Questions of perception, assumption & expectation in the powerful, riveting, provocative Actually

Tony Ofori & Claire Renaud. Set design by Sean Mulcahy. Costume design by Alex Amini. Lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Joanna Akyol.

 

The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, in association with Obsidian Theatre, opens its 13th season with Anna Ziegler’s Actually, directed by Philip Akin, assisted by Kanika Ambrose; and running in the Greenwin Theatre at the Meridian Arts Centre (formerly the Toronto Centre for the Arts). Two Ivey League freshmen, a Black male student and a Jewish female student, make a connection that becomes sexual in nature—and each has a very different experience and account of the night they spent together. Powerful, riveting and provocative—featuring compelling and genuine performances—this timely two-hander takes you on a see-saw ride of belief, empathy and understanding; highlighting perceptions, assumptions and expectations based on race, gender and class.

Excited, terrified and determined to do well, Amber (Claire Renaud) and Tom (Tony Ofori) arrive at Princeton for their first year of studies. She’s quirky and awkward, with romantic notions of sex and limited experience; he’s got swagger and game, with a sexually active lifestyle and a commitment to sowing his youthful wild oats. Opposites attract on common ground as the two make a connection; and attraction brings them together in Tom’s bed.

During their encounter, Amber finds that something changes for her; and their initially sexy fun times experience becomes uncomfortable and unwanted. She relates how she attempts to put a stop to it by getting off the bed, saying “Actually…” Tom believes she was into it, and later remembers nothing from her verbal communication or body language that would have suggested otherwise. Amber comments on the night to a friend, and the response prompts her to report the incident to the university, which launches a sexual misconduct investigation and hearing. Amber believes she was raped, and Tom is shocked and mortified by the allegation.

As their individual and collective stories unfold, the audience goes from being confidante—as we hear about their lived experiences with family, sex, desire, what inspires them—to university hearing panelist as they make their statements. Both had a lot to drink on the night in question. Both feel like outsiders with much to prove, anxiously navigating their first year at a prestigious school, along with raging 18-year-old hormones, and a culture of sex and partying. Not the best conditions for making good choices. Both live with body issues: Amber with the pressures of traditional feminine beauty standards; and Tom with the everyday racism and prejudice that accompany the colour of his skin. The seriousness of Amber’s rape charge lands particularly hard on Tom—a young Black man living in a world stewed in toxic, ongoing systemic racism. And Amber’s initial tacit consent that night, going to his room for the purposes of sex, combined with her behaviour earlier that evening, puts her credibility in question.

Compelling, genuine and nuanced performances from Renaud and Ofori in this vital, timely piece of theatre. Renaud brings a big spark of light, energy and pathos to the adorkable, hyper-talkative Amber; a young woman desperately treading water to stay afloat in a new world of classes, assignments, squash practice and obligatory partying. Amber finds herself wanting and not wanting at the same time; pressed forward by social media-driven peer pressure, she engages in activities and behaviour even when her heart isn’t really in it. Ofori’s Tom is a complex portrait of a confident, frank young man who wants to do his family proud; Tom is the first of his working class family to attend university, let alone at an Ivey League school. There’s a sensitive soul beneath the swagger, expressed through Tom’s love of classical music and piano playing—where he finds a space to be free.

It would be grossly simplistic to call this a “he said/she said” story. As you vacillate between believing and sympathizing with one, and then the other, in the end you may find yourself believing both of them. And if both are right, on which side of this 50/50 situation will the feather land in the final decision? In this age of #MeToo and #consent, and with all of these complex and intersectional variables to consider, audiences will no doubt come away with questions, conversations and reflections. This story is a prime example of why sex, sexuality and consent need to be taught in elementary and secondary schools.

Actually continues in the Greenwin Theatre at the Meridian Arts Centre (formerly the Toronto Centre for the Arts) until September 29. Advance tickets available online by clicking on the show page calendar.

ICYMI: Check out assistant director Kanika Ambrose’s Artist Perspective piece for Intermission Magazine.

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A beautiful, moving look @ identity & the inevitable tick tock of life – East Side Players’ Elizabeth Rex

ERI had the pleasure of being back at Todmorden Mills Papermill Theatre last night for East Side Players’ production of Timothy Findley’s Elizabeth Rex, directed by Jan Francies.

A history-inspired, memory play, Elizabeth Rex presents William Shakespeare as our host, as he remembers an evening in a barn with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men after a royal performance of Much Ado About Nothing 15 years earlier. It is the evening of his own death; in the memory, it is the night before Elizabeth’s ex-lover Essex goes to the axe for leading an uprising against her. In the memory, the men are visited by a restless Queen – and throughout the night, Elizabeth, Shakespeare and actor Ned Lowenscroft (famous for playing women) exchange quips and debate the nature of identity from the various angles of sex, gender, politics, art and power. All played out with the ever-present chiming of the clock – reminding all that time is running out.

Francies has an excellent cast for this journey: Lydia Kiselyk’s Elizabeth I is layered with all the complexity and power of this fascinating monarch. She is sharp-witted and regal, suffering no fools; yet open to council even as she is torn between emotion for her former lover Essex, and duty to her position and country. Michael Harvey gives us a lovely Ned Lowenscroft, with a rapier wit, a diva’s demand for perfection and an unapologetic love of men, coupled with vulnerability and empathy, and the haunting knowledge that his time and life are ebbing away as he struggles with his own impending death from “the pox” (syphilis), contracted from an evening with a handsome Irish captain. Christopher Irving brings us a passionate, cerebral and conflicted Shakespeare, performing a careful balancing act with the often opposing demands of art and politics, even as he comes to terms with his own feelings for the young Earl of Southampton. Other cast stand-outs include Malorie Mandolidis, who is a delight as the far-sighted company seamstress and den mother Kate Tardwell; and Paddy Cardarelli is endearing and lovable as veteran player Percy Gower, who loves to tell how he once intoxicated men with his portrayal of women before he came to be a character actor in his advanced years.

In addition to the symbolism of the tick tock of the clock, we are reminded of humanity’s inescapable final destination through the bear that Lowenscroft rescued from the pits, which moans with painful remembrance when the dogs bark, the hounds constantly nipping at its heels, even if just in its mind. And there is a beautiful moment of compassion and comfort between two key players, mirrored by one of the actors holding the bear as the dogs bay. Findley also provides a thought-provoking image of a present-day ‘pox’: Lowenscroft’s pox sores resemble those of AIDS-induced Kaposi’s sarcoma, his colleagues asking if he knew how, and from whom, he came by the disease.

With shouts to set designer David August and lighting designer Clay Warner for the transformation of the Papermill stage into the Queen’s barn, the warm glow of candlelight on wood, the metal of the brazier and tack, and the use of the top loft space opening in that gorgeously mottled red brick back wall; and to the exquisite period costumes by Alex and Carmen Amini of Chifforobe.

East Side Players’ Elizabeth Rex is a beautiful, moving and finely acted exploration of identity, and the inevitable and finite tick tock of life. This play is not produced often, so it’s well worth the trip to the Papermill Theatre – the show runs until June 7.