Tea time at the end of the world in the surreal, intimate, unsettling Escaped Alone

Clockwise, from bottom left: Brenda Robins, Clare Coulter, Maria Vacratsis & Kyra Harper. Set & costume design by Teresa Przybylski. Lighting design by Jennifer Lennon. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper and Necessary Angel, with an all-female cast and production team, take us to the edge of calamity—in a suburban backyard where four 70-something neighbours chat over tea before the impending apocalypse—with the Canadian premiere of Caryl Churchill’s surreal, intimate and unsettling Escaped Alone, directed by Jennifer Tarver and running at the Young Centre.

Gathered in a backyard, Mrs. Jarrett (Clare Coulter), Vi (Brenda Robins), Lena (Kyra Harper) and Sally (Maria Vacratsis) share gossip, memories and catch up. There are children and grandchildren to update about, and changes to the landscape of local shops to recall and relay—especially for Vi, who’s been away for six years. And amidst the candid and intimate conversation, where one can finish another’s sentence and the short-hand is such that sentences sometimes don’t even need to be finished, each woman breaks out to share her inner world. Her fears, her regrets, her reminiscences.

It is in these moments that we see another side of these otherwise sociable, animated women. Mrs. Jarrett is a walking, talking 21st century Book of Revelations, in which the everyday and the terrifying combine in an absurd, horrific and dark-humoured alchemy. Vi, a hairdresser by trade, may or may not have killed her husband in self-defence; and, while Sally acknowledges the complexity of their situation, she has a different take on that fateful moment. Sally struggles with her own demons: her efficacy in her career as a health care professional and her fear of cats. And the sensitive Lena looks back on her life as an office worker with mixed feelings of vague, wistful regret and amazement at time flown by.

Told through a collage of conversation, memory, musings and peaks into these women’s interior lives, the mundanity and complexity of everyday life—juxtaposed with the absurdity of meeting over tea in the face of impending catastrophe—is both darkly funny and chilling. The uncertainty of what comes next—whether it’s impending calamity threatening the world at large or the aging mind in a life of transition—while these four women are gathered together in friendship, each faces her mortality alone.

Compelling, sharply drawn work from the ensemble, from Coulter’s grouchy, pragmatic Mrs. Jarrett; to Robins’ edgy, irreverent Vi; Harper’s nervous, child-like Lena; and Vacratsis’ earnest, uneasy Sally. Teresa Przybylski’s minimalist set combines four ordinary, but different, chairs with hundreds of white paper birds, frozen in murmuration, suspended above; and is nicely complemented by Verne Good’s understated, haunting sound design. The effect is magical, disturbing and ultimately theatrical.

Escaped Alone continues at the Young Centre until November 25. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Check out the production teaser:

And have a look at this great Intermission piece by actor Maria Vacratsis, as told to Bailey Green.

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Preview: June Cleaver goes to hell in hilariously dark, satirical & surreal Hot Kitchen/SECOND SHIFT

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Filament Incubator presents Raw Matter’s production of Hot Kitchen/SECOND SHIFT, written, directed, designed and performed by the Raw Matter ensemble, incorporating the writing of Sylvia Plath, Silvia Federici and Jean Genet. Opening tonight, I caught the preview at Kensington Hall (56A Kensington Ave., Toronto) last night.

When you arrive in the space, you’re immediately aware of all the pink. Up stage right is an enormous pile of laundry; stage left has a lush garden; and up centre is the kitchen, featuring a gas stove and counter. All very pink. Like old-school Barbie threw up all over that shit pink. Five women are already onstage, engaged in various household activities: laundry, baking, scrubbing the floor, beautification and gardening. The sound of a ticking clock. Loud. Merciless. Oh yeah, and there’s a baby doll on your chair; you’ll need that for one of the game shows later on.

Three of the women act as a chorus of house fairy-like beings; dressed in pale pink diaphanous dresses, their faces made up with shiny, metallic colours: Maybelline (Veronika Brylinska), Lysol (Alanna Dunlop) and Betty Crocker (Nicole De Angelis). They are the cheerleaders for traditional, old-school housewifery – the driving force in the nucleus of life, the home. In contrast, we see the growing frustration and irritation of M/Em (Daniela Pagliarello), who speaks with vivid, fierce poetry as she paces the garden like a caged animal. All the while, Powered by (Rebecca Hooton) works away at the laundry, seemingly oblivious to anything else.

This multi-media production draws on political, philosophical, technological and economic frames of reference in its presentation of various points of view on housekeeping, housewifery and womanhood. Throughout the hysterical absurdity of it all are some particularly entertaining and thought-provoking scenes: capitalism vs. communism in the Nixon/Khrushchev kitchen debates, featuring footage from that meetup; game shows, including one with group audience participation and another that sends up Let’s Make A Deal; and a beauty pageant – peppered throughout with variety show-style dance breaks. And things get really interesting when M/Em breaks free from her garden environment and bursts into the world of the house fairies, interrupting their delicate, light, “feminine” reverie. And far from being a passive entity on the sidelines, we see just how much this world relies on the efforts of Powered by.

Shouts to the Raw Matter ensemble for their incredible work on the writing, design and execution of this provocative and thoughtful piece. Brylinska brings a ferocious commitment to the otherwise superficial Maybelline; Dunlop’s Lysol is delightfully sassy; and De Angelis’s Betty Crocker is deliciously vacuous. As M/Em, Pagliarello is a housewife on the verge of a nervous breakdown, the lone voice of dissention that dares to challenge the Christian/capitalist status quo of housewifery. Hooton’s Powered by is silent, uncomplaining and diligent; and, ultimately, she shows us just how committed she is to – and how reliant the rest of the world is on – her work.

June Cleaver goes to hell in Raw Matter’s hilariously dark, satirical & surreal Hot Kitchen/SECOND SHIFT.

Hot Kitchen/SECOND SHIFT continues at Kensington Hall until October 1; it’s an intimate space, so you may want to book in advance. And don’t forget to throw the baby!

SummerWorks: Prairie Home Companion meets The Twilight Zone in hilariously absurd, satirical dystopia Plucked

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Banjo-playing rooster-man masterminds a fiendish scheme to amass great wealth by turning women into chickens and selling their chicken-lady eggs.

This is the bizarre world in which we find ourselves in Rachel Ganz’s Plucked, in its Newborn Theatre production directed by Carly Chamberlain; now running in the Theatre Centre Mainspace for SummerWorks.

Yep, we’re down on Jerry’s (Tim Walker) farm, where father-in-law Rooster (Tim Machin, doing double duty as music director) has hatched a plan to turn his daughter Abigail (Sochi Fried) and granddaughter Fourteen (Qianna MacGilchrist) into chickens so he can sell their eggs and make buckets of cash – and he succeeds in turning Abigail with Jerry’s help. Also assisting is Mud (Faisal Butt), anthropomorphized mud that’s become Rooster’s minion. But have no fear, Harley the hunky farm boy (Tyrone Savage), in love with Fourteen, has a plan to save her from Rooster and Jerry’s scheme, then run away together.

It’s an absurd story told through hilariously outrageous bluegrass music and narration (led by Rooster) and scenes of crazy action that include Harley’s “borrowed” tractor (a tricycle) getting stuck in the mud (held by Mud). Not for the faint of heart, misogynist and socially unacceptable language (Abigail was “the fat lady” before she turned; and Harley is called a “retard”) peppers the lyrics and dialogue – with a purpose. Beyond the insanity of this politically incorrect backwoods dystopia is some cutting satire that sends up a fearful and greedy patriarchal society – one that exerts extreme control over its women and their reproductive organs, as well as the men it judges to be less than a ‘real man.’

The cast does a remarkable job with all the insanity. Machin is a diabolical delight as Rooster, the man turned farm foul who’s taken his cock of the walk status to extreme lengths. Always a treat to watch, Walker is hilarious as the numbskull Jerry; he likes to think he’s in charge, but he’s really just a dumbass bully following Rooster’s orders. Fried does a lovely job with Abigail’s conflicting feelings; mortified but defiant in her new chicken-lady body, she refuses to lay eggs. Great physicality and some beautiful, poignant moments with her daughter Fourteen. MacGilchrist’s Fourteen is a feisty, defiant force to be reckoned with; it is she who drives the plans to get away with Harley – giving the impression that, ultimately, it’s love and not a man that will save her. Savage is adorably dim but determined as Harley; a male Daisy Duke in cut-off jeans and plaid flannel, he is a genuinely kind and gentle man with a good heart who would do anything for Fourteen. Butt gives an entertaining performance as Mud, Rooster’s wise-cracking sidekick; he also does a mean percussion.

As you’re laughing at the craziness of it all, you’re also feeling uncomfortable. The absurdity reveals nuggets of truth that we don’t have to look far to find – and that is what’s truly disturbing.

Prairie Home Companion meets The Twilight Zone in the hilariously absurd, satirical dystopia of Plucked.

Plucked continues at the Theatre Centre Mainspace until Aug 14.

Alice through the looking glass into Brazil in darkly funny, absurdly mind-bending The Trial of Judith K.

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Scott McCulloch & Stephanie Belding in The Trial of Judith K. – photo by John Gundy

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. – Director’s Note

Thought For Food opened its production of Sally Clark’s The Trial of Judith K. in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace last week, directed by Tyler Seguin, assisted by Tamara Vuckovic. I caught the show last night, in a performance that featured a post-show talkback with Clark.

A gender-switching stage adaptation of Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, The Trial of Judith K. is set in 1980s Vancouver, the surreal world of the story taking on the unique flavour and hard-working, hard-playing hedonism of that decade. Judith (Stephanie Belding), a 30-something professional accounts manager at a bank, wakes one morning to discover she’s being arrested – for what, she is not told. The bizarre legal debates, interrogations and meetings that follow turn her life upside down. It’s like she’s being punked and everyone else is in on it, their smug assurances of “it’s common knowledge” leaving her out of the game. What follows is a crazy, sharply funny, sometimes deeply disturbing journey through the most fucked up legal system you’ve ever seen.

As playwright Clark said during the talkback, comedy works better when it’s fast – and the ensemble does a bang-up job of it, with most cast members playing multiple roles as they roll out this edgy, absurd tale set in this bizarro world. Belding gives a powerful, sexy and funny performance as Judith; a wry-witted and irreverent, but organized and put-together professional with a can-do attitude whose life is thrown into utter disarray as she attempts to unravel wtf is going on with the charge against her.

Belding’s cast mates are all excellent multi-taskers, performing each role with high energy and enthusiasm, no matter how big the line count. Toni Ellwand does a great turn, going from Judith’s befuddled landlady Mrs. Block, to her office nemesis, the jealous Voight, to the reckless and dangerous party girl Stella; she has an extremely poignant moment as Block, a somewhat smug veteran of the legal system who gets a rude awakening about her case. Patrick Howarth (Inspector/Ted/Flogger) is an especially sexy beast as the charming, bad boy, possible serial killer Ted; deathly irresistible with a soft spot for a certain kind of woman. Helen Juvonen (Lang/Theodora/Girl 2) stands out in her roles as Judith’s timid secretary Lang, and particularly as hooker turned lawyer Theodora; whip smart, languid and ruthless, with a flair for the dramatic and a jaded, pragmatic acceptance of this fucked up world, there’s a hint of Marlene Dietrich about her. Andrew Knowlton (Biff/Milly/Tracy/Brazier) is hilarious as Biff, one of the court-appointed officers sent to arrest Judith, and as Brazier, the ridiculously cheerful, classic 80s sporto pain-in-the-ass client Voight turfs over to Judith, much to Judith’s dismay. Scott McCulloch (Clem/Magistrate/Timmy/Pollock) is especially compelling as Pollock, an artist and legal system insider who professes a desire to be of assistance to Judith, all the while attempting to barter information for sex – a prime example of the diabolically funny combined with the truly cringe-worthy elements that run throughout this play. Cara Pantalone (Maria/Deedee/Nun) does a great job going from Judith’s comic, tacky sister-in-law Deedee to the imperious, mysterious, parable-telling Nun; the Madonna to Theodora’s Whore, with religion serving the divine truth as the law doles out the profane.

During the talkback that followed, Clark mentioned that the piece was commissioned in the 1980s, originally as a one-woman show, and the idea came up to treat The Trial as a comedy. An early draft was even more Alice in Wonderland than the version we see today – and Clark was inspired to draw upon a serial killer case that was underway in Vancouver at the time. Responding to a question about Judith’s reaction to seeing the men in her bedroom at the top of the play, and how audience reception to that moment has changed over time, she spoke about the gender reversal in this adaptation, changing the situation of women throwing themselves at a man (from the novel) to men throwing themselves at a woman. While the reversal of attention takes on a different tone in Judith K., the sexual politics are still there – and it’s still a struggle for sexual dominance – in this case, with an 80s feminist sensibility. In response to a query about the shifting audience reaction to authority, Clark pointed out that the law is a metaphor, a higher power, in the play – and the court is life. It receives you when you’re born and dismisses you when you die. And the doorkeeper in the Nun’s parable represents one’s belief system – and how it can distract and compromise away from one’s life. Kafka foresaw Orwell in this dystopian world – and you pretty much have to laugh to keep from crying.

With shouts to the design team for bringing this wacko world to life and conveying a taste of the 80s in this small, narrow playing space: David Poholko (set), Miranda VanLogerenberg (costumes), Jareth Li (lighting) and Alex Eddington (sound, featuring an awesome 80s pre-show soundtrack).

It’s Alice through the looking glass and into Brazil in Thought For Food’s darkly funny, absurdly mind-bending production of The Trial of Judith K.

The Trial of Judith K. continues till Feb 14 in the TPM Backspace. You can get advance tix online or by calling 416-504-7529 – or purchase at the door.