SummerWorks: A bold, revolutionary experiment in housing & education implodes in the spirited, insightful Rochdale

Rochdale ensemble. Costumes by Tiana Kralj. 

 

GovCon and Theatre@York take us to the turbulent, rebellious times of social change and sky-high dreams in 1969 Toronto as a group of counterculture university students undertake a bold and ambitious new housing and education cooperative model in Rochdale. Written by David Yee; directed by Nina Lee Aquino, assisted by Jessie Whyte; and choreographed by Brandon Pereira, Rochdale premiered as part of Theatre@York’s 2018/19 season. We come upon an experimental campus in crisis; still under construction, and facing the serious challenges of funding, self-government, housing infrastructure, crashers and bad press. Rochdale had its second SummerWorks performance in The Theatre Centre’s Franco Boni Theatre last night.

Rumours of Rochdale GM Whitman’s (Leanne Hoffman) death have been greatly exaggerated; and when she returns after a two-month absence, she finds her office in shambles, the place in chaos and her boyfriend Dennis (Dean Bessey) replacing her as GM—plus, her best friend Cryer (Adrienne Ross Ramsingh) didn’t go to her funeral! Dennis and fellow Governing Council (Gov Con) colleagues Suzy (Margarita Valderrama) and Kitten (Julia DeMola) are at a loss as to how to deal with plumbing and electric issues, mounting bills, AWOL contractors, crashers and a dodgy elevator that needs to be sweet talked to work. And reluctant student security and safety officer Gerry (Tomasz Pereira Nunes) doesn’t seem particularly suited to or interested in his job.

Student resident Athena’s (Claudia Hamilton) has a theft to report; she eschews locking her room because they’re supposed to be a cooperative community. Shabby (Carina Salajan) is now the resident nurse after they lost their previous medic. Resident stoner Skye (Sabrina Marangoni) is trying to be helpful, but can’t remember what she needs to tell Whitman. And an Asian student dubbed Mao (Nelvin Law) doesn’t speak English—or does he? Rounding out the situation are slick “suit-minded” UofT student liaison Emmett (Ori Black), who becomes friendly with free love hippie girl Flower (Sophia Gaspar); drug dealer Fitch (Brandon Pereira, multitasking with several roles); and newcomer American Friar (Dustin Hickey).

Amidst preparations for a Vietnam War protest and a rooftop viewing of the moon walk, rebellion brews within. Rochdale’s system of self-government is based on the very model they’ve been howling against—and the Gov Con folks are now viewed as “the man”—placing the administrative/organizational body in jeopardy as discussions of war, classism, capitalism and civil rights turn to a debate on governance models. Viewed from the outside as hippie troublemakers, Rochdale’s public funding is in a precarious position as it finds itself continually defending itself against news stories of drug dealing, motorcycle gangs and overdoses on campus. While striving to live outside of the mainstream, they must still rely on mainstream institutions (government and university) for support—a challenging position, to be sure—and all the bad press isn’t helping their cause. Overwhelmed by the demands of administration, and bogged down by disorganization, this revolutionary experiment eventually implodes.

Joyful and spirited, Rochdale thrums with the hope, energy and struggle of a time of great social and technological change; and this story of experimentation, struggle and heartbreaking frustration is told with humour, insight and authenticity. Great work all around from this ensemble of 2019 York University Theatre grads on this look at Toronto’s counterculture in the late 60s, 50 years later. Stand-outs include Hoffman’s brilliant, poetic and beleaguered Whitman; Hamilton’s fierce Black Panther warrior Athena; Law’s enigmatic, passionate Mao; Marangoni’s loveable stoner Skye; and Ross Ramsingh’s intense, introspective Cryer. And the multitasking actor/choreographer Pereira does an impressive juggling act, going from comic (the silent, hungover Naked Man and the accidental Hare Krishna Harry ), to menacing as the drug dealer Fitch, to savvy revolutionary (Boris) and beacon of hope (Astronaut).

With big shouts to the design team for their evocative work on creating this time, space and vibe: Mona Farahmand (set), Ella Wieckowski (lighting), Tiana Kralj (costume) and Johnathon North (sound).

Rochdale has three more performances in the Franco Boni Theatre at the Theatre Centre, closing on August 18; check the show page for exact dates/times. Tickets available online or in person at the box office; it was a packed house last night, so advance booking strongly recommended. For more info on the production and its process, visit the Rochdale 2019 website.

Also, as part of SummerWorks Exchange Day 2, Rochdale will be hosting  MOVING PUBLICS—An In Transit Conversation on August 12; the bus will depart from The Theatre Centre at 3:00 p.m. and participants are asked to do some preparatory reading and RSVP in advance when booking their Exchange Day Pass.

 

 

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Preview: Survival, resilience & resistance in the powerful, raw, timely Four Sisters

Bea Pizano & Company. Production design by Kaitlin Hickey in collaboration with Susanna Fournier. Wardrobe and props design by Patrick Peachey Higdon. Video design by Steph Raposo. Photo by Bernie Fournier.

 

Four Sisters is the final installment of Susanna Fournier’s Empire trilogy; produced by Paradigm Productions and commissioned by Luminato, and running this week at the Theatre Centre. Directed by Fournier and choreographed by Amanda Acorn, this powerful, raw and timely tale takes us to the Empire 259 years after the events of The Scavenger’s Daughter; into a world of plague and social cast-offs, where a 279-year old former madam raises the orphaned children of women who worked for her. A doctor arrives, promising to help as she works to come up with an inexpensive cure for marginalized, low-income populations; and she needs to experiment on the children.

We are in the Skirts, an outlying neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city where society’s marginalized and cast-off people dwell—the poor, mostly women and sex workers. And because this is the Empire, this is a world where only those with money, power and connections can afford to survive and thrive in the toxic, disease-ridden mess left behind after centuries of greed, violence, war and cut-throat capitalism. Former madam Sarah (Bea Pizano) has managed to cheat Death and now finds herself being mother to Abby (Chala Hunter, Krystina Bojanowski, Yolanda Bonnell), Beah (Aria Evans, Ximena Huizi, Jennifer Dahl), Cassie (Claudia Moore) and Dee (Virgilia Griffith)—children of women who worked for her, who all died of plague. When a Doctor (Krystina Bojanowski, Yolanda Bonnell), driven by the desire to find an inexpensive cure that can be used on the low-income population, arrives from the city with the promise of medical help, Sarah must decide if she’s willing to let her girls be Guinea pigs or die of plague.

The story plays out both within and without time and space—on a bare stage, sculpted with light and punctuated with video on a solitary TV screen (designed by Steph Raposo), the chilling atmosphere hauntingly complemented by Christopher Ross-Ewart’s sound design. Time folds and bends in on itself, with the multiple casting for Abby and Beah allowing for both younger and inner selves to speak to these characters, with shades of things to come for an older Beah. And the ongoing role swapping between the actors playing Abby and the Doctor (Bojanowski and Bonnell) shines a light on the choices health care practitioners have when it comes to their practice: to play a role in the male-dominated arenas of capitalism and Big Pharma, promising low-cost health benefits at unknown personal and societal cost, or working on the front lines of health care among those who society has discarded.

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Krystina Bojanowski & Company. Production design by Kaitlin Hickey in collaboration with Susanna Fournier. Wardrobe and props design by Patrick Peachey Higdon. Video design by Steph Raposo. Photo by Bernie Fournier.

Compelling work from this remarkable cast, as the staging incorporates movement, video and voice-over to tell a story that, like the earlier parts of this trilogy, is both visceral and cerebral, past and present, present and future. Pizano nicely balances Sarah’s wry-witted madam pragmatism with the tender-hearted, concern of a good mother. Bojanowski and Bonnell mine the Doctor’s clinical detachment and sense of social responsibility to great effect. Are the Doctor’s later efforts a move toward redemption—or too little, too late?

The four girls grow before our eyes, from children playing in Sarah’s kitchen into conflicted adults struggling to choose a path in a world where paths are being cut off and replaced with walls—literally and figuratively. Hunter, Bojanowski and Bonnell bring sharp focus and inner conflict to Abby, who becomes an apprentice to the Doctor even as she longs to be a mother—and in the painful light of her new-found medical knowledge and expertise. Evans, Huizi and Dahl are loveable and heartbreaking as the energetic, resilient Beah; the dancer sister who longs to study at the academy—her exhausted, battered feet continuing to create despite the unexpected turns her life takes. Griffith brings both profound vulnerability and power to the deeply wounded, angry Dee; self-medicating in an effort to deal with troubling visions, Dee becomes an addict and an outcast among her own marginalized family, setting her on the path toward a surprising evolution. And Moore’s Cassie is adorable and wise; ever a child, Cassie sees and responds to unfolding events with innocent honesty.

Operating both in and out of time and space, we witness what the Empire has come to following centuries of war and social disintegration—leaving us wondering what, if anything, will rise from the ashes. (During intermission, you can view artifacts in the National Museum of the Empire installation in the upper lobby, outside the theatre.) In the end, through pain, grief and loss, there is resilience and resistance. It is apocalypse with a glimmer of hope. And all with the recognition—both disturbing and reassuring—of our own time and place.

Four Sisters continues in the Franco Boni Theatre space at the Theatre Centre until June 16. Post-show talk backs with the artists are scheduled to follow the 8 pm performance on Fri, June 14 (hosted by Ted Witzel); and the 2 pm performance on Sat, June 15 (hosted by Maria Vamvalis). Advance tickets available online; it was a full house at last night’s final preview performance, so advance booking or early arrival is strongly recommended.

If you’re like me and missed the first two installments of the Empire trilogy, or want a refresh before seeing Four Sisters, you can catch up and listen to the podcasts of The Philosopher’s Wife and The Scavenger’s Daughter on The Empire website, co-produced with Expect Theatre’s PlayMe Podcast.