Truth & reconciliation through music, one step at a time, in the inspirational, intersectional I Call myself Princess

Marion Newman & Aaron Wells. Set design by Christine Urquhart. Costume design by Snezana Pesic. Lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Paper Canoe Projects and Cahoots Theatre join forces with Native Earth to present Jani Lauzon’s I Call myself Princess, directed by Marjorie Chan, with associate director Keith Barker and music direction by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate. History, biography, opera, and truth and reconciliation combine in this inspirational, intersectional tale of two Indigenous opera singers connecting across time and space in a journey of discovery, identity and bridging the gap between peoples one step at a time. The show opened to a packed house at the Aki Studio last night.

When opera student William (Aaron Wells), a gay Métis man, moves from Winnipeg to Toronto to study on a scholarship, his work on a production of Shanewis (The Robin Woman), 100-year-old “Indian Opera,” turns into a journey of discovery, revelation and mystical connection. Dropping clues into his path is the spirit of Tsianina Redfeather (Marion Newman), whose life and experience inspired and informed the opera, written by white composer Charles Wakefield Cadman (Richard Greenblatt) and white librettist Nelle Eberhart (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster).

Borrowing from Indigenous music, filtered through the colonial lens of well-meaning, but unaware white artists, the opera seems hokey and embarrassing by today’s standards in terms of its cultural appropriation, and romanticized, homogenized presentation of Indigenous culture. And as he delves deeper into its history—consulting mainly the works of white academics—Will finds himself increasingly uncomfortable rehearsing it. His numerous calls to the Dean falling into a voicemail black hole, he reaches out for support from his boyfriend Alex back home (Howard Davis)—who’s overwhelmed with shift work, business school and looking after his family—and finds he’s on his own. Until Tsianina appears. An Indigenous opera singer from the past, she shows him the path she chose and the part she played in putting Shanewis on the stage.

Lovely, compelling work from this cast, featuring some impressive vocal chops. In an artfully balanced performance that features soaring mezzo soprano vocals, Newman’s Tsianina is playfully mischievous and possessing the wisdom of an elder; part colleague, part spirit guide on Will’s journey of identity and expression. Understanding that sharing truth and effecting change take time, Tsianina is patient and circumspect as she works on the opera—growing and earning respect as an artist, but holding back as she gauges what her non-Indigenous colleagues and audiences are ready for. Turning down two opportunities to perform at the Met, sees her work as a balance between self-expression and truth-telling—and making connections, step by step. Wells adeptly navigates Will’s inner conflict and serves up passionate, robust vocal performances. Personal and professional challenges collide, and Will struggles to be truth to himself and his drive for artistic expression and career, and his Indigenous heritage as he struggles with the content of the opera.

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Richard Greenblatt, Aaron Wells, Marion Newman, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster & Howard Davis. Set design by Christine Urquhart. Costume design by Snezana Pesic. Lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Rounding out the intersectional angle of the piece are Greenblatt’s Charles, a gay man navigating his personal and professional life during a time when being out was suicide; and Ch’ng Lancaster’s Nelle, who like Tsianina must keep the public’s preparedness (in her case, for a female librettist) in mind. Greenblatt and Ch’ng Lancaster do a commendable job with Charles’ and Nelle’s personal arcs—going from well-meaning, but patronizing and largely clueless in their support of Indigenous peoples to more respectful and thoughtful allies. And Davis’s Alex, a Black gay man who doesn’t read as Black due to his light skin tone, and who must deal daily with the outside perceptions and assumptions in a largely white population. In a performance that shows both strength and vulnerability, Davis gives us a loyal, passionate man who sacrifices much for those he loves, but must come to terms with the fact that, despite his best efforts, he can’t be all things to all people, all the time.

You can tell that a lot of love, work and thought went into the production design. The fringe on Christine Urquhart’s set, combining colonial and Indigenous elements, mirrors that of Tsianina’s costume; designed by Snezana Pesic, and built by Kinoo Arcentales (Yana Manta), with beading by playwright Jani Lauzon (who delivered the moccasins last night after working all night to finish the beading). And Marc Meriläinen’s sound design—drawing from Shanewis (The Robin Woman) and classical opera, as well as original compositions by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate and Jani Lauzon—immerses us in this world of music, cultural intersection and history.

Truth and reconciliation—step by step, in each connection, each collaboration, each brave act of expression.

I Call myself Princess continues at the Aki Studio until September 30. Get advance tickets online and go see it.

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Revolution, reversal, revulsion: Soulpepper’s disturbingly hilarious, brutally satirical, timely Animal Farm

Rick Roberts, Sarah Wilson & Miriam Fernandes. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper brings George Orwell’s chilling and bizarre cautionary tale of revolution, politics and corporate greed to life with its world premiere of Anthony MacMahon’s stage adaptation of Animal Farm, directed by Ravi Jain, assisted by Darwin Lyons, currently running at the Young Centre in the Distillery District.

Originally written as an allegorical representation of the rise of Stalin in Russia, Animal Farm gets a decidedly contemporary take in this stage production—it’s all too familiar and hits the mark with discomfiting accuracy.

The animals on Farmer Jones’s farm have had it with their lives and working conditions. Inspired by elder pig Old Major’s (Jennifer Villaverde) “All animals are equal” speech, they plan a revolt, resulting in casualties, including their beloved comrade Bessie the cow (Leah Cherniak). When it comes time to organize in the aftermath and make a plan to take over the farm going forward, the pigs take charge, and eventually comprise the only candidates for the leadership election. Moderated by his right-hand pig Squealer (Miriam Fernandez), the right wing, conservative Napoleon (Rick Roberts) faces off against the more progressive, liberal-minded Snowball (Sarah Wilson) in a debate—and things get ugly. Accusing Snowball of colluding with the humans, with her book learning and desire for committees and studies, Napoleon effectively bullies his way to the win, with his Doberman allies (Paolo Santalucia and Sugith Varughese)—who later become his security/muscle—chasing Snowball off.

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Oliver Dennis and Guillermo Verdecchia. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Projecting an image of strength, resolve and deep caring for everyone, Napoleon is a master of providing easy answers to complex questions—and what the populace wants to hear. His promises of a better life and golden years of relaxation in a field of clover win over the exhausted and simple-minded alike, including the lovable old horse Boxer (Oliver Dennis). But the farm’s donkey Benjamin (Guillermo Verdecchia) and chicken Mercy (Raquel Duffy) aren’t so convinced. Napoleon, who prefers building fences to bridges, is highly suspicious of the neighbouring farm animals (in an insightful parody of foreign trade/relations); yet is constantly shifting position on the nature of those relationships (aptly illustrated when he blind-sides Mercy on an AFNN interview). Even worse, domestic policy makes labour conditions even worse and puts social services on life support, forcing the old and injured to continue working without proper medical care (Michaela Washburn’s Doctor is also an animal—you’ll have to go see for yourself to see what kind), medical insurance or employer support to recuperate.

Under Napoleon’s rule, the rich live a tax-cut life of comfort and leisure, while the workers put in longer hours for the same pay, and struggle with basic cost of living and services. Old Major’s original proclamation “All animals are equal” earns the addendum “but some animals are more equal than others.” Who is Napoleon really working for? Once discovered, or even hinted at, the backlash is inevitable.

Kudos to the largely multitasking cast for their solid, compelling performances in this playful but disturbing story of a society gone wrong. Roberts does a fantastic job as Napoleon, giving us an uncomfortably familiar politician; a charismatic leader who can spout whatever he needs to say to save face and maintain support, Napoleon is a dangerously bellicose man, bullying his way to status and power for the sake of the position. Wilson’s Snowball is the perfect opposite; a level-headed and intelligent, but shy opponent, Snowball just can’t muster the level of popularity she needs. The animals are tired, and feeling put-upon and cheated—and the quick, easy answers coming from Napoleon are much more attractive than the long-term, more challenging proposals she suggests. Sound familiar?

Dennis’s sweet but dim horse Boxer and Verdecchia’s sharp-witted, cynical donkey Benjamin make for a hilarious and poignant odd couple of pals. Not one to suffer fools, Benjamin is at his most patient when attempting to teach Boxer to read. And Dennis is heartbreaking as the old work horse Boxer suffers both disillusionment and injury; the policies of their leader—a leader he believed in—dashing his dreams of retiring to clover-filled fields. And the chickens are off the charts with the LOLs! Duffy is both adorable and impressively determined as feisty Mercy, the chicken’s appointed leader; and Villaverde is a laugh riot as the radical, compost-crazed Poophead.

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Jennifer Villaverde, Raquel Duffy, Michaela Washburn & Leah Cherniak. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Big shouts to the design team for their incredible, imaginative work on this production: Ken MacKenzie (assisted by Christine Urquhart on set and costumes), André du Toit (lighting), Richard Feren (sound and music composition) and mask consultant Nicole Ratjen.

Animal Farm continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 / 1-888-898-1188. Last night’s performance was packed, so advance booking recommended.

NSTF: Giving the last word where last word’s due in the startling, sharply pointed, satirical JONNO

Jason Deline and Erica Anderson in JONNO. Costume design by Christina Urquhart. Set design by Chandos Ross. Lighting design by Steve Vargo. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Rabbit in a Hat Productions presents Alix Sobler’s JONNO, directed by Paul Van Dyck for the Toronto Fringe Next Stage Theatre Festival, running now at Factory Theatre.

JONNO was inspired by a famous sexual assault case that saw a popular Canadian radio personality put on trial—we all know who—and comes in the wake of subsequent sexual harassment and assault scandals that have called out Hollywood celebrities and, most recently, a prominent Canadian theatre artistic director. Delving into the mind of the perpetrator and providing a platform for the myriad complex responses from, and impact on, the survivors—the play speaks beyond any one particular case.

Jonno (Jason Deline) hosts a popular talk radio show; his rich, full tones open the episode with a spoken word essay, and his charming interview style doesn’t shy away from confrontation. One by one, we see his romantic encounters with women turn violent: feminist blogger Marcy (Erica Anderson), singer/songwriter Dana (Parmida Vand) and sex worker Bernadette (Glenda Braganza). The only witness is Mr. Donkey Long Ears (Allan Michael Brunet), a stuffed toy from his childhood who he shields from seeing too much.

When word of his actions goes public, he is visited by Maureen (Alanis Peart), a corporate rep from his employer who has some exploratory and pointed personal questions to ask. A self-professed feminist and lover of women, Jonno genuinely sees nothing wrong with what he’s done—he sees his sexploits as being simply imaginative and out of the ordinary.

The women he choked, hit, kicked and coerced into sexual activity would say otherwise. But, unlike Jonno, who’s perfectly clear and happy to rationalize the events surrounding the encounters, the women are left wondering what the fuck happened and try to make sense of it all as they second guess, struggle with self-doubt and give him second chances. And while the responses of the women are different, all are valid as they play over events in their minds and debate the situation with each other.

The shocking moments of sexual violence are balanced nicely by satirical scenes of corporate investigation, surreal conversations between Jonno and Long Ears, and some darkly funny girls’ night out debates over wine. And the imaginative, effective staging aptly illustrates the serial nature of Jonno’s behaviour, while creating space for the more playful, theatrical elements of the piece.

Amazing work from the cast on this sensitive and infuriating subject. Deline does a great job with the public and private faces of Jonno: the smooth-talking, accomplished, pro-woman radio host and the callous, violent and sociopathic misogynist. Brunet makes an excellent Long Ears; inspired by Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, he is sweetly droopy and sulky—and acts as both witness and counsellor to Jonno’s actions. A childhood toy/imaginary friend, he is Jonno’s displaced conscience and child-like innocence—even, perhaps, humanity.

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Alanis Peart, Jason Deline & Allan Michael Brunet in JONNO. Costume design by Christina Urquhart. Set design by Chandos Ross. Lighting design by Steve Vargo. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

The women in the cast make for a powerful unit of their own. Like Jonno, these characters are attractive, intelligent and accomplished in their own right—and each takes the journey from victim to survivor in her own way. Philosophical and lyrical, Vand’s Dana strives to gain an understanding through conversation with Jonno. Anderson’s wide-eyed activist Marcy thrives in dialogue with fellow survivors—and finds her inner warrior as a result. Braganza’s Bernadette is sensuous, irreverent and outspoken; surprisingly conservative, Bernadette is a reminder to not judge a book by its cover. And Peart is a hilarious powerhouse as the mercurial, assertive Maureen, who fights fire with fire when she puts Jonno in the hot seat.

With shouts to the creative team for bringing this starkly real and magical world together: Christine Urquhart (costume), Chandos Ross (set), Steve Vargo (lighting), Richard Feren (composer and sound), and Jade Elliot (fight and intimacy coordinator).

In the end, while we may be able to muster a modicum of sympathy for the devil, we believe the women—and whatever personal history or demons Jonno may have do not excuse his actions.

Giving the last word where last word’s due in the startling, sharply pointed, satirical JONNO.

JONNO continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace till January 14; for exact dates/times and advance tickets, visit the show page.