Toronto Fringe: Millennials surviving working & adulting in the lighthearted, satirical Above & Beyond

Seated: Tatyana Mitchell & Natasha Ramondino. Standing: Felix Beauchamp, Rabiya Mansoor, Andrea Irwin & Francis Masaba. Set and costume design by Jules Mendoza. Photo by Angela Sun.

 

JackieTol Productions gives us a lighthearted, satirical look at slogging it out in an office cubicle as two Millennial pals try to survive working and adulting in Jaclyn Toledano’s Above & Beyond, directed by Rebecca Ballarin and running in the Robert Gill Theatre.

BFFs Jamie (Tatyana Mitchell) and Nicole (Natasha Ramondino) are sales reps at Bright Star Tours, a travel agency that specializes in educational tour packages for schools. Former employees of Oyster Tours, Bright Star’s biggest competitor, Jamie is killing it at their new company, while Nicole—who used to also rock—is now struggling. Both are dying of boredom at this dead-end job, but Jamie’s able to play the game; Nicole not so much.

Added to the mix are their warm, technically-challenged boss Tracey (Andrea Irwin), and colleagues Steph the go-getter (Rabiya Mansoor), macho dude Brett (Francis Masaba) and charmer Jared (Felix Beauchamp). We also get a glimpse into Oyster Travel, a larger organization with a more corporate vibe, and their shark-like staff (played variously by Mansoor, Irwin, Beauchamp and Masaba)—who are stunned and perplexed that smaller fish Bright Star is outperforming them. Could it be that former employees Jamie and Nicole are now Bright Star’s secret weapons? And what’s the deal with Tracey’s hard-ass replacement Andrea (also played by Irwin)?

From soul-destroying moments on the job, to presentations, holiday parties and advice on Tinder swiping, anyone who’s worked in a cubicle farm will certainly recognize these characters and workplace situations—and shouts to the cast for their sharply drawn work. Mitchell and Ramondino are nicely matched, with Mitchell’s chill Jamie taking their situation in stride, her friendly out-going nature endearing her to the teachers she pitches to. But being too easy-going can land you in trouble sometimes. Ramondino’s Nicole is reminiscent of Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect; wry-witted and cynical, she’s wondering WTF she’s doing there and if it’s the right place for her—and if she’ll ever get her sales groove back.

Outstanding character work from Irwin, switching from the amiable, supportive boss Tracey, to the sharp corporate Oyster employee, to the scary mean girl boss Andrea and the sweet, protective teacher Helen. Mansoor brings big LOLs as Steph the uber keener; you know the type, and you’re never quite sure if it’s all a put-on or if they’re really that into their job. Masaba also brings the comedy as the office’s bro about town Brett; full of himself and utterly clueless about how he comes across, Brett is clearly enjoying his cruise through work and life. And Beauchamp is adorably charming as Jared, bringing just the right amount of slick to make you wonder if he’s actually a good guy or not.

It’s fun, it’s relatable—and you may find yourself asking if you’re living to work or working to live. And sometimes, it takes a little while to get your work groove back.

Above and Beyond continues at the Robert Gill Theatre to July 13. Check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.

Former high school pals reunite to solve an old, gruesome mystery in the dark, macabre, thoughtful Swan

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Bria McLaughlin & Michelle Chiu in Swan – photos by Cesar Ghisilieri

Finish what you start.

Little Black Afro Theatre joins forces with Filament Incubator for a production of Aaron Jan’s Swan, directed by Jan and dramaturged by Lucy Powis; and opening last night to a packed house in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace.

As we enter the theatre and settle into our seats, the playing space (Aram Heydarian, who designed the costumes), sound (Kevin Feliciano) and foggy, atmospheric lighting (Samuel Chang) aptly set the tone for this disturbing tale of violence. Three piles of feathers line the apron. Centre stage is a wooden deck-like structure – and above it, a murder of black birds hangs like a menacing Hitchcockian mobile. Underneath the hum of chatting audience members, you can hear the gentle sound of lapping water and birds.

Returning home to Hamilton after a 10-year absence, writer Joey (Bria McLaughlin) is on a mission. Ten years ago, the night of her high school prom, an injured swan was brutally killed and dismembered at Cootes Paradise (a wetland on the west side of Hamilton Harbour), and the perpetrator was never found. She and a group of friends had tried to solve the mystery back then, but came up empty and gave up.

Despite her older sister Bill’s (Michelle Chiu) skepticism, Joey gets the gang back together in an awkward sort of reunion. Once a tight group of lesbian friends, they formed an environmental group at their now decommissioned, abandonned school in an effort to affect positive change in their city: Rachel (Isabel Kanaan), Piper (Christine Nguyen) and Ron (Angela Sun). The fifth member of the group, Jenna Lynn (Marina Moreira) went missing the night of the prom. And the papers made a bigger deal about the swan.

A horrific trail of clues – photographs of their local hang-outs, each one accompanied by growing numbers of bird carcasses – leads them around the city as they hunt for the swan killer. As they grow weary of their fruitless efforts, suspicion arises. Is the killer among them? Loyalties come into question as memories of some ugly interactions emerge, including Jenna Lynn’s expulsion from the group. All is revealed in the disturbing ending, as mystery turns supernatural.

Excellent work from this cast of women in this spooky, quick-paced tale of otherness and search for the truth. As Joey, McLaughlin is a born leader; an inspiring, determined and cunning negotiator with a lot of smarts and a quick wit, Joey has struggled through her own life-changing injury and has made a modest name for herself as a writer. As Joey’s big sis Bill, Chiu brings a nice combination of cynicism and wariness; Bill thinks Joey and her friends are nuts for trying to solve this case, but she’s also concerned for her sister’s welfare and longs to build a brighter future for what’s left of their family.

Kanaan gives Rachel a great sense of inner conflict; once the class over-achiever, type-A Rachel is in a rut. Ten years after high school, she’s still working as a lifeguard at the local rec centre – and re-opening the case of the murdered swan has sparked her dulled ambition. Nguyen’s Piper is a quirky delight; a lanky athlete with a huge appetite. The peacemaker of the group, she just wants everyone to chill and get along.

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Angela Sun, Isabel Kanaan & Christine Nguyen in Swan

As Ron, Sun is the hasbien of the group, who went on to a traditional, “respectable” heterosexual marriage complete with kids and church activities. Sun gives her some deep tones, though; as we learn that Ron is good at keeping secrets and forgetting things, as well as putting up with some clueless everyday racism – dressed up as cultural interest – from her husband. Moreira’s Jenna Lynn is a lovely combination of bashful and forceful; coming late into the group, it’s Jenna Lynn who takes them in a more effective direction as they comb the community page of the Spec (the Hamilton Spectator) for local problems to solve.

All are outsiders by virtue of their ethnicity, colour and/or sexuality. An all are adrift in lives interupted; seeking identity, and a sense of belonging and purpose. Like the characters in Jan’s Rowing, there’s a feeling of being trapped in a city that doesn’t want them and has nothing for them – even as they struggle to make the best of it and make something of themselves. If they could just solve this mystery, things will turn around for them. And, like it’s sister play Tire Swing, Swan is a dark tale of memory, traumatic experience and mystery.

Former high school pals reunite to solve an old, gruesome mystery in the dark, macabre, thoughtful Swan.

Swan continues in the TPM Backspace till Nov 13; get your tix online or call 416-504-7529. Please note the 7:30 curtain time for evening performances.