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.

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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.

FireWorks Festival: Plotting cold, sweet revenge in the darkly funny, chilling The Pigeon

 

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Graphic design by Suzanne Courtney

Alumnae Theatre opened its annual FireWorks Festival of new works with a tale of unlikely partners and a plot for revenge against a common enemy in Chloë Whitehorn’s darkly funny, chilling The Pigeon—directed by Victoria Shepherd and assistant director Nicole Entin, and running in Alumnae’s Studio theatre.

 

Jegger (John Shubat), a tough-looking young man in black, and Malone (Liz Best), a prim, sharply dressed woman old enough to be his mother, have little in common—other than a common enemy and a decision to join forces to exact revenge, that is. Every day, they meet for lunch on a park bench to hatch their plan.

On the other side of Jegger’s life is his pregnant girlfriend Amy (Marina Gomes); and while Malone schools him on the fine art of vengeance, Amy has taken up educating him about babies. Excited and anxious about the prospect of being a father, Jegger starts to have second thoughts about the revenge plan. Malone has a back-up plan and he will be the messenger—and their relationship will never be the same.

Stellar, compelling performances from the cast in a series of two-hander scenes that play back and forth across the stage, from the park bench to Jegger and Amy’s apartment. Shubat and Best have a tight, razor-sharp rapport as Jegger and Malone; Shubat’s digital-age, sullen, socially aware Jegger and Best’s old-school, acerbic, “culturally insensitive” (i.e., racist) Malone are perfect foils and fine complements. These two characters met only recently and have relatively nothing in common other than a flair for detailed observation and mercurial wit—and an appetite for revenge, coincidentally for the same individual. Gomes’s bubbly, positive and protective Amy is the lighter side of Jegger’s relationships here, providing a sharp contrast to the tone of his relationship with Malone. Amy acts as Jegger’s conscience; and is instrumental in his decision to back out of the revenge plot as she seeks to intervene for the good of their future as a young family.

Over the course of 65 minutes, it’s a slow burn; the bubbles playfully popping to the surface until they reach a boiling point. It’s interesting to see the different aspects of Jegger’s personality that emerge with the two women. A stand-up guy in any case, he takes on a darker, more malevolent vibe with the bitter Malone, who brings out his rage; and a lighter and optimistic jam with the sweet Amy, who provides a safe place for him to unpack his hurt and vulnerability. It clearly troubles him when the dark seeps into the light—and while Jegger is happy to stay on board Malone’s scheme as a messenger, he has no idea what the message will be.

Last night’s post-show talkback featured sound designer/composer John Stuart Campbell, a long-time friend and colleague of Shepherd’s, who spoke about the process of incorporating music into a play. Campbell described music as “a howl at the moon” and an “emotional shorthand,” wherein the sound design/composition is informed by the text, and mindful in its respect for the actors and overall production design. Choosing from a tool box that includes picking an instrument for each character, everyday ambient sound recordings, writing themes for characters or incorporating popular music—with arrangements tailored to the production—Campbell creates a soundtrack that supports and highlights the action. In the case of The Pigeon, he decided to largely forego scene change music, given the flow of the play and split scene staging. He did, however, use an eerie version of On the Street Where You Live (vocals by Vivien Shepherd) to open the play, with Every Breath You Take (The Police) in the pre-show; spooky and sweet, and both underscoring the creepy, stalker vibe of the revenge plot.

The Pigeon continues in the Alumnae Theatre Studio until November 11. Get advance tickets online, by calling the box office: 416-364-4170, ext. 1 or in-person at the door (cash only); box office opens one hour before curtain time. All FireWorks performances run Wednesday – Saturday at 8 pm, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 pm.

Check out the trailer for The Pigeon—by Nicholas Porteous.

The three-week long FireWorks Festival continues to November 25, with two more productions (one each week):  Elmar Maripuu’s Moving On (Nov 14-18) and Romeo Ciolfi’s Animal (Nov 21-25).

Keep up with Alumnae Theatre on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Freedom of expression & political oppression in a digital age in the chilling, intersectional, provocative Theory

Sascha Cole. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

 

Under what circumstances should freedom of expression be censored or policed? At what point does politics, however liberal or progressive, become unforgiving and oppressive? Tarragon Theatre’s production of Norman Yeung’s Theory, directed by Esther Jun, assisted by Stephanie Williams, examines the impact of film and social media on modern-day discourse through an intersectional lens, where academia meets art—with chilling and provocative results.

I saw the genesis of Theory, first as a reading at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival and then as a full production at SummerWorks, back in 2010. It appeared again at Alumnae during FireWorks Festival 2013—at which point, at the suggestion of dramaturge Shirley Barrie, lead character Isabelle’s boyfriend was re-written as a female character. I missed the 2013 production, but was happy to see the evolution of the piece in the current Tarragon presentation, where Isabelle has a wife who is also a person of colour.

Rookie film studies prof Isabelle (Sascha Cole, in the role from the very beginning) has set up an online message board off the campus server—a bit of a rogue move that becomes even more so with an ‘anything goes’ policy. Her film theory students will self-moderate and there are no plans for censorship. And, in a classic Dead Poets Society moment, she has her students tear out the film screening list from the syllabus—full of white male directors—and replaces it with a more diverse, contemporary list. Even her core group of vocal, engaged students—Davinder (Bilal Baig), Safina (Asha James), Richard (Kyle Orzech) and Jorge (Anthony Perpuse)—have questions and misgivings about the nature of the message board and revised film list, which includes the controversial Baise Moi, translated into Rape Me in an English release.

Isabelle’s wife Lee (Audrey Dwyer)—a Black, tenured prof at the same university—also has reservations about the student message board; and like her, one can’t help but wonder if Isabelle is trying too hard to look cool and connect with her students as adults and academics. Racist and homophobic remarks begin to emerge on the message board—presented onstage via projection (design by Cameron Davis)—some of which are directed at other students.  And, while Isabelle insists that nothing offends her and refuses to censor the board—viewing the remarks in the context of fodder for adult, academic conversation and exploration—some of her students don’t see it that way.

Video messages start appearing, at first referencing films the class is studying, then getting increasingly graphic and violent, and directed toward Isabelle. Becoming obsessed with finding out who the perpetrator is, the strain on Isabelle and her relationship with Lee starts to show; she keeps putting off their plans to have a baby and starts spending an inordinate amount of time on the message board.

As the messages get more personal and close to home, showing up in her personal email, text messages and even on her doorstep, Isabelle blocks a user called @Richard69 and turns to department head Owen (Fabrizio Filippo) to see if she can launch a complaint or investigation to learn the identity of the student. It’s during this meeting that she learns there’s been a complaint launched against her. Isabelle begins to suspect the culprit is among her core group of students, but has no solid proof.

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Sascha Cole & Audrey Dwyer. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

Outstanding work from the cast in this chilling multi-media psychological thriller. There’s a taut scholarly edge in Cole’s performance of Isabelle; and an awkwardness in Isabelle’s attempts to connect with her students on a laid back, personal level. Under pressure to make tenure, Isabelle must walk the line between provoking thought and keeping her students and  superiors happy. Dwyer’s good-humoured academic veteran Lee goes beyond being a great foil and complement to Cole’s Isabelle—she’s the sociopolitical conscience in the relationship and in the piece. A supportive and nurturing partner, Lee has no trouble calling Isabelle out when she’s neglecting their relationship or forgetting to check her privilege. Filippo gives a great turn as the cool guy department head Owen; like Isabelle, he’s invested in keeping everyone happy—but his flip, hip dude exterior belies the institutional administrator who must also answer to higher powers in the university.

Really nice, sharply drawn work from the student chorus. Baig’s sassy, queer South Asian Davinder and James’ earnest, politically aware Safina (Asha James), who is Black, are particularly aware of and sensitive to the homophobic and racist remarks posted online; and Safina is uncomfortable with some of the course content. Both are open and willing to expand their minds and engage in debate; but they understandably draw the line at hate messaging. Perpuse brings a fun class clown energy to Jorge, who posits that porn should be given equal consideration with other genres. And Orzech’s nerdy, curious Richard seems affable enough, but there’s a dark undercurrent to this curious, white kid as he pleads “context” to his observations on films featuring storytelling filtered through a racist lens.

Photo-featuring-Bilal-Baig-Anthony-Perpuse-Asha-James-Kyle-Orzech-and-Sascha-Cole-by-Cylla-von-Tiedemann-2-1024x614
Bilal Baig, Anthony Perpuse, Asha James, Kyle Orzech & Sascha Cole. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

Isabelle realizes that she’s underestimated the power of a digital media and the accompanying anonymity of user names, which make for an easy, consequence-free platform for hate speech and intolerance; and she’s forced to examine her inconsistent handling of conversation that veers toward hate speech. Her progressive feminist liberal politics and attempts at provoking thought have pushed buttons and opened a Pandora’s box of alt-right ill will. Is she complicit in fostering oppression by holding back on deleting racist and homophobic comments? Timely in its recognition of alt-right backlash, Theory reminds us of the inevitable pendulum backswing on progressive sociopolitical change.

Theory continues in the Tarragon Extraspace until November 25. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office at 416-531-1827.

The bittersweet rhythms of life in the wistful, nostalgic, entertaining Dancing at Lughnasa

Opening its 2018-19 season at Alumnae Theatre last night, the Toronto Irish Players take us to 1936 Donegal, and the rural home of the Mundy family as they struggle with life, love and changing times, in their wistful, nostalgic and entertaining production of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, directed by David Eden.

A bittersweet memory play, we’re hosted by narrator Michael (Enda Reilly), who was raised by his single mother, spirited, irreverent Christina (Lauren McGinty) and her four sisters. Their parents dead, the eldest resident sibling and local school teacher, the prim and proper Kate (Erin Jones) is the de facto matriarch; family clown Maggie (Rebecca De La Cour) looks after the small family farm; and the quiet Agnes (Donna O’Regan) and simple-minded Rose (Áine Donnelly) earn money by knitting gloves.

The return of their brother Father Jack (Ian McGarrett), sent home from his mission in Uganda by his superiors, both causes and coincides with significant changes in their lives and position in their home village of Ballybeg—especially lending truth to the rumour that Jack was dismissed for “going native” and adapting, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, a too familiar and accepting attitude of local custom and ritual. Industrialization is catching up with rural Ireland, and factory-made goods are putting handwork at risk. Ongoing, if not sporadic, visits from Michael’s father Gerry (Sean Gilheany), a Welsh wanderer turned gramophone salesman, give the family—especially Christina and Michael—rare and welcome glimpses of the possibility of hope for something better; and a brief respite from the dullness of their workaday lives and the stresses of making ends meet during the Depression.

The family’s individual and collective history is both merry and melancholy; and lives are forever changed by forces largely beyond their control. And while Michael acknowledges the hard times of struggle, sacrifice and loss, he takes heart from the good times the family shared together—the love, laughter and dancing around the Marconi wireless. The rhythms of life, love and changing times.

Lovely work from the cast in creating this intimate family story. Reilly’s Michael makes for an affable and animated host; and he’s especially adept at conjuring the wide-eyed, precocious and imaginative child Michael. De La Cour is a treat as the feisty jokester Maggie; using humour to cheer and diffuse tension, her glass-half-full perspective is also crucial to her own survival. O’Regan and Donnelly have a beautiful rapport as the BFF sisters, the unassuming, protective Agnes and the child-like, naive Rose, who both come to show there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to notions of romance. McGinty gives a well-rounded performance as the conflicted young mother Christina; the family beauty, and raising the love child of a man she hardly ever sees, Christina’s youth has been interrupted by the more pragmatic concerns of a single mother—and in a time and place that frowned upon women like her. In classic Irish matriarch fashion, Jones’s Kate says as much with a look or gesture as she does with a word; having missed on romance herself, Kate’s stern disposition also a masks a broken heart.

McGarrett gives a poignant performance as the sisters’ brother Father Jack; once the golden boy of the family and the village, Jack has returned, frail and barely recognizable, and hardly knowing his own hometown. And Gilheany gives a charming turn as Gerry; a man of the road who loves to love, Gerry means well, but has trouble with the follow-up.

With shouts to the design team for their evocative work in transporting us to this nostalgic Depression-era world of memory and family in rural Donegal, Ireland: Chandos Ross (set), Livia Pravato (costumes), Karlos Griffith (lighting) and Dan Schaumann (sound).

Dancing at Lughnasa continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until November 3; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888. Keep up with The Irish Players on Facebook and Twitter.