Women of wit & wisdom debate religion in the compelling, funny, thought-provoking Unholy

Nightwood Theatre continues its 2016-17 season of groundbreaking theatre with Diane Flacks’ Unholy, directed by Nightwood A.D. Kelly Thornton, opening at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre last night.

Given the upcoming presidential inauguration and the accompanying Women’s March events, as well as ongoing changing attitudes towards religion, its treatment of women and LGBTQ people, and its place in our world, Unholy is a timely piece. It asks the question: Should women abandon religion?

Inspired by the 1989 documentary Half the Kingdom, Unholy is set as a TV debate, with host/moderator Richard Morris (Blair Williams) and debate teams of two women. On the pro side of the question are atheist lesbian pundit Liz Feldman-Grant (Diane Flacks) and excommunicated nun Margaret Donaghue (Barbara Gordon); on the con side are Orthodox Jewish spiritual leader Yehudit Kalb (Niki Landau) and progressive Muslim lawyer Maryam Hashemi (Bahareh Yaraghi).

Each woman is allowed two minutes at the podium to present her argument, followed by discussion and debate. This is an unapologetic, gloves off affair as arguments cover religion’s culpability for violence against women, women’s physical separation from male congregants, the niqab, family, sex, LGBTQ and women’s reproductive rights, and justice for pedophile priests. It is a battle of scripture interpretation, points of religious and secular law, wit and conscience—conducted with sharp intelligence and humour.

Woven into the debate scenes are some revealing monologues and tender, intimate two-handers; through these, we get glimpses into the private lives of these four women. Liz rejected Judaism when her now deceased partner Stacey received a terminal diagnosis. Margaret, in her role as a nurse and administrator at a Catholic hospital, made a decision the Catholic Church couldn’t abide. The love of Yehudit’s life married someone else. Maryam found strength in family tragedy, and love and acceptance in her family’s new life in Canada. As private and public lives collide, and the debate heats up, of course all hell breaks loose.

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Diane Flacks & Barbara Gordon in Unholy – all photos by John Lauener

Flacks’ powerful script is matched by an equally strong cast that brings these fully drawn, complex women to life in this nicely staged, multi-media piece. As the atheist Liz, Flacks is a fierce, mercurial and determined debater; seeing the world of organized religion in black and white terms, Liz rejects the notion that religion can be a positive force in the world. Deeply wounded by the loss of her partner, out of her grief she became mad as hell at the state of organized religion and its impact on women—and chose her battle. Gordon brings a lovely, understated quietude to the soft-spoken ex-nun Margaret; beneath the surface, though, is a heart of strength, hope and courage. Not entirely convinced of her official debate argument, she is a disillusioned former soldier of the Catholic Church who disobeyed orders to follow her own conscience.

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Niki Landau & Bahareh Yaraghi in Unholy

As Yehudit, Landau is both comic and poignant; shifting from a willful young woman to dutiful adult, she serves her family and community with strength and stand-up comic good humour. Circumspect in her interpretations of her Orthodox Jewish faith, she sees room for growth and change; this includes space for women to play a significant leadership role. Yaraghi is sharp and passionate as Maryam, and an excellent foil for Flacks’ Liz. Like her debate partner Yehudit, Maryam is hopeful and believes in a progressive Islam as she strives to break the barriers of stereotype and ignorance in a post-9/11 world where extremists are continually making headlines.

Turnabout is fair play for the male moderator. As women are largely relegated to the sidelines in day-to-day life, especially religious life, it is he who stands off to the side as the studio is dominated by the four women. Williams does a nice job with the affable Morris; as the women take the podium, he rides the fine line of refereeing authentic discourse and the desire to create gripping television.

Each of the women is an archetype: the wounded Fighter, the Lover with a patched up heart, the heartbroken Mother and the haunted Healer. Although each is broken-hearted and struggling with a crisis of faith, each is passionate, strong, wise and loving as she strives to stay hopeful and work towards a better world.

Serious issues, but Unholy makes you laugh a lot—and it’s going to stay with you well after you leave the theatre. It may even change your mind.

Women of wit and wisdom debate religion in the compelling, funny, thought-provoking Unholy.

Due to popular demand, Unholy has extended its run at Buddies to February 5; you can book tix in advance online or by phone. The run also includes several scheduled talkbacks:

Friday, January 20 – Gretta Vosper: as an atheist and a minister with the United Church of Canada, Gretta’s self-proclaimed motto is “Irritating the church into the 21st century.” SOLD OUT

Monday, January 23* – Nightwood Theatre Young Innovator Michela Sisti hosts a panel discussion about women in religion as part of Brave New Theatre’s response to Unholy. Joining her will be playwright Diane Flacks, Raheel Raza (journalist and inter-faith consultant) and Andrea Budgey (Humphrys Chaplain, freelance writer and environmental activist).

*Please note: there are no performances of Unholy on Mondays. For more information on Brave New Theatre, please visit their Facebook page.

Wednesday, January 25 – Stay post-show for a Q & A with the stellar cast members of Unholy.

Friday, January 27 – Lynn Harrison: a Reverend with First Toronto Unitarian, an interfaith, non-denominational congregation with its roots in social justice and inclusion.

Thursday, February 2 – Due to popular demand, atheist minister Gretta Vosper will return to share her insights on women in religion and inclusive atheism.

You can keep up with Nightwood Theatre on Twitter and Facebook. In the meantime, check out the trailer for Unholy:

The power of the quantifiable meets the strength of the immeasurable in HER2

HER2-header-finalWhen you see an image of HER2, you’re struck at how remarkably – and surprisingly – beautiful it is, like a Valentine’s heart with a single foot on point. Feminine. Ballerina-like.

Maja Ardal’s HER2, directed by Kim Blackwell for Nightwood Theatre, opened its world premiere run at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre this week – the play named for the gene that plays a role in the development of a specific type of breast cancer, and set in a human clinical trial for a new drug.

Dr. Danielle Pearce (Nancy Palk) has had success in the lab treating mice, and has the green light and funding to start a human trial. She takes on PhD student Kate (Bahareh Yaraghi) as her research assistant and starts treating a group of specially selected women – women who have run out of treatment options. The play focuses on a subgroup of seven women; they come from various walks of life and ethnic backgrounds, and most are 40 to 60 years old. One is only 19.

HER2 is a multidisciplinary, multimedia production, incorporating projected images (by Denyse Karn) both real and magical – microscopic cells, female anatomy, CT scans, rays of light and photos of the participants – as well as choreographed movement (by actor Monica Dottor) that beautifully and expressively sets the process of examination and administration to motion.

Blackwell has a stellar cast for HER2. Palk brings a nice blend of humanity and wry humour to the prickly Dr. Pearce, a brilliant and ambitious clinician who’s better with rodents than she is with humans. Yaraghi’s Kate is bubbly and wide-eyed with youthful energy, highly intelligent and interested in the medicine, but particularly invested in the people – she is the bridge between the science and the human touch of the trial. Kyra Harper gives an earthy warmth to the pragmatic dairy farmer Frances, the participant with the most aggressive cancer who literally and figuratively becomes the touchstone of the group. Chick Reid gives a lovely layered performance as Naomi, the chilly and sharp-witted academic who finds she needs more than ciggies and scotch to get through this. Maria Vacratsis is irreverently funny and overflowing with positive vibes as Gloria, the group den mother. Diana D’Aquila is beautifully fragile and sweet as the child-like housewife Daphne, a joyfully expressive bundle of collegial dynamism. Brenda Kamino brings the spirit of open-minded wisdom and support to Melissa (Minnie), a natural medicine practitioner, when she’s not a trial participant – always willing to lend a hand and a cup of stinky herbal tea. Monica Dottor is wonderful as the vivacious and stubborn Charlene, an actress and mother of a young child who makes the risky decision of choosing the trial over a hysterectomy in hopes of having more children one day. Olunike Adeliyi does a remarkable job with the complex young Anya, the baby of the group – a hip and tough as nails, scared kid – full of rage, but willing to relinquish her lone wolf detachment to fully participate, and regain a sense of sociability and community. And Ellora Patnaik brings a spunky take-charge sass to Nurse Gabby; excellent at her job, unafraid of drawing boundaries – and full of surprises – as she suffers no fools on her turf, the treatment room.

What these women all have in common – patients and practitioners alike – is drive, fight, courage and hope. And the greatest of these is hope.

With shouts to Julia Tribe’s design: each participant is represented with a pedestal and microscope up along the catwalk, and each has a modular chair and IV pole, which Dottor also includes in the choreography. And a very effective use of voice-over, with a flat and clinical male voice, distant and detached, querying the participants on medical history and trial survey questions.

The power of the quantifiable meets the strength of the immeasurable as science and community join forces in HER2. Seriously – go see this.

In the meantime, take a look at some great profile pieces in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and NOW Magazine. You can also check out Nightwood’s YouTube channel for interviews with the HER2 folks – here’s the trailer:

HER2 continues at Buddies until February 1. Last night’s house was packed, so you may want to book ahead online. The production run also features Talkback Wednesdays (Jan 21 & 28) and panel conversations after the matinee performances (Jan 17 and 31). And HER2 has partnered with the Feminist Art Conference (FAC) to include a photography exhibit by Carol Mark.