Women’s stories across the ages in the sharp-witted, illuminating & timely Top Girls

Jordi O’Dael (Gret), Jennifer Fahy (Patient Griselda), Charlotte Ferrarei (Pope Joan), Alison Dowling (Marlene), Lisa Lenihan (Isabella Bird), Tea Nguyen (Lady Nijo). Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Bec Brownstone. Lighting design by Jay Hines. Projection design by Madison Madhu. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre Company opened its timely, updated production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls last night, directed by Alysa Golden, assisted by DJ Elektra. Sharp-witted, illuminating and theatrical, Top Girls is a both an observation and commentary of women’s lived experiences across the ages. Written in 1982 and given a contemporary framing in this production, it’s both funny and sad how little has changed for women in terms of opportunity, oppression, and the expectations of the spaces they occupy and the roles they play—a timely undertaking in the age of #MeToo and #timesup.

We open on a fantasy dinner party, hosted by Marlene (Alison Dowling), who is celebrating her promotion at the Top Girls employment agency. Her guests include the fastidious Victorian world traveller Isabella Bird (Lisa Lenihan); 13th century Japanese concubine and material girl Lady Nijo (Tea Nguyen); Gret, the coarse, lusty subject of Breughel painting “Dulle Griet” (Jordi O’Dael); the esoteric, philosophical Pope Joan (Charlotte Ferrarei); and the unquestioningly obedient Griselda, from Chaucer’s “The Clerk’s Tale” (Jennifer Fahy). The women share stories of love, marriage, motherhood, travel, oppression and hardship as they eat, drink and descend into drunken stupor.

Shifting into present day, we meet Marlene’s niece Angie (Rebekah Reuben), who lives in the country with her mother, Marlene’s sister Joyce (Nyiri Karakas), and spends most of her time with best friend Kit (Naomi Koven), who is several years younger. More than just a handful of a teenager, Angie is troubled, young for her age, and adrift in her life; mistrusting and disrespecting of her mother, she dreams of getting away and learning the truth about herself.

We get a glimpse of the Top Girls employment agency, populated by female recruiters, the office abuzz with Marlene’s upcoming move to her own office and greater things. Not everyone is thrilled, however, and a male colleague’s wife Mrs. Kidd (Lenihan) pays a visit to protest his being passed over. Marlene’s colleagues Win (Claire Keating) and Nell (Grace Thompson) interview prospective recruits— including a couple of ambitious, vague 20-somethings (April Rebecca) and an overlooked, undervalued 40-something (Peta Mary Bailey). Angie arrives on the scene, having gone AWOL from home and inviting herself to stay at Marlene’s.

Jumping a year into the past, Marlene visits Joyce and Angie—tricked by Angie with an invitation that supposedly came from Joyce. The family dynamic of estrangement between the estranged sisters comes into focus, as does a life-changing family secret.

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Naomi Koven (Kit), Nyiri Karakas (Joyce). Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Bec Brownstone. Lighting design by Jay Hines. Projection design by Madison Madhu. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Lovely work all around from this considerable, all-female cast, with several actors playing multiple characters. Stand-outs include Dowling as the sharp, bold and unapologetic Marlene, who’s executed some major shifts in her life to get where she is, in spite of the naysaying and resentment from family and male colleagues. Reuben is both exasperating and poignant as the immature, lost Angie; like her mother, we come to worry for her future—she can’t hide out and play in the backyard with her little friend Kit (played with sweet, wise child energy by Koven) forever. Karakas brings a home-spun rural edge to the gruff, worn-out Joyce; unlike Marlene, who couldn’t get out of town fast enough, Joyce stayed in their hometown to raise Angie.

Keating and Thompson make a great pair as the gossipy, snippy and ambitious Top Girls recruiters, interviewing their respective prospects with the impervious attitude of entitled gate keepers. And O’Dael brings both great comedy and drama as Gret, with her hearty appetite, lust for life and hair-raising tale of her campaign against the demons of Hell.

Golden’s theatrical, multimedia staging is both technically effective and dramatically compelling, as scenes shift from fantasy to reality, and present to past—Teodoro Dragonieri’s set largely constructed from doors, an apt image for the production. Scene changes feature a spritely young Dancer (a confident, mischievous and willowy Estella Haensel); and Viv Moore’s elegant, expressive choreography is playfully and tenderly accompanied by Richard Campbell’s sound design. Projected backgrounds (projection design by Madison Madhu) mark the change of space and passage of time, form urban to rural, and light to dark.

While the lives, times and stories of these women vary dramatically, crossing a broad range of lived experience, the themes of class, female identity and male entitlement emerge as common threads. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It is comic in its tragedy that, in 2019, half of the world’s population is still held back, to varying—and sometimes violent and criminal—degrees, from achieving its full potential. On the upside, we see these women persevere and push back—breaking rules and shattering expectations to thrive and live their dreams.

Top Girls continues this weekend on the Alumnae mainstage until February 2; get tickets online, by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1) or in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only).

The run includes a pre-show Panel “Women, Power and Success in the Age of Me Too” on January 24 at 6:30 pm; and a post-show talkback with the director and cast on January 27.

Check out the trailer by Nicholas Porteous:

 

Department of corrections: The original post misnamed the lighting designer as Jan Hines in the two photo credits; it’s actually Jay Hines. This has been corrected.

Happy feet & hopeful hearts in Alumnae Theatre’s delightful, poignant Stepping Out

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Front: Jessica Westermann Back (l to r): Felicia Simone, Mish Tam, Kay Randewich, Alyssa Quart Cartlidge, Rebecca Grenier, Scott Turner & Lisa Kovack in Stepping Out – photo by Bruce Peters

Alumnae Theatre Company’s got its dancing shoes on as it mounts its retrospective production for the 2015-16 season: Richard Harris’s Stepping Out (originally produced by Alumnae in 1989), which opened on the main stage to a packed house last night. Directed by Executive Producer Brenda Darling, assisted by Liz Best, and choreographed by Alyssa Martin and Jessica Westermann (Act I), with support from dance coach Sandra Burley.

Set in 1980s London in a local church hall, Stepping Out takes us on the year and a half-long journey of one of Mavis’s (Jessica Westermann) tap dance classes, accompanied by pianist Mrs. Fraser (Jeanette Dagger). The class includes seven women and one man: Lynne (Mish Tam), a cheerful and sensitive nurse; Dorothy (Kay Randewich), the sweet, mousy, bicycle-riding mensch of a social services worker; Maxine (Lisa Kovack), a vivacious saleswoman; Andy (Rebecca Grenier), introverted and painfully awkward, but committed to learn; Rose (Linette Doherty), the wry-witted Trini wife and mother run ragged looking after everyone but herself; Sylvia (Felicia Simone), the outspoken, genuine and irreverent youngster; Geoffrey (Scott Turner), the quiet, gentle widower; and newcomer Vera (Alyssa Quart Cartlidge), the wealthy, prim Stepford wife meets Martha Stewart housewife who lacks an internal editor.

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Jessica Westermann, Jeanette Dagger & Alyssa Quart Cartlidge – photo by Bruce Peters

The cast does a lovely job telling the stories of this class and these characters. Stand-outs include Westermann (also the cast dance captain), who brings a warm, saint-like patience and nurturing quality to Mavis, a woman struggling to make ends meet and supporting an unemployed boyfriend; she’s an extremely talented hoofer with broken dreams of her own. Dagger is deliciously abrasive as Mrs. Fraser, the dance class’s stern and fastidious accompanist; a mother figure to Mavis who helps with the administration of the classes, there’s more to her piano talents than just tinkling the ivories for dance students. Kovack’s Maxine is an extroverted gal-on-the-go and former child performer with a can-do attitude; struggling at home with an unruly stepson and absent husband, she too is clearly dancing as fast as she can to beat the blues. As for Grenier’s Andy, still waters run deep; the shy, submissive and plain exterior belies a deep inner strength, fierceness and beauty. And beneath the tough-talking cockiness and everyday vanity, Simone’s Sylvia is a tired young wife who wants a break – and to feel beautiful again.

Ultimately, for everyone involved in the class, it’s not just about dancing – it’s about filling an empty place inside, and finding family and a sense of belonging.

With shouts to the design team: Doug Payne (set designer/lead carpenter), Bill Scott (lighting), Bec Brownstone (costumes), Razie Brownstone (props) and Rick Jones (sound assembly).

Happy feet and hopeful hearts in Alumnae Theatre’s delightful, poignant production of Stepping Out.

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Jessica Westermann stepping out solo – photo by Bruce Peters

Stepping Out continues on the Alumnae main stage until Feb 6. You can get advance tickets online or by calling the box office: 416-364-4170; or you can purchase in person (cash only) at the box office one hour before show time. Special events include a pre-show panel discussion on Sun, Jan 24 from 12:30-1:30pm: “Stepping Out Through the Arts” Can the Arts heal? And on Sat, Jan 30 at 8pm: 80s Dress-Up Night – Should blue eye shadow be banned?

Check out this experiential piece by Toronto Star writer Melanie Chambers on auditioning for Stepping Out. And take a look at the Stepping Out trailer (by Nicholas Porteus):

Science, politics & egos collide – Measure of the World @ FireWorks

fireworks-bannerAlumnae Theatre Company opened their FireWorks program this past Wednesday, a new three-play repertory program of original works developed in conjunction with Alumnae’s New Play Development (NPD) group or the New Ideas Festival.

Science, politics and egos collide amidst the passion of discovery and desire for freedom in Shirley Barrie’s Measure of the World, directed by Molly Thom.

The play follows the work of a French expedition, guests of the Spanish government as they strive “to measure the length of a degree of the earth’s arc at the equator near Quito (at the time part of Peru)”* – and determine the exact shape of the earth. Three alpha male scientist egos come to loggerheads as Godin (Paul Cotton), Bouguer (Jason Thompson) and De La Condamine (Michael Vitorovich) struggle with the harsh terrain – extremes of heat and cold, across jungle, swamps and mountains – local government bureaucracy and even their own academic institution over the course of a multi-phased project that takes years to accomplish. All closely observed by the beautiful and mysterious servant Florenza (Jessica Zepeda).

A strong ensemble cast deals with the tech speak well – the mathematical equations and make-shift survey equipment are fascinating if not highly academic. It is the drive and passion of these characters that is particularly interesting – and Vitorovich and Zepeda stand out in this regard. Careers and livelihoods are not all that’s at stake for these characters, it’s freedom – to pursue the work they love without restraint and to return home. For Florenza, it’s freedom from slavery.

No one is as he or she appears – and one can only imagine what further secrets, both personal and political, simmer beneath the surface. It also struck me that Florenza embodies the secrets of this new, Spanish-controlled world. Secrets that the scientists, as French citizens and men, wish to uncover.

The set design (set and lighting by Ed Rosing) was created to accommodate all three plays for the FireWorks program. Neutral shades of beige and pale army green were used on the multi-levelled set, with show-specific furniture and props used to fill in the details. Lighting and, especially, sound (sound by Gabrielle D’Angelo) were tailored for each show, as were costumes (Bec Brownstone). Minimalist and effective, the design serves the overall program in an effective and understated way, allowing the individual plays to dominate the space. With shouts to producer Dahlia Katz, who did triple duty (she was also the production photographer and came out to work on the painting crew).

Measure of the World continues to run in rep with two other plays (Gloria’s Guy, by Joan Burrows/directed by Anne Harper; and Theory, by Norman Yeung/directed by Joanne Williams) until December 1. Check the Alumnae website for exact performance dates and times for each show.

*From Shirley Barrie’s program notes.

Hilariously sexy good times – The Underpants

UnderpantsposterMen are silly. Then again, so are women. And we all become equally silly when we let our desires run away with us. And it’s especially fun when otherwise straight-laced, upstanding citizens toss their hang-ups aside as they get carried away.

The Underpants, Steve Martin’s adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s Die Hose – directed for Alumnae Theatre by Ginette Mohr, assisted by Caitlin English – reveals how the accidental shedding of a lady’s underpants in public throws a group of upright middle-class folks for a loop, with decidedly hilarious and sexy results.

It all starts out with sound designer and live piano accompanist Aaron Corbett entering, dressed in black pants and white shirt. He stops down centre and bows with a click of his barefoot heels, bringing the audience to attention. We are in 1910 Germany, in the home of Theo and Louise Maske.

The Maskes’ ordinary middle-class life is thrown into turmoil when, while watching a royal procession, Louise’s (Carolyn Hall) underpants fall down – a moment that gets noticed despite her quick and discreet retrieval. News of the event spreads, resulting in instant – and titillating – celebrity status for Louise. All much to the chagrin of her extremely conservative civil servant husband (Andrew Anthony). We also learn that Louise wants a baby, but Theo hasn’t touched her since their wedding night nearly a year ago. Boorish and uber-masculine, Theo is more of an arrogant, bigoted bully than the sweet-talking romantic Louise longs for.

Enter Versati (Scott Farley), a handsome young poet with a flair for the dramatic, who arrives at the house to inquire about a room for rent. Things get complicated when Louise accepts Versati’s application, only to learn that Theo has entered into an agreement with the hypochondriac barber Cohen (Michael Gordin Shore). Both prospective tenants are accepted – to share the room – and it turns out that both witnessed the “event” at the parade. And both are madly in love with Louise as a result.

Adding to the fun is the Maskes’ nosey upstairs neighbour Gertrude (Chantale Groulx), a woman of a certain age who longs to live vicariously through a young woman’s romantic life and who appoints herself Louise’s naughty fairy godmother in a plot to launch Louise into an affair with Versati. Then add to the mix a third tenant prospect, the elderly and stern Klinglehoff (Jacqueline Costa, doing triple duty – she’s also the set and lighting designer), and a surprise visit by the King (Farley) – and we have even more laugh-out-loud good times.

And, since this is a farce, plots and plans go awry – all in the most hysterical way, with loads of innuendo, physical comedy and a bit of potty humour. This fast-moving comedy does an excellent job of pointing and laughing at the foibles and hang-ups of the bourgeois majority – from their uptight and chauvinistic views on sex, tight-fisted ways with money and mistrust of minorities, to how easily people’s longings and desires can be played upon by the right person under the right circumstances. In the end, every character learns something about herself/himself, especially Louise, who grows into a self-possessed woman.

The Underpants features an excellent and highly entertaining cast. Hall is lovely as the adorable Louise, a loyal but neglected housewife with a progressive mind and searing urges, longing to be loved and romanced. Anthony does a nice job with man’s man Theo, who under all the machismo is a man who wants to live a proper, quiet life and provide for his wife so they can eventually afford a baby. Groulx is deliciously sly and lascivious as Gertrude, an older woman who is forced to acknowledge her own desires as she finds herself considering a younger man. Farley is part poet, part Casanova and part acrobat as Versati, a man who also longs for romance, and does a delightfully goofy turn as the King. Shore’s Cohen reveals a sweet, protective and lonely mensch beneath the hypochondriac; you just want to buy him a coffee and give him a hug. And Costa is a treat as Klinglehoff – the most uptight of the lot and quick to judge, but easily swayed – a young female actor masterfully carrying off the physical and mental postures of an extremely proper and severe old man. (Scroll down to the Alumnae blog post I reposted recently to see how Costa came to play Klinglehoff.)

With shouts to producer Jennifer McKinley, SM Karen Elizabeth McMichael, costume designer Sarah Joy Bennet and props mistress Bec Brownstone. And thanks to Alumnae Theatre for a lovely opening night reception, which included a lovely spread by member Sandy Schneider.

The Underpants runs on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage until October 5, with a talkback Q&A with the cast and creative team after the September 29 matinée.

So. What are you wearing? 😉