Notorious, tough & clever—the lives of women gangsters in the compelling, edgy The Elephant Girls

Margo MacDonald as Maggie Hale in The Elephant Girls—photo by Andrew Alexander

Red Sandcastle Theatre launched its second Wilde Festival production, partnering with Parry Riposte Productions to mount Margo MacDonald’s The Elephant Girls, directed by Mary Ellis. The Elephant Girls opened at Red Sandcastle’s storefront space at Queen St. East and Logan, Toronto last night to a standing ovation.

Inspired by stories about notorious London girl gang the Forty Elephants, and drawing on research from Brian McDonald’s The Gangs of London (2010, Milo Books Ltd.) and Alice Diamond and the Forty Elephants (2015, Milo Books Ltd.), MacDonald has created a one-woman show featuring Maggie Hale, a character that combines several gang members, most notably Maggie Hill/Hughes.

We join Maggie in a London pub in 1937. Buy her a pint or two, or three, and she’ll regale you with tales of her life in the 1920s with the Forty Elephants (aka the Elephant Girls), sister gang to the Elephant and Castle Boys. We learn how Maggie went from a lone thief, paying out to a local gang, to catching the attention of Alice Diamond, the Queen of the Forty Elephants; and how Alice scooped her up and got her trained up to be the gang’s enforcer. And, perhaps even more importantly, set Maggie on a path of self-discovery by encouraging her to dress in men’s suits and cut her hair.

It’s all shits and giggles, and tall tales of gang shenanigans and politics—including some brutal, darkly funny interrogations—and a revolving door of incarceration, with sentences increasing along with her growing notoriety. Cool as a cucumber, it’s the life—and the life’s a game. But as Maggie gets well into her cups, the tone changes. It’s then that we see flashes of honesty and heartbreak: an abusive father; the psychological and physical hardships of prison; and pangs of desire and internalized homophobia as her professional knack for violence turns itself to personal matters.

Outstanding performance from MacDonald, who is a compelling and entertaining storyteller; going from suave, charming and cocky to progressively darker and more aggressive as Maggie’s rage and frustration emerge. With few options for working class women to make a living and survive, Maggie found herself having to choose between wife, factory worker, thief or whore. Mistrusting the path of love, she struggles with “unnatural” desires, and a huge crush on her boss and mentor Alice.

With shouts to costume designer Vanessa Imeson, for Maggie’s fabulous pinstripe ensemble.

Notorious, tough and clever—the lives of women gangsters in the compelling, edgy The Elephant Girls.

The Elephant Girls continues at Red Sandcastle until Feb 25; it’s a very short run with just four more performances, and in an intimate space, so best to reserve your spot in advance online or by calling 416-845-9411.

The Elephant Girls is prepping for a UK tour this Spring; please consider supporting the production by donating to its Fund What You Can campaign.

In the meantime, check out this excerpt from the show, from CBC News Ottawa.

 

 

 

Blood & fire as women navigate a beautiful, untamed new world in the bold, darkly funny Deceitful Above All Things

Genevieve Adam & John Fitzgerald Jay: photo by John Gundy

The show must go on. Storefront Theatre’s partnership with the Favour the Brave Collective to present Genevieve Adam’s SummerWorks 2015 hit Deceitful Above All Things shifted venues to the Factory Theatre Studio after Storefront’s space closed earlier this year.

As you sit in the Studio’s adjacent lounge, you can hear birds and a strange, otherworldly music. Like the chiming of celestial orbs. Entering the theatre, the ceiling is covered with tree branches, reaching downwards—and the floor is the colour of blood spreading over snow. Two benches on stage and the audience is mirrored on either side of the playing space. Combined with the sounds, the setting is eerie and strangely calming at the same time.

Inspired by the little known story of Les Filles du Roi (King’s Daughters), and directed by Tanya Rintoul, Deceitful Above All Things takes us on the journey of two young French women as they cross an ocean to transplant their lives to New France (eventually Quebec) in 1667.

Meeting on the voyage, coquettish aristocrat Anne (Genevieve Adam) and the pious Marguerite (Imogen Grace) become close friends when Marguerite comes to Anne’s aid on board. Once arrived, Marguerite joins her at a settlement near Trois Rivières to serve in Anne’s new home, which she shares with her husband, tobacco farmer Amable (Brian Bisson). There Marguerite finds romance when a handsome half First Nations, half French coureur de bois, Toussaint (Garret C. Smith) saves her from a bear.

This attachment is much to the dismay of Mme. Etienne (Madeleine Donohue), settlement den mother and matchmaker; she organizes and watches over the newly arrived women and arranges domestic partnerships—all for the glory of France and to populate the colony. Also relatively new to the settlement is Father François (John Fitzgerald Jay), a Jesuit priest who lives at the nearby Mission. And befriending Marguerite is Catherine (Joelle Peters), a young First Nations woman who was orphaned as a child and raised by the “black robes” at the Mission.

The storytelling weaves past and present, where we learn how the playful, intimate relationship between Anne and Father François turned passionate in France; the two reunited when he pays a visit to Amable’s home. Both Anne and Marguerite are pregnant, and Toussaint has travelled north, following the desire of his soul even more so than the work. Marguerite has adapted well to this wild new world, with the help of Toussaint and Catherine. Less of a pioneer at heart, Anne toys with two lovers like a careless child who goes where her desire takes her—and may find her true passion too late. Ever present is the threat of attack from an Iroquois war party, as men band together to take back the land that was taken from them by force by other men. This is a harsh, at times unforgiving, and also fertile and beautiful new world—and its inhabitants must adapt in order to survive.

Compelling performances from the cast with these conflicted, passionate characters. As Anne, Adam is fiery, seductive and irreverent; Anne’s aristocratic cockiness is subdued somewhat in the wilds of a burgeoning Quebec colony, but her passion still burns hot. Polar opposite, yet complementary to Anne, is Grace’s quiet, introspective Marguerite; deeply loyal and kind, there’s a fierce heart underneath—that is her source of strength and resourcefulness.

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Garret C. Smith & Imogen Grace: photo by John Gundy

Jay brings a great sense of conflict to the learned, forward-thinking Father François; a devout and spiritual man, his passions get away from him with Anne—making for a tortured soul that longs for absolution and redemption. Smith’s lovely layered performance as Toussaint gives us a man both spiritually and culturally conflicted; called “half-breed,” he doesn’t really belong anywhere and goes where his bear spirit calls him. But now, with Marguerite and the baby, he may have finally found a home.

Peters brings a nice sense of calm watchfulness to the enigmatic Catherine, at times unsettlingly so; a woman of few words, like Toussaint, spiteful rumours about her family follow her—and she must act as her spirit dictates. Donohue gives a sharply honed performance as the tight, proper Mme. Etienne; and Bisson gives Amable a strong and simple, but affable, dignity.

Deceitful Above All Things tells us a story of the early days of what would eventually become the province of Quebec, Canada—with some seldom seen perspectives of women and First Nations people. It’s a timely story, with Canada’s 150th birthday being celebrated this year.

The production also features beautiful work from the design team to create this hauntingly beautiful, dangerously harsh world: Nancy Anne Perrin (set), Logan Cracknell (lighting), Adriana Bogaard (costume) and Deanna Choi (sound).

Blood and fire as women navigate a beautiful, untamed new world in the bold, darkly funny Deceitful Above All Things.

Deceitful Above All Things continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until Feb 26. Find ticket info and purchase advance tix here.

Betrayal & ruin to forgiveness & reunion, with witty, rollicking good times in As You Like It

Photo by Daniela Mason: George Brown Theatre School class of 2017

The George Brown Theatre School class of 2017 takes us back to a time of rum-running gangsters in their production of As You Like It (directed by Geoffrey Pounsett), currently running in rep with A Midsummer Night’s Dream (directed by alum Aaron Willis) in the Tank House Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, located in Toronto’s Distillery District. I dropped by the Young Centre for As You Like It yesterday afternoon.

We learn via a remarkably staged prologue, set as a silent film reel delightfully set up by the Fool Touchstone (Thomas Nyhuus), how Duke Senior (Chase Jeffels) was betrayed by his brother Frederick (Jake Runeckles) and banished, his organization taken over by the traitorous Frederick, who becomes the new Duke. Duke Frederick allows his niece Rosalind (Justine Christensen) to stay as a companion for his daughter Celia (Geneviéve DeGraves), who is very fond of her bff cousin.

In a parallel tale of sibling betrayal, Orlando (Seamus Dillon-Easton) has endured a life of abuse and neglect at the hand of his older sister Olivia (Lucy Meanwell), who has betrayed their father Sir Rowland’s charge to look after her younger brother after his death. When Orlando goes to test his mettle in a wrestling match with Charles (Jeffels), a favourite of the new Duke, he crosses paths with Rosalind and the two are mutually smitten. Winning the match, Orlando also wins a new enemy in the Duke, and returns home to learn from the faithful family servant Adam (Patrick Horan) that his sister is plotting to kill him—prompting him to flee, with Adam accompanying him.

Displeased at Rosalind’s popularity with a sympathetic public, and wary that this will reflect badly on his daughter, the Duke banishes Rosalind. In an ultimate act of friendship and loyalty, Celia elects to go with her; and the two concoct disguises so they may travel in safety, with Rosalind dressing as a man called Ganymede and Celia as his sister Aliena. Enlisting the Touchstone as their travelling companion, they too flee their home.

Meanwhile, Orlando and Adam have made their way to the forest of Arden, where they come upon Duke Senior and a group of loyal followers, who are living a merry rustic life in the woods. Merry, except for sad sack Jaques (Parmida Vand), who perceives all on the darker, melancholy side. Now living in the forest and pining for Rosalind, Orlando takes to praising her dear name in poetry and posting it on the trees.

Rosalind, Celia and Touchstone find themselves a cottage in the forest; and Rosalind discovers Orlando’s poetry on the trees. To test his love, she (as Ganymede) tells Orlando she can cure his love sickness if he comes to woo him as if he were Rosalind. Meanwhile lovesick neighbouring shepherd Silvius (Evan MacKenzie) is pursuing the uninterested Phebe (Gabriella Albino), who becomes love struck when she meets Ganymede/Rosalind. Even Touchstone finds a sweetheart: the lovely, simple shepherdess Audrey (Jocelyn Feltham).

Orlando’s sister Olivia arrives on the scene after getting a taste of her own medicine from the Duke, forcing her to flee to the forest. She comes to Ganymede/Rosalind and Aliena/Celia with news of Orlando, who has been seriously wounded by a lioness while saving her. Contrite and seeking redemption for her wrong-doing, she has joined Duke Senior, who was a good friend to her father. And, not to leave Celia out of the romance, she and Olivia are obviously and immediately taken with each other. Realizing she truly loves Orlando—and left with two love knots to untangle—Rosalind plans a wedding in the woods, promising to sort everything out, including the plight of lovesick shepherd Silvius and the callous Phebe.

And all is revealed at the wedding, with much merriment, music and dancing—and Rosalind reunited with her father, who is restored to his office in yet another fortuitous twist of Shakespearean fate.

Excellent work from the ensemble, who get ample opportunity to showcase their considerable music and vocal chops with a number of delightful songs and musical numbers—led by music directors/composers/classmates Lucas Penner and Jake Runeckles.

Stand-out performances include Christensen, who is luminous as the brave, witty and resourceful Rosalind; great chemistry with Dillon-Easton’s Orlando, who goes from courageous risk-taker in endeavor to bashful mute in the face of love. Both become adorably moonstruck silly in love.

DeGraves gives Celia a feisty and fiery spark; deeply loyal to the point of defying her cruel father, Celia leaves her lush city life behind to find herself, hilariously, a fish out of water in the country. Meanwell does a nice job with Olivia’s salvation; going from snake-like cruelty to kind repentance, and finding herself shot with Cupid’s arrow when she meets Celia (lovely chemistry there as well).

Nyhuus is a treat as the saucy Touchstone; cocky and always up for a debate, like Celia he’s not thrilled to be away from the comforts of home, but valiantly makes the best of it as he diverts himself with lusty pursuits of his own. And Vand gives us an engaging and entertaining Jaques; a melancholy loner who takes cheer in Touchstone’s shenanigans, her pessimism rings with the air of a realist resigned to the true nature of the world, which can often be a cruel joke.

With big shouts to the design team for their work on creating this magical, industrial meets pastoral world: Ken MacKenzie (set), Shannon Lea Doyle (costumes) and Michelle Ramsay (lighting); and to Simon Fon (fight choreography) and Robert McCollum (dance choreography).

Betrayal and ruin to forgiveness and reunion, with witty, rollicking good times in As You Like It.

As You Like It continues at the Young Centre in the Tank House Theatre until Feb 18; A Midsummer Night’s Dream also runs until Feb 18; click here for ticket and pass info or book by calling the box office at 416-866-8666. It’s a great chance to see emerging acting talent before they head out into their careers.

You can also keep up with George Brown Theatre’s class of 2017 on Twitter and Facebook.

Love, family, forgiveness & legacy—falling in love with Kim’s Convenience over & over again

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann: Jean Yoon & Paul Sun-Hyung Lee

Everybody loves Appa. When Paul Sun-Hyung Lee made his entrance as the Kim patriarch (marking his 423rd performance in the role) for Soulpepper Theatre’s remount of Ins Choi’s Kim’s Convenience, the packed house in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre erupted into applause.

I first fell in love with Kim’s Convenience during its sold-out run in the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival; arriving super early at the Bathurst Street Theatre (now the Randolph Academy) box office with my 10-play pass in hand (this was before my media accreditation). Then I had the pleasure of seeing Soulpepper’s production in May 2012 and fell in love all over again. I’m also a huge fan of the Canadian Screen Award-nominated TV series on CBC. So I was very happy when I, along with my friend Lizzie (who’d also seen it onstage twice before), had the opportunity to see it again last night.

Directed by Weyni Mengesha, Kim’s Convenience takes us along a day in the life of a mom and pop variety store in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood. For those familiar with the TV show, there really is a Kim’s Convenience, located at Queen/Sherbourne—and the exterior of the store is used in the show. Unlike the TV series, however, the play is set around 10 years later, with Janet (Rosie Simon) and Jung (Richard Lee)* now in their early 30s. And Appa, who is nearing retirement, starts his day receiving an offer from a local real estate-connected friend Mr. Lee (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) to buy the store; and finds himself considering the future—especially in the face of urban development and neighbourhood gentrification. He and Umma (Jean Yoon) have a big decision to make. Do they sell? And, if they don’t sell, who will take over the store? For Appa, Kim’s Convenience is his story, his legacy.

Janet, still living at home and working as a professional photographer, has no interest in pursuing the family business. And her older brother Jung hasn’t been seen or heard from since he left home at 16—a point that comes up when a police officer named Alex (Rowe) arrives at the store to answer a 911 call Janet made at Appa’s insistence over an illegally parked Japanese-made car. Alex was a friend of Jung’s when they were kids, and they’d since lost touch; and this chance reunion with the Kim family paves the way for an opportunity for Janet, who used to follow him and Jung around like a puppy when they were kids.

Generational clashes of the immigrant parents vs. first generation Canadian children variety emerge. Appa, who was a teacher back in Korea, opened the store and worked seven days a week with no vacations in order to give his family a better life in Canada. Appa’s and Umma’s sacrifices and struggles were all for their children, and things didn’t turn out how they’d hoped. Janet is 30, still single and working in a job that Appa finds questionable. And their hopes for their son were destroyed when an altercation between Appa and Jung turned violent, and Jung left home and never came back. Appa has a temper, evidenced in a fight between him and Janet over what is owed to whom after years of service at the store.

Umma has secretly been staying in touch with Jung, who is still working at a car rental place—a job he hates—and now the father of a two-month-old boy. The two have a poignant and revealing meeting at their local Korean church, where the family sang together at church events; Jung alerting his presence by joining his mother in a beautiful Korean duet. It’s the last downtown Korean church, and it’s closing after the land was sold to developers; the remaining churches are all now in the suburbs. It’s a time of change and upheaval, for the family and the neighbourhood—and everyone has some choices to make about the future. And, in the end, Appa realizes that his story isn’t about the store—it’s about his children.

Such beautiful, solid work from the cast. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee has been the only Appa, performing throughout multiple remounts, Canada-wide tours and the TV series; the role was made for him and fits him like a glove. I can’t picture anyone else playing Appa. An outspoken, opinionated man possessing of a sharp mind and an eye for detail, Appa is a keen observer of human nature, with a head full of facts about Korean history and a mouth full of words of condemnation for Japan. Despite his quick temper and abrupt manner, he’s a good man with a cheeky sense of humour; and concerned about the security of his family and community. Yoon, who has been Umma to his Appa on stage and on the small screen, is a perfect match and complement as family matriarch Mrs. Kim. A gentle and devout soul, with the patience of a saint, Umma works behind the scenes of her family life to keep her family safe—even if secretly and from afar, as in the case with Jung.

Simon gives a feisty, energetic performance as Janet, who has the wit to hold her own in mercurial, philosophical—often hilarious—banter with Appa. An independent young woman who can hold her own, she pushes back when her work, which she loves, gets called into question. Richard Lee does a great job mining Jung’s layers of conflict; restless, adrift and now a father himself, regret and longing come to the surface. Like his father, he too must consider the future—for himself and his young family.

Rowe does an awesome job playing four very different characters: store customers Rich (who gets schooled on the difference between ginseng and insam) and Jamaican Mike (who gets schooled on “steal”); the affable and empathetic Mr. Lee; and Alex the cop, who finds himself looking at Janet differently now that they’re both grown up (and gets schooled in courting in a hysterically unusual way by Appa).

It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s genuine. And even though it’s about a Korean Canadian family living in Toronto, the universal themes of love, family, forgiveness and legacy resonate no matter who you are or where you come from. And the standing ovation Kim’s Convenience got last night spoke volumes about the love audiences have for the show.

Kim’s Convenience continues the Michael Young Theatre in the Young Centre; booking in advance is strongly recommended. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Check out the 2017 production trailer:

And while you’re at it, check out Phil Rickaby’s interview with actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee on Stageworthy Podcast.

Up next: Soulpepper will be taking Kim’s Convenience to New York City’s 42nd Street in July.

*Ins Choi will be playing Jung for select performances: Feb 23 at 8pm, Feb 24 at 8pm, and Feb 25 at 2pm and 8pm.

The power of hope & community to build a dream in the sharply funny, poignant, uplifting Superior Donuts

Photo by Shaun Benson: Robert Persichini and Nabil Rajo in Superior Donuts

Coal Mine Theatre continues its 2016-17 season with the Canadian premiere of Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts, directed by Ted Dykstra, and opening last night to a packed house and a standing ovation at its home at 1454 Danforth Ave., Toronto.

When we first see Superior Donuts, the shop appears to have been abandoned. The shelves are empty, there’s litter strewn across the counter and floor, chairs and stools overturned, and the word “Pussy” has been spray painted in neon orange on the chalkboard green wall. As the play opens, though, we learn it’s been vandalized; and Max (Alex Poch-Goldin), who owns the neighbouring DVD store, is giving his account to police officers Randy Osteen (Darla Biccum) and James Bailey (Michael Blake) after calling it in. We also learn from Max that Superior Donuts owner Arthur (Robert Persichini) has been absent lately, and hasn’t opened the shop in a couple of days, as he mourns the loss of his ex-wife.

Arthur arrives as Max is finishing up with the police, already slow moving and numb as he takes in the damage, eventually realizing he’s missed his coffee delivery, so has no coffee to offer anyone. Left alone to tidy up, he’s roused by an insistent and persistent knock on the locked door; a kid responding to his help wanted notice. Arthur reluctantly opens the door to Franco (Nabil Rajo), a fast-talking young man with seemingly boundless energy; and after an unusual and certainly creative job interview, Franco is hired. Meanwhile, Franco has troubles of his own; bookie Luther (Ryan Hollyman) and his muscle Kevin (Jon Lachlan Stewart) pay him a visit after Kevin sees him working at the shop. Franco has a large gambling debt, and Luther is under extreme pressure from the powers that be—he wants his money now and the clock is running out for Franco.

Superior Donuts is the last of a dying breed of beloved mom and pop stores in an increasingly gentrified neighbourhood, where Starbucks and Whole Foods are popping up and challenging businesses that have been fixtures for years. It’s also an island of misfit toys, with its own cast of quirky, multicultural characters. There’s local regular Lady (Diana Leblanc), a struggling alcoholic with a love of red lipstick; and the outspoken Russian Max, who has big plans for expanding his DVD shop into an electronics empire and wants to buy the donut shop so he can fulfill his dream—these two get free coffee and donuts. We also get to know the two cops: Randy comes from a sports-loving family full of  brothers and cops, and has an eye for Arthur; and James and his wife are Star Trek fans who enjoy cosplay at fan conventions. And, while he’s largely silent with the others, Arthur speaks to us throughout in wistful, heartfelt and nostalgic monologues—personal history anecdotes filled with notes of regret.

Franco is full of ideas for improvement for Superior Donuts, from healthier menu choices to poetry and reading events. He also has ideas for improving Arthur, and sets out to be both style consultant and matchmaker. And he’s just finished writing the great American novel, written long-hand on notebooks and loose leaf over the course of seven years, an opus bound with a string. The kid is full of hope—something that Arthur has long been lacking—and as the relationship between Arthur and Franco grows, Franco’s enthusiasm becomes contagious and ideas start brewing in Arthur’s head about who they can talk to about publishing Franco’s book. He even decides to do something about Randy. Then, his despair, doubt and pessimism get the better of him—and Arthur lashes out at Franco’s youthful industry and optimism.

But when something happens to Franco, Arthur is spurred to action. Confronting Luther and Kevin, with the help of Max and his young relative Kiril (Paul Dods), Superior Donuts becomes the ground for one last fight.

Outstanding work from the cast; each a masterful storyteller as he/she speaks for his/her character. Persichini gives a profoundly moving performance as Arthur, a gentle giant who fled to Canada to evade the draft, returning to take over the family business established by his father the year he was born. Now deeply saddened by the passing of his ex-wife Magda and full of guilt at having lost touch with his daughter Joanie, his life is full of disappointment and regret, leaving him in hopelessness and despair—until Franco enters his life. Rajo is a delightful spark plug as Franco; a mercurial, smart and irreverent young man, there’s more to him than the hip, smart-ass kid he presents. A thoughtful, generous soul, his sense of hope is put to the test. Great chemistry, banter and candor in the Arthur/Franco two-handers.

Leblanc gives a lovely performance as the fragile, bird-like Lady; and the mutual love and care that Lady and Arthur have for each other are evident in some beautifully tender moments between them. Poch-Goldin is hilariously engaging as the blunt Max; he’s a go big or go home kind of guy who says what he thinks—and fiercely loyal. Biccum and Blake make a great pair as the police officer partners Randy and James. Biccum gives Randy some nice, gentle layers beneath the tomboy cop exterior; longing for something beyond her family legacy of sports and being on the job, she likes Arthur a lot but is too shy to go for it. And Blake brings an officer and a gentleman vibe to James; a good sport about the teasing from his friends and colleagues about his love of Star Trek, he’s a genuinely good man, out to serve and protect.

Hollyman brings a great edge of desperation and ruthlessness to Luther; Stewart’s Kevin is classic bad boy from the hood; and Dods is impressive as the ripped Kiril, a newly arrived immigrant with little English and a sweet soul under those abundant muscles.

The power of hope and community to build a dream in the sharply funny, poignant, uplifting Superior Donuts.

Superior Donuts continues to February 26; drop by the Coal Mine Theatre website for ticket info or purchase tickets directly online. Book in advance for this one folks—it’s an incredible show and an intimate venue with general seating. Please note the 7:30pm curtain time for evening performances; box office opens at 6:45pm.

Keep up with Coal Mine Theatre on Twitter and Facebook.

Beliefs, perceptions & connections in the intimate, otherworldly John

Photo by Dahlia Katz: Nora McLellan, Loretta Yu, Phillip Riccio & Nancy Beatty in John

 

Everybody knows someone named John.

The Company Theatre tells a compelling story with its Canadian premiere of Annie Baker’s John, directed by Jonathan Goad in his directorial debut, running at Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre.

Entering the space, we find the set enclosed in a semi-circle with red curtains, and it’s not until Mertis (aka Kitty) (Nancy Beatty) enters to draw the curtains are we able to take it in. The revealed space is the common living room and dining area of Mertis’s B&B in Gettysburg—and we become immediately immersed in this world, almost out of time and space.

Knick knacks, dolls, stuffed animals and all manner of chachkas fill the space. Antique dolls, a miniature village, angel and animal statuettes, and the like line the shelves and tables, along with a number of lamps. Prints, and even cookie tins, adorn the walls. In the corner near the front door is a Christmas tree, covered in lights, but without decorations or a star. Twinkly lights glow throughout the two rooms; and an Eiffel Tower sits on one of the small café tables in the dining area.

Throughout the course of the action, Mertis advances the hands on the grandfather clock, as night turns into day and into night again as the days go by. Classical music plays on the miniature jukebox that sits on top of the upright piano, also operated by Mertis, who also closes and opens the curtains surrounding the space at the close and start of each act. We’re being let into this world, but on condition.

Young couple Elias (Philip Riccio) and Jenny (Loretta Yu) arrive at the B&B later than expected that night, receiving a warm welcome from Mertis, who gives them a tour. They’re surprised when the room they booked isn’t available, and their host seems edgy and vague about some leak issue, but they happily accept the upgrade to another room at no extra charge.

As the scenes unfold, we witness increasing tension between Elias and Jenny, and we learn that they’re not just on this trip to take in Gettysburg’s history and points of interest. They’re trying to fix their broken relationship. Jenny is receiving a lot of texts, which she says are from her sister, but Elias is skeptical to the point of obsessed suspicion about their true origin.

There is something strange and almost unreal about the B&B and its host. Mertis seems a quiet and introverted, but eccentric, soul; with a fondness for knick knackery, she has an ethereal, spiritual vibe about her. More than meets the eye, we find out that she has a husband, George, who we never see. Married for 13 years, it’s her second marriage.

Added to the mix is Mertis’s friend Genevieve (Nora McLellan); blind, with a gravelly voice and gruff manner. She too was married once, but left her husband in the mid-60s only to find he’d followed her and taken over her soul. Concerned she was losing her grip on reality, she checked herself into a mental institution.

Fears and sources of dread emerge as the characters share personal anecdotes. Elias has a phobia of birds. Jenny grew up thinking her dolls and stuffed animals were sentient beings—and one doll in particular haunts her memory. Even the B&B has an edge; the chachkas seeming to be watching from the dark at night, and the Christmas tree lights keep going off inexplicably. Mertis believes that the house, which served as a Union army hospital during the Civil War, has a personality of its own—and that certain rooms can be temperamental. And the second floor always seems to be cold, which makes you wonder.

Mental illness, reality and relationships are called into question—nothing is as it seems. Who or what is watching; and who is being watched? Baker leaves it to us to decide what’s real, what’s true and what’s going on.

Marvellous work from this four-hander cast. Beatty gives the soft-spoken Mertis a lovely, eerie edge. One gets the impression that the Christmas tree could be up all year round. What’s with that journal Mertis keeps? And what’s going on with George? At one point, you’re wondering if he actually exists. McLellan’s Genevieve is a delightful puzzle of kookiness, sharp observation and loving friend; at one point, she sounds like a paranoid schizophrenic—but then you think, if you think someone’s out to get you, it might actually be true. Like Mertis drawing the curtains and turning the clock, Genevieve draws us into this world—and is the only character that speaks to us directly.

Riccio’s Elias is a complex combination of uptight and neurotic, wounded and longing. At first, you think he’s being paranoid about Jenny’s communications; but as the play unfolds, you begin to wonder if he’s right to suspect. And Yu’s Jenny reveals a darker edge under that adorably spontaneous, child-like exterior. Struggling to understand where Elias is coming from, she feels abandoned and is possibly acting out as a result. Which are the lies and which are the truths? And is her anxiety about her dolls and toys the result of a guilty conscience?

Whether its origins lie in religion, family and relationship history, or a perceived connection with the universe, for each character, there’s a belief in an unseen presence watching, directing—in some cases, taking over, rewarding and punishing.

With big shouts to the design team: Shannon Lea Doyle (set/costumes), Kevin Lamotte (lighting) and Michael Laird (sound) for their outstanding work on creating this strange and spooky world.

Beliefs, perceptions and connections in the intimate, otherworldly John.

John continues at the Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre until February 19; online tickets and info here. Go see this.

Head & heart, & two sisters in love in the delightful, youthful Sense & Sensibility

Photo by Dave Fitzpatrick: Conor Ling, Jackie Mahoney & Tamara Freeman

Amicus Productions takes us to the early 1800s England of Jane Austen with Jessica Swale’s adaptation of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, directed by Maureen Lukie, assisted by Ted Powers, and currently running in the Papermill Theatre at Todmorden Mills.

Mrs. Dashwood (Peta Bailey) and her daughters Elinor (Tamara Freeman), Marianne (Jackie Mahoney) and Margaret (Sara Douglas) have just learned that their beloved husband and father has died. Adding insult to injury, their Norland Park estate is being taken over by the Dashwood male heir John (Andrew Horbatuik) and his wife Fanny (Mandi Sunshine), and they must now find a place to live. During the transfer of ownership, Fanny’s brother Edward (Conor Ling) comes to visit, and an attachment forms between him and Elinor. With high and rich family hopes for Edward’s marriage, Fanny blocks the relationship just as the Dashwood women learn of a cottage that’s available on the estate of a relative in Devonshire. And Elinor and Edward barely have a chance to say goodbye.

It’s an extreme downscale for the Dashwoods; they can bring no horses and only one servant (Horbatuik as Thomas). But they find a great, warm welcome from the high-spirited, eccentric Sir John (Rob Candy) and his mother-in-law Mrs. Jennings (Jenn Keay). And their quiet cottage life gets interesting with the appearance of Sir John’s friend Colonel Brandon (Matthew Payne) and a dashing young noble Willoughby (Rouvan Silogix), who rescues Marianne after a fall. Both have eyes for Marianne, but Marianne only has eyes for Willoughby, who returns her attentions with romantic gestures and implications of marriage.

Marianne’s bliss is short-lived, though, as Willoughby gets sent to London by his wealthy aunt. And Brandon has some distressing information about Willoughby’s history, which he confides to Elinor. Meanwhile, in her never-ending crusade to find husbands for the two older Dashwood sisters, Mrs. Jennings plans a trip to London to enjoy the balls and diversions of the season. And things get even more complicated for Elinor when their travel companion Lucy Steele (Riley Nelson) confesses a secret four-year-old engagement with Edward!

Things go from bad to worse in London when the Dashwood sisters have an unpleasant, awkward encounter with Willoughby at a ball, and learn via neighbourhood gossips (Lindsay Bryan and Sharon Kamiel) that he is engaged to the wealthy Miss Grey (Bryan). On their way home, escorted by Brandon, Elinor and Marianne stop at the home of Mrs. Jennings’ daughter Mrs. Palmer (Bryan) and Mr. Palmer (Horbatuik), where Marianne comes down with a life-threatening infection.

But don’t worry, the girls get home safe and new, happier revelations emerge.

There is a youthful edge to this adaptation; full of heart and charm. For those familiar with the book and the film adaptation by Emma Thompson, directed by Ang Lee, Swale has added some scenes that we would previously have only guessed at. One in particular highlights Willoughby’s misery at his reliance on a rich relation, and his regret at choosing money over love.

With shouts to the design team: Arash Eshghpour (set), Karlos Griffith (lighting), Dave Fitzpatrick (sound) and Lindsay Forde (costume); and to choreographer Karen Millyard.

Lovely work from the cast in this nicely staged adaptation; the scenes weaving in and out, shifting in time and space with well-paced precision—shouts to director Lukie and stage manager Cherie Oldenburg.

Stand-out performances include Freeman’s Elinor; a complex, layering of sensible, kind, discreet and accommodating, coupled with deeply felt emotional responses and heroic efforts to keep them in check. Throughout, Elinor is the confessor; hearing many secrets and troubles, but unable to divulge them, including the secrets of her own heart. Mahoney’s Marianne is the polar opposite of Elinor; high-spirited and stubborn, she has a passionate soul and wears her heart on her sleeve. Her romantic tendencies get a harsh dose of reality, but rather than being destroyed, she is tempered and becomes more circumspect. And Douglas’s Margaret is charming; an adorably precocious, whip-smart naturalist in the making, she sees more than the grown-ups think and doesn’t have their internal editor at play.

Ling gives a great turn as the painfully shy, bookish and affable Edward; and he does hilarious double duty as Edward’s buffoonish younger brother Robert. Candy and Keay are a laugh riot as the dynamic duo chatterboxes—the jolly and sociable Sir John and the one-woman OkCupid Mrs. Jennings—always up on the latest gossip and ready for a party. And nice work from Payne as the honourable, wounded and introspective Brandon; Silogix’s cheeky, handsome romantic Willoughby; and Sunshine’s waspish, greedy Fanny.

Head and heart, and two sisters in love in the delightful, youthful Sense and Sensibility.

Sense and Sensibility continues at the Papermill Theatre until Feb 11; check here for ticket purchase/info or call 416-860-6176.

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