The uniforms of home on faraway grass in the funny, moving The Men in White

Chanakya Mukherjee & John Chou. Set and lighting design by Steve Lucas. Costume design by Lindsay Dagger Junkin. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

 

Factory Theatre opens its 49th season with Dora award-winning playwright Anosh Irani’s funny and moving The Men in White, directed by Philip Akin, assisted by Miquelon Rodriguez. Set in both India and Canada, a struggling Vancouver cricket team needs a miracle to put an end to a humiliating losing streak—and one team member’s little brother back home might be just the ticket. Now, the team just needs to agree on the plan and find a way to get him over from Mumbai.

Taken in as a child by family friend Baba (Huse Madhavji, who fellow Saving Hope fans will recognize as neurosurgeon Dr. Shahir Hamza) along with his older brother Abdul following the death of their parents, 18-year-old Hasan (Chanakya Mukherjee) works as a chicken cutter in Baba’s shop in the Dongri neighbourhood of Mumbai. As he executes and dismembers chickens, his heart and mind are set on becoming a professional cricket player and capturing the attention of pretty local pre-med student and customer Haseena (Tahirih Vejdani). These dreams are a stretch, as he’s a relatively uneducated working class orphan living and working in a tough neighbourhood—and his extreme awkwardness has him constantly putting his foot in his mouth around Haseena. On top of that, Haseena has also caught the eye of a cool motorcycle dude with ties to a local gang.

MeninWhite-Tahirih Vejdani, Chanakya Mukherjee, Huse Madhavji photo by Jospeh Michael Photography
Tahirih Vejdani, Chanakya Mukherjee & Huse Madhavji. Set and lighting design by Steve Lucas. Costume design by Lindsay Dagger Junkin. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

Over in Vancouver, Hasan’s older brother Abdul (Gugun Deep Singh), who cooks for and lives in the back of an Indian restaurant, has found home with a local cricket team comprised mainly of South Asians. But the team can’t seem to shake a brutal losing streak, and on top of struggling to motivate his players—including on and off the field player Ram (Farid Yazdani) and the athletically challenged Sam (John Chou)—team captain Randy (Sugith Varughese) also finds himself navigating Doc’s (Cyrus Faird) anti-Muslim sentiment as he referees Doc’s outbursts against Abdul. And when Abdul suggests bringing Hasan, a gifted bowler and batter, over to save the team’s tarnished reputation, the team is faced with internal debate and the problem of sorting out how they’d even accomplish such a plan.

As Hasan and the team are both faced with being labelled “losers,” having him join the team appears to be a match made in heaven; and the prospect of having a chance to win for a change injects some much needed excitement and confidence all around. It also makes for some deep soul-searching about religious and cultural tensions, and why they play cricket, as confessions and revelations of hard realities emerge. Some play cricket because it reminds them of home, some play to forget, some play to belong, and some play to rise above the dullness of a workaday life and tragic lived experience.

Stand-up work from the ensemble in this story of family, life and belonging. Madhavji is a laugh riot as the testy Baba; and though he’s highly adept at mercilessly teasing Hasan, Baba has a good, loving heart under that cranky exterior. Mukherjee’s Hasan is an adorkable combination of gritty determination and hopeless awkwardness; particularly in his scenes with Vejdani, whose intelligent and sharp-witted Haseena is matched by her equally barbed retorts—Haseena is no wilting flower and suffers no fools.

MeninWhite-JohnChou, SugithVarughese, CyrusFaird, FaridYazdani, GugunDeepSingh photo by Jospeh Michael Photography
John Chou, Sugith Varughese, Cyrus Faird, Farid Yazdani & Gugun Deep Singh. Set and lighting design by Steve Lucas. Costume design by Lindsay Dagger Junkin. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

The men in the locker room walk a fine line between comedy and tragedy as they deal with the underlying personal histories they bring to the struggling team. Yazdani’s devil-may-care bro/ ladies’ man Ram and Chou’s dim-witted, movie aficionado Sam make for some great comic relief. There’s more than meets the eye with these two, as Ram has government connections to assist with bringing Hasan over; and Chou, who’s Chinese and therefore an unlikely cricketer, got into cricket because of an Indian childhood BFF. Singh’s nicely understated performance as the unassuming Abdul mines the fading hopes and dreams of a man who left his home in search of a better life for himself and his brother—only to find broken promises and more hardship. Faird’s tightly wound, resentful, white-collar professional Doc is a perfect foil to Abdul; Doc’s animosity is underpinned by a tragic history and broken heart—and he has more in common with his perceived enemy than he would care to admit. All held together by Varughese’s aggravated but good-natured team captain Randy; despite the idle threats, Randy loves this Bad News Bears bunch of guys—and he has ghosts of his own to deal with.

With shouts to Steve Lucas’s clever and effectively designed set, which neatly splits the stage into Baba’s chicken shop and the locker room. The bamboo and chicken wire of the shop merge with the metal poles and chicken wire (standing in for chain link) of the cricket pitch locker room; Astroturf is incorporated into the checkerboard floor and a projected map of the world dominates up centre.

The Men in White continues in the Factory Theatre mainspace until November 4; advance tickets available online, or by calling 416-504-9971 or visiting the box office (125 Bathurst Street, Adelaide Street Entrance).

 

Advertisements

Ghosts of the past reveal the sins of the Father in the haunting, sharply funny, compelling Omission

Andrea Irwin, Thomas O’Neill, Evan Walsh & Gillian Reed. Costume design by Margaret Spence. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Lighting design by Wes Babcock. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Peter denied Jesus three times and yet became the Rock upon which the Catholic Church was built—its first Pope. Cardinal Matias Iglesias denies knowing three people from his past and he is a favourite to become the next Pope.

Alumnae Theatre Company explores sins of commission and omission in a time of civil and social conflict in Alice Abracen’s Omission, directed by Anne Harper.

It’s the eve of a papal conclave, and Canadian journalist Megan Gutierrez (Gillian Reed) visits the office of Latin American Cardinal Matias Iglesias (Thomas O’Neill), to interview him as part of a piece about the top candidates for the papacy. The jocular tone of their meeting turns adversarial when she asks him about three people: Angelo Flores, Laura Ballan-Kohn and Gabriel Mejia. While initially denying knowledge of any of them, when faced with accusations of complicity in the actions of a military junta, the Cardinal convinces Megan to stay and hear his side of the story. The ghosts from his past—General Angelo Flores (Lawrence Aronovitch), Professor Laura Ballan-Kohn (Andrea Irwin)  and Father Gabriel Mejia (Evan Walsh)—all materialize as he relates the events and relationships.

Keeping his head down and careful to not antagonize the ruling regime, Iglesias—a Bishop when these events began—is determined to protect his people from harm no matter what the cost. But civil conflict arrives on his doorstep when Ballan-Kohn, a long-time friend and confidante, begins to speak out against the witch hunt on certain political and philosophical books, and the students and teachers who own them are rounded up never to be seen again. And Mejia, who considers Iglesias a mentor, disobeys orders to avoid certain areas, where he’s been secretly administering to the hungry and dying—criminals and terrorists in the eyes of the regime. Afraid that his friends’ resistance is putting them in grave danger, Iglesias is unable to mollify Flores, a friend from childhood who now enforces the party line, describing the missing and murdered as having “left the country”—viewing all resistors as terrorists, and their absence a political boon.

Strong, committed performances from the entire cast in this story of confession, revelation and absolution. O’Neill, a former Archdiocese of Toronto altar boy, is an impressive presence as the ambitious Cardinal. As charming and affable as he is diplomatic and cunning, Iglesias knows how to play the political game—but when the game gets too close to home, will he still have the stomach to play it? Reed brings a great sense of mission and conflict to Megan; sharp-witted and relentless in her determination to discover the truth, Megan is also nervous, vulnerable and harbouring a secret of her own.

omission 2
Foreground: Andrea Irwin & Thomas O’Neill. Background: Gillian Reed, Lawrence Aronovitch & Evan Walsh. Costume design by Margaret Spence. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Lighting design by Wes Babcock. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Walsh gives young Father Gabriel a lovely aura of awkward, youthful drive. Naiveté and idealism mature with Gabriel’s earnest passion to do what is right, no matter how dangerous to his own well-being. Irwin is an unstoppable force as the mercurial, rambunctious and irreverent Professor Ballan-Kohn. Whip-smart, and possessing of a fiery spirit and courageous soul, Ballan-Kohn—whose parents are Holocaust survivors—knows what it means when good people do nothing. Aronovitch does a great job with the two lives of General Flores; doting new father, good-humoured friend and religiously observant, he is also a cool, detached military man who follows and gives deadly and life-altering orders without question. An extreme example, the General reminds us of the compartmentalized life that anyone can live.

Sin goes beyond the commission of bad deeds to include the omission of good deeds. But what about the role of environment and circumstance? For better or worse, we all do what we feel is right, and in our guts and power to do in the moment. At what point do confession and absolution constitute forgiveness? In the end, like Megan, we are left to our own judgement of these proceedings. And who among us is without sin.

With shouts to the design team for their work on creating this theatrical world, where souls from the past commune with those of the present to tell this story: Margaret Spence (costumes), Evelyn Clarke (props), Teodoro Dragonieri (set), Ali Berkok (sound) and Wes Babcock (lighting).

Ghosts of the past reveal the sins of the Father in the haunting, sharply funny, compelling Omission.

Omission continues on the Alumnae mainstage until February 3; advance tickets available online or at the door (cash only). Tickets are $25, with half-price tickets on Wednesdays and PWYC Sunday matinees.

 

Sin of the father in the deeply moving, spiritual, revelatory acquiesce

acquiesce-3
Rosie Simon & David Yee in acquiesce – photos by Dahlia Katz

Factory Theatre joins forces with fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company to open Factory’s 2016-17 season of diverse voices speaking to the Canadian experience with David Yee’s acquiesce in the Factory Theatre Mainspace, directed by Factory Theatre A.D. Nina Lee Aquino.

Writer Sin Hwang (David Yee) struggles with moving beyond the success of his first novel and a troubled past with his estranged father Tien Wei (John Ng). Learning from his ex-girlfriend Nine (Rosie Simon) that his father has died, he finds himself being summoned to Hong Kong for the funeral by his cousin Kai (Richard Lee), who is acting as Tien Wei’s executor.

acquiesce-2
Richard Lee, David Yee & Rosie Simon in acquiesce

Half Chinese, and with little knowledge of Chinese cultural tradition, and not able to speak or understand Cantonese, Sin soon finds himself adrift in culture shock as he learns from Kai that he has duties to perform as the eldest son. From there, Sin embarks on a reluctant journey of family, roots and spirituality as he navigates the traditional burial rites, as well as moments of memory, hallucinatory visions and symbolism that feature conversations with a ribald Paddington Bear, a hilariously insightful monk and his ex.

Lovely performances from the cast, with Ng and Simon playing multiple characters. Yee does a wonderful job mining Sin’s flippancy and arrogance for the repressed pain that lies beneath; with scars that go far beyond skin deep, Sin tries not to care but finds that he must – not just for his own sake, but for his father. As Sin’s cousin Kai, Lee brings a great combination of terse fastidiousness and tender care aesthetic; a stickler for propriety and rules, and with a dry humour that takes some getting used to, he has his own familial bitterness to deal with.

We don’t see much of Sin’s father Tien Wei, but Ng gives us a solid glimpse into a man who has his own demons to battle; a harsh, gruff and dark-humoured man, his last Will and Testament is his way of reaching out to his son across years of pain and separation. And Ng is a comedic delight in his quirkier, fun roles as Sin’s airplane seatmate and the frank, pithy, jokester monk. Simon’s Nine is quick-witted and frank; a lovely, supportive girlfriend but no doormat to Sin, she tells it like it is and will only take so much of his self-absorption. Simon brings the comedy as the stern librarian and the overly cheerful funeral home attendant.

acquiesce-1
John Ng & David Yee in acquiesce

With shouts to Robin Fisher’s set and Michelle Ramsay’s lighting design; austere and monolithic, the set features some cool, practical sliding drawer furniture pieces, the lighting adding to the otherworldly atmosphere as it highlights the scenes. And to Michelle Bensimon’s beautifully haunting, evocative composition and sound design.

Sin of the father in the deeply moving, spiritual, revelatory acquiesce.

acquiesce continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until Nov 27; advance tix and ticket info available online.

You can keep up with Factory Theatre on Twitter and Facebook; and with fu-GEN on their Twitter and Facebook pages.

Quote of the week: October 24, 2016

railroad-615404_960_720

The next hundred years are going to be painful as we come to know Chanie Wenjack and thousands like him – as we find out about ourselves, about all of us – but only when we do can we truly call ourselves, “Canada.” —Gord Downie, on the Secret Path project

Mothers & daughters, & love, separation & forgiveness in funny, thoughtful, moving How Black Mothers Say I Love You

unspecified
Ordena Thompson, Allison Edwards-Crewe & Robinne Fanfair in How Black Mothers Say I Love You – photos by Idil Jeilani

Six years in the making, writer/producer/motivational speaker Trey Anthony had a dream to write and produce a play about black mothers, particularly black mothers who left their children behind as they searched for a better life, an experience that is painfully familiar to her. Anthony joined forces with producer Carys Lewis to form Girls In Bow Ties, a company dedicated to telling “the untold stories of unconventional women,” with a “focus on work that gives voice to women of colour through theatre and film productions, arts-focused youth outreach programs, as well as mentoring and training to young, female artists of colour.”

In May 2016, the dream became reality, as Girls With Bow Ties mounted Anthony’s How Black Mothers Say I Love You, directed by Anthony and opening last night in the Factory Theatre Mainspace to a sold-out house.

Estranged from her family and living in Montreal for the past three years, Claudette (Robinne Fanfair) returns home to Toronto upon receiving news from her younger sister Valerie (Allison Edwards-Crewe) that their mother Daphne (Ordena Thompson) is coming to the end of her battle with cancer. Claudette’s arrival is unexpected for Daphne and a relief to Valerie, who has been juggling work, a husband and a sick mother. There is immediate tension in the household, and not only due to Claudette’s sexuality, which Daphne disapproves of and Valerie doesn’t get. Claudette gives voice to her feelings of betrayal and abandonment when their mother left them with their grandmother in Jamaica for six years as she set up a new life in Canada – a life that came to include a new man and a third daughter, Chloe (Jewelle Blackman). And when Claudette and Valerie finally joined their mother in Toronto, they found resentment and disdain from their new father, and a mother preoccupied with their frail, sickly new sister.

It’s a bittersweet family reunion, and the two older sisters have some major catching up to do, with Claudette still smarting from her recent breakup with her girlfriend and Valerie’s marriage in serious trouble. Daphne is not one for talking about feelings or dwelling in the past; she did what she had to do and what she thought was best to get herself and her daughters out of dire circumstances and into a better life. Taking comfort in the Bible, her prayer group and church services, she waits for death and lives in the hope of being reunited with Chloe, who drifts about Daphne’s home, silent but for the moving, evocative violin music she plays.

Combining dance (in the prologue, choreographed by Irma Villafuerte) and original music (written/produced by Gavin Bradley) with comedy and family drama, How Black Mothers Say I Love You is a highly entertaining and poignant piece of storytelling, featuring stand-out performances from the cast. Thompson gives a compelling and hilarious performance as the no-nonsense, sharply funny Daphne, who is a force to be reckoned with, even as she lives with terminal cancer. A solid Christian woman who abides no foolishness, she lives in the here and now, and any hardships she faces are not dwelled upon and are spoken of matter-of-factly, if at all. Common sense, as evidenced by sayings and sage words from back home, rule in her house. Do your best and let God do the rest. Daphne’s approach to life proves to be the opposite of her daughter Claudette’s – and Fanfair gives a lovely, multi-layered performance of a daughter who had to leave home to live a life of her choosing, returning to support her family, and longing to find closure and connection with her mother before it’s too late. Strong and brave, out and proud, yet so vulnerable and struggling with commitment issues, she’s torn between nursing old wounds and getting on with her life as she strives to advocate for herself, her life and her sister – demanding acknowledgment of their being left, neglected and unwanted, only to be forgotten in the face of the new favourite Chloe when their mother brought them to Canada.

Edwards-Crewe does a great job with the many facets of Valerie, who is in the unenviable position of family peacemaker and buffer. Caught in the middle of the ongoing battles between her mother and sister, who she loves, she is desperately struggling to stay positive and keep a brave face as she navigates her own critical situation at home. Longing for a baby even as her marriage is crumbling around her, she can’t help but wonder if marrying a white man (also her boss) was a mistake and hates herself for it. She is glad her sister is there to help with their dying mother, but why can’t everyone just get along? And the multi-talented Blackman brings a sense of light and fragility to the ethereal Chloe, whose presence and music brings comfort to Daphne – memories of what was and hope for what may be; and her command of the violin and this music has a hauntingly beautiful and heart-wrenching effect.

how black mothers 2
Ordena Thompson & Jewelle Blackman

Last night’s opening played to an enthusiastic, packed house full of friends, family, colleagues and fans – and featured a pre-show introduction and welcome from Anthony, who also gave a post-show introduction to the production and creative team, as well as her mother and sister, who received a marriage proposal onstage! Trey Anthony can drop the mic on this one – opening night festivities don’t get any better than that.

It’s particularly fitting and gratifying to be posting this on Mother’s Day. We’re reminded that, even though we may not always approve of or understand their choices (nor they ours), our mothers strive to do the best they can under the circumstances in order to give us our best chance. And although they may not always – if ever – put it into words, mothers show their love through their sacrifices, their actions and even their nagging. Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there.

Mothers and daughters, and love, separation and forgiveness in the funny, thoughtful and moving How Black Mothers Say I Love You.

How Black Mothers Say I Love You continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until May 15; the run is nearly sold out, so get your tix in advance.

You can also keep up with How Black Mothers Say I Love You on Facebook. Check out the trailer and also check out the longer version, which includes a look behind the scenes:

 

Assumptions, uncertainty & paranoia in powerful, eye-opening Refuge

_MG_2280-2
Pamela Mala Sinha & Andrea Davis in Refuge – photos by John Lauener

There’s a heart-wrenching and thought-provoking piece of socio-political theatre running in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace right now: Nightwood Theatre’s production of Mary Vingoe’s Refuge, directed by Kelly Thornton. The play was inspired in part by the award-winning CBC Radio documentary Habtom’s Path by Mary Lynk, as well as Vingoe’s personal experiences tutoring a woman from Ethiopia and hosting a Chinese student in her home. Refuge is presented in association with Amnesty International.

Community immigrant support group member Pamela Ross (Pamela Mala Sinha) tutors East African refugee Amleset Zerisenai (Andrea Davis) in English, and learns that Amleset’s son Ayinom, an army deserter, has been detained for arriving in the country without papers. She enlists the aid of immigration lawyer Saul Ackerman (Jason Weinberg), who eventually convinces her to take Ayinom in – much to the dismay of her husband Allan (Ryan Hollyman). With the assistance of interpreter Mebrahtu (Raïs Muoi), Ayinom gains a friend and a job. Shifting between past and present, Pamela, Saul and Mebrahtu are interviewed by a CBC interviewer (Mary Francis Moore) about Ayinom’s story.

_MG_1978
Mary Francis Moore & Raïs Muoi in Refuge

We never see Ayinom – but his presence is felt strongly throughout. We never get a full picture of this young man, perceived as mysterious in that relatively little is known about him. Without documentation, authorities and allies must rely on first- and second-hand accounts of his status and character – an uncertain situation that provokes more questions than answers, as well as paranoia in a post-911 world. Exacerbating this is Pamela and Saul’s personal and legal history with the Air India bombing disaster, where Pamela lost her grandparents. Ayinom’s anxious mother describes him as a “good boy,” but we also learn from Mebrahtu that he was an uneducated young man, drafted into the army and handed a gun, and there are conflicting accounts of his rank and activities. And Ayinom’s quiet, unassuming personality gives them pause as well: is it due to the shock of the horrors of war and the long, terrible journey to get away – or is he up to something?

_MG_2046
Pamela Mala Sinha & Jason Weinberg in Refuge

Nice work from the cast in this quiet, tension-filled piece. Stand-outs include Sinha, who brings an understated nuance to Pamela Ross’s inner conflict. Her head is at odds with her heart; and despite a reluctance to take Ayinom in, she wants to help Amleset and chooses to take a leap of faith and host him in her home – an undertaking that becomes even more challenging in the face of her husband’s growing paranoia and a complicated relationship with Saul. Weinberg’s Saul is a great combination of gruff charm and pragmatism on the outside with a warm-hearted centre that roots for the underdog. Beneath the bad jokes and sharp, realist attitude, he genuinely cares; like Pamela, Saul isn’t doing this so much for Ayinom as for someone he knows and cares about, and even though they have their doubts, they both want to believe in the good in this young man. Muoi is an informative delight as Mebrahtu; energetic, talkative and affable, he lays out the facts of the brutal situation in East Africa in a matter-of-fact, but never clinical, way. He doesn’t know Ayinom well, and they became close friends, but even he only knows what he’s been told and what he translates from Ayinom’s diary. And we get the sense that even he’s not sure what Ayinom is about.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Refuge is the physical absence of a key character. Ayinom is lacking (a word Pamela is teaching Amleset) in the action, but his presence is felt nevertheless. He is cared about, theorized about, talked about. But we never hear directly from him. We gather from others that he is a beloved son, a social cause, a refugee claimant under suspicion, a friend. He is determined, hard-working and well-liked, but quiet, solitary and uncommunicative. He has survived the bloodshed of war, travelled thousands of miles, enduring unknown and unspeakable horrors along the way. Ayinom is a young man seeking a better life, going through hell to get out of a horrific situation in his home country only to be put through a fresh kind of hell in the new country he longs to call home.

With shouts to set/costume designer Laura Gardner for the striking set design, with its cold whites and greys, footprints in the snow, and highly effective screen projections on fabric ‘walls’: the beautiful, eerie tree silhouettes and raging sea.

Assumptions, uncertainty and paranoia in the powerful, eye-opening Refuge.

Refuge continues at the Tarragon Extraspace until May 8; you can purchase advance tix online.

Check out the trailer:

 

SummerWorks: The beginnings of a beautiful ode to the North in To Live in the Age of Melting: The Idea of North 2.0

evalyn-620x500For my final SummerWorks production, I returned to Studio C of the Pia Bouman School for Creative Movement to see the closing night performance of Evalyn Parry’s To Live in the Age of Melting: The Idea of North 2.0. You can read the post about my visit to the installation here.

The table of objects and remembrances of visitors’ experiences of the North has been moved to the side of the space to accommodate chairs for an audience. The stage is set against the back wall, designed to look like a wall of ice.

Frank, the studio cat, lounges upstage right and eventually wanders about during the course of Parry’s performance. This is his space, after all, so it wasn’t much of a surprise that he inserted himself into the show.

Weaving history, songs, personal anecdotes and images of her trip to Greenland with Students on Ice, along with some visitor interview excerpts recorded during the installation’s residency at SummerWorks, Parry takes us from the Franklin expedition to the present day, winding through exploration, a brief history of the Dominion’s early and shameful relationship with the Inuit, to her own personal thoughts and experiences of the North. The performance has a kitchen party quality to it, especially when we are invited to turn our chairs around to face the map, with Parry’s soundscaping and singing continuing throughout, in a crystal clear and soothing, mantra-like celtic folk style. Parry’s father David, who was a folk singer and member of The Friends of Fiddlers Green, also features prominently in the performance – and To Live in the Age of Melting may be as much an homage to him as it is to the landscape.

History, geography, ecology, politics, art and culture merge in this moving and enlightening performance. And although the SummerWorks installation and performance is now over, this is just the beginning of Parry’s exploration. She plans to continue honing this work, and will go on to conduct a similar examination of Northern views of the South.

Evalyn Parry’s To Live in an Age of Melting: The Idea of North 2.0 is the beginnings of a beautiful ode to the North.

Keep an eye out for Evalyn Parry and To Live in an Age of Melting: The Idea of North 2.0 – and its continuing evolution and addition of Northerners’ perspectives.

Installation kitty
Frank, the Pia Bouman studio cat, lounges on Parry’s t-shirt on the exhibit table