Real-life ghost stories come out of the dark in the compelling, entertaining, thoughtful The Ghost Project

Karie Richards. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana.

 

Playwright/performer/producer Karie Richards opened the Toronto premiere of her documentary solo show The Ghost Project to a sold-out house in the BMO Incubator at The Theatre Centre last night. Originally directed by Jeff Culbert, The Ghost Project was a hit at the Fringe circuit, premiering at the Halifax Fringe 2018, and went on to the London Fringe and Winnipeg Fringe in 2019. Distilling 13 stories from 28 interviews with friends and family, Richards weaves a series of monologues, all told in the first person, from the storyteller’s point of view—capturing the gamut of emotional and rational responses; and exploring the thoughts, feelings and questions about what happens to us after we die. The result is a compelling, entertaining and thoughtful piece of verbatim storytelling.

Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever encountered one? While Karie Richards isn’t sure what she thinks, she believes the stories told to her by friends and family—personal experiences with spiritual manifestations that defy explanation and everyday frame of reference; and that ultimately make us question the nature of the afterlife. Each real-life character reveals their story, be it from their university days, childhood or adulthood, or even an experience their child had while they were present. People reacting and responding in the moment; and, in some cases, wondering aloud what it all means. Are these the actual souls or spirits of the departed, or the energy traces they left behind? Or are these encounters a chance look through a thin veil of everyday reality, providing a glimpse of another time or plane of existence while the one experiencing it remains rooted in their own?

Encounters with, and messages from, deceased loved ones; former homeowners looking in on new residents/guests; and unexplained events at a haunted theatre space (Alumnae Theatre folk and fans will be familiar) all come into play—with manifestations ranging from malevolent to friendly, frightening to calming, everyday to ethereal. Experiences of shadowy figures blacker than the darkness, a floating blue girl, a surprising encounter during an Indigenous ceremony, the comfort of a nurturing parental energy, and the high-spirited insistence of a youthful presence that evoked profound responses for the storyteller emerge in Richards’ performance. Navigating myriad emotions, from paralyzing fear, to grief and loss, confusion, relief and joy, each character is vulnerable, curious, wonder-struck and thoughtful. Do these spirits want to be noticed and acknowledged? Are they relieving boredom with their spooky shenanigans? Do they have something to tell us?

Deftly shifting from character to character—signified by the collection and return of a single costume piece or prop from a wardrobe, and remarkable adjustments to voice, facial expression and posture—with a gentle calmness and the care of ceremony, Richards conjures up each storyteller for us, presenting with nuance and profound sensitivity the experiences, reactions and thoughts of each. And her carefully, finely-drawn embodiment of each storyteller makes for a compelling and entertaining performance that goes beyond the storytelling itself. In many cases, it’s the first time the storyteller has revealed their experience to anyone—requiring a high level of trust in, and comfort with, Richards during the interview process that preceded the creation of the piece. The results are eerie, funny, deeply moving and thought-provoking.

Richards’ performance is nicely supported by Glenn Davidson’s minimalist, effective production design, as well as John Sheard’s haunting composition, and atmospheric sound effects supplied by Peter Thillaye and Steve Munro.

Whatever you believe, The Ghost Project engages as much as it challenges the audience to open up and reach out into the unknown—and entertain the suggestion that death is not the end of our journey, but the beginning of a new one. If you have the opportunity, stick around for the post-show talkback, where audience members are invited to ask questions and share their own ghost stories.

The Ghost Project continues in the Incubator space at the Theatre Centre until January 26, with evening performances at 7:00 p.m., and matinées on Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are available online, in person at the box office, or by calling 416-538-0988. It’s a very short run and seating is limited, so advance booking or early arrival is strongly recommended; please note the 7:00 p.m. curtain time for evening performances.

 

 

Fear, loathing & melancholy at an office party in the razor-sharp, edgy, timely Casimir and Caroline

Hallie Seline, Cameron Laurie & Alexander Crowther. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The Howland Company presents the North American premiere of their adaptation of Ödön von Horváth’s Casimir and Caroline, based on the original translation by Holger Syme, and adapted by Paolo Santalucia, Holger Syme and the company. Razor-sharp, edgy and timely, we’re front and centre witnesses to the goings-on at an office summer party, where bigwigs and nobodies alike eat, drink and dance as fast as they can on the rooftop patio while they all still have jobs. Running in parallel collapse are the tensions and crises between the titular engaged couple and the various corporate machinations and relationships that churn among their co-workers. It’s a one percent vs. 99 percent world of “winners” and “losers”, and no one is as they seem. Directed by Paolo Santalucia, assisted by Thom Nyhuus, Casimir and Caroline opened its run in the Scotiabank Community Studio at Streetcar Crowsnest last night.

Caroline (Hallie Seline) is enjoying some fun time with colleagues at their summer office party on a rooftop patio—until fiancé Casimir (Alexander Crowther) shows up in a mood and pisses on her parade. He got fired from his job driving their boss Rankin (James Graham) the day before, he’s broke, his cellphone doesn’t work and he’s pissed that Caroline invited him to the party. With brutally honest friends Frank (Cameron Laurie) and Frank’s girlfriend Liz (Caroline Toal) on his side, Casimir stomps in and out of the party, becoming incensed when he sees Caroline chatting with newly met co-worker, the fashionable Sanders (Michael Ayres), and later witnessing her being hit on by corporate sleazeball Rankin!

Add to the mix the boyish intern Trevor (Michael Chiem), who’s been tasked with minding the popsicle stand; the intimidating boss lady Shira (Kimwun Perehinec), visiting from the Montreal office; the neurotic Mary from HR (Veronica Hortiguela), who worships Shira and wants to rise up the ranks; and her cool, sharp-tongued co-worker pal Ellie (Shruti Kothari)—and you have a lively, fascinating field guide of some favourite office animals.

It’s a one percent vs. 99 percent world of “winners” and “losers” where anyone can lose what they have at any time and without warning. There are those at the top, trying to maintain or grow their position; those who want to be at the top, in some cases by any means necessary; and those who are either stuck at the bottom, or who have fallen from corporate and social grace. Everyone is wearing a mask of some description, and true colours are revealed as the action unfolds. And as the party fun and jocularity among colleagues devolves, so too does Casimir and Caroline’s relationship.

Outstanding performances all around. Seline’s Caroline has a strong sense of determination and resilience, edged with lovely sense of vulnerability; and Crowther’s Casimir is a tightly wound combination of bouffon Stanley Kowalski and hurt little boy. Laurie is both intimidating and comic as the ex-con Frank; and there’s great combative chemistry with Toal’s edgy, gruffly candid Liz. Graham’s Rankin is an entitled #MeToo poster boy, but there’s something deep and sensitive there too; and Perehinec gives stylish dragon lady Shira hints of magnanimous warmth and openness.

Ayres brings an affable charm to fashion writer Sanders, keeping us guessing whether Sanders’ smoothness has something to hide. Chiem is adorably cheerful as Millennial intern Trevor, who must decide if he wants to venture into the dark side of corporate life. Hortiguela brings both comedy and pathos as the socially awkward, ambitious Mary; and Kothari’s chill, sharply candid, in-the-know Ellie makes for the perfect foil—though Ellie’s cruelty may not always be meant in kindness.

The storytelling is nicely supported by Jeremy Hutton’s sound design and Evan MacKenzie’s composition, featuring frenetic, whirling retro accordion music in the pre-show (a nod to the 1930s German origins of the play) and some heavier urban music sounds; and Reanne Spitzer’s choreography, wild and flailing, with some synchronized group dancing.

The melancholy is balanced by absurdity—with the old adage about comedy equals tragedy plus timing in high evidence here. And elements of the ridiculous among the characters are ultimately full of poignancy. Disappointment, disillusionment and discouragement abound. The world is a fucked-up place and the ground is shaky for everyone—and that changes how people behave and present themselves. In the end, those who are genuine, sharply candid and able to express what they want are the ones who’ll make out okay.

Casimir and Caroline continues at Streetcar Crowsnest in the Scotiabank Community Studio until February 9; advance tickets available online. This is going to be a hot ticket, so advance booking is strongly recommended.

Navigating the world with OCD in the funny, poignant, enlightening Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan

Conor Ling, Gabriella Circosta, Allison Shea Reed & Tristan Claxton. Photo by Alice Xue Photography.

 

RedWit Theatre invites us into lived experiences of a young woman living with OCD in Allison Shea Reed’s funny, poignant, enlightening Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan, directed by Sean O’Brien and running now in the Tankhouse Theatre at the Young Centre. Emily has lived with Olivia—her OCD personified—since childhood, and struggles daily with what that means for her relationships and her life. She longs to break out of her comfort zone and enter into a relationship, but will Olivia let her?

Emily (Allison Shea Reed) is a warm, smart and funny young woman who’s been living with OCD her entire life, personified by her helicopter protector, hyper-judgemental joined-at-the-hip best friend Olivia (Gabriella Circosta). Olivia is Emily’s personal flight response attendant, her fierce warrior defender, and her nagging inner voice of self-doubt; the one that tells her she’s too much, a burden, that everyone would be better off if she didn’t exist. Emily also has her roommate and friend, the culinarily gifted Rowan (Tristan Claxton); supportive and on her side, he understands, accepts and is respectful of Emily’s relationship with Olivia.

Enter the fun-loving, charming Graham (Conor Ling), who Emily really likes and, despite her hesitation to go with her attraction—and big pushback from Olivia, who prophesizes doom and gloom about any prospective romantic relationship—decides to date him. The added stress and unknowns about having a new person in her life, and sharing her space both physically and emotionally, make for extra tension between Emily and Olivia. Despite her courageous, and even optimistic, attempts to get out into the world and open up to new people, it’s still a struggle for Emily, even as she openly communicates her needs—needs that may seem strange—to those around her.

As their relationship progresses, and after much consideration, Emily decides to divulge her condition to Graham, who responds positively and even shares his own experiences with mental illness. But Olivia wonders if he’s being honest and realistic about life with Emily, and is skeptical about how long this honeymoon period will last. For a while, Emily has her world to herself—until things begin to get tense with Graham, and Olivia returns.

Beautifully drawn, sensitive work from the cast in this peek into a life experience that we don’t often see portrayed on stage. Shea Reed gives a complex, compelling performance as Emily; high-functioning and managing her illness, Emily’s cheery, good-humoured self is constantly bombarded with negative internal messaging and impulses toward repetitive actions, especially during stressful times. Longing for a “normal life”, she tries to stay positive, and does the best she can to navigate the world through her OCD, but struggles daily with creeping negative perceptions and fearful responses. As Olivia, Circosta turns on a dime, going from entertainingly impish to devastatingly cruel; both a protector and a naysayer on Emily’s shoulder, Olivia does whatever she needs to do in order to keep Emily safe and within the confines of her comfort zone—be it through manipulation, cajoling, tantrums or drama. Thing is, Emily wants to break out of that dynamic—leaving Olivia abandoned and unheeded. And that troubles Oliva a great deal.

Claxton gives an endearing performance as Emily’s friend/roommate Rowan—and has great chemistry with Shea Reed. A loving and supportive ally, Rowan rides the line between being protective and concerned, and letting Emily have her space as she ventures into new territory. It is Rowan who reminds Emily that OCD does not define her; and that she is so much more than a mental illness, and so loved. Ling gives Graham a compelling combination of affable charm and changeable loyalties; and, like Emily and Olivia, we’re not sure if we can trust Graham. Navigating his own mental health issues, Graham wants to be with Emily, but—despite his warm feelings and best intentions—needs to work out whether he can be okay with her challenging days and unorthodox needs. And the fact that he doesn’t seem to be as self-aware of his own mental health as Emily is of her own isn’t helping.

Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan gives us a candid and thoughtful look at the inner workings and lived experiences of someone living with OCD. We need more storytelling like this—to break down barriers and stereotypes, and foster awareness and understanding of those living with mental illness. And that an individual’s mental health issue, while part of who they are, does not define them; and they have something to contribute to their loved ones and society.

Living with Olivia Cadence Donovan continues in the Tankhouse Theatre at the Young Centre until January 25; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

 

NSTF: Love, grief & celebrating life in the deeply moving, resonant musical Every Silver Lining

Allison Wither & Laura Piccinin. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana.

 

Silver Lining Productions brings its Toronto Fringe 2019 breakout musical theatre hit Every Silver Lining to the Factory Theatre Mainspace for the Next Stage Theatre Festival. Written by Laura Piccinin and Allison Wither, and directed by Jennifer Stewart, with music direction by Aaron Eyre, Every Silver Lining takes us on a journey of love, friendship, grief and a celebration of life as a family and a group of high school students navigate the loss of a son, brother and friend to cancer. The songs are both profoundly insightful, revealing and catchy—resonating deep in the heart—performed with impressive vocal chops and great sensitivity.

Seventeen-year-old Andrew (Daniel Karp) has leukemia and is looking forward to his last round of chemo. Hiding his illness from even his closest friends, he just wants to get back to school, hang out with his friends and live as normal a life as possible. He and his teen sister Clara (Allison Wither) are good buds, but since his diagnosis, she’s been feeling invisible at home, drowning in the extreme life-changing routine and tension-filled atmosphere; and even having to put some of her own life on hold while she drives Andrew to appointments and keeps him company during chemo sessions. Their mother Judy (Alison J Palmer) is fearful and hovering, and getting on Andrew’s nerves; and dad Kevin (Luke Marty) is caught in the middle, acting as peacemaker between his wife and son while the family lives with the stress and uncertainty of Andrew’s prognosis.

At school, Clara’s BFF Emily (Laura Piccinin) gently prods and advises her on how to get to know the cute new guy Ben (Alex Furber). Clara’s not sure she’s up for it, but finds herself drawn to Ben; and Andrew is happy to be back with his gamer friends Jeremy (Joel Cumber), Bev (Jada Rifkin) and Sam (Ben Skipper). This period of apparent normalcy is short-lived as Andrew comes down with a critical infection, and his chances for further treatment are gone.

Andrew’s friends are stunned to learn of his death—especially as they hadn’t known he was ill—and find themselves facing the death of a loved one their own age for the first time. They’re well-supported by their arts and science teacher Ms. Vella (Starr Domingue), who gives them space to share their thoughts and feelings. Dealing with so many feelings—about Andrew, dealing with school work and tests, blossoming feelings of attraction—and experiencing the various stages of grief is painful and confusing. But, ultimately, the friends pull together to support each other, remember Andrew and celebrate his life.

Delivered with heart and impressive vocal chops—and nicely supported by musicians Aaron Eyre (piano), Erika Nielsen (cello) and Alex Panneton (percussion)—the cast takes us from laughter to tears; performing beautifully composed songs featuring moving and catchy melodies, resonant counter melodies, and soaring harmonies. Karp gives the outgoing Daniel a combination of brave face and resilient resistance; struggling, even fighting, for normalcy when his life has been turned upside down in the face of an unknown outcome. Wither’s performance as the introverted, irreverent Clara is a nuanced portrait of a teen working through complex, challenging times; the sometimes tough, give no fucks exterior belies her inner conflict and fear of losing her brother. She loves her brother, but she hates what the disease is doing to him and their family; and feels guilty for doing so. Palmer and Marty’s grounded, present performances as parents Judy and Kevin run the gamut from hope to despair; Palmer’s loving helicopter mom and Marty’s supportive middleman dad are doing the best they can while facing the unthinkable loss of a child.

Furber gives an adorkably lovable performance as the cute, somewhat nerdy Ben; there are some lovely moments with Wither as Ben and Clara get to know each other and explore their growing attraction. Piccinin and Cumber add some great, and much needed, comic relief as the effervescent extrovert Emily and the goofy, fun-loving Jeremy. Piccinin gives Emily a warm, protective, enveloping hug vibe, while Cumber’s Jeremy is more sensitive than at first glance, using gentle humour to support his friends through their grief. Rifkin gives a poignant performance as the socially awkward Bev; and Skipper does a nice job revealing Sam’s anger about Andrew’s death, and toward Andrew himself, as Sam deals with his grief. Domingue is lovely, engaging and supportive as Ms. Vella; and makes for an understanding, approachable oncologist.

Profoundly poignant and inspiring—and full of spirit, hope and love—in the end, Every Silver Lining is about recognizing and being open to the love and support of family and friends during times of fear, loss and grief; and sharing, remembering and celebrating the life of the departed loved one as part of the acknowledgment of, and working through, the stages of the mourning process.

Every Silver Lining continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until January 19; check the show page for exact dates, times and advance ticket purchase.

NSTF: Keep calm & sing along with the timely, funny, moving Pearle Harbour’s Agit-Pop!

Steven Conway & Pearle Harbour. Lighting design by Logan Raju Cracknell. Photo by Michael Cooper.

 

Pearle Harbour pops onto the Factory Theatre Mainspace stage for Next Stage Theatre Festival with her timely, funny and moving pre-apocalyptic multimedia drag cabaret Pearle Harbour’s Agit-Pop! Written by Justin Miller and directed by Rebecca Ballarin, with music direction and live accompaniment by Steven Conway, and video design by Adam Miller, Pearle brings her wartime tragicomedienne song stylings and storytelling to explore our deepest fears.

Climate change is at a crisis point, the Doomsday Clock is at two minutes to midnight, and Australia’s on fire—but keep calm and laugh, sing, and even scream and cry, along with Pearle as she treats audiences to some music gems by the likes of David Bowie, Judy Garland, Tom Waits and more, including a different special guest artist appearance with every performance. Examining our deepest existential fears, the storytelling and song stylings switch between funny and poignant, with Pearle living up to her reputation as a wartime tragicomedienne and including some gentle, consensual audience participation.

The 1950s Bert the Turtle PSA bit on how to protect yourself in the event of a nuclear blast (duck and cover) got a bit too close to home this morning when that Emergency Alert went out to folks across Southern Ontario around 7:30AM. The vague warning, directed to folks living withing 10km of the Pickering nuclear power plant, turned out to be sent in error, but loads of questions remain as I write this.

There’s some truly frightening stuff happening out in the world right now—but, ultimately, Pearle’s message is one of awareness, engagement, hope and love. Let’s do better. Let’s reach out to each other. Let’s turn back that clock.

You have three more chances to catch Pearle Harbour’s Agit-Pop! in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until January 19; check the show page for exact dates, times and advance ticket purchase. The house was packed yesterday, so early arrival or advance booking strongly recommended.

NSTF: Family, community, music & lots of love in the entertaining, heartwarming Tita Jokes

Alia Rasul, Ellie Posadas, Isabel Kanaan, Maricris Rivera, Ann Paula Bautista & Belinda Corpuz. Photo by Martin Nicolas. Cathleen Jayne Calica, stylist.

 

The Tita Collective invites us into Filipin* kitchens, living rooms and lives with its Next Stage Theatre Festival production of its hilariously entertaining sold-out Toronto Fringe 2019 hit Tita Jokes. Created and performed by the Collective and directed by Tricia Hagoriles, the show features music direction and piano accompaniment by Ayaka Kinugawa, choreography by Chantelle Mostacho and animation by Solis Animation. Part Spice Girls-inspired concert, part sketch comedy and all love letter to Titas—aunts in both the familial sense and broader sense of beloved, respected Filipina elders—the ensemble sings, dances gossips and riffs on Filipin* family and community. Tita Jokes is currently running in the Factory Theatre Mainspace.

Playing characters inspired by the Spice Girls (instead of X Spice, it’s Tita X), the Collective—Ann Paula Bautista, Belinda Corpuz, Isabel Kanaan, Ellie Posadas, Alia Rasul and Maricris Rivera—frame the show as a farewell concert. With choreography that incorporates traditional Philippine fan dance, and music that borrows from pop, R&B and musical theatre, the Collective sings, dances and performs hilariously insightful, satirical sketch comedy bits that speak to the heart of Filipin* family and community, with a particular shout-out to the Titas.

The energetic, multi-talented ensemble takes us on and entertaining, often moving, ride as they weave song and dance with sketch comedy bits. Filipin* folks will especially enjoy the in-jokes, but you don’t have to be Filipin* to have a blast and laugh along with this peek into the lives, loves and experiences of the community. Highlights include a kitchen table scene between a mother and her two daughters; church ladies gossip and strut their stuff; navigating queer and gender identity in the Filipin* community; and Tita superheroes come to the rescue in a mystery/action adventure story. And even music director Ayaka Kinugawa, supplying live piano accompaniment, gets in on the act!

Tita Jokes is jam-packed with love, family, community and Tita power—and loaded with LOLs and ‘Now you know’ moments.

Tita Jokes continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until January 19. You have a few more chances to catch the show during this Next Stage run; check the show page for exact dates, times and advance ticket purchase. Yesterday’s show was so packed, they had to open the balcony—so advance booking is strongly recommended.

A gripping contemporary take on a classic in the powerful, chilling, resonant Julius Caesar

Dion Johnstone & Moya O’Connell. Set & lighting design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Ming Wong. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Groundling Theatre Company joins forces with Crow’s Theatre to present a chilling modern-day take on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, directed by Chris Abraham, assisted by Rouvan Silogix, with additional writing by Zack Russell. Grippingly staged and brilliantly performed, this is a Julius Caesar unlike any you’ve ever seen before. The compelling spectacle of power, ambition and resistance opened at Streetcar Crowsnest last night.

Populist Caesar (Jim Mezon) has defeated rival Pompey and returns to Rome in triumph, greeted by throngs of adoring citizens, who—seeing him as a man of the people—celebrate his victory as their own. His closest friends and colleagues are troubled, though; and fear his thirst for power and inability to take good counsel will turn him tyrant as a large proportion of their countrymen thrust a crown upon him. In secret, Cassius (Moya O’Connell) approaches Caesar’s friend Brutus (Dion Johnstone) with an extreme solution. They are joined by like-minded fellow politicos (Sarah Afful, Walter Borden, Ryan Cunningham, Jani Lauzon, Diego Matamoros and André Sills) and the conspiracy is set. At home, Brutus’s ill and worried wife Portia (Michelle Giroux) reaches out to her distant husband for connection; a stranger even to himself, and conflicted and distracted by the wrong he must do for good, Brutus rebuffs her.

Warned by a Soothsayer (Borden) to beware the Ides of March, and entreated by his wife Calpurnia (Afful) to stay home that day, Caesar eschews advice and appears in the Senate chamber—and the conspirators hit their mark. Caesar’s golden boy Mark Antony (Graham Abbey) is spared at Brutus’s order, a decision that proves deadly as the underestimated and vengeful Antony, while not adept at reading people, excels at riling up a crowd. In a brilliantly heartfelt speech at Caesar’s funeral, Antony makes thinly veiled accusations directed at Brutus and his friends.

Civil war ensues, with Antony allying with Caesar’s heir Octavius (Afful) against Brutus, Cassius and their rebel army. Tragedy upon tragedy tries already exhausted spirits among the rebels, and things go badly for them. But Octavius is magnanimous in victory, recognizing that Brutus was a great man who loved and sacrificed for Rome.

Each and every performance is present, compelling and nuanced. Mezon gives a cool, sly, entitled edge to Caesar; more of a slick politician than a warrior, Caesar knows exactly what to say to win over the common man, whether he means it or not. Johnstone brings a gentle calmness to the fair-minded thinker Brutus; he is nicely complemented by O’Connell’s hot-tempered, manipulative and laser-focused warrior Cassius. Abbey’s Antony is a shrewd performer beneath the boyish jock charm, making Antony’s sharp power to persuade easily overlooked.

The remainder of the cast performs multiple roles, adeptly shifting in tone and character throughout. Afful’s loving, earnest Calpurnia and swaggering young warrior Octavius; Borden’s eerie, voice-modulate Soothsayer and dignified elder statesman; Cunningham’s impassioned young soldier Felix, a big fan of Caesar; Lauzon’s intrepid Trebonius and beautiful mourning vocals at the funeral; Matamoros’s stalwart servant and wry politician; and Sills’ irreverent, edgy Casca and skeptical radio show co-host.

The action is well-supported by the design team: Lorenzo Savoini’s startling set and lighting design; Ming Wong’s present-day costumes, shifting from the suits of politics to the fatigues of soldiers; and Thomas Ryder Payne’s evocative sound design, transporting us from the cheering crowds of Rome to the horrific sounds of destruction in war—and featuring some moving vocal and acoustic moments.

Nicely bookended with a contemporary talk radio show at the top and a post-mortem interview regarding individual regrets at the end, this production of Julius Caesar is firmly rooted in the present, with historical events held up as a mirror to modern-day leadership. It’s hard not to draw a direct line to the despotic leaders we see on the world stage today—but as director Abraham’s program notes astutely mention, rather than take this as an indictment of individual leaders, we may want to broaden our gaze to include the political systems and societies that make the raising up of such men possible.

We all know how it starts and how it ends. What’s interesting is the meat in the middle, how it gets interpreted and how it resonates today. You may have seen this play before, but never like this. Go see it.

Julius Caesar continues at Streetcar Crowsnest in the Guloien Theatre until February 2; advance tickets available online. Advance booking recommended, as this is already a hot ticket.

#MeToo from the other side in the sharply funny, provocative Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes

Alice Snaden & Matthew Edison. Set & costume design by Michael Gianfrancesco. Lighting design by Bonnie Beecher. Photo by Joy von Tiedemann.

 

Tarragon Theatre kicks off the New Year with the premiere of Hannah Moscovitch’s sharply funny, provocative #MeToo look at a student/professor affair in Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, directed by Sarah Garton Stanley, assisted by Eva Barrie. A famous 40-something author and popular professor, grappling with writer’s block and a crumbling marriage, would rather not have the lovely, smart girl in the red coat standing so close to him—but he is irresistibly drawn to her despite the personal and professional ramifications. Questions of the nature of consent, power dynamic, and mixing up admiration and love, come into play as we witness the evolution of the relationship over time.

Jon (Matthew Edison) is a 40-something author and professor. Both famous for his writing and popular among students, he’s feeling out of sorts as he struggles with writer’s block on his current novel, and navigates separation and impending divorce from his third wife. Enter the bright and attractive first-year student Annie (Alice Snaden), who is a big fan. And she lives across the street from him.

Despite his scoffing at youthful sexuality and the middle-aged men who are attracted to it, and his initial discomfort at Annie’s attentions, Jon’s personal and professional resolve melt in the face of his hot mess of a life and a longing to get close to this fascinating young woman who appears to be coming on to him.

The “love story” is narrated by Jon, who speaks about himself in the third person and punctuates events with editorial comments that both admit and rationalize his actions. In this way, the narrative—presented from Jon’s point of view and coupled with surtitles that read like pointed chapter headings (video design by Laura Warren)—takes on the feel of a novel, written from a man’s point of view and ultimately relegating the female character to a roughly drawn, vague love interest. Despite his awareness of the sloppy, dismissive effect this has on writing, Jon proceeds to live this dynamic with Annie.

A few years after the end of the affair, Annie brings forward a perspective that questions the consensual nature of that relationship—given the age difference and power imbalance. As more years pass, Annie finds some closure as she examines their relationship from his point of view.

Razor-sharp, nuanced performances from Edison and Snaden in this thoughtful, provocative and funny two-hander; nicely complemented by Michael Gianfrancesco’s perspectival set of multiple doors, and Bonnie Beecher’s lighting design, adding a luminous sense of discovery and mystery. Edison gives Jon a genuine combination of cockiness and self-consciousness; above all the student drama, sex and stupidity, but wondering if he can still be cool and relate to them, Jon fears becoming a stereotypical middle-aged man who chases after younger women as much as he eschews the behaviour. Using the stresses of his mess of a life to rationalize his affair with Annie, Jon believes she’s coming on to him and that he’s really falling for her—and that makes it alright. Snaden brings an ethereal, wise child edge to Annie; wide-eyed, smart and a brilliant writer in her own right, Annie longs for acceptance, acknowledgment and a sense of identity. Despite Annie’s attention and attraction to Jon, and that she was of legal age, she realizes that she was still the student and he was still her professor.

Jon was in a position of power and could’ve stopped the affair from happening, but didn’t—and what Annie needed wasn’t a lover, but a mentor. In the end, it looks like they both mistook admiration for love. And the middle class isn’t as “nice” as some would expect.

Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes continues in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace until February 2; advance tickets available online. This premiere is bound to provoke questions and discussions—get out to see it and get in on the conversation.

 

A journey to medieval Russia in the delightfully charming, playful Tea at the Palace

Ann Powell and David Powell. Designed & created by Ann Powell and David Powell. Lighting design by Kevin Hutson. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Puppetmongers Theatre takes us to medieval Russia with a combination of old Russian tales in the delightfully charming, playful Tea at the Palace. Co-created, designed and performed by Puppetmongers’ Co-Artistic Directors, brother and sister David and Ann Powell, and co-created and directed by Sharon Weisbaum, we’re invited on a journey that ranges from the Tsar’s palace to the farmhouses of his subjects as a newly ascended Prince proves his mettle as ruler, providing judgements and finding a wife. Celebrating its 30th anniversary of holiday shows, Puppetmongers presents Tea at the Palace for a short run in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace.

When a young Prince ascends the throne, his people wonder what kind of Tsar he’ll make. He soon finds himself passing judgement on a farmer who’s unearthed a samovar in his field. Informed upon by a nosey, grouchy neighbour, the farmer is accused of believing himself to be equal to the Tsar; and the Prince soon finds they have more in common than one would think. And when the same grouchy man contests the ownership of an apple tree, which his widow neighbour says is hers, the widow’s young daughter impresses with her riddle-solving skills, resolving the dispute.

Tea@thePalace2019-photobyDahliaKatz-8604
David Powell and Ann Powell. Designed & created by Ann Powell and David Powell. Lighting design by Kevin Hutson. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Despite the concerns and disapproval of his court, and breaking with tradition, the Prince chooses the clever young peasant woman to be his wife—and, once again, she must solve three seemingly impossible riddles to prove herself worthy. But can she manage the scheming courtiers who disapprove of the match and want to separate her from the Prince?

The Powells magically whisk us away to a world of tradition, ritual and ceremony—where even the making of tea has a set, proper procedure. Using beautiful, cleverly designed puppets and props, ranging from miniature to life-sized—and multipurpose, folding set pieces that reveal miniature pop-up environments—the storytelling is wondrous, entertaining and instructive; and the performances are playful and entertaining.

Despite the pomp, ceremony and entitlement of his upbringing, the young Prince proves himself to be a fair-minded, egalitarian ruler who judges people based on actions over social status. Audience members of all ages will delight in the beautifully crafted, imaginative and fun storytelling artistry of this tale.

Tea at the Palace continues in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace until December 29; matinées run today (Saturday, December 28) and Sunday, December 29 at 2:30 pm; and there’s an evening performances tonight (Saturday, December 28) at 7 pm. Advance tickets available online, except for the Family Pack, which is only available by phone or in person: 416-531-1827 (Mon from 10am-5pm, Tues-Sat from 10am-7pm, Sun from 11am-1pm). It’s a very short run, so catch it while you can.

Top 10 Theatre 2019

It’s that time of the year again. Here are my top 10 theatre productions for 2019, in alphabetical order (based on Toronto productions I reviewed this calendar year):

Athabasca. Convergence Theatre

Between Riverside and Crazy. Coal Mine Theatre

The Black Drum. Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf and Deaf Cultural Centre

The Flick. Outside the March

The Huns. One Four One Collective

Night Feed. Canvas Sky Theatre

Pass Over. Obsidian Theatre

Rose. Soulpepper

White Heat. Pressgang Theatre

The Winter’s Tale. Shakespeare in the Ruff

 

Honourable Mention

Actually. The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, in association with Obsidian Theatre

Election. Common Boots Theatre, in association with Nightwood Theatre and Theatre Direct

Every Day She Rose. Nightwood Theatre

Intangible Adorations. Haus of Dada, Workman Arts, KC Cooper and Meek

The Learned Ladies. George Brown Theatre School

Othello. Shakespeare BASH’d