Outrageously fun, horrific good times in Space Opera Zero!

Clockwise, from top left: Eric Woolfe, Lisa Norton & Mairi Babb. Set & costume design by Melanie McNeill, assisted by Emily Butters. Lighting design by Michael Brunet. Photo by producer Adrianna Prosser.

 

Eldritch Theatre returns with more outrageously fun, horrific good times with Space Opera Zero, written by Eric Woolfe and directed by Dylan Trowbridge. Based on Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean tragedy The Changeling, Space Opera Zero! is a space horror erotic macabredy that combines poetic language, a B-movie/pulp fiction sensibility, feats of prestidigitation, 30s slang, mask and puppetry, operatic tragedy and a lesbian/alien love triangle. Space Opera Zero! opened on Friday at Red Sandcastle Theatre; I caught it last night, in an enthusiastic, sold out house.

Our story begins in 1930s America, where intrepid lesbian pilot Emily Trueheart (Lisa Norton) and mad scientist Hjalmar Pomeranki (Eric Woolfe) set off—in a space ship Pomeranki designed—on a mission where no man has gone before. Forced off course, they land on a strange faraway planet, where Emily rescues Princess Jenora (Mairi Babb) from certain death in the jaws of a vicious alien creature—and the two fall instantly in love.

Things are peachy keen until the Princess’s father, the Emperor (puppet, Woolfe), orders her to marry a fearsome tentacled alien (Norton) for the sake and safety of their planet. And while the Princess makes an unsavoury deal with the Emperor’s servant Doggo the Mutant (Woolfe) to get out of the marriage so she can be with Emily, Pomeranki is hatching an apocalyptic plan of his own back at the space ship. Caught in a web of lies and deceit, things go from bad to worse for the Princess; desperate to have things go her way, she enlists the aid of her maid/sex robot Ro-Berta (puppet, Woolfe) to distract Emily.

Will true love find a way in this faraway universe—and will there be any universe left to make sweet nookie in?

Big-time LOLs, twists and turns, and surprises from this engaging, energetic, uber-talented cast. Norton’s Emily Trueheart is the definition of moxie, combined with old-fashioned romantic; taking names and no guff (especially from men), Emily is a pioneer and explorer with the guts of a warrior and the heart of a poet. Woolfe does a stand-out job, juggling multiple hilarious and poignant characters, utilizing mask and puppetry. Notably the verbose mad scientist Hjalmar Pomeranki, who seems a nice enough fellow but has a dark purpose in mind; the reviled, put-upon servant Doggo the Mutant; and the loyal, sex-curious robot Ro-Berta. Babb gives the lovely Princess Jenora a slinky, femme fatale edge; driven to extreme measures to achieve her heart’s—and loins’—desire, the Princess risks painting herself into a corner.

With shouts to the outstanding interstellar design team: Melanie McNeill, assisted by Emily Butters (set and costumes), Michael Brunet (lighting) and Christopher Stanton (sound). And to stage manager Sandi Becker, for keeping it all running smoothly and showing us how to navigate our way through the set to access the washroom.

Space Opera Zero! continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre until December 2; advance tickets available online. It’s an intimate space with limited seating, and a super popular company getting great buzz, so advance booking strongly recommended.

Check out the cool trailer:

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Toronto Fringe: Resilience against all odds in the defiant, poignant, hopeful The Pansy Craze: A New Musical

In a time when “transgender” wasn’t a word and homosexuality was illegal, a trans woman refuses to be invisible and shines on the vaudeville stage in Next Stop Productions’ The Pansy Craze. With book, music and lyrics by Avery Jean Brennan, and directed by Dustin George, with music direction by Brennan, the new musical is running at the Randolph Theatre during the Toronto Fringe festival.

The Pansy Craze takes us to 1930s America, behind the scenes of underground vaudeville venues—speakeasies, where booze wasn’t the only prohibited item on the menu. In a bid to out-do the competition, these establishments boasted titillating shows, putting queer performers on the bill to entice customers. When star actress Helen (Stephanie Hood)—recently and conveniently married to Charlie (Shaquille Pottinger) so they can be a husband and wife act—sprains her ankle, closeted Emcee Duncan (Eric McDace, alternate for Teddy Moynihan) decides to put Jeanie (Devin Herbert), who is a transgender woman, into the act. The group has a huge opportunity at an upscale Manhattan place run by Gladys (Kira Renee) and unofficially overseen by Tom (Sansom Marchand), a cop who turns a blind eye to the illegal goings-on so he can have a place to drink. Gladys also has connections with famous vaudeville impresario Norbert (Peter Mundell).

Jeanie, a talented songwriter/performer, illuminates the stage with panache and heartbreaking torch songs. “Pansies”, as the queer performers are called, are okay with establishment managers, so long as they entertain and bring in customers—but Tom isn’t so happy about turning a blind eye to this particular bending of the law, particularly Jeanie, who doesn’t blend in onstage or off. Complicated relationships emerge within the company, with more drama occurring in the wings than onstage at times.

When prohibition is lifted, booze comes out of the closet, but queer performers are no longer welcome—now that these vaudeville houses are above ground, they can’t risk running afoul of the law and losing customers. Refusing to be closeted or forced into a “normal” life as a man, Jeanie sets her sights on continuing her career, and she and Charlie get audition spots for Norbert’s show. And when tragedy strikes this tight-knit group, Charlie finds himself with a life-altering decision to make.

There’s high-energy hoofing and singing from an entertaining cast. Herbert is a clear stand-out as Jeanie; lighting up the stage, they shine in a charismatic performance, full of style, sass and impressive vocal chops that can belt out a tune or break a heart. Lovely scenes and duet with Pottinger, who gives a nicely layered performance as Charlie, a talented and conflicted young man who’s forced to confront his own heart, inspired in part by Jeanie’s chutzpah. “So What if I’m a Pansy” becomes a defiant and touching anthem—for LGBTQ folks and anyone struggling to be themselves.

The Pansy Craze continues at the Randolph until July 15; check the show page for exact dates/times.

StageWorks Toronto’s Cabaret: Sexy, powerful and boldly staged with a sharp ensemble

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Toshi Murohashi, Jean-Paul Parker & Rachel Hart in Cabaret – photo by Michael Yaneff, Foreshots Photography

Berlin in the early 1930s: a city teaming with life, creativity and possibility. The Kit Kat Klub: a seedy palace of edgy, playful and raunchy entertainment. And a political storm is brewing that will change everything.

StageWorks Toronto opened its fifth musical, Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret (book by Joe Masteroff, based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood), at the George Ignatieff Theatre last night.

Directed by Michael Yaneff, with Music Director Tom Kerr and Choreographer Camille Dziewurski, this production of Cabaret plays all the conflicting dimensions of this story: love and lust, fame and mediocrity, hope and despair. It is both funny and moving, going from entertaining to disturbing – but even the brighter moments have a dark edge.

An excellent, energetic cast does the playful raunch with gusto – and all the while, we know these characters are literally singing and dancing, and sexing, for their lives. The lighter, entertaining atmosphere of the first act grows increasingly foreboding as darkness descends in the second act when the Nazi Party gets a grip on Germany – and this place of song, dance and camaraderie becomes a place of tears, desperation and betrayal. This production goes big on the seedy lust and malevolent politics in its staging, so be prepared for some nudity, sexy times and discomfiting moments.

Shai Tannyan & Hugh Ritchie in Cabaret - photo by Michael Yaneff, Foreshots Photography
Shai Tannyan & Hugh Ritchie in Cabaret – photo by Michael Yaneff, Foreshots Photography

Jean-Paul Parker shines as the Emcee, going from playfully saucy in “Wilkommen” and naughty in “Two Ladies” to darkly edgy in “The Money Song” and drunkenly despairing in “I Don’t Care Much.” Shai Tannyan’s Sally Bowles is a vivacious and sensuous British girl gone wild in her search for fame and fortune on her own terms, her flippant attitude covering a fragile heart. From her sexy crooning at the Kit Kat, to her more introspective moments in the driven but vulnerable “Maybe this Time” and the spiralling desperation of “Cabaret,” Tannyan finds the diva entertainer and the lost girl in Sally. As Cliff Bradshaw, Hugh Ritchie doesn’t get as many opportunities to sing as he did as the Balladeer in StageWorks’ Assassins, but he gives a strong performance as the wide-eyed, passionate and somewhat naïve young novelist who comes to Berlin longing for adventure and excitement, and experience – be careful what you wish for.

Deva Neely and Buck Delaney have lovely chemistry as landlady Fraulein Schneider and her fruit seller tenant Herr Schultz, making an adorable couple with “It Couldn’t Please Me More;” and when their relationship goes off the rails, Neely gives a heartbreaking performance with “What Would You Do?” And really nice work from Eric Synnott as the affable, mysterious and crisp Ernst Ludwig, and Melly Magrath as the cheeky and opportunistic Fraulein Kost.

With shouts to the sexy fun talents of the Kit Kat Boys and Girls: Michael Manning (who stepped in to cover another part last night – thoughts go out to Paul Silvestri and his family) and Danik McAfee (who, as the Soldier, also gives an eerily beautiful, foreshadowing performance of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”), Emily Brown, Kathleen Doerkson, Karen Frank, Rachel Hart, Toshie Murohashi and Émilie O’Brien; and Lawrence Stevenson as their stern and lascivious boss, Kit Kat owner Max.

And shouts as well to set/costume designer Michelle Tracey and the orchestra.

StageWorks Toronto’s Cabaret is sexy, powerful and boldly staged – featuring a sharp ensemble.

Cabaret runs at the George Ignatieff Theatre until July 26; you can purchase tix in advance online. And you can follow StageWorks Toronto on Facebook and Twitter.