FireWorks Festival: Navigating the media circus in the face of profound loss in the moving, razor-sharp, thought-provoking Grief Circus

Bronson Lake & Alison Dickson. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Paige Foskett. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Alumnae Theatre opened its second week of the FireWorks Festival last night, with Crystal Wood’s Grief Circus, directed by Paige Foskett. As moving as it is razor-sharp, this timely multimedia piece holds up a mirror to society’s morbid fascination, involvement and sharing in the death of strangers. A family has lost a beloved daughter and sister, an event that becomes fresh meat for the news and social media feeding frenzy. As they navigate the media circus that follows, mother and sister take very different paths to work through their grief.

Leah (Alison Dickson) speaks to us directly, our host and narrator as we witness scenes—sometimes in flashback—around the events of her older sister Jesse’s (Claire MacMaster) disappearance. Jesse’s body was later found in a ravine, and both Leah and her mother Carol (Bernadette Medhurst) find themselves in the spotlight of an often intrusive, uncaring news media—even confronted by a photographer (Jack Everett) on the steps of their small-town church when they attend Jesse’s funeral. In the aftermath, while Leah finds herself slogging through a callous, click bait world of modern news and social media, bombarded with ignorance and cruelty as she struggles to work through grief and loss, she is appalled to find her mother joining in—writing a book about the experience of losing her daughter, and working with PR folks to book interviews.

grief circus 2
Alison Dickson & Claire MacMaster. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Paige Foskett. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Alternating between past and present, we see a 15-year-old Leah interacting with Jesse, who is her best friend, advisor, confidante and go-to source of info on the state of their parents’ shaky marriage; then a few years later being invited to a party with Jesse and her friends in Toronto, where Jesse disappears after leaving on her own. We see Leah go head to head with Carol over Carol’s making an industry of Jesse’s death; and the battle for Leah’s participation in a television interview, taking place the same day as her first day at university. And Leah has a meet cute with Charlie (Bronson Lake), an awkward but sweet university student; they go on a sort of date, but his motives are called into question when an altered recording of a chat he had with their server (Everett) turns up on the news, showing Leah in the worst possible light as the troubled sister of a famous dead girl.

Lovely work from the cast in this timely, moving and razor-sharp exploration of how news and social media can intrude upon and dishonour the departed, and have a profound impact on their loved ones. Dickson gives a stand-out performance as the whip-smart, introverted, wry-witted Leah; precocious, irreverent and wise beyond her years, Leah can be her own worst enemy as she keeps herself informed about world events—events that spark deep anxiety over the possibility of catastrophe. Conflicted about engaging with the Internet following Jesse’s death, what she finds there only serves to make her journey through grief more difficult.

MacMaster gives an energetic, luminous performance as the bubbly extrovert Jesse; the best big sister Leah could have, she’s super supportive and encouraging—balancing a respect for Leah’s boundaries with gentle pushes outside her comfort zone. Medhurst does a nice job with the conflicted Carol; a mother who’s lost her daughter, she deals with her grief the only way she knows how—honour Jesse’s memory so she won’t be forgotten. Lake gives an adorably awkward performance as the bashful Charlie; somewhat of an introvert himself, Charlie is interested in Leah, but unfortunately not very media-savvy. And Everett offers a great range of news media folk, from the intrusive jerk photographer at the funeral, to serious CTV reporter, to sleazy “journalist”.

Timely, moving and sharply funny, Grief Circus incorporates video and projected social media messaging (video design by director Foskett) to illustrate the scope of the family’s loss of a wonderful, energetic young woman—and the inappropriate, at times heartless, thoughtless and intrusive, response of the public. Strangers turning up at the funeral, or making comments in person or online; and, worst of all, the anonymous social media posters who cast negative, clueless aspersions about Jesse’s character—especially the trolls who say that Jesse had it coming.

Grief Circus continues in the Alumnae Studio Theatre until November 17; get tickets online, by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1) or in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only). There will be a post-show talkback with the director, playwright and cast following the Saturday, November 16 matinée performance.

FireWorks continues its three-week run until November 24, presenting a new show each week. The festival closes with Genevieve Adam’s If the Shoe Fits, directed by Heather Keith (Nov 20-24).

 

Witch hunt meets climate change conspiracy in Village Playhouse’s haunting, dystopic Foxfinder

xFF19ed
Michael Pearson, with Holly Easton & Bronson Lake in shadow, in Foxfinder – photo by Erin Jones

The time is the present. The world is not quite the same as the one in which you and I live.      Foxfinder program note

The Village Playhouse opened its production of Dawn King’s Foxfinder last week, a Canadian premiere directed by Nicole Arends.

A hard rainstorm threatens the Covey farm’s already compromised crop quota for the year. And adding to the Covey’s distress is the impending arrival of a man sent to audit, assess and judge the conditions on the farm – and their fitness to run it – and they’ll be playing host to him for the duration.

Foxfinder is set in a present-day reality in which society runs with bygone methods of farm and factory production – and where the governing authority micromanages it all. Weather patterns have been changing, threatening food production and the very survival of civilization. This is a world of suspicion, superstition and right wing-style religious fervor over the land and its protection. And the fox has become the demonized scapegoat, to blame for everything from failed crops to the evil that men do.

xFF15crop
Holly Easton & Michael Pearson – photo by Erin Jones

The four-person cast does a nice job of bringing this world to life. Bronson Lake gives a strong, brooding performance as Samuel Covey, a good, hard-working farmer, and man of few words and no complaint as he struggles with damaging weather and family tragedy. Beneath his solid character is a man desperate for reasons and answers. As Samuel’s anxious young wife Judith, Holly Easton is the heart of the family-run farm; an equal to her husband, and lost and mourning in her own way even as she strives to carry on with growing their crops and their family. Michael Pearson brings an eerie, cold calm to William Bloor, the rookie Foxfinder sent to assess the Covey farm; an earnest, formal and fastidious young man, he too is conflicted – committed to doing his duty while struggling with inner demons of his own. Naomi Peltz brings a wry-witted warmth to the cynical Sarah Box, the Covey’s neighbour and Judith’s best friend; pragmatic and suspicious, she too has some hard decisions to make.

Foxfinder is an interesting – not to mention intense and spooky – exploration of how the human need and desire for reasons and meaning can be manipulated by the powers that be to control society through the systemic and dangerous assignment of culpability and blame.

xFF60crop
Naomi Peltz with Michael Pearson in the background – photo by Erin Jones

With big shouts to Arends (with Gilles Gagnon and Dustin Woods-Turner) for the beautifully wrought and evocative sound and projected image (with Fotini Paraschos) design. The imaginative and effective staging includes an upstage screen, which is used for both projected images of the farm and its environment, and to present bedroom scenes, where the characters are shown in backlit silhouette.

Witch hunt meets climate change conspiracy in the Village Playhouse’s haunting, dystopic Foxfinder.

Foxfinder continues at the Village Playhouse until March 19; check here for full performance date/time info. Tickets can be purchased 45 minutes before curtain time at the box office; or you can call ahead to reserve: 416-767-7702.