Shades of gray in the intimate, entertaining, deeply poignant Between Riverside and Crazy

Allegra Fulton & Alexander Thomas. Set design by Anna Treusch. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Coal Mine Theatre opened its Toronto premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Between Riverside and Crazy to a packed house at its home on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue last night. Directed by Kelli Fox, the intimately staged storytelling plays in the gray areas of family and the legal system as a widowed retired NYPD cop holds firm in his bid for justice while being a father figure to a strange and diverse assortment of adults both in his home and on the job. Highlighting issues of politics, government, race and racism, Between Riverside and Crazy reveals, with candor and humour, a world where everyone is hustling and everybody lies.

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Jai Jai Jones, Alexander Thomas & Nabil Rajo. Set design by Anna Treusch. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Widowed retired NYPD cop Walter “Pops” Washington (Alexander Thomas) lives in a sweet rent-controlled apartment on New York City’s Riverside Drive, which he’s currently sharing with his son Junior (Jai Jai Jones), recently released from jail; Junior’s girlfriend Lulu (Zarrin Darnell-Martin), a college student studying accounting; Junior’s friend Oswaldo (Nabil Rajo), a recovering addict and ex-con; and a dog (which we never see). He’s also juggling a discrimination suit against the City of New York after being shot six times by a white rookie, who also called him the n-word, during a raid on an after-hours bar back when he was still on the job; a lot of time and money have been going toward this bid for justice, with no immediate end in sight-and on top of losing his beloved wife Dolores, the entire ordeal has impacted on him both physically and psychologically.

Complicating matters for Walter, a friendly catch-up dinner at his place with his former partner Det. Audrey O’Connor (Claire Armstrong) and her fiancé Lt. Dave Caro (Sergio Di Zio) becomes an intervention of sorts when they try to convince him to drop the lawsuit and take the settlement the City has been offering before the deadline arrives. Cajoling turns to manipulation turns to threat, as Dave’s entreaties take a nasty turn—putting Walter’s home, and Junior’s newly acquired freedom from jail, in jeopardy. In the meantime, Junior is suspected of using the apartment to store stolen goods; Lulu says she’s pregnant; and Oswaldo’s visit to family goes terribly wrong. Then, there’s the impending drop-in from the local Church Lady (Allegra Fulton), who turns out to be a substitute for Walter’s usual church visitor—and even she has an angle to work on him!

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Clockwise from left: Sergio Di Zio, Claire Armstrong, Jai Jai Jones & Alexander Thomas. Set design by Anna Treusch. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Stellar work from Thomas as the gruff but loveable Walter; a bear of a man, Walter has a big heart, but finds it difficult to express it. An older and less vital man than he once was, he lashes out by refusing to eat well or take his meds, and self-medicates with alcohol. But despite his stubborn, grouchy demeanour, we come to really care about Walter; during intermission, a woman who sat beside me remarked (as we were so close to the action in the living room) that, at one point, she wanted to reach out to comfort him.

Jones brings an edge of vulnerability to the cool, streetwise Junior; a young man who needs his father’s good opinion as he struggles to be a grown adult and get his life on track. Rajo’s Oswaldo is a struggling lost boy whose knowing swagger belies a fragile soul; and Darnell-Martin’s sweet but dim-witted Lulu isn’t as clueless as she appears. Armstrong’s warm, Tyne Daly-esque O’Connor plays nicely off of Di Zio’s slick, charismatic Caro; while O’Connor’s brand of manipulation is more motherly, Caro employs that reserved for the darker side of politics—shifting from flattering appeals to reason, to mercilessly going for the jugular. And Fulton’s eccentric clairvoyant Church Lady adds some much needed comic relief and magic following some intense moments at the end of the first act.

Nothing is clearly black and white here—all of these moments and relationships play out in the gray areas. Everyone’s on the hustle and everybody lies, so it can be hard to tell who and what to believe. That doesn’t necessarily mean these are bad people; just flawed and desperate, using whatever resources they can—especially manipulation—to get what they want. The big question is: will they do what’s right or what’s easy? Just like real life.

Between Riverside and Crazy continues at Coal Mine Theatre until December 22; advance tickets available online. Please note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time for evening performances; matinées are Sundays at 2:00 p.m.

 

The profound cruelty & kindness of humanity in Coal Mine’s darkly funny, deeply affecting Category E

Diana Bentley, Robert Persichini & Vivien Endicott-Douglas. Set and costume design by Anna Treusch. Lighting design by Gabriel Cropley. Photo by Tim Leyes.

 

Coal Mine Theatre closes its 4th season with the Toronto premiere of Belinda Cornish’s horror comedy Category E, directed by Rae Ellen Bodie—opening last night to a sold out house at their home on 1454 Danforth Ave.

The pre-show soundtrack of retro commercials playing in the lobby (sound design by Keith Thomas) is a kitschy prelude to the dark comedic terror that awaits inside, where we are transported into an eerily familiar futuristic dystopia—familiar because, like the most recent TV incarnation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the future is closer than you think.

Once in the theatre space, the audience sits on either side of a large cage that contains two cots, a wheel chair and a small bookcase (set and costume design by Anna Treusch); the ceiling of the cage is a large light box (lighting design by Gabriel Cropley), and there are large lighting fixtures outside in the hallway, as well as two security cameras mounted to the walls. Set in a testing facility, Category E takes the human trial stage of product testing to the extreme; the human subjects are stripped of identity and even gender—each bearing a number on their beige scrubs and becoming an “it”—and treated with the cold clinical detachment that would be afforded a lab rabbit.

It is here that the chipper and nervous new kid Millet (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) arrives, joining veteran lab subject Corcoran (Robert Persichini), who uses the wheel chair, and Filigree (Diana Bentley), who is either asleep or passed out. The tension and confusion are turned on immediately, as there are now three people occupying this cage and only two cots; this makes for an intense introduction between Millet and Filigree when Filigree wakes up. Not to mention the condition of the cage’s two original occupants, both filthy and looking in ill health—a stark contrast to the newcomer, who although in desperate need of a shower, is wearing clean scrubs and in perfect health. Corcoran wears an eye patch over one eye and his good eye is angry and red, and the dressing on his forearm should have been changed ages ago; he passes the time with a 17-year-old crossword puzzle. Filigree is pale and gaunt, and keeps scratching her lower back against the chair railing on the wall; her hobby is drawing disturbing portraits in crayon.

Meals, delivered in bowls labelled with subjects’ numbers, are signalled by a light and retrieved at one end of the narrow hallway outside the cage; a female version of HAL 9000 summons subjects by number to testing and shower time, accessed at the other end of the hallway. Standing on the bookcase to peer into the vent, Millet discovers the cage next door; like theirs, it also houses three subjects, but they cannot hear her. There are a lot of questions about what’s going on—and, like Millet, we learn the rules of this strange new world as we go.

There are vague references to “passing the eye” (or is it “I”?), which also gives this world a Handmaid’s Tale vibe, and brief moments of revelation—it seems Corcoran is a former scientist and Millet failed the test. And it appears that those who fail this test, or who have committed some kind of crime or corporate sin, are now considered as subhuman and become subjects in this testing facility. That is, with the exception of Filigree, whose odd, primal behaviour comes from the fact that she was born and raised in the facility, without parental nurturing or guidance (Corcoran has taken on this role, for how long is unclear). We get fleeting glimpses into the testing that they’re subjected to—and the lack of clear answers makes the mystery of this place all the more unsettling. Scene changes are accompanied by sexy voice-over ads, touting the various beauty and fragrances manufactured by the unseen corporation; mentions of side effects call us back to the cage.

Compelling, nuanced work from the cast in this harrowing three-hander, where moments of dark comedy barely take the edge off. Endicott-Douglas is a puckish, clever bundle of energy as Millet; the mercurial, chatty new kid in this space, Millet is endearingly awkward, with a can-do attitude and strong desire to fit in and make a contribution. Persichini’s performance as Corcoran goes deep into the calming, Zen-like quiet of a man of great intellect who at first sight appears merely world-weary and taciturn. Corcoran’s acts of kindness bring the much needed balm of tenderness to an otherwise brutal environment; and there’s an underlying sense of atonement in a struggle for redemption. Bentley is a delightfully quirky, at times menacing, wild child as Filigree; an untamed innocent, she operates on instinct, socialized under the care of Corcoran—and there’s a lovely, playful dynamic between them, especially when Corcoran acquiesces to Filigree’s requests tell them a story. What is the nature of that irritation on Filigree’s back? And why does Corcoran keep insisting on trading meals with Millet?

To see what I have seen! Category E is caress on the cheek and a kick in the gut. It is also a stark reminder that how we test product innovation in the name of consumer satisfaction is a choice. Cruelty and kindness are choices. If you’re either pro- or ambivalent toward animal testing, I think this play might just change your mind. A quote from St. Francis of Assisi, included in the program notes, is especially apt here: “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”

The profound cruelty and kindness of humanity in Coal Mine’s darkly funny, deeply affecting production of the dystopic macabredy Category E.

Category E continues at Coal Mine Theatre until April 29; get advanced tickets online—advance booking strongly recommended.

Desperate desires, power struggles & parental POV in the compelling, sharply funny Trigonometry

Rose Napoli & Alison Dean in Trigonometry—photo by Greg Wong

 

Gabriella wants action. Jackson wants a scholarship. Susan wants a family.

timeshare opened the third and final installment of Rob Kempson’s The Graduation Plays trilogy with the world premiere of Trigonometry this past week, directed by Kempson and running in the Factory Theatre Studio. I caught Trigonometry yesterday afternoon.

Math teacher Gabriella (Rose Napoli), substitute teacher/guidance counsellor Susan (Alison Dean) and student Jackson (Daniel Ellis) find their lives intertwined as their desires collide in a high-stakes, power struggle dynamic. Scandalous photos, sports team hazing allegations and personal revelations come into play in a series of intense, at times hilarious, two-hander moments—culminating in a gripping final scene when the three stories triangulate.

Outstanding work from the cast on this trio of disparate characters locked in a battle of wills. Great chemistry between Napoli and Dean in a diametrically opposed, sharply funny dynamic of opposites. Napoli’s Gabriella is sassy, ballsy and a passionate teacher; a divorced single mom with conservative, black and white views of the world, particularly the new sex ed curriculum. Direct and possessing a sardonic sense of humour, Rose is recently single and ready to mingle—and active on Tinder. Dean brings a sweet, kind quality to the progressive Susan; no doormat, Susan is open to hearing all sides of an argument and willing to navigate the grey areas—in many ways, the perfect guidance counsellor. Tasked with investigating persons of interest around a volleyball team hazing, Susan is a reluctant investigator, but willing to do her duty; she’s also chosen to start her own family, on her own with a sperm donor pregnancy. Ellis’s Jackson is a likeable kid with just the right amount of smart-ass; a gifted athlete struggling with math and driven to make his parents proud, Jackson has considerable strategizing skills—and perhaps too wily for his own good. Was he involved in that hazing?

2. Rose Napoli and Daniel Ellis. Trigonometry. Photo by Greg Wong.
Rose Napoli & Daniel Ellis in Trigonometry—photo by Greg Wong

Parental point of view plays prominently in each story, driving decisions and opinions. All three characters are basically good people—and the situations in which they find themselves test how far they’re willing to go to get what they want. In the end, much is left up to us to sort out.

With shouts to set/costume designer Anna Treusch and scenic painter Simge Suzer for the trippy math class chalkboard set.

Desperate desires, power struggles and parental POV in the compelling, sharply funny Trigonometry.

Trigonometry continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until Mar 25. You can find the full schedule and ticket info here; advance tix available online or by calling 416-504-9971.

In the meantime, check out playwright Rob Kempson’s interview with host Phil Rickaby on Stageworthy Podcast.

 

Dreams, desires & the drive for freedom in thoughtful & farcical Up the Garden Path

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Virgilia Griffith, Sochi Fried & Marcel Stewart – photo by Lyon Smith

Obsidian Theatre opened its production of Lisa Codrington’s Up the Garden Path, directed by Philip Aikin, at Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) last week – and I caught the show last night, which also happened to be Barbados Night, and the house was packed with an enthusiastic and appreciative, mostly Bajan, audience.

Set in the late 1960s, the play opens in Barbados. When Rosa (Virgilia Griffith) comes to Alma (Arlene Duncan) needing a place to stay, willing to work for her room and board, she is first met with disdain – for Rosa is the daughter of Alma’s late husband and her mother, the town seamstress, infamous for taking other women’s husbands to her bed. But Rosa has skills with a sewing needle and Alma’s son Edmund (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) needs to look his best for an upcoming job interview to be a fruit picker in Canada – and Alma intends for him to wear his father’s suit, which is way too big for him. Alma’s younger sister Amelia (Raven Dauda) is pragmatic about the situation, and possibly even sympathetic to Rosa’s plight, and Rosa finds a reluctant home. When Edmund injures his ankle the day before he’s to leave for the job, and needing the income it would provide, Alma and Amelia disguise Rosa as a man, in the suit she altered for Edmund, and send her in his place. And that’s where the real adventure begins for Rosa – in a vineyard in the Niagara region, where instead of being a fruit picker, farmer Isaac (Alex McCooeye) tasks her with scaring off the large flocks of starlings that plague his grapes. It is there that she is also enlisted as a scene partner by Isaac’s aspiring actress younger sister Laura (Sochi Fried) and – even stranger – is called upon by the ghost of an American soldier (Marcel Stewart) to help him leave this earthly plain.

The storytelling uses elements of farce (so aptly complemented by the set design, with its doors, shutters, window frames and corrugated tin), as well as Shakespeare (young woman forced by circumstance to be disguised as a man) and Shaw (Laura’s prize role is Joan of Arc), fairy tale and ghost story – the once upon a time journey is strong here. The play features some great moments of comedy, and a farcical edge that cuts through to some thought-provoking truths. As Rosa goes from outsider, to fish out of water, to self-discovery, this is also a hero’s journey of discovery and transformation.

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Arlene Duncan, Ronnie Rowe Jr. & Raven Dauda – photo by Lyon Smith

Up the Garden Path’s ensemble is outstanding. As the proud family matriarch Alma, Duncan is a sharp-tongued, formidable force to be reckoned with; a woman who’ll suffer no foolishness, she longs for her son to grow up and become a breadwinner for the family. Dauda’s Amelia is the perfect foil to Alma; resourceful and irreverent, she easily trades humourous barbs with her sister as she helps build her nephew into a man – all the while dreaming of a reunion with her sweetheart in England. As Edmund, Rowe Jr. brings a strong sense of a child-like and wide-eyed man boy; a young man with a serious sweet tooth who must take a job in Canada to help support his family, when all he wants to do is open up a sweet shop. Griffith brings a quiet, but potent, unassuming dignity to Rosa; a young woman reviled for her parentage, but tolerated for her tailoring skills. Buffeted here and there by circumstance and those who have power over her life, Rosa has an inner strength that may even surprise herself. And she’s by far the most sane one of the lot.

Stewart gives a powerful, multilayered performance as the ghost soldier Marcel; a bright, loyal and good-humoured man who struggles with horrific memories of war and racial violence. He longs to leave this earth as much as Rosa wanted to leave the judgement and exclusion she faced back home. McCooeye’s Isaac is comical combination of authoritarian know-it-all and ridiculous, scared little bully; a history nerd and proud 1812 redcoat re-enactor (he’s in uniform throughout), his vulnerability is exposed when he needs to step in as tour guide at Fort George, and his mind set on battling the challenges at the family vineyard. As his drama queen sister Laura, Fried gives an energetic and charismatic performance of youthful exuberance, self-absorption and passion; dying to play Shaw’s Joan of Arc, she’s convinced the role will be her ticket to the big time.

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Virgilia Griffith & Alex McCooeye – photo by Lyon Smith

With shouts to the design team: set/costume designer Anna Treusch, lighting designer Steve Lucas, sound designer Verne Good and production designer Cameron Davis for bringing the vision of these very different environments to life in one space: Rosa’s Barbados town, and the Niagara region farm and vineyard.

Dreams, desires and the drive for freedom in thoughtful and farcical Up the Garden Path.

You should go see this. Up the Garden Path continues in the TPM Mainspace until Apr 10. For advance tickets, call 416-504-7529 or order online.