Giving a voice to the brave, resourceful women of The Odyssey in the engaging, theatrical The Penelopiad

The ensemble in The Penelopiad—photo courtesy of George Brown College

The George Brown Theatre School class of 2017 closes its 2016-17 season with Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (directed by Sue Minor) and David Ives’ new version of Georges Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear (directed by Todd Hammond and Jordan Pettle) in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, located in Toronto’s Distillery District. I caught The Penelopiad last night.

The Penelopiad is a retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view, told with an all-female cast. Featuring the overlooked, abandoned and condemned women usually relegated to the background while Odysseus and his band of brothers are off for 20 years, fighting in the Trojan War, and having scrapes and adventures with various gods and monsters, it also provides a perspective of the 12 maids, executed for their licentious behaviour with Penelope’s would-be suitors.

Speaking to us from the Underworld after her death, Penelope (Kyrah Harder) starts her tale with the foot race for her hand, won by the short-legged Odysseus (Gabriella Albino), who thwarts his opponents by getting them drunk before the event. Brought into his parents’ household, she finds herself ruled by his disapproving mother Queen Anticlera (Emily Cully) and fastidious nursemaid Eurycleia (Lucy Meanwell). With the running of the house—and even the raising of her child Telemachus (Kayla Farris)—taken over by others, she resorts to weaving to pass the time.

Penelope’s role changes when Odysseus’s time away grows longer, his mother dies and his father King Laertes (Morgan St. Onge) wanders off, losing his mind; and finds herself forced to take over the running of the kingdom and Odysseus’s business affairs as she patiently awaits his return. When 10 years turns to 20, various suitors appear on her doorstep, circling like vultures and making themselves at home without invitation. Taking the 12 youngest maids into her confidence, she hatches a plan to keep the aggressive young men at bay. She tells the men she will choose a husband once she’s finished her father-in-law’s burial shroud. Each day, she and her 12 maids weave; each night, they undo their day’s work. The maids distract the suitors with attention and flirting; and when the suitors take out their frustrations by raping the maids, Penelope entreats them to hold fast—buying time until Odysseus returns.

Not apprised of Penelope’s plan, Telemachus and Eurycleia are mortified at the goings-on in the palace. And when Odysseus returns, he takes his revenge on the suitors; also unaware of what Penelope and the maids have been doing out of loyalty to him and to keep his kingdom safe, he punishes the maids. It is only through Eurycleia’s entreaty that he doesn’t execute all the maids—but just the 12 closest to Penelope.

While Penelope and her 12 maids prove themselves as cunning and steadfast as any man, in the end they are subject to the will and whims of men, who ultimately hold the balance of power.

A masterful piece of storytelling from a feminist perspective, the ensemble captures the edgy humour and despairing tragedy of this journey. Harder does a lovely job with the wry wit, desperate longing and firm resolve of Penelope. Haunted by her failure to protect them, she is shunned by the maids even after death. Lovely chemistry with Albino’s charming, wily and adventurous Odysseus; it is a complex relationship, for while Odysseus treats her with tender respect, he can’t help but succumb to the wanderlust that draws him away from her—even after death.

Stand-outs include Caroline Bell’s vain and flirty Helen (yes, that Helen and Penelope’s cousin) and Justine Christensen’s watery, ethereal Naiad (Penelope’s mother). Emily Cully brings in icy imperiousness to Queen Anticlera (Odysseus’s mother) and Tymika McKenzie-Clunis gives a hilarious turn as her pet goat. Lucy Meanwell also brings some comedy as Odysseus’s doting, gossiping and well-meaning but bossy nursemaid.

With shouts to the design team for bringing this otherworldly environment to life: Jackie Chau (set), Erin Gerofsky (costumes) and Nick Blais (lighting); and to the ensemble for arranging the music to Atwood’s words, in song and soundscape.

Giving a voice to the brave, resourceful women of The Odyssey in the engaging, theatrical The Penelopiad.

The Penelopiad continues at the Young Centre in the Michael Young Theatre until April 22; click here for ticket and pass info or book by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.  A Flea in Her Ear also runs until April 22; online tix available. It’s a great chance to see emerging acting talent before they head out into their careers.

You can also keep up with George Brown Theatre’s class of 2017 on Twitter and Facebook.

And check out the trailer for The Penelopiad here:

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Fear & loathing in real estate with a damn fine all-female cast in Jet Girls Productions’ Glengarry Glen Ross

GlengarryPosterOnline-1 - smallAnd the Mametpalooza continues over at Red Sandcastle Theatre. (I saw Headstrong Collective’s marvelous production of Boston Marriage at Campbell House Museum last Saturday.) This time, it’s Jet Girls Productions’ ballsy all-female production of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, directed by Anita La Selva.

With this world premiere of the gender switched Glengarry Glen Ross, Jet Girls has a very ambitious first production on their hands – and they weren’t permitted to change a word of the script. The result is powerful, thought-provoking, darkly funny and more than a bit jarring.

Joining director La Selva on this journey is a fine ensemble of local female actors (in order of appearance): Elizabeth Saunders (Shelly Levene), Julie Brar (John Williamson and co-founder of Jet Girls), Françoise Balthazar (David Moss), Laurel Paetz (George Aaronow), Marianne Sawchuk (Richard Roma and co-founder of Jet Girls), Rosemary Doyle (James Lingk and A.D. of Red Sandcastle Theatre) and Robinne Fanfair (Detective Baylen).

With none of the text altered – including character names – and the men replaced with women, the raw and often brutal language of the play comes across as all the more harsh. Violent verbal exchanges highlighted with name-calling and profanity hit harder coming from the mouths of women, but at the same time there is an unsettling naturalism about it. These are women struggling for survival in a merciless, dog eat dog business driven by the mantra “Always Be Closing.” You don’t close, you don’t eat. Slogging through lists of dead leads in hard, changing economic times, the futility and desperation is palpable. Make no mistake, this is no mere cat fight – competition is fierce and it’s the law of the jungle here.

As Shelly “The Machine” Levene, Saunders gives us a compelling and poignant portrait of a salesperson past her prime, an old-school practitioner struggling along the rat race, ravenously desperate to break a losing streak, and avoid falling into despair. Brar does a lovely job with the aloof, pompous young pup Williamson, revealing hints of ruthlessness and entitlement beneath the cool professional exterior. Balthazar gives a riveting performance as Moss; by turns a rampaging bear and snake-like manipulator, there is something of the ticking time bomb in her. Paetz gives nice layers to Aaronow, Moss’s sidekick; mousey in her righteous indignation over the poor state of their leads, and an easy mark for Moss’s machinations – but this mouse wants to roar when she’s backed into a corner. Sawchuk mesmerizes as the slick operator Roma. All sex and charisma, smooth and sharp and the same time, she is a master of language, flirtation and flattery – anything to get what she wants. As Roma’s mark Lingk, Doyle brings a lovely combination of frumpy, gullible naiveté and a devil may care yearning for adventure to this sexually repressed, hen-pecked woman – but is not beyond standing her ground, albeit on shaky legs, when her place in the world becomes threatened. Very nice work from Fanfair as the no-nonsense, unflappable Detective Baylen; while professional in demeanour, she will brook no shenanigans from this group of real estate hustlers during her investigation.

With shouts to costume designer Jan Venus for the sharp, evocative 80s wardrobe.

Fear and loathing in real estate with a damn fine all-lady cast in Jet Girls Productions’ Glengarry Glen Ross. Get yourself out to Red Sandcastle Theatre to see this.

Glengarry Glen Ross runs at Red Sandcastle until April 26. For advance tix, call 416-845-9411 or email redsandcastletheatre@gmail.com

A powerful exploration of violence & justice – 16Endean Collective’s all-female Julius Caesar

Julius-PosterThe 16Endean Collective opened their all-female production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar last night, to a packed house that quickly became a rapt audience. Directed by Jennifer Parr, the production is running now at Red Sandcastle Theatre.

Staged on a minimalist – but extremely effective – black and red t-shaped playing area (designed by Rosemary Doyle), with spare but beautiful costumes (Jan Venus) and few props (also by Doyle – and this is a swordless Julius Caesar – more on that later in the post), this production also features live percussion music by Morgan O’Leary. This Julius Caesar focuses on the power of Shakespeare’s words, and the actions and relationships of the characters. As Parr states in her director’s notes: At the centre of Julius Caesar is the question “When is it lawful to kill a tyrant; and what happens when you do?” And, so the characters and audience are taken on a gripping journey of violence and justice – and the consequences that emerge from those actions.

Julius Caesar features an excellent ensemble of female talent, including: (in alphabetical order): Françoise Balthazar, Catherine Bruce, Rosemary Doyle, Toni Ellwand, Ellie Ellwand, Elva Mai Hoover, Marcia Johnson, Llyandra Jones, Margaret Lamarre, Lise Maher, Maria Syrgiannis, Deborah Verginella, Andrea Verginella-Paina and Trudy Weiss.

Weiss is imperious and commanding as Julius Caesar, an arrogant, vain man threatened by the younger, more physically fit nobles and warriors around him. Toni Ellwand is compelling as Brutus – stalwart, wise and measured, with a strength of character and firm sense of fair play. Françoise Balthazar’s Cassius is the perfect complement in this friendship of brothers-in-arms, brash – at times impulsive – ambitious and driven; the former spurred by love of his country and the latter enraged at the disposal of undeserved power. Llyandra Jones gives us a young lion of a Marc Antony, as cunning a warrior as he is an orator – he would be a present-day king of spin. There are also a few women playing women: Deborah Verginella brings a Portia (Brutus’s wife) who is passionate, loyal and hard-pressed to learn what keeps her husband awake at night. Catherine Bruce’s Calpurnia (Caesar’s wife) is equally strong; possessed of visions and fiercely protective of her husband – as is Rosemary Doyle’s mysterious and insistent Soothsayer, warning Caesar of the Ides of March at the beginning of the play. All in all, a very fine cast – and excellent work all around; and judging from the surnames, we have a couple of related actors too (Brutus’s young servant Lucius is played by Toni Ellwand’s daughter Ellie, for instance).

As I mentioned earlier, there are no swords – or weapons of any kind – in this production; and I must admit, when I saw the assassination scene coming, I wondered how they were going to pull it off. Very convincingly, it turns out. Through some beautifully – and powerfully – choreographed action (by director Parr), the assassins mime their stabs, and the scene is bathed in red light as the act proceeds in slow motion, each player’s strike highlighted until the final, most startling in its poignancy, stab from Brutus. And so all the scenes of killing and suicide go – all through the strength of movement and a dramatic shift in lighting. And, given the intimacy of the space, no matter where you’re sitting, this all happens close to the audience. Nicely done!

The 16Endean Collective’s powerful production of Julius Caesar runs at Red Sandcastle Theatre until June 22, so you’d best get your tickets early – and be sure to note the 7:30 p.m. start time for evening performances. This is a production you won’t want to miss.

In the meantime, take a gander at my recent interview with actor Françoise Balthazar.

 

Interview with actor Françoise Balthazar – upcoming all-female Julius Caesar

Francoise headshot 1Françoise Balthazar is a Toronto-based actor who took on the role of Richard III in the Toronto Fringe (2006) all-female production Richard 3, Queens 4 (The Deadly Game), directed by Jennifer Parr. Now, in collaboration with Parr and many of the same cast members, Balthazar is playing Cassius in the 16Endean Collective’s all-female production of Julius Caesar, running for 11 performances at Red Sandcastle Theatre from June 11 – 22. I had the chance to interview Françoise Balthazar over email about the production – and doing these intense, violent plays with an all-female cast.

LWMC: Hi, Françoise. Thanks for taking the time to talk about Julius Caesar. You, Jennifer Parr and most of the cast worked together in an all-female version of Richard III in a Toronto Fringe 2006 production. What made you decide to tackle Julius Caesar – and when did the idea take root?

FB: Toni Ellwand, our producer/actor, who is portraying the role of Brutus, saw a production of an all-female Julius Caesar in England that greatly impressed her and which received outstanding reviews. Toni then met our director Jennifer Parr at a theatre gathering just before Christmas, and she shared her interest about mounting a Toronto production of Julius Caesar. Jennifer Parr, a Shakespearean director and scholar, was very keen on the idea and offered to direct the show. It has been an unusually fast process from concept to production.

LWMC: The thing that strikes me about all-female productions like this is that they balance out our perspective of human nature and behaviour – and we see that human beings, no matter what their sex, gender, etc., are capable of a wide range of action and reaction, including violence. Richard 3, Queens 4 explored violence as a means to gain power and position. How did the company go about exploring the relationship between violence and retribution in Julius Caesar?

FB: As actors, we had to explore the personal motivations behind every conspirator’s reasons for wanting to assassinate Caesar, which ranged from pure justice for the good of Rome, to vengeance against Caesar’s tyranny and, as in Cassius’ case, a mixture of personal envy and hatred for Caesar and tyranny itself to wanting to reestablish the legitimacy of the Roman Republic. One of the methods the conspirators used to explore all these issues was a short series of workshops in the Michael Chekhov technique given by Rena Polley, who is an actor and certified teacher in the Chekhov technique, exploring group dynamics and high stakes situation.

LWMC: And it’s all mixed with ambition and a desire to do what’s right, so it’s all very grey in Julius Caesar, and many of the characters who are acting with a righteous sense of retribution don’t have entirely pure motives. How did the company navigate those grey areas, along with the layers of deceit and betrayal?

FB: We began by delineating every character from a historical point of view, both as individuals and as members of Roman society at this specific moment in time. Then, as a company, we explored all the interconnecting personal relationships and the stakes involved in the revolutionary choices that so many of the characters make.

LWMC: Brutus is Caesar’s friend and a respected Roman – and Cassius believes his participation in the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar will add credibility to their cause and garner good public opinion. Cassius engineers Brutus’s involvement, to the point of fabricating notes of support from the public. And, even though he’s using Brutus, it’s clear that Cassius loves and values him a great deal. How did you approach these contrasting – and contradictory – sides of Cassius?

FB: Cassius is a very ambitious extremist, and his primary driving force is to make sure that Caesar is eliminated at any cost, including forging notes of support to ensure that Brutus commits to the conspiracy. Cassius also has a deep abiding love for Brutus because he is virtuous, just and a noble Roman. Cassius’ worth is recognized and validated by Brutus, which makes him all the more precious to him. Having a deep understanding of Cassius’ psychological drives and creating a backstory of this character, along with the insights drawn from the Michael Chekhov workshop that the company attended, allowed me to integrate these contrasting elements of Cassius.

LWMC: When someone commits an act of violence, even for a good cause, they are forever changed. Did that factor into the exploration of the play in this production?

FB: Yes, absolutely. From the beginning of our process, Jennifer Parr our director urged us to explore the question we see at the heart of the play and our production: Is it ever lawful to kill a Tyrant? And what happens if you do?

And, specifically, from Cassius’ perspective, the murder of Caesar liberates him and his fellow conspirators to become heroic figures in the fight against tyranny.

LWMC: Did the ensemble discover anything new about Julius Caesar throughout the process?

FB: Yes, the incredible amount of love and loyalty between characters, whether husband and wives, friends and fellow revolutionaries, and also the unexpected amount of comedy and humour in a play about such a serious topic.

LWMC: I imagine some personal discoveries also emerged. What can you tell us about that experience?

FB: Yes, it’s the first time that I’ve worked with Shakespeare’s First Folio text to such a degree, and I fully realize now how invaluable the clues that Shakespeare presents are incredibly useful to the actor. And, amazingly, speaking this empowering visceral dialogue that is usually reserved for men is a thrilling experience, and makes me feel more bold, expansive and powerful as a performer.

LWMC: What do you hope audiences will take away from this production of Julius Caesar?

FB: We hope they come away feeling that this play speaks to us now, as urgently as it did to Shakespeare’s audience, and that the question of how to change our society in extreme times is never an easy one.

Experiencing the play with an all-female cast, on a thrust stage surrounded by the audience, also brings a new perspective and fresh take on the story, the characters, and the ideas.

LWMC: What’s up next for you?

FB: At the present moment, I’m pouring my heart and soul into this production. Ask me again in three weeks’ time!

LWMC: Anything else you’d like to share?

FB: I’m hoping to take away the learning I experience in playing the complex, powerful and commanding role of Cassius into my future work as an actor. Also, I work as a voice-over artist and am very passionate about creating characters solely through the use of the voice. The virtue of playing Cassius potentially contributes to my work in animation voice-over, which calls for the ability of treating with a broad range of characters, the sophisticated use of breath control, and possessing a great vocal range.

LWMC: Thanks, Françoise!

The 16Endean Collective production of Julius Caesar ensemble includes (in alphabetical order): Françoise Balthazar, Catherine Bruce, Rosemary Doyle, Toni Ellwand, Ellie Ellwand, Elva Mai Hoover, Marcia Johnson, Llyandra Jones, Margaret Lamarre, Lise Maher, Maria Syrgiannis, Deborah Verginella, Andrea Verginella-Paina and Trudy Weiss. Julius Caesar runs at the Red Sandcastle Theatre June 11-22 (preview on June 11 and opening on June 12).