Movie set shenanigans get a dose of harsh reality in sharply funny, heartbreaking & hopeful Stones in His Pockets

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Stephen Farrell & Mark Whelan in Stones in His Pockets – photo by Kathryn Hollinrake

The Irish Stage Company opened its inaugural production in the Alumnae Theatre Studio last week: Marie Jones’ Stones in His Pockets, directed by James Barrett. They’ve been playing to packed houses so far – and last night’s house was sold out.

Stones in His Pockets is a movie shoot within a play. A small farming town in County Kerry becomes the location for the Hollywood film The Quiet Valley, with many of the townspeople employed as extras. A tragicomedy, the play is a both a satirical poke at the romantic American view of Ireland and a look at the harsh realities of a small Irish town, where a dying way of life is being used as the nostalgic backdrop for a big-budget movie. The resulting film shoot environment is plastic and careless, its sincerity put on like a costume, and with an ever watchful eye on the bottom line.

A fast-paced two-hander, actors/producers Mark Whelan and Stephen Farrell are masterful performers, playing a total of 15 characters of varying ages, genders and roles within the film production, the story anchored by extras Jake Quinn (Farrell) and Charlie Conlon (Whelan). Each character is executed with detailed physicality and specific vocal quality, with a bare minimum of costume changes (the removal of a hat or vest), the two actors turning on a dime as they shift from one character to another. And they cut a fine rug as well.

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Stephen Farrell & Mark Whelan in Stones in His Pockets – photo by Kathryn Hollinrake

Charlie (Whelan), an out of towner and former business owner who lost his video store and his girlfriend to a corporate chain outfit, is delighted to be there earning 40 quid a day and free meals. Ever the optimist, he’s got a film script in his pocket that he’s dying to get into the hands of one of the production folks. Jake (Farrell) is more the wry skeptic, taking a cooler pragmatic view of life on set. Recently returned from a failed attempt at life in the U.S., he’s wary of the bitch goddess taking up residence in a place he cares about, among people he loves, many of whom are relatives. And, of course, there’s always more to someone’s story than what you see on the surface. While Charlie is consciously working hard to maintain a positive outlook after coming through past troubles of his own, Jake is adrift; lost and unsure of what to do about his life and his young cousin Sean (also played by Farrell), a troubled and trouble-making teen who once had big dreams of his own and is now addicted to drugs.

This highly entertaining and poignant cast of characters also includes the film’s female lead, Caroline Giovanni (played with fragile, coquettish femininity by Whelan), a delicate, sensual and jaded starlet who struggles with the Irish dialect under the tutelage of her patient and supportive coach John (Farrell). Other film production folk include the ever put-upon, fed up, on the edge of breakdown AD Simon (Whelan); the youthful, driven and eye-rolling AD Aislinn (Farrell); and the aloof, professional task master, director Clem (Whelan). Other characters of note include Mickey Riordan (Farrell), a Puck-like old fella with a glint in his eye, famous in that he’s the last surviving extra from The Quiet Man; Finn (Whelan), Jake’s soft-spoken, turtle-like cousin; and Jock (Whelan), Caroline’s brick shit house, no-nonsense body guard who more than lives up to his name.

While the hopes and dreams of struggling people are being used and manipulated for the good of the production machine, and with tragic results, Stones in His Pockets is not without hope. The one thing that isn’t romanticized about the Irish is the resilience of a people who are genuine, hard-working and imaginative at heart– and who like a good story.

With shouts to sound designer Angus Barlow for the sweeping, romantic Irish soundtrack and jaunty jigs; the Irish Stage Company for its minimalist, but highly effective set and costume design; and to stage manager Sarah Barton for looking after our boys on stage, and reminding the audience to mind the steps, and the stones on set, as we make our way up into the Studio.

Movie set shenanigans get a dose of harsh reality in the sharply funny, heartbreaking and hopeful Stones in His Pockets.

Stones in His Pockets continues at Alumnae Theatre until Dec 12; this is a very popular production, so advance booking online is strongly recommended.

You can find the Irish Stage Company on Twitter and Stones in His Pockets on Facebook.

Department of corrections: Photo credit originally ascribed to Rob Trick; it’s actually Kathryn Hollinrake. The post has been revised accordingly.

Powerful, moving & beautifully raw storytelling in I Am Marguerite

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Daniela Pagliarello & Christopher Oszwald in I Am Marguerite – photo by Bruce Peters

In 1542, banished from a French ship by a heartless, domineering brother, Marguerite de Roberval is set afloat on a skiff towards a remote island off the north coast of Newfoundland. With her are her faithful nurse and her lover Eugene. Left with scant provisions and in fear of never seeing home or loved ones again, they land on the Isle of Demons with the prospect of perishing in the face of cold, harsh winters and predatory wildlife.

This is the story, a little-known piece of Canadian history, brought to life on stage in an hour-long, emotionally and psychologically packed play by Shirley Barrie. This is I Am Marguerite, directed by Molly Thom – and it opened to a packed house at Alumnae Theatre last night.

The storytelling is taut and compelling, shifting in and out of memory and hallucination, and honed over the past decade and after having taken on various forms – from play to opera libretto back to play again – and executed by an excellent cast. As Marguerite, Daniela Pagliarello does a remarkable job of driving the story, not to mention a lovely job of capturing the youthful passion, lust for life, curiosity and rebellious streak of the young French noblewoman. Teetering on the edge of madness, struggling with physical, emotional and mental hardship, she vacillates between a ferocious fight for survival and a desperate surrender to the memories and faces that haunt her in her loneliness. And, like Marguerite, we often find ourselves wondering if the faces are real or imagined ghosts from her past.

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Top: Chris Coculuzzi, Heli Kivilaht & Sara Price. Bottom: Daniela Pagliarello & Christopher Oszwald – photo by Bruce Peters

Joining Pagliarello is an outstanding supporting cast. As Marguerite’s ambitious, older brother Jean-François, Chris Coculuzzi gives us a strong performance of a man as driven and strong-willed as his younger sister, but with a dark, cruel edge. Proud, controlling and manipulative, he is not above using those closest to him as a means to his own ends. Heli Kivilaht is a delight as Marguerite’s former nurse and present companion Damienne, a loving, nurturing and supportive soul with an irreverent, no-nonsense sensibility. Sara Price brings layers of warmth and genuine goodness to the otherwise imperious and proper Queen of Navarre. As Marguerite’s lover Eugene, Christopher Oszwald gives us a man of quiet strength, a romantic, and a lover of music and beauty who is willing to risk it all for the woman he loves. And the love and loyalty of Eugene and Damienne’s choice to be banished with Marguerite make subsequent events all the more heartbreaking.

With big shouts to a most excellent design team. Marysia Bucholc has created a magnificent, abstract set design – the layers and multi-dimensional, almost sculptural, landscape sharp and rippling outward, with eerie, weeping trees; and props by Razie Brownstone – the rocks, bones and rustic supply trunk – dress an otherwise barren space. The characters are honed and brought to brilliant living colour with stunning period costumes by Peter DeFreitas and Toni Hanson. Angus Barlow’s evocative sound design features haunting atmospheric composition by James Langevin-Frieson (who composed theme music for Marguerite, played at the beginning and the end of the play), as well as period dance and lute music, going from dulcet to frenetic as the music mirrors the fragility of Marguerite’s mind.

I Am Marguerite is a powerful, moving and beautifully raw piece of storytelling.

I Am Marguerite runs on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage until April 25, featuring a talkback after the matinée on April 19. Advance tickets available online or at the box office an hour before curtain time (cash only).

Here’s a little teaser by way of the show trailer. Go see this.

Department of Corrections: An earlier version of this post neglected to mention that the original music included in Angus Barlow’s sound design was composed by James Langevin-Frieson. This has since been corrected.

Climbing out with humour & rage – Alumnae Theatre’s Rabbit Hole

Rabbit-Hole-website-bannerAlumnae Theatre Company closes its 2013-14 season with David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, directed by Paul Hardy.
Set in the Larchmont, New York home of Becca and Howie, who recently lost their four-year-old son Danny in an accident, Rabbit Hole takes the audience down into a place of deep loss as we watch this couple live through it – with humour, intense struggle and bewildered rage.
Hardy has an excellent cast to tell this story. Paula Schultz gives a lovely layered performance as Becca, tightly wound and wounded, a sharp edge to her housewife cheer as she barely stifles her rage. Cameron Johnston does great work with Howie, who struggles to stay positive, proactively gain closure and have their lives return to some sense of normalcy as he walks on eggshells in his own home, missing the family dog who’s been banished to Becca’s mother’s house. Joanne Sarazen, as Becca’s younger sister Izzy, is hilariously goofy and irreverent, edgy and no-bullshit, tempered with empathy and protective impulses; peas in a pod with Sheila Russell’s Nat, Becca and Izzy’s mom – quirky, warm and raucous, and dealing with the less recent loss of an adult son. And really nice work from Christopher Manousos as Jason, the sensitive teenager with a creative soul and a kind nature, who comes into Becca and Howie’s lives in an unexpected and tragic way – torn between his own feelings and taking care with theirs.
And I have to shout out the design team here. Jacqueline Costa’s two-level set puts us perfectly in this prim and tidy upper middle class home, with its sunken living room – complete with reclaimed wood coffee table – and fully loaded kitchen, the top level set up as Danny’s still intact bedroom. Angus Barlow’s sound design, featuring original compositions, transports us to 2002, with its beats and electronic keys, as does Sara Brzozowski’s costume design, tailored bang-on to both time and character. Kudos, too, to the props team of Razie Brownstone and Tess Hendaoui, who – on top of the standard household props – had a food-heavy script, as well as a lot of child’s clothes and stuffed animals to come up with.
Alumnae Theatre’s Rabbit Hole is funny, moving and profoundly human.
Rabbit Hole continues its run on the mainstage until April 26, with performances tonight and tomorrow afternoon. Go see this.

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.

The Crucible – a moving & haunting cautionary tale

top-bannerTC32-685x269crucible n.1 a container in which metals are heated 2 a severe test or trial (Oxford Canadian Dictionary)

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a drama set during the Salem witch trials of the late 1600s – and a metaphor for the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, when the play was written – is a period piece that maintains its relevance today. The damaging “with us or against us” mentality still rings chillingly true.

Alexander Showcase Theatre (AST) is currently running a moving and haunting production on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage, directed by Vincenzo Sestito. Beneath the social turmoil is a story of personal lies, love and redemption, as the lives of the townspeople are turned upside down by the vengeful machinations of a jealous, grasping young woman. Thanks to her, the local clergy cry “witch” – and the full weight of the witch trials comes down upon their heads.

As a container, the crucible remains unchanged during the process of burning the object inside it. While this is also true of the legal arm of this trial, the same cannot be said of the religious arm. Wielding religious and legal power – and fear – the black and white thinking that is dangerous to any who stand in its path leaves those in ultimate power unmoved.

The Crucible features a fine cast, with some familiar faces from previous AST productions. Stand-outs include Patrick and Andrea Brown, the real-life husband and wife playing John and Elizabeth Proctor. Both give strong, layered performances as an estranged couple struggling to move past John’s extramarital sin to face an even more horrific situation when Elizabeth is accused of witchcraft. The two have some lovely domestic and tender moments as the Proctors fight for their marriage and, ultimately, their lives, when protecting each other becomes foremost in their minds. Sharon Zehavi is striking and sensual as Abigail Williams, the original mean girl, troubled and sly – and merciless in her pursuit of vengeance and her former lover, John Proctor. This is a huge departure from Zehavi’s previous AST role as the wide-eyed rookie actress in the radio play version of It’s A Wonderful Life; she is also part of the graphic design team on the production poster for The Crucible.

Seth Mukamal does an excellent job with Reverend Parris, providing a nice arc to the church leader’s decent from pompous, materialistic cleric to the damaged, shell-shocked man we see during the trials. Matt Jensen, as Reverend Hale, gives a nicely rounded performance of the young, intelligent and energetic clergyman turned disillusioned and desperate when his eyes are pried open to the willful blindness of the Puritan-driven judiciary, looking to find witches no matter what the cost. Shouts to Nina Mason, who gives us a Mary Warren that is a silly girl and a follower, but just really wants to fit in and be somebody; to Doug McLauchlan as the simple, litigious Giles Corey, who provides some much needed comic relief; and to Arnie Zweig, who brings a natural officiousness to the imperious Deputy-Governor Danforth.

Kudos to an excellent design team: Angus Barlow (sound),  Chris Humphrey (lighting), Deborah Mills (props), Beth Roher (set), Gwyneth Sestito (costumes) and Jo-Anne Wurster (original music composition). The minimal wooden furniture, everyday objects and period costumes set us firmly in time and place, while the back-lit scrim painted with black trees, coupled with lanterns emerging from the darkness, and music and snatches of hymns, add to the eerie transformation of a lovely town set aflame by greed and religion running rampantly astray.

Seeing The Crucible is a grim reminder of the dangers of all or nothing thinking – especially when used as a tool of fear and control by an unchecked political leadership.

Alexander Showcase Theatre’s production of The Crucible runs until November 24.

Department of Corrections: Due to an error in the Production Team section of the program, the set designer was incorrectly identified here in the original post as Marc Davies. Beth Roher was the set designer for this production; this has been corrected.

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.