Toronto Fringe: Drowning in a small town in the haunting, lyrical Mourning After the Night Before

Models Abby Gillam, Ryan Helgason & Lauren Helgason. Photo by Chloë Whitehorn.

 

Mad River Theatre takes us to a small town by the water as a family struggles to overcome tragedy in Chloë Whitehorn’s haunting, lyrical Mourning After the Night Before; directed by Heather Keith and running at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse.

Lucy (Mary Wall), Drew (Dave Martin) and their teenage daughter Pippa (Brianna Richer) have just arrived in a small town by the water to start a new life, their move assisted by local residents Everett (Jack Morton) and his guardian Fenwick (Loriel Medynski). Pippa is a troubled poet, surrendering the dark contents of her creative, intelligent mind onto paper. Lucy is feeling out of place in her own skin; and Drew, who feels so far away, just wants everyone to be okay. Everett is smitten with Pippa—and Lucy—and the attractions are mutual; and Fenwick’s just trying to keep it together as her adopted son, a reminder of the friend she loved, is on his way to manhood.

Nice work from the cast in this quiet, intimate, ethereal piece where everyday moments float by like leaves on water. Richer’s restless, introspective wild child is nicely balanced by a playful, creative spirit. Wall’s Lucy is part caged animal, part cougar on the hunt as she grapples with her identity as wife and mother and finds herself lacking. Martin’s Drew avoids the stereotypical frustrated, estranged husband; Drew is a hurt, gentle soul who genuinely cares and wants to help, but finds himself at a loss to do so. Morton’s Everett is an endearing combination of lusty youth, optimism and kindness as he navigates his way through the early stages of manhood. And Medynski brings a gentle wisdom to the frank, no-nonsense Fenwick, who’s dealing with both a past loss (Everett’s mother) and an impending loss of her own (Everett growing up).

I first saw an early, shorter version of the play at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival in 2018; and was happy to see its evolution. It combines everyday, intimate moments with poetry, and word play and introspection; woven with images and perspectives of water, the characters float around, dive into and drown in their lives as they grasp and gasp for connection, identity and meaning. The water almost becomes a sixth character here. And the minimalist set, incorporating black cubes to denote separate spaces in the story, places a focus on the words and characters as they glide in and out of moments, memories and musings. The result is a heightened realism that is both atmospheric and lyrical.

It is ironic that the family’s retreat to the peace and quiet of a small town forces a level of discomfiting introspection as each tries to anchor themselves within themselves and the world—a not so peaceful or quiet endeavour.

The Mourning After the Night Before continues at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse until July 14; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.

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Looking back on an undefinable relationship in the entertaining, touching, resonant A Beautiful View

Alison Brooks & Pip Dwyer. Lighting design by Wes Babcock. Photo by Matthew Eger.

 

Nothing is enough.

Shotgun Juliet opened its production of Daniel MacIvor’s A Beautiful View in the Alumnae Theatre studio last night, presented as a Pride Toronto Community Event. Directed by Matthew Eger, it’s an entertaining, quirky, touching and resonant overview of an undefinable intimate relationship between two women, spanning across time as they come together and move apart.

Set in a place outside of time and space, two women (Alison Brooks and Pip Dwyer) meet to review their life together, presented to us as slice of life scenes and monologues over the course of 75 minutes. The relationship starts with an adorably awkward meet cute outside a tent in a camping goods store. One woman is quirky and fanciful (Dwyer) and the other is practical yet free-spirited (Brooks); there is an immediate connection that feels romantic in that goofy first moments kind of way. A chance meeting leads to an on-purpose meeting, which leads into a relationship that some would call a love affair, BFFs or soulmates—extremely intimate, yet defying labels.

Opposites with much in common, the two women are drawn to each other in a way that even they don’t fully understand; and what they know of relationships and sexuality causes them to make assumptions and draw conclusions about each other and their dynamic over the course of their time together. Intense, hilariously funny and complex, in between reliving key moments from their history together, they stop to take stock of what happened and who said/did what. The storytelling, shifting between otherworldly space and everyday life, is nicely supported by Wes Babcock’s lighting design and Oshan Starreveld’s sound design.

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Pip Dwyer & Alison Brooks. Lighting design by Wes Babcock. Photo by Matthew Eger.

Brooks and Dwyer have lovely chemistry together as they play out this hilarious, moving and sharply drawn overview of a complex, relationship—shifting between playful, flirty banter and tension filled argument and call-out. Brooks brings a mischievous puck-like playfulness, along with the seasoned, grown-up pragmatism of the neglected childhood her character endured; her character is fluid and easy-going, possibly more introverted and definitely more introspective. Dwyer is delightfully adorkable as the chatty record store/temp worker drummer wannabe; the more out-there extrovert of the two, her character describes her lies as “wishful thinking”—expressions of longing to be something/someone else.

A reminder that people and relationships aren’t always what they seem; and to let people and how they are together just be. Maybe we don’t need to pigeon-hole, label or quantify our relationships on the basis of some romantic love vs. friendship scale. It’s all love and it’s all beautiful. Nothing is enough.

A Beautiful View continues in the Alumnae studio until June 22, with performances Tuesday-Saturday at 8:00; and Saturday and Sunday matinées at 2:00 (final performance is June 22 at 2:00). Tickets: general $25, arts worker $20, PWYC previews and matinée PWYC rush; advance tickets available online. Email shotgunjuliet@gmail.com if you cannot afford to see the show, tickets are available to everyone.

 

Remembering Nonnie Griffin

Photo from Bluffs Monitor.

 

Nonnie Griffin and I became mutual fans, from opposite sides of the stage, while working on two different productions at Alumnae Theatre in 2008: she as the formidable Irish matriarch in Lucy Brennan’s Daughter of the House and I as the compassionate, no-nonsense oncology nurse in Margaret Edson’s Wit.

I had the pleasure of seeing and reviewing Nonnie’s work in the years that followed; and particularly enjoyed her own one-woman shows Sister Annunciata’s Secret and Marilyn—After, both brave, resonant portraits of older women navigating life’s joys and heartbreaks. And she came out with two friends to see me perform in The Sad Blisters this past April (on Easter Sunday); she enjoyed the show very much and sent me a lovely email, along with a big virtual hug.

Nonnie was to launch her new one-woman show, Before Scarlett—about the creation of Gone with the Wind, told from the perspective of author Margaret Mitchell—for one performance at the Heliconian Hall on June 19. Now that she’s gone, we’ll be celebrating her life and work instead.

She was a classy, brave and frank professional; funny and insightful—and supportive of fellow artists. Her candid, creative spirit will be missed.

Remembering Andrew Batten

Connor O’Hegarty, Cate McKim, Patrick Brown & Andrew Batten in Lady Windermere’s Fan (Alumnae Theatre, 2007). Photo by Duncan McAllister.

 

It’s now been a week since we lost our friend and theatre colleague—former lawyer, beloved teacher, and talented actor and playwright Andrew Batten. I posted this on Facebook and Twitter last week, and thought I’d repost here:

I met Andrew Batten while working on a show at Alumnae Theatre in the Fall of 2006, when we were rehearsing Lady Windermere’s Fan (Jan – Feb 2007); he played Dumby and I played Cecil Graham. He was a delight to work with; whip-smart, wicked sense of humour and a twinkle in those piercing blue eyes. And he looked damn good in white tie and tails.

He had so much love around him and his light will be missed. Honoured and happy to be acting in the upcoming production of his play The Sad Blisters (April 12-27 at The Commons). This one’s for you and your love Debbie, Andrew.

News & upcoming hiatus!

As promised, I’ve got some news, including an accompanying Spring hiatus for the blog…

Back in January, I was invited to join the cast of an indie production of The Sad Blisters, a new play by Andrew Batten, directed by Victoria Shepherd. It’s a quirky, funny, poignant family dramedy with an all-female cast—so, of course, I loved the script immediately. Our first read-through is tomorrow!

It’s been almost 11 years since I performed in a theatre production (Wit at Alumnae Theatre); I’ve done staged readings, stand-up and singing performances in the meantime, as well as seeing/reviewing a lot of theatre. So I’m very excited to be returning to the stage—and working with this team!

Since we’ll be rehearsing and performing on weeknights and weekends, I’ll be putting the blog on a two-month hiatus for March and April so I can focus time and energy on the play. I’ll still be seeing a few shows—and shouting out shows on social media—just not reviewing or interviewing.

The Sad Blisters runs April 12-27 at The Commons—so save the dates! Stay tuned to Facebook, Twitter, etc. for details, including performance dates/times and advance ticket purchase info. I’ll be posting info here on the blog as well.

Happy March! Here’s hoping Spring arrives soon.

 

Women’s stories across the ages in the sharp-witted, illuminating & timely Top Girls

Jordi O’Dael (Gret), Jennifer Fahy (Patient Griselda), Charlotte Ferrarei (Pope Joan), Alison Dowling (Marlene), Lisa Lenihan (Isabella Bird), Tea Nguyen (Lady Nijo). Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Bec Brownstone. Lighting design by Jay Hines. Projection design by Madison Madhu. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre Company opened its timely, updated production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls last night, directed by Alysa Golden, assisted by DJ Elektra. Sharp-witted, illuminating and theatrical, Top Girls is a both an observation and commentary of women’s lived experiences across the ages. Written in 1982 and given a contemporary framing in this production, it’s both funny and sad how little has changed for women in terms of opportunity, oppression, and the expectations of the spaces they occupy and the roles they play—a timely undertaking in the age of #MeToo and #timesup.

We open on a fantasy dinner party, hosted by Marlene (Alison Dowling), who is celebrating her promotion at the Top Girls employment agency. Her guests include the fastidious Victorian world traveller Isabella Bird (Lisa Lenihan); 13th century Japanese concubine and material girl Lady Nijo (Tea Nguyen); Gret, the coarse, lusty subject of Breughel painting “Dulle Griet” (Jordi O’Dael); the esoteric, philosophical Pope Joan (Charlotte Ferrarei); and the unquestioningly obedient Griselda, from Chaucer’s “The Clerk’s Tale” (Jennifer Fahy). The women share stories of love, marriage, motherhood, travel, oppression and hardship as they eat, drink and descend into drunken stupor.

Shifting into present day, we meet Marlene’s niece Angie (Rebekah Reuben), who lives in the country with her mother, Marlene’s sister Joyce (Nyiri Karakas), and spends most of her time with best friend Kit (Naomi Koven), who is several years younger. More than just a handful of a teenager, Angie is troubled, young for her age, and adrift in her life; mistrusting and disrespecting of her mother, she dreams of getting away and learning the truth about herself.

We get a glimpse of the Top Girls employment agency, populated by female recruiters, the office abuzz with Marlene’s upcoming move to her own office and greater things. Not everyone is thrilled, however, and a male colleague’s wife Mrs. Kidd (Lenihan) pays a visit to protest his being passed over. Marlene’s colleagues Win (Claire Keating) and Nell (Grace Thompson) interview prospective recruits— including a couple of ambitious, vague 20-somethings (April Rebecca) and an overlooked, undervalued 40-something (Peta Mary Bailey). Angie arrives on the scene, having gone AWOL from home and inviting herself to stay at Marlene’s.

Jumping a year into the past, Marlene visits Joyce and Angie—tricked by Angie with an invitation that supposedly came from Joyce. The family dynamic of estrangement between the estranged sisters comes into focus, as does a life-changing family secret.

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Naomi Koven (Kit), Nyiri Karakas (Joyce). Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Bec Brownstone. Lighting design by Jay Hines. Projection design by Madison Madhu. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Lovely work all around from this considerable, all-female cast, with several actors playing multiple characters. Stand-outs include Dowling as the sharp, bold and unapologetic Marlene, who’s executed some major shifts in her life to get where she is, in spite of the naysaying and resentment from family and male colleagues. Reuben is both exasperating and poignant as the immature, lost Angie; like her mother, we come to worry for her future—she can’t hide out and play in the backyard with her little friend Kit (played with sweet, wise child energy by Koven) forever. Karakas brings a home-spun rural edge to the gruff, worn-out Joyce; unlike Marlene, who couldn’t get out of town fast enough, Joyce stayed in their hometown to raise Angie.

Keating and Thompson make a great pair as the gossipy, snippy and ambitious Top Girls recruiters, interviewing their respective prospects with the impervious attitude of entitled gate keepers. And O’Dael brings both great comedy and drama as Gret, with her hearty appetite, lust for life and hair-raising tale of her campaign against the demons of Hell.

Golden’s theatrical, multimedia staging is both technically effective and dramatically compelling, as scenes shift from fantasy to reality, and present to past—Teodoro Dragonieri’s set largely constructed from doors, an apt image for the production. Scene changes feature a spritely young Dancer (a confident, mischievous and willowy Estella Haensel); and Viv Moore’s elegant, expressive choreography is playfully and tenderly accompanied by Richard Campbell’s sound design. Projected backgrounds (projection design by Madison Madhu) mark the change of space and passage of time, form urban to rural, and light to dark.

While the lives, times and stories of these women vary dramatically, crossing a broad range of lived experience, the themes of class, female identity and male entitlement emerge as common threads. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It is comic in its tragedy that, in 2019, half of the world’s population is still held back, to varying—and sometimes violent and criminal—degrees, from achieving its full potential. On the upside, we see these women persevere and push back—breaking rules and shattering expectations to thrive and live their dreams.

Top Girls continues this weekend on the Alumnae mainstage until February 2; get tickets online, by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1) or in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only).

The run includes a pre-show Panel “Women, Power and Success in the Age of Me Too” on January 24 at 6:30 pm; and a post-show talkback with the director and cast on January 27.

Check out the trailer by Nicholas Porteous:

 

Department of corrections: The original post misnamed the lighting designer as Jan Hines in the two photo credits; it’s actually Jay Hines. This has been corrected.

Top 10 theatre 2018

For obvious reasons, I haven’t checked out other reviewers’/blogger folks’ lists—so I don’t know what they’ve been saying—but is it just me or was this year’s top 10 list an especially challenging task? Seems to me that we had an extra large embarrassment of riches with this year’s theatre productions, so I’m cheating with a larger than usual honourable mention list this year.*

Top ten theatre productions for 2018 (in alphabetical order):

Dry Land – Cue6

George F. Walker Double Bill (Her Inside Life & Kill the Poor) – Leroy Street Theatre/Low Rise Productions/Storefront Theatre

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Soulpepper

Maggie & Pierre – timeshare productions 

The Message – Tarragon Theatre 

The Monkey Queen – Red Snow Collective

The Nether – Coal Mine & Studio 180 Theatre

Peter Pan – Bad Hats Theatre & Soulpepper 

The Pigeon – Alumnae Theatre FireWorks Festival

Punk Rock – Howland Company 

 

Honourable mentions:

Category E – Coal Mine Theatre 

A Christmas Carol – Three Ships Collective & Soup Can Theatre 

Little Gem – Toronto Irish Players 

Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua – Theatre Passe Muraille 

The Royale – Soulpepper 

Secret Life of a Mother – Theatre Centre

Vitals – Theatre Born Between 

What I Call Her – In Association & Crow’s Theatre 

*Including shows I covered in life with more cowbell this year. As I was employed by Nightwood Theatre, either on staff or freelance, I have not reviewed their shows this year.