Toronto Fringe: Zoey and Jake, now and then, in the lovely, playful & moving nostalgic journey False Start

False Start

Green Box Theatre Company plays with time and space to reveal the evolution of a relationship in its Toronto Fringe production of Nicole Hrgetic’s False Start, directed by Mani Eustis and currently running at St. Vladimir Theatre.

Zoey (Elizabeth Adams) and Jake (Dylan Evans) meet in high school when Jake is in desperate need of a math and science tutor to save his GPA and his chance at a football scholarship. About 20 years later, Zoey (Andrea Brown) is in desperate need to start a family, and needs Jake (Andrew Knowlton) to be on board with her ovulation schedule after several miscarriages.

Effectively and organically staged, the lives of younger and older versions of this couple inhabit the space in different times and spaces, with scenes overlapping as time shifts from past into present and back again. And there’s some really lovely use of upstage projection, showing us the night sky on their first date and Jake’s beloved Jets football game.

There’s a comfortable, almost relaxing rhythm to this relationship, even during moments of tension – largely due to the great chemistry of the pairings. Adams and Evans have a lovely, awkward and youthful sense of playfulness, with Adams as the smart, sharp-witted and mature younger Zoey, and Evans as the impetuous, cocky and sweet Jake. As their grown-up versions, Brown’s gives Zoey a gentle air of gravitas; still the smart, responsible one, she still can’t help but smile at Jake’s puckish antics. Knowlton’s Jake is still a lovable, infuriating boy; he loves Zoey to death, but can’t help but feel a failure when he compares his job as a gym teacher to her successful corporate career in science.

In the end, both Zoey and Jake must come to terms with lost dreams, both personal and shared. These high school sweethearts still have each other. The only question now is: Where do they go from here?

Zoey and Jake, now and then, in the lovely, playful and moving nostalgic journey False Start.

False Start continues at St. Vladimir Theatre, with two more performances: Fri, July 8 at 11 p.m. and Sat, July 9 at 7 p.m. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.

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Toronto Fringe: A lovely, complex, layered exploration of relationships in Perceptions of Love in the Pursuit of Happiness

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Tim Cadeny, Andrea Brown, Joel Fishbane, Geneviève DeGraves, Shelly Antony & Katherine Fogler – photo by Tim Cadeny

A baby on the way. A marital infidelity. Marriage counsellor, heal thyself.

Three Five Productions’ Perceptions of Love in the Pursuit of Happiness, written and directed by Chantal Forde, examines three couples facing huge relationship challenges as they strive for life, love and happiness – running in the Factory Theatre mainspace for Toronto Fringe.

Jessica (Katherine Fogler) and Damon (Shelly Antony) are married high school sweethearts. He’s just been promoted at work, which comes as a great relief as they’re expecting their first baby. It’s a big change coming to their lives – and relationship – one that forces them to consider what they really want. Do they both want the same things?

Nika (Andrea Brown) and Marcus (Tim Cadeny) have been forced apart by an affair, and are trying to put the pieces of their marriage back together. Forgetting is impossible, but what about forgiveness – and, even more importantly, trust?

Marriage counsellor Stephen (Joel Fishbane) finds himself working on his own relationship issues with his younger girlfriend Lise (Genviève DeGraves). Is there more to this May/December relationship than good times and great sex? And can he bring himself to walk the talk?

Really nice work from this cast, who collectively brave the deep emotional places of these characters with respect and honesty; and bring a quiet, natural dynamic to these relationships – the ease and difficulty of couples who know each other well. Antony’s Damon is sweet, boyish and optimistic; excited and scared at the prospect of becoming a father. Fogler is edgy and smart-ass as Jessica, whose attitude goes into overdrive as she deals with her own terror and uncertainty at this huge life change. Brown gives Nika multiple layers of inner conflict as she push-pulls to and from Marcus with a combination of determination and fragility; longing to make it work, but struggling with her own trust issues. And Cadeny’s Marcus is irreverently funny, contrite and hopeful, but wary himself; finding forgiveness isn’t easy and he can’t make Nika trust him. Fishbane is good-natured and professional as Stephen, a middle-aged dude who’s good at what he does, but torn between the optics and what his heart is telling him when it comes to his feelings for his much younger girlfriend. As Lise, DeGraves is bubbly and vivacious, a fresh university grad who’s excited to take on the world and not afraid to work for it, and wise beyond her years.

You can’t help but place yourself in these couples’ situations – or at least form an opinion about them. The play also highlights the question: How much of our own ‘happy’ can we – or should we – come to expect from the one we love and how we feel when we’re with them?

Perceptions of Love in the Pursuit of Happiness is a lovely, complex, layered exploration of modern-day romantic relationships – gradually and organically unfolding, and performed with truth and heart by an excellent cast.

Perceptions of Love in the Pursuit of Happiness continues at the Factory Theatre mainspace until July 11 – check their Fringe show page for exact dates/times.

A darkly funny & eerie look into the mind of Lizzie Borden in Blood Relations

Blood RelationsSo, first, a confession: I’d never read or seen Sharon Pollack’s Blood Relations. Not until last night, that is, at Alumnae Theatre Company’s opening night, directed by Barbara Larose, assisted by Ellen Green.

We are in the Borden home in Fall River, Massachusetts, 10 years after Lizzie Borden’s acquittal of the brutal double murder of her stepmother and father. Ragtime music fills the theatre and, in the dim pre-show lighting onstage, you can make out the main floor of the home: dining room and parlour, separated by a dark wood finish staircase. Down stage right is a pigeon coop; down left is a garden with a stone bench.

The ever present question: “Did you, Lizzie? Lizzie, did you?” sets the scene for a memory game of storytelling, played by Lizzie (Marisa King) and her friend/lover The Actress (Andrea Brown), taking the audience back in time to the circumstances leading up to the murder and trial. Adding to the ghoulish fun and intrigue, The Actress plays Lizzie in the flashback scenes, with Lizzie taking on the role of Bridget, the family’s maid.

We see Lizzie Borden as an unconventional woman out of place in a conventional household and society, her feelings of entrapment aptly illustrated – with shades of the macabre to come – by the empty red wire bird cage in the corner of the parlour. That trapped feeling comes to a boiling point for Lizzie when her stepmother’s brother Harry (Rob Candy) arrives to bargain with her father (Thomas Gough) over the family farm, a move that would see the farm willed to stepmother Abigail (Sheila Russell). And Lizzie’s older sister Emma (Kathleen Jackson Allamby) is more interested in absenting herself from the family strife than in saving their inheritance.

Larose has an excellent cast for this exploration of the famously accused and acquitted suspected murderess. King brings a quiet, slow burning intensity to Lizzie, and a sassy, firey mischief to the Irish maid Bridget. Brown is seductive and playfully dramatic as the beautiful extrovert Actress; and gives a sharp-witted, modern-thinking edge to her portrayal of the caged and frustrated Lizzie. Gough’s Andrew Borden is a disturbing, paradoxical combination of serious patriarch and doting father, capable of both extreme kindness and cruelty. Russell’s Abigail is a sturdy, practical and self-righteous housewife, but perhaps not above using her own family connections to gain power within her new family; and Candy brings a lovely ick factor to her snake-like brother Harry, a cunning man driven by avarice and giving no thought to his nieces’ futures beyond marrying them off. Jackson Allamby gives us an Emma who struggles to keep the family peace, but is terribly worn down by constantly being caught in the middle – put upon and wanting out as much as Lizzie, but lacking the rage to rouse herself to action. And Steven Burley does a nice job with his dual roles as the Defense and Dr. Patrick, the latter a particular delight as Lizzie’s charming and flirtatious friend and playmate, a married Irishman grappling with their complex relationship.

With shouts to the design and creative team: Margaret “The Costumator” Spence’s gorgeous period costume design, featuring Lizzie in hunter green and the Actress in deep purple; Ed Rosing’s magnificent set design, with its deep wood and sea foam green tones, and highlights of red throughout – realized by master carpenter Sandy Thorburn, with painting crew led by scenic artist Mark Cope – and lighting by Gabriel Cropley, especially effective in the carousel fantasy scene. With Razie Brownstone’s props selection, everyday household items like a silver tea service becoming projectile weapons – the civilized trappings of society covering darker emotions that lie just beneath the surface. And, of course, the ax. Speaking of, who doesn’t like a little Ragtime with their ax murder (thanks to Rick Jones’ sound design)? And to SM Margot “Mom” Devlin, who ran the lighting board and kept things moving along smoothly.

Did she? Alumnae Theatre’s Blood Relations is a sharply drawn, darkly funny and eerie look into the mind of Lizzie Borden – and the assumptions others have about her.

Blood Relations continues its run on the Alumnae mainstage until February 7. Alumnae usually does a talkback with the director, cast and creative team following the second matinée performance, so keep an eye out for that on Sunday, January 31. For ticket info and reservations, click here. Go see this.

Toronto Fringe NSTF: An intense, startling & thought-provoking look at sexual violence in DINK

DINK-250x250Theatre-a-go-go explores the themes of sexual violence, society’s response and the celebrity of the villain in Caroline Azar’s DINK, on at the Factory Theatre Mainspace for the Next Stage Theatre Festival.

Inspired by the real-life case of former Canadian Forces Colonel Russell Williams, as well as incidents of missing/murdered women from marginalized communities/ethnicities, and the societal/social media bullying and shaming of victims and the families of the accused, DINK (the acronym for Double Income No Kids) is part drama/part musical/part social commentary, with songs by Azar, S. Lewis and sound designer Richard Feren.

Over lunch, a workout and shopping at Holt’s, sisters Lolly (Christy Bruce) and Deb (Sharon Heldt) talk about Lolly’s recent home security measures as daughter Bethany (Jasmine Chen) is being stalked, while Deb is up to her eyeballs with home renovation and contractors. Deb’s husband Bill (David Keeley) is a proud military man who’s served in Afghanistan, a sweetheart with his wife, but under investigation by homicide detective Matt De Souza (Kris Siddiqi) over two missing/murdered women who served under him: soldier Danielle (D.T.) Bryce (Andrea Brown) and Tim Hortons server Izzy Melisano (Lise Cormier).

The action shifts between present-day scenes in multiple scenarios and flashbacks from the past, as well as musical numbers featuring various characters, but mainly the two murder victims Danielle and Izzy (where the song breaks work best). The effect is disturbing, distracting and disorienting.

DINK highlights how victimization goes beyond the missing/murdered women to take in their families, the families of the predator (who are often blamed for not seeing what was going on and failing to blow the whistle) and the investigators. The play also sets out to raise up the victims of sexual violence – including moments of empowerment, some imaginary – and put the predator down. The serial killer, while his actions are monstrous, is not a monster – just a man. A very sick man and, in the end, a pathetic man lost in his revolting and dangerous obsessions and desires. The celebrity of the serial killer – and real-life villains in general – is a symptom of social illness.

Excellent work from the cast. Bruce brings a jaded, tired quality to Lolly, a fiercely protective mother with a wry wit, and an ineffective husband (invisible to us, but present in scenes of one-sided conversation). Heldt’s Deb is brash, irreverently funny and creative, an adoring wife throwing her energy into creating the perfect oasis at home. Keeley does a very nice job with Bill’s double life: a sweet and attentive husband at home; a misogynistic, homophobic bully of a commanding officer on the job, covering even darker activities in his personal time. Siddiqi brings a nicely layered quality to Detective De Souza, a good cop struggling with his personal, if not questionable, relationship with Izzy as he conducts the investigation. Brown’s Danielle is strong, cocky and direct, a woman of courage and conviction; and Cormier brings an intelligent, precocious charm to the adventurous Izzy. Chen does a lovely job with Bethany’s conflicted responses to her situation; a smart, imaginative and energetic teen – but, like her mother and aunt, the pressure of pretending that everything is alright becomes too much to bear and boils over.

DINK is an intense, startling and thought-provoking piece that reminds us to put our focus on the victims and their families – and cautions us on how we respond to the perpetrators and their families.

DINK continues its run until Sun, Jan 18 – book advance tix here.

An early holiday treat – Alexander Showcase Theatre’s A Christmas Carol

a xmas carolA wonderful evening of fun and festivity at the Papermill Theatre last night at Alexander Showcase Theatre’s (AST) opening night of their adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a special wine and dine gala that featured a very tasty and highly digestible pre-show Christmas dinner. Directed by Vincenzo Sestito, who adapted the script with Gwyneth Sestito, this version of the holiday favourite is set as a 1940s radio play within a play, much like AST’s 2012 production of It’s A Wonderful Life.

The cast does an amazing job of juggling multiple characters, including playing actors who are playing characters in a radio play of A Christmas Carol. Seth Mukamal’s (as actor Felix Underhill) Scrooge would do Alistair Sim proud, a remarkable balance of curmudgeon and lost boy. Andrea Brown (as actor Amelia Copeland) and Matthew Payne (as actor Allan Flynn) do a great job as the co-narrators, with Payne giving a jolly performance as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, and Brown hilarious as charwoman Mrs. Dilbur, and supportive and no-nonsense as Mrs. Cratchit. The two have some especially lovely moments behind the scenes, as we witness Copeland and Flynn’s burgeoning romance. Tayves Fiddis (as actor Jack Smythe) does a nice job playing Cratchit and young Scrooge, and Michelle Berube is a flirty firecracker as the talented young Foley Artist Jayne Whitley. As their respective actor characters, these two share some adorable offstage (and on) flirtation, which doesn’t get past the watchful eye of Head Foley Artist Beulah Higgins, played with a good-natured den mother vibe by Deborah Mills.

David McEachern’s beautiful bass baritone is perfect for the Announcer, and goes from jovial to menacing as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Steve Kyriacopoulos does a great comic turn as the put-upon Station Manager Gordon Smithers, and gives us a kind and ethereal Ghost of Christmas Past. Nice work from James Phelan, as the morose and penitent Ghost of Jacob Marley, and the comically opportunistic Undertaker; and Eugene Fong-Dere is both jovial and funny as the chain smoking actor Johnny Choi, who plays Mr. Fezziwig, among others. Nina Mason (young Scrooge’s sweetheart Belle, the Laundress, and the Boy who Scrooge sends to purchase the goose for the Cratchits) and Anne-Marie Krytiuk (Scrooge’s sister Fan, Cratchit’s kids Martha and Peter) show some very impressive chops with a wide variety of characterizations, both male and female. And young Michael Speciale is a puckish little rascal and a fine performer as actor Mitchell Rooney, who plays Tiny Tim, among others.

The charm of this adaptation lies in the nostalgic radio play production setting, with its period music and holiday tunes, sound effects work (Mills and Berube do a stand-up job with the equipment – and the contraption Berube uses to create the audio representation of the Ghost of Christmas Future is eerily fascinating) – and, especially, the behind-the-scenes rapport of the radio play actors, with all the collegial teasing, hamming it up, romantic intrigue and general shenanigans one would expect from a group of actors.
Adding to the fun of the production is a series of live 1940s-style jingles for the show’s sponsors, with music and lyrics (lyrics by Gwyneth Sestito for The Pilot Tavern) by Robby Burko, who plays the radio show’s pianist, and belted out in true Andrews Sisters style by Brown, Krytiuk and Mason.

Additional music for the opening performance was supplied by special guests, including Supertonic Quartet, who delighted the crowd with some tunes during dinner, as well as a guest number during a music break in the play (they’ll be returning on Nov 29 & Dec 7). And Supertonic member Patrick Brown and cast member Nina Mason (who played the actors playing George and Mary Bailey in AST’s production of It’s A Wonderful Life) performed a fabulous duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” during the show’s music break. Katey Morley is set to perform at the Dec 6 show.

Think it’s too early for a holiday treat? Bah, humbug! Alexander Showcase Theatre’s A Christmas Carol is a delightful way to kick off the holiday season – for kids of all ages.

A Christmas Carol continues its run at the Papermill Theatre until Dec 7. Up next for AST: Sweeney Todd at Al Green Theatre (April 30 – May 10, 2015).

xmas cover photo girls

Chaotically insightful and darkly funny ride in Alumnae Theatre’s Escape From Happiness

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Lesley Robertson (Mary Ann), Andrea Brown (Elizabeth) and Renée Haché (Gail) – photo by Scott Gorman

“Please don’t do anything you can’t live with later.”
“I can live with a lot.”

Alumnae Theatre Company opened its 2014-15 all-Canadian season with George F. Walker’s Escape From Happiness on Friday night and I dropped by the theatre for the Sunday matinée.

Directed by Andrea Wasserman, Escape From Happiness is one of three plays in Walker’s East End Trilogy, a dark comedy of family dysfunction, set against the backdrop of crime vs. law and order. When a series of troubling events threaten the safety of her family, Nora (Heli Kivilaht) rallies her two oldest daughters, Elizabeth (Andrea Brown) and Mary Ann (Lesley Robertson), to the family home in order to discover who beat up youngest sister Gail’s (Renée Haché) husband Junior (Maxwell King). Tom, the family patriarch (David Cairns), gravely ill and mostly keeping to his room, goes unacknowledged by Nora as the husband and father of the house (she insists he’s only someone who looks like him), and cared for by Gail and Junior. A history of alcoholism, explosive anger and violence has created a huge rift in the family, and Gail is the only one willing to forgive. Add to the mix low-level criminals Rolly (Robert Skanes) and Stevie (Colin MacDonald), and diametrically opposed detectives Mike (Ryan Seeley) and Dian (Joanne Sarazen), then turn up the volume to 11 and break off the knob as these people struggle to cope with some very bizarre circumstances.

Wasserman has an excellent ensemble for this wacky and edgy journey. Kivilaht’s Nora is a lovely combination of spacey and wise, kind and sharp-edged in her eccentric observations of the world and the people around her. Brown is both hilarious and intense as the eldest daughter Elizabeth; a lawyer and family protector, and bad-ass beneath the suit – and more like her father than she’s likely willing to admit. Robertson’s Mary Ann is adorably kooky, a gentle and nurturing soul struggling to find her way in the face of some harsh realities; like Nora, an unexpected and unusual voice of truth. Haché is outspoken and suffering no fools as youngest daughter Gail, possessing of a forgiving heart and in many ways the sanest of the bunch. King brings a very likeable and child-like quality to Junior; a sweet and loyal guy, but not too bright. Cairns gives a nicely layered performance as ex-cop Tom, the deposed man of the house; well-meaning in his actions, but lacking the foresight and luck – and sense of boundaries – to carry them off.

Sarazen and Seeley do a marvelous job of playing off each other as new school vs. old school cops. Sarazen’s Dian is sharp-witted but cheerful new order cop, driven and socially aware, and obsessed with innovation, while Seeley’s Mike is an old-time veteran of the force – pragmatic, gruff, racist and prefers to go with his gut. Skanes and MacDonald are a riot as father/son crime team Rolly and Stevie – nicely mirroring the dynamic between Tom and Junior, with the fumbling older man acting as mentor to the dim-witted younger man.

Shouts to Brandon Kleiman’s set design, a neat, but worn and somewhat grimy family kitchen – including some great details via props assembled by Jackie McClelland; and to Sara Brzozowski’s costumes, which both identify and round out the characters really nicely. And to the original music by Boy Ballz, bringing some awesome hip hop and urban beats – the perfect soundtrack for this play.

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Robert Skanes (Rolly) & Heli Kivilaht (Nora) – photo by Scott Gorman

Alumnae Theatre’s production of Escape From Happiness is a chaotically insightful and darkly funny ride, featuring a kick-ass cast. Get yourselves over there to see this.

Escape From Happiness runs on the Alumnae Theatre main stage until October 11. Purchase tickets an hour before curtain time (cash only), or in advance online, by telephone at (416) 364-4170 (press 1) or by email at reservations@alumnaetheatre.com

Wit, wonder & wisdom in The Lady’s Not For Burning @ Alumnae Theatre

Lady's Not For Burning - image only“Life, forbye, is the way

We fatten for the Michaelmas of our own particular

Gallows. What a wonderful thing is metaphor!”

– Thomas Mendip in The Lady’s Not For Burning (from director’s program notes)

Alumnae Theatre Company’s production of The Lady’s Not For Burning, directed by Jane Carnwath, brings the wit, wonder and wisdom of Christopher Fry’s play to life through sight, sound and poetic wordplay – an excellent cast and a beautiful show.

The marvelous ensemble includes some remarkable stand-outs. Chris Coculuzzi gives us a Thomas Mendip that combines the melancholy philosophy of a Jacques with the good-humoured wit of a Fool, and Andrea Brown is luminous as Jennet Jourdemayne, quirky, sharp-witted and compassionate. Together, their performances show us opposite perspectives of the all too fleeting realization of the nature of the human condition: we live, suffer out our short time in these bodies – yes – and we can choose to bemoan that fact or savour the brief moments we are given. Two sides of the same coin. Chris Whidden, as the put-upon but boyishly optimistic Mayor’s clerk, takes young Richard from boy to man as he stands up for what is right as well as for himself, with particularly sweet bashfulness in the presence of love. Paul Cotton brings to Humphrey Devize a lovely combination of wry wit and desperate longing born of boredom and ennui. Peter Higginson is adorable as the kind-hearted, thoughtful Chaplin who longs to be a musician, and Ian Orr is hilariously convincing as the drunken and disoriented Matthew Skipps.

With big shouts to the most excellent design team: Margaret Spence (costumes), Ed Rosing (set/lighting), Mike Peck (master carpenter), Angus Barlow (sound) and Razie Brownstone (props) for bringing the sights, sounds and textures of this world to life. My personal thanks to the painting crew, who assisted Ed and me with the set: Cody Boyd (who was also Ed’s design assistant), Razie Brownstone, Joan Burrows, Margot Devlin and Dorothy Wilson. And to the intrepid producer team of Barbara Larose and Ellen Green, and stage manager Margot “Mom” Devlin and ASM Tara Gostling for holding this massive production together.

A world-weary soldier longing for the noose. A bright young woman accused of witchcraft. Both eccentric in their own way, standing out from ordinary folk who don’t look beyond their own front doors. The silly superstitious collective mind of the mob. Kind spirits and good hearts. What’s not to love?

Alumnae’s production of The Lady’s Not For Burning continues on the mainstage until February 8, with a talkback with the director, cast and design team after the matinée on Sunday, February 2.

Coming soon to the cowbell blog: The Lady’s Not For Burning set comes to life. A slide show of the scenic painting process.