An erotic, moving & sharply funny piece of storytelling in Aromas

Aromas 4
Andy Fraser in Aromas – photo by Tim Leyes

It was back to Alumnae Theatre last night, in the Studio this time for the world premiere of the Junes Company’s production of Aromas, written/directed by Andrew Faiz, and starring Andy Fraser. I saw this compelling one-person show when an earlier draft of the play was produced at Red Sandcastle Theatre in September 2014.

Aromas is a solo show that features an ensemble cast of characters, mainly Katalin and her alter-ego Chanel. Ice skater, dancer and party girl Katalin grows bored of her dream job performing with a Swan Lake touring company and stumbles upon the opportunity for a career change – and her working persona Chanel, a professional sex worker, is born.

Throughout her world travels and encounters with diverse people – some of whom have come from extremely harsh and horrific situations, including her Eastern European immigrant parents – Katalin finds herself able to see the world as it is while maintaining a sense of optimism and an ability to see beauty wherever she goes, and finding joy, connection and empathy in the people, flavours and scents she encounters. With the heart of an artist and the mind of a philosopher, not to mention a collection of readily available dialects and several languages, her work as Chanel goes beyond the mere exchange of sexual services for money. Sex is never just about sex. Chanel is a priest, a psychologist, a counsellor – not a girlfriend, but a girlfriend experience – with a strong commitment to being present physically, mentally and emotionally. And as Katalin struggles with her own sense of identity and longs for a story of her own, she finds that – far from being a means of avoiding herself and her world – Chanel is a way into herself. Into her own story.

Fraser’s performance is sexy, provocative, vivacious, deftly funny and wise. As we watch her character transitions – from Katalin, to her parents, to childhood friend Angela, to skating and dancing colleagues, to Chanel – the acting is truthful, engaging, immediate, present. Adult content aside, there is a lovely raw quality to Fraser’s work here in that it requires an incredible amount of emotional frankness and openness, not to mention guts.

With shouts to the design team: Richard Jones’ upbeat, cosmopolitan soundtrack; Brandon Kleiman’s sharp set (featuring a gorgeous backdrop wall of hotel room keys) and costumes designed for all Katalin’s/Chanel’s moods and styles; and Ed Rosing’s lighting design, which serves to move the scene, time and space transitions on an otherwise stationary space. And to the production’s intrepid stage manager Margot “Mom” Devlin, who’s running lights and sound, as well as the box office, for the run.

Aromas is an erotic, moving, sharply funny and thoughtful piece of storytelling – performed with heart, smarts and chutzpah by actor Andy Fraser.

Aromas continues at the Alumnae Studio until May 2. It’s a short run, so get your butts out there to see it. You can purchase advance tix through T.O. Tix; otherwise, it’s cash only at the door. You can also follow Aromas on Facebook.

You can check out production videos here. Here’s the promo vid:

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A heartbreaking, erotic & darkly funny journey of identity & intimacy in Aromas

Aromas 4
Andy Fraser – photo by Tim Leyes

“Sex is never just about sex, it’s about so much more.”

The Junes Company* production of Aromas, written and directed by Andrew Faiz, and starring Andy Fraser, opened at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night.

Shifting between time, space and – possibly – reality, Aromas is a one-woman show, featuring two main characters (ice dancer Katalin and professional escort Chanel) and two supporting characters (Katalin’s immigrant mother and former schoolmate Angela), among others. Katalin resides in the past, recounting stories of the people, places and parties she’s experienced on tour. A traumatic childhood encounter with Angela and an ecstatic first time seeing Swan Lake with her mother were defining moments for her, flipping on a switch inside, directing her future path. Chanel talks about her life in the present; straightforward and professionally detached, her body is a commodity and its commercial activity allows her the experience of physical intimacy without the underlying baggage that accompanies romantic relationships. A grown-up Angela, still dealing with ongoing anger management issues, sees Katalin’s life as exciting and glamourous – and can’t help but take credit for being a catalyst for it.

The question of identity arises: are Katalin and Chanel the same person? Is Chanel a fantasy for Katalin – or an evolution of spirit? Katalin wonders herself, who is she – is she merely a product of her experiences, set on certain paths by critical life events? One of the most touching – and telling – lines from the play comes from Chanel: “The Kama Sutra is a book of prayers you do with your body. Even a broken body wants to pray.” Here, this reference touches on the true physical intimacy – and spirituality – of being totally present, as well as making reference to a severely disabled young client – and possibly even regarding Katalin. In the end, we see that, while Katalin is damaged, she is not broken; drifting and in need of closure, but not without hope.

Fraser gives a stunning performance. As Katalin, she is vibrant, vulnerable, irreverently funny and flirtatiously sexy, seizing the day and acting on instinct and, in some cases, impulse. Chanel is wry-witted and sophisticated, approaching her work in a detached and professional manner – but not without sensuality, empathy and compassion. Or is that Katalin? The performance is compelling in its character and time shifts – and the storytelling is gut-wrenching and deeply poignant, with hints of edgy humour.

Brandon Kleiman’s set, with boxed rows of hotel room keys as a backdrop, provides an visually appealing and versatile playing area for this production, the story unfolding nowhere and anywhere, past and present; and his costuming both distinguishes and describes the characters. Ed Rosing’s lighting provided atmosphere for the action, most notably some warm, sensual ambers, as well as cues to the shifts in time and scene. Sound designer Richard Jones built a soundtrack around contemporary pop and snatches from Swan Lake, and original composition, from incidental to industrial synth, nicely underscoring the storytelling. The sense of smell, a highly evocative key to memory, and what it perceives – hence, the play’s title – while not physically present, is highlighted in the text.

All of this is held together and kept running by the production’s intrepid stage manager Margot “Mom” Devlin (a name that Alumnae Theatre Company fans will recognize from countless shows there), who was multitasking as sound and lighting operator, as well as box office for the opening performance.

Aromas is a heartbreaking, erotic and darkly funny journey of identity and intimacy, a moving piece of non-linear storytelling, compellingly told.

Aromas runs at Red Sandcastle until October 4. You can purchase advance tickets online or at the door (cash only). And you can follow Aromas on Facebook.

*The Junes Company is “a flexible collective of comprised of professional theatre/film/TV performers, creators and producers.” Past shows include A Damn Fine Nite of Actors, an evening of short plays written, directed and performed by the “Monday Niters.” The company will be mounting a production of The Lion in Winter at Alumnae Theatre next year, directed by David Ferry, and featuring Shawn Lawrence and Rosemary Dunsmore.

A Woman of No Importance time travels to 1985 @ Alumnae Theatre

1213-womanmainThe tagline reads: “It’s not your great-aunt’s Oscar Wilde!” Make no mistake, Alumnae Theatre Company’s production of Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance, directed by Paul Hardy, is most definitely not a traditional staging of the play.

Brandon Kleiman’s minimalist and stunning set design (he does double duty as costume designer) provides the audience with a first peek at the world of Lady Hunstanton’s (Andy Fraser) country manor Hunstanton Chase. Upstage hang three window frames, each fractured at the bottom, with hundreds of brown paper butterflies hanging behind them. Downstage centre, two women in period costume stand side by side: one apparently an American, rather Puritan in dress and doing some needle work, and the other an Englishwoman with a closed-up parasol reading a book. Both politely acknowledge the other’s presence on occasion, but it is a tolerant rather than friendly sharing of the space. From either side of the stage enter a maid (Kathleen Pollard) and a butler (Daniel Staseff). Both disapproving of what they see, the two of them hatch a plan to usher the two ladies off stage. The quiet classical music that has been playing in the background morphs to 1980s club volume and intensity (sound design, nicely done, by Angus Barlow). Enter Lady Caroline Pontefract (Gillian English), all green and sparkly and bold make-up, looking very much like Edina from Ab Fab, joined by her husband Sir John Pontefract (Michael Vitorovich). Toto, we’re not in the 1890s anymore.

Hardy’s production transplants Wilde’s take on excess, morality and social repression into 1985. Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister of England – and, this being England, the class divide is alive and well. And young Gerald Arbuthnot’s (Nicholas Porteous) promotion to secretary to Lord Illingworth (Andrew Batten) becomes a surprising – and unwelcome – family reunion with Gerald’s mother (Áine Magennis), whose life was ruined as a result of Illingworth’s callous betrayal.

Rounding out the cast are Sophia Fabiilli (young American guest Hester Worsley), James Graham (Mr. Kelvil, M.P.), Paula Shultz (Mrs. Allonby), Amy Zuch (Lady Stutfield) and Jason Thompson (Archdeacon Daubeny). City folk not particularly at ease in the country, Lady Hunstanton’s guests amuse themselves with gossip and witty, at times mercurial, conversation, and scandal – and the temptation to scandal – is ever present.

Fraser does a lovely job as Lady Hunstanton, the delightfully warm, if not somewhat forgetful, hostess. And Batten is devishly charming as the amoral, entitled Illingworth. Paula Shultz’s Mrs. Allonby is both sharp and cat-like sexy, and the scenes between her and Illingworth – a dual of words drenched in sex – are marvelous to watch. Magennis gives Mrs. Arbuthnot a strong, quiet dignity – a woman who owns her mistake and determined to carry on as best as she can, a social undesirable living undercover so her son doesn’t have to suffer for her sin.

Whether that perception of “sin” translates well into the 1980s, I’ll leave up to you. There is certainly a continuing class and gender divide regarding what constitutes forgivable and unforgivable behaviour. And the play provides an interesting perspective on American vs. British regard for morals and society. It is interesting that it is young Miss Worsley, “the Puritan,” who ends up being the most flexible and forgiving. And, in the end, Gerald, his mother and Miss Worsley embrace that which is truly important – and love has its day.

A Woman of No Importance runs at Alumnae Theatre on the main stage until February 9, with a talkback after the matinée on Sunday, February 3. Contact Alumnae Theatre for reservations.

The continuing love affair with burnt umber – The Drowning Girls set

I have often said that the set ain’t finished till the burnt umber goes up. Often used in finishing touches, especially with dry brushing and distressing techniques, burnt umber is a gorgeous, warm dark chocolate brown on the reddish side of the brown spectrum.

Imagine my glee when The Drowning Girls set designer Ed Rosing told me he’d purchased a gallon of it to paint the burlap-covered floor of the set. That’s where I’ve been for a few days this week – two weeknights and yesterday late morning till mid-afternoon: up in the Alumnae Theatre studio space, playing with burnt umber, feeling its creamy brown smoothness as I dip a styrofoam cup into the bucket to pour it into the funnel, channeling the paint into squirt bottles – and going home with bits of it still under my fingernails.

Pre-paint

I’ve included some in-progress shots of the set. Yep, those are three old-fashioned footy bathtubs – fibre glass so they were less cumbersome to cart up to the third floor of the theatre. The floor is painted burlap. We required a little practical problem-solving yesterday: the latex paint was coming off on the actors, who are wet from the tubs. Thanks to Peter Fortier at Prime Time Paint & Paper, Ed found a solution: a hybrid oil/water varnish that we can use to glaze the floor.

Set in progress
Plumbing
Post-paint – base with a bit of texturing

Also with thanks to Daniel Gamper at White Lamb Finlay Inc., who gave us a good deal on the burlap. And to producer Andy Fraser for coming to our rescue with a second gallon of burnt umber yesterday. Here are some pics.

Busy times @ Alumnae Theatre

Hey all. Busy times working in theatre in addition to the full-time job this week, and I was in Ottawa visiting friends last Friday/weekend – so haven’t been able to get out to see stuff. Wanted to give some shouts out to the beehive of activity that is Alumnae Theatre, though.

Lots going on at Alumnae this week – with the Toronto Irish Players’ production of Translations continuing its run on the main stage, work on the set for Alumnae’s upcoming production of The Drowning Girls going on up in the studio and callbacks for Alumnae’s January production of A Woman of No Importance going on wherever they can find space. I imagine the New Ideas production folks are around as well, as they get ready to review director submissions and do some match-making with the playwrights.

Here’s what I can tell you about what’s happening right now:

Translations, by Brian Friel – directed for the Toronto Irish Players by Jim Ivers and produced by Geraldine Brown – opened October 18 and runs until November 3. For info and reservations, please visit the TIP website: http://torontoirishplayers.com/

The Drowning Girls, by Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson and Daniela Vlaskalic, runs November 16 to December 1 up in the studio. Directed for Alumnae Theatre by Taryn Jorgenson, with assistant director Antara Keelor, this production features actors Jen Neales, Tennille Read and Emily Smith. And a fabulous set by designer Ed Rosing and master carpenter Mike Peck (who, along with Bill Scott, also rigged up the plumbing). Yes – there’s some seriously cool working plumbing in this show! For a peek at this show, take a look here:  http://www.alumnaetheatre.com/1213drown.html

Last night, Ed and I started painting sections of burlap while Mike finished work on the plumbing – and we were joined by producer Andy Fraser and Alum member Joan Burrows, who gave us a hand with starting the burlap installation on the floor. To be continued today and tomorrow, leaving time for the paint to dry before the actors hit the stage late tomorrow afternoon. Will be back with more on this job, including pics, soon.

Happy Friday and have a great weekend, all!