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.

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

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:

 

 

 

Love shots & family in the entertaining, quixotic, poignant Quiver

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Anna Chatterton in Quiver – photo by John Lauener

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. I saw both shows last night, starting with Quiver.

Written and performed by Anna Chatterton, and directed by Andrea Donaldson, Quiver incorporates a vocal processor, laptop and microphone, as well as a mini-sound and lighting board, to create atmospheric and vocal effects in this remarkable one-person show. As we enter the theatre, Chatterton is already onstage, DJ-like as she greets the audience and records pre-show announcement loops: recognizing that we are on Indigenous land, and cautioning against the taking of photos, etc. and cellphone use. There’s even a loop giving us the 411 on the fact that Chatterton is running all the lighting and sound cues. And that’s in addition to playing all the characters in this complex tale of love, family and archery super heroism.

We’re first introduced to 14-year-old Maddie, who lives with her divorced mom and 16-year-old sister Bea in an apartment so small that Maddie’s bedroom is the living/dining room. The primary storyteller in Quiver, Maddie shares her sharp observations of the world around her, particularly her mother’s bad romance with boyfriend Daniel, who turns out to be cheating on her with Bea; a revelation that turns their world upside down and leaves Maddie largely fending for herself as she navigates her own challenges at school and her first serious crush. In her solitude, she turns to her father’s abandoned archery equipment and the adventures of Arrowette, a kick-ass archer/superhero.

Quiver has a radio play vibe to it; and is a remarkable performance in its one-woman cast of characters. Funny, dramatic and quirky, Chatterton brings sharp, well-drawn characterizations – from the precocious, day-dreamy Maddie, to the 16 going on 25 Bea, to their wry-witted, laissez faire mom, and various friends and schoolmates. Turning on a dime as she changes character and manipulates her voice, it’s an impressive and engaging piece of solo storytelling.

Love shots and family in the entertaining, quixotic, poignant Quiver.

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

In the meantime, check out an interview with Chatterton about Quiver. You can keep up with Nightwood Theatre on Twitter and Facebook.

And here’s the Quiver trailer:

 

 

 

Preview: Keeping it real, present & loving when Mimi met Tara in delightfully funny & touching Blind Date

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Julie Orton & David Benjamin Tomlinson in Blind Date – photo by Tanja Tiziana

Every person in the room is trying not to get caught staring at your beauty. – A complementary compliment from Blind Date

When Blind Date creator/actor Rebecca Northan announced that her famous clown/improv/audience participation piece would be getting its first time ever gay make-over at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, I was one excited gay lady. And it was a dream come true for those who’d chatted with her on this very subject after performances of Blind Date during its run at Tarragon Theatre last season (I saw a performance and was one of those people).

Northan collaborated with Buddies A.D. Evalyn Parry on this queer couples run of Blind Date, which includes a girl/girl version and a boy/boy version, featuring actors Julie Orton and David Benjamin Tomlinson, directed by Northan. Orton is on this week, as Mimi dating women; next week, Tomlinson appears as Mathieu, dating men; they alternate performances for the final week. Check the show page for the full schedule. I saw Mimi on a girl/girl date in a preview last night, which was followed by a talkback.

Before the show starts, Mimi circulates the bar, chatting with women (including my friend Dee and me; but, alas, we were ineligible because I was there as media) in search of a date selection for the evening. Once inside the packed theatre space, Parry welcomes the audience and gives a brief introduction as we anxiously anticipate the start of the show. Who will Mimi choose?

We find Mimi, a lovely and lively young French clown, drinking a glass of white wine on a café patio, waiting for her blind date to arrive. For two hours! The audience empathizes, feeling bad for Mimi and annoyed at her no-show date. But, a trouper and not feeling like going home, Mimi decides to select a date from the crowd. And she picks Tara. Some brief ground rules: all Tara needs to do is be herself, be honest, including times when she chooses to not answer questions, and project so the audience can hear. Mimi’s job is to take care of her date. Either can call a time out; in this case, they’ll take a break from the play and move down stage right to the time out box, to clarify or sort out any issues that come up.

Orton is adorably charming as Mimi; equal parts playful, bashful and irreverent – and always supportive, complimentary and positive with her date. As the date unfolds, Mimi and Tara, a Gestalt therapist (who we learn in a titillating and fun revelation used to sell sex toys), get to know each other in a natural, organically unfolding way that is lovely to watch. They talk about their day, moving into discussion of family, coming out and their families’ reactions. Though Tara is admittedly nervous at first, Mimi puts her at ease, and the two find real connection through mutual trust and a sense of being present. All while being served by a hilariously surly French waiter (Bruce Horak), who is overseen by the affable, accommodating manager (Tomlinson).

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Julie Orton as Mimi (left) in Blind Date – photo by Connie Tsang

Moving from the café to Mimi’s car, things get wacky as they interact with a police officer, and then continue on for a nightcap at Mimi’s uncle’s apartment, where the scene becomes more intimate and easy-going – and Tara tells an awesome and funny story about a teenage concert outing to see Guns ‘n Roses at the CNE Coliseum. Then the audience gets to choose whether they continue the date or fast-forward to five years into the future. We chose the latter (apparently most audiences do) and we find them in an open marriage, getting ready for bed after a long work day, with even more revelations to come. And all the while, we’ve been falling in love with Mimi and Tara.

The post-show talkback revealed some interesting similarities and difference between the straight and queer versions of Blind Date. Horak noted commented that the constant, universal experience is “the joy of watching two people connect;” guards gradually come down and the “theatre becomes a sacred space” as they get to know each other. Orton mentioned that it’s always a “delicious, delightful challenge” keeping the show going and making the date comfortable.

Having trained at Loose Moose (alongside Horak) with Keith Johnstone (creator of Theatre Sports and Life Game), Northan said the concepts of being present, telling the truth and telling stories – especially in Life Game – became the inspiration for Blind Date. When asked why the noses, Tomlinson said the noses give permission to be open, go bigger and still be safe; it’s a reminder that it’s a play, and it keeps the action playful and prevents things from getting creepy. They also like to think they’re bringing the sexy back to clown.

Northan said she got schooled during her queering of Blind Date – that it wasn’t simply the same deal as the straight version, just with two women or two men. Parry concurred; there was a discovery process. Northan marvelled at how straight audiences tended to be suspicious of the offer of a compliment (served on a slip of paper from a tray during the pre-show mingling), while queer folks dive right in, even asking what the paper colours meant and if this meant they’d be chosen as the date. She also noted that the women had a natural back and forth rhythm to their discussion, asking questions and empathizing with situations; during straight dates, Mimi would ask her date question after question, but it usually took him a while to ask her anything. And, most importantly, situations that straight people would take for granted as a safe space, like being asked by a cop if they’re on a date, becomes a different thing when it’s a same-sex couple. It was a lesson in power dynamics, and they realized they need to be sensitive to situations like that – and, for both straight and queer productions, especially if the date is a person of colour.

Tomlinson commented that sharing and coming together with stories is particularly important and timely right now. And an audience member noted that the storytelling is based in personal experience and how everyone’s story is different – there’s no one way to be queer. Orton (who is a lesbian) noted the differences in her experiences doing the straight and queer versions. As Mimi, she draws from her own life as she gets to know her date and her date gets to know her; and she had to edit, change pronouns and leave out parts of her story during the straight dates. This became problematic for a show about being present, open and truthful. Last night, she shared a story of a secret high school girlfriend for the first time, which was lovely to watch and liberating for her. As for Mimi’s date Tara, she had a great time. She had no idea what she was in for when she came to see the show with a friend, but had been wanting to go on a first date and had even been looking into doing an improv class. Just goes to show you: the universe is listening and delivers.

Rebecca Northan’s baby grows up to be queer in the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s production of Blind Date. Keeping it real, present and loving when Mimi met Tara in last night’s delightfully funny and touching preview.

You can read Orton’s post about Mimi and Tara’s date – and like Blind Date – on Facebook.

Blind Date continues at Buddies until October 9; I’d highly recommend purchasing tickets in advance to avoid disappointment: online or by phone (416) 975-8555.

Still wondering what it’s all about? Check out Rebecca Northan’s CTV News interview about Blind Date, taped for its Tarragon run last year when she was playing Mimi: