A journey into the light & dark of self-discovery in the bittersweet, courageous Welcome to my Underworld

Clockwise, from top left: Grace Thompson, Nikoletta Erdelyi, Carolyn Hetherington, Samson Brown, Radha S. Menon, Maddie Bautista & Bilal Baig. Set design by Brett Haynes. Lighting design by Sharmylae Taffe-Fletcher. Photo by Sophia Thompson-Campbell.

 

RARE Theatre Company, in partnership with Soulpepper, presents the world premiere of Welcome to my Underworldwritten by Bilal Baig, Maddie Bautista, Samson Brown, Simone Dalton, Nikoletta Erdelyi, Carolyn Hetherington, Radha S. Menon, Ellen Ringler and Grace Thompson, on stage at the Young Centre. Dramaturged/directed by RARE’s AD Judith Thompson, choreographed by Monica Dottor, and featuring original composition/live accompaniment by Olivia Shortt, a 10-year-old girl’s search for her truest self weaves nine individual stories into one as we follow her into the world of the shadow self.

Anchored by 10-year-old Willow (Grace Thompson), who struggles with her own sense of self, Welcome to my Underworld is part fairy tale, part hero’s journey, part autobiography as each performer presents their own story; a place where light and dark meet, and where spirits are tested and tempered. Possessing of a sharp, curious mind and keenly interested in how others navigate the world, Willow and her imaginary friend Mara invite the other characters in to share their stories.

There are the infuriating stories of a pre-transitioned trans man being confronted in a woman’s washroom, and a Trinidadian lesbian’s connection with an HIV+ gay father figure-told with humour, tenderness and heartbreak by Brown. The harrowing experiences of the elderly surviving a terrifying adverse reaction, apparently common among seniors, to a post-op medication (a feisty, fighter Harrington); and the feelings of family betrayal and confusion as an Indian woman is driven alongside a truck full of cattle to her new home at an assisted living facility (a spirited, poignant performance from Menon). Navigating prejudice regarding competence and attractiveness based on Roma (“gypsy”) ethnicity and physical ability (the candid, suffers no fools Erdelyi, performing from a wheelchair). Childhood innocence and trust lost during a time of burgeoning sexuality (a delightful, heart-wrenching performance from Bautista, a bi, Saudi Arabia-born Filipina).

There are the social castaways dealing with addiction and mental illness (fierce and lyrical performances from Menon and Baig); observed by Willow while in the psych ward. And queer, genderqueer Baig’s sassy, poignant secret party girl persona, fleeing their home and fearing attack from both parents and strangers, shares a narrow escape that hearkens back to the recent tragedy of missing and murdered gay men in the Village. Humourous, heart-breaking and eye-opening, each shares a broad range of lived experience from their own unique perspective—calling upon us to examine who we’ve ignored, shoved aside or disrespected. Who will love or miss the disenfranchised, the social pariahs, those living on the fringes?

Shortt’s live onstage music and pre-show mix blends sound effect with soundtrack, tailored perfectly to each story; and Dottor’s choreography is playful, balletic and emotive as it visually weaves one tale into another. Haynes’s set deftly combines black/white, dark/light; the central image a tree of life, its branches reaching for the sky as its roots dig into the earth.

Playful, poetic and funny—at times harrowing, infuriating and heart-breaking, the storytelling is raw, candid and impossible to ignore. These are stories from those whose voices are seldom heard, let alone given space to speak their truth. While Welcome to my Underworld promises no happy endings, it does bring a sense of hope and resilience. We all need to be seen, be heard, be loved and respected. We all need to feel safe to be ourselves. And we need more theatre like this.

Welcome to my Underworld continues at the Young Centre in the Tankhouse Theatre until May 25; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

ICYMI: Check out Phil Rickaby’s interview with dramaturg/director Judith Thompson on Stageworthy Podcast.

 

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Toronto Fringe: Resilience against all odds in the defiant, poignant, hopeful The Pansy Craze: A New Musical

In a time when “transgender” wasn’t a word and homosexuality was illegal, a trans woman refuses to be invisible and shines on the vaudeville stage in Next Stop Productions’ The Pansy Craze. With book, music and lyrics by Avery Jean Brennan, and directed by Dustin George, with music direction by Brennan, the new musical is running at the Randolph Theatre during the Toronto Fringe festival.

The Pansy Craze takes us to 1930s America, behind the scenes of underground vaudeville venues—speakeasies, where booze wasn’t the only prohibited item on the menu. In a bid to out-do the competition, these establishments boasted titillating shows, putting queer performers on the bill to entice customers. When star actress Helen (Stephanie Hood)—recently and conveniently married to Charlie (Shaquille Pottinger) so they can be a husband and wife act—sprains her ankle, closeted Emcee Duncan (Eric McDace, alternate for Teddy Moynihan) decides to put Jeanie (Devin Herbert), who is a transgender woman, into the act. The group has a huge opportunity at an upscale Manhattan place run by Gladys (Kira Renee) and unofficially overseen by Tom (Sansom Marchand), a cop who turns a blind eye to the illegal goings-on so he can have a place to drink. Gladys also has connections with famous vaudeville impresario Norbert (Peter Mundell).

Jeanie, a talented songwriter/performer, illuminates the stage with panache and heartbreaking torch songs. “Pansies”, as the queer performers are called, are okay with establishment managers, so long as they entertain and bring in customers—but Tom isn’t so happy about turning a blind eye to this particular bending of the law, particularly Jeanie, who doesn’t blend in onstage or off. Complicated relationships emerge within the company, with more drama occurring in the wings than onstage at times.

When prohibition is lifted, booze comes out of the closet, but queer performers are no longer welcome—now that these vaudeville houses are above ground, they can’t risk running afoul of the law and losing customers. Refusing to be closeted or forced into a “normal” life as a man, Jeanie sets her sights on continuing her career, and she and Charlie get audition spots for Norbert’s show. And when tragedy strikes this tight-knit group, Charlie finds himself with a life-altering decision to make.

There’s high-energy hoofing and singing from an entertaining cast. Herbert is a clear stand-out as Jeanie; lighting up the stage, they shine in a charismatic performance, full of style, sass and impressive vocal chops that can belt out a tune or break a heart. Lovely scenes and duet with Pottinger, who gives a nicely layered performance as Charlie, a talented and conflicted young man who’s forced to confront his own heart, inspired in part by Jeanie’s chutzpah. “So What if I’m a Pansy” becomes a defiant and touching anthem—for LGBTQ folks and anyone struggling to be themselves.

The Pansy Craze continues at the Randolph until July 15; check the show page for exact dates/times.