Billy Bishop soars @ Soulpepper

Billy Bishop Goes to War has a history that goes beyond the title character – equally compelling is that it was created and performed by two men who are not only friends and colleagues, but who have performed the musical over a span of 30 years. I finally saw the show for the first time – with my pal Kira – on Friday night.

Soulpepper’s remount of Billy Bishop was directed by Ted Dykstra (who also worked as sound designer), and created/performed by Eric Peterson and John Gray. Peterson plays an array of characters, including Bishop, while Gray is the pianist and narrator – at times taking part in the action, as well as observing it. The play was updated in 1998 to evolve with the performer’s ages (they were in their early 30s when then first performed it) and the current production presents a Billy Bishop in his early 60s, looking back on his life and his experience of battle and survival in WWI, first in the cavalry and finally in the Royal Air Force.

Peterson (who folks will recognize as the curmudgeonly Oscar Leroy from Canadian sit-com Corner Gas) is an irresistible storyteller, shifting from the somewhat frail older man to the gung-ho 20-year-old soldier, itching to do battle but not so fond of the rain and the mud that is the life of the cavalry. Set and props provide a travelled, life lived from a trunk feel – and some of the trunks onstage bear labelling from the show’s travels – and lighting punctuates the framed pictures that Bishop sets up around the stage throughout. The most moving of these are the portrait of his Margaret, to whom he addresses letters throughout, and an image of the cenotaph outside old City Hall in Toronto. The two men sing songs of the period, evoking time and place, and Peterson does a hilarious turn as a female cabaret singer. There are plenty of  laughs – especially when Peterson invokes the various Brits in Bishop’s story – and we get a sense of how Canada and Canadians (“Colonials”) were viewed by the Empire. There are incredibly poignant moments as well, such as Bishop’s recitation of The Dying of Albert Ball, a poem commemorating a very young and decorated British pilot. The Empire likes its poster boys dead – but the Colonies like theirs alive to tell the tale.

For performance dates, tickets and other info, visit the Soulpepper website: http://www.soulpepper.ca/

For more info on the history, check out the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum site: http://www.warplane.com/

Billy Bishop Goes to War is a show for all ages – and you don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy it. He’s an everyman and an improbable hero – and I guess that’s why we like him so much.

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More fab outdoor theatre

I’d just been wondering about Canopy Theatre recently, and how I missed them last year – and, lo and behold, my new pal Lizzie sends me and some friends an e-mail suggesting we go see Lysistrata – the sex strike. It opened last night and runs until Aug 6, performed Wed – Sat at 8 p.m. outdoors on Philosopher’s Walk at U of T. Directed by AD Andrea Wasserman, the cast features Alum pals Rob Candy, Conor Hefferon and Laura Vincent.

For more info, check out their website: http://canopytheatre.ca/ 

In particular, check out the sexy production pix http://canopytheatre.ca/?p=955  Gotta love a woman in a toga (or a man, if you’re into that sort of thing).

And here’s their teaser (WARNING: adult content):

PLEASE NOTE: Due to the extreme heat, tonight’s performance (Thurs, July 21) has been cancelled.

The Guild Theatre Festival is still running The Cherry Orchard (http://www.guildfestivaltheatre.ca/index.php) till the end of the month and Driftwood Theatre Group recently kicked off their tour of MacBeth (http://driftwoodtheatre.com/).

Man, with all this amazing theatre happening – not to mention a whole bunch of summer gatherings/meet-ups with friends – I’ve had to perform some serious social triage lately. ‘Cuz, you know, you just can’t do everything. So many choices, so little time – and lack of cloning or time machine technology.

Stay cool today, my friends – it’s nasty out there.

Memories of beer tent

Hanging with Kat Leonard, her peeps, and my pals Kerri, Lynn and Tina after Kat’s Saturday show the first weekend of the fest, drinking beer and eating roti. Getting flyered by MonaRita playwright Shannon Bramer and going to see it that night, Kat’s SM Skye and I passing at the corner as I lined up for the Bathurst Street Theatre and she headed to the Annex. Searching for iced coffee at the tent after I got my ticket for Kim’s Convenience the next day, but having to go to Green Beanery ‘cuz the iced coffee guys weren’t there yet. Going to see Kat’s set at the tent stage that night, hanging with her and her friend Lizzie, sharing a ginormous club sandwich with Kat and blowing bubbles from tiny plastic jars – and having to turn down a comp to Headscarf and the Angry Bitch (from the lovely and talented creator/actor Zehra Fazal) ‘cuz I just had to get home and get some sleep and get up at 6:30 a.m. for the office job (I did see Headscarf later in the fest). Watching some guys at the table behind us build a house of postcards – and rebuilding after it fell. Singing along to Annie Lennox with Skye and the two of us cooking up a comedy sketch idea based on a gal who has two back-up singers with her always, to highlight everyday conversations, especially conflicts. Everyone comparing notes on how frickin’ tired we were – but still having a blast. Bumping into various and sundry folks I know from Cabbagetown Theatre and Alumnae Theatre, and meeting new folks – patrons and artists. Lots of beer on some stupid hot days with some awesome folks – it doesn’t get much better than that.

Now, if we could only bottle it.

My big fat Fringe weekend

I think I can safely say that I Fringed to the max this past Friday/weekend (for me, anyway – my limit is 3 in one day) – and I’m possibly even Fringed out.

Friday, July 15 – Headscarf and the Angry Bitch, a one-woman show created and performed by Zehra Fazal (who hails from Washington, D.C.). So much irreverent awesomeness – and educational too. And just when I thought character Zed Headscarf couldn’t get any awesomer, it turns out she’s a lesbian! Fazal takes us on an entertaining ride with amazing energy and frankness.

Saturday, July 16 – Finally: An Epic Cycle, by Sarah Cody (who also plays our intrepid heroine), directed by Joanne Williams, and featuring actors Cassie Muise, Luke Marty, Derek Perks and Michael Rode, takes the audience on a flawed hero’s journey as she and her roommate search for lost hockey tickets. And they’re not just any hockey tickets – they’re for the Stanley Cup Finals, where the Toronto Maple Leafs are playing. Finally, I saw this play at its closing performance. Lots of fun and nicely cast, with stand-out performances from Marty and Perks.

Wishes Are Horses, written and directed by Peter Bloch-Hansen (who is also one of the two multi-tasking actors) is a stage adaptation of a short story. We see the farcical aftermath when a physicist’s (Steve Flett) theory that the changing nature of the earth makes it possible to manifest wishes becomes public. His and his wife’s (Tina Sterling) lives are turned upside down when he’s fired from his job at the university and they are placed under house arrest by two FBI agents (Leeman Kessler is the other multi-tasking actor). Excellent ensemble and a trippy 50s design sensibility.

Shotgun Wedding, by Leonard Cervantes and directed by Catherine Hernandez, a 90s R&B mix tape musical, is the result of Cervantes wanting to “write a play that made [him] grin like an idiot,” and bring back feelings of a fast-beating heart and butterfly-filled stomach – memories of a time and place with friends and music. This play nails it and then some – and I was grinning like an idiot too. An energetic young cast (Belinda Corpuz, Richie Guzman, Tony Ofori, Arlene Paculan, Mickey Rodriguez and Jeff Yung) sing, dance and act the story of a group of Filipino friends at their friend’s debut – and the celebration takes a turn when it’s revealed that she’s pregnant and her love-sick escort is not the father. Loads of fun and excellent 90s music – I just love those R&B harmonies! And Arlene was particularly adorable in overalls.

Sunday, July 17 – Last day of Fringe (well, Fringe proper – there’s still The Best of Fringe to come), I started my day with a late matinée of Queer Bathroom Monologues, which was doing double-duty on their final day at the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace, as they were the Paton’s pick for that venue. This verbatim play, directed by Megan Watson, was inspired by author/playwright Sheila Cavanagh’s book Queering Bathrooms, and features actors Hallie Burt, Tyson James and Chy Ryan Spain, who all play multiple LGBTQ characters speaking of their experiences in public washrooms. The script is both fun and touching, using scatological humour, movement and personal storytelling to present the stories of people who just want to be able to use the bathroom in peace and comfort – like everyone else. Excellent performances from the three actors.

We Few They Many is one of the G20-themed pieces in Fringe this year. Written and directed by Kat Edwards, this is the story of the Toronto Mobilization Group, a group of young people who work to facilitate and organize protest groups in the city – and their experience on the weekend of the 2010 G20 in Toronto. Amidst the rioting and mayhem that ensues, some of their group are arrested and detained at the Eastern Avenue detention centre, all the while dealing with individual personal drama, a headline-seeking tabloid newspaper reporter and an informant in their midst. Nice work by this young ensemble cast: Mitchell Court, Anthony Gerbrandt, Rebecca Perry, Tennille Read, Harmonie Tower and Andrew Young.

Swoon! got an extra performance on Sunday as the Patron’s pick for the Factory Theatre Mainspace. Written by the ensemble, with work by Jordan Tannahill, Jason Maghanoy (who also directs), Haley McGee, Ryan Griffith, Darrah Teitel and Alisa Palmer, this comedy drama is about falling in love, out of love and trying to stay in love – told with short scenes, monologue, movement and music. The marvelous and sexy cast includes Andrew Church, Brandon Coffey, Sochi Fried, Nicki Gallo, Darrel Gamotin, Adrienne Kress, Jajube Mandiela, Chris Mitchell, Jessica Moss, Paul Robinson and Aimee Roy (in the rush going from one show to another, I didn’t get a program for this – and it appears that the cast list included in the Fringe program and online had changed – so I have one extra woman listed here). Sexy, fun and heartbreaking, among my favourite moments were a lesbian talking about her struggles to reconnect with her partner as they settle into domestic middle-age, and the moment of calm and peace found with a partner as described by one of the young men.

Best of the Fringe is coming up this week at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. Congrats to Kim’s Convenience and Remember, Maggy? – among others – for getting an extra run. See the full program at: http://www.tocentre.com/studio/fringe

p.s. – As I mentioned, I also attended the SummerWorks fundraiser reading of Catherine Frid’s play Homegrown (on Friday night, after I saw Headscarf). The evening was well-attended (I bumped into a several folks from Alumnae there) and I was very happy to hear that, at last count, 14 cities were participating in the simultaneous reading to help SummerWorks make up for their lost federal funding.

Nation-wide staged readings of Homegrown tonight

Theatre companies all over Canada are doing a staged reading of Catherine Frid’s play Homegrown (produced in SummerWorks 2010) tonight in support of SummerWorks. That is so much awesome!

Speaking of awesome, check out this piece from Globe & Mail by theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/theatre/the-summerworks-affair-cheap-shots-at-the-expense-of-artists/article2097652/

I’ll be there at the Aluna Theatre reading at the Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto. Where are you going to see it?

Good news for SummerWorks & Toronto Fringe

Hey kids! No big surprise, funding is always an issue for theatre, especially for small, indie theatre and emerging artists. But wait! There’s good news…

A short time ago, I gave the thumbs down to Canadian Heritage (aka Heritage Canada) for cutting its funding from SummerWorks. The good news is, SummerWorks has had a lot of support to help make up its 2011 budget shortfall, with donations coming in from across the country. Coming up this Friday (July 15), a PWYC staged reading of Catherine Frid’s play Homegrown, produced in SummerWorks 2010, at the Berkeley Street Theatre @ 8 p.m. Yay, donors and Homegrown reading!

In more good news, those of you who’ve been out at the Toronto Fringe will know that former Toronto mayor David Miller pledged to match every patron donation dollar (up to $10,000) towards funding for the Fringe’s upcoming Creation Lab. And a few days ago, he made good on that promise and donated $10,000 – the largest private donation in the Toronto Fringe’s history. Yay, donors and David Miller!

So all you theatre-lovers out there, show some love to the Toronto Fringe http://fringetix.ca/scripts/max/2000/maxweb.exe?ACTION=ORDER and SummerWorks http://www.summerworks.ca/2011/donate.php  festivals. Even if it’s just a buck or two, every little bit helps. Yay, you!

No redemption in Saved

Edward Bond’s 1965 play Saved, a controversial play for its time, remains so today in its modernized Fringe production. Director Jack Grinhaus sets the play in 1997-99, a period of social and media transition that parallels the period in which the play was written. Television – and now digital media – provides access to sex and violence on a scale not previously seen, and viewers are overwhelmed to the point of numbness by the bombardment of images and information – often violent in nature. Combined with a sense of hopelessness and anomie, we see its effects on society – in youth turned savage. The director’s notes cite the G20 and Vancouver riots. The play presents the murder of a baby – called “it” by the mother and left alone with a pack of young men, one of them possibly the father, who call to mind the wildly transformed boys in Lord of the Flies

The bleak, and at times brutal, world portrayed in this slice-of-life piece is not for the faint-hearted. There is no redemption here, and the only reconciliation – if there is any to be had – is a resolution to the cycle of unchangable hopelessness. Grinhaus has assembled a very fine cast of actors, the youths played by York University theatre grads Alex Carter, Bryan Denmore, Josh Dolphin, Tina France, Andrew Loder, Jamie Maczko and Shaina Silver-Baird, and the two parents played by veterans of the stage more recently seen at Alumnae Theatre, John Illingworth and Brenda Somers.

In light of our quick and easy access to violent footage and horrific news stories, one may ask: Why see this play when we see stuff like this every day? Violence itself isn’t the point so much as what it’s doing to our society – especially to our youth. As Grinhaus says in the program notes: “… violence breeds violence.”