Shades of gray in the intimate, entertaining, deeply poignant Between Riverside and Crazy

Allegra Fulton & Alexander Thomas. Set design by Anna Treusch. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Coal Mine Theatre opened its Toronto premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Between Riverside and Crazy to a packed house at its home on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue last night. Directed by Kelli Fox, the intimately staged storytelling plays in the gray areas of family and the legal system as a widowed retired NYPD cop holds firm in his bid for justice while being a father figure to a strange and diverse assortment of adults both in his home and on the job. Highlighting issues of politics, government, race and racism, Between Riverside and Crazy reveals, with candor and humour, a world where everyone is hustling and everybody lies.

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Jai Jai Jones, Alexander Thomas & Nabil Rajo. Set design by Anna Treusch. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Widowed retired NYPD cop Walter “Pops” Washington (Alexander Thomas) lives in a sweet rent-controlled apartment on New York City’s Riverside Drive, which he’s currently sharing with his son Junior (Jai Jai Jones), recently released from jail; Junior’s girlfriend Lulu (Zarrin Darnell-Martin), a college student studying accounting; Junior’s friend Oswaldo (Nabil Rajo), a recovering addict and ex-con; and a dog (which we never see). He’s also juggling a discrimination suit against the City of New York after being shot six times by a white rookie, who also called him the n-word, during a raid on an after-hours bar back when he was still on the job; a lot of time and money have been going toward this bid for justice, with no immediate end in sight-and on top of losing his beloved wife Dolores, the entire ordeal has impacted on him both physically and psychologically.

Complicating matters for Walter, a friendly catch-up dinner at his place with his former partner Det. Audrey O’Connor (Claire Armstrong) and her fiancé Lt. Dave Caro (Sergio Di Zio) becomes an intervention of sorts when they try to convince him to drop the lawsuit and take the settlement the City has been offering before the deadline arrives. Cajoling turns to manipulation turns to threat, as Dave’s entreaties take a nasty turn—putting Walter’s home, and Junior’s newly acquired freedom from jail, in jeopardy. In the meantime, Junior is suspected of using the apartment to store stolen goods; Lulu says she’s pregnant; and Oswaldo’s visit to family goes terribly wrong. Then, there’s the impending drop-in from the local Church Lady (Allegra Fulton), who turns out to be a substitute for Walter’s usual church visitor—and even she has an angle to work on him!

Riverside&C-photobyDahliaKatz-Sergio Di Zio, Claire Armstrong, Jai Jai Jones, Alexander Thomas, Zarrin Darnell-Martin
Clockwise from left: Sergio Di Zio, Claire Armstrong, Jai Jai Jones & Alexander Thomas. Set design by Anna Treusch. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Stellar work from Thomas as the gruff but loveable Walter; a bear of a man, Walter has a big heart, but finds it difficult to express it. An older and less vital man than he once was, he lashes out by refusing to eat well or take his meds, and self-medicates with alcohol. But despite his stubborn, grouchy demeanour, we come to really care about Walter; during intermission, a woman who sat beside me remarked (as we were so close to the action in the living room) that, at one point, she wanted to reach out to comfort him.

Jones brings an edge of vulnerability to the cool, streetwise Junior; a young man who needs his father’s good opinion as he struggles to be a grown adult and get his life on track. Rajo’s Oswaldo is a struggling lost boy whose knowing swagger belies a fragile soul; and Darnell-Martin’s sweet but dim-witted Lulu isn’t as clueless as she appears. Armstrong’s warm, Tyne Daly-esque O’Connor plays nicely off of Di Zio’s slick, charismatic Caro; while O’Connor’s brand of manipulation is more motherly, Caro employs that reserved for the darker side of politics—shifting from flattering appeals to reason, to mercilessly going for the jugular. And Fulton’s eccentric clairvoyant Church Lady adds some much needed comic relief and magic following some intense moments at the end of the first act.

Nothing is clearly black and white here—all of these moments and relationships play out in the gray areas. Everyone’s on the hustle and everybody lies, so it can be hard to tell who and what to believe. That doesn’t necessarily mean these are bad people; just flawed and desperate, using whatever resources they can—especially manipulation—to get what they want. The big question is: will they do what’s right or what’s easy? Just like real life.

Between Riverside and Crazy continues at Coal Mine Theatre until December 22; advance tickets available online. Please note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time for evening performances; matinées are Sundays at 2:00 p.m.

 

The power, magic & malice of words in the fascinating, visceral, philosophical, sensual Knives in Hens

Clockwise from top: Jonathon Young, Diana Bentley & Jim Mezon. Set and lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Costume design by Michelle Tracey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Coal Mine Theatre kicks off its 6th season with David Harrower’s Knives in Hens, directed by Leora Morris. Set in 15th century Scotland in the outskirts of a small, stifling rural village, it’s a fascinating, visceral, philosophical and sensual look at the evolution of words and language—and the power such awareness brings. Knives in Hens opened at the Coal Mine Theatre to a sold-out house last night.

Pony William (Jim Mezon) is a ploughman; growing and harvesting grain on his land with his young wife, simply known as Young Woman (Diana Bentley). He keeps a tight rein on her, her micromanaged days working around their home dutifully reported to him; he even manages her thoughts. She’s not allowed in the barn; he says it’s because the horses don’t know her and she’ll fright them. She has pensive flights of fancy, wondering about what things are called and struggling to describe what she sees out in the small world around her; and he discourages these, especially around their village neighbours.

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Diana Bentley & Jim Mezon. Set and lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Costume design by Michelle Tracey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

When a young mare shows signs of a difficult oncoming labour, and with the grain harvested and needing immediate grinding, William sends his wife to the mill with five sacks of grain, issuing a stern warning about the character of the miller and precise instructions as to how to behave during the transaction. According to William, the miller is universally hated—a widower rumoured to have killed his wife and child.

The Young Woman finds an unexpected kindred spirit in the miller Gilbert Horn (Jonathon Young), who writes his thoughts down using pen and paper—translating his thoughts into words that will last long after the thoughts have dissipated. As she spends time with him, the Young Woman’s curious, fevered attempts at finding the words for moments she witnesses on the land blossom and grow—and with this mastery comes increased power and self-confidence.

Bentley brings a feisty, curious edge to the Young Woman; always searching and questioning—despite her husband’s insistence that she keep her wondering mind to herself. She reaches out into the world and into her mind for the words to express that world. Mezon’s old patriarchal ploughman combines a gruff severity with doting adoration; but William seems to be more enamoured of his horses than his wife. The Young Woman is something he saw and wanted; something to put to work around the house and to warm his bed. That she has no name is telling, for to name something—or someone—is to make it useful and give it power. Young gives Gilbert a somewhat sly, enigmatic vibe; amused and playful regarding the villagers’ gossip about him, Gilbert is a sensitive, introspective and even lonely man. A man who longs to see and know the world outside the mill and the small-minded confines of the village. Like the Young Woman, his mind and heart are too big for this small life—and he needs to get out. And it is he who asks the Young Woman’s name; and though she writes it, we never hear it spoken aloud.

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Jonathon Young. Set and lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Costume design by Michelle Tracey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Kaitlin Hickey’s earthy set, combined with a heavenly lighting design, puts us in mind both of the sun and the light of knowledge, shining down on the Earth and its creatures—highlighting the divine and profane aspects of this story. And if you cross the raised playing area to the seating on the other side, or to use the washroom, you can feel and smell the earth beneath your feet. Christopher Ross-Ewart’s dramatic string-dominated sound design underscores the beating heart of land and its people, and the soaring, magical and menacing power of words. And Michelle Tracey’s period costumes mark when we are and who these people are; simple rural folk in an age of religion and superstition.

Divine and profane, poetic and pragmatic, visceral and cerebral—the journey from thought to word is fraught with religious and societal meaning and repercussions. Thoughts entering the mind are thought to come from God; whereas words and language are a corporeal, human construct. We are reminded of the Creation story—the characters mirroring the three main players of God, Adam and Eve. The word made flesh. And as God named the creatures of the Earth, so too does man name what he sees. Does that make us God?

Knives in Hens continues at Coal Mine Theatre until October 13; advance tickets available online. Please note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time for evening performances; matinees are Sundays at 2:00 p.m.

 

Top 10 theatre 2018

For obvious reasons, I haven’t checked out other reviewers’/blogger folks’ lists—so I don’t know what they’ve been saying—but is it just me or was this year’s top 10 list an especially challenging task? Seems to me that we had an extra large embarrassment of riches with this year’s theatre productions, so I’m cheating with a larger than usual honourable mention list this year.*

Top ten theatre productions for 2018 (in alphabetical order):

Dry Land – Cue6

George F. Walker Double Bill (Her Inside Life & Kill the Poor) – Leroy Street Theatre/Low Rise Productions/Storefront Theatre

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Soulpepper

Maggie & Pierre – timeshare productions 

The Message – Tarragon Theatre 

The Monkey Queen – Red Snow Collective

The Nether – Coal Mine & Studio 180 Theatre

Peter Pan – Bad Hats Theatre & Soulpepper 

The Pigeon – Alumnae Theatre FireWorks Festival

Punk Rock – Howland Company 

 

Honourable mentions:

Category E – Coal Mine Theatre 

A Christmas Carol – Three Ships Collective & Soup Can Theatre 

Little Gem – Toronto Irish Players 

Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua – Theatre Passe Muraille 

The Royale – Soulpepper 

Secret Life of a Mother – Theatre Centre

Vitals – Theatre Born Between 

What I Call Her – In Association & Crow’s Theatre 

*Including shows I covered in life with more cowbell this year. As I was employed by Nightwood Theatre, either on staff or freelance, I have not reviewed their shows this year.

Real & virtual worlds collide in the chilling, mind-blowing The Nether

Hannah Levinson & David Storch. Set and lighting design by Patrick Lavender. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Tim Leyes.

 

Production warning: While nothing graphic whatsoever happens onstage, The Nether has violent and sexually explicit content, including rape, murder, suicide and pedophilia, that may be deeply disturbing to some. Please be advised.

Coal Mine Theatre joins forces with Studio 180 Theatre, opening its 5th season last night, taking us to a shocking virtual reality world with its Toronto premiere of Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, directed by Peter Pasyk. Part crime procedural, part sci-fi thriller, The Nether explores the dark side of human desire, asking us: Are pedophilia, rape and murder, committed with impunity in an online world, truly victimless? And should these online crimes be punishable in the offline world?

The Nether is the evolution of the Internet in not too distant future; an virtual online world that provides access to “realms” of education, work and fantasy role play on a level never seen before. In a world where trees, grass and plants—aspects of nature we take for granted—are rare and costly, The Nether provides access to startlingly realistic environments that engage all of the senses; and the chance to become anyone you want via an avatar persona. It is here that Sims (David Storch) has created The Hideaway, a stately, secluded Victorian home placed in a pastoral setting lush with trees and a garden. Presenting himself as Papa to his virtual guests and employees, he plays host to those who, like himself, have certain proclivities that would be considered heinously criminal in the “offline” world. The Hideaway is a pedophile playground, where adult guests may interact with, rape and murder children with complete impunity. After all, Sims argues, these aren’t “real” children, so no crime has been committed; and his realm provides a service in that it keeps pedophiles from realizing their desires in the real world as they satisfy their hunger online.

Nether law enforcement Detective Moss (Katherine Cullen) would disagree and has taken Sims in for interrogation. [Mini-spoiler alert] As part of the investigation, undercover agent Woodnut (Mark McGrinder) infiltrates The Hideaway as a guest, to witness first-hand the goings-on there. Woodnut spends a great deal of time with Iris (Hannah Levinson), a girl of about 12 and Papa’s favourite. Eerily life-like and possessing of an old soul, Iris is aware of her role as child victim; she is patient and encouraging with newbie Woodnut, who is bashful and hesitant to fully play out the game, assuring him that she resurrects after each murder.

Moss also questions Doyle (Robert Persichini), a high school science teacher and former guest at The Hideaway who claims to know nothing about Sims’ motives and plans, but whose troubled demeanour suggests that he’s hiding something. He does confess to Moss that he wants to “cross over”—leave the offline world behind and live out the rest of his life completely online. Referred to as “shades,” those who set out to do so must make arrangements for life support for their corporeal bodies in the real world—and Moss is alarmed at the prospect, warning Doyle that these supports aren’t as advertised.

What’s critical for Moss’s investigation is that the characters at The Hideaway are not computer programs or AI constructs—they are avatars with a person behind them. And while Sims insists that he fastidiously vets all participants to ensure adult-only entry, Moss believes that his realm is far from victimless.

Gripping, laser-focused work from the cast in this haunting tale of a fascinating and disturbing new world—all the more troubling as it’s not too far into the future. Cullen gives an edgy, driven performance as Moss; determined to get to the truth at nearly any cost, Moss also has her own demons to tame. Storch delivers a razor sharp, complex pair of characters: the cool, clever virtual entrepreneur Sims, and the playful, warm father figure Papa. Masterfully compartmentalizing his offline and online lives, Sims rationalizes his creation by positing that he keeps pedophiles off the streets, but appears to struggle with personal attachments of his own in The Hideaway.

Levinson is a precious, likable smarty pants as Iris; playful, curious, observant and empathetic, Iris begins to question her world, putting her position at risk. Persichini gives a deeply poignant performance as the troubled Doyle; a sharply intelligent and profoundly lonely and sad man, Doyle longs to be in a world where he is loved and feels a sense of belonging. Nicely layered work from McGrinder as the kind, conflicted Woodnut; entering The Hideaway to investigate, he finds himself strangely drawn to this world—and must come to grips with the personal feelings that emerge while in this undercover position.

The ensemble is nicely supported by compelling, atmospheric design elements, from Patrick Lavender’s startling, transporting set and lighting design, to Michelle Bohn’s mix of period and futuristic costumes, and Richard Feren’s spooky, game-like sound design.

It’s a lot to process—and raises important moral and ethical questions about the power of technology to transport, entertain and engage. Would a realm such as The Hideaway keep society safe in that rapists, murderers and pedophiles could enact their dark desires only online? Or would it serve as a dress rehearsal for the real thing or convert those who’ve never considered such atrocities? And if you believe that behaviour is shaped by thought, is there really such a thing as a victimless crime in any world?

The Nether continues at Coal Mine Theatre until November 4; get advanced tickets online—advance booking strongly recommended.

In the meantime, check out cast and crew interview videos on the Coal Mine website.

 

The profound cruelty & kindness of humanity in Coal Mine’s darkly funny, deeply affecting Category E

Diana Bentley, Robert Persichini & Vivien Endicott-Douglas. Set and costume design by Anna Treusch. Lighting design by Gabriel Cropley. Photo by Tim Leyes.

 

Coal Mine Theatre closes its 4th season with the Toronto premiere of Belinda Cornish’s horror comedy Category E, directed by Rae Ellen Bodie—opening last night to a sold out house at their home on 1454 Danforth Ave.

The pre-show soundtrack of retro commercials playing in the lobby (sound design by Keith Thomas) is a kitschy prelude to the dark comedic terror that awaits inside, where we are transported into an eerily familiar futuristic dystopia—familiar because, like the most recent TV incarnation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the future is closer than you think.

Once in the theatre space, the audience sits on either side of a large cage that contains two cots, a wheel chair and a small bookcase (set and costume design by Anna Treusch); the ceiling of the cage is a large light box (lighting design by Gabriel Cropley), and there are large lighting fixtures outside in the hallway, as well as two security cameras mounted to the walls. Set in a testing facility, Category E takes the human trial stage of product testing to the extreme; the human subjects are stripped of identity and even gender—each bearing a number on their beige scrubs and becoming an “it”—and treated with the cold clinical detachment that would be afforded a lab rabbit.

It is here that the chipper and nervous new kid Millet (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) arrives, joining veteran lab subject Corcoran (Robert Persichini), who uses the wheel chair, and Filigree (Diana Bentley), who is either asleep or passed out. The tension and confusion are turned on immediately, as there are now three people occupying this cage and only two cots; this makes for an intense introduction between Millet and Filigree when Filigree wakes up. Not to mention the condition of the cage’s two original occupants, both filthy and looking in ill health—a stark contrast to the newcomer, who although in desperate need of a shower, is wearing clean scrubs and in perfect health. Corcoran wears an eye patch over one eye and his good eye is angry and red, and the dressing on his forearm should have been changed ages ago; he passes the time with a 17-year-old crossword puzzle. Filigree is pale and gaunt, and keeps scratching her lower back against the chair railing on the wall; her hobby is drawing disturbing portraits in crayon.

Meals, delivered in bowls labelled with subjects’ numbers, are signalled by a light and retrieved at one end of the narrow hallway outside the cage; a female version of HAL 9000 summons subjects by number to testing and shower time, accessed at the other end of the hallway. Standing on the bookcase to peer into the vent, Millet discovers the cage next door; like theirs, it also houses three subjects, but they cannot hear her. There are a lot of questions about what’s going on—and, like Millet, we learn the rules of this strange new world as we go.

There are vague references to “passing the eye” (or is it “I”?), which also gives this world a Handmaid’s Tale vibe, and brief moments of revelation—it seems Corcoran is a former scientist and Millet failed the test. And it appears that those who fail this test, or who have committed some kind of crime or corporate sin, are now considered as subhuman and become subjects in this testing facility. That is, with the exception of Filigree, whose odd, primal behaviour comes from the fact that she was born and raised in the facility, without parental nurturing or guidance (Corcoran has taken on this role, for how long is unclear). We get fleeting glimpses into the testing that they’re subjected to—and the lack of clear answers makes the mystery of this place all the more unsettling. Scene changes are accompanied by sexy voice-over ads, touting the various beauty and fragrances manufactured by the unseen corporation; mentions of side effects call us back to the cage.

Compelling, nuanced work from the cast in this harrowing three-hander, where moments of dark comedy barely take the edge off. Endicott-Douglas is a puckish, clever bundle of energy as Millet; the mercurial, chatty new kid in this space, Millet is endearingly awkward, with a can-do attitude and strong desire to fit in and make a contribution. Persichini’s performance as Corcoran goes deep into the calming, Zen-like quiet of a man of great intellect who at first sight appears merely world-weary and taciturn. Corcoran’s acts of kindness bring the much needed balm of tenderness to an otherwise brutal environment; and there’s an underlying sense of atonement in a struggle for redemption. Bentley is a delightfully quirky, at times menacing, wild child as Filigree; an untamed innocent, she operates on instinct, socialized under the care of Corcoran—and there’s a lovely, playful dynamic between them, especially when Corcoran acquiesces to Filigree’s requests tell them a story. What is the nature of that irritation on Filigree’s back? And why does Corcoran keep insisting on trading meals with Millet?

To see what I have seen! Category E is caress on the cheek and a kick in the gut. It is also a stark reminder that how we test product innovation in the name of consumer satisfaction is a choice. Cruelty and kindness are choices. If you’re either pro- or ambivalent toward animal testing, I think this play might just change your mind. A quote from St. Francis of Assisi, included in the program notes, is especially apt here: “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”

The profound cruelty and kindness of humanity in Coal Mine’s darkly funny, deeply affecting production of the dystopic macabredy Category E.

Category E continues at Coal Mine Theatre until April 29; get advanced tickets online—advance booking strongly recommended.

Top 10 theatre 2017

Another year, another embarrassment of riches. And, despite the fact that the blog has been operating on a reduced capacity since July, I still managed to see a lot of theatre this year.

In alphabetical order, my top 10 of 2017:

The Clergy Project: Soulo Theatre

for colored girls: Soulpepper Theatre

Mockingbird Close: INpulse Theatre Co.

Prince Hamlet: Why Not Theatre

Reflector: Theatre Gargantua

Slip: Circlesnake Productions

Spoon River: Soulpepper Theatre

Superior Donuts: Coal Mine Theatre

Tough Jews: Storefront Theatre

Unholy: Nightwood Theatre, January premiere*

 

Go see some theatre. Support local artists.

Happy holidays, all—and all good things for 2018!

* Full disclosure: I wasn’t working for Nightwood at the time.

 

 

 

Family, class, denial & the monster within in the disturbing, revealing Orphans

Tim Dowler-Coltman, Diana Bentley & David Patrick Flemming in Orphans—photo by Shaun Benson

Coal Mine Theatre closes its 2016-17 season with Dennis Kelly’s Orphans, directed by Leora Morris—opening last night in their home at 1454 Danforth Ave.

Helen (Diana Bentley) and Danny’s (David Patrick Flemming) quiet date night dinner at home is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Helen’s brother Liam (Tim Dowler-Coltman). He’s let himself in with his key to their house and is covered in blood that turns out to not be his, but that of an injured young man he tried to help the next block over. An obvious victim of violence, the kid subsequently fled and a visibly shaken Liam made his way to his sister’s.

As the three agonize over what to do, Helen is concerned that involving the police will get Liam in trouble, given his criminal record, unsavoury choice in mates and a knack for bad luck. Helen and Danny’s ‘nice’ middle class neighbourhood has been beset by gangs of lads; one of which recently accosted Danny. With their polite, liberal values, they don’t like to point fingers at the adjacent estate (i.e., social housing), and influx of Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrants, but harbour mistrust and fear of those outside their own people. No one feels safe out there after dark, not even Liam. Orphaned when she and Liam were kids, and having navigated a life in care as they struggled to stay together, Helen is now a mother to a young son (Cody Black), who is at his grandmother’s for the evening, and in the early stages of pregnancy. Disillusioned and fearful of the world she’d be bringing this new life into, she’s seriously considering whether she wants to stay pregnant, given their situation.

What follows is a chilling evolution from Good Samaritan to cover-up—and Danny must decide how far he’s willing to go to help his brother-in-law. Do they engage in passive sins of omission and turning a blind eye, or active sins of lies and participation?

Outstanding work from the cast in this chilling story of underlying racism, classism and violence. Dowler-Coltman’s performance as Liam is both poignant and disturbing; a big, sweet lug of a guy, Liam has a wide-eyed, child-like simplicity with a menacing underbelly. Bentley’s Helen is a heartbreaking, complex portrait of protective sister, and disheartened wife and mother; at her wit’s end over what to do about her pregnancy, and now her brother, there is ferocity and bite under all that heartbreak. Flemming’s performance of Danny’s journey is perhaps the most revealing; coming from a more privileged and sheltered class, Danny walks through the world with blinders on. The illusion of safety in his home broken, and his insular life disrupted forever, his eyes are opened over the course of this night—and he finds some darkness of his own.

With shouts to Black, who makes a brief appearance as Helen and Danny’s adorable, cuddly and sleepy son Shane.

What desperate acts will circumstance, fear and mistrust push everyday people to? Orphans reminds us that the monster we need to fear may be even closer than our own front door.

Family, class, denial and the monster within in the disturbing, revealing Orphans.

Orphans continues to April 30; drop by the Coal Mine Theatre website for ticket info or purchase tickets directly online. Advance booking strongly recommended—it’s a gripping show and an intimate venue with general seating. Please note the 7:30pm curtain time for evening performances.

Keep up with Coal Mine Theatre on Twitter and Facebook—and keep an eye out for their fourth season in 2017-18.