Gender power dynamics get a table flip in the provocative, timely Beautiful Man

Foreground: Ashley Botting, Mayko Nguyen & Sofía Rodríguez. Background: Jess LaVercombe. Set design by Gillian Gallow. Costume design by Ming Wong. Lighting design by Jason Hand. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

 

Factory Theatre closes its 2018-19 season with Erin Shields’ Beautiful Man. Directed by long-time Shields collaborator Andrea Donaldson (now the new AD at Nightwood Theatre), assisted by Keshia Palm, Beautiful Man was first produced during SummerWorks in 2015—a few years before the #MeToo movement exploded into public consciousness. A hilariously sharp, satirical and thought-provoking turnabout of gender power dynamics, Shields has revised the original script to reflect the #MeToo landscape; and has added a section that provides a sense of everyday realism—in both cases, flipping gender power roles in surprising, provocative ways.

I first saw Beautiful Man at SummerWorks 2015—and loved it. Not for the feint-hearted when it comes to adult language, and discussions of graphic sex and violence, the razor-sharp, bawdy, no holds barred script and the playful, rapid fire performances turn the tables on who is marginalized and objectified. Three women—Jennifer (Ashley Botting), Sophie (Mayko Nguyen) and Pam (Sofía Rodríguez)—get into a passionate discussion about popular scripted media; all stories in which the female characters hold the power, and men are subject to objectification and violence. A movie about a world-weary, tough yet haunted female homicide detective on the hunt for a female serial killer who preys on beautiful men. Exhausted and zoning out in front of the TV, the detective watches a violent, graphically sexual Game of Thrones-esque fantasy fiction series featuring a powerful, cruel queen and her amazon warrior sister. Within the TV show, the queen watches a play with a plot that’s similar to Julius Caesar, but with women in the key roles; and within that play, a puppet show starring a lusty cave woman. Yep, it’s a puppet show within a play, within a TV series, within a movie—all within a play!

Throughout this first fantasy section of the play, the Beautiful Man (Jesse LaVercombe) is a peripheral character, always present in the background, with little to say as he gradually removes his clothing throughout. A sensitive, supportive but frustrated husband; a poignant murder/rape victim; a conquered sex slave. Valued only for his beauty and usefulness to the women in charge, his name is perpetually forgotten. In the epilogue, the shifted power dynamic continues, but in a markedly different way, as a woman relates personal anecdotes of navigating everyday corporate oppression, mansplaining, harassment, self-doubt and chastisement, and fear for her safety.

Outstanding performances from the entire cast in this thought-provoking, timely piece of theatre. Beyond mere fan girl involvement with the media they’re consuming and discussing, the three women engage on a deeply personal level with the movie, TV series, play and puppet show. Botting’s Jennifer displays wry wit and shameless enthusiasm; Nguyen’s Sophie brings an edge of precision and authority; and Rodríguez’s Pam relishes the sensual and forbidden. At times misremembering details in their reverie, these three  women find a titillating oasis in these stories of sex, violence and dominant female characters. And LaVercombe gives a sensitive and moving performance as the Beautiful Man. Viewed as eye candy, the “other half”, a sex object, a victim, and only subjectively and conditionally seen as useful—this is a man standing in places traditionally endured by women.

Despite the graphic sex and violence described during the first part of the play, not to mention the fact that these women are really getting off on it, the second part is perhaps the most provocative. What impact does it have on the conversations about these issues? Will the everyday oppression of women be better understood when told in this manner? Who gets the last word?

Beautiful Man continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until May 26; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416- 504-9971.

Check out this Intermission Spotlight piece on Shields and her work by Carly Maga, including chats with Shields, Donaldson and Maev Beaty. And Megan Robinson’s conversation with Shields and Donaldson in In the Greenroom.

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Interview: Carlin Belof

carlinphotoYou may have seen crochet artist Carlin Belof’s Unravelled Crochet creations on Twitter or Facebook—particularly the dolls: horror, sci-fi, adventure and superhero characters recreated with whimsical accuracy; the sharp attention to detail especially remarkable when you remember that these are created through crochet.

Practicing the craft for 20+ years, Belof starting making and selling hats in the 90s to supplement her income—and Unravelled’s offerings grew from there. She still crochets hats (including everyday hats, specialty hats and helmet covers), and expanded into pillows, clothing and accessories—and of course there’s the dolls; you can check all of these out on her eStore page. She’s also game for custom creations. I asked her about the evolution from hats to dolls; and what it’s like creating the beloved movie and TV characters in crochet.

Thanks for taking the time to chat about Unravelled: Crocheted Items by Carlin and the evolution of your crocheted creations! Not a problem, I’m glad to do it. And thank you for this opportunity!

You started making and selling hats back in the 90s—and then later branched out into clothing, accessories and pillows. How did you come to expand your creative repertoire? It all happened organically. I originally started crocheting in my teen years. I was ridiculously creative back then and, out of curiosity, learned a lot of different artistic mediums. Crocheting was one of them but it didn’t capture my attention because at the time, more than anything else, I was into music, writing and drawing, so the crocheting was put aside.

Then at one point in the late 90s I picked up a set of crochet hooks to make myself a blanket, and learned that yarn could be quite expensive. So when I wanted to make myself a hat, I decided to pull apart an old sweater and use it for yarn. That’s when the crocheting bug “hit.” I started pulling apart more sweaters—hence the name “Unravelled”—and made more hats, and sold them whenever money was tight. I did that for a number of years.

As time went on, I’d think to myself something like, ‘I used to have a poncho when I was a kid, I’d like to have one again,’ then would proceed to make one. Or I’d think, ‘I need a new pillow, I wonder if I can make one.’ That’s basically how most of my creations were inspired: out of desire or necessity. And I always wind up with something that’s one of a kind.

And tell us about how your creations evolved to include dolls. What inspires you to make particular dolls? About eight years ago I started working at an outbound call centre, and the manager was cool with me crocheting to keep my hands busy. I listened to a LOT of phones ringing at that job, so I was able to do a lot of crocheting.

Anyway, shortly after I started working there I was stumped for creative crochet ideas, so I asked my friends what I should make next and specifically asked them for challenging ideas because, when it comes to being creative, I always like a good challenge. One of my friends, Harrison, suggested a guitar. So I made a guitar pillow. It was the size of a ukulele, but it still had all of the elements of a guitar: strings, pegs and everything. That was the first sculptural item I made.

I think the second one was a life-size facehugger from the movie Alien, which is probably my favourite movie. Again, I made it as a challenge to myself, to see if I could do it. Amusingly, many of my co-workers were freaked out by it, but I was totally proud of it because it looked almost real.

After that, I just started making stuffed items that were inspired by some of my favourite movies and TV shows, usually in the sci-fi, fantasy, horror or cult genres because they’re my favourites. Plus those characters are easier to crochet than ones in other genres, or real people, because they wear iconic, recognizable costumes. I also keep a list of characters and things I’d like to crochet, and when inspiration is lacking, I ask friends for suggestions. They always come through with great ideas.

It was when I started making “dolls” that people started noticing my work, commissioning them from me, and suggesting that I sell them at craft shows, which I started doing just a few years ago. I say “dolls” with quotes because while, yes, technically they are dolls, they’re more for adults and teens who are collectors, as opposed to cute plushies that are meant for kids to play with. The people who buy them tend to love the movie or TV show that they were inspired from just as much as I do.

You also do custom made-to-order work. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve been asked to make so far? The most challenging thing? The most interesting thing … hmm … probably the blanket I made for my friend Ellie. She wanted something that looked like it belonged in a gypsy caravan, so I made it using squares with starburst motifs in them and in bright jewel tones with a black border. It wound up being absolutely beautiful, and she loves it which is the most important thing.

And the most challenging things would probably be the life-size Gremlin and Gizmo dolls. Both of their faces were tough to figure out how to make because I don’t use patterns; instead, I figure it out as I go along. They were ordered by a gal in Australia, so it makes me happy to know that my creations have travelled all over the world, even when I haven’t.

What’s been your favourite project to date? Least favourite? Usually after I finish my latest project it becomes my favourite, then whatever is made afterward becomes the favourite. But, if I had to pick, I’d have to say the doll I made of Chef Charles Michel (who is a world-renowned culinary artist). The doll is just so adorable; I don’t think I can part with him.

And the least favourite is the fourth tam I made for an acquaintance. The first one was alright, then he asked me to make another, and then another, and then another. I don’t like making the same things over and over and over again, so by the time I got to the fourth one I was just frustrated with it.

Other than your website’s eStore page, is there anywhere else people find your stuff? Any upcoming shows or events? There’s nowhere else online, just the eStore or directly through me (by email). Because it takes a while to build up stock, I only occasionally apply to craft shows or bazaars. There isn’t anything upcoming yet, but when I do get accepted into a show I post it on my website.

Anything else you want to shout out? Just a big THANK YOU to everyone who has supported me over the years: the strangers at the craft shows and bazaars, the customers who’ve ordered over the internet, the social media supporters, my amazing dad and step-mom, and my wonderful friends, especially Lizzie and Philip (aka my biggest fans) and you, Cate, for doing this.

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? Wow … tough question. I don’t really have one. There are just so many options to choose from in the English language, in all languages, that it’s hard to pick just one. I mean, I’m intrigued by words that have complex yet specific meanings, like “melancholy” or “schadenfreude,” but I also like simple words that evoke emotional responses, like “home” or “desire,” and some words just feel good in the mouth and roll off the tongue nicely, like “masticate” or “unscrupulous.” Yeah, I can’t choose just one.

What’s your least favourite word? Another tough one. Ummmm … well, lately the word “bespoke” has been bugging me. It’s just harsh sounding, and there are lots of other options that can be used, such as unique, one of a kind, or custom made. It also sounds more than a bit pretentious, and I hate pretense. Oh … and the word “like” when it’s used as filler. As a friend once said, “like, you know, life isn’t like a fucking simile.”

What turns you on? Hah! Well, if I’m being honest … purely physically speaking, tall, slender men with long, slender fingers and long, healthy hair, and beautiful smiles and elegant styles. Guys who are comfortable with their femininity and confident enough with themselves to break the mold and be unique. Humility, compassion, introspection, and being able to admit faults and mistakes are also all highly attractive qualities too.

What turns you off? Beards, arrogance, ignorance, moustaches, excessive drinking, idiotic behaviour, goatees, pretense, mutton chops, stubbornness, unwillingness to learn and grow, stubble, hypermasculinity, facial hair of any kind.

What sound or noise do you love? Any of Franz Liszt’s piano pieces. I completely understand why women swooned when he played; his music is simply beautiful. Most of the music from the Romantic era speaks to me, but Liszt’s does most of all.

What sound or noise do you hate? Anything grating on the nerves, like an alarm clock that someone hasn’t turned off, or teeth on a fork, or an overly nasal singer.

What is your favourite curse word? Lately the phrase “Jesus fuck” has been popping out of my mouth. There is something very satisfying about it.

What profession other than your own would you like to pursue? Someday I want to open my own café. I already know exactly what I want to do; I just don’t have the resources to make it happen.

What profession would you not like to do? Anything in either banking or the corporate sector.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? I don’t know. Um … “All of your musical idols are here. They’re having a jam session and would love it if you’d sing with them.”

Thanks, Carlin! No, thank YOU, Cate! It was fun!

Check out the crochet magic on Carlin’s Unravelled Crochet website; and give her a follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Here are some snaps I took of Carlin’s amazingly detailed, whimsical dolls at the Addams Family Christmas Bazaar this past December:

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Love, sacrifice & the heartbeat of time in the delightful, poignant Sisters

Laura Condlln & Nicole Power. Set design by Michelle Tracey. Costume design by Erika Connor. Lighting design by Kimberley Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper opened its striking world premiere of Rosamund Small’s delightful, poignant Sisters—a story of love, family, sacrifices and the march of time—to an enthusiastic full house last night. Inspired by Edith Wharton’s novella Bunner Sisters and directed by Peter Pasyk, Sisters is running in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre.

It’s the turn of the century in New York City, and sisters Ann (Laura Condlln) and Evelina (Nicole Power) live quiet, regular lives, working and living in a small shop, selling notions and jams, and providing sewing services. Both are single at an age that would label them as spinsters; and their small, humdrum workaday lives get a spark of excitement when Ann buys a clock for Evelina’s birthday—and both become enamoured with the quiet, charming clockmaker Ramy (Kevin Bundy). Adding to the fun is their observant friend and neighbour, Mrs. Mellins (Karen Robinson), a widowed dressmaker who lives upstairs.

Torn between her feelings for Ramy and love for her sister, Ann steps aside to make room for a match between Ramy and Evelina—a decision made all the more heart-wrenching when Ramy takes a job in St. Louis, taking his new wife with him and leaving Ann to run the shop alone. Dependant on return customers and referrals from more privileged ladies—like the affable Lady with the Puffy Sleeves (Ellora Patnaik) and the wealthy, entitled Customer (Raquel Duffy)—Ann and Mrs. Mellins are also facing a new wave of industrialization; one in which much of the textile industry will be mechanized, with factories churning out large amounts of pre-made, less expensive off-the-rack goods. Dealing with the separation as best as she can, when Evelina’s letters stop coming and her letters come back return-to-sender, Ann sets on a search for Evelina’s whereabouts; and with the help of Mrs. Mellins, gathers some troubling information about Ramy in the process.

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Karen Robinson, Laura Condlln & Nicole Power. Set design by Michelle Tracey. Costume design by Erika Connor. Lighting design by Kimberley Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Lovely work from the cast in this tale of everyday heroism and perseverance in the face of longing, heartbreak and loyalty. Condlln is heartbreaking and inspiring as the older sister Ann; practical and better with the accounts than she is with the creative side of the business, Ann puts her own desire for romance aside to make her sister happy. Power (who Kim’s Convenience fans will recognize as Jung’s quirky boss Shannon) is a day-dreamy spitfire as younger sister Evelina; bored and skeptical that things will get better, Evelina is more pessimistic than her sister—but is able to see colours in music and match the perfect accessories to a dress. Robinson (who Schitt’s Creek fans will recognize as Ronnie Lee) is a treat as Mrs. Mellins, performing with gusto and impeccable comic timing; while she has a morbid fascination in the seedier side of the city, Mrs. Mellins’ penny dreadful notions of life outside the shop make way for sage advice and motherly watchfulness over the sisters. And Bundy seduces as the reserved, gallant German clockmaker; shy, sickly and precise, Ramy is a mystery man of changeable temperament—which perhaps makes him all the more attractive.

The perspectival, display case-like set with a raked floor (Michelle Tracey), atmospheric lighting (Kimberly Purtell), stunning period costumes (Erika Connor) and haunting music box music (Richard Feren) make for an aesthetically pleasing, finely honed view of this world.

Sisters reminds us of the precarity of life for working women; reliant on men and those who are better off in general to make something of their lives. And of the saving grace of love, hope, faith and determination—with a little help from family and friends.

Sisters continues at the Young Centre until September 16. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

SummerWorks: Death, fear & loneliness in the spine-tingling, darkly funny, Hitchcockian A Girl Lives Alone

Photo by Molly Flood.

Theatre Mischief gives us a spine-tingling, darkly funny turn—and a unique look at death, loneliness, fear and how people live together—in its SummerWorks production of Jessica Moss’s Hitchcock-inspired murder mystery comedy A Girl Lives Alone. Directed by Moss and the company, the show is currently running in the Theatre Centre’s Franco Boni Theatre.

New to her NYC apartment, Marion (Samantha Madely) returns home one night to find her fellow tenants assembled outside, their building taped off as a crime scene. A young woman in the building was murdered, at home in her apartment, the unknown perpetrator still at large. A murder mystery, Hitchcock fan obsessed with her ex-boyfriend’s classic murder mystery-inspired radio show podcast, Marion becomes hell-bent on investigating her neighbours in hopes of discovering the murderer. Gradually, she gets to know her fellow tenants: the opinionated, judgemental and fastidious Alma (Anita La Selva); the harried landlord Murray (Alexander Thomas); boyfriend/girlfriend pair the volatile Stewart (Aldrin Bundoc) and chatty Kim (Asha Vijayasingham); the nervous, quirky Janet (Jessica Moss); and the creepy, enigmatic Foley Artist upstairs (Andrew Musselman). Watching from the sidelines is the bubbly actress Grace (Tiffany Deobald), the murder victim. Grace lived alone.

The murder is a catalyst for a variety of shifting dynamics within the building; heightening suspicions, and driving self-advocacy and the realization that the tenants don’t particularly know each other that well. Their previous perceptions of safety and comfort profoundly shaken, no one in the building is the same. We see the dark and tender sides of the neighbours as the story unfolds; and everyone has their own way of coping. Janet binge-watches Friends on Netflix while others enjoy Law & Order SVU, Alma calls Murray out on a long-neglected repair to her place and Marion becomes Nancy Drew. Both terrified and fascinated by the strange Foley Artist who lives directly above her, Marion can’t stay away as he shows her the tricks of his trade, at her request, up in his place.

Outstanding work from the ensemble, riding a fine edge of comedy and psychothriller in this gripping, darkly funny tale of mystery, and dangers real and imagined. Noises in the dark—the young couple sexing or fighting, the Foley Artist at work, someone coming upon you suddenly—all take on new meaning and put everyone on edge. And some new, unexpected alliances are forged as well. What do you need to feel safe and comfortable in your own home? And how do women who live alone mitigate the risk? And how do you cope when the unthinkable happens so close to home?

With shouts to the design team for their gripping, atmospheric work on this production: composer/sound designer Richard Feren, set/costume designer Claire Hill and lighting designer Imogen Wilson.

A Girl Lives Alone has one more performance at SummerWorks: tonight (Aug 19) at 8:30 p.m.; advance tickets available online.

 

Toronto Fringe: So much big puppet fun in the hilariously playful, genuine Bendy Sign Tavern

From movie-inspired favourites like Swordplay: A Play of Swords and last year’s Fringepocalyptic Wasteland, Sex T-Rex keeps on bringing it as one of Toronto’s best scripted comedy companies. And this time, there’s puppets! Sex T-Rex returns to Toronto Fringe with Bendy Sign Tavern, featuring the work of master puppeteer and Sex T-Rex veteran Kaitlin Morrow, and running at The Paddock.

The Paddock is transformed into the Bendy Sign Tavern, where the human audience gets served by puppet and human staff (including bar owner Nico). The ambience comes complete with pop tunes on the stereo, a cool piano man in shades (Elliott Loran); and the TV plays puppet sports on PSN (Puppet Sports Network), rock video by superstar Tim Rek, a movie trailer and a hilarious human household product commercial.

Bendy Sign’s feisty and determined bartender Joan (Morrow) is over the moon at the beginning of her final shift at the bar— She’s looking forward to bigger and better things as she and her band head out on tour—and to stardom. Her laid back, soul patch-sporting co-worker Bob (Conor Bradbury) isn’t so thrilled; he’s secretly in love with Joan, but can’t bring himself to tell her.

Throw in the Bendy Sign’s favourite enigmatic, pun-dishing barfly Bill (Julian Frid), put-upon millennial server Weeds (Daniel Pagett), the bar’s cryptic and elusive owner Sal (Seann Murray) and adorable regular, the aging southern belle Marigold (Josef Addleman)—along with some surprise guests and other regulars—and you’ve got yourself some big fun. But beware the scary basement and the roving Bachelorette Wolves!

Joan’s dreams of rock stardom are crushed when she finds herself kicked out of the band, then renewed by the appearance of none other than Tim Rek himself! And he wants to throw an after-party at the bar! Joan’s efforts to enlist her co-workers to fancy up the place are successful, but Bob’s heart isn’t in it. In fact, he’d just love it all to go away—and he has some tough choices to make. All in the name of love.

Awesome work from the entire ensemble in this rollicking puppet rom-com—and Morrow’s puppets are amazing! With songs and surprises around every corner, it’s no wonder this show is selling out.

Big dreams. Secret love. A scary basement. So much big puppet fun in the hilariously playful, genuine Bendy Sign Tavern.

Bendy Sign Tavern continues at The Paddock until July 15, with shows every night at 7:30pm—except for July 9 at 8:30pm. Definitely book in advance for this one, folks; order your tix via the Bendy Sign Tavern showpage. Otherwise, get there early and take your chances at the door.

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

Neema Bickersteth in Century Song—photos by John Lauener

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women of wit & wisdom debate religion in the compelling, funny, thought-provoking Unholy

Nightwood Theatre continues its 2016-17 season of groundbreaking theatre with Diane Flacks’ Unholy, directed by Nightwood A.D. Kelly Thornton, opening at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre last night.

Given the upcoming presidential inauguration and the accompanying Women’s March events, as well as ongoing changing attitudes towards religion, its treatment of women and LGBTQ people, and its place in our world, Unholy is a timely piece. It asks the question: Should women abandon religion?

Inspired by the 1989 documentary Half the Kingdom, Unholy is set as a TV debate, with host/moderator Richard Morris (Blair Williams) and debate teams of two women. On the pro side of the question are atheist lesbian pundit Liz Feldman-Grant (Diane Flacks) and excommunicated nun Margaret Donaghue (Barbara Gordon); on the con side are Orthodox Jewish spiritual leader Yehudit Kalb (Niki Landau) and progressive Muslim lawyer Maryam Hashemi (Bahareh Yaraghi).

Each woman is allowed two minutes at the podium to present her argument, followed by discussion and debate. This is an unapologetic, gloves off affair as arguments cover religion’s culpability for violence against women, women’s physical separation from male congregants, the niqab, family, sex, LGBTQ and women’s reproductive rights, and justice for pedophile priests. It is a battle of scripture interpretation, points of religious and secular law, wit and conscience—conducted with sharp intelligence and humour.

Woven into the debate scenes are some revealing monologues and tender, intimate two-handers; through these, we get glimpses into the private lives of these four women. Liz rejected Judaism when her now deceased partner Stacey received a terminal diagnosis. Margaret, in her role as a nurse and administrator at a Catholic hospital, made a decision the Catholic Church couldn’t abide. The love of Yehudit’s life married someone else. Maryam found strength in family tragedy, and love and acceptance in her family’s new life in Canada. As private and public lives collide, and the debate heats up, of course all hell breaks loose.

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Diane Flacks & Barbara Gordon in Unholy – all photos by John Lauener

Flacks’ powerful script is matched by an equally strong cast that brings these fully drawn, complex women to life in this nicely staged, multi-media piece. As the atheist Liz, Flacks is a fierce, mercurial and determined debater; seeing the world of organized religion in black and white terms, Liz rejects the notion that religion can be a positive force in the world. Deeply wounded by the loss of her partner, out of her grief she became mad as hell at the state of organized religion and its impact on women—and chose her battle. Gordon brings a lovely, understated quietude to the soft-spoken ex-nun Margaret; beneath the surface, though, is a heart of strength, hope and courage. Not entirely convinced of her official debate argument, she is a disillusioned former soldier of the Catholic Church who disobeyed orders to follow her own conscience.

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Niki Landau & Bahareh Yaraghi in Unholy

As Yehudit, Landau is both comic and poignant; shifting from a willful young woman to dutiful adult, she serves her family and community with strength and stand-up comic good humour. Circumspect in her interpretations of her Orthodox Jewish faith, she sees room for growth and change; this includes space for women to play a significant leadership role. Yaraghi is sharp and passionate as Maryam, and an excellent foil for Flacks’ Liz. Like her debate partner Yehudit, Maryam is hopeful and believes in a progressive Islam as she strives to break the barriers of stereotype and ignorance in a post-9/11 world where extremists are continually making headlines.

Turnabout is fair play for the male moderator. As women are largely relegated to the sidelines in day-to-day life, especially religious life, it is he who stands off to the side as the studio is dominated by the four women. Williams does a nice job with the affable Morris; as the women take the podium, he rides the fine line of refereeing authentic discourse and the desire to create gripping television.

Each of the women is an archetype: the wounded Fighter, the Lover with a patched up heart, the heartbroken Mother and the haunted Healer. Although each is broken-hearted and struggling with a crisis of faith, each is passionate, strong, wise and loving as she strives to stay hopeful and work towards a better world.

Serious issues, but Unholy makes you laugh a lot—and it’s going to stay with you well after you leave the theatre. It may even change your mind.

Women of wit and wisdom debate religion in the compelling, funny, thought-provoking Unholy.

Due to popular demand, Unholy has extended its run at Buddies to February 5; you can book tix in advance online or by phone. The run also includes several scheduled talkbacks:

Friday, January 20 – Gretta Vosper: as an atheist and a minister with the United Church of Canada, Gretta’s self-proclaimed motto is “Irritating the church into the 21st century.” SOLD OUT

Monday, January 23* – Nightwood Theatre Young Innovator Michela Sisti hosts a panel discussion about women in religion as part of Brave New Theatre’s response to Unholy. Joining her will be playwright Diane Flacks, Raheel Raza (journalist and inter-faith consultant) and Andrea Budgey (Humphrys Chaplain, freelance writer and environmental activist).

*Please note: there are no performances of Unholy on Mondays. For more information on Brave New Theatre, please visit their Facebook page.

Wednesday, January 25 – Stay post-show for a Q & A with the stellar cast members of Unholy.

Friday, January 27 – Lynn Harrison: a Reverend with First Toronto Unitarian, an interfaith, non-denominational congregation with its roots in social justice and inclusion.

Thursday, February 2 – Due to popular demand, atheist minister Gretta Vosper will return to share her insights on women in religion and inclusive atheism.

You can keep up with Nightwood Theatre on Twitter and Facebook. In the meantime, check out the trailer for Unholy: