Still soaring after all these years: Ruminations on war & heroism in the entertaining, poignant Billy Bishop Goes to War

Eric Peterson in Billy Bishop Goes to War—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

 

Still flying high 40 years after its creation, the award-winning Billy Bishop Goes to War returns to the Young Centre. Written and composed by John MacLachlan Gray with Eric Peterson, and directed by Ted Dykstra, Soulpepper brings Billy Bishop back to the stage in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday.

Pulling dusty sheets from the piano, an easy chair, and a series of foot lockers and trunks, Bishop (Peterson) appears in pajamas, dressing gown and slippers. Despite the sense that we are here with him out of time and space, it’s as if we’ve woken him from a snooze. The foot lockers are a treasure trove of memorabilia and props for his story, as he dusts off memories, producing props and gear; and the framed photographs he produces along the way serve as poignant snapshots of moments and lives lived.

Through anecdotes, songs, poetry and letters to Bishop’s sweetheart Margaret back home, Peterson and Gray weave a tale of a life that was part luck, part pluck and all present. Going from the worst student at the Royal Military College (RMC)—known as a liar, a cheat and general executer of shenanigans—to an officer in the cavalry, Bishop always had an eye out for opportunity and adventure. Growing tired of being stuck in the mud or covered in sand, he looked for a way out of the cavalry. In his case, up and out. Finding his way into the Royal Flying Corps, he was taken on as an observer—a good job for him, as he was also known for his hawk eye and being a good shot—later becoming a pilot with the assistance of Lady St. Helier, who he met and befriended while recuperating in a London hospital (his tendency toward being accident prone bringing him good luck on several occasions).

As a pilot, he found a particular sense of drive and ambition, developing a friendly rivalry with fellow pilot Captain Albert Ball, and becoming famous for flying solo missions, including an attack on a German aerodrome; endeavours that earned medals, including the Military Cross, the Distinguished Service Order and the Victoria Cross. Realizing the colonies were more apt to respond to a living hero than a dead one, his British superiors gave him a new assignment, to return home as a hero and public figure, boosting morale in Canada.

billy bishop 2
Eric Peterson & John MacLachlan Gray—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Gray (on stage as the Piano Player) and Peterson are a perfect match for this journey of an unlikely hero. In addition to acting as accompanist and singer, his gentle, raspy vocals performing catchy, often moving songs, Gray takes on the roles of army buddy and audience for Bishop, as well as a number of brief moments as various other characters as needed. And Peterson juggles a number of characters in addition to Bishop, including particularly fun turns as a befuddled British officer, a drunken Scot, the imperious and proper Lady St. Helier, and the slinky chanteuse Hélène.

Foot lockers, a stand-up ash tray and a miniature of Bishop’s famous plane, as well as shadow play and projections on the upstage scrim, are used to great effect to re-enact observer flights, the first solo flight and dog fights. Peterson’s playful scallywag adventurer performance as Bishop is balanced by moments of profound poignancy: his recitation of a poem to Albert Ball, and memories of the dead and dying, in the trenches or in the sky. And when Bishop returns to us in the present, it’s like we’re spending time with a grandfather, a beloved rascal regaling us with tall tales of the war, at times appearing lost in thought or memory. For better or worse, these things happened—and they shaped a life and a career.

With big shouts to the design team—Camellia Koo (set and costumes), Steve Lucas (lighting) and director Ted Dykstra (sound)—for their work on bringing this adventure in storytelling to life.

Still soaring after all these years. Playful, irreverent and thoughtful ruminations on the nature of war and heroism in the entertaining, poignant Billy Bishop Goes to War.

Billy Bishop Goes to War continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Check out the 2017 trailer:

 

Whooping it up like it’s 1926 in the entertaining, intriguing Hogtown: The Immersive Experience

Mark Prince, Dan Willmott & Jerome Bourgault in Hogtown—photo by Sam Gaetz Photography

Back by popular demand, The Hogtown Collective returns to Campbell House Museum for a new run of Hogtown: The Immersive Experience—written by Drew Carnwath and Sam Rosenthal, and directed by Rosenthal—with new stories and adventures as the audience finds new intrigue and secrets around every corner and behind every closed door.

It`s the eve of the 1926 municipal election, and union boss Bob Delacourt (Dan Willmott) is hosting a big shindig at his home. The incumbent, conservative prohibitionist Mayor Thomas Foster (Jerome Bourgault) is up against the progressive, union- and booze-friendly Sam McBride (Mark Prince). And everyone`s making backroom deals, including McBride`s fierce wife Fanny (Kirstin Hinton).

Meanwhile, local scribe Ben Stein (Gord Gammie) divides his time between covering the event and wooing the McBrides’ daughter Ronnie (Sappho Hansen Smythe), a modern young woman with dreams of becoming a famous reporter. And country bumpkin brothers, the clumsy Tanner (Jonathon Ellul) and malapropism-dropping Jackson (Derek Keurvorst) Busch have high hopes of making loads of cash from their home-cooked hooch; and the menacing Gil Schwartz (Jorge Molina) hopes to get in on some big time gangster action with the rumoured arrival of Chicago rum-runner Franco Vitale (is he really there or not?).

The action starts out on the lawn around the house, as we take in various goings-on and meet some of the key players. Once inside, we are ushered in groups from room to room, getting the opportunity to see three different scenes. My group first entered the dining room, where the McBrides were hosting an intimate gathering of friends and supporters, including Delacourt, developer Lol Solman (Keurvorst) and clergyman Eddie Smalls (Ben Bain). It’s all aces until they’re interrupted by the appearance of a surprise guest—and it’s Mrs. McBride who’s the most infuriated by this unexpected arrival.

Upstairs, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union is having a meeting. Chaired by the imperious Mary O’Grady Hunt (Tara Baxendale), assisted by her demure daughter Eleanor (Jaymee Fuczek) and radical colleague Pauline Drabble (Andrea Irwin), these ladies are hell-bent on spoiling the fun. Even here, there is division on how to best accomplish their goal of keeping prohibition alive and getting Foster re-elected. Even O’Grady Hunt has a secret, which we learn by way of confession and cautionary tale when she has a mother to daughter sit-down with Eleanor, who she fears is getting too friendly with Lulu and Toni.

hogtown gals
Laura Larson, Karen Slater & Emmea Wiechers—photo by Sam Gaetz Photography

Downstairs in the gaming room, Shwartz is waiting on the outcome of some bets—and we’re ushered over to the basement speakeasy when his private meeting arrives. Over in the speakeasy, we can buy yourself a prohibited beverage while we wrap your ears around some hot jazz, courtesy of Cali-Mays Johnson (Michelle Piller) and her girls, accompanied by Colin Frotten on the ivories. It’s here that we learn that Foster’s daughter Maddy (Karen Slater) is working as a singer, and has set up a meeting with Dr. Libby Prowse (Claire Francis Muir) via her pal Anastasia (Emma Wiechers). Don’t worry, barkeep Mad Tom (Michael Lamport) is the soul of discretion, and Katie O’Malley (Susie Burnett) can find you some company or place your bets.

Then, we are invited to wander the house to discover what we may. Upstairs, baseball star Tommy Burt’s (Eric McDace) secret is revealed even as he discovers the secret of another; and his attempt to solicit help from Solman takes an unexpected turn. Wayward Catholic schoolgirls and wanna-be flappers Louise “Lulu” (Laura Larson) and Antoinette “Toni” (Arinea Hermans) may be okay on the dance floor as they try out for jobs in the speakeasy, but they may be in over their heads when it comes to handsome Tommy—lucky for them Detective Hank Dyer (Matt Richardson, also the fight director) steps in. And across the hall at the latest temperance meeting, Pauline makes a dramatic revelation as to how far she’s willing to go for the cause.

hogtown ronnie & tom
Sappho Hansen Smythe & Michael Lamport—photo by Sam Gaetz Photographer

It’s an entertaining and exciting ride. You never know who you’ll encounter or what’s going to happen. And everyone has a secret. The ensemble is fantastic—genuine and engaging storytellers fully inhabiting their characters, interacting on occasion with the audience (we are instructed to only speak when spoken to) to pull us into the story in an up-close and personal way. The show features several musical numbers, with stand-out vocals from Slater, Piller and Baxendale; and a charming duet from McDace and Hansen Smythe, as Tommy, feeling the pressures of external expectation, finds a kindred spirit in Ronnie McBride.

Secrets, back room deals and home-made hooch. Whooping it up like it’s 1926 in the entertaining, intriguing Hogtown: The Immersive Experience.

Hogtown continues at Campbell House till August 20; advance ticket booking strongly recommended—it’s a very popular show. Please note the 7:30pm start time; get there by 7:15pm to see the outdoor scenes. Get a taste from the trailer:

 

 

Toronto Fringe: Family, sacrifice & hope in the timely, heart-wrenching Seeking Refuge: A Musical Tragedy

Trisha Talreja, Jennifer Walls & Liana Bdewi in Seeking Refuge: A Musical Tragedy—photo by Dahlia Katz

Thick and Thin Theatre Productions presents Rick Jones’ timely and poignant musical Seeking Refuge: A Musical Tragedy. Directed by Barbara Larose, assisted by Ellen Green, with music direction/accompaniment by Robert Graham and stage management by Margot “Mom” Devlin, the Paul O’Sullivan Prize-winning show is running at the Randolph Theatre for Toronto Fringe.

Opening not with music but with the sounds of gunfire and bombs, we are thrown into a horrific world of civil war, where sisters Mara (Liana Bdewi) and Saleet (Trisha Talreja) have lost everything—except each other. In search of a safe place away from the bullets and collapsing buildings, they accept the help of family friend Tobim (Nabil Ayoub), a soldier fighting for the government who has connections with a man who can get them passage across the sea. Only able to afford one passage, Mara insists that her younger sister Saleet go, and plans to reunite with her sister when Saleet has settled somewhere safe. Their mother’s jewellery proves insufficient payment to the pirate Zaydal (Milton Dover, in multiple roles, including the Judge), and Tobim pledges to work security for him for a month.

During the sea voyage, Saleet meets Manu (Noah Beemer); he has papers, money and a lawyer aunt sponsoring him, while she has nothing. In a bargain that will benefit them both, she accepts his “on paper” marriage proposal, as it will be better for them both to be travelling as man and wife. Meanwhile, Tobim is taking out his displeasure at having to work for Zaydal on Mara, who is forced to become his slave in order to survive in the refugee camp. Raped and beaten, she never gives up hope that Saleet has made it to safety.

By the time Saleet and Manu get to his aunt’s (Jennifer Walls, in multiple roles), they have fallen in love; and with a baby on the way, they are granted refugee status and set about sponsoring Mara. Unfortunately, Mara’s application is denied; she’s been associated with Tobim, who’s been labelled a terrorist. They must find another way to bring Mara over—but will it work?

The music has a Western Asian flavour; and there are some particularly beautiful duets, especially between the sisters, and Saleet and Manu, with stand-out vocals from Talreja, Beemer and Walls (who also plays a UN refugee worker). News headlines come into an up-close and personal focus as we see the human stories behind the statistics. As this is a musical tragedy, there is heartache and grief—and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one with tears in my eyes.

Family, sacrifice and hope as separated sisters struggle for safety and reunion in the timely, heart-wrenching Seeking Refuge: A Musical Tragedy.

Seeking Refuge: A Musical Tragedy continues at the Randolph Theatre until July 16; see dates/times and get advance tickets online.

Toronto Fringe: So much big puppet fun in the hilariously playful, genuine Bendy Sign Tavern

From movie-inspired favourites like Swordplay: A Play of Swords and last year’s Fringepocalyptic Wasteland, Sex T-Rex keeps on bringing it as one of Toronto’s best scripted comedy companies. And this time, there’s puppets! Sex T-Rex returns to Toronto Fringe with Bendy Sign Tavern, featuring the work of master puppeteer and Sex T-Rex veteran Kaitlin Morrow, and running at The Paddock.

The Paddock is transformed into the Bendy Sign Tavern, where the human audience gets served by puppet and human staff (including bar owner Nico). The ambience comes complete with pop tunes on the stereo, a cool piano man in shades (Elliott Loran); and the TV plays puppet sports on PSN (Puppet Sports Network), rock video by superstar Tim Rek, a movie trailer and a hilarious human household product commercial.

Bendy Sign’s feisty and determined bartender Joan (Morrow) is over the moon at the beginning of her final shift at the bar— She’s looking forward to bigger and better things as she and her band head out on tour—and to stardom. Her laid back, soul patch-sporting co-worker Bob (Conor Bradbury) isn’t so thrilled; he’s secretly in love with Joan, but can’t bring himself to tell her.

Throw in the Bendy Sign’s favourite enigmatic, pun-dishing barfly Bill (Julian Frid), put-upon millennial server Weeds (Daniel Pagett), the bar’s cryptic and elusive owner Sal (Seann Murray) and adorable regular, the aging southern belle Marigold (Josef Addleman)—along with some surprise guests and other regulars—and you’ve got yourself some big fun. But beware the scary basement and the roving Bachelorette Wolves!

Joan’s dreams of rock stardom are crushed when she finds herself kicked out of the band, then renewed by the appearance of none other than Tim Rek himself! And he wants to throw an after-party at the bar! Joan’s efforts to enlist her co-workers to fancy up the place are successful, but Bob’s heart isn’t in it. In fact, he’d just love it all to go away—and he has some tough choices to make. All in the name of love.

Awesome work from the entire ensemble in this rollicking puppet rom-com—and Morrow’s puppets are amazing! With songs and surprises around every corner, it’s no wonder this show is selling out.

Big dreams. Secret love. A scary basement. So much big puppet fun in the hilariously playful, genuine Bendy Sign Tavern.

Bendy Sign Tavern continues at The Paddock until July 15, with shows every night at 7:30pm—except for July 9 at 8:30pm. Definitely book in advance for this one, folks; order your tix via the Bendy Sign Tavern showpage. Otherwise, get there early and take your chances at the door.

Identity, community & calling shenanigans on BS in the raw, real, nostalgic Situational Anarchy

 Graham Isador in Situational Anarchy

 

Pressgang Theatre joins forces with Pandemic Theatre to present Graham Isador’s one-man work of creative non-fiction Situational Anarchy, direction/dramaturgy by Tom Arthur Davis and Jivesh Parasram, and opening last night at Stop Drop N Roll.

Autobiographical, with an altered timeline and an amalgamation of several bands that were seminal in Isador’s life, Situational Anarchy is part self-discovery, part confession, and part ‘fuck you’ to betrayal and bullshit.

From the thoughtful, curious 11-year-old whose mind is blown when his mum gets real about his grade 6 music performance, to the awkward, large and bullied kid stumbling onto puberty, Graham is searching for meaning and desperate to belong. Try as he may, he can’t seem to find his place and almost checks out—then he discovers the punk band Against Me and its lead singer Laura Jane Grace, who later transitioned from male to female. Beyond the music, the social activism and humanity of this world resonate strongly.

His joy at discovering the music and the message increases when he finds community in the band’s online chatroom—and the cool, fun, smart Mouse, who lives in LA and steals his heart. Things fall apart when he gets caught up in Mouse’s unhealthy body image lifestyle and Against Me signs with Warner Music—which he views as a sell-out, as Warner also owns CNN—and he loses that online community and Mouse. Things come to a violent head when he drops by a local punk bar. It’s definitely not the community he knows and loves. Drafting a letter to Laura Jane Grace throughout, his correspondence serves as a framework for his story. And he’s calling bullshit on her. Years later, he takes a job interviewing her. So much to say.

Staged with multiple microphones, Situational Anarchy is a punk rock solo theatre piece. Isador’s performance is genuine, raw and personal, revealing a dark, edgy sense of humour and a profound longing to connect and belong. Weaving stories of coming of age, body image, homophobia, music and activism, he opens and closes his heart and mind to us in a funny and heart-breaking, at times violent, misfit’s journey of storytelling—reminding us of the power of music and message to inspire and unite.

With shouts to the design/running team: Ron Kelly (sound), Laura Warren (lighting/projection) and Heather Bellingham (stage manager).

Identity, community and calling shenanigans on bullshit in the raw, real, nostalgic Situational Anarchy.

Situational Anarchy continues at Stop Drop N Roll (300 College St., Toronto—above Rancho Relaxo) until June 3. Tickets at the door are Pay What You Want; advance tickets available online for $15. Heads-up: Seating very limited; only 25 seats per night.

All proceeds from the show (after expenses) will be donated to Trans Lifeline [US: (877) 565-8860 Canada: (877) 330-6366] and Gender is Over.

The closing performance will be followed by a set from Stuck Out Here.

Reclamation & salvation—stories of Black women’s lives told with candor, sass & humour in powerful, theatrical for colored girls

Karen Glave, d’bi.young anitafrika, Ordena Stephens-Thompson, Akosua Amo-Adem, Evangelia Kambites, Tamara Brown & SATE in for colored girls—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

 

Soulpepper opened its production of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have committed suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, directed by Djanet Sears with assistance from Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, to a packed house and a triple curtain call standing ovation at the Young Centre last night.

From the innocent, playful childhood world of hopscotch and double dutch in the playground, to sexual awakening and the discovery of sensual power in young adulthood, to the harsh realities and challenges of life as a Black woman, for colored girls is poetry and politics in motion. Incorporating spoken word, a cappella vocals, dance and storytelling, the excellent ensemble creates scenes, moments and soundscapes. The result is startling, theatrical, hilarious and heartbreaking.

Kudos to the ensemble: Akosua Amo-Adem, d’bi.young anitafrika, Tamara Brown, Karen Glave, Evangelia Kambites, SATE and Ordena Stephens-Thompson. With choreography by Jasmyn Fyffe and Vivine Scarlett, and music composition and arrangement by Suba Sankaran, the cast deftly weaves the stories of these women with honesty, courage and emotional impact—commanding the stage as they engage, entertain and wake us.

Brown’s opening dance is magical and elemental. Glave takes us back to the excitement and anticipation of graduation day with a tale of young love in the back seat. SATE takes charge and takes us out dancing; a woman enjoying the music and the power of her own body in motion. Stephens-Thompson regales us with a poetic, sensual account of woman (Kambites) who attracts with the mystery and allure of an Egyptian goddess. Amo-Adem takes us to church with a proclamation of what belongs to her, coupled with an order to get back what’s been stolen. And anitafrika breaks our hearts as a mother struggling to protect her children.

Highlighting the lived experiences of public and private selves—the public strength and confidence that protect the private vulnerability and fear—from hope and joy to loss and despair, for colored girls is a celebration of Black women finding their voices.

Reclamation and salvation—stories of Black women’s lives told with candor, sass and humour in the powerful, theatrical for colored girls.

for colored girls continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre; get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

In the meantime, check out the for colored girls teaser:

 

Memory, loss & insight—true stories of living with mental illness in the funny, poignant Stories Like Crazy double bill

After launching Stories Like Crazy with their inaugural podcast at the beginning of Mental Health Week, Adrianna Prosser and Lori Lane Murphy finished off the week with two real-life solo shows that “stomp on stigma and set fire to adult colouring books”: Lane Murphy’s Upside Down Dad and Prosser’s Everything but the Cat. The double bill ran for two nights this past weekend at Red Sandcastle Theatre, with a portion of the ticket sales going to CMHA’s #GetLoud campaign.

Singer songwriter, and member of the Cheap Wine Collective (and Adrianna’s brother), Luke Prosser opened the two evenings with an acoustic set of fiercely passionate, introspective indie originals and a few covers, including an awesome version of “Folsom Prison Blues.” Wrap your ears around his evocative, raspy blues-infused sound on Soundcloud.

Upside Down Dad (directed by Christopher Lane). Part memoir, part homage, Lane Murphy reminisces about growing up in the 70s with Warner Brothers cartoons, navigating teenage milestones and living with a clinically depressed dad who was by all appearances a happy, fun guy. Childhood memories of being goofy and putting on cartoon voices in an attempt to bring her father out of bouts of profound sadness turn into more urgent and impactful moments in adulthood, where she continued to act as caregiver, driving him to treatment appointments and then being by his bedside when he was dying from leukemia.

Running parallel to her experience of her father’s mental illness is the growing realization of her own—from following her dad’s early example of self-medicating with alcohol to her own personal turning point, supported by him to find a healthier way to deal. And her support of his journey adds new insight to her own.

A genuine and engaging storyteller, Lane Murphy takes us from moments of laughter to tears—and some wacky, bizarre moments—as she chronicles her kindred spirit relationship with her dad. And her story highlights how important conversation is to insight, acceptance and healing—denying or ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.

Everything but the Cat (directed by Stephanie Ouaknine). A personal exploration of loss and grief, Prosser tells the story of losing her younger brother Andrew to suicide and her already shaky relationship with her boyfriend on the same day. Profound grief is peppered with second guesses and guilt, and coupled with gut-wrenching abandonment as her Peter Pan boyfriend, who already has one foot out the door, decides he can’t deal with this, or any, level of commitment.

A multi-media solo show that incorporates projected images (original projections by Ouaknine, with additional projections by Jason Martorino), Everything but the Cat includes shadow acting and voice-over work by Maksym Barnett-Kemper Shkvorets, Brad Emes, Hannah Barnett-Kemper Shkvorets, Erik Buchanan, Andrew Hodwitz, Scott Emerson Moyle, Devin Upham, Eden Bachelder, Stephanie Ouaknine, Daniel Legault, Niles Anthony, Gaj Mariathasan, Tammy Everett, AJ LaFlamme, Jason Martorino, Val Adriaanse, Jordi Hepburn and Phil Rickaby. Bringing moments of the story to life in creative and innovative ways—from learning the news of her brother from her dad, to grief-stricken/-propelled experiences of throwing herself into the club and dating scene—the projected images and lit areas evoke time, place and, most importantly, emotional state.

Infusing her story with edgy comedy and sharply pointed observation, Prosser gives a brave, bold, deeply vulnerable and ultimately entertaining performance that not only takes us along, but inside, her journey.

Memory, loss and insight—true stories of living with mental illness in the funny, poignant Stories Like Crazy double bill.

Stories Like Crazy’s evening of solo shows closed last night, but you can hear more true stories about mental health and living with mental illness—opening conversation and busting stigma—on the Stories Like Crazy podcast, hosted by Prosser and Lane Murphy. You can also keep up with Stories Like Crazy on Twitter.