The struggle for normalcy in the wake of a horrific past in the haunting, disturbing Strangers, Babies

Jeff Lillico & Niki Landau in Strangers, Babies—photo by Neil Silcox

 

Theatre PANIK presents its immersive production of Linda McLean’s Strangers, Babies, directed by Paul Lampert, assisted by Sadie Epstein-Fine, this past week. A Canadian premiere, the show opened this past week at Artscape Sandbox.

As we enter the space, projected text welcomes us and invites us to wander around and take in the five exhibits; at this point, we see only the five men, each one occupying an exhibit. There are no paper programs (you can access the program online), but there are labels with brief descriptions accompanying each exhibit, as well as binders on the benches (the kind you see at an art gallery, containing descriptions of the art). There are spaces to sit or stand in and around each exhibit; only the final exhibit is an enclosed room that we must peer into from the outside.

When May (Niki Landau) enters, we follow her on a series of vignettes from her life, unfolding over the course of a couple of years. What makes this journey remarkable is the art gallery layout of the space, where each exhibit contains a scene. Starting in May’s condo, where she lives with her husband Dan (Richard Ausar Stewart), we see her fretting over a bird that’s flown into their window and is now lying motionless on the balcony. She wants to save it and Dan thinks it should be euthanized. Clearly a lover of nature and animals, May longs for a garden and they ponder switching to a house.

We then follow May on a visit to her dad Duncan (David Schurmann) at a hospice. Here, we get a glimpse of a troubled childhood and a desire for a normal life. Hints of violence and a longing for connection continue during May’s trip to a hotel room to meet Internet hook-up Roy (Richard Lee); and flash again to the past, with warnings for the future, when she meets with her brother Denis (Jeff Lillico) in a park. In the final scene, May’s social worker Abel (Edmund Stapleton) has come by for a spot check; he’s monitoring the welfare her young son and makes extensive notes in order to report his findings.

7 Strangers Babies - Niki Landau and Ausar Stewart - Credit Neil Silcox
Richard Ausar Stewart & Niki Landau in Strangers, Babies—photo by Neil Silcox

Compelling work from the cast on this uniquely immersive production; each actor adeptly mining the opposing sides of their characters’ personalities. Landau is both heartbreaking and eerie as May, whose delicate, nervous and vulnerable personality and flat aspect both reveal and conceal a troubling inner turmoil. Stewart’s Dan is the perfect emotional foil; precise, fastidious and mildly patronizing, Dan is a loving and patient husband to his kind-hearted wife. Schurmann brings a cantankerous and regretful edge to Duncan’s fragility; confused by pain and age, and befuddled by morphine, Duncan lashes out with biting rage in his impatience—then melts into reminiscence and guilt as the drug takes hold.

Lee gives a complex performance as Roy, who like May, is in a passionless marriage and needs to step out to feel lusty excitement; his nervous awkwardness is a mask of repressed violent urges. Lillico’s Denis is both heart-wrenching and menacing; clearly a tortured soul and sharing in May’s horrific history, Denis is like a caged, scared animal growling out warnings. Stapleton’s Abel is affable, firm-handed and wary as he interviews May; a young social worker with a serious task at hand, he must balance respect for his client with a thorough examination of her situation—especially regarding the safety of her child.

Rage and calm, violence and tenderness. A life on display—each scene (exhibit) is a piece of May’s puzzle, played out across space and time. Ultimately, Strangers, Babies is profoundly human.

With shouts to the design team for their work on creating this fascinating and unique experience: Michael Gianfrancesco (set), Ming Wong (costume), Bonnie Beecher (lighting), Christopher Stanton (sound), Cameron Davis (video) and Kate Alton (movement).

The struggle for normalcy in the wake of a horrific past in the haunting, disturbing Strangers, Babies.

Strangers, Babies continues at the Artscape Sandbox till May 28; get advance tickets here. Advance booking strongly recommended due to the unique staging and popularity of this production.

Check out the trailer:

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Nasty family schemes go to hell in Coal Mine Theatre’s primal, raw & darkly funny Killer Joe

Coal Mine Theatre presents KILLER JOE 800
Matthew Edison (standing). Seated (l to r): Paul Fauteux, Madison Walsh, Vivien Endicott-Douglas & Matthew Gouveia – photo by Matt Campagna

There’s a mini-Lettsapalooza going on in Toronto right now – and last night, I stopped by Coal Mine Theatre to see their production of Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe, directed by Peter Pasyk.

Chris Smith (Matthew Gouveia) is in big trouble. In deep with drug debts, he owes a mean son of a bitch named Digger $6,000. Chris doesn’t have $6,000. But he has a plan. A crazy-ass plan in which he enlists the aid of his dad Ansel (Paul Fauteux) to hire dirty Dallas P.D. detective Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew Edison) to knock off his no-good, alcoholic mother and get the insurance money. Chris and Ansel aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed – and decidedly not discrete – and it’s not long before Chris’s young stepmother Sharla (Madison Walsh) and kid sister Dottie (Vivien Endicott-Douglas), who’s listed as their mother’s beneficiary, are in on the plan. And because they don’t have the $25,000 they need to pay Killer Joe for his services, they need to come up with a retainer to keep him on board – and Chris and Ansel must decide what they’re willing to sacrifice to that end. Scheme on top of scheme unravels, each one worse than the one before it, and the Smith family displays some Olympic-level dumbassery, seasoned with sex, violence and some evil dark humour. And, of course, things go horribly, horribly wrong. Think George F. Walker meets Fargo in a Texas trailer park.

Killer Joe has a damn fine cast. The stakes are crazy high and the desperation is turned up to 11 with the knob broke off – and these actors really give ‘er. As Chris, Gouveia turns up the heat and pace with practically every scene he’s in, and he’s found the complexity of a man who’s deeply protective of his loved ones, but incredibly careless about putting them in harm’s way. You can see Chris’s mind turning like a hamster wheel, churning out worse idea after bad idea; this may be the first time in his lazy-ass, drug-addled life that he’s ever exhibited some ambition and he’s in it 110% – until second, and even third, thoughts start seeping in, that is. Walsh gives Sharla a saucy, manipulative edge; ruthless and focused in her way, Sharla’s got the chops for sexing her way to what she wants, but lacks the brains to think things through. Fauteux’s Ansel is a hilarious combination of clueless and cowardly; easily distracted by the TV and dumb enough to go along with Chris’s plan for “easy money,” Ansel is deluded in thinking he’s the true head of the household and truly baffled when things go south. Endicott-Douglas brings a spacey, child-like quality to the wide-eyed, Bruce Lee Kung Fu fan Dottie; likely brain-damaged from maternal abuse when she was an infant, she moves through the world at a dreamy, sleep-walking pace – and talks when she sleep walks, comprehending more than others think. Edison is chilling as Killer Joe; a tall, dark and handsome southern gentleman with a deep, gravelly voice and eyes that pierce, killing is commerce to Joe, and human lives are bought and sold with a civil, verbal contract. He’s a stone cold killer and merciless professional – and definitely not a man you want to cross.

With shouts to set/lighting designer Patrick Lavender, costume designer Jenna McCutchen and sound designer Christopher Stanton for their work on creating this filthy, seedy, trailer trash world. You can almost feel the grime on that linoleum and smell the sweat on Ansel’s greasy undershirt. The pre-show thunder is particularly ominous – starting out faint and far away, then getting louder and closer when the action starts. And, as for the ending, you’ll never hear Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” the same way again.

Nasty family schemes go to hell in Coal Mine Theatre’s primal, raw and darkly funny Killer Joe.

Killer Joe continues at Coal Mine Theatre until Apr 24. It’s an intimate venue and a popular show, so book ahead to avoid disappointment. Please note the 7:30 p.m. start time; the play runs 90 minutes with no intermission and no latecomers will be admitted. The box office opens at 6:45 p.m. and takes cash only at the door.

If you haven’t been out to Coal Mine Theatre for a while, also note that they’ve moved further east on Danforth from their original location; still conveniently located near a Magic Oven and now with their own storefront space (and washroom), it’s at 1454 Danforth Ave, between Greenwood and Coxwell.

And, speaking of Lettsapalooza: Also running in Toronto right now is Alumnae Theatre Company’s production of Letts’ August: Osage County (till Apr 23). You can check out the cowbell post for that show here.

SummerWorks: Beautifully layered exploration of relationships, class, the struggle for order & mental illness in Complex

complexBumped into actor Tim Walker at the Lower Ossington Theatre on the weekend and found out about Complex, written by Rebecca Applebaum and directed for SummerWorks by Christopher Stanton in partnership with the Koffler Centre of the Arts – and I’m really glad I did.

Set in modern-day Toronto, the title makes multiple references: the Chalkfarm apartment that Darren (Mazin Elsadig) shares with his mother Althea (Beryl Bain); complex number theory, which Darren is playing catch-up on with tutor Sarah (Emily Piggford); and the relationships between Sarah and her live-in boyfriend Jonah (Tim Walker), who’s living with OCD, as well as Darren and his mother, who is suffering from severe depression after the death of her mother – and, as the play unfolds, between Darren and Sarah.

The story in Complex features stark contrasts of class divide, illustrated by the assumptions Sarah makes about Darren’s neighbourhood, activities and relationship with his mother, and about mental illness – both Sarah and Darren struggle to understand the conditions of their respective loved ones. While Sarah and Darren long for order in their lives, Jonah and Althea occupy a different world, grappling with their own inner demons and realities.

Excellent work from this cast! Bain is heartbreaking as the bereft Althea, lost in her grief and confused by her son’s anger and frustration at her debilitating desolation; and Elsadig does a lovely job balancing Darren’s youthful energy with the more adult burdens of looking after his mother – and the conflicting emotions therein. Piggford’s Sarah, like Darren, is frustrated with her loved one’s mental condition, even as she struggles to be supportive and understanding; and she does a great – at times comic – job of capturing the behaviours of an educated, privileged young adult trying to be chill with a low-income teen from a troubled neighbourhood. Walker’s Jonah is a good guy with an infuriating condition, obsessed with the apartment’s locks and fully aware of Sarah’s frustration, and trying to stay positive as he embarks on a group therapy program at CAMH.

Shouts to the design team: set (Laura Gardner), lighting (Siobhán Sleath) and sound (Lyon Smith) for creating the high-energy – at times overwhelmingly busy – urban atmosphere for Complex; the scrim-covered flats, built on PVC pipe frames and sprayed with graffiti, are particularly clever, delivering visual impact and creating cool shadow effects, as well as doubling as set pieces.

Complex is a beautifully layered exploration of relationships, class, the struggle for order, math theory and mental illness.

The show continues at the Lower Ossington Theatre until Sun, Aug 17 – check here for dates/times.