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.

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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.

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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.

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The good, the bad & the ugly of modern motherhood in the hilarious, heart-wrenching Secret Life of a Mother

Maev Beaty. Scenic design by Camellia Koo. Costume design by Erika Connor. Lighting design by Leigh Ann Vardy, with Kaileigh Krysztofiak. Photo by Kyle Purcell.

 

The collective theatrical baby of four female theatre artists—written by Hannah Moscovitch, with Maev Beaty and Ann-Marie Kerr, and co-created with Marinda de Beer—Secret Life of a Mother, directed by Kerr, opened at The Theatre Centre to a sold out house last night. Part autobiography, part confessional; it’s real and raw, hilarious and heart-wrenching—and it cracks open the good, the bad and the ugly of modern motherhood.

Six years in the making, Secret Life of a Mother was created through The Theatre Centre’s Residency program, during which time the four creators’ research was up close and personal; interviewing parents and drawing on their own first-hand observations of motherhood, including Beaty’s and Moscovitch’s own exhausting, guilt-ridden struggles of being a new mom while also working as an extremely busy, in-demand artist.

Beaty portrays Moscovitch throughout, occasionally popping out of character to speak to us as herself, as she takes us on this motherhood exploration journey in five acts—and we go right along with her as she rides the physical, psychological and emotional rollercoaster of miscarriage, labour, birth, fear of being a bad mom and getting invaluable support from a good friend. It’s personal, candid and more than a bit meta, with Beaty as Moscovitch, at times talking about herself from Moscovitch’s perspective; and we even get some first-hand commentary from Moscovitch—most intriguingly via video, projected on a piece of the script. But for all the neat multi-media elements—the mirrored backdrop, the two aquariums filled with water (scenic design by Camellia Koo and lighting by Leigh Ann Vardy, with Kaileigh Krysztofiak) and projection (Cameron Davis, with Laura Warren), not to mention the really cool, wonderful thing that happens at the end (which you’ll have to come see for yourself)—the storytelling is mostly low-tech, intimate and conversational. Like sitting with a good friend over a glass of wine.

Beaty and Moscovitch tell it like it is, no holds barred. It’s scary and confusing, messy and painful—even horrific and bizarre—and that’s just up until the baby comes out! After that, more confusion, second-guessing, guilt, shame, frustration, exhaustion, self-doubt. The taboo feelings of resentment and anger towards this new little person; and of wanting and needing to work—of splitting time, energy and focus between baby and career—are further kicks to the gut. Then there’s the mind-blowing, achingly disturbing realization that mothers give birth to life and death. And, finally, ongoing healing, support and acceptance as the new mom finds her own jam, and reconciles with the fact that there’s no one way to be a good mom. And then, the joy beyond belief and description.

Beaty gives a beautifully candid, gutsy and vulnerable performance; baring her soul along with Moscovitch in this profoundly human, honest exploration and revelation of modern—and new—motherhood. I doubt there was a dry eye in the house by the end; and more than a few of us wanting to hug our mothers.

Secret Life of a Mother in the Franco Boni Theatre space until November 11. Tickets available online or by calling The Theatre Centre’s Box Office at 416-538-0988 or online. Advance booking strongly recommended.

The run includes an ASL interpreted performance on November 2 at 8:00 pm; and a relaxed performance on November 6 at 8:00 pm.

The struggle for normalcy in the wake of a horrific past in the haunting, disturbing Strangers, Babies

Jeff Lillico & Niki Landau in Strangers, Babies—photo by Neil Silcox

 

Theatre PANIK presents its immersive production of Linda McLean’s Strangers, Babies, directed by Paul Lampert, assisted by Sadie Epstein-Fine, this past week. A Canadian premiere, the show opened this past week at Artscape Sandbox.

As we enter the space, projected text welcomes us and invites us to wander around and take in the five exhibits; at this point, we see only the five men, each one occupying an exhibit. There are no paper programs (you can access the program online), but there are labels with brief descriptions accompanying each exhibit, as well as binders on the benches (the kind you see at an art gallery, containing descriptions of the art). There are spaces to sit or stand in and around each exhibit; only the final exhibit is an enclosed room that we must peer into from the outside.

When May (Niki Landau) enters, we follow her on a series of vignettes from her life, unfolding over the course of a couple of years. What makes this journey remarkable is the art gallery layout of the space, where each exhibit contains a scene. Starting in May’s condo, where she lives with her husband Dan (Richard Ausar Stewart), we see her fretting over a bird that’s flown into their window and is now lying motionless on the balcony. She wants to save it and Dan thinks it should be euthanized. Clearly a lover of nature and animals, May longs for a garden and they ponder switching to a house.

We then follow May on a visit to her dad Duncan (David Schurmann) at a hospice. Here, we get a glimpse of a troubled childhood and a desire for a normal life. Hints of violence and a longing for connection continue during May’s trip to a hotel room to meet Internet hook-up Roy (Richard Lee); and flash again to the past, with warnings for the future, when she meets with her brother Denis (Jeff Lillico) in a park. In the final scene, May’s social worker Abel (Edmund Stapleton) has come by for a spot check; he’s monitoring the welfare her young son and makes extensive notes in order to report his findings.

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Richard Ausar Stewart & Niki Landau in Strangers, Babies—photo by Neil Silcox

Compelling work from the cast on this uniquely immersive production; each actor adeptly mining the opposing sides of their characters’ personalities. Landau is both heartbreaking and eerie as May, whose delicate, nervous and vulnerable personality and flat aspect both reveal and conceal a troubling inner turmoil. Stewart’s Dan is the perfect emotional foil; precise, fastidious and mildly patronizing, Dan is a loving and patient husband to his kind-hearted wife. Schurmann brings a cantankerous and regretful edge to Duncan’s fragility; confused by pain and age, and befuddled by morphine, Duncan lashes out with biting rage in his impatience—then melts into reminiscence and guilt as the drug takes hold.

Lee gives a complex performance as Roy, who like May, is in a passionless marriage and needs to step out to feel lusty excitement; his nervous awkwardness is a mask of repressed violent urges. Lillico’s Denis is both heart-wrenching and menacing; clearly a tortured soul and sharing in May’s horrific history, Denis is like a caged, scared animal growling out warnings. Stapleton’s Abel is affable, firm-handed and wary as he interviews May; a young social worker with a serious task at hand, he must balance respect for his client with a thorough examination of her situation—especially regarding the safety of her child.

Rage and calm, violence and tenderness. A life on display—each scene (exhibit) is a piece of May’s puzzle, played out across space and time. Ultimately, Strangers, Babies is profoundly human.

With shouts to the design team for their work on creating this fascinating and unique experience: Michael Gianfrancesco (set), Ming Wong (costume), Bonnie Beecher (lighting), Christopher Stanton (sound), Cameron Davis (video) and Kate Alton (movement).

The struggle for normalcy in the wake of a horrific past in the haunting, disturbing Strangers, Babies.

Strangers, Babies continues at the Artscape Sandbox till May 28; get advance tickets here. Advance booking strongly recommended due to the unique staging and popularity of this production.

Check out the trailer:

Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce & funny Sound of the Beast

Tamyka Bullen (onscreen) & Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Hear ye, hear ye

let it be known,

No one on my block walks alone.

 

Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) closes its 2016-17 season with Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s (aka Belladonna the Blest) Sound of the Beast, co-directed by Andy McKim and Jivesh Parasram, with ASL components by Tamyka Bullen, and featuring composition and sound design by David Mesiha. Sound of the Beast opened in the TPM Backspace last night.

Inspired by the story of Tunisian rapper Weld El 15, whose artistic freedom of speech was muzzled by police and government, and part of St. Bernard’s 54ology (her commitment to create a performance piece from each country in Africa), Sound of the Beast combines rap and spoken word with lived experiences for an up-close, profoundly personal and resonant performance. Complementing St. Bernard’s storytelling is a projected performance of Tamyka Bullen’s poetry, performed in ASL with English surtitles (projection design by Cameron Davis). And a series of radio voice-overs (Glyn Bowerman), updating us on news of an “incident” in a “priority neighbourhood,” provide a bleak commentary on the clueless, one-sided and white-washed view of mainstream media.

Autobiographical, observational and replete with first-hand lives lived in an environment of racism, mistrust and injustice, words and stories that we may only have read or seen on the news come to life. Urgent. Shocking. In front of us. What is the most shocking is that stories of oppression and injustice are not shocking, but part of our everyday lives.

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Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

A compelling and engaging storyteller, St. Bernard shifts easily from pointed remarks and calling out prejudice, to casual and conversational moments. She puts forth hypothetical scenarios and asks us how we would respond; making us active participants as we silently think about the choices in front of us. And during two poignant and charged scenes, she speaks to her imaginary young son; guiding him on how to behave, speak and even set his facial expressions in order to stay safe out there when confronted by the authorities. At times speaking to us as friends, she takes us in and along on her journey—her research on Weld El, her personal experiences—genuine, infuriating, heartbreaking, hilarious. Shifting from a stand-up storytelling vibe, to in our faces or in emcee performance mode, St. Bernard moves through the space with ease and fluidity, with professionalism and personality. Singing and speaking with strength, emotion and moving beats, her job is to tell it—and she brings it big time.

Speaking as a Deaf woman born into a “hearing Indian-Guyanese Hindu-Christian family”—and living in a “hearing, straight Eurocentric Christian patriarchal country,” Bullen’s poetry is beautiful, moving and revealing. Highlighting the intersectionality of experiences of oppression and prejudice among the Black and Deaf communities, she points to how heavy unemployment and underemployment leave marginalized people struggling to get by in a system that “operates for so long based on ignorance and hate.” Writing of poverty, PTSD, the immigrant experience and her relationship with the earth, Bullen reminds us of the ever present need for mindfulness, awareness and compassion—and how we are all we are all born of the same Mother Earth.

Coiled on the floor and ready, the microphone is St. Bernard’s weapon and bridge; and the black hoodie she dons at the opening of her performance and sheds at the close is her storytelling cloak. If you are not black or marginalized, you can only glean so much from what you see and hear in the news about these lived experiences. Of being constantly under surveillance because of the colour of your skin and the neighbourhood you live in. Of being questioned by law enforcement for no reason. Of being misunderstood and not knowing what you’re supposed to say. Of unarmed youth being shot by police. Sound of the Beast brings it in closer. Come and hear for yourself.

Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce and funny Sound of the Beast.

Sound of the Beast continues in the TPM Backspace until May 7; book tickets online or call 416-504-7529. Advance booking strongly recommended—it’s a powerful show and an intimate space.

Love & pregnancy meet eugenics, pitting Deaf against hearing culture in thought-provoking, moving ULTRASOUND

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Elizabeth Morris & Chris Dodd in ULTRASOUND – photos by Michael Cooper

Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) and Cahoots Theatre have joined forces for a unique and innovative co-production, the debut of deaf writer Adam Pottle’s ULTRASOUND, directed by Marjorie Chan, and performed in English and American Sign Language (ASL) with projected surtitles – running now in the TPM Mainspace.

Deaf couple Alphonse (Chris Dodd) and Miranda (Elizabeth Morris) discover they have very different feelings and points of view on having children. Miranda, who is losing her hearing and speech, is just turning 29 and wants to have a baby soon. Alphonse, who is Deaf, is hesitant and wants to wait. He’s very concerned about whether their baby will be born hearing or Deaf, and wants them both to get genetic testing first. Discouraged by the wait times for testing and results, they go ahead and get pregnant – but then Alphonse, acting under the ongoing influence of Deaf friend Nick, who’s seriously into eugenics, pushes for testing on the baby. Questions of trust, identity and bigotry emerge as Alphonse makes it clear that he doesn’t want to raise a hearing child. And he and Miranda have a difficult decision to make.

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Chris Dodd in ULTRASOUND

ULTRASOUND is a beautiful, heart-breaking and informative piece of theatre, and Dodd and Morris do a lovely job with the storytelling. Dodd gives a passionate, layered performance as Alphonse; a playful, loving husband, he struggles with some dark inner conflict about being a Deaf man in a hearing-dominated world. Haunted by childhood family trauma, he is suspicious and fearful of hearing people, and prefers to raise a Deaf child over a hearing child. On the conservative side of the social spectrum – he’s always wondering where dinner is when he gets home – he is easily swayed by his friend Nick’s ideas of genetic purity. As Miranda, Morris is a puckish delight; the more outgoing and forward-thinking of the two, Miranda is a heavy metal fan and aspiring actor who’s determined to follow her dream of playing Shakespeare despite her deteriorating hearing and speech. Her other big dream is to have a baby – and she finds herself having to fight, and ultimately choose between, what Alphonse wants and what she wants. And in the big picture, the decision Miranda faces becomes more about their life together in the face of such opposing views of the world and their identities as Deaf people.

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Elizabeth Morris in ULTRASOUND

With shouts to set, lighting and surtitles designer Trevor Schwellnus, and projection designer Cameron Davis for the beautifully rendered environment. Modular and minimalist, a square riser serves as the couple’s bed and as a medical exam table; and the multi-levelled painted scrim-covered flats – rising up like a skyline in the background – serve nicely as semi-transparent entrances/exits, as well as a projection screen for the surtitles, and cityscape and environmental images.

Love and pregnancy meet eugenics, pitting Deaf against hearing culture in thought-provoking, moving ULTRASOUND.

ULTRASOUND continues in the TPM Mainspace until May 15. ASL/English Deaf Interpreted (DI) performances are available on May 5 at 7:30pm and May 14 at 2:00pm, followed by Q&A. There will also be one Relaxed Performance on Saturday, May 7 at 2:00pm. “Relaxed Performances are designed to welcome audience members who will benefit from a more relaxed performance environment, including those with an Autism Spectrum Condition, sensory and communication disorder, or a learning disability.” Ticket info here. Go see this.

Dreams, desires & the drive for freedom in thoughtful & farcical Up the Garden Path

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Virgilia Griffith, Sochi Fried & Marcel Stewart – photo by Lyon Smith

Obsidian Theatre opened its production of Lisa Codrington’s Up the Garden Path, directed by Philip Aikin, at Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) last week – and I caught the show last night, which also happened to be Barbados Night, and the house was packed with an enthusiastic and appreciative, mostly Bajan, audience.

Set in the late 1960s, the play opens in Barbados. When Rosa (Virgilia Griffith) comes to Alma (Arlene Duncan) needing a place to stay, willing to work for her room and board, she is first met with disdain – for Rosa is the daughter of Alma’s late husband and her mother, the town seamstress, infamous for taking other women’s husbands to her bed. But Rosa has skills with a sewing needle and Alma’s son Edmund (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) needs to look his best for an upcoming job interview to be a fruit picker in Canada – and Alma intends for him to wear his father’s suit, which is way too big for him. Alma’s younger sister Amelia (Raven Dauda) is pragmatic about the situation, and possibly even sympathetic to Rosa’s plight, and Rosa finds a reluctant home. When Edmund injures his ankle the day before he’s to leave for the job, and needing the income it would provide, Alma and Amelia disguise Rosa as a man, in the suit she altered for Edmund, and send her in his place. And that’s where the real adventure begins for Rosa – in a vineyard in the Niagara region, where instead of being a fruit picker, farmer Isaac (Alex McCooeye) tasks her with scaring off the large flocks of starlings that plague his grapes. It is there that she is also enlisted as a scene partner by Isaac’s aspiring actress younger sister Laura (Sochi Fried) and – even stranger – is called upon by the ghost of an American soldier (Marcel Stewart) to help him leave this earthly plain.

The storytelling uses elements of farce (so aptly complemented by the set design, with its doors, shutters, window frames and corrugated tin), as well as Shakespeare (young woman forced by circumstance to be disguised as a man) and Shaw (Laura’s prize role is Joan of Arc), fairy tale and ghost story – the once upon a time journey is strong here. The play features some great moments of comedy, and a farcical edge that cuts through to some thought-provoking truths. As Rosa goes from outsider, to fish out of water, to self-discovery, this is also a hero’s journey of discovery and transformation.

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Arlene Duncan, Ronnie Rowe Jr. & Raven Dauda – photo by Lyon Smith

Up the Garden Path’s ensemble is outstanding. As the proud family matriarch Alma, Duncan is a sharp-tongued, formidable force to be reckoned with; a woman who’ll suffer no foolishness, she longs for her son to grow up and become a breadwinner for the family. Dauda’s Amelia is the perfect foil to Alma; resourceful and irreverent, she easily trades humourous barbs with her sister as she helps build her nephew into a man – all the while dreaming of a reunion with her sweetheart in England. As Edmund, Rowe Jr. brings a strong sense of a child-like and wide-eyed man boy; a young man with a serious sweet tooth who must take a job in Canada to help support his family, when all he wants to do is open up a sweet shop. Griffith brings a quiet, but potent, unassuming dignity to Rosa; a young woman reviled for her parentage, but tolerated for her tailoring skills. Buffeted here and there by circumstance and those who have power over her life, Rosa has an inner strength that may even surprise herself. And she’s by far the most sane one of the lot.

Stewart gives a powerful, multilayered performance as the ghost soldier Marcel; a bright, loyal and good-humoured man who struggles with horrific memories of war and racial violence. He longs to leave this earth as much as Rosa wanted to leave the judgement and exclusion she faced back home. McCooeye’s Isaac is comical combination of authoritarian know-it-all and ridiculous, scared little bully; a history nerd and proud 1812 redcoat re-enactor (he’s in uniform throughout), his vulnerability is exposed when he needs to step in as tour guide at Fort George, and his mind set on battling the challenges at the family vineyard. As his drama queen sister Laura, Fried gives an energetic and charismatic performance of youthful exuberance, self-absorption and passion; dying to play Shaw’s Joan of Arc, she’s convinced the role will be her ticket to the big time.

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Virgilia Griffith & Alex McCooeye – photo by Lyon Smith

With shouts to the design team: set/costume designer Anna Treusch, lighting designer Steve Lucas, sound designer Verne Good and production designer Cameron Davis for bringing the vision of these very different environments to life in one space: Rosa’s Barbados town, and the Niagara region farm and vineyard.

Dreams, desires and the drive for freedom in thoughtful and farcical Up the Garden Path.

You should go see this. Up the Garden Path continues in the TPM Mainspace until Apr 10. For advance tickets, call 416-504-7529 or order online.