FireWorks Festival: Fairy tale favourites collide with a contemporary feminist twist in the hilariously charming, bawdy If the Shoe Fits

 

Erik Mrakovcic & Marina Gomes. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Margaret Spence. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre launches the final week of its FireWorks Festival with Genevieve Adam’s If the Shoe Fits, directed by Heather Keith—opening last night in Alumnae’s Studio Theatre. Fairy tale favourites collide, with a contemporary feminist twist, in this hilariously charming, bawdy deconstructed Cinderella story—and an inside look at what really happens after the “happily ever after”.

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Chris Coculuzzi & Erik Mrakovcic. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Margaret Spence. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Hosted by our glittering Narrator (Eugenia De Jong, with a twinkle in her eye and an arch in her brow) as she interacts with both audience and characters, we’re introduced to the intrepid Sir Eglantine (Chris Coculuzzi), who’s been tasked by the Prince to find the young maiden who fits the pretty size 7 glass shoe that was left behind at the ball. He’s been at it for over two years with no success, and is at his wit’s end—until he learns of a simple pig farmer Ned (Erik Mrakovcic) who has a sister that he believes may be the one. Having raised his sister and run the family farm since they were orphaned as children, Ned is incredulous at first—especially as his sister is a rough and tumble kind of gal—but the possibility of a life of wealth and comfort for Nora (Marina Gomes), and a plumb position as the Royal Hog Supplier, convinces him to let Sir Eglantine try. And the shoe fits!

Meanwhile, at court, Felicite (Sophie McIntosh), Amandine (Jennifer Fahy) and Virginie (Chantale Groulx) share laughs and woes over a good sisterly bitch session (think Desperate Housewives of the French Court); all have either neglectful or beastly husbands, and all are engaged in affairs to varying degrees—in some cases, for economic survival.

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Jennifer Fahy, Sophie McIntosh & Chantale Groulx. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Margaret Spence. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Upon his arrival at court with Ned and Nora, Sir Eglantine finds himself in hot water with Virginie after sending no word while he was away for over two years. Amandine has her eye on some fresh meat: Ned, who has also recently been fitted with some fancy court clothes (big shouts to costume designer Margaret “The Costumator” Spence for the stunning—and surprising—period wardrobe). Felicite is charged with training Nora to be a lady, with hilarious results as Nora navigates court fashion, manners and deportment. Enter a young court violinist (Mark McKelvie), who is not all he seems, who has been watching Nora with great interest. Plots, plans and unexpected alliances ensue; and even the Narrator seems at a loss about what to do. Will tattered marriages be mended—and will the Prince have his mystery sweetheart for his wife?

Excellent work from the ensemble in this fast-paced, sharply funny fairy tale for modern times that incorporates issues of gender, class, marriage and consent in candid, provocative ways. Coculuzzi rounds out Sir Eglantine’s loyal, fastidious sense of duty with a soft, romantic heart; this plays nicely against Groulx’s sharp-tongued, cynical and pragmatic Virginie, a desperate, neglected wife and mother who longs for love and security. Mrakovcic gives an amiable, but opportunistic, turn as the homespun pig farmer Ned, who has quite the eye-opening when he becomes Amandine’s boy toy; putting the shoe on the other foot, so to speak. Fahy is deliciously arch and saucy as Amandine; as experienced in the ways of love as she is in revenge, Amandine is tougher than her powdered, ribboned exterior would suggest. Gomes is extremely likeable and feisty as the rough, independent Nora; with a Puck-like agility and sense of irreverent fun, Nora plays along with her courtly transformation—but finds she’s got a big decision to make. McIntosh infuses Felicite’s poignant sweetness with a determined sense of resolve and virtue, even when she’s in doubt of what to do. And McKelvie gives the ridiculously handsome and adorably awkward Prince a boyish naiveté; entitled and sheltered, the Prince has no idea about the world outside the castle, especially when it comes to meeting women.

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Mark McKelvie. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Margaret Spence. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

The knights and princes who save the damsels, or use the damsels save them from themselves, or find the mysterious girl who fits the shoe she at the ball, all feel entitled to own these women through marriage—all the while calling it “true love”. But who says the women were in distress, or wanted to save a cursed man from himself, or marry a prince?

The shoe may fit, but she doesn’t have to wear it.

If the Shoe Fits continues in the Alumnae Studio Theatre until November 24; get tickets online, by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1) or in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only). There will be a post-show talkback with the director, playwright and cast following the Saturday, November 23 matinée performance.

 

FireWorks Festival: Navigating the media circus in the face of profound loss in the moving, razor-sharp, thought-provoking Grief Circus

Bronson Lake & Alison Dickson. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Paige Foskett. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre opened its second week of the FireWorks Festival last night, with Crystal Wood’s Grief Circus, directed by Paige Foskett. As moving as it is razor-sharp, this timely multimedia piece holds up a mirror to society’s morbid fascination, involvement and sharing in the death of strangers. A family has lost a beloved daughter and sister, an event that becomes fresh meat for the news and social media feeding frenzy. As they navigate the media circus that follows, mother and sister take very different paths to work through their grief.

Leah (Alison Dickson) speaks to us directly, our host and narrator as we witness scenes—sometimes in flashback—around the events of her older sister Jesse’s (Claire MacMaster) disappearance. Jesse’s body was later found in a ravine, and both Leah and her mother Carol (Bernadette Medhurst) find themselves in the spotlight of an often intrusive, uncaring news media—even confronted by a photographer (Jack Everett) on the steps of their small-town church when they attend Jesse’s funeral. In the aftermath, while Leah finds herself slogging through a callous, click bait world of modern news and social media, bombarded with ignorance and cruelty as she struggles to work through grief and loss, she is appalled to find her mother joining in—writing a book about the experience of losing her daughter, and working with PR folks to book interviews.

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Alison Dickson & Claire MacMaster. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Paige Foskett. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Alternating between past and present, we see a 15-year-old Leah interacting with Jesse, who is her best friend, advisor, confidante and go-to source of info on the state of their parents’ shaky marriage; then a few years later being invited to a party with Jesse and her friends in Toronto, where Jesse disappears after leaving on her own. We see Leah go head to head with Carol over Carol’s making an industry of Jesse’s death; and the battle for Leah’s participation in a television interview, taking place the same day as her first day at university. And Leah has a meet cute with Charlie (Bronson Lake), an awkward but sweet university student; they go on a sort of date, but his motives are called into question when an altered recording of a chat he had with their server (Everett) turns up on the news, showing Leah in the worst possible light as the troubled sister of a famous dead girl.

Lovely work from the cast in this timely, moving and razor-sharp exploration of how news and social media can intrude upon and dishonour the departed, and have a profound impact on their loved ones. Dickson gives a stand-out performance as the whip-smart, introverted, wry-witted Leah; precocious, irreverent and wise beyond her years, Leah can be her own worst enemy as she keeps herself informed about world events—events that spark deep anxiety over the possibility of catastrophe. Conflicted about engaging with the Internet following Jesse’s death, what she finds there only serves to make her journey through grief more difficult.

MacMaster gives an energetic, luminous performance as the bubbly extrovert Jesse; the best big sister Leah could have, she’s super supportive and encouraging—balancing a respect for Leah’s boundaries with gentle pushes outside her comfort zone. Medhurst does a nice job with the conflicted Carol; a mother who’s lost her daughter, she deals with her grief the only way she knows how—honour Jesse’s memory so she won’t be forgotten. Lake gives an adorably awkward performance as the bashful Charlie; somewhat of an introvert himself, Charlie is interested in Leah, but unfortunately not very media-savvy. And Everett offers a great range of news media folk, from the intrusive jerk photographer at the funeral, to serious CTV reporter, to sleazy “journalist”.

Timely, moving and sharply funny, Grief Circus incorporates video and projected social media messaging (video design by director Foskett) to illustrate the scope of the family’s loss of a wonderful, energetic young woman—and the inappropriate, at times heartless, thoughtless and intrusive, response of the public. Strangers turning up at the funeral, or making comments in person or online; and, worst of all, the anonymous social media posters who cast negative, clueless aspersions about Jesse’s character—especially the trolls who say that Jesse had it coming.

Grief Circus continues in the Alumnae Studio Theatre until November 17; get tickets online, by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1) or in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only). There will be a post-show talkback with the director, playwright and cast following the Saturday, November 16 matinée performance.

FireWorks continues its three-week run until November 24, presenting a new show each week. The festival closes with Genevieve Adam’s If the Shoe Fits, directed by Heather Keith (Nov 20-24).

 

FireWorks Festival: Real-life fame, fortune & fall in the entertaining, heart-felt Belle Darling Klondike Queen

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Lindsay Sutherland Boal. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Adriana DeAngelis. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Nicholas Porteous.

Alumnae Theatre Company (ATC) opens its annual FireWorks Festival of new works with Natalie Frijia’s Belle Darling Klondike Queen, directed by Lori Delorme, with music direction by Anita Beaty—running upstairs in the Studio. Part cabaret, part vaudeville, all heart—this highly entertaining and engaging piece of musical storytelling takes us on vaudeville star Klondike Kate’s (born Kathleen Rockwell) real-life journey of fame, fortune and fall, all set against the backdrop of fading days of the Klondike Gold Rush.

Put on your boots, leave your pick and sing along at the Portland Alaska Yukon Society’s 1931 Sourdough Reunion, featuring headliner—none other than the famous star of vaudeville stage—Klondike Kate (Lindsay Sutherland Boal)! Alumnae Theatre’s Studio Theatre has been transformed into a vaudeville music hall for this real-life tale of the highs and lows of Kate’s storied career in Canada’s North, and dreams of becoming a nation-wide vaudeville impressaria across the U.S.

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Sarah Kaufmann, Madeleine Keesmaat-Walsh, Roxhanne Norman & Lindsay Sutherland Boal. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Adriana DeAngelis. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Nicholas Porteous.

Accompanied by a fine ensemble of multi-talented, multi-tasking actors (Sarah Kaufmann, Roxhanne Norman and Madeleine Keesmaat-Walsh), with piano player Calvin Laveck tickling the ivories, Kate takes us on a whirlwind musical and storytelling tour of her life—from wayward Victorian Catholic schoolgirl (Kathleen), to vaudeville chorus girl (Kitty), to headliner Belle Darling Klondike Queen (Kate), and a near miss as Pantages theatre partner and impressaria.

Kate has no use for being a “lady” in the traditional Victorian sense of the word, and sets off on an adventure of her own making—breaking gender barriers and the rules as she goes. Taking us back to the “good ‘ol days” with song, story and satire, the God’s honest truth is that these meanderings of nostalgia can’t erase the personal and financial risk, danger and heartbreak of those who tried their luck—and put their strength and resolve to the test—searching for gold in those freezing cold Northern mountains. All for fame and fortune.

Sutherland Boal gives a powerhouse performance as the ambitious, fearless Klondike Kate—a role that amply showcases her considerable vocal chops as she belts out rousing music hall tunes and caresses melancholy ballads. Sassy, classy, gutsy and irreverent, Kate turns away from what’s expected of her as a “good Victorian lady” to carve out her own path and live on her own terms. And beneath the seasoned showmanship and razzmatazz of Kate’s vaudeville persona, Sutherland Boal digs deep to reveal the broken-hearted woman who reached for it all only to find her ultimate dream of business partnership taken away. Disappointed, but not discouraged, she soldiers on—the show must go on, after all.

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Sarah Kaufmann. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Adriana DeAngelis. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Nicholas Porteous.

She is well-supported by a stand-out ensemble; changing character on a dime in this fast-paced, alternately slapstick and poignant trip through music hall shenanigans both on and off the stage. Kaufmann is adorably Puck-like in her comic turns as the crafty entrepreneur Sophie, and a lusty young sourdough (a Yukon resident) on the make. Norman performs with a playful glint in her eye—and has an outstanding set of pipes herself—in her saucy turn as Kate’s pal and vaudeville partner Gertie; and the charming and irresistible, but false, Alexander Pantages. And Keesmaat-Walsh brings hilarity and swagger as Kate’s gruff boss Arizona Charlie and an awkward strong woman act, among others.

It’s a real-life adventure of fame, fortune and fall—told with song, story and heart. But you don’t have to believe me; check out the trailer (scroll down on the show page).

Belle Darling Klondike Queen continues in the Alumnae Studio Theatre until November 10; get advance tickets online or by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1), or pick up in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only). There will be a post-show talkback with the director, playwright and cast following the Saturday, November 9 matinée performance.

FireWorks continues its three-week run until November 24, presenting a new show each week: Crystal Wood’s Grief Circus, directed by Paige Foskett (Nov 13-17); and Genevieve Adam’s If the Shoe Fits, directed by Heather Keith (Nov 20-24).

 

 

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.

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.