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.

 

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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.

A photo album of family, love & memento mori in the profoundly moving, nostalgic, candid Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias

Beatriz Pizano & Julia (projected photo). Scenography by Trevor Schwellnus, with associate lighting designer Rebecca Vandevelde. Costume design by Andjelija Djuric. Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh.

 

“They say blood is thicker than water —
I say, love is thicker than blood.”

Aluna Theatre premieres Beatriz Pizano’s Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias, a photo album of family, love and memento mori; written and performed by Pizano, and created with director Trevor Schwellnus and composer/sound designer Brandon Miguel Valdivia, and running now at The Theatre Centre.

Losing her mother when she was a toddler, Pizano was adopted by her Aunt Julia and Uncle Jorge after her “Marlboro Man” father took off, leaving her and her two siblings behind—and a deep and lasting connection evolved with her new parents. Years later, after Pizano has moved to Canada, when an aged, widowed Julia drifts away in a lost, confused haze of dementia, she keeps her promise, returning home again and again to be with Julia during her “Calvary.” Weaving a personal history of distant and recent past—from her years growing up with Julia in Columbia to travelling back and forth from Canada during Julia’s final years, to and from hospital and nursing home; Pizano shifts from romantic nostalgia to harsh, heartbreaking life and death reality. And then, a chance meeting with a doctor at the nursing home—there to perform euthanasia on another patient—and an act of love, mercy and personal sacrifice to make a decision for a loved one who is unable to do so.

dividing lines
Beatriz Pizano. Scenography by Trevor Schwellnus, with associate lighting designer Rebecca Vandevelde. Costume design by Andjelija Djuric. Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh.

Incorporating photographs and props, projected on a row of overlapping burlap legs that flare out and merge together on the floor, we see an evolving collage of life and family—from the broad strokes of wide-ranging world events to the God-is-in-the-details moments and wisdom of shared lives. The storytelling, relayed in English and sometimes Spanish, is visually rich; full of a lust for life, liberty and equality; and resonating with the music of childhood and the revolution—and, ultimately, with hope and closure. Pizano gives us a deeply personal, candid, raw and romantic—at times interactive—performance; balanced with a cheeky sense of irreverence where religion is concerned, and a revolutionary bohemian spirit when it comes to class and politics.

Part personal memory play, part confessional, part memorial, Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias reminds us that the one thing that’s certain in life—and we all have in common—is that we die. What would you do for a loved one who’s lost to the world, incapacitated and in pain—to set them free?

Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias is in its final week, closing on December 2. Advance tickets available online or by calling The Theatre Centre’s Box Office at 416-538-0988.

Check out this CBC piece on Dividing Lines/Líneas Divisorias, including Matt Galloway’s interview with Beatriz Pizano on Metro Morning.

Secrets & dark suspicions in the eerie, Gothic family drama Gripless

GriplessCastBWStanding: David Huband & Amber Mackereth. Seated: Margaret Lamarre.

 

Green Garden Equity Artist Collective gives us a disturbing tale of family secrets and dark suspicions in Deborah Ann Frankel’s eerie family drama Gripless; directed by Frankel and on now for a short run at Red Sandcastle Theatre.

On a stormy night in a small town, brother Ben (David Huband) and sister April (Amber Mackereth) bring their mother Elaine (Margaret Lamarre) home from a birthday celebration dinner in honour of their deceased father Daniel. Uncomfortable and anxious to leave, intimidating younger sister April appears to be the alpha to her more easy going older brother. But try as they might to leave their family home, something Elaine says keeps drawing them away from the door and back into the living room.

As the action unfolds, we learn that Elaine remarried about a year after Daniel’s death; an abusive brute of a man named Tim, who recently had a stroke. We get the sense that there are some uncomfortable unsaid truths in the closet of this family’s history; and memories shift from nostalgic reverie and childhood shenanigans to disturbing discoveries and suspicions—hinting at a troubling and violent dynamic.

Compelling work from the cast in this unsettling, spooky story of family dysfunction and conflicting perspectives. Lamarre’s Elaine is damaged, adrift and also manipulative; poignant yet unsettling, Elaine’s selective memory targets only the happy moments and she seems oddly disconnected from what’s happening right in front of her. As April, Mackereth’s tough-talking, bully exterior masks a deeply hurt, vulnerable child; unforgiving with her mother, April has tender feelings for her big brother, the only one who’s ever been on her side. Huband’s Ben is the perfect foil for Mackereth’s April; wry-witted, quiet and introspective, Ben is clearly the peacemaker in the family—but even his easy-going demeanour gives way to moments of haunted reflection.

Writer/director Frankel, who folks will recognize as Red Sandcastle’s intrepid SM, will be taking over as General Manager when AD Rosemary Doyle heads to Kingston in August as the new AD of Theatre Kingston; multitasking in this production, she’s also juggling box office and SM duty in booth—and created one heck of a dark, atmospheric set and soundtrack.

Gripless has two more performances at Red Sandcastle Theatre: tonight (July 22) and tomorrow (July 23) at 8 p.m.; book tickets in advance at deborahannfrankel@gmail.com or pay cash at the door.

Fearful & alone in loss, love & trying to find meaning in the edgy, philosophical, quirky Thom Pain

Owen Fawcett. Photo by Nicholas Marinelli.

 

Theatre By Committee opened its production of Will Eno’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated Thom Pain (based on nothing), directed and designed by Hannah Jack, and assistant directed by Brandon Gillespie, at Hub 14 last night.

Starring Owen Fawcett, Thom Pain explores fear, loss and the profound, regret-filled sense of being alone. Speaking directly to us throughout, Thom—alone, extremely well-educated and deeply wounded—slip slides, stagger glides, and otherwise careens and halts inside his own story as he stumbles, ruminates and struggles to piece together bits of memory, personal narrative and fleeting thoughts. Philosophical, cerebral, visceral and primal, he’s an extremely intelligent guy academically but not emotionally; and there’s a poetic ferocity to his mental thrashing about, and a lost boy quality to the way he occasionally lashes out. And immediately apologizes.

Fawcett gives a compelling performance as we follow Thom down the rabbit hole of his psyche. Entertaining and charming in an awkward, quirky sort of way, Thom teases and mocks, riding the edge of cruelty without descending into it as he tells these dark stories. Stories of childhood, childhood loss and loneliness; stories of love and loss of love and aloneness. There’s an awkward poignancy to his self-conscious, self-analyzing, self-deprecating delivery—and Thoms’s weary, often distracted, journey through thoughts and memory connects and resonates in such a way that we really believe him whenever he points out that we’ve all been there. And, like him, we’ve all had moments of beauty and moments that destroyed us—and we’re all trying.

The very intimate space at Hub 14 puts the audience up close and personal with this performance; but don’t worry, Thom is respectful of your space.

Fearful and alone in loss, love and trying to find the meaning of it all in the edgy, philosophical, quirky Thom Pain.

Thom Pain (based on nothing) continues at Hub 14 (14 Markham Street, Toronto) till April 8. It’s a weekend-long run, with performances tonight (April 7) at 8:00 pm, and tomorrow (April 8) at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. It’s also a very intimate space with limited seating. Get your advance tickets online.