Toronto Fringe: Coping with loss & freeing the stories in the enchanting, playful adventure Through the Bamboo

Carolyn Fe & ensemble. Set design by Nina Lee Aquino & Farnoosh Talebpour. Costume design by Farnoosh Talebpour. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay. Photo by Lyon Smith.

 

The Uwi Collective presents a Philippine mythology-inspired adventure in storytelling in the enchanting, playful, poignant Through the Bamboo, running in the Factory Theatre Mainspace. Written by Andrea Mapili and Byron Abalos; directed by Nina Lee Aquino, assisted by Mapili; and with music direction by Maddie Bautista, we follow the reluctant hero’s journey of a young girl as she seeks to free her Lola (grandma) from a strange, faraway land ruled by Three Sisters who have outlawed storytelling.

Philly (Angela Rosete) is sad and angry; her beloved Lola (Carolyn Fe) has died and her family is packing Lola’s things all wrong. When she discovers Lola’s favourite story book Through the Bamboo, she also finds Lola’s malong (a multi-purpose Philippine garment, worn here as a sash) tucked inside. She puts the malong on, and it comes to life, whisking her away to Uwi, ruled by Three Sisters—Isa (Karen Ancheta, who also plays Philly’s mom), Dalawa (Marie Beath Badian) and Tatlo (Joy Castro)—who have banished storytelling from the land.

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Marie Beath Badian, Karen Ancheta & Joy Castro. Set design by Nina Lee Aquino & Farnoosh Talebpour. Costume design by Farnoosh Talebpour. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay. Photo by Lyon Smith.

Upon her arrival, Philly is greeted by the villagers as the one foretold in a prophecy who will free them from their oppression at the hands of the Sisters. All she wants to do is go home, but when she visits Matalino the seer (Nicco Lorenzo Garcia) and learns that Lola is there, she partners with two stalwart allies, Giting (Lana Carillo) and Ipakita (Ericka Leobrera), to find her. Along the way, they are assisted by mythical creatures: the sea creature Koyo (Anthony Perpuse), made mute by the Sisters’ magic; and the trickster forest creature Kapre (Perpuse). And all the while, they are pursued by the Sisters’ spy, the formidable flying Ekek, and the fierce horseman solider General T (both played by John Echano). Will Philly be able to save Lola—and is she really who everyone thinks she is? Will the Sisters maintain their vice-like grip on the land, where even memories—which constitute stories—are forbidden?

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Angela Rosete, Lana Carillo & Ericka Leobrera. Set design by Nina Lee Aquino & Farnoosh Talebpour. Costume design by Farnoosh Talebpour. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay. Photo by Lyon Smith.

It’s a big fun, fantastic ride for all ages as everyday household items and moving boxes transform into a variety of magical creature costumes, props (shouts to props master Farnoosh Talebpour) and places: tennis rackets become Ekek’s wings, a wicker rocking horse transforms into General T, and swimming noodles become bamboo stalks. And lovely, imaginative, high-energy performances from the cast as they shift from our everyday world to the magical world of Uwi.

Rosete brings a feisty fierceness to the strong-willed Philly; hurt and angry, and missing her Lola, her determination and resilience make her a true hero. Fe gives a beautiful, gentle and touching performance as Lola; at first confused and disoriented in her earthly dementia state, Lola’s memory returns, revealing great power and strength. Great comic turns from the Sisters Ancheta, Beath Badian and Castro—reminiscent of the three sisters in the movie Stardust, who age whenever they use their power. Garcia makes for a jolly wise man as Matalino, adding a playful Yoda-like quality to the wisdom. Echano is both comic and intimidating as the flying spy Ekek, bringing to mind the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz; then all menace as the merciless horseback soldier General T. And Perpuse is adorable and puck-like as the mute sea-dwelling Koyo, who must communicate with gestures; and as the mischievous forest-dwelling Kapre, renowned for playing tricks.

A reminder that stories are how we connect, how we remember loved ones we’ve lost—and important tools for working through the grief of that loss. You may find yourself feeling like a kid at story time, and maybe even brushing away a tear or two at the end (I know I did).

Through the Bamboo continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace for three more performances: July 11 at 2:30, July 13 at 6:15 and July 14 at 12:00; visit the show page to book advance tickets online. Definitely book in advance, as these guys have been selling out.

Memories of grade 6 & the search for identity in the brave, endearing, immersive ERASER

Clockwise from top centre: Christol Bryan, Marina Gomes, Yousef Kadoura, Tijiki Morris, Nathan Redburn & Anthony Perpuse. Set & costume design by Christine Urquhart. Lighting design by Rebecca Vandevelde. Photo by Sam Gaetz.

 

Eraser Theatre brings the world premiere of its immersive production ERASER, presented as part of Why Not Theatre’s RISER Project 2019, to The Theatre Centre’s Incubator stage. Created by the ensemble, along with director/choreographer team Bilal Baig and Sadie Epstein-Fine, ERASER invites the audience into the world of the six performers’ grade 6 memories and fantasies, weaving their individual experiences together as their young student selves navigate their tween lives and struggle to figure out who they want to be.

The endearing, brave, high-energy ensemble features Christol Bryan (Whitney, the Queen Bee), Marina Gomes (Tara, the Know-it-all), Yousef Kadoura (Jihad, the Follower), Tijiki Morris (Afroze, the New Kid), Anthony Perpuse (Eli, the Space Cadet) and Nathan Redburn (Noah, the Sad One). As you enter the theatre space, you’re given a lanyard that bears the name and image of one of the students; this student will be your guide throughout the experience, and you’re invited to join them in their space before the action begins.

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Anthony Perpuse. Set & costume design by Christine Urquhart. Lighting design by Rebecca Vandevelde. Photo by Sam Gaetz.

I was put on team Eli (Perpuse), and we joined him in his room, hanging out and getting to know him before the start of the new school year. A gayby kid of Filipino heritage, nearly 12-year-old Eli has two moms—with one mom’s brother being the sperm donor for the other mom’s pregnancy. He’s a chill, affable, curious kid who loves to hang out in his room, stretching and playing video games, especially Pokémon; and he’s got a nostalgic side, favouring games he played as a kid (i.e., an even younger kid).

Audience members following a character* become that student’s group of friends, their confidantes, their posse—and we follow them through the sixth grade minefield of gym and math class, the cafeteria and playground, class presentations, a game of Truth or Dare, and a school dance. Each character reads as an archetype for someone you surely knew—or maybe even were—in grade 6 yourself; interesting dynamics emerge, and theories and rumours abound. How did Noah’s brother die? What’s the deal with the new kid? Who has a crush on whom? Who’s failing math?

The remarkable ensemble invites us in as they open their hearts, minds and sixth grade experiences to us. The six individual stories are woven together with scenes, movement and audience interaction—with engaging and moving results; and the appearance of their teacher, Miss Hall, is indicated with the footstep sounds of her heels. Bryan’s Whitney may be the alpha kid on the playground, but her confident, take-charge demeanour masks the profound sense of frustration and oppression she, the only Black kid in the class, feels over being singled out for discipline when the whole class was involved. Gomes’s A-student Tara relishes learning and academic success, and dreams of becoming an important political figure—while, underneath it all, she just wants to belong and have a nice, cute boyfriend. Kadoura’s Jihad, who wears a prosthetic leg, seems happy to follow his friends, yet he’s the one they call upon to approach the new kid; he has a big, open heart and a supportive network, but you get the sense that he’s struggling with his place in the world.

Morris’s Afroze, a white girl raised in Pakistan, is navigating both culture shock and being the new kid in a group of kids who’ve grown up with each other. Struggling to make friends as her classmates treat her like some strange, exotic creature, she holds the familiar comforts of home close as she works out a way to fit in to this new world. Perpuse’s laid back Eli reveals a pensive, sensitive soul struggling with math class—and wondering why his friend Noah is ignoring him after they got so close over the summer. Sometimes, Eli needs to give himself a time out from it all, craving a solitary moment so he can sort things out in his head, or let his pent-up frustration safely erupt. And Redburn’s Noah desperately wants his life to just get back to normal after his brother died this past summer; reaching out, then pulling away from his friend Eli as he grapples with grief, loss and attraction.

If you’re an adult audience member, you may find yourself becoming that kid you were in grade 6—or at least remembering what it was like. The emerging hormones and curiosity about sex, the gossip and note passing, the mortifying shyness at the school dance, the joyful fantasies of future success, and fears of failure or having your most secret desires made public. Some of it comes to matter deeply, some of it doesn’t. And while each audience member will experience the show in their own personal way, everyone will take away something from the experience.

ERASER continues in the Incubator at the Theatre Centre until May 14, with performances May 10, 11 and 13 at 7:00, and matinées on May 9, 11 and 14 at 2:00 (with a 30-minute talkback following matinées). Tickets available online, in person at the box office, or by calling 416-538-0988.

*There is seating for those with mobility issues; they will have a good vantage point—and, in some cases, the action will come to them.

Freedom of expression & political oppression in a digital age in the chilling, intersectional, provocative Theory

Sascha Cole. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

 

Under what circumstances should freedom of expression be censored or policed? At what point does politics, however liberal or progressive, become unforgiving and oppressive? Tarragon Theatre’s production of Norman Yeung’s Theory, directed by Esther Jun, assisted by Stephanie Williams, examines the impact of film and social media on modern-day discourse through an intersectional lens, where academia meets art—with chilling and provocative results.

I saw the genesis of Theory, first as a reading at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival and then as a full production at SummerWorks, back in 2010. It appeared again at Alumnae during FireWorks Festival 2013—at which point, at the suggestion of dramaturge Shirley Barrie, lead character Isabelle’s boyfriend was re-written as a female character. I missed the 2013 production, but was happy to see the evolution of the piece in the current Tarragon presentation, where Isabelle has a wife who is also a person of colour.

Rookie film studies prof Isabelle (Sascha Cole, in the role from the very beginning) has set up an online message board off the campus server—a bit of a rogue move that becomes even more so with an ‘anything goes’ policy. Her film theory students will self-moderate and there are no plans for censorship. And, in a classic Dead Poets Society moment, she has her students tear out the film screening list from the syllabus—full of white male directors—and replaces it with a more diverse, contemporary list. Even her core group of vocal, engaged students—Davinder (Bilal Baig), Safina (Asha James), Richard (Kyle Orzech) and Jorge (Anthony Perpuse)—have questions and misgivings about the nature of the message board and revised film list, which includes the controversial Baise Moi, translated into Rape Me in an English release.

Isabelle’s wife Lee (Audrey Dwyer)—a Black, tenured prof at the same university—also has reservations about the student message board; and like her, one can’t help but wonder if Isabelle is trying too hard to look cool and connect with her students as adults and academics. Racist and homophobic remarks begin to emerge on the message board—presented onstage via projection (design by Cameron Davis)—some of which are directed at other students.  And, while Isabelle insists that nothing offends her and refuses to censor the board—viewing the remarks in the context of fodder for adult, academic conversation and exploration—some of her students don’t see it that way.

Video messages start appearing, at first referencing films the class is studying, then getting increasingly graphic and violent, and directed toward Isabelle. Becoming obsessed with finding out who the perpetrator is, the strain on Isabelle and her relationship with Lee starts to show; she keeps putting off their plans to have a baby and starts spending an inordinate amount of time on the message board.

As the messages get more personal and close to home, showing up in her personal email, text messages and even on her doorstep, Isabelle blocks a user called @Richard69 and turns to department head Owen (Fabrizio Filippo) to see if she can launch a complaint or investigation to learn the identity of the student. It’s during this meeting that she learns there’s been a complaint launched against her. Isabelle begins to suspect the culprit is among her core group of students, but has no solid proof.

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Sascha Cole & Audrey Dwyer. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

Outstanding work from the cast in this chilling multi-media psychological thriller. There’s a taut scholarly edge in Cole’s performance of Isabelle; and an awkwardness in Isabelle’s attempts to connect with her students on a laid back, personal level. Under pressure to make tenure, Isabelle must walk the line between provoking thought and keeping her students and  superiors happy. Dwyer’s good-humoured academic veteran Lee goes beyond being a great foil and complement to Cole’s Isabelle—she’s the sociopolitical conscience in the relationship and in the piece. A supportive and nurturing partner, Lee has no trouble calling Isabelle out when she’s neglecting their relationship or forgetting to check her privilege. Filippo gives a great turn as the cool guy department head Owen; like Isabelle, he’s invested in keeping everyone happy—but his flip, hip dude exterior belies the institutional administrator who must also answer to higher powers in the university.

Really nice, sharply drawn work from the student chorus. Baig’s sassy, queer South Asian Davinder and James’ earnest, politically aware Safina (Asha James), who is Black, are particularly aware of and sensitive to the homophobic and racist remarks posted online; and Safina is uncomfortable with some of the course content. Both are open and willing to expand their minds and engage in debate; but they understandably draw the line at hate messaging. Perpuse brings a fun class clown energy to Jorge, who posits that porn should be given equal consideration with other genres. And Orzech’s nerdy, curious Richard seems affable enough, but there’s a dark undercurrent to this curious, white kid as he pleads “context” to his observations on films featuring storytelling filtered through a racist lens.

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Bilal Baig, Anthony Perpuse, Asha James, Kyle Orzech & Sascha Cole. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

Isabelle realizes that she’s underestimated the power of a digital media and the accompanying anonymity of user names, which make for an easy, consequence-free platform for hate speech and intolerance; and she’s forced to examine her inconsistent handling of conversation that veers toward hate speech. Her progressive feminist liberal politics and attempts at provoking thought have pushed buttons and opened a Pandora’s box of alt-right ill will. Is she complicit in fostering oppression by holding back on deleting racist and homophobic comments? Timely in its recognition of alt-right backlash, Theory reminds us of the inevitable pendulum backswing on progressive sociopolitical change.

Theory continues in the Tarragon Extraspace until November 25. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office at 416-531-1827.

Toronto Fringe: Unapologetically unapologetic in the hilarious, sharp Madeleine Says Sorry

Prairie Fire, Please presents an absurd, satirical debate on something we Canadians are famous for: saying “Sorry.” Directed by Aaron Jan, Madeleine Brown’s Madeleine Says Sorry is currently running in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace as part of Toronto Fringe.

Struggling actor Madeleine (Madeleine Brown) takes professional resentment too far when she kidnaps a dog, then nearly kills it. Now under house arrest, she must attend a session at a special clinic, where Tony (Anthony Perpuse) will coach, craft and assess her apology to the wronged canine.

Hilarity ensues when things don’t go as Tony planned—and a battle of wits gets physical.

Brown and Perpuse are perfectly matched for this rapid-fire, often self-deprecating and satirical trip. Brown’s Madeleine is delightfully unashamed and entitled in her single-mindedness; self-absorbed and lacking in empathy, with her lizard brain ruling her actions. As Tony, Perpuse is hilariously type-A and anal; a reformed bad boy turned scientist entrepreneur clinician, he’s also a super enthusiastic fanboy of David Suzuki.

Can empathy be learned? Can science measure the sincerity of an apology? And can public apologies truly be genuine? One thing’s for certain; that’s the biggest David Suzuki head shot you’ve ever seen.

Unapologetically unapologetic; sorry seems to be the hardest word in the hilarious, sharp Madeleine Says Sorry.

Madeleine Says Sorry continues in the TPM Backspace until July 16; check here for dates/times and advance tickets.