Literary family snapshots told with unflinching candor & wry humour in Pamela Williams’ Evelyn’s Stories

Cover photo of Evelyn by Pamela Williams.

 

I had the pleasure of attending the launch of Pamela Williams’ new book Evelyn’s Stories at a reading to a packed room on Sunday at the Tranzac Club. Known mostly for her beautiful, haunting black and white photographs of cemetery sculpture, Williams has assembled a collection of brief stories, as told to her by her mother Evelyn—and some handed down to Evelyn by her mother—in a series of short vignettes. Evelyn’s Stories are literary snapshots of family across time and space, ranging from 1900s Glasgow, to 1930s Thornbury and into the 1970s and beyond.

Told with unflinching candor, sharp detail and wry humour, Evelyn’s Stories is a window on moments of personal history and experience; inviting us for brief peeks (the stories are postcard-sized or slightly longer) inside the world of Williams’ family, as told to her by her mother, and to her mother by her grandmother.

20191027_141223
Pamela Williams reads at the launch of Evelyn’s Stories

It’s family biography as comedy and drama, with eyebrow-raising tales of marriage and infidelity (“When Hector Married Stella” and “Keep Toby Out, England, 1907”); charming and funny childhood shenanigans and observations (“Bathtub Visitor” and “Divorce”); memories of brutal and sweet elementary school teachers (“Mrs. Pinch” and “Miss Chalk’s Replacement”); tragic loss (“New Spectacles, Glasgow, 1906”); hilarious social interactions (“That’s Why I Asked You” and “At the Cinema”); and harrowing but comical senior driving mishaps (“Two Motorcycles” and “A Ride on the Wild Side”).

As the family tales shift from poignant, to comic, to tragic, to saucy, Evelyn’s Stories captures the heart, lives, loves and experiences of generations of family who crossed the ocean from Glasgow, Scotland to settle in rural/small-town Ontario, Canada.

Check out Williams’ book collection online, including her photography books; order via email.

 

 

Toronto Fringe: Joy, sadness & an unexpected friendship in the playful, imaginative, touching Beneath the Bed

In bed: Erin Humphry. Clockwise, from bottom left: Lindsay Wu, Elizabeth Staples, John Wamsley & Keaton Kwok. Photo by Bryn Kennedy.

 

Theatre Born Between takes us to a world of childhood and the creatures that live under our beds in the playful, touching Beneath the Bed, a tale of loss and trauma—and an unexpected friendship. Written by Gabriel Golin and directed by Bryn Kennedy, with music composition by Lucas Penner, music, puppetry, dress-up and everyday objects imaginatively employed combine to tell a story of joy, sadness and back again. It’s story time for all ages, running at the Scadding Court Community Centre, Room 4.

When a Child (Erin Humphry) loses her Mom (Elizabeth Staples), her room becomes her refuge as she searches for her mother in the stars out her window, her mother’s haunting lullaby never forgotten. One night, a Monster (Graham Conway) appears from under her bed. Annoyed that the Child’s tears and sadness make her unfit to eat, he attempts to make her happy; and while his efforts may initially be for selfish reasons, a bond grows between them—and he becomes her protector from the real monster in the house.

Years later, the Monster appears in a new bedroom to find a new Child (Lindsay Wu); his friend has grown up and become a mother herself. This new Child has an outgoing personality and a vivid imagination, and loves playing games of make-believe—becoming a pirate on the high seas or an astronaut exploring the stars and battling space aliens. And although the Monster doesn’t understand her games, he plays along—even though his friend, now a mother, doesn’t want him speaking to her child. Feeling that her mom is keeping her too close, the Child runs away. Despite his fear of leaving the bedroom, and the great danger posed by daylight, the Monster ventures out to find her.

Lovely work from the cast in this beautiful, moving and delightful journey. Humphry’s Child has wisdom beyond her years; pensive and observant, she finds strength and resilience despite her grief and isolation. But the trauma of her childhood makes her a fearful adult, and nurturing turns to smothering as she desperately tries to protect her child from the world. Conway is a treat as the Monster; all gruff and growl at first, he’s a softie underneath—his initial malice melting as he turns from predator to protector. Wu is adorably fierce as the second Child; forced to live largely in her imagination, she struggles for independence and growth.

Rounding out the cast are the spritely Whispers—Keaton Kwok and John Wamsley (also Staples and Wu)—who create the sights, sounds and physical environment as the story unfolds. Everyday objects become monsters, sunsets, constellations, the headlights of a car; and, from the booth, stage manager Caitlin Brenneman creates sound effects with a toy xylophone and everyday things.

A good reminder—for children of all ages—that endings aren’t always entirely happy, but we can hope that things will be better tomorrow and feel gratitude for those moments of joy and the friends who help us get there.

Beneath the Bed continues in the Scadding Court Community Centre, Room 4 with one more performance today (July 14) at 2:00; tickets available at the door only today. Seating is limited, so you may want to arrive early.

Toronto Fringe: Reaching back & out to overcome loneliness in the entertaining, heart-wrenching The Big House

Tracey Erin Smith. Set and lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

There’s nothing like a family dinner to bring out the best and the worst in us; and maybe even an insight or two on the nature of loneliness. SOULO Theatre founder/A.D. Tracey Erin Smith takes us on her deepest, most personal storytelling journey yet in the entertaining, heart-wrenching The Big House, directed by and co-created with Sarah Garton Stanley; running in the Factory Theatre Mainspace.

Set during a Passover Seder, Smith has invited her family to her small apartment as she  seeks a way to overcome loneliness during the holiday. A fraught family history and long-held resentments burst out around the dinner table. And then, branching out from this gathering, memories from childhood and the recent past: her father’s incarceration when she was seven, and a unique volunteer experience at California’s Kern Valley maximum security men’s prison in 2018, where she provided feedback on inmates’ ideas for starting up their own business after they get out. Beyond being a common colloquialism for jail, “big house” is also the large Forest Hill home her mother was forced to downsize from with two small children after Smith’s father went to jail. Forced confinement and forced exodus—both huge, life-changing events.

Believing that everyone has a story to tell and making a safe space for that to happen, Smith walks the talk as she dives deep into the messy, wonderful place that is the human soul to discover what hidden gems of wisdom she may find there. Smart, funny and insightful as she shifts from character to character, her performance is vulnerable, edgy and full of chutzpah—delivered with heart, charisma and even a song or two as she takes us along to witness these unfolding moments along the road to realization and release. A gentle storyteller even at the roughest of times, Smith takes us by the hand even as she takes her seven-year-old self by the hand.

While it’s possible to find contentment in being alone, there’s also the hesitant outreach of loneliness in a crowd. We need to be able to tell the difference. And common ground and genuine connection—as well as love and forgiveness—can be found in unexpected places. We just need to be brave enough to go there.

The Big House continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until July 14; check out the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets. Advance booking strongly recommended; Smith is a popular performer—and the house was packed at last night’s opening.

In the meantime, give a listen to this Classical FM 96.3 interview with Smith on Oasis, hosted by Mark Wigmore.

Ancestors calling on a hero’s journey through fear to true self in the engaging, powerful 11:11

Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Set design by d’bi.young anitafrika. Costume design by Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Brett Haynes.

 

A.V.O. Collective brings the world premiere of its engaging, powerful production of 11:11, presented as part of Why Not Theatre’s RISER Project 2019, to the Theatre Centre’s Incubator stage. Written/performed by trans-identified artist Samson Bonkeabantu Brown and dramaturged/directed by d’bi.young anitafrika, 11:11 is a bio-mythical monodrama journey, stretching across time, space, and the realms of life and afterlife, as our hero connects with his Portuguese and South African ancestors, and moves through fear to become the man he was meant to be.

In a one-person show that encompasses both broad and immediate personal history, Brown draws out his tale as he gradually constructs a pattern on the floor with white stones. Incorporating storytelling, history, movement, ritual, language and music, he shape shifts in and out of a cast of characters that include the precocious, curious seven-year-old girl he once was and the joyful, prophesying, matter-of-fact South African ancestor he’s about to meet.

Becoming a bridge between past and present, female and male, he connects with the spirit world through dreams and visions—and gradually the messages become clear as the little girl who experiences strange dreams and headaches, and is shunned in the schoolyard, grows up and comes to learn that there’s nothing medically wrong with her. She is a receiver, a prophecy made flesh, a shape shifter.

In a world where white men divided up a continent they claimed as their own, and forced their alphabet onto environment-based African dialects—and, later, Western medicine onto African descendants—how does our hero reconcile his connections to both the colonized and the colonizer? And, through the pain of the struggle for true identity, and the ancestral pain of apartheid and displacement, he comes to realize the complex—and even contradictory—aspects of identity and experience that have combined to create him.

1111 by Samson Bonkeabantu Brown (featuring Samson Bonkeabantu Brown) photo by Brett Haynes #2
Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Set design by d’bi.young anitafrika. Costume design by Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Brett Haynes.

Brown, who recently wrote for/performed in the RARE Theatre/Soulpepper production Welcome to my Underworld, is a compelling and entertaining storyteller. Engaging, bold, unashamed and vulnerable, he invites us along on his journey—part autobiography, part personal mythology, part history lesson, part supernatural revelation—as he connects with his roots and finds his true rhythm. From the child-like playfulness of a little girl to the wry-witted wisdom of an elder, the fear, confusion, joy and humour Brown expresses throughout resonate in a deeply profound, intimate way. And I know I wasn’t the only one in tears at the end.

11:11 continues in the Incubator at the Theatre Centre until June 1, with performances on:

Tuesday, May 28 – 6:00PM
Wednesday, May 29 – 9:00PM
Thursday, May 30 – 6:00PM
Friday, May 31 – 9:00PM
Saturday, June 1 – 6:00PM

Tickets available online, in person at the box office, or by calling 416-538-0988.

A journey into the light & dark of self-discovery in the bittersweet, courageous Welcome to my Underworld

Clockwise, from top left: Grace Thompson, Nikoletta Erdelyi, Carolyn Hetherington, Samson Brown, Radha S. Menon, Maddie Bautista & Bilal Baig. Set design by Brett Haynes. Lighting design by Sharmylae Taffe-Fletcher. Photo by Sophia Thompson-Campbell.

 

RARE Theatre Company, in partnership with Soulpepper, presents the world premiere of Welcome to my Underworldwritten by Bilal Baig, Maddie Bautista, Samson Brown, Simone Dalton, Nikoletta Erdelyi, Carolyn Hetherington, Radha S. Menon, Ellen Ringler and Grace Thompson, on stage at the Young Centre. Dramaturged/directed by RARE’s AD Judith Thompson, choreographed by Monica Dottor, and featuring original composition/live accompaniment by Olivia Shortt, a 10-year-old girl’s search for her truest self weaves nine individual stories into one as we follow her into the world of the shadow self.

Anchored by 10-year-old Willow (Grace Thompson), who struggles with her own sense of self, Welcome to my Underworld is part fairy tale, part hero’s journey, part autobiography as each performer presents their own story; a place where light and dark meet, and where spirits are tested and tempered. Possessing of a sharp, curious mind and keenly interested in how others navigate the world, Willow and her imaginary friend Mara invite the other characters in to share their stories.

There are the infuriating stories of a pre-transitioned trans man being confronted in a woman’s washroom, and a Trinidadian lesbian’s connection with an HIV+ gay father figure-told with humour, tenderness and heartbreak by Brown. The harrowing experiences of the elderly surviving a terrifying adverse reaction, apparently common among seniors, to a post-op medication (a feisty, fighter Harrington); and the feelings of family betrayal and confusion as an Indian woman is driven alongside a truck full of cattle to her new home at an assisted living facility (a spirited, poignant performance from Menon). Navigating prejudice regarding competence and attractiveness based on Roma (“gypsy”) ethnicity and physical ability (the candid, suffers no fools Erdelyi, performing from a wheelchair). Childhood innocence and trust lost during a time of burgeoning sexuality (a delightful, heart-wrenching performance from Bautista, a bi, Saudi Arabia-born Filipina).

There are the social castaways dealing with addiction and mental illness (fierce and lyrical performances from Menon and Baig); observed by Willow while in the psych ward. And queer, genderqueer Baig’s sassy, poignant secret party girl persona, fleeing their home and fearing attack from both parents and strangers, shares a narrow escape that hearkens back to the recent tragedy of missing and murdered gay men in the Village. Humourous, heart-breaking and eye-opening, each shares a broad range of lived experience from their own unique perspective—calling upon us to examine who we’ve ignored, shoved aside or disrespected. Who will love or miss the disenfranchised, the social pariahs, those living on the fringes?

Shortt’s live onstage music and pre-show mix blends sound effect with soundtrack, tailored perfectly to each story; and Dottor’s choreography is playful, balletic and emotive as it visually weaves one tale into another. Haynes’s set deftly combines black/white, dark/light; the central image a tree of life, its branches reaching for the sky as its roots dig into the earth.

Playful, poetic and funny—at times harrowing, infuriating and heart-breaking, the storytelling is raw, candid and impossible to ignore. These are stories from those whose voices are seldom heard, let alone given space to speak their truth. While Welcome to my Underworld promises no happy endings, it does bring a sense of hope and resilience. We all need to be seen, be heard, be loved and respected. We all need to feel safe to be ourselves. And we need more theatre like this.

Welcome to my Underworld continues at the Young Centre in the Tankhouse Theatre until May 25; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

ICYMI: Check out Phil Rickaby’s interview with dramaturg/director Judith Thompson on Stageworthy Podcast.

 

A family confronted with its own #MeToo secret in the complex, honest Lies and Consequences

You can’t change the past, but you can share it.

Rare Day Projects presents Carol Libman’s Lies and Consequences, directed by Jeanette Dagger and running this week only at Red Sandcastle Theatre. With the genesis of the play occurring well before the emergence of the #MeToo movement, playwright Libman was inspired to return to it and complete the script—and tell this story.

Lauded popular author Martha (Tara Baxendale) is under pressure to complete her next novel, inspired by Catherine the Great, as she juggles the scheduling nightmare that is her professional and personal life. Struggling with writer’s block, but looking forward to catching up with her sister Cathy (Martha Breen) at an upcoming weekend of celebration around her cousin/BFF Peter’s (Ryan Bannon) science award ceremony, she’s suddenly thrown back into the past when a drunken make-out session with her journalist boyfriend Andre (Derek Perks) goes from clumsily enthusiastic to overly aggressive, triggering the memory of a childhood incident of sexual assault.

Confiding in Cathy, Martha shares how their uncle John (Christopher Kelk)—Peter’s father and their deceased father’s brother—attempted to sexually assault her while they were alone at her home, retrieving chairs for a family picnic; she was 10 years old at the time. Peter’s wife Karen (Clara Matheson) has invited the whole family to a dinner in Peter’s honour—but Martha finds herself unable to attend, as she wishes to avoid all contact with John. She also doesn’t want to spoil Peter’s weekend by telling him what happened with John. Still wanting to see her cousin, she drops by his hotel room to congratulate him and decline the dinner invitation—where she bumps into John.

A confrontation between Martha and John in the hotel hallway grabs the attention of Karen and Peter, who invite them back into their room to learn what is amiss; they are soon joined by Cathy. Revelations, denial and gaslighting ensue, as the family divides into those who believe Martha and those who believe John’s version of the story—that Martha’s assertions are the result of childish misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

Lovely work from the cast on this timely, sensitive topic—covering the gamut of responses to a family incident of assault on a child. Baxendale does a nice job balancing Martha’s sharply intelligent and tightly wound adult side with the haunted, fearful child within. The past keeps rearing its ugly head, and Martha must find the courage to confront it if she’s going to have any peace. Kelk’s performance as John deftly combines the likeable with the deplorable; the supportive and trusted favourite uncle accused of having dark, secret desires—which John vehemently denies, spins and gaslights his way around. Classic victim-blaming and shaming, as the perpetrator makes himself out to be the wronged party as the survivor struggles with self-doubt and self-blame.

As Cathy, Breen brings a bubbly, positive, supportive light to the dark fog of Martha’s situation; open-minded, open-hearted and listening, Cathy is sharply contrasted by Matheson’s prim, controlling Karen—who seems to care more about avoiding disruption to her perfectly orchestrated celebration plans for Peter’s award. Bannon is adorakable as the brilliant but disorganized Peter, giving the performance an affable, absent-minded professor flavour. And Perks is both devilishly charming and sweetly supportive as Martha’s boyfriend Andre; not as woke as he might think, Andre’s willing to listen, learn and change his behaviour.

The ripples of sexual assault are far-reaching, impacting the survivor’s perceptions of time, space and intimacy—and, in this case, family dynamics. Internalized shame, self-blame, and the fear of not being believed or heard have silenced Martha, leaving her haunted and second-guessing herself. And it isn’t until she’s able to share her experience with Andre, who realizes he was in the wrong that drunken date night, that she’s able to fully communicate what was behind her reaction to his advances—and ultimately move on from the past.

Lies and Consequences continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre until May 5, with evening performances at 8 pm May 2-4; and matinées at 2 pm on May 4 and 5. Tickets ($25 general; $20 for students/seniors/arts workers) are available at the door (cash only), online or by calling 1-800-838-3006.

 

Nostalgia meets the ghosts of memory in the funny, poignant, authentically human New Magic Valley Fun Town

Caroline Gillis, Andrew Moodie, Daniel MacIvor & Stephanie MacDonald. Set design by Brian Perchaluk. Costume design by Brenda McLean. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Prairie Theatre Exchange and Tarragon Theatre join forces to present the Toronto premiere of Daniel MacIvor’s New Magic Valley Fun Town, directed by Richard Rose, assisted by Audrey Dwyer; opening last night in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace. Equal parts funny and poignant, it’s an authentically human story of nostalgia and ghosts of the past as the kitchen party reunion between two childhood friends reveals some unwelcome memories.

In small-town Nova Scotia, cancer survivor Dougie (Daniel MacIvor) lives in a spotless double-wide trailer, separated from his wife Cheryl (Caroline Gillis), who’s stayed in their family home in town. Their young adult daughter Sandy (Stephanie MacDonald) is on a break from her English lit thesis to manage some mental health issues. Dougie is anxiously awaiting the arrival of Allen (Andrew Moodie), a friend from childhood and one of the few Black residents of the town back in the day, who moved on to become an English professor at U of T.

Dougie and Allen haven’t seen each other for 35 years, and their reunion—initially rife with awkward excitement, vintage music, drinking and dancing—takes a dark turn as painful, secret memories emerge. Dougie is dealing with his sense of mortality and Allen needs to get something off his chest; and lifelong feelings of deep-seated anger, shame and longing bubble to the surface.

Daniel-MacIvor-and-Andrew-Moodie-in-New-Magic-Valley-Fun-Town-photo-by-Cylla-von-Tiedemann-1024x690
Daniel MacIvor & Andrew Moodie. Set design by Brian Perchaluk. Costume design by Brenda McLean. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Beautiful performances from this ensemble, enacting a marathon of emotional experience and responses. MacIvor is a compelling, high-energy presence as the tightly wound Dougie; obsessively neat and wanting things to be perfect for Allen, Dougie appears to have channelled his nervous energy into preparations for the visit—but we learn that this behaviour pre-dates his cancer diagnosis, going back to adolescence. Moodie’s calm, introspective Allen is equally gripping; perfectly complementing the frenetic Dougie, the emotionally contained Allen is bursting with the buried feelings of distant, disturbing memories—memories that are excavated and brought to the surface during this fateful visit, and intersect with his experience of being Black in a small town.

Gillis is loveably quirky and as the cheerful, attentive Cheryl; a protective wife and mother who’s at a loss as to how to help her husband and daughter, her positive demeanour masks the pain within, and she finds solace and community in the local Catholic church. MacDonald gives a hilariously playful, irreverent and sweetly poignant performance as Sandy; a post-grad student with the heart of a poet, Sandy is navigating her own illness, even as she continues to reach out to connect with her ailing father.

The classic 70s vintage vibe of Brian Perchaluk’s set design and Don Benedictson’s original music and sound design (those of a certain age were singing along with the pre-show tunes) combine nicely with Brenda McLean’s modern-day costume design, and the realism and cathartic magic of Kim Purtell’s lighting.

Each of these characters is reaching out for connection from a place of profound aloneness. And, while the deeper meaning of the titular amusement park of childhood memory is revealed—not new, magic, a valley, fun or a town—there’s strength and resilience in the present, and hope for the future, as these characters move towards light and closure.

New Magic Valley Fun Town continues in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace until March 31; get advance tickets online or contact the box office at 416-531-1827.