That means it’s time for the cowbell blog’s annual December (pseudo) hiatus.
I say “pseudo” because, as usual, I’ll be seeing and reviewing a few holiday shows this month. In the spirit of holiday surprises, I won’t say what shows—but I will say there will be some holiday-themed/panto fun and shenanigans. So stay tuned later this month!
Happy holidays to you and yours—and all good things for 2020! It’ll be a brand new decade, with fresh opportunities and developments on the horizon.
Allegra Fulton & Alexander Thomas. Set design by Anna Treusch. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Dahlia Katz.
Coal Mine Theatre opened its Toronto premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Between Riverside and Crazy to a packed house at its home on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue last night. Directed by Kelli Fox, the intimately staged storytelling plays in the gray areas of family and the legal system as a widowed retired NYPD cop holds firm in his bid for justice while being a father figure to a strange and diverse assortment of adults both in his home and on the job. Highlighting issues of politics, government, race and racism, Between Riverside and Crazy reveals, with candor and humour, a world where everyone is hustling and everybody lies.
Widowed retired NYPD cop Walter “Pops” Washington (Alexander Thomas) lives in a sweet rent-controlled apartment on New York City’s Riverside Drive, which he’s currently sharing with his son Junior (Jai Jai Jones), recently released from jail; Junior’s girlfriend Lulu (Zarrin Darnell-Martin), a college student studying accounting; Junior’s friend Oswaldo (Nabil Rajo), a recovering addict and ex-con; and a dog (which we never see). He’s also juggling a discrimination suit against the City of New York after being shot six times by a white rookie, who also called him the n-word, during a raid on an after-hours bar back when he was still on the job; a lot of time and money have been going toward this bid for justice, with no immediate end in sight-and on top of losing his beloved wife Dolores, the entire ordeal has impacted on him both physically and psychologically.
Complicating matters for Walter, a friendly catch-up dinner at his place with his former partner Det. Audrey O’Connor (Claire Armstrong) and her fiancé Lt. Dave Caro (Sergio Di Zio) becomes an intervention of sorts when they try to convince him to drop the lawsuit and take the settlement the City has been offering before the deadline arrives. Cajoling turns to manipulation turns to threat, as Dave’s entreaties take a nasty turn—putting Walter’s home, and Junior’s newly acquired freedom from jail, in jeopardy. In the meantime, Junior is suspected of using the apartment to store stolen goods; Lulu says she’s pregnant; and Oswaldo’s visit to family goes terribly wrong. Then, there’s the impending drop-in from the local Church Lady (Allegra Fulton), who turns out to be a substitute for Walter’s usual church visitor—and even she has an angle to work on him!
Stellar work from Thomas as the gruff but loveable Walter; a bear of a man, Walter has a big heart, but finds it difficult to express it. An older and less vital man than he once was, he lashes out by refusing to eat well or take his meds, and self-medicates with alcohol. But despite his stubborn, grouchy demeanour, we come to really care about Walter; during intermission, a woman who sat beside me remarked (as we were so close to the action in the living room) that, at one point, she wanted to reach out to comfort him.
Jones brings an edge of vulnerability to the cool, streetwise Junior; a young man who needs his father’s good opinion as he struggles to be a grown adult and get his life on track. Rajo’s Oswaldo is a struggling lost boy whose knowing swagger belies a fragile soul; and Darnell-Martin’s sweet but dim-witted Lulu isn’t as clueless as she appears. Armstrong’s warm, Tyne Daly-esque O’Connor plays nicely off of Di Zio’s slick, charismatic Caro; while O’Connor’s brand of manipulation is more motherly, Caro employs that reserved for the darker side of politics—shifting from flattering appeals to reason, to mercilessly going for the jugular. And Fulton’s eccentric clairvoyant Church Lady adds some much needed comic relief and magic following some intense moments at the end of the first act.
Nothing is clearly black and white here—all of these moments and relationships play out in the gray areas. Everyone’s on the hustle and everybody lies, so it can be hard to tell who and what to believe. That doesn’t necessarily mean these are bad people; just flawed and desperate, using whatever resources they can—especially manipulation—to get what they want. The big question is: will they do what’s right or what’s easy? Just like real life.
Between Riverside and Crazy continues at Coal Mine Theatre until December 22; advance tickets available online. Please note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time for evening performances; matinées are Sundays at 2:00 p.m.
Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski & Monice Peter (as Mark and Cathy-Ann). Set design by Michelle Tracey. Costume design by Ming Wong. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Nightwood Theatre continues its 40th season with the premiere of Andrea Scott and Nick Green’s Every Day She Rose, co-directed by Andrea Donaldson and Sedina Fiati, and running at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Provocative, fierce and sharply funny, divergent responses to the 2016 Black Lives Matter protest during the Toronto Pride parade force two best friends—a straight Black woman and a gay white man—to examine their relationship and allyship. Their exploration of friendship, oppression and allyship gets meta as these characters morph in and out of the two playwrights who are writing their story; struggling and processing not only the structure of the play, but the nature of and relationship between the two characters, who are to some degree based on themselves.
It’s Toronto Pride 2016, and besties/roommates Cathy-Ann (Monice Peter) and Mark (Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski) are getting decked out and ready to hit the parade route. Out at the parade, the celebratory vibe of their annual ritual takes a somber turn when they encounter a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest blocking the parade route. Back at their downtown condo, Cathy-Ann becomes quiet and pensive, going online to learn about BLM’s demands for a more equitable, inclusive Pride celebration; while Mark shrugs the protest off as a momentarily scary and ultimately poorly timed inconvenience. No longer feeling like celebrating, she opts to absent herself from a night of drinking and dancing; unable to change her mind, he goes off to meet his friends.
That moment of protest at Pride becomes the tipping point of an ongoing series of micro-divisions that have been apparent in their friendship for some time, and these come bubbling to the surface as the debate continues, the heat turned high, when Mark returns. Divergent personal perspectives on the police, Caribana and privilege erupt—not to mention the collision of odd couple-esque personalities—and, more and more, they find that their differences outweigh their similarities.
Woven into Cathy-Ann and Mark’s story is the journey of playwrights Andrea and Nick; and this is where it gets meta, especially since the characters are, to varying degrees, based on the actual playwrights. Debating everything—from structure, to back story, to the inclusion of flashback scenes and fourth wall-breaking monologues—like the characters (Cathy-Ann and Mark) who question their friendship, Andrea and Nick find they must ultimately ask themselves why they’re writing this play.
Outstanding work from Peter and Shepherd-Gawinski in this complex, insightful and sharply funny two-hander that takes us to some uncomfortable places in a powerful, candid way. Playing characters that would otherwise be relegated to “sassy friend” supporting roles, the relationships go beyond the stereotypes to get real—becoming a microcosm of awareness, allyship and oppression Olympics, with issues of prejudice, intersectionality and privilege coming to the fore. Peter is a circumspect, grounded, Devil’s advocate delight as the cerebral, deliberate and sharp-witted Cathy-Ann; a scholar and somewhat of an introvert, Cathy-Ann has two degrees and is working temp jobs to pay the bills. Supportive of and engaged with Mark and the queer community, she finds herself having to rethink these relationships when she realizes the extent to which the Black community is excluded from Pride—and saddened to hear the clueless and negative responses from the white male-dominated queer community, including Mark.
Shepherd-Gawinski is a loud and proud treat as the gregarious, visceral Mark; flamboyant and impetuous, Mark is living the gay man’s dream—a great job, a fabulous condo, sex available with a swipe on his phone, and an awesome best friend. But, as much as he loves Cathy-Ann, Mark just can’t seem to get that the Black experience of oppression isn’t the same as his gay experience. His “colour blindness” makes the Black experience invisible to him—not to mention that, even though he’s gay, he’s still a white male, operating from a position of privilege that a Black woman does not. And, much like Cathy-Ann and Mark, Andrea and Nick are operating as opposites: Andrea is interested in a deep dive, less linear look at these characters and their relationship, while Nick is more comfortable with a less complicated, straightforward chronological approach. But, unlike Mark, Nick seems to get it when it comes to divergent experiences of oppression, and how intersectionality compounds the issue—and wonders how Andrea deals with it.
How does she do it? One day at a time—every day, she rises. We all need to check our privilege, and acknowledge the accompanying benefits; and be aware and mindful of the intersectional nature of oppression, and the barriers created therein—and educate ourselves on effective, positive allyship. And, as co-director Fiati pointed out during the opening night pre-show panel, no one wins when competing in the oppression Olympics.
Every Day She Rose continues at Buddies until December 8; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-975-8555. It’s a two-week run, and you don’t want to miss this—so advance booking or early arrival strongly recommended.
For dates/times of special events, talkbacks and a relaxed performance, check the show page. And, after the performance, check out the engagement space behind the playing area.
Darryl Hopkins, Steve O’Connell & Berni Stapleton. Set & costume design by Shawn Kerwin. Lighting design by Leigh Ann Vardy. Photo by Rich Blenkinsopp.
Factory Theatre continues the celebration of its 50th anniversary with a presentation of Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland’s production of Robert Chafe’s Between Breaths, directed by Jillian Keiley, assisted by Sharon King-Campbell, with music direction by Kellie Walsh. A biographical memory play, the reverse chronological storytelling highlights key moments during the final years of the life of Jon “The Whale Man” Lien, an animal behaviour professor from South Dakota who came to find a home in Newfoundland when he took a position at Memorial University. Eventually becoming known for his work saving over 500 whales caught up in fishing nets before dementia took his mobility, memory and ability to engage with the world as he once did, his relationship with the gentle giants of the sea reminds us of how interconnected are land and sea, man and animal.
Otherworldly, yet grounded in time and place; intensely magical and real, Between Breaths takes us on a reverse trajectory from Jon Lien’s (Steve O’Connell) final days in a long-term care facility, to the frustrating and life-altering onset of his symptoms, to his emerging calling toward saving whales caught up in fishing nets, and salvaging the costly nets for the fishermen. Throughout, Jon is both supported and doubted by his beloved wife Judy (Berni Stapleton), and whale-saving friend and colleague Wayne (Darryl Hopkins), who are alternately exasperated with and taken up by his passion, drive and vision.
Beyond the conservation work, there is a kindred spirit connection between Jon and the whales; an inexplicable, ancestral calling that began the moment he viewed the Rock from the plane—his Viking DNA drawn to the rocky green and surrounding ocean. Present, passionate and proactive in an unwavering commitment to follow through with thoughts and impulses that eventually gel into a broader vision, Jon endeavours to save the gentle giants of the sea and the precious, costly nets that trapped them—contributing to both species conservation and the economic well-being of fishermen.
Lovely, compelling work from the cast in this counter clockwise journey of a man, his work with the beautiful creatures he works to save, and his life and work partners. O’Connell gives a mercurial, profoundly poignant performance as Jon Lien. Charismatic, impulsive and at times infuriating in his single-mindedness, Jon has a sharp mind and enormous heart that can be a challenge for his family and colleagues to keep up with, but he always has a way of turning situations—and people—around. He is well-supported by Stapleton’s Judy, a loving wife and partner in life who holds the fort at home with their children, and continues to reach out in the face of his advanced dementia, even when it’s unclear that he can understand or respond. And by Hopkins’ gruff, salty Wayne; initially cynical and skeptical of Jon’s motives and vision—and wary of folks from away—Wayne is won over by Jon’s contagious optimism, passion and energy. And Wayne gradually comes to trust in himself as much as Jon does.
Accompanied by a live acoustic and vocal soundtrack performed by The Once (Brianna Gosse, Steve Maloney and Kevin Woolridge), and featuring beautiful, haunting whale song, the scenes are performed with minimal set pieces and props on Shawn Kerwin’s stunning blue stage, where the action plays out as if under water. The swirling blues and greens below the sparkling ripples reflecting the sun and sky above—and a C-shaped ramp wraps the playing area—evoking the unseen life beneath the surfaces of the ocean and the mind; the sights and sounds both mirror and complement the action.
Between Breaths reminds us of the strength and fragility of even the largest and most powerful of Earth’s creatures; and Jon Lien’s struggles with evolving dementia run parallel to the experience of a trapped whale—with all the notes of grief that accompany those moments when a living being comes face to face with its own mortality. Life, love, joy, memory and connection happen between those breaths. It is both heartbreaking and inspiring to witness.
Between Breaths continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until December 8; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416- 504-9971. Go see this.
Bronson Lake & Alison Dickson. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Paige Foskett. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.
Alumnae Theatre opened its second week of the FireWorks Festival last night, with Crystal Wood’s Grief Circus, directed by Paige Foskett. As moving as it is razor-sharp, this timely multimedia piece holds up a mirror to society’s morbid fascination, involvement and sharing in the death of strangers. A family has lost a beloved daughter and sister, an event that becomes fresh meat for the news and social media feeding frenzy. As they navigate the media circus that follows, mother and sister take very different paths to work through their grief.
Leah (Alison Dickson) speaks to us directly, our host and narrator as we witness scenes—sometimes in flashback—around the events of her older sister Jesse’s (Claire MacMaster) disappearance. Jesse’s body was later found in a ravine, and both Leah and her mother Carol (Bernadette Medhurst) find themselves in the spotlight of an often intrusive, uncaring news media—even confronted by a photographer (Jack Everett) on the steps of their small-town church when they attend Jesse’s funeral. In the aftermath, while Leah finds herself slogging through a callous, click bait world of modern news and social media, bombarded with ignorance and cruelty as she struggles to work through grief and loss, she is appalled to find her mother joining in—writing a book about the experience of losing her daughter, and working with PR folks to book interviews.
Alternating between past and present, we see a 15-year-old Leah interacting with Jesse, who is her best friend, advisor, confidante and go-to source of info on the state of their parents’ shaky marriage; then a few years later being invited to a party with Jesse and her friends in Toronto, where Jesse disappears after leaving on her own. We see Leah go head to head with Carol over Carol’s making an industry of Jesse’s death; and the battle for Leah’s participation in a television interview, taking place the same day as her first day at university. And Leah has a meet cute with Charlie (Bronson Lake), an awkward but sweet university student; they go on a sort of date, but his motives are called into question when an altered recording of a chat he had with their server (Everett) turns up on the news, showing Leah in the worst possible light as the troubled sister of a famous dead girl.
Lovely work from the cast in this timely, moving and razor-sharp exploration of how news and social media can intrude upon and dishonour the departed, and have a profound impact on their loved ones. Dickson gives a stand-out performance as the whip-smart, introverted, wry-witted Leah; precocious, irreverent and wise beyond her years, Leah can be her own worst enemy as she keeps herself informed about world events—events that spark deep anxiety over the possibility of catastrophe. Conflicted about engaging with the Internet following Jesse’s death, what she finds there only serves to make her journey through grief more difficult.
MacMaster gives an energetic, luminous performance as the bubbly extrovert Jesse; the best big sister Leah could have, she’s super supportive and encouraging—balancing a respect for Leah’s boundaries with gentle pushes outside her comfort zone. Medhurst does a nice job with the conflicted Carol; a mother who’s lost her daughter, she deals with her grief the only way she knows how—honour Jesse’s memory so she won’t be forgotten. Lake gives an adorably awkward performance as the bashful Charlie; somewhat of an introvert himself, Charlie is interested in Leah, but unfortunately not very media-savvy. And Everett offers a great range of news media folk, from the intrusive jerk photographer at the funeral, to serious CTV reporter, to sleazy “journalist”.
Timely, moving and sharply funny, Grief Circus incorporates video and projected social media messaging (video design by director Foskett) to illustrate the scope of the family’s loss of a wonderful, energetic young woman—and the inappropriate, at times heartless, thoughtless and intrusive, response of the public. Strangers turning up at the funeral, or making comments in person or online; and, worst of all, the anonymous social media posters who cast negative, clueless aspersions about Jesse’s character—especially the trolls who say that Jesse had it coming.
Grief Circus continues in the Alumnae Studio Theatre until November 17; get tickets online, by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1) or in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only). There will be a post-show talkback with the director, playwright and cast following the Saturday, November 16 matinée performance.
FireWorks continues its three-week run until November 24, presenting a new show each week. The festival closes with Genevieve Adam’s If the Shoe Fits, directed by Heather Keith (Nov 20-24).
James Dallas Smith & Michaela Washburn. Set & video design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Kinoo Arcentales. Lighting design by Jennifer Lennon. Photo by Dahlia Katz.
Biography meets pointed satire in Soulpepper’s production of Daniel David Moses’ Almighty Voice and His Wife; directed by Jani Lauzon, who performed in the Great Canadian Theatre Company’s premiere production 28 years ago, the show is currently running at the Young Centre. Using the tragic Indigenous love story of real-life Cree runner and hunter Almighty Voice and his wife White Girl as a starting point, the storytelling shifts from linear narrative to cutting vaudevillian send-up as the play dives deep into the contemporary reverberations of the ongoing clashes between European and Indigenous ways of life—and the oppression, ignorance and stereotyping that go with it. Profoundly moving, playful and poetic, it’s a poignant and magical theatrical work featuring some uncomfortable truths and discomfiting comic jabs.
Almighty Voice (James Dallas Smith) and White Girl (Michaela Washburn) are magnetically drawn to each other, his playful courtship breaking through her stern sense of decorum. Although a very young woman, she’s nobody’s fool; her experience of the world forever changed by her time in a Residential School. And as he expresses baffled irreverence for the ways of the white settlers and government, transforming hunting grounds into farmland, she is haunted by the white man’s “glass god” who watches over everything they do. Both have been given European names by the white authorities: he has been called Jean-Baptiste and she Marie; a proud and respected Cree man, he insists on his true name, Almighty Voice.
Arrested for shooting a cow for a feast, when he sees a scaffold being erected outside the jail, Almighty Voice hears that he will hang for his crime—a cruel joke that sets into motion a series of tragic events. On the run from the law, White Girl insists on coming with him; and things go from bad to worse when he kills a Mountie in self-defence. When she becomes pregnant, she must let him go on alone while she returns to family to give birth to their child. In the end, he and two warrior friends are killed in a stand-off with 100 Mounties and a cannon, the two lovers getting a final glimpse of each other in visions at the moment of his death, his infant son left without a father and their people starving as hunting grounds are replaced with farmland.
Act II shifts into razor-sharp satire, structured as a vaudeville performance. Here, Ghost (Smith) is the spirit of Almighty Voice, at first acting as the disoriented straight man to the saucy uniformed Interlocutor (Washburn), then gradually getting more familiar and comfortable with the performance style. The antiquated slapstick and bawdy theatrics shine a glaring spotlight on ongoing historical and contemporary clashes between European settler culture and government and Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. Scathing social commentary makes for some uncomfortable moments of dark comedy, as the “Show Indian” performs traditional dances and situation comedy making fun of Indigenous Peoples, and takes hits for the entertainment of the masses. And then, the tables are turned—and all the horrible stereotypes, prejudice and name-calling generated by European oppressors against Indigenous Peoples reverse course and land squarely on the Interlocutor.
Beautiful, compelling performances from Smith and Washburn in this epic, poetic and profoundly moving piece of storytelling. Smith brings a playful, impish charm to the proud, determined Almighty Voice, sparking both comedy and passion alongside Washburn’s fierce, strong-willed, resilient White Girl. A perfect match of complementary, courageous kindred spirits, Almighty Voice’s irreverent, almost devil-may-care attitude is in stark contrast to his wife’s wary caution, borne of her lived experience at a Residential School. During Act II, the two actors demonstrate considerable comedic chops with vintage mercurial banter, slapstick antics and satirical characterizations. The comedy is dark, pointed and often discomfiting in its racist oppressor jibes at Indigenous Peoples. And a surprising transformation takes place as the tables are turned on the authoritarian soldier Interlocutor.
The evocative, well-crafted work of the design team is in great evidence here, creating an atmosphere of heightened reality and vaudevillian showmanship. Ken MacKenzie’s set and video design is particularly stunning; the backdrop of the set is from the point of view of looking up at the sky through the smoke hole of a teepee. And the glowing, shifting full moon projection adds to the magic, poetry and natural wonder inherent in the storytelling.
Uncomfortable truths told with an epic love story and sharp wit. Go see this.
Almighty Voice and His Wife continues at the Young Centre until November 10; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Last night’s (Tuesday) performance was sold out, so advance booking strongly recommended to avoid disappointment.
I had the pleasure of attending the launch of Pamela Williams’ new book Evelyn’s Stories at a reading to a packed room on Sunday at the Tranzac Club. Known mostly for her beautiful, haunting black and white photographs of cemetery sculpture, Williams has assembled a collection of brief stories, as told to her by her mother Evelyn—and some handed down to Evelyn by her mother—in a series of short vignettes. Evelyn’s Stories are literary snapshots of family across time and space, ranging from 1900s Glasgow, to 1930s Thornbury and into the 1970s and beyond.
Told with unflinching candor, sharp detail and wry humour, Evelyn’s Stories is a window on moments of personal history and experience; inviting us for brief peeks (the stories are postcard-sized or slightly longer) inside the world of Williams’ family, as told to her by her mother, and to her mother by her grandmother.
It’s family biography as comedy and drama, with eyebrow-raising tales of marriage and infidelity (“When Hector Married Stella” and “Keep Toby Out, England, 1907”); charming and funny childhood shenanigans and observations (“Bathtub Visitor” and “Divorce”); memories of brutal and sweet elementary school teachers (“Mrs. Pinch” and “Miss Chalk’s Replacement”); tragic loss (“New Spectacles, Glasgow, 1906”); hilarious social interactions (“That’s Why I Asked You” and “At the Cinema”); and harrowing but comical senior driving mishaps (“Two Motorcycles” and “A Ride on the Wild Side”).
As the family tales shift from poignant, to comic, to tragic, to saucy, Evelyn’s Stories captures the heart, lives, loves and experiences of generations of family who crossed the ocean from Glasgow, Scotland to settle in rural/small-town Ontario, Canada.
Check out Williams’ book collection online, including her photography books; order via email.