Mystery & memory in the delightfully whimsical, darkly funny, compelling DIANA (I Knew You When We Were Fourteen)

Ian Goff & Alexa Higgins. Photo by Barry McCluskey.

 

Falling Iguana Theatre Co., in association with The Centre for Drama, Theatre & Performance Studies (CDTPS), University of Toronto, presents the delightfully whimsical, darkly funny and compelling DIANA (I knew you when you were fourteen), by Falling Iguana co-founders Alexa Higgins and Ian Goff, with contributing playwright Sarah Higgins. A physical theatre, dark comedy mystery journey—weaving movement, memory, fantasy, fact and fiction in a fairy tale-like detective story—when Diana disappears after a high school dance, Michael is determined to find out what happened to her. Supported by consulting director Gillian Armstrong and dramaturg Sharisse LeBrun, DIANA opened for a short run in the Robert Gill Theatre at U of T last night—presented as this year’s CDTPS Alumni Performance Project.

Inspired by a footnote at the end of Michael Ondaatje’s poem Elimination Dance that read: “Diana Whitehouse, where are you?”, DIANA traces the individual paths of high school classmates Diana (Alexa Higgins) and Michael (Ian Goff) as they grow into adulthood—with Michael determined to find out what happened to Diana when she disappeared after a high school dance when they were in grade nine. Stretching out across the years, across Canada from small-town New Brunswick, to Vancouver, to Toronto—with side trips in Europe—we’re introduced to the cast of characters they cross paths with; all set to a sparkly, rockin’ 80s soundtrack.

Fact, fiction, fantasy and memory intertwine in a tale that is part dark comedy mystery and part fairy tale. Incorporating music, dance, movement and a cast of characters, we watch Michael investigate as gossip and recollection merge in the stories and perceptions about Diana and her parents. And we see events unfold from Diana’s perspective; confirming, denying and refining what people think they know about her and her family. Darkly funny, at times tender and compelling, lyrical and balletic, the audience gets caught up in both journeys as Michael searches for the truth, and Diana reaches out for a life away from the small-town rumour, judgement and assumptions about her and her parents.

Outstanding work from Higgins and Goff in this 60-minute marathon of storytelling; conveying character, emotion, action and place through monologue, dialogue, dance, movement and practically zero props/set pieces with energy and precision. Higgins brings a sardonic sense of humour with an edge of loneliness to the pragmatic, restless Diana. An enigmatic presence at school—which is what draws Michael to her—Diana struggles with flying under the radar of the small-town gaze while at the same time longing to break free. Goff is delightfully awkward, earnest and curious as Michael; unlike Diana, Michael is an open book, and his sharp focus and positive demeanour keep him on his mission to find Diana, in spite of his own personal heartbreak. And the two are hilarious as honeymooning couple Steve and Sarah; experiencing comic misadventure during a tandem bike tour around Paris. And as assorted elderly and/or gossiping neighbours, telling tall tales of the family who used to live in that house.

Memory can really be a funny thing; and can often say more about us than about the actual events we’re recalling. Tainted by judgement and assumption, and eroded by time, we may not really know what we think we know.

DIANA continues at the Robert Gill Theatre until September 15, with evening performances at 8pm, and matinées at 2pm on Sept 14 and 15; tickets available online or at the door.

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Interview: Melanie Peterson heading into the studio to record We Got This

Saskatoon-born, Toronto-based singer songwriter Melanie Peterson has been called “Mary Poppins with a broken heart”; writing and singing about life, love and friendship, her crystal-clear, emotive vocals and evocative lyrics combine bright positivity with a deep sense of longing and loss. Peterson will be heading into the studio to record her next album We Got This in September, and I asked her about the direction of this record. Here’s what she had to say about this upcoming project.

Hey, Melanie—Thanks for taking the time for some questions about your upcoming project We Got This! This will be your 6th full album? What was the inspiration for We Got This?

This will be my third full album. We Got This was inspired by a song I wrote in Edmonton after playing a wonderful music club there called The Blackbird. I had gotten to Edmonton thanks to the VIA Rail Artist On Board Program, where artists have the opportunity to play their way to the west coast and back; and had two days to myself before the train came through again, and I could continue playing my way to Vancouver. I decided to use my time well, and set myself the goal of writing a complete song in two days, one that I would perform at my show in Vancouver. I usually write about an hour every day, so a complete song in two days was something new to me. But I was in a city where I knew no one, it was mid-winter and I had this lovely hotel room all to myself, so I decided to write all day, both days, and ended up writing “We Got This”, which is now the title track to the new album.

The response I got to the song when I debuted it in Vancouver was very encouraging. I was playing in a noisy coffee house, with chatter and grinding expresso machines going on off every few minutes—but as soon as I began the song, the room got quiet and I knew then I had a special song on my hands. It wasn’t long before the idea of a new album, with “We Got This” as the title track, came to mind and I set about writing the album.

And what can you tell us about the overall tone, thematically or stylistically, for this one?

This is the first album I’ve written with an overall theme in mind. The theme being the journey from romantic devastation, to true and lasting love, with a few twists and turns along the way.

You’ve set up an Indiegogo campaign to help fund this album and you’ve got some great perks on offer! How’s the fundraising going and what tempting donor rewards are you offering?

The fundraising is going well. I’m at 15% funded and it is only week two, so I feel encouraged. One tempting donor reward is the “You Play on the Album” reward for those who have always dreamed of being on an album. They get the chance to come into the studio and sing, play an instrument, play the shaker or join in on a clap track, whatever they feel they’d most enjoy doing. There is also the “Ready for Your Close-up” reward for those who’d like to be featured in one of the music videos I intend to shoot for the album singles.

And the “Teach Me” reward, which involves four lessons with me, via Skype or Facetime if you are out of town, and in person if you are in town; I am offering song writing, guitar and/or singing lessons. I’ve been teaching for many years and am good at getting students who have wanted to be creative, but have put it off, to begin and really take themselves seriously as guitar players, singers and/or songwriters. And everyone who donates gets a signed copy of the album, their name in the credits and more, depending on what reward they choose.

Do you have an ETA on the album launch?

If all goes as planned, the album should launch in March 2020.

Anything else you want to shout out?

If anyone wants to hear my previous two albums, they can stream them on Spotify, and follow me there to be among the first to hear the new album. I’m also on Apple Music. And if they want to see pictures of this new album journey, follow me on Instagram and Twitter; my handle is @MissWatermeloni. And I’ll be playing the 2pm slot at the Bala Cranberry Festival on Saturday, October 19, if anyone wants to take in the festival and hear me play live with my trio.

Now, for the fun part of the interview. I’d like to finish up with James Lipton’s Pivot questionnaire:

What’s your favourite word? Cookie

What’s your least favourite word? Nipple

What turns you on? Love

What turns you off? Violence

What sound or noise do you love? Bubbles in a bubble bath

What sound or noise do you hate? Honking horns

What is your favourite curse word? Fuck

What profession other than your own would you like to pursue? Lawyer

What profession would you not like to do? Doctor

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? Did you bring your guitar?

Thanks, Melanie!

Melanie Peterson will be heading into the studio next month to record We Got This. Check out the Indiegogo campaign and consider making a donation; there’s a lot of sweet perks on offer, plus you’ll be helping a local Toronto artist do what she does best.

SummerWorks: Forgotten women’s voices emerge from the asylum in the remarkable, haunting Audible Songs from Rockwood

Simone Schmidt. Photo by Jeff Bierk.

 

Fiver brings a remarkable piece of musical storytelling to the stage with Audible Songs from Rockwood, written by Simone Schmidt, created by Schmidt, Shannon Lea Doyle and Frank Cox-O’Connell, and directed by Cox-O’Connell—running in the Franco Boni Theatre at The Theatre Centre. Based on the album of the same name, Schmidt has brought to life the voices of 10 women who were incarcerated at the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane between 1856 and 1881, taking us on a music accompanied history tour of these women’s lives and experiences at Rockwood—while drawing on issues of colonialism, patriarchy and mental health.

Staged as a piece of solo storytelling theatre, Schmidt shares her inspiration and research—of Rockwood and its inmates, and of Upper Canada law and general history of the time—in between songs, as she draws parallels between colonialism, and the system of white Protestant patriarchy that ruled the land and made property of wives and daughters. Inspired by the experiences of 10 women incarcerated at the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane, and incorporating two years of research from the case files and ledgers of the facility, Schmidt has created a series of song portraits. Put away by fathers, husbands or the authorities for out of wedlock sexual activity and being “man-obsessed”, melancholia, paranoia over land theft or spousal infidelity, or going incognito (one woman fabricated a life under an assumed name as a single woman from down south, when she was married to a local man), these women were subject to harsh conditions, initially housed in the stables of the former estate as the facility was under construction to house the overflow of mentally ill inmates from Kingston Penitentiary. Silenced and forgotten, some were left there for years after they were deemed fit to return home, their families inquiring about them but not bothering to make the journey to take them back.

Inmates were confined, forced into silence, and subjected to hard labour and cruel punishments for breaking the rules. Lack of funding for mental health shut down plans for more advanced, humane treatment at the facility; moral treatment, based on a Quaker model, whereby patients would have freedom to move about, and be given useful tasks to perform around the facility, like cleaning, cooking or gardening. Lack of funds also meant the facility had insufficient heating in winter, forcing inmates to huddle together for warmth as the contents of their chamber pots froze.

Haunting and mournful, lyrical yet matter of fact, the Appalachian folk-inspired music captures the essence of women whose lives were forever changed; silenced and policed in a harsh penal/mental health system—the stories in the facility documents were essentially told by the male doctors and police officers involved with each case. Schmidt’s vocals are earthy, deep and soulful; accompanied by Laura Bates on fiddle and Carlie Howell on double bass, in addition to back-up vocals/harmonies. Schmidt is well-aware of the possible issue of appropriation of voice here; and she wondered out loud if it’s right for her to tell these stories that aren’t really hers to tell. But if not for her songs—developed through respectful and painstaking research—who would be telling the stories of these troubled, silenced and forgotten women?

The “Audible” in the title may seem redundant, but Audible Songs from Rockwood are the songs of the hearts, souls and minds of women who otherwise would have had no voice.

Audible Songs from Rockwood continues, with three more performances, in the Franco Boni Theatre at the Theatre Centre until August 18; check the show page for exact dates/times. Tickets available online or in person at the box office.

SummerWorks: Running away to home in the fierce, funny, inspiring, socially aware The Breath Between

Fio Yang. Photo by Saba Akhtar.

 

The AMY Project returns to SummerWorks, this year with a journey of belonging and identity as a group of BIPOC, 2LGBTQ women and non-binary youth living in a world ravaged by climate change venture out in search of a place where they can feel safe and welcome to be themselves. The fierce, funny, inspiring and socially aware The Breath Between, directed by kumari giles and Julia Hune-Brown, assisted by Jamie Milay, and created by the ensemble, opened last night in The Theatre Centre Incubator.

In a post-apocalyptic world where climate change has destroyed the planet and forced the population to live under protective domes, the queer community gathers to dance and celebrate at Dome Pride. Growing increasingly disillusioned and disappointed about the over-the-top corporate branding and ownership—not to mention the $17 bottled water—and mainstream packaging of the event meant to “normalize” queer culture, a group of young BIPOC and 2LGBTQ women and non-binary youth decide to blow this corporate logo-ridden popsicle stand and search for a better place. Hijacking a spaceship on display at the event, and joined by the chirpy host inspired by their cause, they venture out to explore worlds beyond to find a place where they can feel safe and welcome. The trip brings some twists, turns and revelations as they share and discover themselves.

The bright, energetic and engaging ensemble includes Jericho Allick (mentored by Neema Bickersteth), nevada jane arlow (mentored by Susanna Fournier), Alice Cheng Meiqing (mentored by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster), Lyla Sherbin (mentored by Avery Jean Brennan), Fio Yang (mentored by Maddie Bautista), Whitney Nicole Peterkin and Megan Legesse; with additional writing by Taranjot Bamrah, A.C., Daniella Leacock and Claudia Liz. Incorporating music, poetry and monologues, the performers invite us into their individual worlds as they share memories and lived experiences—for better or worse. There is pain, longing and shame—but there is also resilience, ferocity and hope; all peppered with astute and darkly comic acknowledgments of the negative impacts of extreme climate change and the corporate branding of events that were once community-organized, grassroots movements.

While they may leave the Dome feeling like a spaceship full of misfit toys, the group ends up finding community and chosen family—and faces the choice of returning home or continuing their off-world exploration. Nicely book-ended by songs performed by Fio Yang, you may find yourself humming Out in the City as you leave the theatre.

Go where you are welcome—or take space where you like? In the end, home is where your family is, whether biological or chosen, and you can spark the change you want to see.

The Breath Between has three more performances in the Incubator space at The Theatre Centre, closing on August 16; check the show page for exact dates/times. Tickets available online or in person at the box office.

Rockin’ good fun for all ages in the delightfully whimsical, magical A (Musical) Midsummer Night’s Dream

Ahmed Moneka as Puck. Production design by Julia Kim. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Driftwood Theatre Group is back this summer, celebrating its 25th season with a tour of its outdoor Shakespearean awesomeness. This year, it’s a delightfully whimsical, silly, rockin’ Bard’s Bus Tour production of A (musical) Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare, adapted by Kevin Fox, Tom Lillington and D. Jeremy Smith; directed by Smith, assisted by André de Angelis; and music direction by Lillington. I caught the magical shenanigans in Toronto at Withrow Park last night.

King Theseus (James Dallas Smith) and his betrothed Hippolyta (Siobhan Richardson) are called upon by distressed nobleman Egeus (Ahmed Moneka) to intervene when his daughter Hermia (Marissa Orjalo) refuses to go along with an arranged marriage to Demetrius (Nick Dolan). Hermia is in love with Lysander (Nathaniel Hanula-James); and her BFF Helena (Kelsi James) is in love with Demetrius, who only has eyes for Hermia. Bottom line: Old-school law says if Hermia doesn’t marry Demetrius, she’ll be put to death—so she and Lysander run away into the forest, hotly pursued by Demetrius and Helena.

In the forest, another royal couple—Oberon (James Dallas Smith) and Titania (Richardson)—are estranged and at war over the custody of an orphaned human boy. In an attempt to steal the boy away, Oberon sends sprite Puck (Moneka) to fetch a magical flower, the juice of which will cause its victim to fall madly in love with the first thing they see; Oberon applies the flower to the sleeping Titania. Under Oberon’s orders, Puck goes to anoint Demetrius so he’ll fall in love with the scorned Helena—but mistakenly applies the flower to Lysander. Now both men long for Helena, and threaten to serious harm on each other to win her.

MusicalMidsummer-photobyDahliaKatz-Siobhan Richardson James Dallas Smith
James Dallas Smith as Oberon & Siobhan Richardson as Titania. Production design by Julia Kim. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Meanwhile, laid off auto worker Bottome (Steven Burley) gathers in the forest with fellow mechanicals (aka tradesmen: Dolan, Hanula-James, Orjalo and James) to rehearse a play they hope to perform at Theseus’s wedding, where a practical joke played by sprite Puck (Moneka) turns Bottome into a donkey and scatters his friends in fright—and draws the loving attentions of the bewitched Titania when she awakens to see him.

Of course, chaos and hilarity ensue—and Puck must find a way to make it right. And the whole thing culminates with a play within a play, as the bumbling but earnest mechanicals perform their hilarious classical tragedy at the wedding.

This is the kind of Shakespearean comedy where you pretty much have to go silly or go home—and the Driftwood cast really gives ‘er as they accompany the magical hijinks with a catchy rock, soul and opera-inspired a cappella music score (with Fox and associate music director Alison Beckwith providing additional vocals). The production also incorporates some fun Dungeons & Dragons and Pokémon moments.

MusicalMidsummer-photobyDahliaKatz-Mechanicals
Steven Burley as Bottome; with Nanthaniel Hanula-James, Nick Dolan & Marissa Orjalo as the mechanicals. Production design by Julia Kim. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Burley is hilarious as the loveable windbag Bottome, who would play all the parts if he could—deep down, a man adrift and reaching out for community. Hanula-James and Orjalo are hysterical as the vain cellphone and selfie-obsessed Hermia and Lysander; Dolan brings a sullen teenage edge to Demetrius and James is adorkable as the scorned, awkward Helena. Smith and Titania are nicely matched, doing double duty as the human and magical royal couples; imperious yet full of their own quirks and foibles, they show us that it’s not just humans who can be fond and foolish in love. Moneka is a delight as the mischievous Puck; and comical as the old-fashioned, technically-challenged Egeus.

Driftwood’s reputation for making Shakespeare accessible for all ages, as well as introducing creative innovation to the canon, is in full force with this enchanting, fun production. Bring the family, a picnic, some chairs or a blanket—and enjoy an evening outdoors with this magical comedic favourite.

A (musical) Midsummer Night’s Dream is back at Withrow Park tonight (July 27) at 7:30; and continues around Ontario until August 18, when it closes at Mann Raceway Plaza in St. Catharines. Check the Bard’s Bus Tour page for the full schedule of dates/locations, as well as reserved seating. Admission is pay-what-you-can (PWYC) or free; suggested contribution is $20-$30 per person. Check the company’s Twitter account for weather-related updates.

As part of its 25th anniversary celebration, Driftwood is collecting audience stories about experiences seeing their productions; you can do that on paper at the venue or on social media (make sure to tag Driftwood). You may also want to consider lending your support with a donation to keep the company going for another 25 years.

*New Toronto performance added: Thurs, Aug 15 at 7:30 pm at the Daniels Spectrum Courtyard.

Dancing in the key of life in Kaeja d’Dance’s joyful, moving, dynamic Porch View Dances 2019

PORCH 2: Lifesongs (Her Mixtape’s a Masterpiece), choreographed by Shannon Litzenberger. Kirsten Boer, Marion Oliver, Lori Pacan, Evelyn Sham and Myriam Zitouni. Photo by Cate McKim.

 

Kaeja d’Dance opened its 8th annual Porch View Dances, presented in and around Seaton Village in the Annex neighbourhood of Toronto (starting at 92 London St.) last night. Part walking history tour, part magical outdoor dance performance, part storytelling, the evening’s festivities feature amateur and professional dancers. The audience is shepherded by the affable top hat-wearing host and tour guide, Maurycy, who takes us through the neighbourhood to the various porch and vignette venues—all winding up at Vermont Square Park, where everyone is invited to dance. It is a joyful, moving and dynamic evening of movement and expression.

PORCH 1: Sipikiskisiwin (“Remembering Well”), choreographed by Aria Evans and created with/performed by Jim Adams. For the third year in a row, Jim and Owen Adams, an Indigenous father and son, have embarked on a PVD series of what it means to be an Indigenous family in the city. This year, they will be creating a piece for Jim to perform about dreams, memory and loss.

Incorporating movement and ritual, a moving piece of longing, connection and remembrance.

PORCH 2: Lifesongs (Her Mixtape’s a Masterpiece), choreographed by Shannon Litzenberger; created with/performed by Kirsten Boer, Marion Oliver, Lori Pacan, Evelyn Sham and Myriam Zitouni. A unique group of friends and strangers unite in their shared love of dance, art and community. They are looking forward to strengthening existing friendships and making new ones.

Kindred spirits sharing life, love and music in a celebratory porch party atmosphere.

PORCH 3: Comme un Enfant (“Like a Child”), choreographed by Karen and Allen Kaeja; created with/performed by Ilana and Ahava Bereskin. A mother/daughter duo are looking forward to a magical bonding experience and sharing their dance with the community; while their story is unique, the themes are universal and will resonate with all.

Tender and playful, a mother and daughter delight in each other, dancing, playing and exuding pure joy.

POP-UP VIGNETTES: Dearest Love (Parts 1-3) world premiere, choreographed by Mateo Galindo Torres; and performed by professional dancers Taylor Bojanowski and Mio Sakamoto.

An unusual and delightful love story emerges between a woman and a dress on a dress form, as we encounter this magical tale in three parts, in between porch dances.

Last night’s event also included the very cool unveiling of the Porch View Dances Lane street sign (across the street from the meeting place at 92 London Street).

It’s a lovely way to spend an evening, walking through a beautiful, historic neighbourhood and witnessing the joy, poignancy and creativity of expression in movement and dance.

Porch View Dances continues until July 21, with performances Thurs-Sat at 7:00 pm and Sunday at 1:00 pm. Tickets are Pay-What-You-Want.

Department of corrections: One of the dancers in Dearest Love was previously incorrectly identified as Caryn Chappell. It’s actually Taylor Bojanowski; this has been corrected.

Here are some pix I took at last night’s opening.

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Toronto Fringe: Joy, sadness & an unexpected friendship in the playful, imaginative, touching Beneath the Bed

In bed: Erin Humphry. Clockwise, from bottom left: Lindsay Wu, Elizabeth Staples, John Wamsley & Keaton Kwok. Photo by Bryn Kennedy.

 

Theatre Born Between takes us to a world of childhood and the creatures that live under our beds in the playful, touching Beneath the Bed, a tale of loss and trauma—and an unexpected friendship. Written by Gabriel Golin and directed by Bryn Kennedy, with music composition by Lucas Penner, music, puppetry, dress-up and everyday objects imaginatively employed combine to tell a story of joy, sadness and back again. It’s story time for all ages, running at the Scadding Court Community Centre, Room 4.

When a Child (Erin Humphry) loses her Mom (Elizabeth Staples), her room becomes her refuge as she searches for her mother in the stars out her window, her mother’s haunting lullaby never forgotten. One night, a Monster (Graham Conway) appears from under her bed. Annoyed that the Child’s tears and sadness make her unfit to eat, he attempts to make her happy; and while his efforts may initially be for selfish reasons, a bond grows between them—and he becomes her protector from the real monster in the house.

Years later, the Monster appears in a new bedroom to find a new Child (Lindsay Wu); his friend has grown up and become a mother herself. This new Child has an outgoing personality and a vivid imagination, and loves playing games of make-believe—becoming a pirate on the high seas or an astronaut exploring the stars and battling space aliens. And although the Monster doesn’t understand her games, he plays along—even though his friend, now a mother, doesn’t want him speaking to her child. Feeling that her mom is keeping her too close, the Child runs away. Despite his fear of leaving the bedroom, and the great danger posed by daylight, the Monster ventures out to find her.

Lovely work from the cast in this beautiful, moving and delightful journey. Humphry’s Child has wisdom beyond her years; pensive and observant, she finds strength and resilience despite her grief and isolation. But the trauma of her childhood makes her a fearful adult, and nurturing turns to smothering as she desperately tries to protect her child from the world. Conway is a treat as the Monster; all gruff and growl at first, he’s a softie underneath—his initial malice melting as he turns from predator to protector. Wu is adorably fierce as the second Child; forced to live largely in her imagination, she struggles for independence and growth.

Rounding out the cast are the spritely Whispers—Keaton Kwok and John Wamsley (also Staples and Wu)—who create the sights, sounds and physical environment as the story unfolds. Everyday objects become monsters, sunsets, constellations, the headlights of a car; and, from the booth, stage manager Caitlin Brenneman creates sound effects with a toy xylophone and everyday things.

A good reminder—for children of all ages—that endings aren’t always entirely happy, but we can hope that things will be better tomorrow and feel gratitude for those moments of joy and the friends who help us get there.

Beneath the Bed continues in the Scadding Court Community Centre, Room 4 with one more performance today (July 14) at 2:00; tickets available at the door only today. Seating is limited, so you may want to arrive early.