Nuit Blanche & After Mrs. Rochester talkback

Wow – what an amazing weekend of art and friends.

After seeing After Mrs. Rochester on Friday night and having a couple of pints with some of the cast and crew at Betty’s, I pondered dropping by the talkback after the matinée on Sunday – and I did!

But, first, Saturday night/Sunday morning’s Nuit Blanche 2011. It was the first Nuit Blanche where I got to roam about and see stuff (the first few, I was working at Alumnae and/or doing a show and last year, I had to bail as I got sick with a cold). This year, I ventured out with my pal Lizzie Violet – and I just read her post about our evening. Since her thoughts pretty much echo mine, and I couldn’t have said it better myself, here’s what she had to say: http://lizzieviolet.wordpress.com/2011/10/02/nuit-blanche/

As for Sunday – well, the rest of Sunday, since it was already Sunday when I went to bed after Nuit Blanche – I met Alum pal Ellen Green for a great brunch and catch-up at 7 West Cafe.

After brunch, I wandered down Yonge Street, doing some errands along the way – by then it had stopped raining but it was chilly – and ended up back at Alumnae Theatre, where Front of House Manager for the day Margaret (aka “The Costumator”) Spence greeted me and told me that the house had just gone in for Act 2, and I could go in if I wanted.

So I did. Act 2 of After Mrs. Rochester is the best part of the play script-wise (Act 1 is a lot of exposition) – it’s the meat and bones of the play. And it gave me another opportunity to see some other pals in action: Tina McCulloch’s excellent performance as Bertha, as well as Tabitha Keast’s very sexy Ford Maddox Ford (damn, she looks good in that brown suit!), who was once of Rhys’s lovers, and Julie Burris as Ford’s lovely wife Stella.

The talkback sessions at Alumnae are always a treat – and it was a good-sized and responsive house on Sunday (whereas Friday was a small but very responsive gang) – and the cast got a standing ovation that lasted through two curtain calls. It also gave me the opportunity to say “hey” to director Laura Roald and tell her how awesome this production is. Oh – and I neglected to mention Laura’s assistant director in my previous post: Taryn Jorgenson.

Joining Laura Roald and the cast onstage were co-producer/sound op PJ Hammond and sound designer Megan Benjafield. The question of the all-female cast came up early on, and Roald talked about circumstantial necessity turned creative decision-making (and re-working most of her pre-production plans for the show) – as they couldn’t find suitable, available male actors. Since the play is about a female author – and characters she either connects with or creates, fictional or otherwise – all the characters in the play are parts of Jean Rhys. So the new vision came out of a happy accident – crisis an opportunity towards a new path. Extremely articulate – and one hell of a smart cookie – Roald also mentioned that, because the male roles were now being played by women, the various sex scenes throughout the play now have less of a shock impact and become moments the audience need to process; and with the various layers of time, space, and characters fictitious and non-fictitious, there is a lot to process. She also remarked how the revised production also “created an incredible company of women” and, indeed, even much of the production crew were women. Yay, estrogen!

Actor Susan Q. Wilson (who plays the older Rhys) talked about gaining insight into character – Rhys being a raging alcoholic at that point, and likely self-medicating an undiagnosed mental illness – and found Rhys’s letters particularly helpful, noting how the tenor and energy of the author’s words changed over time.

Rhys wrote autobiographically, and her childhood in a post-colonial Caribbean had a great impact on her life, particularly regarding her sense of identity – a child of a family from the white ruling class who no longer belonged to that class, who also did not belong among the former indigenous slaves who were now the family’s paid servants. Megan Benjafield described how this loss of identity informed the sound design – the discord of the “spooky” strings that hummed throughout the play during specific moments.

The subject of playwright Polly Teale came up when an audience member asked about the history of the play. Like Rhys, Teale was fascinated by the Brontes – and used text from Jane Eyre and from Rhys’s works in the play, including Wide Sargasso Sea and short stories.

Go see this play. Once you get past the exposition (mostly in Act 1), it is a hauntingly beautiful and brutal look at a creative process: the creation of the novel Wide Sargasso Sea.

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Accents, sex & scrappin’ in After Mrs. Rochester

When cast member Tina McCulloch, also now Alumnae’s bloggergal, mentioned in a post that After Mrs. Rochester featured accents, sex and fight scenes – she had me at “accents.” Well, actually, she had me at “sex” – especially since this is an all-gal cast, with two actors playing an assortment of male characters. And a gal playing a guy is always sexy.

Alumnae’s production, the Canadian premiere of Polly Teale’s play, is directed by Laura Roald (who did double duty as set designer). And Roald wasn’t the only one pulling extra work; “not crying at all” co-producers PJ Hammond (costume design) and Tabitha Keast (actor, playing multiple male roles) also put on other production hats – and PJ was the sound op during last night’s performance.

After Mrs. Rochester features a brilliant all-female cast, which came about when the casting process couldn’t find male actors to fit the bill – and, while I was initially a bit taken aback when I heard of the decision, in practice, this approach works big time. Who better to create characters envisioned by a female author, in a bio play about that author and her connection to the novel Jane Eyre – especially the mysterious and crazy Mrs. Rochester hidden in the attic – than a group of women? Shouts to Kanika Ambrose (a replacement who came on board 12 days before opening – and was awesome!), Julie Burris, Laura Jabalee, Tabitha Keast, Tina McCulloch, Laine Newman, Jessica Rose and Susan Q. Wilson. Keast and Newman did a lovely job playing the various the male parts, and in addition to the multiple costume changes (mostly jackets for each character) wore compression vests to flatten their female chests. McCulloch was excellent as crazy Bertha, a vulnerable, playful and tortured soul – much like author Jean Rhys (known as Ella in her youth), played with tender passion by Wilson (older) and Rose (younger). And Burris, as Rhys’s mother, went beyond the brutal side of the character and found her pain and humanity.

The action of the play shifts in time and reality – the past, present, memory and scenes from Jane Eyre woven before our eyes – and is supported nicely by the design team, which also included Paul Hardy (lights), Lynda Yearwood (props) and Megan Benjafield (sound), as well as a stand-up stage management team, headed by SM Karen McMichael, with Emily Macnaughton.

Always good to bump into pals when I go to Alumnae – last night was my first time out as a subscriber – and it was great to catch up with Razie Brownstone and Stacy Halloran, who were on box office (with Stacy also running lights last night), as well as bar staff Jayne Patterson and Bev Atkinson (who, with Sandy Schneider – who I also saw last night – did the opening night reception spread last week). I ended up sitting with theatre pals Danielle Capretti, Greg Corkum and Nonnie Griffin; and I bumped into a former theatre school teacher of mine (and several others in the gang), Vrenia Ivonoffski.

Here’s another of my favourite pix from the production – from left to right: Julie Burris (Mother), Tabitha Keast (the Gentleman) and Jessica Rose (Ella). Photo by Dahlia Katz: www.dahliakatz.com

Now that’s sexy… I don’t know whether to be appalled by the man groping that young woman – or aroused because it’s a gal playing that man.

After Mrs. Rochester continues until Friday, October 7 (please note: this show closes on a Friday night instead of a Saturday), with performances Wed – Fri nights at 8 p.m.; and there’s a talkback with the director, cast and design team after the matinée tomorrow (Sun, Oct 2). For more info (and pix), please visit the Alumnae website: http://www.alumnaetheatre.com/1112after.html

After Mrs. Rochester opens @ Alumnae tonight!

Hey all – quick note before I take off for the weekend: Alumnae Theatre Company’s production of After Mrs. Rochester opens tonight (Fri, Sept 23) and runs until Friday, October 7, with a talkback with the director, actors and design team after the matinee on Sunday, October 2.

For more info and tix, please visit the Alumnae website: http://www.alumnaetheatre.com/1112after.html

In the meantime, here’s a production photo of crazy Mrs. R. herself (played by Tina McCulloch, photo by Dahlia Katz www.dalhiakatz.com):

I’ll be back with more t.v. premiere jazz soon (I watched Grey’s Anatomy last night and had to recored Prime Suspect) as well as a wrap on All My Children’s Bianca/Marissa storyline.

Alumnae Theatre goes After Mrs. Rochester

It’s that time of the year – and the fall theatre seasons are off.

My pals at Alumnae Theatre open their 2011-12 season with Polly Teale’s After Mrs. Rochester, opening next Friday, September 23 and running till Friday, October 7 on the main stage.

Directed by Laura Roald (who directed Closer for the Alum a few years ago), After Mrs. Rochester follows the troubled life of writer Jean Rhys, who penned Wild Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The production – co-produced by PJ Hammond and Tabitha Keast – features an all-female cast, with two of the women playing various male characters: Kanika Ambrose, Julie Burris (who appeared at Alum in Daughter of the House), Laura Jabalee, Tabitha Keast (Closer, You Are Here), Tina McCulloch (doing triple duty acting, marketing & blogging) and Susan Q Wilson (After Magritte).

PLEASE NOTE: this production will be closing on a Friday night (not the usual Saturday night). Check out the Alumnae website for more info and reservations (I think they still need to revise the closing date there): http://www.alumnaetheatre.com/1112after.html

ELLAmentary, darling

One of the shows I missed during this year’s Toronto Fringe and Best of Fringe was Christine Aziz’s ELLAmentary – A One Person Musical About Filling Out & Fitting In. I finally saw the show last night at Red Sandcastle Theatre. Aziz wrote the script and music, and performs in this touchingly real – and hilariously funny – take on female adolescence.

Aziz is a powerhouse performer – and an excellent voice mimic – as she tells this tale of Ella Salmon, whose unfortunate name and quirky personality make her a prime target for schoolyard mean girls and bullies, who call her “Salmonella.” Ella is a bright and positive force to be reckoned with, though, assisted by her toy cat Chirpy and her poster of Tallulah Bankhead (and Aziz does a mean Bankhead impersonation through the course of their chats).

Stand-out moments for me: Ella’s speedy recitation of the Hail Mary and the trip to the department store lingerie section for her first bra (a AAA) – gave me flashbacks to my grandma reciting the rosary and my trip to Sears for my first bra.

Assisting Aziz through this onstage journey is her intrepid SM/light & sound tech/props wrangler, etc., Hayley Simpson. Before the show, Hayley and I danced to the awesome 90s pre-show music that Aziz programmed while Rosemary chatted with passers-by, tempting them to come see the show.

The other cool thing about seeing the show last night is that Red Sandcastle Theatre is a relatively new space – and run by my pal Rosemary Doyle (who’s appeared in a few Fringe hits herself). With an excellent location in Riverdale (922 Queen St. E., just east of Logan – and right beside Ed’s Real Scoop), in addition to its own programming, Red Sandcastle offers space for rehearsal and show/film shoot rentals, and Rosemary ran theatre camps for kids this past summer, with more to come during March break. Check it out sometime: www.redsandcastletheatre.com – it’s also on Facebook.

You have one more chance to see ELLAmentary at Red Sandcastle Theatre – and that’s tonight (Sat, Sept 10) at 8 p.m. Coming up at the theatre: The Underpants and Suddenly Mommy!

“Dog” is “God” spelled backwards

Religious references abound in Judith Thompson’s play White Biting Dog, which I saw with my pal Tricia Brioux at the Young Centre last night. The Soulpepper production was directed by Nancy Palk, mainly known as an actor and a fine one at that, making her directing debut.

Palk has an impressive ensemble of actors on this show. Mike Ross as the extremely flawed – possibly sociopathic – protagonist Cape, a lawyer on leave and living with his father after he suffers a mental breakdown. Joseph Ziegler is Cape’s terminally ill dad Glidden, his internal organs rotting inside him and covering himself with peat as if to get a head-start on his own burial. Fiona Reid is Glidden’s estranged wife Lomia, oozing sex and singularly pursuing pleasure; she is joined at Glidden’s by her punk boy toy Pascal after their apartment building burns down in an act of arson committed by a so-called drug dealer friend of theirs who they recently kicked out of their apartment. And Michaela Washburn is Pony, the child-like former paramedic who quit her job and now works at fixing things instead of people. Pony connects with Cape in a moment of synchronicity, bonded by Cape’s experience of a talking white dog stopping him from jumping off a bridge with a solution to his problems: save his father to save himself. Pony becomes Cape’s ally, then lover, assisting him with her psychic powers – and in the process, both Pony and Pascal become involved in an incredibly complex and cruel family dynamic.

The design elements are incredibly effective at shaping this world: Christina Poddubiuk’s stark grey set (she also designed the costumes) and Richard Feren’s sound design – sharp, industrial, steely. There is no question that we’re entering a harsh, modern world. There is light, too – in this case, brought to the production by Louise Guinand. We never see the talking dog that Cape speaks with, but a light that shines diagonally downwards from above as the voice echos through it. When I worked on a production of Wit at Alumnae Theatre a few years ago, we had a similar light for the end of the play, for when Vivian walks naked into the light. We called it the “God light.”

And of course, there’s Judith Thompson’s script, full of brutally lyrical language – where everything is said and nothing held back – in this journey to redemption and grace. The background notes for this Soulpepper production quote the playwright: Grace, she says, “happens through penitence, though sight. Through seeing who you are and changing things. You achieve it through humility.”

Check out this Q&A with Michaela Washburn from NOW Magazine: http://www.nowtoronto.com/stage/story.cfm?content=182231

White Biting Dog continues at Soulpepper. For more info and tickets, check out the show’s page on their website (including photos and video): http://www.soulpepper.ca/performances/11_season/white_biting_dog.aspx

Big fun & adventure in the woods

I am a Sondheim virgin no longer. Yes, it’s true. While I was familiar with some of his work – certainly play titles and some of the songs – I had never actually seen any of the plays. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Into the Woods is a big, rollicking fairy tale journey – a musical mash-up of some of your favourite fairy tale characters – full of fun, romance, adventure, but with a dark edge and a cautionary message about the consequences of one’s actions.

StageWorks Toronto’s inaugural production of Into the Woods, helmed by director Lorraine Green-Kimsa and music director Tara Litvack, had a cast that delivered big time on the action and music of this epic tale. Stephen Flett gave a fine performance as the narrator, ushering both the audience and characters through the tale – and even got in on the action (which I won’t comment on any further as it would be a big spoiler). Stand-out performances from the young adult actors playing the kids: Cameron Fox-Revett (as the sweet but somewhat dim-witted and naive Jack) and Esther Vallins (a kick-ass Little Red Riding Hood). Lovely work from Sergio Calderon and Jennifer Dewar (as the Baker and his wife, who must undertake some challenging errands on behalf of the Witch in order to break a family curse and have a baby) – and Michelle Cabral was an excellent Witch (a complex role in both the acting and singing of it). Highly entertaining turns from Oscar Moreno (Rapunzel’s Prince) and Michael Yaneff (Cinderella’s Prince), as well as Cinderella’s step-sisters (Stefne Mercedes and Trish Cleyn). Good work all around from this hard-working ensemble and their miniature live orchestra.

Adding to the fun was bumping into various folks I know from Alumnae and Cabbagetown Theatre, especially Victoria Shepherd and her daughter Viv, and Tina McCulloch, who I sat with in the front row. I (and the audience) laughed a lot and applauded every song – and I will admit to getting teary-eyed during No One is Alone.

There’s still a chance to see this: today’s matinée and evening performance, as well as a matinée tomorrow (the Sunday matinée may be sold out, though).

Check out the StageWorks website for info and preview clips: http://stageworkstoronto.com/