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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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.

ERASER - Anthony Perpuse
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.

Photo-featuring-Sascha-Cole-and-Audrey-Dwyer-by-Cylla-von-Tiedemann-2-1024x686
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.

Photo-featuring-Bilal-Baig-Anthony-Perpuse-Asha-James-Kyle-Orzech-and-Sascha-Cole-by-Cylla-von-Tiedemann-2-1024x614
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.

SummerWorks: Memory, nostalgia & queer men longing to connect in the quirky, charming, poignant Box 4901

Thirteen letters responding to a 1992 gay personals ad sit in a box unanswered. What does the recipient say to these men 26 years later? Memory, nostalgia, connection and hindsight figure prominently in timeshare productions’ SummerWorks presentation of novelist Brian Francis’ autobiographical Box 4901; directed by Rob Kempson and running on the Theatre Centre’s Incubator stage.

Long before the age of smartphones and Grindr, a 21-year-old Francis—then a student at the University of Western Ontario—posted a personals ad in The London Free Press looking for a connection in the small LGBTQ world of conservative London, Ontario. Of the approximately two dozen letters he received, 13 went unanswered and were discovered years later. Francis narrates and responds as 13 queer actors perform each letter.

Featuring actors Bilal Baig, Hume Baugh, Keith Cole, Izad Etemadi, Daniel Krolik, Michael Hughes, Tsholo Khalema, Eric Morin, G Kyle Shields, Chy Ryan Spain, Jonathan Tan, Chris Tsujiuchi and Geoffrey Whynot, the responses to the ad range from the bashful to the pornographic. Coming from a variety of men—ranging in age from high school senior to father figure—from various walks of life (“regular guy,” teacher, farmer, jock, “straight-acting,” leather community), the letters are sassy, charming, eloquent and humourous. The replies are frank, witty, sharply observational; and tempered with kindness, and the hindsight of age and wisdom.

There are some missed chances and missed bullets. All of these men share the same desire to reach out; longing for connection and a cure for aloneness, there’s a vulnerable authenticity in even the cockiest of responses. And the fear of being outed to family or housemates is as palpable and strong as the excitement and anticipation of a new connection.

Box 4901 has one more SummerWorks performance at the Theatre Centre on Aug 19 at 4:45 p.m.; it’s already sold out, but you can try your luck by arriving early to see if there are any no-shows.