Mothers, daughters & the nature of power & leadership in the electric, razor-sharp Mother’s Daughter

Shannon Taylor & Fiona Byrne. Set & costume design by Lorenzo Savoini. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper brings the Stratford Festival production of the final installment of Kate Hennig’s remarkable trilogy—exploring the Tudor period from the perspectives of its most famous and powerful women—to the Young Centre with the electric, razor-sharp Mother’s Daughter, directed by Alan Dilworth. Mary Tudor (aka Bloody Mary), who become the first female monarch of England, struggles with both inner and outer conflict—living in the shadow of her formidable, beloved mother Catalina (Catherine of Aragon), and up against her popular, cunning sister Bess (Elizabeth I) and young, naive cousin Lady Jane Grey to gain and maintain the crown during a great period of upheaval and uncertainty following her brother Edward’s death. Exploring mother/daughter relationships, and the nature of leadership and power, it’s an intensely compelling portrait of trust, alliance, betrayal and grit.

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Shannon Taylor & Andrea Rankin. Set & costume design by Lorenzo Savoini. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Teenaged King Edward VI has died, and has disinherited his sisters Mary (Shannon Taylor) and Bess (Jessica B. Hill), and—guided by John Dudley—named their 16-year-old cousin Lady Jane Grey (Andrea Rankin) as his successor; Jane just happens to be Dudley’s daughter-in-law and claims to have no desire for the crown. Bess and Mary are having none of it, and a three-way battle for the throne ensues, with nobles and common folk alike taking sides and declaring loyalties. Initially refusing to use violent means to get what she wants, Mary chooses to use her voice and the power of reason as a means to appeal to and win over her adversaries.

With early confrontations going her way, Mary wins the crown—and begins the hard work of strategizing her reign with the assistance of personal advisors Bassett (Beryl Bain) and Susan (Maria Vacratsis), with diplomat Simon (Gordon Patrick White) guiding her through protocol and procedure. Also in Mary’s corner is her deceased mother Catalina (Fiona Byrne), who—through Mary’s memory and inner voice—appears, urging a decisive, iron grip approach, particularly when it comes to dealing with adversaries and restoring the Catholic faith to England. Added to the mix in Mary’s deliberations is Catalina’s nemesis Anne Boleyn (Hill), Bess’s mother, who wielded power in her own visceral way, in direct opposition to Catalina (and Mary’s) more cerebral approach. And throughout all the fireworks and debates between her various advisors, Mary grapples with her own sense of self-doubt and confidence as she strives to come to terms with her newly acquired power and responsibility. All the while, dealing with physical pain, Mary clutches her lower abdomen throughout—highlighting the pressures of producing an heir in her late 30s, and foreshadowing the (likely) ovarian or uterine cancer that contributed to her death at 42 during a flu epidemic.

Stunning performances from this largely female cast. Taylor does an outstanding job with Mary’s complexity and inner conflict; gutsy, determined and ambitious, Mary wants to be a moderate ruler, but finds she must steal herself to best confront personal and national threats. Living in the shadow of her mother Catalina, Mary is also both haunted and dogged by an extremely complicated mother/daughter relationship; both longing for love and approval while fighting Catalina’s harsh judgment, and determined to do things her own way even as she navigates her own second guessing and conflicting advice from counsellors. Byrne is an imposing, regal presence as the imperious Catalina; constantly pushing Mary to be the best monarch she can be, Catalina is laser-focused and brutally honest—holding no punches as she advises her daughter.

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Shannon Taylor & Jessica B. Hill (as Anne). Set & costume design by Lorenzo Savoini. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Hill’s Bess exudes a cock-sure confidence and comfort in her own skin that Mary struggles to possess; exceedingly cunning and at ease with her power, Bess knows without a shadow of a doubt that she was meant to rule. Hill brings a fierce sensuality to the self-possessed Anne, making it easy to see the source of Bess’s passion and fire. Rankin’s sweet, naïve Jane stands in stark contrast to the ambitious Mary and Bess; a seeming innocent who professes no desire for the crown, Jane has been groomed for the throne—by a third mother figure who we don’t see here—and finds she must admit that maybe she does really want it after all.

Bain’s edgy, young spin master Bassett and Vacratsis’ measured, cautious veteran advisor Susan serve as perfect foils for each other—with Bassett representing Mary’s fight response and Susan the flight response. Rounding out Mary’s official council is the prim and proper diplomat Simon, who White infuses with a deadpan, stern schoolteacher-like countenance; the result is sometimes comic, but Simon also stands in for the male perspective here. Downplaying Mary, Bassett and Susan’s debates as “woman’s chatter”, Simon is a most reluctant and skeptical member of Mary’s inner circle. There is no precedent for a female monarch—and, like many men and even some women, Simon highly doubts that a woman is fit to rule.

The action is nicely supported by Lorenzo Savoini’s sharp, minimalistic set and stunning costumes, which combine a sense of the period with that of the 21st century; and complemented by Kimberly Purtell’s startling, edgy lighting design.

Winning hearts and minds, and reconciling the inner struggle between the kind of ruler one wants to be and the kind of ruler one needs to be. Difficult times require difficult decisions—and those in power must also do battle within themselves, even going against their own nature, to be the kind of leader they are required to be.

Mother’s Daughter continues at the Young Centre and must close on February 9; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Get on those advance bookings to avoid disappointment.

In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

 

SummerWorks: Relationship wisdom from the mouths of babes in the playful, surprising & moving CHILD-ISH

Photo by Graham Isador.

 

Sunny Drake and the CHILD-ISH Collective present a work-in-progress presentation of CHILD-ISH, written by Drake, and directed by Alan Dilworth and associate director Katrina Darychuk—and running in the Franco Boni Theatre at The Theatre Centre. Exploring the theme of relationships from various angles, CHILD-ISH is a piece of verbatim theatre created by an intergenerational group of adult and child interviewers, dramaturgs, performers and facilitators—putting the words of children aged five to 11 into the mouths of adults, with hilarious, surprising and moving, as well as playful and wise, results.

Entering with a flourish, the adult ensemble (Walter Borden, Maggie Huculak, Sonny Mills, Zorana Sadiq and Itir Arditi) acts out interview chats and scenes on relationships—love, consent, old age, losing a loved one and bullying—based on the kids’ shared thoughts, ideas, stories and feelings, with subject matter projected upstage as surtitles. Playful, wise and surprising, the kids express—via the adults—flexible and innovative ideas about marriage and family units (e.g., if you were allowed to marry more than one person, it would make the division of household and outside labour more efficient). Thoughts about love, kissing and consent are savvy, matter of fact and exploratory—and fearlessly so. One kid mentioned that they’re non-binary, stating a preference for they/them pronouns; and how, while misgendering bugs them, they make allowances for people to get used to it.

The dialogue is frank, open and surprisingly insightful—and the thoughts and ideas emerge as playfully as in any physical game. Hilarity often ensues in the juxtaposition of adults speaking the words of children, but then once in a while, something catches your attention that makes a lot of sense. And you may find yourself wishing that adults could think and be more like kids sometimes. In contrast, the harassment and bullying experiences/responses are heartbreaking as you recognize that, even though adults are relating them, these thoughts and feelings are coming from kids.

Joined by three kids at the end (I’m guessing these are young facilitators Sadie Kopyto Primack, Elora Gerson and Owen Ross), the actor/facilitator group movement piece is both beautiful and moving. Following this, the audience is invited to join in reading the Kidifesto, also projected upstage. It was during these moments that I was moved to tears.

Joyful, curious, authentic and open—in laughter, pain and uncertainty—we could all learn a lesson or two from the wisdom of kids in CHILD-ISH and in our everyday lives.

With shouts to Director of Child Engagement Jessica Greenberg; young dramaturgs Eponine Lee, Sumayya Iman Malik and Ozzy Rae Horvath; adult dramaturg Brian Quirt; and young co-interviewer Mia McGrinder; as well as the small army of child collaborators, consultants, development partners and champions who made this presentation possible. I look forward to seeing where this goes next.

Child-ish has one more performance in the Franco Boni Theatre at the Theatre Centre: August 14 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets available online or in person at the box office; it’s a very short three-show run and last night’s performance was sold out, so advance booking is a must.

Power, politics & cunningly crafted image in the riveting, brilliant The Virgin Trial

Bahia Watson (2017 production). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper presents Kate Hennig’s The Virgin Trial, directed by Alan Dilworth, assisted by Katrina Darychuk—opening last night at the Young Centre. The companion piece to The Last Wife, the play was originally commissioned and produced by the Stratford Festival in 2017, with the final installment of the trilogy, Mother’s Daughter, to premiere at Stratford in this coming May-October. A riveting and brilliantly orchestrated look at power, politics and the cunningly crafted image of a young queen in waiting, The Virgin Trial incorporates modern dress and language as it explores cat and mouse, life and death interrogations following a plot against the life of young King Edward VI. A teenaged Bess, who would go on to become Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen; and Thomas Seymour, who was married to Bess’s stepmother Catherine Parr, are at the centre of the investigation.

The nicely appointed interview room in the Tower, with its elegant table and chairs, crystal chandelier overhead (set and costume design by Yannik Larivée, lighting design by Kimberly Purtell), belies the minefield of questioning, manipulation and thinly veiled threats that subjects will be subjected to—not to mention the dark and treacherous confines of the plastic-curtained halls without. Enter Eleanor (Yanna McIntosh), a ruthless noblewoman on a mission, and the smooth-talking Lord Protector Ted (Nigel Bennett)—playing good cop to Eleanor’s bad cop—to question young Bess (Bahia Watson) over what she knows about Thom Seymour’s (Brad Hodder) alleged recent attempt on King Edward’s life.

As the stakes get higher, the interrogators dig deep to find dirt on Bess, real or imagined, in an attempt to manipulate her testimony, as well as public opinion of her; slut-shaming,  leaking fake news, and playing on her own loyalties as well as those close to her to get the answers they want. Next in line to the throne—second if you ignore her half-sister Mary’s (Helen Knight) religion—Bess is highly suspect by association: her “traitor” “whore” mother Ann Boleyn and her suspected romantic ties to Thom, coupled with her outspoken, quick intelligence, make her a dangerous player in this game of thrones. The line of questioning turns to Bess’s possible involvement in the plot, pulling in her governess Ashley (Laura Condlln) and assistant Parry (André Morin), who both knew about and supported Thom’s romantic advances.

Outstanding performances from the ensemble in this intense, at times darkly funny and playful, tale of royal intrigue, machinations and a young woman’s growing sense of power. Watson is spellbinding as the complex, mercurial young Bess; a playful yet observant child wise beyond her years, Bess soaks up knowledge like a sponge and is able to manifest it into action with alarming speed and accuracy. On the brink of womanhood, her growing sense of power—both sexual and political—fascinates and excites her, the seeds of the fierce, savvy monarch who made history planted before our eyes.

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Yanna McIntosh & Bahia Watson (2017 production). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

McIntosh gives a gripping and intimidating performance as the stone cold, calculating Eleanor. Her menacing tone and bearing illustrate a particularly merciless variation of female badassery in this play, along with Knight’s delightfully wry, gives-zero-fucks Mary and Watson’s ambitious, rising future queen Bess. Bennett’s sleazy spin master Ted complements McIntosh’s Eleanor nicely; a master of image projection, and oozing false warmth and sincerity, while Ted’s methods are decidedly different, the desired outcome is the same. Hodder does a great balancing act with Thom’s likeable handsome rouge exterior and the lechery that lies beneath; a complex man whose alliances appear to shift with circumstance, one wonders what Thom’s true motives are.

 

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Brad Hodder & Bahia Watson (2017 production). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Great supporting work from Condlln and Morin as Ashley and Parry—at times offering some much-needed comic relief; as Bess’s closest confidantes, Ashley and Parry are both loyal, supportive and a bit laissez faire with her. Perhaps their close proximity to celebrity, and a possible future queen, has clouded their better judgement, blinding them to what’s really going on behind the scenes and how they’re implicated in Bess’s actions.

 

Ambition, power and public image feature prominently. Underestimated and undervalued, Bess truly believes that she was meant for better things. She is not the innocent she appears to be; and there’s far more than meets the eye to this young woman whose secret heart is set upon the throne.

The Virgin Trial continues at the Young Centre until February 3, including a special matinée performance added on January 31 and a 7:00 performance added on February 3. Advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Get on those advance bookings to avoid disappointment.

In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

Sacrifices, stories & souls in Soulpepper’s startling, lyrical, theatrical Idomeneus

Michelle Monteith, Stuart Hughes and Jakob Ehman. Set, video and lighting design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Gillian Gallow. Photo by Cylla von Tiedeman.

 

Soulpepper Theatre takes us on a turbulent, soul-wrenching homecoming journey in its production of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Idomeneus, translated by David Tushingham, and directed by Alan Dilworth with assistance from Gregory Prest. Idomeneus is currently running in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre in Toronto’s Distillery District.

The 10-year long Trojan War is over and Idomeneus, King of Crete (Stuart Hughes), is on his way home with his fleet of 80 ships; exhausted, battle-bruised and too long separated from loved ones. So close and so far, they are beset by a terrible storm that takes each ship down one by one. Aboard the last ship afloat, and facing certain death, Idomeneus strikes a bargain with Poseidon: he will sacrifice the first living thing he sees upon his arrival home. He is spared and returns home to the shores of Crete, his ship in tatters.

This is where our journey begins: in a shadow land of conscience, fate and storytelling, of lost souls and conflicting accounts. Which version of the story is true—and which is the version one can live with? Is the first living thing Idomeneus encounters his son Idamantes (Jakob Ehman)? Does he go through with the promised sacrifice? Has his wife Meda (Michelle Monteith) been unfaithful, sharing a lusty bed with an enraged fellow sovereign (Diego Matamoros) bent on punishing betrayal with revenge sex? Version upon version of the stories unfold. What is truth? What is rumour? What is fake news?

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Michelle Monteith, Jakob Ehman, Frank Cox-O’Connell and Idomeneus Chorus. Set, video and lighting design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Gillian Gallow. Photo by Jose John.

Combining storytelling, movement and choral work to create a collage of scenes and variations on scenes, the dark and eerie edge of this tale is highlighted with startling sound (Debashis Sinha) and lighting design, and haunting projected shadow images (Lorenzo Savoini), relieved by moments of dark comedy. The contemporary costuming (Gillian Gallow) is both muted and ghost-like; and the set, with its cracked stone wall and dark earth floor evokes both an ancient place and no place (Lorenzo Savoini).

Beautiful, haunting and compelling work from the ensemble in this unsettling and poetic drama: Akosua Amo-Adem, Alana Bridgewater, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Laura Condlln, Frank Cox-O’Connell, Jakob Ehman, Kyra Harper, Stuart Hughes, Diego Matamoros and Michelle Monteith.

And, whether Idomeneus goes through with the sacrifice of his son or not, will it have the same outcome? And will he have to pay with his own life regardless of which path he chooses?

Idomeneus continues in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 / 1-888-898-1188.

Love letter to the universe – The De Chardin Project @ Theatre Passe Muraille

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Cyrus Lane & Maev Beaty – photo by Michael Cooper

“It’s a love story about the origins of the universe.”The De Chardin Project playwright Adam Seybold

When you enter the mainspace of Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) to see Adam Seybold’s Dora Mavor Moore-winning play The De Chardin Project, the space has been re-imagined, with the audience positioned around three sides of a central raised rectangular playing space, framed – like a box without sides. The colours red and black predominate; a single bare light bulb hangs in the centre and several focused beams of light shine onto the floor from above. Centre stage, a man in a black suit lies on his stomach. Still. An otherworldly soundtrack plays, like wind chimes – industrial and celestial at the same time. And something else. Wind? Water? Both. The music crescendos into a thunderstorm. The man stirs. And rises, wondering where he is, the soundscape evoking the haze of emerging consciousness.

Directed by Alan Dilworth, The De Chardin Project mines the life and experiences of Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), geologist, paleontologist and Jesuit priest, a man devoted to the study of rocks and bones in a passionate effort to understand the origins of the universe. A man of God and a man of science, his refusal to renounce evolution theory – and reconcile it with creationism – gained negative attention from Rome and forced his order to exile him to China, where he participated in the discovery of the Peking Man. Seybold’s script excavates the personal for the universal – and no matter where you stand on the origins of the universe, the result is a fascinating and emotional experience.

De Chardin (Cyrus Lane) is dying from a cerebral hemorrhage, a broken tea cup on the floor the only artifact of his life in the space he now occupies. He is like Schrodinger’s cat in the box – both alive and dead. From a trap door in the floor, a woman appears. She is his Guide (Maev Beaty), who sets out to usher him through seminal moments of his life in order to piece it back together.

Lane is luminous as de Chardin, scholarly and confident but not arrogant, quick-witted and driven. We see a man full of love – for God, the universe. Everything. Lonely in the space between creationism and evolution theory, and sad that he cannot touch that which he seeks – yet optimistic in the face of rejection and misunderstanding, even as he struggles to be so. Beaty is lovely as the Guide, cryptic but warm and open. Also tasked with playing various characters from de Chardin’s life, she gives a remarkable performance throughout, portraying people of various ages, genders and nationalities. As de Chardin’s friend and colleague Lucille, an American artist, she is beautifully sharp and irreverently funny. Like de Chardin, she is full of longing, but more grounded in the physical present than reaching through time and space for that which she cannot grasp.

The four elements figure prominently in this production – especially fire. Fire as an object of fear, transformation, destruction, illumination, desire and symbol. The spark of creation. The elements are incorporated into the remarkable set design, with various trap doors housing props, furniture and even spaces: an excavation site, a pitcher of water, a candle. Shouts to Lorenzo Savoini (production design) and Thomas Ryder Payne (sound design).

The De Chardin Project is a profoundly moving and human exploration of faith and science, love and the search for meaning in the universe.

Speaking as a recovering Catholic, I was left both moved and intrigued, my eyes wet and mind full. But that’s just me – you’ll have to go see for yourself. Let me know what you think. In the meantime, take a look at some behind the scenes moments here:

The De Chardin Project continues its run at the TPM mainspace until December 14. Go see this.