SummerWorks: A bold, revolutionary experiment in housing & education implodes in the spirited, insightful Rochdale

Rochdale ensemble. Costumes by Tiana Kralj. 

 

GovCon and Theatre@York take us to the turbulent, rebellious times of social change and sky-high dreams in 1969 Toronto as a group of counterculture university students undertake a bold and ambitious new housing and education cooperative model in Rochdale. Written by David Yee; directed by Nina Lee Aquino, assisted by Jessie Whyte; and choreographed by Brandon Pereira, Rochdale premiered as part of Theatre@York’s 2018/19 season. We come upon an experimental campus in crisis; still under construction, and facing the serious challenges of funding, self-government, housing infrastructure, crashers and bad press. Rochdale had its second SummerWorks performance in The Theatre Centre’s Franco Boni Theatre last night.

Rumours of Rochdale GM Whitman’s (Leanne Hoffman) death have been greatly exaggerated; and when she returns after a two-month absence, she finds her office in shambles, the place in chaos and her boyfriend Dennis (Dean Bessey) replacing her as GM—plus, her best friend Cryer (Adrienne Ross Ramsingh) didn’t go to her funeral! Dennis and fellow Governing Council (Gov Con) colleagues Suzy (Margarita Valderrama) and Kitten (Julia DeMola) are at a loss as to how to deal with plumbing and electric issues, mounting bills, AWOL contractors, crashers and a dodgy elevator that needs to be sweet talked to work. And reluctant student security and safety officer Gerry (Tomasz Pereira Nunes) doesn’t seem particularly suited to or interested in his job.

Student resident Athena’s (Claudia Hamilton) has a theft to report; she eschews locking her room because they’re supposed to be a cooperative community. Shabby (Carina Salajan) is now the resident nurse after they lost their previous medic. Resident stoner Skye (Sabrina Marangoni) is trying to be helpful, but can’t remember what she needs to tell Whitman. And an Asian student dubbed Mao (Nelvin Law) doesn’t speak English—or does he? Rounding out the situation are slick “suit-minded” UofT student liaison Emmett (Ori Black), who becomes friendly with free love hippie girl Flower (Sophia Gaspar); drug dealer Fitch (Brandon Pereira, multitasking with several roles); and newcomer American Friar (Dustin Hickey).

Amidst preparations for a Vietnam War protest and a rooftop viewing of the moon walk, rebellion brews within. Rochdale’s system of self-government is based on the very model they’ve been howling against—and the Gov Con folks are now viewed as “the man”—placing the administrative/organizational body in jeopardy as discussions of war, classism, capitalism and civil rights turn to a debate on governance models. Viewed from the outside as hippie troublemakers, Rochdale’s public funding is in a precarious position as it finds itself continually defending itself against news stories of drug dealing, motorcycle gangs and overdoses on campus. While striving to live outside of the mainstream, they must still rely on mainstream institutions (government and university) for support—a challenging position, to be sure—and all the bad press isn’t helping their cause. Overwhelmed by the demands of administration, and bogged down by disorganization, this revolutionary experiment eventually implodes.

Joyful and spirited, Rochdale thrums with the hope, energy and struggle of a time of great social and technological change; and this story of experimentation, struggle and heartbreaking frustration is told with humour, insight and authenticity. Great work all around from this ensemble of 2019 York University Theatre grads on this look at Toronto’s counterculture in the late 60s, 50 years later. Stand-outs include Hoffman’s brilliant, poetic and beleaguered Whitman; Hamilton’s fierce Black Panther warrior Athena; Law’s enigmatic, passionate Mao; Marangoni’s loveable stoner Skye; and Ross Ramsingh’s intense, introspective Cryer. And the multitasking actor/choreographer Pereira does an impressive juggling act, going from comic (the silent, hungover Naked Man and the accidental Hare Krishna Harry ), to menacing as the drug dealer Fitch, to savvy revolutionary (Boris) and beacon of hope (Astronaut).

With big shouts to the design team for their evocative work on creating this time, space and vibe: Mona Farahmand (set), Ella Wieckowski (lighting), Tiana Kralj (costume) and Johnathon North (sound).

Rochdale has three more performances in the Franco Boni Theatre at the Theatre Centre, closing on August 18; check the show page for exact dates/times. Tickets available online or in person at the box office; it was a packed house last night, so advance booking strongly recommended. For more info on the production and its process, visit the Rochdale 2019 website.

Also, as part of SummerWorks Exchange Day 2, Rochdale will be hosting  MOVING PUBLICS—An In Transit Conversation on August 12; the bus will depart from The Theatre Centre at 3:00 p.m. and participants are asked to do some preparatory reading and RSVP in advance when booking their Exchange Day Pass.

 

 

All’s Well That Ends Well adaptation a delightfully dark comedic romp with a twist

Christopher Mott, Chanakya Mukherjee & Liz Der. Photo by Stevie Baker.

 

Dauntless City Theatre is back at Berczy Park (aka the dog fountain park across from the St. Lawrence Centre) with a delightful immersive, site-specific adaptation of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. Adapted and directed by Scott Emerson Moyle, assisted by Jordi O’Dael, this version of the play is queer, twisty, darkly funny—and calls out bad behaviour—in an intimate, energetic romp of sauce and wit that’s part cautionary tale, part dark comedy.

Helena (a feisty, resilient turn from Liz Der) has recently lost her father, a skilled and respected doctor, and is now the ward of the recently widowed Countess Rousillon (Andrea Lyons is a treat in this edgy, hilarious performance), whose son Bertram (played with sneering pride and entitlement by Chanakya Mukherjee) is now the new Count. Helena is hopelessly and secretly in love with Bertram, but dares not hope for a match, as she is not noble-born. She is, however, very skilled in the healing arts; and when news arrives that the King of France (played with imperiousness tempered by warmth by Christopher Mott) has been very ill with no cure in sight, she sees a way to prove her worth to Bertram, who has travelled to the French court with his BFF Parolles (a cheeky, lovable scoundrel, played with gusto by Annelise Hawrylak).

Despite his skepticism after many failed treatments administered by many learned men, the King agrees to Helena’s treatment—and rewards her success by offering her the choice of any man in court for her husband. Taking this opportunity, she chooses Bertram; and when he rudely refuses her proposal, the King forces him into marriage. With war brewing in Florence, Parolles sees a way out and suggests that she and Bertram leave France and join the army. They do so, with Bertram leaving word with Helena that he will be her husband only if she successfully completes the impossible task of getting a ring from him and getting pregnant with his child. Helena pursues Bertram to France and, with the help of the independent and savvy innkeeper Diana (Melanie Leon), who Bertram has been doggedly pursuing to bed, hatches a plan to make the impossible possible.

Rounding out the company are Eric Benson as the priggish, arrogant M. LaFeu, an elder courtier at the Countess’s home; Tallan Alexander as Lavatch, the Countess’s saucy valet; and Holly Wyder as the spritely, guitar playing Dumaine the Younger and Anthony Botelho as the cheeky, trumpeter Dumaine the Elder, sibling messengers and our guides around the park.

And just as Helena and Diana put one over on Bertram, Parolles’ fellow soldiers (Lyons, Mott, Alexander and Benson) pull some trickery on him, revealing his true character. Prideful and careless of others, both Bertram and Parolles fall hard, and must surrender to their respective fates in the end. And an unexpected match is made in the process.

Part cautionary tale, part dark comedy, the energetic and entertaining ensemble keeps us on our toes—literally and figuratively—with twisting plot turns, and hilarious battles of words and wits; with some characters thinking and acting with their hearts and others working from somewhere decidedly south of there. Sharp-witted skills at verbal thrust and parry is in great evidence between Hawrylak’s Parolles and Benson’s M. LaFeu, as well as Hawrylak and Der’s Helena, and Lyons’ Countess and Alexander’s Lavatch. And Der’s performance is a great combination of love-struck and determination in Helena’s one-sided attentions to Bertram, and keen debate and care with the King—all while trying to prove herself worthy of Bertram’s love, which he clearly doesn’t want or deserve.

The adaptation lives up to the title, connecting us with the story in an intimate and contemporary way in an immersive, site-specific production that incorporates gender-bending casting, queer twists and calling out bad behaviour. The underlying misogyny and classism get big time push-back with powerful, capable and intelligent female and queer characters who ain’t taking no guff. (And with a female Parolles, we’re also reminded that even women can be dicks.) Beware of the proud and scornful, and the braggart cowards—and the proud and scornful mustn’t underestimate the smart and resourceful, no matter what their station. And don’t waste your talent and affection on someone who doesn’t care for or deserve you.

All’s Well That Ends Well continues in Berczy Park until August 25, with Friday and Saturday evening performances at 7:30 pm (except for Fri, Aug 9); and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1:00 p.m. Admission is pay what you can (PWYC), suggested $20 per person; look for the Dauntless City Theatre banner, east of the fountain.

 

Department of Corrections: The original post had matinee performances listed at 1:30 p.m.; they’re actually at 1:00 p.m. This has been corrected.

Rough & rowdy, it’s all guts & no glory in the funny, poignant, political The Gut Girls

They’re an unruly, foul-mouthed, hard-working, hard-drinking bunch ‘a gals—and their world is about to be turned upside down.

Alumnae Theatre starts off the New Year with its production of Sarah Daniels’ The Gut Girls, directed by Maya Rabinovitch. The Gut Girls is part of Alumnae’s Retrospective Series, leading up to its 100th anniversary next season.

The Gut Girls takes us to 1901, where the “gut girls” work in a gutting shed in the Foreign Cattle Market in Deptford, England. Paid good money, but working punishing hours in a foul environment—often up to their ankles in blood—it’s an offal job, but somebody’s got to do it.

Gut girls Polly (Alexandra Augustine), Ellen (Sarah Thorpe), Maggie (Kaya Bucholc) and Kate (Tasia Loeffler-Vulpe) take new girl Annie (Claire Keating) under their wing. Formerly in service, Annie found herself pregnant and fired, now living in a home for wayward women since the birth of her stillborn child—and finds friends, support and some new digs as she learns the ropes in the shed.

Enter do-gooder Lady Helena (Nicole Arends) with her friend Lord Edwin (Brendan O’Reilly) in tow. A self-appointed crusader for the downtrodden, especially working class women toiling in harsh conditions, she is instrumental in running a women’s club that teaches domestic skills and lady-like manners so women can transition into service. Through her friend Arthur (Mike Hogan), Lady Helena brokers an arrangement for the girls to be let off work an hour early on Thursdays, and garners the assistance of Arthur’s painfully shy wife Priscilla (Thorpe) to coax the girls to come to the club.

Hilarious times ensue, revealing class divisions and presumptions, as Lady Helena and Priscilla attempt to tame this wild group of young women. And when they learn that the sheds are to be shut down, their timing for training the women becomes all the more urgent—the gut girls are unemployable without new skills and ‘proper’ manners to recommend them. And the so-called gentlemen Edwin and Arthur prove to be not as gentlemanly as they appear, causing Maggie to quit the club and Priscilla to go on sick leave.

Struggling to learn new skills and find jobs, and with few prospects beyond the factories, pubs, service or the street, the gut girls have to take what they can get—and that means giving up their independence, dreams and even hope, in order to survive. Grimly circumspect about their situation, they’ve got the lady balls to take it, even though their hearts and spirits are broken.

Really lovely work from the ensemble, which shifts adeptly from comedy to drama throughout this compelling—not to mention timely—story. Augustine’s Polly is the roughest, toughest, biggest tomboy of the gang; she’s also a great jokester with a big heart. Thorpe (doing double duty as actor and co-producer) gives a strong, impassioned performance as Ellen, who tirelessly attempts to spread awareness of workers’ rights and the benefits of unionizing; as Priscilla, she blossoms from mousy wallflower to a caring and assertive mentor—a transformation that is quickly, and sadly, nipped in the bud by her bullying husband. Bucholc’s Maggie, like Polly, has a big heart under that devil-may-care attitude; a gut girl veteran, she’s supporting her mum and umpteen siblings—and must make a hard choice in order to keep life and limb together.

Loeffler-Vulpe’s Kate is a cheeky delight; one of the youngest gut girls, she’s an optimistic realist as she dreams big dreams and longs for a better life with her boyfriend Jim (O’Reilly). As new kid Annie, Keating gives us our introduction to the sights and smells of the gutting shed; formerly in a relatively comfortable job in service, Annie has first-hand experience of where ungentlemanly behaviour can put a young working class woman.

Arends is a formidable Lady Helena; on a single-minded mission to tame these rowdy young things into respectable young ladies, her lack of understanding and conditional respect for these women have unexpected, serious consequences. You know what they say about the road to hell. O’Reilly goes from clown to villain as Lord Edwin; a love-sick puppy following Lady Helena about, he turns his unwanted attentions to Maggie in a more forceful manner—with dire results for her. And he gives a sweet turn as Kate’s boyfriend Jim, who dreams of owning a toy shop. Hogan is an especially busy actor, playing four characters; notably the gruff gutting shed foreman Harry, barkeep Len (who has an eye on Maggie), and Priscilla’s controlling, devious husband Arthur.

With big shouts to the design team: Marysia Bucholc for the evocative, textured set (featuring scrubbed blood stains); Wendel Wray for the period costumes (especially the hats!); and Julie Skene for the entertaining period music (ranging from vaudeville to Scott Joplin).

Rough and rowdy, it’s all guts and no glory in the funny, poignant, political The Gut Girls.

The Gut Girls continues on the Alumnae Mainstage till February 4; for ticket info and online purchases, visit their website.

Special pre-show event in the lobby Jan 21 @ 6:45 pm: Prior to tonight’s performance, writer/performer and producer of the storytelling show Storystar Erin Rogers leads a group of storytellers as they relate tales of women’s and workers’ rights. Participants include Toronto-based writer, activist and social agitator Anne Thériault; United Church minister Evan Smith; and Seneca College and Second City storytelling instructor Sage Tyrtle.

Special pre-show event in the lobby Jan 26 @ 6:45 pm: President of United Steelworkers Local 8300 and the Steelworkers Toronto Area Council Carolyn Egan speaks about the rise of the labour movement and its impact on women in the workforce.

Photo by Ashley Elliot: Back – Nicole Arends. Front – Kaya Bucholc, Sarah Thorpe, Alexandra Augustine, Tasia Loeffler-Vulpe & Claire Keating