Struggling with life’s complexities in the quirky, hilarious, poignant George F. Walker double bill: Her Inside Life & Kill the Poor

Left: Catherine Fitch in Her Inside Life. Right: Craig Henderson & Anne van Leeuwen in Kill the Poor. Photos by John Gundy.

 

Leroy Street Theatre and Low Rise Productions join forces, with the assistance of Storefront Theatre, to present a world premiere double bill of two George F. Walker plays: Her Inside Life, directed by Andrea Wasserman, and Kill the Poor, directed by Wes Berger—completing The Parkdale Palace Trilogy after a successful run of Chance last Fall. Featuring sharply drawn characters living on the fringes of urban society, it’s classic Walker; a brilliant, quirky, hilarious and poignant look at life’s “losers” as they struggle with unique and complex problems. The compelling and entertaining double bill opened last night at The Assembly Theatre.

Her Inside Life (directed by Andrea Wasserman). A woman convicted of murder, under house arrest due to mental incapacity, discovers that the second man she thought she’d killed is still alive.

Former English literature teacher Violet (Catherine Fitch) is under house arrest for the murder of her husband Keith, who she believes was a serial killer. Found to be mentally incapacitated, she’s under the mandatory supervision of social worker Cathy (Sarah Murphy-Dyson); and the two are engaged in an ongoing battle of wills over Violet’s medication and erratic behaviour. Violet’s previously absent daughter Maddy (Lesley Robertson) arrives on the scene, wanting to help but struggling with her own demons. Violet longs to see her two grandkids—and Cathy and Maddy team up in an attempt to make that happen.

When Violet learns that the second man she thought she’d killed-her brother-in-law Leo (Tony Munch)-is alive and recently out of prison, her drive for exoneration and acceptance of her story is renewed. She believes that Leo was an accessory to Keith’s murders; and she’s convinced that her mother-in-law’s diaries have evidence to prove her theory. Trouble is, they’re written in Lithuanian. As Maddy and Violet attempt to translate the diaries, Cathy discovers Violet’s unorthodox means of getting information from Leo. And that’s when things get really crazy.

Fitch is a treat as the quirky, funny and highly intelligent Violet; impishly mischievous and charming, Violet is a tricky customer who knows how to play the system-and what she lacks in tact, she makes up for in chutzpah. Longing for some independence and dignity, and desperate to be believed, she fights the odds to be heard. Murphy-Dyson is a perfect foil as Cathy; put-upon, yet friendly, patient and professional, Cathy truly cares for and wants to help Violet—but she’s nobody’s fool and won’t take any bullshit. Robertson is both goofy and heartbreaking as Maddy; having been through the wars emotionally herself, Maddy is a struggling alcoholic with an asshole for a husband. She wants to help, but could use a hand herself. Munch’s Leo is a complex combination of low-level thug and hurt little boy; a reminder that bullies are what they are for a reason, there’s a soft, gooey centre under that hard shell.

Kill the Poor (directed by Wes Berger, assisted by Breanna Dillon and Marisa McIntyre). A young couple recovering from a tragic car accident are assisted by their building’s handyman, a disbarred lawyer who bites off more than he can chew with his plan to get justice.

As Lacey (Anne van Leeuwen) arrives home to continue recovering from a tragic car accident that took her brother Tim’s life, she and husband Jake (Craig Henderson) must now also figure out how they’re going to organize and pay for Tim’s funeral. When their building handyman Harry (Ron Lea) learns of their predicament, he offers to help; a disbarred, former crooked lawyer, he hatches a plan to create a witness in Lacey’s favour.

Meanwhile, police detective Annie (Chandra Galasso) wants some answers about what happened the night of the accident, but Lacey can’t even remember who was driving her car, let alone which driver ran the red light. The other driver, Mr. David (Al Bernstein), who came away relatively unscathed in his Escalade, shows up with a large cheque , claiming it’s to cover the cost of Lacey’s totalled car. And when Harry’s plan is tweaked to target Mr. David, the gang finds they’ve bitten off more than they can chew when they find out about his ties to organized crime. Then, things get really tense.

There’s great chemistry between van Leeuwen’s street-smart, grown-up Lacey and Henderson’s dim-witted, child-like, loyal Jake. Looking after her mom, keeping Jake on the straight and narrow, and now having to plan her brother’s funeral—all while still recovering from her injuries—Lacey finds reserves of strength even she didn’t know she had. Lea is a laugh riot as the eccentric, energetic Harry; shifting from waxing philosophical, to hilarious bursts of outrage, to devious scheming, Harry is fighting for redemption from a checkered past. Galasso’s Annie brings the edge and skepticism of a seasoned cop, softened by a strong sense of compassion; while Annie can be a suspicious hard-ass, the harshness of the job hasn’t dulled her drive to serve and protect. And Bernstein’s Mr. David is a compelling collage of menacing presence, dark comic wise guy and empathetic listener. David feels for Lacey’s situation, but won’t have his reputation and livelihood put in jeopardy by attracting unwanted attention in a possible vehicular manslaughter trial.

 

Once again, Walker reminds us that there’s so much more to people than meets the eye—including those we would write off due to socioeconomic status, chosen profession, or mental or intellectual capacity. In the end, we’re all just trying the best we can to make it through the day with some dignity and security—and some days are freakier than others.

Her Inside Life and Kill the Poor continue at The Assembly Theatre until November 18; both shows run every night, with alternating curtain times of 7pm and 9pm. Get advance tickets online or purchase at the door; it’s an intimate venue and a strong production, so advance booking strongly recommended.

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Toronto Fringe: Art, friendship & astroturf in the quirky, edgy, hilarious The Grass is Greenest at the Houston Astrodome

Adrian Rebucas, Lauren MacKinlay, Anne van Leeuwen, Richard Young & Carson Pinch. Photo by Megan Terris.

 

High Park Productions takes us to The Freedom Factory gallery (22 Dovercourt Road, south of Queen St. East) for a fly-on-the-wall view of the aftermath of an explosive art show opening. The Toronto Fringe production of Michael Ross Albert’s The Grass is Greenest at the Houston Astrodome, directed by Robert Motum, is a quirky, edgy, hilarious look at the indie art world and a group of artist friends as they struggle with finding fulfillment in the personal lives and careers.

Photographer Amy (Lauren MacKinlay) manages an art gallery that’s soon shutting down, so she invites her art school friends to hang their work in one final show—one that quickly closes when radical feminist painter pal Caroline (Anne van Leeuwen) goes all rock star in a hotel room on the place. Cleaning up the debris of art work, wine glasses and broken dreams, Amy is assisted by gallery intern/sculptor Pablo (Carson Pinch) and conceptual artist friend Marshall (Adrian Rebucas) while Caroline fumes and smokes outside before rejoining her friends to explain herself and face the music. And just when you thought things couldn’t get more complicated, Caroline’s fiancé John (Richard Young) arrives and the gang discovers that he already knows Marshall.

Remarkable work from the ensemble, who keeps it real and present amidst all the insanity, razor sharp hilarity and satire. Heartfelt, insightful discussions about the art world, the nature of art and creativity, and the artist’s place within it all—and the existential crisis every artist must confront regarding their work, the precarity of their financial status, and their struggle for personal meaning and fulfillment.

The production features dramatic, evocative works by local female artists Shannon Gernon, Christine Miller, Krista Sobocan and Zabrina Szymanski.

The Grass is Greenest at the Houston Astrodome continues every night at 8 p.m. at The Freedom Factory until July 15. It’s sold out for the remainder of the run, but you can always drop by and take your chances on scooping up a spot from a no-show.

Want to check if the show you want to see is sold out? The Toronto Fringe folks have set up a page for sold-out shows, updated daily.

 

 

Family, blood & sins of the father in the compelling, darkly funny Tough Jews

Maaor Ziv, Blue Bigwood-Mallin, Luis Fernandes, Theresa Tova, Anne van Leeuwen, G. Kyle Shields & Stephen Joffe in Tough Jews—photo by John Gundy

Leave the gun. Take the kugel.

Storefront Theatre is back, this time partnering with The Spadina Avenue Gang to mount the world premiere of Michael Ross Albert’s Tough Jews, directed by Storefront founder/co-artistic director Benjamin Blais and running at Kensington Hall in Toronto’s Kensington Market.

Tough Jews was Albert’s graduate project about a family of Toronto Jewish gangsters; and, although it’s set in the late 20s and early 30s, the play speaks to issues of anti-Semitic and anti-immigration/refugee sentiments that are relevant today, especially given the influence of the current administration to the south, and the rise in hate crimes targeting Jews and Muslims on both sides of the border.

Set in the basement speakeasy, downstairs from the family’s shop and home in Kensington Market, Act one opens in 1929 on Yom Kippur, 10 days before the stock market crash. Overseen by the widowed family matriarch Ida (Theresa Tova), brothers Joe (Luis Fernandes) and Ben (Blue Bigwood-Mallin) take care of the family business running booze downstairs, while Teddy (G. Kyle Shields) runs the legit business upstairs. Kid sister Rose (Maaor Ziv) and Ben’s American fiancée Marge (Anne van Leeuwen) watch from the sidelines. Downstairs business with Detroit’s Purple Gang goes south when hothead cousin Ziggie (Stephen Joffe) interrupts negotiations. This prompts Ben to come up with an idea to get Rose’s dope-dealing boyfriend Harry (who we never see), to get in on the action; despite the family’s disapproval of Harry, Ben hopes to placate the Purple Gang with new, hard-to-get product.

Act two jumps ahead four years to 1933, a couple of months after Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany and shortly after the Christie Pits riot. Joe and Marge have been living in Florida, but his business was hit hard by the Depression, and he’s returned home to Toronto. Ben has also just come home, just released from jail; and Rose has a three-year-old and some serious domestic issues at her house. Teddy has taken over the speakeasy in the interim, but is now using it as a hide-out after his involvement in the Christie Pits riot.

Family secrets emerge throughout; and serious, changing situations prompt some equally drastic decision-making and choices. How far will a marginalized, oppressed and desperate people go in order to survive?

Stellar work from the entire cast in this immersive theatrical experience where the audience has a fly-on-the-wall view of the proceedings. Tova is hard as nails, hilarious and heartbreaking as Ida, who recalls in sharp, painful detail the oppression of her homeland and the hardship of an ocean crossing. The dreams of a better life destroyed by hate and oppression in a new country, Ida takes charge with pragmatism, grit and wry wit; and with a laser focus on turning the family’s fortunes around. Fernandes gives oldest brother Joe a nice balance of calculating professional and protective man of the house. Dog tired and struggling to keep the family business afloat, Joe must also manage the less than friendly relationship between Marge and his family.

Bigwood-Mallin brings a great sense of spark and ambition to Ben; the only one who really wants to be a gangster, Ben is genuinely excited to expand the business, make connections in the U.S. and make more money. Shields does a marvelous job with Teddy’s arc; as the bookish, observant kid brother, Teddy is torn between being a good man and seeing their legitimate family business survive, and the struggle to survive in a harsh, unfair world that leaves his family few options. By Act Two, he’s grown up a lot in those four years; a changed man, he sees what’s going on in Germany—and how prejudice and hate know no boundaries—and it sickens him.

Ziv’s Rose is an irreverent spitfire; an independent-minded and often neglected member of the family, Rose does her best to make a life for herself, but finds new challenges outside the safety of the family nest. Van Leeuwen brings a regal edge to the platinum blond, leggy Marge; a dancer when Joe first met her, she’s now set on becoming a respectable wife and looking forward to enjoying the good things in life. Unable to stomach Joe’s family business, however, she retaliates by putting on airs. Joffe gives Ziggie a menacing, lost boy edge. Taken in by his aunt Ida as a child, Ziggie’s grown up into a dangerous punk with some serious anger and impulse control issues; and his choices make him a liability to the family.

With big shouts to the design team Adam Belanger (set), Melissa Joakim (lighting), Lindsay Dagger Junkin (costumes), Angela McQueen (makeup) and Miquelon Rodriguez (sound) for their work on the evocative, immersive environment; and to fight director Simon Fon, and co-stage managers Justine Cargo and Andrea Miller. Throughout the production, corpses will be played by Kyle Bailey, Daniel Briere, Gabriel Hamilton and David Lapsley. The bartender makes a mean Manhattan, with the good Jack Daniels.

Family, blood and sins of the father in the compelling, darkly funny Tough Jews.

Tough Jews continues at Kensington Hall till April 16 (enter through the back alley—follow the sandwich board sign); full schedule and advance tix available online]. Book in advance for this one, folks; it’s a popular company and there’s a lot of well-deserved buzz about this show—not to mention the intimate venue. Warning: Show contains gun shots and smoking (herbal cigarettes).

In the meantime, check out Brittany Kay’s In the Greenroom blog interview with playwright Michael Ross Albert and actor G. Kyle Shields, with director Benjamin Blais dropping by.

A powerful, moving adaptation – The Deliverance of Juliet & Her Romeo

juliet & her romeoI was very lucky to be able to get in to see the closing night performance of Leroy Street Theatre’s/Avant Bard Productions’ adaptation of Romeo and JulietThe Deliverance of Juliet and Her Romeo – at Unit 102 Theatre last night.

Adapted by Harrison Thomas, Ashleigh Kasaboski and Anne van Leeuwen, and directed by Thomas, this version of the classic tale of star-crossed lovers is set in a modern-day religious right dystopia (think Handmaid’s Tale meets Bountiful, B.C.). The Capulets are members of the dominant cult, and Lord Capulet (Scott Walker) is their prophet/leader; Lady Capulet is a trio of sister wives that includes the traditional Nurse role (Michelle Cloutier, Kelly Van der Burg and Michelle D’Alessandro Hatt – with D’Alessandro Hatt playing the Nurse wife, called “Aunt” by Juliet); and Juliet (Kasaboski) is the dutiful, but lively, daughter and prized possession. Romeo (van Leeuwen) is a woman, with only her mother Lady Montague (Emily Nixon) and cousin Benvolio (Cam Sedgwick) to call family – and all are reviled heretics in the eyes of the Capulet cult. Living outside these opposing families are the socially liberal missionary Friar Lawrence (Christopher Mott) and his daughter Mercutio (Lauren Horejda), who is BFFs with Benvolio and Romeo.

In this Romeo and Juliet, the hate between the two families is mostly one-sided, with the more powerful Capulets lording over all – and not above acts of self-righteous violence to keep control and purge their society of undesirables. And, here, the young love between Juliet and her Romeo, cut short by hatred and intolerance, is all the more tragic – you’d think that, by the late 20th centruy, people would know better.

Played out on a starkly furnished, almost Spartan, set of chain link fences and wooden boxes – and backed by a live soundtrack of guitar, banjo and a selection of hymns, including a particularly lovely choral performance of “Down to the River to Pray” – this Verona is physically divided, the Capulet commune more like a prison than a community.

The Deliverance of Juliet and Her Romeo has an excellent cast. Stand-outs include Kasaboski, who brings a youthful passion and energy – and desperate bravery – to Juliet; and van Leeuwen’s Romeo is a lovely combination of sensitive, romantic and melancholy (this production also borrows text from Hamlet), whose courage tends more toward the brash and impetuous compared to her more measured lover. Walker’s performance as Capulet is riveting – his Capulet’s domineering, at times violent, behaviour and ‘my way or the highway’ attitude is all the more disturbing, as it’s all done in the name of God. D’Alessandro Hatt’s Lady Capulet 3/Nurse is compelling and compassionate – surprised to find that the Romeo to whom she delivers Juliet’s message is a woman, but not allowing prejudice to sway her opinion of Romeo’s good character. It is towards this wife that Capulet directs his violence when she attempts to intervene when Juliet refuses to marry Paris – and her eventual support of the match seems to come more from a place of protecting Juliet’s welfare than betrayal. Mott’s Friar Lawrence, who also acts as the Chorus, does an excellent job of juggling the conflicting political and emotional situations he finds himself in; striving to keep the peace and protect his family, his resolve pushed to the breaking point when his daughter is killed and the Capulets plan a mass suicide after Juliet’s ‘death’ (drawn from real-life 1978 Jonestown Massacre). And Horejda is remarkable as Mercutio (also plays the Apothecary) – cocky, irreverent and exceedingly clever, with a tortured soul beneath the wise-cracking antics, and so in love with Romeo.

The Deliverance of Juliet and Her Romeo is a powerful, moving adaptation – and the big deal here is not that the young lovers are women, but that the world in which they live is ruled by the hate and narrow-mindedness of an extreme religious right group that ultimately implodes upon itself. Bad news is, the run is over. Good news is, you can keep an eye out for Leroy Street Theatre and Avant Bard Productions – and this fine cast – to see where they go next.

 

Life, love & loss in a funny & touching family reunion – Marion Bridge @ Village Playhouse

MB_PosterDropped by the Village Playhouse on Sunday afternoon to see the Village Players’ production of Daniel MacIvor’s Marion Bridge, directed by Greg Nowlan.

Three sisters reunite at their Cape Breton family home to be with their dying divorced mother: Agnes, a struggling actress who’s been living in Toronto; Theresa, a nun whose order runs a farm in New Brunswick; and Louise, who stayed at home. Family history and present-day challenges converge in this funny, touching play – told with humour, honesty and heart.

Returning to the stage after a 10-year absence, Michelle D’Alessandro Hatt gives an outstanding performance as the fiery, strong-willed – and at times petulant – oldest sister Agnes, the “unconventional girl” in the family, struggling with alcohol and an acting career that’s going nowhere and leaving her broke. Lorene Stanwick does a lovely job with Theresa, the cool-headed, responsible middle sister, a wry-witted and sensitive nun facing personal trials of her own. And Anne van Leeuwen is delightful as the “strange” youngest sister Louise, child-like, straight-talking and longing to belong. All three actors do a stand-up job of capturing the sibling dynamic, at times shifting into childish interaction, the sisters’ individual roles in the family set long ago. All three sisters are lost, searching and bracing themselves for the coming loss.

Kudos to voice-over performers Erin Jones and David Borwick for their portrayals of Kara and Justin, two characters from the fictitious soap Ryan’s Cove, a favourite TV show of Louise’s that becomes a sibling diversion.

Marion Bridge is nicely staged on a minimalist kitchen set (designed by Steve Minnie) that evokes the place, and lets the actors and action take prominence – and filled with a beautiful, lyrical regional soundtrack (designed by Richard Green), including, of course, “Song for the Mira” at the end of the play.

Life, love and loss with three feisty Cape Breton sisters – the Village Players’ Marion Bridge is a lovely bit of storytelling.

Marion Bridge continues its run at the Village Playhouse this week Wed – Sat (closing Mar 22). Sunday was sold out, so I’d book ahead if I were you: 416-767-7102.