Literary family snapshots told with unflinching candor & wry humour in Pamela Williams’ Evelyn’s Stories

Cover photo of Evelyn by Pamela Williams.

 

I had the pleasure of attending the launch of Pamela Williams’ new book Evelyn’s Stories at a reading to a packed room on Sunday at the Tranzac Club. Known mostly for her beautiful, haunting black and white photographs of cemetery sculpture, Williams has assembled a collection of brief stories, as told to her by her mother Evelyn—and some handed down to Evelyn by her mother—in a series of short vignettes. Evelyn’s Stories are literary snapshots of family across time and space, ranging from 1900s Glasgow, to 1930s Thornbury and into the 1970s and beyond.

Told with unflinching candor, sharp detail and wry humour, Evelyn’s Stories is a window on moments of personal history and experience; inviting us for brief peeks (the stories are postcard-sized or slightly longer) inside the world of Williams’ family, as told to her by her mother, and to her mother by her grandmother.

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Pamela Williams reads at the launch of Evelyn’s Stories

It’s family biography as comedy and drama, with eyebrow-raising tales of marriage and infidelity (“When Hector Married Stella” and “Keep Toby Out, England, 1907”); charming and funny childhood shenanigans and observations (“Bathtub Visitor” and “Divorce”); memories of brutal and sweet elementary school teachers (“Mrs. Pinch” and “Miss Chalk’s Replacement”); tragic loss (“New Spectacles, Glasgow, 1906”); hilarious social interactions (“That’s Why I Asked You” and “At the Cinema”); and harrowing but comical senior driving mishaps (“Two Motorcycles” and “A Ride on the Wild Side”).

As the family tales shift from poignant, to comic, to tragic, to saucy, Evelyn’s Stories captures the heart, lives, loves and experiences of generations of family who crossed the ocean from Glasgow, Scotland to settle in rural/small-town Ontario, Canada.

Check out Williams’ book collection online, including her photography books; order via email.

 

 

Love, marriage, friendship & infidelity in the intensely intimate, brilliantly executed Betrayal

Virgilia Griffith & Ryan Hollyman. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper rounds out its summer programming with its intensely intimate, brilliantly executed production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, directed by Andrea Donaldson and running at the Young Centre. A compelling look at intricate, overlapping webs of lies and deceit, it’s a fascinating look at the dynamics of love and infidelity between a husband and wife, and the husband’s best friend—and the subsequent impact on the marriage, the friendship and the affair itself. Told in reverse chronology, we start with a meeting two years after the affair has ended and go back in time to finish at the moment it was initiated.

When we first see Emma (Virgilia Griffith) and Robert (Ryan Hollyman), they’re meeting for a drink two years after the end of their affair. Robert, also married with children, is the best friend of Emma’s husband Robert (Jordan Pettle). What follows is a brief history of the relationship, shifting from this somewhat awkward meeting, to the break-up, to the revelation, and back through the pseudo-domestic bliss of afternoons spent at their furnished apartment oasis, to the moment the affair starts. We also see Robert and Jerry spending time together, including their favourite Italian restaurant, where they’re served by a waiter who clearly knows them as regulars (Paolo Santalucia, delightfully familiar with an edge of attitude). Questions of who knew what and when are revealed, concealed and lied about throughout, with selective candour emerging at pivotal moments—by chance or on purpose?

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Ryan Hollyman & Jordan Pettle. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Stunning performances all around in this tight, sharply drawn Pinter favourite. The three main characters are very smart—both culturally and intellectually—and, coupled with the fact that they’re all professionals in the British arts and culture scene, the cool, polite and cerebral nature of their banter-filled interactions belies the fiery, devil-may-care, primal passions within—and the accompanying loneliness and ennui that lead them astray. Griffith brings a self-possessed air of confidence to independent and enigmatic Emma; the most pragmatic and level-headed of the affair pairing, Emma’s participation seems to come more from a place of loneliness than passion. Hollyman’s Jerry is an affable combination of wit, enthusiasm and cluelessness; a man with a “talent for finding talent”, Jerry pursues Emma with the lyrical passion of a university freshman—then gets upset when he learns that his best friend knows he’s been having it off with his wife. This hypocrisy extends to Robert, played with cool, poker-faced detachment by Jordan Pettle; with razor-like precision, Robert reveals little and conceals much—and has been having affairs himself, possibly out of a sense of marital ennui.

Starting in 1977 and ending in 1968, the brilliant reverse chronological structure not only acts as a compelling rewind on the relationships, but serves as hindsight wisdom. The finely-tuned energy and pacing of the performances create the feeling of a fire gone out at the beginning, to a dying ember, to a spark at the beginning—a spark that, one imagines, has emerged from the dying embers of the two marriages. It is a thrilling, guilty pleasure to witness; and the up-close-and-personal intimacy of the piece makes the audience feel complicit in the cheating. And the outstanding efforts of the design team transport us to both time and place with impeccable attention to detail and flare: the teak furniture and print designs of Ken MacKenzie’s set and costumes; the enjoyable mix of late 60s and 70s music for the pre-show, and gripping original soundtrack from sound designer/composer Richard Feren; and Rebecca Picherack’s sharp, focused and atmospheric lighting design.

Betrayal continues at the Young Centre until September 25, the run was extended due to popular demand; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. This is an extremely popular production, with a packed house on a Tuesday night, so advance booking is strongly recommended.

ICYMI: Jordy Kieto interviews director Andrea Donaldson about the production in Intermission Magazine.

Department of Corrections: In the original posting, I neglected to mention actor Paolo Santalucia’ performance as the Waiter; this has been corrected.

Nostalgia meets the ghosts of memory in the funny, poignant, authentically human New Magic Valley Fun Town

Caroline Gillis, Andrew Moodie, Daniel MacIvor & Stephanie MacDonald. Set design by Brian Perchaluk. Costume design by Brenda McLean. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Prairie Theatre Exchange and Tarragon Theatre join forces to present the Toronto premiere of Daniel MacIvor’s New Magic Valley Fun Town, directed by Richard Rose, assisted by Audrey Dwyer; opening last night in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace. Equal parts funny and poignant, it’s an authentically human story of nostalgia and ghosts of the past as the kitchen party reunion between two childhood friends reveals some unwelcome memories.

In small-town Nova Scotia, cancer survivor Dougie (Daniel MacIvor) lives in a spotless double-wide trailer, separated from his wife Cheryl (Caroline Gillis), who’s stayed in their family home in town. Their young adult daughter Sandy (Stephanie MacDonald) is on a break from her English lit thesis to manage some mental health issues. Dougie is anxiously awaiting the arrival of Allen (Andrew Moodie), a friend from childhood and one of the few Black residents of the town back in the day, who moved on to become an English professor at U of T.

Dougie and Allen haven’t seen each other for 35 years, and their reunion—initially rife with awkward excitement, vintage music, drinking and dancing—takes a dark turn as painful, secret memories emerge. Dougie is dealing with his sense of mortality and Allen needs to get something off his chest; and lifelong feelings of deep-seated anger, shame and longing bubble to the surface.

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Daniel MacIvor & Andrew Moodie. Set design by Brian Perchaluk. Costume design by Brenda McLean. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Beautiful performances from this ensemble, enacting a marathon of emotional experience and responses. MacIvor is a compelling, high-energy presence as the tightly wound Dougie; obsessively neat and wanting things to be perfect for Allen, Dougie appears to have channelled his nervous energy into preparations for the visit—but we learn that this behaviour pre-dates his cancer diagnosis, going back to adolescence. Moodie’s calm, introspective Allen is equally gripping; perfectly complementing the frenetic Dougie, the emotionally contained Allen is bursting with the buried feelings of distant, disturbing memories—memories that are excavated and brought to the surface during this fateful visit, and intersect with his experience of being Black in a small town.

Gillis is loveably quirky and as the cheerful, attentive Cheryl; a protective wife and mother who’s at a loss as to how to help her husband and daughter, her positive demeanour masks the pain within, and she finds solace and community in the local Catholic church. MacDonald gives a hilariously playful, irreverent and sweetly poignant performance as Sandy; a post-grad student with the heart of a poet, Sandy is navigating her own illness, even as she continues to reach out to connect with her ailing father.

The classic 70s vintage vibe of Brian Perchaluk’s set design and Don Benedictson’s original music and sound design (those of a certain age were singing along with the pre-show tunes) combine nicely with Brenda McLean’s modern-day costume design, and the realism and cathartic magic of Kim Purtell’s lighting.

Each of these characters is reaching out for connection from a place of profound aloneness. And, while the deeper meaning of the titular amusement park of childhood memory is revealed—not new, magic, a valley, fun or a town—there’s strength and resilience in the present, and hope for the future, as these characters move towards light and closure.

New Magic Valley Fun Town continues in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace until March 31; get advance tickets online or contact the box office at 416-531-1827.

Three tales of crime, corruption & twisting schemes in Sex T-Rex’s hilarious, immersive Crime After Crime (After Crime)

Julian Frid, Kaitlin Morrow, Seann Murray & Conor Bradbury. Photo by Connor Low, with graphic design by Jon Blair.

 

Sex T-Rex presents the Toronto premiere of the hilarious immersive comedy Crime After Crime (After Crime), in partnership with West Neighbourhood House, as they take us into the underground world of a warehouse speakeasy for tales of crime and intrigue; on for a very short run this week at 165 Geary Ave., Unit 2. Highlighting some favourite crime movie genre themes, Sex T-Rex takes us from 1950s film noir, to 1970s heist, to 1990s buddy picture—all stamped with their signature brand of playfully staged action, imaginative use of props and costumes, and big-time satirical fun.

Created and performed by Conor Bradbury, Julian Frid, Kaitlin Morrow and Seann Murray, the intrepid Sex T-Rex ensemble plays out three interconnected stories of crime, corruption and schemes; full of surprising twists and turns, double crosses and sexy fun times as gum shoes, criminals and cops rumble in Crime City.

In 1952, private eye Nick Beige (Frid) gets way more than he bargained for when a lovely damsel in distress arrives on his door step looking for help; twin sisters, family machinations and a dangerous search for a hidden treasure ensue. In 1972, Diamond Stone (Morrow) puts together a highly skilled team to pull off a big heist at the Crime City casino; only things don’t go exactly as planned, forcing the intrepid team to improvise their way out of some intense—not to mention sexy—situations. Jumping to 1992, loose cannon detective partners Order and Law (Bradbury and Murray) find themselves out in the cold when they bust the last criminal in Crime City, prompting the Mayor to shut down the city’s police force and legal system; no longer cops, but suspecting that something hinky is afoot, they’re determined to find out what’s going on—and learn that the underlying scheme reaches farther than they ever could have imagined.

Alluring shady ladies; hunky devil-may-care dudes; gripping chases, fights and daring deeds (plus groovy wigs!)—I guarantee your smile muscles will be aching (in a good way) the next day. With shouts to producer Alex Dault, stage manager Kyah Green, partner Connor Low and publicist Victoria Laberge for their work on this big fun, immersive show, staged in a really cool space.

Crime After Crime (After Crime) continues at 165 Geary Ave., Unit 2 (between Dovercourt and Dufferin) until February 24; show time details and advance tickets available online and strongly recommended. Some performances are sold out, but you can take your chances at the door. Doors open an hour before curtain time; bring cash for drinks, games and Sex T-Rex merch, as the onsite ATM is on the fritz. Try your hand at some casino games, enter for prizes and stick around for the nightly dance party after the show.

 

The impact of stories drawn from love & memory in TPM’s genuine, funny, haunting The Drawer Boy

Andrew Moodie, Craig Lauzon & Graham Conway. Set and costume design by Joanna Yu. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay. Photo by Michael Cooper.
Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) opened its remount of Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy, directed by Factory Theatre AD Nina Lee Aquino, assisted by Cole Alvis, to a sold out house last night. Originally produced by TPM in 1999, Healey’s beloved hit returns to the TPM stage as the theatre celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Set in the early 70s in Southern Ontario, The Drawer Boy hearkens back to another famous TPM production: The Farm Show, created by Paul Thompson and a collective of artists who went down to live and work with area farmers as they created a play about the place and its people. Miles (Graham Conway) is one of these young Toronto actors, and he nervously arrives on the doorstep of Morgan (Andrew Moodie) and Angus’s (Craig Lauzon) farm house, looking for a place to stay, work and learn about farming so he can contribute to the writing and performance of the play.

An odd yet complementary couple of middle-aged bachelors, Morgan and Angus have been friends since childhood, serving together in WWII, finding wives in England and returning to their hometown to set up a farm together. The truly remarkable thing about their relationship is the organic dynamic of Morgan acting as Angus’s memory. Now living with an Acquired Brain Injury after surviving a shell explosion in London, Angus now lives entirely in the present, his memory a sieve; but he’s a wizard with numbers and takes care of the farm’s accounting. Morgan uses stories to remind Angus of their shared past: he is the Farmer and Angus is the Drawer Boy, and they met and fell in love with two tall English girls.

As hard as Miles struggles with farm work, including some hilarious mishaps with equipment and an eye-opening experience spending time with livestock (resulting in a gut-busting impression of a frightened cow), he struggles even harder to write stories for the play. Until he overhears Morgan telling Angus their life story—and he’s struck theatrical gold. When the two farmers attend an invited rehearsal, though, the reactions are markedly different: Angus is delighted and Morgan is infuriated.

Terrified of not having something good to contribute to the play and fearing he’ll be cut from the collective, Miles’ drive and ambition to get a good story puts him in the position of becoming the unwitting catalyst for, and witness to, emerging memories and revised storytelling for Morgan and Angus. Their shared story is not as fairy tale as Morgan originally painted. And the impact of the true story is both revelatory and devastating; highlighting how the choices we make as we create our own life stories touch the lives of others, particularly the ones we love the most, in positive and negative ways.

Lovely, nuanced work from these three actors in this moving, haunting and revealing tale of love, memory and the impact of the stories people tell. Lauzon brings a delightfully child-like sense of wonder to the star counting math wizard Angus; and yet there’s also a troubled, lost quality about Angus as he paces around the house, searching for something he can’t remember. Moodie is both lovable and intimidating as the gruff Morgan; a matter-of-fact man’s man who suffers no fools, there’s a broken-hearted, gentle soul beneath Morgan’s gruff exterior. Extremely patient and caring with Angus, a man of few words becomes a magical storytelling memory maker for his friend, who he clearly loves dearly. And while city boy actor Miles could easily become a clueless caricature, Conway gives him a sharp, desperate sense of ambition and a hilariously satirical edge. And though we may be skeptical about how genuine Miles is in his desire to connect with this world and these people, there’s no doubt that he comes to feel the full impact of the devastating truths he’s unleashed.

With big shouts to the design team, for their beautiful, evocative work: Joanna Yu, whose set combines realism and abstraction, with expressive charcoal drawing flats hanging above and around the vintage farmhouse kitchen and porch; and costume design perfectly suiting the working farm men and the clueless young city boy, who arrives to work in cut-offs, polo shirt and runners. And to Michelle Ramsay’s magical lighting design; and Michelle Bensimon’s timely and haunting sound design and composition.

The Drawer Boy continues in the TPM Mainspace until March 25; get advance tickets online or by calling the box office at: 416-504-7529.

SummerWorks: Hilarious, haunting & high-brow good times in An Evening in July

Briana Templeton & Gwynne Phillips in An Evening in July
Briana Templeton & Gwynne Phillips in An Evening in July

I first saw the Templeton Philharmonic earlier this year in their Toronto Fringe Next Stage Festival production of Unbridled and Unstable. Whip smart and funny, with a talent for vintage characterizations and dialect – it was love at first sight.

The darlings of the Templeton Philharmonic are back, this time with their SummerWorks production of An Evening in July, currently running at St. George the Martyr Anglican Church (197 John St.). I saw the show yesterday – on an afternoon in August.

Inspired by the famous Grey Gardens documentary and Helene de Rothschild’s Surrealist Ball (1972), An Evening in July is a site-specific, immersive theatrical experience, during which the audience is invited to wander the garden courtyard and inside the estate home’s great room (the church hall, transformed), where one may purchase a drink from the cash bar before the show starts. The courtyard is rife with strange and beautiful objets – and we are invited to examine, and even touch, them. We are, however, forbidden to touch the ancient tower with the blue door at the end of the garden. The great room has been set up with banquet tables, covered with cast aside books, including a guest book. On the wall, there’s an old damaged painting of a man that looks as if someone’s put a fist to him.

Sisters May (Briana Templeton) and June (Gwynne Phillips) are a pair of exceedingly privileged and bored socialites, kicking around their crumbling and isolated family estate, with only their man servant Robert (Thom Stoneman) to look after them. Suddenly, an idea! Throw a birthday party for June! And everyone’s invited. Not entirely certain of when that is, they randomly choose an evening in July – like so many other random choices and decisions.

We follow the sisters back and forth between the garden and the house as they plan the party and reminisce about times past, incorporating audience members into their descriptions of various friends and acquaintances. We watch them play a hilarious game of badminton, and once the party is in full swing, are invited to join in a game of cards, and a game of cat and mouse beneath a pink parachute held aloft by all and sundry. Yes – I said pink!

Stellar, hysterically funny and heart-achingly touching performances. As June, Phillips is flippant and bored, and on some new bizarre diet every week – but lonely and wistful, longing for the return of happier times. Templeton’s May is Kate Hepburnesque, with a haughty, critical air and wry wit; there is also a sense of deep melancholy beneath the rich girl good times. Even through their sniping and grumbling, these two sisters love each other a whole bunch. And Stoneman is lovely as the affable and helpful Robert, acting as the sisters’ caretaker and bartender, and the audience’s host and guide.

It’s hilarious, haunting and high-brow good times, where the wit is dry and the bar is wet in An Evening in July.

An Evening in July continues at St. George the Martyr until Aug 16 – see the show page for exact dates/times. Those with mobility issues may secure a permanent seat for the duration of the festivities from the extremely nice Robert.