Toronto Fringe: Party like a sumo wrestler with Robin F*cking Black in the gutsy, inspirational Enjoy the Hostilities

Robin Black. Photo by John Laszlo Bruce.

 

Pressgang Theatre takes us on a wild, wisdom-filled storytelling ride with its Toronto Fringe production of Enjoy the Hostilities, written by Robin Black and Graham Isador, directed by Isador and performed by Black—running now at The Bovine.

Part personal journey, part edgy TedTalk, the storytelling is frank, unapologetic and authentic as the hard-working, hard-drinking, hard-partying Black takes us from his life as the frontman of the glam rock band Robin Black and the Intergalactic Rockstars, to fighting in the UFC cage, to becoming a professional MMA fight analyst. Turning his life around from a deadly diet of drugs and alcohol after waking up to a drug-induced seizure, Black set his sights on becoming a professional fight commentator—but, first, he had to become a fighter. Knowing full well that larger goals are made up of smaller goals (a system of goal achievement he learned from his dad), this meant training, studying—and overcoming his previous reputation as an eyeliner-wearing rocker with big hair and tight pants, to gain respect in the cage.

Black’s determined, fighter spirit goes super nova in this gutsy, inspirational solo show—and there’s genuine gratitude, joy and excitement to be making a living doing what he loves.

Enjoy the Hostilities has one more performance at the Bovine: July 15 at 6 pm. Last night’s show was jam-packed, so advance booking strongly recommended.

Want to check if the show you want to see is sold out? The Toronto Fringe folks have set up a page for sold-out shows, updated daily.

 

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Toronto Fringe: Ruminations on love, beauty and aging in the nostalgic, intimate, haunting Cheri

cheri-on-the-run-productions invites us to sit down with a former courtesan as she ruminates on love, beauty and aging in the intimate, haunting Cheri. Inspired by the novels of Colette, and written and directed by Sky Gilbert, with music composed by Dustin Peters, Cheri is currently running in the Al Green Theatre for Toronto Fringe.

A music theatre piece within a theatre piece, Cheri weaves storytelling by way of personal anecdotes and reminiscences, and songs—all presented by our hostess Lea (Theresa Tova), a retired courtesan accompanied by the beautiful pianist/singer we only come to know as Cheri (Dustin Peters). And the farther she wanders down the road of memory and loves past, the more she sees in her accompanist the face of lost love—her Cheri.

Tova gives a powerhouse performance as Lea; her elegance, moxie and nostalgic melancholy hearkens back to the golden age of vaudeville and cabaret. Passionate, playful, petulant, and filled with a lust for life and all that is elegant and lovely, Lea is a hopeless romantic with a penchant for harsh honesty. And her heartbreaking torch songs are delivered with vulnerable candor and rich, resonant vocals. As Cheri, Peters is the perfect foil; fastidious, aloof and having none of Lea’s shenanigans and flirtations, Cheri (we never do learn his real name) bears himself with directness and professionalism. Cheri’s desire for privacy and boundaries could be construed as secretive and stand-offish, but one gets the impression that it’s the armour that protects his soul against the barrage of attention his beauty garners.

The march of Time is inevitable and aging is a natural part of life. We can choose to accept ourselves at each stage of our lives and continue moving forward as we cherish our memories of younger days—or risk getting lost in the past.

Cheri continues in the Al Green Theatre until July 15; check the show page for exact times and dates.

Toronto Fringe: Resilience against all odds in the defiant, poignant, hopeful The Pansy Craze: A New Musical

In a time when “transgender” wasn’t a word and homosexuality was illegal, a trans woman refuses to be invisible and shines on the vaudeville stage in Next Stop Productions’ The Pansy Craze. With book, music and lyrics by Avery Jean Brennan, and directed by Dustin George, with music direction by Brennan, the new musical is running at the Randolph Theatre during the Toronto Fringe festival.

The Pansy Craze takes us to 1930s America, behind the scenes of underground vaudeville venues—speakeasies, where booze wasn’t the only prohibited item on the menu. In a bid to out-do the competition, these establishments boasted titillating shows, putting queer performers on the bill to entice customers. When star actress Helen (Stephanie Hood)—recently and conveniently married to Charlie (Shaquille Pottinger) so they can be a husband and wife act—sprains her ankle, closeted Emcee Duncan (Eric McDace, alternate for Teddy Moynihan) decides to put Jeanie (Devin Herbert), who is a transgender woman, into the act. The group has a huge opportunity at an upscale Manhattan place run by Gladys (Kira Renee) and unofficially overseen by Tom (Sansom Marchand), a cop who turns a blind eye to the illegal goings-on so he can have a place to drink. Gladys also has connections with famous vaudeville impresario Norbert (Peter Mundell).

Jeanie, a talented songwriter/performer, illuminates the stage with panache and heartbreaking torch songs. “Pansies”, as the queer performers are called, are okay with establishment managers, so long as they entertain and bring in customers—but Tom isn’t so happy about turning a blind eye to this particular bending of the law, particularly Jeanie, who doesn’t blend in onstage or off. Complicated relationships emerge within the company, with more drama occurring in the wings than onstage at times.

When prohibition is lifted, booze comes out of the closet, but queer performers are no longer welcome—now that these vaudeville houses are above ground, they can’t risk running afoul of the law and losing customers. Refusing to be closeted or forced into a “normal” life as a man, Jeanie sets her sights on continuing her career, and she and Charlie get audition spots for Norbert’s show. And when tragedy strikes this tight-knit group, Charlie finds himself with a life-altering decision to make.

There’s high-energy hoofing and singing from an entertaining cast. Herbert is a clear stand-out as Jeanie; lighting up the stage, they shine in a charismatic performance, full of style, sass and impressive vocal chops that can belt out a tune or break a heart. Lovely scenes and duet with Pottinger, who gives a nicely layered performance as Charlie, a talented and conflicted young man who’s forced to confront his own heart, inspired in part by Jeanie’s chutzpah. “So What if I’m a Pansy” becomes a defiant and touching anthem—for LGBTQ folks and anyone struggling to be themselves.

The Pansy Craze continues at the Randolph until July 15; check the show page for exact dates/times.

Toronto Fringe: The cult of selfism & celebrity in the sharply hilarious, satirical, eerie Wagon Play

Brendan Kinnon, Jonathan Walls, Katherine Cappellacci, Emma Banigan, Alexis Gontan, Lindsey Middleton & Brandon Gillespie. Photo by Owen Fawcett.

 

Are you living your truth?

Amber Moon and her followers invite you to join them for The Way’s special Resetting Ceremony in Theatre By Committee’s production of Ben Hayward’s Wagon Play. Directed by Hayward and Owen Fawcett, the play runs at Majlis Art Garden as part of Toronto Fringe.

Tired of playing the mall and county fair circuit, former pop idol Amber Moon (Emma Banigan) found her truth within herself, then founded The Way—an organization that guides members to discover and live their truth—comprised of seven levels of truth actualization. Leading up to the Resetting Ceremony, members at various levels along their journey (Katherine Cappellacci, Brandon Gillespie, Alexis Gontan, Brendan Kinnon, Lindsey Middleton and Jonathan Walls) compete for the prize of levelling up (rising up a level) as they each present a personal celebrity icon to prove their mastery over one of the six freedoms from: Humility, History, Apology, Culture War, Group Think and Moral Slavery.

It’s a selfie-taking, Instagram/social media-loving, self-absorbed world with the Mooners; and holding their celebrity inspiration (a TV/reality show dynasty, several music stars, a tech god and even a politician we love to hate) as dearly as any god, they are determined—and even desperate—to succeed and better their status within the organization. As they travel the country recruiting new members, they especially want to be held in high esteem by Amber, who rules the group with her charismatic presence, peppered with cutting honesty, manipulation and conditional love.

With highly engaging, committed and vulnerable performances, the ensemble brings us eerie shades of Scientology, greeting us as new members as we enter the garden and prepare for Amber’s arrival. Entering like a rock star, Banigan’s Amber Moon takes control and space; the human embodiment of the six freedoms The Way espouses. It’s unsettling and compelling at the same time; repulsive and fascinating—yet, like witnessing the train wreck of a dysfunctional family reality show, we can’t turn away. Who will the leader bless with the granting of a higher level tonight?

Wagon Play continues at Majlis Art Garden until July 15; check the show page for exact dates and times. It’s an intimate space and they sold out last night, so advance booking is strongly recommended.

Toronto Fringe: A unique, sensual, fierce contemporary theatre journey out on the water in Flooded

Top to bottom: Nicole Wilson, Hayden Finkelshtain, Melanie Leon & Duncan Rowe. Photo by Ara Glenn-Johanson.

 

NorthAmerica took us on a unique theatrical journey with its Toronto Fringe production of Flooded, conceived and directed by Ara Glenn-Johanson. Created in collaboration with the ensemble, Flooded takes you out into Toronto Harbour for an hour-long contemporary theatre experience aboard the Pirate Life ship (departing from Pirate Life’s home base at 333 Lakeshore East; foot of Parliament—look for the pirate flags).

With playful, primal and sensual performances from Hayden Finkelshtain, Melanie Leon, Duncan Rowe and Glenn-Johanson (replacing original cast member Nicole Wilson for the rest of the run), Flooded is a non-narrative show that uses physical theatre, movement, voice and made up language as the actors transform themselves into various creatures, women turning against the patriarchy, humans longing for physical contact as they struggle to embrace, and more. Haunting, poignant music (composed by Glenn-Johanson) features lyrics compiled from The Wreck (Adrienne Rich) and the 16th century Good Gossip’s Song (from the Chester Noah play).

Intense, funny, rhythmic and sensual, Flooded is a beautifully fierce, visceral, poetic trip—engaging the audience in one moment, and leaving us with our own thoughts the next.

Last night’s performance was sandwiched between two thunderstorms,* the second (which arrived about an hour after we docked) bringing torrential downpours of biblical proportions. The weather couldn’t have been better—a stark reminder that our current trajectory of climate change and global warming could very well bring a second global flood. And like the volatile weather brought relief to a week-long heat wave last night, there’s a sense of calm and safety following a dramatic, moving and mercurial ride on the water as the ship and its survivors find dry land after the storm.

With shouts to our Captain Kit and crew Gabriel.

Flooded continues at Pirate Life, with the ship departing every night of the festival at 7:00 p.m. except July 10. Due to the nature of show and the intimate space, advance booking is strongly recommended.

*Note on weather policy: A performance will only be cancelled if the weather will be extreme or dangerous on the water. If you’ve booked in advance and a performance is cancelled, you will be sent an email.

Culture, identity & the meaning of the blues in Soulpepper’s powerful, entertaining Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Top: Alex Poch-Goldin. Bottom: Marcel Stewart, Diego Matamoros, Beau Dixon, Neville Edwards & Alana Bridgewater. Set & lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper takes us to 1920s Chicago, where the race, power and creative exploitation collide in a lively, tension-filled recording studio session in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu. This is the first time Ma Rainey has been performed in Canada since 1985, shortly after its 1984 premiere on Broadway.

A faint haze hangs over the dark, empty Chicago recording studio, conjuring visions of musicians and singers smoking between—or even during—takes (set and lighting design by Ken MacKenzie). Gradually, the space is peopled with the steady, quiet pace of familiar routine. Cranky, gravel-voiced studio owner Sturdyvant (Diego Matamoros) and Ma’s put-upon, ingratiating manager Irvin (Alex Poch-Goldin) get set up in the booth and on the floor. Then the boys in the band arrive: the bookish, philosophical piano man Toledo (Beau Dixon); the quiet, no-nonsense bassist Slow Drag (Neville Edwards); and fastidious, practical band leader/banjo player/trombonist Cutler (Lindsay Owen Pierre). Last to arrive is the energetic, stylish Levee (Lovell Adams-Gray), the new whiz kid on the trumpet, arriving late and showing off a new pair of shoes. The band hangs out in the rehearsal room downstairs (downstage), shooting the breeze and rehearsing a bit while they wait for Ma to arrive. The tension is already cooking, as Ma is running late, the play list is ever-changing, and the ambitious new kid—who has his sights set on starting his own band and recording his own music—doesn’t seem to think he needs to rehearse.

When the big energy, take-charge Mother of the Blues Ma (Alana Bridgewater) finally arrives an hour late, resplendent in a green dress (costumes by Alexandra Lord) with her young flapper girlfriend Dussie Mae (Virgilia Griffith) and sharp-dressed nephew Sylvester (Marcel Stewart) in tow, there’s more arguing and scrambling. An irritated policeman (Derek Boyes) has followed them into the studio, charging Sylvester with reckless driving and Ma with assault; Irvin quickly “handles” the situation, then finds himself under orders to arrange for repairs to Ma’s car. And then there’s the ongoing debate over which version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” they’re going to record: the original or Levee’s version. And Ma wants Sylvester, who stutters, to do the spoken intro on the recording; a decision that’s greeted with thinly veiled annoyed cynicism. Irvin continues bouncing like a ping pong ball between Sturdyvant, Ma and the band, playing peacekeeper, and taking care of all the concerns and issues. Young Levee has eyes for Dussie Mae; Cutler is trying to keep the band on track, especially Levee; and Slow Drag just wants to get it over with and go home. Toledo has his books to keep him company, while Sylvester and Dussie Mae are thrilled to be there—and Dussie Mae has taken notice of Levee’s attention.

Conversations among the band range from the comic to the tragic, from day-to-day shenanigans, to stories of personal struggle and the lived experience of being Black in America. And though she comes off as a diva, Ma is a shrewd businesswoman; she knows what she does and does not have control over. Where she can have a say, you can bet she’ll have it! Commanding respect with her seemingly unreasonable demands, Ma navigates a world where artists—particularly artists of colour—are used up for their creative talents then cast aside; in the meantime, they’re paid a fraction of what they’re worth while white producers, managers and studio owners profit handsomely from their work. And, for Ma and the band, the blues are more than just a money-making music genre—it’s “life’s way of talking.”

rainey-3
Virgilia Griffith & Lovell Adams-Gray. Set & lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Outstanding, compelling work from this tight, multi-talented ensemble. Bridgewater shines as the unstoppable, talented Ma—a force to be reckoned with. A large woman with a larger than life personality, Ma is an exacting professional; a fierce mamma bear when it comes to protecting loved ones; and a tender, generous lover. Like most women in her situation, a respected and highly popular artist like Ma has a reputation for being “difficult”—a charge that would never be levelled at a white male artist in her shoes.

Adams-Gray does an amazing job peeling back the layers of Levee. From a traumatized child to a volatile young man, Levee is confident in his talent and eager to make a name for himself as a composer and band leader—but, unlike his more seasoned bandmates, has yet to learn how the game is played. Stewart is a delight as the shy, child-like Sylvester; wide-eyed, and filled with wonder and joy to be in the studio. With Ma’s support and encouragement, and bolstered by his plan to send money home to his mother, we see Sylvester’s self-confidence blossom as he works hard through his speech impediment to do the best he can on the recording.

Though set in the 20s, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom speaks to the situation of artists today. While artists have gained more control over their work and working conditions, the industry still has work to do with regard to cultural and creative exploitation, and assigning labels of “difficult” on women and artists of colour. And we only have to look at Ma and Levee to see that artists must learn to play the game and be at peace over that which they cannot control—or be swept up in the undertow of their own frustrated ambition and expectations.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom continues in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre—now extended by popular demand to June 9. Get advance tickets online or give the box office a shout at: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Lost music dreams & turbulent family reunion in Rare Day Projects’ bittersweet, poignant, funny A Very Different Place

Clockwise, from top left: Jeanette Dagger, Rosemary Doyle & Alexzander McLarry. Photo by Deborah Ann Frankel.

 

You can’t go home again, but maybe you can meet where you are. Rare Day Projects presents Carol Libman’s drama about lost dreams and family reunion, A Very Different Place, directed by Robin Haggerty and opening last night at Red Sandcastle Theatre. This world premiere began as a short play in Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival, later emerging at Big Ideas and Next Stage readings before reaching its current form at Red Sandcastle.

Teri (Rosemary Doyle) left home almost 20 years ago to pursue a career as a jazz singer with a talented man she loved—and that’s not all she left behind. Her mother Marge (Jeanette Dagger) was left to raise her son Mike (Alexzander McLarry). After a chance meeting in a Calgary hospital, where Teri now works as a nurse, Mike hatches a plan for a family reunion between his mother and grandmother at their home in Toronto—a plan that gets fast-tracked when Marge falls and breaks her hip. He needs to get back to work on an oil rig out west in a few days, and Marge—despite protestations to the contrary—needs assistance at home while she recovers and gets physiotherapy. Enter Teri, and the mother/daughter battle begins!

Old wounds, misunderstandings, resentments and suspicions emerge as Teri and Marge struggle through past and current conflicts—and try to make peace for Mike’s sake. Mike finds himself in the middle of the fray, playing peacemaker when all he wanted was to get his family back together. And Teri’s desperately trying to stay sober through the stress of this homecoming; attending AA meetings, where she addresses us as fellow Friends of Bill.

Nicely staged, with a turbulent musical prologue and snippets of classical piano favourites featured throughout (expertly played by Dagger) and a touching mother/daughter duet on “Summertime” (with Doyle shining on the vocals), A Very Different Place is bookended with music and moments of Teri’s AA sharing.

Lovely work from the cast in this touching, often sharply funny, three-hander—featuring some especially moving two-hander scenes between mother and daughter, and mother and son. Dagger’s Marge is a tough but amiable old gal with a decided stubborn, independent streak and an unbreakable determination to do what’s best, even if it costs her. Doyle’s Teri is a troubled adult child struggling to reconcile past and future choices, wobbling on the edge of petulant teen in the face of family conflict. Equally firm in her pursuit of independence—she comes by it honestly—like Marge, who once dreamed of being a concert pianist, Teri feels the sting of lost music career dreams and the necessity of setting herself on a new path in order to survive. McLarry does a great job as the glue trying to hold this family together as Mike navigates his own internal conflicts; like Marge and Teri, his life took an unexpected turn when he was forced to go west to find work. Setting up this family reunion as much for himself as for his grandmother and mother, Mike finds himself playing adult/referee when, deep down, he wants to feel a kid’s experience of love and family.

With shouts to SM/Technical Director Deborah Ann Frankel for juggling multiple tasks in the booth.

A Very Different Place continues at Red Sandcastle until May 13, with evening performances at 8 pm May 8 to 12; and matinees at 2 pm on May 10, 12 and 13. Tickets available at the door, by calling the Box Office at 416-845-9411 or going online.