Real-life ghost stories come out of the dark in the compelling, entertaining, thoughtful The Ghost Project

Karie Richards. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana.

 

Playwright/performer/producer Karie Richards opened the Toronto premiere of her documentary solo show The Ghost Project to a sold-out house in the BMO Incubator at The Theatre Centre last night. Originally directed by Jeff Culbert, The Ghost Project was a hit at the Fringe circuit, premiering at the Halifax Fringe 2018, and went on to the London Fringe and Winnipeg Fringe in 2019. Distilling 13 stories from 28 interviews with friends and family, Richards weaves a series of monologues, all told in the first person, from the storyteller’s point of view—capturing the gamut of emotional and rational responses; and exploring the thoughts, feelings and questions about what happens to us after we die. The result is a compelling, entertaining and thoughtful piece of verbatim storytelling.

Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever encountered one? While Karie Richards isn’t sure what she thinks, she believes the stories told to her by friends and family—personal experiences with spiritual manifestations that defy explanation and everyday frame of reference; and that ultimately make us question the nature of the afterlife. Each real-life character reveals their story, be it from their university days, childhood or adulthood, or even an experience their child had while they were present. People reacting and responding in the moment; and, in some cases, wondering aloud what it all means. Are these the actual souls or spirits of the departed, or the energy traces they left behind? Or are these encounters a chance look through a thin veil of everyday reality, providing a glimpse of another time or plane of existence while the one experiencing it remains rooted in their own?

Encounters with, and messages from, deceased loved ones; former homeowners looking in on new residents/guests; and unexplained events at a haunted theatre space (Alumnae Theatre folk and fans will be familiar) all come into play—with manifestations ranging from malevolent to friendly, frightening to calming, everyday to ethereal. Experiences of shadowy figures blacker than the darkness, a floating blue girl, a surprising encounter during an Indigenous ceremony, the comfort of a nurturing parental energy, and the high-spirited insistence of a youthful presence that evoked profound responses for the storyteller emerge in Richards’ performance. Navigating myriad emotions, from paralyzing fear, to grief and loss, confusion, relief and joy, each character is vulnerable, curious, wonder-struck and thoughtful. Do these spirits want to be noticed and acknowledged? Are they relieving boredom with their spooky shenanigans? Do they have something to tell us?

Deftly shifting from character to character—signified by the collection and return of a single costume piece or prop from a wardrobe, and remarkable adjustments to voice, facial expression and posture—with a gentle calmness and the care of ceremony, Richards conjures up each storyteller for us, presenting with nuance and profound sensitivity the experiences, reactions and thoughts of each. And her carefully, finely-drawn embodiment of each storyteller makes for a compelling and entertaining performance that goes beyond the storytelling itself. In many cases, it’s the first time the storyteller has revealed their experience to anyone—requiring a high level of trust in, and comfort with, Richards during the interview process that preceded the creation of the piece. The results are eerie, funny, deeply moving and thought-provoking.

Richards’ performance is nicely supported by Glenn Davidson’s minimalist, effective production design, as well as John Sheard’s haunting composition, and atmospheric sound effects supplied by Peter Thillaye and Steve Munro.

Whatever you believe, The Ghost Project engages as much as it challenges the audience to open up and reach out into the unknown—and entertain the suggestion that death is not the end of our journey, but the beginning of a new one. If you have the opportunity, stick around for the post-show talkback, where audience members are invited to ask questions and share their own ghost stories.

The Ghost Project continues in the Incubator space at the Theatre Centre until January 26, with evening performances at 7:00 p.m., and matinées on Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are available online, in person at the box office, or by calling 416-538-0988. It’s a very short run and seating is limited, so advance booking or early arrival is strongly recommended; please note the 7:00 p.m. curtain time for evening performances.

 

 

Self-discovery & reconnecting with the land in the delightful, magical, thought-provoking There is No Word for Wilderness

Shaquille Pottinger, Lisa Hamalainen, Jack Comerford, Joe Recinos & Morgan Johnson. Costume design by Beatriz Arevalo. Mask design by Alexandra Simpson. Puppet design by Patricia Mader. Dress rehearsal photo by Producer Rebecca Ballarin.

 

Animacy Theatre Collective and Arts in the Parks present Lisa Hamalainen’s interdisciplinary, land-based theatrical nature walk There is No Word for Wilderness, directed by Alexandra Simpson and running at Earl Bales Park (4169 Bathurst St.), Picnic Area #5. Mask, puppetry and music combine in this delightful, magical and thought-provoking journey of self-discovery, inner healing and wisdom gained as a young woman ventures into the forest. With the help of some unexpected guides, she reconnects with the land and finds her true heart. The inclusive and informative post-performance Anishinaabe ceremony and teaching, facilitated by Shelba Deer, adds context and depth of understanding of the piece.

When a Young Woman (Lisa Hamalainen) finds herself stranded on a rural highway, she finds an unlikely guide in a talking Hare (Shaquille Pottinger, puppet designed by Patricia Mader)! As they make their way through the forest, they encounter other animal guides along the way—a wise Owl (Joe Recinos), a sly Fox (Morgan Johnson) and a drowsy Fish (Jack Comerford)—and a walk in the woods becomes a journey of self-discovery, inner healing, and reconnection with the land, air and water.

We are led from scene to scene by stage manager Zoë Ruth Fairless (who also plays the ukulele) and accompanied by composer Anders Azzopardi on trombone, making our way in a counter-clockwise direction on a circular path as we follow the Young Woman on her journey. As you walk between scenes, you become aware of the sights, sounds and smells of the forest: the crunch of the gravel path beneath your feet, the aroma of leaves and wood, the brilliance of green trees against a blue sky—and, later, crickets chirping as the light wanes and darkness falls upon the campfire circle.

Pottinger is a delight as Hare—our jovial guide and narrator—who is ready for his close-up; his reactions to unknown human trappings like cellphones and reception are a reminder that our machines are not as vital to our lives as we think they are; and are kind of silly, when you think about it. There’s more than meets the eye to Hamalainen’s fastidious, driven, professional Young Woman. While she’s caught in the rat race of a job she despises, she’s no soulless cog in the corporate machine; her compassion and love of nature make her open to this journey and the self-awareness and wisdom it brings.

Recinos brings a graceful majesty to the wise, enigmatic Owl; his words of wisdom are like a puzzle for the Young Woman to solve. There is no word for wilderness in his language—for him, home is wherever you are, where your heart is. Johnson combines woodland animal cuteness with an edgy trickster vibe as Fox. Don’t let her adorable appearance fool you; she’s a savvy, sly one—and sees more than just a fellow creature of the forest when she looks at Hare. Comerford does double duty, with two sharply drawn contrasting characters: Young Man, the Young Woman’s self-absorbed, hyper-ambitious jerk of a co-worker; and the joyful, curious and cheeky Fish. Magically able to move about on land for a time, Fish reminds us that our discarded plastic bottles, bags and trash create horrific, dangerous conditions for the creatures of the water, not to mention the water itself.

Hare
Hare (manipulated and characterized by Shaquille Pottinger). Puppet design by Patricia Mader. Dress rehearsal photo by Producer Rebecca Ballarin.

The performance is both complimented and highlighted by the beautiful, imaginative puppet (Patricia Mader), mask (Alexandra Simpson) and costume (Beatriz Arevalo) designs—utilizing fabric, wood and recycled items. Azzopardi’s composition incorporates vocal and instrumental music to great effect; and we’re even invited to join in.

Following each performance, the audience is invited to stay seated around a campfire (back at the starting point) for Anishinaabe ceremony and teaching with Shelba Deer. Relating traditional beliefs, and spiritual and healing practices, Deer’s teaching offers a deeper understanding and context for the performance we’ve just witnessed; sharing the wisdom that—Indigenous or settler—we are all human beings walking this Earth, partaking of Mother Earth’s bounty. And each of us has a spirit and a heart—the awareness and acknowledgement of which will help us discover our true paths.

Like the lanterns we carry throughout this journey, we are all small points of light energy on the Earth. And even if you live in the city, standing on concrete, you’re still standing on the Earth—living, breathing, drinking and eating on this planet. We are not separate from the land; we are a part of it. So we’d better take good care.

There is No Word for Wilderness continues in Earl Bales Park on September 19-21, 24-26 and 28 at 6:00 p.m., with rain dates on Sept 22 and 29; admission is free. There will be an ASL interpreter present for Shelba Deer’s post-performance ceremony and teaching on Sept 26. Check out Animacy’s Facebook event for more info.

Directions: Earl Bales Park, Picnic Area #5. For travel directions (by car or TTC), scroll down on the show’s web page. Look out for the flagpole with the Canadian flag at the end—there will be Arts in the Parks canopy and banners to mark the spot.

All performances are relaxed performances (for more info on accessibility, relaxed performances and the ASL interpretation, scroll down on the show’s web page). Come dressed for cooler evening September temperatures and wear comfy walking shoes. Bug spray is also a good idea, especially along the forest trail; if you forget, show staff and volunteers have some to share.

The bittersweet rhythms of life in the wistful, nostalgic, entertaining Dancing at Lughnasa

Opening its 2018-19 season at Alumnae Theatre last night, the Toronto Irish Players take us to 1936 Donegal, and the rural home of the Mundy family as they struggle with life, love and changing times, in their wistful, nostalgic and entertaining production of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, directed by David Eden.

A bittersweet memory play, we’re hosted by narrator Michael (Enda Reilly), who was raised by his single mother, spirited, irreverent Christina (Lauren McGinty) and her four sisters. Their parents dead, the eldest resident sibling and local school teacher, the prim and proper Kate (Erin Jones) is the de facto matriarch; family clown Maggie (Rebecca De La Cour) looks after the small family farm; and the quiet Agnes (Donna O’Regan) and simple-minded Rose (Áine Donnelly) earn money by knitting gloves.

The return of their brother Father Jack (Ian McGarrett), sent home from his mission in Uganda by his superiors, both causes and coincides with significant changes in their lives and position in their home village of Ballybeg—especially lending truth to the rumour that Jack was dismissed for “going native” and adapting, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, a too familiar and accepting attitude of local custom and ritual. Industrialization is catching up with rural Ireland, and factory-made goods are putting handwork at risk. Ongoing, if not sporadic, visits from Michael’s father Gerry (Sean Gilheany), a Welsh wanderer turned gramophone salesman, give the family—especially Christina and Michael—rare and welcome glimpses of the possibility of hope for something better; and a brief respite from the dullness of their workaday lives and the stresses of making ends meet during the Depression.

The family’s individual and collective history is both merry and melancholy; and lives are forever changed by forces largely beyond their control. And while Michael acknowledges the hard times of struggle, sacrifice and loss, he takes heart from the good times the family shared together—the love, laughter and dancing around the Marconi wireless. The rhythms of life, love and changing times.

Lovely work from the cast in creating this intimate family story. Reilly’s Michael makes for an affable and animated host; and he’s especially adept at conjuring the wide-eyed, precocious and imaginative child Michael. De La Cour is a treat as the feisty jokester Maggie; using humour to cheer and diffuse tension, her glass-half-full perspective is also crucial to her own survival. O’Regan and Donnelly have a beautiful rapport as the BFF sisters, the unassuming, protective Agnes and the child-like, naive Rose, who both come to show there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to notions of romance. McGinty gives a well-rounded performance as the conflicted young mother Christina; the family beauty, and raising the love child of a man she hardly ever sees, Christina’s youth has been interrupted by the more pragmatic concerns of a single mother—and in a time and place that frowned upon women like her. In classic Irish matriarch fashion, Jones’s Kate says as much with a look or gesture as she does with a word; having missed on romance herself, Kate’s stern disposition also a masks a broken heart.

McGarrett gives a poignant performance as the sisters’ brother Father Jack; once the golden boy of the family and the village, Jack has returned, frail and barely recognizable, and hardly knowing his own hometown. And Gilheany gives a charming turn as Gerry; a man of the road who loves to love, Gerry means well, but has trouble with the follow-up.

With shouts to the design team for their evocative work in transporting us to this nostalgic Depression-era world of memory and family in rural Donegal, Ireland: Chandos Ross (set), Livia Pravato (costumes), Karlos Griffith (lighting) and Dan Schaumann (sound).

Dancing at Lughnasa continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until November 3; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888. Keep up with The Irish Players on Facebook and Twitter.