Rough & rowdy, it’s all guts & no glory in the funny, poignant, political The Gut Girls

They’re an unruly, foul-mouthed, hard-working, hard-drinking bunch ‘a gals—and their world is about to be turned upside down.

Alumnae Theatre starts off the New Year with its production of Sarah Daniels’ The Gut Girls, directed by Maya Rabinovitch. The Gut Girls is part of Alumnae’s Retrospective Series, leading up to its 100th anniversary next season.

The Gut Girls takes us to 1901, where the “gut girls” work in a gutting shed in the Foreign Cattle Market in Deptford, England. Paid good money, but working punishing hours in a foul environment—often up to their ankles in blood—it’s an offal job, but somebody’s got to do it.

Gut girls Polly (Alexandra Augustine), Ellen (Sarah Thorpe), Maggie (Kaya Bucholc) and Kate (Tasia Loeffler-Vulpe) take new girl Annie (Claire Keating) under their wing. Formerly in service, Annie found herself pregnant and fired, now living in a home for wayward women since the birth of her stillborn child—and finds friends, support and some new digs as she learns the ropes in the shed.

Enter do-gooder Lady Helena (Nicole Arends) with her friend Lord Edwin (Brendan O’Reilly) in tow. A self-appointed crusader for the downtrodden, especially working class women toiling in harsh conditions, she is instrumental in running a women’s club that teaches domestic skills and lady-like manners so women can transition into service. Through her friend Arthur (Mike Hogan), Lady Helena brokers an arrangement for the girls to be let off work an hour early on Thursdays, and garners the assistance of Arthur’s painfully shy wife Priscilla (Thorpe) to coax the girls to come to the club.

Hilarious times ensue, revealing class divisions and presumptions, as Lady Helena and Priscilla attempt to tame this wild group of young women. And when they learn that the sheds are to be shut down, their timing for training the women becomes all the more urgent—the gut girls are unemployable without new skills and ‘proper’ manners to recommend them. And the so-called gentlemen Edwin and Arthur prove to be not as gentlemanly as they appear, causing Maggie to quit the club and Priscilla to go on sick leave.

Struggling to learn new skills and find jobs, and with few prospects beyond the factories, pubs, service or the street, the gut girls have to take what they can get—and that means giving up their independence, dreams and even hope, in order to survive. Grimly circumspect about their situation, they’ve got the lady balls to take it, even though their hearts and spirits are broken.

Really lovely work from the ensemble, which shifts adeptly from comedy to drama throughout this compelling—not to mention timely—story. Augustine’s Polly is the roughest, toughest, biggest tomboy of the gang; she’s also a great jokester with a big heart. Thorpe (doing double duty as actor and co-producer) gives a strong, impassioned performance as Ellen, who tirelessly attempts to spread awareness of workers’ rights and the benefits of unionizing; as Priscilla, she blossoms from mousy wallflower to a caring and assertive mentor—a transformation that is quickly, and sadly, nipped in the bud by her bullying husband. Bucholc’s Maggie, like Polly, has a big heart under that devil-may-care attitude; a gut girl veteran, she’s supporting her mum and umpteen siblings—and must make a hard choice in order to keep life and limb together.

Loeffler-Vulpe’s Kate is a cheeky delight; one of the youngest gut girls, she’s an optimistic realist as she dreams big dreams and longs for a better life with her boyfriend Jim (O’Reilly). As new kid Annie, Keating gives us our introduction to the sights and smells of the gutting shed; formerly in a relatively comfortable job in service, Annie has first-hand experience of where ungentlemanly behaviour can put a young working class woman.

Arends is a formidable Lady Helena; on a single-minded mission to tame these rowdy young things into respectable young ladies, her lack of understanding and conditional respect for these women have unexpected, serious consequences. You know what they say about the road to hell. O’Reilly goes from clown to villain as Lord Edwin; a love-sick puppy following Lady Helena about, he turns his unwanted attentions to Maggie in a more forceful manner—with dire results for her. And he gives a sweet turn as Kate’s boyfriend Jim, who dreams of owning a toy shop. Hogan is an especially busy actor, playing four characters; notably the gruff gutting shed foreman Harry, barkeep Len (who has an eye on Maggie), and Priscilla’s controlling, devious husband Arthur.

With big shouts to the design team: Marysia Bucholc for the evocative, textured set (featuring scrubbed blood stains); Wendel Wray for the period costumes (especially the hats!); and Julie Skene for the entertaining period music (ranging from vaudeville to Scott Joplin).

Rough and rowdy, it’s all guts and no glory in the funny, poignant, political The Gut Girls.

The Gut Girls continues on the Alumnae Mainstage till February 4; for ticket info and online purchases, visit their website.

Special pre-show event in the lobby Jan 21 @ 6:45 pm: Prior to tonight’s performance, writer/performer and producer of the storytelling show Storystar Erin Rogers leads a group of storytellers as they relate tales of women’s and workers’ rights. Participants include Toronto-based writer, activist and social agitator Anne Thériault; United Church minister Evan Smith; and Seneca College and Second City storytelling instructor Sage Tyrtle.

Special pre-show event in the lobby Jan 26 @ 6:45 pm: President of United Steelworkers Local 8300 and the Steelworkers Toronto Area Council Carolyn Egan speaks about the rise of the labour movement and its impact on women in the workforce.

Photo by Ashley Elliot: Back – Nicole Arends. Front – Kaya Bucholc, Sarah Thorpe, Alexandra Augustine, Tasia Loeffler-Vulpe & Claire Keating

Stageworthy Podcast interview

Shortly before the holiday, I sat on the other side of the interview table with Phil Rickaby of Stageworthy Podcast as we chatted about theatre and the life with more cowbell blog. Thanks, Phil – I had a blast!

The interview is about an hour long; give it a listen here.

Photo by Lisa MacIntosh, taken outside Alumnae Theatre.

Courage, poetry & resilience. Final words & accounts of the 16 executed rebels in the moving A Terrible Beauty: Voices from 1916

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Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?

That is heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?

No, no, not night but death.
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.

And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse —
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Whenever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Easter 1916, by W.B. Yeats

The Toronto Irish Players, as part of their commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Irish Rising, presented A Terrible Beauty: Voices from 1916, an evening of readings and music, assembled and directed by Lucy Brennan, on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage last night.

The evening began with the Irish Proclamation of Independence, read at the top of the stairs near the entrance of the Mainstage before we were invited to enter and take our seats. What followed was a multimedia tribute of 1916 Rising film footage and photographs, and readings of words written by the 16, and accounts from their family, loved ones, attending priests and brothers in arms. All of this interspersed with a cappella music breaks, sung by a single male voice: Mise Eire (Sean Ó Riada), The Bold Fenian Men (Peadar Kearny), The Minstrel Boy (Thomas Moore) and A Nation Once Again (Thomas Davis); and including poetry by W.B. Yeats, Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Mary Plunkett, as well as an introductory composition by director Lucy Brennan, and verbatim text of the last words and meetings in Kilmainham Jail, taken from Last Words.

With its dramatic readings of quotes, statements, and extracts from letters and speeches by and about the 16 leaders and executed rebels of the 1916 Irish Rising, A Terrible Beauty gives us a glimpse into the lives and dreams of those who were, in the words of the Proclamation (read on the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin by Patrick Pearse on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916) fighting for an Ireland that “guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens and [which] declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally.”

The 16 leaders and executed rebels included in the evening’s readings included the seven signatories of the Proclamation (Éamonn Ceannt, Thomas James Clarke, James Connolly, Seán MacDiarmada, Thomas MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse and Joseph Mary Plunkett) and nine other executed leaders (Roger Casement, Con Colbert, Edward Daly, Seán Heuston, Thomas Kent, John MacBride, Michael Mallin, Michael O’Hanranhan and William Pearse).

The ensemble did a lovely job with these deeply moving – at times tender, fierce and poetic – final words and first-hand accounts. The humanity and struggles of these men, and the sorrow of their family and those near to them coming to life on stage; the audience rapt in remembrance, responding with sounds of recognition, dismay, the occasional chuckle, and even humming or singing along with the songs. Kudos to the cast, in order of appearance (in some cases, playing multiple roles): Mark Whelan, Alan King, Nora Rafferty, Sheila DeCuyper, David Mackett, Jean Ireton, Danny Sullivan, James Phelan, Catherina Maughan, Alan Hunt, Mairead Clancy, Lucy Brennan, Davis Tyrell and Mark Hill. And thanks to the Toronto Irish Players and Lucy Brennan for the comprehensive and informative program notes.

Courage, poetry and resilience. Final words and accounts of the 16 executed rebels in the moving A Terrible Beauty: Voices from 1916.

A Terrible Beauty: Voices from 1916 was a one-night only event. You can catch the Toronto Irish Players as they continue their run of John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar, on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until Nov 5.

You can keep up with the Toronto Irish Players on Twitter and Facebook.

Love & loss, assumptions & perspectives in sharp, touching, painfully funny This

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Audra Yulanda Gray & Amanda Jane Smith in This – photos by Bruce Peters

 

Alumnae Theatre Company opened its 2016-17 season with Melissa James Gibson’s This, directed by Rebecca Ballarin, on the Mainstage on Friday night. I caught the matinée yesterday afternoon.

Four college friends, now in their late 30s, share life, love and loss in this poignant, sometimes wacky tale of relationships, and navigating life’s changes and chaos. New parents Marrell (Audra Yulanda Gray) and Tom (Andrew Batten) struggle with sleepless, sexless nights while their friend Jane (Amanda Jane Smith) deals with being a widow and single mom. Meanwhile, their single gay friend Alan (Michael Harvey), whose exceptional memory has earned him a career as a mnemonist, is itching for a new job. Marrell’s attempt to set Jane up with French doctor Jean Pierre (Christian Martel) at a dinner party has an unexpected outcome and, coupled with various assumptions and perceptions, all hell breaks loose – forcing the tight-knit gang to examine their relationships; unable to revise history as Alan corrects their memories of pivotal conversations and moments.

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Audra Yulanda Gray & Michael Harvey in This

Really nice work from the cast with this sharp, mercurial script as the characters riff on modern life’s foibles – from Brita filters to Baby Bjorns – giving a contemporary Noel Coward vibe to the banter. Smith is adorably neurotic and poignantly adrift as Jane, coming up on the first anniversary of her husband’s death; his ashes still in an urn on top of her fridge. Scattered and trying her best to be a trouper, she’s a mess under the relatively together exterior she presents to her friends. Gray brings a great combination of fastidiousness and frustration to Marrell; in command of her household, Marrell is annoyed and perhaps a bit fearful about her non-existent sex life with Tom. Batten gives Tom a lovely beleaguered lost boy quality; desperate, like Marrell, for a decent night’s sleep, Tom struggles with issues of desire, as well as self-esteem.

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Christian Martel, Amanda Jane Smith & Andrew Batten in This

Harvey is a laugh-out-loud delight as Alan; sharp-witted and self-involved, he’s a lovable pain in the ass who keeps the group’s memories of conversations on point. Martel brings a great sense of amusement and observation to Jean Pierre, a physician with Doctors Without Borders; a cultural and social outsider looking in on the group, like Alan he offers perspective on their problems – but his patience only goes so far.

Life is what it is – and sometimes what it is is messy. Love and loss, assumptions and perspectives in sharp, touching, painfully funny This.

This runs on the Alumnae mainstage until Oct 1; you can purchase tickets in advance online or reserve by phone at 416-364-4170, ext. 1.

In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

In memoriam: Ed Rosing

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Ed Rosing – during a break in scenic painting on The Lady’s Not For Burning at Alumnae Theatre

Ed Rosing

March 11, 1929 – September 12, 2016

Ed Rosing (aka Eddie, Eduardo) was a creative soul with a quick, sharp wit, and a great love of classical music, opera and theatre. He played piano, was an original founding member of Cabbagetown Theatre, and worked as a respected interior decorator (into his late 80s, he still had two clients!), as well as a theatre set and lighting designer, scenic artist and director.

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Ed and Cody Boyd, working on the lighting for The Lady’s Not For Burning at Alumnae Theatre

I met Ed at Alumnae Theatre and got to know him during a production of Lady Windermere’s Fan, where he was the lighting designer and I was playing Cecil Graham. His gorgeous lighting plot included a gradual sunset during the opening scenes and a lovely fireplace lit room for Lord Darlington’s apartment (a cast and audience favourite). After that, I had the pleasure of painting sets he and others designed, as well as his apartment at PAL Toronto, and being directed by him in a New Ideas Festival reading of Jamie Johnson’s Falling.

He was a good friend, and a generous and knowledgeable mentor – and I will miss him.

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Ed & Bailey at Kensington Hospice – photo by Brett Gueuter

Memorial donations can be made to Kensington Hospice, where Ed spent his final days, surrounded by loving friends and family (and even a dog or two), and caring staff and volunteers. A home away from home, Ed appreciated the comfortable and beautiful surroundings – and especially enjoyed the food – listening to classical music and watching movies and TV shows on Netflix (Murdoch Mysteries was a favourite).

Wherever he is, I’m sure he’s already coming up with ideas to make it even more startlingly beautiful.

Below are some snaps I took of some of his Alumnae Theatre sets: Cosi, The Drowning Girls, The Lady’s Not For Burning and Blood Relations:

 

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Nasty family schemes go to hell in Coal Mine Theatre’s primal, raw & darkly funny Killer Joe

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Matthew Edison (standing). Seated (l to r): Paul Fauteux, Madison Walsh, Vivien Endicott-Douglas & Matthew Gouveia – photo by Matt Campagna

There’s a mini-Lettsapalooza going on in Toronto right now – and last night, I stopped by Coal Mine Theatre to see their production of Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe, directed by Peter Pasyk.

Chris Smith (Matthew Gouveia) is in big trouble. In deep with drug debts, he owes a mean son of a bitch named Digger $6,000. Chris doesn’t have $6,000. But he has a plan. A crazy-ass plan in which he enlists the aid of his dad Ansel (Paul Fauteux) to hire dirty Dallas P.D. detective Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew Edison) to knock off his no-good, alcoholic mother and get the insurance money. Chris and Ansel aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed – and decidedly not discrete – and it’s not long before Chris’s young stepmother Sharla (Madison Walsh) and kid sister Dottie (Vivien Endicott-Douglas), who’s listed as their mother’s beneficiary, are in on the plan. And because they don’t have the $25,000 they need to pay Killer Joe for his services, they need to come up with a retainer to keep him on board – and Chris and Ansel must decide what they’re willing to sacrifice to that end. Scheme on top of scheme unravels, each one worse than the one before it, and the Smith family displays some Olympic-level dumbassery, seasoned with sex, violence and some evil dark humour. And, of course, things go horribly, horribly wrong. Think George F. Walker meets Fargo in a Texas trailer park.

Killer Joe has a damn fine cast. The stakes are crazy high and the desperation is turned up to 11 with the knob broke off – and these actors really give ‘er. As Chris, Gouveia turns up the heat and pace with practically every scene he’s in, and he’s found the complexity of a man who’s deeply protective of his loved ones, but incredibly careless about putting them in harm’s way. You can see Chris’s mind turning like a hamster wheel, churning out worse idea after bad idea; this may be the first time in his lazy-ass, drug-addled life that he’s ever exhibited some ambition and he’s in it 110% – until second, and even third, thoughts start seeping in, that is. Walsh gives Sharla a saucy, manipulative edge; ruthless and focused in her way, Sharla’s got the chops for sexing her way to what she wants, but lacks the brains to think things through. Fauteux’s Ansel is a hilarious combination of clueless and cowardly; easily distracted by the TV and dumb enough to go along with Chris’s plan for “easy money,” Ansel is deluded in thinking he’s the true head of the household and truly baffled when things go south. Endicott-Douglas brings a spacey, child-like quality to the wide-eyed, Bruce Lee Kung Fu fan Dottie; likely brain-damaged from maternal abuse when she was an infant, she moves through the world at a dreamy, sleep-walking pace – and talks when she sleep walks, comprehending more than others think. Edison is chilling as Killer Joe; a tall, dark and handsome southern gentleman with a deep, gravelly voice and eyes that pierce, killing is commerce to Joe, and human lives are bought and sold with a civil, verbal contract. He’s a stone cold killer and merciless professional – and definitely not a man you want to cross.

With shouts to set/lighting designer Patrick Lavender, costume designer Jenna McCutchen and sound designer Christopher Stanton for their work on creating this filthy, seedy, trailer trash world. You can almost feel the grime on that linoleum and smell the sweat on Ansel’s greasy undershirt. The pre-show thunder is particularly ominous – starting out faint and far away, then getting louder and closer when the action starts. And, as for the ending, you’ll never hear Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” the same way again.

Nasty family schemes go to hell in Coal Mine Theatre’s primal, raw and darkly funny Killer Joe.

Killer Joe continues at Coal Mine Theatre until Apr 24. It’s an intimate venue and a popular show, so book ahead to avoid disappointment. Please note the 7:30 p.m. start time; the play runs 90 minutes with no intermission and no latecomers will be admitted. The box office opens at 6:45 p.m. and takes cash only at the door.

If you haven’t been out to Coal Mine Theatre for a while, also note that they’ve moved further east on Danforth from their original location; still conveniently located near a Magic Oven and now with their own storefront space (and washroom), it’s at 1454 Danforth Ave, between Greenwood and Coxwell.

And, speaking of Lettsapalooza: Also running in Toronto right now is Alumnae Theatre Company’s production of Letts’ August: Osage County (till Apr 23). You can check out the cowbell post for that show here.

Casual cruelty & family secrets in ferociously funny, devastatingly poignant August: Osage County

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Marie Carriere Gleason (foreground), with Paul Cotton, Kelly-Marie Murtha, Melinda Jordan, Pearl Ho & Andrew Batten – photos by Bruce Peters

Alumnae Theatre Company cordially invites you to attend a family gathering at the home of Beverly and Violet Weston in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

Alumnae opened its production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County on the mainstage last night. Directed by Victoria Shepherd and featuring a talented ensemble, this is family dysfunction at its grittiest, no holds barred best.

When the Weston family patriarch (Thomas Gough) goes missing, middle daughter Ivy (Andrea Lyons) – the only child who stayed in town – rallies the family around her ailing mother Violet (Marie Carriere Gleason). Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Carol McLennan) and husband Charlie (Rob Candy) are the first to arrive, and we get a sense of the estrangement that underpins the family dynamic. The Weston’s oldest daughter Barbara (Kelly-Marie Murtha) is the most wanted – but least wanting – to be there; she arrives from Colorado with husband Bill (Paul Cotton) and 14-year-old daughter Jean (Melinda Jordan) in tow. Add to this mix youngest Weston girl Karen (Kathleen Jackson Allamby) and fiancé Steve (Chris Peterson), and cousin Little Charles (Neil Cameron), and the family circus is complete – occasionally witnessed from the outside by housekeeper/caregiver Johnna (Pearl Ho) and Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Andrew Batten). The atmosphere becomes rife with nostalgia (for better or worse), secrets and schemes as things fall apart and come together only to fall apart again and again.

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Marie Carriere Gleason & Andrea Lyons

Nice work all around from this large, engaging cast. The play runs two and a half hours, plus intermission, but doesn’t feel like it. The Weston family women anchor this story – and the cast is particularly strong here. Gleason’s Violet is a complex puzzle of illness, addiction and survivor; quick to offer unsolicited – and decidedly not feminist – advice to the women in her life, her brutal honesty is shockingly unforgiving. Moments of manipulation and Hollywood-calibre drama queen can turn (seemingly) into flashes of genuine tenderness. Lyons gives a lovely, multi-layered performance as the put-upon Ivy; a character that could easily become a one-dimensional family doormat, she pushes back with a sharp wit and dark sense of humour. She has a pure heart and the patience of a saint, but as the main butt of her mother’s criticism, even she has her limits. Murtha’s Barbara is the picture of a woman on the edge, struggling with a complex set of emotions as her whole world is crumbling around her. The family rock, she strives to keep things together even as she’s falling apart herself – by turns angry, exasperated, protective and acerbically funny, putting out one fire as another appears. Allamby’s Karen is a beautiful contradiction; a high-energy chatterbox, Karen strives for self-awareness and adulthood, but comes off as flakey and deluded, with a poignant, child-like quality to her rose-coloured family nostalgia, born of selective memory. McLennan’s Mattie Fae, like her sister Violet, is a complex woman of contradiction – as cruel in her judgemental criticism (in her case, aimed at her son Little Charles) as she is fiercely protective of her family, including her son. And Jordan brings a precocious, wise child edge to Jean; a self-possessed young film buff coming into herself as she deals with her parents’ relationship issues.

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Pearl Ho & Thomas Gough

Other stand-outs include Gough’s wry-witted, melancholy alcoholic Beverly; a lauded poet and academic at the end of his rope, we only see him at the top of the play, but his presence resonates and stays with us. Batten brings an understated, quiet and boyish bashfulness and sense of anticipation to the Sheriff, a former beau of Barbara’s. And Peterson’s Steve is both charming and skeevy; a smooth operator under that sweet, helpful exterior.

It’s like watching a train wreck – and you can’t look away. The high drama of this family gathering is tempered by sharp-edged, dark humour – which the family uses for both self-protection and sniper attacks – and occasional moments of genuine, loving connection. Nothing brings out a family’s true colours like tragedy.

With shouts to set designer Alexis Chubb’s minimalist, multi-level set, with its inventive and effective multiple playing areas and nooks for the various family vignettes. And to John Stuart Campbell for the sound design and original composition; his song “Can’t Run Far Enough” features vocals by Vivien Shepherd and Ron Smith on harmonica – and haunting, wistful western sounds.

Casual cruelty and family secrets abound in Alumnae’s ferociously funny, devastatingly poignant production of August: Osage County.

August: Osage County continues on the Alumnae mainstage until April 23; check here for ticket purchase/info. Performances include a pre-show chat with the design team at noon tomorrow (Sun, Apr 10); and a post-show talkback with the cast and crew on Sun, Apr 17.

Related trivia/info: Former Alumnae President (and damn fine actor) Dinah Watts is in a London Community Players’ production of August: Osage County in London, ON right now. Lett’s first play Killer Joe is in production at Coal Mine Theatre till April 24 (I’m seeing it on Tuesday). And founder/playwright at Cue6 Theatre Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman (who was in Alumnae’s production of Wit, and has play We Three running now at Tarragon) is on the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s literary team for the world premiere of Letts’ play Mary Page Marlowe.

Oh yeah, and here’s the awesome trailer for the Alumnae production of August: Osage County (video by Nicholas Porteous):