Family, class, denial & the monster within in the disturbing, revealing Orphans

Tim Dowler-Coltman, Diana Bentley & David Patrick Flemming in Orphans—photo by Shaun Benson

Coal Mine Theatre closes its 2016-17 season with Dennis Kelly’s Orphans, directed by Leora Morris—opening last night in their home at 1454 Danforth Ave.

Helen (Diana Bentley) and Danny’s (David Patrick Flemming) quiet date night dinner at home is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Helen’s brother Liam (Tim Dowler-Coltman). He’s let himself in with his key to their house and is covered in blood that turns out to not be his, but that of an injured young man he tried to help the next block over. An obvious victim of violence, the kid subsequently fled and a visibly shaken Liam made his way to his sister’s.

As the three agonize over what to do, Helen is concerned that involving the police will get Liam in trouble, given his criminal record, unsavoury choice in mates and a knack for bad luck. Helen and Danny’s ‘nice’ middle class neighbourhood has been beset by gangs of lads; one of which recently accosted Danny. With their polite, liberal values, they don’t like to point fingers at the adjacent estate (i.e., social housing), and influx of Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrants, but harbour mistrust and fear of those outside their own people. No one feels safe out there after dark, not even Liam. Orphaned when she and Liam were kids, and having navigated a life in care as they struggled to stay together, Helen is now a mother to a young son (Cody Black), who is at his grandmother’s for the evening, and in the early stages of pregnancy. Disillusioned and fearful of the world she’d be bringing this new life into, she’s seriously considering whether she wants to stay pregnant, given their situation.

What follows is a chilling evolution from Good Samaritan to cover-up—and Danny must decide how far he’s willing to go to help his brother-in-law. Do they engage in passive sins of omission and turning a blind eye, or active sins of lies and participation?

Outstanding work from the cast in this chilling story of underlying racism, classism and violence. Dowler-Coltman’s performance as Liam is both poignant and disturbing; a big, sweet lug of a guy, Liam has a wide-eyed, child-like simplicity with a menacing underbelly. Bentley’s Helen is a heartbreaking, complex portrait of protective sister, and disheartened wife and mother; at her wit’s end over what to do about her pregnancy, and now her brother, there is ferocity and bite under all that heartbreak. Flemming’s performance of Danny’s journey is perhaps the most revealing; coming from a more privileged and sheltered class, Danny walks through the world with blinders on. The illusion of safety in his home broken, and his insular life disrupted forever, his eyes are opened over the course of this night—and he finds some darkness of his own.

With shouts to Black, who makes a brief appearance as Helen and Danny’s adorable, cuddly and sleepy son Shane.

What desperate acts will circumstance, fear and mistrust push everyday people to? Orphans reminds us that the monster we need to fear may be even closer than our own front door.

Family, class, denial and the monster within in the disturbing, revealing Orphans.

Orphans continues to April 30; drop by the Coal Mine Theatre website for ticket info or purchase tickets directly online. Advance booking strongly recommended—it’s a gripping show and an intimate venue with general seating. Please note the 7:30pm curtain time for evening performances.

Keep up with Coal Mine Theatre on Twitter and Facebook—and keep an eye out for their fourth season in 2017-18.

Preview: Silly, half-baked schemes & fake identities abound in the charming, farcical Tons of Money

Back row: Neil Nicholas Kulin, Rob Neilly, Ana Gonzalez, Christopher Wakelin & Drew Smylie. Front row: Kory Preston, Len Henderson, Paula Wilkie, Konstance Koutoulakis & Charlie Parker-Patel in Tons of Money—photo by Thomas Kowal

 

Took a trip out to Scarborough last night for a sneak peek preview of the final dress rehearsal of Scarborough Players’ production of Tons of Money, written by Will Evans and Valentine, and adapted by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Jeremy Henson, Tons of Money opens at the Scarborough Village Theatre tonight.

Set in 1926 in the library of an English country house at Marlow, inventor Aubrey Allington (Christopher Wakelin) and wife Louise (Konstance Koutoulakis) are merrily carrying on their slapdash lives while mired in some serious debt; Aubrey has invented a new explosive material that he’s sure will make them millions, so he’s not worried. Then they receive word from lawyer James Chesterman (Kory Preston) that Aubrey’s brother has died, leaving Aubrey a large amount of cash in his will; in the event of Aubrey’s death, the inheritance will pass to his cousin George Maitland, who is believed to be dead but not conclusively. To avoid having all the inheritance go to their creditors, Louise hatches a plan for Aubrey to fake his death in a workshop explosion and miraculously return a few weeks later as cousin George and claim the cash.

Meanwhile, the Allingtons’ skulking butler Sprules (Drew Smylie) and watchful maid Simpson (Ana Gonzalez) are hatching a scheme of their own involving Sprules’ brother Henery (Len Henderson). And the Allingtons’ plan gets complicated with the appearance of Louise’s friend Jean (Charlie Parker-Patel), who has been secretly married to cousin George! Throw in the ongoing appearances of hard of hearing Aunt Benita (Paula Wilkie), lovesick gardener Giles (Rob Neilly) and a surprise third act arrival (Neil Nicholas Kulin), and you’ve got even more wacky, hilarious good times. And, of course, all hell breaks loose as secret plots and disguises collide.

The cast gives us a rip roaring good time—and they look like they’re having a blast. Koutoulakis (the fiery, strong-willed Louise) and Wakelin (the absent-minded, laissez faire Aubrey) have great chemistry and sense of chaotic fun as the Allingtons. Wilkie is a treat as Aunt Benita; constantly in search of her misplaced knitting, Benita’s not as dotty as she appears, and emerges as one of the sharpest minds in the room. Parker-Patel is the picture of the 1920s lady of leisure as the romantic, dreamy Jean; and Neilly brings bits of subtle, well-timed comedy to the heartbroken gardener Giles.

With shouts to the design team for the fabulous roaring 20s English country house meets art deco vibe: Greg Nowlan and Katherine Turner (set design), Katherine Turner and Jeremy Henson (set décor), Andra Bradish (costumes), Jennifer Bakker (lighting) and Sidnei Auler (sound). Great, fun staging elements in the silent film sequence off the top and the vaudevillian cowbell sound effect highlighting the gags.

Silly, half-baked schemes and fake identities abound in the charming, farcical Tons of Money.

Tons of Money continues at Scarborough Village Theatre till April 22; check the box office page for dates, times and ticket reservations; or call 416-267-9292. Click here for directions (the theatre is part of the Scarborough Village Community Centre), also home to the Scarborough Theatre Guild and Scarborough Music Theatre; the theatre is wheelchair accessible and parking is free.

With thanks to director Jeremy Henson and producer Linda Brent for having me in to see the final dress rehearsal last night, and to Erin Jones for the drive to/from the subway (and the coffee!).

Family, blood & sins of the father in the compelling, darkly funny Tough Jews

Maaor Ziv, Blue Bigwood-Mallin, Luis Fernandes, Theresa Tova, Anne van Leeuwen, G. Kyle Shields & Stephen Joffe in Tough Jews—photo by John Gundy

Leave the gun. Take the kugel.

Storefront Theatre is back, this time partnering with The Spadina Avenue Gang to mount the world premiere of Michael Ross Albert’s Tough Jews, directed by Storefront founder/co-artistic director Benjamin Blais and running at Kensington Hall in Toronto’s Kensington Market.

Tough Jews was Albert’s graduate project about a family of Toronto Jewish gangsters; and, although it’s set in the late 20s and early 30s, the play speaks to issues of anti-Semitic and anti-immigration/refugee sentiments that are relevant today, especially given the influence of the current administration to the south, and the rise in hate crimes targeting Jews and Muslims on both sides of the border.

Set in the basement speakeasy, downstairs from the family’s shop and home in Kensington Market, Act one opens in 1929 on Yom Kippur, 10 days before the stock market crash. Overseen by the widowed family matriarch Ida (Theresa Tova), brothers Joe (Luis Fernandes) and Ben (Blue Bigwood-Mallin) take care of the family business running booze downstairs, while Teddy (G. Kyle Shields) runs the legit business upstairs. Kid sister Rose (Maaor Ziv) and Ben’s American fiancée Marge (Anne van Leeuwen) watch from the sidelines. Downstairs business with Detroit’s Purple Gang goes south when hothead cousin Ziggie (Stephen Joffe) interrupts negotiations. This prompts Ben to come up with an idea to get Rose’s dope-dealing boyfriend Harry (who we never see), to get in on the action; despite the family’s disapproval of Harry, Ben hopes to placate the Purple Gang with new, hard-to-get product.

Act two jumps ahead four years to 1933, a couple of months after Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany and shortly after the Christie Pits riot. Joe and Marge have been living in Florida, but his business was hit hard by the Depression, and he’s returned home to Toronto. Ben has also just come home, just released from jail; and Rose has a three-year-old and some serious domestic issues at her house. Teddy has taken over the speakeasy in the interim, but is now using it as a hide-out after his involvement in the Christie Pits riot.

Family secrets emerge throughout; and serious, changing situations prompt some equally drastic decision-making and choices. How far will a marginalized, oppressed and desperate people go in order to survive?

Stellar work from the entire cast in this immersive theatrical experience where the audience has a fly-on-the-wall view of the proceedings. Tova is hard as nails, hilarious and heartbreaking as Ida, who recalls in sharp, painful detail the oppression of her homeland and the hardship of an ocean crossing. The dreams of a better life destroyed by hate and oppression in a new country, Ida takes charge with pragmatism, grit and wry wit; and with a laser focus on turning the family’s fortunes around. Fernandes gives oldest brother Joe a nice balance of calculating professional and protective man of the house. Dog tired and struggling to keep the family business afloat, Joe must also manage the less than friendly relationship between Marge and his family.

Bigwood-Mallin brings a great sense of spark and ambition to Ben; the only one who really wants to be a gangster, Ben is genuinely excited to expand the business, make connections in the U.S. and make more money. Shields does a marvelous job with Teddy’s arc; as the bookish, observant kid brother, Teddy is torn between being a good man and seeing their legitimate family business survive, and the struggle to survive in a harsh, unfair world that leaves his family few options. By Act Two, he’s grown up a lot in those four years; a changed man, he sees what’s going on in Germany—and how prejudice and hate know no boundaries—and it sickens him.

Ziv’s Rose is an irreverent spitfire; an independent-minded and often neglected member of the family, Rose does her best to make a life for herself, but finds new challenges outside the safety of the family nest. Van Leeuwen brings a regal edge to the platinum blond, leggy Marge; a dancer when Joe first met her, she’s now set on becoming a respectable wife and looking forward to enjoying the good things in life. Unable to stomach Joe’s family business, however, she retaliates by putting on airs. Joffe gives Ziggie a menacing, lost boy edge. Taken in by his aunt Ida as a child, Ziggie’s grown up into a dangerous punk with some serious anger and impulse control issues; and his choices make him a liability to the family.

With big shouts to the design team Adam Belanger (set), Melissa Joakim (lighting), Lindsay Dagger Junkin (costumes), Angela McQueen (makeup) and Miquelon Rodriguez (sound) for their work on the evocative, immersive environment; and to fight director Simon Fon, and co-stage managers Justine Cargo and Andrea Miller. Throughout the production, corpses will be played by Kyle Bailey, Daniel Briere, Gabriel Hamilton and David Lapsley. The bartender makes a mean Manhattan, with the good Jack Daniels.

Family, blood and sins of the father in the compelling, darkly funny Tough Jews.

Tough Jews continues at Kensington Hall till April 16 (enter through the back alley—follow the sandwich board sign); full schedule and advance tix available online]. Book in advance for this one, folks; it’s a popular company and there’s a lot of well-deserved buzz about this show—not to mention the intimate venue. Warning: Show contains gun shots and smoking (herbal cigarettes).

In the meantime, check out Brittany Kay’s In the Greenroom blog interview with playwright Michael Ross Albert and actor G. Kyle Shields, with director Benjamin Blais dropping by.

Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River

Spoon River ensemble—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

 

Is your soul alive?

As we make our way into the theatre, we find ourselves entering the funeral of Bertie Hume; filing past old family portraits and rows of headstones as we make our way out of the funeral parlor and into the cemetery. We are greeted by funeral home attendants and, possibly, friends and family of the deceased.

This is our introduction to Soulpepper’s immersively staged Spoon River, based on Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology poetry collection, and adapted by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz for the stage, with music composed by Ross. A remount of this beloved, award-winning show is currently running in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre, located in Toronto’s Distillery District.

As Bertie Hume is left to her eternal rest, former citizens of the town—now “asleep” in the cemetery on the hill—emerge to share their stories with us, the passersby. Set in small-town America, the lives, loves, joys and pain of its people are revealed with memories, regrets, confession; at times harrowing (“Fire”), hilarious (“Couples” and “Drinking”) and heartbreaking (“Mothers and Sons”). The quirks, the humanity, the secrets and betrayals—all interwoven with poetry, spoken word, music and song, as we get snapshots of the people they once were.

The remarkable, multitalented ensemble plays and sings, with rousing, foot-stomping sounds and gorgeous, resonant harmonies in a collection of blue grass and gospel-inspired songs. Stand-out soloists include Alana Bridgewater, Hailey Gillis (as Bertie Hume), Miranda Mulholland, Jackie Richardson (“Widow McFarlane”) and Daniel Williston (“Fire”). Soulpepper veterans Oliver Dennis and Diego Matamoros bring stellar character work, as do Raquel Duffy, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis and Michelle Monteith. Ultimately, Spoon River is a celebration of life (“Soul Alive”)—and a reminder that life, warts and all, is a cherished gift. I dare you to not stomp along.

With big shouts to the design team for their work on this magical, evocative production: Ken MacKenzie (set and lighting), Erika Connor (costumes) and Jason Browning (sound).

Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River.

Spoon River continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre until April 21; booking in advance is strongly recommended to avoid disappointment—the place was packed last night and this show is getting lots of standing ovations. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Up next: Soulpepper will be taking Spoon River to New York City’s 42nd Street in July as part of its first NYC season at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

The Spoon River soundtrack is available on CD in the lobby of the Young Centre; you can also find it on iTunes. In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

 

Backstage gangster shenanigans & romance in the delightful, sizzling Kiss Me Kate

Another opening of another show for Alexander Showcase Theatre last week with its production of Kiss Me Kate, music and lyrics by Cole Porter, book by Sam and Bella Spewack. Directed by Vincenzo Sestito, with music direction by Gwyneth Sestito and choreography by Jaime Robertson, Kiss Me Kate is currently running at Fairview Library Theatre. I caught the show yesterday afternoon.

Chock full of Porter favourites that have since become beloved standards, Kiss Me Kate combines Shakespeare with musical comedy. Director/producer/lead actor Fred Graham (Pat Brown) is in Baltimore with his company, opening a production of The Taming of the Shrew. With big hopes of being picked up by a Broadway theatre, he’s hired film star Lilli Vanessi (Finnie Jesson) to play Katherine opposite his Petruchio. Trouble is, they used to be married; and old feelings of pain and romance begin to surface—despite Katherine being seriously involved with mysterious man from Washington, D.C. Harrison (Ian Scott).

Meanwhile, Fred’s been friendly with ingénue Lois Lane (Sharon Zehavi), who’s been cast as Katherine’s kid sister Bianca; she’s hoping to land her big break with this show, as well as romance with young actor Bill Calhoun (James Rowan), who’s playing Bianca’s beau Lucentio. Bill likes to play the odds, but isn’t very good at it; and he’s racked up some serious debt with a local gangster—and signed Fred’s name to the IOU.

Cue the shenanigans when two gangsters (Brandon Chambers and Eliot Winkler) show up in Fred’s dressing room to collect the debt. Adding to the comedy of errors, a bouquet meant for Lois has wound up in Lilli’s hands and Fred is in the dog house—and the show in jeopardy. Fred convinces the gangsters that Lilli is vital to the show’s success—to hilarious effect as they thwart her plans to leave during intermission and begin shadow her, inserting themselves into the show in the process.

It’s all great good fun and the ensemble does a marvelous job singing and dancing their way through this tale of theatre folk working their tails off doing what they love. Jesson and Brown have fantastic chemistry as Lilli/Katherine and Fred/Petruchio—and both have excellent pipes. Jesson is luminous, especially with Lilli’s wistful longing in “So In Love” and Katherine’s impassioned rage in “I Hate Men.” And Brown shows great range with Petruchio’s comic, lusty bravado in “Where Is The Life That Late I Led?” and Fred’s heartfelt realization in “So In Love.”

Other stand-outs include Zehavi’s ditzy Lois, a starlet in waiting with a heart of gold and lots of love to give—maybe too much, in Bill’s eyes. She gives a slinky and playful performance as Lois pleads her case in the “Always True To You In My Fashion.” Rowan’s Bill is a likable young scallywag and leading man who’s got a lot to learn about the world. A great match here as well, with Lois and Bill’s duet “Why Can’t You Behave?” in Act I.

Christoph Ibrahim does a bang-up job as Fred’s dresser Paul, leading the ensemble in “Too Darn Hot” at the opening of Act II; featuring Jonathan Eidelman and David Shiff on solos. And Chambers and Winkler are full of LOL fun as the two gangsters, especially with their duet “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”

With big shouts to the design team: Peter Thorman (set), Gwyneth Sestito and Cheryl Lee (costumes), Chris Humphrey (lighting) and Carlos Fernandez (sound effects); and to the orchestra, conducted by Gwyneth Sestito.

Backstage gangster shenanigans and romance in the delightful, sizzling Kiss Me Kate.

Kiss Me Kate continues at the Fairview Library Theatre until April 8; for dates/times and online booking, scroll down on the show page. You can also book by email or by phone: (416) 324-1259.

Here’s directions to Fairview Library; accessible by TTC.

 

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious & deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Katherine Cullen & Britta Johnson in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Better late than never to the party, as I finally got out to see Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson’s SummerWorks hit Stupidhead! A Musical Comedy, directed by Aaron Willis—now in its final week in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Written and performed by Cullen and Johnson, who also collaborated on the lyrics, with music by Johnson, Stupidhead! is a part musical, part stand-up, part personal storytelling journey of Cullen’s experience living with dyslexia.

Stupidhead! is Cullen’s childhood dream of being in a musical come true. And, despite her lack of training, experience and self-reported ability, she was determined to make it happen; and recruited her good friend Johnson to help her write the music. Johnson joins her onstage, accompanying her on piano and back-up vocals—reacting to Cullen’s performance throughout, sometimes cracking up along with the audience.

Pointing out that dyslexia affects people differently, Cullen has no trouble with reading and writing—and as a child enjoyed escaping into writing poetry, and stories about the adventures of a silly koala and rabbit. Diagnosed at a young age, Cullen relates her struggles with math, organizational skills and directions, finding herself mentally lost at school and physically lost in her own neighbourhood—and, above all, labelled. And that label put her in the position of having to deal with ignorance and lack of compassion from others, making her sense of otherness feel even more isolating and humiliating, and becoming a part of her identity.

Her anecdotes about trying to fit in are both hilarious and moving—from her grade three poetry contest nemesis (now a CFL football player), to being lost on her own street, to two weeks in a puppet camp in Vermont as a young adult and her love of Jesus Christ Superstar—all delivered with genuine feeling and gusto. While it’s a show about the “glamour of failure,” it’s also a show about throwing off the chains of shame and isolation. In the end, Cullen avoids tying it up neatly, but emerges from the darker moments of her experience into a place of hope and determination.

Stupidhead!
Katherine Cullen in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

Cullen shines onstage. An engaging, genuine and charming performer, she’s gutsy and kick-ass, but also vulnerable and fragile. As she schools us on dyslexia, she gives us the straight goods about what it’s like to live inside her head. And she gives ‘er with the music, putting her all into performing the songs, from belted out numbers to gentle, heartfelt ballads. She and Johnson make a terrific duo. Johnson is pretty damn funny herself; and there’s a lovely tender moment of compassion and understanding between them that rings with friendship and love. And their anthem of “don’t give up!” brought tears to my eyes.

With big shouts to set designer Anahita Dehbonehie and lighting designer Jennifer Lennon for the cool and beautiful neurosciencey environment.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious and deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Stupidhead! continues in the TPM Mainspace, closing on Apr 2; book in advance online or call 416-504-7529. Check out Hallie Seline’s interview with Cullen and Johnson for In the Greenroom.

And here’s the trailer:

 

 

Getting to the other side of a childhood memory in the poignant, playful A Mickey Full of Mouse

3 days •2 thousand miles • 1 secret family

Dawna Wightman brings her thoughtful dramedy shenanigans to Buddies in Bad Times with her remount of A Mickey Full of Mouse, directed by Rory Starkman, and featuring Wightman and Louise Lupo.

Margaret (Dawna Wightman) has a surprise for her friend Anna (Louise Lupo): a magical snow globe that can take them back in time to relive a childhood memory. The catch: they need to get through it to get back to the present.

Spun back into their past, Anna is now 10 years old, living in a raucous, dishevelled household with her mother, siblings, grandmother and an absent father. Neglected and largely left to her own devices, she has a rich inner world despite the economic and emotional poverty that surrounds her. Always the last in line for the shared bath water and a single, soaked towel, Anna savours the warmth of their yellow kitchen and the aroma of all the yummy meals that are prepared there.

Then, an adventure: Momma (Wightman) announces that her dad is taking the two of them to Disney World in Florida! Over the moon at the prospect, Anna is less than thrilled that they’re picking up “retard” Margaret up on the way. Family road trip from hell—from Montreal to Orlando, Florida—ensues, revealing family secrets and memories best forgotten. Except for one: a reminder of how Anna and Margaret became friends.

Moments of unbridled joy and heartbreaking disappointment highlight this wistfully nostalgic, childlike and thoughtful romp; featuring lovely, evocative work from Wightman and Lupo. As Margaret, Wightman is frozen in childhood; slow to communicate but quick to love and comfort, Margaret is a sweet, misunderstood woman doing the best she can to live in an impatient, sometimes harsh, world. She brings a melancholy sense of defeat and disillusionment to the chain smoking Momma; on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and self-medicating with rum and coke, and prescription drugs, she just wants her husband to stay home and be with her and the family. And she’s hilariously inept as the ineffectual, but friendly, Disney World security guard Candy.

Lupo gives a great, multi-layered performance as Anna. A cynical and abrasive adult—and lawyer by trade—she’s there for Margaret, but reluctantly so and hotly resentful about it. As a child, we see Anna before her world took the shine out of her—something that Margaret never quite lost. Somewhere under that beaten down soul is a rambunctious, brave and hopeful human being. And maybe reliving that fateful road trip was just what she needed to be reminded of that.

With shouts to director Starkman for doing double duty as production stage manager.

Getting to the other side of a childhood memory in the poignant, playful A Mickey Full of Mouse.

A Mickey Full of Mouse continues at Buddies until April 8 on the following dates/times:

Saturday April 1 @ 8:00 PM
Sunday April 2 @ 2:00 PM
Friday April 7 @ 8:00 PM
Saturday April 8 @ 8:00 PM

Book advance tix online or call: 416-975-8555. You can follow A Mickey Full of Mouse on Facebook.