The incendiary impact of one man’s struggle in the ring in the electric, gut-punching The Royale

Dion Johnstone. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsey. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper transports us to 1905, where an African-American boxer tests his mettle against the formerly retired white heavyweight champion, with incendiary results that reach far beyond the two men in the ring. This is the electric, gut-punching Canadian premiere of Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, inspired by the true story of Jack Johnson, directed by Guillermo Verdecchia and running at the Young Centre.

Determined to better his personal best of being crowned African-American Heavyweight Champion, boxer Jay “The Sport” Jackson sets his sights on being heavyweight champion of the world, convincing fight promoter Max (Diego Matamoros) to arrange a contest between him and retired Champ Bixby; a tall order, as the sport is segregated and a Black fighter has never faced a white fighter in the ring. As Jackson trains for the historic match with his manager Wynton (Alexander Thomas) and new sparring partner Fish (Christef Desir), a visit from his sister Nina (Sabryn Rock) forces him to consider the sociopolitical and personal impacts of this match—especially if he wins.

While insisting that the focus of his lonely ambition and sacrifice is about personal excellence and universal recognition as heavyweight champ, Jay gradually finds himself unable to continue shrugging off the racial and political—and personal—implications of his endeavour. And it’s not until the final charged scene in the ring with the Champ that we realize the great personal stakes driving him—and where he struggles with himself and against a long, violent history of systemic racism and oppression.

Incorporating hip hop-inspired beats and rhythms (composer and sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne), and fight choreography (Simon Fon) that focuses on both the physicality and mental state of the fighter—The Royale creates the music in the boxing ring (set and costumes by Ken MacKenzie) with movement, sound and dialogue that reflects the voice inside the fighter’s head with present, primal ferocity and cocky self-assuredness. All of this in 90 minutes and six compelling rounds of storytelling—and while there are no actual physical blows exchanged, the result is both mind-blowing and gut-wrenching—punctuated by the rhythmic soundscape and startling, atmospheric lighting design (Michelle Ramsey).

Breath-taking work from the ensemble in this intense, profoundly human story. Johnstone gives a charismatic and intensely focused performance as the ambitious, hard-working Jackson; confident, flirtatious and driven, while Jackson’s deflection of personal questions appears to be a shrewd PR move to drive public curiosity, we learn he has a far more urgent reason for protecting his privacy. Johnstone’s Jackson is nicely matched by Desir’s youthful, hungry Fish; an up and coming young fighter who’s impressed Jackson in the ring, Fish is grateful for the opportunity to quit his day job, and becomes a loyal and generous supporter and colleague on the road to Jackson’s life-changing match.

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Dion Johnstone & Sabryn Rock. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsey. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Thomas exudes warmth, wisdom and pragmatic good humour as Wynton; more than just Jackson’s manager and trainer, Wynton is a friend and mentor—and the play’s title comes from his story as a young fighter, at a place where a young Black man could make one to two weeks’ wages in an unusual fight match where the winner takes all. Rock is a force to be reckoned with as Jackson’s sister Nina; fiercely protective of her family and acutely aware of the implications of Jackson’s ambitions, Nina sees what he cannot—that this fight goes way beyond a single boxing match. Her words haunt Jackson during the fight, driving home the terrible truth of her words. And Matamoros gives an entertaining turn as the sharp, skeptical promoter Max; while he’s likeable enough through the gruff worldliness, you know Max isn’t entirely on the up and up.

The Royale shows us how one human being’s solitary sacrifice and actions can ripple out, becoming a tidal wave of universal response—and, win or lose, ambition and change both come at a price.

The Royale continues at the Young Centre until November 11. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Check out the production teaser:

 

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Shaken faith & lost innocence in Soulpepper’s haunting yet hopeful Innocence Lost: A Play about Steven Truscott

Berkley Silverman & Dan Mousseau. Set design by Camellia Koo. Costume design by Sue LePage. Lighting design by Bonnie Beecher. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

A town divided in the aftershock of the tragic rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl; and subsequent adult trial and conviction of a 14-year-old classmate. A journalist doggedly pursuing the truth, casting doubt on the efficacy of law enforcement in the case and belief in the fairness of the local justice system. Soulpepper’s production of Beverley Cooper’s Innocence Lost: A Play about Steven Truscott, directed by Jackie Maxwell, examines the impact of this tragic case on those close to these two young people, the town and the public at large. The show opened last night to a packed house at the Young Centre.

The perception of a quiet, safe life in Clinton, Ontario was shattered when 12-year-old Lynne Harper went missing on June 9, 1959; her lifeless body found two days later in the woods just outside of town. In a stunning aftershock, her 14-year-old classmate Steven Truscott was tried as an adult, convicted and sentenced to death for her rape and murder—dividing the town’s residents; and casting extreme doubt on Truscott’s character, as well as the law enforcement and local court handling the case.

Our narrator to the events leading up to and following this tragic event is Sarah (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster), the only fictitious character in the play. It is through her lens as classmate of the well-liked, athletic Steven Truscott (Dan Mousseau) that we get a glimpse into this time and place. Speaking to us as an adult, she turns over memories, and conflicting thoughts and emotions in her mind, as she guides us through the barrage of information, misinformation and gossip about the unthinkable death of Lynne Harper (the young Berkley Silverman), and the shock of Steven’s subsequent trial and conviction.

Lead investigator, OPP inspector Harold Graham (John Jarvis), chooses to focus on the changeable testimony of two minors: Butch George (Caroline Gillis) and Jocelyne Gaudet (Akosua Amo-Adem), whose testimony conflicts with other children the police interviewed, like Dougie Oates (Christef Desir), who saw Steven giving Lynne a ride on his bike. Compounding the misinformation of this selective culling of largely child witness testimony are the findings of pathologist Dr. John Penistan (Deborah Drakeford), who examined Harper’s stomach contents to determine time of death. And, for some reason, the trial is held locally, offering little in the way of an unbiased jury, for which only men have been selected. Assumptions and prejudice abound. The authority of police, doctors and judges is not questioned. And there are two distinct class divides in the town: long-time residents vs. local air force base personnel and officers vs. non-coms. And a further divide develops: those who believe in Truscott’s innocence and those who believe him guilty. Interestingly, Lynne’s father (Jarvis) was an officer and Steven’s father Dan (John Cleland) was a non-com.

Journalist/writer Isabel LeBourdais (Nancy Palk) appears on the scene, ruffling skeptics’ feathers and providing hope for supporters with interviews about Truscott’s case. Her investigation and subsequent 1966 book The Trial of Steven Truscott shines a spotlight on holes in the investigation, calling into question the work of investigators and the fairness of the trial. Rumours of misdirection and cover-up emerge. Through the tireless efforts of supporters, particularly Truscott’s mother Doris (Gillis) and LeBourdais, Truscott’s case is revived—in public consciousness and in the legal system. Truscott’s original sentence is commuted to life in prison a year after his conviction; he is paroled in 1966 and acquitted by the Ontario Court of Appeal in 2007.

Innocence Lost, Soulpepper
Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster & Nancy Palk. Set design by Camellia Koo. Costume design by Sue LePage. Lighting design by Bonnie Beecher. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Sharply detailed, respectful work from the ensemble; the women in this story feature prominently, with some particular stand-outs in the cast. Ch’ng Lancaster does a brilliant job with the conflicted Sarah; torn between her admiration of Steven, and the myriad voices supporting and damning him, Sarah finds her own faith shaken—and like Peter, even denies knowing Steven. Longing to put some distance between herself and the town, and its accompanying nightmare of memory, she travels across the country to university, only to find people talking about the case. Drakeford does an outstanding job, juggling multiple characters with both dramatic and comedic flair: Sarah’s gossip-mongering, opinionated mother; the arrogant Dr. Penistan; and hilarious turns as a harried Brownie pack leader and a put-upon front-row student. Palk shines as the intrepid LeBourdais; affable but nobody’s fool, LeBourdais questions authority—in this case, the male power system responsible for incarcerating Truscott—pointing out inaccuracies, conflicts and omissions in testimony, and the circumstantial nature of the evidence, and putting those involved in the case on the hot seat.

Shouts to the design team for their work in conjuring this time and place. Doris Day’s Que Sera, Sera brings a dark bit of whimsy to the pre-show music (sound design by John Gzowski), adding a touch of nostalgia along with the vintage costumes (costumes by Sue LePage). The stand of tall, narrow trees that dominates the dimly lit set provides a haunting, hazy atmosphere and doubles as the bars of Truscott’s jail cell (set design by Camellia Koo and lighting design by Bonnie Beecher).

Innocence Lost is as much about Truscott’s lost childhood as it is about the shaken faith of a town and its people. All that had been trusted and taken for granted as true and good—the town’s safety, the police, the courts and Truscott’s character—dissected, questioned and turned upside down. Assumptions, prejudices, hearsay and bias create an environment of skepticism, mistrust and denial; favourite childhood places become poisoned in memory. And faith, hope and love put the story of his role on that tragic day back on track.

Innocence Lost: A Play about Steven Truscott continues in the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre until June 23. Get advance tickets online or give the box office a shout at: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Check out Maija Kappler’s piece on Innocence Lost, including an interview with playwright Beverley Cooper, in Intermission Magazine.

A little holiday magic with some big Foley fun in delightful It’s A Wonderful Life

Soulpepper added an extra bit of cheer to its holiday programming this year with its production of Philip Grecian’s adaptation of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, directed by Soulpepper Artistic Director Albert Schultz, assisted by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, and opening to a packed house at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre last night.

Set as a 1940s radio play performed on stage—with the actors playing actors playing characters in the story—this version of It’s A Wonderful Life gives us all the favourite moments of the film version, including the dialogue, with the added fun of a behind-the-scenes look at some fabulous Foley (sound effects) work, designed by John Gzowski. And last night, we had the added treat of a charming performance of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” from the Dixon Hall Music School children’s choir.

George Bailey (Gregory Prest) has spent his entire life helping others in his small town. As a kid (Richie Lawrence) he saved his kid brother Harry (Christef Desir) and after school employer, pharmacist Mr. Gower (Diego Matamoros). And as an adult, he sacrificed college and travel to save the family building and loan business from falling into the hands of the corrupt and wealthy Mr. Potter (Matamoros). All so the hard-working, struggling folks of Bedford Falls could have a fair chance at a decent home.

Challenges aside, he’s got a pretty good life, with a lovely, supportive wife Mary (Raquel Duffy) and four sweet kids (Daniel Mousseau, Thea Lapham, Michelle Monteith and Richie Lawrence). Until one Christmas Eve Day, a banking mistake made by his absent-minded uncle Billy (William Webster) threatens to cost him everything. And in his most desperate hour, his guardian angel Clarence (Oliver Dennis) appears and sets out to show him what the world would have been like if he’d never been born.

It's a Wonderful Life, Soulpepper
Oliver Dennis & Derek Boyes – all photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

This production truly captures the spirit of this beloved holiday classic, and then some. In true radio broadcast style, the show features live commercial spots shouting out Soulpepper’s corporate sponsors and other holiday program offering, with live piano accompaniment (James Smith of Chasse-Galerie). But the biggest fun of all has to be the Foley artistry, featuring Christef Desir, Daniel Mousseau and Marcel Stewart as the soundmen (operating a neat assortment of sound-making props and gadgets, and playing multiple characters as well); with the entire ensemble creating various sound effects vocally. And at the end of Act I, aptly staged during George and Mary’s honeymoon scene, the stage goes to black as the scene continues, with lights on the vintage radio down stage left—giving us a taste of the radio drama experience.

It's a Wonderful Life, Soulpepper
Christef Desir & Michelle Fisk, with Marcel Stewart & Ellie Moon in the background

Exceptional work from this cast. Stand-outs include Prest, who brings a good-natured authenticity to George Bailey, an everyman performing everyday acts of heroism; there’s really nice chemistry with Duffy’s Mary, George’s warm but feisty perfect match. Matamoros delivers some delicious voice work, from the velvet smooth tones of the announcer, to the gravel-voiced Mr. Gower, to the malevolent, grasping villain Mr. Potter. And Dennis is adorably quaint as the underdog Angel Second Class Clarence, determined to earn his wings.

Monteith brings some great vocal chops and range, going from the slinky town party girl Violet, to the too cute for words Zuzu (George’s youngest daughter, famous for Zuzu’s petals); and Mousseau is a delight as Martini, the owner of one of the town’s favourite restaurants. And shouts to kid actors Lapham (Young Mary and George’s daughter Janie) and Lawrence (Young George and George’s son Tommy).

A little holiday magic with some big Foley fun in Soulpepper’s delightful 1940s radio play production of It’s A Wonderful Life.

It’s A Wonderful Life continues the Bluma Appel Theatre—and, good news, it’s been extended to December 31. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Check out the behind-the-scenes video for a peek at the fun in store:

And while you’re at it, check out some of Soulpepper’s other holiday treats, including its annual production of A Christmas Carol and the Family Festival programming. Here’s hoping that It’s A Wonderful Life becomes an additional holiday tradition at Soulpepper.