Soul reviving human connection in the entertaining, engaging, enlightening Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua

Justin Miller as Pearle Harbour, with Steven Conway in the background. Production design by Joseph Pagnan, with tent by Haley Reap. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Pearle Harbour invites you into the milky folds of her tent for some soul reviving human connection in the engaging, entertaining, enlightening Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua, written and performed by Justin Miller, accompanied by Steven Conway and directed by Byron Laviolette. The sold-out SummerWorks 2017 Audience Choice Award-winning show returns to its home base at Theatre Passe Muraille as it opens TPM’s 2018-19 season.

As you’re ushered into the Mainspace through the stage door and walk towards the tent, you pass various collections of objects from another time and place; an acoustic guitar, a vintage typewriter, wooden crates. There’s a bar, too, just before you get to the opening of the tent; and Conway is there with your seating assignment. Finding your bench to sit inside the tent, you see text stencilled on each wall: SPEAK TRUTH, LIVE PURE, RIGHT THE WRONG, FOLLOW THE WAY. Three strings of Edison bulbs hang from the ceiling; and you can hear fiddle music and a man’s voice speaking—poetry, philosophy?

Our hostess joins us, singing “Come on Up to the House” as she enters, accompanied by Conway on acoustic guitar. A sassy redheaded all-American wartime tragicomedienne, Pearle proceeds to lead us through a rousing, enlightening experience of connection and redemption as she takes us through each of the four pillars of Chautauqua (the words stencilled on the walls of the tent). Acknowledging that things are rough out there in the world, but having faith in “people power” and joining together, Pearle is no clueless Pollyanna. She gives it to us frank and candid, in a gentle, respectful interactive space—and always with the hope and belief that people can change the world.

A hilarious and poignant storyteller and rabble-rouser—true to his drag alter ego Pearle—Miller engages and entertains; touching on universal truths in an intimate, focused yet relaxed way that invites us all to be present, grounded and breathing throughout. The vintage props, puppetry and Creamsicle sing-song reminiscences are more than mere exercises in nostalgia or fond souvenirs of simpler times; they’re a meditation of sorts. A reminder to go back once in a while, to remember who you really are—that individual spirit you may have lost along the way in this hi-tech, fast-paced, ever changing workaday world. And that one flickering light bulb highlights that, no matter how hard you try to make things perfect, we live in an imperfect world—and we’re all imperfect or broken in some way. We’ve all done things that were less than kind, that we may regret. And while that admission can be infuriating, embarrassing and guilt-inducing, we can be better and we can let go.

When was the last time you sang or heard “One Tin Soldier”? The last time you had a Creamsicle? What takes you back to who you were all those years ago?

Part revival, part enlightening cabaret, Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua invites us in and embraces us—valuing the spectrum of humanity and shining a light on that which unites us. It’s just the thing we need right now. Come on in and join Pearle in the tent.

Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua continues in the TPM Mainspace until October 27; please note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time for evening performances. Should you book in advance to avoid disappointment? You betcha! Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office at: 416-504-7529.

The run includes a post-show Q&A, usually hosted by Jivesh Parasram, with cast and crew on October 14; and a pre-show chat, hosted by AD Andy McKim, with a cast member or local expert at 6:45 p.m. on October 17.

In the meantime, take a gander at the trailer:

 

 

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Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce & funny Sound of the Beast

Tamyka Bullen (onscreen) & Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Hear ye, hear ye

let it be known,

No one on my block walks alone.

 

Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) closes its 2016-17 season with Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s (aka Belladonna the Blest) Sound of the Beast, co-directed by Andy McKim and Jivesh Parasram, with ASL components by Tamyka Bullen, and featuring composition and sound design by David Mesiha. Sound of the Beast opened in the TPM Backspace last night.

Inspired by the story of Tunisian rapper Weld El 15, whose artistic freedom of speech was muzzled by police and government, and part of St. Bernard’s 54ology (her commitment to create a performance piece from each country in Africa), Sound of the Beast combines rap and spoken word with lived experiences for an up-close, profoundly personal and resonant performance. Complementing St. Bernard’s storytelling is a projected performance of Tamyka Bullen’s poetry, performed in ASL with English surtitles (projection design by Cameron Davis). And a series of radio voice-overs (Glyn Bowerman), updating us on news of an “incident” in a “priority neighbourhood,” provide a bleak commentary on the clueless, one-sided and white-washed view of mainstream media.

Autobiographical, observational and replete with first-hand lives lived in an environment of racism, mistrust and injustice, words and stories that we may only have read or seen on the news come to life. Urgent. Shocking. In front of us. What is the most shocking is that stories of oppression and injustice are not shocking, but part of our everyday lives.

Sound of the Beast
Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

A compelling and engaging storyteller, St. Bernard shifts easily from pointed remarks and calling out prejudice, to casual and conversational moments. She puts forth hypothetical scenarios and asks us how we would respond; making us active participants as we silently think about the choices in front of us. And during two poignant and charged scenes, she speaks to her imaginary young son; guiding him on how to behave, speak and even set his facial expressions in order to stay safe out there when confronted by the authorities. At times speaking to us as friends, she takes us in and along on her journey—her research on Weld El, her personal experiences—genuine, infuriating, heartbreaking, hilarious. Shifting from a stand-up storytelling vibe, to in our faces or in emcee performance mode, St. Bernard moves through the space with ease and fluidity, with professionalism and personality. Singing and speaking with strength, emotion and moving beats, her job is to tell it—and she brings it big time.

Speaking as a Deaf woman born into a “hearing Indian-Guyanese Hindu-Christian family”—and living in a “hearing, straight Eurocentric Christian patriarchal country,” Bullen’s poetry is beautiful, moving and revealing. Highlighting the intersectionality of experiences of oppression and prejudice among the Black and Deaf communities, she points to how heavy unemployment and underemployment leave marginalized people struggling to get by in a system that “operates for so long based on ignorance and hate.” Writing of poverty, PTSD, the immigrant experience and her relationship with the earth, Bullen reminds us of the ever present need for mindfulness, awareness and compassion—and how we are all we are all born of the same Mother Earth.

Coiled on the floor and ready, the microphone is St. Bernard’s weapon and bridge; and the black hoodie she dons at the opening of her performance and sheds at the close is her storytelling cloak. If you are not black or marginalized, you can only glean so much from what you see and hear in the news about these lived experiences. Of being constantly under surveillance because of the colour of your skin and the neighbourhood you live in. Of being questioned by law enforcement for no reason. Of being misunderstood and not knowing what you’re supposed to say. Of unarmed youth being shot by police. Sound of the Beast brings it in closer. Come and hear for yourself.

Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce and funny Sound of the Beast.

Sound of the Beast continues in the TPM Backspace until May 7; book tickets online or call 416-504-7529. Advance booking strongly recommended—it’s a powerful show and an intimate space.

Drunk & delirious on life, love & art in Hooked

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Nicky Guadagni in Hooked – photo by Michael Cooper

Was back out to Theatre Passe Muraille last night for the opening of the last show of their 2014-15 season: Hooked, based on a book of poems by Carolyn Smart, adapted by and starring Nicky Guadagni, and directed by Layne Coleman.

Hooked features the stories of seven real-life women – each one creative, driven and sucking the marrow out of life in her own unique way – all played by Guadagni. Myra Hindley, the obsessed sociopath who murdered at least three children with her partner Ian Brady, gives a chilling account of their meeting and the aftermath of her incarceration. Unity Valkyrie Mitford, the entitled, bigoted upper crust Brit and exceedingly silly Hitler fangirl; giggly and slapdash, she speaks of meeting her idol and defending his brutal policies. Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, the fragile, self-destructive party girl; the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald and an artist in her own right, spinning and broken, cast off into madness. Dora Carrington, tomboyish, puck-like and intense, a gifted painter hopelessly in love with a gay writer Lytton Strachey – her desperation and loss pushing her to the edge of despair. Elizabeth Smart, the bored daughter of Ottawa nobility who seizes on her target, married poet George Barker, with single-minded drive, wanting art, love and children – wanting it all. Carson McCullers, physically damaged with health issues, sharp as a tack and wry-witted, the champion of misfits in her writing; she loved husband Reeves McCullers so much, she married him twice. Jane Bowles, a larger than life writer with a delightful Brooklyn Jewish accent, a woman of big fun and silent, infectious guffaws; a lover of women, married to composer and writer Paul Bowles, she fell in love at first sight with Cherifa, a woman she saw in a market in Tangiers.

All of these lives and voices are performed on a bare stage with a single chair, with Guadagni barefoot in a black dress. Chameleon-like and captivating, Guadagni channels these women using her body, her voice and her presence, shifting seamlessly from character to character in this dance of words and life experiences – and the result is compelling, funny and poignant. These women aren’t afraid to give ‘er – going home is not even an option as they go big, at full throttle.

Hooked is a remarkable, moving and entertaining one-woman show featuring seven exceptional, passionate women, drunk and delirious on life, love and art. Get on over to the TPM backspace to see this.

Hooked continues its run in the TPM backspace until May 10, with special performances Wednesday, April 22 at 6:45 pm (Egg Rolls with Andy – pre-show chat with Artistic Director Andy McKim); a post-show talk back on Sunday, April 26; and a student matinée performance on Wednesday, May 6 at 1:30 pm. You can purchase tickets in advance online here – highly recommended as seating is relatively limited in the TPM backspace.

With shouts to musician/composer Victoria Carr, who provided the original soundtrack of evocative piano and guitar music for the production – and who played live acoustic guitar during the show.

Check out the YouTube chat with Guadagni about Hooked: