Playfully whimsical, profoundly poignant & sharply candid ruminations in Dawna J. Wightman’s honey be

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Dawna J. Wightman. Photo by Vince Lupo.

 

Montreal-born Dawna J. Wightman is an award-winning Toronto-based actor, playwright and writer. Toronto audiences will recognize Wightman from her solo show Life as a Pomegranate, as well as Yellow Birds (Alumnae Theatre’s FireWorks Festival, 2015) and A Mickey Full of Mouse (Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 2016 and Toronto Fringe, 2017). She’s currently working on adapting her unpublished dark fantasy novel A Yarn of Bone & Paper, based on her ebook: Faeries Real & Imagined: How to Create Magical Adventures for Very Young Children, into a feature film. She’s also working with director Theresa Kowall-Shipp on her short Kid Gloves, set to shoot November 2018.

As part of the funding process for Kid Gloves, Wightman self-published and sold honey be, “a collection of sweet words and some that sting,” including hand-painted covers and “surprises” stuffed inside. The first 50-volume print run sold out in about a week; and a second run will be available this month, featuring cover art design by Wightman’s daughter Sabine Spare.

Much like Wightman’s theatre work, the stories, poems and snippets in honey be range from playfully whimsical to profoundly poignant to sharply candid—often all in the same story and sometimes autobiographical in nature. While there are no titles, each piece bears an italicized post-script at the end; in some cases, these take on a conversational and even self-deprecating tone, making for a personal, intimate read.

The themes of family, motherhood and friendship come up in several pieces. There’s the story about Mrs. Kay, written from the perspective of a precocious, neglected eight-year-old who finds a home with fellow misfit schoolmate Sandra Kay and her quirky family; and the goofy four-legged family member Bella in just a dog. Reminders that family can sometimes be found in unexpected places—and to never judge a book by its cover.

There’s heart-wrenching nostalgia with an ode to her son in little boy; and remembrances of wearing an itchy baby blue Phentex dress and being her mother’s go-fer at the bingo hall, in pretty little head. And the heartache and fumbling for what to say to a friend living with cancer tumble out in the visceral when we found out you had cancer and in the outpouring of loving, supportive words in the piece that follows.

Ruminations on body image and aging come up as well, from the erotic in late summer, to the sharply candid and calling bullshit on the ridiculous expectations placed on women’s bodies—professionally and personally—in tits and ass and #chubbyprettywoman, and the #MeToo shock of new neighbour.

Quirky, bittersweet, child-like grown-up, all of the stories in honey be are tinged with humour and poignancy, and the everyday acknowledgement of life’s remarkable moments. And one gets the sense that, beyond coming from a place of truth telling—there’s a deep longing to share these words. There’s a line in the movie Shadowlands, from a C.S. Lewis quote: “We read to know we are not alone”—one could easily also say “We write to let others know they are not alone.”

Copies of honey be will be available for $20.00 via emailing wightrabiit@gmail.com; website coming soon. Wightman will be performing a reading from the book at Stratford’s SpringWorks Festival on October 11.

 

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Interview: Blues singer/songwriter & actor Carolyn Fe

Carolyn Fe, Sugat Ko cover. Photo by litratista.com

 

Carolyn Fe is a multi-talented, award-winning actress, blues singer/songwriter and host of the online syndicated radio show Unsung and On the Side. I had the pleasure of getting to know her while she was in Toronto, performing in the Nightwood Theatre/Sulong Theatre co-production of the world premiere of Audrey Dwyer’s Calpurnia, presented at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre back in January/February. Fe won the 2018 Toronto Theatre Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress for her compelling, poignant and funny portrayal of the family’s housekeeper Precy.

Between 2009 and 2014, she released three award-winning self-produced blues CDs: 100%, Original Sin and Bad Taboo. After taking a hiatus from her music career, she’s back with a deeply personal recording of original songs in Sugat Ko (My Wound in Tagalog)—to be launched on August 1, 2018 on CD Baby. Sugat Ko features the music talents of the Collective: Ivan Garzon (guitar), Brandon Goodwin (drums, percussion, vocals), Jean-Francois Hamel (guitar) and Oisin Little (bass). Guest musicians include Frank Gallant (bass), Sam Robinson (bass) and Gabriel Tremblay (drums).

Full of passion, anger, compassion and candid observations, Sugat Ko is an authentic, moving, evocative collection of original songs—delivered with rich, smooth vocals that shift from mysterious to powerful to tender. I asked Carolyn Fe about the record—and the road that led her to create it.

Hi Carolyn. Thanks for taking some time out of your busy schedule to talk about Sugat Ko. This album is a major milestone for you: It marks your return to music after a four-year hiatus following the sudden loss of your friend and manager Barry Mell just before the release of Bad Taboo. You spoke about how things fell apart during that time, and how there was a significant shift within the band—and things were adrift for a while. Tell us about what brought you back. What was your inspiration to carry on and keep making music?

In all my endeavours, my approach is “do or die”. Making art; whether it be music, theatre, acting, writing, etc. equates to me breathing and feeling alive. There were times when I really wanted to throw in the towel, but I knew I had to keep going. The lyrics I had written meant a lot to me. I was hurting. I needed to keep writing; I needed to keep making music. I was feeling quite lost and alone. All those feelings of loss, pain and struggle kept me writing. Even though I was depressed, I was feeling alive (if you know what I mean). Words kept pouring out of me.

I met a lot of great musicians, but the connection/synergy wasn’t there until I found the ones who are with me right now: Jean-Francois Hamel (guitar), Ivan Garzon (guitar), Brandon Goodwin (drums & percussion), Oisin Little (bass, my muse who has been with me for 3 albums’ worth – Original Sin, Bad Taboo and now, Sugat Ko). When the five of us finally got together, my gut instincts told me that I can breathe with these gentlemen. They created a safe place for me to allow me to say and sing what I needed to say and sing. I also have Angie Arsenault who stuck by me through the tough times, she is a producer (prog rock and metal) – but first and foremost, she’s a friend who endured my whining through the tough times. She played all the instruments on “Prayer”.

This record is also a deeply personal reflection of your life and Philippine roots—a music offering that is profoundly soul-searching and revealing at the same time. And the songs on this record cover a broad emotional range, from pain, to passion, to playful and even prayerful. “Howzat” sounds like a wry Devil’s Advocate response to “Summertime”—a big contrast to the melancholy “Prayer”, the final track. What was the process of writing and recording like for you on this project?

For the longest time, since the creation of the debut EP 100% in 2008-2009, I was looking for a particular sound and it wasn’t a mainstream 12-bar blues sound. But I was also looking at my entrance to the music world from a business point of view. I needed to be careful in “instructing” the audience about what I was going to build (and also maybe I was chicken, insecure and afraid to assert myself, caring too much what “they” may think). So what I did was to “come in” with a standard blues-rock sound to get the auditors’ attention. You can hear the gradual evolution of where I wanted to be in a few songs as the new albums came out. The words/lyrics were true (you’ll note that there are religious connotations in most of my lyrics), but I was still reserved. It took life’s changes to finally find my footing and Sugat Ko is the result. Deep, deep lyrics from my heart, soul and essence of my being – all that, with no holds barred.

“Howzat” was the cacophony that was going on in my head during the four years that I had to keep a good face and smile at the world. I was dying on the inside; it was as if everything I touched went wrong. So yeah, this song talks about murdering and burying that mess, “she runs out into the garden with her Jimmy Choo’s sinking into the grass, cement, that’s all she can think of…cement, what a ride…oh baby hush now, don’t you cry, hush, hush baby, just give it a sigh”. Once buried, I moved on.

“Prayer” was me at my most desperate moments. It’s all about choice. We have choices and although on the surface it sounds like a call for help, it’s actually the complete opposite of asking for help. Prayer is a cry to die. It is also a song that is dedicated to a friend who passed away from cancer. She was in pain and there were moments when she wanted to end it. When I wrote this song, I wasn’t “intimate” enough with my new musicians, at least not yet. My friend, Angie Arsenault, and I were talking a lot of the difficult times. She had padded shoulders that I could lean on when I needed. Then it occurred to me to ask her to collaborate on the song as she knew exactly where my mindset was. She played all the instruments on “Prayer”.

Writing a song in an intimate process for me. There are times when I will already have the lyrics and will sit with only one of my musicians, who I call my Stage Husbands (because of the intimate process of writing). Other times, I would write the lyrics on the spot while they play along and understand the vibe of the tune. But for me, it is always a one on one process to create a song.

Sugat Ko draws on gospel and rock in a beautiful, moving fusion with the blues that complement the lyrics and take the listener on an emotional rollercoaster ride. Did you map out these arrangements ahead of time, on a song-by-song basis—or was it more of an organic process as you and the band worked together in the studio?

Actually, no. I treated each song as their own entity and let my gut instinct own the process, as well as organize it. Once the basic skeleton of the song is done after the one-on-one writing sessions with a stage hubby, then we would all get together and make the arrangement of the song. That’s the part where they all get technical while I listen to my gut feelings to make sure the vibe and soundscape is right.

You’ve been working on a 5th album, Cover My Bass, a collection of cover songs. What can you tell us about that record?

A while back, I saw Dalannah Gail Bowen and her bassist, Owen Owen Owen (nope, that’s not a repetitive keystroke error, that is his name) perform. They’re from British Columbia. I was so inspired!!! Here’s a woman pushing towards her 70s with this younger man on bass. It was an odd pair, but just her voice and his bass was music to my ears. Whenever we hear of duos, it’s mostly voice/guitar or voice/piano. I have never heard of voice and bass. I was hooked and inspired. It took me a long time to find a bass player who could jive with me. Frank Gallant was introduced to me by my drummer, Brandon Goodwin. Frank and I hit it off. He understood what I wanted to do.

I am not fond of doing cover songs. There are so many artists out there doing it, so I will leave it to them. BUT this 5th album (an EP actually) is already complete. TADA! I am just waiting for Sugat Ko to mature and establish itself before I take out Cover My Bass, which is a collection of old, old songs unfamiliar songs and we do it as a duet: voice and bass.

Anything else you want to shout out?

I want to talk about how special my stage husbands are. Aside from Oisin Little (bass), we’ve been together for about two and a half years now. I am so grateful for having them with me. They are instrumental in bringing my confidence back. I never considered myself a musician. Yeah, I write the lyrics and I sing the lyrics. When other players would just say, “Let her sing, we’ll do the music part”, these gentlemen, my stage hubbies, brought me to a place where I never knew I belonged. They stopped and asked what my lyrics were about, they played and played until they understood the soundscapes that I was looking for; and once we found it, they pushed it further. They created a safe space for me to explore. This is why Sugat Ko is so important for me because every song on that album is me in the raw. They created the space so I can allow me to be myself. Also, I want to give a shout out to my stage hubbies’ life partners who quietly stood by their side, at times rescheduling vacations and special occasions, so that we can create.

Now, for the fun part of the interview. I’d like to finish up with James Lipton’s Pivot questionnaire:

What’s your favourite word?

Yes

What’s your least favourite word?

Can’t

What turns you on?

Heart-full people that I resonate with. Pushing my envelope. Thinking, creating and doing things – not out of the box but – without a box. Challenges that make me feel alive. Doing. Pastries and sea food.

What turns you off?

Routine. Folks who don’t get out of their comfort zone and then whine about their regrets (HEY! It’s not too late, you can still do it). Folks who say, “It’s always been done that way”. Racism and discrimination really burns my butt.

What sound or noise do you love?

The inhale/exhale of satisfaction from a job well done.

What sound or noise do you hate?

It’s almost like a cartoon; the sound of screeching brakes in my head when fear overcomes me.

What is your favourite curse word?

I have too many, but the F-bomb usually starts it off, followed by other choice words (e.g., F’ing Toe Crud, F’ing butt cheese, etc.).

What profession other than your own would you like to pursue?

I’ve had and have many professions. In no particular order: Ballerina, Contemporary Dancer, Choreographer, Technical Recruiter & Human Resources Generalist, Marketing Specialist, Hair Stylist (which I still do and love – I went to school for it), Singer/Songwriter, Actor, Radio Host, Business owner, Corporate Consultant, Caregiver, etc.

What profession would you not like to do?

I tried, but I am not a good housekeeper.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Ha! The question doesn’t say “…finally arrive at the Pearly Gates”. So I think, this is what God would ask me: “Are you done yet or do you wanna go back again?”

Thanks, Carolyn!

Thank you – and the hugs I am saving in my back pocket for you are gathering compounded interest again.

 

Toronto theatre audiences fell in love with Carolyn Fe and her performance in Calpurnia—and the feeling is mutual. Fe and her husband are looking to move from Montreal to Toronto in the near future, where we’ll have even more chances to see her perform live.

You can keep up with Carolyn Fe on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Keep your eyes and ears out for Sugat Ko on CD Baby on August 1.

 

Repost: The search for a woman’s lost voice in the vocal, physical, emotional tour de force Mouthpiece

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Norah Sadava & Amy Nostbakken in Mouthpiece – photo by Joel Clifton

I had the pleasure of revisiting Quote Unquote Collective’s Mouthpiece, presented by Nightwood Theatre and Why Not Theatre—and back by popular demand on stage at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava’s stunning virtuosic performance rocked the packed house last night, receiving a standing ovation with sustained applause.

The film version of Mouthpiece, produced by Patricia Rozema, recently finished wrapping up; and the script has been published by Coach House Books. Mouthpiece continues at Buddies until April 22; the entire run is sold out online, but there may be some tickets held at the door.

The following is a re-post of my review of the premiere performance of Mouthpiece, which opened Nightwood’s 2016-17 season.

Nightwood Theatre opened its 2016-17 season at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre last week, with a unique double bill of Quote Unquote Collective’s Mouthpiece and Anna Chatterton’s Quiver. Mouthpiece was the second show I saw last night.

Mouthpiece is a Dora award-winning Quote Unquote Collective production; created and performed by Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken, and directed/composed by Amy Nostbakken, it was featured as part of The RISER Project last year. I missed that production and was so glad I got to see it this time around.

A unique piece of theatre that combines a cappella harmony, dissonance, dialogue and physical theatre, the two performers tell the story of Cassandra, who awakes one morning to discover she’s lost both her mother and her voice. She must pick a casket, flowers and a dress to bury her mother in – and write and deliver the eulogy. And she can’t seem to get out of the tub.

Both performers often play a single character, at times speaking in unison; and, in Cassandra’s case, create a dialogue with herself. From the hauntingly beautiful a cappella harmonies, to unison voice characterizations, and socially apt insertions of fashion magazine titles, ad copy and modern-day references to violence against women, the audience is both moved and tickled as Cassandra struggles with conflicting emotions, inner turmoil and a funeral fashion crisis. How well did she – or anyone – really know her mother? Her grasping for words, as well as her voice, opens up into the broader search for women’s voices. How women speak. How women are heard. How women are perceived.

Sadava and Nostbakken give compelling and entertaining performances. Shifting seamlessly from moment to moment, they execute gorgeous, fluid a cappella harmonies, unison spoken word and expressive movements. Conveying tenderness and ferocity, their work makes for a truly engaging and evocative piece. And they pull off some fabulous celebrity impersonations too, as well as some fun audience participation.

The search for a woman’s lost voice in the vocal, physical, emotional tour de force Mouthpiece.

Mouthpiece continues at Buddies until November 6. You can see it in the double bill with Quiver or on its own. Tickets are sold separately; you can book in advance online or by phone.

You can keep up with Nightwood Theatre on Twitter and Facebook.

Check out the Mouthpiece trailer:

 

 

 

The implications of a kiss: When Raymond met Mimi in a hilarious, moving, cerebral Blind Date

Back by popular demand from its 2015-16 season, Tarragon Theatre wraps its 2016-17 season with Spontaneous Theatre’s production of Blind Date, created by Rebecca Northan. This run of the improv date night hit features Northan, Christy Bruce and Tess Degenstein as rotating Mimis, and Bruce Horak as various other characters.

For those of you not familiar with the show, Mimi (a lovely French clown) has been waiting for her blind date for two hours. Clearly, she’s been stood up, and instead of giving up on her evening, she chooses a man from the audience to be her date (prospective dates have spoken with the Blind Date team before the show and have consented to the possibility of being chosen).

Last night’s date was 44-year-old Raymond, a communications and sociology professor who’s working on his PhD. He grew up in the Annex (a neighbourhood in Toronto) with a single mom and a younger sister, surrounded by strong women in the family. His awareness and appreciation of women and their experience translated into his own identification as a feminist, as well as his earlier work in film, where he made a point of creating roles for women. He also works with autistic kids. I know! A well-educated, socially aware, sweet and gentle man who respects women—Raymond is a catch.

Last night’s Mimi was Rebecca Northan, who set some ground rules before they set out on their evening together: honesty at all times, her date has the option to call a time out for clarification or during moments of discomfort (his date actual date, who Christy Bruce kept company, is allowed one time out call from her seat in the audience), and her date needs to temporarily pretend that he’s single and available for this date with her.

There was a really nice give and take feel to the date, with both Raymond and Mimi engaged, asking questions and being open with their responses. Mimi was clearly impressed by Raymond’s work and accomplishments, especially his identity as a feminist. Some truly engaging and thought-provoking discussions emerged regarding the nature of what Raymond teaches: an awareness and understanding of the experiences of others, and the intersectionality of experiences. They also spoke of their upbringing—bonding over being the eldest sibling, raised by single moms—and there was a truly tender moment of sharing and inspiration when Mimi recounted the experience of being present at her mother’s death from cancer (Northan’s own story). Her mother ushered her into the world and she ushered her mother out of it.

Soft-spoken, but communicative, Raymond worked through his nerves to play along—setting his own boundaries when he expressed an unwillingness to dance, which became the subject for ongoing gentle teasing for the rest of the show. And just when you thought he couldn’t be more awesome, he revealed a great sense of humour during their chat about Millennials: handling students who won’t put down their cellphones during class and essays that include emojis. In the scene at Mimi’s uncle’s apartment, that was the funniest and most cerebral lead-up to a kiss I’ve ever seen. And in the flash forward to their life together five years later, Raymond handled a hilariously stressful situation like a champ.

One of the things that Mimi outlines before the date starts is that her job is to look after her date and make sure he’s okay for the duration. This was evident throughout the entire performance, but especially so during the scene where Mimi and Raymond get pulled over by a female motorcycle cop (Degenstein) investigating Mimi’s erratic, possibly drunk, driving. Raymond is Black and the all-white company demonstrated awareness and sensitivity for the lived experiences of Black men regarding interactions with police. The cop took a firm hand with Mimi, who was the driver; and was respectful with Raymond, requesting that he take the wheel for the rest of their trip. And there was an added friendly twist when the cop realized he’d been her communications professor and thanked him for being such a great teacher.

This was my fourth time seeing Blind Date, including its genesis as a 10-minute piece at the Spiegeltent at Harbourfront Centre and the queer version at Buddies in Bad Times last year, with Northan playing Mimi in three of those performances (Julie Orton played Mimi in the girl/girl queer version). And every time, Northan amazes me with her generosity, her candor, her great big, open sense of humour and her fearlessness. Sexy, charming and sassy, as Mimi interacts with her date and gets to know him, she gets the audience to fall in love with him too. And along the way, we also fall in love with Mimi. Every single time.

With big shouts to Horak (the French waiter with just the right amount of snootiness) and Degenstein (the affable restaurant manager and professional, friendly motorcycle cop); producer/stage manager Marcie Januska (who took care of running improvised sound and lighting cues); and set designer Brandon Kleiman. And to Raymond’s date Abby, who got to see an audition/preview of Raymond on a date—and this was their first date!

This was a one-night only performance—and that’s the beauty of Blind Date. There’s a different date every show; and, for the first time in the production’s history, there are three rotating Mimis (Northan, Bruce and Degenstein). So you could see Blind Date several times during the course of the same run and never see the same show twice. What you will see every time is a unique, hilarious and poignant improvised theatrical experience, where Mimi takes care of her date, making sure he’s comfortable and having a good time. And making us fall in love with him in the process.

The implications of a kiss. When Raymond met Mimi in a hilarious, moving, cerebral Blind Date.

Blind Date continues in the Tarragon Mainspace till June 25; advance tickets available online—strongly recommended as this is a very popular show. Make sure to get there early to catch the pre-show activity in the lobby; and stick around for a drink after the show.

Getting to the other side of a childhood memory in the poignant, playful A Mickey Full of Mouse

3 days •2 thousand miles • 1 secret family

Dawna Wightman brings her thoughtful dramedy shenanigans to Buddies in Bad Times with her remount of A Mickey Full of Mouse, directed by Rory Starkman, and featuring Wightman and Louise Lupo.

Margaret (Dawna Wightman) has a surprise for her friend Anna (Louise Lupo): a magical snow globe that can take them back in time to relive a childhood memory. The catch: they need to get through it to get back to the present.

Spun back into their past, Anna is now 10 years old, living in a raucous, dishevelled household with her mother, siblings, grandmother and an absent father. Neglected and largely left to her own devices, she has a rich inner world despite the economic and emotional poverty that surrounds her. Always the last in line for the shared bath water and a single, soaked towel, Anna savours the warmth of their yellow kitchen and the aroma of all the yummy meals that are prepared there.

Then, an adventure: Momma (Wightman) announces that her dad is taking the two of them to Disney World in Florida! Over the moon at the prospect, Anna is less than thrilled that they’re picking up “retard” Margaret up on the way. Family road trip from hell—from Montreal to Orlando, Florida—ensues, revealing family secrets and memories best forgotten. Except for one: a reminder of how Anna and Margaret became friends.

Moments of unbridled joy and heartbreaking disappointment highlight this wistfully nostalgic, childlike and thoughtful romp; featuring lovely, evocative work from Wightman and Lupo. As Margaret, Wightman is frozen in childhood; slow to communicate but quick to love and comfort, Margaret is a sweet, misunderstood woman doing the best she can to live in an impatient, sometimes harsh, world. She brings a melancholy sense of defeat and disillusionment to the chain smoking Momma; on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and self-medicating with rum and coke, and prescription drugs, she just wants her husband to stay home and be with her and the family. And she’s hilariously inept as the ineffectual, but friendly, Disney World security guard Candy.

Lupo gives a great, multi-layered performance as Anna. A cynical and abrasive adult—and lawyer by trade—she’s there for Margaret, but reluctantly so and hotly resentful about it. As a child, we see Anna before her world took the shine out of her—something that Margaret never quite lost. Somewhere under that beaten down soul is a rambunctious, brave and hopeful human being. And maybe reliving that fateful road trip was just what she needed to be reminded of that.

With shouts to director Starkman for doing double duty as production stage manager.

Getting to the other side of a childhood memory in the poignant, playful A Mickey Full of Mouse.

A Mickey Full of Mouse continues at Buddies until April 8 on the following dates/times:

Saturday April 1 @ 8:00 PM
Sunday April 2 @ 2:00 PM
Friday April 7 @ 8:00 PM
Saturday April 8 @ 8:00 PM

Book advance tix online or call: 416-975-8555. You can follow A Mickey Full of Mouse on Facebook.

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:

Top 10 theatre 2016

Hope everyone’s been enjoying the holiday season. As we say goodbye to 2016 (for better or worse), it’s time for the annual top 10 theatre list. As usual, this is always a challenging endeavour, so I’ve added a few honourable mentions (in alphabetical order):

Top 10 theatre 2016

Blind Date (queer version): Spontaneous Theatre & Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

Chasse-Galerie: Kabin, Storefront Theatre & Soulpepper

Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen: Theatre 20, The Firehall Arts Centre & Theatre Passe Muraille

The Harrowing of Brimstone McReedy: Eldritch Theatre

The Hogtown Experience: The Hogtown Collective & Campbell House Museum

Late Night: Theatre Brouhaha & Zoomer LIVE Theatre

Mouthpiece: Quote Unquote Collective & Nightwood Theatre

The Queen’s Conjuror: Circlesnake Productions

She Mami Wata and the Pussy Witchhunt: The Watah Theatre

The Summoned: Tarragon Theatre

Honourable mention

The Clergy Project:  SOULO Theatre

Killer Joe: Coal Mine Theatre

The Taming of the Shrew: Driftwood Theatre Group

Three Men in a Boat: Pea Green Theatre

Up next: The Next Stage Theatre Festival (NSTF), running January 4 – 15, 2017 at Factory Theatre.