian; Ben’s best friend since grade school, his theatrical ambitions are put into perspective by his support and care of Ben. Scobie gives Sarah a poignant sense of vulnerability and conflict as Ben’s lovingly supportive and uncomplaining partner; torn between wanting what’s best for Ben and not wanting to let him go, Sarah must confront her own feelings and motives. These relationship dynamics have all the truth, humour and feeling of people who know each other well—and in Ben and Sebastian’s case, a long time. And while the truth may be hard to take, it’s served up with love and honesty.

In the end, it makes you think. How would you react in Ben’s situation? What would your life be? And, as your life is right now, what’s your Hamlet? We are reminded that time is a precious, non-renewable resource—and despite the best intentions of those we love, it is we who must ultimately decide what path our lives will take.

With shouts to Liz Currie, the intrepid stage manager, lighting designer and tech in the booth; and to Wellspring, an organization—noted in the program—that provides programs and services for people living with cancer and their caregivers.

The meaning of life, death and the role of a lifetime in the moving, tender and funny Or Not To Be.

Or Not To Be continues at Red Sandcastle until January 28, Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm, with 2 pm matinees on Jan 20, 21, 27 and 28. Tickets available by calling the box office at 416 845-9411, or online at this link for first seven shows and this link for the final seven shows.