Rich tapestry of image, sound & dance tells a powerful story without words in remarkable Century Song

Neema Bickersteth in Century Song—photos by John Lauener

 

Nightwood Theatre partners with Volcano, Richard Jordan Productions UK and Moveable Beast Collective to present Century Song, opening last night in the Guloien Theatre at Crow’s Theatre’s home at Streetcar Crowsnest.

Created by soprano/performer Neema Bickersteth, choreographer Kate Alton and director Ross Manson, the multimedia, multidisciplinary Century Song tells the stories of women throughout the past hundred years, incorporating the music of composers Sergei Rachmaninoff, Olivier Messiaen, John Cage, Georges Aperghis and Toronto’s Reza Jacobs; and including accompaniment by Gregory Oh (piano) and Ben Grossman (percussion, computer). The show also includes stunning projected images—black and white, and colour portraits, visual art pieces, and evocative landscapes, cityscapes and environments—projection design by Torge Møller and Momme Hinrichs from Germany’s fettFilm; and featuring the works of numerous photographers and artists.

This is a show unlike any I’ve ever seen—and I’ve seen a lot of theatre—so how can I describe to you this beautifully moving, powerful and innovative piece of storytelling that is really best experienced on an emotional and visceral level, as opposed to a cerebral level (though it does leave you with plenty to think about).

Opening in 1915 with Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, we see a woman corseted and engaged in repetitive action, evoking housework and an agricultural setting. Moving into the 1920s/1930s, she is now clad in a sleek golden gown, placed in a magical forest—the setting, sound and imagery changing as time shifts into the 1930s and 1940s, with increasingly intense and horrific renderings of social and economic upheaval, and the devastation of war.

Century_Song_7With projections covering both the back wall and floor, the zooming in on images provides the illusion of movement. This technical aspect takes on a playful effect as we journey from the 1950s through 1978, where we see multiple Bickersteths as a variety of characters in various living room settings. And it’s particularly cool when she returns to the stage, joining her projected, life-size selves.

The landscape gets intense again, as we’re whisked up a skyscraper and onto the roof where we see a vast, endless cityscape before us. It’s dark and stormy. Now dressed in a business skirt suit, she is caught up in a frenzy of chaos and speed—overwhelmed by the pace and bleakness of it all.

Century_Song_6Returning to a quiet moment, Bickersteth closes with Vocalise for Neema by Reza Jacobs, a piece commissioned specifically for Century Song; with a haunting, yet soothing, lullaby quality that shifts into bluesy and playful tones, it promises to bring some to tears as we return to the safe confines of the theatre space in the present time.

Bickersteth is a wonder up there, bringing a powerhouse performance that combines operatic vocals and dance. Taut and precise, flexible and present, her work is masterfully fluid and evocative as she travels through time and space—presenting the lives of these women, with all their joys, fears, challenges, successes and expectations as they play out their roles.

With shouts to the design team: Camilla Koo (set), Rebecca Picherack (lighting) and Charlotte Dean (costumes).

A rich tapestry of image, sound and dance tells a powerful story without words in remarkable Century Song.

Century Song continues at Streetcar Crowsnest until April 29; advance tickets available online. Get out to see it—this is theatre like you’ve never seen.

Department of Corrections: The original post contained a typo in director Ross Manson’s surname; that has since been corrected.

Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce & funny Sound of the Beast

Tamyka Bullen (onscreen) & Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Hear ye, hear ye

let it be known,

No one on my block walks alone.

 

Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) closes its 2016-17 season with Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s (aka Belladonna the Blest) Sound of the Beast, co-directed by Andy McKim and Jivesh Parasram, with ASL components by Tamyka Bullen, and featuring composition and sound design by David Mesiha. Sound of the Beast opened in the TPM Backspace last night.

Inspired by the story of Tunisian rapper Weld El 15, whose artistic freedom of speech was muzzled by police and government, and part of St. Bernard’s 54ology (her commitment to create a performance piece from each country in Africa), Sound of the Beast combines rap and spoken word with lived experiences for an up-close, profoundly personal and resonant performance. Complementing St. Bernard’s storytelling is a projected performance of Tamyka Bullen’s poetry, performed in ASL with English surtitles (projection design by Cameron Davis). And a series of radio voice-overs (Glyn Bowerman), updating us on news of an “incident” in a “priority neighbourhood,” provide a bleak commentary on the clueless, one-sided and white-washed view of mainstream media.

Autobiographical, observational and replete with first-hand lives lived in an environment of racism, mistrust and injustice, words and stories that we may only have read or seen on the news come to life. Urgent. Shocking. In front of us. What is the most shocking is that stories of oppression and injustice are not shocking, but part of our everyday lives.

Sound of the Beast
Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

A compelling and engaging storyteller, St. Bernard shifts easily from pointed remarks and calling out prejudice, to casual and conversational moments. She puts forth hypothetical scenarios and asks us how we would respond; making us active participants as we silently think about the choices in front of us. And during two poignant and charged scenes, she speaks to her imaginary young son; guiding him on how to behave, speak and even set his facial expressions in order to stay safe out there when confronted by the authorities. At times speaking to us as friends, she takes us in and along on her journey—her research on Weld El, her personal experiences—genuine, infuriating, heartbreaking, hilarious. Shifting from a stand-up storytelling vibe, to in our faces or in emcee performance mode, St. Bernard moves through the space with ease and fluidity, with professionalism and personality. Singing and speaking with strength, emotion and moving beats, her job is to tell it—and she brings it big time.

Speaking as a Deaf woman born into a “hearing Indian-Guyanese Hindu-Christian family”—and living in a “hearing, straight Eurocentric Christian patriarchal country,” Bullen’s poetry is beautiful, moving and revealing. Highlighting the intersectionality of experiences of oppression and prejudice among the Black and Deaf communities, she points to how heavy unemployment and underemployment leave marginalized people struggling to get by in a system that “operates for so long based on ignorance and hate.” Writing of poverty, PTSD, the immigrant experience and her relationship with the earth, Bullen reminds us of the ever present need for mindfulness, awareness and compassion—and how we are all we are all born of the same Mother Earth.

Coiled on the floor and ready, the microphone is St. Bernard’s weapon and bridge; and the black hoodie she dons at the opening of her performance and sheds at the close is her storytelling cloak. If you are not black or marginalized, you can only glean so much from what you see and hear in the news about these lived experiences. Of being constantly under surveillance because of the colour of your skin and the neighbourhood you live in. Of being questioned by law enforcement for no reason. Of being misunderstood and not knowing what you’re supposed to say. Of unarmed youth being shot by police. Sound of the Beast brings it in closer. Come and hear for yourself.

Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce and funny Sound of the Beast.

Sound of the Beast continues in the TPM Backspace until May 7; book tickets online or call 416-504-7529. Advance booking strongly recommended—it’s a powerful show and an intimate space.

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

Spoon River ensemble—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

 

Is your soul alive?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Backstage gangster shenanigans & romance in the delightful, sizzling Kiss Me Kate

Another opening of another show for Alexander Showcase Theatre last week with its production of Kiss Me Kate, music and lyrics by Cole Porter, book by Sam and Bella Spewack. Directed by Vincenzo Sestito, with music direction by Gwyneth Sestito and choreography by Jaime Robertson, Kiss Me Kate is currently running at Fairview Library Theatre. I caught the show yesterday afternoon.

Chock full of Porter favourites that have since become beloved standards, Kiss Me Kate combines Shakespeare with musical comedy. Director/producer/lead actor Fred Graham (Pat Brown) is in Baltimore with his company, opening a production of The Taming of the Shrew. With big hopes of being picked up by a Broadway theatre, he’s hired film star Lilli Vanessi (Finnie Jesson) to play Katherine opposite his Petruchio. Trouble is, they used to be married; and old feelings of pain and romance begin to surface—despite Katherine being seriously involved with mysterious man from Washington, D.C. Harrison (Ian Scott).

Meanwhile, Fred’s been friendly with ingénue Lois Lane (Sharon Zehavi), who’s been cast as Katherine’s kid sister Bianca; she’s hoping to land her big break with this show, as well as romance with young actor Bill Calhoun (James Rowan), who’s playing Bianca’s beau Lucentio. Bill likes to play the odds, but isn’t very good at it; and he’s racked up some serious debt with a local gangster—and signed Fred’s name to the IOU.

Cue the shenanigans when two gangsters (Brandon Chambers and Eliot Winkler) show up in Fred’s dressing room to collect the debt. Adding to the comedy of errors, a bouquet meant for Lois has wound up in Lilli’s hands and Fred is in the dog house—and the show in jeopardy. Fred convinces the gangsters that Lilli is vital to the show’s success—to hilarious effect as they thwart her plans to leave during intermission and begin shadow her, inserting themselves into the show in the process.

It’s all great good fun and the ensemble does a marvelous job singing and dancing their way through this tale of theatre folk working their tails off doing what they love. Jesson and Brown have fantastic chemistry as Lilli/Katherine and Fred/Petruchio—and both have excellent pipes. Jesson is luminous, especially with Lilli’s wistful longing in “So In Love” and Katherine’s impassioned rage in “I Hate Men.” And Brown shows great range with Petruchio’s comic, lusty bravado in “Where Is The Life That Late I Led?” and Fred’s heartfelt realization in “So In Love.”

Other stand-outs include Zehavi’s ditzy Lois, a starlet in waiting with a heart of gold and lots of love to give—maybe too much, in Bill’s eyes. She gives a slinky and playful performance as Lois pleads her case in the “Always True To You In My Fashion.” Rowan’s Bill is a likable young scallywag and leading man who’s got a lot to learn about the world. A great match here as well, with Lois and Bill’s duet “Why Can’t You Behave?” in Act I.

Christoph Ibrahim does a bang-up job as Fred’s dresser Paul, leading the ensemble in “Too Darn Hot” at the opening of Act II; featuring Jonathan Eidelman and David Shiff on solos. And Chambers and Winkler are full of LOL fun as the two gangsters, especially with their duet “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”

With big shouts to the design team: Peter Thorman (set), Gwyneth Sestito and Cheryl Lee (costumes), Chris Humphrey (lighting) and Carlos Fernandez (sound effects); and to the orchestra, conducted by Gwyneth Sestito.

Backstage gangster shenanigans and romance in the delightful, sizzling Kiss Me Kate.

Kiss Me Kate continues at the Fairview Library Theatre until April 8; for dates/times and online booking, scroll down on the show page. You can also book by email or by phone: (416) 324-1259.

Here’s directions to Fairview Library; accessible by TTC.

 

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious & deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Katherine Cullen & Britta Johnson in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Better late than never to the party, as I finally got out to see Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson’s SummerWorks hit Stupidhead! A Musical Comedy, directed by Aaron Willis—now in its final week in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Written and performed by Cullen and Johnson, who also collaborated on the lyrics, with music by Johnson, Stupidhead! is a part musical, part stand-up, part personal storytelling journey of Cullen’s experience living with dyslexia.

Stupidhead! is Cullen’s childhood dream of being in a musical come true. And, despite her lack of training, experience and self-reported ability, she was determined to make it happen; and recruited her good friend Johnson to help her write the music. Johnson joins her onstage, accompanying her on piano and back-up vocals—reacting to Cullen’s performance throughout, sometimes cracking up along with the audience.

Pointing out that dyslexia affects people differently, Cullen has no trouble with reading and writing—and as a child enjoyed escaping into writing poetry, and stories about the adventures of a silly koala and rabbit. Diagnosed at a young age, Cullen relates her struggles with math, organizational skills and directions, finding herself mentally lost at school and physically lost in her own neighbourhood—and, above all, labelled. And that label put her in the position of having to deal with ignorance and lack of compassion from others, making her sense of otherness feel even more isolating and humiliating, and becoming a part of her identity.

Her anecdotes about trying to fit in are both hilarious and moving—from her grade three poetry contest nemesis (now a CFL football player), to being lost on her own street, to two weeks in a puppet camp in Vermont as a young adult and her love of Jesus Christ Superstar—all delivered with genuine feeling and gusto. While it’s a show about the “glamour of failure,” it’s also a show about throwing off the chains of shame and isolation. In the end, Cullen avoids tying it up neatly, but emerges from the darker moments of her experience into a place of hope and determination.

Stupidhead!
Katherine Cullen in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

Cullen shines onstage. An engaging, genuine and charming performer, she’s gutsy and kick-ass, but also vulnerable and fragile. As she schools us on dyslexia, she gives us the straight goods about what it’s like to live inside her head. And she gives ‘er with the music, putting her all into performing the songs, from belted out numbers to gentle, heartfelt ballads. She and Johnson make a terrific duo. Johnson is pretty damn funny herself; and there’s a lovely tender moment of compassion and understanding between them that rings with friendship and love. And their anthem of “don’t give up!” brought tears to my eyes.

With big shouts to set designer Anahita Dehbonehie and lighting designer Jennifer Lennon for the cool and beautiful neurosciencey environment.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious and deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Stupidhead! continues in the TPM Mainspace, closing on Apr 2; book in advance online or call 416-504-7529. Check out Hallie Seline’s interview with Cullen and Johnson for In the Greenroom.

And here’s the trailer:

 

 

Shades of red & blue in the tapestry of interwoven lives in the beautiful, theatrical Of Human Bondage

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann: Gregory Prest & Michelle Monteith in Of Human Bondage

 

It’s all in how a man carries himself.

Soulpepper opened its remount of Vern Thiessen’s stage adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage at the Young Centre on Thursday. Directed by Soulpepper A.D. Albert Schultz, this is Soulpepper’s third journey with this production—and I finally got out to see it last night, with a packed house that gave it a standing ovation.

Orphaned as a child and painfully self-conscious about his club foot, Philip Carey (Gregory Prest) is a somewhat reluctant medical student; once a painter, and with fond memories of his time in Paris, he got tired of being broke and chose to pursue a more lucrative career path. And that path takes a serious detour when he accompanies friend and classmate, the nervous virgin Dunsford (Paolo Santalucia), to a local tea shop. Dunsford hopes to woo pretty waitress Mildred (Michelle Monteith), who catches the eye of Philip and she goes with him instead.

While it’s clear to us that Mildred is game for any man of good prospect, it is sadly not to Philip, who goes from smitten to obsessed with a woman who does not share his feelings. Obsession turns to possession, turns to rage when Philip learns that she’s become engaged to Miller (Brendan Wall), another tea shop regular. Meanwhile, he’s been flunking his classes and in serious danger of washing out of med school, much to the dismay of his crusty but supportive professor Dr. Tyrell (Oliver Dennis).

With the help of artist pals, painter Lawson (Dennis) and poet Cronshaw (Stuart Hughes), Philip meets the lovely writer Norah (Sarah Wilson), who falls for him—but he not with her. He’s doing better at school, though, and befriends a patient, Thorpe Athelney (John Jarvis), who opens his home to Philip. Philip’s direction changes again upon the return of Mildred, pregnant and jilted. Leaving Norah behind to look after Mildred and her baby, he finds himself at risk of losing his place at med school due to outstanding tuition owing. Desperate to make some extra cash, he invests in the stock market, only to lose it all; then loses Mildred, again, to another classmate, the randy Griffiths (Jeff Lillico).

Hitting rock bottom, evicted from his apartment and kicked out of med school, Philip reconnects with Athelney and his family, including his sweet daughter Sally (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster). And throughout the love and loss, shifting careers—including fashion designer for New York darling of the stage Alice (Raquel Duffy)—and friends and lovers whose lives are connected with his own, he gradually comes to know himself. And finds his life.

Masterfully staged on a red square playing area, set pieces are wheeled in and out, props inventively choreographed, and sharp dramatic lighting highlights the environmental and emotional tone (Lorenzo Savoini, set and lighting design). The whole ensemble (also including Richard Lam) gets involved, portraying figures in paintings, and creating the haunting soundtrack, rollicking music hall ditties and evocative sounds of daily life (Mike Ross, composer and sound design)—all live, onstage in the wings, which are visible to the audience. And, like the Persian rug Cronshaw gives Philip, scenes and characters’ lives weave in and out of each other with beautiful, artistic precision.

Lovely, nuanced performances from the cast. Prest is both heartbreaking and heroic as the quiet, introspective Philip; childish at first in love—loving where he is not loved, and loved where he does not love back—he only comes to find real love and true meaning in life when he finds love for himself. Monteith is captivating and wily as Mildred; forced into opportunism by circumstance, as Philip is a slave to his passions, Mildred is a slave to survival. You may want to dislike Mildred for her cruel, calculated use of Philip, but then you realize that all choices are not created equal in a world divided by class and gender privilege.

Dennis and Hughes make a great pair as the cheeky Lawson and bacchanalian Cronshaw, Philip’s jovial artist friends. Dennis gives Lawson a sweet, concerned nurturing quality; and Hughes brings a gentle melancholy to Cronshaw’s party animal.

Wilson shines as the sharp-witted modern woman Norah; a lovely, supportive girlfriend to Philip, you really feel for her when you see her affections aren’t returned in kind. Lancaster is both tender and irreverent as the quiet socialist Sally; you find yourself hoping—maybe she’s the one.

Shades of red and blue in the tapestry of interwoven lives in the beautiful, theatrical Of Human Bondage.

Of Human Bondage continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre in Toronto’s Distillery District; book in advance online. Get yourself out to see it before the production heads to NYC, to The Pershing Square Signature Center in July for Soulpepper’s first New York season, along with Kim’s Convenience and Spoon River.

Check out the trailer for Of Human Bondage:

 

 

Melanie Peterson’s “Sunshine” a breath of TLC for a broken heart

Photo by Bri-Anne Myers: Melanie Peterson

Wistful, but hopeful—and perfectly illustrating her vibe as “Mary Poppins with a broken heart”Melanie Peterson’s latest single “Sunshine” is a breath of TLC for a broken heart. And even more poignant is the fact that it’s being addressed to an ex in need of some heart healing.

The lyrics are full of wise and warm advice from a trusted friend, compassionate and positive—all delivered with Peterson’s sweet, lilting vocals.

You don’t have to take my word for it: give “Sunshine” a listen on her Bandcamp page.

Check out Peterson’s upcoming dates (all in Toronto, except for Aug 19 in Ottawa):

Feb 18: Dora Keogh (Winterfolk)

Feb 18: Mambo Lounge (Winterfolk)

Feb 19: The Black Swan (Winterfolk)

Apr 29: Sauce On The Danforth

May 27: Castro’s Lounge

Aug 19: Lumiere Festival in Ottawa

Otherwise, you can keep up with Peterson on Facebook and Bandcamp.