Toronto Fringe: Two men reach out for each other in times of division & change in the intimate, tender, layered The Seat Next to the King

Tanisha Taitt directs Minmar Gaslight Productions’ run of Steven Elliott Jackson’s beautifully compelling The Seat Next to the King, winner of the 2017 Toronto Fringe Best New Play contest, now running in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Opening in 1964 in a public washroom in Washington, D.C., The Seat Next to the King presents an imagined relationship that develops between two men who work for two of America’s most important political figures of the time.

Bayard Rustin (Kwaku Okyere) and Walter Jenkins (Conor Ling) meet and interact in a beautiful, intricate dance of desire, race, politics and confronting one’s true self unfolds in the push/pull of their initial meeting as strangers, shifting to brief moments of genuine connection and sharing as they get to know each other. Bookended by another washroom meeting years later, we see how their lives have changed—for the world and for themselves.

Lovely, connected work from Okyere and Ling. Okyere’s Bayard is outspoken, frank and charming, with keen, sharp powers of observation; despite being shunned by family and friends, Bayard is out. His choice has cost him, and while he doesn’t appear to regret it, there is profound pain and loneliness beneath his joyful, extrovert manner. Ling goes deep into the layers of Walter’s inner conflict; an introverted man, full of desire and shame, Walter longs for a man’s touch, but can’t bring himself out of his double life. And the chemistry between these two men makes their encounters both beautiful and heartbreaking to witness.

Two men reach out for each other in times of division and change in the intimate, tender, layered The Seat Next to the King.

The Seat Next to the King continues in the TPM Mainspace until July 16. With a standing ovation in a packed house at last night’s 11:30pm performance, advance booking is a must for this one.

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Toronto Fringe: Trippy good times as philosophy meets stand-up meets storytelling in Graham Clark’s Not Here

Graham Clark returns to Toronto Fringe—or does he?—with Graham Clark’s Not Here, running in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace.

Speaking to us via video from a small monitor mounted in front of a masked “surrogate” performer’s face, Clark gives a multimedia talking head performance—and the surrogate provides accompanying posture and hand gestures.

Going from riffs on parking at home in front of our screens, especially on Netflix, Clark shifts to the more up close and personal experience of travelling to his girlfriend’s hometown to arrange her father’s funeral over the Christmas holiday. Weaving death, family and small-town Alberta into the storytelling, Clark’s storytelling reveals a gift for sharp observation and a quirky sense of curiosity, making for a funny and at times poignant ride.

Trippy good times as philosophy meets stand-up meets storytelling in Graham Clark’s Not Here.

Graham Clark’s Not Here continues in the TPM Backspace until July 15; book in advance for this one, guys-last night was sold out. Book online on the showpage or get to the TPM box office early.

Toronto Fringe: Love, joy & taming dragons in the funny, frank, moving The Clergy Project

A rabbi, a minister and a priest walk into a theatre…

Happy Fringe, guys! I started my Toronto Fringe adventures with the opening of Soulo Theatre’s production of The Clergy Project, directed by Tracey Erin Smith, which played to a sold-out house and a standing ovation last night at First Narayever Congregation.

It’s no secret that I love this show; I’ve seen two previous incarnations, most recently in November 2016 at Revival. For Fringe, the show has a BYOV arrangement—and the show sold out its entire run before it even opened!

City Shul Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, First Unitarian Congregation minister Reverend Shawn Newton and Anglican priest Reverend Daniel Brereton took Tracey’s Soulo Theatre solo show workshop—in a class specifically designed to create a space for members of the clergy to tell their stories. Realizing they had much in common despite their different titles and faith backgrounds, the three clergy took a different path from the usual solo show class presentation at the end of the workshop; The Clergy Project is the fruit of their combined labours, weaving in and out of their three individual personal stories.

From the hilarious faith-specific lightbulb jokes, to recounting the call to ministry, to sharing the challenges they face—including situations not covered in their seminary days—to their reasons for doing what they do, all three share the real-life experiences of their jobs with candor and humour. The combination of personalities makes the show:  the shit-disturbing, kick-ass Elyse; Shawn with the wry wit and a twinkle in his eye; and the cheeky, playful Daniel. The frank, funny, heartbreaking—and ultimately inspiring—storytelling reveals their shared attributes of sass, determination and empathy. And the Fringe version has an additional hysterically funny tale from Daniel about his experience directing his first Christmas pageant!

Delivered with heart, soul, humour, and a genuine desire to connect and share personal stories, The Clergy Project is less about religion and more about the humanity of those who minister—aptly illustrating what Tracey Erin Smith and Soulo Theatre are all about. Like Smith says, “Everyone has a story.”

Love, joy and taming dragons in the funny, frank, moving The Clergy Project.

The Clergy Project continues at First Narayever Congregation until July 16, with performances on July 6, 12 and 13 at 8pm, and July 9 and 16 at 4pm. The run is sold out, but if you get there early, you can get yourself on the waiting list (some folks got in last night). The 90-minute showtime includes a brief post-show talkback.

 

The implications of a kiss: When Raymond met Mimi in a hilarious, moving, cerebral Blind Date

Back by popular demand from its 2015-16 season, Tarragon Theatre wraps its 2016-17 season with Spontaneous Theatre’s production of Blind Date, created by Rebecca Northan. This run of the improv date night hit features Northan, Christy Bruce and Tess Degenstein as rotating Mimis, and Bruce Horak as various other characters.

For those of you not familiar with the show, Mimi (a lovely French clown) has been waiting for her blind date for two hours. Clearly, she’s been stood up, and instead of giving up on her evening, she chooses a man from the audience to be her date (prospective dates have spoken with the Blind Date team before the show and have consented to the possibility of being chosen).

Last night’s date was 44-year-old Raymond, a communications and sociology professor who’s working on his PhD. He grew up in the Annex (a neighbourhood in Toronto) with a single mom and a younger sister, surrounded by strong women in the family. His awareness and appreciation of women and their experience translated into his own identification as a feminist, as well as his earlier work in film, where he made a point of creating roles for women. He also works with autistic kids. I know! A well-educated, socially aware, sweet and gentle man who respects women—Raymond is a catch.

Last night’s Mimi was Rebecca Northan, who set some ground rules before they set out on their evening together: honesty at all times, her date has the option to call a time out for clarification or during moments of discomfort (his date actual date, who Christy Bruce kept company, is allowed one time out call from her seat in the audience), and her date needs to temporarily pretend that he’s single and available for this date with her.

There was a really nice give and take feel to the date, with both Raymond and Mimi engaged, asking questions and being open with their responses. Mimi was clearly impressed by Raymond’s work and accomplishments, especially his identity as a feminist. Some truly engaging and thought-provoking discussions emerged regarding the nature of what Raymond teaches: an awareness and understanding of the experiences of others, and the intersectionality of experiences. They also spoke of their upbringing—bonding over being the eldest sibling, raised by single moms—and there was a truly tender moment of sharing and inspiration when Mimi recounted the experience of being present at her mother’s death from cancer (Northan’s own story). Her mother ushered her into the world and she ushered her mother out of it.

Soft-spoken, but communicative, Raymond worked through his nerves to play along—setting his own boundaries when he expressed an unwillingness to dance, which became the subject for ongoing gentle teasing for the rest of the show. And just when you thought he couldn’t be more awesome, he revealed a great sense of humour during their chat about Millennials: handling students who won’t put down their cellphones during class and essays that include emojis. In the scene at Mimi’s uncle’s apartment, that was the funniest and most cerebral lead-up to a kiss I’ve ever seen. And in the flash forward to their life together five years later, Raymond handled a hilariously stressful situation like a champ.

One of the things that Mimi outlines before the date starts is that her job is to look after her date and make sure he’s okay for the duration. This was evident throughout the entire performance, but especially so during the scene where Mimi and Raymond get pulled over by a female motorcycle cop (Degenstein) investigating Mimi’s erratic, possibly drunk, driving. Raymond is Black and the all-white company demonstrated awareness and sensitivity for the lived experiences of Black men regarding interactions with police. The cop took a firm hand with Mimi, who was the driver; and was respectful with Raymond, requesting that he take the wheel for the rest of their trip. And there was an added friendly twist when the cop realized he’d been her communications professor and thanked him for being such a great teacher.

This was my fourth time seeing Blind Date, including its genesis as a 10-minute piece at the Spiegeltent at Harbourfront Centre and the queer version at Buddies in Bad Times last year, with Northan playing Mimi in three of those performances (Julie Orton played Mimi in the girl/girl queer version). And every time, Northan amazes me with her generosity, her candor, her great big, open sense of humour and her fearlessness. Sexy, charming and sassy, as Mimi interacts with her date and gets to know him, she gets the audience to fall in love with him too. And along the way, we also fall in love with Mimi. Every single time.

With big shouts to Horak (the French waiter with just the right amount of snootiness) and Degenstein (the affable restaurant manager and professional, friendly motorcycle cop); producer/stage manager Marcie Januska (who took care of running improvised sound and lighting cues); and set designer Brandon Kleiman. And to Raymond’s date Abby, who got to see an audition/preview of Raymond on a date—and this was their first date!

This was a one-night only performance—and that’s the beauty of Blind Date. There’s a different date every show; and, for the first time in the production’s history, there are three rotating Mimis (Northan, Bruce and Degenstein). So you could see Blind Date several times during the course of the same run and never see the same show twice. What you will see every time is a unique, hilarious and poignant improvised theatrical experience, where Mimi takes care of her date, making sure he’s comfortable and having a good time. And making us fall in love with him in the process.

The implications of a kiss. When Raymond met Mimi in a hilarious, moving, cerebral Blind Date.

Blind Date continues in the Tarragon Mainspace till June 25; advance tickets available online—strongly recommended as this is a very popular show. Make sure to get there early to catch the pre-show activity in the lobby; and stick around for a drink after the show.

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.

Grit, determination & a love affair with the speed bag in the funny, moving, inspiring Newsgirl

Savoy Howe in Newsgirl—photo by Dahlia Katz

 

Tracey Erin Smith and Soulo Theatre celebrated the 5th anniversary of the Soulo Theatre Festival, opening this year’s fest with an Opening Night Gala presentation of Savoy Howe’s Newsgirl. With direction and dramatury by Soulo Theatre A.D. Smith, Newsgirl ran for one night only at the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club in front of an enthusiastic, sold out house—and a standing ovation—last night. The fest continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre tonight and throughout the weekend.

When Savoy Howe moved away from her home in New Brunswick in the late 80s to study theatre in Hamilton and later move to Toronto, she had no way of foreseeing what was in store—and the journey that would bring her the sense of strength, determination and empowerment that she would go on to share with women and trans people.

This is the story of Newsgirl, Howe’s autobiographical solo show that takes her from a tomboy growing up on a Canadian Air Force base, to her coming out, to training as a boxer and later passing on her knowledge as a boxing coach, starting the first women’s and trans-friendly boxing gym in Canada: the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club. And, while it was a photo of a woman wearing boxing gloves that inspired Howe to take up the sport, it was a speed bag that made her fall in love with boxing.

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Savoy Howe in Newsgirl—photo by Dahlia Katz

Combining the physicality, strategy and philosophy of boxing with considerable stand-up and storytelling chops, Howe is an engaging, energetic and endearing performer. With Howe primarily telling her story from inside the boxing ring, the show is dynamically staged, moving her around the gym as she highlights discovery and work on the heavy bag and speed bag; and her rookie first entry into the ring is hilarious!

Newsgirls is a story of struggle, grit and a ‘don’t give up’ attitude that takes some rough, and sometimes violent, turns. Perseverance, a big heart and a curious, open mind—not to mention a hard-working, helping hand way of looking at life—make the wins and losses equal in value. Always learning, never backing down from a challenge, and enduring the deep-seated sexism and male aggression of this world, Howe is an inspiration. Newsgirl is a classic underdog makes good story. And it definitely packs a punch.

Grit, determination and a love affair with the speed bag in the funny, moving, inspiring Newsgirl.

Check out this great interview in VICE Sports with Savoy Howe on how she got into boxing, opened Newsgirls, and how she and the gym are empowering women and trans people. You can also follow the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club on Facebook.

Howe is in the process of launching a crowdfunding campaign to keep the gym alive and serving the community; stay tuned for details on how you can help.

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Soulo Theatre A.D. Tracey Erin Smith in the ring at Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club—photo by Dahlia Katz

Newsgirl was a one-night only performance, but no worries—there are lots more life-changing, life-affirming true stories to come tonight and this weekend at the fest, which includes solo shows and panel discussions. The Soulo Theatre Festival continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre till May 28; check out the full schedule and purchase advance tickets and get your festival pass.

Department of corrections: The original post for the show mentioned that Howe studied theatre in Toronto; it was actually Hamilton. The error has been corrected.